The Critical Response (3)
1. W. P. Ryan
2. ‘Austin South’
3. A. L. Lilley
4. J. T. Grein
5. John Hepburn Millar
6. George Eyre-Todd
7. Arthur Symons
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.”
“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
The Poetry of Robert Buchanan by ‘Austin South’
From The Queenslander and The Brisbane Courier (Queensland, Australia) (August, 1901)
The Queenslander (Brisbane, Queensland) (3 August, 1901 - p.218)
THE POETRY OF ROBERT BUCHANAN.—I.
By “Austin South.”
This article is not intended to be a criticism. In dealing with a miscellaneous collection of poems, such as that row before me, the more scientific method, no doubt, would be to take the work as a whole, and, by comparison and analysis of the various parts, to endeavour to discover what characteristics of style and of thought appear most prominent throughout, and thereby gain some measure of insight into the working of the poet’s mind, and his views upon the subjects of which he speaks. This task, however, I leave for some abler pen than mine to perform. What I propose to do now is simply to review, very rapidly and superficially, it is true, for my space will not permit of my availing myself of anything more than a few hastily-culled handfuls from the rich store before me, some few of what seem to me to be the best and most characteristic of the poetical works of Robert Buchanan, and to give, so far as I may be able, such quotations as may best serve to illustrate their beauties. Such a proceeding, even when most successful, can give, 1 know, but a meagre idea of the whole, and those who are well acquainted with this poet’s work will doubtless find very much omitted which, in their opinion, should have found a place. That is inevitable. Every lover of flowers has his own favourites, and no man can bring a whole garden into the compass of a single garland. These few that I have gathered 1 offer, and for the rest—the garden is open, let all who will gather and enjoy for themselves.
The first poem, then, of which I wish to speak, is, beyond doubt, the greatest, as it is the longest, that Buchanan has given us, “The Drama of Kings.” In this splendid work, which was written about the year 1871, “an attempt is made,” to use the author’s own words, “to treat contemporary events dramatically and very realistically,” and at the same time, “to combine two qualities which the modern mind is accustomed to regard apart, reality and mystery, earthliness and spirituality.” The poem, to which is prefixed a singularly beautiful dedication to the spirit of Auguste Comte, is, as may be inferred from its name, in the form of the old classic drama, and is divided into three parts, the same central thought, however, running through them all. In the first part we have the first Napoleon at the zenith of his power, courted, flattered, exalting in the height, like to that of a demigod, to which he has risen, while yet all around him is the muttering of the storm that is gathering to sweep him from his throne. With the name of Liberty on his lips, he has enslaved Europe, and the Lie and its maker are already tottering to their fall. “In the name of Liberty”—there sounds the keynote of the whole drama. Almost at the beginning it is struck in a magnificent chorus, of which I may quote two verses:—
’Twas the height of the world’s night, there was neither warmth nor light,
And the heart of Earth was heavy as a stone;
Yet the nations sick with loss, saw the surge of Heaven toss
Round the meteor of the Cross, and with a moan
All the people desolate gazed thereon and questioned fate;
And the wind went by and bit them to the bone.
Then upon France and upon Europe burst the hurricane of revolution, and from the stormclouds sprang Napoleon, the Avatar, promising Freedom and deliverance to the world. And now
At this hour behold him tower, in the darkness of his power,
Look upon him, search his features, O ye free!
Is there hope for living things in this fiery King of Kings?
Doth the song that Freedom sings fit such as he?
Is it night or is it day, while ye bleed beneath his sway?
It is night, deep night on earth and air and sea.
And the demigod himself sees only too plainly the razor-edge upon which he stands. He has led the blind Titan, Humanity, onward in pursuit of the ideal Liberty, an ideal which deep in his own heart he believes to be a vain and foolish dream, and now he is compelled still to lead onward, whither he knows not, trembling, lest some day the mighty one he has deceived should learn the truth:—
And he, perceiving he hath been befooled,
Will cast me from him with his last fierce breath
Down through the gate into some pit of doom.
And with this shadow deepening over his life, the figure of the Corsican Caesar passes from the stage. For a moment the curtain is lifted, and we gain one last glance:—
I see on the rock in the main
The Shape sitting dark by the sea,
And his shade, and the shade of the tree
Where he sitteth, are pencilled jet black
On the luminous sky at his back;
But lo! while I gaze, from the sky
Like phantoms they vanish and die—
All is dark! . . . . . .
