ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)
BOOK REVIEWS - POETRY (13)
The Drama of Kings (1871)
The Echo (14 October, 1871- p.2)
ART AND LITERARY GOSSIP.
Mr. Robert Buchanan’s forthcoming volume, “A Drama of Kings,” will contain three separate pieces—the first devoted to Napoleon Buonaparte, and the last to Emperor William of Germany and Bismarck, with a reprint of “Napoleon Fallen” coming between.
The Week’s News (18 November, 1871)
The Book World.
AMONG THE BOOKS AND THE BOOK WRITERS.
Mr. Robert Buchanan—who lately in his “Land of Lorne” gave such stirring and bold advice to the MacCallum More, the great Duke of Argyll, God bless him!—comes before the public in a yet more striking attitude. If there be a prouder being on earth than a Scotch duke, the hereditary head of a Sept, it is a Scotch poet who has nothing to depend upon but his genius. Mr. Buchanan deals in this new book only with kings. It is “The Drama of Kings” (Strahan & Co.), and in it is embodied that curious poem in which Mr. Buchanan pictured Napoleon III. at Sedan, and various bleeding soldiers rushing in to his presence and telling him of the utter defeat of France. The first book bears as its sub-title “France against the Teuton.” We hope to return to this volume, since Mr. Buchanan has been bracketed by some of his admirers with so great a poet as Robert Browning—by far the highest dramatic genius among our poets.
The Athenæum (25 November, 1871)
The Drama of Kings. By Robert Buchanan. (Strahan & Co.)
WE are more than doubtful whether Mr. Robert Buchanan will add to his present reputation by this long and ambitious attempt. Its very magnitude makes it, even to the most conscientious admirer, a little tedious; and its tedium is aggravated partly by a certain sameness of thought, characteristic of all political dramas, and of ‘The Drama of Kings’ in particular, and partly by the constant repetition of certain metaphors and phrases into which Mr. Buchanan’s thought appears to have an inveterate tendency to cast itself, and which recur as regularly and almost as monotonously as do “flames” and “blood” and “stings” and “kisses” in the rhymes of Mr. Swinburne. The drama itself is—we quote from Lucifer, who acts as choragus—
—— a sort of tragedy,
The actors mortal, Earth the scene, the Time
And of such stuff is it made, that
—— all sleepy Seraphs who delight
and with them
—— all Angels
had best, so Lucifer opines, “close eyes, shut ears!” for ‘The Drama of Kings’ designs
To treat of mighty matters movingly,
—as might, indeed, have been expected from the long chant of some two dozen stanzas which stands to it as preface, and in which Auguste Comte is nine times nine times invoked as “Spirit of the great brow.”
Peace, lady—or, if thou must play the shrew,
Thus chidden and repulsed, Her Majesty takes counsel with Stein, who assures her that it is “the one dark hour ere daybreak,” and entreats her to be “calm.” Follows another choric song, after which Napoleon receives and dismisses with some promptitude a Cardinal, who comes, as the Pope’s legate, with certain extravagant demands, of which the Emperor questions
—— every scratch,
After this comes, of course, more choric singing; then a long monologue, delivered by Napoleon to his “famulus”; and then, to more choric singing, the curtain falls.
I love mine ease—
But the Bismarck with whom we all imagine ourselves familiar surely never, even in his wildest Knieph of days, “orated” thus:—
Here then I pause,
What is this thing that men call “Liberty?”
For Bismarck to whisper, even to his own heart, that he “trembles,” is unreal enough; but for Bismarck to play the Chadband, and to say to us, ore Chadbandonico, “Let us, my friends, in a spirit of love, inquire what is Liberty? Is it force, my friends? No! Is it tumult, my friends? No! Is it wind and rain and tempest? No, my friends, it is none of these things”—this is about as true to nature as that Bismarck’s grizzled beard should glimmer under the silver radiance. But then it is barely possible that in all this there may lurk some very esoteric meaning. Indeed, Mr. Buchanan himself admits that men “may find in a poem many meanings according to their different lights,” and freely confesses that an “eminent” friend of his own found fault with the picture of Napoleon the Third given in ‘Napoleon Fallen,’ and suggested that the “moral consciousness” and “remorse” there attributed to the dethroned Emperor were unreal. And yet it seems that this same “eminent” friend had altogether misunderstood Mr. Buchanan’s drift:—
Comfort, O true and free,
And he is further able to assure us that—
Woman with man shall meet
Or, in other words, that the city of the future will enjoy the blessings of a female suffrage, But beyond this he is dim, as befits a poet, obscure as becomes a seer, mystic and oracular to the point of incomprehensibility. Indeed, many of the choric songs are as inscrutable and as enigmatic as the ravings of Bullwig in the famous ‘Yellowplush Memoirs.’ “O, the curse of Pwometheus descends upon his wace. Wath and punishment pursue them from genewation to genewation! Wo to genius, the Heaven-scaler, the fire-stealer. Wo and thrice bitter desolation! Earth is the work on which Zeus wemorseless stwetches his withing victim—men, the vultures that feed and fatten on him.” And yet, perhaps, it is not altogether fair to say that beyond a shadowy aspiration for Liberty, Mr. Buchanan’s trilogy is devoid of any leading idea. We find floating through his verses a misty notion of the philosophy of history, and a dim conception that
The old order changeth, giving place to new,
But such vague shadowings of the philosophy of history as this are, if not as old as the hills, at least as old as ‘Sartor Resartus.’ And when Mr. Buchanan speaks of Goethe as “a great positivist,” we begin to doubt whether he has any definite philosophic conceptions at all—a doubt not removed by the fact that he introduces us to a Lucifer who is “not the irreclaimable and Mephistophelean type of utter evil, but a Mystic’s Devil, a spirit difficult to fathom individually, but clearly in the divine service working for good.” There is “hope for the puir De’il,” after all.
