The author of this complex book has been professor of Modern English and American Literature at University College, Dublin, and in 1981 was appointed to the Henry James Chair of English and American Letters at New York University. An internationally renowned literary critic and teacher, he has produced, either as author or editor, eighteen favorably received academic works, ranging in interest from Jonathan Swift through modern verse drama (The Inner Voice, 1959) to a dissection of contemporary literary theory (Ferocious Alphabets, 1981). Donoghue is perhaps best known for his critical readings of modern poetry, particularly that of T. S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats. Equipped with a formidable range of learning and an incisive prose style, his name stands with those of Hugh Kenner and Frank Kermode as being synonymous with such distinguishing features of postwar critical activity at the academic level as the internationalization of the range of critical inquiry and the corresponding enlargement of the critic’s ambit. In addition, Donoghue is the first Irish literary critic to attain widespread recognition outside his own country, an achievement emblematic of Ireland’s increasingly prominent membership in the international cultural community.
In a number of respects, however, Warrenpoint is far from being the book the reader might expect. It is not a reconstruction of the author’s childhood in the Northern Irish market town that gives the work its name. On the other hand, Warrenpoint is not an account of how the author left his native place and rose to eminence in the academic world, a narrative spiced with revealing insights of the international intelligentsia. The work is unconventional in a number of ways. Although firmly anchored in the author’s boyhood, and in his relationship with his father, it is not a straightforward narrative. Parallel to the impressionistic recollections of the author’s growing up, and carrying more obvious weight than them, are gleanings from the mature adult intellectual’s capacious mind. These gleanings typically succeed episodes recollected from the past and have the effect of interrogating these episodes, or rather—in the manner of the professional critic—questioning and challenging the possibility that meaning inheres in them and that identity may be established on the basis of such meaning.
In a sense, therefore, like many great autobiographical texts (citations from both Saint Augustine’s and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s confessions, as well as from William Wordsworth’sThe Prelude [1850), are made with due deliberation), Warrenpoint is a philosophical disquisition on the nature and object of its confessional activity, and is more philosophical in its overall interests and tendencies than it is affective or reconstructive. Warrenpoint should not be regarded as a companion piece to its illustrious avatars, however, being deliberately limited in scope and lacking originality of thought. It does read, however, as if one of the author’s strong impulses were to subsume his particular experiences in some less fragile framework than the context in which they occurred. Hardly an experience is rendered or a thought entertained without invoking some dictum or exemplum from the canon of Western thought. Poets on whom Donoghue has written persuasively elsewhere (Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Yeats, for example) have some of their thought and work analyzed—in particular, there are some brilliant pages on Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943). Philosophers as heterogeneous as G. W. Leibniz, Walter Benjamin, and Emmanuel Levinas are availed of intermittently, and the same is true of certain literary critics, Kenneth Burke and William Empson being the clearest cases in point. In Warrenpoint, the intellectual atmosphere is bracing.
The danger that this atmosphere may prove suffocating to the raw material of the author’s boyhood is not altogether avoided. This danger is compounded by a desire on Donoghue’s part to see his childhood as not particularly exceptional. He is clear that it was distinctive, but he emphasizes its conformism and security with a firmness that borders on the ideological. Such an emphasis is perhaps inevitable, given the circumstances in which Donoghue grew up. Warrenpoint is a typical provincial town in Northern Ireland, by which is meant that its Protestant population, in addition to being in the majority, was culturally and socially in the ascendant, producing conditions of what might be described as moral apartheid for its Catholic fellow-citizens. This state of affairs was particularly true of the years of Donoghue’s childhood, when the Northern Irish state—established by the Government of Ireland Act, 1920—had consolidated its effectively unchallenged authority in the name of Protestantism and loyalty to the British crown.
Background information of this kind—much of it provided in Warrenpoint, though, typical of the book’s stimulating, idiosyncratic organization, toward the end—is essential, since the Donoghue family had a high degree of visibility in the local community. The author’s father was sergeant of the local police, a rare appointment for a Catholic, and rarer still for somebody born in the South of Ireland. No childhood could be...
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