Allingham’s diary

William Allingham (1824–1889) was a minor poet from Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal, and a close friend of many of the famous people of the day – in particular Tennyson, D. G. Rossetti and Thomas Carlyle. He was a humane and curious man, and his diary offers often amusing glimpses into the lives of his Victorian contemporaries.

The following is an extract from August 1858.

Returning to Paris, after a short tour in Switzerland and North Italy, I found Thackeray in the Hotel Bristol with his two daughters. He not well — often in bed till mid-day or later — struggling with (Pendennis), but in the evening usually recovering himself.

I told him I had been with the Brownings (who were then in Paris, staying in the Rue Castiglioni, No. 6).

‘Browning was here this morning,’ Thackeray said, ‘ what spirits he has — almost too much for me in my weak state. He almost blew me out of bed!’

‘A wonderful fellow, indeed!’

‘Yes, and he doesn’t drink wine.’

‘He’s already screwed up to concert pitch.’

‘Far above it. But I can’t manage his poetry. What do you say?’

(I spoke highly of it),

‘Well, you see, I want poetry to be musical, to run sweetly.’

‘So do I.’

‘Then that does for your friend B.!’

I spoke of Browning’s other qualities as so splendid as to make him, as it were, a law in himself. But Thackeray only smiled and declined further discussion.

‘He has a good belief, in himself, at all events. I suppose he doesn’t care whether people praise him or not.’

‘I think he does, very much.’

‘O does he? Then I’ll say something about him in a number.’

Thackeray took me to dine with him in the Palais Royal. He noticed with quiet enjoyment every little incident — beginning with the flourish with which our waiter set down the dishes of Ostend oysters. After tasting his wine Thackeray said, looking at me solemnly through his large spectacles, ‘One’s first glass of wine in the day is a great event.’

That dinner was delightful. He talked to me with as much ease and familiarity as if I had been a favourite nephew.

After dinner Thackeray proposed that we should go to the Palais Royal Theatre, but on issuing forth he changed his mind, and said we would call up Father Prout. ‘His quarters are close by. You know him, don’t you?’

‘Yes, I know that singing priest a little.’

He was then Paris Correspondent of the Globe, and his letters were much admired. It was said that the Globe had been obliged to buy a fount of Greek type by reason of Mahony’s fondness for classical quotations.

In a narrow street at the back of the Palais Royal, in a large lowish room on the ground floor, we found the learned and witty Padre, loosely arrayed, reclining in front of a book and a bottle of Burgundy. He greeted us well, but in a low voice and said, ‘ Evening boys, there’s a young chap asleep there in the corner.’ And in a kind of recess we noted something like bed-clothes.

Thackeray was anxious to know who this might be, and Prout explained that it was a young Paddy from Cork or thereabouts, who had been on a lark in Paris and spent his money. Prout found him ‘hard up,’ and knowing something of his friends in Ireland had taken him in to board and lodge, pending the arrival of succour.

This piece of humanity was much to Thackeray’s taste, as you may suppose. Thackeray said the Burgundy was ‘too strong,’ and had brandy and water instead.

We talked among other things of Dickens. I said how much a story of Dickens might be improved by a man of good taste with a pencil in his hand, by merely scoring out this and that.

Says Thackeray (with an Irish brogue), ‘Young man, you’re threadin’ on the tail o’ me coat!’

I did not understand at first.

‘What you’ve just said applies very much to your humble servant’s things.’

I disclaimed this, and Prout said emphatically, ‘Not a word too much in them!’



Filed under Anecdotes, Literature, Poems

4 responses to “Allingham’s diary

  1. There’s some discussion of this post in comments 41 to 47 here:

  2. Sipu

    When I was a child, my mother taught me to learn and love poetry. However, after her demise at a young age, I gradually lost interest, which I sad. I find it difficult to read, enjoy and learn new poetry. Most of that I do know is stuff I learned before I was 12. When I see the name Browning I think of two things, both from Pippa Passes.

    The year’s at the spring
    And day’s at the morn;
    Morning’s at seven;
    The hillside’s dew-pearled;
    The lark’s on the wing;
    The snail’s on the thorn:
    God’s in His heaven—
    All’s right with the world!

    I used to copy that out as part of my hand writing exercises. In later years I researched the poem in more detail and came upon this marvellous bit of trivia.

    “Right at the end of the poem, in her closing song, Pippa calls out the following:
    But at night, brother Howlet, far over the woods,
    Toll the world to thy chantry;
    Sing to the bats’ sleek sisterhoods
    Full complines with gallantry:
    Then, owls and bats, cowls and twats,
    Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,
    Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!

    “Twat” both then and now is vulgar slang for a woman’s external genitals.[1] It has become a relatively mild epithet in parts of the UK, but vulgar elsewhere. When the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary inquired decades later where Browning had picked up the word, he directed them to a rhyme from 1660 that went thus: “They talk’t of his having a Cardinall’s Hat/They’d send him as soon an Old Nun’s Twat.” Browning apparently missed the vulgar joke and took “twat” to mean part of a nun’s habit, pairing it in his poem with a priest’s cowl.”

    Thomas Carlyle was an interesting character. Apart from rewriting a history of the French Revolution from memory after his servant had burned his only manuscript, he and John Stewart Mill had a much publicised debate on slavery in America. Carlyle was largely in favour of it, for distinctively racist reasons. He held the belief, as did Ruskin and Dickens, that Africans were of the same species as Europeans.

    I first came into contact with Thackeary via his children’s story, The Rose and the Ring. It was set in the country of Crim Tartary an idea that stemmed from the fact that the Crimean War was being waged at the time of writing. Lovely book.

    Becky Sharp, filmed in 1935 and based on Vanity Fair was the first full colour feature film. I think I was in the army when I read VF. I loved it.

    Don’t know Allingham.

  3. Sipu

    Dickens used Carlyle’s work as a source of reference for A Tale of Two Cities.

    I am rather share Prout’s opinion of Dickens. Just like the number of notes in Mozart’s music, there are just the right number of words in Dickens’s novels. I know one is not supposed to, but I really enjoyed Barnaby Rudge.

  4. Thank for taking the trouble to make those comments, Sipu.

    I liked a lot of poetry when I was young, but didn’t pay a great deal of attention to it for most of my adulthood … I’ve got a bit more interested only in the past 10 years or so. I don’t know much of Browning, and I haven’t read Thackeary’s novels. My father was a big reader; we had a complete set of Dickens in the house which he reread constantly, but it’s a long time since I read any. My mother was a very clever woman but her favourite reading was crime novels, which she borrowed from the library.

    Caryle and Allingham were good friends, though Carlyle was very anti-Irish (a big sin :-)), describing Ireland as ‘a huge suppuration’, ‘a human swinery’, ‘an abomination of desolation’, and ‘a black howling Babel of superstitious savages’. His Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question was described (by Eric Williams) as ‘the most offensive document in the entire world literature on slavery and the West Indies’.

    Yes, great twat trivium. 🙂

    Allingham wrote some passable poetry, I think, but is chiefly remembered for one that starts ‘Up the airy mountain/Down the rushy glen,/We daren’t go a-hunting,/For fear of little men’ … which hasn’t aged well.

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