October 7, 2005

Seminar: Irish Studies, 535

Meeting Date: October 7, 2005

Chair: Terry Byrne

Speaker: Prof. Martin J. Burke
    Associate Professor of History, Lehman College and the Graduate Center, CUNY

Title of Talk: “Daidra from Philadelphia: Thomas Holley Chivers and The Sons of Usna.”

Rapporteur: Cóilín Parsons

Attendees: Frank Naughton (Kean University); Alice Naughton; Diane Menagh (Fairfield University, Connecticut); Robert St-Cyr; Rita Loughlin (American Irish Teachers Association); Peter M. Leahy (CUNY Graduate Center); Patrick McNierney (Columbia University); Séamus Blake (WFUV Radio, Fordham University); Michael O. Shannon (Lehman College, CUNY); Bill McGimpsey.

“Daidra from Philadelphia: Thomas Holley Chivers and The Sons of Usna.”
A copy of the paper will be deposited in the seminar’s archives.  The following is a synopsis of Prof. Burke’s paper:

Thomas Holley Chivers (1808-1858) was a Georgia planter, physician, poet, and playwright who is known to students of American literature for his collaboration with Edgar Allen Poe, and the subsequent plagiarism controversy over Poe’s poem, “The Raven.”  His interests in esoterica and the occult drew him into spiritualist and Swedenborgian circles, and he contributed poetry and prose to Andre Jackson Davis’ The Univercoelum; or Spiritual Philosopher.  Two of his six plays—Conrad and Eudora and The Sons of Usna: a Tragi-Apotheosis—were published, but neither was ever performed.  The Sons of Usna was the first English-language dramatic adaptation of the Deirdre story.
Chivers became interested in what he called the “Milesian legend” of Deirdre through Theophilus O’Flanagan’s translations, published in the Transactions of the Dublin Gaelic Society in 1808.  O’Flanagan’s publication was part of an Irish intervention into the Ossian controversy, and Chivers became aware of it through Thomas Moore’s poem “Avenging and Bright” (1811), which mentions O’Flanagan in a note.  A second source for Chivers’ play was James McPherson, despite O’Flanagan’s strictures about the authenticity of McPherson’s work.
The third main source of materials for the play was the work of Emanuel Swedenborg.  A good deal of the play is given over to discussions of Swedenborg’s theories of the nature of man, the immortality of the soul, carnal and spiritual marriage, and the presence and power of angels.  While Swedenborgian ideas were being preached in the Church of the New Jerusalem, and circulated via newspapers, pamphlets, and on the lecture circuit, Chivers’ appears to be the only attempt to present Swedenborgian ideas on stage.  The play also contains references to the Kabbalah, many allusions to Shakespeare, and nods to Wagner—if nothing, it is an eclectic play.
Prof. Burke presented a detailed summary of the complex plot of the 94-page play.  The play is clearly too long to be performed, and in order to stage it, much of the Swedenborgian material would have to be cut out.  There is no connection between this play and the two subsequent version of Deirdre written in America, Robert Joyce’s Deirdre (1879) and William Sharp’s The House of Usna (1905), or the poetic and dramatic versions of Ferguson, Standish O’Grady, Yeats, or Synge.
The play raises many questions for the study of literature and the circulation of texts in the nineteenth century, among which are the following: How did the McPherson controversy continue in the nineteenth century?  What was the influence of Swedenborg and spiritualists on nineteenth-century Irish writers?  What influence did Thomas Moore have on Irish literature and culture?

