ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

Home
Biography
Bibliography

Poetry
Plays
Fiction

Essays
Reviews
Letters

The Fleshly School Controversy
Buchanan and the Press
Buchanan and the Law

The Critical Response
Harriett Jay
Miscellanea

Links
Site Diary
Site Search

BOOK REVIEWS - POETRY (24)

 

Complete Poetical Works (1901)

 

The Arbroath Herald (9 May, 1901 - p.4)

     “We are glad to hear,” the Bookman says, “that Messrs Chatto and Windus have in preparation a collected edition of the whole of Robert Buchanan’s poems. They are to be published in two six-shilling volumes, each containing a portrait of the author.”

___

 

The Academy (11 May, 1901 - p.398)

Bibliographical.

THE Complete Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan, which Messrs. Chatto & Windus, it is understood, are preparing to issue in two-volume form, will, no doubt, be welcome to many. Mr. Buchanan first issued his Poetical Works when he was only thirty-three years old—namely, in 1874. His next issue of his Poetical Works came ten years later—namely, in 1884. This was a substantial volume of 534 double-column pages, printed in a rather small type. Since 1884 he has put forth a good deal of verse. One has only to name The Earthquake (1885), The City of Dream (1888), The Outcast (1891), The Wandering Jew (1893), Red and White Heather (1894), The Devil’s Case (1896), and The New Rome (1898)—the last-named being a very well-filled volume. Altogether, Mr. Buchanan’s Poems must, taken as a whole, occupy a good deal of space. One always likes to have a man’s Works complete, but I am not sure that Mr. Buchanan’s reputation as a poet would not be most enhanced by the publication of a judicious Selection from his rhythmic work. This was done in 1882, but needs doing over again. Mr. Buchanan has the pen of a ready writer, and a very great deal of his verse is only fluent prose in “lengths.” Perhaps we must leave it to the next generation to do the sifting.

___

 

The Portsmouth Evening News (12 October, 1901 - p.2)

THE LAST CRY.

     Next week Messrs. Chatto will publish the collected edition of Robert Buchanan’s poems. His sister-in-law, Miss Harriett Jay, has assisted to prepare the edition, which is in two volumes. The second volume includes poems by Buchanan that have not before appeared in book form. It closes with a very touching verse entitled “The Last Cry”:—

Forget me not, but come, O King,
And find me softly slumbering,
In dark and troubled dreams of Thee.
Then, with one waft of Thy bright wing,
                                   Awaken me!

___

 

The Academy (26 October, 1901 - p.384)

WE have made no calculations, but we should not be surprised to learn that the poet of the “greatest number of lines” in the nineteenth century was Mr. Robert Buchanan. This idea is suggested by the two-volume edition of his “Complete Poetical Works,” just issued in admirable style by Messrs. Chatto & Windus at twelve shillings. To each volume a portrait is prefixed. There is no introduction. The poems are arranged in chronological order, and in appropriate sets as they were originally issued in smaller volumes. One cannot but feel sorry that this presentment of the entire poetical work of a poet so vexed, vigilant, and industrious is posthumous. Peace be to the ashes in which this “Last Cry” seems still to live:

Forget me not, but come, O King,
And find me softly slumbering
     In dark and troubled dreams of Thee,
Then, with one waft of Thy bright wing
     Awaken me!

___

 

The Echo (6 November, 1901 - p.1)

ROBERT BUCHANAN’S POETICAL WORKS.

