Irish Poetry - The 19th Century

The 19th Century

During the course of the 19th century, political and economic factors resulted in the decline of the Irish language and the concurrent rise of English as the main language of Ireland. This fact is reflected in the poetry of the period.

Paradoxically, as soon as English became the dominant language of Irish poetry, the poets began to mine the Irish-language heritage as a source of themes and techniques. J. J. Callanan (1795–1829) was born in Cork and died at a young age in Lisbon. Unlike many other more visibly nationalist poets who would follow later, he knew Irish well, and several of his poems are loose versions of Irish originals. Although extremely close to Irish materials, he was also profoundly influenced by Byron and his peers; possibly his finest poem, the title work of The Recluse of Inchidony and Other Poems (1829), was written in Spenserian stanzas that were clearly inspired by Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Probably the most renowned Irish poet to write in English in a recognisably Irish fashion in the first half of the 19th century was Thomas Moore (1779–1852), although he had no knowledge of, and little respect for, the Irish language. He attended Trinity College Dublin at the same time as the revolutionary Robert Emmet, who was executed in 1803. Moore's most enduring work, Irish Melodies, was popular with English audiences. The poems are, perhaps, somewhat overloaded with harps, bards and minstrels of Erin to suit modern tastes, but they did open up the possibility of a distinctive Irish English-language poetic tradition and served as an exemplar for Irish poets to come. In 1842, Charles Gavan Duffy (1816–1903), Thomas Davis, (1814–1845), and John Blake Dillon (1816–1866) founded The Nation to agitate for reform of British rule. The group of politicians and writers associated with The Nation came to be known as the Young Irelanders. The magazine published verse, including work by Duffy and Davis, whose A Nation Once Again is still popular among Irish Nationalists. However, the most significant poet associated with The Nation was undoubtedly James Clarence Mangan (1803–1849). Mangan was a true poète maudit, who threw himself into the role of bard, and even included translations of bardic poems in his publications.

Another poet who supported the Young Irelanders, although not directly connected with them, was Samuel Ferguson (1810–1886). Ferguson once wrote: 'my ambition (is) to raise the native elements of Irish history to a dignified level.' To this end, he wrote many verse retellings of the Old Irish sagas. He also wrote a moving elegy to Thomas Davis. Ferguson, who believed that Ireland's political fate ultimately lay within the Union, brought a new scholarly exactitude to the study and translation of Irish texts. William Allingham (1824–1889) was another important Unionist figure in Irish poetry. Born and bred in Ballyshannon, Donegal, he spent most of his working life in England and was associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and a close friend of Tennyson. His Day and Night Songs was illustrated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Millais. His most important work is the long poem, Laurence Bloomfield in Ireland (1864), a realist narrative which wittily and movingly deals with the land agitation in Ireland during the period. He was also known for his work as a collector of folk ballads in both Ireland and England.

Ferguson's research opened the way for many of the achievements of the Celtic Revival, especially those of Yeats and Douglas Hyde, but this narrative of Irish poetry which leads to the Revival as culmination can also be deceptive and occlude important poetry, such as the work of James Henry (1798–1876), medical doctor, Virgil scholar and poet. His large body of work was completely overlooked until Christopher Ricks included him in two anthologies, and eventually edited a selection of his poetry. Various in his means, cosmopolitan in his range and possessed of an acute wit, Henry shows the negative force of nationalism in Irish criticism: his omission from standard accounts and anthologies for over 100 years can only be due to his blithe disregard of the matter of Ireland. 'Irish poetry', James's example suggests, does not always have to be about Ireland.

Read more about this topic:  Irish Poetry