ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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The Critical Response (4)

 

1. Lafcadio Hearn

2. George Saintsbury

3. T. L. Adamson

4. Harold Blodgett

5. Maurice Lindsay

 

From Appreciations of Poetry by Lafcadio Hearn
(Dodd, Mead and Company, New York, 1916 - pp. 359-375.)

 

CHAPTER XII

A NOTE ON ROBERT BUCHANAN

 

AMONG the minor poets of the Victorian period, Robert Buchanan cannot be passed over unnoticed. A contemporary of all the great singers, he seems to have been always a little isolated; I mean that he formed no strong literary friendships within the great circle. Most great poets must live to a certain extent in solitude; the man who can at once mix freely in society and find time for the production of masterpieces is a rare phenomenon. George Meredith is said to be such a person. But Tennyson, Rossetti, Swinburne, Browning, Fitzgerald, were all very reserved and retired men, though they had little circles of their own, and a certain common sympathy. The case of Buchanan is different. His aloofness from the rest has been, not the result of any literary desire for quiet, but the result, on the contrary, of a strong spirit of opposition. Not only did he have no real sympathy with the great poets, but he represented in himself the very prejudices against which they had to contend. Hard headed Scotchman as he was, he manifested in his attitude to his brother poets a good deal of the peculiar, harsh conservatism of which Scotchmen seemed to be particularly capable. And he did himself immense injury in his younger days by an anonymous attack upon the morals, or rather upon the moral tone, of such poets as Rossetti and Swinburne. Swinburne’s reply to this attack was terrible and withering. That of Rossetti was very mild and gentle, but so effective that English literary circles almost unanimously condemned Buchanan, and attributed his attack to mere jealousy. I think the attack was less due to jealousy than to character, to prejudice, to the harshness of a mind insensible to particular forms of 360 beauty. And for more than twenty years Buchanan has suffered extremely from the results of his own action. Thousands of people have ignored him and his books simply because it was remembered that he gave wanton pain to Rossetti, a poet much too sensitive to endure unjust criticism. I suppose that for many years to come Buchanan will still be remembered in this light, notwithstanding that he tried at a later day to make honourable amends to the memory of Rossetti, by dedicating to him, with a beautiful sonnet of apology, the definitive edition of his own works.
     But the time has now passed when Buchanan can be treated as an indifferent figure in English literature. In spite of all disadvantages he has been a successful poet, a successful novelist, and a very considerable influence in the literature of criticism. Besides, he has written at least one poem that will probably live as long as the English language, and he has an originality quite apart and quite extraordinary, though weaker than the originality of the greater singers of his time. As to his personal history, little need to be said. He was educated at Glasgow University, and his literary efforts have always been somewhat coloured by Scotch sentiment, in spite of his long life in literary London.
     Three volumes represent his poetical production. In these are contained a remarkable variety of poems—narrative, mystical, fantastic, classical, romantic, ranging from the simplest form of ballad to the complex form of the sonnet and the ode. The narrative poems would, I think, interest you least; they are gloomy studies of human suffering, physical and moral, among the poor, and are not so good as the work of Crabbe in the same direction. The mystical poems, on the contrary, are of a very curious kind; for Buchanan actually made a religious philosophy of his own, and put it into the form of verse. It is a Christian mysticism, an extremely liberal Unitarianism forming the basis of it; but the author’s notions about the perpetual 361 order of things are all his own. He has, moreover, put these queer fancies into a form of verse imitating the ancient Celtic poetry. We shall afterward briefly consider the mystical poetry. But the great production of Buchanan is a simple ballad, which you find very properly placed at the beginning of his collected poems. This is a beautiful and extraordinary thing, quite in accordance with the poet’s peculiar views of Christianity. It is called “The Ballad of Judas Iscariot.” If you know only this composition, you will know all that it is absolutely necessary to know of Robert Buchanan. It is by this poem that his place is marked in nineteenth century literature.
     Before we turn to the poem itself, I must explain to you something of the legend of Judas Iscariot. You know, of course, that Judas was the disciple of Christ who betrayed his master. He betrayed him for thirty pieces of silver, according to the tradition; and he betrayed him with a kiss, for he said to the soldiers whom he was guiding, “The man whom I shall kiss is the man you want.” So Judas went up to Christ, and kissed his face; and then the soldiers seized Christ. From this has come the proverbial phrase common to so many Western languages, a “Judas-kiss.” Afterwards Judas, being seized with remorse, is said to have hanged himself; and there the Scriptural story ends. But in Church legends the fate of Judas continues to be discussed in the Middle Ages. As he was the betrayer of a person whom the Church considered to be God, it was deemed that he was necessarily the greatest of all traitors; and as he had indirectly helped to bring about the death of God, he was condemned as the greatest of all murderers. It was said that in hell the very lowest place was given to Judas, and that his tortures exceeded all other tortures. But once every year, it was said, Judas could leave hell, and go out to cool himself upon the ice of the Northern seas. That is the legend of the Middle Ages.
     Now Robert Buchanan perceived that the Church legends 362 of the punishment of Judas might be strongly questioned from a moral point of view. Revenge is indeed in the spirit of the Old Testament; but revenge is not exactly in the spirit of the teaching of Christ. The true question as to the fate of Judas ought to be answered by supposing what Christ himself would have wished in the matter. Would Christ have wished to see his betrayer burning for ever in the fires of hell? Or would he have shown to him some of that spirit manifested in his teachings, “Do good unto them that hate you; forgive your enemies”? As a result of thinking about the matter, Buchanan produced his ballad. All that could be said against it from a religious point of view is that the spirit of it is even more Christian than Christianity itself. From the poetical point of view we must acknowledge it to be one of the grandest ballads produced in the whole period of Victorian literature. You will not find so exquisite a finish here as in some of the ballads of Rossetti; but you will find a weirdness and a beauty and an emotional power that make up for slenderness in workmanship.
     In order to understand the beginning of the ballad clearly, you should know the particulars about another superstition concerning Judas. It is said that all the elements refused to suffer the body to be committed to them; fire would not burn it; water would not let it sink to rest; every time it was buried, the earth would spew it out again. Man could not bury that body, so the ghosts endeavoured to get rid of it. The Field of Blood referred to in the ballad is the Aceldama of Scriptural legend, the place where Judas hanged himself.

’Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
     Lay in the Field of Blood ;
’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
     Beside the body stood.

Black was the earth by night,
     And black was the sky.
Black, black were the broken clouds,                                                 363
     Though the red Moon went by.
         .      .     .      .     .      .

Then the soul of Judas Iscariot
     Did make a gentle moan—
“I will bury underneath the ground
     My flesh and blood and bone.
         .      .     .      .     .      .

“The stones of the field are sharp as steel
     And hard and cold, God wot;
And I must bear my body hence
     Until I find a spot !”

’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot,
     So grim, and gaunt, and grey,
Raised the body of Judas Iscariot
     And carried it away.

And as he bare it from the field
     Its touch was cold as ice,
And the ivory teeth within the jaw
     Rattled aloud, like dice.

     The use of the word “ivory” here has a double function; dice are usually made of ivory; and the suggestion of whiteness heightens the weird effect.

As the soul of Judas Iscariot
     Carried its load with pain,
The Eye of Heaven, like a lanthorn’s eye,
     Opened and shut again.

Half he walk’d, and half he seemed
     Lifted on the cold wind;
He did not turn, for chilly hands
     Were pushing from behind.

The first place that he came unto
     It was the open wold
And underneath were pricky whins,
     And a wind that blew so cold.

The next place that he came unto                                                         364
     It was a stagnant pool,
And when he threw the body in
     It floated light as wool.

