ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)
The Critical Response (2)
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.
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,
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,
I eased my heart three days by watching near her,
And I heard the Kirk-bells ringing very slowly,
And I cried, ‘O Unseen Sender of Corruption,
‘I bless Thee for the change and for the comfort,
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.
“The Bridegroom stood in the open door,
And of every flake of falling snow,
’Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
’Twas the Bridegroom stood at the open door,
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:—
* * * *
The sad, the glad, the hideous, and the bright,
Fall’n from their spheres, subdued and overthrown,
O, Master, is it thou thy servant sees,
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.
Now in the busy silence
She is still and silent
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.
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.
‘My much-honour’d patron, believe your poor poet,
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,
Pure as thy purpose, blameless as thy song,
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.
‘Race after race, man after man,
seem to me to give out the right tone. But I am more concerned with you as an artist than as a critic.
‘Yield up to me 233
But the cruel heavens all open lie,
There is no God, none, to abolish one
O Lord my God, if a God there be,
The night is still, the waters sleep, the skies
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.
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.’
‘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,
* * * *
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.
‘Oh, sweet was Widow Mysie, sweet and sleek!
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,
‘The mountains own her for their daughter,
‘In the strange street she stops to listen,
‘And oft, while wondrous eyed she wanders,
‘Long have the clouds and winds been by her, 167
* * * *
* * * *
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.
‘“The lights o’ Leith! the lights o’ Leith!”
‘“The lights o’ Leith! the lights o’ Leith!”
‘As the ship ran in thro’ the surging spray
‘“’Tis sure a feast in the town o’ Leith,”
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
‘“O Robin, Robin, the King sat there,
‘The lights of Leith: the lights of Leith:
‘“O Robin, Robin . . . they doom’d her to burn 172
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,
‘He can see the white hair snowing down through the glare,
‘The lights of Leith: the lights of Leith:
‘The lights of Leith: the lights of Leith:
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.
‘How swift the hours sped on:—and by and by
‘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.
‘How God in the beginning drew
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,
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.
‘A spark that grows in the dark;
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.
“My shadow on the faint sea-hyaline
“Ay me, ay me—I am
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 who has surpassed in verse the poignant misery of “Jane Lewson”?
“Hard by I noticed
But one I noted,
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.
“In Balder’s hand Christ placed his own,
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,
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
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.
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.
‘’Twas the bridegroom stood at the open door,
‘The Holy Supper is spread within,
The supper wine is poured at last,
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.
‘And I lang, and lang, to seek ance mair
‘To dress her oot like a leddy grand,
‘And to say “O mither, I’m hame, I’m hame 378
O bright and red shone the lights o’ Leith
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!”
They bade her tell she had wrought the spell
O Robin, Robin, the king sat there,
The lights o’ Leith! the lights o’ Leith! 379
“O Robin, Robin . . . they doom’d her to burn . . .
. . . She paused with a moan. . . . He had left her alone,
. . . . . . .
What madman is he who leaps in where they gleam,
He can see the white hair snowing down thro’ the glare,
or back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan