ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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The Critical Response (2)

 

1. Alexander H. Japp

2. John A. Steuart

3. James Ashcroft Noble

4. William Canton

5. Richard D. Graham

 

From Popular Poets of the Period edited by F. A. H. Eyles
(London: Griffith, Farran, Okeden, and Welsh, 1889 - pp. 332-337.)

 

Robert Buchanan.
__________

MR. Robert Buchanan’s versatility and undoubted power as a poet have gained him a high place, yet hardly so high as he really deserves. His deep insight into nature and his fine interpretation of the mystical sentiments bred of man’s contact with her, his delicate fancy, his semi-Celtic phantasy, which in his treatment of certain themes imparts such glow and glamour of colour and weird witchery of impression as no other poet of the time has approached, not to speak of his realistic dramatic perceptions as seen in such ballads as “Liz” and “Nell” and “Meg Blane,” combine to place him apart amid the select few the best of whose work is likely to live. He has essayed all styles, from the simple lyric to the dramatic portrait, from the idyll to the satire, from the sonnet to the ode. In all, he shows himself distinctly individual, a man of genius in the truest sense. If he had done no more than write the gently-humorous, pathetic “Idylls of Inverburn,” a high rank would have been assured him. There he is delightfully simple; his language is suited to his theme; he touches the most commonplace things with the light that never was on sea or shore, and yet nothing of truth is sacrificed. This is the true test of such poetry. What could be finer for simplicity of pathos than the close of “Poet Andrew,” after having described so gracefully and effectively his youth, his struggles, his ambitions?— 

“He smiled. . . And at the smile, I knew not why,
It swam upon us, in a frosty pain,
The end was come at last, at last, and Death
Was creeping ben, his shadow on our hearts.
We gazed on Andrew, called him by his name,
And touch’d him softly, and he lay awhile,
His een upon the snow, in a dark dream,
Yet neither heard nor saw; but suddenly
He shook awa’ the vision wi’ a smile,
Raised lustrous een still smiling to the sky,
Next upon us, then dropped them to the flower
That trembled in his hand, and murmur’d low,
Like one that gladly murmurs to himself:
‘Out of the Snow, the Snowdrop—out of Death
Comes Life!’ then closed his eyes and made a moan,
And never spake another word again.”

     Then, in his “Book of Orm,” we see him dealing with all the problems of Life and Death, of Man and Nature, as seen through the Celtic imagination. He translates us to a world of dream, yet a world in which the grand realities of life stand out bold, like vast mountains whose lofty heads are lost in mist, yet faintly outlined. The sections in the “Book of Orm” titled “Songs of Corruption” and “A Dream of the World without Death,” are in the deepest sense informed of imagination and phantasy. You are moved to a sense of some vast, vague, shadowy, impressive presence which, felt or unfelt, is weird, fateful, and inevitable, hovering over all life and touching it with awe and wonder. The manner in which Mr. Buchanan traces out and justifies, in a poetic sense, the bliss of gradual dissolution is at once elevated and powerful. The picture of the void left on the sense and the imagination by the sudden disappearance of all trace, even of the poor body, as the dewdrop melts in the sun, the horror as of some awful fate for ever hovering above and around, is suffused with the sense of mystery and awe, and the recovery, as if from some nightmare dream, is equally fine.

“I awoke, and, lo! the burden was uplifted,
And I prayed within the chamber where she slumbered,
And my tears flowed fast and free, but were not bitter.

I eased my heart three days by watching near her,
And made her pillow sweet with scent and flowers,
And could bear at last to put her in the darkness.

And I heard the Kirk-bells ringing very slowly,
And the priests were in their vestments, and the earth
Dropped awful on the hard wood, yet I bore it.

And I cried, ‘O Unseen Sender of Corruption,
I bless Thee for the wonder of Thy mercy,
Which softeneth the mystery and the parting.

‘I bless Thee for the change and for the comfort,
The bloomless face, shut eyes, and waxen fingers,
For Sleeping and for Silence, and Corruption.’”

     Here the dramatic medium, thin and unsubstantial as it was, preserved unity of impression which, it must be admitted, has not been quite so well preserved in some other of his works, more directly penetrated by what we must, for want of a better term, call the insurgent or revolutionary spirit. His recent poem, “The City of Dream,” powerful and effective as it is, in parts, hardly seems to us so sustained or self-consistent; and the very comparison with Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” which the author himself so boldly suggests by the very form chosen, as well as by the Prefatory poem, strikes us as somewhat unfortunate. But the author’s genius is as fully declared in it as his primary purpose. It makes us think too much, however, of Poe’s idea of long poems as only collections of short ones more or less skilfully connected together; and indeed an exacting criticism might set it down as the besetting fault of Mr Buchanan that he too often tries to do by expansion what could only be accomplished by concentration and more elaborate finish, as he has himself implicitly confessed in his withdrawal of much of that rather ponderous effort, “The Drama of Kings,” which was a fiasco, exhibiting in its worst phase this tendency, which he has learned to guard against, but has not yet completely overcome.
     Perhaps the most effective short poem penetrated by the spirit of revolt is the “Ballad of Judas Iscariot,” which we regard as one of the most powerful and at the same time most finished and musical of any poem of the kind. Judas wanders over the earth without rest, seeking and never finding that which, deep in his heart, he craves—the sense of reconciliation with the Divine. At last he catches a glimpse of a light such as elsewhere never shone, and he makes towards it, to find what he sought:—

“The Bridegroom stood in the open door,
     And he waved hands still and slow,
And the third time that he waved his hands
     The air was thick with snow.

And of every flake of falling snow,
     Before it touched the ground,
There came a dove, and a thousand doves
     Made sweet sound.

’Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
     Floated away full fleet,
And the wings of the doves that bore it off
     Were like its winding-sheet.

’Twas the Bridegroom stood at the open door,
     And beckon’d, smiling sweet;
’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
     Stole in, and fell at his feet.”

     In Mr. Buchanan’s genius is thus wedded the grace and witchery of delicate phantasy with the directest and boldest realism. Nature and man stand between the two as it were; and the force of his sympathies unites them and brings them into accord. Hence, as has been said, “the power of the hills is upon him;” but it is also as true that the power of the cities is upon him too. The mystery, the tragedy of life, even in the lowest conditions, affects him: he sees it in the gleam of the weirdly magical light caught from nature; and whether he indites “Coriusken Sonnets,” in the Isle of Skye, or pens ballads of real life amid the roar of London, one impression of a great haunting problem obtains. The mystery of the union of soul and body, and the mystery also that lies in their separation, with all its haunting suggestions, is often realised; and he has given, perhaps, as weird and effective expression to it as any poet of the day. This has coloured his views of nature, and of human nature, and imparted an individual accent and special tone to much of his more serious verse. As a poet, he sees how much of religion man’s life holds, even when he seems most left to himself—how goodness and evil meet and inextricably intermix in men’s hearts and motives, and he painfully realises that some of the dogmas of the Churches but ineffectually realise and work on this; hence sometimes his apparent heterodoxy—his tendency here and there to bring the different religions to one level. His great poem of “Balder” would almost seem to have been written under this idea, for we cannot accept it as a mere effort to reconstruct the old belief and thought of the early Norsemen. It is too lyrical, too penetrated by a sense of modern ideas, and too quick and alive with the throbbing thoughts of to-day. Re-read with the recollection of such poems as “Six Days and a Sabbath: The Story of an Earthquake,” in the mind, “Balder” cannot but be viewed as a “Confession,” veiled and indirect, it is true, but none the less a confession. Indeed, this element forces itself more and more upon the reader as he studies and becomes familiar with the atmosphere of Mr. Buchanan’s poems. He is alive to every thrill of the intellectual, social, and moral atmosphere, and translates, as his genius dictates, the impression into art. Whatever may be urged against certain of his works as inadequate from the high grounds of art and criticism, it is certain, and is indeed his most obtrusive characteristic, that they are the productions of a man who lives and thinks, and “thinks vicariously,” and to whom nothing that belongs to humanity is of slight importance. He is in touch with all that makes men feel, that makes men suffer, and that makes men lonely, dissatisfied, and despair, and doubt. He has been called the “Laureate of trolls and costermongers,” because he wrote some ballads of low London life, but the reproach was really an honour, because he made the characters speak and reveal what only a genius could discern. “In the Valley of Dead Gods” might be taken as a sort of side-commentary on much of his verse of the more ambitious kind, “Balder,” the “Book of Orm,” &c. Here are a few stanzas from it:—

                   *          *         *          *
“Dark and gigantic, one, with crimson hands
Upstretched in protestation, frowning stands,
     While tears, like blood, his night-black cheeks bedew;
He tears his hair, he sinks in shifting sands—
     Adonai! Lord! art thou a phantom, too?

