On 15 February 1902, James Joyce, aged 20, read a paper on James Clarence Mangan to the Literary and Historical Society of what is now University College, Dublin. It was a brash performance. Joyce spoke as if he were introducing an unknown poet, and chose to ignore the facts that there were several collections of Mangan’s poems at large and that his life and work had been extensively written about. ‘Mangan has been a stranger in his country,’ Joyce claimed, ‘a rare and unsympathetic figure in the streets, where he is seen going forward alone like one who does penance for some ancient sin.’ Joyce was evidently more interested in Mangan’s temperament than in his poems and essays: Mangan’s ‘purely defensive reserve’, he said, ‘is not without dangers for him, and in the end it is only his excesses that save him from indifference’. Joyce recalled the passage, then already famous, in which Walter Pater completed his ‘imaginary portrait’ of Watteau: ‘He has been a sick man all his life. He was always a seeker after something in the world that is there in no satisfying measure, or not at all.’ Swaying to Pater’s cadences, Joyce said of Mangan that he was
weaker than Leopardi, for he has not the courage of his own despair but forgets all ills and forgoes his scorn at the showing of some favour. He has, perhaps for this reason, the memorial he would have had – a constant presence with those that love him – and bears witness, as the more heroic pessimist bears witness against his will to the calm fortitude of humanity, to a subtle sympathy with health and joyousness which is seldom found in one whose health is safe.
Joyce’s portrait is entirely sympathetic, as if he saw in Mangan’s life a companionable image of his own wretchedness in Dublin, falling from domestic comfort into a state close to destitution.
James Mangan – ‘Clarence’ was a later addition – was born in Dublin on 1 May 1803, ‘amid scenes of blasphemy and riot’, if we are to credit a fragment of autobiography he wrote in the last months of his life. As epigraph to that bizarre document, Mangan quoted two lines he claimed to have found in Philip Massinger, though no one else has found them there: ‘A heavy shadow lay/On that boy’s spirit: he was not of his fathers.’ Mangan was the second son of James Mangan and his wife, Catherine. His father, for a time a teacher in a hedge school, married into a fairly successful grocery and spirits business and soon put an end to its prosperity. In 1810 the boy started school at Saul’s Court, a Jesuit establishment, but before long he was moved to another school and then another, probably because his parents thought he was eccentric, if not demented. In 1818, to support them, he was apprenticed as a scrivener to the first of several law firms. In his autobiography he blamed his father for his woes:
He was of an ardent and forward-bounding disposition, and, though deeply religious by nature, he hated the restraints of social life, and seemed to think that all feelings with regard to family connections, and the obligations imposed by them, were totally beneath his notice. Me, my two brothers and my sister, he treated habitually as a huntsman would treat refractory hounds. It was his boast, uttered in pure glee of heart, that we ‘would run into a mouse-hole’ to shun him … To him I owe all my misfortunes.
‘And in the lowest deep a lower deep’, to quote one of Mangan’s favourite lines from Paradise Lost.
Mangan’s father was hopelessly improvident: indiscriminately open-handed to other people, he made no provision for his wife and children. Every commercial venture he took up was a failure. Like the Joyces, the Mangans flitted from one miserable house to another. The misfortunes the poet suffered included illness of several kinds, debility, and in later years addiction to drink and, it may be, to opium. His employment was irregular. He started publishing verses in 1818, mostly acrostics and other word-puzzles which he published in almanacs: he was fascinated by charades, puns, parodies, burlesques and travesties. Over the next years he made a few pounds by writing for more serious magazines. In 1838 he got a job in the Ordnance Survey office, and when the survey was closed down three years later he was taken on as a cataloguing clerk in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, but after a while worked only part-time. For the last years of his life he depended on the generosity of friends and the hospitality of taverns. In 1849 he contracted cholera, was removed to a cholera shed, and on 20 June died of – it appears – malnutrition.
The legendary aura that enveloped Mangan’s life was removed by Ellen Shannon-Mangan’s 1996 biography, which replaced it with evidence and good sense. She eliminated nearly every question one might ask, but some aspects of Mangan’s life remain hard to explain. His education was at best irregular, but he learned or taught himself several modern languages, and was particularly strong in German and French. He claimed to understand eight languages and, as Joyce said, he made a liberal parade of his learning: ‘He has read recklessly in many literatures, crossing how many seas, and even penetrated into Peristan, to which no road leads that the feet travel.’ ‘About four-fifths of Mangan’s poems purport to be translations,’ according to Jacques Chuto’s count. He translated, as many modern poets do, from languages he did not know. Joyce remarked ‘this fury of translation in which he has sought to lose himself’. There was always someone to provide a crib to start him off. Many of his poems are wayward versions of Goethe, Schiller, Tieck and poets real or fictitious: he often ascribed his own poems to poets who did not exist. In other moods he presented translations or versions from unacknowledged sources as his own compositions. He wrote several essays on Persian and Turkish poetry, which he knew only at the double remove of German translations. It is doubtful that he knew any Irish: his most celebrated poems were written from literal translations supplied by James Hardiman, John O’Donovan, Eugene O’Curry, John O’Daly, Edward Walsh, Samuel Ferguson and other sources. It is impossible to know how Mangan could have written so many poems and essays in a few years beset by poverty, illness, drunkenness and what he himself called ‘moral insanity’.
