John Mole is a poet and critic. His most recent publication is Counting the Chimes: New & Selected Poems 1975-2003. He has received the Gregory and Cholmondeley Awards for his poetry, and the Signal Award for his collection for children, Boo to a Goose. For many years John ran the Mandeville Press with Peter Scupham and he is currently the City of London's resident poet. He is also a jazz clarinettist. Below John reports on his delight on first reading William Allingham's Diaries.
John Mole on The Diaries of William Allingham
First, a few words about how I discovered the book I've chosen. It's been a very recent discovery and the tracks which led to it are not unlike those which have often directed my reading over the years. Not so much word of mouth as hints dropped in occasional print by fellow writers whose guiding lights and touchstones have proved in so many cases to be mine. For as long as I can remember, Geoffrey Grigson has been one of my literary exemplars and whenever I come across a book which I think might make mention of him I check the index and turn to the relevant pages. This happened recently when I was staying with a friend and found P. J. Kavanagh's A Kind of Journal (Carcanet 2003) by my bedside. Knowing that Kavanagh is a Grigson admirer, I made my check, read the entries and, while browsing in their vicinity, discovered Kavanagh's enthusiasm for the diaries of William Allingham, an edition of which had been introduced by Grigson himself. Like many, I suspect, my knowledge of Allingham's work had until then not extended beyond a familiarity with his one poem from the New Oxford Book of English Verse, 'The Fairies' ('Up the airy mountain, / Down the rushy glen...' ), and also like many I had dismissed it as whimsical, failing to get beyond those 'little men' and to realize that there was something far more imaginative and daemonic going on. Indeed, I'd never really registered that Allingham was Irish and that the poem was a direct precursor of Yeats's 'The Stolen Child' among others.
While waiting for my friend, a dealer in second hand books, to get hold of a copy of the diaries for me, I looked to see whether Grigson had mentioned Allingham in The Private Art; A Poetry Notebook (a book to which I keep returning and which never ceases to absorb and instruct me), and sure enough he had. Recalling being made to learn two poems by heart at school, 'The Wreck of the Hesperus' and 'The Fairies', he found that it was the latter which stayed with him because of the freshness and surprising accuracy of its imagery, particularly the 'crispy pancakes of yellow tide-foam'. Longfellow's poem was 'too fluent, too pat, too regular, too oval, too unsurprising', but the influence of Allingham's was 'so strong and durable... that twenty years later I took myself and the girl who had just married me to Glencolumcille and up on to the crest of Slieve League and down on to crescent strands where foam-pancakes were formed by the push of the Atlantic'.
And so to the diaries. I finished reading them last week and write now in the white heat of enthusiasm and, probably, with an insufficient sense of proportion. The edition my friend found for me was published by the Folio Society in 1990 and has an introduction by John Julius Norwich. If Kavanagh was enthusiastic, Norwich was almost alarmingly ecstatic:
Within quarter of an hour I knew that I had in my hands one of those books that would be a favourite for life, one that I should automatically buy whenever I chanced to see a copy in a second-hand shop, and one that I should spend my life lending or giving away to all those friends whom I could trust to relish it as I did... I know of no volume of comparable size that has yielded, to a compulsive commonplace-collector like myself, so rich and commonplace a harvest.A commonplace-collector, though less compulsive than Norwich, I was ready for delights even as I doubted I should find myself quite as overwhelmed as all that. Nevertheless I must report that this wonderful book now contains more pencilled exclamations and marginal observations than almost any I can remember reading.
