Skip to main content

Papers of Frederick Louis MacNeice

 Collection

  • How to
    request
The archive comprises literary papers and other material relating to Louis MacNeice's career as a writer (1923-1963, and posthumous material), as well as personal and professional correspondence and some personal papers, 1917-1963. It also includes selected papers of his second wife Antoinette Millicent Hedley ('Hedli') MacNeice, 1931-1989.

Dates

  • 1917-1989; n.d.

Extent

10.17 Linear metres (76 physical shelfmarks)

Language of Materials

English, with occasional use of Latin, Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, French, German.

Conditions Governing Access

Material of a sensitive personal nature is closed. Restrictions are indicated in the catalogue as (= Closed).

Preferred Citation

Oxford, Bodleian Libraries [followed by shelfmark and folio or page reference, e.g. MS. 10641/1].
Please see our help page for further guidance on citing archives and manuscripts.

Full range of shelfmarks:

MSS. 10641/1-75; Library Objects JL 954

Collection ID (for staff)

CMD ID 10641

Overview

Papers of the poet and playwright Frederick Louis MacNeice (1907-1963), with papers of Hedli MacNeice, née Anderson (1907-1990)

Biographical / Historical

Frederick Louis MacNeice was born in Belfast on 12 September 1907, the youngest of three children of John Frederick MacNeice (1866–1942), then rector of Holy Trinity, Belfast, and his wife, Elizabeth Margaret (‘Lilly’)(1866–1914), daughter of Martin Clesham, of Co. Galway. In 1908, the MacNeice family moved to Carrickfergus, where Louis MacNeice's father was rector from 1908 to 1931. In those early years his mother was often ill, his father preoccupied and remote. The death of their mother in 1914 was a severe blow for the MacNeice children, who were looked after by a cook and a governess until 1917, when their father brought home a new wife, Georgina Beatrice Greer.

When MacNeice was ten, he was sent to Sherborne preparatory school, and in autumn 1921 he went with an entrance scholarship to Marlborough College. There, John Betjeman, Bernard Spencer, John Hilton, Graham Shepard, and Anthony Blunt were among his contemporaries, and MacNeice wrote a great deal of verse, maturing rapidly and precociously in an aesthetic and intellectual ambience. In 1926 he won a postmastership to Merton College, Oxford. He continued to write - chiefly poems and stories of satire and fantasy - and in time became friendly with other poets, notably W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Clere Parsons. During his time at Oxford, he edited Oxford Poetry with Stephen Spender, and published his first book of poems, Blind Fireworks (1929). In 1930, MacNeice graduated with a ‘First’ in literae humaniores, and having just obtained a lectureship in classics at the University of Birmingham, he married Giovanna Marie Thérèse Babette (‘Mary’) Ezra (1908–1991), daughter of David Ezra and stepdaughter of John Beazley, on 21 June.

During his years in Birmingham, MacNeice continued to write, including the novel Roundabout Way (1932) under the pseudonym Louis Malone, contributions to New Verse and other periodicals, and a second volume of Poems (1935). He became a lasting friend of the head of his department, Professor E.R. Dodds (1893-1979), his lifelong mentor who became professor of Greek at Oxford, and who encouraged him to work on a translation of Aeschylus's Agamemnon (1936). In May 1934, son Daniel John had been born, but the MacNeices’ relationship was struggling, and in November 1935, Mary left her husband for the Russian-American student Charles Katzman. In 1936, MacNeice travelled to Spain with Anthony Blunt, and to Iceland with W.H. Auden, a journey about which they subsequently wrote Letters from Iceland (1937). It was through Auden that he met Nancy Culliford Sharp (1909-2001), then the wife of the painter William Coldstream, who later married Michael Spender. They were instantly attracted, and in 1937 began a passionate affair.

From autumn 1936, MacNeice was lecturer in Greek at Bedford College, London. He discharged his university duties punctiliously, although living the literary life: The Group Theatre produced his Agamemnon in 1936, and Out of the Picture in 1937. In 1938 he published another book of poems, The Earth Compels; two prose works written to commission, I Crossed the Minch, and Zoo (both with illustrations by Nancy Sharp); and a critical book, Modern Poetry. In August 1938 also began a long poem which it took him the rest of the year to finish: Autumn Journal (1939), regarded by many as his masterpiece.

Most of the year 1940, MacNeice spent in the USA, lecturing at Cornell University and trying to figure out whether he could make a life with the American writer Eleanor Clark (1913-1996) whom he had met in New York on a visit to the US the year before. Upon his return to the UK in November 1940, he was rejected for active service because of bad eyesight, and in May 1941 joined the BBC features department, which had a covert propaganda brief from the government. There, under Laurence Gilliam, MacNeice applied his mind to the principles and techniques of his new medium and to exploiting it to creative ends. His mastery was apparent in such programmes as the series The Stones Cry out, Alexander Nevsky, and Christopher Columbus. He adapted his old love of the stage to radio drama, and produced at least two memorable contributions: He had a Date (1944), an elegy for his friend Graham Shepard (1907–1943) who had been killed on convoy duty; and The Dark Tower (1946), a synthesis of two favourite themes, the morality quest and the parable. During the war years MacNeice also produced three more books of poetry, The Last Ditch (1940), Plant and Phantom (1941), and Springboard (1944), and another critical work, The Poetry of W. B. Yeats (1941).

On 1 July 1942 he made a fresh start in family life by marrying Antoinette Millicent Hedley (‘Hedli') Anderson (1907–1990), and in 1943 his daughter Corinna was born.

