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The Critical Response
Harriett Jay

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The Critical Response (1)


1. J. Bell Simpson

2. Edmund Clarence Stedman

3. Arthur Temple

4. Thomas Bayne

5. James Grant Wilson

6. W. Gibson


From Literary and Dramatic Sketches by J. Bell Simpson
(Glasgow: David Bryce & Son, 1872.)

From the chapter, ‘A Poetic Trio: Alexander Smith, Robert Buchanan, and David Gray’


THERE is a certain appropriateness in grouping these three poets together, seeing that they had* so much in common as regards birth and temperament, that they were cotemporaries, and that all rose to fame at an early age, doing so by sheer force of native ability. A singular blending of harmony and contrast is observable in their writings. Each followed to some extent the Keats mode, causing us to come ever and anon upon passages where the thought is more latent than on the surface, requiring and inviting scrutiny to the full appreciation of hidden beauties. So far, of course, this must always be one of the distinctive qualities of the Tennysonian, as opposed to the Byronic school. Manfred, Childe Harold, and Lara, come upon a reader at once in the clearness of a telling, straightforward inspiration, with an impetuous gush of genius dazzling

—    * The reader will perhaps excuse the apparent inaccuracy (Mr. Buchanan being still alive) of my alluding to all these poets in the past tense.—S. —

59 through their nobility of thought and brilliancy of language; but Maud and In Memoriam are of soberer hue—their beauty more resembling that of minute mosaics than scintillating sapphires.


     68 Coming now to the second of our poets, we find in Mr. Robert Buchanan a genius alternately surpassing and coming short of Smith’s. In richness of fancy and linguistic affluence he is not perhaps equal to the Life Dramatist, but he has greater powers of satire and more ingenuity in plotmaking. Happy and beautiful thoughts are not wanting, moreover, to relieve the occasionally unrefined vigour of such everyday memoirs as Attorney Sneak and Widow Mysie. The unlettered old father in Poet Andrew, grieving at the bedside of his consumptive student son, is made to say—

“I seem’d to know as muckle then as he,
Because I was sae sad.”

69 Sorrow’s power to open up the mind has seldom been more delicately hinted. What, however, could excuse the tautology which occurs a few lines further on?—

“Grown larger, bigger, holier, peacefuller.”

Do large and big bear different meanings in Mr Buchanan’s lexicon? In London Poems the faculty of plot weaving is developed to a considerable extent . An air of reality, too, pervades them. More care has apparently been taken with those whose themes are sad or tragic, than with The Little Milliner, Artist and Model, and the other lighter pieces; but the treatment of nearly all speaks of one who has lived acutely, probing deep beneath the surface in his search after truth in the lives and characters of others. Jane Lewson and Edward Crowhurst are both trenchant; the former a sharp rebuke to modern Pharisaism, the latter a wholesome warning to the capricious patrons of humble rhymsters. In The Scaith o’ Bartle we have Mr. Buchanan on a congenial theme. His muse inclines to the rugged and tempestuous tragedy of everyday life so often to be found enacting in fishermen’s huts or even beneath the vagabond 70 wanderer’s only roof-tree—a starlit sky. He is supreme in extracting pathos from the work-a-day misfortunes of an artizan, and drawing tears in return for the blood spilt by a costermonger’s girl under the blows of her drink-frenzied protector. The moving interest in The Scaith o’ Bartle is an honest sailor’s bitter heart-burnings by reason of his young wife’s coldness to him, and, as he imagines, lavishing her love upon another. At length, when the catastrophe occurs which gives its name to the poem, the swollen waters of Bartle rising in an inland sea, and “Dan” perilously urging his way in a boat to the spot where his home lies engulphed, reaches it only to find that she has deserted him, there is a wild grandeur about the scene which culminates in the wronged husband’s death, and discovery of his corpse floating in the room which his wife’s guilt had made for ever desolate.
     If the subjects selected by Mr. Buchanan in his Undertones are less vitally interesting to nineteenth century readers, their treatment and general tone are higher than those of either London Poems, or Legends of Inverburn. The plan of the work is eminently ambitious, the names being all 71 classical, as “Ades, King of Hell,” “Polyphemes’ Passion,” “Sappho,” &c. Passages of original power and beauty occur in nearly every poem, but a certain appearance of strain and effort, which at times mars a stanza, might excuse the supposition that the author was lapsing into obscurity to hide lack of thought. Then, again, it is surely beneath the dignity of such poetry to allow the frequent occurrence of compound rhymes. In “Venus Cytherea” these meet us in nearly every verse, but are most noticeable in the fourth, where “skies up ,” “rise up,” and “eyes up” are all made to clink with a some what paltry effect. Notwithstanding these minor blemishes, however, a high and scholarly appreciation pervades Undertones, betokening culture and love. Pygmalion’s dead bride is described as lying before her lover:—

“In stainless marriage samite, white and cold,
With orange blossoms in her hair, and gleams
Of the ungiven kisses of the bride
Playing about the edges of her lips.”

Farther on, when the marble image has been warmed into a life of wild sensual beauty, and the sculptor, stooping over the slumbering form 72 of his divinity, descries the plague spot on her cheek, we have these weird lines:—

“Therefore it seem’d, Death pluck’d me by the sleeve,
And sweeping past with lean forefinger touch’d
The sleeper’s brow, and smiled.”

     Penelope thus indicates her anxious loneliness, as years pass and Ulysses comes not:—

“My very heart has grown a timid mouse,
Peeping out fearful when the house is still.”

     In the volume containing Undertones there are also two poems, a Prologue, “To David in Heaven,” and an Epilogue, “To Mary on Earth.” The first, being addressed to the memory of the author’s dear friend, David Gray, brings us to a brief glance at the last of our poetic trio.

[Note: The section on David Gray is available here.]

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From Victorian Poets by Edmund Clarence Stedman
(James R. Osgood and Company, Boston, 1876 - pp. 342-357.)