He has gone like a wave of the sea—
Day dieth, the light falleth red,—
O Titan, behold, he is dead!
The second part of the Trilogy is called “Napoleon Fallen.” The scene is laid in the Chateau of Wilhelmshohe, in the year 1871. The “long agony” of Sedan is over, and the Emperor of the French, vanquished and a prisoner, sits alone and broods over what is, and what might have been. He, too, like his mightier uncle, muses on Liberty, and like him remembers how, for his own ends, he has striven to lead Humanity towards an ideal in whose existence he himself has no belief. And now news has reached him of the revolt of Paris, and the fall of his power.
O those dark years
Of Empire! He who tames the tiger, and lies
Pillowed upon its neck in a lone cave
Were safer. Who could sleep on such a bed?
Mine eyes were ever dry of the pure dew
God scatters on the lids of happy men.
Humanity to his great prototype had been a blind giant, to be deluded by fair promises, to him it is a fierce beast, to be coaxed, indeed, and petted into submission, but with the fire and steel ever held In reserve, should the softer measures prove too weak. To his ears, Liberty is but an idle word, though, for his own ends, it was ever on his lips. And now that he, too, has fallen before the blind fury of the power he has so long beguiled, his only sorrow is that his hand had not been stronger to hold his people down in their bonds.
Oh, had I held the scourge in my right hand!
Tightened the yoke instead of loosening,
It had not been so ill with me as now!
A dialogue with a priest gives opportunity for some subtle metaphysical argument, followed by a fine outburst in denunciation of priestcraft and all its works from the lips of the Emperor. Then as the incensed cleric takes his departure, the unhappy man's mood changes. Sick, weary, and despairing, bis mind goes back, in almost hopeless yearning, to the faith of his distant childhood:—
Dead mother, at thy knees I said a prayer—
“Lead us not into temptation, and O God
Deliver us from evil” . . .
This night, O God,
This night at least, when I am weak and faint,
Deliver me from evil!
And so, praying, the “Man of Destiny” too passes from the stage.
The third part, though of a much more disjointed character than either the first or the second, is, perhaps, the finest of the three. In each of the other parts we have been mainly occupied with the study of a single figure; here we have several episodes, and several varying characters. The King here is a mere shadow, and his place as the central person of the drama is occupied by Prince Bismarck, the representative of Imperial power. Thus we obtain not King Wilhelm’s, but the Chancellor’s views upon Liberty, and its relations to the masses of the people. Bismarck has absolutely no doubts whatever upon the subject. Liberty, to him, means simply law and order. To all who cry aloud for freedom, he has the placid answer:—
“ In God’s name, peace! . . .
God is above ye all, and next to God,
The Son and Holy Spirit, and beneath
These twain the great anointed Kings of Earth,
And underneath the Kings the Wise of wit,
And underneath the Wise the merely Strong,
And least of all, clay in the hands of all,
The base, the miserable, and the weak.
All is perfect, the Creator of the Universe Himself is but the cap and pinnacle of the system, only another King, a little bigger and stronger than the rest. Then there breaks from the Chorus a reply of scathing indignation and scorn, of which I may quote a few verses:
Order divine, whose awful show
Dazzles all guess or dream;
Sequence unseen, whose mystic flow
Fulfils the immortal scheme:
Thou Law whereby all stand or stir—
Here breathes your last interpreter!
Because one foolish King hath slain
Another foolish King,
Because a half-born nation’s brain
With dizzy joy doth ring,
Because at the false Shepherd’s cry
The silly sheep still throng to die.
Because the Tinsel Order stands
A little longer yet;
Because in each crowned puppet’s hands
A laurel-sprig is set,
While the old lame device controls
The draff of miserable souls;
Because these things have been and are,
And oft again may be,
Doth this man swear by sun and star,
And oh our God, by Thee,
Framing to cheat his own shrewd eyes,
His fair cosmogony of lies!
