Derek Mahon Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Derek Mahon 1941–

Irish poet, editor, critic, and essayist.

Of the several skillful poets who emerged in Northern Ireland during the 1960s, Mahon is considered the most eclectic in themes and technique. Unlike his compatriots Seamus Heaney, John Montague, and Michael Longley, who focus on Irish history, society, or culture, Mahon is more detached. Born in Northern Ireland to Protestant parents, but distressed by the violence and unrest within Ulster, Mahon lives and writes in England. A sense of exile pervades his poetry.

With his first two volumes of poetry, Night Crossing (1968) and Lives (1972), Mahon came to be regarded as a gifted craftsman. When The Snow Party (1975) and the "selected collected" Poems: 1962–78 (1979) were published, however, Mahon developed a stronger reputation as an important poet. These works present what have come to be Mahon's primary themes: the decay of civilization and the alienation and isolation of the modern individual. Mahon explores these concerns from the standpoint of an outsider, sorrowfully observing the winding down of order and meaning in the world. His finest achievement to date, "A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford" in The Snow Party, has been described as one of the finest British poems to have been published during the 1970s. Its description of a shed wherein hundreds of mushrooms are huddled has led to various interpretations concerning human aspirations.

Although Mahon's subjects are usually serious and his outlook bleak, his verse is consistently balanced by wit and a sharp sense of life's ironies. These qualities, along with Mahon's tight linguistic control, appeal to both critics and readers. Having "tidied up" and collected his early verse, Mahon has embarked on a new phase characterized by a wider imaginative range and including the recent volumes Courtyards in Delft (1981) and The Hunt by Night (1982).

Robin Skelton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Derek Mahon's collection Night Crossing] suffers from gentility…. He writes deftly, levelly, subtly, reminding one of the controlled mild ironies of Larkin, though he lacks Larkin's nostalgia and Larkin's particular usage of ennui and anxiety. Moreover, he does, from time to time, edge into romanticism and, in his Legacies, after Villon, he reveals considerable rhythmical vitality and some sardonic gusto. This is a good book, but a safe book. It was the Choice of the British Poetry Book Society and some of the poems won an Eric Gregory Award. One can see why, even while yet again realizing that the very coherence and control which makes the book an award winner is also that which makes one restlessly...

(The entire section is 161 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

No one has satisfactorily explained how it is that a whole young generation of Irish poets—Heaney, Mahon, Longley, Muldoon and others—is apparently devoted to the well-made poem at a time when their English, Scottish and to a smaller degree Welsh contemporaries have almost entirely thrown it overboard in favour either of grim fragments or of vapid maunderings. The longest poem in Derek Mahon's [Lives], "Beyond Howth Head", is of a shapely fluency which set the pattern for the verseletters of Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley: behind it all there is perhaps the shadow of the Robert Lowell of "Near the Ocean" and "Waking Early Sunday Morning". Whatever the explanation, these new poems of Mr Mahon's have an...

(The entire section is 223 words.)

Alan Brownjohn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Between Night Crossing in 1968 and his new collection, Lives, Derek Mahon produced a very promising … pamphlet called Ecclesiastes. It now looks like a bridge between a pleasant but slightly too romantic and too tidy early style and something much tougher and more ingenious. Lives is a very good book, difficult and cryptic, but far more versatile and skilful technically, and managing to be both original and moving about his troubled Irish settings without being derivative or simplistic. There is no comfort in his new poems, very little of the nostalgia he was once prone to. 'Entropy', the title of one of them, might be said to be a central theme: modern society, with its fitted carpets,...

(The entire section is 174 words.)

P. N. Furbank

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The first poem in Derek Mahon's Lives is about arriving home in Dublin, distraught, after a Transatlantic flight: and something like the time- and place-confusion of jet-travellers gives the book its theme. The poems, written from that Atlantic island whose aerials are turned towards Britain and America, are about wanting to locate oneself, to decide to what parts of the human inheritance to direct one's aerial. Are signals still to be received from Raftery, the saints or Stone Age man? Or does the poet, like the anthropologist,

know too much
To be anything any more?

A beautiful poem, 'In...

(The entire section is 283 words.)

Douglas Dunn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If events in Ireland have been thought malefic in their relations to the art of poetry (as they are to almost everything else) then that may be the reason why Heaney and Derek Mahon have both maintained two distinct styles apiece. One can be used for the racial-cum-archaeological manoeuvres of their imaginations, or simply the lyricism towards which they are drawn by temperament, and another for more direct utterance, for the kind of poem which, in their Irish circumstances, is expected of them.

The formula is too simple, and suggests a similarity between Heaney and Mahon which doesn't exist. Mahon's art is one of elegance, in which the assurance of his skill aspires to suavity, to an ease of...

(The entire section is 586 words.)

