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Saint Abe and his Seven Wives (1872) - continued


The Pall Mall Gazette (25 January, 1872)


AMERICAN authors have had a happy time in England lately. Especially fortunate have been the poets of America, and they most lucky who have least deserved the good opinion of the world. There seems to be a constant necessity for the gratification of a savage taste in some shape: in dress, in domestic furniture, in house building, in the collection of all sorts of earthenware crudities and monstrosities. And, strangely enough, this perversion of taste, common amongst the common and in common things, appears with equal frequency amongst the devotees of poetry and the arts. Titania fondling the ass’s ears is a mere epitome of the way in which the favours of the public are bestowed sometimes—at any rate amongst the Gothic nations. Nothing but a prevalent literary madness, for instance, could have given a day’s reputation to such coarsely stupid compositions as the Breitman Ballads, the fun of which is never of a higher quality than is to be found at a country fair. According to our view of things, any man of sense would sooner be caught laughing at the contest for the pig with the soapy tail than at the humour of productions that read thus, when they are written in a plain and not in broken English.

Hans Breitmann gave a party;
     They had piano playing;
I fell in love with an American girl,
     Her name was Matilda Jane.
She had hair as brown as a plum-cake,
     Her eyes were heavenly blue,
And when they looked into mine
     They split my heart in two.

Hans Breitmann gave a party,
     I went there you’ll be bound;
I waltzed with Matilda Jane
     And went spinning round and round.
The prettiest damsel in the house
     She weighed two hundred pound;
And every time she gave a jump
     She made the windows sound.

But this poor nonsense—illumined by the fun of spelling “party” “barty,” “jump” “joomp,” and so forth—made for its author a considerable reputation in America and England; critics with characters to lose praised it as the language of a new peculiar and subtle kind of humour, and the booksellers sold it in amazing quantities.
     Since the time when Hans Breitman appeared, even worse matter—matter, that is to say, which is contemptible and something more—has found a ready market and much admiration in England. There is a sort of doctrine in these later productions—a doctrine always the same and very simple. Reduced to prose for personal use or practical application, it comes to this: A man may be very blameable, he may even be a drunkard and a ruffian to the end of his days, and yet be sure of the constant guardianship of God’s angels in this life and of a place in heaven hereafter, if he is only capable of doing his duty as bagman, stoker, soldier, and if his heart is tenderly disposed toward women. There is a ballad of much fame entitled “Little Breeches,” of which the following is a faithful account. It is the narrative of an American settler who tells the world in his first stanza that he “don’t go much on religion”—he “don’t pan out on the prophets and free will and that sort of thing;” but he has believed in God and angels ever since a child of his was saved in a snowstorm. The child of the farmer who thinks it smart to say he doesn’t pan out on the prophets is a boy of four years old; and he is described by his fond father as “peart and chipper and sarsy, always ready to fight; and I’d larnt him to chaw terbacker, jest to keep his milk-teeth white.” One snowy night his father’s waggon-horses bolted with this dear babe, and “went hell-to- split over the prairie.” The father got assistance and followed in search, with torches, and presently found the team snowed under a soft white mound—but of little Gabe, “neither hide nor hair.” Thereupon, says the father, “I jest flopped down on my marrow bones” and prayed. Immediately afterwards the party came upon a sheepfold:—

And there sot Little Breeches and chirped,
     As peart as ever you see—
“I want a chaw of terbacker,
     And that’s what’s the matter with me.”

     The reflection of the good man who trained this interesting child is, that the angels have saved him; “they jest scooped down, and toted him to where it was safe and warm;” and, says the grateful parent in conclusion—

I think that saving a little child,
     And bringing him to his own,
Is a derned sight better business
     Than loafing around The Throne!

In these lines we have the gem and moral of the piece; it is this which has kindled admiration for the ballad of Little Breeches throughout the American Continent, and amongst religious and philosophical critics in Great Britain too:—the Spectator greatly approves it. “A damned sight better business than loafing around The Throne.” So charmingly audacious! so splendidly concrete!
     The same author has a similar little work, “Jim Bludso”—also much admired. Jim Bludso was the engineer of a Mississippi steamboat, the Prairie Belle. He was no saint. He was “a keerless man in his talk;” he was an “awkward man in a row” (which means that he was sudden and dexterous with the knife); and he had two wives, though the ladies were not aware of it. But this man was of rare goodness in one particular; “he never lied”—which, as we all know, marks a degree of virtue scarcely to be expected of human nature. As for the rest of his religion, it was comprised in such a delicate desperate love for his engine that he could not allow any other boat to pass the Prairie Belle. He preferred—such was the natural beauty of his character—to risk the lives of all on board the boat by explosion; but not without a stern resolve to do his duty in the event of his being compelled to bring on such an emergency. This was well known; for

If ever the Prairie Belle took fire,
     A thousand times he swore
He’d hold her nozzle agin the bank
     Till the last soul got ashore.

A time came that should test the self-sacrifice of this heroic man. There appeared on the river a better boat, the Movastar; but Jim Bludso would not be passed. So he sent his boat tearing along in the night, “with a nigger”—(the noble Jim!)—“with a nigger squat on the safety valve,” and her furnace “crammed with rosin and pine.” She took fire, according to Bludso’s expectations; and then the tender noble nature of the man was manifested. He turned his boat to the shore, yelling out “through the hot black breath of the burning boat, I’ll hold her nozzle agin the bank till the last galoot’s ashore.” He kept his determination; all the passengers got off before the smoke-stack fell, but Jim lost his life—his own furnace being probably stimulated by like applications to those he had made to the engine fire. And then comes the moral-verse at the end—conceived in the same really religious though apparently indecent spirit that dictated the tag to Little Breeches:—

He wernt no saint, but at jedgment
     I’d run my chance with Jim.
He’d seen his duty, a dead-sure thing,
     And went for it thar and then;
And Christ aint going to be too hard
     On a man that died for men.

Jim was sure of heaven; and we may expect another poem, in which he will acquaint his Maker that, hailing from an enlightened Republic, he is up to “a damned sight better business than loafing around The Throne.”
     With these new and popular productions of American genius in our minds, it was with some apprehension of being startled with a like display of originality that we opened a book of verse entitled “St. Abe and his Seven Wives: a Tale of Salt Lake City.” Our anticipations were altogether mistaken. Although in a striking address to Chaucer the author intimates an expectation that Prudery may turn from his pages, and though his theme is certainly a delicate one, there is nothing in the book that a modest man may not read without blinking, and therefore, we suppose, no modest mature woman. On the other hand, the whole poem is marked with so much natural strength, so much of the inborn faculties of literature—(though they are wielded in a light, easy, trifling way)—that they take possession of our admiration as of right. The chief characteristics of the book are mastery of verse, strong and simple diction, delicate accurate description of scenery, and that quick and forcible discrimination of character which belongs to men of dramatic genius. This has the look of exaggerated praise. We propose, therefore, to give one or two large samples of the author’s quality, leaving our readers to judge from them whether we are not probably right. If they turn to the book and read it through, we do not doubt that they will agree with us.
     This we call good, racy verse; it is the opening address to Chaucer.

