The Myth of the Song Poet

by Jack Hardy

Jack Hardy's fascination with Clarence Mangan is interesting for a number of reasons. From this essay (a transcript of a lecture Jack delivered to the James Joyce Society), it will become clear--maybe for the first time--what some of his songs are all about. Moreover, those who know Jack can't help but notice the similarities that have withstood the 100 years and the differing circumstances that otherwise separate their lives.

There is an ancient Irish myth of a Leanhaun Shee, a member of the fairy world who hunts the bardic poets. In the words of Yeats:

The Leanhaun Shee (fairy mistress) seeks the love of man. If they refuse, she is their slave. If they consent, they are hers and can only escape by finding one to take their place. Her lovers waste away, for she lives on their life. Most of the Gaelic poets down to quite recent times have had a Leanhaun Shee, for she gives inspiration to her slaves. She is the Gaelic muse.

At the point Yeats wrote this, he was involved in his "tragic" love affair with Maude Gonne and was probably looking for a way to understand and mythologize this power she had over him. About the same time, Yeats wrote an essay entitled Clarence Manganís Love Affair. If we cast Yeats in the role of the poet who transcends the lure of the Leanhaun Shee, we have to cast Clarence Mangan in the other role.

It has been said that "it has been Manganís fate to be often discovered." Yeats "discovered" him in 1887. Joyce "discovered" him in 1902. I "discovered" him in 1977. Indeed, there is something fascinating about this romantic and tragic figure that is heightened by his obscurity. In the sense that myths are the personification or archetype of some human characteristic or trait, Mangan is the definitive song poet. Yeatsís essay, like so many others on the subject of Mangan, begins with a brief recapitulation of the poetís life and reads like a litany of sorrows.

Clarence Mangan was born on May 1, 1803 the year Robert Emmet was hanged. Or, in terms of myth, he was born in the "liberties" of Dublin, at No. 3 Fishamble Street, in the house of Usher on the day of the ancient Druidic festival of Bealtaine.

He studied under a local Catholic priest until, at age fifteen, he was sent to work as a scrivener, and worked from five in the morning until nine at night for ten years. The money he made went to support his destitute family. Here the mythic overtones increase: the diamond in the rough, the pearl in the oyster, or genius out of squalor.

A fragment of autobiography, written later in life, talks about frequent illness, which was perhaps psychosomatic, but which may also have caused his turning to opium and then alcohol. His study of literature began at an early age. He was infatuated with the poetry of Byron, the excesses of Coleridge, and the hideous dress of Maturin. He studied the occult. He read Swedenborg, though he returned later to the Catholic fold.

He quit or lost his subsequent jobs at the ordinance survey office and at Trinity College library, and tried to subsist on his meager earnings from publishing poetry and prose in the various Dublin journals. Several of his patrons went to great lengths to extend him credit of trust and money, most of which was squandered.

He died June 20, 1849, in Meath Hospital, not far from where he was born, in the midst of a cholera epidemic during the potato famine. There were only five (some say three) mourners at his funeral. To add insult to his injury, his final, feverish writings were burned by the nurses out of fear of another reprimand over hospital cleanliness. Even his gravestone bears the wrong death date.

As you can see, the mythmaker has plenty to work with, for the mythmaker fills in the gaps, and of these there are many. Mangan had few friends. He was aloof and secretive. And perhaps he himself affected or believed in myth, with his affected, eccentric dress of baggy pants, a cape, a witchís hat, and hair so unkempt that many thought it was a wig.

Also, what few anecdotes survive are thoroughly entertaining. For instance, one day when Manganís friend, Father Mehan, had fetched the poet out of the gutter, he brought him in front of a mirror, thinking that his own image would frighten him to his senses. Mangan took one look in the mirror and said, "Thatís nothing compared to the inner man." The inner man was one of Manganís favorite themes; that "lampless" or "nameless" area of the human soul. He had to put his faith in the nonmaterial as all Ireland had to, having been raped of all her material for centuries upon centuries. His faith was in his craft.

And what of his "love affair" of which so many have written? Mitchel, his first biographer, says:

He was on terms of visiting in a house where were three sisters; one of them a beautiful, a spirituelle, and a coquette. The old story was here once more re-enacted in due order. Paradise opened before him: the imaginate and passionate soul of a devoted boy bended in homage before an enchantress ... then with cold surprise ... (she) whistled him down the wind.
By the time the story was retold in Appletonís Journal (1880), it had been so embellished as to have become:
A pair of bright eyes had attracted and ensnared him, and when he had the boldness to appear as a petitioner in the court of Cupid, the owner of the same bright eyes loftily rebuked his presumption.

OíDonoghue, his most definitive biographer, repeats his story and adds:

He proceed to tell how he foolishly introduces a friend, to a lady ... He was jilted in favor of the "friend."

However, Charles Duffy Gavin, who was the "life long friend" in question, who was there at the time, writes that too much has been made of all this, that:

The poetic fancy is often and easily kindled and the indispensable heroine, if she does not present herself in his daily life, is borrowed from the region of vision or often from some casual and momentary encounter with an attractive face.

