The Fleshly School of Poetry and Other Phenomena of the Day
The Bristol Mercury (4 May, 1872)
THE “FLESHLY” SCHOOL OF POETRY.—Mr. Buchanan’s long-promised pamphlet on the “Fleshly School of Poetry” has been published this week. It is bound in flesh-coloured paper, with an emblematic design by the author, representing several British flowers, pretty to the eye but offensive to the smell—such as wood-garlic and the dead nettle. Mr. Buchanan gives a rapid sketch of the moral phenomena of the day, and the following is a part of his philippic:—“Is it true, then, that English society is honeycombed and rotten? More than one form of literature says so. The smart journal says so. So does the novel of the period. So does the artistic Bohemian. For my own part I am inclined to believe (though, as I have said, on very insufficient knowledge) that true English life is infinitely purer and better than our smart writers and lady novelists imagine it to be—that the pure rose of English maidenhood still blows as brightly as ever—that, in a word, the canker lies on the surface and has not yet eaten down into the body social. How then account for the portentous symptoms which are everywhere appalling us? Thus. There is on the fringe of real English society, and chiefly, if not altogether, in London here, a sort of demi-monde, not composed, like that other in France, of simple courtesans, but men and women of indolent habits and æsthetic tastes, artists, literary persons, novel writers, actors, men of genius and men of talent, butterflies and gadflies of the human kind, leading a lazy existence from hand to mouth. These persons ‘write for the papers.’ They publish books, often at their own expense. They, some of them, have titles. They belong to clubs and they go to dinner parties. They paint pictures, sometimes good ones. They compose music, generally bad music. They lecture on art and literature to young ladies’ schools. They read Balzac, Dumas Fils, and the ‘cerebellic’ autobiographies of Goethe. They are clever, refined, interesting, able, querulous. Nothing delights them more than to tear a reputation to pieces or to diagnose the seeds of moral disease in the healthiest subjects. Their religion is called culture, their narrow-mindedness is called insight. Their portraits are sold, along with those of nude harlots and lascivious courtesans, at a shilling per head in the public streets. Two peculiarities distinguish this class of persons to a careful eye—they are as oblivious to the fact that life has a past as that the soul has a future, and they are never by any chance seen in that English society which they profess to understand so thoroughly.”
The Examiner (18 May, 1872)
MR BUCHANAN’S PAMPHLET.
The Fleshly School of Poetry and other Phenomena of the Day. By Robert Buchanan. Strahan.
It is not likely that anything Mr Buchanan says will have the smallest effect upon those whom he attacks. Mr Rossetti and Mr Swinburne will not hide their heads from his fury, or, moved by his admonitions, confess their sins in sackcloth and ashes, and burn their books in the orthodox Ephesian manner. Nor can we imagine the sale of their works being in any way affected by the same cause, unless, indeed, persecution should produce its frequent result, and enhance the value of the things persecuted. And, therefore, to attempt a defence of Mr Buchanan’s enemies is the very last thing we should think of doing.
But though ineffective in one sense, Mr Buchanan’s republication of his exploit against what he is pleased to call the “fleshly school of poetry” is very effective in another. We have been accused of being a nation of shopkeepers, and have lately been haunted with misgivings that such may be the case in some respects. The sale of Church livings, of political interests, or of national influence may not be pleasant things to think about; still such transactions have generally possessed the redeeming feature of honesty; we have known the value of what we gave, and we have received its equivalent. The reproach intended in the word shopkeeper certainly did not originally contain any idea of fraud. Latterly, however, even this consolation is beginning to slip away from us. The word shopkeeper has ceased to be invariably associated with the idea of unquestioned integrity. We have grown only too much accustomed to cunningly-dressed windows, artificial lights, substitutions of an article inferior to that which we purchased; and every one who is at all initiated into the mysteries of social economy knows that such advertisements are not the symbols of legitimate trade, that those who are attracted by them are really those who pay for them, that, though they may attract unwary and simple- minded persons, they are passed by unnoticed by all who are really experienced in business and who desire to receive good value for their outlay.
Regarded in this light, Mr Buchanan’s great advertisement is effective; for though it may, like other advertisements, ensnare the innocent and unsuspecting, to the experienced it affords a very exact means of estimating Mr Buchanan himself. What he is not he tells us very plainly; what he is may be gathered by inference. “There is,” he says, “on the fringe of real English society, and chiefly, if not altogether, in London here, a sort of demi-monde, not composed, like that other in France, of simple courtesans, but of men and women of indolent habits and æsthetic tastes, artists, literary persons, novel-writers, actors, men of genius and men of talent, butterflies and gadflies of the human kind, leading a lazy existence from hand to mouth. These persons ‘write for the papers.’ They publish books, often at their own expense. They, some of them, have titles. They belong to clubs, and they go to dinner-parties. . . . They are clever, refined, Interesting, able, querulous. Nothing delights them more than to tear a reputation to pieces, or to diagnose the seeds of moral disease in the healthiest subjects. Their religion is called culture, their narrowmindedness is called insight.” Such is Mr Buchanan’s description of his antagonists; and we are perfectly willing to take his own word for it, that he himself is the reverse of all this. Indeed, we were quite ready to be convinced, even without Mr Buchanan’s own word for it, that he is neither a man of genius nor a man of talent; that he does not publish books at his own expense; that he neither belongs to clubs nor goes to dinner-parties; that he is neither clever, refined, interesting, able, nor querulous; that his religion (and of these last items we are more sure than any) will never be called culture, nor his narrowmindedness insight.
If this, then, is what Mr Buchanan is not, it might well be asked what he is. This, we said, might be gathered by inference; and inference leads us to a conclusion by no means pleasant. It may be well for the vendor of a quack medicine to endeavour to get a market by attacking an established profession: it may be well for manufacturers of starch or of patent sauce to warn the public against all manufactures except their own—though we confess that we could easily dispense with such practices. But the spectacle of a man who professes to be a poet endeavouring to attract attention to himself by crying down the works of his contemporaries, praising his own work by implication in the contempt he seeks to cast upon the work of others, is less common, and is a spectacle which, if it became frequent, would justly lay us open to the charge of being a nation of shopkeepers, not only in the old sense of placing a monetary value on our every act, but in the new and far more degraded sense of endeavouring to make a market for inferior goods at the expense of truthfulness and self-respect. Were Mr Buchanan a poet of more assured reputation and wider fame than those two whom he chiefly attacks, his act would be disagreeable enough; were he even their equal we might be better content to let him rail at pleasure; but, having regard to the fact that by all cultivated people he is estimated as infinitely inferior to either of them, the impertinence and indelicacy of his proceeding are really intolerable. The only explanation which can be offered is that Mr Buchanan (to employ his own phrases with regard to the Elizabethan poets), not having been sufficiently admired in his generation, not having received his full of the spikenard of praise and the nard of flattery, has been compelled to have recourse to the unworthy means of paragraph advertisements (for his pamphlet is nothing else) and libels on his competitors.
