Lays of the Western Gael

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Lays of the Western Gael; and Other Poems.

By Samuel Ferguson.  (Bell & Daldy.)

 

READERS of current, poetry must have met with some of Mr.  Ferguson's lyrics.   Collected for the first time into a volume, they will be welcome to lovers of ballad poetry.   Mr.  Ferguson is as good a modern representative of the ancient Irish bard as we shall find, inasmuch as his poetry is simple, objective, full of action.   Of all living, poets he has struck the Irish harp with the greatest power, and made the music that leaves heroic thrillings.   He is not a political poet; not a bard of the National school.   Indeed, we believe he was not considered to be sufficiently national by some of the Young Irelanders.   Not national in their sense; a nationality that should confine poetry to politics and repeal.   We fancy it was Mr.  Ferguson who wrote some lines in the Dublin University Magazine for May, 1847, containing a good- humoured reply on this subject, which amusingly illustrates the feeling of perplexity felt by many Irishmen on those questions of, politics, race and religion, on behalf of which they are so ready to beat each other black and blue for the Orange and the Green, or on any colourable pretext whatever:—

 

I sometimes doubt if I have Irish blood in me,
    So often in these mazes do I lose my clue,
Mixing Danes with Milesians, and the clear-faced Saxon
    With the hairy, dirty children of Boru.
I have small faith in Punic etymologies,
    I sometimes fancy Petrie and St: Patrick are the same;
I doubt that Betham knows all the tongues of Babel,
    Or that William Smith O'Brien is a Hebrew name.
I don't care a button for "Young Ireland" or "Old
              Ireland,"
    But, as between the two, I rather like Ould Dan;
And I wish the "Nation" would let the agitation
    Die out a humbug, as it first began.

 

    So our author has gone his way, and the warm-hearted, hot-headed repealers have gone theirs; but whilst so many of them have sunk in the black bog of Irish politics, he has found torques of gold; that are now set shining in his poetry.   He has not spent his strength in useless declamatory verse—bitter enough to show us that if St: Patrick rid the Emerald Isle of the reptile nature through his holy influence, it has crept into the human nature, where it still works venomously enough—the venting of which upon one another; and on the Sister Isle, has been a sorry sight to English eyes.   Nor has he set up an Irish lamentation on the part of his country to make her wail, like a weakly wife, over the evils of what she considers a miserable marriage, instead of doing the best for her children, and helping to build up a better future for them; however sad the past may have been for her.   Nor has he sympathized with that mournful spirit of Irish poetry which will turn to dwell on the past with the persistence of a race that has seen better days, but has no future save in some land of dream.   The spirit symbolled in Irish poetry by the blackbird singing his last farewell to the sunset; the sad spirit that will turn from the land of its love, which, as Thomas Davis said, possesses a climate soft as a mother's smile, a soil fruitful as God's love, to look across the Atlantic, and instead of staying at home and giving itself to put a new soul into the old land, it will hurry thousands on thousands away to make manure with their bodies for the world of the Far West.   For it would seem that the vision of the City of Gold—said in legends to be hidden somewhere in the Atlantic— which has so long gleamed in the eyes of Irish poets, and on finding which the Irish heart has been so bent, has at last taken absolute possession of the Irish people until the mass of them are tending.   Atlantic-ward in the Exodus from Ireland of the Western Gael.   To this unsteadfast, wandering, homeless spirit Mr.  Ferguson does not appeal, unless it be to make it look at home, and stay at home, and do worthy work for the land of which he sings:—

 

A plenteous place is Ireland for hospitable cheer,
                                       Uileacan dubh O!
Where the wholesome fruit is bursting from the yellow
        barley ear;
                                       Uileacan dubd O!
There is honey in the trees where her misty vales expand,
And her forest paths, in summer, are by falling waters
        fann'd,
There is dew at high noontide there,.  and springs i' the
        yellow sand; 
                                       On the fair hills of holy Ireland.

Large and profitable are the stacks upon the ground,
                                      Uileacan dubh O!
The butter and the cream do wondrously abound;
                                      Uileacan dubh O!
The cresses on the water and the sorrels are at hand,
And the cuckoo's calling daily his note of music bland;
And the bold thrush sings so bravely his song i' the forests
        grand,
                On the fair hills of holy Ireland.

