Thirty years after The Gallery Press published Selected Poems of James Clarence Mangan (edited by Michael Smith, with a foreword by Anthony Cronin) the young poet and scholar David Wheatley has returned to original sources to distil, from an enormous and uneven oeuvre and for a new generation, the essential, enduring glories of the poetry of an inspired soul.
Yeats wished to be ‘counted one’ with him. Joyce decreed he was ‘the most distinguished poet of the Celtic world and one of the most inspired poets of any country ever to make use of the lyric form’. His gravestone proclaims him to be ‘Ireland’s National Poet’.
James Mangan (he adopted the ‘Clarence’ later) was born in Dublin in 1803. He worked as a scrivener and journalist, with stints in the Ordnance Survey Office and the library of Trinity College, Dublin. His poetry draws on an extraordinary range of sources, including exotic languages and legends, and features also ‘translations’ for which there were no originals. It continues the lyric flights of Shelley and Byron and the gothic fancies of Coleridge and De Quincey. It anticipates the work of Poe (nearly his exact contemporary) and the more modern notion of the poète maudit, all the while foreshadowing the work of Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Verlaine. Propelled frequently by hypnotic rhythms, enlightened by verbal play and ingenuity, from couplets to long poems, Mangan’s verse gives voice to the starkness of his own predicament (‘Old and hoary at thirty-nine’) and, in a poem like ‘Siberia’, fuses a desolate interior with the great concern of Famine Ireland. His masterpieces, ‘The Nameless One’ and ‘Twenty Golden Years Ago’, are cornerstones of nineteenth-century poetry, while ardent period pieces, such as ‘Dark Rosaleen’, are anthems of a former age. In tune with the intense passions of his time, his work appeared in the first issue of The Nation (1842). By the time of his death — of cholera — in Dublin in 1849, his haunted brain had sung, in high-flown reverie, ‘life’s bitter cup and woe’.