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

The Critical Response
Harriett Jay

Site Diary
Site Search



Critical Essays


Robert Buchanan and the Fleshly Controversy by John A. Cassidy
From Publications of the Modern Language Association, Vol. 67, No. 2. (March, 1952), pp. 65-93.





IN the long history of literary polemics none has been more savage or more far-reaching in its consequences than the Fleshly Controversy, which raged in Victorian England during the 1870’s with Robert Buchanan on one side and Swinburne, William Michael Rossetti, and the unfortunate Dante Gabriel Rossetti on the other. The literary importance of the latter three and the intensive study devoted to their careers have thrown a revealing light upon their activities in the Controversy. Robert Buchanan has fared quite differently. Although widely heralded in the 1860’s and ’70’s as a young poet of promise, he subsequently suffered such a literary eclipse that by the time of his death he was relatively little known. Today almost everything he wrote has been forgotten and his sole claim to fame is the negative one of being the man who attacked Dante Gabriel Rossetti and brought about his premature death. This paper is devoted to an examination of his career before, during, and after the Controversy in order to throw some light upon the role he played in that melee and to show that his attack, while reprehensible, was not made without some provocation.
     As in the case of larger human conflicts, it is impossible to say just when the Fleshly Controversy began and what was its specific incitement, but it may have been a mutual antipathy experienced by Robert Buchanan and Swinburne. It would be strange indeed if the two had not been thrown together at some time during the 1860’s, for both were living in London as ambitious young men of letters, both knew Lord Houghton and were befriended by him, and both came to prominence during the middle years of the decade.1 Indeed, it may have been at Lord Houghton’s home, sometime between 1862 and 1866, that the groundwork for the Controversy was laid, for that nobleman was fond of bringing opposite personalities together, introducing subjects on which he knew them to disagree, and then watching the sparks fly.2 He would not have found it difficult to set two such gamecocks as Swinburne and Buchanan upon each other. $winburne was known as a literary representative of the Pre-Raphaelites, a cultural and artistic coterie to whose foreign flavor Buchanan’s sturdy Scottish spirit was naturally opposed. As early as 1862 he expressed some of his contempt by satirizing them in

     1 Samuel C. Chew, Swinburne (Boston, 1929), p. 35; Harriett Jay, Robert Buchanan (London, 1903), n. to p. 61.
     2 Georges Lafourcade, La Jeunesse de Swinburne (Paris, 1928), I, 177.


66 Temple Bar in his farcical novelette, “Lady Letitia’s Lilliput Hand,” in the character Edward Vansittart, whom he described as a painter “whose ‘Donkey feeding on Thistles’ was so much commended by Mr. Buskin for the Pre- Raphaelite vigour of its drawing” (IV, 554). If they did meet, Swinburne, with his halo of red hair, his birdlike mannerisms of hopping on and off articles of furniture when he was talking, and the flutelike tones of his voice, probably affected Buchanan unfavorably. Swinburne’s outspoken pride in his French ancestry would not have moved him to admiration, while his better circumstances and aristocratic connections would have earned Buchanan’s envy. Temperamentally, both were vain, opinionated young men with little tolerance of any opposition to their beliefs and theories and no disposition to heed the advice of their elders.
     But whatever may or may not have taken place behind the scenes, the printed war begins properly with the publication of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads near the end of July 1866. Two reviews written from advance copies were published before the book was available in the bookshops, John Morley’s in the Saturday Review (XXII, 145- 147) and Buchanan’s in the Athenaeum.3 Morley regarded the volume with horror, but Buchanan’s personalized remarks verged close to insult:

When . . . we find a writer like the author of these ‘Poems and Ballads,’ who is deliberately and impertinently insincere as an artist,—who has no splendid individual emotions to reveal, and is unclean for the mere sake of uncleanness,—we may safely affirm, in the face of many pages of brilliant writing, that such a man is either no poet at all, or a poet degraded from his high estate and utterly and miserably lost to the Muses. How old is this young gentleman, whose bosom, it appears, is a flaming fire, whose face is as the fiery foam of flowers, and whose works are as the honeyed kisses of the Shunamite? He is quite the Absalom of modern bards,—long-ringleted, flippant-lipped, down-cheeked, amorous lidded. He seems, moreover, to have prematurely attained to the fate of his old prototype; for we now find him fixed very fast indeed up a tree, and it will be a miracle if one breath of poetic life remain in him when he is cut down. Meantime he tosses to us this charming book of verses, which bears some evidence of having been inspired in Holywell Street, composed on the Parade at Brighton, and touched up in the Jardin Mabile. Very sweet things in puerility . . . fine glaring patterns after Alfred de Musset and Georges Sand,—grand bits in the manner of Hugo, with here and there a notable piece of insertion from Ovid and Boccaccio. Yet ere we go further, let us at once disappoint Mr. Swinburne, who

     3 Lafourcade (I, 242) ascribes this review to “Lush,” but gives no supporting evidence. In her Robert Buchanan Miss Jay includes a quotation by Buchanan in which he states flatly that the review is his (p. 161). It is unthinkable that Buchanan would have admitted that he had struck the first blow in the Controversy had he not done so, or that Miss Jay would have included such a damaging admission had she not been convinced of its validity.


67 would doubtless be charmed if we averred that his poems were capable of having an absolutely immoral influence. They are too juvenile and unreal for that. The strong pulse of true passion beats in no one of them. They are unclean, with little power; and mere uncleanness repulses. Here, in fact, we have Gito, seated in the tub of Diogenes, conscious of the filth and whining at the stars. (4 August 1866, pp. 137-138)

The description of Swinburne, caricature though it is, furthers the conjecture that Buchanan was personally acquainted with him. The note of personal animosity is strong, and unfairness of comparing him to Gito Buchanan admitted privately (Jay, p. 161). The patronizing manner in which he refers to Swinburne’s immaturity contains a grain of sardonic humor in that Buchanan was three years younger than the “young gentleman” he was advising to mend his poetical ways.
     There can be little doubt that literary gossip must have made known to Swinburne the name of at least one of his detractors. Buchanan implied this when he said later that this review led to Swinburne’s slur on David Gray (Jay, p.161). Further proof is the slight on Buchanan contained in William Rossetti’s defense of Swinburne published later in 1866 and titled Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, a slight otherwise so gratuitous that it can be explained only on the ground that Rossetti knew Buchanan to be one of the offending reviewers (p. 7). If Swinburne entertained any doubts on the personal bias of his assailant, they were dissipated when Buchanan let fly another shaft at him in his mocking poem, “The Session of the Poets,” published in the Spectator on 15 September 1866 and an obvious imitation of Sir John Suckling’s “A Session of the Poets” (XXXIX, 1028). In Buchanan’s version Browning, Arnold, Lytton, Bailey, Patmore, Alford, Kingsley, and Ingelow are dealt with lightly. Of himself Buchanan says:

There sat, looking moony, conceited, and narrow,
Buchanan,—who, finding, when foolish and young,
Apollo asleep on a coster-girl’s barrow,
Straight dragged him away to see somebody hung.

     Buchanan’s poem differs from Suckling’s in that he deals more severely with himself than does the older bard— possibly the better to preserve his anonymity—and in that, whereas Suckling’s barbs are scattered impartially among his brethren, Buchanan’s most telling blows are directed at Swinburne, whose actions furnish an unmistakable climax.


What was said? What was done? was there prosing or rhyming?
     Was nothing noteworthy in deed or in word?—
Why, just as the hour of the supper was chiming,                                       68
     The only event of the evening occurred.
Up jumped, with his neck stretching out like a gander,
     Master Swinburne, and squeal’d, glaring out thro’ his hair,
“All Virtue is bosh! Hallelujah for Landor!
     I disbelieve wholly in everything!—There!”


With language so awful he dared then to treat ’em,—
     Miss Ingelow fainted in Tennyson’s arms,
Poor Arnold rushed out, crying “Soecl’ Inficetum!”
     And great bards and small bards were full of alarms;
Till Tennyson, flaming and red as a gypsy,
     Struck his fist on the table and uttered a shout:
“To the door with the boy! Call a cab! He is tipsy!”
     And they carried the naughty young gentleman out.


After that, all the pleasanter talking was done there,—
     Who ever had known such an insult before?
The Chairman tried hard to rekindle the fun there,
     But the Muses were shocked, and the pleasure was o’er.
Then “Ah!” cried the Chairman, “this teaches me knowledge [sic]
     The future shall find me more wise, by the powers!
This comes of assigning to younkers from college
     Too early a place in such meetings as ours!”

That Buchanan realized Swinburne would regard the “Session” as a deliberate insult is shown by his use of the pseudonym, when for several years all his poems had been signed. Further reasons for wishing to conceal his identity probably lay in his unwillingness to anger Lord Houghton, Swinburne’s literary sponsor, and in his fear of reprisals from the powerful Pre-Raphaelites. At any rate, Swinburne soon learned that the inimical poet and the Athenaeum reviewer were the same.4
     In his defense published late in 1866 as “Notes on Poems and Reviews,” Swinburne displayed, for him, remarkable forbearance, for though he styled his critics “vultures,” his times an “age of hypocrites,” and retorted that his poems were not meant to be read by girls, he chose to overlook personalities and treat the matter as a question of literary criticism.5 Not so, however, William Michael Rossetti, who chose to enter

     4 William Michael Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, His Family Letters with a Memoir (London, 1895), I, 295.
     5 Sir Edmund Gosse and Thomas J. Wise, eds. The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne (London, 1926), VI, 353.


