ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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BOOK REVIEWS - POETRY (2)

 

Undertones (1863)

 

Undertones (1863)

 

The Athenæum (19 December, 1863)

Undertones. By Robert Buchanan. (Moxon & Co.)

As surely as a light tread and a rapid knock announce the arrival of a postman, so do a certain choice of theme, a massive lilt and sway of line, a vigorous, unworn power of illustration, announce the coming of a poet. No man who listens to the music of these ‘Undertones’ will hesitate in bestowing that high and gracious title on Mr. Robert Buchanan. A line snatched out from the text of almost any page will suggest the presence of a true pretension, and a careful enjoyment of the poem will induce readers of imagination to admit the claim.

And, like a wave, I gather strength, and gathering strength, I moan,

—is a poetic line, bearing on its strong crest a noble image:

And gather strength, only to make a louder moan in breaking!

     Will any one hesitate to say that, whether he may have used his poetic gifts ill or well, the man who wrote that line has in him the gift of song?
     ‘Undertones’ is a poem in many moods and metres; or, to speak by the prosaic card, it is a collection of pieces, nineteen in number, on themes which have a subtle rather than a close relation to each other; bound up with a prologue and an epilogue—the first addressed to David in Heaven, the second to Mary on Earth,—which latter pieces have neither moral nor artistic connexion with the glorious and ideal theme.
     The central thought of this poem—as we understand it—is not so new as the treatment is bold and masculine. Mr. Buchanan, for a particular purpose, endows the inarticulate spirits of the universe with speech and song, so that these spirits may utter forth their plaints and aspirations into human ears, setting the glories and the miseries of their being to appropriate music. Such a gift of speech is one of the oldest bounties of the imagination to inanimate nature. Mr. Buchanan’s originality consists in the strength and beauty of the voice with which he endows the typical spirits of the universe, and the noble purposes with which he inspires their song. The burden of his hymn is Love. All nature yearns for love; and the poet’s theory of life appears to be that there is always love to meet the cry for love.
     His song begins in the lowest depth; and the first large cry, coming from the depth of Hades into the middle and the higher world, is a cry for love. This is certainly a new, bold rendering of the ancient myth:—

     Eternities of lonely reign,
         Full of faint dreams of day and night
               And the white glamour of starry light,
     Oppress’d my patience into pain;
         Upward I sent a voice of prayer
         That made black thunder in the air;
And “Ades craves a Queen, O Zeus!” shook heaven unaware.

     How the gods and goddesses of the higher world were startled by this cry from the darker realm, we need not stay to tell. The cry was answered to the innermost spirit of the immortal fiend. Few things in modern poetry are finer than the poet’s magnificently dark and weird imagining of the Great Terror, when, in answer to his cry of pain, there came upon him, by degrees, a sense of love approaching through the voids of space:—

     When lo, there murmur’d on my brain,
         Like sound of far-off waves a sound
         That did my godlike sense confound
     And kiss'd my eyelids down in pain;
         And far above I heard the beat
         Of musically falling feet,

Caught by the gnomes of earth and hurl’d down to my brazen seat.

     And I was ’ware that overhead
         Walk’d one whose very motion sent
         A sweet immortal wonderment
     Thro’ the deep dwellings of the Dead,
         And flush’d the seams of cavern and mine
         To gleams of gold and diamond shine,
And made the misty dews shoot up to kiss her feet divine.

     Large and godlike comes the embodiment of love into the infernal regions: softening the fiery desert into a sort of beauty, and smiling into serenity and rest its dreadful king:—

     And in the seed-time after snow,
         Down the long caves, in soft distress,
         Dry corn-blades tangled in her dress,
     The weary goddess wanders slow—
         The million eyes of Hell are bent
         On my strange queen in wonderment,—
The ghost of Iris gleams across my waters impotent!

     And the sweet Bow bends mild and bland
         O’er rainy meadows near the light,
         When fading far along the night
     They wander upward hand-in-hand;
         And like a phantom I remain,
         Chain’d to a throne in lonely reign,
Till, sweet with greenness, moonlight-kiss’d, she wanders back again

     But when afar thro’ rifts of gold
         And caverns steep’d in fog complete,
         I hear the beat of her soft feet,
     My kingdom totters as of old;
         And, conscious of her sweeter worth,
         Her godhead of serener birth,
Hell, breathing fire thro’ flowers and leaves, feels to the upper-earth.

     After the song of Ades comes the song of Pan; a low, sweet, garrulous prattle, full of tenderness, and longing, and complaint, and prophecy. Pan looks up into heaven; and sees there the godlike forms which make him ugly. Half beast of the field, half angel of the air, he groans over the fate which made him conscious of his own inferiority to the higher gods—of the god’s brain being married to the goat’s limb. He, too, cries for love, but the love he chases, scared by his foul visage, flies from his pursuit, to melt away suddenly into nature—Daphne into the pool and reeds. But out of his wail and sorrow for this lost love, comes to Pan that new power of musical speech which made him the enchanter of gods and men, so that even to him, the unhappy, love was blest.
     The Naiad and the Satyr, Venus, Selene, Iris, next take up the strain, each with the noble hymn of hope and love. After these are heard, Orpheus tells his tale, and Polyphemus mutters of his passion for Galatea; then, Penelope weaves her web and sings her song. With what force and tenderness this theme is touched let the following lines suggest:—

They heed me not, rude men, they heed me not;
And he thou leftest here to guard me well,
He, the old man, is helpless, and his eyes
Are yellow with the dim gold-minting lie
That thou art dead. O husband, what avails?
They gather on me, till the sense grows cold
And huddles in upon the steadfast heart;

And they have dragg’d a promise from my lips
To choose a murderer of my love for thee,
To choose at will from out the rest one man
To slay me with his kisses in the dark,
Whene’er the weary web at which I work
Be woven: so, all day, I weave the web;
And in the night with fingers like a thief’s
Unweave the silken sorrow of the day.

     To this succeeds the noblest portion of the poem, the story of Pygmalion. Here we have another cry for love,  unlawful, nay, unholy; answered to the wish and cursed in the very act of realization. The sculptor has done his task:—

Blue night. I threw the lattice open wide,
Drinking the odorous air; and from my height
I saw the watch-fires of the town and heard
The gradual dying of the murmurous day.
Then, as the twilight deepen’d, on her limbs
The silver lances of the stars and moon
Were shatter’d, and the shining fragments fell
Like jewels at her feet. The Cyprian star
Quiver’d to liquid emerald where it hung
On the rib’d ledges of the darkening hills,
Gazing upon her; and, as in a dream,
Methought the marble, underneath that look,
Stirr’d—like a bank of stainless asphodels
Kiss’d into tumult by a wind of light.

     Whereat there swam upon me utterly
A drowsy sense wherein my holy dream
Was melted, as a pearl in wine: bright-eyed,
Keen, haggard, passionate, with languid thrills
Of insolent unrest, I watch’d the stone,
And lo, I loved it: not as men love fame,
Not as the warrior loves his laurel wreath,
But with prelusion of a passionate joy
That threw me from the height whereon I stood
To grasp at Glory, and in impiousness
Of sweet communing with some living Soul
Chamber’d in that cold bosom. As I gazed,
There was a buzz of revel in mine ears,
And tinkling fragments of a ditty of love,
Warbled by wantons over wine-cups, swam
Like bees within the brain.—Then I was shamed
By her pale beauty, and I scorn’d myself,
And standing at the lattice dark and cool
Watch’d the dim winds of twilight enter in,
And draw a veil about that loveliness
White, dim, and breathed on by the common air.

