ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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Under The Microscope by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Reviews

 

The Examiner (6 July, 1872)

MR SWINBURNE AMONG THE FLEAS.

Under the Microscope. By Algernon Charles Swinburne. D. White.

     Mr Swinburne gives further proof of his skill in the writing of prose, but he will not otherwise enhance his reputation, by this pamphlet. Mr Alfred Austin and Mr Robert Buchanan, the writers in the Quarterly Review and other periodicals who have attacked him and his fellow-poets, Mr Rossetti and Mr Morris, may be, as he says, no better than “the parasites that leap or creep about the place of rest or unrest” of a traveller lying in a strange and dirty bed; and he may be right in thinking that “the lodger in the house of art or literature who for once may wish to utilize his waste moments must not scorn to pay some passing attention to the critical tribe.” But, if so, he has not pursued his studies with sufficient calmness; nor is there much profit in the way in which he has chosen to make them known to the world. His own prefatory words condemn him. “If the traveller,” he says, “be a man of truly scientific mind, he will be careful to let no sense of irritation impair the value and accuracy of his research. Such evidence of sensitiveness or suffering would not indeed imply that he thought otherwise or more highly of these than of other parasites; it is but a nameless thing after all, unmentionable as well as anonymous, that has pierced his skin if it be really pierced, or inflamed his blood if it be indeed inflamed; but those are the best travellers whose natures are not made of such penetrable or inflammable stuff.” Unfortunately, Mr Swinburne shows that he has been very severely bitten, and instead of resolving that he will lie no more in such beds as fleas are likely to haunt, or, if he chooses to do so, that he will submit meekly to so much of their plaguing as he cannot avoid, he catches one or two of them, and one in particular, puts then “under the microscope,” and then describes them in language worthy of an elephant or a jabber-wock. Assuming that Mr Buchanan is to Mr Swinburne as a flea to a man of science, how highly will the flea be complimented at being painted in such words as  these!

Well may this incomparable critic, this unique and sovereign arbiter of thought and letters ancient and modern, remark with compassion and condemnation how inevitably a training in Grecian literature must tend to “emasculate” the student so trained: and well may we congratulate ourselves that no such process as robbed of all strength and manhood the intelligence of Milton has had power to impair the virility of Mr Buchanan’s robust and masculine genius. To that strong and severe figure we turn from the sexless and nerveless company of shrill-voiced singers who share with Milton the curse of enforced effeminacy; from the pitiful soprano notes of such dubious creatures as Marlowe, Jonson, Chapman, Gray, Coleridge, Shelley, Landor, “cum semiviro comitatu,” we avert our ears to catch the higher and manlier harmonies of a poet with all his natural parts and powers complete. For truly, if love or knowledge of ancient art and wisdom be the sure mark of “emasculation,” and the absence of any taint of such love or any tincture of such knowledge (as then in consistency it must be) the supreme sign of perfect manhood, Mr. Robert Buchanan should be amply competent to renew the thirteenth labour of Hercules.

“One would not be a young maid in his way
For more than blushing comes to.”

Nevertheless, in a country where (as Mr Carlyle says in his essay on Diderot) indecent exposure is an offence cognisable at police-offices, it might have been as well for him to uncover with less immodest publicity the gigantic nakedness of his ignorance. Any sense of shame must probably be as alien to the Heracleidan blood as any sense of fear; but the spectators of such an exhibition may be excused if they could wish that at least the shirt of Nessus or another were happily at hand to fling over the more than human display of that massive and muscular impudence, in all the abnormal development of its monstrous proportions. It is possible that out Scottish demigod of song has made too long a sojourn in “the land of Lorne,” and learnt from his Highland comrades to dispense in public with what is not usually discarded in any British latitude far south of “the western Hebrides.”

     After that Mr Swinburne says very truly, “The savours, the forms, the sounds, the contortions, of the singular living things which this science commands us to submit to examination need a stouter stomach to cope with than mine.” He only dignifies the fleas by putting them “under the microscope” at all, and when he has thus magnified them, he seems to think them large and formidable enough to be attacked with hatchet and sledge-hammer. He must not wonder, if, in return, the fleas consider themselves his equals, and, finding how successful have been their previous efforts to “penetrate” and “inflame,” assail him more vigorously than ever.
     Mr Swinburne’s pamphlet gains in interest, though not in compactness, by the fact that it is not all made up of warfare against the fleas who have bitten him. It contains three important digressions concerning Byron, Mr Tennyson, and Walt Whitman. It is possible, though not likely, that Mr Swinburne has introduced this with the design of showing how, though he regards most critics as fleas, it is possible to be a critic without being a flea. At any rate they do show that; and we only wish that they had been in better company, and that the first of them had been itself purged of all flea-like properties; though we can almost forgive his rancour when it is expressed in such wonderful vituperation as this against Lady Byron and Mrs Stowe, “the blatant Bassarid of Boston, the rampant Mćnad of Massachusetts.”