THROUGHOUT the recent poetry of Great Britain a new departure is indicated, and there are signs that the true Victorian era has nearly reached a close. To speak more fully, we approach the end of that time in which—although a composite school has derived its models from all preceding forms—the idyllic method, as represented by Tennyson, upon the whole has prevailed, and has been more successful than in earlier times, and than contemporary efforts in the higher scale of song.
     All periods are transitional; yet it may be said that the calling of the British poets, during the last fifteen years, has been a “struggle,” not so much for recognition, as for the vital influence which constitutes a genuine “existence.” The latter-day singers, who bear a special relation to the immediate future, are like those priests of the Sun, who, on hills overlooking the temples of strange gods, and above the tumult of a hostile nation, tend the sacred fire, in presence of their band of devotees, and wait for the coming of a fairer day. Not that the blood of Englishmen 343 is more frigid, and their wants more sordid, than of old. The time is sufficiently imaginative. Love of excitement, the most persistent of human motives, is strong as ever, But the sources are various which now supply to the imagination that stimulus for which the new generation otherwise might resort to poetry. It is an age of journalism; all the acts of all the world are narrated by the daily press. It is, we have seen, a time of criticism and scholarship, similar to the Alexandrian period of Greek thought. It is the very noontide of imaginative work in prose; and so largely have great novelists supplanted the poets in general regard, that annalists designate the Victorian period as the “age of prose romance.” Finally, and notably within the last decade, readers have been confronted with those wonders of science which have a double effect,—destroying the old poetic diction and imagery, and elevating the soul with beauty and sublimity beyond anything proffered by verse of the idyllic kind. The poets—especially Tennyson, in his recognition of modern science and the new theology—have tried to meet the exigency, but their efforts have been timid and hardly successful. Their art, though noble and refined, rarely has swayed the multitude, or even led the literary progress of the time,—that which verse was wont to do in the great poetic epochs. Year by year these adverse conditions have been more severely felt. To the latest poets, I say, the situation is so oppressive that there is reason to believe it must be near an end, and hence we see them striving to break through and out of the restrictions that surround them.
     Where is the point of exit? This is the problem 344 which, singly or in groups, they are trying, perhaps unconsciously, to solve. Some return to a purely natural method, applying it to scenes whose freshness and simplicity may win attention; others withdraw to the region of absolute art, and by new and studied forms of constructive beauty gratify their own taste, and at least secure a delight in labor which, of itself, is full compensation. Some have applied poetic investigation to the spiritual themes which float like shadows among the pillars and arches of recent materialism; finally, all are agreed in attempting to infuse with more dramatic passion the over-cultured method of the day.
     In this last endeavor I am sure their instinct is right. Modern art has carried restraint and breeding below the level of repose. Poetry, to recover its station, must shake off its luxurious sleep: the Philistines are upon it. It must stimulate feeling, arouse to life, love, and action, before there can be a true revival of its ancient power.
     It would be invidious to lay any stress upon the fact that the body of recent English verse is supplied by those smaller lyrists, who, the poet tells us, never weary of singing the old eternal song. Socialists avow that Nature is unerring in the distribution of her groups. Among a thousand men are so many natural farmers, so many mechanics, a number of scholars, two or three musicians,—a single philanthropist, it may be. But we search groups of a hundred thousand for a tolerable poet, and of a million for a good one. The inspired are in the proportion of diamonds to amethysts, of gold to iron. If, in the generation younger than Tennyson and the Brownings, we discover three or four singers fit to aspire 345 and lead the way, especially at this stage of competition with science and prose romance, there surely is no need that we should wholly despair.
     I have spoken elsewhere of the minor poets, and of those specialists who excel in dialect-writing and society-verse, and have derived from their miscellaneous productions an idea of the tone and fashion of the period. As we seek for those who are distinguished, not only by power and individuality, but by the importance of their accomplished work, three or four, at most, require specific attention. Another year, and the position may be changed; for poets are like comets in the suddenness of their appearance, and too often also in brief glory, hyperbolic orbit, and abrupt departure to be seen no more.
     Of the four whose names most readily occur to the mind,—Buchanan, Rossetti, Morris, and Swinburne,—the first holds an isolated position; the remaining three, though their gifts are entirely distinctive, have an appearance of association through sympathy in taste or studies,—so that, while to classify them as a school might be unphilosophical, to think of one is to recall the others. Such a group is not without precedent. It is not for this cause that I include the three under one review; if it were so, Buchanan, from his antagonistic position, well might be placed elsewhere. The fact is, that all are latter- day poets, and need not object to meet on the footing of guests in the house of a common friend. With the exception of Rossetti, these later poets are alike in at least one respect: they are distinguished from the Farringford school by a less condensed, more affluent order of work,—are prodigal of their verse, pouring it out in youth, and flooding the ear with rhythm. There is 346 no nursing of couplets, and so fruitful a yield may be taken as the evidence of a rich and fertile soil.


