James Henry, Samuel Ferguson, William Allingham
1849, the year of the death of James Clarence Mangan, marked a watershed in Irish history and culture. The Young Ireland organisation had become frustrated with Daniel O'Connell's movement for the repeal of the Union after he backed down from a confrontation with British forces in 1843, and this led to their failed uprising in 1848. This, like the other failed rebellion of 1867, was a minor event of no great military significance. British rule would not be seriously threatened until 1916. The movement's leaders were scattered abroad and the repeal movement guttered. This had an effect on poetry also, as those leaders were also prominent cultural figures who had built institutional contacts, and indeed institutions, that could support poets financially through publication and other less direct ways.
The Empire was enjoying the halcyon days of Pax Britannica, at the vanguard of industrial progress, engaged in no major European war in the period 1815— 1914, and having successfully brushed off the Chartists' demands for political reform. There would be a steady increase in suffrage throughout the century, but it was paced so that it did not to threaten the social order. Irish suffrage roughly paralleled this development, and this reflected the growing feeling that Ireland was no longer a colony in the sense that Fiji was, but more of a partner, and much public money was spent on raising the level and number of Irish schools. But, at several important historical junctures, Ireland would receive forceful reminders of its subordinate status.
The event of overwhelming importance in this period was the Great Famine of 1845-9. Not only did about one million people die of starvation and disease, but about one and a half million people emigrated (mostly to England and America). The Famine affected the poorer sections of the population, and these were for the most part Irish-speaking, including a considerable number in Dublin. As one economic historian remarks, although the language was in retreat by the 1840s, the number of Irish-speakers alive in 1845, somewhat over 3 million in
Ireland and perhaps another 0.5 million elsewhere, was the highest ever.
But those who perished or emigrated were disproportionately Irish-speaking, and by 1851 the number of Irish speakers living in Ireland had fallen below 2 million. Neither O'Connellite nor Fenian brands of nationalism did anything to foster Irish, and by the time a more advanced nationalist ideology adopted the old tongue it was too late.1
Thus when the Gaelic Revival began its work at the end of the nineteenth century, it would have a significantly narrower conduit to Irish culture than other cultural-nationalist movements in Europe in the period. For instance, Finnish, Czech and Bulgarian nationalists could turn to large populations in both town and country in order to blood their idealisations with a living oral culture. Ireland, lacking this base, created what Samuel Beckett would later call 'the Victorian Gael': a person for whom the Gaelic past was a kind of hobby or scholarly pursuit, and who deliberately suppressed those aspects of Gaelicism which conflicted with Victorian morality.
But these 'Victorian Gaels' had positive aspects also, as can be seen in the figure of Samuel Ferguson, who brought a greater scholarly exactitude to the study of ancient Irish literature, demanding more stringent standards of translation and interpretation. There was also an important ecumenical side to the project. Scholars, critics, poets and writers of different political persuasions -ranging from Unionist to radical nationalist - could meet amicably on the ground of antiquarian research.2 They had different aspirations for their work, as we shall see, but they did not let those aspirations affect the integrity of their research. A consequence of this was that the fruits of antiquarian labour carried out by a Unionist could quite easily be used for nationalist arguments. Already in the poetry of J. J. Callanan, we saw how translation, or at least proximity to the Gaelic original, affected the idiom of original work in English. The increase in antiquarian activity in the second part of the nineteenth century, and its greater dissemination through institutions like the Royal Irish Academy and the Irish Archsological Society, as well as through popularising writers like George Sigerson, Sir William Wilde and his wife, Jane Elgee (Lady Wilde), meant that it became easier for poets to incorporate old Irish material - it themes, its images, its idioms - in their own work.
