The Critical Response - Buchanan and Noel
1. Robert Buchanan’s Poetry by Roden Noel
2. ‘Buchanan and Noel’ by Hoxie N. Fairchild
From Essays on Poetry and Poets by Roden Noel
(Kegan Paul, Trench and Company, 1886 - pp. 283-303.)
(Originally published in The Gentleman’s Magazine (November, 1875.)
ROBERT BUCHANAN’S POETRY.
(Since this was written Mr. Buchanan has published a poem of wonderful beauty and noble significance, “Balder,” also “Julia Cytherea,” and “Phil Blood’s Leap,” a most spirited ballad. Of this order there are several very remarkable in his last volume, “Ballads of Love and Humour.” I do not here allude to the grand prose romances, “The Shadow of the Sword,” or “God and the Man.”)
EXCEPT by a clique, and perhaps by here and there a small literary buccaneer, who admires nobody but himself and the manes, or rather names, of departed greatness, whose hand is against every man and every man’s against him, the merit of Mr. Buchanan’s poetry is, I suppose, now pretty generally acknowledged.
Refined critics certainly objected in the first instance to Mr. Buchanan’s choice of vulgar everyday subjects. But now they have been driven out of this position, and the new ground taken up against him by a certain school is that he has treated these subjects unpoetically. It is difficult to answer this except by saying that he hasn’t— “Meg Blane” being one of the finest poems of the kind in the language—though occasionally, no doubt, he may be open to the charge. In the “Poems and Ballads of Life” the treatment is indeed somewhat slight; but if it were not so, dramatic propriety would be violated, because the poet’s method is usually to relate his story through a third person who is in the same rather humble class of life as those whose fortunes he narrates. Now in a poem like “Widow Mysie,” I think it may be conceded there is a certain commonness, even vulgarity of flavour, chiefly because the heroine is a commonplace person in commonplace circumstances; and while there is no tragic intensity in these, the humour is not subtle enough to redeem the superficial vulgarity of the subject. For poetry, surely the level of these lines, which gave the key-note of the whole, is low:—
“Tam Love, a man prepared for friend or foe,
Whiskered, well-featured, tight from top to toe.”
But on the whole, Mr. Buchanan in his narrative poems probably makes his people talk more naturally than any other verse-writer of the day. Ought girls of the lower class, like Nell and Liz, to speak in language concocted by a poet out of his own creditably familiar knowledge of the classics, the Italian poets, and Elizabethan English? It is averred by critics that they have no objection to Nell and Liz being heard in verse—they will condescend to listen to them even— but—but what? How does Shakespeare make his clowns, and hinds, and common soldiers, and Dogberries, and even Falstaffs talk? How does Tennyson his “Northern Farmer”? or his Tib and Joan in “Queen Mary”? By no means euphuistically. To my mind the pathetic simplicity of language in one of the most beautiful of these poems, “Liz,” is one of its chief merits, and on the whole the form of the poem is fully as excellent as the substance: if it were more remarkable, the poem of course would not be a quarter so good. Ought Scott to have made Halbert Glendinning or Mary Avenel use the same language as Sir Piercie Shafton?
Some finical, fastidious gentleman objected to the word “costermonger” in “Liz.” It made him stop his ears and give a little scream; but it was appropriate where it stood, and I am sorry Mr. Buchanan has altered it. He has “Joe Purvis” instead, and I am sure the gentleman will object to that equally. It should have been “Reginald Mauleverer,” so as not to offend ears polite. Speaking of his indiarubber ball, the little boy said to his governess: “If you prick it, it will go squash!” “Oh shocking, my dear!” said the prim lady; “you should have said, ‘If you puncture it, it will collapse.’” But Mr. Buchanan won’t, I trust, make gravediggers call spades effodiators, or housemaids call coal-scuttles Pandoras (though, perhaps, they will soon in real life), for all his governesses may say to him. A poet may leave fine language of that kind to advertising tradesmen. The “Last of the Hangmen,” however, seems to me too merely coarse and grotesque—not sufficiently spiritualized. He might do in a Dutch picture; but be is hardly elaborately realized enough for a poetic study even of the Dutch order.
It has been urged again that these poems are too sentimental: so that what seems to be desiderated is this—that costermongers and street women should say very hard, harsh, and commonplace things—perhaps blaspheme?— only in turgid, euphuistic English. Perhaps somebody was right when he said that Mr. Buchanan makes his townspeople and peasants talk a little too much about external nature—but there is generally something in their circumstances that affords a clue to that. Liz, in a very fine passage, expresses her horror of the country, which she had once visited. How would the critics set about presenting such people poetically at all—except by the aid of artificial euphuism? What Mr. Buchanan does is to take such men and women at moments and in moods when some circumstance of their lives brings out the finer and more human traits in them. Over them he sheds the mild light of sorrow, or the stormy glare of tragedy. And he rightly believes that there is this humanity of infinite worth in them all—desiring to clear them from the rags and grime that hide them from persons with pouncet boxes. So in death, common features may seem grand, and assume the semblance of some fairer, nobler relation. Well then, the poet does not make them leave out their h’s, and does not make them talk argot—that is another count in the very self-consistent indictment—but that may not be essential to them; he just indicates their rank by the speech; he makes it “poetical” enough not to be displeasing; not too “poetical” to be out of character altogether. I do not indeed say he might not do what is suggested, and yet leave them poetical enough, as Tennyson, Bret Harte, Col. John Hay, and others have done recently. Indeed he has done so in many pieces.
Picturesque the “dim common populations” are in some aspects, rugged, full of movement and colour, with none of their angles rubbed down in the social mill. And is it not well that a poet should take us with him into the heart of great cities, or into rude huts on the mountain side and on the shore, setting us face to face, heart to heart, with men and women—“fate-stricken” persons, often braving hunger and want, danger and despair, toiling ever to render easier life possible for us—making us know more wisely, because more lovingly; the very waifs, outcasts, and lost children of our human family? They who lounge at club windows, or write leaders for gentlemen, may like to shut out all that from them; it is an offence and a puzzle to them; only “false sentiment,” “philanthropy,” or something equally odious and de mauvais ton notices these things. “Odi profanum!” But let these persons be more tolerant of other tastes; let them cease to suppose that they in their cloisters or clubs are mouthpieces of what is soundest and most enduring in the heart of this nation. Why should they fancy, moreover, that they know so much more of these people than this poet who professes to have suffered and struggled with them—to have sprung from them—and to have experienced that there is a soul of good even in things evil; who, on the whole, with Walt Whitman, from whom he has learnt much, refuses to call anything— except the “fleshly school”—common or unclean? The people, in moments of emotion, have poetry of thought and expression far more genuine than that of the genteel, and they are able to feel—if they have leisure, even to dwell upon their feelings—though they may not dwell so much upon them as we, nor make a luxury of the practice in their hard hand-to-hand fight with stern gross wants. I would not deny that these poems may be too uniformly tearful and sad; nevertheless, the poet has humour very salt and genuine too: I wish he would use that faculty oftener. Poets have it seldom nowadays. Herein, as in other ways, Buchanan sometimes reminds one of Burns.
No doubt such metrical stories have been written before. We have Shenstone, Crabbe, Clare, E. Elliot, and, above all, Wordsworth. But such idyls have not been written, I think, about the inhabitants of cities. To our great novelist, Charles Dickens, we chiefly owe an interest about and knowledge of modern cities, and while Nell a little reminds us of Oliver Twist, Angus Blane in one respect reminds us of Barnaby Rudge. But Mr. Buchanan’s best things are essentially poems, and not novels. Though he has been influenced by his great master—and by that other great master, Wordsworth, who in “Michael” and the “Excursion” led us to feel the nobility and pathos of common life—yet he is thoroughly original. As to Crabbe, though in him there is “iron pathos,” and grim realistic tragedy, yet, as a rule, I cannot feel in him the consecration of the “light that never was on sea or land.” And there is surely very little verbal music in Crabbe. It is photography. The details are not selected.
“John,” “Kittie Kemble,” and “De Berny,” all seem to belong to Mr. Buchanan’s inferior work—in them the motif is too slight, and the metre hardly seems to have sufficient raison d’être, while neither that nor the diction is for its own sake striking. Such sketches are clever, but one can hardly accept them as poems. Mr. Buchanan writes a great deal, and perhaps no one’s work is less equal; but great inequality may be predicated of the best poets. As Byron says to Murray, “What poem is good all through? You may think yourself lucky if half ‘Don Juan’ be good.” It may be said that most of Gray and Campbell is good; but are Gray and Campbell in the first order of poets? And are they good all through? Certainly not, unless mere “correct,” or tumid, bombastic diction makes good poetry—without fire, without emotion, without vision. Yet, Campbell’s odes, and Gray’s “Elegy” are admirable beyond question. Mr. Swinburne says of Byron that you are never secure in him from some hideous dislocation of pinion when be is in full flight. I think that may be true. But you have, unfortunately, to choose between this and a poet who, while remaining on the ground, flaps and beats his wings as if he were flying, or else plays tricks, as of a tumbler pigeon, in mid-air. What poet always soars, and never collapses, or plays fantastic tricks? “Aliquando bonus dormitat Homerus.” And if so, what of the rest?
In estimating a poet’s position I fancy we must ask—not, What bad things has he done? or, What defects are there in his work? but, How good are his best things? and, perhaps, How many good things has he done? To me it seems that there are in Sydney Dobell, and Alexander Smith, a few passages, even lyrics, of such transcendent excellence as almost to counterbalance the marvellous want of organic unity in their productions; yet, these being only passages, one hesitates where to place them—though indeed “the Roman” is good all through. In Buchanan, however, you have poems good, not passages merely. And the question is, therefore, How good are those poems?
What is especially striking about “Nell” is the intensity of its passion; every word sinks home; its brevity gives it high tragic power. “Poetic diction,” and ingenious metrical effects would simply ruin that poem. The lines—
“I stopped, and had some coffee at a stall,
Because I felt so chill,”
in their place are intensely poetical, exactly because there is no “poetic diction” about them. These women are as noble too as Chaucer’s Patient Griseld is.
I hardly know any one who can draw such telling pictures in a few words, or set before you a group of figures with their background so distinctly, as if by a flash of lightning issuing out of the darkness of stormy night.
