Seamus Deane the poet: coming to terms with the past

Gerald Dawe reflects upon the uncollected and undercelebrated poetry of a Derry writer best known for his memoir Reading in the Dark

Seamus Deane was born in Derry in 1940. The border city, which was a harbour much engaged with a substantial military camp and naval fleet during the second World War, had been very badly treated since the foundation of the new northern state in 1922. Throughout the early decades of Northern Ireland unemployment was notoriously high – one of the highest in Europe – housing conditions were appalling and the normal practices of democratic representation riven by the sectarian gerrymandering of the unionist government.

The maiden city is in a stunning location, overlooking the Foyle River and estuary and backing into the most westerly and dramatic of the northern counties, Donegal, which as a result of the partition of the island was across the Irish border. Derry’s famous walled inner world of battlements and rising streets, the sense of a landscape of great coastal beauty on one’s doorstep, could not compensate for the heavily policed atmosphere of the postwar era when ineffective IRA attempts to challenge militarily the government led to the increasing use of a sectarian force of auxiliary police called the B Specials in controlling the largely Catholic and nationalist areas of Derry such as what became known as the Bogside and later the Creggan.

I knew the bitterness of Protestantism, and its philistine pride, but for the first time I began to sense its magnificence

Deane grew out of this world and like his lifelong friend and fellow poet, Seamus Heaney, attended the city’s well-known Catholic grammar school, St Columb’s – Deane as a day boy, Heaney as a boarder (1951-57). The story of their relationship is neatly captured in Deane’s New Yorker memoir, The Education of Seamus Heaney, an honest and acerbic portrait of both school pals and their later development as poets and critics, firstly at university in Queen’s Belfast (1957-61) and their separate paths immediately thereafter.

Seamus Deane came up to Pembroke College in 1963 and was approved for the PhD in May 1968, graduating in Easter of that year – the title of his PhD: The Reception and Reputation of Some Thinkers of the French Enlightenment in England between 1789 and 1824.


After a few years teaching in Berkeley in the United States he returned in the late 1960s to Dublin, first as a lecturer in University College Dublin before being appointed Professor of Modern English and American literature, a position he held until 1993 and his appointment as Professor of English and Donald and Marilyn Keough Professor of Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, from which he retired some years ago.

Deane’s first collection, Gradual Wars, was published in 1972 when he was a lecturer in UCD, though a pamphlet of his poems, While Jewels Rot, had appeared somewhat earlier, in 1966, in the famous Festival Publications series at Queens, but Deane rejected the poems and at £618.81 per copy on Abe books it might be just as well!

At 32 years of age, in comparison to his contemporaries Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley, Deane’s was a slightly later entry into the public world of publishing a book of poems. Heaney had already published three volumes – Death of a Naturalist (1966), Door into the Dark (1969) and Wintering Out (1972) – and Mahon two: Night-Crossing (1968) and Lives (1972), which appeared to critical acclaim.

Gradual Wars received the prestigious AE Memorial Award for Literature in Ireland and was followed by Rumours, published by Dolmen Press in 1977; six years later History Lessons appeared with the Gallery Press in 1983 and five years after that, a volume of Selected Poems, including a section of new poems and translations, was published in 1988. After that, on the poetry front, silence.

Deane’s scholarly, critical and editorial work, however, took off, producing seminal studies of Irish writing and its European contexts in book after book. The 1980s saw publication of the highly influential collection Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature 1880 -1980, A Short History of Irish Literature and The French Enlightenment and Revolution in England. He had also been an inspirational presence in the establishing of The Crane Bag journal (1977-1985) edited by philosophers Mark Patrick Hederman and Richard Kearney.

In the 1990s Deane was the driving force behind the publication of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Literature 550-1988, a controversial work, originally in three volumes, which had come out of the theatre and publishing collective he joined with founders Brian Friel and Stephen Rea, along with Tom Kilroy, musician David Hammond and poets Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin.

1997 saw publication of his 1995 Clarendon Oxford Lectures as Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing Since 1790, echoing the opening lines of his poem, Strange Country, from Rumours, 20 years earlier:

It is too simple
To say I miss you.
If there were a language
That could not say 'leave'
And had no word for 'stay'
That would be the tongue
For this strange country [.]

