1883 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joseph Jeremiah Callanan

M. F. McCarthy, Memoir in Gems of the Cork Poets (1883) xi-xvi.



A lengthy detailed biography of Mr. Callanan would be quite out of place. His career was a short one, and not marked by any very stirring events. He met with and worked through, after his own fashion, a variety of trials and vicissitudes, but they were not more severe than those with which thousands of men around us are coping every day. The narrative of their battle of life we never think of giving to the public — no one would care for it. But the poet we never deal with as an ordinary man. What would be commonplace in another is, at least for his admirers, replete with interest in him. We are anxious to know all about him — to know him without his works as well as within them — to be able to compare the thoughts and sentiments he has uttered to the world with those that lived and moved really within him; and we will love him all the better should we find that he has sketched from life. This interest many of us, particularly in the South of Ireland, feel in J. J. Callanan.

He was born in Cork, in the year 1795, and from his very birth was devoted, by the piety of his parents, to the priesthood — rather rashly, as the event showed. There was nothing remarkable in his boyhood. He describes it himself, and, as my informants testify, justly, in the single line — "A boyhood wayward, warm and wild." At school there is no foreshadowing of the future poet. He was a clever boy, gifted with a wondrous memory, but not otherwise distinguished. Neither here, nor afterwards at college, does he reach to any pre-eminence above his fellows. One master of his assured the present writer that he always foresaw "Jerry's future greatness," but I fear his was much of a "post factum" judgment. Mr. Callanan was never through life conspicuous for industry, and probably the "boy was father of the man." He had talent enough to distinguish himself both at school and in college, but he did not give his talent fair play. Schoolmates and college acquaintances agree in this.

His preparatory classical studies were completed between the schools of Mr. O'Sullivan, in Cork, and Dr. Harrington, at Cove, alias Queenstown, and he entered Maynooth for the class of rhetoric at the age of seventeen. Up to this he appears to have been at least passive as regards the choice of the clerical state. He had for it neither definite liking nor dislike, and allowed matters to proceed according to the disposal of his parents, whom he dearly loved. Now, however, passiveness was no longer possible. He must now choose, not by proxy, but of himself, and the choice, once made, is irrevocable. Hitherto he had seen the priesthood under only one aspect — that of the state chosen for him by his parents. Its solemn nature, its grave obligations, the arduous self-denial inherent to it, had never cost him a thought. They were now made to him the subject of daily lecture and daily meditation. Twice each year he was brought into the solitude of retreat to ponder on the solemnity of the Christian priesthood, and to discuss with his own conscience the questions, — "May I presume to aspire to this solemn state? What is my aptitude for it?" One can easily understand how a mind like his must have brooded over all this; how great must have been the struggle within him as the necessity to determine for himself grew day by day into a more nearly approaching reality.

He was by nature almost morbidly sensitive, and sensitive people have a peculiar talent for detecting those of a fellow feeling, and love to associate with them. We are not, then, surprised when we find Mr. Callanan associated with the most scrupulous of his fellow-students, doing and suffering injury by the companionship.

Poor loving, doubt-distracted heart! it must have had many a pang during those two years of self-scrutiny. Which of these two paths is he to take? There comes the blighting of the long and fondly-cherished hopes of those he holds dearest on earth if he choose this; the strong word of the Apostle — "No man takes upon himself the honour, unless he who has been called by God, as Aaron," warns him from the other. It was a painful, despairful dilemma; and conscientious men must admire his decision, although perhaps, and even more than perhaps, as he himself and those who best knew him afterwards thought, he did not decide aright. He left Maynooth in the summer of 1815, determined not to return. A Rev. Mr. Magrath, a college friend of his, communicated this intention to his father at the end of vacation; but the good man took it so ill, that Mr. Callanan was induced to make another experiment of himself. He writes to his sister — "If this letter makes my parents easy, it will restore to me that peace which I want no less than they. To relieve their anxiety, I shall endeavour to know myself more thoroughly." He returned to Maynooth, made his spiritual retreat, and left almost immediately. He writes to his father: — "I have consulted two clergymen, eminent for piety and prudence; they have both been of opinion that I should follow the promptings of my conscience. I hope this will meet the approbation of God Himself."