     The first reflection that occurs to one on being confronted with the two volumes of Robert Buchanan’s poetical works is—Can such a prodigious amount of verse be all poetry? Is anyone justified in writing so much even is he be a poet? His collected works amount to as much, if not more, than all Browning ever wrote, and some of us are inclined to feel at times that even Browning might have spared us a little of his philosophy. Robert Buchanan’s philosophy, expressed in verse, is not interesting, largely because he is a fatalist. We read poetry not to be convinced that we are at the mercy of blind, irresistible forces. Such a conception of life appears everywhere throughout his poems, and is not calculated to increase the happiness of mankind, and although we cannot blame him for expressing in his poems his own belief, we do feel that his poetry ceases to move just at the point when his spiritual power fails. No one to-day would say that Robert Buchanan was an irreligious man merely because he made statements that sounded blasphemous. We are all too inclined to regard as blasphemy any word spoken against the existing order or the orthodox conception of the First Cause; but one cannot help pitying the man, because his poems show how great a hold the idea of God had upon him. He cannot leave the subject of religion; it recurs again and again, and instead of brightening it only darkens the landscape. It is for this reason that the first half of the first volume gives us far more pleasure than the work of his later years. He had a genuine affinity with Nature in all her moods, and it appears everywhere in the poems written when quite young, before life became to him the subject of perplexing despair.

Sing, little River, while I rest,
Songs of your hidden mountain nest,
And of the blue sky in your breast!

And he is quite in his element when, leaving the tumult and discordant noises of the city, he goes forth

     To lie in this green retreat,
     In a beautiful dim half-dream
     Like a god on a hill; and seem
A part of the fair strange shapes up there,—
     With the wood-scents round my feet.

     In one respect Robert Buchanan strongly resembles Robert Browning, and that is in the way in which he invents and projects new metres for every new subject; there is a certain sense of freshness in his versification which makes the longer poems readable. That Robert Buchanan had a great heart and real appreciation of great-hearted men is seen when he writes about such leaders as Lincoln:—

Turn, and, behold the sad Soul of the West
     Passing behind a Rainbow bloodily—
     Conscience incarnate, steadfast, strong, and free,
Changeless thro’ change, blessing and ever blessed.

     The publishers have done their work well, and the two volumes, comprising over a thousand pages, are models of cheapness and good printing.

“The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan,” in two volumes, with Portraits. (Chatto and Windus.)

___

 

The Bookman (London) (December, 1901 - p.97-98)

ROBERT BUCHANAN.*

     Every critic of Buchanan’s poetry thinks it incumbent on him to dilate on his redundancy and his artistic carelessness, while owning his great qualities. This is only natural. He was what they say of him, and of all that is contained in these two volumes only a small proportion will last. But let us consider that as proved and said, and turn not to what he might have given but to what he actually did give. It seems to us a large and rich gift. For a new reader to start on a study of Buchanan’s work is a stiff task; but if he turn to “balder” and the “Book of Orm,” he will find what will make him willing to be patient through much long-winded matter, confident of treasure. It is well for him to know what he will not find. He will not find one perfect poem. He will never find the final expression of any thought or feeling. But he will find what, perhaps, he may value—even though his quest be a poet—a man. Buchanan was a thinker, a sentimentalist sometimes, a man of strong feeling always; a propagandist, an apostle rather than a pure poet. He knew quite well the kind of verse-writer he was, the kind he desired to be, and he tells it in “faces on the Wall.” The strugglers of the world have been his teachers and inspirers. No “idle singer of an empty day” is he.

     “On other walls let flush’d Bacchantes leer;
In quainter rooms of snugger sons of song
     Let old fantastic tapestries appear.
Lone House! for comfort when the nights are long,
     Let none but future-seeking eyes be here!”

He has sung of common joys; no one savoured them more, but he always thought verse too good for trifling. Terribly in earnest, he was for ever asking

“Is the soul safe? Shall the sick world be well?
Will morning glimmer soon, and all be fair?”

He could not write for the triflers.

         “I sit apart, a lonely wight
On this bare rock amid this fitful Sea,
     And in the wind and rain I try to light
A little lamp that may a Beacon be,
     Whereby poor ship-folk, driving thro’ the night,
May gain the Ocean-course, and think of me!”

