ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)
LETTERS TO THE PRESS (1)
The Athenæum (22 November, 1862 - No. 1830, p.669)
James Macfarlan.—A Correspondent sends us the following:—“Nations have their poets, and so have small communities; and the poets of each class are too often compelled (in the words of Pamphlet, in ‘Love and a Bottle’) “to write themselves into a consumption before they gain reputation.” To flutter away a butterfly life in the Poet’s Corner of a provincial newspaper, and to have in prospect the epigrammatic epitaph of a small editor, is the destiny of the humble muse; but it now and then happens that a local rhymester passes away unnoticed, less from deficiency of mental power than from the impossibility of comparing his power with that of less restricted intellects. To James Macfarlan, a young writer famous in Glasgow and the surrounding district, and who has just died in indigence, belonged an amount of spontaneous genius which, under more favourable circumstances, might have produced verses of not ephemeral worth. The son of an itinerant pedlar, and without education or intelligent companionship, Macfarlan managed to write such lyrics as the following:—
The sunset burns, the hamlet spire
From pendent boughs, like drops of gold,
The running child, whose wavy hair
Where latest sunshine slanting falls,
The streams are gilt, the towering vane
The above is not first-class, and it is one of the poorest pieces produced by its author; but it is the only piece which I can lay hands on in time to procure an early insertion of these lines, and it is at least vastly superior to the ordinary contributions to Poet’s Corner. Among the ‘City Poems’ and the ‘Lyrics of Life’ (two small volumes published some years ago), and among numerous contributions to All the Year Round, there are many really fine poems,—extraordinarily fine as emanating from the mind of a man who for many years trudged about as a common pedlar, whose days were spent in hardship and poverty, and who was destined to die, when only thirty years of age, a pauper. On the causes of Macfarlan’s misfortunes, apart from the serious misfortunes of a low birth and a wretched education, it would be tedious to dwell; but it has now become necessary to point out the fact that his wife and child are without a penny, and that they have a certain claim on the benevolence of all men and women who love letters. I am sorry that this brief obituary resolves itself into an appeal to private sympathy. The local poet, however, being useful in his way, and the humble kinsman of the poet of a nation, deserves some little kindly recognition. Some few of your readers will be satisfied with the fact that Mr. Charles Dickens believed in Mr. Macfarlan and assisted him most cheerfully; and these few may regard favourably the subscription, at present being raised in Glasgow, for the benefit of widow and child.
[Note: I came across this ‘letter’ through finding Buchanan’s letter to William Hepworth Dixon (editor of The Athenæum) which must have accompanied it, in the James Macfarlan section of the Gerald Massey site:
Nov. 14, 1862.
Dear Mr. Dixon,
To procure insertion of the enclosed in the Athenæum, I think that it will only be necessary to point out two or three facts. Macfarlan’s little books have received highly favourable notice in your columns; Macfarlan himself was an object of interest to very many discerning men, including Mr. Dickens; and the poor fellow’s widow & child are nearly, if not absolutely, starving! It is important that the case should be noticed at once.
Hepworth Dixon Esq. ]
The Athenæum (12 August, 1865 - No. 1972, p.215)
DAVID GRAY’S MONUMENT.
Bexhill, near Hastings, August 7.
David Gray, the young poet of the Luggie, the pure and shining spirit who passed from earth so speedily, and whose writings have gained a loving circle so soon, has received the last honour which local sympathy can confer upon him. A monument—the result of subscriptions sent in from all quarters of the land, and from all classes—has been erected over his grave in the Auld Aisle Burying Ground, Merkland, Kirkintilloch. Of the obelisk form, the memorial is composed of the finest white granite, from the Wigton Bay Quarries. The basement consists of three blocks, in which is placed the needle, the height of the whole being eleven feet. Near the top of the needle is sculptured a harp surrounded with a garland of bay-leaves. This is the inscription, written by Lord Houghton: “This Monument of Affection, Admiration, and Regret, is erected to David Gray, the Poet of Merkland, by friends from far and near, desirous that his grave should be remembered amid the scenes of his rare genius and early death, and by the Luggie, now numbered with the streams illustrious in Scottish song. Born, 29th January, 1838; Died, 3rd December, 1861.” The monument, from its elevated site, commands an extensive prospect, embracing most of the spots made familiar by the poet’s song—the Luggie, the little Bothlin, and the faint blue background of the Campsie hills.
The Dundee Courier & Argus (24 August, 1865)
THE POET OF MONKLAND.
IT is seldom that Scotland can do anything to please critical Southern friends. Her religion, her poetry, her taste, all equally outrage English refinement. If there is a place where this aversion to the North more particularly centres, that place is London. So intense is Cockney antipathy to all our ways, and all our modes of thought or of action, that a Scot can never get fairly naturalised in Cockneydom without flattering this weakness. It is not many years since Mr ROBERT BUCHANAN left Glasgow for London. His success in that city has been heard of with pleasure by old friends here. But the pleasure is somewhat marred when they find him writing the letter which appeared last week in the columns of the Athenæum upon the Poet of Monkland’s monument. Most of the readers of this paper have heard something of the author of “The Luggie.” The story of his pure and brief life, of his genius and death, as told by Mr JAMES HEDDERWICK, has made multitudes who knew nothing of DAVID GRAY while he lived sigh in sorrow over his premature departure. The son of honest and industrious parents in that small weaving village Kirkintulloch, sitting in the shadow of Glasgow, DAVID was destined for something better than the loom. In common with so many of the Scottish peasantry who have striven to advance their offspring, GRAY’S parents dedicated him to the Church. The pulpit, worthily filled, is the noblest place man can occupy. In pursuance of the design that DAVID GRAY should occupy it, he entered the University of Glasgow, and passed with success through the curriculum there. But, while devoting himself with commendable assiduity to the acquisition of the special culture of the university, his spirit revelled in a literature it is generally considered should rather be eschewed during “student life.” But however the rank and file of undergraduates may conform to the antiquated routine of university life, there are always some minds incapable of being thus ground into “professionals.” DAVID GRAY’S was one of these. He was, it is true, proud of his university, and felt honoured by having his name enrolled among its alumni; but there was something beyond the university that had for him surpassing charms. From his earliest years WORDSWORTH and THOMSON had been the poets of his affection. Following the example of the bard of Rydal Mount, GRAY chose an humble theme on which to attune his muse, “The Luggie.” This small stream, flowing past his native village, was utterly unknown until he selected it as the subject of his song. There was nothing remarkable about the “Luggie.” But with a genius akin to his, in whom the meanest flower that blows awakened “thought too deep for tears,” it was not necessary it should be remarkable; “though not likely to attract a painter’s eye, it sufficed for the poet’s love.” The tiny stream is sung of in strains of sweet and pensive meditation, reminding us not a little of the Bard of Lochleven—like GRAY, a student of Divinity, and like him also, wooed from the sterner walks of theology by the graces of poesy. More illustrative of GRAY’S genius and more eminently original than even “The Luggie,” are those sonnets he has entitled “Under the Shadows,” all, or at least nearly all, written during the closing year of his life. As exhibiting the pathos and beauty of these sonnets, we select the last of them, as it lies before us in the Poet’s own somewhat quaint but beautiful caligraphy, dated Sept. 27, 1861, and entitled “My Epitaph”:—
“Below lies one whose name was traced in sand.