     But, like a snake’s moist eye, the dewy star
Of lovers drew me; and I watch’d it grow
Large, soft, and tremulous; and as I gazed
In fascinated impotence of heart,
I pray’d the lifeless silence might assume
A palpable life, and soften into flesh,
And be a beautiful and human joy
To crown my love withal; and thrice the prayer
Blacken’d across my pale face with no word.
But thro’ the woolly silver of a cloud
The cool star dripping emerald from the baths
Of Ocean brighten’d in upon my tower,
And touch’d the marble forehead with a gleam
Soft, green, and dewy; and I said “the prayer
Is heard!”
               The live-long night, the breathless night,
I waited in a darkness, in a dream,
Watching the snowy figure faintly seen,
And ofttimes shuddering when I seem’d to see
Life, like a taper burning in a skull,
Gleam thro’ the rayless eyes: yea, wearily
I hearken’d thro’ the dark and seem’d to hear
The low warm billowing of a living breast,
Or the slow motion of anointed limbs
New-stirring into life; and, shuddering,
Fearing the thing I hoped for, awful eyed,
On her cold breast I placed a hand as cold
And sought a fluttering heart.—But all was still,
And chill, and breathless; and she gazed right on
With rayless orbs, nor marvell’d at my touch:
White, silent, pure, ineffable, a shape
Rebuking human hope, a deathless thing,
Sharing the wonder of the Sun who sends
His long bright look thro’ all futurity.

     When Shame lay heavy on me, and I hid
My face, and almost hated her, my work,
Because she was so fair, so human fair,
Yea not divinely fair as that pure face
Which, when mine hour of loss and travail came,
Haunted me, out of heaven. Then the Dawn
Stared in upon her: when I open’d eyes,
And saw the gradual Dawn encrimson her
Like blood that blush’d within her,—and behold
She trembled—and I shriek’d!
                                                   With haggard eyes,
I gazed on her, my fame, my work, my love!
Red sunrise mingled with the first bright flush
Of palpable life—she trembled, stirr’d, and sigh’d—
And the dim blankness of her stony eyes
Melted to azure. Then, by slow degrees,
She tingled with the warmth of living blood:
Her eyes were vacant of a seeing soul,
But dewily the bosom rose and fell,
The lips caught sunrise, parting, and the breath
Fainted thro’ pearly teeth.
                                           I was as one
Who gazes on a goddess serpent-eyed,
And cannot fly, and knows to look is death.
O apparition of my work and wish!
The weight of awe oppress’d me, and the air
Swung as the Seas swing around drowning men.

     Then follows the love-making between the mortal artist and the beautiful thing which he had made—the soulless image of his own impious soul. At last, the higher intelligence subdued the lower, when came the revel of the senses:—

     Then sat we, side by side. She, queenly stoled,
Amid the gleaming fountain of her hair,
With liquid azure orbs and rosy lips
Gorgeous with honey’d kisses; I, like a man
Who loves fair eyes and knows they are a fiend’s,
And in them sees a heav’n he knows is hell.
For, like a glorious feast, she ate and drank,
Staining her lips in crimson wine, and laugh’d
To feel the vinous bubbles froth and burst
In veins whose sparking blood was meet to be
An angel’s habitation. Cup on cup
I drain’d in fulness—careless as a god—
A haggard bearded head upon a breast
In tumult like a sun-kist bed of flowers.

     The revel fitly ends:—

Three days and nights the vision dwelt with me,
Three days and nights we dozed in dreadful state,
Look’d piteously upon by sun and star;
But the third night there pass’d a homeless sound
Across the city underneath my tower,
And lo! there came a roll of muffled wheels,
A shrieking and a hurrying to and fro
Beneath, and I gazed forth. Then far below
I heard the people shriek “A pestilence!”
         *          *         *          *         *
     I turn’d to her, the partner of my height:
She, with bright eyeballs sick with wine, and hair
Gleaming in sunset, on a couch asleep.
And lo! a horror lifted up my scalp,
The pulses plunged upon the heart, and fear
Froze my wide eyelids. Peacefully she lay
In purple stole array’d, one little hand
Bruising the downy cheek, the other still
Clutching the dripping goblet, and the light,
With gleams of crimson on the ruinous hair,
Spangling a blue-vein’d bosom whence the robe
Fell back in rifled folds; but dreadful change
Grew pale and hideous on the waxen face,
And in her sleep she did not stir, nor dream.

     No one, we think, will doubt that this is poetry, and of a noble kind. It would not be fair to draw upon a first volume of verse any further, and after our quotations it would be superfluous to say that we recommend ‘Undertones’ to our readers.

[Note: This review was written by William Hepworth Dixon.]

___

 

Glasgow Herald (26 December, 1863)

LITERATURE.
_____

UNDERTONES. By Robert Buchanan. London: Edward Moxon & Co. (Pp.241.)

MR. BUCHANAN says in his preface that the class of minds to which his poems appeal will understand him, when he states that he was compelled at too early an age to get his bread by letters, and that the composition of an ambitious poetic work like the “Undertones” has, therefore, been attended with many difficulties. Had greater leizure been at his disposal, the fruit of his studies would have been mellower and riper; yet we freely accord to Mr. Buchanan “a certain victory,” which he claims, in having been able at so early an age to complete his ambitious project, and we accept his work as a triumph both for what is accomplished, and for what is indicated as being within the reach of his genius. The “Undertones,” by which we understand the mythological portion of the work, may be described as half-fanciful, half- philosophic readings of some of the old Grecian myths—an old poetic theme, which has not been much affected of late. The heathen gods have rather gone out of fashion with modern poets, and even the recognised patron of poetry—Apollo—is scarcely now once appealed to, for their reign in imaginative literature completely passed away with the new poetic vigour that succeeded the first French Revolution. And yet the old stories of the gods, of the Naiads, Dryads, and Satyrs, and of the semi-divine heroes of Greece, have a perpetual interest, especially to youthful imaginations, and will probably be capable of new interpretations to all time. Mr. Buchanan has seized these old and somewhat hackneyed subjects with remarkable boldness and originality, and reads us a fresh and noble lesson out of them. He has linked together his principal themes by a chain of thought which we understand to be the undertones; and though we should have liked that Mr. Buchanan had made his meaning plainer to the generality of readers, it is not improbable that the class of minds to which he appeals may rather themselves prefer to lift the veil with which he has thought fit to hide some of his boldest and most original conceptions. In some of the myths it is not difficult to recognise the new thought of our time peeping out from beneath the Pagan drapery. What, for instance, could better shadow forth one of the highest speculations of modern thinkers than the following lines from the myth of Proteus:—

     Through wondrous change on change—
Haunted for ever by a hollow tune,
Made ere the birth of sun, or stars, or moon—
         I, Proteus, range.

