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

The Critical Response
Harriett Jay

Site Diary
Site Search


Related Documents - continued


‘The “Fleshly School” Scandal’ in Tinsleys’ Magazine.

Buchanan included a cutting from this article in a letter to Robert Browning of 4th March, 1872.
Our Living Poets by Harry Buxton Forman (London: Tinsley Brothers, 1871) - available at the Internet Archive - contained no mention of Robert Buchanan. The poets included in the volume were: Alfred Tennyson, Menella Bute Smedley, Jean Ingelow, Robert Browning, William W. Story, Augusta Webster, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Gabriela Rossetti, Coventry Patmore, Thomas Woolner, William Bell Scott, Matthew Arnold, Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Morris, Richard Henry Horne, Henry Taylor, George Eliot, John Payne and Arthur W. E. O’Shaughnessy.


Tinsleys’ Magazine (February 1872 - p. 89-102)



‘As a bankrupt thief turns thief-taker in despair, so a disappointed
author turns critic.’—SHELLEY.


THE article headed ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry: Mr. D. G. Rossetti,’ which appeared in the October number of The Contemporary Review, and was signed ‘Thomas Maitland,’ was in itself so small and contemptible a thing that, had it really been by any obscure person of the name of Thomas Maitland, it would have passed off without any further remark than some hint here and there that a malicious mad person had somehow managed to juggle into the pages of that able and respectable journal, The Contemporary, a ‘critical’ fiasco showing a meaningless and unmitigated spite, and an altogether ludicrous ignorance on literary subjects. But for some reason or other, although the ignorance did not attract for any very long period, the spite seems to have struck some person or persons unknown so forcibly, that the theory of its being all the poisonous property of any mere ‘Thomas Maitland’ would not satisfy; and after awhile it was hinted that ‘Thomas Maitland’ was only a synonym for ‘Robert Buchanan;’ this hint gradually growing into a confidently reiterated statement, ultimately acknowledged as true by Mr. Robert Buchanan himself. How, precisely, the perpetrator of the article was unearthed, we have no means of knowing; but it is reasonable to suppose that internal evidence may have helped the discovery; for of poetlings (outside the so-called ‘Fleshly School’) alluded to in the article, there is but one who is alluded to approvingly; and that one is Mr. Robert Buchanan!
     Engaged for some years in the thankless journey-work of issuing volumes of verse and prose without making any impression on the intellectual or art-loving section of his countrymen, and being, as far as one can judge, a person without much appreciation for what is really fine in literature, Mr. Buchanan might have been pardoned if, in the extremity of his pique at the warm and quick reception of some of our younger poets, he had even so far sinned against good breeding as to come boldly forward in his own character, and, requesting attention to his own neglected volumes, had proceeded with the spleenful depreciation of theirs. It is not to be expected that any verse-monger should discriminate nicely between verse-mongers and poets, or, at any rate, should own his discrimination as against himself. But when, in order to depreciate others and exalt himself, a writer pushes about stupid and libellous misrepresentations, and complacently advertises his own wares under a feigned name, he at once earns, if discovered, that notoriety among the intellectual and art-loving that he failed to obtain through the mere poverty of his wares. Thus, Mr. Buchanan, whom no one particularly contemned as long as he did not make too much 90 fuss about himself, has now gained for his name an unenviable notoriety that is likely to stick to him for the rest of his career (unless he shrinks altogether into himself.)
     The case is peculiar as far as relates to the pseudonymous part of the business, and certainly by no means creditable to any one concerned; and, although that part of the disagreeable subject in hand has been elsewhere discussed, we must not pass to the main topic without a word on this. The system of authenticating articles by means of genuine signatures or familiar noms de plume may be a good system, or it may be a bad one; it has been long adopted by The Contemporary Review; and, looking at the general weight and substance of the contributions to that review, it cannot but be granted that, in that case, the system is a good one. Here, however, a writer who is known by one name only, appears, for reasons transparent enough when the fraud is discovered, disguised under another name—and that not of an obviously pseudonymous character, but suggestive of identity or relationship with the author of some well-known high- class romances. It is true that Thomas Maitland might be some rash, raw youth, fleshing his maiden sword of criticism on some of the most prominent poets of the day; or he might be some case-hardened Presbyterian fanatic to whom the very mention of flesh carried the suggestion of the devil with it; or he might be some disappointed verse-monger of forty seasons ago, rising up surprised and indignant from his obscurity, to lash out in impotent fury at poets who have now succeeded in chaining the attention he failed to even attract; or he might have been anybody or anything; in fact the first intimation that reached us concerning the article was in a letter from a friend, who seemed disposed to attach a somewhat remarkable personality to the signature. ‘Have you seen,’ wrote our friend—(we were at the seaside, and had seen nothing but waves and petticoats for a long time)—‘have you seen the article called The Fleshly School, &c., in The Contemporary? Of course you were angry (you ought to have been, and to be) with the so-called critique on Rossetti, with a side east-wind at several others. It was grimly amusing to me to notice the willingness to wound, and yet afraidness to strike, that characterised the writer’s allusions to Browning. Who,’ continued our friend in his innocence, ‘is Thomas Maitland? There is a small sheep’s-head Baptist butcher of that name in Clare Market; I don’t know whether—’ Our friend broke off there; but when we returned to town and read the article, we almost thought he had some private grudge, not against the writer of the article, but against the ‘small sheeps’-head butcher.’
     We ask no pardon for the foregoing digression; it is difficult to preserve the critical countenance undisturbed by laughter in treating of this subject, much more to keep steadily to the point; for though the matter has its serious side, it is mainly farcical and ridiculous; and yet we must just restore the critical facial muscles to a solemn adjustment for a moment before leaving the question of false signatures. On this point we will quote a letter from Mr. Sidney Colvin, which, though sarcastic enough in tone, is just and pertinent in its meaning. It was stated in The Athenæum of the 2nd of December last, that Mr. Colvin was believed to be preparing an answer to the article of Mr. Buchanan; and in the following week’s impression of the same paper, Mr. Colvin disclaimed any intention of writing 91 such an answer; but at the same time recorded his views on the pseudonymity of the article. So far, he said, as he could judge, there was nothing instructive about Mr. Buchanan’s strictures except their authorship. ‘Say that you, a disinterested reader, come across, in a periodical adopting the rule of signature, a critical effort, which you feel at once to be reprehensibly tempered—what then? You do not “prepare an answer;” you merely look to see who is the responsible person. In this instance, and in a place where all other signatures are authentic or familiar, you find a new signature, which turns out on inquiry to be feigned. Among other singularities of the pages in question, you have observed the name of Mr. Robert Buchanan among somewhat more familiar names introduced for damaging comparison with the objects of attack. You learn, to your edification, that the same Mr. Buchanan is himself the author of this spirited performance, only he has been too modest to acknowledge it, and has had the happy thought of delivering his thrust from behind the shield of a putative Thomas Maitland. Still, what then? Do you “prepare an answer”? Rather you stand off, acknowledging it out of your power to accost Mr. Maitland-Buchanan on equal terms. You admire his ingenious adaptation of the machinery of candour to the purposes of disguise; you inwardly congratulate a pertinacious poet and critic on having at last done something which his friends may quote concerning him; and you feel that his achievement need only be known to be appreciated.’
     That we do not agree with Mr. Colvin, as to the duty of answering the calumnies of Mr. Buchanan, is clear from the appearance of the present article; and we regret that he has refrained from replying seriously; because the calumnies are themselves of a serious nature, whatever the tone and style in which they were put forward. It is, in our opinion, quite worth while to afford a spiteful calumniator a little extra notoriety, if in so doing one can disabuse even a single mind concerning the calumniated persons. Mr. Colvin would certainly have found no difficulty in disposing of every single item of assault to the satisfaction of The Contemporary’s readers,—as we shall endeavour to do to the satisfaction of ours, quoting Mr. Buchanan as far as it is needful to do so for the benefit of those to whom the particulars of the ‘Fleshly School’ scandal are not already familiar.
     We need not quote at length the letter from Mr. Buchanan in The Athenæum of the 16th of December,—as far as we know, the first word uttered by him on the subject in his own person, though the article was published ten weeks earlier: we will but note that he declines to reply to ‘the insolence of Mr. Sidney Colvin, whoever he is,’ and that he says the publisher ‘is best aware of the inadvertence which led to the suppression of my own name.’ Unfortunately the publisher did not seem to be very well aware of the ‘inadvertence;’ for in the same column of the paper appeared a letter from the publisher, to this effect:
     ‘In your last issue you associate the name of Mr. Robert Buchanan with the article “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” by Thomas Maitland, in a recent number of The Contemporary Review. You might with equal propriety associate with the article the name of Mr. Robert Browning, or of Mr. Robert Lytton, or of any other Robert.’
     It will be observed that the expression ‘signed Thomas Maitland’ 92 is avoided, and the words, ‘by Thomas Maitland’ so used as to convey that the article was really written by a person of that name: if this were not meant, the quotation marks would of course include the name. However, as Mr. Buchanan claims the article with an air of virtuous boldness, after his ten weeks’ incognito, we are of course bound to believe that he wrote it.
     And now as to the nature of the charges made in this rare production concerning the authorship of which the author and publisher do not seem able to agree. In order to explain and refute the first of them, it is necessary to advert to a very silly, though perhaps necessary, artifice of Mr. Buchanan’s, namely that of arranging a cast for Hamlet, as played by the poets of the day: in this arrangement Mr. Tennyson figures as Hamlet, Mr. Matthew Arnold as Horatio, Mr. Bailey as Voltimand, Mr. Buchanan as Cornelius, Messrs. Swinburne and Morris as Rosencranz and Guildenstern, Mr. Rossetti as Osric, and Mr. R. Lytton as ‘a Gentleman’ (a part which classes that author perceptibly below Mr.  Buchanan!). Passing over the offensiveness of comparing Messrs. Morris and Swinburne to the two criminally-disposed tools of the King, and Mr. Rossetti to Osric, of whom Hamlet scoffingly observes:

