Staffordshire Worthies (Frederick Wm. Hackwood, 1911)
Dictionary of National Biography (Thomas Bayne, 1912)
Chambers’ Encyclopædia (1925)
Staffordshire Poets (Leonard Galletley, 1927)
Edinburgh Evening News (George W. Cooper, 1932)
The King’s England: Staffordshire (1937)
The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction (John Sutherland, 1988)
Staffordshire Worthies by Frederick Wm. Hackwood (“Chronicle” Press, Stafford, 1911.)
(Staffordshire Worthies contains 32 chapters on the famous sons and daughters of the county, ranging from Izaak Walton to Jerome K. Jerome. The book is a reprint of a series of articles for the Staffordshire Chronicle, which originally appeared from May to December 1910.)
A Stormy Petrel of Letters.
Robert Williams Buchanan, poet, novelist, critic, and playwright, was born at Caverswall, Staffordshire, 18th August, 1841, the son of Robert Buchanan, a poor journeyman tailor of Ayrshire, himself a poet and an author.
The life of the elder Buchanan was unconventional, and makes very interesting reading. Attracted by the teaching of the iconoclastic Robert Owen, he became a Socialist lecturer, and one of that reformer’s most valued missionaries. He made a romantic marriage with Margaret Williams, the daughter of “Lawyer Williams” (as he was known throughout the Staffordshire Midlands), of Stoke-upon-Trent.
The Buchanans eventually got to Glasgow, where the disciple of Robert Owen became a prosperous newspaper proprietor; and his son, the idol of his mother’s heart, received a good education.
The boy was sent to Glasgow High School and afterwards to the University, where his closest friend was David Gray, one of Scotland’s little known minor poets. When young Robert was about nineteen his father’s business suddenly came to grief, and the son had to look about him for some means of earning his own livelihood. He unhesitatingly resolved, having already published one or two little poems, to try the thorny paths of literature.
In 1860, much against the advice of his family, Buchanan and his friend Gray set out for London; but gloom and poverty dogged the steps of the two would-be poets, and recognition came all too late for the latter, who passed away of consumption with the closing hours of the year 1861.
The struggle, though brief, had been a severe one; and the friendship of Gray and Buchanan during this period of their early manhood is one of the most beautiful and touching episodes in the history of modern literature. In later life, Gray’s place in Buchanan’s affection was taken by the Hon. Roden Noel, poet and critic.
With all the leading lights of the Victorian age of letters, Robert Buchanan soon became well acquainted, if not always happily known. His entrance into the Bohemian life of London was made through the introduction of Dr. Westland Marston, the dramatic poet, in whose house at Primrose Hill he met stage celebrities like Hermann Vezin and Adelaide Neilson, H. G. Wills, the playwright, and Dinah Muloch, the authoress of “John Halifax, Gentleman.” The last-named, some years his senior, carried him off to her cottage on Hampstead Heath, instilled into his mind the idea that he would become a great man, and in encouragement of the aspiration, placed her small library at his disposal.
Fame and fortune, however, were slow to find the young aspirant. About this time he struck up an acquaintance with Charles Gibbon, with whom he shared the tenancy of a poverty-stricken garret, where the two industriously produced a number of magazine articles which usually found acceptance, if they did not bring much grist to the mill. One day, tired of the awful struggle for bread, Buchanan announced his determination to win instant and certain immortality by killing a publisher. He produced a stout cudgel, and before starting out for the office of Mr. John Maxwell, who then owned “Temple Bar” and the “St. James’s Magazine,” thus addressed his companion in wretchedness— “I am going to see Maxwell—I will see him, and if be is offensive as usual, I will beat out what brains the ruffian possesses, and offer him up as a sacrifice to the Muses.”
Buchanan is said to have meant this seriously; but as it happened, Mr. Maxwell received the young author affably, bought his manuscript, and handed him his little cheque.
Soon after this incident Maxwell gave Buchanan the editorship of one of his publications, “The Welcome Guest;” here he made the acquaintance of the popular novelist, Miss Braddon, who subsequently became the wife of Maxwell.
Though his acquaintances were many, his friends were but few. The one he took closest to his heart was Thomas Love Peacock, the friend of Shelley, to be near whom he took lodgings at Chertsey. Here the monotony of life was occasionally varied by a little boating, in company with Peacock, and the latter’s special pet, Clara Leigh Hunt, a bright- eyed girl of fifteen. Under this genial influence Buchanan wrote many of his pseudo-classic poems, which were afterwards collected in his first volume of “Undertones,” the publication of which secured for him at one bound the coveted name of poet.
It is interesting at the present moment to notice that one of Buchanan’s early works, “The Book of Orm,” published in 1870, has recently been adapted by Dr. F. H. Cowen to form the libretto of his new composition for the Cardiff musical festival. The poem is the outcome of the state of mind expressed in the lines:
A hunger for the wherefore of my being;
A wonder from what regions I had fallen;
I gladdened to the glad things of the world:
Yet crying always: Wherefore and oh wherefore?
What am I? Wherefore doth the world seem happy?
The poet takes the name “Orm” as signifying the human race, and the poem is animated by the belief in a personal immortality that filled Buchanan at that time; and it carries out his ideas that an eternal happiness hereafter should reward man for the sufferings he undergoes in this world. In the eerie style usual to him, it tells of the fate of him who denies and resists God; but who, cast into the outside gloom, can be won to grace again by the love of the woman who bore him and of the woman who bore his children. Thus the “Book of Orm” ends with the spirit of human love more fully vindicated than anything else, and the many other great questions left unsolved.
Dr. Cowen’s work on the subject is entitled “The Veil,” and is undoubtedly that composer’s masterpiece. It achieved an unqualified success on its production (1910), and would no doubt have delighted Buchanan’s heart could he have lived to hear it.
To resume. Struggling on doggedly through the strident sixties, each succeeding year extended the circle of the young aspirant’s acquaintance, which already included Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Edmund Yates.
Whether Robert Buchanan had made a study of “the gentle art of making enemies” or not, his reminiscences give several striking illustrations of the super-sensitiveness of the artistic temperament, and, the frequency of literary quarrels.
