ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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BOOK REVIEWS - POETRY (18)

 

The Poetical Works (1874)

Balder the Beautiful (1877)

 

The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan (1874)

kingedad

[Advert from The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser (24 January, 1874 - p.8).]

 

The Graphic (21 February, 1874)

     “The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan,” Vol. I. (Henry S. King), is a welcome instalment of the collected edition of the author’s poems. It contains some of the best of his earlier writings—notably “Meg Blane,” one of the best things he ever wrote, and, amongst the ballads, we are glad to meet again with “Judas Iscariot,” which, in spite of some slight wilfulness in point of metre, has always struck us as unusually grand, both in conception and execution. We shall look forward with interest for the remaining volumes of the series.

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The British Quarterly Review (April, 1874)

The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan. Vols. I. and II. Ballads and Romances; Ballads and Poems of Life. H. S. King and Co.

     Mr. Buchanan’s worst enemies, we believe, would not deny that he possesses power of a certain sort. If he continues to exercise the self-severity, which we can trace in these two volumes of his collected works, he will give a guarantee for a judgment which may astonish some of them. He has reprinted from his earliest volume, ‘Undertones,’ four pieces; ‘The Ballad of Persephone’ (which there appears as ‘Ades, King of Hell’); ‘Polypheme’s Passion;’ ‘Pan;’ and ‘The Last Song of Apollo;’ and these he has submitted to such a rigid process of revision and retrenchment that he shows the growth of real discernment. Whole passages, too much suggestive of modern feeling, have been pruned away, involved passages rewritten, and doubtful terms struck out under the exacting demands of simplicity; till now, we do not hesitate to say, that ‘Pan’ and ‘Persephone’ are as clear and finished exercises in their peculiar line as are to be found anywhere out of Matthew Arnold or Goethe. There is, however, a good deal that is arbitrary in Mr. Buchanan’s arrangement, which has doubtless been dictated by a desire to give in each volume as it comes out at least some impression of the width and variety of his range. Such mystico-lyrical poems as ‘The Dead Mother;’ and ‘The Ballad of Judas Iscariot,’ with its weird simplicity, resorted to with the direct purpose of loosening certain hard theological constructions, appear in the same section these classical restorations, under the head of ‘Ballads and Romances;’ which, too, includes such semi-historical renderings as ‘The Death of Roland’ and ‘The Battle of Drumliemoor.’ The second section, headed ‘Ballads and Poems of Life,’ is more homogeneous. It contains chiefly poems which had appeared in ‘London Poems,’ or which professedly belonged to that series, with one or two from the volume called ‘North-coast Poems.’ ‘Meg Blane’ is the most noticeable of this set, and shows a remarkable power of rising to true tragedy, by faithfully following out and exhibiting the workings of simple elements of feeling that at length break back upon themselves like a spent wave, for want of a natural object. Different as they seem in mere theme, ‘The Scaith of Bartle’ and ‘Kitty Kemble’ really belong to this class; while ‘The Starling,’ with its dry, bald, grotesque humoursomeness could not well be otherwise classed. ‘The Wake of Tim O’Hara’ is a piece of strong Irish realism, and shows Mr. Buchanan’s rare power of embodying general traits in vivid word-pictures. From the mystic weird suggestiveness of the ‘Ballad of Judas,’ to the utter realism of the London poem, ‘Nell;’ from the airy, fanciful conceits of ‘Clari in the Well,’ so daintily wrought out, to the severity of some of the portions of ‘Polypheme’s Passion,’ we must admit that there is a wide reach. This reach, however, Mr. Buchanan has traversed with more or less of success; and if we say that he has uniformly been firmest in his touch when his themes seemed the most perilous, we only say that he is gifted with strong dramatic instinct, which, whatever his  faults, enables him to lay hold of new subjects, and to treat them with a freshness and breadth of grasp alike surprising. In the poem ‘Bexhill, 1866.’ which stands as a kind of preface to the second section, Mr. Buchanan has given us some glimpses of his personal determinations, which students will value. It is very odd to notice, however, that Mr. Buchanan is not, in our opinion, nearly so successful in his corrections of his more realistic poems, as he is in those of the classical reproductions and the more fanciful ones. Especially do we demur to some corrections in ‘The Battle of Drumliemoor.’ The second volume besides the remaining ‘Ballads and Poems of Life,’ contains ‘Lyrical Poems,’ including selections from the ‘Undertones,’ ‘Songs of the Terrible Year 1870,’ and the series of sonnets entitled ‘Faces on the Wall.’ The vigour and variety of Mr. Buchanan’s range are made still more strikingly manifest whatever may be said of details. The London poem, ‘Liz,’ and ‘Tom Dunstan’ (which has a rattle of humour, made more telling by a grotesque thread of pathos run through it), strike us as the best of the class. Nothing could surpass ‘Poet Andrew’ and ‘Willie Baird’ in a simple realism of manner that gives force to the sentiment. There are some exquisite lyrics,—‘The Songs of the Terrible Year’ are unequal; and one or two of the sonnets, ‘Faces on the Wall,’ are carefully finished.

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The Examiner (2 May, 1874)

MR BUCHANAN AS SELF-CRITIC AND AS POET.

     The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan. Vol. I. Ballads and Romances; Ballads and Poems of Life. Vol. II. Ballads and Poems of Life; Lyrical Poems, &c. H. S. King.

     When a man says that he is no metaphysician, the disclaimer is usually followed by some outrageous dogma concerning the deepest problems of metaphysics. No metaphysics as a rule means bad metaphysics. And the same holds true of all sciences or departments of study relating to the actions, productions, and destinies of man. We may not study these scientifically or methodically, but we cannot avoid thinking about them, and forming and expressing our opinions; and it gives no additional authority to our conclusions in one particular department to say that we know nothing about it systematically. Some such reflection as this must occur to everybody who knows anything about Mr Robert Buchanan; for Mr Buchanan is constantly protesting that he abhors criticism and at the same time scattering criticisms on every hand, even in his own name. And although this reflection might have come in more appositely in a review of Mr Buchanan’s prose works, it is not out of place here; because Mr Buchanan is so delightfully inconsistent that he cannot keep criticism out of his poetry; he must be playing the critic, and so he takes to exercising the faculty on himself. Of course he goes absurdly wrong. Let me not be misunderstood: I am speaking now not of Thomas Maitland—it is time that that unfortunate pseudonym were forgotten—but of Robert Buchanan under his own name and as he appears in these two volumes. To the second division of his poetry, which he entitles “Ballads and Poems of Life,” Mr Buchanan prefixes the following octosyllables:—

By mother’s side I draw descent
From Saxon squires most excellent,
Fat fellows, innocent of soul,
If lovers of the gaudriole;
By father’s side I heirship trace
To many a seer of Celtic race,
Whose blood transmitted down to me,
Puts glamour into all I see.
Saxon and Celt, a modern creature,
Dower’d with a kind of double nature;
Eager to laugh, yet never quite
Escaping to the full free light,
Content to brood, yet constantly
Disturbed by gleams of drollery;
I sing with contradictions rife,
My modern songs of death and life.