     Nay, evermore, I grow,
Darker, with deeper power to see and know.
For in the end, I, Proteus, shall cast
     All wondrous shapes aside but one alone,
And stand (while round about me in the vast,
The earth, sun, stars, and moon burn out at last)
         A skeleton that kneels, before a throne.

These lines are written by a true poet, because, with the trick of rhyme, flow of fancy, and felicitous expression, we recognise a rich thoughtfulness which only come from a poetic imagination. The undertone in “Proteus” swells up into a full round note, but in some of the poems it is not so distinct, and it is smothered altogether in others, by the luxuriance of the language. Pan forms the subject of one of Mr. Buchanan’s poems, and he has treated that most mystical and wonderful of all the Grecian fables with a fresh original power that does one good to read. Pan thus addresses the gods:—

                                 ME, when at first
Light dawned on chaos like the ghost of form,
When the deep murmured, and Eternity
Gave forth a hollow sound, while from its voids
Ye blossomed thick as flowers, and by the light
Beheld yourselves, eternal and divine—
ME, underneath the “darkness visible,”
And calm as ocean, when the cold moon smoothes
The palpitating waves, without a sound—
Me, ye saw sleeping in a dream, white-haired,
Low-lidded, gentle, aged, and like the shade
Of the eternal self-unconsciousness,
Out of whose law YE had awakened—gods,
Fair-statured, self-apparent, marvellous,
Dove-eyed, and inconceivably divine.

     A Platonist might have written the foregoing, but only a modern thinker could have made Pan utter the following prophecy:—

                       In the time to come,—in years
Across whose vast I wearily impel
These ancient, bleared, and humble-lidded eyes,—
Some law more strong than me, yet part of me,
Some power more piteous, yet a part of me,
Shall hurl ye from Olympus to the depths,
And bruise ye back to that great darkness, whence
Ye blossomed thick as flowers; while I—I, Pan,
The ancient haunting shadow of dim earth,
Shall slough this form of beast, this wrinkled length,
Yea, cast it from my feet, as one who shakes
A worthless garment off; and lo, beneath,
Mild-featured manhood, manhood eminent,
Subdued into the glory of a god,
Sheer harmony of body and of soul,
Wondrous, and inconceivably divine.

We quote those verses rather to show the spirit in which Mr. Buchanan has conceived the “Undertones,” than to illustrate the power of his imagination, or the variegated music of his verse. We might cull numerous beautiful images and bits of word-painting from every page of the “Undertones;” but we consider it of far greater consequence for Mr. Buchanan’s reputation to show that, besides possessing full powers of expression, he has also something to express, and that a fertile, bold, and original intellect underlies, and to some extent controls, the exuberant fancy which puts forth the lush summer flowers and blossomings in his poems. His verses please the ear, with their mere verbal melody, but beneath that there is a low sublimer tone, which perhaps only some of his readers will catch, and hail with far greater pleasure than the louder but more commonplace melody of the former. In “Ades, King of Hell,” the first myth treated by Mr. Buchanan, we have the love marriage of the earth and the nether-world—life and death—sung in stanzas that no young poet of the present day has equalled. The verse chosen in this poem is difficult to manage, but in Mr. Buchanan’s hand it becomes melodious as the reeds of Pan. Here is the picture of the daughter of Cere, the bride of Ades:—

Soft yellow hair, that curled and clang,
     Throbbed to her feet in softest showers,
     And as she went she gathered flowers,
And as she gathered flowers she sang.
         It floated down my sulphurous eaves,
         That faint sweet song of flowers and leaves,
Of vineyards, gushing purple wines, and yellow slanting sheaves.

The three last verses, in which Ades tells of the mild influences of his Queen on the nether-world, are so beautiful that we cannot refrain from quoting them, especially as they illustrate the power of the poet in veiling new though under old fable:—

And in the seed-time, after snow,
     Down the long caves in soft distress,
     Dry corn blades tangled in her dress,
The weary goddess wanders slow—
     The million eyes of hell are bent
     On my strange Queen in wonderment,—
The ghost of Iris gleams across my waters impotent!

And the sweet bow bends mild and bland
     O’er rainy meadows near the light,
     When fading far along the night
They wander upward hand in hand;
     And like a phantom I remain,
     Chained to a throne in lonely reign,
Till, sweet with greenness, moonlight-kissed, she wanders back again.

But, when afar thro’ rifts of gold
     And caverns steep’d in fog complete,
     I hear the beat of her soft feet,
My kingdom totters as of old;
     And, conscious of her sweeter worth,
     Her godhead of serener birth,
Hell, breathing fire thro’ flowers and leaves, feels to the upper earth.

In the Satyr Mr. Buchanan gives us, first of all, a vivid picture of that half-human half-bestial denizen of the woods and rocks as conceived by the Grecian imagination; but, superadded to this is the craving for love, and the unutterable human longing of the monster. We see in this suggestive poem the mere creature of the earth stirred into a new sensation of being, by heavenly influences, his hard face softening, and his hairy breast tenderly heaving, till it seems as if the prophecy of Pan were to be fulfilled in his case also. The following lines show the half dreaming, humanising thoughts of the Satyr:—

But ere I knew aught
     Of others like me,
I would lie, fancy fraught,
In the greenness of thought,
     Beneath a green tree;
And seem to be deep
In the scented earth-shade,
’Neath the grass of the glade,
In a strange half sleep;
When the wind seemed to move me,
The stars in their bliss
To tingle above me:
And I crept thro’ deep bowers
That were sparkling with showers,
And sprouting for pleasure,
And I quickened the flowers
To a joy without measure—
Till my sense seemed consuming,
With warmth and upspringing
I saw the flowers blooming
And heard the birds singing!

     In Polypheme’s Passion, we have a well managed dialogue between Silenus and the One-Eyed Cyclops—the subject being love as it struggles with the gross appetites of this god-born, but earthly and sensual monster. The Greeks have represented the Cyclops to us as the embodiment of merely physical strength, inhospitable to men, defiant of the gods, and one-eyed mentally as well as physically. Mr. Buchanan touches the heart of this strange being with love for the sea goddess Galatea, and forthwith that melting passion transforms the great hulking giant from a dull scowling savage into a strangely tender lover, feeling after and bemoaning his want of the graces of humanity. Silenus, we understand, with his drunken counsel, is used as a foil to the love and tenderness of Polypheme.
     Silenus recommends him to seek counsel at the oracle of the bottle—

Wine in his nostrils, Polypheme will be,
In Polypheme’s own estimation,
A match for any girl on land or sea;
Then furiously, gloriously rash,
Grasp opportunity, that, passing by
On the sheet-lightning with a moment’s flash
Haunts us for ever with its meteor eye;
And grasp the thing you pant for now in vain,
Ay, hold her fast, and, if you choose, entreat her;
But, if she still be deaf to your sad pain,
Why hearken to the mad god in your brain,
And make a meal of trouble—that is, eat her.

