ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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BOOK REVIEWS - POETRY (19)

 

Selected Poems (1882)

Ballads of Life, Love, and Humour (1882)

The Poetical Works (1884)

 

Selected Poems (1882)

Ballads of Life, Love, and Humour (1882)

 

[In the spring of 1882 Chatto & Windus published two collections of Buchanan’s poetry. Some of the reviews below deal with both, although the majority concentrate on the new material in Ballads of Life, Love, and Humour.]

 

The Pall Mall Gazette (8 April, 1882)

BALLADS OF LIFE, LOVE, AND HUMOUR.”*

IT is, if we mistake it not, something like eight years since Mr. Robert Buchanan published a volume of verse under his own name. He has, indeed, produced what are oddly called in the present volume on a fly-leaf “Anonymous Poems by Robert Buchanan;” and he has taken to novel-writing; but, whereas for about fifteen years he used to issue volumes of verse one upon the other’s heels, he seems now to have taken to the practice of recueillement. It is fortunate for his own reputation. Although we cannot at all agree with the absurd phrases quoted on the afore-mentioned fly-leaves, that he has “an exalted rank among poets of this century”—mind, not the English poets of the day, but the poets of the century, Shelley and Wordsworth, and Keats and Byron, and Coleridge and Goethe, and Heine and Musset and Hugo; that his work is “among the masterpieces of English literature,” or that he himself is “one of our greatest living poets,” there is no doubt that Mr. Buchanan possesses remarkable literary faculty of the poetic kind. If acknowledgment of this has been but partial, he has only to thank a certain too famous manœuvre of his some ten years ago. But at the same time his poetical faculty, though certainly remarkable, has been always prejudicially affected partly by certain defects of knowledge and education, and still more by imperfect attention to the necessity of labour in poetry as in everything else. No human being could take a writer who talked of “epiludes” and described a man as “prone upon his back,” altogether seriously; nor was it possible to take seriously an author who, after putting out a big octavo, and that not in his earliest youth, acknowledged a year or two later that it was written “in a state of feverish and evanescent excitement,” and that most of it was worth nothing. The confession was candid, but at the same time damaging.
     These ballads are for the most part free not merely from the faults of Mr. Buchanan’s early volumes, but from those evident in the collected edition published in 1874. Mr. Buchanan has abstained altogether from the autobiographic revelations as to his own soul-development which diversified that very singular publication. He has, moreover, come down from what he used to call “mystic realism” to a condition of mind much less hysterical. He always had considerable faculty for the ballad—witness that of “Judas Iscariot”—and some of the ballads to be found here (most of them, except “Phil Blood’s Leap,” are new to us) are readable enough, and something more. There is still, however, a great deal to be desired in the way of compression, of scale, and of precision in execution. The first, “The Lights of Leith,” in which a sailor comes home on the very night when his mother is being burned as a witch, is some sixteen pages long, which, considering the key in which it is pitched, is far too much. “The Wedding of Shon MacLean” is a lively enough description of a Highland orgie. “Phil Blood’s Leap” is perhaps the best English attempt to imitate the style of Colonel John Hay and his fellows. Then there are a good many Irish pieces, drawn as Mr. Buchanan says, with a faint reminiscence of his early communicativeness, from a four years’ residence in the wilds of Connaught. One of these, “O’Connor’s Wake,” is a fair companion to “The Wake of Tim O’Hara” one of the best of Mr. Buchanan’s earlier pieces.
     All this time we have quoted nothing, and it is remarkable on reading Mr. Buchanan after a long interval to find once more how curiously unquotable he is. His poems are by no means destitute of the poetic spirit and the poetic imagination; but they remind one of Mr. Gladstone’s well-known misreading of Shakspeare, wherein he suggested “imagination all diffuse” as a contrast to “imagination all compact.” Mr. Buchanan’s poetical imagination, his poetical style, his poetical phrase are eminently and emphatically diffuse. The reader perpetually thinks of certain classes of mediæval poetry, where the general effect is sweet and pleasant, but where jewels five words long are almost entirely absent. We have searched the first half of his book in vain for something quotable in a moderate compass. The second, “Lyrical Ballads” (they are all lyrical, but Mr. Buchanan seems to oppose the word to narrative in sense), ought to be more fruitful. This, the beginning of “A Garden Dialogue,” is perhaps as good for the purpose as anything we have found:—

He.—Seest thou two waifs of cloud on the dim blue,
               Wandering in the melancholy light?
         Methinks they seem like spirits bright and true,
         Blending their gentle breaths, and born anew
               In the still rapture of this heavenly night.
         See! how the flowering stars their path bestrew,
               Till the moon turns and smiles and looks them thro’,
         And breathes upon them, when with bosoms white
         They blend on one another and unite.
               Now they are gone, they vanish from our view
           Lost in that radiance exquisitely bright. . . .
               O love! my love! methinks that thou and I
           Resemble those thin waifs in heaven astray.
               We meet, we blend, grow bright—
She.—                                                       And we must die.

This is not extraordinarily good, but it has the poetical differentia: it presents the common with due uncommonness and suggestiveness as well as with not a little beauty of expression. But it is not often that anything so complete in itself and so well finished is separable from Mr. Buchanan’s work. “The Mountain Well” is another good piece of picture poetry, but too long for extraction; and “The Secret of the Mere,” which is somewhat in the vein of the “Coruisken Sonnets” and the “Book of Orm,” but less extravagant, is also good. In this last the rising of the waterlilies in the sullen lonely lake makes not merely a dramatic incident but a good moral and a picturesque point. The pieces which in some sort begin and end this section, “Euphrosyne” and “Mnemosyne,” are also worth mention.
     We cannot say that this volume reveals any new poetical power in Mr. Buchanan, or that it is likely to alter the opinion of him which the best judges entertain. But it shows, as has been said, a greater power of self-criticism and an increased command of accurate and appropriate phrase. This ought to tell in the prose work to which the author seems for the most part, and wisely, to have given himself.

