1877 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Mary Tighe

E. Owens Blackburne (Elizabeth Casey), "Mrs. Mary Tighe" Illustrious Irishwomen (1877) 2:51-63.



Born in 1772, the daughter of the Rev. William Blachford and of Theodosia, only daughter of Lady Mary Tighe, daughter of Lord Darnley. Mary Blachford, the subject of this memoir, was scarcely in her twentieth year when she appeared in the brilliant and cultivated Dublin Society of that period. There are two original portraits of her extant; one, a miniature by Comerford, now in the possession of the Right Hon. William Tighe, of Woodstock: the other is an oil painting by Romney, the property of Lady Laura Grattan. She is depicted with rich flowing, dark-brown hair, a few tendrils of which stray upon her smooth, intellectual forehead. The eyes are of a deep blue: large and pellucid, with a wondering wistful look in them: the lower part of the face is exquisitely formed, the chiselled round chin and rather small, fall, soft mouth indicating, in a remarkable degree, sensitiveness and sensuousness — the latter an essential of the poetic temperament — without the slightest trace of sensuality. The general expression of the countenance is sweet, innocent, and lofty, but tinged with a look of inexpressible sadness.

Young, beautiful, and gifted, she was the centre of attraction in the brilliant vice-regal Court of Dublin before the Union. They were Dublin's palmiest days; when the Ranelagh Gardens were the resort of the beaux and belles, when the Parliament was held in College Green, and the members had their town residences in Dublin, and when the Lord-Lieutenant danced with the mysterious shamrock-dressed lady at Saint Patrick's Ball, who vanished as the clock struck twelve, and kissed the knocker of Dublin Castle on her way out.

Both as Mary Blachford and as Mary Tighe, she must have witnessed all this: she must also have been cognisant of that last pathetic Parliament, held in the long low-ceiling upper room of a house in Donnybrook, when the few members who could not be bought, despairingly acknowledged the death of Dublin society and of Dublin's commercial prosperity. But although she lived through an eventful period of her country's history, Mrs. Tighe makes no allusion to these troublous times in any of her writings. Of her, indeed, it may truly be said that — "Her soul was like a star, and dwelt apart."

She lived an inner life which none might know. The following lines written by her in the year 1792, at the close of a gay Dublin season, afford a graphic picture of the tone of her mind:—

Returned at length to solitude and peace,
Once more my heart resumes its lov'd pursuits,
Once more I seek my lost poetic ease
And wander, searching for Castalia's fruits.

But ah! in vain, to me the Nine refuse
Inspiring succour and enkindling thought,
Too long, alas! I have renounced the Muse,
Her voice neglected, and her lyre forgot.

Lost in a crowd of folly and of noise,
With vain delights my bosom learnt to beat,
Resigned the pleasures I had made my choice
Of calm philosophy and wisdom sweet.

For in the circles of the vain and gay,
No more her tranquil state my soul enjoyed,
In busy idleness I passed the day,
And mirth, and dress, and song my horns employed.

To fix the attention of admiring eyes,
To move with elegance and talk with ease,
To be the object of the practised sigh,
To attract the notice, and the ear to please.

The empty flattery, which my heart despised,
The present frenzy which the dance inspired,
Joys, which my reason never could have prized,
And which, till tasted, I had ne'er desired.

Yet these had charms which now I blush to own,
Powers, which I then believed not they possess'd
The Muse to banish from her humble throne,
Where she so oft had fired my glowing breast.

But the remembrance of these empty hours
Affords no single pleasure to my mind;
My soul regrets her lost collective powers,
And sighs once more her wonted calm to find.

For Folly's influence I yet deplore,
A vacant gloom she o'er my heart hath spread;
The secret charm of solitude is o'er,
My thoughts are scattered, and the Muses fled.

Such was the low ambition of my mind,
Such were the vain desires I formed,
For such delights my calmer joys resigned,
And quenched the fires which had my bosom warmed.

She was Mary Blachford when she wrote the foregoing verses, and mingled in the society which she so despises herself for having been enthralled with, chaperoned by her aunt, Mrs. Tighe, of Rosanna, one of the most cultivated women of the day. Her father was dead; he died when she was an infant of but a few months old, and her mother, a strict unbending Puritan of ascetic habits, chose to live in retirement, and thus it was that her aunt introduced the beautiful Mary into that brilliant assemblage of which she became speedily so bright an ornament.

