ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)
BOOK REVIEWS - POETRY (12)
Napoleon Fallen (1871)
The Spectator (31 December, 1870 - p.9-11)
GREEK TRAGEDY AND MODERN LITERATURE.
MR. BUCHANAN, in a fine dramatic poem, which he has just published,* on “The Fall of Napoleon,” has attempted to revive a form of poetry for which there is a great function in all literatures, but which the modern world has carefully neglected. Shelley, indeed, attempted something like it in his “Hellas,” and his “Prometheus Unbound;” yet these beautiful but highly unreal poems belong to a region altogether too far from the world we live in, too completely a world of delicate and abstract dreams, to achieve the objects which the greater tragedies of ancient Greece achieved for the world in which they appeared. We may describe that object generally as the interpretation or attempted interpretation of the relation between the greatest of human actions, passions, and aims, and the mysterious power which shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will. Modern literature eschews these wide and dim horizons more and more, and limits itself more and more to the imaginative delineation of the most definite and limited forms of human life and passion. Now and then, indeed, we have a poem, like Mr. Tennyson’s Arthurian cycle, and Mr. Browning’s “Ring and the Book,” in which the ideal ends of life are delineated with great power, and we obtain a true master’s criticisms on the certain Nemesis of guilt and the slow purposes of God. But even such poems as these hardly satisfy the want to which we refer,—the want which threw the Hebrew seer into apocalyptic visions of the future, and which compelled even the calmest of the great Hellenic poets to try the acts of man by a supernatural law and find for them a divine catastrophe. The old Hebrew visions and Greek tragedies summoned before the imagination the invisible powers which fought with man and against him in all his greatest endeavours,—delineating them not as elements of human nature, but as mysterious rulers over it. The Greek tragedians attempted to distinguish between the guilt of the man and the power which avenged the guilt; between the endurance of the human demigod and the hard omnipotence which tasked that endurance to the utmost; between the pride of the Eastern tyrant and the offended deities who decreed his fall. They appealed at one and the same time to the conscience of man and to his faith. They united instead of separating the imaginative life of his moral nature and his religion. They brought the deepest moral and social and historical puzzles of their age to the dim light,—the best they had,—of their spirits. Modern poets for the most part shrink from this. They will paint the highest man they can conceive, and that man’s view of God,—but they will not venture to explain, except in the most indirect way, their con- ception of the supernatural agencies at work in the world. They will not delineate on the same plane, as it were, their thoughts of man and their thoughts of God; they will not attempt to solve for us the dark problems of the Universe in terms anything like so simple as those in which they state them. Judea and Greece were as frank in relation to what they attributed to superhuman agency, as they were in relation to the passions and actions shadowed forth. As belief in a revealed God has become more definite, there has been more and more tendency in our poets to shrink from suggesting, even in the most reverent form, any large conception of the divine plan in relation to the evolution of society and the destiny of nations. The poetry of religion has grown rapidly in its relation to the individual life, but shrunk out of relation to social and historical events. The breadth and grandeur in the visions of the ancient poets have been exchanged for inten- sity and depth. Yet there is room for something of the older type too. There is no reason why modern poetry should shrink entirely from tracing the divine finger in national destinies, and shadowing forth the retribution by which societies and races rise and fall.
“Maker of men!
And this is the Bishop’s account of the origin of the imperial power:—
“Thy throne was rear’d
We must give part of one of Mr. Buchanan’s choruses, to show how truly he carries out the old conception of embodying in it the highest glimpses which we have of the divine judgment on human things. It is part of that which immediately succeeds the Emperor’s first account of his own purposes:—
“Ah woe! ah woe!
“Call not on God, but listen.
“Yet, if thou darest, pray. Thou canst not tell
That will, we think, satisfy the reader that the framework of the Greek tragedy is by no means without real fitness for the poetical treatment of modern events by the poet whose purpose it is to interpret our life in relation to the highest glimpses we can obtain of divine laws,—to show the lights and shadows in which, to the eye of Providence, these human events are probably enveloped. Indeed, it is remarkable enough that in modern times, as in the greatest days of Greece, such religion as we have is more and more closely mingled with life and action, so that far from shrinking, as we should have shrunk a few generations ago, from the most intimate union between the human and divine even in literary portraiture, we constantly seek after it and crave it. Mr. Buchanan has written on a subject still, perhaps, too near to the minds of men, for complete success. His choruses should certainly be both more musical and more calm. Yet his idea is fine, and in great part finely worked out; nor do we see why he should not remove all traces of excitement and haste in a future edition. It might then become one of the finest of his fine works.
* Napoleon Fallen: a Lyrical Drama. By Robert Buchanan. London: Strahan.
The Examiner (7 January, 1871)
MR ROBERT BUCHANAN’S NAPOLEON.
Napoleon Fallen. A Lyrical Drama. By Robert Buchanan. Strachan & Co.
