Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Mary Augusta Ward
Emily Lawless (18451913)
[Born in Ireland in 1845, the daughter of the third Lord Cloncurry. Much of her youth was passed in Ireland, in the country by the sea, where she developed to the full her remarkable powers of observation, whether of the animal and insect world or of human character. She wrote various scientific papers, and in 1886 published her first novel, Hurrish, which was followed by five or six others, by A Garden Diary (1901), and by a volume of poems, With the Wild Geese (1902). Her last years were spent in England: she died October 21, 1913.]
IT was as a delightful novelist that Emily Lawless first became known to the world. In the two studies of peasant life in Western Ireland, Hurrish and Grania, she embodied her own close and tender knowledge of the Clare and Galway countryits landscape, its people, its laughter, its tragedies, and all its wild natural life; while in the two historical novels or quasi-novels of Maelcho and With Essex in Ireland, she brought imagination, and a passionate sympathy, to bear on the historical wrongs and miseries of the land she loved. She belonged to one of the Anglo-Irish families, who represent in that tormented country the only fusion so far attained there between the English and Irish tempers. Her grandfather was imprisoned in the Tower in 1798 for complicity with the United Irish conspiracy, but the ex-rebel ended his days as an English peer, the husband of a Scottish wife, and an enlightened landowner in Kildare, devoted to the interests of his tenantry and estates. Down to the last generation the family was Catholic, and kinsmen of Emily Lawless had fought valiantly for Catholic emancipation and hotly opposed the Union. A Lawlessprobably of her bloodbecame a member of the latest Irish Legion fighting for France, on his escape from Ireland after the collapse of the rebellion of 98. In spite, therefore, of her many English friends and connexions, Emily Lawless was by nature and feeling a patriotic Irishwoman, with a full share of Irish humour and Irish poetry. Her childhood and youth were passed in a free open-air life, now among the woods and fields of Mid Ireland, now by the sea. She became a considerable naturalist, a great reader, and a dreamer whose dreams took shape, at first in her novels, and then in her few poems. If Mr. Yeatss verse is steeped in the mists and the magic of Ireland, if Moira ONeill in The Glens of Antrim reflects the Irish simplicitywhich is neither sentimental nor insipid, but touched, always, at the heart of it, with irony and pityEmily Lawlesss best poems strike a sombre and powerful note, stirred in her, it would seem, by the grandeur of the Atlantic coast she knew so well, and by long brooding over the history of Ireland. There is passion in itpassion, one might almost think, of vicarious painworking in one who felt in herself the blood of both peoples, of the oppressor and the oppressed.
The Wild Geese1 was the name given by the romantic and sorrowful imagination of the Irish to those exiled sons of Ireland who, after Limerick and the Boyne, migrated in their thousands over seas, and fought against England in half the armies of the Continent. They avenged Limerick at Fontenoy, and were stillunder Napoleonfighting out the issues of 1689, when the nineteenth century dawned. The cry of Ireland to these cast-out sons of hers is finely given in After Aughrim (the battle fought after the taking of Athlone in 1691); and the yearning of the Irish fugitives for their lost country breathes in the beautiful twin-poems Before the Battle and After the Battlethe first expressing the hunger of the Irishman for battle, for revenge, and the native land he will never see again; and the second, a vision of the triumphant dead coming home at last to the stony hills of Clare.
But the noblest poem of them all is the Dirge of the Munster Forest. The forests of Ireland had sheltered the Irish forces of the Desmonds in the ghastly war of 1581; and in the devastation that followed on their defeat, the forests were not forgotten by the victors. They had given shelter to the rebels, and like them they were ruthlessly slain. The invitation of the Forest to her own funeral feast is vividly and masterly felt. There are some Elizabethan echoes in it, as befits its supposed date. But as a whole, it has the true inevitable ring; it could not have been said otherwise; and it ought to keep eternally green the memory of a brave and gifted woman. She died in 1913, after a long and wearing illness, in which, almost to the end, scarcely any of her friends guessed what she had suffered, so high was her Irish courage, and so indomitable her Irish wit and her warm Irish heart.