Derek Mahon Mahon, Derek (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Derek Mahon 1941-

Irish poet, playwright, and journalist. See also Derek Mahon Literary Criticism.

Derek Mahon's poetry expresses the feelings of exile and the oppressiveness of history that characterize the modern individual. His is a pessimism that sees great beauty in mundane aspects of life—a frying pan, mushrooms, cigarettes—but despairs at their impermanence and eventual meaninglessness. Part of Mahon's art, however, has been to apply exceptional technical ability and light humor to these weighty themes. Mahon made his reputation as one of several young authors constituting a renaissance in the literature of Northern Ireland, but he has not identified himself with Ireland as closely as some of his contemporaries have; instead, Mahon has most often written as an outsider and observer, and in doing so has developed an original poetic voice that eschews provincialism and explores the role of the artist in a larger world.

Biographical Information

Mahon was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1941, and was raised in Glengormley, County Antrim. He attended school at the Protestant-run Royal Belfast Academical Institution from 1953 to 1960 and graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1965 with a degree in French, haven taken a year of his college education to study at the Sorbonne. While in Dublin Mahon met many present and future Irish authors, including Michael Longley, John Montague, and Louis MacNeice. Like Longley, Mahon received the Eric Gregory Award for poets under 30 in 1965. After leaving Trinity he traveled through North America and Europe, then published his first book of poetry, Twelve Poems (1967), and held posts teaching English in Toronto, Belfast, and Dublin.

During the 1970s Mahon established himself as a journalist in London, providing book and theater reviews for several prominent publications, including the Observer, the Listener, the New Statesman, and the Times Literary Supplement. He also launched a short-lived literary magazine in 1970, Atlantis, along with Seamus Deane and W. J. McCormack. In 1974 he took a post as features editor for Vogue. During these years he also published several of his important early works, including Night Crossing (1968), Ecclesiastes (1969), Beyond Howth Head (1970), Lives (1972), and The Snow Party (1975). The last of these includes his most anthologized poem, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford.” By the mid-1970s Mahon was well known as a poet; in 1977 he accepted a post as writer-in-residence at the New University of Ulster, Coleraine, County Derry, in Northern Ireland. While there he published a collection of poems with Seamus Heaney, his own The Sea in Winter (1979), and an early collected works, Poems 1962-1978 (1979).

In 1979 Mahon left Ulster, vowing never to live in Northern Ireland again. He went to London to work for the BBC developing features, including screen adaptations of Irish novels, and later worked for Radio 3 writing profiles, in order to earn money to support his writing career. He renewed his relationship with the New Statesman in 1981, taking the post of poetry and fiction editor. That year he also published the well-known poem Courtyards in Delft, and then produced his first translation, Gérard de Nerval's The Chimeras (1982). He followed these with The Hunt by Night (1982), which like Courtyards in Delft reflects Mahon's interest in the visual arts.

In the 1980s Mahon produced the first of his verse adaptations of plays by Continental writers when he reworked two plays by Molière: the first, High Times (1985), is a version of the French playwright's School for Husbands; the second is a rendering of School for Wives (1986). In 1986 he began a weekly book column for the Irish Times, which ran through 1989. Mahon was awarded the Scott-Manriet Prize in 1987 for his edition of Philippe Jaccottet's Selected Poems, and in 1990 he received the Lannon Literary Award for Poetry; the following year he published a celebrated edition of his Selected Poems, which won the Irish Times' Literature Award for Poetry. In 1995 he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.

Throughout his career Mahon has served as a visiting professor of writing, at institutions including Trinity College, the Cooper Union, New York University, the University of East Anglia, and Barnard College. He has been widely recognized for his accomplishments in literature, and a 1999 survey in the Irish Times ranked him one of the ten most important Irish writers of all time. His recent works include Birds (2002), a translation of Saint-John Perse's Oiseaux, and an adaptation of Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac (2004). Mahon is divorced with two children, and lives in Dublin.

