Fair Head’s eagles also flashed upon William Wordsworth’s inward eye

There was a timely, if chilling, introduction here last year to a futuristic sci-fi published in 1826.

Friday, 28th May 2021, 6:00 am
Giant's Causeway - ‘An Amazing Sight.’ Photo Tourism NI

Written by Frankenstein’s author Mary Shelley, ‘The Last Man’ was about the end of mankind in a pandemic.

George McBride outlined the book’s “uncanny resonances” with today. The much-travelled former teacher, headmaster, writer and life-long lover of literature, takes us on another literary journey today, with a very famous poet.

The rest of today’s page is George’s:

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Wordsworth was 'Eager to see Dunluce Castle'. Photo Tourism NI

On Sunday, August 30 1829 William Wordsworth arrived in Dublin. It was the beginning of a hectic, five-week, clockwise tour of Ireland during which he hoped to visit “all the crack places … including its two extremities, Killarney and the Giant’s Causeway,” and learn something about the Irish landscapes, as well as contemporary social, political and religious conditions throughout the country.

Indeed, these matters occupied his thoughts rather more than poetry.

He later wrote: “With the county of Kerry I have been much pleased…With the county of Antrim also including the Giant’s Causeway…I was highly delighted…”

But he regretted that his tour “…supplied my memory with so few images that were new and with so little motive to write. The deficiency I am somewhat ashamed of.”

Portrait of William Wordsworth by William Shuter. 1798

Until this, his first visit, Wordsworth had only ever made one, oblique, reference to Ireland, in his Poems of the Imagination, View from the top of Black Comb:

‘Far from the summit of Black Comb …

the amplest range of unobstructed prospect may be seen

That British ground commands…’

The Wordsworth Gravestone, Grasmere, Cumbria

This ‘unobstructed prospect’ took in views of English and Welsh hills, as well as ‘Mona’s Isle’ (the Isle of Man) and then, beyond the Irish Sea to:

‘Yon azure ridge,

Is it a perishable cloud? Or there

Do we behold the line of Erin’s Coast?

Like the bright confines of another world.’

Prior to his visit Wordsworth had read ‘with great pleasure’ - given his interest in social justice, in exploring the lives of ordinary people in contact with nature and his growing interest in Irish politics - the Church of Ireland clergyman Caesar Otway’s recently published ‘Sketches in Ireland’, recognised as a significant account of contemporary life here. 1829 of course, was the year of the Catholic Emancipation Act.

William was now looking forward to seeing and experiencing all ‘things Irish’ for himself. He was accompanied by his friend, the wealthy Leeds linen manufacturer, John Marshall, M.P for Yorkshire and Marshall’s son, James Garth Marshall.

They travelled in Marshall’s ‘coach and four.’

By Thursday 24th September, just over three weeks since landing in Dublin, and travelling through Leinster, Munster and Connaught, the tourists arrived in Ulster, to be more precise, at ‘Inniskilling.’

Obviously very tired by this time, Wordsworth writes:

“You cannot guess how hard I work to see and hear all I can.

“I am never in bed later than half after five and often rise at five - so that I am obliged to go to bed and my eyes do not serve me for much writing by candlelight.”

Next morning, he “rose at five, and dressed in the dark…before six set out and ascended a hill from which I had a view of the town below, which stands upon a ridgy island. It is rather a pleasant situation and the Town neat though almost every other house is thatched.”

That same day he visited Florence Court, home of Lord Enniskillen (John Willoughby Cole, 2nd. Earl Enniskillen), and Castle Coole, home of Somerset Lowry-Corry, 2nd. Earl Belmore.

By this time too Wordsworth was thinking about returning home, but excitedly,

“We have no object before us except the Giant’s Causeway and the promontory of Fair Head. To-morrow we coast the western side of Lough Erne to Ballyshannon and thence to Donegal, Strabane, Londonderry and after that to the Causeway and Fairhead - when our Tour as to objects of Nature will be finished.”

The travellers reached Donegal on Friday, September 25 and, next day, ‘London Derry’ finding it ‘one of the pleasantest Irish towns I have seen.’ Next morning ‘…we walked around the Ramparts then set off for the Giant’s Causeway, eager to see Dunluce Castle and Fair Head: in couple of days, as far as sights go, I will consider our Tour to be over’.

Describing the Giant’s Causeway as ‘an amazing sight,’ he travelled south round the shores of ‘the vast Lough Neagh,’ thence through Antrim, Lurgan, Banbridge, Lisburn and Belfast, where he stayed overnight.

Next morning he travelled on to Donaghadee, where his tour ended.

From Donaghadee he sailed across to Portpatrick, arriving home on Sunday, October 11.

What he saw at Fairhead clearly impinged upon his poetic mind.

The sole image from his entire Irish tour which found its way into his vast body of poetry is that in The Power of Sound, Sonnet XIII, of a pair of eagles soaring majestically high off the cliffs of Fair Head Promontory, ‘wheeling and soaring above our heads and then darted off as if to hold themselves in a blaze of sky made by the setting sun.’

The poem begins:

“Thus functions are ethereal,

As if within the duet a glancing mind

Organ of vision! And a spirit aerial

Informs the call of Hearing, dark and blind;

…Thou too be heard, lone eagle! freed

From snowy peak and cloud, attune

Thy hungry barking to the hymn of joy.”

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