     Penelope is a very fine poem, from which we might quote some beautiful passages; but we pass it and several minor pieces to notice “Pygmalion the Sculptor,” which is certainly the author’s most ambitious effort. It is the most carefully handled, and shows, even more fully than any of the pieces we have yet referred to, that which we have claimed for this young poet—viz., originality of conception, and the power of conveying suggestive ideas. He catches and reflects back to his readers “the light that never was on sea and shore” with an almost unconscious effort on his part. This poem has many morals. The most obvious—the bitter end of unlawful love—will at once suggest itself to the reader; but, studied attentively, it may teach some things even higher. We have only room for a few verses. The following represents the sculptor gazing on his finished work:—

     When Shame lay heavy on me, and I hid
My face, and almost hated her, my work,
Because she was so fair, so human fair,
Yea not divinely fair as that pure face
Which, when mine hour of loss and travail came,
Haunted me, out of heaven. Then the Dawn
Stared in upon her; when I open’d eyes,
And saw the gradual Dawn encrimson her
Like blood that blush’d within her,—and behold
She trembled—and I shriek’d!

                                                   With haggard eyes
I gaz’d on her, my fame, my work, my love!
Red sunrise mingled with the first bright flush
Of palpable life—she trembled, stirr’d, and sigh’d—
And the dim blankness of her stony eyes
Melted to azure. Then, by slow degrees,
She tingled with the milky warmth of blood:
Her eyes were vacant of a seeing soul,
But dewily the bosom rose and fell,
The lips caught sunrise, parting, and the breath
Fainted thro’ pearly teeth.

He woos the fair but soulless form which he has created, and for a few days revels in the pleasures of her love. But he is degraded, and almost sinks to the level of the merely sensuous creature whom he has wedded, when the plague spares him from drinking the full contents of the circe cup.

     Then sat we, side by side. She, queenly stoled,
Amid the gleaming fountains of her hair,
With liquid azure orbs and rosy lips
Gorgeous with honey’d kisses; I like a man
Who loves fair eyes and knows they are a fiend’s,
And in them sees a heav’n he knows is hell.
For, like a glorious beast, she ate and drank,
Staining her lips in crimson wine, and laugh’d
To feel the vinous bubbles froth and burst
In veins whose sparking blood was meet to be
An angel’s habitation. Cup on cup
I drain’d in fulness—careless as a god—
A haggard bearded head upon a breast
In tumult like a sun-kist bed of flowers.
Three days and nights the vision dwelt with me,
Three days and nights we dozed in dreadful state,
Look’d piteously upon by sun and star;
But the third night there pass’d a homeless sound
Across the city underneath my tower,
And lo! there came a roll of muffled wheels,
A shrieking and a hurrying to and fro
Beneath, and I gazed forth. Then far below
I heard the people shriek “A pestilence!”
                   *     *     *     *     *
     I turn’d to her, the partner of my height:
She, with bright eyeballs sick with wine, and hair
Gleaming in sunset, on a couch asleep.
And lo! a horror lifted up my scalp.
The pulses plunged upon the heart, and fear
Froze my wide eyelids. Peacefully she lay
In purple stole arrayed, one little hand
Bruising the downy cheek, the other still
Clutching the dripping goblet, and the light,
With gleams of crimson on the ruinous hair,
Spangling a blue-vein’d bosom whence the robe
Fell back in rifled folds; but dreadful change
Grew pale and hideous on the waxen face,
And in her sleep she did not stir, nor dream.

The other poems, composing the “Undertones,” are all written with remarkable poetic ability, and exhibit quickness of fancy, variety of thought, and a great command of poetic language; but we cannot trace their connection with the central thoughts running through those to which we have already referred. We have said enough, however, to draw the attention of the lovers of true poetry to Mr. Buchanan’s first ambitious effort. Some fault may be found with him in his choice of subjects, and in the somewhat frequent extravagance of his language; both are the results of youth, and as his imagination sobers, and his intellect gains greater experience, he will find subjects of a more homely, but not less poetic character, which he will imbue with less flashing, but more enduring colours. The faults of these poems are, in so young a man, an earnest of future excellence, for they are the faults not of dullness but of genius. Mr. Buchanan will find plenty of critics to point out and exaggerate these, and we hope he will, in the execution of future labours, attempt to avoid them. We have found so much pleasure in perusing the best portions of his book, that we do not undertake the thankless task, but conclude by heartily recommending “Undertones” to the studious attention of our readers.

___

 

The Guardian (3 February, 1864)

Undertones. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. Moxon.
 &c.    &c.    &c.                                         

     The days are not yet ended in which aspiring poets are seized with the desire to look the ancient gods and goddesses in the face. We hear very little of the Muses and Helicon, but a good deal of Ida, and Pan, and Hyperion, and Polyphemus. The Merman has almost superseded Neptune, and the Scandinavian Odin has overpowered the Latin Mars; still, Venus is allowed considerable license, especially if she will consent to call herself Aphrodite. On the same principle, Jove, under the name of Zeus, is permitted to rule Olympus—or Olumpos, as Mr. Buchanan spells the word in one place by way of variety; and an uglier or more disenchanting word than this form of the name, a word better calculated to choke the rebellious giants like a mass of putty, without the superimposition of Ossa and Pelion, it is not easy to imagine. We have no intention of accusing Mr. Buchanan of the want of an ear; he is generally happy in his choice of words and rhythms, and Olumpos is quite exceptional in his pages. In these days it would be idle to enter a general protest against Greek modifications of words which come to us through the Latin, and we must content ourselves with waiting till Phoibos disappears before the returning Phœbus, unless indeed both Phoibos and Phœbus are doomed to vanish before some later and more popular form of the Sun-god. It is a slip of scholarship rather than of taste, when Mr. Buchanan introduces Horace talking of Favonus instead of Favonius. Indeed, we cannot say that Mr. Buchanan’s Undertones, although devoted to such subjects as Selene the Moon, and Iris the Rainbow, and Orpheus the Musician, and Pygmalion the Sculptor, have caught the true classical key. They have neither the ancient simplicity nor the ancient brevity, and have apparently been prompted less by the study of classic writers than by Mr. Tennyson and Mr. Browning. We should not be surprised if Mr. Buchanan is sensible of this and would freely admit it, for in a short and candid Preface he informs the reader that he has been obliged, at too early an age, to get his bread by letters. Here, then, may cease a vein of criticism which is not praise, and is not meant to be censure. Under all the circumstances, it should be freely allowed that Mr. Buchanan has treated his subjects well. He has clothed the antique forms which he found ready to his hand in a rich, sensuous, many-folded, curiously plaited garment of modern hue and textures. His Polypheme has a rhythmical movement in the heights of his passion, which marks him for an educated giant; and his Pan is at least sufficiently refined to lament his want of refinement. Let us hear the plaint of that uncomely deity:—

Ha! turn your mild grand eyes, O gods, and hear!
Why do I murmur darkly, do ye ask?
What do I seek for, yearn for?—Why, not much.
I would be milky-limbed and straight and tall
And pleasant-featured, like Apollo there!
I would be lithe and fair as Hermes is;
And, with that glittering sheath of god-like form,
Trust me, I’d find for it a wit as keen
As that which long ago did prick and pain
The thin skin of the Sun-God. I would be
Grand and fine-statured as becomes a god,
A godlike sight conceived harmoniously,
A stately incarnation of my sweet
Pipings in lonely places. There’s the worm.