Before proceeding to notice more particularly “Meg Blane,” I would express regret at not seeing in this collection “Attorney Sneak,” an exceedingly humorous piece; but I am glad to see “Tim O’Hara,” and the “Starling,” of the same order.
Meg Blane was a kind of sailor woman, rough and gaunt, yet with a woman’s nature. She had lived with a man as his wife: he had gone to sea, and she knew not what was become of him. With her, in her hut by the shore, abode her full- grown, half-witted son, and the love these two bore one another is described with much beauty. Of the boldest was Meg Blane in perilous adventures by sea, but she yearned ever, like a true woman, after the absent. One night there was a great storm, which is depicted with intense power. Meg Blane gets some men to go with her in a boat out to a wreck, which breaks up before they reach it; but one man was drifted on shore alive, and borne to a cottage, where Meg afterwards goes to see him while he lies asleep and exhausted. She recognizes in this man her old lover; and most powerful is the picture of this. She withdraws, and returns later—but troubled, and wondering to herself that the joy seems less absolute than she had fancied all these years it would be. Intensely dramatic and moving is the representation of the interview wherein she learns, on presenting to him the half-witted Angus as their “bairn,” that he is married and has children! Some of the most lovely lyrical lines in the language follow:—
“Lord, with how small a thing
Thou canst prop up a heart against the grave!
A little glimmering
Is all we crave;
The lustre of a love that hath no being;
The pale 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 tremulous gaze upon the grave!
And Lord! how shall 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.
“In poverty, in pain,
For weary years and long,
One faith, one fear, had comforted Meg Blane,
Yea, made her brave and strong;
A faith so faint, it seemed not faith at all:
Rather a trouble, and a dreamy fear,
A hearkening for a voice, for a footfall,
She never hoped in sober heart to hear.
This had been all her cheer:
Yet with this balm
Her soul might have slept calm
For many another year.”
But after this hope failed her she lost her courage at sea, her heart for toil on land; poor Angus, who depended on her, suffered, and was sad as partaking of her sorrow; and this was bitter to her—the stern woman became hard toward men, and fretful, and knew she had not long to live.
“‘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,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 scarce ken why;
My summer has gone by:
And sweet were sleep but for the sake o’ thee!’
‘O mither, dinna dee!’
“When summer scents and sounds were on the sea,
And all night long the silvern surge plashed cool,
Outside the hut she sat upon a stool,
And with thin fingers fashion’d carefully,
While Angus leant his head against her knee,
A long white dress of wool.
‘O mither,’ cried the man, ‘what make ye there?
A blanket for our bed!
O mither! it is like the shroud folk wear
When they are drown’d and dead!’
And Meg said naught, but kissed him on the lips,
And looked with dull eye seaward, where the moon
Blackened the white sails of the passing ships,
Into the Land where she was going soon.”
The man soon followed her. There is a most extraordinary Celtic glamour about this poem, penetrating through the intense and rugged realism of it. And this it is which the author truly conceives to be one great characteristic of his work—though he insists upon the “mysticism” of it almost too strenuously—which exasperates all those (the majority even of intelligent pcople) who detest “mysticism”—does not Mr. Swinburne call philosophy “a pestilential and holy jungle”?—besides indicating a tendency which, I fancy, might become prejudicial to his remarkable realistic human faculty in poetry. Thus Mr. Buchanan himself has perceived that his long “Drama of Kings” was, on the whole, a failure; and I cannot help thinking that the mystical element here unduly prevailed over the human. I shall hardly be suspected of undervaluing philosophy, or the mysterious spiritual element in poetry; but in his presentation of the Napoleons and Bismarck, Mr. Buchanan did not give one the impression of so firm a grasp upon individualities as he does in his portraits from low life. There is much more complexity in characters of this kind, and they are, before all, men of action—their ends being chiefly tangible and practical, however large, and therefore to some extent ideal. Celebrated statesmen may be prominent instruments in the carrying out of certain universal laws, which thinkers may be able to detect; but very seldom are such laws uppermost in their thoughts, even if consciously grasped by their understanding at all. “With how little wisdom is the world governed!” and yet might it not be worse governed with more? It is in the delineation of simpler, ruder natures, swayed by deep emotions, and but half-consciously influenced by the grand wild natural elements around, that Mr. Buchanan excels—what can be finer, for instance, than his “Tiger Bay,” and his picture of the tigerish would-be murderess watching the sleeping sailor in some low lodging of Ratcliffe Highway—not of the whole scene merely, but of the subtle play, and shifting of emotions in the wild woman’s mind, till the better prevail—with that companion picture of an actual tiger in a jungle?
The great Napoleon is, indeed, depicted with some dramatic skill; but the very fragmentary glimpse of him we get in his dispute with the queen and cardinal somehow fails to satisfy; and his solitary broodings, though striking, and possibly appropriate, do not seem sufficient to fill up the portrait of him quite characteristically. We have the same feeling as regards the portraiture of Bismarck, and the Third Napoleon; though one is rather more satisfied with the latter, who indeed seems to have been a brooding, irresolute, somewhat shallow and pretentious person. But here more elaboration, more distinction of poetic language and metre, might have been efficacious in raising the work to a higher poetic level. In fact, one wants here a real drama with movement and development. There is an absence, moreover, of Mr. Buchanan’s special merit—condensation, terseness, intensity. The choruses and semi-choruses are unequal, and too numerous; nor does their moral and intellectual generality seem to harmonize with the fragmentary realistic glimpses of actual passing events—too familiar, because too little spiritualized; less still do I like the imitation of Goethe’s supernatural Faust machinery. Out of Shelley (not to say, in Shelley), one can scarcely read choruses and semi-choruses ad libitum, and not rebel. The whole thing in Shelley is sublimated; it passes in an æthereal region of unearthly and seraphic loveliness.
There is, perhaps, a danger lest “the mystic” should not accept life in all its variety and interaction; and too arbitrarily selecting from his own standpoint what seems to him individually most significant and lofty, the dramatist or narrator may thus too easily become the preacher or moraliser, sliding into turgid and nebulous generalities—far removed from the living order of Shakespeare’s creations—or at least into monotonous mannerism of treatment; and this, even though he may not be ready to swallow whole merely conventional views of virtue. There is always, moreover, a danger of a man posing as mystic or prophet, and contemplating himself in that character—a danger to his insight and art of the same kind as would arise from his considering too much what will make him immediately popular with the many, or with a clique.
Still there are passages of much excellence in this long book, and the author here reprints some of the best of the lyrical ones under the title of “Political Mystics” and “Songs of the Terrible Year.” “Titan and Avatar” is in parts particularly fine, Titan being the People, or the Spirit of Man, and Avatar the great Napoleon. The curse on him pronounced by Titan, whom he has misled with false though specious promises, lured by false fires for his own ends, on whom he has brought so much misery and desolation, is especially striking. The great anarch is doomed to wither away on the lonely rock of St. Helena—as Haydon has painted him—
“Till like a wave, worn out with silent breaking,
Or like a wind blown weary, thou forsaking
Thy tenement of clay,
Shalt wear and waste away,
And grow a portion of the ever-waking
Tumult of cloud and sea. Feature by feature
Losing the likeness of the living creature,
Returning back thy form
To its elements of storm,
Thou shalt dissolve in the great wreck of Nature!”
A sweeping resonant lyric, too, is the “Song of the Sword,” supposed to be sung by the Germans on the coronation of their Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
“Artist and Model” is a poem which I should fancy might commend itself even to the most euphuistic of persons with pouncet boxes, who refuse to let common things and common words come between the wind and their nobility—who invent felicitous, periphrastic disguises for the nakedness of all vulgar little ands or buts—who white the sepulchre, and, like certain tribes, cover the face decorously, leaving other parts exposed. But probably the diction of this poem would seem to them too simple, direct, and exquisitely compliant to the delicate mould and subtle movement of suggested thought or tender emotion. This is just, however, what fulfils my Philistine idea of good expression, and good form, which I also, in my poor way, value.
I shall now say a word about the “Book of Orm.” The more it is read, the more it grows on you. On the whole, I cannot sufficiently express my admiration. Its loose rhythms are usually most skilful, musical, and fascinating. These, harmonizing well with the whole conception, which is Celtic in character, impress you with a sense of originality, as the varied metres of the “Drama of Kings” somehow did not. Thc poem is no less than a contribution in poetic cypher toward the solution of some universal problems— ambitious this!—yet the poet has fairly grasped some of the best thought of the time, even if he have not quite mastered the world’s foremost thinkers. But what is distinctively his own, and of the highest artistic import here, is the manner in which he has seen and successfully presented a few very striking ideas, invested with vivid, noble, and appropriate forms, rising out of the depths of a personal, boldly creative, and profoundly emotional imagination.
“The Vision of the World without Death” is a most admirable attempt to show the use, and even consoling influence of visible death, as also of resting-places for mortal ashes. I am sorry for any who fail to feel the marvellous beauty of this part. In its magical pathos the picture of the mother losing her children without seeing them die is unsurpassable. All this shows a very high and rare imagination.
“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 further,
And knew my little daughter had gone also.”
In “Songs of Seeking” the author shows his very characteristic grasp of the great truth which so few can feel, that wickedness is not absolute—not final, therefore; nor Doom—that there is “a soul of good in things evil;” that “God hath made even the wicked to praise Him,” in a far profounder sense than that in which the doctrine of everlasting damnation teaches it. Very beautiful, in their spontaneous informal melody, are the stanzas named “Quest” and the “Lamb of God.”
“As in the snowy stillness,
Where the stars shine greenly
In a mirror of ice,
The reindeer abideth alone,
And speedeth swiftly
From her following shadow
In the moon,
I speed for ever
From the mystic shape
That my life projects,
And my soul perceives,
And I loom for ever
Through desolate regions
Of wondrous thought,
And I fear the thing
That follows me.
Doth thy winged lightning
Strike, O Master!
The timid reindeer,
Flying her shade?
Will thy wrath pursue me,
Because I cannot
Escape the shadow
Of the thing I am?”