The features department provided MacNeice with security and employment which he found useful, satisfying, and compatible with his vocation as poet. It was natural to continue in this work after the war, more especially as Gilliam had recruited other stimulating colleagues, many of them also poets—W. R. Rodgers, Rayner Heppenstall, Terence Tiller, and, on occasion, Dylan Thomas. In 1949, to mark the Goethe bicentenary, the BBC produced MacNeice's version of Faust—a major undertaking on which he worked in collaboration with his old friend Ernest Stahl. He had published another collection of poems, Holes in the Sky (1948), and the following year Collected Poems, 1925–1948.

From January to September 1950 MacNeice was on leave from the BBC as director of the British Institute in Athens, and he stayed on until the following March as assistant representative of the British Council, which had merged with the British Institute. Again, he led the double life: conscientious in discharging his duties, while writing the poems published in 1952 as Ten Burnt Offerings. Back in London he began Autumn Sequel (1954), a complement to and reprise of Autumn Journal. He published no more until Visitations in 1957 - the year in which he received an honorary doctorate from the Queen's University, Belfast. In 1958 he was appointed CBE.

During the late 1940s and 1950s, MacNeice travelled extensively, on lecture and recital tours (USA in 1953 and again in 1954, jointly with wife Hedli), as well as on assignments for the BBC: India and Pakistan (in 1947 and again in 1955), to Egypt and Sudan (1955), to the Gold Coast/Ghana (1956), and to South Africa (1959).

In 1960 he and second wife Hedli separated. Louis MacNeice set up house with the actress Mary Wimbush (1924–2005), and in 1961 gave up full-time employment in the BBC to be freer for his own work. He felt himself to be in a fresh creative phase of which Solstices (1961) was the first harvest; he wrote the radio plays The Administrator (1961) and The Mad Islands (1962), and in the first half of the year 1963 he delivered the Clark lectures (published as Varieties of Parable in 1965). In August 1963, Louis MacNeice went caving in Yorkshire to gather sound effects for his radio play Persons from Porlock. He got caught in a storm on the moors, but did not change out of his wet clothes until he was home in Hertfordshire. Bronchitis evolved into viral pneumonia, with which he was admitted to St Leonard’s Hospital in London on 27 August. He died there six days later, on 3 September 1963. After a funeral in London on 7 September, his ashes were interred in Carrodore Churchyard, Ireland.

Before his death MacNeice had been assembling the poems for The Burning Perch (1963), which was published on 13 September 1963. Amongst other works published posthumously were a book on Astrology commissioned by Aldous Books (1964), Selected Poems (1964) edited by W.H. Auden, the autobiography The Strings are False (1965) edited by MacNeice’s friend and literary executor E.R. Dodds, as well as (radio) plays The Mad Islands and The Administrator (1964), One for the Grave (1968), Persons from Porlock (1969), and the song cycle The Revenant, originally written in 1942 for Hedli MacNeice.

Based on: MacNeice, (Frederick) Louis (1907–1963), M. Davin revised by Jon Stallworthy, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2009.

Arrangement

The arrangement in four main sequences (correspondence; literary papers; personal papers and miscellaneous; papers of Hedli MacNeice) was introduced to the archive when it was partially sorted after it was purchased by the Bodleian Library in 1997. Within these series, material was sorted and re-arranged in 2018, to form coherent chronological, alphabetical or thematic sub-sequences and units.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The papers were originally deposited on loan to the Bodleian Library for the use of MacNeice’s biographer Jon Stallworthy. They arrived in eight batches between 1983 and 1996, and were purchased by the Library in 1997. MS. Res. c. shelfmarks were assigned to each deposit. Subsequently the papers were partially re-sorted and the collection was allocated new, consecutive Res. c. shelfmarks (MSS. Res. c. 1549-1617). In 1995, some papers, including Louis MacNeice's letters to his parents, 1917-1930, and other family papers, were withdrawn by the depositors. Most of this material was subsequently acquired by the University of Texas at Austin, where it can now be found at the Harry Ransom Centre, as Acquisition 13-11-002-P (2013).

Related Materials

At the Bodleian Libraries:
  1. MSS. Don. c. 197 and Photogr. b. 15: Letters and Photographs of Louis MacNeice, 1911-40.
  2. MS. Eng. c. 465: Louis MacNeice letters to E.R. Dodds.
  3. MS. Eng. c. 6859, fols. 44-45: Letter from Louis MacNeice to Herbert Davis, [c.1940].
  4. MS. Eng. c. 7379: Material from the Carrickfergus Louis MacNeice centenary, 2007, n.d.
  5. MS. Eng. c. 7381: Louis MacNeice letters to Nancy Coldstream, 1939-1943, n.d.
  6. MSS. Eng. c. 7879-7881 and Eng. d. 4007: Letters, manuscripts, photographs and miscellaneous papers of Louis MacNeice and Mary Wimbush, 1929-2002.
At the University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Center:
  1. Manuscript Collection MS-02632: Louis MacNeice Collection
Title
Catalogue of the Papers of Frederick Louis MacNeice
Status
Completed
Author
Finding aid prepared by Svenja Kunze, based on lists by Judith Priestman
Date
2018
Language of description
English
Sponsor
Catalogued with the generous support of private donors.

Repository Details

Part of the Bodleian Libraries Repository

Contact:
Weston Library
Broad Street
Oxford OX1 3BG United Kingdom