This Mrs. Tighe, of Rosanna, had a son named Henry, who was but one year older than her niece. The young people were much in each other's society, and Henry Tighe, who had just been returned as member for Kilkenny in the Irish Parliament, fell deeply in love with his fascinating cousin. She returned the feeling, and the youthful pair were married on October 6th, 1793, the bride being within three days of her twenty-first birthday, and the bridegroom in his twenty-third year. Henry Tighe wished to be called to the English Bar, so they went to live in London, in Manchester Square, the house they occupied belonging to his mother. But he seems to have had little taste for the drudgery of the law; and gradually allowed himself to be drawn away from more serious pursuits to take up the role of a London man of fashion. His wife's beauty and her many other superior attractions were powerful influences to gather around them a large circle of all those in the Metropolis famed for the graces of mind or person. It was a fascinating and dangerous sort of society for a young and beautiful woman to mix in, where she must have been the object of insidious flattery, and of the innumerable and intangible temptations to which a woman, excelling, as she did, in mind and in person, must have been subjected to. For a time this life seemed to charm her; but her higher nature, which no contact with the world could sully, at length asserted itself; and her feelings found vent in that magnificent outburst of poetry, which for sublimity of sentiment, graceful diction, and true poetic strength, is only second to the Faery Queen of Edmund Spenser.

Psyche, the poem here referred to, is one of the most marvellous poems that has ever been written by any woman in any age, Elizabeth Barrett Browning alone excepted. It stands alone in the literature of Ireland — pure, polished, sublime — the outpouring of a trammelled soul yearning to be freed from its uncongenial surroundings. The publication of this poem in 1795 at once established Mrs. Tighe's reputation as a poetess (although, at first, it was only printed for private circulation), and the fanciful name of "Psyche" was bestowed upon her by her admirers. By it she is best known in literature. But there are drawbacks to every earthly triumph, and although now in the zenith of her literary fame, she was forced, through serious illness, to give up that society of which she was so distinguished an ornament, and to retire to Cheltenham in search of health. Here she became rapidly worse; and during a dark hour, when her life hung in the balance, she gave expression to her feelings in the following sonnet

O! Thou most terrible, most dreaded Power,
In whatsoever form thou meetest the eye!
Whether thou biddest thy sudden arrow fly
In the dread silence of the midnight hour;
Or whether, hovering o'er the lingering wretch,
Thy sad cold javelin hangs suspended long,
While round the couch the weeping kindred throng
With hope and fear alternately on stretch.
Oh say; for me what honours are prepared?
Am I now doomed to meet thy fatal arm,
Or wilt thou first from life steal every charm,
And bear away each good my soul would guard?
That thus, deprived of all it loved, my heart
From life itself contentedly may part!

However, the time was not yet ripe for Death to claim Mary Tighe as his own. She never quite recovered her health, and was continually moving about from one place to the other in a vain search for it. She was tenderly attached to her husband, and, in order to please him, associated with the companions he selected, although they must have been utterly distasteful to a woman of her pure and refined tastes. Indeed, save intellectually, there seems to have been but little sympathy between them. They returned to Ireland in 1797, and nothing can give a better idea of her intense love for the simple pleasures of a country life than the following lines to the river Vartry, written at Rosanna in the July of the same year:—

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.

How bright the lustre of thy silver tide,
Which winds, reluctant to forsake the vale!
How play the quivering branches on thy side,
And lucid catch the sunbeams in the gale!

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 gleams, where day can scarcely dawn.

How soothing, in the dark sequestered grove,
To see thy placid waters seem to sleep!
Pleased, they reflect the sober tints they love
As, unperceived, in silent peace they creep.

The deepest foliage bending o'er thy wave,
Tastes thy pure kisses, with embracing arms,
While each charmed Dryad stoops her limbs to lave,
Thy smiling Naiad meets her sister charms.

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.

Here, Mary, rest! the dangerous path forsake
Where folly lures thee, and where vice ensnares,
Thine innocence and peace no longer stake,
Nor barter solid good for brilliant cares.

Shun the vain bustle of the senseless crowd,
Where all is hollow that appears like joy;
Where, the soft claims of feeling disallowed,
Fallacious hopes the baffled soul annoy.

Hast thou not trod each vain and giddy maze—
By flattery led, o'er pleasure's gayest field?
Basked in the sunshine of her brightest blaze,
And proved whate'er she can her votaries yield.

That full completion of each glowing hope,
Which youth and novelty could scarce bestow,
From the last days of joy's exhausted cup,
Canst thou expect thy years mature shall know?

