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This article is taken from PN Review 268, Volume 49 Number 2, November - December 2022.

Louis MacNeice’s Hat Hugh Thomson

Louis MacNeice was interested in clothes. Geoffrey Grigson describes him as ‘well-dressed’, as does his friend John Hilton, who adds in a note to The Strings Are False, MacNeice’s uncompleted autobiography, that even as a student at Oxford, Louis tried to dress elegantly.

There are several allusions in the poetry to the difference between a made-to-measure and an off-the-peg suit. When MacNeice meets Yeats for the first time in 1934, he is impressed by the older poet’s ‘smooth light suit and just sufficiently crooked bowtie’. The alluring Muse he mentions in ‘Autumn Journal’ wears not just stockings and suspenders, but is ‘dressed by Schiaparelli, with a pill-box hat’.

Many photographs show MacNeice in a brown trilby – a hat designed so that one can tilt it slightly askew; so that one can look at the world askance. It is the hat of a man who likes going to the races or rugby matches, or who stands in a pub leaning against the pillar. In a contact sheet of publicity photos for Faber, MacNeice is bare-headed for the first dozen or so and then starts wearing his hat, almost as if he felt naked without it. Certainly he looks better with it.

Critics like Ian Hamilton have talked of MacNeice’s ‘aloofness’, although there are times as well when he can be very direct. When he rams the hat more horizontally over his head. And he undoubtedly does so in ‘Autumn Journal’.

How has ‘Autumn Journal’ worn? Since MacNeice’s long narrative ...

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