ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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Glasgow Herald (27 December, 1875)

LITERATURE.
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(1) Jonas Fisher.

     The authorship of this poem has provoked a deal of speculation. Some think it is written by an Englishman, others that it is by a Scotchman. Two or three have a notion that it is the work of a layman, and a number imagine that a Scotch clergyman is the culprit. Whoever is the author, it seems to us that he has more ability than the poem reveals; that generally he writes down to the capacity of Jonas Fisher, the city missionary; and that this is proved by the quality of those passages in which Mr Grace, the strongest and in reality the most important character in the book, discusses the system of the Romish Church and a variety of much tougher themes. There are two clergymen in Scotland who could have written the book, and particularly the more piercing portions. But we shouldn’t be astonished to learn that “Jonas Fisher” is really the work of a woman—such a woman as wrote “Joshua Davidson,” of which peculiar but very clever tale something in the poem is for ever reminding the reader. Mr Robert Buchanan, who has more than once cheated his enemies into admiration by shooting through a cloud of anonymity, declares that the book isn’t his, or, at least, that the statement to that effect is unauthorised. It is a marvel that no gossip-monger has accused George Macdonald of being the author. Remembering “David Elginbrod” and several strong characters in his other novels—characters which have a singular knack of speaking out—“Jonas Fisher” is not unlike a thing that he might write in the pauses of severer work. Indeed, the touches of his hand, or of one similar to it, are quite visible in some of its strangely graphic pictures, and in its more delicate and subtle touches. George Eliot might also be suspected of writing such a poem. In point of character, it is a kind of versified autobiography of Jonas Fisher, who tells the story—such story as there really is to tell. It were more accurate to say that the main purpose of the book is to put in striking light the opinions and sayings of Mr Grace. Jonas  is, if one may say so, more religious than Mr Grace, but Mr Grace is more intellectual than Jonas, and, to our thinking, not less religious in a practical sense. The experiences of Jonas as a city missionary in visiting all kinds of poor people of all theological colours, from blank Pagans to Papists, are narrated with undoubted skill, although it is right to add that injustice will be done to the book if the reader forgets that the Poet is all along endeavouring to write in the style which he imagines Jonas himself would write if technically qualified. If this fact is not borne in mind, some hypercritical persons may be inclined to value at too low a figure the unquestionable ability displayed in the poem. The first line of the introduction is a warning to girls that it is not meant for them; but it is quite true, as the second line declares, that it will not harm even them; for in reality, there is nothing vicious in its blood, notwithstanding a few explosive passages which help to give it heat and colour. It is a poor literary work, and will never serve any good purpose, that merely mirrors or reiterates opinions or dogmas which have reached a condition of unalterable fixity. A work which gives movement, growth, or enlargement to opinion, or to the power of forming opinion, will never comfort or coddle the popular mind. That is not its purpose. Every book that has done good by kindling new light or suggesting new views has never failed to make somebody temporarily miserable. That is partly the object of all literary effort that has fructified in the national heart. There are things in “Jonas Fisher” that will be sure to make somebody sad, because those things not only don’t agree with his ideas, but actually tend to show that they are foolish or untenable, and require reconsideration. We call that a good quality. It proves that the poem hits some mark that needs to be hit; that, in fact, it disturbs certain feelings and opinions that are putting men asleep, and tempting the mind, by easy transitions of inaction, into a state of rust and rot. Not, of course, that there is anything transcendently original in the book; but that it contains, expressed in comparatively popular language, a few thoughts which are commonplaces to stronger minds, and are now struggling t get into the vocabulary of common folk. A few verses will show what we mean, as also the quality of the poem. One of the poor women whom, as a missionary, Jonas Fisher is visiting is named Widow Smith. Poor old soul, she dies, and Jonas says of her,

“Her saintly soul had gone to God.”

This phrase sets him a-thinking, and he immediately exclaims—

“‘Had gone to God’—strange phrase, methinks!
As if some special house were His.
Is earth a place where God is not?
Let’s say—‘Her soul had gone to bliss.’”

That is to say, Heaven is a state, not a place; or as one may say, “The kingdom of Heaven is within” and not without— subjective, not objective. That is a specimen of Jonas Fisher’s talk. A very pretty figure is suggested by the death of Widow Smith. She expresses the wish to have a decent funeral when she dies. As Jonas promises,

“Smiles swiftly flitted o’er her face
As butterflies across the grass.”

Here is a passage about conversion, spoken by Mr Grace, the strong friend of Jonas—

“That men from sin to good should be
Converted, I can well conceive;
From heathen idols unto Christ
Converted, I can quite believe.

“But that a Christian in his creed,
Who leads an honest, decent life,
Should need ‘conversion,’ under pain
Of Hell, is with all sense at strife.

“You Puritans unjustly judge
Of things that to men’s souls relate.
From people’s bodies we demand
The work that suits their strength and state:

“Who’s ask the lame to dance a jig?
Yet in soul-things you ask of all
To be a small Apostle John,
Or else a miniature St Paul.

“For Heaven as Earth, the poet’s right
In saying, ‘To thyself be true;’
God would have made us all alike,
If all the same were bound to do,

“Or bound to be. But some will say—
‘Why you’ve your choice ’twixt Paul and John,
’Twixt Mary’s rest and Martha’s toil,
’Twixt peaceful thought or pushing on.’

“So far so good: but there in fact
Your candour makes a sudden halt;
For, short of apostolic deeds,
You charge all action with default,

“At best, a thing to tolerate
In creatures of mere earthly clay:
Religious work is crowned and throned,
Poor common work must stand away.

“But never will my soul accept
The bondage of your systems prim:
Whate’er each man can do the best,
That is religious work for him.”