The fertility of Mr Buchanan’s muse is marvellous, and even startling. Although little more than seven years have elapsed since the first fruits of his genius were presented to the public under the felicitous title of ‘Undertones,’ Mr Buchanan is already one of the most voluminous of our verse-writers. Within that brief period he has published half-a- dozen volumes of poems, and he now announces a volume of ‘Ballads of Life’ as ready for immediate publication, and ‘An Epic Poem’ in preparation. It must, however, be admitted that Mr Buchanan’s poetical works are hardly less remarkable for variety of style and subject than they are for the almost unrivalled rapidity with which they have been produced. Every successive volume is a veritable creation, or congeries of creations, and not a repetition, either in matter or in manner, of any of its predecessors. There is obviously no lack of originality in Mr Buchanan; on the contrary, the defects of his poems would lead us to suspect that this faculty is kept in a morbid state of activity. His muse, indeed, is probably too often in labour to beget mature and healthy children with a long and happy life before them; at all events, his progeny exhibit all the symptoms of being born out of due season.
Yet, if thou darest, pray. Thou canst not tell
It must be admitted that this is a powerful imitation of the Greek drama, but the thought is scarcely worthy of the vesture. Mr Buchanan’s meaning is neither original nor profound, and it might have been quite as effectively rendered in prose. There is nothing here that would justify even the faintest burst of song, and this majestic strain only brings the poverty of the thought into more glaring relief.
By the secret hands of His great Church,
We may as well mention that Louis Napoleon expresses a doubt whether Rome would be able to fulfil her part of the bargain, and resolutely refuses to accept the terms proposed by the simple Bishop.
In the fair City then,
The Athenæum (7 January, 1871)
Napoleon Fallen: a Lyrical Drama. By Robert Buchanan. (Strahan & Co.)
MR. BUCHANAN takes care, in his preface, to inform us that in the present work he has nowhere expressed his own political opinions; but there is perhaps no great rashness, for all that, in determining that he is certainly not an Imperialist. There is little mercy shown to the fallen Emperor in his pages. The scene is Wilhelmshöhe; the time, shortly after the surrender of Sedan. The opening shows us German citizens walking in the gardens of the château, and talking, of course, of the great prisoner. “O, he may thank the fates” (says one)—
He sits so snug, the man of sin!—
Thou art too hard upon him, friend.
A cage, indeed!
Next we have Napoleon himself and a physician, who tells him his ailment is “spiritual,” and advises books and music, and casting away care—which last, like many things recommended by the faculty, is easier said than done. Then comes a long soliloquy to the following effect:—
The soliloquist goes on to expose freely his dynastic aims, while affirming that he was by choice “always a man of peace”:—
“Blood may flow,”
After which follows a chorus, with due strophe and antistrophe—
Ah woe! ah woe!
which over, “enter a Bishop,” who carries various interesting pieces of news to Napoleon, and first of all regarding the Empress and the young Prince: they are in England,
Where they have found a home
Whereto Napoleon responds,
Old man, I never looked for friendship there,
The Bishop tells him the true cause of his downfall,—his want of staunchness in supporting the Church,—remarking, with considerable reason, that the Imperial throne was reared
Most and last, upon the help of those
Perhaps the most poetical passage in the book is the description that follows, of the present attitude of the nations of the earth:—
Note how, upon her rock,
In fine, argues the Bishop, there is no help for the fallen Emperor save in the power of the Papacy, which, for a moment eclipsed and despised, is
At which point the conversation is interrupted by successive messengers announcing the German advance on Paris, Bazaine’s holding Metz in the Emperor’s name, and the proclamation of the Republic. This last news draws from Napoleon a significant aside:—
Now, may the foul fiend blacken all the air
The Chorus again has its way, with rhymes of Swinburnean swing:—
Sons, ye are bloody-shod! Sons, ye breathe bloody breath!
After this come a lengthy conversation between Napoleon and an officer who has escaped from Paris in a balloon, and an announcement by a messenger that “Rome is taken.” Then Napoleon sleeps, and to him, sleeping, come the spirits of his mother Hortense, of the first Napoleon, of Julius Cæsar, of Maximilian of Mexico, singing in turn verses of no very soothing tendency; so that the Emperor, at last awaking, may well say, “I have had ill dreams.” He opens ‘A Life of Jesus,’ falls into reflections on theology, drinks a composing draught, and goes to sleep again with a kind of prayer on his lips. The work ends with several choruses and semi-choruses of a mystical character, announcing that “In his white robes of peace, CHRIST shall arise and reign.”
The Scotsman (10 January, 1871 - p. 5)
NAPOLEON FALLEN. A Lyrical Drama. By Robert Buchanan. London: Strahan & Co.
MR BUCHANAN has here made a bold seizure of a prominent character in modern history for poetic handling. He feels that he has been courageous even to temerity, saying truly in his preface that “ardent politicians, who would have let me have my own way with Tiberius or Peter the Great, or even Bonaparte, are certain to rate me roundly if I disagree with them about Louis Napoleon.” But others besides “ardent politicians” may question the good taste of making a living man subject of such artistic treatment as Mr Buchanan here gives the Emperor. He would say, in reply, perhaps, that Napoleon is dead for history; to which again Imperialists would probably rejoin, “nous verrons.” He revived before, after Strasbourg, and Boulogne, and Ham; and who shall say that a second lease of power may not yet be his? And, be this as it may, is it fair to practise this sort of dramatic vivisection in any case?
Night. NAPOLEON sleeping. Chorus of SPIRITS.
