How have I missed Louis MacNeice on minor poets until now?

Thank you Michael Longley for including his ‘Elegy for Minor Poets’ in your Selected. There’s a lot to be said for selections, especially where a poet has been so prolific you can’t see the woods for the poems.

Also I relate – many of us do – to the idea of the Minor poet. It seems to me to be a worthy ambition to aspire to be a good Minor poet. (Not a bad Minor poet, please. Not a totally Forgotten poet, please.)

Hardly anybody gets to be Major. Still fewer get to be Great. Louis MacNeice is nearly always disadvantageously compared with W H Auden, who was Major. MacNeice was also a friend of Dylan Thomas who was once Minor but has now been moved up to Major.

Minor or not, there are poems by MacNeice that have wormed their way into the hearts of many of my contemporaries. ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’. ‘Snow’.Bagpipe Music’. ‘House on a Cliff’. I have spent years thinking about ‘Snow’, and when it snows, I can’t not think about it. MacNeice isn’t all that Minor to me.

Here are the first two stanzas of his ‘Elegy for Minor Poets’:

Who often found their way to pleasant meadows
Or maybe once to a peak, who saw the Promised Land,
Who took the correct three strides but tripped their hurdles,
Who had some prompter they barely could understand,
Who were too happy or sad, too soon or late,
I would praise these in company with the Great;

For if not in the same way, they fingered the same language
According to their lights. For them as for us
Chance was a coryphaeus who could be either
An angel or an ignis fatuus.
Let us keep our mind open, our fingers crossed;
Some who go dancing through dark bogs are lost.

How beautifully he takes us into the world of the poem. The easy clichés of the pleasant meadows, the peak, the ‘Promised Land’. We know just where we are, we poets. We have seen that land. Then the three strides and the hurdle – back to school – remember missing that hurdle? Or failing in the long jump? And the prompter (in a play, maybe). And then the tripping change of rhythm in ‘too happy or sad, too soon, or late’ – so very simple. And the last line neatly echoing Kipling’s ‘Let us now praise famous men’.

With an elegant little skip, the second stanza is different. Its first sentence runs nimbly over the end of the line into that lovely phrase ‘According to their lights’. No stock imagery here. Fingering language is a complex image. You can pursue it in several directions, just as you can ‘the lights’. And now he’s got me thinking about that phrase ‘according to their lights’, which is what good poems do. I won’t be able to say that again ever, without remembering MacNeice, that good Minor poet. I had to look up ‘coryphaeus’ – it’s the leader of the chorus. MacNeice was a classicist. This stuff came easily to him. But the last two lines are a mantra for poets: ‘Let us keep our mind open, our fingers crossed;  / Some who go dancing through dark bogs are lost.’

Then he expands on the ways of getting lost:

Who were lost in many ways, through comfort, lack of knowledge,
Or between women’s breasts, who thought too little, too much,
Who were the world’s best talkers, in tone and rhythm
Superb, yet as writers lacked a sense of touch,
So either gave up or just went on and on –
Let us salute them now their chance is gone;

And give the benefit of the doubtful summer
To those who worshipped the sky but stayed indoors
Bound to a desk by conscience or by the spirit’s
Hayfever. From those office and study floors
Let the sun clamber on to the notebook, shine,
And fill in what they groped for between each line.

Isn’t ‘the benefit of the doubtful summer’ wonderful? And the ‘spirit’s hayfever’? But his point is clear. It makes no difference: poets can get lost from working too little or too much. Such a terrific and generous couplet: ‘Let the sun clamber on to the notebook, shine, / And fill in what they groped for between each line.’ And yet I don’t think he’s being patronising. He’s in there with the gang. His ‘salute’ is born of true respect. Playfulness, too, but not satire.

You have to admire his clinching couplets, don’t you? Here’s the next stanza:

Who were too carefree or careful, who were too many
Though always few and alone, who went the pace
But ran in circles, who were lamed by fashion,
Who lived in the wrong time or the wrong place,
Who might have caught fire had only a spark occurred,
Who knew all the words but failed to achieve the Word –

And with what irony, that couplet is turned against MacNeice by John Fuller, in Poetry London, in 1951, who (reviewing his Faber collection, Solstices) thought “so few of his poems achieve real poetic inevitability that one is almost tempted to label him from his own ‘Elegy for Minor Poets’ as one who ‘knew all the words but failed to achieve the Word’.” b2ap3_thumbnail_4101MsyscNL.jpg

Still, it seems to me this poem has caught fire. It has certainly caught my attention. So much so that I’m sharing the next stanza too:

Their ghosts are gagged, their books are library flotsam,
Some of their names – not all – we learnt in school
But, life being short, we rarely read their poems,
Mere source-books now to point or except a rule,
While those opinions which rank them high are based
On a wish to be different or on lack of taste.

