1847 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Mary Tighe

William Howitt, "Mary Tighe" Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets (1847) 1:411-22.



Perhaps no writer of merit has been more neglected by her own friends than Mrs. Tighe. With every means of giving to the public a good memoir of her, I believe no such is in existence; at all events, I have not been able to find one. The following brief particulars have been furnished by a private hand: "Mrs. Tighe was born in Dublin in 1774. Her father, the Rev. Wm. Blachford, was librarian of Marsh's library, St. Sepulchre, in that city. Her mother, Theodosia Tighe, was one of a family whose seat has been, and is, Rosanna, county Wicklow. In 1793, Miss Blachford, then but nineteen, married her cousin, Henry Tighe, of Woodstock, M.P. for Kilkenny in the Irish Parliament, and author of a County History of Kilkenny. Consumption was hereditary in Mrs. Tighe's family, and its fatal seeds ripened with her womanhood. She was constantly afflicted with its attendants, languor, depression, and want of appetite. With the profits of Psyche, which ran through four editions previous to her death, she built an addition to the Orphan Asylum in Wicklow, thence called the Psyche Ward. She died on the 24th of March, 1810, and was buried at Woodstock, in Kilkenny, beneath a monument chiseled by Flaxman from the finest marble of Italy. Mrs. Hemans, Banim, and Moore have done homage to her genius, or lamented over its eclipse. North, in the Noctes Ambrosianae, with the assistance of Mr. Timothy Tickler, has paid her a very high compliment. But her abilities, her beauty, and her virtue have not, as yet, been adequately pictured in any biographical notice of her that I have seen. The 1813 edition of Psyche contains some affecting allusions to her, in the preface written by her husband, who soon after followed her to the grave."

How little is known of Mrs. Tighe, when so short an account is the best that a countryman of hers can furnish! and even in that there are serious errors. So far from her monument being of the finest marble of Italy, it is of a stone not finer than Portland stone, if so fine. So far from her husband soon following her to the grave, Mrs. Tighe died in 1810, and her husband was living at the time of Mrs. Hemans's visit to Woodstock in 1831. He must have survived her above twenty years. In Mrs. Hemans's own account of her visit to Woodstock, she speaks of it as the place where "Mrs. Tighe passed the latest years of her life, and near where she is buried;" yet in the same volume with Psyche (1811 edition, p. 306) there is a Sonnet, written at Woodstock, in the county of Kilkenny, the seat of William Tighe, June 30,1809, i.e., but nine months before her death. For myself, I confess myself ignorant of the facts which might connect these strangely-clashing accounts of a popular poetess, of a wealthy family, and who died little more than thirty years ago. I hoped to gain the necessary information on the spot, which I made a long journey to visit purposely. Why I did not, remains to tell.

The poem of Psyche was one which charmed me intensely at an early age. There was a tone of deep and tender feeling pervading it, which touched the youthful heart, and took possession of every sensibility. There was a tone of melancholy music in it, which seemed the regretful expression of the consciousness of a not far-off death. It was now well known that the young and beautiful poetess was dead. The life which she lived — crowned with every good and grace that God confers on the bright ones of the earth, on those who are to be living revelations of the heaven to which we are called, and to which they are hastening, youth, beauty, fortune, all glorified by the emanations of a transcendent mind, was snatched away, and there was a sad fascination thrown over both her fate and her work. The delicacy, the pathos, the subdued and purified, yet intense passion of the poem, were all calculated to seize on the kindred spirit of youth, and to make you in love with the writer. She came before the imagination in the combined witchery of brilliant genius and the pure loveliness of a seraph, which had but touched upon the earth on some celestial mission, and was gone forever. Her own Psyche, in the depth of her saddest hour, yearning for the restoration of the lost heaven and the lost heart, was not more tenderly beautiful to the imagination than herself.

