Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay

TIGHE, MARY (1772-1810)

TIGHE, MARY (1772-1810), Irish poet, daughter of the Rev. William Blachford, was born on the 9th of October 1772. In 1793 she contracted what proved to be an unhappy marriage with her cousin, Henry Tighe, of Woodstock, Co. Wicklow. She died on the 24th of March 1810, at Woodstock, Co. Kilkenny, and was buried at Inistioge. Mrs Tighe was the author of a poem of unusual merit, Psyche or the Legend of Love, printed privately in 1805 and published posthumously in 1811 with some other poems. It is founded on the story as told by Apuleius, and is written in the Spenserian stanza. The poem had many admirers, and high praise is awarded it in a contemporary notice in the Quarterly Review (May 1811).

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TIGHE, Mary (1772-1810) by Stephen Behrendt

The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica entry for Mary Tighe sacrifices both substance and nuance in service to brevity, an especially common and unfortunate fate, historically, when it comes to women writers, including many prolific poets of the Romantic era (c. 1770–1835). In Ireland alone some four dozen Irish and Irish-identified women published at least one book apiece during the period, some in provincial locales, and others in major population centers like Dublin and London. Tighe was one of these.

Mary Tighe
Romney, George. Portrait of Mary Tighe (1747-1791), Poet. Unknown, © National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin Original image

The daughter of a wealthy Anglican minister and librarian (who died before her first birthday) and an Irish Methodist mother and increasingly ascetic follower of John Wesley, Tighe grew up in Ireland and, following a less than enthusiastic marriage to her anti-Union parliamentarian cousin Henry Tighe, relocated with him to London, where she flourished in a lively urban social milieu. She was a musician (when she traveled she took with her the harp that had been made to her order) and a visual artist (she adorned a two-volume manuscript of her poems, prepared in 1805 for her husband, with delicate and accomplished visual images and vignettes). She wrote a long novel, Selena (left in manuscript at her death), but Tighe is best known as a skillful poet who was proficient in briefer forms like the sonnet, the elegy, and the lyric, and whose most ambitious long poem, Psyche; or, The Legend of Love, is now regarded as a key document in Romantic poetry.

Composed in 1801–03, Psyche circulated widely in manuscript among Tighe’s acquaintances and admirers, prompting a printing in 1805 of fifty copies for private distribution. Even in these limited numbers, its popularity was immediate and widespread. Following her death in March 1810 from the tuberculosis that had afflicted her final decade, a posthumous edition appeared in 1811 and was twice reprinted in that year, further spreading her fame and influence, including to contemporary female poets like Melesina Trench and Felicia Hemans as well as male poets like Thomas Moore and John Keats, and garnering positive, admiring reviews even among notoriously combative and censorious periodical commentators. The British Review praised the poetry as not just elevated and refined but also pure and correct, while the frequently scathing Quarterly Review lauded Psyche’s virtually unrivaled delicacy of sentiment, style [and] versification. Notably, few of these male critics remarked on the poem’s intellectual depth and psychological sophistication.

Tighe applies to the tale from Apuleius a distinctly feminist perspective. She traces the progress of Psyche and Cupid through a parallel journey of self-discovery and affirmation involving moral and intellectual challenges that teach both how to cultivate a spiritual sense of self and to see one another accurately and companionately. Cast in the demanding form of Spenserian stanzas, this long poem (3,347 lines) also offers a metaphorical commentary on the situation of the artist—and particularly the woman artist—as both the author and the object of a process of gazing (or specularization) that at once reveals and exposes the author to a wide range of judgmental acts by that artist’s audience(s). The subject held special personal relevance for Tighe, whose literary celebrity among her lively social circle contrasted her own persistent ambivalence about that celebrity in light of the personal asceticism her disapproving mother consistently recommended to her.

Like her contemporaries in Scotland, Wales and England proper, Irish poets like Tighe benefit today from scholarly efforts to recover and reassess their poetry. Recent scholarly editions of Tighe’s poetry and journals (2005, 2015), of Selena (2012), and of her letters (2020), carefully edited and annotated by Harriet Kramer Linkin, together with ongoing contributions by other scholars, at last yield a more thorough and intellectually nuanced assessment of Tighe’s achievement and influence.

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