Major Poetic Works

Central themes in Mahon's poetry include exile, art, and modern culture. Mahon addresses his own alienation from his homeland throughout his works, as in “Afterlives” from The Snow Party, where the poem's speaker returns to Belfast and finds it unfamiliar, or in “Rage for Order,” from Lives, where he describes the poet as “far from his people” and too distanced from the everyday violence of Irish politics to comprehend it. While Mahon's depictions of the artist's separation from society tends toward the self-condemning, he writes more sympathetically about other exiles, unwilling outcasts who have been ignored or excluded from the larger community. Poems from Lives and The Hunt by Night are among those which seek to give voice to the voiceless and forgotten. Mahon has adopted the personas of Vincent Van Gogh, the Roman poet Ovid, Norwegian novelist Knut Hamson (who was disgraced after meeting with Hitler), the eighteenth-century Gaelic poet Anthony Raftery, and Samuel Beckett's character Pozzo from Waiting for Godot to explore the thoughts and feelings of the exile, and he has voiced the plight of nameless, faceless souls struggling against violence and persecution.

Mahon's most famous evocation of the downtrodden and forgotten appears in “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” which describes the “thousand mushrooms” in the shed, finally exposed to daylight: “They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way / To do something, to speak on their behalf, / Or at least not to close the door again.” Despite this call to speak for the voiceless, Mahon's poetry most often casts doubt on the relevance of his art. In “The Sea in Winter” Mahon compares his poems to the shouts of drunks at closing time and likens them to “farts in a biscuit tin.” Similarly, in his poems about the visual arts he admires the skill of the artist—Pieter de Hooch in “Courtyards in Delft,” Edvard Munch in “Girls on the Bridge,” and Paolo Uccello in “The Hunt by Night”—but suggests that the very beauty of the artwork is deceptive, failing to account for the suffering and brutality that is a constant in human life.

Particularly in his later poetry, Mahon's characteristic attention to detail focuses on the minutia of popular culture. “The Hudson Letter” (a verse letter in the collection The Hudson Letter, 1995) reflects on life in New York City, focusing on graffiti, television shows, cigarette ads, and other samplings of a cluttered cultural landscape. The Yellow Book, the 1997 follow-up to The Hudson Letter, takes a more global view of postmodern culture, drawing from sex scandals in the British tabloids, the worldwide spread of McDonalds and Disney, and violent computer games to depict a world that has embraced conformity and sensationalism, while pushing aside genuine feeling—and, Mahon suggests, genuine art.

Critical Reception

Mahon is generally regarded as one of Ireland's leading poets, with a career that emerged during an intense flowering of literary activity in Northern Ireland. He formed his reputation early on, publishing in the school paper at Royal Belfast Academical Institution and later at Trinity College. By the time he published his first book of poetry, he was widely admired in the literary community as a unique and important voice. The success of The Snow Party established him as a one of the leading poetic voices of Northern Ireland, and perhaps of all Britain. As early as 1979 Brian Donnelly proposed Mahon as the heir of W. H. Auden, suggesting the extent to which Mahon had impressed both readers and scholars of poetry. Even in his later verse, John Redmond has noted, the connection to Auden is apparent.

Auden is only one of the poets frequently identified with Mahon, however. Many critics cite Louis MacNeice as Mahon's most immediate predecessor and most significant influence. Dillon Johnston has seen in Mahon a substantial debt to MacNeice, and Peter McDonald has suggested that Mahon and his peer Michael Longley are the poets who have taken up MacNeice's mantle, not merely as Irish writers, but as authors concerned with history, the future, and the potential of art to last. Critics have also written about Mahon's relationship to poets as varied as the eighteenth-century master of the heroic couplet, Alexander Pope, American Hart Crane, fellow Irishman Seamus Heaney, and the authors he has translated, including Jaccottet and Nerval.

Although critics have routinely admired Mahon's technical skill, few have discussed it at length, beyond remarking on its uniqueness and brilliance. More often, commentators have focused on thematic issues in the poems. Throughout his writing career Mahon's thematic interests have been fairly consistent, but his ambivalent treatment of them has resulted in varying interpretations of his work. Some scholars have found Mahon entirely pessimistic, even cynical, but a few have argued for the presence of hope in the poems. Kathleen Mullaney has suggested that instances of silence in Mahon's poetry could represent the potential for peace, and John Byrne has proposed that the very ambivalence Mahon writes about leaves open the possibility for positive change.

