Louis MacNeice A Poet's Guide to Britain


Louis MacNeice

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Poets have always written about the landscape

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and many form intense relations with either their own special corner

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of the country or else a particular aspect of the natural world.

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This programme is about one of my favourite poems of all time.

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It's a poem by Louis MacNeice

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that over a short space of page does so many things at once.

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It takes a reader on so many different journeys.

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The poem is called Woods and it takes you down a path that leads both into one of the great recurring

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features of the English landscape, as well as into the life and mind of an outstanding poet.

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There are places that speak telling the stories of us and them.

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A village asleep loaded with dream,

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an ocean flicking its pages over the sand.

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Eventually we reply, a conversation of place and page over time

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inscribing the map so that each in turn might hold the line.

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When Louis MacNeice wrote the poem, Woods, a year or so after

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the end of the Second World War he was at the top of his game.

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A well known poet, major literary figure

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and a friend and collaborator with the other great names of the day, Eliot, Auden and Dylan Thomas.

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Also a playwright and broadcaster, by the time of his death in 1963

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he'd produced an impressive 16 books of poetry.

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Woods may not be one of MacNeice's best known poems but for me it's a masterly piece of writing.

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A wonderful avocation of woodland that also digs deep

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into the heart of Louis MacNeice and his troubled sense of identity.

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MacNeice is one of those figures who's hard to pin down.

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He was Irish and yet in so many ways English.

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He was darkly handsome and sociable but also notoriously reserved.

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One of his girlfriends once described him as looking like a horse who was about to shy.

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MacNeice wrote Woods some time around his 40th birthday.

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The poem is both a portrait of a man trying to work out who he is

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and a subtle lament on the disappointments of middle age.

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'My father who found the English landscape tame

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'Had hardly in his life walked in a wood,

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'Too old when first he met one; Malory's knights,

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'Keats's nymphs or the Midsummer Night's Dream

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'Could never arras the room where he spelled out True and Good

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'With their interleaving of half-truths and not-quites.

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'While for me from the age of ten the socketed wooden gate

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'Into a Dorset planting, into a dark

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'But gentle ambush was an alluring eye;

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'Within was a kingdom free from time and sky,

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'Caterpillar webs on the forehead, danger under the feet,

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'And the mind adrift in a floating and rustling ark.'

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Those are the first two of seven verses from Woods

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over which MacNeice tries to reconcile what he saw

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as the two very different halves of his identity.

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The English part

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and the Irish.

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Louis MacNeice's childhood began in Northern Ireland.

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He tells his own story in a poem named after the town where he grew up.

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'I was born in Belfast between the mountain and the gantries

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'to the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams.

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'Thence to smoky Carrick in County Antrim where the bottleneck harbour

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'collects the mud which jams the little boats beneath the Norman Castle.

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'The pier shining with lumps of crystal salt.

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'The Scotch Quarter was a line of residential houses

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'but the Irish quarter was a slum for the blind and halt.'

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It was Louis MacNeice's father, the Reverend John MacNeice, who dominated his upbringing.

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John MacNeice came from a family of clergymen, not from Ulster in

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the north but from the remote islands off County Mayo in the west.

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In a sectarian confrontation when he was a boy, John's family were driven away from their home.

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Louis's father grew up with a strong sense of living in exile and both this sense of

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not belonging, and this passion for the wilds of Ireland, were inherited by his son, Louis.

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Louis mother, Lily, was ill through much of his early childhood and when he was seven, she died.

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'While in a way my childhood was rather lonely

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'and incidentally at one period I had a lot of nightmares and all that

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'and there were various unhappy things in the background.

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'On the other hand, this loneliness did encourage one to read a lot.'

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Then, at the age of nine, Louis left the shuttered world of the rectory behind him.

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'I went to school in Dorset.

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'The world of parents

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'compacted into a puppet world of sons, far from the mill girls,

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'the smell of porter, the salt mines and the soldiers with their guns.'

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In 1917, at the height of the First World War, MacNeice was sent to England to Sherborne Prep in Dorset.

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The journey from Ireland to England would take him into a very different world,

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an institutional environment that was far from his nursery upbringing in the rectory at Carrick Fergus.

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For Louis, this departure from Ireland was a defining moment in his life.

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'The Headmaster's voice filled the room like a bell and his smile filled the room,

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he was ebullient with health, smelling of tweed and high up under the ceiling from between the perfect

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'teeth in his classic squirearchic face, courteous phrases flowed out, rolled to the walls.