He tells of Thackeray having Yates expelled from the Garrick Club for the contemptibly trivial offence of making allusion, in his journalistic gossip, to his (Thackeray’s) unshapely nose. He relates with contemptuous amusement how George Eliot posed almost as a goddess, to whom her husband, George Henry Lewes, acted as showman, and whom no one was allowed to approach except with reverence, fear, and bated breath. He quotes Leigh Hunt as his authority for the assertion that even the great Browning was greedy of praise.
In the story of literary animosities, nothing perhaps exceeds the bitterness of Buchanan’s own experience. One of his articles contributed to the Contemporary Review of October, 1871, under the pseudonym of “Thomas Maitland,” on “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” earned an unhappy notoriety. The writer was severely taken to task for his bitter, if merited, attack on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Swinburne, and the rest of the “school” The attack was undoubtedly violent; yet it may not have been entirely without justification. It appears that some little time before it was penned, Swinburne had gone out of his way to print, in a note to one of his prose essays, an insulting allusion to David Gray, the friend of Buchanan’s boyhood. The rage and indignation which boiled up in Buchanan’s loyal heart may be imagined. After showing the spiteful note to Lord Houghton, who had been a friend and helper of poor David Gray, he vowed his vengeance; and “The Fleshly School of Poetry” was the result. “It was a torrent of invective which for destructive power has no equal in the whole range of English literature.” Its effectiveness was as deadly as it was immediate. Before that trenchant blow the coterie collapsed like a house of cards; but from that day forth its members never forgave Robert Buchanan, and did everything in their power to prevent him from making a literary name.
That he suffered from wilful misconstruction and deliberate persecution more than most men is certain; but, on the other hand, Buchanan knew that he could wield the literary bludgeon more effectively than any of his contemporaries, and he sometimes took a fierce pleasure in displaying his prowess. Toward the close of his stormy career, for instance, he made a savage onslaught upon Mr. Rudyard Kipling, in whose defence Sir Walter Besant took up a more generous pen.
It is gratifying, after all, to know that no ill-natured attempt at repression could keep Buchanan out of his rightful inheritance; he attained to the very foremost rank in the kingdom of letters.
Between 1863 and 1900 he poured out volumes of verse, though he declared that he could never do anything unless he “felt the afflatus.” Physically he was not so robust as he appeared to be; he suffered from a weak chest, to which often was added the distracting pain of neuralgia.
It was not till be had passed his fortieth birthday that he obtained any real success on the stage. The state of his health precluded his making himself thoroughly familiar with stage-craft. His first play was “The Witchfinder”; then his “Madcap Prince” was produced in 1876, at the Haymarket Theatre, by J. B. Buckstone. At last “Stormbeaten,” a dramatised version of his novel, “God and the Man,” brought him an adequate money reward. But it was the production of “Sophia” at the Vaudeville Theatre which was the real beginning of his dramatic success. Other happy theatrical experiences were afterwards associated with his “Joseph’s Sweetheart,” and “A Man’s Shadow.”
For four years he collaborated with Mr. George R. Sims in the production of such melodramatic plays as the “The English Rose” and “The Trumpet Call.”
With all this hard work and prolific output, Robert Buchanan never became one penny the richer. He was always given to reckless speculation; but it was the signal failure of a play, entitled “A Society Butterfly,” written for Mrs. Langtry, which precipitated his bankruptcy.
In 1869 he had, in imitation of Charles Dickens, given public readings; but though they were successful the strain upon his constitution was too great, and the first great breakdown in his health occurred. From this severe attack he was nursed slowly back to strength again by his brave and beautiful young wife; and his genius was recognised by Mr. W. E. Gladstone, through whose efforts he was granted a pension of £100 a year, which he received to the day of his death.
His plays and novels subsequently brought him a large income, and he might have become a wealthy man had he been careful. But he was of luxurious habits; he was foolishly given to speculation; and he was ever most generous in extending a helping hand to his poorer brethren of the pen. The result was inevitable, especially as his wife was equally thriftless—she was a sister of Miss Harriett Jay, who afterwards wrote his biography. And, as she puts it, “they just muddled through life.”
In 1899 Robert Buchanan exhibited marked symptoms of heart disease, and in the October of the following year he was struck down by paralysis. For eight weary months he lingered on, in considerable suffering, finally passing away on June 10th, 1901. The poet’s last cry was the beautiful one of an expectant hope—
Forget me not, but come, O King,
And find me softly slumbering
In dark and troubled dreams of Thee.
Then, with one waft of Thy bright wing,
Dictionary of National Biography (Second Supplement Vol. 1, 1912 - pp.245-248)
BUCHANAN, ROBERT WILLIAMS (1841–1901), poet and novelist, born at Caverswall, Staffordshire, on 18 August 1841, was only surviving child of Robert Buchanan (1813–1886) by his wife Margaret Williams (d. 1894), daughter of a socialistic lawyer of Stoke-upon-Trent. The father, originally a tailor of Ayr, was at the time of his son’s birth an itinerant lecturer in support of Robert Owen’s socialist scheme, and soon took to journalism in London. Buchanan went early to schools at Hampton Wick and Merton. At home he saw and heard his father’s socialist friends, who included Louis Blanc, Caussidière, and the Chartist champion of co-operation, Lloyd Jones [q.v.]. His father, on principle, denied him all religious training and inculcated hostility to religion.
About 1850 the family went to Glasgow, where the father for several years owned and edited the ‘Sentinel,’ the ‘Glasgow Times,’ and the ‘Penny Post,’ journals expounding his socialistic views. After attending a preparatory school, Buchanan went successively to a Rothesay boarding-school, to Glasgow Academy, and to Glasgow high school. In 1857–8 he completed his education by joining the junior classes of Greek and Latin at Glasgow University. An ardent devotee of the theatre, he revelled as a boy in Vandenhoff’s presentation of King Lear, and made the acquaintance of various actors, among them the youthful Henry Irving, ‘a quiet, studious young man.’ A fellow-student at the university, David Gray [q.v.], became a close friend, and together they read Anderson’s ‘British Poets.’
