ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

Home
Biography
Bibliography

Poetry
Plays
Fiction

Essays
Reviews
Letters

The Fleshly School Controversy
Buchanan and the Press
Buchanan and the Law

The Critical Response
Harriett Jay
Miscellanea

Links
Site Diary
Site Search

The Critical Response (3)

 

1. W. P. Ryan

2. A. L. Lilley

3. J. T. Grein

4. John Hepburn Millar

5. George Eyre-Todd

6. Arthur Symons

7. Hugh Walker

8. Arthur Waugh

 

From Literary London: Its Lights & Comedies by W. P. Ryan
(London: Leonard Smithers, 1898 - pp. 33-39.)

 

THE DEVIL AND A MODERN KNIGHT ERRANT

     Once on a time the most fiery entity in the literary life of London was the poet-playwright- controversionalist, Lithobolia* Buchanan, who never lost an opportunity of proclaiming that “Nowadays in Hell and London, Truth methinks is sorely needed.” He scattered the Truth periodically in showers of large live coals over the latter city, coals so very “live” indeed that one might be pardoned for supposing they had just been doing duty in the other region. He proclaimed from the housetops how much he “loathed the foul materialistic serpent that surrounds the world.” In earlier years most judicious critics will admit that he displayed a fair spiritual equipment. The divinity that shapes our ends had found full often his ardent poetical worship. But his spirituality had passed through strange traits. It fought and almost shattered itself against a host of sturdy and distorting things. A fine mind seemed to become warped, to flame with stark unreason, though displaying at times a brave sense of human pity and

_____

* Lithobolia, the stone-throwing spirit.
_____

34 brotherly zeal. He lashed those who failed to accept his guidance, to worship as he worshipped; to timid Christians he became the embodiment of a new and collossal intellectual Inquisition.
     Then apparently he cooled and quietened The fiery furnace of his controversial nature never attained white heat. He started a book-shop in Soho, and something of the stolidity that doth hedge a shopkeeper brought its distressing sense and heaviness on even him. Had he been a Greek, he would probably like Empedocles have leaped into a volcano; being a Scotchman, on failing in the fight with his age, he opened a shop. He grew local and damped with the wistfulness of Suburbia, if still unafraid. And mark you, a smouldering volcano in a drab municipality is a sad sight; sad as an old war- horse yoked to a milk-cart. We associate it to the end with Ætna and Empire, with heighth and width and glory; it pains us to behold it parochial. It is as if the Daily Chronicle were to sink into weary old age as the Clerkenwell News again, with Mr. Massingham pleading pathetically for the reform of local sewers, and Mr. Norman confining his international energies to audiences with local lamp-lighters, to say nothing of canvassing for small advertisements in his spare time or doing turns at the “case.”
     The settling down of our poet-playwright-controversialist was nevertheless a sore puzzle to certain minds of our literary London. Perhaps to those minds the following plain, unvarnished chronicle may afford some assistance in their difficulty. It concerns the year while 35 our friend was still a man of terrible and persistent dogmatism, still laying down the law in thunder to his age, still cursing it and consigning it to many unprofitable and unpleasant places. The words “Superstition,” “Shibboleth,” “Humbug,” were still burning on his lips. He railed at the Average Man and the very hint of a Common or Received Opinion was gall to him.
     Lithobolia one unlucky day filled his head with the thought that the Devil was a fine fellow. He forthwith started a fierce propaganda whose aim was to give the Devil his due. He was convinced that the Devil had been maligned from the earliest ages, but that still—gallant gentleman that he was—he persisted, in season and out of season, slander, libel, and contumely notwithstanding, in trying to help and comfort man in man’s own despite. The Devil, not the Dog, was the Friend of Man. To be sure some mean critics said that his Devil was a mere bogey man. He was glibly eloquent and vaporous they added. As he talked, spectres fashioned of London fog sat in judgment, as it were, on the majestic star- spheres. The village idiot playing emperor was indeed a sight no more ridiculous than the new Satan on himself. But Lithobolia was true to his Devil.
     The misunderstanding began long ago in the Garden of Eden, said Lithobolia. The Devil was really a vegetarian, and vegetarianism and its joys and beauties he sought to preach to Mother Eve. The episode of the forbidden fruit was merely his first practical lesson to her in the ways of honest, go-ahead vegetarianism. 36 Had Eve and Adam been true to his teaching, had they followed up his vegetarian advising, had the world followed in their wake, the human race had grown up sane, strong and conquering, instead of developing into the mean, shrunken, shrivelled, neurotic and idiotic exhibition which we found it. “But I and the Devil will cure it,” he cried, as he clenched his fists.
     For their own vile purposes the early anti-vegetarians, he went on to say, had deliberately and of malice aforethought misrepresented the Devil’s action in the Garden of Eden. They obscured the question by the introduction of a number of nonsensical and irrelevant side issues. Furthermore, quoth he, they piled up fearsome traditions about the Devil’s excursions earthward, and about the internal affairs of his far-off dominions. They pictured a hell of fire and brimstone where legion wretches writhed and gasped through all the ages. Even John Milton, sane and sturdy in some things, was no better than the common man in certain of his pictures of the place of penal fire.
     “Penal fires indeed!” said Lithobolia scornfully. “Half of hell—or what you call hell—is a delightful place where good vegetarians go when they die, where they feed everlastingly on immortal cabbages, on sacred cauliflowers, on transcending mushrooms, on indescribable Scotch Kail. The other half of hell is simply the scene where these entrancing things are cooked and I admit, of course, that in such a quarter there is a good deal of smoke and flame. The fires are made from all sorts of ugly materials—from damned and unrighteous 37 publishers, from reviewers for the evening  papers, from dramatic critics of the Ibsen cult!”
     “Yes,” continued Lithobolia, as he harangued the multitude, “such is hell; a fair and joyous place. I would go        there.—”
     And presently there was a wild cry of “Pity you don’t!”
     “I cannot yet retire to such comfortable quarters,'” he rejoined, “I have to remain here and make the worth and ways of the Devil clear. I have to bring back this benighted age to a true love for the Devil and vegetarianism.”
     He went forth with many pamphlets on the Devil’s behalf, printed and published at his own expense, and advocating his pet theory in words of flaming passion and noble wrath. “The Devil’s Due Library,” which he promptly issued, divided the world into two irreconcilable camps. People spoke of the “New Reformation,” Lithobolia’s “Moral Renaissance,” “The Great Human Devil-Cure,” and such delectable things. The earth for decades after was a place of intellectual tornadoes.
     At last Lithobolia took the notion to drop down to the Devil’s own world and see how the agitation was affecting parties there.
     To his amazement, when he came to the door of the nether world he found an ominous calm over everything. Charred pillars, blackened ruins, smoke-coloured fragments of dismal walls and halls met his gaze on every hand. But no devil of any sort or shape was apparent. Lithobolia was befogged.
38   Presently an impish-looking youth ambled up. He chuckled when he saw the visitor.
     “Hello!” said the imp, “come down at last! Didn’t you hear that hell’s been burned out?”
     “Go along,” said Lithobolia, but his tone had lost its earthly ring and positiveness.
     “Fact!” said the imp. “Of course when you began to write in defence of the Devil, we sent the tip to our London agent who bought up for us every spare copy of the book—that explains the tremendous sale, you know. We thought we’d have pleasant afternoon readings.”
     “And then?”
     “The volumes were so fiery, so full of heat, that when we got them in here, what with the other flames, what with—”
     “Go on,” said Lithobolia, impatiently.
     “They took fire, they blazed, and blazed, and blazed, till they burnt the bally place out, devils and all.”
     “And how did you escape?”
     “Oh, I had been a printer’s devil in the office where some of your controversial works were set up. I could stand anything. Besides I’d been a salamander in a previous life.”
     Then a great darkness fell. When Lithobolia groped out of it he found himself on earth. He rubbed his eyes. “Was it a dream?” said he.
     Never again was he his old fiery self.
     Indeed when he wrote his religious novel, “The Rev. Annabel Lee,” he startled the world by ignoring his 39 own brave, independent publishing business in Soho and going back to the ordinary publishing sphere and channels. Mr. Pearson found grace in his eyes! Happy was Lithobolia in the land of the Philistines! Fraternise would he in soft-eyed fondness with those who trim “The rush-lights of Clapham!” Thus comes it to pass as the Prophet foretold, that the cow and the bear now feed, and their young ones lie down together.
     Of his subsequent career there is nothing to be said, except that his “Ballad of Mary the Mother” increased our pity for him.

Back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan

_____

 

‘Robert Buchanan’ by Rev. A. L. Lilley
From The Humane Review (January, 1902 - pp. 302-310.)

 

ROBERT BUCHANAN.*

     * Complete Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan. 2 vols. Chatto and Windus. 1901.

