Seamus Deane Criticism - Essay

Douglas Dunn (review date December 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Specked Hill, The Plover's Shore," in Encounter, Vol. XLI, No. 6, December, 1973, pp. 70-76.

[In the following excerpt, Dunn identifies the consequences of violence as the principal theme of Gradual Wars, noting the effect of the collection's artificial tone on its themes.]

Seamus Deane avoids superficial negations [in Gradual Wars], either in favour of the kind of specifics Simmons finds "boring"—

The unemployment in our bones
Erupting on our hands in stones

or, more rewardingly, in favour of complex ironies and ambiguities. He frequently toys...

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Gavin Ewart (review date 25 November 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Accepting the Inevitable," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3948, November 25, 1977, p. 1381.

[In the following excerpt, Ewart assesses the themes, poetic diction, and imagery of Rumours.]

Rumours is Seamus Deane's second book. The simplicity of the equivalents invoked (Governmental kindness=school milk=cold, inhuman) marks it as not very sophisticated—though none the worse for that. He uses the unrhymed lyric mostly but also, not quite so successful, the spasmodically rhyming lyric. Poems about his relationship with his father ("The Birthday Gift" for example) are some of the best. The language is apt but sometimes on the edge of rhetoric ("Little phoenix. The cold ash / Of your feathers holds no spark / On which I may breathe") and sometimes almost over the edge ("And came into the light their grooms / Blood-stained from their honeymoons"). Potent images are within his grasp—"The steeple of slamming iron let fall / Delicate ikons of tinkling glass" (church bells); but sometimes he may be writing more wisely and more glibly than his experience entitles him to ("Piety and rage / Change their ratios with age") and sometimes the rhymes force archaic words on him (ruth/truth). Poetic diction still lurks in the background ("Their world was as a cloud"). "A Fable", about Belfast's sectarian violence, is a tale confused in the telling—the dead body of what could have been a good poem.

These are faults, but there are some faultless poems, within their limits highly satisfying: "The Brethren" (rhymed memories of childhood), "Shelter" (wartime reminiscence), "Scholar I", "Scholar II" (life and lit), "Signals" (a love poem), and "Watching. It Come" (life and love, an excellent stoical rhymed lyric). The book, as a whole hints at even better poems on the way.

J. T. Keefe (review date Autumn 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of History Lessons, in World Literature Today, Vol. 58, No. 4, Autumn, 1984, p. 608.

[In the following review, Keefe focuses on the emergence of a distinct persona in the poems of History Lessons.]

Seamus Deane is a distinguished member of a literary movement that has emerged from the North of Ireland and has the "Troubles" of the last few decades as its mainspring. His third book of poems, History Lessons, continues the poet's quest for an answer to the intolerable burden of history and the bloody explosions it fuels. The poems are wrought with tension and a nervosity that in the personal lyrics occasionally tend to overwhelm that fragile form. In "Breaking Wood," however, there is an autumnal resignation as the poem moves serenely and surely to a memorable conclusion.

Two poems in an assured and commanding voice stand out as examples of a direction Deane is creatively pursuing. The dramatic content of both hints at a dramatic persona the poet has hitherto not allowed full play. "Christmas at Beaconsfield" is an impressive and clever dramatic evocation needing only, perhaps, the actual presence of the poet himself—as a character, ghost, observer—rather than a distancing of himself with "imagining …" and "almost certainly…." Dramatic command is at the center of the poetic force of "Directions." In these poems we can detect the poet discarding tentativeness for a firm intention of moving to center stage.

Conor Cruise O'Brien (review date 18 August 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cult of Blood," in The Observer Review, August 18, 1985, p. 18.

[In the following review, O'Brien addresses certain nuances of Irish politics, nationalism, and revisionism examined in Celtic Revivals.]

The modern writers examined in these essays [Celtic Revivals] are Joyce, Yeats, Synge, O'Casey, Patrick Pearse, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague, Brian Friel, Derek Mahon and Seamus Heaney.

At his best, and especially when contemporary politics don't come into play, Mr Deane is a very good critic. Most of his essays are illuminating in one way or another—though sometimes verging on the precious or the pompous, and...

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Patricia Craig (review date 5 September 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Valorising Valentine Brown," in London Review of Books, Vol. 7, No. 15, September 5, 1985, pp. 10-11.

[In the following review, Craig favorably compares Celtic Revivals to contemporaneous cultural critiques of literary constructions of "Anglo-Irishness."]

In a recent Times article, Philip Howard pounced on the deplorable word 'valorisation' which seems to be trying to edge its way into the English language. 'To enhance the price, value or status of by organised … action' is one of the meanings he quotes for it. Here is an example of one such usage: 'the literary critics' valorisation of tradition'. This phrase occurs towards the end of W. J....