Q. Bryn Athyn in Montgomery Co., PA, is a perfect mock-up of an idyllic English village, with a church at the centre, a school, and a college.  Almost everyone is a member of the Church of the New Jerusalem, and the Church owns the town, the population of which is a few thousand.
A. The Church was founded in 1787.  Swedenborg was very much a mid-eighteenth-century man of letters, who had visions of heaven, carried on conversations with the spirit world, and had some highly idiosyncratic theories.  The nineteenth century liked Swedenborg far less for his rationalism than for his spiritualism.  The dialogue in the play lines up very neatly with Swedenborg.
Q. When did Swedenborg die?
A. In London in 1772.  The presence of Swedenborg in Yeats is very strong; when Yeats won the Nobel Prize, all he could find out about Sweden is about Swedenborg.
Q. How is the heroine’s name spelt?
A. It is spelt Daidre—that is not a typographical error.  Chivers doesn’t offer a pronunciation of it.
Q. Where did Adams stand on Thomas Moore?
A. Moore does have a poem on the abduction of Dervorgilla, but he never met Adams.
Q. Charlotte Brooke reacted to the bad name that Gaelic literature had been given by McPherson—she tried to emphasise a modern Gaelic literature.
A. Yes. There is a tension in O’Flanagan, who makes the claim that they are ancient texts.  He provides Keating only in English, but has a variorum edition of the Book of Leinster.  He passes his translation to William Leahy, who writes a poetic version.  Faced with O’Flanagan’s clear demolition of McPherson, Chivers still goes ahead and draws on McPherson.
Q. The Transactions of the Ossianic Society’s Fenian cycle is very long—longer even than the Ulster cycle.  There was an attempt to prove that these stories were still commonly used in folklore, so were both historical and contemporary.
Q. Is this indicative of a plundering of romantic, mystical materials from certain sources?  Is Chivers simply part of a movement for romanticised material, casting about for any kind of romantic materials?
A. Yes he is, but for him the historical and the mystical come together in Ireland in particular.
Q. Where did you find this play?
A. I found it in a card catalogue when I was a graduate student, and thought that some day I should write about it.  It is a dreadful play to us, but it does fit into a certain nineteenth-century dramatic aesthetic.
Questions of affinity and relations in the play are very interesting, and important for mysticism; Yeats thought that Swedenborg had been drawing on a mysticism common to all humans.
Q. Yeats and others were looking for a spiritualism that they, of course, could not borrow from Roman Catholicism, and found it in Swedenborgianism.
Q. How sympathetic is Chivers’ biography of Poe?
A. It wasn’t published until 1952.  Poe wrote positive things about Chivers’ poetry, and asked him for money, but they fell out over “The Raven”—Chivers accused Poe of plagiarism—and did not reconcile until near the end of their lives.  Chivers’ Poe is dark, drunken, mystical.  He wrote it in the early 1850s.
Q. I am put in mind of the Great Revival in 1859; is there a connection?
A. No—this is a very different kind of spirituality.  Its melodramatic theatricals would look familiar, though, and would have been very popular with a nineteenth-century audience.
Q. Did Chivers live in Philadelphia for a while?
A. His family estate was in Georgia, but he travelled a lot to Philadelphia to publish his work.
Q. What was Davis famous for?
A. He was a shoemaker from Poughkeepsie who started having visions in the 1830s.  He published an account of these, and became a nationwide phenomenon.  Then he published and edited a newspaper, which Yeats was reading in the 1890s.
Q. When was Mormonism founded?
A. Smith had no connection to Ireland at all, but Mormons successfully put religious doctrine on stage, and this is what Chivers wanted to do with Swedenborgianism.
Q. Would Synge have known of Chivers?
A. No—Synge came to the story via O’Flanagan.  Chivers had no model from which to work, given that his was the first English-language dramatic version.
Q. Was it a closet drama?
A. No—he intended the play to be staged publicly.
Q. Does Chivers work on any other Irish materials?
A. He has one poem, “Fionnuala,” which may be based on Moore.  A lot of the final act of the play seems to have come from Moore’s work.
Q. What does his other work draw from?
A. His poetry draws from a very arcane symbolism.
Q. Would you agree that he is using Irish mythology mostly as a medium through which to transmit his Swedenborgian ideas?
A. Yes.