ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)
BOOK REVIEWS - POETRY (9)
North Coast and Other Poems (1867)
The Standard (22 December, 1866 - p.3)
BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS.—No. IV.
A right noble book, like the four last named from the firm of Messrs. Routledge, is Ballad Stories of the Affections, from the Scandinavian, by Mr. Robert Buchanan. A true poet, though not such a poet as his more enthusiastic admirers hold him—he has yet to work hard—Mr. Buchanan beautifies all that he touches upon in verse. Here are subjects which test the ring of the metal whereof he is made, and the sound comes out sharp and clear. They of the ice-ribbed North in olden time were a hardy and rugged race, but they were a hearty people too, and from their hearts came many a spark of true love when the saga writers struck with the steel of their genius. Mr. Buchanan echoes their whole tone in these pages. No other poet of the day, perhaps, could have done it so well; and we regret that in such brief space as we can here afford it is impossible to do full justice to his remarkable success. He has power and tenderness and truth in his mind; he brings them all out in these pages, which are very well and copiously illustrated by Pinwell, Houghton, J. D. Watson, and others, whose drawings are very well presented by Messrs. Dalziel.
Illustrated Times (22 December, 1866)
ROUTLEDGE AND SONS’ ELEGANT GIFT-BOOKS.
Ballad Stories of the Affections. From the Scandinavian. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. With Illustrations by G. J. Pinwell, E. Dalziel, W. Small, T. Dalziel, J. D. Watson, A. B. Houghton, and J. Lawson.
This handsome volume has reached us far too late for the examination which should precede criticism; but Mr. Buchanan’s name will go much farther than any opinion we could give. The illustrations have been done with great care. Some are most admirable, and all of them are good. But, alas! here is Mr. Pinwell again, with his “human face” hideous. We could not at first remember where we had seen the faces recalled to our memory by the drawing at page 109; but at last we recollected—it was at an infirmary; there were some scrofulous women waiting their turn. The artist has hit them off to a horror. We do assure Mr. Pinwell that his “Maid Mettelil,” at page 47, makes us shiver. Look at her elbows and her jaw! We seem to feel the edge of her collarbone as we look at this miserable starveling of a woman. Does the artist say we have no business to think of such things? We beg his pardon. He has no business to make us think of such things. The fact is, it is very easy to make either a pretty face and form or an ugly face and form; and very hard to make them of a truly natural type. Yet this medium course is the only tolerable one; the majority even of quite ordinary faces are so much handsomer than Mr. Pinwell’s that we cannot imagine where he gets his from. Nor, if they were exact copies of ordinary faces, would it mend his case; for as the artist cannot possibly give us that beauty of life which belongs even to a plain face, he is bound to give us the outlines at their best. These figures will haunt our dreams, like cripples or leprous beggars. It is a vast pity these things should be so, for Mr. Pinwell has great power, and devotes much study to truth of accessory, and indeed, truth in general. Add to which, he is one of the few artists for the wood-block who seem to know what the special function of wood-engraving is, and sticks faithfully to that function. We hope he will soon get over this mania of ugliness, and do justice to his own fine faculties. In the meanwhile we do beg him to believe that, while we like realism both in picture and song, we at present turn to—and, alas! from—many of his drawings with a thrill of repulsion. Unluckily, the very merits of his work as wood-engravings, including his great decision of outline, make his mannerism of ugliness all the more glaring.
The Illustrated London News (29 December, 1866 - p.10-11)
The book of translations from the old Danish and Norwegian ballad-literature, for which we are indebted also to Mr. Buchanan, is worthy to be classed with Mr. Tom Taylor’s volume of specimens of the ballads of Brittany, published a year or two since. Both are deserving of study for the light they may throw upon the mental and moral characteristics of the ancient races, Teutonic in Northern Europe and Celtic in the West, to which they respectively belong. And both, in our judgment, may be regarded as instructive examples of that genuine and spontaneous popular poetry which has never failed to spring up in the heart of every nation at a certain stage of its social existence, when the lawless turbulence and the benighted superstition of the age of barbarism, having but recently departed, have left a deep impression on the intellectual habits and sentiments of the people. At such a period the mythical legends of extraordinary personal prowess or heroism, and of dæmonic influence or fate, with irresistible force disposing of the common herd of mankind, are sure to take this shape. As Mr. Buchanan remarks of his Scandinavian ballads, “In the region to which we are here introduced, everything we see is colossal, things as well as men being fashioned on a mighty scale; the adventurous nature burns fierce as fire, lives fall thickly as leaves in the autumn wind, and the heroes sweep hither and thither, strong as the sword-blow, bright as the sword-flash. Two powers exist—physical strength and the command of the supernatural. Again and again, however, we leave the battle-field, and come upon places of nestling green, where dwell those gentler emotions which belong to all time, and are universal; we have love-making, ploughing and tilling, drinking and singing. At every step we meet a beautiful maiden, frequently unfortunate, generally in love, and invariably with golden hair.” This extract from Mr. Buchanan’s thoughtful preface is enough to show the general character of the interesting collection he has translated for our reading. He has added several pieces by the modern writers, Oehlenschläger, Möller, Claudius Rosenhoff, and others, which seem like commonplace imitations or feeble echoes of poetry, compared with the vivid freshness and energy of the antique legends; the introductory poem, however, by F. L. Hoedt, is a graceful and appropriate commentary on the poetical associations of the Past. There are sixteen or seventeen distinct stories—for every one of the old poems is a story—from that of Signelil, or Little Signe, the Queen’s handmaiden, beloved of the Queen’s son, to that of Signe, another young woman of the same name, who was poisoned by her royal mistress for dancing with the King and his merry men at a late hour in