Blackberries – Brief Poems by William Allingham

220px-William_Allingham_PhotoWilliam Allingham (1824 – 1889) was born in the Irish port town of Ballyshannon, County Donegal where he worked as a custom’s officer and where he began to write the poetry which was to bring him some success. He held several similar posts in the custom service in Ireland and England until 1870, when he retired from the service. He became sub-editor of Fraser’s Magazine, which he edited from 1874 to 1879.  He had published a volume of Poems in 1850, followed by Day and Night Songs, a volume containing many charming lyrics, in 1855. His poem ‘The Faeries’ was much anthologised and is still widely read today. A shorter, sharper poem, too long to fit in a tweet, is, to my mind, his best.

A Memory
Four ducks on a pond,
A grass-bank beyond,
A blue sky of spring,
White clouds on the wing;
What a little thing
To remember for years-
To remember with tears!

In the 1870’s, he moved to London and among the many volumes of poetry which he wrote was one containing numerous brief poems. In 1884 he published Blackberries Picked off Many Bushes, a collection of short epigrammatic poems, as miscellaneous in subject and tone as the title suggests. He wrote to one friend, the Irish poet Samuel Ferguson, “I have a little book in the press called ‘Blackberries’, aphoristic and epigrammatic, which will please nobody and yet out it must come.” When it was first published he sent a copy to a friend describing it as “a queerish little basket of “Blackberries”..many being indigestible…” The dedication is “For Anybody” and there is a nonchalant take-it-or-leave-it air to the process:

Not like Homer would I write,
Not like Dante if I might,
Not like Shakespeare at his best,
Not like Goethe or the rest,
Like myself, however small,
Like myself, or not at all.

The brief poems are arranged according to topic – literature, love, religion, politics. Given his Irish background, it is not surprising that his politics were radical for the time. He was opposed to Britain’s imperialist wars and could, as the poems below show, condense his ideas into brief and pithy statements that still resonate today.



Sin we have explained away;
Unluckily, the sinners stay.


The Age of Poetry is gone,
The Age of Suicide sweeps on;
Pray Heaven it pass, tornado-wise,
And leave behind it clearer skies!

If a single verse you find
Palatable to your mind,
Be that the core, the rest the rind.


Is “Purgatory”
An idle story?
Souls desire
To be washed with fire.


Solitude is very sad,
Too much company twice as bad.

While friends we were, the hot debates
That rose ‘twixt you and me!
Now we are mere associates,
And never disagree.


All stupid folk are self-complacent too,
Because they never see the harm they do.


One who can see without seeming to see–
That’s an observer as good as three.


Not men and women in an Irish street
But Catholics and Protestants you meet.


Who speaks to a crowd
Should be plain, brief and loud.


While friends we were, the hot debates
That rose ‘twixt you and me!
Now we are mere associates,
And never disagree.


England! leave Asia, Africa, alone
And mind this little country of thine own.


With pen and with pencil we’re learning to say
Nothing, more cleverly every day.


Soul’s Castle fell at one blast of temptation,
But many a worm had pierced the foundation.


If he draw you aside from your proper end,
No enemy like a bosom friend.


The weak have no opinions; but the strong,
Full of self will, go very badly wrong.

Is idleness indeed so black a crime?
What are the Busy doing, half their time?


If I could hate thee, Squirmley, thus I’d curse —
” Remain thyself! ” — I could not wish thee worse.


The Poet launched a stately fleet: it sank.
His fame was rescued by a single plank.


I dreamt I went to hell one night.
The little devils were impolite.
But Satan with the sweetest air
Bow’d me to a red hot chair.



Wikipedia on William Allingham

A chronology of his life is available on the Irish Corpus of Electronic Texts page.

50 poems by William Allingham are available on the PoemHunter site.

The 2015 Allingham Festival takes place in Allingham’s home town, Ballyshannon, County Donegal from Thursday 5th to Sunday 8th November. Further details  are available here  and on Twitter : @AllinghamArts

A Poetry and Flash Fiction competition with a prize fund of €300 in each category is being held in conjunction with the festival. The deadline for each entry is September 14th 2015. Details are available here



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