Owing to his father’s financial embarrassments, Buchanan went to London in 1860, being presently followed by Gray, who died next year. Their experiences of hardship and Gray’s brief career are vividly delineated by Buchanan in ‘David Gray and other Essays’ (1868). In 1863 William Black [q.v. Suppl. I], the novelist, who was an early Glasgow friend, stayed in Buchanan’s lodgings in Camden Town on first coming to London (WEMYSS REID, William Black, pp. 38–41). Buchanan had already made some contributions to Glasgow newspapers. In London he obtained employment on the ‘Athenæum’ and other periodicals, and formed many literary acquaintances. Dickens accepted some contributions to ‘All the Year Round,’ and gave him helpful introductions to Edmund Yates and others. He sought the acquaintance of T. L. Peacock, G. H. Lewes—who gave him practical advice—George Eliot, Browning, and other prominent writers. Under Peacock’s influence he produced what he calls his ‘pseudo-classic poems,’ ‘Undertones’ (1863) (MISS JAY’S Robert Buchanan, p. 103; VAN DOREN, Life of Peacock, 1911, pp. 164–5). After a weary and exacting struggle his work gradually won recognition. At length, in 1865, he published ‘Idyls and Legends of Inverburn,’ which strongly appealed to Alexander Strahan the publisher and Roden Noel [q.v.], thenceforth two valued friends. His ‘London Poems’ (1866) established his reputation as a graphic writer of narrative poetry whose sympathies with humble life were deep.
With improved prospects, Buchanan settled near Oban, 1866–74, living as a country gentleman and writing steadily, both verse, chiefly narrative, and prose sketches and criticisms. ‘Ballad Stories of the Affections’ (translated from Danish) appeared in 1866, ‘North Coast and other Poems’ in 1867, ‘The Book of Orm,’ a mystical study, in 1870, ‘Napoleon Fallen,’ a lyrical drama (2 edits.) and ‘The Drama of Kings’ in 1871, ‘St. Abe and his Seven Wives,’ a tale in verse of Salt Lake City (anonymously), in 1872, and ‘White Rose and Red,’ a love story in verse, in 1873. Vivacious ballads like ‘The Starling’ (in ‘London Poems’), ‘Phil Blood's Leap,’ and the ‘Wedding of Shon McLean’ (in ‘Ballads of Life, Love, and Humour,’ 1882) powerfully impressed the general reader. The ‘Wedding’ originally appeared in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (July 1874). In prose his best efforts of this period were ‘The Land of Lorne,’ vivid sketches of a yachting tour to the Hebrides (1871), and critical essays on contemporary authors collected from magazines entitled ‘Master Spirits’ (1874). The poet soon outran his income, and in order to retrieve his position he gave at the rooms in Hanover Square, London, in 1869, two readings from his works; but the physical strain prevented him from continuing them. In 1870 Gladstone granted him a civil list pension of 100l.
In the ‘Spectator’ on 15 Sept. 1866 Buchanan had published under the pseudonym ‘Caliban’ a poem called ‘The Session of the Poets,’ in which he wrote insolently of Swinburne, and satirically of other leading poets of the day. In a pamphlet on Swinburne’s ‘Poems and Ballads’ (1867), W. M. Rossetti retorted by calling Buchanan ‘a poor but pretentious poetaster.’ Reviewing Matthew Arnold’s ‘New Poems’ (1867) Swinburne attacked David Gray’s ‘poor little book’ in a merciless foot-note (Essays and Studies, p. 153). Buchanan now retaliated with vehemence. In October 1871 Buchanan, under the pseudonym of Thomas Maitland, contributed to the ‘Contemporary Review’ an article entitled ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry,’ severely handling the Pre-Raphaelites and especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti. A bitter controversy followed (ROSSETTI’S Family Letters, ii. 249). Rossetti protested in the ‘Athenæum’ against ‘The Stealthy School of Criticism’ (16 Dec. 1871), while Swinburne, with biting causticity, denounced Buchanan in ‘Under the Microscope’ (1872). Having revised and amplified his attack, Buchanan in 1872 issued it as a pamphlet with his name and the title ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry and other Phenomena of the Day.’ The warfare was long continued. Swinburne, under the mocking signature of ‘Thomas Maitland St. Kilda,’ renewed his attack on Buchanan in a letter entitled ‘The Devil’s Due,’ published in the ‘Examiner’ on 28 Dec. 1875. Buchanan brought an action for libel against the proprietor of the newspaper, Peter Taylor, and after three days’ trial (29 June–1 July 1876) won 150l. damages. Subsequently Buchanan acknowledged the extravagance of his assault, and sought to make reparation by dedicating to his ‘old enemy,’ i.e. Rossetti, his novel ‘God and the Man’ (1881). He wrote in the ‘Academy’ on 1 July 1882, ‘Mr. Rossetti, I freely admit now, never was a Fleshly Poet at all,’ and he eulogised Rossetti’s work in ‘A Look round Literature’ (1887).
Leaving Oban in 1874, Buchanan in search of health settled at Rossport, co. Mayo. A collection of his poems in three volumes appeared that year, and although it was censured for its irregularities, improved his position. ‘Balder the Beautiful,’ an ambitious but heavy poem, followed in 1877, and was received with indifference. Meanwhile, Buchanan turned to prose fiction. In 1876 came out his first novel, ‘The Shadow of the Sword’ (new edit. 1902), which proved thoroughly readable, and was the forerunner of a long series, two of which, ‘A Child of Nature’ (1881) and ‘Father Anthony’ (not issued till 1898), were coloured by his Irish experience. Wearying of Irish life after 1877, Buchanan presently settled in London, which thenceforth remained his headquarters. His literary activity was now at its height. His most powerful novel, ‘God and the Man,’ a vivid study of a family feud, appeared in 1881, and hardly a year passed till near his death without the issue of a new book of fiction from his pen. He did not abandon poetry, but published less. For the opening of the Glasgow International Exhibition in May 1888 he composed a patriotic ode, which was set to music by Sir Alexander Mackenzie. ‘The City of Dream,’ an epic poem (1888), the chief poem of his latter years, illustrates his mystical vein and love of mythology.
