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Lost poet comes out of darkness

18 October, 2019 — By John Gulliver

Louis MacNeice

HOW wonderful to see such a packed audience at Keats House, Hampstead, on Thursday to hear poems and the life story of that almost “lost” great poet, Louis MacNeice.

Overshadowed by WH Auden – though they both came out of Cambridge in the 1930s – MacNeice somehow seemed to have slipped between the cracks over the years.

But he is little doubt regarded as a poet’s poet whose works can never be mistaken for those of any other writer.

It was Ruth Montague, wife of Keats’ Library president Lee Montague, who suggested him as a subject for a talk – she was so gripped by his much anthologised poem, Sunlight in the Garden – and the talk was set up.

Posterity has yet to judge MacNeice. I first heard his distinctive voice as a 16-year-old when his great parable play, The Dark Tower, was first broadcast with – according to my half-remembered memories – its overtones of Peer Gynt. I became captive to MacNeice from then on.

Lee Montague

Imagine my astonishment when I discovered in the 1990s that one of the New Journal’s contributors, Tony Van Den Berg – an award-winning journalist – used to drink with MacNeice and Dylan Thomas at the pub near the BBC in the 1940s. MacNeice, like Dylan Thomas, was a serious drinker.

Like all great poets, MacNeice was a complicated man, the son of a Protestant minister in Northern Ireland, and had many love affairs.

He settled in Hampstead, and poured out collected poems as well as beautifully written travel books to keep himself going.

I am drawn to poets who reveal the sort of inner thoughts we all share but which often go unspoken.

He was a man of liberal, sometimes radical inclinations with sympathies more commonly with the “wage slaves” than the “slave owners”.

At one time, he lived just a few doors from Keats House in Keats Grove.

He came alive on Thursday as Lee Montague, now in his mid-90s, and Christopher Benjamin, both actors in their slightly younger days, read his works so evocatively.

Yet another success for Keats Library, which had not visited since the locals began to run it as volunteers – all of whom prove that as citizens of “everywhere” they can achieve so much.

The well-stocked library reflects their commitment and community spirit.

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