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12 - MacNeice and the puritan tradition

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2012

Terence Brown
Affiliation:
Trinity College, Dublin
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Summary

In 1935 MacNeice, in his essay ‘Poetry Today’, declared that ‘Whatever the “true function” of poetry is, there is something idolatrous or fetishistic about our pleasure in it.’ It was a daring admission in a decade when poetry was widely reckoned only admissible if it served some obviously ethical function. In contrast to the prevailing political puritanism of the period, MacNeice was unwilling to deny that poetry gives pleasure, and he knew that this fact to the puritan mind must seem a kind of idolatry, a worshipping of a false god, the making of a fetish of something insignificant and unworthy. However, for MacNeice the matter is, in the end, quite simple: ‘poetry qua poetry is an end and not a means; its relations to “life” are impossible to define; even when it is professedly “didactic”, “propagandist” or “satirical” the external purport is, ultimately, only a conventional property, a kind of perspective which many poets like to think of as essential’.

MacNeice in his twenties and early thirties, when he wrote his most searching essays on the role of poetry in such articles as the one quoted above, ‘Subject in Modern Poetry’ and in his book Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (1938) was well-equipped to resist all those who would have made poetry subject to ethics or even to political necessity. For as an Ulsterman, he well understood that the impulse of the puritan sensibility is to suspect art and the pleasure it affords.

Type
Chapter
Information
The Literature of Ireland
Culture and Criticism
, pp. 156 - 169
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2010

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References

MacNeice, L., ‘Poetry Today’, in Heuser, A. (ed.), Selected Literary Criticism of Louis MacNeice (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987). p. 12Google Scholar
MacNeice, L., ‘When I Was Twenty-One’, in Heuser, A. (ed.), Selected Prose of Louis MacNeice (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), p. 222Google Scholar
MacNeice, L., Zoo (London: Michael Joseph Ltd, 1938), p. 79Google Scholar
Dodds, E. R. (ed.), The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice (London: Faber and Faber, 1966)
MacNeice, L., The Strings Are False: An Unfinished Autobiography (London: Faber and Faber: 1965), pp. 53–4Google Scholar
MacNeice, L., ‘John Keats’, in Fifteen Poets (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941), p. 351Google Scholar
MacNeice, L., The Poetry of W. B. Yeats (London: Oxford University Press, 1941), p. viiiGoogle Scholar
MacNeice, L., ‘To Hedli’, Collected Poems 1925–48 (London: Faber and Faber), p. 9
MacNeice, L., Varieties of Parable (Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 30Google Scholar

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