ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)
BOOK REVIEWS - POETRY (22)
The Daily Telegraph (9 January, 1893 - p.5)
Mr. Robert Buchanan’s Christmas Carol, which is to-day published by Messrs. Chatto and Windus, under the title of “The Wandering Jew,” is a strange, powerful, but also painful piece of work. The poet supposes himself on Christmas Eve to meet at dead of night a figure “with reverend silver beard and hair,” snow-white and sorrowful,” whom he takes to be the Wandering Jew. In reality, however, the mystical shape, in whose company he roams through the streets, is a much more august personage—no less than the Founder of the Christian religion, who, because He came into the world “to abolish death,” is doomed Himself never to die. A formal arraignment of “the Galilean’s” creed then follows, at the hands of such thinkers as Julian the Apostate, Hypatia, Voltaire, Mahomet, and Buddha. Into the merits of the religious controversy it would be alike needless and unprofitable to enter. So far as the literary qualities of the book are concerned, Mr. Buchanan may claim to have written lines which often manifest poetic fervour and rhetorical skill, and are here and again instinct with emotional and imaginative force; but sometimes his muse halts (as when more than once he makes “heaven” rhyme with “bereaven”), and the Christmas Carol, as a whole, is more remarkable for its vigour than its polish.
The Penny Illustrated Paper (14 January,1893 -p.3)
Mr. Buchanan’s “Wandering Jew.”
Just as I sat down to write these paragraphs a press copy of M. Robert Buchanan’s new poem, “The Wandering Jew,” came to hand. I have met that Israelite at various times and places. My first acquaintance with him was in the pages of Eugene Sue, when the weird figure was strangely mixed up with the horrors of the Paris slums. Then he appeared in a romance by Dr. Croly, called
I had the pleasure of knowing the rector of Walbrook, and used to go to the old church by the Mansion House to hear him preach. There were noble passages in his “Salathiel.” Next I found my old friend in the pages of Heine, the German poet with a French style. Again I met with the Irrepressible Israelite in a sort of cantata set to music by Meyerbeer. Anon he turned up in Shelley’s poems, and in the verses of three or four later bards. Meanwhile, after fiction and poetry had done best or worst with “The Wandering Jew,” the stage got hold of him, and at last people began to regard him as
A Hebrew “Bogie Man,”
and would have no more of him. I thought the poor wanderer had possibly, like “The Flying Dutchman,” been redeemed by some gentle maiden; but it seems not. Mr. Robert Buchanan has made a wondrous discovery. His “Wandering Jew” is the “Founder of Christianity” himself, who still walks the earth, grey with accumulated years and lamentations over human sorrows. The poet mixes Him up with
Buddha, Hypatia, Mahomet,
&c., and makes altogether as strange and incoherent a poem as I have ever seen. I expect there will be trenchant reviews of the latest “Wandering Jew.”
Glasgow Herald (16 January, 1893)
MR. BUCHANAN’S NEW POEM. *
Many years ago Mr Robert Buchanan put the reproachful question to his brother poets—“Why is our Christianity forgotten as a subject?” His latest poem shows conclusively that he at least has not forgotten it. Christ is the central figure in this “epos of the world’s despair,” some of the principal speakers are familiar New Testament characters, and the outsiders are introduced only in so far as they are connected with Christianity. We are treated to an uncompromisingly rationalistic life of Christ, and we get a good deal of Church history; Popes, sunworshippers, martyrs, persecutors, saints, infidels, heretics, Jews, Mohammedans, Encyclopædists, Buddhists, all appear on the scene, and their subject from first to last is—Christianity. The title has been skilfully chosen. One naturally thinks of Ahasuerus,
“That Wanderer whom God’s curse
And, indeed, when the poet, mooning alone in a very sceptical state of mind in London streets on a snowy Christmas Eve, was accosted by a strange old man “with reverend silver beard and hair snow-white and sorrowful,” he thought at first the “Wights” was the wandering Jew himself. This weak and ancient Wight cried to him in pain, “For God’s sake, mortal, let me lean on thee.”
“Oh then, meseemed, the womb of Heaven afar
The poet was deeply affected by the Wight’s woful speech and appearance, and cursed God and Nature in true spasmodic style; for will it be believed, one of the poet’s complaints was against
“The winds and snows that smote this man so old,
After some mystification and swooning, the poet suddenly discovered that the Wandering Jew was not Ahasuerus at all, but Christ, and the rest of the poem is the explanation of how he appeared in this particular guise. We are transported to “an open plain beyond the city,” where, to quote the poet’s own words:—
“Before my face
These shrieking phantoms had assembled there to pass judgment on Christ for deceiving them with vain hopes of another life and other lies, and the presiding judge, who represents the Spirit of Humanity, is thus described—
“Human he seemed, and yet his eyeballs shone
After he and “another awful shrouded skeleton” had denounced the Wandering Jew for breaking the pleasant slumbers of the world with wicked dreams, for leading men to despise life and love and home, and turning the earth that once was glad into “a lazar-house of woful man and mad,” the witnesses for the prosecution are called. Judas first appears and gives the fashionable explanation of his conduct, and he is followed by a long string of accusers, who all for different reasons bear their witness against Christ. Nero, for instance, of whom we get a remarkably clever picture, denounces him for his apathy in allowing him to go on as he did. The “Vicars of Christ” denounce him for not interfering when, to use Mr Buchanan’s elegant simile, “sins like lice ran o’er them.” Galileo and the martyrs of Science complain that He was the cause of their death. Montezuma curses him because of what his followers did.