What shapes are ye whose shades darken his rest this night?
Cold from the grave we come, out of the dark to the light.
Voices ye have that moan, and eyes ye have that weep,
Tho’ thou wert buried and dead, still would we seek and find thee,
Who in imperial raiment, darkly frowning, stand,
Who in their shadow looms, woman-eyed, woe-begone,
Peace, they are kings; they are crown’d; kings, tho’ their realms have departed;
SPIRIT OF HORTENSE.
Woe! O ye shades unblest,
SPIRIT OF CAESAR.
Greater than thou, I fell: thy day is o’er.
SPIRIT OF HORTENSE.
Woe! From his bed depart,
SPIRIT OF BONAPARTE.
Greater than thou, I fell; die, and give place.
NAPOLEON (in sleep.)
Dost thou too frown, dark Spirit of our house?
SPIRIT OF HORTENSE.
Father in Heaven, they rise!—
What Spirit art thou, with cold still smile and face like snow?
Orsini; and avenged. Too soon I struck the blow.
And thou, with bloody breast, and eyes that roll in pain?
I am that Maximilian, miserably slain.
And ye, O shadowy things, featureless, wild, and stark?
We are the nameless ones whom he hath slain in the dark!
Ye whom this man hath domm’d, Spirits, are ye all there;
Not yet: we come, we come—we darken all the air.
O latest come, and what are ye? Why do ye moan and call?
O hush! O hush! we come to speak the bitterest curse of all.
Woe!—for the spirits wild,
Ours is the bitterest curse of all:—for we
With sin and death our mothers’ milk was sour,
With incantations and with spells most rank,
We drank of poison, ev’n as flowers drink dew;
Love, with her sister Reverence, passed our way
Of some both Soul and Body died; of most
Ah woe, ah woe, for those thy sceptre swayed,
Lambs of thy flock, but oh! not white and fair;
It is too late—it is too late this night—
Tho’ thou wert buried and dead, still would they seek thee and find thee.
Woe! woe! woe!
Ye who beheld dim light thro’ the chink of the dungeon gleaming,
Gather around him there, spirits of earth and air, trouble him till he awaken.
Glasgow Herald (10 January, 1871)
NAPOLEON FALLEN: a Lyrical Drama. By Robert Buchanan. London: Strahan & Co. 1871.
IT is not wonderful that the events of the last six months should have powerfully stirred all human hearts. Those who, like the poets, are the most sensitive and sympathetic, naturally feel the interest and horror of the time more deeply than others. In a single sitting, Mr Swinburne produced an ode on the new-born Republic, and Mr Robert Buchanan, after brooding on the spectacle for only a month or two, presents us to-day with a Lyrical Drama on the central figure of the first month of the war—the fallen Napoleon. He propounds his theory of the spirit of the dethroned Government, his views of the sources of its power, the secrets of its success, its conscious and unconscious aims, and the fatal poison in its blood which brought its destruction on it like a whirlwind. The attempt to give us a living portrait of the leading personage of a period, is one which is usually left by the poet till the historian has marshalled, in orderly sequence, the turbulent chaos of events in which the judgment of contemporaries is apt to lose itself. Mr Buchanan offers the slightest of apologies for his departure from the common practice. “The man who here soliloquises,” he says, “may not be the real Napoleon, but I believe there is some justification for my portrait. After all, truth is one thing and dramatic truth is another.” We find it difficult to admit the apology. There is no necessity in the nature of things compelling a poet to exhibit his dramatic truth in connection with historical fiction, and we are doubtful whether Mr Buchanan has studied his central figure with sufficient patience to entitle him to use it as the hero of a Lyrical Drama. It is not true, in our opinion, that it “is likely, on the other hand, to secure certain elements of real strength from the mere fact of its being based on contemporary events.” It is certain that the book will be more rapidly read and widely circulated now because its subject has hardly yet left the columns of the daily newspaper. We “lack as yet the proper foreground for the contemplation of the chief character.” “Fortunately,” says the poet, “the subject, if treated with any ordinary skill, will be always gaining instead of losing that artistic distance which many think so necessary.” It is not “distance” that is wanting, but “truth;” and the one is hardly at all valuable except as a help to the other.
TO THE PROPHETS AND MARTYRS.