     JUDGED either by his verse or by his critical writings, Robert Buchanan seems to have a highly developed poetic temperament, with great earnestness, strength of conviction, and sensitiveness to points of right and wrong. Upon the whole, he represents, possibly more than any other rising man, the Scottish element in literature,—an element that stubbornly retains its characteristics, just as Scotch blood manages to hold its own through many changes of emigration, intermarriage, or long descent. The most prosaic Scotsman has something of the imagination and warmth of feeling that belong to a poet; the Scottish minstrel has the latter quality, at least, to an extent beyond ordinary comprehension. He wears his heart upon his sleeve; his naïveté and self-consciousness subject him to charges of egotism; he has strong friends, but makes as many enemies by tilting against other people’s convictions, and by zealous advocacy of his own.
     It is difficult for such a man to confine himself to pure art, and Buchanan is no exception to the rule. He is a Scotsman all over, and not only in push and aggressiveness, but, let me add, in versatility, in genuine love and knowledge of nature, and in his religious aspiration. The latter does not manifest itself through allegiance to any traditional belief, but through a spirit of individual inquiry, resulting in speculations which he advances with all the fervor of Knox or Chalmers, and thus furnishes another illustration of the saying that every Scot has a creed of his own. 347 Great Britain can well afford to tolerate the metaphysics of Scotland for the sake of her poetry. Buchanan’s transcendentalism is mentioned here, because he has made his verse its exponent, and thus, in his chosen quest after the knowledge of good and evil, has placed himself apart from the other poets of his time.
     The library edition of his writings, recently issued, does not exhibit accurately the progress of his growth. The poems are not arranged in the order of their composition, but upon a system adapted to the author’s taste. In their perusal this is not the only feature to remind us of Wordsworth, whose arbitrary classification of his works is familiar to all. Both the early and the later writings of Buchanan show that much of his tutelage came from a youthful study of the bard of Rydal Mount, and he thus took a bent in a direction quite separate from that of the modern art-school. What he gained in freedom he lost in reserve, acquiring Wordsworth’s gravest fault,—the habit of versifying every thought that comes to  mind. A useful mission of the art-school has been to correct this tendency. Like Wordsworth, also, Buchanan is a natural sonneteer and idyllist, and he resembles the whole Lake school in the Orphic utterance of his opinions upon half the questions that fill the air. Hence some notable mistakes and beliefs, subject to revision; hence, also, ill-conceived and spasmodic work, like the “Napoleon Fallen” and “The Drama of Kings,” of which I believe that only a select portion has been retained in a new edition of this author’s works.
     Thus Robert Buchanan is one of the least restrained and most unequal of the younger poets; yet he is to be placed by himself on the ground of his decided 348 purpose and originality. What he lacks is the faculty of restraint. Stimulated, it may be, by his quick success, he has printed a great quantity of verse since the day, fourteen years ago, when David Gray and himself first started for London. That portion which is most carefully finished is, also, the freshest and most original; showing either that in his case the labor limæ is not thrown away, or else that, if the ruggedness of certain pieces is its result, he should have left them as they came from his brain. Of course his early efforts were experiments in verse rather than new and sweet pipings of his own. Undertones consisted chiefly of classical studies,—a kind of work, I should say, apart from his natural turn, and in which he was not very successful. We do not find the true classical spirit in “Pan,” nor in “The Last Song of Apollo,” good as both these pieces are in a certain way. “Polypheme’s Passion,” imitated from Euripides and Theocritus, is nearer the mark. The strength, precision, and beauty of the antique are what evade him. After Keats, Landor, Tennyson, and Arnold, his classicism is no real addition to work of this kind in English poetry.
     Five years later his Scottish idyls and legends showed the touch and feeling of the real poet. They introduced us to scenes and language before almost unstudied, and were affecting, truthful, and picturesque. His songs of Lowland superstition are light with fancy, and sometimes musical as the chiming of glass bells. The Inverburn tales, in rhymed-heroic and blank verse, were rightly named idyls. They are exquisite pictures of humble life, more full of dialogue and incident than Wordsworth’s, broader in treatment than Tennyson’s; in short, composed in 349 their author’s own style, and transcripts of the manners and landscape which he best knew. Few poems have more fairly deserved their welcome than “Willie Baird,” “Poet Andrew,” “John” (“The English Huswife’s Gossip”), and “The Widow Mysie.” Buchanan justly may be pronounced the most faithful poet of Nature among the new men. He is her familiar, and in this respect it would seem as if the mantle of Wordsworth had fallen to him from some fine sunset or misty height. He knows the country with that knowledge which is gained only in youth. Like an American poet, and like no British poet save himself, he knows the hills and valleys, the woods and rippling trout-streams. An artist is apt to underrate his special gift. Buchanan is said to place more value upon his town-poems; yet they do not affect us as these rural studies do, and the persons he best describes are those found in bucolic life. His four “Pastoral Pictures” rank with the pastorals of Bryant and Wordsworth in being so imaginative as to have the charm of more dramatic poems. “A Summer Pool” and “Up the River” are full of excellence. The following lines, taken almost at random, show what poetic beauty can be reached in purely descriptive verse: —

“The air is hotter here. The bee booms by
With honey-laden thigh,
Doubling the heat with sounds akin to heat;
     And like a floating flower the butterfly
Swims upward, downward, till its feet
Cling to the hedge-rows white and sweet.

         •          •          •          •          •
The sunlight fades on mossy rocks,
And on the mountain-sides the flocks
     Are spilt like streams;—the highway dips
Down, narrowing to the path where lambs
Lay to the udders of their dams                                                    350
     Their soft and pulpy lips.
The hills grow closer; to the right
The path sweeps round a shadowy bay,
Upon whose slated fringes white
And crested wavelets play.
All else is still. But list, O list!
Hidden by bowlders and by mist,
A shepherd whistles in his fist;
From height to height the far sheep bleat
In answering iteration sweet.
Sound, seeking Silence, bends above her,
Within some haunted mountain grot;
Kisses her, like a trembling lover,—
So that she stirs in sleep, but wakens not!”