Now for a weary, aimless course! Of twenty years of age, but of as little worldly wisdom as a child, he has broken from his moorings, and is floating away outward into the wide sea of life. Whitherwards? He had not yet thought of any definite pursuit. He was like one escaping from some dreaded object — anywhere, anywhere, was his feeling. It is not wonderful that in the agitation and confusion necessarily attendant on his leaving college, he should have no alternative provided; but it is wonderful that never, to the very end of his life, did he practically, permanently think about any definite pursuit. The following entry is found amongst his latest memoranda: — "Lisbon, November, 1827 — Recollections of Maynooth — morning bell — frosty morning — five o'clock. Benedicamus — Soldier of Jesus, mine was not your lot — the better way is to submit to what I must be — what thou willest, or I am lost for ever — oceans of mercy, let but the remotest billow touch me and I am saved — deep moonlight — cloudy region of my own soul." It reads as if, with all his "promptings of conscience " and confessor's sanction, he had still had always some misgiving about his abandonment of the clerical state. He had certainly many of the finest qualities of a worthy priest, and it would be quite unfair to conclude that the unstable and purposeless character of his life after leaving Maynooth would have appeared in a fixed and well-defined avocation. But perhaps what was, was best.

Our author was probably not without becoming conscious of his possession of the poetic faculty before his twenty-first year, though we have no evidence thereof. In the Recluse of Inchidony, he speaks of his youthful admiration of Byron in a manner that would indicate something more than merely speculative appreciation — "Bard of my boyhood's love." I cannot believe, however, that Moore also did not come in for a share of his boyhood's love, and I am disposed to add, Scott. Certainly both, as well as Byron, came at length to hold a high place in his esteem. His first known efforts are of the date 1816, the year after leaving college; but I would fix the decided opening of his poetical career about the period of his connection with Trinity College. He had indulged in verse up to that time as an essay, an amusement; other projects were at least entertained and attempted after a manner, but henceforward I fear he only thought of being a poet. The successful competition for two prizes in poetry seems to have determined his vocation.

He had joined the university with a view to qualify for the medical profession. Bearers of the Callanan name had been noted physicians in the western district of Cork county. The connection of the name with excellence in the healing art had passed into a proverb; and it was on no other account he dreamed of being a doctor, for he had no fitness or taste for the life. He was connected with Trinity College for two years, and, except the prize poems already mentioned, did nothing. He paid fees for medical lectures, but I believe never attended one. He returned to Cork aimless and unfixed as ever.

There would neither be interest for the reader, nor pleasure to the writer in a detailed account of his life henceforward. Nor, indeed, is there much in it. He contributed some things to Blackwood, he advertised a volume of poems for publication, he projected a collection of Irish songs, he struck out the outline of stories, some in prose, some in, verse, illustrative of Irish legend or history, he completed a few of the latter, he sometimes settled down at his sister's, sometimes availed of the hospitality of good friends, and tarried amid scenes full of attraction for him — the glens and mountains of West Cork. Occasionally he grows tired of idleness and dependence, and accepts an engagement with Dr. Maginn, father of the celebrated Maginn, in Cork, or with Mr. Lynch at the Everton School, finally in Lisbon — voila tout! There is only one period of his life, since leaving Maynooth, on which one can dwell with pleasure — the period from his arrival in Lisbon to his death. Here, in a strange country, without the light of familiar faces to cheer him, he is forced in upon himself. He reads over the history of his own past — his mistakes, his vicissitudes, his disappointments, and grows wise and good as he reads. Ill health has intensified the sensibility of a naturally highly sensitive mind, and he is full of shame and sorrow as the errors and shortcomings of the past ten years rise before him. In a note-book kept by him at this time we read as follows: — "What a dark waste I leave behind!" Again — "God pursues me; I hope God has overtaken me, but not in His justice. My director in Ireland told me that God was pursuing me; my director here in Lisbon says something similar. I did not wait for God, but he followed me over the ocean, and I hope has overtaken me. A million of praises to God! I have been at communion to-day." His noble heart begins to vindicate itself, and beats, after the old fashion. The old worthy objects of love, half forgotten, half obscured, come again freshly and vividly before him. He thinks of God, of the Virgin Mother, of his father, friends. "Christmas eve, 1827. This night twelvemonth I was in Clonakilty with dear friends; this night I am alone in a land of strangers, but, as I purpose, please God, I seek to be alone with God, I shall be happy anywhere." "Jan. 1st, 1828. — In the name of the most Holy Trinity. Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto, sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper in saecula saeculorum. Amen." In another place — "Most pure above the angels and the saints, Mary, shall not this harp be strung to thee, thou loveliest far of all ever born of earth — woman, but mother of Jesus — Virgin, the heaven-born snow is dark to thy purity and brightness." Again:—