This Gaelicisation of Anglophone poetry in Ireland has a further context. In 1973, Austin Clarke wrote that 'it is not usually recognized that the predominant poetic influence in Victorian Ireland was that of Tennyson and, in consequence, our own poets, before the literary Revival, were provincial'.3 William Allingham and Aubrey de Vere (1814-1902) were Tennyson's friends, and wrote in the lucid mode of the English poet, clearing their idiom of many of the archaisms of Romantic expression, but his influence is evidenced even in work that is more Gaelic in theme. Tennyson was the pre-eminent poet of his age and when he turned to Arthurian Romance as subject for a long poem, first with 'Morte d'Arthur' in 1842, and then more extensively in the 1850s, it was an unprecedented event which set a new direction in taste.4 Previously, the mythology of England was the occasion for brief lyrics, whereas religious, philosophical or classical themes were thought more fitting for longer works. Like Lalla Rookh, The Idylls of the King (its first instalment published in 1859) has not stood the test of time, but like Moore's poem it was extremely influential in its day. Tennyson's choice of theme must be put in the context of the imperial triumphalism of its era, and his intention indeed was to be an apologist of empire, much in the same fashion as Virgil. Poets, like other artists, do not worry about the political provenance of a technique if it can profit them, and there was little difficulty in transferring this approach to Irish material. This duly happened in the decades that followed. There was Samuel Ferguson's Congal (1872), which we shall come to presently. Denis Florence MacCarthy (1817-82) wrote 'The Voyage of St Brendan', a poem which brings together much of the lushness of Romantic landscape description with early Christian themes, and another long poem, 'Ferdiah' (1882). Even Aubrey de Vere's long poem Inisfail (1861) can be considered as part of this tendency, as it narrates key episodes or dramatic situations in the Irish past in an effort to explain the present state of affairs. And, perhaps most successfully, we can see the fruits of Tennyson with an Irish twist in W. B. Yeats's The Wanderings ofOisin (1889).
The list of these long poems charts the lead-up to the Literary Revival, in which Irish writing in English came of age. The first poet we will look at, however, has nothing to do with this narrative, and for this reason, perhaps, it has taken his work a century and a half to come to light.
The publication of the Selected Poems of James Henry (2002), edited by Christopher Ricks, had all the look of a Mangan-esque hoax. One of the blurbs on the back cover puts the matter thus: 'James Henry turns out to be a very Ricksian (and Beckettian) poet: skeptical, atheistical, even blasphemous ... [Ricks] has discovered a poet he could almost have invented, so much does he find there the movement of his own mind and the pitch of his own voice.' As Ricks notes in his introduction, none of the standard works of reference for Irish literature or culture list him. Yet he did exist; more importantly, his writings also existed (most of them self-published), and they are cached among the rare books of research libraries like Trinity College Dublin (Henry donated several of his books to this library). Ricks's edition is that uncommon thing: a literary discovery. Moreover, reading the original publications of Henry, one realises that
Ricks could easily have trebled the length of his selection without any drop in the quality of the poetry.
Henry was born in Dublin in 1798, the son of a woollen draper. He entered Trinity College in 1814, winning a gold medal in Classics in 1818. He left with the degree of MD in 1832 and practised as a physician in Dublin until 1845. He charged only five shillings as a fee, considerably below the going rate, as he said that a doctor's opinion was not worth more (he also supplied his patients with medicines free of charge). The unusual gesture catches something of Henry's independence of mind, a quality that would become apparent in his poetry. As he put it in one poem:
I follow not the rhymer's trade; To please, I have no zest;
My verse is by mere instinct made, Like bee's cell or bird's nest.
To please himself, Correggio drew; To please myself I write;
Applaud or not, as ye think fit, My verse is my delight.5
In 1845, he inherited a large amount of money which enabled him to stop practising as a physician. From then on he devoted himself to research on Virgil, preparing his large commentary entitled the Mneidea, as well as to poetry. His research entailed much travel between the libraries of Europe and he undertook most of it on foot with his wife and daughter, and then, after the death of his wife, with only his daughter. J. P. Mahaffy, in his obituary, remarked that 'seventeen times they crossed the Alps on foot, sometimes in deep snow, and more than once they were obliged to show the money they carried in abundance, before they were received into the inns where they sought shelter from night and rain'.6 He wrote many poems which described those journeys in detail, as well as occasional poems about various places and historical personages associated with them.
The article on Henry in the Dictionary of National Biography devotes most of its attention to Henry's work as a classical scholar, and generally speaking his poetic reputation still lags behind. A brief introduction to a subject such as a country's poetry over two centuries should follow, not change, the general outlines. These few pages on Henry are an exception because his discovery was so recent. Though he was a civic-minded patriot, healthily critical of the British Empire, he did not care in the least about the emergent Irish nation, and his poems present a world more various and vivid than Moore, Callanan, Mangan,
Ferguson or Allingham could ever have imagined. For that reason, standard accounts have omitted him.