     Buchanan was alive to all the influences of his age. In many ways he lived far beyond it. He never succumbed to the fashion for trifling, never became infected with the materialism that marred many of his contemporaries. In religion, politics, and common life he remained a lofty, stubborn idealist. Like all men of his impulsive, passionate temperament, he made many mistakes, but never an ungenerous one; and in all this mass of verse, good, bad, and indifferent, sometimes of surpassing beauty, sometimes rather dull, you will find nothing base, nothing, so far as moral beauty is concerned, even second-best.
                                                                                                                               ANNIE MACDONELL.

     * “The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan.” With 2 Portraits. 2 vols. 12s. (Chatto and Windus.)

___

 

The Humane Review (January, 1902 - p.302-310)

ROBERT BUCHANAN.*

     * Complete Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan. 2 vols. Chatto and Windus. 1901.

     AFTER nearly forty years of ceaseless literary toil, Robert Buchanan has passed away, leaving the world in a mood of pathetic perplexity as to what it ought to have made of him or even what it is to make of him now. It could not even in its dullest moods fail to realise the tempestuous and overwhelming force of the man. But it continued hesitant whether that force represented a permanent and vital power or the self-consuming throes of a fever-fit.
     Yet surely there never was poet concerning whose assured claim to that title there need have been less hesitation. To one at least of his admirers it seems that it was his very excellences which robbed him and still rob him of his due meed of appreciation. He was excellent in ways of which his time recked little or was frankly contemptuous. His genius was careless and liberal, with the carelessness and liberality of Nature. He squandered himself recklessly and with the magnificent unconsciousness of those who have much to squander. And this did not suit the mood of a time which esteems as the chief of virtues a studied aloofness from real feeling, a delicate sensitiveness of self-expenditure. Again, Buchanan was by far the most simple and natural of modern poets. He was filled with a great fervour of faith and feeling which had to find expression, and nothing was farther from his mind or bent than that study of fantastic literary grimace which passes to-day for a devotion to style. His poems have the looseness and copiousness of Nature, but they have too its life. They are not trimmed and trained to the requirements of the latest fashion in poetic parterres.
     But the chief obstacle to the immediate recognition of Buchanan’s greatness may also prove to be the surest guarantee of his eventual triumph. He has defied classification, and by his own obstinate individuality of faith and feeling he must live or die. It is not indeed expected of the poet that he should rigidly conform to the respectable beliefs of his time. The world of ordinary readers has its code of literary live-and-let-live. It is graciously patient of the heresy which clothes itself in polite and well-turned phrases. It has a satisfying secrecy of delight in the heresy which wears with success a roguish mask of orthodoxy. But it must draw the line at a heresy which insists that it is heretical. And Buchanan, it must be admitted, kept it pretty busily engaged drawing lines throughout a long literary life. He could not endure to be suspected of belonging to any party or school. The moment a belief ceased to be an object of persecution, it lost some of its charm for him. He was indeed what he called himself, an “Ishmael of Song,” and the breath of his intellectual life was the belief to which men were afraid or unable to be fair.
     Perhaps it is not wonderful that a man who so consistently and strenuously ranged himself against every established opinion, or proved himself fair and charitable to a belief which was passing through its time of struggle and trial only to assail it with compensating bitterness in its day of success, should have earned at last a reputation for invincible perversity. But natural, inevitable indeed, as it was, considering how superficial and impatient contemporary criticism usually is, it was nevertheless wholly unjust. There may have been a certain measure of perversity in Robert Buchanan’s nature. The circumstances of his literary life, lived at a white heat of polemical fervour, may have accentuated whatever natural perversity was his. Buchanan did not escape the defects of his qualities any more than the least of us. But intellectual perversity, so far as he suffered from it, was in him a most pardonable defect to those who recognised the true measure of the quality which it relieved. He was indeed an eclectic, and gloried in his eclecticism. But he gloried in it only because it was an expression of his sympathy with the eclecticism of humanity at large. He felt so much with the race, with the strugglings and aspirations of men as men, that he half forced himself to think with them too in all their varieties of thought. The only intellectual attitude which he rejected, but against it he launched his inexhaustible store of anathemas, was the attempt to give supremacy to any one explanation of the experiences of life. He could tolerate no Cæsar on the intellectual throne, and as men are wont to depose one only to find themselves conferring a more assured autocracy upon another, they always found in Buchanan the man who showed them what they were doing and so made it at least difficult for them to do it. He waged war with every established tyranny, and if his wars were many, it was because of the numberless tyrannies which he found men contentedly enduring and not at all because of any special delight of his own in war.
