The Critical Response (1)
1. Roden Noel
2. Edmund Clarence Stedman
3. Arthur Temple
4. Thomas Bayne
From Essays on Poetry and Poets by Roden Noel
(Kegan Paul, Trench and Company, 1886 - pp. 283-303.)
(Originally published in The Gentleman’s Magazine (November, 1875.)
ROBERT BUCHANAN’S POETRY.
(Since this was written Mr. Buchanan has published a poem of wonderful beauty and noble significance, “Balder,” also “Julia Cytherea,” and “Phil Blood’s Leap,” a most spirited ballad. Of this order there are several very remarkable in his last volume, “Ballads of Love and Humour.” I do not here allude to the grand prose romances, “The Shadow of the Sword,” or “God and the Man.”)
EXCEPT by a clique, and perhaps by here and there a small literary buccaneer, who admires nobody but himself and the manes, or rather names, of departed greatness, whose hand is against every man and every man’s against him, the merit of Mr. Buchanan’s poetry is, I suppose, now pretty generally acknowledged.
Refined critics certainly objected in the first instance to Mr. Buchanan’s choice of vulgar everyday subjects. But now they have been driven out of this position, and the new ground taken up against him by a certain school is that he has treated these subjects unpoetically. It is difficult to answer this except by saying that he hasn’t— “Meg Blane” being one of the finest poems of the kind in the language—though occasionally, no doubt, he may be open to the charge. In the “Poems and Ballads of Life” the treatment is indeed somewhat slight; but if it were not so, dramatic propriety would be violated, because the poet’s method is usually to relate his story through a third person who is in the same rather humble class of life as those whose fortunes he narrates. Now in a poem like “Widow Mysie,” I think it may be conceded there is a certain commonness, even vulgarity of flavour, chiefly because the heroine is a commonplace person in commonplace circumstances; and while there is no tragic intensity in these, the humour is not subtle enough to redeem the superficial vulgarity of the subject. For poetry, surely the level of these lines, which gave the key-note of the whole, is low:—
“Tam Love, a man prepared for friend or foe,
Whiskered, well-featured, tight from top to toe.”
But on the whole, Mr. Buchanan in his narrative poems probably makes his people talk more naturally than any other verse-writer of the day. Ought girls of the lower class, like Nell and Liz, to speak in language concocted by a poet out of his own creditably familiar knowledge of the classics, the Italian poets, and Elizabethan English? It is averred by critics that they have no objection to Nell and Liz being heard in verse—they will condescend to listen to them even— but—but what? How does Shakespeare make his clowns, and hinds, and common soldiers, and Dogberries, and even Falstaffs talk? How does Tennyson his “Northern Farmer”? or his Tib and Joan in “Queen Mary”? By no means euphuistically. To my mind the pathetic simplicity of language in one of the most beautiful of these poems, “Liz,” is one of its chief merits, and on the whole the form of the poem is fully as excellent as the substance: if it were more remarkable, the poem of course would not be a quarter so good. Ought Scott to have made Halbert Glendinning or Mary Avenel use the same language as Sir Piercie Shafton?
Some finical, fastidious gentleman objected to the word “costermonger” in “Liz.” It made him stop his ears and give a little scream; but it was appropriate where it stood, and I am sorry Mr. Buchanan has altered it. He has “Joe Purvis” instead, and I am sure the gentleman will object to that equally. It should have been “Reginald Mauleverer,” so as not to offend ears polite. Speaking of his indiarubber ball, the little boy said to his governess: “If you prick it, it will go squash!” “Oh shocking, my dear!” said the prim lady; “you should have said, ‘If you puncture it, it will collapse.’” But Mr. Buchanan won’t, I trust, make gravediggers call spades effodiators, or housemaids call coal-scuttles Pandoras (though, perhaps, they will soon in real life), for all his governesses may say to him. A poet may leave fine language of that kind to advertising tradesmen. The “Last of the Hangmen,” however, seems to me too merely coarse and grotesque—not sufficiently spiritualized. He might do in a Dutch picture; but be is hardly elaborately realized enough for a poetic study even of the Dutch order.
It has been urged again that these poems are too sentimental: so that what seems to be desiderated is this—that costermongers and street women should say very hard, harsh, and commonplace things—perhaps blaspheme?— only in turgid, euphuistic English. Perhaps somebody was right when he said that Mr. Buchanan makes his townspeople and peasants talk a little too much about external nature—but there is generally something in their circumstances that affords a clue to that. Liz, in a very fine passage, expresses her horror of the country, which she had once visited. How would the critics set about presenting such people poetically at all—except by the aid of artificial euphuism? What Mr. Buchanan does is to take such men and women at moments and in moods when some circumstance of their lives brings out the finer and more human traits in them. Over them he sheds the mild light of sorrow, or the stormy glare of tragedy. And he rightly believes that there is this humanity of infinite worth in them all—desiring to clear them from the rags and grime that hide them from persons with pouncet boxes. So in death, common features may seem grand, and assume the semblance of some fairer, nobler relation. Well then, the poet does not make them leave out their h’s, and does not make them talk argot—that is another count in the very self-consistent indictment—but that may not be essential to them; he just indicates their rank by the speech; he makes it “poetical” enough not to be displeasing; not too “poetical” to be out of character altogether. I do not indeed say he might not do what is suggested, and yet leave them poetical enough, as Tennyson, Bret Harte, Col. John Hay, and others have done recently. Indeed he has done so in many pieces.
Picturesque the “dim common populations” are in some aspects, rugged, full of movement and colour, with none of their angles rubbed down in the social mill. And is it not well that a poet should take us with him into the heart of great cities, or into rude huts on the mountain side and on the shore, setting us face to face, heart to heart, with men and women—“fate-stricken” persons, often braving hunger and want, danger and despair, toiling ever to render easier life possible for us—making us know more wisely, because more lovingly; the very waifs, outcasts, and lost children of our human family? They who lounge at club windows, or write leaders for gentlemen, may like to shut out all that from them; it is an offence and a puzzle to them; only “false sentiment,” “philanthropy,” or something equally odious and de mauvais ton notices these things. “Odi profanum!” But let these persons be more tolerant of other tastes; let them cease to suppose that they in their cloisters or clubs are mouthpieces of what is soundest and most enduring in the heart of this nation. Why should they fancy, moreover, that they know so much more of these people than this poet who professes to have suffered and struggled with them—to have sprung from them—and to have experienced that there is a soul of good even in things evil; who, on the whole, with Walt Whitman, from whom he has learnt much, refuses to call anything— except the “fleshly school”—common or unclean? The people, in moments of emotion, have poetry of thought and expression far more genuine than that of the genteel, and they are able to feel—if they have leisure, even to dwell upon their feelings—though they may not dwell so much upon them as we, nor make a luxury of the practice in their hard hand-to-hand fight with stern gross wants. I would not deny that these poems may be too uniformly tearful and sad; nevertheless, the poet has humour very salt and genuine too: I wish he would use that faculty oftener. Poets have it seldom nowadays. Herein, as in other ways, Buchanan sometimes reminds one of Burns.
No doubt such metrical stories have been written before. We have Shenstone, Crabbe, Clare, E. Elliot, and, above all, Wordsworth. But such idyls have not been written, I think, about the inhabitants of cities. To our great novelist, Charles Dickens, we chiefly owe an interest about and knowledge of modern cities, and while Nell a little reminds us of Oliver Twist, Angus Blane in one respect reminds us of Barnaby Rudge. But Mr. Buchanan’s best things are essentially poems, and not novels. Though he has been influenced by his great master—and by that other great master, Wordsworth, who in “Michael” and the “Excursion” led us to feel the nobility and pathos of common life—yet he is thoroughly original. As to Crabbe, though in him there is “iron pathos,” and grim realistic tragedy, yet, as a rule, I cannot feel in him the consecration of the “light that never was on sea or land.” And there is surely very little verbal music in Crabbe. It is photography. The details are not selected.
“John,” “Kittie Kemble,” and “De Berny,” all seem to belong to Mr. Buchanan’s inferior work—in them the motif is too slight, and the metre hardly seems to have sufficient raison d’être, while neither that nor the diction is for its own sake striking. Such sketches are clever, but one can hardly accept them as poems. Mr. Buchanan writes a great deal, and perhaps no one’s work is less equal; but great inequality may be predicated of the best poets. As Byron says to Murray, “What poem is good all through? You may think yourself lucky if half ‘Don Juan’ be good.” It may be said that most of Gray and Campbell is good; but are Gray and Campbell in the first order of poets? And are they good all through? Certainly not, unless mere “correct,” or tumid, bombastic diction makes good poetry—without fire, without emotion, without vision. Yet, Campbell’s odes, and Gray’s “Elegy” are admirable beyond question. Mr. Swinburne says of Byron that you are never secure in him from some hideous dislocation of pinion when be is in full flight. I think that may be true. But you have, unfortunately, to choose between this and a poet who, while remaining on the ground, flaps and beats his wings as if he were flying, or else plays tricks, as of a tumbler pigeon, in mid-air. What poet always soars, and never collapses, or plays fantastic tricks? “Aliquando bonus dormitat Homerus.” And if so, what of the rest?
In estimating a poet’s position I fancy we must ask—not, What bad things has he done? or, What defects are there in his work? but, How good are his best things? and, perhaps, How many good things has he done? To me it seems that there are in Sydney Dobell, and Alexander Smith, a few passages, even lyrics, of such transcendent excellence as almost to counterbalance the marvellous want of organic unity in their productions; yet, these being only passages, one hesitates where to place them—though indeed “the Roman” is good all through. In Buchanan, however, you have poems good, not passages merely. And the question is, therefore, How good are those poems?
What is especially striking about “Nell” is the intensity of its passion; every word sinks home; its brevity gives it high tragic power. “Poetic diction,” and ingenious metrical effects would simply ruin that poem. The lines—
“I stopped, and had some coffee at a stall,
Because I felt so chill,”
in their place are intensely poetical, exactly because there is no “poetic diction” about them. These women are as noble too as Chaucer’s Patient Griseld is.
I hardly know any one who can draw such telling pictures in a few words, or set before you a group of figures with their background so distinctly, as if by a flash of lightning issuing out of the darkness of stormy night.
Before proceeding to notice more particularly “Meg Blane,” I would express regret at not seeing in this collection “Attorney Sneak,” an exceedingly humorous piece; but I am glad to see “Tim O’Hara,” and the “Starling,” of the same order.
Meg Blane was a kind of sailor woman, rough and gaunt, yet with a woman’s nature. She had lived with a man as his wife: he had gone to sea, and she knew not what was become of him. With her, in her hut by the shore, abode her full- grown, half-witted son, and the love these two bore one another is described with much beauty. Of the boldest was Meg Blane in perilous adventures by sea, but she yearned ever, like a true woman, after the absent. One night there was a great storm, which is depicted with intense power. Meg Blane gets some men to go with her in a boat out to a wreck, which breaks up before they reach it; but one man was drifted on shore alive, and borne to a cottage, where Meg afterwards goes to see him while he lies asleep and exhausted. She recognizes in this man her old lover; and most powerful is the picture of this. She withdraws, and returns later—but troubled, and wondering to herself that the joy seems less absolute than she had fancied all these years it would be. Intensely dramatic and moving is the representation of the interview wherein she learns, on presenting to him the half-witted Angus as their “bairn,” that he is married and has children! Some of the most lovely lyrical lines in the language follow:—
“Lord, with how small a thing
Thou canst prop up a heart against the grave!
A little glimmering
Is all we crave;
The lustre of a love that hath no being;
The pale point of a little star above,
Flashing and fleeing,
Contents our seeing.
The house that never will be built; the gold
That never will be told;
The task we leave undone when we are cold;
The dear face that returns not, but is lying
Licked by the leopard in an Indian cave;
The coming rest that cometh not, till sighing,
We turn our tremulous gaze upon the grave!
And Lord! how shall we dare
Thither in peace to fall,
But for a feeble glimmering even there,
Falsest perchance of all?
We are as children in Thy hands indeed!
And thou hast easy comfort for our need:
The shining of a lamp, the tinkling of a bell,
Content us well.
“In poverty, in pain,
For weary years and long,
One faith, one fear, had comforted Meg Blane,
Yea, made her brave and strong;
A faith so faint, it seemed not faith at all:
Rather a trouble, and a dreamy fear,
A hearkening for a voice, for a footfall,
She never hoped in sober heart to hear.
