seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Louis MacNeice, Poet & Playwright

louis-macneiceLouis MacNeice, British poet and playwright, is born in Belfast on September 12, 1907. He is a member, along with Wystan Hugh Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis, and Stephen Spender, of a group whose low-keyed, unpoetic, socially committed, and topical verse is the “new poetry” of the 1930s. His body of work is widely appreciated by the public during his lifetime, due in part to his relaxed but socially and emotionally aware style.

MacNeice is the youngest son of John Frederick MacNeice and Elizabeth Margaret (“Lily”) MacNeice. His father, a Protestant minister, goes go on to become a bishop of the Anglican Church of Ireland. The family moves to Carrickfergus, County Antrim, soon after MacNeice’s birth. His mother dies of tuberculosis in December 1914. In 1917, his father remarries to Georgina Greer and his sister Elizabeth is sent to board at a preparatory school at Sherborne, England. MacNeice joins her at Sherborne Preparatory School later in the year.

After studying at the University of Oxford (1926–30), MacNeice becomes a lecturer in classics at the University of Birmingham (1930–36) and later in the Department of Greek at the Bedford College for Women, London (1936–40). In 1941 he begins to write and produce radio plays for the British Broadcasting Corporation. Foremost among his fine radio verse plays is the dramatic fantasy The Dark Tower (1947), with music by Benjamin Britten.

MacNeice’s first book of poetry, Blind Fireworks, appears in 1929, followed by more than a dozen other volumes, such as Poems (1935), Autumn Journal (1939), Collected Poems, 1925–1948 (1949), and, posthumously, The Burning Perch (1963). An intellectual honesty, Celtic exuberance, and sardonic humour characterize his poetry, which combines a charming natural lyricism with the mundane patterns of colloquial speech. His most characteristic mood is that of the slightly detached, wryly observant, ironic and witty commentator. Among MacNeice’s prose works are Letters from Iceland (with W.H. Auden, 1937) and The Poetry of W.B. Yeats (1941). He is also a skilled translator, particularly of Horace and Aeschylus (The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, 1936).

By the early 1960s, MacNeice is “living on alcohol,” and eating very little, but still writing. In August 1963 he goes caving in Yorkshire to gather sound effects for his final radio play, Persons from Porlock. Caught in a storm on the moors, he does not change out of his wet clothes until he is home in Hertfordshire. Bronchitis evolves into viral pneumonia and he is admitted to hospital in London on August, 27. He dies there on September 3, 1963 at the age of 55. He is buried in Carrowdore churchyard in County Down, alongside his mother.

MacNeice’s final book of poems, The Burning Perch, is published a few days after his funeral. His life-long friend from Oxford, W.H. Auden, who gives a reading at MacNeice’s memorial service, describes the poems of his last two years as “among his very best.”


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Birth of Poet Michael Longley

Michael Longley, one of Northern Ireland’s foremost contemporary poets, is born in Belfast on July 27, 1939. He is educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and subsequently reads Classics at Trinity College, Dublin, where he edits the student literary magazine Icarus.

Longley is renowned for the quiet beauty of his compact, meditative lyrics. Known for using classical allusions to cast provocative light on contemporary concerns, including Northern Ireland’s “Troubles,” his poetry is also marked by sharp observation of the natural world, deft use of technique, and deeply felt emotion. His debut volume, No Continuing City (1969), heralds the arrival of a new talent from a region which has already produced recognized talents like Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon. However his early influences are English poets like Philip Larkin, Louis MacNeice, and the First World War poets, as well as masters from the classical tradition. The critic Langdon Hammer describes Longley’s poems as masterpieces of “lucidity, economy, sincerity…by means of meticulous, unpretentious technique.”

Longley’s work engages diverse subjects, including Homeric literature, the landscape of Carrigskeewaun, jazz, Walter Mitty, and the politics of Northern Ireland. On the public and political responsibilities of being a Northern Irish poet, he says, “Though the poet’s first duty must be to his imagination, he has other obligations, and not just as a citizen. He would be inhuman if he did not respond to tragic events in his own community, and a poor artist if he did not seek to endorse that response imaginatively.” Reviewing his Selected Poems (1993), critic Fran Brearton praises in particular Longley’s more political poems, noting his “use of a compassionate yet unsentimental voice, and an attention to detail which restores specificity at a point in history when it is most in danger of being lost in abstraction – numbers, dates, death-tolls counted beyond comprehension.”

After a 12-year publishing silence, Longley’s 1991 return, Gorse Fires, wins the Whitbread Poetry Prize. Subsequently, The Weather in Japan (2000) wins The Irish Times Literature Prize for Poetry, the Hawthornden Prize, and the T.S. Eliot Prize. Other publications include Snow Water (2004) and Collected Poems (2006). In 2001 Longley is awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Longley is Professor of Poetry for Ireland from 2007 to 2010, a cross-border academic post set up in 1998, previously held by John Montague, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and Paul Durcan. He is succeeded in 2010 by Harry Clifton.