ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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A Letter from Tennyson’s Brother

 

I have to thank Grace Timmins, Collections Officer of the Tennyson Research Centre, for remembering my interest in Buchanan and for spotting this reference to him in a letter from Rev. Charles Tennyson Turner to Mr. Williamson.

 

Grasby Vicarage
near Caistor
Lincolnshire
August the 5th
         1872.

My dear Mr Williamson,

                   Tyrie was a kindly poetical soul, no doubt, & your extract from his letter is simple & graceful. From the little I have seen of Buchanan, I do not doubt his genius & I hope he keeps clear of an approach to the “fleshly school” which he named so well & so justly condemned. God has instilled into the human heart (at least since Sin entered into the world) a modest reticence about certain things without which poetry may be to a certain extent lovely, but Christianity is never prurient. I do not accuse Buchanan of this, but, whether he himself is aware of it or not, it (his very sweet little poem) is somewhat too suggestive and I do not see why we should take pleasure in obtruding heathen love on Christian readers. His “Lark” contains some sweet imaginative touches.
         Your 2d Sonnet of “Things Great & Small” I like best, & the concluding lines of the 1st Sonnet on “Death & Fame” about “the Sunset flame of mighty triumph” & the quiet issuing forth of the Primrose likened to the silent stealing forth of the Evening Star in your “Sabbath-Eve. Indeed, I prefer this Sonnet to the rest.

                   Believe me
                   My dear Mr Williamson
                   Yours very sincerely
                   Charles Turner

___

 

It would appear from the context of the letter that Mr. Williamson had sent a copy of one of Buchanan’s poems to Rev. Turner, or maybe alerted him to its publication, which he considered ‘fleshly’. The ‘Fleshly School’ article was published in the October, 1871 edition of The Contemporary Review and the pamphlet version appeared in May of the following year. During 1872 Buchanan was also providing copy, under his own and a variety of other names, for The Saint Pauls Magazine, so I would suggest it was one of the poems which had been printed there. Given the date of the letter and Rev. Turner’s mention of ‘heathen love’, I would guess at either ‘Pan’, which was published in the June edition, but which does not seem ‘fleshly’ at all, or, a more likely candidate is ‘The Asrai’ from the April edition. All of this is pure speculation on my part, but, since ‘The Asrai’ was not republished until the 1884 Poetical Works (which is not available on this site as yet) I thought I would add it below. The other poem of Buchanan’s which Rev. Turner mentions is presumably ‘A Lark’s Flight’, which was originally published, anonymously, in The Spectator of 22nd August, 1868, but was then reprinted, with Buchanan’s name, in the May, 1870 edition of Good Words. It was later included in the ‘London Poems’ section of the 1884 Poetical Works and is available here.

 

THE ASRAI.

 

’TIS midnight, and the light upon my desk
Burns dim and blue, and flickers as I read
The gold-clasp’d tome, whose stainëd yellow leaves
Feel spongy to the touch yet rough with dust,
When Clari, from her chamber overhead,
Her bright hair flowing brighter from the brush,
Steals in, and peeps, and sits upon my knee,
And winds her gentle arms around my neck,
Then sidelong peeping, on the page antique
Rains her warm looks, and kisses as I read.