O Prophets! that look forward, searching slow
Our main quarrel with this Lyrical Drama is that it seems to us that this thesis is not established in it. It consists of a series of dialogues between Napoleon, a Bishop, an Officer, and a Messenger, interrupted by Chorus and Antichorus, Strophe and Antistrophe. At last, wearied out a little by the stress of the many considerations that have been urged on his attention, Napoleon falls asleep. He is visited in his dreams by a troop of spirits—the spirit of his mother Hortense, the ghost of Maximilian, of Cæsar, of the First Napoleon, of Orsini, of the prisoners whom he sent to Cayenne, and last of all by the souls who have been lost through the demoralisation of the Empire. This wakens him up, and he expresses himself in a long soliloquy, after which he falls asleep again, to be visited in his second slumber by a Chorus of the Dead, a Chorus of Citizens, and a Final Chorus or Epode, in which the result to which the whole drama is meant, as we understand, to point—the result that the Soul is safe—is didactically declared. The events of the past six months, as Mr Buchanan views them, appear to us to teach no such lesson. It is true that, at the beginning, the crimes of Napoleon were punished in the most exemplary way—and that Victor Hugo, who has regarded the fallen Emperor as the incarnation of every thing mean and wicked, is entitled to speak of the Bursting up of the Neva. But Mr Buchanan thinks that Napoleon was a man of peace—a man of many good instincts—a man in alliance with religion and the Church—the people’s shepherd when the people needed one—a good father and a good husband. His crime, if it can be called a crime, appears to have been that he selected a set of poor creatures as his trusted counsellors—
Not France betrayed thee, Sire; but rather those
And if the fall of Napoleon loses its instructiveness in view of this theory, the rise of the Republic affords no such consolation to Mr Buchanan, writing at Christmas, as it was fitted to afford to Mr Swinburne writing in the early days of September. The splendid endurance of the French Defence is associated historically with the Republic, but Mr Buchanan has apparently none of the wild enthusiasm with which Mr Swinburne welcomed that form of Government as the “Light of the life of Man.” He regards the men in power, as most Englishmen do, as people doing what they see to be their duty doggedly and well—on the whole surprisingly well; but he is not clear as to the success with which they may be crowned or the failure with which they may be rebuked. Merely to have maintained a Republican form of Government appears nothing to Mr Buchanan, and the explanation of that feat is no doubt what M. Thiers gave in his memorable mot—“The Republic is the Government which will divide us least.”
Nay, for the Lamb shall wrap the world in whiteness;
Peace! ye make a useless lamentation.
FINAL CHORUS, OR EPODE.
Comfort, O true and free,
These events have thrown no light on the prospects of that “City of God” which so many prophets and martyrs have seen. From the midst of every darkness the prophets have seen, far off, the shining of its celestial walls. Mr Buchanan’s poem is meant to draw aside for us the veil with which the things of faith are hidden, and to reveal to us God and truth visible in living history. In spite of the great merits of his verses— in spite of the wonderful pictorial power which he exhibits throughout this remarkable poem—he has failed, because he has been more of a journalist than a poet or a prophet—a man who cannot help writing and speaking of things as they occur before his eyes, and drawing great lessons from them as a kind of necessity of trade, whether the lessons in them have as yet been made obvious by the events themselves or not. It is a curious illustration of the journalistic habit of mind of our poet that the next verse in this fine chorus should refer to the great subject of woman’s suffrage, which he probably agrees with Mr Mill in thinking the panacea for all human woes—
In the fair City then,
And who is the holy Bard of this stanza?—
In the fair City of men,
And what is the sense of the remarkable reference to the Contagious Diseases Acts agitation in the next stanza?—
No man of blood shall dare
The poem has the merits and defects of a political pamphlet in verse. The verse is often of the highest quality, and there is enough to prove Mr Buchanan a poet who owes it to his reputation, to prefer one book as perfect as he knows how to make it, to half-a-dozen, shot off in hot haste under the spur of a momentary excitement.
The Illustrated London News (14 January, 1871 - p.11)
Poetry is not yet extinct; and, in spite of Mr. Carlyle’s opinion, expressed in a letter which has lately got into print, that “no man now reads verse wholly in earnest,” we find more than 200 new works in verse, not including new editions, published in Great Britain during the year. Mr. Robert Buchanan, the author of “London Poems,” “Undertones,” and “Idylls of Inverburn,” is not merely a verse-writer, but a poet; yet we fear he has attempted something beyond his powers in his two latest productions. “The Book of Orm,” which was but the introduction to a grand religious epic, left upon our mind a perplexing impression of vague cloud-shadows, interspersed with flecks of sunshine, cast upon the Highland hills, with a mystical commentary on high-flown moods of sentiment. There was in it a lack of healthy humanity, of hearty sympathy with common joys and griefs, a morbid straining after the supernatural, which we should not have expected from the earlier poems of this author. In his lyrical drama of Napoleon Fallen, just published by Messrs. Strahan, he follows the example of Mr. Swinburne in taking for his theme of poetic imagination the late astonishing changes of government in France. The Emperor is introduced, in his retirement at Wilhelmshöhe, soliloquising or conversing with his attendants—a physician, a bishop, and a military officer—upon the extraordinary turn of his affairs. He is informed by messengers, as if in a single day, of the events which took place in the months of September and October, at Strasburg and Metz, in Paris, and in Rome; he hears of the complete downfall of the Imperial system, the ruin of the French army, and of the political and civil administration; he is told, also, of the outburst of Republican and patriotic enthusiasm, and of the heroic preparations for national defence. The spirit which may be supposed to animate Paris, under these influences, makes itself known in the passionate songs of a Chorus, which are some of the most powerful passages in the poem. The most interesting parts, however, are those in which the author presents his conception of the Emperor’s mind, of his conscious intention and self-estimation:—
I have been a man of peace; a silent man,
This soliloquy proves, we think, that the poet has a true insight into the character of Napoleon III.; and we therefore regret his departure from the proper dramatic method in the remaining parts of his composition. The lyrical bursts of invective and execration with which the fallen Emperor is assailed, not only by the Chorus of Republicans, but likewise by Ghosts and immortal Spirits, who ought to know better, have the appearance of a ferocious persecution rather than of an assertion of Divine justice. The aspiration towards a perfect moral world, or Civitas Dei, with which Mr. Buchanan ends his poem, is one cherished by every Christian heart; but it will never be realised till we all learn to practise that charity, which is scarcely compatible with so much scolding and cursing, either of emperors, or of knaves and slaves, or of any other persons. It is certainly not just to accuse Napoleon III. of being the author of those social corruptions and vices of Paris which were as rife thirty or forty years ago, to judge from the French literature of that date, as ever under his reign. His political errors have been terribly atoned for; and the poets may now leave him in peace. If Mr. Buchanan is an inspired prophet, we will not debate the grounds of his familiarity with the counsels and judgments of the Almighty. But if he is merely a human poet, we would commend to him the spirit of tolerance, of compassion, and of universal sympathy, which accompanies the genius of Shakspeare.
