Speranza: Miss Jane Francesca Elgee (afterwards Lady Wilde).
“Speranza” was one of the best known and most popular of the writers of ‘The Nation’.
For some time the identity of a correspondent who used to send poems to the paper signed “Speranza” was unknown to Gavan Duffy, the Editor, who judging from the vigour of the verses, assumed that the writer was a man.
He was, therefore, very much surprised when, in reply to an invitation, he visited No. 34 Leeson Street one night and was, confronted by a young lady of striking and handsome appearance, whom he learned was his unknown correspondent. She was Miss Jane Francesca Elgee, the granddaughter – not daughter, as sometimes stated – of Archdeacon Elgee, the Rector of Wexford, whose eldest son was her father. (She wrote to D. J. O’Donoghue on the 10th August, 1893, correcting the statement that she was the daughter of a clergyman. “My Father,” she stated, “was the eldest son of Archdeacon Elgee, and he was not a clergyman.” O’Donoghue omitted making the correction in his edition of ‘The Poets of Ireland’ in 1912. In the announcement of her marriage it was stated that she was the youngest daughter of Charles Elgee and granddaughter of Archbishop Elgee)
Born in Wexford about the year 1826, Miss Elgee belonged to a strictly Protestant, and Conservative family who had no sympathy with national aspirations.
“Until my eighteenth year,”” she stated, “”I never wrote anything. Then one day a volume of ‘Ireland’s Library,’ issued from ‘The Nation’ office by Mr. Duffy, happened to come my way. I read it eagerly, and my patriotism was enkindled. Until then,” she continued, “I was quite indifferent to the national movement, and if I thought about it at all, I probably had a very bad opinion of the leaders. For my family was Protestant and Conservative, and there was no social intercourse between them and the Catholics and Nationalists. But once I had caught the national spirit the literature of Irish songs and sufferings had an enthralling interest for me. Then it was that I discovered that I could write poetry. In sending my verses to the editor of ‘The Nation’ I dared not have my name published, so I signed them ‘Speranza’, and my letters ‘John Fanshawe Ellis,’ instead of ‘Jane Francesca Elgee.’
She heard of Thomas Davis for the first time when she was told that the immense cortege she saw passing in the streets was his funeral.
“”Speranza’s “” first poem appeared in The Nation in 1846, not 1844, as stated by D. J. O’Donoghue, and was followed at short intervals by numerous others, which aroused the enthusiasm of the Young Ireland leaders and their supporters throughout the country.
“”No voice that was raised in the cause of the poor and oppressed,”” Martin MacDermott wrote, “”none that denounced political wrong-doing in Ireland was more eagerly listened to than that of the graceful ‘and accomplished woman known in literature, as ‘Speranza’ and in society as Lady Wilde.””
“”Speranza”, wrote not only rousing, patriotic verse but revolutionary prose for ‘The Nation’. Her article, “”Jacta Alea Est “” (The Die is Cast), printed in the suppressed number of the paper for the 29th July, 1848, urged armed revolt in the cause of Irish freedom and showed that she had become a wholehearted disciple of John Mitchel, who was then in the hands of the enemy. The article was used as evidence against Gavan Duffy, who was in prison when it was written and never saw it.
“”Speranza”” boldly avowed the authorship from the gallery of the Courthouse in which she was sitting on the 21st February 1849 when the article was referred to by the Solicitor-General in ,the trial of Duffy
With the collapse of the 1848 Movement, following the arrest ,of the leaders and the suppression of their papers, “” Speranza”” was gradually drawn away from the national struggle; and the vigorous prose of “”John Fanshawe Ellis” or the patriotic verse of “Speranza” no longer delighted Irish readers.
After 1848, Gavan Duffy states, “”””Speranza”” did not lose sympathy with the National Cause,but she not unnaturally lost hope and was indignant with the people at large ‘I don’t blame the leaders,’ she said, ‘in the least, but in Sicily, or Belgium; they would have been successful.’” What is not generally known is that Miss Elgee did write for The Nation after its revival on the 1st September, 1849, by Charles Gavan Duffy, but she cast aside old noms de plume, and Ireland’s wrongs and aspirations no longer inspired her muse. In 1849, beginning on the 15th December, and in 1850, there are translations from the Russian and Danish signed “”A,”” which are the work of Miss Elgee; and also a four-and-a-half column review with this same signature (on 30th November, 1850) under the heading “”Stella and Vanessa.””
Once more, on the 6th February, 1869, the pen-name, “Speranza,”” appeared in The Nation under a poem on the Fenian prisoners, containing the lines:
“”Has not vengeance been gated at last?
Will the holy and beautiful chimes
Ring out the old wrongs of the past,
Ring in the new glories and times?””