He drew the body on his back,
     And it was dripping chill,
And the next place he came unto
     Was a Cross upon a hill.

A Cross upon the windy hill,
     And a cross on either side,
Three skeletons that swing thereon,
     Who had been crucified.

And on the middle cross-bar sat
     A white Dove slumbering;
Dim it sat in the dim light,
     With its head beneath its wing.

And underneath the middle Cross
     A grave yawned wide and vast,
But the soul of Judas Iscariot
     Shiver’d, and glided past.

     We are not told what this hill was, but every reader knows that Calvary is meant, and the skeletons upon the crosses are those of Christ and the two thieves crucified with him. The ghostly hand had pushed Judas to the place of all places where he would have wished not to go. We need not mind the traditional discrepancy suggested by the three skeletons; as a matter of fact, the bodies of malefactors were not commonly left upon the crosses long enough to become skeletons, and of course the legend is that Christ’s body was on the cross only for a short time. But we may suppose that the whole description is of a phantasm, purposely shaped to stir the remorse of Judas. The white dove sleeping upon the middle cross suggests the soul of Christ, and the great grave made below might have been prepared out of mercy for the body of Judas. If the dove 365 had awoke and spoken to him, would it not have said, “You can put your body here, in my grave; nobody will torment you.” But the soul of Judas cannot even think of daring to approach the place of the crucification.

The fourth place that he came unto,
     It was the Brig of Dread,
And the great torrents rushing down
     Were deep, and swift, and red.

He dared not fling the body in
     For fear of faces dim,
And arms were waved in the wild water
     To thrust it back to him.

     There is here a poetical effect borrowed from sources having nothing to do with the Judas tradition. In old Northern folklore there is the legend of a River of Blood, in which all the blood ever shed in this world continues to flow; and there is a reference to this river in the old Scotch ballad of “Thomas the Rhymer.”

It was mirk, mirk night, and there was nae light,
And they waded in red blude up to the knee,
For a’ the blude that’s shed on earth,
Rins through the springs o’ that countrie.

     Judas leaves the dreadful bridge and continues his wanderings over the mountain, through woods and through great desolate plains:

For months and years, in grief and tears,
     He walked the silent night ;
Then the soul of Judas Iscariot
     Perceived a far-off light.

A far-off light across the waste,
     As dim as dim might be,
That came and went like a lighthouse gleam
     On a black night at sea.

’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot                                                         366
     Crawled to the distant gleam ;
And the rain came down, and the rain was blown
     Against him with a scream.

’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot,
     Strange, and sad, and tall,
Stood all alone at dead of night
     Before a lighted hall.

And the wold was white with snow,
     And his foot-marks black and damp,
And the ghost of the silver Moon arose,
     Holding her yellow lamp.

And the icicles were on the eaves,
     And the walls were deep with white,
And the shadows of the guests within
     Passed on the window light.

The shadows of the wedding guests
     Did strangely come and go,
And the body of Judas Iscariot
     Lay stretch’d along the snow.

But only the body. The soul which has carried it does not lie down, but runs round and round the lighted hall, where the wedding guests are assembled. What wedding? What guests? This is the mystical banquet told of in the parable of the New Testament; the bridegroom is Christ himself; the guests are the twelve disciples, or rather, the eleven, Judas himself having been once the twelfth. And the guests see the soul of Judas looking in at the window.

’Twas the Bridegroom sat at the table-head,
     And the lights burnt bright and clear—
“Oh, who is that,” the Bridegroom said,
     “Whose weary feet I hear?”

’Twas one look’d from the lighted hall,
     And answered soft and slow,
“It is a wolf runs up and down                                                             367
     With a black track in the snow.”

The Bridegroom in his robe of white
     Sat at the table-head—
“Oh, who is that who moans without?”
     The blessed Bridegroom said.

’Twas one looked from the lighted hall,
     And answered fierce and low,
“ ’Tis the soul of Judas Iscariot
     Gliding to and fro.”

’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
     Did hush itself and stand,
And saw the Bridegroom at the door
     With a light in his hand.

The Bridegroom stood in the open door
     And he was clad in white,
And far within the Lord’s Supper
     Was spread so broad and bright.

The Bridegroom shaded his eyes and looked,
     And his face was bright to see—
“What dost thou here at the Lord’s Supper
     With thy body’s sins?” said he.

’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot,
     Stood black, and sad, and bare—
“I have wandered many nights and days ;
     There is no light elsewhere.”

’Twas the wedding guests cried out within,
     And their eyes were fierce and bright—
“Scourge the soul of Judas Iscariot,
     Away into the night!”

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

And of every flake of falling snow,                                                      368
     Before it touched the ground,
There came a dove, and a thousand doves
     Made sweet sound.

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

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

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

     It would have been better, I think, to finish the ballad at this stanza; there is one more, but it does not add at all to the effect of what goes before. When the doves, emblems of divine love, have carried away the sinful body, and the Master comes to the soul, smiling and saying: “I have been waiting for you a long time, waiting for your coming before I poured the wine”—there is nothing more to be said. We do not want to hear any more; we know that the Eleven had again become Twelve; we do not require to be told that the wine is poured out, or that Judas repents his fault. The startling and beautiful thing is the loving call and the welcome to the Divine Supper. You will find the whole of this poem in the “Victorian Anthology,” but I should advise any person who might think of making a Japanese translation to drop the final stanza and to leave out a few of the others, if his judgment agrees with mine.
     Read this again to yourselves, and see how beautiful it is. 369 The beauty is chiefly in the central idea of forgiveness; but the workmanship of this composition has also a very remarkable beauty, a Celtic beauty of weirdness, such as we seldom find in a modern composition touching religious tradition. It were interesting to know how the poet was able to imagine such a piece of work. I think I can tell a little of the secret. Only a man with a great knowledge and love of old ballads could have written it. Having once decided upon the skeleton of the story, he must have gone to his old Celtic literature and to old Northern ballads for further inspiration. I have already suggested that the ballad of “Thomas the Rhymer” was one source of his inspiration, with its strange story of the River of Blood. Thomas was sitting under a tree, the legend goes, when he saw a woman approaching so beautiful that he thought she was an angel or the Virgin Mary, and he addressed her on his knees. But she sat down beside him, and said, “I am no angel nor saint; I am only a fairy. But if you think that I am so beautiful, take care that you do not kiss me, for if you do, then I shall have power over you.” Thomas immediately did much more than kiss her, and he therefore became her slave. She took him at once to fairy land, and on their way they passed through strange wild countries, much like those described in Robert Buchanan’s ballad; they passed the River of Blood; they passed dark trees laden with magical food; and they saw the road that reaches Heaven and the road that reaches Hell. But Buchanan could take only a few ideas from this poem. Other ideas I think were inspired by a ballad of Goethe’s, or at least by Sir Walter Scott’s version of it, “Frederick and Alice.” Frederick is a handsome young soldier who seduces a girl called Alice under promise of marriage, and then leaves her. He rides to join the army in France. The girl becomes insane with grief and shame; and the second day later she dies at four o’clock in the morning. Meantime Frederick unexpectedly loses his way; the rest I may best 370 tell in the original weird form. The horse has been frightened by the sound of a church bell striking the hour of four.

Heard ye not the boding sound,
     As the tongue of yonder tower,
Slowly, to the hills around,
     Told the fourth, the fated hour?

Starts the steed, and snuffs the air,
     Yet no cause of dread appears;
Bristles high the rider’s hair,
     Struck with strange mysterious fears.

Desperate as his terrors rise,
     In the steed the spur he hides;
From himself in vain he flies;
     Anxious, restless, on he rides.

Seven long days, and seven long nights,
     Wild he wandered, woe the while !
Ceaseless care, and causeless fright,
     Urge his footsteps many a mile.

