Denis Donoghue (1929-2021)

by Walter Baumann

It was in March 1973 when G. Singh organized a Commemorative Symposium for Ezra Pound at Queen’s University in Belfast. Denis Donoghue was one of the invited speakers. Oliver Edwards and I were to pick him up from the “Enterprise,” the Dublin to Belfast train. We were a bit late and the platform seemed empty. Eventually, when we looked high enough, we saw him, all the 6ft 7in of him. He hadn’t seen us because he hadn’t looked low enough. My car was a tiny, rusty old Fiat 500. I can’t remember how he ever managed to clamber into the passenger seat.

Ezra Pound’s Selected Prose had appeared just weeks before. It was from Denis I first heard the phrase from the now, thanks to Cookson, generally accessible: “I Gather the Limbs of Osiris,” so crucial in Pound’s thought and writing: the “luminous detail.” I’ve pretty well forgotten everything else Denis said, but that he introduced me to the concept of the “luminous detail” I have remembered all these 48 years. 

The second time I met Denis Donoghue was in June 2003. To mark his 75th birthday a conference was held in his honour at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast entitled “Transatlantic Poetics and the Discipline of Literature.” In a coffee break he and I had a very nice chat about the symposium of 30 years ago and about Oliver Edwards, my predecessor at Magee College and our mutual friend, who, like Denis himself, never got the life of W. B. Yeats written. It was just before that symposium that Denis had withdrawn from his contract with Oxford University Press to write the authorized biography of Yeats because the literary executor, Senator Michael Yeats, had allowed other Yeats scholars access to documents that Denis considered were for his exclusive use. 

My last chat with Denis was at Hailey Airport after the Sun Valley Pound conference, also in 2003. He had been the invited keynote speaker. Under the title “A Packet for Ezra Pound,” he delivered his thoughts about being an American in Europe, as reflected in Henry James, T. S. Eliot and Pound. He admitted that this was only his second essay on Pound. Most of his other writings on him are reviews of Pound books, usually published in the Irish Times. I wouldn’t call Denis a Poundian, but a very friendly observer of Poundians.

When we had boarded the rather cramped commuter plane to Salt Lake City, I noticed that they had given Denis the seat at the back, where he had more room for his long legs than in my tiny Fiat 500 48 years earlier.