ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)
THE FLESHLY SCHOOL CONTROVERSY
The first edition of Buchanan’s novel, God and the Man, published in November, 1881 contained the dedication ‘To An Old Enemy’. There was some confusion in the Press who the ‘old enemy’ was, Swinburne or Rossetti?
The Birmingham Daily Post (9 November, 1881 - p.7)
Mr. Robert Buchanan has broken a long silence by the publication of a new novel, “God and the man,” which he dedicates to “An old enemy,” who is asked to “forget the bitter blame that did thee wrong, and take the gift from me.” Is this “old enemy” Mr. Algernon Swinburne?
The Liverpool Mercury (6 January, 1882 - p.5)
It should not escape attention that Mr. Robert Buchanan’s recently-published romance, entitled “God and the Man,” is prefaced by a very remarkable dedication, which runs as follows:—
TO AN OLD ENEMY.
I tried to pluck a bay leaf from thy brow,
Pure as thy purpose, blameless as thy song,
Few readers can have forgotten the keen—indeed, acrimonious—controversy as to a modern school of poetry, which began with an article published in the Contemporary Review nine years ago; and few will need to be told that the apology offered in the foregoing lines must be addressed either to Mr. Swinburne or Mr. Dante Rossetti. In metropolitan circles the interpretation put upon the verses is that they are meant for the second of the poets named, and have been prompted equally by generous appreciation of the fine humanity displayed in Mr. Rossetti’s recent volume (wherein he tells the story of James I. of Scotland with an enthusiasm that must touch the heart of every Scotsman), and by the known fact that, though grossly and wantonly attacked, Mr. Rossetti has made no attempt at retort, but has suffered perhaps the more deeply for his silence from criticisms which are now allowed to have been groundless, and which are most magnanimously withdrawn. Moreover, Mr. Rossetti, it is well known, has been for many months seriously out of health, and this may have helped to inspire a generous adversary with a love of justice.
Following the death of Rossetti on 9th April, 1882, Buchanan wrote a new verse, this time naming ‘the old enemy’, and a new Preface for the cheap edition of the novel, which was published by Chatto & Windus in September, 1882. This was printed in all subsequent editions.
TO AN OLD ENEMY.
I would have snatch’d a bay leaf from thy brow,
Pure as thy purpose, blameless as thy song,
TO DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI.
Calmly, thy royal robe of Death around thee,
I never knew thee living, O my brother!
This romance is the third work of prose fiction from the writer’s pen. In each of these works, a subject has been taken, which, though poetical in itself, involved a treatment transcending the exact limits of verse. ‘A Child of Nature,’ written in 1870, though not published till nine years after, was the first of the series; the ‘Shadow of the Sword’ was written and published in 1875; the present work, and the ‘Martyrdom of Madeline,’ were planned together and written in close sequence. Each of the last three works has a particular ‘idea’ or purpose, and descends to what some critics call the heresy of instruction. The ‘Shadow of the Sword’ is a poetical polemic against public War; ‘God and the Man’ is a study of the vanity and folly of individual Hate; the ‘Martyrdom of Madeline’ has for its theme the social conspiracy against Womankind.
PREFACE TO THE NEW EDITION.
I HAVE to thank both the press and the public for their generous reception of this romance, or (as it has been styled) tragedy in prose. Despite a title which alarmed the librarians, and a subject which some critics considered transcendental, it was received with the utmost kindness in almost every quarter. Certain sections of the religious world (by which I mean the world which calls itself ‘religious’) may possibly have found it uninteresting; for it neither supports nor attacks the Church of Rome, it has no bearing whatever on the English or any other Establishment, it has nothing to do with theological or ecclesiastical vested interests, and it has never been blest, or curst, by a Bishop. It is of little consequence, therefore, to the higher controversy—if that controversy can be called ‘higher’ which consists of constant wrangling over religious institutions, theories, forms, and fictions. The author holds that true Christianity is an inheritance belonging to all men alike, whatever may be the form of their creed; and that the patience of the world is wasted, and the millennium of love indefinitely delayed, by an eternal dispute over miserable forms.
LONDON: August 18, 1882.
