Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Denis Florence MacCarthy

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 9
Denis Florence MacCarthy

by Thomas Kennedy


Well-known Irish poet of the nineteenth century, born in Lower O'Connell Street, Dublin, 26 May, 1817; died at Blackrock, Dublin, 7 April, 1882. His early life, before he devoted himself to literary pursuits, calls for little remark. From a learned priest, who had spent much time in Spain, he acquired that intimate knowledge of Spanish, which he was later to turn to such good advantage. In April, 1834, before he was yet seventeen, he contributed his first verses to the "Dublin Satirist". He was one of that brilliant coterie of writers whose utterances through the "Nation" influenced so powerfully the Irish people in the middle of the last century. In this organ, started by Charles Gavan Duffy in 1842, appeared over the pseudonym of Desmond most of his patriotic verse. In 1846 he was called to the Irish bar, but never practised. In the same year he edited "The Poets and Dramatists of Ireland", which he prefaced with an essay on the early history and religion of his countrymen. He also edited about this time "The Book of Irish Ballads" (by various authors), with an introductory essay from his pen on ballad poetry in general. In 1850 appeared his "Ballads, Poems, and Lyrics", original and translated. His attention was first directed to Calderon by a passage in one of Shelley's essays, and thenceforward the interpretation of the "Spanish Shakespeare" claimed the greater part of his attention. The first volume of his translations, containing six plays, appeared in 1853, and was followed by further instalments in 1861, 1867, 1870, and 1873. His version of "Daybreak in Capacabana" was completed only a few months before his death. Until 1864 he resided principally on Killiney Hill, overlooking Dublin Bay. The delicate health of some members of his family then rendered a change of climate imperative, he paid a prolonged visit to the Continent, and on his return settled in London, where he published, in addition to his translations, "Shelley's Early Life", which contains an interesting account of that poet's visit to Dublin in 1812. He had already for some months resettled in his native land, when death overtook him on Good Friday, 1882.

His poems are distinguished by a noble sense of harmony and an exquisite sympathy with natural beauty. One of the most graceful of Irish lyrists, he is entirely free from the morbidity and fantastic sentiment so much affected by modern poets. Such poems as "The Bridal of the Year", "Summer Longings", and his long narrative poem, "The Voyage of St. Brendan", seem with the years but to increase in general esteem. The last-mentioned, in which a beautiful paraphrase of the "Ave Maria Stella" is inserted as the evening song of the sailors, is not more clearly characterized by its fine poetic insight than by that earnest religious feeling which marked its author throughout life. But it is by his incomparable version of Calderon that he has most surely won a permanent place in English letters. For this task--always beset with extreme difficulties--of transferring the poetry of one language into the poetry of another without mutilating the spirit or form of the original, he was qualified by the sympathy of his countrymen with the Catholic spirit of the Latin races, and especially with Spain as the mythical cradle of the Irish race. His success is sufficiently testified by Ticknor, who declared in his "History of Spanish Literature" that our author "has succeeded in giving a faithful idea of what is grandest and most effective in his [sc. Calderon's] genius...to a degree which I had previously thought impossible. Nothing, I think, in the English language will give us so true an impression of what is most characteristic of the Spanish drama, and of Spanish poetry generally".

Freeman's Journal (Dublin, 10 April, 1882); Nation (Dublin, 15 April, 1882); READ, Cabinet of Irish Literature, IV, 154; O'DONOGHUE, Poets of Ireland (Dublin), 140; CLERKE in Dublin Review, XL (1883), 260-93.

THOMAS KENNEDY