Isn’t it all still true? The Minor names. We may know them – Richard Church, Edmund Blunden, Alice Meynell, John Drinkwater, Fredegond Shove, William Soutar, Violet Jacob – but, life being short, we rarely read their poems.

And the final lines of ‘Elegy to Minor Poets’ (you have had the whole poem now):

In spite of and because of which, we later
Suitors to their mistress (who, unlike them, stays young)
Do right to hang on the grave of each a trophy
Such as, if solvent, he would himself have hung
Above himself; these debtors preclude our scorn –
Did we not underwrite them when we were born?

More difficult, but interesting. The Muse is the mistress and the poets are the living suitors. The tone and imagery reminds me of another Minor (?) poet, Robert Graves. I like the idea of hanging a trophy on the grave. It neatly reverses Keats’ idea of the poet’s soul as a trophy on Melancholy’s shrine. Besides, it’s what I’m doing now, in effect, by paying respect to a true poet who may be Minor but is Major to me. I like ‘if solvent’: I wonder if it’s a nod to Dylan Thomas, who never was (solvent), and for whose family MacNeice helped to raise money after his death.

The last metaphor lingers. We are the underwriters of the dead minor poets. We are their security, their future, their insurance. We are also writing under them, they are up there, their poems somewhere in the ether. We inherit the chance to keep them remembered by being born into the art, the making of poems, and the reading of poems, and the writing about poems….

So having split up ‘Elegy to Minor Poets’ mercilessly between my paragraphs, here’s a poem entire, from Holes in the Sky, a collection published in the late 1940s. He could do the little gob-smacking lyric too. What a poet!

What is truth? says Pilate,  
Waits for no answer;  
Double your stakes, says the clock  
To the ageing dancer;  
Double the guard, says Authority,  
Treble the bars;  
Holes in the sky, says the child  
Scanning the stars.







Poor Fredegond Shove.  It doesn’t sound an auspicious name, though ‘shove’ rhymes, at the very least, with ‘love’.

Poor Fredegond Shove.  It doesn’t sound an auspicious name, though ‘shove’ rhymes, at the very least, with ‘love’.

She was a poet though. Why might you have heard of her?

Her main claim to fame is that she was one of only two female poets to make it into Edward Marsh’s best-selling anthology of Georgian Poetry, which ran to five volumes, all of which were issued from Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop.

Monro had taste. His books were well-made and a joy to handle, whatever you thought of the contents. He is also the man who started The Poetry Review: “Time is ripe for the forging of a weapon of criticism, and for an emphatic enunciation of literary standards”, he observed in January 1912, just over a century ago. Indeed.

The Poetry Bookshop was a very interesting place and Monro was its equally fascinating poet-proprietor. Anyone who was anybody in PoetryWorld arrived there sooner or later. It has come back into discussion of late, with the publication of Matthew Hollis’s book about Edward Thomas: Now All Roads Lead to France.

In this lovely book, there is no reference to Fredegond Shove. This is not a criticism of Hollis’s biography. There are so many people alive at any period of time: one can only mention the key players in any story. On the night when Thomas and Frost both attended a reading at the Poetry Bookshop, was Fredegond Shove there too? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Perhaps poetry was a minor part of her life.

Her other claim to fame as a poet is that Ralph Vaughan Williams set four of her poems to music, and they are still sung. However, this was not necessarily because V-W was deeply moved by the work. It could have been something to do with the fact that the great composer’s wife was Fredegond’s auntie.

Did they call her ‘Fred’? Did she have a sense of humour? She certainly had connections with the so-called ‘Bloomsbury Group’ (Virginia Woolf was her mother’s cousin) but she mainly lived in Cambridge and that’s where she probably grew up, as the daughter of Frederic William Maitland, whose rather handsome portrait hangs in the National Gallery, and who, according to Wikipedia, was not only Fredegond’s father but “the modern father of English legal history.” But he didn’t keep well. He died in 1906, when Fredegond would have been about 17.