69 the fray by publishing at about the same time as Swinburne’s “Notes” his defense of Poems and Ballads. In his very first sentence he went out of his way to deal Buchanan a malicious blow; in his second he praised Swinburne: “The advent of a new great poet is sure to cause a commotion of one kind or another; and it would be hard were this otherwise in times like ours, when the advent of even so poor and pretentious a poetaster as a Robert Buchanan stirs storms in teapots. It is therefore no wonder that Mr. Swinburne should have been enthusiastically admired and keenly discussed as soon as he hove well in sight of the poetry-reading public” (p. 7). Had William Michael foreseen the far- reaching consequences of his slur at Buchanan it is doubtful that he would have written it. Coming from Swinburne, Buchanan would not have relished it certainly, but he would have had to acknowledge it as not unearned. As the work of Rossetti, a man who was not directly concerned in the quarrel, Buchanan could have viewed it in no other light than as the stiletto blow of a meddlesome and treacherous bystander. In this instance the bystander was all the more a persona non grata because of the foreign flavor of his name. With a horizon no broader than that of most Victorians, Buchanan saw anything British as basically good and honorable, while that which smacked of the foreign was to be distrusted and attacked. This concept is borne out in his novels, where the foreigner is often the villain, thoroughly treacherous and despicable. From here on, Buchanan regarded any member of the Pre-Raphaelites as fair game and certainly the name Rossetti was singled out for special attention (Jay, pp. 161-162).
     The “storms in teapots” was undoubtedly a reference to the popularity of Buchanan’s London Poems, which had been published in 1866 and had met with considerable enthusiasm in the critical press. His rise to fame had not been easy. Almost penniless and friendless, he had arrived in London in 1860 as a boy of eighteen with no more than a fair education from the University of Glasgow and with a consuming ambition to win literary renown. By dint of hard work and a dogged determination which refused to give up he made his way slowly up the literary ladder with an occasional helping hand from Charles Dickens, George Lewes, and Hepworth Dixon, who admired his courage and thought they discerned in the young Scotsman an inherent literary ability. His London Poems marked the apex of his career and was hailed as the work of budding genius which would certainly achieve great things (Jay, pp. 44-124). Small wonder that he regarded Swinburne and his friends as poseurs who sought to conquer the literary world by subterfuge and the mutual assistance of a coterie rather than by merit and hard work (pp. 161-162).
     His reply to Swinburne and Rossetti would probably not have been 70 long in appearing had not his attention been diverted by other and more pressing affairs. The death of his father in the spring of 1866 together with the strain of overwork and mounting family responsibilities precipitated toward the end of the year a nervous breakdown which amounted to a light stroke. In search of health he moved his family from London to the resort town of Oban, a gateway to the Hebrides on the northern coast of Argyle. Here he lived the life of a recluse from 1866 to 1873, with only occasional short visits to London for business reasons. His recovery was discouragingly slow and was complicated by a disposition to brood on religious questions. Since his father had been an avowed atheist, his death had brought a whole host of morbid imaginings and fancies with which Buchanan wrestled in a vain endeavor to develop for himself a solid philosophy and faith. He continued to write sporadically in order to meet his mounting expenses and sought relaxation by sailing his small boat among the islands of the Hebrides. In 1869 two attempts to supplement his earnings by public readings of his poems in London brought about so severe a recurrence of his nervous disorders that he was forced to return to Oban and to refrain from work of any kind (pp. 129-158).
     In the meantime the Controversy languished. Swinburne’s essay on Arnold’s poetry was published in the Fortnightly in October 1867, with a remark in connection with his disapproval of Wordsworth’s doctrine that if a poet were inspired he did not need to master the technique of his craft that “such talk as this of Wordsworth’s is the poison of poor souls like David Gray” (N.S. II, 414-445). There was hardly any malice intended in such a statement and it is difficult to believe that Buchanan could have had his ire aroused by it. But when Swinburne republished this essay in his Essays and Studies of 1875 much fuel had been added to the Controversy and Swinburne’s temper was at such a heat that he appended to this reference to Gray a lengthy footnote in which he attacked the dead poet with the utmost scorn and ill- feeling. In later years when Buchanan was laboring to find some explanation for his attack upon Dante Rossetti he cited this footnote as his provocation (Jay, p. 161). He is unquestionably in error, for his attack antedated the footnote by four years. That his feeling toward Swinburne in 1867 and 1868 had simmered down to little more than aversion is evidenced by a letter to his friend Roden Noel in 1868 in which he admitted that his failure to appreciate Swinburne’s work was probably attributable to an artistic blind-spot in himself more than to any fault in the poetry (p. 155). In 1868 Buchanan published an essay “On My Own Tentatives” in his David Gray and Other Essays in which he said regretfully that “a gifted young contemporary, who seems fond of throwing stones in my direction, 71 fiercely upbraids me for writing ‘Idyls of the gallows and the gutter, and singing songs of costermongers and their trulls’” (p. 291). In his “Under the Microscope” of 1872 Swinburne admitted that he was the offending critic.
     Buchanan finally got around to evening accounts with Rossetti in 1870 in another Athenaeum review, this time of William Michael’s edition of Shelley. Again the review was unsigned, as was the custom of the Athenaeum, but Rossetti was not long in ferreting out the author (Family Letters, I, 295). The article was lengthy and in a more scholarly tone than Buchanan was in the habit of using when discussing his enemies, but his opinions were almost entirely negative. He stated that Rossetti had neither sufficient material, critical insight, nor the good taste requisite for such a task. He accused him of misinterpreting the facts and objected to his attempts at revising the juvenilia. His conclusion was quite patronizing: “Mr. Rossetti has, in our opinion, mistaken his vocation in undertaking the role of commentator. Still, there can be no doubt that he has pointed out a considerable number of errors in the existing text; his book therefore cannot fail to have a certain value in the eyes of future editors, and of readers who are fond of textual criticism” (29 January 1870, pp. 154- 156).
     Here the Tragic Muse took a hand in what had hitherto been only light comedy. Another actor entered the scene in the person of William Rossetti’s brother, Dante Gabriel. He, in a precarious condition of mind and body from overdoses of laudanum and alcohol, suffered himself in 1869 to be persuaded to resuscitate the verses which, in an act of self- imposed justice, he had buried in his wife’s coffin in 1862. In 1870 after insuring a favorable reception for the volume by arranging that members of his circle should review it in most of the prominent critical journals—he seems to have been warned by William Michael and Swinburne that his book would probably be attacked by Buchanan—he published it.6 The venture fared exceedingly well. The reviews, paced by Swinburne’s eulogy in the Fortnightly, were predominantly favorable; the looked-for attack by Buchanan did not materialize; and Rossetti found himself in short order in the first rank of contemporary poets.
     The reasons for the delay in Buchanan’s expected attack are not difficult to find. A reliable barometer of his physical condition during these years is his contributions to periodicals, and a survey of these shows that throughout 1869 and 1870 he did very little. For another reason, his collapse had prompted his friends, and probably chief among them

     6 Oswald Doughty, ed. The Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti to His Publisher F. S. Ellis (London, 1928), p. 5.


72 Lord Houghton, to plead his case with Gladstone for a Civil List pension, and this matter was quite evidently under consideration during 1869 and 1870. Because his breakdown took place during the early part of 1869, and because of the general slowness of governmental machinery, it was probably not until late in 1870 that he was placed on the Civil List for a pension of a hundred pounds a year for life. Even one of Buchanan’s impetuous nature would reason that discretion was the better part of valor, at least until the pension was safely his; for Lord Houghton was a friend to the Swinburne faction as well as to Buchanan, and even had he not been so, literary polemics, had they come to Gladstone’s attention, would hardly have recommended Buchanan as a worthy recipient of a pension. A third reason lay in the fact that his ailment had brought an intensification of the religious doubts which had plagued him since the death of his father in 1866. In the solemn fastnesses of the Hebridean mountains he went into a morbid communion with himself and nature to try to arrive at some solution. His ruminations and soul-searchings he published in rough, inchoate verse which he hoped would mean as much to his fellowmen as the experiences leading to its composition had to him. This book, The Book of Orm, came out within a few weeks of Rossetti’s Poems and with a preface which indicated that Buchanan considered he had achieved something new and great in poetry. Early in 1871 he rushed into print with his hastily conceived and even more hastily written interpretation of the Franco-Prussian War, Napoleon Fallen, done in the same rough, abstruse style as the Orm. Then he sat back to await the accolade he felt certain would be his (Jay, pp. 136, 139-140).
     How rude was his awakening, when the critical returns began to come in, to find that while his own ambitious offerings were ridiculed as formless and meaningless, those of Rossetti were eulogized! To add gall to the wormwood, often the notices were in such juxtaposition that they appeared on the same page. The Westminster Review dismissed the Orm with a curt and unfavorable paragraph, and right beneath it compared Rossetti’s Poems favorably with those of Shakespeare and Goethe (XCIV, 107-108). The North British Review drew an odious comparison of the Orm with Swinburne’s “Atalanta” by saying, “In these unfortunate verses Mr. Buchanan has exceeded the irreverence, while he has none of the fiery and fitful music, of the choruses of Atalanta in Calydon.” Then it immediately turned its attention to Rossetti with, “Mr. Rossetti’s Poems have the unwonted and personal qualities of all really original work. The sense of strangeness is soon lost in admiration of the great beauty of the verses, of their wide range of subject, their various and appropriate music, their lyric fire, their lofty tone, and their high level of common perfection” (LII, 596-601). In April 1871, the Westminster Review 73 extolled Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads as approximating the verse of Shelley and Chaucer and harshly castigated Buchanan for writing his Orm and Napoleon Fallen too rapidly (XCV, 275-276).
     Buchanan was quick to discern a plot in all this. It appeared to him that his enemies had gained control of nearly all the critical journals and that they were determined to exalt Rossetti while debasing him. In an angry mood and still sick mentally and physically, he secured a copy of Rossetti’s Poems in the summer of 1870 and read it. Seen through his jaundiced eyes and against the beautiful natural backdrop of sea, sky, and mountains of the Hebrides, these verses struck him as the work of “an affected, immoral, and overpraised writer” (Jay, pp. 159, 162). In 1871 his health improved to the point that he resumed his writing for the periodicals; in the fore part of the year he was occupied with seeing his Land of Lorne through the press, but in the fall he finally got around to his belated attack on all his enemies by striking at Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Although Dante Gabriel had given Buchanan no offense he bore the name and was the brother of one who had; and although Buchanan’s attack upon Dante was unwarranted, so had been William Michael’s attack upon Buchanan. One unwarranted attack deserved another in Buchanan’s code, and so he set about his work with a will.
     “The Fleshly School of Poetry; Mr. D. G. Rossetti” appeared under the pseudonym Thomas Maitland in the Contemporary Review for October 1871, and filled some seventeen pages of that journal (pp. 334-350). Buchanan began by imagining the poets of the day as the cast of Hamlet with Tennyson and Browning alternating as the immortal Dane, himself as Cornelius, Swinburne and Morris as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Rossetti as Osric. Then he accused the Pre-Raphaelites of overplaying their parts in a vain attempt to rival Tennyson and Browning. The Fleshly School he found to be a grotesque offshoot in style and matter from two of Tennyson’s poorer poems, “Maud” and “Vivien.” He disparaged Rossetti’s paintings and added that his poetry was equally thin and uninspired. He found him inferior to Swinburne, even though extolled by his family and friends. He clearly showed his bias and his recollection of William Rossetti’s slight of 1866 by remarking that Dante had dedicated his Poems to William Michael, “who . . . will perhaps be known to bibliographers as the editor of the worst edition of Shelley which has ever seen the light.” Marvelling that Dante had not been taxed with sensuality as Swinburne was in 1866, he condemned Rossetti’s as the worse offense because he was a mature man, whereas Swinburne had been a boy in 1866. Of Rossetti’s “Nuptial Sleep” he said: “Here is a full-grown man, presumably intelligent and cultivated, putting on record for other full-grown men to read, the most secret mysteries of 74 sexual connection, and that with so sickening a desire to reproduce the sensual mood, so careful a choice of epithet to convey mere animal sensations, that we merely shudder at the shameless nakedness.”
     This attack was manifestly unfair. As Buchanan said later, he had no idea he was assailing an unwell man—a man who today would be put under the care of a psychiatrist—or that he was causing untold pain by unwittingly heaping obloquy upon Rossetti’s marriage relationships (Jay, pp. 166-167). He saw in Rossetti the same kind of an affected esthete he later scorned in George Moore, an esthete surrounded by a powerful group of friends who were determined to laud his works far above their true worth. To him Rossetti’s poems were of a piece with those of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, and his onslaught upon Rossetti was not more severe than his berating of Swinburne in 1866.
     He realized, however, that he had to do with powerful foemen who would not be slow to retaliate if they learned his identity. William Rossetti claimed he had evidence to prove Buchanan was urged to sign the article but refused (Family Letters, I, 294). Harriett Jay said Buchanan meant to acknowledge it sooner or later, but this is doubtful (p. 163). Buchanan himself implied that the signature “Thomas Maitland” was not his idea, but had been affixed by Alexander Strahan, editor of the Contemporary, without Buchanan’s knowledge.7 This, too, is doubtful. There is in the literature of Scotland a dissertation titled De Jure Regni apud Scotos Dialogus published in 1579 by George Buchanan and dedicated to King James VI of that country. The whole thing took the form of a debate or flyting between Buchanan and his friend Thomas Maitland and advanced the then daring thesis that all law originates with the people and that a tyrannical king who refused to obey it could rightfully be killed. The underlying premise, the peril of men being corrupted by evil influences, is somewhat akin to the central thesis of the “Fleshly School” article. It is hardly likely that a business man like Strahan would have known of this recondite work or would have used the pseudonym without Buchanan’s consent if he had. It is more probable that Buchanan had come across the old flyting in his browsing around the British Museum reading room, had looked into it, noted the association of the names, and had filed away “Thomas Maitland” for future reference. This is, of course, conjecture and cannot be proved; there is, however, no other association of the names Buchanan and Thomas Maitland in literary history prior to the Fleshly School article, and this fact alone adds considerable weight to the supposition.8

