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The Book of Orm: a prelude to the epic (1870)


Buchanan’s Book of Orm was published in the spring of 1870, around the same time as D. G. Rossetti’s Poems, and occasionally the two works were reviewed in the same issue of magazines or newspapers. John A. Cassidy has surmised that the universal praise for Rossetti, compared to the more qualified reception of The Book of Orm, could have been a factor in Buchanan’s later attack on Rossetti, so I have included the Rossetti reviews where appropriate. Other reviews of Rossetti’s Poems, unrelated to The Book of Orm, are available in the Fleshly School Controversy section.]


The Book of Orm: a prelude to the epic (1870)


The Athenæum (30 January, 1869 - No. 2153, p.178)


. . .

     Mr. Robert Buchanan has two works on the eve of publication: a new poem entitled ‘The Book of Orm: a Prelude to the Epic’; and a prose volume of picture and adventure, portions of which have appeared in the Spectator, entitled ‘Hebrides: the Cruise of the Tern through the Scottish Isles.’



The Oban Times (9 April, 1870 - p.2)

     “THE BOOK OF ORM.”—Mr Robert Buchanan, author of “London Poems,” Undertones, &c., has just issued a new book from the press of Messrs Strahan & Co., London. It is “The Book of the Visions seen by Orm the Celt,” and contains the following songs and visions:—“The First Song of the Veil,” “The Man and the Shadow,” “Songs of Corruption,” “The Soul and the Dwelling,” “Songs of Seeking,” “The Lifting of the Veil,” “Coruisken Sonnets,” “The Coruisken Vision,” “The Devil’s Mystics,” “The Man Accurst.” Mr Buchanan has been a residenter in the neighbourhood of Oban for about a year.



The Nonconformist (18 May, 1870)



     Mr. Buchanan’s genius has struck root into [a] new form of life and feeling—subtle, delicate, and marvellously fair, and charged with all the mystery and wonder that seem to rest upon the cheek of a dying maiden, or the first glance of the eyes of a wakening child. Of his ability to catch coarse and common forms of feeling, and to give them a kind of bald dramatic setting—the poetic light suffusing the hidden side, and giving a tone of purity to the whole, yet never escaping round the outline to create a nimbus about it—we had of course had ample proof in his “London Poems,” and some of his earlier idylls. Sometimes, indeed, we were compelled to blame him for what appeared an occasional touch of coarseness, suggesting too much of the earth, earthy. We had, too, in these poems a constant return upon the mystery of nature, a rapt listening to the messages of winds and waves and clouds; but there was unmistakeably some feeling as if of a puzzle and contradiction that kept nature and man absolutely apart—an oppression and a terrible disjuncture which gave an undertone of pathetic impatience and an unrestful haunting sense of a problem yet unsolved. When poor  “Liz” goes to the country and is so overcome by the purity and health of its suggestion, that she must rush back to the City, with its smoke and mire and sin for the sake of imperative relief, the poet expresses more the ground of his own relations to nature and to man than any feeling possible to such a character in such circumstances as she was placed in.
     But in “Orm the Celt” Mr. Buchanan has found an excellent medium for bringing the mystery of man’s life into direct contact with the mystery of nature, and exhibiting them in their direct and mutually operative influences. The substance of this volume is properly the problems of the world, and the re-statement of them finds dramatic justification in the place and function of the Celtic genius in the world’s development. All is touched with the faint, far-drawn light of the wan morning moon; and there is a ghostliness about the form of the whole conception; for it is the Celtic phantasy that Mr. Buchanan uses to veil or to reveal (as it may be) the story of a remarkably strong interior life, such as we believe few would have credited that the author of “London Poems” was undergoing when he was painting these perhaps too strongly individualised portraits. We cannot, therefore, feel ourselves safe in saying that Mr. Buchanan has given us a volume likely to be more popular than any former one of his, but we candidly think he has written what will surprise, and should tend to reconcile, some of those who have heretofore criticised him with something like unsympathetic dislike. For ourselves, we frankly confess that some of our prejudices have vanished in the joy felt in the pure spirituality, and loving trustful peace which flows through these poems, like a clear wimpling streamlet smiling through tortuous highland wilds, bare, rugged, mysterious and crowned with clouds, and mists, and snows. The “Song of the Veil,” with which the book opens, is the lyric of man’s individuality, determined by the faith in God, whom yet to see face to face were but misery and death in the brightness of an ineffable consuming glory.

“Yet mark me closely!
     Strongly I swear,
Seen or seen not,
     The Face is there.
When the Veil is clearest
     And sunniest,
Closest and nearest
     The Face is prest.
But when, grown weary
With long down-looking,
The Face withdrawing
     For a time is gone,
The great Veil darkens,
And ye see full clearly
Glittering numberless
     The gems thereon.
For the lamp of his features
Divinely burning,
Shines, and suffuses
     The Veil with light,
And the face drawn backward,
With that deep sighing
Ye hear in the gloaming,
     Leaves ye the night.”

     The halo of the Celtic glamour that wells and spreads round all the problems of life is there, and the measure is most happily used to express it. We have not quoted this passage as being the most effective in the book; but only as showing how characteristically Mr. Buchanan has caught the Celtic spirit, and how completely he can adapt his rhythms to express it. “The Songs of the Veil” are the various forms in which the questionings as to this primal mystery have revealed themselves, as read through the Celtic character; and indeed there is an attempt throughout the book to indirectly deal with the main lines of philosophic thought of the present day. The poem—the “Philosophers”—in this section, and several others further on, are decisive proof of this.
     “The Man and the Shadow,” is meant to exhibit the unfading reality of that alone in human life and experience which seems in the eye of sense the most unreal and phantasmal, and here we have some most exquisite passages of blank verse. “Songs of Corruption,” is the next section. With sufficient significance, too, for it is intended to exhibit how, through the pathway of corruption and death, the shadow at once justifies its essential reality, and by tender memories keeps closer hold of the phantasy; and how, wanting this process of death and visible change by which we are led on gently from the sweet pleasure of delight in the visible to a still deeper joy in the unseen world, we were but miserable wanderers through ever-lengthening vales of tears. Death is the great justifier and crown-bringer of the shadow; the churchyard is the perpetual peaceful witness of the true reality of man.

“Now at the bottom of a snowy mountain
I came upon a woman thin with sorrow,
Whose voice was like the crying of a sea-gull,

Saying, ‘O Angel of the Lord, come hither,
And bring me him I seek for on thy bosom,
That I may close his eyelids and embrace him.

I curse thee that I cannot look upon him!
I curse thee that I know not he is sleeping!
Yet know that he has vanished upon God!

I laid my little girl upon a wood-bier,
And very sweet she seemed, and near unto me;
And slipping flowers into her shroud was comfort.

I put my silver mother in the darkness,
And kissed her, and was solaced by her kisses,
And set a stone, to mark the place, above her.#

And green, green were their quiet sleeping-places,
So green that it was pleasant to remember
That I and my tall man would sleep beside them.”

The closing of dead eyelids is not dreadful,
For comfort comes upon us when we close them,
And tears fall, and our sorrow grows familiar;

And we can sit above them where they slumber,
And spin a dreary pain into a sweetness,
And know indeed that we are very near them.

And again this put into the mouth of another:—

“ ‘Whither, and O whither,’ said the woman,
‘O Spirit of the Lord, hast thou conveyed them,
My little ones, my little son and daughter?

For, lo! we wandered forth at early morning,
And winds were blowing round us, and their mouths
Blew rosebuds to the rosebuds, and their eyes

Looked violets at the violets, and their hair
Made sunshine in the sunshine, and their passing
Left a pleasure in the dewy leaves behind them;

And suddenly my little son looked upward,
And his eyes were dried like dewdrops; and his going
Was like a blow of fire upon my face.

