THE POETRY OF SIR SAMUEL FERGUSON -- I
This article appeared in The Irish Fireside of 9 October 1886, under the heading "Irish Poets and Irish Poetry." Sir Samuel Ferguson had died on 9 August 1886, and the present article was one of two pieces written by Yeats to sum up the achievement of Ferguson. This article may have been written after the longer, more detailed one that appeared in The Dublin University Review of November 1886, pp. 10-27 in this collection. In the present article Yeats writes about Ferguson's Conary, from Poems (Dublin: W. McGee, 1880), "Of this poem's splendid plot, which I have no space to describe here, I have written somewhat copiously elsewhere."
Sir Samuel Ferguson (1810-86), Belfast-born poet and antiquary, most heavily influenced Yeats by his attempt to use ancient Irish legends and heroic sagas as subjects for his poems. What Ferguson's work meant to Yeats is writ large in this and the following article.
Of old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago.
In the garden of the world's imagination there are seven great fountains. The seven great cycles of legends -- the Indian; the Homeric; the Charlemagnic; the Spanish, circling round the Cid; the Arthurian; the Scandinavian; and the Irish -- all differing one from the other, as the peoples differed who created them. Every one of these cycles is the voice of some race celebrating itself, embalming for ever what it hated and loved. Back to their old legends go, year after year, the poets of the earth, seeking the truth about nature and man, that they may not be lost in a world of mere shadow and dream.
Sir Samuel Ferguson's special claim to our attention is that he went back to the Irish cycle, finding it, in truth, a fountain that, in the passage of centuries, was overgrown with weeds and grass, so that the very way to it was forgotten of the poets; but now that his feet have worn the pathway, many others will follow, and bring thence living waters for the healing of our nation, helping us to live the larger life of the Spirit, and lifting our souls away from their selfish joys and sorrows to be the companions of those who lived greatly among the woods and hills when the world was young.
It was in Ferguson's later poems that he restored to us the old heroes themselves; in his first work, Lays of the Western Gael, he gave us rather instants of heroic passion, as in 'Owen Bawn', and 'Deirdre's Lament for the Sons of Usnach', or poems in which character is subordinated to some dominant idea or event, as in the 'Welshmen of Tirawley', and 'Willy Gilliland', or tales round which is shed the soft lustre of idyllic thought, as the 'Fairy Thorn'.
In other words, he was more lyrical and romantic than dramatic in this first and best known of his books. 'The Fairy Thorn', does the whole range of our rich ballad literature contain a more beautiful ballad of 'the good people' than this? I will quote almost the whole of it:
'Get up, our Anna dear, from the weary spinning-wheel,
For your father's on the hill, and your mother's asleep;
Come up above the crags, and we'll dance a highland-reel
Around the fairy thorn on the steep'.
At Anna Grace's door 'twas thus the maidens cried --
Three merry maidens fair, in kirtles of the green;
And Anna laid the sock and weary wheel aside,
dThe fairest of the four, I ween.
They're glancing through the glimmer of the quiet eve,
Away, in milky wavings of neck and ankle bare;
The heavy sliding stream in its sleepy song they leave,
And the crags in the ghostly air;
And linking hand in hand, and singing as they go,
The maids along the hillside have ta'en their fearless way,
Till they come to where the rowen trees in lonely beauty grow
Beside the fairy hawthorne grey.
But solemn is the silence of the silvery haze
That drinks away their voices echoless repose,
And dreamily the evening has still'd the haunted braes,
And dreamier the gloaming grows.
And sinking one by one, like lark-notes from the sky
When the falcon's shadow saileth across the open shaw,
Are hushed the maidens' voices, as cowering down they lie
In the flutter of their sudden awe.
For from the air above, and the grassy ground beneath,
And from the mountain ashes, and the old whitethorn between,
A power of faint enchantment doth through their beings breathe,
And they sink down together on the green.