We can assure Mr Buchanan, in conclusion, that if society is rotten, this pamphlet of his is much more a sign of its rottenness than would be ten times the existing taste for such poetry as he presumes to criticise. It is, no doubt, true that a too exclusive contemplation of such subjects as are treated by Mr Swinburne, is not unattended with danger; but, on the other hand, we venture to say, that even the most pronounced poem he ever wrote exhibits, to those who are capable of appreciating such things, a tragic force and an imaginative power which, far from encouraging the accession of sensual ideas, repel them and hold them in check. It would be misleading were we to quote the well-worn saying, that to the pure all things are pure; but we do say, most emphatically, that this pamphlet is a striking instance of the manner in which coarse and uncleanly minds can only extract from their environment that which is coarse and uncleanly. There may be better things in the world than flesh; but flesh that is living and beautiful is better than the same flesh after it has been subjected to the decomposing process of writers like Mr Buchanan, and in acknowledgment of his invention of the expression “fleshly poetry,” we would recommend him to consider whether there may not be such a thing as “dunghill criticism.”
The Echo (18 May, 1872)
[Note: I have not seen the original, but this was included as an appendix to the second part of D. G. Rossetti, A. C. Swinburne and R. W. Buchanan: The Fleshly School Revisited by Christopher D. Murray (Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring 1983, pp. 205-207).]
FLESHING THE FLESHLY.
They [Mr. Rossetti and Mr. Swinburne] do not quite realise that they are merely supplementing the literature of Holywell-street, and writing books well worthy of being sold under “sealed covers”. That is a comparatively mild sentence from the thick pamphlet in which Mr. Robert Buchanan has resumed the attack on what he calls “The Fleshly School of Poetry”, which he began in the Contemporary Review last October. It is a very pretty quarrel as it stands, and likely enough to break up the monotonous propriety and politeness with which English literary men have been in the habit for many years past of treating one another. In order to bear tamely the charges and insults hurled pellmell at the heads and hearts of Mr. Swinburne and Mr. Rossetti, they would really need to be the veriest aestheticised simulacra of humanity Mr. Buchanan seems to think them—‘the merest echoes—strikingly original in this—that they merely echo what is vile’. There is a stormy, and perhaps unavoidable, element of personality in Mr. Buchanan’s criticism, which touches that part of the man which is not author. Not only does this censor of contemporary morals accuse the latest of our schools of poets of sensualising the minds of their readers, but we easily gather from what he says that their “fleshliness” is, in his opinion, but a second-hand, affected passion, inspired by the study of scrofulous French literature and our own all but forgotten amatory poets. Mr. Buchanan classes the “St. John’s-wood poetry” as he sarcastically designates the productions of this school, with other phenomena of the day—such as the journals extinguished by prosecutions, and the demi-monde, but wholly indecent, photographs exposed in the windows of certain London shops. We are threatened, Mr. Buchanan thinks, with an outburst of sensuality, and he wishes to warn us of our danger. As yet the disease is local, and restricted within a very narrow range. English society is still sound at the core, but an attempt is being made to undermine it, and Mr. Rossetti is the leader of a party of sappers to whom nothing is sacred, who are bent in compassing the moral ruin of their country. It would seem that the mischief all emanated from a heterogeneous body of conspirators, having their head-quarters in London, who are described as “a sort of demi-monde, not composed, like that other in France, of simple courtesans, but of men and women of indolent habits and aesthetic tastes, artists, literary persons, novel writers, actors, men of genius, and men of talent, &c.” Of the existence of this secret society we have hitherto been entirely ignorant, and we are sure we are by no means singular in this respect. The probability is, that Mr. Buchanan has conjured up this “sensual super-sensualist” community out of his own imagination. There are unmistakable symptoms of “fleshliness” abroad, in abundance, no doubt, but it is grossly extravagant to speak of the phenomenon as converting “this great City into a great Sodom or Gomorrah, waiting for doom”. Things are surely mot come to this pass, else we should probably have had a prophet of heavier calibre sent to us than Mr. Buchanan.
Of the historical and purely literary portion of Mr. Buchanan’s criticism of Mr. Rossetti’s poetry, we shall say nothing further at present than that it is uninstructed as well as unjust. But without doubt he has partially proved the moral and more serious count of the indictment he has drawn up against the latest school of English poets. In doing so, however, Mr. Buchanan has been unnecessarily offensive, and the effect of his strictures will be seriously counteracted by the opposition which his rudeness and violence of manner will excite. Besides, every reader of Mr. Rossetti’s poems will feel that the passages quoted by Mr. Buchanan produce a grosser and more exclusively sensual impression in the setting of his pamphlet than they do in their original context. If the originals were justly liable to be censured as sensual, many of them become absolutely filthy in Mr. Buchanan’s handling. It is extremely difficult, we acknowledge, to touch on subjects of this kind without infringing some rule of good taste, but Mr. Rossetti’s critic has not exercised ordinary self-restraint and caution. In explaining the reason why, in his opinion, Mr. Rossetti has, up to the present, escaped censure, while Mr. Swinburne has been all along severely chastised, Mr. Buchanan says it would appear that “a poet who describes sensual details may do so with impunity if he labels” his poems discreetly, and that Mr. Rossetti in his worst poems takes the precaution to “explain that he is speaking dramatically in the character of a husband addressing his wife”. This was surely sufficiently plain and strong for all reasonable purposes, but Mr. Buchanan goes on to develop the theme in another still more pungent sentence, which, however, we shall not reproduce. One almost suspects occasionally that Mr. Buchanan relishes the denunciation of “fleshliness”, if not the “fleshliness” itself. He has certainly posted himself well up in fleshly literature, homegrown and foreign, ancient and modern, and is entitled to be regarded somewhat in the light of a martyr, if he has carefully read through all the naughty French books to which he refers, without any personal pleasure, and with a single eye to the welfare of his fellow-men.
The “phenomenon” to which Mr. Buchanan directs such pointed attention in his brochure is really, to some extent, specially characteristic of the present day. There are among us men in whom the artistic or aesthetic instinct has been morbidly developed, to the suppression of conscience and morality, but they are few and they are uninfluential. The affectation of sensual passion is not a vice that Englishmen are likely to addict themselves to. A Platonic passion for flesh is a phase of sentiment that will have but a limited and ephemeral sway on this side of the Channel.
The Athenæum (25 May, 1872 - No. 2326, p. 650-651)
The Fleshly School of Poetry. By Robert Buchanan. (Strahan & Co.)