These lines were written amidst the glories of the waning year; and by the 3d of December—within little more than two months—the Eden sung was reached. Thus, while yet scarcely twenty-three, the Poet passes into that land of “shadows.” DAVID GRAY was gathered to his fathers near his native village. His place of rest is a bit of elevated tableland about a mile to the south of Kirkintulloch, in the shadow of the Campsie Hills. Friends who knew and loved him thought some memorial of his genius should be raised on the spot where his dust reposes. The idea of this memorial was first suggested by a gentleman foremost in every good work, Mr WILLIAM LOGAN, Glasgow. The funds necessary to “give bond in stone” to the appreciation of GRAY’S genius were quickly raised; and a granite obelisk, the “monument of the affection, admiration,, and regret” of friends, tells the story of his life and fate who sleeps below. It is but a few weeks since this monument was raised, and naturally enough, as we thought at the time, the thing was done with touching, though not ostentatious ceremony. The Scotch are accused of making too little of the solemnities of the grave. Our dead are consigned to their last resting-place in silence, a custom in which we stand unique among nations. We were, therefore, rather pleased to see the silence broken at the tomb of the bard. Sheriff BELL is known as a most genial and accomplished man, and upon him it devolved to say the few things fitting to be spoken upon the occasion. The Sheriff’s address gave unmistakable evidence he fully appreciated the genius thus fallen in all the leaves of his spring.
The Athenæum (10 November, 1866 - No. 2037, p.608)
November 6, 1866.
A provincial newspaper contains the following paragraph, which I find copied into the Bookseller of October the 31st:—
THE WOES OF POETIC GENIUS.
THE whole earth seems for the moment to be filled with the sound of the angry bellowings and shriekings of young poets. First one, then another, rushes with all his troubles and furies into the press, snorting and kicking and stirring up dust and uproar. Up to a certain point, the freaks of these inspired young gentlemen are really amusing. The spectators sit aloft, well out of the reach of these phrenetic youngsters, belabouring the air and one another with windy futile thwacks. By and by, perhaps, the thing may grow a nuisance, and we may pray for a little dust with which to still the furious insects. Meanwhile, their sound and fury signifying nothing are uncommonly funny to contemplate. One young poet, for instance, in whom one or two respectable critics think they see the genius of the future, has written a letter to a contemporary which is an admirable example of the humour with which these holy bards treat anybody who is guilty of the enormity of standing up in their presence, instead of falling down and worshipping them without quibble or question. He has sung many things about Scotch boys, and old men and old women, and, as a truly amiable brother poet has said, about “costermongers and their trulls.” However, a great many worthy people like subjects of this sort, and Mr. Buchanan has a reputation among them. As he is a poet of the “goody” kind, his admirers will, we fear, be very much shocked at the terrific outburst of bad language to which in a naughty moment he has unfortunately yielded. Some critic accused him of writing a “sycophantic” dedication to a newspaper editor. This word, shrieks the poet, “expressed every imputation which to a pure mind is horrible and loathsome—reflected hideously on my private character as a man—tampered foully with my holiest private feelings,” and so forth. Then there is more about “the cowardly author of the assault,” and the poet’s “stainless reputation,” and the poet’s unwillingness to demean his stainless reputation “to the brutal level where such base things are conceived and perpetrated—to pass into the foul region whither no man, howsoever earnest his indignation may be, can venture with clean feet.” “So,” says the poet, with mild philosophy and elegant phrase, “I left the assaulter to his dog’s paradise, content that he should howl and rot there.” This last shriek is perfectly delicious—so full of courtesy as it is, of dignity, of self-respect, and so very poetic too. The same dignified and gracious comparison of the critic to a dog had occurred a little earlier in the letter. The poet admits that to be suspected of sycophancy annoyed him, “for when one is bitten, it matters little whether the attack come from a pure breed or a mongrel.” The critic, that is to say, is the mongrel. But people who can descend to the howling and rotting style of language are invariably addicted also to turning on the tap of maudlin washy stuff which finds favour in some circles. And the poet is no exception. As he does not think it undignified to call his critic a dog and a mongrel, and to bid him howl and rot in his dog’s paradise, so neither does he think it inconsistent with self-respect to defend himself formally against the obnoxious charge of sycophancy. He declares that the person to whom he dedicated the book “whispered confidence and afforded help” “in the sore struggle in pursuit of bread and fame”; and then, with unutterable magnificence of the superb-washy stamp, he would have the public know that, with him at least, “gratitude toward those who brought the cup of water, while priest and Pharisee passed by, is a passion deep as tears—as pure as the elements drunk down in that refreshing draught, and as eternal.” As if the public cared one jot about his cup of water, and about his passions deep as tears, and as pure and as eternal as a refreshing draught. The public will by and by, we suppose, be asked to assist at the auditing of the weekly bills of all its poets, and the accounts of the poetic pocket-money.