     The secret of Buchanan as man and as poet was his love of the weak, the down-trodden, the depressed. For him the key to all human duty lay in the capacity to see and to answer the claims of weakness. His own poetry is one long passionate appeal on behalf of all weak and forgotten things, a passionate protest against the self-contained unthinking march of mere strength. He arraigned the unconscious movements of nature, its careless, heartless masteries, before the tribunal of man’s heart. He elicited the deep inner pity that lurks in every heart that is beginning to be human, and set it with assurance on the throne of universal judgment. He was so sure that all who had chosen to suffer for others, all who had merged their life in a close identity with the pain and defeat of others, were the true exponents of the world’s justice. For if that were not so, then indeed was there no justice. But his surest and most abiding faith was that just this identification of strength with weakness, this sacrifice of strength for the sake of weakness, was the only solution of life’s mystery. That solution indeed was not able to justify itself to the intellect. It could not command, or even very boldly appeal to the beliefs of men. But at least it was the matter of their unconquerable hope. Only through it could the huge evil of life be faced, and that evil become the stuff of an ultimate good.
     Buchanan had taught in song for twenty years before Huxley stated it in prose the great doctrine that human ethics is the reversal of the evolutionary method. That indeed was the starting-point of the poet’s faith, and on that he always laid the greatest stress. Like the Gnostics of the first Christian centuries he rejects the God of Creation as the object of human love or reverence. The God to whom his heart turns, to whom he would turn the hearts of his brothers, is the God of Redemption. And this God he finds to be working out His purposes, to be unfolding as it were His essential being, in the movement of the life of humanity. All the great myths of love and sacrifice, like the story of Balder, are the witnesses of that life which is growing within life. The lives which have most suffered defeat for the sake of men, for the sake of pity and love and helpfulness, are the martyred ministers of its growth. The process of redemption, of the eliciting of that which is enduring in life, is just the reversal of the process of natural evolution. That is the constant starting-point of all the poet’s feeling. Yet he did not by any means allow himself to harden this feeling into a rigorous logical formula. On the contrary, he revolted against every attempt which had been made in the history of human thought to lay the yoke of such a formula upon man’s mind and will. The logical outcome, in belief, of such a feeling is asceticism, and against asceticism in all its forms Buchanan protested as vehemently as he had protested against submission to the heartless evolutionary process. He felt that there was some reconciliation of hedonism and asceticism—of Paganism and Buddhism, let us say. He felt that asceticism in its extreme forms was practically a denial of life, and that the redemption in which it hoped was really a break which no consciousness could survive. With what healthy scorn Buchanan rejected this travesty of redemption, this attempt to discover or to gain a worthy life through despair of and contempt for the daily life men know, all can learn who will take the trouble to read his poem on Schopenhauer, which he calls “The New Buddha.” Buchanan looked to find the redemptive process somehow accomplished within the circle of that same evolutionary movement which in its naked pitilessness he had banned. Already he finds the life within the life committed to man. That is just the human secret. In man there is already by a more intimate guerdon of Nature the power of love, of sympathy, of helpfulness, which redeems the coarser methods of her first attempts at handing on the gift of life. It is to man that the enduring sense of Nature’s joy and beauty is entrusted, just as to him only is also given the full sense of Nature’s cruelty and ravin and ugliness. Life begins to redeem itself as soon as it is able to feel the need of redemption. And out of the strength with which it slew and wasted and lusted, it creates the force whose delight is to save and to love and make  alive.
     This is something like the way in which Buchanan attempts the reconciliation of the lower and the higher processes in life—the process of the conservation of the individual life by itself at all risks, and the process of the redemption of higher individual powers by the sacrifice of lower, or of the saving of the weak by the self-sacrifice of the strong. The reconciliation indeed is never complete. The poet was too honest to pretend and too sincere to invent an intellectual certainty where there is only a certainty for the high moods of feeling and of hope. He was too much of a poet and too little of a philosopher to round off his hope, however high and assured, to a logical completeness. The difficulty of this reconciliation was so present to him that he often seemed to speak with two voices—a prose voice in which he acclaimed with a kind of courageous resignation the cruel truth of Nature’s ways which physical science had revealed, and the voice of the poet with which he adhered to every implacable protest against those ways. Now he seemed to regard the protest against Nature as futile and magnificently absurd, again as the only and the assured means of a new and higher development of her life. Now in his prose mood, his mood of despair, he would say: “Jesus was a man of a beautiful temperament, carried beyond himself by a false and sentimental conception of the mechanism of life. He uttered, no one so exquisitely, the human cry for a Divine Fatherhood. But unfortunately he appealed to Nature for corroboration of his appeal. Nature never answered him. Then, as now, she kept God’s secret.” But the poet’s voice would speak anon, and speak with a largeness and fulness which shamed prose out of its cold realities. As for instance, when he gives for answer to the question:—