I like the look of her. Click HERE to see her sitting smoking a cigarette and sitting against a hay stook (seems a slightly dangerous activity to me). Here she must be about twenty-eight. She looks a strong woman, a bit risqué, and husband Gerald, who became known for his work as an academic economist (he was a King’s College graduate and worked all his life in that self-same college) seems so much  . . . meeker. By this time, Fred’s mother is married to Charles Darwin’s son, thus becoming Lady Florence Henrietta Darwin. Everything connects!

Fred’s husband, Gerald, when at Cambridge, was one of the Apostles, and so he must have known Leonard Woolf and Lytton Strachey well. This was during the Great War, in which Gerald was plainly not engaged – he was a conscientious objector (lots of the Bloomsbury Group were) and he worked, according to Wikipedia, as a poultry keeper at the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell. That’s where the photograph will have been taken, Lady O being not only a patron of the arts but also a bit of a photographer.

Fred’s mother, Florence Henrietta, wrote plays, with what success I do not know, but six of them can be found in Project Gutenberg. She named her daughters Fredegond (but you knew that already) and Ermengard. They sound like two of the Valkyrie, don’t they? I have no idea what Ermengard did, exposed as she was to such an intensity of literary and cultural influences. It’s hard enough to pursue Fred through the English letters in which she has got lost.

The name ‘Fredegond’, so far as I can see, comes from Fredeguna, the fearsome Queen consort of Chilperic 1, the Morvingian Frankish King of Soissons. What? You can read all about her if you follow the link. If names do, as they say, influence our destinies, things were looking interesting for our Fred, the Poet.

But it didn’t work out that way. The history of literature barely mentions poet Fredegond Shove. She had no children. She died at sixy, outliving Gerald by only two years (he also died at sixty). I wonder what she was like? HERE is a bit of her family tree.

Another anthologist who selected a couple of her poems was W H Davies. I have considerable respect for his Shorter Lyrics of the Twentieth Century, although it didn’t live up to Davies’ hopes that it would sell in similar numbers to the Georgian series. Davies had an ear for true lyric, and he wasn’t anything like as masculist as Marsh. In fact, Davies liked women (in every sense).

Here is ‘Song’, one of the poems Davies chose, a good little poem for a wet spring morning:

Spring lights her candles everywhere,
But death still hangs upon the air;
The celandine through dusk is lit,
The redbreasts from the holly flit,
At night the violets spring to birth
Out of the mute, encrusted earth.

The wind has cast his winding sheet
(Which is the sky) and he goes fleet
Over the country in the rain,
Singing how all the world is vain
And how, of all things vainest, he
Journeys above both land and sea.

It’s not an ambitious lyric, but it does its work neatly and well. She handles the verse form beautifully. Although the first stanza is pretty ordinary, the second lifts: it’s all one sentence and she carries it right through with a lovely cadence. The “death” that hangs on the air isn’t just a fancy metaphor for winter. “All the world is vain”. She was writing in the aftermath of the Great War: this is her minor Wasteland, her lost lyric.

And the other one that Davies chose – that’s the one I’d like to think she was writing, or thinking about, sitting against that hay stook in 1917. I think the ending may be a little dark and brooding – I wonder why the joys are “disembodied”: is it just an allusion to reading the stars, or did she already know there would not be children, not for Fred and Gerald? The sun, ‘as golden as a pound’ reminds us that there was a time – there really was – when a gold sovereign was worth the name. At first you think the comparison of a daisy’s face to ‘glass’ is odd – perhaps just there for the rhyme. But I don’t think so. I think it deliberately anticipates the other kind of glass, the mirror in the second stanza. Just a little poem, with a whole life behind it, written before Dutch Elm Disease decimated the “white stars”.

In memory of Fredegond Shove, then, minor poet of minor poets, here is ‘In a Field’.


The sun and moon I see
Beside me in the grass:
The moon, a daisy’s face
As pure and fine as glass;
The sun, a dandelion
As golden as a pound—
Oh what a firmament
Is this which I have found!

White stars the elm tree shakes
To twinkle where they lie
As bright upon the earth
As any in the sky.
This field is heaven’s glass
And gazing in I see
What disembodied joys
The future holds for me.