the evening after the Queen had gone to bed. “Axel and Walborg,” the sad tale of two lovers who were first cousins, forbidden to marry by the priests on account of their consanguinity, but really sacrificed to a court intrigue, is of great value, as Mr. Buchanan observes, for its representation of ancient manners and customs, as well as for its indirect protest against the abuse of ecclesiastical authority; but we find it much too lengthy. “Cloister Robbing,” and “The Lover’s Stratagem,” both which turn upon the successful abduction of a girl who was to have been made a nun, bear witness to the same Protestant spirit. “The Two Sisters,” in which a couple of girls put on the armour and take the swords of men to avenge the wrongs of their family upon a cruel and licentious baron, is a stern outbreak of indignation against the feudal tyrants of the age; while “The Bonnie Groom,” and “Little Christina’s Dance,” express the conflicting claims of true love and conventional difference of rank; in the one case, a lady being won in play by a groom who is a prince in disguise; in the other case, a maiden being wedded to a sailor, who afterwards turns out to be the king. Then we have “Sir Morten of Fogelsang,” the dead man, who cannot rest in his grave because he defrauded the children intrusted to his care, and who bids his wife look at midnight to see if his shoes be not full of blood. One of the pleasanter tales is that of the impudent little gnome or earth-fairy, who came to a peasant’s house, and insisted on carrying off his wife; but, on her invoking the name of Jesus, was changed into a noble and gallant knight, who became the husband of her daughter instead. The story of Ebbe Skammelson is a gloomy one of treachery and dire revenge. In his absence at the Emperor’s court, in Germany, his brother, Peter Skammelson, with the connivance of his mother, persuades Adelaide, who was betrothed to Ebbe, to become Peter’s bride. This is the scene represented in the illustration, designed by Mr. J. D. Watson, which we have borrowed. The other artists employed on the volume are Messrs. G. J. Pinwell, A. B. Houghton, E. Dalziel, T. Dalziel, W. Small, and J. Lawson; the engravers being the Brothers Dalziel. Some of the designs, particularly that of the Gnome’s astonishing the peasant family, by Mr. E. Dalziel, that of Sir Tonne’s meeting with the Elf-King, by Mr. Houghton, and other groups of figures, are of the best we have seen in any illustrated books of this season; but we cannot say much for the rendering of the clouds, sea-waves, and atmospheric phenomena in some of the other engravings, which have a harsh, obscure, and heavy effect.
The Daily News (15 January, 1867)
Ballad Stories of the Affections. From the Scandinavian. By ROBERT BUCHANAN, author of “London Poems,” “Idylls of Inverburn,” &c. With illustrations by eminent artists, engraved by the Brothers Dalziel. London: Routledge and Sons.
Most Scotchmen have a marked affinity with the old Scandinavian genius. The Norse blood yet beats strongly in their hearts, modifies their characters, and directs their tastes. We in the south, have certainly as large a share of Danish and Norwegian pedigree as our neighbours across the Tweed; but it has been qualified in a greater degree by an older civilization, by closer contact with the central nations of Europe, by a softer climate and more luxuriant vegetation, and by the traditions of the Roman occupation of this part of the island, extending over a period of about four hundred years. Scotland has been left to the undivided influence of the Celt and the Scandinavian; and the modern Scotchman is very much one or the other, according as he comes from the Highlands or the Lowlands. The old Scotch ballads, which originated and were brought to perfection in the border country, or not far beyond it, partook largely of the Norse element, and modern Scotch poetry has a good deal of the same character. It is lyrical, passionate, picturesque, strong even to violence, and dealing rather with the simple elements of emotion than with the complexities of character. Mr. Buchanan himself has shown mist of these tendencies in his original poems. He has the northern gloom and ruggedness, the northern love of wild and supernatural subjects, side by side with something prosaic and literal, almost to the forbidding. His mind has, therefore, been naturally attracted by the old legends and ballads of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, and it may be taken for granted that he has translated the present work con amore. He regrets he has not been at liberty to render his originals in “broad old Scotch, the only really fitting equivalent for old Danish;” but he feared to bewilder English readers, and has therefore only introduced Scotch words occasionally, and merely such as are familiar to most readers, even in the south. The poems with which he has here presented us are for the most part antique, and of unknown authorship; but a few are from modern writers of name and fame, such as Oehlenschlager. Many of the former exhibit great power, and bear unmistakable marks of their Scandinavian parentage. Love, sorrow, jealousy, revenge—the tumult of battle, and the quiet of the mossy churchyard—coarse northern revelry, and ghastly doings of spectre, and troll and dwarf, and merman—such are the threads, whether gloomy or bright, but more often the former than the latter, of which these ballad tales are woven. We cannot deny that there is a sameness in them. The motives of the characters, moreover, are sometimes so different from those of modern men and women as to be removed beyond the pale of our sympathies; and the savage ways of the wild, ice-bound people are not in themselves attractive. But the stories form a good addition to our ballad literature, and it would not be surprising if some of them were to get into general circulation, as legends of the nursery and of the juvenile library. Some of the modern poems—such as “The Lead-melting” of Claudius Rosenhoff—ought not to have been included in the volume, because they are quite distinct in spirit from the ancient ballads, and are not “stories” at all, but sentiments. Occasionally, even in the veritable old ballads, Mr. Buchanan, if we mistake not, has wandered by inadvertence into the modern manner; as in “Axeland Walborg,” where we find this stanza descriptive of the education of a young girl:
She turns into a maiden fair,
This is very beautiful; but it is so much in the conscious, analytical, meditative, or purely literary spirit of modern times that we suspect it to be an interpolation by Mr. Buchanan himself. Generally, however, the tone is mediæval and the imitation good, though, of course, not without the drawback that it is an imitation, and nothing more.