The sad, the glad, the hideous, and the bright,
The kings of darkness and the lords of light,
     The shapes I loved, the forms whose wrath I flew
Now wail together in eternal night—
     Adonai! Lord! art thou a phantom, too?

Fall’n from their spheres, subdued and overthrown,
Yet, living yet, they make their ceaseless moan,
     Where never grass waves green, or skies are blue—
Theirs is the realm of shades, the sunless zone,
     Where thou, O Master, weeping, wanderest too!

O, Master, is it thou thy servant sees,
Cut down and conquered, smitten to the knees?
     Ah, woe! for thou wert fair when life was new
Adonai! Lord! and art thou even as these?—
     A shape forlorn and lost, a phantom, too?”
                   *          *         *          *

     Against one dogma of Calvinism he has taken up his parable, and has directed several of his poems against it—notably “A Scottish Eclogue.” This is the doctrine of reprobation, of eternal damnation. His faith is wide; and he would fain, in the words of one of Dante’s characters, make the Almighty arms in the long run embrace all that returns to them.
     Mr. Buchanan is thus, in a sense, a moral and religious force as well as a poet, and it is hardly possible to consider him in either aspect separately. His most effective novels also are penetrated by the same ethico-religious aims.
     As a metrist, he is most subtle and skilful in his effects. He sometimes defies technical rule only to show a better way; and, as in the “Book of Orm,” has introduced quite new effects of metre into the English language. No student of poetry or literature can afford to pass him by; and no public reader or reciter should fail to make use of a select number of his pieces; and, notably, the “Step-daughter’s Lament,” at her mother’s grave, should not be forgotten. In lyric-descriptive, Mr. Buchanan has done some of the very finest things. Here are a few verses from his “Spring Song in the City:”—

Now in the busy silence
     Broods the nightingale,
Choosing out a dwelling
     In a dimpled dale;
Round the bower she buildeth,
     Rose-trees wild are growing;
Under her the brooklet sings
     Through the green haze flowing.

She is still and silent
     As a bird can be,
For the red buds only
     Fill the red rose-tree;
Just as the buds blossom
     She’ll begin her tune,
When all is sweet and roses blow
     Underneath the moon.
               *         *
Oh, to be a-roaming
     In an English dell!
Every nook is wealthy,
     All the world looks well;
Tinted smile the heavens
     Over earth and ocean,
Waters flow, fresh winds blow,
     All is light and motion.

     He has also written some powerful ballads based on historical incident, the most powerful and imaginative of which is, perhaps, the “Battle of Drumliemoor,” in which the Scottish Covenanting or Puritan spirit is most dramatically presented.
     Mr. Buchanan is the son of a newspaper editor, and was born in Glasgow in 1840. His father was then connected with the Argus; and was well known in literary circles. His son soon showed great gifts, and his education was carefully attended to.
     As a boy, he rambled much amid the scenery of the West Coast of Scotland and the Hebridean Islands, which he was the first effectively to describe with true poetic and picturesque insight (as his Hebridean sketches prove): the impressions of his boyhood being confirmed, and revised by many later visits, when he made intimate acquaintance also with the Celtic dwellers and their ways. Many hints of the impressions produced by these experiences are found in his writings, as well as of residences among the Celtic people of Brittany, of which many reminiscenses are skilfully made use of in his remarkable story, “The Shadow of the Sword,” one of the most romantic and picturesquely powerful novels of our time. Among his travels are to be found some sketches of Etrètat and the neighbouring coasts, where for a time he resided.
     At an early age Buchanan entered the University of Glasgow, where he was a successful student; but before he had completed his curriculum in arts, he left the city, along with his friend David Gray (whose memoirs he has written), to push his fortunes in London. He had some stories and poems in his pocket; and at first found it hard to get people to believe in him, as has so often been the case before. David Gray sickened and returned home to die, before his book, “The Luggie, and other Poems,” was published, though Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton later) had taken him by the hand. Buchanan remained, and at length found a secured position; Mr. G. H. Lewes and Mr. Hepworth Dixon asserting his claims to recognition. He wrote largely in Good Words and the Argosy, and has contributed to many other periodicals; but his largest works have not been susceptible of magazine publication, though it must be said that some sections of “Balder” appeared in the Contemporary Review.
     At one time, Mr. Buchanan lived at Bexhill-on-Sea, near Hastings, in a pretty little cottage that on one side commanded a view of the sea, and on another of the country stretching over towards Battle. The readers of his poems will often come on little bits of description which, if they happen to be familiar with that district, they could hardly fail to identify. He has himself confessed to the influence of the life at Bexhill in a poetical preface, which he prefixed to a volume of his poems some years ago. Mr. Buchanan spent some years in Connemara, where he made the acquaintance of the Irish people, and studied their characters, his sister-in-law, Miss Harriett Jay, having, however, done more as yet definitely to interpret them in her novels than he has done. But it may be that such poems as the “Wake of Tim O’Hara” are due to these residences.
     More recently Mr. Buchanan has lived in or near London, devoting a good deal of time to writing for the stage, in which he has been successful, especially in his “Sophia,” an adaptation of the “Tom Jones” of Fielding; it is, however, a very free adaptation, with just as much of Mr. Buchanan as of Fielding in it, else it could hardly have succeeded so well with English audiences in these days.
                                                                                                                               A
LEXANDER H. JAPP.

_____

 

From Letters to Living Authors by John A. Steuart
(Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, London, 1890 - pp. 221-235.)

ltlaportsm02

TO MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN.

     SIR,—You are perhaps the best existing type of the militant man of letters. Certainly none is readier to fight, none less awed by the quality of an opponent. You are not daunted by great names, nor restrained by considerations of policy. You donned your armour and furbished your blade as readily and joyously to meet the late Mr. Matthew Arnold as you now assume the fighting gear to meet Mr. Andrew Lang, or Mr. George Moore, or Mr. Edmund Yates, or Mr. Labouchere. The challenge never comes to you in vain; nor are you to be disturbed with impunity. The thistle might well be engraven on your shield, and ‘Ready, aye ready’ would not be an inappropriate motto. Like the bold Macpherson, your literary life has been one of ‘sturt and strife.’ From that early assault on ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry’ to the recent bombardment of ‘Imperial Cockneydom,’ 222 you have encountered many a doughty warrior, and dealt many a weighty and valorous blow. And the spirit of the fray is still strong upon you. To-day, as in times past, you present yourself with girded loins and an undiminished ardour for battle. I suppose there are times when you would really prefer not to fight, but the public knows nothing of you in such moments of weakness. So far as you are known to your readers, the arms are always in order, and the spirit ever eager.
     I am disposed to think that it is not love of fighting for its own sake that leads you to unsheathe your sword so frequently, but a love of truth, a love of fair-play, a love of purity and goodness, a love of high principles and your fellow- men. You are not simply a polemic; though, once you are in the arena, you are as hot and stubborn a controversialist as the late Charles Reade himself. You do not seem, to me, to take up arms for the pleasure of destroying, or the glory of jumping on weak opponents. And certainly you do not take them up with an eye to your own profit. It is not by ‘telling the truth and shaming the deil,’ as the Scottish proverb has it, that 223 men gather in the shekels. Though it is painful to be compelled to make the admission, rather the contrary is the case. ‘If a man would fill his granaries and attain to the sublime heights of worldly prosperity,’ says a quaint old moralist, ‘three things he must earnestly pray to be delivered from. He must petition, first, that he be not stirred up to a vehement insistence on disagreeable truths; what men profess to be deaf to let him be silent on: second, that he be not tempted to cross the vanity or self-love of his fellows; for thereby ensueth bitterness and strife which do mightily hinder a man: third, that he be endowed with the supple properties of the willow, which bendeth gracefully before the blast; for assuredly it cometh to pass that the man like the tree that bendeth not shall be levelled by the hurricane. The Gallic proverb, that there is nothing beautiful but truth, containeth a grievous heresy. Verily it is my opinion that this same wench who is called truth hath been the ruin of many a right excellent man.’ While taking exception to some of the moralist’s sentiments, there can be no question that the policy 224 he inculcates is full of worldly wisdom. None knows better than you how extremely detrimental it is to all one’s worldly interest, in this languid and euphuistic age, to call a spade a spade and a quack a quack. You have recently told us that at one period of your career it became inexpedient to publish your works under your own name, because on some question or other, affecting the weal of the republic of letters, you spoke your mind in forcible Saxon language. Yet this knowledge,—the knowledge that plain speech is inimical to a man’s financial interests— does not now deter you from saying all you wish to say, and saying it in words as plain as those of Swift himself; so that I might appropriately apply to you the lines of Burns to Charles James Fox—

‘My much-honour’d patron, believe your poor poet,
Your courage much more than your prudence you show it.’