THIS ill-advised publication calls for the recapitulation of some facts of an order which it would have been pleasanter to forget. The Contemporary Review for last October contained a peevish attack upon the work of some living poets, principally Mr. D. G. Rossetti, signed with the unknown name of Thomas Maitland. The real writer was Mr. Robert Buchanan. In our issue of December 2nd we mentioned, in connexion with this fact, our belief that an answer by another hand was preparing for the same Review. The gentleman who had been asked to undertake this task, and whom we credited with the intention of performing it, wrote in our next issue to disclaim such purpose. In the number for December 16, Mr. Buchanan wrote as follows:—“I certainly wrote the article on ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry,’ but I had nothing to do with the signature. Mr. Strahan, the publisher of the Contemporary Review, can corroborate me thus far, as he is best aware of the inadvertence which led to the suppression of my name.” In the same column appeared Mr. Strahan, and “corroborated” thus:—“You associate the name of Mr. Robert Buchanan with the article ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry,’ by Thomas Maitland. 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.” The critic and his publisher had not, it seemed, concerted their testimony as skilfully as the case demanded. Mr. Strahan subsequently wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette, complaining that the simultaneous appearance of the above explanations had made him look ridiculous, and further avouching that pseudonyms were not unknown in the Contemporary Review, and that it was he, the publisher and not the writer, who had chosen this particular one. The real fact was not mentioned, though we do not think it will be denied, that the suppression of Mr. Buchanan’s name, so far from being the result of any “inadvertence” whatever, had been due to his own express motion and desire, urgently reiterated from a distance and at the last moment. The writer was thus responsible for the concealment of his identity and its disguise with complacent allusions to himself, and for the statement in our columns that that concealment had been the result of “inadvertence.” The publisher was responsible for the substitution of the name Thomas Maitland, and for a variety of observations, of which the above, declaring any other Robert as proper to be named author of the attack as the Robert who wrote it, is a somewhat extreme example. The whole transaction was of that character which one is ashamed to be compelled to denounce, and which is fortunately rare in modern literature.
For Mr. Buchanan’s sake, we had hoped that his avowed intention of republishing in his own name—a bravado natural in the first smart of exposure—would have been relinquished on reflection, since it was plain that no compulsory acknowledgment could redeem the original evasion. Not so, however; and we have before us his unfortunate outburst expanded with new matter, of a kind even more injurious to his reputation than the old. On the wrapper of his pamphlet appears a catalogue of baneful flowers from ‘The Whip for White Wantons’: that which a Clown speaks Mr. Buchanan applies; and he has it illustrated with a botanical woodcut of dead nettles and nightshades (signifying those writers whose success he cannot school himself to brook without hysterics). There is something pathetic in the way in which his Preface entreats attention to what he calls the real literary question, and away from the personal one; if there is something of effrontery in his reference to his “simple explanation of the facts of the case” in our own columns, which was no explanation of them at all. And he conceives it a defence to say that “three regular contributors to the Review have habitually used pseudonyms”; as if a habitual pseudonym which everybody knows were the same thing as an alias worn once for a special occasion. Aliases so taken up and dropped again are really proper to only one class of the community. The single approach to a precedent, which he quotes, is that of Dean Mansell (usually spelt Mansel), in his contention against Mr. Mill. In the sequel it seems as if Mr. Buchanan meant to stun the ears of the public with strong language; he shrieks and foams; but in his Preface he keeps comparatively within bounds, merely crying “coward,” “ Mohawk,” “querulous and humorsome,” against every one whose eyes are open to the fact that the significant part of his performance is not its matter, but the circumstances of its authorship and publication; asseverating that the mask was assumed “for the best of all motives,” and that it was his modesty (Mr. Robert Buchanan’s modesty) which made him cast Hamlet with himself in the part of Cornelius.
This critic would have done well to practise the sour virtue of contrition instead of returning to his unlucky cue. Some of the shifts to which he is driven in the vindication and substantiation of his charges would be entertaining enough, if only the writer could stop short of intolerable grossness. Will it be believed of Mr. Buchanan that he represents himself as coming up, fresh from a cruise in the Hebrides, to the “great centre which men call London”—ranging, as it seems, the purlieus of Leicester Square or Wych Street, nosing out with a wonderful instinct, in photographer’s windows and elsewhere, all the symptoms of that which he finely calls the “Leg-Disease,” and coming forth to describe them in the interests of public morality with a vocabulary of astonishing force and relish? He constitutes himself censor morum, declares Sensualism the sin of the age and more particularly of London, and includes the poetry of the school which he has dubbed fleshly (with an evident notion of having achieved immortality by the epithet) among the instruments of sensualism, together with the criticism which approves that poetry, with theatrical photographs and scandalous newspapers. The idea is spirited, but damages itself, like too many of Mr. Buchanan’s ideas, by extravagance and want of nuance. His next inspiration we do not quite understand, nor the metaphor in which it is expressed. There exists, it appears, “a Bohemian fringe of society,” of which the members “belong to clubs and go to dinner parties,” “publish books, sometimes at their own expense,” and commit other enormities: this “fringe,” we learn, is the “seat of a cancer,” which must be “destroyed with a terrible caustic.” Sensualism is the cancer, Mr. Buchanan seems the terrible caustic destined to destroy it. We do not recognize, in the somewhat broad traits of the description, any known phase or existing section of society; but there is no harm in granting it a hypothetical existence till the remedy shall have worked. Next, we find that Mr. Buchanan has been reading Baudelaire, and guessing about the Italian poets, in order to fortify his indictment with new matter. What he says about Baudelaire is what everybody knows, with the exception of some original spelling, and much indiscriminating exaggeration: what he says about Italian poetry is what nobody but himself has dreamt of; that is to say, that he has heard of the multifarious Italian schools of trivial imitative sonnetteering and conceit- writing, and how those schools had at various times a sophisticating influence on English verse; and he has got it into his head that the influence of Dante and his associate poets upon Mr. Rossetti and his—that the perfectly sincere and passionate sympathy of the modern artists with some equally sincere and passionate mediæval, and especially Italian mediæval, modes of thought—can rationally be compared with that. Mr. Buchanan shows both heat of temper enough, and, dullness of perception enough, for such a preposterous interpretation to be accountable in him on either score. He lumps all sorts of disparates together into a general mass of “miasmic” influence, which, with increment from Baudelaire and the modern Parisians, he declares to be the inspiration of the “fleshly” school. The English poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, from whom he quotes in the course of this precious historical summary, he really does know something of, having, it would seem, a good memory for their coarser improprieties; but he is obliged to throw dirt at a good many justly honoured reputations among them in order to prepare the way for the adjectives he has in store for those moderns, whom they do not indeed at all resemble, but to whom he conceives it critical to compare them. When it comes to what Mr. Buchanan calls a “re-examination” of Mr. Rossetti’s ‘House of Life,’ then his objurgations have the accent of mere frenzy; then we hear about “pits of beastliness” and “sweats of animalism,” and feel that to quote such a writer further would serve him by advertising his pamphlet for a place among that literature of “pimpled clerks” which it affects to denounce.
