ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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THE FLESHLY SCHOOL CONTROVERSY

Buchanan’s Apology

 

1. God and the Man

GATMCOV

The first edition of Buchanan’s novel, God and the Man, published in November, 1881 contained the dedication ‘To An Old Enemy’. There was some confusion in the Press who the ‘old enemy’ was, Swinburne or Rossetti?

 

The Birmingham Daily Post (9 November, 1881 - p.7)

     Mr. Robert Buchanan has broken a long silence by the publication of a new novel, “God and the man,” which he dedicates to “An old enemy,” who is asked to “forget the bitter blame that did thee wrong, and take the gift from me.” Is this “old enemy” Mr. Algernon Swinburne?

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The Liverpool Mercury (6 January, 1882 - p.5)

     It should not escape attention that Mr. Robert Buchanan’s recently-published romance, entitled “God and the Man,” is prefaced by a very remarkable dedication, which runs as follows:—

TO AN OLD ENEMY.

I tried to pluck a bay leaf from thy brow,
     Wronging the chaplet on an honoured head;
In peace and tenderness I bring thee now
     A lily flower instead.

Pure as thy purpose, blameless as thy song,
     Sweet as thy spirit, may this offering be;
Forget the bitter blame that did thee wrong,
     And take this gift from me.

Few readers can have forgotten the keen—indeed, acrimonious—controversy as to a modern school of poetry, which began with an article published in the Contemporary Review nine years ago; and few will need to be told that the apology offered in the foregoing lines must be addressed either to Mr. Swinburne or Mr. Dante Rossetti. In metropolitan circles the interpretation put upon the verses is that they are meant for the second of the poets named, and have been prompted equally by generous appreciation of the fine humanity displayed in Mr. Rossetti’s recent volume (wherein he tells the story of James I. of Scotland with an enthusiasm that must touch the heart of every Scotsman), and by the known fact that, though grossly and wantonly attacked, Mr. Rossetti has made no attempt at retort, but has suffered perhaps the more deeply for his silence from criticisms which are now allowed to have been groundless, and which are most magnanimously withdrawn. Moreover, Mr. Rossetti,  it is well known, has been for many months seriously out of health, and this may have helped to inspire a generous adversary with a love of justice.

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Following the death of Rossetti on 9th April, 1882, Buchanan wrote a new verse, this time naming ‘the old enemy’, and a new Preface for the cheap edition of the novel, which was published by Chatto & Windus in September, 1882. This was printed in all subsequent editions.

 

Dedication.

I.

TO AN OLD ENEMY.

I would have snatch’d a bay leaf from thy brow,
     Wronging the chaplet on an honoured head;
In peace and tenderness I bring thee now
     A lily-flower instead.

Pure as thy purpose, blameless as thy song,
     Sweet as thy spirit, may this offering be:
Forget the bitter blame that did thee wrong,
     And take the gift from me!

                                                             R. B.

October 1881.

 

II.

TO DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI.

Calmly, thy royal robe of Death around thee,
     Thou sleepest, and weeping Brethren round thee stand—
Gently they placed, ere yet God’s angel crown’d thee,
     My lily in thy hand!

I never knew thee living, O my brother!
     But on thy breast my lily of love now lies;
And by that token, we shall know each other,
     When God’s voice saith ‘Arise!’

                                                             R. B.

August 1882.

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     This romance is the third work of prose fiction from the writer’s pen. In each of these works, a subject has been taken, which, though poetical in itself, involved a treatment transcending the exact limits of verse. ‘A Child of Nature,’ written in 1870, though not published till nine years after, was the first of the series; the ‘Shadow of the Sword’ was written and published in 1875; the present work, and the ‘Martyrdom of Madeline,’ were planned together and written in close sequence. Each of the last three works has a particular ‘idea’ or purpose, and descends to what some critics call the heresy of instruction. The ‘Shadow of the Sword’ is a poetical polemic against public War; ‘God and the Man’ is a study of the vanity and folly of individual Hate; the ‘Martyrdom of Madeline’ has for its theme the social conspiracy against Womankind.
                                                                                                                     R. B.

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PREFACE TO THE NEW EDITION.