While a boy at Glasgow Buchanan wrote a fairly successful pantomime, and comparatively early in his literary career he thought of writing for the stage. After some preliminary trials he wrote and produced successfully at the Connaught Theatre, London, in 1880 a drama called ‘A Nine Days’ Queen.’ From that time till 1897 he was independently or conjointly responsible for a long series of plays, which showed theatrical skill and won the public ear. He also engaged in theatrical management from time to time. He dramatised his two novels, ‘The Shadow of the Sword’ (1881) and ‘God and the Man’ (with the title ‘Stormbeaten’) (1883), the latter venture proving profitable. In 1883 he became lessee of the Globe Theatre for the purpose of producing ‘Lady Clare,’ his version of Georges Ohnet’s ‘Le Maître de Forges.’ He secured a run of over a hundred nights. In 1884 he visited America, and there staged in Philadelphia the melodrama ‘Alone in London,’ a composite work by himself and his sister-in-law, Harriett Jay, which was triumphantly produced at the Olympic Theatre in London in 1885. Two plays, ‘Sophia’ (1886) and ‘Joseph’s Sweetheart’ (1888), which were produced by Thomas Thorne and his company at the Vaudeville Theatre, were based respectively on Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones’ and ‘Joseph Andrews.’ An adaptation of ‘Roger La Honte,’ entitled ‘A Man’s Shadow,’ was very popular at the Haymarket Theatre, 1889–90, with (Sir) Herbert Beerbohm Tree in the chief character. In co-operation with Mr. G. R. Sims he wrote for the Adelphi, during 1890–3, a series of melodramas, including ‘The English Rose,’ ‘The Trumpet Call,’ ‘The White Rose,’ ‘The Lights of Home,’ and ‘The Black Domino.’ Meanwhile Buchanan’s ‘Clarissa Harlowe’ and ‘Miss Tomboy’ (adapted from Vanbrugh’s ‘Relapse’) both appeared at the Vaudeville in 1890, Winifred Emery being heroine in each. In the same year ‘The Bride of Love,’ a rendering of the story of Cupid and Psyche, was produced at the Adelphi. During the same season Buchanan leased the Lyric Theatre, where he brought out ‘Sweet Nancy,’ a dramatic version of Miss Rhoda Broughton’s novel ‘Nancy.’ On Dostoievski’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ he based ‘The Sixth Commandment’ (1890). ‘The Charlatan’ (1894) was one of his later successes, with (Sir) Herbert Beerbohm Tree as chief exponent. There followed in 1895 ‘The Strange Adventures of Miss Brown.’ His last dramatic experiment was ‘Two Little Maids from School,’ adapted from ‘Les Demoiselles de St. Cyr’ (1898).
Although his literary and dramatic profits were substantial, Buchanan, who was generous in his gifts to less successful writers, was always improvident, and he lost late in life all his fortune in disastrous speculation. In 1900 he was made bankrupt. An attack of paralysis disabled him late in that year, and he died in poverty at Streatham on 10 June 1901, being buried at Southend-on-Sea, Essex. On 2 Sept. 1861 Buchanan married Mary, daughter of Richard Jay, an engineer. She died without issue after a long illness in Nov. 1882. Just after her death Buchanan wrote a touching dedication to her for the ‘Selected Poems’ (1882). In his latter years he depended largely on the care of his sister-in-law, Miss Harriett Jay, who aided him in his dramatic work both as actress and as collaborator in authorship and management.
Buchanan wrote too much and too variously to achieve the highest results, but his lyric gift was strong, and there was abundant, if often ill-regulated, force in his novels and plays. He was loyal through life to the anti-religious tradition in which he was bred. In criticism his polemical spirit distorted his judgment, and his combative temperament precluded his making many friends. But with a few men, including Charles Reade, Roden Noel, and Mr. William Canton, his good relations were uninterrupted, and his work found a warm admirer in Mr. Lecky.
Besides the poetical work already mentioned he published: 1. ‘Ballads of Life, Love, and Humour,’ 1882. 2. ‘The Earthquake,’ 1885. 3. ‘The Outcast,’ 1891. 4. ‘Buchanan’s Poems for the People,’ 1892. 5. ‘The Wandering Jew,’ 1893. 6. ‘Red and White Heather’ (a miscellany), 1894. 7. ‘The Devil's Case,’ 1896 (bitter but virile). 8. ‘The Ballad of Mary the Mother,’ 1897. 9. ‘The New Rome,’ 1900. The author published a collected edition of his ‘Poems’ (3 vols.) 1874, and a selection in 1882. His ‘Poetical Works’ appeared in 1884 and 1901. His prose work included, beside the volumes already mentioned, two characteristic miscellanies, ‘A Look round Literature’ (1887), and ‘The Coming Terror and other Essays’ (1891); and the following novels: 1. ‘The Martyrdom of Madeline’; 2. ‘Love Me for Ever’; and 3. ‘Annan Water,’ 1883. 4. ‘Foxglove Manor,’ and 5. ‘The New Abelard,’ 1884. 6. ‘The Master of the Mine’; 7. ‘Matt,’ and 8. ‘Stormy Waters,’ 1885. 9. ‘That Winter Night,’ 1886. 10. ‘The Heir of Linne,’ 1887. 11. ‘The Moment After,’ 1890. 12. ‘Come Live with Me and be My Love,’ 1891. 13. ‘Woman and the Man,’ 1893. 14. ‘Lady Kilpatrick’ and 15. ‘The Charlatan,’ 1895. 16. ‘Diana’s Hunting.’ 17. ‘Marriage by Capture’; and 18. ‘Effie Hetherington,’ 1896. 19. ‘The Rev. Annabel Lee,’ 1898. 20. ‘Andromeda,’ 1900.
[Harriett Jay’s Robert Buchanan: Some Account of his Life, 1903; A. S. Walker’s Robert Buchanan, 1901; Miles’s Poets and Poetry of the Nineteenth Century, vol. vi.; Stedman’s Victorian Poets; Grant Wilson’s Poets and Poetry of Scotland; Chambers’s Cyclopædia of Eng. Lit.; Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Family Letters and Memoir, by W. M. Rossetti; Lives of Rossetti, by Joseph Knight (Great Writers) and A. C. Benson (English Men of Letters); W. Bell Scott’s Autobiographical Notes, ii. 161 seq.; The Times, Scotsman, Glasgow Herald, 11 June 1901; Athenæum, 15 June 1901; information from Miss Harriett Jay and Dr. A. H. Millar, Dundee; Stage Cyclopædia, 1909.] T. B.
‘T. B.’ is Thomas Bayne.