Hast thou not tried the vanities of life,
And all the poor mean joys of fashion known,
Blush, then, to hold with wisdom longer strife,
Submit at length a better guide to own.

Here woo the Muses in the scenes they love;
Let science near thee take her patient stand;
Each weak regret for gayer hours reprove,
And yield thy soul to Reason's calm command.
Rosanna, July, 1797.

In consequence of the unsettled state of the country, which culminated in the disastrous Irish rebellion of 1798, her husband was much away from her, his parliamentary duties occupying him when not engrossed by active service in a yeomanry corps. During this time Mrs. Tighe lived at Rosanna with her mother-in-law, who would not leave the place, although the house was once attacked by the rebels. But declining health compelled her to go elsewhere in search of strength. For the few succeeding years she resided occasionally at various English watering-places, and in 1805 returned to Ireland, never again to leave it.

After 1805 Mrs. Tighe chiefly resided in Dominick Street, Dublin, and was so far enfeebled by constant illness that she lost the use of her limbs, and was obliged always to lie on a sofa. Notwithstanding this affliction, her vigour if mind was unimpaired, and she received constant assemblies of all that was most intellectual in Dublin society. Around that lovely and patient invalid's couch might be seen gathered Charlemont, Lady St. George, Lydia White, vain Sydney Owenson, with her carefully-arranged scarf, and Thomas Moore, who had not at that period become "Lord Lansdowne's piper," nor had then given vent to those wild outbursts of hatred against the Saxon which he sung to solace a Whig peer in the intervals of drawing up a Coercion Bill, for the bard's — "Loved island of sorrow!"

Letters written by her at this period, and which are now in the possession of members of her family, show but too plainly that her bodily pains were not to be compared to the mental agony she underwent as the result of her ill-assorted marriage. Her Psyche seemed to be rebelling against the chains which bound her to earth, and struggled to get free.

In 1809 she went to Woodstock, the beautiful seat of her husband's elder brother, Mr. William Tighe, author of The Plants, and there she remained until her death, in 1810. She was perfectly aware that the terrible lingering disease from which she suffered was incurable, and her last lines — written in 1809, upon receiving a branch of Mezerion in flower — seem prophetic of her death before the coming springtime:—

Odours of Spring, my sense ye charm
With fragrance premature,
And 'mid these days of dark alarm
Almost to hope allure.
Methinks with purpose soft ye come
To tell of brighter hours,
Of May's blue skies' abundant bloom,
Her sunny gales and showers.

Alas! for me shall May in vain
The powers of life restore,
These eyes that weep and watch in pain
Shall see her charms no more.
No, no; this anguish cannot last—
Beloved friends — adieu!
The bitterness of death were past
Could I resign but you.

But oh! in every mortal pang
That rends my soul from life,
That soul, which seems on you to hang
Thro' each convulsive strife,
Even now, with agonising grasp
Of terror and regret,
To all, in life, its love would clasp
Clings close and closer yet.

Yet why — immortal, vital spark,
Thus mortally opprest?
Look up, my soul, through prospects dark,
And bid thy terrors rest.
Forget — forego thy earthly part,
Thine heavenly being trust.
Ah! vain attempt! my coward heart
Still shuddering clings to dust!

Oh! ye who soothe the pangs of death
With love's own patient care,
Still — still retain this fleeting breath,
Still pour the fervent prayer.
And ye — whose smile must greet my eye
No more — nor voice my ear,
Who breathed for me the tender sigh,
And shed the pitying tear;

Whose kindness (tho' far, far removed)
My grateful thoughts perceive,
Pride of my life — esteemed — beloved—
My last sad claim receive!
Oh do not quite your friend forget—
Forget alone her faults!
And speak of her with fond regret
Who asks your lingering thoughts.

All her fears of death were entirely removed before she breathed her last, on March 24th, 1810. She died as she had lived, a simple, earnest Christian, an ornament of her sex, and of the social and intellectual life of the land she lived in and belonged to.

Mary Tighe is buried in the churchyard of Inistiogue. Over her remains her husband placed a handsome monumental chamber, containing a reclining statue by Flaxman; and her brother-in-law, Mr. William Tighe, inscribed upon her tomb the following lines to her memory:—

If on this earth she passed in mortal guise
A short and painful pilgrimage, shall we,
Her sad survivors, grieve that love divine
Removed her timely to perpetual bliss?
Thou art not lost! in chastest song and pure
With us still lives thy virtuous mind, and seems
A beacon for the weary soul, to guide
Her safely through affliction's winding path
To that eternal mansion gained by thee!
W. T.