In response to a review of his novel, The Martyrdom of Madeline, in The Academy of 17th June, 1882, Buchanan wrote a letter to the magazine (published 1st July) denying that the character, Blanco Serena, was based on Rossetti. The review and the letter are both available on this site, but the concluding paragraph of the letter is worth including here:
“ One word more. Your reviewer insinuates (there is no mistaking his innuendo) that a certain character in my story is a shadow-picture of the late Mr. Dante Rossetti. To show the injustice of this supposition, I will simply ask your readers to compare the lineaments of my Blanco Serena, a society-hunting, worldly minded, insincere, but good-humoured, fashionable painter, with the literary image of Mr. Rossetti a solitude-loving, unworldly, thoroughly sincere and earnest, if sometimes saturnine, man of genius, in revolt against society. The blundering of windmill-criticism could surely go no further. I wish to have no mistake on this, to me, very solemn matter. What I wrote of Mr. Rossetti, ten years ago, stands. What I wrote of Mr. Rossetti in the inscription of God and the Man also stands. Time brings about its revenges. Can the least acute observer of literature have failed to notice that the so-called fleshly school, in proportion as it has grown saner, purer, and more truly impassioned in the cause of humanity, has lost its hold upon the so-called fleshly public—even on the dapper master-miller’s and miller’s men of the journals of nepotism and malignity? Certain of our critics said to certain of our poets—“Go that way; there lies the short cut to immortality!” But the poets, after going a few paces, paused, recognising, as only true poets can recognise, the easy descent to Acheron. How strange it would be, after all, if we, the so-called Pharisees of ten years ago, should find ourselves called upon, in the end, to defend these very poets against their own critics, against society, against the world. Stranger things have happened. Ishmael, after all, is close akin to Esau; and I can say for my own part that not even the dread of the brutal, blundering windmills would prevent me from championing Esau, if ever I should find the smooth hands of Jacob raised to destroy him.”
Buchanan included the following ‘note’ on Rossetti in his collection of essays, A Look Round Literature, which was published in 1887. It was written in 1882 (following Rossetti’s death) in response to an article in the July edition of The British Quarterly Review (‘The Poetry of Rossetti’ pp. 109-127) which is available at the Internet Archive.
From A Look Round Literature by Robert Buchanan (London: Ward and Downey, 1887 - pp.152-161)
A NOTE ON DANTE ROSSETTI.
“Some positive, persisting fops we know,
IN the early spring of the present year there passed away at Birchington-on-Sea, in Kent, one of the most original painters and most gifted poets who was ever sent to lend light and leading to a perverse generation. A man unique in this particular—that he passed through good and evil report with serene indifference to mercenary reward or social successes; and that, while exercising an unusual influence on the higher culture of his age, and living in the very midst of a busy and somewhat pertinacious artistic circle, he remained personally unknown to most of his contemporaries, as well as to the public at large. He painted pictures, which I can neither blame nor praise, for I know them too little, but which those well fitted to judge have classed as masterpieces. He wrote poems, which have been both lavishly praised and harshly judged, and which remain, after all is said and done, among the spiritual productions of the present generation. Even fairer than his artistic or literary fame was the love and admiration he awakened in all who knew him. He not merely founded a school, he created a kind of artistic religion, which is fast spreading, through the labours of loving disciples. A man 153 remarkable for his intellectual gifts, he was still more remarkable for his unique power of awakening artistic faith and literary fervour. Missed now by his own circle, he will ere long be missed more by the world which least appreciated him while living; for, when the true æstheticism has indicated itself, and the false æstheticism, which still overshadows it, has withered like an unwholesome weed, the name of Rossetti will be sadly remembered, as that of one of those veiled spirits who sometimes walk the earth to make men pure, and literally to “brighten the sunshine.”
* The British Quarterly.
154 criticism that will endure! Perhaps it may be worth while to endeavour, in the short space at my disposal, to show the readers of this book how false a judgment it was, how conventional and Pharisaic a criticism, which chose to dub as “fleshly” the works of this most ethereal and dreamy—in many respects this least carnal and most religious—of modern poets.
