"Poetry and the Drama." Critic 9.229 (15 Oct. 1850), 496-498.

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Poems. By William Allingham. London: Chapman and Hall. 1850.

We have here before us the first volume of a new poet. That we use this word advisedly, and not merely as an equivalent of versifier, will, we think, be apparent, as we proceed, to our readers; some of whom may already have become acquainted with one or two of the compositions here included, and with the name of their author, through periodical publications.

In the present stage of our poetic development, the first question asked of a poet is of his own personality: "What, and who are you?" The book is read in order to arrive at a solution of this demand; that done, it may be read again for graces of style or interest of subject; but the point of view from which future works are to be judged is attained. As the words uttered are themselves valuable only as symbols of the thought which has connected them, so is the thought, in some measure, but the symbol of the thinker. Thus the reader arrives, by an inverse process, at the point from which the writer sets forth. And the method, though liable in proportion to the reader’s less or greater reflective subtlety, to be made of too universal and indiscriminate application,–is not only reasonable, but eminently moral and conscientious in its principle. For "who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?"

It is not to be entertained that the mass of ordinary readers propose to themselves any critical appreciation of the author as their aim in pursuing his productions: yet, even in their case the rule will operate unperceived, but recognisable in its result. Speak of Tennyson, or of Browning, and you will probably be told; "I should not have fancied him such as you describe," and it will be found that, according to the diverse judgment of the book is the diverse conception of the man. Everyone has his idea of the kind of person that must have written such or such a poem; greatly mistaken, perhaps, through want either of any adequate perception or of general comprehensiveness of view. Indeed, it may fairly be said that, in the minds of most, the notion of the man will be the more definite, that they have formed no clear and expressible estimate of the work, and that they will be able to convey their opinion of its qualities more completely by describing their preconceived ideas of the author’s tastes, character, or person, and will even have recourse to so doing. So we learn to distinguish between the sounds of footsteps, and, hearing those we know, will have already figured the walker to our eyes, though we have never so much as thought wherein one gait differs from another.

Judgment is now seldom pronounced upon the book only. To dissect the man and the book is an acknowledged abuse of the critical function; its highest province to recognise the man through the book. The loftiest and most permanent criticism is no other than a mental biography.

If now we question the volume before us of its author, it will impress on us a sense of alert cheerfulness; of an activity dependent not so much on positive energy as on the need of occupation. The receptive faculties appear to be scarcely ever in a state of passivity; they are controlled by the will, and select the objects which influence them. We find in Mr. Allingham physical vitality unmistakeable [sic]. He is not easily to be daunted; foiled, still less. One of his chief aims in publishing, although conscious (as he expresses himself in a preface,) of "many faults and defects," is that he may have "a fresh starting point and some external checks in calculating his position." With the despondency of sloth he has no patience. Writing of "Justice for Ireland," he will allow of none not worked out, and that not from any external source, but from within; for himself, his counsel is this:

Let every one beware of lies,
And laziness, and grumbling.

A fable, probably addressed more especially to the same audience enforces the same moral. "The Music Master," of which we shall speak again, a poem of love denied its completion on earth, ends not with tears and sighs, nor merely with the mild resignation of the survivor, but with the strengthening pioneer-labour of the backwoodsman:

The moment came
For farewell words: but long behind our backs,
We heard the echo of his swinging axe.

And Nature chides the poet who dares not rise above the moment’s annoy into the dignity of his privilege "to instruct and cheer the rest:"

Deep within a lordly breast
Hide thy skill in grief,–
Only in a power expressed
For thy friends [sic] relief.

Such seems to be not only our author’s disposition, but his habit of mind also. He possesses a happy contentedness that does not seek to know too far. Speculation will not greatly disquiet him. He will enquire and think, but when his thought has reached its last vantage-ground it returns on itself, and reckons up the gain past: for the blackness and dimness beyond, they are admitted, and so enough of them. He catechises himself thus:

CROSS-EXAMINATION.

What dost thou know of the eternal code?

As much as God intended to display.

Wilt thou affirm thou knowest aught of God?

Nor, save his works, that creature ever may.

Is not thy life at times a weary load?

Which aimless on my back he would not lay.