And, indeed, one never thinks of your deeds without being struck with your colossal courage. You, more markedly than most, possess that ‘perfect will which no terrors can shake, which is attracted by frowns, or threats, or hostile 225 armies; nay, needs these to awake and fan its reserved energies into a pure flame, and is never quite itself until the hazard is extreme.’ We may call you impetuous and impolitic, but we dare not deny your courage. You shoot your shafts straight at the mark, and not at some substituted simulacrum, some shade or dim adumbration set up as a decoy to deceive the public. When your dander is up, as Dandie Dinmont would say, none may approach you too closely. As Mr. Lowell said of a certain countryman of yours, when you are in the storm and tumult of battle, you are like a three-decker on fire— dangerous alike to friend and foe. Yet no one is readier to own an error or make amends for a wrong. It is not given to every man to be generous as well as just. I believe they are comparatively few who could address such lines as these to an old enemy—

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

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

226 This is, I dare say, as characteristic as anything you have written, and made as great a demand on courage as any conflict in which you ever engaged.
     Moreover, it is evidence that you have learned the greatest lesson which destiny has to teach—that of being true to one’s-self—in other words, the necessity of overcoming all fear—fear to acknowledge a fault as well as fear to storm a stronghold. ‘He has not learned the lesson of life,’ says one whose silver pen you have yourself extolled, ‘who does not every day surmount a fear. . . . Have the courage not to adopt another’s courage. There is scope, and cause, and resistance enough for us in our proper work and circumstance. And there is no creed of an honest man, be he Christian, Turk, or Gentoo, which does not equally preach it. If you have no faith in beneficent power above you, but see only an adamantine fate coiling its folds about nature and man, then reflect that the best use of fate is to teach us courage, if only because baseness cannot change the appointed event. If you accept your thoughts as inspirations from the Supreme 227 Intelligence, obey them when they prescribe difficult duties, because they come only so long as they are used; or if your scepticism reaches to the last verge, and you have no confidence in any foreign mind, then be brave, because there is one good opinion which must always be of consequence to you—namely, your own.’ I do not think it will be denied by any one who has watched your career and studied your writings, that your opinions are most distinctly your own. You do not belong to the flaccid class that eternally assents; you are not one of those who live in perpetual fear of giving offence; nor will it be gainsaid that whatever difficult duties your conscience prescribes, you perform to the uttermost of your ability.
     We may admire your courage, however, without at all concurring in your opinions. Indeed, we will admire the more because of a difference of sentiment. And for myself let me say frankly that from many of your judgments I entirely dissent. Your opinion of Goethe, for example, seems to me altogether unworthy of your perspicacity as a critic, and your liberality as a thinker. Your estimates of 228 George Eliot and Matthew Arnold, too, seem to me curiously unjust. When you call George Eliot a ‘pragmatic rectangular prosaist,’ and speak of the ‘preposterous’ career of the author of Faust, and aver that he really never lived, one is inclined to think that, like David when he slandered all mankind, you spoke in very inconsiderate haste. I for one see nothing preposterous in the career of Goethe, and I think that George Eliot, far from being a prosaist, is, except in occasional lapses, a truly creative artist. But you seem to me most unjust in denying the title of poet to Matthew Arnold. I believe with Mr. Hall Caine that there is poetry in the ‘Strayed Reveller’ and ‘Dover Beach,’ and I find ‘The Youth of Nature’ touching and true. The lines—

‘Race after race, man after man,
Have thought that my secret was theirs,
Have dreamed that I lived but for them,
That they were my glory and joy.
They are dust, they are changed, they are gone!
         I remain,’

seem to me to give out the right tone. But I am more concerned with you as an artist than as a critic.
229 You have been a busy worker in the realm of imagination, and, to my mind, a successful worker. You have written too much to be always at your best, but your worst is never bad. You have not had, or you have not taken, the leisure to excise, polish, and amend your productions, as among present-day poets Lord Tennyson and Mr. Lowell have done, or among past poets Pope and Gray. But you are always a poet, and invariably an artist. Many of your poems are exquisite in form, and nearly all of them attest beyond a peradventure that even at the close of the nineteenth century the spirit of poetry is still in our midst. No one can read Balder the Beautiful, or The Book of Orm, or The City of Dream, without being convinced (if he have an eye and ear for such things) that he is reading the work of a true poet. Nor is your prose less true or less important than your poetry.
     As a novelist you work with a purpose. You descend, as you say yourself, to the heresy of instruction. Many eminent critics do hold it a heresy to descend to instruction in works of fiction, and many great authors are with the 230 critics. Goethe (whom you will permit me to call great), for instance, says in reference to his own Werther, in that autobiography which every student of literature should read, ‘It cannot be expected that the public should receive an intellectual work intellectually. In fact, it was only the subject, the material part, that was considered, as I had already found to be the case among my own friends, while at the same time arose that old prejudice, associated with the dignity of a printed book— that it ought to have a moral aim. But a true picture of life has none. It neither approves nor censures, but develops sentiments and actions in their consequences, and thereby enlightens and instructs.’ These are Goethe’s sentiments on the subject. He did not believe in the novel with a purpose; nor did Scott consider himself under any necessity to be didactic. Shakespeare, likewise, was careless of his opportunities to play the rôle of schoolmaster, and it is my candid opinion that Homer never really concerned himself about the moral and social welfare of his auditors.
     However, the English people, though paying 231 little heed, as a rule, to moral instruction, like nothing better as an amusement; and there is no valid reason for not gratifying their tastes. Moreover, it pays to have a purpose when the purpose is not flaunted too officiously in the reader’s face. Dickens, in various sweet preparations, gave his readers heavy doses of ‘doctrines of reform,’ and they clapped their hands and shouted for joy. Mr. Besant, too, has followed in the footsteps of the author of David Copperfield, with very gratifying success, and Mrs. Ward has enjoyed quite a ‘boom’ as a teacher and reformer. You have, therefore, precedent and example enough in writing romance with a purpose. And let it be granted without demur that in your case the process of indoctrination has been accomplished with a skill and an eloquence that give your novels a high place in the best class of didactic fiction. The Shadow of the Sword is, perhaps, the most powerful polemic against public war that has ever been written; more powerful than all the orations of all the orators from Demosthenes to John Bright. Nor is it less admirable as a work of art than as a protest 232 against the most heinous, because the most cruel and least excusable, crime that darkens the annals of mankind. The characters and situations alike are strong and telling, and abide in one’s memory. In another way your Martyrdom of Madeline is almost as good. But I think it is in God and the Man that you touch high-water mark. That is a powerful, a terrible, a fascinating book. You call it ‘a study of the vanity and folly of individual Hate,’ and surely never before in romance was the folly of individual hate more eloquently and fearfully made manifest. Never before did human being pursue an enemy more fiercely and relentlessly than Christian Christianson, or find revenge so bitter. The character of Christian is titanic— titanic in its ferocity, its tenacity, and its ultimate nobleness. Nothing could be more savage than his appetite for vengeance, nothing more disappointing than the dead-sea fruit to which that vengeance turns in the moment of expected triumph, nothing more touching than the final sorrow and humility of the stricken soul. Like a demon he prays and blasphemes at the beginning—

                           ‘Yield up to me                                                      233
This man alone of all men that I see!
Give him to me and to misery!
Give me this man if a God thou be.

But the cruel heavens all open lie,
No God doth reign o’er the sea and sky,
The earth is dark and the clouds go by,
But there is no God to hear me cry.

There is no God, none, to abolish one
Of the foul things thought, and dreamed, and done!
Wherefore I hate, till my race is run,
All living men beneath the sun.
         .         .         .         .         .         .

O Lord my God, if a God there be,
Give up the man I hate to me!
On his living heart let my vengeance feed,
And I shall know Thou art God indeed.
         .         .         .         .         .         .

The night is still, the waters sleep, the skies
Gaze down with bright innumerable eyes;
A voice comes out of heaven and o’er the sea:
“I am; and I will give this man to thee.”’

