The Critical Response - George Barnett Smith
From Poets and Novelists; a series of literary studies by George Barnett Smith
(Smith, Elder, & Co., London, 1875.)
(Originally published in The Contemporary Review (November, 1873 - Vol. XXII, pp. 873-902.)
THAT the present age is unfavourable to the production of the highest and most permanent forms of poetry, is an observation which has now become almost trite; yet it may be doubted whether, in making it, we have ever grasped its full weight and significance. What is the nature, and what the extent, of the opposition offered by an age of progress to the development of the dramatic and epic genius? In the first place, rapid general progress means that we exist in an essentially middle-class era, which is detrimental to any thought that goes deeper than the slight intellectual operations necessary to procure material success; and in the second place, progress means restless activity, and an utter inability to secure that calm essential to the conception and completion of works destined to survive the lapse of centuries. Such are the positions generally assumed, we believe, in this matter, and on the first blush they appear to have very plausible support. Yet upon careful consideration they must be pronounced untenable. The imperiousness 310 of genius will set both at defiance, for in this respect of times and seasons genius knows no law. It is like the wind of Heaven; ‘it bloweth where it listeth,’ and neither man nor circumstance can arrest its advancement to ripeness and perfectibility. The facts of history, also, are against the propositions we are combating. The times signalised by the greatest achievements in arts and commerce have been those in which we have beheld the great luminaries of thought, stretching away down from the flourishing of the oldest poets to the Elizabethan age. What century in the world’s history was not a century of progress? and why should we, because the progress differs in degree and somewhat in kind, arrive at the hasty conclusion that the decay of genius is in accord with the ratio of progress? Further, observe to what this idea commits us. It implies, so far as England is concerned, that the days of her intellectual supremacy are over. The shopkeeper has come and the poet must depart. And what is our prospect for the future? For it must be remembered that we are but regarded as on the threshold of progress; and if the present period is so unfavourable to the exercise of the poetic faculty in its sublimest forms, what can we look for in the next, and the next? We cannot believe it impossible that even now that repose could be attained which should leave the Seer 311 calm and unmoved amidst the thunder and the roar of contemporary life.
Whether or not the nineteenth century has produced a poet of the very first rank may be an open question, to be judged differently by different minds; but there can be no doubt that they are wrong who disparage it in comparison with the two preceding centuries. Given the brilliant Pope, the stately Dryden, and the gentle Cowper, the eighteenth century is still far behind our own, which has produced its Wordsworth, its Byron, and its Shelley, not to mention our principal living poets. Neither can Milton, solitary in his grandeur, weigh down this latter list of names, and bear off the palm from us in favour of the seventeenth century. Alone, he is far greater than any of them—Wordsworth most nearly approaching his altitude perhaps—but he shone in the firmament ‘a lonely star.’ We have to go back still another century to come to that age which not only eclipses the present but every other in the world’s annals for the splendour of its imaginative literature.
The mode of criticism in vogue tends to discourage rather than assist the higher development of the poetic faculty. And in this, to a great extent, criticism but follows the thought of the age, which is sharp and shallow, not broad and deep. That which cannot be 312 grasped by the nineteenth-century intellect without many throes of labour, is to be thrown on one side as unsuitable, and missing the tendencies of the time. Literature must be a relaxation, not a study; the palate must be tickled, not the whole body made strong. We are in the transition period. We have had our Shakspeare, and do not want another; what readers desiderate now is mosaic-work which shall attract attention and admiration by its finish. We do not know, but we should imagine that even the Poet-Laureate must have at times felt depressed by the inattentiveness, and almost positive dislike, of the age to what is loftiest in his vocation. Insensibly, too, all our authors gradually bow to the influences of the period, which prove too strong for their individual feelings and convictions in matters of art in poetry. It is with the hope of recalling the attention of our best writers to the fact that if we proceed in the same degree of decline which the past thirty years have witnessed, our poetic literature will have been emasculated, that we have ventured to offer these somewhat general, but we believe necessary, observations. Mr. Matthew Arnold asks, in one of his poems—
‘What shelter to grow ripe is ours?
What leisure to grow wise?’
313 And then, further on in the same poem, he declares that—
‘Too fast we live, too much are tried,
Too harass’d to attain
Wordsworth’s sweet calm, or Goethe’s wide
And luminous view to gain.’
This is another reiteration of the idea we are desiring to demolish. It is, in reality, a fallacy. If ever there was an age when the opportunity was given to write epic poems this is the one. Since the time that the last great epic was penned there have been some half-dozen events, or series of events, in civilised Europe, which afford scope for the most inspired Seer who could arise. These events must naturally suggest themselves to any person who indulges the most cursory thought as to the rapid growths and tremendous convulsions which have occurred in continental empires. And independently of this, there is one period of English history alone—the period of the sublime Milton—which seems to us to contain within it the sources of dramatic and epic poetry such as can scarcely be found in any other cycle of this kingdom’s existence. Napoleon Buonaparte, again—the great Napoleon—will undoubtedly at some time or other, perhaps two centuries hence, attract the first genius of the time, who will be enthralled by the 314 immensity of his theme in this respect, that it as clearly marks off the age of the man by his own absorbing and disastrous eminence as does the life of any other unit of humanity such past age as may have been overshadowed by the splendour of his name. There are considerations which always prevent an immediately contemporary topic from being made available for epic or dramatic poetry. But why need this disconcert our living poets, who can find so many other subjects, not quite contemporary, which are more suitable for their pens ? Criticism would not be altogether in vain if it could rouse the race of our professed Seers from their lethargy. An opportunity is within their grasp such as seldom falls to the lot of genius. Partly with a view to estimate the work which has already been accomplished by one of our English poets, and partly to indicate what he is capable of attaining, we have selected for some comments the collective works of one of the youngest of our present-day singers.
Robert Buchanan has himself given us a sketch of his own life, and has supplemented that by a paper on what he calls ‘My own Tentatives,’ which is in reality one of that most interesting class of articles which poets can give us—viz., a view of the inner life—inadequate, it may be, but still a recital of the moving springs of 315 their endeavours and ambitions. Mr. Buchanan is egotistical; but till we can find a poet who is not, there is no necessity to be severe upon him for that. Egotism is not a crime; neither is it a blunder till it becomes offensive in its manifestation, and it certainly cannot be said to be so in the present case. The poet is one of the few men whom we can bear to hear speak of themselves: so much of the success of his work depends upon the thermometer of his own feeling. The eagerness which every person displays to learn something of the actual life of our great writers cannot be founded altogether in a morbid sensationalism. What would we give, for instance, for the details relative to the personnel of Homer and Shakspeare, if written by themselves? And the same feeling, chastened only in degree, we cherish towards all whose works have enlightened and elevated mankind. It is the tribute which ordinary humanity pays to genius—to that quality which stands between them and the Almighty, elucidating the mysteries of the latter, and gathering up for presentation to the Unseen the woes and the hopes of man. We are disposed, then, always to forgive the poet any tendency he may exhibit towards a personal garrulity, assured that the offence will be a thousand times condoned by the riches he has to communicate. It is not proposed to 316 make further reference to Mr. Buchanan’s life (as concurrently related in his charming sketch of poor David Gray) than is absolutely necessary for the exposition of his manner in his earlier poems. But undoubtedly, we imagine, his life had a considerable influence in moulding the character of his works. When Gray was but a boy, it appears that he made the acquaintance of Robert Buchanan at Glasgow, and that the two spent some years in dreaming and thinking together. At a very early period Gray seems to have contracted a morbidly exaggerated opinion of himself, affirming that the dream of his life would not be realised unless his fame were ultimately to equal that of Wordsworth; and he had even dared to set up as models, which he had some hope of rivalling, two still greater men—Shakspeare and Goethe. The danger which attended these floating ideas, if they should assume the substantial form of disease, was quickly perceived by Mr. Buchanan. But he was helpless. Another was to solve the difficulty, and the interposition of Death averted the great trial which would have resulted when Gray awoke from his brilliant dreams, to find his gorgeous castle dismantled. Early in 1860 the two young men were brought face to face with a necessity which, according to the temper and grit of a man, either makes him the slave or the master of the world. Poets being 317 amenable to the ordinary laws of nature, they discovered that to live they must work. One day Gray said to his companion, ‘Bob, I’m off to London.’ ‘Have you funds?’ asked Buchanan. ‘Enough for one, not enough for two,’ was the response. ‘If you can get the money anyhow, we’ll go together.’ The journey was arranged, but owing to a mistake they travelled separately, though they arrived in London about the same time. Now began the bitterness of existence. The sensitive Scotchman Gray found that in the hurry of London life there were none who turned aside to regard him as a great Seer, or even as one who promised to become such. Accordingly, though he received many individual kindnesses from one or two friends, we find him writing, ‘What brought me here? God knows, for I don’t. Alone in such a place is a horrible thing. People don’t seem to understand me. Westminster Abbey; I was there all day yesterday. If I live I shall be buried there—so help me God!’ The strife went on—bitter indeed, as only those can testify whose experience has been of a similar character. The forecasting of the future, which ought to have preceded their advent, now became an absolute necessity when it seemed of little use. There were, of course, many positions open, but nobody willing to induct them into possession, and after severe vicissitudes we find one 318 of them becoming a supernumerary at a theatre. It is impossible to follow the melancholy story in all its details; suffice it to state, that, after numberless trials and buffetings, the disease of consumption, which had been latent in Gray, rapidly developed itself, and he was carried off in his twenty-fourth year. After his decease, one of the most beautiful epitaphs ever written was found amongst his papers, penned by himself in view of his dissolution. Mr. Buchanan appears to have cherished for his friend one of those attachments which are an honour to human nature, and which cannot fail to have effect in the growth of character. In verse which deserves to live (viz., in the poem ‘To David in Heaven’), the survivor of these two friends endeavoured to set forth the virtues of the dead, and at the same time to embalm him with the spices of remembrance and affection. The rest of Mr. Buchanan’s life as regards his work is sufficiently known to the public. He early gained its ear, and has steadily maintained himself in its favour, ripening, as poets should do, with personal experience and observation of the world.
