ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)
The Critical Response (1)
1. Roden Noel
3. Thomas Bayne
(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.
“Tam Love, a man prepared for friend or foe,
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?
“I stopped, and had some coffee at a stall,
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.
“Lord, with how small a thing
“In poverty, in pain,
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,
“‘O bairn,it is but closing up the een,
“When summer scents and sounds were on the sea,
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?
“Till like a wave, worn out with silent breaking,
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.
“And stilly in the starlight came I backward
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,
“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!
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;
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.
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.”
“O Pan! O Pan! thou art not dead:
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.
[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.]
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.
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.
“The air is hotter here. The bee booms by
• • • • •
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.
“There were no kisses on familiar faces,
“There was no putting tokens under pillows,
“There were no churchyard paths to walk on, thinking
“Till grief should grow a summer meditation,
“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.
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.
“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,
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.
“Yet hear me, Mountains! echo me, O Sea!
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!
“Now an Evangel,
And, with eyes tear-clouded,
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,
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
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
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,
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,
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!
* * * *
We are the Drinkers of Hemlock!
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
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.
“Upward my face I turn to 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,
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.
ROBERT BUCHANAN, the son of a well-known Socialist missionary, long resident in Glasgow, was born at Caverswall, Staffordshire, Aug. 18, 1841, and was educated at the High-school and University of Glasgow. At an early age he began the career of a man of letters, and in 1860 issued his first volume of poems with the title of Undertones. While it occasionally reflected the manner of Browning and Tennyson, the volume clearly showed that it was the offspring of a genuine poet. His second work, Idyls and Legends of Inverburn, while inferior to Tennyson’s idyls as ornate compositions, are for unstudied pathos and humour greatly superior to the laureate’s. In this volume Mr. Buchanan’s foot is on his native heath, which he bestrides with as much pride as affection. London Poems, his third publication, containing the most representative and original of his creations, was followed by a beautifully illustrated volume entitled Ballad Stories of the Affections, translated from the Scandinavian. His other publications are North Coast and other Poems, The Book of Orm, The Drama of Kings, and The Land of Lorne. The latter volume contains a very full and sympathetic account of the Burns of the Highlands—Duncan Ban Macintyre, to whose memory a monument was recently erected at Glenorchy. Mr. Buchanan is also the author of “A Madcap Prince,” a play produced at the Haymarket Theatre, London, 1874, but written in youth; “Napoleon Fallen,” a lyrical drama; and the tragedy of “The Witchfinder,” brought out at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London. He has edited several works, including a memoir of John James Audubon, the American naturalist, written by his widow; an edition of Henry W. Longfellow’s poems; and is a frequent and favourite contributor to many of the leading magazines. Mr. Buchanan also published anonymously two widely-circulated poems, “St. Abe,” and “White Rose and Red,” both of which he has recently acknowledged, and each of which has gone through many editions. An edition of his acknowledged poetical and prose writings is being published in London in five handsome volumes. In 1870 he received from Mr. Gladstone a pension of £100 per annum, in consideration of his literary merit as a poet.
[Note: The poems by Buchanan selected for the volume were: ‘Willie Baird’, ‘The Dead Mother’, ‘The Ballad of Judas Iscariot’, ‘The Battle of Drumliemoor’ and ‘The Starling’.]
From the chapter, ‘Are We Advancing? (1882-1886)’ (pp. 24-28).
So long as pluck and perseverance are held admirable qualities, Mr. Robert Buchanan’s career as a playwright cannot fail to earn for him a certain amount of consideration. In the face of all manner of adverse circumstances he has conquered a footing on the boards. Chief among the adverse circumstances is an incurable crudity of stagecraft, or, in other words, a total want of dramatic tact. Some of his earlier works—such as “The Witchfinder,” “A Madcap Prince,” “Corinne,” and “The Shadow of the Sword”— are unknown to me. The first of his plays which comes within my recollection is “The Nine-Days’ Queen,” a tragedy in blank verse on the subject of Lady Jane Grey, which would probably have been highly successful —last century. Since its production Mr. Buchanan has devoted himself mainly to melodrama, in which, I cannot help fancying, he has set himself to take a grim revenge on the public for their small appreciation of his poetical plays. Whatever the cause, it is certain that a cynical contempt for his audiences seems to be the dominating force in his theatrical inspiration. Mr. Buchanan has a certain standing as a poet and critic. He is a man of much literary faculty and some judgment. It is inconceivable that he should be unaware of the crudity of his dramatic work. I am persuaded that he must deliberately write down to what he imagines to be the taste of his audiences. It is true that a good deal of his fiction is marked by the same coarse-grained, rough-hewn mannerism, but this may be due to a similar scorn for the capacity of a certain section of the reading public. His admiration for Mr. Charles Reade, too, has clearly had a baneful influence on Mr. Buchanan’s literary and dramatic style. He has imitated all that is least admirable in Mr. Reade’s work, and has reproduced his robustiousness without its vigour, his theatricality without its effectiveness. In some cases he has overestimated the degradation of public taste, and has written too low down to attract even the groundlings; but in one or two instances his cynicism seems to have justified itself.1
1 Mr. Buchanan disclaims responsibility for two anonymous plays which have been currently attributed to him—“The Exiles of Erin; or St. Abe and his Seven Wives” at the Olympic, and “Lottie” at the Novelty—the latter an amusing little piece.
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