[Note: The review of London Poems in the Westminster Review is in the Reviews section. The poem ‘Hugo the Bastard’ is also available on this site. Buchanan intended to reply to the article in The Saturday Review, but was advised against it. His letters to William Hepworth Dixon and Robert Browning on the subject are available in the Letters Section.]
The Spectator (15 February, 1868 - p.13-14)
MR. BUCHANAN ON LITERARY MORALITY.
[TO THE EDITOR OF THE “SPECTATOR.”]
SIR,—It would be highly reprehensible on my part to reply in any but the most friendly terms to the thoughtful reviewer of my Essays in last week’s Spectator,—since I am (I believe) indebted to that writer for much kind appreciation and high- minded sympathy. Still, I am bound to protest, and I will do so as briefly as possible, against several errors on his part, and at least one total misconstruction.
* Our correspondent appears to have some esoteric and peculiar interpretation for this remarkable word. Both quotations are the latest reflections of a modern mind on modern phenomena.—ED. Spectator.
Lastly, I will admit my “visible leaning to make Charity the be-all and end-all of the Divine Mind.” With the “awful fires” your reviewer speaks of I am well acquainted. I see them everywhere, pitiless, horrid, unexplainable, save by that very Charity I hold as the only light, both human and divine. I want no fresh assurance of the tortures and inhumanities the fate-stricken suffer; I only want to be assured that a God, and not a Setebos, is looking on; and the assurance comes to me from the lips of Charity, standing by deathbeds, walking where there is little light,—the last of the angels lingering among us, now that Faith has returned to heaven, and Hope, gone mad, is singing an old wild song that there is no God. —I am, Sir, &c.,
[Mr. Buchanan does not understand either Mr. Carlyle or Mr. Arnold, and should not criticize what he does not understand. He understands even less that last remark of our own, which he criticizes somewhat too eloquently.—ED. Spectator.]
The Spectator (22 February, 1868 - p.15-16)
MR. BUCHANAN AND HIS REVIEWER.
[TO THE EDITOR OF THE “SPECTATOR.”]
SIR,—I hardly expected to have had to complain of unmannerliness on your part; yet when, instead of leaving silently, or honestly answering, my letter printed in your issue of February 15, you merely remark that “Mr. Buchanan does not understand either Mr. Carlyle or Mr. Arnold, and should not criticize what he does not understand,” you are neither just to yourself, nor courteous to me. Suppose I had so retorted on your reviewer’s flippant and unfair estimate (as I deem it) of Walt Whitman? or suppose I were so to retort on the reviewer who describes Emerson (to my mind the most wondrous living illustration of spiritual insight mingled with severe common-sense perception of the tendencies of his time) as merely “unreal and romantic?” Would you have acquitted me of bad and flippant taste for so doing?
[We should have thought Mr. Buchanan perfectly right in saying that we do not understand Walt Whitman and have absolutely no right to criticize him, for that is precisely the fact. Our objection to Mr. Buchanan’s criticism was exactly that he did not help us to see what he admired in Walt Whitman, and our opinion was not an “estimate,” but an explanation of the superficial impression which we expected sympathetic criticism to remove. As to Emerson, we could illustrate the force of both epithets by a hundred passages of his essays and poems, but we carefully guarded against the supposition that we would describe him by such epithets “merely,” or deny him very high imaginative qualities consistent with them—ED. Spectator.]
[Note: The Spectator’s review of David Gray and other Essays, chiefly on poetry is in the Reviews section.]
Glasgow Herald (28 April, 1868 - p.2)
A RECENT TRIAL BY JURY.
SIR,—Permit me to avail myself of your extensive circulation in making some remarks on a criminal law case in which I was cited as a witness—the case of John Simpson Oman, heard before Lord Deas, at the Glasgow Circuit Court, on Wednesday last the 22d inst.
[Note: The report of the trial from the Glasgow Herald of 23rd April, 1868 is available here.]
The Spectator (1 January, 1870)
MR. BUCHANAN AND HIS PUBLISHERS.
[TO THE EDITOR OF THE “SPECTATOR.”]
SIR,—I observe in last Saturday’s Spectator a review of a work entitled “Stormbeaten,” published by Messrs. Ward and Lock, and purporting to be a new work by “Messrs. Robert Buchanan and Charles Gibbon.” As the publication of the work at the present moment involves a double deception, permit me to offer some words of explanation.
[Although the following is only an edited extract of a letter, I thought I might as well place it here as well as with the reviews of The Land of Lorne - many of which objected strongly to Buchanan’s Prologue to the book, which was addressed to the Princess Louise.]
The Athenæum (3 December, 1870 - No. 2249, p.721)
THE LAND OF LORNE.
MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN writes to us complaining that a periodical has accused him of being “engaged in book-making, and hungering for royal patronage,” because he has dedicated ‘The Hebrides and the Land of Lorne,’ by permission, to the Princess Louise. “Without pausing,” he says, “to complain of the rather gratuitous and unfair accusation of ‘book-making,’ applied by prevision to a work as yet unpublished, may I ask if it is really in bad taste to inscribe to the Princess a set of pictures which is to be a great extent descriptive of her future home, and which, if it at all realize the writer’s hopes, is likely to awaken her sympathies for the Highland people, of whom she will shortly see so much? . . . My book is a sad one, full of lamentation, instinct with the most pathetic poetry of real life and suffering; and scarcely is it ready for publication, when there comes the radiant gleam of this betrothal to the Campbell. Princess Louise is a veritable Star of Hope, arising on a dark and melancholy wild, where (to quote my own Prologue) Absenteeism, Overseerism, all sorts of other ‘isms’ gather griffin-like around the porches of the proud Highland land-proprietors; and when I, whose whole song has been of the poor, and for the poor, and with the poor, cry ‘God speed,’ in the poor Celt’s name, to the Princess and the man of her choice, I hardly expect to be accused of merely ‘hungering for royal patronage.’ It may not be amiss to add, in deprecation of the charge of ‘book-making,’ that portions of the forthcoming work appeared as early as 1869 in the columns of the Spectator, and that since then I have lingered over my task,—a veritable labour of love,—with quite as much care and tenderness as an artist gives to his painting, or a poet to his verse.”