Poor Pan! but every one has his trials. If Mr, Buchanan were a little more like the god in his primitive shape, before he was smoothed down in the endeavour to make him look handsome, he might be further on the road to originality than he is. It should be remembered, however, that these are only his Undertones; he may still have in him a strain of powerful and unconventional music.
     We pass from Mr. Buchanan to less inviting fare. Mr. Cerny’s Jew (Bell and Daldy) has just power enough to be actively disagreeable. It is based on the legend of the Wandering Jew, and is divided into six parts, entitled Golgotha, Hell, Satan, Christ, A Man, and A Woman. The Woman contrives somehow to make the Wandering Jew commit suicide; this reads like a joke, but it is as earnest as any other part of Mr. Cerny’s nightmare poem.

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Illustrated Times (21 May, 1864)

Undertones. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. Moxon and Co.

     If this book has lain too long upon our table, it has been partly because we have been loth to pass from the mood of simple enjoyment into that of criticism; even of such mitigated “criticism” as that which our readers know we are in the habit of permitting to ourselves when a book of verse seems to us to overpass, upwards, the line which separates mere metre from poetry. All works of art which can really challenge serious attention transcend criticism, alike in their growth, their qualities, and their fortunes. Exposition is, of course, possible; and it is desirable, when there is space for doing it well; so, perhaps, is the minor criticism which deals with casual faults. But with regard to the latter, it may well be urged that when the first heats of composition are over a writer will find out his errors for himself, and cure them is they be curable; while, as for “faults” which are truly idiosyncratic, criticism is wasted breath. They are organic in kind, and can no more be removed than a birthmark; or, at least, not without mutilation. What could criticism have done with the “faults” of Blake? What did criticism do with the “faults” of Thackeray? What has criticism done with the “faults” of Mr. Browning?
     There is something deeply pathetic about the manner in which this volume of poems presents itself to the world. In the impetuous dedication to Mr. Westland Marston—noble homage to a noble man—and in the rapid, eager little spurt of a preface, there is that sort of self-assertion which has a pang in it. Not less does the same thing appear in the verses to “David in Heaven” and to “Mary on Earth”; and it is painfully affecting when taken in connection with the fact that the greater number of the poems themselves are flooded with “the purple brightness of youth.” It can scarcely, if at all, be a secret that the author came up to London with the late David Gray, and that this exquisite book is his first deliberate challenge to opinion, though that is a miserably poverty-stricken way of putting the case.
     Mr. Buchanan may be at ease, if the certainty of having conquered the sympathy of his readers can make him so. If he never writes another line, he is as fixed in his place as Aldebaran. We could fill many columns with more or less just fault-finding, but prefer, for our own sake as well as that of our readers, to say roundly that Mr. Buchanan is, by divine birthright, a poet. There is no question of the man’s royalty; he comes crowned, and no choice is left us but to heed him. Only twice, in the course of eight or nine years’ critical experience, has it happened to us to have to speak so decidedly about a volume of poetry; and this is the second of the two occasions.
     It is supposed by a good many people that the differences of opinion concerning poetry are so great as to leave room for caprice. A great mistake. The precise differentia which make poetry, as distinguished form mere verse, is ascertainable in a moment, and is not debatable—is not debated. Questions of predilection remain; one man likes Wordsworth, another Browning, another Shelley, while a fourth cannot get far beyond Longfellow. But so little difference of opinion is there as to the essence of the question that a jury of critics taken from the best journals might in twenty minutes be got to agree upon a figured scale upon which (say) Longfellow’s place would be indicated by common consent, to a degree or two, just as easily as the heat is found by looking at the height of the mercury in the glass. There will be very little substantial difference of opinion as to the readings, in modern lights, of classical myths, which Mr. Buchanan has commenced in the volume before us. On all hands, it will be recognised that we have here great intelligence, fine workmanship, and dramatic power almost unexampled in this half-century.
     Divided between “Pan,” “Polypheme’s Passion,” “Penelope,” “Venus,” “Cytherea,” and “Iris the Rainbow,” we decide, however, for the last, and, though long extract is not our custom, we present the poem entire to our readers in all its loveliness:—

IRIS THE RAINBOW.

I.

’Mid the cloud-enshrouded haze
     Of Olympus I arise,
With the full and rainy gaze
     Of Apollo in mine eyes;
But I shade my dazzled glance
     With my dripping pinions white,
Where the sunlight sparkles dance
     In a many-tinctured light:
My foot upon the woof
     Of a fleecy cloudlet small,
I glimmer thro’ the roof
     Of the paven banquet hall,
And a soft pink radiance dips
     Thro’ the floating mists divine,
Touching eyes and cheeks and lips
     Of the mild-eyed gods supine,
And the pink odour rolls
     Round their foreheads, while I stain,
With a blush like wine, the bowls
     Of foam-crusted porcelain:
Till the whole calm place has caught
     A deep gleam of milky fire—
When I darken to the thought
     In the eyes of Zeus the Sire.

II.

Then Zeus, arising, stoops
     O’er the ledges of the skies,
Looking downward, through the loops
     Of the starry tapestries,
On the evident dark plain
     Specked with wood and hill and stream,
On the wrinkled tawny main
     Where the ships, like snowflakes, gleam;
And with finger without swerve,
     Swiftly lifted, swiftly whirl'd,
He draws a magic curve
     O’er the dark low-lying world;
When with waving wings display'd,
     On the Sun-god’s threshold bright
I unleap, and seem to fade
     In a humid flash of light;
But I plunge thro’ vapours dim
     To the dark low-lying land,
And I tremble, float, and swim,
     On the strange curve of the Hand:
From my wings, that drip, drip, drip,
     With cool rains, shoot jets of fire,
As across green capes I slip
     With the thought of Zeus the Sire.

III.

Thence, with drooping wings bedew’d,
     Folded close about my form,
I alight with feet unview’d
     On the ledges of the storm;
For a moment, cloud-enroll’d,
     Mid the murm’rous rain I stand,
And with meteor eyes behold
     Vapoury ocean, misty land;
Till the thought of Zeus outsprings
     From my ripe mouth with a sigh,
And unto my lips it clings
     Like a shining butterfly;
When I brighten, gleam, and glow,
     And my gleaming wings unfurl,
And the melting colours flow
     To my foot of dusky pearl;
And the ocean mile on mile
     Gleams thro’ capes and straits and bays,
And the vales and mountains smile,
     And the leaves are wet with rays,—
While I wave the humid Bow
     Of my wings with flash of fire,
And the Tempest, crouch’d below,
     Knows the thought of Zeus the Sire.

     “Pygmalion” is not so good as it might be. The colours are spilt about too much; the conception and phrase, both, too often approach melodramatic commonplace; while the little songs introduced are positively bad. The ugly Jewish word “Ichabod” is a great blunder, and is one hint out of many that the “fiery matter” in the author’s mind had not whirled itself quite into roundness and unity when he wrote. We have some suspicion that, like Shelley and Keats, he is wanting on the side of humour, though not so much as those two great immortals. But in “Polypheme’s Passion” there are indications of a mind so apprehensive in that direction that we hesitate to form any guess as to what a broadened knowledge of life may do for Mr. Buchanan. “The Voice of the Snow” strikes us as deficient; but it is hung below the line, and is almost put out by the other pictures, so perhaps we should be wrong if we were tempted to say that the poet was off his beat when he produced it.