I HAVE to thank both the press and the public for their generous reception of this romance, or (as it has been styled) tragedy in prose. Despite a title which alarmed the librarians, and a subject which some critics considered transcendental, it was received with the utmost kindness in almost every quarter. Certain sections of the religious world (by which I mean the world which calls itself ‘religious’) may possibly have found it uninteresting; for it neither supports nor attacks the Church of Rome, it has no bearing whatever on the English or any other Establishment, it has nothing to do with theological or ecclesiastical vested interests, and it has never been blest, or curst, by a Bishop. It is of little consequence, therefore, to the higher controversy—if that controversy can be called ‘higher’ which consists of constant wrangling over religious institutions, theories, forms, and fictions. The author holds that true Christianity is an inheritance belonging to all men alike, whatever may be the form of their creed; and that the patience of the world is wasted, and the millennium of love indefinitely delayed, by an eternal dispute over miserable forms.
     Since this work was first published, the ‘Old Enemy’ to whom it was dedicated has passed away. Although his name did not appear on the front of the book, as it would certainly have done had I possessed more moral courage, it is a melancholy pleasure to me to reflect that he understood the dedication and accepted it in the spirit in which it was offered. That I should ever have underrated his exquisite work, is simply a proof of the incompetency of all criticism, however honest, which is conceived adversely, hastily, and from an unsympathetic point of view; but that I should have ranked myself for the time being with the Philistines, and encouraged them to resist an ennobling and refining literary influence (of which they stood, and stand, so mournfully in need), must remain to me a matter of permanent regret.

                                                                                                             ROBERT BUCHANAN.

     LONDON: August 18, 1882.

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2. The Martyrdom of Madeline

In response to a review of his novel, The Martyrdom of Madeline, in The Academy of 17th June, 1882, Buchanan wrote a letter to the magazine (published 1st July) denying that the character, Blanco Serena, was based on Rossetti. The review and the letter are both available on this site, but the concluding paragraph of the letter is worth including here:

    One word more. Your reviewer insinuates (there is no mistaking his innuendo) that a certain character in my story is a shadow-picture of the late Mr. Dante Rossetti. To show the injustice of this supposition, I will simply ask your readers to compare the lineaments of my Blanco Serena, a society-hunting, worldly minded, insincere, but good-humoured, fashionable painter, with the literary image of Mr. Rossetti a solitude-loving, unworldly, thoroughly sincere and earnest, if sometimes saturnine, man of genius, in revolt against society. The blundering of windmill-criticism could surely go no further. I wish to have no mistake on this, to me, very solemn matter. What I wrote of Mr. Rossetti, ten years ago,  stands. What I wrote of Mr. Rossetti in the inscription of God and the Man also stands. Time brings about its revenges. Can the least acute observer of literature have failed to notice that the so-called fleshly school, in proportion as it has grown saner, purer, and more truly impassioned in the cause of humanity, has lost its hold upon the so-called fleshly public—even on the dapper master-miller’s and miller’s men of the journals of nepotism and malignity? Certain of our critics said to certain of our poets—“Go that way; there lies the short cut to immortality!” But the poets, after going a few paces, paused, recognising, as only true poets can recognise, the easy descent to Acheron. How strange it would be, after all, if we, the so-called Pharisees of ten years ago, should find ourselves called upon, in the end, to defend these very poets against their own critics, against society, against the world. Stranger things have happened. Ishmael, after all, is close akin to Esau; and I can say for my own part that not even the dread of the brutal, blundering windmills would prevent me from championing Esau, if ever I should find the smooth hands of Jacob raised to destroy him.”

 

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3. A Look Round Literature

Buchanan included the following ‘note’ on Rossetti in his collection of essays, A Look Round Literature, which was published in 1887. It was written in 1882 (following Rossetti’s death) in response to an article in the July edition of The British Quarterly Review (‘The Poetry of Rossetti’ pp. 109-127) which is available at the Internet Archive.

 

From A Look Round Literature by Robert Buchanan (London: Ward and Downey, 1887 - pp.152-161)

 

A NOTE ON DANTE ROSSETTI.

“Some positive, persisting fops we know,
Who, if once wrong, will needs be always so;
But I, with pleasure, own my errors past,
And make each day a critic on the last.”
                                       POPE’S
Essay on Criticism.