     * “Ballads of Life, Love, and Humour.” By Robert Buchanan. (London: Chatto and Windus. 1882.)

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The Academy (22 April, 1882 - p.279-280)

Ballads of Life, Love, and Humour. By Robert Buchanan. (Chatto & Windus.)

IN this book Mr. Buchanan affords his readers a most complete view of his many gifts. Early in his career the public attained to a tolerably accurate estimate of the quality of his poetic genius; but of the range of his powers in various directions he has in recent years made rather unexpected disclosure. His earliest efforts were mystic, philosophic, and to some extent romantic in character; and when the natural tendency of his mind to look beneath the surface for sources of inspiration was brought to bear on immediate subjects, to the neglect of the more remote ones that furnished him with his primary prompting, he became at once a popular writer. His London Poems was a book happily conceived and admirably executed; and its success was due equally to the circumstance that it was the first of many similar products by writers of all degrees of merit, and to the intrinsic value of the author’s lyric gift. Indeed, the volume had throughout a spontaneity that was itself full of refreshing cheer, and bore witness to a strong hold of reality that was at least strangely in contrast with the writer’s mystic beginnings. It was not difficult at this early stage to perceive the sources of Mr. Buchanan’s poetic impulse, notwithstanding a good deal that was said at the time with a view to showing that in the new poet the literature had secured a new voice. What it had in fact secured was a most notable addition to the number of writers who possessed a marked facility in rich and varied verse, a genuine command over the rougher sorts of pathos, and a great fund of genuine humour, not, perhaps, of the higher, unconscious, ingenuous kind, but of that rollicking order which results from a very lively perception of the ludicrous. Apart from these, there was one characteristic of Mr. Buchanan’s work which merited recognition: we mean its vivid realisation of the phenomena of nature. Here Mr. Buchanan was conspicuous among the poets later than Tennyson, for it is not more certain that there was a school of Cockney poets at the beginning of the century than that certain of the poets who were young when Mr. Buchanan began to write furnished abundant evidence that their familiarity with the aspects of external nature was limited to their acquaintance with Hampstead Heath. There was assuredly ample display, amounting, indeed, to plethora, of passionate love of nature, but it had often a bookish appearance, and bore much the same resemblance to the picture that grows out of constancy of intercourse as landscape gardening bears to the primitive face of a natural garden. Mr. Buchanan wrote like one who had looked upon external nature in many places and under many of her changeful moods; his description of the great snow in the “White Rose and Red” was eminently vivid, and, though wanting perhaps in the face-to-face faithfulness which belongs to a description by Wordsworth, had something of the emotional portraiture which we associate with Byron. And this touches the most conspicuous quality of Mr. Buchanan’s poetry. Great power of observation and of swift, rather than subtle, perception constitute his best gift. The present volume exhibits nothing more plainly than the author’s knowledge of life, his acquaintance with the world, and his powerful grasp of actual fact. In poems like “The Lights of Leith,” “Phil Blood’s Leap,” and “O’Connor’s Wake” Mr. Buchanan shows how much he has seen and heard and felt—in a word, how much he has lived. And this power of observation and vividness of perception, coupled with a capacity for dramatic realisation (within determinable limits), while it constitutes his salient gift, denotes also the limit of his genius. The reader of this book of ballads may perceive immediately where Mr. Buchanan’s faculty fails him by turning from such masterly stories of real life as “The Wedding of Shon Maclean” and “James Avery” to the vaguer confines of such semi-philosophical creations as “Earth and the Soul” and “Giant Despair,” not to speak of the more fanciful poetic fabric of “The Faëry Foster-Mother,” or “The Asrai,” or even such narratives of remote interest as “Fra Giacomo,” “Convent Robbing,” or “The Devil’s Peepshow.” It is where Mr. Buchanan permits himself to rely in any large measure upon the purely imaginative in conception, as well as in treatment, that his grasp becomes perceptibly weaker. Not that he is deficient in imaginative phantasy (it would be fatal to his claims as a poet—whatever his power in the portrayal of human passions—if he were), but that imaginative phantasy is in his case best confined to the sensuous presentment, not the gestation, of his thought. Where it is permitted to become fundamental, the writer’s strength is dissipated. This is observable in such poems in the present volume as “The ‘Midian-Mara,’” “Will o’ the Wisp,” and “The Changeling;” and more notably still in Mr. Buchanan’s deservedly celebrated ballad of “Judas Iscariot.” The last- named poem is, in the strict sense, a pure poetic phantasm, with only such side-hold of reality as belongs to the reflected picture of the fruits of sin and the terrors of remorse; it lives in the mind as a thing born of the imagination and having no existence apart from it; possessed of no parallel, no antetype, in the world of actual fact. At first sight, it seems well, consistently, and completely imagined, perfect in its parts, rounded and finished into unity, and pregnant with a memorable significance. Assuredly it is Mr. Buchanan’s most imaginative creation, but it fails (where everything of his must fail) in realising the supernatural—an element in the poetic art which neither observation of life nor perception of human passion may compass, and which nothing can achieve save the vision that can go to work upon itself. “Judas Iscariot” is a poem of which any man whatever might be proud. Few things in modern poetry are more strikingly conceived than the light to which the soul of Judas Iscariot bears the body of Judas Iscariot—not because it would do  so, but must. Yet the poem proves conclusively how much Mr. Buchanan is dependent, in the exercise of his highest faculty, upon the promptings of the actual world of men and women. What the work would have been if to the human fire the poet has infused there had been added the spiritual vision which Coleridge might have given it, we can easier realise to our emotions than to our intellect. Less ambitious, but more satisfying, because more adequate, than this, is a poem in the present volume which, limited in sphere to the realm of stern fact, brings into active operation every gift and acquirement of the writer, embracing knowledge of life, familiarity with the phenomena of external nature, strength of passion, and force of robust intelligence; nay, the very mysticism of his early impulse finds expression in it; and, if the incidents have a tragic character that forbids the play of the fine humour that is natural to the narrator, they start as a counterbalancing effect a vein of deeper pathos, perhaps, than has yet been touched by his hand. “The Lights of Leith” is a ballad of which the foundation is stated to be historical. It turns upon the infamous statute against witchcraft which was procured by James VI. of Scotland upon his accession to the English throne, and remained unrepealed until 1736, and even then was repealed only under strong protest from the Scottish clergy. One traveller, as late as 1664, is said to notice casually the fact of having seen nine witches burning together at Leith. The ballad tells the story of a sailor of Leith who returns after years of absence to find his old mother burning at the stake in his native town:

“The lights of Leith! the lights of Leith!
     See, see! they are flaming still!
Thro’ the clouds of the past their flame is cast,
     While the Sabbath bells ring shrill!

“The lights of Leith! the lights of Leith!
     They’ll burn till the Judgment Day!
Till the Church’s curse and the monarch’s shame,
And the sin that slew in the Blessed Name,
     Are burned and purged away.”

It is a truly noble ballad, full of tender feeling and right purpose, impregnated with spiritual and vivified by human love. Bygones are bygones; and Mr. Buchanan will not now object to hear it said that his “Lights of Leith” is an example of the frank, full-bodied, robust, manly English ballad of which the “King’s Tragedy” must remain for many a long day the finest modern type.
     Mr. Buchanan divides his ballads into two sections—dramatic and lyrical; but a more natural division, in our  judgment, is that indicated in the title, Ballads of Life, Love,and Humour. To what extent any ballad may be specifically described as dramatic or lyrical is, after all, uncertain. Primarily, a ballad is a lyrical narrative. “Thespis,” says Dryden,

             “the first professor of our art,
At country wakes sung ballads from a cart.”

It is scarcely possible to discuss in this place the relation of the English ballad to the Italian ballata; it is enough to concern ourselves with the earliest type known in England. Now, “Chevy Chase” and the “Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens” are, first of all, narrative; next, they are lyrical, because so arranged into subdivisions that they can be sung; and, lastly, they are dramatic, because spoken in various voices. The early English ballad is, therefore, both dramatic and lyrical. How Wordsworth and Coleridge came to describe their joint volumes as lyrical ballads it is not easy to discover, for, though the lyrical element preponderates (almost to the exclusion of the dramatic) in such shorter poems as “Alice Fell” and “Lucy Grey,” “The Ancient Mariner” is as dramatic as the most dramatic of the old ballads, without being less lyrical. We trust it may, without disrespect to Wordsworth’s profundity, be frankly said that there probably existed no better reason for the coupling of the phrases in question than the necessity of finding a distinguishing and memorable title. So that, when Mr. Buchanan divides his ballads into dramatic and lyrical, we fail to see wherein his “Fisherman” is less dramatic than his “Cuckoo Song,” or his “April Rain” less lyrical than his “In the Garden.” It does no injury to Mr. Buchanan’s claim as a ballad-writer to say that he rarely imparts to his work the sinewy simplicity of the old singers. There is a development of the English ballad that is entirely of modern product, being far more complex than the first form, and getting rid to some extent of the out-worn notion of the narrative being actually sung to set music, but retaining enough of the sweep and swirl of a free rhythm to carry a sensible effect as of being chanted when read. This is a sort of ballad-romance, such as “Christabel” and “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” and, to a less degree, “Will o’ the Wisp” in the volume under review.
                                                                                                                             T. HALL CAINE.

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The Scotsman (11 May, 1882 - p. 6)

     The right of Mr Robert Buchanan to a high place among living poets has long since been recognised. This volume of Ballads of Life, Love, and Humour, if it will not do much to exalt the reputation of the author of “White Rose and    Red,” serves to show that his hand has lost nothing of its cunning, and that he has at command the same fertility and glow of conception, the airy imaginativeness, the power of emotional expression, and the felicity of epithet which won favour for his earlier efforts. The first half of the volume is occupied with what Mr Buchanan calls “Dramatic Ballads and Romances,” and in these his peculiar gifts of fancy and expression find their fullest display. In some of them—”The Lights of Leith” and “Fra Giacomo,” for example—we have pure tragedy, embodied in verses of befitting force and intensity. “The Wedding of Shon Maclean,” which first appeared several years ago in one of the magazines, is an example of Mr Buchanan’s mastery of form; it is like the blast of the bagpipes put into verse, and is irradiated by genuine humour. In “Phil Blood’s Leap” we have the poet in another mood; it is an episode of the rough life and violent passions of the Western mining communities, told with all Bret Harte’s graphic strength, and with more than his metrical power. The most remarkable poem in the volume, however, is “The Devil’s Peepshow”—not only because of its quaint and catching rhythm, but also because of the subtlety with which its inner meaning is suggested. It proclaims, in allegorical fashion, the revolt of modern thought and belief against the old sulphureous doctrines with which for ages the Churches have striven to terrify mankind into submission. The lyrical ballads, which form the second part of the volume are for the most part picturesque in form and thought; but they do not possess the strength or the originality of the longer poems, and do not impress the reader as the natural expression of Mr Buchanan’s inspiration.