Is it all good thy conscience doth forbode?

The deepest thought doth least my soul affray.

When hath a glimpse of heaven been ever showed?

Whilst walking straight, I never miss its ray.

Why should such destiny to thee be owed?

Easy alike to Him are yea and nay.

Why shouldst thou reach it by so mean a road?

Ask that of Him who set us in the way.

Art thou more living than a finch or toad?

Is soul sheer waste, if we be such as they?

Thou never wilt prevail to loose the node.

If so, ‘twere loss of labour to essay.

Nor to uproot these doubts so thickly sowed.

Nor thou these deeplier rooted hopes to slay.

Again, he rebukes as vain and cowardly the aspiration to work his course out in conditions other than God has imposed; he typifies the natural man, and the same man taught and learned, and one verdict comes from his lips:

To love and hope in simple truth,

To reverence God, whate’er befall;

This is best, this is all.

He hopes this for his own grave:

And be the thought, if any rise, of me

What happy soul would wish that thought to be.

A poem, strongly thought and expressed, urges to manly self-reliance and confidence in this our only one among God’s worlds:

For nothing is withheld, be sure,

Our being needed to have shown:

The far was meant to be obscure;

The near was placed so to be known.

Let us see the operation of this character on occasion–whether real or imaginary matters not. He is by the sea, on an evening of Spring; and, "for the crowning vernal sweet," there passes "the Pilot’s pretty Daughter." We must enable the reader to enjoy with us the beauty of the two following stanzas:--

Were it my lot, there peeped a wish,

To hand a pilot’s oar and sail,

Or haul the dripping moonlight mesh,

Spangled with herring-scale;

By dying stars, how sweet ’t would be;

Or dawn-blow freshening the sea,

With weary cheery pull to shore,

To gain my cottage-home once more,

And meet, before I reached the door,

My darling Pilot’s Daughter.

This element beside my feet

Looks like a tepid wine of gold;

One touch, one taste, dispels the cheat;

’Tis salt and bitter cold.

A fisher’s hut, the scene perforce

Of narrow thoughts and manners coarse,

Coarse as the curtains that beseem

With net-festoons the smoky beam,

Would no-way lodge my favourite dream,

E’en with my Pilot’s Daughter.

Rejecting thus the idea of being himself lowered by love, the thought that he might raise the object of it passes across his mind:

But ah! I said,

’Twere wiser let such thoughts alone!

His last word is still acquiescence. There is so much to be considered, so little chance of considering it to any purpose, better not enter on it at all. "So passed the Pilot’s Daughter."

A further exemplification of the prevailing moral tone of the volume will be found in the classing, under the common title "Æolian Harp," of certain poems, scattered throughout, in which those vague leanings and guessings of the spirit, burdened with the mystery of life, or feeling through its blindness the approaching shock of an unknown future, find utterance in words as vague and broken. Truly, to a mind so ordered, such thoughts–to some the essence and core, to others the curse of existence, are but as the inarticulate modulations of sound called into being by a wind, and passing with it. Moreover, one or two of these, the first, for instance, and that commencing "A Traveller wendeth over the wold," strikes us as artificial emotion, as being the expression in poetical phrase and manner, of what might suggest itself under supposed conditions. We quote the finest among them–as beautiful a lyric, perhaps, as any in the volume:

What saith the river to the rushes grey,

Rushes sadly bending,

River slowly wending?

Who can tell the whispered things they say?

Youth and time and manhood’s prime

For ever, ever fled away.

Cast your withered garlands in the stream,

Low autumnal branches,

Round the skiff that launches

Wavering downward through the lands of dream,

Ever, ever fled away!

This the burden, this the theme.

What saith the river to the rushes grey,

Rushes sadly bending,

River slowly wending?

It is near the closing of the day,

Near the night. Life and light

For ever, ever fled away.

Draw him tideward down; but not in haste.

Mouldering day-light lingers;

Night with her cold fingers

Sprinkles moonbeams on the dim sea-waste.

Ever, ever, fled away!

Vainly cherished! vainly chased!

What saith the river to the rushes grey,

Rushes sadly bending,

River slowly wending?

Where in darkest glooms his bed we lay,

Up the cave moans the wave,

For ever, ever fled away!