     As a writer of Scottish idyls, Buchanan was strictly within his limitations, and secure from rivalry. There is no dispute concerning a specialist, but a host will rebuke the claims of one who aims at universal success, and would fain, like the hard-handed man of Athens, play all parts at once. The young poet, however, having so well availed himself of these home-scenes, certainly had warrant for attempting other labors than those of a mere genre painter in verse. He took from the city various subjects for his maturer work, treating these and his North-coast pictures in a more realistic fashion, discarding adornment, and letting his art teach its lesson by fidelity to actual life. A series of the lighter city-poems, suggested by early experiences in town, and entitled “London Lyrics” in the edition of 1874, is not in any way remarkable. The lines “To the Luggie” are a more poetical tribute to his comrade, Gray, than is the lyric “To David in Heaven.” For poems of a later date he made studies from the poor of London and it required some courage to set before his comfortable readers 351 the wretchedness of the lowest classes,—to introduce their woful phantoms at the poetic feast. “Nell” and “Liz” have the unquestionable power of truth; they are faithfully, even painfully, realistic. The metre is purposely irregular, that nothing may cramp the language or blur the scene. “Nell”—the plaint of a creature whose husband has just been hanged for murder, and who, over the corpse of her still-born babe, tells the story of her misery and devotion—is stronger than its companion-piece; but each is the striking expression of a woman’s anguish put in rugged and impressive verse. “Meg Blane,” among the North-coast pieces, is Buchanan’s longest example of a similar method applied to a rural theme. I do him no wrong by not quoting from any one of these productions, whose force lies in their general effect, and which are composed in a manner directly opposite to that of the elaborate modern school.
     As a presentment of something new and strong, these are remarkable poems. Nevertheless, and granting that propagandism is a legitimate mission of art, does not that poetry teach the most effectually which is the most attractive to a poet's audience? Have the great evangelists kept their hearers in an exalted state of anguish without frequent intermissions of relief? Hogarth, in his realistic pictures of low life, followed nature, and made their wretchedness endurable by seizing upon every humorous or grotesque point that could be made. “Nell,” “Liz,” and “Meg Blane” harrow us from first to last; there is no remission,—the poet is inexorable; the pain is continuous; we are willing to accept these lessons, but would be spared from others of the same cast.
     Better as a poem, more tempting in its graphic 352 pictures of coast-life and brave sailorly forms, more pathetic as a narrative, and told in verse at once sturdier and more sweet, is that dramatic and beautiful idyl, “The Scairth o’ Bartle,” in which we find a union of naturalism and realism at their best. The lesson is just as impressive as that of “Meg Blane,” and the verse—how tender and strong! I think that other poets, of the rhetorical sort, might have written the one, while Buchanan alone could have so rendered the Scottish-sailor dialect of the other, and have given to its changeful scenery and detail those fine effects which warrant us in placing “The Scairth o’ Bartle” at the high-water mark of the author’s North-coast poems.
     Among other realistic studies, “Edward Crowhurst” and “Jane Lawson” will repay attention. That this poet has humor of the Tam-o’-Shanter kind is shown in the racy sketch of Widow Mysie, and by the English and Scottish Eclogues. He also has done good work after Browning’s lighter manner, of which “De Berny” (a life-like study of a French refugee in London) and “Kitty Kemble” may be taken as examples. The latter, by its flowing satire, reminds us of Swift, but is mellowed with the kindness and charity which redeem from cynicism the wit of a true poet. The ease and grace of these two poems are very noticeable.
     It is in another direction that Buchanan has made his decided revolt against the modes and canons of the period. The Book of Orm invites us to a spiritual region, where fact and materialism cannot hamper his imaginings. To many it will seem that, in taking metaphysics with him, he but exchanges one set of hindrances for another. It is a natural outcome 353 of his Scottish genius that he should find himself discussing the nature of evil, and applying mysticism to the old theological problems. The “Book” itself is hard to describe, being a study of the meaning of good and evil, as observed through a kind of Celtic haze; and even the author, to explain his own purpose, resorts to the language of a friendly critic, who pronounces it “a striking attempt to combine a quasi-Ossianic treatment of nature with a philosophy of rebellion rising into something like a Pantheistic vision of the necessity of evil.” The poet himself adds that to him its whole scope is “to vindicate the ways of God to Man [sic].” He thus brings the great instance of Milton to sustain his propagandism, but while poetry, written with such intent, may be sensuous, and often is passionate, it never can be entirely simple. The world has well agreed that what is fine in “Paradise Lost” is the poetry; what is tiresome, the theology; yet the latter certainly furnished the motive of England’s greatest epic. In adopting a theme which, after all, is didactics under a spiritual glamour, Buchanan has chosen a distinctive ground. The question is, What sort of art is the result? Inevitably a strange mixture of poetry and prose,—the relative proportions varying with the flow of the poet’s imagination. “The Book of Orm” is largely made up of vague aspiration, rhetoric, padded and unsatisfactory verse. It contains, withal, very fine poetry, of which one or two specimens are as good as anything the author has composed. A portion of the work has a trace of the weird quality to be found in nearly all of Blake’s pictures, and in most of his verse. The “Soul and Flesh,” the “Flower of the World,” and the “Drinkers of Hemlock” are thus 354 characterized. Two episodes are prominent among the rest. “The Dream of the World without Death” is a strong and effective poem: a vision of the time when

“There were no kisses on familiar faces,
No weaving of white grave-clothes, no lost pondering
Over the still wax cheeks and folded fingers.

“There was no putting tokens under pillows,
There was no dreadful beauty slowly fading,
Fading like moonlight softly into darkness.

“There were no churchyard paths to walk on, thinking
How near the well-beloved ones are lying.
There were no sweet green graves to sit and muse on,

“Till grief should grow a summer meditation,
The shadow of the passing of an angel,
And sleeping should seem easy, and not cruel.

“Nothing but wondrous parting and a blankness.”

     Of a still higher order is “The Vision of the Man Accurst,” which is marked by fine imagination, though conceits and artificial phrases somewhat lessen its effect. It seems to me the poet’s strongest production thus far, and holds among his mystical pieces the position of “The Scairth o’ Bartle” among the Scottish tales.
     In applying the Orphic method to contemporary politics he makes a failure akin to that of Shelley in “The Revolt of Islam.” Having perceived the weakness of his poems upon the Franco-German war, they now reappear to us under new titles, and largely pruned or otherwise remodelled. Much of the political verse is written in a mouthing manner, inferior to his narrative style. The aspiration of Shelley’s 355 writings doubtless went far to sustain the melody that renders them so exquisite. Whatever Buchanan’s mission may be, it detracts from, rather than enhances, his genius as a poet. In reformatory lyrics and sonnets he does not rise so very far above the level of Massey and other spasmodic rhymesters. An American, living in a country where every mechanic is the peer of Buchanan as a reformer, and where poetry is considerably scarcer than “progress,” is likely to care not so much for a singer’s theories as for the quality of his song.
     Buchanan’s versatility, and desire to obtain a hearing in every province of his art, have impelled him to some curious ventures, among which are two romantic volumes upon American themes, published anonymously, but now acknowledged as his own. St. Abe and White Rose and Red have been commended for fidelity of local color and diction, but readers to the manner born will assure the author that he has succeeded only in being faithful to a British ideal of American frontier life. To compensate us, we have some thin poetry in his Maine romance, while in the Salt Lake extravaganza I can find none at all. His critical prose-writings are marked by eloquence and vigor, but those of a polemical order have, I should opine, entailed upon him more vexation than profit. He is said to figure creditably as a playwright, “The Witch-Finder” and “The Madcap Prince” having met with success upon the London stage.
     As a result of his impulse to handle every theme that occurs to him, and to essay all varieties of style, much of his poetry, even after the winnowing to which it has been subjected, is not free from sterile and prosaic chaff. A lesser fault is the custom of 356 handicapping his pieces with affected preludes, and his volumes with metrical statements of their purpose,—barbarisms taken from a period when people did not clearly see that Art must stand without crutches. Occasionally a theme which he selects, such as the description from Heine’s “Reisebilder” of the vanishing of the old gods, is more of a poem than any verses that can be set to it. Nor do we care for such an excess of self-annunciation as is found in the prelude to “Bexhill.” Faults of style are less common, yet he does not wholly escape the affectations of a school with which he is in open conflict. Still, he can be artistic to a degree not exceeded in the most careful poetry of his time. “The Ballad of Judas Iscariot,” which he has done well to place at the opening of his collection, is equal in finish to anything written since “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and approaches that poem in weird impressiveness and power. Among his sonnets, those of the Coruisken series, sustained by lofty feeling and noble diction, are without doubt the best.
     In conclusion, it would appear that his work of the last five years is not an advance upon his Scottish idyls, and that a natural and charming poet has been retarded by conceiving an undue sense of his inspiration as a seer, a mystic, a prophet of the future. Moreover, like Southey, Buchanan has somewhat too carefully nursed his reputation. The sibyls confided their leaves to the winds, and knew that nothing which the gods thought worth preserving could be effaced by the wanton storm. His merits lie in his originality, earnestness, and admirable understanding of nature, in freedom of style and strength of general effect. His best poetry grows upon the reader. 357 He still is young, scarcely having begun the mature creative period, and, if he will study the graces of restraint, and cling to some department of art in which he is easily foremost, should not fail of a new and still more successful career.

