Reflection: Cyril O'Regan

My first experience of Seamus Deane was the foundational and decisive one of being one of the horde of first-year students that spilled into Theatre L in UCD in the early 1970s to receive instruction in English literature.  It would simply be untrue to say that most of us, indeed, any of us, came to hear Seamus. There were all kinds of reasons to be there including not having the imagination to find a plausible elsewhere. In any event, First-Year English didn’t really belong to anyone—lecturers came and went the whole term ostensibly to teach a common curriculum negotiated in the backrooms of UCD or the bar.

Seamus was really young, thin, sharp featured, and completely unforgiving when it came to take account of what I would now in an American idiom call the “buy in” of the students. The first thing one noticed was that he had no notes, absolutely no notes whatsoever and not simply lacking the usual ream of fading yellow sheaves that was a commonplace in UCD lectures, the notes having becoming themselves monuments belonging to another age. The assigned text was Emma. On the podium as he talked and wandered far from the lectern, Seamus prowled like a caged animal. Ferociously intense, electric, he seemed to have no interest in passing on the mature wisdom that the academic is anxious to pass on to the would-be cultured. Instead, Seamus seemed to be demonstrating to those who might be interested in what thinking looked like and how you might recognize an intellectual if you were ever unfortunate enough to came across one.  

The lecture was a phenomenon in the strict sense: one’s eyes were riveted to his movement and one’s ears nailed to what was to come next. Proceeding without a safety net, one hoped that Seamus would not fall off the wire, but feared he would. In fact, half way through I began to think that he had gained enough collateral to falter once or twice and to resort to the assorted tricks of jokes, appeals to relevance, or indulge a provocative opinion. He was, after all, rummaging for a thought in a composition that was at best latent, continually searching for the right word, the phrase that gathered meaning, and he had set a standard sufficiently high that a finale was required. There was no faltering.  Depending on an individual’s mood, the performance was arrogantly triumphant or flawless. For me, it was flawless. I remember Seamus saying interesting things about the pride of the heroine in the novel, about marriage, and especially about money. “Money,” however, was the word that scoured, the word that deflated our prim ideas of literature, perhaps all the more prim when our lives bore no relation to the culture we craved. Yet more than that, the lecture clarified what thinking was and the required asceticism, what brilliance was, its measure and its cost. In his case the brilliance was diamond-cut and in a sense terrible because, however compassionate the man, you felt it judged you and left you only with your shortcomings.

The first moment of seeing and listening to Seamus Deane was for me everything. Of course, there were other lectures that I attended both at UCD and at Notre Dame.  It was always the same brilliant Seamus proceeding without notes, and though you knew from experience that everything would go right, you felt yourself tense as if at any moment he might trip and fall from the high wire. He never did. Every lecture was impeccable, as was his record of giving brilliant lectures over the years. I have come to think of a Seamus lecture as a kind of romance with failure, a kind of risk he couldn’t give up on if he was to remain true to himself. It was not that he thought that language and intelligence overmasters reality; his sense of fragility, pain, loss, regret, and the ideological uses of language forbade that. Nonetheless, he seemed to feel the responsibility to make raids on the ultimate inarticulacy of reality, and for that to happen, you had to be clear what constituted a brazen raid rather than a witless acceptance of the craven hand-me-downs of a culture covering over its truths and barbarisms. Intellect was a dare and demanded a peculiar but definite kind of courage.

As many have pointed out in the flood of memorials that have honored his passing, even as an intellectual Seamus was many things, a critical theorist, an explorer of Irish identities, a novelist of power, and a first-rate poet. I cannot but concur. He was all of these things. One could spend numerous pages praising each and their imbrication. I would like to remark on his poetry, which if it does not haunt in the way Reading in the Dark does, nonetheless, in its own way makes important claims about history, embodiment, violence, love, grief, regret, and language that continue to remain pertinent. 


I read Gradual Wars (1972), Rumours (1977), and History Lessons (1983) each within a few years of publication. It is easy to apprise the general poetic value of verbal restraint yet telling image, the sense of being pressed by a historical situation and the correlative lucidity of the intelligence grasping it, and above all, perhaps, the attempt to find a public idiom that takes a stand but is not without remainder the language of the tribe. Yet there are differences also. History Lessons certainly remains concerned with the themes of historical, social, and cultural situation, but there are treatments of the gifts given only when one is in exile in addition to its pain, and one finds poems of desire and disappointment. At the same time, the language is more expansive, less meticulously cramped than in the case of the first two volumes. I have particular favorites in each. In Gradual Wars, besides the title poem, there is the great 'Elegy 6' of the escalation of violence in Derry, its apocalyptic enunciation in “lightnings,” “the haemorrhage of flame,” “collapsing cities,” and in the aftermath the view of the survivors as “insects.” The poem ends with the following unforgettable lines:

                                             This is the honeymoon

                                             Of the cockroach, the small

                                             Spiderless eternity of the fly.

In Rumours there are wonderful poems, which if they lack its memorable lines, are both more complete and replete than the poems in Gradual Wars. I am thinking in particular of the pair ‘The Broken Border’ and ‘The Victim.’  


