James Clarence Mangan, the rebel poet

Joyce admired Mangan, who died on this day in 1849, for his poems if not his patriotism

The great Irish poet, James Clarence Mangan, died, at 46, on June 20th, 1849, a victim of cholera. “His miserable corpse”, wrote James Joyce, “sent a shudder through the hospital staff and he was given a squalid burial.” He was reported then as living in poverty and complete squalor, which was often his lot: a typical letter he wrote to the Young Irelander, James Haughton, was sent from “a fireless and furnitureless room”.

Like Seamus Heaney and John Montague, Joyce was a huge admirer of the myriad “matchless passages” in Mangan’s poetry, but he rarely disguised his intolerance of Mangan’s “hysteric nationalism”. Yet, in 1902, he wrote, in agreement with Gavan Duffy, that Mangan “was little of a patriot”. By contrast, John Mitchel insisted that he was “an Irish papist rebel…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”, though he didn’t seem often committed to making this explicit in print or action.

During his life and immediately afterwards, Mangan’s legacy was co-opted by Irish nationalism, primarily thanks to Mitchel’s biography, which helped to establish his status as Ireland’s first national poet, writing poems that were in harsh counterpoint to those of the other rival for the title, Thomas Moore.

In 1907, Joyce criticises Mangan’s craven worship and love for Ireland, his beloved queen: “Young is she, and fair she is, and would be crowned a queen”. But, complains Joyce, she is “an abject queen upon whom…madness is come and death is coming”; a kind of aged Gaelic Victoria. Mangan refused to buy this view of his country:


"Think her not a ghastly hag, too hideous to be seen,
Call her not unseemly names, our matchless Kathleen."

Yet, in the same year, Joyce wrote two pieces, Home Rule Comes of Age and Ireland at the Bar, in which he displays his own rebellion “against the whole British spirit of the age”, in a tone of near-savage indignation at England’s treatment of this selfsame queen. In both of these articles, he pulls no punches, laying the blame for her abjection squarely on England: “The politicians and scientists who investigated the vast central bog of Ireland,” he writes, “concluded that the two spectres that sit beside every Irish fireplace, consumption and insanity,” were generated by the outrageous neglect of England in “not having seen to the reforestation of this disease-ridden swamp for over an entire century.” (It is not a little revealing that Joyce refers here to “England” and not to “Great Britain”, a term which had been in use since 1603!)

In the period 1900-1910, the ferocity of Joyce’s fulminations against Irish “patriotism” were directly proportionate to the surge in Gaelic League fervour and success on several fronts. This visceral antipathy certainly affected Joyce’s unqualified admiration of Mangan, though he rarely wrote as witheringly about him as he did about William Rooney and Lady Gregory.

He had no problem writing about Mangan “subsuming into himself the spirit of an age and country”, and of Dickens doing the same for London, but he dissented vigorously from Arthur Griffith’s 1902 view that William Rooney was “the greatest Irishman I have known…a man of genius, deep learning and ardent patriotism” who “had established between his soul and the soul of Ireland a deep communion”.

The very idea that there could exist an entity like “the soul of Ireland” in a country with such a fragmented, divided and discontinuous history made no sense to Joyce, particularly when it referred to someone blighted by Gaelic nationalism.

For Joyce, Rooney, a prominent young Gaelic League poet and activist, who died very young in 1901, was afflicted by the malady of patriotism which has sapped his energy, soul and spirit, rendering it “desperate and weary. En passant, he witheringly remarks that one cannot expect much quality “when patriotism has laid hold of the writer”. But then, in this near-hysterical diatribe, Joyce goes one further, charging poet/patriots like Rooney with perpetrating “great evil” by betraying a sacred vocation, allowing the will to be seduced by blind patriotism into doing the work of the imagination. Rooney’s patriotism, he alleged, was not just an illness, but was also a tyranny, in the hope, no doubt, of justifying his own need to flee this particular net. In his view, such tyranny deadened his poetry, when it wasn’t already vitiated by “an ordinary carelessness [that] is nothing but a false and mean expression of a false and mean idea.” For Joyce, Rooney’s words of “redemption and revenge, blaspheming against tyrants, and going forth, full of tears and curses, upon its infernal labours”, can only spawn further tyranny: “The poet who would hurl his anger against tyrants would establish upon the future an intimate and far more cruel tyranny”.