And the lines—
OFFICER. Your Imperial Highness
read almost like conscious burlesque.
For if on any day ye would be free,
All have known her, and yet none possess her;
we begin to have a suspicion that a Swinburnean school is growing up. And indeed Mr. Buchanan reminds us of Mr. Swinburne in more ways than one. He loves repetitions, alliterations, and other such devices. And he is occasionally extremely unpleasant. “Ye are dull,” says the French deputy to the Chancellor of Germany:—
To ye no delicate line of law divides
in which extraordinary piece of English Mr. Buchanan’s quaint and peculiar use of “ye” is certainly not the most startling feature. If Mr. Swinburne had written these lines, we should never have heard the last about them.
The Examiner (2 December, 1871)
MR BUCHANAN’S DRAMA OF KINGS.
The Drama of Kings. By Robert Buchanan. Strahan.
This is a great experiment; and, taking into account the vastness and the extraordinary difficulty of the task, it must, on the whole, be pronounced a success. In ‘The Drama of Kings’ we have, as Mr Buchanan states, “the first serious attempt ever made to treat great contemporary events in a dramatic form, and very realistically, yet with something of the massive grandeur of style characteristic of the great dramatists of Greece.” The conflict between France and Germany is here depicted
A choric trilogy of tragedies
and the author’s mode of conception, so to speak, bears a close resemblance to that of the Greek tragedians. His point of view, he tells us in “A Note for the Adept,” is that of “the realistic mystic, who, seeking to penetrate deepest of all into the soul, and to represent the soul’s best and finest mood, seizes that moment when the spiritual or emotional nature is most quickened by sorrow or by self-sacrifice, by victory or by defeat.” And this is not a point of view assumed for the nonce. In this, and in all his previous works, Mr Buchanan declares “an attempt is made to combine two qualities which the modern mind is accustomed to consider apart—reality and mysticism, earthiness and spirituality.” What this “mystic realism” exactly is, almost as a matter of course, is not clearly explained in the very mystical note from which we have made the foregoing quotations; but we are informed that it is something very different from those “musings of non-mystic men,” which “assume the purely spiritual and unimaginative form,” and we may safely infer that it is as far removed from that purely realistic mode of thought which is also unimaginative. However, although we fail to understand Mr Buchanan’s prose description of “mystic realism,” and have to confess that we never suspected its presence in ‘Undertones’, ‘The Legends of Inverburn’ or ‘London Lyrics,’ there is in ‘The Drama of Kings’ something that corresponds with the attitude of mind delineated in “A Note for the Adept.” The “note” throws a light upon the “drama;” and the “drama” does, in a way, illustrate the “note.” Following the example of “the great positivist who wrote the first and second ‘Fausts,’ the greatest poetic sceptic of modern times,” than whom “no one did fuller justice to mystic truths,” Mr Buchanan has made use of supernatural machinery, “without perfect faith,” confining it, however, to the framework of prelude and epilude in which the drama is set. He has resorted to this contrivance, as he tells us, in the hope that it may serve “to keep before the reader the fact that the whole action of the drama is seen from the spiritual or divine auditorium,” and he expresses his willingness to suppress it, if “the consensus of wise criticism inclines to its condemnation as a defect.” But, notwithstanding the semi-allegorical employment of theological personifications, the Greek-like mode of thought, and the Greek form of the poem, “in minor points of detail, the author is sanguine that it is not at all Greek, nor in any sense of the word Archaic,” and this hope is well founded. The spirit and the ideas that pervade ‘The Drama of Kings’ are essentially modern; indeed, they belong to future as much as to contemporary times.
That wind of human voices anguishing
Liberty, then, is the burthen of the drama, which is to show how two mighty nations, “dimly, darkly, for the great Idea,” struggled and fought together, while “one by one came leaders veil’d to each”—“bloody men who juggled with the mystic word of God”—and led them to ruin, “each saying ‘In the name of Liberty.’” When Time is proceeding to tell “how from sorrow came mysterious good,”
Seeing man’s wrong’d Soul hoarded its deep strength
he is interrupted by a confused noise. The drama has begun. After hurriedly muttering that Germania overthrown,
Mad, stricken, lies upon her back and glares
and after disclosing that he is one with Death, and yet deathless, Time quits the stage. From this prologue, we learn that it is one of the objects, if not the chief object, of the drama to exhibit the operation of man’s passion for liberty in the series of events that culminated in the capitulation of Paris, the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine to Prussia, and the unification of Northern Germany. This inextinguishable but often deceived and often defeated passion for liberty performs a similar function in Mr Buchanan’s ‘Drama of Kings’ to that performed by Destiny in the tragedies by Æschylus.