     AFTER nearly forty years of ceaseless literary toil, Robert Buchanan has passed away, leaving the world in a mood of pathetic perplexity as to what it ought to have made of him or even what it is to make of him now. It could not even in its dullest moods fail to realise the tempestuous and overwhelming force of the man. But it continued hesitant whether that force represented a permanent and vital power or the self-consuming throes of a fever-fit.
     Yet surely there never was poet concerning whose assured claim to that title there need have been less hesitation. To one at least of his admirers it seems that it was his very excellences which robbed him and still rob him of his due meed of appreciation. He was excellent in ways of which his time recked little or was frankly contemptuous. His genius was careless and liberal, with the carelessness and liberality of Nature. He squandered himself recklessly and with the magnificent unconsciousness of those who have much to squander. And this did not suit the mood of a time which esteems as the chief of virtues a studied aloofness from real feeling, a delicate sensitiveness of self-expenditure. Again, Buchanan was by far the most simple and natural of modern poets. He was filled with a great fervour of faith and feeling which had to find expression, and nothing was farther from his mind or bent than that study of fantastic literary grimace which passes to-day for a devotion to style. His poems have the looseness and copiousness of Nature, but they have too its life. They are not trimmed and trained to the requirements of the latest fashion in poetic parterres.
     But the chief obstacle to the immediate recognition of Buchanan’s greatness may also prove to be the surest guarantee of his eventual triumph. He has defied classification, and by his own obstinate individuality of faith and feeling he must live or die. It is not indeed expected of the poet that he should rigidly conform to the respectable beliefs of his time. The world of ordinary readers has its code of literary live-and-let-live. It is graciously patient of the heresy which clothes itself in polite and well-turned phrases. It has a satisfying secrecy of delight in the heresy which wears with success a roguish mask of orthodoxy. But it must draw the line at a heresy which insists that it is heretical. And Buchanan, it must be admitted, kept it pretty busily engaged drawing lines throughout a long literary life. He could not endure to be suspected of belonging to any party or school. The moment a belief ceased to be an object of persecution, it lost some of its charm for him. He was indeed what he called himself, an “Ishmael of Song,” and the breath of his intellectual life was the belief to which men were afraid or unable to be fair.
     Perhaps it is not wonderful that a man who so consistently and strenuously ranged himself against every established opinion, or proved himself fair and charitable to a belief which was passing through its time of struggle and trial only to assail it with compensating bitterness in its day of success, should have earned at last a reputation for invincible perversity. But natural, inevitable indeed, as it was, considering how superficial and impatient contemporary criticism usually is, it was nevertheless wholly unjust. There may have been a certain measure of perversity in Robert Buchanan’s nature. The circumstances of his literary life, lived at a white heat of polemical fervour, may have accentuated whatever natural perversity was his. Buchanan did not escape the defects of his qualities any more than the least of us. But intellectual perversity, so far as he suffered from it, was in him a most pardonable defect to those who recognised the true measure of the quality which it relieved. He was indeed an eclectic, and gloried in his eclecticism. But he gloried in it only because it was an expression of his sympathy with the eclecticism of humanity at large. He felt so much with the race, with the strugglings and aspirations of men as men, that he half forced himself to think with them too in all their varieties of thought. The only intellectual attitude which he rejected, but against it he launched his inexhaustible store of anathemas, was the attempt to give supremacy to any one explanation of the experiences of life. He could tolerate no Cæsar on the intellectual throne, and as men are wont to depose one only to find themselves conferring a more assured autocracy upon another, they always found in Buchanan the man who showed them what they were doing and so made it at least difficult for them to do it. He waged war with every established tyranny, and if his wars were many, it was because of the numberless tyrannies which he found men contentedly enduring and not at all because of any special delight of his own in war.
     The secret of Buchanan as man and as poet was his love of the weak, the down-trodden, the depressed. For him the key to all human duty lay in the capacity to see and to answer the claims of weakness. His own poetry is one long passionate appeal on behalf of all weak and forgotten things, a passionate protest against the self-contained unthinking march of mere strength. He arraigned the unconscious movements of nature, its careless, heartless masteries, before the tribunal of man’s heart. He elicited the deep inner pity that lurks in every heart that is beginning to be human, and set it with assurance on the throne of universal judgment. He was so sure that all who had chosen to suffer for others, all who had merged their life in a close identity with the pain and defeat of others, were the true exponents of the world’s justice. For if that were not so, then indeed was there no justice. But his surest and most abiding faith was that just this identification of strength with weakness, this sacrifice of strength for the sake of weakness, was the only solution of life’s mystery. That solution indeed was not able to justify itself to the intellect. It could not command, or even very boldly appeal to the beliefs of men. But at least it was the matter of their unconquerable hope. Only through it could the huge evil of life be faced, and that evil become the stuff of an ultimate good.
     Buchanan had taught in song for twenty years before Huxley stated it in prose the great doctrine that human ethics is the reversal of the evolutionary method. That indeed was the starting-point of the poet’s faith, and on that he always laid the greatest stress. Like the Gnostics of the first Christian centuries he rejects the God of Creation as the object of human love or reverence. The God to whom his heart turns, to whom he would turn the hearts of his brothers, is the God of Redemption. And this God he finds to be working out His purposes, to be unfolding as it were His essential being, in the movement of the life of humanity. All the great myths of love and sacrifice, like the story of Balder, are the witnesses of that life which is growing within life. The lives which have most suffered defeat for the sake of men, for the sake of pity and love and helpfulness, are the martyred ministers of its growth. The process of redemption, of the eliciting of that which is enduring in life, is just the reversal of the process of natural evolution. That is the constant starting-point of all the poet’s feeling. Yet he did not by any means allow himself to harden this feeling into a rigorous logical formula. On the contrary, he revolted against every attempt which had been made in the history of human thought to lay the yoke of such a formula upon man’s mind and will. The logical outcome, in belief, of such a feeling is asceticism, and against asceticism in all its forms Buchanan protested as vehemently as he had protested against submission to the heartless evolutionary process. He felt that there was some reconciliation of hedonism and asceticism—of Paganism and Buddhism, let us say. He felt that asceticism in its extreme forms was practically a denial of life, and that the redemption in which it hoped was really a break which no consciousness could survive. With what healthy scorn Buchanan rejected this travesty of redemption, this attempt to discover or to gain a worthy life through despair of and contempt for the daily life men know, all can learn who will take the trouble to read his poem on Schopenhauer, which he calls “The New Buddha.” Buchanan looked to find the redemptive process somehow accomplished within the circle of that same evolutionary movement which in its naked pitilessness he had banned. Already he finds the life within the life committed to man. That is just the human secret. In man there is already by a more intimate guerdon of Nature the power of love, of sympathy, of helpfulness, which redeems the coarser methods of her first attempts at handing on the gift of life. It is to man that the enduring sense of Nature’s joy and beauty is entrusted, just as to him only is also given the full sense of Nature’s cruelty and ravin and ugliness. Life begins to redeem itself as soon as it is able to feel the need of redemption. And out of the strength with which it slew and wasted and lusted, it creates the force whose delight is to save and to love and make  alive.
     This is something like the way in which Buchanan attempts the reconciliation of the lower and the higher processes in life—the process of the conservation of the individual life by itself at all risks, and the process of the redemption of higher individual powers by the sacrifice of lower, or of the saving of the weak by the self-sacrifice of the strong. The reconciliation indeed is never complete. The poet was too honest to pretend and too sincere to invent an intellectual certainty where there is only a certainty for the high moods of feeling and of hope. He was too much of a poet and too little of a philosopher to round off his hope, however high and assured, to a logical completeness. The difficulty of this reconciliation was so present to him that he often seemed to speak with two voices—a prose voice in which he acclaimed with a kind of courageous resignation the cruel truth of Nature’s ways which physical science had revealed, and the voice of the poet with which he adhered to every implacable protest against those ways. Now he seemed to regard the protest against Nature as futile and magnificently absurd, again as the only and the assured means of a new and higher development of her life. Now in his prose mood, his mood of despair, he would say: “Jesus was a man of a beautiful temperament, carried beyond himself by a false and sentimental conception of the mechanism of life. He uttered, no one so exquisitely, the human cry for a Divine Fatherhood. But unfortunately he appealed to Nature for corroboration of his appeal. Nature never answered him. Then, as now, she kept God’s secret.” But the poet’s voice would speak anon, and speak with a largeness and fulness which shamed prose out of its cold realities. As for instance, when he gives for answer to the question:—

“Dost thou believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son?”
“In Him and in my Brethren every one:
The child of Mary who was crucified,
The gods of Hellas fair and radiant-eyed,
Brahm, Balder, Gautama, and Mahomet,
All who have pledged their gains to pay my debt
Of sorrows—all who through this world of dream
Breathe mystery and ecstasy supreme;
The greater and the less: the wise, the good,
Inheritors of Nature’s godlike mood;
In these I do believe eternally,
Knowing them deathless, like the God in me.”

     Or again where was the hope of a great and eternal birth, from the slow patient bitterness of humanity’s travailing, ever better expressed than here?—

“Where’er great pity is and piteousness,
     Where’er great Love and Love’s strange sorrow stay,
Where’er men cease to curse, but bend to bless,
     Frail brethren fashion’d like themselves of clay;

“Where’er the lamb and lion side by side
     Lie down in peace, where’er on land or sea
Infinite Love and Mercy heavenly-eyed
     Emerge, there stirs the God that is to be!

“His light is round the slaughter’d bird and beast
     As round the forehead of Man crucified,—
All things that live, the greatest and the least,
     Await the coming of this Lord and Guide;

“And every gentle deed by mortals done,
     Yea, every holy thought and loving breath,
Lighten poor Nature’s travail with this Son
     Who shall be Lord and God of Life and Death!”

     So that, after all, the doubt of Buchanan’s prose mood finds its answer in the certainty of Buchanan the poet. If it was unfortunate that Jesus appealed to Nature for corroboration of His appeal to a Divine Fatherhood, at least the mistake seems to have been only one of sex. For Nature is herself, the poet sees, in pangs of motherhood which have been relieved in such lives as Jesus lived and such unconquerable faith in life as He displayed.
     But Buchanan’s humanist ethics, his humanitarian fervour, were no mere passionless altruism produced in an emotional vacuum. He did hot hold that men would give their lives for others because they had no share in the lives of those others, but exactly because they had. For him the solidarity of life was complete. No life could be lived to itself or for itself. It shared in all other achievement. It contributed to it. Loss or gain, salvation or damnation, were corporate experiences. They were indeed individual too, and individual primarily. For it is only the individual that feels the loss or grows by the gain. But he shares in loss and gain which seem to be beyond the range of his own making, and all he has done and been will appear as loss or gain in other life than his own. This solidarity of the deepest and most essential human fortunes is the key-note of many of Buchanan’s most characteristic poems. As early as the “Book of Orm,” written before he was thirty, he gave it mystical expression in a brief allegorical interlude which he titles “Sanitas.” It is worth quoting:—

“Dreamily, on her milk-white Ass,
Rideth the maiden Sanitas—
With zone of gold her waist is bound,
Her brows are with immortelles crowned:
Dews are falling, song-birds sing,
It is a Christian evening—
Lower, lower, sinks the sun,
The white stars glimmer, one by one!