“God’s Dream” is really a profound poem. “The Lifting of the Veil” is a vivid, imaginative picture of what would happen to men and women if they did know the whole mystery of God, which they mourn they cannot know. The “Seeds,” too, is a most notable lyric of the development of life, consciousness, power, and pain. The “Devil’s Mystics” are surely somewhat obscure, especially “Roses:” I was glad to see the Spectator’s exposition, which Mr. Buchanan reprints and accepts. His Devil is the incarnation of Evil regarded as Defect. This very familiar metaphysical conception does not lend itself easily, however, to personal symbolism. This mystic “Devil” becomes necessarily a kind of beneficent being, and so loses his very distinctive nature as Devil: as a spirit of evil. To try to render this idea concrete is to fail. Nevertheless, the last lines are extremely suggestive, and might be taken by the author as his motto:—
“The voice cried out, ‘Rejoice, rejoice!
There shall be sleep for evil!’
And all the sweetness of God’s Voice
Passed strangely through the Devil.”
The “Song of Deicides” is extremely vigorous and clever; but the “Vision of the Man Accurst” is a truly grand imaginative effort, and embodies the central truth of Christianity, that utter self-sacrificing love is divine, and is alone capable of prevailing over evil—which truth has been embodied in a supreme manner by Victor Hugo in his “Misérables.” If it were not that, perhaps, the shadowy, phantom-like genius of the whole poem demands it, one might complain of a certain want of complex detail and coherence in the imagery here—but it is Ossianic, and fine in its own large, vague Brocken-spectre style. One “man accurst” alone is not saved from sin, though all beside are saved. He is cast out from Heaven, and blasphemes in a wild region of ice. At length God asks if any will go forth and voluntarily share his doom. At last his mother and his wife go forth from bliss to the loathsome thing, and “kiss his bloody bands.” “The one he slew in anger—the other he stript, with ravenous claws, of raiment and of food.” “Nevertheless,” says the wife—
“‘I will go forth with him whom ye call curst;
I have kis’t his lips; I have lain upon his breast;
I bare him children, and I closed his eyes;
I will go forth with him.’. . .
. . . . A piteous human cry, a sob forlorn
Thrilled to the heart of Heaven. The man wept;
And in a voice of most exceeding peace
The Lord said, while against the breast divine
The waters of life leapt gleaming, gladdening,
‘The man is saved: let the man enter in!’”
Still one feels inclined to congratulate Mr. Buchanan on his having dropped the prophet in his anonymous works, “St. Abe,” and “White Rose.” He has gained variety of human interest by dropping it. In these works he shows, besides matured humour and satirical faculty, dramatic genius also, as journals hostile to Mr. Buchanan (either from personal reasons, or because their editors were dominated, one supposes, by certain cliques, wedded to a particular school), observed only too truly and naïvely, not knowing, unfortunately, of whom they thus wrote! The prosaic baldness, triviality, bad taste, and over-blankness, which certainly do disfigure some of his earlier work, have in these narratives entirely disappeared; while the narratives are much more rich and complex as studies of character, of persons in their mutual life-influence on one another, than anything which has preceded. Thoroughly sincere and graphic studies of external Nature also occur. Notable here, as usually in the author’s work, are its artistic totality and clearness of outline; also the racy, nervous, direct Anglo-Saxon strength of its language, for which we must go otherwise at the present day to Tennyson, or to Professor J. Nichol’s admirable “Hannibal,” and “Themistocles,” to J. A. Symonds, and Sir H. Taylor’s dramas; or back to Byron, Wordsworth, Pope, and Chaucer—notable, too, its absence of affectation, artifice, and general excess. There is no poverty of matter, or extravagance of manner. All this used to be thought essential in the time of Aristotle, and even since. It used to be thought “classical.” But academies have changed their minds. Of course, one may lay too rnuch stress on self-restrained symmetry, and clearness. “Endymion” is beautiful poetry, and Gifford’s “Baviad” is nothing of the sort. Gold ore is better than polished brass snuffers. Still these qualities are something; for they are essential to the greatest artists—for instance, to Æschylus, Sophocles, and Homer.
Yet in the early work, fine as it often was for intensity, and severity of outline, the colouring was almost fatiguing in its lurid and fiery brilliancy; one longed for a little more repose, more delicate complexity of subtly varying hues, more gradations, more half-notes, more tendernesses of shadow, more development of character, such as one finds in life, and in external Nature. Here we have much of all this, without losing breadth and decision of touch, or depth and lustre of tint. Splendidly vivid is the Boss’s tale in “St. Abe;” admirably humorous are the feminine whispers in church during Brigham’s sermon; the sketch of Abe Clewson’s seven wives; and the close analysis of his own character, partly contained in his last epistle to the polygamists of Utah, in which he relates how he fell in love with his own wife—his last and youngest, who also loved him—and how they fled together, he seriously describing himself years after as not saintly enough for Mormonism.
But “White Rose and Red” is in some respects Mr. Buchanan’s greatest poem. I never read a criticism I thought more ludicrously at sea than that in the Spectator, which declared that this poem was remarkable, not for its humanity, but for its descriptions of Nature. These, indeed, are as good as possible, whether luscious tropical descriptions at the beginning, or those of the Great Snow, or that of Drowsietown. But it is the human pictures that one most prizes here. Magnificent is the portrayal of the hunter’s capture by bathing Indian women; as also of Red Rose, the wild Indian girl, who fell in love with Eureka Hart, the tall, handsome “beaver-minded” white hunter, while he roamed. in his youth through a tropical forest—splendid the relation of her tropical love for him, and its transfiguration, not of him, alas! but of his image in her soul. Yet no one without keen humour touched with pity could have done this. While he begins to dream of civilization and proprieties, and her fierce love begins to bore him, she imagines, looking in his fine face, he is brooding over all kinds of Divine projects—the beaver! Then he says he must go, but he will return—and he means it. He gives her a paper scrawled in blood with his name and address. He comes not; she follows him over many weary lands through the Great Snow. She arrives at a cottage door at last with his child—a mighty storm is raging—his wife opens! —a white little wife—to whom before fainting she shows this paper! That White Rose, Phoebe, is admirably painted, in contrast to Red Rose, and all the alternations of her feeling when she knows the truth: she is proper, somewhat cold, civilized, not too much in love, yet kind and good. The man enters; Red Rose clings to him, still full of faith! The humour of the situation almost predominates over the pathos here. Poor treacherous beaver! He does not know what to do between the two women. ‘He had got back; he wanted to “settle down;” perhaps Red Rose would forget him, in time; and what would Parson Pendon say to his marrying a red squaw—not a Christian? Shocking! And then he fell in love— for the first time in love—with Phoebe Anna—so they were married. Noble in the extreme and graphic is the account of Red Rose’s terrible journey to find him. Soon after arriving she dies—nursed by White Rose, with Eureka Hart by; she still believing in him, and that they shall meet in those happy prairies which are the Indian’s Heaven. Alas! alas! White Rose pardons him—and he, did he forget Red Rose? Never!
He sat and puff’d his pipe with easy smile,
Surveying fields and orchards from the porch,
And far away the little village church,
While all seemed peaceful, earth and air and sky,
A twinkle came into his fish-like eye:
‘Poor critter!’ sigh’d he, as a cloud he blew,
‘She was a splendid figure, and that’s true!’”
Grim tragi-comedy! The metres are sparkling and facile; everybody talks, not in poetic diction or heroics, but as everybody would; and the poet’s humour plays like a lambent flame over all. There is a good deal of Chaucer, Burns, and Byron here; yet the poem is thoroughly original—queer, sensuous, tender, serious, wonderful, like life; as I said, the more so that the poet is for the nonce no prophet, and forgets how angry he has been with the “fleshly school!” The writer’s power of painting external Nature has greatly matured. There are no more admirable descriptions extant than in his prose-work on the Hebrides; where also we find one of his most magically affecting tales, “Eiradh of Canna.”
Mr. Buchanan has written some very noble sonnets; “Faces on the Wall,” and those called “Coruisken,” that open the “Book of Orm,” and most powerfully mirror the sublime, desolate scenery of Loch Coruisk, embodying also corresponding moods of desolate doubt and dim aspiration. He occasionally gives us delicate fancies, breathing an aroma of evanescent emotion, such as “Clari in the Well,” and “Charmian.” But in the moralized weird and mystical, and in the spiritualized real, is he most at home. A wonderful piece of work of that kind is the “Ballad of Judas Iscariot,” with its high moral. The “Dead Mother,” and “Lord Roland’s Wife” too are steeped in a similar magical atmosphere, but have a more tenderly human pathos.
The following strange, arresting lines among others express the writer’s central idea most forcibly:—
“O Pan! O Pan! thou art not dead:
Ghost-like, O Pan! thou glimmerest still,
A spectral face with sad dumb stare;
On rainy nights thy breath blows chill
In the street-walker’s dripping hair!” . . . .
By lonely meres thou dost not wait;
But here, ‘mid living waves of Fate,
We feel thee go and come.”
So, accordingly, the poet gives us beautiful lyrics, like a “Spring Song in the City,” the “City Asleep,” and “Two Sons,” as well as powerful sketches like “Barbara Gray.” His utterance here is bold to a degree; he looks beyond what the conventional world, religious or worldly, may say is right, to that which is more absolutely right; even as it is also in accordance with the best instincts of this plain, but not loveless woman’s heart. The man wronged and left her; she went astray with him; but none else had brought love into her narrow and unlovely life: so, as he lies dead in the grim London room, deformed and unbeautiful himself, she forgives, kisses him, and loves on. Of course the “Art for art” school will say that a poet has no business to teach even by implication, to have or express any moral convictions of his own. That I deny. What do they make of Shelley, and Dante? I say this poem is an artistic glorification of the meanest possible subject, and as such a triumph of art. It is more elevating than the skilful presentation of natures, however brilliant, in lower or more evil moods. That may be done most artistically; but it does not open out to the soul the same infinite vistas, tinged with light from above. If there be nobler spiritual elements, and a moral law with sanctions in our nature, the highest art cannot afford to ignore these in dealing with man: the art that does so distorts, or is most contracted in scope. High art will either create high types, contrasting them with low, or look for hidden larger issues and relations in the low. The highest art does not treat man as if he were but an insignificant member of his own generative organ.