In the new century Deane as general editor oversaw the publication of the Penguin Classic James Joyce series, a major undertaking, alongside co-editing the Field Day Review, an annual Irish Studies journal as well as mentoring a book series on Irish Studies co-published by the University of Notre Dame Press and Cork University Press.

It was, however, his autobiographical novel, Reading in the Dark (1996), winner of the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Irish Literature Prize, The Guardian Prize, Booker-short listed and translated into numerous languages, which brought Deane’s name to a much wider audience, producing the kind of critical and popular recognition that his fellow student at St Columb’s and Queen’s University had experienced since publication of his first collections back in the heady days of the 1960s.

But far too much can be read and has been read into these relationships of well over half a century ago. On an individual level, it’s clear that Deane’s remarkable achievement across literary disciplines suggests a completely different kind of imaginative and intellectual bearing than that of a contemporary such as Mahon, for instance, with whom Deane, along with others, edited the short-lived magazine Atlantis in the early 1970s, or Heaney, with whom he is much more often identified.

I’m interested in what follows in looking at a very small sample of the poems – a little over 100 or so – and what they tell us about the history of Deane’s life and times to date, but also about history itself, the monolith he has struggled with, (at least so it seems to this reader) since he kicked a football in the descending dusk of a Derry back field in the late 1940s and early ’50s.

Clearly, I have had to radically select from his four collections a number of “stand out” poems to illustrate my theme. But if ever there was a subject awaiting the attention of a younger generation of scholars, Deane as poet, critic and scholar is an abundant source of intellectual challenge, as can be seen in the extensive archive held at the Emory University Stuart A Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library in Atlanta, Georgia.

That is for another day although it is good to report that Dr Rosie Lavan, of the School of English, Trinity College Dublin is energetically engaged on a project, Representing Derry, 1968-2013, which, she tells me, “examines representations of Derry in a range of forms and genres – poetry, fiction, drama, memoir, criticism, photography and documentary film”.

Dr Lavan goes on to say that: “…through their resistance to straightforward generic classification, many of the works under discussion, including Seamus Deane’s autobiographical novel Reading in the Dark, put pressure on the process of literary interpretation itself. Mindful particularly of his engagements with form, I consider Deane’s novel in relation to his poetry, and in the context of his convictions about literature and history expressed in his criticism from the 1970s to date. In addition, I am particularly interested in re-approaching his criticism of the 1970s and ’80s now – mindful of its original provocations, and of the very particular climate in which it was produced – and considering the place it claims both in our increasingly historicised understanding of that period, and in contemporary cultural debates.”

So maybe we are beginning to see a wider reassessment of the creative and scholarly writing from contemporary Ireland and a much-needed widening out of the critical franchise. But the first point of reference I’d like to make is how Deane has described himself in an interview with John Brown (In the Chair: Interviews with poets from the north of Ireland, Salmon, 2002): “I have no substantial connection with the northern poets’ group or groups. I learned of it via Seamus Heaney when he came to visit me in Cambridge armed with a prize and a bottle of whiskey.”

The characteristic homing instinct of his early poems, the journeying back, is a powerful motif in Deane’s poetry; not only in terms of the city, imagined as an embattled and at times mystical place – like a Gothic castle – but also the inner décor of the family home and the surrounding streetscapes take on an estranged and ominous reality. The “sirens settle/to a blue yap”, clocks and telephones, wallpaper and doors, backyards and street corners hold a kind of philosophical meaning of threat and desire mixed up with fearfulness and anxiety:

Look! The razors
Of perception are now
So honed they cut
The lying throat of song.

Why “song” has a “lying throat” is a bigger question than I have time for discussion but it summons up the figures of Theodore Adorno and Walter Benjamin, both of whom feature pervasively in Deane’s critical thinking. If the narrator of the poems in Gradual Wars is “snared in my past” there is an ongoing sense of danger in even the most familiar atmosphere:

I fear more
the ghost that comes by the wall,
The patterned face upon the curtain
The sight that can unhinge
The stable doors of the sty
And maraud for revenge.