And my little son was gone. My little daughter
Looked round me for him, clinging to my vesture;
But the Lord had drawn him from me, and I knew it

By the sign he gives the stricken, that the lost one
Lingers nowhere on the earth, on hill or valley,
Neither underneath the grasses nor the tree-roots.
     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .

I sought him in the sunlight and the starlight,
I sought him in great forests, and in waters
Where I saw mine own pale image looking at me.

And I forgot my little bright-haired daughter,
Though her voice was like a wild-bird’s far behind me,
Till the voice ceased, and the universe was silent.

And stilly, in the starlight, came I backward
To the forest where I missed him; and no voices
Brake the stillness as I stooped down in the starlight,

And saw two little shoes filled up with dew,
And no mark of little footsteps any farther,
And knew my little daughter had gone also.’”

This, then, is the lyric of the bliss and comfort of death and corruption.
     “The Songs of Seeking” reveal the strange off-glance of Christianity which looks through all the strivings of spiritual man; and we have here fitly towards the close the poem of “The Lamb of God,” which is very pure and beautiful; the ripple of whose sweet glowing music is soon disturbed by the upraised tokens of doom that so strangely trouble men’s hopes. In what follows—The Lifting of the Veil, Coruisken Sonnets, &c.—we see figured forth the strange strivings of man towards a rest which eludes him through the distressful problems of parting, and the pain ensuing from the upliftings of the veil in these awful dispensations;—some of these sonnets being remarkably beautiful. In the “Devils Mystics” we have “The Philosophers,” which begins thus:—

“We are the Drinkers of Hemlock!
     Lo! we sit apart,
Each right hand is uplifted,
     Each left hand holds a heart;
At our feet rolls by the tumult,
     O’er our heads the still stars gleam—
We are the Drinkers of Hemlock!
     We drink and dream!”

And then comes “Homunculus; or the Song of Deicides,” whose reference will be clearly enough seen from a few stanzas:—

Homunculus! Homunculus!
Not ever shalt thou conquer us;
Zeus, Astaroth, Brahm, and Menu,
With all the Gods, white, black, and blue,
Are fallen, and while I murmur thus
Strong, and more strong, Homunculus
Upon a Teuton Jackass rides,
Singing the Song of Deicides.

It seems but yesterday the dim
And solitary germ of him
Glimmered most strangely on my sense,
While, with my microscope intense,
I search’d a Beast’s brain-cavern dark—
A germ—a gleam—a cell—a spark—
Grown to Homunculus, who rides
To my sad Song of Deicides.

O had I then so far foreseen,
This day of doom had never been;
For, with a drop of fire from hell,
I would have killed the feeble cell.
Too late, too late! for slow and strange
He has passed the darker spheres of change,
Lo! he emerges—shouts, derides
Singing the Song of Deicides!”

     “The Vision of the Man Accurst,” is a most powerful poem, justifying the thought of ultimate restoration even to the worst of men, and exhibiting the peculiar form of hope and faith which the Celtic mind, in its incapacity to fix itself to definite forms of belief, is destined to throw across the later conclusions respecting the final destiny of humanity. No idea could possibly be given of the poem by any extract—to attempt it would simply be like cutting off a part of a living thing to show the beauty of its life, but we are sure that no reader could read this poem without being touched to tender sympathy, and to some enlargement of human hopes.
     Mr. Buchanan has given us a mournful, but at the same time a mournfully tender and beautiful revelation of himself, in a new and unexpected light. We shall look forward with intense interest to the “Epic of Orm,” which is already promised. If the prelude to the feast is so delicate and various, the feast itself must prove surpassing rich and delicious. It is with no slight regret we observe that Mr. Buchanan’s continued illness has rendered it necessary for him to put forth this poem, mystically and tenderly beautiful as it is, in an incomplete form. “Continued ill-health,” he writes in a note, “compels the omission of two poems—‘A Rune found in the Starlight,’ and ‘The Song of Heaven’—which, although written, cannot be rendered perfect for press. Section IX. is also incomplete, wanting the all-important ‘Devil’s Dirge,’ which, however, will be added in a future edition.”

     * The Book of Orm. A Prelude to the Epic. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. (Strahan and Co.)



The Athenæum (28 May, 1870)


The Book of Orm: a Prelude to the Epic. By Robert Buchanan. (Strahan & Co.)

NOT only in the title, but also in much of the contents of this volume there is a certain mystery, or mistiness, which we do not profess to be able entirely to disperse. It is said on its title-page to the “a prelude to the Epic”; and a kind of brief proem is headed ‘The Book of the Visions seen by Orm the Celt,’ and thus begins:—

There is a mortal, and his name is Orm,
Born in the evening of the world, and looking
Back from the sunset to the gates of morning.

     The body of the book is divided into ten sections, comprising altogether some seventy poems, mostly short, in a variety of metres; and the whole work owes such homogeneity as it possesses not to any ground-plan, nor to any continuous threads of narrative, of characterization or of reflection, but to the general hue of the recurrent thoughts. The old puzzles of good and evil, fate and freewill, God and Man, are reproduced again by this modern singer, and handled after his own fashion, which in some considerable measure is also the fashion of the present time. The conventional orthodox doctrines on many of the questions most interesting to man as a moral and religious being Mr. Buchanan strenuously and often indignantly rejects:—

For I cried: O Thou Unseen, how shall I praise Thee—
How shall I name Thee glorious whom I know not?—
If Thou art as these say, I scarce conceive Thee.

     He frequently denounces those who judge others with a pretence of heavenly authority, as in these lines, entitled ‘God’s Dream’:—

I hear a voice, “How should God pardon sin?
How should He save the sinner with the sinless?
That would be ill: the Lord my God is just.”

Further I hear, “How should God pardon lust?
How should He comfort the adulteress?
That would be foul: the Lord my God is pure.”

Further I hear, “How should God pardon blood?
How should the murtherer have a place in heaven
Beside the innocent life he took away?”

And God is on His throne; and in a dream
Sees mortals making figures out of clay,
Shapen like men, and calling them God’s angels.

And sees the shapes look up into His eyes,
Exclaiming, “Thou dost ill to save this man;
Damn Thou this woman, and curse this cut-throat, Lord!”

God dreams this, and His dreaming is the world;
And thou and I are dreams within His dream;
And nothing dieth God hath dreamt or thought.

     The poet’s sympathy with the view sometimes called Universalism is expressed in some striking forms, lyrically on page 117, and further on in a blank-verse poem of some length, which is the last in the volume, entitled ‘The Man Accurst.’ This is an expansion of the saying of somebody (was it Leigh Hunt, or did Leigh Hunt only quote it with approval?) that the knowledge that one human being was suffering eternal torture would be enough to destroy the happiness of Heaven—an opinion very unlike that of St. Jerome, who was in hopes of actually seeing from his blissful seat the torments of multitudes of men, women and children, and of deriving from it a delicious gratification;—so widely may good men differ. In Mr. Buchanan’s poem, which has striking points in treatment, the fierce cry of the Man Accurst rings through Heaven; at last the Lord asks if any one will go forth to him; then,

                               like mournful mist
That hovers o’er an autumn pool, two Shapes,
Beautiful, human, glided to the Gate,
And waited.

They are willing to go forth to the Accurst one:—

                                     Then said the Lord,
“What Shapes are these who speak?” The Seraph answer’d:
“The woman who bore him and the wife he wed—
The one he slew in anger—the other he stript,
With ravenous claws, of raiment and of food.”
Then said the Lord, “Doth the Man hear?” “He hears,”
Answer’d the Seraph; “like a wolf he lies,
Venomous, bloody, dark, a thing accurst,
And hearkeneth, with no sign!” Then said the Lord:
“Show them the Man,” and the pale Seraph cried,
         *          *         *          *         *
“He lieth like a log in the wild blast,
And as he lieth, lo! one sitting takes
His head into her lap, and moans his name,
And smoothes his matted hair from off his brow,
And croons in a low voice a cradle song;
And lo! the other kneeleth at his side,
Half-shrinking in the old habit of her fear,
Yet hungering with her eyes, and passionately
Kissing his bloody hands.”