Maypole dance and Whitsun ale,
Sports of peasants in the dale,
Harvest mirth and junketing,
Fireside play and kiss-in-ring,
Ancient fun and wit and ease,—
Gone are one and all of these;
All the pleasant pastime planned
In the green old Mother-land:
Gone are these and gone the time
Of the breezy English rhyme,
Sung to make men glad and wise
By great Bards with twinkling eyes:
Gone the tale and gone the song
Sound as nut-brown ale and strong,
Freshening the sultry sense
Out of idle impotence,
Sowing features dull or bright
With deep dimples of delight.

Thro’ the Mother-land I went,
Seeking these, half indolent:
Up and down, I saw them not;
Only found them, half-forgot,
Buried in long-darken'd nooks
With thy barrels of old books,
Where the light and love and mirth
Of the morning days of earth
Sleeps, like light of sunken suns
Brooding deep in cob-webb’d tuns,
Everywhere I found instead,
Hanging her dejected head,
Barbing shafts of bitter wit,
The pale Modern Spirit sit—
While her shadow, great as Gog’s,
Cast upon the island fogs,
In the midst of all things dim
Loom’d, gigantically grim.

Next we quote what seems to us remarkably good description. The poet (he calls himself the Stranger) visits Brother Abe in the City of the Saints. Abe has seven wives, and is so much in love with the last that he finally runs away with her, out of Mormondom.

With a tremulous wave of his hand, the Saint
Introduces the household quaint,
And sinks on a chair and looks around,
As the dresses rustle with snakish sound,
As curtsies are bobb’d, and eyes cast down
Some with a simper, some with a frown.
And Sister Anne, with a fluttering breast,
Stands trembling and peeping behind the rest.

Every face but one has been
Pretty, perchance, at the age of eighteen,
Pert and pretty, and plump and bright;
But now their fairness is faded quite,
And every feature is fashion’d here
To a flabby smile, or a snappish sneer.
Before the stranger they each assume
A false fine flutter and feeble bloom,
And a little colour comes into the cheek
When the eyes meet mine, as I sit and speak;
But there they sit and look at me,
Almost withering visibly,
And languidly tremble and try to blow—
Six pale roses all in a row!
     *     *     *     *     *     *
I try to rattle along in chat,
Talking freely of this and that—
The crops, the weather, the mother-land,
Talk a baby could understand;
And the faded roses, faint and meek,
Open their languid lips to speak,
But in various sharps and flats, all low,
Gave a lazy “yes” or a sleepy “no.”
Yet now and then Tabitha speaks,
Snapping her answer with yellow cheeks,
And fixing the Saint who is sitting by
With the fish-like glare of her glittering eye,
Whenever the looks of the weary man
Stray to the corner of Sister Anne.

Another and a longer extract we shall make from Brigham Young’s sermon in the synagogue.


Sisters and brothers who love the right,
     Saints whose hearts are divinely beating,
Children rejoicing in the light,
     I reckon this is a pleasant meeting.
Where’s the face with a look of grief?—
     Jehovah’s with us and leads the battle;
We’ve had a harvest beyond belief,
     And the signs of fever have left the cattle;
All still blesses the holy life
     Here in the land of milk and honey.


Brother Shuttleworth’s seventeenth wife, . .
     Her with the heer brushed up so funny!


Out of Egypt hither we flew,
     Through the desert and rocky places;
The people murmur’d, and all look’d blue,
     The bones of the martyr’d filled our traces.
Mountain and valley we crawl’d along,
     And every morning our hearts beat quicker.
Our flesh was weak, but our souls were strong,
     And we’d managed to carry some kegs of liquor.
At last we halted on yonder height,
     Just as the sun in the west was blinking.


Isn’t Jedge Hawkins’s last a fright? . . .
     I’m suttin that Brother Abe’s been drinking!


That night, my lambs, in a wondrous dream,
     I saw the gushing of many fountains;
Soon as the morning began to beam,
     Down we went from yonder mountains,
Found the water just where I thought,
     Fresh and good, though a trifle gritty,
Pitch’d our tents in the plain, and wrought
     The site and plan of the Holy City.
“Pioneers of the blest,” I cried,
     “Dig, and the Lord will bless each spadeful.”


Brigham’s sealed to another Bride. . . .
     How worn he’s gittin’! he’s aging dreadful.


This is a tale so often told,
     The theme of every eventful meeting;
Yes! you may smile and think it old;
     But yet it’s a tale that will bear repeating.
That’s how the City of Light began,
     That’s how we founded the saintly nation,
All by the spade and the arm of man,
     And the aid of a special dispensation.
“Work” was the word when we begun,
     “Work” is the word now we have plenty.


Heard about Sister Euphemia’s son? . .
     Sealing already, though only twenty!


I say just now what I used to say,
     Though it moves the heathens to mock and laughter,
From work to prayer is the proper way—
     Labour first, and religion after.
     *     *     *     *     *     *     *
Beauty, my friends, is the crown of life,
     To the young and foolish seldom granted;
After a youth of honest strife
     Comes the reward for which you’ve panted.
O blessed sight beyond compare,
     When life with its halo of light is rounded,
To see a Saint with reverend hair
     Sitting like Solomon love-surrounded!
One at his feet and one on his knee,
     Others around him, blue-eyed and dreamy!


All very well, but as for me,
     My man had better!—I’d pison him, Pheemy!


There in the gate of Paradise
     The Saint is sitting serene and hoary,
Tendrils of arms, and blossoms of eyes,
     Festoon him round in his place of glory;
Little cherubs float thick as bees
     Round about him, and murmur “father!”
The sun shines bright and he sits at ease,
     Fruit all round for his hand to gather.
Blessed is he both night and day,
     Floating to Heaven and adding to it!


Thought I should have gone mad that day
     He brought a second; I made him rue it!
     *     *     *     *     *     *     *


But I hear some awakening spirit cry,
     “Labour is labour, and all men know it;
But what is pleasure?” and I reply,
     Grace abounding and Wives to show it!
Holy is he beyond compare
     Who tills his acres and takes his blessing,
Who sees around him everywhere
     Sisters soothing and babes caressing.
     *     *     *     *     *     *     *
Learning’s a shadow, and books a jest,
     One Book’s a Light, but the rest are human.
The kind of study that I think best
     Is the use of a spade and the love of a woman.
Here and yonder, in heaven and earth,
     By big Salt Lake and by Eden river,
The finest sight is a man of worth,
     Never tired of increasing his quiver.
He sits in the light of perfect grace
     With a dozen cradles going together!


The babby's growing black in the face!
     Carry him out—it’s the heat of the weather!


A faithful vine at the door of the Lord,
     A shining flower in the garden of spirits,
A lute whose strings are of sweet accord,
     Such is the person of saintly merits.
Sisters and brothers, behold and strive
     Up to the level of his perfection;
Sow, and harrow, and dig, and thrive,
     Increase according to God’s direction.
This is the Happy Land, no doubt,
     Where each may flourish in his vocation. . .
Brother Bantam will now give out
     The hymn of love and of jubilation.