So no more of this splenetic absurdity, of which the like has not been heard of since the days of Curll and Dennis. Do not let us, for fear of losing patience, follow the writer out of the path in which he is the more ridiculous, into that in which he is the more offensive. Not only Mr. Tennyson, but many other of the names that should be most sacred, come in at his hands for that kind of eulogy which is insult. If Mr. Buchanan wishes for no worse fate than pity, let him avoid fulsomeness, and stick to denunciation. Then he is sure to command at least compassion by the droll helplessness of his petulance. A terrible caustic must be hard up when he thinks it sharp to say of Mr. William Rossetti that perhaps “he will be known to bibliographers as the editor of the worst edition of Shelley which has yet seen the light”; and to return again and again to his childish assumption that the poetry which is his aversion, has been studied with pleasure, and spoken of with admiration, by none but the personal friends of the writers. We fear that Mr. Robert Buchanan himself must have malicious “friends,” who have urged him to the amplification and republication of this ill-omened piece. How else explain the exquisite blunder still standing in his text, of “Mr. Darwin's famous chapter on Palingenesis,” or the repeated reference to Baudelaire’s “Fleurs de Mal” and “Petites poëmes en Prose,” and more kindred exhibitions which we do not care to dwell upon? Mr. Buchanan tells how the miasmic influence of Italy “generated madness even as far north as Hawthornden and Edinburgh.” What influences may have generated so much foolishness even as far north as the Hebrides we cannot tell; but only that the foolishness is there, and has ended in a worthless and discreditable treatment of what might have been made a perfectly just and interesting question of criticism.
The Ladies. - A Journal of the Court, Fashion, and Society (25 May, 1872 - p.214)
THE FLESHLY SCHOOL OF POETRY, AND OTHER PHENOMENA OF THE DAY. By Robert Buchanan. Strahan & Co.
Readers of our contemporary the Athenæum will remember a correspondence between two rival poets, Mr. Rossetti and Mr. Buchanan, which enlivened the pages of that somewhat sombre periodical some few months back. The cause of quarrel was an Essay published in the Contemporary Review, entitled “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” with the signature “Thomas Maitland” affixed to it. The said Thomas Maitland was no other than Mr. Robert Buchanan, who concealed his real name, as he tells us, in order that the criticism might rest upon its own merits, and gain nothing from the name of the real writer. Mr. Rossetti declared the act to be cowardly, &c., and literary London was for some short period agog with expectation of more attacks. Mr. Buchanan has now lengthened and improved the Essay from the Contemporary Review, and presents it to the public in its present form.
In the quarrel itself we shall take no part. Mr. Rossetti will doubtless have something to say for himself anon; it is our province to review the work that Mr. Buchanan gives us, and consider whether he makes out a good primâ facie case. That he does so scarcely anyone, we are inclined to think, who has read this pamphlet will deny; that his assertions of Mr. Rossetti’s indecency in writing are correct, abundant quotations will prove, but whether it is good taste for one poet to go out of his way to sit in judgment on another, is a question that the British public will not be slow to answer.
“I have only one word to use,” says .Mr. Buchanan, “concerning the attacks upon myself. They are the inventions of cowards, too spoilt with flattery to bear criticism, and too querulous and humorsome to perceive the real issues of the case.” Mr. Buchanan, whatever his errors in taste may be; certainly writes fine poetry, and in the specimen we have before us, his prose is by no means contemptible. He has a knack of hitting straight from the shoulder, whilst the blow is none the less severe from the fact of its being delivered suddenly and unexpectedly. He does not, in excess of modesty, wrap up his words, nor does he insult a spade by providing it with an alias. He has recently discovered a new worm in the bud of English youth, and gives utterance to his feelings thus:—
“The foot and mouth disease is dreadful, but the leg-disease—though generally fatal—is egregiously absurd into the bargain. Now, to begin with, there is nothing indecent in the human leg itself; on the contrary, it is a most beautiful and useful member. Nor is it necessarily indecent to show the leg, as some ladies do upon the stage, without in the least shocking our propriety. But the leg—an excellent thing in itself—becomes insufferable if obtruded into every concern of life; so that, instead of humanity, we see a demon resembling the Manx coat-of-arms, cutting capers without a body or a head. The leg, as a disease, is subtle, secret, diabolical. Turn your eyes to the English stage. Shakspeare is demolished and lies buried under hecatombs of leg! Open the last new poem. Its title will possibly be this—or similar to this—“Leg is enough.” Walk along the streets—the shop windows teem with leg. Enter a music-hall—leg again, and (O tempora! O mores!) the can-can. Jack enjoys it down Wapping way just as Jones does in the Canterbury Hall. It is only in fashionable rooms, and in the stalls of the theatre that leg is at a discount; but that is not because life there is more innocent and modest, but because leg is in the higher circles altogether eclipsed by its two formidable rivals—bosom and back.”
So writes Mr. Buchanan, and in spite of the exaggeration, it cannot be denied there is some truth in what he says. It is no new evil, however, that the clever writer makes the object of his criticism. The fashions of to-day are no worse than those of our ancestors. If it be consolation to any captious critic, let him look through a book of old costumes, and he will see that at the beginning of this century ladies at evening parties showed considerably more of tapering ankle and silk stocking than would be considered decent in 1872; he would observe that a century ago, aye, and three centuries ago, dresses were worn as low, if not lower (Mr. Buchanan would perhaps aver that the use of the comparative degree is impossible), than those of our wives and daughters of to-day. But to return to the “Fleshly School.” Mr. Buchanan mentions three persons as its founder and chief disciples—Charles Baudelaire, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Algernon Charles Swinburne, and reviews their several works in detail. Of Baudelaire, he says: “To Poe he seems to have borne an extraordinary resemblance both in genius and character. Equally clever, affected and cold-blooded; equally incredulous of goodness and angry at philanthropy; equally self-indulgent and sensual, he lived as useless a life, died as wretched a death, and left for his legacy books even more worthless—the very dregs of his unhappy and sunless moral nature. Like Poe and Swinburne he affected innovations in verse, and sought out the most morbid themes for poetical treatment. Encouraged by Poe, he tried to surpass him on his ground—to triumph over him in the diablerie of horror. Encouraged in his turn, Mr. Swinburne has attempted to surpass Baudelaire. and to excel even that frightful artist in the representation of abnormal types of diseased lust and lustful disease.”
Scathing as the above quotation may be, it is on Mr. Rossetti that the keener edge of Mr. Buchanan’s critical tomahawk descends. “Judged relatively to his poetic associates,” says Mr. Buchanan, “Mr. Rossetti must be pronounced inferior to either. He cannot tell a pleasant story like Mr. Morris, nor forge alliterative thunderbolts like Mr. Swinburne. It must be conceded, nevertheless, that he is neither so glibly imitative as the one nor so transcendently superficial as the other.”
The above, however; is after all but negative abuse; the following is rather more to the point:—“In petticoats or pantaloons, in modern times or in the middle ages, he is just Mr. Rossetti, a fleshly person, with nothing particular to tell us or teach us, with extreme self-control, a strong sense of colour, and a most affected choice of Latin diction. Amid all his ‘affluence of jewel-coloured words,’ he has not given us one rounded or noteworthy piece of art, though his verses are all art, not one poem which is memorable for its own sake and quite separable from the displeasing identity of the composer.”