A common ground of complaint against first volumes of poetry consists in the exuberance, sometimes even the intemperance, of imagination and language; the waste of words on unimportant thoughts, of thoughts where bare statement is needed, of illustration which tricks out, and only serves to expose, poverty of conception. Few poets indeed can plead guiltless of some measure of this excess on their first appearance, while the names of Keats, of Byron, of Tennyson, in his first now greatly sifted volume, of Shelley, in matter if not manner, even of Shakspere [sic], witness The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and the Love’s Labour’s Lost, will occur to all poetical readers in confirmation of the assertion. But we find no trace of it in Mr. Allingham’s volume. For simile, we have description; for profusion, precision. He writes with evident care, and even reserve, and has doubtless thought of the word to be used before he uses it. We look upon this as indicating the character that will continue permanently distinctive of Mr. Allingham’s poetry, rather than as an unusual exemption from the weakness of strength belonging to the first fruits of genius, and vanishing with its maturity. Thus it may be anticipated that no great diversity in kind will exist between what he has now done and what he will produce hence-forward; although a more perfectly developed degree of his present qualities in style, a higher concentration of thought, conciseness of language, a more essential view of nature, and more inward thoroughness in description, can scarcely fail to be attained in the ordinary course of things by one already so much a master of them as the subjoined among others shows him to be:

By the shore a plot of ground

Clips a ruined chapel round,

Buttressed with a grassy mound;

Where day and night and day go by,

And bring no touch of human sound.

Washing of the lonely seas,

Shaking of the guardian trees,

Piping of the salted breeze;

Day and night and day go by,

To the endless tune of these.

Or when, as wind and waters keep

A hush more dead than any deep,

Still morns to stiller evenings creep,

And day and night and day go by,

Here the silence is most deep.

The chapel-ruins, lapsed again

Into Nature’s wide domain,

Sow themselves with seed and grain,

As day and night and day go by;

And hoard June’s sun and April’s rain.

Here fresh funeral tears were shed

And now the graves are also dead,

And suckers from the ash-tree spread,

While day and night and day go by;

And stars move calmly overhead.

In speaking of the progress in style likely to be made by Mr. Allingham, we refer more particularly to such niceties of verbal description as evidence at once command of language, and the most elevated manner of considering the object described. In this respect there appears to us more room for development than in those yet more important qualities which may in strictness be said to belong to the conception. We will select a poem for analysis–one of no common excellence, and which need not greatly fear any extent of scrutiny.

EVENING.–A CLOSE VIEW.

Star shadows dot our tiny lake;

And, sparkling in between

The dusky fringe the larches make,

Soft stars themselves are seen;

Our boat and we, not half awake,

Go dreaming down the pond.

While slowly calls the Rail, "Crake-crake,"

From meadow-flats beyond.

The happy circling bounded view

Embraces us with home;

But up through heaven’s star-budding blue

Our souls are free to roam;

Whence, for this veil of scented dew

That makes the earth so sweet,

A touch of astral brightness too,

A peace that is complete.

Here the full sufficiency of intention and of descriptive accessory could hardly be added to. There is a most delicate proportion even in the sequence of ideas, and in the mutual relation of the two stanzas. The connexion between the star-shadows in the lake, and the bounded home on the one hand, between the stars themselves, and the freedom of the soul’s communion in heaven on the other, is dictated not by artifice, but by a refined feeling for symmetry. But the mere phraseology does not appear to us proof against criticism. In the first line alone we take exception to three forms of expression. "Shadows" cannot be accepted as a perfect substitute for reflections: "dot" is a word of trivial and unsuggestive association: and, as for "tiny," it is the most inadequate, the pettiest of available epithets. A "tiny" lake will never mirror the stars to a poetic apprehension. Again, the word "pond" is a palpable make-rhyme, being no equivalent for lake, and prosaic, moreover, when used as such, to a degree approaching the bathos. In the second stanza, our objection applies, in one sense, to the idea: but it is an idea so closely depending on the mode of its expression, one conveyed to the reader so much more by the wording than by the similitude of fact, that it may be called a verbal idea, and judged accordingly. We mean the "heaven’s star-budding blue;" a phrase by no means competent to imply the instantaneous birth it is intended to refer to, and which is felt by the reader, especially occurring where it does, far rather as an affectation or conceit than as a comparison natural to the subject and the occasion. We must not close this war on words however, without expressing our full sense of the value of the latinized "astral," and of the rare perfection, the satisfying self-contained repose, of the two opening lines of the second stanza.