Skill in portrayal is essential, and that includes style; but the point of view selected, and the kind of insight displayed mark the difference between high and low art. This seems not to be understood by a certain school of critics. According to their teaching, the skilful painter of a plum should be equal to the skilful painter of a Last Judgment, or a Cornaro family—the late Mr. Hunt to Michael Angelo, or Titian. But however skilful Teniers may be, Raphael, who showed equal skill in higher spiritual regions, is a greater painter. Homer, too, is greater—yet not a more skilful—poet than Horace, or Theocritus. A very skilful cook or cobbler—is he as great an artist as a very skilful architect? The real difficulty, of course, is to balance greater insight, feeling, and organizing imagination in the one case against greater technical excellence in the other, where these qualities do not exist equally proportioned in two writers. According to the bias of individual judgments, there must always be variation in the verdicts. That technical skill is essential is so certain, that no fool ever disputed it The only difference and question in this connection which arises is—what is skill in dealing with a given subject, and who shows it?
Merely didactic, expository, or analytic verse is not poetry—large portions, therefore, of Lucretius, of Mr. Browning, and of that really magnificent poem by Mr. Domett, “Ranolf and Amohia,” are not. But in Pope always, in Dryden sometimes, we have wit playing through all, like a spiritual flame; in other similar poems we have humour. All original poets flush the lives or objects they behold with emotional light from the depths of their own souls; but this light is a revealing, not a misleading one, whether it shine specially upon sensuous and æsthetic, or upon moral and intellectual aspects; others partaking of the same human sympathies are enabled thereby to see as the poet sees: this is the true transfiguring light of art. Some, however, not gifted with the requisite human elements, how clever and cultivated soever, can only mock and decry. And “criticism,” as commonly understood, means the mockery of malice, or incompetence. But general, as well as concrete truth has been, and may yet be poetically presented.
Some poets again are more in harmony with their own age’s most advanced standpoint than others—but a man may be either superficially, or more profoundly, and less apparently in harmony with it. While low clouds are moving one way, high clouds may be moving another; yet the movement of nether mists may be most evident to careless glances of the many—everybody can see which way the straws blow; but because I believe Mr. Buchanan to have given adequate expression in imaginative rhythmical form to some of the deepest special perceptions and ideal aims of the time, I believe him to be one of our foremost living poets, and destined to become (directly or indirectly) one of our most influential.
[Note: An article by Desmond Heath about Roden Noel from the Paragon Review, Issue 7 (Brynmor Jones Library, University of Hull) is available online via the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine (https://web.archive.org/web/20160304101621/https://www.hull.ac.uk/oldlib/archives/paragon/1998/noel.html). It serves as an introduction to Heath’s book about the poet, Roden Noel: A Wide Angle, which includes a section on his friendship with Robert Buchanan. Their friendship is also dealt with in Chapter XI of Harriett Jay’s biography. The surviving letters of Buchanan to Roden Noel are available in the Letters section of the site.
The following reviews are of the original version of the essay in The Gentleman’s Magazine.
The Dundee Courier (8 November, 1875 - p.2)
The Gentleman’s Magazine. ... The Hon. Roden Noel gives an elaborate criticism on “Robert Buchanan’s Poetry,” and believes him to be one of our foremost living poets, a statement we cannot agree with, and he thinks him destined to become one of our most influential writers. This we also doubt, but we grant that he possesses the poetical faculty in a large degree.
The Examiner (13 November, 1875 - p.21)
The Hon. Roden Noel has a good paper in the Gentleman’s Magazine on Mr. Robert Buchanan’s poetry, although it opens with a curiously violent defiance of all other critics of Mr. Buchanan. We do not at all agree with Mr. Noel’s estimate of the “mystic” element in Mr. Buchanan’s poetry, which the poet himself attributes to his Celtic extraction. However, Mr. Noel says there is a meaning in it, rank nonsense though it seems, and we should be most unwilling to set up our negative against Mr. Noel’s positive. As for Celtic “glamour,” there is as little of that as possible in Mr. Buchanan. The passage quoted by Mr. Noel as Celtic is Lowland Scotch of the purest type; that is to say, we could produce dozens of Lowland Scotch ballads full of the same feeling, whether it is called Celtic glamour or anything else. Mr. Buchanan’s ballads have the genuine “queerness,” and also the genuine rough force, of the Lowland Scotch muse. With Mr. Noel’s remarks on the power of the “London Lyrics,” particularly “Nell,” and of “Meg Blane,” most people will cordially agree. These are the proper bases of Mr. Buchanan’s reputation; if he had never written anything worse, we, for our own part, should never have had a word to say against him. Among other papers in the Gentleman’s is a humorous poem by Mr. Hardy, the author of “Far from the Madding Crowd.”
See also Robert Buchanan’s Prefatory Notice to Poems of the Hon. Roden Noel. A selection (London, New York: W. Scott, 1892.) in the Essays section.]
Back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan
‘Buchanan and Noel’ by Hoxie N. Fairchild
From Religious Trends in English Poetry by Hoxie Neale Fairchild
(Volume IV: 1830-1880 Christianity and Romanticism in the Victorian Era - pp. 216-239)
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1957)
BUCHANAN AND NOEL
ALTHOUGH several of the Seers and Seekers are writers of some literary as well as historical interest, none of them occupies so important a position on the main highway of English poetry as to deserve a separate chapter. Two of them, however, are so rewarding to the student of spiritual pathology that they are worth particular attention. It will not be inappropriate to couple the names of Robert Williams Buchanan (1841-1901) and Roden Berkeley Wriothesley Noel (1834-1894). 1 They were personal friends and sympathetic interpreters of each other’s work. 2 To some extent both were continuators of the Spasmodic tradition—Buchanan more obviously than Noel. 3 They both tried to write authentic poetry and sometimes succeeded. Noel did so more frequently than Buchanan or at least abused his gift less wantonly. As regards religion they followed related though not identical paths of thought and arrived at much the same conclusions.
They differed markedly, however, in background and personality. Buchanan was the son of a freethinking Glasgow tailor who left his trade to become an editor of obscure socialist journals. The son obtained a Glasgow B.A. but never knew enough to justify his intellectual pretensions. He was neurotic and sickly. Although he possessed a good deal of sentimental generosity, the “Fleshly School” imbroglio bears witness to his jealousy, bad temper, and professional irresponsibility. Noel, son of the Countess of Gainsborough, seems to have been a rather noble person by nature as well as by birth. Buchanan, reared in an atmosphere of radicalism and aggressive secularism, nevertheless developed religious aspirations which he was unable to satisfy. Noel intended to take Orders after receiving his Trinity M.A.; but German philosophy and foreign travel broke down his orthodoxy, and
— 1 Although their careers run considerably beyond the terminus of this volume they are Victorian poets in the sense in which I am using that term. Both began to publish verse in 1863 and were steadily productive thereafter.
2 Noel wrote an essay on Robert Buchanan’s Poetry; Buchanan edited, with a substantial “Prefatory Notice,” a volume of selections from Noel’s poems for the Canterbury Poets series.
3 But although Buchanan more frequently reminds us of his close friend Sydney Dobell, Noel’s A Modern Faust (1888) is distinctly Spasmodic in theme if not in style. —
217 his service as Groom of the Privy Chamber to Queen Victoria may have helped to make him a republican with socialistic leanings.
Noel was an almost pure romantic who, except in occasional moments of despairing scepticism, was able to regard himself as a Christian by identifying Christianity with the romantic faith. Buchanan’s case-history is more complicated. Within the straitened limits of this chapter it is impossible to give a full account of the constantly veering philosophical and religious views revealed by the two stout volumes—small print and double columns—of his Complete Poetical Works. He was a perfect specimen of the Victorian believing unbeliever. If you asked him to believe anything in particular he would talk like the village atheist. If you asked him to deny the existence of God and the hope of immortality he would talk like an enraptured seer. He felt no less at home with Leslie Stephen, Lecky, and Lewes than with Dobell and Noel. He wished to resemble his picture of Goethe—a poetical sceptic, a mystical positivist. 4 Hardly less antagonistic to the rampant infidel than to the orthodox Christian, he attacks materialism and rejoices in the death of Nietzsche:
Poor gutter-snipe! Answer’d with his own prayer,
Back to primeval darkness he has gone;—
Only one living soul can help him there,
The gentle human god he spat upon!
That even Nietzsche may hope for the human god’s pardon is suggested by The Ballad of Judas Iscariot, one of Buchanan’s most effective poems, where Christ admits the soul of the humbled, repentant Judas to communion with Him in heaven. In his softer moods this positivist can credit Christianity with “the higher truth of poesy divine” and apostrophize Pilgrim’s Progress:
O fairy Tale Divine! O gentle quest
Of Christian and the rest!
What wonder if we love it to the last,
Tho’ childish faith be past,
What marvel if it changes not, but seems
The loveliest of dreams? 5
Several of Buchanan’s more ambitious works—The Book of Orm, Balder the Beautiful, The City of Dream—suggest a comparison with Bunyan in being allegories of man’s quest for God. But the difference is far greater than the similarity, for the deity sought in these poems is not the Hebraic Jehovah, nor any god of the Greeks or Teutons or Hindus,
— 4 The Drama of Kings, p. 470.
5 Complete Poetical Works, I, 287, 494ff.; II, 52, 380. —
... nor the Man Divine, 218
The pallid rainbow lighting Palestine;
Nor any lesser of the Gods which Man
Hath conjured out of Night since time began.
I mean the primal Mystery and Light,
The most Unfathomable, Infinite,
The Higher Law, Impersonal, Supreme,
The Life in Life, the Dream within the Dream,
The Fountain which in silent melody
Feeds the dumb waters of Eternity,
The Source whence every god hath flown and flows,
And whither each departs to find repose.
This God, he says in The Book of Orm, has hidden Himself behind the veil of the sky, which He has woven for that purpose. Our constant longing to behold His face is therefore constantly thwarted.
Yet mark me closely!
Strongly I swear,
Seen or seen not,
The Face is there!