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Sketches of Literary Men: Robert Buchanan by Arthur Temple
From The South Australian Register (February, 1876)


The South Australian Register (2 February, 1876 - p.5)





     There is never any lack of young and ambitious poets in England. The aspirants for the laurel rise in the villages and strike along the road to London. The feeblest poetaster whose lines are garnered in the “poet’s corner” of a country newspaper feels that his day may come, and mistaking aspiration for inspiration scribbles on to the neglect of his business and the annoyance of the lieges. Yet out of all this gloomy monotony of mistaken work comes now and then a gleam of true poetic fire. The dim light of early effort and tentative musings burns and brightens in the most unlooked-for places; and amid the fog and smoke, the hurry and worry, the din and turmoil of a great city the poet is born and his genius nourished. The country has given us most of our master singers, but the towns have not failed to contribute a fair proportion. If Tennyson was born among the fens of Lincolnshire, Pope first saw the light of day in London. And, truly, it is among the lowly class whose avocations are of a sedentary and, one may say, meditative kind that the voicefulness of song is heard in weaker or stronger strains. The manufacturing town of Paisley, a former paradise of the handloom weavers, has produced “poets” by the score, among whom are some indeed whose fame is world-wide. Christopher North, Tannahill, and Motherwell are names of note which shed a halo of reputation over this Threadopolis. Of Glasgow it is needless here to speak. It would require many pages of the British Museum Catalogue to set forth the names and works of those who have hailed from this prosperous city on the banks of the classic Clyde. St. Mungo has been the most benign of patron saints—dealing out commercial greatness and wealth with the one hand and garlands for poets and novelists with the other. But, after all, it is not the place that makes the man, it is the man that makes the place. Though born in a garret in a dingy town the heir of fame will in course of time come into his heritage. The Kirkintilloch weaver’s son could nourish his lofty dreams and enrich his mind in the gloomy High-street of Glasgow as well as on the banks of the Luggie, and the son of the pressman of Argyle-street could warble his first notes along the lanes and terraces of his native Glasgow as well as out in the far woods or in the green fields and by the pleasant streams. And so indeed he did.
     Robert Buchanan was born in Glasgow and educated there. He is the son of the former proprietor of the Sentinel newspaper, and early began to “see himself in print.” His father’s later years in Glasgow were somewhat unfortunate, but it was long after his son’s name had become familiar to readers of magazines that he removed to London, where he was connected with Temple Bar Magazine until his death. His son wrote a touching poem on his father’s demise, and clung with a stronger affection to the mother who could truly inspire his proud love. Indeed, it may here be remarked once for all that Robert Buchanan, although in some respects a shy man, and in all cases averse to meet the advances of intrusive persons, has in him a deep well of affection, and can form attachments as strong as heartstrings and as lasting as life. It was not mere admiration or friendship that he gave poor David Gray; it was love, deep love, the love of a warm generous soul. There are, indeed few chapters in the history of struggling genius more tenderly winning and beautiful than that which describes the intercourse of these poetic youths. Their minds were interlocked, their thoughts were carried on by the same current, and “their all” remained for years in common. Had David Gray lived he might partly have realized, if not altogether, his wildest estimate of his own powers, and certainly he would have justified and fulfilled the promise which his early writings displayed. Still, I am not sure that he would have surpassed or even have reached the high level of his more vigorous friend Robert Buchanan. These two college companions were about the same age, born in 1838. They were alike in their tastes, their ways, and their aspirations, and on these mutual moods and longings turns, perhaps, the story of them both. Their immature verses were confided to each other. They read together and planned works which were to make them famous. Night and day they were inseparable, filling up the hours now and then by writing “extravagant letters” (as Buchanan terms them) to men of eminence. Nor do these letters seem to have all fallen on barren ground. Monckton Milnes’s (Lord Houghton’s) after-interest in David Gray may be traced to this epistolary boldness, and Buchanan ere he left Scotland had been cheered and encouraged by Hepworth Dixon, Westland Marston, and George Henry Lewes. It was doubtless this encouragement that induced them to take the step proposed by Gray. On a sudden they determined to go to London and storm the literary fortress. Both saw that they must do so if they would realize their dreams and earn that bread which was now a consideration. Unfortunately they started—through making imperfect arrangements—from different railway stations, and did not meet in London for a week. Here Buchanan had engaged a humble lodging, whither later he took his friend David, who had spent his first night in Hyde Park. The abode was hardly suited for the entertainment of the Muses, yet it was in that dingy bedroom up three flights of stairs, in what Gray described as “the dear old ghostly bankrupt garret,” that Buchanan commenced that career which has of late been so brilliant, and fostered those thoughts and fancies which were soon to attract the notice of the world. When Gray died in his lowly Scotch home Buchanan deeply felt his loss, and in prose and verse he has tenderly bewailed his Adonais. But as time went on he found another companion—a fond and tender wife, whose praises he has sung in “To Mary on Earth.”
     It was in May, 1860, that Buchanan opened his London campaign. At first he gladly undertook any sort of work of a literary kind, writing stories for the weekly journals and despatching sheaves of verses to the magazines. Meanwhile he laboured hard at the work which was to make or mar him. The strife was for many months a weary one, and for years his life was most disheartening; but even the MSS. “returned with thanks” which at first appalled and now and again deeply pained him became a source of wild derision, and at last failed to affect his now undaunted spirit. Like most young men situated as he was, he mixed freely with the motley crew of writers who find a home and a centre in London. He roamed through Bohemia. He noted the aspects of his humble surroundings, and lived the life which is especially depicted in some of his poems. He truly “learnt in suffering what he taught in song.” His “London Poems” may be traced to the observant period when nothing seemed to escape his keen vigilance, and when necessity drove him against strange characters. There is a pleasurable excitement in Bohemian society which none can imagine who have not entered it. If careless of appearances in dress and at times rather outré in behaviour, the genial members of this frank society are for heartiness and friendliness unmatched in other circles, and if one does not dwell too long among them he will be all the better and more experienced for having mingled his thoughts, drunk his beer, and smoked his pipe with them. Buchanan was not long before he went over the borders of Bohemia into married society, which is rather incompatible with Bohemianism. And now he settled down to earnest work. His days of dreaming became days of steady labour; and the results bear witness to his assiduity. In little more than ten years he has written a whole library of poetry, sketches, essays, and literary notes. He was sensible and prudent enough to know that genius is crushed and obscured by indolence. The most gifted must study to perfect their gifts if they would receive acceptance. Nil sine magno vita labore dedit mortalibus. Besides, Buchanan had already fashioned a theory which he has since formulated and put into practice. His friends were familiar with views which, if strange, seemed sound. The poet is not, in Buchanan’s opinion, a mere hammerman of lines which emit sparks of fancy when struck out on the anvil of some great conception. His existence is not a mere earthy one—it constitutes a new experience. The poet, as Buchanan once said, is he who “sees life newly, assimilates it emotionally, and contrives to utter it musically. His qualities, therefore, are triune. His sight must be individual, his reception of impressions must be emotional, and his utterance must be musical. Deficiency in any one of these qualities is fatal to his claims for office.” And in accordance with this view Buchanan has from the issue of his first work endeavoured to act up to this confession of poetic faith, and in his later works has eminently succeeded.
     The first volume Buchanan published was entitled “Undertones,” and was dedicated in grateful terms to Westland Marston, It was looked for with much anxiety by his friends far and near, and its reception was on the whole flattering to the author. I can never forget the enthusiasm which his early friend, “R.L.G.” (who has often experienced the goodness and kindness of Buchanan’s heart) read a letter from “Robert,” telling how his first venture had succeeded, and how the day-star of hope shone big and bright; and looking back now on my first impressions of this first-born of Buchanan’s muse my heart warms as the verses come flooding through my memory, picturing the young poet on the first flush of success, as the crowd of lesser men open a way for him to pass through on his journey to the Temple of Fame. Ay, these were sunny, hopeful days—and the dawn was not deceptive, for long ere the sunset the day has been fair, bright, and beautiful. It is true that in “Undertones” are to be found crudities, repetitions, mannerisms, and other faults which are almost inseparable from tentative works; but there is, too, the glorified presence of genius, the notable manifestation of great and uncommon power. If the flights are daring they are sustained beyond any expectation one could entertain of a first essay. A new significance is imparted to the old legends, reminding one here and there of Keats, but all the same proclaiming the strength and originality of Buchanan. If his fancy like Keats was not yet sufficiently under control one could see that this was a fault that could be mended, and it has been mended. In a second edition, which received another polish, Buchanan added a charming poem called “The Siren.” This poem tells the story of a life with marvellous power, and reflects the strongest impression which, despite his unequivocal first success, had been left on his mind. I have reason to believe that it refers to the late, often too late praise bestowed on genius. The Siren, who entices the mortal until she brings him weary and white-haired to her enchanted home, sings:—