“Who sitteth musing at his door?
Silas, the Leper, gaunt and hoar;
Though he is curst in every limb,
Full whitely Time hath snowed on him—
Dews are falling, song-birds sing,
It is a Christian evening—
The Leper, drinking in the air,
Sits like a beast, with idiot stare.

“How pale! how wondrous! doth she pass,
The heavenly maiden Sanitas;
She looketh, and she shuddereth,
She passeth on with bated breath—
Dews are falling, song-birds sing,
It is a Christian evening—
His mind is like a stagnant pool,
She passeth o’er it, beautiful!

“Brighter, whiter, in the skies,
Open innumerable eyes;
The Leper looketh up and sees,
His aching heart is soothed by these—
Dews are falling, song-birds sing,
It is a Christian evening—
He looketh up with heart astir,
And every star hath eyes like her!

“Onward on her milk-white Ass
Rideth the maiden Sanitas.
The boughs are green, the grain is pearled,
But ’tis a miserable world—
Dews are falling, song-birds sing,
It is a Christian evening—
All o’er the blue above her, she
Beholds bright spots of Leprosy.”

     Again in his very latest volume of poems, published three years ago, he gives expression again and again to this community of the deeper human fortunes. Of the victims of human lust whom we contemptuously dismiss as “lost women” the passionate indignation of his heart utters the truth which ought to ensure them a refuge in every heart that still knows how to feel or to be just.

“How? Thou be saved, and one of these be lost?
     The least of these be spent, and thou soar free!
Nay! for these things are thou—these tempest-tost
     Waves of the darkness are but forms of thee.

“Shall these be cast away? Then rest thou sure
     No hopes abide for thee if none for these.
Would’st thou be healed? Then hast thou these to cure;
     Thine is their shame, their foulness, their disease.”

     And then in the poem which he calls “These Voices” he proclaims the identity of all human experience with himself. So far as he is failing to make it his own, he is losing his life. So far as he is powerless through failure of heart, or of knowledge, or of will, to enter into the stress of any living joy or sorrow, to penetrate the mystery of any living soul, he feels that it is his own life which is suffering failure and defeat.

“Hear the strong man in the dark for pity crying,
     Hear the foul man’s word of hate as he goes by thee;
Hear the shriek of trampled women, vainly flying
     From the phantoms that appal thee and defy thee!
     .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .    

“All the foul things God would seem to put his ban on,
     All the fair things that would seem to have his blessing—
Without thee, yet within thee, O Buchanan,
     They are thronging, with a riddle for thy guessing.
     .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .    

“Ah! the Voices! and the Faces!—wild and wan, on
     They are rushing, to destroy or to renew thee!
Like a foam-flake shalt thou vanish, O Buchanan,
     If but one of these is lost that cry unto thee!”

     It seems a pitiable futility of criticism that the one great poet of human hope and redemption who is at all worthy to be mentioned in the same breath with Robert Browning should have been relegated to a worse punishment than literary annihilation, viz., summary and impatient dismissal to the limbo of the second-rate singers of our time. Buchanan is sure of his rescue from this abode of darkness. In its own defence the new time will call to its aid, in the throes of spiritual pain through which it has to pass, one of the most strenuous, the most believing, and the most loving singers that the England of the second half of the nineteenth century knew. He foresaw its need better than most. He forefelt its pain better than any. He was free from the great vice of his own time, the cowardice that worshipped the tyrant of the actual until its indifference to all ideals became the creed by which it proposed to live. Because he believed in man’s divine struggle against the actual as the real key to the mystery of human life, because he believed that the growing and waning fortunes of that struggle were stuff for the noblest poetry, because he made of his own superb imagination a mint for this true coinage, he was depreciated and defamed by a narrow literary clique. But because he did all these things, the broad needs of human life in the coming years will claim him and justify him as a poet of prophetic vision and of enduring right to fame.

                                                                                                                                               A. L. LILLEY.

_____

 

From Dramatic Criticism Vol. III, 1900-1901 by J. T. Grein
(London: Greening & Co. Ltd., 1902 - pp. 233-237.)

 

ROBERT BUCHANAN AS A DRAMATIST.

                                                                                                                                             June 16, 1901.

I.

     In the days when wild storms were whirling around the devoted head of Mr. Clement Scott, because in that famous interview he had stated things which perhaps had better remained unsaid, it is reported that Mr. Robert Buchanan exclaimed, “Ah! they are quite right, there are plenty of virtuous women on the English stage, but only half-a-dozen actresses.” It characterises the man. He was always dramatic, trenchant, mordant. What he said was invariably clever, but under a multitude of words he hid an inner meaning which betokened a somewhat soured, and not invariably just, view of the world in general. By nature impulsive, romantic, bellicose, Robert Buchanan could never let well alone, and fighting was to him the breath of his nostrils. There is scarcely a literary man of distinction, certainly not a well-known critic, in London with whom Robert Buchanan has not had his skirmishes and his battles. He resented Archer’s adverse criticisms of his plays with ponderous assaults not altogether of an impersonal nature; and if Archer once called him a “cuttle-fish,” he fairly represented the position which Robert Buchanan then occupied in the aquarium of the literary world. Robert Buchanan has belaboured George Moore; he has denounced Clement Scott, for whose fearlessness as a critic he had always sincere respect until a play written for Mrs. Langtry provoked an unfavourable notice. Then Robert, irate to bursting, stepped upon the stage, a weighty manuscript in his hand, and spoke to the audience words which amounted to this—that he was proud to be hated and persecuted by a man like the dramatic critic of the Daily Telegraph. Now, as a matter of fact, Mr. Clement Scott had mostly been lenient to the dramatic work of Robert Buchanan, and will probably be consoled by the idea that he is not the only member of the critical fraternity whose hatred was preferred to his sympathy. From time to time Mr. Robert Buchanan, in these very columns, made slighting references to the work of the present writer, and although I suspect that he had a sneaking fondness for my method, he never neglected to point out that somewhere there must be a “bee in my bonnet,” the particular species of apiculture being called, Apis Ibsensis. Personally, I did not mind this at all, but what did grieve me in the manner of his attack was that Robert Buchanan often gave vent to his feelings to such an extent that he even once assailed a successful woman in her family circumstances. I refer to Mrs. Craigie, whose great success in “The Ambassador” entitled her to take rank among our dramatists. This so angered Mr. Buchanan that he devoted an entire article not only to demolishing the play, but to ridiculing the lady because she was a favourite of society and her father a successful manufacturer of a patent medicine. Through all this there ran a feeling which, in an ordinary human being, we would call not merely jealousy, but by a name less condoning and more ungraceful. But Robert Buchanan was not an ordinary man, and in his heart of hearts I do not think he was even a jealous man. He laboured, and not wrongly, under the impression that the world did not understand him—that it did not esteem him at his proper value, and was ever ready to proclaim “prophet” the one who happened to be the spoilt child of popular favour. He called the world badly stage-managed, and perhaps from his point of view he was right. There were days when Robert Buchanan was almost the leading star in our poetic firmament, and when there was every reason to believe that one day the laurels of the Court-poet would crown his brow. There were days when writing “God and the Man” and “The Shadow of the Sword,” both romances of great power, he bade fair to be one of the most prominent novelists of the period. There were days when, adapting Fielding’s “Tom Jones” to the stage in that charming play “Sophia,” which ran for 500 nights, there was every hope that Robert Buchanan would be the champion of a rejuvenated romantic drama. None of these hopes have been entirely fulfilled, although it can hardly be said that they were wholly blighted. In every branch of literature, as a poet, as a novelist, as an essayist, as a dramatist, Robert Buchanan has done some work which is far above the average, which belongs to literature and deserves to outlive its author. Curiously enough, with all these splendid gifts, this unrivalled productiveness, this facility for wielding the pen and generating thought, the work of Robert Buchanan has not rooted among the multitude, nor found among the literary world the recognition it deserved. To say that in his case it was not the work itself, but the man, who was at fault, is to endorse in a qualified manner the words cited above—that, with regard to some of us players, the world is indeed badly stage-managed.

 

II.