[Following the publication of Buchanan’s article, ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry:Mr. D. G. Rossetti’ in October, 1871 edition of The Contemporary Review, Buchanan wrote two letters to The Athenæum. To put these in context, they are to be found on the following page of The Fleshly School Controversy section of the site.]
The Athenæum (11 March, 1876 - p.361)
FROM time to time echoes reach this country, from across the Atlantic, of controversies regarding the literary and worldly well-being of the American poet, Walt Whitman. For instance, Mr. Joaquin Miller delivers a lecture to an American audience, telling them that Whitman is disgracefully treated by his countrymen; and forthwith some one writes from the United States to a London review to say that Mr. Miller is all in the wrong, and the American public well affected, and even affectionately disposed, towards Whitman. Lately the West Jersey Press (26th January) has published an article named “Walt Whitman’s Actual American Position.” It comes to us authenticated by Whitman’s own words:—“My theory is that the plain truth of the situation here is best stated; it is even worse than described in the article.” It may, therefore, interest some of our readers if we reproduce the principal passages:—
Daily News (13 March, 1876)
THE POSITION OF WALT WHITMAN.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE DAILY NEWS.
SIR,—Simultaneously with your American Correspondent’s article on the new poem by Walt Whitman there appears in the Athenæum [of yesterday] a startling series of extracts from the West Jersey Press relative to the poet’s own temporal and worldly condition. For full particulars of the truth I must refer the public to the pages of your contemporary. It is enough to explain here that Whitman, “old, poor, and paralysed,” is in absolute and miserable poverty; that his “repeated attempts to secure a small income by writing for the magazines during his illness have been utter failures”; that the publishers will not publish, the book-storekeepers will not keep for sale, his great experiments in poetry; and, lastly—“O rem ridiculam, Cato, et jocosam:”—all “the established American poets studiously ignore” him, while he lies at Camden preparing, largely with his own handiwork, a small edition of his works in two volumes, which he now himself sells to keep the wolf from the door.” This is neither the time nor the place to discuss in detail so solemn a matter as the claims of this discarded and insulted poet to literary immortality. If those claims are as true as I and many others in England deem them to be, God will justify his works to an early posterity; but this is certainly the time, and your columns are possibly the place, for an expression of English indignation against the “orthodox American authors, publishers, and editors” who greet such a man as the author of “Leaves of Grass” with “determined denial, disgust, and scorn.” One can understand the publishers, for American publishers have been justly described by Whitman himself as “mostly sharks;” one can forgive the editors, for all men know of what pudding a typical Yankee editor’s brains are made; but as for the “orthodox American authors” and the “established American poets”—orthodox perhaps in the sense of their affiliation to the Church of English literature, and “established” truly in their custom of picking the brains of British bards—there is but one word for them, and that may be lengthened into a parable. He who wanders through the solitudes of far-off Uist or lonely Donegal may often behold the Golden Eagle sick to death, worn with age or famine, or with both, passing with weary waft of wing from promontory to promontory, from peak to peak, pursued by a crowd of prosperous rooks and crows, which fall screaming back whenever the noble bird turns his indignant head, and which follow frantically once more, hooting behind him, whenever he wends again upon his way. The rook is a “recognised” bird; the crow is perfectly “established.” But for the Eagle, when he sails aloft in the splendour of his strength, who shall perfectly discern and measure his flight?
We never bowed but to superior worth,
Strong as is the prejudice in some circles even here against Whitman—for alas! even England does not lack its “orthodox authors, publishers, and editors”—I believe there is scarcely one living English poet who will not rejoice to lend his aid in a cause so righteous, yet so forlorn. But for the general public—for that public which runs as it reads, and judges as it runs—it is necessary to explain that Whitman is not merely an author whose literary claims set authors by the ears; that he is something far nobler even than a great poet—a martyred man, perhaps the best and noblest now breathing on our plane, one to whom good men would almost kneel, if they knew his beneficence; one whose hand I, at least, would kiss reverently, in full token of my own unworthiness and infinite inferiority. He has acted as well as preached his gospel of universal love and charity; he has given away his substance to his poor brethren; and he has contracted his hopeless disease solely through his personal devotion to the sick and wounded in the late American war. “The pity of it, the pity of it, Iago!” Even those Americans who deny his poetic claims admit (with a ....) his ineffable goodness; but, alas! goodness is not a commodity in demand among “orthodox authors, publishers, and editors,” nor is it strictly desiderated among “established” and money-making poets. Nevertheless, only this last consecration of Martyrdom was wanting to complete our poet’s apotheosis. As Christ had His crown of thorns (I make the comparison in all reverence), and as Socrates had his hemlock cup, so Walt Whitman has his final glory and doom even though it come miserably in the shape of literary outlawry and official persecution. Meantime, while the birds of the fallow are chirping and cramming, he leaves, as certainly at least as the second of these Divine sufferers, a living scripture to the world; which the world will read presently; which for every ten that know it now will count hereafter its tens of thousands; which will not be lost to humanity as long as poetry lives and the thoughts of men are free.
Daily News (14 March, 1876)
MR. WALT WHITMAN’S POEMS.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE DAILY NEWS.