Ours too long hath been a mighty house
Here we may remark that the characters of the “drama” are so highly sublimated that they retain none of the accidental marks of their individuality. This will be a stumbling-block in the way of many readers. But this stripping off of the accidental and revealing the higher, essential, and predominating elements of character dissociated from their commonplace accompaniments, is precisely what Mr Buchanan means by “mystic realism.” The author of ‘The Drama of Kings’ is not the originator of this method, and it cannot be said that he will absolutely have to create the taste that will appreciate his work, but he will assuredly have to develop and cultivate that taste.
We see thee and know thee now by the white immortal brow;
The interview between Buonaparte and a Cardinal in the first part of the trilogy forms a fine contrast with an interview in the second part between Napoleon and a Bishop. To be sure the uncle is in the height of his prosperity, and the nephew is a prisoner at Wilhelmshohe, but this difference in circumstances does not fully explain the difference in their attitudes towards Rome. The nephew is plainly imitating the uncle, but he has not strength enough to perform the part effectively. When the Cardinal threatens, in the name of the Pope, to interpose his spiritual authority against Buonaparte’s sword, the latter replies:
Thou comest a few centuries too late,
But there are other powers working against Buonaparte, which echo the curse of Rome. The Semi-Chorus seeks to hearten and advise the people. If, it sings,
If it will cheer your hearts while ye wait here,
And answering the query, “Shall not our curses drag him down?” this practical minded Semi-Chorus replies:
Nay, but arise, if so your hearts aspire,
When the first part of the “drama” closes, the spirit of Liberty is troubling the soul of Buonaparte—could he dream that she “could live and dwell on earth and rear the race,” he would find out means to wed her to the Titan—but doubt and his own ambition lay the thought, and he is meditating divorce from Josephine, and marriage with some royal bride in order to perpetuate his dynasty.
Where is the perfect State
The most prominent character in the third part of the trilogy is, of course, Count Bismarck, and he is introduced at the close of a chorus of French Sisters of the Red Cross, who are lamenting the misfortunes of Paris. The Chancellor has little sympathy with the wail, and here, and at a later stage of the action, in an interview with a deputy from the City, insists at great length on the necessity of punishing and humiliating France for the social and political mischief she has wrought. Acknowledging that “this thing that men call ‘Liberty’” is “the everlasting principle,” “the secret law, the impulse and the thought whereby men live and grow,” Bismarck, nevertheless, dares, still holding by “this thing whereof the foolish rave,” to declare himself in favour of the Hierarchy:
God above all, and next to God
To this, the chorus—not, we presume, of Red Cross Sisters—replies in a powerful, satiric strain, from which we can give but a short extract.
Because one foolish King hath slain
Because these things have been and are,
O Lord our God whose praise we sing,
To our mind, one of the grandest passages in the whole “drama” is that in which Mr Buchanan gives his rendering of the religious services held by the Emperor of Germany in celebration of his victory. In this part, and in other parts of the poem, we are reminded of Mr Swinburne, but Mr Buchanan is not an imitator. His parody has a deep purpose, and is the natural and appropriate vehicle of the grim, scornful humour with which he regards the theme on which it is employed. Piercing through the conventional language of the worshippers, he boldly represents the Priest invoking the blessing of heaven, and of the people, on the Sword. “Hush!” sings the Priest,
Hush! In the name of the Lord,
With the submission of Paris to the triumphal passage of the German army through her streets, ‘The Drama of Kings’ ends. But the play is followed by an “Epilogue,” spoken by “Time” upon the stage, and an “Epilude,” before the curtain. In the former, “Time” points the moral of the “drama.” This is not the end.
Thus far of evil there has issued forth
The “sandstone Church of Rome, that lie of lies,” has been seen to be slowly decomposing, and “Cæsar’s last ghost,” Imperialism, that “second lie of lies,” has perished for ever. In the “Epilude,” the actor who played Buonaparte, Napoleon, and the Chancellor, who turns out to be Lucifer himself, comes and kneels, with his company, before the Lord. All receive thanks, but Lucifer is especially commended. “Never,” saith the Lord:
Never since the earthly play began
Then Lucifer asks the Lord to listen to a song describing the millennial city or state, which formed part of “Napoleon Fallen” as it was originally printed, and with that song the trilogy ends. That ‘The Drama of Kings’ is a great poem we hope will be apparent from the imperfect outline and from the extracts we have made. It has defects undoubtedly, judged even according to its author’s own design, but it is, nevertheless, a work of extraordinary and original genius.