“Dost thou believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son?”
“In Him and in my Brethren every one:
The child of Mary who was crucified,
The gods of Hellas fair and radiant-eyed,
Brahm, Balder, Gautama, and Mahomet,
All who have pledged their gains to pay my debt
Of sorrows—all who through this world of dream
Breathe mystery and ecstasy supreme;
The greater and the less: the wise, the good,
Inheritors of Nature’s godlike mood;
In these I do believe eternally,
Knowing them deathless, like the God in me.”

     Or again where was the hope of a great and eternal birth, from the slow patient bitterness of humanity’s travailing, ever better expressed than here?—

“Where’er great pity is and piteousness,
     Where’er great Love and Love’s strange sorrow stay,
Where’er men cease to curse, but bend to bless,
     Frail brethren fashion’d like themselves of clay;

“Where’er the lamb and lion side by side
     Lie down in peace, where’er on land or sea
Infinite Love and Mercy heavenly-eyed
     Emerge, there stirs the God that is to be!

“His light is round the slaughter’d bird and beast
     As round the forehead of Man crucified,—
All things that live, the greatest and the least,
     Await the coming of this Lord and Guide;

“And every gentle deed by mortals done,
     Yea, every holy thought and loving breath,
Lighten poor Nature’s travail with this Son
     Who shall be Lord and God of Life and Death!”

     So that, after all, the doubt of Buchanan’s prose mood finds its answer in the certainty of Buchanan the poet. If it was unfortunate that Jesus appealed to Nature for corroboration of His appeal to a Divine Fatherhood, at least the mistake seems to have been only one of sex. For Nature is herself, the poet sees, in pangs of motherhood which have been relieved in such lives as Jesus lived and such unconquerable faith in life as He displayed.
     But Buchanan’s humanist ethics, his humanitarian fervour, were no mere passionless altruism produced in an emotional vacuum. He did hot hold that men would give their lives for others because they had no share in the lives of those others, but exactly because they had. For him the solidarity of life was complete. No life could be lived to itself or for itself. It shared in all other achievement. It contributed to it. Loss or gain, salvation or damnation, were corporate experiences. They were indeed individual too, and individual primarily. For it is only the individual that feels the loss or grows by the gain. But he shares in loss and gain which seem to be beyond the range of his own making, and all he has done and been will appear as loss or gain in other life than his own. This solidarity of the deepest and most essential human fortunes is the key-note of many of Buchanan’s most characteristic poems. As early as the “Book of Orm,” written before he was thirty, he gave it mystical expression in a brief allegorical interlude which he titles “Sanitas.” It is worth quoting:—

“Dreamily, on her milk-white Ass,
Rideth the maiden Sanitas—
With zone of gold her waist is bound,
Her brows are with immortelles crowned:
Dews are falling, song-birds sing,
It is a Christian evening—
Lower, lower, sinks the sun,
The white stars glimmer, one by one!