     The dramatic instinct in this extract is manifest; and it appears, of course, in a far stronger light in the whole and unbroken chapter from which we quote. The scene, and the man, and his sermon are borne in upon the mind as above all things faithfully rendered;—and there is a description of the going to the synagogue, and one of the arrival of a party of immigrants, which give the same strong and confident impressions though we see plainly enough that the grotesque is mixed in with the hardest and grittiest matter-of-fact detail. But, altogether, this book, though it is of little importance in itself, manifests everywhere some of the very best capabilities of literary workmanship, and some of the highest faculties of a mind that is literary by birth, and not simply by reading and exercise.

     * “Saint Abe and his Seven Wives.” A Tale of Salt Lake City. (London: Strahan and Co. 1872.)



New York Herald (29 January, 1872 - p.10)



SAINT ABE AND HIS SEVEN WIVES, A TALE OF SALT LAKE CITY. Routledge & Sons: New York. Octavo, pp. 169.

     Dialect poetry is one of the features of the muse of the period, particularly that which conveys the terrible patois of the far West. To the novel of Indian adventure it is the sprightly successor; but it cannot be said that Cooper’s prose has been surpassed in the process of transferring the incidents of border life into verse. That dialect poetry is capable of expressing the sweetest thoughts in a direct natural form the name and fame of Robert Burns will testify as long as the English tongue survives. Tennyson, indeed, has done some fearful things with English dialect in his “Northern Farmer” without making it very attractive. Jean Ingelow has succeeded better, for the reason that she has had nothing very deep to say, and the dialects of the uncultivated are always so limited in vocabulary that, while they may be made to express forcible or delicate shades of feeling, they become incongruous nonsense in the expression of profound thought.
     The author of “Saint Abe,” who, by the by, modestly withholds his name, takes an unsavory subject—polygamy, and with a half defiance, which is, at the same time, half apology, he dedicates his book to Chaucer, whom he irreverently dubs “Old Dan.” His theme, he thinks, is to be preferred to the “scrofulous novels of the age” to which he leaves  prudery, fools and humbug. The book opens with a prologue describing the sorrows of Joe Wilson, a stage driver, who lost the lady of his heart through the snares of a Mormon Apostle, Hiram Higginson. This is a rich, racy narrative, told with all the impetuosity, animal passion and coarseness peculiar to the “Boss” of that dreary region. The latter quality is what lovers of this school of verse name the picturesque, and there is plenty of it in the book. Here is a sample. Joe has been supplanted by the apostle. He comes upon the pair, who are engaged in reading the “Book of Mormon.” He stealthily approaches and listens:—

At last he stops for lack of wind,
And smiled with sarcy, double-chinned
Fat face at Cissy, while she cried,
Rocking herself from side to side:—
“O Bishop, them are words of bliss!”
And then he gave a long, fat kiss
On her warm hand, and edged his stool
Still closer. Could a man keep cool
And see it? Trembling thro’ and thro’
I walked right up to that theer two
And caught the derned old lump of duff
Jest by the breeches and the scruff,
And chucked him off, and with one kick
Sent his stool arter him right slick,
While Cissy screamed with frighten’d face,
“Spare him! O spare that man of grace!”

     Is this, we would ask, the sort of dirty rubbish for which we are called on to thank the gods and Chaucer? The Boss’ tale ended, the first glimpse of the great Valley of Salt Lake is caught as they “leave the green canyon at their back,” and this brings us to the story proper. We are now treated to a prefatory piece of description, which is really very beautiful and true to what it paints. It exhibits one regretable defect of the author, an ignorance or carelessness of rhythm, marring by a jar on the ear the few occasions when he rises above the jog-trot level of his dialect versification. It is a defect, however, on which the public is charitable to genius. The following is the passage:—

Oh, saints that shine around the heavenly seat
What heaven is this that opens at my feet?
What flocks are these that thro’ the golden gleam
Stray on by freckled fields and shining stream?
What glittering roofs and white kiosks are these
Up-peeping from the shade of emerald trees?
Whose city is this that rises on the sight,
Fair and fantastic as a city of light
Seen in the sunset? What is yonder sea
Opening beyond the city cool and free,
Large, deep and luminous, looming thro’ the heat,
And lying at the darkly shadowed feet
Of the Sierras, which, with jagged line,
Burning to amber in the light divine,
Close in the valley of the happy land,
With heights as barren as a dead man’s hand?

     Abraham Clewson—or Saint Abe, as he is called—is, at the opening of the story, the victim to a surfeit of polygamy. A shining light in the Church, he was encouraged by Brigham in his “sealing” propensities, and at length finds himself a miserable hypocondriac with seven wives. Here they are:—

Sister Tabitha, thirty odd,
Rising up with a stare and a nod;
Sister Amelia, sleepy and mild,
Freckled, Dudu-ish, suckling a child;
Sister Fanny, pert and keen;
Sister Emily, solemn and lean;
Sister Mary, given to tears,
Sister Sarah, with wool in her ears;
All appearing like tapers wan
In the mellow sunlight of Sister Anne.

     The first six of these, headed by Tabitha, are the terror of his existence, in spite of the weak attempts he makes at conciliation. The seventh and still blooming Sister Anne he is in love with, but is afraid to betray his affection. He ends it all like Goldsmith’s country parson, who, “since ’tis hard to combat, learns to fly.” He runs away, taking Sister Anne along with him, and is found at the end of five years happy on a New England form. The moral, if any, in the story is that polygamy is not suited to a man with a heart. In his valedictory to Brigham he says:—

The world of men divided is into two portions, brother,
The first are saints, so high in bliss that they the flesh can smother;
God meant them from fair flower to flower to flutter, smiles bestowing;
Tasting the sweet, leaving the sour, just hovering,—and going.
The second are a different set, just halves of perfect spirits,
Going about in bitter fret of uncompleted merits,
Till they discover, here or there, their other half (or woman),
Then these two join, and make a pair, and so increase the human.

     What the effect can be of such a book in shaping the fate of polygamy in Utah we cannot tell; but it brings vividly forward the actual state of social and moral degradation in which the “saints” and sisters live there. There is a dash and vigor in the language which at the same time is rather ostentatious in the bold way it unearths the unseemly sides of the “relic of barbarism.” As a picture of life in Deseret it is by far the best which has appeared. Its defiance of conventionalisms of expression may make the untutored laugh; but in the face of so much real merit as is therein displayed, it cannot fail to make the judicious grieve, in spite of appeals to the kindred indecency to be found in “Old Dan Chaucer.”



The New York Times (26 January, 1872)


     This is a poetical romance drawn from experiences of life at Salt Lake City. The characters are capitally sketched in a light but truthful manner, and the entire poem is literally mined with concealed humor, which, with slight penetration, produces the most startling mirth explosions. It may be urged by some in way of objection that the conclusion drawn from the sorrows and trials consequent to polygamy is not carried to its highest possible ground; but then every one knows what the deductions would be from a strictly moral standpoint, while it is both novel and gratifying to know that the condition is far from an agreeable one, even when judged by the easy cynical tests of a modern man of the world.