These utterances, as Jonas says, “are plausible, if not quite sound.” In other two verses Mr Grace says—

“You Jonas, have to trade and preach;
Some have a scholar’s work to do,
Or courtier’s, soldier’s, artist’s work;
And God will bless both them and you.

“Then bless we him who blesses them—
Who blesses earnest workers all.
Let no one think that God requires
Each man to be a John or Paul.”

     There is here a faint echo of Coleridge, who sings in the “Ancient Mariner”—

“He prayeth best who loveth best
     All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
     He made and loveth all.”

     Mr Grace has a knack of making word portraits; and, in describing the “puff-brained clergyman,” who is blighted to the core by his craze about his dignity as a parson, he says—

“Easy to prophesy his end;—
At Rome such specimens find their shelves;
The priests, if wishful, make him soon
Tenfold more Hell’s child than themselves.”

Yet Mr Grace doesn’t condemn all the Ritualist brood—

Said he, “As I remarked before,
They are not knaves, however odd,
But in good conscience mean to serve
Their Church, their people, and their God.

“And, though indeed I took the case
Of larger ears than intellect—
A type of many—there are some
For whom I feel profound respect.

“True-hearted, Apostolic men,
Who ‘daily die’ yet daily live,
One foot in Heaven and one on earth,
One hand to bless and one to give.

“Content to hide the noble fire
Of their trained minds, despising fame,
They flood dark places with God’s light,
And magnify their Saviour’s name.”

“Why, Mr Grace,” said Sullivan,
“You’re joking surely? To express
Such sentiments! Like Balaam, quite,
Who came to curse, and stayed to bless.”

“No, not at all,” the other said:
“But, to assuage your wonder, know—
That while I praise these men of God,
I think them ministers of woe

“To our fair country. For the more
Their lovely lives and works combine
To glorify a ritual creed,
The more the Romish nets entwine

“Around the vitals of our land:
And there, my friends, ‘aye, there’s the rub’—
Who makes men slaves to make them good,
Cast devils out by Beelzebub.”

In describing the Romish Church, Mr Grace can be as keen as the edge of a razor—

“Unchanged through long, long lapse of years,
Gorged with the world’s best blood and brains,
A poisonous triple-headed thing,
The Romish reptile Church remains.

“Chameleon-like it shifts its hue,
To trap each silly victim’s eye;
But still it wears the black beneath,
The livery of the Living Lie.”

Then, in conversation, now and again interrupted by Jonas, Mr Grace gives a long sketch, a criticism in verse, of the various types of men in England, as seen in the succeeding clusters of poets, statesmen, warriors, and noble women, down to our own time, expressing pretty plainly that there has been going on a subtle process of deterioration in the fibre of our representatives of literature and art. He is sometimes very severe, although perhaps not unmeritedly so in at least some cases. Look at this passage:—

“But pass we to those glorious days
When art from her long slumber woke,
When knowledge re-illumed her lamp,
And link by link Rome’s fetters broke;

“When England also feels the thrill,
Strong wafted on the breath of time
Full o’er her distant ocean waves,
Of high things revelling in their prime;—

“Then her whole range of portraiture,
Of statesmen, warrior, noble dame,
Bears constant stamp of fleshly waste
Through heat of intellectual flame.

“Till these resplendent years arrive
When Shakespeare trod this honoured earth,
And round him lived the noblest men
That e’er from England drew their birth.

“Ah! then behold the perfect type,
Where flesh and soul and spirit blend
In measure which the most allows
That glory should in all transcend:

“Long-visaged, strong-chinned, high of nose,
Large-eyed, with gaze stern, sweet, sublime;
Well-bearded, grand of chest and arm;
Browed as if brain to heaven would climb.”

Speaking of two generations of poets, taking Byron and Tennyson as a contrast, Mr Grace says:—

“Contrast the mighty torrent sweep
     Of Byron’s fierce impassioned lays,
With the meandering placid flow
     Of his deep verse who wears the bays.”

     A few lines further on he sums up his illustration with this epigrammatic couplet:—

“The grandsires wrote with all their hearts,
The grandsons write with all their brains.”

Here is a passage which the women of our time will no doubt justly appreciate:—

“No weasel slim to slip through holes
Is woman in God’s primal plan,
But a broad bounteous flexile mould
For framing noble forms of man.

“Such was each queenly Teuton wife,
Alike in peace and warfare great,
With grand blue eyes and vast white arms,
A prophetess, a warrior’s mate.

“Small glory will those women win
Who man’s right rule would fain contest
In business of the reasoning brain—
Poor third-rate strivers at the best.

“Who, like the fabled dog that dropped
The real to seize the imaged ham,
Would merge the gifts of womanhood
In grasping at mere manhood’s sham.

“Whose doctrines, as they win their way,
Will change the comely female sex
To bags of bones with shattered nerves,
Concave where nature meant convex.

“Now Heaven subvert such apish pride,
Content all beauty to efface!
Apish—yea murderous, thus is slain
The Motherhood of man’s whole race.”

In the fourth part of the poem, Jonas Fisher and Mr Grace discuss the question of marriage with a deceased wife’s sister, and the discussion ought to be a caution to certain clerical controversialists as well as to a few lay snakes. The fifth and concluding part contains a variety of religious conversation, which will do good to all readers who are not cowards or slaves.

     (1) Jonas Fisher: a Poem in Brown and White. London: Trübner & Co.

 

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Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper (2 July, 1876 - p.7)

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The Examiner (12 August, 1876)

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The Fleshly School Controversy
Buchanan and the Press
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The Critical Response
Harriett Jay
Miscellanea

 

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