THE COLLECTED POETRY OF MARY TIGHE by Paula R. Feldman and Brian C. Cooney, eds., Reviewed by Donelle Ruwe
 

THE COLLECTED POETRY OF MARY TIGHE
Eds. Paula R. Feldman and Brian C. Cooney
(Johns Hopkins, 2016) xxi + 615 pp.
Reviewed by Donelle Ruwe on 2017-02-18.

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Few Romantic-era women poets have been as blessed with literary heirs and scholarly devotees as the Anglo-Irish poet Mary Blachford Tighe (1772-1810). By the advent of modernism in the 1920s, most of these poets were known--if known at all--for only a few token verses republished by the Victorians. Mary Tighe survived the carnage. She had the good fortune to have influenced John Keats, whose debts to her were documented when Earle Vonard Weller displayed the parallels between them in 1928. But since Keats eventually renounced Tighe and her influence on his work, Weller and other pre-feminist scholars of literary history were all too happy to promote his verdict. For Weller, the story of influence was one-directional: male poets matured past a feminine phase and put away female poets along with all childish things. Nevertheless, Tighe's poetry survived by getting itself hitched to Keats's star.

In the 1970s, Tighe stirred renewed interest. Donald Reiman produced not one but two facsimile editions of her Psyche for the Garland series. In 1992 Psyche was republished in the Woodstock series, and in 2005 Harriet Kramer Linkin edited the first modern edition of Tighe's collected verses in the superb Collected Poems and Journals of Mary Tighe. Besides continuing to work with archival sources, unearthing journals, letters, and hand-illustrated manuscripts, Linkin took on the monumental task of transcribing Tighe's unpublished novel, Selena, published in 2012, the year after Buchanan published the first scholarly biography, Mary Blachford Tighe: the Irish Psyche. With the release of this biography and authoritative editions of her poetry, journals, and novel, Mary Tighe at last has joined the rarified company of those other extraordinary female poets of the Romantic era: Charlotte Smith, Anna Letitia Barbauld, Joanna Baillie, and Amelia Opie.

This beautiful, indispensable new edition of her poetry is indebted to the pioneering work of Linkin and Averill Buchanan, whom the editors gratefully acknowledge (xiii). Besides Tighe's published works, such as the 1805 Psyche and miscellaneous poems included with the 1811 Psyche, Feldman and Cooney also include poems transcribed from manuscripts, most significantly from the two-volume "Verses Transcribed for H. T." (a manuscript of 121 original poems with 72 original illustrations) and an album presented by Tighe's sister-in-law Caroline Hamilton to Tighe's niece. To supplement this most comprehensive presentation of Tighe's poetry to date, the editors offer 90 pages of appendices containing poems of questionable attribution, nineteenth-century poetic responses to Tighe, and other materials. The editors thus maintain the fine scholarly standard set by Feldman's essential collection, British Women Poets of the Romantic Era: An Anthology (1997).

Previous studies of Tighe have often stressed her challenges to male poetic traditions. In surveying her life and literary influences, the editors' introduction substantively reads her poetry as political. For instance, they suggest that the long "harrowing ballad" of "Bryan Byrne" voices the "profound emotional effect" that the United Irishmen uprising of 1798 had on her and her family (28, 27). The many other political or nationalistic poems to be found in this volume include "Verses Written when a Detachment of Yeomen Were Sent Against the Rebel Army" and "Cleuen, An Elegy," a loco-descriptive ballad inspired by the history of the picturesque ruins of Castle Clowen in Kilkenny, reared "on the blood-stain'd field" by those who tore "pillage from the helpless natives" and "trembling combatants" (328-29). Though the poem begins with the bloody details of the castle's origin, most of the 304-line narrative tracks the self-imposed exile of the British noble Aldred, who fled Albion after the death of his true love Ida, the guilt-ridden wife of his best friend. The watercolor tailpiece of "Cleuen," however, has the last word. In dreary shades of grey and brown, it depicts a melancholic, picturesque scene in which a single, crumbling castle wall stands upon a steep river bank--as shown in this image from Linkin's 2015 hypertext full-color facsimile of "Verses Transcribed for H. T.":


Nothing but this silent ruin is left of the self-absorbed Aldred and the bloody history of political and personal betrayal.

"Bryan Byrne" exemplifies the political cast of Tighe's poetry. By including her previously unpublished topical poetry, the editors demonstrate that she wrote many other poems touching upon the tumultuous history of England, Ireland, and France at the end of the century. Such poems prompt us to re-examine Tighe's personal and mythological verse and to reinterpret it within a political context. In doing so, we can discover her kinship with poets such as Barbauld, who did not shy away from politics, and Smith, whose verses interfuse the personal, political, and literary.

