Athens no longer dies:
Greek and Roman themes in MacNeice

by Brian Arkins

National University of Ireland


Described by Anthony Thwaite as 'one of the best poets of the century',[1] Louis MacNeice is the only Irish writer to become a professional classicist.[2] This fact has important consequences for MacNeice's treatment of Greek and Roman themes : he not only follows Yeats, Joyce, and others in appropriating these themes for his own purposes, but he also provides extensive comment on the Greco-Roman world as such, and on the methods used to teach about that world. So far as Greek and Roman material is concerned, MacNeice therefore exemplifies what he himself calls 'The drunkenness of things being various'.[3]

Focusing on MacNeice's extensive use of Greek and Roman material is not merely of interest in itself, but also constitutes a way of side-stepping the vexed question of whether he is Irish or British or both. For knowledge of the ancient world constituted a kind of lingua franca for educated people in Britain and Ireland, and in Ireland North and South. Classics therefore provided such people with a code, an objective correlative, that could be used to explore a wide variety of topics. As exemplified by MacNeice's persistent use of Greek themes in Autumn Journal, a work that is, he says, 'about everything from firsthand experience I find significant'.[4]


We begin this analysis with MacNeice's education in Greek and Latin at school and at university. MacNeice's father (John F.) had learnt Latin and a little Greek in his father's school on the island of Omey off the Galway coast. In turn, John F. taught Latin to Louis, who was impressed by the sounds of the words and the power they brought with them : 'one day, when I went to a tea-party with tigerskin rugs on the floor, I kept declining the noun dux in my head and that made everything taste better. Ducibus ducibus I said, and this private pattern in my mind fitted in somehow with the stripes on the tigers and knowledge was power and a wind blew down the vistas.'[5]

At Sherborne Prep School in 1917-21, MacNeice was taught Greek and Latin by the Headmaster, Littleton Powys (brother of the novelists), who put particular emphasis on Latin metre ('the tricks/of Latin elegiacs' - CP 420). In December 1920, MacNeice sat for and won a public school scholarship in Greek and Latin to Marlborough. But he also made sure to see material remains of the Greco-Roman world. En route to Marlborough, MacNeice visited the Roman baths at Bath, and, on an important visit to the British Museum in early January 1921, saw much Greek and Roman art, including the Elgin room (i.e. the Parthenon frieze), copies of the Diadoumenous and Discobolus, and the 'sculptured heads' of Roman Emperors.[6]

But MacNeice could also be acerbic about Greek art. His involvement with Mary Beazley, daughter of the leading authority on Athenian black and red vases, led him to assert : 'I have a hatred of Greek vases, (a) because they are ugly in shape and colour, (b) because they are viciously used to adorn school texts of the classics, (c) because the house where I have most often been embarrassed and disparaged was full of them, whole or in fragments'. MacNeice might therefore have concurred with T.E. Lawrence's verdict on Beazley : 'If it hadn't been for that accursed Greek art he'd have been a very fine poet.'[7]

At Marlborough, MacNeice's teachers included G.M. Sergeant in the Classical Upper Sixth, who liked - as did MacNeice - the Greek 'refusal to bank on Utopias', and who (as opposed to Mommsen) saw Cicero as 'the one sympathetic figure in a period of thugs and crooks, a doomed liberal who had the courage of his culture (SF 91). Meanwhile, MacNeice enjoyed Homer, whom he found 'richer than Virgil or Spenser, more congenial than Milton'. And, since one has to recognise flux 'to be modern', he was swept away by Heraclitus, by the thesis that everything is flux and fire is the primary principle (SF 109;96). Indeed MacNeice's late poem Variations on Heraclitus (CP 502-03) advances upon Heraclitus' emphasis on physical flux ('Nor only in terms of Physics') to assert that the things we recall through memory are also subject to flux : 'One cannot live in the same room twice'.

At Marlborough, MacNeice acquired the large Liddell and Scott Greek dictionary and become an enthusiast for the Greek language (SF 82;87): 'You find there are things you can do in Greek you could never do in English. The two negatives for instance - ou and me - and even more the exquisite subtlety of the double negative me-ou. And the wealth of particles. And that wonderful Greek word an which you can even tack on to a participle, so that where in English you would say 'Those who would have done this', in Greek you can get rid of the wretched relative, say 'Those an having done this', but 'having done' itself would be one word and not two'.