In the course of the poem we have much vivid writing, descriptive of the horrors of war, and the long-drawn-out agony of slowly dying Paris, particularly fine being a dialogue in the snow between a deserter from the French army and some Sisters of Mercy. There are also exquisite lyrics, but all these I must pass over. The Trilogy finally closes with a martial “Song of the Sword,” illustrative of the triumph of United Germany, grandly insolent in its note of power and of victory, while a distant undertone bewails the misery of fallen and despairing France. And with this contrast, with the last sad words—
Is there ever a smile on any living face
That does not mean some living face’s tears?
still sounding in our ears, we see
The great black curtain fall, the music cease,
All darken, the house empty of its hosts
Of strange Intelligences who behold
The Drama, till the great Hand, creeping forth
In silence, one by one puts out the lights.
The Queenslander (Brisbane, Queensland) (17 August, 1901 - p.314)
THE POETRY OF ROBERT BUCHANAN.—II.
(By "Austin South.")
In “Balder the Beautiful,” which some may prefer to the “Drama,” we find ourselves in a completely different world of thought. In the poem which we have just been considering we were concerned with the working out of a great contemporary tragedy, in this we entirely leave the present, and move among the mysterious legends of primitive mythology. The poet tells us how Balder (the sun god of the northern Pantheon) the son of Frea, fairest of all the goddesses, was born upon the lower earth, and hidden by his mother from the sight of the gods of Asgard, lest he should be slain by them. For the gods had read an ancient rune, that the child of Frea should one day cast them down from their seats. Here are two verses from the description of the coming of Balder:—
And with him came waking
The leaf and the flower,
The wind lightly shaking
Its balm from afar,
The smile of the sunshine,
The sob of the shower,
The beam of the moonshine,
The gleam of the star.
’Mid shining of faces
And waving of wings,
With gifts from all places
Came beautiful things;
By night-time and day-time
No life was forlorn,
’Twas leaf-time, ’twas May-time,
And Balder was born!
In the sedge of the river
The swan makes its nest;
In the mere, with no quiver,
Stands shadowed the crane;
Earth happy and still is,
Peace dwells in her breast,
And the lips of her lilies
Drink balm from the rain.
The lamb in the meadow
Upsprings with no care,
Deep in the wood’s shadow
Is born the young bear;
The ash and the alder,
The flowers and the corn,
All waited for Balder—
And Balder is born!
Frea returns to Asgard, there to tell the fierce gods that her child is dead, and they need fear no more. But deep in the heart of the forests Balder grows slowly to manhood, and to the full beauty of his godhead, until at her appointed time his goddess mother comes back to him. And together they pass from earth to the abode of the gods, for Frea knows that the vengeance that might have slain her infant can have no power over a perfected divinity; besides, she hopes that the wonderful beauty of Balder will disarm all hostile thoughts. Together thus they reach
. . . Asgard, the great city of the Gods,
For ever burnt to ashes night by night,
And dawn by dawn for evermore renewed.
And mortals, when they see from out their caves
The City crumbling with a thousand fires
Cry “Lo! the Sunset!”—and when evermore
They mark it springing up miraculous
From its own ashes strewn beside the sea,
Cry, “Lo! the sunrise!”
But the gods, ever mindful of the fatal rune, refuse to receive Balder among them, and he sadly turns back to the only place which now can hold a welcome for him, the fair green earth on which he was born. Thither he comes, bringing with him light and joy to all nature.
The forest glows golden
Where’er he is seen,
New flowers are unfolden,
New voices arise;
Flames flash at his passing
From boughs that grow green,
Dark runlets gleam, glassing
The stars of his eyes.
The earth wears her brightest
Wherever he goes,
The hawthorn its whitest,
Its reddest the rose;
The days now are sunny,
The white storks appear,
And the bee gathers honey,
For Balder is here!”
But though all the world is thus full of beauty, the sun-god yet finds a dark shadow for every brooding over its fairest things; the shadow of the grim spirit, Death.
The skies are still and calm, the seas asleep,
In happy light the mortal millions creep;
Yet listen, Balder!—still they murmur deep,
“Lo! Death makes all things dark!”
And sorrowing, Balder calls on his brethren of Asgard to take away this evil from mankind, but they only mock at his prayers. Then with stern resolution, he sets himself to solve the .dark mystery, and after long years of weary wandering, he at last finds and questions the spectre. But Death can give him no answer, all he knows is that some great power has made him and keeps him what he is. Then to Balder there comes a sudden vision, a new and strange knowledge. “Listen!” He calls aloud to the dread All-father, mightiest of the gods—
“Listen!—Uplift this shadow from the earth,
And gladly will I die as sacrifice,
And all the gentle things I love shall live.” . . .