“Call me Love or call me Fame,
Call me Death or Poesy.”

And at the last when she has gained her end she speaks thus:—

“O melancholy waters, softly flow!
     O stars, shine softly, dropping dewy balm!
O moon walk on in sandals white as snow!
     O winds, be calm, be calm!
For he is tired with wandering to and fro,
Yea, weary with unrest to see and know.”

Here, in fact, we have—in the first book—the first glimpse of Buchanan’s searching spirit, the longing after something unattainable, the request to “tell me more.” His next volume was of an altogether different character. It came like a surprise to the critics, and it became at once the delight of readers of poetry. Within five years after he took up his abode in that mean London lodging he sent forth a work which would have made the reputation of a poet. The freshness, the beauty, the verisimilitude, the insight, the imagery, the human truths dight in words, the “real and homely delineation,” and the wondrous graphic narrative power, all combined to make of “The Idylls and Legends of Inverburn” a brilliant and enduring success. He is indeed

“Wealthy in images the poor man knows,
And household words that make the women weep.”

It would be difficult to single out one idyll to place before its fellows. The first, “Willie Baird,” it is true, had been published by Thackeray in the Cornhill Magazine, where on its appearance it had won golden approval. But the others were in no whit inferior in their realistic pourtrayal of, for the most part, rural life, and for incident and emotional force all claim the highest praise. The simple attachment of the bairn Willie Baird to the old schoolmaster is beautifully moral and wholesome in its nature and result. The child by his winning ways thaws the ice of unconcern and half-scepticism which have frozen up the better part of this lonely, unloved Scotch dominie. The dog, too, whose fondness for Willie, whom he conveyed to and from the school, made Willie ask his teacher “Do doggies gang to Heaven?” plays no unimportant part, even to the following with the schoolmaster poor Willie to the grave, when death has thrown a shadow over his humble home and the old dominie’s heart. The pathos wells out fresh and pure from a heart that must have ached as it penned the lines which have brought tears into mine and others’ eyes whenever they have been read. “Poet Andrew” is a poem devoted to the development of the poetic nature, and in passages is so touching that one must stop to think of all the goodness, love, and truth which are found in out-of-the-way places among the poor and God-fearing. Perhaps the poem impresses me more because I know it is the heart-paining story of David Gray, who, as his loving friend says, has gone “——beyond the silence of the untrodden snow.” But I cannot cite at length, and to do aught else would give a distorted view of this masterpiece of pathos and elevated sentiment. Every page in this volume bespeaks Buchanan’s fondness for the land of his birth, and his perfect knowledge of the life and character of his countrymen. He does not spare the mean and designing, nor any phase of national deformity which meets his “scorn of scorn.” Here, as elsewhere, we perceive that contemptuous tone and scathing denunciation into which he ever breaks out when his sense of justice or propriety has been invaded, and oppression of the humble or “the proud man’s contumely” has vexed his soul; for if Buchanan has one characteristic more marked than another, it is his downrightness, and it is impossible for him to keep it even out of his poetry.