SIR,—You cannot, I am sure, have foreseen the probable consequences of publishing Mr. Robert Buchanan’s letter. We Americans are known to be a thin-skinned race, and I do not see how we can possibly survive the expression of Mr. Robert Buchanan’s opinion of us. True, Mr. Robert Buchanan’s name is unknown in America; but the Daily News is well known there—known as a journal usually friendly to us, and always as civil as circumstances permit. So, when we learn from your columns that we must abandon henceforth those claims to distinction in literature which we have lately been told were our best title to respect, I can think of nothing so likely to occur in the States as a general happy-despatch. What publisher can value life after being called by Mr. Robert Buchanan, a shark? What “Yankee editor,” when he is told that “all men know of what pudding his brains are made,” will not hasten to blow them out? What verse-writer will not take flight to a better world to escape being catalogued in a “choir of hedgerow warblers?” With a splendour of ornithological erudition I cannot sufficiently admire, Mr. Robert Buchanan likens our American poets to snow-buntings, whip-poor-wills, and loons, to rooks and carrion crows. They are creatures who have lived and fattened by “picking the brains of British bards.” Whether Mr. Robert Buchanan means to complain that his own brains have gone to furnish the empty skulls of Lowell and Longfellow, I do not know, any more than I know whether he himself expects immortality as British Bard under the name of Robert Buchanan, or as Scotch Reviewer under that of Thomas Maitland. His American victims may find some slight comfort in the fact that no one of them has yet been accused of singing his own praises under a fictitious signature.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE DAILY NEWS.
SIR,—I have read—and read with much general concurrence and satisfaction—the letter by Mr. Robert Buchanan, published in your paper of to-day, urging that the English admirers of Walt Whitman should show their feeling towards him by some such act as the purchase of a large number of copies of his forthcoming books. As this is a matter in which I am warmly interested, and to some extent personally concerned, I take leave to address you on the subject. It was to me that Whitman wrote those word, published in the Athenæum of last Saturday, vouching for the entire truth of the statements regarding him made in the West Jersey press (also partially reproduced in the Athenæum). Several days ago, in conjunction with another of Whitman’s English admirers (a lady), I wrote to the poet commissioning for each of us a certain number of his forthcoming volumes—in fact, therefore, I have already done what Mr. Buchanan suggests; and so has the friend just mentioned, and another friend, a distinguished literary man, who has been in frequent communication with me for months past, as to this or any other appropriate form in which English sympathy and regard for Whitman might take shape. In writing to the poet to bespeak the books, I asked him expressly whether he would like the same course, or any other course, to be adopted by others of his admirers in this country, and in the event of his replying affirmatively, I offered to undertake the requisite correspondence at starting. His answer may probably reach me within a fortnight or so. Let us therefore trust that, what between the steps that have been already taken, and those that will almost for certain ensue upon Mr. Buchanan’s printed letter, some substantial expression will shortly be given to the feelings of a good number of English, Scotch, and Irish admirers of this powerful and moving poet. Will his own countrymen yet exhibit the fruits of a late repentance, and allow themselves to be encouraged or shamed into some measure of justice to his claims?—Your faithful servant,
The Leicester Daily Post (14 March, 1876 - p.4)
FROM OUR LONDON CORRESPONDENT.
LONDON. MONDAY EVENING.
. . .
Poets are a combative race, and of all poets of the present day, I should say Robert Buchanan was the most combative. He falls across his enemies in a dashing wild manner which suggests that he at least is very much Celtic, however much English most of us may be. We all remember the fierce onslaught he made on modern English poets in his criticism of the “Fleshly School”—an onslaught which led to reprisals, which have culminated in an action pending before the High Court, at this moment, for libel. Having roused his brethren of England, Mr. Buchanan is now attempting to rouse his American cousins. In the name of charity, and for the sake of Walt Whitman, who, according to some obscure American paper, is dying of poverty, he makes an appeal to the English public to rescue the prince of American poets from the neglect accorded to him in his own country. So far as Walt Whitman’s poverty goes, I should advise a little caution. When the story was told the other day it was denied in express terms; and it is probable that Mr. Whitman’s benevolent impulses are larger than his purse, and would always be so. But it is not so much to extol Walt Whitman that Mr. Buchanan writes. It is in great part to deride the authors and publishers of America. Walt Whitman is an eagle. The other authors are rooks. They are, being envious when he soared, now following, cawing, behind the King of Birds because he is too old and sick to turn on them. These rooks, by the way, include Longfellow and Lowell. There is only one other eagle in America beside Whitman: Emerson is a great bird, but he is caged by respectability. Wherefore Mr. Buchanan appeals for subscriptions for the gratuitous distribution of Walt Whitman’s works in England. He is the only man who will go down to posterity. I am sorry for posterity.
Daily News (16 March, 1876)
MR. WALT WHITMAN.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE DAILY NEWS.
SIR,—A large number of sympathetic letters have already reached me in response to my letter concerning the American poet Whitman, and I have every reason to believe that substantial help will be forthcoming. Meantime I take cognisance of the letter from Mr. William Rossetti, published in your columns of to-day, and as that gentleman is, I am glad to see, prepared to undertake the organisation of a fund for the purchase of Whitman’s works, I think all future correspondence, subscriptions, &c., should be addressed to him. For my own part I shall be glad to co-operate in any scheme for Whitman’s benefit. I would only quote one expression from a letter just received from the Rev. John T. Robinson—“Bis dat qui cito dat; your plan, I fear, would work too slowly. I am sure it would be easy to send help at once in some pleasant and brotherly way that would not be offensive to Whitman’s feelings.” It is gratifying to observe that most of my correspondents are men of business, who understand the holiness and dignity of labour. No man has sung so nobly as Whitman the righteousness and beauty of Work; and high and low, from him who works with his brain to him who works with his hands, would be strengthened by the poetic scripture of this colossal workman and bard. Some one—a voice in the dark—an “obscure” echo—accuses me of abusing “Lowell and Longfellow.” I take leave to observe—with timidity, lest my praise may “injure” the pride or the pockets of those prosperous poets—that I should be ungrateful indeed if I failed to remember with pleasure the voice which sang “the Present Crisis” and “the Courtin,” or that other voice which has made immortal for every fireside the story of “Evangeline.” I trust I have a heart for every true singer who makes music, whatever his rank may be in the poetic choir. It would be a better reply to my general complaints if any American, “obscure” or otherwise, could tell me how much sympathy either Mr. Lowell or Mr. Longfellow, or any other wealthy and influential singer, has shown for the great Poet and Martyr who now lies neglected, insulted, “old and paralysed,” at Camden dedicating his completed work, as another great poet and martyr did before him, “To Time,” which obliterates the pigmies, and only preserves the mastodons, of history and literature.—I am, &c.,
TO THE EDITOR OF THE DAILY NEWS.