Mahon's status as an Irish poet has also been a frequent subject of discussion. Most critics have noted that Mahon has self-consciously distanced himself from Ireland, embracing poets of many nationalities as influences and making the international city of New York his home base for many years. Tim Kendall has read in Mahon's work a rejection of his Irish roots; David Williams has written that Mahon himself questions whether an objective distance might disguise callous indifference toward the violence of Northern Ireland. On the other hand, it may be, as Robert Taylor has concluded, that Mahon's attempts to distance himself from Ireland have allowed him to write about his homeland with more compassion than he might have otherwise.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Design for a Grecian Urn 1967

Twelve Poems 1967

Night Crossing 1968

Ecclesiastes 1969

Beyond Howth Head 1970

Lives 1972

The Snow Party 1975

In Their Element: A Selection of Poems [with Seamus Heaney] 1977

Light Music 1977

Poems 1962-1978 1979

The Sea in Winter 1979

Courtyards in Delft 1981

The Chimeras [translator; from Gérard de Nerval's poetry collection Les Chimères] 1982

The Hunt by...

(The entire section is 164 words.)

Brian Donnelly (essay date February 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Donnelly, Brian. “The Poetry of Derek Mahon.” English Studies 60, no. 1 (February 1979): 23-34.

[In the following essay, Donnelly suggests that Mahon's poetic talent lies in his ability to merge lightness with serious subjects and technical and formal brilliance. Donnelly emphasizes Mahon's strong control of his poetic voice and skillful use of verse forms, rhyme, pacing, and the sound of the language.]

With three published volumes of poetry behind him—Night-Crossing (1968), Lives (1972), The Snow Party (1975)1—Derek Mahon has now clearly emerged as one of the most talented of the present generation of Northern Ireland...

(The entire section is 4896 words.)

Dillon Johnston (essay date December 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Johnston, Dillon. “Unaccommodated Mahon: An Ulster Poet.” The Hollins Critic 17, no. 5 (December 1980): 1-16.

[In the following essay, Johnston looks at the tension between art and history in Mahon's poetry, focusing on the poems from Poems 1962-1978. Johnston also considers Mahon's relationships with previous authors, through allusion, indirect homage, and influence.]


If we concede that Derek Mahon does not fit squarely into the Irish poetic tradition, we may establish the idea that this tradition is multilateral. The facts that this young Belfast poet has lived outside of Ireland during most of the last decade and that he...

(The entire section is 5098 words.)

Adrian Frazier (essay date winter 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Frazier, Adrian. “Proper Portion: Derek Mahon's The Hunt by Night.Eire-Ireland 18, no. 4 (winter 1983): 136-43.

[In the following essay, Frazier suggests that The Hunt by Night reflects a change in Mahon's work, away from regionalism, and away from attention-seeking tricks of poetic form and style.]

In a review of Derek Mahon's Poems 1962-1978 (Spring 1981), Arthur McGuinness concluded that the poet's work had undergone an “overall change in theme and tone” as a result of the revision of old poems and the addition of new ones. Instead of writing about the despair of cities, Mahon was turning toward the curative comforts of the...

(The entire section is 3696 words.)

David E. Williams (essay date September 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Williams, David E. “The Poetry of Derek Mahon.” The Journal of Irish Literature 13, no. 2 (September 1984): 88-99.

[In the following essay, Williams describes Mahon's affinity for the perspective of the exile or outcast as one of the great strengths of his poetry. Williams also considers Mahon's stance towards the violence of Northern Ireland and the fine line between objectivity and indifference in the position of the outsider.]

In Derek Mahon's great poem “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” by a wonderfully managed transition, the “thousand mushrooms” growing within an abandoned and burnt-out hotel in Ireland are gradually transformed into the...

(The entire section is 4116 words.)

Robert Taylor (essay date autumn 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Taylor, Robert. “Derek Mahon: The Lute and the Stars.” The Massachusetts Review (autumn 1987): 387-92.

[In the following essay, Taylor addresses Mahon's relation to Ireland, suggesting that Mahon's position as detached artist allows him to revisit the realities of past and current strife with greater empathy and creativity.]

I am the widower—dim, disconsolate—
The Aquitainian prince in the ruined tower.
My star is dead, my constellated lute
Emblazoned with the black sun of despair.

Thus Derek Mahon translates the opening of Gerard de Nerval's haunting 1854 sonnet, “El Desdichado,” from Les Chimères. The poem, an exalted...