“Who sitteth musing at his door?
Silas, the Leper, gaunt and hoar;
Though he is curst in every limb,
Full whitely Time hath snowed on him—
Dews are falling, song-birds sing,
It is a Christian evening—
The Leper, drinking in the air,
Sits like a beast, with idiot stare.

“How pale! how wondrous! doth she pass,
The heavenly maiden Sanitas;
She looketh, and she shuddereth,
She passeth on with bated breath—
Dews are falling, song-birds sing,
It is a Christian evening—
His mind is like a stagnant pool,
She passeth o’er it, beautiful!

“Brighter, whiter, in the skies,
Open innumerable eyes;
The Leper looketh up and sees,
His aching heart is soothed by these—
Dews are falling, song-birds sing,
It is a Christian evening—
He looketh up with heart astir,
And every star hath eyes like her!

“Onward on her milk-white Ass
Rideth the maiden Sanitas.
The boughs are green, the grain is pearled,
But ’tis a miserable world—
Dews are falling, song-birds sing,
It is a Christian evening—
All o’er the blue above her, she
Beholds bright spots of Leprosy.”

     Again in his very latest volume of poems, published three years ago, he gives expression again and again to this community of the deeper human fortunes. Of the victims of human lust whom we contemptuously dismiss as “lost women” the passionate indignation of his heart utters the truth which ought to ensure them a refuge in every heart that still knows how to feel or to be just.

“How? Thou be saved, and one of these be lost?
     The least of these be spent, and thou soar free!
Nay! for these things are thou—these tempest-tost
     Waves of the darkness are but forms of thee.
“Shall these be cast away? Then rest thou sure
     No hopes abide for thee if none for these.
Would’st thou be healed? Then hast thou these to cure;
     Thine is their shame, their foulness, their disease.”

     And then in the poem which he calls “These Voices” he proclaims the identity of all human experience with himself. So far as he is failing to make it his own, he is losing his life. So far as he is powerless through failure of heart, or of knowledge, or of will, to enter into the stress of any living joy or sorrow, to penetrate the mystery of any living soul, he feels that it is his own life which is suffering failure and defeat.

“Hear the strong man in the dark for pity crying,
     Hear the foul man’s word of hate as he goes by thee;
Hear the shriek of trampled women, vainly flying
     From the phantoms that appal thee and defy thee!
     .         .          .         .          .         .          .         .          .
“All the foul things God would seem to put his ban on,
     All the fair things that would seem to have his blessing—
Without thee, yet within thee, O Buchanan,
     They are thronging, with a riddle for thy guessing.
     .         .          .         .          .         .          .         .          .
“Ah! the Voices! and the Faces!—wild and wan, on
     They are rushing, to destroy or to renew thee!
Like a foam-flake shalt thou vanish, O Buchanan,
     If but one of these is lost that cry unto thee!”

     It seems a pitiable futility of criticism that the one great poet of human hope and redemption who is at all worthy to be mentioned in the same breath with Robert Browning should have been relegated to a worse punishment than literary annihilation, viz., summary and impatient dismissal to the limbo of the second-rate singers of our time. Buchanan is sure of his rescue from this abode of darkness. In its own defence the new time will call to its aid, in the throes of spiritual pain through which it has to pass, one of the most strenuous, the most believing, and the most loving singers that the England of the second half of the nineteenth century knew. He foresaw its need better than most. He forefelt its pain better than any. He was free from the great vice of his own time, the cowardice that worshipped the tyrant of the actual until its indifference to all ideals became the creed by which it proposed to live. Because he believed in man’s divine struggle against the actual as the real key to the mystery of human life, because he believed that the growing and waning fortunes of that struggle were stuff for the noblest poetry, because he made of his own superb imagination a mint for this true coinage, he was depreciated and defamed by a narrow literary clique. But because he did all these things, the broad needs of human life in the coming years will claim him and justify him as a poet of prophetic vision and of enduring right to fame.
                                                                                                                                 A. L. LILLEY.

