James Clarence Mangan Essay - Critical Essays


As an Irish Romantic poet, James Clarence Mangan was aware of a loss of innocence, a feeling central to Romantic subjectivity in general, which was intensified by the poet’s attempts to cope with the feeling of being trapped in a present corrupted by Britain’s colonial power. The poet’s search for an alternative, natural and pure self (individual, cultural, national) was therefore colored by a search for an appropriate medium for its expression. Until the beginning of his ardent nationalism in the mid-1830’s, Mangan relied primarily on translation from various European and Middle Eastern languages as a means of escaping his oppressive environment, both personal and social. Through acts of imagination, translation transported him to various, often exotic lands. However, his biographers emphasize repeatedly that Mangan had no knowledge of most of the languages from which he “translated.” He often transformed his originals by saturating them, especially Oriental verse and that of the minor German Romantics, with rhetorical and stylistic effects typical for his own nationalistic poetry. When Duffy criticized him once for a rather loose Moorish “translation,” Mangan pointed out instead its relevance to the Gaelic Revival, responding in his own witty way: “Well, never mind, it’s Tom Moorish.”

There were also cases when Mangan attributed his own verse to foreign poets. “Twenty Golden Years Ago,” he claimed, was originally a German poem by Selber (German for “himself”). Other works were attributed to a Persian poet by the name of Hafis (“half-his”). It is true that, in the absence of an Irish literary tradition in English, a poet like Mangan had greater chances to support himself by publishing translations from languages with rich and firmly established literary traditions, such as German, or from cultures that were distinctly non-English, such as Turkish, Persian, or even Serbian. Translation, therefore, offered Mangan a means of release from his personal anguish and a means of pulling himself away from English Romanticism, which represented for all Irish the culture of the colonizer. Poems such as “Siberia” demonstrate eloquently Mangan’s idea of the devastating effects his country’s colonial history had had on Irish consciousness. He translated the poem, which originally voiced Freiligrath’s impressions of an Icelandic landscape, into a metaphor with distinct political overtones pointing to the inhuman conditions in Ireland during the Famine: “Blight and death alone./ No summer shines.” The year was 1846:

Pain as in a dream,When years go byFuneral-paced, yet fugitive,When man lives, and doth not live,Doth not live—nor die.

“O’Hussey’s Ode to the Maguire”


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