The man weeps; and he is permitted to enter the Gate.
     Two of the most striking poems in conception are, we think, ‘The Dream if the World without Death,’ in which human beings are supposed to disappear, when their time comes, without any of the circumstances of dissolution and corruption; showing how much more appalling the former alternative would be; and, secondly, ‘The Lifting of the Veil,’ in which the effect that God’s immediate and visible presence, continual and inevitable, might have upon us in this present world of ours, is pictured forth in a vision, which thus culminates:—

And methought, affrighted,
     That the mortal race
Built cover’d cities
     To hide the Face;
And gather’d their treasures
     Of silver and gold,
And sat amid them
     In caverns cold;
And ever nightly,
When the Face of Wonder
     Withdrew from man,
Many started,
And hideous revel
     Of the dark began.
And men no longer
Knew the common sorrow,
The common yearning,
     The common love,
But each man’s features
Were turn’d to marble,
Changelessly watching
     The Face above—
A nameless trouble
     Was in the air—
The heart of the World
Had no pulsation—
’Twas a piteous Sabbath

     This extract brings us to consider the metrical forms which Mr. Buchanan has chosen to employ in his present volume. The above is not, to our mind, satisfactory in point of form; but there are many passages which are still less so; for example—

As in the snowy stillness,
         Where the stars shine greenly
     In a mirror of ice,
The Reindeer abideth alone,
And speedeth swiftly
From her following shadow
         In the moon,—
I speed for ever
From the mystic shape
That my life projects,
And my soul perceives.

     Here and elsewhere ‘The Book of Orm’ is looser than ‘Thalaba,’ and almost as shapeless as Walt Whitman himself. Mr. Buchanan is a practised and skilful metrist, as he proves in this very volume, and we would submit to his own consideration whether many of the lines printed as lyrical are not more like a first rough copy than like finished work. Several recent writers ( and among them we should reckon Mr. Matthew Arnold) have been led astray, as we conceive, by the impressiveness of certain passages translated into English in loose unrhymed quasi-metres, from great poets like Goethe or Sophocles, forgetting that these owe nearly all their power to the weight of matter of the thought and to the prestige of the original, helped slightly (very slightly in most cases) by some faint reflex of the force of the original language and verse-form. Deliberately to choose such a shuffling and slipshod gait under the pretence of tripping it along lightly and harmoniously in true lyrical measure, is treason to Euterpe. Mr. Buchanan, as we have said, can write very differently from this, when he will give himself the trouble. His blank verse is not only picturesque but often sonorous; and his sonnets, of which there are near three dozen in these pages, show, among other high merits, a strong feeling for metre. ‘The Motion of the Mists’ would have delighted Wordsworth,—especially if he had written it himself—but we will quote in preference a picture of a gentler scene and a milder mood:—

O sing, clear Brook, sing on, while in a dream
     I feel the sweetness of the years go by!
The crags and peaks are softened now, and seem
     Gently to sleep against the gentle sky;
     Old scenes and faces glimmer up and die,
With outlines of sweet thought obscured too long;
     Like boys that shout at play far voices cry;
O sing! for I am weeping at the song.
I know not what I am, but only know
     I have had glimpses tongue may never speak;
No more I balance human joy and woe,
     But think of my transgressions, and am meek.
Father! forgive the child who fretted so,—
     His proud heart yields,—the tears are on his cheek!

     Some of the subjects treated in ‘The Book of Orm’ are handled in a spirit which may to some appear too daring, and the whole is full of modern sadness and unrest; but we cannot doubt that the poet’s sympathies are with goodness and true beauty, and that in his promised Epic he will not fail to show that man’s becoming attitude in presence of the great mysteries of the Universe is one not of cowardice but of humility.



The Examiner (28 May, 1870)

     The Book of Orm. By Robert Buchanan. Strahan and Co.

     Mr Buchanan is favourably known to the public by his ‘Undertones’—a series of colour-pictures of the old Greek legends—and by several volumes of narrative-poetry, in which, with great cleverness, a number of rough and uncultivated men and women are made to assume the sensitiveness and utter the language of finer natures. He now adventures upon the region of theology and mysticism; and we observe, from an advertisement, that his next effort is to be an epic. This vacillation of purpose may be the result either of immaturity or of a grave doubt on the part of the writer as to which is his proper bent. That is a problem which we cannot assist him in solving—a young man must almost of necessity chop and change about until he discovers where his greatest strength lies. To say that Mr Buchanan’s work is full of promise would be offering an insult to an author who has written so much and written so well; and yet we cannot help thinking that this tremulousness and indecision point to a certain lack of development. Indeed, Mr Buchanan’s ‘Undertones’ seem to us to have more originality and complete work in them than anything he has written since; and we are bound to confess that the present work—undeniably picturesque and expressive as it is in parts—has less than any of his other books of this character. We do not think Mr Buchanan has been in this instance fortunate in his choice of a subject. The Christian religion was not particularly in want of his help; even if it were possible for him to have said something new on a theme that the greatest intellects of the world have puzzled over. Mr Buchanan’s method of treatment is short and simple. If a reader were to lose sight of the picturesque writing of the ‘Book of Orm,’ and merely state its argument, he would probably put the matter in this way: “In the beginning two and two were five. But a veil was drawn over that circumstance, and men of science, philosophers, and such people, came to consider that two and two were four. This is a mistake; for I, the poet, can see through the veil, and I give you my word that two and two are five. If you do not agree with me, you are an ass and an unbeliever, fit for nothing but the bottomless pit.” Now we have heard something of this way of reasoning before; and we do not think it mends matters much. We admit, however, that it is very unfair to ask of mystical poetry what it really means; and, to do justice to the ‘Book of Orm,’ we must look at its power of harmonious sounds, its occasional felicities of epithet, and to frequent glimpses of nature of a very vivid and refreshing kind. If Mr Buchanan does not paint large and impressive pictures, he shows, at least, that he is alive to the colours and forms of a landscape; and we have many happy phrases in this book descriptive of the misty aspect of Highland scenery. Mr Buchanan should, however, avoid the constant use of the word “scream,” which comes into these imaginative pictures at most unseasonable times. Everything in his writings “screams,”—from a partridge to a mountain—although it is only the ear of a poet that has ever heard either give forth such a peculiar note. But for the line which describes Blaabhein (the mountain, we presume, which Alexander Smith called Blavin) as uttering

“An indistinct and senile scream,”

the sonnet referring to this mountain would be very good indeed. Very good, too, is the companion sonnet, called “The Hills on their Thrones.” With all desire to do justice to the “Book of Orm,” we must acknowledge our preference for those parts of it which are most widely disconnected from its principal topic—the doings and sayings of the Celtic seer. Some portions of the latter (for instance, the verses entitled “Roses”) may express some meaning of the author; but they will be to the vast majority of readers merely unintelligible. We are bound to speak thus of the book, because Mr Buchanan is an author who deserves criticism; and the best we can hope for him is that in the epic forthcoming (to which the book is stated to be a prelude) he will put forward some of that strength which we know he possesses.



Glasgow Herald (16 June, 1870)


THE BOOK OF ORM: A Prelude to the Epic. By Robert Buchanan. London: Strahan & Co.