Deane’s Derry is a knowable place from the beginning. Gradual Wars, dedicated to his father and mother, opens with a sequence based around a family home (no.38) and elegises those murdered in Bloody Sunday (After Derry, 30 January 1972). The collection is full of names – Sean Cassidy, Peter Doherty. Dermot Felon, and the names of the immediate family – Ciaran, Maeve, Richard, Joe, Emer, Conor, Marian. But sitting alongside this intense intimacy, other landscapes emerge in “the wide American night” (GM 36), such as San Francisco and with them, an unfolding sense too of the poet’s transference to another kind of language, as in the Wallace Stevens-sounding On the Mimicry of Unnatural Objects and Landscape into Art. But the over-riding mood of the volume is of a distinct and present danger embedded in the home place.

Rumours, his second collection, seems comparatively more secure in its revisiting the past. Dedicated in memoriam to Frank Deane, the poet’s father, there is an achieved balance between the stern retrospection of Deane’s northern life in his poem Going Northward and Belfast in The Brethren but also a releasing fondness conveyed in Shelter. There might be an element of wish-fulfilment in the older poet looking back to 1947 and his seven-year-old self’s consciousness of being “weather-proof” but the poem’s mention of “Two years after one war/And some time before another” brings into frame the mindfulness of Deane’s poems with the play of language in the processes of history-making.

In the chapter Grandfather: October 1952 from the haunting and haunted novel, Reading in the Dark, there’s a wonderful portrait of “great uncle Constantine, on my mother’s side...the sole family heretic” who “hung a placard on the wall of his living room, with the slogan CRUSH THE INFAMOUS ONE painted in red on a black background: he said that was his and Voltaire’s Declaration of Faith. Then he went blind, became ill and caved in by being restored to the bosom of the Church before he died” (Reading, 116-17). Sitting with his grandfather the young boy is asked what he is doing and the conversation follows:

“Just some French exercises.”

“French! What do you want to be bothered with French for? Sure who speaks French round here? Waste of time. Fit you better to be studying Irish, your own language.”

“An’ who speaks Irish round here?”

“Frankie Mennan, Johnny Harkin. That’s two. And plenty more. And look at what French did to Constantine. Lost him his sight, then, they say, his soul.”

“Constantine? Sure he died a Catholic.”

“He did not. He didn’t/ He died a heretic. Refused to see the priest and died holding that French book across his chest that they tried to get off him.”

“I heard diff…”

“Of course you did. They cooked up the story so’s not to give a bad example. But old Con, he’s down there roasting with all the other atheists. God rest him.”

At that he laughed suddenly, and so did I.

"Aye, God rest him in his wee suit of fire, reading his fancy French book."
(Reading in the Dark, p.117-118)

Language really is a matter of life and death and possibly, if there’s autobiographical truth in the incident, maybe no surprise that Deane’s interest in some thinkers of the French enlightenment should form part of his own intellectual development. But also precious wonder that Deane should publish a volume called History Lessons which mediates between how the big frame of History, with a capital H imposes order and authority upon the workings of ordinary family life “underneath”.

Opening with a poem on the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam as a figure of the poet in extremis the volume is backlit by other “great” literary presences including a dramatic vignette on Edmund Burke (Christmas at Beaconfield) – on whom Deane would publish several key essays – John Mitchel, the 19th-century Irish republican activist, and in the title poem, a meditation on a journey taken to Moscow. As with the earlier volumes, History Lessons relives different kinds and sources of history: the local, familial, unvoiced world of Deane’s upbringing and the authorising, validating structure of state and imperial power.

“All my work,” he states in an interview, “is about uncovering, especially uncovering of voices that speak without governance, or that speak without being heard” (John Brown, 106) – something he has discussed at length in his readings of the playwright Brian Friel. The contrasts within History Lessons couldn’t be starker than in the following two poems, which, like a metronome, provoke in the poem to his father Breaking Wood the reader’s sympathy at the very same time as questioning how the individual is at the mercy of the grander designs of History in the title poem, History Lessons.