This had been all her cheer:
Yet with this balm
Her soul might have slept calm
For many another year.”
But after this hope failed her she lost her courage at sea, her heart for toil on land; poor Angus, who depended on her, suffered, and was sad as partaking of her sorrow; and this was bitter to her—the stern woman became hard toward men, and fretful, and knew she had not long to live.
“‘O bairn, when I am dead,
How shall ye keep frae harm?
What hand will gie ye bread?
What fire will keep ye warm?
How shall ye dwell on earth awa’ frae me?’
‘O mither, dinna dee!’
“‘O bairn,it is but closing up the een,
And lying down never to rise again:
Many a strong man’s sleeping hae I seen;
There is nae pain.
I’m weary, weary, and I scarce ken why;
My summer has gone by:
And sweet were sleep but for the sake o’ thee!’
‘O mither, dinna dee!’
“When summer scents and sounds were on the sea,
And all night long the silvern surge plashed cool,
Outside the hut she sat upon a stool,
And with thin fingers fashion’d carefully,
While Angus leant his head against her knee,
A long white dress of wool.
‘O mither,’ cried the man, ‘what make ye there?
A blanket for our bed!
O mither! it is like the shroud folk wear
When they are drown’d and dead!’
And Meg said naught, but kissed him on the lips,
And looked with dull eye seaward, where the moon
Blackened the white sails of the passing ships,
Into the Land where she was going soon.”
The man soon followed her. There is a most extraordinary Celtic glamour about this poem, penetrating through the intense and rugged realism of it. And this it is which the author truly conceives to be one great characteristic of his work—though he insists upon the “mysticism” of it almost too strenuously—which exasperates all those (the majority even of intelligent pcople) who detest “mysticism”—does not Mr. Swinburne call philosophy “a pestilential and holy jungle”?—besides indicating a tendency which, I fancy, might become prejudicial to his remarkable realistic human faculty in poetry. Thus Mr. Buchanan himself has perceived that his long “Drama of Kings” was, on the whole, a failure; and I cannot help thinking that the mystical element here unduly prevailed over the human. I shall hardly be suspected of undervaluing philosophy, or the mysterious spiritual element in poetry; but in his presentation of the Napoleons and Bismarck, Mr. Buchanan did not give one the impression of so firm a grasp upon individualities as he does in his portraits from low life. There is much more complexity in characters of this kind, and they are, before all, men of action—their ends being chiefly tangible and practical, however large, and therefore to some extent ideal. Celebrated statesmen may be prominent instruments in the carrying out of certain universal laws, which thinkers may be able to detect; but very seldom are such laws uppermost in their thoughts, even if consciously grasped by their understanding at all. “With how little wisdom is the world governed!” and yet might it not be worse governed with more? It is in the delineation of simpler, ruder natures, swayed by deep emotions, and but half-consciously influenced by the grand wild natural elements around, that Mr. Buchanan excels—what can be finer, for instance, than his “Tiger Bay,” and his picture of the tigerish would-be murderess watching the sleeping sailor in some low lodging of Ratcliffe Highway—not of the whole scene merely, but of the subtle play, and shifting of emotions in the wild woman’s mind, till the better prevail—with that companion picture of an actual tiger in a jungle?
The great Napoleon is, indeed, depicted with some dramatic skill; but the very fragmentary glimpse of him we get in his dispute with the queen and cardinal somehow fails to satisfy; and his solitary broodings, though striking, and possibly appropriate, do not seem sufficient to fill up the portrait of him quite characteristically. We have the same feeling as regards the portraiture of Bismarck, and the Third Napoleon; though one is rather more satisfied with the latter, who indeed seems to have been a brooding, irresolute, somewhat shallow and pretentious person. But here more elaboration, more distinction of poetic language and metre, might have been efficacious in raising the work to a higher poetic level. In fact, one wants here a real drama with movement and development. There is an absence, moreover, of Mr. Buchanan’s special merit—condensation, terseness, intensity. The choruses and semi-choruses are unequal, and too numerous; nor does their moral and intellectual generality seem to harmonize with the fragmentary realistic glimpses of actual passing events—too familiar, because too little spiritualized; less still do I like the imitation of Goethe’s supernatural Faust machinery. Out of Shelley (not to say, in Shelley), one can scarcely read choruses and semi-choruses ad libitum, and not rebel. The whole thing in Shelley is sublimated; it passes in an æthereal region of unearthly and seraphic loveliness.
There is, perhaps, a danger lest “the mystic” should not accept life in all its variety and interaction; and too arbitrarily selecting from his own standpoint what seems to him individually most significant and lofty, the dramatist or narrator may thus too easily become the preacher or moraliser, sliding into turgid and nebulous generalities—far removed from the living order of Shakespeare’s creations—or at least into monotonous mannerism of treatment; and this, even though he may not be ready to swallow whole merely conventional views of virtue. There is always, moreover, a danger of a man posing as mystic or prophet, and contemplating himself in that character—a danger to his insight and art of the same kind as would arise from his considering too much what will make him immediately popular with the many, or with a clique.
Still there are passages of much excellence in this long book, and the author here reprints some of the best of the lyrical ones under the title of “Political Mystics” and “Songs of the Terrible Year.” “Titan and Avatar” is in parts particularly fine, Titan being the People, or the Spirit of Man, and Avatar the great Napoleon. The curse on him pronounced by Titan, whom he has misled with false though specious promises, lured by false fires for his own ends, on whom he has brought so much misery and desolation, is especially striking. The great anarch is doomed to wither away on the lonely rock of St. Helena—as Haydon has painted him—
“Till like a wave, worn out with silent breaking,
Or like a wind blown weary, thou forsaking
Thy tenement of clay,
Shalt wear and waste away,
And grow a portion of the ever-waking
Tumult of cloud and sea. Feature by feature
Losing the likeness of the living creature,
Returning back thy form
To its elements of storm,
Thou shalt dissolve in the great wreck of Nature!”
A sweeping resonant lyric, too, is the “Song of the Sword,” supposed to be sung by the Germans on the coronation of their Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
“Artist and Model” is a poem which I should fancy might commend itself even to the most euphuistic of persons with pouncet boxes, who refuse to let common things and common words come between the wind and their nobility—who invent felicitous, periphrastic disguises for the nakedness of all vulgar little ands or buts—who white the sepulchre, and, like certain tribes, cover the face decorously, leaving other parts exposed. But probably the diction of this poem would seem to them too simple, direct, and exquisitely compliant to the delicate mould and subtle movement of suggested thought or tender emotion. This is just, however, what fulfils my Philistine idea of good expression, and good form, which I also, in my poor way, value.
I shall now say a word about the “Book of Orm.” The more it is read, the more it grows on you. On the whole, I cannot sufficiently express my admiration. Its loose rhythms are usually most skilful, musical, and fascinating. These, harmonizing well with the whole conception, which is Celtic in character, impress you with a sense of originality, as the varied metres of the “Drama of Kings” somehow did not. Thc poem is no less than a contribution in poetic cypher toward the solution of some universal problems— ambitious this!—yet the poet has fairly grasped some of the best thought of the time, even if he have not quite mastered the world’s foremost thinkers. But what is distinctively his own, and of the highest artistic import here, is the manner in which he has seen and successfully presented a few very striking ideas, invested with vivid, noble, and appropriate forms, rising out of the depths of a personal, boldly creative, and profoundly emotional imagination.
“The Vision of the World without Death” is a most admirable attempt to show the use, and even consoling influence of visible death, as also of resting-places for mortal ashes. I am sorry for any who fail to feel the marvellous beauty of this part. In its magical pathos the picture of the mother losing her children without seeing them die is unsurpassable. All this shows a very high and rare imagination.
“And stilly in the starlight came I backward
To the forest where I missed him, and no voices
Brake the stillness as I stooped down in the starlight,
And saw two little shoes filled up with dew,
And no mark of little footsteps any further,
And knew my little daughter had gone also.”
In “Songs of Seeking” the author shows his very characteristic grasp of the great truth which so few can feel, that wickedness is not absolute—not final, therefore; nor Doom—that there is “a soul of good in things evil;” that “God hath made even the wicked to praise Him,” in a far profounder sense than that in which the doctrine of everlasting damnation teaches it. Very beautiful, in their spontaneous informal melody, are the stanzas named “Quest” and the “Lamb of God.”
“As in the snowy stillness,
Where the stars shine greenly
In a mirror of ice,
The reindeer abideth alone,
And speedeth swiftly
From her following shadow
In the moon,
I speed for ever
From the mystic shape
That my life projects,
And my soul perceives,
And I loom for ever
Through desolate regions
Of wondrous thought,
And I fear the thing
That follows me.
Doth thy winged lightning
Strike, O Master!
The timid reindeer,
Flying her shade?
Will thy wrath pursue me,
Because I cannot
Escape the shadow
Of the thing I am?”
“God’s Dream” is really a profound poem. “The Lifting of the Veil” is a vivid, imaginative picture of what would happen to men and women if they did know the whole mystery of God, which they mourn they cannot know. The “Seeds,” too, is a most notable lyric of the development of life, consciousness, power, and pain. The “Devil’s Mystics” are surely somewhat obscure, especially “Roses:” I was glad to see the Spectator’s exposition, which Mr. Buchanan reprints and accepts. His Devil is the incarnation of Evil regarded as Defect. This very familiar metaphysical conception does not lend itself easily, however, to personal symbolism. This mystic “Devil” becomes necessarily a kind of beneficent being, and so loses his very distinctive nature as Devil: as a spirit of evil. To try to render this idea concrete is to fail. Nevertheless, the last lines are extremely suggestive, and might be taken by the author as his motto:—
“The voice cried out, ‘Rejoice, rejoice!
There shall be sleep for evil!’
And all the sweetness of God’s Voice
Passed strangely through the Devil.”
The “Song of Deicides” is extremely vigorous and clever; but the “Vision of the Man Accurst” is a truly grand imaginative effort, and embodies the central truth of Christianity, that utter self-sacrificing love is divine, and is alone capable of prevailing over evil—which truth has been embodied in a supreme manner by Victor Hugo in his “Misérables.” If it were not that, perhaps, the shadowy, phantom-like genius of the whole poem demands it, one might complain of a certain want of complex detail and coherence in the imagery here—but it is Ossianic, and fine in its own large, vague Brocken-spectre style. One “man accurst” alone is not saved from sin, though all beside are saved. He is cast out from Heaven, and blasphemes in a wild region of ice. At length God asks if any will go forth and voluntarily share his doom. At last his mother and his wife go forth from bliss to the loathsome thing, and “kiss his bloody bands.” “The one he slew in anger—the other he stript, with ravenous claws, of raiment and of food.” “Nevertheless,” says the wife—
“‘I will go forth with him whom ye call curst;
I have kis’t his lips; I have lain upon his breast;
I bare him children, and I closed his eyes;
I will go forth with him.’. . .
. . . . A piteous human cry, a sob forlorn
Thrilled to the heart of Heaven. The man wept;
And in a voice of most exceeding peace
The Lord said, while against the breast divine
The waters of life leapt gleaming, gladdening,
‘The man is saved: let the man enter in!’”
Still one feels inclined to congratulate Mr. Buchanan on his having dropped the prophet in his anonymous works, “St. Abe,” and “White Rose.” He has gained variety of human interest by dropping it. In these works he shows, besides matured humour and satirical faculty, dramatic genius also, as journals hostile to Mr. Buchanan (either from personal reasons, or because their editors were dominated, one supposes, by certain cliques, wedded to a particular school), observed only too truly and naïvely, not knowing, unfortunately, of whom they thus wrote! The prosaic baldness, triviality, bad taste, and over-blankness, which certainly do disfigure some of his earlier work, have in these narratives entirely disappeared; while the narratives are much more rich and complex as studies of character, of persons in their mutual life-influence on one another, than anything which has preceded. Thoroughly sincere and graphic studies of external Nature also occur. Notable here, as usually in the author’s work, are its artistic totality and clearness of outline; also the racy, nervous, direct Anglo-Saxon strength of its language, for which we must go otherwise at the present day to Tennyson, or to Professor J. Nichol’s admirable “Hannibal,” and “Themistocles,” to J. A. Symonds, and Sir H. Taylor’s dramas; or back to Byron, Wordsworth, Pope, and Chaucer—notable, too, its absence of affectation, artifice, and general excess. There is no poverty of matter, or extravagance of manner. All this used to be thought essential in the time of Aristotle, and even since. It used to be thought “classical.” But academies have changed their minds. Of course, one may lay too rnuch stress on self-restrained symmetry, and clearness. “Endymion” is beautiful poetry, and Gifford’s “Baviad” is nothing of the sort. Gold ore is better than polished brass snuffers. Still these qualities are something; for they are essential to the greatest artists—for instance, to Æschylus, Sophocles, and Homer.