Duffy goes on to say that it was a myth that Mangan was addicted to opium.

But most of the subsequent writers seem to want to perpetuate these stories as part of the myth of Mangan. Perhaps Mangan even set himself up to be betrayed, to live out his predestined part of the myth. Mangan himself said that "she listened (to him) as willingly, it seemed, as Desdemons to the Moor." Perhaps he was already lost in the myth even as the play was acted out. Carleton, one of Manganís contemporaries, had published a folk tale called ďThe Leanhaun Shee,Ē which Mangan undoubtedly read. His poetry subsequently did take a turn for the better, adding a personal depth even to his anthems.

Also as a part of the myth is a pre-occupation with the fate of genius: that the bard is somehow different and cursed. From Yeatsís aforementioned essay:

The exceptional is ever persecuted. If you tie a red ribbon to the leg of a sea gull the other gulls will pick it to death. In the soul of Clarence Mangan was tied the burning ribbon of genius.

And from a poem Mangan wrote at age sixteen:

O Genius! Genius! all thou dost endure,
First from thyself, and finally from those
The earth-bound and the blind, who cannot feel
That there be souls with purposes as pure
And lofty as the mountain snows, and zeal
All quenchless as the spirit whence it flows.

Let us discuss for a moment the bardic tradition. The bards grew out of one of the castes of the Druids. They were the keepers of the history, the keepers of the mysteries. To become a bard one would have to spend twenty years or more learning verse, for it was an oral tradition. As the Druidic power subsided, the bards evolved into a special caste, eventually becoming the shanachie. They were the only citizens free to roam. They were not constrained by the laws of economics. They were the only ones free to criticize the king and his court without losing their heads. They had the freedom to follow the muse. But they also had something else: the leftover tradition of an elaborate craft, with great feats of memory, word play, and meter, and rhyme schemes.

With the occupation of the Normans and subsequently the British, they also became the conscience of Ireland. Already being versed in the talents of outwitting tyranny, their satire became a political morale booster. When the British outlawed the Irish language, they were uniquely equipped to carry on the oral tradition.

Mangan brought this important tradition back to life in several ways. He translated the old bards from the Irish at a time when Irish nationalism needed and identity. He showed that this uniquely rich craft could be applied to the English language. And he lived the part of these bards, even in an urban setting. He too would not be tied to the laws of economics, He, too, criticized the government through his verse. He, too, became a master of his craft of rhyme, meter, and word play. At a time when poetry was increasingly being wedded to the printed page, he brought it back into the oral tradition. At a time when the British press controlled poetic criticism, he turned his back on the press by not seeking recognition or publishing in its circles.

The craft of the bard was an immediate craft: to write on a topical subject on demand with little chance of revision. It also had to be palatable and understandable to the masses at least on one level. Manganís poetry was readily available to the masses, being printed in the penny journals of the day. His poetry has been hard to collect, both for this reason and because he published many of his works under countless pseudonyms. Even the "Clarence" in his name was his own concoction. But through all this, his liberal translations were not at all provincial, for he added his knowledge of the world of poetry. He became the national poet of Ireland. His poems were memorized by school children and are still recited by firesides.

I might add that this bardic tradition is still very much alive in Ireland today. Whereas the country is still not rich enough to support a class of poet-musicians, the aforementioned will never starve nor will they lack a palace to stay. (Nor, I might add, will they ever go thirsty.) One cannot call it living off the fat of the land, as there is not much fat on a potato, but I have traveled comfortably there for months with my songs, though I can remember only once earning actual money. And I remember once sitting in a pub in Dublin called the Bael Bocht (the poor mouth) where the tinkers hang out and where they keep a pot of soup warm for anyone who comes into sing.

It was this tradition that must have intrigued Yeats and Joyce. Perhaps it was only a rite of passage or a fanciful identification with Mangan, but in he early stages of their careers, he was all they hoped to be as poets. Transcending the elements of upbringing (Joyce patterned his family in Portrait of the Artist as much on Manganís family as on his own), transcending economic necessity, transcending tragedy of love, and transcending even politics in a politically volatile time.

The effect of this tradition is far-reaching. Much has been written on Manganís influence on Poe. They cite Manganís poem that contains the refrain "evermore," and another called "Lenore." Others argue the opposite. These are all irrelevant academic arguments. What is true is that Manganís poems crossed the Atlantic in great amounts, not in fine literary parlors, but in the death boats of the potato famine on which it was carried in the hearts and memories of many homesick expatriates, setting the stage for the "Danny Boy" school of poetry and song.

This influx of Irish music and poetry swept the lower haunts of this country in the years preceding the Civil War. James Ryder Randall, in writing his "My Maryland, My Maryland" gives credit to Manganís "Karoman, O Karoman." This subsequently became Whitmanís "Oh Captain! My Captain!"