     7 Buchanan, “The Stealthy School of Criticism,” Athenaeum, No. 2305 (30 Dec. 1871), 877
     8 It is possible that the alert Swinburne had discovered the association of the two names and was hinting of it when, in a footnote to his “Under the Microscope,” he referred to his enemy as “This classic namesake and successor of George Buchanan.” See n. to p. 440 of “Under the Microscope,” The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, VI (Bonchurch Edition).


75 Added to this is the point that Buchanan did not at first unreservedly deny that he had conceived of the pseudonym and suggested to Strahan that it be used. He simply said, “. . . the pseudonym ‘Thomas Maitland’ was affixed to my article when I was out of reach—cruising on the shores of the Western Hebrides.”9 He could have written the name on paper, left it with Strahan or mailed it to him, and suggested its use. This would be quibbling of course, but such quibbling he could have justified to himself as a fair enough expedient in the war in which he was engaged. Actually, although the Rossetti faction made much of the pseudonym and fastened upon it as incontrovertible evidence of Buchanan’s perfidy, there was no literary law, written or unwritten, which prohibited its use, even in a journal where the articles were usually signed with the author’s name. English literary history affords numerous instances of similar employment of the pseudonym. True enough, to throw his enemies off the scent he assigned himself the insignificant role of Cornelius in the literary cast of Hamlet with which he opened his article, but this was for reasons of camouflage rather than from egoism.
     His article had the effect of a bombshell among his enemies. The man he attacked was in no condition to bear such blows with equanimity and when he learned that the assailant was the hated and feared bogey, Buchanan, his rage was Homeric (Doughty, p. 103). Fear of legal reprisals, however, prevented all-out warfare upon Buchanan until he could be driven from ambush and forced to acknowledge his guilt. Here the resources of the far-flung Rossetti clan were employed. On 2 December 1871 the Athenaeum printed a short paragraph in its “Literary Gossip” column stating that Sidney Colvin was shortly to publish an answer to “ ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry,’ by Thomas Maitland, a nom de plume assumed by Mr. Robert Buchanan” (p. 724). To this, one week later, Colvin printed a disclaimer couched in language so ironic that it was obviously designed to flush the quarry from his hiding place.

You learn . . . that the same Mr. Buchanan is himself the author of this spirited performance, only he has been too modest to acknowledge it, and has had the happy thought of delivering his thrust from behind the shield of a putative Thomas Maitland. Still, what then? Do you “prepare an answer”? Rather you stand off, acknowledging it out of your power to accost Mr. Maitland-Buchanan on equal terms. You admire his ingenious adaptation of the machinery of candour to the purposes of disguise; you inwardly congratulate a pertinacious poet and

     9 “The Stealthy School of Criticism,” p. 877.


76 critic on having at last done something which his friends may quote concerning him; and you feel that his achievement need only be known to be appreciated. If your announcement, together with this disclaimer, may in any way contribute towards such publicity, I shall the less regret the original inadvertence in your columns. (9 December 1871, p. 755)

     The ruse worked even better than its perpetrators could have hoped. Quite evidently, Buchanan and Strahan had agreed to maintain silence, and Strahan accordingly sent this letter to the Athenaeum: “In your last issue you associate the name of Mr. Robert Buchanan with the article ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry,’ by Thomas Maitland, in a recent number of the Contemporary Review. You might with equal propriety associate with the article the name of Mr. Robert Browning, or of Mr. Robert Lytton, or of any other Robert.” Buchanan was not so circumspect. With a characteristic flash of anger he penned a heated letter to the Athenaeum defiantly admitting his authorship. His letter is dated 12 December, the publication date of the issue which contained Colvin’s letter, an indication that Buchanan wrote in hot haste and without deliberation.

                                                                                         Russell Square, W., Dec. 12, 1871.
     I cannot reply to the insolence of Mr. “Sidney Colvin,” whoever he is. My business is to answer the charge implied in the paragraph you published ten days ago, accusing me of having criticized Mr. D. G. Rossetti under a nom de plume. I certainly wrote the article on ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry,’ but I had nothing to do with the signature. Mr. Strahan, publisher of the Contemporary Review, can corroborate me thus far, as he is best aware of the inadvertence which led to the suppression of my own name.
     Permit me to say further that, although I should have preferred not to resuscitate so slight a thing, I have now requested Mr. Strahan to republish the criticism, with many additions but no material alterations, and with my name in the title-page. The grave responsibility of not agreeing with Mr. Rossetti’s friends as to the merits of his poetry, will thus be transferred, with all fitting publicity, to my shoulders.
                                                                                                                   Robert Buchanan.

     The Athenaeum was not slow to capitalize upon this windfall. At the end of Rossetti’s “Stealthy School of Criticism” in the issue for 16 December 1871 it printed first Strahan’s denial, then Buchanan’s admission, and finally its own acrimonious comment:

Mr. Buchanan’s letter is an edifying commentary on Messrs. Strahan’s. Messrs. Strahan apparently think it is a matter of no importance whether signatures are correct or not, and that Mr. Browning had as much to do with the article as Mr. Buchanan. Mr. Buchanan seems equally indifferent, but he now claims the critique as his. It is a pity the publishers of the Contemporary Review should be in such uncertainty about the authorship of the articles in that magazine. It 77 may be only a matter of taste, but we prefer, if we are reading an article written by Mr. Buchanan, that it should be signed by him, especially when he praises his own poems; and that little “inadvertencies” of this kind should not be left uncorrected till the public find them out. (p. 794)

     With the identity of the enemy clearly established, the way was open for a shot at him. Dante composed a pamphlet in answer to Buchanan’s accusations, but, fearing a charge of libel if it were printed, suppressed it (Doughty, p. xxxix). From the pamphlet he made up a letter called “The Stealthy School of Criticism,” which he published in the Athenaeum on 16 December 1871. Written in a quiet tone of gentlemanly protest, it contrasted favorably with the angry vitriol of Buchanan’s attack (pp. 792-794). Not contented with this, he composed a ballad ridiculing his enemy which he intended to publish in the Fortnightly, but on Colvin’s advice changed his mind and suppressed it.10
     Clearly uncomfortable because the Athenaeum had caught him in a falsehood, Alexander Strahan printed in Pall Mall on 23 December 1871, one week after the Athenaeum’s damaging arraignment, a letter of defense (p. 3). His weak expostulations were about as effective as those of a small boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He protested that his “short and hurried note” was not meant to enter into the question of authorship, but “was simply intended as a protest against the intolerable system of gossip-mongering to which our firm has been so frequently subjected.” He complained that the Athenaeum had done him an injustice by printing his letter with Buchanan’s so that “by putting the two together, an appearance of contradiction could be established, and Strahan and Co. be thus made to look  ridiculous.” He based his complaint on the childish contention that since he had written his letter earlier than had Buchanan, it should have been printed earlier. This blustering retort was seconded by one from Buchanan which was equally blustering and which had enough in common with Strahan’s to indicate that they had profited from their former blunder of writing independently of each other. The issue of the Athenaeum for 23 December 1871 contained an angry letter from Buchanan in which he denied the statement of the editorial comment upon his letter of the week before. He pointed out that he had not praised his own poetry, but had instead disparaged it. He added a vainglorious insult to the editor which could do him no good with impartial readers: “It is in vain, perhaps, to protest against the comments of such a judge as you, but for every one who reads your journal a dozen will read my reprinted criticism, and will be able to see you in your true colours” (p. 887).