     And with the bloodthirstiness of a sleuth-hound he tracks his prey from point to point, on land, on sea, in green England, and amid the snows and ice of the Polar regions, till at last he has him fast; and then—then vengeance swift and terrible—ah! no, only a temporary madness, a momentary exultation, a 234 spasm of cruel delight in the misfortunes of Richard Orchardson, and then God smites the heart of the would-be murderer, till it melts and gushes like the hard rock in Horeb. His behaviour, when Richard Orchardson lies dying before him, is piety itself. ‘When I knew that he was dead indeed, I bent over him reverently, placed his arms down by his side, and seeing his eyes wide open, drew down the waxen lids over the sightless orbs. Then I held a little water in the palm of my hand, and cleansed the dead face; afterwards with careful fingers arranging his hair and beard. Lastly I took one of my rude lights and set it at the corpse’s head, like the death-lights we burn round dead folks in the Fens. . . . When I had ordered all in Christian cleanliness and reverence, I sat and gazed upon mine enemy. . . . Then one still morn, when the air was bright for the place and time of year, I lifted him in my arms and carried him slowly forth across the snow. I had the rude grave all ready, and now I laid him down within it, with his white face to the sky. As I stood above him, and took my last look of him, more snow began to fall. . . . 235 Then standing bareheaded, eager still to keep my pledge to him, I repeated, as far as I could remember, the words of the old sweet Burial Service out of our English Book of Prayer; and when I could remember no more, I stretched out my arms in blessing, commending my enemy’s soul to God. Before I had ended, his face had faded away in the falling whiteness; and seeing it vanish utterly, I sobbed like a little child.’ And so Christian Christianson has his revenge, pouring out his heart in sorrow.
     The other characters are almost equally well drawn, and there are throughout the book many delightful bits of description, and situations that thrill one to the marrow; but over these I may not now linger. Sufficient to say that so long as we have writers writing books like God and the Man, there is still hope for the literature of our country.

Back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan

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From The Sonnet in England, & Other Essays by James Ashcroft Noble
(Elkin Mathews and John Lane, London, 1893 - pp. 158-181.)

 

ROBERT BUCHANAN AS POET

HAD Mr Robert Buchanan added to his other achievements those of a politician and an orator he would have rivalled the versatility of the first Lord Lytton who was surely the most variously endowed Englishman of his time. Though, like his great contemporary Browning, ‘ever a fighter’ he has, so far as I know, kept clear of the arena of political conflict, but he has made his mark as poet, novelist, biographer, (his sketch of David Gray is a delightful piece of work) essayist, critic, and playwright; and though it cannot truthfully be said of him that he has touched nothing that he has not adorned, it may surely be declared that in every kind of intellectual labour to which he has put his hand he has, somewhere or other, left an impress which no seeing eye can mistake for anything but the sign manual of genius. And 159 yet, curiously enough, while Mr Buchanan is essentially a poet and a novelist, playwright, and the rest only, as it were, par hasard, the work which is most characteristic, most truly his own, has obtained recognition noticeably scanty when compared with that accorded to the other work which speaks of a talent rather than a personality. His novels good and bad—and he has produced both—have been read by thousands; night after night his plays, which are sometimes little more than creditable journeyman’s work, have been greeted with the applause of crowded houses; but his poetry, though it has numerous and warm admirers, cannot be said even yet to have caught the ear of ‘the great reading public,’—a fact that is all the more curious because his verse, while by no means devoid of the higher poetical qualities which will always appeal exclusively to the few is peculiarly rich in other qualities which are, in the best sense of the word popular. Yet, strange as it is, it is certainly true that numbers of readers who could stand a fairly rigorous examination in half-a-dozen contemporary poets both of the first and the second rank will confess that Robert Buchanan is known to them only by ‘Phil Blood’s Leap,’ 160 or possibly also by ‘St Abe and his Seven Wives.’
     I have spoken of Mr Buchanan’s versatility as exhibited in various classes of intellectual endeavour— poems, novels, plays, and so forth; but if he is studied simply as a poet this versatility is no less impressive. Apart from the work of the laureate, no body of contemporary verse presents the same variety of imaginative, emotional and intellectual appeal; and though variety is not in itself a thing of price, it becomes distinctly valuable when it can be recognised as an indication of the fecundity of a richly vitalised nature. Now this is the kind of variety which is distinguishable in the work of Mr Buchanan—the variety which must make itself manifest in the outcome of an impulsive energy which no single conduit of expression suffices to exhaust. His purely lyrical poems—such for example as ‘The Fairy Reaper,’ ‘Spring Song in the City,’ and the lyrics in ‘White Rose and Red’— are so full of the essential spirit of song as to leave upon the mind of the sensitive reader the impression that the writer is pre-eminently a lyrist—a simple maker of the winning music of melodious verse. Then, while this impression is strong upon him, he turns to 161 other groups of poems, and finds that though the purely sensuous charm of music is still there, it has taken a subordinate place, and the man who seemed but a singer reveals himself as a dramatic creator, a philosophical mystic, a winning story-weaver, a maker of ballads that have the strength, simplicity and directness belonging to the ballad-work of a less sophisticated day.
     The poetry of ecstatic or rapturous song when seen in its perfect and typical form, as for example in the most characteristic verse of Shelley, has the quality or the defect—for to differing moods it may seem either —of a certain unsubstantiality and vagueness of outline, which find their visual correspondence in the aspect of material objects seen through mist or moonlight. When Mr Buchanan’s verse is most purely lyrical it approaches this effect, but never quite reaches it; it never quits its hold of the tangible, never lacks the full humanity which is compact of sense and soul in vital combination. The difference is almost too subtle and elusive to be expressed in terms of definition, but its reality will be felt and its nature apprehended by any one who comes fresh from the 162 wonderful lyric in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound

‘Life of life! thy lips enkindle’

to any of the ‘Songs of the Veil’ in The Book of Orm, the Celt, where Mr Buchanan’s work, so far as outward form is concerned, bears the strongest resemblance to the work of his great predecessor. The later poet can never detach himself from the simple familiarities of human life, and even when the solemn veil is lifted and the divine Face is disclosed he turns from the ineffable vision to the homely world on which the Face looks down.

‘I awoke my body,
And up the mountains,
With the sweet sun shining
I wander’d free,—
And the hills were pleasant,
Knee-deep in heather,
And the yellow eagle
     Wheel’d over me—
And the streams were flowing,
And the lambs were leaping
     Merrily.

     *         *          *         *
‘Hard by I noted
Little children,
Toddling and playing
     In a field of hay—
The Face was looking,                                                                            163
But they were gazing
At one another,
     And what cared they?
But one I noted,
A little maiden,
Look’d up o’ sudden
     And ceased her play,
And she dropt her garland
And stood upgazing,
With hair like sunlight,
     And face like clay.’

     Of course this is not quoted as an example of Mr Buchanan’s best work, but as an illustration of that instinctive habit of nature which impels him to reach things of spirit through the things of sense, to find in simple familiar humanity an avenue of approach to the unseen and the spiritual. He does not strive to render the mysterious awe of the unveiled Face in the heavens: he shows it reflected in the face of the child on earth.
     It is natural that Mr Buchanan should turn most frequently and spontaneously to those kinds of work in which his native bent towards the treatment of the simple humanities has full play. To compare him with Chaucer would be an absurd extravagance; but it is not extravagant to say that since Chaucer we have had no poet 164 who can be more emphatically described as a poet of flesh and blood. The name of Robert Browning will occur to many as that of a poet to whom the designation would apply, but Browning’s men and women are very largely either representatives of exceptional types, or of familiar types placed in an environment which confers on them an unfamiliar interest—generally the kind of interest involved in a somewhat complex moral problem. Mr Buchanan’s men and women have more of the primitive simple every day humanity which makes a permanent and universal appeal. Willie Baird, Attorney Sneak, Liz, Nell, Widow Mysie, and the three whose varying loves provide the tragic comedy of White Rose and Red are obviously nearer to the common mind and heart than are Bishop Blougram, the Queen of In a Balcony, Sordello, and Caponsacchi, highly vitalised as all these creations undoubtedly are. In sheer vividness of presentment the portrait of Widow Mysie the fascinating inn-keeper—sensuous, warm-blooded, cold-hearted and calculating—is a little masterpiece.

‘Oh, sweet was Widow Mysie, sweet and sleek!
The peach’s blush and down were on her cheek,
And there were dimples in her tender chin
For Cupids small to hunt for kisses in;                                                    165
Dark glossy were her ringlets, each a prize,
And wicked, wicked were her beaded eyes,—
Plump was her figure rounded and complete
And tender were her tiny tinkling feet!
All this was nothing to the warmth and light
That seemed to hover o’er her day and night;—
Where’er she moved, she seem’d to soothe and please
With pleasant murmurs as of bumble bees;
Her small plump hands on public missions flew
Like snow-white doves that flying croon and coo;
Her feet fell patter, cheep, like little mice;
Her breath was soft with sugar and with spice;
And when her fingers—so!—your hand would press
You tingled to the toes with loveliness,
While her dark eyes with lessening zone in zone
Flasht sunlight on the mirrors of your own
Dazzling your spirit with a wicked sense
That seems more heavenly-born than innocence.’