 

    It is a comfort to meet with an Irish bard who can praise his own country without eternally cursing the Saxon.   Mr.  Ferguson evidently accepts established facts, and sees that those who will not be ruled with the rudder must be ruled by the rook.   Also, we should not be surprised to learn that he finds something to be proud of in that prodigal daring, shown by his countrymen who have fought on so many a field, charging together shoulder to shoulder with Englishmen, to fall side by side, or stand flushed with victory on the summit of success.   Whereas the "Young Irelanders" could only rejoice over the doings of the "Irish Brigade" in foreign service, we imagine Mr.  Ferguson would respond to the charging cry of the "Faugh-a-Ballagh" boys, who startled the French at Busaco, and helped to smite and crush the victorious column toiling up the hill, just ready to snatch at triumph on the top; feel some warlike joy in reading of the bloody wrestle for conquest at Meeanee, where the 22nd Regiment—Napier's "Magnificent Tipperary!" —bore up the bending battle line so long and so well in that time of sorest need.   Mr.  Ferguson has found his way direct to the Irish heart and wedded it to the English tongue.   He offers us a handful of flowers fresh from Irish earth.

    The "Forging of the Anchor" is one of the bravest ballads ever written, and, in itself, enough to make a poet's fame.   Though it be well known, we cannot resist quoting the hearty opening burst:— 

 

Come, see the Dolphin's anchor forged—'tis at a white heat
    now:
The bellows ceased, the flames decreased—though on the
    forge's brow
The little flames still fitfully play through the sable mound,
And fitfully you still may see the grim smiths ranking round
All clad in leathern panoply, their broad hands only bare:
Some rest upon their sledges here, some work the windlass
    there.
The windlass strains the tackle chains, the black mound
    heaves below,
And red and deep a hundred veins burst out at every throe:
It rises, roars, rends all outright—O, Vulcan, what a glow!
'Tis blinding white, 'tis blasting bright—the high sun shines
    not so!
The high sun sees not, on the earth, such fiery fearful show,
The roof-ribs swarth, the candent hearth, the ruddy lurid
    row
Of smiths that stand, an ardent band, like men before the
    foe,
As, quivering through his fleece of flame, the sailing monster,
    slow
Sinks on the anvil:—all about the faces fiery grow;
"Hurrah!" they shout, "leap out-leap out; " bang, bang
    the sledges go:
Hurrah!  the jetted lightnings are hissing high and low—
A hailing fount of fire is struck at every squashing blow;
The leathern mail rebounds the hail, the rattling cinders
    strow
The ground around; at every bound the sweltering fountains
    flow,
And thick and loud the swinking crowd at every stroke
    pant "ho!"
Leap out, leap out, my masters; leap out and lay on load!
Let's forge a goodly anchor—a bower thick and broad;
For a heart of oak is hanging on every blow, I bode:
I see the good ship riding all in a perilous road—
The low reef roaring on her lee—the roll of ocean pour'd
From stem to stern, sea after sea, the mainmast by the
    board,
The bulwarks down, the rudder gone, the boats stove at the
    chains!
But courage still, brave mariners—the bower yet remains,
And not an inch to flinch he deigns, save when ye pitch
    sky high;
Then moves his head, as though he said, "Fear nothing—
    here am I."

 

    Possibly that is more likely to win appreciation in England than in Ireland, as we have more of the sea-spirit.

    A fairy legend was never more exquisitely bodied forth than in Mr.  Ferguson's 'Anna Grace' or 'The Fairy Thorn,' and some half-dozen of these ballads have never been surpassed.   In all natural qualities they are worthy of claiming kinship with the simple, noble antiques.