IN the early spring of the present year there passed away at Birchington-on-Sea, in Kent, one of the most original painters and most gifted poets who was ever sent to lend light and leading to a perverse generation. A man unique in this particular—that he passed through good and evil report with serene indifference to mercenary reward or social successes; and that, while exercising an unusual influence on the higher culture of his age, and living in the very midst of a busy and somewhat pertinacious artistic circle, he remained personally unknown to most of his contemporaries, as well as to the public at large. He painted pictures, which I can neither blame nor praise, for I know them too little, but which those well fitted to judge have classed as masterpieces. He wrote poems, which have been both lavishly praised and harshly judged, and which remain, after all is said and done, among the spiritual productions of the present generation. Even fairer than his artistic or literary fame was the love and admiration he awakened in all who knew him. He not merely founded a school, he created a kind of artistic religion, which is fast spreading, through the labours of loving disciples. A man 153 remarkable for his intellectual gifts, he was still more remarkable for his unique power of awakening artistic faith and literary fervour. Missed now by his own circle, he will ere long be missed more by the world which least appreciated him while living; for, when the true æstheticism has indicated itself, and the false æstheticism, which still overshadows it, has withered like an unwholesome weed, the name of Rossetti will be sadly remembered, as that of one of those veiled spirits who sometimes walk the earth to make men pure, and literally to “brighten the sunshine.”
     When I remember how truly great he was—in that best greatness of modesty and meekness of soul; when I think how patiently he laboured at his beautiful art and how little golden praise men gave to him; when I contrast his gentle life with the strenuous lives of noisier and more prosperous men, it seems strange to think that, at any period of his career, any writer could be found blind enough or hard enough to criticise him adversely. Yet, that cruel things were written of him, and by one who should have looked longer and known better, we all know. He has been called a “fleshly” person, a sensuous, even a sensual poet; he who, more than perhaps many of his contemporaries, was the least objective, the least earthly, and the most ideal. Not even after his death is the cry suffered to abate; and a recent writer in a religious   review,* takes occasion to repeat at second-hand, for a wiser generation, all the hasty expressions and uninstructed abuse that I published in hot haste ten years ago, and have since, as my readers know, repented. It is so easy to create a nickname that will stick; so difficult to write a

     * The British Quarterly.

 

154 criticism that will endure! Perhaps it may be worth while to endeavour, in the short space at my disposal, to show the readers of this book how false a judgment it was, how conventional and Pharisaic a criticism, which chose to dub as “fleshly” the works of this most ethereal and dreamy—in many respects this least carnal and most religious—of modern poets.
     But let me confess at the outset that, to understand poems like these, the reader must bring something of the sympathy he receives. If he approaches in the wrong mood, or in an antipathetic one, the poems may at first repel him. The magnetism is for magnetic people, under what the mediums call “test” conditions. I myself, being then in a non-receptive mood, once regarded Rossetti’s work balefully, disliked his subjects and his workmanship; even thought him sensuous in the bad sense, and was capable of “cutting him up” (how easy it is to “cut up”—even a rose or a lily!) when the occasion served. Afterwards, reading him again less coldly, I began to understand the purity of his meaning and the delicacy of his art. That art has been called mosaic, and so it is; but it is a mosaic made of precious stones of speech, always radiant, and sometimes exquisitely chosen, forming, indeed, an ornate style sui generis, in which Latinisms are employed with rare felicity. Some people may prefer simpler styles, though it may be said in passing, that Rossetti could be simple enough when he chose, as in his fine reproductions of old ballads; but that is neither here nor there; the fact being that Rossetti’s style was his own, and wonderfully adapted to express his sibylline meaning. His method, like that of Jacob Boehmen, was symbolic; and he sometimes used a phrase, as Jacob used a flower, to express whole worlds of recondite 155 mysticism. With such a writer, therefore, to complain that he did not call a spade a spade, or carol songs about buttercups and daisies, was to mistake the whole drift of his meaning. He was one of those who found, as many an old necromancer would have found, an infinity of suggestion in the mere sound of “Mesopotamia.” So he came to love music for its own sake, finding a luxury of delight in using sweet sibilants, delicate elisions, and musical alliterations. Proceeding further, he constructed a phraseology quaint, archaic, involved, and involuted, yet only so as are flowers, leaves, bells, and blooms, obeying some intricate caprice of nature.