     A flippant reader, without being very eager to laugh at this, might be put in mind of Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s reflection—“I am a fellow o’ the strangest mind i’ the world; I delight in masques and revels sometimes altogether;” or of the “foolish extravagant spirit” of Holofernes, “full of forms, figures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions, revolutions.” In one point of view this self-dissection of Mr Buchanan’s is of the very essence of the provincial spirit as apprehended and incarnated by Shakespeare. But from every point of view it is criticism, a crude attempt at the most ambitious kind of scientific criticism, an endeavour to get at the characteristics of poetic work by studying the evolution of the author. And although Mr Buchanan would probably say that he is no physiologist, the passage involves a crude hypothesis of hereditary transmission, stated with a confidence that few physiologists would venture to assume.
     This self-criticism of Mr Buchanan’s is an additional proof that he had better let criticism alone. The kind of criticism is such as one generally shrinks from applying to living authors: but since Mr Buchanan has led the way, we accept the invitation, and beg to assure him that his physiology is questionable, and that his critical conclusion is an entire mistake. There is power in Mr Buchanan’s poetry; without being a great poet, he has a marked and impressive individuality; but it is not Celtic. One hopes that in tracing his descent Mr Buchanan followed more trustworthy documents than mere family names, which are very uncertain guidance in a mixed nationality; but, be that as it may, though Mr Buchanan’s maternal ancestors were fat soulless Saxon squires, with a love for the gaudriole, and his paternal ancestors were Celtic seers, there can be no manner of doubt that Mr Buchanan himself is Lowland Scotch. There is not a trace of Celtic glamour in Mr Buchanan’s poetry. I say this in no spirit of gibing and grinning criticism, of which Mr Buchanan has a very proper horror; it is my serious and deliberate impression that Mr Buchanan has none of the delicacy and softness of tone that seem to me to be characteristic of the Celt. Nor is it putting Mr Buchanan into ignoble company to class him with the Lowland Scotch, though the Celtic glamour is more romantic, and he would apparently prefer it. The Lowland Scotch have produced Burns, Scott, Carlyle, the Covenanters, and the Border Ballads, compatriots of whom Mr Buchanan need not be ashamed. He has more affinity with the Covenanters than with Burns or Scott or Carlyle, lacking as he does the supreme humour of Burns, and the easy catholicity of Scott, and being altogether a man of smaller and narrower nature than any of these three master-spirits; but he has a certain hardness and strength, and rugged kindliness, that predominate in all the manifestations of the race of which Burns and Scott and Carlyle are the supreme literary outcome. If, indeed, one had been asked to trace Mr Buchanan’s lineage by critical intuition or second-sight, one would have set him down as the inheritor of the blood or the brains of some old border marauder and ballad-writer, say the forgotten author of “Clerk Saunders” or of “Annie of Lochroyan.” Mr Buchanan unquestionably possesses the power of writing ballads and telling gloomy tales; and, whatever may be his material ancestry, is entitled to claim spiritual kindred with that part of the British race which has been most fertile in the production of such literature. “The Dead Mother,” a ballad put into the mouth of a woman who cannot rest in her grave because her children are cruelly abused by a step-mother, has all the power of creeping horror that lives in the old ballads; it gradually takes hold of you with the same irresistible chilling hand. Here is part of it:—

I.

As I lay asleep, as I lay asleep,
Under the grass as I lay so deep,
As I lay asleep in my white death-serk,
Under the shade of Our Lady’s Kirk,
I waken’d up in the dead of night,
I waken’d up in my shroud o’ white,
And I heard a cry from far away,
And I knew the voice of my daughter May:
“Mother, mother, come hither to me!
Mother, mother, come hither and see!
Mother, mother, mother dear,
Another mother is sitting here:
My body is bruised, in pain I cry,
All night long on the straw I lie,
I thirst and hunger for drink and meat,
And mother, mother, to sleep were sweet!”
I heard the cry, though my grave was deep,
And awoke from sleep, and awoke from sleep.

II.

I awoke from sleep, I awoke from sleep,
Up I rose from my grave so deep!
The earth was black, but overhead
The stars were yellow, the moon was red;
And I walked along all white and thin,
And lifted the latch and enter’d in,
And reach’d the chamber as dark as night,
And though it was dark my face was white:
“Mother, mother, I look on thee!
Mother, mother, you frighten me!
For your cheeks are thin and your hair is grey!”
But I smiled, and kiss’d her fears away;
I smooth’d her hair and I sang a song,
And on my knee I rock’d her long:
“O mother, mother, sing low to me—
I am sleepy now, and I cannot see!”
I kiss’d her, but I could not weep,
And she went to sleep, she went to sleep.

     The austere, heart-crushing pathos of this ballad runs through all the best of Mr Buchanan’s poetry. His most characteristic and distinctive work is in this key. It is the redeeming side of Mr Buchanan’s rough self-assertion, and want of openness to sensuous beauty and soft genial influences, that he has constituted himself the sympathetic champion of the overlooked, the despised, the rejected, the uncared-for children of humanity. One is safe to predict that it is by “Meg Blane,” “Nell,” “The Scaith o’ Bartle,” “Liz,” “Tom Dunstan, or the Politician,” “Jane Lewson,” and one or two more poems and ballads in the same key, that Mr Buchanan will be longest remembered; they constitute, at least, his best title to remembrance, as being in the vein most distinctively and individually his. All Mr Buchanan’s work out of this vein is more or less imitative and artificial. In this vein he is powerful, puts a spell upon our hearts, and makes us feel that he is really and truly a poet, and not merely an ambitious versifier. There is no resisting his hold upon us as, line by line, he reveals to us, with penetrating sympathy, the deep heart’s suffering of some poor victim of personal cruelty, or social neglect, or pitiless world-forces. In his sketches of “De Berny” and “Kitty Kemble,” whose lives were not without a certain sunshine, he delineates with great skill, although he seems to struggle throughout with half-suppressed contempt for his subjects; but he enters the most obscure nooks and recesses of the tangled minds and strangely-pained hearts of such subjects as “Meg Blane” and “Nell” with wonderful imaginative power, and lays bare the story of their lives with most fascinating art. This championship of wronged, bruised, down-trodden lives, is the animating principle of Mr Buchanan’s best work. It directs his choice of subjects as much in classical mythology as in London streets, or on the Scottish coast; wherever he goes, whether in observation or in imagination, he is drawn, as by natural affinity, towards unregarded sufferings and the heart-eating sense of injustice and oppression. Uncouth Polypheme, hopelessly exiled by his indivestible monstrosity from the love of Galatea; Pan, with the soul of a God, cursed by the ruling powers of the world with a goatish shape; Hades, hungering for a ray of beauty to cheer his gloomy kingdom—such are the subjects on which Mr Buchanan’s imagination fixes when he reads the rich mythology of the Greeks. He detects, and brings into strong light, the possibilities of unhappiness in that fair polytheism; his sympathies go naturally with the degraded, ill- starred, mis-shapen gods outside the circle of the Olympians and their favourites. There is no inconsistency between this humane side of Mr Buchanan’s work and his less amiable manifestations; criticism may be sure that it is far from the foundations of a man’s being when it cannot find a unity of spirit in all his work, whether in prose or in verse. The spirit that leads a man to become the champion of neglected causes wears quite another look when it prompts him to fiery assertion of what he conceives to be his own just claims, or dogmatic and bitter detraction of men whom he conceives to be unduly exalted in public esteem. Yet it is throughout essentially the same spirit; and the highest testimony to Mr Buchanan’s power is that his tales of despised and oppressed lives fascinate us and win our admiration, even when we are filled with hostility to his narrow dogmatism in other directions.
                                                                                                                           THOMAS COPELAND.

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Glasgow Herald (26 May, 1874)

     (2) The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan.
     Although still a young man, Mr Robert Buchanan has written a great quantity of poetry and prose, a collected edition of which, in five volumes, the Messrs King & Company have commenced to publish. Of course, Mr Buchanan is not going to print all that he has written, because, like every poet capable of growing, he has produced some things of which his maturer judgment cannot approve. He has, therefore, resolved to exclude a number of pieces from the present collection; and probably, as he grows older and wiser, he will purge future editions still more carefully. We venture to predict, especially, that he will modify, if he does not altogether change, some of the critical judgments which he has uttered in his prose compositions. In the meantime, however, it is only with the first volumes of his poems that we have to deal. Of Mr Buchanan, it may be said that he seldom, if ever, writes without a specific purpose—that he does not, we mean, write for art’s sake alone. He is not in the habit of selecting his subjects merely because they will afford him the opportunity of producing some beautiful artistic effect. His thought travels beyond his subject into the region of morals, religion, or politics. This peculiarity of his nature is clearly indicated in a small preliminary poem, in which he strikes the keynote of his somewhat commonplace poetic purpose:—

“To show the tyranny of majorities,
The cruelty of social fallacies;
To war against the Inquisition, whether
He who affirms the judgment swear by God
Or by the fetish of a microscope;
To hold forth hope for every living thing;
To remind moralists that man’s worst crimes
Are not his crimes against society;
To speak in passion the one needful word
For woman, vindicating from man’s lust
The white slave feminine of modern life;
To essay the Soul’s song in a troubled age
Of spiritual headsmen and police;
To put the Celtic glamour o’er men’s eyes
Much troubled by the garish glare of day;
To fight oppression, to assail the flesh,
To raise the basest and to brand the best—
Go forth, O Songs—bread cast upon the water,
Return to me (if ye do return)
Yonder on the great Ocean’s further shore.”

     The second poem in the first volume, “The ballad of Judas Iscariot,” is a good illustration of Mr Buchanan’s moral and spiritual philosophy. The ballad might have been called “The Redemption of Judas Iscariot.” Mr Buchanan’s religion is of the loftiest type; it would damn nobody, but find a means of saving the basest of mankind. We suspect that it would include the redemption of even Lucifer—who is finally saved, by the way, in Baily’s “Festus.” Burns only went the length of saying that Nickie Ben might “hae a chance,” if he would only “tak’ a thocht and men’.” In his ballad, Mr Buchanan narrates the endeavours of the soul of Judas to hide its body:—

“’Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
     Lay in the Field of Blood;
’Twas the Soul of Judas Iscariot
     Beside the body stood.  .  .  .

Then the soul of Judas Iscariot
     Did make a gentle moan—
‘I will bury underneath the ground
     My flesh and blood and bone.

‘I will bury deep beneath the soil,
     Lest mortals look thereon;
And when the wolf and raven come
     The body will be gone!

‘The stones of the field are sharp as steel,
     And hard and cold, God wot;
And I must bear my body hence
     Until I find a spot!’”

But for many weary years the Soul cannot find a suitable spot. Do what the Soul may, the body will not be buried. On a pool of stagnant water, into which it is thrown, it floats like wood. At length the Soul, bearing the body, comes to a lighted hall, within which wedding guests are assembled, waiting apparently, for some late member of the party. Before this hall the Soul lays down its burden, and runs “swiftly to and fro”:—

“To and fro, and up and down,
     He ran so swiftly there,
As round and round the frozen pole
     Glideth the lean white bear.”

The Bridegroom, hearing the sound of feet without, inquires what it is, and one of the guests, looking out, says it is a wolf making a black track in  the snow. Again a moan is heard, and another guest, going to the door, announces, “fierce and low,” that ti is the Soul of Judas Iscariot. Then the Bridegroom himself comes to the door with a light in his hand:—

“The Bridegroom stood in the open door,
     And he was clad in white,
And far within the Lord’s Supper
     Was spread so broad and bright.

The Bridegroom shaded his eyes and looked,
     And his face was bright to see;
‘What dost thou here at the Lord’s Supper
     With thy body’s sins?’ said he.

’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
     Stood black, and sad, and bare—
‘I have wandered many nights and days;
     There is no light elsewhere.’

’Twas the wedding guests cried out within,
     And their eyes were fierce and bright—
‘Scourge the soul of Judas Iscariot
     Away into the night!’

The Bridegroom stood in the open door,
     And he waved hands still and slow,
And the third time that he waved his hands,
     The air was thick with snow.

And of every flake of falling snow,
     Before it touched the ground,
There came a dove, and a thousand doves
     Made sweet sound.

’Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
     Floated away full fleet,
And the wings of the doves that bare it off
     Were like to its winding sheet.

’Twas the Bridegroom stood at the open door,
     And beckoned, smiling sweet;
’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot,
     Stole in, and fell at his feet.

‘The holy supper is spread within,
     And the many candles shine,
And I have waited long for thee
     Before I poured the wine!’

The supper wine is poured at last,
     The lights burn bright and fair,
Iscariot washes the Bridegroom’s feet,
     And dries them with his hair.”

     The same spirit of a rather kindly humanity runs through all those poems in which Mr Buchanan deals with human sufferings, hopes, and endeavours. No subject, however humble, or even ghastly, in its moral bearings, can frighten him. It is sufficient for him to feel that every human subject has divine relations; and that human dogma, being merely a provisional view of truth, cannot possibly indicate the fulness of divine charity, nor foreclose it. He deals very tenderly, therefore, with certain victims of our social system. We incline to think that, on the whole, he is in the right, and that a Poet can seldom fail on the side of sympathy.
     The whole contents of the three volumes supply good specimens of Mr Buchanan’s poetic powers; but we have noticed them on former occasions, so that they don’t call for special criticism. They are fluent and brilliant, and indicate the possession of faculties which have not yet come to maturity. That Mr Buchanan will ripen there can, we hope, be no doubt; and by-and-by he will give us poems in which thought will be far less overladen by torrents of flashing words. Indeed, Mr Buchanan has already made progress since the date at which most of these volumes were produced; and there is warrant for thinking that “St Abe and His Seven Wives” is a stronger and more original work than anything which he has ever written.

     (2) The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan. Volumes I., II., and III. Ballads and Romances; Ballads and Poems of Life. London: Henry S. King & Co.

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The Guardian (3 June, 1874)

     Mr. Robert Buchanan earned at once a genuine reputation as a poet by his “Undertones;” and though of late years, instead of accustoming his muse to guarded accent and bated breath, he has encouraged her to be daring, adventurous, and excited, he has not forfeited a distinctly high position among the writers of verse. Of his Poetical and Prose Works, to be published (King) in five volumes, two volumes, consisting wholly of verse, are before us. They contain many  poems, and more passages, or great beauty; but, taken as a whole, they convey an impression that Mr. Buchanan is apt to depart from literary self-control in the process of writing fast and feeling earnestly.

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The Academy (6 June, 1874 - p.624-626)

The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan. In Three Volumes. (London: Henry S. King & Co., 1874.)

THE task which Mr. Robert Buchanan has undertaken in these three volumes is not by any means light of its own nature, nor is it one to be lightly judged; for he has in no wise contented himself with a mere reprint of his poetical productions, or of such as he chose to reproduce. On the contrary, the work before us is of a far more ambitious cast. Mr. Buchanan has arranged his selected poems on an entirely new model; has given them, in many cases, new headings; and by dint of introductory verses, connecting links, mottoes, and the like means, has done his best to induce us to believe that the whole work possesses an inward as well as an outward unity, and is to be regarded as possessing a peculiar and quite extraordinary value on that account. He tells us in so many words that part of it at least might be called “The Book of Robert Buchanan,” and he allows us to see pretty clearly that he intends the whole to be regarded in very much the same light. It is quite obvious that a proceeding of this kind is open to very serious objection. It is, to begin with, improbable that any arrangement of the kind will be more than approximately true; it is certain that it would be in any case better left to the reader, and it is above all things objectionable, in that it introduces foreign matter into the region of things poetical, and tends to remove the work with which it deals from the operation of the one question of true poetical criticism, the question stated forty years ago by Victor Hugo, “L’ouvrage est-il bon ou est-il mauvais?”
     That we may not fall into the same error with Mr. Robert Buchanan, it is necessary, in the first place, to consider what it is that he has thus placed before us, and in so doing it is convenient to adopt his own divisions. Of these there are some eight or nine. The first, “Ballads and Romances,” consists of poems mainly classical or romantic in subject. In this, as in most of his other sections, Mr. Buchanan’s principle of classification obliges him to neglect the one sound basis of arrangement—chronological order. But the result has this one merit, that it exhibits the author at his best and at his worst, and enables the reader to form at the very outset a pretty fair notion of what he has to expect. “The Ballad of Judas Iscariot,” which stands second in the volume, is, we do not hesitate to assert, the high-water mark of Mr. Robert Buchanan’s poetical performance. He has never done anything better, and he has very seldom done anything so good. It would not be fair to object that the subject is an unusually promising one, and unusually easy to treat, for it is possible to spoil the very best of subjects—how possible only the painful critic knows; and there is no spoiling in these verses:—

“The Bridegroom stood in the open door
     And he waved hands still and slow,
And the third time that he waved his hands
     The air was thick with snow.

And of every flake of falling snow
     Before it touched the ground
There came a dove, and a thousand doves
     Made sweet sound.

’Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
     Floated away full fleet,
And the wings of the doves that bare it off
     Were like its winding sheet.

’Twas the bridegroom stood at the open door,
     And beckoned smiling sweet;
’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
     Stole in and fell at his feet.

‘The Holy Supper is spread within,
     And the many candles shine,
And I have waited long for thee
     Before I poured the wine!’”