This edition also shows us how much Tighe was admired in her own time. The appendix of tributes to her includes laudatory poems not only by Keats but also by Felicia Hemans, Thomas Moore, Bernard Barton (the "Quaker Poet"), Mary Leadbeater, Anna Maria Porter, Caroline Hamilton, William Roscoe, William Hayley, Joseph Atkinson, and many others. In a forthcoming essay, "The Citational Network of Tighe, Porter, Barbauld, Lefanu, Morgan, and Hemans" (A Tribe of Authoresses, ed. Angela Rehbein and Andrew Winckles [Liverpool, 2017], Linkin shows how female writers, through an intricate, intertextual web of references to Mary Tighe, established a supportive network.. Besides the fifteen poetic tributes written to Tighe following the 1805 publication of Psyche, the Appendix offers twenty-four other tributes and memorial poems that should encourage scholars to locate her within multiple author-networks across various boundaries of nationality, gender, class, and politics.

One of the pleasures of this comprehensive edition of Tighe's poetry is that Feldman and Cooney include Tighe's drawings along with the verses they illuminate, particularly the 72 original illustrations from "Verses Transcribed for H. T." In perusing these gorgeous illustrations, one realizes that they comment on the accompanying poems. Unfortunately, the black-and-white reproductions here do not capture the delicacy and exquisite colorations of Tighe's watercolors, which are faithfully reproduced in Linkin's hypertext facsimile. For example, I compared the Feldman and Cooney reproduction of Tighe's tailpiece for the poem "Melancholy: Imitated from L'Abbate Monti 1804" (267) with Linkin's facsimile of the same illustration:


When I zoomed in for a close-up look at the hypertext image , I discovered the fine details of a picturesque miniature watercolor: a lazy stream, cottages along its banks, two delicately rendered rowboats featuring tiny figures in red, and a third boat far off in the distance. Despite the high quality of the Feldman and Cooney edition, these exquisite details of the tailpiece were lost in reproduction. So we are fortunate to have both options available. The black-and-white images in this edition are an excellent general resource for all scholars, and the hypertext facsimile serves anyone who wants to study word-picture relationships in detail.

The editorial work in this seemingly comprehensive volume is first-rate, with footnotes to each of the poems explaining their literary allusions and biographical and historical connections, Yet we are still uncovering Mary Tighe manuscripts. In July 2013 Linkin found a cache of 41 letters at the National Library of Ireland. Written by Tighe to her cousin and sister-in-law Caroline Hamilton, these remarkable letters include not just personal details but also information that may profoundly shape our interpretations of her poetry. In these letters, which Cooney and Feldman do not mention, Tighe critiques Milton, refers to the books she is reading, and encloses drafts of poems. So for all the excellence of this new edition, it still lacks some important contextual information. Now that we have access to several hundred letters by Tighe as well as material from her journals, the next edition of Tighe's work will surely be an edition of her letters and journals.

This edition of her poetry reflects some odd editorial choices. For example, while editors traditionally favor the last copy of any work made in the author's hand, Feldman and Cooney decided to prefer the earlier one whenever they had two or more copies of a poem in Tighe's hand (xvii). An early version might be preferable in a few rare cases such as Mary Shelley's 1818 Frankenstein, which is preferable to the later edition, as Anne K. Mellor demonstrates in "Choosing a Text of Frankenstein to Teach," from Approaches to Teaching Shelley's Frankenstein (1990). But since a final copy presumably clarifies the author's final thoughts, corrections, emendations, and revisions, all previous versions are usually treated as drafts or variants, and Feldman and Cooney do not justify their editorial departure from this practice. A final quibble with this edition is that when Feldman and Cooney connect Tighe's verses to her novel Selena, they refer to folios of the manuscript rather than to Linkin's scholarly edition, which is more accessible.

In spite of these quibbles, The Collected Poetry of Mary Tighe is a major editorial feat. As a scholar deeply committed to the recovery of women writers of the Romantic period, I am exceedingly grateful for this first-rate scholarly edition of Mary Tighe's poetry. Paper matters, after all. That a major publisher has committed 615 pages to her poetry sends an unmistakable message: Mary Tighe has arrived. Now, if only the Longman and Norton anthologies of British literature would include selections from her poetry, we would finally be able to teach it with the poetry of her contemporaries.

Donelle Ruwe is Full Professor of English at Northern Arizona University.


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