Where Mangan is burlesque, Henry is witty, as in a poem like 'Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire', in which the poet has a nightmare in which he is interrogated briefly by his Maker and then sent tumbling down to hell (there are remarks in passing about the particularly good company there - 'Titus the good, and Cato and divine / Homer and Virgil'7):
and a Proclamation Of Martial Law in Heaven was just being read When, in a sweat of agony and fear, I woke, and found myself in Germany, In the close prison of a German bed, And at my bedside Mr. Oberkellner With printed list of questions in his hand: My name and age and birthplace and religion, Trade or profession, wherefore I had come, How long to stay, whither next bound, and so forth; All at my peril to be truly answered, And upon each a sixpence to the State, Which duly paid I should obtain permission To stay where I was so long as the State pleased, Without being prosecuted as a felon, Spy, or disturber ofthe public peace.8
Henry avoids a punch-line ofthe kind that rhymed couplets would demand, but lets his blank verse wander off into the bureaucratic mazes of Mr Headwaiter. The further he goes into these administrative particulars, the more time we have to think about the parallel between the punishments threatened by religion and the punctilious enmeshments of the real world. The meticulous Mr Oberkellner is the butt of the joke, while the metaphor, like all good ones, cuts in several ways: hell will be nothing compared to bureaucracy; we are capable of imagining hell, because we can create bureaucracy; his innocence in Germany (he is not a felon, spy, etc.) is a type of punishment; or, simply, while hell is bad, at least there is no entrance fee. The tone and diction of this are noteworthy: the first is relaxed and intimate; the second is colloquial, even plain. It is almost as natural as speech (with that expert line-end: 'and found myself in Germany' - one can imagine the comic pause after the country is named, as the listener briefly equates hell with Germany).
Poems like 'Old Man' and 'Very Old Man' effectively dramatise the parallax that occurs between youth and old age. In 'Julian and Gallus, In the Castle of Macellum', Henry sounds this theme even deeper. Here is the poem in its entirety:
Like, as an egg's, life's two ends to each other: Blind, helpless, speechless, at one end we enter, Not knowing where we are, or whence we come; Blind, helpless, speechless, exit at the other -Who has come back to tell us why or whither?
Lazarus, for one.
And what did Lazarus say?
Nothing; seemed not to know he had been away.9
Julian the Apostate was brought up in Macellum, a remote estate in Cappadocia (now part of Turkey), and, as Roman emperor (361-3 CE), he was famed for his disdain of the Christian religion. The terse elegance displayed by Julian and his brother in the face of the brute facts of existence bespeaks courage. There is no consolation provided by God. Of course, Lazarus was hauled back into existence by the Son of God, but one cannot help but speculate that Henry, a medical doctor, is suggesting that Lazarus did not truly die. However, what is most important is Gallus's nonchalance, as he elides the personal pronoun in the final line. Many other poems in Menippea (1866) also explore the hypocrisy of religious belief as it is handed down from one generation to the next. In the same collection there is an argument between Adam and God, when the former draws attention to all the deity's inconsistencies, especially his tendency to talk in tropes that do not truly describe the world. God fluffs the answers, and then says he should obviously have put a bit more poetry into Adam's composition. Adam has the last word:
It can't be helped now; but next time you're making
A thing, like me, with an immortal soul
But an ethereal spirit in a case -
'Twere well you'd make him with sufficient wit
To understand your flights of poetry,
Or, if not, that you'd talk to him in prose.10
On the face of it, this dialogue is theological, but Henry, as we know, is an atheist, and the point of this surprising exchange is to puncture all the pretentions that Godhead is given by humanity.
There is also another very different strand in Henry's work: his peripatetic poems which describe his journeys around Europe in detail. Ricks excerpts from one of these in his selection: Thalia Petasata, or A Foot-Journey from Carlsruhe to Bassano (1859; the title means abundance dispersed or spread out, but Thalia was also the muse of comic and idyllic poetry). The journey takes the travellers over the Alps from Germany into the vicinity of Venice. It is a kind of diary put into blank verse: there are descriptions of the changing landscape, the receptions which he and his daughter receive in various inns along the way, his opinions on the qualities of beds in different countries, as well as on the positive and negative aspects of mixing with aristocracy. It does not lend itself to easy quotation as the pleasure of the poem resides in that fact that it goes nowhere, even as the travellers themselves definitely do go somewhere. There are no Wordsworthian 'spots of time', moments of spiritual revelation that act as anchors for the meditation. The only thread in the poem is the road itself and the tread of the travellers upon it. Here is Henry's description of exactly the kind of road he liked:
I like a long, straight, narrow, dusty road -That is, in case it's neither very long, Nor very dusty, and in case it's thickly Planted on each side with tall, stately poplars Pyramidal, luxuriant, green and whispering, And not less than a hundred years old, each, And casting down, each, its delicious shade On the white, glaring dust, and, with its fellows, Forming a vista through which at one end Appears a steeple - not cocked on a church, Like peacock's feather on the hat of a fool, But on the firm ground built, and overtopping The church beside it by some half dozen stories -And at the other end the city's entrance With busy people passing in and out, And overhead, between the poplar tops, A narrow stripe of blue, Italian sky, From town to steeple stretched like a blue ribbon.11
One receives far too much detailed information to the imaginary question: 'What kind of road do you like, Mr Henry?' It is like someone taking five minutes to explain how they like their egg boiled (the egg being done in three). The first line here would suffice. Henry is not to be brooked. But by the fifth line we see with what passion the description is made, born of many hours on roads, and deep affection for the metamorphoses of landscape and weather. This is an idyllic landscape (though Henry is also good elsewhere on depicting its dangers), that takes pleasure in the way that the poplars shade the traveller and arrange the sky above him. Henry does not interrogate the countryside to reveal the Romantic sublime; he is content to stay with exact description and achieve his effects through that.
