The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

IX. Anglo-Irish Literature

§ 20. Sir Samuel Ferguson

Samuel, afterwards Sir Samuel, Ferguson, came into notice as a poet by the appearance of his Forging of the Anchor contributed to Blackwood when he was but twenty-one, in May, 1832; a little later, The Return of Claneboy, a prose romance which also appeared in Maga, may be regarded, to quote himself, as “the first indication of my ambition to raise the native elements of Irish history to a dignified level.” “This ambition,” he adds, “I think may be taken as the key to almost all the literary work of my subsequent life.” But, while casting about for nobler themes to work upon than were to be found in Irish bardic and peasant poems, finely rendered by him into English verse in the pages of The Dublin University Magazine, he wrote his elegy Thomas Davis, 1845, a poignant expression of his grief at the death of the famous young nationalist leader. This poem was not included in his published works, and appeared for the first time in Sir Samuel Ferguson in the Ireland of his day, a biography of her husband, by lady Ferguson, born Mary Guinness, who had previously written an interesting Story of Ireland before the English Conquest, finely illustrated by passages from Sir Samuel’s heroic poems.

The elegy on Davis certainly shows Ferguson at his highest as a lyric poet, and is rightly described by Gavan Duffy as “the most Celtic in structure and spirit, of all the poetical tributes to the lost leader.” Ferguson was held back from his higher literary work by the exigencies of the Irish potato famine and expressed his feelings at its mismanagement in verse full of bitter invective; but he lived to turn his fine satiric gift against the successors of the Young Ireland poets and patriots, with whom he had sympathised, when he found them descending to what he characterised as “a sordid social war of classes carried on by the vilest methods.” In his satiric poems At the Polo Ground, he analyses, in Browning’s manner, Carey’s frame of mind before giving the fatal signal to the assassins of Burke and lord Frederick Cavendish; and, in his Dublin eclogue In Carey’s Footsteps, and in The Curse of the Joyces, he unsparingly exposes the cruelties of the Boycotting system. In 1864 appeared Lays of the Western Gael, containing a series of Irish ballads full of much finer work than he had yet achieved. Of these, The Tain Quest is, perhaps, the noblest effort; but the magnificently savage lay The Welshmen of Tirawley is the most striking. In 1872 appeared Congal, a splendid story of the last heroic stand by Celtic paganism against the Irish champions of the Cross, in which the terrible shapes of Celtic superstition, “the Giant Walker” and “the Washer of the Ford,” loom monstrously before us, and in which the contending hosts at Moyra are marshalled with fine realism. But Ferguson’s genius was to break into even finer flower at the last, and, in Deirdre and Conary, published in his final volume of 1880, he reaches his fullest height as a poet.

Ferguson’s tendency to act, at times, as a commentator on his own work and to present it at other times in a too ponderously Latinised form, as well as the careless, not to say bluff, disregard for verbal delicacies into which, now and then, he lapses, are the only habits to which exception can be taken in his technique. For his method is uniformly manly, and his occasional periods of inspiration sweep minor critical objections before them, as the blast from his Mananan’s mantle swept the chieftain and his hound into the valley, like leaves before the wind.