One result of strenuous labour and of material deprivation is to deepen the pathos of life. And when the individual is a poet the experience is doubly valuable to him. A poet without pathos—either natural or acquired 319 —seems to us one who will utterly fail in reaching the highest ends of his being. It was anguish which sublimated the genius of Dante and led to what is grandest in his divine compositions. His was an example of what we should call acquired pathos—that is, the pathos begotten in the spirit through suffering. An example of natural pathos is to be found in Wordsworth, whose life was singularly free from the ordinary sadnesses of humanity, but who yet possessed, as it has been so beautifully expressed, and he might have claimed for himself—
‘Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.’
Take the choicest spirits in our poetic record, the most mirthful, unembarrassed, and careless of their species, and there will be found running through all their natures this subtle yet sweet chord of sadness, which makes them so tender to the race, and sympathetic withal. The poet is commissioned to feel for humanity, and without pathos he would surely have no more to communicate than other men. It is his real voice, and that which makes him the sweet singer of creation.
Many years have now elapsed since Mr. George Henry Lewes—no mean judge in these and cognate matters— affirmed that Mr. Buchanan was a genuine poet. At the time, those who guarded the gates of 320 literature were divided in opinion, though by far the greater bulk of the critics— and that the most competent portion of them— welcomed the new-comer as a true singer, one who had something new to communicate. In looking to the volume which evoked the varied opinions now, ‘Idylls and Legends of Inverburn,’ one is struck with this thought—the courage of the man who should dare to challenge the world on subjects which in themselves appeared to possess but few of the elements of poetry, and whose treatment in the hands of most must certainly result in disastrous failure! But the fact alone that the author was so successful in investing the simplest themes with an interest which could not be gainsaid appeared to us, and does now after the lapse of many years, an undoubted proof of genius. There was not placed before the critics a volume of verse on heroic or old-world subjects—subjects which of themselves are instinct with the poetic feeling— treated with all the glow and fancy which could be thrown about them. The facts were simple in the extreme. A youth whose heart was large—large in the sense of active poetic sympathy—and whose imagination was quick, took from the lives of certain characters which had crossed his path, or with whose inner experience he was somewhat acquainted, incidents which had apparently no 321 special significance whatever for other men, and said to himself that he could draw from thence what should be a delight and profit to the world. And he succeeded, notwithstanding the fact that he worked in a style which had hitherto been unappreciated, and which was remarkable for its simplicity. The world had been accustomed to regard poetry as a trimmed garden, discovering colour, beauty, symmetry—it seemed to have forgotten that it might also be a forest, or an irregular hill-side, with naked rocks and the majesty of trees. These Idylls have little in them to recommend them to those who regard poetry simply as the art of turning melodious periods; but they possess the higher qualities of imagination and the music of natural emotion. Above all, they exhibit the first requirement in a poet— viz., insight, that faculty which is the initial point in his isolation from the rest of the species. The poems are not great in themselves, but they undoubtedly exhibit those qualities which, rightly fostered, develop into greatness. The thing which was of most importance to the writer to secure he was successful in accomplishing; he caused the reader to reflect, after the reading of the poems, upon the gifts which had been exhibited in their production. Let us look for a moment at one or two of these Idylls. Take the story of Willie Baird, narrated by the schoolmaster of Inverburn. Told 322 in the simplest of blank verse, there is yet a grip about it which enrols its author at once amongst the players on the harp of the human heart. The old man tells of the influence of little Willie upon his spirit, chastening and refining it. He imagines that he has seen the face somewhere before in the beauteous life of the north; and then he says as the result—
‘Alone at nights,
I read my Bible more and Euclid less.
For, mind you, like my betters, I had been
Half-scoffer, half-believer; on the whole,
I thought the life beyond a useless dream
Best left alone.'
Then the boy’s philosophy came on, and one day he puzzled the old schoolmaster by asking, as he clasped his white hands round the neck of the collie Donald, ‘Do doggies gang to Heaven?’ a question to be repeated indefinitely without answer. It is interesting to note the gradual return of the old man to a well-grounded faith, engendered so beautifully, and almost consummated by the death of Willie. The language in which the history is unfolded is sustained, and abounds in imagery which, if not so lofty as we find in some of Mr. Buchanan’s other works, is true and appropriate. Of a higher stamp, however, is the poem ‘Poet Andrew,’ which depicts the short sad life of young Gray. The story is told by the 323 father of Andrew, a simple-hearted weaver, who does not understand the gift wherewith his son is dowered. The character of the father is drawn with great power and individuality, and the whole poem, shining with the tenderness which springs from a loving heart, is full of the deepest human interest. Andrew’s parents endeavoured to teach him common-sense, and when they were reproached for having a poet in the house, exclaimed, ‘A poet? God forbid!’ somewhat dubious as to the full meaning and import of their terrible possession. But at length they discovered Andrew’s printed poems, with
‘Words pottle-bellied, meaningless, and strange,
That strutted up and down the printed page,
Like Bailies, made to bluster and look big’—
a graphic description of what was doubtless a source of terror to the old man, who had never been guilty of such a heinous offence as writing a line in his life. The youth was grumbled at in vain for his tendencies to ruin, and at length he left his home and went up to the great City, where he was followed by a mother’s deep love and a father’s solicitude, in spite of his apparent wrongheadedness. But the dark shadow drew near— the trouble that was deeper than all others. The poet came home to die, and the scene is depicted with a pathos which has rarely 324 been excelled for calm and yet strong simplicity. Thus speaks the broken-hearted father:—
‘One Sabbath day—
The last of winter, for the caller air
Was drawing sweetness from the barks of trees—
When down the lane, I saw to my surprise
A snowdrop blooming underneath a birk,
And gladly plucked the flower to carry home
* * * * *
Into his hand I put the year’s first flower,
And turn’d awa’ to hide my face; and he—
He smiled—and at the smile, I knew not why,
It swam upon us, in a frosty pain,
The end was come at last, at last, and Death
Was creeping ben, his shadow on our hearts.
