Notable Irishwomen/Mrs. Tighe
Author of "Psyche."
IT is a remarkable fact that hardly anything is known in Ireland about Mrs. Tighe, and yet she is doubly interesting from her wonderful beauty, as well as from her poem of "Psyche," which won the highest praise from competent critics. It was called "pure, polished, sublime, the out-pourings of an untrammelled soul, yearning to be freed from its uncongenial surroundings."
Sir James Mackintosh—no mean judge—pronounced the last three cantos to be "of surpassing beauty, and beyond all doubt the most faultless series of verses ever produced by a woman."
And yet if nine-tenths of the people, even in Wicklow—that county which inspired many of the descriptions in " Psyche "—were asked what they knew about Mrs. Tighe, of Rosanna, the answer would be "Nothing at all!" When William Howitt visited Ireland, in order to add the name
[T. F. Geoghegan.
of Mrs. Tighe to his book on "The Homes and Haunts of the Poets," he was unsuccessful in gaining any details of her life. Her portrait, painted by George Romney—that painter of so many beautiful women—remains to us, and was engraved in the octavo edition of "Psyche," published in 1811, just after her death. Gazing at that exquisitely lovely face, which recalls the classical models of ancient Greece, we are reminded by Byron's well-known lines:—
She walks in beauty, like the night,
Of cloudless dimes and starry skies,
And all that's good of dark or bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes.
Thus mellowed to that tender light.
Which heav'n to gaudy day denies.
The shape of Mrs. Tighe's face in Romney's portrait is a perfect oval, long dark brown tresses fall on her shoulders, and stray across her low but intellectual brow, the deep-blue eyes—very large and pellucid—are raised to heaven. The lower part of the face is exquisitely formed—the mouth a perfect Cupid's bow—the whole expression is sweet, innocent, and refined, though tinged with indescribable sadness.
"Early death was pale upon her cheek," for, after many years of suffering, she died of consumption in her 38th year. She was the child of the Rev. William Blachford and Theodosia, daughter of William Tighe, of Rosanna, and grand-daughter of John Bligh, first Earl of Darnley, a lineal descendant of Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon. The Rev. William Blachford was a man of considerable property; he was also librarian of Marsh's Library, Dublin, from 1766 till 1773, His father, the Rev. John Blachford, who died in 1748, had been Rector of St. Werburgh's, and Chancellor of St. Patrick's. The Rev. William Blachford was highly thought of as a man of great learning. Three years after his marriage, which took place in 1770, he contracted a malignant fever, which carried him off in the prime of life, leaving his wife with two children—Mary, the future author of "Psyche," born in Dublin, on the 9th October, 1772, and a son. Mrs. Blachford was a good manager, and took such care of her husband's property, that, after giving her children a good education, she was able to hand over to her son, when he came of age, an unincumbered estate, as well as a large sum of ready money. Mrs. Blachford joined the Society of Methodists in 1775, through the influence of her friend, Mrs. Agnes Smith, and a short account is given of her in Crookshank's "Memorable Women of Irish Methodism." Her name is there spelt Blatchford. She spent a large part of her income on charity, and was the foundress of an excellent institution in Dublin, "The Home of Refuge for Unprotected Female Servants."
Her daughter, Mary, beautiful, gifted, and highly-connected, was, at an early age, the centre of attraction at the Viceregal Court. In 1703, when she was just 21, she married her cousin, Mr. Henry Tighe, of Rosanna, County Wicklow. The marriage was not a happy one. Mrs. Tighe was, perhaps, too much engrossed in dreams and visions to be fit for the stern realities of married life. Soon after her marriage, she went with her husband, who was a barrister of the Middle Temple, to London, and mixed a good deal in society. A few years subsequently, her poem of "Psyche" was printed for private circulation. It is an allegory, written in the Spenserian metre, with now and then a touch that reminds one of the Fairy Queen.
Venus, jealous of the beauty of Psyche, sends her son, Cupid, to the earth, who straightaway falls in love with the nymph himself. There is the radiant isle of pleasure, the fatal curiosity, which sends Psyche, weeping and wandering, through the forests of her earthly penance, where she meets the mysterious knight, Constans. Psyche is betrayed by Vanity and Flattery to Ambition; she has to go through the bower of Loose Delight, to encounter the attacks of Slander; to pass through the court of Spleen and the drear Island of indifference, till at last come her final triumph and apotheosis.
The writing of this poem was a never-failing joy to Mrs. Tighe. She calls it—
Delightful vision of my lonely hours,
Charm of my life, and solace of my care.
Sitting in a chestnut bower at Rosanna, which still may be seen, these thrilling scenes of an imaginary world passed before her mind's eye. She was little more than a girl, but so wedded to the airy fabric of her dreams that she could think of little else. When William Howitt made a pilgrimage to Rosanna he thus described it, "All the way from Dublin to Rosanna is through a rich and lovely district. It is a gold district, much gold being found in its streams. As you approach Rosanna, the hills become higher, and your way lies through the most beautiful wooded valleys. At the inn at Ashford Bridge, you have the celebrated Devil's Glen on one hand and Rosanna on the other. This glen lies a mile or more from the inn; it is narrow; the hills on either side are lofty, bold, craggy, and along the bottom, runs deep and dark over its rocky bed, the River Vartry.
