The Context and Development of Irish Literature:
History, Poetry, Landscape

Chapter Three:  Revolution, Emancipation, Starvation, page 6

Irish poetry in the early-to-middle nineteenth century is mainly dominated by four figures:  Thomas Moore, Samuel Ferguson, James Clarence Mangan, and Thomas Davis, and these figures range between sentimentality and protest in their politics and their poetry.

There is clearly a certain sentimentalism in Thomas Moore’s famous Irish Melodies (published in 10 volumes between 1807 and 1834).  These were enormously popular poems--at least as popular in Victorian England as in Ireland--that Moore set to music in the early 1800's.  The poems, or songs, are marked by sentimental images of the Irish landscape and culture (the Harp, the Minstrel, the Bard, the "island of sorrow," the "last rose of summer"), and seem on the surface to romanticize and sugarcoat the realities of Irish life.  Yet beneath the surface can be seen many impulses of national dignity and pride, even rebellion, as in such songs as "Dear harp of my country!  in darkness I found thee," and "The Harp that once through Tara's Halls" (which Joyce puts to powerful use in his short story "Two Gallants").  In reading Moore, one must attend to the ways in which the surface meaning might rub against the hidden meanings, and the ways in which Moore employs apparently stock devices in unusual ways.

The work of Samuel Ferguson is in this style as well:  romantic, lush, sentimental, ballad-like.  Ferguson also employs many of the figures of Irish mythology, a vein that was just beginning to be mined by Irish writers.  Ferguson sought a unity of Catholic and Protestant Ireland through this shared mythic past, and engaged in much translation work that would combine history, legend, and myth.  But another poet, James Clarence Mangan, wrote in a different style: Mangan’s poetry is tortured, alienated, homeless, negative. Mangan resists sentiment and writes tragedy in its place. His most famous poem, "Dark Rosaleen," is a love lament and a political allegory in one, a litany of the sufferings of the motherland, Ireland herself, the Dark Rosaleen of the title.  Finally, Thomas Davis stands as the most political of all these writers.  His poem/song "A Nation Once Again" puts forth the ideal of male comradeship, sacrifice in a patriotic cause, and a glorious free Ireland--ideals that would motivate Irish rebels throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

The Irish writers at the end of the 19th century would look back upon these poets with different attitudes: Yeats was strongly attracted to Ferguson, who had begun an Irish ballad tradition in English that Yeats would take up; whereas Joyce was strongly attracted to Mangan, whom he called "the most significant poet of the modern Celtic world."

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