We gazed on Andrew, call’d him by his name
And touch’d him softly—and he lay awhile,
His een upon the snow, in a dark dream,
Yet neither heard nor saw; but suddenly,
He shook awa’ the vision wi’ a smile,
Raised lustrous een, still smiling, to the sky,
Next upon us, then dropt them to the flower
That trembled in his hand, and murmured low,
Like one that gladly murmurs to himsel’—
“Out of the Snow, the Snowdrop—out of Death
Comes Life;” then closed his eyes and made a moan,
And never spake another word again.’
It will be admitted, we think, by the most exacting, that an exquisiteness and also an emotional fervour dwell 325 about this description which are so precisely suited to the subject as to raise it to a very lofty rank of poetry. It would scarcely be possible to find language and thought more happily wedded than they are here. The ‘Widow Mysie,’ in the same volume, betrays qualities of quite another stamp, exhibiting principally a strange, quaint humour which seems to dimple every page into laughter.
Another poem, in this same volume as originally published, but one since suppressed by Mr. Buchanan on artistic grounds, contained imagery of the choicest description. It was entitled ‘Hugh Sutherland’s Pansies,’ and described the troubled life and pathetic death of the youth who gave name to the poem. It is a pity that the author could not have preserved by some means the final scene, for it exhibited beauty of description of a rare order. The following passage combines both a tenderness and a truth in the imagery which give finish to the poetry, and leave nothing to be desired in the way of idyllic excellence:—
‘By slow degrees he grew
Cheerful and meek as dying man could be,
And as I spoke there came from far-away
The faint sweet melody of Sabbath bells.
And, “Hugh,” I said, “if God the Gardener
Neglected those he rears as you have done
Your pansies and your Pansy, it were ill
For we who blossom in His garden. Night 326
And morning He is busy at His work.
He smiles to give us sunshine, and we live:
He stoops to pluck us softly, and our hearts
Tremble to see the darkness, knowing not
It is the shadow He, in stooping, casts.
He pluckt your Pansy so, and it was well.
But, Hugh, though some be beautiful and grand,
Some sickly, like yourself, and mean, and poor,
He loves them all, the Gardener loves them all!”
Then later, when no longer he could sit
Out on the threshold, and the end was near,
We set a plate of pansies by his bed
To cheer him. “He is coming near,” I said,
“Great is the garden, but the Gardener
Is coming to the corner where you bloom
So sickly!” And he smiled and moaned, “I hear!”
And sank upon his pillow wearily.
His hollow eyes no longer bore the light,
The darkness gather’d round him as I said,
“The Gardener is standing at your side,
His shade is on you and you cannot see:
O Lord, that lovest both the strong and weak,
Pluck him and wear him!” Even as I prayed,
I felt the shadow there and hid my face:
But when I look’d again the flower was pluck’d,
The shadow gone: the sunshine thro’ the blind
Gleam’d faintly, and the widow’d woman wept.’
We are unable to point to a more distinctly poetical idea than the one embodied in the three lines marked in italics, and in truth there is a great suffusion of poetry 327 through the entire passage. The whole volume is not, of course, written with this wealth of imagery and power of delineation. There are many pages here and there which are scarcely, if at all, lifted out of the level of commonplace; but enough has been shown to demonstrate that those critics were right who thought that a new poet had come who had the real ring about him, and whose further fortunes were worthy of being watched with considerable interest.
Before offering some general remarks on the peculiarities or characteristics of Mr. Buchanan’s genius, we will first glance very briefly at the various works which he has written. There was a volume entitled ‘Undertones’ which preceded in publication the one we have just dealt with. With the notable exception of the introductory poem, it deals almost exclusively with classical subjects. While it could not appeal directly to the feelings of so many people as its predecessor, there is stamped upon it the same realistic power. There was quite enough in the volume to cause the lovers of poetry to wonder at the new writer, who lavishly threw about undoubted riches in every poem. One of the best features of the book is its workmanship, which is eminently satisfactory,—in truth, leaving little to be desired. For those who wish to see what could be done by one 328 who was just entering upon a literary career, let them turn to the poem ‘Proteus,’ and note the description of the death of Pan. He dies because of the birth of the infant of Bethlehem. The idea is fine, and finely worked out. The world was again renewed with the presence of Christ, and, as it is well expressed,—
‘Gladden’d by the glory of the child,
Dawn gleam’d from pole to pole.’
Then, the lines which follow are exceedingly striking. In other poems the old-world subject is again and again made to live in modern modes and thought. ‘The Syren’ is full of music, its rhythm being superior to that of any other of its fellows, and the spirit is taken away from its enclosure to the scene which the poet is endeavouring to depict. The gifts of the writer are here put to excellent uses, and he is as successful, imaginatively, as he is in attaining his leading purpose. Of ‘Pygmalion the Sculptor,’ and one or two other efforts, something might be said, but inasmuch as the volume was one of probation chiefly, there is perhaps no necessity to delay here further. What other references should be made to the volume can be made, either directly or inferentially, at another juncture.
The work, however, which left no doubt in the public 329 mind that its author had no ordinary career before him, was ‘London Poems.’ It clearly shows that the poet was possessed of this definite idea—viz., to get free from the flash and glitter which encrusted the writings of other authors, and, in too many cases it is to be feared, blinded their readers to the poverty of thought which lay beneath. Mr. Buchanan’s desire was to understand and interpret humanity. That he was singularly successful in those views of it which he has given us—restricted though they were in scope—there is no possibility of denying. Each poem is impregnated with a local truth that is truly astonishing, and the setting is the only one adapted to the subjects. Had he essayed to tell these stories of the poor in the loftiest style, the probability is we should have lost the depth of effect in the dazzle of outward show. Their strength is proved in the very fact that they affect us so deeply when they are cast in the very simplest mould. The style is, indeed, sometimes bald to simplicity. But altogether it may be conceded that the result has justified the author’s method. It was made a reproach to Mr. Buchanan by one of his own craft that he had chosen such humble subjects; but surely the man or the poet who forgets the poor forgets the paths in which the Godhead most frequently walks! Where can the divinity of endurance be found so nobly developed 330 as in those very beings whose touch is contamination to the curled darlings of society? Instead of contempt, that man is deserving of gratitude who boldly goes into the lowest strata of society, and dares to show to the higher world the streaks of goodness and nobility of character which are to be traced there. Turn to the sister art of painting, and note where the finest pathos is to be met with. Is it in the great historical pieces to which we are sometimes treated, or in the fashionable nonentities who, in various guise, cover the walls of the Royal Academy in such wondrous profusion—or, lastly, is it not rather in such pictures as Faed’s ‘Mitherless Bairn’? Everyone admits at once that what is emotional is strongest in its influence. With some such feeling as this, coupled with the desire to demonstrate that art was not restricted in its treatment, Mr. Buchanan probably produced ‘London Poems.’ One admirable result of his artistic skill is this—that in reading the poems the poet is absent from our thoughts, and we are able to concentrate our attention upon the objects presented to us. The style, as we have before remarked, is such as not to destroy, by superior force, the effect of the work. For real music and the gift of embodying simple ideas in a form which gives pleasure to the soul—the lyric at the same time being infused with the true spirit of humour— 331 ‘The Starling’ deserves high commendation: it is thoroughly novel, clever, and original.
In the same volume we are discussing there are poems which for strength and grasp of passion are most graphic and remarkable, in particular ‘Liz’ and ‘Edward Crowhurst.’ In the first, a wretched, unfortunate girl tells the story of her life to the parson. She is bad and wants to die; fine ladies are missed from the world when they go, but not such beings as she. With terrible truth she assures her visitor that men have the best of the world in many ways, whilst women suffer and are beaten down.