It is not only from negative evidence that may be inferred how foreign to this poet’s bent of mind is the luxuriance of imagery and expression recently referred to: he has attempted it as matter of imitation, and has failed. A fancy of the typical appropriateness of flowers, each to an individual poet is worked out with grace and ingenuity, in a series of lyrics modelled in succession on the style of the several poets. These may be considered all more or less happy, except that of Keats, which is inferior, and that of Spenser, where the manner is at the minimum point of outward resemblance, and lacks altogether that native sense of overflowing lusciousness, which could alone convey any community of feeling. We see here in what direction the sympathy of mind is least strong. We may observe, in passing, that in the instance of Browning, to whom he attributes the tiger-lily, there is but an outré imitation, however cleverly hit off, of the "bright light outer shell," not unlikely to produce a false impression on those not personally familiar with that poet’s supreme achievements; and that some of the rhymes aiming to represent that exquisite combination of the extremely unpliable with the commonest conversational ease, of which he alone possesses the secret, are singularly faulty; a blemish indeed, to be met with occasionally throughout the volume, as in the rhyming of "thrushes" with "luscious," "talk" with "cock," and even "cup" with "lip."

The chief poem of the collection, "The Music Master," unites in a manner sustained with much consistency, and possible only under very artistic treatment, incidents of the most simple nature, and a spiritual sentiment, which, as it were, absorbs into itself the framework of action, while it leaves unimpaired and vital as itself the element of humanity in love. The form of art with which the poem deals, music, the most purely emotional and abstract; the unavowed, yet mutually recognised, love, known as a presence, but not formalised into a fact; the death which removes it for ever out of the region of mortality into that of eternal consciousness, concur in this result, and the impression is the more lasting for being produced without any self-assertion or artificially apparent systematising. We might quote many stanzas as illustrative of this feeling, or for their own individual beauty, but one must suffice:

Clothed with an earnest paleness, not a blush,

And with the angel gravity of love.

Each lover’s face amid the twilight hush

Is like a saint’s whose thoughts are all above

In voiceless gratitude for heavenly boon:

And o’er them for a halo comes the moon.

At one or two points, we think the narrative portion too dry and prosaic, as the 78th stanza of Part I: and it may be apposite here to insert a protest against the triviality, well nigh more than Wordsworthian (we mean when Wordsworth is trivial), of a passage in the "Pilot’s Daughter," where an unpoetic particularity is brought to bear on "her Sunday frock, of lilac shade (that choicest tint)," and on the "stocking’s smoothly-fitting blue."

Mr. Allingham treats the supernatural occasionally, and never without some success. This is a searching test of power. We quote the finest example–a poem never, we suppose, excelled in its hush of awfulness, its simplicity, and directness of phrase, as though the subject were one out of all connexion with, or possibility of human embellishment, its minuteness of statement and absence of descriptive detail (a treatment showing how truly the requirements of the subject are understood in their essence), and the fascinated compulsion which seems to pervade and dictate it:

A DREAM.

I heard the dogs bark in the moonlight night,

And I went to the window to see the sight:

All the dead that ever I knew

Going one by one and two by two.

On they passed, and on they passed;

Towns-fellows all from first to last;

Born in the moonlight of the lane,

And quenched in the heavy shadow again.

Schoolmates, marching as when we played

At soldiers once–but now more staid:

Those were the strangest sight to me

Who were drowned, I knew, in the awful sea.

Straight and handsome folk; bent and weak too;

And some that I loved, and gasped to speak to;

Some just buried a day or two,

And some of whose death I never knew.

A long long crowd, where each seemed lonely.

And yet of them all there was one, one only,

That raised a head, or looked my way:

And she seemed to linger, but might not stay.

How long since I saw that fair pale face!