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Joris Duytschaever (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Duytschaever, Joris. “History in the Poetry of Derek Mahon.” In History and Violence in Anglo-Irish Literature, edited by Joris Duytschaever and Geert Lernout, pp. 97-110. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988.

[In the following essay, Duytschaever applies Walter Benjamin's literary theory to Mahon's poetry and his attitude toward history. Duytschaever sees in both Benjamin and Mahon an ambivalence toward history and the transcendence of art.]

Although Derek Mahon has been rising toward major status during the last decade both as a poet and as a translator, his relatively small poetic output still deserves a wider international audience. Critical attention has not...

(The entire section is 5413 words.)

Kathleen Mullaney (essay date September 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Mullaney, Kathleen. “A Poetics of Silence: Derek Mahon ‘At One Remove.’” The Journal of Irish Literature 18, no. 3 (September 1989): 45-54.

[In the following essay, Mullaney links Mahon's observations on silence to his relationship to the violence in Ireland. Mullaney reads silence as a representation of oppressed voices, as a commentary on the empty talk of political figures, and as an optimistic indication of the potential to return to peace.]

This is at one remove, a substitute for final answers. …

Derek Mahon, “Preface to a Love Poem”

In “Man and Bird,”1 the second of four in his series entitled...

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William A. Wilson (essay date winter 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilson, William A. “A Theoptic Eye: Derek Mahon's The Hunt by Night.Eire-Ireland 25, no. 4 (winter 1990): 120-31.

[In the following essay, Wilson discusses the importance of place in Mahon's poetry. He also observes a subtle shift in Mahon's treatment of popular culture in his works, moving away from a categorical rejection of contemporary life.]

Much critical work on modern and postmodern Irish writers has rightly been founded upon the strong belief that a consideration of their Irish background is crucial to any study of their achievements. Yet this corrective to modern formalist criticism has itself been the subject of much discussion, if only...

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Bill Tinley (essay date spring-summer 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Tinley, Bill. “International Perspectives in the Poetry of Derek Mahon.” Irish University Review 21, no. 1 (spring-summer 1991): 106-17.

[In the following essay, Tinley emphasizes Mahon's connections to poets including Gérard de Nerval, Philippe Jaccottet, François Villon, Bertolt Brecht, and others to highlight the international quality of Mahon's work. Nonetheless, Tinley contends that Mahon's adaptations of European sources also reflect ambivalence about the poet's position as outsider.]

Derek Mahon has always operated outside the comfortable and comforting confines of Irish poetry. In an interview with Harriet Cooke, he has said that Irish writers...

(The entire section is 4798 words.)

Tim Kendall (essay date winter 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Kendall, Tim. “‘Leavetakings and Homecomings’: Derek Mahon's Belfast.” Eire-Ireland 29, no. 4 (winter 1994): 101-16.

[In the following essay, Kendall looks at Mahon's relation to his birthplace of Belfast, Ireland. Kendall sees in Mahon a strong rejection of Belfast and a discomfort with his connection to the city, but he argues that Mahon depends upon Belfast as the inspiration for his best work.]

Derek Mahon's reputation for being “culturally rootless,”1 inculcated with all the force of critical consensus, owes its authority to no one more than to the poet himself. Noting how his contemporary Seamus Heaney digs “deeper and deeper into...

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Catriona Clutterbuck (essay date spring-summer 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Clutterbuck, Catriona. “Elpenor's Crumbling Oar: Disconnection and Art in the Poetry of Derek Mahon.” Irish University Review 24, no. 1 (spring-summer 1994): 6-26.

[In the following essay, Clutterbuck interprets Mahon's position on the link between art and reality as negative and sometimes cynical, doubting the existence of meaning in either art or life.]

All I have is a little space, snow-dark
or glittering—never inhabited.

Derek Mahon, “Three Poems after Jaccottet”

In his poetry Derek Mahon is preoccupied with the disconnections between surface and subterranean realities and the exploration of these rifts for the act...

(The entire section is 7756 words.)

Terence Brown (essay date spring-summer 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, Terence. “Derek Mahon: The Poet and Painting.” Irish University Review 24, no. 1 (spring-summer 1994): 38-50.

[In the following essay, Brown discusses the strength of Mahon's visual observations, especially his careful attention to light. Reading several of Mahon's poems that describe works by a number of artists, Brown finds Mahon frequently meditating on the tension between the beauty of art and the brutality of life.]