“WHICH things are an allegory,” would be a fitting text to Mr Buchanan’s new volume. A plain man reading the book—if we can imagine plain men attracted to “The Book of Orm” at all—would be apt to scratch his head, and inquire what it all meant. Probably, the plain man’s bewilderment would be the measure of his understanding. Yet we can imagine very clever readers puzzling over some of these poems, and honestly wondering what evil spirit it was that tempted Mr Buchanan to disguise what meaning he had in forms that almost no common reader can be expected to understand, or will take the trouble to penetrate. The central figure in the work is Orm the Celt, out of whom, or round whom, the various visions, songs, psalms, and serious satires issue and flicker like poetic nebulæ:—

There is a mortal, and his name is Orm,
Born in the evening of the world, and looking
Back from the sunset to the gates of morning.

In a couple of preliminary text-verses, the poet says:—

Read these faint runes of Mystery,
O Celt, at home and o’er the sea;
The bond is loosed—the poor are free—
The world’s great future rests with thee!

Till the soil—bid cities rise—
Be strong, O Celt—be rich, be wise—
But still, with those divine grave eyes,
Respect the realm of mysteries.

Evidently, if these lines mean anything, the poet is of opinion that the Celtic race are a chosen people, since, as he says, the world’s great future rests with them. Or by “Celt” does he mean some special representative feature in the whole race of man, possessed perhaps in greatest abundance by the Celtic people? One of the great predominating features in the Celtic race is their inextinguishable belief in the supernatural, and in all the mysteries issuing, or which are supposed to issue thence. It is to the “Celt, at home and o’er the sea,” that the book seems, figuratively, addressed; and it is, if one may say so, to the mystical and supernatural ear of the Celtic people, or the Celtic spirit in general humanity, that the poet (or Orm, in the sunset of life) chants his “mystical lore.” Let the Celt—or the Celtic in man—till the soil, build cities, grow rich, and become wise; but, with all their getting and growing, if they wish to remain great, let them still “respect the realm of mysteries.”
     This is very well, so far. There is little fear that the “Celt,” either as a race of men, or as an attribute of man, will cease yet awhile, at least to believe in the realm of mysteries. In any proper sense, however, respect for mysteries can only come with knowledge—the knowledge which enables a man to distinguish between the hallucinations of ignorant or morbid imagination, and those genuine problems of existence which the profoundest human genius armed with the highest culture can never expect to solve. We can only respect mysteries when we have proved that they are not human inventions and delusions. There is much still unknown that is not mystery; and though human progress has been over the ruins of so-called mysteries, the realm of genuine mystery has not been thereby diminished. When the “Book of Orm” has been read, a suspicion lurks in the mind of the reader that it is all a poetic delusion, or views of facts veiled in a mist of words, and much twisted in the veiling. One thing can be justly said, namely, that, while the poet counsels those to whom the visions are addressed to “respect the realm of mystery,” he himself does not show a good example in that species of duty. Towards the higher mysteries, the “Book of Orm” seems in some respects the most disrespectful volume of verse that ever issued from the brain of Celt or sinner. All the problems that have ever tortured the soul of religion, the mind of philosophy, or the spirit of poetry, appear and disappear through Orm’s visions in a manner the most fantastic and audacious. Here are a couple of examples from “Songs of Seeking”:—


Master, if there be Doom,
     All men are bereaven!
If, in the universe,
One Spirit receive the curse,
     Alas for Heaven!
If there be Doom for one,
     Thou, Master, art undone.

Were I a Soul in heaven,
     Afar from pain,
Yea, on Thy breast of snow,
At the scream of one below
     I should scream again.
Art thou less piteous than
     The conception of a Man?


                   GOD’S DREAM.

I hear a voice, “How should God pardon sin?
How should He save the sinner with the sinless?
That would be ill: the Lord my God is just.”

Further I hear, “How should God pardon lust?
How should He comfort the adulteress?
That would be foul: the Lord my God is pure.”

Further I hear, “How should God pardon blood?
How should the murtherer have a place in heaven
Beside the innocent life he took away?”

And God is on his throne; and in a dream
Sees mortals making figures out of clay,
Shapen like men, and calling them God’s angels.

And sees the shapes look up into His eyes,
Exclaiming, “Thou dost ill to save this man;
Damn Thou this woman, and curse this cut-throat, Lord!”

God dreams this, and His dreaming is the world;
And thou and I are dreams within His dream;
And nothing dieth God hath dreamt or thought.

The “Song of the Veil,” and the “Lifting of the Veil” contain some fine lines and images; but the kind of verse adopted is poor and unmelodious—a happy-go-lucky, hop-step-and-jump sort of measure—much better adapted for nursery rhyming than for singing of the profoundest religious mysteries. Among the poems called “The Devil’s Mystics,” there are things which have been written or dreamed in Orm’s most Satanic and satirical mood. With all their cleverness, however, and some of them are very clever, there is hardly a gleam of true poetry in any of them. From one called “The Seeds,” which is allegorical of the creation of living things, from the grass to man, we quote some verses:—

When standing in the perfect light
     I saw the first-born Mortal rise—
The flower of things he stood his height
     With melancholy eyes.
“Grow, Seed! blossom, Brain!
     Deepen, deepen, into pain!”

From all the rest he drew apart,
And stood erect on the green sod,
Holding his hand upon his heart,
     And looking up at God!
“Grow, Seed! blossom, Brain!
     Deepen, deepen, into pain!”

He stood so terrible, so dread,
     With right hand lifted pale and proud,
God feared the thing he fashionëd,
     And fled into a cloud.
“Grow, Seed! blossom, Brain!
     Deepen, deepen, into pain!”

And since that day He hid away
     Man hath not seen the Face that fled,
And the wild question of that day
     Hath not been answerëd.
“Grow, Seed! blossom, Brain!
Deepen, deepen, into pain!”

And since that day, with cloudy face,
     Of his own handiwork afraid,
God from His heavenly hiding-place
     Peers on the thing He made.
“Grow, Seed! blossom, Brain!
Deepen, deepen, into pain!”

That is pretty bold for Orm the Celt, not to mention the poet at all.
     In the middle of the book occur a number of sonnets, which one should hardly have expected from a Celt like Orm—the sonnet being the most unceltic of all forms of composition. They are of very unequal merit; but a few are strong, and some are very fine, though the following is the only one which looks like an inspiration:—


Christ help me! whither would my dark thoughts run!
     I look around me, trembling fearfully;
The dreadful silence of the Silent One
     Freezes my lips, and all is sad to see.
     Hark! hark! what small voice murmurs “God made me!
It is the Brooklet, singing all alone,
Sparkling with pleasure that is all its own,
     And running, self-contented, sweet, and free.
O Brooklet, born where never grass is green,
     Finding the stony hill and flowing fleet,
Thou comest as a Messenger serene,
     With shining wings and silver-sandal’d feet;
Faint falls thy music on a Soul unclean,
     And, in a moment, all the World looks sweet!