     10 William Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti as Designer and Writer (London, 1889), p. 158.


78     True to his defiant promise, Buchanan published his long-heralded book, The Fleshly School of Poetry and Other Phenomena of the Day, early in 1872, this time under his own name. Strahan was the publisher of what turned out to be the magazine article revised and blown up to three times its original size. The more inclusive title is significant of the broadening of the base of his attack which accounts for most of the additions. In his preface he reviewed the history of the original article, reiterated his contention that the pseudonym was used without his knowledge, and then added grandiloquently, “ . . . in order that the criticism might rest upon its own merits and gain nothing from the name of the real writer.” He defended himself from the charge of vanity by saying that whereas he took the character of Cornelius, who speaks only one line in Hamlet, he might have taken that of Fortinbras or the First Gravedigger. He said that the charge of vanity was but a red-herring to distract the attention of the public from the real issue, and exclaimed in disgust that, because Rossetti’s poems were labeled “nuptial,” they seemed to “have actually become favourites with that prude of prudes, the British matron; and several gentlemen tell me that their aunts and grandmothers see no harm in  them!” The conclusion of the preface served notice that he had taken the bridle off his pen and permitted it to gallop at will through invective and savage insult, for he insisted, “Animalism is animalism, nevertheless, whether licensed or not; and, indeed one might tolerate the language of lust more readily on the lips of a lover addressing a mistress than on the lips of a husband virtually (in these so-called ‘Nuptial’ Sonnets) wheeling his nuptial couch out into the public streets.” From this he proceeded to his attack, which was so farfetched, so ridiculous and phantasmagoric that the only conclusion one can reach is that it was the product of an abnormal mind. The record of his physical and mental troubles from 1866 to 1874 shows that he was neurotic and unstable; the Fleshly School pamphlet is proof that he had gone far toward catastrophe. His notes to the pamphlet are interesting. They include an excerpt from an article in the Quarterly Review in condemnation of “Jenny” and another called “Coterie Glory” from the Saturday Review, which took Rossetti and his friends to task for praising each other’s works under the guise of criticism. Finally, there was a lengthy note praising Whitman and explaining that although he had written a few lines of indecent verse, he was by no means a fleshly poet.
     The reactions to the Controversy were many and varied. One of the earliest replies to Buchanan appeared in R. H. Horne’s preface to his poem Orion, written in November 1871, and published in 1872. Deprecating the recurrence of prudery, Horne argued that since the body came from the Creator it and its appetites could not be denied. Henry Buxton 79 Forman, a scholarly friend of William Rossetti, published in Tinsley’s Magazine in February 1872 an answer to the Contemporary article (pp. 89-102). In it he replied patiently and painstakingly to Buchanan’s charges one by one, explaining the background and context of each one of Buchanan’s quotations. Temple Bar agreed with Buchanan’s viewpoint: “ . . . Mr. Rossetti and his admirers have been told a few wholesome truths. There is in all the writings of this school a fleshliness which is meant to be natural, but is exaggerated and unwholesome . . . ” (XXXIV, 99-100). It agreed that the system of friends writing approving criticism of the work of friends was evil and should not be condoned. The consensus, however, was against Buchanan. The Illustrated News, noting that a current issue of St. Paul’s Magazine contained several of Buchanan’s sonnets, sneered: “Mr. Buchanan, having quarrelled with Mr. Rossetti, appears ambitious of proving that he can write sonnets too, and has produced a string of these compositions, which assuredly run no risk of being mistaken for the production of his rival” (LX, 490). Fraser’s, after a scholarly discussion of the merits of the poetry of Rossetti, Swinburne, Morris, and Tennyson, said of Rossetti: “Mr. Rossetti has come nearest to the embodiment of the heart’s desire of the school; but though he is often artificial, fantastic, and wilfully obscure, he has a real power which cannot be explained away by calling him fleshly, sub-Tennysonian, or any other names” (N.S. V, 588- 596). The Athenaeum reviewed the matter of the pseudonym, calling it an alias and implying that Buchanan had lied in his disclaimer (25 May 1872, pp. 650-651). It deplored his lack of judgment in republishing his charges and the ridiculous lengths to which he had gone in expanding them. It concluded that “malicious friends” must have advised him to publish the pamphlet, and quipped: “Mr. Buchanan tells how the miasmic influence of Italy ‘generated madness even far north as Hawthornden and Edinburgh.’ What influences may have generated so much foolishness even as far north as the Hebrides we cannot tell; but only that the foolishness is there, and has ended in a worthless and discreditable treatment of what might have been made a perfectly just and interesting question of criticism.”11 The Saturday Review began by agreeing with Buchanan’s

     11 This raises the question as to what part Strahan may have played in urging Buchanan to write the pamphlet as a defense of Strahan, who had certainly lost caste as a result of Buchanan’s delivering him into the hands of the Athenaeum by his ill-timed admission of authorship. It is significant that whereas Strahan had been Buchanan’s chief publisher up to the Controversy, from 1876 until the end of his life there is not a single instance of his entrusting one of his books to him. It is not unlikely that Buchanan came privately to the Athenaeum’s viewpoint that for him the publishing of the pamphlet had been folly into which he had been urged by the importunacy of Strahan.


80 accusations that Rossetti and Swinburne resented all adverse criticism, that their poetry was “fleshly” and effeminate, and their influence “mischievous.” Then it lashed Buchanan for his egoism and bad taste in printing the pamphlet. Ironically, it observed of his excuse that the pseudonym was used to avoid giving the article the added power of his name:

In the old romances we occasionally read of a knight of tremendous prowess and overpowering reputation, who found it necessary, in order not to alarm antagonists too much, to enter the lists with closed visor and borrowed shield; but Mr. Buchanan is hardly a combatant of this description. There is no reason to suppose that his name carries with it an oracular authority which would be fatal to the free exercise of private judgment; and, on the other hand, it is conceivable that the general reader would appreciate the necessity of examining his dicta more cautiously when aware of the peculiar relations of the critic to the objects of his criticism.

It satirized his morbid imagination in fancying sensuality in everything about him, and thought that most of the trouble lay in his own head. It scoffed at the inconsistency of his admiration for Whitman and concluded: “There is unhappily a spreading taint of sensualism, which may be traced in various directions at the present moment, but it may be seriously doubted whether such productions as this pamphlet are not calculated rather to minister to than to check it” (XXXIII, 700- 701). The Graphic thought that the pamphlet contained “more objectionable stuff than in anything we have seen lately” (V, 606). It was of the opinion that Buchanan had forfeited his right to a serious hearing by the ridiculous lengths he had gone to in proclaiming some of the most beautiful poetry in English literature tainted with sensuality, and then praising Walt Whitman and Paul de Kock.
     Buchanan fired one last shot at Rossetti in an article published in St. Paul’s Magazine in March 1872 (pp. 282-303). His main object was patently to repair the slight on Tennyson in his article and pamphlet, for he flattered the Laureate by eulogizing him for the nobility of his verse as exemplified in his “The Parting of Arthur and Guinevere.” Then, by way of contrast, he appended a footnote with several illustrations of what he considered Rossetti’s affected language and concluded: “Here is Euphues come again with a vengeance, in the shape of an amatory foreigner ill-acquainted with English, and seemingly modelling his style on the ‘conversation’ of Dr. Samuel Johnson.” The epithet, “an amatory foreigner,” betrays Buchanan’s prejudice and reveals the reason why he set upon the Rossettis with such savagery, while by comparison his style of address to his arch-foe, Swinburne, is almost courteous.
     81 Buchanan soon learned that the Athenaeum had spoken with the voice of prophecy and that the publishing of the pamphlet had been a grave error. He had expected powerful forces to rally to his support, but none did. Although he insisted that Tennyson and Browning gave him their verbal support and said that he received encouraging letters from such unlooked-for sources as Cardinal Manning, Lord de Tabley, and others not so well known, no one took the lists publicly in his behalf. Friends of long standing fell away from him. There is no mention anywhere of his having any further contact with Lord Houghton. When they met him on a stroll in Regent’s Park, George Eliot and G. H. Lewes snubbed him openly, Eliot refusing to stop at all and Lewes only so long as Buchanan held fast to his hand. When Buchanan wrote to ask the reason for his coldness, Lewes replied that Buchanan had shown for the rights and feelings of others a disregard of which he should not have believed him capable. Buchanan’s angry reply terminated one of his earliest and most profitable literary friendships (Jay, pp. 109-110). The effects upon his literary work were immediately apparent. Many of his magazine contributions through 1872 and his White Rose and Red of 1873 were published anonymously to escape the onslaught of his enemies. In 1873 his magazine work dwindled to almost nothing, either because of illness or his lessened popularity. Reviews of his signed works became noticeably more caustic. The London Quarterly, for instance, which had praised his London Poems and his Orm, was downright insulting in its review of his Poetical Works of 1874, a general collection of his poetry (XLIII, 213-214). The same trend is observable in the reviews by the Athenaeum, Academy, and Westminster Review. A futile attempt to stem the tide was the obvious “puff” given him in the pages of the Contemporary by George Barnett Smith (XXII, 872-892).
     Matters went even worse for the man he had attacked. He attempted suicide with an overdose of laudanum in 1872, and from that date until his death in 1882 he lived a broken man whose course, though he occasionally revived sufficiently to do a little painting and writing, was steadily downward.
     But although Rossetti was incapable of answering his attacker, Swinburne was not. In 1872 he wrote and published his “Under the Microscope,” one of the most savage lampoons in the language, inspired principally by Buchanan’s taunts. He did not honor his foe by deigning to argue with him as Rossetti had done in “The Stealthy School”; he belabored him with epithets, insults, and scurrilous insinuations; he left him not one shred of dignity as a human being; but cast him aside at the conclusion as a foul serpent too loathsome to touch. To do justice to Swinburne, it must be noted that he had had ample provocation for his 82 reprisal and that he, too, having begun the bibulous practices which were to lead almost to his undoing, was by no means in complete possession of himself. In “Under the Microscope” he more than evened the score for anything Buchanan had said or done. With some justice Buchanan could say in later years that, had he not been made of sturdy fibre, he might have suffered a fate like that of Rossetti.12
     Although his armor was dented and his head reeling from Swinburne’s doughty blows, he still had spirit to fight back. In St. Paul’s Magazine he published his retort, “The Monkey and the Microscope,” in which he once again satirized Swinburne’s vanity and amorous proclivities:

Once, when the wondrous work was new,
I deemed Darwinian dreams untrue,
But now I must admit with shame
The caudal stock from which we came,—
Seeing a sight to slay all hope:
A Monkey with a Microscope!