     I must leave it to others to express their opinion on the poet and the novelist—my domain in these columns is the drama, and about Robert Buchanan as a dramatist I will say a few words. Letting my thoughts drift back over a space of sixteen years, and comparing the output of Robert Buchanan with that of all his contemporaries, I arrive at the conclusion that as far as productiveness is concerned he is facile princeps. He has written more than Arthur Pinero and Henry Arthur Jones together. He has produced melodramas by the dozen, adaptations by the score, comedies in quantity; he has written in prose and in verse; he has adapted novels of the eighteenth century and his own, has rendered famous French plays familiar to English audiences; and there was a time when almost every new calendar month brought a fresh play from his pen into temporary prominence. I say, designedly, temporary, for the greater part of his work was temporary, if not ephemeral in the strictest sense of the word, since he enjoyed almost unprecedented runs at the Vaudeville with his adaptations of “Sophia,” “Clarissa Harlowe,” and such like, while his melodrama, “Alone in London,” is still running merrily in the provinces. But for all that, few of his histrionic efforts have come to stay in the Pantheon of our dramatic literature.
     I have often meditated why this is so. Buchanan undoubtedly had the gift of the theatre. His command of language was forcible and abundant. He had an eye for the picturesque, and his vein of sentiment was rich if it was not deep. His dexterity was uncommon. According to his own confession, when busy in the work of adaptation, he never followed the original slavishly, but perused it once or twice, then clapped the book to, and straightway reconstructed the play off his own bat. And yet, endowed with all these master qualities, most of Robert Buchanan’s stage-work was unsatisfactory. You felt, as it were, that there was a something missing—an indescribable something, lacking which, one’s attention, momentarily caught, was not so strongly held as it should be by work well above the commonplace. After much reflection I believe that his deficiency is best defined as want of stamina. His first and foremost aim seemed to be to render his plays picturesque and correct in form, while he was also at pains to give his characters plausibility by putting into their mouths long explanations of their acts. The result of this was, inevitably, a certain ponderosity of style which was fatiguing, not to say irritating. Moreover, the desire to render the drama itself subservient to its form, induced him to leave much unexplained which, though it may have been clear to himself, was not so to the audience. Thus in nearly every play of his there was an air of unreality which frequently spoilt its chances of success. His last acts were mostly inconclusive, and brought a well-worked-up action to a lame termination, and as in his plays he was over anxious not to offend our moral susceptibilities, he frequently broke nature on the wheel in order to give that tone which he believed to be in harmony with the ideas of his audiences. A glaring instance of this method of working was his adaptation of Daudet’s “Fromont Jeune,” anglicised as “Partners,” which, after a beginning almost as charming as the book itself, drifted into painful sentimentality.
     If much cannot be said of his dramatic work in general—if most of it has gone the way of all flesh—there are at least some of his plays which, if mentioned, will call up pleasant recollections. I have already spoken of “Sophia” and “Alone in London”—a most thrilling melodrama which I have seen half a dozen times with pleasure—and I would add to them his delightful play “Sweet Nancy,” his original though somewhat hyperfanciful “Charlatan,” his extremely clever adaptation of “A Man’s Shadow,” which added lustre to Mr. Tree’s career, and his last two comedies, “The Romance of a Shopwalker” and “Two Little Maids from School” (“Les Demoiselles de St. Cyr,” by Dumas), both of which reminded us that, after a long silence, there was life in the old dramatist yet. The stage, therefore, owes its little debt of gratitude to the poet who is gone; but, even more than the stage, the actors are indebted to Robert Buchanan. He has given innumerable chances to our players, and more than one reputation—I need but refer to Miss Winifred Emery—found its basis in the work of a man whose pugnacity often led his critics to do him scant justice. He was a strong figure in our dramatic world, and, if not altogether a sympathetic one, the fault was not entirely his. He wanted “stage management” in many ways, like the rest of the world of which he complained so bitterly.

 

Back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan

_____

 

From A Literary History of Scotland by John Hepburn Millar
(London : T.F. Unwin, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons 1903)

From Chapter XI, ’The Victorian Era: 1848-1880 (pp. 601-603)

 

. . . Had Gray lived a century earlier, he might have found a more congenial mode of expression for his thoughts and emotions in the literary vernacular. As it is, though his artifice is manifest, it is never disagreeable; and even in the sequence of Sonnets, entitled In the Shadows, and written literally intuitu mortis, he is always frank and amiable; never a mere trickster or poseur.
    
Very different is the verdict that must be returned with regard to Gray’s friend and fellow-emigrant to London. Robert William Buchanan 1 (1841-1902) was a Scot by extraction, if not by actual birth. The highest expectations were at one time formed of his genius, and not altogether without reason. Fra Giacomo, for example, which is among his earliest poems, has considerable power, though it is marked by all the crudeness of youth. But whatever promise may have been held out by Undertones (1864) or Idyls and Legends of Inverburn (1865) seemed to be almost entirely quenched after the appearance of the North Coast Poems (1867). Buchanan had entered with considerable zest into the life of second- and third-rate “Bohemianism” for which London affords so many opportunities. He turned some of his experiences to tolerable account in his London Poems (1867), but he paid the penalty of becoming, to the tips of his fingers, what Wilson would have called a “Cockney” poet. The two stout volumes which contain his poetical writings bear witness to the industry of his pen; but of all his verse, perhaps only three pieces may be remembered when the work of better poets has been

_____

1 Complete Poetical Works, 2 vols., 1901. See also Robert Buchanan: Some Account of his Life, &c. By Harriett Jay, 1903.
_____

602 forgotten—The Wake of Tim O’Hara, The Wedding of Shon Maclean, and Phil Blood’s Leap—and even these will chiefly be called to mind at smoking-concerts and in similar congregations. What he always seemed to be attempting to say has been said by Tennyson and Browning, by Mr. Kipling and Mr. Henley, but was never said by him. It was for no want of technical skill that Buchanan failed as a poet. In this respect he was well equipped, and the variety of his measures is extensive. The flaw in his composition was a deep-seated and irremediable insincerity.1 Scarce a line he has written bears the true stamp of emotion. We need not, indeed, adopt the view of Firmilian that—

                                   “What we write
Must be the reflex of the thing we know”;

but the superficial knowledge of Greek mythology which enables a man to talk glibly of Prometheus and Dryads and Naiads and Fauns is a poor substitute either for genuine feeling or for that similitude of it which great poets are able to fashion. Buchanan can have imposed upon nobody. He was always, and particularly in his later years, a great lasher of the vices of the age. The haste to be rich, the inordinate lust of gold, the discrepancy between Christian theory and practice, were chastised with abundance of acrimony and strong language. If indomitable pugnacity, shrillness of rhetoric, and the desire to be “nasty” all round, could make a satirist, then had Buchanan been a master of his craft. But it so happened that he was less effective and impressive even than Churchill. Stern moralists who desire their denunciations of avarice to be taken seriously should endeavour to avoid becoming bankrupt through unsuccessful speculation on the turf; and the radical

_____

     2 As a poet of “revolt” against the status quo, he cannot be compared with James Thomson (1834-82), a native of Port-Glasgow, whose striking City of Dreadful Night (1874) is the unquestionable offspring of despair and the narcotic habit.

_____

603 vice which we have noted in Buchanan as a poet was unfortunately made patent in the public prints for all to see and note. Neither his novels nor his plays are of the smallest consequence as literature. But he at least achieved a triumphant success in adding two new chapters to the voluminous history in which are recorded the quarrels of authors. By means of a magazine article, signed “Thomas Maitland,” in which he assailed The Fleshly School of Poetry, and, eodem contextu, extolled his own performances, he drew from Mr. Swinburne an extremely rich and “fruity” specimen of that poet’s early polemical manner;1 and by means of a similar attack upon “society” journalism, he elicited from Edmund Yates a retort which deserves to be treasured among the curiosities, if not among the disgraces, of journalism.2
     It would be difficult to conceive of a stronger contrast to Robert Buchanan in point of straightforwardness and sincerity than Walter Chalmers Smith (b. 1824), probably the most considerable Scottish poet of the generation which produced his namesake Alexander. . . .

_____

1 Under the Microscope, 1872.
2 Consult the file of the World newspaper, September, 1877.
_____

 

Back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan

_____

 

From The Glasgow Poets: Their Lives and Poems edited by George Eyre-Todd
(Glasgow and Edinburgh: William Hodge & Co., 1903 - pp. 409-411.)

 

ROBERT BUCHANAN

1841-1901

 