To wipe off the froth of falsehood from the foaming lips of inebriated virtue, when fresh from the sexless orgies of morality and reeling from the delirious riot of religion, may doubtless be a charitable office; but it is no proof of critical sense or judgment to set about the vindication of a great man as though his repute could by any chance be widely or durably affected by the confidences exchanged in the most secret place and hour of their sacred rites, far from the clamour of public halls and platforms made hoarse with holiness,

Ubi sacra sancta acutis ululatibus agitant,

between two whispering priestesses of whatever god presides over the most vicious parts of virtue, the most shameless rites of modesty, the most rancorous forms of forgiveness—the very Floralia of evangelical faith and love. That two such spirits, naked and not ashamed, should so have met and mingled in the communion of calumny, have taken each with devout avidity her part in the obscene sacrament of hate, her share in the graceless eucharist of evil-speaking, is not more wonderful or more important than that the elder devotee should have duped the younger into a belief that she alone had been admitted to partake of a fouler feast than that eaten in mockery at a witch’s sabbath, a wafer more impure from a table more unspeakably polluted—the bread of slander from the altar of madness or malignity, the bitter poison of a shrine on which the cloven tongue of hell-fire might ever be expected to reappear with the return of some infernal Pentecost. All this is as natural and as insignificant as that the younger priestess on her part should since have trafficked in the unhallowed elements of their common and unclean mystery, have revealed for hire the unsacred secrets of no Eleusinian initiation. To whom can it matter that such a plume-plucked Celćno as this should come with all the filth and flutter of her kind to defile a grave which is safe and high enough above the abomination of her approach?

     That outburst, however, is only a parenthesis within a parenthesis. It is followed by some very shrewd remarks on the limits and range of Byron’s poetic genius; and after this we have strictures no less noteworthy on the moral flaw in Mr Tennyson’s Arthurian idylls, “the Morte d’Albert, as it might perhaps be more properly called,”—especially prominent in “Vivian,” and on the mixture of poetry and formalism in Walt Whitman’s writings. We leave our readers to study these passages for themselves. They are certainly worth studying, and no one who reads them can help regretting that Mr Swinburne does not oftener use his powers as a prose-writer and a critic, and that, when he does, he is not more careful of marring his good work by such coarse abuse of his enemies as appears in ‘Under the Microscope.’

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The World (New York) (10 July, 1872 - p.5)

FLESHLY POETRY.
_____

Mr. Swinburne’s Attack on Mr. Buchanan.

[FROM OUR OWN CORRESPONDENT.]

     LONDON, June 29.—In his interview with your correspondent on the 6th of May last, the poet Swinburne informed me that he was then writing a reply to Mr. Robert Buchanan’s criticisms on the “Fleshly School of Poetry.” This reply has now appeared in the shape of a pamphlet of eighty-eight pages, entitled “Under the Microscope,” published by White, of Coventry street, Haymarket—a locality, by the way, where at night one seeking for types of “fleshly” beauty would be apt to be embarrassed with the riches at his command. A very nice pamphlet, indeed, is this of Mr. Swinburne. No Young Men’s Christian Association should be without it. If one desires to speak very mildly of it, he may say that it is free-spoken; if he wishes to tell the whole truth, he should add that it is abusive, terrible, savage, and, even for Mr. Swinburne, almost incredibly coarse. The most amusing thing about it is the evidence it affords that a man may lose his temper while he is writing all alone in his own room as easily as he may while engaged in a personal controversy with a foe. Mr. Swinburne begins his pamphlet in a comparatively calm mood, and he seeks to class his particular foe, Mr. Buchanan, among other hostile critics. Buchanan and others have assailed the school of poetry of which Mr. Swinburne is the high priest. He now defends this school. He claims that Byron, Tennyson, and Walt Whitman all belong to it; and he is no worse, perhaps somewhat better, than any of them. Mr. Swinburne says that Byron lacks the divine harmony without which no really great poet can exist; Tennyson, in his opinion, is coarse; Whitman is at times a true poet, but he mixes his poetry with the coarsest and vulgarest commonplaces. But this is not the point; the point is that no poet is to be blamed for writing whatever is in him; if he thinks blasphemy he should write blasphemy, and no man should blame him for it; if he thinks faith he should write faith, and any one who objects is an ass and a villain. Well, we have good authority for knowing that it is what comes out of a man that defiles him; and if a man has nothing but impurity in his mind it would be better for himself and the rest of us if he kept it all to himself. Mr. Swinburne don’t think so, however; but this vindication of a man’s right to say whatever he pleases is not the chief purpose of his pamphlet. Its chief purpose is to squelch Mr. Robert Buchanan, and I must say that the squelching is done in the most complete manner. There never was very much of Mr. Buchanan, and now that Mr. Swinburne has finished him off there is nothing left of him. It is true that Mr. Swinburne loses his temper over the task and lashes out in a manner that cannot well be ________ he does his work and leaves his enemy altogether used up.
                                                                                                                               PICCADILLY.