"Rosanna is, indeed, eminently beautiful. The house is a plain old brick house, fit for a country squire. It lies low in the meadow near the river, and around it on both sides of the water the slopes are dotted with the most beautiful and luxuriant trees. The highway, as you proceed towards Rathdrum, is completely arched over with magnificent beeches, presenting a fine natural arcade. It is a region worthy of the author of 'Psyche.'"
In one of her poems, Mrs. Tighe, addresses the Vartry—
Sweet are thy banks, oh, Vartry, when at morn
Their velvet verdure glistens with the dew.
When fragrant gales, by softest zephyrs borne
Unfold the flowers, and ope their petals new.
Journeys were frequently made from Rosanna to Woodstock, the residence of Mrs. Tighe's brother-in-law, and the place where she died. Woodstock is equally beautiful, though in a different way, The house stands on the top of a hill, and commands lovely views of the valley below. When at Rosanna, Mrs. Tighe might go through the region of Glendalough, or descend into the Vale of Ovoca.
The first edition of "Psyche" came out in 1805, and was received with a chorus of praise. Moore addressed the following fines "To Mrs. Tighe on reading her 'Psyche'":—
For never has my heart or ear
Hung on so sweet, so pure a strain.
So pure to feel, so sweet to hear.
Say, love, in all thy spring of fame,
When the high heaven itself was thine,
When piety confess' d the flame,
And ev'n thy errors were divine,
Did ever muse's hand so fair,
A glory round thine temple spread;
Did ever life's ambrosial air
Such perfume o'er thine altars shed?
Writing to his mother on the 22nd August, 1805, Moore says:—"Poor Mrs. Tighe is ordered to Madeira, which makes me despair of her, for she will not go, and another winter will inevitably be her death." She lingered, however, for five years longer, travelling about in search of health, and died at Woodstock on the 24th March, 1810. Two days before her death she said—"I have long struggled with the fear of death, but I can now feel that God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever."
She is buried in the churchyard of Inistioge, where a monument, attributed to Flaxman, has been erected to her memory. Her death drew forth from Moore the following touching lines: —
I saw thy form in youthful prime.
Nor thought that pale decay
Would steal before the steps of time,
And waste its bloom away, Mary!
Yet still thy features wore that light
Which fleets not with the breath,
And life ne'er look'd more purely bright
Than in thy smile of death, Mary.
But even a more touching tribute to Mrs. Tighe was given by her sister-poet, Mrs. Hemans, who visited her last resting-place, and wrote the lines on "The Grave of a Poetess."
Thou hast left sorrow in thy song—
A voice not loud but deep,
The glorious bow'rs of earth among
How often didst thou weep!
Where couldst thou fix on mortal ground
Thy tender thoughts and high?
Now, peace the woman's heart hath found,
And joy the poet's eye!
Another poem by Mrs. Hemans—
"I stood where the life of song lay low,"
was also inspired by this visit to Inistioge.
After her deaths editions of Mrs. Tighe's poem of "Psyche" came out rapidly. Two editions were published in 1811, and a long article in the Quarterly Review of May, 1811, gave it high praise. Among other panegyrics it was said "that the verse is melodious, and the tale told with directness and simplicity." A fifth edition was published in 1816, and it was printed in Philadelphia in 1813. An edition appeared as lately as 1853. It might not be a bad speculation to bring out a new edition at the present time. It would certainly show that the beautiful scenery of the County Wicklow did inspire one poetic mind.
Mrs. Tighe was too much of an idealist to write ballads of her own day; but one such may be found among her posthumous works. It is the tale of the murder of a loyal yeoman in one of the Wicklow glens during the rebellion of '98, and it shows that her heart did beat for the unfortunate, and did kindle into indignation at injustice done at her very doors. It was said that with the profits of "Psyche," Mrs. Tighe built an addition to the Orphan Asylum at Wicklow, which was afterwards known as the Psyche Ward. I should very much like to know if this is really the case, as another account states that the profits went to the Home of Refuge in Dublin, founded by her mother, Mrs. Blachford. It is very difficult at this distance of time to disentangle the true from the false. It is certain that Mrs. Blachford, who survived her daughter many years, was deeply interested in the Home of Refuge, which she wrote was " prospering beyond her hopes and expectations," and it seems probable that she would have devoted everything she could get to the purpose to which she had given so much of her life and energies.
The story of Mrs. Tighe's life is a sad one, and yet, for a woman who lived at that period, she attained very remarkable success. No one ever gave her a slighting word, or disparaged her work in any way. It was rather over than under-praised. It is impossible to deny that it has great merits. The construction of the verse is never careless or slovenly, the cadences are musical, there is nothing harsh or discordant. For a woman to write an allegorical poem on the subject of love—"such love the purest bosom might confess"—was then rather a hazardous undertaking. The numerous admirers it found proved that Mrs. Tighe did find an audience, and that the verse that cheered her solitude had not been thrown away. And this was something to have lived for.