This is an example of Mr Buchanan’s frankly realistic manner, in which the vigorous effectiveness of his flesh and blood treatment of a selected individual or type is most plainly apparent; but there is not less of rich warm vitality in the portraits painted with more of idealistic, romantic, or—as some would put it—poetic feeling. Such eminently characteristic poems as ‘Meg Blane,’ ‘The Scaith of Bartle,’ ‘The Glamour,’ and ‘Poet Andrew’ must be studied as wholes; but a few stanzas may be taken from a winning portrait study which has 166 not, I think, been reprinted from the pages of the Argosy where I read it many years ago. It was called ‘A London Lyric’ and might with propriety have been included in the volume of London Poems.

‘Bell from the North hath journey’d hither,
She brings the scent of heather with her,
     To show in what sweet glens she grew,—
Where’er she treads in any weather,
She steps as if she trod on heather,
     And leaves a sense like dropping dew.

‘The mountains own her for their daughter,
Her presence feels like running water
     Cool’d from the sun in a green glade;
So strange she seems to city seeing,—
A playmate of the winds, a being
     Made of the dew and mountain shade.

‘In the strange street she stops to listen,
Her red lips part, her blue eyes glisten,
     Wild windy voices round her speak;
She sees the streets roll dark and clouded,
Fearless as when she paused enshrouded
     By mists upon a mountain peak.

‘And oft, while wondrous eyed she wanders,
She meets a sweet face, pauses, ponders,
     And then peers backward as she goes,—
As in the far-off solemn places,
She drooped the tenderest of faces
     Over some tender thing that grows.

‘Long have the clouds and winds been by her,                                       167
Long have the waters murmured nigh her,
     And sweet delight in these hath she;
Long has she watched the shapes of wonder
Darken around with crying thunder,
     Yet all have used her tenderly.

         *        *        *        *
‘When mighty shapes had love and pity,
What should appal her in the city?
     What should she fear in sun or shower?
The cloud of life is pleasure-laden,—
She fears it not,—she is a maiden
     Familiar with the things of power.

         *        *        *        *
‘Yet is she; made in mortal fashion,—
A thing of pureness and of passion,
     A winning thing of eyes and lips,
A maiden with a cheek to sigh on,
A waist to clasp, a heart to die on—
     Kiss-worthy to the finger-tips!’

     The vivid realisation which makes these and a score of other portraits glow with the warmth of life is not less manifest in Mr Buchanan’s rendering of nature and in his treatment of incident and situation. No nature-poetry of our time is less subjective than his, or freer from the intrusion of that ‘pathetic fallacy’ which, fascinating as it often is, denotes, as Mr Ruskin has shown, a lapse from perfect veracity 168 of imaginative vision. He is doubtless saved from it both by that healthful outwardness of mind which distinguishes the poet of observation and creation from the poet of sentiment and reflection, and partly by his absorbing interest in humanity which impels him to utilise Nature as a background rather than as a theme. The masterly and impressive picture of the great snow in White Rose and Red, so rich in rapid touches of detail and yet so broad in general effect, seems at first sight to have been painted for its own sake; but we soon perceive that, whatever be the feeling of the reader, it is to the poet simply, if one may so call it, an expedient—a means to the intensification of the pure human interest by the addition of a new element of terror and pathos to the weary pilgrimage of poor Red Rose to the home of the man who has deserted her. It is so everywhere. Nature is always subsidiary, but whenever its aspects or objects come into the composition as necessary elements they are presented with almost the substance and tangibility of things which appeal directly to the physical sensibilities of sight, hearing and touch. The force of the wind, the emptiness of the sky, the swirl of the sea, the mass of the mountain impress 169 us just in that same vivid way that we are impressed by the palpitating humanity of the men and women.
     Such endowments as these are pre-eminently the endowments of the balladist; and Mr Buchanan’s work has nearly always the ballad feeling, and frequently the ballad form as well. For reasons too obvious to need statement the making of ballads—without the final ‘e’—is rapidly becoming a lost art, but Mr Buchanan is one of the very few surviving inheritors of the old tradition. ‘The Ballad of Judas Iscariot,’ one of its author’s most arresting performances, has the directness, simplicity, and glamour of the ancient work, but the intellectual or spiritual conception which dominates it belongs to our own day, and therefore with all its power and beauty it is hardly so representative as are some of Mr Buchanan’s other achievements in this manner. ‘The Lights of Leith’ might, however, be a genuine antique, and it may be worth noting that it was the predecessor by some years of Rossetti’s noble poem ‘The King’s Tragedy,' the only contemporary ballad with which it can properly be compared.

‘“The lights o’ Leith! the lights o’ Leith!”
     The skipper cried aloud—
While the wintry gale with snow and hail                                             170
     Blew snell thro’ sail and shroud.

‘“The lights o’ Leith! the lights o’ Leith!”
     As he paced the deck cried he—
“How merrily bright they burn this night
     Thro’ the reek o’ the stormy sea!”

‘As the ship ran in thro’ the surging spray
     Afire seemed all the town;
They saw the glare from far away,
And safely steer’d to the land-locked bay,
     They cast their anchor down.

‘“’Tis sure a feast in the town o’ Leith,”
     (To his mate the skipper spoke),
“And yonder shadows that come and go
Across the quay where the bonfires glow,
     Are the merry-making folk.”’

But it is not a feast; it is for a much more grim and gruesome function that the fires are blazing on the quay of Leith. Twenty years before, the mate who with the skipper is watching the flickering flames and the black figures which pass and repass before them, has run away from his home and his widowed mother, drawn by the allurements of the adventurous life of the, sea, and now he is returning to her who, he knows, has been waiting for him so wearily, perhaps so despairingly. He leaps on shore and eagerly speeds to the familiar cottage, but though there are lights on the shore there are 171 none in the little window. Still, his mother may be safely asleep in bed, but his eager knocking meets with no reply. The terrible thought of death overwhelms his spirit, though he does not, cannot guess the awful truth. A form draws near the darkness and reveals the haggard countenance of a kinswoman who slowly tells the piteous story. The superstitious pedant King James VI had landed at Leith trembling at the terrors of the sea, and convinced that the spells of witchcraft had raised the storm that had threatened his sacred person. When kings demanded witches there were plenty to find them, and among the three that were found was the lonely old woman.

‘“They bade her tell she had wrought the spell
     That made the tempest blaw;
They strippit her bare as a naked bairn,
They tried her wi’ pincers and heated airn
     Till she shriek’d and swooned awa’!

‘“O Robin, Robin, the King sat there,
     While the cruel deed was done,
And the clergy o’ Christ ne’er bade him spare
     For the sake o’ God’s ain Son: . . .”

‘The lights of Leith: the lights of Leith:
     Like Hell’s own lights they glow
While the sailor stands with his trembling hands
     Prest hard on his heart in woe.

‘“O Robin, Robin . . . they doom’d her to burn                                   172
     Down yonner upon the quay . . .
This night was the night . . . see the light, see the light:
     How it burns by the side o’ the sea!”

The distraught man can hear no more: he rushes madly towards the pyramids of flame that redden the night.

‘What madman is he who leaps in where they gleam,
     Close, close to the centremost form?
“O mither, O mither:” he cries with a scream,
     That rings through the heart of the storm.

‘He can see the white hair snowing down through the glare,
     The white face upraised to the skies—
Then the cruel red blaze blots the thing from his gaze,
     And he falls on his face—and dies.

‘The lights of Leith: the lights of Leith:
     See, see they are flaming still:
Through the clouds of the past their flame is cast
     While the Sabbath bells ring shrill.

‘The lights of Leith: the lights of Leith:
     They’ll burn till the Judgment Day,
Till the Church’s curse and the monarch’s shame
And the sin that slew in the Blessed Name
     Are burned and purged away!’