A primrose on the water’s brim,
A yellow primrose was to him,
     But it was something more;

it was maiden modesty and virgin pallor, a star in the earth’s firmament, a letter in the golden Book of Beauty, a symbol, an abstraction of something stranger and fairer than itself. For the man was a magician, of the tribe of Kubla Khan; and at his bidding there rose a stately pleasure dome, every precious stone of which had a name and a mystery, and, when he entered it to weave his strange verse, he was within his right in using the language of incantation, and in conjuring with such names as “Abracadabra.” Those who assert that he loved this Art “for its own sake,” know nothing of his method; he loved it because it expressed the almost inexpressible, and supplied him with an occult terminology. If he was wrong, all the mystics have been wrong; Boehmen was a blunderer, Richter was a proser, Novalis was no poet. There is room, surely, in the world for Rossetti as well as Burns, for the poetry of enchanted symbolism as well 156 as for the poetry of kicking up one’s heels and rolling with milkmaids in the hay.
     The adverse critic has complained that our magician had no humour, was incapable of honest laughter; in other words, he never grinned through a horse-collar, as even poor Heine could do; but neither did Wordsworth or Shelley, nor many another man whom the world calls great. He knew, in fact, that life was no laughing matter. Yet grave humour, of a celestial kind, he certainly possessed, if we are to trust certain memoranda which have been handed about, but never openly published. It was no fault of his that God intended him for a Wizard; it was his destiny, and certainly our gain; for, in these days of garish daylight, of popular science, it needed such a man to show us that geometry is occult as well as simple, that the stars have “influences” as well as rays to be dissolved in the spectrum, and that the flowers may be put to other uses besides the manufacture of cowslip-wine. You think that speech is current coin, to be passed freely from hand to hand; he knew that it was magical, and, by a simple arrangement of sounds, could be made to figure forth flowers, stars, and astrological portents. Words of strange colour coiled like snakes about his wand, turned into flowers and leaves, turned again into precious stones, and rained as pearls and emeralds on the grass beneath his feet. He wore neither homespun cloth nor sober black, but a robe wrought with Runic letters and signs of the Zodiac—a wizard’s robe, in fact. It was not the sort of dress to please prosy people, or to go junketing in; but it suited his purpose and expressed his extraordinary function. The style is the man; and, in this case, no style could possibly be better.
     There are people in the world who imagine that 157 poetry should be easy as A B C, and who tell us that it should deal only with the approven facts of life. In this case, Shakespeare was a bad poet, and Hamlet’s soliloquy a vile, roundabout business—as, indeed, simple Goldsmith was eager to show on one occasion. It does not seem to me, however, that poetry is necessarily either simple or occult; it either is or is not poetry, and may be as far off in its range as Saturn’s ring, or as near to us as cakes and ale. It is surely worth while to strain the eyes a little in gazing at the heavens, and to listen with some attention if we expect to catch the music in the sea-shell. Those who complain that certain great poets are incomprehensible, are simply lazy persons, who want to be tickled with a straw—companions, indeed, of our old friend Bottom, who could conceive of no use for Titania’s fairies but to scratch his ears. All deep thought is difficult, however expressed—in the crystalline phrase of Dante, or in the jargon of Jean Paul; and there is no easy road to Parnassus. The right question, indeed, to ask in taking up a poet’s work, is not whether it is easy, but whether it is difficult enough—whether it awakens that thought which concerns the beauty and mystery of life, or whether it goes down like a lollipop, and leaves us none the wiser or the better. A more serious charge against Rossetti’s writing, if sustained, would be that it is only of the lollipop or bonbon order—a luscious thing for very young people; and it is curious that this charge is made by the same critics who complain of its difficulty, its artificiality. The inconsistency is remarkable. If all Rossetti had to tell us was that lollipops are sweet, and sensual pleasure agreeable, and women kissable, why should he have gone in such a roundabout way about it? Why should he 158 have used the language of the spheres, and the machinery of all the necromancers, to express to us the height of foolishness and the depth of apple pie? In simple fact, he does nothing of the sort. He uses amatory forms and carnal images, just as he uses mere sounds and verbalisms, to express ideas which are purely and remotely spiritual; and he takes the language of personal love to express his divine yearning, simply because that language is the most exquisite quintessence of human speech. I do not mean to imply that his forms and images represent mere abstractions; in that case, he would be a sort of mathematician, not a poet. But flesh and blood, in his eyes, are sacramental.
     Is there any honest man that doubts that Love, even so-called “fleshly Love,” is the noblest pleasure that man is permitted to enjoy; or that the sympathy of woman for man, and of man for woman, is in its essence the sweetest sympathy of which the soul is capable? Only one thing is higher and better than Love’s happiness, and that one thing is Love’s sorrow, when there comes out of loss and suffering the sense of compensation, of divine gain. Well, Rossetti’s poetry expresses at once the pleasure, the sympathy, the happiness and the sorrow, the loss and the gain. It has been called the poetry of personal passion; but it is more than this—it is passion transfused into religion, into a religion which glorifies grief and peoples the empty heavens with shapes of loveliness and love. Take the opening of what is perhaps his best, and best-known poem:

The Blessed Damozel leaned out
     On the gold bar of Heaven:
Her eyes were stiller than the depths
     Of waters still’d at even;
She had five lilies in her hand,
     And the stars in her hair were seven!

159     Something vaguer might have contented other poets, but this poet has a necromancer’s precision, can count each star and lily of the vision, with a sense of their individual signification. The result is, we have not merely a poetical image, but a painted picture; something dreamlike, but with the strange definition only known in dreams. As he goes on, the picture changes, but the realism remains—we see the very hues, and hear the very sound, of heaven; and at each wave of the grave wizard’s wand, at each measured cadence from his lips, the azure seems bursting open further and further, until we see, in an extraordinary image.

             Time like a pulse shake fierce
Thro’ all the worlds!

     If this be not necromancy, I know none in poetry. Pathos there is also in the poem, as when the Blessed Damozel weeps, and we “hear her tears,” a gentle sound of rain on the parched universe. But the magician is too sure of his  power, too conscious of the supernatural powers which are shaping the spell, to break down and moan. A poet of the earth, earthy, may do that, and set us weeping with him—as Burns does when he hears the bird-song from his place in the ploughed field.

For pity’s sake, sweet bird, nae mair,
     Or else my heart is broken!

     But the spiritual poet, with his eyes fixed on so celestial a vision, is master of himself. He knows that his glimpse is real, and that, sooner or later, the enchantment will draw him upward—to the Blessed Damozel’s embrace—as, indeed, it has already done, since such aspirations are truly sent of God.
     The same mood of perfect vision and grave assurance inspires all the best work of Rossetti. He has 160 no questions to ask, no problems to trouble him; he is sibylline, not from being puzzle-headed, but because he has looked behind the curtain of the Sibyl. He sees the trees walk, he hears the flowers speak, with a sober certainty of waking bliss. When an angel passes him, he can feel the very texture of his robe, and tell the colour of his eyes. He is as sure of Heaven and all its white-robed angels as ordinary men are of each other. Something of this certainty he doubtless learned from Blake, though he lacked Blake’s childish simplicity and sweet garrulousness. So he “weaves his spell of strange device” in a way bewildering to those who dislike being mesmerised, and who would have sent Paracelsus to prison for fortune-telling.
     The finest of his finished works is the “House of Life,” which the British Quarterly Reviewer calls a “House of Ill Fame.” It is, to a certain extent, monotonous, and the sacrament of flesh and blood has a constant place in it; but out of this sacrament rises the ghostly vision of the Host, and ere we have ended, we hear the voices of all the angels praising the Lord of Heavenly Love. And of this strange texture, of this starry woof, is the so-called “fleshly” poetry. Is it a reproach to this poet that the divinest thing he has seen and known, humanly speaking, is the face and form of a living woman; that out of her eyes, and from her lips, he has learned to understand the processions of the stars and the spheric music of the world which, to so many, is unknown? The stairs of the earthly Love reach to the heavens; he ascends them step by step, that is all, hand in hand with his sweet guide—who is a bright, earthly maiden at the beginning, then a bride, then a shining creature, winged and marvellously transfigured; the rest in 161 order; last, an amethyst! You can transfigure Love, but you can never transfigure Lust; this last never made an angel, or inspired a true poem, yet.
     And so, when all is said and done, the friendly criticism remains the best and wisest. Those who have read Mr. Swinburne’s eulogy of his master, and thought it, perhaps, a little strained, may admit, at least, that it was strained, like all eulogy of love, in the right direction. My own abuse was and is, like all hasty contemporary abuse, nothing. Mr. Swinburne’s honest praise was, and is, like all honest praise, something. The poet of the “House of Life” is beyond both; but his fame will remain, when all detraction is forgotten, as a golden symbol, ære perennius, of much that was best and brightest in the culture of our time.*

