John Todhunter was born in Dublin, the son of a Quaker merchant of English origin. He was educated at Quaker schools in York and the Quaker town of Mountmellick in Ireland. He started work in his father’s offices in London and Dublin before going on to study medicine at Trinity College, Dublin. He received his Bachelor of Medicine in 1867 and, after some further medical studies in Europe and a stint as visiting physician at Dublin’s Cork Street Fever Hospital, obtained his MD in 1871. Whilst at Trinity, despite being a medical student, he won the vice-chancellor’s prize for English verse in three successive years and the Gold Medal of the Philosophical Society in 1866 for an essay.
In 1870 he became professor of English at Alexandra College, Dublin, a prestigious girls’ school, where he gave several lectures on the poet William Blake who had a strong influence on his poetry. He resigned after four years and travelled to Egypt and several European countries. He had already decided to give up medicine to concentrate on developing a career as a writer and between 1876 and 1904 produced seven volumes of poetry, much of his later work being concerned with Irish myth, legend and history. Several of his poems were translations from Heinrich Heine’s Buch der Lieder (Book of Songs).
Todhunter also wrote several plays, including a collaboration with Edward Rose on the play Mary Queen of Scots, as well as prose works including The Life of Sarsfield, the Earl of Lucan, and A Study of Shelley. He was married twice, his first wife dying four months after their marriage in 1870. In 1879 he married Dora Louisa Digby and in 1881 they went on to have two daughters and a son. Soon after their marriage they travelled to Italy, having to cut their trip short because of his father’s illness. On his return he wrote a journal of their travels. He and his wife then settled in London where their house became a meeting place for celebrated artists and writers including W B Yeats, Todhunter becoming one of the founders of the Irish Literary Society.
He was also a painter and composer and whilst in Italy did several watercolour sketches of the landscape. He wrote the music for a poem by Herrick and the music for Goethe’s poem “Kennst du das Land …” (Do you know the country ...). This talented polymath died in London in 1916 and his devoted wife published a volume of his essays in 1920 and his translation of Goethe’s Faust Part 1 in 1923. His poetry has been described by the writer Evelyn Noble Armitage as being “full of vigour and imagination with a delicate beauty of workmanship and touch which render his poems delightful to read and remember”.