THE DRAMA OF KINGS.*
SOME months ago we reviewed a “Lyrical Drama,” as its author, Mr. Robert Buchanan, called it, under the name of Napoleon Fallen. Which part of it was lyrical and which part dramatic we never clearly ascertained. Looked upon as a whole it appeared to us as wonderfully short of sense as it was long in words. We did not hesitate to express our opinion freely, and we should have been glad if we had found that, when once the excitement of the great war was over, our lyrical dramatist had himself tacitly acknowledged that Napoleon Fallen, like many other utterances of that time, was full rather of sound than sense, and had let it quietly lie forgotten. But, hard as it is to convince a child who has received a present of a toy drum that the din he makes is as unmeaning as it is unpleasant, still harder is it to convince a poet. Moreover, as the self-satisfied child soon gathers round him an admiring knot of other children, who delight in his noise and only wish that they had the means of joining in it, pronouncing his drumming music, so also your poet has his circle of devoted followers and admiring critics, who, deluding themselves into the belief that his volumes of sounds are the inspirations of the Muses, by their applause urge him on, who needed no urging, to the utmost limits that loud-sounding wordiness can attain. Accordingly Mr. Buchanan’s Napoleon Fallen, which in the spring of the year formed a volume that for a poet was almost moderate, is now republished in a book of nearly five hundred pages. It is not all Napoleon Fallen, for that eccentric performance now forms only one part of a great trilogy. Mr. Buchanan’s predecessor in obscure utterances, one of the first of mystic-realists, when she had to get rid of her Sibylline verses, pursued a contrary and, in our judgment, a wiser plan. For when a poem does not meet ready acceptance with the public, we should certainly think it more prudent to divide it by three than to increase it threefold. However, Mr. Buchanan must know his own business best, and we must admit that in no period in the history of literature has absence of meaning in poetry commanded a higher price than at present. Matters are greatly changed since the days when the poet, as Horace tells us, became obscure because he aimed at brevity. Poets nowadays manage to be obscure, and at the same time to be the very opposite of brief. Mr. Buchanan thinks it needful almost to apologize for “the mere form of the poem and its resemblances to the Greek.” In like manner Snug the Joiner thought it necessary to apologize for his resemblance to a lion. In neither case was the apology necessary, for if Mr. Buchanan and his predecessor in noise, the honest Joiner, even when each “in wildest rage doth roar,” had only kept their own counsel, the one would have been as little suspected of resembling the Greek as the other of resembling the king of animals. Mr. Buchanan goes on to say that “it is the first serious attempt ever made to treat great contemporary events in a dramatic form and very realistically, yet with something of the massive grandeur of style characteristic of the great dramatists of Greece.” Till we had read “the note for the adept” in which this passage occurs, and which unfortunately is placed at the end of the volume, we should have applied a much homelier name to Mr. Buchanan’s writings. What our forefathers called fustian seems to be called now, in the language of mystic-realism, massive grandeur of style. “In minor points of detail,” however, as he goes on to inform us, “the author is sanguine that it is not at all Greek, nor in any sense of the word archaic.” As it is somewhat difficult to decide where minor points of detail begin, we should be glad to know whether the following lines are characteristic of the great dramatists of Greece or are in no sense of the word archaic. We take them from a speech of Professor Jahn, one of the personages in the first part of the Drama of Kings, who is reading a letter received from Marshal Blücher:—
“Thieves!” “cowards!” “windbags!” “men of straw!” “geese!” “swine!”
Leaving our readers to decide how much or how little in the above passage Mr. Buchanan is indebted to the great dramatists of Greece, we will now attempt some analysis of this wonderful trilogy. The three parts of which it is composed are Buonaparte: or, France against the Teuton, Napoleon Fallen, and The Teuton against Paris. As the two Napoleons, the Czar of Russia, the Emperor of Germany, and a few less important Sovereigns, with their chief Ministers, did not afford Mr. Buchanan full scope for the exercise of his dramatic power, recourse was had to supernatural agency. A hint was taken from the Book of Job or from Faust, and just before the prologue, an opening and a closing scene were given in “The Heavenly Theatre,” by way of prelude. Even a prelude, however, is rather too abrupt a beginning for one who aspires to a massive grandeur of style, and so the prelude is preceded by a proem. The proem is conveniently and decorously introduced by a “Dedication to the Spirit of Auguste Comte,” to whom is inscribed “this Drama of Evolution.” We begin then with a dedication, and go on in turn to a proem, a prelude, a prologue, and so at last arrive at the first scene of the drama. We would by the way remark that the audience of “The Heavenly Theatre” is unusually tolerant of iteration. However, even one of Mr. Buchanan’s choruses comes to an end, and an agreeable variety is introduced in the prelude by the sudden appearance of clouds and Lucifer, who, though there is a prologue to follow, yet plays much the same part as Peter Quince in the Midsummer Night’s Dream, and with almost the same success. After he has had his say, the real prologue enters, who is Time. When he has spoken some sixty lines or so, “a confused noise” is stated to be heard, which might, we should imagine, arise either from some echo or from a rival performer. However, he is not discomposed, but goes on speaking till it is time for him to unhood, when he “shows the mask of a Caput Mortuum” and announces, “My name is also Death.” With that the first part of the drama fairly begins, though why drama we cannot tell, as all the characters, Lucifer even included, speak exactly like Mr. Robert Buchanan. Three members of the Tugendbund, who, for any difference we can notice between them, might very well have had their speeches rolled up together into one of those vast soliloquies in which the poet delights, inform the spectator of the miserable state of Germany in 1808. Among other things we learn that “in every corner twinkle weasel’s ears,” and that Buonaparte was so despotic as to tax the poor man’s tobacco. Inspired with indignation at these and like wrongs, the Chorus enters into a lengthy examination of the causes of the French Revolution, and asks:—
Now hark! who lit the spark in the miserable dark?
If Mr. Buchanan had not told us that he aimed at the massive grandeur of style of the Greek dramatists, we should have thought that, consciously or unconsciously, he was parodying the following line in Cock Robin:—
Who’ll be the clerk? I, said the lark, if it’s not in the dark.