____________________

     * I have given the above as my final and revised opinion on a writer to whom I once stood in strong antipathy. The only suspicious thing I know about some of Rossetti’s poetry is the facility with which it can be imitated. During a recent competition for a prize given by the Pall Mall Gazette, a number of sonnets by various hands was contributed, reproducing in a striking manner the manner, or trick, of Rossetti’s verbal style and imagery. Generally speaking, I believe, the merit of a style is in proportion to the difficulty of actual reproduction. Great thought in great language cannot well be imitated. Mannerisms of every kind can. The best of Rossetti’s work is beyond the re-rendering of the poetaster.                                                                                                                                                       —R. B.

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4. Letters to Hall Caine

Buchanan wrote to Hall Caine from France on 18th May, 1882, after reading Caine’s obituary notice of D. G. Rossetti in The Academy. It was later published in Hall Caine, the Man and the Novelist by Charles Frederick Kenyon (London: Greening & Co., Ltd., 1901 -    p. 79-80):

“30 BOULEVARD STE BEUVE,
     “BOULOGNE-SUR-MER,
“FRANCE, May 18 [1882].

     “DEAR SIR,—I have read with deep interest your memorial of poor Rossetti, and been particularly moved by your passing allusion to myself. I don’t know if your intention was to heap ‘coals of fire’ on my head, but whether or not you have succeeded. I have often regretted my old criticism on your friend, not so much because it was stupid, but because, after all, I doubt one poet’s right to criticise another. For the rest, I have long been of opinion that Rossetti was a great spirit; and in that belief I inscribed to him my ‘God and the Man.’
     “I suppose it was lack of courage which kept me from putting his name boldly on the preprint of my book; but had I dreamed he was ill or ailing, how eagerly would I not have done so! Still, I cannot conceive anyone mistaking the words of that dedication. Some people have been foolish enough to take it as addressed to Swinburne; but every line of it is against that supposition. I wonder now, if Rossetti himself knew of, and understood, that inscription? Perhaps you could tell me, and to ask you I write this letter. It would be a sincere satisfaction to me to know that he did read it, and accepted it in the spirit in which it was written.
     “I am here on my way to Paris, but after this week my address will be uncertain. A letter sent to 30 Queen Anne St., Cavendish Square, will always find me.—I am, dear sir, yours faithfully,
                                                                                                                                 ROBERT BUCHANAN.
     “T. HALL CAINE, Esq.”

 

In Hall Caine’s autobiography, My Story (London: William Heinemann, 1908), this letter is ‘dramatised’ as Caine’s first meeting with Buchanan. He then writes:

“A few days afterwards he wrote a long letter, which was intended to explain the motive which had led him to make his unjust attack:
     “In perfect frankness, let me say a few words concerning our old quarrel. While admitting freely that my article in the Contemporary Review was unjust to Rossetti’s claims as a poet, I have ever held, and still hold, that it contained nothing to warrant the manner in which it was received by the poet and his circle. At the time it was written the newspapers were full of panegyric; mine was a mere drop of gall in an ocean of eau sucrée. That it could have had on any man the effect you describe I can scarcely believe, indeed, I think that no living man had so little to complain of as Rossetti on the score of criticism. Well, my protest was received in a way which turned irritation into wrath, wrath into violence; and then ensued the paper war which lasted for years. If you compare what I have written of Rossetti with what his admirers have written of myself, I think you will admit that there has been some cause for me to complain, to shun society, to feel bitter against the world; but, happily, I have a thick epidermis, and the courage of an approving conscience.
     “I was unjust, as I have said; most unjust when I impugned the purity and misconceived the passion of writings too hurriedly read and reviewed currente calamo; but I was at least honest and fearless, and wrote with no personal malignity. Save for the action of the literary defence, if I may so term it, my article would have been as ephemeral as the mood which induced its composition. I make full admission of Rossetti’s claims to the purest kind of literary renown, and if I were to criticise his poems now, I should write very differently. But nothing will shake my conviction that the cruelty, the unfairness, the pusillanimity has been on the other side, not on mine. The amende of my dedication in ‘God and the Man’ was a sacred thing— between his spirit and mine; not between my character and the cowards who have attacked it. I thought he would understand—which would have been, and indeed is sufficient. I cried, and cry no truce with the horde of slanderers who hid themselves within his shadow. That is all. But, when all is said, there still remains the pity that our quarrel should ever have been. Our little lives are too short for such animosities. Your friend is at peace with God—that God who will justify and cherish him, who has dried his tears, and who will turn the shadow of his life-dream into full sunshine. My only regret now is that we did not meet—that I did not take him by the hand; but I am old- fashioned enough to believe that this world is only a prelude, and that our meeting may take place—even yet.”