Dark the seventh sad night descends;
     Rivers swell, and rain-streams pour
While the deafening thunder lends
     All the terrors of its roar.

     At the worst part of his dreary wandering over an unknown and gloomy country, Frederick suddenly sees a light far away. This seems to him, as it seemed in Buchanan’s ballad to the soul of Judas, a light of hope. He goes to the light, and finds himself in front of a vast and ruinous looking church. Inside there is a light; he leaps down from his horse, descends some steps, and enters the building. Suddenly all is darkness again; he has to feel his way.

Long drear vaults before him lie!
     Glimmering lights are seen to glide!—
“Blessed Mary, hear my cry!
     Deign a sinner’s steps to guide!”

Often lost their quivering beam,                                                             371
     Still the lights move slow before,
Till they rest their ghastly gleam
     Right against an iron door.

     He is really in the underground burial place of a church, in the vaults of the dead, but he does not know it. He hears voices.

Thundering voices from within,
     Mixed with peals of laughter, rose;
As they fell, a solemn strain
     Lent its wild and wondrous close!

’Midst the din, he seem’d to hear
     Voice of friends, by death removed;—
Well he knew that solemn air,
     ’Twas the lay that Alice loved.

Suddenly a great bell booms four times, and the iron door opens. He sees within a strange banquet; the seats are coffins, the tables are draped with black, and the dead are the guests.

Alice, in her grave-clothes bound,
     Ghastly smiling, points a seat,
All arose with thundering sound;
     All the expected stranger greet.

High their meagre arms they wave,
     Wild their notes of welcome swell;
“Welcome, traitor, to the grave!
     Perjured, bid the light farewell!”

     I have given the greater part of this strange ballad because of its intrinsic value and the celebrity of its German author. But the part that may have inspired Buchanan is only the part concerning the wandering over the black moor, the light seen in the distance, the ghostly banquet of the dead, and the ruined vaults. A great poet would have easily found in these details the suggestion which Buchanan 372 found for the wandering of Judas to the light and the unexpected vision of the dead assembling to a banquet with him—but only this. The complete transformation of the fancy, the transmutation of the purely horrible into a ghostly beauty and tenderness, is the wonderful thing. After all, this is the chief duty of the poet in this world, to discover beauty even in the ugly, suggestions of beauty even in the cruel and terrible. This Buchanan did once so very well that his work will never be forgotten, but he received thereafter no equal inspiration, and the “Ballad of Judas” remains, alone of its kind, his only real claim to high distinction.
     The poetry of Robert Buchanan is not great enough as poetry to justify many quotations, but as thinking it demands some attention. His third volume is especially of interest in this respect, because it contains a curious exposition of his religious idealism. Buchanan is a mystic; there is no doubt that he has been very much influenced by the mysticism of Blake. The whole of the poems collectively entitled “The Devil’s Mystics,” must have been suggested by Blake’s nomenclature. This collection belongs to “the Book of Orm,” which might have been well called “The Book of Robert Buchanan.” Orm ought to be a familiar name to students of English literature, one of the old English books also being called “The Ormulum,” because it was written by a man named Orm. Buchanan’s Orm is represented to be an ancient Celt, who has visions and dreams about the mystery of the universe, and who puts these visions and dreams, which are Buchanan’s, into old-fashioned verse.
     The great Ernest Renan said in his “Dialogues Philosophiques” that if everybody in the world who had thought much about the mystery of things were to write down his ideas regarding the Infinite, some great truth might be discovered or deduced from the result. Buchanan has tried to follow this suggestion; for he has very boldly put down 373 all his thoughts about the world and man and God. As to results, however, I can find nothing particularly original except two or three queer fancies, none of which relates to the deeper riddles of being. In a preface in verse, the author further tells us that when he speaks of God he does not mean the Christian God or the God of India nor any particular God, but only the all- including Spirit of Life. Be that as it may, we find his imagery to be certainly borrowed from old Hebrew and old Christian thinkers; here he has not fulfilled expectations. But the imagery is used to express some ideas which I think you will find rather new—not exactly philosophical ideas, but moral parables.
     One of these is a parable about the possible consequences of seeing or knowing the divine power which is behind the shadows of things. Suppose that there were an omnipotent God whom we could see; what would be the consequences of seeing him? Orm discovered that the blue of the sky was a blue veil drawn across Immensity to hide the face of God. One day, in answer to prayer, God drew aside the blue veil. Then all mankind were terrified because they saw, by day and by night, an awful face looking down upon them out of the sky, the sleepless eyes of the face seeming to watch each person constantly wherever he was. Did this make men happy? Not at all. They became tired of life, finding themselves perpetually watched; they covered their cities with roofs, and lived by lamp light only, in order to avoid being looked at by the face, God. This queer parable, recounted in the form of a dream, has a meaning worth thinking about. The ultimate suggestion, of course, is that we do not know and see many things because it would make us very unhappy to know them.
     An equally curious parable, also related in the form of a dream, treats of the consolations of death. What would become of mankind if there were no death? I think you will remember that I told you how the young poet William Watson took up the same subject a few years ago, in his 374 remarkable poem “A Dream of Man.” Watson's supposition is that men became so wise, so scientific, that they were able to make themselves immortal and to conquer death. But at last they became frightfully unhappy, unutterably tired of life, and were obliged to beg God to give them back death again. And God said to them, “You are happier than I am. You can die; I cannot. The only happiness of existence is effort. Now you can have your friend death back again.” Buchanan’s idea was quite different from this. His poem is called “The Dream of the World without Death.” Men prayed to God that there might be no more death or decay of the body; and the prayer was granted. People continued to disappear from the world, but they did not die. They simply vanished, when their time came, as ghosts. A child goes out to play in the field, for example, and never comes back again; the mother finds only the empty clothes of her darling. Or a peasant goes to the fields to work, and his body is never seen again. People found that this was a much worse condition of things than had been before. For the consolation of knowledge, of certainty, was not given them. The dead body is a certificate of death; nature uses corruption as a seal, an official exhibit and proof of the certainty of death. But when there is no body, no corpse, no possible sign, how horrible is the disappearance of the persons we love. The mystery of it is a much worse pain than the certain knowledge of death. Doubt is the worst form of torture. Well, when mankind had this experience, they began to think that, after all, death was a beautiful and good thing, and they prayed most fervently that they might again have the privilege of dying in the old way, of putting the bodies of their dead into beautiful tombs, of being able to visit the graves of their beloved from time to time. So God took pity on them and gave them back death, and the poet sings his gratitude thus:

And I cried, “O unseen Sender of Corruption,                                       373
I bless thee for the wonder of Thy mercy,
Which softeneth the mystery and the parting.

“I bless Thee for the change and for the comfort,
The bloomless face, shut eyes, and waxen fingers,—
For Sleeping, and for Silence, and Corruption."

This idea is worth something, if only as a vivid teaching of the necessity of things as they are. The two fantasies thus commented upon are the most original things in the range of this mystical book. I could not recommend any further reading or study of the poet, except perhaps of his “Vision of the Man Accurst.” But even this has not the true stamp of originality; and only the “Ballad of Judas Iscariot” is certain not to be soon forgotten.

_____

 

[A Note on Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904).

The full text of Appreciations of Poetry is available for download on the Internet Archive site. It was published in 1916 and is a selection (by John Erskine) of lectures delivered at the University of Tokyo between 1896 and 1902 when Lafcadio Hearn held the chair of English Literature. Hearn is perhaps best known today, at least in the West, for his translations of Japanese folk tales and ghost stories - particularly In Ghostly Japan and Kwaidan (filmed in 1964 by Masaki Kobayashi) - but if you want to find out more about this fascinating writer, I’d suggest this Lafcadio Hearn website.