The South Australian Register (9 February, 1876 - pp.5-6)





     In one of his essays Buchanan has said that “the basest things have their spiritual significance, but when the baseness has escaped the significance is apparent.” He ever keeps this in mind, especially in his earlier volumes. In them he clearly intimates that modern life, even in its homeliest forms, and, I may add, its seemingly vulgar aspects, is supremely fitted for poetic treatment. What he calls his “mystic realism” shines brightly here. He penetrates the coarse, rough exterior, and reveals the beauties within—he opens the leaden casket and brings forth a priceless treasure. This is to some extent true of his “Idyls and Legends of Inverburn;” but it is particularly true of his “London Poems.” These lay bare the sins and sorrows of the weary guilty souls whose vices are held to be a reproach to the nation. Buchanan does not screen their fatal lapses from virtue or approve their errors; he does not attempt to dignify their shame or plead the cause of the fallen creatures who engage his attention. No; he finds some good in the sinner, and perceives that the poor and mean as often sin from habit as from choice, are pushed into crime by a resistless torrent of evil which grows with their growth and strengthens as their years increase. To him sin in rags is no better—if anything it is worse —than sin in silks. He removes the covering and touches the underlying morals of the lowly and the vile, and speaks of their secret, sad, and sombre life. This he has done with characteristic boldness in his “London Poems.” The gallery of portraits here may not be inviting to some, but who that gazes on them will deny their truth!
     This volume was published in 1866, and dedicated to his worthy friend Hepworth Dixon, at that time editor of the Athenæum. Buchanan was now living at Bexhill, near Hastings, and enjoying life after the pleasant fashion of a scholar poet. He had been invited by George Henry Lewes, the first editor, to write for the Fortnightly Review almost from the beginning, and was busy on such articles as his Danish Ballads and “Thorwaldsen,” for Buchanan has studied the Danish language with care, and improved his knowledge of it when he went as correspondent for the Star during the Danish-German War. His trips to Norway also improved him in his acquaintance with Scandinavian life and literature, and their influence upon his mind is especially to be seen in his prose writings. At intervals, too, he made trips to the Normandy coast, where the fishing and the boating exactly suited him when in a lotus-eating mood, or when he needed change and repose. The series of lively and descriptive papers on Entrechat (in Normandy), which appeared under the name of “John Banks,” were written by Buchanan, while with a literary friend he was enjoying dolce far niente. This has not been the only nom de plume assumed by Buchanan. Under the pseudonym of “Thomas Maitland” he wrote a well-remembered paper on “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” which drew on him much abuse from the Swinburnians. But as a rule he has either published anonymously, or as he generally does now, with his well-known name signed to the poem or the article.
     But to revert to the “London Poems.” They, too, received a fitting reception, although some critics were disposed to attack them on the score of the “mean” subjects with which they dealt. They were, however, wholly mistaken, and failed to perceive the plan on which Buchanan worked. I cannot do better than quote, as I shall presently do, his own words respecting what he calls “mystic realism,” the presence of which is visible from his “Undertones” to his “Drama of Kings.” It may, however, be as well to say here that Buchanan regarded these “London Poems” as the last of his “poems of probation,” and entered thereafter into a more ambitious field, where if his powers are vaster and stronger, they lose I think in other ways. I love to look back on his period of “probation,” and to listen to the homelier and more tender words he uttered before he approached the thrones of fallen monarchs, or the intrigues of selfish and abandoned courts. But one whose ideal is so empyrean, and whose soul is athirst for supremacy among other than lyrists will please himself. Buchanan is a lyrist of the highest order, but this is no reason why he should not also be a dramatist and an epic poet. However, I believe his lyrics will outlast his dramas. I do not, of course, mean to allude to his unsuccessful play of “Hopkins the Witchfinder,” produced at Sadlers’ Wells Theatre, any more than I would think of comparing the readings he gave in London a few years ago with those of Charles Dickens. It is to his written dramas, written in accordance with his matured views of the principles of his art, that I refer. Buchanan closely examines nature from the mystic side, ever avowedly strives to combine reality and what is called mystery. Nearest to him he sees the sublime and inexhaustible, and is aye in a state of wonderment. To quote his own words, written five years ago—“He who can see no poetry in his own time is a very unimaginative person. The truly imaginative being is he who carries his own artistic distance with him, and sees the mighty myths of life vivid yet afar off, glorified by the truth which is Eternal.” Without this there can be no “consecrating gleam of the imagination.” Again he says, “But let it be at once admitted that the poet fails altogether if he fails to lure readers and interest them as they desire. He is no mere moral teacher, but a singer of the beautiful, and his real business in this world is not to join a chorus raised by any group of people, but to explain some point of beauty which has existed altogether hidden until his advent.” Further, Buchanan has more than once in conversation, and once at least in print, declared that he is a realistic mystic who, “seeking to penetrate deepest of all into the soul’s best and finest mood, seizes that moment when the spiritual or emotional nature is most quickened by sorrow or by self-sacrifice, by victory or by defeat.” And surely enough we witness this operation even in his “poems of probation.” It is this enquiring mood which strengthens the effects produced by the “London Poems,” where the poetic forms are found hidden by stained and coarse exteriors.
     His sarcastic poem on “Edward Crowhurst,” the rustic poet, does not properly belong to London, but it is made a vehicle for Buchanan’s scorn of intrusive patronage and the sad fate which too often awaits even patient merit. “The Starling,” too, with his mild oaths might have sworn elsewhere, and the “Little Milliner” is a type of many to be found in country towns. But “Liz,” the costermonger’s wench; “Nell,” the murderer’s mistress; “Barbara Gray,” with her sin and suffering; and “Jane Lewson,” with her temptations and repentances, are all characters, alas, of every-day life in London. How true to nature in its viler aspect are the words which Barbara Gray utters over the dead body of her deformed seducer:—

“I would not blush if the bad world saw now
How by his bed I stoop and kiss his brow!
Ay, kiss it, kiss it, o’er and o’er again,
With all the love that fills my heart and brain.”