A clever Monkey,—he can squeak,
Scream, bite, munch, mumble, all but speak;
Studies not merely monkey-sport,
But vices of a human sort;
Is petulant to most, but sweet
To those who pat him, give him meat;
Can imitate to admiration
Man’s gestures, gait, gesticulation;
Is amorous, and takes no pain
To hide his Aphrodital vein;
And altogether, trimly drest
In human breeches, coat, and vest,
Looks human, and upon the whole
Lacks nothing, save perchance a Soul.
For never did his gestures strike
As so absurdly human-like,
As now, when, having found with joy
Some poor old human Pedant’s toy,
A Microscope, he squats to view it,
Turns up and down, peers in and thro’ it,
Screws up his cunning eye to scan,
Just like a clever little man!
And from his skin, with radiant features,
Selecting small inferior creatures,
Makes mortal wonder in what college he
Saw real Men study entomology?

     12 T. Hall Caine, Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Boston, 1883), n. to p. 71.


A clever monkey!—worth a smile!                                                  83
How really human is his style;
How worthy of our admiration
Is such delicious imitation!—
And I believe with all my might
Religion wrong, and Science right,
Seeing a sight to slay all hope:
A Monkey use a Microscope! (XI, 240)

     The controversy lay dormant through 1873 and 1874 and might have expired altogether had it not been for Swinburne, who published his Essays and Studies in 1875 with the addition of the ill-natured footnote on Gray in his “Matthew Arnold’s New Poems” (p. 153). While outwardly interested only in identifying Gray, he called him “a poor young Scotchman” who received aid from Dobell and Houghton, referred to his poems as “his poor little book,” accused him of plagiarizing “some of the best known lines or phrases from such obscure authors as Shakespeare and Wordsworth into the somewhat narrow and barren field of his own verse . . .” and railed upon his “hysterical self- esteem.” By way of explaining why he used Gray to illustrate his point, he added unconvincingly: “I may add that the poor boy’s name was here cited with no desire to confer upon it any undeserved notoriety for better or for worse, and assuredly with no unkindlier feeling than pity for his poor little memory, but simply as conveying the most apt and the most flagrant as well as the most recent instance I happened to remember of the piteous and grievous harm done by false teaching and groundless encouragement to spirits not strong enough to know their own weakness.” Buchanan could hardly have doubted that Swinburne’s prime objective was himself. If knowledge of Buchanan’s sentimental relationship to the deceased Gray had not come to him through his association with Lord Houghton, Buchanan’s memoir of Gray published in 1864 would have apprised him of the fact. The footnote was unworthy of Swinburne and shows that on his side also the Controversy was being conducted without any pretense to literary sportsmanship. This is the note which Buchanan erroneously said led to his original Contemporary article of 1871. One point which cannot be doubted is Buchanan’s assertion that the note enraged him to the point of desiring revenge. The blows at himself in the essay of 1872 he had taken, but this attack on his dead and innocent friend was another matter. He sought eagerly for an opportunity to strike back and subsequent events gave his enemy into his hands.
     In the summer of that same year, 1875, was published an anonymous poem entitled Jonas Fisher. The author was actually James Carnegie, 84 the Earl of Southesk, but it is not surprising that it was attributed by Swinburne and the Rossetti circle to Buchanan because Buchanan had announced that his Orm was a prelude to an epic poem which was to follow, after the manner of Wordsworth; Jonas Fisher, while it is not called an epic, is a poem which fills a book of 243 pages and is as prolix and verbose as the Drama of Kings; also, the style of the verse closely resembles Buchanan’s: it is of a rough and unfinished quality and is really only prose set to rime with many stumbling lines and marks of hasty and inept composition. In content the resemblance is even closer. The entire poem is a versified criticism of the times, much after the manner of the Spectator of Addison and Steele and in the same vein as the Fleshly School pamphlet; particularly, it deplores the immorality of current literature and hints at France as the fountain-head of all such pernicious tendencies. If Swinburne required any further proof that Jonas was Buchanan’s handiwork, he found it in its appearance at exactly the right time for the expected riposte to his thrust at Gray. He was quick to retaliate with four lines of scornful verse in the Examiner on 20 November 1875, which show to what depths a great poet could descend when under the joint influence of malice and alcohol:

He whose heart and soul and tongue
Once above-ground stunk and stung,
Now less noisome than before,
Stinks here still, but stings no more.
                 A. C. SWINBURNE [p. 1304]

A week later the same paper came out with a review of Jonas, devoting its first long paragraph to speculating that Buchanan was the probable author:

This anonymous poem is said by the “London Correspondents” to be the work either of Mr. Robert Buchanan or of the Devil; and delicate as may be the question raised by this double sided supposition, the weight of probability inclines to the first of the alternatives. That the author, whichever he is, is a Scotchman, may be inferred from one or two incidental sneers at the characteristic virtues of his countrymen. If a prophet has no honour in his own country, it must be said on the other hand that a country seldom gets much honour from its own prophet; the worst things said about countries have been said by renegade natives. (27 November 1875, p. 1336)

That the review had come to Buchanan’s attention is evidenced by his printing in the Athenaeum on 4 December 1875 a flat denial that he had even seen Jonas Fisher (p. 751). The denial brought forth an acrid retort from the London Quarterly that since the real author had not signed the poem, he “thus afforded Mr. Robert Buchanan a favourable opportunity (not altogether lost) of getting up another fuss about himself” (XLV, 527-528).
     85 Either the disclaimer did not convince Swinburne, or he chose to overlook it in his desire to use the opportunity to burlesque the whole matter of the original Contemporary article and the pseudonym. In the Examiner for 11 December 1875 he printed a letter titled “The Devil’s Due” and signed “Thomas Maitland” (p. 1388). The letter opened with a long paragraph imitating the style of Buchanan’s critical essays with a bewildering number of reservations, insinuations, and definitions; after some scornful references to the poem it came to an end with the pseudonymous signature and the date- line “St. Kilda, December 28, 1875,” all of which was, of course, directed at Buchanan’s excuses for the use of the original pseudonym. That his readers might not overlook the implication of dishonesty, Swinburne added a postscript purporting to be Buchanan’s instructions to his publisher: “P. S.—On second thoughts, it strikes me that it might be as well to modify this last paragraph and alter the name of the place affixed; adding at the end, if you please—not that I would appear to dictate—a note to the following effect:—” What follows is a malicious parody of both Buchanan’s and Strahan’s notes to the Athenaeum:

The writer of the above being at present away from London, on a cruise among the Philippine Islands, in his steam yacht (the Skulk, Captain Shuffleton master), is, as can be proved on the oath or the solemn word of honour of the editor, publisher, and proprietor, responsible neither for an article which might with equal foundation be attributed to Cardinal Manning, or to Mr. Gladstone, or any other writer in the Contemporary Review, as to its actual author; nor for the adoption of a signature under which his friends in general, acting not only without his knowledge, but against his express wishes on the subject, have thought it best and wisest to shelter his personal responsibility from any chance of attack. This frank, manly, and consistent explanation will, I cannot possibly doubt, make everything straight and safe on all hands.

     Buchanan took his time about entering suit, perhaps because he was living in Ireland and did not wish to undertake an unpleasant winter journey to London to set legal machinery in motion. However, his intentions were advertised early enough to bring about the immediate suppression of Swinburne’s pamphlet of “The Devil’s Due,” which he had published concurrently with the newspaper article.13 With the advent of summer he proceeded to bring his tormentor to justice by suing Mr. P. A. Taylor, owner of the Examiner, for five thousand pounds for libel done him in the review of Jonas Fisher and in the anonymous “The Devil’s Due,” with most of the charge resting upon the latter. The formal charge  read: “ . . . that the said letter was written . . . with the malicious intention of injuring the plaintiff’s position and abusing his personal

     13 Thomas Hake and Arthur Compton-Rickett, The Letters of Algernon Charles Swinburne (London, 1918), p. 120.


86 character . . . ’ 14 The hearing began on Thursday, 29 June, and lasted until Saturday, 1 July 1876. It was held in the Common Pleas Division of the High Court of Justice before Justice Archibald and a Special Jury. Charles Russell and a Mr. MacClymont represented Buchanan, while Taylor retained as his attorneys the Messrs. Murphy, Nathew and Hawkins, and Williams.15 Despite considerable dodging about England to avoid being dragged into the trial, Swinburne was subpoenaed on 18 or 19 June, he and the Earl of Southesk being the only witnesses called. Because Swinburne freely acknowledged the letter, Taylor’s counsel attempted to save their man by suggesting that the suit against the publisher be dropped in favor of one against the author,16 but Swinburne had a friend in the enemy’s camp in MacClymont, who prevailed upon Buchanan not to change his suit.17 In response to the Justice’s question as to why they were unwilling to do this, Counsellor Russell replied for Buchanan, irritating Swinburne by stating that he “was a man of straw who presumably could not be made to pay up, and therefore they had fallen back on the proprietor of the paper as a scapegoat . . . ”18 This last is Swinburne’s angry interpretation of the attorney’s answer rather than the actual words used in court.
     With this point settled, the trial proceeded and entered upon some amusing ramifications. In order to prove the libel Buchanan’s attorneys had to review the facts attendant upon the original Contemporary article. Their man, they said, “in the course of his public duty as a critic and writer had had occasion to examine the works of certain writers of English verse, and to point out that some of the works of those writers were obscene, indecent, and offensive to sound moral and religious taste.” This gave the defense attorneys an opportunity they quickly seized. Reading excerpts from “The Session of the Poets,” Hawkins tried to prove that Swinburne had had ample provocation for his letter; and when Buchanan unblushingly offered the makeshift excuse that his poem had been directed at Swinburne’s writings and not his person, even the Judge was moved to comment incredulously. Finally, to prove Buchanan’s insincerity in his attack on the Fleshly School, Hawkins forced him to acknowledge his praise of Whitman’s poetry; whereupon the attorney, producing an unexpurgated edition of those poems, triumphantly submitted them to the Judge and the jury for silent examination because

     14 Athenaeum, No. 2541 (8 July 1876), 50-51.
     15 The Times {London), 3 July 1876, p. 13.
     16 Thomas J. Wise, A Bibliography of the Writings in Prose and Verse of Algernon Charles Swinburne (London, 1927), p. 134.
     17 Georges Lafourcade, Swinburne: A Literary Biography (London, 1932), pp. 247-248.
     18 Gosse and Wise, Complete Works of Swinburne, XVIII, 260.