Indeed a single Greek word can evoke great emotion. As when in 1927, MacNeice saw the Atlantic off Connemara and echoes the famous cry of Xenophon's soldiers on seeing the Black Sea after a long land journey (SF 111) : 'something rose inside me and shouted, 'The Sea!' Thalassa! Thalassa! to hell with all the bivouacs in the desert; Persia can keep our dead but the endless parasangs have ended'. Fittingly, then, the last of MacNeice's Collected Poems (CP 546), is entitled Thalassa.

MacNeice also studied Latin poetry at Marlborough: 'We have just got 100 Best Latin poems in the Class. Vth. They consist mostly of Horace. Today we are doing three about political matters. This afternoon we go to Mr. Turner for either Virgil or Engl. Lit'.[8]

MacNeice was specially keen on Horace,[9] who appealed both in approach to life and in style; indeed Auden said of MacNeice that 'the first writer of whom one is reminded is Horace'.[10] Hence MacNeice presented for the BBC a programme of Horace's poetry (1963), and a feature about a modern character partly based on Horace (1956). Hence in 1962 MacNeice wrote a long poem 'Memoranda to Horace' (CP 539-43), in which the two poets are, in spite of crucial differences of country and belief, linked in a number of ways. The two poets are vitally similar in 'Offering No Consolation', but attempting 'an appetetive decorum'; in thinking personal life as important as politics ('Slipping away to Lalage'); in knowing when 'To opt out' (approaches stressed by MacNeice's suggestion of Alcaic metre). And despite modern corruption of language, Horace's boast that he has created a 'monument more lasting then bronze' 'will do' (as it will not for Derek Mahon, who asserts of Horace's work that 'All these things will pass away in time').[11]

MacNeice also stressed the vividness of Horace's Odes as exemplified in O fons Bandusiae (3.13, a poem translated rather lamely by the young Joyce)[12] and the extraordinary economy of those poems: '(I liked) the glitter of Horace - O fons Bandusiae splendidior vitro - and admired his tidiness, realising that English with its articles and lack of inflections could hardly ever equal Horace either in concentration or in subtlety of word - order.'[13] A view anticipated by Nietzsche, whom MacNeice admired:[14] 'What is here achieved is in certain languages not even to be hoped for. This mosaic of words, in which every word, by sound, by placing, and by meaning, spreads its influence to the right, to the left, and over the whole; this minimum is extent and number of symbols, all this is Roman, and believe me, elegant par excellence.'

That punch and economy of Horace was well captured by MacNeice in his translations of three Odes : 1.4 about Spring; 1.11, the famous carpe diem poem; and 2.3 about keeping 'A level mind' in the face of inevitable death (CP 549-50):

A level mind in crooked times
Preserve, preserve; nor in better fortune
Dash into rash self-glory
My brother bound for death -
Whether your life be a string of doldrums
Or whether you loll on days of festa
At a private fete champetre
With a bottle of vintage wine.

This remarkable involvement with Horace suggests that MacNeice is closer to him then 'to any other poet in this vital matter of expressing his whole personality in a tone of voice - wry, civilised, ironic, warmly involved and coolly attached, slangy and sophisticated, laconic and garrulous - which has to accommodate itself to a strict metrical paradigm.'[15]

At Marlborough, MacNeice was also interested in other Latin poets. As an example of what was 'stark and realistic', he read Lucretius and books about Lucretius; at a poetry reading, he declaimed the late Latin poem Pervigilium Veneris 'with harsh resonance and a percussive menace in the refrain that was almost a threat'; and he completed a speech to the Debating Society by quoting Catullus (SF 98; 244; 103). Catullus was indeed to be enlisted by MacNeice as the supreme paradigm of the individual voice in poetry, who was succeeded by the more pliant poets of the Empire (CP 210):

The Individual has died before; Catullus
Went down young, gave place to those who were born old
And more adaptable and were not even jealous
of his wild life and lyrics. Though our songs
Were not so warm as his, our fate is no less cold. In November 1925, MacNeice won a Postmastership scholarship to Merton College, Oxford, where he read Classics from 1926 to 1930. The first part of the course dealt with Greek and Latin authors (Mods) and the second with philosophy and ancient history (Greats).