     ‘Thus has he (and many more of the same breed, that, I know, the drossy age dotes on,) only got the tune of the time, and outward habit of encounter; a kind of yesty collection, which carries them through the most fond and winnowed opinions; and do but blow them to their trial, the bubbles are out,’—

passing over these small impertinences, we come to the statement that ‘the fleshly gentleman have bound themselves by solemn league and covenant to extol fleshliness as the distinct and supreme end of poetic and pictorial art; to aver that poetic expression is greater than poetic thought, and by inference that the body is greater than the soul, and sound superior to sense; and that the poet, properly to develop his poetic faculty, must be an intellectual hermaphrodite, to whom the very facts of day and night are lost in a whirl of æsthetic terminology.’ Apart from the absurd notion of a poet or set of poets asserting the necessity for a poet to be an ‘intellectual hermaphrodite,’ we have simply to remark that Mr. Buchanan has not produced any evidence of the ‘solemn league and covenant’ between Messrs. Rossetti, Swinburne, and Morris, because he could not, and that he has not, for the same reason, quoted a single example of the fulfilment of the supposed items of agreement. But of the next part of the charge, which, when divested of theatrical jargon, is that the three poets in question, finding it impossible singly to compete with the Laureate in the strife for public favour, ‘have arranged . . . . mutually to praise, extol, and imitate each other,’ and ‘have in a great measure succeeded in their object,’ —of this statement, he attempts some kind of proof that may seem valid to any one a little more grossly benighted than himself. He mentions the well-known fact that Mr. Morris reviewed Mr. Rossetti’s Poems favourably in The Academy, and that Mr. Swinburne did the same in The Fortnightly Review; but, apparently trusting in the inattention of his readers, he omits to explain why he does not complete his proof by citing Mr. Rossetti’s favourable review of the poems of the other two gentlemen. Why he did not do so is obvious,—Mr. Rossetti has not given the occasion 93 for this slander which is implied in the charge; and we have no reviews from him of the poems of Messrs. Morris and Swinburne. Those two poets have both owned themselves indebted to him for guidance and influence: he is their senior by some years, and there is no secrecy about the matter at all: they both dedicated to him their first books; and when he chose to publish his own poetry, written for the most part before they were known to the public at all, they naturally paid him the tribute of expressing publicly their gratitude and admiration. Anything less of the nature of a plot could not well  be.
     When Mr. Buchanan talks about their stepping out of their natural parts of Rosencranz, Guildenstern, and Osric, and, by a process of ‘gagging,’ practising upon the public to the detriment of Hamlet (Mr. Tennyson), he quite ignores the fact it is only his small voice which has declared the parts to be played by each poet, and that, really, the whole of the men in question play just what parts that inexorable stage-manager the public assign to them. It may seem very hard that the public will buy and read the poetry of Messrs. Rossetti, Swinburne, and Morris, and will not be troubled with the stuff which Mr. Buchanan calls his poetry; but to attribute so simple a phenomenon to the appearance of the two critiques Mr. Buchanan has named is both an anachronism and a most laughable piece of tomfoolery.
     But the principal charge against Mr. Rossetti is that he is a broadcast disseminator of utterly sensual ideas, and one who endeavours (and with success) to exalt the flesh and the appetites as the supreme end of life and the one subject of art. Nowhere in Mr. Buchanan’s piece of work is the libel put forward so distinctly as this: it is spread over the pages in ambiguous, vague, or absurd words such as we have quoted already, or in expressions such as ‘But the fleshly feeling is everywhere,’ meaning everywhere in Mr. Rossetti’s poems,—or such as ‘In petticoats or pantaloons, in modern times or in middle ages, he is just Mr. Rossetti, a fleshly person,’ &c., meaning that the poet is a coarsely sensual man, whose coarse sensuality appears through the disguises of the various persons represented in his poems. Again, we get such dicta as the following:

     ‘We question if there is anything in the unfortunate Poems and Ballads quite so questionable on the score of thorough nastiness as many pieces in Mr. Rossetti’s collection.’

These, and such as these, are the forms which Mr. Buchanan’s charges assume; and, although we are of opinion that no intelligent person reading the article would fail to see that the whole thing is a virulent and wilful misrepresentation, we will just examine some passages from Mr. Rossetti’s poetry, which Mr. Buchanan has quoted with the view of lending a fictitious support to his position,—which they scarcely do, even with his paring and patching.
     There is no word in Mr. Rossetti’s poems that we fear to print, lest it support his assailant;—so we will give here the sonnet which is given in The Contemporary as a sample of work exceeding in ‘thorough nastiness’ the nastiest portions of Poems and Ballads: the sonnet is from an unfinished poem to be called The House of Life,—a poem of which the author has given us an instalment of fifty sonnets and eleven songs; and the title of this particular sonnet is Nuptial Sleep: it runs thus,—

‘At length their long kiss severed, with sweet smart:                          94
     And as the last slow sudden drops are shed
     From sparkling eaves when all the storm has fled,
So singly flagged the pulses of each heart.
Their bosoms sundered, with the opening start
     Of married flowers to either side outspread
     From the knit stem; yet still their mouths, burnt red,
Fawned on each other where they lay apart.
Sleep sank them lower than the tide of dreams,
     And their dreams watched them sink, and slid away,
Slowly their souls swam up again, through gleams
     Of watered light and dull drowned waifs of day;
Till from some wonder of new woods and streams
     He woke, and wondered more: for there she lay.’