The entry for Buchanan in the current edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (by J. P. Phelan) follows the 1912 account fairly closely, but corrects the dates for Buchanan Snr. (1813-1866), expands on the ‘Fleshly School’ paragraph with information taken from Cassidy, and mentions Buchanan’s support for Whitman. The list of Buchanan’s works is deleted and this version ends with the following assessment of Buchanan:
“Buchanan’s voluminous literary output was little read after the nineteenth century. His chief claim to the modern reader’s interest appears increasingly to reside in his critical and journalistic work. The ‘fleshly’ controversy is a central but in many ways misleading episode in his life. It appears, at first sight, to cast him as a stereotypical Victorian prude disgusted by the ‘loose’ morals of Swinburne, Rossetti, and their followers, but other elements of his work indicate a continuing allegiance to the radical socialist heritage of his parents. He was, for instance, outspoken in his condemnation of British imperialism during the last decade of his life; and one of his last articles was an attack on Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Barrack- Room Ballads’ entitled ‘The voice of the hooligan’ (Contemporary Review, Dec 1899). ]
Chambers’ Encyclopædia (Vol. 2, 1925)
BUCHANAN, ROBERT: ‘the poet of revolt’ was the son of a Glasgow socialist and journalist, but was born at Caverswall, near Longton, in Staffordshire, on the 18th August 1841. He was educated at Glasgow University, where his closest friend was the short-lived David Gray (q.v.). In 1860 the two set out for London to set the Thames on fire; but gloom and poverty hung over their steps. Buchanan’s first work, Undertones, a volume of verse, published in 1863, was well received. The Idylls and Legends of Inverburn followed in 1865, and next year London Poems, the latter his first distinct success, and indeed a rare combination of lyrical vigour and insight into humble life, lightened up with humour and sweetened with pathos. Later volumes of verse are a translation of Danish ballads and Wayside Posies (1866); North Coast Poems (1867); Napoleon Fallen: a Lyrical Drama (1871); The Drama of Kings (1871); Ballads of Love, Life, and Humour (1882); and The City of Dream (1888). His article under the pseudonym of ‘Thomas Maitland’ on ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry’, in the Contemporary Review for October 1871, earned an unhappy notoriety. Rossetti answered the attack on himself in a famous letter to the Athenaeum; Mr Swinburne’s scathing pamphlet, Under the Microscope (1872), followed, and eventually Buchanan withdrew the main part of his charge. Notable among his novels were A Child of Nature (1879), God and the Man (1881), The Martyrdom of Madeline (1882), and Foxglove Manor (1884). He was successful as a dramatist with A Nine Days’ Queen, Lady Clare, Stormbeaten, Sophia (an adaptation of Tom Jones}, and Alone in London, a well known melodrama. His latest poems, The Outcast and The Wandering Jew (1893), attacked Christianity. A collected edition of his poems appeared in 1885. He died 10th June 1901; and his Life by his sister-in-law, Miss Harriet Jay, appeared in 1903.
Staffordshire Poets ed. C.H. Poole & R. Markland (N. Ling & Co., 1928.)
ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN
Robert Williams Buchanan was born at Caverswall, North Staffordshire, on August 18, 1841. His father, Robert Buchanan, was originally a tailor of Ayr, but at his son’s birth was engaged as an itinerant lecturer in support of Robert Owen’s schemes of Co-operation and Socialism.
Robert Buchanan, the poet, was identified with Staffordshire other than by the mere accident of birth, by the fact that his mother, Margaret Williams, was the daughter of a Staffordshire lawyer of Stoke-on-Trent.
Soon after the poet’s birth the father removed to London, where he became a journalist, and at an early age his son was sent to school at Hampton Wick and Merton. When the poet was about nine years old the family settled in Glasgow. In this necessarily short sketch we must pass over the period of boyhood and adolescence, briefly recording the fact that Buchanan early proved himself an apt scholar, an omnivorous reader, and an ardent disciple of the Muses.
At the age of nineteen he crossed his Rubicon. He ventured on a perilous step. In a word, Buchanan engaged himself to win from an indifferent public not merely the fadeless lustre of poetic fame, but the material means of keeping body and soul together. Literary history provides numberless romances of young and ardent hearts setting out to compel a busy and a more-or-less heedless world to recognise the genius which they bring for its spiritual sustenance and refreshing; and of these romances, few are more touching than that in which the names of Robert Buchanan and David Gray are for ever associated.
Two young men, friends, and poets both, migrated from Glasgow to London, with little in their pockets save manuscripts, intent on earning a living by exercising their poetic genius, and, incidentally, winning immortal fame. The struggle was bitter. Poor Gray soon went under, but not before leaving to the world a few beautiful fragments of song and several pathetic sonnets written beneath the shadows of the wing of quick, oncoming Death.
Buchanan lived on, struggling and suffering until fame and competence were won. It may have been this early grim fight against adverse fate, so disastrous to his beloved comrade, so triumphant to himself, which made Buchanan henceforth and for ever a fighter: for in a few years he, almost unknown, so young and inexperienced, was waging a bitter and protracted feud against some of the greatest poets of his day - Swinburne, Rossetti, and Morris, the leading bards of what Buchanan termed “The Fleshly School of Poetry.” For years did this feud continue, culminating at length in a libel action, in which Buchanan was awarded £150 damages. A better understanding eventually took place, and Buchanan dedicated his novel, God and the Man, to Rossetti. It may afford to the cynic an hour’s diversion when fellow-craftsmen fall foul of each other in a riot of invective; but to well-wishers and lovers of that craft, and to all honest workers in its mystery, the spectacle is not only unedifying, but painful.
Not yet sated with wordy warfare, the poet later on in life waged strife against publishers in general, adopting as slogan, “Now Barabbas was a publisher,” and for a time Buchanan became his own publisher.
Let us thank whatever gods there be that in all his immense output of verse we find its sweetness little tainted by any overflowings from the cesspool of embittered controversy. Indeed, if one virtue more than another permeates Buchanan’s poetry, it is his consideration for and love of humanity, especially the sad, the suffering, the outcast. His first book of verse, Undertones, was published in 1864. It was dedicated in a beautiful and pathetic poem to his dead poet-friend, David in Heaven. This volume was followed in 1865 by Idyls and Legends of Inverburn, to be succeeded in the following year by London Poems, a collection differing greatly, as may be guessed by the title, in subject-matter and treatment from his earlier volumes.