Then suddenly a darkness like a veil
Was drawn across the silent void of heaven . . .
. . .And Balder cried,
“Lo! He hath answered, I am thine, O Death!”
And touching Balder’s lips, Death answered low,
“Sleep, sleep!” . . .
’Tis over now, the gods may gaze in peace,—
Balder is dead!”
And the long ages pass by, and still he lies there, calm, cold, beautiful, under the mantle of the snow. But at last across the silent world there comes the great Elder Brother of all who like Balder have given their lives for man, the White Christ. To the dead sun-god he comes, touches him, and Balder wakes and lives. And now for ever immortal, hand in hand with the White Christ, he seeks once more the halls of Asgard. And standing before the dread throne of Alfadur, mightiest of the gods, Balder cries aloud:—
“Behold, I am risen, my father!”
The gods have never loved Balder. Not only do they fear the ancient rune, but their cruel and pitiless nature, which delights in the sufferings of men, is utterly opposed to the loving kindness of the gentle sun-god; the sorrows he wept over are to them a source of fierce exultation. They are evil, he is good. But their hour is at hand. As Balder speaks, they tremble on their thrones. Darker and darker grows the night, all Asgard waits, silent, for Alfadur’s answer. At last It comes, stern, terrible,—
Why hast thou risen?
We deemed thee dead, and we slept in peace—
We deemed thee dead, with the snow for prison,
That the old sad fear might cease.
We deemed thee dead, and our hearts were light,
For never more would thy beauty blight
The spirit of me thy Father!
In vain Balder pleads, the cruel old God will not hear. The Christ stands silent, waiting. At last Alfadur, whose eyes till now have been fixed upon Balder, turns, sees his companion, and reads his own doom.
A ghastly gleam is on his cheeks, his white robes roll asunder,
He raises up his arms and shrieks in his old voice of thunder,
“The rune was writ, the rune is read—Son, thou hast slain thy Father!
The frames are quick that late were dead, and from the grave they gather,
The Pale One cometh heavenly-eyed, as in thy dreams, O Mother!
He wakes, he stands by Balder’s side as brother smiles by brother.
O Gods, these live, and must we die? these bloom, and must we wither?
Cry with a loud exceeding cry on Death and send him hither!
Come, come, O Death! I call on thee—come hither, fleeter, faster!
Thou hunter of humanity, thou hound of me, thy Master!
And Death comes, swift, silent, terrible, but he comes, not against Balder, nor against the White Christ, but against him who had called, the dread Alfadur himself. Then follows the last awful struggle—
Now face to face in the blood-red gleam,
Like clouds in the sunset, like shapes in a dream,
Face to face with outstretched hands,
Like lightning forks that illume the lands,
Face to face, and sight to sight,
Like vulture and eagle fierce for fight
They rise and they rise against the skies,
Alfadur with his fiery eyes,
And that other vaster Form!
It is over. The cruel old Gods of Asgard are no more. All nature rejoices in the birth of a new order, yet Balder weeps. To the tender inquiries of the Christ he answers:—
O Brother, I was weeping then
For those whom Death o’erthrew,
Shall I, whose eyes have mourned for men,
Not mourn my brethren too?
The White Christ answered back and cried,
Shining beneath the sky,
“All that is beautiful shall abide,
All that is base shall die.
And if among thy sleeping kin
One soul divine there be,
That soul shall walk the world and win
New life with thee and me.”
In Balder’s hand Christ placed his own,
And it was golden weather,
And on the berg, as on a throne
The Brethren stood together!
And countless voices far and wide
Sang sweet beneath the sky—
“All that is beautiful shall abide,
All that is base shall die!”
The Queenslander (Brisbane, Queensland) (24 August, 1901 - p.362)
THE POETRY OF ROBERT BUCHANAN.—III.
By "AUSTIN SOUTH."
In the “Book of the Visions of Orm,” Buchanan tells us, will be found more of himself than in any other part of his work. The vein of mysticism which runs through both Balder and the Drama is here developed to its fullest extent, and it is of himself that the poet speaks when he tells us—
There is a mortal, and his name is Orm,
Born in the evening of. the world, and looking
Back from the sunset to the gates of morning.