    The fault we have to find with Mr.  Ferguson is, that he has not done enough.   He has accomplished much; lifted Irish poetry out of the mire; finished some gems with a loving fastidiousness, and given them a worthy setting.   But has he not been too fastidious?   The poet of such a race who shall adequately express its tenderness which flashes like the fire in a tear, and smites the heart like the "cry of a woman"; who shall also possess the true twinkle of Hibernian humour such as can pierce the tear of sorrow with its diamond point of wit, and wink away the weeping, will hardly be restrained and restricted by the canons of taste laid down by a race that takes things much more coolly.   There is in the Irish nature the maddest human will-o'-the-wisp; the most piquant, subtle and evasive spirit that ever mortal followed and tried in vain to grasp.   In a hundred shapes and ways it gleams and is gone with a laugh,—a sparkle,—an echo in Elfland.   Now, it is tremulous to tears, in a music that seems to have gathered up the sorrows of ages and ages of wrong and suffering; and anon it breaks out in the wildest, most utter gloriousness of Irish joy.   Now it is soft as the feeling of a mother fondling her babe, new-born; and again, at the sound of battle it springs up stern at heroic height, filled with warlike fire, and treads the way to death with a martial glee.   We get many a glimpse of this spirit in Irish poetry.  Various singers have wooed the sparkling Beauty, though she has been wed by none.   Mr.  Allingham caught a gleam when he wrote of a girl dancing—

 

The music nearly kill'd itself to listen to her feet. 


And Thomas Davis when he wrote—


Tho' it break my heart to hear, say again the bitter words.


    So did the lover who called his sweetheart a "sweet blossom all down to the ground," as well as the one who paid his mistress the compliment of saying, that when she sang the cattle would listen to her voice, and "milk over two thirds more than their wont"—a splendid sample of Irish preciseness!   Also the speaker who pleads thus with his beloved—

 

What a few sweet words of life
Would make us man and wife.

 

    Mr.  Ferguson has caught many glimpses, sunbright or shadowy, of this perplexing spirit.   It smiles slyly in his version of "Youghall Harbour"—

 

My heart and hand here!  I mean you marriage!
I have loved like you and know love's pain;
And if you turn back now to Youghall Harbour,
You ne'er shall want house or home again;
You shall have a lace cap like any lady,
Cloak and capuchin, too, to keep you warm,
And if God please, maybe, a little baby,
By and bye, to nestle within your arm.

 

It dances with a gay abandon in the "Pastheen Finn";                  

 

Then, Oro, come with me!  come with me!  come with me!
Oro, come with me!  brown girl, sweet!
And, oh!  I would go thro' snow and sleet,
If you would come with me, brown girl, sweet!

 

It glances and blushes in the modest homely beauty of the "Pretty girl of Loch Dan"—

 

She brought us in a beechen bowl,
Sweet milk, that smack'd of mountain thyme,
Oat cake and such a yellow roll
Of butter—it gilds all my rhyme!

 

    Its bosom heaves proudly in "Deirdra's Lament"; its voice works weirdly with a mournful prognostication in "The Downfall of the Gael," and is smiting and thorough as the stroke of a Belooch swordsman in the "Address to the Clans of Wicklow."  But this Irish spirit has yet to be wooed and won for domestic life.   What an immortal brood she would bring to the man who should marry her out and out.   We hope Mr.  Ferguson is not too old; he is otherwise aptly endowed with gifts for such a purpose.   But the capricious creature will not be wooed too sedately.   Meanwhile we have to give our best word of commendation to these 'Lays of the Western Gael.'

_______________________

Ed:—this concludes Massey's review for the Athenæum.  However, such is the stature of Ferguson's Forging of the Anchor, that we reproduce the poem complete. 

 


FORGING OF THE ANCHOR.

Come, see the Dolphin's anchor forged!  'tis at a white heat now —
The bellows ceased, the flames decreased; though, on the forge's brow,
The little flames still fitfully play through the sable mound,
And fitfully you still may see the grim smiths ranking round;
All clad in leathern panoply, their broad hands only bare,
Some rest upon their sledges here, some work the windlass there.