The Saturday Review (21 January, 1871 - Vol. 31, p.86-88)
ONE result of the war in France has been, as we learn from the Special Correspondents, to fill the lunatic asylums in that country. Whether any similar result has followed in England, we are not prepared to say. If, however, people in general have been affected in the same manner and to the same degree as have not a few among our professors and poets, we cannot but feel anxious about the sanity of our population. It may indeed be the case that what they do, they do, not from any disorder of the brain, but from deliberate preference. They may have thought that in no way could they better show their sympathy for France than by acting as so many Frenchmen are now acting. They may have felt that when every one was pouring out a torrent of words, without waiting to send a little sense floating down it, they themselves would incur the suspicion of devotion to the German side if they were either not to speak at all, or stayed to think before they spoke. If such has been their opinion, we can congratulate them on their success. There are not a few among them, we are proud to say, who are so extravagant in dealing out words, and so parsimonious in dealing out sense, that all that is required to complete their career is an ascent in a balloon and a descent among a credulous population. There may, again, be other poets and professors who have no greater feeling for France than for Germany, but who hold that, when such a din of words is going on, it is only an affectation of singularity of character to remain silent. So indeed we remember at one of the grand Reform demonstrations in the Agricultural Hall, though the hubbub was so great that not a sound could be distinguished, numberless orators nevertheless felt inspired to pour their little stream of words into the vast sea of noise. Their action, indeed, could be apprehended by the sight, and stimulating it was to the inventive faculties of the mind. For each observer had to try to form for himself some notion of what each orator might be talking about, merely by watching the opening and closing of his mouth and the violent swinging of his arms. Close as is the comparison between these orators and our poets and professors who are now so full of war, it is still closer when we remember that at each door of the Agricultural Hall fresh bands of men come pouring in, each headed by its brass band playing with all its might. Happy was the man who could find a platform from which to speak amidst so vast a tumult of sound. When all are noisy, to be pre-eminently noisy, and to be noisy without fear of criticism, must be one of the greatest of joys to your modern orators, professors, and poets. There are, however, a few men left in England who have not their ears so full of the din, whether of war or of illustrious Special Correspondents, that they do not still, when they read, stop to ask what it is all about. Such a question, we must confess, has forced itself upon us as we have risen from the perusal of Mr. Robert Buchanan’s Napoleon Fallen. We cannot pretend to say from which, if indeed from either, of the two motives we have mentioned above, Mr. Buchanan composed “this Napoleonic Play, or Lyrical Drama, or Dramatic Poem.” Though he apparently sympathizes deeply with France, yet he desires to say that “I have nowhere in the following pages expressed my own political opinions.” It may therefore merely be that he felt that when M. Gambetta was composing despatches, Professor Beesly making orations, Mr. Swinburne pouring out poems, and bombshells everywhere were bursting, it would scarcely be suitable that Mr. Robert Buchanan should remain altogether silent. We must do him the justice to admit that he is not nearly so often and so long unintelligible as his rival Mr. Swinburne. They may perhaps both be compared to porpoises or whales. They often disport themselves on the surface of the water to the gratification of the beholders, but both at times dive down out of all sight and powers of following. But while Mr. Swinburne remains in the depths for a long time, Mr. Buchanan comes up much more frequently to breathe, and is also less fond of diving. Though in separate passages he is not so incomprehensible as his younger rival, yet he puzzles us perhaps more when we try to grasp the meaning of his lyrical drama as a whole. In his preface he says:—
The man who here soliloquises may not be the real Napoleon, but I believe there is some justification for my portrait. After all, truth is one thing, and dramatic truth is another. If my play possesses verisimilitude, no critic has a right to object to it because he would have conceived the chief character differently.
