For the Love of Poetry

Two influential figures of the late 1700s were the poet-translator Charlotte Brooke and her close friend Joseph Walker, both from Anglo-Irish backgrounds.

Joseph Walker was born in 1761, probably in Dublin. He worked in the Irish Treasury, and was an enthusiastic linguist and antiquarian. He was a member of the Royal Irish Academy.

In 1786 Walker published Historical memoirs of the Irish Bards, a collection of items relating to Irish music an poetry. It included translations of Irish poems by “a young lady whose name I am enjoined to conceal” - Charlotte Brooke. Walker suffered from asthma - he travelled in Europe for his health, then settled in Bray, Co. Wicklow, dying in 1810.

Charlotte Brooke was born in Rantavan House in Mullagh, Co. Cavan, probably in the 1750s. The family moved to Co. Kildare, then returned to Cavan, building a house at Corfad.

Charlotte’s parents were Henry Brooke, a well known writer, and Catherine Meares. They had eloped when Catherine was only 14, and had 22 children, of whom Charlotte was the 21st.

Henry Brooke lovingly supervised Charlotte’s wide-ranging education. He stimulated her curiosity rather than disciplining her.

The Brookes belonged to the Anglo-Irish gentry, but lived in a remote area, surrounded by Irish speaking people. Charlotte acquired her love of Irish poetry from them as a child. Referring to her, Joseph Walker wrote:”A young lady....informed me, that her father had a labourer, who was in possession of two volumes of Irish manuscript poems, which, in her infancy, she often heard him read to a rustic audience in her father’s fields. The bold imagery, and marvellous air, of these poems, so captivated her youthful fancy, that they remained for some years strongly impressed on her memory.”

Charlotte studied at night while the family slept, and taught herself Irish. She began collecting Irish poems and translating them into English verse.

In the 1780s, Charlotte’s life fell to pieces. A sister died, then her mother. Her father went out of his mind, dying in 1783. Then her brother Arthur died in India, where he was a captain with the East India Company.

Charlotte invested most of her inheritance in a cotton-spinning venture started by a cousin, who had become rich in India. The rest she invested with a trader. Both businesses failed in 1787, leaving her penniless.

Joesph Walker and other friends advised her to apply to the Royal Irish academy for a post as housekeeper. Being a woman, she could not be a member of the Academy.

She appealed to the Academy as Henry Brooke’s daughter, offering to work unpaid.
Her application caused controversy - one gentleman angered her by urging her to become a tutor in a nobleman’s family. When she discovered that the president, Lord Charlemont, opposed her, she withdrew her application.

Two friends then suggested that she translate Irish manuscripts into English verse, “to rescue from oblivion at least some portion of the native beauties of the language and genius of this neglected country”. They promised to organise subscribers to pay for the publication.

Reliques of Irish Poetry was published in 1789. A large book, it contains Charlotte’s translations of 16 poems, with essays and notes, and a long poem by Charlotte herself.

Charlotte fully understood the problems of translation, and says she gave up in despair when faced by “many a sweet stanza to which I found myself quite unequal”.

Her love for the language shines through the book. She writes: “It scarcely possible that any language can be more adapted to lyric poetry than the Irish. The poetry of many of our songs is indeed already music, without the aid of a tune; so great is the smoothness, and harmony of its cadences.”
Charlotte’s translations were in the poetic style of her day. The result is over-sentimental to the modern ear, and loses the simplicity of the originals.

Take these lines, for example:
Sí mo chuisle sí mo rún í
agus blath na n-úll cumhra í
A literal translation runs:
She is my pulse and my love
and the flower of the sweet-scented apple.

Charlotte’s version is:
Pulse of my heart! - dear source of care,
Ston’n sighs, and love-breatth’d vows!
Sweeter than when, through scented air,
Gay bloom the apple boughs!

Reliques proved very popular earing Charlotte good reviews and money. She next wrote a book of religious dialogues for children - a methodist like her mother, she had turned to religion amidst her travails. She hoped to use the book’s proceeds to open a school for poor children.

Next she produced a new edition of her father’s works. This appeared in 1792 after struggles with printers and booksellers. Their negligence was increased, she wrote, “by knowing they had only female resentment to fear”.

On 29 March 1793 she died of fever, while staying with friends near Longford. The prestigious magazine Anthologia Hibernica afterwards described her as “one of the brightest literary ornaments of this country”.

Courtesy of the Irish Post
January 2003