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Harriett Jay

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Undertones,  Idyls and Legends of Inverburn and London Poems


The Examiner (25 August, 1866)


     What we have seen in our first day’s journey among them surely indicates advance of power among those singers who are of the class once prettily said to be “guarded by poverty and guided by love” into the way of song.
     It is half a century since Southey edited the “Attempts in Verse by J. Jones,” to which he afterwards prefixed his “lives of the Uneducated Poets.” John Jones was the son of a gardener in Gloucestershire, who was taught writing by the village stone-cutter, drove a plough at ten years old, bought ballads, became a footboy in Bath, and read his master’s Shakespeare. Afterwards he was page to a lady whose domestic staff consisted of himself and two maids and, as she had no books, he spent his two years with her in writing a play, which he duly sent off by coach to London, to the Haymarket Theatre. Then he was for five years servant in another family. Then he served Mr Wynch, then Mr Lynch, and from his next situation with Mr Bruere at Kirkley Hall, after he had held it three-and-twenty years, in 1827, being them fifty-three years old, married, and, having three children all in service, he sent some of his verse to Robert Southey; as other small poets did, because he was Poet Laureate and because he had stood godfather to Kirke White’s Remains. There was a charming simplicity in John Jones’s letters to Southey, and his way of speaking of his verses: “Living in a family, Sir, in which there are fourteen children, I have devoted but little time to their construction, they having been chiefly composed when in the exercise of my domestic duties, and frequently borne on my memory for two or three weeks before I had leisure to ease it of its burthen.” Again, “Being on the continent a few years, Sir, I attempted a long piece, which I intend denominating ‘The Maid of the Wye,’ and under great difficulties I persevered in it for sometime; but we were a large family in a small house, Sir, and from the repeated solicitations of some little favourites of the family, and from the noisy clamour of several Flemish maid-servants, and other causes, I became so disgusted with it that I gave it up.” Fancy poor John at the heroic couplets of his Wye, whereof here is a fragment:

“Full sixteen springs to this delightful glade
Her tuneful tribute Philomel had paid,
Since here she came in solitude to dwell,
But who, none knew”—JOHN! Don’t you hear the bell?

     John Jones’s verse was that of an amiable right-minded man of little culture who had an honest faculty of song. Much of his verse is sad doggrel, but there are faint strains of a simple music here and there that may claim remote and humble kindred with the great master of song to whom he paid, as a young footman, visits of stealth when the dining-room was empty.
     The freedom, power, earnestness of the song to which not one or two only of the humblest toilers of our own day have attained, and are attaining, contrasts instructively with the faint rhymings of John Jones. They are not of the race of Taylor, the Water Poet, whom Southey accounts the first man who attained repute in verse in spite of very humble origin and a defective education. Their ancestors were rather Stephen Duck the thresher, Dodsley the footman who, through Pope’s help, became a chief among our literary booksellers; James Woodhouse, the village shoemaker, whom Shenstone befriended, who was found writing with the ink at his side and the last in his lap, and who sang of his daily toil for bare subsistence:

“Nor mourn I much my task austere
     Which endless wants impose;
But oh! it wounds my soul to hear
     My Daphne’s melting woes!

For oft she sighs and oft she weeps,
     And hangs her pensive head,
While blood her furrowed finger steeps,
     And stains the passing thread.”

The shoemaker poet nowadays does not call his wife Daphne; but he may be content if he can deserve such praise as Wordsworth gave to the last two of those lines. There was Bloomfield, too, the Suffolk tailor’s son, who wrote the ‘Farmer’s Boy’ in a London garret while he was learning his trade of a ladies’ shoemaker. We say nothing of Robert Burns, who is to be reckoned with none but the great chiefs of British song, many of whom have battled their way up from the ranks by force of genius and strenuous endeavour. All that we are here noting is, that there is more of the true power of free and earnest song diffused among what are called the working classes (as if there were any class worth mentioning that is not a working class), among handicraftsmen and day labourers, than has existed, or than has been recognized in any former time.
     Probably in our British Arcadia, as it is now constituted, the son of poverty who does not sing is like the king of France who did not conquer Europe because, said one of his flatterers, he “rather preferred the adding to the glory of doing what he would, than of not doing what he could.” Yet the Arcadia cannot be British in which any one sees the glory of not doing what he can. Elihu Burritt, who studied while he worked as a young blacksmith at his anvil, learned something of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Welsh, Gaelic, Russian, and set forth on his travels to unite the speakers of all those tongues in a bond of universal peace, tells us in his lately published account of a walk to Land’s End, that he visited the poet postman to some of whose singing we listened the other day. Regarding him as another Burns, Mr Burritt gives us some minute details about him. Mr Capern, we learn, weighs just 100lbs. avoirdupois more than Mr Burritt. We are not told what Mr Burritt weighs, but if it be only nine stone Mr Capern weighs sixteen. He gives us also a suggestive picture of the portly postman composing “The Lion Flag of England” in a succession of heats, while delivering his letters; by running a third of a mile, to win time to stop and put down a few lines while the perspiration fell upon the soiled and crumpled paper. Afterwards Mr Capern set up a little pony cart, and Mr Burritt, who went his rounds with him in this, pleasantly suggests his child-like delight of the glory of doing what he could, as he stopped at one place to eat cream and sing, by request, a poem he had made on a good housewife’s niece; in another place to drink beer (query, cider) in a harvest field, and sing a harvest song of his own to the reapers; also how he met an old man toiling up hill with a sack of coals on his back, and got him to sing one of the Capern compositions, which he did without removing the coals from his neck, while stout Mr Capern, says the narrator, “tripped the light fantastic toe most hilariously across the lane from hedge to hedge, his large genial face radiant with the joy of his thoughts.” All this is very simple and very hearty; unsophisticated exultation in the pleasure given by the faculty of song, but there is nothing in it of majestic glory in refusing to be glorious. In fact the shepherds of Arcadia are rather apt to crown themselves with bay, and rather restless in expressing their desire to have it and themselves admired. That last infirmity of noble minds only here and there one of the greatest poets is without. There is no evidence that Shakespeare cared for flattery or fame; and Chaucer’s only word upon that subject in all his poems is in his ‘House of Fame,’ when answering the question—

Friend, what is thy name?
Art thou come hither to have fame?

Nay, forsooth, friend, quoth I
I come not hither, grand mercy,
For no such cause, by my head.
Sufficeth me as I were dead
That no wight have my name in hand.
I wot myself how best I stand
For what I drie (suffer) or what I think
I woll myself all it drink,
Certaine for the more part
As ferforth as I can mine art.

     It would be well if many a young poet could take Father Chaucer’s example to his heart, and, if he cannot quench the hungry cravings of ambition, at least keep it from shrieking, however musically.
     Here is a sad book, entitled Disappointed Aspirations (1), by a writer who says in his ‘Lament the First:’

The voice of God within me having lied
     (The instincts of my nature such I deem),
On what sure basis shall my faith subside
     And float no more upon the troubled stream,
Now here, now there, and in the same place never,
Condemn’d to fluctuate in doubt for ever?

No, faith is dead in me for aye, and hope;
     The clue to guide us through life’s labyrinth given,
And the sure staff; and I my way must grope—
     (Ah! well, I shall not want them once in heaven)—
Still through the gorgeous dome rich anthems pealing,
     The picture-laden wall, the flower-deck’d shrine,
And the sweet poet’s lay may, with the feeling
     Of the ideal, reverent thoughts entwine;
Like the blind man, he reads not, but he sings,
His worship hath no eyes, but it hath wings.
     *         *          *         *          *
Like poor Tityus I writhe, my own bowels supplying
     To bind me too tender a tie to be torn,
Whilst around me two vultures are ceaselessly flying,
     The vulture of wrong and the vulture of scorn.

And within me two demons, the instinct of life
     And the instinct of genius, for mastery strive,
And so scathing the fire-clouds they breathe in the strife,
     That, triumph which will, I can never survive.

There’s a fire at my heart, there’s a fire in my brain,
     There’s a fire on my tongue, there’s a fire everywhere;
To think is to burn with a smouldering pain,
     Now impotent rage, and now listless despair.
     Now the full tide of rage, now the ebb of despair.

Sure a Will-o’-the-Wisp is the star I’m born under,
     So I roam still deluded life’s wild ocean o’er,
From Ithaca far and more far torn asunder,
     While my bark seems for ever approaching her shore.

Oh! who can conceive half the woes I endure,
     Whilst I wander forlorn without object or scope,
Poor awake, rich in dreams, but though abjectly poor,
     Rich in leaves that seem gold by the magic of hope.