Nothing more effective than the monosyllabic feet in the line we have italicised could have been devised. But unfortunately the remaining poems of the section are very far inferior to this. With the exception of “Pan,” which is really powerful and well written, there is hardly one of them which is not below mediocrity, and some are positively bad. The worst is perhaps “The Ballad of Persephone;” it is written in a style more ornamented and ambitious than Mr. Buchanan usually affects, and can only render its readers thankful that there is so little of it. A schoolboy of sixteen might very excusably write verses like the following; but there could hardly be an excuse for his republishing them:—

“One sunbeam swift with sickly flare
     On white arms waving high did gleam,
     What time she shriek’d, and the strong stream
Leapt up and grasped her by the hair.
     And all was dark. With wild heads bowed
     The forests murmur’d, and black cloud
Split spumy on the mountain-tops with fire and portent loud!”

But the poems of this section are to be taken as illustrating only a casual phase of the grand subject, Mr. Robert Buchanan’s mind. The division which follows, and which includes the greater part of the first two volumes, represents the matter on which he permanently occupies himself. These Ballads and Poems of Life are occupied almost exclusively with subjects drawn from contemporary low life, from the fortunes of Scottish peasantry, or of the haunters of London streets and alleys. Within these limits their range both of subject and merit is pretty wide. Many of them are little more than faint Tennysonian echoes of the “Dora” class, and of exceedingly little value from any point of view. Of these the “Scaith o’ Bartle” is decidedly the best. Some of the shorter pieces, more lyrical in form, are good; such as the    “Starling,” and “The Wake of Tim O’Hara.” The longest and most ambitious piece in the collection is “Meg Blane.” It constitutes, with two London pieces, “Nell” and “Liz,” the main strength of Mr. Buchanan’s attack. The heroine—neither maid, widow, nor wife—dwells alone on the wild Scottish shore with her idiot son, supporting herself by fishing, active in storm and wreck, and always with a mixture of hope and fear looking, among the sailors whom fair or foul weather brings to the coast, for the father of her child. In the one waif saved, mainly by her energy, from a wreck, she finds him—only to discover that he is married and lost to her. They part with no violent demonstrations, but her heart is  broken, and she dies ere long. This fable is a good one, and many readers, we doubt not, have been, and will be attracted by the so-called realism of the descriptions, the splash and spume of the storm, the interspersions of piety, and the just and never-failing pathos of a collapsed ideal. All these attractions—attractions be it noted of the matter mainly—we freely grant to “Meg Blane,” but there our praise must stop. The fisher-hut, Meg Blane herself, her idiot son, her thoughts and ways, which a master would have given us in a few strong lines, adapted and adequate to the subject, are treated with endless fluency, so as to render quotation impossible. The storm, greatly as it intends, is full of false notes, and the metres, especially those of the first and fourth part, which consist of irregular choric stanzas, give evidence of Mr. Buchanan’s deplorable insensibility to rhythm and harmony. The author explains his attitude with regard to the poems of this section clearly enough in an Envoi with which he closes his first volume. We may give two stanzas of it without comment for the present:—

“I do not sing for Schoolboys or Schoolmen.
     To give them ease I have no languid theme,
When weary with the wear of book and pen,
     They seek their trim poetic Academe;
Nor can I sing them amorous ditties, bred
Of too much Ovid on an empty head.

I do not sing aloud in measured tone
     Of those fair paths the easy-soul’d pursue;
Nor do I sing for Lazarus alone,
     I sing for Dives and the Devil too.
Ah! would the feeble song I sing might swell
As high as Heaven, and as deep as Hell!”

     The remainder of the second volume is occupied by pieces entitled “Lyrical Poems,” which consist chiefly of juvenilia, and can only, we should imagine, be introduced with the intention of relieving the serious matter of the preceding section. “Songs of the Terrible Year” follow, one of which, the “Apotheosis of the Sword,” is good, and deserves to be quoted in part:—

“Then the children of men, young and old
Sat by the waters of gold,
And ate of the bread and the fruit,
And drank of the stream, but made suit
For blessing no more than the brute.
And God said, ’Twere better to die
Than eat and drink merely, and lie
Beast-like and foul on the sod
Lusting, forgetful of God!’
And he whispered, ‘Dig deeper again
Under the region of grain,
And bring forth the thing ye find there
Shapeless and dark; and prepare
Fire—and into the same
Cast what ye find—let it flame—
And when it is burning blood-bright,
Pluck it forth, and with hammers of might
Beat it out, beat it out, till ye mark
The thing that was shapeless and dark
Grown beautiful, azure, and sheen,
Purged in the fire and made clean,
Beautiful, holy, and bright,
Gleaming aloft in the light.
Then lift it, and wield!’ said the Lord.

Choir.

Hark to the Song of the Sword!”

     The volume closes with a series of sonnets placed to do duty as Envoi, but not now first published. We are glad to see, however, that one of their number, a woful ballad addressed to Mr. Browning’s beard, has been suppressed.
     In the third volume the fullest and latest development of Mr. Robert Buchanan’s mind is unfolded. It begins with certain sonnets “written by Loch Coruisk” and containing the expression of a vague dissatisfaction with existing mundane arrangements. Then follows the “Book of Orm,” wherein, as most persons who are likely to study these volumes are probably aware, its author’s views on things in general are revealed in a series of visions. And last of all are placed “Political Mystics,” poems various in form, but more or less agreeing in subject, and of singularly unsuccessful execution. As an appendix and key to the whole, Mr. Buchanan has subjoined a prose disquisition on something which he terms “Mystic Realism,” and a couple of eulogistic reviews of the “Book of Orm” from the Nonconformist and the Spectator.
     We have thus endeavoured to give an account, fair, complete, and tolerably sober and serious, of this very singular publication. No one who has not read it can appreciate the difficulty of keeping one’s countenance during the process of perusal and review. Mr. Robert Buchanan is generally pretty much of an egotist, and we were prepared for a good deal of the personal pronoun. But the pitch to which his egotism has risen in these volumes is really something sublime. In the first place, the whole plan and conception of the work starts from the notion that every thought and idea which has passed through Mr. Buchanan’s mind is, of its own nature, important to the general welfare of the world. The intrinsic worth of the production matters not all—“puisque cochonnerie il y a, quand le Grand Lama a fait sa cochonnerie,” why there is nothing left for an admiring public but to register the date of its arrival, and then receive it with adoration. No doubt the growth of a poet’s mind is a very interesting fact in natural history; so is the growth of a periwinkle; but it appears to us that unless the poet’s mind has produced good poetry, the history of its growth may as well be left untold.
     Mr. Buchanan’s “Mystic Realism” seems to resolve itself into a mysticism which is not at all real, and a realism which is not at all mystical. The former is displayed somewhat fully in the “Coruisken Sonnets” and the “Book of Orm.” Vague aspirations and vaguer complaints, couched in language which is certainly misty if it be not mystical, always seem to command a certain audience, and to readers of this class Mr. Buchanan’s work will doubtless be welcome. Perhaps it is because we are Saxon, and therefore “innocent of soul,” that we fail to see the beauty or the rarity of it. Nothing is commoner in half-educated persons of variable temperament than the mood of hysterical exaltation and admiration at things in general which Mr. Buchanan seems to esteem so highly and consider such a special privilege. And though we are far indeed from considering ourselves worthy to be the spokesmen of that culture which our author so bitterly assails, we will venture to suggest to him two of the benefits which men of culture generally experience. In the first place, they are very cautious of mistaking muddled thought and casual impulses for profound philosophy and genuine inspiration; and, in the second, they are usually too conversant with good work to venture upon producing that which is bad.
     As to Mr. Buchanan’s idyllic work, we have less fault to find with his choice of subjects, but far more with his manner of handling them. He has, we think, fallen into the mistake, very common nowadays, of supposing that because a subject happens to be what would once have been deemed unpoetical, it must be good, and that any treatment of it however careless will do. This error is wont gradually and unconsciously to increase, till the subject alone comes to be thought of importance, and the treatment is left out of sight altogether. So that we are left in worse case than were our great- grandfathers; for the most sapless weakling of the school of Pope was bound to conform to certain rules and to come up to a certain standard, while the modern laureates of hangmen and prostitutes, of British deans and British matrons, are indulged in almost any amount of slipshod slovenliness, in virtue of the audacity or the morality, as the case may be, of their subject-matter. Now this is beyond all question utterly wrong. No doubt the arbitrary branding of certain subjects as poetical, and of certain others as unpoetical is quite unjustifiable; we will go further: we believe that all subjects without exception are admissible as subjects. To him who can make poetry out of them they are poetical; if any seem hopelessly intractable, the only conclusion to be drawn is that the right man has not yet tried his hand. But on the other hand a poet is to be valued, not because of his choice of subjects, but because of his treatment of the subject chosen. On Parnassus, as elsewhere, there are many mansions; they are open as well to poets who treat easy and commonplace subjects well, such as Cowper and Bryant, as to those who reconcile their readers to their choice of subjects repulsive and unfamiliar, like the author of Songs before Sunrise. But no such mansion will open to the singer who pleads the difficulties or the merits or the novelty of his subject in extenuation of the insufficiency or the inaccuracy of his treatment and his execution.
     To such a plea Mr. Buchanan must in the end be reduced. Not only does his work abound in glaring violations of the simplest rules of language—in such deformities as “thou became,” “he didst,”' “prone upon his back,” and the like: not only are his rhymes harsh and his metres ungainly, but he fails entirely in the higher and more general excellences of poetical expression. No poet of equal power known to us is less quotable, or has produced work less apt to stick in the memory. His mistiness of thought, joined to a fatal fluency which never stops to think twice, to point, correct, complete, or cancel an expression, renders his poems all but barren of jewels whether they be five or fifty words long. This combination of mistiness with fluency accounts for, if it does not excuse the total absence of any sign of revision in Mr. Buchanan’s reprinted pieces. It would be in most cases impossible to revise without rewriting them. Consequently, though Mr. Buchanan has in some places not spared the knife, he has omitted the necessary accompaniment of the file. And when the knife is used without the file, the effect is generally to dispose the reader to take up something very like the position of Wordsworth’s “wiser mind.” We are not at all disposed to mourn for what Mr. Buchanan has taken away, but we cannot help mourning very much for what he has left behind.
     It is no light charge to bring against a poet, that he has forgotten entirely that he is, or ought to be, above all things an artist. But this is exactly what Mr. Robert Buchanan has done. In his hurry to be prophet, seer, politician, city missionary, and what not, he has neglected—in fact, he has wilfully despised—the art which nevertheless he professes. No doubt there is in his work plenty of that vague and delusive quality which is sometimes called power and sometimes promise. But in matters poetical, and above all in poems deliberately and systematically reproduced, we expect performance, not promise. With due study and due repression Mr. Buchanan might have turned out something not wholly worthless. But he has preferred, for some fifteen years, to clothe his crude thoughts in cruder language without hesitation or reflection, and now we fear that it will take more than his own immeasurable self-confidence, and more than the unintelligent laudations of certain critics, to make of him a great, or even a tolerable poet.
                                                                                                                         GEORGE SAINTSBURY.

