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Ballad Stories of the Affections: from the Scandinavian (1866)

North Coast and Other Poems (1867)


Ballad Stories of the Affections: from the Scandinavian (1866)


The Standard (22 December, 1866 - p.3)



     A right noble book, like the four last named from the firm of Messrs. Routledge, is Ballad Stories of the Affections, from the Scandinavian, by Mr. Robert Buchanan. A true poet, though not such a poet as his more enthusiastic admirers hold him—he has yet to work hard—Mr. Buchanan beautifies all that he touches upon in verse. Here are subjects which test the ring of the metal whereof he is made, and the sound comes out sharp and clear. They of the ice-ribbed North in olden time were a hardy and rugged race, but they were a hearty people too, and from their hearts came many a spark of true love when the saga writers struck with the steel of their genius. Mr. Buchanan echoes their whole tone in these pages. No other poet of the day, perhaps, could have done it so well; and we regret that in such brief space as we can here afford it is impossible to do full justice to his remarkable success. He has power and tenderness and truth in his mind; he brings them all out in these pages, which are very well and copiously illustrated by Pinwell, Houghton, J. D. Watson, and others, whose drawings are very well presented by Messrs. Dalziel.



Illustrated Times (22 December, 1866)


Ballad Stories of the Affections. From the Scandinavian. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. With Illustrations by G. J. Pinwell, E. Dalziel, W. Small, T. Dalziel, J. D. Watson, A. B. Houghton, and J. Lawson.

This handsome volume has reached us far too late for the examination which should precede criticism; but Mr. Buchanan’s name will go much farther than any opinion we could give. The illustrations have been done with great care. Some are most admirable, and all of them are good. But, alas! here is Mr. Pinwell again, with his “human face” hideous. We could not at first remember where we had seen the faces recalled to our memory by the drawing at page 109; but at last we recollected—it was at an infirmary; there were some scrofulous women waiting their turn. The artist has hit them off to a horror. We do assure Mr. Pinwell that his “Maid Mettelil,” at page 47, makes us shiver. Look at her elbows and her jaw! We seem to feel the edge of her collarbone as we look at this miserable starveling of a woman. Does the artist say we have no business to think of such things? We beg his pardon. He has no business to make us think of such things. The fact is, it is very easy to make either a pretty face and form or an ugly face and form; and very hard to make them of a truly natural type. Yet this medium course is the only tolerable one; the majority even of quite ordinary faces are so much handsomer than Mr. Pinwell’s that we cannot imagine where he gets his from. Nor, if they were exact copies of ordinary faces, would it mend his case; for as the artist cannot possibly give us that beauty of life which belongs even to a plain face, he is bound to give us the outlines at their best. These figures will haunt our dreams, like cripples or leprous beggars. It is a vast pity these things should be so, for Mr. Pinwell has great power, and devotes much study to truth of accessory, and indeed, truth in general. Add to which, he is one of the few artists for the wood-block who seem to know what the special function of wood-engraving is, and sticks faithfully to that function. We hope he will soon get over this mania of ugliness, and do justice to his own fine faculties. In the meanwhile we do beg him to believe that, while we like realism both in picture and song, we at present turn to—and, alas! from—many of his drawings with a thrill of repulsion. Unluckily, the very merits of his work as wood-engravings, including his great decision of outline, make his mannerism of ugliness all the more glaring.



The Illustrated London News (29 December, 1866 - p.10-11)

     The book of translations from the old Danish and Norwegian ballad-literature, for which we are indebted also to Mr. Buchanan, is worthy to be classed with Mr. Tom Taylor’s volume of specimens of the ballads of Brittany, published a year or two since. Both are deserving of study for the light they may throw upon the mental and moral characteristics of the ancient races, Teutonic in Northern Europe and Celtic in the West, to which they respectively belong. And both, in our judgment, may be regarded as instructive examples of that genuine and spontaneous popular poetry which has never failed to spring up in the heart of every nation at a certain stage of its social existence, when the lawless turbulence and the benighted superstition of the age of barbarism, having but recently departed, have left a deep impression on the intellectual habits and sentiments of the people. At such a period the mythical legends of extraordinary personal prowess or heroism, and of dæmonic influence or fate, with irresistible force disposing of the common herd of mankind, are sure to take this shape. As Mr. Buchanan remarks of his Scandinavian ballads, “In the region to which we are here introduced, everything we see is colossal, things as well as men being fashioned on a mighty scale; the adventurous nature burns fierce as fire, lives fall thickly as leaves in the autumn wind, and the heroes sweep hither and thither, strong as the sword-blow, bright as the sword-flash. Two powers exist—physical strength and the command of the supernatural. Again and again, however, we leave the battle-field, and come upon places of nestling green, where dwell those gentler emotions which belong to all time, and are universal; we have love-making, ploughing and tilling, drinking and singing. At every step we meet a beautiful maiden, frequently unfortunate, generally in love, and invariably with golden hair.” This extract from Mr. Buchanan’s thoughtful preface is enough to show the general character of the interesting collection he has translated for our reading. He has added several pieces by the modern writers, Oehlenschläger, Möller, Claudius Rosenhoff, and others, which seem like commonplace imitations or feeble echoes of poetry, compared with the vivid freshness and energy of the antique legends; the introductory poem, however, by F. L. Hoedt, is a graceful and appropriate commentary on the poetical associations of the Past. There are sixteen or seventeen distinct stories—for every one of the old poems is a story—from that of Signelil, or Little Signe, the Queen’s handmaiden, beloved of the Queen’s son, to that of Signe, another young woman of the same name, who was poisoned by her royal mistress for dancing with the King and his merry men at a late hour in the evening after the Queen had gone to bed. “Axel and Walborg,” the sad tale of two lovers who were first cousins, forbidden to marry by the priests on account of their consanguinity, but really sacrificed to a court intrigue, is of great value, as Mr. Buchanan observes, for its representation of ancient manners and customs, as well as for its indirect protest against the abuse of ecclesiastical authority; but we find it much too lengthy. “Cloister Robbing,” and “The Lover’s Stratagem,” both which turn upon the successful abduction of a girl who was to have been made a nun, bear witness to the same Protestant spirit. “The Two Sisters,” in which a couple of girls put on the armour and take the swords of men to avenge the wrongs of their family upon a cruel and licentious baron, is a stern outbreak of indignation against the feudal tyrants of the age; while “The Bonnie Groom,” and “Little Christina’s Dance,” express the conflicting claims of true love and conventional difference of rank; in the one case, a lady being won in play by a groom who is a prince in disguise; in the other case, a maiden being wedded to a sailor, who afterwards turns out to be the king. Then we have “Sir Morten of Fogelsang,” the dead man, who cannot rest in his grave because he defrauded the children intrusted to his care, and who bids his wife look at midnight to see if his shoes be not full of blood. One of the pleasanter tales is that of the impudent little gnome or earth-fairy, who came to a peasant’s house, and insisted on carrying off his wife; but, on her invoking the name of Jesus, was changed into a noble and gallant knight, who became the husband of her daughter instead. The story of Ebbe Skammelson is a gloomy one of treachery and dire revenge. In his absence at the Emperor’s court, in Germany, his brother, Peter Skammelson, with the connivance of his mother, persuades Adelaide, who was betrothed to Ebbe, to become Peter’s bride. This is the scene represented in the illustration, designed by Mr. J. D. Watson, which we have borrowed. The other artists employed on the volume are Messrs. G. J. Pinwell, A. B. Houghton, E. Dalziel, T. Dalziel, W. Small, and J. Lawson; the engravers being the Brothers Dalziel. Some of the designs, particularly that of the Gnome’s astonishing the peasant family, by Mr. E. Dalziel, that of Sir Tonne’s meeting with the Elf-King, by Mr. Houghton, and other groups of figures, are of the best we have seen in any illustrated books of this season; but we cannot say much for the rendering of the clouds, sea-waves, and atmospheric phenomena in some of the other engravings, which have a harsh, obscure, and heavy effect.



The Daily News (15 January, 1867)


Ballad Stories of the Affections. From the Scandinavian. By ROBERT BUCHANAN, author of “London Poems,” “Idylls of Inverburn,” &c. With illustrations by eminent artists, engraved by the Brothers Dalziel. London: Routledge and Sons.

     Most Scotchmen have a marked affinity with the old Scandinavian genius. The Norse blood yet beats strongly in their hearts, modifies their characters, and directs their tastes. We in the south, have certainly as large a share of Danish and Norwegian pedigree as our neighbours across the Tweed; but it has been qualified in a greater degree by an older civilization, by closer contact with the central nations of Europe, by a softer climate and more luxuriant vegetation, and by the traditions of the Roman occupation of this part of the island, extending over a period of about four hundred years. Scotland has been left to the undivided influence of the Celt and the Scandinavian; and the modern Scotchman is very much one or the other, according as he comes from the Highlands or the Lowlands. The old Scotch ballads, which originated and were brought to perfection in the border country, or not far beyond it, partook largely of the Norse element, and modern Scotch poetry has a good deal of the same character. It is lyrical, passionate, picturesque, strong even to violence, and dealing rather with the simple elements of emotion than with the complexities of character. Mr. Buchanan himself has shown mist of these tendencies in his original poems. He has the northern gloom and ruggedness, the northern love of wild and supernatural subjects, side by side with something prosaic and literal, almost to the forbidding. His mind has, therefore, been naturally attracted by the old legends and ballads of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, and it may be taken for granted that he has translated the present work con amore. He regrets he has not been at liberty to render his originals in “broad old Scotch, the only really fitting equivalent for old Danish;” but he feared to bewilder English readers, and has therefore only introduced Scotch words occasionally, and merely such as are familiar to most readers, even in the south. The poems with which he has here presented us are for the most part antique, and of unknown authorship; but a few are from modern writers of name and fame, such as Oehlenschlager. Many of the former exhibit great power, and bear unmistakable marks of their Scandinavian parentage. Love, sorrow, jealousy, revenge—the tumult of battle, and the quiet of the mossy churchyard—coarse northern revelry, and ghastly doings of spectre, and troll and dwarf, and merman—such are the threads, whether gloomy or bright, but more often the former than the latter, of which these ballad tales are woven. We cannot deny that there is a sameness in them. The motives of the characters, moreover, are sometimes so different from those of modern men and women as to be removed beyond the pale of our sympathies; and the savage ways of the wild, ice-bound people are not in themselves attractive. But the stories form a good addition to our ballad literature, and it would not be surprising if some of them were to get into general circulation, as legends of the nursery and of the juvenile library. Some of the modern poems—such as “The  Lead-melting” of Claudius Rosenhoff—ought not to have been included in the volume, because they are quite distinct in spirit from the ancient ballads, and are not “stories” at all, but sentiments. Occasionally, even in the veritable old ballads, Mr. Buchanan, if we mistake not, has wandered by inadvertence into the modern manner; as in “Axeland Walborg,” where we find this stanza descriptive of the education of a young girl:

She turns into a maiden fair,
     And maidenly things is taught;
And strange old songs and ancient lore
Sweeten her face with thought.

This is very beautiful; but it is so much in the conscious, analytical, meditative, or purely literary spirit of modern times that we suspect it to be an interpolation by Mr. Buchanan himself. Generally, however, the tone is mediæval and the imitation good, though, of course, not without the drawback that it is an imitation, and nothing more.
     The illustrations to the volume are by Messrs. G. J. Pinwell, E. Dalziel, T. Dalziel, W. Small, A. B. Houghton, J. Lawson, and J. D. Watson, and, though undoubtedly clever in some of the faces and figures, are deformed by all the worst affectations of those artists—by their most wanton defiance of proportion, perspective, texture, and the general truth of things.

Back to Reviews, Bibliography, Poetry or Ballad Stories of the Affections: from the Scandinavian.



North Coast and Other Poems (1867)


The Athenæum (19 October, 1867 - No. 2086, pp. 497-498)

North Coast and other Poems. By Robert Buchanan. With Illustrations. (Routledge & Sons.)

IT is a pity, we think, that ‘North Coast Poems’ should appear in their earlier stage of life in such brilliant binding, and with such capital illustrations as accompany them in this first edition. These poems are in many ways remarkable; and our fear is, lest a careless reader, judging from the gold and green outside, should class them with the bright ephemera of the Christmas-tide. He who does so will make a very great mistake, since ‘North Coast Poems’ and ‘Celtic Mystics’ are genuine additions to our store of poetic wealth.
     We fancy there is some defect of sorting in the way in which the several pieces are put together. The ‘North Coast Poems’ do not follow each other in the book as they would seem to do in the poet’s plan. Mediæval and even miscellaneous pieces are thrust between them, bewildering the reader to no end, so far as we can see. Thus, the ‘Prelude’ should obviously have gone before the other pieces, since it gives the key in which all the rest are set, and even expresses the poet’s mind in dealing with the images and allegories in the midst of which he works out his morals. All these defects in printing bring a sense of confusion into the drama which is needless and disturbing. We should advise all readers to take the Prelude first of all; and to mark the opening verses of the song:—

O thou whose ears incline unto my singing,
Turn with me to the mountains, and behold
A sad thing in the land wherein thou dwellest.

I have to utter dread things of man’s heart;
I have to point at evil with my finger;
I have to find the light of GOD in evil.

And yet I am no wielder of the thunders;
I have no little curse to hurl at sinners;
My full heart hungers out unto the stainéd.

I have a word to leave upon my tombstone;
I have a token for the men who follow:—
“This man’s heart hungered out unto the stainéd.

     This sympathy with the “stained” is not new with Mr. Buchanan. It has been read in all his verses, and it has tended more than any other passion of the poet to inspire his work with a sad and sombre spirit. To many it has appeared as the chief source of his poetic efforts, and for this interpretation he has had to bear some blame. For in the eyes of many it is wrong for a poet to have a purpose in his song beyond keen enjoyment in the exercise of a happy gift. Art, these critics say, is one thing, and reform another: poets are given us that they may make us glad; they are our wine, our feast of love, our holiday companions; the business of their art is to make us happier, not to make us better as men and women. When we need to repent, we shall call in the preacher with his book and candle, not the minstrel with his harp and roundelay. But this light view of the poet’s calling is not Mr. Buchanan’s view. His lyre is set to a graver tune:—

And love and sorrow and wrong shall scent my song;
From discords I will wring harmonious breathings,
Sounding a plea for all men, here and yonder.

For I have stains upon me, and am base:
It is not much that such a man can say;
And yet ’tis much, if said with all his might.

     The poet cannot help but see the saddest things. As he casts his eyes about the world, he sees the good man tear his hair and weep, the bad man tread on human necks, the fair women wearing chains, the innocent child pressed down in the throng,—he asks himself why these things are so, and pries about him in the streets and lanes for some little sign that God is looking on. There he surely reads such signs. In places where a hasty man would never dream of looking, he finds some tokens that the heavenly Father has been nigh:—

Have I not found them in an outcast’s hair?
And in the breast and on the feet of sinners?
There is no place so base that GOD hath scorned it.

And ever, when he comes upon such tokens,
A glamour fills the vision of the singer,
And he is sure the LORD hath passed that way.

     And when the singer finds such signs, he makes it his task to throw about that place the “euphrasy of beauty”: so that the world may be got to know it, and to feel its duty in regard to this remembered vineyard of the Lord. Indeed, this Prelude gives the key in which all these rough, rich studies of simple things have been cast.
     With this high note of sympathy in our ears we may profitably turn to the tale of Maggie Blane, one of those erring women who pile up so high the terrible pathos of our common life. Maggie’s story is simple even to baldness; she loves a sailor laddie, and is deceived; she gives birth to a witless boy, whom she supports as a fisher-wife, living on in the hope that Angus will return to her and the bairn; she saves her lover from a wreck, but only to hear that he has married another woman; after which she droops and pines until she dies. How little there appears in such a tale to enthral the heart, yet with how strong a power the poet contrives to work upon the imagination, every reader of sensibility will own. How sharply is the loving and forsaken woman painted:—

Not old in years, though youth had passed away,
And the meek hair was tinged with silver gray,
Close to the gloaming of the day of life,
She stood, calm featured like a wedded wife;
And yet no wedded wife was she, but one
     Whose foot had left the pathways of the just,
And meekly, since her penance had been done,
     Her soft eyes sought men’s faces, not the dust.
Her tearful days were over: she had found
Firm footing, work to do upon the ground;
The elements had welded her at length
         To their own truth and strength.

This woman was no slight and tear-strung thing,
Whose easy tears fall sweet on suffering,
But one in whom no stranger’s eyes would seek
         For pity mild and meek.
Man’s height was hers—man’s strength and will thereto,
     Her shoulders broad, her step man-like and long;
’Mong fishermen she dwelt, a rude, rough crew,
     And more than one had found her fist was strong.
And yet her face was gentle, though the sun
         Had made it dark and dun;
               Her silver-threaded hair
Was combed behind her ears with cleanly care;
And she had eyes liquid and sorrow-fraught,
     And round her mouth were delicate lines that told
She was a woman sweet with her own thought,
     Though built upon a large, heroic mould.
         Who did not know Meg Blane?
What hearth but heard the deeds that Meg had done?
         What fisher of the main
But knew her, and her little-witted son?
For in the fiercest waters of the coast
Her black boat hovered and her net was tost,
And lonely in the watery solitude
The son and mother fished for daily food.
When on calm nights the herring hosts went by,
     Her black boat followed the red smacks from shore,
And smoking in the stern the man would lie
     While Meg was hoisting sail or plying oar;
Till, a black speck against the morning sky,
     The boat came homeward, with its silver store.
And Meg was cunning in the ways of things,
     And watched what every changing lineament
     Of wind and sea and cloud and water meant,
Knowing how Nature threatens ere she springs.
     She knew the clouds as shepherds know their sheep,
To eyes unskilled alike, yet different each;
     She knew the wondrous voices of the deep;
The tones of sea-birds were to her speech.
     Much faith was hers in GOD, who was her Guide;
Courage was hers such as GOD gives to few,
     For she could face His terrors fearless-eyed,
Yet keep the still weird woman’s nature true.
     Lives had she snatched out of the waste by night,
         When stormy winds were blowing;
     And to sick-beds sad her presence carried light,
     When like a thin sail lessening out of sight
Some rude, rough life to the unknown sea was going;
     For he who scorned a feeble woman’s wail
Would heark to one so strong and brave as she,
     Whose face had braved the lightning and the gale,
         And scarce grown pale,
Save when it looked on other lives at sea.
Yet often, as she lay a-sleeping there,
     She started up, blushing as if in shame,
And stretched out arms embracing the thin air,
         And named an unknown name;
And there was a strange listening in her face
     If sudden footsteps sounded in her ear;
And when strange seamen came unto the place
     She read their faces in a quiet fear;
And finding not the object of her quest,
Her hand she presséd hard upon her breast,
And wore a white look, and drew feeble breath,
         Like one that hungereth.

     The idiot son of this brave and suffering creature is not less strongly limned by the poet; a witless lad, bred by the sea-side, and loving the waters like a dolphin:—

     For Angus Blane, not fearless as the wise
Are fearless, loved the waters like a thing
Born in their still depths of the slimy ooze.
A child, he sported on their rim, and crept
Splashing with little hands amid the foam;
And when his limbs were stronger, and he reached
A young man’s stature, the old sea had grown
Dear and familiar as his mother’s face.
Far out he swam, on windless summer days,
Floating like some sea-monster far from land,
Plunging from terror-stricken fishermen,
With eldrich cry and wild unearthly face;
And in the untrodden deeps below the sea,
Awaking wondrous echoes, that had slept
Since first the watery Spirit stirred and breathed.
On summer gloamings, in the bay for hours
He glistened like a sea-snake in the moon,
Splashing with trail of glistening phosphor-fire,
And laughing shrill till echo answeréd,
And the pale helmsman on the passing boat,
Thinking some demon of the waters cried,
Shivered and prayed. His playmates were the waves,
The sea his playground. On his ear were sounds
Kinder than human voices; on his soul,
Though misted with his witless thoughts, there passed
A motion and a glamour that at times
Broke through his lips, and troubled witless words
With weird sea-music. When he was a child
Children had mocked him—he had shunned their sports,
And haunted ocean places,—nurturing
The bright, fierce, animal splendour of a soul
That ne’er was clouded through the pensive mists
Of mind that smoke the souls of wiser men.
Only in winter seasons he was sad;
For then the loving Spirit of the Deep
Repulsed him, and its smile was kind no more;
And on the strand he wandered; from deep caves
Gazed at the tempest; and from day to day
Moaned to his mother for the happy time
When the white swallows glisten from the South,
And summer glimmers through the rain, and brings
Smiles and a windless silence to the sea.

     And as the deepening of strange melody,
Caught from the unknown shores beyond the seas,
Was the outspreading of his life to her
Who bare him; yea, at times, the woman's womb
Seemed laden with the throes of him unborn,
So close his being clave unto her flesh,
So strangely linked his spirit with her own.
For the forebodings of her heart, when first
She saw the mind-mists in his infant eyes,
And knew him witless, turned as years went on
Into more spiritual, mysterious love
Than common mothers feel; and he had power
To make her nature deeper, more alive
Unto the spiritual feet that walk
Our dark and troubled waters. Thence was born
Much of her courage on the sea, her trust
In the sea’s MASTER; thence, moreover, grew
Her faith in visions, warnings, fantasies,
Such as came thronging on her heart when most
Her eyes looked inward—to the place wherein
She hid a secret sorrow.

     We forbear to tell more of the history of these two lives than we have already told. It is a simple story, with as deep a moral as anything ever done into heroic verse.
     The other verses in this volume are many, and of great merit. Of the Celtic Mystics we have spoken already. ‘An English Eclogue,’ ‘A Scottish Eclogue,’ and ‘The Northern Muse’ have appeared in print elsewhere; but the reader will be glad to find them here collected.
     A few words of fault-finding we reserve to the last. Mr. Buchanan has a fine ear for metre; but we think he deceives himself if he fancies that the continual repetition of poetical accents on the final syllables, never heard in actual speech, is musical. Now and then, for the sake of a rhyme, this artificial accent may be pardoned; but it is always a blemish, to be avoided by a true artist, like any other imperfect work. So, again, of the trick of throwing adjectives behind their proper nouns for the sake of rhyme. “Rafters dim,” “churches bare,” and “apron old” are forms of speech which are not English, either of our own time or of any time. In one less highly gifted in the use of language they would be taken as indications of verbal poverty. As it is, they vex the ear to no end; except so far as they may hint that the poet is, after all, less earnest in his work than poets should be.
     The illustrations, drawn by Messrs. Wolf, Houghton, Pinwell, Small, and others, and engraved by the Brothers Dalziel, are of high merit, often illustrating the verse with singular brilliancy and closeness.



Illustrated Times (26 October, 1867)


     Your readers may be glad to hear, Mr. Editor, not only that there is the usual activity going on in the matter of Christmas annuals just now, but that they may expect one or two things entirely new, and of unusual merit. The old nonsense—the Boar’s Heads and Holly, turned up with cant—was kicked out some time ago; but the real, good new thing to take its place, we have not yet seen. Let us live in hope, however. “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and
to-morrow”—yes, it is a good word, even though “all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death;” which, however, is the speech of a bad man, Macbeth, not of Shakspeare in his own gentle, hopeful person.
     As it will take some little time to do justice to a beautiful new volume, just to hand, from Messrs. Routledge and Sons—“North Coast, and other Poems,” by Robert Buchanan, with Illustrations—for it contains some quite new elements, pray allow me a line or two in which to say that this book will take by surprise even many of those who had faith in Mr. Buchanan’s genius. There has been some difference of opinion about certain of his poems, notably about the last volume; but there will be none about this. It is impossible to turn it over without being deeply moved—not only by the poetry itself, but by an element of personal passion which runs through nearly all of it. Briefly, this dainty volume contains immortal work.



The Spectator (26 October, 1867 - p.17-18)



THIS book by its ornamental appearance, excellent engravings, and somewhat premature birth—it is dated 1868—would seem to be one of the candidates for the favour of Christmas and New Year givers of gifts. It is, however, something much more than this, a book full of genius of no mean order; and, good as the engravings are,—some of them are really of striking excellence,—we cannot help regretting that it has appeared for the first time in a form in which the lovers of poetry for its own sake will never like to keep it. In the first place, illustrations and gift-book paper make it heavy, and a book that men are to love should be light and easily held in the hand. Then the show and glitter of the pictorial art and its belongings distract the mind from the field of true poetry. Illustrations of poetry should, we hold, be published separately, and not interleaved with the verses they illustrate. Painting and poetry are so distinct that the state of mind in which you study the poet will scarcely mingle at all with the state of mind in which you study the painter. We do not even want to see with anything but “the mind’s eye,” Mephistopheles and Faust riding their black horses past the swinging gallows on the barren heath at the same time at which we read Goethe’s eerie scene between them as they dimly hurry past. The poetic continuity of the poem is broken by the pictorial study, not intensified. But whether illustrations should be put beside the poetry they illustrate or not, they should at least be delayed till the poetic beauty of a work of genius has been separately apprehended and mastered. No true lover of poetry ever kept the poets he loved in an illustrated edition for familiar use, and yet he loves to keep for familiar use the very edition in which he first made acquaintance with a new and fine poem. Illustrated and gorgeously got up poems are for drawing-room tables (if for any place), not for the shelf where we store the links of our truest intellectual delights.
     However, though we would far rather have had these poems of Mr. Buchanan’s, at least for the first time, without these often very beautiful, and, in one or two cases at least, very powerful engravings, and for all times without the heavy red and gold blazonry on the back in which Christmas books are accustomed to appear, we must say at once that there is nothing whatever of the nature of tinsel, or of the gift-book-annual character, about the poems inside. They contain, we think, Mr. Buchanan’s most powerful work, and there is a variety about the power they show which is a sign of great strength and genuineness in the genius which has produced them. The art is of the simplest kind; there is no great wealth of words, no profusion of metaphor, and at times even a bareness about the form which verges upon nakedness. The music, such as there is, is in the movement of the thought, and not in the ringing beauty of the words. But there is in the volume the truest pathos, a most dramatic humour, a high spiritual imagination, and a mood of brooding, mystic feeling, perfectly original and curiously thrilling of its kind. Of the poetic worth of the poems of this last kind, the “mystic” poems after the Celtic school, which stand last in the volume, it would be presuming to speak certainly till they have been tried by the test of time,—that is, by the test of many moods and many readers. Our first impression of them is of a singular charm, but we are well aware that poems so remote from the stir of ordinary human life sometimes exert their greatest fascination at first, and afterwards lose their hold over us. But of the poetic depth and durable fame of such poems as “Meg Blane,” or of the “Ballad-Maker,” or the English and the Scottish Eclogues, we cannot feel a doubt. At every reading they grow upon the heart of the reader. There is a union in them of vivid homeliness of eye, and of depth of spiritual insight, which satisfies the double passion for both the outward and the inward realism, the realism of the senses and the realism of the spirit. The shell of outward things is painted with all the homely signs which endear it most to us, but the starlike flashes of the mind are given too. There is a bitterness indeed in some of the poems,—especially in the very striking but offensive piece of cynical imagination called the “Saint’s Story,”—which approaches Mr. Browning’s most savage satire somewhat too closely, and a tone of spiritual hopelessness in two of those we have named, the English and Scottish Eclogues, which strike painfully upon one. But no one can deny that even this bitterness, except in the cynical “Saint’s Story,” never exceeds that of one of the most characteristic and truthful moods of modern feeling on matters of faith,—one of those moods which, though not the highest, though it misses the fulness of divine light, expresses most powerfully the fulness of yearning for that light,—crying out against the depth of shadow in which the truest natures so often find themselves enveloped.
     But there is none of this bitterness in “Meg Blane.” There we have a lyrical ballad of the saddest kind, darkening into the deepest gloom, and yet a transparency with light behind, in which there is a perfect delineation of the mysterious darkness of the saddest of human destinies with a “silver lining” of inner light such as leaves no dullness of despair on the picture, and fills the imagination with a gladness of its own as the melancholy story ends. We know nowhere so fine a poetic success in picturing a fate almost irredeemably sad, sad without any attempt to “vindicate,” as we idly say, the divine purpose which sends human anguish, and without any pretence of spiritual discipline attained through sadness,— saddest, indeed, because the faith of the sufferer dwindles to the last and almost expires in apathy,—and yet a fate which is so pictured as to make the reader see a visionary light behind this deepening gloom, giving the story a beauty and a glory in our eyes which we cannot indeed explain or interpret, but which is utterly inconsistent with the mood of scepticism and cynical despair. Though, as with many a tragedy in this world, the gloom grows regularly deeper to the close, though Meg Blane herself loses heart and faith and fades away from sheer inability to meet the strain of life when once her most cherished hope is extinguished, though, again, her big, witless son survives her only to moan himself into the grave beside her, yet so subtle is the poet’s art that no one can read the poem without feeling a deeper spiritual light in the mystery of this darkness than in most of the common narratives of faith growing into perfect serenity beneath the heavy band of God. Without the slightest attempt to discover a purpose in the apathy of the mother or the helpless sympathy of the witless son, the poet makes you feel, by the mere latent glow of his own intensity of feeling, that the dark lines of destiny converge to some bright point beyond. There is nothing harrowing in the poem, in spite of its ever deepening gloom. The spirit glows through it, so that the infinite pity of God seems to blend with every touch of deepening pathos.
     Meg Blane’s idiot son, a witless, bearded man, very finely portrayed, is a natural son. She herself has never seen his father since this son’s birth, and lives in a perpetual dream of longing for his return, supporting herself and her son meanwhile by her herring boat. A ship is wrecked on the coast, and the only sailor saved is the father of her son, for whose fulfilment of his promise to marry her, Meg still fervently hopes. He has forgotten her and been married for years. The poem is lovely enough up to this point, but it is after the crisis that the greatest power comes out. Nothing can be finer than the verses which depict the void left in Meg’s heart, when the dream of twenty years is destroyed:—

         “Lord, with how small a thing
Thou canst prop up the heart against the grave!
               A little glimmering
                   Is all we crave;
               The coming of a love
                   That hath no being;
         The thin point of a little star above,
               Flashing and fleeing,
               Contents our seeing.
The house that never will be built; the gold
         That never will be told;
The task we leave undone when we are cold;
The dear face that returns not, but is lying,
     Licked by the leopard, in an Indian cave;
The coming rest that cometh not, till, sighing,
     We turn our weary eyes upon the grave.
         And, LORD, how should we dare
               Thither in peace to fall,
     But for a feeble glimmering even there—
               Falsest, perchance, of all?
We are as children in Thy hands indeed,
And Thou hast easy comfort for our need,—
The shining of a lamp, the tinkling of a bell,
                   Content us well.

“And even when Thou bringest to our eyes
     A little thing, to show its worthlessness,
Anon we see another thing arise,
     And we are comforted in our distress;
And, waiting on, we watch it glittering,
Till in its turn it is a worthless thing;
               And even as we weep
Another rises, and we smile again;
Till, wearied out with watching on in vain,
               We fall to sleep.

“And often one poor light that looks divine
Is all one soul seeketh along the ground;
               There are no more to shine
         When that one thing is found.
     If it be worthless, then what shall suffice?
The lean hand grips a speck that was a spark,
               The heart is turned to ice,
                   And all the world is dark.
Hard are Thy ways when that one thing is brought
         Close, touched, and proven nought.
Far off it is a mighty spell, and strong
               To help a life along.
But, lo! it darkens hitherward, and now
Droppeth, a rayless stone, upon the sod.—
The world is lost: perchance not even Thou
               Survivest it, Lord God!

               “In poverty, in pain,
         For weary years and long,
One hope, one fear, had comforted Meg Blane,
         Yea, made her brave and strong;
A hope so faint, it seemed not hope at all,
But a sweet trouble and a dreamy fear,
A hearkening for a voice, a soft footfall,
She never hoped in sober heart to hear:
         This had been all her cheer;
               And with this balm
               Her soul might have kept calm
         For many another year.
         In terror and in desolation, she
               Had been sustained,
         And never felt abandoned utterly
               While that remained.
Lord, in how small and poor a space can hide
The motives of our terror and our pride,
The clue unto the fortunate man’s distress,
The secret of the hero’s fearlessness!
What had sustained this woman on the sea
         When strong men turned to flee?
               Not courage, not despair,
               Not pride, not household care,
         Not faith in Thee!
Nought but a hungry instinct blind and dim—
         A fear, a nameless pain,
A dreamy wish to gaze again on him
     She never wholly hoped to see again.”

This is poetry of no common order, and yet it is far finer—as it ought to be—in the context of this most powerful lyrical tale, than it can appear as we extract it. It needs the picture of Meg Blane’s hard sea-wife’s courage before the blow,— of her longing, and hopeful longing, to see the father of her witless son once more, and to be remembered and owned by him,—of the keenness of the first blow, and the wearing off of the first pain, to give this delineation of her lapse into weakness and apathy its full meaning and power. We must quote also the verses in which Meg expresses to her idiot son her fears for him when she is gone. There are few verses of truer pathos in the poetry of this generation:—

         “‘O bairn, when I am dead,
               How shall ye keep frae harm?
         What hand will gie ye bread?
               What fire will keep ye warm?
How shall ye dwell on earth awa’ frae me?’
               ‘O mither, dinna dee!’

         ‘O bairn, by night or day
               I hear nae sounds ava’,
               But voices o’ winds that blaw,
               And the voices o’ ghaists that say
                             I must awa’.
The LORD that made the wind, and made the sea,
               Is hard on my bairn and me,
         And I melt in His breath like snaw,’—
               ‘O mither, dinna dee!’

         “‘O bairn, it is but closing up the een,
               And lying down never to rise again.
         Many a strong man’s sleeping hae I seen,—
                   There is nae pain!
         I’m weary, weary, and I kenna why;
               My summer has gone by,
And sweet were sleep, but for the sake o’ thee.’—
               ‘O mither, dinna dee!

The “Ballad Singer” is a poem of less power and of less depth of conception, but of exquisite pathos in the same vein of feeling, but we must pass it by. “Northern Wooing,” a Hallowe’en story, is a much lighter piece, exceedingly graceful in its own fashion,—that of a homely idyl of Scotch life. It is light and true, and full of living pictures. Of the lyrical narratives, “The Exiles of Oona” and the “Ballad of the Stork” are the only ones which have not, as far as we can see, any great power or merit. The Scottish and English Eclogues are perfect after their kind, which is no common kind;—the only defect in either of them being that the noble verse in the “English Eclogue” in which the English rustic criticizes the poor dead Methodist’s religious fanaticism, is all but dramatically impossible in that rustic’s mouth. It is the poet’s own criticism, and not Timothy’s. Holy Tommy was an English farm labourer whose head was turned by Methodism, who lost his expertness as a labourer in dreaming of his faith, and after leaving his employment mooned himself to death with fretting over the enigma which lost him this world and did not seem to open to him the next. His fate is the subject of a discussion between two farmers, and this is the concluding judgment of one of them:—


“His head was gone, that’s clear enough—the chapel set it turning.


“Now, this is how I look at it, although I have no learning:
In this here world, to do like him is nothing but sell-slaughter,—
He went close to the edge o’ life, and heard a roar like water,
His head went round, his face grew pale, his blood lost life and motion,—
’Twas just as vi’lets lose their scent when set beside the ocean.
But there’s the parson riding up, with Dr. Barth, his crony;
Some of these days the parson’s weight will kill that blessed pony!
Ah, he’s the matt to settle things that make the wits unsteady!
Wife, here’s the parson! Draw some ale, and set the table ready.”

Those first lines can’t be dramatic. Mr. Buchanan, and not Timothy, thought,

“He went close to the edge o’ life and heard a roar like water.”

But the lines are exceedingly fine, and the one which compares Tommy’s loss of living power in consequence, to the loss of fragrance which violets suffer near the sea is one of the finest images in modern poetry.
     Mr. Buchanan’s less realistic poetry is, as we have said, harder to judge than his spiritualized ballads of homely life. But the principal piece among his “Celtic Mystics” is singularly original in conception, and seems to us of a very high imaginative power. It is a vision of what life would be if death were not accompanied by any of the mortal accidents of a corruptible body. He first supposes the anguish of corruption to weigh so deeply upon a mourner that in his sleep he sees a vision of the earth with the physical side of death abolished. Men no longer sicken and die, but “vanish upon God” when His spirit calls them, leaving no mortal trace behind, no pale corpse, no funeral preparations, no quiet graves. The idea is exquisitely worked out, and it is very finely shown how the physical accidents of death assuage instead of embittering the agony inseparable from it. It is written after the Ossianic style of art, but has scarcely any of the false notes of that school. Take this as a specimen:—

“And, behold! I saw a woman in a mud-hut,
Raking the white spent embers with her fingers,
And fouling her bright hair with the white ashes;

“And her mouth was very bitter with the ashes;
Her eyes with dust were blinded; and her sorrow
Sobbed in the throat of her like gurgling water.

“And all around the voiceless hills were hoary,
And a red light scorched their edges; and above her
There was a soundless trouble of the cloud-reek.

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

“‘For, lo! we wandered forth at early morning,
And winds were blowing round us, and their mouths
Blew rose-buds to the rose-buds, and their eyes

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

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

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

“‘By the sign He gives the stricken that the lost one
Lingers nowhere on the earth on hill or valley,
Neither underneath the grasses or the tree-roots.

“‘And my shriek was like the splitting of an ice-reef,
And I sank among my hair, and all my palm
Was moist and warm where the little hand had filled it.

“‘Then I fled and sought him wildly hither—thither—
Though I knew that he was stricken from me wholly
By the token that the spirit gives the stricken.

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

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

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

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

The anguish of desolation expressed in the last verse seems to us in the highest style of the mystic school. Perhaps, logically speaking, there should be no earthly trace of the lost, not even the “two little shoes filled up with dew,” to take the place of the mortal body. But the emotion which this one pathetic vestige of the child’s earthly life excites heightens the whole art of the poem, by bridging, as it were, the transition between the absolute loss of all trace of the body, and the schooling through which the heart goes in death as we know it.
     The book has singularly little poetical mannerism in it. Now and then, indeed, there are phrases, like the use of “ghastly” as as an active verb “to ghastly,” and the sentimental phrase,

“The man’s heart hungered out unto the stained,”

which fret and repel the reader. But we know but few poets so free from mannerisms of this class. We do not doubt that this book will greatly raise Mr. Buchanan’s reputation as an original poet of high imaginative power and a singularly pure art.


     * North Coast, and other Poems. By Robert Buchanan. With Illustrations by the Messrs. Dalziel, Wolf, Houghton, Pinwell, Zwecker, and Small. Engraved by the Brothers Dalziel. London: Routledge. 1868.



Notes and Queries (Vol. 12 3rd S. (305) 2 November, 1867 - p.365)

The North Coast, and other Poems, by Robert Buchanan. With Illustrations by Wolf, Dalziel, Houghton, Pinwell, Zwecker, Small, and E. Dalziel. Engraved by the Brothers Dalziel. (Routledge).

     The first Christmas book which has reached us has, in addition to its beauty, a strong claim on our attention from the novelty of its character. Instead of seeking to win public favour by reproducing, with all the luxury of type and paper and corresponding artistic embellishment, some well-established masterpiece of English Poetry, or an anthology contributed by the popular writers of the day, Messrs. Routledge have found, in a collection of original poems by Mr. Buchanan, an admirable Christmas Book. Mr. Buchanan is a true Poet. Gifted with deep sympathy for human sufferings and human trials, a deep sense of the pathetic, and great dramatic power, his thoughts find utterance in verses of great melody. These Poems will, we think, add to Mr. Buchanan’s reputation; and admirable as are the numerous illustrations with which the volume is enriched, the Poems themselves will, we are sure, prove the most attractive portion of this very handsome volume.



The Examiner (9 November, 1867)


     The first drops have fallen of the coming shower of Christmas books. Messrs Routledge were first in the field, with the best we have yet seen, a volume of poetry by Mr Robert Buchanan, ‘North Coast and other Poems’, all new but a piece or two, and some of it up to the highest mark reached in his former books. The illustrations to this volume are free from the defects—or the merits which we look on as defects—that have characterized some of the Christmas books upon which Messrs Dalziel have spent their best work in former years. There is no wilful ugliness or obtrusive pre-Raphaelitism. The illustrations to ‘Meg Blane,’ by Messrs T. Dalziel and A. B. Houghton, are very true, and Mr Houghton’s contain much of the pathos of the story. Mr. T. Dalziel is a liberal contributor of illustrations; we do not think we have ever before seen so much of his good work in one volume, and admired it so thoroughly. Mr Houghton has been his chief collaborator, but there are six pictures by Mr G. J. Pinwell; three, two of deer, and one a moorhen among sedge, by Mr Wolf, prince of book illustrators when the question if of bird or beast, and a good reindeer picture by Mr Zwecker. Add two pictures by Mr W. Small, and the catalogue is complete of artists who have embellished this beautiful Christmas book with pictures worthy of good verse.



Glasgow Herald (30 November, 1867 - p.2)


NORTH COAST, AND OTHER POEMS. By Robert Buchanan. With illustrations. London: George Routledge & Sons. 1868.

THIS is, in every respect, a handsome volume. The binding is gorgeous, in blue and gold, the paper is thick as vellum and fine as satin, while the typography is exquisite. The illustrations, which are 53 in number, would, we daresay, have carried off the book at this season without any further attractions. They are all remarkably well designed and engraved and some of them have more than ordinary merit. But there are other merits besides the illustrations and the ornamental style of    get-up in the volume. Some of the poems are quite equal to anything that Mr Buchanan has yet produced; and the chief piece, “Meg Blane,” is a poem of the truest and most profound pathos. We do not know that it is matched by any of the fine poetic sketches which the author gave us some time ago in the “Idylls and Legends of Inverburn.” Meg Blane is a fisher-woman, and is thus pourtrayed:—

“Not old in years, though youth had passed away,
And the meek hair was tinged with silver gray;
Close to the gloaming of the day of life
She stood, calm featured, like a wedded wife;
         And yet no wedded wife was she, but one
Whose foot had left the pathways of the just;
         And meekly, since her penance had been done,
Her true eyes sought men’s faces, not the dust—
Her tearful days were over: she had found
Firm footing work to do upon the ground;
The elements had welded her at length
         To their own truth and strength.

This woman was no slight and tear-strong thing,
Whose easy tears fall sweet on suffering,
But one in whom no stranger’s eyes would seek
         For pity mild and meek.
Man’s height was hers—man’s strength and will thereto,
     Her shoulders broad, her step man-like and long;
’Mong fishermen she dwelt—a rude, rough crew—
     And more than one had found her fist was strong.
And yet her face was gentle, though the sun
     Had made it dark and dun;
         Her silver-threaded hair
     Was combed behind her ears with cleanly care;
And she had eyes liquid and sorrow-fraught,
     And round her mouth were delicate lines that told
She was a woman sweet with her own thought,
     Though built upon a large heroic mould.”

     This is an unpromising Amazonian to make a heroine out of; and yet Mr Buchanan manages it with exquisite skill, and with a slight story. Meg has a half-witted son, grown to manhood, whom she supports by her own hard industry, and during all her weary life has cherished the hope that the Father will return. One wild night in summer the cry rises that a ship is wrecked, and Meg Blane is the first to start for the rescue, and the first to take her seat in the boat to reach the jeopardised crew. The out-look upon the sea and the wrecking vessel is powerfully described:—

               “Black was the oozy lift,
               Black was the sea and land;
Hither and thither, thick with foam and drift,
               Did the deep waters shift,
Swinging with iron clash on rock and sand.
Faintlier the heavy rain was falling, 
Faintlier, faintlier the wind was calling
     With hollower echoes up the drifting dark;
And the swift rockets shooting through the night,
Ghastlied the foamy reef with pale blue light,
     And showed the piteous outline of the bark
         Rising and falling like a living thing,
               Shuddering and shivering;
While howling, beast-like, the white waters there
Spat blindness in the dank eyes of despair.”

     Only one of the crew was saved, and that one was the father of Meg’s witless son. Meg recognises him; but after an interview, which is delicately described, she returns to her sea-side hut, her one hope for ever crushed and broken. She becomes feeble and unable longer to battle with the stout waves, and is forced to pick up a melancholy subsistence for herself and her son the best way she can. Thus years pass, the mother and son clinging closer together, till at length death interferes to separate the two. Nothing could be more touching in its way than the murmuring of the mother with regard to her “bairn,” as she feels that she is melting away; or more in harmony with the melancholy from which the incidents of Meg’s life stand out as from a very dark background. She moans:—

“‘My God! when I am gone, how will he fare?’
 And for a little time, for Angus’ sake,
     Her bruised heart would ache,
 And all life’s stir and anguish once again
     Would swoon across her brain.

     ‘O bairn, when I am dead,
           How shall ye keep frae harm?
     What hand shall gie ye bread?
           What fire will keep ye warm?
 How shall ye dwell on earth awa’ frae me?’—
           ‘O mither, dinna dee!’ 

 ‘O bairn, by night or day
           I hear nae sounds ava’,
     But voices o’ winds that blaw,
And the voices o’ ghaists that say
           I must awa’.
The Lord that made the wind, and made the sea
     Is hard on my bairn and me,
And I melt in His breath like snaw,’—
         ‘O mither, dinna dee!’

‘O bairn, it is but closing up the een,
     And lying down never to rise again;
Many a strong man’s sleeping hae I seen,—
         There is nae pain!
I’m weary, weary, and I kenna why;
   My summer has gone by,
And sweet were sleep, but for the sake o’ thee.’—
   ‘O mither, dinna dee!’”

     The subject is taken up in all its hardness, and worked out in the realistic spirit, but somehow it becomes fused with the deepest poetry and pathos under Mr Buchanan’s hand. It is seldom that we find so much completeness in such a slight sketch. Many of the other poems have also rare merit; and amongst these we would notice the English and Scottish Eclogues, both of which, especially the latter, are admirable. The “Ballad Maker,” the “Northern Wooing,” and the “Exiles of Oona” are also fair specimens of Mr Buchanan’s powers; but none of them reach the high standard of the first poem in the volume. It is almost a pity that so much fine poetry has been so overlaid with tinsel ornament. The public scarcely ever expects to find much of literary worth under gaudy covers, and accompanied with fine tones paper and beautiful illustrations. Books of this character are bought, like articles of vertu, as drawing-room ornaments. Moreover, it is difficult to peruse such splendid productions of the pictorial and typographical arts without spoiling them, when they happen, as in the present case, to contain substance as well as show.



The Argosy (1 December, 1867 - p.80)

     Writing in view of Christmas, we may, perhaps, shortly mention some Christmas Books. There is, first, “North Coast Poems,” by Robert Buchanan—a beautiful drawing-room volume, on which much care and pains have been spent, and with good result. Here and there we regret to see that the artists have followed and exaggerated a hard and wholly false realism into which Mr. Buchanan has recently fallen headlong, and which the men of the pencil might well have studied to relieve. One specimen of the hard and ungrateful work we may indicate—the illustration to the “Scottish Eclogue,” which, perhaps, faithfully enough reflects the artist’s conception, but which overcomes one with a feeling of disgust. Here the ideal medium, through which alone any form of life can be seen truly, has escaped the poet’s clasp, leaving only the rough garment behind it; and the artist has followed suit, with due result—a repulsive picture. But a few of the poems are fine, and, generally, the illustrations are equal to them—the landscapes and sea-pieces being exceedingly beautiful.



Pall Mall Gazette (3 December, 1867 - p.12)


THIS volume contains two or three poems well suited to maintain the reputation of the author, among many that are comparatively prolix and uninteresting, and several remarkable only for the most wild and morbid fancies. The  illustrations, with the exception of Mr. Wolf’s studies of wild deer and water-fowl, are mostly very dismal things to behold or criticise. They are composed, as a rule, of a few scratchy figures,—

Pinnacled dim in an intense inane

of nocturnal moors or surges without any fine lights and shades, or any distinct details introduced by way of contrasts. The one accompanying a picturesque couplet (p. 203)—

Then sunrise glistening faintly o’er the peaks
Fell moist and slant into the lake beneath,

is more than half composed of a mere patch of ink bounded by five straight lines. The group illustrating the Scottish Eclogue (already some time published) may perhaps be taken to present a humorous coup d’œil, inasmuch as the figure of the minister, who is delivering a tea-table discourse on predestination, is brought into curious relations with the frame of a chair adjacent to his own, and seems to end in a personal appendage characteristic of the Evil One. Some sea-pictures by Mr. T. Dalziel are absolutely preposterous. Altogether the book, in spite of a tolerably handsome binding, contains much that it too good, and much that is too bad, to suit a modest Christmas present; which is what it seems to have been intended for.
     The versatility shown in Mr. Buchanan’s compositions is striking and promising, but he is most successful when he stoops to a quiet rural idyl, namely in the “Northern Wooing,” and next in the keen though homely pathos of Meg Blane’s story. The former is a tale of “Hallow Night,” and of the momentous pranks and divinations which accompany that festivity in Scotland; it would make a kind of low life counterpart to Keats’s “Eve of St. Agnes.” The latter is a history of a seduced and deserted woman, who, in struggling by masculine toils to procure her livelihood and support her idiot though “bearded” son, is sustained by the single hope that her sailor will at length come back to her from she knows not what long wanderings; she then rescues him from a wreck by her own exertions, and has to bid him farewell with a sinking heart on finding that he has long been married. It is at this point the author reflects in his most perfect and moving style:—

     Lord, with how small a thing
Thou canst prop up the heart against the grave!
         A little glimmering
               Is all we crave—
         The coming of a love
               That hath no being;
     The thin point of a little star above,
               Flashing and fleeing,
               Contents our seeing—
The house that never will be built, the gold
     That never will be told,
The task we leave undone when we are cold:
The dear face that returns not, but is lying,
     Licked by the leopard, in an Indian cave—
The coming rest that cometh not, till, sighing
     We turn our weary eyes upon the grave.
         And, Lord, how should we dare
               Thither in peace to fall
But for a feeble glimmering even there?

The deeply human inspiration of this poem makes it almost appear an incongruous effort to read in the same volume the wild strain entitled “Celtic Mysteries,” where we are called upon to realize how death would affect us if God were to initiate a totally new dispensation, so that the bodies of our friends should suddenly vanish into thin air, and that we might have no relics over which to indulge our griefs. We meet with a yet rasher flight of fancy in the proem, where the Angel of Death, identified with Cain, is supposed to get a long-desired dismissal from his unpleasant duties, the Lord having accosted him with “Thy wanderings, dear Cain, are ended,” &c. The whole vision seems like one that has been produced by the influence of opium. It may certainly suit some minds in which a strong craving has been generated for a novel stimulant; but, at all events, the author’s efforts to connect these lucubrations with a string of serious reasonings and of expostulations with the Deity concerning our human destinies have proved abortive. On the other hand, the “Saint’s Story” is a kind of Ingoldsby Legend, very entertaining, very bold, and very whimsical; but the satire is spiteful and irreverent, and the scenes into which it leads adapted slyly to tickle coarsest appetites. But it is chiefly in the “Poem to David” (an elegy on the author of the “Luggie,” &c.) that Mr. Buchanan has overlaid a fine natural sentiment with an utterly repulsive covering of morbid conceits and fulsome images. It is dismal, he shows us, to think what death seems likely to be when we “lie and rot in cold obstruction,” without power to escape some dim conception of the past and the present, yet even thus we might be content to lie down by the side of a lost friend. No doubt this is a conception which a man of fine feeling might touch upon lightly and tremulously, as where we read in the old ballad—

Is there any room at your head, Willy?
     Is there any room at your feet?
Is there any room at your side, Willy?
     Wherein that I may creep.

     But all is spoiled in the present poem by an extravagant, even shocking excess of detail, and by the effeminate fondness of such verses as—

Were thy lips to mine, beloved,
     And thine arms around me too;
I think I could lie in silence,
     And dream as we used to do.
     *     *     *     *     *
And our brains upon one another,
Would gleam till the Judgment Day.

     In reading the “Ballad-maker” we are struck, as we have often been heretofore, by the too obvious narrowness of Mr. Buchanan’s notions concerning low life in London. While in Burns’s poems we see beggars or tailors as merry as princes could be, our present author would have us imagine than an exterior of squalor and rudeness is inevitably and incessantly accompanied by an abject and querulous frame of mind. Hence he exaggerates the effects of social position where his countryman has justly reduced their magnitude in our eyes, by showing how the same appetites and affections are constantly at work in all grades of society, since Fortune, as has been said, “gives too much to many, but to none enough.” He is unwilling even to believe that a Londoner can for a moment forget or cease to be sick of the smoke and the strange faces which surround him; by which view he acquires no better a command of his subject than a nautical poet might gain through the phenomena of sea-sickness. His imaginary sufferers, moreover, have a childish and literally lackadaisy longing to meet with the simplest country objects. Then they have never any friends living near them, and no notion, we suppose, of indulging in any convivial intercourse with chance acquaintances. The chief amusement and resource of these heaven-abandoned beings is running to the Old Bailey to see a woman hanged. We could scarcely pick up from any French traveller a queerer notion of metropolitan life than Mr. Buchanan’s books might give if circulated on the Continent, but he has unluckily tried to build elegiac and sentimental poems on a basis only sufficient for the humour of a caricaturist. To such strains, however, we often find a refreshing contrast in his descriptions of natural scenery, which although somewhat too exuberant and circuitous in point of diction are often coloured with peculiar warmth and delicacy. We may instance the description of a marine sunset in the “Exiles of Oona,” and that of the summer’s haunts in “Meg Blane,” to which might be added a number of more rapid sketches.

     * “North Coast and other Poems.” By Robert Buchanan. With illustrations. (London: Routledge and Sons. 1867.)



Illustrated Times (7 December, 1867)


North Coast and other Poems. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. With Illustrations by eminent Artists, engraved by the Brothers Dalziel. London and New York: Routledge and Sons.

Anything like an adequate review—not to say a criticism—of this volume would occupy so much of the space which near Christmas time is heavily bespoken, that we shall best serve the interests of author and publisher, as well as most certainly please out own readers, by devoting every inch we can spare, after a word or two of comment, to extracts from the best parts of the book. The artists we regret to be compelled to dismiss in very short space indeed. Where there is so much to praise, it is almost harsh to select a single point for notice; but nobody will miss the extraordinary force with which the countenance of the idiot is rendered on page 51; the beauty of the sea-lights on pages 7 and 186; or the natural charm of the scenes on pages 189 and 213. The last is particularly beautiful. The Scotch elder on page 151 is also capital. We praise these “points” in the artists’ share of the general effect, not because there is not more to praise, but because it is well to be specific here and there, even where one’s space is limited. By-the-by, too, the monk and the lady on page 175 are splendidly done.
     Of course, the poetry is of unequal rank; but, in order to estimate the true bearing of that remark, we invite the critical reader to compare (say) Mr. Tennyson’s “Enoch Arden” with “Meg Blane,” the opening poem in the present volume. Mr. Tennyson can well afford to submit to the comparison, whatever the result. And the result is this—In “Enoch Arden” there is, of course, much more of the perfect craftsman; but, in depth of conception, pathetic interpretation of nature, fulness of thought, and that subtle reading between the lines which seems so involuntary as to suggest the kind of genius which is next of kin to madness, the higher place—and by many stairs of the temple, too—belongs to “Meg Blane.” A similar result follows, in our opinion, upon a comparison of Mr. Tennyson’s “Brook” with the poem of that title in the volume before us. Of the “Celtic Mystics” it is difficult to speak truly and yet keep within bounds, so perfect is the “assimilation,” and so wonderful the “eerie” beauty and exaltation of the poetry. We can only quote the last of the series. Some readers will understand it at a glance; others, after a little study; the majority, perhaps, never; but every lover of poetry will be able to taste it, and catch the bouquet of a strange wine—if the image may be pardoned—though the name and origin may be obscure to him:—


In the time of my tribulation
Melt me, Master, like snow;
Melt me, dissolve me, exhale me,
Into Thy wool-white cloud;
With a warm wind blow me upward
Over the hills and the seas,
And upon a summer morning
Poise me over the valley
Of Thy mellow yellow realm;
Then, for a wondrous moment,
Watch me from infinite space
With Thy round red eyeball of sunlight,
And melt and dissolve me downward
In the beautiful silver rain
That drippeth musically,
With a gleam like starlight and moonlight,
On the footstool of Thy throne.

A short extract from “The Ballad-maker.” This is


He thought he was in heaven, and it seemed
Pleasant and bright and green like Primrose-hill;
And there was no one there, but all was still;
And he was clean and naked, and the light
Shone on his body, and made it golden bright;
And though a little hungry, through his breast
He felt a tired and pleasant peace and rest.
Then, seeing no one nigh, and tired, he crept
Into a corner full of flowers, and slept.
But all at once, while lying on the sod,
He heard a deep gruff voice, and knew ’t was God,
And felt rough fingers seize him by the ears,
While he was thick with sleep, and full of fears;
And heard God say, “What boy lies here apart?”
And some one said it was the thief, Jem Hart;
And though he sobbed and cried, they would not hark,
But took him to a gateway, cold and dark,
And thrust him out—and full of pain he woke.

And, lastly, at full length,


Oh, sweet and still around the hill
     Thy silver waters, Brook, are creeping;
Beneath the hill as sweet and still
     Thy weary friend lies sleeping:
A laurel leaf is in his hair,
     His eyes are closed to human seeming,
And surely he has dreams most fair,
     If he indeed be dreaming.

O Brook, he smiled, a happy child,
     Upon thy banks, and loved thy crying,
And, as time flew, thy murmur grew
     A trouble purifying;
Till, last, thy laurel leaf he took,
     Dream-eyed and tearful, like a woman,
And turned thy haunting cry, O Brook,
     To speech divine and human.

O Brook! in song full sweet and strong
     He sang of thee he loved so dearly;
Then softly creep around his sleep,
     And murmur to him cheerly;
For though he knows nor fret nor fear,
     Though life no more slips strangely through him,
Yet he may sleep more sound to hear
     His friend so close unto him.

And when at last the sleepers cast
     Their swathes aside, and, wondering, waken,
Let thy friend be full tenderlie
     In silver arms uptaken.
Him be it then thy task to bear
     Up to the Footstool, softly flowing,—
Smiles on his eyes, and in his hair
     Thy leaf of laurel blowing!

     Our readers know that we consider it of small use to point out faults in work of a certain rank; for the simple reason that the author is sure to know them as well as the keenest critic, to find them out, and to correct them. For the terms in which we have spoken of Mr. Buchanan’s volume no apology is necessary. If in the hierarchy of the agents of human progress the poet ranks highest—for the obvious reason that he has the vision of all that makes life worth while, and the power to put what he sees into “marching music”— no welcome can be too warm for real song; certainly not in a case like that of Mr. Buchanan, where the ordinary functions of a littérateur must hang like panniers on the flanks of the horse of the skies. Our readers will not, we trust, attribute to us any “sentimental” or “maudlin,” views upon this question. But if we reflect upon the long periods of absorption, with nothing to show for them, and the dangerous excitements of sudden accesses of the poetic passion, we shall hardly escape being driven to treat poetry which meets us in this way in a very different spirit from that of those who think they have made a great point by saying (as was recently said so often apropos of this very subject) that Shakspeare muddled and puddled in play-houses and Johnson slaved like a nigger. The answer is obvious—So much the worse for Shakspeare and Shakspeare’s work and Johnson and Johnson’s work.



The Times (12 December, 1867 - p.5)

     Mr. Robert Buchanan has every reason to be well pleased with the manner in which his latest collection of poems has been put before the public. (North Coast and other Poems. Routledge and Sons.) The illustrations are by the Brothers Dalziel, J. Wolf, A. B. Houghton, and other artists, and they are all of great merit. The sea sketches to “Meg Blane” are vivid and powerful, and two drawings, of first-rate excellence, among others, accompany the poems called the “Exiles of Oona”—one on page 211, by Mr. W. Small, and the other on page 213, by Mr. J. Wolf. The poems are fully worthy of the care which has been expended upon them.



The Illustrated London News (21 December, 1867 - p.11-12)


     North Coast and Other Poems. By Robert Buchanan. With Illustrations by Eminent Artists. Engraved by the Brothers Dalziel. (G. Routledge and Sons.) The strength and sweetness of Mr. Buchanan’s poetical genius, to which we have borne our testimony on former occasions, are yet more effectually manifested in some pieces of this collection. Three of them—namely, “The Northern Muse,” “An English Eclogue,” and “A Scottish Eclogue”—have appeared in print before; the others are quite new. The series entitled “North Coast Poems” are not, as one might have guessed, another batch of those Scandinavian ballads which he brought together for a Christmas book last year, but are narratives, chiefly of humble life—that of peasants and fishermen, with their families or women, on the shores of Scotland. The principal of these, “Meg Blane,” is one of considerable length, in four parts or acts, varying in their forms of versification. The opening canto, and likewise the last, are composed in very melodious irregular stanzas, with a frequent interjection of short lines and with changing intervals or periods of rhyme, probably intended to mark a change in the emotions which are expressed; while the second canto is in blank verse, and the third in regular heroic couplets. This practice of variable verse-structure, which Miss Ingelow and other poets of the day have adopted, is quite an innovation, and is not in general to be commended. It may be pleaded in excuse that the ear is apt to be wearied by the continuance of the same form of stanza or couplet over fifty pages. We certainly prefer the maintenance of one type of outward structure corresponding with the inward epic unity throughout the whole poem. This rule, which is supported by the precedents of Homer, Dante, Milton, and Byron, in their longest as well as greatest works, has been observed till recently by all writers of narrative poetry. But we shall not quarrel with Mr. Buchanan on that account. “Meg Blane” is a true and noble poem, in which the author has had, like Wordsworth, the courage to seek the sources of imaginative interest in the life-sorrows and soul-struggles of a poor lone woman, the mother of an idiot son; a woman deserted and shamed in her youth, now dwelling in a mean cottage on the shore, and labouring with more than a man’s energy and boldness to win their daily food out of the dangerous sea. The man who has left her so many years alone, the father of her dearly-loved but burdensome child, is cast at her feet by a wreck; she saves his life, and she hopes that he will now be her husband; but he cannot, or will not. So her spirit is broken, her strength perishes, and she can no longer buffet the waves.

Then only in still weather did she dare
To seek her bread on ocean, as of old,
And in the stormy time her shelf was bare,
And her hearth black and cold;
Then very bitterly, with heart gone wild,
She clung about her child,
And hated all the earth beneath the skies,
Because she saw the hunger in his eyes.

Infirmity, poverty, and old age come all at once upon her, in the day of her grief, and she soon feels herself dying:—

“O bairn, when I am dead,
How shall ye keep frae harm?
What hand will gie ye bread?
What fire will keep ye warm?
How shall ye dwell on earth awa’ fra me?”
“O mither, dinna dee;”

And so on, till presently she dies; but she is consoled in her last moments by an unspoken divine message, the traces of which are seen in “The fearless sweetness” of her face. The whole story, though as sad as “Enoch Arden,” which it equals in truthfulness of effect, but not in artistic finish, is deeply interesting, and pleases us as much as anything else in this volume. “The Battle of Drumliemoor,” an historical sketch of one of the Covenanters’ most disastrous struggles, is rather deficient in martial fire. “The Exiles of Oona” is a very melancholy poem on the departure of a band of emigrants from a Highland valley, the occasion having a similar interest to that of “The Deserted Village;” but it is comparatively languid and diffuse, and its metrical structure, in triplets of blank lines, seems to lack both freedom and precision. Another of these “North Coast” or Scottish pieces is “The Northern Wooing,” in which an old grandmother tells the children how she went out of the house in the dark night, on Halloween, to see the mystic image of her future lover. This is the subject of the design, by Mr. A. B. Houghton, which we have borrowed. The passage is highly effective:—

Dark, dark was all, as, shivering and alone,
I set my foot upon the threshold-stone,
And, trembling close, with twitching fingers caught
The great horn lanthorn from the stables brought,
And leant against the door to keep it wide,
And peered into the dreadful gloom, and sighed.
Black was the lift, and faintly fell the rain;
The wind was screeching like a ghaist in pain;
And, while I paused, and pinched my e’en to mark,
The wind swung to the door, and left me in the dark.

Could the incident be more plaintly and forcibly described? Mr. Buchanan excels in this power of assembling the attendant circumstances of an action, with a fine sense of their congruity and of their tendency to deepen its impression on the mind. He does not, as even Miss Ingelow and Mrs. browning have sometimes done, bring in particulars which are needless for that purpose, and which may appear trivial or grotesque. In this respect he is guided by an instinct of æsthetic fitness, which seldom fails. The most perfect, we think, of his poems, and one of the most beautiful of its class, is “Sigurd of Saxony,” a kind of allegory of the spiritual state of one waiting and watching at the verge of our mortal life, who has there parted company with the sainted mistress of his heart, and who has devoted the remainder of his days to the sacred task of purifying himself from evil,

That with a stainless spirit I may take
That solemn barge across the enchanted lake.

He is a knight of mediæval chivalry, as devoutly constant as the Sir Galahad of Tennyson in quest of the “Holy Graal;” but all his hope is to be fetched away to rejoin the heavenly object of his affections:—

Long have I waited here, alone, alone,
Hearing the melancholy waves make moan
     Upon the pebbly beach;
With eyes upon the pitiless stars above,
Here have I waited in my homeless love,
     Pale, patient, deaf to speech,
With the salt rheum upon me, pale and bent,
And breathless as a marble monument.

In explanation of this, be it understood that he is frozen into a statue, and fixed to the earth as he stands, until the appointed hour for his departure. Twice has the ghostly barge returned, once for an aged man and once for a child, when Sigurd was unable to move. But now he is patient, and he waits, with quiet heart and brain, until the due moment of his reprieve. This is a very striking conception, and wrought out with a masterly hand. Another quasi-mediæval subject, that of “The Saint’s Story,” is, on the contrary, one essentially disgusting. Mr. Buchanan should have let it alone. We would rather say nothing more about it. “The Ballad-maker” is a homely idyll of London life, as plain as a piece of Crabbe’s, but with touches of higher imagination and of deeper poetic feeling. It tells of a poor crippled boy whom the ballad-maker, in his charity, nursed while dying, and cheered with the best songs in his stock, chanting to him of the green fields and the great sea, as he lay in a squalid garret of this city. “The Ballad of the Stork” is a good story, very well told. We have by no means exhausted all the contents of this noble volume. The series of weird elegies and prophecies, called the “Celtic Mystics,” open a separate field of criticism; but Mr. Buchanan is apt to become uncouth and obscure in his mystical vein. The view of an Arctic landscape, with a reindeer, designed by Mr. Zwecker, which illustrates one of these pieces, is worthy of notice. So are many of the drawings by Messrs. T. and E. Dalziel, Mr. Wolf, Mr. Small, and others, which are engraved by the brothers Dalziel in their usual style. The very binding of the volume deserves remark, being adorned with a decorative pattern and lettering of a most graceful artistic design.



The Morning Post (30 December, 1867 - p.3)



     Similar to his “Wayside Posies” last year, this volume of Mr. Robert Buchanan’s “North Coast and other Poems” takes a high place among the illustrated books of the present season. It may almost be said to outrival its predecessor in the number and beauty of the engravings with which it is embellished by the Brothers Dalziel and other eminent artists. Unlike, however, the collection in his former work, all the poems are from Mr. Buchanan’s own pen, although they are still of varied character. Only three of them have appeared before—“The Northern Muse,” “An English Eclogue,” and “A Scottish Eclogue;” the others are now published for the first time. The first and longest, “Meg Blane,” is of the narrative order, as may be inferred from its title. It is written in changeful metre, and contains some fine passages, especially in describing the effects of deep passion or suffering on the human mind. The intense yearning of Meg Blane through long years to behold once more the faithless lover of her youth, and her feelings when this desire is unexpectedly gratified, give full scope for some striking word-painting. The change which comes over her afterwards is also finely portrayed, and the closing lines of the description may be quoted as giving a true picture of a woman’s hardening heart:—

“But ere the man departed from the place,
It seemed to Meg, contemplating his face,
Her love for him had ne’er been so intense
As it had seemed when he was far from thence.
And many a thing in him seemed little-hearted
And mean and loveless; so that ere they parted
She seemed unto her sorrow reconciled.
And when he went away, she almost smiled,
But bitterlie, and turned to toil again,
And felt most hard to all the world of men.”

     There is the same truthfulness to nature and deeper pathos in the stanza which tells how her witless son unconsciously showed his sympathy with her sorrow; thus—

“But, lo! unto the shade of her distress
His nature shaped itself in gentleness;
And when he found her weeping, he too wept;
     And if she laughed, laughed out in company;
And often to the fisher-huts he crept,
     And begged her bread, and brought it tenderly,
And held it to her mouth, and till she ate
     Would touch no piece, although he hungered sore;
And these things were a solace to her fate,
     But wrung her heart the more.”

     One other extract may be given from the last lines of “The Battle of Drumliemoor,” as affording a vivid, though brief, description of that sad scene, a snow-clad battle-field:—

“And while the widow groans, lo! God’s hand around their bones
     His thin ice windeth softly as a shroud.
Ay, on mountain and in vale our women will look pale,
     And palest where the ocean surges boom;
Buried ’neath snow-drift white, with no holy prayer or rite,
     Lie the loved ones they look for in the gloom;
And deeper, deeper still, drops the snow on vale and hill,
     And deeper and yet deeper is their tomb!”

Still the poems are certainly rendered less attractive by many of the ideas they present being clothed in vague, fantastic language and fitful metre, perfectly consonant, no doubt, with the tone of North Coast songs and legends, though little adapted to the prevailing taste of the age. The “Celtic Mystics” indeed, with which the volume concludes, are altogether too mystic and shadowy to be either generally intelligible or appreciable. The imaginative is carried to too high a pitch; and occasional instances are also observable throughout the poems where Mr. Buchanan commits that too prevalent error among modern writers of using expressions which stretch poetic license to the verge of sacrificing sense to sound. The style in which the volume is brought out and the illustrations deserve the highest commendation. Not only are the engravings admirable as presenting vivid pictures of the scenes described in the poems, but worthy to be estimated as rare works of art. They display in an eminent degree, both as regards design and execution, marks of that genius for which the Brothers Dalziel, Pinwell, Small, and the other noted artists who produced them, are so justly celebrated.

     * North Coast and other Poems. By Robert Buchanan. With Illustrations by eminent artists. Engraved by the Brothers Dalziel. London: George Routledge and Sons.



The Contemporary Review (February, 1868 - Vol. VII, p.303-304)


The North Coast, and other Poems. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. With Illustrations
           engraved by the Brothers DALZIEL. London: Routledge. 1868.

     WE own to not being easy in mind about these gorgeous scarabæan books, which are making the temples of the Sosii flare with gold, and green, and crimson in our days. It may be morose and ill-boding to feel as if our lighter literature were passing away in a December sunset; or it might be invidious to compare it to a nymph who, for want of charms certain to tell, is obliged to flaunt in loud colours, and challenge us with, “Look at me!”
     But, whatever we may feel about all this iridescence for books in general, of one thing we are quite certain: that it is not a happy idea to send out a new work (at least if that work be anything above a fairy tale) in such a garb. A young child in crimson, satin, and diamonds is not more absurd nor unbecoming. At least, let us keep up the fiction of a shrinking modesty on the part of an author on the day of his debut. The deprecating tone in which men used to address their “gentle readers” was, if somewhat of a farce, yet not out of place on such an occasion. At all events, it was better than this blazing out upon us, as George Herbert says, in hues “angry and brave.” Such garb ought to be won before it is worn.
     With this somewhat offended feeling we look inside. We find poems,—of those anon. But we find something else. Now, here we have an à priori remark to make. We hold the mind’s poetic pictures to be very sacred things. They arise unbidden the moment sweet words are heard or read. Most pertinaciously is the fancy wedded to them. Hector and Andromache part. The warrior stands on the left side; the wife holds the babe to him from the right. So, in an instant, springs up the group to my mind’s eye; to another man’s, it may be vice versá. But, be it which it may, from the first moment when the schoolboy conned the passage all through life, there the group remains, indelible, unchangeable: he who interferes with it is an enemy to my liberty of thought. I would fight for the position of the persons, for their background, for their surroundings. What right have these dealers in printers’ ink to forestall my mental images, and to forestall them in this particularly gloomy and odious manner? Some of these illustrations really puzzle the eye to discover, through the crossed and crossed black lines, what the artist intended to embody as his idea. Some, we own, are freer from blame; but the new and undesirable practice of decking new poems with them has put us out of humour, we suppose, with the whole thing. If we must specify, Mr. T. Dalziel’s illustrations are to us far among the best of their kind, as Mr. Wolf’s are of theirs (witness the beautiful bit of reedy water on p. 189, and the rocks and deer, p. 213). Mr. Pinwell’s perspective is as marvellous as ever. In both the engravings on pp. 91, 99, the floor of the room is as nearly as possible vertical.
     Robert Buchanan has not, by this volume’s poems, added to his deservedly high reputation. “Meg Blane” is, on the whole, the best thing in the book; and “Sigurd of Saxony” has several passages of real beauty. Some of the poems we are sorry Mr. Buchanan has printed. “The Saint’s Story” is simply odious.
     There are some affectations which surely one of Mr. Buchanan’s powers can do without; such are “the curious-eye’d man,” p. 60; “tenderlie,” p. 84; “quietlie,” p. 53; “certainlie,” p. 30; and “bitterlie,” p. 37; the description of a maiden as “kiss-worthy to the finger-tips,” p. 86.
     On the whole, we are disappointed with this new volume;—with the framing, and with that which is framed in it.



The Globe (18 June, 1868 - p.1)



     Odd as it may appear, there are evidently two Robert Buchanans, both of whom set up to be poets. One of them is the irrepressible gentleman who appears in all manner of monthly periodicals, who dedicates to Mr. Hepworth Dixon, and who is occasionally almost poetical. The other was sometime Professor of Logic and Rhetoric in the University of Glasgow. We hardly know which we like least.
     The professor goes in for the old-fashioned five-act drama. Need we say that “Wallace” is his first subject? As the Scotch have just done England out of seven charming little boroughs, we may be excused for feeling rather savage and for maintaining most resolutely that William Wallace was a mere highwayman and freebooter, thoroughly meriting the fate he met from the greatest of England’s kings. It is, therefore, quite right that in a tragedy whereof he is the hero the English language should be maltreated: so let no one groan when Professor Buchanan makes a gentleman called Bonkill exclaim—

                                       “O injured Wallace!
Would Heaven but lend me one day’s life to do
Atone to thee, and on that traitor justice?”

There are five dramas in professor Buchanan’s two volumes, and they are wonderfully supplied with notes of exclamation. But Mr. Constable has ample founts of type.
     As we cannot afford space to analyse the professor’s tragedies, we pass to his minor poems, which usually afford a pretty good test of a man’s quality. Here be the first two stanzas of a lyric, “To a Village Beauty”:—

“O fairest of the village train!
     That show’st a blooming waste of charms:
Did fate the russet robe ordain,
     Thou, only thou, shouldst bless mine arms.

“But must that form—and form so rare
     What sculptor shaped, what poet feigned?
In sordid hut, on sordid fare,
     In some rank boor’s embrace be strained?”

This is queer enough, but the Professor can do queerer things, as the following quatrain shows:—

“Ah, fatal thirst! ah, fond aspire!
     Forbidden things to know!
Dis-Edener thou of our first sire,
     Well-spring of all our woe!”

What’s an “aspire?” And what, oh, what, is a “Dis-Edener?”
     In North Coast the other and better known Robert Buchanan—more poetical, though not a poet—has condescended to adapt himself to illustrations, some whereof are really very good. Indeed, the volume is nice enough, but illustrated poetry in these times is so much a mere publisher’s speculation, with hackwork on one side or the other, author’s or artist’s, that we care little about it. A painter may feel impelled to illustrate a poet’s work—a poet to sing to a painter’s. These are rare occasions. In a mere business partnership, one partner is pretty sure to fail—very often both.
     Still, there is some undeniable success in this volume; witness the “Scottish Eclogue” (p. 150) with Mr. Houghton’s admirable sketch on the dry pious elder of the kirk. Indeed, all the illustrations of the volume are good, and many of them most admirable. The strongest poem in the book is “The Saint’s Story,” wherein Mr. Buchanan has deliberately endeavoured to outdo Mr. Swinburne. Thus talks the “Saint”:—

     “First, by the cinders rescued from the flame
That roasted sweet St. Lawrence, by the blest
     Toenails of Blois, by clippings from the same,
By the red nipples of St. Jonquil’s breast,
By rags of St. Augustine’s chemisette,
     Still odorous with her sweat,
By relics down below, by saints above,
I swear that I had loved as few men love!”

Saintly talking, doubtless. The story is, as a whole, more disgusting than this extract—but it has some power.

     * “North Coast” and other poems, by Robert Buchanan. London: Routledge. “Tragic Drama from History,” by Robert Buchanan. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas.

Back to Reviews, Bibliography, Poetry or North Coast and Other Poems.



Book Reviews - Poetry continued

The Book of Orm (1870)








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


The Critical Response
Harriett Jay


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