MacNeice found Mods thoroughly unsatisfactory. He did not go to lectures 'because the lecturers were inaudible or dull', and he hated tutorials devoted to prose composition in Greek because of the rote learning 'of phrases carefully collected from writers of the proper period' (SF 104).

But what MacNeice detested most of all was the obsession of Merton dons - who 'had charm without warmth and knowledge without understanding' (SF 105) - with textual cruces in Greek and Latin authors, what he calls 'niggling over textual commentary' (SF 110; CP 126): 'Oxford crowded the mantelpiece with gods - Scaliger, Heinsius, Dindorf Bentley and Wilamowitz - As we learnt our genuflections for Honours Mods.' The chief exemplar of this approach was, of course, A.E. Housman (then Professor of Latin at Cambridge) who believed in the notion of the Platonic text. But disputes about the text of key modern works such as the Collected Poems of Yeats and Joyce's Ulysses have rendered the notion of such an Ur-text wholly untenable.[16]

To beat the system, MacNeice 'hastily learned by heart some textual emendations by Wilamowitz, Scaliger, and Co' (SF 113), and duly achieved a First in Mods in 1928. Another aspect of Greek and Latin studies that MacNeice disliked was their link to the English class system, the way they served to re-enforce what Tony Harrison calls 'a dreadful schism in the British nation'[17] (CP 125-26):

He learned that a gentleman never misplaces his accents,

That nobody knows how to speak, much less how to write
English who has not hob-nobbed with the great-grandparents of English.
That the boy on the Modern Side is merely a parasite
But the classical student is bred to the purple, his training in syntax
Is also a training in thought
And even in morals ....... It would seem that the study Classical philosophy and history at Merton was more to MacNeice's taste. The belief of his philosophy tutor for Greats Geoffrey Mure (a pupil of F. W. Bradley) that 'neither logic nor ethics could be separated from metaphysics' suited MacNeice because 'my instinct was to drag in ultimate reality everywhere' (SF 125). While concentration on Plato and Aristotle, both types of idealist, ignored the materialism of Atomists like Democritus, these two philosophers set the parameters of philosophical discussion for MacNeice.

MacNeice can see that Plato's Form of the Good might provide nourishment (whether 'food' or 'dope'). Indeed the 'Platonic hierarchy mounting up to and subsumed under the Form of the Good inevitably appeals to anyone whose childhood has been fed on Christianity and his adolescence upon Shelley' (SF 125; Yeats is a case in point). MacNeice further accepts Plato's view that bodily pleasures are like 'the pouring of water through a sieve', but asserts that 'life is like that'. Consequently, he rejects Plato's views that 'reason dominates instinct, soul body, and subject-matter form' (SF 127); ultimately, for MacNeice the Forms are 'too bleak' (CP 124). Though he can admire Stephen MacKenna, the translator of Plotinus, 'A brilliant talker who left/The Salon for the solo flight of mind' (CP 45).

Aristotle is clearly more attractive for MacNeice. Since one part of MacNeice wanted the world to be 'permanent', he liked Aristotle's notion of energeia meaning 'significant absolute movement' in time (SF 124-26). At the same time, the engagement of Aristotle the biologist with the physical world makes him preferable to Plato (CP 124):

Aristotle was better who watched the insect breed
The natural world develop
Stressing the function, scrapping the form in Itself,
Taking the horse from the shelf and letting it gallop.

After studying Lord, MacNeice got a First in Greats in 1930 and was offered a job as Assistant Lecturer in Classics at Birmingham University by the Professor of Greek, E.R.Dodds,[18] a fellow Ulsterman who was to become MacNeice's literary executor.


MacNeice lectured at Birmingham from 1930 until 1936, when he moved to the Department of Greek at London University's Bedford College for women; he remained there until 1940.