When one looks at Joyce’s unscrupulously mean review of Rooney’s work, with little specific evidence adduced, and his 1903 review of Lady Gregory’s Poets and Dreamers, to which Yeats gave a most enthusiastic reception, we see little of the generosity accorded to Mangan. What fascinates me here is how Joyce can make such huge allowances for Mangan’s patriotism and so few for an analogous patriotism in Celtic Revivalist writers: for the Joyce of 1903, they never rise, except in Yeats’s case, “above a certain fluency and an occasional distinction, and often falling so low that it has a value only as documentary evidence”. When assessing the work of Celtic Revival writers and of other ardent Nationalists, Joyce was not a reliable narrator.

The poems
In the dark Famine year of 1846, Mangan published two powerful poems, Siberia and Dark Rosaleen, which clearly demonstrated that history did not always "enclose him so straitly that even his fiery moments do not set him free from it"; and that his creative spirit could rise above the most devastating days of our national history.


In Siberia's wastes
The ice-wind's breath
Woundeth like the toothed steel;
Lost Siberia doth reveal
Only blight and death.

Blight and death alone.
No Summer shines.
Night is interblent with Day.
In Siberia's wastes alway
The blood blackens, the heart pines…
Therefore, in those wastes
None curse the Czar.
Each man's tongue is cloven by
The North Blast, that heweth nigh
With sharp scymitar…

Siberia must be the great Famine poem, empowered as it is by a concentrated web of assonance, repetition, adroit distancing devices and startling images – even if it was inspired by an obscure German poem about Polish leaders sent to Siberia after the 1830 revolution. Here, political and personal suffering coalesce, enabling Mangan's "vastation of spirit", his blighted psyche, to find a metaphorical correlative in a blighted, blasted landscape.

In The Nameless One, Mangan echoes the John Clare of I Am (1844-5?), anticipating the Terrible Sonnets and Felix Randal of Hopkins: “Tell how this Nameless…Saw things that made him, with groans and tears, long/For even death”, making Joyce’s point that he “does not shrink from the grave”, having “been in love with death all his life”.

But in lines like:

“And tell how trampled, derided, hated,

And worn by weakness, disease, and wrong…

The gulf and grave of Maginn and Burns,

And pawn’d his soul for the devil’s dismal

Stock of returns”,

we have several examples of the “firm, marching iambs” that Joyce so appreciated in Mangan’s Kathleen-Ni-Houlahan, which abruptly supersede the trochaic scheme of, say,

“Long they pine in weary woe, the nobles of our land,

Long they wander to and fro, proscribed, alas! and banned;

Feastless, houseless, altarless, they bear the exile’s brand”.

Joyce’s overall assessment

In Joyce’s early critical writings it is rare to meet such generosity and depth of empathy for another suffering human being – and such admiration for a poet. But it is, for all that, a qualified admiration, despite the paeans I have cited and his judgment that Mangan was “a prototype for a would-be-nation”. As I have noted above, there are times when Joyce seems a tad reluctant to give Mangan’s “oeuvre” a straight A; when he cannot quite forgive his brand of nationalism, his rehashing of wrongs and the sempiternal railing against “the injustice of despoilers” in “his mournful verses”.

In a 1903 article, Joyce declared Mangan to be “one of the greatest romantic poets among those who use the lyrical form”. And in two other substantial pieces, he swallows his various reservations, conceding finally, surprisingly and reluctantly that “with Mangan a narrow and hysterical nationality receives a last justification” (1902) – which in 1907 becomes: “in that “miserable, reedy, and feeble figure, a hysteric nationalism receives its final justification”. In this latter article, Joyce called Mangan “the most distinguished poet of the modern Celtic world and one of the most inspired poets of any country ever to make use of the lyric form.” His “winged, lyric music and fervid idealism…manifested themselves in his extraordinary rhythms and unstudied beauty, perhaps unencountered elsewhere in English literature, if we except the inspired songs of Shelley.”

Joyce’s regularly regrets Mangan’s inability to cast aside his “love of sorrow”, his inherited history and the old Irish lament tradition, which “is still so much with him” that he passively accepts “all its griefs and failures.” Too often for Joyce, Mangan failed to become the ideal Joycean artist, “like the God of the creation…within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” Mangan, no doubt, was too busy trying to survive or avoid suicide; too often busy gnawing his fingernails in misery, or gnashing his teeth in despair.