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Liverpool Mercury (26 May, 1882)

     After what may be called a “poetic silence” of some eight years, Mr. Robert Buchanan, who has meantime been closely occupied with romance and dramatic literature, has again made a two-fold appearance as a poet. He has published a beautiful selection from his poetic writings, including “Meg Blane,” “The Ballad of Judas Iscariot,” “The Great Snow” (from the “White Rose and Red”), “Nell” (From “London Poems”), and “The Vision of the Man Accurst” (from “The Book of Orm”). The selection is an admirable one, and will be found to contain nearly everything which ten or more years ago produced so powerful an impression on many minds as to afford Mr. Buchanan poetic rank second only to that then occupied by Tennyson. In addition to this, Mr. Buchanan has published another volume, under title of “Ballads of Life, Love, and Humour,” and this contains, besides “Phil Blood’s Leap” and other poems equally familiar but never previously collected, a number of hitherto unpublished poems, and among them a very fine ballad entitled the “Lights of Leith.” The story is a thrilling one, and must not be mangled in an epitome, but it may suffice to say that it turns upon the infamous statute against witchcraft which that superstitious pedant James I. of England procured upon his accession to the English throne. Humour, broad if not too subtly refined, is of course the distinguishing note of Mr. Buchanan’s poetry, and among the more successful efforts in the new volume is a ballad entitled “O’Connor’s Wake,” which for downright sport of the grim yet not ghastly sort it would be very hard to match in modern literature. On the whole, Mr. Buchanan’s is poetry with a fundamental body of stuff in it, marked by a right instinct of aspiration and by purity of motive. We feel as we read that Mr. Buchanan’s poetry comes from some one, and that in this respect it has an advantage over the great part of modern verse, which, coming from nobody in particular, can scarcely hope to appeal to any one. The career of this author is not without a peculiar pathos. The few friends with whom Mr. Buchanan started in life—David Gray, Alexander Smith, and Sidney Dobell—were very soon removed by death. He had never joined any other literary coterie, and very soon he had the misfortune (not unmerited) to acquire the reputation of a sort of literary Ishmael, whose hand was against every man and every man’s hand against him. He attacked wantonly all round, more perhaps from fear than malice, and with a desire to retain his own place rather than to deprive other people of theirs. The effect was disastrous, and he felt his position keenly. Then domestic misfortunes have of late fallen heavily upon him, and we cannot but feel moved at the beautiful and pathetic dedication in which he speaks of himself as almost a broken- hearted man. Another day may come for him yet, for he is a man of great gifts. His “Shadow of the Sword” and “God and the Man” are very noble performances.

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The Morning Post (29 May, 1882 - p.6)

     In his last work, “Selected Poems,” Mr. Robert Buchanan maintains his deserved position amongst the foremost of our contemporary poets. Indeed all he lacks to take rank even with Byron and Scott is a certain breadth of thought, which, singular to say, is more conspicuously absent in this book than in “The White Rose and the Red,” which was greeted with such universal enthusiasm in 1874. On the other hand, Mr. Buchanan’s powers have matured since then, he has obtained greater command of metre, and more grasp, so to speak, of his subjects. Three poems in this volume, which is published by Messrs. Chatto and Windus, entitle their author to high praise; these are “The Death of Roland,” “The Dead Mother,” and “Meg Blaine.” They display the poet’s imaginative qualities to advantage, and the mingling of moral and physical contrasts is capitally managed, naturally and without the least apparent effort.

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The Nonconformist and Independent (1 June, 1882)

MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN’S POEMS AND BALLADS.*

     THOUGH it cannot be said that Mr. Robert Buchanan has in this volume presented us with any one poem of transcendent interest, he has anew given us the opportunity of reviewing our impression of his genius. Here we have new evidence of the remarkable combination in him of a close realism which can lay hold on the commonest features of the theme, alongside of a rich fantasy and a power of mystical association, which is now very pleasing and now very weird in its effects. He is, at the same time, a humourist, and it is, indeed, through this humour that he finds the point of union for the two sides of his poetic character. The very first poem in the volume, “The Lights of Leith,” a ballad founded on a real incident, as he tells us in a note, would be very monotonous and gruesome were it not for the odd humourous touches by which he dramatically relieves the narrative. But better still is this seen in “The Wedding of Shon Maclean,” and “The Wake of O’Connor,” which, though it lacks the concentrated force of  “The Wake of Tim O’Hara,” given to the public some years ago, is superior to it in the quality of humour, by which the grimness of the situation is so artfully relieved:—

         To the wake of O’Connor
               What boy wouldn’t go?
         To do him that honour
               Went lofty and low
         Two nights was the waking,
         Till day began breaking,
         And frolics past spaking,
               To please him, were done.
         For himself in the middle,
         With stick and with fiddle,
Stretched out at his ease was the King of the Fun.

With a dimity curtain over head,
And the corpse-lights shining round his bed,
Holding his fiddle and stick, and drest
Top to toe in his Sunday best;
For all the world he seemed to be
Playing on his back to the companie.
On each of his sides was the candle light,
     On his legs the tobacco-pipes were piled;
Cleanly washed, in a shirt of white,
His grey hair brushed, his beard trimmed right;
     He lay in the midst of his friends and smiled.

     “Phil Blood’s Leap” is a very vigorous piece of narrative, and “The Green Gnome” is full of fancy and delicious music, while “The Devil’s Peepshow” is like an old morality which has been anew turned forth to the light, so set that new tints and new hues shine forth from every point it can be looked at. “The Midian Mara” is quite in the line of Mr. Buchanan’s genius, and the vision of the city under the sea is exquisite:—

         ’Neath the green, still ocean,
               Far, far below,
         With a mystic motion
               That cant be told,
         I saw it gleaming
               On a strand of snow,
         Its bright towers gleaming
               All glass and gold !
         And a sound thrilled through me,
               Like the sound of bells
         Upwafted to me
               On the ocean swells;
         And I saw far under
               Within those same
         White shapes of wonder
               That went and came.
*          *         *          *         *          *
         Still glassy and shining
               Those walls of flame,
         With the sea-weeds twining
               Around their feet,
         More large the places
               Great towers became,
         Till I saw the faces
               In the golden street;
         I saw and knew them
               (The Lord’s my guide!)
         As the water drew them
               From side to side,
         I saw the creatures,
               And I knew them then,
         The wool-white features
               Of drowning men.