Unfortunately, however, Mr. Buchanan, in our opinion, has failed both in truth and also in dramatic truth. His Napoleon is as incomprehensible as the real Napoleon, and his play possesses, as far as we can see, no verisimilitude. We do not complain of the liberties which he takes with dates so as to crowd a great many incidents into the few short hours of a September night. Messengers may perhaps come in upon the fallen Emperor more in number and with more rapid sequence than even they came to the Patriarch Job. Ghosts too may be allowed to appear at Wilhelmshöhe as well as at Philippi, and a chorus of spirits may, for all we care, alternate with a chorus of Republicans. These bodily and spiritual appearances may be varied by the arrival of an officer of the Imperial staff from Paris, or a bishop from England, and of a physician from the next room. But we do complain when messengers, ghosts, spirits, Republicans, officer, bishop, and physician all alike talk in a strain that reads at times like a curious burlesque of Shakspeare, and at times like the utterances of a man fresh from Bedlam, or from the perusal of the Daily Telegraph. We can find no verisimilitude in a messenger who rushes in to say—
From his lone isle,
Nor do we think that Napoleon was the man to allow any messenger to make a speech of forty lines on end, even though he wound it up with the following eloquent abuse of the Republic and the Orleans Family:—
Coming with mock-humble eyes
We should mention that there are four messengers in all, who tread on each other’s heels, and break in upon the Emperor just after the physician had prescribed that he should “rest from all fierce ache of thought.” Though his prescription cannot be followed, we should do this worthy doctor an injustice if we did not quote the praise that his master bestows on his fidelity, in language, however, which seems to us singularly devoid of meaning even for the utterances of a Napoleon. “I have eat,” he says, “my life from his cold palm for years.” On the withdrawal of the physician, and before the first of the messengers bursts in, a bishop enters from England, giving news of the Empress and the Prince Imperial, and of the unfavourable state of English opinion. He then, in a speech of some pages, exhorts the Emperor to turn his hopes to Rome, and reminds him what support the Church has always given to his throne. In metaphors forcible, if somewhat contradictory, he tells him that the priests have been
Slowly distilling thro’ each vein of France
And that also
They were as veins
Without pretending to any profound anatomical knowledge, we find it difficult to conceive that the heart could throb with much comfort, let alone glory, so long as it was bound by iron veins to anything. Much less can we conceive this when these iron veins have at the same time to be distilling blood through other veins. Does Mr. Buchanan know the meaning of the word distil, and does he imagine that vital blood is ever made to fall in drops through the veins? The bishop is hindered in any further anatomical illustrations by the first of the messengers, who enters with the news that the Prussians are marching on Paris, though “Strasbourg still stands, stubborn as granite.” As he goes out with the cry that
Within, Famine and Horror nest,
he is met by the second messenger coming in with a second edition, as it were, of the same news that “Strasbourg still stands,” though he omits all mention of the young reared on ruin. However, he informs the Emperor that Bazaine is faithful to him, and that Garibaldi has crossed over with “his leonine features.” The second messenger, in his turn, meets the third messenger,
On whose swart face the frenzied lightning plays,
The thunder gave indeed a long roll, as this is the gentleman who, no doubt encouraged by the Emperor’s recognition of his lightning and expectation of his thunder, made the speech of forty lines. The Emperor here retires, we hope for refreshment, and his place is supplied by a chorus, but whether of spirits or of Republicans we hardly know. Their language is confusing enough for either. They call upon some one, but whom we do not make out, though it is clearly neither the Emperor, nor the bishop, nor any one of the messengers, not even the one with “the swart face” and “the frenzied lightning,” and they thus urge him:—
Scream me the thunders down! cry till the lightnings spring!
Then, coming to more practical advice, they exhort people in general to
Fill each loophole with a man! and finding
It would have been more intelligible to the young Moblot if he had been told to aim at the head, but “head” has the disadvantage that it does not pretend to rhyme with “refrain.”
Christ shall arise.
The Emperor, we may hope, like the old King before him, was above grammar, and could sleep calmly on in spite of doubtful constructions, and choruses of citizens and of the dead. At all events he does not seem to wake, even when the Lyrical Drama closes with a grand Final Chorus or Epode, in which no doubt all the characters come on again, from the ghost of Cæsar to the last of the four messengers.
* Napoleon Fallen. A Lyrical Poem. By Robert Buchanan. London: Strahan & Co. 1871.
The Graphic (18 February, 1871)
“Napoleon Fallen.” A Lyrical Drama. By Robert Buchanan. (Strahan and Co.) Mr. Buchanan has lived to verify the canon of the old critical school, which forbade a poet to deal with the great events of the immediate present, as the principal subject of his poem. His “Napoleon Fallen” as a representation of the character of the fallen Emperor, although a dark and terrible picture of crime, will not fully satisfy the enemies of the late Emperor; because in their eyes the picture is not dark and criminal enough to be a portrait; while those who pity his fallen grandeur, and still more those who saw in the late Emperor the fine qualities of a great ruler, a faithful ally, and a true friend, will turn from Mr. Buchanan’s sketch with feelings of regret, if not with positive feelings of disgust and abhorrence. The atmosphere of the political world is too much clouded and disturbed with party spirit and political prejudice to enable the public to look clearly, calmly, and without any disturbing medium upon the poem before us solely and simply as a work of art. And even here, on this, the most legitimate ground of criticism, we have reason to apprehend a most unfavourable impression of Mr. Buchanan’s effort at poetry, which in name is “Napoleon Fallen,” but in reality “Buchanan Fallen.” The Emperor is represented by our poet as a captive in the castle of Wilhelmshöhe, where—
He sits so snug, the man of sin
and tells us—
I staked my soul
He is ultimately visited by a chorus of Republicans and citizens, who sing their abuse to most wretched imitations of Swinburnian measures. Then we have the visit of a Bishop, who rebukes the fallen autocrat for his treachery to the Pope, and denounces England as the home of “frozen-blooded islanders.” Towards the close of this most undramatic drama, there are tacked on some choral commonplace verses, celebrating what looks like a coming millennium, when
In His white robes of peace
For Mr. Buchanan’s credit as a poet of unquestionably great genius and genuine inspiration we much regret the appearance of this unfortunate poem, which, when compared, or rather contrasted, with his “London” and “Undertones,” is verily as “water unto wine.” We cannot leave him without reminding him that he has a great reputation to sustain, which he will seriously jeopardise by a repetition of such versicles as the present; and also that the word “orisons” is not the denotative term for morning prayers in contradiction to “vespers,” but “matins.”