Yet in the early work, fine as it often was for intensity, and severity of outline, the colouring was almost fatiguing in its lurid and fiery brilliancy; one longed for a little more repose, more delicate complexity of subtly varying hues, more gradations, more half-notes, more tendernesses of shadow, more development of character, such as one finds in life, and in external Nature. Here we have much of all this, without losing breadth and decision of touch, or depth and lustre of tint. Splendidly vivid is the Boss’s tale in “St. Abe;” admirably humorous are the feminine whispers in church during Brigham’s sermon; the sketch of Abe Clewson’s seven wives; and the close analysis of his own character, partly contained in his last epistle to the polygamists of Utah, in which he relates how he fell in love with his own wife—his last and youngest, who also loved him—and how they fled together, he seriously describing himself years after as not saintly enough for Mormonism.
But “White Rose and Red” is in some respects Mr. Buchanan’s greatest poem. I never read a criticism I thought more ludicrously at sea than that in the Spectator, which declared that this poem was remarkable, not for its humanity, but for its descriptions of Nature. These, indeed, are as good as possible, whether luscious tropical descriptions at the beginning, or those of the Great Snow, or that of Drowsietown. But it is the human pictures that one most prizes here. Magnificent is the portrayal of the hunter’s capture by bathing Indian women; as also of Red Rose, the wild Indian girl, who fell in love with Eureka Hart, the tall, handsome “beaver-minded” white hunter, while he roamed. in his youth through a tropical forest—splendid the relation of her tropical love for him, and its transfiguration, not of him, alas! but of his image in her soul. Yet no one without keen humour touched with pity could have done this. While he begins to dream of civilization and proprieties, and her fierce love begins to bore him, she imagines, looking in his fine face, he is brooding over all kinds of Divine projects—the beaver! Then he says he must go, but he will return—and he means it. He gives her a paper scrawled in blood with his name and address. He comes not; she follows him over many weary lands through the Great Snow. She arrives at a cottage door at last with his child—a mighty storm is raging—his wife opens! —a white little wife—to whom before fainting she shows this paper! That White Rose, Phoebe, is admirably painted, in contrast to Red Rose, and all the alternations of her feeling when she knows the truth: she is proper, somewhat cold, civilized, not too much in love, yet kind and good. The man enters; Red Rose clings to him, still full of faith! The humour of the situation almost predominates over the pathos here. Poor treacherous beaver! He does not know what to do between the two women. ‘He had got back; he wanted to “settle down;” perhaps Red Rose would forget him, in time; and what would Parson Pendon say to his marrying a red squaw—not a Christian? Shocking! And then he fell in love— for the first time in love—with Phoebe Anna—so they were married. Noble in the extreme and graphic is the account of Red Rose’s terrible journey to find him. Soon after arriving she dies—nursed by White Rose, with Eureka Hart by; she still believing in him, and that they shall meet in those happy prairies which are the Indian’s Heaven. Alas! alas! White Rose pardons him—and he, did he forget Red Rose? Never!
He sat and puff’d his pipe with easy smile,
Surveying fields and orchards from the porch,
And far away the little village church,
While all seemed peaceful, earth and air and sky,
A twinkle came into his fish-like eye:
‘Poor critter!’ sigh’d he, as a cloud he blew,
‘She was a splendid figure, and that’s true!’”
Grim tragi-comedy! The metres are sparkling and facile; everybody talks, not in poetic diction or heroics, but as everybody would; and the poet’s humour plays like a lambent flame over all. There is a good deal of Chaucer, Burns, and Byron here; yet the poem is thoroughly original—queer, sensuous, tender, serious, wonderful, like life; as I said, the more so that the poet is for the nonce no prophet, and forgets how angry he has been with the “fleshly school!” The writer’s power of painting external Nature has greatly matured. There are no more admirable descriptions extant than in his prose-work on the Hebrides; where also we find one of his most magically affecting tales, “Eiradh of Canna.”
Mr. Buchanan has written some very noble sonnets; “Faces on the Wall,” and those called “Coruisken,” that open the “Book of Orm,” and most powerfully mirror the sublime, desolate scenery of Loch Coruisk, embodying also corresponding moods of desolate doubt and dim aspiration. He occasionally gives us delicate fancies, breathing an aroma of evanescent emotion, such as “Clari in the Well,” and “Charmian.” But in the moralized weird and mystical, and in the spiritualized real, is he most at home. A wonderful piece of work of that kind is the “Ballad of Judas Iscariot,” with its high moral. The “Dead Mother,” and “Lord Roland’s Wife” too are steeped in a similar magical atmosphere, but have a more tenderly human pathos.
The following strange, arresting lines among others express the writer’s central idea most forcibly:—
“O Pan! O Pan! thou art not dead:
Ghost-like, O Pan! thou glimmerest still,
A spectral face with sad dumb stare;
On rainy nights thy breath blows chill
In the street-walker’s dripping hair!” . . . .
By lonely meres thou dost not wait;
But here, ‘mid living waves of Fate,
We feel thee go and come.”
So, accordingly, the poet gives us beautiful lyrics, like a “Spring Song in the City,” the “City Asleep,” and “Two Sons,” as well as powerful sketches like “Barbara Gray.” His utterance here is bold to a degree; he looks beyond what the conventional world, religious or worldly, may say is right, to that which is more absolutely right; even as it is also in accordance with the best instincts of this plain, but not loveless woman’s heart. The man wronged and left her; she went astray with him; but none else had brought love into her narrow and unlovely life: so, as he lies dead in the grim London room, deformed and unbeautiful himself, she forgives, kisses him, and loves on. Of course the “Art for art” school will say that a poet has no business to teach even by implication, to have or express any moral convictions of his own. That I deny. What do they make of Shelley, and Dante? I say this poem is an artistic glorification of the meanest possible subject, and as such a triumph of art. It is more elevating than the skilful presentation of natures, however brilliant, in lower or more evil moods. That may be done most artistically; but it does not open out to the soul the same infinite vistas, tinged with light from above. If there be nobler spiritual elements, and a moral law with sanctions in our nature, the highest art cannot afford to ignore these in dealing with man: the art that does so distorts, or is most contracted in scope. High art will either create high types, contrasting them with low, or look for hidden larger issues and relations in the low. The highest art does not treat man as if he were but an insignificant member of his own generative organ.
Skill in portrayal is essential, and that includes style; but the point of view selected, and the kind of insight displayed mark the difference between high and low art. This seems not to be understood by a certain school of critics. According to their teaching, the skilful painter of a plum should be equal to the skilful painter of a Last Judgment, or a Cornaro family—the late Mr. Hunt to Michael Angelo, or Titian. But however skilful Teniers may be, Raphael, who showed equal skill in higher spiritual regions, is a greater painter. Homer, too, is greater—yet not a more skilful—poet than Horace, or Theocritus. A very skilful cook or cobbler—is he as great an artist as a very skilful architect? The real difficulty, of course, is to balance greater insight, feeling, and organizing imagination in the one case against greater technical excellence in the other, where these qualities do not exist equally proportioned in two writers. According to the bias of individual judgments, there must always be variation in the verdicts. That technical skill is essential is so certain, that no fool ever disputed it The only difference and question in this connection which arises is—what is skill in dealing with a given subject, and who shows it?
Merely didactic, expository, or analytic verse is not poetry—large portions, therefore, of Lucretius, of Mr. Browning, and of that really magnificent poem by Mr. Domett, “Ranolf and Amohia,” are not. But in Pope always, in Dryden sometimes, we have wit playing through all, like a spiritual flame; in other similar poems we have humour. All original poets flush the lives or objects they behold with emotional light from the depths of their own souls; but this light is a revealing, not a misleading one, whether it shine specially upon sensuous and æsthetic, or upon moral and intellectual aspects; others partaking of the same human sympathies are enabled thereby to see as the poet sees: this is the true transfiguring light of art. Some, however, not gifted with the requisite human elements, how clever and cultivated soever, can only mock and decry. And “criticism,” as commonly understood, means the mockery of malice, or incompetence. But general, as well as concrete truth has been, and may yet be poetically presented.
Some poets again are more in harmony with their own age’s most advanced standpoint than others—but a man may be either superficially, or more profoundly, and less apparently in harmony with it. While low clouds are moving one way, high clouds may be moving another; yet the movement of nether mists may be most evident to careless glances of the many—everybody can see which way the straws blow; but because I believe Mr. Buchanan to have given adequate expression in imaginative rhythmical form to some of the deepest special perceptions and ideal aims of the time, I believe him to be one of our foremost living poets, and destined to become (directly or indirectly) one of our most influential.
[Note: An article by Desmond Heath about Roden Noel from the Paragon Review, Issue 7 (Brynmor Jones Library, University of Hull) is available online. It serves as an introduction to Heath’s book about the poet, Roden Noel: A Wide Angle, which includes a section on his friendship with Robert Buchanan. Their friendship is also dealt with in Chapter XI of Harriett Jay’s biography. The surviving letters of Buchanan to Roden Noel are available in the Letters section of the site.]
Back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan
From Victorian Poets by Edmund Clarence Stedman
(James R. Osgood and Company, Boston, 1876 - pp. 342-357.)
ROBERT BUCHANAN. — DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI. — WILLIAM MORRIS.
THROUGHOUT the recent poetry of Great Britain a new departure is indicated, and there are signs that the true Victorian era has nearly reached a close. To speak more fully, we approach the end of that time in which—although a composite school has derived its models from all preceding forms—the idyllic method, as represented by Tennyson, upon the whole has prevailed, and has been more successful than in earlier times, and than contemporary efforts in the higher scale of song.
All periods are transitional; yet it may be said that the calling of the British poets, during the last fifteen years, has been a “struggle,” not so much for recognition, as for the vital influence which constitutes a genuine “existence.” The latter-day singers, who bear a special relation to the immediate future, are like those priests of the Sun, who, on hills overlooking the temples of strange gods, and above the tumult of a hostile nation, tend the sacred fire, in presence of their band of devotees, and wait for the coming of a fairer day. Not that the blood of Englishmen 343 is more frigid, and their wants more sordid, than of old. The time is sufficiently imaginative. Love of excitement, the most persistent of human motives, is strong as ever, But the sources are various which now supply to the imagination that stimulus for which the new generation otherwise might resort to poetry. It is an age of journalism; all the acts of all the world are narrated by the daily press. It is, we have seen, a time of criticism and scholarship, similar to the Alexandrian period of Greek thought. It is the very noontide of imaginative work in prose; and so largely have great novelists supplanted the poets in general regard, that annalists designate the Victorian period as the “age of prose romance.” Finally, and notably within the last decade, readers have been confronted with those wonders of science which have a double effect,—destroying the old poetic diction and imagery, and elevating the soul with beauty and sublimity beyond anything proffered by verse of the idyllic kind. The poets—especially Tennyson, in his recognition of modern science and the new theology—have tried to meet the exigency, but their efforts have been timid and hardly successful. Their art, though noble and refined, rarely has swayed the multitude, or even led the literary progress of the time,—that which verse was wont to do in the great poetic epochs. Year by year these adverse conditions have been more severely felt. To the latest poets, I say, the situation is so oppressive that there is reason to believe it must be near an end, and hence we see them striving to break through and out of the restrictions that surround them.
Where is the point of exit? This is the problem 344 which, singly or in groups, they are trying, perhaps unconsciously, to solve. Some return to a purely natural method, applying it to scenes whose freshness and simplicity may win attention; others withdraw to the region of absolute art, and by new and studied forms of constructive beauty gratify their own taste, and at least secure a delight in labor which, of itself, is full compensation. Some have applied poetic investigation to the spiritual themes which float like shadows among the pillars and arches of recent materialism; finally, all are agreed in attempting to infuse with more dramatic passion the over-cultured method of the day.