Mangan’s place in Irish culture is secure but its terms are not agreed. He has been regarded as a major figure in the cultural nationalism that led to the Literary Revival at the end of the 19th century, and for that reason his poems have been taught in Catholic – and for all I know in Protestant – schools throughout the country. In 1938 or thereabouts, a pupil in the Sisters of Charity Convent in Dublin was urged by Sister Loreto to commit to memory Mangan’s poem ‘A Vision of Connaught in the 13th Century’ and to perform it with appropriate gestures. She can still recite its sixty lines with a little prompting. In the Christian Brothers School in Newry, at the same age I learned (under Brother Cotter) Mangan’s most famous poem, ‘Dark Rosaleen’, and (under Mr Crinion) the Gaelic poem ‘Roisin Dubh’, of which Mangan’s is a loose translation or imitation. Nationalism ran higher in Newry than it did in Dublin, so Mangan’s political prophecy, as I was taught to interpret that poem, spoke to me with irresistible authority. I do not recall bringing any irony to bear on Mangan’s hyperboles. But I find I can recite only a few lines of the Irish poem and the first stanza of Mangan’s:
O, my Dark Rosaleen,
Do not sigh, do not weep!
The priests are on the ocean green,
They march along the Deep.
There’s wine from the royal Pope,
Upon the ocean green;
And Spanish ale shall give you hope,
My Dark Rosaleen!
My own Rosaleen!
Shall glad your heart, shall give you hope,
Shall give you health, and help, and hope,
My Dark Rosaleen!
Later, I sang the poem in a setting by a composer whose name I can’t remember, though I remember the music.
Mangan’s nationalism could not have been in doubt. In an early poem, ‘To Ireland in the Coming Times’, Yeats wrote
Know, that I would accounted be
True brother of a company
That sang, to sweeten Ireland’s wrong,
Ballad and story, rann and song …
Nor may I less be counted one
With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson,
Because, to him who ponders well,
My rhymes more than their rhyming tell
Of things discovered in the deep,
Where only body’s laid asleep.
That Yeats was a better poet than Davis, Mangan and Ferguson has seemed less significant than that he put himself in their nationalist company and uttered, with them, the ‘spirit of the nation’. But he wasn’t much interested in Mangan otherwise and wrote two essays mainly to declare that he knew the name of the poet’s lost love: Miss Stacpoole. Yeats told John Quinn, in a letter quoted by Terence Brown in his foreword to the Selected Poems, that Mangan differed from the impersonal ballad writers of his time only ‘in being miserable’.
Mangan’s relation to cultural nationalism is no longer as clear as it seemed in Newry. Joyce thought he was ‘little of a patriot’. In Nationalism and Minor Literature: James Clarence Mangan and the Emergence of Irish Cultural Nationalism (1987) David Lloyd argues that Mangan’s life ‘appears resistant to a nationalist typology, and it frames a body of work that is equally inassimilable to a nationalist aesthetic’. He doesn’t deny that Mangan often wrote for the nationalist cause, and in the spring of 1846, appalled by the Famine, Mangan published in the Nation three ‘songs of hatred’ denouncing the British ‘despots’. ‘I hate thee, Djaun Bool’ was the gist of them. In 1847 he wrote:
Slender as our talents are, we have become exceedingly desirous to dedicate them henceforward exclusively to the service of our country. For that country – and we now express ourselves merely in reference to its literature – we see a new era approaching. Ireland has been ‘for a certain term doomed to walk the night’ of tribulation and ignorance. But that ‘night is far spent’, and ‘the day is at hand.’ The better time is coming – approaching with chariot-like speed.