     The last poem in the volume—“The Vision of the Man Accursed”—is the one which shows most power, if it does not contain most poetry. It is definite and complete. Its plan is unique and perfect, its aim is grand, and its effect is truly great. The “man accursed” is the only man unsaved at the Judgment Day. He has sinned all sins—killed his mother and horribly abused his wife. He is so very bad that there seems no hope for him. It is asked, however, whether any spirit in heaven will go out and lighten the burden, by sharing the exile, of the detestable creature. His mother and wife go out, and, by their tender ministries, soften the man’s heart, so that he weeps, and is at last saved. The poem is worked out with great force, and points apparently to the final redemption of all mankind.
     We may mention, in conclusion, that “The Book of Orm” is only “a Prelude to the Epic.” But for this statement we should be inclined to say that for once Mr Buchanan had made a mistake. Probably, however, the Epic may throw light on, and save, the “Book of Orm;” but if the Prelude is to be regarded as an indication of the Epic, then there is danger of a double blunder. Two such books as this could do little good to the reputation of a worse poet than Mr Buchanan, and they might easily spoil the reputation of a better. These words do not preclude us from saying that there is much fine poetry sprinkled up and down the volume; but, as a whole, the work falls very far short of what we were fairly warranted in expecting. Moreover, the spirit of the poems is not genuinely Celtic—although, curiously enough, the book is dated “Coruisk,” a fiendish-looking loch amid tremendous mountains in Isle of Skye, seven or eight miles from any human habitation—pretty much as if a poet were to date a volume from “Ben Nevis” or “The Devil’s Staircase,” in Glencoe. We feel bound to say that, had Mr Buchanan filled his volume with poems equal in greatness of conception, clearness of thought, and definiteness of purpose to “The Man Accursed,” it might have won a distinct place in our poetic literature. Still, in spite of many distortions of unintelligible theology and metaphysics, the “Book of Orm” is worth reading. There are noble, pious, poetic, and profound things in it, which the earnest student may profitably search for, and probably find.



The Daily Telegraph (20 June, 1870 - p.5)

     Mr. Robert Buchanan’s new work, “The Book of Orm; a Prelude to the Epic” (Strahan and Co.), is of unequal merits; but all its merits are high. Musical intonation, graceful expression, fit choice of forcible and significant words, perfect command of rhythm and rhyme—all the literary and mechanical characteristics of the best poetry—abound here. But the claims of the book are considerably higher. It is not absolutely obvious what Mr. Buchanan meant to be the burthen, the moral, or lesson, of his poem. Somewhat disjointed in the form of its original conception, made perhaps even more jerky and inconsequent in places through the author’s ill health, “The Book of Orm” may be broadly described as an indignant, half-articulate protest against the disguised and distorted shape in which Man has so often presented God to his fellow-men. The indignation reaches a wild and tempestuous, almost, it might seem, a blasphemous pitch in a series of powerful compositions entitled “Coruisken Sonnets,” singularly clear in their utterance and close in their sequence; in which, passing through mad, defiant moods, the poet culminates with a declaration of Divine futility and helplessness, and suddenly finds all the clue to the mystery of God in the human manifestation of His nature—sinks into peace in the revelation of Christianity, which disarms of all terrors the angry Deity of Man’s own creation, and reconciles the humanity of God with the divinity of man. Orm the Celt is supposed to see visions and dream dreams in some far back age of the world’s history—certainly at a time too far back to justify Mr. Buchanan in putting into his mouth a reference to a “watch” as an illustration or simile. Of those visions there are two—the “Dream of the World without Death,” and the “Vision of the Man Accurst”—which, for power and beauty, deserve to rank with the highest English poetry of the present or the past generation. In the first, there is a marvellous blending of pathos, profound sympathy, and powerful word-painting, as the author slays the fear and the horror of death, by showing us what infinitely worse states of things we should suffer if death were simply a vanishing, and left no ashes behind for kindly care and not unhopeful mourning. And, in the second poem, there is a majesty and a beauty, a tenderness and deep teaching of love, which show Mr. Buchanan as the very best and noblest manifestation of his undoubted poetic genius. The passages of the book that are cast in the mould of the old Sagas are, perhaps, the least satisfactory; but they are only a small proportion; and not only in the choice of measure, but in the manipulation of his verse, the author shows a wealth and vigour rare among the songsters of our day. “The Book of Orm” is a volume to be read and re-read with pleasure and potent teaching; and parts of it will long survive the generation that saw its birth.



The Spectator (25 June, 1870 - p.13-14)


IN a previous volume of poems,—two or three of which are republished here in their natural connection, with a great additional number of the same cycle,—Mr. Buchanan gave us specimens of studies after the genius of the Celtic  literature, i.e., of the wild, and tender, and ghostly treatment of the emblems of Nature, as if she were, not what Wordsworth and his school found or made her, a minister of human strength and wisdom, a rich field whence the hardy spirit of self-possessing humanity can draw an endless store of joy and guidance, but rather a mighty and mystic phantom, scaring us with strange hieroglyphs of infinite meaning, and startling our ears as with the inarticulate moan of a waste and “melancholy ocean.” Had not Mr. Buchanan shown in previous volumes with how strong and true a hand he can draw what is definite and positive in human life, this volume of almost banshee-like lamentations and weird prophecy might have seemed to some the mere wails and presages of a morbid imagination. But from the man who has written the Legends of Inverburn and the London Lyrics, who has told us the stories of ‘Liz’ and ‘Nell,’ and of the ill-conditioned tailor and his worse-conditioned starling, we may feel certain that these ghostly fancies are no results of the weakness which shrinks from the realities of human life.
     And yet there can be no doubt that this is in every respect a very ghostly book,—ghostly, we mean, not in the old sense in which ‘ghostly’ is identical with ‘spiritual,’ but in the more ordinary modern sense in which ‘ghostly’ expresses that aspect of spiritual things which curdles the natural blood within the veins, and makes “the hair of the flesh stand up,” because a spirit passes before your face of which you cannot discern the form. That feeling of blind sensitiveness to influences in which no trust is felt, that kind of shiver of the soul and body which the old superstition attributes to the tread of some mortal foot above the spot where your body is destined to lie, runs through almost every page of this book. Mr. Buchanan begins with describing,—

“How God in the beginning drew
Over His face the Veil of blue,
Wherefore no soul of mortal race
Hath ever looked upon the Face,”

and telling us that Earth once had the full vision of her Master and Creator; but that when man came to live on earth she was struck blind and dumb, lest she should tell him too much for his peace. Earth’s wise men, using the utmost resources of science, fail to pierce behind the veil, and report to the people that there is no God, and that it is better not to be, as they descend wearily from their dreary heights of frigid speculation. After this pröem on the mystery which seems to draw a physical veil over the face of God, there follow various books intended to illustrate the analogous mystery of the physical veil which is drawn over the soul of man, and its uses,—the shadow of fear ever haunting the body, and yet the body in some sense softening the violence of purely spiritual changes. Both the unity and the discord between the soul and the body are insisted upon with a weird emphasis:—

“My Soul, thou art wed
     To a perishable thing,
But death from thy strange mate
Shall sever thee full soon,
If thou wilt reap wings,
Take all the Flesh can give:

The touch of the smelling dead,
The kiss of the maiden’s mouth,
The sorrow, the hope, the fear,
That floweth along the veins:
Take all, nor be afraid;
Cling close to thy mortal mate!”

In contrast to this strongly-flavoured assertion of the lesson which the carnal has for the spiritual part of man, take the following equally strong assertion of the imprisoning and eclipsing character of the bodily tenement which the soul inhabits:—

                                 “Not yet, not yet,
One dweller in a mortal tenement
Can know what secret faces hide away
Within the neighbouring dwelling. Ah! beloved,
The mystery, the mystery! We cry
For God’s face, who have never looked upon
The poorest Soul’s face in the wonderful
Soul-haunted world. A spirit once there dwelt
Beside me, close as thou—two wedded souls,
We mingled—flesh was mixed with flesh—we knew
All joys, all unreserves of mingled life—
Yea, not a sunbeam filled the house of one
But touched the other’s threshold. Hear me swear
I never knew that Soul! All touch, all sound,
All light was insufficient. The Soul, pent
In its strange chambers, cried to mine in vain—
We saw each other not: but oftentimes
When I was glad, the windows of my neighbour
Were dark and drawn, as for a funeral;
And sometimes, when, most weary of the world,
My Soul was looking forth at dead of night,
I saw the neighbouring dwelling brightly lit,
The happy windows flooded full of light,
As if a feast were being held within.”