In London Poems Buchanan deals mainly with the life of suffering which he found so prodigally strewn around him in the thousand roaring streets of the metropolis, tragedies of suffering chiefly caused by poverty and vice, springing out of a soil often fitly prepared for it by man’s inhumanity to man: or, in the poet’s words -
"I sing of the stain’d outcast at Love’s feet -
Love with his wild eyes on the evening light.
I sing of sad lives trampled down like wheat
Under the heel of Lust, in Love’s despite;
I glean behind those wretched shapes ye see
In the cold harvest-fields of Infamy.”
Here was “no idle singer of an empty day.” Although Buchanan takes us deep down into some of the lowest strata of humanity, giving us a true and vivid picture of sordid and pitiful lives, he fails not to bring to light and life any little virtuous bud that may peep out of the noisome clay of spiritual, moral, and physical corruption. Buchanan’s characters are mainly poor human waifs for whom environment is too rank a soil for the growth of the fine flowers of virtue. They have run to weeds - these poor blossoms that in happier conditions might have been pure lilies or shy violets; yet, despite this, there is at least in these sad human weeds the desire for the cleansing rains of Heaven and its Sun of Righteousness.
In these London Poems we find not only pathos, beauty, dramatic interest, power of graphic description, as in Liz, Nell, The Blind Linnet, but in Tiger Bay we have a conscious and successful attempt to trace the development of the human soul from the first faint glimmerings of conscience in man’s half-brute ancestor. It is a poem illustrative of the working of Evolution. And the soul has not yet reached its final stage of development.
In a brief sketch like this it is impossible even to mention every volume of poetry Buchanan produced. He was a very prolific writer, not only of poetry, but of novels and plays; but here we cannot do more than direct attention to his chief poetic works. His claims as a novelist and playwright do not concern us here.
We must pass over that very fine narrative poem, Meg Blane, and for a moment turn attention to the Coruisken Sonnets of 1870. Written in the gloaming of the year, amid most gloomy surroundings, these sonnets deal with the soul- problem of man which daily rises in him, demanding answer, and to which man has perhaps not yet discovered answers truly satisfying. The great forbidding mountains, cold and impassive, unanswering either to praise or curse, are, in our fretful moods, type of the remoteness of God; but, then, from the very heart of those mountains comes the singing of a happy rill, and a rainbow hangs its radiant colours upon the grey peaks, until the poet is forced to admit that “God is good." Apart from the sublime subjects treated of in these sonnets, the poetry itself often rises to heights of intense
beauty, as in Sonnet xxii -
“Come to green under-glooms - and in your hair
Weave nightshade, foxglove red, and rank wolfsbane,
And slumber and forget Him; if in vain
Ye try to slumber off your sorrow there,
Arise once more and openly repair
To busy haunts where men and women sigh,
And if all things but echo back your care,
Cry out aloud, “ There is no God!” and die.
But if upon a day when all is dark,
Thou, stooping in the public ways, shalt mark
Strange luminous footprints as of feet that shine -
Follow them! follow them! O soul bereaven !
God had a Son - He hath pass’d that way to heaven:
Follow, and look upon the Face Divine!”
The most casual reader of Buchanan cannot help but be struck by the wonderful diversity of his poetry. There are few kinds of verse which he did not attempt; few subjects of human interest which he did not sing; and the marvel is that so seldom did he fall below a high standard.
In the books already noticed he proved himself a dramatic poet and a writer of sonnets dealing with a high spiritual theme. In 1870 followed his Book of Orm, in which he showed the world yet another phase of his poetic genius. Here he was the religious mystic. “This poem" (so James Ashcroft Noble wrote) “is a vindication of that higher optimism which does not content itself with the sanguine and illogical fatalism of the maxim, ‘whatever is, is right,’ but only with an assured faith in a Being whose existence provides a guarantee that the being which is, and which is at the same time recognised as evil, must be doomed to ultimate destruction.”
Beginning with the weaving of the “Veil of Blue” by God to hide Himself from the earth and her children, in poems revealing rare imagery and power, the poet deals with what we may call the spiritual history of the human race from the Creation to the day following the Judgment, when even the Man Accurst, the only soul shut out from Heaven, so terribly- vile he was, was redeemed through Love, and finally admitted to the society of the Blessed. The Book of Orm consists of a series of poems all linked together in logical sequence, whose purpose it is “to vindicate the ways of God to man.” The very titles of certain sections are immediately arresting, and suggestive of a content and a treatment that are nothing if not original - as “Songs of Corruption,” “The Dream of the World Without Death,” “ The Devil’s Mystics.” But these titles are not always suggestive of the content of the poems.. For example, one section entitled “Roses” opens -
“Sad and sweet and wise
Here a child reposes ;
Dust is on his eyes,
Quietly he lies -
Satan, strew Roses !"
In “The Dream of the World Without Death,” whose subject is treated with originality, high imagination, and considerable descriptive power, we are shown a world from which “ The Master on His Throne ... beckoneth back the angel men name Death.” But the world grew terrified when Death (Corruption) no longer moved among the ranks of mortals, for a great horror took its place: Folk vanished out of the world unseen by their friends.
“One struck a brother fiercely, and he fell,
And faded in a darkness ; and that other
Tore his hair, and was afraid, and could not perish:
One struck his aged mother on the mouth,
And she vanished with. a grey grief from his hearthstone.”
If space permitted, “that wild and wonderful” conception, “The Vision of the Man Accurst,” would find a place here.
In all of Buchanan’s poems which deal with matters of highest import - the mysteries of Life, Death and Sin, Doubt, Belief, Eternity - we are led by a careful and natural process from the intangibilities and the discordant elements of a chaos to a universe whose parts are symphoniously attuned to one concordant whole. The poet employs no poetic licence, no supernatural legerdemain, in order to translate, without effort on its part, suffering humanity to some abode of bliss and blessed repose; but we watch it being guided, step by step, through pain and suffering, like spent pilgrims through a desert, until the oasis is reached where springs the well of perfect knowledge and understanding, and where the vultures of Sin and Doubt and Death prey not.