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The Morning Post (18 July, 1864 - p.6)

undertonesmedal

Birmingham Daily Post (1 August, 1864)

     The Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts has awarded its silver medal to Mr. Robert Buchanan, for “Undertones.” The same author has in the press a volume of Pastorals.

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The Standard (10 August, 1864 - p.6)

     Undertones. By Robert Buchanan. London: Edward Moxon and Co.—It is not easy to pass from title-page to poems in this book, and retain the critical spirit undisturbed. For between these there stands a dedication—in itself a prose-poem of touching beauty, which might well disarm the most severe reviewer. Inscribing this book to Westland Marston, Mr. Buchanan speaks of his friendship as having been a comfort to him during four years of the bitterest struggle and disappointment. “The world,” he says “knows least of your noble soul. High-minded, gracious-hearted, possessed of the true instinct of an artist, you have laid me under a debt of affection which I can never repay; yet take the book, as a token that I love and honour you.” It is pleasant to find that the critical severity which this dedication would make so much more difficult is not called for when we come to read the poems. Mr. Buchanan claims that the mere completion of his ambitious design, no matter how faulty the workmanship may be—is, under the circumstances, a triumph in itself. We give him full credit for this triumph. Under pressure of disappointment, when the poet is struggling with adverse fate, it is hard to write any poems but those which soothe his sorrows by setting them forth in words. And Robert Buchanan must have the true poetic spirit to have been able, during years of trouble, to withdraw himself from his own daily fears and anxieties into the golden atmosphere of antique myth and legend which he reveals to us in the “Undertones.” But we do not praise him merely for the completion of his task. He has given us some really good poetry. We find, indeed, as it is natural to find, a too fanciful imagination, a too lavish use of epithets, and occasional straining after effect where the writer has evidently been afraid of appearing prosaic; but these are failures of the right kind. Time will correct them, will tone down extravagances, will teach Mr. Buchanan to rely more on the power of his thought and less on the polish of his diction. Faults like these are not of evil omen. They are the gambols of the untrained Pegasus. Macaulay (and the instance is strictly in point) condemned his early essay on Milton as “overloaded with gaudy and ungraceful ornament.” An original copy of Mr. Tennyson’s early poems is now a curiosity, so carefully has he in later years corrected the productions of his youth. Keats himself, who is Mr. Buchanan’s great model, spoke of “Endymion” as “a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished.”
     We commend these examples to Mr. Buchanan. We cannot, indeed, place the “Undertones” in equal literary rank with “Endymion,” but we find in them ample reason for believing that their author will hereafter gain a distinguished place in literature. We have said that the correction of the defects we have noted must be left to time. On one point, however, we may do Mr. Buchanan service by showing how much advantage he would obtain by being more critical of his own works. The rule as to the use of epithets is a very simple one. Every adjective which does not strengthen the impression weakens it. And it is not enough that an epithet should be appropriate to the person or place to which it is applied; it must be appropriate by reason of the impression which the writer desires to convey at the particular place at which it is introduced. If on the one hand it does not help to individualise, or on the other directs the reader’s thoughts to some quality which does not just then require to be brought into relief, it is a flaw in the composition, and should be removed. Let us apply this test to a passage from “Penelope,” one of the best and most complete of the Undertones. We take Penelope’s description of her son:—

“The years wear on. Telemachus, thy son,
Who, when in the old time we paused athirst
With utterness of wedded joy, upsprang
Between us like a fountain, grows and grows,
Upgurgling like a fountain, jet by jet,
And murmuring somewhat sadly, but withal
Sparkling when shone upon. He is thy son:
More woman-like than thee (sic), less strong of limb,
Yet worthy thee; and likest thy grave mood,
When, in old time, among these fields thine eye
Would kindle on a battle far away,
And thy proud nostrils, drinking the mild breath
Of tanned haycocks and of slanted sheaves,
Swell suddenly, as if a trumpet spake.
Much sojourn with my weeping widowhood
Has taught the boy a young man’s gentleness;
Courteous beyond his years unto my grief,
He helps me daily, till by night sweet dream
Hangs on his eyelids like a violet—
A violet with its shadow on his cheek.
Hast though forgotten how of old he loved
To toy with thy great beard and sport with thee,
And how, in thy strong grasp, he leapt, and seem’d
A lambkin dandled in a lion’s paw?
About his cradle men who sought the stars
Sprinkled mild prophecies like dewy flowers,
Flowers sweet with light and wet with woman’s tears.
And now his long limbs lengthen white as milk,
Those stars seem true, for never have I seen
So kind a growth in sweeter smelling soil.
Behold now, how his burning boy-face turns
With impotent words beyond all blows of arm
On those rude men that rack thy weary wife!
Then turns to put his comfort on my cheek,
While sorrow brightens round him, as the grey
Of Heaven melts to silver round a star.”

     This is gracefully written, but certainly very weak, and there is obviously a continual strain to make every thought and phrase appear poetic. The comparison to a fountain is spoiled by the line which describes the boy as “upgurgling like a fountain, jet by jet,” and the comparison of a dream to “a violet with its shadow on his cheek,” and of the “mild prophecies” of astrologers to flowers which are dewy and wet with woman’s tears, besides, are glaring examples of the strain of which we have spoken. “Mild” appears to be a favourite word with Mr. Buchanan, and it certainly is one of the first which would occur to his critics. The beginning and end of the paragraph which immediately follows our quotation show Mr. Buchanan’s two great faults. Penelope begins—

“Return, Ulysses, ere too late, too late;
Return, tall wedded warrior, return;

and ends—

“Thou wanderest; and with leaden arms I search
The blank circumference of my pale loss.”

If we found nothing better than this in the volume we should not have much hope for the author, but in the two poems which deal not with old myths, but with Mr. Buchanan’s own personal feelings, we find writing of a very different order. The prologue, “To David, in Heaven,” and the epilogue, “To Mary, on Earth,” are quite enough to give their author a title to the poet’s honourable name. We choose a few stanzas from the prologue.

         “Tho’ the world could turn from you,
         This, at least, I learn from you;
Beauty and Truth, tho’ never found, are worthy to be sought.
         The singer, upward-springing,
         Is grander than his singing,
And tranquil self-sufficing joy illumes the dark of thought.
         This, at least, you teach me,
         In a revelation,
That gods still snatch, as worthy death, the soul in its aspiration.

         “And I think, as you thought,
         Poesy and Truth ought
Never to be silent in the singer’s heart on earth;
         Tho’ they be discarded,
         Slighted, unrewarded,—
Tho’, unto vulgar seeming they appear of little worth,—
         Yet tender brother-singers,
         Young or not yet born to us,
May seek there, for the singer’s sake, that love which sweeteneth scorn to us!

         “While I sit in silence,
         Comes from mile on mile hence,
From English Keats’s Roman grave, a voice that swectens toil.
         Think you, no fond creatures
         Drew comfort from the features
Of Chatterton, pale Phäethon, hurled down to sunless soil,
         Scorch’d with sunlight lying,
         Eyes of sunlight hollow,
But see! upon the lips a gleam of the chrism of Apollo!

         “Noble thought produces
         Noble ends and uses,
Noble hopes are part of Hope wherever she may be,
         Noble thought enhances
         Life and all its chances,
And noble self is noble song,—all this I learn from thee
         And I learn, moreover,
         Mid the city’s strife, too,
That such pure song as sweetens Death can sweeten the singer’s life, too!

