The Fallen Parnassus: Louis MacNeice and Interbellum Hampstead


There is a famous cartoon in Punch magazine about Hampstead. It depicts a group of American tourists (what other nationality could it be?) pointing at a blue plaque fixed to a typical red terracotta mansion reading “The Only House in Hampstead Where Nobody Famous Lived.” It is a place steeped, and steeped is the operative word, in literary history. In the eighteenth century Hampstead was a small but thriving conurbation outside of London where authors and painters could enjoy a comfortable escape from city life, and enjoy the raw sweeping nature of the heath. Naturally some of the more famous figures from the English canon congregated in a rather upmarket pub called the Upper Flask and formed a society known as the Kit-Kat club. These figures included Samuel Johnson, Sir Richard Steele (who founded The Spectator magazine) and Sir Richard Blackmore. The Upper Flask is also famed for being the scene where Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa is undone by the predatory Lovelace in his novel of that name. In his poem “The Kit Kats”, almost anticipating the kind of Hampstead I am trying to evoke here, Blackmore commemorated this Hampstead, this Enlightenment retreat:

Or when, Apollo-like, thou’st pleased to lead
Thy sons to feast on Hampstead’s airy head:
Hampstead, that, towering in superior sky,
Now with Parnassus does in honour vie.

(The Kitkats, Sir Richard Blackmore)

Note “Parnassus”. A powerful word. Atop of a large incline Hampstead becomes the metaphorical summit of poetry, art and learning. For the two hundred years that followed I do not think I am overstating the case by very much to suggest that Hampstead became “steeped” further in its only mythology as the Parnassus of England’s cultural scene. It’s unique location was a major factor in this – a quasi- provincial village surrounded by boundless greenery, but with all the necessary overflow from London: books, markets, pubs, intellectuals, poets, painters, merchants, highwaymen, lawyers, banks and other commonplaces of the new capital of the world. Keats found his home there and composed “Ode to a Nightingale” in his beautiful garden. Or did he? Perhaps he composed it in the Spaniard’s Inn, which also happens to be a favorite watering hole of Charles Dickens. Coleridge lived just on the other side of the heath in Highgate. In the twentieth century Hampstead became the home of D.H. Lawrence, George Orwell (he worked in a shop in the village) Amis pere and fils, Alan Ayckbourne, John Betjeman, the du Mauriers, Sir William Empson, Ian Fleming, Erno Goldfinger, Harold Pinter, Richard Rogers, Aldous Huxley, H.G Wells, Stephen Spender and many other writers, artists and architects. I fully recommend Wikipedia’s wonderful list of ex-inhabitants. However, our man, Louis MacNeice does not appear on the list.

It is perhaps because he is not really seen, or did not really want to to be seen as a Hampstead poet with all the connotations of wealth, grandeur and the pretense of living in the high tradition of elitist Parnassus described above. In fact the ambivalence within his soul between elitist feelings and political loyalties are one of his major themes:

To preserve the values dear to the elite
The elite must remain a few. It is so hard to imagine
A world where the many would have their chance without
A fall in the standard of intellectual living
And nothing left that the highbrow cared about.

(III, Autumn Journal)

Louis MacNiece is perhaps the most forgotten member of the so called Auden Generation of the thirties alongside Stephen Spender, Cecil Day Lewis, and Auden himself. These men were socialists, Auden even blackening his teeth at Oxford to escape his background and make himself seem more trampish; how else does an Oxford educated bourgoisee fit in with the working man? Cecil Day Lewis was memorialised as poet Laureate and through his dynastic forebare Daniel Day Lewis – so he’s still very much in reading memory even if no one bothers reading his stuff. Spender was also an incredibly prolific writer of not only poems but essays and journalism. He also lived far too long and almost spanned the century making him inescapable. But I feel that MacNeice quite forgotten despite his magnificent powers as a poet and translator.