Thus clasped and prostrate all, with their heads together bow'd,
Soft on their bosoms beating -- the only human sound --
They hear the silky footsteps of the silent fairy crowd,
Like a river in the air, gliding round.
No scream can they raise, nor prayer can they say,
But wild, wild, the terror of the speechless three --
For they feel fair Anna Grace drawn silently away --
By whom they dare not look to see.
They feel their tresses twine with her parting locks of gold,
And the curls elastic falling, as her head withdraws;
They feel her sliding arms from their tranced arms unfold,
But they may not look to see the cause.
For heavy on their senses the faint enchantment lies
Through all that night of anguish and perilous amaze;
And neither fear nor wonder can ope their quivering eyes,
Or their limbs from the cold ground raise.
Till out of night the earth has rolled her dewy side,
With every haunted mountain and streamy vale below;
When, as the mist dissolves in the yellow morning tide,
The maidens' trance dissolveth so.
Then fly the ghastly three as swiftly as they may,
And tell their tale of sorrow to anxious friends in vain --
They pined away,6 and died within the year and day;
And ne'er was Anna Grace seen again.
You must go to the book itself for that ringing ballad, 'Willy Gilliland', or that other, 'The Welshmen of Tirawley', which I am told the English poet Swinburne considers the best Irish poem, for I cannot do them justice by short quotations. I could give no idea of a fine building by showing a carved flower from a cornice.
His well-known poem, the 'Lament of Deirdre', is a version from the Irish. It is one of 'the things of the old time before'. The name of him who wrote it has perished, his grave is unknown; and she in whose mouth it is put beheld the dawn from her tent door, and heard the long oars smiting the grey sea, and beheld the hills and the forest, and had her good things long ago, and departed. Well then, perhaps, some one will say, if it has come from so far off, what good can it do us moderns, with our complex life? Assuredly it will not help you to make a fortune, or even live respectably that little life of yours. Great poetry does not teach us anything -- it changes us. Man is like a musical instrument of many strings, of which only a few are sounded by the narrow interests of his daily life; and the others, for want of use, are continually becoming tuneless and forgotten. Heroic poetry is a phantom finger swept over all the strings, arousing from man's whole nature a song of answering harmony. It is the poetry of action, for such alone can arouse the whole nature of man. It touches all the strings -- those of wonder and pity, of fear and joy. It ignores morals, for its business is not in any way to make us rules for life, but to make character. It is not, as a great English writer has said, 'a criticism of life',9 but rather a fire in the spirit, burning away what is mean and deepening what is shallow.
Sir S. Ferguson's longest poem, Congal, appeared in 1872. Many critics held this to be his greatest work. I myself rather prefer his Deirdre, of which more presently. Deirdre is in blank verse, which, I think, sustains better the dignity of its subject than the somewhat ballad metre of Congal. Nevertheless, Congal is a poem of lyric strength and panther-like speed.
It is the story of the death in the seventh century, at the battle of Moyra (or Moira) of Congal Claen. Congal was a heathen; his enemy, the arch-King Ardrigh, was a Christian. This war was the sunset of Irish heathendom. Across Ireland, eager for the battle, march Congal and his warriors. The demons of field and flood appear to them and prophesy their destruction. Defying heaven and hell, on march the heathen hosts. One morning, in the midst of the ford of Ullarvu, they behold that gruesomest of Celtic demons, 'the Washer of the Ford' -- a grey hag, to her knees in the river, washing the heads and the bodies of men. Congal fearlessly questions her.
'I am the Washer of the Ford', she answered; 'and my race
Is of the Tuath de Danaan line of Magi; and my place
For toil is in the running streams of Erin; and my cave
For sleep is in the middle of the shell-heaped Cairn of Maev,
High up on haunted Knocknarea, and this fine carnage-heap
Before me, in these silken vests and mantles which I steep
Thus in the running water, are the severed heads and hands,
And spear-torn scarfs and tunics of these gay-dressed gallant bands
Whom thou, O Congal, leadest to death. And this', the Fury said,
Uplifting by the clotted locks what seemed a dead man's head,
'Is thine head, O Congal!'