From this delineation of the mystery inherent in the tie between soul and flesh, Mr. Buchanan returns again to the other and still deeper mystery of the relation between man and God, and in a series of short but passionate poems expresses the sense of mystery excited by God’s apparent tolerance of evil, rejects the ‘severe’ codes of religion which justify the condemnation of sinners to enduring pain, and cries for a revelation of the true divine life behind the veil. Then he answers his own impatient cry in a striking dream of the petrifying effect which a real unveiling of the infinite Life would have upon such finite natures as ours. The veil of blue is supposed to be drawn aside, and the immutable face of the Almighty seen gazing calmly down on earth, with this result:—

“At the city gateway
The Sentinels gather’d,
Fearful and drunken
     With eyes like glass—
Look up they dared not,
Lest, to their terror,
Some luminous Angel
     Of awe should pass;
And my Soul passed swiftly
     With a prayer,
And entered the City:—
Still and awful
     Were street and square.
’Twas a piteous Sabbath
Each soul an eyeball,
     Each face a stare.

In pale groups gather’d
     The Citizens,
The rich and poor men,
The lords, the lepers
     From their loathsome dens.
There was no traffic,
The heart of the City
     Stood silently;
How could they barter,
How could they traffic,
     With the terrible Eyes to see.
Nay! each man brooded
     On the Face alone,
Each Soul was an eyeball,
     Each Shape was a stone;
And I saw the faces,
     And some were glad,
And some were pensive,
     And some were mad;
But in all places,
     Hall, street, and lane,—
’Twas a frozen pleasure,
     A frozen pain.”

We hardly apprehend the relation of the section which follows to the plan of the book. It consists of a number of sonnets, apparently written near Loch Coruisk in the island of Skye, and representing the varying moods and emotions of man toward the Divine Ruler,—from bitter rebellion to profound humility and repentance,—and scarcely seems to contribute anything to the progress of the thought. It repeats the complaint of God’s invisibility, of which a mystical explanation had been already offered, accuses God of being at once beautiful and pitiless, and altogether seems to be a return to an earlier stage in the development of the thought. Last, come sections in which a more or less coherent attempt is made to explain away all moral evil as ‘defect,’ and justify the existence even of sin and temptation as forms of good. We will give a specimen, not by any means the finest, but one of the shortest and most easily separable from the context:—


‘Sad, and sweet, and wise,
     Here a child reposes,
Dust is on his eyes,
Quietly he lies,—
     Satan, strew Roses!’

Weeping low, creeping slow,
     Came the Weary-wingëd;
Roses red over the dead
     Quietly he flingëd.

‘I am old,’ he thought,
     ‘And the world’s day closes;
Pale and fever-fraught,
Sadly have I brought
     These blood-red Roses.’

By his side the mother came
     Shudderingly creeping;
The Devil’s and the woman’s heart
     Bitterly were weeping.

‘Swift he came and swift he flew,
     Hopeless he reposes;
Waiting on is weary too,—
Wherefore on his grave we strew
     Bitter, withering Roses.’

The Devil gripped the woman’s heart,
     With gall he staunched its bleeding;
Far away, beyond the day,
     The Lord heard interceding.

‘Lord God, One in Three!
     Sure Thy anger closes;
Yesterday I died, and see
The Weary-wingëd over me
     Bitterly streweth Roses.’

The voice cried out, ‘Rejoice! rejoice!
     There shall be sleep for evil!’
And all the sweetness of God’s voice
     Passed strangely through the Devil.”

—of which it is, we suppose, the general drift to teach that the spirit of evil itself bewails the death of innocence, strews its grave with blossoms which represent something more than innocence, namely, love and the red life-blood of self- immolation, and strengthens that parent humanity which gave birth to innocence, so that it is able to endure its loss,—in return for which that childlike innocence which died but has recovered a transfigured life in a purer world, prays for the pardon of the spirit which has thus strewn its grave with the most perfect blossoms of beauty, and is assured that its prayer shall be heard. The rest among this cycle of poems are all in the same general strain, intended to hint that,—

                                 “All evil is defect;
The limb deformed for common use of life
Defect,—but haply in the line of growth.”

—to which in general Mr. Buchanan seems to add that the body which limits the soul, and the physical aspects of the universe which limit our knowledge of God, are also what he deems moral evil, “defect, but in the line of growth,”—a creed which he works out with much depth and beauty, and, let us add, a creed in no way necessarily connected with his theory of moral evil. On the contrary, the only way in which we can explain the false interpretation which we so often put on mere “defect,” is by supposing that there is in man a deep and direct sense of absolute responsibility and guilt, though without any means of measuring how much of its appearance in others is due to “defect,” and how much to absolute sin. Of course, we cannot be expected to accord any very special admiration to the creed which Mr. Buchanan has chosen for poetic illustration, of which many articles appear to us false and shallow, nor is his method free from confusions and repetitions. Indeed, the poems themselves, subtle and powerful as they frequently are, convey little of that sense of rest in the mind of the poet which one would expect from an imaginative statement of a poet’s heartfelt creed. On the contrary, they not unfrequently burn with the fever of Shelley’s hectic effusions, and the Coruisken sonnets especially show alternations of mood which seem to us to break the design of the poem as far as we have apprehended it.
     Still, taken as a whole,—and we must remember that the author himself asserts that this book is not only still partly unfinished, but when finished only a prelude to another poem, which will embody more fully his conception of life,—the Book of Orm is certainly a striking attempt to combine a quasi-Ossianic treatment of Nature with a philosophy of rebellion rising into something like a Pantheistic vision of the necessity of evil. Considered solely as poetry, and without any relation to its intellectual thesis, Mr. Buchanan appears to us to have succeeded in giving a thoroughly weird and ghostly effect to the whole series of poems, and, as we said in commencing, much more ghostly than spiritual. His quasi- physical conception both of moral evil and of God comes half-way, as it were, to meet his quasi-spiritual conception of the body and the universe, and the whole effect of the book is to represent the greater phenomena of the moral life, as a kind of weird involuntary motion of the mists and vapours on a mountain brow. In the following fine sonnet is contained as in a germ the spirit both of the philosophy and of the emotion of the whole volume:—


I think this is the very stillest place
     On all God’s earth, and yet no rest is here.
The Vapours mirror’d in the black loch’s face
     Drift on like frantic shapes and disappear;
     A never-ceasing murmur in mine ear
Tells me of Waters wild that flow and flow.
     There is no rest at all afar or near,
Only a sense of things that moan and go.
And lo! the still small life these limbs contain
     I feel flows on like those, restless and proud;
Before that breathing nought within my brain
     Pauses, but all drifts on like mist and cloud;
Only the bald Peaks and the Stones remain,
     Frozen before Thee, desolate and bowed.”

Mr. Buchanan might fairly have taken as his motto, along with the quotation from Lord Bacon, the two finest lines of this sonnet,—

“There is no rest at all afar or near,
Only a sense of things that moan and go.”


     * The Book of Orm: a Prelude to the Epic. By Robert Buchanan. Strahan and Co.



Illustrated Times (25 June, 1870)


The Book of Orm—a Prelude to the Epic. By ROBERT BUCHANAN.
London: Strahan and Co..