The Pall Mall Gazette (29 January, 1872)




     SIR,—Will your reviewer of “St. Abe” accept the most sincere thanks of an oppressed American? The incomprehensible, and to the minds of Many American students unjustifiable, pæans so numerously chanted in honour of some of the newest and most garish expressions of Americanism, such as Walt Whitman, Miller, Bret Harte, Hans Breitmann, and “Little Breeches,” have done more to lower the value of English criticism in America than all the sarcasms and depreciation of a quarter of a century.
     The critics have taken what the American knows to be only local flavour for a new fruit, and, confounding the agreeableness of a new sensation with the discovery of a new greatness, run with the unthinking haste of competitive heralds to spread abroad the dignity of a novel poetic ideal, remarkable rather because they were its discoverers than because it was so great. These men owe their reputation almost entirely to England; not because they were not appreciated in their own time and country, but because that which imposes in them—their newness of form and their impatience of the restraints, as well as ignorance of the leadings, of art—we know to be only the provincialisms of our half-formed national expression and the crudeness of the national artistic development. To those of us who have been reared in the old tastes of the habit of restraint and the love of purity of style, this Ossianic turgidity, incoherent jumble of crude inspirations with commonplace Byronisms, vulgar posturing of a stage piety and witless jangle of uncouth words, seem but the diseases of our literature—the things which our newness apologizes for but our attainment cannot boast of: and that they should in this country find a circulation and acceptation they have not in their native land does not in the least convince us that we are wrong in our estimate, but that, as we have often heard of late, the canons of criticism are lost in England or turned into very small bores of unprecision. “Little Breeches” may have kindled admiration in Bohemian America, but, believe me, the “religious and philosophical critics” of the country have in regard to the class of works to which it belongs only the wonder that such little prophets should have gone so far and found their honour so soon.
     And to this day I am unable, in conjunction with many of my countrymen, to comprehend how the English critics can find these works ornaments to the literature that includes Irving, Prescott, Hawthorn, Dana, Longfellow, Lowell (as humorous poet), Holmes.
     We are no more than the finders of new luminaries blind to what our country is producing of material for poetry and literature or the divergent paths which it has begun to mark out, but we are neither flattered nor persuaded by the critics who mistake ore for a statue or vigour of speech for intellectual completeness.—Yours respectfully,
     London, Jan. 25.                                                                                 AN OLD-SCHOOL YANKEE.


[Advert for the Second Edition from The Pall Mall Gazette (2 February, 1872).]


The Nation (15 February, 1872 - No. 346, pp.108-109)

     “Saint Abe and his Seven Wives” is a fluent satire directed against Mormonism, or rather against polygamy. It is not without desert as work in “dialect,” though it is better in its sketching of the characters whose traits the “dialect” indicates; but it appears to give evidence that it was done with haste. This, however, is seen rather in the general slightness of the fabric than in the versification, which is vigorous, easy, and smooth. Doubtless it was inevitable, the subject being what it is and the method of treatment adopted being dramatic and realistic, that the reader should get from the book a very high and coarse flavor of vulgarity; that, at any rate, is what he does get; and the author must have a singular notion of what promotes “jollity,” which state of feeling is what “Saint Abe and his Seven Wives” is intended to promote. At this rate, Mark Tapley made a capital mistake when he stopped short at Cairo, instead of keeping on till he found Utah.



Temple Bar (April, 1872 - p.118-121)

Spring Flowers.


THE title is only the expression of a desire. If the Muses had their rights, we should have our literature properly classified according to the seasons. Unfortunately we do not. We ought to have our books coming out like the flowers and the fruit, so as to suit our weather, withoutits uncertainty. Controversy should end with March; poetry come in with April; history after harvest time; fiction, of course, would go on all the year; ghost stories and sensation novels being reserved for the winter. One thing we do get, certainly: the best books in the year seem always to come out in the season which is the English spring. But I am afraid that is not through any poetical sympathies of publishers with green leaves and tender spring flowers. “In the sweet spring time,” I once read in a cookery book, “the heart of the gourmand fondly turns to his vernal puddings.” So the heart of the reader when he feels the first breath of spring longs for something fresh and new. Let us see if, among all the books of the last three months, I cannot find something to recommend to the readers of ‘Temple Bar.’
     There is, first, one poem, ‘Saint Abe and his Seven Wives.’
     The right-hand man of Brigham Young was the saintly Abraham Clewson. To every man his gifts. Those of Abraham were the gifts of counsel. A long-headed man, but withal a dreamy and unpractical. Blessed as he was with five wives, he found it impossible to rule them with that rod of steel which alone can sanctify and make peaceful the holy state of polygamy. With the view of bringing some kind of harmony into his troubled household he took a sixth wife to his bosom, Tabitha by name, older than the rest, and shrewish, possessed of great talents in the housewifery line, able to command and to maintain discipline. Peace was restored, but still he was not happy. In an evil hour for the six wives, a young girl one day knocked at his door and demanded hospitality and shelter, for was she not the daughter of his oldest and dearest friend? He took her in. The girl grew up affectionate, beautiful, winning. Poor Abe could not bear the thought of turning this lamb out to the tender mercies of Bishop Shufflebotham and the other wealthy saints, every one eager to seal her for himself. After long struggles with what a Mormon has left of conscience, he married her himself. More than that, he fell in love with her. He loved her so much that he ended, like Solomon in the Song of Songs, with perceiving that, after all, the one man is made for the one woman, that there is nothing in life to be wished for or envied but the love of a woman. He loathed his life; he contemned himself; he hated his six; he went about despondent and melancholy. Finally, he “skedaddled,” writing a letter to Brigham explaining that he wasn’t strong enough for the place into which he had been fitted. He went away with his love back to the New England States, where monogamy is still an honoured institution, and—was happy.
     That is the story of Saint Abe and his Seven Wives. It is said to be by Lowell. Truly, if America has more than one writer who can write in such a rich vein of satire, humour, pathos, and wit as we have here, England must look to her laurels.
     We have been making ourselves rather ridiculous lately, in the eyes of our American cousins, by our outrageous admiration for a kind of literature, theirs by birth, which they fail to appreciate. The Spectator, an admirable paper where humour and wit are not concerned, took up the Breitmann Ballads, Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, and all the rest of that small fry, and really became almost maudlin in its ecstatic admiration of their merits. These productions are good enough in a way, about as humorous as any ordinary number of Fun, certainly not so humourous as a number of Punch when the author of the new Sandford and Merton Papers is discoursing. The Spectator took infinite pains to pick out and emphasize all the funny bits, showing, after its manner, where we ought to laugh, and why. I remember once seeing an article in this paper which made me long to buy a ten-inch nail and a hammer for the improvement of the editor. It was a critique on the Bab Ballads, certain foolish verses by one since known to fame as the author of the ‘Palace of Truth.’ The point of the article was, that there was nothing to laugh at in the verses, and it quoted the funniest with a curious seriousness, which was as comic as the ballads themselves. For myself, I am an easy-going, uncritical sort of person, disposed to laugh when I am not obliged to cry, and thankful to anybody who will cheer me up in this vale of tears. So I laughed at Mr. Gilbert’s ballads, feeling small at being so foolish, though I daresay I shall laugh again if he writes any more.
     But for Saint Abe. Here are his wives, introduced to the narrator:

“Sister Tabitha, thirty odd,
Rising up with a stare and a nod;
Sister Amelia, sleepy and mild,
Freckled, Dudu-ish, suckling a child;
Sister Fanny, pert and keen;
Sister Emily, solemn and lean;
Sister Mary, given to tears,
Sister Sarah, with wool in her ears;—
All appearing like tapers wan
In the mellow sunlight of Sister Anne.”