Illustrated Times (26 October, 1867)
THE LITERARY LOUNGER.
Your readers may be glad to hear, Mr. Editor, not only that there is the usual activity going on in the matter of Christmas annuals just now, but that they may expect one or two things entirely new, and of unusual merit. The old nonsense—the Boar’s Heads and Holly, turned up with cant—was kicked out some time ago; but the real, good new thing to take its place, we have not yet seen. Let us live in hope, however. “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and
The Spectator (26 October, 1867 - p.17-18)
MR. BUCHANAN’S NEW POEMS.*
THIS book by its ornamental appearance, excellent engravings, and somewhat premature birth—it is dated 1868—would seem to be one of the candidates for the favour of Christmas and New Year givers of gifts. It is, however, something much more than this, a book full of genius of no mean order; and, good as the engravings are,—some of them are really of striking excellence,—we cannot help regretting that it has appeared for the first time in a form in which the lovers of poetry for its own sake will never like to keep it. In the first place, illustrations and gift-book paper make it heavy, and a book that men are to love should be light and easily held in the hand. Then the show and glitter of the pictorial art and its belongings distract the mind from the field of true poetry. Illustrations of poetry should, we hold, be published separately, and not interleaved with the verses they illustrate. Painting and poetry are so distinct that the state of mind in which you study the poet will scarcely mingle at all with the state of mind in which you study the painter. We do not even want to see with anything but “the mind’s eye,” Mephistopheles and Faust riding their black horses past the swinging gallows on the barren heath at the same time at which we read Goethe’s eerie scene between them as they dimly hurry past. The poetic continuity of the poem is broken by the pictorial study, not intensified. But whether illustrations should be put beside the poetry they illustrate or not, they should at least be delayed till the poetic beauty of a work of genius has been separately apprehended and mastered. No true lover of poetry ever kept the poets he loved in an illustrated edition for familiar use, and yet he loves to keep for familiar use the very edition in which he first made acquaintance with a new and fine poem. Illustrated and gorgeously got up poems are for drawing-room tables (if for any place), not for the shelf where we store the links of our truest intellectual delights.
“Lord, with how small a thing
“And even when Thou bringest to our eyes
“And often one poor light that looks divine
“In poverty, in pain,
This is poetry of no common order, and yet it is far finer—as it ought to be—in the context of this most powerful lyrical tale, than it can appear as we extract it. It needs the picture of Meg Blane’s hard sea-wife’s courage before the blow,— of her longing, and hopeful longing, to see the father of her witless son once more, and to be remembered and owned by him,—of the keenness of the first blow, and the wearing off of the first pain, to give this delineation of her lapse into weakness and apathy its full meaning and power. We must quote also the verses in which Meg expresses to her idiot son her fears for him when she is gone. There are few verses of truer pathos in the poetry of this generation:—
“‘O bairn, when I am dead,
‘O bairn, by night or day
“‘O bairn, it is but closing up the een,
The “Ballad Singer” is a poem of less power and of less depth of conception, but of exquisite pathos in the same vein of feeling, but we must pass it by. “Northern Wooing,” a Hallowe’en story, is a much lighter piece, exceedingly graceful in its own fashion,—that of a homely idyl of Scotch life. It is light and true, and full of living pictures. Of the lyrical narratives, “The Exiles of Oona” and the “Ballad of the Stork” are the only ones which have not, as far as we can see, any great power or merit. The Scottish and English Eclogues are perfect after their kind, which is no common kind;—the only defect in either of them being that the noble verse in the “English Eclogue” in which the English rustic criticizes the poor dead Methodist’s religious fanaticism, is all but dramatically impossible in that rustic’s mouth. It is the poet’s own criticism, and not Timothy’s. Holy Tommy was an English farm labourer whose head was turned by Methodism, who lost his expertness as a labourer in dreaming of his faith, and after leaving his employment mooned himself to death with fretting over the enigma which lost him this world and did not seem to open to him the next. His fate is the subject of a discussion between two farmers, and this is the concluding judgment of one of them:—
“His head was gone, that’s clear enough—the chapel set it turning.