     Everybody will regret that the state of Mr. Buchanan’s health prevents his completing at present the scheme of which this volume is a hint—a large, powerful, and beautiful hint, and one that is sufficiently illuminatory for readers of a certain class, but still scarcely even a hint for the majority of the public, and leaving some work for the most apprehensive lovers of mystical poetry. In these striking—often startling— poems, there is plenty to enjoy; but we want more, and it is to be hoped we shall before long have the remainder of the design before us. In the mean while, it is little to the credit of the “Saxon” that this appeal, in the name of the mysticism of the “Celt,” to his apprehensiveness has met, here and there, with so very dull a reception. People should really remember that their own understandings and sensibilities are not necessarily the measure of all that may profitably or beautifully be said or sung, and that when a man who is otherwise sane says something which appears to them meaningless, it may be their own want of sensibility which is in fault. There is a class of perceptions and emotions which exists in a greater or less degree in every human mind: though some people are faintly conscious of them, others barely at all. These perceptions and emotions are naturally busied with the inscrutable things of life and their symbols in nature, and are perpetually striving in minds oppressed by them to become more and more articulate; but wholly articulate they never can become. They try hard in music, poetry, and the other arts; but we are never satisfied with what these say for us, unless they make us feel that there is something more which they cannot say. The borderland in which what can be definitely put shades off into what cannot is the realm of mystery. In that realm  birth, death, corruption, beauty, love, hate, sin, God; life, past, present, and to come; stars, clouds, seas, mountains, winds, flowers, and running waters, lightnings, sunshine, and darkness become related. Night is deathly; the brook is peaceful and glad; the breath of the flower is tender; the hills are mighty; the winds have voices; and the stars are the eyes of God. To expect poetry which is conversant with this realm of mystery to read like Sir Walter Scott, or Byron’s story- poems, or Crabbe, or Chaucer, is as absurd as to go to the binomial theorem for spiritual consolation. Nor is it less so to expect such poetry to yield all its meaning at one glance. It was not intended to be plain and straightforward. It was designed expressly to affect the mind through the medium of certain special sensibilities.
     Now, some of the criticism to which these poems of Mr. Buchanan have been submitted is as ridiculous as would be a complaint that an æolian harp uttered nothing intelligible. But let us look at a poem or two out of this book. Take the


Wherever men sinned and wept,
I wandered in my quest;
At last in a Garden of God
I saw the Flower of the World.

This Flower had human eyes,
Its breath was the breath of the mouth;
Sunlight and starlight came,
And the Flower drank bliss from both.

Whatever was base and unclean,
Whatever was sad and strange,
Was piled around its roots;
It drew its strength from the same.

Whatever was formless and base
Pass’d into fineness and form;
Whatever was lifeless and mean
Grew into beautiful bloom.

Then I thought, “O Flower of the World!
Miraculous Blossom of things,
Light as a faint wreath of snow
Thou tremblest to fall in the wind.

“O beautiful Flower of the World,
Fall not nor wither away;
He is coming—He cannot be far—
The Lord of the Flow’rs and the Stars.

And I cried, “O Spirit divine!
That walkest the garden unseen,
Come hither and bless, ere it dies,
The beautiful Flower of the World.”

Quoted by itself, or read inattentively, this poem may prove almost as devoid of articulate meaning as one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words; but there is something wanting in the structure of the mind which it does not instantly affect. Now let us take two sonnets. First:


O Thou art beautiful! and Thou dost bestow
     Thy beauty on this stillness—still as sheep
     The Hills lie under Thee; the waters deep
Murmur for joy of Thee; the voids below
Mirror Thy strange fair vapours as they flow;
     And now, afar upon the ashen height,
     Thou sendest down a radiant look of light,
So that the still peaks glisten, and a glow
Rose-colour’d tints the little snowy cloud
     That poises on the highest peak of all.
O Thou art beautiful!—the hills are bowed
     Beneath Thee; on Thy name the soft Winds call—
The monstrous ocean trumpets it aloud,
     The rains and snows intone it as they fall.



Here by the sunless lake there is no air,
     Yet with how ceaseless motion, with how strange
     Flowing and fading, do the high mists range
The gloomy gorges of the mountains bare.
Some weary breathing never ceases there,—
     The ashen peaks can feel it hour by hour;
     The purple depths are darken’d by its power;
A soundless breath, a trouble all things share
That feel it come and go. See! onward swim
     The ghostly mists, from silent land to land,
From gulf to gulf; now the whole air grows dim—
     Like living men, darkling a space, they stand.
But lo! a sunbeam, like a Cherubim,
     Scatters them onward with a flaming brand.

Here we have utterance much more definite, though the colouring is still highly mystical, and God is at once in the world and above the world in the first sonnet; and in the second conscious life fluctuates between the soul and what it sees. Several of the poems are much less intelligible; and the merit is, of course, not equally distributed. But we thing some of the work is, of its kind, as high as any the world has yet seen. Mr. Buchanan is aware, and frankly confesses, that there may be touches here and there of what is morbid; and there are. But our object is chiefly to call careful attention to a volume of poetry which, with some faults, is almost surcharged with beauty and significance, wonderfully fine in workmanship, and entitled to the serious study of readers who really care for poetry.



The Westminster Review (July, 1870 - Vol. 94, p. 107)

     A note prefixed to Mr. Buchanan’s “Book of Orm” 21 states that continued ill-health compels the omission of two poems, “A Rune found in the Starlight” and the “Song of Heaven.” From the same cause, too, we regret to learn that section ix. is incomplete, and wants an all-important canto. Of course such important omissions preclude us from passing and final judgment on the work. We will not take upon ourselves to decide how far the state of Mr. Buchanan’s health has affected what we already possess. Certainly the poem, as it stands, is pervaded with a wild, feverish unrest. Mr. Buchanan’s mind appears to be in a transitional state. We think, considering the vast importance of the subject, that it is a pity he did not adopt the Horatian maxim. The passages which we like best may most of them be found in the section entitled “The Man and the Shadow.” Mr. Buchanan is here himself again. He treads the firm ground of reality. His descriptions are clear and sharp-cut. Take for instance the following picture:—

                                 “Here let us pause:
Here, where the grass gleams emerald, and the spring
Upbubbling faintly seemeth as a sound,
A drowsy hum heard in the mind itself—
Here, in this stillness, let us pause and mark
The many-coloured picture. Far beneath
Sleepeth the glassy ocean like a sheet
Of liquid mother-o’-pearl, and on its rim
A ship sleeps, and the shadow of the ship;
Astern the reef juts darkly, edged with foam
Thro’ the smooth brine: oh, hark! how loudly sings
A wild, weird ditty to a watery tune,
The fisher among his nets upon the shore;
And yonder, far away, his shouting bairns
Are running, dwarf’d by distance small as mice,
Along the yellow sands. Behind us, see
The immeasurable mountains, rising silent
Against the fields of dreamy blue, wherein
The rayless crescent of the mid-day moon
Lies like a reaper’s sickle; and before us
The immeasurable mountains, rising silent
From bourne to bourne, from knolls of thyme and heather
To leafless slopes of granite, from the slopes
Of granite to the dim and ashen heights
Where, with a silver glimmer, silently
Pausing, the white cloud sheds miraculous snow.”
                                                                         —(pp. 80, 81.)