The Guardian (22 February, 1871)
Napoleon Fallen: a Lyrical Drama. By GEORGE BUCHANAN. Strahan.
In spite of Mr. Carlyle, poets have persisted in writing at a time calling imperatively for action. They have been like caged birds, which sing the more vigorously the louder the noise that is being made about them. And they have been right in this exertion of their faculties. They have only done in their way what Mr. Carlyle did in his way. He wrote a prose epic on the French Revolution; and they, seeing France once more ablaze, though not with native fires, have cultivated their nicer, but not therefore contemptible, gift of rhyme. Why should it be considered improper to polish verses in time of war? Words are like arrows, which need careful feathering and balancing if they are to travel far. The poet may have a more exquisite sense than the gunner, but sending a shell home is to the gunner quite as nice a process as turning a couplet is to the poet. Neither the one nor the other must be rebuked because he keeps in his place and goes quietly about a work which he cannot do well if he is hurried. Gunners and poets, in fact, are liable to the same temptations; if ill- trained, they make more haste than good speed, waste their ammunition, and fire above and beyond the mark. Not that there is any reason to complain, on the score of precision, of the recent practice of artillerists. They have done their work so well that the echoes of their thunder will last on indefinitely. It is wonderful if already there are not some half-dozen persons busily engaged in writing epics on the fall of Sedan, or even on the siege of Paris.
This temple where thy name
It makes, of course, a great deal of difference into whose mouth a passage such as this is put in a dramatic poem. The words quoted are those of a Chorus of Republicans, and there is also a Chorus of Spirits, and a Chorus of Citizens, to say nothing of a Chorus of the Dead. Some Germans and their wives, also, have a chat about the prisoner as they walk in the gardens of Wilhelmshöhe; and a Bishop confronts him in full reliance on the temporal and spiritual strength of the Papacy, and an officer of the Imperial Army tries to comfort him by devoted and unshaken allegiance. But the principal authority in the poem as to Napoleon’s inner man is Napoleon himself, who lays his heart bare with an openness that is rather strange in so reserved a person, and shows us, beneath ambition, spite, and even meanness, some great though rather cloudy depths of faith and aspiration after good. Which of the several interpretations given of the Emperor’s character is the true one must remain doubtful, for there is no one of the speakers that has authority finally to silence the others; and as for Mr. Buchanan himself, he warns us that he has nowhere in the poem expressed his own political opinions. He has observed severely the unities of time and place, for the scene is the Château of Wilhelmshöhe or its immediate vicinity, and the time is the interval between sunset and midnight on an evening not long after the surrender of Sedan. Otherwise he has allowed himself abundant liberty; he alters chronology, varies his views of men and things, and walks round the fallen Napoleon, as if he were not quite sure from which of several points it would be best to sketch the mysterious and semi-torpid giant. Readers may draw the conclusion, that the ex-Emperor is more than a match for the poet; that when Napoleon plays the Sphinx, Mr. Buchanan is scarcely a competent Œdipus. It may be so, but a clever man can often deal skilfully and agreeably with enigmas that he cannot solve. There is an earnestness, a faith, a confidence in the ultimate triumph of truth and goodness, that underlies the varied delineations of the poem; and we are glad to see that Mr. Buchanan, though dealing with rather an exciting subject, writes with more composure, with more power of directing and concentrating thought, with sounder and healthier command of feeling, than appeared in The Book of Orm.
Illustrated Times (25 March, 1871)
Napoleon Fallen. A Lyrical Drama. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. London: Strahan and Co.
This poem has already been referred to in our columns, and we have little now to say, except that it is a book to read, partly for reasons which are obvious, and partly because it is an index to a certain stage in the growth of the poet’s mind, or at least in his designs. We still think events in course of transaction a dangerous subject for a lyrical drama, especially for one which embodies so much criticism, historic and other, as the present. Mr. Buchanan writes thus in his preface:—
In reading this Napoleonic play or lyrical drama, or dramatic poem (I know not which is the fit title), it should be remembered that we lack, as yet, the proper foreground for the contemplation of the chief character. . . .
It seems to us that when the “high muse” has to speak thus before she sings, she makes a fatal admission. Any great action and passion may call for the lyre; but the terms on which it may be struck are terribly stringent in days like these.
The British Quarterly Review (April, 1871, Vol. 53 - p.572-573)
Napoleon Fallen. A Lyrical Drama. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. Strahan and Co.