“Before man grew of the four elements
The Asrai grew of three—fire, water, air—
Not earth,—they were not earthly. That was ere
The opening of the golden eye of day:
The world was silvern,—moonlight mystical
Flooded her glimmering continents and seas,—
And in green places the pale Asrai walked
To deep and melancholy melody,
Musing, and cast no shades.
                                           “These could not die
As men die: Death came later; pale yet fair,
Pensive yet happy, in the silvern light
The Asrai wander’d, choosing for their homes
All gentle places—valleys mossy deep,
Star-haunted waters, yellow strips of sand
Kissing the bright edge of the glittering sea,
And glittering caverns in the gaunt hill-sides
Frosted with gems and dripping diamond dews
In mossy basins where the water black
Bubbled with wondrous breath. The world was pale,
And these were things of pallor; flowers and scents,
All glittering things, came later; later still,
Ambition, with thin hand upon his heart,
Crept out of heaven and hung the heights of earth
With lights miraculous; later still, man dug
Out of the caves the thick and golden glue
That knits together the stone ribs of earth;
Nor flowers, nor scents, the pallid Asrai knew,
Nor burning aspiration heavenward,
Nor blind dejection downward under earth
After the things that glitter. Their desires
Shone stationary—gentle love they knew
For one another—and in their pale world
Silent they walked and mused, knowing no guile,
With lives that flow’d within as quietly
As rain-drops dripping with bright measured beat
From mossy cavern-eaves.”
                                               O Love! My love!
How thy heart beats! how the fond kisses rain!
We cannot love like those—ours is a pain,
A tumult, a delirium, a dream.
O little one of four sweet elements,
Fire on thy face, and moisture in thine eyes,
Thy white breast heaving with the rich rare air,
And in thy heart and on thy kissing mouth
The warmth, the joy, the impulse, and delight
Of the enamour’d gentle-hearted earth
Bright with the flowery fulness of the sun!

 

One result of the ‘Fleshly School’ affair was that Buchanan became regarded in some circles as a defender of public morals. To counteract this perception he did write a number of poems which might be considered ‘fleshly’, including two for the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1874: ‘Eros Athanatos’ and ‘The God-like Love’. A review of the October edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine in The Nonconformist included the following:

‘And will Mr. Buchanan ever write again on the “Fleshly School” after sinning a second time, as he does this month, in “The God-like Love”? Nothing more “fleshly” was ever written than the stanzas on Danae.’

Perhaps this letter from Tennyson’s brother is an earlier example of religious disquiet about Buchanan straying from the path of righteousness.

___

 

Grace Timmins sent me another letter, this time from Mr. D. R. Williamson to Rev. Charles Tennyson Turner, but it is not connected to the one above (it is dated February, 1877) and there is no mention of Buchanan, so I have not bothered transcribing it. However, it did help me to identify Mr. Williamson. In The St. James’s Magazine (Vol. XXXI, January to June, 1877) there are two sonnets by D. R. Williamson, as well as a short essay, ‘On Poetry’ (available at the Internet Archive). The Internet Archive also has a book of poetry by David R. Williamson (Minister of Kirkmaiden, Wigtownshire) entitled Poems of Nature and Life (Edinburgh, London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1888). The book includes the sonnet, ‘Death & Fame’ (still not sure about the ‘Fame’ but given the context, it might be right) mentioned by Rev. Turner in his letter, under the title, ‘Unfulfilled Renown’. And ‘A Sunset Scene’ (From ‘Sabbath Eve in a Valley’) includes the bit about the primrose and the evening star. There is also a poem which mentions Buchanan, so I thought it worth adding here.

‘The Chosen of the Poets’ by David R. Williamson, from Poems of Nature and Life, pp. 87-92):

 

THE CHOSEN OF THE POETS.

THE time had come at length, when to the chiefs
Of soaring Singers, queenly Fame should give
According to their deeds. Sublime she sat
Upon a lofty throne, on either side
Encircled by those mighty Minds whose Muse,
Endowed with her undying life, had braved
The dissolution of the darksome grave.
Fearing the direful doom of those who bear
All their pure memory with them to the dust,
Pass into dim Oblivion like pale stars
Before the blaze of day, and leave no light
Behind them that the great world may behold
As ever-living beauty, three had come,
With hope deep burning in their pensive hearts,
Like glow-worm in the night, to give account                                     88
Of their high deeds to Fame.
                                                   And first 1 of these
Was he who Truth and Chivalry had sung
In pure Arthurian verse, while others poured
The darkness of their passions o’er the world.
Around his head was bound a circling wreath
Of verdant laurel, given by the Queen
Of that green Land which blossomed in the light
Of his belovèd Muse. Erect he stood,
A venerable Bard, in quiet pride
Of modesty, while veneration shone
Like sunshine through the hazel of his eyes.
Then softly said the Queen: “What hast thou done,
That I should give thee Immortality?”
The Bard’s deep voice fell on the silence sweet
Of that majestic Temple, as the sound
Of long waves melting on the Summer shore.
And slowly, as if weighing well his words,