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The Graphic (11 July, 1874)

     The second volume of the collected edition of “The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan” (Henry S. King) is fully as good as the first. Amongst the contents we are glad to recognise our old favourites, “Willie Baird” and “Liz.” The “Songs of the Terrible Year” are included amongst the other pieces: everybody must remember that ghastly “Dialogue in the Snow.”

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The Guardian (16 September, 1874)

     The third and concluding volume of Mr. Buchanan’s poems, as republished by Messrs. King, has for its centre and kernel that singular Book of Orm, in which the perplexing mysteries of existence are boldly confronted, though not even in appearance solved, by a vigorous exertion of the Celtic mind. Here we have not the repose either of calm despair or of satisfied attainment, but a storm of passionate imagination, driving before it a cloud of startling and almost defiant words. Mr. Buchanan in a note gives extracts from two reviews of the poem which have appeared, and each of which he accepts as fine specimens of expository criticism. Readers who have made his acquaintance, and desire to be admitted into his intellectual friendship should study this weird and enigmatical work, which, according to the author, is the key to all his writings, and, as representing the spiritual side of his nature, might be called “the book of Robert Buchanan.”

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The London Quarterly Review (October, 1874 - p. 212-214)

The Poetical Works of David Gray. A New and Enlarged Edition. Edited by Henry Glassford Bell.
Glasgow: James Maclehose, Publisher to the University. London: Macmillan and Co. 1874.

     THE name of David Gray seems to be doomed to connection with sorrowful issues. Snatched away himself at the early age of twenty-three, his works have at length fallen under the editorial care of Mr. Henry Glassford Bell, who “passed away in the vigorous fulness of his years,” within a week after he had been correcting the proofs of the present volume. That this new edition of the young Scot’s verses has lost much by the death of the editor we have no doubt; for although he had already selected what new pieces he thought worthy of being added to the former collected edition, had rearranged the whole, and had finally revised the greater part of the volume, it was, we are told, his intention to prefix a memoir and criticism. Instead of this intended prefatory matter, the publishers have given, as an appendix, a speech delivered by Mr. Bell in July, 1865, at the inauguration of the monument erected to David Gray’s memory in the “Auld Aisle” burying-ground at Kirkintilloch. We think Mr. Bell, like Lord Houghton and some others, much overrates David Gray, who, though he has left behind him some pretty enough verses, does not appear to us to have been a man of unmistakable genius. He might, if he had lived, have written fine poetry; but equally he might not; and his observation that, if he lived, he meant to be buried in Westminster Abbey, has always struck us as the conceit of a weakling rather than the strong confidence of a genius. However, we are glad to see his works collected again into a pretty volume, such as will help to keep them in mind if the public mean to adopt his latest editor’s view, that they are worth keeping in mind.
     There is nothing in the book to show which of the pieces are now published for the first time. This is a grave omission.

 

The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan. Vol. I., Ballads and Romances; Ballads and Poems of Life. 
London: Henry S. King and Co., 65, Cornhill, and 12, Paternoster-row. 1874.

     ONE of the best known pieces in the first volume of Mr. Robert Buchanan’s Poetical Works is the address “To David in Heaven,” the David of which is none other than poor David Gray. But though these verses are among the best known they are also among the least worth knowing,—their chief value being the witness they bear that Mr. Buchanan is not the only person who is over-estimated by Mr. Buchanan. The issue of a collected, classified, remodelled edition of the works in verse and prose of a barely-recognised fourth-rate writer like Mr. Buchanan is of itself somewhat ludicrous; but when supplemented by an engraved portrait and particulars of the writer’s family history, it becomes more decidedly ludicrous; and one almost marvels at the self-assertion even of one whose antecedents scarcely left room to marvel at anything which his egotism and bad taste might bring about. A selection from the best things of Mr. Buchanan’s works might well find a place in our collection of contemporary poetry; but he has done nothing (at least nothing published under his name) of any importance, and the air of importance he endeavours to give to his verses by classification, new “tags,” and so on, results only in larger failure. To pick the best of the wheat out of many volumes mainly made up of chaff were wise enough; but to try to persuade us that all this chaff is wheat and of a good quality, is simply foolishness; and we are really sorry to see Mr. Buchanan giving so bad a chance to what is really worth reading in his work of the past few years.
     In a note, the writer tells us that the Collection is to include all his writings, with the exception of some which his “maturer judgment does not approve;” and the implication is that his “maturer judgment” does approve of all that is here. This is to be regretted, because much is so bad that it leaves but little hope of any advantage to the reading public to be reaped through maturity of Mr. Buchanan’s judgment, even if he goes on living and “judging” till he is a hundred. We are glad, however, to see that his judgment is now sufficiently matured to recognise that it is admissible for a modern poet to write such verses as

“I have come from a mystical Land of Light
     To a Strange Country;
The Land I have left is forgotten quite
     In the Land I see.”

     It is not long since, in acting the part of “Thomas Maitland,” Mr. Buchanan poked a good deal of fun at certain better- known authors than himself, on account of the necessity to depart from ordinary prose pronunciation in verses of similar construction; but his “maturer judgment,” brought to bear on the productions of his own mind, sees nothing ludicrous in the old ballad style of the line—

lonquartrevpic

as it must be scanned and pronounced here. We note, moreover, that in the two divisions of Volume I., under the heads of “Ballads and Romances” and “Ballads and Poems of Life,” the leniency of “maturer judgment” is extended throughout to this and other characteristics found specially objectionable by “Thomas Maitland,” attacking the poetic rivals of Robert Buchanan.
     There is one advantage in this reclassification of Mr. Buchanan’s volumes of verse, namely, the opportunity it gives those readers who care to form an opinion about him, of doing so without much trouble. The first volume shows him at his best and at his worst, and at most of his intermediate levels. The ballad of “Judas Iscariot” is an admirable poem of a few pages, and, as far as we know, its goodness is all Mr. Buchanan’s own. “Meg Blane” and “The Scaith o’ Battle” stand midway between the best and the worst: both have much good human feeling in them, borrowed, of course, from no one; but both have also technical tricks badly imitated from greater authors; and both are marked by one of Mr. Buchanan’s ruling vices—the vice of voluminousness. Then, at the other pole, we have the “Address to David Gray,” which we should pronounce as bad as possible, had not Mr. Buchanan shown us that it is possible to do worse in the execrable “Ballad of Persephone.”