         Upright they drifted
               All wet and cold,
         By the sea-wash lifted,
               Like the red sea tang,
         While in sad, wild cadence,
               From the towers of gold,
         The pale sea maidens
               Struck harp, and sang
                   O shule, shule,
O shule, aroon, come, come, my darling, come,

         I tell thee truly
               I heard them croon;
         Then I heard that thunder
               Roll deep once more,
         And I swooned for wonder
               On the yellow shore.

The Celtic glamour, and magic, and weird fantasy are in this poem, and also all the delicacy, and grace, and allusive beauty.
     Another class of poems is represented by “The White Deer,” in which a real incident and natural appearance are made the symbols of a deep moral idea.

Around, above me, and under,
     God’s forest is closing dim,
I chase the mystical wonder
     Footsore and weary of limb.

Down in the dim recesses,
     Up on the heights untrod,
Eluding our dreams and guesses,
     Slips the secret of God.

Only seen by the dying
     In the last spectral pain—
Just as the breath is flying—
     Flashing and fading again.

White mystery, might I view thee!
     Bright wonder, might we meet!
Ever, as I pursue thee,
     I see the print of thy feet.

Ever those feet are roaming,
     Ever we follow in quest,
While thou hauntest the gloaming,
     Never a soul shall rest.

     “Love in Winter” is delicious as a picture, but still more so for the sentiment which it so admirably renders—the lasting character of faithful love giving youth to age, and repairing all losses.

O love is like the roses! No!
     Thou foolish singer, cease!
Love finds his fireside ’mid the snow,
     And smokes the pipe of peace.

     Some of the simple songs, such as “In Springtime,” “The Cuckoo Song,” “April Rain,” and “The Highland Lament”—“O mar tha Mi”—have all the flow and subtle suggestiveness we expect from Mr. Buchanan in this line of work. We crave space to give “April Rain”:—

Showers, showers, naught but showers; and it wants a week of May;
Flowers, flowers, summer flowers are hid in the green and gray;
Green buds and gray shoots cover their sparkling gear;
They stir beneath, they long to burst, for the May is so near, so near,
While I spin, and I spin, and the fingers of the Rain
Fall patter, pitter, patter on the pane.

Showers, showers, silver showers, murmur and softly sing;
Flowers, flowers, summer flowers, are swelling and hearkening;
It wants a week of May, when my love and I will be one,
The flowers will burst, the birds will sing, as we walk to church in the sun,
So patter goes my heart in a kind of pleasant pain
To the patter, pitter, patter of the Rain.

  * Ballads of Life, Love, and Humour. By Robert Buchanan. With a Frontispiece by Arthur Hughes. Chatto and Windus.

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The Academy (15 July, 1882 - p.45-46)

     Selected Poems of Robert Buchanan. (Chatto and Windus.) Mr. Buchanan’s readers have excellent reasons to be satisfied with this beautiful and comprehensive selection. Within some 300 pages may be found by much the most memorable part of the poet’s work. In the manner of Wordsworth, Mr. Buchanan has divided his poetry into sections indicative of its nature and aim. First, we have “Ballads and Dramatic Lyrics” (we think the sub-title is scarcely defensible, but we have previously touched upon this point in the same connexion); then we have “Nature Poems,” “Narrative Poems,” “London Poems,” and “Spiritual Poems.” In the first of these subdivisions the very fine “Ballad of Judas Iscariot” is included; in the second, the “White Rose and Red” is laid under contribution for some passages of conspicuous beauty, notably “The Great Snow,” “Drowsietown,” and “Springtide;” in the third of the subdivisions, “Meg Blane” is reprinted from the volume under that name; and among the “London Poems” we find “Up in an Attic,” “The Starling,”“Nell,” and the “Wake of O’Hara.” The “Spiritual Poems” come chiefly from “The Book of Orm,” being, among others, “The Vision of the Man Accurst” and “The Soul and the Dwelling.” The titles we have given will enable readers familiar with the author’s work to judge of the merit of the selection. Excellent as we think the choice must, on the whole, be considered, it has the (perhaps inevitable) disadvantage of excluding poems which certain of Mr. Buchanan’s admirers must be sorry to miss. The volume reached us in May, and the recent Ballads of Life, Love, and Humour was published in March; we cannot, therefore, suppose that the earlier book would have suffered any serious dislocation by the reprinting of certain of its more conspicuous poems in the present volume of selections, which, if it be anything, ought to be representative of the poet’s genius and indicative of the range of his powers. We think, therefore, that the “Lights of Leith” might, with advantage, have appeared in place, say, of the “Two Sons” and “Charmian;” and that “O’Connor’s Wake” would better have represented the author’s view of the lower Irish character than the “Wake of O’Hara,” which has less of the humour of grim jollity, and has, moreover, a most lame and impotent conclusion, although, indeed, it possesses a few touches quite on a level with anything in its companion poem.

“‘God bless old Ireland!’ said Mistress Hart,
Mother to Mike of the donkey-cart;
‘God bless old Ireland till all be done,
She never made wake for a better son!’
And all joined chorus, and each one said
Something kind of the boy that was dead;
And the bottle went round from lip to lip,
And the weeping widow, for fellowship,
Took the glass of old Biddy and had a sip,
                       At the wake of Tim O’Hara.”