         “Lo, my Book! I hold it
         In weary hands, and fold it
Unto my heart, if only as a token I aspire;
         And, by song’s assistance,
         Unto your dim distance,
My soul uplifted is on wings, and beckon’d higher, nigher.
         By the sweeter wisdom
         You return unspeaking,
Though endless, hopeless, be the search, we exalt our souls in seeking.

         “But ah, that pale moon roaming
         Thro’ fleecy mists of gloaming,
Furrowing with pearly front the jewel-powder’d sky,
         And ah, the days departed
         With your friendship gentle-hearted,
And ah, the dream we dreamt that night, together, you and I!
         Is it fashion’d wisely,
         To help us or to blind us,
That at each height we gain we turn, and behold a heaven behind us.”

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The Athenæum (19 August, 1865)

Undertones. By Robert Buchanan. Second Edition, enlarged and revised. (Strahan.)

As a rule, we have no other duty in respect of new editions of books than to announce their appearance, and hand them over to the purchasers on whose demand they have been published. An exceptional case arises when the new edition contains new work, and the new work happens to have a value of its own. In ‘Undertones’ we have such an instance. Not only have little touches of warmth and colour been laid on the canvas in many places, perfecting the verse rather than changing it, as added days of sun may ripen the peach and grape even after they are pronounced passing good; but one noble and beautiful poem has been added to the ‘Undertones.’
     This new poem is called ‘The Siren.’ It tells the story of a Life with weird and wondrous power. Eumolpus is the name of a mortal, drawn by an enticing spirit from the world in which he dwells. The fascination which he follows may be taken either as Love or Fame; it certainly proves to be his Fate. The spirit draws him with a siren’s force, until she wins him altogether to herself. It is true, he reaches her enchanted home a worn and white-haired man. But he is not unrewarded for his quest, even while the quest proceeds; for the love that leads him on is a sweet and tender trouble, and the music of his journey is a strange happiness to him. When he is at length cast upon the summer shore where the spirit dwells, he is awakened from a dream by her delicious singing; and in the blessed interval between this awakening to a sense of her presence and the final sleep into which she lulls him he tastes the fruition of all mortal joy. Eumolpus awakes to the siren’s singing:—

EUMOLPUS.

Is it the voice of mine own Soul I hear?
     Or some white sybil of the spherëd ocean?
And are these living limbs that lie so near,
     Clinging around me with a serpent-motion?
Is this a tress of yellow yellow hair,
     Around my finger in a ring enfolden?
Whose face is this, so musically fair,
     That swoons upon my ken thro’ vapours golden?
What sad song withers on the odorous air?
Where am I, where?
     Where is my country and that vision olden?

THE SIREN.

I sang thee hither in thy bark to land
     With deftly warbled measure,
I wove a witch’s spell with fluttering hand,
     Till thou wert drunken, Dearest, with much pleasure.
At hush of noon I had thee at my knee,
     And round thy finger pink I wound a curl,
     And singing smiled beneath with teeth of pearl,
Of what had been, what was, and what should be
Sang dying ditties three!
And lo! thy blood was ravish’d with the theme,
And lo! thy face was pale with drowsy dream,
While stooping low, with rich lips tremulous,
I kiss thee thus!—and thus!

EUMOLPUS.

Thy kisses trance me to a vision wan
     Of what hath been and nevermore will be.
O little fishing-town Sicilian,
     I can behold thee sitting by the sea!
O little red-tiled town where I was born!
     O days ere yet I sail’d from mortal ken!
Why did I launch upon the deep forlorn,
     Nor fish in shallow pools with simple men?
It was a charm; for while I rockt at ease
     Within our little bay,
There came a melody across the seas
     From regions far away;
And ah! I fell into a swooning sleep,
     And all the world had changed before I knew,—
And I awoke upon a glassy deep
     With not a speck of land to break the view,
And tho’ I was alone, I did not weep,
     For I was singing too!
I sang! I sang! and with mine oars kept time
Unto the rude sweet rhyme,
And went a-sailing on into the west
     Blown on by airs divine,
Singing for ever on a wild-eyed quest
     For that immortal minstrel feminine;
And night and day went past, until I lost
     All count of time, yet still did melodise;
     And sun and stars beheld me from their skies;
And ships swam by me, from whose decks storm-tost
     Rude seamen gazed with terror-glazëd eyes.
And still I found not her for whom I sought,
     Yet smiled without annoy,
To ply the easy oar, and take no thought,
     And sing, was such sweet joy!—
Then Tempest came, and to and from the sky
     I rose and fell in that frail bark of mine,
While the snake Lightning, with its blank bright eye,
     Writhed fierily in swift coils serpentine
     Along the slippery brine;
And there were days when dismal sobbing Rain
Made melancholy music for the brain,
And hours when I shriek’d out, and wept in woe
     Prison’d about by chilly still affright,
While all around dropt hushëd flakes of Snow
     Melting and mingling down blue chasms of night.
Yet evermore, I heard that voice sublime
     Twining afar its weirdly woven song,
And ever, ever more, mine oars kept time,
And evermore I utterëd in song
     My yearnings sad or merry, faint or strong.
Ah me! my love for her afar away,
My yearning and my burning night and day!
In dreams alone, I met her in still lands,
     And knelt in tears before her,
And could not sing, but only wring mine hands,
     Adore her and implore her!
         *          *         *          *         *
Yet day and night sped on, and I grew old
     Before I knew; and lo!
My hands were wither’d, on my bosom cold
     There droopt a beard of snow,—
And raising hands I shriek’d, I cried a curse
     On that weird voice that twinëd me from home;
And echoes of the awful universe
     Answer’d me; and the deep with lips of foam
Mock’d me and spat upon me; and the things
     That people ocean rose and threaten’d ill,
Yea, also air-born harpies waving wings,
     Because I could not sing to charm them still.
I was alone, the shadow of a man,
     Haunting the trackless waste of waves forlorn,
Blown on by pitiless rains and vapours wan,
Plaining for that small town Sicilian,
     Where, in the sweet beginning, I was born!

THE SIREN.

Ah, weep not, Dearest! lean upon my breast,
     While sunset darkens stilly,
And Dian poises o’er the slumberous west
     Her silver sickle chilly;
The eyes of heaven are opening, the leaves
     Fold silver-dewy round the closing roses,
In lines of foam the breaking billow heaves,
Each thing that gladdens and each thing that grieves
     Dip slow to dark reposes.

EUMOLPUS.

O voice that lured me on, I know thee now!
     O melancholy eyes, ye mildly beam!
O kiss, thy touch is dewy on my brow!
     Sweet Spirit of my dream!

THE SIREN.

     Name thy love, and I am she,
     Name thy woe, and look on me,
     Name the weary melody
     That led thee hither o’er the sea,—
     Then call to mind my ditties three
Of what hath been, what is, and what shall be!
         *          *         *          *         *

EUMOLPUS.

Thou art the gentle witch that men call Death!
     Ah, Beauteous, I am weary, and would rest!

THE SIREN.