This, which we are impudently informed by Mr. Buchanan-Maitland or Maitland-Buchanan, or whatever he likes to call himself, is a complete poem, detailing the nuptial experiences of the author,—this is quoted as ‘putting on record the most secret mysteries of sexual connexion’! ‘Where?’ asks the astonished reader. Surely nowhere except in any such gross mind as chooses to supply the record for itself. This sonnet, which may be fairly considered perfect, unless it be for the one word ‘fawned,’ which, from its general uses, may seem unfitting here,—this sonnet, far from ‘putting on record the most secret mysteries of sexual connexion,’ will bear the closest scrutiny, and, erotic though it may appear, it will not be found indecent. What are the simple facts that it chronicles? These: that two married persons end a lingering kiss and embrace; and lie apart,—that they sleep and dream, and that the man wakes in wonder to find his bride beside him.
     We have no wish to deny that the preraphaelite poet recognises the sexual element in the holy ordinance of marriage, and regards it as worthy of treatment in art; nor do we wish to say that there is no suggestion, in the sonnet above quoted, beyond the facts that are its fabric; but we do deny that there is any reprehensible indelicacy in it, even as a single isolated sonnet. It inculcates no view that sexual intercourse is the main aim of life; but gives a beautiful expression to the intense ecstasy that a newly-married man might naturally feel in waking up and finding that the woman of his love was at length inseparably united to him.
     So far for the sonnet, regarded as an isolated piece; but that is precisely what it is not, though Mr. Buchanan falsely describes it as such. Supposing that it were, and that Mr. Rossetti’s poems included any considerable proportion of pieces treating themes so close to the sacred rites of matrimony, we might fairly say that he was too largely preoccupied with matters which had better be merely touched on and hinted at. But when we mention that Mr. Buchanan carefully suppresses (setting an untruth in its place) the fact that this is the only sonnet in the whole House of Life that would by possibility have served the miserable turn of the assailant, even the imputation of giving undue prominence to legitimate sexuality falls through.
     The House of Life, as the title implies, is meant to touch in due time all the principal ‘chords of life;’ and it would be an affected piece of asceticism to omit touching, however lightly, that one important string so delicately played upon in Nuptial Sleep. The statement that the sonnet records the poet’s personal experience would, one might have thought, be too transparently ridiculous to form a part of even Mr. Buchanan’s impudent misrepresentation; and we take the opportunity of pointing out the scrupulous nicety which 95 must have prompted the poet to make this particular sonnet a narrative in the third person, so as to avoid the shadow of offence that might have been given, if he had chosen, not to make a revelation in his own person, but even to depict a fictitious man or woman as revealing impressions so sacred. It is hardly necessary to protest against the assumption constantly made by Mr. Buchanan that everything written even in the first person expresses the experience or opinion of the poet. Were that the case, we must make the egregious assumption that Mr. Rossetti is himself the murderer whose monologue is entitled A Last Confession!
     The ‘critic’s’ other examples of Mr. Rossetti’s imputed addiction to improperly ‘fleshly’ themes are no more difficult to dispose of than the sonnet is: here are four passages which Mr. Buchanan gives in a string, separated with much foresight from their context:

(1)                                                  ‘I looked up
         And saw where a brown-shouldered harlot leaned
         Half through a tavern window thick with vine.
         Some man had come behind her in the room
     And caught her by her arms, and she had turned
     With that coarse empty laugh on him, as now
     He munched her neck with kisses, while the vine
     Crawled in her back.

(2)      ‘As I stooped, her own lips rising there
         Bubbled with brimming kisses at my mouth.’

(3)      ‘Have seen your lifted silken skirt
         Advertise dainties through the dirt.’

(4)      ‘What more prize than love to impel thee,
         Grip and lip my limbs as I tell thee!’

The italicised words are those to which Mr. Buchanan wishes to draw particular attention. As regards quotations 2 and  4, the support they are meant to give to the charge of ‘nastiness’ is knocked away by simply telling whence they are taken—a duty which Mr. Buchanan, using the wisdom of the serpent unconnected with the dove’s harmlessness, refrained from performing; and the other two quotations are readily shown to be equally inapposite.
     (2) The words ‘bubbled with brimming kisses at my mouth’ express no fleshly contact whatever, but are a part of the exquisite imagery employed in the four sonnets called Willow-wood, wherein the speaker tells how he ‘sat with Love upon a woodside well,’ and gazed at the reflection of Love’s face until it took the semblance of his own lost lady’s face; then, as he leaned his face into the well, it seemed to him that this image of Love, transformed to the face he knew, rose to meet him and greet him. (4) For the words ‘grip and lip my limbs as I tell thee,’ in the fourth quotation, we need but note that they are from the weird and magnificent ballad of Eden Bower, wherein the legendary witch-wife of Adam,

‘The witch he loved before the gift of Eve.’

addresses ‘that old serpent which is the devil and Satan,’ and craves his assistance in compassing the fall of Adam. Elsewhere, in a sonnet, the preraphaelite poet has said:

‘Of Adam’s first wife Lilith it is told,
     The witch he loved before the gift of Eve,
     That ere the snake’s her sweet tongue could deceive
And her enchanted hair was the first gold;’

and in this larger treatment of the subject, the enchanted embodiment of merely sensuous beauty, serpentine in her own nature and derivation, calls upon her kindred serpent in true snake-fashion, to help her for love’s sake and for hate’s sake in ruining the man round whose life her devilish love no longer twines. The whole gist of the oriental legend is in the blending of the human and the serpentine; Lilith and the serpent are to change forms for the purposes of the Temptation; 96 and, as a fitting preparation for the infernal scheme, she conjures the snake to ‘wrap her round in the form she’ll borrow,’ and tempts him with the bait of what shall be when he is he ‘and Lilith is Lilith:’

‘In what bliss past hearing or seeing
Shall each one drink of the other’s being! . . .
How shall we mingle our love’s caresses,
I in thy coils and thou in my tresses!’

If Mr. Rossetti endeavoured to enlist the reader’s sympathies with the snake-like loves and schemes of these two snake- natures, there might be some show of foundation in the charge of his assailant; but he does not: he simply renders with high art one of those legends concerning the first fall of man that must ever retain the strongest interest; and whether the snake-woman calling on the snake to ‘grip and lip her limbs’ is not made duly hideous in her dazzling devilish golden beauty, the unprejudiced reader may best judge from the following quotation of the final stanzas of the ballad:

‘What of Eve too, cast out of Eden?
         (Eden bower’s in flower.)
Nay, but she, the bride of God’s giving,
Must yet be mother of all men living.

Lo, God’s grace, by the grace of Lilith!
         (And O the bower and the hour!)
To Eve’s womb, from our sweet to-morrow,
God shall greatly multiply sorrow.

Fold me fast, O God-snake of Eden!
         (Eden bower’s in flower.)
What more prize than love to impel thee?
Grip and lip my limbs as I tell thee!

Lo! two babes for Eve and for Adam!
         (And O the bower and the hour!)
Lo! sweet Snake, the travail and treasure,—
Two men-children born for their pleasure!

The first is Cain and the second Abel:
         (Eden bower’s in flower.)
The soul of the one shall be made thy brother,
And thy tongue shall lap the blood of the other.
         (And O the bower and the hour!)’

