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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
William Allingham (1824–1889)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
EACH form of verse has, in addition to its laws of structure, a subtle quality as difficult to define as the perfume of a flower. The poem, ‘An Evening,’ given below, may be classified both as a song and as a lyric; yet it needs no music other than its own rhythms, and the full close to each verse which falls upon the ear like a soft and final chord ending a musical composition. A light touch and a feeling for shades of meaning are required to execute such dainty verse. In ‘St. Margaret’s Eve,’ and in many other ballads, Allingham expresses the broader, more dramatic sweep of the ballad, and reveals his Celtic ancestry.  1
  The lovable Irishman, William Allingham, worked hard to enter the brotherhood of poets. When he was only fourteen his father took him from school to become clerk in the town bank of which he himself was manager. “The books which he had to keep for the next seven years were not those on which his heart was set,” says Mr. George Birkbeck Hill. But this fortune is almost an inevitable part, and probably not the worst part, of the training for a literary vocation; and he justified his ambitions by pluckily studying alone till he had mastered Greek, Latin, French, and German.  2
  Mr. Hill, in his ‘Letters of D. G. Rossetti’ (Atlantic Monthly, May, 1896), thus quotes Allingham’s own delightful description of his early home at Ballyshannon, County Donegal:—
          “The little old town where I was born has a voice of its own, low, solemn, persistent, humming through the air day and night, summer and winter. Whenever I think of that town I seem to hear the voice. The river which makes it rolls over rocky ledges into the tide. Before spreads a great ocean in sunshine or storm; behind stretches a many-islanded lake. On the south runs a wavy line of blue mountains; and on the north, over green rocky hills rise peaks of a more distant range. The trees hide in glens or cluster near the river; gray rocks and bowlders lie scattered about the windy pastures. The sky arches wide over all, giving room to multitudes of stars by night, and long processions of clouds blown from the sea; but also, in the childish memory where these pictures live, to deeps of celestial blue in the endless days of summer. An odd, out-of-the-way little town, ours, on the extreme western edge of Europe; our next neighbors, sunset way, being citizens of the great new republic, which indeed, to our imagination, seemed little if at all farther off than England in the opposite direction.”
  3
  Of the cottage in which he spent most of his childhood and youth he writes:—
          “Opposite the hall door a good-sized walnut-tree leaned its wrinkled stem towards the house, and brushed some of the second-story panes with its broad, fragrant leaves. To sit at that little upper window when it was open to a summer twilight, and the great tree rustled gently, and sent one leafy spray so far that it even touched my face, was an enchantment beyond all telling. Killarney, Switzerland, Venice, could not, in later life, come near it. On three sides the cottage looked on flowers and branches, which I count as one of the fortunate chances of my childhood; the sense of natural beauty thus receiving its due share of nourishment, and of a kind suitable to those early years.”
  4
  At last a position in the Customs presented itself:—
          “In the spring of 1846 I gladly took leave forever of discount ledgers and current accounts, and went to Belfast for two months’ instruction in the duties of Principal Coast Officer of Customs; a tolerably well-sounding title, but which carried with it a salary of but £80 a year. I trudged daily about the docks and timber-yards, learning to measure logs, piles of planks, and, more troublesome, ships for tonnage; indoors, part of the time practiced customs book-keeping, and talked to the clerks about literature and poetry in a way that excited some astonishment, but on the whole, as I found at parting, a certain degree of curiosity and respect. I preached Tennyson to them. My spare time was mostly spent in reading and haunting booksellers’ shops where, I venture to say, I laid out a good deal more than most people, in proportion to my income, and managed to get glimpses of many books which I could not afford or did not care to buy. I enjoyed my new position, on the whole, without analysis, as a great improvement on the bank; and for the rest, my inner mind was brimful of love and poetry, and usually all external things appeared trivial save in their relation to it.”
  5
  Of Allingham’s early song-writing, his friend Arthur Hughes says:—
          “Rossetti, and I think Allingham himself, told me, in the early days of our acquaintance, how in remote Ballyshannon, where he was a clerk in the Customs, in evening walks he would hear the Irish girls at their cottage doors singing old ballads, which he would pick up. If they were broken or incomplete, he would add to them or finish them; if they were improper he would refine them. He could not get them sung till he got the Dublin Catnach of that day to print them, on long strips of blue paper, like old songs, and if about the sea, with the old rough woodcut of a ship on the top. He either gave them away or they were sold in the neighborhood. Then, in his evening walks, he had at last the pleasure of hearing some of his own ballads sung at the cottage doors by the blooming lasses, who were quite unaware that it was the author who was passing by.”
  6
  In 1850 Allingham published a small volume of lyrics whose freshness and delicacy seemed to announce a new singer, and four years later his ‘Day and Night Songs’ strengthened this impression. Stationed as revenue officer in various parts of England, he wrote much verse, and published also the ‘The Rambles of Patricius Walker,’ a collection of essays upon his walks through England; ‘Lawrence Bloomfield in Ireland,’ the tale of a young landlord’s efforts to improve the condition of his tenantry; an anthology, ‘Nightingale Valley’ (1862), and an excellent collection of English ballads, ‘The Ballad Book’ (1865).  7
  In 1870 he gladly embraced an opportunity to leave the Customs for the position of assistant editor of Fraser’s Magazine under Froude, whom he afterward succeeded as editor. He was now a member of a brilliant literary circle, knew Tennyson, Ruskin, and Carlyle, and was admitted into the warm friendship of the Pre-Raphaelites. But in no way does he reflect the Pre-Raphaelite spirit by which he was surrounded; nor does he write his lyrics in the metres and rhythms of mediæval France. He is as oblivious of rondeaux, ballades, and roundels, as he is of fair damosels with cygnet necks and full pomegranate lips. He is a child of nature, whose verse is free from all artificial inspiration or expression, and seems to flow easily, clearly, and tenderly from his pen. Some of it errs in being too fanciful. In the Flower-Songs, indeed, he sometimes becomes trivial in his comparison of each English poet to a special flower; but his poetry is usually sincere with an undercurrent of pathos, as in ‘The Ruined Chapel,’ ‘The Winter Pear,’ and the ‘Song.’ For lightness of touch and aerial grace, ‘The Bubble’ will bear comparison with any verse of its own genre. ‘Robin Redbreast’ has many delightful lines; and in ‘The Fairies’ one is taken into the realm of Celtic folk-lore, which is Allingham’s inheritance, where the Brownies, the Pixies, and the Leprechauns trip over the dew-spangled meadows, or dance on the yellow sands, and then vanish away in fantastic mists. Quite different is ‘Lovely Mary Donnelly,’ which is a sample of the popular songs that made him a favorite in his own country.  8
  After his death at Hampstead in 1889, his body was cremated according to his wish, when these lines of his own were read:—
  “Body to purifying flame,
Soul to the Great Deep whence it came,
Leaving a song on earth below,
An urn of ashes white as snow.”
  9
 
 
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