Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
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.