MacNeice brought to his own teaching of Greek and Latin in these posts the same ambivalence he felt about those who taught him. His colleagues at Bedford (such as Mrs. G. Wilkinson) believed that he did not find 'either the classics in themselves or the teaching of them particularly absorbing.'[19] As Stallworthy says, 'They were half-right : he did not enjoy teaching the ancient texts, but never ceased to enjoy reading them.'[20]

MacNeice clearly found the daily routine of teaching Classics to those who were 'so unresponsive, so undernourished' (SF 131) very tedious (CP 115): 'Virgil, Livy, the usual round,/ Principal parts and the last digamma'. He was not a good lecturer because 'his public voice (was) a monotonous drone'.[21] Nor did traditional research in Classics attract MacNeice. He rejected Dodd's suggestion that he might 'edit a Greek play' - even though Dodd's held that Wilamowitz's edition of Euripides' Heracles was 'a high work of human genius, an education, an inspiration, a resounding defeat for barbarism' (SF 137). MacNeice proposed instead to write a book on Roman humour (The Roman Simile) and compile Latin Anthology designed to exhibit 'certain tendencies of Roman culture' (neither of these was finished).

Despite all this, MacNeice, with characteristic honesty, admitted that teaching Classics in a university led to a comfortable life (CP 125):

If it were not for Lit.Hum, I might be climbing
A ladder with a hod
And seven hundred a year
Will pay the rent and the gas and the 'phone and the grocer.


When MacNeice left academic life and went to work for the BBC in London,[22] he continued to have Classical interests. Scripts he wrote for the Features Department often involved establishing parallels between the Greek and Roman world and the modern world (especially World War II ). So the programme about Aristophanes (who was played by Dylan Thomas) relates his work as 'an author of infinite fantasy, a lover of slapstick and beauty, a good hater and a good hitter, a live man, an enemy of cant' to the recent struggle in Europe between democracy and totalitarianism. Then two programmes - 'The Glory that is Greece' and 'Pericles' - equate modern Greek soldiers fighting the Nazis with ancient Greeks opposing the Persians.

MacNeice also organised 12 radio adaptations of Homer's Odyssey, with translations by poets such as Ted Hughes, Anthony Thwaite, and himself. Roman themes were also used by MacNeice for radio. In 'A Roman Holiday', the setting of the Saturnalia is employed to satirise a society devoted to materialism; related in theme was MacNeice's adaptation of Petronius called 'Trimalchio's Feast', in which the part of Trimalchio was splendidly played by Wilfred Pickles. More seriously, the programme 'Enter Caesar' presents Julius Caesar as a ruthless dictator who can be equated with Hitler.

MacNeice also wrote two scripts - The Golden Ass and Cupid and Psyche - based on one of his 'sacred books' (SF 98), Apuleius' novel, in which he nicely sees a 'blend' of radically different qualities: 'elegance and earthiness, euphuism and realism, sophistication and love of folk-lore, Rabelesian humour and lyrical daintiness, Platonism and belief in witchcraft, mysticism and salty irony.[23]

For 1950-51, MacNeice became Director of the British Institute at Athens. As a result, he wrote 'A Portrait of Athens' for the BBC, which presents a vivid interaction between Athens past and Athens present, and a poem called 'The Island' (CP 304-08) that deals with the island of Icaria in the South East Aegean where he holidayed.

Drawing on the assertion about Greece by Byron (the site of whose death at Missolonghi he visited) that 'Wheree'er we tread is haunted holy ground'[24] MacNeice states that 'there are gods at least, at least in Greece'. These gods exist amid a very specific Greek world: 'a gush of water/And gabble of Greek'; 'the welded blue/of sea and sky'; 'wine gourds, goat-skins, ikons'; 'tomatoes, peppers, aubergines'. As though Platonic Forms enmattered Aristotelian realities.

But this Greek world is, like everything else, fragile; as the case of Icarus, after whom the island is named, illustrates (CP 305):

When Icarus flew too high that freedom
Lopped his wings like a knife
And he fell by this island.


