Louis MacNiece 1907-1963

Louis MacNiece was born in Belfast, the son of a Protestant minister who went on to become a bishop of the Church of Ireland. He grew up in Carrickfergus, Country Antrim, and at the age of six his mother went into a nursing home suffering from depression, dying of tuberculosis the following year. After his father remarried he was sent to Sherborne preparatory school in Dorset together with his elder sister. From here he won a classical scholarship to Marlborough College in 1921, where he was a contemporary of John Betjeman and Anthony Blunt, with whom he shared a study. He went on to Merton College, Oxford, where he met W H Auden. He had four poems published in Oxford Poetry in 1929 and his Blind Fireworks was dedicated to Mary Ezra, a woman from a Jewish family with whom he had fallen in love. They got married the following year to the disapproval of both sets of parents.

MacNiece got his first appointment as a lecturer in classics at the University of Birmingham where he worked for six years. He started to write poetry again in 1933 and his volume Poems was published two years later. In 1934 Mary left MacNiece and their infant son for a Russian-American student who had been staying with them. After hiring a nurse to look after the child, MacNiece travelled to Spain with Anthony Blunt in early 1936 and later that year went to Iceland with Auden, which led to the publication in collaboration with Auden of Letters from Iceland, a collection of poems, letters, and essays. In 1936 he started at Bedford College, London University as a lecturer, and had a collection of poems published in The Faber Book of Modern Verse. These included some of his best known including Sunday Morning, Belfast, Perseus, The Creditor, Snow, and An Eclogue for Christmas. In that same year he divorced Mary and started an affair with Nancy Coldstream, a married painter.

Towards the end of 1939 MacNiece travelled to the United States to take up a post of lecturer at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York State but returned to England a year later. From 1941 he worked for the BBC writing and producing radio programmes in support of Britain’s allies as well as plays. In 1942 he married Hedli Anderson and they had a daughter. In 1947 he was sent to India by the BBC to cover independence and partition, and in 1950 was given an eighteen month leave of absence to become the Director of the British Institute in Athens. MacNiece was awarded the CBE in 1958 but his later life degenerated with numerous love affairs and heavy drinking bouts, and in 1960 his wife asked him to leave. He died in 1963 aged 55 after contracting pneumonia on a caving programme he was producing for the BBC.

MacNiece was a prolific writer who published numerous collections of poetry as well as several plays, an autobiography, The Strings Are False, and prose works of both fiction and non-fiction. His early poems are generally considered to be his best and he has enjoyed a high reputation both during his lifetime and since. His work is characterised by its honesty and underlying melancholy.

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