A primrose on the water’s brim,
it was maiden modesty and virgin pallor, a star in the earth’s firmament, a letter in the golden Book of Beauty, a symbol, an abstraction of something stranger and fairer than itself. For the man was a magician, of the tribe of Kubla Khan; and at his bidding there rose a stately pleasure dome, every precious stone of which had a name and a mystery, and, when he entered it to weave his strange verse, he was within his right in using the language of incantation, and in conjuring with such names as “Abracadabra.” Those who assert that he loved this Art “for its own sake,” know nothing of his method; he loved it because it expressed the almost inexpressible, and supplied him with an occult terminology. If he was wrong, all the mystics have been wrong; Boehmen was a blunderer, Richter was a proser, Novalis was no poet. There is room, surely, in the world for Rossetti as well as Burns, for the poetry of enchanted symbolism as well 156 as for the poetry of kicking up one’s heels and rolling with milkmaids in the hay.
The Blessed Damozel leaned out
159 Something vaguer might have contented other poets, but this poet has a necromancer’s precision, can count each star and lily of the vision, with a sense of their individual signification. The result is, we have not merely a poetical image, but a painted picture; something dreamlike, but with the strange definition only known in dreams. As he goes on, the picture changes, but the realism remains—we see the very hues, and hear the very sound, of heaven; and at each wave of the grave wizard’s wand, at each measured cadence from his lips, the azure seems bursting open further and further, until we see, in an extraordinary image.
Time like a pulse shake fierce
If this be not necromancy, I know none in poetry. Pathos there is also in the poem, as when the Blessed Damozel weeps, and we “hear her tears,” a gentle sound of rain on the parched universe. But the magician is too sure of his power, too conscious of the supernatural powers which are shaping the spell, to break down and moan. A poet of the earth, earthy, may do that, and set us weeping with him—as Burns does when he hears the bird-song from his place in the ploughed field.
For pity’s sake, sweet bird, nae mair,
But the spiritual poet, with his eyes fixed on so celestial a vision, is master of himself. He knows that his glimpse is real, and that, sooner or later, the enchantment will draw him upward—to the Blessed Damozel’s embrace—as, indeed, it has already done, since such aspirations are truly sent of God.
* I have given the above as my final and revised opinion on a writer to whom I once stood in strong antipathy. The only suspicious thing I know about some of Rossetti’s poetry is the facility with which it can be imitated. During a recent competition for a prize given by the Pall Mall Gazette, a number of sonnets by various hands was contributed, reproducing in a striking manner the manner, or trick, of Rossetti’s verbal style and imagery. Generally speaking, I believe, the merit of a style is in proportion to the difficulty of actual reproduction. Great thought in great language cannot well be imitated. Mannerisms of every kind can. The best of Rossetti’s work is beyond the re-rendering of the poetaster. —R. B.
Buchanan wrote to Hall Caine from France on 18th May, 1882, after reading Caine’s obituary notice of D. G. Rossetti in The Academy. It was later published in Hall Caine, the Man and the Novelist by Charles Frederick Kenyon (London: Greening & Co., Ltd., 1901 - p. 79-80):
“30 BOULEVARD STE BEUVE,
“DEAR SIR,—I have read with deep interest your memorial of poor Rossetti, and been particularly moved by your passing allusion to myself. I don’t know if your intention was to heap ‘coals of fire’ on my head, but whether or not you have succeeded. I have often regretted my old criticism on your friend, not so much because it was stupid, but because, after all, I doubt one poet’s right to criticise another. For the rest, I have long been of opinion that Rossetti was a great spirit; and in that belief I inscribed to him my ‘God and the Man.’
In Hall Caine’s autobiography, My Story (London: William Heinemann, 1908), this letter is ‘dramatised’ as Caine’s first meeting with Buchanan. He then writes:
“A few days afterwards he wrote a long letter, which was intended to explain the motive which had led him to make his unjust attack:
This letter was included (as a footnote to pp. 71-72) by Hall Caine in his Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London: Elliot Stock, 1882).
Despite Buchanan’s best efforts, sometimes his apology fell on deaf ears. When The British Quarterly Review published ‘The Poetry of Rossetti’ in its July, 1882 edition (Vol. LXXVI - pp. 109-127), the negative tone of the article caused the London correspondent of The Liverpool Mercury to attribute it to Buchanan.