Another long poem possessing a spiritual significance is Balder the Beautiful, a Song of Divine Death. In taking the Balder myth as a subject for an ambitious poem, Buchanan showed his habitual courage; for Matthew Arnold and Sydney Dobell had gone to the same source for poems which brought them fame. Here, life is a dream and death the awakening, as we see in the “Proem,” hence the subtle significance of such lyrical lines as these -
“O what is this cry in our burning ears,
And what is this light on our eyes, dear love?
The cry is the cry of the rolling years,
As they break on the sun-rock, far above;
And the light is the light of that rock of gold
As it burneth bright in a starry sea,
And the cry is clearer a hundredfold,
And the light more bright, when I gaze on thee.
My weak eyes dazzle beneath that gleam,
My sad ears deafen to hear that cry:
I was born in a dream, and 1 dwell in a dream,
And I go in a dream to die!”
One of Buchanan’s best-known long poems is Saint Abe and His Seven Wives, a tale of Salt Lake City. Still another long poem, White Rose and Red, tells a pathetic story, the scene of which is, again, laid in America - a country the poet visited. When we consider these two poems, and add to them others of, perhaps, equal merit, we are on secure ground in saying that, among his contemporaries, few, if any, could be found to tell a tale in verse so cleverly as Buchanan. No review of Buchanan’s poetry, however brief, could be deemed satisfactory which did not make some reference to his consummate art of ballad writing - one of the most difficult kinds of poetry to write in these days, when life is no longer lived close to Nature. In days when the old ballads were begotten, men lived simply, and saw with wondering eyes a thousand marvellous things now unnoted, since Science has explained them away. And so, unless the modern poet can capture much of the simplicity, the atmosphere, the colour, the psychology of those dead ages, his ballads will be of little merit. Buchanan’s finest ballads, too long for inclusion here, are The Lights of Leith, and The Ballad of Judas Iscariot. Of these splendid and powerful poems, one may venture to say that the greatest poet, not only of the Victorian but of any age, might have legitimately been proud to lay claim to their authorship.
As Buchanan’s work belonged to almost every genre of poetry, as he sought his material close at hand and afar off, so did he sweep the whole compass of human interests and emotions. He could describe, equally well, the eerie as the natural; the passionate as the tender; the pathetic as the delightfully humorous. To catch the spirit of the weird read The Dead Mother, with its opening lines—
“As I lay asleep, as I lay asleep,
Under the grass as I lay so deep,
As I lay asleep in my cotton serk,
Under the shade of Our Lady’s kirk,
I wakened up in the dead of night,
I wakened up in my death-serk white,
And I heard a cry from far away,
And I knew the voice of my daughter May.”
And then, for humour in its finest flavour, turn to The Wake of Tim O'Hara or The Wedding of Shon Maclean, with its unforgettable swing:—
“To the wedding of Shon Maclean,
Twenty Pipers together
Came in the wind and the rain
Playing across the heather;
Backward their ribbons flew,
Blast upon blast they blew,
Each clad in tartan new,
Bonnet and blackcock feather:
And every Piper was fou
Twenty Pipers together!”
Dowered with those fine gifts that go to the making of poetry, if not great, yet surely of a distinguished order, it is little less than amazing that Robert Buchanan, as a poet, is almost unknown to the intelligent man in the street, and, it must be confessed, little known to the average lover and reader of poetry. This is all the more strange, as Buchanan the playwright produced dramas which filled theatres night after night, winning him fame, and presumably no inconsiderable monetary returns - yet, attacked by paralysis, he died in poverty at Streatham on June 10, 1901. Again, though Buchanan the novelist wrote many novels, one or two bearing the stamp of rare talent, if hardly genius, nevertheless he was indubitably a poet before all things, and it is by his poetry that he will surely live. So little does the verse seem to be called for, that to-day it is possible to enter provincial libraries on whose shelves lie all Buchanan’s novels, but whose shelves and catalogues are alike innocent of any reference to his poems.
This unpopularity is all the more surprising when we reflect that much of his poetry is of that genre which generally appeals to those readers who, caring little about “pure” poetry, are ready and willing to be interested in verse which tells a tale with dramatic effect; and this, as has been said, is one of the great characteristics of his genius. Some of his best stories are to be sought for - not in his novels; some of his finest dramatic studies are to be discovered - not in his plays; but in his verse. But Time, the great and unerring assessor, will see to it that—
“All that is beautiful shall abide,
All that is base shall die.”
Edinburgh Evening News (20 August, 1932)
(From ‘Our Week-end Features Page’)
Varied Work of Forgotten Writer
Robert Buchanan was born at Coverswall, Staffordshire, on 18th August 1841, and died 10th June 1901. Few authors have written so much, or in such varied forms, for he was poet, dramatist, adapter for the stage, essayist, nature-writer, and novelist; and in some of his work, both poetry and prose, reached a very high level. Yet to-day he is almost completely forgotten; if any of his verse is remembered it will probably be the grim and tragic “Ballad of Judas Iscariot,” which opens:
“’Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
Lay in the Field of Blood;
’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Beside the body stood.”
The very titles of his plays have gone into utter oblivion, and only two of his novels have held their place with the reading public: “The Shadow of the Sword,” 1876, which first appeared in the “Gentleman’s Magazine,” and “God and the Man,” 1881. Both are stories of great power and realism, and yet how many of our younger generation to-day could claim to have read them!
A Bitter Controversy
Such a record must give us pause: must a life’s industry in verse, fiction, and drama pass away in a few years like the journalism of a day? It seems now, in our crowded age, when books are published in ever-increasing numbers, as if nothing has any hope of survival but work of the very first-class, something which has about it the inspiration of genius.
If Buchanan’s name is remembered at all, it is usually on account of his fierce attack on Swinburne, Rossetti, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in an article, entitled, “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” in the “Contemporary Review” for October 1871. This was signed Thomas Maitland, but the identity of the writer was soon discovered, and a bitter controversy ensued. Years later Buchanan admitted his attack on Rossetti was unfair, and dedicated one of his books to the poet.