‘If they grow hard, go wrong, from bad to badder,
Why, Parson, dear, they’re happier being blind:
They get no thanks for being good and kind—
The better that they are, they feel the sadder!’
A world of miserable but unimpeachable philosophy lives in these lines, which have been always true in the history of the race. Woman must bear the degradation, while man goes free. A pathetic relation is that where poor Liz tells the parson how she once went into the country hoping to live there, and earn her bread. The air was so clear, ‘it seemed a sin to breathe it,’ and she was glad to leave it and come back to the black streets of London, fittest for such as she.
‘I would not stay out yonder if I could, 332
For one feels dead, and all looks pure and good—
I could not bear a life so bright and still.
All that I want is sleep,
Under the flags and stones, so deep, so deep!
God won’t be hard on one so mean, but He,
Perhaps, will let a tired girl slumber sound
There in the deep cold darkness underground;
And I shall waken up in time, may be,
Better and stronger, not afraid to see
The great, still Light that folds Him round and round.’
Surely such writing as this is better than the thousand meaningless eccentricities and tricks of style which so often pass current as poetry. This is substantial; it has a living power about it which satisfies both the brain and heart. The same remark would apply to other idylls in the volume. ‘Edward Crowhurst’ is a poem bearing a considerable resemblance to the one on David Gray in treatment. It is told in blank verse, and has many masterly touches upon it. ‘Attorney Sneak’ reminds one in its rough humour and form of execution of some of the poems of Browning; whilst ‘Nell’ exhibits a terrible realism rarely equalled amongst modern lyrics. Of polish in the volume there is not enough; what is done is done in a broad, rough manner, as though the artist feared he would lose the effect of his strong manipulation if he devoted himself too much to refinement. Doubtless 333 there is some truth in this. At any rate, for effectiveness only, this batch of poems stands almost by itself amongst Mr. Buchanan’s works.
But the work which showed the deepest insight into the human life around him was that entitled ‘North Coast, and other Poems,’ and in this volume there is one poem which chiefly challenges attention. By ‘Meg Blane,’ our author not only sustained his previous claim to the attention of the public, but deepened his hold as the translator of the tragic elements of modern existence into the common language of humanity. There is a strange mingling of weirdness and reality about the ballad which is both fascinating and appalling. Edgar Allan Poe has given us a thrilling picture of despair in the form of a monologue, and though we are bound to admit that on the score of musical effect the American poet has the advantage, yet there are other points in which the verdict must be decidedly in favour of the English one. In the first place, the elements which compose the poem, while of the plainest kind, are also more really tragic in themselves than those of ‘The Raven’; and in the second place, the story is capable of appealing to a far greater number of persons. Poe has certainly more elaboration, more finish; in fact, it would be impossible for the most fastidious workman to alter his poem with advantage; 334 but in this later effort the narrative (though not the solitary idea, it should be borne in mind ) is more realisable. Meg Blane, the heroine of the story or ballad, is a fisher-woman on the north coast of Scotland. She lives in one of the usual huts by the seashore, and has an idiot son of some twenty years. Meg is a brave creature, and is always ready with the lifeboat on the roughest night to weather the storm, and go to the assistance of a crew in danger of sinking. And yet this woman, who possessed a heroic nobility of spirit, was not what the world would call pure. She was not a wedded wife, but had left the way of the just. However, she had repented sincerely, and was no longer afraid of looking into the eyes of those whom she met. Delicacy and strength, these were her personal characteristics; the former remained with her, because her soul had recovered its uprightness before God; as for her strength and daring, these had been abundantly proved by deeds which would have made many a man turn pale. Yet when alone in the midnight hours the real travail of her soul was manifested. She often awoke naming an unknown name, and became white as death on missing the object of her quest. One of those northern storms, so majestic in their force, is depicted in the first part of the poem, and during its raging, Meg had gripped the helm and gone out to sea. As the 335 result of her grand courage she saved a human life; but now mark the terrible pathos of the story. The life she saved was the one which had wronged her own in years gone by; the being she had yearned for through days and nights of agony was given to her again; but too late! He was no longer hers; deeming her dead his life had been given to another. The stony despair of the shattered woman, her haggard aspect, that feeling of sorrow almost too sublime to be realised by the soul of any other mortal, are here sought to be rendered, in lines instinct with pathos:—
‘With her wild arms around him, he looked stern,
With an unwelcome burden ill at ease,
While her full heart flow’d out in words like these—
“At last! at last! O Angus, let me greet!1
God’s good! I ever hoped that we should meet!
Lang, lang hae I been waiting by the sea,
Waiting and waiting, praying on my knee;
And God said I should look again on you,
And, tho’ I scarce believed, God’s word comes true,
And He hath put an end to my distress!”
* * * * * *
But he was dumb, and with a pallid frown,
Twitching his fingers quick, was looking down.
“What ails thee, Angus?” cried the woman, reading
His face with one sharp look of interceding;
1 To greet; Anglicè, to weep.
Then looking downward too, she paused apart, 336
With blood like water slipping through her heart,
Because she thought, “Alas, if it should be
That Angus cares no more for mine and me,
Since I am old and worn with sharp distress,
And men like pretty looks and daintiness;
And since we parted twenty years have past,
And that is long for a man’s love to last!”
But, agonised with looking at her woe,
And bent to end her hope with one sharp blow,
The troubled man, uplifting hands, spake thus,
In rapid accents, sharp and tremulous:
“Too late, Meg Blane! seven years ago I wed
Another woman, deeming you were dead,—
And I have bairns!” And there he paused for fear.
As when, with ghostly voices in her ear,
While in her soul, as in a little well
The silver moonlight of the Glamour fell,
She had been wont to hark of nights alone,
So she stood now, not stirring, still as stone,
While in her soul, with desolate refrain,
The words “Too late!” rang o’er and o’er again;
Into his face she gazed with ghastly stare;
Then raising her wild arms into the air,
Pinching her face together in sharp fear,
She quivered to the ground without a tear,
And put her face into her hands, and thrust
Her hair between her teeth, and spat it forth like dust.’
Twenty years have passed away since her sin, and the penalty is re-exacted. If the object of tragic poetry be to concentrate the attention of the reader upon its 337 subject, it was never better attained than in the whole division of the poem of which this is an extract, and in the succeeding passages. The portrait of Angus Blane, the fisherwoman’s son, is also drawn in vigorous lines, and the gradual torpor which overcame Meg’s spirit is followed with truthful delineation till the death. In the reaping time she lay a-bed making her own shroud, and this is the refrain she murmured night and day:—
‘“O bairn, when I am dead,
How shall ye keep frae harm?
What hand will gie ye bread?
What fire will keep ye warm?
How shall ye dwell on earth awa’ frae me?”—
“O Mither, dinna dee!”
“O bairn, by night or day,
I hear nae sounds ava,
But voices of winds that blaw,
And the voices of sprites that say,
‘Come awa! come awa!’
The Lord, that made the Wind and made the Sea,
Is sore on my son and me,
And I melt in His breath like snaw.”—
“O Mither, dinna dee!”
“O bairn, it is but closing up the een,
And lying down, never to rise again.
Many a strong man’s sleeping hae I seen,—
There is nae pain!
I’m weary, weary, and I scarce ken why; 338
My summer has gone by,
And sweet were sleep, but for the sake o’ thee.”—
“O Mither, dinna dee!”’
Now the power of this poem, of which we are only able to afford the barest idea, consists in its isolation or individualisation of character in the first instance, and further in the helming into one compact and indivisible whole both the individuals and the circumstances. And this has been achieved with materials which in themselves seemed unpromising. It is for this reason that Mr. Buchanan might almost take his stand on this one poem alone, and challenge the world upon his general capacity as a poet. There breathes through it something of that old vital force which has handed down to us the work of long-past ages. It is such things as this which are able to defy Time in its power to wreck mundane achievements. We wish to speak with no exaggeration; the best criticism is that which is felt to be the most truthful summing-up of the feeling of the greatest number, but in this matter in hand we firmly believe that all who, calmly and without bias, sit down to consider the poem which we have been examining, in its high and noble aspects towards humanity, will arrive at similar conclusions to those which have been expressed. We talk of inspiration in poetry; to us it seems there are two 339 kinds—the inspiration of intuition, and the inspiration of interpretation. A better example of the second form could not be found than in ‘Meg Blane.’ The author does not profess therein to have discovered any new truths; his poem may rather be described as a canvas on which the inner life of his heroine is depicted, and its emotions exposed. The titles of ‘The Ballad of Judas Iscariot’ and ‘The Dead Mother’ can only be indicated, but the reader, on turning to the ballads, will discover that they are full of singular power and weirdness.