This letter was included (as a footnote to pp. 71-72) by Hall Caine in his Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London: Elliot Stock, 1882).

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Despite Buchanan’s best efforts, sometimes his apology fell on deaf ears. When The British Quarterly Review published ‘The Poetry of Rossetti’ in its July, 1882 edition (Vol. LXXVI - pp. 109-127), the negative tone of the article caused the London correspondent of The Liverpool Mercury to attribute it to Buchanan.

 

The Liverpool Mercury (4 July 1882 - p.5)

     It can hardly be other than Robert Buchanan who writes the article on the recently dead Rossetti, in the just issued number of the British Quarterly. It is the most slashing onslaught on a poet who has just left the world that any man, still more any rival poet, would sit down to write over a newly-made grave. Mr. Buchanan thinks he has reason. In his opinion, Rossetti’s poems are a practical protest against the Christian ideal of purity. Rossetti’s doctrine, he says, is that animal passion is the divine part of life, and a woman is adorable only from that point of view. The critic paints the poet as adorning himself with a lily before sitting down to “manipulate the English language.” He finds unclean suggestions in some of the sonnets, which, sensuous in a high degree as are the thoughts in them, sensuous as they were certain to be, because their author was an Italian, would never have seemed to convey any gross emotion to a less searching reader. Mr. Buchanan’s power for detecting what he calls the fleshly tints is almost microscopic. Of the “House of Life,” Mr. Buchanan says, “The first part describes a young rake rejoicing in his sensuality; the second part describes an old rake deploring that his sins have left him, and gloating over the vicious memories that alone survive to him.” What in man is nearest alike to the brutes is alone worth singing. His songs are “the unwholesome refuse of a jaded appetites.” We are met with “the unclean look that should have been buried with the City of the Plain.” Rossetti’s “House of Life” may become notorious, but only as the “House of Ill-Fame.” Such is Mr. Buchanan’s judgment upon a brother poet just dead. Since he holds it, the better that it should be expressed. Mr. Buchanan is of the Scotch Scotchy, and he comes from the land where the same sort of criticism attempted to depose Burns from his throne. The article is very cleverly done. But it is not, in the other sense, well done.

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The Liverpool Mercury (20 July 1882 - p.5)

     *** In his letter which appeared on the 4th instant, the writer of this correspondence, by an error of literary judgment, attributed the article on Rossetti in the current number of the British Quarterly to the pen of Mr. Robert Buchanan. We now learn that the article in question was not written by Mr. Buchanan—to whom, therefore, we at once tender the fullest apology, together with this expression of our regret for any annoyance which the too-hasty surmise of our London correspondent may have caused him.

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The Liverpool Mercury (21 July 1882 - p.5)

     To the expression of regret which you tender to Mr. Buchanan for my having connected his name with an article in the current number of the British Quarterly Review, I desire to add my own. Inquiry proves that Mr. Robert Buchanan did not pen the article; and the strictures passed upon him have therefore no justification or foundation. I need hardly say that I have no personal unkind feeling towards Mr. Buchanan whatever, and that the remarks I made were based solely on the question of literary propriety. It is not, indeed, many years ago that I championed him in your columns when he was personally attacked from another quarter; and nothing has occurred since then to alter my respect for one whose talent almost reaches genius. I am sorry for my own sake that I made a mistake. I am glad for Mr. Robert Buchanan’s sake that it was a mistake.

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