Each man’s own heart will best tell him whether or not he loathes the speaker of these verses as he loathes a Iago or a Richard III., and whether or not the poet meant him to dwell, as Mr. Buchanan would seem to have done, on the particular words ‘grip and lip,’ &c.; but, as Mr. Buchanan gave the words best suited for his purpose, no one had a chance to judge; because, instead of being prominent and characteristic as he would have us understand, they are mere grains of speech, relevant enough, lost in the whirl of a gigantic passion, depicted with the relentless hand of a master; and had we not happened to know Eden Bower by heart, we might have spent some little time in seeking to find those particular words.
     We are of the opinion that, in the first of these four extracts, Mr. Buchanan has unwisely quoted too much for his own purpose, and that there is sufficient evidence in those few lines that the poet had special reasons for giving a decidedly revolting character to the rencontre between the ‘brown-shouldered harlot’ and her customer. The reason for this we have long ago sought to explain;* and, although the poet has, in an infinitely more satisfactory manner, given his own (substantially identical) explanation in The Athenæum for the 16th of December last, we prefer to repeat it in our own fashion, if only for the sake of showing that Mr. Rossetti has not been misunderstood by all his critics. The lines in question are from A Last Confession—the confession of a man originally of a simple, purely-loving, and patriotic nature, but who has slain the loved one in a mad moment of doubt, and now lies dying himself, slain in his country’s cause. How these issues have been reached, he tells his ghostly confessor in snatches of reminiscence, always leading up to the terrible climax of his secret, and always, at a point of high suspense, falling back again without accomplishing the actual confession of

     * See Tinsleys’ Magazine for March 1871.


97 the crime: even when the incident of the murder is brought out, he does not own that he did kill the woman, only says how he came to know he had stabbed her. He had bought her a dagger, and had carried it to a place of rendezvous to give it to her as a parting gift (for they were to part), and when he offered it she put it from her with a laugh; then after a whirl of passion he found her lying at his feet, and ‘knew that he had stabbed her:’ thus the immediate instrument of the girl’s and the man’s undoing is a laugh; and in the working out of the poem the dying man’s tale is strung on a firm, fine thread of laughter-incidents. The girl’s heartless laugh has entered as iron into the man’s soul for all time, and his brain is shown at every turn to be given up to the echoes of a phantom laughter that haunts his very bed of death and confession. We pass over the various laughter-incidents, to come direct to one Mr. Buchanan has given: when the man stopped, on his way to the fatal rendezvous, to buy the little dagger for the parting gift, he was attracted by the ‘coarse empty laugh’ of the ‘brown-shouldered harlot’—a laugh which comes fearfully home to him when, three hours later, his gift is scornfully rejected, and he recognises or imagines a similarity between the laugh of his beloved and the loathsome, loveless laugh of prostitution—accepting the similarity as a summary of ‘all she might have changed to, or might change  to.’ Judge then, whether a poet with any pretensions to psychological cunning was not bound to make the incident of the woman at the window as revolting in sound and colour, sense and suggestion, as art could make it within the bounds of decency. To us it seems that every stroke tells home, as against fleshliness, even the Silenean touch of the vine crawling in the harlot’s back, not being without its own suggestion of the horrid results of lust and prostitution—results from which the man saved, or thought he saved, the woman of his love.
     The remaining quotation (3) is from Jenny, a monologue wherein the case of the courtesan is taken up and analysed from the near and sympathetic position which only one who has seen the inside of Jenny’s room could assume. Such a subject was once considered to be outside the proprieties of Art, or even of discussion; but people have now become alive to the beautiful adaptabilities of subjects once tabooed—always provided that the treatment be worthy of the subject, and the matter, however deplorable, worthy of the treatment. Who, nowadays, sees any harm or fails to see great good in Hood’s exquisite Bridge of Sighs? Jenny goes further over the borders of antiquated propriety; but is clean and sane and human from beginning to end. There is, indeed, much to love in the speaker of the monologue, who, having fallen in with Jenny from a simple desire to dance, takes her, tired-out, to her lodging, and lets her sink down and rest her head on his knees, and so sits on, till in the grayness of the dawn, ‘the woman almost fades from view,’ and he sees in beautiful lost Jenny

‘A cipher of man’s changeless sum
Of lust, past, present, and to come.’

Meditating on the great social questions which Jenny’s beauty and present life and dreary future naturally suggest to a thoughtful humane mind, the speaker comes in due time to the lines Mr. Buchanan has chosen for his mean purposes; lines which merely require to be set down in connection with the two which immediately precede them and the few which come after, to show how entirely opposed the sense 98 and feeling are to what Mr. Buchanan suggests:

‘Our learned London children know,
Poor Jenny, all your mirth and woe;
Have seen your lifted silken skirt
Advertise dainties through the dirt;
Have seen your coach-wheels splash rebuke
On virtue; and have learned your look
When, wealth and health slipped past, you stare
Along the streets alone, and there,
Round the long park, across the bridge,
The cold lamps at the pavement’s edge
Wind on together and apart,
A fiery serpent for your heart.’

If anything more than this is needed to show that Jenny, at all events, will not support the charge of ‘nastiness,’ or ‘fleshliness,’ or whatever word else may be used in The Contemporary article, to indicate an indecent, immoral, and baneful tendency—if anything more were needed to prove the whole-heartedness and nobility of purpose in the poem, we should perhaps select the lines with which it ends:

‘And must I mock you to the last,
Ashamed of my own shame,—aghast
Because some thoughts not born amiss
Rose at a poor fair face like this?
Well, of such thoughts so much I know:
In my life, as in hers, they show,
By a far gleam which I may near,
A dark path I can strive to clear.

Only one kiss. Good-bye, my dear.

The last line indicates the sum-total of ‘fleshly’ communion between Jenny and her night’s companion: the dramatic speaker leaves her sleeping, after tenderly substituting a cushion for his knees (whereon her head has rested during the night). Throughout the monologue there is no approach to indecency, or even levity, and indeed the whole piece marks most emphatically, to whoso will see it, ‘a dark path he can strive to clear.’
     The only remaining extract given by Mr. Buchanan, besides a few lines set here and there to make bad jokes about preraphaelite style, is one of the songs from The House of Life, apparently put into the article in an unguarded moment; for, though it depicts beautifully that sexual element which exists in all wholesome love of men and women who are neither too old nor too blasé to be capable of justly controlled and restricted desire, it yet indicates just that element of sane love which Mr. Rossetti is accused of ignoring and overshadowing with gross fleshliness. Love-Lily is the name of the song; and we will let our readers judge of it for themselves, as we have done in the instances of disingenuous quotation already disposed of:

‘Between the hands, between the brows,
     Between the lips of Love-Lily,
A spirit is born whose birth endows
     My blood with fire to burn through me
Who breathes upon my gazing eyes,
     Who laughs and murmurs in mine ear,
At whose least touch my colour flies,
     And whom my life grows faint to hear.

Within the voice, within the heart,
     Within the mind of Love-Lily,
A spirit is born who lifts apart
     His tremulous wings and looks at me;
Who on my mouth his finger lays,
     And shows, while whispering lutes confer,
That Eden of Love’s watered ways
     Whose winds and spirits worship her.

Brows, hands, and lips, heart, mind, and voice,
     Kisses and words of Love-Lily,—
O! bid me with your joy rejoice
     Till riotous longing rest in me!
Ah! let not hope be still distraught,
     But find in her its gracious goal,
Whose speech Truth knows not from her thought
     Nor Love her body from her soul.’

If this song means anything—and we have no hesitation in saying that every one of Mr. Rossetti’s poems, whether song, sonnet, monologue, or what not, has a great deal of meaning for those whose brains and hearts are sufficiently intelligent and genial to take it—if the song means anything beyond what appears upon its exquisite, musically-rippling surface, it means to depict that solemn aspiration after complete community of mind and soul, such as shall temper and chasten and glorify the sexual desire which it makes 99 no strife to disguise, and which, when thus tempered and chastened and glorified, is the most efficient instrument of personal culture—being, as it is and ever must be, the basework and beginning of that sublime union of the sexes which perfects the life of the individual as husband, wife, father, mother, citizen, and perpetuates the human race. It would surely seem as if the ‘critic’ were himself so exclusively preoccupied with the difficult search for ‘fleshlinesses’ to be used in fabricating his flimsy tirade, that he failed to notice how, the first stanza of this song being devoted to sensuous admiration, the second stanza deals with the chastening love bred of intellectual and spiritual sympathy, while the third stanza gives the very aspiration for community of body, soul, and spirit which the poet is accused of ignoring. What could our ‘poet-critic’ have been thinking of when he transcribed verses so completely indicating a noble and wholesome love for a woman whose bodily and spiritual perfection are so compactly summed up in the two lines,

‘Whose speech Truth knows not from her thought
     Nor Love her body from her soul.’?