A fault, which runs through the writings of the gentlemen whom Mr. Buchanan calls the Fleshly School, the critic very properly deals with:—
“Let me ask the reader’s attention,” he writes, “to a peculiarity to which all the students of the Fleshly School must sooner or later give their attention—I mean the habit of accenting the last syllable in words which in ordinary speeches are accented on the penultimate:—
Between the hands, between the brows,
Between the eyes of Love-Lilee!”
which may be said to give to the speaker’s voice a sort of cooing tenderness just bordering on a loving whistle. Still better as an illustration are the lines:—
Saturday night is market night
Everywhere, be it dry or wet,
And market night in the Haymar-ket!
which the ready may advantageously compare with Mr. Morris’s,
Then said the king,
Thanked be thou; neither for nothing
Shalt thou do this good deed to me;
or Mr. Swinburne’s,—
In either of the twain
Red roses full of rain;
She hath for bondwomen
All kinds of flowers.
It is in all respects, he adds, a sign of remarkable genius from this point of view, to rhyme ‘was’ with ‘grass,’ ‘death’ with ‘lieth,’ ‘gain’ with ‘fountain, ‘love’ with ‘of,’ ‘once’ with ‘suns,’ and so on ad nauseam.”
Most of Mr. Buchanan’s selections of Mr. Rossetti’s sonnets we cannot quote, they are far too highly flavoured; the following lines, however, may be taken as one of the least objectionable specimens of the verses of which Mr. Buchanan complains,—
O thou who at Love’s hour ecstatically
Unto my lips dost evermore present
The body and blood of love in sacrament.
and again in Sonnet XX.,—
Her set gaze gathered, thirstier than of late, (!)
And as she kissed, her Mouth became her soul.
Fleshliness permeates avowedly religious themes, it appears, for Mr. Rossetti, writing about the Virgin Mary, exclaims, —
Mother of the Fair Delight,
Handmaid perfect in God’s sight
Now sitting fourth beside the three,
Thyself a woman—Trinity,
Being a daughter born to God,
Mother of Christ from stall to rood,
And wife unto the Holy Ghost !!
We have quoted sufficiently to give the reader an idea of Mr. Buchanan’s terse and forcible style. “The Fleshly School of Poetry” is intensely interesting and eminently readable, startling us as it does occasionally with revelations of fresh pitfalls ready to engulf the youth of England. Mr. Buchanan’s little volume will afford talk at dinner tables for some time to come.
The Saturday Review (1 June, 1872)
MR. BUCHANAN AND THE FLESHLY POETS.*
SOME months ago an article on what was called the “Fleshly School of Poets” appeared in one of the magazines. It purported to be written by “Thomas Maitland,” a name previously unknown to literature, and handled very severely the poetical compositions of Mr. Rossetti and Mr. Swinburne. It was afterwards discovered that “Thomas Maitland” was in reality Mr. Robert Buchanan, and Mr. Rossetti and his friends protested indignantly against the unfairness of one writer of poetry disguising himself, like a bravo in slouched beaver and muffled cloak, in order to attack his more successful rivals, and indirectly, if not directly, to praise himself. For “Thomas Maitland” referred to Mr. Buchanan by name, and accused Mr. Rossetti of borrowing ideas from his verses. The controversy sputtered hotly for a week or two and then went out. The personal question at issue seems to us to be a very small one, and it is a pity it should not be forgotten. But as Mr. Buchanan has thought it worth while to trouble the public with it once more, and as he seems to be still unable to comprehend his own or his editor’s error in the matter, we will say just one word about it. Mr. Buchanan explains that the alias was affixed to the essay “in order that the criticism might rest upon its own merits, and gain nothing from the name of the real writer.” The answer to this is, we think, that under the circumstances the article would not have gained by the name of the writer being frankly avowed. In the form in which it was published it professed to be a candid estimate of a particular school of poetry by an independent and impartial writer. If it had been known that it was in reality one poet decrying the works of his rivals in business, its impartiality would at once have been suspected. We are speaking now, of course, of the effect of the article on what is called “the general reader,” who is not supposed to be in a position to weigh criticism to much purpose for himself, and who, coming across a critic whom he believes to be unprejudiced and disinterested, is disposed to accept his judgment accordingly, but who would be put on his guard if he knew that there was, or might be, a professional animus lurking under the affectation of judicial candour. In the old romances we occasionally read of a knight of tremendous prowess and overpowering reputation, who found it necessary, in order not to alarm antagonists too much, to enter the lists with closed vizor and borrowed shield; but Mr. Buchanan is hardly a combatant of this description. There is no reason to suppose that his name carries with it an oracular authority which would be fatal to the free exercise of private judgment; and, on the other hand, it is conceivable that the general reader would appreciate the necessity of examining his dicta more cautiously when aware of the peculiar relations of the critic to the objects of his criticism. At the same time, as we said before, the question is really a very small one; and it might have been more dignified on the part of Mr. Rossetti and his admirers to deal with Mr. Buchanan’s essay on its merits, if they thought it worth while to take notice of it at all. But it is characteristic of a sect or coterie to resent criticism as in itself an outrage, and to assume, with or without reason, that it can only spring from personal malevolence.
There is a good deal to be said about the unwholesomeness not only of Mr. Rossetti’s and Mr. Swinburne’s poetry, but of the atmosphere of mutual admiration in which they and their associates appear to live and move and have their being, and which is destructive, not only of healthy vigour, but of some of the best impulses of art. But, apart from the question of Mr. Buchanan’s good taste in putting himself forward as advocatus diaboli, it may be doubted whether he has shown himself capable of doing justice to his case. He has now republished his essay in a revised and expanded form; but, unfortunately, the flippancy, the arrogance, and the distemper of the original article still remain. The impression with which one rises from the perusal of this pamphlet is that the writer must be suffering from a morbidly quick and sensitive perception of unsavoury suggestions. He seems to be continually sniffing for nastiness, and sometimes we cannot help thinking that his imagination detects odours which no one else would perceive. Mr. Buchanan would appear not to have cultivated with much success the poet’s faculty of looking at the best and purest side of things. He begins by telling us how, coming up to town from a remote retreat in the Highlands, he looked about to see “all that a man with eyes can see.” What had most impressed him in former years were such things as these:—“The fatuous imbecility and superficiality of the moneyed vulgar,” “the shapeless ugliness of women who feed high and take no exercise,” and so on. But now he is fascinated by a horrid thing which threatens and paralyses him. He sees it on every side—in the street, on the stage, in books, on canvas. It is, he goes on to tell us, Legs. There is a well-known form of disease in which the patient is pursued by beetles or snakes, or other nasty things, always swarming before his eyes, on the floor, the walls, the roof. Mr. Buchanan is haunted by legs. He has sought refuge, it would seem, in sweet-stuff shops as the most innocent places he could think of; but even there, in defiance of the debetur pueris, “among the commoner sorts of confectionery may be seen this year models of the female leg, the whole”—but here Mr. Buchanan goes into details which we prefer to leave in his own pages. There is, he allows, nothing to be said against legs in themselves and in their proper sphere, but he protests against their being “obtruded into every concern of life,” and he objects especially to legs in sugar. It is only in “the higher circles” that Mr. Buchanan escapes from this distressing exhibition; but still his uneasy modesty finds no relief; for although he sees no legs in the drawing-room he is confronted with other sights which make him long to borrow Tartuffe’s handkerchief. We are not prepared to defend all the eccentricities of what ladies call full dress, and it is impossible to deny that an unpleasant taint of sensualism is observable in various branches of literature and art. But we certainly pity the state of mind of any one whose modesty is outraged every time he goes to an evening party, and who is put to the blush by the voluptuous images of children’s sweet-stuff. We are surprised that Mr. Buchanan does not see that in making these confessions he exposes himself to an obvious retort from Mr. Rossetti and his friends. To the pure in spirit all things are pure, but Mr. Buchanan’s purity is of that uncomfortable kind which is constantly detecting unclean and lascivious suggestions in the most unlikely quarters.