And he is aged early, in a time
When all are aged early—he was born
In twilight times, and in his soul is twilight.
The visions—weird, mysterious imaginings—are for the most part independent of one another, though there is a slender thread of connection, a kind of undertone, running through them all. From their nature it is impossible to give any account of the most of them without occupying far more space than I can spare; their spirit may in some measure be inferred from a few lines, described as “A Rune Found in the Starlight,” which are prefixed to the poem, “God’s Mystery will I vindicate, the Mystery of the Veil and of the Shadow, yea, also Death and Sorrow, God’s divine angels on all earths; and I will vindicate the Soul, that the Soul may vindicate the Flesh, and all these things shall vindicate Evil, proving God’s Mercy to His creatures, great and small.” There is, however, one which to me will always have a special interest, as being almost the first—if not, indeed, the very first of Buchanan’s poems I ever read, and still my favourite of all his writings, the “Vision of the Man Accurst.” Unlike most of the others it deals but slightly with metaphysical Ideas, but has a simple and straightforward story. That story, however, is not one that will bear compressing into a small space, so I will leave it untold, and content myself with the quotation of a few lines. The end of all things has come, judgment is over, and the “Man Accurst” alone among the children of men found unworthy of heaven is thrust beyond the Gate.
And on a dark shore in the underworld
Was cast, alone and shivering; for the Clime
Was sunless, and the ice was like a sheet
Of glistening tin, and the faint glimmering peaks
Were twisted to fantastic forms of frost;
And everywhere the frozen moonlight steamed
Foggy and blue, save where the abysses loomed
Sepulchral shadow. But the Man arose,
With teeth gnashed beast-like, waved wild, feeble hands
At the white gate (that glimmered far away,
Like to the round ball of the sun beheld
Through interstices in a wood of pine),
Cast a shrill curse at the pale judge within,
Then groaning, beast-like crouched.
And by way of contrast, the last lines of the poem—
An alien sound,
A piteous human cry, a sob forlorn
Thrilled to the heart of heaven;
The Man wept.
And in a voice of most exceeding peace
The Lord said (while against the Breast Divine
The Waters of Life leapt gleaming, gladdening):
“The Man is saved, let the Man enter in!”
I have already said that Buchanan’s genius is many-sided. A striking demonstration of this may be seen by comparing the “Book of Orm” with the poem which stands next on my list, “The City of the Saints.” Here mysticism and metaphysics are entirely laid aside, and we have broad, irresistible fun from beginning to end. The “City of the Saints” is none other than that, to most men, very unsaintlike corner of the earth, Salt Lake City, in the State of Utah, and the subtitle of the poem, “Saint Abe and his Seven Wives,” gives a pretty fair clue to the nature of the story. “Saint Abe,” or, in Gentile parlance, Abraham Clewson, Mormon elder, is a great and holy man among the disciples of Brigham Young, but however well he may rule the affairs of Church and State, his own domestic relations seem anything but satisfactory. As a brother elder remarks:
His were the wildest sets of gals that ever drove man silly,
Each full of freaks and fal-de-lals, as frisky as a filly;
One pulled this way, and t’other that, and made his life a mockery,
They’d all the feelings of a cat scampaging ’mong the crockery. . . . .
And though the tanning yard paid well, and he was money-making,
His saintly home was hot as hell, and, ah! how he was baking!
We are given some amusing pictures of domestic and social life among the saints, with a particular and detailed account of Brother Clewson’s menage, and the brethren’s—and sisters’—opinion of it—and him. At last poor Abe can stand it no longer, and to the horror and scandal of the Holy City, elopes suddenly to the Eastern States with the youngest and prettiest of his wives—who, by the way, is not a Mormon by birth, but a Gentile ward of his own, recently arrived from Kentucky. The climax of the fun is reached in the long explanatory and penitential letter which the departing elder addresses to Brigham Young, and which is read aloud in the Council of the Elders. He explains his failure to get on with the gentle seven thus:—
Instead of going in and out, like a superior party,
I was too soft of heart, no doubt, too open and too hearty; . . .
And so instead of noticing the gentle flock in common,
I wakened up that mighty thing, the Spirit of a Woman.
Each got to think me, don’t you see ?—so foolish was the feeling—
Her own especial property, which all the rest were stealing!