In the almost 30 years that followed publication of Selected Poems in 1988 Deane seems to have revoked his poet's deeds

There is much else in the poetry of Seamus Deane than I have rendered here. I’m thinking of the domestic poems of love and loss, the songs of praise and pleasure in the landscape, although even Hummingbirds can’t quite avoid some part of a history lesson and the ornate somewhat arcane English of many other poems that deserve more than a note in passing like Street Singers and Guerrillas.

What is required is a new edition of all Deane’s poems in one collected volume and then we can read it in its diversity and unique range of reference. Although I don’t recommend holding our breaths waiting for that to happen. In the almost 30 years that followed publication of Selected Poems in 1988 Deane seems to have revoked his poet’s deeds. Asked if there was any cache of post-1988 poems I should know about, the two-word reply said it all, “No danger”!

In a fascinating interview with John Brown – from which I have been quoting – Deane speaks of poetry very much against the grain of contemporary fashion. “If poetry has any enhancing powers for the poet,” Deane wonders aloud, “they surely must include the belief that you must make the effort to break from what formed you, even though this itself is part of an almost predetermined formation.” (Brown, 102). He then goes on to challenge one of the most popular and entrenched views of the values of Irish poetry:

“In Ireland there is such an ideological investment in the idea of the artist, the privatisation of writing, the absurd pretensions to a cheap universalisation of feeling and of authority with that, that it is difficult to keep a sense of proportion. Writing that treasures narcissism, writing that is mere propaganda – between these polarities there is very little that is worth remembering. And it is difficult to enter into the wider world without denying the inner world. It is not just an escape from nationality, of the British or the Irish variety; it is an escape into the belief that one is ‘free’, that one is the maker of the world he sings. I think this is a glamorous and vacuous notion. At least in its pseudo-liberal therapeutic form, it is mere garbage, although widely canvassed and admired.”

In the final poem collected in his Selected Poems, Reading Paradise Lost in Protestant Ulster 1984, a bulky poem of Spenserian stanzas such as Yeats had employed in, among other volumes, The Tower of 1928, the twin peaks of Deane’s writing life come together – his scholarship and the wayward trip of his imaginative energies. I’m not sure when the poem was actually drafted but it may well refer to his time living in Belfast as a student at Queen’s University, as he recalls in his New Yorker portrait of Seamus Heaney. In the following extract Deane recounts his lecturer in literature at Queen’s, (and former Pembroke graduate), the South African poet and critic, Laurence Lerner, who had “reordered the local tyranny in our minds, by showing us how deeply introjected the sour hegemony of our sectarianism had become”. It’s Belfast in the late 1950s:

“I think that [Lerner’s] lessons were silently meant to teach us how to read literary texts in a living way – reminding us that our lives, too, were embroiled with these books. I remember the oddness of seeing Protestant working-class Belfast for the first time: I would cross its most notorious street, Sandy Row, and hear the Saturday-night evangelicals screaming and raving through loudspeakers about Popery and repentance, and pass by the clamorous shops, and smell the sweet aromas from the Erinmore tobacco factory, above the railway bridge, and then return to my rented room in a nearby Catholic neighbourhood, to read Milton and Dickens – whose seventeenth- and nineteenth-century worlds were suddenly coexistent with my own. I knew the bitterness of Protestantism, and its philistine pride, but for the first time I began to sense its magnificence. Lerner brought the streets of Belfast and the poems and novels we read into contact with one another. It was a salutary lesson.”

Reading Paradise Lost in Protestant Ulster 1984 presents us (in this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, no less!) with a very powerful sense of Seamus Deane’s own coming to terms with the past at the very point his poetry was questioning whether or not history really has any “lessons” we can learn from or if we can ever really let “go”:

A maiden city's burning on the plain;
Rebels surround us, Lord, whence arose
This dark damnation, this hot unrainbowed rain?

It is that struggle which makes his poems unique and important expressions deserving of our critical attention along with so much else of his challenging work of over half a century.
This is a shortened version of a lecture given by Gerald Dawe to mark the conclusion of his term as Visiting Scholar at Pembroke College, Cambridge. Dawe's most recent collections include Selected Poems and Mickey Finn's Air