No member of the Auden circle writes better about the interbellum period as MacNiece in Autumn Journal, written while he was living in Hampstead. It sums up his ambivalence between highbrow living and the plight of Joe Bloggs, his daily fears and nightmares about the endless march of the Nazi’s in Europe, and his deep depression about the lack of a socialist alternative to fill the vacuum created by the devastating Wall Street Crash. To illustrate these themes he reaches for supply from his new home in Hampstead where he moved just four days after his divorce in 1936. However Hampstead isn’t mentioned in Autumn Journal and I’d go as far to say that he actively avoids it. In the fifth Canto “Today was a beautiful day” MacNiece employs that great thirties trick which he learned from Auden – he gives an omniscient sweep of the state-of-the-present as a call to arms for like minded individuals. He tells us that in Oxford Street they were “building shops” with mortor “pleasant to smell” – the poet tells us this is “futility, imbecility” because of the infinite unknowns of tomorrow’s ever-changing world. We move to Trafalgar Squar where “Johnnie Walker moves his legs like a cretin” then to Tottenham Court Road where “tarts and negroes loiter beneath the lights”, until we reach home, which should be Hampstead, but he doesn’t state it. I find his ommission odd given his specificity in the preceeding lines. Instead we get a a view from his habite:

And so to my flat with the trees outside the window
And the dahlia shapes of the lights on Primrose Hill
Whose summit once was used for a gun emplacement
And very likely will
Be used that way again…

(V, Autumn Journal)

The “flat with the trees outside the window” sounds like casuistry of the highest order. He doesn’t want to say the H-word. He doesn’t want his leftist prophesy of doom to be tainted with the observer’s observatory to be exposed. Granted, one could guess the locale (leafy, view of Primrose Hill), and even excuse him on the basis of rhyme. But given MacNeice’s flexible metre and rhyme throughout, and his purposeful specificity in this canto, I’m not inclined to let him off the hook. Do not mistake me, I am not criticizing MacNiece for what he didn’t say, I am picking up on the curiosity which I think leads to a startling handful of verse about the problems of place and lifestyle. A dozen or so lines after this Primrose Hill segment, the denial of Hampstead provikes further thoughts about his home life. He observes from his flat on 4 Keats Grove (he doesn’t say this of course) the steady and mechanical nature of English suburban life: “the dairy cart comes clopping slowly”, “factory workers on their way to the factories” – as a side note, MacNiece is a brilliant poet of the quotidian routine of modern life and I can’t recommend reading Cantos I and II enough for this theme alone. He then turns his attention to the minutae of his flat:

And I notice feathers sprouting from the rotted
Silk of my black
Double eiderdown which was a wedding
Present eight years back.
And the linen which I lie on came from Ireland
In the easy days
When all I thought of was affection and comfort
Petting and praise.

The wedding gift image sticks only with biographical information about MacNiece (as he claims this is a diary in verse I hope the critical sticklers will allow me this): his divorce preceded his moving to Hampstead by a matter of days. The eiderdown is rotted and black, clearly tearing open revealing its innards. Thus it appears his home on Keats Grove in the interwar years because a place of domestic and political isolation that he is too embarrassed to even name in an otherwise extremely precise and “honest” (his word) journal of his life.

In Canto VII MacNeice returns to the view outside of his window undergoing a radical transformation:

The night is damp and still
And I hear dull blows on wood outside my window;
They are cutting down the trees on Primrose Hill.
The wood is white like the roast flesh of chicken
Each tree falling like a closing fan.

I find this a peculiar passage because the similes don’t make any sense. First of all the poet in the I-formulation “hear[s] dull blows” in the “damp and still” night. After the statement of fact we oddly switch to the poet’s eye – given it is his ear I’m not sure he would have been able to see anything at all. Even if it was two o’clock in the afternoon I’m not sure that he would have seen what he describes. Roast flesh of chicken isn’t really white and a falling tree doesn’t really close like a fan. That last image fails to work. One certainly doesn’t feel that bothered about the destruction of MacNeice’s surrounds with this kind of off-kilter imagery. His closing remarks in Canto VII are a little more poignant, but lack the pathos which I believe he intended “The hill grows bald and bleak / No longer one of the sights of London but maybe / We shall have fireworks here by this day week.”