Mr. Buchanan intimates that he at one time thought of treating the Leg-disease in its relation to painting, music, literature, the theatre, and society at large; but he reserves this great work for a future occasion. For the present he is content to deal with sensualism only in so far as it affects contemporary poetry. On reflection Mr. Buchanan may perhaps be disposed to postpone indefinitely the publication of his magnum opus. If we may judge from the present example, it may be doubted whether his mode of treatment is not on the whole rather worse than the disease to which it is applied. We have heard of a well-known prelate delivering a sermon on the weaknesses of the flesh for the edification of a militia regiment, which from its suggestive warmth of tone produced an effect the very reverse of that intended. We are afraid Mr. Buchanan has fallen into a similar error. He has no difficulty in showing that there is a great deal of wanton nastiness in Mr. Swinburne’s early poems, and that Mr. Rossetti’s writings also contain passages of a highly offensive kind. It has been suggested that Mr. Swinburne has been overwhelmed with moral reprobation on account of his free-love heresies, while Mr. Rossetti conciliates conventional propriety by confining himself to nuptial confidences, and practising his erotic pranks under a certificate from Doctors’ Commons. For our own part we think the old-fashioned notions are the best, and that there are some subjects which poets and artists had better let alone, or which, at least, they are justified in touching only when they have a distinct and important moral purpose in view, and not mere dalliance and sport. Honest plainspeaking is an excellent thing in its way, and possibly the world might be better for a little more of it. But honest plainness of speech is not the characteristic of the Fleshly School, any more than simple straightforwardness of thought. It is their sickly self-consciousness, their emasculated delight in brooding over and toying with matters which healthy, manly men put out of their thoughts, not by an effort, but unconsciously, by a natural and wholesome instinct—it is, in short, their utter unmanliness which is at once so disgusting, and, so far as they exercise any influence, so mischievous. And on the whole we are not sure that Mr. Rossetti’s poetry is not more mischievous in its way than Mr. Swinburne’s. In the latter there is at times a fitful breeziness from out-of-doors, while with Mr. Rossetti the shutters seem to be always closed, the blinds down, there are candles for sunshine, and the atmosphere is of a close heavy kind that reminds one alternately of the sick-room and the conservatory, so that one longs, even in the midst of genuine admiration for so much artistic subtlety, to fling open a window and let in some honest daylight and some good fresh air. At the same time, while there is, as we think, much that is unhealthy in the author of the “Blessed Damozel” as well as in the author of “Dolores” and “Anactorea,” the most objectionable of their writings necessarily appear far worse when carefully extracted and served up by themselves, as in Mr. Buchanan’s pamphlet, than in their original form. A reader who was not sharply on the look-out for such things might pass over not a few of them in a book without detecting the evil meanings which Mr. Buchanan has exerted himself to make quite plain; while other passages of which probably no one could mistake the purport look even more repulsive when detached from the context. In some of the expurgated editions of the classics the naughty passages used to be collected into supplements, where any one with a taste that way could find them at once without the trouble of searching for them; and Mr. Buchanan’s brochure is a handy catalogue of a similar kind. We certainly cannot recommend it for general perusal. Even Baudelaire, we should imagine, must be less harmful in the original than when his foulness is condensed, pointed, italicized, and generally elucidated by Mr. Buchanan’s prurient ingenuity. There is much autobiographical matter in the pamphlet which can hardly be said to have any present value. Some day perhaps it may be interesting to the world to know that Mr. Buchanan relishes Walt Whitman, that he “beguiles many an hour, when snug at anchor in some lovely Highland loch,” with Paul de Kock, and that generally he is well up in salacious literature, and not at all a purist. To some there may seem to be an inconsistency in any one who enjoys Walt Whitman being shocked by Mr. Rossetti, and put to the blush by the latest fashion in lollipops whenever he enters a confectioner’s shop. There is unhappily a spreading taint of sensualism, which may be traced in various directions at the present moment, but it may be seriously doubted whether such productions as this pamphlet are not calculated rather to minister to than to check it.
* The Fleshly School of Poetry and other Phenomena of the Day. By Robert Buchanan. London: Strahan & Co.
The Aberdeen Journal (5 June, 1872 - p.6)
NOTES ON LITERATURE, SCIENCE, AND ART.
IN compliance with a promise made some weeks ago, we propose to comment very briefly on Mr Robert Buchanan’s pamphlet on the “Fleshly School of Poetry,” just published by Messrs Strahan. The nucleus of the pamphlet appeared in the Contemporary for October, under the pseudonym of “Thomas Maitland.” When it became known that Mr Buchanan was the writer, severe remarks were passed on the author’s cowardice in not signing his own name to an article containing charges so grave. Stung by these, Mr Buchanan avowed his intention of returning to the charge in an extended and separate publication of his paper. His intention he has now carried out in the small pamphlet before us. The impression left by a perusal is that it can hardly fail to injure seriously the reputation both of Mr Buchanan and the poets he censures. No one, we think, can read the extracts made (no doubt often unfairly) by Mr Buchanan, without seeing that there is something radically wrong both with the aesthetics and the morality of the school he censures. At the same time, Mr Buchanan’s own remarks will hardly help to produce the result he aims at. The persistent animosity with which Mr Rossetti is treated is susceptible only of one explanation; many of the statements made are in the last degree spiteful and vulgar; the treatment of the whole subject is gratuitously unclean; and so much has personal feeling destroyed Mr Buchanan’s perception, that he is apparently quite unable to see when he is unfair. Of this we give one example—not because it is the best—but because it has not been previously published. In his Contemporary article, Mr Buchanan said that his judgment on Mr Rossetti was substantially that of the North American Reviewer, “who believes that . . . . ‘he is so affected, sentimental, and painfully self-conscious, that the best to be done in his case is to hope, that this book of his, having unpacked his bosom of so much that is unhealthy, may have done him more good than it had given others pleasure.’” What the reviewer (no less a critic than, Mr Lowell) said, was that he had been inclined to pass this judgment, going on to add—“Of course to say so would be to speak far too harshly, and would convey a false impression.” This was pointed out to Mr Buchanan, and in the reissue of his article he condescends to add the following note. “It is only fair to add that the reviewer merely gives this as the judgment he was inclined to pronounce, only that to say so in so many words might lead to the misconception that Mr Rossetti had no literary merit whatever.” Before quitting the subject, we are glad to see the reference to the Spasmodic School at p. 15, one of several signs that the reputation of that school is advancing.. Some critic anxious for fame might do worse than publish a pamphlet defending their claims to admiration, and supporting them by well chosen extracts.