But if the veil were lifted the revelation would be unbearably terrifying. For Buchanan all intellectual clarity is associated with unbelief, and all belief with inscrutable mystery. God owes His very existence to the fact that He is “the Dream within the Dream.” Our only justification for seeking Him is the certainty that He can never be found. For this very reason, however, there is something to be said for all man-made religious symbols:
No creed is wholly false, old creed or new,
Since none is wholly true. 6
But Buchanan’s inherited rationalism forbids him to cultivate the sentimental latitudinarianism which this relativistic position would otherwise have encouraged. He remains quite enough of a freethinker to insist that men should not call themselves Christians unless they affirm the doctrines of Christianity. To the genuine secularist, nothing is more infuriating than the refusal of self-styled believers to specify their beliefs. Hence this Gilbertian chorus from The Devil’s Sabbath:
To all us literary gents the future life’s fantastical,
And both the Christian Testaments are only “wrote sarcastical;”
They’re beautiful, we all know well, when viewed as things poetical,
But all their talk of Heaven and Hell is merely theoretical.
— 6 Ibid., I, 257, 280-284; II, 52. —
But we are Christian men, indeed, who, striking pious attitudes, 219
Raise on a minimum of creed a maximum of platitudes!
For this is law, and this we teach, with grace and with urbanity,
That whatsoever creed men preach, ’tis essential Christianity! 7
Despite his nostalgic affection for Bunyan’s fairy-tale, the same honesty makes it impossible for him to profess any serious belief in the historic faith. He is a little perplexed that so genuinely Hellenic a pagan as Noel should also be “a true Christian.” Eager not to misrepresent his friend he hastens to explain:
Not that I conceive for one moment that he accepts the whole impedimenta of Christian orthodoxy—he is far too much of a pagan still ever to arrive at that. But he believes, as so many of us have sought in vain to believe, in the absolute logic of the Christian message: that logic which is to me a miracle of clear reasoning raised on false premises, and which to others is false premises and false reasoning all through. 8
The peculiarities of Noel’s interpretation of the Christian message will emerge gradually as we proceed, but his address to Byron may serve as an introductory sample:
A fierce, glad fire in buoyant hearts art thou,
A radiance in auroral spirits now;
A stormy wind, an ever-sounding ocean,
A life, a power, a never-wearying motion!
Or deadly gloom, or terrible despair,
An earthquake mockery of strong Creeds that were
Assured perversions of calm earth and sky,
Where doom-distraught pale souls took sanctuary,
As in strong temples. The same blocks shall build,
Iconoclast! the edifice you spilled,
More durable, more fair: O scourge of God,
It was Himself who urged thee on thy road;
. . .
May all the devastating force be spent?
Or all the godlike energies be shent?
Nay! thou art founded on the strength Divine:
The Soul’s immense eternity is thine!
Profound Beneficence absorbs thy power,
While Ages tend the long maturing flower. 9
As we see, Noel is moved not only by Byron’s “fierce, glad fire” but by
— 7 Ibid., II, 411. The penultimate line suggests that he is glancing at Matthew Arnold.
8 Roden Noel, Poems, p. xix (Buchanan’s “Prefatory Notice”).
9 Ibid., pp. 310-311. —
220 his “terrible despair.” The Victorian poet feels a Byronic melancholy when he gazes upon a storm at sea:
O hymn sublime, confounded, infinite
Of Tempest, how the chaos in my soul
Responds to your appeal, and drifts with cloud!
I too am worn with many moods at war,
Wind thwarting tide; stern duty, passion, love,
Wrestle while, unresolved to harmony,
They urge me blindly, violent, confused.
He has read not only Childe Harold but Morte d’ Arthur and Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse, for he adds:
The old-world order passeth, and the new
Delaying dawns, one crimson, loud with voices
We know not, with wild wars in earth and heaven;
The fountains of the great deep are broken up,
Threatening deluge; our firm earth goes under.
At such times nature seems merely to deride “the ideals of our childhood.” The caves in a sea cliff look like huge church windows
Which Time, the old Iconoclast,
While the centuries rolled by,
Slow-fashioned there in irony
Of Gothic minster, Gothic creed,
Human worship, human need.
Our life is like The Merry-Go-Round revolving at night on the shaky old pier at Fowey, “Over all the silent stars! beyond, the cold grey wave.” It whirls round and round “To a loud monotonous tune that hath a trumpet bray.” This bright spot in the darkness is meaningless and transitory:
I know that in an hour the fair will all be gone,
Stars shining over a dreary void, the Deep have sound alone.
I gaze with orb suffused at human things that fly,
And I am lost in the wonder of our dim destiny. 10
Noel’s darker moods are shared by Buchanan. A Hardyesque passage in The Drama of Kings portrays his deus absconditus as too completely self- hypnotized by His contemplation of the passage of time to care anything about His world. The glories of heaven blaze all around Him, yet
He heeds them not, but follows with eyes yearning
The shadow men call Time.
— 10 Ibid., pp. 41-42, 84, 89. —
Some problem holds Him, and He follows dreaming 221
The lessening and the lengthening of the shade.
Under His feet, ants from the dark earth streaming,
Gather the men He made.
. . .
How should He care to look upon such creatures,
Who lets great worlds go by? 11
A world without death, says Buchanan, would be unbearable, since in such a world man’s painful quest of the Absolute would be endless. Orm therefore blesses God “for Sleeping, and for Silence, and Corruption.” Three pages later, however, he thinks that death releases the soul from the flesh-prison which prevents it from uniting in love with other souls. But eighteen pages further on, death is associated with absorption into external nature rather than with benevolism, for Orm prays:
In the time of transfiguration,
Melt me, Master, like snow;
Melt me, dissolve me, inhale me
Into thy wool-white cloud;
. . .
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.
In The City of Dream, grim old Death, who has dogged the footsteps of the hero throughout life’s pilgrimage, turns at last into a “radiant child” who seems to promise that all the great questions will be answered. But Satan, in The Devil’s Case, admits:
Death alone I cannot vanquish—
Death and God, perchance, are One!
Yet throughout the pretentious muddle of his speculations on death Buchanan never quite lost the hope expressed in the lines which he chose to print last of all among his collected poems:
Forget me not, but come, O King,
And find me softly slumbering
In dark and troubled dreams of Thee,
Then, with one waft of Thy bright wing,
Awaken me! 12
— 11 The Drama of Kings, pp. 257, 259. The comparison with Hardy is not aimless. See my article in PMLA, LXVII (1952), 43-64, which identifies the Drama as “The Immediate Source of The Dynasts.”
l2 Complete Poetical Works, I, 269,272-273, 290; II, 158, 273,432. —
222 Either of these men might have written:
Ah! for a vision of God! for a mighty grasp of the real,
Feet firm based on granite in place of crumbling sand!
But in this case the poet is Noel, whose longing to solve the mystery of life and death was sharpened by the loss of his little son. The early primrose budded while the child lay ill; he hoped he would be up to see it open, but he died on the very day it bloomed.
I wonder if he saw it,
Saw the flower open,
Went to pay the visit
Yonder after all!
I know we laid the flower
On a stilly bosom
Of an ivory image;
But I want to know
If indeed he wandered
In the little garden,
Or noted on the bosom
Of his fading form
The paly primrose open;
How I want to know! 13
The power of some bad poems to move us is one of the anomalies of literary criticism.
In groping toward answers to such questions Noel’s chief support is a romantic pantheism which should be studied not only in his poems but in his highly revealing critical essays. “I believe,” he declares,
that Rousseau, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, were verily prophets, to whom a new revelation was entrusted. In a time when . . . the angels of Faith and Hope seemed to be deserting forever the desecrated shrines of mankind—then it was that these Prophet-Poets, as very ministers of Heaven, pointed men to the World-Soul, commanding them once more to veil their faces before the swift subtle splendour of Universal Life. . . . “The light that never was on sea or land, the consecration and the poet’s dream,” is indeed a new revelation, made peculiarly in the modern poetry of true spiritual insight, and of this Poetry of Nature Wordsworth is the High Priest. . . . In seeking for a note of this peculiar modern nature-worship, I think we must set down as a principal one, Pantheism, either overt or implicit. For it is a worship—precisely as the Scandinavian and Greek Mythologies are worships—only in a modern form. 14
One is tempted to say that Noel is more like John Middleton Murry than anybody but John Middleton Murry.
— 13 Poems, pp. 99, 343.
14 Essays on Poetry and Poets, pp. 1-2, 4, 88. —
223 The Wordsworthian nature-faith is “modern,” Noel insists, even in the sense of being strictly up-to-date. Mechanistic science has by no means destroyed it: the notion that nature can be known “correctly” only by the scientist is giving way before the realization that “Spiritual Imagination alone knows Nature.” By the use of this faculty James Hinton has reconciled science with a pantheism which is consistent with a deeply religious awe. Noel admiringly cites Hinton’s theory
that, as atoms we name inorganic are compelled, by some unknown power, to resist the law of chemical affinity and combine into vital organisms—into human bodies, whereunto pertains consciousness and thought, so these world-atoms of the void yonder, together with this our own world-atom, may form greater living organisms endued with grander thought. Then we should ourselves be to these as the living monads of our own blood, as the parasites of our tissues to us.
With sanguine feelings which we now find difficult to share, he appeals also to
recent investigations into the nature of ultimate elementary atoms by Thomson, Clerk-Maxwell, and Clifford; how these hypothetic entities pulsate and radiate, whirl and travel, just like planets and suns. May not these too be worlds with life and thought in them, if one could only comprehend? . . . What rational vital unity then pervades solid granite rocks, the Atlantic that rebels against their boundary, solar systems yonder, and ourselves who wonder!
Such a vitalistic interpretation of the universe is further encouraged, and somehow harmonized with essential Christianity, by Hegel and Robert Browning. A Grammarian’s Funeral teaches us that
Things are not in their momentary appearances . . . they are fulfilled in their disappearances even, and their living again in richer form. . . . “That which thou sowest is not quickened except it die: and God giveth it a body as it hath pleased Him.” So a rather discredited old book says. Three great writers see and teach this very distinctly—Hegel, Hinton, and Browning. 15
Noel’s attitude toward nature is not without a tincture of genuinely religious objectivity and humility. He does not consciously wish to think of man as master of the physical universe. For him, nature-worship would not be a religion unless it entailed worship. One thinks of Spinoza when Noel says: “He who loses his own personality in Nature, who lays down before her . . . his own private wrongs and griefs and fevered aspirations, hereby redresses the balance so unduly weighted with the self-will and momentary longings of one restless man.” Not without some confusion between two
— l5 Ibid., pp. 4, 279, 343, 344. For Hinton see above, p. 187. —
224 meanings of the term “law,” he declares that in nature “the harmony of inviolable laws appears coöperant to an end. But I think that this inevitableness of a universal order involves the idea of rightness, that of some fulfilled obligation tinged with morality, or what is akin to it. I know this cannot be proved, but I think it may be felt.” He himself feels it so strongly that except in a few unusually despairing moments he cannot believe that nature is completely alien to human aspirations. “All that is profound, eternal, impersonal in us, goes forth to wed with the profound, eternal, impersonal Heart of all. It is beyond our good and right, more than our ideal, yet justifies, sanctions, transcends, absorbs it.” 16
Thus when he sees huge waves thundering fiercely into a cave he asks:
Of Demiurgic Powers, afar from the man and the woman,
Are these dim echoing chambers the mystical veiled thought,
Indifferent, aloof, or enemy to the human?