“Now, this is how I look at it, although I have no learning:
Those first lines can’t be dramatic. Mr. Buchanan, and not Timothy, thought,
“He went close to the edge o’ life and heard a roar like water.”
But the lines are exceedingly fine, and the one which compares Tommy’s loss of living power in consequence, to the loss of fragrance which violets suffer near the sea is one of the finest images in modern poetry.
“And, behold! I saw a woman in a mud-hut,
“And her mouth was very bitter with the ashes;
“And all around the voiceless hills were hoary,
“‘Whither, and, oh, whither,’ said the woman,
“‘For, lo! we wandered forth at early morning,
“‘Looked violets at the violets, and their hair
“‘And suddenly my little son looked upward,
“‘And my little son was gone. My little daughter
“‘By the sign He gives the stricken that the lost one
“‘And my shriek was like the splitting of an ice-reef,
“‘Then I fled and sought him wildly hither—thither—
“‘I sought him in the sunlight and the starlight,
‘And I forgot my little bright-haired daughter,
“‘And stilly, in the starlight, came I backward
“‘And saw two little shoes filled up with dew,
The anguish of desolation expressed in the last verse seems to us in the highest style of the mystic school. Perhaps, logically speaking, there should be no earthly trace of the lost, not even the “two little shoes filled up with dew,” to take the place of the mortal body. But the emotion which this one pathetic vestige of the child’s earthly life excites heightens the whole art of the poem, by bridging, as it were, the transition between the absolute loss of all trace of the body, and the schooling through which the heart goes in death as we know it.
“The man’s heart hungered out unto the stained,”
which fret and repel the reader. But we know but few poets so free from mannerisms of this class. We do not doubt that this book will greatly raise Mr. Buchanan’s reputation as an original poet of high imaginative power and a singularly pure art.
* North Coast, and other Poems. By Robert Buchanan. With Illustrations by the Messrs. Dalziel, Wolf, Houghton, Pinwell, Zwecker, and Small. Engraved by the Brothers Dalziel. London: Routledge. 1868.
Notes and Queries (Vol. 12 3rd S. (305) 2 November, 1867 - p.365)
The North Coast, and other Poems, by Robert Buchanan. With Illustrations by Wolf, Dalziel, Houghton, Pinwell, Zwecker, Small, and E. Dalziel. Engraved by the Brothers Dalziel. (Routledge).
The first Christmas book which has reached us has, in addition to its beauty, a strong claim on our attention from the novelty of its character. Instead of seeking to win public favour by reproducing, with all the luxury of type and paper and corresponding artistic embellishment, some well-established masterpiece of English Poetry, or an anthology contributed by the popular writers of the day, Messrs. Routledge have found, in a collection of original poems by Mr. Buchanan, an admirable Christmas Book. Mr. Buchanan is a true Poet. Gifted with deep sympathy for human sufferings and human trials, a deep sense of the pathetic, and great dramatic power, his thoughts find utterance in verses of great melody. These Poems will, we think, add to Mr. Buchanan’s reputation; and admirable as are the numerous illustrations with which the volume is enriched, the Poems themselves will, we are sure, prove the most attractive portion of this very handsome volume.
The Examiner (9 November, 1867)
The first drops have fallen of the coming shower of Christmas books. Messrs Routledge were first in the field, with the best we have yet seen, a volume of poetry by Mr Robert Buchanan, ‘North Coast and other Poems’, all new but a piece or two, and some of it up to the highest mark reached in his former books. The illustrations to this volume are free from the defects—or the merits which we look on as defects—that have characterized some of the Christmas books upon which Messrs Dalziel have spent their best work in former years. There is no wilful ugliness or obtrusive pre-Raphaelitism. The illustrations to ‘Meg Blane,’ by Messrs T. Dalziel and A. B. Houghton, are very true, and Mr Houghton’s contain much of the pathos of the story. Mr. T. Dalziel is a liberal contributor of illustrations; we do not think we have ever before seen so much of his good work in one volume, and admired it so thoroughly. Mr Houghton has been his chief collaborator, but there are six pictures by Mr G. J. Pinwell; three, two of deer, and one a moorhen among sedge, by Mr Wolf, prince of book illustrators when the question if of bird or beast, and a good reindeer picture by Mr Zwecker. Add two pictures by Mr W. Small, and the catalogue is complete of artists who have embellished this beautiful Christmas book with pictures worthy of good verse.
Glasgow Herald (30 November, 1867 - p.2)
NORTH COAST, AND OTHER POEMS. By Robert Buchanan. With illustrations. London: George Routledge & Sons. 1868.