     We do not know whether the writer of this book signs his real name on the title page. If so, he is crediting it so little that we prefer to call him by the certainly assumed name which he attaches to his preface, Leonard Leanheart. Mr Greatheart certainly he is not. He says that he has a legal right to careful reading of his poems: to “an hour of the very closest application.” We have given more than that, and have carefully read his book through.
     He wants, for the protection of his property,—his genius,—“an office under Government inspection with a separate department for each several branch of literature—this,” he says, “is what Grub street claims. Here is my poem; let it be examined carefully once for all; and let the reply be according to its intrinsic merits. ‘It is good.’ ‘It may be made so, but its defects are so and sp.’ ‘It can never be made so;—try another line; you have literary, but no poetical genius.’ ‘Give up writing altogether; you have considerable talent, but no literary capacity in any line.’ (The name of the competitor forwarded with motto in a separate envelope being not even known except to the office clerk.)” And he says also in his preface: “The Poem now published has occupied some twelve years or more in the writing. A moment’s cursory glance, therefore, of sour, disdainful prejudice will scarcely do it justice, will it? Speak out, Cain—say, fratricide—will it?” If the poem occupied twelve years or more in the writing, that is at the rate of not quite a line and a half per week, and the author has not wanted time to reflect whether he used proper judgment when he began, as he must have begun, twelve years ago, at the outset of his career, with lament for the neglect of his genius. The lines we have quoted are within only fourteen of the beginning of the poem. Those, therefore, are also lines which he has had eleven years to revise, supposing that he took a year to write them. Yet they are bad; and there is no hint given us of the publishing of any previous verses, by the neglect of which Mr Leanheart was soured. He complains that he has genius, and fails, while other men succeed, because they have not genius, but talent. He does not write as man of humble birth struggling against want of opportunities, but as one who has had opportunities and lost them. He speaks of himself as having been driven from college without a degree “for think he would;” as having been alienated from his brother, and refused money by Mr Dickens, when, as a kindred genius, “famished at his cruel door I plain.” or these and other disappointments and for grudge of the praise that has not been given to books of his that he has not produced,—he being one Briton, at any rate, whose glory it is that he has not done what he could,—men, who thrive by honest labour and by calm use of their genius or talent, are accused by Mr Leanheart of

————Murder—worse than wilful murder!
Foul, devilish, unnatural fratricide;
Damn’d impious breach of a most sacred duty,
Murder without excuse of human passion;
Sheer inhumanity—God may avenge it.

     He says:

Were genius the greatest crime in nature,
Had I acquired it by this life of toil,
Nay, could I but shake off the accursed viper
With a less loss than life, I would not curse them;
Or would Pity raise me but to sink yet lower,
To outmire this mire by trampling down my mire-mates.

     And again:

Curst be the law that blocks the avenues
Of Fame’s dear temple with a hireling crowd,
That come not in themselves, nor suffer others!
Cowed by the hubbub, stifled in the press,
Meek, inert genius, with a sigh, gives way
To bursting talent, skill’d in puffing fraud,
And in some dark retreat, lone as the grave,
All broken-hearted, pines away and dies.
Terrible—terrible is a heart lock’d up
In the living coffin of its icy self,
And only death to hold the missing key.

     The italics in the last extract are ours.
     There is always power in sincerity of feeling, good or bad, and there is a power in the passion of those lines. They sound the writer’s depths. He talks of “inert genius,” that shrinks into a hole and pines for want of trumpeting by fame. There is an inert vanity that will do that, but no genius is inert. Genius is the intensest form of human energy and power, and makes the heart too great to be

                                 Lock’d up
In the living coffin of its icy self.

That locking up of the heart for the wretchedness of mere self-contemplation is the work of vanity, but not of genius.
     To desire the wide approval of one’s fellow-men is inseparable from the warm sympathies by which true genius is fed, and to desire influence is a condition of the sense of power. How, then, are we to distinguish in the yet chiefly emotional enthusiasms of youth between the force of genius and the feebleness of vanity? The distinction is not always at once obvious. By their fruits, indeed, we know them. Genius struggling onwards dies in the fight, or conquers by intensity of effort. Vanity at the end of twelve years remains where it was at the beginning; or lies in the mud using what powers are left to it chiefly in glorification of itself, and cursing of those who do not flatter and feed it. But in the actual tumult of young emotion, when the heart is big with vague desires, and the cool, wise teaching of experience is yet to come, power may speak in the language of weakness, and weakness have a violence that it might not be unreasonable to mistake for the untamed force of power. The safest of the ready tests of ambition, when a test is not at once furnished by one of those utterances that can come only from a mind rarely gifted, is note of the texture of the aspiration. If it be simply for fame, for applause of men as the chief aim of life,—that is below even the common generosity of youth; and far below the dignity of those for whom, by the very constitution of their minds, the great work to be done, and the work’s work, when it shall have gone forth among men, is the chief object of contemplation and the impulse to unflinching, undauntable labour, such labour being, indeed, one of the first issues of a capable ambition.
     In our Arcadia there were, not long since, two Scottish youths, sons of poor parents, and the spirit of song stirred each of them to the depths. They were friends together, they encouraged one another. Either of them taken in the moment of excited aspiration might speak or write so as to be indistinguishable from a Leonard Leanheart. Yet they were true poets; youths with power that might win them influence so wide and true that a cool man, knowing only what came out of them, might share their hope that grew out of the throbbing consciousness of what was in them. They encouraged one another to plunge, young, ardent, into the great flood of London life, and win the grasp of fellowship by showing they deserved it. One made the desperate plunge, strong of will and weak of body—for he was consumptive, fought his battle, and went home to die. He saw only, before he died, one printed leaf of the little book that represents how much he was, and how much more he might have been. The other followed, and against all hard realities of poverty, against discouragement, but winning by his genius and high determination the encouragement also of experience in two or three able and good men, he battled on. He is now through the morass at the bottom of the hill of fame and with a bold foot steadily climbing upwards. The names of these two men are David Gray and Robert Buchanan. David Gray is dead. But he has left, in one small posthumous book, enough evidence of his genius to ensure him a little place in literature by the side of his friend Buchanan, if his friend Buchanan shall live long enough for the steady persistence that enables genius which does not leap into a nation’s recognition, yet to send roots down and grow into it and make its fruitage sure. His first little book of verse (2), opening with a sigh after his former comrade, “To David in Heaven,” went back in its first line to their old days of dreaming by the stream of Luggie.

         Lo! the slow moon foaming
         Thro’ fleecy mists of gloaming,
Furrowing with pearly front the jewel-powder’d sky!
         Lo! the bridge moss-laden,
         Arch’d like foot of maiden,
And on the bridge, in silence, looking upward, you and I!

     But what had been the issue of their aspiration? And what was to follow yet?

         Do I dream, I wonder?
         As, sitting sadly under
A lonely roof in London, thro’ the grim square pane I gaze?
         Here of thee I ponder,
         In a dream, and yonder
The pale streets seem to stir and breathe beneath the white moon’s rays.
         By the vision cherish’d,
         By the dark hope bravéd,
Do I but dream a hopeless dream, in the city that slew you, David?

     Of the little book in which the soul of that young David is yet dwelling among us (3), we said when it was new that David Gray was a real poet, and quoted many passages in evidence. In that first utterance of his own song Robert Buchanan yearning towards his dead comrade, wrote:

         Upward my face I turn to you,
         I long for you, I yearn to you,
The pallid moonlight trances me to utt’rance wild and weak;
         It is not that I mourn you,
         To mourn you were to scorn you,
For you are one step nearer to the beauty singers seek.
         But I want, and cannot see you,
         I seek and cannot find you,
And, see! I touch the book of songs you tenderly left behind you!

         Ay, me! I bend above it,
         With tearful eyes, and love it,
With gentle hand I touch the leaves, but cannot find you there!
         Mine eyes are haunted only
         By that gloaming sweetly lonely,
The shadows on the mossy bridge, the glamour in the air!

     And so, in such a spirit as this, the surviving poet prepared for his own upward struggle:

         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 faint 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 higher wisdom
         You return unspeaking,
Though endless, hopeless, be the search, we exalt our souls in seeking.

         But ah, that pale moon foaming
         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?