Such was the effect of the Psyche on the glowing, sensitive, yet immature mind. How much of this effect has, in many cases, been the result of the quick feelings and magnifying fancy of youth itself! We have returned to our idol in later years, and found it clay. But this is not the case with Psyche. After the lapse of many years, after the disenchanting effects of experience, after the enjoyment of a vast quantity of new poetry of a splendor and power such as no one age of the world ever before witnessed, we return to the poem of Mrs. Tighe, and still find it full of beauty. There is a graceful fluency of diction, a rich and deep harmony, that are the fitting vehicle of a story full of interest, and scenery full of enchantment. Spite of the incongruity of ingrafting on a Grecian fable the knight-errantry of the Middle Ages, and the allegory of still later days, we follow the deeply-tried Psyche through all her ordeals with unabating zest. The radiant Island of Pleasure, the more radiant Divinity of Love, the fatal curiosity, the weeping and outcast Psyche wandering on through the forests and wildernesses of her earthly penance, the mysterious knight, the intrepid squire of the starry brow, are all sketched with the genuine pencil of poetry, and we follow the fortunes of the wanderers with ever-deepening entrancement. None but Spenser himself has excelled Mrs. Tighe in the field of allegory. Passion in the form of the lion subdued by the knight; Psyche betrayed by Vanity and Flattery to Ambition; the Bower of Loose Delight; the Attacks of Slander; the Castle of Suspicion; the Court of Spleen; the drear Island of Indifference; and the final triumph and apotheosis of the gentle soul — all are vigorously conceived, and executed with a living distinctness. The pleasure with which she pursued her task is expressed in the graceful opening stanzas of the fifth canto.

Delightful visions of my lonely hours!
Charm of my life and solace of my care!
Oh! would the muse but lend proportioned powers,
And give me language, equal to declare
The wonders which she bids my fancy share,
When rapt in her to other worlds I fly,
See angel forms unutterably fair,
And hear the inexpressive harmony
That seems to float on air, and warble through the sky.

Might I the swiftly glancing scenes recall!
Bright as the roseate clouds of summer's eve,
The dreams which hold my soul in willing thrall,
And half my visionary days deceive,
Communicable shape might then receive,
And other hearts be ravished with the strain:
But scarce I seek the airy threads to weave,
When quick confusion mocks the fruitless pain,
And all the fairy forms are vanished from my brain.

Fond dreamer! meditate thine idle song!
But let thine idle song remain unknown:
The verse, which cheers thy solitude, prolong;
What, though it charm no moments but thine own,
Though thy loved Psyche smile for thee alone,
Still shall it yield thee pleasure, if not fame,
And when, escaped from tumult, thou hast flown
To thy dear silent hearth's enlivening flame,
There shall the tranquil muse her happy votary claim!

Moore has recorded his admiration of Psyche in a lyric, of which these stanzas are not the least expressive:

Tell me the witching tale again,
For never has my heart or ear
Hung on so sweet, so pure a strain,
So pure to feel, so sweet to hear.

Say, Love! in all thy spring of fame,
When the high Heaven itself was thine,
When piety confessed the flame,
And even thy errors were divine!

Did ever muse's hand so fair
A glory round thy temple spread?
Did ever life's ambrosial air
Such perfume o'er thine altars shed?

Mrs. Hemans had always been much struck with the poetry of Mrs. Tighe. She imagined a similarity between the destiny of this pensive poetess and her own. She had her in her imagination when she wrote The Grave of a Poetess; and the concluding stanzas are particularly descriptive of Mrs. Tighe's spirit.

Thou hast left sorrow in thy song.
A voice not loud, but deep!
The glorious bowers of earth among,
How often didst thou weep!

Where couldst thou fix on mortal ground,
Thy tender thoughts and high?
Now peace the woman's heart hath found,
And joy the poet's eye!

It was certainly among earth's glorious bowers that Mrs. Tighe passed her days. Rosanna, in Wicklow, is said to have been her principal residence after her marriage. The whole country round is extremely beautiful, and calculated to call forth the poetic faculty where it exists. All the way from Dublin to Rosanna is through a rich and lovely district. As you approach Rosanna the hills become higher, and your way lies through the most beautifully wooded valleys. At the inn at Ashford Bridge you have the celebrated Devil's Glen on one hand, and Rosanna on the other. This glen lies a mile or more from the inn, and is about a mile and a half through. It is narrow, the hills on either hand are lofty, bold, craggy, and finely wooded; and along the bottom runs, deep and dark over its rocky bed, the River Vartree. This river runs down and crosses the road near the inn, and then takes its way by Rosanna. Rosanna is perhaps a mile down the valley from the inn. The house is a plain old brick house, fit for a country squire. It lies low in the meadow near the river, and around it, on both sides of the water, the slopes are dotted with the most beautiful and luxuriant trees. The park at Rosanna is indeed eminently beautiful with its wood. The trees are thickly scattered, and a great proportion of them are lime, the soft, delicate foliage of which gives a peculiar character to the scenery. The highway, for the whole length of the park as you proceed toward Rathdrum, is completely arched over with magnificent beeches, presenting a fine natural arcade. On the right the ground ascends for a mile or more, covered with rich masses of wood. In fact, whichever way you turn, toward the distant hill, or pursuing your way down the valley, all is one fairy land of beauty and richness. It is a region worthy of the author of Psyche, worthy to inspire her beautiful mind; and we rejoice that so fair, and gentle, and good a spirit had there her lot cast. In her poems she addresses one to the Vartree:

Sweet are thy banks, O Vartree! when at morn
Their velvet verdure glistens with the dew;
When fragrant gales, by softest zephyrs borne,
Unfold the flowers, and ope their petals new.

And sweet thy shade, at noon's more fervid hours,
When faint we quit the upland gayer lawn,
To seek the freshness of thy sheltering bowers,
Thy chestnut glooms, where day can scarcely dawn.

Beneath the fragrant lime, or spreading beech,
The bleating flocks in panting crowds repose;
Their voice alone my dark retreat can reach,
While peace and silence all my soul compose.

In her sonnets, too, she alludes to her favorite Rosanna, and to her "Chestnut bower," which, I believe, still remains. Indeed, Rosanna will always be interesting to the lovers of gentle female virtue and pure genius, because here Psyche was written; here the author of Psyche lived, loved, and suffered.

Woodstock, where she died, lies, I suppose, forty or fifty miles distant, in Kilkenny. It is equally beautiful, though in a different style. It lies on a high, round, swelling hill — a good modern mansion. You see it afar off as you drive over a country less beautiful than that about Rosanna. There is a fine valley, along which the River Nore runs, amid splendid masses of wood, two miles in length, and meadows of the deepest green; and beyond swells up the steep round hill, covered also with fine timber to the top, eight hundred feet in elevation. The whole is bold, ample, and impressive. To reach the house you pass through the village of Innerstiogue, at the foot of the hill, and then begin the long and steep ascent. A considerable way up you are arrested by smart lodge gates, and there enter a fine and well-kept park, in which the neatness of the carriage roads, which are daily swept, and the skillfully dispersed masses of fine trees, speak of wealth, and a pride in it. On the top of the hill stands the house, commanding noble views down into the superb vale below, and over a wide extent of country.

In traveling between these two estates, a mind like that of Mrs. Tighe would find scenery not inferior to that immediately lying around both of them. In one direction she might traverse the celebrated district of Glendalough, or the Vale of the Seven Churches; in another, she might descend the Vale of Avoca, and cross some of the finest parts of Carlow to Kilkenny. I took this latter route. No part of England is more beautiful or more richly cultivated than much of this: thick woods, fertile fields, well-to-do villages, and gentlemen's houses abounded. From the little town of Rathdrum we began to descend rapidly into the Vale of Avoca, and passed the Meeting of the Waters just before dark. The vale, so far, had a very different character to what I expected. I expected it to be a mile or two long, or so, soft, flowing, and verdant. On the contrary, it is eight miles in length, and has to me a character of greatness and extensiveness about it. It is what the Germans call "grossartig" — we want the word. You descend down and down, and feel that a deeper country is still below you. To me it had a feeling as if descending from the Alps into a champaign country. Long ranges of hills on either hand ever and anon terminated, as if to admit of a way into the country beyond, and then began again, with the river wandering on still far below us; and here and there stupendous masses of lofty rock, open meadows, and bold, high woods. These were the features of this striking and great valley.

At the bridge, where the first meeting of the waters takes place, that is, the meeting of the two streams, Avonbeg and Avonmore, which thence become the Avoca, the driver of the car said, "Perhaps your honor knows that this is the Meeting of the Waters. It was here that Moore made his speech!"

But the most striking meeting to us was a meeting with a great number of one-horse carts, those of miners, with whom this vale abounds. They were coming up from a market at Avoca, just below, and they took no more notice of being just all in our way than if we were not there. The driver shouted, but in vain; and it was only by using his whip over them till he broke off the lash that he could get a passage. When they did draw out of the way, it was always purposely to the wrong side. The fact is, they were all drunk, and seemed to have a very animal doggedness of disposition about them. The Wooden Bridge Inn at the bottom of the vale, and at the commencement of the Vale of Arklow, and the place of the second meeting of the waters, is the great resort of travelers. The scene here has great softness. A bend of the valley, an opening of rich meadow, surrounded by hills thickly clothed with foliage, and the rivers running on to their meeting, give a feeling of great and quiet seclusion. Here I posted, as I have said, across Carlow to Kilkenny, and to Woodstock.