THIS is, in every respect, a handsome volume. The binding is gorgeous, in blue and gold, the paper is thick as vellum and fine as satin, while the typography is exquisite. The illustrations, which are 53 in number, would, we daresay, have carried off the book at this season without any further attractions. They are all remarkably well designed and engraved and some of them have more than ordinary merit. But there are other merits besides the illustrations and the ornamental style of get-up in the volume. Some of the poems are quite equal to anything that Mr Buchanan has yet produced; and the chief piece, “Meg Blane,” is a poem of the truest and most profound pathos. We do not know that it is matched by any of the fine poetic sketches which the author gave us some time ago in the “Idylls and Legends of Inverburn.” Meg Blane is a fisher-woman, and is thus pourtrayed:—
“Not old in years, though youth had passed away,
This woman was no slight and tear-strong thing,
This is an unpromising Amazonian to make a heroine out of; and yet Mr Buchanan manages it with exquisite skill, and with a slight story. Meg has a half-witted son, grown to manhood, whom she supports by her own hard industry, and during all her weary life has cherished the hope that the Father will return. One wild night in summer the cry rises that a ship is wrecked, and Meg Blane is the first to start for the rescue, and the first to take her seat in the boat to reach the jeopardised crew. The out-look upon the sea and the wrecking vessel is powerfully described:—
“Black was the oozy lift,
Only one of the crew was saved, and that one was the father of Meg’s witless son. Meg recognises him; but after an interview, which is delicately described, she returns to her sea-side hut, her one hope for ever crushed and broken. She becomes feeble and unable longer to battle with the stout waves, and is forced to pick up a melancholy subsistence for herself and her son the best way she can. Thus years pass, the mother and son clinging closer together, till at length death interferes to separate the two. Nothing could be more touching in its way than the murmuring of the mother with regard to her “bairn,” as she feels that she is melting away; or more in harmony with the melancholy from which the incidents of Meg’s life stand out as from a very dark background. She moans:—
“‘My God! when I am gone, how will he fare?’
‘O bairn, when I am dead,
‘O bairn, by night or day
‘O bairn, it is but closing up the een,
The subject is taken up in all its hardness, and worked out in the realistic spirit, but somehow it becomes fused with the deepest poetry and pathos under Mr Buchanan’s hand. It is seldom that we find so much completeness in such a slight sketch. Many of the other poems have also rare merit; and amongst these we would notice the English and Scottish Eclogues, both of which, especially the latter, are admirable. The “Ballad Maker,” the “Northern Wooing,” and the “Exiles of Oona” are also fair specimens of Mr Buchanan’s powers; but none of them reach the high standard of the first poem in the volume. It is almost a pity that so much fine poetry has been so overlaid with tinsel ornament. The public scarcely ever expects to find much of literary worth under gaudy covers, and accompanied with fine tones paper and beautiful illustrations. Books of this character are bought, like articles of vertu, as drawing-room ornaments. Moreover, it is difficult to peruse such splendid productions of the pictorial and typographical arts without spoiling them, when they happen, as in the present case, to contain substance as well as show.
The Argosy (1 December, 1867 - p.80)
Writing in view of Christmas, we may, perhaps, shortly mention some Christmas Books. There is, first, “North Coast Poems,” by Robert Buchanan—a beautiful drawing-room volume, on which much care and pains have been spent, and with good result. Here and there we regret to see that the artists have followed and exaggerated a hard and wholly false realism into which Mr. Buchanan has recently fallen headlong, and which the men of the pencil might well have studied to relieve. One specimen of the hard and ungrateful work we may indicate—the illustration to the “Scottish Eclogue,” which, perhaps, faithfully enough reflects the artist’s conception, but which overcomes one with a feeling of disgust. Here the ideal medium, through which alone any form of life can be seen truly, has escaped the poet’s clasp, leaving only the rough garment behind it; and the artist has followed suit, with due result—a repulsive picture. But a few of the poems are fine, and, generally, the illustrations are equal to them—the landscapes and sea-pieces being exceedingly beautiful.
Pall Mall Gazette (3 December, 1867 - p.12)
BUCHANAN’S NEW POEMS.*
THIS volume contains two or three poems well suited to maintain the reputation of the author, among many that are comparatively prolix and uninteresting, and several remarkable only for the most wild and morbid fancies. The illustrations, with the exception of Mr. Wolf’s studies of wild deer and water-fowl, are mostly very dismal things to behold or criticise. They are composed, as a rule, of a few scratchy figures,—
Pinnacled dim in an intense inane
of nocturnal moors or surges without any fine lights and shades, or any distinct details introduced by way of contrasts. The one accompanying a picturesque couplet (p. 203)—
Then sunrise glistening faintly o’er the peaks
is more than half composed of a mere patch of ink bounded by five straight lines. The group illustrating the Scottish Eclogue (already some time published) may perhaps be taken to present a humorous coup d’œil, inasmuch as the figure of the minister, who is delivering a tea-table discourse on predestination, is brought into curious relations with the frame of a chair adjacent to his own, and seems to end in a personal appendage characteristic of the Evil One. Some sea-pictures by Mr. T. Dalziel are absolutely preposterous. Altogether the book, in spite of a tolerably handsome binding, contains much that it too good, and much that is too bad, to suit a modest Christmas present; which is what it seems to have been intended for.