How, then, are they a haven for minds and hearts o’er-wrought?
Ah! many and many an hour in your sublime communion
I pass, O Gods unknown, of ocean, wind, and cloud;
I find profound repose, refreshment flow from the union.
But even this communion with the human though more than human Heart of all is not sufficient when Noel “wants to know” what has become of his little son. He is thinking of the dead child in A Southern Spring Carol:
Ah! Nature never would have power
To breathe such ecstasy of flower,
. . .
If he were turned to common earth!
If a child so fair, so good,
Were a waif on Lethe’s flood,
. . .
She [Nature] would reel dissolved, and faint
With deep dishonour of the taint!
The very girders of her hall
Crushed, her stately floor would fall.
Ourselves are the foundation-stone;
If thought fail, the world is gone.
Needless to say, thought does not fail. In response to the incantation of this verse the vernal landscape reveals all its latent humanity:
Nature rises on immortal wings!
And soaring, lo! she sings! she sings!
— 16 Ibid., pp. 2, 3. —
There is no death! 225
O Spring! O Spring! O Southern Spring!
What a triumphal song you sing! 17
In Noel’s opinion such flights of imagination are authenticated by philosophy and even by science. In his essay, The Poetic Interpretation of Nature, he declares that “since Berkeley, Kant, and modern physiology, it is no longer permissible to doubt that . . . what we call ‘laws of nature’ are merely the interpretation which our sensible and mental constitution enables us to put upon the language of the Kosmos.” 18 This is a drier version of his statement that “Spiritual Imagination alone knows Nature.” And so the inviolable laws which we are to regard with such deep self-surrendering reverence are after all the product of our own minds. “Ourselves are the foundation-stone.” The worshipper of nature is the maker of nature, and the circularity of the romantic faith—from man to nature to man—is once again made manifest.
On this theme Buchanan is much less fruitful. As we shall see later, he feels a theoretical reverence for evolving nature as the matrix of Man’s loving heart; but since he can conceive of no religion (other than the religion of humanity) which is more than mere emotional guesswork about unfathomable mystery, his dabbling in nature-worship is inconsistent and half-hearted. Unlike Noel, he seldom tries to philosophize about nature because, though he wants to believe, he associates reason exclusively with unbelief. In the thirty-four Coruisken Sonnets he begins by lamenting that he can find God neither in the city, where human misery seems to deny His existence, nor in the country, where we are like children waiting in a fair house for a father who never comes. If God really is present in the hills about Loch Coruisk, He should be ashamed of Himself: He should be in London helping the poor. Since He seems to care nothing for suffering men, He Himself should be judged at the Last Day. The beautiful hills are changeless and impassive and indifferent to humanity—like God. It would be better to be unhappy and imperfect and passionate than to be a mountain-peak deity. But the little brook which “murmurs ‘God made me!’” reminds Buchanan of “the happy hearts of Earth,” and he asks God to forgive him for his fretfulness. In the last sonnet a rainbow appears—“Art thou a promise?” This is feeble stuff compared to Noel. In The Book of Orm, “Earth the Mother” had beheld God’s face in the days before He hid it behind the veil of the sky, but now the senile crone hardly remembers how
— 17 Poems, pp. 79, 119-120.
18 Essays on Poetry and Poets, p. 5. —
226 He looked. Feeling that she knows the great secret, men question her, but they get either no answer or an answer which makes them deny God’s existence. Again there is a rainbow, however. As the poem continues, Orm not only enjoys nature but sometimes detects beneath its beauty “An under-stream of sober consecration.” These Wordsworthian intimations, however, are disappointingly evanescent:
Yet nought endured, but all the glory faded,
And power and joy and sorrow were interwoven;
There was no single presence of the Spirit.
Later on, Orm declares that he will worship God when the mountains and rivers and clouds do so—which they obviously don’t. 19 In short the super-God, “the Dream within the Dream,” is not to be found in nature. It is axiomatic with Buchanan that He is not to be found at all.
Let us return to Noel. Despite his reverence for the romantic poet-prophets, some of his most seriously philosophical nature-poetry is more deeply indebted to the Greeks than to Wordsworth. There was of course nothing incongruous in using Greek mythology as a vehicle for romantic pantheism: Wordsworth himself, not to mention Shelley and Keats, had done the same. The great romantics, according to Noel, were the revivers, not the inventors, of the true faith. Of course he has no literal belief in the symbols of pagan myth, but he holds that the Greeks “were not far from the truth when they formulated their conviction that our spiritual kinship with Nature testifies to some spiritual beings like ourselves behind the phenomena of Nature—the elements, and so-called inanimate objects, being only their expression, body, or vesture. . . . Modern Nature-poetry is reverting . . . to this primal conception of the ancients.” And quite rightly, since no other religion is fit for a true poet: “For as Science . . . affords no help to the poetic feeling of life and spirit in Nature, 20 so neither does a theology which teaches that there is a God external to the world, who once made, and still possibly sustains it. Poetry demands God immanent in Man and Nature.” After quoting Wordsworth’s “I’d rather be a pagan” sestet he pays one of his tributes to the wise Germans: “But the philosophy of idealism supplies for the logical faculty the conception needed to lift it into some harmony with the vision of children, poets, and the more primitive, less sophisticated races.” 21 It is interesting that he should value transcendental idealism as a rationalization
— 19 Complete Poetical Works, I, 248ff., 259-260, 277.
20 He means unenlightened materialistic science. A moment later he cites Hinton as providing scientific support for the vitalistic-pantheistic faith. The romantic may either fight science head on or reinterpret it romantically and then stand forth as its champion.
21 Essays on Poetry and Poets, pp. 7, 8, 9. —
227 of the intuitive wisdom of childhood. The gap between romantic primitivism and romantic transcendentalism is not so wide as Professor Lovejoy would have us think.
The long poem entitled Pan is Noel’s contribution to the widespread and rather tedious debate, initiated by Miss Barrett’s retort upon Schiller, as to whether Pan is dead or alive. Noel of course supports the latter thesis:
Pan is not dead, he lives for ever!
Mere and mountain, forest, seas,
Ocean, thunder, rippling river,
All are living Presences.
Science (of the wrong sort) is impotent to tell us “whence all the vision flows.” It flows from a Pan-spirit at the heart of everything. 22 The poem reaches the conclusion that Christ came not to destroy Pan but to fulfill him—a point which must be reserved for later examination.
Buchanan admires his friend’s Neo-Hellenic paganism but seldom emulates it: his myths are usually homemade or, as in Balder the Beautiful, Scandinavian. Nevertheless he also writes a Pan. It advances the heterodox idea that Pan is dead in his old rural haunts but still alive in the city, where his spirit gives our drab existence “the gleam of some forgotten life.” 23
The two poets, however, stand shoulder to shoulder as humanitarians and advanced socio-political liberals who associate their views with spiritual values. We have already noted that Buchanan disapproves of God’s indifference to social service. The poet’s sympathies embraced the lower animals as well as man. Like Tennyson, Browning, Christina Rossetti, and many other eminent Victorians, he opposed vivisection. He belonged to the Humanitarian League, among whose members his Song of the Fur Seal was much admired. 24 The aristocratic Noel’s Poor People’s Christmas, contrasting the message of the herald angels with the actual life of the poor, might have been written by one of the plebeian social-protest poets. In Livingstone in Africa the great missionary desires to manifest the spirit of Christ by rescuing the blacks from the horrors of the slave trade rather than by “saving souls” in the ordinary sense.
Noel’s personal tragedy made him especially sensitive to the sufferings of children, for
Where’er there comes a little child,
My darling comes with him.
— 22 Poems, pp. 65, 68.
23 Complete Poetical Works, I,185.
24 See the special chapter on Buchanan as a humanitarian in this narrower sense contributed by Henry S. Salt to Harriet Jay, Robert Buchanan, pp. 144-152. —
228 A display of toys in an arcade makes him love outward from his lost son to other men’s living children:
I will be a minister
The fountain of their joy to stir,
In such resorts, and by such measures,
As were wont to yield him pleasures;
Or where little hearts may ail,
Love’s yoke-fellow, I will not fail,
Where are tears and visage pale,
To quell the tyranny of Fate,
Or man, that renders desolate:
And I deem he will approve
In the bowers of holy Love,
Near and nearer to me move.
His memories of that little boy drew him to the verge of Christianity, but he could never bring himself to take the leap. In The Children’s Grass, he juxtaposes the children of the poor and of the rich, bitterly asking,
Are not these thy children, Father?
These—or only those?
Are we not all orphans rather
Of whom—none knows? 25
Buchanan could look back to boyhood days when the home of his father, disciple of Robert Owen both as atheist and as socialist, was visited by the pioneer French socialists, Blanc and Caussidière. The mature poet subscribed to no fixed political or economic creed but retained a warm affection for the French people and for the ideals of the Revolution. Victor Hugo influenced him strongly. The Drama of Kings (1871) was an outburst of indignant sympathy for France and an attack on the German pretense of fighting “in the name of the Lord.” But the first part of this work deals with Bonaparte, the pretended champion and real betrayer of fair Liberty. At last he is overthrown by the “Titan,” Liberty’s faithful lover, the “Spirit of Man,” for
The legions of the conqueror are weak
Against the strength of the Free Thought of Man.
Now, in 1871, the martyrdom of man 26 is being repeated, with Bismarck in
— 25 Poems, pp. 144, 345, 350.