“Trampling my naked hosts with armèd heel
And Julian in a mixture of spasmodism and Pope perorates thus—
“The Galilean conquered as I threw
Mr Buchanan mercifully does not permit one-half of the accusers to speak, and he does not take us much beyond Voltaire, possibly because Browning had already dealt with the German professor. The witnesses are then called for the defence, and Mary Magdalene, the Virgin, John, St Paul, and many others, give their view of the matter. The accused next speaks for himself, and in one of the not too numerous really beautiful passages in the poem describes how he felt when he came to this earth—
“Yet I remember, on this my Judgment Day,
After denouncing the world for its rejection of him, Christ craves for death at the hands of the Judge, but this boon is denied him, and his doom is pronounced in the following terms:—
“Since thou hast quicken’d what thou canst not kill,
And then the poem concludes with the prayer:—
“God help the Christ, that Christ may help us all.”
The main conception is certainly daring and original. It can hardly be said, however, that the meaning is quite clear. The poet himself in some not very lucid lines admits this—
“For lo, I voice to you a mystic thing
We hazard the following conjectures, though only a Buchanan Society could fathom all the poet’s intentions. The poem is an attack on the tendency in certain quarters to lay the blame of the corruptions and misunderstandings of Christianity on Christianity itself, and it is at the same time a satire on the modern Pagans, who complain that the teaching of Christ has robbed the world of its gladness, and who would willingly return to the joyous life of humanity before it had been troubled with the spectres of God and immortality. It may also be meant to teach us that the spirit of Christ, having really entered into the world, cannot ever again be driven out, but must live on till in “the Father’s time” it shows itself to be the true salvation of men. And this, at least, is hinted at, that even though Christ were theologically mistaken, all true souls must cling to Him because of what he was, and that it is woe to the world because it has rendered His work ineffectual—in the meantime at least. This, however, is guess work, for “all his words seem wild, His meaning dark.” In his new poem Mr Buchanan takes all that liberty with words which he has from the first allowed himself. It is long since he turned braved into bravèd, and make it rhyme with David, and so here again we get “starèd,” and “hushèd,” and “manèd,” and “countrie,” and “mìrage.” “Wight” occurs even unto weariness, and we have some glaring examples of the breathless style—such as “the infinitely weary glooms of God,” “swooning to a sick horror,” “filths of evil.” The dedication to his father, “Father more dear than any Father in Heaven,” is in the taste of Renan’s dedication of his “Vie de Jésus” to his sister, only that it is written in strangely halting verse instead of in exquisite prose. Mr Buchanan throughout has not very faithfully followed what, if we mistake not, is one of his own canons of the poetic art, namely, that a thing cannot be uttered too briefly and simply if it is to reach the soul; and, spite of the wonderful brilliancy of some of the pictures and the really extraordinary power of some of the separate passages, we would not give one “Poet Andrew” for a dozen “Wandering Jews.”
*The Wandering Jew: A Christmas Carol. By Robert Buchanan. (London: Chatto & Windus.)
The Guardian (17 January, 1893 - p.9)
The Wandering Jew: A Christmas Carol. By ROBERT BUCHANAN.
Mr. Robert Buchanan has been so long now at the practice of verse-writing that it would be very strange indeed if he were to produce any poem entirely new in kind. As a matter of fact, any critical reader of his work who is told that the “Wandering Jew,” who is the hero of this piece, is not our old friend Ahasuerus at all (though he appears), but Christ, and that a sort of trial of the Saviour before a court with Death for judge and a long string of persons from Judas Iscariot to Jean Calas as witnesses for the prosecution, could probably anticipate what it is like. To criticise it without an appearance of yea-nay and facing-both-ways is not easy. Mr. Buchanan has, and always has had, some of the requirements of the poet, and those not the commonest nor the easiest to attain. He has a powerful though rather melodramatic imagination, a very considerable command of verse, which, though rarely polished, has vigour, fervour, and sweep, and a certain distinct touch of mystical passion which no one who remembers the “Ballad of Judas Iscariot” will deny, and which has often been exhibited since that ballad. On the other hand, he has no power of self-criticism; he is very deficient both in taste and in logic; his boisterous fluency is a terrible snare to him; and he has followed to his hurt the most dangerous of all models to a person of his stamp—Victor Hugo. He himself will probably take it as a compliment, and the discerning reader will at once perceive the proportions of praise and blame in the remark when we say that the “Wandering Jew” is very like a minor Hugonic poem without the intoxication which even at his worst Hugo knew how to produce by sheer dint of his mastery of rhythm and language. That the orthodox Christian will call it blasphemous and offensive, and that the logical Agnostic will call it fantastically inconsistent and inconclusive, are matters which are not quite minor: for the truth of the second objection cuts away any possible defence to the first. If the poem is a formal indictment of Christianity it must state the charges intelligibly, give proper venues, &c. for the counts, and tender us a rather better list of witnesses than opposition Prophets like Mahomet and Buddha, persecutors like Nero or like Julian, and open rebels to every precept of Christ like the Papal lovers of Marozia or of Vanozza, and the unjust judges who sentenced Calas. If, on the other hand, we are to take the thing poetically, it will have to be objected that, despite some verse of merit, the whole wants concentration and condensation, that the scenario is very obscure, and that the machinery is wholly incomprehensible. In short, the whole thing once more shows Mr. Buchanan’s besetting sin of crudity, a fault by no means uncommon in the best wine and the best poets when both are young, but fatal to both poets and wine when they ought to have and have not outgrown it.
The Times (19 January, 1893 - p.7)
In THE WANDERING JEW, a Christmas Carol (Chatto and Windus), Mr. Buchanan seems to us to have essayed a task that would have taxed to the utmost the poetic genius of a Dante and a Milton combined. The Wandering Jew of Mr. Buchanan’s apocalyptic vision is the Redeemer himself, who is arraigned before a mystic tribunal, accused of all the woes, and sins, and tragedies, all the delusions and disappointments of the 19 centuries of Christian history, and condemned to the desolate immortality of an everlasting outcast.
Since thou hast quicken’d what thou canst not kill,
This may have a transcendental meaning which we are not sufficiently masters of Mr. Buchanan’s thought to have detected, and so much seems to be rather obscurely suggested in the concluding lines of the poem:—
And lo! while all men come and pass away,
But its plain and direct meaning is surely very ill-suited with the title of a Christmas Carol. For the rest, Mr. Buchanan handles the rhymed couplet with no little variety and skill, and, in spite of occasional lapses of taste and diction, he often writes with powerful but ill-regulated rhetoric.
The Spectator (28 January, 1893 - pp.32-34)
MR. BUCHANAN’S “WANDERING JEW.”*
A STRANGER “Christmas Carol” was, perhaps, never written. Mr. Buchanan’s poem may be fairly called a half-tremulous, half-wistful wail over the gigantic failure of Christ, rather than a triumph over his victory. If we were to attempt to sum up the rather obscure and inconsistent elements of its burden in a few words, we should call it a long lamentation that Jesus Christ had accomplished so little; that so much evil had been done under the false assumption of his authority; that the gracious promises he had made in his Father’s name, had not as yet been redeemed, and that the power behind the veil to which he had appealed, had not hitherto thought fit openly to justify his claims and to glorify his teaching. This is, we say, the main drift of the poem,—love for Christ, impatience with the Eternal Father for his delay in securing him the triumph and exaltation which had been predicted for his Gospel. But undoubtedly there are frequent passages which look as if Mr. Buchanan did mean to claim some intrinsically supernatural power for Jesus,—some personal control over the natural laws of the universe;—the elements, for instance, seem instantly to obey him, while the greater part of the world of man is represented as setting him absolutely at defiance. The poem opens with a dedication of it by Mr. Buchanan to his own dead father, of whom he speaks as emphatically “more dear than any Father in Heaven” in the following lines:—
“Father on Earth, for whom I wept bereaven,
For since I live, I know thou art quick not dead,
This, too, my Soul hath found—that if there were
And it closes with the following sentence passed upon the wandering and sorrowful phantom of Jesus of Nazareth, who turns out to be “the Wandering Jew” of this strange “carol,” by “The Spirit of Man:”—
“Then, pointing with dark finger thro’ the gloom
‘Ere yet I speak thy Doom that must be spoken
And the Jew answer’d, while the heavenly blue
‘Death to him, Death!’ I heard the voices cry
‘Since thou hast quicken’d what thou canst not kill,
And lo! while all men come and pass away,
God help the Christ, that Christ may help us all!”
And there we have the real drift of the poem. Jesus of Nazareth is depicted throughout as wandering through the world in sorrow and anguish, finding no rest for himself, beholding helplessly all the crimes that had been done in his name, and appealing wistfully, but hitherto in vain, to the silent Eternity to vindicate the good faith of his pledges, and to redress the glaring injustice of that “Prince of this world” who had nothing in Christ. Even the very last words of the carol are not words of joy, but, as we have just seen, words of passionate appeal to a persistently silent Deity who answers nothing, to intervene at last, like the passionate appeals of the Jewish prophets: “Oh that thou would’st rend the Heavens that thou would’st come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence.” In short, the carol, as Mr. Buchanan chooses to call it, is a carol of reproach from beginning to end. There is no accent of joy in the poem, and very little of hope. There is much more of Shelley’s “passionate tumult of a clinging hope,” than of the thankfulness and jubilation of a grateful heart. Indeed, the mere conception of introducing Jesus Christ in the disguise of the Wandering Jew, and then revealing him,—for thus he is revealed early in the poem,—as
“That diviner Jew
—betrays the attitude of mind in. which the poem is written. It may be said, perhaps, to inculcate or to imply that the attenuated ghost of the Christian faith is better worth clinging to, than the bold and substantial reality of any less spiritual creed; but as for any note of exultation in the power of Christ to fulfil his own solemn promises, there is no vestige of it from the opening to the end of the poem. It rather aims at expressing the spirit of the only cry of desolation ever uttered by our Lord, in the words of that psalm which forecasts the moment of his agony: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” But could any utterance of his be selected which less adequately describes the significance and tenor of his life and teaching
As a poem, we cannot say that we think this “Carol” more successful than we do as an expression of Christian feeling. Mr. Buchanan has embodied in it many fine lines; here and there, there are passages of much power; but the imaginative conception is as wavering as the spiritual conception. In the early part of the poem, the narrator is continually interrupting himself by trances and visions which add little or nothing to the effect. He has visions of the inner life of London,—visions of the wrecks and skeletons at the bottom of the sea,—visions of the thrill which passes through the city at the word “arisen,” when he asks: “Lord of life, hast thou arisen?”—visions of the Virgin and her child,—and none of them add anything to the drift, while they distract the reader’s attention from it. Nor, again, when the witnesses are called to witness against the Son of Man, is there any coherence in the conception of those witnesses. We can understand the complaints of those who maintain that by the false hopes which the promise of Christ had raised in the heart of man, they had been led to sacrifice modest earthly pleasures for imaginary spiritual bliss. But where is the meaning of citing wretches like Tiberius and Nero, or stately Stoics like Aurelius, to witness against a Christianity which they had never pretended to understand, and had never felt the smallest inclination to accept? It seems to us that Mr. Buchanan wanted to get an excuse for a pageant representing the powers of the world, and summoned a number of Roman Emperors who had no more special witness to give against Jesus of Nazareth than they had against Socrates or Epictetus, or any other teacher who had witnessed against their manner of life without their knowledge, and without their having been, even in their own view, misled by his promises. So, too, the witness offered by Mahomet, by Buddha, by Zoroaster, with a long list of others, seems as inappropriate to an accusation levelled against our Lord for having led the world astray,—which is what we understand the accusation formulated by the Spirit of Man to have been,—as any testimony could possibly be. The greater number of those who constitute the cloud of witnesses arrayed against Christ in this poem have absolutely no evidence to give which any Court, natural, preternatural, or supernatural, if it admitted only what was in some sort of fashion germane to the charge, would so much as have listened to for a moment. We can understand the accusation brought by the great astronomers like Galileo and his comrades, that Christ’s teaching had made their researches into the natural laws of the universe seem at once dangerous so far as they called in question the physical assumptions of Scripture, and profane, so far as they diverted men from their deepest spiritual interests to matters of mere intellectual curiosity. We can admit as at least not entirely unmeaning the charge of the licentious Popes that they, while breaking all the spiritual laws of Christ, had not been supernaturally struck down from the blasphemous position of authority which they dared to abuse. We even appreciate the significance of such assertions as those of Montezuma and the Incas, that they had been slaughtered without scruple in the name of a religion which enforced charity as its first law, and yet without any intervention on the part of the Divine Master. But what the long succession of merely non-Christian rulers, of heathen and secular teachers, and religious fanatics, has to do with any charge against Christianity, we cannot understand. Nor do we comprehend why Christ’s own followers, like St. Paul and the other apostles, speak for him rather than against him, when St. Paul’s own argument had been: If Christ be not risen, then we of all men are the most miserable; while in his sense certainly, the assumption of the whole poem is that Christ had not risen, or had only half-risen,—had risen enough to startle the conscience into uneasy and feverish dreams, not enough to demonstrate the glory and omnipotence of God. Even the personal disciples cry to Jesus to take up his godhead, which, according to the assumption of the poet, has lain dormant through all the centuries, and has failed to keep the pledges it had given to his first followers. Surely, in that case, they, much more than his false servants, should have been his accusers.
In a word, we do not think that Mr. Buchanan’s own conception of his design was at all clear to himself when he wrote. His ideas are confused. He wishes to represent the claims of Christ on the Eternal Father as still crying to the throne of the universe in vain, and the world as still crucifying afresh the spirit of the pilgrim of Eternity who pleads with a silent God. But he mixes up with this conception much that is quite irrelevant to it, and he ignores entirely all that runs counter to it, all that witnesses to the steady triumph of the spirit of holiness and love over the spirit of coarse worldly ambition and of sensual worldly lust. If Christ’s conception of the coming of his own kingdom as a very gradual coming, which was to leaven the universe slowly but surely, and which could not be hurried by human impatience, is to be accepted at all, it is not clear how the greater part of the drift of this poem is to be understood and justified, unless it be as finding a voice for the undue and passionate impatience discernible in the present attitude of Christian thought. This picture of Christ as a weak, aged, and helpless spectre, wandering feebly through the ages, suffering afresh at every fresh crisis of history, never prevailing, but always gazing mutely at the distant horizon for the evidence of a divine intervention which never comes, is surely the quaintest specimen of a Christmas “carol” which poet ever conceived. It seems to us false alike to history and to poetry. It represents neither what is great in Christianity nor what is great in imaginative life.
As regards the mere execution of the poem, Mr. Buchanan too often gives way to the love of what is startling and outré. There is, of course, precedent for “pathic” Popes (p. 62), but the expression is hardly intelligible now. Where will Mr. Buchanan find any modern use of “to stench” as an active verb in the sense of to make of evil odour?—as in “Stenching the cities wheresoe’er they trod,”—a very ugly line, not a bit the more forcible for its revival of an obsolete usage. How can Heaven “yearn its heart of stars out on” any one’s hoary head? And where will Mr. Buchanan find any authority for Golgötha with the “o” long, as his metre requires it to be? The Greek version of the word certainly makes the “o” an omicron, not an omega:
* The Wandering Jew: a Christmas Carol. By Robert Buchanan. London: Chatto and Windus.
The Review of Reviews (February, 1893)
“THE EPOS OF THE WORLD’S DESPAIR.”
“JESUS THE JEW,” JUDGED BY ROBERT BUCHANAN.*
THIS is an ambitious attempt, by an imperfectly qualified poet, to “sing the Epos of the World’s Despair.” He has succeeded in producing a rhymed pamphlet of 150 pages, from which sprang the controversy in the Daily Chronicle, “Is Christianity Played Out?”. The conception of the poem is audacious, and the execution is marked by much rugged power. Mr. Buchanan, “wandering alone in London on Christmas Eve, meets an old, old weary wight, bowed beneath the weight of many winters, whom he at first takes to be the Wandering Jew, but whom he subsequently recognises as the Christ. After forty pages devoted to a description of the weak and weary and miserable old man, who with bare and bloody feet staggers half-way across Westminster Bridge, the scene changes, and the Spirit of Man sits in judgment upon the Son of God. All those who have suffered by Christianity, all those who have either been martyred in the cause of Christ, or who have dishonoured the name of their Lord, or who have outraged humanity by crimes committed against Christianity, are summoned to appear and bear witness against this Jew. The Acolyte of the Spirit of Man arraigns Jesus the Jew in the name of all men for many high crimes and misdemeanours, but most of all for deceiving mankind with the mirage of another life.
Humanity itself shall testify
The Acolyte, who acts the part of Public Prosecutor, thus sums up. Addressing Christ he says that he, the Acolyte, has taught:—
That all thy promise was a mockery;
Mr. Buchanan then summons as witnesses for the prosecution Judas, Ahasuerus, Pilate, Tiberius, Nero, and the Evil Cæsars. After Nero and the Imperial swarm come—
A throng of martyrs slain,
Then follow Julian the Apostate, Hypatia, Mahomet, Buddha, Zoroaster, Menù, Moses, Confucius, Prometheus. With “these mighty spirits of the god-like Dead” come “souls of fair worshippers that Jew had slain.” Then we have a succession of Popes, “who made a Throne with bones of butcher’d men,” followed by their victims—Galileo, Castilio, Bruno, and many others, all testifying that:—
This Man hath been a curse in every clime;
The “martyrs of truth and warriors of the right'” form a somewhat incongruous company, from Justinian to Huss, including Abelard and Eloise, Columbus, De Gama, and Magellan. Then follow Montezuma and the last of the Incas, and hosts of “dark, naked women, children piteous-eyed, all manacled and bleeding.” After this “a cruel scent of carnage filled the air . . . the followers of the Crucified, the ravening wolves of wrath that never sleep” rush on to the scene smiting each other. Voltaire, and Jean Calas, and all the Encyclopædists follow, and, last of all, the whole Jewish race bears witness against him, while:
He, the Man Forlorn, stood mute in woe.
Jesus is then asked to plead in his own defence:—
I have no word to answer, murmured he,
John the Baptist, John the Beloved, the Virgin Mother, the Magdalen, Paul, and shapes of dead Saints, arise and cry, “Hosannah to the Lord!” but “faint was the cry, withering on the wind as if to die.” They implore him to unfold the heavens that they may look upon the Father’s face,
And Jesus answer’d not, but shook and wept.
After a time, however, he rouses himself and declares that he is at last convinced. “My Dream was vain.”
Woe to ye all! and endless Woe to Me
Jesus, in short, despairs, and, abandoning his self-chosen task, craves only to die. But even this boon is denied him. The Spirit of Man bids him again take up his cross, and thus pronounces his doom:—
Since thou hast quicken’d what thou canst not kill,
It is a powerful poem. Mr. Swinburne sang the soul of it long ago in more melodious verse, but Mr. Buchanan has made the idea more easy to be understanded of the common people. To Mr. Buchanan Christianity is primarily a restriction. It is a bundle of “thou shalt nots.” He realises the negative prohibition. The positive peace and joy that come of believing are not even comprehensible by him, and his account of the work of Christ is about as accurate as a stone-deaf man’s description of a concert. There is sufficient truth in his conception to make the idea useful to all believers who can supply from their own experience what Mr. Buchanan leaves out. He supplies what they often ignore, a conception of the sufferings which Christians are always inflicting upon Christ, and so he enables us to form a fresh and more vivid realisation of the continuance and intensity of the Passion. Of course, as a historical or philosophic statement of the case, the “Wandering Jew” is absurd. When the medicine is debited with every paroxysm of the disease it subdues, there is short shrift for the doctor.
* “The Wandering Jew: A Christmas Carol.” By Robert Buchanan. Chatto and Windus. 6s.
Birmingham Daily Post (27 February, 1893)
THE WANDERING JEW: A Christmas Carol. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. [Chatto and Windus.]
Whether or not Mr. Buchanan has any serious purpose in this strange poem we cannot venture to guess. It seems primarily designed to shock the feelings of so much of the Christian world as may be allured to read it. The more obvious teaching of the poem as a whole is, in long-winded phrase, the hasty utterance of the Fool, “There is no God.” The Christ who essayed to reveal to men the Father after two thousand years awakes to find his “dream was vain”: that there is no Father, and that for all Death is the end of all, only for Him, who was all pity and all love. Some form, which typifies we know not what, pronounces the doom—
Since thou hast quickened what thou canst not kill,
The poem here and there recalls the wonderful “Dream of Atheism” in Jean Paul Richter’s “Flower, Fruit, and Thorn Pieces,” and at times Arthur Hugh Clough’s “The Shadow,” though to us it is far less impressive than either of those brief and masterly productions. If this is more than a poetic rhapsody in execrable taste, then we say, this is an impossible view of Jesus of Nazareth. There are among us many able and good men, who believe that the world has wrongly accounted Him divine, yet none would be so mad as to charge on Him the guilt of those who in His name have pursued their own selfish purpose and glutted their ignoble appetites; of those who have ignored His teaching while making a market of His name: he towers above Zoroaster, Gautama, Confucius, Mahomet, “the highest, holiest manhood,” the great embodied Love. So much is held by those who are not His disciples. All this weltering flood of foul accusation is but the morbid dream of an egotistical rhymer; it does not voice Humanity, nor any section of it. Judged merely as a poem, divesting ourselves, so far as is possible, of any prejudice in the matter, it is impossible to deny that it has occasionally great power. If we can think of it as we nineteenth century mortals, reared in the atmosphere of Christianity, would think of the story of Zeus and Prometheus, we can but admire the profusion, the invention, the energy, and “go” of the poem. The poet tells us that as he, Mr. Robert Buchanan, wandered in the city’s streets, “bitter with God because his wrongs seemed great,” and “pitying the blended herd” of his fellow men who still believed in Christ, a thin hand crept trembling in his own and a tremulous voice asked “for God’s sake to be allowed to lean on him,” Mr. Robert Buchanan. There are whirlwinds, and glamours, and all sorts of wonders, until at last it dawns on the mind of the poet that this is the Wandering Jew, and taxing him with it, the form answers, “I am He!” But after further communing with him he sees upon his hands and feet the bloody stigmata and recognises
The lineaments of that diviner Jew
Then he bends in adoration before the Master, and visions come to him, the silent cisterns of the night are stirred and the pale stars cling together. Like Asmodeus, Mr. Buchanan peers through brick and stone, and sees multitudes awakening with the words “Arisen! Arisen!” on their lips. And, better far—
Far, far away, faint as a filmy cloud,
Some terrible atmospheric disturbances follow, and then Mr. Robert Buchanan sees the Lonely Man, trailing his cross of wood before the hill of Golgotha, on which sits in judgment One, shrouded and spectral. The judge seems to be the accuser, too, but the arraignment is made by “another awful shrouded skeleton,” even Death, recounting His story and charging upon Him the crimes of the world. Then come the witnesses, Judas Iscariot, Ahasuerus, Pilate, Nero, Julian, Hypatia, Mahomet, Gautama, Zoroaster, Menù, Moses, Confucius, Prometheus, a swarm of Popes, Galileo, Castilio, Bruno, Justinian, Du Molay, King Frederick, Algazalli, Alhazen, Petrarch, Huss, De Gama, Columbus, Magellan, Montezuma, the Incas of Peru, myriads of martyrs, Calas, Voltaire, and countless hosts of dead. There seems no reason beyond the limits of our biographical and classical dictionaries, and prudential publishing considerations, why the list of witnesses should ever have stopped. Then “the Jew” is invited to call his witnesses, if he has any. He calls none, but, “uplifting still his weary gaze, searches the empty Heaven’s pathless ways for miracle and token.” But John the Baptist, and John the Divine, the “gentle Mother of God grown grey and old,” Mary the wife, and Mary Magdalen, pallid apostles, impetuous Paul, and others, a great cloud, rose; but their voices were drowned by the fierce anger of the accusers, and in the end the doom which we have already quoted is spoken by the anonymous Form. Once again we ask, does Mr. Buchanan mean anything by it? To us it appears as if the poem were characterised in one line, in which the poet describes the utterances of the Jew—
And all his words seemed wild, his meaning dark.
The poem is not unfrequently marred by metrical lapses that jar upon the ear. The metre is the familiar heroic verse, iambics of ten syllables, and we do not know how in such a measure to read, for example, such lines as these:—
“Snows of white hair blowing feebly in the wind.”
There is an unpleasant wilfulness too in the use of words, “Twain hands,” “stenching the cities,” “the fire-flaught,” treading the “glooms,” the moon’s “hypnotic spell,” speaking of “puerperal women,” “light enew,” which seem to be employed for the sake of oddity—a very cheap kind of distinction. Sometimes the idea is as little congruous as Pope’s Verses by a Person of Quality, e.g., we are told that the lonely man “sank feebly on the parapet of stone,” and, following the description, in the same breath that “he stood from head to feet smothered” in the snow. These are slight blemishes which would irritate in a poem one cared to remember. We have read “The Wandering Jew” without pleasure, and shall not be sorry to forget all about it.
The Academy (4 March, 1893 - No. 1087, p.191-192)
The Wandering Jew: a Christmas Carol. By Robert Buchanan. (Chatto & Windus.)
A PERSON who, from that earliest moment of childhood when the intellect first asserts its right to judge for itself, has at no time accepted any form of doctrinal belief might, perhaps, justly claim to be in a position to approach Mr. Buchanan’s latest poem with an unbiased mind. But complete equipoise in regard to the great issues involved in The Wandering Jew presupposes a mental condition, which would scarcely be described correctly as one of mere neutrality. It would seem to demand absolute indifference, not to say apathy, as concerning the main contention of the poem. It is incredible that any educated person could honestly claim to be in such a case. We may postulate, however, the existence of such person: one who comes to the consideration of Mr. Buchanan’s work as to a curious speculation, in which he is in no way interested, emotionally or intellectually, his business being solely to weigh the matter as an impartial judge, and to determine how far the evidence adduced is relevant to the issue, and, being relevant, how far it goes to sustain the position advanced.
“In vain, in vain, upon the Cross he bled!
Christ is brought before the bar of an imaginary tribunal and thus arraigned:—
“Thou shalt be judged and hear thy judgment spoken
Jesus is further made responsible for the loss of “all other gentle Gods that gladden’d man.” He is held to have robbed men—and here Mr. Buchanan, as elsewhere, follows closely on the lines of Shelley—of their simple pantheistic creed, their frank joy in nature and in the deities primarily evolved from nature, the beautiful imagery of the Greek religion. He has robbed them, too, of their cheerful acquiescence in death, “the one good thing beneath the sky,” and given them, in its place, a haunting dread of an undetermined immortality, full of terrible potentialities of endless torture. But the indictment does not stop there. The religion Jesus founded is represented as having poisoned the fountain of life at its very springs—
“For the sake
The happy nations were stricken “to appease his lust for life.” A band of “Woeful Phantoms,” his vicars, are summoned to bear witness against him.
“And lo, he let us reign! and sins like lice
Finally, The Wandering Jew is accused of having stifled thought, and killed high and purposeful endeavour in every age and land where his influence has made itself felt—
“Wherever men have striven
So much for the general accusation. To support it, and the more particular charges as affecting individuals, a long string of witnesses, a job lot of dead heroes one is almost tempted irreverently to call them, is produced. First Judas Iscariot, who is whitewashed once again: he was not a self-seeker after all, but was merely playing upon Jesus a kind of confidence trick; then Ahasuerus and Pilate, who is not unfairly represented as a superior person of his day and generation; and, after these, Tiberius, Sejanus, Nero, Julian (of whose character Mr. Buchanan gives us a somewhat one-sided version), Hypatia, Mahomet, Gautama, Zoroaster, Moses, Confucius, Prometheus, Galileo, Bruno, Castilio, Justinian, Du Molay, Abelard, Alhazen, Petrarch, Huss, Columbus, Magellan, and others. In his wild and determined impetuosity, the poet seizes any missile that comes to hand, and hurls it with splendid muscularity at the Accused. It does not matter to him whether his witnesses are persecuted Christians or Christian-hunted infidels. The enormities of Cortes and Pizarro: simple ruffians, bent on national and personal aggrandisement, who cared as much for the Christianity they professed as Chaka cared for the witch-doctors to whom, as a convenience, he was wont to appeal—are laid at Jesus’s door. But surely men whose highest glory it was to spend and be spent in their Master’s cause are out of place as witnesses against him. In this and throughout, the poet’s outlook is an extremely limited and a materialistic one. We are all appalled at the signs of human suffering, but assuredly it is better to die for grand ideas than to live with none. If we regard suffering—physical and mental—as the greatest curse man has to endure, the sacrifices of martyrs may be cited as evidences of the failure of Christ’s mission; but, in justice, let it be allowed that Christ never promised men deliverance from temporal sufferings. Mr. Buchanan is too prone to argue from the particular to the general—a dangerous method. He is impatient of the slow progress Christianity has made; but then the ideas underlying Christianity, as of those underlying Buddhism demand for their physical triumph a complete revolution in normal human desires and ambitions. It has taken myriads of ages to render the world a possible home for man, it may well take as long to make it a proper abiding place for archangels. It is scarcely fair in a poet to quarrel with his great “Elder Brother,” because that Elder Brother’s poetic vision still awaits accomplishment. The significance of Christ’s life and work rests in its intrinsic nobility. Why should Mr. Buchanan, a poet, trouble himself with the interpretation put upon this life and work by the theologians who have made him into a deity? Surely it is sufficient for a poet to accept him as a symbol. If he did this, he would see that his indictment is against man, not against Christ. There is not a line in the Gospels which can fairly be cited to justify the enormities which have been done and are still being done in Christ’s name. We know what normal human nature is. Great teachers like Buddha, Jesus, St. Paul, St. Bernard, Savonarola show us what it is possible for it to become. It is by such isolated types the world is to be saved: they are exemplars projected forwards by a natural law; their existence proves that there is no inherent impossibility in mankind ultimately reaching the standard of the type. Man’s physical and spiritual advance has always been along these lines—the effort to attain to the perfection of isolated types. God is in man or he is nowhere; and in worshipping Christ man is only worshipping the higher possibilities in himself.
“The Moon, a luminous White Moth, flew by.”
“The silent cisterns of the Night were stirred
“And swift the stars did plunge thro’ fold on fold
Indeed the poem is full of beautiful things. But they will not suffice. As I close this review, my eye falls on a passage in Mr. E. C. Stedman’s Nature and Elements of Poetry, which is especially applicable to the case under consideration. “Taste is a faculty for want of which many ambitious thinkers have in the end failed as poets.”
The Middlesex Courier (30 March, 1893 - p.5)
The April number of the BOOKMAN gives a whole page illustration of the homes of two novelists; the plain and rather bare-looking “Max Gate,” Dorchester, the home of Mr. Thomas Hardy, and the light and airy “Crow’s Nest” wherein Mr. Rudyard Kipling lives at Brattleboro’, Vermont, U.S.A. The News Notes are full of information, as usual, and the book reviews good, but not quite up to the BOOKMAN’S standard. John Oliver Hobbes’ “Study in Temptations” is singularly unfortunate in the treatment it has received. To review Robert Buchanan’s “Wandering Jew” is like discussing last year’s almanack: the thing was a nine days’ wonder; what is it, now?
The Bookman (April, 1893 - p.21)
THE WANDERING JEW.*
De La Motte Fouqué in one of his romances describes the Father of Evil as having a face that no man could remember, and a name that sounded “Greek and noble,” but passed out of men’s minds as soon as it was uttered. I find Mr. Buchanan’s new poem well-nigh as hard to remember now that I take it up a month after first reading it. I have a vague recollection of something vehement, insistent, eloquent, and chaotic, with here and there a touch or two of serener beauty. I recollect also that while I was reading it Mr. Buchanan was hurling no less vehement, insistent, eloquent, and chaotic expostulations at the head of one who liked him not, and that he was explaining—I remember no more—that the bulk of English literature, from the ‘Faery Queen’ and ‘Paradise Lost’ to our own day, was quite ineffective because “mere literature.” Poem and expostulations alike were no doubt “Greek and noble,” or some modern equivalent for these things, but they are, so far as I am concerned, with the snows of yester year. But I must try and bring this ‘Wandering Jew’ back into memory again.
“Then my soul was ’ware
Compare this admirable fragment of rhetoric with the no less admirably rhetorical description of the accuser, Death or whatever he be:—
“Then calmly amid the shadows of the throne
There is surely no “discriminate and particular” intention in these vague and commonplace affrightments. Does Mr. Buchanan think that “the Spirit of Humanity” and “Death” have no distinct identity? If he thinks that they have not, then why not make this plain? and if he thinks they have—and surely even Mr. Buchanan would not make them different personages unless he saw a difference—why not give some outer sign of opposing function and nature, for “poetry admits not a letter that is insignificant”? He seems anxious alone to make a vague impression of sublimity by piling up indefinite words and pictures, veritable offspring of the void, and by uttering sonorous words that, howsoever “Greek and noble,” have make them stick in the heart and the memory. He fails, as most moderns fail when they attempt long poems; he has no real sublimity because no precision of thought and phrase. When once the vague shock to the nerves has gone by, the intellect has nothing to ponder over and to recall the impression by.
The Guardian (12 April, 1893 - p.581)
The Wandering Jew: a Christmas Carol. By Robert Buchanan. (Chatto and Windus.)—By a curious coincidence almost simultaneously with Mr. Buchanan’s The Wandering Jew there appeared in a volume of verse by Mrs. Meynell a poem of ten lines entitled “Veni Creator,” which touches, though in a very different spirit, the same note which has inspired his long and painful poem. Mrs. Meynell’s lines are rather difficult to read, but they are worth the trouble:—
“So humble things Thou hast borne for us, O God,
Only those who cannot understand that love may remain constant even amid the wavering or mental confusion of faith will censure these lines as meaningless or blasphemous. In Mr. Buchanan’s hands this loving paradox, by the substitution of an intolerable patronage for love, does indeed become irreverent. He depicts himself as meeting Ahasuerus, the wandering Jew, who, after a time, is revealed to him as Christ Himself, though Ahasuerus reappears elsewhere in the poem in his own character. In imagination Mr. Buchanan sees Christ brought again to judgment, with the “Spirit of Man” for His Pilate, confronted with the sins that have been committed in the name or by the professors of Christianity (the Freethinkers’ cheap encyclopædia being ransacked for the list), and condemned, not to death, for which He is made to pray, but to eternal wandering as His punishment. The poem ends with the lines:—
“And lo! while all men come and pass away
We have sought in vain to discover what is Mr. Buchanan’s object or position in this painful poem. In his capacity as narrator he seems to admit the divinity of Christ; the “Spirit of Man” distinctly asserts the reality of Christ’s resurrection; yet He is pictured as rising, not to ascend unto the Father, but to wander as the Ahasuerus of the old legend, a way-worn man, longing for, but unable to find, the peace of that death which is extinction. To introduce a new ending to the Gospel story may have an irresistible temptation for a novelist; to picture the Redeemer of the world as a feeble, cowering old man, may win for the poem the much-prized epithets of “daring” and “audacious;” to involve self-contradictory conceptions in a labyrinth of words may enhance Mr. Buchanan’s reputation as a mystic; for ourselves, though anxious to deal fairly with a book which we think should not have been written, we can find nothing here to admire save some tricks of rhythm and a few bursts of clever rhetoric.
Richard Le Gallienne’s review of The Wandering Jew in The Daily Chronicle (11 January, 1893), and several of the letters, (from Buchanan and others) which it prompted, is available in the following section of the site:
The Devil’s Case (1896) to The New Rome (1898)