I may be the exception in finding History Lessons the apex of Deane’s achievement. Yet for me he shows that he has expanded his poetic range without compromising depth and without easing his despair and rage about North Ireland. The extension is marked in a number of different ways. Memories are personal as well as communal; there are signs of a domestic life that if not immunized from history has its own relative integrity. Conspicuously, however, there is a step outside Ireland if only to find a point of access in which to see it more clearly. In particular there is a search for analogies of the Irish cultural and political situation, an elsewhere that will be a looking glass that would help us see our predicament more clearly. The lens is provided by the chrysalis of revolutionary Russia at the beginning of the 20th century and an examination of what it retains and casts aside.  Most importantly, what emerges more clearly in History Lessons is the question about the nature of poetry and more particularly the obligations of the poet.

This question is most apparent in Deane’s poem on Osip Mandelstam, who died in the Gulag in the 1930s. It is not simply that Mandelstam was a poet who dared to be political in the way Pasternak refused, but also that he is a poet who had a well-worked out ars poetica that refused to connive with the idea of language as a divine power, at once naming and healing.  For Mandelstam poetry was essential, but only because it was an act of resistance to a culture that the Bolsheviks showed could be coopted. For Deane, then, Mandelstam is an example of the poet who uplifts poetry as “truth’s vinegar.”  I borrow this phrase from ‘Middle Kingdom,’ which is to be found, of course, in Rumours and not History Lessons.

There is no sense in which Deane was or became a language poet. He writes out of circumstances that are concrete, that suppose embodiment and being in the moment. His poems are personal responses, sometimes visceral, and even when reflective, his poems never shake free of the provoking occasion. This is not to say, however, that in his poetry Deane fails to ponder the mission of the poet any less than his great friend Seamus Heaney. Although, as might be expected, the themes of the nature of poetry and its defining tasks overlap in his poetry, one finds marvelously clear instances of the former in ‘Counting ‘ and in a ‘World without a Name,’ and the latter in the Kaffkaesque ‘Directions.’

I make this point with respect to History Lessons because it seems clear to me that the New Poems and Translations that complete Selected Poems (1988) continue and amplify these themes. This is signaled by Deane’s choice to translate a number of poems by the Italian poet Andrea Zanzotta, whose verse is extraordinarily rich but always engaged and reflective of this engagement. Of course, “translation” necessarily has to be understood in Benjamin’s sense of improvisation. Indeed, in Seamus’ case, the improvisation is entirely self-conscious. The translations bear little relation to Zanzotto’s original poems of the same name. The crucial poem in this section, however, is Deane’s ‘translation’ or improvisation on Rilke’s poem “Wendung,’ which Deane rightly translates as ‘Turning Point.’  “Wendung’ is a poem about the nature of poetry and the task of poetry. For Rilke, poetry is essentially epiphanic, even theophanic, since poetry has replaced religion as the language of revelation. Correspondingly, the poet is a seer or oracle, both Orpheus and an unfallen Adam who has the power of naming animals. Deane’s translation represents in a deep sense a refusal of Rilke’s poetics. Language, even poetic language, does not have truly revelatory power. It is always already fallen. The best that can be expected is that on this side of Eden we will be able to mint in haphazard fashion a language capable of piercing the veils of opinion and half-truth to say something half adequate to a reality that remains recalcitrant to our best efforts. And with regard to the poetic task, the poet is not the hierophant—this would be for Deane late Romantic drivel—but the searcher who scalds and scours language of what is dead and injurious in it. Deane clearly bristles at Rilke’s imprimatur for self-reference and the recommended Idealism regarding the visible and material aspects of our lives as the mere envelope of the invisible that alone is of value. For Deane this flight from reality and history is morally appalling and the politics devastating.

This brings me back to the beginning and my first and enduring experience of a person for whom the adjective ‘brilliant’ was made. Seamus Deane’s brilliance was, as I have indicated already, diamond-cut and thus something of which one could be justifiably afraid. Part of the reason was that even if the words were parts of a cascade, they were also perfectly chosen. Nothing less, but nothing more. In the end, however, despite the panache of the delivery, the perfection of the voice, and the bravura presence of the great soloist, it was Seamus’s asceticism that really mattered. If he was brilliant every time he spoke, and in everything he wrote, it was because of honing. He had ditched anything that might be mere filler. Every time he spoke and every time he wrote, he performed the cost of intellect and the price of saying. Anyone who has heard him or read him would, undoubtedly, be the better for this extraordinary scruple. Yet we are not talking about fastidiousness regarding language. That is the mark of the aesthete and inclined Seamus to shy away from Yeats. The diamond-cut nature of his brilliance had a peculiar effect. As I reflect now, it may also had had a peculiar origin. That is, its diamond nature was precisely the compression of the carbon of all our lives, its manifold yearnings and sufferings, its brokenness and idiocies. His brilliance was not therefore free-standing: it was correlated with a going down and a pathos that was as edgy as it was insistent. That, too, initially comes across as a judgment by which we are found wanting. I see it now less as a judgment than the provision of a measure by which in an erring and fallible way would remain true to life or at least more true than otherwise we would have. Seamus Deane lived in California in the 1960s. He never converted. Failure is our lot, the question where in its vast precincts we find ourselves, how lucid we are about it, and how compassionate we are when we find it in others and inevitably also in ourselves.

Cyril O’Regan is the Huisking Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame and a faculty fellow of the Keough-Naughton Institute. He is author of Anatomy of Misremembering: Von Balthasar’s Response to Philosophical Modernity. Volume 1: Hegel.