Tighe, Mary (1772–1810), poet, was born 9 October 1772 in Dublin, the second child after John (1771–1817) of the Rev. William Blachford (1730–73) and Theodosia Blachford (qv) (née Tighe) (1744–1817), married in 1770. A wealthy landowner, Blachford attained distinction as librarian of Marsh's Library (1766–73). He died when Mary was seven months old. Theodosia Blachford, scion of the Tighe family and granddaughter of the 1st earl of Darnley, was an early activist for the methodist movement; she believed in liberal education for women and pursued her own work with fervour (she published a translation of The life of the baroness de Chantal in 1787, wrote several tracts for John Wesley (qv), and co-founded the Dublin House of Refuge on Baggot St. in 1802). She encouraged Mary to read widely in English, French, and Italian literature, history, and philosophy; to record passages from the works she admired; to keep reflective journals; to translate French and Italian poetry into English; and, importantly, to compose her own poetry. During the 1780s Mary was tutored at Este's academy in London as a day scholar while her brother attended Eton. A child of marked intellectual ability and imagination, Mary was also blessed with great beauty. At 14 she attracted so much attention that her mother determined to arrange her early marriage to a man of religion who would enable her to pursue a life of study. Instead she became romantically entangled with her handsome first cousin, Henry Tighe (1771–1836) of Rossana, second son of William Tighe (1738–82) and Sarah Fownes (1743–1822), who fell madly in love with her when he returned from school in England, and drew her away from a contemplative life into the brilliant social life of the viceregal court of Dublin, where she became a centre of attraction.
Mary Blachford married Henry Tighe on 5 October 1793, though she did not love him; close family connections and his violent passion made refusal difficult. According to his sister, Caroline Hamilton (qv), he threatened to go off to America, or to commit some act of violence, if she refused to marry him. Her mother knew she loved someone else: ‘I saw my poor child struggling with a foolish & violent passion half insensible to the tenderness of a heart that she was unwilling, indeed seemingly unable to wound by a positive refusal, though she saw her favourite lover, at her feet.’ Her own journal entry on the night before the wedding reads: ‘My soul draws back with terror & awe at the idea of the event which is to take place tomorrow.’ Mary and Henry Tighe took a house in London on Manchester Square, where he planned to increase their income of £1,000 a year by studying for the bar, but he abandoned his legal studies for a life of society, where he displayed his beautiful wife before fashionable friends. Family histories report that he never let her visit any friends alone, and was enraged when she privately commissioned George Romney to paint her portrait in 1794. Neither found happiness in the childless marriage, but in the admiration she received for her beauty and talent, and in the quieter literary activities they shared, including the Latin lessons she had him give her every morning. She drew on those lessons a few years later to compose her great epic romance, Psyche; or, The legend of love, which began as a verse translation of Apuleius's The golden ass.
Mary and Henry Tighe spent most of the 1790s in England, making periodic returns to Ireland to visit family in Wicklow and Dublin, and for him to represent Inistioge in the Irish parliament until the act of union. Both experienced the violence of the 1798 rebellion: he led a corps of yeoman troops through the Wicklow mountains while she was under siege at Rossana. Both argued against the act of union in 1799, he in the Irish parliament and she in her poetry: in ‘There was a young lordling whose wits were all toss'd up’, a speaker pointedly asks: ‘Do you think on its ruin the house will decide?’ as the young lordling calls for ‘union!, a union!’ Much of the poetry she wrote during the first eight years of her marriage is situated in Ireland, composed during actual visits or invoked in memory, and delineates with psychological subtlety and extraordinary craft the internal and external forces that influence the formation of female identity. Her sonnets from this period focus with particular intensity on the difficulties of reconciling discipline with desire, and authenticity with admiration, issues she takes up with even greater scope in the visionary and self-reflexive landscape of Psyche; or, The legend of love, which transforms one of the few myths in western culture to feature a female as hero, to conflate the tale of Psyche's transgressive gaze with Tighe's own work as a boundary-breaking woman poet. In 1801 Mary and Henry Tighe resettled in Ireland, and she immersed herself in her writing, completing the 372 Spenserian stanzas of Psyche between 1801 and 1802, and the five manuscript volumes of her novel Selena by the end of 1803.
