James Clarence Mangan has the reputation for being the most desperately romantic of Romantic poets, and a skim though the index of this new biography soon shows why: "alcoholism...drug-taking...in workhouse...begging... homelessness...hospitalized again...last poems...death". What Ellen Shannon Mangan's admirable study does is not to deny these aspects of the poet, but to flesh out the Romantic silhouette into a full-blooded portrait, embracing the other, neglected Mangan: the satirist, the nonsense versifier and exhilarating parodist, the political poet and steadfast Irish nationalist.
The first truly traumatic event in his life was the mysterious "walk in the rain" in which the young boy got soaked and returned home feverish, never fully to recover. Modern medicine might not give much credence to the explanation, but for Mangan it was the seminal event that caused him thereon to suffer from self-diagnosed "moral insanity". This condition was not as spicy as it sounds. Mangan was no Byron, and may have had only one lover in his life. Rather he was a pathetic and weak-willed figure with a terrible dependence on drink and drugs, and quite incapable of handling what little money came to him.
His family was Catholic, genteelly poor and downwardly mobile. As so often happens, declining family fortunes drove the sensitive boy into the world of the imagination, and he began to write poetry. His brutal father was no poetry lover, one senses, treating his children, according to Mangan, "as a huntsman would refractory hounds".
At 15, Mangan was apprenticed in a scrivener's office, working an unimaginable 18-hour day to support his family. Amid this squalor, he began to see himself as an outcast genius, "alien to the myriad crowd". By the time he turned 20 the pattern of his life was established: bouts of poetic composition interrupted by alcohol, intermittent anorexia and severe hypochondria. His anorexia was a curious development: he felt himself above the need to eat, a pure soul so far removed from the flesh that he needed only liquid refreshment - and lots of it. In the end it was malnutrition coupled with cholera that killed him, at the age of 46.
Where this biography breaks exciting new ground is in its discovery of Mangan the political poet. We may be too inclined nowadays to reckon a writer's importance by the degree of his political commitment, but in Mangan's case this tendency is justified. Instead of a charming but insubstantial minor Romantic, we have a passionate nationalist whose poetry is satirical, angry and finely controlled. He also wrote prose pieces with Swiftian echoes, "Why a Man ought not to be tweaked by the Nose with a pair of Tongs merely on account of his Politics"; and in this anarchic, reckless Mangan we have a figure perhaps more to our tastes.
This is a biography, not a critical study, but there are nevertheless some invaluable discussions of the poetry, certainly sufficient to make one look forward to the appearance of the planned seven volumes of complete poems currently being produced. Mangan will then appear clearly as Ireland's major 19th-century poet, firmly rooted in his own time, the history and politics of which Shannon-Mangan fortunately has an excellent grasp. Indeed, this biography is admirable in every way: assiduously researched, sympathetic, cautious, and with a fine understanding of the balance between Mangan the myth and the man. It will be fascinating for anyone interested in Romantic or Irish poetry, as well as for any wanting to get a flavour of the ferment of Irish public life in the 1840s. It is also pleasurably readable.
Christopher Hart is a PhD student, Birkbeck College, London.
James Clarence Mangan
Author - Ellen Shannon-Mangan
ISBN - 0 7156 2558 5
Publisher - Irish Academic Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 493