ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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The Critical Response (5)

 

1. Harold Blodgett

2. Maurice Lindsay

 

‘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.

 

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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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Harriett Jay
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