Tom Redshaw, ‘Reflections of a gentleman’, review of Thomas McCarthy, Merchant Prince, in The Irish Times (25 June 2005), Weekend.

[The cover of Thomas McCarthy’s Merchant Prince gives his latest Anvil collection a leading subtitle in early 19th-century style: “The life and passions of Nathaniel Murphy, gentleman-merchant, in Italy and Ireland”.]

McCarthy’s readers will discover, however, that Merchant Prince is thoroughly modern as well as Modernist, given the Romanticism native to Nathaniel Murphy, McCarthy’s chosen persona. McCarthy handles this persona as tellingly as John Berryman did, for example, in his Dream Songs , but in a far different idiom. Indeed, Merchant Prince combines McCarthy’s signal strengths of invention and empathy - strengths displayed so well in prose and verse in Gardens of Remembrance (1998) and in Mr Dineen’s Careful Parade (1999).

Shelley, Nathaniel Murphy’s contemporary, once exclaimed that “A poem is the very image of life expressed”. That is the employment to which McCarthy’s seminarian-turned-merchant puts his present. Merchant Prince’s present is Cork before the Famine in the decades of Sheridan and Callinan, of Grattan and O’Connell, of Merriman and Cín Lae Amlaoibh Uí Shúilleabháin . This reinvented world is McCarthy’s “hidden Ireland”, just as was the lost world of local Fianna Fáil politics. And here, again, McCarthy’s enterprise makes poetry of unattended materials. Indeed, Murphy’s Clonakilty-born wife, Louise Callinan, defines McCarthy’s sensibility as well as her husband’s, saying that he has “an eye only for the foreign or bizarre aspects of the daily hour”.

McCarthy has titled nearly every one of the 66 poems in Merchant Prince according to the formula of “He Purchases a Street Ballad”. Nearly every poem displays the trait of acute observation of Cork life sub specie aeternis , as one would expect of a former seminarian in the Irish College in Rome before the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. McCarthy frees his Murphy from 18th-century rhyming and invests him with a plain-speaking, formal inventiveness. That liberty lets Murphy reveal a fully developed, almost novelistic character, thus rendering him no mere mask. A man of sharp sight and wary insight, Murphy enriches his poems with allusions, judgments, and sometimes in political aperçus. In 1812, Murphy registers the oppressions of the Act of Union when he gazes on his wife cutting a silhouette: “… the anchor-chains of paper unfold / To lie upon the surface of her shoes”.

It is a convict’s head, one bound for Van Diemen’s Land.
That we saw for less than three minutes When our carriage turned into the Lower Quay.

Such residing empathies, when recognised despite the comforts of felicitous wealth, helped propel such reforms as Catholic Emancipation. Informed by Edmund Burke’s example more than James Barry’s, Murphy displays a canny but not calculating Tory sensibility that resembles Jane Austen’s. Consequently, McCarthy’s present readers should be wary of a prosperity that obscures rather than discovers the moral empathy that undergirds, as Murphy says, our “battle for integrity”.

McCarthy has Murphy date his poems from 1770 through 1831, yet he presents them as if in as-found order on the damp floor of the old Lee Bookshop. The reader will be tempted to make a diary of them, encouraged by the central meta-fiction of Merchant Prince , a memoir recollected in tranquillity by Murphy in 1818. In these pages McCarthy offers a witty novella à clef in the mode of Italo Calvino or Flann O’Brien. A few clues will not spoil McCarthy’s sport: the Principessa’s poem The Italian Question is a version of Ceist na Teangan; Alderman Wrixon is the president of University College Cork; and the late Professor John Bernstein was a bishop to Ojibway and Canuck trappers on the upper Mississippi. In these pages, Murphy reconstructs his fall from obedience and credulity into passion and the Romantic as a conversion to poetry. Yet, he concludes that his four esteemed Italian poets were “half-companions in the final romance of a long marriage”.

Not an idle humour at all, Memory depicts the Sturm-und-Drang of vocation and sexuality with the purpose of translating those resources of youth into a settled present. In “He Serves Mass at Advent, Rome, 1771”, Murphy remembers that he “came to Zion, shouting for joy - / But it was with my father’s breath …”, and retrospectively claims his own Romantic purpose. McCarthy, like Murphy, finds renewed breath in these poems. To accomplish such a liberation, McCarthy’s patient imagination has reached back behind the hurt of the Famine - where popular Irish history seems to begin these days. This reach should not seem odd to his readers, considering the previous tour de force of “Cataloguing Twelve Fenian Novels”. For all its Joycean challenges, McCarthy’s Merchant Prince retains warm feelings for human flaw and forgiveness, which should make it as welcome to readers as was the solace of The Sorrow Garden in 1981.

[Thomas Dillon Redshaw directs the Centre for Irish Studies at the University of St Thomas, St Paul, Minnesota. His book, Well Dreams: Essays on John Montague, was published last year by Creighton University Press]

[Merchant Prince By Thomas McCarthy Anvil Press Poetry, 199pp. £11.95]

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