     Having taken the pains to dispose formally of charges which were brought in such a virulent manner and with so little attempt at proof as Mr. Buchanan’s, we might fairly ask to be excused from dealing with those parts of his article which have reference to the poetic qualities of style, and to the affinities of the so-called ‘Fleshly School;’ but though these parts of the article, if left to find their own level, would rapidly sink to oblivion through their own weight of tawdry invective and ‘vast and comprehensive’ silliness, we prefer to do Mr. Buchanan the full justice of showing up his talents for misrepresentation in that department also.
     The first dictum in this department, that Messrs. Rossetti, Swinburne, and Morris, with others, derive from Mr. Tennyson, and have merely disguised themselves by special affectations, requires no answer, because it is a mere dictum with no shadow of truth or proof; and the second, that in Vivien Mr. Tennyson has ‘concentrated all the epicene force which, wearisomely expanded, constitutes the characteristic of the writers at present under consideration,’ is met by two very obvious answers: first, that Mr. Tennyson did not originate the treatment of sexual passion in poetry, any more than he invented the passion itself; and second, that Mr. Rossetti’s principal poems were written, and well known to those who may in some sense be called his followers, before the Idylls of the King were published. A third answer, that scarcely wants stating, is that there is no resemblance of style whatever between Vivien and the poems in question, except to such morbid eyes as Mr. Buchanan’s, which are, as far as we know, unique; while, divested of style, the substance of the poems owns no similarity beyond certain elementary facts of human nature which no poet of wide view can possibly ignore.
     At one point we are informed that ‘Mr. Rossetti is never dramatic, never impersonal—always attitudinising, posturing, and describing his own exquisite emotions;’ but this Mr. Buchanan has saved us the trouble of contradicting by owning, within three lines of the same point, that the ‘fleshly feeling’ is, in A Last Confession, ‘fiercely held in check by the exigencies of a powerful situation and the strength of a dramatic speaker.’
     The impudent assumption in the statement that the poet is always ‘describing his own exquisite emotions’ is self- evident. Here we have 100 a collection of poems dealing with many and varied emotions, simple and complex, male and female, good and evil: how does Mr. Buchanan, or how can any one, know that they are all Mr. Rossetti’s own? The reverse is a necessary fact, for the emotions involve too complicated a contradictoriness to be by possibility part and parcel of any one nature. We might as well say that Shakespeare’s characters all expound the great dramatist’s own views and emotions!
     Again, we are told that ‘cultivated readers will recognise in every one of these poems the tone of Mr. Tennyson broken up by the style of Mr. and Mrs. Browning, and disguised here and there by the eccentricities of the Preraphaelites.’ What sort of cultivation one is expected to have undergone in order to make out all this, it is hard to imagine: certainly the examples given in the ‘critique’ do not help us much: The Burden of Nineveh is, we are told, ‘a philosophical edition of Recollections of the Arabian Nights; A Last Confession and Dante at Verona are, in the minutest trick and form of thought, suggestive of Mr. Browning; and that the sonnets have been largely moulded and inspired by Mrs. Browning can be ascertained by any critic who will compare them with the Sonnets from the Portuguese.’ For the sonnets, being intimately familiar with both Mrs. Browning’s and Mr. Rossetti’s, probably with every line of both collections, we note no affinity whatever in point of thought, and certainly no similarity of execution: in thought and feeling, Mrs. Browning’s are womanly, self-sacrificing, full of exaltation—Mr. Rossetti’s manly, firm, analytical, and passing out of self into a broad survey of life: in point of execution, Mrs. Browning’s, though more scrupulous than is usual with her, are almost loose at times, while Mr. Rossetti’s are chiselled and finished like marble  bas-reliefs. A Last Confession is, it is true, written in the monologue form which is Mr. Browning’s peculiar property; but the arrangement of parts is strikingly unlike that of any monologue by Mr. Browning; and if the reader will turn back and take note of the thread of construction which we have already described, he will see that it is such a one as is nowhere to be met with in any of the great psychologist’s poems. As for Dante at Verona, it is a perspicuous analytical narrative: the only considerable narrative poem of Mr. Browning is Sordello; and our critic will scarcely compare Dante at Verona with that! Finally, The Burden of Nineveh owes no note or thought to Mr. Tennyson.
     One small item of aspersion on the style of Messrs. Rossetti, Swinburne, and Morris (but of Mr. Rossetti in particular) we must not leave unnoticed: Mr. Buchanan calls attention to ‘the habit of accenting the last syllable in words which in ordinary speech are accented on the penultimate;’ as an instance of which habit he quotes the line—

‘Between the lips of Love-Lily.’

writing the last word as ‘Lilee;’ but Mr. Rossetti did not write it so, nor would any one who understands anything of the reading of poetry read it so: it should be read just as the words are spoken and with distinctness; and the same test may be fearlessly applied to any line of Mr. Rossetti’s, as well as to almost any line of the other two poets, written in this manner. The fact that two lines rhyme is no reason for giving an exactly equal weight and emphasis to the two rhyming terminals; and if one line ends with a short heavy word, like ‘wet’ in the line

‘Everywhere be it dry or wet,’

101 that is no reason whatever for making the word ‘market’ abnormal and ridiculous in the corresponding line,

‘And market-night in the haymarket,’

for the sake of giving the syllable ‘ket’ the same weight as ‘wet.’ In fact, one of the chief things to note in preraphaelite style is the distinct and equable utterance without which the phrases and cadences have not their due significance: this results from the aim of approximating the actualities of speech more nearly than they are approached in conventional poetry; and, to accomplish this approximation of poetry to spoken language, a certain licence as to strictness of rhymes is also taken. The effect in poetry is quite the reverse of the ludicrous effect Mr. Buchanan tries to indicate—always provided that perfect clearness of utterance be exercised or imagined; but, seeing that the whole tone of the article under discussion powerfully suggests an elevated kind of utterance quite the reverse of clear, and somewhat usual among Scotch people, we must pardon Mr. Buchanan for not understanding this particular feature of preraphaelite technique.
     Of the gross and vulgarly offensive personalities with which the article is crammed we do not care to give any samples further than those that it has been necessary to import along with the ‘criticisms:’ neither have we much concern with the mere style of the offensive person; but, inasmuch as a man’s style is usually a correct reflection of his mind—just as much as his subject-matter is—we may be allowed to support the evidence borne by Mr. Buchanan’s subject-matter, with one or two specimens of his style. His prose (of his verse we know almost nothing, though quite enough), judging from this one article, is unusually slip-shod and slovenly; it is full of such things as the following:

     ‘He cannot tell a pleasant story like Mr. Morris, nor forge alliterative thunderbolts like Mr. Swinburne.’—

from which we should naturally infer that Mr. Buchanan thinks Mr. Morris is a pleasant story, and Mr. Swinburne is ‘an alliterative thunderbolt’ (whatever that may be)!
     Again, what a chaotic state of mind is indicated in the following elaborate piece of rhetoric!—

