Muse of my country! Thou hast sung
Of Many sorrows; yet thy lyre
Is sweet, as when by Ossian strung,
To breathe of love of freedom’s fire.
Though stranger feet have trodden down
Both Tara’s towers and Brian’s crown—
Yet still, though all her blighted springs,
The ancient harp of Erin rings,
With numbers mighty as, of old,
O’er battle-field and banquet rolled,
When rose upon the western clime
The glory of its early prime.
—The Star of Attéghéi, Frances Browne
After this verse, I probably don’t have to mention that Frances Browne was Irish—if the references to harps of Erin and lyres of Ossian don’t do it for you, the cadence should. Most of her poems read as hymns to me, sung to music made by the small organ in the church of my childhood.°
The one quoted above is one of those epic poems of romance and battle and noble death, and so on, and I like it, though I have to admit Ms. Browne’s dedication to the rhyme scheme and meter wears a bit as it goes—and it does go, for pages and pages and pages—but that’s modern taste for you and I’m sure no one minded any of it when her first collection of poems was published in 1844.
Well . . . that’s not entirely true.
The person who wrote up her collection for The Dublin Review that same year* minded quite a bit and was rather blunt about it:
“It is our duty now to look to her longer poems, and we could really wish that this task were not imposed upon us. The title of her book mentions decidedly the two worst as well as the two longest poems in the collection. We by no means wish to imply that they are devoid of merit, especially “The Star of Atteghei;” but that they are not to be at all compared in vigour or originality to the smaller poems.”
He** disliked the story of “The Star,” which he’d heard before, thought the setting and imagery didn’t particularly fit this story that he didn’t like, and declared the meter, “though it has been used by some of the greatest of the modern poets, is fit for nothing higher than burlesque. It is decidedly the worst metre in the language for such a tale as Miss Browne’s.”
No offense meant, of course.***
But he absolutely adored her shorter works, the “sweet little poems” that filled the rest of the book. Yeah . . . that’s not patronizing or anything. He thought that “The Emigrant’s Request” was especially lovely . . .
O friend! Dear friends! If a thought remain
Of our childhood’s vanished day,
When the joy of summer comes again,
And my steps are far away:
Some gentle drops from the founts that flow
So sweet in the sultry hours,
Like and offering poured to the past bestow
On my lonely garden flowers!
The flowers I have left and loved so well—
For their early blossoms wore
The hues that still in my memory dwell—
But they bloom for me no more!
My home is far in a brighter clime,
Where the southern blooms expand,
But my heart grows sad in the summer time
For the flowers of its native land!
The holy haunts of my childhood’s love,
And its joy were still with them
When my dearest wealth was the forest dove
Or the violet’s purple gem.
How fast the heart’s young myrtles grew!—
Yet their bloom was brightly fleet;
For it changed to the cypress’ somber hue—
But the flowers were ever sweet!
O, friend, you may watch the wild bird’s wing,
When it seeks the ocean track;
But await the breathe of the coming spring,
It will waft the wanderer back:
But where is the spring time that can give,
My voice to you distant bowers?—
Oh! Then let my lingering memory live
In the breath of those home born flowers!
. . . But he still didn’t think it was quite right, by which he meant original.
He appeared to have had a very strict notion of originality and was was extremely concerned about influences that other people must have had on her work. In fact, he had quite the bug up his . . . bonnet . . . about this and I’m still not sure if his deal with because of her gender or because she was blind—did I mention that?
He does. Often.
I think it’s a combination of the two. He warned her against becoming too ambitious, as if small works should be enough for her, as a poetess—and he simply could not get over that she used colors in some of her poems, which obviously she knew next to nothing about, which means they weren’t her images and if they weren’t her images, then they weren’t her words and these weren’t really, truly, her poems.
Any time she described something visually, he bristled: Violet’s purple gem? There she goes again.
And maybe he has a point—she lost her sight at eighteen months, which could be a little young to retain many specific memories after decades in darkness.
But personally? I think she heard descriptions—from books, from friends and family, wherever—liked how the words sounded, and used them, which is pretty much the definition of a poet. Right?^
The only poem to which this reviewer granted his unqualified^^ approval is this next one:
Ye only minstrals of the earth—
Whose mighty voices woke
The echoes of its infant woods
Ere yet the tempests spoke!
How is it that ye waken still
The young heart’s happy dreams;
And shed your light on darkened eyes,
O bright and blessed streams?
Woe for the world!—she hath grown old
And gray in toil and tears;
But ye have kept their harmonies
Of her unfallen years.