     I hardly think “mellow sunlight” is good. But let it stand. The poet goes on to describe the withered and faded appearance of the poor women. We see their spiteful and envious glances—who can blame them?—at Sister Ann, the young and loved. She, too, is not quite happy.

“Like a fountain in a shady place
Is the gleam of her sadly shining face—
A fresh spring whither the soul might turn
When the road is rough and the hot sands burn:
Like a fount, or a bird, or a blooming tree
To a weary spirit is such as she!
And Brother Abe, from his easy chair,
Looks thither by stealth with an aching care,
And in spite of the dragons that guard the brink
Would stoop to the edge of the fount, I think,
And drink—and drink.”

     We go to church and hear the Prophet preach. This is the end of his sermon:

“  ‘I hear some awakening spirit cry,
     ‘Labour is labour, and all men know it;
But what is pleasure?’ and I reply,
     ‘Grace abounding and wives to show it!
Holy is he beyond compare
     Who tills his acres and takes his blessing,
Who sees around him everywhere
     Sisters soothing and babes caressing.
And his delight is Heaven’s as well,
     For swells he not the ranks of the chosen?’

(Feminine whispers.) ‘Martha is growing a handsome gel. . . .
                                   Three at a birth?—that makes the dozen!

 (The Prophet.)           ‘Learning’s a shadow, and books a jest,  
                                         One Book’s a Light, but the rest are human.
                                   The kind of study that I think best
                                         Is the use of a spade and the love of a woman.
                                   Here and yonder, in heaven and earth,
                                         By big Salt Lake and by Eden river,
                                   The finest sight is a man of worth,
                                         Never tired of increasing his quiver.
                                   He sits in the light of perfect grace,
                                         With a dozen cradles going together.’

(Feminine whispers.) ‘The babby’s growing black in the face;
                                       Carry him out: it’s the heat of the weather.’

(The Prophet.)           ‘A faithful vine at the door of the Lord,
                                       A shining flower in the garden of spirits,
                                   A lute whose strings are of sweet accord:
                                       Such is the person of saintly merits.
                                   Sisters and brothers, behold and strive
                                       Up to the level of his perfection;
                                   Sow, and harrow, and dig, and thrive,
                                         Increase according to God’s direction.
                                   This is the Happy Land, no doubt,
                                         Where each may flourish in his vocation. . .
                                   Brother Bantam will now give out
                                         The hymn of love and of jubilation.’”

     It was after this discourse, beautiful and touching as it reads, that Saint Abe bolted. With him Sister Ann. The disconsolate six, headed by Tabitha, go down to the Prophet with the fatal news and a letter that he has left behind him:

“‘I don’t deserve a parting tear, nor even a malediction,
Too weak to fill a saintly sphere, I yield to my affliction:
Down like a cataract I shoot into the depths below you,
While you stand wondering and mute, my last adieu I throw you.
         .          .         .          .         .          .         .          .
At first it was a time full blest, and all my earthly pleasure
Was gathering lambs unto my breast to cherish and to treasure;
Ay, one by one, for heaven’s sake, my female flock I found me,
Until one day I did awake and heard them bleating round me;
And there was sorrow in their eyes, and much reproach and wonder,
For they perceived to their surprise their shepherd was a blunder.
O Brigham, think of it and weep, my firm and saintly master—
The Pastor trembled at his sheep, the sheep despised the Pastor!
         .          .         .          .         .          .         .          .
When I began with each young sheep I was too free and loving,
Not being strong and wise and deep, I set her feelings moving:
And so, instead of noticing the gentle flock in common,
I wakened up that mighty thing, the Spirit of a woman.
Each got to think me, don’t you see—so foolish was the feeling—
Her own especial property, which all the rest were stealing!
And since I could not give to each the whole of my attention,
All came to grief, and parts of speech too delicate to mention.
         .          .         .          .         .          .         .          .
O Brigham, you’re a saint above, and know not the sensation,
The ecstacy, the maddening love, the rapturous exultation,
That fills a man of lower race with wonder past all speaking.
When first he finds in one sweet face the soul he has been seeking.’”

     I cannot quote more, but it seems to me that this is poetry of a high order. Would that in England we had humorists who could write as well. But with Thackeray our last writer of humour left us.



The Westminster Review (American Edition) (April, 1872)

     “Saint Abe and his Seven Wives” may lay claim to many rare qualities. In the first place the author possesses simplicity and directness. To this he adds genuine humour and intense dramatic power. Lastly he has contrived to give a local flavour, something of the salt of the Salt Lake to his characters, which enables us to thoroughly realize them. We shall endeavour to illustrate these characteristics. His simplicity, directness, and ease of style may all be seen in his Invocation to Chaucer. The first portion of the verses have the true ring of our best Elizabethan poets when they wrote in the same metre, or of Keats in such poems as “Ever let the Fancy roam,” “Souls of Poets dead and gone,” and his “Robin Hood.” Little could we expect such lines as these from America:—

“Maypole dance and Whitsun ale,
Sports of peasants in the dale,
Harvest mirth and junketting,
Fireside play and kiss-in-ring,
Ancient fun and wit and ease—
Gone are one and all of these;
All the pleasant pastime planned,
In the green old Mother-land:
Gone are these and gone the time
Of the breezy English rhyme;
Sung to make men glad and wise,
By great bards with twinkling eyes:
Gone the tale and gone the song
Sound as nut-brown ale and strong.”         
                                             —p. vii.

We must say with Keats, when writing on the same subject, “No, those days are gone away.” And he who now looks for Maypole dances, Whitsun Ales, and Bride Ales, might as well look for Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest. The change, however, from old English mirth to modern English sadness has been brought about in many ways. In the first place the Calendar has something to do with it. The first of May of our ancestors was thirteen days later than our own, which makes a great difference as far as out of door sports are concerned in a climate like ours. In the next place machinery has played an important part in reducing the element of fun. It is impossible to feel that enthusiasm over the labours of a steam-plough or a reaping-machine as over our own. The introduction, too, of such beverages as tea and coffee have not been without their effect. But we are inclined to think that this old English mirth and jollity has been greatly exaggerated. Certainly we find nothing to corroborate the accounts of recent sentimental historians, as to the happy social condition of the people in the reigns of Henry VIII. and Elizabeth. Every contemporary work on the subject refutes the statement, and reveals an enormous amount of squalid misery, disease, and suffering among the lower orders. Generally speaking, too, as far as we have observed human nature, loud laughter and high spirits go hand in hand with a coarse and unreflecting mind, whilst sorrow has from the days of Solomon been associated with increase of knowledge. We are therefore very well content to accept the author’s concluding sneers, which we need not quote, as to our modern English sadness, and to reflect that had he thought a little more on the subject his verse might not have run quite so easily and so flippantly as it does. And here seems to be the author’s weakness and danger in the future. He writes with a fatal facility. “Saint Abe and his Seven Wives” is very unequal. There are charming passages, such as we have quoted, followed by the most prosaic bits. To pass on, however, to the author’s humour. His hits are particularly good. He knows how to point his barbs. Here is a piece worthy of the author of Tartuffe—Joe Wilson’s Mormon receipt for converting women:—

“Don’t talk of flesh and blood and feeling,
But Holy Ghost and blessed healing;
Don’t name things in too plain a way,
Look a heap warmer than you say;
Make ’em believe they’re serving true
The Holy Spirit and not you:
Prove all the world but you’s damnation,
And call your kisses jist salvation.”—p. 15.