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'Assurance that all was well.

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'With great strides rocking the house, he led my parents and me to my dormitory.'

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Far from home, in the aftermath of his mother's death, this might have

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been a traumatic experience, but MacNeice fell into English prep school life with ease.

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In fact he soon preferred school to home.

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After his quiet upbringing in the rectory, he suddenly found

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himself surrounded by other boys, playing rugby, climbing trees, reading, learning and generally

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caught up in the enthusiasms of a charismatic and inspirational headmaster, Littleton Powis.

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Littleton was an old Prepper himself so he'd been at the school and he loved the way that his schooling had

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been and he was one who enjoyed the freedom that Prep school gave him.

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So brought to the school this philosophy and, I think, it summed

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up in his autobiography, the joy of it, he just had this wonderful zest for life and joy for life.

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So he would take the boys out

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into the grounds, he would train them into identifying

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birds, identifying plants, but then he would let them go.

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I think that, like all good teachers, he enthused them and then let them really find their own feet.

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I mean, this idea that there were only two places out of bounds in this area,

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one was the Trent Barrow Woods because there was a bog hole there that children could

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slip in and drown which is not good for a school to lose children into bog holes!

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-Not ideal.

-And the railway line and that was it. Otherwise they were free to go unaccompanied.

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'And I led them up from the courtyard and into the great hall of the castle...'

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MacNeice wasn't only inspired by Powis's passion

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for flowers and birds and trees, the headmaster would readily read poetry and stories to the boys

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in the evenings and the authors and poets MacNeice heard at Sherborne

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filtered deep into his consciousness.

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'And do not imagine these Knights of the Round Table...'

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At the time, the book that made the greatest impression, was the epic Morte D'Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory's

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medieval tale of heroic knights, courtly ladies and terrible battles.

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Fired up by Malory, MacNeice and his friends would play out

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scenes from the book in the woods close to the school.

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This brand of literature, this kind of school, and above all

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this English landscape was a world away from the remote Atlantic island upbringing of his father.

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'My father who found the English landscape tame

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'Had hardly in his life walked in a wood,

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'Too old when first he met one; Malory's knights,

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'Keats's nymphs or the Midsummer Night's Dream

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'Could never arras the room where he spelled out True and Good

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'With their interleaving of half-truths and not-quites.

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'While for me from the age of ten the socketed wooden gate

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'Into a Dorset planting, into a dark

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'But gentle ambush was an alluring eye;

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'Within was a kingdom free from time and sky,

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'Caterpillar webs on the forehead, danger under the feet,

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'And the mind adrift in a floating and rustling ark.

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'Packed with birds and ghosts, two of every race,

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'Trills of love from the picture-book -

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'Oh, might I never land

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'But here, grown six foot tall, find me also a love,

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'Also out of the picture-book; whose hand

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'Would be soft as the webs of the wood, and on her face

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'The the wood-pigeon's voice would shaft a chrism from above.

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'So in a grassy ride a rain-filled hoof-mark coined

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'By a finger of sun from the mint of Long Ago

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'Was the last of Lancelot's glitter. Make-believe dies hard;

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'That the rider passed here lately and is a man we know

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'Is still untrue, the gate to Legend remains unbarred,

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'the grown-up hates to divorce what the child joined.'

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Paul Farley, one of the best British poets writing today, claims Louis MacNeice is a powerful influence

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and, like me, he thinks of Woods as one of MacNeice's richest poems.

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It's got so much stuff in there, hasn't it? Because, I mean,

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it is quite simply on this first level just about

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entering a wood and that experience that we all have, but then also

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it's backlit by all of his personal experience, this association of this landscape with his time in Dorset.

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This mythic idea of the West of Ireland as well.

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Yeah. It's almost a great...

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It's a piece that really shows how important

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the landscape of childhood is.

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It's nested, it's beautifully nested so you get layer upon layer upon layer of meaning

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and that's what gives the poem endless resonance, I think.

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He was, you know, famously

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incredibly inventive with his rhyme schemes and his forms

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and this is a fascinating rhyme scheme.

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How important do you think that kind of technique is for that

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onward movement for the poem, which is also a poem that is looking back?

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It's really difficult at first to read MacNeice in some ways because

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say you've just been reading somebody like,

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Wordsworth or Edward Thomas or someone who you're more or less going to get your

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meat and two veg, five beats line from and you kind of know where you're on,

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there's a comfort in that.