In this last endeavor I am sure their instinct is right. Modern art has carried restraint and breeding below the level of repose. Poetry, to recover its station, must shake off its luxurious sleep: the Philistines are upon it. It must stimulate feeling, arouse to life, love, and action, before there can be a true revival of its ancient power.
It would be invidious to lay any stress upon the fact that the body of recent English verse is supplied by those smaller lyrists, who, the poet tells us, never weary of singing the old eternal song. Socialists avow that Nature is unerring in the distribution of her groups. Among a thousand men are so many natural farmers, so many mechanics, a number of scholars, two or three musicians,—a single philanthropist, it may be. But we search groups of a hundred thousand for a tolerable poet, and of a million for a good one. The inspired are in the proportion of diamonds to amethysts, of gold to iron. If, in the generation younger than Tennyson and the Brownings, we discover three or four singers fit to aspire 345 and lead the way, especially at this stage of competition with science and prose romance, there surely is no need that we should wholly despair.
I have spoken elsewhere of the minor poets, and of those specialists who excel in dialect-writing and society-verse, and have derived from their miscellaneous productions an idea of the tone and fashion of the period. As we seek for those who are distinguished, not only by power and individuality, but by the importance of their accomplished work, three or four, at most, require specific attention. Another year, and the position may be changed; for poets are like comets in the suddenness of their appearance, and too often also in brief glory, hyperbolic orbit, and abrupt departure to be seen no more.
Of the four whose names most readily occur to the mind,—Buchanan, Rossetti, Morris, and Swinburne,—the first holds an isolated position; the remaining three, though their gifts are entirely distinctive, have an appearance of association through sympathy in taste or studies,—so that, while to classify them as a school might be unphilosophical, to think of one is to recall the others. Such a group is not without precedent. It is not for this cause that I include the three under one review; if it were so, Buchanan, from his antagonistic position, well might be placed elsewhere. The fact is, that all are latter- day poets, and need not object to meet on the footing of guests in the house of a common friend. With the exception of Rossetti, these later poets are alike in at least one respect: they are distinguished from the Farringford school by a less condensed, more affluent order of work,—are prodigal of their verse, pouring it out in youth, and flooding the ear with rhythm. There is 346 no nursing of couplets, and so fruitful a yield may be taken as the evidence of a rich and fertile soil.
JUDGED either by his verse or by his critical writings, Robert Buchanan seems to have a highly developed poetic temperament, with great earnestness, strength of conviction, and sensitiveness to points of right and wrong. Upon the whole, he represents, possibly more than any other rising man, the Scottish element in literature,—an element that stubbornly retains its characteristics, just as Scotch blood manages to hold its own through many changes of emigration, intermarriage, or long descent. The most prosaic Scotsman has something of the imagination and warmth of feeling that belong to a poet; the Scottish minstrel has the latter quality, at least, to an extent beyond ordinary comprehension. He wears his heart upon his sleeve; his naïveté and self-consciousness subject him to charges of egotism; he has strong friends, but makes as many enemies by tilting against other people’s convictions, and by zealous advocacy of his own.
It is difficult for such a man to confine himself to pure art, and Buchanan is no exception to the rule. He is a Scotsman all over, and not only in push and aggressiveness, but, let me add, in versatility, in genuine love and knowledge of nature, and in his religious aspiration. The latter does not manifest itself through allegiance to any traditional belief, but through a spirit of individual inquiry, resulting in speculations which he advances with all the fervor of Knox or Chalmers, and thus furnishes another illustration of the saying that every Scot has a creed of his own. 347 Great Britain can well afford to tolerate the metaphysics of Scotland for the sake of her poetry. Buchanan’s transcendentalism is mentioned here, because he has made his verse its exponent, and thus, in his chosen quest after the knowledge of good and evil, has placed himself apart from the other poets of his time.
The library edition of his writings, recently issued, does not exhibit accurately the progress of his growth. The poems are not arranged in the order of their composition, but upon a system adapted to the author’s taste. In their perusal this is not the only feature to remind us of Wordsworth, whose arbitrary classification of his works is familiar to all. Both the early and the later writings of Buchanan show that much of his tutelage came from a youthful study of the bard of Rydal Mount, and he thus took a bent in a direction quite separate from that of the modern art-school. What he gained in freedom he lost in reserve, acquiring Wordsworth’s gravest fault,—the habit of versifying every thought that comes to mind. A useful mission of the art-school has been to correct this tendency. Like Wordsworth, also, Buchanan is a natural sonneteer and idyllist, and he resembles the whole Lake school in the Orphic utterance of his opinions upon half the questions that fill the air. Hence some notable mistakes and beliefs, subject to revision; hence, also, ill-conceived and spasmodic work, like the “Napoleon Fallen” and “The Drama of Kings,” of which I believe that only a select portion has been retained in a new edition of this author’s works.
Thus Robert Buchanan is one of the least restrained and most unequal of the younger poets; yet he is to be placed by himself on the ground of his decided 348 purpose and originality. What he lacks is the faculty of restraint. Stimulated, it may be, by his quick success, he has printed a great quantity of verse since the day, fourteen years ago, when David Gray and himself first started for London. That portion which is most carefully finished is, also, the freshest and most original; showing either that in his case the labor limæ is not thrown away, or else that, if the ruggedness of certain pieces is its result, he should have left them as they came from his brain. Of course his early efforts were experiments in verse rather than new and sweet pipings of his own. Undertones consisted chiefly of classical studies,—a kind of work, I should say, apart from his natural turn, and in which he was not very successful. We do not find the true classical spirit in “Pan,” nor in “The Last Song of Apollo,” good as both these pieces are in a certain way. “Polypheme’s Passion,” imitated from Euripides and Theocritus, is nearer the mark. The strength, precision, and beauty of the antique are what evade him. After Keats, Landor, Tennyson, and Arnold, his classicism is no real addition to work of this kind in English poetry.
Five years later his Scottish idyls and legends showed the touch and feeling of the real poet. They introduced us to scenes and language before almost unstudied, and were affecting, truthful, and picturesque. His songs of Lowland superstition are light with fancy, and sometimes musical as the chiming of glass bells. The Inverburn tales, in rhymed-heroic and blank verse, were rightly named idyls. They are exquisite pictures of humble life, more full of dialogue and incident than Wordsworth’s, broader in treatment than Tennyson’s; in short, composed in 349 their author’s own style, and transcripts of the manners and landscape which he best knew. Few poems have more fairly deserved their welcome than “Willie Baird,” “Poet Andrew,” “John” (“The English Huswife’s Gossip”), and “The Widow Mysie.” Buchanan justly may be pronounced the most faithful poet of Nature among the new men. He is her familiar, and in this respect it would seem as if the mantle of Wordsworth had fallen to him from some fine sunset or misty height. He knows the country with that knowledge which is gained only in youth. Like an American poet, and like no British poet save himself, he knows the hills and valleys, the woods and rippling trout-streams. An artist is apt to underrate his special gift. Buchanan is said to place more value upon his town-poems; yet they do not affect us as these rural studies do, and the persons he best describes are those found in bucolic life. His four “Pastoral Pictures” rank with the pastorals of Bryant and Wordsworth in being so imaginative as to have the charm of more dramatic poems. “A Summer Pool” and “Up the River” are full of excellence. The following lines, taken almost at random, show what poetic beauty can be reached in purely descriptive verse: —
“The air is hotter here. The bee booms by
With honey-laden thigh,
Doubling the heat with sounds akin to heat;
And like a floating flower the butterfly
Swims upward, downward, till its feet
Cling to the hedge-rows white and sweet.
• • • • •
The sunlight fades on mossy rocks,
And on the mountain-sides the flocks
Are spilt like streams;—the highway dips
Down, narrowing to the path where lambs
Lay to the udders of their dams 350
Their soft and pulpy lips.
The hills grow closer; to the right
The path sweeps round a shadowy bay,
Upon whose slated fringes white
And crested wavelets play.
All else is still. But list, O list!
Hidden by bowlders and by mist,
A shepherd whistles in his fist;
From height to height the far sheep bleat
In answering iteration sweet.
Sound, seeking Silence, bends above her,
Within some haunted mountain grot;
Kisses her, like a trembling lover,—
So that she stirs in sleep, but wakens not!”
As a writer of Scottish idyls, Buchanan was strictly within his limitations, and secure from rivalry. There is no dispute concerning a specialist, but a host will rebuke the claims of one who aims at universal success, and would fain, like the hard-handed man of Athens, play all parts at once. The young poet, however, having so well availed himself of these home-scenes, certainly had warrant for attempting other labors than those of a mere genre painter in verse. He took from the city various subjects for his maturer work, treating these and his North-coast pictures in a more realistic fashion, discarding adornment, and letting his art teach its lesson by fidelity to actual life. A series of the lighter city-poems, suggested by early experiences in town, and entitled “London Lyrics” in the edition of 1874, is not in any way remarkable. The lines “To the Luggie” are a more poetical tribute to his comrade, Gray, than is the lyric “To David in Heaven.” For poems of a later date he made studies from the poor of London and it required some courage to set before his comfortable readers 351 the wretchedness of the lowest classes,—to introduce their woful phantoms at the poetic feast. “Nell” and “Liz” have the unquestionable power of truth; they are faithfully, even painfully, realistic. The metre is purposely irregular, that nothing may cramp the language or blur the scene. “Nell”—the plaint of a creature whose husband has just been hanged for murder, and who, over the corpse of her still-born babe, tells the story of her misery and devotion—is stronger than its companion-piece; but each is the striking expression of a woman’s anguish put in rugged and impressive verse. “Meg Blane,” among the North-coast pieces, is Buchanan’s longest example of a similar method applied to a rural theme. I do him no wrong by not quoting from any one of these productions, whose force lies in their general effect, and which are composed in a manner directly opposite to that of the elaborate modern school.
As a presentment of something new and strong, these are remarkable poems. Nevertheless, and granting that propagandism is a legitimate mission of art, does not that poetry teach the most effectually which is the most attractive to a poet's audience? Have the great evangelists kept their hearers in an exalted state of anguish without frequent intermissions of relief? Hogarth, in his realistic pictures of low life, followed nature, and made their wretchedness endurable by seizing upon every humorous or grotesque point that could be made. “Nell,” “Liz,” and “Meg Blane” harrow us from first to last; there is no remission,—the poet is inexorable; the pain is continuous; we are willing to accept these lessons, but would be spared from others of the same cast.
Better as a poem, more tempting in its graphic 352 pictures of coast-life and brave sailorly forms, more pathetic as a narrative, and told in verse at once sturdier and more sweet, is that dramatic and beautiful idyl, “The Scairth o’ Bartle,” in which we find a union of naturalism and realism at their best. The lesson is just as impressive as that of “Meg Blane,” and the verse—how tender and strong! I think that other poets, of the rhetorical sort, might have written the one, while Buchanan alone could have so rendered the Scottish-sailor dialect of the other, and have given to its changeful scenery and detail those fine effects which warrant us in placing “The Scairth o’ Bartle” at the high-water mark of the author’s North-coast poems.
Among other realistic studies, “Edward Crowhurst” and “Jane Lawson” will repay attention. That this poet has humor of the Tam-o’-Shanter kind is shown in the racy sketch of Widow Mysie, and by the English and Scottish Eclogues. He also has done good work after Browning’s lighter manner, of which “De Berny” (a life-like study of a French refugee in London) and “Kitty Kemble” may be taken as examples. The latter, by its flowing satire, reminds us of Swift, but is mellowed with the kindness and charity which redeem from cynicism the wit of a true poet. The ease and grace of these two poems are very noticeable.