     Let us, before speaking more of the verse of his comrade, remember again David Gray. He was born in January, 1838, on the banks of the Luggie, a tributary rivulet to the Kelvin, eight miles out of Glasgow. His parents, still living, are poor handloom weavers, and his home was one of a group of little roadside cottages, each occupied by a poor weaver who gets a small price for his work from the warehouses at Glasgow. David was the eldest of eight children. His father sent him to the Kirkintilloch parish school, and the schoolmaster gave such an account of him that it was resolved to save enough to have him educated for the ministry. So he was sent to Glasgow, where, by earning money as a pupil teacher, and afterwards as Queen’s scholar in the Free School Normal Seminary, he attended the classes in the University during four sessions. In his second book (4), Mr Buchanan has a story, entitled ‘Poet Andrew,’ evidently founded on the life of his friend Gray. The poet’s father is supposed to be the speaker:

                                     One fine day,
Says Mister Mucklewraith to me, says he,
“So! you’ve a Poet in your house!” and smiled;
“A Poet? God forbid!” I cried; and then
It all came out: how Andrew slyly sent
Verse to the paper; how they printed it
In Poets’ Corner; how the printed verse
Had ca’t a girdle in the callant’s head;
How Mistress Mucklewraith they thought half daft
Had cut the verses out and pasted them
In albums, and had praised them to her friends.
I said but little; for my schemes and dreams
Were tumbling down like castles in the air,
And all my heart seem’d hardening to stone.
But after that, in secret stealth, I bought
The papers, hunted out the printed verse,
And read it like a thief; thought some were good,
And others foolish havers, and in most
Saw naething, neither common-sense nor sound—
Words pottle-bellied, meaningless, and strange,
That strutted up and down the printed page,
Like Bailies made to bluster and look big.

     ’Twas useless grumbling. All my silent looks
Were lost, all Mysie’s flyting fell on ears
Choke-full of other counsel; but we talk’d
In bed o’ nights, and Mysie wept, and I
Felt stubborn, wrothful, wrong’d. It was to be!
But mind you, though we mourn’d, we ne’er forsook
The college scheme. Our sorrow, as we saw
Our Andrew growing cold to homely ways,
And scornful of the bield, but strengthen’d more
Our wholesome wish to educate the lad,
And do our duty by him, and help him on
With our rough hands—the Lord would do the rest,
The Lord would mend or mar him. So at last,
New-clad from top to toe in homespun cloth,
With books and linen in a muckle trunk,
He went his way to college; and we sat,
Mysie and me, in weary darkness here;
For tho’ the younger bairns were still about,
It seem’d our hearts had gone to Edinglass
With Andrew, and were choking in the reek
Of Edinglass town.

     The eagerness of Gray’s poetical aspiration was touched and coloured, perhaps, by his bodily disease. In 1860 he was twenty-two years old. His term of service expired at the Normal School. He was earning nothing. He must work. Why not earn money as a poet? He had then written his poem upon the ‘Luggie.’ At Glasgow Gray and Buchanan became friends. In May, 1860, Gray wrote to his parents, “I start off to-night at five o’clock by the Edinburgh and Glasgow railway, right on to London, in good health and spirits.” He found some kind friends, was employed in copying MS. for Mr Oliphant, whom he called “the frank, generous Mr Oliphant,” but his health broke down almost immediately. He got, in the very first month of his coming to London, what he called “the very worst cold I ever had in my life.” Mr Hedderwick, in the short memoir prefixed to his poem, says, “Gray was at length completely prostrated with illness. In his loneliness he became, I believe, a fellow-lodger, for a short time, with Buchanan, who had arrived in London about the same time, and who was pushing his way successfully among certain of the metropolitan periodicals.” Then David Gray went home to die in his mother’s arms. The day of his death was the 3rd of December, 1861. Here are some of his dying strains in sonnets:

Oh many a time with Ovid have I borne
     My father’s vain, yet well-meant reprimand,
     To leave the sweet-air’d, clover-purpled land
Of rhyme—its Lares loftily forlorn,
With all their pure humanities unworn—
     To batten on the bare Theologies!
     To quench a glory lighted at the skies,
Fed on one essence with the silver morn,
     Were of all blasphemies the most insane.
So deeplier given to the delicious spell
     I clung to thee, heart-soothing Poesy!
Now on a sick-bed rack’d with arrowy pain
     I lift white hands of gratitude, and cry,
Spirit of God in Milton! was it well?

Last night, on coughing slightly with sharp pain,
     There came arterial blood, and with a sigh
Of absolute grief I cried in bitter vein,
     That drop is my death-warrant: I must die.
Poor meagre life is mine, meagre and poor!
     Rather a piece of childhood thrown away;
An adumbration faint; the overture
     To stifled music; year that ends in May;
The sweet beginning of a tale unknown;
     A dream unspoken; promise unfulfilled;
A morning with no noon, a rose unblown—
     All its deep rich vermilion crushed and killed
I’ th’ bud by frost:—Thus in false fear I cried,
Forgetting that to abolish death Christ died.

The daisy-flower is to the summer sweet,
     Though utterly unknown it live and die;
The spheral harmony were incomplete
     Did the dew’d laverock mount no more the sky,
     Because her music’s linkëd sorcery
Bewitched no mortal heart to heavenly mood.
     This is the law of nature, that the deed
Should dedicate its excellence to God,
     And in so doing find sufficient meed.
Then why should I make these heart-burning cries
     In sickly rhyme with morbid feeling rife,
For fame and temporal felicities?
Forgetting that in holy labour lies
     The scholarship severe of human life.

Die down, O dismal day! and let me live.
     And come, blue deeps! magnificently strewn
With coloured clouds—large, light, and fugitive—
     By upper winds through pompous motions blown.
Now it is death in life—a vapour dense
     Creeps round my window till I cannot see
The far snow-shining mountains, and the glens
     Shagging the mountain-tops. O God! make free
This barren, shackled earth, so deadly cold—
     Breathe gently forth Thy spring, till winter flies
In rude amazement, fearful and yet bold,
     While she performs her custom’d charities.
I weigh the loaded hours till life is bare—
O God! for one clear day, a snowdrop, and sweet air!

     His friend Buchanan, in the story he calls ‘Poet Andrew,’ shadows the mourning of the father and mother. Still the father speaks:

     And as he nearer grew to God the Lord,
Nearer and dearer ilka day he grew
To Mysie and mysel’—our own to love,
The world’s no longer. For the first last time,
We twa, the lad and I, could sit and crack
With open hearts—free-spoken, at our ease;
I seem’d to know as muckle then as he,
Because I was sae sad.

                                       Thus grief, sae deep
It flow’d without a murmur, brought the balm
Which blunts the edge of worldly sense and makes
Old people weans again. In this sad time,
We never troubled at his childish ways;
We seem’d to share his pleasure when he sat
List’ning to birds upon the eaves; we felt
Small wonder when we found him weeping o’er
His old torn books of pencill’d thoughts and verse;
And if, outbye, I saw a bonnie flower,
I pluckt it carefully and bore it home
To my sick boy. To me, it somehow seem’d
His care for lovely earthly things had changed,—
Changed from the curious love it once had been,
Grown larger, bigger, holier, peacefuller;
And though he never lost the luxury
Of loving beauteous things for poetry’s sake,
His heart was God the Lord’s, and he was calm.
Death came to lengthen out his solemn thoughts
Like shadows to the sunset. So no more
We wonder’d. What is folly in a lad 
Healthy and heartsome, one with work to do,
Befits the freedom of a dying man . . .
Mother, who chided loud the idle lad
Of old, now sat her sadly by his side,
And read from out the Bible soft and low,
Or lilted lowly, keeking in his face,
The old Scots songs that made his een so dim.
I went about my daily work as one
Who waits to hear a knocking at the door,
Ere Death creeps in and shadows those that watch;
And seated here at e’en i’ the ingleside,
I watch’d the pictures in the fire and smoked
My pipe in silence; for my head was fu’
Of many rhymes the lad had made of old
(Rhymes I had read in secret, as I said),
No one of which I minded till they came
Unsummon’d, buzzing-buzzing in my ears
Like bees among the leaves.

     We must break off here, and turn next week to the one of these two poets who is not dead. We shall endeavour, then, to show more fully, what the few passages of his verse we have here quoted incidentally might serve to indicate, that he is a poet who not merely will win, but has won, his title to a wide appreciation.


     (1)   Disappointed Aspirations.  A Satire upon the present State of Literature, and other Poems.  By F. A. White, Esq., B.A.   Pickering. 1865.
     (2)   Undertones.  By Robert Buchanan.  Moxon and Co.
     (3)   The Luggie and other Poems.  By David Gray.   With a Memoir by James Hedderwick, and a Prepatory Notice by R. M. Milnes, M.P.   Macmillan and Co. 1862.
     (4)   Idyls and Legends of Inverburn.  By Robert Buchanan.  Strahan. 1865.