NOT less ambitious than his comrade, David Gray, Robert Buchanan, when a young man, wrote to Philip Hamerton, “I mean, after Tennyson’s death, to be Poet-Laureate.” More fortunate, in one sense, than his friend, he lived to prove the words no mere idle boast. There can be little doubt that had he remained of the temper for it, when Tennyson passed away no poet could have advanced a stronger claim by merit for the honour than Robert Buchanan. Unfortunately, his temper had changed. By dint of his readiness to come to blows with any one and every one, he had made himself the Ishmael of the literary world, and for this reason, it would seem, the real greatness of his work has never been adequately recognised. But the merit is there, and doubtless its day will come.
     Though born at Caverswall, in Staffordshire, 18th August, 1841 (his mother was an Englishwoman, Margaret Williams, of Stoke-on-Trent), Buchanan was reared in Glasgow, and received his education at Glasgow Academy, High School, and University. His father, one of Robert Owen’s band of Socialists, was editor of the Sentinel newspaper, and from the first the son breathed a literary atmosphere. Gray was his closest friend, and in the Buchanan household at 9 Oakfield Terrace, and in the Sentinel office in Howard Street, the pair talked over their plans, and dreamed their  dreams. Buchanan’s early efforts found a ready place in his father’s somewhat Bohemian paper, and when the crisis arrived he was ready for it. His father became bankrupt, and, without money or influence, his career at the University cut short, the young poet had to face the world for himself. On a day in May, 1860, Gray burst in on him with the news, “Bob, I’m off to London!” Buchanan’s mind was made up, and he went also. He himself has told the story of that adventure—how the two by some mistake travelled by separate routes, how for economic and romantic reasons he spent his first night in London in the Hotel of the Stars, otherwise, in the open air; and how he put in his first year in an attic in Stamford Street, Blackfriars.
     At first he had the comradeship of David Gray; and William Black and Charles Gibbons found their way to him later, but for most of the time he was alone, and driven by his loneliness to seek strange company. “I have walked,” he wrote afterwards, “for long hours by midnight between Stamford Street and the Bridge of Sighs, almost crying for companionship. The street-walker knew me, and told me of her life, as we stood in the moonlight, looking down upon the Thames. From the loafer and the tavern-haunter, as from my first friend, the thief, I got help, friendliness, and  comfort. But I wanted something else, and I knew not what. I was full of insane visions and aspirations. Poetry possessed me like a passion. Elsewhere there were pipes and beer, Mimi, loose raiment, and loose jokes. But my yearning was not for these, but for the dead poets and the dead gods.”
     Presently he found work on the Athenæum, and was entrusted by Mr. John Morley with books to review for the Literary Gazette. Dickens, asked by Edmund Yates for a list of the best contributors to All the Year Round, included his name, and he was asked accordingly to write for Temple Bar. His first independent publication had been a volume of poems issued under the name of “Undertones” in 1860. It was followed by his “Idylls and Legends of Inverburn,” a series of legendary sketches, pathetic, humorous, and weird. “London Poems,” his third production, assured his position as a poet. It was followed by a stream of volumes from his pen. Among the number were “Ballad Stories of the Affections,” translated from the Scandinavian; “The North Coast, and other Poems”; “The Drama of Kings”; and “The Land of Lorne.” “The Book of Orm,” conceived amid the tremendous scenery of Loch Coruisk in Skye, and published in 1868, struck a new and daring note in religious thought as effective as it is wildly beautiful. In 1870 he received from Mr. Gladstone’s Government a pension of £100 a year. Four years later he began his series of novels, each with a purpose. Among these his “Shadow of the Sword” is a powerful polemic against war, while “God and the Man” illustrates forcibly the vanity of individual hate. Also in 1874 he appeared as a playwright, his “Madcap Prince,” written in youth, being produced at the Haymarket. It was followed by a succession of plays—“Napoleon Fallen,” “The Witchfinder,” “A Nine Days’ Queen,” “Alone in London,” and others. Among his other works were the novels “A Child of Nature,” in 1879 ; and “The Martyrdom of Madeline,” in 1882. “St. Abe and his Seven Wives,” and “White Rose and Red,” were published anonymously as a trap for the critics. “Ballads of Life, Love, and Humour” appeared in 1882, and “The Wandering Jew” in 1890. A collected edition of his poems was published shortly before his death.
     Throughout his career Buchanan was seldom without some great controversy in hand, in which he was the attacking party. His early assault on the “Fleshly School of Poetry” (Rossetti and his friends) must remain historic; and his last, on “Imperial Cockneydom” and Mr. Rudyard Kipling, is likely also to be remembered. His fighting temper extended even to his private affairs. Under the impression that his works received less than justice from publishers and managers of theatres, he became his own theatrical manager and book producer, only, alas! to come to grief in both arenas. Something of his fighting spirit and colossal pride was foreseen by a publisher on whom he called in his early days in London. “I don’t like that young man,” said the publisher; “he talks to me as if he were God Almighty or Lord Byron.” Nevertheless, from first to last the poet was as warm-hearted as he was hot-headed. On a December night in 1861 he started from his sleep weeping. “What is wrong?” asked Gibbons, who shared his attic at the time. “David Gray is   dead,” replied Buchanan. The next post brought from Scotland the news of Gray’s death.
     During his last years the poet made his home at Southend-on-Sea, and there he lies buried. His position in the world of letters has yet to be assigned, but there can be no doubt it is by his poetry that his name will live. Buchanan’s genius was like his blood, Celtic. Behind it lay an unsatisfied yearning and a wistful pathos that on occasion could break either into hot wrath, kindly laughter, or happy tears. His “Balder the Beautiful” and “The City of Dream” are surely immortal, and as a ballad-writer he had no living rival.

[Note: This introduction is then followed by ‘The Ballad of Judas Iscariot’.]

_____

 

From Studies in Prose and Verse by Arthur Symons
(London: J. M. Dent and Company, 1904 - pp.121-123.)

 

ROBERT BUCHANAN

ROBERT BUCHANAN was a soldier of fortune who fought under any leader or against any cause so long as there was heavy fighting to be done. After a battle or two, he left the camp and enlisted elsewhere, usually with the enemy. He was, or aimed at being, a poet, a critic, a novelist, a playwright; he was above all a controversialist; he also tried being his own publisher. As a poet he wrote ballads, lyrics, epics, dramas, was realist and transcendentalist, was idyllic, tragic, pathetic, comic, religious, objective, subjective, descriptive, reflective, narrative, polemic, and journalistic. He wrote rhetorical and “Christian” romances before Mr Hall Caine; his plays were done entirely for the market, some of them in collaboration with Mr G. R. Sims; his criticism was all a kind of fighting journalism. “Lacking the pride of intellect,” he has said of himself, “I have by superabundant activity tried to prove myself a man among men, not a mere littérateur.” And, indeed, his career shows an activity not less surprising than superabundant. He took himself so seriously that he considered it legitimate to “stoop to hodman’s work”; thinking, he tells us, “no work undignified which did not convert him into a Specialist or a Prig.” He never doubted that he might have been “sitting empty-stomached on Parnassus,” if he had cared for the position. He defended himself, perhaps unnecessarily, for not having done so. “I have written,” he said, “for all men and in all moods.” He took the day’s wages for the day’s work, but was not satisfied. From the first his books 122 were received with serious attention; they were considered, often praised greatly, often read largely. Whenever he had anything to say, people listened. When he hit other men, the other men usually paid him the compliment of hitting back. “For nearly a generation,” he lamented, ten years ago, “I have suffered a constant literary persecution.” Well, it is difficult to do justice to one who has never done justice to another. But persecution is hardly the word to be used for even a hard hit, when the hit is received by a fighter of all work.
     Like most fighters, Buchanan fought because he could not think, and his changing sides after the fight was neither loss nor gain to either cause. It was at most the loss or gain of a weapon, and the weapon was often more dangerous to friends than foes. He liked playing with big names, as children play with dolls and call them after their dreams. He took God and the devil into his confidence, very publicly, and with a kind of lofty patronage. He used the name of God to checkmate the devil, and the devil’s name to checkmate God. “And absolutely,” he tells us, “I don’t know whether there are gods or not. I know only that there is Love and Lofty Hope and Divine Compassion.” There are more big names to play with, and he wrote them, even their adjectives, in capital letters. The capital letters were meant for emphasis, they also indicated defiance. He gave many definitions of what he meant by God, the devil, Love, Hope, and Compassion. The definitions varied, and were often interchangeable. I find some of them in a book written in his honour, called “Robert Buchanan, the Poet of Modern Revolt.” From this book I gather that Buchanan was himself an example of the “divine” and the “lofty” virtues. His weakness, he admits, was 123 too much brotherly love. “With a heart overflowing with love, I have gathered to myself only hate and misconception.” Whatever he attacked, he attacked in all the sincerity of anger, and anger no doubt is the beginning of all avenging justice. He has said (so Mr Stodart-Walker’s book tells me, and though I gather that it was said in verse, I am unable to reconstruct the lines in metrical form) “I’ve popt at vultures circling skyward, I’ve made the carrion hawks a byword, but never caused a sigh or sob in the breast of mavis or cockrobin, nay, many such have fed out of my hand and blest me.” There is hardly a contemporary writer whom he did not attack, but it is true that he recanted with not less vehemence, and with a zest in the double function which suggests the swinging impartiality of the pendulum. When he insulted an idea, it was with the best intentions and on behalf of another idea. If he spoke blasphemously of God, it has only been, he assures us, in his zeal for religion, and when he “lifted his hat to the Magdalen,” in a famous phrase, it was all in the cause of chastity. With infinite poetic ambition, he had a certain prose force, which gave his verse, at times, the vehemence of telling oratory. He attempted in verse many things which were not worth attempting and some which were. In all he aimed at effect, sometimes getting it. He was indifferent to the quality of the effect, so long as the effect was there, and the mere fact of his aiming at it disqualified him, at his best, from a place among genuine, that is to say disinterested artists.

     1901.

 

Back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan

_____

 

From The Literature of the Victorian Era by Hugh Walker
(Cambridge University Press, 1910.)

Part II: Creative Art. A. Poetry. Chapter VII: Later Developments.
2. The Celtic Poets (pp. 574-585.)

 