As for Hearn’s ‘Note on Robert Buchanan’, I suppose one should be grateful that he bothered to mention him at all but to dismiss everything apart from ‘The Ballad of Judas Iscariot’ and a few selections from ‘The Book of Orm’ does seem rather unfair. Even if the lecture was delivered in 1896, you would still expect some mention of the longer works - Balder The Beautiful, The City of Dream, The Wandering Jew. Perhaps Hearn felt these weren’t worth mentioning, but I do wonder, since he states that, “Three volumes represent his poetical production”, if he was taking as his text the three volume ‘Poetical Works’, published in London by H. S. King, and in Boston by James R. Osgood, in 1874.]

_____

 

The Cambridge History of English Literature. Vol XIII The Nineteenth Century
(Cambridge University press, 1916)

From ‘Chapter VI: Lesser Poets of the Middle and Later Nineteenth Century’ by George Saintsbury.

 

     The notable poets born in the forties who can be noticed here are rather fewer in number than those of the previous decade, but they are of more uniform merit; and, once more, they introduce, as a group, new influences of the highest importance from a historical point of viw. Almost all of them felt early, and most of them felt from the beginning of their poetical career, the great new impulse of the pre-Raphaelite movement, in development, in revolt, or in simple agreement or difference. In chonological order they include John Addington Symonds, Robert Buchanan, Frederic Myers, Gerard Hopkins, Andrew Lang and William Ernest Henley.
     [Symonds]
. . . mawkishness.
     That, at least, is a fault which could not be charged against his junior by a year, Robert Buchanan. A novelist, a dramatist, a miscellaneous writer of all sorts, Buchanan underwent to the full the drawback and the danger (here often pointed out) of such divagation; and his temper, rather than his genius, exposed him to another set-back. He was quite entitled to attack the pre-Raphaelite school if he wished to do so; but his unluckily pseudonymous assault (if it had been anonymous it would hardly have mattered much, and if it had been signed nothing at all) on the ‘fleshly’ school of poetry combined the violence of Esau with the disingenuousness of Jacob; and, though some of those whom it attacked were magnanimous enough to forgive it, it could not be easily forgotten. It ought to be said, however, that Buchanan showed no bad blood in regard to open counter-attacks on himself, and his verse, as always, is entitled to be judged without regard to this misadventure, after the dues of history are paid. His verse, though produced rather in the earlier than in the later part of his career, was voluminous, and it was exceedingly unequal; but it has, what many of his contemporaries lacked, a certain sincerity sufficient to atone for an occasional imitation which he shared with them. Ratcliffe Meg, one of his most commonly praised poems, is rather a close approach to success than an attainment of it. But The Vision of the Man Accurst, The Ballad of Judas Iscariot (perhaps the best of the numerous attempts on the subject) and some passages on awe-inspiring aspects of the scenery in the Coolin and Coruisk districts of Skye, are poetry.

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‘The Poetry of Robert Buchanan’ by T. L. Adamson
From The Poetry Review (July-August, 1929.)

 

THE POETRY OF ROBERT BUCHANAN

 

ROBERT BUCHANAN was born in Caverswall in Lancashire of Scottish parents on August 18th, 1841. His father was a keen follower of Robert Owen, the Socialist poet, and at one time used to stump the country as a controversialist on the side of Free Thought. When he moved to London, his house in Norwood became a rallying point for all types of apostles of progress. It was in this stimulating atmosphere of free and frank discussion that young Robert, an only child, spent his earliest years. He had a boy’s ordinary affection for his father, but for his mother an overmastering worship that remained steadfast throughout her long life of eighty years. It is only natural that his mother idolised him. As a boy he was never happy away from her, and sheltered from adverse influences, his naturally sensitive nature became over-sensitive and too highly strung, and proved a handicap to him in the rough and tumble of later years. Although he had no formal religious teaching from his parents, his mother developed and deepened his sympathy with others and his instinctive hatred of injustice and oppression. At the age of ten his father moved to Scotland, and young Robert soon learned the meaning of intolerance, for, as the son of a free-thinking father in a land of the strictest orthodoxy, he was treated as a social outcast. His resentment of this treatment culminated in his being expelled from a school at Rothesay for being restless and mutinous.
     But his Scottish environment was not all unhappiness. Poetry was in that Scottish air, and he drank it in with a growing delight. At that period poems were read and discussed in every village in the neighbourhood; indeed, there were few villages that could not boast a poet who had appeared in print. Then with all his boyish soul hungry for the greatest poetry he was taken to see the actor Vandenhoff in King Lear. It was his first real contact with Shakespeare. The effect of that first contact on an artistic mind is always profoundly interesting. On one it may be the harmonious beauty of the language, on another the wonderful imagery, on a third the marvellous insight into character that makes the greatest impression. But let Buchanan himself tell us what appealed to him.

     “It swept me beyond myself when I was a boy. I feel now, as I felt then, the unapproachable truth and sublimity of such passages as the one in Act III, where the storm-beaten monarch first realises the mystery of human wretchedness and pain. Here the very quick of pity is touched. . . . The influence on my own character of this masterpiece was deep and abiding. I first gained from it that perception of the piteousness of life which has been, despite all aberrations into contemporary savagery, the inspiration of all my writings. To me the storm-tossed figure of Lear represented humanity itself, swept hither and thither by the elemental and seemingly aimless cruelty of nature, yet coming at last to anchorage and an equally elemental peace and calm. I was taught by the contemplation of his wretchedness, as he himself was taught by personal strife and sorrow, to feel for that sorrow of which I had hitherto taken ‘too little heed’.”

     It is on the poems with this inspiration that Buchanan’s claim to greatness must rest.
     At the age of nineteen, he came to London with a friend and fellow poet, David Gray, to try his fortunes. Gray lived but a short time leaving his sorrowing friend to struggle on alone. After a hard fight, Buchanan gradually won recognition not only as a poet but also as a novelist, essayist, biographer, critic, and playwright. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that in his prime Robert Buchanan was the most versatile man in England, with the possible exception of Lord Lytton. It was during this hard fight for recognition that he narrowly escaped disaster. Young and very proud, he sometimes felt acutely and resented bitterly the patronising way in which Mr. Maxwell, a newspaper proprietor, occasionally received him. So one morning he picked up a parcel of MS., procured a thick cudgel and went to see Mr. Maxwell, fully intending (to use his own words) “to beat out what brains the ruffian possessed and offer him up as a sacrifice to the Muses!” Buchanan says he was really in earnest, but fortunately his reception on that occasion was friendly, and the cudgel was not even hinted at during the interview. It is an example of the lengths to which an oversensitive man is sometimes prepared to go.
     Throughout a lifetime that only lasted sixty years, Buchanan’s energy seemed inexhaustible. Despite all his other activities, including the long and bitter controversy with what he called The Fleshly School of Poetry, his literary output was enormous, his poems alone running to over 1,000 pages, in double columns, of closely printed type. This article is solely concerned with his poems, in which his range was as great as his output. Sonnets, lyrics, ballads, narrative and dramatic poems all came easily from his pen, but his greatest work is to be found in his poems of the life of the underworld of London, and in a series of mystical poems in which he embodied with a fine imagination his theories of the ultimate meaning of life.
     Let us first turn to his lyrics, many of which are embedded in his longer poems. Here is a stanza from “A Spring Song in the City.”

“Little barefoot maiden,
Selling violets blue,
Hast thou ever pictured
Where the sweetlings grew?—
Oh, the warm wild woodland ways,
Deep in dewy grasses,
Where the wind-blown shadow strays,
Scented as it passes!”