Ah! mother dear, might I only place

My head on thy breast, a moment to rest,

While thy hand on my tearful cheek were pressed!

On, on, a moving bridge they made

Across the moon-stream from shade to shade:

Young and old, and women and men;

Many long forgot, but remembered then.

And first there came a bitter laughter;

And a sound of tears the moment after;

And then a music so lofty and gay

That every morning, day by day,

I strive to recall it, if I may.

In a lower walk of the supernatural, that of fairy legend or description, Mr. Allingham is no less eminent. The "Fairy Dialogue" contains many sparkling thoughts; that of the mischievous imp who, in tormenting a housewife, was seen to "throw a mouse into her milk," being admirably introduced; but the following is, to our thinking, the most completely conceived poem of its kind since Shakspere [sic]:

THE FAIRIES: A NURSERY SONG.

Up the airy mountain,

Down the rushy glen,

We dare n’t go a hunting

For fear of little men;

Wee folk, good folk,

Trooping all together;

Green jacket, red cap,

And grey cock’s feather.

Down along the rocky shore

Some make their home:

They live on crispy pancakes

Of yellow tide-foam;

Some in the reeds

Of the black mountain-lake,

With frogs for their watch-dogs,

All night awake.

High on the hill-top

The old king sits:

He is now so old and grey

He’s nigh lost his wits.

With a bridge of white mist

Columbkill he crosses,

On his stately journeys

From Slieveleague to Rosses;

Or going up with music

On cold starry nights,

To sup with the Queen

Of the gay Northern Lights.

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 lakes,

On a bed of flagon-leaves,

Watching till she wakes.

By the craggy hill-side,

Through the mosses bare,

They have planted thorn-trees

For pleasure here and there.

Is any man so daring

To dig up one in spite,

He shall find the thornies set

In his bed at night.

Up the airy mountain,

Down the rushy glen,

We dare n’t go a hunting

For fear of little men;

Wee folk, good folk,

Trooping all together;

Green jacket, red cap,

And grey-cock’s feather.

The poems of "The Light," "The Touchstone," and a "Serenade," the latter chiefly for its exquisitely managed rhythmical cadence, are deserving of especial notice and admiration; as is also "The Wayside Well," republished from a periodical. There is great tenderness of expression in "Lota," which shows a more than common power of softness in the use of English hexameters. We scarcely know what to think, however, of the introduction of several lines where the last foot is a dactyl, as

So it withdrew and died, and my heart was too full with tenderness.

It is not easy to think this the effect of inadvertence, and the metre has somewhat that is pleasing in itself, but here it is certainly in a questionable shape.

Minor faults deserving mention are the not infrequent omission of the article, as thus:

For last lark earliest star to greet;

And the occasional, but certainly very rare, occurrence of a kind of hyperbole rather of thought than expression. Take this for example’s sake:

The silver salmon shooting up the fall,

Itself at once the arrow and the bow.

Of the following poems, which we venture to enumerate, we would suggest the omission in any re-issue: "Lost on the Color," a mystic scrap of four lines, either meaningless or worthless; "The Bull," "The Banner," not 'lightly to be understood; "The Slaver," "The Street-singer," "The Lyric Muse," "The World’s Epigram;" also, though it boasts some good lines, "Frost in the Holidays," and perhaps "Before Breakfast."

If we are to assign Mr. Allingham’s position among living poets, we would say that he is now almost, and may probably become altogether, equal to any so far as word-painting is concerned; that, in the poetical comprehension of nature, he rivals all save the very highest; but whether he will ever attain to that full measure of intuitive perception, that well-nigh super-mortal understanding of the inner and the outer life, and that power of conveying in words its uttermost finest sense and meaning, as possessed by Tennyson, and not less though otherwise by Browning, we will not take upon us to assert. We believe that he may count surely, and not perhaps distantly, on a wider measure of popularity, and on a more thorough and satisfactory recognition, than are often dealt out to poets in these our "latter days." And when he asks whether he dreamed truly, imagining himself crowned by Flora for having added "one new sweetness to the flowers," in wedding the thoughts of them with the names of poets, if our voice be worthy to be heard in reply, we answer, to adopt his own words:

New bridals shall another day proclaim,

And none forbid the banns.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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