     There remains one Celt of the most varied gifts, and of genius which ought to be unquestionable, though it has been questioned—Robert Buchanan (1841-1901). Of blood half Scotch, quarter Welsh and quarter English, Buchanan, though born in England, as it were adopted Scotland for his country. He lived and was educated there for about ten years; by his choice of a subject for one of the most ambitious of his poems he proclaimed himself of the Celtic school; and by his power he vindicated his right to be considered its head.
     As the son of a Glasgow journalist, Buchanan may be said to have been born on the fringe of literature; but ambition and a well-founded consciousness of high gifts impelled him towards the centre. Even from boyhood he was conscious of the inspiration of the poet. Like many another Scot of talent, he felt his surroundings to be too narrow for him: the world was his oyster and London the place where the oyster must be opened. To this decision he was helped by the friendship he had formed with David Gray (1838-1861), whose three years’ seniority were enough to give him considerable influence over a character stronger than his own. The two set out in 1860 for the metropolis,—Gray to creep home and die in the following year, Buchanan to fight a long hard battle, to write poems, dramas and novels, and to tell simply, tastefully and beautifully the pathetic story of his friend’s life.
     The short memoir of David Gray is a model of what a biography ought to be. There are few facts to record, but the story of the Kirkintilloch weaver’s poet-son is full of human interest, and in some seventy or eighty pages Buchanan gives a vivid impression of character and talent. Gray had a very considerable, perhaps he had even a great, poetic gift “There 575 was in him,” says Monckton Milnes, “the making of a great man”; but poor Gray did not live to prove the soundness of this judgment. Soon after he went to London he caught through exposure a cold which sowed the seeds of consumption, and he died at the age of twenty-three. Buchanan shows that Gray was no “morbid, unwholesome young gentleman, without natural weaknesses—a kind of aqueous Henry Kirke White, brandied faintly with ambition”; but it is also evident from his sketch that there was a certain want of stability in Gray’s character, which, notwithstanding his ambition, might have proved disastrous. Gray’s principal poem, The Luggie, was published after his death; he had seen a proof-sheet just the day before he died. It is a blank-verse piece of some 1200 lines, not so much descriptive of the little stream from which the name is taken, as inspired by its scenery. It cannot have been composed without some thought of the work of Thomson, and there are occasional echoes of him, of Keats and of Wordsworth. There is also evidence of the immaturity of the writer, and perhaps of the fact that the hand of death was on him as he wrote; but nevertheless The Luggie is the work of a poetic spirit, keenly sensitive to the beauties of nature. The series of sonnets, In the Shadows—a pathetic record of the poet’s thoughts and feelings as the gloom of death deepened around him—are richer and stronger.
     Robert Buchanan was a man of remarkable independence of mind. There is even something defiant in his independence: “A man’s a man for a’ that” may be sung with a certain blatancy. And as the impulse to write came to him from the sense that he had something to say which the poets of the time either could not or would not say, it was to be expected that he would show himself even aggressively self-reliant. And so, on the whole, he does. But nevertheless even Buchanan had to pass through his period of initiation. His first volume of verse, entitled Undertones (1864), is essentially imitative. It consists chiefly of studies of classical themes, a sort of work suggested to him doubtless by Tennyson and Arnold, hut one which was ill calculated to bring out his own strength.
576 Next year came the Idyls and Legends of Inverburn, where Buchanan found his true field, or rather one of his true fields, and made an immense stride upwards. There are still crudities and evidences of imperfect training; and sometimes, in the original edition, there were even gross solecisms. But the collection as a whole is excellent. The poems are written with great force and with admirable lucidity, often with pathos, sometimes with remarkable dramatic power. Willie Baird is a touching little tale; The English Huswife’s Gossip is satisfactory evidence of the author’s power to realise and to portray character; Poet Andrew owes its pathos to the thought of poor Gray. Elsewhere in his works two other pieces, To the Luggie and To David in Heaven, are avowedly dedicated to Gray’s memory. It is noticeable that in the Idyls and Legends of Inverburn, the lyrical legends are less successful than the idyls. Buchanan had not yet attained mastery over lyrical measures.
     Buchanan’s next volume, London Poems (1866), broke fresh ground; but in North Coast and other Poems (1868) he reverted once more to something like the Inverburn poems. These and the North Coast Poems belong to a type of verse which he never abandoned and in which not a little of his best work was done. Pieces like The Scaith o’ Bartle and Meg Blane are among the best of modern legendary and ballad poems. Buchanan tells his story rapidly and impressively, bringing both scene and actors vividly before the eye. Again, in the powerful and affecting ballad, The Lights of Leith, the hopes and fears of the sailor as he draws near the shore and prepares to enter his old mother’s hut are depicted with the graphic power of a true dramatist. The story is almost too painful, but it is “an ower true tale,” and it is well that we should be reminded still that such things were once done in the name of religion.
     Buchanan is the most Scottish of all recent poets: his nationality is one of his distinguishing marks, the one by which perhaps his work can best be discriminated from that of any of his contemporaries. No other contemporary Scotchman, after the death of Alexander Smith, had a mind so poetic; and nobody but a Scotchman or a native of the North of England could have 577 written the Inverburn and the North Coast Poems. It is not merely a matter of dialect with Buchanan. He could use dialect with skill; but the brand of nationality is on many of his poems which are written in pure English, We see it in the scenery and in the characters. The coast is the east coast of Scotland, the people are Scotch sailors, Scotch peasants and shepherds, and their mothers and wives and sisters. Another national note of a very different quality is sounded in The Book of Orm; but in the group of poems now under consideration the basis, as has been hinted, is realism. It is, however, a realism warmed by imagination, and occasionally there are even hints of mysticism, foreshadowing The Book of Orm.
     The London Poems, different as is their setting from that of these poems of the North, have more kinship with them than is at first sight apparent, The idyllic and legendary elements are gone, and the realism is more pronounced; but the tales are still touched and lit with imagination which lifts them out of the gutters of the “mean streets” wherein they are enacted, and sets them on a higher plane than that of the more recent stories of sordid London life. Buchanan was always poetic in mind, and he could never descend to such depths. The conclusion of Tiger Bay expresses the spirit which inspires the London Poems. The human in the dens of London vice is hardly distinguishable from the bestial in the Indian jungle; but nevertheless in the former there is just the spark of soul which, fanned and cherished, will burn away the bestial:—

“God said, moreover: ‘The spark shall grow—
     ’Tis blest, it gathers, its flame shall lighten,
     Bless it and nurse it—let it brighten!
’Tis scattered abroad, ’tis a Seed I sow.
And the seed is a Soul, and the Soul is the Human;
     And it lighteth the face with a sign and a flame.
     Not unto beasts have I given the same,
But to man and to woman.
               Mark! mark!
         The light shall scatter the dark:
         Where murmur the Wind and the Rain,
         Where the jungle darkens the plain,
         And in street and lane.’

. . . So faint, so dim, so sad to seeing,                                                  578
     Behold it burning! Only a spark!
     So faint as yet, and so dim to mark,
In the tigress-eyes of the human being.
Fan it, feed it, in love and duty,
     Track it, watch it in every place—
     Till it burns the bestial frame and face
To its own dim beauty.
               Mark! mark!
         A spark that grows in the dark;
         A spark that burns in the brain;
         Spite of the Wind and the Rain,
         Spite of the Curse and the Stain;
         Over the Sea and the Plain,
         And in street and lane.”

     Though there is as much power in these London Poems as in the poems of the North Country, they are not so pleasant to read; and as pleasure is one of the ends of poetry, they are for that reason less poetical. The sordid streets and dens are not more real than the wild northern coast and the lonely glens, while they are infinitely less sweet and wholesome. The inhabitants of those streets are not more, rather they are less, human than the fishermen and rustics. Nell is full of strength; but it is not the kind of poem we elect to remember. If it abides in the memory it does so by reason of its force, uninvited. Though none of the London Poems is superior to Nell, some of the others are more attractive. In spite of its sordidness, Lily is beautiful from its pathos. The Little Milliner is a London love-tale, very simply and pleasingly told. Edward Crowhurst has pathos of another sort. It is a wonderfully terse and strong narrative of the life of a labourer-poet, who is flattered, patronised, corrupted, neglected, and at last becomes mad. It embodies many of the facts of the life of John Clare, who was evidently in Buchanan’s mind, with, perhaps, Burns and his own friend Gray. His imagination had been rendered sensitive by what he had witnessed in the case of Gray, and the idea of “mighty poets in their misery dead” touched it keenly.
     From these groups of poems it is easy to detect the difference 579 between Buchanan and the poets who reigned in his early day. It is a wide one. His cry is, back to nature and reality; not to nature as she is when cultivated and trimmed and pruned by man, nor to human character as it is when smoothed and polished by education and convention; but to nature free and wild, to characters unsophisticated, strong of passion, rude and forcible of speech.

               “I have wrought
No garland of the rose and passion-flower
Grown in a careful garden in the sun;
But I have gathered samphire dizzily,
Close to the hollow roaring of a sea.”

Buchanan had no quarrel with the classical poets: for a moment, as we have seen, he even followed their lead, though afterwards he knew that their method was wrong for him. But he had a quarrel with the Pre-Raphaelite poets; and it is probably their “careful garden in the sun” to which he refers in these lines. His critical instinct was not wrong in suggesting to him the sense of an irreconcilable difference between himself and the Pre-Raphaelites, for he and they are in spirit poles asunder. But he would have done well to reflect that Parnassus is a mountain of more than one peak and of innumerable slopes and ridges. There might be room for them to fulfil their mission as well as for him—the word is appropriate, for both Buchanan and the Pre-Raphaelites are rather obviously conscious of a mission.
     The Northern poems and the London poems constitute two great sections of Buchanan’s work, but his restless intellect impelled him to try many other things. Napoleon Fallen (1871) was among his failures. In Saint Abe and his Seven Wives (1872) and in White Rose and Red (1873) he crossed the Atlantic for his subject. But of course he could not possess that intimacy of knowledge and depth of sympathy which mark his North Country poems. E. C. Stedman, who on this point speaks with authority, declares that Buchanan “has succeeded only in being faithful to a British ideal of American frontier life.” These two poems were published anonymously and the secret of their authorship was very carefully guarded. Buchanan was then under the cloud 580 caused by his virulent attack upon Rossetti in The Fleshly School of Poetry, and he believed that only under the veil of anonymity could he hope to receive fair treatment from the critics. The two poems certainly were welcomed with unusual warmth; but this might be due to the fact that they are stories in verse, lucidly and vigorously told.
     In the opinion of many, however, Buchanan achieved his highest triumphs in the Celtic poems, and especially in The Book of Orm (1870), where the quondam realist showed himself a pronounced mystic. Buchanan was conscious of the Highland blood in his veins: he was a clansman, a Celt; and it was this clan-feeling which hurried him into the Celtic Revival, to which his principal contribution was this Book of Orm.
     Whatever may be the value of the distinction between the Celtic and the Teutonic elements in English literature, what Buchanan himself regarded as the Celtic element in this poem is plain enough, The poet has declared that the object of The Book of Orm is to “vindicate the ways of God to man.” But the phrase is far too clear and definite. We no longer know the Deity as we know “the man in the next street”; and a reasoned justification like that of Milton or that of Pope would be out of place, and is not attempted, in Buchanan’s poem. But still, beneath the veil of mysticism there dimly glimmer those great problems of life and death which occupied and perplexed Tennyson and Browning as well as Buchanan.
     Buchanan sent forth The Book of Orm as an avowed contribution to racial poetry. Perhaps he was too conscious and deliberate in his purpose to be wholly natural. The keynote is struck in the prefatory lines:—

“Read these faint rimes of Mystery,
O Celt, at home and o’er the sea;
The bond is loosed—the pool are free—
The world’s great future rests with thee!