It is in another direction that Buchanan has made his decided revolt against the modes and canons of the period. The Book of Orm invites us to a spiritual region, where fact and materialism cannot hamper his imaginings. To many it will seem that, in taking metaphysics with him, he but exchanges one set of hindrances for another. It is a natural outcome 353 of his Scottish genius that he should find himself discussing the nature of evil, and applying mysticism to the old theological problems. The “Book” itself is hard to describe, being a study of the meaning of good and evil, as observed through a kind of Celtic haze; and even the author, to explain his own purpose, resorts to the language of a friendly critic, who pronounces it “a striking attempt to combine a quasi-Ossianic treatment of nature with a philosophy of rebellion rising into something like a Pantheistic vision of the necessity of evil.” The poet himself adds that to him its whole scope is “to vindicate the ways of God to Man [sic].” He thus brings the great instance of Milton to sustain his propagandism, but while poetry, written with such intent, may be sensuous, and often is passionate, it never can be entirely simple. The world has well agreed that what is fine in “Paradise Lost” is the poetry; what is tiresome, the theology; yet the latter certainly furnished the motive of England’s greatest epic. In adopting a theme which, after all, is didactics under a spiritual glamour, Buchanan has chosen a distinctive ground. The question is, What sort of art is the result? Inevitably a strange mixture of poetry and prose,—the relative proportions varying with the flow of the poet’s imagination. “The Book of Orm” is largely made up of vague aspiration, rhetoric, padded and unsatisfactory verse. It contains, withal, very fine poetry, of which one or two specimens are as good as anything the author has composed. A portion of the work has a trace of the weird quality to be found in nearly all of Blake’s pictures, and in most of his verse. The “Soul and Flesh,” the “Flower of the World,” and the “Drinkers of Hemlock” are thus 354 characterized. Two episodes are prominent among the rest. “The Dream of the World without Death” is a strong and effective poem: a vision of the time when
“There were no kisses on familiar faces,
No weaving of white grave-clothes, no lost pondering
Over the still wax cheeks and folded fingers.
“There was no putting tokens under pillows,
There was no dreadful beauty slowly fading,
Fading like moonlight softly into darkness.
“There were no churchyard paths to walk on, thinking
How near the well-beloved ones are lying.
There were no sweet green graves to sit and muse on,
“Till grief should grow a summer meditation,
The shadow of the passing of an angel,
And sleeping should seem easy, and not cruel.
“Nothing but wondrous parting and a blankness.”
Of a still higher order is “The Vision of the Man Accurst,” which is marked by fine imagination, though conceits and artificial phrases somewhat lessen its effect. It seems to me the poet’s strongest production thus far, and holds among his mystical pieces the position of “The Scairth o’ Bartle” among the Scottish tales.
In applying the Orphic method to contemporary politics he makes a failure akin to that of Shelley in “The Revolt of Islam.” Having perceived the weakness of his poems upon the Franco-German war, they now reappear to us under new titles, and largely pruned or otherwise remodelled. Much of the political verse is written in a mouthing manner, inferior to his narrative style. The aspiration of Shelley’s 355 writings doubtless went far to sustain the melody that renders them so exquisite. Whatever Buchanan’s mission may be, it detracts from, rather than enhances, his genius as a poet. In reformatory lyrics and sonnets he does not rise so very far above the level of Massey and other spasmodic rhymesters. An American, living in a country where every mechanic is the peer of Buchanan as a reformer, and where poetry is considerably scarcer than “progress,” is likely to care not so much for a singer’s theories as for the quality of his song.
Buchanan’s versatility, and desire to obtain a hearing in every province of his art, have impelled him to some curious ventures, among which are two romantic volumes upon American themes, published anonymously, but now acknowledged as his own. St. Abe and White Rose and Red have been commended for fidelity of local color and diction, but readers to the manner born will assure the author that he has succeeded only in being faithful to a British ideal of American frontier life. To compensate us, we have some thin poetry in his Maine romance, while in the Salt Lake extravaganza I can find none at all. His critical prose-writings are marked by eloquence and vigor, but those of a polemical order have, I should opine, entailed upon him more vexation than profit. He is said to figure creditably as a playwright, “The Witch-Finder” and “The Madcap Prince” having met with success upon the London stage.
As a result of his impulse to handle every theme that occurs to him, and to essay all varieties of style, much of his poetry, even after the winnowing to which it has been subjected, is not free from sterile and prosaic chaff. A lesser fault is the custom of 356 handicapping his pieces with affected preludes, and his volumes with metrical statements of their purpose,—barbarisms taken from a period when people did not clearly see that Art must stand without crutches. Occasionally a theme which he selects, such as the description from Heine’s “Reisebilder” of the vanishing of the old gods, is more of a poem than any verses that can be set to it. Nor do we care for such an excess of self-annunciation as is found in the prelude to “Bexhill.” Faults of style are less common, yet he does not wholly escape the affectations of a school with which he is in open conflict. Still, he can be artistic to a degree not exceeded in the most careful poetry of his time. “The Ballad of Judas Iscariot,” which he has done well to place at the opening of his collection, is equal in finish to anything written since “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and approaches that poem in weird impressiveness and power. Among his sonnets, those of the Coruisken series, sustained by lofty feeling and noble diction, are without doubt the best.
In conclusion, it would appear that his work of the last five years is not an advance upon his Scottish idyls, and that a natural and charming poet has been retarded by conceiving an undue sense of his inspiration as a seer, a mystic, a prophet of the future. Moreover, like Southey, Buchanan has somewhat too carefully nursed his reputation. The sibyls confided their leaves to the winds, and knew that nothing which the gods thought worth preserving could be effaced by the wanton storm. His merits lie in his originality, earnestness, and admirable understanding of nature, in freedom of style and strength of general effect. His best poetry grows upon the reader. 357 He still is young, scarcely having begun the mature creative period, and, if he will study the graces of restraint, and cling to some department of art in which he is easily foremost, should not fail of a new and still more successful career.
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Sketches of Literary Men: Robert Buchanan by Arthur Temple
From The South Australian Register (February, 1876)
The South Australian Register (2 February, 1876 - p.5)
SKETCHES OF LITERARY MEN.
BY ARTHUR TEMPLE.
There is never any lack of young and ambitious poets in England. The aspirants for the laurel rise in the villages and strike along the road to London. The feeblest poetaster whose lines are garnered in the “poet’s corner” of a country newspaper feels that his day may come, and mistaking aspiration for inspiration scribbles on to the neglect of his business and the annoyance of the lieges. Yet out of all this gloomy monotony of mistaken work comes now and then a gleam of true poetic fire. The dim light of early effort and tentative musings burns and brightens in the most unlooked-for places; and amid the fog and smoke, the hurry and worry, the din and turmoil of a great city the poet is born and his genius nourished. The country has given us most of our master singers, but the towns have not failed to contribute a fair proportion. If Tennyson was born among the fens of Lincolnshire, Pope first saw the light of day in London. And, truly, it is among the lowly class whose avocations are of a sedentary and, one may say, meditative kind that the voicefulness of song is heard in weaker or stronger strains. The manufacturing town of Paisley, a former paradise of the handloom weavers, has produced “poets” by the score, among whom are some indeed whose fame is world-wide. Christopher North, Tannahill, and Motherwell are names of note which shed a halo of reputation over this Threadopolis. Of Glasgow it is needless here to speak. It would require many pages of the British Museum Catalogue to set forth the names and works of those who have hailed from this prosperous city on the banks of the classic Clyde. St. Mungo has been the most benign of patron saints—dealing out commercial greatness and wealth with the one hand and garlands for poets and novelists with the other. But, after all, it is not the place that makes the man, it is the man that makes the place. Though born in a garret in a dingy town the heir of fame will in course of time come into his heritage. The Kirkintilloch weaver’s son could nourish his lofty dreams and enrich his mind in the gloomy High-street of Glasgow as well as on the banks of the Luggie, and the son of the pressman of Argyle-street could warble his first notes along the lanes and terraces of his native Glasgow as well as out in the far woods or in the green fields and by the pleasant streams. And so indeed he did.
Robert Buchanan was born in Glasgow and educated there. He is the son of the former proprietor of the Sentinel newspaper, and early began to “see himself in print.” His father’s later years in Glasgow were somewhat unfortunate, but it was long after his son’s name had become familiar to readers of magazines that he removed to London, where he was connected with Temple Bar Magazine until his death. His son wrote a touching poem on his father’s demise, and clung with a stronger affection to the mother who could truly inspire his proud love. Indeed, it may here be remarked once for all that Robert Buchanan, although in some respects a shy man, and in all cases averse to meet the advances of intrusive persons, has in him a deep well of affection, and can form attachments as strong as heartstrings and as lasting as life. It was not mere admiration or friendship that he gave poor David Gray; it was love, deep love, the love of a warm generous soul. There are, indeed few chapters in the history of struggling genius more tenderly winning and beautiful than that which describes the intercourse of these poetic youths. Their minds were interlocked, their thoughts were carried on by the same current, and “their all” remained for years in common. Had David Gray lived he might partly have realized, if not altogether, his wildest estimate of his own powers, and certainly he would have justified and fulfilled the promise which his early writings displayed. Still, I am not sure that he would have surpassed or even have reached the high level of his more vigorous friend Robert Buchanan. These two college companions were about the same age, born in 1838. They were alike in their tastes, their ways, and their aspirations, and on these mutual moods and longings turns, perhaps, the story of them both. Their immature verses were confided to each other. They read together and planned works which were to make them famous. Night and day they were inseparable, filling up the hours now and then by writing “extravagant letters” (as Buchanan terms them) to men of eminence. Nor do these letters seem to have all fallen on barren ground. Monckton Milnes’s (Lord Houghton’s) after-interest in David Gray may be traced to this epistolary boldness, and Buchanan ere he left Scotland had been cheered and encouraged by Hepworth Dixon, Westland Marston, and George Henry Lewes. It was doubtless this encouragement that induced them to take the step proposed by Gray. On a sudden they determined to go to London and storm the literary fortress. Both saw that they must do so if they would realize their dreams and earn that bread which was now a consideration. Unfortunately they started—through making imperfect arrangements—from different railway stations, and did not meet in London for a week. Here Buchanan had engaged a humble lodging, whither later he took his friend David, who had spent his first night in Hyde Park. The abode was hardly suited for the entertainment of the Muses, yet it was in that dingy bedroom up three flights of stairs, in what Gray described as “the dear old ghostly bankrupt garret,” that Buchanan commenced that career which has of late been so brilliant, and fostered those thoughts and fancies which were soon to attract the notice of the world. When Gray died in his lowly Scotch home Buchanan deeply felt his loss, and in prose and verse he has tenderly bewailed his Adonais. But as time went on he found another companion—a fond and tender wife, whose praises he has sung in “To Mary on Earth.”
It was in May, 1860, that Buchanan opened his London campaign. At first he gladly undertook any sort of work of a literary kind, writing stories for the weekly journals and despatching sheaves of verses to the magazines. Meanwhile he laboured hard at the work which was to make or mar him. The strife was for many months a weary one, and for years his life was most disheartening; but even the MSS. “returned with thanks” which at first appalled and now and again deeply pained him became a source of wild derision, and at last failed to affect his now undaunted spirit. Like most young men situated as he was, he mixed freely with the motley crew of writers who find a home and a centre in London. He roamed through Bohemia. He noted the aspects of his humble surroundings, and lived the life which is especially depicted in some of his poems. He truly “learnt in suffering what he taught in song.” His “London Poems” may be traced to the observant period when nothing seemed to escape his keen vigilance, and when necessity drove him against strange characters. There is a pleasurable excitement in Bohemian society which none can imagine who have not entered it. If careless of appearances in dress and at times rather outré in behaviour, the genial members of this frank society are for heartiness and friendliness unmatched in other circles, and if one does not dwell too long among them he will be all the better and more experienced for having mingled his thoughts, drunk his beer, and smoked his pipe with them. Buchanan was not long before he went over the borders of Bohemia into married society, which is rather incompatible with Bohemianism. And now he settled down to earnest work. His days of dreaming became days of steady labour; and the results bear witness to his assiduity. In little more than ten years he has written a whole library of poetry, sketches, essays, and literary notes. He was sensible and prudent enough to know that genius is crushed and obscured by indolence. The most gifted must study to perfect their gifts if they would receive acceptance. Nil sine magno vita labore dedit mortalibus. Besides, Buchanan had already fashioned a theory which he has since formulated and put into practice. His friends were familiar with views which, if strange, seemed sound. The poet is not, in Buchanan’s opinion, a mere hammerman of lines which emit sparks of fancy when struck out on the anvil of some great conception. His existence is not a mere earthy one—it constitutes a new experience. The poet, as Buchanan once said, is he who “sees life newly, assimilates it emotionally, and contrives to utter it musically. His qualities, therefore, are triune. His sight must be individual, his reception of impressions must be emotional, and his utterance must be musical. Deficiency in any one of these qualities is fatal to his claims for office.” And in accordance with this view Buchanan has from the issue of his first work endeavoured to act up to this confession of poetic faith, and in his later works has eminently succeeded.