Be that as it may, the spark when once kindled grew into a fire so portentous that for the first time in the history of conflagrations “it screamed.” In our modern poems the laws of nature are always coming into collision with the laws of rhyme, and invariably get worsted. Our poet’s second line ends with “up-streamed,” and so his fourth must end with “screamed.” If fire does not scream, so much the worse for it. When the Chorus comes to an end, for want of further rhymes or breath, Buonaparte, with six other emperors or kings, and princes and dukes out of all count, makes his appearance. Did we not know that the French Emperor was no English scholar, and also that he lived at the beginning of the century, we should have imagined that he had studied both Shakspeare and Mr. Swinburne, so successful is he at times in parodying the style of each. We must hasten past the dialogue that ensues, and the Choruses, Semi-Choruses, and Voices that relieve its monotony, to the next scene, where Buonaparte meets a Cardinal, who remonstrates with him on his treatment of the Pope. The Emperor, with little regard to the language of Courts, or to massive grandeur of style, thus ends a long speech:—
Therefore I answer, “To thy puddle, Log!
When he goes on in a page or two to threaten this log in its puddle, the Pope, and says that he will “hale him screaming up and down the earth,” the Cardinal thinks it time to end the dialogue, and goes off leaving “God’s curse behind.” Hereupon Semi-Chorus I. keeps insisting that Semi-Chorus II. should “echo the curse.” To this Semi-Chorus II. very properly objects, and points out the uselessness of curses. However, after four or five pages of argument on the comparative advantages of praying or cursing, “a Voice” is heard which takes the part of Semi-Chorus I., and says, “Echo Rome’s curse.” Semi-Chorus II. is still not convinced, and at the end of about four more pages leaves off where it had begun, and obstinately refuses to have anything to do with either curses or their echoes. Buonaparte then returns and talks to his “Famulus,” in an unbroken speech of rather more than eighteen octavo pages. The Famulus, let us hope, was some poor spirit which, when forced to listen to this awful soliloquy, was rapidly working out its time in purgatory. The Emperor concludes by announcing that he “must have a child,” and must therefore seek a divorce. Inspired with the notion of wedding “Seed of the Czar,” he exclaims:—
. . . with hands outstretch’d I watch
He rises to still higher flights, and begins to talk of the Golden Age, the sleeping Titan, the quiet Sea, Light of the Lotus, and heliotropes, when the Chorus evidently thinks that he is poaching on its ground, and so breaks in. With the help of two Voices, one of which keeps asking, “Whither?” and the other as persistently answers, “O, hither,” Mr. Buchanan brings the first part of the trilogy to a convenient close.
* The Drama of Kings. By Robert Buchanan. London: Strahan & Co. 1871.
The Daily News (23 December, 1871)
Several recently-published works of poetry demand serious consideration for the imposing earnestness of their tone, which claims to be inspired by a sense of anxiety concerning urgent moral, social, and religious questions of the present time. Among these productions one of the first to be noticed is that of Mr. Robert Buchanan, whose literary merits as an accomplished master of poetical diction and versification are generally acknowledged. If these faculties, added to great power of rhetorical expression, and a perfect command of the artistic methods and effects proper to the Greek lyrical drama, were all that is needful in a modern Æschylus, we should hail Mr. Buchanan as a truly classical poet. Mr. Algernon Swinburne, indeed, would dispute his pre-eminence by virtue of the same qualities, while Tennyson would stand at a modest distance, and Browning would be nowhere. There may, however, be a high degree of excellence in form, with a deficiency of substance, a crudeness and unsoundness of conception, a want of truth to nature, an absence of ethical wisdom, most fatal to dramatic or to epic poetry. In either of those two species of composition, it ought to be presumed that the author, whose personality should be kept quite out of sight, is an impartial philosopher or enlightened man of the world. He should have a superior acquaintance with all the varieties of human character, habit, and condition, but should regard them all with the equal eye of compassionate tolerance. He should be a calm witness even of the worst actions performed on the stage of history, and of the most distressing events, believing in the ultimate restoration of moral order, and prophesying, in the spirit of this faith, that wrong shall hereafter be righted, and loss shall be repaired in the common existence of humanity. Mr. Buchanan, though a man of ability and moral refinement, is far from having attained this serene equanimity, by which the imagination is preserved in the state of a clear and placid mirror for the undistorted reflection of surrounding objects. He is disqualified by an over-hasty vehemence of temper for the office of a poet, revealing the spiritual significance of things daily reported and discussed. This he attempts in “The Drama of Kings” (Strahan and Co.). The composition purports to be a “trilogy,” representing, from a divine, and therefore infallible point of view, the conflicts between Bonapartist France and Germany; the first part showing the victories of Napoleon I., and the establishment of his temporary dominion over Europe; the second part consisting of “Napoleon Fallen,” or the surrender of Napoleon III., after his defeat at Sedan; and the third part bringing in “The Teuton against Paris,” with the coronation of the Emperor William at Versailles during the siege. The author tells us, in a prose note on “Mystic Realism,” which is the explanation of his literary mission, that he has thought it worth his while to celebrate these events in song, because he finds that ordinary people have failed to perceive their poetic and mystic sublimity, as they fail in their daily walk through life to feel the spiritual relations, or to discern the ideal and essential characteristics of every object in nature. Mr. Buchanan, the “mystic realist,” esteems himself the possessor of some unique neutral endowment, by which he is made aware of the wonderful and beautiful significance of earthly affairs; and he is thereby entitled to judge of