When we do get a mention of Hampstead in MacNeice’s poems it is not a positive one. His poems are far away from Blackmore’s hyperbolic glorification of the village as the panacea of art. After his holiday with Auden in Iceland, which inspired another great poem by Wiston called “Letter to Lord Byron”, MacNeice writes some wonderful stanzas about Hampstead in his Postscript:

Here in Hampstead I sit late
Nights which no one shares and wait
For the ‘phone to ring or for
Unknown angels at the door;
Better were the northern skies
Than this desert in disguise –
Rugs and cushions and the long
Mirror which repeats the song.

MacNeice spits in the face of tradition. Hampstead is not a great resource of inspiration, treading the footsteps where others have trod. He takes the line of another dissenter John Clare, who criticises Keats for not being the real McCoy – a city Romantic rather than enjoying the true English countryside. MacNeice attacks it from another angle – the culture of Hampstead is one of rugs and cushions – “affection and comfort / Petting and praise” as he puts it in Autumn Journal. And I do think he his talking about the place and not his own lot which has clearly decended into a kind of depression here. Hampstead is a “desert in disguise” – a perfect antithesis to the verdant pastures so often associated with its topography. The closing stanzas of the poem bring us back to the political present:

So I write these lines for you
Who have felt the death wish too,
But your lust for life prevails –
Drinking coffee telling tales.

Our prerogatives as men
Will be cancelled who knows when:
Still I drink your health before
The gun-butt raps upon the door.

The personal plight is the political plight. It is perhaps the reminder of the totalitarian threat (in 1936 when this poem was written is a potent year for the Spanish Civil War and the growing German lust for annexation) that keeps the “death wish” at bay. It is a remarkably defeatist ending, made pathetic by the memory of friendship between two great poets.

MacNeice perhaps felt the need to dissent against the Hampstead-is-wonderful tradition more accutely because he lived not only on Keats Grove, but in the house that was owned by Geoffrey Grigson, another famous intellectual and critic. John Stallworthy describes the view from the house: “the three principal rooms of the flat faced south and, even in November, were lit by the low sun striking through the branches of two large sycamores at the back of the garden.” This view perhaps inspired one of MacNeice’s most beautiful formal lyrics “The sunlight on the garden.”

“The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon”

The technique cannot go unmentioned. We are working with a mostly trimetrical poem apart from the penultimate line of each stanza which is in a wonderfully prosodic dimeter. He rhymes the first word of the second line with the last word of the first: “garden, harden” to create melodic internal rhyme. The rhyme scheeme is abcbba. The effect is remarkable: an elegiac and repeated verse style. Maybe this parallels the light, bouncing internally within the garden, repeating, flashing, uncovering, concealing. Maybe it doesn’t. The last verse echoes the first but alters the order of “pardon” and “garden”:

And not expecting pardon
Hardened in heart anew
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden

This is the proper stuff of life. MacNeice isn’t dancing around his images to try and avoid acknowledging Hampstead in Autumn Journal – he is talking about a space deeply personal to him in his new home. It is a melancholic poem, but beautiful in its lament for both his recently estranged wife and of the human spirit in a time of high world conflict.

So, MacNeice is certainly worth reading as a thirties poet, a London poet and a Hampstead poet. For this last lyric alone I believe he must be acknowledged as contributing to the myth of the place that starts with Samuel Johnson, Blackmore and the Kit Kats in the eighteenth century and continues right up to the present day. In the twentieth century as we have seen with MacNeice Hampstead opens itself up to criticism – the Hampstead liberal has a problem on his hands: to live comfortable, to enjoy the sunlight on the garden and to reconcile this with voting for Glenda Jackson in the General election. Inside the whale of the thirties, MacNeice feels this agon very acutely and attempts to resist the reading of his home as Parnassus, by first avoiding it, and then by painting a personal pandemonium.

August 29, 2014  Leave a comment