The first volume Buchanan published was entitled “Undertones,” and was dedicated in grateful terms to Westland Marston, It was looked for with much anxiety by his friends far and near, and its reception was on the whole flattering to the author. I can never forget the enthusiasm which his early friend, “R.L.G.” (who has often experienced the goodness and kindness of Buchanan’s heart) read a letter from “Robert,” telling how his first venture had succeeded, and how the day-star of hope shone big and bright; and looking back now on my first impressions of this first-born of Buchanan’s muse my heart warms as the verses come flooding through my memory, picturing the young poet on the first flush of success, as the crowd of lesser men open a way for him to pass through on his journey to the Temple of Fame. Ay, these were sunny, hopeful days—and the dawn was not deceptive, for long ere the sunset the day has been fair, bright, and beautiful. It is true that in “Undertones” are to be found crudities, repetitions, mannerisms, and other faults which are almost inseparable from tentative works; but there is, too, the glorified presence of genius, the notable manifestation of great and uncommon power. If the flights are daring they are sustained beyond any expectation one could entertain of a first essay. A new significance is imparted to the old legends, reminding one here and there of Keats, but all the same proclaiming the strength and originality of Buchanan. If his fancy like Keats was not yet sufficiently under control one could see that this was a fault that could be mended, and it has been mended. In a second edition, which received another polish, Buchanan added a charming poem called “The Siren.” This poem tells the story of a life with marvellous power, and reflects the strongest impression which, despite his unequivocal first success, had been left on his mind. I have reason to believe that it refers to the late, often too late praise bestowed on genius. The Siren, who entices the mortal until she brings him weary and white-haired to her enchanted home, sings:—
“Call me Love or call me Fame,
Call me Death or Poesy.”
And at the last when she has gained her end she speaks thus:—
“O melancholy waters, softly flow!
O stars, shine softly, dropping dewy balm!
O moon walk on in sandals white as snow!
O winds, be calm, be calm!
For he is tired with wandering to and fro,
Yea, weary with unrest to see and know.”
Here, in fact, we have—in the first book—the first glimpse of Buchanan’s searching spirit, the longing after something unattainable, the request to “tell me more.” His next volume was of an altogether different character. It came like a surprise to the critics, and it became at once the delight of readers of poetry. Within five years after he took up his abode in that mean London lodging he sent forth a work which would have made the reputation of a poet. The freshness, the beauty, the verisimilitude, the insight, the imagery, the human truths dight in words, the “real and homely delineation,” and the wondrous graphic narrative power, all combined to make of “The Idylls and Legends of Inverburn” a brilliant and enduring success. He is indeed
“Wealthy in images the poor man knows,
And household words that make the women weep.”
It would be difficult to single out one idyll to place before its fellows. The first, “Willie Baird,” it is true, had been published by Thackeray in the Cornhill Magazine, where on its appearance it had won golden approval. But the others were in no whit inferior in their realistic pourtrayal of, for the most part, rural life, and for incident and emotional force all claim the highest praise. The simple attachment of the bairn Willie Baird to the old schoolmaster is beautifully moral and wholesome in its nature and result. The child by his winning ways thaws the ice of unconcern and half-scepticism which have frozen up the better part of this lonely, unloved Scotch dominie. The dog, too, whose fondness for Willie, whom he conveyed to and from the school, made Willie ask his teacher “Do doggies gang to Heaven?” plays no unimportant part, even to the following with the schoolmaster poor Willie to the grave, when death has thrown a shadow over his humble home and the old dominie’s heart. The pathos wells out fresh and pure from a heart that must have ached as it penned the lines which have brought tears into mine and others’ eyes whenever they have been read. “Poet Andrew” is a poem devoted to the development of the poetic nature, and in passages is so touching that one must stop to think of all the goodness, love, and truth which are found in out-of-the-way places among the poor and God-fearing. Perhaps the poem impresses me more because I know it is the heart-paining story of David Gray, who, as his loving friend says, has gone “——beyond the silence of the untrodden snow.” But I cannot cite at length, and to do aught else would give a distorted view of this masterpiece of pathos and elevated sentiment. Every page in this volume bespeaks Buchanan’s fondness for the land of his birth, and his perfect knowledge of the life and character of his countrymen. He does not spare the mean and designing, nor any phase of national deformity which meets his “scorn of scorn.” Here, as elsewhere, we perceive that contemptuous tone and scathing denunciation into which he ever breaks out when his sense of justice or propriety has been invaded, and oppression of the humble or “the proud man’s contumely” has vexed his soul; for if Buchanan has one characteristic more marked than another, it is his downrightness, and it is impossible for him to keep it even out of his poetry.
The South Australian Register (9 February, 1876 - pp.5-6)
SKETCHES OF LITERARY MEN.
BY ARTHUR TEMPLE.
ROBERT BUCHANAN.—Part II.
In one of his essays Buchanan has said that “the basest things have their spiritual significance, but when the baseness has escaped the significance is apparent.” He ever keeps this in mind, especially in his earlier volumes. In them he clearly intimates that modern life, even in its homeliest forms, and, I may add, its seemingly vulgar aspects, is supremely fitted for poetic treatment. What he calls his “mystic realism” shines brightly here. He penetrates the coarse, rough exterior, and reveals the beauties within—he opens the leaden casket and brings forth a priceless treasure. This is to some extent true of his “Idyls and Legends of Inverburn;” but it is particularly true of his “London Poems.” These lay bare the sins and sorrows of the weary guilty souls whose vices are held to be a reproach to the nation. Buchanan does not screen their fatal lapses from virtue or approve their errors; he does not attempt to dignify their shame or plead the cause of the fallen creatures who engage his attention. No; he finds some good in the sinner, and perceives that the poor and mean as often sin from habit as from choice, are pushed into crime by a resistless torrent of evil which grows with their growth and strengthens as their years increase. To him sin in rags is no better—if anything it is worse —than sin in silks. He removes the covering and touches the underlying morals of the lowly and the vile, and speaks of their secret, sad, and sombre life. This he has done with characteristic boldness in his “London Poems.” The gallery of portraits here may not be inviting to some, but who that gazes on them will deny their truth!
This volume was published in 1866, and dedicated to his worthy friend Hepworth Dixon, at that time editor of the Athenæum. Buchanan was now living at Bexhill, near Hastings, and enjoying life after the pleasant fashion of a scholar poet. He had been invited by George Henry Lewes, the first editor, to write for the Fortnightly Review almost from the beginning, and was busy on such articles as his Danish Ballads and “Thorwaldsen,” for Buchanan has studied the Danish language with care, and improved his knowledge of it when he went as correspondent for the Star during the Danish-German War. His trips to Norway also improved him in his acquaintance with Scandinavian life and literature, and their influence upon his mind is especially to be seen in his prose writings. At intervals, too, he made trips to the Normandy coast, where the fishing and the boating exactly suited him when in a lotus-eating mood, or when he needed change and repose. The series of lively and descriptive papers on Entrechat (in Normandy), which appeared under the name of “John Banks,” were written by Buchanan, while with a literary friend he was enjoying dolce far niente. This has not been the only nom de plume assumed by Buchanan. Under the pseudonym of “Thomas Maitland” he wrote a well-remembered paper on “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” which drew on him much abuse from the Swinburnians. But as a rule he has either published anonymously, or as he generally does now, with his well-known name signed to the poem or the article.
But to revert to the “London Poems.” They, too, received a fitting reception, although some critics were disposed to attack them on the score of the “mean” subjects with which they dealt. They were, however, wholly mistaken, and failed to perceive the plan on which Buchanan worked. I cannot do better than quote, as I shall presently do, his own words respecting what he calls “mystic realism,” the presence of which is visible from his “Undertones” to his “Drama of Kings.” It may, however, be as well to say here that Buchanan regarded these “London Poems” as the last of his “poems of probation,” and entered thereafter into a more ambitious field, where if his powers are vaster and stronger, they lose I think in other ways. I love to look back on his period of “probation,” and to listen to the homelier and more tender words he uttered before he approached the thrones of fallen monarchs, or the intrigues of selfish and abandoned courts. But one whose ideal is so empyrean, and whose soul is athirst for supremacy among other than lyrists will please himself. Buchanan is a lyrist of the highest order, but this is no reason why he should not also be a dramatist and an epic poet. However, I believe his lyrics will outlast his dramas. I do not, of course, mean to allude to his unsuccessful play of “Hopkins the Witchfinder,” produced at Sadlers’ Wells Theatre, any more than I would think of comparing the readings he gave in London a few years ago with those of Charles Dickens. It is to his written dramas, written in accordance with his matured views of the principles of his art, that I refer. Buchanan closely examines nature from the mystic side, ever avowedly strives to combine reality and what is called mystery. Nearest to him he sees the sublime and inexhaustible, and is aye in a state of wonderment. To quote his own words, written five years ago—“He who can see no poetry in his own time is a very unimaginative person. The truly imaginative being is he who carries his own artistic distance with him, and sees the mighty myths of life vivid yet afar off, glorified by the truth which is Eternal.” Without this there can be no “consecrating gleam of the imagination.” Again he says, “But let it be at once admitted that the poet fails altogether if he fails to lure readers and interest them as they desire. He is no mere moral teacher, but a singer of the beautiful, and his real business in this world is not to join a chorus raised by any group of people, but to explain some point of beauty which has existed altogether hidden until his advent.” Further, Buchanan has more than once in conversation, and once at least in print, declared that he is a realistic mystic who, “seeking to penetrate deepest of all into the soul’s best and finest mood, seizes that moment when the spiritual or emotional nature is most quickened by sorrow or by self-sacrifice, by victory or by defeat.” And surely enough we witness this operation even in his “poems of probation.” It is this enquiring mood which strengthens the effects produced by the “London Poems,” where the poetic forms are found hidden by stained and coarse exteriors.
His sarcastic poem on “Edward Crowhurst,” the rustic poet, does not properly belong to London, but it is made a vehicle for Buchanan’s scorn of intrusive patronage and the sad fate which too often awaits even patient merit. “The Starling,” too, with his mild oaths might have sworn elsewhere, and the “Little Milliner” is a type of many to be found in country towns. But “Liz,” the costermonger’s wench; “Nell,” the murderer’s mistress; “Barbara Gray,” with her sin and suffering; and “Jane Lewson,” with her temptations and repentances, are all characters, alas, of every-day life in London. How true to nature in its viler aspect are the words which Barbara Gray utters over the dead body of her deformed seducer:—
“I would not blush if the bad world saw now
How by his bed I stoop and kiss his brow!
Ay, kiss it, kiss it, o’er and o’er again,
With all the love that fills my heart and brain.”
Or the timidity of Liz, born in a city slum, and feeling thus as she ventures into the country:—
“The air so clear, and warm, and sweet,
It seemed a sin to breathe it.”
But I cannot multiply quotations, so as specimens will merely give two from this book, so full of noble thoughts and true insight into character. Thus of “Liz”:—
“The crimson light of sunset falls
Through the grey glamour of the murmuring rain,
And creeping o’er the housetops crawls
Thro’ the black smoke upon the broken pane;
Steals to the straw on which she lies,
And tints her thin black hair and hollow cheeks,
Her sun-tanned neck, her glistening eyes;
While faintly, sadly, fitfully she speaks.
But when it is no longer light,
The pale girl smiles, with only One to mark,
And dies upon the breast of night,
Like trodden snowdrift melting in the dark.”
Dickens could hardly have hit off with more trenchant force a similar sketch within the compass of the following from “Jane Lewson”:—
“A little yellow woman, dress’d in black,
With weary crows’ feet crawling round the eyes,
And solemn voice, that seem’d a call to prayer;
Another yellow woman, dress’d in black,
Sad, too, and solemn, yet with bitterness
Burn’d in upon the edges of her lips,
And sharper, thinner, less monotonous voice;
And last, a little woman auburn-haired,
Pensive a little, but not solemnized,
And pretty, with the open azure eyes,
The white soft cheek, the little mindless mouth,
The drooping childish languor. There they dwelt,
In a great dwelling of a smoky square
In Islington, named by their pious friends
And the lean Calvinistic minister—
The Misses Lewson, and their sister Jane.”