The Examiner (1 September, 1866)


     Of the coming to London of the two friends David Gray and Robert Buchanan, high in aspiration, rich in promise; of the death of David Gray, and of the little book of poems left to represent his genius; of the reverence paid to his friend’s memory by the survivor, and of the continued effort, and successful effort, made by Mr Robert Buchanan to fight his way up in the world, we told last week. It only remains for us now to describe the three books,* by which Mr Buchanan is at present represented to the public.
     The first, published three years ago, entitled ‘Undertones,’ is that preceded by his Prologue to ‘David in Heaven.’ Its plan was good in itself, and good as a prelude to the better part of such writing as followed. It is a series of poems on themes taken from the ancient world, chiefly from Greek mythology, each containing an unsatisfied desire, a mysterious undertone of longing, which might be taken to represent or to suggest what St Paul calls “the patient expectation of the creature waiting for God.” This purpose Mr Buchanan indicated by the mottoes on his title page, defining his characters, in Wordsworth’s words as,

                   Shades, that hang
Upon the region whither we are bound.

and adding, in the words of one of the ancients whom he represents in his book as yet far from the goal, but who here speaks for them all, ‘Cœlum ipsum petimus.’ In the Epilogue to this volume, addressed to a sweetheart, to “Mary on earth,” he speaks of these poems as moving on

                             that ideal height
Where, in low undertones, those spirits plain’d,
Each full of special glory unattain’d.

     The motive of the book is the converse to that of Schiller’s poem on the ‘Gods of Greece.’ Schiller there represented the best form of the Græcomania that took the place of the Gallomania of his day, by looking back upon the cheery humanities of the Greek faith from the gloom of modern theology. “Then,” said Schiller, “poetry gave fulness of life to creation, sensibility to its dead matter, nature was ennobled that it might be pressed to the bosom of love, the trace of a God consecrated all.”

An der Liebe Busen sie zu drücken,
Gab man böhern Adel der Natur;
Alles wies den eingeweihten Blicken,
Alles eines Gottes Spur.

     The trace of a God, yes; sings Mr Buchanan. But only the trace. It was the vague, uncomprehended yearning for approach to God himself, the aspiration natural to man, the desire of the nations that was yet only as the expectation of awakening in one who dreams. So he paints, first grim Pluto in his underworld, ‘Ades, King of Hell,’ who sees the shadows of the heavenly things reflected in his murky pool:

And conscious of him shining o’er,
I watch’d my black and watery floor,
Wherein the wondrous upper-world is mirror’d evermore.

     Then Hades, who had darkened nature with his cry for a wife, heard far above the beat of musically falling feet, and he saw reflected in his pool the vision of Persephone among the flowers on the plain of Enna. A subject river bore her down to him and laid her on his footstool.

So fair, so fair, so strangely fair,
     Dark with soft waters lay my love;
     And lo, I, Ades, stoop’d above,
And shuddering touch’d the yellow hair
     That made my beaded eyeballs close—
     Awful as sunshine. Cold as snows,
Pale-faced, dank-lidded, proud, she lay in wonderful repose.

And all the lesser Thrones that rise
     Around me, shook. With murmurous breath,
     Their Kings shook off eternal death,
And with a million fiery eyes
     Glared red above, below, around,
     And saw me stooping fiery-crown’d;
And the white faces of the damn’d arose without a sound.

As if an awful sunbeam, rife
     With living glory, pierced the gloom,
     Bringing to spirits blind with doom
The summers of forgotten life,—
     Those pallid faces, mad and stern,
Rose up in foam, and each in turn
Roll’d downward, as a white wave breaks, and seem’d to plead and yearn.

     Persephone, as bride of Hades, represents the promise of its summer to the earth:

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.

     Pan, the personified nature, yearns toward the Divine ideal, and looks forward to the time when, bit by bit, his bestial nether-man peels off like bark. To the gods of Greece, he says that—

With a yearning palpable and dumb,
Yet conscious of some glory yet unborn,
Of some new wonder yet to come, I, Pan,
               In the time to come,—in years
Across whose vast I wearily impel
These ancient, blear’d, and humble-lidded eyes,—
Some law more strong than I, 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 blossom’d thick as flowers; while I—I, Pan—
The ancient haunting shadow of dim earths,
Shall slough this form of beast, this wrinkled length,
This hard integument of dark-brown skin,
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.
     Wherefore, ye gods, with this my prophecy
I sadden those sweet sounds I pipe unseen.
From dimly lonely places float the sounds
To haunt the nervous regions of the air,
Whatever changeful season ye vouchsafe
To all broad worlds which, hearing, whisper, “Pan!”
And thence they reach the hearts of lonely men,
Who wearily bear the burthen and are pain’d
To utterance of fond prophetic song,
Who singing smile, because the song is sweet,
Who die, because they cannot sing the end.

     We quote these passages not as the best examples of the poet’s verse, but as convenient illustrations of its purport. The Naïad, in her cool shrine, yearns “to be exhaled in dew at Dian’s call,” the wild satyr finds thrill in his heart that answers to “the sweet pulse of a star.” Venus looks for the awaking of Adonis, Selene for the waking of Endymion. Iris waves the bow of her wings over

Vapoury ocean, misty land;
Till the thought of Zeus outsprings
From my ripe mouth with a sigh.

The ‘Song of Orpheus’ stills the satyrs, nymphs, and fairies. For they grew credulous of their immortality as

Music made a lamp of every face
In the swart forest glade.

The brute strength of Polypheme is subdued to an unsatisfied longing for the immortal Galatea; Penelope pines waiting for Ulysses; Sappho moans to the sea of Phaon, restless for love of Phaon; Pygmalion works, yearns, and prays—the past coming back upon him “like the ghost of the To-Come”—until his marble, that was the semblance of the shrine of the beloved soul, lives, and dies plague-smitten after idle dalliance with the glorious hour; Antony, in arms, yearns for a Roman death, and is bound by the charm of Cleopatra to a splendid shame. There is refuge, indeed, from the world’s longing in the tranquil groves of Academe; one may drink the Falernian, and sit in the sun with Horace or ask, with Virgil, by the murmur of the sea,

Are these vibrations but a prophecy
Of wondrous storms unborn, in nature and in me?
And is this sweetly sad unrest that I and Ocean share
The vital principle abroad in earth
     And water, fire and air?

Snow is the covering of baby spring, the fairies of the snow are fairies of the flowers. Proteus is not yet at the end of all his changes.

         Thro’ 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 roundabout me in the Vast)
The Earth, Sun, Stars, and Moon, burn out at last)—
     A Skeleton, that kneels before a Throne.

     That is the substance of Mr Robert Buchanan’s first book of verse, the Undertones. It works out a good design with much true poetical feeling, and contains, especially in the poems on Ades, Pan, and Pygmalion, some passages that none but a true poet could have written. The best passages are sometimes marred by overstrain, in which the poet, seeking a fine expression and getting only a bad imitation of one may say for himself, as he says for his Penelope,

                 With leaden arms I search
The blank circumference of my pale loss.

     There is also a singular puerility in the occasional attempt at humour. This mars the poem entitled ‘Polypheme’s Passion,’ though there are some fine suggestions of colossal force in it, and there is good dramatic colouring. The poem entitled ‘Fine Weather on the Digentia,’ which represents Horace speaking as a hog of the Epicurean stye, is made intolerable reading by such small vivacities as

We know as much of the Soul just now
As if none of the sages had kick’d up a row.

     A poet who follows Mr Browning’s example in writing nearly every piece so far dramatically that it is supposed to be told by one of the persons of its story, might put into Horace’s mouth language a little more Horatian. There are a dozen or more of neat lines in it, but as a whole, this is a degree more tedious than the succeeding poem put into the mouth of Virgil, and almost as bad as the little poem entitled ‘Metempsychosis,’ meant to be humorous and satirical, but showing a poorer sense of humour than is to be found in most children of ten years old.
     Undertones, then, was the work of a young man with the right earnestness of character and unquestionable poetic genius, now and then over eager to force the expression of his power, and not yet taught by experience what are its  limits. So far as his Undertones were very good, they were a monotone. Though speaking through a dozen-and-a-half of different characters, and thereby manifesting a strong inclination for dramatic treatment, Mr Buchanan’s failure in the attempts then made at satire and humour indicated the want of one important requisite for a dramatist.