Back to Reviews, Bibliography or Poetry

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Balder The Beautiful (1877)

 

The Galveston Daily News (9 March, 1877 - p.1)

     Robert Buchanan’s latest poem is entitled “Balder the Beautiful.” Wig makers take no stock in the poem. They can’t see anything beautiful in baldness.

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The British Quarterly Review (July, 1877 - p.257-258)

Balder the Beautiful. A Poem. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. Mullan and Son.

     It is inevitable that the thought underlying the mythology of Mr. Buchanan’s ‘Balder the Beautiful’ should provoke dissent and criticism. The ground idea of the poem derives its force from the conception of a related family of divine ideals, which have accommodated themselves to the human mind at different times under various forms and various names. Theological preconceptions will thus assuredly intrude—the more especially that Mr. Buchanan does not shrink from dealing with what we may call the ‘Christian ideal’ as well as with the Norse. Balder is the brother of Christ: whatever he partakes of the universal comes to him by virtue of this brotherhood, and the highest thought and feeling are kindled in him by the revelation of the loftiest self-denial of Christ. Thus bold has Mr. Buchanan been in his endeavour to set forth some essential spiritual unity in the religious life of nations widely separated from each other, and in his determination to find a common ground for the various divine forms that humanity has accepted and reverenced. Setting aside the prejudices which may be awakened by some portions of the poem, and having regard merely to its mythological and artistic character, we have no hesitation in saying that for grasp, penetration, and music, Mr. Buchanan has written nothing finer than this. If we confine ourselves simply to tracing out what we may call the development of the spirit of Balder (for he is so far akin to the human that he is the subject of growth and experience—a point on which much of the interest rests) there is room enough for study and for illustration. Balder comes before us at first as the ‘innocent god’ of the foreworld, with a sweet expectancy and a divine satisfaction and gladness in all things fair, which is intensified as he grows into harmony with Nature, perceiving its beauty and fulness; then as he discovers the doom of life and being—its subjectness to corruption and death—there comes into his heart the sense of suffering and of wrong, the sad perception of the fateful change of the world. He will rather dwell below and share the brief life of the creatures of wood and wold and stream, as he sheds by his presence a new beauty over them, than return to the Home of the Gods to sit apart contemplating it all. The powerful pictures in Asgard, of the Home of the Gods, of the region of ice round the pole, of the meeting of Christ and Balder, the former having come through a long journey across the snow, are all striking: the culminating point indeed is the meeting of Christ and Balder, and the acknowledgment by the latter of Christ as his elder brother and superior. The Song of the Paracletes has a high mystic air, and is full of meaning. Perhaps the most perfect of the sections is that describing the journey of the divine brothers across the ‘Bridge of Ghosts.’ In the section headed ‘Father and Son,’ in which the ‘thrones of the white gods’ are represented as—

                                           ‘flashing in fire,
And sinking in earthquake around their sire,’

we have a most powerful phantasy at work on a great theme; while the ‘Waking of the Sea,’ and ‘From Death to Life’—with which the poem closes—are full of mystic suggestion.

‘The white Christ lifted his hands above
     The silent wakening deep,
And the unseen depths began to move
     With motions soft as sleep.

Then on an isle of ice he stept,
     Leading his brother mild;
And blest the waters as they slept,
     And lo, they woke and smiled!

Around him on the melting sea
     The glittering icebergs stirred,
And glimmered southward silently,
     Like things that lived and heard.

And like a ship on the still tide
     That slowly leaveth land,
His own white isle began to glide
     At lifting of his hand.’

     We do not anticipate a unity of opinion respecting this powerful poem; but he would certainly be an insensitive critic who would fail to recognise its daring, its high scope, and wonderfully subtle effects of rhythm and movement. That picture of the ‘Phantom Death,’ and Balder’s contact with the phantom, would themselves attest all this.

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The Graphic (21 July, 1877)

RECENT POETRY AND VERSE

MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN, in his later works, has shown one special phase of the poet-nature which, more than anything else, entitles him to the respect, and we may add the love, of all kindred natures, viz., intense and true sympathy. Everybody already knew how great was his metrical facility—shown significantly, to those who can judge, by the fact that he is one of the few modern poets who can write a new ballad that reads like an old one. His power of description was also known of old, as were other excellencies too many to number; but it seems to us that only of late years has he himself become sensible of the full existence of that Humanity which must always lie at the depths of the highest poetry. “Balder the Beautiful: a Song of Divine Death,” by Robert Buchanan (W. Mullan and Son), is the latest and most triumphant outcome of this awakening. It is possible—nay, highly probable—that it will not be as universally admired as, for instance, “Red Rose and White,” for the very simple reason that its perfect appreciation involves an amount of serious thought and study such as, in this railway age, people are too often unwilling to give. Yet none the less is it a noble poem, to be cherished by those who can appreciate high thoughts wedded to almost faultless music. The lovers of Scandinavian mythology may regret—as we must own to doing—the alteration of the old legend; but if we, according to the author’s warning, disabuse our minds of ancient prejudice, there remains nothing but admiration for a delicate and wonderfully imaginative allegory. The key note of the poem lies, we think, in three stanzas from the finest portion of the work, “The Coming of the Other”:—

“But whosoe’er shall conquer Death,
     Though mortal man he be,
Shall in his season rise again,
     And live, with thee, and Me!

And whosoe’er loves mortals most
     Shall conquer Death the best,
Yea, whosoe’er grows beautiful
     Shall grow divinely blest.”

The White Christ raised His shining face
     To that still bright’ning sky:
Only the beautiful shall abide,
     Only the base shall die!

In short, it is the sublimity of self-sacrifice that is preached—a lesson only too sorely needed,—and taught in such flowing lyric measures, such stately rhythm of blank verse, that surely some will hear the teacher. Did space permit we could gladly give long extracts from other portions of the work; but we must content ourselves with an indication of some of the most striking passages. Such are the description of morning on the lake at page 26; Balder’s dream, and, later on, his pursuit of Death; the scene where the sea-beasts nestle at the feet of the Sun-God, and, which is perhaps the grandest of all, “The Bridge of Ghosts.” Balder’s prayer, fine as it is, strikes us as being written in a metre unfortunately suggestive of lighter subjects—this is a mere matter of taste. The poem, as a whole, remains a sublime one.

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Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper (22 July, 1877 - p.5)

LITERATURE.
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BALDER THE BEAUTIFUL.*

     Many persons will regret that Mr. Buchanan ___  ___ have wandered from his original field to the realm of mythology. The subject he has dealt with in this last volume of his is thoroughly apart from the realistic pictures he has hitherto painted; and it is hard to realise that the creator of “Meg Blane” and “Liz,” and the visionary who dreams of Balder the Beautiful, are one and the same person. Mr. Buchanan’s earlier vein is the more original and striking; but at the same time we are free to recognise the eloquence and force of the work before us, and to confess that some of the descriptive passages are unequalled throughout the entire range of the poet’s work.
     In a note, Mr. Buchanan tells his readers that the Balder of his poem is neither the Balder of the Eddas, nor of Ewald, nor of Oehlenschläger, nor of Mr. Arnold. In the presentation of the Father and the Son, he has reverted, he says, to the lines of the most primitive mythology, discovering in the one the Northern Messiah, as well as the Northern Apollo; in the other, instead of the degraded Odin of later superstition, the Alfadur, or temporarily omnipotent godhead, who has affinity in Mr. Buchanan’s opinion with the Zeus of the Eleusinian mysteries, and the Jehovah of the Bible. The broad principle upon which his poem is founded is plainly indicated in the following passage, that occurs before the opening of Book I., and is more explicit than the poem:—

The gods are brethren. Wheresoe’er
They set their shrines of love or fear,
In Grecian woods, by banks of Nile,
Where cold snows sleep or roses smile,
The gods are brethren. Zeus, the sire,
Was fashioned of the self-same fire
As Odin; he whom Ind brought forth,
Hath his pale kinsmen east and north;
And more than one since life began
Hath known Christ’s agony for man.
The gods are brethren. Kin by fate,
In gentleness as well as hate,
’Mid heights that only thought may climb
They come, they go; they are, or seem;
Each, rainbowed from the rack of time,
Casts broken lights across God’s dream.