And another from “The Birth of Balder” in “Balder the Beautiful”:—

“There blent with his growing,
The leaf and the flower
The wind lightly blowing
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;
The blush from the blossom,
The bloom from the corn,
Blent into his bosom,
Ere Balder was born.”

Is not this word pattern pleasing with its delightful interweaving of the richer vowel sounds?
     The following is from “The Outcast.”

“And slowly, softly, down the night
O’er the smooth black and glistering sea,
The starry urns of crystal light
Were filled and emptied momently!
Then in the centre of the glimmer
The round moon ripen’d as she rose,
And covered with the milk-white shimmer
The glassy waters took repose;
And round the isle a murmur deep
Of troubled surges half asleep
Broke faintlier and faintlier
As midnight took her shadowy throne;
In heaven, on earth, no breath, no stir,
No sound, save that deep slumbrous tone!
Wonder of darkness!—’neath its wing
All living things sank slumbering.”

     “The Wedding of Shon Maclean” is a bagpipe melody which tells us that Buchanan was by no means an anchorite or a mere visionary, but a man whose feet were on the earth and who was fully appreciative of the joys of conviviality. I defy any Scotsman to read the chorus of this ballad without some stirring of his pulse!

“To the wedding of Shon Maclean,
Twenty Pipers together
Came in the wind and the rain
Playing across the heather;
Backward their ribbons flew,
Blast upon blast they blew,
Each clad in tartan new
Bonnet and blackcock feather:
     And every Piper was fou,
Twenty Pipers together”:

with the inevitable conclusion!

“And the twenty Pipers at break of day
In twenty different bogholes lay,
Serenely sleeping upon their way
From the wedding of Shon Maclean!”

     And now let us turn to the more serious works of Robert Buchanan. Chief among these are the London Poems, which he wrote a few years after he came to London. I have already mentioned that his struggle was a hard one, and in the course of that struggle he came into close touch with the underworld of London. His natural sympathy with suffering and injustice was quickened, and in London Poems he expresses his sympathy with types of humanity that are not usually food for poetic thought.
     Mr. J. A. Noble, in an introduction to some of Robert Buchanan’s poems, has said that:

     “Years before Buchanan was born, Thomas Hood had sung of the suicide of an ‘unfortunate’ and by so singing had triumphantly defied the traditions of poetical responsibility.Still in the midst of the defiance, there was a suggestion of compromise. Hood did not dare to be quite true to the actual, and the picture was accordingly touched up. We know that any picture of a subject such as that treated in the ‘Bridge of Sighs,’ in which there appears ‘only the beautiful’ is not simply an idealisation, but a transformation of reality; and while true idealisation enhances this, false idealisation detracts from the value of any work of art in which it is found. There are two errors into one of which those poets who deal in homely and human themes are apt to fall. The first is that of men who, like Hood, preserve the poetry by keeping back some of the truth; the second is that of a writer like Crabbe, who lets us see all the truth but seems unable to show us the underlying poetry.”

In Robert Buchanan, he says, we find both truth and poetry.
     One of the London Poems is “In Tiger Bay.” A man sees in a dream a tigress watching and finally killing a sleeping negro. Then he sees a “tigress-woman” watching and thirsting to kill a dying sailor in a garret for the sake of his money. But

“The light on his face appalIeth her . . .
His soul shines out and she fears his soul,
     Tho’ he lieth sleeping.”

     And she does not kill him.
     Then follows an impassioned protest by the dreamer to God who made both the tigress and the “tigress-woman.” God’s reply is one of the most beautiful things that Buchanan ever wrote. Here, indeed, is power, sincerity and serenity.

“. . . Only a spark!
So faint as yet, and so dim to mark,
     .     .      .     .      .
Fan it, feed it, in love and duty,
     .     .      .     .      .
Till it burns the bestial frame and face
To its own dim beauty. . . .”

     Two other London Poems almost as powerful and imaginative are “Nell,” which describes the sorrows of an unmarried mother on the day her man is hanged for murder, and “Liz”, the pathetic tale of another unmarried mother, who dies leaving a little boy for her Joe.
     In all these London Poems, sad as they are, there is a strong under-current of unquenchable hope. However degraded, demoralised or bestial a human being might appear to be, Buchanan still believed that the great God or good which rules the world had implanted a “spark,” and that in that “spark” was ever the possibility of ultimate redemption. Throughout his life this belief was of the very fibre of his being.
     This same unquenchable hope of redemption is instinct in his “Ballad of Judas Iscariot,” in which the soul of Judas Iscariot, after vainly trying to bury his body, at long last finds forgiveness of the Bridegroom, who is Christ. The form of this poem is reminiscent of The Ancient Mariner.
     London Poems may be described as the expression of Buchanan’s imagination of what happens before the veil. In his Book of Orm, the Celt are his imaginings of what happens behind the veil. In the final vision of Orm is another and even more brilliant flight of the imagination on the theme of the redeeming power of love. God’s judgment has been pronounced and all the world, save one man, has been redeemed. That man had sinned all sins; his soul was “a blackness and foul odour.” He is unrepentant, has no desire for any contact with good, but finally makes one appeal to God.

“. . . He is content to dwell
In the Cold Clime for ever, so thou sendest
A face to look upon, a heart that beats,
A hand to touch—albeit like himself,
Black, venomous, unblest, exiled and base:
Give him this thing, he will be very still,
Nor trouble thee again.”

     Only two in Heaven are willing to go to comfort him—the one his mother whom he slew in anger, the other his wife whom “he stript, with ravenous claws, of raiment and of food.” They go. Their love overcomes him. “For an alien sound, a piteous human cry, a sob forlorn, thrilled to the heart of Heaven” and “The Man is saved; let the Man enter in!”
     The same thought is lightly touched on in The Outcast. This somewhat bitter poem is, however, chiefly interesting in providing a comparison of two poets in their expression of similar ideas.
     In The Outcast we read:

“My sin
Falls like a garment to my feet.
Naked I front thy Judgment Seat.”

This seems to find a distant echo in

“Naked I wait Thy love’s uplifted stroke
My harness piece by piece thou hast hewn from me.”

And again

“Or when with sudden thunderous cry
The chariots of the clouds roll by”

might almost have directly inspired:

“Or whether thunder-driven
They clanged his chariot ’thwart a heaven.”

Robert Buchanan and Francis Thompson certainly had affinities.
     In conclusion, here are two sonnets typical of many written during a holiday by Lake Coruisk.

The Cup of Tears.

My God! My God! with passionate appeal
     Pardon I crave for these mad moods of mine—
Can I remember, with no heart to feel,
     The gift of Thy dear Son, the Man Divine—
     My God! what agonies of love were Thine,
Sitting alone, forgotten, on Thy height,
Pale, powerless, awful in that Lonely Light,
     While ’neath Thy feet the cloudy hyaline
Rain’d blood upon the darkness—where Thine Own
     Held the black Cup of all earth’s tears, and cried!
Ev’n then, tho’ Thou wert conscious of his groan,
     Pale in that Lonely Light Thou did’st abide,
Nor dared, even then, tho’ shaken on Thy throne,
     To reach Thy hand and dash the Cup aside.

 

The Happy Hearts of Earth.

Whence thou hast come, thou knowest not, little Brook,
     Nor whither thou art bound. Yet wild and gay,
Pleased in thyself, and pleasing all that look,
     Thou wendest, all the seasons, on thy way;
     The lonely glen grows gladsome with thy play,
Thou glidest lamb-like through the ghostly shade;
To think of solemn things thou wast not made,
     But to sing on, for pleasure, night and day.
Such happy hearts are wandering, crystal clear,
     In the great world where men and women dwell;
Earth’s mighty shows they neither love nor fear,
     They are content to be, while I rebel,
Out of their own delight dispensing cheer,
     And ever softly whispering, “All is well!”