Buchanan’s scenic descriptions are very fine, but too long for quotation. Nor must I forget to mention his rare fund of humour. In company, especially among his intimates, it breaks forth in cheery exuberance, and now and then it slyly peeps out in his verses. One among others of Glasgow bits of humour that have not been published is quite Horatian in form, and has to do also with a Lydia—
“O Liddy Macpherson ye’ll tell
What the de’il ye ha’e done to oor Johnny.”
His “Wedding of Shone Maclean” is simply inimitable. It appeared among a series of poems contributed early in 1875 to the Gentleman’s Magazine. There is a lilt in the oft-repeated though ever-varying burden which cannot be read without setting the tongue a-dancing.
“At the wedding of Shone Maclean
Twenty pipers together
Came through the wind and the rain,
Playing over the heather.
Brushing the morning dew
Bravely they strutted and blew
Each in his tartan new,
Bonnet and black cock feather:
And every piper was fu,
Twenty pipers together.”
The last of the series I may mention was published in June; but in the first number of the same magazine for 1876 will appear a narrative poem of peculiar pathos. It is a long one, and will run through six months’ issue. Independent of his laboured and elaborate works Buchanan is almost as prolific as ever in his contributions to the magazines, and in fact there is scarcely one for which he has not written, to say nothing of his criticisms in the Athenæum, Spectator, and other weekly periodicals.
Here I must have done for the present with Buchanan’s poetic works. “The Book of Orm—Prelude to the Epic,” is too ambitious a work to be incidentally treated. It moreover contains the personal keynote to all Buchanan’s work; but on this I have sufficiently dilated. It is written in good sonorous blank verse, interspersed with sweet lyrics and exquisite sonnets. “The Drama of Kings,” published a year later (1871) is
“—a sort of tragedy,
A Choric trilogy of tragedies
In the Greek fashion.”
It is difficult to understand at first, and some will never understand it, although Buchanan quaintly suggests rumination before full appreciation. It is the first attempt to treat great contemporary events in a realistic and dramatic form, and is inscribed as a “Drama of Evolution” to the spirit of Auguste Comte. I am not enamoured of the work, and regret to see that the Positivist section of Buchanan’s friends have so far influenced his mind. But no matter. Some of our noblest and profoundest men are ardent disciples of this school, to which I would not venture to say that Robert Buchanan as yet belongs. And whether or not, his living verses and his impassioned lyrics withdraw us from the regions of controversial versification.
Not merely in verse do we find his love of the picturesque assert itself in glowing descriptions which give us insight as well scenery. His prose is suffused with poetic images gleamed in the realms of natural beauty, and they attract by their freshness, vividness, and correctness. With a touch Buchanan gives us in his poems bits of description which it would be hard indeed to match elsewhere. He communes with nature in her varied moods, and makes us feel that whether in the din and tumult of a city or in the placid lake or lonely moor the same bright faculty of revealing what is hidden and describing what is seen never forsakes him. His fidelity to actual life is all the more valuable because it is relieved by sunny fancies and poetic similitudes. Anywhere, everywhere, he sees room for the exercise of his affluent powers, and even while he ponders over weighty matters catches an inspiration from the scenes around.
“Amid the deep green woods of pine, whose boughs
Made a sea music overhead, and caught
White flakes of sunlight, on their highest leaves,
I foster’d solemn meditations.”
Here there is no space to quote at length from his prose works, and I content myself with one selection from his book called “The Land of Lorne.” “The tint of the hills is getting deeper and richer, and by October, when the beech leaf yellows, and the oak leaf reddens, the dim purples and deep greens of the heather are perfect. Of all seasons in Lorne the late autumn is the most beautiful. The sea has a deeper hue, the sky a mellower light. There are long days of northerly wind, when every crag looks perfect, wrought in grey and gold, and silvered with moss, and the high clouds turn luminous at the edges, when a thin film of hoar-frost gleams over the grass and heather, when the light burns rosy and faint over all the hills from Marven to Cruachan for hours before the sun goes down. Out of the ditch at the roadside flaps the mallard, as you pass in the gloaming, and standing by the side of the small mountain loch you see the teal rise, wheel thrice, and settle. The hills are desolate, for the sheep are being smeared. There is a feeling of frost in the air, and Ben Cruachan has a crown of snow.” But whether writing of Norway, or Skye, or the Normandy coast, whether recounting his travels in foreign lands or depicting the scenes of his native country—his fishing excursions or his yacht cruisings—the flash of genius illumines the sketches with colours mixed by a true artist spirit, and gives us pictures that attract by their novelty and charm by their loveliness. The state of Buchanan’s health, no less than his profound inclinations, led him for years to roam where new features of sky and sea, and hill and valley, would endear him more to the physical expressions of God’s glory and draw him nearer to the realization of that dream which ever haunts him. One of his latest poems is the “Song of a Dream,” wherein he says:—
“We were made in a dream, and we fade in a dream,
And if death be a dream we die.”
But he is not one of
“The squeamish dreamers of our time,
Our rainbow bards,”
as I think what I have already said will show. His dreaming is no ordinary business to be read contrariwise or fished out in due form from the packman’s “book of fate.” If troubled with thoughts that make even his Muse restless at times he is not without a faith that aids him to bear the burden of his anxious search after the eternal solution of the problem that he finds in life. In one of his idyls—”Hugh Sutherland’s Pansies”—he compares men to the pansies whom “God the Gardener” tends—
“He smiles to give us sunshine, and we live;
He stoops to pluck us softly, and our hearts
Tremble to see the darkness, knowing not
It is the shadow He, in stooping, casts.”
But the dream ever possesses him—comes to him in Protean forms and will not let him rest. Now and then a calmer mood settles on him, and the good spirits of content and gratitude woo him to the utterance of words that steal into our hearts and make us better than we were. I cannot forbear quoting a sonnet from “The Book of Orm” to illustrate my meaning—
“O sing, clear brook, sing on, while in a dream
I feel the sweetness of the years go by!
The crags and peaks are softened now, and seem
Gently to sleep against the gentle sky;
Old scenes and faces glimmer up and die,
With outlines of sweet thought obscured too long
Like boys that shout at play, far voices cry.
O sing! for I am weeping at the song.
I know not what I am, but only know
I have had glimpses tongue may never speak.
No more I balance human joy and woe,
But think of my transgressions and am meek.
Father forgive the child who fretted so—
His proud heart yields, the tears are on his cheek.
In the “Peepshow; or, The Old Theology and the New,” published in the June number of the Gentleman’s Magazine, another phase of Buchanan’s treatment of serious and religious questions may be seen. This poem evinces his masterly grip of a delicate subject, yet there is not a line to which exception can be taken save by the very “Old Lights.” However, from this side of Robert Buchanan’s character I shall now turn away. Like the rest of him it can bear looking at and looking into, and, indeed, suggests the sincerity of the man and his work.
Back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan
‘Our Modern Poets: Robert Buchanan’ by Thomas Bayne
From The St. James’s Magazine (March, 1876.)
OUR MODERN POETS.
The general definition of poetry is fairly well understood. When certain of our old poets called themselves “Makers,” they differentiated themselves clearly and decisively from other workers in literature. Sir Philip Sidney’s equivalent was “Fainers”—a term that to these times would be applicable mainly to certain writers of verse, who would themselves be the last to see any point in the title. For every real Maker—every “peerless poet” as the “Apologie” has it—there is almost needed a new theory or set of definitions. One finds all the strength and beauty of his art in exact representation, and satisfies himself and his admirers with a faithful copy of Nature. Another balances phrases and makes points by dexterous antithesis, content to remain an acknowledged wit or skilful verbal juggler. There are many that respect the mere outward form and dress but little, if only they can give expression to the thoughts that burn within them; while there are others to whom the flow of the verse is everything, and who will give you melody whatever be the value of their words. There are those who somewhat vengefully sing on though obliged to confess that the British public like them not, and others that ostensibly disarm criticism by coming listlessly forward as the “idle singers of an empty day.” Natural songsters—as the birds are, as Chaucer was, and a few more from his time to Robert Burns and onwards—are never too abundant. In English literature, they might at any time be easily counted on the fingers. Of verse-writers among us there seems to be literally no end, and observers of a statistical turn of mind have from time to time adopted the expedient of naming them in groups, so as to lessen the labour of recognition. Of course critics are fallible, and it is just possible that a mistake may be made now and again, to the horror of the poet, who suddenly finds himself in the wrong pigeon-hole or exalted to the topmost shelf. But the tabulation will be found, on the average, accurate and satisfactory. Dr. Johnson may have been wrong when he invented the somewhat paradoxical title “metaphysical poets,” but it is enough for most readers to learn that an acknowledged critic felt himself justified in applying it.
After all, it comes very much to this, that he is the true poet who manages most successfully to interpret the people’s thoughts and passions, their feelings and desires. There is wealth of truth in Horace’s comprehensive summary, Proprie communia dicere. It involves not only individual application of common tools, but original moulding of identical material. We go to poetry to be pleased, and not to be puzzled. Youthful students of the binomial theorem are hardly likely to care for similar exercise in other departments of intellectual effort. They go to poetry to be strengthened, refreshed, cheered, elevated, consoled; and if they find they are to be annoyed, confused, thwarted, grieved, and generally addled, then it is more than likely they will have none of it. A parable or an allegory is tolerable so long as the ultimate reference is not too remote; when the meaning needs searching for, the chances are three to one that there will be a scarcity of anxious inquirers. There are probably few Englishmen that could stand an examination on Spenser’s involved allegorical puzzle, and thousands of Shakspere’s most intelligent admirers cannot follow the endless theories put forward about his sonnets. Mr. Disraeli sums up the whole matter in “Tancred,” when he says (though hardly perhaps in this connexion) that English readers, in their most serious moods, leave all other poets in order to listen to the sweet singer of Israel.
We take it, then, that poetry is not moonshine, or at any rate that the best kind of it is to be defined as anything but nebulous. Yet here we have Mr. Robert Buchanan coming forward in a manner that casts the metaphysical poets into still deeper shade. Unprejudiced readers had been under the impression that Aristotle included all that was recondite, impracticable, and absurd in that branch of study which he described as being “after” or “outside of” physics, and which has found extraordinary expression in modern times in such deliverances as Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” and “The Secret of Hegel.” The philosophers were supposed capable of going any length: nothing could possibly be too much for them. Their Realism and their Nominalism, their Intuition and their Sensation, their Evolution, their Darwinism, and their Positivism had all come to be looked on as mere party cries, with which ordinary mortals had nothing whatever to do. It was felt that the race had never profited by the bray of philosophic strife, and that the wisest policy would be one of non- interference. Now and then the poets had ventured into this troubled region with more or less success—generally with less. Mr. Buchanan might have profited by the fate of Cowley, of Phineas Fletcher’s “Purple Island,” and of Akenside’s “Pleasures of Imagination.” We had almost added Cowper and Wordsworth; but there is more of the philosophy of human life in their writings than of the philosophy of the schools, and therefore their popularity is likely to be enduring.
But Mr. Robert Buchanan is neither scholastic nor anything else easily definable: he describes himself in an appendix to his poems as “perfectly incurable.” It is always an important step towards an affirmative definition when we reach a distinct negative. Thus when the poet even suspects that there is something wrong in his attitude, when he expresses a strong conviction that the popular verdict will be against him, and adds that he cannot help it, the natural inference is that this poet is not as the majority of poets are.
M. Taine describes Mr. Carlyle’s method as likely to puzzle readers regarding their centre of gravity. They will have a difficulty, he thinks, after a lengthened perusal of the prophet, in being able to state with any confidence whether they are on their head or their heels. If so, how striking would be the predicament of the same students, after grappling with such attractive problems as “the all and the one,” for example, of German philosophy! How they would envy the bliss of that singer who asserted in his innocence that
“Man was made to walk upright and gaze upon the stars.”
If stars are present to their vision, they are very different from the lesser lights that gem the firmament! They are the stars that accompany the bewilderment of a rude and sudden shock; they illustrate the law of cause and effect in every instance of knocking the head against a wall. Milton is not a poet whose eyes are “in flood with laughter,” but he must surely have enjoyed his own description of Satan’s unwitting gambols through Chaos. It is an irresistible and highly emblematic passage. Mr. Robert Buchanan asserts that “Mystic Realism” is the secret of existence and the object of true poetics. So far as we can make out, it is rather the dancing of a feather in a vacuum—
“Infert se septus nebula, mirabile dictu,
Per medios, miscetque viris; neque cernitur ulli.”