87 they were considered too evil to read aloud. To this poser Buchanan replied that he still considered Whitman a “colossal mystic” and fundamentally “a spiritual person.”19
     In his summation to the jury, Justice Archibald indicated rather clearly that he sided with Taylor. He carefully defined libel and warned that something written simply in bad taste could not be construed as libellous. Although he pointed out that Taylor was responsible for anything printed in his paper, he advised that if the jury was of the opinion that Swinburne rather than Taylor should have been sued, this point might affect the amount of damages charged against Taylor. Then he blandly stated that the matter of Buchanan’s provoking the alleged libels could not affect the case of Taylor since it had not concerned the publisher but only Swinburne, who should have been sued in his stead. Turning his attention to the two poets, he observed that many of the works of the so-called “Fleshly School” would have been better unwritten; but since they had been written, “they were not to be rebuked except in a grave and serious way; and if, instead of this, they were made the excuse of a sensational essay, and the same faults were reproduced by repetition and unnecessary quotation, such a mode of treatment must be taken into account by the jury in assessing damages” (The Times, p. 13). He followed this by reading passages from the Contemporary article and “The Session of the Poets,” commented adversely upon Buchanan’s defense of Whitman, and asked the jury if they thought the author capable of honest criticism of the Pre-Raphaelites.
     The jury, however, were of a different mind and stood upon their constitutional rights to arrive at their own verdict. The Athenaeum summed up the trial by explaining that they were swayed by Swinburne’s unsavory reputation, by Taylor’s being a radical and his paper having radical and deistic principles, and by the fact that Buchanan was poor and Taylor rich. They deliberated only twenty minutes before awarding Buchanan damages of one hundred and fifty pounds.
     The trial created a sensation in London literary circles and, by virtue of the humorous comments upon it, was viewed as somewhat of a comedy. Only The Times dignified it with a long, detailed report. The Illustrated News regarded it as a “dolorous lawsuit” of quarrelling poets which made nobody happy, not even Justice Archibald, because he wore a white hat and a quotation was read from one of Buchanan’s poems ridiculing judges in white hats (LXIX, 42). Once A Week agreed it was a mistake for poets to attack each other and that the trial had done only harm in advertising a deal of obscene poetry (IV, 265). The Athenaeum

     19 Athenaeum, No. 2541 (8 July 1876), 50-51.


88 regarded Buchanan’s triumph as a hollow victory brought about by a biassed jury and inept counsel rather than by the merits of his case (8 July 1876, pp. 50-51). Pall Mall made its report in the form of a dialect poem in which an imaginary cockney named Samuel Perkins—a lineal descendant of Dickens’ Sam Weller—used the incident as the basis of a lengthy sermon to his son on the evils of writing poetry and the futility of human strife. After reviewing the history of the Controversy and the incidents leading to the trial, Perkins said:

That you see’s what comes of printin’ what a hangry poet writes.
Lor! what larks to see them lawyers overaul Buchanan’s lines
Dippin’ in their scoops to try ’em like my cheeses, through the rines!
Tastin’ this and smellin’ t’other. “Isn’t this a little strong?”
“Call that pure?” “Well, what of this now, for a hammatory song?”
Yes, by George, I never laughed so ’earty, nor I never shall,
As at ’earing Mr. ’Awkins read about that Injin gal,
And the cuddlin’ in the forest! Well, per’aps it meant no harm,
Still the author owned hisself the scene was just a trifle warm.
Then, of course, Buchanan’s counsel—he was not a goin’ to fail;
So he dropped upon the “fleshlies” right and left and tooth and nail!
“Grossly senshal,” “most indecent,” “hanimal passion consecrated.”
Says the judge, “A style of poitry ’ighly to be deprecated!”
Well, the upshot was Buchanan gets his verdic safe and sound,
And he comes on Mr. Taylor for a hundern-fifty pound.
But, Lord love you, my dear Dudley, what a foolish price to pay!
What a terrible exposy for the poets of the day!     (3 July 1876, p. 5)

     The trial ended all activity along the fleshly front until 1881 and the appearance of Buchanan’s novel, God and the Man, some six months before Rossetti’s death. It is impossible to delineate the circumstances which led up to Buchanan’s apology to Rossetti contained in the dedication of his novel, but it is probable that in the intervening years since his pamphlet of 1872 he heard rumors and gossip in literary circles of the pitiable condition of the man he had attacked. Always tenderhearted toward any unfortunate, his conscience must have plagued him with the thought that he had contributed to Rossetti’s unhappiness. More accurate and detailed reports of his enemy’s condition probably came to him from Westland Marston, who was a long-term friend of both Rossetti and Buchanan, and from Hall Caine, who became intimate with Rossetti in 1879. There was at least one other factor involved: in 1881 Buchanan was a very different man from the neurotic and psychotic disputant of 1871 and 1872. Not only had he regained most of his mental stability, but the impending death of his wife sharpened his sympathies with his fellowman, especially a fellowman who, like Rossetti, had more than an ordinary claim upon his commiseration. The result of all these influences 89 is the two verses with which he dedicated his novel of hatred and forgiveness:

To An Old Enemy.

I would have snatch’d a bay leaf from thy brow,
     Wringing the Chaplet on an honoured head;
In peace and tenderness I bring thee now
     A lily-flower instead.

Pure as thy purpose, blameless as thy song,
     Sweet as thy spirit, may this offering be:
Forget the bitter blame that did thee wrong,
     And take the gift from me.      (p.iii)

Before his death Rossetti had heard of the verses and was moved by them as he was also by Buchanan’s poem, “The Lights of Leith,” which Caine read to him (Caine, p. 293). After his death Buchanan added two more stanzas for a later edition, this time placing Rossetti’s name above them:

To Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Calmly, thy royal robe of Death around thee,
     Thou sleepest, and weeping Brethren round thee stand—
Gently they placed, ere yet God’s angel crown’d thee,
     My lily in thy hand!

I never knew thee living, O my brother!
     But on thy breast my lily of love now lies;
And by that token, we shall know each other,
     When God’s voice saith ‘Arise!’20

Not satisfied even with this, he prostrated himself at his enemy’s feet in a final prose paragraph:

Since this work was first published, the ‘Old Enemy’ to whom it was dedicated has passed away. Although his name did not appear on the front of the book, as it would certainly have done had I possessed more moral courage, it is a melancholy pleasure to me to reflect that he understood the dedication and accepted it in the spirit in which it was offered. That I should ever have underrated his exquisite work, is simply a proof of the incompetency of all criticism, however honest, which is conceived adversely, hastily, and from an unsympathetic point of view; but that I should have ranked myself for the time being with the Philistines, and encouraged them to resist an ennobling and refining literary influence (of which they stood, and stand, so mournfully in need), must remain to me a matter of permanent regret.

     In a somewhat different tone is the letter written to Caine by Buchanan after Rossetti’s death and published in a footnote in Caine’s Recollections

     20 Buchanan, God and the Man (London, 1883), p. iii.


90 (pp. 71-72). Here he reviewed the quarrel, confessing his error and not in any way rescinding his apology to Rossetti, but defying “the horde of slanderers who hid within his shadow” and left no epithet unturned to injure Buchanan. Quite evidently his forgiveness and apology did not extend to Messrs. Swinburne, William Rossetti, and others of the enemy forces.
     His final word on Rossetti was said in his “A Note on Dante Rossetti,” an essay published in 1887 in his A Look Round Literature, wherein he showed how far he had moved with his times under the impact of Zolaism and Ibsenism by boldly stating that all love, even the fleshly variety, was the highest human pleasure (pp. 152-161).
     But Buchanan was to discover he had raised a genie he could not command. Within a few months after Rossetti’s death the staid British Quarterly in a review of Rossetti’s “House of Life” sonnets described him as coarsely sensual and everything he had been called in the “Fleshly School” (LXXVI, 54-63). This so angered Buchanan that he reiterated his apology with added emphasis in A Look Round Literature. Again in 1882 in a review of his novel, The Martyrdom of Madeline, the Academy mistook what was probably an attack upon George Moore and the cult of aestheticism for a ghoulish lampooning of the dead Rossetti (XXI, 428-429). This brought a speedy and bitter denial from Buchanan in a letter to the Academy in which he remarked that Swinburne had now forsaken fleshliness and Morris and Rossetti had never embraced it. Sarcastically he asked the readers of the Academy to reexamine his novel “to compare the lineaments of my Blanco Serena, a society-hunting, worldly minded, insincere, but good-humoured, fashionable painter, with the literary image of Mr. Rossetti [,] a solitude-loving, unworldly, thoroughly sincere and earnest, if sometimes saturnine man of genius, in revolt against society. The blundering of windmill-criticism could surely go no further” (XXII, 11-12).
     Strategically Buchanan’s several apologies were the worst thing he could have done for his own cause. Rossetti’s friends might have blamed his death upon Buchanan even so, but the unreserved admission of error, instead of placating them by its manliness and straightforwardness, brought them down upon him in a veritable avalanche of accusation and imprecation. The incongruous fact that Rossetti’s demise did not take place until a full ten years after the Fleshly School pamphlet, was overlooked. They were quick to clothe him in the white robes of a martyr and to cast Buchanan in the sinister garb of executioner, pointing to his recantation as conclusive proof of his guilt. The various matters of provocation given Buchanan by William and Swinburne were conveniently relegated to the background or forgotten altogether. Minimized were the 91 long and increasing use of chloral and alcohol by Dante Gabriel, his haunting memory of his wife’s death with the corroding suspicion that his neglect had caused her to commit suicide, the subsequent desecration of her grave to recover his poems—all of which were certainly factors in the poet’s catastrophe. His defenders stubbornly insisted that Buchanan’s attack was the major cause of his collapse, probably from a desire to cover up Rossetti’s shortcomings on the one hand and to damn a common enemy on the other. The melodramatic quality of their claims undoubtedly appealed to the Victorian audience, trained as it was to love melodrama and to think in its terms. Another propaganda device was employed in that the story was told so often and with such vehemence by so many different persons that even the skeptical were convinced. As for Buchanan, his several apologies had robbed him of the power to speak out in his own behalf without appearing to give the lie to himself, so he was forced to endure in silence the slings and arrows of his outrageous fortune which pelted him from all sides from Rossetti’s death in 1882 until his own passing in 1901.
     Within a year after Rossetti’s death Theodore Watts published an article in the Nineteenth Century comparing the attack upon him with those upon Keats and Poe and calling upon the poet’s friends to stamp out any lingering traces of the charge of sensuality which yet might cling to his name (XIII, 404). In its review of Foxglove Manor the Spectator sneered that no member of the Fleshly School had ever done anything more morally obnoxious (LVII, I, 652-653). George Moore aimed a cut at the old wound in his passage at arms with Buchanan in 1889, when he described Buchanan as a failure rejected by Moore and all other true descendants of Rossetti and Swinburne.21 William Rossetti in his book, Dante Gabriel Rossetti As Designer and Writer, published in 1889, implied that Buchanan should have admitted his error much sooner than he did and pointed to the apology as complete justification for William’s having labeled the attack unfair and uncalled for all along (p. 156). In the same year William Bell Scott published in his Autobiographical Notes his account of the events leading up to and following the “Fleshly School.” While he admitted the precarious condition of Rossetti’s mind before 1871, the use of chloral and alcohol, and the controlled criticism of the Poems, he stated flatly and arbitrarily that Buchanan’s onslaught was the deciding factor in the artist-poet’s breakdown (II, 161-181). Tenacious and unimaginative William Rossetti re-entered the fray in 1895 with a Memorial to his brother which is chiefly remarkable for its display of that strong family loyalty not uncommon to people of Italian blood.