Throughout the book the language is vivid and graphic, and affords only another instance of Mr. Buchanan’s marvellous command of words. His descriptive power is rich and varied, and we find in the course of his pages some “bits” of  word-painting that give a vivid picture of nature in its wildest, grandest aspects. Here is a passage describing the picturesque region through which Balder and his mother Frea, pass, that is incomparably fine:—

Through lonely mountain valleys in whose breast
The white grouse makes its nest,
And where in circles wheel the goshawk keen
And fleet-wing’d peregrine;
Past torrents gashing the dark heathery height
With gleams of hoary white,
Their shining feet now fall, and where they fare,
Faint rainbows fill the air
And span the streams; with sound of rippling rain
The cataracts leap amain;
The deer cry from the heights, and all around
Is full of summer sound.

Silent upon the topmost peak they come,
     By precipices dumb
And melancholy rocks girt round; and so
     They reach the realms of snow.
Far o’er their heads a hooded eagle wings
     In ever-widening rings,
Till in the blinding glory of the day
     A speck he fades away.
Then Balder’s eyes gaze down. Stretched far beneath,
     Forest and field and heath,
Netted with silvern threads of springs and streams,
     Shine in the summer beams—
And valley after valley farther on
     Fades dim into the sun.

He crieth, “Far away methinks, I mark
     A mighty forest dark,
Crowned by a crimson mist; yonder it lies,
     Stretching into the skies,
And farther than its darkness nought I see.”
     And softly answereth she,
“O Balder! ’tis the ocean. Vast and strange;
     It changeth without change,
Washing with weary waves for evermore
     The dark earth’s silent shore.”
And Balder spake not, but he gazed again
     Thro’ the soft mist of rain,
Which curtained that new wonder from his sight.

At last, when day and night
     Have passed, they cross a purple cape and stand
On shores of golden sand,
     And pausing silent, see beneath the sky
The mighty ocean lie.

The picture here given is inexpressibly grand; the ideas are happy, and are clothed in eloquent language that fully renders all their beauty and is yet perfectly clear to the mind. There are lines in the course of that passage that are singularly felicitous. The “torrents gashing the dark heathery height, with gleams of hoary white,” the “hooded eagle” that “wings in ever-widening rings, till in the blinding glory of the day, a speck he fades away,” are perfect specimens of the poet’s power of language. He is at his best in describing nature, and we almost sniff the fresh salt air as we read the following lines on the sea:—

Calmly it lieth, limitless and deep,
     In windless summer sleep,
And from its fringe, cream-white and set with shells,
     A drowsy murmur swells,
While in its shallows, on its yellow sands,
     Smiling, uplifting hands,
Moves Balder, beckoning with bright looks and words,
     The snow-white ocean-birds.
He smiles—the heavens smile answer! All the sea
     Is glistening glassily.
Far out, blue-black amid the waters dim,
     Leviathan doth swim,
Spouts fountain-wise, roars loud, then sinking slow,
     Seeks the green depths below.
All silent. All things sleeping in the light,
     And all most calmly bright!
He walks the weed-strewn strand, and where the waves
     Creep into granite caves,
Green-paven, silver-fretted, roofed with rose,
     He like a sunbeam goes,
And ocean-creatures know him. The black seal
     Out of the darkness steal
With gentle bleat, or with their lambs arise,
     Their dark and dewy eyes
Uplooking into his; the cormorants green,
     Which ranged in black rows preen
Their dusky plumage, at his footstep’s sound,
     Turn snake-like necks around,
But rise not; o’er his head the white terns fly
     With shrill unceasing cry;
And out of caverns come the rock-doves fleet,
     Alighting at his feet!
Across the waters darts a shaft supreme
     Of strange and heavenly gleam,
That doth his consecrated form enfold
     Like to a robe of gold,—
While all the ocean gladdeneth anew,
     Stretched bright beneath the blue.

     Mr. Buchanan’s eloquence is not confined, however, to landscapes and sea-pieces—he can excite the romantic sympathies of human nature to the uttermost pitch, and his rendering of Balder’s pursuit of Death, his vow, and finally his succumbing to the “pale rider’s” authority, is vivid and striking. Nothing could be finer than Balder’s appeal to his Father to save human beings from the cruel hands of Death; and there are passages in the section headed “Balder’s return to earth” that are inexpressibly beautiful in their fidelity to the marvellous minutiæ of Nature. These phases of Mr. Buchanan’s genius show him to be an acute observer—he has marked every opening bud, every hovering moth, every unfolding leaf, he knows the ripples of the waves, the frothing of the foam, the dancing of the shining crests; he is familiar with the “dark deep dominions of pine and of fir”; he is at home in the purple valleys as on the white mountains; and he makes his knowledge felt by a thousand happy touches.
     Mr. Buchanan has presented a most poetic picture of the coming of Christ through the snowstorm to the rescue of Balder, who has sacrificed his life to the gods in the hope that they will take the pain of death from all humanity. Balder lies dead in the snow, the spirit of Death watching beside him, and suddenly upon the solemn still white of the snow there stirs a lonely blood-red light, moving to and fro, and glimmering in the distance

Nearer and nearer o’er the waste of white
     It steals, and doth not fade:
A light, and in the glimmer of the light
     A form that casts a shade.

Nearer and nearer, till Death’s eyes behold
     A semblance strange and gray,
A silent shape that stoopeth and doth hold
     The lamp to light its way.

Bent is he as a weary snow-clad bough,
     Gaunt as a leafless tree,
But glamour of moonlight lies upon his brow
     Most strange to see!

And in one hand a silvern lanthorn swings
     Fill’d with a crimson light,
And round his frame wind-blown and shivering clings
     A robe of starry white. . . .

O Death, pale Death,
     Well may thy cold heart beat!
The form that comes hath piercëd hands, O Death,
     And bloody piercëd feet!

     We will not spoil the perfect picture by mangling it. It should be studied as a whole; and as a whole it cannot fail to impress the reader with the power and earnestness of the poet’s thought, with the eloquent majesty and pathetic simplicity of his language. “Balder the Beautiful” cannot but add considerably to Mr. Buchanan’s reputation as one of our great living poets.

     * “Balder the Beautiful: A Song of Divine Death.” By Robert Buchanan.—William Mullan and Son, 34, Paternoster- row, London: 4, Donegal-place, Belfast.

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The Contemporary Review (October, 1877, Vol. 30 p.902-903)