Lord, with how small a thing
The deeply human inspiration of this poem makes it almost appear an incongruous effort to read in the same volume the wild strain entitled “Celtic Mysteries,” where we are called upon to realize how death would affect us if God were to initiate a totally new dispensation, so that the bodies of our friends should suddenly vanish into thin air, and that we might have no relics over which to indulge our griefs. We meet with a yet rasher flight of fancy in the proem, where the Angel of Death, identified with Cain, is supposed to get a long-desired dismissal from his unpleasant duties, the Lord having accosted him with “Thy wanderings, dear Cain, are ended,” &c. The whole vision seems like one that has been produced by the influence of opium. It may certainly suit some minds in which a strong craving has been generated for a novel stimulant; but, at all events, the author’s efforts to connect these lucubrations with a string of serious reasonings and of expostulations with the Deity concerning our human destinies have proved abortive. On the other hand, the “Saint’s Story” is a kind of Ingoldsby Legend, very entertaining, very bold, and very whimsical; but the satire is spiteful and irreverent, and the scenes into which it leads adapted slyly to tickle coarsest appetites. But it is chiefly in the “Poem to David” (an elegy on the author of the “Luggie,” &c.) that Mr. Buchanan has overlaid a fine natural sentiment with an utterly repulsive covering of morbid conceits and fulsome images. It is dismal, he shows us, to think what death seems likely to be when we “lie and rot in cold obstruction,” without power to escape some dim conception of the past and the present, yet even thus we might be content to lie down by the side of a lost friend. No doubt this is a conception which a man of fine feeling might touch upon lightly and tremulously, as where we read in the old ballad—
Is there any room at your head, Willy?
But all is spoiled in the present poem by an extravagant, even shocking excess of detail, and by the effeminate fondness of such verses as—
Were thy lips to mine, beloved,
In reading the “Ballad-maker” we are struck, as we have often been heretofore, by the too obvious narrowness of Mr. Buchanan’s notions concerning low life in London. While in Burns’s poems we see beggars or tailors as merry as princes could be, our present author would have us imagine than an exterior of squalor and rudeness is inevitably and incessantly accompanied by an abject and querulous frame of mind. Hence he exaggerates the effects of social position where his countryman has justly reduced their magnitude in our eyes, by showing how the same appetites and affections are constantly at work in all grades of society, since Fortune, as has been said, “gives too much to many, but to none enough.” He is unwilling even to believe that a Londoner can for a moment forget or cease to be sick of the smoke and the strange faces which surround him; by which view he acquires no better a command of his subject than a nautical poet might gain through the phenomena of sea-sickness. His imaginary sufferers, moreover, have a childish and literally lackadaisy longing to meet with the simplest country objects. Then they have never any friends living near them, and no notion, we suppose, of indulging in any convivial intercourse with chance acquaintances. The chief amusement and resource of these heaven-abandoned beings is running to the Old Bailey to see a woman hanged. We could scarcely pick up from any French traveller a queerer notion of metropolitan life than Mr. Buchanan’s books might give if circulated on the Continent, but he has unluckily tried to build elegiac and sentimental poems on a basis only sufficient for the humour of a caricaturist. To such strains, however, we often find a refreshing contrast in his descriptions of natural scenery, which although somewhat too exuberant and circuitous in point of diction are often coloured with peculiar warmth and delicacy. We may instance the description of a marine sunset in the “Exiles of Oona,” and that of the summer’s haunts in “Meg Blane,” to which might be added a number of more rapid sketches.
* “North Coast and other Poems.” By Robert Buchanan. With illustrations. (London: Routledge and Sons. 1867.)
Illustrated Times (7 December, 1867)
North Coast and other Poems. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. With Illustrations by eminent Artists, engraved by the Brothers Dalziel. London and New York: Routledge and Sons.
Anything like an adequate review—not to say a criticism—of this volume would occupy so much of the space which near Christmas time is heavily bespoken, that we shall best serve the interests of author and publisher, as well as most certainly please out own readers, by devoting every inch we can spare, after a word or two of comment, to extracts from the best parts of the book. The artists we regret to be compelled to dismiss in very short space indeed. Where there is so much to praise, it is almost harsh to select a single point for notice; but nobody will miss the extraordinary force with which the countenance of the idiot is rendered on page 51; the beauty of the sea-lights on pages 7 and 186; or the natural charm of the scenes on pages 189 and 213. The last is particularly beautiful. The Scotch elder on page 151 is also capital. We praise these “points” in the artists’ share of the general effect, not because there is not more to praise, but because it is well to be specific here and there, even where one’s space is limited. By-the-by, too, the monk and the lady on page 175 are splendidly done.
CELTIC MYSTICS. NO. IX.
In the time of my tribulation
A short extract from “The Ballad-maker.” This is
THE BOY-THIEF’S DREAM.
He thought he was in heaven, and it seemed
And, lastly, at full length,
Oh, sweet and still around the hill
O Brook, he smiled, a happy child,
O Brook! in song full sweet and strong
And when at last the sleepers cast
Our readers know that we consider it of small use to point out faults in work of a certain rank; for the simple reason that the author is sure to know them as well as the keenest critic, to find them out, and to correct them. For the terms in which we have spoken of Mr. Buchanan’s volume no apology is necessary. If in the hierarchy of the agents of human progress the poet ranks highest—for the obvious reason that he has the vision of all that makes life worth while, and the power to put what he sees into “marching music”— no welcome can be too warm for real song; certainly not in a case like that of Mr. Buchanan, where the ordinary functions of a littérateur must hang like panniers on the flanks of the horse of the skies. Our readers will not, we trust, attribute to us any “sentimental” or “maudlin,” views upon this question. But if we reflect upon the long periods of absorption, with nothing to show for them, and the dangerous excitements of sudden accesses of the poetic passion, we shall hardly escape being driven to treat poetry which meets us in this way in a very different spirit from that of those who think they have made a great point by saying (as was recently said so often apropos of this very subject) that Shakspeare muddled and puddled in play-houses and Johnson slaved like a nigger. The answer is obvious—So much the worse for Shakspeare and Shakspeare’s work and Johnson and Johnson’s work.