     21 Buchanan, “Imperial Cockneydom,” Universal Review, IV (1889), 90.


92 Denying the truth, that Dante had shepherded the criticisms of his Poems, he argued that Buchanan’s own words in his apology proved his attack a “miserable” and “disgraceful” matter inspired only by jealousy of Dante’s success. He insisted his brother had been a well man until 1872, that the attack had brought on increased use of chloral, and that it had been a direct cause of Dante’s subsequent misfortunes and torments (Family Letters, I, 289-290, 301-306). His version was accepted without question by Buchanan’s old enemy, the Saturday Review, which observed venomously and illogically:

What caused the tragic downfall of Rossetti’s mind and temperament? His brother conclusively proves, what other writers have surmised, that the signal for it was given by the attacks made upon him in 1871 and 1872 by a malignant and pseudonymous poetaster. How deeply those attacks were felt by Rossetti, more deeply, perhaps, than the reader of his brother’s studiously moderate narrative would suppose, is within the personal recollection of many, and among them the writer of this review. That he became for a while insane under the wicked insinuations of “Thomas Maitland” is not to be questioned, and equally little that his mind never recovered a perfect equilibrium. But why did such results follow such trifling cause? Rossetti’s fame was never lessened, even for a moment, by the insinuations of his “scrofulous Scotch” critic; he was surrounded by a bodyguard of ardent and effective friends; he was, or should have been, conscious of his own rich and elastic genius. It has always seemed to us highly humiliating that such an insect could have stung to death so great a king of men. The fact is that “Thomas Maitland,” though his murder of Rossetti is his chief claim to human recollection, need boast of it but little. The health of Rossetti was deeply undermined long before this trifle threw it finally off its balance. (LXXX, 838-839)

In this completely biased statement the Saturday Review saw no need to recall that in 1872 it had supported the essence of most of Buchanan’s charges against Rossetti and Swinburne. William repeated his accusations in the preface to The Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, first published in 1894. In 1906, irritated by the account of the Fleshly School in Harriett Jay’s Robert Buchanan, he tediously and querulously retrudged the old road in his Reminiscences to prove that Buchanan had been entirely at fault and his brother entirely guiltless (II, 521-525).
     If Buchanan found a grain of comfort in the entire matter it must have been in the reflection that fortune had done him at least one good turn in Theodore Watts’s intervention in Swinburne’s affairs in 1879 to save him from the consequences of his alcoholism; otherwise his death would certainly have taken place in the 1880’s and would in all probability have been laid at Buchanan’s door. As it was, Buchanan suffered his Gehenna manfully. He did not break his silence, though with the 93 passing years he developed a conviction that his career had been blasted by the unfair criticism heaped upon his literary offerings as a direct result of the animosities engendered by the Controversy. The Westminster Review corroborated his opinion by stating in 1882 that the friends of the Fleshly School had lampooned his works on every opportunity (CXVIII, 135). Impartial testimony was offered by Roden Noel, a friend to both Buchanan and the Pre- Raphaelites, who hailed Buchanan as one of the leading poets of his day, appreciated widely “except by a clique, and perhaps by here and there a small literary buccaneer.”22 In a review of Noel’s book, the Spectator concurred with this statement “because we think that Mr. Buchanan’s really noble poetry has met with scant justice from critics of repute” (LIX, i, 755-756).
     The Fleshly Controversy passed into history with most literary people holding the view crystallized by William Rossetti and the Saturday Review: that the death of Dante Rossetti had been brought about by the action of a disagreeable and envious man who had had none but the basest of motives for his attack. Buchanan’s later polemics against a variety of people and institutions did much to solidify this opinion. With the advent of modern realism in all forms of art and with the progress of science, the mind of the times became more frank and liberal, so that subjects which had called forth shocked revulsion in the 1860’s and 1870’s were regarded with equanimity in the ’80’s and ’90’s. Buchanan’s attack, therefore, assumed a more and more ridiculous aspect even to periodicals which had agreed with him in 1871 and 1872.
     The stigma stuck to his name as though it had been fastened there by Merlin’s curse. In remarking upon Buchanan’s death in 1901, both the Academy and the Spectator printed excerpts from his “Session of the Poets,” but the most unkindest cut was struck by the arch-conspirator in the Fleshly Controversy, the Contemporary, which, in its review of Harriett Jay’s biography, remarked anent the matter of Buchanan’s reading his Greek Testament at the race track, “Truly, the ‘Fleshly School’ of poets was revenged” (LXXXIII, 452-454).

         Notre Dame, Indiana

     22 “Robert Buchanan,” Essays on Poetry and Poets (London, 1886), pp. 282-303.



Robert Buchanan’s Critical Principles by George G. Storey
From Publications of the Modern Language Association, Vol. 68, No. 5. (Dec., 1953), pp. 1228-1232.




JOHN A. CASSIDY’S recent article, “Robert Buchanan and the Fleshly Controversy” (PMLA, LXVII, 65-93), is the first complete and wholly impartial account of the celebrated quarrel to be published. Mr. Cassidy has showed that the attack on Rossetti, “while reprehensible, was not made without some provocation” (p.65), 1229 and that despite his later apology to his “old enemy” Buchanan was subjected to unrelenting harassment by Rossetti’s friends. In his study Cassidy emphasizes the personal side of the controversy. But if, as seems certain, personal animus was not the sole motive on Buchanan’s side, an additional note will perhaps be helpful to clarify our understanding of the unsavory affair.
     At the outset it may be pointed out that there is interesting evidence (not mentioned by Cassidy) of bitter hatred for Buchanan on the part of Swinburne and William Rossetti even before Buchanan reviewed Poems and Ballads in August 1866. The source is two letters between Swinburne and William Rossetti in Mr. Wise’s collection, from which extracts were printed by Georges Lafourcade in his essay on Swinburne and Keats. In the first of the letters Swinburne expresses contempt for an edition of Keats which Buchanan had prepared for the series of Moxon’s Miniature Poets. Early in 1866 Swinburne had just completed his Byron for the same series, and in writing to William Rossetti to ask his advice about the sum he should demand for his work he said: “An illustrious Scotch person of the name of Buchanan has done, it seems, a like office for Keats, and received £10 in return. This sum the publisher is willing to lose, and to cancel the poor devil’s work, if I will do Keats instead on those terms; and won’t I? and wouldn’t I gratis? This forthcoming Scotch edition of Keats, who hated the Scotch as much as I do . . . has long been a thorn in my side; and apart from the delight of trampling on a Scotch poetaster, I shall greatly enjoy bringing out a perfect edition of Keats with all his good verses and none of his bad.” In reply, Rossetti remarked, “I confess a peculiar abhorrence of Buchanan, and satisfaction that his Caledonian faeces are not to bedaub the corpse of Keats.”1 What Buchanan had said or done to arouse such abhorrence it is impossible to say. Swinburne’s remarks suggest, however, that Swinburne, at least, was not personally acquainted with Buchanan at that time. They also suggest a possible motive on Buchanan’s side for the virulence of his review of Poems and Ballads.
     Whatever personal differences there were between Buchanan and the Pre-Raphaelites before the summer of 1866, it is certain that there were irreconcilable differences in their artistic convictions. When Buchanan ridiculed Pre-Raphaelite painting in “Lady Letitia’s Lilliput Hand” (see Cassidy, p. 66), he expressed a principle that he was to maintain throughout his life; namely, that in the economy of arts and letters, the aesthete is not worthy of his hire. As regards poetry, the creed which Buchanan accepted is enunciated in three essays published between 1866 and 1868, and it is illustrated in three volumes of his poems: Idyls and Legends of Inverburn (1865), London Poems (1866), and North Coast and Other Poems (1868). The aversion of the Pre-Raphaelites to this creed is typified in Swinburne’s scornful description of London Poems as “idyls of the gutter and the gibbet.”
     Buchanan’s theory of poetry, as set forth in the three essays mentioned above, was neither original nor important in itself, but because it supplies part of the explanation for his attack on the Pre-Raphaelites it deserves a brief summary.

     1 G. Lafourcade, Swinburne’s Hyperion and Other Poems with an Essay on Keats (London, 1928), pp. 30, 31.


1230 Most revealing of the essays is one entitled “The Poet, or Seer.”2 in it the poet is defined as one “who sees life newly, assimilates it emotionally, and contrives to utter it musically” (p. 3). Poetry, then, is a compound of three elements—vision, emotion, and music. The first is by far the most important: a profound insight into truth is “the rarest and most important of all gifts; so rare, indeed, and so powerful, that it occasionally creates in very despite of nature the other poetic qualities” (pp. 3-4). Let a man but see some truth clearly and express his vision sincerely, and his work will possess the one essential characteristic of all poetry—namely, spiritualization. “The specific aim of art, in its definite purity,” Buchanan asserts in typical Victorian phraseology, “is spiritualization; and pleasure results from that aim, because the spiritualization of the materials of life renders them, for subtle reasons connected with the soul, more beautifully and deliciously acceptable to the inner consciousness” (p. 17). Hence, while not aiming at moral teaching, the poet produces something which is moral in the highest sense. Significantly, Buchanan adds, “An essentially immoral form, a bestiality, a lie, an insincerity . . . has no permanent place in art, because spiritualization is fatal to its very perceptibility” (pp. 19-20).
     A view of poetry similar to that just summarized is presented in the essay “On My Own Tentatives,” which appeared in the same volume with “The Poet, or Seer.” In a third essay, first printed in September 1866, the question of “Immorality in Authorship” receives separate attention.3 Here Buchanan equates morality and sincerity: “Morality in literature is, I think, far more intimately connected with the principle of sincerity of sight [i.e., insight] than any writer has yet had the courage to point out . . . Wherever there is insincerity in a book there can be no morality” (David Gray, p. 240). The paramount moral responsibility of an author is to be true to his inner vision. If he contemplates writing something which he does not earnestly believe or which he does not fully understand, what Buchanan calls the “moral mind” will register a protest. Admittedly, the “moral mind,” defined vaguely as “one consistent with a certain standard accepted by itself, and situated at a decent height above prejudice” (p. 240), is conditioned by prevailing ethical standards. Therefore, much that was moral for Chaucer or La Fontaine would not be so for a Victorian author, for it could not be written in the nineteenth century with the full acquiescence of the “moral mind.”
     Buchanan reiterated these principles in numerous essays to the end of his life. In his last book of essays as in his first, he declared that spiritual insight is “the one prerogative and proof of genius.”4 To Buchanan this meant that an artist must not merely reproduce life as it is nor withdraw from life to luxuriate

     2 Printed in Buchanan’s David Gray and Other Essays (London, 1868) and again in A Poet’s Sketch-Book (London, 1883). In all three essays which discuss literary principles Buchanan repeats, with slight alterations, ideas expressed by his friend and benefactor George Lewes in Lewes’ series of articles entitled “The Principles of Success in Literature” (Fortnightly Rev., May to Nov., 1865).
     3 Fortnightly Rev,., VI, 289. The essay was reprinted in David Gray under the title “Literary Morality.”
     4 The Coming Terror (London, 1891), p. 246.