SIR,—It is unfortunate Mr. Buchanan should have clouded a question of benevolence with untimely literary fervour. There appear to be different opinions as to the merits of what Mr. Whitman believes to be poetry. Some persons apparently admire it vastly, and regard his literary method as a new revelation. Others conceive “prose-poetry” to be at best a sort of “two-headed nightingale,” curious as a study, but not otherwise pleasant to contemplate. Time will arbitrate between them. But I have never heard but one opinion as to the nobility of Mr. Whitman’s character; and while folks argue, he starves. I for one revere a man who aspires to be a poet, whether he succeeds in being one or not, and still more the man who in a greedy age, abandons profitable employment to follow what he thinks his vocation. Therefore, let every one bring his obolus, if it really be required, without any reference to canons of criticism. At the same time, I believe the American people to be second to none in native kindliness of heart; and though they may not think Mr. Whitman a poet, I am sure they will be the first to help his distress. He nursed their wounded during their sad fratricidal war with incessant charity; and to have done this is to have done more than to have composed all the poetry that was ever written.—Your obedient servant,
Cleveland Daily Plain Dealer (16 March, 1876 - p.1)
THE New York Herald, apropos of ROBERT BUCHANAN’S indignant outburst at the “impoverishment” of WALT WHITMAN, expresses the hope “that the liberal thinkers of America will not leave the work of helping WALT WHITMAN in his time of suffering entirely in foreign hands.” A long line of waste baskets, stretching away to the crack of doom, admonishes us that if people are expected to come to the rescue of every writer of gibberish whose “poetry” is not appreciated, we might as well stop talking about paying the public debt.
The (Dublin) Evening Telegraph (16 March, 1876 - p.2)
OUR LONDON LETTER.
London, Wednesday Evening.
. . .
WALT WHITMAN THE POET.
Poetical Robert Buchanan and prosaic Charles Reade are the most fidgety individuals to be found in the whole literary world. The memory of the war between the former and Swinburne the poet is still fresh in our minds, and we still laugh at the discovery of Robert Buchanan’s disguise as Thomas Maitland, which cognomen he had assumed in order to despoil a few brother poets of the laurels he fancied had been torn from the wreath with which he had adorned his own brow. Now he has ventured on still more dangerous ground. Is order to exalt the merits of Walt Whitman, a poet neglected on the other side of the Atlantic, Mr. Buchanan attacks all the other poets of American growth. Cullen Bryan, Longfellow, Whittier, all fall beneath his lash, accused of being creatures who have lived and fattened “by picking the brains of British birds.” Now it so happens that according to English critics Walt Whitman’s claims to admiration are few. He is pronounced a species of mad poet, ignorant of versification and of the rules of harmony in the construction of his poems. He is judged on his own merits by his countrymen and pronounced beyond the pale of general interest, although some few old ladies and boys at school pretend to understand him, and no one can say that Americans were ever harsh to their own home-bred poets. Even Joaquin Miller, over whose merits so many pens have been broken, has ended by being accepted, if not as a great poet, still as the representative of eccentric poetry (a new school, by the way, originating, like every other new thing, on the other side of the Atlantic), and if Walt Whitman had indeed possessed one tittle of the merit ascribed to him by Buchanan, it would have been honoured and exalted tenfold by his countrymen. The object of the praise of Walt Whitman and disparagement of his brother poet is made evident at the conclusion of the appeal, by a demand upon the purses of his English admirers for the purchase of a certain number of the copies of his forthcoming poems, for which he has not found a publisher in America. Rossetti comes forward in answer to the appeal, and says he has already taken steps to secure this very assistance to the poet. But it is to be feared that when Mr. Rossetti talks of “his hope of the tardy repentance of the poet’s own countrymen” and about their being encouraged or shamed into some measure of justice to Walt Whitman, we fear that his appeal will do more harm than good to the poet in his own country.