The Times (12 December, 1867 - p.5)
Mr. Robert Buchanan has every reason to be well pleased with the manner in which his latest collection of poems has been put before the public. (North Coast and other Poems. Routledge and Sons.) The illustrations are by the Brothers Dalziel, J. Wolf, A. B. Houghton, and other artists, and they are all of great merit. The sea sketches to “Meg Blane” are vivid and powerful, and two drawings, of first-rate excellence, among others, accompany the poems called the “Exiles of Oona”—one on page 211, by Mr. W. Small, and the other on page 213, by Mr. J. Wolf. The poems are fully worthy of the care which has been expended upon them.
The Illustrated London News (21 December, 1867 - p.11-12)
ILLUSTRATED CHRISTMAS GIFT-BOOKS.
North Coast and Other Poems. By Robert Buchanan. With Illustrations by Eminent Artists. Engraved by the Brothers Dalziel. (G. Routledge and Sons.) The strength and sweetness of Mr. Buchanan’s poetical genius, to which we have borne our testimony on former occasions, are yet more effectually manifested in some pieces of this collection. Three of them—namely, “The Northern Muse,” “An English Eclogue,” and “A Scottish Eclogue”—have appeared in print before; the others are quite new. The series entitled “North Coast Poems” are not, as one might have guessed, another batch of those Scandinavian ballads which he brought together for a Christmas book last year, but are narratives, chiefly of humble life—that of peasants and fishermen, with their families or women, on the shores of Scotland. The principal of these, “Meg Blane,” is one of considerable length, in four parts or acts, varying in their forms of versification. The opening canto, and likewise the last, are composed in very melodious irregular stanzas, with a frequent interjection of short lines and with changing intervals or periods of rhyme, probably intended to mark a change in the emotions which are expressed; while the second canto is in blank verse, and the third in regular heroic couplets. This practice of variable verse-structure, which Miss Ingelow and other poets of the day have adopted, is quite an innovation, and is not in general to be commended. It may be pleaded in excuse that the ear is apt to be wearied by the continuance of the same form of stanza or couplet over fifty pages. We certainly prefer the maintenance of one type of outward structure corresponding with the inward epic unity throughout the whole poem. This rule, which is supported by the precedents of Homer, Dante, Milton, and Byron, in their longest as well as greatest works, has been observed till recently by all writers of narrative poetry. But we shall not quarrel with Mr. Buchanan on that account. “Meg Blane” is a true and noble poem, in which the author has had, like Wordsworth, the courage to seek the sources of imaginative interest in the life-sorrows and soul-struggles of a poor lone woman, the mother of an idiot son; a woman deserted and shamed in her youth, now dwelling in a mean cottage on the shore, and labouring with more than a man’s energy and boldness to win their daily food out of the dangerous sea. The man who has left her so many years alone, the father of her dearly-loved but burdensome child, is cast at her feet by a wreck; she saves his life, and she hopes that he will now be her husband; but he cannot, or will not. So her spirit is broken, her strength perishes, and she can no longer buffet the waves.
Then only in still weather did she dare
Infirmity, poverty, and old age come all at once upon her, in the day of her grief, and she soon feels herself dying:—
“O bairn, when I am dead,
And so on, till presently she dies; but she is consoled in her last moments by an unspoken divine message, the traces of which are seen in “The fearless sweetness” of her face. The whole story, though as sad as “Enoch Arden,” which it equals in truthfulness of effect, but not in artistic finish, is deeply interesting, and pleases us as much as anything else in this volume. “The Battle of Drumliemoor,” an historical sketch of one of the Covenanters’ most disastrous struggles, is rather deficient in martial fire. “The Exiles of Oona” is a very melancholy poem on the departure of a band of emigrants from a Highland valley, the occasion having a similar interest to that of “The Deserted Village;” but it is comparatively languid and diffuse, and its metrical structure, in triplets of blank lines, seems to lack both freedom and precision. Another of these “North Coast” or Scottish pieces is “The Northern Wooing,” in which an old grandmother tells the children how she went out of the house in the dark night, on Halloween, to see the mystic image of her future lover. This is the subject of the design, by Mr. A. B. Houghton, which we have borrowed. The passage is highly effective:—
Dark, dark was all, as, shivering and alone,
Could the incident be more plaintly and forcibly described? Mr. Buchanan excels in this power of assembling the attendant circumstances of an action, with a fine sense of their congruity and of their tendency to deepen its impression on the mind. He does not, as even Miss Ingelow and Mrs. browning have sometimes done, bring in particulars which are needless for that purpose, and which may appear trivial or grotesque. In this respect he is guided by an instinct of æsthetic fitness, which seldom fails. The most perfect, we think, of his poems, and one of the most beautiful of its class, is “Sigurd of Saxony,” a kind of allegory of the spiritual state of one waiting and watching at the verge of our mortal life, who has there parted company with the sainted mistress of his heart, and who has devoted the remainder of his days to the sacred task of purifying himself from evil,
That with a stainless spirit I may take