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London Society (September, 1872)

THE TALK OF THE TOWN.

. . .

     The amenities of literature have recently been more than usually exposed to view in a modern battle of the bards. Mr. Robert Buchanan objects emphatically to what he calls the Fleshly School of Poetry, and subjects to a severe analysis the poems and sonnets of Mr. Dante Gabriel Rosetti. It is plain that the individual distinguished by such a name could not help being a poet, and his friend (both in the spirit and in the flesh), Mr. Algernon Charles Swinburne, has impaled the hostile critic upon a revengeful pin, and kept him wriggling under a Microscope of eighty-eight page power.  Undoubtedly, it is a very pretty quarrel as it stands; and the author of ‘The Man Accurst,’ by representing the Almighty as bathing in the Waters of Life, and casually asking an angel sitting at the gate of Paradise what the miserable Last Man is doing, certainly lays himself open to material repartee from the heroes of the school he condemns. It has been urged against Milton that he committed a grave error in making God argue with Satan, and Mr. Buchanan’s strange notion of the Omniscient ever and again asking, ‘What doth the man?’ while the strange lavation of the Deity in the Waters of Life goes on, is equally open to considerable animadversion. Still, Mr. Buchanan may plead in justification the opening of the Book of Job, and so, perhaps, can quote higher authority than the amatory poets; unless, indeed, these choose to fall back upon the Song of Solomon. The looker on, however, upon the direful strife, who has no overwhelming partiality for one poet or the other, will not improbably arrive at the conclusion that, as far as the controversy has at present gone, Mr. Buchanan has not suffered much from being placed under Mr. Swinburne’s Microscope; nor has Mr. Rosetti much benefited by his friend’s chivalrous but scarcely discreet defence. If such a mere prose writer as myself might venture an opinion, I should be inclined to say that Mr. Swinburne would have done wisely if he had left Mr. Rosetti to answer for himself; and then he would not have been betrayed into the publication of a pamphlet which resembles an angry scream, and which is chiefly remarkable for its absence of dignity, and its profusion of coarse invective. The author of ‘Our Lady of Pain’ and ‘Before a Crucifix,’ is gifted with a fatal facility of writing, a breathless fluency of language, a tropical and feverish brilliancy of imagination, an unpardonable disregard of the venerations of nineteen centuries, and an apparent desire to enthrone vice in the seat of virtue, and to colour the former with rose hues while he blocks up the other with a wall of ice. To hear the gentleman who can ‘hunt sweet love and lose him between white neck and bosom,’ and who can publish such a revolting episode as ‘The Leper,’ complaining that Mr. Tennyson’s ‘Vivien’ is nothing but a vulgar and repulsive offender against morality, would be amusing if such subjects could amuse. Imagine what ‘Vivien’ would be in Mr. Swinburne’s hands! No, let us not imagine it; for his warm genius would have been probably more terribly misapplied in describing Vivien’s fleshly charms, and her seduction of Merlin, than in ‘Laus Veneris,’ or ‘Before Dawn.’
     It is, I think, to be regretted that Mr. Buchanan did not single out Mr. Swinburne as the object of his attack, and not Mr. Rosetti. He has undoubtedly selected the weakest adversary, and not the worst. Mr. Rosetti’s writings possess neither the fascination nor the flow of Mr. Swinburne’s, nor can he boast the inborn genius or glowing imagination of his friend. Possibly he may personally be the happier for the fact; and he may, perhaps, to a certain extent command our sympathy, that David should have mistaken an ordinary son of Anak for Goliath of Gath. He is, however, to be congratulated that Mr. Swinburne considered that the round stone fitted his own forehead, and has presented his unabashed visage to the hostile sling. The Philistine, however, takes a deal of killing; and I do not believe that Mr. Buchanan will take another shot; nor would the public care to pursue the controversy further. The process of dissecting the Fleshly School of Poetry is by no means appetizing; and the more its peculiar economy is laid bare to our gaze, the less we like it.

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The Fleshly School Controversy
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The Critical Response
Harriett Jay
Miscellanea

 

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