In Praise of Denis


ExcerptAt a conference honouring Denis Donoghue earlier this month, Colm Tóibín, who studied under him at UCD, gave the keynote address. In an edited extract, Tóibín describes the experience

The man who came to the podium in October, 1972, was exceedingly tall and distant and formidable. Once he took command of the lectern, he began without explanation or introduction to read from Conrad's Heart of Darkness:

Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision - he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath -

'The horror! The horror!'

The voice reading was dramatic but the tone was not declamatory, it allowed for mystery and quietness. The accent, strangely grand, soon ceased to matter, however, as much as his vocabulary mattered, the heightened tone, the lack of hesitation, the thinking aloud as fierce and eloquent activity, and the sense also that this mattered more than anything else mattered - this attempt to analyse and define and almost imitate layers and levels of feeling, of imaginative energy, of tonal nuance.

As the weeks went on, the style of delivery could vary. At times, the mystery could be cast aside and a sharp and very steely intelligence could be applied to the precise meaning of a passage or the terms in which a character might be considered. As he went on to deal with the work of D.H. Lawrence and William Faulkner, we learned to pay due attention to the facts and offer due attention to the rational.

One of the reasons which Henry James Sr a hundred years earlier had offered his neighbours for gathering his young family up and taking them constantly to Europe, was that their "sensuous education" was not being properly looked after in the United States. With one or two notable exceptions, all of us listening in Theatre M that year, while having benefited from as full and plentiful an education as the Republic of Ireland could provide, had not had a sensuous education at all, or anything like one. Indeed, our parents and guardians would have viewed a sensuous education and what it implied with the same level of disapproval as the old Presbyterian William James of Bailieborough and Albany might have felt had he lived to see his fortune squandered thus on his young grandchildren.

This reading then in Conrad and Lawrence and Faulkner was for some of us the first serious and concentrated glimpse of a sensuous universe. The weather outside was grey, the campus was not beautiful. The lake in front of the library was said to be ornamental, but it was in fact brutal. Thus the striving of Ursula Brangwen in The Rainbow and Women in Love for a transforming glimpse of another universe, with other knowledge tempered by the body's radiance, her hunger for possibility against the dullness and the brutality of what was fixed and finite and offered to her, was our striving too against our background, our hunger, and was our reason for being here.

By the time Denis Donoghue returned to the lecture theatre in late spring of 1973, the way we read and thought about books had changed. My own sensibility and background I learned to keep to myself. Instead, it was the poem which had a sensibility.

The course was to be on the short poem in the 16th century, and I have a clear memory of his voice as he began to recite and the quality of the silence in the lecture theatre as he read a poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt:

They flee from me that sometime did me seek

With naked foot stalking in my chamber.

I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek

That now are wild and do not remember

That sometime they put themselves in danger

To take break at my hand; and now they range

Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise

Twenty times better, but once in special,

In thin array after a pleasant guise,

When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall

And she me caught in her arms long and small,

Therewithal sweetly did me kiss

And softly said, 'Dear heart, how like you this?'

It did not matter whether you were gay or straight, male or female, Irish or English, black or white, colonised or rich on the spoils of colony, as it soon in most English departments would come to matter. The words alone worked wonders. It made no difference then that some of those poets, including Spenser and Raleigh, had come to Ireland with swords. We were too busy then, too concerned with tone and style, with plainness and the ornate, with rhyme schemes, with a raw poetry of statement in a language that was newly stately, in stanza-forms and sonnet-shapes, to be interrupted by a voice from home whispering that these were the very soldiers who had disfigured Ireland, whose very skills at verse had created categories of the civilised and the barbarian in which we, or people like us, were consigned to the latter. These poems were handed to me as though they belonged to me. My soul did not fret in their shadow. They were nobody's before they were mine. My classmates and I were offered all rights to the English lyric.

* * * * * * *

O city, city! The 10 bus waited on the campus to take us into the city centre. That walk from St Stephen's Green to Grafton Street or to Kildare Street belongs to mythology. It is by making that walk that we all re-made ourselves.

Donoghue must have walked each day in those last years of the 1940s from Earlsfort Terrace across the Green and then down Kildare Street, into the National Library at a time when it was still used by accountancy students, as it had been during the life of Yeats, as it was used when I started to read there in 1974. Yeats, in his foreword to Letters to the New Island, remembered that "everybody was working for some examination, nobody, as I thought, for his own mind's sake or to discover happiness". Like Yeats, and indeed like Stephen Dedalus, Denis Donoghue must have stood sheltering from the rain under the portico of the National Library before setting out on the next part of his odyssey to South Leinster Street and then Lincoln Place, past Sweny's chemists, and then into Westland Row for his singing lesson with Brian Boydell.

This is hallowed territory, where Bloom smelled the sweet lemony wax of Sweny's soap, having mused in his throwaway style on the mysteries and beauties of Catholicism.

Boydell was, Denis Donoghue later wrote, "a distinguished presence", as indeed he must have been for anyone from an ordinary house in an Irish provincial town. Boydell, he remembered, however, "had no authority, power or any evident desire to govern. His social class - Anglo-Irish Protestant, mercantile rather than aristocratic but bohemian in tone - was in decline, displaced by the new Catholic middle-class politicians who continue to run the country. Boydell had no power, only the prestige of being a musician and a colourful personage".

In the old city, music becomes a surrogate power, training the voice becomes a way of re-making the self in the image of the long rich robes of a sweet heritage. In Westland Row, Leopold Bloom remembered Molly singing Rossini's Stabat Mater. "Music they wanted. Footdrill stopped. Could hear a pin drop. I told her to pitch her voice against that corner. I could feel the thrill in the air, the full, the people looking up." Less than half a century later in the same street, Brian Boydell was working with our hero.

"We studied", Donoghue wrote in his most recent book, Speaking of Beauty, "mainly songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms . . . and Hugo Wolf, but we also spent many arduous weeks on Bach. The main problem was the frailty of my breathing, a defect especially dramatic in attempting Bach's Es ist Vollbracht and, from Cantata 82, Ich habe genug, which includes the most beautiful aria I have ever heard, 'Schlummert ein ' . . . Boydell tried hard to show me how to save my breath for the lines:

'Welt, ich bliebe nicht mehr hier,

hab ich doch kein Teil an dir,

das der Seele konnte taugen - '

"but I never reached 'taugen' with more than a whisper left."

Inthe same city in the same years, some lines of Yeats from 'Ego Dominus Tuus' were being enacted in pubs and bedsitters:

What portion in the world can the artist have

Who has awakened from the common dream

But dissipation and despair?

Elsewhere in the city, not far away, as Donoghue has written in Words Alone, figures such as Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan and Flann O'Brien, "were occasionally to be seen in Grafton Street or St Stephen's Green". Elsewhere and not far away was great hatred and little room, where Bloom's funny and irreverent musings as he walked the streets, had won the day against Yeats's attempt to impose structure and order on the city's mind. In those years, Donoghue firmly moved to Yeats's side. He learned to work on his breathing so that, at some point, after much re-making and practice and isolation, as a teacher and a critic, the last word would come out as rather more than a whisper.

Transatlantic Poetics and the Discipline of Literature; An International Symposium In Honour of Denis Donoghue took place in Queen's University, Belfast from June 12th-14th and was organised by Robert Mahony and Brian Caraher. For details see