Light plays a crucial part in the imaginative world of Derek Mahon's poetry. He is in fact a markedly visual poet, one who attends patiently, even contemplatively, to the look of things and especially to the way light falls on them....

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John Redmond (essay date spring-summer 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Redmond, John. “Wilful Inconsistency: Derek Mahon's Verse-Letters.” Irish University Review 24, no. 1 (spring-summer 1994): 96-116.

[In the following essay, Redmond compares Mahon's verse-letters to the work of W. H. Auden to highlight his use of a casual tone. Also drawing from Auden's essay on “Light Verse,” Redmond contends that Mahon's efforts to seem casual or self-effacing are undermined by their apparent artfulness.]

Perhaps it is surprising to say so but wilful inconsistency is the most persistent feature of Derek Mahon's verse-letters. With their fairly regular rhymes and rhythms and with their very regular eight-line stanzas one might be more...

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Peter Steele (essay date December 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Steele, Peter. “Attention to Feeling: Derek Mahon's Past.” Quadrant 41, no. 12 (December 1997): 63-70.

[In the following essay, Steele emphasizes Mahon's relationship to other poets and the role of art in his poetry.]

The jacket of Derek Mahon's selected journalism (Journalism: Selected Prose 1970-1995) carries a reproduction of William Hogarth's 1736/7 print The Distrest Poet. In this, a disarrayed poet is shown in his mouldering garret, attempting with the aid of a rhyming dictionary to write a poem on the subject of wealth. He is in a dressing-gown, since his wife is mending his only other clothes. A peremptory-looking milkmaid has just...

(The entire section is 7273 words.)

Peter McDonald (essay date spring 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: McDonald, Peter. “Louis MacNeice's Posterity.” Princeton University Library Chronicle 59, no. 3 (spring 1998): 376-97.

[In the following excerpt, McDonald notes the influence of Irish poet Louis MacNeice on Mahon's work, particularly in the themes of loneliness and alienation. He highlights the younger poet's affinity for his predecessor's resignation to the relentlessness of time and temporality.]

In his volume Visitations (1957), Louis MacNeice published the short poem “To Posterity,” in which a speaker in mid-career (MacNeice was then fifty years old) tries to look beyond the horizon of his own contemporary reception. In fact, that career was...

(The entire section is 5165 words.)

Michael O'Neill (essay date April 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Neill, Michael. “John Montague and Derek Mahon: The American Dimension.” Symbiosis 3, no. 1 (April 1999): 54-62.

[In the following essay, O'Neill examines the influence of American poetry on Mahon, citing Frank O'Hara and Hart Crane as important predecessors. O'Neill notes the importance of Mahon's outsider status in his approach to representing both place and time.]

A westward gaze can be found in the poems of many twentieth-century Irish poets as they look to American poetry and culture for imaginative confirmation and enlargement. The present essay explores the effect of this gaze on the work of two of the finest post-war Irish poets: John Montague,...

(The entire section is 3883 words.)

Christopher Bakken (essay date winter 2002)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Bakken, Christopher. “Derek Mahon and the Vocational Muse.” The Gettysburg Review 15, no. 4 (winter 2002): 637-56.

[In the following essay, Bakken reflects on Mahon's attitude toward work in his Collected Poems. Bakken sees in Mahon's verse a strong sense of irony and a critical nature, both of which Mahon often turns on himself and his art.]

A journey to the poetic realm of Derek Mahon might begin at a street in Greenwich Village, one still haunted by Dylan Thomas. We could draw a line from there to the top of Hart Crane's bridge, make the requisite pivot and dip, then sail the deep Atlantic. Arriving at last on the blessed Irish soil, we might...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Benjamin, Bret. “Dirty Politics and Dirty Protest: Resistance and the Trope of Sanitation in Northern Ireland.” Literature Interpretation Theory 10, no. 1 (1999): 63-86.

Interprets Mahon's “Courtyards in Delft” in terms of the contrast between filth and cleanliness; links those categories to various communities in Ireland.

Byrne, John. “Derek Mahon: A Commitment to Change.” The Crane Bag 6, no. 1 (1982): 62-72.

Focuses on instances of ambivalence in Mahon's poetry, highlighting tensions between the individual, solitude, and the unique on one hand, and society, community, and the mundane on the...

(The entire section is 478 words.)