Of ‘The Drama of Kings,’ the bulkiest and at the same time the most ambitious of Mr. Buchanan’s works, we cannot, as to construction, speak in terms of such high praise, that is, as an entirety; but there are isolated passages which will vie with anything he has written, and which ought not to be allowed to die. If we can read the genius of its author rightly, it is rather epic than dramatic in character, and a careful perusal of his most elaborate work only tends further to support this view. The poet would be more successful in grasping the import of the lives of the individuals of whom he writes than he would in grasping the intricacies of the characters themselves. For this reason he would be more successful in subduing the individualities to his own grand leading 340 purpose than he would in placing his personages upon the stage and allowing them to work out their own destinies, as is required in the drama. Then, again, whatever may be said to the contrary, in this dramatic work the events which form its basis are of too contemporary a character to be satisfactorily dealt with.1 We do not say this for the purpose of following in the wake of any criticisms which may already have been passed upon it, but it was the honest impression left upon the mind after twice carefully reading the whole work. If Mr. Buchanan has failed, he has only failed where no other living author could have succeeded: even Mr. Browning could not have hoped to have achieved a happy result in this chosen field. Some events might possibly be dealt with by contemporary writers, but the series of circumstances chosen in this drama are not of that character. And for that reason, probably, a proper meed of justice has not been dealt to ‘The Drama of Kings.’ There are parts of it, as already stated, which must not be allowed to fall out of existence: the author has had prescience to discover this, and in future his readers will not be deprived of what is really valuable therein. The subject had a great fascination for Mr. Buchanan,
1 Since the above appeared, Mr. Buchanan himself has admitted the force of this objection.
341 and gave him an excellent opportunity of exhibiting those two qualities which he has always been endeavouring to combine in his writings with more or less success—viz., earthliness and spirituality—those two qualities which find interpretation best perhaps in the formulas—‘I live’ and ‘I love.’ He is perfectly right, too, in his opinion that the man who can see no poetry in his own time must be very unimaginative. Our difference with him would not be on that score. The point is, the form of the reproduction of that poetry for the benefit of his species. It has been said that Mr. Tennyson, of all the poets of his time, is the one who best grapples with the intellectual doubts of the age. Perfectly agreeing with that sentiment, the Poet Laureate is yet by no means uniformly successful in overcoming those doubts. But what is his method? The union of contemporary thought with a form of expression and choice of subject not necessarily contemporary. His Arthurian poems find half their strength in their power to appeal to the intellect and the spirit of a century so remote as the nineteenth. ‘The Drama of Kings’ may be successful in accomplishing its author’s purpose of making people feel the events it describes as he never felt them before, but it does not make them feel in precisely the same way as they ought to feel. The genius exhibited in the volume is great 342 undoubtedly, but we do not know that if Shakspeare himself were alive he could give us portraits of Prince Bismarck and Napoleon which would be perfectly satisfactory from the inner-life point of view. In our judgment, the man does not live at the same time with these men who would be able to do it. We do not believe in the absence of intellectual and spiritual bias to the extent necessary for dramatic purposes. So that it should be well understood that it is not Mr. Buchanan’s poetry which is at fault in this volume. It is his subject, and his method in the treatment of it. He says that the same method is adopted as he used in the characters of ‘Nell’ and ‘Meg Blane.’ Granted: but the result is different. Could Mr. Buchanan have as thoroughly grasped Napoleon and Bismarck as he has those two humble beings just named, he would have possessed one element of success. But we deny that that is possible. Yet, supposing it had been done, there is then the difficulty of his mode of presenting the characters. The indirect, instead of the direct, dramatic mode of representation would have best suited the quality of his genius.
And this remark naturally leads to that volume which we regard as not only the most successful, but the most valuable of all, and indicating the groove in which he ought to work. ‘The Book of Orm,’ partly for what it 343 yields in itself, and more still for the promise which it holds forth, is, in the majority of aspects, the greatest piece of work which Mr. Buchanan has accomplished. It is, as he himself describes it, the spiritual key to all that he has written. When we understand it, we understand what the poet means—what is the task which he has set himself. It is a mystical poem, but with a strictly modern application. To describe it as a study in the Ossianic manner, and to pass it over as a poem with no reference to ourselves, but as the diversion of a man who loves to play at mysticism, seems to us a foolish and preposterous method of treating this volume. The fact indeed is that it unfolds the ripening of a purpose which had been foreshadowed in the very earliest writings of the author. The same idea observable here had run through his earlier poems, and through ‘The Drama of Kings,’ though the mysticism was not so pronounced in those previous works. But he evidently wishes to combine the realism of human life with the insight of the mystic. He believes that there is no contradiction and no incompatibility between the two. And it is a noticeable point, and one which should not be passed over at the present moment, that some of the most realistic of men—for example, Swedenborg—have also been the purest mystics. There is no reason whatever why the 344 mystic should be regarded as a being far removed from ordinary life, and with no part nor lot in the strivings and throes of humanity. His clear eye has been in times past, and may be again to an extent immeasurable, serviceable in glancing into the heart of things and discovering for us the solution of many problems which harass and vex the spirit. It may seem to interfere with preconceived notions that this should be the case; but as this is pre-eminently an age for the reversal of hereditary errors, this need not give us any alarm. The race of the Celts is one of the most mystical of the species; but the glamour of the spirit does not involve the exclusion of sympathy with the actual volitions and passions of the human unit.
‘The Book of Orm’ takes for its motto a sentence from Bacon which well explains the author’s intentions in the construction of his poem. It is from the prayer of the student who begs ‘that Human things may not prejudice such as are Divine, neither that from the unlocking of the Gates of Sense, and the kindling of a greater Natural Light, anything of incredulity or intellectual night may arise in our minds towards Divine Mysteries.’ The book is in nine divisions, and the whole scope of the poem most daring and stupendous. The author has essayed a style of poetry in which previously he had no rival, and 345 notwithstanding small faults of style, he has succeeded. We do not know whether we always catch the poet’s meaning, there is so much of cloud as well as substantiality about his song, but his speculations are grand in the extreme, and the final result is a feeling of awe, the creation of which would satisfy the mystic himself. ‘The First Song of the Veil’ treats of the dark film which envelopes Nature, and prevents man from seeing God’s face behind it. The Wise Men are called and asked if they can penetrate the darkness, but they can discern no more than others. ‘’Twere better not to be,’ they reply, for ‘there is no God!’ Then comes the weird poem introducing ‘The Man and the Shadow,’ the shadow intruding itself wherever the wanderer moves, and presaging doom. The Rainbow appears in the Heavens, but the Vision has no real consolation. He asks—
‘Is it indeed
A Bridge whereon fair spirits come and go?
O Brother, didst thou glide to peace that way?
Silent—all silent—dimmer, dimmer yet,
Hue by hue dying, creeping back to heaven—
O let me too pass by it up to God!
Too late—it fadeth, faint and far away!’
That hope for solution of the great life-problems is lost. The mystery deepens with the ‘Songs of Corruption.’ The poet tries to picture the world without death. 346 Humanity has cried out against Death for six thousand years; but in a sublime picture it is shown that Earth would be worse than the deepest Hell but for the power of Death. In the world without death there was no happy (if bitter) parting, no farewell in hope of reunion.
‘There was no putting tokens under pillows,
There was no dreadful beauty slowly fading—
Fading like moonlight softly into darkness.