     1 Tennyson.

That fell upon the ear like drops of rain                                              89
On a still Summer sea, he spake: “O Fame!
That I have striven through my length of days
To sing of all things pure and beautiful
That this dim world of mystery can show,
Or man’s high life unfold, thou knowest well.
To elevate my Art; to purify
The passionate sea of poetry that rolls
In grandeur round the world, with living springs
From the clear fount of Nature; to disclose
Those hidden flowers of loveliness that lurk,
Minute yet beautiful, in lonely ways,
Known only to the searching soul that sees
A sweetness in the small things of the earth,—
Has been the one great glory of my life.
The music of my mind.”
                                             Then the Queen:
     “O noble Bard! thy words are pure and true;
Sweet with the unheard melodies of Peace.
Within my Temple thou shalt ever pour
Thy purity of song.”
                                     And next came one, 1                                   90
Who sang the life of man in verse that bore
The freshness of the breezes to the mind.
Passion alone he needed, to have thrilled
The great heart of the world. Tall he stood,
Manly and modest, for his earnest soul
Was deep with meditation, and the love
Of all things peaceful blossomed in his gaze.
Reverently he spake: “O gracious Fame!
Though thy sweet smile is mine, thou knowest well
It was not my ambition. Ever filled
With lowliest love of sacred Truth, I wrought,
I fought for her alone. Well I know,
My Muse has not illumined all the world.
And why I am permitted thus to stand
One of three Singers of a glorious reign,
Thy chosen of so many who have sung
Of Love and Beauty, and some things less pure,—
I cannot clearly, wholly comprehend.

     1 Matthew Arnold.

A few high hearts alone have found a grace                                       91
In my calm numbers. Yet, O thanks to God!
I have not courted favour, wrought my way
Through flowers of flattery, to where I stand,
Waiting thy word to-day.”
                                               Then in a voice
Of sweetest music from her starry throne
She spake, while the mild moonlight of her gaze
Made glory in the Temple. Perfect peace
Waited upon her words. “O lofty Soul!
There is a secret sweetness in thy heart
That men have never known. Ascend and sing,
Rich with my wreath, a never-ending song.”
And last 1 of these the grandeur of whose mind,
Mingled with purity of life, had gained
Admittance to that sacred Fane which lay
Open but to the noblest, came a Bard,
Whose song was sunshine in those city-streets,

     1 Robert Buchanan. This poem refers only to the poets of the Victorian age.

Where Pathos dwells with Sin. His high heart set                               92
To music the deep sadness of the world.
A mildness dwelt within his glowing eyes,
A glory on his snowy brow.—Then Fame:
“What hast thou done for immortality?”
As with a sad sea-cadence rose the voice
Of him who stood before her.—“I have sung
Of scenes unsung before. My Muse has made
Sweet melody beside the lonely couch,
Where Poverty lay dying. I have found
A grandeur in the lowliest life that dwells
In depths of darkest misery and sin.”
Then lofty Fame: “Great heart! thy words are true.
More than the Bard art thou; for thou hast been
The Poet’s friend. Across that roaring stream
Which foams between thee and the dark Unknown,
Thy hand was stretched to save the sinking soul.
Thy song was not in vain. Thy Muse has shed
A splendour in the dark ways of the world.
Thy strains shall rise in grandeur o’er thy grave!”

___

 

Poems of Nature and Life received this brief review in the Pall Mall Gazette (30 March 1889 - p.3):

     Mr. Williamson’s “Poems of Nature and Life” are as orthodox in spirit as they are commonplace in form. A few harmless heresies of art and thought would do this poet no harm. Nearly everything that he says has been said before, and said better. The only original thing in the volume is the description of Mr. Robert Buchanan’s “grandeur of mind.” This is decidedly new.

_____

 

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Home
Biography
Bibliography

 

Poetry
Plays
Fiction

 

Essays
Reviews
Letters

 

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

 

The Critical Response
Harriett Jay
Miscellanea

 

Links
Site Diary
Site Search