Such a promise didn’t go very far, but it meant something, especially in view of Mangan’s sluggishness in patriotic zeal during the early years. Lloyd emphasises how refractory Mangan was in relation to the Young Ireland movement, and how reluctant he was ‘to commit himself fully to the nationalist cause’. The burden of Lloyd’s argument, to give a too summary account of it, is that Mangan wanted to establish himself in a critical rather than an enthusiastic relation to Irish nationalism; without the criticism, nationalism seemed to him, at least on many occasions, yet another illusion. There was a discrepancy between Mangan’s overt intentions, when he wrote for nationalism, and the structure of his aesthetic. Lloyd makes much of his ‘refusal to find in his sufferings a source of identity with humanity’. No transcendent unity is allowed for. Mangan’s writings, according to Lloyd, ‘play out the founding contradictions of an aesthetic that is fundamentally colonial in its terms and determinants’. He might have eluded the contradictions if he had been willing and able to make the leap, with John Mitchel and Young Ireland, to the ideology of racial unity which is prior to mere history and belongs to an essentialist rhetoric and politics. Because he could not make the leap, Mangan had to remain, like Joyce, ‘in critical alienation’, a parodist by necessity. Not that Lloyd blames him for the condition he brought on himself.
For this reason, some writers have removed Mangan from history to typology. Susan Howe, in a prose poem, ‘Melville’s Marginalia’, claims that ‘the real James Clarence Mangan is the progenitor of fictional Bartleby.’ But there is a problem of chronology. Melville wrote ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street’ in the summer of 1853. He did not acquire his copy ‘second hand’ of Poems by James Clarence Mangan, with Biographical Introduction by John Mitchel (1859) until 15 February 1862 – or rather, that is the day on which he wrote his name on it. He read through the book, drawing lines in the margin beside passages that especially interested him, such as Mitchel’s assertion that Mangan ‘was a rebel politically, and a rebel intellectually and spiritually – a rebel with his whole heart and soul against the whole British spirit of the age’. Apart from these marginal lines, Melville made no comments, or if he did they have been erased. But Howe notes that Mangan had American readers as early as 1851. From September to December 1851 Charles Carroll Leeds published four articles in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, two of which dealt with Mangan. As Howe writes: ‘By the time Melville acquired Mitchel’s edition of Mangan’s poems in 1862, he was already familiar with the poet’s life and work. False fleeting perjured Clarence.’ The rest of Howe’s poem consists of a tissue of quotations from Mitchel’s introduction to Mangan, the lecture on Mangan that Joyce gave in Trieste in 1907, and Melville’s marginalia on other writers. Howe’s notion of Mangan and Bartleby is not as fanciful as it may appear. Mangan often withdrew from his haunts and lived in barns or outhouses. It is not absurd to think that he might have said to his employer, as Bartleby said to his: ‘I would prefer not to.’ Or that he too would have died of starvation in the Tombs, asleep with kings and counsellors.
It is good to have a complete edition of Mangan’s work: the two volumes of prose brought out by the Irish Academic Press follow four volumes of poems. Inevitably, the uniform character of the six volumes makes the work seem more coherent than it is. Mangan wrote carelessly and had no time to revise. It is surprising that some of his prose has the perspicuity he admired in other writers. Even when we suspect that he hardly knew what he was talking about, he often produced sentences worth making a note of, as in this passage on German poetry:
If we were asked what it is that constitutes the leading characteristic of German poetry, we should be disposed to answer – Too adventurous an attempt to assimilate the creations of the ideal with the forms of the actual world. Throughout that poetry we can trace a remarkable effort to render vivid and tangible and permanent those phantasmagoria of the mind which by the statutes of our nature are condemned to exhibit an aspect of perpetual vagueness and fluctuation.
Mangan’s relation to his themes was opportunistic; he could write on anything: the merits and defects of Tieck’s poetry, the superiority of tongs to pokers, the provenance of ghostcraft in Germany. He wrote nearly a thousand poems. His poems on Irish or more or less Irish themes seem to me his best, but I value a few poems from other sources. My shortlist doesn’t differ much from anyone else’s: ‘Dark Rosaleen’, ‘Siberia’, ‘And Then No More’, ‘Khidder’, ‘Lament over the Ruins of the Abbey of Teach Mologa’, ‘A Vision of Connaught in the 13th Century’, ‘Twenty Golden Years Ago’, ‘The Nameless One’, ‘The Woman of Three Cows’, ‘An Elegy on the Tironian and Tirconnellian Princes Buried at Rome’, ‘The Lamentation of Mac Liag for Kincora’, ‘To the Ingleezee Khafir’ and ‘O’Hussey’s Ode to the Maguire’. David Wheatley has chosen about sixty poems for his selection and added a perceptive introduction. Chuto and his colleagues have selected about 230 poems and retained the notes from the four volumes of poetry. The sum is bewildering. Joyce noted that Mangan ‘wrote with no native tradition to guide him, and for a public which cared for matters of the day, and for poetry only so far as it might illustrate these’. He may be compared, in point of sensibility, with Coleridge and De Quincey, but the comparison can’t be pushed very far. His poems often give an impression of the haphazard, as if he’d stumbled into their eloquence and achieved their forms by default. But he had an astonishing lyric gift.