But at Rosanna and at Woodstock, my hope of obtaining some information regarding Mrs. Tighe — of seeing some painting or other object connected with her, was, with one exception, thoroughly frustrated. Mrs. Tighe was an angel; of her successors I have somewhat more to say. In all my visits to remarkable places in England, I have received the utmost courtesy from the proprietors of those houses and scenes which it was my object to see. In those where I was anxious to obtain sight of relics of celebrated persons of antiquity not ordinarily shown to the public, I have written to the owner to request opportunity of examining them. In such cases, noblemen of the highest rank have not, in a single instance, shown the slightest reluctance to contribute to that information which was for the public. In some cases, they have themselves gone down into the country to give me the meeting, and thrown open private cabinets, and the like depositories of rare objects, with the most active liberality. In every other case, so invariably have I found the most obliging facilities given for the prosecution of my inquiries, that I have long ceased to carry a letter of introduction; my name, of twenty-three years' standing before the public, being considered warranty enough. I found it equally so in Ireland, except with the Tighes.

At Rosanna, Mr. Dan Tighe, as the people familiarly call him, certainly not Dante, was pointed out to me by a workman, walking in the meadow before his house, handling his bullocks which grazed there. On asking the servant who came to the door whether Mr. Tighe was at home, he first, as a perfect tactician, requested my name, and he would see. I gave him my card; and though he could see his master as well as I could in the meadow, to whom I directed his attention, he very solemnly marched into the house, and returned, saying he was not in. A self-evident truth. I inquired if Mrs. Tighe was at home, explaining that I had come from England, and for what object. He said "yes, but she was lying in, and could see no one." I then inquired when Mr. Tighe might be expected in, as I should much regret losing the opportunity of learning from him any particulars connected with my present inquiry. "He could not say; most likely at six o'clock, his dinner hour." I promised to call on my way toward Avoca, about half an hour before that time, that I might not interfere with Mr. Tighe's dinner hour. I did so. Mr. Tighe was now standing in his field, not a hundred yards from his house. As soon as the servant appeared, he assured me Mr. Tighe was not at home; he could not tell where he was. I immediately directed his attention to where he stood looking at some men at work. The man did not choose to see him; and, under the circumstances, it was not for me to advance and address him. It was evident that the man had his cue; the master did not choose to be seen. I therefore mounted my car, and ordered the driver to drive off. The spirit of the place was palpable. A willing master makes a willing man; but on this man's nose sat perched that solemn lie that is unmistakable. Well, as Mr. Tighe was walking out, and Mrs. Tighe was lying in, I bade adieu to Rosanna not much wiser for my visit; but then there was Woodstock.

I drove fifty miles across the country, and found myself at the door of Woodstock. Woodstock is a show-house; and here, therefore, I anticipated no difficulty of at least obtaining a sight of portrait or statute of the late charming poetess. But, unfortunately — what in England would have been most fortunate — Mr. Tighe was at home, and the servant, on opening the door, at once informed me that the house was never shown when the family was there. Having written on my card what was my object, that I had made the journey from England for it, and added the name of a gentleman well known to Mr. Tighe, who had wished me to do so, I requested the servant to present that to Mr. Tighe. He did so; and returned, saying, "Mr. Tighe said I was at liberty to see the grounds, but not the house; and he had nothing further to say!"

My astonishment may be imagined. The servant seemed a very decent, modest sort of fellow, and I said, "Good heavens! does Mr. Tighe think I am come all the way from England to see his grounds, when ten thousand country squires could show much finer! Was there no picture of Mrs. Tighe, the poetess, that I might be allowed to see?" "He thought not; he did not know." "Was there no statue?" "He thought not, he never heard of any." "How long had he been there?" "Five years." "And never heard of a statue or a monument to Mrs. Tighe, the poetess?" "No, never! He had never heard Mrs. Tighe, the poetess, spoken of in the family! But if there were any monument, it must be at the church at Innerstiogue!" I thanked him for his intelligence, the only glimpse of information I had got at Rosanna or Woodstock, and drove off.