He is a knight of mediæval chivalry, as devoutly constant as the Sir Galahad of Tennyson in quest of the “Holy Graal;” but all his hope is to be fetched away to rejoin the heavenly object of his affections:—
Long have I waited here, alone, alone,
In explanation of this, be it understood that he is frozen into a statue, and fixed to the earth as he stands, until the appointed hour for his departure. Twice has the ghostly barge returned, once for an aged man and once for a child, when Sigurd was unable to move. But now he is patient, and he waits, with quiet heart and brain, until the due moment of his reprieve. This is a very striking conception, and wrought out with a masterly hand. Another quasi-mediæval subject, that of “The Saint’s Story,” is, on the contrary, one essentially disgusting. Mr. Buchanan should have let it alone. We would rather say nothing more about it. “The Ballad-maker” is a homely idyll of London life, as plain as a piece of Crabbe’s, but with touches of higher imagination and of deeper poetic feeling. It tells of a poor crippled boy whom the ballad-maker, in his charity, nursed while dying, and cheered with the best songs in his stock, chanting to him of the green fields and the great sea, as he lay in a squalid garret of this city. “The Ballad of the Stork” is a good story, very well told. We have by no means exhausted all the contents of this noble volume. The series of weird elegies and prophecies, called the “Celtic Mystics,” open a separate field of criticism; but Mr. Buchanan is apt to become uncouth and obscure in his mystical vein. The view of an Arctic landscape, with a reindeer, designed by Mr. Zwecker, which illustrates one of these pieces, is worthy of notice. So are many of the drawings by Messrs. T. and E. Dalziel, Mr. Wolf, Mr. Small, and others, which are engraved by the brothers Dalziel in their usual style. The very binding of the volume deserves remark, being adorned with a decorative pattern and lettering of a most graceful artistic design.
The Morning Post (30 December, 1867 - p.3)
NORTH COAST AND OTHER POEMS.*
Similar to his “Wayside Posies” last year, this volume of Mr. Robert Buchanan’s “North Coast and other Poems” takes a high place among the illustrated books of the present season. It may almost be said to outrival its predecessor in the number and beauty of the engravings with which it is embellished by the Brothers Dalziel and other eminent artists. Unlike, however, the collection in his former work, all the poems are from Mr. Buchanan’s own pen, although they are still of varied character. Only three of them have appeared before—“The Northern Muse,” “An English Eclogue,” and “A Scottish Eclogue;” the others are now published for the first time. The first and longest, “Meg Blane,” is of the narrative order, as may be inferred from its title. It is written in changeful metre, and contains some fine passages, especially in describing the effects of deep passion or suffering on the human mind. The intense yearning of Meg Blane through long years to behold once more the faithless lover of her youth, and her feelings when this desire is unexpectedly gratified, give full scope for some striking word-painting. The change which comes over her afterwards is also finely portrayed, and the closing lines of the description may be quoted as giving a true picture of a woman’s hardening heart:—
“But ere the man departed from the place,
There is the same truthfulness to nature and deeper pathos in the stanza which tells how her witless son unconsciously showed his sympathy with her sorrow; thus—
“But, lo! unto the shade of her distress
One other extract may be given from the last lines of “The Battle of Drumliemoor,” as affording a vivid, though brief, description of that sad scene, a snow-clad battle-field:—
“And while the widow groans, lo! God’s hand around their bones
Still the poems are certainly rendered less attractive by many of the ideas they present being clothed in vague, fantastic language and fitful metre, perfectly consonant, no doubt, with the tone of North Coast songs and legends, though little adapted to the prevailing taste of the age. The “Celtic Mystics” indeed, with which the volume concludes, are altogether too mystic and shadowy to be either generally intelligible or appreciable. The imaginative is carried to too high a pitch; and occasional instances are also observable throughout the poems where Mr. Buchanan commits that too prevalent error among modern writers of using expressions which stretch poetic license to the verge of sacrificing sense to sound. The style in which the volume is brought out and the illustrations deserve the highest commendation. Not only are the engravings admirable as presenting vivid pictures of the scenes described in the poems, but worthy to be estimated as rare works of art. They display in an eminent degree, both as regards design and execution, marks of that genius for which the Brothers Dalziel, Pinwell, Small, and the other noted artists who produced them, are so justly celebrated.
* North Coast and other Poems. By Robert Buchanan. With Illustrations by eminent artists. Engraved by the Brothers Dalziel. London: George Routledge and Sons.
The Contemporary Review (February, 1868 - Vol. VII, p.303-304)
VI.—POETRY, FICTION, AND ESSAY.
The North Coast, and other Poems. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. With Illustrations
WE own to not being easy in mind about these gorgeous scarabæan books, which are making the temples of the Sosii flare with gold, and green, and crimson in our days. It may be morose and ill-boding to feel as if our lighter literature were passing away in a December sunset; or it might be invidious to compare it to a nymph who, for want of charms certain to tell, is obliged to flaunt in loud colours, and challenge us with, “Look at me!”
The Book of Orm (1870)