There were no churchyard paths to walk on, thinking
How near the well-beloved ones are lying.
There were no sweet green graves to sit and muse on,
Till grief should grow a summer meditation,
The shadow of the passing of an angel,
And sleeping should seem easy, and not cruel.
Nothing but wondrous parting and a blankness.’
So that the abolition of Death could afford no help to the distressed spirit. ‘The Soul and the Dwelling’ is, too, a beautifully wrought division, and enlarges still further on the awful mystery, and the hardihood of man in desiring to see God’s face when he has never looked on the poorest soul’s face in this world full of windows with no light. The theology of many will receive a rude shock when it is brought face to face with the ‘Songs of Seeking.’ The same amount of boldness of thought was never, perhaps, witnessed in a seeker before, and the stanzas on Doom give utterance to a thought which is 347 rapidly becoming prevalent, that God is not God if there be ultimate condemnation for one soul in this wide universe. The dream of the lifting of the Veil is most poetically treated; but of all the divisions in the volume that which is loftiest in thought and grandest in expression is the one entitled ‘Coruiskeen Sonnets.’ Mr. Buchanan, in several of these Coruiskeen poems, has reached a great height. What could be finer, for example, than the following?—
‘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 pass’d that way to heaven;
Follow, and look upon the Face divine!’
Wordsworth himself could scarcely have manipulated the thought better than it is done there. The following, also, is a magnificent sonnet, though there is not the same ease of construction about it that we mark in the previous 348 one: observe, however, in the lines in question, how they touch a large part of the ground occupied by ‘In Memoriam’—the same thoughts must have been coursing through the two minds: the music of Tennyson is more bewitching, but there is a strong under-current of pathos in these finely-measured tones:—
‘But He, the only One of mortal birth
Who raised the Veil and saw the Face behind,
While yet He wandered footsore on the earth,
Beheld His Father’s eyes,—that they were kind;
Here in the dark I grope, confused, purblind,
I have not seen the glory and the peace,
But on the darken’d mirror of the mind
Strange glimmers fall, and shake me till they cease—
Then, wondering, dazzled, on Thy name I call,
And, like a child, reach empty hands and moan,
And broken accents from my wild lips fall,
And I implore Thee in this human tone;—
If such as I can follow Him at all
Into Thy presence, ’tis by love alone.’
The capacity for high conception is best illustrated in the final division of the volume, ‘The Vision of the Man Accurst.’ It is not often that we meet with so much clearness and daring combined. Neither the thought nor the imagination has been trammelled. Mr. Buchanan shows us the world after the Great Judgment, when all have been redeemed save one man— the man accurst. The wretched spirit mocks at the Almighty from the lonely 349 deep. His shrieks, his revilings, his laughter, disturb the harmony of the universe. The Lord asks if there is anyone who will share the exile of this loathsome being, and two respond affirmatively:
‘The woman who bore him and the wife he wed—
The one he slew in anger, the other he stript,
With ravenous claws, of raiment and of food.’
They went forth and conquered; they kissed the fearful thing’s bloody hands, and the man wept. The Lord said, ‘The man is saved; let the man enter in.’ Such is the end of what is indubitably a lofty effort of the imagination. Mr. Buchanan says this poem is but the prelude to an epic. If the epic be at all of the same character, there is no difficulty in deciding that it will assume one of the highest positions in contemporary poetry. All the qualities which are admirable in poetic art find a lodgment to a greater or less degree in ‘The Book of Orm.’ It has simplicity, grandeur; beauty, sublimity; sweetness, pathos. The word-painting—to adopt a phrase for which we have no special liking, but which is very expressive—is wonderful; whilst we witness also a felicitous handling of all kinds of rhythm and rhyme. A surface reading of such a volume as this is a great injustice; it is to be read many times, and never without a new and singular light being thrown upon passages which seemed 350 hazy and meaningless before. There is also to be discerned, beneath much that is tempestuous, and apparently the tossings of a wild and rebellious spirit, the firm purpose of a soul which has not slipped its anchor.
A year or two ago a remarkable poem, entitled ‘St. Abe and his Seven Wives,’ was published anonymously. Although first issued in this country, the reviewers were unanimous in ascribing it to an American poet, part assigning the authorship to Lowell and part to Bret Harte. It was a picture of Salt Lake life, as its title implied, and the local colouring was so strong that any suspicions one might cherish that the author was an Englishman were almost imperatively laid to sleep. Yet portions of the poem were cast in a form which led the reader to associate with it the name of Robert Browning, of whose hand much that had place in it was not unworthy. The humour was of excellent quality, and the sense of delicacy, even with so dangerous a subject, rarely, or indeed never outraged. It is not our intention to go over this poem now, which will be more operative as an exposure of the evils of Mormondom than any more serious or pretentious book; but we refer to it because it has been succeeded by a work from the same hand which betrays, we think, the author beyond the power of contradiction. We refer to ‘White Rose and 351 Red,’ one of the most remarkable poems issued for a considerable period. It has all the gorgeous colour of Titian, with the breadth of Rembrandt. Anonymous though it be, its author might stake his fame upon that poem as lifting him to a very high place amongst his brethren. Though an American story—and all the singular local truthfulness has been attained which distinguished the previous poem—there are signs about the later work which, as already observed, unmistakably fix the authorship. It is a work which would command attention from its total dissimilarity in style to all the poetry of the time. With a development of powers of satire and feeling of no mean order, there is the seizure and portrayal of nineteenth-century life in the most realistic manner. The various metres in which the divisions of the poem are composed add to the general effect and value of the work, whilst art of a high order is exhibited in the construction. The story follows the adventures of two heroines who furnish the title for the book—one belonging to the dusky Indian race, and the other to the New England whites. Red Rose is the type of all that is luxuriantly beautiful and graceful, with a semi-wildness of nature. This is a portrait of her as she rests coiled on her warm forest couch,—
‘Around her brow a circlet of pure gold,
With antique letters scrolled,
Burns in the sun-ray, and with gold also 352
Her wrists and ankles glow;
Around her neck the threaded wild cat’s teeth
Hang white as pearl, beneath
Her bosoms heave, and in the space between,
Duskly tattooed, is seen
A figure small as of a pine-bark brand
Held blazing in a hand.
Her skirt of azure, wrought with braid and thread
In quaint signs yellow and red,
Scarce reaches to her dark and dimpled knee,
Leaving it bare and free.
Below, moccasins red as blood are wound,
With gold and purple bound;—
So that red-footed like the stork she lies,
With softly shrouded eyes,
Whose brightness seems with heavy lustrous dew
To pierce the dark lids through.
Her eyelids closed, her poppied lips apart,
And her quick eager heart
Stirring her warm frame, as a bird unseen
Stirs the warm lilac-sheen,
She slumbers,—and of all beneath the skies
Seemeth the last to rise.’