Unlike most writers who make use of Classical material in their work, MacNeice provides extensive commentary on the Greek and Roman world as such (mostly in Autumn Journal (1938) and Autumn Sequel (1953) ). MacNeice's tone in this commentary varies : he can be very sceptical about the Greek world and modern attitudes to it (section ix of the Autumn Journal), but he can also be more positive about that world (Cantos viii and xix of Autumn Sequel).

While the Victorians tended to idealise the Greeks and their climate by constantly using the metaphors of youth and light, and to blithely assimilate the Greeks to themselves - for Wilde 'Whatever is modern we owe to the Greeks'[25] - MacNeice in section ix of Autumn Journal casts an astringent eye on Greek civilisation and asserts that 'It was all so unimaginably different and all so long ago' (CP 119).

About that difference, MacNeice is very honest (as we would expect from the author of The Strings Are False), so that no attempt is made to gloss over the dark side of the Greeks and their realism. At the same time, MacNeice himself admitted that section ix was conditioned by the double-dealing at the time of the Munich crisis[26]: 'far from being objective about the Ancient Greeks, I see them here in the light of the mood induced in me by Munich'.

To begin with, the Greeks (like everyone else) were subject to the accidents of human life: they were aware that the gods and nature could be hostile ('the jealous heaven and the callous sea'); they knew 'the unpleasant / Consequences of age'; saw Athens in 430 BC became 'the city of the plague'.

But the Greeks (like everyone else)also brought about their own problems. Endorsing Benjamin's dictum that there is 'no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism'[27], MacNeice elsewhere compares the Empire of fifth century Athens to the British Empire (SF 208): 'she was the fifth century Athens, able to maintain free speech and a comparatively high standard of living, but only on the basis of gagged and impoverished subject peoples'. Hence in Autumn Journal, MacNeice notes: the city state (polis) was riven by faction (stasis); Alcibiades, 'that great rogue', betrayed first Athens and then Sparta; under Macedonian rule, Athens 'became a mere university city', in which Aristophanes' comedy of ideas had given way to the social comedy of Menander, in which the philosopher was reduced to 'putting his own soul in order', and in which the poet devoted himself to working 'the dying fall'. MacNeice's sub-text is that England now is like this Athens in decline.[28]

Then MacNeice, like a modern social historian, writes of the less fortunate and the deviant among the Greeks, eschewing 'The Glory that was Greece' for what one might call The Squalor that was Greece:

And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
The careless athletes and the fancy boys,
The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics
And the Agora and the noise
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves. Fair comment, since the Greek view of life was also realistic. Because the Greeks faced up to 'necessity' and because they were 'therein free', they were able to plot 'their life with truism and humour'; able to produce Sophocles' assertions 'Never to be born was the best, call no man happy/This side death'. It is the modern world of Jacobean humanists (like Sir Richard Livingstone?)[29] which insists on romantic idealisation of the Greeks - 'Models of logic and lucidity, dignity, sanity' - in order 'to paint a moral/For the present age'. An activity for which MacNeice has no time: 'Those dead are dead'.

In Autumn Sequel, MacNeice is less dismissive about the Greeks, whose presence adds needed energy to the poem. Crucial here is the presence of the Athenian historian Thucydides, who speaks not only of his own time in the fifth century BC, but also of the modern world; hence refuting Hazlitt's statement 'We are always talking of the Greeks and Romans; they never said anything of us'.[30]

For MacNeice, Thucydides is 'the Master of those who know, of those who know too much'. This knowledge comes from the fact that Thucydides (like so many Greek thinkers) is deeply aware of the centrality of opposites in human affairs - 'On the one hand this but on the other hand that' - and, as a result, of 'how little life is fixed'. So Thucydides could attack Athenian politicians like Cleon, regarded as a demagogue, 'But could still love his Athens'. So plague might affect Athens, 'But he still loved the Pnyx', the hill where the Athenian assembly (ecclesia) met.

Thucydides therefore functions as paradigm for MacNeice, who writes of 'his basic conception of life being dialectical,[31] and who constantly exhibits what Keats called 'negative capability', defined as 'when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.[32] For MacNeice, too, 'there is another hand'.