Mr. Buchanan is a brilliant improvisatore, and could doubtless produce dramas and epics to order on any subject to which the revolutionary mind is akin. We do not doubt the genuineness of his lyrical passion; it is white-hot and screaming, but it seems as if it were easy to kindle, not quite rational in its foundation, and certainly not classical in its expression. As a rhymed pamphlet, special-pleading a cause, and echoing the cries of the hour, ‘Napoleon Fallen’ is unquestionably powerful; as a dramatic representation of events in the shape in which they will descend to history, it is too violent to be true. It was a happy device to incorporate the Athenian chorus with the modern drama; the expedient provided expression for the eager feelings with which the world witnessed the stupendous struggle. But to import into the statuesque forms of poetry the frantic passion and inarticulate rage of the vanquished, in their naked amorphous violence, removes the poem out of the sphere of art. If the representation of a thing is meant to be permanent, the thing itself must be not only real, but also permanent in its nature. Lessing laid down this canon, and one would have thought that it was now established. But if ‘Napoleon Fallen’ is not perfect as a poem, there is very much fine poetry in it. The lyrical fire which an age in travail with revolutions produces is perhaps not rare in our days; Mr. Buchanan unquestionably possesses it. He also possesses that belief and faith without which no man has a right to sing at all—belief in the divine end of human life, and faith in the future. With poetic indefiniteness it is rather an aspiration than an articulated creed, but he is at least no emasculated Pagan. His dramatic power is less obvious, and perhaps it is only the dramatism of the lyrist—the mere modulation of passion into a different key.
[Note: This review of Napoleon Fallen was framed by reviews of works by Swinburne, O’Shaughnessy and Morris, which, considering the ‘Fleshly School’ affair would begin six months later, are also transcribed below.]
It has been said by a great critic that since Shakspeare’s day no poet has revealed a power of the same lyrical quality and genuine inspiration, with the exception of Shelley. Since Shelley’s day, however, no one has certainly revealed that peculiar lyrical gift, in all its strength and flow of harmony, as Swinburne has. 14 He possesses in a peculiar way many of the characteristics of Shelley. We do not for one moment mean that he is an imitator of Shelley. He sings precisely as Shelley does, because it is his easiest method of utterance. He hates, too, despotism as Shelley did. He reveals, too, Shelley’s faults. He shows the same wild enthusiasm. His love for liberty makes him almost welcome licence. He reveals further much the same defects of style as Shelley. He gives way too much to mere verbal artifices. He deals, too, frequently with unpleasant images, which by their very repetition, instead of strengthening only weaken his verse. But these faults only appear here and there. How strong, and how keen-edged are his lines may be seen by this fervid appeal to England, asking how long she will bear with the temporal and spiritual Philistinism of the day—
“And thou, whom sea-walls sever
These royalties rust-eaten,
These princelings with gauze winglets
These fanged meridian vermin,
14 “ Songs Before Sunrise.” By Algernon Charles Swinburne. London: F. S. Ellis. 1871.
580 These are, in spite of all that has been said against them, noble lines, worthy of the great Republican poet himself. But Swinburne has other moods than these. Here is a delicious landscape taken from the commencement of Siena:—
“Inside this northern summer's fold
Few will refuse to acknowledge the beauty of this description. The epithet “green-veiled ” is delicious. Tennyson somewhere talks about the “green mist” of the trees, but “green-veiled” is far more subtle in its beauty, and refers to that green gloom which every one feels, especially in the height and blaze of summer, when plunging under the thick dark green foliage of a wood. Equally beautiful and delicate, too, is the image of the leaves “sifting,” as they do, the sunbeams, which fall on the “small warm grasses wet.” To match the beauty of this passage we must go all the way back to Chaucer’s “Flower and the Leaf,” and to that wood where the poet found—
“The greene grass
Mr. Buchanan 15 has abandoned the pleasant paths in which his muse delighted. “Willie Baird” is exchanged for Napoleon III. We think Mr. Buchanan has not done justice to his undoubted powers. He has attempted to write in about as many weeks a poem, to which nearly as many years would hardly do justice. It was but the other day, too, that he gave us the “Book of Orm,” and we see announced as in preparation “An Epic Poem.” Shakspeare himself would not be equal to such an undertaking. “Napoleon Fallen ” bears on the face of it marks of haste. The very printers seem to have been in wild haste in printing it, and have made not mere nonsense, but absolute blasphemy of a passage at page 134. Still here and there shine out passages, which show Mr. Buchanan’s dramatic and lyrical power.
581 Lady,” containing the picture of that fair one, of whom all youthful poets and painters dream, but whom they never realize, except in the world of art. We shall look forward with interest not only to the future of the poet, but of the illustrator of this remarkable volume.
The Sun & Central Press (10 August, 1871 - p.12)
Mr. Robert Buchanan’s new lyrical drama, “The Teuton before Paris,” in which he attempts a delineation of Bismarck, and also of the Emperor, will appear within a few days. The poet has also a third drama in preparation, the hero of which will be the first Napoleon. By-the-bye Mr. Buchanan will probably bring out these two poems with “Napoleon Fallen,” in one volume. The first edition of Mr. Jenkins’ work on the Coolies has been exhausted.
The Drama of Kings (1871)