     ‘The mind of Mr. Rossetti is like a glassy mere, broken only by the dive of some water-bird, or the hum of winged insects, and brooded over by an atmosphere of insufferable closeness, with a light blue sky above it, sultry depths mirrored within it, and a surface so thickly sown with water-lilies, that it retains its glassy smoothness even in the strongest wind;’—

from which we should gather—among other extraordinary information concerning natural phenomena—that Mr. Buchanan has discovered some hitherto undescribed insects, whose humming has power to break the surface of the water, and that he has also invented some patent water-lilies that combine impalpableness with solidity in a truly supernatural manner, so as to be able to keep the water unruffled, and yet leave it with its looking-glass qualities! On the whole, the public may be pardoned for preferring the poems of men who duly recognise the existence of the flesh and the appetites, to those of an ignoramus who seems to be insensible to the commonest facts of the material universe.
     But it is time to quit a subject so thoroughly disagreeable. We believe Mr. Buchanan has made, against the poetry in question, no accusation which is not amply 102 answered in the foregoing pages; but if anything further is needed, the most decisive answer is the fact, that the reading public, and respectable and able critics generally, have accepted as poets the men now assaulted by an unaccepted claimant to the same title. Of the many dozens of reviews of Mr. Rossetti’s poetry, which have come under our notice, we recall but one besides Mr. Buchanan’s, that was even devoted to contesting the position elsewhere assigned to Mr. Rossetti as a poet; and that one we have good reason for believing to be the production of another ‘disappointed author turned critic’—a verse-writer too; but even he did not venture to assault Mr. Rossetti on the score of ‘fleshliness;’ and his attack, though ill-tempered enough, did not appear to have the scandalous character attaching to the present affair. Of criticism proper, neither production has any particle; but, while the other review matched Mr. Buchanan’s in the item of small and stupid fault-finding, it did not approach his in point of the virulent personal animus, which, in the composition just discussed, has certainly laid the writer open to a prosecution for libel, if the ‘fleshly gentlemen’ were sufficiently foolish or wanting in dignity to avail themselves of the occasion afforded. One of the most valuable attributes of true criticism, of which there is a fair amount in this nineteenth century, is the confinement of its statements and comments to works, to the exclusion of the personalities attaching to those works. In Mr. Buchanan’s article, on the other hand, no considerable attempt is made really to deal critically with the poems of the men whom it is desired to assail—the whole thing being sown thick with scurrilous aspersions on the men themselves. So far as clear intent to injure character is concerned, the article is unquestionably libellous; but whether by juggling with the names ‘Rosencranz,’ ‘Guildenstern,’ and ‘Osric,’ and by blethering (we ask Mr. Buchanan’s pardon if the Scotch word is incorrectly used) about ‘leading business,’ ‘gagging,’ and other theatrical nonsense—whether by these means  Mr. Cornelius R. T. Buchanan-Maitland has evaded the technicalities of the Law of Libel, lawyers are more competent to decide than we are.
     The task of replying to an article full of personalities is not one we should have chosen, because it cannot be performed without a certain degree of personal matter being included in the result. We have never before now—and we doubt whether there is a living critic who has—had to deal with a topic so entirely revolting to all sense of comeliness and nobility in literature, as this deplorable scandal of Mr. Buchanan’s covert and uncritical attack on the so-called ‘Fleshly School’ of poetry—or rather, to speak more correctly, on the gentlemen whose names have been most frequently mentioned in this article.

     Note.—Since the foregoing pages were written, the publisher of The Contemporary has addressed himself to the editor of another newspaper on the subject. The Pall Mall Gazette for December 23rd contained a long letter, the appearance of which we are bound to note, though it does not seem to us to affect the position of the whole affair one jot. One thing we may observe, namely, that the publisher is pleased to consider as a ‘criticism,’ written without any desire to be ‘other than strictly fair and impartial,’ the production of Mr. Buchanan which we have clearly shown to be violently personal and uncritical, and which, if we were called upon to describe by one more epithet, we should be inclined, having regard to the theatrical jargon adopted, to call a scurrilous and indecent farce.



‘Coterie Glory’ in The Saturday Review.


The Saturday Review (24 February, 1872 - Vol.33, p. 239-240)



THE pursuit of fame, and, with the pursuit, the art of advertising, are in some form or other as old as our race. The age when all men were content to produce honest wares and let them make their way without advertisement must be placed before the age of which any record is existing. Hence, although many vigorous diatribes have been penned against advertising by Mr. Carlyle, who has treated the puff and the sham as the special vices of our day, we must in some measure dissent from that great writer. Or perhaps we may interpret his meaning thus; that every form of society will bring with it its own special processes for obtaining fame, and as civilization grows more complex, the processes by which the first steps are made upon the ladder of glory will become more complex also. One of these processes, which we shall take the liberty of illustrating by a contemporary example, we here propose to consider.
     Putting aside sophistical ingenuities, and treating fame as a thing not only worthy of rational human desire, but also as substantially attainable, we may distinguish at least three forms of it, to none of which we can justly deny the name, although only one is entitled to it in the highest sense. There is the fame widespread, but transitory; the fame within a small circle of believers, and coexistent only with their lives; and the fame which is at once widespread, intimate, and durable. Smaller provinces of fame, it will be seen, may be carved from these; as that to which Mr. M. Arnold has given the happy name of “distinction,” and which, though permanent, never goes beyond the few; or the converse case of reputation durable and general, but never reaching the “inner circle.” And each division, of course, fades into the next; in many cases by fine though traceable gradations. Yet, on the whole, we think the preceding distinctions will be accepted as answering to the common sense and parlance of mankind. There are “kings of thought,” in Shelley’s phrase; there are princes who never mount the throne or found a dynasty; there are also those who are of the blood-royal to their own party, but pretenders to the world at large.
     It is to the last species of fame, which we may more briefly term coterie glory, that a complex and widely-spread civilization such as our own presents peculiar facilities. When the cultivated portion of a nation is small, there will be a greater general publicity of tastes, and a greater unanimity in forming them. Thus, in Athens, whilst poetical judgment was not sufficiently uniform to prevent the admirers of Aristophanes from coexisting with the admirers of Euripides, yet the position and value of these two poets were facts known to the whole mass of citizens, although weighed by each party in different balances. But amongst the Greeks of the free Hellenic age even these differences in taste were of rare occurrence; the fine insight of the race appears to have generally issued in identical conclusions; nor can we recall any one instance in which a widespread but transient fame came into being. Later on, in the Alexandrian and Roman periods, which more nearly resemble our own, we find poets and artists famous in their day (as Philetas, Callimachus, or Varus), who did not outlive it. The fashion for archaism also appeared in a section of the Latin littérateurs, and was criticized by Horace with his unvarying good sense. Yet neither then, nor when letters and taste once more awoke in earnest after the Norman outburst in Europe, do we trace anything like coterie glory—the reputation only dear to a small set of believers, and held by them with irritable faith or impenetrable fanaticism. The cultivated class of each country was at all these periods too small for such a growth; or, if it came into being, it followed the law of its existence and faded into oblivion.

Those twinkling, tiny lustres of the land
Dropped one by one from Fame’s neglecting hand—