For years, ‘Speranza’ used to attend Viceregal functions in Dublin Castle as the wife of William Wilde (afterwards Sir William Wilde knighted 1864), the distinguished oculist and antiquary. She was a popular figure in the city, and as she drove through the streets she was loudly cheered by large crowds, who remembered her warm sympathy with the national movement when she was known as ‘Speranza’ and the writer of ‘Jacta Alea Est’.
After her marriage in 1851, she became a leader of fashion, first in Dublin and afterwards in London where she went to live shortly after her husbands death in 1876, as likely to afford a better outlet for her literary talents.
All the social, literary and artistic celebrities visited her “At Homes” in No. 1 Merrion Square, Dublin and at Park Street, Grosvenor Square, and 147 Oakely Street, Chelsea, London.
Her brilliant but dissolute son, Oscar Wilde, wrote: “My mother, who knew life as a whole, used often to quote to me Goethes lines – written by Carlyle in a book he had given her years ago, and translated by him, I fancy, also –
“Who never ate his bread in sorrow,
who never spent the midnight hours
weeping and wailing for the morrow –
He knows you not, ye heavenly powers”
These were the last lines which that noble Queen of Prussia, whom Napoleon treated with such coarse brutality used to quote in her humiliation and exile. These were the lines my mother often quoted early in the troubles of her later life.”
The first edition of her verses were published in 1864 by James Duffy as Poems by Speranza (Lady Wilde), showing that she still retained pride in the pen-name which had endeared her to the Irish people. Dedicated to her two sons, “” Willie and Oscar,”” it contained seventy-nine poems, including many of those which had appeared in The Nation. The volume opened with her fine poem on the Brothers Sheares.
In a review of her poems in the Fenian Irish People on the 25th February, 1835, it was stated:
“”No Irish writer of our time, except, perhaps, Thomas Davis, has been praised so highly, nearly all the Young Ireland leaders offered incense at her shrine. Doheny wrote an essay on her. Mitchel quoted her poetry in his Last Conquest. Meagher quoted it in his speeches, and called his boat ‘Speranza.’
This admiration, we fancy, was inspired as much by the woman and the poetry as the poet, and perhaps if she knew it was so it would not have been the less grateful to her. Her surroundings, we are told, were anti-Irish. She belonged to that class who were Irish only in name and whose boast it was that they garrisoned the land of their birth for a foreign country. A woman who, so circumstanced, could feel that Ireland was her country, must have been no ordinary woman. And it is no wonder that one so gifted as ‘Speranza’ was welcomed with enthusiasm both by dreamers and workers, who hoped to make Ireland ‘A Nation Once Again,’ and who relied so much upon intellect for the attainment of their end. Lady Wilde is generally on a lofty tower, and the words she rolls down, I may say, are often soul-stirring and always vigorous”
She also published a number of prose works; including ‘Driftwood from Scandinavia’ (London, 1864) ; Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, with Sketches of Ireland’s Past (London, 1887) Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages of Ireland (London, 1890) ; Notes on Men, Women and Books (London, 1891), and Social Studies (London; 1893). In the latter volume is an interesting chapter on “Irish Leaders and Martyrs,”” from which I take the following extraction as showing Lady Wilde’s opinions many years after she had ceased to write for The Nation :
“”The fervent nationality evoked by Thomas Moore’s music and songs at the opening of the century, and formulated afterwards into an immense political force by Daniel O’Connell, rose to a fever of enthusiasm in 1846, when a madness of lyrical passion seemed to sweep over the heart of the Nation, and Young Ireland springing to manhood splendid in force and intellect, earnest in aim and stainless in life A delirium of patriotic excitement raged through the land as those, young orators and poets flashed the full light of their: genius in the wrongs, the hopes, and the old heroic memories of their country. Even the upper classes in Ireland awoke for the first time, to a sense of the nobleness of a Life devoted to national regeneration. The leaders spoke as inspired men, and their words, like the words of the spirit, gave new life and power to every lofty purpose and high resolve. Artizans also, many of whom were seized with the poetic frenzy, wrote and published verses of singular merit and strong rude power!’
During the Land League days, Lady Wilde was a warm, admirer of Parnell, who was then leading a united people. She said to one of her friends “”Parnell is the man of destiny. He will strike off the fetters and free, Ireland and throne her as Queen among the nations.”
George Bernard Shaw pays a tribute to the kindness he received from Lady Wilde in the early days of his career: “”Lady Wilde was nice to me in London, “” he stated, “during the desperate days between my arrival in 1876 and my earning of an income by my pen in 1885, or until a few years earlier when I threw myself into socialism and cut myself contemptuously loose from everything of which her “At Homes “ themselves desperate affairs enough ‘were part.””