     In his second book, published last year, Mr Buchanan passed from the days of foreshadowing to the time that now is, when men have been taught that the Kingdom of heaven is within them. From among the poor of this world and the little children he reflects its light. Giving to his second book the name of ‘Idyls and Legends of Inverburn,’ he represents himself in a preamble going home from London smoke to his own Scottish village, and

                                     the waterfall
With cool sound plunging in its wood-nest wild,

looking down from the bridge upon the mossy boulders in the river, and under the mild influence that blew his gloom “apart, as softest breezes part a cloud,” singing of such men and women as he knew, of such human hopes and sorrows as villagers might know and tell about to one another; imagining now the gaunt schoolmaster, now the housewife,

                       bright-eyed, sharp-speeched,
Plump as a pillow, fresh as clothes new bleached,

now the canny farmer, tippling as he talks, now the minister, with “heart of honey under features stern,” as teller of the tale drawn from the life known to them all.

Fly to the city, Spirit of the Spring,
Breathe softly on the eyes of those who read,
And make a gentle picture of the scene
Wherein these shapes and shadows come and go:
The clachan with its humming sound of looms,
The small green valley ridged with heathery slopes.
The stream whose soft blue arms encircles all,
And far away, the northern mountain-tops,
Hued like the azure of the dew-berrie,
And mingling with the regions of the Rain.

     The old schoolmaster’s tale of ‘Willie Baird,’ which opens the volume, is of the love that had been between him and a little scholar who was lost in the snow when returning homeward from his fireside. It is exquisitely simple and tender. The schoolmaster was the son of a shepherd on the hills, and the hills in his memory form a shadowy background to the  poem. In the foreground is the falling snow and a village Dominie, in clump-boots, learning wisdom in love of a little child:

     O Willie, Willie, are you sleeping sound?
And can you feel the stone that I have placed
Yonder above you? Are you dead, my doo?
Or did you see the shining Hand that parts
The clouds above, and becks the bonnie birds,
Until they wing away, and human eyes,
That watch them till they vanish in the blue,
Droop and grow tearful? Ay, I ken, I ken,
I’m talking folly, but I loved the child!
He was the bravest scholar in the school!
He came to teach the very dominie—
Me, with my lyart locks and sleepy heart!

     O well I mind the day his mother brought 
Her tiny trembling tot with yellow hair,  
Her tiny poor-clad tot six summers old,
And left him seated lonely on a form
Before my desk. He neither wept nor gloom’d;
But waited silently, with shoeless feet
Swinging above the floor; in wonder eyed
The maps upon the walls, the big black board, 
The slates and books and copies, and my own
Grey hose and clumpy boots; last, fixing gaze
Upon a monster spider’s web that fill’d
One corner of the whitewash’d ceiling, watch’d
The speckled traitor jump and jink about,
Till he forgot my unfamiliar eyes,
Weary and strange and old. “Come here, my bairn!”
And timid as a lamb he seedled up.
“What do they call ye?” “Willie,” coo’d the wean,
Up-peeping slyly, scraping with his feet.
I put my hand upon his yellow hair,
And cheer’d him kindly. Then I bade him lift
The small black bell that stands behind the door
And ring the shouting laddies from their play.
“Run, Willie!” And he ran, and eyed the bell,
Stoop’d o’er it, seem’d afraid that it would bite,
Then grasp’d it firm, and as it jingled gave
A timid cry—next laugh’d to hear the sound—
And ran full merry to the door and rang,
And rang, and rang, while lights of music lit
His pallid cheek, till, shouting, panting hard,
In ran the big rough laddies from their play.

     Then rapping sharply on the desk I drove
The laddies to their seats, and beckon’d up
The stranger—smiling, bade him seat himself
And harken to the rest. Two weary hours
Buzz-buzz, boom-boom, went on the noise of school,
While Willie sat and listen’d open-mouthed;
Till school was over, and the big and small
Flew home in flocks. But Willie stay’d behind.
I beckon’d to the mannock with a smile,
And took him on my knee and crack’d and talk’d.

     First, he was timid; next, grew bashful; next,
He warm’d and told me stories of his home,
His father, mother, sisters, brothers, all;
And how, when strong and big, he meant to buy
A gig to drive his father to the kirk;
And how he long’d to be a dominie:
Such simple prattle as I plainly see
You smile at. But to little children God
Has given wisdom and mysterious power
Which beat the mathematics. Quærere
Verum in sylvis Academi
, Sir,
Is meet for men who can afford to dwell
For ever in a garden, reading books
Of morals and the logic. Good and well!
Give me such tiny truths as only bloom
Like red-tipt gowans at the hallanstone,
Or kindle softly, flashing bright at times,
In fuffing cottage fires!
                                     The laddie still
Was seated on my knee, when at the door
We heard a scrape-scrape-scraping: Willie prick’d 
His ears and listen’d, then he clapt his hands— 
“Hey! Donald, Donald, Donald!” [See! the rogue
Looks up and blinks his eyes—he knows his name!]
“Hey, Donald, Donald!” Willie cried. At that
I saw beneath me, at the door, a Dog—
The very collie dozing at your feet,
His nose between his paws, his eyes half closed.
At sight of Willie, with a joyful bark
He leapt and gamboll’d, eyeing me the while
In queer suspicion; and the mannock peep’d
Into my face, while patting Donald’s back—
“It’s Donald! he has come to take me home!”

     So Willie came daily to school, and his little face blended with memories of the norland hills that the schoolmaster had left behind him in his childhood. He felt that his father and mother slept far away in some forgotten kirk,

                                         But at last,
When Willie Baird and I grew friends, and thoughts
Came to me from beyond my father’s grave,
I found ’twas pleasant late at e’en to read
My Bible—haply, only just to pick
Some easy chapter for my pet to learn—
Yet night by night my soul was guided on
Like a blind man some angel hand convoys.

     Willie asked his child’s questions:

He speir’d of death; and were the sleepers cold 
Down in the dark wet earth? and was it God
That put the grass and flowers in the kirk-yard?
What kind of dwelling-place was heaven above?
And was it full of flowers? and were there schools
And dominies there? and was it far away?
Then, with a look that made your eyes grow dim,
Clasping his wee white hands round Donald’s neck,
“Do doggies gang to heaven?” he would ask;
“Would Donald gang?” and keek’d in Donald’s face,
While Donald blink’d with meditative gaze,
As if he knew full brawly what we said,
And ponder’d o’er it, wiser far than we.
But how I answer’d, how explain’d these themes
I know not. Oft I could not speak at all.
Yet every question made me think of things
Forgotten, puzzled so, and when I strove
To reason puzzled me so much the more,
That, flinging logic to the winds, I went
Straight onward to the mark in Willie’s way,
Took most for granted, laid down premises
Of Faith, imagined, gave my wit the reins,
And oft on nights at e’en, to my surprise,
Felt palpably an angel’s glowing face
Glimmering down upon me, while mine eyes
Dimm’d their old orbs with tears that came unbid
To bear the glory of the light they saw.

     So summer pass’d. Yon chestnut at the door
Scatter’d its burnish’d leaves and made a sound
Of wind among its branches. Every day
Came Willie, seldom going home again
Till near the sunset: wet or dry he came:
Oft in the rainy weather carrying
A big umbrella, under which he walk’d—
A little fairy in a parachute,  
Blown hither, thither, at the wind’s wild will.
Pleased was my heart to see his pallid cheeks
Were gathering rosy-posies, that his eyes
Were softer and less sad. Then, with a gust,
Old Winter tumbled shrieking from the hills,
His white hair blowing in the wind.

     Winter did not keep Willie from the school:

                               The summer long
Wee Willie came and went across the fields:
He loved the smell of flowers and grass, the sight
Of cows and sheep, the changing stalks of wheat,
And he was weak and small. When winter came,
Still caring not a straw for wind or rain
Came Willie and the collie; till by night
Down fell the snow, and fell three nights and days,
Then ceased. The ground was white and ankle-deep;
The window of the school was threaded o’er
With flowers of hueless ice—Frost’s unseen hands
Prick’d you from head to foot with tingling heat; 
The shouting urchins, yonder on the green,
Play’d snowballs. In the school a cheery fire
Was kindled every day, and every day
When Willie came he had the warmest seat,
And every day old Donald, punctual, came
To join us, after labour, in the lowe.