We might dispense with “Barbara Gray,” which, though fraught with some genuine passion, is disfigured, we fear, by not a little forced emotion; but we are sorry to miss the strong grip of reality which is seen in “Phil Blood’s Leap.” The two poems “To David in Heaven” and “The Snowdrop” bear reference to the young poet David Gray, the story of whose hapless life is told in a brief, but touching, Appendix. The poems in question derive, no doubt, their chief interest for the author from their melancholy association with his friend; but there is nothing quite worthy of the author in either of the poems (certainly not in the first-named of the two), and, perhaps, now that we have realised that Gray himself, though a man of very pure poetic feeling, was by no means a great poet, it might have been as well to omit them. But this is a matter on which Mr. Buchanan must naturally feel deeply. On the whole, as we say, the selection is a good one, and affords an excellent view of the author’s gifts. That this is poetry with a fundamental body of stuff in it is the least we can say for the work as a whole; and that it is marked by a right instinct of aspiration and by purity of motive must also be affirmed. We feel, as we read, that Mr. Buchanan’s poetry comes from someone, and in this respect has an enormous advantage over a large part of modern verse, which, coming from nobody in particular, can scarcely hope to appeal to anyone. “Nell,” in the volume under review, is an excellent example of the author’s real-life work, and is, moreover, a sheer slice out of life, and as vivid a portrait, in its way, as the Bill Sykes of Dickens. Mr. Buchanan is weakest in the “Spiritual Poems;” the province of the purely spiritual is foreign to his powers. The career of this author has been one of peculiar interest, and is now not without pathos. Mr. Buchanan, at the outset, either resisted coterie tendencies or was resisted by them; and very soon the few intimate friends with whom he started in life—Gray, Dobell, and others—were removed by death. He had established a high place among younger poets after Tennyson, when he had the misfortune to acquire the reputation (not unmerited) of a literary Ishmael, and since then he has been struggling against many odds. Nevertheless, he has done, and is still doing, work that must honour him in a high degree.

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The British Quarterly Review (July, 1882 - p.225)

Ballads of Life, Love, and Humour. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. With a Frontispiece by Arthur Hughes. Chatto and Windus.

     Mr. Robert Buchanan has in this volume reprinted a collection of his poems which have appeared here and there since his last collection saw the light. We are not sure that he has written anything superior to what went before even in the lines that are more specially his own—nothing to surpass ‘The Ballad of Judas Iscariot’ in the way of weird fantasy; nothing superior to ‘Drumliemoor’  in the way of realism. We cannot conscientiously say that ‘O’Connor’s Wake’ is more powerful and characteristic than the ‘Wake of Tim O’Hara,’ to which it is evidently a complement; or that the ‘Ballad of the Wayfarer’ indicates a higher watermark than the ballad of ‘The Dead Mother,’ which, in its own way, was one of the most effective things he had produced. But everywhere we have the tokens of growing power, of a fine imagination, and an active fantasy, united to great power of expression; passing from the sweet simplicity of the simplest lyric to the grandeur of the impassioned and serio-dramatic dialogue: as in ‘The Garden’ and ‘The Devil’s Peepshow,’ which is full of quaint and weird suggestiveness, and in which Mr. Buchanan’s mystic moralizing has full play. In the lyric pure and simple, the best specimens are the ‘Highland Lament,’ which is truly musical from first line to last; and so is ‘April Rain’ and ‘The Cuckoo’s Song.’ On the whole, though the volume contains no individual poem of transcendent interest, it exhibits Mr. Buchanan’s great versatility and power. His muse can traverse a wide range—walk the earth with firm foot, and yet can soar pretty freely into the empyrean of fancy, giving to ‘airy nothings a local habitation and a    name.’

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Glasgow Herald (6 October, 1882)

Poems by Robert Buchanan.

     In his “Selected Poems” Mr Buchanan has done for his own works what it has now become the fashion to do for the works of the singers who have departed from our midst. It is scarcely to be expected that an editor can succeed in satisfying the tastes of all sorts and conditions of men, and possibly those who are familiar with Mr Buchanan’s writings will miss in this selection several poems, for the absence of which it will seem difficult to account. The imaginative reader, for instance, who has been spellbound by the lurid fascination of “Tiger Bay,” or he who has been charmed with the exquisite workmanship of “The Scottish Eclogue,” may wonder why the space that might have been accorded to them is filled with “Mark Antony” or “Up in an Attic.” While, therefore, Mr Buchanan may not have succeeded in gathering from his poems the best possible selection that might be made, he has at least presented us with one which is interesting as indicating his own estimate of his work, and one which is certainly typical of the peculiarities and range of his genius. In the study of contemporary poetry Mr Buchanan cannot be overlooked, and those who cannot afford to possess themselves of his complete works will in this volume find an excellent “picture in little” of his poetic individuality. “Ballads of Life, Love, and Humour” is Mr Buchanan’s latest volume of verse. With the exception of the first poem, “The Lights of Leith,” the volume, if we mistake not, is a collection of poems which have appeared in various periodicals during the last ten or twelve years. If they are accordingly wanting in novelty, happily they have in several instances acquired so wide a popularity as to render their publication in book form more than usually welcome. “The Wedding of Shon Maclean,” “Phil Blood’s Leap,” and “O’Connor’s Wake” are among the best known of the poems in the volume, and these alone, while they are by no means instances of Mr Buchanan’s highest or most powerful writing, are of sufficient excellence to ensure the book a popularity which will suffer no diminution from the strange and suggestive conception of “The Devil’s Peepshow,” or the plaintive beauty of “The Faery Reaper” and “The Midian Mara.” Of “The Lights of Leith” it need only be said that Mr Buchanan has hit on a fine picturesque subject, which he has treated with strong dramatic effect. The poem opens with the glimmer of the Leith lights through a gale of snow and hail, and the flaming of what seem merry bonfires on the quay. A ship is struggling in through the storm, and on board is a sailor who left his mother twenty years ago and who is now coming home, a penitent prodigal, “with siller to mak’ her glad.” When the reader learns that the bonfires on the quay are the blazing faggots piled about three witches, and that the sailor’s mother is one of the three, he can readily conceive the powerful and pathetic manner in which the poet works up to the ghastly denouement. While Mr Buchanan has written loftier and more perfectly artistic poems than any contained in this volume, “Ballads of Life, Love, and Humour” are a distinct increment to the poetic region which he has annexed.

