In celebration of his 114th birthday, here are ten of the best Louis MacNeice poems that you need to read.
Born in Belfast on 12 September 1907, Frederick Louis MacNeice (CBE) was a well-known poet and playwright.
One of the ‘Thirties Poets’, MacNeice was a member of the famous Auden Group alongside W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Cecil Day-Lewis, amongst others.
Popular for his universality, his works have influenced numerous modern-day poets, including Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon.
Check out our list of the ten best Louis MacNeice poems below.
10. ‘Apple Blossom’ – endings, beginnings
First on our list of the best Louis MacNeice poems is the six-stanza work ‘Apple Blossom.’
In it, MacNeice uses religious imagery by referencing the events of the Garden of Eden to explore the loss of and attempted regaining of one’s innocence.
9. ‘Death of an Old Lady’ – tales of the Titanic
A lesser-known work, this three-stanza poem written in free verse sees MacNeice explore the themes of death and ageing through foreshadowing and comparison of the Titanic’s impending doom with an elderly woman’s inevitable death.
8. ‘The British Museum Reading Room’ – puts the muse in museum
One of many poets influenced by the British Museum, MacNeice’s three-stanza poem coyly employs imagery to contrast those who frequent the site.
He contrasts “cranks, hacks, poverty-stricken scholars” with the common folk outside, “Out on the steps in the sun the pigeons are courting.”
MacNeice’s commentary, which acknowledges the invisible divide between classes, speaks to the idea of social hierarchy.
7. ‘Round the Corner’ – happenings on the horizon
Published posthumously, this single stanza poem explores the sense of eternity by attributing the vastness of the sea to the idea of opportunities and the unknown.
The idea is further reinforced through the echoing repetition of its opening and closing lines, “Round the corner was always the sea/Round the corner is – sooner or later – the sea.”
6. ‘The Gardener’ – an ode to an old friend
The poet’s fondness for Archie – the gardener of his father’s rectory – provides the basis of this eight-stanza piece. It is arguably one of the best Louis MacNeice poems.
MacNeice uses similes and metaphors to speak to Archie’s personality. He also employs Ulster idioms to hint at mental disability, “for he was not quite all there/He was not quite right in the head.”
5. ‘Carrickfergus’ – hometown glory
Using first-person narration, this seven-stanza poem, named after the County Antrim town, contrasts the peaceful innocence of childhood memories with the sudden arrival of war.
The town’s lasting impression is later acknowledged in ‘Carrick Revisited’. In this poem noting the changing effects of time, MacNeice speaks of ‘the child’s astonishment not yet cured.’
4. ‘Autobiography’ – a wistful approach
Written using rhyming couplets, MacNeice details his early life with his minister father following the death of his mother.
Whilst exploring the themes of youth, isolation, and the loss of familial bonds, the poem’s repeated refrain, “come back early or never come”, emanates a harrowing tone suggestive of MacNeice’s inability to come to terms with his mother’s tragic death.
3. ‘London Rain’ – explores conflict and spiritual unrest
Arguably a somewhat successor to Edward Thomas’ ‘Rain’, ‘London Rain’ is one of the best Louis MacNeice poems.
The clever use of repetition, pathetic fallacy, and religious references in this eleven-stanza work detail the narrator’s spiritual conflict against the backdrop of the oncoming Second World War.
2. ‘Prayer Before Birth’ – a profoundly poignant poem
Also written at the height of World War Two, this poem ponders the current state of the world from the perspective of a rather unusual protagonist: an unborn child.
MacNeice’s poignant use of anaphora in “I am not yet born…” acts as a stark reminder of the narrator’s innocence. This idea of virtue threaded throughout its seven stanzas and final rhyming couplet culminates in the harrowing closing line, “Otherwise kill me.”
1. ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’ – a subtle love poem
Originally published as ‘Song’, this four-stanza work is considered one of the best Louis MacNeice poems due to the subject matter and poetic techniques used.
Written in the aftermath of his divorce from Mary Ezra, the poem showcases the universal themes of loss and time.
He also uses internal and end rhyme to acknowledge MacNeice’s feelings of acceptance and gratitude. He writes, “But glad to have sat under/Thunder and rain with you.”
The piece may also have been written in regards to England’s political state at the time.