and in times when periodical criticism and literary record did not exist, were soon wholly obliterated. Our own days, however, possessing these advantages, have also the compensating evils from which progress can never free itself. A true fame—one embracing the many and the few, and destined to be permanent with both—has now at least as great a difficulty in establishing itself as when there was no cheap press and no daily criticism. Men’s minds are no longer, as in the Athens of Pericles, comparatively blank sheets for new impressions. A crowd of ancient glories, and a crowd of modern theories upon them, fill our minds, and are stamped, more or less, even upon the half-cultivated. Thus, with the “large utterance of the early gods,” we have lost their large simplicity of receptiveness. Reaction succeeds reaction, and each has but a partial truth, which it takes for the whole. The one true “voice” must be loud and long, to conquer the “many echoes.”
     The wide extension of cultivated intelligence, increasing the number of schools of taste, has a peculiar effect in adding to the difficulty. Each school has not only its own god, but its own temple and pulpit, its own texts and creeds, almost its own body of dogmatic theology. Is it the proper aim of poetry, let us say, to teach or to please, to amuse or to elevate? Should it move mostly among present thoughts and feelings with Byron, or in the romances of the past with Keats? Is it best when simple or when subtle? These and a hundred similar doctrines rage among the sects, and the strife has at times a singular effect upon general criticism. So much may be said on each side; bad or weak taste has such facility in clothing itself in the hundred formulas which are current, that criticism takes what is called and “appreciative” or “genial” attitude, and proclaims a kind of æsthetic toleration. Specious as this change may be, and welcomed by sentimentalists (who also are greatly indebted to such toleration), it has certainly in the end a very lowering effect upon criticism, and thus upon public taste. No landmarks are henceforth recognized; the idea of a standard disappears; the great monuments and efforts of our predecessors are ignored and forgotten; not to bow down before the last thing out is rank Philistinism; and Novelty, that worst enemy to true art in a friend’s disguise, tends to become the final, if unacknowledged, source of the pleasure which we seek in painting, or music, or literature.
     Some remarks upon this uncritical attitude of criticism occur in a recent paper in the Quarterly Review, forming the close of a survey of our modern “literary poets,” as the writer names Messrs. Swinburne, Rossetti, and Morris. These poets are here treated with a grave and well-mannered contempt, which, though distressing to the believer’s mind, springs naturally from the reaction produced by unbridled and indiscriminate praise. And, although many may consider that the critic has here and there surveyed his subject from too adverse a point of view, we think his paper well worth study. It is sane, searching, and, if a little wanting in sympathy for aims which the writer holds to be low, factitious, and unmanly, it is undebased by the intrusion of personal laudation or satire. We hail it therefore as a return to the legitimate method of criticism; and this the more because the facts bear out what the critic hints—namely, that the fame compassed by the poets in question forms, hitherto at least, an example of that “coterie glory” which the existing phase of civilization and literary criticism engenders. Something similar has been already twice seen within this century in poetry, not to speak here of the other fine arts. Seventy years ago we had the once famous “Della Cruscan” school, surviving now only, if it can be called survival, in Gifford’s ponderous but effective satire. In that school “culture” and refinement were the watchwords, and a little circle of mutual admiration contrived, by ingenious devices of criticism, to create in the outer world what for awhile looked like real fame. Afterwards we had the “mystic” school, to which the authors of Festus, the “Roman,” and other kindred spirits, chronicled in full by Mr. Gilfillan, belonged; and here, again, there was the same spectacle of the small band of devotees, unable to secure any permanent place for their favourites—although it is but fair to add that the praise in this case came from disinterested quarters, and that the intrinsic quality of the writers (as evidenced by the numerous editions of Mr. Bailey’s poem) was much beyond that of the “Della Cruscan” group.
     We do not intend here to express any opinion upon the actual merit of our so-called “Pre-Raffaellites.” The pace is tremendous; but what the staying power may be will be decided by Time, that sole judge in the stadium of the Muses. Meanwhile, however, and without prejudice to the belief of those men of taste who pronounce these artists already sure of immortality, some of the elements may be pointed out which justify the phrase of “coterie glory.” What are their leading inspirations? Mr. Swinburne’s at first were of the literary or artistic order; they seem now (and we mean no criticism in saying it) to be the most advanced ideas of the “International,” as magnified and idealized by the rhetorical glamour of M. Hugo. Mr. Rossetti and Mr. Morris work, broadly speaking, within Mr. Swinburne’s earlier sphere. Both draw much from certain modern types of art which rarely venture within the coarse climate of public exhibition; both also—and here again we write without meaning to question their originality—are largely inspired by mediæval and Renaissance literature. There is a sense, of course, in which poetry must form itself upon former models and materials. But the poetry of which we are speaking rests also upon certain models in verse and prose, as authorities, without a knowledge of which much in the modern work loses its beauty or its significance. These poets, therefore, cannot be followed or enjoyed as they would wish to be, without a rare and peculiar course of previous study. Like a man at the Turkish bath, the reader must have passed through several antechambers, and become acclimatized to their atmosphere and aroma, before he can recline in the luxury of complete prostration within the inner sanctum.
     Whether such prerequisites are characteristic of merit in poetry or the reverse, it is clear that poetry of this order can appeal only, for real and durable appreciation, to a limited class. It claims to be tried by a special jury of cultivated persons. This, however, is a very dangerous position for the jurors. They who have been at the pains of mastering such special qualifications, by a natural law, soon regard them as the only canons of taste; nothing which does not conform to them has the true ring. Having conquered caviare, they find all that pleases “the general” tasteless. Philistinism itself is not more adverse to discrimination than this Pharisaic isolation. Once in this frame of mind, men rapidly unlearn judging in favour of believing; they feel that they do right to be partisans in such a cause; they taste the keen delights of initiation into a creed hidden from the vulgar; they reject all moderating or hostile criticism from the laity without, as proceeding from men not specially qualified; they tend to pass from faith into fanaticism. Hence also, the general attitude of criticism being of the tolerant or sceptical order already described, the believers at first write all the reviews, and man every bastion of what Goethe somewhere calls the “critical Zion.” That it has been so in the case of our later “Pre-Raffaelites” is denied nowhere; indeed, the phenomenon has been welcomed with innocent, though imprudent, sympathy; and natural, or indeed inevitable, as such a process is, crowns thus decreed may certainly and uninvidiously be described as “coterie glory.” The artist, whether in poetry or in painting, labours for the initiated; and the initiated, in turn, write their best about the poems and the pictures. In such a process there is nothing abnormal, nothing intentionally unfair, and we can hardly understand the wrath which it has excited in some quarters. The only question is, what is the value of this order of criticism? What promise of fulfilment is contained in its prophecies?
     A curious sign, lastly, confirms the position which we have here advanced. It is the very essence of faith to be uncritical; to regard the day for criticism as passed. To the faithful any contradiction of faith inevitably assumes the character, not of fair divergence in judgment, but of heresy. Simple non-acceptance of the creed may provoke a pitying smile at the sceptic’s invincible ignorance. But to question it must be malice, envy, and imbecility. There is something in human nature, alas! which makes everybody, except an office-hardened politician, hate criticism; but this feeling, from which even poets are not exempt, may be intensified inordinately when the poet sees nothing but worshippers around him. It seems to be simply impossible for the artist and his circle of believers to regard a criticism on his art as anything but a criticism on himself. Many of our readers who may have watched with amusement the recent squabble between  Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Rossetti will recognise a proof of our statement. Into the merits of the case we decline to go; we do not ask whether Mr. Buchanan’s attacks were well founded, whether he was entitled to use a pseudonym, or whether his article exhibited that good taste which is nowhere more called for than when a question of taste is the matter in discussion. Our point is, that the “Fleshly School of Poetry” did, in the main, attempt to try Mr. Rossetti’s verses, and not Mr. Rossetti himself as distinct from Mr. Rossetti the author, by critical rules. That the poet, rudely roused from the security of fame generated by the too friendly voices of disciples, should have regarded his reviewer as actuated by base personal motives was natural. But it is characteristic that the followers should be under the same impression. One of the latest of them has just published a further reply to Mr. Buchanan, which rivals what we had too fondly believed was the tone of discussion and the form of argument peculiar to the “odium theologicum.” Mr. Forman, the writer, is so hurried away by zeal for his faith that, though known only as a critic, he prefixes to his paper a cruel (and in his case, we are  sure, an inapplicable) motto, describing critics as the offspring of jealousy and literary failure. To re-state Mr. Buchanan’s arguments in his own vocabulary appears to Mr. Forman, and we do not doubt appears in perfect good faith, equivalent to their refutation. To quote in full Mr. Rossetti’s sonnet on “Nuptial Sleep” is proof of its maiden modesty of phrase so absolute that a man must be, we cannot venture to say what, who denies it. The gist of the whole is, that every criticism made against the book is in fact levelled against the author. What reads like a remark that a rhyme is weak is really an ungentlemanly libel on the rhymester. It is obvious that this is the canon, not of criticism, but of fanatic faith; nay, that it implicitly treats criticism as sin. For what judgment is possible if critical blame is treated as personal malignity, and if to ascribe affectation to a song is the same as to insult an artist? Yet such is the impassioned spirit of coterie that this appears to be the underlying, though no doubt the wholly unconscious, postulate of the poet and his followers. We altogether disclaim such an inference; and give notice that when we say that Mr. Buchanan’s attack is less damaging than Mr. Forman’s defence, we do not thereby imply that Mr. Forman has a base or wilful intention to injure Mr. Rossetti. He is only what some writer calls “that worst of enemies, your worshipper.” But we have detained the reader long enough over the details of a squabble which assuredly has been hitherto no “battle of the giants.”
     By the preceding remarks we do not mean to suggest that the glory which begins in a coterie may not ultimately reach the generality and permanence of fame in its only serious sense. Solvitur ambulando. And we will anticipate an objection which may possibly be made to our argument, by adding that such fame has in fact often started within a small circle of believing friends. Indeed, glory in general must originate with the acceptance of some two or three, especially when the artist is either much opposed to the fashion of his day or much in advance of it. Very few, like Byron or Scott, can awake and find themselves famous. But it is a truism to add that where coterie glory has been the cradle of true glory, the circle of friends must have consisted of exceptionally gifted and impartial judges. More often (we may quote Keats and Shelley as recent examples), the believers with whom fame begins are not friends with their innocent but almost inevitable bias, but isolated persons of taste within the crowd which they are destined at last to convert to their own conviction. To be welcomed thus, whilst the artist finds among his own friends his first critics and his last believers, is by far the most healthy condition for genius. It is a severe atmosphere no doubt, and one wholly unlike the forcing-house air of the coterie, with its exotic flowers and subtle sickly perfumes. But the fruits produced within this atmosphere, if any, will be mature, and wholesome, and permanent. And it is by these signs, and by these alone, so far as they apply to transient and unstable humanity, that we can recognize the growth of secure and genuine glory.