Lie very softly, Sweet, and let thy breath
     Fade calmly on my breast!
     Call me Love or call me Fame,
         Call me Death or Poesy,
     Call me by whatever name
         Seemeth sweetest unto thee:—
     I anoint thee, I caress thee,
     With my dark reposes bless thee,
     I redeem thee, I possess thee!
     I can never more forsake thee!
         Slumber, slumber, peacefully,
         Slumber calm and dream of me,
     Till I touch thee, and awake thee!

EUMOLPUS.

Diviner far than song divine can tell!
     Thine eyes are dim with dreams of that awaking!
     Yea, let me slumber, for my heart is breaking
With too much love. Farewell! farewell! farewell!

THE SIREN.

     Charmëd sight and charmëd sound
     Close the weary one around!
     Charmëd dream of charmëd sleep
     Make his waiting sweet and deep!
     Husht be all things! Let the spell
     Duskly on his eyelids dwell!

EUMOLPUS.

     Farewell! farewell! farewell!

THE SIREN.

O melancholy waters, softly flow!
     O Stars, shine softly, dropping dewy balm!
O Moon walk on in sandals white as snow!
     O Winds, be calm, be calm!
For he is tired with wandering to and fro,
Yea, weary with unrest to see and know.

     Shall we attempt to moralize the tale? In such a story imagination is put to some of its highest uses, and the tale has its own morals. It is a rare expression of the poet’s wealth that a poem so full of genius should have been flung all but unnoticed into a new edition.

[Note: This review, like the one of the first edition in The Athenæum, was written by William Hepworth Dixon.]

___

 

Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (3 September, 1865)

LITERATURE.
_____

UNDERTONES.

     We recently directed the attention of our readers to the poems of Mr. Robert Buchanan, when we found them the subject of sound analytical criticism in the Fortnightly Review. Mr. Buchanan has now issued a new edition of his poetic utterances. Into some of these he has breathed a new ardour. Where he has retouched he has embellished. Moreover, he has made some additions to his already noble collection. One, indeed, is not unlikely to last as the finest expression of his genius. It is called “The Syren.” The spirit is an etherial creature, who draws the bewitched man of earth, Eumolpus, through bright and happy visions of the bliss that is to be—to death and peace.

“Where is my country, and that vision olden?”

Eumolpus asks, minding him of the little Sicilian fishing-town where he was born. The Siren answers:—

I sang thee hither in thy bark to land
     With deftly warbled measure,
I wove a witch’s spell with fluttering hand,
     Till thou wert drunken, Dearest, with much pleasure.
At hush of noon I had thee at my knee,
     And round thy finger pink I wound a curl,
     And singing smiled beneath with teeth of pearl,
Of what had been, what was, and what should be
Sang dying ditties three!
And lo! thy blood was ravished with the theme;
And lo! thy face was pale with drowsy dream,
While stooping low, with rich lips tremulous,
I kiss thee thus!—and thus!

EUMOLPUS.

Thy kisses trance me to a vision wan
     Of what hath been and nevermore will be.
O little fishing-town Sicilian,
     I can behold thee sitting by the sea!
O little red-tiled town where I was born!
     O days ere yet I sail’d from mortal ken!
Why did I launch upon the deep forlorn,
     Nor fish in shallow pools with simple men?
It was a charm; for while I rockt at ease
     Within our little bay,
There came a melody across the seas
     From regions far away;
And ah! I fell into a swooning sleep,
     And all the world had changed before I knew,—
And I awoke upon a glassy deep,
     With not a speck of land to break the view,
And tho’ I was alone, I did not weep,
     For I was singing too!
I sang! I sang! and with mine oars kept time
Unto the rude sweet rhyme,
And went a-sailing on into the west,
     Blown on by airs divine—
Singing for ever on a wild-eyed quest
     For that immortal minstrel feminine.
And night and day went past, until I lost
     All count of time, yet still did melodise;
     And sun and stars beheld me from their skies;
And ships swam by me, from whose decks storm-tost
     Rude seamen gazed with terror-glazëd eyes.
And still I found not her for whom I sought,
     Yet smiled without annoy—
To ply the easy oar, and take no thought,
     And sing, was such sweet joy!
Then tempest came, and to and from the sky
     I rose and fell in that frail bark of mine,
While the snake Lightning, with its blank bright eye,
     Writhed fierily in swift coils serpentine
     Along the slippery brine;
And there were days when dismal sobbing Rain
Made melancholy music for the brain,
And hours when I shriek’d out and wept in woe,
     Prison’d about by chilly still affright,
While all around dropt hushëd flakes of Snow
     Melting and mingling down blue chasms of night.
Yet evermore, I heard that voice sublime
     Twining afar its weirdly woven song,
And ever, evermore, mine oars kept time,
And evermore I utterëd in song
     My yearnings sad or merry, faint or strong.
Ah me! my love for her afar away,
My yearning and my burning night and day!
In dreams alone, I met her in still lands,
     And knelt in tears before her,
And could not sing, but only wring mine hands,
     Adore her and implore her!
     *         *          *         *          *         *
Yet day and night sped on, and I grew old
     Before I knew; and lo!
My hands were wither’d, on my bosom cold
     There droopt a beard of snow,—
And raising hands I shriek’d, I cried a curse
     On that weird voice that twinëd me from home
And echoes of the awful universe
     Answer’d me; and the deep with lips of foam
Mock’d me and spat upon me; and the things
     That people ocean rose and threaten’d ill,
Yea also air-born harpies waving wings,
     Because I could not sing to charm them still.
I was alone, the shadow of a man,
     Haunting the trackless waste of waves forlorn,
Blown on by pitiless rains and vapours wan,
Plaining for that small town Sicilian,
     Where, in the sweet beginning, I was born!

THE SIREN.

Ah, weep not, Dearest! lean upon my breast,
     While sunset darkens stilly,
And Dian poises o’er the slumberous west
     Her silver sickle chilly;
The eyes of heaven are opening, the leaves
     Fold silver-dewy round the closing roses,
In lines of foam the breaking billow heaves,
Each thing that gladdens and each thing that grieves
     Dip slow to sweet reposes.

EUMOLPUS.

O voice that lured me on, I know thee now!
     O melancholy eyes, ye mildly beam!
O kiss, thy touch is dewy on my brow!
     Sweet Spirit of my dream!

THE SIREN.

     Name thy love, and I am she,
     Name thy woe, and look on me,
     Name the weary melody
     That led thee hither o’er the sea,—
     Then call to mind my ditties three
Of what hath been, what is, and what shall be!
     *         *          *         *          *         *

EUMOLPUS.

Thou art the gentle witch that men call Death!
     Ah, Beauteous, I am weary, and would rest!

THE SIREN.

Lie very softly, Sweet, and let thy breath
     Fade calmly on my breast!
Call me Love or call me Fame,
     Call me Death or Poesy,
Call me by whatever name
     Seemeth sweetest unto thee:—
I anoint thee, I caress thee;
With my dark reposes bless thee,
I redeem thee, I possess thee!
I can never more forsake thee!
     Slumber, slumber, peacefully,
     Slumber calm and dream of me,
Till I touch thee, and awake thee!

     There is, in this, imagination of the highest order. Mr. Robert Buchanan has his place of honour in the great band of British poets.

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Book Reviews - Poetry continued

Idyls and Legends of Inverburn (1865)


 

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