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MacNeice's line, more often than not, isn't like that, it's a more complicated and knottier thing

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and in a poem like Woods, yeah it is like entering a thicket of words, each six line stanza is

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doing something slightly different so it's got like that stanza definition from standard stanza

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and it starts out, "My father who found the English landscape tame"

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sounds like five beats to my ear, but then there are other lines

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where you can read them as almost having six beats in it.

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So his line is very elastic and he pushes and pulls metrically at the line, you know.

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It's difficult at first but once you tune into it there's no other voice like it.

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At the heart of the poem, MacNeice exclaims, "Oh, might I never land But here, grown six foot tall."

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Woods is a poem about memories of childhood but it's told very much

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from the wistful unillusioned perspective of a grown-up and it's a poem that I think powerfully

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reveals the contradictions, the dilemmas and disappointments of the adult, Louis MacNeice.

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After Sherborne, MacNeice followed a very English route, Public school, then Oxford.

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He left Oxford with a wife, Mary, and went to teach classics at Birmingham University.

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After three years in the Midlands, shortly after the publication of his first collection of poems,

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Mary ran off with an American friend of Louis's leaving him with their young son, Dan.

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Louis and Dan moved into a flat on the edge of Hampstead Heath in north London.

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'..Find me also a love Also out of the picture-book;

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'Whose hand would be soft as the webs of the wood

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'And on her face

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'The wood-pigeon's voice would shaft a chrism from above.'

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These lines from Woods, this yearning for an idealised romance,

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are especially poignant in the context of Louis' love life in the '30s.

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Over his years in Hampstead, Louis seems to have lurched from one affair to another.

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In his unfinished autobiography, he bemoans the unsatisfying

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and unresolved state of his life at this time.

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'In respect of sex, I see England in the '30s as a chaos

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of unhappy or dreary marriages, of banal or agonised affairs.'

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'The pattern of every night shot through with the pounding and jingling of bedsteads,

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'but somewhere in the hearts of the couples on the beds

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'is a really little voice of query. Is this enough?

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'Or is this what I really want?

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'Or can this possibly go on?

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'When will it end?

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'When will it begin?'

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If it was a turbulent emotional period for Louis, creatively it was highly successful.

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Commissions from publishers soon enabled him to give up teaching

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and as the terrible threat of war loomed on the horizon he was writing

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some of the best poetry of his life, like this, the poignantly elegiac Sunlight On The Garden.

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'The sunlight on the garden Hardens and grows cold,

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'We cannot cage the minute Within its nets of gold,

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'When all is told We cannot beg for pardon.

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'Our freedom as free lances Advances towards the end;

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'The earth compels, upon it Sonnets and birds descend;

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'And soon, my friend, We shall have no time for dances.

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'The day was good for flying, Defying the church bells

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'And every evil iron siren And what it tells:

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'The earth compels,

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'We are dying, Egypt, dying.

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'And not expecting pardon, Hardened in heart anew,

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'But glad to have sat under Thunder and rain with you

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'And grateful too For sunlight on the garden.'

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Jill Balcon was a young actress who knew and worked

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with Louis during the '40s, by which time he was producing radio programmes at the BBC.

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What do you remember of the first time you met Louis MacNeice?

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I remember being

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shy and he was very shy as I'm sure you know and he didn't smile readily,

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but one of the things that was so marvellous about him as a director of actors

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were the manners, he had the most beautiful manners in the studio

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with everybody and that was quite surprising that somebody who looked formidable was

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in fact so courteous.

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How much of the work happened in the pub?

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Well, you said it. I don't know!

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But there was also a place called the ML and it was a drinking club down into a dark place where people

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did a lot of drinking and, I'm sure, I know Louis was a member and various other people.

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So there was a lot of drinking and conviviality of that kind.

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He was different in a very striking way, wasn't he?

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Louis had a certain grace.

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Louis was, in a sense, an outsider, yes, he was.

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This sense of being an outsider, Louis's feeling of being neither here nor there and his desire

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to make sense of his identity, all this really begins to come into the fore in his writing in 1945.

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By that time he was married again to a singer, Hedli Anderson, and they had a young daughter, Corinna.

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That summer of 1945 Louis took his young family back to the Carrickfergus of his childhood.

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'Back to Carrick, the Castle as plum assured as 30 years ago

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'Which wall was which?