     Buchanan appears to be a neglected poet to-day, but in his best poems there is an imaginative power, an individual beauty of expression and above all, such a strong and tender human sympathy that he must surely in the years to come win a place among the Immortals.

                                                                                                                                     T. L. ADAMSON.

___

 

[I came across the following review of Adamson’s article in The Devon and Exeter Gazette of 13th August, 1929:

     ‘“THE POETRY REVIEW,” for July-August, contains some notable contributions. This magazine, the Journal of the Poetry Society, 16 Featherstone Buildings, London, W.C.1., published at 1s. 3d. net, is always worth the money. Besides original poems written by well-known poets, one always comes across something out of the common. This month I find an extremely interesting article on J. K. Huysmans as a poet. So many regard him as a novelist, but very few as a poet. Readers of the eighties were familiar with “A Reboura,” “Marthe,” and “Les Sœurs Vatard,” and later on we were treated to “En Route,” “La Cathedrale,” and “L’Oblat.” We read these wonderful works as novels, but Signor Federico Olivero makes us look upon them as poems. He is right when he says that Huysman’s whole work “may be considered as a poem of the soul, a lyrical manifestation in prose.” Miss Maisie Spens gives a timely appreciation of Ralph Hodgson, and Mr. T. L. Adamson has written a splendid article on the poetry of Robert Buchanan. Buchanan was one of the most versatile men of his time. It is astonishing that he has been so neglected as a poet. His abilities surpassed many who have been recognised as outstanding writers. He was a great novelist, dramatist, and poet. But somehow he managed to ruffle people. His article, “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” was a big mistake, but he made amends to Rossetti in a generous dedication. Memories, however, are long, and undoubtedly the article roused the ire of the critics. Buchanan’s poetry is well worth careful study, and I have no hesitation in saying that much of it will live. I have only mentioned a few of the interesting things to be found in this number; there are many more which I will leave the reader to discover for himself.’ ]

Back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan

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‘Whitman and Buchanan’ by Harold Blodgett
From American Literature, Vol. 2, No. 2 (May, 1930 - pp. 131-140). Duke University Press.

 

WHITMAN AND BUCHANAN

HAROLD BLODGETT
Dartmouth College

“SOMEDAY,” said Robert Buchanan in a mood of unaffected adoration, “someday it will be among Tennyson’s highest honours that he was once named kindly and appreciatively by Whitman.”1 To us—more than a quarter of a century later—the tribute preserves its accent of extravagance; Tennyson is yet a peer and his own poetry his highest honor. Meanwhile Buchanan's own theatrical romances and free-thinking poems are suffering an early neglect. We are therefore inclined to paraphrase: literary history will count it one of Buchanan’s highest honors that he recognized Whitman’s genius early and fought lustily for his recognition.
     In his unabashed enthusiasm for the Whitman gospel, his vivid scorn of the detractors of Whitman, and his evangelical earnestness in winning practical support for Whitman, Buchanan suggests an English William Douglas O’Connor of superior talent. Buchanan and O’Connor wrote on the American with such heat that the sensitive and judicious reader may find their expression distasteful, much as love letters are distasteful to the cynical reviewer. Their qualities were qualities of heart, and while such attributes sometimes embarrassed the discriminating among Whitman’s circle, they were precisely what the poet called for.
     Among the Victorians, Robert Buchanan seems especially designed for a Whitmanite—or a Whitmaniac, as one prefers. His father and mother were both disciples of the English socialist, Robert Owen, and young Buchanan, marked among the neighbors as the son of “infidels,” grew up in an atmosphere of conscious revolt against the orthodoxies of the day. When he ran away to London in the spring of 1860, romantically bent upon making his literary fortune in a hostile city, he felt already like a crusader for the Humanity which he spelled with a capital H. From the first, he was something of a recluse, abstaining from professional company because he didn’t care for “tittle-tattle about books and journals,” and cultivating a lively prejudice against coteries. With one hand he could turn out

     1 Robert Buchanan, A Look Round Literature, p. 346.

 

132 trashy novels and with the other compose poems so audacious and independent for that day that they cost him many letters of explanation to the press. Fundamentally honest and generous, he was yet so captious and often so wrong- headed that he could be mercilessly unjust to his fellow poets. He played a lone hand above board and not very successfully. He was the kind of man who would work for a cause with no thought of self-interest and with no use of diplomacy. Such a cause he found in Whitman’s poetry.
     It was through his suspicion of majority opinion and his talent for disagreement that Buchanan first discovered Whitman. “When the critics tell me that the style of a book is bad,” he said, “I am always tempted to buy that book. For this reason in my young days I bought Walt Whitman.”2 Through the agency of Alexander Gardner, a Washington photographer and a close friend of both himself and the poet, Buchanan established a friendship with Walt which was strengthened by letters and finally by a personal call. Gardner wrote to Whitman on November 26, 1866, and Walt, very grateful for Buchanan’s interest, began to “send things to him direct.”3 In 1868 Buchanan published, first in The Broadway Magazine and later in his volume, David Gray, his first critique of Whitman’s poetry.
     Buchanan’s comment, based on the 1867 edition of the Leaves of Grass, was the most exhilarating that had yet appeared on Whitman in England. Characteristically he ignored the artist to acclaim the prophet. He had read the Leaves of Grass as a gospel message destined to offer the world a “wondrous sympathy with men as men,” but lapsing deplorably into bad taste. Very coarse and silly he found “Children of Adam,” but very important. So blind was he to Whitman's artistic significance that he supposed the poet’s language to have been “instantaneously chosen,” the dithyrambs of the prophet who cares little how he speaks so long as he moves his audience. But what a tremendous, cleansing, democratic power had been released in America! “Now, it is clear on the best authority,” exulted Buchanan, “that the writer in question is already exercising on the youth of America an influence similar to that exercised by Socrates over the youth of Greece, or by Raleigh over the young chivalry of

     2 Harriet Jay, Robert Buchanan, p. 271.
     3 Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, III, 346.

 

133 England.” Later Buchanan was to complain bitterly that Whitman was alone and neglected.
     Not long after, the enthusiasm which Buchanan had brought to the Whitman cause became slightly embarrassing. The circumstances were amusing. While Whitman in his Washington lodging house had gladly received the homage and assistance not only of Buchanan but of the Rossetti-Swinburne circle, Buchanan was girding himself for battle against the literary immoralities of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and before the smoke had cleared away, the morality of Walt himself was brought in question. Buchanan opened fire with an anonymous article on “The Fleshly School of Poetry” in the October, 1871, issue of The Contemporary Review, and he expanded his attack a few months later in a published pamphlet which includes a note on Walt Whitman.4 When we read this notorious fulmination with its lurid account of the degeneracy of Baudelaire, Gautier, and Poe, its absurd emphasis upon the sinister influence of “leg-literature” in such innocuous lyrics as “Jenny” and “Nuptial Sleep;” we do not wonder that Robert Buchanan read “Children of Adam” with dismay.
     Since Buchanan had opened his attack by including Whitman among the great moral teachers who were saving the age despite the “ulcerous inroads of Sensualism;” and had written further on that he hoped to praise the American over and over again, he was asked why he “despised so much the Fleshly School of Poetry in England and admired so much the poetry which is widely considered unclean and animal in America.” Thus pertinently inquired Swinburne in an unsigned letter in The Examiner.4a Buchanan was caught, and having committed himself to the attitude of moral jugglery which distinguishes his pamphlet, he was reduced to acknowledging the existence in the Leaves of about “fifty lines of a thoroughly indecent kind.” But, he went on to say, he still had faith in Whitman on the ground that he was in the highest sense a spiritual person, “a most mystic and least fleshly person.” And then, as a last shot at the gentlemen who writhe in Belial’s gripe, Buchanan issued the following gratuitous lamentation:

     4 A good brief history of this quarrel is given by Albert Mordell in the introduction, p. 39, of his book, Notorious Literary Attacks.
     4a See Mordell,Notorious Literary Attacks, introduction.