     Selected Poems of Robert Buchanan. London: Chatto & Windus.
     Ballads of Life, Love, and Humour. By Robert Buchanan. London: Chatto & Windus.

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The Poetical Works (1884)

 

The Derby Mercury (24 December, 1884)

     Messrs. Chatto and Windus have published the complete Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan in one well-printed, attractively-bound, and altogether-desirable volume. Mr. Buchanan has of recent years come to the front as a vivid romancist and a successful dramatist, but he will, we think, be remembered by-and-bye mainly as a poet. In that respect he takes high rank. He is not what would be called “popular,” in the sense of having written verses which are familiar to all classes of the community; he has not produced a “Charge of the Light Brigade” or “Pied Piper of Hamelin.” But among students of poetry he has a high reputation, and his poems, as a whole, require only to be known to be admired. Mr. Buchanan has a wide range. He has brought out what may be termed the poetry of poverty; he has done much for Scotch character and scenery; he has sung of Mormonism and of the struggle between France and Germany, and has dealt a good deal in the mystical and transcendental. No doubt his work will be sifted by the slow but unfailing action of Time, but we should say that such things as “To David in Heaven,” “Liz,” “Nell,” “Meg Blane,” “The Scottish Eclogue,” “Coruisken Sonnets,” “The Book of Orm,” “The City of Man,” “St. Abe,” “White Rose and Red,” “The Wedding of Shon Maclean,” and “Phil Blood’s Leap,” are among those which the world will not willingly let die. Certainly the Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan form a volume without which no library can be said to be adequately furnished.

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The British Quarterly Review (January, 1885 - p.216)

The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan. With a Portrait of the Author. Chatto and Windus.

     A collected edition of a poet’s writings justifies some attempt at an account of his characteristics. Mr. Buchanan’s genius includes two things: intense realism of dramatic approach to his themes; and intense subjective convictions, which tend in the development to spoil the artistic shape, as he generally becomes egotistic and effusive where the aim is ambitious, and where the effort of composition is long sustained. This applies indeed to his novels as well as to his longer poems. Theologically, he is a revolutionist, rejecting firmly the old dogma of the evil of evil, which, he teaches, is only a disguised good; as a result, he is a universalist of the most pronounced type, and preaches it incessantly. His ‘Book of Orm,’ especially in ‘The Vision of the Man Accurst;’ his ballad of ‘Judas Iscariot,’ his ‘Scottish Eclogue,’ and many other poems, are really disguised sermons on this text, in which perhaps the sermon is more disguised as the treatment is more æsthetic. ‘Balder the Beautiful’ and the ‘Devil’s Peepshow’ are perhaps the most successful artistically of his many pieces that may be regarded as voices of theological revolt. In politics Mr. Buchanan is a democrat, as Victor Hugo is; he has learned much from Victor Hugo, and has followed him in some of his artistic errors, as witness the ‘Drama of Kings,’ and the section ‘Political Mystics’ which we have here. Mysticism aids him in some of his efforts and hinders him not a little in others. He is always powerful and compact when the theme is of a nature either to confine him to pure mysticism, as in ‘The Songs of Corruption’ in the ‘Book of Orm,’ or to limit him to a mere picture as in ‘The Mountain Well,’ or a realistic story with a touch of nature, as in ‘St. Abe’ and ‘The English Eclogue.’ His purely lyrical pieces are always fine, penetrated by sentiment and full of fittest imagery, as in ‘The Cuckoo Song’ and The Spring-time.’ We have no space to say more at present; to have said less would hardly have been fitting in view of this tasteful and well-sized volume, which contains so much of real beauty and sterling value. If, however, Mr. Buchanan had submitted one or two of his longer poems to the same process as that to which the ‘Drama of Kings’ has been subjected, this volume might have gained and only gained, in its permanent hold on the public mind.

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Aberdeen Weekly Journal (8 January, 1885)

THE POETICAL WORKS OF ROBERT BUCHANAN.
Chatto & Windus.

     If a literary man were asked whom he considered to be the foremost living Scottish poet, the name he would probably select would be that of Robert Buchanan. There is, doubtless, many a worthy writer of poetry still among us who in his special sphere would take no second place beneath the fiery Glasgow bard; but viewing the word all round and considering the many kinds of it that Robert Buchanan has written, and written well, we think him fully entitled to stand as the most eminent living poet of Scotland. The name Buchanan arouses in us many strange memories. It takes us back to the early days of Glasgow journalism, when the future singer of balder was a wild and pranky boy in his father’s newspaper office, pestering the miserable sub-editor, till in sheer desperation that irate and bewildered journalist hurled the inkpot at his head. A year or two further on the name Buchanan recalls to us one of yet sweeter and more romantic memory, and one which, to the loss of Scottish literature, is a memory and nothing more. It recalls the name of David Gray. Of the friendship that existed between Buchanan and Gray there are many touching tokens. There are on Gray’s side the affectionate and graphic letters he wrote to his friend, as published in his life. On Buchanan’s side there is the pathetic little poem, “Up in an Attic,” in which the poet dreams wistfully over some little memorials that we know had reference to Gray only from the prefacial sentence extracted from one of his letters. And much stronger and more beautiful and direct in sentiment, as well as far more melodious in versification, there is the eloquent dirge, “To David in Heaven,” in which the poet mourns, as Milton did for his “Lycidas,” over the sweet singer of the Luggie, the “marvellous boy” whose ethereally beautiful form, an old friend of his tells us, made people turn and look at him as he moodily paced the streets of Glasgow, and who after yearning for a fame he was never to enjoy in life, sobbed and gasped out his young life in sonnets of a passionate and transcendent beauty. It was to the memory of that poet friend of his youth that Mr Buchanan in 1864 dedicated the prologue of his “Undertones.” There is no need to recount all its stirring and happy ideas. No better praise could be given to it than to say it is an elegy worthy of so sweet and beautiful a spirit as David Gray’s:—