Henry has no place in the canon of Irish poetry established by Yeats when he named 'Davis, Mangan, Ferguson' as its leading exponents in the nineteenth century. He is a rare type of poet in the nineteenth century for the exact, yet luxurious, plainness of his vision, his humour, his independence, his lack of moralising and his intellectualism. His diction is stringent and direct, occasionally edging over into prose, but most often it is refreshing for its lack of archaism and energetic colloquial delivery.
One of Samuel Ferguson's sympathetic critics, Peter Denman, has described him as 'at once the most innovative and the most unoriginal of Irish poets',12 and to explain this contradiction is to explain much of Ferguson's significance for Irish poetry in the nineteenth century. He was innovative because he transformed the treatment of old Irish material, demanding greater precision and less nationalist ideology in its translation. He brought a large store of antiquarian knowledge to bear on his own translations and treatments of old Irish material. To complicate the picture, he was a Unionist and he thought his work valuable because it would clearly present the Irish and their history to an English audience: only through mutual recognition could the Union be strengthened. He was unoriginal because the poetry he wrote remained at the dullest and most conventional level of Victorian verse. Only when occasionally the syntax or tone of the original Irish materials breaks through the translation does something more interesting occur; but even that is usually just awkwardness, and does not bear comparison to the way in which J. M. Synge would twist English to catch the rhythms of Irish speech in his plays. Or as Greagoir O Duill put it in his excellent study of Ferguson:
Ba mhinic ag Ferguson gan a bheith rochinnte da dhearcadh fein i leith charachtar agus imeachtai na seanscealta lena bpleadh se. Ba scolaire uasal AnglaEireannach e, ba Ultach iarPhreispiteireach clinantach, ba naisiuntoir e agus e ar ti a ra o am go cheile gur cheart an ceangal le Sasana a bhriseadh - ba thri phearsa in aon fhile e.13
Ferguson was born into a middle-class Presbyterian family in Belfast in 1810 and attended the recently established Royal Belfast Academical Institution before training as a barrister in London, and then at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1832 he published work in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, and this bridge between Belfast and Scotland would prove important in years to come. The stereotype of the Irish Protestant is as landowning gentry, or what is referred to as the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. Although Ferguson would later marry into this class (his wife was Mary Catherine Guinness, whom he was drawn to because of the fine way she sang the songs of Moore, according to O Duill14) and he would often publish in the Dublin University Magazine (the Ascendancy mouthpiece), he never fully identified with their attitudes towards Irish culture. He deeply loved the country and the people, even while he condemned the radical movement for independence. Ireland should not be a colony of Britain's, but rather a partner, and he envisaged Dublin as a centre of intellectual excellence to equal the Scottish Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. (His practice as a barrister kept him in close contact with the north of Ireland, which necessarily meant Scotland also.) During the 1840s, so disgusted was he by Britain's treatment of Ireland that he helped found the Protestant Repeal Association.
His first major publication was a long, swingeing review of James Hardi-man's collection of translations, Irish Minstrelsy, or Bardic Remains of Ireland (1831), which appeared in the Dublin University Magazine. At the end of the review, Ferguson provided some alternative translations of those covered in Hardiman's book, and this engagement with Irish culture set him on his future path. However, in the 1840s he struck up an association with the Nation, and was friendly with one of its founding editors, Thomas Davis (also a barrister). When Davis died in 1845, Ferguson wrote perhaps one of his finest poems memorialising his dead friend:
I walked through Ballinderry in the springtime,
When the bud was on the tree, And I said, in every fresh-ploughed field beholding
The sowers striding free, Scattering broadcast for the corn in golden plenty,
On the quick, seed-clasping soil, Even such this day among the fresh-stirred hearts of Erin Thomas Davis, is thy toil!15
Employing different landscapes to feature different aspects of Davis's personality and achievement, Ferguson provides an affectionate and flattering portrait. He stops short, however, at praising Davis's radical nationalism ('But I grieve not, eagle of the empty eyrie, / That thy wrathful cry is still'16).