     Three days and nights the snow had mistily fall’n. 
It lay long miles along the country-side,
White, awful, silent. In the keen cold air
There was a hush, a sleepless silentness,
And mid it all, upraising eyes, you felt
God’s breath upon your face; and in your blood,
Though you were cold to touch, was flaming fire,
Such as within the bowels of the earth
Burnt at the bones of ice, and wreath’d them round
With grass ungrown.
                                   One day in school I saw,
Through threaded window-panes, soft, snowy flakes 
Swim with unquiet motion, mistily, slowly,  
At intervals; but when the boys were gone,
And in ran Donald with a dripping nose,
The air was clear and grey as glass. An hour
Sat Willie, Donald, and myself around
The murmuring fire, and then with tender hand
I wrapt a comforter round Willie’s throat,
Button’d his coat around him close and warm,
And off he ran with Donald, happy-eyed
And merry, leaving fairy prints of feet
Behind him on the snow.

     Then came the storm, without:

The winter wind was whistling from the clouds
To lash the snow-clothed plain, and to myself
I prophesied a storm before the night.
Then with an icy pain, an eldritch gleam,
I thought of Willie; but I cheer’d my heart,
“He’s home, and with his mother, long ere this!”
While thus I stood the hollow murmur grew
Deeper, the wold grew darker, and the snow
Rush’d downward, whirling in a shadowy mist.
I walk’d to yonder door and open’d it.
Whirr! the wind swung it from me with a clang,
And in upon me with an iron-like crash  
Swoop’d in the drift. With pinch’d sharp face I gazed 
Out on the storm! Dark, dark was all! A mist, 
A blinding, whirling mist, of chilly snow,
The falling and the driven; for the wind
Swept round and round in clouds upon the earth,
And birm’d the deathly drift aloft with moans,
Till all was swooning darkness. Far above 
A voice was shrieking, like a human cry.

     He turned to the fire, where

                   Down the broad lum
Came melting flakes that hiss’d upon the coal,

and the smoke blinded him:

                                         But, hush!
Above the moaning of the wind I heard
A sudden scraping at the door; my heart
Stood still and listen’d; and with that there rose
An awsome howl, shrill as a dying screech,
And scrape-scrape-scrape, the sound beyond the door!
I could not think—I could not breathe—a dark,
Awful foreboding gript me like a hand,
As opening the door I gazed straight out,
Saw nothing, till I felt against my knees
Something that moved and heard a moaning sound—
Then, panting, moaning, o’er the threshold leapt
Donald the dog, alone, and white with snow.

     Down, Donald! down, old man! Sir, look at him!
I swear he knows the meaning of my words,
And tho’ he cannot speak, his heart is full!

See now! see now! he puts his cold black nose
Into my palm and whines! he knows, he knows!
Would speak, and cannot, but he minds that night!

     The terror of my heart seem’d choking me:
Dumbly I stared and wildly at the dog,
Who gazed into my face and whined and moan’d,
Leap’d at the door, then touched me with his paws,
And lastly, gript my coat between his teeth,
And pull’d and pull’d—whiles growling, whining whiles—
Till fairly madden’d, in bewilder’d fear,
I let him drag me through the banging door
Out to the whirling storm. Bareheaded, wild,
The wind and snow-drift beating on my face
Blowing me hither, thither, with the dog,
I dash’d along the road. What follow’d seem’d
An eerie, eerie dream!—a world of snow,
A sky of wind, a whirling howling mist
Which swam around with hundred sickly eyes;
And Donald dragging, dragging, beaten, bruised,
Leading me on to something that I fear’d—
An awful something, and I knew not what!
On, on, and farther on, and still the snow
Whirling, the tempest moaning! Then I mind
Of groping, groping in the shadowy light, 
And Donald by me burrowing with his nose
And whining. Next a darkness, blank and deep!
But then I mind of tearing thro’ the storm,
Stumbling and tripping, blind and deaf and dumb,
And holding to my heart an icy load
I clutch’d with freezing fingers.

     Thus Willie died:

     In death-gown white, lay Willie fast asleep,
His blue eyes closed, his tiny fingers clench’d,
His lips apart a wee as if he breathed,
His yellow hair kaim’d back, and on his face
A smile—yet not a smile—a dim pale light
Such as the Snow keeps in its own soft wings.
Ay, he had gone to sleep, and he was sound! 
And by the bed lay Donald watching still,
And when I look’d he whined, but did not move.

     The schoolmaster begged hard for Willie’s dog:

                                   They gave him me— 
And we have lived together in this house    
Long years with no companions. There’s no need
Of speech between us. Here we dumbly bide,  
But know each other’s sorrow,—and we both 
Feel weary. When the nights are long and cold,
And snow is falling as it falleth now,
And wintry winds are moaning, here I dream
Of Willie and the unfamiliar life
I left behind me on the norland hills!
“Do doggies gang to heaven?” Willie ask’d;
And ah! what Solomon of modern days
Can answer that? Yet here at nights I sit,
Reading the Book, with Donald at my side;
And stooping, with the Book upon my knee,
I sometimes gaze in Donald’s patient eyes—
So sad, so human, though he cannot speak—
And think he knows that Willie is at peace,
Far far away beyond the norland hills,
Beyond the silence of the untrodden snow.

     Although extracts cannot fully represent the pathos that depends in the poem itself on a succession of details, our free quotations from this poem may serve to show more fully and fairly than could be shown by mere description wherein lies Mr Robert Buchanan’s strength as a poet.
     In the next piece Lord Ronald, who is wise and would not be thought weak, mourns secretly through the night by the dead wife who loved him tenderly, but whose light grace of simple womanhood his gravity had weighed upon. He has hidden a white and a red rose under her shroud:

To-day they carried you from here,
And I followed your coffin with tearless cheek—
They knew not about the roses, dear!—
I would not have them think me weak.

     That God has chosen the simple things of this world to confound the wise is at the core of Mr Buchanan’s singing. His next poem, ‘Poet Andrew,’ is that in which, as we have said, his theme is his friend David Gray. The next is a fable of the war of cloistered and oppressive sanctity against the simple love of sunshine. Of the next poem, again pathetic, a half- witted man is the hero, not crazed, says Mr Mucklewraith, “Tender of heart, goodwife, is wise of head.” Then follows a fanciful song of the poor foster-mother, who pines to have her own child at her breast. In the next poem of “The Two Babes” the arrogance of formal sanctity, that can drive innocence to sin, the hardness of hypocrisy, the cruelty of lust, are conquered by the love that springs about a little child. It is a long poem with a well-told story and well-painted varieties of character. In a little melody of the “Green Gnome,” who became tall and comely when the maiden he kissed “named the blessed Name as in our need we can,” the allegory is obvious. “Hugh Sutherland’s Pansies” is the parson’s story of a sickly weaver, for whom “Heaven sent an angel down among the flowers,” but who fell from his duties when removed to town, brought suffering upon his wife, and, through neglect, saw his child die. But he returned to his old home and the angel of the flowers came back again.
     The only piece in the book not pathetic, is the story of the faithlessness of Widow Mysie, who jilted the son to marry the father and his gold, winning the old man as a nurse:

She made the very mustard blisters glow
With fire as soft as youthful lovers know,
The very physic bottles lost their gloom, 
And seem’d like little fairies in the room,
The very physic, charm’d by her, grew fine,
Rhubarb was honey, castor oil was wine.

     That is about the quality of its comic element, but it has many a turn of poetical expression to enliven it. Thus Mr Buchanan’s second book was even better than his first, and he had made his mark among the rising poets of the day.
     In his third book, which has recently appeared, he comes back from Inverburn to London and writes “London Poems.” In London he found the streets full of souls of men, and he had often sought, he says,

                                               To make
The busy life of London musical,
And phrase in modern song the troubled lives
Of dwellers in the sunless lanes and streets.
Yet ever I was haunted from afar,
While singing; and the presence of the mountains
Was on me; and the murmur of the sea
Deepen’d my mood; while everywhere I saw,
Flowing beneath the blackness of the streets,
The current of sublimer, sweeter life,
Which is the source of human smiles and tears,
And, melodised, becomes the strength of song.

     Darkling, I long’d for utterance, whereby
Poor people might be holpen, gladden’d, cheer’d;
Bright’ning at times, I sang for singing’s sake.
The wild wind of ambition grew subdued,
And left the changeful current of my soul
Crystal and pure and clear, to glass like water
The sad and beautiful of human life;
And, even in the unsung city’s streets,
Seem’d quiet wonders meet for serious song,
Truth hard to phrase and render musical.

     Then going to live at Bexhill, where there was open sunshine with the murmur of the sea, he bent to his purpose.