A woman writer (Catherine Jane Hamilton) described Lady Wilde as she appeared to her in her home in London in 1889 :
“”A tall woman, slightly bent with, rheumatism, fantastically dressed in a trained black and white checked silk gown. From her head floated long white streamers; mixed with ends of scarlet ribbon. What glorious dark eyes she had. Even then, and she was over sixty, she was a strikingly handsome woman, Her talent for talk was infectious; everyone talked their best; …’I cannot write,’ I heard her say, ‘about such things as Mrs. Green looked well in black and Mrs. Black looked very well in green!”
At this time Lady Wilde was not very well off. Indeed, she had a great difficulty in keeping up appearances. She had a small pension from the Civil List and her writings did not bring her in a fortune.
She wrote to W.J. Fitzpatrick describing an evening at her house, No. 1 Merrion Square, in 1874, with Mitchel as her guest. Mitchel, whom, she stated, “” was fated so soon after to end his sad brilliant life of genius, pain and suffering. His lovely daughter was with him. She was born when he was a prisoner and he called her ‘Isabel of the Fetters;’ but I said she was ‘The Angel of the Captivity.’ “”
“”Speranza “” was warm-hearted, generous, romantic and enthusiastic. She was a brilliant conversationalist and a fine linguist. “My favourite study,” she once stated, “was languages. I succeeded in mastering two European languages before I was eighteen.” She published translations from French, German, Spanish, Danish, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish and Swedish writers in both prose and poetry.
On the 21st February 846, the pseudonym ‘Speranza’, with which readers of ‘The Nation’ were to become familiar until July 1848, appeared in the ‘Answers to Correspondents’ column under a poem translated from the German entitled “The Holy War.” There was an editorial note preceding the verses : “Non, mon ami. Ca Ira. But the Germans have ideas of freeing mankind on a vast scale too vast to be altogether practical. We have no idea how a crusade of nations would work.”
This was followed by a number of other translations during 1846, including ‘The Knight’s Pledge” (16th May), from Herwagh; “The Old Man’s Blessing,” from Heenrich Colin (30th May) and “Echoes of Foreign Songs” from the German of Baggesen (6th June).
Another poem, “Anticipations,” from Herwegh, was declined on the 11th July with the comment: “The translations of our new friend have always vigour and freedom, but this piece has essential faults of common-place and which a translation could scarcely cure. We would be glad to see ‘Speranza’.
On the 18th July, in reference to the translation of a sonnet from Herwagh, this editorial note appeared in the “Answers to Correspondents” column: “Our new contributor promises to rival Mangan in the melody and fullness of his phrases. This sonnet is exquisitely translated.” It bore no title, but is included in “Speranza’s” poems under the heading, “The Poet’s Destiny”. Other translations by “Speranza” appeared on August 15th (“Catarina” from the Portuguese of Camoens); on September 5th, “Misery is a Mystery” from the German of Nicholas Lenau); on October 10th (“Disillusion” from the German of Count Platen); on October 31st, (“Romance” from the Spanish) ; on December 19th, (“Opportunity” from the Italian of Machiavelle); on December 26th, (“Ignez de Castro” from the Portuguese of Bocage).
She also wrote two other poems which are not translations – “The Poet’s Mission” on the 19th September, and “A Lament” on the 5th December, of five verses, beginning:
“Gone from us, dead to us – he whom we worshipped so.
Low lies the altar we raised to his name;
Madly his own hand hath shattered and laid it low –
Madly his own proud breath hath blasted his fame.
He whose broad forehead was circled with might.
Sunk to a time-serving, drivelling inanity –
God! Why not spare our loved country the sight.”
Referring to the poem, an editorial comment states: “Late events must have made a deep and fatal impression when a true poet has drawn from them so sad a moral as we have here. And mark how you will find thrilling thoughts come out with a certain vehement irregularity like the stammering of bitter grief.”
In 1847 “Speranza” published (on January 23rd) “The Stricken Land”, the title of which was changed to “The Famine Year” in her collected poems; on March 6th, “The Brothers” – John and Henry Sheares – who were hanged in 1798 and interred in the vaults of St. Michan’s Church, Dublin, where the antiseptic quality of the clay preserved the bodies; on March 27th “France in ‘93” -a lesson from foreign history ; “Signs of the Times” (on April 3rd) ; on May 1st, “The Fate of the Lyrist”, from the German of Count Platen; on July 3rd “memory” ; on October 9th “The Mystic Tree” from Oebkebschlager; on October 16th “The Young Patriot Leader”, to which an editorial note was attached: “Who is the happy and illustrious original of this great picture?”; on October 23rd, “A Servian Song” from the Russian of Alexander Puschkin; on November 20th “The Fisherman” from Goethe; on November 27th “The Future”; on December 4th “Man’s Mission”; on Dec 24th, “Fatality” and “King Eric’s Death” from the German of Johann Seidle.
“Speranza” died at 147 Oakley Street, Chelsea on 3rd February, 1896, and was buried in Kensal Green.”
Extract from ‘The Young Irelanders’ by T.F. O’Sullivan. Published by The Kerryman Ltd., 1944.