Two Cantos of Autumn Sequel - viii and xix - let Thucydides speak. In Canto viii the Master contrasts the political emasculation of those who live in a modern city, together with their acceptance of that 'narrow scope', with the fierce power and ambition of the Athenian people (demos), who 'wanted a high/Place in the solar zenith'. But the Master also points out that what Athens got was the disaster of the Sicilian Expedition of 415 BC, which effectively destroyed Athens: 'what we got/Was the Syracusan quarries, the right to die/On a daily half pint of water. 'And yet' (as always): 'though Athenians died, Athens no longer dies'. Preserved by Thucydides and by MacNeice writing about Thucydides.

In Canto xix, the Master is uneasy about the modern tendency to regard art either as autonomous or as political , and holds that 'Demos at his best supplied a temperate zone/In which the arts could flourish and unfold. But the Master is also well aware of the excesses of Athenian imperialism, symbolised by the decision to kill all the male inhabitants of the pro-Spartan island of Melos in 416 BC, and regards the rot as having set in 'long before'. As his own History testifies


Like many writers, MacNeice also makes use of Greek material, and, in particular, of Greek mythology to explore his own concerns. This mythology is for MacNeice exotic - witness the births of Zeus in a cave in Crete and of Athena from the head of her father - and cannot be tamed by placing visual representatives of its figures in cool, severe museums ('these muted/Miles of parquet, these careful lights,/This aquarium of conditional air'[33]). So for MacNeice the frieze from the temple of Apollo at Bassae near Phigaleia in Arcadia that shows the conflict between Greeks and Amazons becomes sexualised: Phrigaleian.[34] So the opposite to the Christian 'saint on the pillar' is a phallic Greek god (CP 158).

In the poems 'Circe' and 'Perseus' (from the Thirties), in 'Thyestes' (1943), in 'Day of Returning' (1950-51), and in 'Charon' (1962), MacNeice deals with the more robust and indeed violent aspects of Greek myth, and employs the stories to present a pessimistic view of life.

In 'Thyestes' (CP 211) and in 'Perseus' (CP 24), violent Greek myth is a paradigm of the human condition. The most horrific moment in the blood history in the house of Atreus is when Thyestes eats his own children. Prima facie, Thyestes is unaware of his cannibalism, but MacNeice cannot be so sure - 'Didn't he know - what he was eating? - because all human beings are 'murderers of beauty' and 'messmates in the eucharist of crime'. Alternatively, violence in Greek myth can suggest petrifaction, stasis (a central image in the 1935 volume Poems). When Perseus kills the Medusa, this does not lead to liberation and change; rather, everybody had 'Their breath frozen on them' and the poet himself is 'suspended and dead' (contrast Venus representing flux and change in MacNeice's play Out of the Picture).

Somewhat more optimistic is the poem 'Day of Returning' (CP 314-17) about Odysseus, conceived of as a practical visionary. Frustrated by endless voyaging at sea and rejecting 'unreal hours' with Calypso, Odysseus is forced to continually imagine Ithaca; and yet one day he does return.

Death and love are the respective topics of 'Charon' (CP 530) and 'Circe' (CP 19). When the people in 'Charon' want to cross the Thames (identified with the Styx), Charon is transformed into a modern ferryman, but, since his hands 'Were black with obols', he still requires his modern matter-of-fact commercial due: 'If you want to die you will have to pay for it'. In 'Circe', the 'crystal brilliance' of the enchantress (from Horace's epithet for her, 'brilliant') suggests that the woman men want is not a real woman of 'painted flesh' and 'live hair', but rather 'our own heart'd thought'; a case, then, of Narcissism.


In modern Irish literature, there are 20 engagements with the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus (3), Sophocles (11) and Euripides (6). These Irish plays may have a very loose relationship to the original tragedy - as with the inverted Oedipus story of Synge's Playboy (Christy does not kill his father).[35] Then these plays may preserve 'the invariant core', but add fresh material - as with Heaney's The Cure at Troy (which includes comment on Northern Ireland).[36] Or these plays may stick very closely to the original Greek tragedy - as with MacNeice's Agamemnon.[37] This type of fidelity is radical in the sense that it forces the spectator or reader to interrogate the original meaning of the play.