Story of his Friend
Buchanan’s early poetic efforts were well received, and his “Undertones” (1863), “London Poems” (1877) and “Ballads of Life, Love, and Humour” have many passages of real beauty expressed with true lyrical power, and the Ballads are both humorous and true to life. One of his most interesting books is “David Gray and Other Essays, Chiefly on Poetry,” published in 1868. Here he tells the tragic story of the young poet, his friend who, at the same time as Buchanan, adventured to London, but before long fell victim to consumption, and eventually passed away at his home, Merkland, Kirkintilloch, in his 24th year. The day before he died, his eyes were gladdened by seeing a specimen page of his book, “The Luggie and Other Poems.”
Death in Poverty
The essay on his friend is written with great tenderness and affection and gives us, perhaps, the best insight into Buchanan’s true character. He received a Civil List pension of £100 from Mr Gladstone in 1870, and, when he began to write for the stage, made large sums of money by his successful dramas. Yet Buchanan, generous in helping others, and extravagant in his way of living, was always in money difficulties. Speculation did not help him, and at last he became bankrupt, and died in poverty shortly after.
Buchanan had fine descriptive powers, and his prose volumes—“The Land of Lorne” (1871) and “A Poet’s Sketch Book” (1883)—deserve to be reprinted. His life was written by his sister-in-law, Harriet Jay, but it seems a pity that we have no permanent record of his best work in handy form. A volume of selections in verse and prose, with an appreciative and critical introduction, would be well worth publishing. Such work as Buchanan’s—vivid, graceful, humorous, and powerful—should not be forgotten within 31 years of his death. He was ever a fighter, but had a touch, at least, of genius, and proved himself generous, warm-hearted, and loyal in friendship.
George W. Cooper
The King’s England: Staffordshire ed. Arthur Mee (Hodder and Stoughton, 1937 - 5th edition 1951, pp.61-62)
(The following is included in the chapter on the village of Caverswall.)
The Bitter Life of Robert Buchanan
ROBERT BUCHANAN, born here in 1841, was one of the vigorous spirits of last century. His father, also named Robert Buchanan, was a newspaper writer who had started life as a tailor at Ayr, and he took his son back to Scotland, where he was educated at Glasgow University. At 19 Robert came to London with his friend David Gray, a weaver poet who lived just long enough to see of his poems set up in type. Poverty oppressed them both. Robert became a journalist, writing for the Athenaeum and for All the Year Round, edited by Charles Dickens. He thus made many illustrious friends, keeping some all his life, but losing more by his fiery independence of character, which at times became perversity.
He established himself as a poet with his Undertones, followed by a volume of London Poems, revealing a deep and tender sympathy with the unhappy and unfortunate. In these, as in all his best poems (notably a beautiful love story, White Rose and Red), he showed fine narrative power, and a rare mastery of melody.
The perversity of his nature showed itself in a satirical poem, signed Caliban, in which he attacked Swinburne and other poets, who replied with vigour. He then wrote a famous article on The Fleshly School of Poetry, in which he hotly assailed the Pre-Raphaelites. Rossetti answered this with The Stealthy School of Criticism, and a long battle of words followed, ending in a libellous letter by Swinburne for which Buchanan recovered £150 damages. Five years later, however, he admitted that his criticisms had been exaggerated and he dedicated his novel God and the Man to Rossetti, "the old enemy.”
He wrote a great deal of poetry, some of it with deep feeling and power; in a lighter vein he wrote of Love, sweeter than hearing or seeing, sadder than sorrow or death:
The love that comes to the palace,
That comes to the cottage door:
The ever-abundant chalice
Brimming for rich and poor.
In 1876 he began his career as a novelist, producing year by year work of power and imagination. He had worked in the grip of a bitter personal tragedy, his beautiful wife dying after a long and painful illness. She had shared with him from the age of 20 all the hardships as well as the successes of his life. Her sister Harriett Jay was an actress, and with her help Buchanan now turned his novels into plays and wrote many other dramas which met with success both here and in America. In spite of boundless generosity to friends less fortunate than himself, he seemed on the way to fortune, when suddenly he lost all his savings in an unlucky investment and was made bankrupt. In the same year he was attacked by paralysis and a few months later, in 1901, he died at Streatham, a poor man after all his labours.
The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction by John Sutherland (Longman, 1988)
BUCHANAN, Robert [Williams] (1841-1901). Best remembered as a poet, and most successful in his lifetime as a playwright, Buchanan was born at Caverswall in Staffordshire but educated at Glasgow High School and University. His father, also Robert Buchanan, was a Scottish tailor who later became a note socialist journalist and disciple of Robert Owen. The family lived an unsettled life and in his youth Buchanan, the only surviving child, was steeped in politics. In 1859, his father having been ruined by newspaper speculation, young Robert went to London, to pursue a literary career and was taken on the staff of the Athenaeum by Hepworth Dixon, who admired the young man’s verse. Buchanan has been called, ‘probably the most quarrelsome author of his day’ and was aggressively reactionary and hostile to what he took to be ‘decadence’. He soon earned notoriety (and a libel action) with his attack in the Contemporary Review on the Pre-Raphaelites and their ‘Fleshly School of Poetry’ (October, 1871). Buchanan made a lot of money from his writing (particularly his wordy plays) and from public readings of his poetry which he later lost by imprudent speculation. In 1874 he turned to fiction with the conscious intention of writing bestsellers (‘with his left hand’, as one of his biographers puts it). His first novel, The Shadow Of The Sword (1876), has as its hero a Breton conscientious objector in the Napoleonic Wars. It has a powerful final chapter, describing the tormented sleeping hours of the exiled emperor. His finest work is usually judged to be God And The Man (1881), a study in the futile psychology of hatred with a terrific action climax in the polar wastelands. The Martyrdom of Madeline (1882) follows the fortunes of a resouceful heroine after she is betrayed in love by her French music master. Foxglove Manor (1884) has a ritualist clergyman who seduces and abandons a young girl, and goes on to various acts of Romish apostasy. The Master Of The Mine (1885) has a Cornish mining setting. The Heir Of Linne (1888) is a conventional inheritance melodrama with an 1840s Scottish setting. Effie Hetherington (1896) is a story of ill-assorted marriage and justified desertion with some similarity to Hardy’s Jude The Obscure. Some of Buchanan’s poems (e.g. “The Ballad Of Judas Iscariot”) survive in modern anthologies of verse. He had no children (his wife whom he married in 1861 died prematurely of cancer in 1882) and was declared bankrupt in 1900, a year before dying miserably of a stroke.
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