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'But here are new villas Here is a sizzling grid

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'But the green banks are as rich and the lochs as hazily lazy

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'And the child's astonishment not yet cured.'

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This was the summer before Louis wrote Woods and you can see vividly

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in his work at this time how the themes and concerns of Woods are beginning to emerge.

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'Who was, and am,

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'Dumbfounded to find myself in a topographical frame here,

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'Not there.

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'The channels of my dreams determined largely by random chemistry of soil and air,

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'Memories I had shelved peer at me from the shelf.'

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From Carrick Fergus the MacNeice family took a trip that summer to the west coast of Ireland,

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his father's home turf in the wilds of Mayo as he would later refer to it in Woods.

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Inevitably this trip brought back powerful memories of his father.

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'It was 16 years ago he walked this shore and a mirror caught his shape which catches mine,

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'but then, as now, the floor mop of the foam bloated the bright

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'reflections and no sign remains of face or feet

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'when visitors have gone home.'

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While MacNeice was in Ireland that summer, as well as writing poetry,

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he began work on a major new drama for the radio.

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-ARCHIVE:

-'The tower, the dark tower!

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'Quick now, my man...

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'Go in, my son, waste no time...'

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The Dark Tower is a radio play inspired by the kind

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of Arthurian legend that so fed MacNeice's imagination as a boy.

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The play combines the parable of a Knight's quest with a more

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contemporary existentialist search for meaning and purpose.

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It's a quest in which the certainties of the heroic tales that MacNeice so loved as a child are challenged

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by the uncertainties of the post-war world in which he was now writing.

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-ARCHIVE:

-'I, Roland, the black sheep, the unbeliever,

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'who never did anything of his own free will,

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'will do this now to bequeath free will unto others.

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'Ahoy there tower, dark tower!'

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The Dark Tower has something else in common with Woods.

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The central character, the knight, Roland, is on a mission following in

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the footsteps of his father, but unsure of what his mission is, what path to take.

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In the middle of the poem, Woods, in the middle of the wood,

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MacNeice attempts to sum up the two different paths he could take.

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'Thus from a city when my father would frame an escape

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'He thought as I do of bog or rock.

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'But I have also this other, this English choice,

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'Into what yet is foreign; Whatever its name

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'Each wood is the mystery and the recurring shock

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'Of its dark coolness is a foreign voice.'

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In the summer of 1945, after the end of the Second World War, Louis MacNeice wrote,

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"I wish one could either live in Ireland or feel oneself in England."

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In early 1946, it seems that MacNeice and his family attempted to find

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a compromise between these two conflicting landscapes in his life when they moved here

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to this beautiful 16th century farmhouse in Tilty in rural Essex.

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When MacNeice and his wife first came to have a look at the house they were particularly struck

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as well, as with the house itself, with its views which looked out over fields and woods.

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MacNeice wrote his poem, Woods, during the period he lived here out in Essex and you can see vividly

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how this well farmed domesticated landscape begins to colour the poem as it moves towards its conclusion.

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'Yet in using the word tame my father was maybe right,

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'These woods are not the Forest;

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'Each is moored

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'To a village somewhere near. If not of today

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'They're not like the wilds of Mayo, they are assured

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'Of their place by men; reprieved from the Neolithic night

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'By gamekeepers or by Herrick's girls at play.'

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There's one line in this poem which, for me, is really the entire poem encapsulated just in a few words

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and that's when MacNeice says, "These woods are not the Forest"

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and he gives the word forest a capital F.

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What's that all about, Paul?

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Well, he's saying that the woods are linked very,

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very intimately to human activity.

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They're linked to agriculture and good husbandry.

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They're not the Neolithic forest, they're not the, you know, the primeval forest,

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they're not the place where, anything can happen.

0:23:480:23:52

They're a smaller, tamer, scaled-down version and human activity's never very far away.

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I mean we're here now and we can hear cars reverse

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and horns going off, aircraft and all the rest of it.

0:24:000:24:03

I mean, this is a small Island, you know.

0:24:030:24:05

You can't find anywhere very wild really, despite what people will have you think.

0:24:050:24:09

There's just lots of these tamed spaces.

0:24:090:24:13

'The 60 miles per hour plants,

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'The growth that lines the summer corridors of sight

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'Along our major roads,

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'The overlooked backdrop to Preston, 37 miles.