Ferguson was involved on an informal level with the work of the Ordnance Survey, which I described in the previous chapter. This would have further alerted him to the importance for Irish poetry of the tradition of dinnseanchas, which connects stories and folklore to particular places in the Irish landscape (dionn means eminent or famous place, and seanchas means lore). The tradition goes back as far as the last centuries of the first millennium CE. Through this method the landscape becomes a mnemonic for history, and so provides a further support for the oral culture. Along with the aisling tradition, which I discussed in the last chapter, dinnseanchas proved important for translations into English also. Landscape description took on a crucial role because, arguably, the actual land of Ireland - its rivers, mountains and forests - was the same land that Fionn MacCumhaill and other heroes once coursed over. (Although it should be noted that Ireland was almost completely deforested by the end of the seventeenth century.) The dinnseanchas tradition would prove important to twentieth-century poets also, such as Yeats, Clarke and Kinsella.
Although Ferguson was well represented in anthologies around the mid century, his first important book publication did not come till 1865, The Lays of the Western Gael. It was a long book which comprised several different modes -lyrics, translations as well as his own poems based on Irish material. One of the well-known pieces was 'The Welshmen of Tirawley' and its conclusion gives a good idea of the Unionist twist that Ferguson could give his material. The tribes of Burke and Barrett represent the erring native stock, and the olluna (wise men) said how it was not
Till the Saxon Oliver Cromwell, And his valiant, Bible-guided, Free heretics of Clan London Coming in, in their succession, Rooted out both Burke and Barrett, And in their empty places New stems of freedom planted, With many a goodly sapling Of manliness and virtue; Which while their children cherish, Kindly Irish of the Irish, Neither Saxons nor Italians, May the mighty God of Freedom Speed them well, Never taking Further vengeance on his people of Tirawley.17
The dig that Ferguson gets in with the reference to 'Italians' reminds readers that Roman Catholicism is no more native to the country than the Saxon. As the title of the book indicates, there are long poems such as 'The Tain-Quest',
'The Abdication of Fergus Mac Roy' and 'The Healing of Conall Carnach', which deal with some of the oldest materials of Irish legend, and indeed of European legend. The first of these relates not only some of the action, but also the difficulties of the transmission of the tale from generation to generation. The Gaels lose their poem, the Tain, and, we are told, 'songless men are meet for slaves'.18 The fragment that remains is used as the basis for florid fictions, and thus the Gaelic heritage is corrupted:
So it comes, the lay, recover'd once at such a deadly cost, Ere one full recital suffer'd, once again is all but lost: For, the maiden's malediction still with many a blemish-stain Clings in coarser garb of fiction round the fragments that remain.19
One consequence of this is that the antiquarian scholar himself becomes a sort of hero, ranging through the past, distinguishing fiction from true fragment, as though wrenching out a wedge of fashioned Greek marble from a neo-classical facade.
The major dialectic that runs through all of Ferguson's work is the contrast between advanced civilisation and savagery. It was not simply that he, as a Victorian gentleman, represented the first, and the Irish represented the second: he admitted that England itself had savage beginnings (along with a crude and repugnant literature), but these were purified and strengthened to their present triumphant form in the British Empire. There was no reason why the same could not be done for Irish culture. Time and again he refers to the 'repulsive', 'vulgar' and 'repugnant' aspects of Irish language and culture; but these are adduced not to denigrate Ireland and its past, but rather to show what must be done in order for the country to flourish. To further this cause, he himself endured first the scorn and then the neglect of English critics, even though he attempted to make his own work touch at various points with Tennyson's in the Idylls of the Kings.