Still on they go, these indomitable pagans. Surely nothing will resist their onset. Will they not even shake the throne of God in their sublime audacity? No; Congal when he has accomplished deeds of marvellous valour is slain by the hand of an idiot boy who carries a sickle for sword, and the lid of a cauldron for shield. Ah, strange irony of the Celt.
Notice throughout this poem the continual introduction of the supernatural. I once heard a great English poet, in comparing two existing descriptions of the battle of Clontarf, the Irish and the Danish, say that the Irish narrator turns continually aside to discuss some great problem, or describe some supernatural event, while the Dane records only what affects the result of the battle. This was so, he said, because the Celtic nature is mainly lyrical, and the Danish, mainly dramatic.
The lyrical nature loves to linger on what is strange and fantastic.
In 1880, was published Ferguson's last volume, Poems.
In England it received no manner of recognition. Anti-Irish feeling ran too high. 'Can any good thing come out of Galilee', they thought. How could these enlightened critics be expected to praise a book that entered their world with no homage of imitation towards things Anglican?
Sir Samuel Ferguson himself, declares the true cause of this want of recognition in English critical centres in a letter published the other day in the Irish Monthly. He sought to lay the foundation of a literature for Ireland that should be in every way characteristic and national, hence the critics were against him.
In this last book of his are his two greatest poems, Conary, which de Vere considers the best Irish poem, and Deirdre.
In Conary, thus is the king of Ireland described by a pirate's spy --
One I saw
Seated apart: before his couch there hung
A silver broidered curtain; grey he was,
Of aspect mild, benevolent, composed.
A cloak he wore, of colour like the haze
Of a May morning, when the sun shines warm
On dewy meads and fresh-ploughed tillage land;
Variously beautiful, with border broad
Of golden woof that glittered to his knee
A stream of light. Before him, on the floor,
A juggler played his feats; nine balls he had,
And flung them upward, eight in air at once,
And one in hand: like swarm of summer bees
They danced and circled, till his eye met mine;
Then he could catch no more; but down they fell
And rolled upon the floor. 'An evil eye
Has seen me', said the juggler.
Of this poem's splendid plot, which I have no space to describe here, I have written somewhat copiously elsewhere.
Deirdre is the noblest woman in Irish romance. Pursued by the love of King Conor, she flies with her lover and his brethren and his tribe. Who has not heard of their famous wanderings? At last peace is made; but she who has been like a wise elder sister to the sons of Usnach knows that it is treacherous, and warns Naoise, her lover. He will not believe her. Sadly she sings upon her harp, as they leave their refuge in Glen Etive --
Harp, take my bosom's burthen on thy string,
And, turning it to sad, sweet melody,
Waste and disperse it on the careless air.
Air, take the harp-string's burthen on thy breast,
And, softly thrilling soul-ward through the sense,
Bring my love's heart again in tune with mine.
Alba, farewell! Farewell, fair Etive bank!
Sun kiss thee; moon caress thee; dewy stars
Refresh thee long, dear scene of quiet days!
Slowly they are meshed about and entrapped; the sons of Usnach are slain, and she kills herself that she may escape the power of King Conor.
Sir Samuel Ferguson, I contend, is the greatest Irish poet, because in his poems and the legends, they embody more completely than in any other man's writings, the Irish character. Its unflinching devotion to some single aim. Its passion. 'The food of the passions is bitter, the food of the spirit is sweet', say the wise Indians. And this faithfulness to things tragic and bitter, to thoughts that wear one's life out and scatter one's joy, the Celt has above all others. Those who have it, alone are worthy of great causes. Those who have it not, have in them some vein of hopeless levity, the harlequins of the earth.
One thing more before I cease; if I were asked to characterize, as shortly as may be, these poems, I should do so by applying to them the words of Spenser, 'barbarous truth.'
Compilation copyright © 2004 by Michael Yeats