Denis Donoghue obituary: One of the world’s foremost scholars of modern literature

One student recalled ‘it was easy to mistake his grand, rolling cadences for the voice of God’

Denis Donoghue: the late academic was the Yeats Summer School’s first director. Photograph: James Connolly/PicSell8

Denis Donoghue: the late academic was the Yeats Summer School’s first director. Photograph: James Connolly/PicSell8

 

Denis Donoghue
Born: December 1st, 1928
Died: April 6th, 2021


Denis Donoghue, who has died aged 92, was one of the world’s foremost scholars of modern literature. He published more than 30 books and held professorships at New York University and his alma mater, University College Dublin. Writing for the London Review of Books, Frank Kermode described him as “a literary critic of the first rank”.

Initially made an assistant lecturer in 1953, Donoghue taught at UCD for close to three decades. The quality of his publications brought the college unprecedented prestige in the international literary world. Tall in stature, extemporising his lectures without notes, and combining a rare command of the spoken word with a gift for powerful critical insights, he struck an impressive and even intimidating figure to undergraduates. One former student recalled that “it was easy to mistake his grand, rolling cadences for the voice of God”.

A boy soprano with an excellent voice, he made a wax record of his singing at Waltons music shop in Dublin. As an undergraduate he combined his studies with lessons in lieder-singing and music theory

Working during a period when earlier assumptions of literary criticism were being challenged by various schools of theory, Donoghue was a traditionalist. A self-described aesthete, he “held with tenacity”, in the words of an NYU colleague, “to basic humanistic beliefs in an age of critical chaos”. In particular, he railed against political treatments of literature, insisting that “a poem is not a tract, an editorial or a sermon”.

Denis Donoghue was born in his mother’s home town of Tullow, Co Carlow, in 1928. He grew up in Warrenpoint, Co Down, where his father, from near Killarney in Co Kerry, was a sergeant with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. In his memoir of his youth, Warrenpoint, Donoghue described his background as “lower-middle-class Catholic”.

He was educated in several schools around Warrenpoint and nearby Newry. His memories of his religious teachers were negative, but that did not prevent him acquiring a strong Catholic faith. As a teenager he reached his full height of 6ft 7in. Despite his stature he failed to excel at sports, and instead retreated into “an internal life of phrases and cadences”.

His first impressive encounters with literary forms were through song and prayer. A boy soprano with an excellent voice, he made a wax record of his singing at Waltons music shop in Dublin. As an undergraduate he combined his studies with lessons in lieder-singing and music theory at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. He later served for a year as music critic for The Irish Times.

Upon finishing school he hoped to study for the bar, but he soon realised that he lacked the contacts and means required to succeed at law. Instead he read English and Latin at UCD, completing his BA in 1948. He continued at UCD, completing an MA in 1952 and his PhD in 1958. He later took a further MA at Cambridge University.

After completing his undergraduate studies, and following his marriage to his wife Frances, he spent 3½ years in the Civil Service, as an administrative officer at the Department of Finance. He found he was unsuited to that work, and was rescued in 1953 by the offer of an assistant lectureship at UCD. He spent a year as visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania and another at King’s College, Cambridge, before returning to UCD in 1967. He was involved in the reorganisation of the English department, and became the first professor of modern English and American literature.

In 1980 he was appointed to the Henry James chair of English and American letters at NYU, his final teaching post. In New York he became heavily involved in the intellectual life of the city, serving as codirector of the Poetics Institute and becoming a fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities.

Among Donoghue’s published works were important studies of Jonathan Swift and WB Yeats. His interpretation of the latter has proved influential. He played down the identification of Yeats as a symbolist poet and drew attention to the influence of Nietzsche on his thought. He argued strongly against revisionist historical interpretations of Yeats, as well as the trend of reading Irish literature through the lens of postcolonial theory. He was much concerned by modern criticism’s tendency to “sacrifice literary understanding on the altar of politics”.

At UCD he caused some controversy when he remarked that a good lecture ‘provides an opportunity for students to sit quietly and listen to a great mind communing with itself’. His true intent, however, was generous

Although he was not known to suffer fools, and in one student’s recollection was “unashamedly proud to occupy his ivory tower”, Donoghue possessed a skill for clear and jargon-free prose, and hoped to make criticism relevant to a reading public beyond academia. He served as director of the first Yeats Summer School, in Co Sligo, now an annual event at which he spoke several times. In 1982 he gave the BBC’s Reith Lectures, titled Art without Mystery.

At UCD he caused some controversy when he remarked that a good lecture “provides an opportunity for students to sit quietly and listen to a great mind communing with itself”. His true intent, however, was generous; as he described, his aim in teaching literature “is to put students at least in the vicinity of memorable achievements. Ideally, I would put them in the full presence of such works.”

Despite a lifetime’s devotion to literature, he claimed never to have written a line of verse. In Warrenpoint he explained: “I lack inventiveness. [...] Mine is the intelligence that comes after.”

Donoghue was awarded an honorary D Litt by UCD in 1989. In 2013 he received the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ award for humanistic studies. He was a fellow of the Royal Irish Academy, the British Academy and, in the United States, the National Humanities Center.

Donoghue is survived by his wife Melissa, his children David, Helen, Hugh, Celia, Mark, Barbara, Stella and Emma, the novelist; by his daughters-in-law Jill, Sharon, Bernie and Chris and sons-in-law Joe, Dean and Jim; by his grandchildren Adam, Muireann, Dearbhaile, Barra, Aisling, Aoife, Amy, Sinéad, Brianna, Finn and Una; and by his great-grandchildren Molly and Oscar. His first wife, Frances, predeceased him.