In January 1804 Tighe exhibited signs of the tuberculosis that debilitated her health over the next six years; she went to England for medical attention in June, accompanied by her husband and mother, and was invited to publish a volume of poetry during her treatments. Though encouraged to do so by her extended literary circle (Thomas Moore (qv), Anna Seward, Sydney Owenson (qv), Lady Dacre, Joseph Cooper Walker (qv), William Hayley, and Hannah More, among others), she decided against public authorship, and instead had fifty copies of a private edition of Psyche; or, The legend of love prepared in 1805. She returned to Ireland in September 1805, after the printing of Psyche in July. Those fifty copies were the only ones printed during her lifetime, but they circulated so profusely among avid readers (many of whom made and shared their own copies) that Tighe was already feted as ‘the author of Psyche’ during the remaining five years of her life. The Quarterly Review would later comment on the remarkable circulation history of the 1805 edition, and extensive ‘admiration which The legend of love is known to have excited within the limited sphere of its previous existence’ (Quarterly Review, v (May 1811), 471–85). Tighe received many requests for additional copies of Psyche, but never pursued a second printing: her fatal struggle with tuberculosis began to impede her physical activities in 1804, and even delayed the printing of the 1805 edition. Despite increasing pain she pursued an active intellectual life during her final years, writing poetry, keeping commentaries on her prolific reading (NLI, MS 4804), maintaining correspondence (TCD MSS 1461/5–7), and conversing with the friends who visited her in Dublin and Wicklow (notably Moore, Owenson, William Parnell (qv), Lady Charlemont, Lady Asgill, and Sir Arthur Wellesley (qv)). She died 24 March 1810 at the Woodstock estate of her cousin and brother-in-law William Tighe (qv) (1766–1816), and was buried in Inistioge, where a statue by John Flaxman marks her tomb in the Tighe family mausoleum.
In 1811 Henry Tighe prepared the posthumous edition of Psyche, with other poems that made Mary Tighe famous throughout the nineteenth century, and had so significant an impact on the work of John Keats and Felicia Hemans (as well as Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Mary Brunton, Anna Maria Porter, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charlotte Brontë, Christina Rossetti, and Emily Dickinson). Comprised of a lightly edited copy of the 1805 Psyche; or, The legend of love, the 1811 Psyche, with other poems also included thirty-nine of the nearly ninety unpublished lyrics Tighe composed over the course of her life (William Tighe made another seventeen lyrics available to close friends in a second posthumous 1811 collection, Mary: a series of reflections during twenty years, printed privately at a local Dublin press in a limited edition of twenty copies; the rest of her work remained in manuscript at the NLI until the twenty-first century). Ten prominent periodicals reviewed the 1811 edition of Psyche with favour, praising it as work of ‘extraordinary merits’ (Eclectic Review) for intellectual richness, exquisite telling, superb execution, elegant design, superior style, excellent versification, and fine feeling. The Monthly Review hailed it as an instant classic, ‘calculated to endure the judgment of posterity, long after the possessors of an ephemeral popularity shall have faded away into a well-merited oblivion’. The Gentleman's Magazine predicted it would ‘long be celebrated by the admirers of genuine poetry’. So it was. As Catherine Hamilton noted nearly a hundred years later, Tighe's poetry ‘won the highest praise from competent critics’ throughout the century, including Sir James Mackintosh, who cited Psyche as ‘the first female production in our language’, John Wilson, who named Tighe as one of the three premier national women poets of the age (‘Scotland has her Baillie – Ireland her Tighe – England her Hemans’), and Elizabeth Blackburne, who claimed ‘[Psyche] stands alone in the literature of Ireland – pure, polished, sublime – the outpouring of a trammelled soul yearning to be freed.’ Overlooked for much of the twentieth century, Tighe was rediscovered in the 1990s and recognised as a great romantic-era woman poet of the sublime, who offered a complex, sophisticated, and aesthetically rich portrait of female sense and sensibility in her work. The first comprehensive collection of Tighe's poetry (and journals) was published in 2005, precisely two hundred years after the first edition of Psyche.
Tighe family papers are in the PRONI, MSS D/2685/1–15; Mary Tighe's MS of ‘Selena’ (1803) is in the NLI, MS 4742. The Wicklow papers in the NLI (MSS 4810–11) include her journal (1787–1802), the journal of Theodosia Blachford (1810), and Caroline Hamilton's ‘Mary Tighe’ and ‘Family reminiscences’ (both 1825).
George Romney's portrait of Mary Tighe (1795) is in the NGI, and a miniature by John Comerford (qv) after Romney (1800s) is in the National Portrait Gallery. An engraving of Mary Tighe by Caroline Watson is in the 1811 edition of Psyche, with other poems, and one by Edward Scriven in the 1812 edition. Tighe’s manuscript novel ‘Selena’ was published as Selena by Mary Tighe (2012); Paula Feldman and Brian Cooney edited The collected poetry of Mary Tighe (2016). J. Hopwood's engraving after Emma Drummond (1818) is in the NLI.
Reviews of Psyche, including those quoted above, appeared in the Quarterly Review, v (May 1811), 471–85; British Review, i (June 1811), 277–98; Glasgow Magazine, ii (August 1811), 304–5; Monthly Review, lxvi (October 1811), 138–52; British Critic, xxxviii (December 1811), 631–2; New Annual Register, or, General Repository of History, Politics, and Literature, xxxii (1811), 364–72; Poetical Register, viii (1811), 604; Critical Review, or, Annals of Literature, 4th ser., i (June 1812), 606–9; Gent. Mag., lxxxii (November 1812), 464–7; and Eclectic Review, ix (March 1813), 217–29.
A comprehensive list of all nineteenth- and twentieth-century sources is available in the bibliography in Harriet Kramer Linkin (ed.), The collected poems and journals of Mary Tighe (2005).