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  • Poetic Jansensim:Religious and Political Representation in Denis Devlin's Poetry
  • James Matthew Wilson (bio)

Although the epithet "Jansenist" once served as a fashionable means of condemning Ireland's struggle between Catholic and national consciousness, no contemporary historian would—in the interest of describing Irish culture after the famine or in the years following the Civil War—fasten on the term. In his cultural history of Ireland, Terence Brown felt obliged to explain away its use as misapplied to the "strange marital abstemiousness" of Irish society in the half-century and more after the famine.1 One could martial forth many reasons for these and other strict moral, marital, and religious practices, Brown admits, but the theology of Cornelius Jansen (1585–1638) or his great disciple, Saint Cyran (1581–1643) is not among them. What might be set aside as a curious historical misapprehension of Irish cultural historians actually provides a lexical entryway by which to explore the struggle of Irish intellectuals with the problems of early twentieth-century modernity.

For Irish realist writers in the 1940s, "Jansenism" denoted a sense of Irish inferiority in the face of other European cultures that had entered with far less trauma onto the cosmopolitan riches of modernity. Ireland was the provincial, backward, and wounded state that refused to recover from its sutured legacy of military defeat and Catholic piety. Within this framework of a politically quietist [End Page 35] "Jansenism," the term also indicated shame at a supposedly rigorous private morality. Political energies were suppressed in the interest of a tightly orchestrated moral code imposed upon an obedient and voiceless laity. Because those voicing this word were writers, such political and moral dissatisfactions were linked with an embarrassment that art in Ireland had not attained the institutional autonomy it had through the rest of Europe. Jansenism signified Irish cultural as well as political failure.

During the period of these shots in a cultural civil war, however, Denis Devlin deployed the word "Jansenism" in the same Irish context but for properly theological ends. A poet resistant to what he saw as antiquated realist styles, Devlin embraced Jansenism as a rubric under which to practice an autonomous art that delivered on the frequent modernist promises to merge the aesthetic with the sacred. His Jansenism recognized the solitude of art in modernity as derived from widespread political injustice, but of singular and generally overlooked importance, it also viewed art as an expression of prayer and contemplation. As such, modern art could serve as a recuperative form defying the fragmentation of modernity. Although art did not compensate for a modern loss of faith by substituting itself for God, in Devlin's poetic Jansenism, art becomes the vehicle for critique of a fragmented, half-secular modernity; it takes as its end a renewed experience of religious faith in defiance of the apparent disenchantment and rationalization of twentieth-century European society.

Other scholars have elucidated the political implications of Devlin's Jansenism, but as Peggy O'Brien recently observed, Devlin's "goal" is not merely political or secular; it is also to release "a fountain of faith by means of a religious morphology."2 His "morphology," a repertoire of Roman Catholic tropes, therefore serves primarily a religious end. This essay seeks to restore the Catholic theological core of Devlin's poetic practice, but without merely shifting scholarly focus from the poet's politics to his religion. On the contrary, it argues that Devlin's Jansenism made explicit the theological dimension always present, but not always [End Page 36] recognized, in the common literary modernist complaints of historical rupture and modern chaos. Not incidentally, Devlin's theological vision serves as the condition of possibility for his compelling political critique of Ireland's failed sovereignty during the recession of British colonialism and rise of bureaucratic hegemony in the postwar international order. Scholars have already acknowledged the importance of Devlin's poetry for an understanding of Ireland's postcolonial plight in an era of world wars, Cold War, and partition, but they have failed to address the religious language and thematic that saturates his writing as more than a metaphor for that plight. In what follows, I reinstate some of the theological...


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