Since my teens I have been an admirer of the Northern Irish poet Louis MacNeice. His best and most anthologised poem, "Snow", is one of those exceedingly rare poems which has described a particular idea so well that the idea itself has almost become the poet's property. The words "incorrigibly plural" now come unbidden to the mind of anyone who finds himself meditating on the life's giddy diversity. This is the kind of apotheosis of which every writer dreams. (I once had a t-shirt made up with the most famous lines from "Snow" on it.)
But he is far from a one-hit wonder. The poem 'Dublin', which my father often quotes, captures the soul of the city in a way that is uncanny. True, it's a Dublin that has all but disappeared now, and which had disappeared even in my own childhood; but its ghost lives on.
"Prayer before Birth", another much-anthologised poem, is unlike any other poem in the language (though it is rather reminiscent of Chesterton's "By the Babe Unborn"). And he has many other lyrics which are worth reading and re-reading. His long poem "Autumn Sequel" has passages of eloquence which, in my view, are in the absolute top rank of English poetry.
Like all my favourite poets, MacNeice was a deep thinker. And it's fair to say that, before I had actual faith, MacNeice's secular "faith"-- finding something sacred in mankind's straining after something transcendent, even in the most banal circumstances-- was the closest I came to it.
I want to write an extended essay about the poetry and thought of Louis MacNeice, though I don't know if I'll ever get round to it. But I've been reading some of his stuff again, and I was very moved by this passage from his unfinished biography, The Strings are False:
An American friend once said to me rebukingly: 'You never seem to make
any positive choice; you just let things happen to you.' But the things
that happen to one often seem better than the things one chooses. Even
in writing poetry, which is something I did early choose to do, the few
poems or passages which I find wear well have something of accident
about them (the poems I did not intend to write) or, to put it more
pretentiously, seem 'given'. So Magilligan Strand was like falling in
love. For such occasions the word 'falling' is right; one does not step
into love any more than one steps asleep - or awake. For awake, like
asleep, is what one falls, and to keep falling awake seems to me the
salt of life much more than existentialist defiance. We cannot of course
live by Keats's Negative Sensibility alone, we must all, in E. M.
Forster's phrase, use 'telegrams and anger'; all the same what I feel
makes life worth living is not the clever scores but the surrenders - it
may be to the life-quickening urge of an air-raid, to nonsense talked
by one's friends, to a girl on top of the Empire State building, to the
silence of a ruined Byzantine church, to woods, or weirs, or to heat
dancing on a gravelled path, to music, drink or the smell of turf smoke,
to the first view of the Atlantic or to the curve of a strand which
seems to stretch to nowhere or everywhere and to ages before and after
the combustion engine which defiled it.