contemporary foreign politics from the standpoint of a heavenly spectator, admitted to the counsels of the Deity, and seated among the Archangels to see the play. This amazing supposition is presented in the framework of prelude and “epilude,” within which the three acts of the dramatic trilogy are inclosed. We scarcely like to tell our readers the manner in which Mr. Buchanan has ventured to introduce the person of the Supreme Being, as president of a company assembled to witness a theatrical performance, in which Lucifer takes the part of Napoleon Bonaparte, and afterwards of Bismarck, for their entertainment. The device is not very witty, and its effect is much more obnoxious to Christian feelings than that of the well-known Prologue to Goethe’s Faust, which might in some sort be excused by the necessity of accounting for the permission granted to Mephistopheles to mislead Faust by insidious suggestions and temptations. Mr. Buchanan is avowedly a Theist, in the Christian sense, and his sincerity and piety are not to be impeached; we hope that he will see the impropriety of the passages to which we advert, and that he will remove them from a future edition of this singular poem, should that be called for. The whole composition, though evincing considerable powers of imaginative idealisation and forcible expression, has the effect of fantastic unreality. The author, with superior literary talents for the manipulation of language, and especially for the construction of verse, is deficient in the faculties required for truly discerning and representing in a dramatic form the characters of individual men. He does not help us to understand the sentiments of a Napoleon or a Bismarck any better than we did before, “Mystic Realism” has read the newspapers, like the rest of us, and has risen to an exalted mood of self-conscious wonderment, but has no peculiar insight, as it fancies, into the inner workings of the mighty world-machine.
their Parisian successors are known as realists. They painted still life with a predilection for rags and dunghills, and women whose hearts were better than their reputations and their circumstances. A few years ago the large and estimable class who are always on the watch for the coming poet believed that Mr. Buchanan was about to inaugurate a similar school of poetry, and rejoiced that the costermongers had found their Wordsworth. Of course the ideal calm and dignity of Wordsworth’s dalesmen was neither possible nor desired; but London life abounds with situations which no one had dared to treat, and which, if treated with courageous sympathy, could not fail to be effective. Mr. Buchanan knew how to present the outside of a heartrending tragedy of the gutter or the garret with frank minute fidelity, and how to ventriloquise from inside of it with eloquence which was sometimes prolix and generally shrill, but always too inventive not to be telling. His admirers naturally expected that having struck a fruitful vein he would continue to work it; but they were mistaken, and really they ought to have known better. His Undertones had shown that he already possessed the inclination for transcendentalism of subject, though he had not yet learnt elevation of handling, and had to fill up a well conceived classical outline with stuff that a schoolboy might write for a music-hall. In the Legends of Inverburn he endeavoured without much success to relieve the homely texture of the idylls by the juxtaposition of weird mediæval grace; but the attempt itself was significant. The Book of Orm with all its elaborate indolent incompleteness of execution, and its multitude of metrical experiments, which owed more to the printer than to the poet, showed that the attempt was not unwarranted: the writer’s ingenuity was as unmistakable, though not so conspicuous, as his fervour; he showed he could imagine as well as insist. One poem, The Lamb of God, even recalls the naïve audacity of Blake, though it has little of his swift fiery child-like subtlety. The Drama of Kings will confirm the impression which must have been left upon more than one reader of the Book of Orm. Mr. Buchanan is essentially a spasmodic poet. His affinities are with Festus and A Life Drama and Balder and The Roman. He is free from the vagueness, the perplexity, the obscurity of his predecessors; he always writes as if he knew what he had to say, though Mr. Bailey’s surviving admirers would probably maintain that that gentleman had something profounder to say if he could only say it; as compared with other poets Mr. Buchanan is long, as compared with his predecessors he is not tedious. The curious thing about him is that in his growing exaltation he should have almost exactly reversed the stages through which Mr. Alexander Smith subsided into a littérateur. But with these minor peculiarities he has all the essential characteristics of the school, its profusion of forcible conceits, the far- fetched paradoxes of its rhetoric, which serve to adorn and disguise its commonplace conceptions, and with these the disinterestedness, the genuine elevation, which comes of being habitually exercised in great matters which are too high for a man, and above all the perpetual excitement, the fever of composition, which is as nearly related to inspiration as prurience to passion. The delirium of this fever has its disadvantages and its compensations: it inflames the mental vision till it is incapable of appreciating the delicate harmonies and the noble repose of the ideal, or the real either for that matter; it flushes everything beautiful or no with a radiance that sometimes for the reader and always for the author supplies the place of beauty. Mr. Buchanan tells the adept in his note on mystic realism that he has hardly patience to read a book or look at a picture, and we who are not adept might have believed it even if we had not been told. At the same time it would be a mistake to suppose that in his more ambitious works he is remarkable for his independence of writers who had gone before him. It would be unreasonable to ask an improvisatore to be scrupulous in avoiding plagiarism. Only those who are calm enough to enter into the ideas of others are calm enough to foster their own till they are fit to appear full-fledged without the aid of borrowed plumage. Mr. Buchanan is quite considerable enough to have a manner of his own, at present he seems to be falling more and more into the least admirable manner of the author of Songs before Sunrise.