 

     134

It is in a thousand ways unfortunate for Walt Whitman that he has been introduced to the English public by Mr. William Rossetti, and been loudly praised by Mr. Swinburne. Doubtless these gentlemen admire the American poet for all that is best in him; but the British public, having heard that Whitman is immoral, and having already a dim guess that Messrs. Swinburne and Rossetti are not over-refined, has come to the conclusion that his nastiness alone has been his recommendation. . . .5

     In one unexpected way this incautious pamphlet did good service for Walt. Buchanan’s ears had been opened to Whitman’s artistry, and now he complained roundly that not enough sympathy had been shown for the “wonderful poetic prose, or prose-poetry of Walt Whitman.”

Whitman’s style [he continued] extraordinary as it is, is his greatest contribution to knowledge. It is not impossible to foresee a day when Coleridge’s feeling of the “wonderfulness of prose” may become  universal, and our poetry . . . may expand into a literature blending together all that is musical in verse, and all that is facile and powerful in ordinary language. I do not think Whitman has solved the difficulty, but he sometimes comes tremendously close upon the arcana of perfect speech.6

     In the spring of 1876 Buchanan set forth with a heart full of indignation and the manners of a literary buccaneer to perform a service which earned for Whitman a substantial bank account and for himself an unpleasant notoriety. When he read in The Athenæum of March 11, 1876, that the American poet, “old, poor, and paralyzed,” had been wrecked by the “determined denial, disgust, and scorn of orthodox American authors, publishers, and editors,” his animosity toward literary circles—intensified by his own experiences in London—found vehement release in a letter to The London Daily News.7 Of the New England authors he cried, “For such denizens of the Bostonian pond or farm-rail to crouch down in disgust and scorn when the King of Birds passes overhead is no more than natural.” Continuing his ornithological fancies, he pictured Whitman as “a golden eagle, sick to death, worn with age

     5 The Fleshly School of Poetry, pp.96-7.
     6 ibid., p. 97.
     7 The Athenæum article had reprinted in part, probably through the agency of William Michael Rossetti, an article in The West Jersey Press of January 26, 1876, now thought to have been written by Whitman himself. This article is reprinted on p. 245 of Clifton J. Furness’s Walt Whitman’s Workshop.

 

135 and famine, or with both, passing with weary waft of wing from promontory to promontory, from peak to peak, pursued by a crowd of prosperous rooks and crows, who fall screaming back whenever the noble bird turns his indignant head. . . .” In terms that could only infuriate the orthodox, he wrote, “As Christ had His crown of thorns . . . as Socrates had his hemlock cup . . . so Walt Whitman has his final glory and doom in the shape of literary outlawry and official persecution.” At the end he begged that Englishmen would give Whitman “a substantial proof of the honour in which he is held here in the heart of England”—an appeal shortly to meet a surprising response.
     This astounding letter, extravagant and generous, silly and noble as it was, at once incited the hot scorn of British and Americans alike. An immediate reply came from The Saturday Review of March 18, 1876, probably the most malignant of the many hostile attacks engendered by the Leaves of Grass. Its argument was simple: inasmuch as Walt’s poems were so dirty and shameless, no one ought to relieve his poverty by buying his works. The storm had broken, and the Saturday Review editorial was followed by excited comment on both sides of the Atlantic. Alfred Austin, who had brought Whitman severely to task in his early volume The Poetry of the Period, was now so aroused by Buchanan’s rhetoric that he cried dramatically, “While we talk, he starves!” Austin’s was but one of several letters that followed Buchanan’s in The Daily News. “An Obscure American” wrote that Buchanan was making a fable of Whitman’s real condition. Moncure Conway hastened to write that Whitman was neither in distress nor dependent on his relatives, a service for which the poet himself was none too grateful.8 In America Bayard Taylor took up Buchanan’s challenge with cool contempt, writing several editorials in The New York Tribune which put the Scotchman’s motives in a bad light. “Mr. Buchanan,” he wrote, “disappointed in one of his multifarious ambitions—that of becoming also a great American author through his ‘St. Abe and his Seven Wives’9— saw a chance of once more gratifying his restless passion for personal notoriety.”10 Gleefully he quoted in the Tribune columns

     8 Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, I, 346.
     9 A long narrative poem in which Buchanan makes crude humor of the Mormon movement.
     10 The New York Tribune, March 28, 1876.

 

136 part of the Saturday Review attack, remarking that it “sets Mr. Robert Buchanan down very hard on the door-step, to cool at leisure, after the castigation administered.”11
     During all these recriminations Walt himself wisely kept quiet, but his first lieutenants, Burroughs and O'Connor, far from being insulted by the charge of American neglect as Conway had supposed, wrote long letters to the Tribune in defense of Buchanan. O' Connor said with much point:

Since every hand just now appears to be raised against him, let me advance the fact, which I see stated in a newspaper, that before he published in the London News the letter you treat so contemptuously he sent Walt Whitman a draft for $100. While you are strenuously denouncing his opinion and deriding his metaphors, forgive me if I think this manly action, like the drums heard by Socrates, will prevent some of us from hearing what you say.12

Whether or not Whitman ever actually did receive the hundred dollars is a dark mystery. William Sloane Kennedy says:

Whitman wrote me about ten years later that “no such sum, nor any sum was ever sent” to him by the Scottish poet. This statement must be taken with suspicion; for Walt was very absent-minded, and I have known him twice to deny the receipt of small gifts of money from myself, though afterwards admitting it.13

     The most dignified of the many American comments invoked by Buchanan’s letter was that of George William Curtis in Harper’s Monthly for June, 1876. He put his finger on the weakest point of Buchanan’s tirade; namely, his presumption in calling a nation to account for neglecting to read the poetry of a genius. By this time the excitement began to die down. A parting shot from Taylor appeared in the Tribune for July 13, 1876, in the form of a quotation from the testimony of Buchanan on the witness stand. The occasion was Buchanan’s libel suit against P. A. Taylor, proprietor of the Examiner, on account of the printing in that journal of an insulting letter of Swinburne’s. The quoted testimony involved Buchanan’s

     11 The New York Tribune, March 30, 1876.
     12 O'Connor’s letter was printed in the Tribune, April 22, 1876, and Burroughs’s April 1, 1876.
     13 William Sloane Kennedy, The Fight of a Book for the World, pp. 26-27.

