Magazine article The Spectator

Somewhat Surprising, Somewhat Surprised

Magazine article The Spectator

Somewhat Surprising, Somewhat Surprised

Article excerpt

DIARY 1847-1889

by William Allingham

Open Gate Press, L12.95, pp. 404

'1864. March. Farrin ford. One day T., J. and myself on the shore, throwing pebbles into the sea.' A brief enough diary entry, but quite a picture when you realise that 'T' is Tennyson and 'J' is Benjamin Jowett, for whom nothing was knowledge if he did not know it. Allingham adds:

Alas, I fear I have not set anything down of the conversations. That is usually the way when there is too much.

Who was Allingham? A minor customs official from Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal, a poet ("Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy glen'), but a somewhat surprising companion for the likes of Rossetti, BurneJones, Browning, Carlyle, Tennyson.

How did he get to know these stars? He wrote to them, he called, and left his card; they responded, and acquaintance grew into friendship. Geoffrey Grigson, in his introduction to this reprint, thinks they patronised Allingham; that may be so, but his Diary can be read without the reader (and therefore the writer) suspecting this. He was modest, unassertive, intelligent; the lions did not have to perform for him, or be on their guard; they liked him.

Shortly after that meditative pebble-- throwing on the Isle of Wight, and after dinner with Tennyson, Allingham walks back with Jowett to their lodgings, inveighing against the weight of social conventions. Jowett listens,

and when we arrived at his door invited me, somewhat to my surprise, to come in and continue the conversation, I remember, in a room dimly lighted with one candle. He seemed to agree with me in the main, but argued to the effect that by an open and unguarded nonconformity a man might ruin his career and lose all influence -'Oh' [says Allingham], 'he would find the apparent obstacles to be only shadows on his road.'

To which J. replied gently, but with a tone of conviction, 'I fear he would find them very real.'

Tableau: lighted by a single candle Gael confronts Gall, Celtic impulsiveness is gently restrained by Sassenach worldly wisdom; (in fact Allingham, a protestant, was of planter stock). A brief entry, but you feel you glimpse Jowett, and are touched at Allingham's surprise at being invited in.

He was always being so invited, and was always surprised. He started with Leigh Hunt in 1847, calling on him in Chelsea when Allingham was 23. Within moments, it seems, Hunt is carried away:

'I will take an opportunity of asking Dickens, Carlyle and Browning to meet you! (Gracious Powers !!!)

At last he meets Tennyson (not through Hunt):

In 1851 Coventry Patmore, to my boundless joy, let me know that I might call on the great Poet. …

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