Denis Donoghue is Emeritus University Professor of English and American Letters at NYU. (April 2016)

Ireland: ‘A Terrible Beauty Is Born’

Students being drilled at St. Enda’s, the school founded by Patrick Pearse, Dublin, circa 1910. The teacher leading them is probably Con Colbert, who was later executed for his part in the Easter Rising.
On the morning of Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, members of the Irish Volunteers, a nationalist military organization, and the Citizen Army, a group of trade union volunteers, numbering in all about four hundred, marched into Sackville Street—now O’Connell Street—in Dublin and seized the most notable public building, the General Post Office. Uncertain in number, they were certain in aim: to declare a sovereign Irish republic that was independent of Great Britain.

Coming in from the Cold

Jonathan Franzen has written three novels, The Twenty-seventh City (1988), Strong Motion (1992), and—his best to date—The Corrections(2001). A book of essays, How to Be Alone, was published in 2002. And now we have a memoir, a “personal history.” He has also given many interviews, some of which have been …

A Version of Pastoral

All Will Be Well is John McGahern’s account of his life, from a grim childhood to the start of his career as a novelist with the publication of The Barracks (1963) and The Dark (1965), books that established him as one of Ireland’s most prominent writers. He was born on …

Brotherhood without Fatherhood

“I am a born Catholic,” Garry Wills reports. And in addition: I have never stopped going to Mass, saying the rosary, studying the Gospels. I have never even considered leaving the church. I would lose my faith in God before losing my faith in it. That reference to the rosary …

The World Seen and Half-Seen

William Trevor is an Irish writer by birth, and I take it he considers himself an Irish writer still, although he left Ireland in 1954 and has settled in Devon. He was born in Mitchelstown, County Cork, on May 24, 1928 (but I have seen another birthday ascribed to him), …

The Fabulous Yeats Boys

On May 17, 1916, John Butler Yeats in New York wrote to his favorite daughter, Lily, in Dundrum: So Lord Justice Holmes is dead. Several years long ago he dined with me when we lived near Sandymount. A few days before I left Dublin for London in 1867 he invited …

Lives of a Poet

In November 1968 James Dickey told readers of the Atlantic Monthly that Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) was “in my opinion the greatest poet this country has yet produced.” He also took the opportunity to rebuke Beatrice Roethke for allegedly setting a limit on Allan Seager’s disclosures in The Glass House, his …

Frost: The Icon and the Man

In the middle of June 1957 Robert Frost arrived in Dublin at the end of a goodwill tour for the State Department: he had been to London, Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, and Durham. His next assignment was to receive an honorary degree from the National University of Ireland; then he was …

Lover of Lost Causes

Geoffrey Hill was born in Bromsgrove, a small market town in Worcestershire, on June 18, 1932. “If you stood at the top of the field opposite our house,” he has recalled, “you looked right across the Severn Valley to the Clee Hills and the Welsh hills very faint and far …

The Myth of W.B. Yeats

W.B. Yeats was born in Dublin on June 13, 1865, the eldest child of mismatched parents. His father, John Butler Yeats, came from an Irish Protestant middle-class family much reduced in fortune and repute: he furthered the reduction by being a barrister who did not practice at the bar, a …

The Supreme Fiction

Helen Vendler is justly admired as the author of critical studies of George Herbert, Keats, W.B. Yeats, and Wallace Stevens. Her current project is a study of Shakespeare’s sonnets. She is also the most influential reviewer of contemporary poetry in English: her reviews of new books of poetry appear frequently …

The Myths of Robert Graves

“To bring the dead to life,” according to one of Robert Graves’s poems, “is no great magic”: Few are wholly dead: Blow on a dead man’s embers And a live flame will start.[^1] Scholars have been blowing on Graves’s embers since he died in 1985. They …

The Philosopher of Selfless Love

More than a dozen books by or about the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who died at eighty-nine in December, have recently appeared in English translation. Why do so many people these days, especially literary theorists, seem to be reading the works of this once-obscure Talmudic scholar? Although he has been …

Kicking the Air

In 1957 the English social critic Richard Hoggart published The Uses of Literacy, subtitled Aspects of Working-Class Life, with Special Reference to Publications and Entertainments. His aim was to describe modern English working-class culture on the evidence of his own experience and of the materials, printed or not, devised for …

The Delirium of the Brave

Like everything else in Ireland, poetry is contentious. There is always an occasion of outrage. Two or three years ago the choice of poems in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing made women poets feel yet again neglected, suppressed. Eavan Boland was their most vigorous speaker. With notable success …

The Magic of W.B. Yeats

One afternoon in May 1911 W.B. Yeats, visiting his friend and former lover Olivia Shakespear in London, was introduced to an English girl named Bertha Georgiana Hyde-Lees. He was nearly forty-six years old, “George” a few months over eighteen. A friendship soon developed, enthusiastic on her part, warier on his.

Another Country

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the Booker Prize last year. Set on the north side of Dublin in 1966, it is the story of a ten-year-old boy, Paddy Clarke, told entirely in his voice. The events he speaks of are external. He doesn’t keep a diary or express feelings …

Joyce’s Many Lives

James Joyce died on January 13, 1941. A few months later two books on him appeared, Herbert Gorman’s James Joyce: A Definitive Biography and Harry Levin’s James Joyce: A Critical Introduction. These books served different purposes. Gorman’s was written under Joyce’s supervision: it was the latest of several books in …

The Heroism of Despair

Henry Brooks Adams was born in Boston on February 16, 1838, to the burdensome privilege of being an Adams. His great-grandfather John Adams (1735–1826) was the second president of the United States. His grandfather John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) was the sixth president. “Had he been born in Jerusalem,” Adams wrote …

Dream Work

All the Pretty Horses, which won the National Book Award for fiction in 1992, is the first volume of The Border Trilogy, and Cormac McCarthy’s sixth novel. The earlier ones are The Orchard Keeper (1965), Outer Dark (1968), Child of God (1973), Suttree (1979), and Blood Meridian or The Evening …

Bewitched, Bothered, & Bewildered

In Hawthorne & History (1991) J. Hillis Miller comments on literary theory and its status in the academy: I mean by “literary theory” the shift from the hermeneutical process of identifying the meaning of a work of literature to a focus on the question of how that meaning is generated.

Book of Books Books

The Hebrew Bible is so called because the Greek “ta biblia” means “the books.” These books were written during a period of more than a thousand years, from the thirteenth to the second century BCE (Before the Common Era). The canon of the Hebrew scriptures was established about 100 CE.

Mister Myth

Here are the final works of a major critic, product of an unusual combination of gifts and convictions. He was a Canadian, a Christian, a priest, and something of a sage. As Auden wrote of Yeats, he has become his admirers. Northrop Frye was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, on July …

Critics at the Top

Near the end of Versions of Pygmalion J. Hillis Miller argues that reading involves two obligations. On the one hand: “to transfer to reading Henry James’s injunction to the observer of life, the novice writer: ‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!’ ” On the …

The Flight of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins died in Dublin on June 8, 1889. Twenty-nine years later, in December 1918, the first collection of his poems was published, assembled and edited by his friend, the poet Robert Bridges. In a prefatory poem Bridges wrote: Our generation already is over- past, And thy lov’d …