A STRANGELY impudent agitation has just been started with regard to what is called “Walt Whitman’s Actual American Position.” Whitman, it may be explained, is an American writer who some years back attracted attention by a volume of so-called poems which were chiefly remarkable for their absurd extravagance and shameless obscenity, and who has since, we are glad to say, been little heard of among decent people. It now appears that, although there is a small coterie of persons in this country who are not ashamed to confess their liking for Whitman’s nastiness, his own countrymen have universally repudiated him. “The real truth,” says an American journal, which has taken up the subject apparently in the interest of Whitman, “ is that, with the exception of a very few readers, Whitman’s poems in their public reception have fallen still-born in this country. They have been met, and are met to-day, with the determined denial, disgust, and scorn of orthodox American authors, publishers, and editors, and in a pecuniary and worldly sense have certainly wrecked the life of their author.” “No established publishing house will publish his books. Most of the stores will not even sell them.” “Repeated attempts to secure a small income by writing for the magazines during his illness have been utter failures. The Atlantic will not touch him. His offerings to Scribner are returned with insulting notes; the Galaxy the same. Harper’s did print a couple of his pieces two years ago, but imperative orders from head-quarters have stopped anything further. All the established American poets studiously ignore Whitman.” We are of course sorry that Whitman, or any other man, should be in sore distress, but we must say that we are very glad indeed to hear that his writings are unsaleable, and that no respectable publisher or editor in America will give him countenance by printing his contributions. This fact, if it is true, shows that the moral sense of the American public is, after all, not quite so much deadened as some recent events might lead one to imagine. If the New York Herald will not have anything to do with Walt Whitman, it is a proof that even the Herald draws the line somewhere. We can only regret that the same view is not taken by all publishers on this side of the ocean, and that there is one firm at least in London which is not ashamed to advertise a “complete” edition of Whitman’s works. We have no desire to pry into the details of Whitman’s private life. The description which he gives of himself in his writings as “disorderly, fleshly, sensual,” and fond of loafing, is not perhaps to be taken in a literal sense; and in any case we have no desire to speculate as to how far his private life may have been imprudent or irregular. The important fact is that he has found it impossible to get a living by his writings, which are everywhere shunned and rejected. Considering the character of these writings, this seems to us a very natural and desirable result, and it is difficult to understand why people should be expected to buy an article which disgusts them. Some of Mr. Whitman’s friends and admirers in London have, however, worked themselves into a state of theatrical indignation with regard to the treatment of this great man by his unappreciative and ungrateful countrymen. Mr. Robert Buchanan, who has made himself the mouthpiece of this extraordinary agitation, not only claims for Whitman “literary immortality,” but exalts his “ineffable goodness” and “beneficence,” and declares, in a passage flavoured with a touch of blasphemy which we prefer not to quote, that “only this last consecration of Martyrdom was wanting to complete our poet’s apotheosis.” Mr. Buchanan, being himself a poet, naturally chafes against the restraints of ordinary prose, and we are treated to a wonderful picture, in the highest style of fine language, of a “golden eagle sick to death, worn with age and famine, or with both, passing with weary waft of wing from promontory to promontory, from peak to peak, pursued by a crowd of prosperous rooks and crows, who fall screaming back whenever the noble bird turns his indignant head, and which follow frantically once more, hooting behind him, whenever he ascends again on his way.” This is all very fine no doubt in its way, but it may be thought to be hardly a fair description of the case of a dirty bird which is shunned on account of its unclean habits. Mr. Buchanan also breaks out into furious vituperation against all American publishers and men of letters, whom he abuses in the most vulgar terms; and warns the American nation collectively that its “honour will be tarnished eternally by the murder of its only remaining prophet.” Mr. Buchanan concludes by what is really an insulting appeal to his own countrymen, as “loving and revering” this apostle of beastliness, to give him “a substantial proof of the honour in which he is held here in the heart of England.”
Cleveland Daily Plain Dealer (20 March, 1876 - p.2)
Mr. Robert Buchanan, the poet and novelist, is well and widely appreciated as a writer and a man of intellect throughout the United States, but in loudly espousing the cause of Walt Whitman and parading before the British literary world his poetry to the detriment of the United States he acts a very ungracious and officiously impertinent part. Because Mr. Macdonald and some other eccentric critics of English verse choose to see beauties in the poetry of Mr. Whitman which American publishers and readers are unable to perceive, neither the poet nor his English friends have any reason to complain if the latter do not purchase an article which they consider in many cases unfit to lie upon their table. If Mr. Whitman is the neglected genius Mr. Macdonald would have us believe, he must recollect that were the United States to try her very utmost during the next century she could not hold a candle to the mother country in its cold and merciless neglect of that exceedingly rare commodity. In truth, there are but few among those whose works adorn the libraries of British poetry who, if they were alive to-day, could not point a bony finger at the native neglect and scorn. With the exception of Tennyson, we do not remember one single instance of a well paid poet in Great Britain; and Burns, the greatest song-writer the country ever produced, died in abject fear of a pauper’s grave. Mr. Whitman has not been neglected by the country. He held a government office at a good fair salary until it was found that his poetry occupied more of his attention than his desk. If he has been improvident that is not the nation’s fault, and for the present the United States does not regard his poetry of sufficiently enduring grandeur or originality to entitle him to more consideration than is given to others of his craft, viz.: the right to make a living in the way which seems unto him best. At the same time the United States, within recent years, has put a great deal of money into the pockets of hungry British authors and lecturers, and if they really wish to return the compliment we have not the slightest objection to their picking out the “good gray poet” and providing for his immediate necessities.—Chicago Inter-Ocean.
BY SYLVANUS URBAN, GENTLEMAN.
. . .
“THAT Walt Whitman is a great poet is now almost universally recognised,” wrote Mr. Arthur Clive in that article in this magazine last year on “The Trammels of Poetic Expression” which gave rise to so much interesting controversy on poetry with and poetry without rhyme and metrical rhythm; and presently he added, as a text for his subject: “A great poet has actually refused to write in rhyme or verse.” Some months later the same appreciative and eloquent critic, putting aside the moot point whether or not verse and metre are “trammels,” contributed a paper on the merits of Walt Whitman, which ended thus: -- “He is the noblest literary product of modern times, and his influence is invigorating and refining beyond expression.” The recollection of those articles has led Mr. Robert Buchanan—who speaks of Mr. Clive as “zealously and brilliantly advocating the claims of Walt Whitman to literary recognition”—to address a letter to SYLVANUS URBAN touching the present condition of Walt Whitman and the appeal that has been made in his behalf during the past month:—