But what we have ventured to call the salt of the book lies in the picture which is given of Mormon life and views, expounded by the prophet and a chorus of wives. Generally speaking, Mormon views, like the flavour of the mango, will not bear exportation. It is difficult to write about Priapus in a decent Christian way. But the author has overcome this hitherto insuperable obstacle in a manner which is as dramatic as it is humorous. We will not spoil the admirable canto “Within the Synagogue” by any quotation, which, however long, cannot possibly do it justice. We will merely say that this one bit is worth the price of the whole book. In the author of “Saint Abe and his Seven Wives” we recognise a true poet, with an entirely original vein of humour.



The Nonconformist (8 May, 1872)


     The author of the very remarkable satire, St. Abe and his Seven Wives (Strahan and Co.), has, in a third edition, added considerably. He has also supplied a very characteristic appendix, in which he gives the “opinions” of distinguished persons upon his production. These are done something after the manner of Carlyle’s opinions of “publisher” and “taster,” given in early editions of his Sartor; but they are inimitably quaint and original. The  “distinguished persons” are easily recognisable, and their publicly-expressed sentiments are caricatured by being driven to extreme expression. A certain writer of polish regrets to find the author “something of a Philistine” in implicitly bearing so hard against polygamy; whilst another regards Brigham Young as “one of the most vigilant and clear-sighted of modern men, cosmic, a decided moral force,” &c. &c. Now and then the satire in this portion grazes, if it does not a little surpass, the line of allowable license; but the cleverness of the thing is undoubted, as is the fun of it. The new edition, too, has a clever frontispiece, representing St. Abe and his wives.


[Advert for the Third Edition from The Ladies (8 June, 1872).]


The North China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (15 June, 1872)


“Saint Abe and his Seven Wives: a Tale of Salt Lake City,” Strahan & Co., London, 1872.

     The new school of American literature demands the attention of all those who are anxious to obtain an insight into the social and political life of the States. The writings of Bret Harte, the '”Castilian Days” and the rugged and fervid “Songs of the Sierras” are not to be passed over by any who are sincerely desirous of gaining a just idea of the varied influences that are now at work in the Republic. These new writers, it must be admitted, lack the purity of Longfellow and the scholarly grace of Irving. They have not a trace of the subtle and artistic qualities that characterize the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table; yet they are worthy of notice for many reasons. They are full of Power and Energy and Blood, and they essay to deal with many questions of morality and religion in a bold downright way which shocks men who pass for adventurous in the Old Country. The latest book of this class which we have seen, is the volume named at the head of this article. St. Abe and his Seven Wives—a tale of Salt Lake City, professes to represent the practical working of Mormonism; and it must be admitted that it paints the Saints and their doings in no favourable colours. The book consists of two parts, one called the “Boss’s Tale,” the other “The City of the Saints.” The former poem shows the arts by which one Hiram Higginson, a Mormon apostle, seduced a certain pretty Ciss from her loyalty to the narrator, and induced her to fly with him to Utah; and the latter production, which is by far the most elaborate, presents us with the history of St. Abe, and shows us how he became disgusted with his seven wives, and ended a contented monogamist.
     We propose only to make selections from the last poem. It opens with a dialogue between Bishop Pete, Bishop Joss and a Stranger. They discuss things in general, and in particular the peculiar discomforts of the hero’s domestic arrangements. The following is an enchanting picture of a polygamist’s home:

“It ain’t a passionate flat like Abe can manage things in your way!
They teased that most etarnal babe, till things were in a poor way.
I used to watch his thorny bed, and bust my sides with laughter.
Once give a female hoss her head you’ll never stop her after.
It is one thing getting sealed, and he was mighty fond of sealing,
He’d all the human heat, d’ye see, without the saintly feeling.
His were the wildest set of gals that ever drove man silly,
Each full of freaks and fal de lals, as frisky as a filly.
One pulled this way, and t’other that, and made his life a mockery,
They’d all the feelings of a cat scampaging ’mong the crockery.”

     Several pages and cantos are occupied with developing various phases of Abe’s position, until we are introduced to the synagogue where the Prophet sermonizeth. The address of Brigham, interrupted by the muttered conversation of the audience, is by far the ablest portion of the poem. A small portion however must suffice:


Sisters and brothers who love the right,
Saints whose hearts are divinely beating
Children rejoicing in the light,
I reckon this is a pleasant meeting.
Where’s the face with a look of grief?
Jehovah’s with us and leads the Battle;
We’ve had a Harvest beyond belief,
And the signs of fever have left the cattle;
All still blesses the holy life
Here in the land of milk and honey.


Brother Shuttleworth’s seventeenth wife,
Her with the heer brushed up so funny!


Out of Egypt hither we flew,
Through the desert and Rocky places;
The people murmured, and all looked blue,
The bones of the martyred filled our traces.
Mountain and valley we crawled along,
And every morning our hearts beat quicker.
Our flesh was weak, but our souls were strong,
And we’d managed to carry some kegs of liquor.
At last we halted on yonder height
Just as the sun in the west was blinking.


Isn’t Jedge Hawkins’s last a fright? . . . .
I’m suttin that Brother Abe’s been drinking!!”

     After the sermon, we have the Prophet holding a session; and in the midst of this the thunderbolt falls:

“In rushed one with voice that fluttered
Arms uplifted, face the colour
Of a bran new Yankee dollar,
Like a man whose wits are addled,
Crying “Brother Abe's skedaddled!

     He sends a letter, however, which explains his reasons for abandoning Mormondom. It seems that he was induced to take the step by the domestic complications of his hareem, by a really sincere affection for Annie his last wife, and primarily from a feeling of unworthiness of the privileges to which he had been admitted:

“I must and ever must subsist, labelled on every feature
A wretched poor monogamist, a most inferior creature.”

     The epilogue of the drama shows Abe in the retreat to which he had betaken himself, the contented and happy husband of Sister Annie. Such is the story, but a sketch does not fairly represent either its merits or its defects. Its special merit, in our judgement, is the breadth and power of the satire with which Mormonism is attacked. We have purposely avoided quoting certain passages in the last Epistle of St. Abe, as they are not perhaps in strict accordance with the requirements of English taste; still they are, we firmly believe, seasonable words; and the subject is one about which writers like Mr. Hepworth Dixon have wrapped so much mock sentiment, that a truth teller must be strong and clear in his utterances, to make any impression at all. Here, as everywhere in the pages of the Young American writers, we meet with inimitable descriptions of natural scenery—landscapes painted in a few lines that rival those of Hobbima himself; and unfortunately we find too frequently the old vice of coarseness in some of the expressions, and the tendency to mistake violence for strength. It may be said that, in the first canto of St. Abe, we have all the defects, and in the last all the beauties, of the New School.



Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper (7 July, 1872 - p.5)


     The third edition of “Saint Abe and his Seven Wives” has reached us. This tale of Salt Lake city has achieved a mervellous popularity, and not undeservedly. Its humour is powerful, and its satire keen. However, any criticism would now be superfluous, since the work has already reached its third edition. Messrs. Strahan and Co. are the publishers.



