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Identity, Loss and Scepticism: The Makings of Louis MacNeice and Elizabeth Bowen

Identity, Loss and Scepticism: The Makings of Louis MacNeice and Elizabeth Bowen

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Aine Pearl Pennello. Originally submitted for Irish Autobiographical Fictional Writing at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Dr. Christina Hunt Mahony in the category of English Language & Literature
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Aine Pearl Pennello. Originally submitted for Irish Autobiographical Fictional Writing at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Dr. Christina Hunt Mahony in the category of English Language & Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
Identity, Loss and Scepticism:The Makings of Louis MacNeice and Elizabeth Bowen
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Give a detailed analysis of the development of the aesthetic of 2 of the writers whoseautobiographies we've read, either concentrating on recurring milestones or  similarities of education or indicating where their personal philosophies of art were similar or divergent.
Identity, Loss and Scepticism:The Makings of Louis MacNeice and Elizabeth Bowen
While Louis MacNeice and Elizabeth Bowen, as Irish writers of the earlytwentieth century drawn to experience the blitzes of Word War Two and itsirrevocable effects on humanity, lived through certain shared experiences, it would beincorrect to think of these experiences as either unique or uncommon to other writersof the time. Other Irish writers such as Frank O’Connor, Patrick Kavanagh, LiamO’Flaherty and Austin Clarke were also born around the cusp of the twentieth centurywhile Samuel Beckett and Francis Stuart both shared intimate experiences of WWII.However what does warrant attention and what this essay will explore is howBowen’s and MacNeice’s aesthetic reactions to the instability and impermanence of their time were shaped by and rooted in the more uniquely personal issues of their respective childhoods; mainly those of identity, loss and insecurity.For the young Bowen and MacNeice, parental loss was the first harrowingmilestone they would each contend with from which their issues of identity, faith and belonging would develop both directly and indirectly. For instance, Henry Bowen’s“agonising mental illness” initiated for the young Elizabeth a life of journeying between England and Ireland, further complicating her hybrid Anglo-Irish background and any stability she may have had in that identity (Bowen 1975, 11).Meanwhile the suddenness of Lilly MacNeice’s death had a profoundly shaking effecton the young Louis’s sense of security and belief in permanence, later causing him to become introspective and sceptic of all organised forms of thought such as religionand political ideology. Like Bowen, MacNeice also developed ambivalent feelingstowards his native country as he too traveled to England to attend boarding school.There, the young MacNeice felt an affinity and kinship with his fellow classmateswhich he had not and could not feel for the people of his Antrim home due to his highsocial standing and isolated childhood. In a similar fashion Bowen, following the lossof her own mother, the unsettling experience of being an ‘orphan’, and the effects of WWII, came to develop what had been MacNeice’s initial reaction to parental loss: a2
 
loss of security coupled by a painful awareness of the transience of humanrelationships and the ephemeral condition of man. Never fully rejecting or identifying with one country or the other and never fully engaging in human relationships, Bowen and MacNeice were destined to livetheir lives as outsiders observing conflicting realities, a role they would each later embrace and use in their writings. In fact it is because of these losses and experiencesthat MacNeice and Bowen came to be the great, observational writers of their day.However in order to understand these issues we must first examine its initial source,the pain of parental loss – a milestone without which Bowen and MacNeice wouldundoubtedly not have developed into the people and writers they became.As shown, parental loss would affect these writers in both strikingly similar  but also uniquely divergent ways. For MacNeice, the experience of loss in all itsforms was not only detrimental but also prevalent during childhood. “There wasalways a sense of loss,” he writes: “A golliwog lost in the shrubbery”, “a teddy-bear who fell into the soot-heap” and from their Belfast home, “a spotted horse called Danwho failed to come with us” (1965, 37). However the greatest of all Louis’s losses,occurring at the young age of five, was of course that of his mother. The life-longgrief he felt is shown throughout his writing career, most markedly in the haunting poems of ‘Autobiography’ and ‘Eclogue between the Motherless’. MacNeice’sdwelling on the subject certainly made him, as fellow artist John Montague describeshim, one “whom melancholy has marked for her own” (1974, 125). However it is thesudden and unexpected nature of Lilly MacNeice’s death – as Louis perceived it atsuch a young age – that is most important in understanding the underlying scepticismof his poems. As MacNeice’s older sister Elizabeth – who was not only Louis’s mainif not sole childhood companion but also something of a surrogate mother for theyoung Louis – tries to recall the experience in the following footnote to hisautobiography:Louis and I saw her change almost overnight from a mother who had always been the mainstay of the household – serene and comforting, apparently
thevery essence of stability
– into someone who was deeply unhappy, and nolonger able to make decisions… as she became more and more restless, Louis3

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