William Allingham (1824-1889) grew up in Ballyshannon, and left school at fourteen to work first in the local bank where his father was manager and then as a customs officer, which brought him to England and, as an aspiring writer, into the company of the eminent figures whose table-talk he recorded in the diaries which he began in 1847. He made one attempt to give up the day job before finally going freelance in 1870. By this time he had established his reputation as a poet, particularly with a 5000 line account of landlords' treatment of tenants - 'Laurence Bloomfield in Ireland' - and was soon to take on a five-year stint as editor of Frazer's Magazine, one of the period's leading literary journals. There's something particularly attractive about Allingham's modest self-awareness. He always seems to be bumping into major figures of the day, dining with them and engaging in wide-ranging conversation (often laid out like a play script), but there is no note of sycophancy, and his misgivings are endearingly candid. Here is part of an entry for Sunday 28th June 1863, which describes his first sighting of Tennyson's house at Farringford on the Isle of Wight. I find it all the more poignant in the light of the fact that Allingham and Tennyson were to become firm friends and that some of the diaries' most entertaining passages are those in which the pair of them dissect the Victorian literary scene:
I was thinking all the while of Tennyson and felt very doleful. Yet I had not the faintest thought of presenting myself to him or wish, even, to meet by chance on his return (he was from his home at this time). I have lost the faith I used to have in people wishing to see me - perhaps it is merely one of the signs that youth has passed away. But I feel a natural bond to him (I say it in humility) and to a very few others, and only in their company am better contented than to be with nature and books. With these persons I feel truly humble, yet at the same time easy. I understand and am understood, with words or without words. It is not fame that attracts me it disgusts me rather. Fame has cooled many friendships for me, never made or increased one. Fame is a thing of the 'World', and the 'World' is a dreadful separator.'These persons' were to include, notably, Thomas Carlyle and Robert Browning, though with a host of walk-on parts, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Julia Cameron, Emerson, Aubrey de Vere, George Eliot, Henry James... There is something wonderfully immediate and un-worked-up about the way Allingham notes the chance meeting with figures, major to us now but at the time each merely one of many. On Sunday 19th August 1888 Henry James drops by at Mrs Humphry Ward's:
Mr. Henry James, The Anglo-American Novelist had just arrived from London, and was going back by a late train. He described himself as an 'unmitigated Cockney', was surprised at the colour of the heather, and hearing ling spoken of, asked to look at it.Or:
Mr Edward Lear coming on Monday - one of twenty children - drew birds at fourteen to help his family. Improvises on pianoforte.But the real star of the diaries, apart from Tennyson, is Carlyle. Allingham befriended him in his later years. Magnificently testy, opinionated and cantankerous, he is at the same time touchingly affectionate to Allingham and his family. If I had more space I could fill several pages with his utterances and outbursts but this, on Louis Napoleon, will have to suffice:
Met him at dinner - he made up to me rather, understanding me to be a writer, who might perhaps be of help to him somehow. His talk was a puddle of revolutionary nonsense. He was internally a mass of darkness. I used to meet him often in the street, mostly about Sloane Square, driving a cab, with a little tiger behind; his face had a melancholy look that was rather affecting at first, but I soon recognised that it was the sadness of an Opera Singer who cannot get an engagement. When I heard of him afterwards as Emperor, I said to myself, 'Gad, sir, you've got an opera engagement such as no one could possibly have expected!'Many of the diaries' gems are table-talk jottings, snap literary or moral judgements and ambulatory conversations. Here are just a few of them. On Swinburne: 'great display of literary power of a sort, to what result? so elaborated, so violently emphatic, so really cold-blooded.' Tantalisingly, on Tennyson: 'T reads the newspaper into metre'. On a musical evening party: 'I heard tonight some of the best music in London. Did it enchant or even delight me? No. A grand musical party is neither concert nor home-music; and besides, few public singers know how to sing in a private room.' On the size of heads: 'C. said (I think) that his own head was twenty-three and a half inches round, one inch more than Burns. Goethe's head was large, Byron's small. Browning's is small... The brain of ordinary persons begin to shrink at sixty, of superior men not till seventy. Grote's head was large, but his brain was found to be light. Greatest weight of a brain about 62oz.' Tennyson: 'A Russian noble, who spoke English well, said one morning to an English guest, "I've shot two peasants this morning." ''Pardon me, you mean pheasants" "No, indeed - two men - they were insolent and I shot them."'
But throughout the many encounters, gratitude seems to go hand in hand with insecurity and it is this which absolves Allingham (at least in my book) of any charge of name-dropping. Gratitude for hospitable informality as on the occasion of his dining with Thackeray in 1862: 'He talked to me with as much ease and familiarity as if I had been a favourite nephew.' Then, retrospectively, in 1884: 'Have I been half kind enough, or grateful enough, or humble enough? How much kindness and friendship I have received!' And: 'I have always a rooted belief that people don't really want to see me.' The diaries, though, give abundant evidence that they did want to see him. Let Carlyle have the last word (as he usually did). Wednesday, 16 October 1867:
Cheyne Walk - call at Carlyle's. When the door opens, see him in the passage; he says in an angry voice - 'Go away, sir! I can do nothing with you.' I go away, with reflections many and black. What can it mean?Thursday, 17 October:
N.B. Very kind letter from Carlyle - did not know me that day I called; 'must blame my poor old eyes. Allingham's company would have been very welcome to me'. How I have tormented myself!The self-torment was characteristic and habitual, and I have no doubt that Carlyle's apology was as sincere as it was kind.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]