The matter was now clear. The very servants who had lived years in the family had never heard the name of Mrs. Tighe, the poetess, mentioned! These present Tighes had been marrying the daughters of lords — this a daughter of the Duke of Richmond, and Dan Tighe, a daughter of Lord Crofton. They were ashamed, probably, that any of their name should have degraded herself by writing poetry, which a man or woman without an acre may do. When I reached the church at Innerstiogue, the matter received a most striking confirmation. There, sure enough, was the monument, in a small mausoleum in the church-yard. It is a recumbent figure, laid on a granite altar-shaped basement. The figure is of a freestone resembling Portland stone, and is lying on its side, as on a sofa, being said, by the person who showed it, to be the position in which she died, on coming in from a walk. The execution of the whole is very ordinary, and if really by Flaxman, displays none of his genius. I have seen much better things by a common Stone-mason. There is a little angel sitting at the head, but this has never been fastened down by cement. The monument was, no doubt, erected by the widower of the poetess, who was a man of classical taste, and, I believe much attached to her. There is no inscription yet put upon the tomb, though one, said to be written by her husband, has long been cut in stone for the purpose. In the wall at the back of the monument, aloft, there is an oblong-square hole left for this inscription, which I understood was lying about at the house, but no single effort had been made to put it up, though it would not require an hour's work, and though Mrs. Tighe has been dead six-and-thirty years!

This was decisive! If these two gentlemen, nephews of the poetess, who are enjoying the two splendid estates of the family, Woodstock and Rosanna, show thus little respect to the only one of their name that ever lifted it above the mob, it is not to be expected that they will show much courtesy to strangers. Well is it that Mrs. Tighe raised her own monument, that of immortal verse, and wrote her own epitaph in the hearts of all the pure and loving, not on a stone which sordid relatives, still fonder of earth than stone, may consign to the oblivion of a lumber-room.

That these nephews of the poetess do look after the earth which her husband left behind him, though not after the stone, I learned while waiting in the village for the sexton. I fell into conversation with the woman at the cottage by which I stood. It was as follows:

Self: "Well, your landlord has a fine estate here. I hope he is good to you."

Woman: "Well, your honor, very good, very good."

Self: "Very good? What do you call very good? I find English and Irish notions of goodness don't always agree."

Woman: "Well, your honor, we may say he is mixed; mixed, your honor."

Self: "How mixed?"

Woman: "Why, your honor, you see I can't say that he was very good to me."

Self: "How was that?"

Woman: "Why, your honor, we were backward in our rent, and the squire sent for my husband, and told him that if he did not pay all next quarter, he would sell us up. My husband begged he would give him a little more time, as a neighbor said he had some money left him, and would take part of our land at a good rent, and then we should be able to pay; but now we got little, and the children were many, and it was hard to meet and tie. 'Oh!' said the squire, 'if you are going to get all that money, you will be able to pay more rent. I must have two pounds a year more.'"

Self: "Gracious Heaven! But, surely, he did not do such a thing!"

Woman: "But he did it, your honor. The neighbor had no money: it was a hum; he never took the field of us at all; we never were able to get a penny more from any one than we gave; but when my husband went to pay the rent at the next rent-day, the steward would not take it. He said he had orders to have two pounds a year more, and from that day we have had it regularly to pay."

What a fall out of the poetry of Psyche to the iron realities of Ireland! This screwing system on the poor, which you find almost every where, soon makes us cease to wonder at the wretchedness and the wild outrages of the people there. At one splendid place where I was, the lord of the estate and the gentry were all bowling away on the Sunday morning to a church three miles distant. When I asked why they did not stay at their own, this was the reply: "The clergyman had given great offense by saying in one of his sermons that their dogs were better lodged and fed than their neighbors!" Poor Ireland! where such is the distortion of circumstances that the poor are too poor to have the truth told about them to ears polite even from the pulpit, and where the squirearchy live in splendid houses, and in state emulating the peerage, surrounded by hovels and wretchedness, such as the world besides can not parallel. The condition of Ireland is fatal in its effects on all classes. The poor are reduced to a misery that is the amazement of the whole world; and the squirearchy, who live in daily contemplation of this misery, are rendered utterly callous to it. They go on putting on the screw of high rental to the utmost limit, and surrounded, as it were, only by serfs, naturally grow selfish beyond our conceptions in England, haughty, and ungracious. I believe that no country, except Russia, can furnish such revolting examples of ignorant and churlish insolence as Ireland can from the ranks of its solitary squirearchy — so utterly opposed to the generally generous, courteous, and hospitable character of its people.