Beneath the sun of Portugal, where golden Tais shines,
I sat upon the hill that crowns the "Valley of the Vines,"
A breeze came coolly from the north, like an angel's passing wing,
And gently touching it awaked sad memory's sleeping sting:
I thought upon my friends and home, and on my rather dear,
And from my heart there came a sigh, and to mine eye a tear,...
—and I thought how happy I should be
Were I upon the Virgin's Bank that looks across the sea.

We cannot afford to sympathise with him in his desolation, so purifying has been its influence, and it has so well brought out his better parts. In that lone, sick chamber, finding society in his own exquisite thoughts, he is admirable, he is lovable. It is a pity that he did not outlive this discipline to give us the results of his awakened energy, to work out those beautiful designs of sacred and national poetry which we find in mere outline in his note-book. But it is better, perhaps, as it is. Requiescat in pace.

The moral qualities of our author were of a very high order. Those who knew him well speak of him as scrupulously truthful, and honourable almost to romance. He was meek, and charitable in speech to a degree not very common in those days. He never spoke ill of man; no injury could provoke him to it. Ingratitude itself did not awaken in him a spirit of resentment. Add to these qualities a rare gentleness of manner, and we can easily believe that he was, as is told, very dear to all that had intercourse with him. His more intimate acquaintances felt for him an attachment nearly amounting to devotion; and though thirty years have gone by since his death, he is still fondly remembered by many. He was fond of society during the unsettled portion of his life, but I do not think that he was constitutionally averse to solitude. If we take his own testimony he rather loved to be alone. "0 solitude, I love thee well." However this be, society was fond of him. There was a rare charm in his conversation, derived more from liveliness and unfailing good-humour than from wit. He sang and recited his own poetry with great animation.

Of his poetic powers widely differing estimates have been formed by different critics. His writings were originally given to the public in a very imperfect and unfavourable manner, a circumstance of itself sufficient to damn with judges of a certain stamp. However, the great test of literary merit, permanent and general popularity, may be now fairly referred to as having decided in favour of many of his shorter poems — Gougane Barra, his translations from the Irish, and some of his vessel on sacred subjects. Had Childe Harold not been written before it, or had another metre been adopted, there is writing in the Recluse of Inchidony that would entitle it to a high place amongst the poems of this century. The Accession of George the Fourth is a beautiful piece of poetry, but what poetry will not be drawn down into the abyss by its subject? The Restoration of the Spoils of Athens also is redolent of Byron; Donal Comm is decidedly the most original and independent, and, therefore, the best of his long poems; but I am persuaded that in national songs and legends, and in sacred poetry, lay his forte. These subjects were nearer his heart, and in every line he wrote his heart was guide to his head. All his writings are characterised by a liveliness of fancy, a beautiful simplicity of language, and smoothness of verse. He composed rapidly, and without effort of much thought, and rarely committed his verses to writing until some purpose required it. There are some lines of his never published elsewhere, with which this sketch may be suitably concluded. They are his own portrait of his character

A poet's eye whilst yet a child,
A boyhood, wayward, warm, and wild,
A youth that mocked correction's rod,
Caressed would strive to be a god,
And scorned to take the second place,
In class, or honour, field, or race;
A manhood with a soul that flies
More high than heaven's own highest skies,
But with a wing that oft will stoop,
And trail in filthiest dross, and droop;
A heart that knows no other fears
But fear of him beyond the spheres.
With brow and cheek and look as mild
As ever graced a sinless child,
But still with passions strong and warns
As lava flood or headlong storm;
With rebel tumult in his veins,
And one who rides with spurs, not reins;
With mind, which through the waves of sin
Still hears the helmsman's voice within.
In short, a man who has no life,
Unless he feel the mortal strife
Of songs and harps and Freedom's fights,
And glory's call and Erin's rights—
Who's weak, but looks for strength above,
Who'd die for those he ought to love.