His major late work is Congal (1872), a long poem based on the materials in The Battle of Dun na n-Gedh and the Battle ofMagh Rath, which had been published in 1842. The events of the poem lead up to the Battle of Moyra in 637 CE, in which Congal, a pagan chieftain from Ulster, does battle with Domnal, the Christian high king, because of a supposed slight. Such a tale of military conflict in Ireland cannot but have raised the suspicion of an allegory of the latter-day situation. It is to Ferguson's credit, then, that it is difficult to draw any firm parallels between his contemporary period and that of the poem, although Peter Denman is surely correct when he says that 'the final more moderate search for the restoration of "Law and Justice, Wealth and Song" corresponds very accurately to what he desired for Ireland. These were precisely what he felt to be threatened by the centralised indifference to and ignorance of the Irish situation and heritage.'20
Congal, in the end, is killed by a fool (as he had been informed in a prophecy), and before he dies he is vouchsafed a vision of Ireland, and especially Dublin Bay:
He looking landward from the brow of some great sea-cape's head, Bray or Ben-Edar - sees beneath, in silent pageant grand, Slow fields of sunshine spread o'er fields of rich, corn-bearing land; Red glebe and meadow-margin green commingling to the view With yellow stubble, browning woods, and upland tracts of blue; -Then, sated with the pomp of fields, turns, seaward, to the verge Where, mingling with the murmuring wash made by the far-down surge, Comes up the clangorous song of birds unseen, that, low beneath, Poised off the rock, ply underfoot; and, 'mid the blossoming heath, And mint-sweet herb that loves the ledge rare-air'd, at ease reclined, Surveys the wide pale-heaving floor crisped by a curling wind; With all its shifting, shadowy belts, and chasing scopes of green, Sun-strown, foam-freckled, sail-embossed, and blackening squalls between,
And slant, cerulean-skirted showers that with a drowsy sound, Heard inward, of ebullient waves, stalk all the horizon round .. .21
The description is protracted as Ferguson is reminding readers of what Dublin once was, and still to a large extent was in his time. The sweetness and richness of the flora and arable crops salve the warrior's spiritual wounds as he prepares to depart life. It is not an exaggeration to say that Ferguson imagined different factions reconciled by such a vision (as William Allingham did a few years before).
Congal is interesting to consult in its original publication as the book truly comes alive in its notes, which comprise 84 closely printed pages out of 236 (the poetry is more generously spaced). The notes gather a huge amount of antiquarian material which Ferguson often puts in a wider European context. Many academic debates are commented upon and judgement is meted out. They are written with much more verve and variety of tone than the poem itself and they make the reader regret that Ferguson did not write a prose book on the issues of Ireland and antiquarianism.
Denman comments that 'Ferguson's importance lies ... in the fact that, for successive generations of Irish writers, from Gavan Duffy and The Nation anthologisers on through Yeats and^ to Clarke and Kinsella, his work provided a necessary precedent.'22 Indeed, Yeats's tribute a few months after Ferguson died was resounding in its praise:
The author of these poems is the greatest poet Ireland has produced, because the most central and most Celtic. Whatever the future may bring forth in the way of a truly great and national literature - and now that the race is so large, so widely spread, and so conscious of its unity, the years are ripe - will find its morning in these three volumes of one who was made by the purifying flame of National sentiment the one man of his time who wrote heroic poetry.. .23
Yeats wrote this when he was only twenty-one years old, and the force of the passage is due not only to the daring of young genius: we are also witnessing the Literary Revival coming into being. In the next two decades it would emerge into its full strength. Every new literary or artistic movement not only has to promise innovation and change, but it has to change our ideas of tradition. Ferguson, at the time of his death, was a neglected poet; by designating him a great poet, Yeats gives value to the course that he and others had launched themselves upon. Of course, Yeats might well be describing Thomas Davis, so close does his talk of 'National sentiment' take Ferguson to Young Ireland. It elides his Unionism as well as the degree to which Ferguson found the Irish material, in its unrefined state, barbarous and repugnant.24 Nevertheless, the general drift of Yeats's eulogy is accurate in identifying Ferguson's ultimate value: he brought Irish material closer to the Irish, and thus made the foundations of the emerging literature firmer. As O Duill remarks, he also was the first person to realise that English as spoken in Ireland could be a huge literary resource, and this would be capitalised on by Yeats himself, Douglas Hyde, J. M Synge and many others.25
William Allingham befriended Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1851 and over the years that followed he was a frequent guest at the Poet Laureate's house. At this period, Tennyson was the foremost poet of his age and their relationship never progressed beyond that of master and acolyte. If Allingham had not worshipped Tennyson, he would not have accepted with equanimity the several snubs dealt him by the elder poet. Allingham faithfully recorded these in his diary and they make for uncomfortable reading. He recognised Tennyson's superiority to him as a poet, in both fame and achievement, and he was willing to swallow his pride in exchange for proximity to him. There are only a couple of exchanges on the subject of Ireland, but they are illuminating. Tennyson is ill informed on the subject, but that does not prevent him expressing trenchant opinions, anti-Irish in tendency. As for Allingham, elsewhere he would sometimes refer to the native Irish, implying that he and his family - although they had lived in the country for over two centuries - did not belong to that group. But when faced with Tennyson's attitude, he immediately feels the smart and his response demonstrates that he is indeed more native to the island than he would admit. Tennyson had the habit of making remarks like: 'Couldn't they blow up that horrible island with dynamite and carry it off in pieces - a long way off?', and Allingham tries to alert him to the historical reasons for its being horrible, many of which lay blame with the British. Tennyson enthusiastically admits how shabbily the Irish have been treated, but remains unmoved by Allingham's arguments: 'That was brutal! Our ancestors were horrible brutes! And the Kelts are very charming and sweet and poetic. I love their Ossians and their Finns and so forth - but they are most damnably unreasonable!'26 On the face of it, Allingham is merely being objective and Tennyson explosively provocative (an inversion of the stereotypes that Tennyson uses to describe the English and Irish), but one can also sense how Tennyson is careful not to insult Allingham personally by aligning him directly with the Irish. The pattern repeats in their other few exchanges on the subject of Ireland. It demonstrates an instinctive knowledge on both sides of the complexities of Allingham's position as an English poet who was Irish.
