One of the pleasures of subscribing to Commonweal for the past fifteen years has been the knowledge that every once in a while you’d get a review by Denis Donoghue—and the confidence that, in that review, you’d see critical intelligence at its highest. Donoghue died this Wednesday at the age of ninety-two. There will be no more reviews, in Commonweal or in the many other places Donoghue published. And there will be no more books.
Of Donoghue’s thirty some books, I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite. There’s Speaking of Beauty (2003), a tactful but impassioned book that announces its mission early on—“My theme is not beauty but how we talk about it; how they, you, and I talk about it, and why we say the things we say”—before touching on taste and the ability (or inability) to educate it, Keats and Kant, the sublime and the ugly. There’s Adam’s Curse (2001), one of the best books on religion and literature published this century. And there’s his underrated 1990 memoir about growing up Catholic in the Northern Irish seaside town of Warrenpoint. In that book, he explains why he never tried his hand at writing poetry or fiction: “I knew that my intelligence was not of a creative kind.... The best fortune [my writings] aspired to was adequacy: they were good enough if they were justly responsive to something someone else had done.” So much of Donoghue’s ethos is in that last sentence: the wisdom that comes from knowing what is beyond one’s capacities, the notion that the good critic is judicious above all else, the humility before the thing he’s responding to. He once wrote of T. S. Eliot, “Eliot makes me feel that his ways with the English language will continue to be opaque, no matter how much time and concern I spend on them.” Precisely because he felt this way, Words Alone (2000) makes Eliot’s poetry feel less opaque, or at least allows us to see its opacity more clearly.
R. P. Blackmur, an earlier critic much admired by Donoghue, described criticism as “requir[ing] a constant intricate shifting and catching of balance.” Donoghue performed this balletic dance with tact and honesty. He wanted to get things right, or as right as we can get them: schooled by the Christian Brothers in the ways of original sin, he knew how inevitably we fall short. He demanded that poets and novelists and critics strive for rightness, too. He always gave you the sense that whatever he wrote about—beauty or violence, grief or God—mattered. That, in the end, is the critic’s great task. Joseph Conrad said that the novelist must “make you see.” The critic must make you care. Donoghue performed that task beautifully.