Is not this a finer description than any pencil could accomplish, touching, as it does, character as well as bodily outlines? Another portrait, equally well drawn, is presented to us in Eureka Hart, the gigantic white man of the State of Maine. Red Rose comes upon him in the woods, falls in love with him on the spot, thinking 353 she never beheld anything more beauteous, and he is taken captive by a number of her tribe. The captivity, however, which binds him stronger than the hold of the tribe is the captivity of love. He is just an easy-going, handsome animal, and becomes hopelessly enchained by the beauty of Red Rose. The nuptial rites are such, we regret to state, as would not make the marriage legitimate in any well-regulated, civilised country, but the two seem none the less happy in spite thereof. The passages which immediately follow this incident betray so much of Mr. Buchanan’s spirit and manner that we wonder his name never suggested itself as the author, to any of the numerous critics of the poem. Eureka Hart at length grew weary of his lot, and in proportion to the evaporation of his passion grew vividly the remembrance of his relatives far away. He persuaded Red Rose ultimately to consent to a brief visit to his native place, just to bid a final farewell to those he loved. He departed, leaving behind him a paper with the writing (in his blood) ‘Eureka Hart, Drowsietown, State of Maine.’ The little paper lies for ever on the woman’s heart to soothe the sad pain of parting. The Sixth Canto of the Second Part bears, we think, almost irresistible evidence of having been written by the author of ‘London Poems,’ allowing that the style has ripened in the interim. Did not space 354 fail we should desire to reproduce some of the charming passages which so truthfully depict Drowsietown, the abode of the Harts. When Eureka arrives and settles down there, it is not without some twinge of conscience with regard to the splendid, impulsive creature he has left behind. But these thoughts become fainter and fainter as he is bewitched by Phœbe, the White Rose, who presents a marked contrast in every particular to his former love. Dainty, mild, and prudish, she is meant to be a happy mother, very sober-mooded and very faithful. The upshot is that Eureka finds himself shortly at the altar with Phœbe, who is united to him in holy matrimony by Parson Pendon. And now begins the really grand and tragical part of the story. We have had spring, summer, and autumn painted by the poets again and again, but winter very seldom. Let anyone who wishes for a perfect description of the season turn to the book devoted to the Great Snow. Never was anything more beautifully and accurately realised, and as we read we are sensible of the fact that there is more after all in the cold, calm, white season than we have hitherto imagined. During the great snowstorm Phœbe is at home wondering what keeps Eureka in the town. Meanwhile, there is a foot on the snow, drawing nearer and nearer. A low murmur is at last heard, and something 355 taps at the window. The door is opened, and in staggers a woman—the Red Rose—with an infant at her breast. She has been wearied with the absence of her lover, and affection has guided her steps right away from the haunts of her tribe to Drowsietown. Phœbe finds the paper bearing her husband’s name upon the wanderer, but in the midst of her conflicting emotions the door opens, and Eureka Hart walks in. The poem from this point is full of force and pathos. The loving heart of Phœbe conquers her anger when she beholds the death-touch upon Red Rose, and in pitying she forgives. Her rival dies in the arms of the conscience-stricken Eureka, still regarding him as her godlike chief. This is the final glimpse of her:—
‘See! her hand points upward slowly,
With an awful grace and holy,
And her eyes are saying clearly,
“Master, lord, beloved so dearly,
We shall meet, with souls grown fonder,
In God’s happy prairies yonder;
Where no snow falls; where, for ever,
Flows the shining Milky River,
On whose banks, divinely glowing,
Shapes like ours are coming, going,
In the happy star-dew moving,
Silent, smiling, loved, and loving!
Fare thee well, till then, my Master!”
Hark, her breath comes fainter, faster,
While, in love man cannot measure, 356
Kissing her white warrior’s hand,
She sinks, with one great smile of pleasure—
Last flash upon the blackening brand!’
Now, although in an artistic sense some would consider this poem to fail because of its ending, we cannot so regard it. The author has obviously meant to exhibit to us the fragmentary character, and utterly disappointing nature, of human life. To say that he does not manifest art because his work closes with a feeling of melancholy, seems to us most inefficient criticism. The work ends tragically, exactly as the author had intended it should end from the first inception of the story; though of course the most prominent impression left on the mind is that the poem was conceived mostly for the purpose of developing the passion of the Red Rose. The very realism to which the poet is devoted would be defeated had he attempted to reconcile ideas and facts which are seen to be in positive discord. If the poem be inartistic, certainly one half of our pathetic literature—both in prose and verse—must bear it company. But its genius is too true to permit of such a false conclusion. The poem is great—great in truthfulness, in conception, and in elaboration. The matter, however, in which we are most concerned is, that though its authorship has not 357 been acknowledged, there are traces of workmanship about it which point to Mr. Buchanan as its author. It exhibits, in the first place, an amplification of one of his strongest personal canons in poetry—that the writer should be perfectly disinterested, and free himself completely from faulty systems of ethics which are too often accepted without due consideration. Then, again, several of the situations in the poem, which would have been rejected by other living poets, of sufficient standing capable of writing it, as vulgar, have been deliberately chosen, and successfully handled. In short, as Mr. Buchanan desired it to be distinctly understood by his ‘London Poems’ and ‘Meg Blane,’ we have conventionalities set aside, and the human heart inverted, with all its passions, so that the remainder of the world, as well as the poet, might be able to witness its subtle workings. Between Nell and Red Rose we perceive a great amount of approximation. In both we have an out-of-the-way creation, but from him who gave us the first it would not be difficult to predicate the gift of the latter. Character has been preserved in both cases, and the truth spiritualised in precisely the same mode. There is no more vulgarity in one portrait than in the other. Neither does the poet profess to explain everything: enough for him to dare to be true. The personal chord running through 358 this poem, ‘White Rose and Red,’ we should have considered sufficient to identify it. Besides Tennyson and Browning, there is no other person except Mr. Buchanan whose work we could consider it to be, and there are insuperable aspects which would immediately forbid us associating the authorship with the Poet Laureate, or the writer of ‘Pippa Passes.’ We shall at some future day probably receive confirmation of the views just expressed from the (at present) unknown author of the work.1
Upon the prose works of Mr. Buchanan there is no room left to enlarge, nor perhaps is there any great necessity for doing so. They exhibit to a large extent the same qualities as his labours in verse. There is the same absolute truthfulness to the scenes he professes to describe, with a strong power of words. In the ‘Land of Lorne’ we have more than one passage which for eloquence can vie with anything accomplished in the measures of song. The author has found himself amongst the beauties and the wonders of Nature in which his soul delights, and his fancy has been allowed to wander free and unrestrained. The crudity which distinguished his essays has completely disappeared, and he writes almost
1 The authorship of the poem in question has now been admitted by Mr. Buchanan.
359 as freely as in his more natural element. The attractiveness and grandeur of Scotch scenery were but a shadow and a name to us till we read his glowing descriptions, but now we feel as though we also had been subject to the terrors of the Gulf of Corryvrechan, and had beheld the gloom and the mystery brooding over Loch Corruisk.
In making some final observations upon Mr. Buchanan as one of the prominent poets of the time, there is an excellent sign visible in his works which is most hopeful for the future. He is not an echo of any other poet. Whatever may be thought of his song, or whatever position may be assigned to it, it is perfectly original and spontaneous. He has not sung because he has been moved to imitation by the graces of other poets, nor for any other reason, except the one which should always determine the poet—viz., because song was in his heart. That is an election whose end is always inevitable —more commanding and imperious than Fate. As well try to eliminate music from the bird as suppress the volitions and the manifestations of the poet. It is his life to sing. There may be false singers who for the moment contrive to attract the public ear, but their influence is fleeting. They can no more satisfy the world than could the sounds which would proceed from an automaton being. The moment it is discovered that a singer is unnatural and 360 that his music is a forced growth, that moment will his power begin to decline. It is something, then, that our author is of sufficient calibre to be able to be perfectly independent of any of his species. He has studied deeply at many imaginative springs, but his own well of song is unmixed with their waters. His utterance is growing clearer and more distinct every year. But in addition to this originality, there is the merit of endeavouring to assist in the formation of a superior school of poetry to that which generally attracts singers of a lower order. So far from regarding the subjects which he has chosen as unworthy of the poet’s pen, we think it redounds to his credit that he has thus probed the depths of society. All his graphic, dramatic force would have been a mere shadow, nay lost altogether, if he had missed the realism which is impressed on everything he has written. The art which delineates the career of a poor coster-girl may be as fine and correct as that which conceives a Hamlet: false art lies not in the subject, but in the manner of treatment. Essential service is rendered to humanity when any life is so presented to it as to beget sympathy for the object, whilst Vice is left untoyed with, and appears in all its naked hideousness. In such a way as was never before accomplished, we believe, Mr. Buchanan has, in his London lyrics, come between 361 society and the degraded beings who have been the objects of its contempt and disgust, and has acted as an interpreter. It is poetry of this description which will succeed in retaining its hold upon humanity. Whatever else may die, song which is impressed with a true and profound human interest is imperishable.1
Again, his genius and pathos are not local. Man the unit being mortal, but man the species being immortal,
1 Many of the observations in this paragraph would apply to two other poets of the day, who seem scarcely to have received sufficient credit for the work which they have achieved. I refer to the Hon. Roden Noel and the Hon. Leicester Warren. With regard to the former, his ‘Red Flag, and other Poems,’ and more recently ‘Livingstone,’ would bear out my assertions. In the volume of the ‘Red Flag’ we find the poet take up topics which have intense interest to men around us, and they are dealt with in a vigorous and poetical manner. I was struck greatly by the strength and originality of many of the poems in this volume. Occasionally the metre is rough, but the work is infused with a fine spirit, and Mr. Noel, like Mr. Buchanan, is no imitator. Again, his ‘Livingstone’ is an admirable attempt at dealing with a contemporary subject, and the natural scenery of Africa is glowingly depicted. Mr. Warren has, perhaps, caught more of the true classical spirit than any other of our poets, though not to the exclusion of that of the age in which he lives. His ‘Searching the Net, and other Verses’ exhibits a keen sympathy between the writer and the subject and circumstances which he endeavours to depict. I think that in the case of both these writers, their poetry appeals to what is best and purest, both as regards the intellect and the spirit. We have not so many genuine poets that we can afford to pass by, with the barest recognition merely, those whom we do possess.