There is a sustained beauty and simplicity about this passage which show that Mr. Buchanan has lost none of his old cunning. From the same section, however, other passages equally fine and simple might easily be quoted. Of the remaining sections the “Songs of Seeking” are perhaps the most remarkable. A more spiritual insight is revealed than we have before noticed in any of Mr. Buchanan’s writings. Here his progress is most fully seen. The feeling is both deep and pure. “The Devil’s Mystics” are somewhat too acrid; but it is at present impossible to judge of them in their incompleted state. The power, however, is undoubted. With this short notice, we must close our account of a book which will most certainly leave an impression upon the younger minds of the present generation.
     Mr. Rossetti, 22 like Spenser and Keats, is the poet’s poet. He has already received the highest praise. He has been praised by the praiseworthy. No two such remarkable criticisms have appeared, in our generation at least, as those upon Mr. Rossetti’s poem by Swinburne and Morris. Those reviews show clearly what poets find to love in poetry. Rossetti’s poems are steeped in an element of beauty. They possess the “beauty making beautiful old rhyme,” which poets prize. He delights, too, in that form which is such a puzzle to the ordinary, earless, unrhythmical reader, that Steevens affirmed that it would require an Act of Parliament to make the public read the sonnets of Shakspeare. Yet the sonnet is the form in which the great poets delight. The form yields itself to the perfection of art. And the sweetest and daintiest poem in the present volume are the sonnets. As Meres said of Shakspeare’s, they are sugared. Perhaps some of them are oversweet. A few, as “Nuptial Sleep,” “The Supreme Surrender,” and some others, are only to be read in solitude. Here, however, is one which appeals with its Shakspearian wealth of imagery, no less than its Shakspearian sense of melancholiness, to all hearts:—


“Once more the changed year’s turning wheel returns:
     And as a girl sails balanced in the wind,
     And now before and now again behind
Stoops as it swoops, with cheek that laughs and burns,—
So Spring comes merry towards me here, but earns
     No answering smile from me, whose life is twin’d
     With the dead boughs that Winter still must bind,
And whom to-day the Spring no more concerns.
Behold, this crocus is a withering flame;
     This snowdrop, snow; this apple-blossom’s part
     To breed the fruit that breeds the serpent’s art.
Nay, for these Spring-flowers, turn thy face from them,
Nor gaze till on the year’s last lily-stem
     The white cup shrivels round the golden heart.”

     But it is the wide octave which Mr. Rossetti sketches, which impresses us most. Nearly every metre may be found in the compass of this small volume, and each has yielded new music. He has given us infinite variety, from the sweetness of the sonnets up to the weirdness of “Sister Helen,” with its wild lilt. Each poem, however short, is marked by an individuality of its own. And there is no test of genius like this. Just as we say such and such a piece is Wordsworthian, so we should say, now that we have been let into the secret, this is Rossetti. Mr. Rossetti has, in fact, widened the limits of poetry. He has also dared to treat subjects which no other modern poet has dared. And his success is his best justification. Of “Jenny” it may be truly said, omnia munda mundis, immunda immundis. Of the songs we can simply say that, except in Shakspeare and Goethe, we know of none where thought and pathos are linked together in such melody. Our praise, however, will probably not seem so very extravagant by those who can feel the beauty of the following:—


“In a soft-complexioned sky,
     Fleeting rose and kindling grey,
Have you seen Aurora fly
     At the break of day?
     So my maiden, so my plighted may,*
Blushing cheek and gleaming eye
     Lifts to look my way.

Where the inmost leaf is stirred
     With the heart-beat of the grove,
Have you heard a hidden bird
     Cast her note above?
     So my lady, so my lovely love,
Echoing Cupid’s prompted word,
     Makes a tune thereof.

Have you seen, at heaven’s mid-height,
     In the moon-rack’s ebb and tide,
Venus leap forth burning white,
     Dian pale and hide?
So my bright breast-jewel, so my bride,
     One sweet night, when fear takes flight,
Shall leap against my side.”

     After reading this we think every one will exclaim with us, “Here is a new singer!”


     21 “The Book of Orm.” A Prelude to the Epic. By Robert Buchanan. London: Strahan and Co. 1870.
     22 “Poems.” By Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Third Edition. London: F. S. Ellis. 1870.

                         * May, a maid.
     “The fairest may she was that ever went.”
                                       SPENSER. Sh. Kal.
     The way in which Mr. Rossetti has instinctively, as it were, selected some of the most beautiful of our forgotten words is not amongst the least of the charms of his poetry.



John Bull (23 July, 1870 - p.12)

The Book of Orm. By Robert Buchanan.—London: Strahan and Co., 1870.

     Mr. Buchanan is a poet with many admirers, and his imaginative power and command of language are no doubt very great. He is decidedly not one of the commonplace poetasters who so grievously vex our spirit. But still the “Book of Orm” is not much to our taste. We are no great lovers of the spasmodic school of poetry, and we have not encountered anything more spasmodic since the time when Alexander Smith ushered that school into the world. No doubt many passages in it are very striking, and the lurid glow which pervades it is at times impressive; but, as a whole, it is a poem which will be read with more pain than pleasure. Exaggeration of language and a not unfrequent overstepping of the narrow limit which separates the sublime from the ridiculous are faults into which Mr. Buchanan too often falls. The following specimen, which is not without a certain grandeur of conception, however we may quarrel with the details, illustrates the characteristic defects and merits of the author in a remarkable manner:—

O hoary hills, tho’ ye look aged, ye
     Are but the children of a latter time—
     Methinks I see ye in that hour sublime,
When from the hissing cauldron of the sea
Ye were upheaven, while so terribly
     The clouds boiled, and the lightning scorched ye bare.
Wild, new-born, blind Titans in agony,
     Ye glared at heaven through folds of fiery hair! . . . . .
Then, in an instant, while ye trembled thus,
A hand from heaven, white and luminous,
     Passed o’er your brows and husht your fiery breath.
Lo! one by one the still stars gather’d round,
The great deep glassed itself, and with no sound
     A cold snow glimmering fell, and all was still as death.

     The series of sonnets from which this is taken are open to yet graver objection, and, we most own, appear to us to border very closely on the blasphemous. This is strong language, but if the reader will turn, for example, to the fourteenth sonnet, headed “Could God be Judged,” he will hardly think it too strong. To some the most striking and powerful poem in the volume, the “Vision of the Man Accurst,” may seem open to the same charge, but not we think with so much justice. We hope that when the Epic appears, to which the present volume is announced to be the Prelude, we shall find the author somewhat more careful in this respect. We would also hope, though this is perhaps too much to expect, that there will less in it to remind ns of the brilliant satire of “Firmilian,” the effect of which has been so beneficial to most of Mr. Alexander Smith’s disciples, though apparently lost hitherto upon Mr. Buchanan. If Professor Aytoun were still alive, the “Book of Orm” would be sufficient to goad him into a second “Student of Badajoz.”



The Scotsman (28 July, 1870 - p. 6)

THE BOOK OF ORM: A Prelude to the Epic. By Robert Buchanan. Strahan & Co.

“READ these faint runes of mystery.” We have done so, and with what feeling? There is but one way of expressing it, and it is by saying that “The Book of Orm” impresses one precisely as music heard at a distance. Too far away to catch the meaning of the sound, unable to follow the rises and falls and modulations, the ear is gratified by the stream of pleasingly monotonous sound, and may extract greater delight from this soothing monotony than from the quick and fatiguing successions of varied notes. And the indistinct imagery, the vague meaning, the repetitions, of “The Book of Orm” act precisely like distant music. We know not very well what is meant; we nevertheless listen with a pleasure felt we hardly know why. Take, for example, these verses:—

“Yet mark me closely!
     Strongly I swear,
Seen or seen not,
     The Face is there:
When the Veil is clearest
     And sunniest,
Closest and nearest
     The Face is prest;
But when, grown weary
With long downlooking,
The Face withdrawing
     For a time is gone,
The great Veil darkens,
And ye see full clearly
Glittering numberless
     The gems thereon.
For the lamp of his features
Divinely burning,
Shines, and suffuses
     The Veil with light,
And the Face, drawn backward
With that deep sighing
Ye hear in the gloaming,
     Leaves ye the Night.
     Thus it befell to men
Graveward they journeyed,
From waking to sleeping,
     In doubt and in fear,
Evermore hoping,
Evermore seeking,
Nevermore guessing
     The Master so near:
Making strange idols,
Rearing fair Temples,
Crying, denying,
Questioning, dreaming,
Nevermore certain
     Of God and his grace,—
Evermore craving
To look on a token,
To gaze on the Face.”

“The Book of Orm” we can imagine delighting one of mystical mind. He could dream what he liked into these vague words. There are so much raw material to be worked up into whatever shape he pleases, and one may make of it what one pleases.



Book Reviews - Poetry continued

The Book of Orm (1870) - continued








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