1231 in his own sensations. Hence he battled the naturalism of Ibsen and Zola and the aestheticism of Gautier, George Moore, and the Pre-Raphaelites with equal fervor and indiscrimination. His novel The Martyrdom of Madeline (1882) and essays entitled “The New Gironde” (1887) and “The Modern Young Man as Critic” (1891) may be cited as evidence that the apology to Rossetti betokened no alteration in Buchanan’s general critical principles.
     It cannot be maintained, of course, that Buchanan applied his principles consistently and dispassionately. But it can be asserted that a critical issue was involved in the Fleshly controversy; the issue is discernible in the articles on Swinburne and Rossetti, intermingled with the insults and vulgar rant. The basic charges that Buchanan brought against Swinburne in 1866 were insincerity and imitation. Swinburne’s poems were immoral, said Buchanan, because the poet had tried deliberately to shock his readers: he had been unclean merely for the sake of uncleanness. Besides, he had imitated miracle plays, French lyrical poets, and Mr. Browning; he had offered no original insight into human experience. Similarly, in 1871 Buchanan alleged that Rossetti had deliberately disguised his animalistic sensations as operations of soul, and that he was therefore guilty of a most offensive kind of insincerity. Furthermore, Buchanan missed in Rossetti’s poetry the sympathy for humanity which he so much admired in Whitman. He saw in the English poet only a morbid preoccupation with his own exquisite sensations. The charge that Rossetti was insincere was the tragic error for which Buchanan later tried to make amends; the charge that Rossetti was morbid and oppressively sensuous was partially just, but it was obscured in the smoke of the battle that Buchanan’s first blast touched off.
     In his apology to Rossetti, Buchanan admitted that his article and pamphlet had not been objective criticism. The article, he said, in the dedication of God and the Man, was conceived “hastily and from an unsympathetic point of    view.” And he had already confessed to Browning that the attack had been prompted by “the instinct of recrimination.”5 But may we not accept as equally honest his assertion in 1891 when, recalling the quarrel, he wrote, “I really believed that Rossetti was an affected, immoral, over-praised writer”?6 Probably Buchanan was not entirely clear as to what his motives had been, and we cannot hope to answer the question for him. But we can observe that his attacks on Swinburne and Rossetti were not isolated instances of his condemnation of artists who espoused the doctrine of l’art pour l’art.
     Taking all available evidence into the account, we may conclude that Buchanan’s most notorious pieces of criticism, though spiteful and malicious, were not mere outpourings of spite and malice, but that they were founded upon a view of poetry which Buchanan held throughout his life—a view which could not but produce an imperfect sympathy, even in an unprejudiced critic, for much of the poetry of Swinburne and Rossetti. In applying his principles to the Pre-Raphaelites, therefore, Buchanan was not altogether wrong; but he disqualified

     5 From a letter to Browning quoted by Gosse in The Life of Algernon Charles Swinburne (New York, 1917), p. 205.
     6 Quoted by Harriett Jay, Robert Buchanan (London, 1903), p. 162.


1232 himself as a critic by his deviousness and by his extravagance. It is ever to be regretted that he treated so unworthily what, in the words of the Athenaeum, “might have been made a perfectly just and interesting question of criticism.”7

                                                                                                                                   GEORGE G. STOREY
     Butler University

     7 Athenaeum, 25 May 1872, p. 651.



Robert Buchanan, F. J. Furnivall, and The Browning Society: A Letter by Jay Jernigan
From Studies in Browning and His Circle (Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring, 1975)



     In the years following his attack on D. G. Rossetti in “The Fleshly School of Poetry” (Contemporary Review, October, 1871), Robert Buchanan came to believe his own literary career greatly damaged as a result of the virulent critical war he had somewhat inadvertently started. In that war he did win a minor battle in 1876 when a jury awarded him £150 damages as the result of his libel suit against the proprietors of the Examiner, the publishers of a calumnious squib by A. C. Swinburne. But in general Buchanan found himself the loser, irremediably fixed as a conspicuous target for the growing coterie of Aesthetes. His apology to Rossetti in a dedicatory poem prefacing his novel God and the Man (London, 1881) served only to renew hostilities and provoke his enemies to further attack, the most devastating being that by George Moore in Confessions of a Young Man (London, 1888, pp. 276-77).
     In an obvious effort to secure another ally within the literary establishment, Buchanan sent the eminent Shakespearean scholar F.J. Furnivall a complimentary copy of God and the Man with an inscription and a letter that reveal how much he felt himself the victim of a “literary Inquisition.” He undoubtedly viewed Furnivall as a potential friend because he had been engaged for several years in an acrimonious public quarrel with Swinburne over critical methodology in Shakespearean scholarship, a quarrel which had degenerated into an unseemly ad hominem squabble. Furnivall’s founding of the Browning Society in the late summer of 1881 gave Buchanan a proper occasion to enlist his sympathy and influence. For Buchanan was a personal acquaintance of Browning’s, being introduced to him in 1864 by George Eliot at a small gathering at her and G. H. Lewes’s home. As the result of that introduction, according to Buchanan in his reminiscences, he and Browning became casual friends, occasionally lunching together and discussing the current literary scene, but their friendship did wane over the years, to end decisively in 1888 after what seems a conscious slight on Browning’s part (cf., Harriet Jay. Robert Buchanan, London, 1903, pp. 110-14).
     As a first step in honoring Browning, Furnivall compiled a bibliography of works by and about that poet, which included Buchanan’s two long, substantially favorable reviews of The Ring and the Book that were published originally in the Athenæum (December 26, 1868, and March 20, 1869; cf., Browning Society Papers, 1881, I, pp. 94-95). Apparently, Furnivall sent Buchanan a copy of this bibliography issued as a circular advertising the formation of the Society. Buchanan replied by sending a copy of his new novel, inscribed “To F. J. Furnivall, / from / Robert Buchanan / ‘The man o’ independent mind / Is king o’ men, for a’ that!’ / Robert Burns”, a quotation that obliquely flattered both himself and Furnivall, both being staunch, freethinking socialists and somewhat irascible literary critics. Accompanying the novel was a complimentary letter, which Furnivall, I presume, pasted to a flyleaf of the first volume, opposite a pasted-in review clipped from the London Daily News and annotated in his hand.
     This previously unpublished letter corroborates John Cassidy’s thesis in his recent study of Buchanan’s works that “with the passing years Buchanan was convinced that his career had been blasted by the unfair criticism heaped upon him and his literary offerings as a result of the animosities engendered by the (Fleshly) controversy” (Robert Buchanan, New York, 1973, p. 58). It also reveals Buchanan’s acerbic attitude toward the Athenæum, for which he had written during the 1860’s but which was openly hostile to him and his literary works under the later editorship of Sir Charles W. Dilke. Buchanan seems to assume in the letter that Furnivall will concur with a denunciation of that journal, because of its generally favorable treatment of Swinburne in the quarrel about Shakespeare (cf., the review of Swinburne’s A Study of Shakespeare, January 31, 1880). The letter is of further interest in its suggestion that Browning likewise was the object of a literary persecution; therefore, I cite it in full, quoting from the original now in my possession:

38 Queen Anne St
Cavendish Square
Nov. 6 [1881]

Dear Mr. Furnivall,

     I have to thank you heartily for the Browning circular; and I take the opportunity to send you a copy of my new prose poem, ‘God & the Man.’ I know that you will apprehend its spirit & its purport, & I trust that it may secure for me ‘one more friend.’ Like Browning himself, I have suffered for years from the persecution of a literary Inquisition; and as it is such men as you that scatter light & fight on the side of minorities, I would gladly secure your sympathy in more or less measure.
     I see that you quote some of my poor criticism from the Athenæum. It is not without a certain pain that I see my name connected in any way with a journal which, to my mind, is a synonym for nepotism & cowardly malignity. The only protection against such a publication is the large & free influence of the British press generally.
     With my best wishes that your good works may prosper, & your independent spirit get fair play, believe me

         Yours cordially,
         Robert Buchanan

     He secured his objectives—Furnivall’s good wishes and potential friendship—as testified to, rather sadly, by a note written on stationery edged in black pasted to a flyleaf of the second volume:

2 Devereux Terrace
Nov. 10 [1881]

Dear Mr. Furnivall,

     I thought to be in Queen Anne St temporarily this week, but on Monday night my beloved wife died  here. While this great darkness is upon me, I cannot respond to your kindness as I could wish; but I look forward to seeing you some day soon. With kind regards

         Yours faithfully
         Robert Buchanan

     The formation of the Browning Society thus brought together, at least casually, these two Victorian men of letters, so similar in their irrepressible literary vigor, their moral earnestness, and their individualistic political radicalism. But that Furnivall was of any real help to Buchanan seems unrecorded.


Jay Jernigan—Eastern Michigan University

(© S.B.H.C. used with permission of the Armstrong Browning Library, Baylor University, Waco, Texas)



Back to The Fleshly School Controversy

or The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan








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


The Critical Response
Harriett Jay


Site Diary
Site Search