     This is such powerful work that were any critic to declare Mr Buchanan pre-eminently a balladist it would be difficult to show effective reasons for dissent from his verdict. If, however, I were to ask myself the question ‘What 173 has this poet done that no one else has done at all, or done quite so well, or done quite in the same way,—in short, what is the unique element in his work?’ I should find its answer not in the longer narrative poems such as White Rose and Red, Balder, or his more recent allegorical volumes, not in such dramatic or semi-dramatic performances as Political Mystics and Saint Abe, not in his sonnets or miscellaneous lyrics, not even in his ballads; but partly in the London Poems and in other studies of the homely or terrible realities of the life of the poor, and partly in those remarkable contributions to the literature of poetic mysticism which are most adequately represented in The Book of Orm, the Celt.
     In his choice of subjects for the majority of his London Poems it may be frankly admitted that Mr Buchanan did not take an entirely new departure from recognised poetic conventions. He followed the lead of Wordsworth, who in the earlier days of the century had ‘sought the huts where poor men lie,’ and had succeeded in idealising the most apparently unpromising material, not by ignoring or tampering with prosaic details, but by exhibiting them in front of a moral or emotional background suffused 174 with a light which transfigured and glorified them. It may, however, be noted that Wordsworth had an advantage over the later poet, inasmuch as his poems of the poor were, mainly, indeed almost exclusively, rural idylls. The lowliest life spent in the country, howsoever prosaic in itself, is lived in an atmosphere which is essentially and obviously poetic; and for the imaginative cultivator of cottage domesticities the ground is, as it were, prepared. The poet of lowly town life has no such preparatory assistance. He has to mould to his purpose material which is not merely non-poetic but apparently anti-poetic; he has to deal with a life that is not simply unlovely but squalidly vulgar; and it was in setting himself to this special task that Mr Buchanan won the honours of the successful pioneer. It is not, however, the writer’s choice of theme but his victorious treatment of it which sets these poems in a place apart. Years before Mr Buchanan wrote the monologue of ‘Nell,’ in which the young mother who is not a wife pours out her agonised lamentations for the lover who is to die upon the scaffold, Thomas Hood had sung of the suicide of an ‘unfortunate,’ and by so singing had defied the old traditions of poetical respectability. 175 Still in the midst of the defiance there was a suggestion of compromise. Hood did not dare to be quite true to the actual, and the picture is accordingly painted with a delicately eclectic brush. Everyone knows that any presentment of such a subject as that treated in ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ in which there appears ‘only the beautiful,’ is not simply an idealisation but a distortion of reality; and while true idealisation may enhance the essential veracity of any work of art, this false idealisation must always detract from it. There are two errors into one of which those poets who deal with homely human themes are peculiarly liable to fall. The first is that of men who, like Hood, preserve the poetry by keeping back some of the truth; the second is that of a writer like Crabbe who lets us see all the truth, but is, as a rule, unable to show us the underlying poetry. There are few men who in delineating the wastes and morasses of the human landscape can give us both Dichtung and Wahrheit, but the name of one of the few is Robert Buchanan.
     The poem entitled ‘Liz’ provides an interesting and striking example of this strenuous fidelity to the central truth of things. ‘Liz’ is a girl of the slums who has never seen a green 176 field or walked between the hedges of a rural lane; and standing out among the memories of the short and troubled life she is leaving behind her is the memory of one day when she stole away from the familiar street and knew for once what the country meant. It is an attractive theme that lends itself readily to handling that is at once graceful, sympathetic and not apparently untruthful. If we ask what emotion supplies the obvious key-note of such a sketch, the almost universal reply would be the girl’s rapturous delight in the grass of the meadow, the flower by the wayside, the open undimmed sky. But Mr Buchanan will have none of it, and Liz feels no delight but only a strange homelessness—a dull wonder which is neither pleasant nor painful, but which seems further removed from pleasure than from pain.

‘How swift the hours sped on:—and by and by
The sun grew red, big shadows filled the sky,
     The air grew damp with dew.
     And the dark night was coming down I knew.
Well, I was more afraid than ever then,
     And felt that I should die in such a place—
     So back to London town I turned my face,
And crept into the cheerful streets again;
And when I breathed the smoke and heard the roar,
     Why, I was better, for in London here
     My heart was busy, and I felt no fear.
I never saw the country any more,                                                      177
And I have stayed in London well or ill—
     I would not stay out yonder if I could,
     For one feels dead, and all looks pure and good—
I could not bear a life so bright and still.’

     ‘The cheerful streets,’ ‘in London here my heart was busy and I felt no fear,’ ‘I could not bear a life so bright and still’—what strokes of penetrating truthfulness are these! We feel that the poet of ‘Nell’ and ‘Liz’ has that catholicity and virility of imagination which subjects the ‘shows of things’ to the ‘desires of the mind’ not by the timorous handling of eclecticism, but by the vigorous grasp of the athlete who wrestles with things evil and ugly, and will not let them go until they whisper their secret of beauty.
     It is not often that the work of a poet provides such a marked change of atmosphere as that of which we are conscious when we turn from the London Poems to The Book of Orm, the Celt. It is a passage from all hateful tangibilities of sense to all lovely phantoms of vision, from Seven Dials to the Seventh Heaven; and yet we know that between the two products of the one mind there can be no breach of personal continuity —that an adequate 178 synthesis would exhibit them in obvious and inevitable relations to their source. Nor, indeed, are these relations obscure or difficult of discernment. In the London Poems the most perplexing problems of human life are propounded in those concrete forms which show them in their very nakedness of perplexity. In the Book of Orm there is—not a solution of them: that were too much to expect; but an instinctive outgoing of the spirit in the only direction in which it feels that a solution may possibly be found. From the first ‘Song of the Veil,’ in which we read—

‘How God in the beginning drew
Over her face the Veil of blue.’

     We are led through the ‘Songs of Corruption’ with that strange weird ‘Dream of the World without Death,’ through the ‘Songs of Seeking,’ through the sections entitled ‘The Man and the Shadow,’ ‘The Lifting of the Veil,’ and that most fascinating series of poems ‘The Devil’s Mystics’ to that marvellous ‘Vision of the Man Accurst’ which is to all that has gone before it at once a climax and an interpretation. The veil has been drawn not merely before the arcana of the methods of nature, the mysteries of 179 life and death, but before the secret things of divine providence—before that most wonderful secret of all, the mystery of divine redemption by love. In this final vision we are again in the region of the concrete, for the man who is lifted by the wild wind and whirled away from the heavenly gate to the dark ice-bound shore of the underworld where he stands or stalks, shivering and despairing, crying only for

‘A face to look upon, a heart that beats,
A hand to touch,—’

is, in all human essentials, a figure who might have filled the central place in one of the London Poems. It is only the conditions that are reversed. In the earlier book we are before the veil; in the later book we are behind it; and to the emancipated imagination of the poet are disclosed the living forces which work for salvation in that inner light which to the eye of sense is but darkness. Perhaps for most readers the best way of studying this volume of mystical utterances is to read the last poem first,—as in it the informing idea of the whole work is seen free from the symbolism which, though to certain races—and to certain minds of every race—the most natural mode of presenting a 180 spiritual conception, is to the average Englishman a hindrance rather than a help. If, however, this method be adopted, the significance of the book can hardly be missed even by the most matter-of-fact reader. It is a vindication of that higher optimism which does not content itself with a lazy repetition of the maxim ‘whatever is, is right,’ but only with an assured faith in a Being whose existence and activity provide a guarantee that the thing which is and which is recognised as evil must be doomed to ultimate destruction. This is the plea itself; and the force of its emotional logic lies in the fact that the apparent incredibility of this conception of a prevailing goodness is frankly admitted—is indeed insisted upon through all the poems which are informed with the symbolism of the veil; and that yet, notwithstanding this insistence the final impression is not one of dubitation but of assured faith.
     This is not a critical estimate of Mr Buchanan’s poetry, it is, to use Mr Pater’s happy word, an ‘appreciation’ of those portions of it which one reader out of many has found of special worth and interest. Picturesqueness, passion, humour, and pathos, fecundity of imagination, felicity of fancy, and variety of 181 melody are all present in his verse, but it has seemed well to one admirer of it to lay final emphasis upon something which belongs less to its art than to its substance— the spiritual vision which discerns the divine in the human; which sees in the lost souls of Judas Iscariot, the nameless ‘man accurst,’ and Ratcliffe Meg of ‘Tiger Bay’—

‘A spark that grows in the dark;
A spark that burns in the brain;
Spite of the curse and the stain;
Over the sea and the plain,
And in street and lane.’

Back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan

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‘The Earlier Work of Robert Buchanan’ by William Canton
From The Bookman (July, 1896 - pp. 108-109.)

 

THE EARLIER WORK OF ROBERT BUCHANAN.