___

 

The Spectator (24 May, 1902 - pp.18-19)

BOOKS.
_____

ROBERT BUCHANAN’S POETRY.*

THE eternal problem as to what is, and what is not, poetry is presented in a somewhat imperious fashion by the thousand double-columned pages of Robert Buchanan’s collected works. If this is poetry, why is England entirely deaf to it; if it is not, what does it lack? Opening at random, we come upon an ode that seems to have something of the true accent. Let us take the first strophe and examine it:—

               “Lord, with how small a thing
Thou canst prop up the heart against the grave!
               A little glimmering
                   Is all we crave!
               The lustre of a love
                   That hath no being,
         The pale point of a little star above,
               Flashing and fleeing,
               Contents our seeing.
The house that never will be built; the gold
               That never will be told;
The task we leave undone when we are cold;
The dear face that returns not, but is lying,
     Lick’d by the leopard, in an Indian cave;
The coming rest that cometh not, till sighing
     We turn our tremulous gaze upon the grave.
         And Lord, how should we dare
               Thither in peace to fall
But for a feeble glimmering even there
         Falsest, some sigh, of all?
We are as children in Thy hands indeed,
And Thou hast easy comfort for our need,—
The shining of a lamp, the tinkling of a bell,
               Content us well.”

The first observation a reader makes is that the poet has formed his general style upon Shelley, while for the purpose of this particular poem he has been reading George Herbert. The little star, the leopard, and the Indian cave are of course Shelleyan properties; but the limpid movement is also Shelley’s. On the other hand, the first two lines and the last two are unmistakably Herbert. And wherever the volumes are opened this first experience is confirmed, that although there are traces here and there of this and the other poet, notably of Crabbe and Tennyson, yet the main influence is Shelley’s. And this influence, while it has been beneficial so far as ease of rhythm is concerned, has been merely disastrous to the ultimate success of the poetry; because it has encouraged the poet to be content with vague feeling instead of definite thought, and diffuse expression instead of the inevitable word that at once fixes the thought and illuminates it and carries it home to the hearts of men. This is not to say that Shelley was himself inexpressive. He was a philosopher interested in ideals of a somewhat vague content, and this gave a nebulous air to much of his poetry. But the result of his example upon the poetical practice of his few followers was to encourage in them an idea that feeling was the prime element in the poet’s equipment, limpid fluency of sentiment the true poetical expression, and the Greek mythology the best vehicle for discoursing upon the rights of man. To go back to the ode above quoted. The idea of the passage is the very old and true one that it is hope which keeps men alive, even if the hope be illusion. But so far from the expression illuminating the thought and biting it into our imagination, we have to translate it back into ordinary prose to see what the poet is driving at. “The pale point of a little star above” is a charming line taken by itself; but it has no greater poetical value in the ode than the more obviously conventional “It is the star of Hope, but ah,” in Jeames’s well-known lyric. A star to a sailor or an astronomer may be fateful; but no ordinary person is content with starlight.
     It follows that Buchanan’s best work is contained not in the huge mass of Shelleyan writing, but in the idylls and lyrics of real life, where he had some definite object before his mind. He counted himself always a lover of his race and a hater of injustice, and in the earlier poems the hate is balanced by the love. Perhaps the best of these lyrics, for the freshness of both matter and manner, is the story of the lame tailor’s starling, who died swearing,—an interesting companion in the fields of asphodel to Sterne’s more sentimental bird:—

“All kinds of weather
     They felt confined,
And swore together
     At all mankind;
For their mirth was done,
     And they felt like brothers,
And the swearing of one
     Meant no more than the other’s;
’Twas just a way
     They had learn’d, you see,—
Each wanted to say
     Only this—‘Woe’s me!
I’m a poor old fellow,
     And I’m prison’d so,
While the sun shines mellow
And the corn waves yellow,
     And the fresh winds blow,—
And the folk don’t care
     If I live or die,
But I long for air,
     And I wish to fly!’
Yet unable to utter it,
     And too wild to bear,
They could only mutter it,
     And swear.”

