G.F. Savage-Armstrong's Ballads of Down

Article excerpt

G.F. Savage-Armstrong, depicted in Plate l,2 a minor Victorian writer and near miss as Poet Laureate, published Ballads of Down in 1901. This paper situates the collection in its social and political context, examines its relationship with previous exponents' work, analyses its use of Scots, and attempts a critical reappraisal of an unjustly neglected Irish poet.

Keywords: Savage-Armstrong, Anglo-Irish, Scots, Ulster, Ulster Scots, Victorian.

George Francis Armstrong was bom on 5 May 1845, either in County Down {Dictionary of Ulster Biography) or in County Dublin (S. Shannon Millin, introduction to Poems National and International). His father, Edmund, was of distant Liddesdale reiver stock, while his mother, Jane, the daughter of an Anglican cleric, hailed from the ancient Savage family, described by Stevenson (1920: 19) as having been at one time "by far the most powerful of the Anglo-Norman families in Down". Paul (1894: 180) comments that "From close family connection with both the northern and midland counties of Ireland, he is in all respects, perhaps, an 'Anglo-Irishman'". Apart from the hub of empire in London and Queen's College Cork, at which he was Professor of English Literature from 1870 until shortly before his death, Armstrong had two important personal foci in his life: the southern Ards Peninsula in County Down; and the area around the Dublin-Wicklow border in what during the Middle Ages had been the English Pale. By "all respects", Paul may have been referring to the fact that Ards and Wicklow were respectively settled by Lowland Scots and English incomers, something still discernible today in their surnames, their brand of Protestantism and their vernacular.

That Armstrong's experience was somewhat different from the norm is evidenced by the fact that, in 1890, following the death of a maternal uncle, he became known as "Savage-Armstrong", having assumed the additional surname by deed poll as representative of his grandfather.3 In the years after his death, the overlapping identities that might be inferred from his double-barrelled name and the three focal points of his life were called into question by violent political change. Following cross-party agreement in Northern Ireland, efforts have recently been made, in a spirit of reconciliation, to give apposite recognition to the once unremarkable "North/South" and "East/West" relationships that Savage-Armstrong typifies. The last few years have also seen the digitisation of many of his works and their being made readily available for the first time in decades, either as downloads from Net-based archives or as on-demand reprints. One might argue that the time is now ripe for a fresh critical look at his poetry.

As a boy Savage-Armstrong was much in the shadow of his elder brother, Edmund, an illustrious predecessor as President of the Philosophical Society at Trinity College, Dublin. Chronically ill with tuberculosis, like many in his position Edmund achieved an intellect and maturity beyond his years. His literary criticism of Edgar Allan Poe is strongly judgmental of the brilliant American poet and shortstory writer, who, as the Irishman saw it, destroyed his God-given gift of relative health in a life of dissipation. After Edmund died at the tragically young age of twenty-three, his poems, letters and essays were edited for publication in separate volumes by his brother.

Nor was that the only familial inspiration. Stories of Wicklow is a pæan to the immediate surroundings of his boyhood, while Ballads of Down, dedicated "to the memory of my mother", does the same for the Ards Peninsula. Savage-Armstrong also published on the genealogical history of his mother's family. Finally, his 1888 satire Mephistopheles in Broadcloth appears to have been prompted to some degree by an essay of his brother on "The Character of Mephistopheles" (Essays and Sketches: 182-207).

The poet's oeuvre can be readily divided into thematic areas: religious and philosophical works (The Tragedy of Israel, One in the Infinite)', volumes inspired by places known to him through association or travel (Ugone; A Garland from Greece', Stories of Wicklow', Mephistopheles in Broadcloth', Ballads of Down)', and patriotic odes (Victoria Regina et Imperatrix; Queen-Empress and Empire', Our Queen', The Crowning of the King). …