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Patrick Parrinder (review date 24 July 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Celtic Revisionism," in London Review of Books, Vol. 8, No. 13, July 24, 1986, pp. 16-17.

[In the following excerpt, Parrinder delineates Irish cultural history as defined in A Short History of Literature, deconstructing Deane's bias against Irish national mythology.]

[What] today can we mean by 'English' literature? Seamus Deane begins his Short History of Irish Literature by asserting that the term 'Anglo-Irish' for the body of writing with which he is concerned is now anachronistic. Deane here is lending powerful support to the modern tendency to appeal to national divisions, rather than language divisions, in defining a literature. Such a...

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Tom Halpin (review date Fall 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Razors of Perception," in Irish Literary Supplement, Vol. 8, No. 2, Fall, 1989, p. 20.

[In the following review, Halpin provides an overview of Selected Poems, outlining the general characteristics of Deane's poetry.]

In the course of an interview several years ago, Thomas Kinsella was challenged to assert the value of the artistic act, conditioned as it is both by the inevitable limitations of the artist as a human being and by the apparently unrestructurable nature of reality itself, its random disorder and dispiriting contingency. Kinsella's reply was clear: "If an artistic response is called into existence, that itself modifies the situation....

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Alan Ryan (review date 9 November 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Effervescence," in London Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 21, November 9, 1989, pp. 10-11.

[In the following excerpt, Ryan examines the main arguments of The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England, emphasizing the ways in which British writers explored the British political character through their preoccupation with the French national character at the turn of the eighteenth century.]

The view expressed by Monied Interest in Dickens's story 'The Flight' might have made an epigraph for Seamus Deane's The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England. It was Monied Interest who declared that it was 'quite enough for him that the French are...

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Hugh Kenner (review date 26 January 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "There's Music in the Ould Sod Yet," in The New York Times Book Review, January 26, 1992, pp. 3, 23.

[In the following review, Kenner outlines the contents of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, assessing its strengths and weaknesses.]

At four times the word count of the King James Bible, the new three-volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing makes an Irish Statement: We've been here from Time's Beginning, and we're silver-tongued. What else it states is harder to paraphrase, so tangled has been the long Irish story of co-opting some past to serve some present end.

Cu Chulainn for instance, a noted skull-basher; the way...

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Anne Devlin (review date 25 August 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Growing Up in Ireland's Shadowlands," in The Observer Review, August 25, 1996, p. 17.

[In the following review, Devlin evaluates the narrative structure and style of Reading in the Dark, indicating the relation between stories and reality.]

From the moment on the opening page of Reading in the Dark when the boy is stopped on the stairs by his mother, because a shadow has fallen between them, I was disarmed, though I had to wait 134 pages until the shadow surfaced again in its original context, in the tale 'Mother', before I understood that it was never possible to go straight at this thing that has fallen between them.

I am of...

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Terry Eagleton (review date 30 August 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Bogside Bard," in New Statesman, Vol. 125, No. 4299, August 30, 1996, p. 46.

[In the following review, Eagleton concentrates on the public appeal of Deane's fictional rendering of personal memories in Reading in the Dark.]

A colonial culture is a culture of secrecy. Seamus Deane's superb first novel [Reading in the Dark], set in the Derry Bogside of the 1940s and 1950s, is all about who knows what in a place awash with rumours, hauntings, metamorphoses and misinformation. People and things materialise and evaporate, mysteriously change shape or sex, cocoon themselves and others in ever thicker layers of deception. It is a world as materialist as...

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Julia O'Faolain (review date 27 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Boy Who Wanted to Know," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4878, September 27, 1996, p. 22.

[In the following review, O'Faolain identifies the narrative value of folktales in Reading in the Dark as compromising the novel's realism.]

This first novel by the poet Seamus Deane has the focused compression of poetry. Short sections—lots of white paper here—present carefully chosen incidents whose meanings expand into complexity as the narrative gathers momentum.

Reading in the Dark is, on one level, an optimistic tale. As an Irish Bildungsroman, confronting familiar hurdles, it follows a Catholic Derry boy through his...

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Derek Hand (review date Spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Endless Possibilities of Ordinary Life," in Irish Literary Supplement, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 19-20.

[In the following review, Hand connects the narrative perspective of Reading in the Dark to aspects of Deane's critical career.]

It is inevitable that a first novel by an author with a well established academic and critical career will be approached—certainly by other critics and academics—with the lumbering baggage of various expectations and preconceptions of what will be found there. This is very much so with Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark. One reason for this is that the novel has been a long time coming—in a...