 

137 admission that he found part of Whitman’s poetry indecent; and such a concession, the Tribune inferred, was fatal to “his late insulting arraignment of American authors and his extravagant glorification of Walt Whitman.”
     This controversy shows clearly enough the futility of all such rhetoric. It was useless for Buchanan to rage against the New England hierarchy; useless also for American writers to impugn the honesty of Buchanan’s motives. But if we consider the result of the action instead of its blatancy, it was, ironically enough, remarkably successful. At this time Walt was in fact ill and poor, and Buchanan’s outburst furnished the signal for his relief. The poet was very grateful, and while Buchanan’s motives were being sardonically examined in both the American and English press, he sent to his Scotch alarmist a letter of unaffected thanks.14 After the English subscription was under way, Buchanan, working independently of William Michael Rossetti, acted as Whitman’s agent in delivering the books and collecting the money until the friction between him and the Rossetti-Swinburne group became so acute that he dropped the business. He wrote to Whitman on January 8, 1877, “The tone adopted by certain of your friends here became so unpleasant that I requested all subscriptions, etc., to be paid over to Rossetti, and received no more myself.”15 It was in this letter also that, smarting from the cross-examination of the Examiner libel suit, he complained of the weeds among the Leaves. “I shall ever regret the insertion of certain passages in your book . . . ,” he began. Walt singled out this passage to show Traubel how “that point staggers my friends as well as my enemies.” “We have got in the habit of thinking,” he said, “Buchanan is not afraid of anything—is a sort of medieval knight militant going heedlessly about doing good. But Buchanan, who is not afraid of anything, is afraid of Children of Adam.”
     Whitman’s phrase, “medieval knight militant,” is, after all, a pertinent characterization, for beyond all the spite and passion engendered by his unpolitic and headlong defense of Whitman, there remains an impression of chivalry.
     In the spring of 1885 Buchanan came to America to sell his theatrical wares, and while he was producing his melodrama, Alone

     14 Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, II, 327.
     15 ibid., I, 2.

 

138 in London, at the Chestnut Street Theater, Philadelphia, he realized his long-felt desire to see Walt Whitman. He has recorded his impressions in two prose sketches and a narrative poem, all three of these reports being a substantiation of his earlier contention that Whitman was poverty-stricken, and neglected by the literary class in America.
     E. C. Stedman had buoyantly assured Buchanan in New York that “we like the old fellow and it is a great mistake to suppose he is unappreciated.”16 But when the Scotchman saw that the Bostonians were, on the contrary, quite oblivious of the prophet in Camden, he let loose in the pages of The Academy for August 15, 1885, a rollicking flood of octosyllabic couplets:

The World was shocked, and Boston screaming
Cover’d her face, and cried ‘For shame!’
Gross, hankering, mystically dreaming,
The good grey Poet went and came.

After presenting his own version of the Boston scene, the poet implored Whitman:

Now I conjure thee, best of Bards,
Scatter thy wisdom Bostonwards!
Tell Howells, who with fingers taper
Measures the matron and the maid,
God never meant him for a draper. . . .

So the poem runs for more than two hundred lines, concluding with an apostrophe to “Socrates”:

The noblest head ’neath western skies,
The tenderest heart, the clearest eyes,
Are thine, my Socrates, whose fate
Is beautifully desolate! . . .17

     Buchanan’s first prose sketch of his visit was published in his book A Look Round Literature (1887) under the title “The American Socrates.” “Whitman,” he announced, “is simply outlawed . . . In a land of millionaires, in a land of which he will one day be

     16 Robert Buchanan, A Look Round Literature, p. 341.
     17 Robert Buchanan, Complete Poetical Works, II, 395-8.

 

139 known as the chief literary glory, he is almost utterly neglected. Let there be no question about this; all denial of it is disingenuous and dishonest. The literary class fights shy of him.”18 His indignation led him to declare, what was certainly not true, that Whitman’s English friends were alone responsible for what little kindness he had received from his own countrymen.
     Buchanan found everything about Whitman “beautifully calm and restful;” and sat down with him to enjoy a feast of “solid American pie, washed down with the strongest of strong tea.” Pie, he discovered, was “the main pabulum of Whitman’s life.” He left convinced “that in some day not so remote, humanity will wonder that men could dwell side by side with this colossus and not realize his proportions.”19
     He told the same story again in an article, “The End of the Century,” written for The Sunday Special in December, 1899. This account contains an amusing description, once more, of the Bostonians:

“Where are your gods, O Americans?” I demanded; and “Look round,” they answered, “they are here!” I looked around and I beheld them: divers deft man-milliners and drapers, busy in the manufacture of European underclothing and the importation of fashionable hats from Paris; an amiable old gentleman playing old Lutheran hymns on a musical box made in Germany; a belated Quarterly Reviewer, plus Poetaster, posing in an English court dress as a lover of Liberty and a pioneer; and half a hundred other deities of the same sort, from a good-humoured medical practitioner and Chatterbox in Boston to a Byron in red shirt and breeches just discovered out West. I asked for bread, and they offered me Publishers’ or Nestle’s food; I inquired about Walt Whitman, and they volubly assured me that Lowell and Holmes and Longfellow were still alive!20

When he called on Whitman, he found him “old, worn, weary and weather-beaten, but when the chord of fellowship was struck as gently dominant and simply wise as ever.”21
     When Traubel and his Camden friends engineered two boisterous birthday celebrations for Whitman, May 31, 1889 and 1891, they

     18 Robert Buchanan, A Look Round Literature, p. 344.
     19 Ibid., p. 345.
     20 Harriet Jay, Robert Buchanan, pp. 297-300.
     21 Ibid.

 

140 took special pains to petition “the English crowd” for greetings. It is strange that Buchanan’s name does not appear among them, for of all the foreign adherents, he was the most strenuous—perhaps he was too strenuous—in Walt’s support. It is certain that he never wavered. Among the many obituary poems written of Whitman, his, by no means the best, is yet the most affectionate. It ends:

So long!—We seem to hear thy voice again,
Tender and low, and yet so deep and strong!
Yes, we will wait, in gladness not in pain,
The coming of thy Prophecy. (‘So Long!’).22

     22 Robert Buchanan, Complete Poetical Works, II, 398.

 

Back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan

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From History of Scottish Literature by Maurice Lindsay
(London: Robert Hale, 1977, revised edition 1992.)

From Chapter Five, ’The Nineteenth Century’ (pp. 300-301)

 

     Robert Buchanan (1841-1901), born in Staffordshire but brought up in Glasgow, settled in London in 1860. That the empty swagger and consistent insincerity of his verses once led him to be dubbed “The Scottish Browning” now seems astonishing. His Idylls and Legends of Inverburn (1865) and London Poems (1866) are hollow, posturing stuff. However, in 1871 he wrote a derogatory article, “The Fleshly School of Poetry”, against his betters, the Pre- Raphaelites, for the Contemporary Review. This provoked a libel action, which he won, and, more importantly, Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s comic opera Patience (1881). Douglas Young remarked that when preparing his fascinating compendium, Scottish Verse 1851-1951, he learned that Buchanan, “a big man in London journalism . . . had issued a Poetical Works in 534 octavo pages, double-columned (1884).” Yet Young was “surprised to find nothing worth printing, except a stanza of The Wedding of Shon Maclean, to which nothing is added by the rest of the piece.” He goes on to point out that, like his contemporary Tennysonian, the ninth Lord Southesk, “Buchanan never seems to give birth to more than a small idea, and then suffocates it with poeticizing.” The favoured stanza goes:

To the wedding of Shon Maclean,
     Twenty pipers together
Came in the wind and the rain
     Playing across the heather;
Backward their ribbons flew,
Blast upon blast they blew,
Each clad in tartan new,
     Bonnet and blackcock feathers:
And every piper was fou,
     Twenty pipers together!

It would be difficult to disagree with Young’s verdict.
     Buchanan’s young Kirkintilloch friend David Gray (1838-1861), a Keatsian dreamer, left Glasgow University to lead a literary life in London, but spent his first night in Hyde Park, caught consumption, and soon came home again to die. His Thomsonian river-celebration, The Luggie, has some original sensuous imagery, while one or two of the sonnets he wrote as he wasted towards death have a moving simplicity. Had he lived, he might well have found the discipline successfully to order his undoubted talent.

___

(p. 330)

Robert Buchanan’s The Shadow of the Sword (1876) and God and the Man (1881), offer hearty pietism and a swaggering straining after effect at the expense of sincerity as obvious defects.

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