While Irish literary culture is not particularly noted for its literary criticism, it has produced in Denis Donoghue, holder of the Henry James Chair of Letters at New York University, a critic who is among the most prolific, versatile, and articulate of his generation.
Donoghue’s rise to the top flight of contemporary literary commentators contains a number of noteworthy features. His early claim to international attention was based on his work on several of the canonical figures of modernist poetry, notably W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens. In addition to consolidating his authoritative grasp of these poets, Donoghue has gone on to do more broadly conceived speculative work on aesthetic theory, culminating in a useful survey of trends in contemporary literary theory, Ferocious Alphabets (1981). At the same time, moreover, his name has become very familiar to readers of the English-speaking world’s most prestigious periodicals. His illustrious academic career has been conducted in tandem with an extremely productive life as a reviewer of an enviably wide cross-section of contemporary works of art, criticism, and scholarship.
For all his productivity, however, We Irish: Essays on Irish Literature and Society is Donoghue’s first book to broach matters of importance and, it could be argued, matters of urgency in his native culture. Its arrival is belated in the sense that Donoghue has not availed himself of the opportunity either to participate fully or withdraw explicitly from the active revisionist debate over the Irish literary tradition which has been going on in Dublin and elsewhere at least since the 1970’s. As may perhaps be fitting for a writer versed in the cultural idiom of R. P. Blackmur (though not in his ornate syntax), We Irish is a work in the old criticism.
The work consists of assorted essays, reviews, lectures, and papers, and it is divided into four separate parts. Parts 1 and 2 deal with the giants of modern Irish literature: W. B. Yeats and James Joyce. Part 3, entitled “Contexts,” deals with issues in contemporary Irish culture, and part 4, entitled “Occasions,” examines some of the lesser, though by no means entirely negligible, figures of the Irish Literary Revival and the generation immediately following that phenomenon; among those dealt with in this section are Samuel Beckett, J. M. Synge, and Sean O’Casey. We Irish is prefaced by the title essay, which focuses on the contemporary concerns of Irish literary culture and their relationship to the tradition of cultural debate and definition that forms such an influential part of Irish letters.
Most of the material included in We Irish has been published previously and is reprinted, as the author notes, with only minor, insignificant alterations. Readers of the foremost contemporary reviews and journals will have already had the opportunity to savor the bulk of this book. Appearing for the first time, however, in addition to the title essay, are a character study of Yeats’s mistress, Maud Gonne, and two scholarly essays, “Yeats, Ancestral Houses, and Anglo-Ireland” and “Bakhtin and Finnegans Wake.”
As those familiar with Donoghue’s oeuvre might expect, the most satisfying work in We Irish deals with Yeats. It is in the essays dealing with this lordly figure—the founding father of modern Irish literature—that the author is found to be most engaged and with his numerous intellectual virtues showing to best advantage. In the essay “Yeats: The Question of Symbolism,” for example, Donoghue shows not only his intellectual range (discoursing on Stéphane Mallarmé with the same ease with which he discusses Yeats) but also his fastidious scholarship (as when he deals authoritatively with Yeats’s friendship with the English poet and critic Arthur Symons). In addition, he reveals his capacity for speculating on aesthetic abstractions, and the essay proceeds with the fluent swiftness of a lean, often almost epigrammatic, style.
Again, in an essay on Yeats’s book of poems The Winding Stair (1933), Donoghue demonstrates his command of Yeats studies as well as how those studies can be fruitfully applied. In this essay, moreover, the author shows himself most fully in what seems to be his favorite role—judging by the number of times it is assumed in the course of We Irish—that of the exemplary reader. Not the least of the incidental interests of reading this book is that it offers a broad range of opportunities to observe the resources of this role. Donoghue frequently places himself in the position of debating given artistic strategies and choices in a particular work, testing them as much against his own intellectual training and moral imagination as against those of the artist being considered.
The Yeats section of We Irish is most important, however, because it sets the intellectual, or rather ideological, agenda for the rest of the book. It is necessary to draw...
(The entire section is 2062 words.)