To those who have not read my letter in the Daily News of March 13 (Mr. Buchanan proceeds), I may briefly recapitulate the particulars, which were first made current in the Athenæum, and are vouched for as true by the poet himself in a letter to Mr. W. M. Rossetti. It appears that Whitman is systematically ignored by American “publishers, editors, and booksellers”; that his attempts to earn a precarious livelihood by “contributing to the magazines” have been received with contempt and derision; that the “established” poets persistently turn their backs upon him; and that now, in his old age, poor and paralysed, he is lying at Camden, West Jersey, preparing with his own weary hands a complete edition of his works in two volumes, by the sale of which he tries “to keep the wolf from the door.” I need not repeat what I have already said in public concerning the conduct of Americans in general and American poets in particular towards Whitman; enough to say that it amounts to distinct persecution, and that some decades hence, when the great Bard of Democracy gains his apotheosis, the remembrance of this neglect will be sackcloth on the body and ashes on the head of America. That a man like this—the only bard America has yet produced (she has been prolific enough in singers), the greatest Voice and with one exception the most humane Presence that has yet trod that continent of gigantic powers and stupendous abominations—that Whitman should reach out his hands towards these Islands in protestation against the neglect and derision of his countrymen, is a terrible and a startling thing; only one thing could to my mind be more startling and terrible, and that would be British neglect of the appeal. Fortunately, for every admirer in America the “good gray poet” counts ten here, and still more fortunately, almost every member of the younger generation of poets (who, however they may quarrel among themselves, are quite content to meet here on a common platform of love and sympathy) already recognises Whitman as the greatest poetic individuality America has yet produced, as indeed the counterpart in literature of what Lincoln was in politics, or the supreme soul and conscience of the West. The difficulty here in England is to conquer a certain prejudice which has been diligently fostered by drawling gentlemen at dinner parties, and which affirms that the poetry of Whitman is barbaric, shapeless, and positively indecent; yet, indeed, it would be as wise to talk of the “barbarity” of Hafiz or the “indecency” of Shakespeare as to hurl such epithets against Walt Whitman. True, there are some half-dozen physiological pages in “Leaves of Grass” which are offensive to people who would blush over a medical textbook or find dirt in a diagram of the human body; and I have already said elsewhere that the poet might as well have left such particulars out, not because they are indecent in themselves, but because they are by no means necessary to his theme. Again, many readers may object to Whitman because he is a “democratic” poet; but here they are frightened by an adjective, and forget, if they knew, the utter catholicity of his religious and political creed. I have no hesitation in saying that any sane man, be his belief what it may, will find consolation and encouragement in this writer, whose divine mission it is to relegate mere belief to its proper place and to proclaim the righteousness of Work and “works.” The subject, however, is too vast a one to be discussed now. My object is simply to repeat my appeal to all lovers of poetry on behalf of a martyred man. It is proposed to purchase direct from Whitman a certain number of his collected works for circulation in England; and by the time this appears a committee will doubtless have been organised for the collection of the necessary funds. In the meantime subscriptions maybe addressed under care of Messrs. Strahan and Co., publishers, 36, Paternoster Row. If the movement thus begun is successful, Great Britain will at once have the pleasure, as ultimately she will have the glory, of rescuing one of the greatest and best of living men from the neglect and persecution of the literary class in America. Nay, I am sure that Americans themselves, when they learn the real state of affairs, will gladly co-operate with Englishmen, Scotchmen, and Irishmen to see justice done.
I NEED add nothing to my correspondent’s letter, but I take the liberty of making the timely quotation of a sonnet from Robert Buchanan’s “Collected Poems”:—
Walt Whitman, wert thou less serene and kind,
Daily Alta California (16 April, 1876)
MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN AND WALT. WHITMAN.
Mr. Robert Buchanan is an Englishman, or a Scotchman, a poet, and, in addition, an avowed admirer of Walt. Whitman, our American spinner out of verse—no, not of verse, but of words and ideas which he considers poetry and which certain English poets so consider, for instance, Buchanan, Rosetti, Browning, we believe, and probably many others. Whitman, who is poor and partially paralyzed, has written considerable, and it seems to vex our English brethren that our American public cannot be made to appreciate Mr. Whitman as a great poet. Buchanan claims him as the poet of the future, as Wagner claims for his music, that it is the music of the future. They may both be correct, for that the poetry of Whitman and the music of Wagner are of the present is a claim that few will accept as true. Whitman may be a very great poet, but we have not yet reached that height on Parnassus that we can appreciate and admire it.
The Daily News (25 April, 1876 - p.6)
(FROM OUR OWN CORRESPONDENT.)
NEW YORK, APRIL 5.
Mr. John Burroughs, whose name may not be familiar to you in England, though he has a reputation here among the literary class, writes a letter to the Tribune defending Walt Whitman and complaining of the Daily News. Mr. Burroughs, I am happy to say, has a better temper than some of the gentlemen who have mingled in this discussion on the other side of the Atlantic, and though he is a warm admirer of the poet whom Mr. Buchanan has painted as a sick eagle, he does not consider it necessary to abuse the hedge-row warblers like Longfellow and Emerson, and the whole of that tolerably large class of readers who persist in preferring “Evangeline” to “Leaves of Grass.” Does not abuse them, I should say, in set terms, but this extract from his judgment of Whitman carries a rather comical implication. “He seems to me,” says Mr. Burroughs, “about the only American poet that a man, apart from the versifier, the scholar, the professor, the gentleman of elegant leisure, &c., would want to read, because in him alone there is a breeze, bracing and masculine, as of the mountain or the shore. I am aware that there is something rude and forbidding about him, just as there is about the open air, and that certain delicate indoor temperaments cannot endure him; but it is so much the worse for them that they cannot. . . The trouble with Whitman is, he gives us something more and better than mere literature or art, and the main influence of his poems is in the direction of health, character, and manly activity, and can never be to beget a critical, sophisticated, or over intellectual race, which is the tendency of literary culture as such. What he gives us is well oxygenated; it is red arterial blood, and has in it the making of virile robust men. Can the same thing be said of the works of our popular poets?” Mr. Burroughs believes that in cultivated times like ours, the great mass of poetry is worthless stuff, written out of an atmosphere “rotten with poetic and literary consciousness;” and, if I understand a rather obscure passage in his letter, he looks forward to a time when the highest form of art shall be “the analogue of the power and informality of elemental nature”—which seems to me very much like no art at all. Whitman gives us a glimpse of this chaotic future, and “it is a kind of disloyalty to nature to say that he has no form. He has not form as a house, or a shield, or a heart, or a moulder’s pattern, or a sonnet of Hood’s, or a dainty bit of verse by Longfellow has form; but he has form as a tree, a river, the clouds, a cataract, a flash of lightning, or any vital and progressive thing has form, and this is all the form he aims at.” Mr. Burroughs reminds me of General Cyrus Choke and the Honourable Elijah Pogram—but no matter.
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