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August 3, 2023

Mary Blachford Tighe, ‘Lost’ Romantic Poet

The poetry of the Irish poet Mary Blachford Tighe (1772-1810) has undergone a more dramatic fall into obscurity than that of any other woman poet of the period. Shortly after her death, Blackwood’s Magazine placed her in a trinity of notable female poets, alongside Joanna Baillie and Felicia Hemans; but today her major achievement, Psyche: or the Legend of Love, is chiefly known as a source for Keats’s best-known poems. Paula Feldman and Brian Cooney’s new edition includes many ‘lost’ poems, enabling readers to reassess the work of a poet whose career was vital to the development of English poetry.

Woman, Romantic, poet

Among female poets of the 1790s and early 1800s, the Irish poet Mary Blachford Tighe (1772-1810) is a remarkable example of a woman whose work, though highly praised in her time, fell into almost complete obscurity by the end of the nineteenth century. Today, her major achievement, Psyche; or, the Legend of Love, an epic poem in six cantos, is chiefly known to students of the romantic period as one of the sources John Keats drew on in writing The Eve of St Agnes and Ode to Psyche. Yet it clearly deserves to be studied in its own right as a poem that treats of ‘the formation of female identity’ (a point made by one of Tighe’s modern editors (Linkin, 2005)), for its nuanced psychology, and for its vivid (but distinctly un-Wordsworthian) descriptions of the natural world. And there is a further reason for reconsidering Mary Tighe’s status as a ‘lost’ Romantic: it has much to tell us about the vagaries of literary reputation, and the making of the poetic canon.

Recovering the work of neglected or ‘lost’ authors has long been a priority for literary scholars, mainly because restricting one’s knowledge of a literary period to a few familiar, canonical names delivers a false picture of what readers of the period were actually reading; knowing something of neglected authors’ work can enlarge one’s sense of the whole literary landscape, including the competition that better-known authors faced (Lennartz, 2020).

Soon after her death, the influential Blackwood’s Magazine ranked Tighe alongside Felicia Hemans and Joanna Baillie as one of a trinity of notable women poets: ‘Scotland has her Baillie – Ireland her Tighe – and England her Hemans’. Hemans and the popular Irish poet Thomas Moore wrote poetic tributes to her. Her strong attachment to Ireland lent her a certain cachet among sympathetic readers in England. She wrote a biting satire on the 1800 Act of Union, and the brazen influence-peddling that characterised debates about it in the Irish Parliament.

However, the collected edition of her work that was published posthumously in 1811 was overseen by her mother and brother-in-law, who were intent on protecting Mary’s reputation as a devout and cultured lady, without controversial political opinions. It therefore omitted such potentially controversial works, along with other poems, such as the Song to Oberon, that might have been seen as a little too sexually suggestive.

Living in a turbulent time

Mary Blachford was born into a well-to-do family: her father, William Blachford, was a Church of Ireland (Protestant) clergyman, her mother Theodosia was the daughter of Lady Mary Bligh, whose family owned two country estates as well as a Dublin town house. Theodosia encouraged her daughter’s studies, which included not only languages (Latin, French, and Italian) but also, more unusually for upper-middle-class girls of the time, theology, science, and history. After her marriage in 1793 to her first cousin Henry Tighe, Mary felt torn between her vocation as a writer, her mother’s rather strict religious principles, and the attractions of the London and Dublin social seasons, to which her marriage gave her access.

In April 1797, Henry Tighe was elected as a Member of the Irish Parliament, and soon became drawn into the conflicts that ravaged parts of the Irish countryside in 1798.

It was also in 1798 that the first serious symptoms of the disease which would lead to Tighe’s early death at the age of 37 appeared. By 1801, however, she had begun work on Psyche; or, the Legend of Love, the poem that would bring her increasing fame after the first edition appeared in 1805. This edition comprised a mere fifty copies, privately printed in London without her name on the titlepage; but as many of the copies were circulated to Tighe’s literary friends, or to relatives with literary connections (and bore her signature), word of the poem’s brilliance and its authorship soon spread.


The twentieth-century focus on Keats’s borrowings from the poem has fostered the misleading idea that it is a quasi-Keatsian exercise in sensuous description, adorned with classical allusions. A more attentive reading reveals an intellectually serious project. Tighe had a real grasp of how to use Spenserian allegory (modelled on Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene) to present her considered views on love, sexual desire, and human mortality, looking beyond the standard ‘marriage plot’. And this exploration is presented from a woman’s point of view. At one level, Psyche is an allegory of the human soul; but at the literal level of the narrative, Psyche is also a young woman, and it is through her consciousness that the reader follows the story.

Tighe’s Preface expresses her fear, as a female poet, that her rendering of this late-classical story, interpreted for centuries as an allegory of Love and the Soul, might be condemned by moralists; but it explicitly claims her right to deal with the topic as a woman. This claim places her alongside such contemporaries as Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays, both writers from dissenting backgrounds who similarly rejected the patriarchal insistence that women must be guided by ‘decorum.’

Tighe’s versatility

While preparing the 1805 edition of Psyche, Tighe took the difficult decision not to add to the volume a selection of her shorter poems, partly because of her fear that these additional poems would merely offer more targets for hostile critics to attack (Feldman and Cooney, 2016). While understandable, this decision did mean that many of her best poems did not reach a wider public until after her death. Tighe’s poetic range was wide, however: poems such as La Cittadina, and her sonnet to the Ladies of Langollen Vale, neither of which was printed in the 1811 collection, demonstrate her more adventurous and cosmopolitan side.

The most recent edition of her poetry – Collected Poems (2016) – includes many more recently-discovered ‘lost’ poems printed for the first time from holograph manuscripts, as well as improved texts of lyrics and narrative poems previously known only from imperfect versions in the 1811 edition and successive reprints. With this edition, Mary Blachford Tighe can now be recognised as an innovative and bold voice that ventures into political and satirical verse, light ‘album’ verse, imitations of Horace and Catullus, and translations of Petrarch, Metastasio, and other Italian and French poets, as well as more conventionally ‘romantic’ genres such as descriptive and meditative poetry. The Feldman and Cooney edition should do much to raise Mary Blachford Tighe from the obscurity in which she has languished since the end of the nineteenth century, and place her alongside other, better-known poets of the early Romantic period.


Harding, A (2020) Mary Blachford Tighe: ‘No Haunting Dream.’ In: Lennartz, N (ed) The Lost Romantics: Forgotten Poets, Neglected Works and One-Hit Wonders. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, an imprint of Springer Nature Switzerland AG. 59-74.

Lennartz, N, (2020) Probing the Realms of Lostness, Non-Canonicity and Oblivion: An Introduction. In: Lennartz, N, (ed) The Lost Romantics: Forgotten Poets, Neglected Works and One-Hit Wonders. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, an imprint of Springer Nature Switzerland AG. 3-18.

Feldman, P, Cooney, B (2016) Introduction. In: Feldman, P, Cooney, B, (ed) Mary Blachford Tighe, The Collected Poetry. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1-55.

Tighe, M, (2016) The Collected Poetry. (ed) Feldman, P, Cooney, B. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Linkin, H, (2005) ‘Introduction: Mary Blachford Tighe’. In: Linkin, H (ed) The Collected Poems and Journals of Mary Tighe. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky. xv-xxxiii.

Written By

Anthony John Harding
University of Saskatchewan

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