Allingham was born in the village of Ballyshannon in Co. Donegal in 1824. The place is situated where the River Erne debouches into the Atlantic and it was an important port for many centuries. The area was settled by the English in the early seventeenth century and Allingham's family arrived there in this period. His childhood memories of the village would become one of the most important elements of his poetry. After working in a bank for a short while, Allingham became Customs Officer at the village. He arranged a transfer to a customs office in Lymington in 1863, so that he could be nearer to Tennyson, and more generally to London literary life (he also befriended Thomas Carlyle and Dante Gabriel Rossetti). His first collection, Poems (1850), contained what would later become the popular anthology piece, 'The Fairies':
Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy glen,
We daren't go a-hunting For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk, Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl's feather!27
For all the cuteness of this, there is an edge of condescension (what kind of man would be prevented from hunting by 'little men', especially when so bizarrely dressed?). But the poem is important as it demonstrates how fairies and Irish mythological material canbe made palatable to a wider audience: a middle-class
English child can be dandled on a knee to this rhythm and told stories about fairies without sinking into the antiquarian morass that surrounded Ferguson's poems. Allingham, to his credit, is not content with this, and explores a more sombre register as the poem progresses:
They stole little Bridget For seven years long; When she came down again Her friends were all gone. They took her lightly back,
Between the night and morrow, They thought that she was fast asleep,
But she was dead with sorrow. They have kept her ever since
Deep within the lake, On a bed of flag-leaves, Watching till she wake.28
The ballad tradition has a great capacity for dealing with gruesome subject matter (here child mortality) in a jaunty and sometimes humorous fashion. Allingham uses this so well that these lines could almost be passed off as part of an anonymous folk ballad. (Early in his career, Allingham used to write ballads to old airs and have them printed and distributed anonymously.) The poem ends with the repetition of the first verse (quoted above), and this time our perception of these 'wee folk, good folk' is significantly altered. Celtic sweetness is laced with the smallest dash of violent menace.
Allingham's engagement with the ballad tradition led him to edit The Ballad Book: A Selection of the Choicest British Ballads (1865), and in the introduction he describes the complex process by which folk material is brought past the cordon sanitaire of modern polite literature:
These narrative songs (some derived from ancient times and foreign countries, some abridged from the long metrical romances, some ofnew invention) were composed, not without genius in the best, by unlearned men for popular audiences; and passing from mouth to mouth and generation to generation of singers and reciters, dull and clever, undergoing numerous alterations by the way by reason of slips of memory, personal tastes, local adaptations and prejudices, additions, omissions, patches, and lucky thoughts, and on the whole gaining in strength in the process, came in a later day into the baskets of literary collectors, were transferred into the editorial laboratories, there sifted, mixed, shaken, clarified, improved (or the contrary), no one can ever tell how much, and sent at last into the World of Books in a properly solemn shape, their triviality duly weighted with a load of antiquarianism, and garnished with fit apologies for the presentation of such 'barbarous productions' to 'a polished age like the present,' and assurances that those high literary personages, the 'ingenious' Mr. This and the 'elegant' Mr. That, whose own poems are so justly, &c. (read now, forgotten), have given some countenance to the venture.29
There is a healthy suspicion here of the antiquarians and the arbiters of literary taste, as well as an awareness of the hybrid nature of ballad material. It is also a helpful passage to bear in mind as it indicates that Britain, like Ireland, was discovering its folk past, and this shift in British taste made the Irish material all the more welcome, especially when presented by an ambassador as urbane as Allingham.