“What men call Liberty, and Gods call Peace.”
The thought of this soliloquy is admirably resumed in a choric interlude called the Titan, which is much the best thing in the volume: it is well conceived as a whole, and though the beginning may be rather overloaded, it grows up to perfect simple sweetness at last: it is, of course, too long to quote entire, and it would be cruelty to mutilate it. O si sic omnia.
and as Mr. Buchanan seems particular about acknowledgments, he had better remember that his dedication is in the metre of Mr. Browning’s Aben Ezra (which had been already used for two hymns in the Christian Year), and that Shelley’s Hellas is “a serious attempt to treat great contemporary events in a dramatic form,” and is certainly not more unreal than the Drama of Kings. The main faults of the book are incurable, but the writer is not too old to learn. If he will clear his head once for all of his inflated notion of what poetry in general and his own poetry in particular ought to be, and would feed his imagination on something wholesomer than humanitarian rant, he might come to write verse that will live, or, if it is too late for that, he might come to leave off writing verses.
The English Independent (4 January, 1872 - p.12-13)
THE DRAMA OF KINGS.*
MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN claims to be the poet of mystic realism to this present realistic age. He dropped, he tells us, “into the world a few years ago like a being fallen from another planet.” Everything he saw filled him with wonder and with awe, and “here on the same spot he stands and wonders still.” He has no time for either the Past or the Future; the Present absorbs him. It is so “sublime, unaccountable, and inexhaustible” that it fascinates him. The Past has no wonder, and the Future no mystery to him. Only “what is most real and visible and certain is marvellous, and only that which is marvellous has the least fascination.” And so, living only in this real and marvellous Present, Mr. Buchanan has seen it with the poet’s mystic vision, and then has sung his vision out to men. His earlier poems, of which perhaps the best were his “London Poems,” touched men’s hearts only because they were so true to nature and to life; they were the lyrics, sweet and sad, of living human hearts. But in this new work Mr. Buchanan, without forsaking the leading principles of his former works, has carried them into a different and a higher sphere. He has aimed at greater things here than he has attempted before. He tells us himself—what it would have been, perhaps, better taste to have allowed his readers to discover for themselves—that this “Drama of Kings” is “the first serious attempt ever made to treat great contemporary events in a dramatic form and very realistically, yet with something of the massive grandeur of style characteristic of the great dramatists of Greece.” That he has not wholly failed in his ambitious experiment no one who reads this poem can possibly deny; that he has wholly succeeded we are sure he would be the first to doubt.
“Who, like scattered sheep,
but in vain; and her sorrow is taken up in some exquisite choruses, whose only fault is that their rigid adherence to the classical models gives to them occasionally an artificial effect that is fatal to anything like dramatic realism. A long monologue, of unequal merit, of Napoleon I. closes this part of the poem.
“Evil must suffer—Good ordains to suffer.”
Mr. Buchanan tells us that men may find different meanings in a poem, according to their different lights; but we doubt whether Napoleon III., under any light, would have been seen reading a chapter in the Gospels, and then proceeding to use the sufferings of One, whom it is almost blasphemy to name by his side, to “point the moral” of the richly deserved punishment he brought down on his own head.
“God? Who hath look’d on God? Where doth He dwell?
And after telling how he had married again, and again been pressed by the old cry, “Honour” into arms, he ends thus:—
“I was a worm, ever a worm, and starved,
It is in passages of strong, vivid description like this that Mr. Buchanan’s chief power in this poem lies. What an awful picture of Paris during the siege is painted in the following lines:—
“There Fire hath cast our fairest temples down,
Now and then there are images of great poetic beauty and power, as, for example—
“What man art thou,
Or this description of the Papal Church—
“That lie of lies, the sandstone Church of Rome,
Our only surprise is that a man who can write like this should be guilty of such incongruous images as to speak of a strong will moving
“to its desire
Or of cheeks that
“flash pale (!) for thee.”
Or of two such wretchedly weak lines as these—
“Through human thought as through a cave
Could any conception be more undignified and inappropriate than God “creeping,” “as through a cave” through thought?
One misprint has caught our eye. On page 279, “Winter, 1871,” should be Winter, 1870.
* The Drama of Kings. By Robert Buchanan. Strahan.
The Illustrated London News (6 January, 1872 - p.14)
A not very intelligible dedication, addressed to the spirit of Comte, and a very musical “poem” usher in The Drama of Kings, by Robert Buchanan (Strahan and Co.). And even then the reader does not without more ado enter upon what may or may not be enjoyment of the main business; for, as if by way of appropriate illustration of the difficulties encountered in real life by whosoever would obtain access to Royalty, there are still “a prelude before the curtain” and a “prologue” to be boldly confronted or shiftily circumvented before tooth and nail—whetted, it may be, or, on the other hand, dulled by hope deferred—can be dug into the actual “drama of kings.” The drama, as it is not very aptly named, being devoid of action and less resembling a play than a versified study of character or a collection of imaginary conversations, after the fashion, saving the prose, of the late Mr. Landor, seems to have been intended to recall, in point of structure, the method of the ancient Greek tragedians. For instance, the whole is divided into three parts; there are intercalary odes sung by chorus or semichorus; one of the parts is entitled “The Teuton against Paris;” and the chorus takes part in the dialogue, and, as the saying is, “speaks like a book.” The great advantage of this system is that, in the “choric interludes” the author vindicates the claim which has generally been allowed to him of being an eloquent, elegant, original, and powerful master of lyric poetry; whereas the rest of his “drama” might cause some people to doubt whether he did not commit the common mistake of confounding the faculty of bewildering with that of impressing, and the use of “wild and hurling words” with the exercise of that “strange power of speech” possessed by the Ancient Mariner. He, however, himself gives due warning that, if you would properly appreciate him, you must first of all become mysticised. It is not everybody who can arrive at that consummation; but, if to be mystified would do as well, perhaps even the dedicatory poem would be in many cases sufficient preparation.