26 The jumble of negation and affirmation, pessimism and optimism, in Buchanan’s thought reminds us of Winwood Reade’s Martyrdom of Man. It was not published until the year after the Drama, but Buchanan knew Charles Reade and may have had opportunities to converse with his nephew. —
229 the oppressor’s rôle. But the poet’s hopes are revived by the deposition of Napoleon III and the proclamation of the Third Republic. At last he permits the Chorus to predict that the liberated Spirit of Man will eventually establish the “perfect State”:
’Tis where the home is pure,
’Tis where the bread is sure,
’Tis where the wants are fewer,
And each want fed.
Where plenty and peace abide,
Where health dwells heavenly-eyed,
Where in nooks beautified
Slumber the dead. 27
Noel also sympathizes with France in her struggle with Germany and believes that England and America should enter the war on her side. This is no time to prate of international amity:
Arm, England, arm! The halcyon hour must wait
When Love and Righteousness shall vanquish Hate.
Jesus of old was royal hailed in scorn:
Now the world crowns Him—still it is with thorn!
. . .
Fair is our dream of universal peace;
But there be wolves, and lambs of tender fleece.
Economic competition—compare Tennyson’s Maud—is in itself a kind of war, and a baser kind than an armed crusade for liberty. Noel’s long socialistic poem, The Red Flag (1872), rebukes the nominally Christian world in the name of the Crucified Carpenter, to whom he prays:
Friend of the lowly, fainting on the wood,
Behold thy poor upon a golden rood!
He tells those decorous well-fed churchgoers who are shocked by The Origin of Species that their own behavior exemplifies the struggle for existence:
Lift up your pious eyes at Darwin’s creed;
And try to prove him right about your breed,
Dear fellow-Christians! who live as though
Not even yet you’d struggled from below.
For beasts of prey with all their savage strife
Are still the cherished models of your life.
. . .
— 27 The Drama of Kings, pp. 75, 272. —
Ah! what if some unshamed iconoclast, 230
Crumbling old fetish-remnants of the past,
Rouse from dead cerements the Christ at last?
What if men take to following where He leads,
Weary of mumbling Athanasian creeds?
The same religious-revolutionary hope is expressed in Poor People’s Christmas, where the widow of a man who has been goaded to suicide by economic injustice has a vision of Jesus in the guise of “a common workman.” He consoles her, saying:
My servants fashion even now
Justice for the commonweal;
From toilers with the hand, the brow,
Idle men no more may steal;
My servants seek; I whisper how
They may find the remedy,
Save my little ones who cry:
For I am poor Myself, you know;
The Poor are Mine, and I will heal!—
Already dawns millenium;
Soon My holy reign will come. 28
The connection between Noel’s pantheism and his religion of social reform is clearly revealed by The Spirit of Storm, a poem which manages to be both Shelleyan and Spencerian:
I send my spirit adrift upon the storm,
Careering along the triumph of the blast,
Exultant! well I know the living God,
God the creator, for destroyer too;
Who purifies by hurricane, evolves
From birth-throes of rebellion, fraught with fear,
Perplexity and pain, the common weal,
Raised to a higher excellence.
Out of the evolutionary-revolutionary turmoil symbolized by the storm arise, as Spencer taught, organisms not only more complex but more altruistic and cooperative. The final outcome will be “the nobler type of Man,” Noel’s version of the Tennysonian “Christ that is to be.” Mother Nature is a good Utopian Socialist:
Lo! the World-Soul commandeth to emerge
From dead, resolved, more simple forms the higher
— 28 Poems, pp. 31, 34, 138, 145-149 passim. —
Through pain, defeat, death, folly, sorrow, sin, 231
Compelleth all to be themselves, through all.
From thee, O mystic Mother, deeply dark,
From thee, O mother Nature, impulse floweth,
Urging mankind to launch, like wintering bird,
Upon the unknown dim airs, by faith to find
Fair undiscovered realms beyond the dawn! 29
For reasons already explained, Buchanan’s faith in the ultimate triumph of the Spirit of Man is less deeply rooted in nature-mysticism. Even for him, however, that triumph is the result of the evolutionary process. He is more of a positivist than Noel. The Drama of Kings is dedicated “To the Spirit of Auguste Comte” as “this Drama of Evolution.” Buchanan is by no means an orthodox worshipper in the temple of the Great Being—he was never an orthodox anything. Nevertheless he represents that looser, vaguer, more sentimental reverence toward Collective Humanity which most Englishmen associated with the name of Comte. It provided a link between the unbelieving and the believing sides of Buchanan’s nature, enabling him to spurn the illusions of supernaturalism and yet to bow his head before the concept of God Evolving:
No God behind us in the empty Vast,
No God enthroned on yonder heights above,
But God emerging, and evolved at last
Out of the inmost heart of human Love. 30
Noel has much the same idea, but he steeps it more deeply in romantic pantheism and tries harder to identify it with Christianity. “Pan is not dead,” he answers Mrs. Browning, “save in this sense—that God manifest in Nature is now, since the revelation of our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ, felt to be less worshipful than God manifest in Divine Humanity.” 31
Such language is too pious for Buchanan’s taste, but he knows that his friend means no harm by it. He and Noel, he says, fully agree that “The atheist and the Christian, the believer and the unbeliever, meet on the platform of a common beneficence. Faith in Love is all-sufficient, without faith in any supernatural or godlike form of love.” He credits Noel with a “fully reasoned-out faith in the divine destiny of Man.” 32 Despite some verbal differences, then, both poets worship the Divine Humanity—the God of William Blake. What we mean when we say “God” is simply “Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,” the highest qualities of perfected Man. Man is God
— 29 Ibid., pp. 91-92.
30 Quoted by Harriet Jay, Robert Buchanan, p. 151.
31 Essays on Poetry and Poets, p. 8.
32 Noel, Poems, pp. xx, xxiv (Buchanan’s “Prefatory Notice”). —
232 because man loves and Love is God. God does not yet fully exist, for the absolute identity of Man and Love is still to be achieved; but He will exist when completely loving Man emerges as the final product of the evolving universe. God, then, depends on Man. Does not Man in turn depend upon the laws of nature? Yes, in a sense—that is what makes it all so “scientific.” But we must remember Noel’s statement that “what we call ‘laws of nature’ are merely the interpretation which our sensible and mental constitution enables us to put upon the language of the Kosmos.” 33 It is from Man’s love that nature derives her power to produce loving Man—again the romantic circularity. Man is the Alpha and the Omega. In worshipping God, as Feuerbach taught, he worships only himself.
Thus in the Ode to the Spirit of Auguste Comte prefixed to The Drama of Kings, Buchanan declares that
... God is multiform,
Human of heart and warm,
Content to take what shape the Soul loves best;
Before our footsteps still
He changeth as we will—
Only—with blood alone we gain Him, and are blest.
The idea that humanity assumes divinity through martyrdom may be a Christian heresy or, as has already been suggested, a reflection of Reade’s Martyrdom of Man. It reappears in lines which support the latter hypothesis:
The creeds I’ve cast away
Like husks of garner’d grain,
And of them all this day
Does never a creed remain;
Save this, blind faith that God
Evolves, thro’ martyred Man.
The Last Faith, says Buchanan, is faith in man, the one faith without which we perish:
Hate Man, and O, thou hatest, losest God;
Keep faith in Man, and rest with God indeed.
And what if, after all, the God thou seekest
Were here, not yonder,—God in act to be,
To find and know Himself for evermore.
Orm’s closest approach to fulfillment of his quest occurs when
At last in a Garden of God
I saw the Flower of the World.
— 33 See above, p. 225. —
This Flower had human eyes, 233
Its breath was the breath of the mouth. 34
And in The Drama of Kings the Chorus is sustained by the belief that when at last we behold the face of God we shall find it to be none other than the face of perfected Man. 35
Noel, as we have seen, is not thoroughly satisfied with faith in man unless he can associate human love either with the love of Christ or with the love which permeates both the World Soul and the Spirit of Man and binds them together. The latter sort of love is celebrated in the lines:
Find the birthplace of sweet Love;
. . .
Find his nest within the grove
Of mystic manifold delight,
. . .
Discover hidden paths of Love!
Explain the common miracle,
Dear abundant treasure-trove,
Celestial springs in earthly well,
In human vase Heaven’s ænomel!
Like so many men who completely discard divine transcendence in favor of divine immanence, he is rather vague as to the distinction between eros and agape. His proneness to confuse the two is aggravated partly by his Neo-Hellenic paganism and partly by his admiration for Hinton’s theory that the all-pervasive cosmic energy is sexual. The Secret of the Nightingale is the bird’s “holy love” for its mate:
Behold the chosen one, the bride!
And the singer, he singeth by her side.
Leap, heart! be aflame with them! loud, not dumb,
Give a voice to their epithalamium!
Whose raptures wax not pale or dim
Beside the fires of seraphim.
These are glorious, glowing stairs,
In gradual ascent to theirs:
With human loves acclaim and hail
The holy love of the nightingale!
Elsewhere two lovers fail to cooperate with nature by seizing upon what Browning would call their “good minute”:
— 34 Complete Poetical Works, I, 280; II, 382, 432.
35 The Drama of Kings, pp. 5-6. —
Spring confused her lovers all, 234
Each obeyed the sacred call;
Only we refused to fall,
Surely, calmly, self-incurled '
’Mid such sweet madness of the world!
. . .
And we are still apart, alone!
Might our clashing kindle Hell?
Ask no more, I cannot tell;
Was it well? was it well?
Noel’s answer is obvious enough. But such a poem as Passion is less Browningesque than Swinburnian:
O pale my lady, and were you death,
Kissing away the soul’s own breath,
I would follow, for all cold Reason saith,
Even where Ruin raveneth!36
Remembering Buchanan’s attack on “The Fleshly School,” we shall not expect his conception of love to be so concrete and full-blooded. He tenderly cared for his invalid wife, but he seems to have been more deeply devoted to his mother, who lived far too long for his good. 37 Thinking perhaps of the conclusion of Faust and perhaps of Comte, he sometimes rationalized his fixation into a doctrine of salvation through womanhood and especially through motherhood. He tells the Virgin Mary that if he could worship at any Christian shrine it would be at hers, since
Holiest and best of all things, holier far
Than Godhead, is eternal Motherhood! 38
In the essay On Mystic Realism appended to The Drama of Kings (1871) he writes of himself that “The personal key-note of all his work is to be found in ‘The Book of Orm,’ and most of all in ‘The Man Accurst.’” 39 This concluding section of Orm (1870) presents a vision of Judgment. Everybody has been saved except one utterly vile, defiantly unrepentant man. As a last resort God asks if any of the redeemed is willing to leave heaven and share the wretch’s exile. There are two volunteers—his mother and his wife, both of whom he had treated basely. The man weeps, whereat God admits him. Orm is an early though thoroughly characteristic work, but in one of his last poems Buchanan asserts:
— 36 Poems, pp. 8, 9, 18, 21, 159.