BALDER THE BEAUTIFUL. *

WE live in hard and exacting times, and poets, like the rest, may fed the grip of them. A book like “The Shadow of the Sword,” Mr. Buchanan’s fine prose romance, would, thirty years ago, have made a splendid reputation; and it would have done something like that even now for a smaller writer than Mr. Buchanan. But Mr. Buchanan’s reputation is made, and if any work of his, however fine and fascinating, fails absolutely to command us, we are disappointed. The romance was a noble book, and it is a book that will live, both for itself and its lesson. The reasons why it did not absolutely command an exacting reader were some of them superficial, merely literary; but others lay deeper. One of these was of a kind to bring the man nearer to us, whatever became of the artist—it was a troubled book; the author had not well consumed his own smoke before writing it; the mechanism of the story was not equal to the full control of its ethical and poetical elements. On the other hand, the self-consciousness of the author was too just to allow the strong and turbid currents to run and roar with all their force. This was, so far, unfortunate, for their strength and volume would have carried all before it. But Mr. Buchanan, born poet, though a writer of splendid prose upon occasion, was working with his left hand, and even that was partly weakened by the influence of conventions, critical and other, which he could not affront.
     In the new volume before us the poet is once more in his singing robes, and beautiful music he has for us. But there is still too much (so we feel) of what we may perhaps partially indicate as the mere literary element; the ethical and poetic mood of “The Shadow of the Sword” is continued; and the poem does not at present find us as we earnestly desire it should. This may be our own fault, for these three hundred pages overflow with beauty. But suppose it should be true that the poet had placed himself under impossible conditions in writing this poem? These images will not warm into reality, thus treated, nor can “White Christ” (a title which seems to have puzzled some people) be brought upon a scene so insubstantial without a shock to one’s sense of congruity. Hence, though the theme of the story is conversant with the deepest of our griefs, as well as of our hopes and fears, we are not often moved as we read. This is partly the result of incongruity; partly of insubstantiality and remoteness in the persons and the machinery; partly from a little monotony in the colouring of the verse; and partly from the fact that the literary art of the poet makes itself too much felt all through.
     Mr. Buchanan in a prefatory note calls upon his readers to forget all about the Eddas; but they will not be able to take his advice, nor, if they did, would they understand the poem. In the Edda Balder is slain and goes to Hela, and all the gods mourn. In Mr. Buchanan’s poem, Frea, the Mother, hides her son Balder on the lap of the Earth, where she bare him, and the gods hate him. In his general characteristics the Balder of Mr. Buchanan is the Balder of the Norse mythology, but, loving men and women and the Earth on which they dwell, he devotes himself for their good. Ydun  (who, like some of the other personages of the story, is a mythologically orthodox figure) fortifies Balder against the strain of mortal earth that he may have derived in his birth by giving him apples from the orchard of the gods, and confides to him a rune or charm for arresting Death. Brooding over a slain girl upon a sacrificial stone, Death is found by Balder at last, and stayed in his course. Then in a prayer to All-Father, the god devotes himself, hoping that through his death men may live. In slaying Balder the Beautiful, Death himself becomes divine. The snow begins to fall, which ushers in Ragnarok, the Twilight of the gods, and soon the Earth lies white, with Balder in the death-trance. Across the snow comes Christ, the Light of the World, to awake him.
     On his way he has passed Prometheus, Buddha, and others who have died for men. He now arouses Balder from his trance, and, as the Lord of conquered Death and Life, summons Death to the final task of slaying the old gods, who have not loved Man, and have hated and tortured the Redeemers. Balder has a last vision of his mother Frea (= Nature); and the poem closes with the morning of a new heaven and new earth.
     In “Balder the Beautiful” Mr. Buchanan is a pure mystic, using mythological symbols. The key-note is struck in the proem, which should be carefully read more than once, both before and after the poem itself. Anything more beautiful than some of the passages before us can hardly be; but from Book VII. to the end, Mr. Buchanan sets himself an impossible task. Readers who have not sufficient reading or sufficient flexibility of ideal sense to catch the mystical point of view will accuse him of irreverence; and all will find the work wanting in calmness, and open to the charge of occasional grotesqueness. We cannot, with gravity, contemplate White Christ and the Scandinavian Sun-God hand-in- hand on an iceberg “together.” Nor can we relish the dialogue between Balder and his Father, and some other matters. If we are wrong, the reader now knows where to test our impressions in this respect. But he will be unwise if he does not get the book and keep it. Those who have read the “Book of Orm” and the prelude to the prose romance, will see how long Mr. Buchanan’s mind has been detained in one mood. The effect of this does not seem to us favourable to the harmonious working of his fine faculties; but we have not cared to say anything about obvious small faults of imagery, &c., in this poem. Our strongest feeling is that in spite of the great variety of the metres there is monotony of literary effect; and, in spite of magnificent painting, some insubstantiality. Perhaps we may discern in the “Snowblossom” scene a hint of the way out. Does not the poem want (to use housewife’s words) more “binding” or “thickening” of human interest?

     * Balder the Beautiful: A Song of Divine Death. By Robert Buchanan. London: William Mullan & Son.

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The Guardian (10 October, 1877)

     In Balder the Beautiful Mr. Buchanan shows no disposition to resemble Mr. Myers by rejecting old beliefs while retaining their poetical spirit. He rather uses imagination as a means of giving reality to the ideas of days gone by. It is not with recent writers that he seeks common ground. His Balder, he warns us, is neither the shadowy god of the Edda, nor the colossal hero of Ewald, nor the good principle of Oehlenschläger, nor the Homeric demigod of Mr. Arnold. Reverting to the lines of the most primitive mythology, he sees in Balder the northern Messiah as well as the northern Apollo, and detects resemblances between the teaching of the Bible and the Eleusinian mysteries. It is a strange world into which Mr. Buchanan leads us. Within it he is not so much a guide as a suggester. Clear and vigorous language, in lyrical, epical, and dramatic forms, is employed to clothe conceptions which, if we pierce through their concrete surroundings, have vagueness for an element in their grandeur. What, indeed, can be expected from a writer who is bent on enforcing at considerable length and with great emphasis his conviction that the gods are brethren, wherever they set their shrines of love or fear, in Grecian woods, or by the banks of the Nile, among smiling roses or chilling snow? Mr. Buchanan seems to be himself uncertain whether he is moving in a world of seeming or of real being; and his readers must be prepared for this and other uncertainties. It would be unfair to endeavour to fix any definite interpretation on his fluent and eloquent poem, which he intends, if it is to fulfil its purpose at all, to have many meanings for many minds.

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The Academy (20 October, 1877)

     Balder the Beautiful: A Song of Divine Death. By Robert Buchanan. (William Mullan and Son.)
A poem so ambitious in its design as Balder the Beautiful, if it attained all to which it aspires,could not but take its place among the greatest poems in our language, hardly below the Prometheus Unbound of Shelley. But certainly no such place is or will be occupied by Mr. Buchanan’s poem. We are compelled to set it down as one of those failures which are in many respects fine failures. Its central fault seems to us to be that, aspiring as it does to utter a prophecy—the declaration by means of art of a kind of neo-Christian optimism—the prophecy does not authenticate itself, and seems precious as an occasion for word-painting almost more than as a revelation of the truth. We venture to say this not without reluctance and some hesitation; it is so easy for an “irresponsible, indolent reviewer” to pronounce judgment in a few hasty lines upon the high and sustained effort of a poet’s imagination! Still we must express our mature opinion that Mr. Buchanan has not produced in Balder the Beautiful a great poem. Mr. Buchanan is, however, beyond all question, a writer of brilliant and varied gifts; and the present volume contains many admirable fragments of a poem, many fine “strokes,” as critics of Addison’s time would have expressed it, and “master-touches.” Balder is a Northern Christ, who in his love for men pursues the terrible shadow, Death, and at length endures martyrdom for the sake of the human race. He is wakened from the sleep of death by that other Balder, the beautiful, sad, young God of Judaea. In the end Death, the divine Father, is himself found to be full of mysterious benignity, and beautiful to eyes that are purged by love; Balder and Christ are united in brotherly joy and energy, and the race of men is redeemed and blessed. It will be seen, that such a poem as this is in a certain degree a challenge to lovers of poetry, and readers will find it worth while to test its qualities for themselves, rather than receive an impression at second-hand. We quote a passage from the section entitled “Frea in the Wood:”—

“Before her lay a vast and tranquil lake,
And wading in its shallows silently
Great storks of golden white and light green cranes
Stood sentinel, while far as eye could see
Swam the wild water-lily’s oilëd leaves.
Still was that place as sleep, yet evermore
A stir amid its stillness; for behold,
At every breath of the warm summer wind
Blown on the beating bosom of the lake,
The white swarms of the new-born lily-flowers,
A pinch of gold-dust in the heart of each,
Rose from the bubbling depths, and open’d up,
And floated luminous with cups of snow.
Across that water came so sweet an air,
It fell upon the immortal mother’s brow
Like coolest morning dew, and tho’ she stood
Beneath the open arch of heaven, the light
Stole thro’ the gauze of a soft summer mist
Most gentle and subdued. Then while she paused
Close to the rippling shallows sown with reeds,
Those cranes and storks arose above her head
In one vast cloud of flying green and gold;
And from the under-heaven innumerable
The lilies upward to the surface snow’d
Till all the waters glitter’d gold and white;
And lo! the sun swept shining up the east,
And thro’ the cloud of birds, and on the lake,
Shot sudden rays of light miraculous—
Until the goddess veiled her dazzled eyes,
And with the heaving whiteness at her feet
Her bosom heaved, till of that tremulous life
She seem’d a throbbing part!”

A single passage, however, fails to convey the impression produced by a work so large in design, so varied in detail, as that of Mr. Buchanan.

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