MacNeice's translation of the opening play of Aeschylus' trilogy Oresteia was put on in London by the Group Theatre in 1936 (with music by Benjamin Britten) and published in the same year. MacNeice was very conscious that this play was to be staged : he asserted that 'I have written this translation primarily for the stage' and wanted it to be read 'like a live play' (he also wished to assist the audience by having a drop-curtain 'with a family tree in the middle').[38]

Unfortunately, one aspect of the staging was very problematic: the desire of the director Rupert Doone for originality ensured that the actors were dressed in a bizarre modern fashion, so that the Chorus wore dinner jackets, Agamemnon a jester's cap, and Aegisthus 'a Christmas Cracker helmet and black evening cape'.[39] These excesses caused the elderly Yeats to remark to Dodds (newly appointed Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford) that 'We are assisting, my dear Dodds, at the death of tragedy'. But Yeats also pointed out that MacNeice's translation deserved a better production.[40]

MacNeice's translation of Agamemnon is in fact very fine and is stated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones (Dodd's successor at Oxford) to be 'the most successful version of any Greek tragedy that anyone in this country has yet produced'.[41] MacNeice's aim was to write in a register of language that is modern, strong, and clear that therefore tones down the exuberance of Aeschylus: 'I have tried to make this translation vigorous, intelligible, and homogenous. I have avoided on the whole poetic or archaic diction and any diction or rhythm too reminiscent of familiar English models'.[42]

MacNeice succeeds very well in this endeavour, producing a translation that is 'genuinely poetic in a lean and sinewy way'. Take, for example, the speech of the Herald (lines 555-62):[43]

If I were to tell of our labours, our hard lodging,
The sleeping on crowded decks, the scanty blankets,
Tossing and groaning, rations that never reached us -
And the land too gave matter for more disgust,
For our beds lay under the enemy's walls.
Continuous drizzle from the sky, dews from the marshes,
Rotting our clothes, filling our hair with lice

Such emphatic language ensures that MacNeice makes us aware of the central themes of Agamemnon such as the curse of the house of Atreus, the masculine daring of Clytemnestra, the approaching doom of Agamemnon, the pathetic spectacle of Cassandra. But his treatment of Cassandra's final lines in the play aroused controversy. The fact that MacNeice assigned the gloomy reflections of lines 1327-30 to the Leader of the Chorus, instead of to Cassandra, prompted the critic of The Times to state that he had robbed Cassandra of 'the most wonderful exit in the whole range of tragedy'.[44]


This paper has established that an important frame of reference in MacNeice is the Greco-Roman world and modern interpretations of that world, whether by others or by himself; in several different senses, the Greeks no longer die. Consequently, as war looms in Europe, significant Greeks are invoked to castigate the modern world. What symbolises the deceitful and chaotic world of 1938 is its abandonment of Plato's notion of universal value (CP 127):

Goodbye now, Plato and Hegel
The shop is closing down;
They don't want any philosopher-kings in England,
There ain't no universals in this man's town.

Equally well, the frenetic pace of modern life in the Thirties mocks the aristocratic ideals of the late archaic Greece espoused by Pindar, the champion of 'water, colourless, pure'[45] (CP 300), through the use of the ironic refrain 'Pindar is dead and that's no matter' (CP 79).

To MacNeice, though, the Greeks do matter. At the end of Autumn Sequel (CP 437), MacNeice compares his journey through life with that of Theseus: each man finds that his train/maze, which appears 'empty', is peopled with ghosts from the past; for Theseus it is the Minotaur, for MacNeice, inter alios, Socrates and Thucydides. In the end of the day, the Greeks did talk a lot about us.