Anthony Thwaite

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In a verse letter by Michael Longley, a fellow Ulsterman, Derek Mahon is addressed approvingly as one of the "poetic conservatives". He might well take umbrage; for the spirit that emerges from his poems is one which, while it hungers for ceremony and inherited order, has only the wannest faith that ceremony survives or that such order has relevance. Wistful, reticent, resigned, the poems in The Snow Party sound like the fastidious reflections of self-imposed exile….

Lost futures, rather than Mr [Seamus] Heaney's lost pasts, are the substance of Mr Mahon's poems. "The Last of the Fire Kings", "Thammuz", "The Banished Gods" and (a beautifully judged stroke of minimalism) "Flying" are all...

(The entire section is 314 words.)

Terence Brown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Derek Mahon's poetry it is possible to see what can be made of the Irish urban and suburban experience…. [Mahon] has produced a small body of remarkable verse, developing out of a sense of the complex, aesthetically uninspiring tensions of Northern Protestant middle-class identity. Mahon has spoken of the difficulties of writing out of such a background, from a 'suburban situation which has no mythology or symbolism built into it'…. (p. 192)

In 'Glengormley' and 'As It Should Be' Mahon considers the implications of suburban existence in a country whose past has been heroic, dramatic, mythological. 'Glengormley' recognises the new heroism of suburban survival, contrasting it, a little too...

(The entire section is 949 words.)

Brian Donnelly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With three published volumes of poetry behind him—Night-Crossing (1968), Lives (1972), The Snow Party (1975)—Derek Mahon has now clearly emerged as one of the most talented of the present generation of Northern Ireland poets. Indeed, in the wider context of English poetry of the last ten years, his work has retained qualities that looked increasingly likely to disappear with Auden's death—qualities of wit and wry humour in poems that reveal a lively and quirky intelligence. He has early shown a technical mastery in poems where humour and a lightness of touch often combine to achieve an unexpected seriousness. Taken as a whole, one can discern in his work a preoccupation with man's spiritual...

(The entire section is 1924 words.)

Peter Porter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is especially good to have Mahon's carefully edited 'selected collected' [Poems: 1962–1978]. It may be a little dismaying to find a poet under 40 devoting more time to tidying the drawers of his wardrobe than to adding new garments to it, but Mahon warns us that he may revise his poems still further, in the Auden manner. Mentioning Auden acts as a reminder that he and MacNeice issued their 'Collecteds' before their fortieth birthdays, and that precocious writers may have considerable achievements to their credit while still young. Mahon certainly has, and the fastidiousness which keeps his collection short also ensures that each poem is a properly accomplished work of art.

Mahon is not a...

(The entire section is 270 words.)

Brian Donnelly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In 'Tradition and the Individual Talent,' T. S. Eliot warns against the tendency to single out and praise those aspects of a writer's work 'in which he least resembles anyone else', adding that 'the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously'. This dictum is relevant in the case of Derek Mahon whose new collection, Poems 1962–1978, includes most of his previously collected work, as well as some twenty-three new poems, most of which are printed in the latter part of the book.

Many of the poems assert the immortality of MacNiece and Auden and reveal the powerful presence of Samuel Beckett. The influence of...

(The entire section is 843 words.)

Jack Holland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Since the mid-1960s, several Northern Irish poets have made their presence felt in the English literary world. The most praised, Seamus Heaney, has been hailed by some critics as a major poet—the most important since William Butler Yeats. There is now a growing interest in his work in America. Like Heaney, Derek Mahon has established himself in England as a considerable talent. His three volumes of poems have now been gathered into Poems 1962–1978, which will serve as a good introduction to his work for American readers.

There they will find a poetry that is poised, scrupulous and reserved. Irony is generally on hand to prevent escape into confessional self-indulgence. Like all good Irish...

(The entire section is 462 words.)

Andrew Motion

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Two years ago Derek Mahon published what he called the 'selected collected' edition of his poems. It was, he said, 'in some senses, a first book, the kind of thing you put behind you before proceeding to the real business of learning and trying to create'. Understandably, he was uncertain about what this 'real business' might produce. Apart from outlawing 'impertinent rhetoricism', he was content simply to advertise himself as being 'at last in a position to begin'. Courtyards in Delft contains the first 14 results—and it's perhaps not surprising that their concerns are strikingly similar to those of his earlier work: the Troubles, the nature of human survival, the obstinate durability of 'mute...

(The entire section is 394 words.)

John Mole

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Derek Mahon's new collection [The Hunt by Night] contains several poems good enough to place alongside his "A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford", a justly celebrated piece…. It is not only in his confident use of the familiar stanza form that Mahon can be seen as the Marvell amongst his contemporaries and compatriots. He is a truly witty writer, and his recent work reminds me of T. S. Eliot's observation that all too often one is confronted by "serious poets who seem afraid of acquiring wit lest they lose intensity." That this is a genuine risk is illustrated by numerous, honourable present-day poets, but in Mahon's case what Eliot calls "wit's internal equilibrium" is immediately evident. Whereas there has always...

(The entire section is 251 words.)