The sempstress’s “blind linnet” who smelt “the musk and the muscatel” in the window-box and sang of country joys, is another poem in the same vein and in the same recitative. These, with “The Little Milliner” and “Liz,” which give the brighter and sadder aspects of girl life as it was in London in the “sixties,” are the best of the “London Poems”; but “The Book-worm” is worth a passing mention, and “Tom Dunstan, or the Politician” something more. This is the first stanza of it:—

“Now poor Tom Dunstan’s cold,
     Our shop is duller;
Scarce a tale is told,
And our talk has lost its old
     Red-republican colour!
Though he was sickly and thin,
     ’Twas a sight to see his face,—
While, sick of the country’s sin,
With bang of the fist, and chin
     Thrust out, he argued the case!
He prophesied men should be free !
     And the money-bags be bled!
‘She's coming, she’s coming,’ said he;
‘Courage boys! wait and see!
     Freedom’s ahead!”

Buchanan in youth was content, like Tom Dunstan, with prophesying a good time coming, based upon the discovery of a soul of goodness in things evil. Later in life he took up Shelley’s youthful crusade against Christianity, without Shelley’s excuse in the apathy of Churchmen to human sin and sorrow, and later still he coupled with it a crusade against Imperial politics. Indignation lends a vigour that is quite wonderful and astonishing to page after page of invective; and through it all Buchanan retains the sublime sense that he alone is left a prophet of God in the midst of a crooked generation. There are three poems worth noticing in which he disposes of his three popular contemporaries. Tennyson’s faith he speaks of as the faith of one who, dreaming at ease on his English lawn—

     “Heeded not the long despair
Of souls that never see the sun.”

Browning is jested upon as the best of doctors, “dear cheery and chirpy Doctor B.”:—

“And, mind you, his learning is prodigious,
     He has Latin and Greek at his finger ends,
And with all his knowledge he’s still religious,
     And counts no sceptic among his friends.

When out of spirits you’re sadly lying
     All dismal talk he puts bravely by:
‘God’s in His heaven,’ you hear him crying,—
     ‘All’s right with creation from star to sty.’”

Mr. Kipling is handled with less tenderness in the “Ballad of Kiplingson” because, being a young man, he had the audacity not to be an individualist cosmopolitan like Shelley and Buchanan, but cared for his country:—

“ ‘Alas and alas,’ the good Saint said, a tear in his eye serene,
‘A Tory at twenty-one! Good God ! At fifty what would you have been!
‘There’s not a spirit now here in Heaven who wouldn’t at twenty-one
Have tried to upset the very Throne, and reform both Sire and Son!’”

Kiplingson retorts that he “is ’cute in almost everything, and has probed Creation through”:—

“ ‘And what have you found?’ the Saint inquired, a frown on his face benign.
‘The Flag of England’! cried Kiplingson, ‘and the thin black penny-a-line.’”

The author of an ode to the glory of Parnell, whom he salutes as Caesar, is consistent in seeing nothing but what is contemptible in the flag of England. And so in an Imperial age the masses of men have not been attracted by the subject- matter of Buchanan’s rough-and-tumble rhetoric and acrid humour, while lovers of poetry can only regret that so much early promise came to so little excellent fruit.

     * The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan. London: Chatto and Windus. [12s.]

Back to Reviews, Bibliography or Poetry

_____

 

Book Reviews - Novels

The Shadow of the Sword (1876) to God and the Man (1881)

 

Home
Biography
Bibliography

 

Poetry
Plays
Fiction

 

Essays
Reviews
Letters

 

The Fleshly School Controversy
Buchanan and the Press
Buchanan and the Law

 

The Critical Response
Harriett Jay
Miscellanea

 

Links
Site Diary
Site Search