     And if I list to sing of sad things oft,
It is that sad things in this life of breath
Are truest, sweetest, deepest. Tears bring forth
The richness of our natures, as the rain
Sweetens the smelling brier; and I, thank God,
Have anguish’d here in no ignoble tears—
Tears for the pale friend with the singing lips,
Tears for the father with the gentle eyes
(My dearest up in heaven next to God)
Who loved me like a woman. I have wrought
No girlond of the rose and passion-flower,
Grown in a careful garden in the sun;
But I have gather’d samphire dizzily,
Close to the hollow roaring of a Sea.

     But this volume is of more unequal merit than its predecessor, and the London Poems, occasionally contributed by Mr Buchanan to the magazines,—there is one, only half good, in this month’s Argosy,—and likely to reappear in a future volume, or in future editions of this volume,—are by no means always satisfactory. The best in his new volume is, perhaps, that which stands first, ‘The Little Milliner,’ in which the poetry of a simple life, innocent and glad though it be with such town pleasures as the annual sight of the glories of a pantomime from where she

Feasted and wonder’d, laugh’d and clapp’d aloud,
Up in the gallery among the crowd,

is delicately connected with a little love story all homely purity. The next heroine, Liz, is a wretched costermonger’s wife, or no wife,

It sounds half wicked, but poor girls like me
Must sin a little to be good in aught,

who dies in child-birth faithful to her rough Joe, who is only wild in drink.

But then we don’t mind beating when a man
     Is angry, if he likes us and keeps straight,
Works for his bread, and does the best he can;—
     ’Tis being left and slighted that we hate.
         *          *         *          *
See! there’s the sunset creeping through the pane—
How cool and moist it looks amid the rain!
I like to hear the splashing of the drops
On the house tops,
And the loud humming of the folk that go
Along the streets below!
I like the smoke and roar—I am so bad—
     They make a low one hard, and still her cares.
     There’s Joe! I hear his foot upon the stairs!—
He must be wet, poor lad!
He will be angry, like enough, to find
     Another little life to clothe and keep.
But show him baby, Parson—speak him kind—
     And tell him Doctor thinks I’m going to sleep.
A hard, hard life is his! He need be strong
And rough, to earn his bread and get along.
I think he will be sorry when I go,
     And leave the little one and him behind;
     I hope he’ll see another to his mind,
To keep him straight and tidy. Poor old Joe!

     In “Jane Lewson” Mr Buchanan repeats, with new characters, the sentiment of his ‘Two Babes’ in the ‘Idyls of Inverburn.’ Now it is by the hard self-righteousness of two maiden sisters instead of by that of a Scotch farmer who makes for his child a gloomy home, that a girl is driven astray. But the betrayal here is by a canting hypocrite, in whom there is no repentance, and the pathos arises from the fallen sister’s struggle of a life to comply with the bidding of her sisters and live with them, rearing her own child as if she were not its mother, stifling every utterance of nature. “Edward Crowhurst, or A new Poet,” is a long poem, probably based on the life of Clare, of a labourer and poet who has become insane through the temptations, flatteries, and neglects of the world, to which his genius exposed him. Another poem speaks the tender love of a wife whose husband has been hanged for stabbing another man in drink.
     We need specify no more. Mr Buchanan sings of life, as a poet should. For him “life is real, life is earnest;” he dwells on its temptations and its sorrows; he has a true playfulness that is akin to simple tenderness, and, through his sympathy with men, a pleasant sense of character, though little or none of the dramatic genius which would enable him to lose himself in any character through which he speaks. Considering how much of his career lies yet before him, we prophesy nothing, but await with interest what evidence we may find in future works of the enlargement of his powers. He says that the ‘London Poems’ form the last of his volumes of probation. His next work is already announced with the unpromising title of ‘The Poet: an Essay, a Criticism, and a Biography.’ Wordsworth was a great leader in days of Poetry Reform, and as a reformer had to explain and battle for his principles. In him there was a sound reason for what would now be simple egotism. A young poet nowadays should use his art and not talk about it. The less he talks of Poetry and Poets, the less he publishes his admiration for the farseeing wisdom of those who have admired himself,—in short, the more simply, quietly, and modestly he does his work, the more effectually will his work be done.
     We should not call any one “knave” or “fool” even for doubting Mr Buchanan’s genius, and we would hint to Mr Buchanan that still less should any one be so called for believing that a very favourable critic of it can fall short of critical perfection.


     * Undertones.  By Robert Buchanan.  Moxon and Co.
       Idyls and Legends of Inverburn.  By Robert Buchanan.  Strahan.
       London Poems.  By Robert Buchanan.  Strahan.



The Contemporary Review (October, 1866 - Vol. III, p. 240-246)

III.—ROBERT BUCHANAN’S POEMS.—Undertones. Second Edition. 1865.—Idyls and Legends of
. Second Edition. 1866. London Poems. 1866. London: Strahan.

     A capital text for a critique on Mr. Buchanan’s poems may be found in an amusingly stupid notice in a paper called The Press, inserted, naïvely enough, among the “testimonies” at the end of these volumes:—
“In the monotonous dulness of his blank verse there is nothing noticeable, except occasionally a most unpoetic vulgarity. But when he comes to rhyme, Mr. Buchanan is infinitely silly, without the excuse of being musical.”
     We are happy to say that this dullard stands almost alone. The acknowledgment of Mr. Buchanan’s genius has been all but universal. But what he says,—worthy of the distinguished critic who pronounced “In Memoriam” to be “the feeble tribute of a sentimental wife to her apparently commonplace husband,”—has managed just to hit the very opposites of Mr. Buchanan’s characteristics both in blank verse and in rhyme. There is much variety of modulation in his blank verse, and a pathetic power, to which the verse of some whom he has made his models is a stranger. He began, in his “Undertones,” by lavish imitations of Keats: or perhaps we ought rather to say, he threw himself into that peculiar mythological mood of which Keats had set the example: for there is no servile imitation, but evidently continual remembrance. In the spirited prologue “To David in Heaven,” he ranges Keats with Milton, who, however, has had less share in moulding his verse. One specimen only shall be given of this period of his poetry: one which will show alike the beauties and the defects of his versification and imagery. Pygmalion speaks:—

     “As Ocean murmurs when the storm is past
And keeps the echoed thunders many days,
My solitude was troublous for a time:
Wherefore I should have harden’d; but the clay
Grew to my touch, and brighten’d, and assumed
Fantastic images of natural things,
Which, melting as the fleecy vapours melt
Around the shining cestus of the moon,
Made promise of the special shape I loved.
Withdrawing back, I gazed. The unshaped stone
Took outline in the dusk, as rocks unhewn
Seen from afar thro’ floating mountain mists
Gather strange forms and human lineaments.
And thus mine eye was filled with what I sought
As with a naked image, thus I grew
Self-credulous of the form the stone would wear,
And creeping close I strove to fashion clay
After the vision. Day and night, I drew
New comfort from my grief; my tears became
As honey’d rain that makes the woodbine sweet,
Until my task assumed a precious strength
Wherewith I fortified mine inner ear
Against the pleadings of the popular tongue
That babbled at my door; and when there dawn’d
A hand as pure as milk and cold as snow,
A small white hand, a little lady hand,
That peep’d out perfect from the changing mass,
And seem’d a portion of some perfect shape
Unfreed, imprison’d in the stone,—I wept
Warm tears of utter joy, and kiss’d the hand,
As sweet girl-mothers kiss the newly-born,
Weak as a mother. Then I heard no more
The murmurous swarm beneath me, women and men;
But, hoarded in my toil, I counted not
The coming and the going of the sun:
Save when I swoon’d to sleep before the stone,
And dream’d, and dreaming saw the perfect shape
Emblazon’d, like the rainbow in a stream,
On the transparent tapestry of sleep.”—(Pp. 170-2.)

     Mr. Buchanan’s first published volume is almost wholly of this kind: mostly lyrical, but all given to the mythological and ideal. His lyrical pieces are very unequal. Sometimes we have melody worthy of Keats or of Tennyson; and then all is marred by roughness and incongruity, which makes us wonder that the same hand could have been guilty of it. The best piece in the book, to our mind, is “Iris the Rainbow.” We give just a taste of it:—

“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 glittering 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.”
                                       —(Pp. 93-4.)

