As a poet, William Allingham will remain known primarily for his lyrics and for Laurence Bloomfield in Ireland. He had a lyric voice of unusual charm. He had an eye alert to local beauty. He had a heart sensitive to those passing emotions and thoughts, which, in the aggregate, form the very fabric of human experience. The voices that moved his voice to sing were principally Irish, though not exclusively so. He chose to live the latter third of his life in England; his temperament was largely English; he derived his sense of literary community and artistic purpose from English sources. What poetic strengths he did have are a product of his love for England and Ireland. Those strengths should not be underrated. “I am genuine though not great,” he once wrote to a friend, adding “and my time will come.”
The chief strengths of Allingham’s best lyrics and songs are their simplicity and musicality. His themes are the universal ones: the joys and frustrations of romantic love, the many faces of nature, the quality of country life, humankind’s ultimate relation to an indecipherable universe, memories of happier times, the supernatural, and death. His simplicity of style is typified by the following stanza from “The Lighthouse”:
The plunging storm flies fierce against the pane,And thrills our cottage with redoubled shocks:The chimney mutters and the rafters strain;Without, the breakers roar along the rocks.
As he does here, Allingham commonly uses familiar rhyme schemes, keeps syntax straight, and restrains metaphor to an unusual degree. His syntactical purity is such that the only departures from normal word order permitted are entirely conventional poetic inversions (“Many fine things had I glimpse of”). Even then he manages to avoid the grosser sort of inversion, as when the main verb is delayed until the end of the line for mere rhyme’s sake (“Loud larks in ether sing”). Implicitly in several poems, explicitly in personal conversations, Allingham criticized the convoluted style of Robert Browning’s poetry, friend though he was. Instead, in poetry (see “The Lyric Muse”) and prose (Rambles, “To Dean Prior”), he holds up Robert Herrick as a model of lyricism. Not too much should be made of that, however, since the serious Allingham would never imitate the cavalier element in Herrick’s verse, although he did approve of its “elegant naivete.” One might discern an elegance, certainly a gracefulness, in the naïve treatment of idyllic love in the opening lines of this untitled poem:
Oh! were my Love a country lass,That I might see her every day,And sit with her on hedgerow grassBeneath a bough of may.
Here as elsewhere in his most successful lyrics, Allingham keeps diction simple. Surely the freshness of lines such as these has some value today.
The musical element is so omnipresent in Allingham’s poetry that the distinction between song, lyric, and ballad is sometimes obscured. Many of his enduring poems tend toward song. The musical element adds sweetness, or in some instances liveliness, to the simplicity of his poetry. William Allingham records a conversation with William Makepeace Thackeray, in which Allingham wholeheartedly agrees with the novelist’s dictum, “I want poetry to be musical, to run sweetly.” It is not always easy, however, to determine whether the musical charm of a particular song derives from meter, rhyme, phonetic effects, or from a combination of the three. From William Allingham and other prose writings it is apparent that Allingham considered meter to be the very soul of poetry. In fact, some of the most significant entries in his diary include those in which Tennyson and his Irish devotee discuss the technicalities of metrical effects. Lines such as “The pulse in his pillowed ear beat thick” (“The Goblin Child of Ballyshannon”) echo Tennyson both metrically and phonetically. Repetition of the haunting place-name “Asaroe” in “Abbey Asaroe” shows that Allingham could choose a word for its rhythm and sound; its precise placement in each stanza shows a talent for emphasis. On the other hand, rhyme is a prominent feature of Allingham’s verse. Triplets, internal rhyme, and refrains are not uncommon.
Sprightly music, such as that which makes children laugh and sing, contributes in part to the popularity of Allingham’s beloved fairy poems. Justly most famous of these is “The Fairies,” with its traditional opening:
Up the airy mountain,Down the rushy glen,We daren’t go a-huntingFor fear of little men.
Others, however, are almost as highly cherished. “Prince Brightkin,” a rather long narrative, has some brilliant touches of whimsicality. In “The Lepruchan,” the wee shoemaker escapes his captors by blowing snuff in their faces. In “The Fairy Dialogue,” mischievous sprites confound housewives attempting to do their daily chores. It should be noted, however, that much of Allingham’s verse contains an opposite charm, that of sweet sadness. Many of his descriptive poems, as well as many of the romantic lyrics, are tinged with a sense of regret, of longing for something...
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