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'Speed camera foliage,

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'The white flowers of Mays and Junes, scarlet fruits of autumn

0:24:330:24:38

'Lay wasted in the getting from A to B.

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'Hymn to forward-thinking planting schemes.

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'Though some seem in two minds,

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'The greenwood leaves are white furred,

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'Have a downy underside,

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'As if the heartwood knew in its heart of hearts

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'The days among beech and oak would lead to these single file times,

0:24:540:25:00

'These hard postings

0:25:000:25:02

'And civilised itself with handkerchiefs.'

0:25:020:25:05

MacNeice's poem is about so many things.

0:25:120:25:16

It's a poem about walking in a wood and a poem about childhood memory

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and a poem about the tame and the wild.

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But I think ultimately it becomes even more than this.

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It's a subtle and moving ode of reconciliation,

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with where MacNeice finds himself at this stage of his life.

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Not in the wilds of County Mayo or in Malory's forests, but in the gentle woodland of rural England.

0:25:330:25:40

This note of restrained melancholy plays on through the closing verse and suddenly becomes universal.

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Suddenly we are walking alongside Louis.

0:25:470:25:52

'And always we walk out again. The patch

0:25:520:25:54

'Of sky at the end of the path grows and discloses

0:25:540:25:58

'An ordered open air long ruled by dyke and fence,

0:25:580:26:02

'With geese whose form and gait proclaim their consequence,

0:26:020:26:06

'Pargeted outposts, windows browed with thatch

0:26:060:26:10

'And cow pats - and inconsequent wild roses.'

0:26:100:26:15

Those beautifully understated last lines are subtly weighted

0:26:150:26:22

with the restrained sadness that appears in much of the best of MacNeice's writing.

0:26:220:26:28

I talked about this quality of sadness with the poet Danny Abse

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who knew MacNeice towards the end of his life.

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When you spend some time with his voice you do get this,

0:26:340:26:40

a quality of sadness really.

0:26:400:26:41

Well, I think you do in all good poetry, most poetry don't you?

0:26:410:26:45

I think in all good poetry there's a note of lamentation sometimes,

0:26:450:26:49

as sometimes there's the note of celebration as well.

0:26:490:26:53

In some poets you don't get any celebration, only melancholy!

0:26:530:26:56

But I think you get joy as well with some of those lyrical poems of Louis.

0:26:560:27:02

They sometimes seem contradicting the man himself.

0:27:020:27:08

There's such a difference between the man and the poetry it seems to me.

0:27:080:27:12

There's a wonderful

0:27:120:27:14

photograph of somebody who looks like a film star

0:27:140:27:18

but he didn't look like a film star when I met him at all and there's so much contradiction, I think.

0:27:180:27:25

There's obviously a lot of inner chaos in his life and out of chaos

0:27:250:27:29

comes forth to quote nature, "Comes forth sometimes a dancing star."

0:27:290:27:35

For me Woods is a fantastic landscape poem, not just because it evokes a wood so well, but also because

0:27:470:27:54

it's a poem of identity that touches upon the way the places in our lives can resonate within us.

0:27:540:28:02

Something else that I really love about this poem is the strong sense of resolve or learning at the close,

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as if through spending some time back in his childhood landscapes both MacNeice and us walk out of this wood

0:28:080:28:16

a little bit wiser than when we walked into it.

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media

0:28:270:28:31

E-mail [email protected]

0:28:310:28:35

Poet and author Owen Sheers presents a series in which he explores six great works of poetry set in the British landscape. Each poem explores a sense of place and identity across Britain and opens the doors to captivating stories about the places and the lives of the poets themselves.

Louis MacNeice was one of the big guns of British poetry in the 1930s and 40s but is less well known today. Sheers takes a stroll into one of his finest poems, called simply Woods, a brilliant evocation of one of the most English landscapes but also a poem that takes you into the life and mind of a fascinating poet.

MacNeice was born and brought up in Ireland until the age of nine, when soon after the death of his mother he was sent to school in England. His split identity was to become a major preoccupation for the rest of his life.

In Woods, the middle-aged MacNeice takes stock of who he has become, unsure that he taken the right path. It is wonderful lyrical, melancholic writing that makes a powerful case for the restoration of this poet's reputation

Includes contributions from poets Dannie Abse and Paul Farley as well as actress Jill Balcon, who knew MacNeice and was married to another great poet of the era, Cecil Day-Lewis.


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