[1]Thwaite, quoted in P.Mc Donald, Louis MacNeice - The Poet in his Contexts (Oxford 1991), 10. For MacNeice's life and work see further W.T. McKinnon, Apollo's Blended Dream: A Study of the Poetry of Louis MacNeice (London 1971); T.Brown - A.Reid (eds), Time Was Away: The World of Louis MacNeice (Dublin 1974); T.Brown, Louis MacNeice: Sceptical Vision (Dublin 1975); E.Longley, Louis MacNeice: A Study (London 1988); J.Stallworthy, Louis MacNeice (London 1995).
[2]For Classical themes in MacNeice see W.Rebetzky, Die Antike in der Dichtung von Louis MacNeice (Frankfurt 1981); E.Spiliopoulou, Classical Influences in Louis MacNeice's Work (Ph.D. thesis, Southampton 1989).
[3]The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice, ed. E.R. Dodds (London 1979), 30. Hereafter cited in the text as CP, followed by page number.
[4]MacNeice, quoted in Stallworthy (n.1), 233.
[5]Louis MacNeice, The Strings Are False (London 1982), 59. Hereafter cited in the text as SF, followed by page number.
[6]MacNeice, quoted in Stallworthy (n. 1), 67.
[7]R.Jenkyns, The Victorians and Ancient Greece (Oxford 1981), 344.
[8]Macneice, quoted in Stallworthy (n.1), 77.
[9]For MacNeice and Horace see Rebetzky (note 2), 116-41; R. Marsack, The Cave of Making - The Poetry of Louis MacNeice (Oxford 1982), 141-43.
[10]Auden, quoted in Marsack (n. 9), 142.
[11]Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (London 1993), 112.
[12]R.Ellmann, James Joyce (Oxford 1982), 50-51.
[13]Louis MacNeice, Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (Oxford 1968), 49.
[14]Nietzsche, quoted in D. West, Reading Horace (Edinburgh 1967), 88.
[15]MacKinnon (n. 1), 192.
[16]For Yeats see R.Finneran, Editing Yeat's Poems: A Reconsideration (London 1990); for Joyce see B.Arnold, The Scandal of Ulysses (London 1991).
[17]Tony Harrison, Selected Poems (London 1984), 120.
[18]On Dodds see R. Todd 'E R Dodds: The Dublin Years' in Classics Ireland 1999 vol 6: 80-106 - Ed.
[19]Wilkinson, quoted in Stallworthy (n. 1), 206.
[21]ibid, 146.
[22]See B.Coulton, Louis MacNeice at the BBC (London 1980).
[23]Selected Literary Criticism of Louis MacNeice , ed. A. Heuser (Oxford 1987), 127-32; quotation on pp.127-28.
[24]Byron, 'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage', canto 2, st. 88.
[25]Oscar Wilde, 'The Critic as Artist', Part I.
[26]MacNeice, quoted in Marsack (n. 9), 49.
[27]W.Benjamin, Illuminations (Glasgow 1973), 258.
[28]Jenkyns (n. 7), 293.
[29]Suggested ibid., 344.
[30]Quoted ibid., 53.
[31]MacNeice (n.23), 156.
[32]For MacNeice and Keats see A. Roche, Text and Context 3 (1988), 79-82.
[33]Jenkyns (n.7), 139-40.
[34]M. Beard & J. Henderson, Classics - A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 1995), 119.
[35]For Synge's Playboy as an inverted version of King Oedipus see D.J. Conacher, Phoenix 23 (1969), 33-38.
[36]For Heaney's The Cure at Troy see C. Meir in The Classical World and the Mediterranean, eds. G.Serpillo & D.Badin (Sassari 1996), 256-60.
[37]For his Agamemnon see R.A. Brower in On Translation, ed. R.A.Brower (New York 1966), 173-95; W.B.Stanford in Brown & Reid (n. 1), 63-66; Spiliopoulou (n. 2), 173-141. MacNeice translated lines 1-775 of Euripides' Hippolytus, but did not finish the translation. Eliot suggested to him that he translate Aristophanes' Frogs, but he did not do so.
[38]Stallworthy (n. 1), 194; 185.
[39]Anonymous critic, quoted in Stallworthy (n. 1), 195.
[40]E.R.Dodds, Missing Persons (Oxford 1977), 132.
[41]Lloyd-Jones, quoted in Dodds (n. 40), 116.
[42]MacNeice, quoted in Stallworthy (n. 1), 194.
[43]Louis MacNeice, The Agamemnon of Aeschylus (London 1967), 31-32.
[44]Quoted in Stallworthy (n. 1), 196.
[45]MacNeice here also quotes Thales, who held everything derives from water: 'Thales was right' (CP 300).
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