Mr. Buchanan apparently has some fears about it himself, and tries to get out of the difficulty by such ingenuous talk as this: “The writer dropped into a world a few years ago like a being fallen from another planet. His first impression was one of surprise and awe; he stood and wondered—and here, on the same spot, he stands and wonders still.” On the first blush the attitude looks rather sublime, but a little familiarity with it is sure to suggest the old saying that extremes meet. At the best it is but a Buddhist and his Nirwhâna; in its most intelligible aspect it is a devotee steadily watching the point of his nose. To ordinary intelligence “Mystic Realism” looks a paradox; it is probably conditioned by descent from another planet.
But it will be better to give a few specimens of Mr. Buchanan’s interpretation of man and his relations than to attempt further definition of it. The author, on his own confession, sprang into full fruition of his powers at the outset—even as the progenitor of the human race did in Eden—and in all the perfection of his mystic panoply, as if from the head of Jove. It may be added, that it would not be profitable, however pertinent, to ask whence the author got the groundwork of his remarkable simile—where did he see the being he resembles—for the Mystic Realist has nothing to do with paltry explanations. He is intuitional, majestic, and oracular. See him, for example, in this “Coruiskeen Sonnet,” entitled, “We are Deathless.”
“Yet hear me, Mountains! echo me, O Sea!
Murmur an answer, Winds, from out your caves;
Cry loudly, Torrents, Mountains, Winds, and Waves—
Hark to me crying all, and echo me:—
All things that live are deathless—I and ye.
The Father could not slay us if He would;
The Elements in all their multitude
Will rise against their Master terribly,
If but one hair upon a human head
Should perish! . . . Darkness grows on crag and steep;
A hollow thunder fills the torrent’s bed;
The wild mists moan and threaten as they creep;
And hush! now, when all other cries are fled,
The warning murmur of the white-hair’d Deep.”
The confident tone of this is the first thing that strikes the reader—our poet is not troubled in the very slightest with doubts. He sends his plummet down the great broad universe, and finds no unfathomable depths. Presumably it was in Scotland that Mr. Buchanan alighted when he came to this terrestrial ball, and had he been anything else than a Mystic Realist it might have been interesting to discuss with him the theology he found prevalent there. As it is, however, we can only, like himself, stand and wonder. Nor shall our surprise be lessened as we leave the doctrines and consider the language of these successive appeals. Surely it is to the Realistic Mystic alone that the “wild mists moan,” and that mountains seem to assert their own immortality by echoing the frantic cry of a poet!
The “Coruiskeen Sonnets” are introductory to the “Book of Orm,” which, it turns out, Mr. Buchanan is willing to risk his reputation on. In a note to the appendix on Mystic Realism, he writes: “The author trusts that future readers will not be misled by the Celtic framework of this poem, which is as modern as any of the rest, and might be entitled, representing as it does the spiritual and non-dramatic side of the author’s nature, the ‘Book of Robert Buchanan.’ Intellectually, it is the key to all his writings.” Some knowledge of this poem, then, is necessary to understand both Mystic Realism and our author. Like the Mysteries of old, this poem undertakes to elucidate the course of events from the Creation to the Day of Judgment, or rather to the purification of the last sinner. The first division of the poem is called the “First Song of the Veil,” in which we find the Creator hiding Himself from His creatures behind a veil of blue, and looking out from time to time at the corruption and misery below.
“Now an Evangel,
Whom God loved deep,
Said, ‘See! the mortals,
How they weep!
They grope in darkness,
They blunder onward
From race to race;
Were it not better,
Once and for ever,
To unveil the Face?’
He said—‘Not yet!
Much is to remember,
Much to forget;
Be thou of comfort!
How should the token
Silence their wail?’
And, with eyes tear-clouded,
He gazed through the luminous,
Folds of the Veil.”
We italicise two lines, to show what Mystic Realism is capable of doing. The picture might be enlarged upon to a painful degree; but we shall only add that, had any but a Mystic drawn it, his conduct would have deserved no description so well as impertinent irreverence. The rest of the “Song of the Veil” describes how Mother Earth, after being at first privileged to look upon the Face, becomes blind, and cannot tell her children of all the ineffable beauty she longs again to behold. They cry, too, that they may be able to look upon it, but they fail to understand the signs all about them. The wise among them scale the heights in quest of knowledge, and, after wasting their energies in vain, they
“Crept faintly down again,
Looking very old.”
The next division of the poem is entitled “The Man and the Shadow.” Here the poet grapples with the two mysteries, the forecasts of immortality and the inexplicable reality of death. In this part there is some fine poetry, which it is possible to separate from the general rhapsody. Before quoting any of it, let us take a passage where a very old man that Orm the Celt meets and walks up a mountain with describes how he became impressed with the terrors of his own existence.
“Dost thou remember more than I? My Soul
Remembereth no beginning.
One still day,
I saw the Hills around me, and beheld
The Hills had shadows,—for beyond their rim
The fiery Sun was setting;—then I saw
My Ghost upon the ground, and as I ran
Eastward, the melancholy semblance ran
Before my footsteps; and I felt afraid.”
The above italics are the author’s; the statement is not so startling as to warrant such special prominence. It is a relief to get away from morbid musing to something that suggests the possibility of cheerfulness in the world, though we shall hardly expect to escape from the Shadow altogether. The following, with some slight qualification, points to a vein of thought worth nearly all the rest of the poem. Orm and his aged companion are looking over a scene of rare magnificence.
“Here, where the grass gleams emerald, and the spring
Upbubbling faintly seemeth as a sound,
A drowsy hum, heard in the mind itself—
Here, in this stillness, let us pause and mark
The many-colour’d Picture. Far beneath
Sleepeth the glassy Ocean like a sheet
Of liquid mother-o’-pearl, and on its rim
A Ship sleeps, and the shadow of the ship;
Astern the reef juts darkly, edged with foam,
Thro’ the smooth brine: oh, hark, how loudly sings
A wild, weird ditty to a watery tune,
The fisher among his nets upon the shore;
And yonder, far away, his shouting bairns
Are running, dwarf’d by distance small as mice,
Along the yellow sands. Behind us, see
The immeasurable Mountains, rising silent
Against the fields of dreamy blue, wherein
The rayless crescent of the mid-day Moon
Lies like a reaper’s sickle; and before us
The immeasurable Mountains, rising silent
From bourne to bourne, from knolls of thyme and heather,
To leafless slopes of granite, from the slopes
Of granite to the dim and dusky heights
Where, with a silver glimmer, silently
Pausing, the white cloud sheds miraculous Snow
On the heights untravell’d, whither we are bound.”
After the old man dies there is some sturdy reflection put into the mouth of Orm, but he and the author elude ordinary intelligence together upon
“The Bow of Mystery that spans the globe!”
The thought is next developed by “Songs of Corruption,” designed to show how the Soul is hindered by the Flesh; and thereafter comes “The Soul and the Dwelling,” which is an attempt to prove that no one human being can know another thoroughly. Those who are not mystics have a belief that “one touch of Nature makes the whole world kin,” a thought which goes considerably deeper than raving of this kind:—
“Lovest thou me,
Belovëd, my belovëd? Soul belovëd,
Do I possess thee? Sight and scent and touch
Are insufficient. Open! let me in
To the strange chambers I have never seen!
Heart of the rose, unopen! or I die!”
The next division of the work is entitled “Songs of Seeking,”—somewhat in the style of that remarkable American prophet, Walt Whitman; and then comes a striking and nearly intelligible fancy entitled “The Lifting of the Veil.” It is descriptive of the supposed effects of the sudden presentation of the Face.
“Thou who the Face Divine wouldst see,
Think,—couldst thou bear the sight and be?”
Some of the pictures are tangible, and painfully vivid. The next series is headed “The Devil’s Mystics,” intended to illustrate the thesis that all Evil is Defect, “but haply in the line of growth.” In this part of the work the poet’s lyric power—which is probably his highest claim as a poet—is well displayed in “The Seeds,” “The Philosophers,” and “Roses.” “The Philosophers” in particular goes with great vigour and a rare melodious swing. There are four stanzas, of which we give the first and the last:—
“We are the Drinkers of Hemlock!
Lo! we sit apart,
Each right hand is uplifted,
Each left hand holds a heart;
At our feet rolls by the tumult,
O’er our heads the still stars gleam—
We are the Drinkers of Hemlock!
We drink and dream!
* * * *
We are the Drinkers of Hemlock!
Spirits pure as snow;
White star-frost is on our foreheads—
We are weary, we would go.
Hark! the world fades with its voices,
Fades the tumult and the cry—
We are the Drinkers of Hemlock!
We drink and die!
The conclusion of the poem—the climax of Mr. Buchanan’s mystical efforts on his own showing—is “The Vision of the Man Accurst.” It describes the last miserable human creature left out cursing in the wide world alone. It deals with a subject as to which the Mystic Realist is more confident than convincing, and on which it were unprofitable to argue with him. His belief is that the Man, after a time of fierce probation, during which reports were statedly taken in to Heaven as to his mood,—and we learn that once “the Lord mused,”—was finally admitted to happiness.
“And in a voice of most exceeding peace
The Lord said (while against the Breast Divine
The Waters of Life leapt, gleaming, gladdening):
‘The Man is saved; let the Man enter in.’”
On the momentous and awful question started here, we offer not a word of comment. The work as a whole is unequal, and certainly overlooks the fact that human life may be bright as well as gloomy, and that there may be as much interest and lasting benefit in a happy contemplation of the sunshine as in a morbid abiding in the shadow.
We have already indicated our opinion that Mr. Buchanan is best when in a lyric vein, but even here his favourite scheme interferes with the genial current of his song. Why should a lark, for instance, as in his “London Lyrics,” be made to sing of thieves, and tears, and agony, and the “human mystery”? So with “Clari in the Well,” “In London, March 1866,” and others—the lyric power is undoubted, the form replete with much beauty and perfection; but the poet seems determined to propound conundrums. “To David in Heaven” is a very fine poem, chiefly because the poet’s human feeling keeps in check his mystic endeavour. Listen, for instance, to this:—
“Upward my face I turn to you,
I long for you, I yearn to you,
The spectral vision 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 secret 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!”
It is not necessary to go over in detail the ballads Mr. Buchanan has written, many of them touching narratives of London life, some of them trifling, and all more or less attuned to the mystic refrain. The “Undertones” are valuable as showing appreciation of Greek culture, lyrical sweetness, and a capable descriptive power. The songs selected from “The Drama of Kings” give evidence of a wisdom that might find additional exercise in still further wielding of the pruning-knife. If the poet would leave Mystic Realism for a time, and confine himself to humorous, descriptive, and lyric poetry, dealing with men and women as he finds them,—or as he might find them, if he moved more and wondered less,— instead of trying to scale the heavens on a ladder of moonshine, the results would be in every way more satisfactory. That Mr. Buchanan can be humorous, pathetic, and natural, when he so wills, his “Idyls and Legends of Inverburn” amply prove. The dry humour, native to the soil, of “Widow Mysie;” the quaint pathos of “Hugh Sutherland’s Pansies,” subdued by high poetic taste; the truth to nature of “Willie Baird,” and “Poet Andrew,” are beyond caviL A few more such cabinet pictures would place their author much higher in the poetic scale than volumes of Mystic Realism. Wordsworth’s Recluse thinks it preferable, after all his wrestlings with deep problems, to keep to the knowable, and he suddenly turns to apostrophise “inglorious implements of craft and toil.” You, he exclaims,
“You would I extol,
Not for gross good alone which ye produce,
But for the impertinent and ceaseless strife
Of proofs and reasons ye preclude—in those
Who to your dull society are born,
And with their humble birthright rest content.”
Very fair specimens of the several styles Mr. Buchanan’s versatile genius adopts are to be found among the poems contributed by him during the last year or so to the Gentleman’s Magazine. If we must have mysticism, it can scarcely be more musically evolved than in the “Song of a Dream,” with its haunting refrain; while for quiet humour, and vivid painting of a homely scene, “The Wedding of Shon Maclean,” with its lilting rhythm, has not often been equalled in modern poetry.
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