37 Harriet Jay, Robert Buchanan, p. 2.
38 Complete Poetical Works, II, 300.
39 The Drama of Kings, p. 467. —
I reverenced from the first 235
The Woman-Soul divine
(Mother, that faith was nurst
On that brave breast of thine!)
Pointing the heavenward way,
The angel-guide of man,
She seems to me today
As when my faith began! 40
Some readers may be reluctant to accept the conclusion that these poets represent the complete submergence of Christianity in romantic nature-worship and man-worship. Does not Noel profess belief in “the revelation of our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ”? Must we demand of so ardent a lover of mankind any particular interpretation of those words? And do not The Man Accurst and The Ballad of Judas Iscariot suggest that Buchanan was mistaken in thinking that he was not a Christian? Both poets cherished the Christ-ideal, and that is what really matters. It may be so. Instead of debating the point let us examine more closely what these men actually say concerning Jesus Christ.
“To me,” says Buchanan, “the historical Christ, the Christ of popular teaching, is a Phantom, the Christ-God a very Spectre of the Brocken, cast by the miserable pigmy Man on the cloudland surrounding and environing him. I conceive only the ideal Christ, as an Elder Brother who lived and suffered and died as I have done and must do; and while I love him in so far as he is human and my fellow-creature, I shrink from him in so far as he claims to be Divine.”41 Jesus, then, is a nonhistorical ideal personification of loving and suffering humanity. But despite Buchanan’s frequent use of the “martyrdom of man” idea, Orm shudders when he beholds a vision of God in heaven with the bleeding Lamb at His feet:
All the while it cried for pain,
It could not wash away the stain.
Orm is relieved to awaken from “that pale Dream of Pain.” For Buchanan, furthermore, Christ is by no means a unique symbol of loving self-sacrifice. In Balder the Beautiful he explicitly compares the relations between Odin and Balder to those between God the Father and God the Son. Balder prays to Odin:
As the blood of a sacrifice is shed,
Let me die in my brethren’s stead.
— 40 Complete Poetical Works, I, 290-294; II, 431.
41 Noel, Poems, p. xix (Buchanan’s “Prefatory Notice”). —
236 He would be “Thy Son who dies that men may live.” Meeting Christ at the close of his wanderings, Balder hails Him as “elder Brother.” Christ in turn greets Balder as one of “The golden Sons of God.” There are, he explains, many other “Paracletes,” such as Buddha, Prometheus, and Hiawatha;
And whosoe’er loves mortals most
Shall conquer Death the best,
Yea, whosoe’er grows beautiful
Shall grow divinely blest.
The unexpected lugging in of beauty might be a reminiscence of Hyperion, though the first two lines suggest Coleridge’s “He prayeth best who loveth best.” Essentially, however, Christ is at most one of various man-made symbols of George Eliot’s “Choir Invisible.” Walt Whitman apparently qualifies for membership in this company: in one poem he is told that there is “something Christ-like in thy mien,” and in another he is described as a Christlike iconoclast who believes in Man. 42
In a very late poem entitled A Catechism, Buchanan summarizes his beliefs. Asked if he is a repentant sinner, he answers:
. . . If Sin be blent
Into my nature as its element,
Then ’tis my God’s as surely as ’tis mine;
But since I know my Father is Divine,
I know that all which seemeth Sin in me
Is but an image and a mystery.
To the question “Who is God?” his response is especially revealing:
. . . He is I;
Impersonal in all that seems to be,
He first and last grows personal in me.
“Hath He no Being, then, apart from thee?” “None,” responds the catechumen. “Yet abideth through Eternity?” “As I abide.” “Yet is He Lord of Death?” “Yea, and if I should perish, perisheth.” “Is He not more than thou?”
. . . He is the Whole
Of which I am the part, yet this my Soul
Is He, and surely through this sight of mine
He sees Himself, and knows Himself Divine.
— 42 Complete Poetical Works, I, 279, 425, 471, 476-477, 479; II, 395ff. While traveling in America Buchanan saw something of Whitman in Camden and Washington. For other poems to or about Whitman see I, 380; II, 398. —
237 Asked to list God’s attributes, Buchanan insists that His only attribute is Love, which is manifested “In me, / And in mine other self, Humanity.” Asked if he believes in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, he responds:
In Him, and in my Brethren every one:
The child of Mary who was crucified,
The gods of Hellas fair and radiant-eyed,
Brahm, Balder, Gautama, and Mahomet,
All who have pledged their gains to pay my debt
Of sorrows . . .
. . .
. . . the wise, the good,
Inheritors of Nature’s godlike mood;
In these I do believe eternally,
Knowing them deathless, like the God in me.
“How many sacraments hath God ordained?”
None; since all sacraments in Man are blent,
And I myself am daily sacrament. 43
Particularly important for us is Buchanan’s insistence that although the Divine Humanity is greater than any single man, the difference is more quantitative than qualitative. The divinity of Collective Humanity is the sum total of the divinity of individual men: the Great Being would not be God unless Buchanan, along with every one of his fellows, were godlike. “He is I . . . He first and last grows personal in me.” One sees how easily a cult of humanity, divorced from belief in objective godhead, can be used to satisfy the romantic desire for self-deification.
Noel is of course more ambiguous. He has a more religious nature than Buchanan and takes fuller advantage of the circumstances which enabled a poet of his generation to identify with Christianity any sort of nonmaterialistic attitude toward nature and any sort of enthusiasm for the welfare of mankind. Buchanan, we know, regards him with some surprise as an authentic Christian who “embraces in full affluence of sympathy and love that ghostly godhead [Christ] and credits him with all the mercy, all the knowledge, all the love and power which we [Buchanan] believe to be the common birthright of Humanity,—the accumulation of spiritual ideals from century to century.” 44 Several of Noel’s poems, considered in isolation from the general drift of his thought, could be used to support this description of him. For example, these lines from Suspiria:
— 43 Ibid., II, 302-305.
44 Noel, Poems, p. xix (Buchanan’s “Prefatory Notice”). —
’Tis only a little we know; but ah! the Saviour knoweth; 238
I will lay the head of a passionate child on His gentle breast,
I poured out with the wave, He founded firm with the mountain;
In the calm of His infinite eyes I have sought and found my rest.
O to be still on the heart of the God we know in the Saviour,
Feeling Him more than all the noblest gifts He gave!
To be is more than to know; we near the Holy of Holies
In coming home to Love; we shall know beyond the grave. 45
What more could be demanded of any Christian poet?
But the further we read in his work the more it becomes apparent that for him “Christ” is merely a passionate, imaginative, personalized way of expressing that love which is the essence of the pantheistic World Soul. In Pan, Jesus is identified with the love-goddess
. . . who is the heart of all,
Uranian Aphrodite, whom
The world laid in a Syrian tomb
Under the name of Jesus.
For Venus and Pan and the other gods of Greece are not truly dead: it is only that Jesus more worthily embodies the holy truth which they symbolized before His coming. The principle involved is precisely that of Hyperion:
For while the dawn expands, and lightens,
Greater Gods arrive to reign,
Jupiter dethrones the Titans,
Osiris rules the world again,
But in a more majestic guise;
Sinai thunders not, nor lightens,
Eagle, sun-confronting eyes
Veils before mild mysteries!
Balder, Gautama, full-fain
Pay humble tribute while they wane;
All the earlier Beauty prone is
Before a lovelier than Adonis!
We are not to suppose, however, that Christ is the final goal of the evolution of love. The purpose of the World Soul will not be attained
Till even the Person of our Lord
In yonder daylight of the Spirit,
. . .
— 45 Ibid., p. 103. See also pp. 121-122 for another apparently heartfelt expression of belief in the Christian Saviour. —
Will fade in the full summer-shine 239
Of all grown Human, and Divine,
And every mode of worship fall,
Eternal God be all in all;
Pan lives, though dead! 46
Eternal God can only be the Divine Humanity, which has nothing to worship but itself, and Christ is a provisional man-made symbol of that ideal. Spiritual progress consists in learning to get along without Him. Meanwhile He derives solely from human love whatever temporary sacredness He may possess. Noel, who shared Buchanan’s admiration for Whitman and devoted an essay to him, quotes these lines from the American romantic’s To Working Men:
We consider Bibles and religions divine—I do not say they are not divine;
I say that they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still;
It is not they who give the life; it is you who give the life.
“Does it not breathe the very spirit of Christ?” demands Noel. 47
“Christianity” is a noise produced by the organs of speech, and there is nothing to prevent any man from using that noise in connection with any conceivable affirmation or denial. But our efforts to engage in rational discourse with one another are considerably hindered when we insist on using the same noise as a means of pointing toward referents which are not merely different but incompatible. Whatever semantic signs we adopt, the fact remains that the religion of Noel and Buchanan is approximately the same religion as that of Mr. Middleton Murry. It is a quite different religion from that of George Herbert, of Christopher Smart, of Gerard Hopkins, of T. S. Eliot. Perhaps more clearly than any other poet whom we have yet considered, Noel and Buchanan illustrate the chasm which separates what I choose to call Christianity from what I choose to call the romantic faith. Although my own preference is glaringly obvious, nothing in this series of studies necessitates the conclusion that either religion is “truer” than the other. I insist only that they are radically different, and that the difference is important for the history of ideas. Perhaps the contrast will become even more obvious if we now turn to a group of poets who say, with Leslie Stephen’s rustic churchwarden, “You see, sir, I think there be a God.” 48
— 46 Ibid., pp. 70, 73-74.
47 Essays on Poetry and Poets, p. 325.
48 See above, p. 68. —
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