IN venturing on a brief survey of Mr. Buchanan’s earlier work, I have drawn the line at the publication of “God and the Man” in 1881; and that not wholly arbitrarily, for with a singular frequency men seem to become aware, shortly after turning forty, of a marked change in their out look on life; there is a new light on the landscape, a fresh feeling in the air, a suspicion, if not an actual perception, in their minds that they have reached “the second spring”; and one fancies one traces in the writings of the poets evidence that they too, in spite of their perennial youth, are subject to the ordinary dispensation. During the decade and a half which has since elapsed we have forgotten many men and many books—for after all we must live for our own day and in our own way—and among the latter there seems some reason to fear that we have too readily let slip from mind rather than from memory the large and splendid contribution which Mr. Buchanan made to our literature in the preceding twenty years.
     As one turns over the pages of his “Poetical Works,” perhaps the first thing that strike attention is the remarkable change which has taken place in the mode and method of poetry. The liberal canvas with its great design and free dashes of colour appears to be a thing of the past. We have grown lyrical and critical, timorous of size, intent on condensation and brevity, somewhat too exclusively anxious about form and beauty and perfection of phrase and cadence. It is not easy to escape the regret that we have not more abundantly the full-blooded vigour of the older generation combined with the delightful and fastidious workmanship of to-day.
     Mr. Buchanan’s first unquestionable “success” was achieved by the “London Poems” in 1866, but long before that he had produced work of exceptionally fine quality. Had “Undertones” contained nothing but the poem, pathetic and beautiful, and a little too prolix, “To David in Heaven,” it would have been worth mentioning, but the little collection of mythical themes, treated with boyish ardour and freshness, revealed in germ some of the more striking characteristics of his best work. There was a delight in swift, joyous metres, an eye for natural magic, a power of outlining the gigantic, a keen sense of the spiritual, and a humour which is not usually associated with a poet, still less with a Scottish poet. Surely in a lad of nineteen such pictures of the huge-hulled Polyphemus as we find in the following lines were an unmistakable proof of a great poetic faculty:

     “My shadow on the faint sea-hyaline
Falls like a cloud wherein the winds drop still
And white-wing’d ships move slowly without will.”

“Ay me, ay me—I am
A great sad mountain, in whose depths doth roam
My small soul, wandering like gentle lamb
That bleats from place to place and has no home.”

     Then, too, the “Idyls and Legends of Inverburn” had appeared—the forgotten morning-star which shone over that lovable bleak northern plot of literature, conveniently if somewhat despitefully known as “the Kailyard.” Have “Willie Baird” and his dominie (the inevitable dominie, as Mr. Barrie complains) been forgotten? And does no one remember the homely tragedy of “Poet Andrew,” and the gaiety of “Widow Mysie”? In these early volumes one notices the broad, tender theology which appears again in “The Man Accursed,” “Judas Iscariot,” and elsewhere. But it was in the “London Poems” that Mr. Buchanan touched most acutely the quick of life; and I do not think it rash to say that never since has any one touched the same quick with such telling effect. Who that has read “Liz” can have forgotten the poor slum- child’s first venture from London into the green fields—the high green hill and the unclouded sun, and the smokeless blue, the trees and the soft wind and the singing of the birds?

“I stole into a dewy field to rest,
     And oh, the green, green grass where I was lying
Was fresh and living—and the bird sang loud,
Out of a golden cloud—
     And I was looking up at him and crying!”

And who has surpassed in verse the poignant misery of “Jane Lewson”?
     In the space at my disposal it is impossible to do much more than refer to certain poems, but for the older generation at least the mention of the mere titles will alone bring back pleasant recollections. In these “London Poems” there are things that once known can never be wholly forgotten—“Edward Crowhurst,” the poor “new poet” who began with rapture at the plough and lapsed through vanity 109 and drink and neglect into madness; “Nell,” a creation Dickens might have fathered; the first of the Irish ventures, “The Wake of Tim O’Hara”; “Tom Dunstan, the Politician”—but what are these save unmeaning titles unless one knows the poems or will take the trouble to turn to them?
     In “North Coast, and Other Poems” the masterpiece to my mind—“A Scottish Eclogue,” in which the human-hearted Christianity of a poor Publican is unconsciously depicted by a Pharisaical elder—is pure “Kailyard” of the finest quality. The “Coruisken Sonnets,” thirty-four in number, are interesting to any one who wishes to follow the author’s religious development; as literature they do not appeal to me individually. So, too, in the “Book of Orm,” which was published in 1870, I can conceive a student of the Celtic revival being deeply absorbed, but with the exception of the sections entitled “The Lifting of the Veil” and “The Vision of the Man Accursed,” I find myself little in sympathy. But these exceptions are in themselves sufficient to make a reputation. Imagine the Face Divine gazing down unveiled on mankind—unveiled in compliance with the wild supplication of the world, who hardly know whether they should believe that there was any face at all regarding them in their inexplicable pilgrimage through sin and sorrow. The sight paralyses humanity; all action and thought stop at once; the shepherds on the hills, the fishers on the shore, in the cities rich men and lepers, the bride and the bridegroom, the bearers of the dead are all struck into stone—“each soul was an eyeball, each face was a stare.” And is not this an exquisite touch, brimful of beauty and true to nature?

“Hard by I noticed
Little children,
Toddling and playing
         In a field o’ hay;
The Face was looking,
But they were gazing
At one another,
         And what cared they?

But one I noted,
A little maiden,
Look’d up o’ sudden
         And ceased her play,
And she dropt her garland
And stood up gazing,
With hair like sunlight,
         And face like clay.”

     The vision of “The Man Accursed,” I think, must be known to every one—the vision of the fierce, wolfish brute, the one creature left unredeemed after the Judgment, who was cast out into the utter dark and cold, and to whom the women whom he slew or starved—mother and wife—went out of heaven to alleviate his misery; and the devotedness of these melted his stony heart and wrung from him that “piteous human cry” which saved him.
     Notwithstanding the space I have occupied, it seems to me that I have as yet merely touched the fringe of Mr. Buchanan’s work. For his “Book of Orm,” I feel, as I have said, little sympathy; I feel still less for his “Political Mystics” and “Songs of the Terrible Year”; in spite of its numerous beauties I am not drawn to “Balder the Beautiful.” With shame I confess my limitations, but the tableau of the two divine figures drifting out on an iceberg to sea and dissolution provokes my risibility beyond all decorum:

“In Balder’s hand Christ placed his own,
     And it was golden weather,
And on that berg, as on a throne,
     The Brethren stood together.”

But I yield to no one in my admiration for the four splendid achievements on which I think his reputation will permanently rest—“St. Abe and his Seven Wives,” “White Rose and Red,” “The Shadow of the Sword,” and “God and the Man.” Of the four, the poems appear to me to be the more perfect work in every way. In neither of these occurs anything to suggest the possibility of that disastrous melodramatic lapse which disfigures the earlier novel—the secret, guileless, childlike prayer of Bonaparte before Waterloo! That is absolutely unforgivable, yet in spit of it, and in spite of the infelicitous preface to the current edition, “The Shadow of the Sword” is a great, original, poetic work of fiction. Indeed, it was originally conceived as a poem—nothing could be more poetically dynamic than the struggle of a poor, helpless Breton peasant against the power and evil ambition of the invincible Emperor—and the prologue and two (hideously punctuated) lines of epilogue are vestigia of the first project. Great, too, and original and poetic is “God and the Man,” based on the noble theme that hatred is all a misunderstanding, that if a man saw his fellow’s soul hatred could not exist. But if the poems are built on less exalted theses, they are more perfect in workmanship, and they show Mr. Buchanan’s poetic powers in the full flush of their strength and beauty. I do not overlook the poems which might well have been included in this edition of the “Poetical Works”—“Justinian,” “Julia Cytherea,” “The City of Dream”—when I venture on so large a statement. Of “St. Abe” and “White Rose,” I greatly prefer the latter, though the former runs it hard as a delightfully humorous, pathetic, and satiric transcript from modern life. For where shall we find anything more redolent of the good earth than the description of Drowsietown, more oppressive with the eerieness of the season than the Great Snow, more tender than the journey of Red Rose and her papoose, more pathetic than the Indian girl’s faith in the “great white chief, the god-like being” who won her love, as—

“Kissing her white warrior’s hand,
She sank, with one great smile of pleasure.”

and her gentle spirit passed to God’s happy prairies; what more humorously vindictive than the attitude of the White Rose, who forgave, but—

“Kept this rod in pickle all her life;”

what more perfect than the close, in which we see the “human beaver” remembering, between his cups, the golden romance of that long past adventure?

“Did he forget her? Never! Often while
He sat and puffed 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!’”

     All this is the work of a man of overtopping genius; at the back of it all one perceives, as the principal source of its strength and inspiration, and implicit appeal to the Christian sanctions and a profound recognition of the eternal order of righteousness.
                                                                                                                                 WILLIAM CANTON.

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From The Masters of Victorian Literature (1837-1897) by Richard D. Graham
(Edinburgh: James Thin, London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., Ltd., 1897.)