Till the soil—bid cities rise—
Be strong, O Celt—be rich, be wise—
But still, with those divine grave eyes,
Respect the realm of Mysteries.”

581The whole poem is in the same spirit. The author evidently regarded mysticism as the essence of the Celtic contribution to poetry; and The Book of Orm is profoundly mystical. In this lies at once its charm and, perhaps, its defect. Nothing makes a greater draught upon the poetical powers than mysticism: it is so difficult to keep it from passing into mistiness. Buchanan’s powers were great, but possibly not quite great enough for his purpose. For one thing, he is not sufficiently a master of metre and rhythm; for in proportion as the poet leaves the world of hard fact behind him, the sensuous enchantments of verse gain importance. Where there is a definite story, or a definite thought addressed to the understanding, the simpler harmonies of verse will suffice. Pope’s couplets are nearly as good as their kind could be made. But Tennyson’s Lotos-Eaters and Coleridge’s Christabel demand a very much more subtle rhythm. In this respect Buchanan was a competent but not a great artist. There is a roughness, often intentional, but nevertheless unpleasing, in the verse of The Book of Orm.
     Perhaps too Buchanan was not altogether great enough in thought; and he was certainly not spontaneous enough in his use of the supernatural. He could call spirits from the vasty deep; but the depth from which they came was not so profound as that from which certain mere Teutons have drawn. Sometimes (conspicuously in the Prayer from the Deeps) there is too plain a revelation of the modern critical spirit, which harmonises ill with mysticism. On the other hand, the section to which this prayer belongs, The Devils Mystics, is as a whole strongly conceived and strongly written; and still more powerful is The Vision of the Man Accurst.
     Another group of the Celtic poems, the Coruisken Sonnets, are all fine, and some of them are exceptionally beautiful. Among the best are The Hills on their Thrones, King Blaabhein and Blaabhein in the Mists,—titles which remind the reader that Alexander Smith found inspiration in the same scenes. Buchanan attempts no transcript of scenery; but he achieves something far greater, a rendering of its spirit.
     The Vision of the Man Accurst deals with a kind of theme in 582 the treatment of which Buchanan was a master. It is akin to, but stronger and more original than, The Ballad of Judas Iscariot. Though the latter is essentially Buchanan’s own, yet once and again the poet draws hints from the past. Not only is it pervaded with the spirit of the old ballads, but there are hints from Hood’s Eugene Aram and from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. There are no such echoes in The Vision of the Man Accurst; and in depth and force as well as in originality that poem seems to be the greater of the two.
For the first ten years of his literary life Buchanan’s work had been mainly poetical; but shortly after the publication of White Rose and Red he became conspicuous both as a writer for the stage, in which capacity he won fame and money, and as the author of a series of novels bearing the mark of his strong personality and his earnestness of purpose. These activities necessarily drew his attention away from verse; but, though he was convinced that the public did not want poetry and would not reward the poet, the old love survived, and the poetic output of the later period is in the aggregate large. Some of it is as good as anything he ever wrote, but on the whole the poet will take his place rather by virtue of his earlier than of his later work. Like many others, he had the ambition to write long poems; and he thought, erroneously, that it was pure perversity or dislike of poetry as such on the part of the public, that made his more ambitious ventures less successful than some of the shorter pieces. Though his Balder the Beautiful: A Song of Divine Death (1877) contains some fine poetry (best of all, perhaps, the Proem to his wife), it is not a well-knit whole. Buchanan justly claimed for it the praise of originality; for it owes little to what he called “the vulgar myths of the Edda.” But this phrase suggests a question. Surely it must be wrong to pour new wine into old bottles, thinking all the time that the bottles are worthless; and the reason why Buchanan’s “song of divine death” is unsatisfactory may perhaps be found in this incongruity between the original and that which is fashioned from it.
     Problems such as that indicated by the sub-title were at this period occupying much of Buchanan’s attention, and they profoundly influenced his prose as well as his verse. He had been 583 bred in ignorance of the creeds of the Churches, for his father was a sceptic and a follower of Robert Owen the Socialist. Buchanan had therefore no “Hebrew old clothes” to cast off; on the contrary, it was in manhood that he gradually familiarised himself with, and in some degree adopted, conceptions which the child generally drinks in with its mother’s milk. But he never approached what is commonly regarded as orthodoxy, and, what is much more serious, he never seems to have been able to make up his own mind. “If,” he writes on the death of his wife to his friend, Roden Noel, “if this parting is only for a time, I see its blessedness—but if, as I dread and fear, it is a parting forever, what then1?” In the following year he dedicated his poems to his dead wife, “weeping and sorrowing, yet in sure and certain hope of a blessed resurrection2.” This looks like conviction; but later we come again upon evidences of doubt. Buchanan’s next long poem, The City of Dream (1888), an allegory dedicated “to the sainted spirit of John Bunyan,” is the story of the pilgrimage of Ishmael (Buchanan himself) to seek the heavenly city. The picture of Christopolis shows clearly enough that the hand of Ishmael was against most men, and suggests why most men’s hands were against him. It is no reproach to the poet that he does not answer the unanswerable. A work like The City of Dream must, in the nature of things, be vague and inconclusive. But it is not only inconclusive, it is unsuggestive; the author himself is in the mist, and naturally he cannot lead the reader into sunlight. The curious catechism he constructed with reference to The Wandering Jew (1893) illustrates the confusion of his mind. There he declares his belief in a future life; but then he adds: “It is only a belief, not a certainty, a hope, a faith even, not a reality. The testimony of all Science is against it3.”
     The Wandering Jew is the most remarkable and by far the most intelligible of the poems of this class. Though it was begun long before the others, it was the last to be published. As early as 1866 Buchanan had written part of it, and he had finished it some years before its publication. The reason was not doubt as to its value—it was “his favourite child”—but a fixed idea that it would

_____

1 Jay’s Robert Buchanan, 221.           2 ibid.          3 ibid. 264.
_____

584 prove the end of his career. The fundamental conception of a Christ old and grey, worn and weary, is impressive and pathetic. The poet finds ample material to support his thesis that the professed followers of Christ have, under the cloak of his name, wrought all the sins and cruelties most abhorrent to his nature. Thus he explains the weariness and sadness of the aged figure and makes intelligible his concluding prayer for death and the answer of the Judge:—

                                             “Nay!
Death that brought peace thyself didst seek to slay!
Death that was merciful and very fair,
Sweet dove-eyed Death that hush’d the Earth’s despair,
Death that shed balm on tirèd eyes like thine,
Death that was Lord of Life and all Divine,
Thou didst deny us, offering instead
The Soul’s fierce famine that can ne’er be fed—
Death shall abide to bless all things that be,
But evermore shall turn aside from thee.”

     Buchanan was the possessor of one more talent which, in justice to him, must still be noticed. He had the gift of humour in a higher degree than any other recent poet except Mr Rudyard Kipling. Saint Abe and White Rose and Red are richly humorous; so are a number of the North Country poems. Kitty Kemble blends satire with humour, and The Wedding of Shon Maclean has a wild rollick unequalled since Outram’s Law Lyrics. It might be compared to a scene from Charles O’Malley, in verse, and transferred from the Irish bogs to the Highland mountains.
     The range of Buchanan is such as only an extraordinary spirit could have compassed. And to estimate him aright we must also take account of his independence. This is the secret of his combative career. He both felt himself to be and called himself an Ishmael, and he struck out fiercely against those whose hand he believed to be raised against him. Even where he adopted current forms of verse, he used them in a way of his own. He wrote idylls in an age of idylls; but his have far more of mother earth about them than the Tennysonian idylls. Buchanan’s are related to these as his countryman Allan Ramsay’s pastoral is related to the pastorals 585 of Pope. In his own way Buchanan was a leader of a new return to nature. He was spokesman for a generation rising into manhood when the impulse of the early Victorian poets was beginning to fail, and when their ideals were no longer accepted as all that the heart could desire. The North Country and the London poems were his attempt to satisfy the want, and of all that were made it was the one which offered most hope. The principal alternatives were such Neo-Pre-Raphaelitism as we find in O'Shaughnessy, and the graceful society verse of Mr Austin Dobson and his followers. But society verse can never be the staple of great poetry; and Pre- Raphaelitism carried within it from the start the seeds of decay. A sense of the preciosity, even of the masters, roused Buchanan’s wrath; and he made it his business to combat this and all the other signs of decadence. But, while Buchanan himself had imitators, he founded no great school. This was partly owing to his fault, or rather his insufficiency. He could not fuse the elements of greatness that were in him. Had he been able to weld the mysticism of Orm with the realism of the London Poems, the result would have been something greater than English literature has produced in recent years. As it is, they stand apart—opposite shores separated by a gulf across which Buchanan has built no bridge.

_____

 

Review of The Literature of the Victorian Era

 

The Guardian (22 February, 1910 - p.7)

     Professor Hugh Walker, of St. David’s College, Lampeter, has written a stupendous manual dealing between two covers with THE LITERATURE OF THE VICTORIAN ERA (Cambridge University Press, pp. viii. 1,067, 10s. net). Everything that could be treated has been treated—philosophy, theology, poetry, fiction, criticism. It was a vast undertaking, and it seems merely churlish to feel anything but gratitude to the man who took his dive and came through the wave without being submerged by it. Yet Professor Walker, excellent though on the whole his judgments are, does not quite convince us that he was the man for the task. Was it not, for example, a singularly unhappy chance—it cannot surely have been anything more than a chance—that led him to take Oscar Wilde as the theme of his last paragraph and to write of him as though he were the representative of the concluding years of the nineteenth century? If this were a reasonable opinion, we should have heard of it before now; a school or college manual is not the place in which to air it for the first time. Meredith’s poetry, again, is poetry, and must be treated as such; it cannot be disposed of in a chapter devoted to the “Later Fiction.” Moreover, if it is to be dismissed in five pages, can Robert Buchanan’s need eleven? And does not Professor Walker needlessly swell his work with names that have already been visited with a merciful oblivion? Tennyson and Browning come off splendidly, of course, with forty pages each, and forty more between them. Swinburne has sixteen, but he, like Buchanan, is a “later development.” The chief merit of the book is that it teems with life and originality; obviously Professor Walker gives no opinions at second hand. Yet it may not be unreasonable to regard a manual like this as a book the object of which should be to represent the opinions of the average rather than of the individual critic.