The Liverpool Mercury (4 July 1882 - p.5)
It can hardly be other than Robert Buchanan who writes the article on the recently dead Rossetti, in the just issued number of the British Quarterly. It is the most slashing onslaught on a poet who has just left the world that any man, still more any rival poet, would sit down to write over a newly-made grave. Mr. Buchanan thinks he has reason. In his opinion, Rossetti’s poems are a practical protest against the Christian ideal of purity. Rossetti’s doctrine, he says, is that animal passion is the divine part of life, and a woman is adorable only from that point of view. The critic paints the poet as adorning himself with a lily before sitting down to “manipulate the English language.” He finds unclean suggestions in some of the sonnets, which, sensuous in a high degree as are the thoughts in them, sensuous as they were certain to be, because their author was an Italian, would never have seemed to convey any gross emotion to a less searching reader. Mr. Buchanan’s power for detecting what he calls the fleshly tints is almost microscopic. Of the “House of Life,” Mr. Buchanan says, “The first part describes a young rake rejoicing in his sensuality; the second part describes an old rake deploring that his sins have left him, and gloating over the vicious memories that alone survive to him.” What in man is nearest alike to the brutes is alone worth singing. His songs are “the unwholesome refuse of a jaded appetites.” We are met with “the unclean look that should have been buried with the City of the Plain.” Rossetti’s “House of Life” may become notorious, but only as the “House of Ill-Fame.” Such is Mr. Buchanan’s judgment upon a brother poet just dead. Since he holds it, the better that it should be expressed. Mr. Buchanan is of the Scotch Scotchy, and he comes from the land where the same sort of criticism attempted to depose Burns from his throne. The article is very cleverly done. But it is not, in the other sense, well done.
The Liverpool Mercury (20 July 1882 - p.5)
*** In his letter which appeared on the 4th instant, the writer of this correspondence, by an error of literary judgment, attributed the article on Rossetti in the current number of the British Quarterly to the pen of Mr. Robert Buchanan. We now learn that the article in question was not written by Mr. Buchanan—to whom, therefore, we at once tender the fullest apology, together with this expression of our regret for any annoyance which the too-hasty surmise of our London correspondent may have caused him.
The Liverpool Mercury (21 July 1882 - p.5)
To the expression of regret which you tender to Mr. Buchanan for my having connected his name with an article in the current number of the British Quarterly Review, I desire to add my own. Inquiry proves that Mr. Robert Buchanan did not pen the article; and the strictures passed upon him have therefore no justification or foundation. I need hardly say that I have no personal unkind feeling towards Mr. Buchanan whatever, and that the remarks I made were based solely on the question of literary propriety. It is not, indeed, many years ago that I championed him in your columns when he was personally attacked from another quarter; and nothing has occurred since then to alter my respect for one whose talent almost reaches genius. I am sorry for my own sake that I made a mistake. I am glad for Mr. Robert Buchanan’s sake that it was a mistake.
In May, 1889, The Universal Review published ‘Imperial Cockneydom’, an article by Buchanan, largely in answer to George Moore’s attack in Truth, ‘Is Buchanan Still Possible?’, itself a response to Buchanan’s earlier article in The Universal Review, ‘The Modern Young Man As Critic’. Both articles were published in Buchanan’s collection, The Coming Terror, but the following passage, relating to the Fleshly School incident, was omitted from the later version. The complete version is availble in the Essays section and George Moore’s replies are included in the Letters to the Press.
The Universal Review (May, 1889 - pp.71-91)
A REJOINDER TO CRITICS 1
. . .