362 that which has its foundation in the essential lot of humanity—joy and suffering—must also pass on from age to age, gathering strength and vitality. But how is the pathos of a life to be seized? It cannot be done in the attempted revivification of beings long dead, without the aid of the finest qualities of the great poet—insight, emotion, sincerity. Given these qualities, and witness their exercise upon contemporary subjects, and we have at once poetry which is not only true to-day, but must be immortally so. When we read Mr. Buchanan’s ‘London Poems’ we felt that they were great, if even from their courage alone. Nothing was wanting save those finishing touches to the marble which are no essential part of the portrait, but which leave unoffended the eye of the mind. The spiritualisation was complete. His ethology, too, was accurate; there was no contradiction between persons individualised and their actions—owing to the perfect disinterestedness of the poet we had the beings themselves, and not beings partially deprived of their identity by the plastic influence of the artist. What our author lacked in his earlier work he has been gradually assimilating since, and has now succeeded in getting his language and his art under the fullest control.
In the great power, then, of appealing to universal 363 humanity lies Mr. Buchanan’s security. ‘The Book of Orm’ is an assurance that we shall yet receive from him a loftier poem. The full richness of his genius only began to unfold itself clearly in his latest work. A wide field in which laurels are to be won lies before him; and his future is within his own making. Competent critics have assured him that he has already added to English literature much which ought not to perish; and in this verdict we unhesitatingly agree. The light of Nature has been his guide, and the human heart his study. With these still as his greatest incentives he must unquestionably attain an exalted position amongst the poets of the nineteenth century. His doubts, his interrogatories, do not alarm us. In a poet they are healthy signs, and prevent stagnation or deterioration. They beget hope that Light will be seen at last. To the Seer belongs the power of elevating the human soul, of unravelling life’s mysteries, and of piercing through many of those folds which prevent man from apprehending God. This power, or this glamour, or whatever it be, is indubitably upon Mr. Buchanan. Let him be faithful to himself and to his gifts, and in an age which does not promise to be rich in lofty poetry, he will produce works which cannot fail to be accepted as incontestably great, and worthy of the world’s preservation.
Review of Poets and Novelists; a series of literary studies
The Examiner (1 January, 1876)
MR. BARNETT SMITH’S NEW VOLUME.
Poets and Novelists: a Series of Literary Studies. By G. Barnett Smith. London: Smith, Elder and Co. 1875.
These “Studies” are all reprinted, and “ in some cases extended,” from Reviews and Magazines. As we read them we remembered to have done so before, yet did not therefore lay aside the book, and were interested in the second reading. Perhaps in a day of many books this may be taken as it is meant—a compliment to the author.
They were and remain mere “articles,” and have no leading idea to tie them together into a genuine book, but they are suggestive of thought, and may be very helpful to any student of the authors discussed, in enabling him to make up his mind on their works. A man who has really something to say and says it well on Thackeray, Mrs. Browning, the Brontës, and others, ought to be sure of a hearing from those who agree or disagree. But while Mr. Barnett Smith is a very pleasant writer, he is not a profound critic. One man has one gift, and another a different one; that of Mr. Barnett Smith may be characterised as a vigorous and graceful partisanship. When he praises he praises indiscriminately, and to do him justice he seldom blames; there is no venom in his kindly nature. While, then, we are helped to make up our minds, we often find ourselves in direct conflict with the judgment here expressed.
For instance, Mr. Barnett Smith claims truly for his paper reprinted from the Fortnightly on Thomas Love Peacock, that it was the first full and substantial recognition of his genius. He says in his Preface that since that article appeared “an admirable edition” of Peacock’s works has been issued. A critic who has so studied his author has no right to use such a laudatory epithet, for the edition in question is not admirable, nor even good. It is the best, for it is the only collected one; but no writer ever stood more in need of elucidatory notes than Peacock, and these his editor has not supplied. While Peacock drew almost every character from life, it is left to us to puzzle out for ourselves those who were intended by his queerly-named characters, and a critic abdicates his functions when it applies so strong a term to a very imperfect work.
There is a yet greater exaggerativeness in the Essay on Robert Buchanan. We are told that this writer is egotistical, and he is excused thus for the quality:—
The poet is one of the few men whom we can bear to hear speak of themselves: so much of the success of his work depends on the thermometer of his own feeling. The eagerness which every person displays to learn something of the actual life of our great writers, cannot be founded altogether in a morbid sensationalism. What would we give, for instance, for the details relative to the personnel of Homer and Shakespeare if written by themselves? And the same feeling, chastened only in degree, we cherish towards all whose works have enlightened and elevated mankind.
Now that is really too much. Mr. Buchanan is no doubt a very facile versifier, and in several poems has shown what, with all his faults as a poet and a puffer of himself, which are neither few nor small, nor calculated to add either to the enjoyment of mankind or to the dignity of letters, we do not hesitate to describe as very considerable power; but there is something too comic in asking us to listen to Mr. Buchanan on himself, because we should have liked to hear what Shakespeare could tell us of his own life. All that we should care to hear Mr. Buchanan explain is how the same man who writes in fierce denunciation of the Fleshly School, could write (anonymously, it is true) the beautiful but singularly sensuous description of Eureka Hart’s first marriage rites in ‘White Rose and Red.’ Mr. Barnett Smith never “damns with faint praise,” but he may attain the same end by over laudation.
We turn with pleasure to those Essays in which he writes of those authors already accepted as great, and who do not need the breath of a review notice, even if reprinted, to fan their sails, and sales. If we cannot allow to him the “exhaustiveness” he claims in the Preface, if his article on Fielding, for instance, has by no means this character, it is yet very pleasant reading—honestly appreciative, convincingly defensive, if Fielding needs defence, on the score of morality.
The three best Essays are those on Thackeray, Mrs. Browning, and the Brontës. They all, especially the last two, are full of enthusiasm, occasionally presented in language somewhat too stilted, but the subjects are worthy of much admiration, and justify an elevated style. To say that we do not always go with our author in the poems he has quoted from Mrs. Browning is simply to repeat in other words the truism that no two persons’ tastes are quite the same. Yet we wonder he has said nothing of one of her latest and not least remarkable poems, “Lord Walter’s Wife;” and though the volume is dedicated to Robert Browning, we could have looked for something more of blame on the subject of the one political and intellectual error of the great poetess—her praise of the perjured usurper, the Man of the Second of December and Sedan.
Mr. Barnett Smith’s volume may be cordially recommended. It is worth reading, and none the less that it wakes in us a wholesome intellectual antagonism in parts, and, having stirred our anger, again disarms us by its kindliness and good humour, its earnestness of conviction, and its enthusiasm for what is excellent.
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