The Monkey and the Microscope

Buchanan’s reply to Swinburne’s Under the Microscope.


The Saint Pauls Magazine (August, 1872 - Vol. XI, p. 240)



ONCE, when the wondrous work was new,
I deemed Darwinian dreams untrue,
But now I must admit with shame
The caudal stock from which we came,—
Seeing a sight to slay all hope:
A Monkey with a Microscope!

A clever Monkey,—he can squeak,
Scream, bite, munch, mumble, all but speak;
Studies not merely monkey-sport,
But vices of a human sort;
Is petulant to most, but sweet
To those who pat him, give him meat:
Can imitate to admiration
Man’s gestures, gait, gesticulation;
Is amorous, and takes no pain
To hide his aphrodital vein;
And altogether, trimly drest
In human breeches, coat, and vest,
Looks human; and, upon the whole
Lacks nothing, save perchance a Soul.

For never did his gestures strike
As so absurdly human-like,
As now, when, having found with joy
Some poor old human Pedant’s toy,
A Microscope, he squats to view it,
Turns up and down, peers in and thro’ it,
Screws up his cunning eye to scan,
Just like a clever little man!
And from his skin, with radiant features,
Selecting small inferior creatures,
Makes mortal wonder in what college he
Saw real Men study Entomology?

A clever monkey!—worth a smile!
How really human is his style;
How worthy of our admiration
Is such delicious imitation!—
And I believe with all my might
Religion wrong and science right,
Seeing a sight to slay all hope:
A Monkey use a Microscope!

                                                                       ROBERT BUCHANAN.



George Chapman. A Critical Essay by Algernon Charles Swinburne

The following passage occurs in Edmund Gosse’s review in The Examiner (20 February, 1875) of ‘The Poems and Minor Translations of George Chapman. With an Introduction by Algernon Charles Swinburne’ and ‘George Chapman. A Critical Essay. By A. C. Swinburne’:

     “We refer the discreet reader somewhat diffidently to some Landorian passages of invective on pages 54, 55, and 71, entering, as we do, fully into the humour and spirit of them, withoiut being quite sure that in an essay of this kind they are either well-timed or specially effective.”

The target of Swinburne’s invective is obviously Buchanan, and Christopher Murray, in his 1974 thesis, ‘Robert Buchanan (1841-1901): An assessment of his career’, adds another example (pages 44-45).


‘Mr. Arnold’s New Poems’ by Algernon Charles Swinburne - revised version 1875


From Essays and Studies by Algernon Charles Swinburne (London: Chatto & Windus, 1875) - ‘Matthew Arnold’s New Poems’ (p. 152-154):

     But indeed, as with all poets of his rank, so with Mr. Arnold, the technical beauty of his work is one with the spiritual; art, a poet’s art above all others, cannot succeed in this and fail in that. Success or achievement of an exalted kind on the spiritual side ensures and enforces a like executive achievement or success; if the handiwork be flawed, there must also have been some distortion or defect of spirit, a shortcoming or a misdirection of spiritual supply. There is no such thing as a dumb poet or a handless painter. The essence of an artist is that he should be articulate. It is the mere impudence of weakness to arrogate the name of poet or painter with no other claim than a susceptible and impressible sense of outward or inward beauty, producing an impotent desire to paint or sing. The poets that are made by nature are not many; and whatever “vision” an aspirant may possess, he has not the “faculty divine” if he cannot use his vision to any poetic purpose. There is no cant more pernicious to such as these, more wearisome to all other men, than that which asserts the reverse. It is a drug which weakens the feeble and intoxicates the drunken; which makes those swagger who have not learnt to walk, and teach who have not been taught to learn. Such talk as this of Wordsworth’s is the poison of poor souls like David Gray’s.1 Men listen, and depart with the belief that they have this faculty or this vision which alone, they are told, makes the poet; and once imbued with that belief, soon pass or slide from the inarticulate to the articulate stage of debility and disease. Aspiration foiled and impotent is a piteous thing enough, but friends and teachers of this sort make it ridiculous as well. A man can no more win a place among poets by dreaming of it or lusting after it than he can win by dream or desire a woman’s beauty or a king’s command; and those encourage him to fill his belly with the east wind who feign to accept the will for the deed, and treat inarticulate or inadequate pretenders as actual associates in art. The Muses can bear children and Apollo can give crowns to those only who are able to win the crown and beget the child; but in the school of theoretic sentiment it is apparently believed that this can be done by wishing.

     1 This was a poor young Scotchman who may be remembered as having sought and found help and patronage at the hands first of Mr. Dobell and afterwards of Lord Houghton. In some of his sonnets there are touches of sweet and sincere emotion; but the most remarkable points in his poor little book, and those which should be most memorable to other small poets of his kind (if at least the race of them were capable of profiting by any such lesson), are first the direct and seemingly unconscious transference of some of the best known lines or phrases from such obscure authors as Shakespeare and Wordsworth into the somewhat narrow and barren field of his own verse, and secondly the incredible candour of expression given in his correspondence to such flatulent ambition and such hysterical self-esteem as the author of “Balder” must have regarded, I should think, with a sorrowful sense of amusement. I may add that the poor boy’s name was here cited with no desire to confer upon it any undeserved notoriety for better or for worse, and assuredly with no unkindlier feeling than pity for his poor little memory, but simply as conveying the most apt and the most flagrant as well as the most recent instance I happened to remember of the piteous and grievous harm done by false teaching and groundless encouragement to spirits not strong enough to know their own weakness. It was a kindly but uncritical reference in Mr. Arnold’s kindly but uncritical essay on Maurice de Guérin—an essay of which I have said a few words further on—that upon this occasion for once recalled the name to my mind, and supplied me with the illustration required.



Back to The Fleshly School Controversy








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


The Critical Response
Harriett Jay


Site Diary
Site Search