The Graphic (29 June, 1872)
We are the more forcibly impressed by the possibility of such treatment, after reading “The Fleshly School of Poetry, and other Phenomena of the Day,” by Robert Buchanan (Strahan), in which there is, to our thinking, more objectionable stuff than in anything we have seen lately. The pamphlet is an amplification of the magazine article by which the writer made himself slightly conspicuous some time ago. It is almost a pity that he was found out, as there is undoubtedly room for wise and thoughtful admonition to some of our modern poets, and failing such a warning, even the remarks of “Thomas Maitland” might have been of some use; but who will regard the dicta of a man who can find “a radically absurd line of thought” in the “Vita Nuova,” who calls Gower a “nonsense-writer,” sneers at Surrey, Wyatt, Carew, Drummond of Hawthornden, and Suckling; pretends to detect indecency in one of Crashaw’s most beautiful religious poems, and winds up his precious dissertation by a eulogium on Walt. Whitman and—Paul de Kock. As Touching the value of his criticism in other matters pertaining to poetry, we may mention that Mr. Buchanan seems to think that rhyme depends entirely upon identity of accent, and that he objects to burdens in songs! We wonder if he ever read any Scottish ballads! Of what the author has to say respecting Mr. Rossetti it is not our purpose to speak; there is, as we have already said, some truth in his strictures, but its value is almost negatived when it is put forward by one who cannot find “one single note of sorrow” (sic.) in “The Blessed Damozel,” and who can find any impurity in “Willow-wood.”
The Morning Post (19 August, 1872 - p.3)
THE FLESHLY SCHOOL OF POETRY.*
Envy is eternal, and is known to exist in all grades of men. Themistocles said that the trophies of Miltiades would not allow him to sleep, and the old Greek myth tells that Theseus was jealous of the exploits of Hercules. Whether this ignoble feeling of envy has been rankling in the breast of Mr. Robert Buchanan, or whether he was prompted to write his pamphlet, “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” through an honest hatred of that sensualism and impurity which he detects in the pages of his successful contemporaries—Rosetti and Swinburne—it is not in the province of criticism to decide. We deal simply with the fact of the production of the pamphlet and the subject-matter embodied in it. Beyond a limited circle probably its existence is little known. Its genesis is as follows:—In October last an article reflecting warmly on the poems of Swinburne and Rosetti appeared in the pages of the Contemporary Review under the signature of “Thomas Maitland,” the writer being Mr. Robert Buchanan, then, as he tells us in his preface, pleasantly occupied “yachting among the Scottish Hebrides.” The poets attacked were roused into angry retort, and described their rival’s criticism as the “malicious and cowardly work of a poet afraid to strike in broad day or under his real name.” Mr. Buchanan denied the charge in toto, and declares himself persecuted by a “clique of literary Mohawks.” Various and many “paper bullets of the brain” went whizzing between the antagonists, and the issue of the present pamphlet is a token of the stability of their quarrel. Mr. Buchanan is not content with imputing animalism and grossness to the bards of the day, but he makes a sweeping and compendious charge against general society. He is haunted like a demoniac of old by “a phenomenon so strange and striking that to a superstitious mind it might seem a portent, and so hideous that it converts this great city of civilisation into a great Sodom or Gomorrah waiting for doom.” On the drawing-room table, on the counter of the bookseller, in the street, in the last new novel, and in the latest poem, “the horrid thing, shamelessly naked, and dangerously fair,” is to be found, and to be shunned. Fortunately for society Mr. Robert Buchanan makes candid confession, and admits his ignorance of English polite society, and therefore his inability to “say whether or not the terrible impeachment is based on a careful study of facts.” It is difficult to form any clear conception of this monstrosity, which, vampire-like, is draining all the wholesome blood of English life, for Mr. Buchanan calls it alternately a Snake and a Leg. To account for the appearance and growth of this “horrid thing,” Mr. Buchanan has written some paragraphs so strangely illogical and inconsistent as amply to testify to the immaturity and defective judgment of his pamphlet. “There is on the fringe of real English society,” he tells us, “and chiefly, if not altogether, in London here, a sort of demi-monde, not composed, like that other in France, of simple courtesans, but men and women of indolent habits and æsthetic tastes, artists, literary persons, novel writers, actors, men of genius, and men of talent, butterflies and gadflies of the human kind, leading a lazy existence from hand to mouth. These persons ‘write for the papers,’ they publish books, often at their own expense; they, some of them, have titles; they belong to clubs and they go to dinner parties. They paint pictures, sometimes good ones. They compose music, generally bad music. They lecture on art and literature to young ladies’ schools. They read Balzac, Dumas fils, and the ‘cerebellic’ autobiographies of Goethe. They are clever, refined, interesting, able, querulous. Nothing delights them more than to tear a reputation to pieces or to diagnose the seeds of moral disease in the healthiest subjects. Their religion is called culture, their narrow-mindedness is called insight. Their portraits are sold, along with those of nude harlots and lascivious courtesans at a shilling per head in the public streets. Two peculiarities distinguish this class of persons to a careful eye. They are so oblivious to the fact that life has a past as that the soul has a future, and they are never by any chance seen in that English society which they profess to understand so thoroughly.” The envious satire of these lines is as apparent as their coarse expression, hackneyed antithesis, and bad taste. It becomes Mr. Buchanan very badly to sneer at men who “write for the papers,” and publish books at their own expense. When society shuts its door in the face of artists and novelists who are “men of genius” belonging to clubs and giving good dinner parties, we may accept the critical canons of Mr. Buchanan as discriminating and candid. But his jealousy has led captive his judgment, hence the strange jumble of ideas and words, expressed indelicately and in tres mauvais ton. Mr. Buchanan should have borne the couplet of Pope ever in mind—
“Let such teach others who themselves excel,
And censure freely who have written well,”
and when censuring Rosetti and others for impurity of thought and expression have most scrupulously avoided all metaphor and language which could possibly offend the ear of the most fastidious. His censure of Baudelaire is just and merited. A lewd, unprincipled poet, who delighted in foul orgies and poems full of detestable trash, is at all times a fit subject for severe castigation. The foulness of his thoughts and words are always offensively obvious. But the lines of Mr. Rosetti are made by Mr. Buchanan in too many instances to bear an indelicacy of meaning not native to them. They are unwholesome and indecent very often just in proportion to the unwholesomeness and indecency of the reader’s imagination. Swift wittily said that “a nice man” was “a man of nasty ideas.” If Mr. Robert Buchanan has that intense dislike of impurity and sensuous imagery which he claims credit for, the present pamphlet, wherein he quotes lines and imagery which he carefully selects as specimens of impurity, is surely a bad testimony against himself. And his pamphlet is redolent with a license of phrase singularly inconsistent with that delicacy which he desires to find in the writings of others. He characterises Sonnets xii. to xx. as “one profuse sweat of animalism,” and permits himself a paltry and ribald joke about “Love’s cross-birth.” The squabbles of authors, especially poets, disfigure many a page of out literary history, and disgrace a divine art which has given joy and consolation to millions. “The Fleshly School of Poetry” is certain to provoke reprisals, just as the hasty word of an angry man provokes angry words, intensifying in bitterness with the duration of the contest. How much more desirable is the spirit of the paragraph we here quote, trusting that the rivals will seek reconciliation and shun further wordy warfare:—“I believe that both Mr. Swinburne and Mr. Rosetti are honest men, pure according to their lights, loving what is beautiful, conscientiously following what inspiration lies within them.”
