An Irish poet confronts the Holocaust during the second World War

Perhaps the first Irish poet to address the Holocaust was Denis Devlin, whose work as a diplomat introduced him to the horror

The critic Theodor Adorno is often quoted as having said that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. He had no wish to soften such a statement, but he also found it necessary to add that “literature must resist this verdict, in other words, be such that its mere existence after Auschwitz is not a surrender to cynicism”. In a world of red-hatted uniforms and rallies from Brazil to India to the US and the scandal of climate crisis and war, the effects of which are felt in refugees sleeping in airport hangars and arson at direct provision centres, we must never sleepwalk again.

Irish poets have played their part in visceral recollection of a suffering that bears no forgetting. We are left shuddering in the wake of Michael Longley’s haunting Kindertotenlieder:

There can be no songs for dead children

Near the crazy circle of explosions,


The splintering tangent of the ricochet,

No songs for the children who have become

My unrestricted tenants, fingerprints

Everywhere, teethmarks on this and that.

Longley, Mhac an tSaoi, Mahon, Heaney, Kinsella, Boland: the list of Irish poets writing on the Holocaust must be substantial.

Perhaps the earliest poet to respond to the Holocaust is Denis Devlin, whose translations were collected in 1992 in a superb edition by the scholar Roger Little. An urbane, fastidious poet whose modernist poetry was influenced by Paris and the Surrealists, Devlin joined the Irish diplomatic service in 1935, accompanying Éamon de Valera on legation business to the League of Nations in Geneva (and to Zurich, where de Valera received specialist eye treatment). In 1939, Devlin was a young diplomat in Rome, witnessing Mussolini thundering from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia after the invasion of Albania. Oppressed by thoughts of war, he took a friend to the Trevi Fountain, where he recited some of Yeats’s last poems.

In 1940, he was posted to the US. He tried to defuse the global gloom in a letter to a friend, joking: “America is worrying itself sick about the European War and all the moral values that are being destroyed. It says it is preparing itself to be the reservoir of western civilisation, so far they have buried several of the major poets well below the surface in special-process anti-dissolution steel books.”

In New York, he met the left-wing writer and editor Norman Macleod, whose colourful history included cowpunching in Wyoming and dodging Ku Klux Klan pickets while writing about a miners’ strike in 1930s Alabama. Macleod championed Devlin’s poetry, and introduced him to the community of free French intellectuals who had fled Nazism and Pétain’s Vichy collaborators, most significant among them the dismissed diplomat Alexis Leger, aka Saint-John Perse.

In April 1942, Devlin met André Spire, a grand homme des lettres, Zionist and founding member of L’École Libre des Hautes Études New York. Devlin translated his poem Summer Tale, which remembers “Tanks rolling over the plain of the Beauce. Next day, it was the hooked cross.” He translated the Belgian poet Alain Bosquet, another poet with Jewish ancestry, whose Ode to America realises that even the poet’s “most chaste poetry / carries a helmet, a machine gun”. Bosquet later fought for the US, including a posting in Northern Ireland.

Mid-century atrocity

As Devlin’s diplomatic work alongside Frank Aiken justifying neutrality to increasingly frustrated State Department colleagues intensified, he published a translation by a Resistance poet, Pierre Emmanuel, which carried the note “smuggled out of occupied France”. By whom? Bosquet? Devlin’s friend, Samuel Beckett? The poem, Concentration Camps, is probably the first glimpse of mid-century atrocity by an Irish poet:

Down in the steep pit sealed by sunlight

A little quivering mud and silence.

The whole man is dying here. Will

His tortured form reveal the secret that angels

Tremble with?

Until now, it was not known that Devlin also published translations by Holocaust survivor, the poet and philosopher Jean Wahl. Awaiting deportation to a Nazi death camp, Wahl escaped from Drancy in a butcher’s cart, fleeing to the US. In 1942, he helped establish a revival of the philosophical colloquy, Entretiens de Pontigny, in Mount Holyoke, with guests including Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore. His poem, Meagre Day in Convict Dress, published in Devlin’s translation in 1943, had been scratched with a needle on paper in Drancy.

Meagre day in convict dress, stink,

Heavy turning of keys in the lock

The victor’s brutal steps, his imprecations

Grinding my teeth hard, I bore these sorrows.

The step in the corridor was menace

And the key turned on a dumb despair.

If I lie down I’m told I may but sit.

I smile; the gaoler will forbid that grimace.

Is my hair turned white? Fever’s upon me.

I cannot count nor see myself, but must

Preserve my memories, a will, a faith

And certain image too of hands and lips.

Although Devlin eschews the original’s rhyme, something of Wahl’s pared-back documentation of terror –an unusual combination of vagueness with taut control as a way of dealing with that terror – enters into Devlin’s late work, especially his via crucis, The Passion of Christ. He later translated Wahl’s poems, Eternity and Reason and Nostalgia, in Prison: “And the air had the taste of air, / And life the taste of life”. Shortly later, Benjamin Fondane, a Jewish-Romanian poet from Devlin’s Paris days, died in Auschwitz.

In 1947, Devlin married Caren Randon, a vivacious young graduate of modern languages in Vassar. His correspondence, published in a fine edition by Sarah Bennett in 2020, does not mention whether he was aware of the fact, but my research identifies that Caren had been born Caren Rosenheim, daughter of a Berlin-Jewish financier, Ludolf Rosenheim, and his wife Edith. The Rosenheims fled Nazi Germany before the war, and the Nazis looted their extensive art collection. Jean Wahl in Drancy urged himself to “Preserve my memories”. The translations from French into English by Denis Devlin, perhaps the first Irish poet to confront the horrors of the Holocaust, kept that promise.