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
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.
Charlottes 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
Henry Brooke lovingly supervised Charlottes wide-ranging
education. He stimulated her curiosity rather than disciplining
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 fathers 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, Charlottes 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 Brookes daughter,
offering to work unpaid.
Her application caused controversy - one gentleman angered
her by urging her to become a tutor in a noblemans
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 Charlottes 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.
Charlottes 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.
Charlottes version is:
Pulse of my heart! - dear source of care,
Stonn sighs, and love-breatthd 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 books
proceeds to open a school for poor children.
Next she produced a new edition of her fathers 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