* The Fleshly School of Poetry, By Robert Buchanan. London: Strahan and Co.
The Galaxy (Vol. 14, Issue 3, September 1872 - p. 421-423)
“THE FLESHLY SCHOOL OF POETRY,” By Robert Buchanan. London: Strahan.
The literary career of Mr. Robert Buchanan has certainly not been lacking in variety, nor has his choice of themes been so limited as to afford distress to those who delight in myriad-minded men. He has depicted with some success the simple life of the Scottish peasantry; he has made friendly calls, in the search for poetical subjects, upon the heroes of Norseland; he has dabbled in the “purely antique”; and when other topics have failed, he has printed some new panegyric of his friend David Gray, a young poet of some promise, who, because be was poor, poetical, and consumptive, has always been lauded by Mr. Buchanan as a second Keats. Scarcely had Napoleon reached Chiselhurst before the versatile Scotchman published a poem about the Man of Sedan, which was hastily written and hurriedly published while the author’s mind was in mortal dread lest he be anticipated in so good a subject; and now, when “Napoleon Fallen” has faded into the obscurity enjoyed by its illustrious hero, Mr. Buchanan has turned his attention to Swinburne, Morris, Rossetti, and their companions, to whose literary castigation the present volume is devoted.
Mr. Buchanan is right in supposing that a new poetical school has arisen, and one of sufficient prominence to attract the careful attention of critics. To be sure, the old “pre-Raphaelite” movement among the artists of London has now become a rather tiresome topic, nor have its effects upon art been as marked as was once hoped. The general public dimly suspects, perhaps, that the socialistic fellows, who in the days of the “Germ” were about to revolutionize art, had no very clear idea of their object or of the means of its attainment, and that they accordingly took refuge in slouch hats, big beards, and lofty observations about King Arthur, “meres,” “wolds,” “ emprise,” etc. And thus, like our own Transcendentalists, the members of the “P. R. B.” shortly found themselves without much common sympathy and without any marked success, either as iconoclasts or reformers.
But despite their partial failure, they have, like their New England prototypes, exerted a very marked and probably permanent influence upon literature. Mr. Swinburne is unlike Mr. Rossetti; Mr. Morris is still more widely removed from Mr. Swinburne; while among the minor bards Philip Bourke Marston and John Payne do not adopt the precise literary methods of Mr. O’Shaughnessy, who has apparently studied Baudelaire with something of the diligence devoted by Swinburne to Victor Hugo and Walter Savage Landor. And yet these authors have many points in common—a love of the mediæval and antique, a straightforward simplicity of diction, a deliberate hatred of philosophizers and preachers in verse, and an undisguised fondness for splashes of color and threads of music; so that it becomes far easier to class them together as a separate guild in literature than to unite poets so dissimilar as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, or even dramatists so closely resembling each other as Beaumont, Fletcher, Ford, and Massinger.
Against this whole company Mr. Buchanan wages bitter war. His essay, which first appeared under an assumed name in the “Contemporary Review,” and gave rise to some unpleasant equivocations on the part of his publishers, would naturally demand attention simply as a poet’s criticism upon his contemporaries; but since Mr. Buchanan’s attacks are based upon grounds of morality and literary ethics, it becomes still more necessary to give them consideration. Mr. Buchanan’s criticisms are more especially directed against Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but include the other poets as well; and he charges Rossetti and Swinburne with a deliberate choice of the worst subjects and an objectionable treatment of them, asserting that their books are so disfigured throughout by a glamour of impropriety, as to be wholly indefensible and dangerous. Besides this, he thinks that his rivals have made unnecessary attempts to revive and popularize an antiquated and useless poetical style.
In defence of these charges, which are certainly sufficiently serious to warrant the trouble, Mr. Buchanan applies himself to the work of hunting up objectionable passages in the books of his fellow poets, and succeeds in discovering certain lines to which, aided by his annotations, an objectionable meaning can be attached; and, besides these, he prints other excerpts which are unquestionably indelicate. Having accomplished this congenial task, Mr. Buchanan imagines his work completed, without reflecting that a much larger collection could be made from Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Marlowe, to say nothing of Byron, Shelley, and Moore, authors whom he would not wish to banish from our libraries. That the literary tastes of the present day are different from those of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is very true; but that Rossetti and the rest have written, in our time, books similar in moral tone to those of Congreve, Wycherley, or Mrs. Behn, is not true.
The simple fact is, as Mr. Swinburne urged six years ago, that nearly all of his own and Mr. Rossetti’s poems are dramatic in character, and that their authors are no more responsible for the sentiments of their men and women than Shakespeare for Shylock, Marlowe for Dr. Faustus, or Milton for Satan. The controversy thus returns to questions which have been frequently discussed before, and to a line of argument which, years ago, made Byron responsible alike for the inconsistent characters of Don Juan and Childe Harold, and which to-day endeavors to discover in the hero of the last novel the true sentiments and character of its author. Mr. Rossetti’s “Jenny,” for instance, is no whit more objectionable than Mr. Buchanan’s own “Liz”; but the latter gentleman would hardly care to be held responsible for the ideas held by his heroine, or to be accused of searching for subjects in the slums of London, while the good qualities of the aristocratic neighbors of St. James’s Park yet remained unsung.
We will not speak of the singular lack of taste which led Mr. Buchanan to make, originally under an assumed name, a bitter and partisan attack upon poets whose literary position, whose artistic faithfulness, and whose quiet isolation entitled them to fairer treatment. Mr. Buchanan, indeed, is not above the suspicion of having initiated in his own writings the very men at whose immodesty he is now greatly shocked; and it was with some idea of his own position, probably, that among the authors flayed in his first masked attack, signed “Thomas Maitland,” was Mr. Robert Buchanan himself. That his essay, with its innuendoes and its forced catalogue of isolated quotations, will render service to literature or to his own reputation, can well be doubted; and its publication is, to say the least, singularly unfortunate.
Back to The Fleshly School of Poetry and Other Phenomena of the Day - Contents
or Reviews, Bibliography, Essays or The Fleshly School Controversy