Seamus Deane Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Seamus Deane 1940–

(Full name Seamus Francis Deane) Northern Irish critic, poet, and novelist.

The following entry presents criticism of Deane's career through 1997.

Regarded as one of Ireland's leading commentators on Irish literature and culture, Deane has analyzed and interpreted "the matter of Ireland," or what constitutes "Irishness," in numerous essays and books that challenge traditional notions of the people and civilization of Ireland. Besides several volumes of poetry and a novel, Deane has produced a far-reaching body of scholarship and criticism on a variety of past and contemporary Irish writers, ranging from Jonathan Swift, W. B. Yeats, and James Joyce to Samuel Beckett, Brian Friel, and Seamus Heaney, as well as such English authors as Francis Godwin, Thomas Hardy, and Joseph Conrad. In both prose and verse he has addressed diverse themes, including Irish history and politics, the political philosophies of Edmund Burke, Charles Parnell, Montesquieu, and Voltaire, the influence of the Irish Revival and "the troubles" on Irish literature and culture, and, above all, the character of Irish identity. Deane also served as general editor of the critically acclaimed, three-volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991), which both reflects his vast knowledge of Irish literature and represents a keystone for Irish literary studies.

Biographical Information

Born the son of an electrician in Derry, (short for Londonderry), Northern Ireland, Deane received his secondary education at St. Columb's College. He took his bachelor's degree in 1961 and his master's degree in 1963 from Queen's University in Belfast and his finished his doctoral work from Cambridge University in 1966. Upon completing his studies, Deane taught English literature for two years in the United States at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and at the University of California in Berkeley. He returned to Ireland just before "the troubles" erupted in October, 1968, and lectured at University College in Dublin from 1968 to 1980, when he became a professor of modern English and American literature there. In 1972, Deane published his first poetry collection, Gradual Wars, which won the A. E. Memorial Prize for Poetry. Following the publication of his next volume of verse, Rumours (1975), he taught again at American universities during the late 1970s. In 1980, Deane helped convene Field Day, a loosely organized group of Northern Irish writers and actors, mostly from his hometown, who staged new plays across Ireland and independently published pamphlets on Irish cultural themes, including his own Civilians and Barbarians (1983) and Heroic Styles (1984). After his third collection of poems, History Lessons, appeared in 1985, Deane focused his writing on scholarly interests, publishing the essay collections Celtic Revivals (1985) and A Short History of Irish Literature (1986) and the sociopolitical study The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England (1988). During the early 1990s he edited the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991) as well as a six-volume edition of Joyce's works for the Penguin Twentieth Century Classics series. Since 1993, when he left University College, Deane has taught Irish studies at the University of Notre Dame in the United States and published his first novel, Reading in the Dark (1995), which was nominated for the Booker Prize in England. Deane also has compiled a series of lectures delivered in 1995 in Strange Country (1997).

Major Works

Reflecting his circumstances and experiences in strife-torn Derry, Deane's lyric poetry concerns the historical sources and often bloody consequences of violence and investigates the ways that memory and tradition both pervert and rejuvenate communal values. The poems of Gradual Wars dramatize the effects of sectarian violence, tracing how divisive cultural attitudes shape personal identity and impede social expressions of emotion. Rumours contains reminiscences about the poet's childhood, his relationship with his father, and his wartime and vocational experiences, most notably in the poems "Scholar I" and "Scholar II," which focus on the relation between life and literature. Expanding the themes of his earlier verse, History Lessons articulates the pursuit of relief from the burden of history and its attendant bloodshed, drawing connections between personal memories of violence, the situation in contemporary Northern Ireland, and the shadowy forces that influence the history of humanity. Deane's prose works comprise the bulk of his writings. Evincing revisionist perspectives, his numerous scholarly essays frequently examine traditional and stereotypical literary representations of Irish cultural history and national identity, suggesting the significance of Ireland's status as a colonized nation. In such early pieces as "The Literary Myths of the Revival" (1977; reprinted in Celtic Revivals), Civilians and Barbarians, and Heroic Styles, Deane traced the origins of these preconceptions to the attitudes espoused by both English colonizers and the natives themselves toward "the matter of Ireland." The essays collected in Celtic Revivals and A Short History of Irish Lierature, as well as the selections and prefatory essays of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Literature, stress a relationship between Irish political history and the evolution of its literature in terms of Ireland's colonial status, often rewriting customary views of Irish writers and myths. The French Enlightenment and Revolution in England and Strange Country extend Deane's revisionism toward political events that more generally affected continental Europe than Ireland, including such developments as the rise of nationalism and imperialism as well as the ideology of progressive modernism. Reading in the Dark is an Irish Bildungsroman set in Derry in the 1940s and 1950s. Loosely autobiographical, Deane's only novel follows the maturation of an unnamed boy as he unravels a mysterious secret that haunts his mother, gradually learning of his grandfather's role in the rumored disappearance of his uncle in 1922.

Critical Reception

Although Deane's poetic skills have elicited a generally favorable response from commentators, his critical acumen has earned him the respect of fellow critics and scholars. As Eamon Hughes says: "Deane, it goes without saying, is a powerful and shrewd critic with whom it is at times a pleasure to agree, and an equal pleasure to disagree when in the face of his persuasive power one is forced to rethink." Despite a few detractors, many critics value Deane's cultural criticism for attempting to clarify the attributes of Irish national identity. Most critics, though not entirely in agreement with his choices, point to his editorial efforts in compiling the Field Day Anthology as his most accomplished achievement. John Byrne asserts that the collection "is clearly destined to become the standard text for all Irish Literature courses in American colleges for years to come." However, Deane's fiction also has attracted considerable interest, particularly for the way the specific characters, themes, and events of his novel evoke the universal conditions of life in Northern Ireland, yet at the same time resonate with qualities that define Ireland in general. "Deane is persuaded that being Irish is a very specific way of being human, one that permits the determined to have the last laugh, no matter who the joke is on," states Edward Conlon. "For him the question is less whether Ireland will ever be free than whether the Irish will be free of Ireland, with its violent hopes and seductive griefs."