And to those contemplating marriage he gives this advice—which I reproduce without comment:—
Into a woman’s arms don’t fall, as if you meant to stay there,
Just come as if you’d made a call, and idly found your way there!
This is the high and holy state of sainthood, too high and holy, he bitterly confesses, for such as he. His is a weaker, smaller soul. The lofty joys of polygamy are not for him. Sadly he declares:—
A poor monogamist like me cannot love half-a-dozen!
Better by far then, set them free, and take the wife I’ve chosen!
And so, leaving all his worldly goods behind him for the benefit of the deserted six, he departs.
Poor Abe! It is satisfactory to learn that, after all his troubles he manages to do well in the Eastern States, and be happy:
Though in an inferior style,
Meek and humble, not like them,
In the New Jerusalem.
I have now noticed what may be considered the four most striking and characteristic examples of Buchanan’s work. Turning now to his shorter poems, we find the same infinite variety of thought, the same many-sidedness, which is so marked a feature in his grander efforts. There is nothing, one may say with truth, in human life, within or without, that does not speak to him, and furnish him with material for his music and his teaching. City or country, sea or land, storm or calm, all these are his familiar themes, poverty or wealth, pleasure or pain, he knows them all, and knows, too, how to tell us what he knows. Thus we have stories of London life such as—l can give only names, and those of but a few out of many—“Jane Lewson,” “The Little Milliner,” or “Edward Crohurst.” North Country tales, such as “Meg Blane,” or “The Scarth o’ Bartle,” pathetic Scotch legends and ballads.
Tales of the regions where the round red sun
Is all alone with Clod amongst the snow.
Such as “Poet Andrew,” “Willie Baird” or “Hugh Sutherland’s Pansies.” Then in another vein, strongly recalling Lewis Morris’s “Epic of Hades,” we have the “Undertones,” new and mystic readings of the old myths of Proteus, and of Pan, of Venus, of Polyphemus, and of Pygmalion, and many others. Here is one verse from the “Prelude” (addressed to a dead friend whose memory is lovingly touched upon in more than one poem), which is prefixed to the “Undertones”:—
Lo! the slow moon roaming
Thro’ fleecy mists of gloaming
Furrowing with pearly edge the jewel-powdered sky!
Lo! the bridge moss laden,
Arched like foot of maiden,
And on the bridge, in silence, looking upward, you and I!
Lo, the pleasant season
Of reaping and of mowing—
The round still moon above—beneath, the river duskly flowing!
And not only do the lives and thoughts of men and women concern our poet, he has something to say, too, of those who, though dwelling in this world, are not mortal; he can tell us true stories indeed, as children would call them, but he can tell us fairy tales as well. Hence “Eileenowan,” “The Midian Mara.” and “The Changling.” In this last we have a beautiful legend of the Asrai, the children of the moonlight, that fair pale race who inhabited the earth before the coming of man, and of whom a few—so runs the legend—yet linger in lonely and shadowy places. One of these praying that her babe may be gifted with a human soul, has her prayer granted, and the Asrai child-spirit passes into the dead body of a new-born babe, which thereby lives again. And with the human soul comes the human nature, and the fairy child must go forth and play his part in the world. His life is long, dark, and stormy, but at last it is over, and his spirit mother, who, sad and lonely, has followed him unseen and unheard through the weary rears, calls him back to her.
She calleth low,
“Come from the gleam of the golden glow,
From the wicked flush of the fevered strife,
Back to the mystical moonlight life;
Thy heart is heavy, thy sense is drear,
Weary with wandering many a year;
Come from the sorrows of the sun,
My own pale darling, my little one!”
The dying changling answers:
“Oh, Mother, Mother, I cannot stay—
A voice is summoning me away—
Up the shining track of the sun,
Past the sphere of the spectral moon,
Further, higher, my path must run;
I have found a Soul, and thou hast thy boon,
And the Soul is a scourge, and the scourge is a fire,
And it shoots me onward to strive and soar,
For this is the end of thy heart’s desire,
I rest not, stay not, for evermore!”
The Brisbane Courier (Queensland, Australia) (17 August, 1901 - p.13)
THE POETRY OF ROBERT BUCHANAN.—IV.
By “Austin South.”