 

Back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan

_____

 

From Reticence in Literature, and Other Papers by Arthur Waugh
(J. G. Wilson, London, 1915 - pp. 154-160.)

 

ROBERT BUCHANAN

THE story of Robert Buchanan’s literary life, if it were written frankly and with knowledge, would present a record of as much adventure and emotion as that of any of his own adventurous novels. It started in a spirit of the eighteenth century, and it ran the gamut of almost all the varied interests of the last half of the nineteenth; it joined hands, either in friendship or in combat, with most of the representative writers of the time, and it was above all things the career of a man passionately interested in his fellow-men, a creature of impulse, a child of emotion, capable alike of generous friendship and of equally ungenerous enmity; unreasoning, unreasonable, but often instinctively right, and generally downright and sincere. Judged externally, it would be pronounced successful; for while Buchanan came up to London, like the waifs and Whittingtons of a bygone age, without money or prospects, he passed in his time through most of the phases of popularity and material comfort; he had a hard struggle as a boy, but he enjoyed in his manhood more of the moderate plenty of life than falls to the lot of many men of greater ability and equal industry. And yet his career is one that criticism cannot regard altogether complacently, for Buchanan certainly did not do the good things that at the outset he promised to do; he achieved a great deal, but only a small portion of it was on a distinctively high level. Mr. William Archer has 155 said that he was “guilty of the most unpardonable sin a craftsman can commit—that of not doing his best.” But this is, perhaps, rather too uncompromising a judgment; and we may arrive at a juster estimate by distinguishing rather more carefully some of the issues and necessities of the situation.
     Buchanan arrived in London (in 1860), with the romantic confidence of boyhood, “to seek his fortune.” He was nineteen years old, the son of a Stafford socialistic missionary, and of Scots descent. He had been educated at Glasgow High School and University, and he brought with him to London a fellow student of the same ambition, the pair having sworn comradeship in the pursuit of literary fame. The story of the early struggles of Buchanan and his friend David Gray is generally familiar. It is the story of privation in a Grub-street garret, which recalls the early misfortunes of Richard Savage, and it ended for one of the combatants in a premature and pitiful death. Buchanan’s was the stronger temperament; he lived through the lean years of half-starvation, and overcame the obstacles which bristle about the start of a literary career, and in a few years he was making his way steadily upon the newspaper press. Those, however, who watched Buchanan’s career closely were inclined to think that the experiences of those early days in London had set a mark upon him which the circumstances of later life never wholly obliterated. Privation is a cruel taskmistress, and in those probationary years he learnt that to please the public you must provide what the public wants. Material success was essential to one in Buchanan’s 156 position. He had not the provision which might have enabled him to choose the work he would have preferred; he was obliged to write what he could find a market for. And so it was not, perhaps, so much the case that he deliberately did not do his best, as that he fell more and more unconsciously into the habit of working upon lines which he saw elsewhere successful, and in which he knew he could himself succeed most easily. The result in any case was much the same; a true artist was wasted in the necessary pursuit of popular favour.
     For the unfortunate part of this compromise with necessity was that it fostered in Buchanan the very defects to which his work was most fatally prone. He was, as we have said, a creature of emotion, and his temperament was always swaying between emotional excesses. When for a moment the balance lay level, he would produce, as he often did in his early career, poems of intense and poignant humanity, genuine and sincere utterances of a man of high feeling and deep sympathy. But the balance was momentary, and with its decline he plunged at once into melodramatic exaggeration. Over-emphasis both of detraction and admiration marred his loyalty to what were often most commendable causes, and in his creative work the same over-emphasis dragged him into lurid and hyperbolical effects which simply defeated their own object. He became the victim of untutored emotion, playing into the hands of the crowd.
     And yet he was at heart a true poet, of the vigorous and emotional order. He began to write, perhaps, in an unfortunate time; for the spasmodic, 157 sentimental, and rather formless poetic movement of the ’sixties was precisely the sort of movement to call out in him the qualities which he most needed to restrain, and he yielded himself readily to its fascination. A natural melodist, he was content with loose and flaccid metrical excesses, and his harmony often dissolves itself into the mechanical jingle of the barrel-organ. A rapid and volcanic thinker, he indulged himself in unshapely diffusions; form became the last thing to be considered; effect, effect, and always effect was the mainspring of his work. Later on, too, he assumed subjects far beyond the range of his imagination, and the nebulous and rather pretentious parables in which he attempted to set forth some sort of philosophy of the divine will are found, on careful analysis, to be often very tawdry and always theatrical. But poetry was undoubtedly his sphere. Here, more than anywhere else, he found expression for the most humane and sincere trait in his nature—his generous care and sympathy for the sufferings of the unfortunate. Here, too, he often wrote with persuasive simplicity and directness. It was in his early poetry that he held out promise richer, alas! than any later fulfilment.
     Poetry, however, is a poor staff upon which to support a household; and Buchanan, like so many others, turned in time to the more popular field of fiction. Some of his earlier novels are full of power, even if it is rather crudely employed. “The Shadow of the Sword” is not without taint of his besetting sin; it is over-emphatic and over-eager; but it has fine passages and is marked by open and broad sincerity. “God and 158 the Man,” again, has theatrical faults (indeed, it was afterwards recast as a melodrama); but there are scenes of abounding vigour, and in working up emotion to a fever heat Buchanan was not only adroit, but electrically effective. Still, as time went on, Buchanan’s fiction declined in quality more than any other side of his work. As he began to give his attention more and more to the stage, the influence of the theatre affected his fiction to such a degree that one seemed to see in every new novel the process by which it had been hastily recast from a first rough dramatic draft. No doubt, this was not actually the case; and many of the novels which looked like re-adjusted melodramas may have begun and ended their history in their final form of fiction. Still, the pervading influence of the theatre was fatal to good work in the novel, the dialogue became stagey, the effects suggested the footlights, and there was no “conviction” in the whole of the workmanship.
     Meanwhile, Buchanan was gaining much popularity in the theatre. It cannot, indeed, be said that he enriched the stage with literature, but he turned out many workmanlike dramas which served their purpose, and were upon the whole healthy and vigorous enough in tone. Sentimentality, a perverted form of his emotionalism, warped some of his effects; and in his adaptations of Fielding and Richardson in particular he imported into the stage versions of the eighteenth century novel a sugary sort of sentiment which was not much in harmony with the virile savour of the originals. On the other hand, he was thoroughly aware of the value of stagecraft, and some of his melodramas, 159 such, for example, as the adapted “Man’s Shadow,” were in their theatrical way genuinely impressive. It is doubtful, however, if any of them would stand literary criticism, if printed; and this, it need scarcely be said, is rather a serious consideration when applied to the work of a professedly literary man.
     Finally, some reference is demanded to Buchanan’s excursions into literary controversy, the best-remembered instance of which is his attack upon the Pre-Raphaelites in the article he called “The Fleshly School of Poetry.” Buchanan was, of course, no critic; the violences of his temperament were against him. But he was a tremendous fighter, and he loved controversy, if not for its own sake, at any rate for the opportunity it gave him of venting opinions which increased in emphasis with every outburst of opposition. As a combatant he lacked every grace and chivalry of the lists; urbanity and persuasiveness were apparently distasteful to him, for he lost no opportunity of outraging them with diversities of violence. His attack upon Rossetti was quite without method or stability of judgment; it wounded its victim to the quick, but it probably persuaded no one of its justice. “The Coming Terror,” a volume of controversial essays which aroused some interest more than twenty years ago, contains some sensible ideas intermingled with a great deal of indiscriminate buffeting of the air, and this defect is representative of all his critical arguments. Yet his enthusiasm was as generous in praise as it was violent in difference. The consideration of dates renders it unlikely that Buchanan spoke by the book when he said 160 that he was one of the first to give Browning welcome at a time when all the critical world was contemning him; but it is at least true that among the voices raised to proclaim a new talent Buchanan’s was often among the earliest and the most hearty. His view was not always sound, and the hyperbole with which it was expressed was almost invariably unsound, but he gave encouragement to many literary beginners at a time when they needed it most urgently. Here, too, perhaps the memories of his own early struggles prompted him, and to a better purpose.
     We take leave, then, of Robert Buchanan with a sense of kindly and sincere regret. He was a man of real talent and of generous emotion, driven, as we believe, by the force of circumstances to make less of his abilities than might have been made under advantages of leisure and of competency. The struggle of life affects different men in different ways. Some go down under it altogether; some, but these are very few, rise above it and seem to thrive upon opposition; others, and these the great majority, compromise with it, and are content to swim with the tide. Buchanan went with the tide and the majority. The compromise brought him success and his reward; but it would be injustice to his memory to pretend that, under other circumstances and with other advantages, the success might not have been on higher levels and the reward itself more enduring.

 

Back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan

_____

 

Next: Lafcadio Hearn

or back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan

 

Home
Biography
Bibliography

 

Poetry
Plays
Fiction

 

Essays
Reviews
Letters

 

The Fleshly School Controversy
Buchanan and the Press
Buchanan and the Law

 

The Critical Response
Harriett Jay
Miscellanea

 

Links
Site Diary
Site Search