If I were to tell in full detail the story of my own persecutions on account of a single expression of opinion the world would open its eyes . My offence was criticising a body of writers whom I believed to be extravagantly praised, but whom I should never have attacked on literary grounds alone, if I had not, rightly or wrongly, fancied them to be offenders against the higher ideals of their generation. This article, published in the Contemporary Review, met with a mixed reception. All the puritan world (with which I had little sympathy) approved it, many artistic notabilities sympathised with it, but a noisy Cockney clique, commanding the bastions of nearly all the critical journals, resented it—and swore to avenge it. Now, it contained not one syllable which had not been expressed viva voce by men of accepted eminence, by Carlyle, by Emerson, and by others equally famous who are still living and whom I need not name. It was a hasty article, a frivolous article; in some respects, as I acknowledged afterwards, an unfair and uninstructed article; but no portion was half as violent and hasty as the normal criticisms on contemporaries of some of the writers satirised. I had, however, committed the one unpardonable sin—attacked the gods of Nepotism. Thenceforth all Nepotism was armed against me. I do not exaggerate when I say that my very life, my very means of subsistence, was threatened, and had I not been a strong man I should have been crushed and destroyed. Nearly every critical journal persistently attacked or ignored me, until the matter became so serious that it became inexpedient to publish any work under my own name. Tongue cannot tell, words cannot convey, the extent of this persecution. My very life and private character were not spared. I wrote certain novels; it was because I had ‘failed’ in literature. I wrote for the stage; it was because I had ‘failed’ in fiction. Not even Carlyle, when he was ‘cut’ by Mill because he was ‘reported’ to have made a certain little joke, suffered more torture. I, who had all my life been the friend and helper of my fellows, was described as a bitter, an envious, and a hateful person—a Tartuffian Scotchman. 1 Yet, curiously enough, I survived. My books, my failures, were being read in every English speaking country. While the small gods of Nepotism were still avowing that I had done nothing, I had written inter alia ‘Balder the Beautiful,’ ‘The Shadow of the Sword,’ ‘God and the Man,’ ‘White Rose and Red,’ ‘St. Abe,’ and ‘The City of Dream,’—works on which I am quite content to take my stand when I am brought face to face with the shadowy Rhadamanthus, the Arch-Destroyer of Cockneys, Posterity.
My point here is, that nine writers out of ten would have been silenced by the clamour of the cliques of Nepotism. That I was not
— 1 I cannot, as I have pointed out, even claim that national distinction, though I am, I am proud to say, Scotch on the paternal side. —
silenced, was due to three facts—that I had always had a very low opinion of merely ‘literary’ persons, that I was a man of the world, in the habit of rubbing shoulders with all classes of people, and that, on the whole, I attached very little value to popular opinion. ‘Woe to you when the world speaks well of you,’ was a dictum echoed in my heart very constantly. I knew that to be frank, and fearless, and free, was not the way to ‘get on’ with worldlings. Above all, I never posed before my own looking-glass as a martyr, felt no self-pity, but when I received a blow took it as one I had doubtless earned. Writing for the stage was for me, I may say in this connection, a sort of moral salvation; with its Bohemianism, its rough and ready manliness, its necessity for practical good humour and friendliness, it saved me from becoming a literary ‘prig’; it made me familiar with a world which, with all its faults, is lighthearted, gladsome, and not too conceitedly ‘intellectual.’ One loves actors, when one knows them well, for their simplicity and innocence of character. The social sympathy which follows them may be (to quote one of my young men) ‘Mummer-worship,’ but it is the wise and unerring sympathy of generous human nature, which knows that for earnestness, for catholicity, and above all, for personal ‘charm,’ the heirs of Betterton and Garrick compare favourably with the followers of any profession under the sun. Perhaps, if he had not been bred a ‘mummer,’ Shakespeare would never have learned his way so easily to the intellects and the souls of men.
It is wise, no doubt, to ‘humour one’s reputation’—a fragment of Cockney gospel which the late George Lewes was ever fond of quoting. The more varied a man’s gifts and sympathies, the more difficult is his road upward. But let any young writer, conscious of his power yet fearful of his contemporaries, only survey the history of literature, and take comfort . It is never—well, ‘hardly ever’—the man whom Cockneydom praises that rises in the end to genuine eminence, to the sad sunless aureole of Fame. Cockney Nepotism is a little chamber, hot, ill-ventilated, full of noisy chatter; but outside, is the busy storm of Life, and far above, the silence of the patient heavens. Inside, John Dennis, Hazlitt, Gifford, and Mr. Andrew Lang; outside, in the open air, Shakespeare and Milton, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Schiller and Heine, Balzac and Victor Hugo, and, whether greater or smaller, thousands more.’
. . .
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