The windlass strains the tackle-chains — the black mould heaves below;
And red and deep, a hundred veins burst out at every throe.
It rises, roars, rends all outright — O Vulcan, what a glow!
'Tis blinding white, 'tis blasting bright — the high sun shines not so!
The high sun sees not, on the earth, such fiery fearful show!
The roof-ribs swarth, the candent hearth, the ruddy lurid row

Of smiths that stand, an ardent band, like men before the foe!
As, quivering through his fleece of flame, the sailing monster slow
Sinks on the anvil — all about, the faces fiery grow:
"Hurrah!" they shout, "leap out, leap out!" bang, bang!  the sledges go;
Hurrah!  the jetted lightnings are hissing high and low;
A hailing fount of fire is struck at every squashing blow;
The leathern mail rebounds the hail; the rattling cinders strow
The ground around; at every bound the sweltering fountains flow;
And, thick and loud, the swinking crowd at every stroke pant "ho!"

Leap out, leap out, my masters!  leap out, and lay on load!
Let's forge a goodly anchor — a bower thick and broad;
For a heart of oak is hanging on every blow, I bode;
And I see the good ship riding, all in a perilous road, —
The low reef roaring on her lee; the roll of ocean poured
From stem to stern, sea after sea; the mainmast by the board;
The bulwarks down; the rudder gone; the boats stove at the chains;
But courage still, brave mariners — the bower yet remains!
And not an inch to flinch he deigns — save when ye pitch sky high;
Then moves his head, as though he said, "Fear nothing - here am I!"

Swing in your strokes in order; let foot and hand keep time;
Your blows make music sweeter far than any steeple's chime.
But while ye swing your sledges, sing, and let the burthen be —
The anchor is the anvil king, and royal craftsmen we!
Strike in, strike in!  — the sparks begin to dull their rustling red;
Our hammers ring with sharper din — our work will soon be sped;
Our anchor soon must change his bed of fiery rich array
For a hammock at the roaring bows, or an oozy couch of clay;
Our anchor soon must change the lay of merry craftsmen here
For the yeo-heave-o, and the heave-away, and the sighing seamen's
        cheer —
When, weighing slow, at eve they go, far, far from love and home;
And sobbing sweethearts, in a row, wail o'er the ocean-foam.

In livid and obdurate gloom, he darkens down at last;
A shapely one he is, and strong, as e'er from cat was cast.
O trusted and trustworthy guard!  if thou hadst life like me,
What pleasure would thy toils reward beneath the deep-green sea!
O deep sea-diver, who might then behold such sights as thou?  -
The hoary monster's palaces!  — Methinks what joy 'twere now
To go plumb-plunging down, amid the assembly of the whales,
And feel the churned sea round me boil beneath their scourging tails!
Then deep in tangle-woods to fight the fierce sea-unicorn,
And send him foiled and bellowing back, for all his ivory horn;
To leave the subtle sworder-fish of bony blade forlorn;
And for the ghastly-grinning shark, to laugh his jaws to scorn:
To leap down on the kraken's back, where 'mid Norwegian isles
He lies, a lubber anchorage for sudden shallowed miles -
Till, snorting like an under-sea volcano, off he rolls;
Meanwhile to swing, a-buffeting the far astonished shoals
Of his back-browsing ocean-calves; or, haply, in a cove
Shell-strown, and consecrate of old to some Undine's love,
To find the long-haired mermaidens; or, hard by icy lands,
To wrestle with the sea-serpent, upon cerulean sands.

O broad-armed fisher of the deep!  whose sports can equal thine?
The Dolphin weighs a thousand tons, that tugs thy cable-line;
And night by night 'tis thy delight, thy glory day by day,
Through sable sea and breaker white the giant game to play.
But, shamer of our little sports!  forgive the name I gave:
A fisher's joy is to destroy - thine office is to save.
O lodger in the sea-kings' halls!  couldst thou but understand
Whose be the white bones by thy side — or who that dripping band,
Slow swaying in the heaving wave, that round about thee bend,
With sounds like breakers in a dream blessing their ancient friend —
Oh, couldst thou know what heroes glide with larger steps round thee,
Thine iron side would swell with pride — thou'dst leap within the sea!

Give honour to their memories who left the pleasant strand
To shed their blood so freely for the love of fatherland —
Who left their chance of quiet age and grassy churchyard grave
So freely, for a restless bed amid the tossing wave!
Oh, though our anchor may not be all I have fondly sung,
Honour him for their memory whose bones he goes among! 

 



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