Almost all our English poets have found in the sonnet a form in which to express some of their fairest and loftiest thoughts. Buchanan is no exception to the rule. His “Sonnets by Loch Coruisk, Isle of Skye,” thirty-four in number, though each a complete whole in itself, together form a connected poem, which, for splendid descriptions of natural scenery, and beauty of thought and language, is worthy of a place among the foremost oí his works. I give one of these sonnet stanzas—probably the best known—the musing of a troubled soul, which has found this life so full of strife and turmoil that another existence of activity beyond the grave seems scarcely a thing to be desired or hoped for:—
When He returns, and finds all sleeping here—
Some old, some young, some fair, and some not fair,
Will He stoop down, and whisper in each ear,
“Awaken!” or for pity’s sake forbear—
Saying, “How shall I meet their frozen stare
Of wonder, and their eyes so woe-begone?
How shall I comfort them in their despair
If they cry out, ‘Too late! let us sleep on?’”
Perchance He will not wake us up, but when
He sees us look so happy in our rest,
Will murmur, “Poor dead women and dead men!
Dire was their doom, and weary was their quest.
Wherefore awake them unto life again?
Let them sleep on untroubled—it is best.”
And here—though there is much yet untouched of which I should like to have spoken—I must bring to a close this very inadequate attempt to give some idea oí the work o£ one who, whatever may be his position as defined by the literary criticism of the day, has appealed more to me personally than almost any other English poet. But before I end, I wish to notice just one other poem, not indeed because I regard it, from any point of view, as one of the author’s best, but because, simple though it may be, it holds in it that one characteristic of all his writings which makes him what every true poet must be, to be worthy of the name, a prophet, with a message for his people and his time. “Tom Dunstan,” who gives his name to the poem, is another Alton Locke, wearing his life away in an East End sweating den.
All day we sat in the heat,
Like spiders spinning,
Stitching full fine and fleet,
While old Moses on his seat
Sat greasily grinning.
And here Tom said his say . . .
As we stitched and stitched away . . .
Weary, weary were we,
Our hearts as heavy as lead;
But “patience! she’s coming!” said he,
“Courage, boys! wait and see!
But grim Jack Hart, with a sneer,
Would mutter, “Master!
If Freedom means to appear
I think she might step here
A little faster!”
Then, ’twas fine to see Tom flame,
And argue and move and preach,
Till Jack was silent for shame,—
Or a fit of coughing came
O’ sudden, to spoil Tom’s speech.
Ah! Tom had the eyes to see
When Tyranny should be sped:
“She’s coming, she’s coming!” said he,
“Courage, boys! wait and see!
But the hard life proves too much for poor Tom’s feeble body, and at last he lays down his work for the last time:
Then, dying, smiling on me,
“What matter if one be dead?
She’s coming at last!” said he,
“Courage boys! wait and see!
Ay, now Tom Dunstan’s cold,
The shop feels duller;
Scarce a tale is told,
And our talk has lost the old
But we see a figure gray,
And we hear a voice of death,
And the tallow burns all day,
And we stitch and stitch away
In the thick smoke of our breath.
Ay, while in the dark sit we,
Tom seems to call from the dead—
“She’s coming, she’s coming!” says he,
“Courage, boys! wait and see!
“Freedom’s ahead!"” That, to me, is the message that Robert Buchanan has for the world to-day. Liberty, freedom, political, social, religious, of body, of soul, and of mind, though the way may as yet seem dark, and the future dreary and hopeless, still:
“It’s coming, it’s coming!” says he,
“Courage, men! wait and see!
And now to end, in the words of the poet himself
And if I list to sing of sad things oft,
It is that sad things in this life of breath
Are truest, sweetest, deepest. Tears bring forth
The richness of our natures, as the rain
Sweetens the smelling brier; and I, thank God,
Have anguished here in no ignoble tears—
Tears for the pale friend with the singing lips,
Tears for the father with the gentle eyes,
(My dearest up in heaven next to God)
Who loved me like a woman. 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.
Back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan
‘Robert Buchanan’ by Rev. A. L. Lilley
From The Humane Review (January, 1902 - pp. 302-310.)
* 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.
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.
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.
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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.
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From The Glasgow Poets: Their Lives and Poems edited by George Eyre-Todd
(Glasgow and Edinburgh: William Hodge & Co., 1903 - pp. 409-411.)
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 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.
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