But it is not in this material that Mr. Buchanan’s power is greatest. It may be well that he should not abandon it altogether. Its rich luscious character may be reflected sometimes with advantage on his more homely strains, and the higher descriptions of human feeling may gain by being blended with similitudes and reminiscences from his old mythological studies. We see that he still lingers about “Olumpos” (as he rather unfortunately calls it); for we have at the very end of his last volume, “London Poems,” one in the old strain entitled “The Gift of Eos;” and we are pleased to see that, while it must be confessed that in some passages of it his fault of metrical harshness almost culminates, it shews in other parts considerable advances, both in sweetness and in power. Witness the speech of Tithonos:—

“Ye brighten, O ye columns round about!
     Ye melt in purple shades, arches and towers!
Cloud-roof, thou partest, and white hands slip out,
     Scattering pearls and flowers!
Brighter and brighter, blazing red and gold,
     Purple and amethyst, that float and fly!—
While, creeping in, a dawn-wind fresh and cold
     Pours silver o’er the couch whereon I lie!
Afar the coming of Apollo grows!
     His breath lifts up my hair! my pulses beat!
     My beard is moist with dews divinely sweet,
My lap is fill’d with sparkling leaves of rose,
Wherein my fingers, witherèd and sere,
Grope palsiedly in joy!—Afar I hear
The low, quick breathing that the earth is making—
Eastward she turns her dewy side, awaking.
But thou! but thou!
     Insufferably brightening!
Thy feet yet bathed in moist still shade, thy brow
     Glistening and lightening,
Thy luminous eyes enlarging, ring on ring 
     Of liquid azure, and thy golden hair
Unfolding downward, curl on curl, to cling
     Around thy silken feet rose-tipt and bare! 
Thy hands stretch’d out to catch the flowers down-flowing,
     Thy blushing look on mine, thy light green vest
In balmy airs of morning backward blowing
     From one divine white breast!
The last star melts above thee in the blue,
     The cold moon shrinks her horn, as thou dost go
Parnassos-ward, flower-laden, dripping dew,
     Heralding him who cometh from below!”—(Pp. 268-9.)

     We now pass to Mr. Buchanan’s “Idyls,” of which the greater part of his two more recent volumes is made up. This kind of poem, latent in the episodes of larger poems from the first, was brought out into separate being in modern English poesy by Wordsworth and Southey, and burnished into beauty by Tennyson, whose “Dora” is the prototype of many and many an imitation. The vein is immensely rich, ranging from the dark hue of weird gloom, through the various tender tints of sadness, and brightening pathos, even to the cheeriest sparkling ore of comic, and festive, and bacchanalian moods. Our English and American poets are working it well: perhaps rather overworking it, as is natural. But none, with the exception of one or two great masters of the art, at their very best time, have brought out a better sample than Mr. Buchanan.
     Perhaps the very best in the two volumes is the first; the touching story of “Willie Baird.” The old schoolmaster of Inverburn tells how the “tiny, trembling tot, with yellow hair,” sent to his school one day, won the way to his heart, and brought back upon him former and better thoughts, causing him to “read his Bible more, and Euclid less:” how Willie, and Donald his dog, came day by day across the fields all the summer, and into the winter. What follows, we can hardly forbear giving our readers; but it is difficult to break out a piece from so pure and perfect a work.

                                   “One day in school I saw,
Through threaded window-panes, soft, snowy flakes 
Swim with unquiet motion, mistily, slowly,
At intervals; but when the boys were gone,
And in ran Donald with a dripping nose,
The air was clear and grey as glass. An hour
Sat Willie, Donald, and myself around
The murmuring fire, and then with tender hand
I wrapt a comforter round Willie’s throat,
Button’d his coat around him close and warm,
And off he ran with Donald, happy-eyed
And merry, leaving fairy prints of feet
Behind him on the snow. I watch’d them fade
Round the white curve, and, turning with a sigh,
Came in to sort the room and smoke a pipe
Before the fire. Here, dreamingly and alone,
I sat and smoked, and in the fire saw clear
The norland mountains, white and cold with snow
That crumbled silently, and moved, and changed,—
When suddenly the air grew sick and dark,
And from the distance came a hollow sound,
A murmur like the moan of far-off seas.”—(Pp. 15-16.)

     The sequel must be told in a few words. Dark fears cross the mind of the loving dominie. At last,—

                                               “But, hush!
Above the moaning of the wind I heard
A sudden scraping at the door; my heart
Stood still and listen’d; and with that there rose
An awsome howl, shrill as a dying screech,
And scrape-scrape-scrape, the sound beyond the door!
I could not think—I could not breathe—a dark,
Awful foreboding gript me like a hand,
As opening the door I gazed straight out,
Saw nothing, till I felt against my knees
Something that moved, and heard a moaning sound—
Then, panting, moaning, o’er the threshold leapt
Donald the dog, alone, and white with snow.

     “Down, Donald! down, old man!—Sir, look at him!
I swear he knows the meaning of my words,
And though he cannot speak, his heart is full!
See now! see now! he puts his cold black nose
Into my palm and whines! he knows, he knows!
Would speak, and cannot, but he minds that night!”—(Pp. 17-18.)

     The rest may be surmised: we unwillingly abstain from quoting the beautiful lines in which it is told.
     This one extract must suffice for a specimen of Mr. Buchanan’s idyls. But our readers must not imagine that they are all in the pathetic strain. Some indeed we have, which may vies with “Willie Baird” in its own kind. We would instance “Poet Andrew,” and “The Two Babes,” and “Hugh Sutherland’s Pansies;” and in his later volume, “The Scaith o’   Bartle.” But we have also some of a cheery aspect, “The Little Milliner” being the gem: some also of a satirical turn, as “Attorney Sneak.”
     We must not conclude our notice of Mr. Buchanan, without saying something of his power in the “eerie” world of legend, and the land of fancy. The “Legends” are interspersed among the idyls in his second volume. We suppose these legends were referred to by the wiseacre in The Press, when he said, “When he comes to rhyme, Mr. Buchanan is infinitely silly, without the excuse of being musical.” To us, they seem capital samples of the fairy ballad, such as nurses might sing to their children, or one might tell to another in the great chimney-corner, when Christmas winds are screaming angrily without.
     There is one poem in the last volume differing in character from any that we have noticed: “The Death of Roland.” There seems to us to be in this poem a wonderful power of catching the spirit of the sad and dreary scene, and of putting on the very dream itself of old chivalry: a power which is notably seen in the “Idyls of the King,” and especially in the magnificent closing poem of that series. But Tennyson himself could not more terribly, and at the same time more gently, have prepared the way for the mood which finds its utterance in the last plaintive line—

“Roland is dead, the gentle knight! dead is the crown of men!”

     We have spoken plainly and heartily of Mr. Buchanan. We hope to have to say of him higher things yet in the same strain. He stands out eminent from among the names now before us, a true poet; of considerable, and we would fain  think, waxing power. He will excuse us for giving him one piece of friendly counsel. Let him carefully cultivate his versification, and attend to it more than he ever has yet done. It is not his best point; but with care, it might become worthy of him. Let him look at the magnificent organ which is wielded by Tennyson. Let him observe how in him, whenever there is a failing cadence, it is because the poet is sounding deeper melodies than the ear at first expected: how there is no accidental roughness, no neglect of the accent which the ear expects, but rather a satisfying, and educating the ear. Let Mr. Buchanan aim at the same carefulness and the same faultlessness, and we are not afraid that he will fail.*


     * We cannot forbear, while treating of Mr. Buchanan, giving a “deliverance” respecting his recent article in the Fortnightly Review on “Literary Immorality.” In maintaining that a literary work, which deals with things immoral, is or is not immoral itself, according as the writer is or is not sincere, he seems to us to have gone but half way in describing what is after all only part of the matter in consideration. Far better the writer of the critique in the Spectator on his article, who makes the distinction to lie between work which is created purely by the imagination, and that in which individual evil, or sensual tendencies, are allowed to break through the artistic veil of fiction. But even thus we have, as we hinted above, advanced but part of the way. The immorality of literature depends not wholly on the writer, but also somewhat on the readers: and by this latter consideration—who are the readers?—an author’s responsibility must in some sort be judged. On the one hand, coarse writers in a coarse age might be esteemed pure in comparison with others far surpassing them; but the same would be unquestionably immoral in tendency in a purer age: and on the other hand, descriptions and allusions might fall harmless on the ear of an age of healthy moral tone, which would be mischievous under less favourable circumstances. And what is true of different ages is true also of different classes of readers. Such considerations obviously make literary immorality a relative question, and one of much complication and difficulty. The clue to the various entanglements which beset it undoubtedly is, that a good artist must be a good man. All that such an one describes, be it ever so unconventional, will escape being immoral, by the goodness of the artist. But this amounts to a “counsel of perfection:” and, considering that all artists, and all men, are not “good,” but “more or less good,” it leaves the question much where it was before.

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