You see, allís fair in love, war, and bardic tradition, including plagiarism (as long as you can say it was better). In this way Dr. Wallerís "Dance light, for my heart lies under your feet, love!" becomes Yeatsís "Tread softly because you tread on my dreams." (The original was in a footnote to a Dublin University Magazine article on Mangan, published in 1877, which must have been read by Yeats.) Likewise, Manganís reference in his autobiography to his father as a "boa constrictor" shows up in Portrait of the Artist. But this is all part of the bardic tradition: sifting through the years of poetry, and re-writing that which is good. This also happens with "translations."

Most of what Mangan published, and the only volume published during his lifetime, were translated translations: translated from the German, Spanish, Italian, translations from the "original" languages. Translations were "all the rage" at that time, and for a young poet starting out it was far easier to get translations published than original poems. Mangan did not do so well translating the German masters such as Goethe and Schiller. (Perhaps he was intimidated by them.) Where he shone was in translating the "lesser" poets such as Rueckert, where he could use the original poem as a skeleton on which to build a far better poem. He did the same with his Irish translations, working from a literal translation from someone else. In the "oriental" translations, it is hard to identify which are completely his own because many of the original poems are "not available." In some cases he is guilty of "reverse plagiarism," because he published his own poems, attributing them to a nonexistent German poet named "Sabler," which is German for "himself." Even this reverse plagiarism is uniquely Irish in that Ireland has long exported her sons, soldiers, and commodities to the credit of all but herself.

Regardless of the sources of his inspiration--whether it be a German poem or a Persian poem--the theme was almost always the same: Ireland; that her wild geese might return, that she may be returned to happier times so many "golden years ago." Many were in the form of a Gaelic "aisling" or vision, a dream poem in which the poetís lover is the personification of Ireland. And here all our themes merge into one. As Robert Graves says in the White Goddess, there is but only one true from of poetry, and that is homage to the moon goddess. But this homage can take place in different forms. In the fantastic dream of the mad poet, the unrequited love, the nationalism, the religion, all became one. This is the power of Manganís poems such as "My Dark Rosaleen."

The fact that much of his poetry is discounted in academic circles as "popular" poetry in the sense of Tennysonís "Charge of the Light Brigade" or Noyeís" Highwayman" discounts the power of the metaphor to move the inner man and thereby move nations. James Kilroy, a Mangan enthusiast, says we should" find the method and the terms by which to analyze them." Kilroy also adds that "the very excesses of Manganís poetry are perhaps the most authentically Irish."

Perhaps it is the addition of personal themes to the "popular" poems that add the power. One of my favorite poems by Yeats, "To a Shade," which has always thought to be about Parnell, I feel is also about Mangan. Mangan had also just had a monument to his memory unveiled (in Stephenís Green) and Mangan also would have "given their childrenís children loftier thought" and would have "had enough sorrow before death."

There is much power in the bardic tradition that transcends rational analysis. To use the moon or a type of tree in a poem is to evoke a thousand years in human subconscious when the moonís rhythm and the properties of various trees were far more a part of life than todayís office routine. And ancient bards understood the power of symbols. The modern day poets mostly stumble upon them accidentally. And, long before there were words for alliteration, internal rhythm, musical echo, and meter, these effects were used because of the beauty of their sound. The sounds were wedded with music. Poetry was sung. In Manganís Poets and Poetry of Munster, many of his translations from the Irish were accompanied by the original musical text. In this modern, audio-visual society many poets have printed themselves into irrelevance. Meanwhile, it is the modern day folk singers who have remarried poetry to music, thereby bringing poetry to a much larger audience.

Much of this tradition the public does not understand. Hence the myth. The public is at the same time in awe of it and afraid of it, sort of a love-hate relationship. Somehow the public still loves it when a Dylan Thomas drinks himself to death, or a Phil Ochs hangs himself. The public reveled in the exploits of Rimbaud and Verlaine, the "poets Maudit." The poet as sufferer, the poet as alcoholic or drug addict, the poet as political prisoner or political leader. Bob Dylanís fame did not explode until he almost died in a motorcycle accident, even then rumors abounded concerning his drug addiction. And people felt "betrayed" when he shunned political responsibility.

So it becomes almost a rite of passage for the young poet to indulge in excess, sleep in the gutter. And write sonnets to a Shakespearean "dark lady." In an increasingly middle-class world, the freedom of the bard becomes less reality and more myth. Even Yeats and Joyce, in their relative comfort, must have been intrigued by the myth that was Mangan. He was something they could never be. He had popular appeal they could never have. Yet it is they, Yeats and Joyce, who made their mark on literature. It was they who lived long, productive lives, transcending the lure of the Leanhaun Shee, cultivating their muse rather than being cultivated by her while Clarence Mangan is forgotten.

From Manganís poem "The Nameless One," which Joyce loved to recite:

Him grant a grave to, ye pitying noble,
Deep in your bosoms: there let him dwell!
He, too, had tears for all souls in trouble,
Here and in hell.