     Poet, gentle-hearted
     Are you then departed,
And have you ceased to dream the dream we loved of old so well?
     Has the deeply cherished
     Aspiration perished,
And are you happy, David, in that heaven, where you dwell?
     Have you found the secret
     We so wildly sought for,
And is your soul enswathed at last in the singing robes you fought for?

     Some years later on we find the name of Robert Buchanan prominently connected with one of the most violent literary controversies of recent days. It was he who, through a magazine article, attacked Mr Swinburne and his poetic  followers, and invented for them the now famous nickname of “the fleshly school.” The hubbub that severe epithet aroused was terrible. The school so libelled took up the cudgels in defence of their master, and every poetaster in the land who twanged the Swinburnian lyre abandoned his amorous dallying with metres and alliterations, and flung himself tooth and nail upon the rash maligner. Mr Buchanan, however, survived. He still lives to tell the tale, and his record of work done wince that doughty warfare was waged is a long and honourable one. He has lately chiefly devoted himself to writing novels—in some instances it cannot be said with pre-eminent success—and he has also tried his hand at recasting them in dramatic form. It cannot be urged that the story of “God and the Man” and the parallel play of “Storm-beaten” will have an enduring reputation. Quite otherwise is it with Mr Buchanan’s poems which he has produced from time to time up till the present hour, and which now, by the timely enterprise of Messrs Chatto & Windus, have entered the quiet haven of an edition in collected form. As has been already said, there are among them many poems that are sure to live. They touch with masterly hand upon nearly every chord in the gamut of human emotion. They run through pathos, horror, humour; they deal with high life and low; and depict minds wild and unrestrained, or trimmed down to the orthodox cut of civilised society. And upon that wide range of feeling Mr Buchanan brings to bear the light of a strong, vigorous, and even fiery intellect. He is master of vivid powers of description; he has the poet’s eye for the natural beauties about him, and warms often into a white heat of enthusiasm for them. He has, moreover, at times a certain rugged dramatic force that is especially effective, and that give his lines an energy and rush and fire sufficient of themselves to make the reputation of many a meaner versifier. A very good instance of that swift dramatic turn of the thought is to be found in “Phil Blood’s Leap.” That is a poem which has attained a deserved popularity, and it is hardly going too far to say that it has done so by merit of the quality mentioned. In other ways Mr Buchanan has done equally well. The horror of “The Lights o’ Leith,” with its weird, awesome, musical refrain, and its pure ballad simplicity, is unsurpassed by any poet of the time. In humour also Robert Buchanan shines with a light all his own. The “Wedding of Shon Maclean” is inimitable, and is fully worthy of its universal popularity. There are not many men in the country with any claim to an intelligent knowledge of literature who have never heard of the “twenty pipers at break of day” who came across the heather to honour by their presence the wedding of the great Shon:—

     And every piper was fou,
Twenty pipers together.

     And as examples of exquisite sentiment and melodious versification in poems of a different stamp we may point to “Charmian,” “Kitty Bell,” and “Spring Song in the City.” Altogether Messrs Chatto & Windus have done a public service by collecting into one compact, handy, cheap, and handsome volume the poetical works of a writer who, through sheer force of merit, has raised himself to a high place among contemporary singers, and whose name is certain to stand well with posterity.

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Glasgow Herald (30 March 1885)

     The “Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan” (Chatto & Windus).—Mr Buchanan has acted wisely in issuing, in a popular one-volume form, a collected edition of his poems. Mr Buchanan’s reputation as a poet is now well established, but this volume will undoubtedly confirm and extend it. Even his admirers are apt to forget how much excellent work he has done, and how varied have been the directions in which he has exercised his powers. On this volume Mr Buchanan may safely rest his claims to the recognition of the future. His poems are, of course, not uniformly good. He fails to touch or interest us with his metaphysical, allegorical, or mythological verse. He is not himself there, and the lines are laboured and unreal. But of the narrative, dramatic, and ballad forms he shows himself a master; and in these classes of poetry he has produced works that will remain as permanent additions to English literature. “The Lights of Leith” is one of the best modern ballads in the language. “Saint Abe and his Seven Wives,” “White Rose and Red,” “The Wedding of Shon Maclean,” and several of the “Idylls and Legends of Inverburn” and of his “London Poems” are admirable as narratives. He is direct and forcible, can conceive and describe telling situations, and is rich in both humour and pathos. There is a fine manly ring in all the best things he has written, much knowledge of the world, and a sentiment which, if it does not always appeal to the very highest and most imaginative aspirations of human nature, is at any rate healthy and devoid of sickly cant of all kinds—of the cant of the pietist as well as of the cant of the æsthete. The publication of this volume must lead to an increase in the number of Mr Buchanan’s admirers, and those who already know and appreciate his excellencies as a poet will welcome the opportunity the book gives them of renewing their acquaintance with his writings.

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