The Morning Post (11 January, 1872 - p.3)
There was never a period when the verse of Lowell was more applicable than now. The poets seek to grasp the skirts of the present time, and be dragged into view singing the cuckoo-cry of the day. Lowell sings that now—
“The poet is an empty rhymer,
And corroborative of this the world finds Browning striking his lyre to Napoleonic measures, and Robert Buchanan singing in “The Drama of Kings” of Bonaparte, and “Napoleon Fallen,” and “The Teuton against Paris.” The tide of popularity and public interest must bear along the bark of the lyrist of our day. He seldom selects some grand ennobling theme, the act of a hero, or some sacred story, working lovingly at it, and waiting, well satisfied that if his work is good it will be recognised all in due time. But the pence and the praise must come together, so the poet doffs his cap to the public instead of winning from the ages to come the laurel leaf and the crown. Produced in a white heat, and without the revision which calm judgment brings, such works must of necessity be crude, imperfect, fatally defective alike in conception and execution. In “The Drama of Kings” Mr. Buchanan displays an abundant supply of musical language, fancy, vigour, but it abounds in puerilities, and an echo of the master-mind that created “Manfred” is plainly audible from the proem to the epilude. The dedication is “To the spirit of Auguste Comte,” and is well and powerfully written. Then follows proem and prelude and prologue, after which come the imperial names that shed lustre on the earliest years of the present century—Napoleon, and his brother Jerome, King of Westphalia; the King of Saxony; Alexander the First, Czar of Russia; and others. The scene is Erfurt, the time October, 1808, during the great Congress of Powers. The Baron von Stein, a member of the Tugendbund, thus speaks of Bonaparte, “the Corsican”—
“Kings lick his feet like dogs; he lifts his finger,
The German hatred thus expressed was to be glutted with revenge in a way little thought of by the brilliant personages of that bright scene which Von Stein was gazing at. And eager to obtain the plaudit of the conqueror of their country, Wieland and Goëthe are foremost. Not so Blücher:—
“Marshal Vorwärtz, our old fire-eater,
Many of the choruses scattered throughout this huge volume have the magical charm which belongs only to the sweetest verse. To underrate lucidity of expression is a common fault of the modern school of poetry, but Mr. Robert Buchanan sings in a clear, powerful voice, and the listener is never at a loss to collect the thought or feeling conveyed in his melodious utterances. With lyrical faculty of a high order, he fails in that concentration and exquisite polish which can only be attained by long study and attentive thought. No poet can hope to attain the highest rank unless his genius is linked to an indefatigable industry. Mr. Robert Buchanan claims for his poem “the massive grandeur of style characteristic of the great dramatists of Greece.” We admit the massive nature of his book, but fail to recognise the Hellenic grandeur.
* The Divine Tragedy. By H. W. Longfellow. London: Routledge and Sons.
[Archibald Stodart-Walker opens Chapter V of Robert Buchanan - The Poet of Modern Revolt with the following paragraph:
“The year 1873 will always have a unique place in the bibliographical history of Mr. Buchanan. It was in this year that he risked a fall with the Philistine, and succeeded even beyond his most ambitious hope. ‘The Ishmael of Song’ had the courage to publish the two volumes, ‘St. Abe and his Seven Wives,’ and ‘White Rose and Red,’ anonymously, with the result that he soon had his enemies in his net. With unanimous voice those who had scourged the poet before joined in the song of praise. ‘Pest on Mr. Buchanan’s dreaming! to oblivion with all such aspiring versifiers! here we have a poet indeed—here is altogether the true characteristic of genius!’ and so on. The poet was a poet of patience. ‘St. Abe’ ran rapidly into four or five editions, and then the thunderbolt burst. The author of ‘St. Abe’ was Robert Buchanan, the Ishmael of Song, the outcast Scotsman—he who sang of trulls and costermongers—‘the Celtic madman’; and there was sadness over the land.”
Stodart-Walker is wrong about the year. The first reviews of St. Abe and His Seven Wives came out in December, 1871 and Buchanan managed to keep up the pretence of the anonymous American author for nearly two years, until the autumn of 1873. By issuing St. Abe and The Drama of Kings simultaneously, some journals reviewed both works in the same edition. The Morning Post reviewed both on the same page (the review of St. Abe is available here) but The Graphic fell deeper into Buchanan’s trap and followed its review of The Drama of Kings with St. Abe, making a direct comparison between the two. Rather than transcribe these reviews separately, the original page can be accessed below.]
The Graphic (13 January, 1872)
Saint Abe and his Seven Wives (1872)