From Chapter VI: Later Victorian Poets (p. 373-379).

 

     Robert William Buchanan (1841) is a poet of such an undoubted faculty that one wonders that he should be so little known. It is certainly not because his poems lack interest. Nor is it because they are either limited in quantity or inferior in power. Their range is exceedingly wide, and they throb with an intense, sometimes almost a painful, interest. Still less can it be said of Mr Buchanan, as it might with justice be said of Mr William Morris, that he stands aloof from present day needs and circumstances. No one could utter more plainly the burden of ordinary human joy and sorrow. It is, therefore, the more surprising that he should be comparatively unappreciated, while the claims of writers who do not deserve to be mentioned along with him are persistently pressed upon the public notice. This is much to be regretted, for Mr Buchanan, if we mistake not, is a poet who, notwithstanding inequalities, has scarcely any superiors among English poets now living.
     Robert Buchanan was born in Staffordshire in 1841. His father was proprietor of a Glasgow newspaper and a journalist by profession. It was no doubt thus that Robert Buchanan received his bent towards literature. He was educated at the High School and University of Glasgow, where he made the acquaintance of David Gray, the author of The Luggie. In 1860 these youthful aspirants made their way to London, ambitious to win for themselves a name in the kingdom of letters. Poor Gray speedily succumbed, leaving London only to die. Buchanan, by dint of 374 energy, perseverance, and native genius survived the hard struggle through which he had to pass, and fully realised the object of his ambition.
     His first volume of poetry, Undertones, was published in 1860, and was followed five years later by Idyls and Legends of Inverburn (1865). The rawness of youth was to be seen in the first of these, as was also much that was suggestive and promising. In the second, and still more in the London Poems that followed in 1866, we see unmistakably a richly endowed poet, full of imagination, dramatic insight, humour, pathos, and an abundance of sympathy with the unintelligible anguish of life that so often meets us in the lowest human forms. Here was no playing with the gossamer hues of air-spun fancies. There is a terrible earnestness in these poems; and if at times we are tempted to revolt against the plainness with which the almost hopeless enigmas of life are set forth, we find comfort in the representation, again and again repeated, that after all the bad is not altogether bad, and that there is a saving leaven in human nature even at its worst. It is this that prevents such poems as Liz, Ratcliffe Meg, and Nell, from being positively repulsive. The North Coast Poems (1867) are full of the same sympathetic humanity, and deal with similar problems of common life, only substituting the scent of the heather and the salt breath of the long waves that beat upon northern shores for the pallid air of London streets. When we read such poems as Meg Blane or The Scaith of Bartle, we are confronted with forms of 375 human wrong and anguish that scarcely admit of earthly alleviation. Yet, after all, there is comfort in this poet’s view, even though it should be found only in the peace and solace of the great reconciler — death.
     In the Coruisken Sonnets and the Book of Orm (1870), the poet appeals to a more cultivated public; but still occupied with the same perplexing problems of life and destiny, can proclaim anew his generous gospel of hope. In their air of philosophical mysticism, these poems are more in accord with the prevailing tendencies of modern poetry; they hover around death, the grave, and the hereafter; they see even in such a conception of God as the poet has formed the operation of a boundless love. The Book of Orm contains some of the finest writing that has come from Mr Buchanan’s pen. How weirdly conceived, for example, is The Dream of the World without Death, in which he shows how miserable we should be if our dear ones were only taken, and not visibly dead to us! But it is in The Vision of the Man Accurst that he rises to the climax of his poetical achievement. This is a work of powerful imagination, which thrills us with its high suggestion, and which, while it depicts the immeasurable divine pity, at the same time reveals the divinity of a purely human love. Kindred to this fine poem, and somewhat similar in treatment and in excellence, is a poem of a later time, The Ballad of Judas Iscariot. There is something strangely haunting and impressive in the manner in which the soul of the great betrayer is represented as 376 vainly seeking a resting place for the poor mangled body, and in which the Divine Master Himself is conceived as delaying the Holy Supper until the soul of Iscariot shall appear to share it:

‘’Twas the bridegroom stood at the open door,
     And beckon’d, smiling sweet;
’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
     Stole in, and fell at his feet.

‘The Holy Supper is spread within,
     And the many candles shine,
And I have waited long for thee
     Before I poured the wine!’

The supper wine is poured at last,
     The lights burn bright and fair,
Iscariot washes the Bridegroom’s feet,
     And dries them with his hair.’

     Scattered through all Mr Buchanan’s writings are passages of rare lyrical sweetness and melody. In such poems as the The Lights o’ Leith, he has caught with wonderful effect the simple and poignant spirit as well as the form of the ancient ballad. His pathos, of which there is no better example than this poem, is real and convincing. His humour is no less true, and finds an admirable illustration in the rollicking Wedding of Shon Maclean. The dramatic instinct is everywhere manifest in the way in which this poet seizes upon situations which give to the dramatist his opportunity, and also in the vividness with which he realises and portrays character. His narratives and descriptions of nature are marked by truth and realistic imagination.
377 Of Mr Buchanan’s other works in poetry may be mentioned Songs of the Terrible Year (1870), suggested by the Franco-German War; Political Mystics, Saint Abe and his Seven Wives, White Rose and Red, Balder the Beautiful, The City of Dreams, The Outcast (1891), and The Wandering Jew (1893). Prose fiction and the drama have for some years engrossed most of Mr Buchanan’s attention, and in both he has won considerable success.
     From The Lights o’ Leith the following extracts are taken. A ship is running for the port amidst a wintry gale of snow and hail; and through the surging spray the sailors see the town aflame with dancing lights. A boat is launched to take the skipper and the mate ashore. The latter tells the skipper how twenty years ago, he, the son of a drowned father, and an only child, ran away to sea; how he had thrice returned from his wanderings, always, although empty-handed, to receive the kindliest welcome from his poor old mother; and how, now that his wanderings are over, he will comfort her with his presence and the wealth he has acquired.

‘And I lang, and lang, to seek ance mair
     The cot by the side o’ the sea,
And to find my grey old mither there,
     Waiting and watching for me;

‘To dress her oot like a leddy grand,
     While the tears o’ gladness drap,
To put the rings on her wrinkled hand,
     The siller intil her lap!

‘And to say “O mither, I’m hame, I’m hame                                        378
     Forgie me, O forgie!
And never mair shall ye ken a care
     Until the day you dee!”’

O bright and red shone the lights o’ Leith
     In the snowy winter-tide—
Down the cheeks of the man the salt tears ran,
     As he stood by the skipper’s side.’

     Hurrying to his mother’s cot, he finds it black and tenantless. Tortured by his fears, his cousin, ‘lame Janet Wylie, frae Marywell,’ finds him, and, after much urging, tells him a tale so horrible that life for him is no longer possible. Her story was, that the bent form of his old mother had come to be regarded as that of a witch, and that when the cowardly pedant, ‘King Jamie,’ was driven into port by stress of weather, search was made for the witches whose spells were believed to have caused the storm.

‘“O Robin, dear Robin, hearken nae mair!”
     “Speak on, I’ll heark to the en’!”
“O Robin, Robin, the sea oot there
     Is kinder than cruel men!

They bade her tell she had wrought the spell
     That made the tempest blaw;
They strippit her bare as a naked bairn,
They tried her wi’ pincers and heated airn,
     Till she shriek’d and swoon’d awa’!

O Robin, Robin, the king sat there,
     While the cruel deed was done,
And the clergy o’ Christ ne’er bade him spare
     For the sake o’ God’s ain Son!. . . .”

The lights o’ Leith! the lights o’ Leith!                                                    379
     Like Hell’s own lights they glow,
While the sailor stands, with his trembling hands
     Prest hard on his heart in woe!

“O Robin, Robin . . . they doom’d her to burn . . .
     Doon yonner upon the quay . . .
This night was the night . . . see the light!
     How it burns by the side o’ the sea!”

. . . She paused with a moan. . . . He had left her alone,
     And rushing through drift and snow,
Down the side o’ the wintry hill he had flown,
     His eyes on the lights below!

     .         .          .         .          .         .          .
High up on the quay, blaze the balefires, and see!
     Three stakes are deep set in the ground,
To each stake smear’d with pitch clings the corpse of a witch,
     With the fire flaming redly around!

What madman is he who leaps in where they gleam,
     Close, close, to the centremost form?
“O mither, O mither!” he cries with a scream
     That rings thro’ the heart of the storm!

He can see the white hair snowing down thro’ the glare,
     The white face upraised to the skies—
Then the cruel red blaze blots the thing from his gaze,
     And he falls on his face,—and dies.’

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