Pall Mall Gazette (25 July, 1872)

[From a review of Other Countries by Major William Morrison Bell (London: Chapman and Hall. 1872.]

... Thence a not unnatural association of ideas transports us to the shores of the Salt Lake, among the polygamous followers of the Mormon prophet. Major Bell attended a great gathering of the faithful in Brigham Young’s tabernacle at Salt Lake City, and we note his impressions because they so entirely harmonize with all we gather from that admirable poem, “St. Abe and his Seven Wives.” He says:— “The female part of the congregation struck me as being a lot of poor, plain, silly old women. Not to prove the rule by the exception, but to acknowledge that a poke-bonnet or a lack of crinoline may have induced me to judge harshly, I remember one exception, a young and nice-looking girl.” After reading “St. Abe,” we can understand only too well the wear and tear of mind and looks under the system of polygamy. But we should have thought the girls might have bloomed in youth with the other natural productions of the reclaimed desert, and kept their early freshness until they were transplanted into the cold shade of the harem. ...



The Dundee Evening Telegraph (18 January, 1898 - p.3)


     The issue of the cheap edition of “St Abe and His Seven Wives” gives its author, Mr Robert Buchanan, an opportunity for another dig at the critics. “St Abe” was written in 1870, “at a time when all the Cockney bastions of criticism were swarming with sharpshooters on the lookout for the blank Scotchman who had dared to denounce log-rolling; and was published anonymously. Simultaneously “The Drama of Kings” appeared with the author’s name. “The Drama” was torn to shreds in every newspaper; the Satire, because no one suspected who had written it, was at once hailed as a masterpiece.” One paper avowed in one breath that Robert Buchanan was utterly devoid of dramatic power, while the author of “St Abe” was a man of dramatic genius. The general impression at the time was that the poem was written by James Russell Lowell. Some suggested Bret Harte. “No one,” adds Mr Buchanan, “suspected for one moment that the work was written by a Scotchman who, up to that date, had never even visited America. The Spectator devoted a long leading article to proving that the humour of this particular kind could have been produced only in the Far West, while a leading magazine bewailed the fact that we had no such humorists in England since ‘with Thackeray our last writer of humour left us.’” The present edition is the first which bears the author’s name on the title-page.



The Stage (20 January, 1898 - p.13)

     Mr. Robert Buchanan, whose opinion of the publishing fraternity might almost be summed up in the historic phrase in which Barabbas is mentioned, has latterly set up in business for himself as publisher of his own works. He now sends for notice the first cheap edition (price 2s. 6d.) of his clever satire on the Mormon movement, “Saint Abe and His Seven Wives, a Tale of Salt Lake City,” which was published anonymously early in the seventies, and was then freely attributed to the author of “The Biglow Papers,” James Russell Lowell. This and much more Mr. Buchanan tells us in the caustically and characteristically written Bibliographical Note, which he appends to the present issue, together with reprints of some of the Press notices of the first edition, and of his semi-humorous “Anticipatory Criticisms” with which the satire was originally prefaced.
     However, “Saint Abe and His Seven Wives” is for its intrinsic merits well worth reading over again, quite apart from any adventitious attractions of polemical literature, and I would advise the reader not to skip the Dedication to Old Dan Chaucer. The late A. B. Houghton’s original frontispiece yet precedes Mr. Buchanan’s racy and trenchantly expressed verse satire. The author’s name has never before been placed upon the title page of this “Tale of Salt Lake City.”



The Glasgow Herald (21 January, 1898)

     Saint Abe and His Seven Wives; a Tale of Salt Lake City. With a Bibliographical Note. By Robert Buchanan. (London: Robert Buchanan, 36 Gerrard Street, Shaftesbury Avenue, W.)—This is the first cheap edition of a book which, on its original and anonymous publication in 1970, was hailed as a work of genius, and the general impression was that James Russell Lowell was the author. Some, however, thought it the work of Bret Harte. The chorus of praise was Mr Buchanan’s revenge, inflicted upon themselves by writers who had almost uniformly written him down. In his note he says that the satire of “St Abe” appeared “at a time when all the Cockney bastions of criticism were swarming with sharpshooters on the lookout for ‘the d——d Scotchman’ who had dared to denounce Logrolling.” Part of the joke was that the poet’s “Drama of Kings” was published the same time as “Saint Abe,” but with the author’s name, and while the former was torn to shreds, the latter was at once hailed as a masterpiece. One London paper “avowed in one breath that Robert Buchanan was utterly devoid of dramatic power, while the author of ‘St Abe’ was a man of dramatic genius.” One of the best of the weekly reviews declared that humour of the kind shown in the poem “could have been produced only in the Far West;” while a leading magazine “bewailed the fact that we had no such humorists in England, since with Thackeray our last writer of humour had left us.” Mr Buchanan’s trap was a great success, and he ought now to let the matter rest. But he can’t; and he says, “I shall be quite prepared to hear now, on the authority of the newspapers, that the eulogy given to ‘St Abe’ on its first appearance was all a mistake, and that the writer possesses no humour whatsoever.” That is not likely. The poem is too good to be so treated by the new generation, for while the chances are that most of his original smashers and applauders are dead, and cannot reply to his present exposure, the new writers are not incapable of recognising genius even in an author whose delight it is to smash all round. “St Abe” is an admirable piece of work, and it is as fresh to-day as it was twenty-eight years ago.



The Academy (22 January, 1898 - p.97)

     MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN issues from his own depôt in Gerrard-street, Soho, a cheap edition of Saint Abe and His Seven Wives. This poetical tale of Mormonism was written in 1870, “when” (writes Mr. Buchanan in a bibliographical note) “all the Cockney bastions of criticism were swarming with ‘. . . . sharpshooters on the look-out for the ‘d——d Scotchman’ who had dared to denounce Logrolling.” Mr. Buchanan recalls the kindly reception given to the book, alike for its poetry and humour, when it appeared anonymously. He writes:

     “The present is the first cheap edition of the book, and the first which bears the author’s name on the title-page . . . . I shall be quite prepared to hear now, on the authority of the newspapers, that the eulogy given to St. Abe on its first appearance was all a mistake, and that the writer possesses no humour whatsoever.”

We hope that Mr. Buchanan will have no such experience, but he still protests too much; he is too like the “fretful porpentine.” “Printed cackle about books,” he writes, “will always be about as valuable as spoken cackle about them.” But the best spoken cackle about books is very good, and critics can but cackle their best.