For ever in our weary path, Your ceaseless music seems
The spirit of her perished youth
Ye glad and glorious streams!
Your murmurs bring the pleasant breath of many sylvan scene—
They tell of sweet and sunny vales,
And woodlands wildly green.
Ye cheer the lonely heart of age—
Ye fill the exile’s dreams
With hope, and home, and memory—
Ye unforgotten streams!
Too soon the blessed spring of love
To bitter fountains turn,
And deserts drink the stream that flows
From Hope’s exhaustless urn;
And faint upon the waves of life
May fall the summer beams;
But they linger long and bright with you,
Ye sweet unchanging streams.
The bards—the ancient bards—who sang
When thought and song were new’
O, mighty waters, did they learn
Their minstrelsy from you?
For still methinks your voices blend
With all their glorious themes,
That flow for ever, fresh and free
As the eternal streams!
Well might the sainted seer of old
Who trod the tearless shore,
Like many waters deem the voice
The angel hosts adore!
For still where deep the rivers roll,
Or far the torrent gleams,
Our spirits hear the voice of God
Amid the rush of streams.
And the reason he thinks this is all her very own poem? Because it’s pretty and emotional and there are no visual images. I quote again: “We have marked in italics the touching allusion of the authoress to her blindness.”^^^
He was touched quite a bit in this way and marked several lines mentioning darkness in several poems, lest we forget for one solitary second that Frances Browne couldn’t see.
Okay, yes, it’s remarkable and yes, I’m sure it influenced her poetry. But you’ve remarked on it for twenty pages now. We get it.
At the end of the review, though, he does recommend the volume—after all, the shorter works are just adorable and there’s nothing “offensive” in it, though he does say that everything’s just a tad melancholy for his tastes. And in the final paragraph, he offers the loveliest pat on the head:
“We honour her not more for the genius than for the warm and patriotic feeling of her generous Irish heart . . . Now that she has overcome those difficulties which would appear to have shut her out for ever from the bright realms of poesy, her calamity may give stronger wings to her fancy, on which she can rise into brighter worlds than ever mortal eyes looked upon. And we, therefore, expect that her next volume, which we hope will not be long delayed, will establish her place amongst the most gifted children of song.”
Awwww. How kind, to call a twenty-eight year old woman an inoffensive child of song . . . Okay, yeah, I’m sorry. He was a 1844 male literary critic, we’re all products of our times, and it wasn’t all his fault.
But you know . . . some of it really was. And the dude’s tone does something to my twenty-first century female hackles.
We’ve come a long way, baby. Let’s not ever go back.
Ms. Browne’s collection is available online, if you’d like to make up your own mind. I hope you do.
°Which wasn’t an Irish church in particular, being more on the orange than the green side, but it’s a good memory anyway. I myself, after four or five generations of English and Germans and Swiss and one lone Hungarian, am probably no more than Irish-ish at this point— if at all, since trying to pinpoint a specific John McRae (your spelling may vary and Lord knows his did) from across an ocean and two hundred years has proved so frustrating that my cousin once told me she didn’t even know if it was like hitting herself repeatedly in the head with a shellaliah or a set of bagpipes. But that’s genealogy for ye.
* The Dublin Review, volume 17, September and December, 1844. pp 517-559.
**He also disliked the other long poem, “The Vision of Schwartz”, but I haven’t read it, yet, so I’m not going to bother sharing his disappointment in her failure to grasp the fundamental, blah, blah, blah.
***This is an assumption, since the reviewer doesn’t have a byline, but I’m playing the odds. The Dublin Review was founded by Nicholas Patrick Wiseman, and he usually gets general author credit in library catalogs, but I’ve read some of his stuff—he was an Archbishop of Westminster and wrote articles about the reconciliation of science and theology and the advantages of evangelical Roman Catholicism and oh, God, just don’t ask—but I’m pretty sure he didn’t write this particular review.
^ I mean, Ralph Waldo Emerson used descriptions of ancient and mythological items all the time, and he clearly didn’t taste the acid waters of the river Styx, or he wouldn’t have been around to write about it, so how did he know? I’m thinking he based it on something he read someplace—and I don’t see anyone calling him on that.
^^Insert snarky pun about being unqualified—though, again, I don’t know who the reviewer was and I’m sure he at least knew the literary conventions of the time better than I do and was a proper literary critic, unlike yours truly. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t patronizing as hell.
^^^Seventh line down, if you’re wondering, which you probably aren’t even though I didn’t bother to mark it because I trust you as readers to get the point. Guh.