"The Prevailing Epidemic." Fraser’s Magazine 43 (May 1851), 492-509.

excerpts

On our table lie nine new books of poetry, whereof only two, if as many, are of such merit as to make it conceivable to us why they should have been published. . . .

We really do not rejoice in evil; distaste and disappointment are no more pleasant to a reviewer than to the rest of the world. A book of real poetry, a book which allures us on from page to page, and forbids us to make up our mind upon its merits till we have heard the author fairly out, and seen his beet, is just as great an enjoyment to us as to others; and therefore, it was with heart-felt relief that, as we hunted wearily through our batch of new poets, we took up Poems,* by W. Allingham, as yet unknown to us, and found ourselves, at the first page we opened, in a healthier and fresher atmosphere, which inspired us up and forward, till we can honestly say, that we have read the whole volume through from beginning to end, and intend, as soon as we can despatch these pages to press, to sit down, and read it once again. Mr. Allingham is a poet; how much of one, neither we nor he can yet tell. As he says in his modest preface, he has published rather to be informed by the public than to inform them what he can do. We will warrant the truth of his words on the strength of his verses, and tell him that he has a full right to publish, for he has had something to say, and said it well, in language almost always terse, vivid, correct, and delightfully free from mannerisms, new or old, except where he now and then tries, and succeeds in, an imitation of the old seventeenth century style, in racy and sententious lines, not unworthy of Vaughan or Herrick, right good models for a young poet just now, because exactly antipodal to that vague and windy pomposity, against which we have been lifting up our voice. No doubt, all the pieces in the volume are not equally good; and it might have been safely sifted down to two-thirds, or even less, without losing much weight. Nay, there is one idyl in it, ‘The Music-master,’ which, had it been published alone, would have been quite sufficient guarantee of Mr. Allingham’s powers. But yet, taking the whole as it stands, it is all wholesome–fresh scenes, fresh thoughts, fresh words. In almost every short poem (for, thank heaven, the poems are, for the most part, short; and Mr. Allingham generally proves his power in one very important point, by compressing and arranging each of his subjects into a clear, definite, sharp-cut whole) we meet some vivid image, some pregnant and gracefully-turned sentence. The sphere in which he has watched Nature does not seem to have been a large one. An Irish river mouth, with its sand-bars and salmon-leap, and grey church, and ruined graveyard, and background of wooded, rocky views and lakelets, and the mountain range towering behind all; not to mention, of course, the sea and the sky–wide fields of observation, certainly, but known enough to most, to whom, as to Mr. Ruskin’s victims, the Dutch painters, one piece of cloud is very like another, these are about the whole of his materials, but he has seen and used them. He has noted the true colours and shapes of things, and given them their right names, fearlessly and simply. His skies are not blue merely, or his seas either, but green, and lilac, and purple, and yellow, and grey, ever-changing rainbows, like those of Turner and of Nature. His ‘wind shakes up the sleepy clouds;’ his characters ‘watch the long grey sky;’ and ‘lighted hills,’ that ‘lie strange beyond the cold dark fields;’ ‘the white flood flashes swift behind the trees;[‘] ‘the sand-hills lie ripe in the yellow ray;’ he hears ‘water-chimes in heavy canes;’ his thunder-calms are really sultry; his mornings sparkle visibly, fresh, and dewy; you see his sunlight gild and glare; his storms are live storms, in which

The grim horizon shows its tossing gloom,

Where underneath that black portentous lid

A long pale space between the night and sea

Gleams awful.

In one word, Mr. Allingham has true imagination–that power of representing what he has seen, often by a single epithet, which marks the poet the ‘maker.’

The ‘Idyl,’ which we have already mentioned, and ‘Our Mountain Range,’ are unfortunately too long to quote whole. But here is one stanza of the latter:

But when packed in the hollows the round clouds lie,

And the wild geese flow clanging down the sky,

From the salt-sea fringe, the softer rains

Run like young blood through the withered veins,

Which sweeping March left wasted and weak,

And the aged mountain, so dim and bleak,

With sudden rally,

By mound and valley,

Laughs with green light to his baldest peak.

There are faults here. Certainly not melody enough–though Mr. Allingham can be very melodious; and the metre itself in perhaps not the fittest possible; but those ‘round’ clouds, just in their right place, and the ‘flow’ of the skeins of geese, and ‘sweeping’ March, and the ‘green light’ of the springing grass, beside the thorough correctness and moving life of the whole, are all right satisfactory–refreshing beyond description after the bogs and fogs through which we have just been wandering.

His ‘Poets and flowers’ are often very clever and well finished; and his ‘Æolian Harps,’ though too incoherently sad, and sadly incoherent, are full of melody, full, like everything else in the book, of promise. Here is, perhaps, as fair a specimen as we can find of his deeper moods of thought, from ‘The Music-master’ at his organ in spring time:–

Many a clear echo gave he to the spring,

When from his fingers streamed electric power

In spirit troops of evanescent wing,

And sunshine glimpsing through the April shower;

And clouds, and delicate glories, and the bound

Of yellow sky came melting into sound.

The ear receives, in common with the eye,

One beauty, flowing through a different gate;

Melody is its form, and harmony

Its hue; the arts so interpenetrate,

And all reciprocally sympathize,

For all at first from one foundation rise.

Nature is one, and Art is also one,–

The sun of Nature, and the moon of Art;

And he who at the centre has begun,

Shall lifefully perform his single part;

Whilst he who blindly chains himself to this,

In surface-work, the part shall also miss.

Yet, sometimes, in Claude’s playing came a tone

It never caught upon the April earth;

A sighing music, scarcely seemed his own,

That rose uncalled, and sounded like the birth

Of pensive longing, and of soft despair,

Of novel promise veiled with doubt and care.

Now, we do not mean to call this at all perfect. It is not always clear, not always polished, not always condensed enough. But it is melodious–and what is more, right and true. The author has seen clearly what he wants to say; and, on the whole, has said it, and said it sweetly. And here

is one of his lighter pieces, which, to our eyes, is so brimful, words and metre too, of that real humour, which is the constant twin-brother of real imagination, that we must quote it whole. A little polishing at the metre here and there would make it complete and charming. It is well worth the trouble of revision:

THE FAIRIES.

A NURSERY SONG.

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 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 daren’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!

Such an escapade as this, contrasted with the sound and stately thought of such pieces as ‘Sonnet to a Blind Lady,’ and ‘Cross-Examination’–the latter well worthy of a place in old Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans, and the luscious grace, and general high finish of ‘The Music-master,’ gives us a very high opinion of the strength and versatility of Mr. Allingham’s mind, and makes us regret the more, that so many poems have been admitted into the volume, which, though none of them bad, or anything approaching to badness, are hardly worth publishing; mere preludia of his muse, and too often defective both in importance of subject, and clearness of expression; more or less injured, in short, by the same faults which we have already reprobated in others. We will leave it to the poet’s good taste to discover those to which we allude: after all, in every one of them, there is some line, or thought, or turn of expression, worth keeping, and ‘using up’ elsewhere–a low necessity, to which the best poets are sometimes driven.

And so farewell to Mr. Allingham–no, not farewell altogether; for if his first fruits are such as these, we may safely expect and hope to meet with him again in still loftier paths. But farewell for the present, with real thanks to him for some new and fresh and cheerful glimpses of wholesome nature, and with thanks, too, to Mr. Leigh Hunt, whom the dedication sets forth as the intellectual foster-father of these poems, and who certainly runs no chance of ever being ashamed of his paternity.

* Poems, by W. Allingham. Chapman and Hall. 1850.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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