Allingham's own ballad-poems added a further element to make them even more hybrid: Victorian morality. One poem is about a girl who 'a maid again I can never be, / Till the red rose blooms on the willow tree.'30 She has been deflowered by a man who now ignores her. She considers throwing herself in the river, like a fallen woman in Dickens, but scruples: 'Sweet Lord, forgive me that wicked mind! / You know I used to be well-inclined.'31 The awkwardness of the rhyme is perhaps due to the presence of Allingham's prudishness that is so out of place in a ballad. But it would be too easy to dismiss Allingham as a Victorian prude; elsewhere he displays a beguiling dexterity with sexual symbolism:
One evening walking out, I o'ertook a modest colleen, When the wind was blowing cool, and the harvest leaves were falling. 'Is our road, by chance, the same? Might we travel on together?' 'O, I keep the mountain side' (she replied), 'among the heather.'32
Two verses on the poet says that 'Now I know the way by heart, every part, among the heather.'33 Allingham must have been aware of the innuendo of these lines, which is a stock device in ballads, and it is noteworthy that he does not balk at it.
Allingham's major work was, however, not in the lyric mode, but was a long poem that combined social realism and poetic narrative. Laurence Bloomfield in Ireland (1864) is the story of an Anglo-Irish landlord who returns from education in England and the Grand Tour to his estate in Lisnamoy, an Irish place that is made as generic as the realist mode will allow. He faces multiple difficulties: the incomprehension of his Anglo-Irish neighbours when he tries to introduce new methods, both of farming and treatment of tenants; the resistance of the landlord's agent, who exploits the gap between the apathy of the landlord and the desperation of the tenant; and nationalist agitation against landlords. The hero is a reformer who treats his tenants fairly and they respond favourably to his enlightened methods. The narrative moves with a fair clip that is reminiscent of Alexander Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin (1833); another important predecessor closer to home was Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1857). Although the general vision of the poem is blandly eirenic, in its local details there is a refreshing bite. Here is Allingham's description of one of Bloomfield's neighbours:
Finlay, next landlord (I'll abridge the tale), Prince of Glenawn, a low and fertile vale, No fool by birth, but hard, and praised for wise The more he learn'd all softness to despise, Married a shrew for money, louts begot, Debased his wishes to a vulgar lot, To pence and pounds coin'd all his mother-wit, And ossified his nature bit by bit.34
His depiction of the Catholic peasantry is condescending and occasionally it resembles antebellum pro-slavery propaganda from the American South. The Irishman, like the Negro, needs a master and prospers under his guidance:
Moreover, if the Kelt be rash and wild, Quick, changeful and impulsive as a child, He looks with somewhat of a childlike trust To those above him, if they're kind and just; Be tender to his moods, allow a whim, No surly independence lurks in him; Content with little, easy to persuade, The man who knows him speaks and is obey'd.35
Passages like this made it difficult for some literary historians to admit Allingham into the pantheon of Irish poetry proper.36 He wishes to assure the English reader that the true Irishman, if treated well, will be an adornment of the Empire, and not the thorn in its side. Allingham could write lines like these because over six decades had passed since the last important Irish revolution, and nearly as much time again would pass before 1916. As for nationalist agitators, they are shown to be self-seeking perverters of the good Irish peasant, little better than criminals. His treatment of the Catholic Church is more accurate as he depicts it as sympathetic to the Catholic poor, but complicit with the British powers-that-be. Bloomfield himself is au fait with advanced antiquarian research on Ireland, and Allingham implies is that he is a better custodian of this culture than the Catholic 'natives'.
The dramatic action of the poem revolves around the murder of Pigot, the landlord's agent, by the Ribbonmen, a group of radical nationalists. One young Catholic tenant of Bloomfield's, Neal Doran, is being drawn into this group, but the young landlord's fair treatment of his parents persuades him that he should retreat from this line of action. For its conclusion the poem cuts to several years later when Bloomfield is blissfully married and a successful landlord, with Doran the trusted manager of his estate. There is a prospect of the landscape, viewed by Bloomfield and his wife, in the final pages of the poem which is similar to the vision of Ireland at the end of Congal. The two Unionist poets, Ferguson and Allingham, in this way express their love and benevolent wishes for Ireland.
In 1870 Allingham left his job at the Customs, and launched upon the freelance literary life. He became editor of Eraser's Magazine in 1874, and this, along with his friendships with the leading men of the day, ensconced him at the heart of the English literary establishment. Allingham died in England in 1889 and his remains were buried in Ballyshannon. The social realism of Laurence Bloomfield in Ireland - balanced, sympathetic, by times humorous and acerbic - remained a resource untapped by Irish poets in the decades to come. They had other business to conduct.
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