The Referee (23 January, 1898 - p.4)

     A surer place among the poets is reserved for Mr. Robert Buchanan than for some of those who have superseded him of late years in general favour. A new edition of “St. Abe and His Seven Wives” (Buchanan) brings that work under the judgment of a critic, whose honesty and impartiality even Mr. Buchanan must acknowledge; a severe critic it may be, but a just one, and his name is Time. It is more than a quarter of a century since “St. Abe” was first published, and the work appears to-day with the fire in it still burning. How will it be twenty-five years hence, I wonder, with the poets of a younger day? In a “bibliographical note” added to the new edition of “St. Abe,” Mr. Buchanan abuses his critics who were “braying their hosannahs” over “St. Abe” in the old days. His position is not only ungracious, but illogical, for he does not imply that the critics were asses because they brayed hosannahs over “St Abe,” but because they did not sing the praises of another work from the same hand. Now if they were right about “St. Abe and His Seven Wives,” why should they be wrong when they express an opinion on another occasion? And if their judgment is worthless when it goes against the poet, why is it to be trusted when it is in his favour? Some of them, indeed, do not appear to have been very astute in their criticism. I cannot for the life of me see what there is in the poem to justify the impression that it was written by James Russell Lowell or Bret Harte. Lowell or Bret Harte—it is as who should say “this is either burgundy or bottled ale.” There is no room for such diversity of taste. The subject of Mormonism, to be sure, is American. But there is nothing specially American in the sentiment of the poem, and Mr. Buchanan uses no American terms that any English writer, with a proper sense of local colour, might not easily find at the end of his pen in relating such a story as that of the “saint,” whose wives were such a trouble to him, because

Each got to think me, don’t you see—so foolish was the feeling—
Her own especial property, which all the rest were stealing.

A great poem “St. Abe and His Seven Wives” is not; but it is a very remarkable satire and the work of a writer with an artist’s eye for seeing things and a poet’s gift of expression.



The Dundee Advertiser (3 February, 1898 - p.3)


     Having been a journalist himself, Robert Buchanan knows the ways of the average reviewer of books. He has a standing feud with all the critics, because he imagines that he has never been adequately appreciated. Now that he has begun as his own publisher he feels that he has a splendid opportunity for expressing his contempt for the whole race of journalists. So far back as 1871 he published a very remarkable poem on Mormonism, entitled “Saint Abe and his Seven Wives.” It was issued anonymously and as the critics—who were then, in customary fashion, waiting with scalping knives for Robert Buchanan—did not recognise his style, they praised the book which, he believes, they would otherwise have condemned. At the same time he published another poem to which he, ill-advisedly, put his name; and it was duly denounced by the critics. If these book-tasters of a quarter of a century ago recognised the merits of “Saint Abe,” Mr Buchanan ought to be grateful to them, and acknowledge their discrimination. Not so, however, does he testify his gratitude. He dies his best to ridicule the very men who helped him to anonymous fame. This is not kind. As for the poem, it is really an excellent piece of satire, very cleverly expressed. The hero is a Mormon Elder, the unhappy husband of six wives of various degrees of unattractiveness. He brings a seventh wife into the household, falls in love with her, and eventually elopes, leaving six sorrowing grass-widows. The value of the poem lies in its forecast of the ultimate abolition of polygamy in Utah. As a poetic work it is very superior to much of the satiric verse of its period. Mr Buchanan should not denounce the critics in his wholesale style. If he has so little regard for their judgment, why does he continue to send his books for review? There is just a faint suspicion of Marie Corellism in his denunciations of the press. (London: Robert Buchanan.)



From Journal of Mormon History (Volume 34, Issue 1 - Winter 2008):

“The Assault of Laughter”: The Comic Attack on Mormon Polygamy in Popular Literature

by Richard H. Cracroft (p. 233-261)


     Among the foremost popular humorists of the United States and Great Britain during the late nineteenth century are six literary comedians who shared humorous treatments of the Latter-day Saints: Artemus Ward (Charles Farrer Browne), Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens), Bill Nye (Edgar Wilson Nye), Robert Williams Buchanan, Max Adeler (Charles Heber Clark), and Samantha Allen (Marietta Holley). Books by all six are still available in libraries and, increasingly, on the internet. Given humor’s topical nature, it is understandable that Nye, Buchanan, Adeler (Clark), and Allen (Holley) are virtually forgotten. Ward is little known except through Mark Twain’s occasional references, but Twain is still in print, widely read, and enduringly influential. During the height of the anti-Mormon crusade (ca. 1856-96), however, all six authors were household names, popular cultural reflectors, purveying and shaping popular opinion in lecture halls and newspapers, their quips repeated around the dinner tables and spittoons of millions of Americans and Britons.



     Scottish poet Robert Williams Buchanan (1841-1901) is the lone foreigner among this sextet of antipolygamous humorists. A poet, novelist, essayist, literary critic, and dramatist, Buchanan wrote a number of successful narrative poems, 56 among which is his long-since-forgotten work, Saint Abe and His Seven Wives: A Lively Tale of Salt Lake City, published in London and New York in 1872.
     This 169-page poem, written in jog-trot couplets which are only a cut or two above doggerel, shows two aspects of Mormon polygamy. One is the sadness of old men marrying young wives and breaking young hearts. Joe Wilson, a forlorn cowboy, loses his beloved Cicely Dunn to the importunings of Mormon Apostle Hiram Higginson. Flattered by the attentions of this leading Saint, Cicely forsakes Joe and marries Higginson. Still shattered several years later, Joe comments:

I’ve heard from many a one that Ciss
Has found her blunder out by this,
And she’d prefer for company
A brisk young chap, tho’ poor, like me,
Than the sixth part of him she’s won—
The Holy Hiram Higginson. 57*

     The second comic situation is the ironic tale of a polygamist who falls in love with one of his wives and is driven to forsake the many for the one. Abraham Clewson, or St. Abe, is Brigham Young’s right-hand man but errs in wedding six wives. Five of them are “the wildest set of gals that ever drove man silly, / Each full of freaks and fal-de-lals, as frisky as a filly.” The sixth is the stolid, older Tabitha Brooks. He then becomes the guardian of teenage Anne, the daughter of a deceased friend, whom he marries when she reached eighteen. Consequently, all the others “appear[ed] like tapers wan, / In the mellow sunlight of Sister Anne.”
       One evening the six other wives of Abraham Clewson file into Brigham Young’s presence to report: “We are widows broken-hearted / Abraham Clewson has departed.” Indeed, St. Abe has eloped with his darling Anne. In a poignant, tear-stained letter to Brigham Young, Abe professes continued faith in the Church, but complains of marital overload:

One wife for me was enough, two might have fixed me neatly,
Three made me shake, four made me puff, five settled me complete,—
But when the sixth came, though I still was glad and never grumbled
I took the staggers, buck’d, went ill, and in the traces tumbled.

Praising Brigham as worthy of being “Father to a nation,” he confesses with shame that, for love of Anne, he must be “labell’d on every feature, / A wretched poor monogamist, a most inferior creature.” Five years later, the narrator meets Abe in the East and spends a pleasant evening with him. When he asks if Abe is happy, the fallen Saint replies:

“Happy?” Abe said with a smile,
“Yes. in his inferior style,
Meek and humble, not like them
In the New Jerusalem.” 58**

     Deathless verse it is not, but Buchanan is original in presenting the repentant polygamist who gives up several wives for the love of one, even though St. Abe becomes an object of (ironic) pity by forsaking the higher state of polygamy for the lesser state of monogamy.

—    56 Buchanan’s poems were collected into three volumes in 1874, into one volume in 1884, and into two volumes as Complete Poetical Works in 1901.
  *    57 Robert Williams Buchanan, St. Abe and His Seven Wives (New York: George Routledge & Sons, 1872), 32-33.
  *  * 58 Ibid., 51, 68, 112, 124, 146, 164; emphasis his.      —


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White Rose and Red (1873)








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


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