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Josephine Humphreys (review date 4 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ghosts," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 102, May 4, 1997, p. 6.

[In the following review, Humphreys summarizes the theme and plot of Reading in the Dark, praising the characterizations and "animated" descriptions of inanimate objects.]

Two memories rise, ominous as thunder on a clear day, in the opening pages of this first novel by the poet Seamus Deane. The narrator, an unnamed young man looking back on his childhood in Northern Ireland, remembers climbing the stair when he was 5. His mother had just started down, and they were about to meet on the landing when suddenly she said. "Don't move." He could see nothing between them except the...

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Richard Eder (review date 11 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ghost Story," in Los Angeles Times, May 11, 1997, p. 2.

[In the following review, Eder comments on the function of family secrets in Reading in the Dark, highlighting the thematic significance of pivotal scenes.]

It begins, puzzlingly, with a series of disconnected childhood memories from the 1940s in Derry, in Northern Ireland. The little boy's mother senses an invisible presence on the stair's landing and sobs inconsolably. An aunt tells a terribly frightening ghost story of a brother and a sister who drive their nanny mad by exchanging features—hair, eyes, smile, even gender—with each other.

The kindly, mournful father, a...

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Robert Boyers (review date 19 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Identity and Diffidence," in The New Republic, Vol. 216, No. 20, May 19, 1997, pp. 33-6.

[In the following review, Boyers traces the development of betrayal as the central theme of Reading in the Dark, explicating narrative implications about the political character of Northern Ireland.]

Irish history is bad history. So says one character in Seamus Deane's first novel [Reading in the Dark], and no other character in the novel seems much inclined to deny it. In a land of "small places," as it is described here, people have too often made "big mistakes." They lie to themselves and to one another. They rely on old certainties when they might better...

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Thomas McGonigle (review date 8 June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Two Novels Look at Life in Northern Ireland," in Chicago Tribune Books, June 8, 1997, p. 8.

[In the following review, McGonigle commends the narration of Reading in the Dark.]

The North, Northern Ireland, Ulster, The Six Counties. How you name that part of Ireland that is part of the United Kingdom reveals your politics, religion and attitude toward what has been going on there since 1968 and, of course, how you think about the 800-year entanglement of Ireland and England.

There is no neutrality when it comes to this situation, and if I write about Seamus Deane's autobiographically driven novel, Reading in the Dark, as being a...

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Edward Conlon (review date 8 September 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Violent Griefs and Seductive Hopes," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXX, No. 14, September 8, 1997, pp. 16-17.

[In the following review, Conlon compares the autobiographical elements of Reading in the Dark to those of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, finding Deane's novel representative of a more general Irish identity than McCourt's.]

The word "mystery" derives from a Greek term for someone who kept his mouth shut: an initiate into the sacred rites and transcendent experiences of the ancient world. To outsiders, such individuals were distinguished by their refusal to speak of their secrets. So a mystery became what we don't understand, whether in the...

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Eamon Hughes (review date Fall 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tradition and Modernity," in Irish Literary Supplement, Vol. 16, No. 2, Fall, 1997, p. 21.

[In the following review, Hughes addresses the ambiguities he finds in Deane's definition of modernity in Strange Country.]

Taking Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France as his "foundational text," Seamus Deane examines the "contrast and contest between tradition and modernity" which extends through and beyond the Irish nineteenth century. This discourse appears in a number of oppositional pairings—culture and economics, the national and the rational, speech and print, Ireland and England—and issues in the nineteenth century in "a narrative of...

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Tom Deignan (review date 11 October 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Reading in the Dark, in America, Vol. 177, No. 10, October 11, 1997, p. 28.

[In the following review, Deignan considers the thematic relations of the title of Reading in the Dark, noting the influence of Deane's poetic skills on his narrative technique.]

Set in post-World War II Northern Ireland, Seamus Deane's debut novel, Reading in the Dark is a panoramic story of—what else?—family ties and political trauma. But more unusual than the novel's subject matter is the talent Deane, a Notre Dame professor and Derry native, brings to his task. Narrated by a nameless boy-turned-man, Reading in the Dark moves seamlessly...

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Thomas Flanagan (review date 23 October 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Family Secrets," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIV, No. 16, October 23, 1997, pp. 54-5.

[In the following review, Flanagan establishes the literary and cultural contexts of Reading in the Dark, comparing the novel to James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and providing a historical background to Derry and its environs.]

On the stairs, there was a clear, plain silence.

It was a short staircase, fourteen steps in all, covered in lino from which the original pattern had been polished away to the point where it had the look of a faint memory. Eleven steps took you to the turn of the...

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