Or the timidity of Liz, born in a city slum, and feeling thus as she ventures into the country:—

“The air so clear, and warm, and sweet,
It seemed a sin to breathe it.”

But I cannot multiply quotations, so as specimens will merely give two from this book, so full of noble thoughts and true insight into character. Thus of “Liz”:—

“The crimson light of sunset falls
     Through the grey glamour of the murmuring rain,
And creeping o’er the housetops crawls
     Thro’ the black smoke upon the broken pane;
Steals to the straw on which she lies,
     And tints her thin black hair and hollow cheeks,
Her sun-tanned neck, her glistening eyes;
     While faintly, sadly, fitfully she speaks.
But when it is no longer light,
     The pale girl smiles, with only One to mark,
And dies upon the breast of night,
     Like trodden snowdrift melting in the dark.”

Dickens could hardly have hit off with more trenchant force a similar sketch within the compass of the following from “Jane Lewson”:—

“A little yellow woman, dress’d in black,
With weary crows’ feet crawling round the eyes,
And solemn voice, that seem’d a call to prayer;
Another yellow woman, dress’d in black,
Sad, too, and solemn, yet with bitterness
Burn’d in upon the edges of her lips,
And sharper, thinner, less monotonous voice;
And last, a little woman auburn-haired,
Pensive a little, but not solemnized,
And pretty, with the open azure eyes,
The white soft cheek, the little mindless mouth,
The drooping childish languor. There they dwelt,
In a great dwelling of a smoky square
In Islington, named by their pious friends
And the lean Calvinistic minister—
The Misses Lewson, and their sister Jane.”

     Buchanan’s scenic descriptions are very fine, but too long for quotation. Nor must I forget to mention his rare fund of humour. In company, especially among his intimates, it breaks forth in cheery exuberance, and now and then it slyly peeps out in his verses. One among others of Glasgow bits of humour that have not been published is quite Horatian in form, and has to do also with a Lydia—

“O Liddy Macpherson ye’ll tell
     What the de’il ye ha’e done to oor Johnny.”

     His “Wedding of Shone Maclean” is simply inimitable. It appeared among a series of poems contributed early in 1875 to the Gentleman’s Magazine. There is a lilt in the oft-repeated though ever-varying burden which cannot be read without setting the tongue a-dancing.

“At the wedding of Shone Maclean
     Twenty pipers together
Came through the wind and the rain,
     Playing over the heather.
Brushing the morning dew
Bravely they strutted and blew
Each in his tartan new,
     Bonnet and black cock feather:
And every piper was fu,
     Twenty pipers together.”

     The last of the series I may mention was published in June; but in the first number of the same magazine for 1876 will appear a narrative poem of peculiar pathos. It is a long one, and will run through six months’ issue. Independent of his laboured and elaborate works Buchanan is almost as prolific as ever in his contributions to the magazines, and in fact there is scarcely one for which he has not written, to say nothing of his criticisms in the Athenæum, Spectator, and other weekly periodicals.
     Here I must have done for the present with Buchanan’s poetic works. “The Book of Orm—Prelude to the Epic,” is too ambitious a work to be incidentally treated. It moreover contains the personal keynote to all Buchanan’s work; but on this I have sufficiently dilated. It is written in good sonorous blank verse, interspersed with sweet lyrics and exquisite sonnets. “The Drama of Kings,” published a year later (1871) is

“—a sort of tragedy,
A Choric trilogy of tragedies
In the Greek fashion.”

     It is difficult to understand at first, and some will never understand it, although Buchanan quaintly suggests rumination before full appreciation. It is the first attempt to treat great contemporary events in a realistic and dramatic form, and is inscribed as a “Drama of Evolution” to the spirit of Auguste Comte. I am not enamoured of the work, and regret to see that the Positivist section of Buchanan’s friends have so far influenced his mind. But no matter. Some of our noblest and profoundest men are ardent disciples of this school, to which I would not venture to say that Robert Buchanan as yet belongs. And whether or not, his living verses and his impassioned lyrics withdraw us from the regions of controversial versification.
     Not merely in verse do we find his love of the picturesque assert itself in glowing descriptions which give us insight as well scenery. His prose is suffused with poetic images gleamed in the realms of natural beauty, and they attract by their freshness, vividness, and correctness. With a touch Buchanan gives us in his poems bits of description which it would be hard indeed to match elsewhere. He communes with nature in her varied moods, and makes us feel that whether in the din and tumult of a city or in the placid lake or lonely moor the same bright faculty of revealing what is hidden and describing what is seen never forsakes him. His fidelity to actual life is all the more valuable because it is relieved by sunny fancies and poetic similitudes. Anywhere, everywhere, he sees room for the exercise of his affluent powers, and even while he ponders over weighty matters catches an inspiration from the scenes around.

“Amid the deep green woods of pine, whose boughs
Made a sea music overhead, and caught
White flakes of sunlight, on their highest leaves,
I foster’d solemn meditations.”

Here there is no space to quote at length from his prose works, and I content myself with one selection from his book called “The Land of Lorne.” “The tint of the hills is getting deeper and richer, and by October, when the beech leaf yellows, and the oak leaf reddens, the dim purples and deep greens of the heather are perfect. Of all seasons in Lorne the late autumn is the most beautiful. The sea has a deeper hue, the sky a mellower light. There are long days of northerly wind, when every crag looks perfect, wrought in grey and gold, and silvered with moss, and the high clouds turn luminous at the edges, when a thin film of hoar-frost gleams over the grass and heather, when the light burns rosy and faint over all the hills from Marven to Cruachan for hours before the sun goes down. Out of the ditch at the roadside flaps the mallard, as you pass in the gloaming, and standing by the side of the small mountain loch you see the teal rise, wheel thrice, and settle. The hills are desolate, for the sheep are being smeared. There is a feeling of frost in the air, and Ben Cruachan has a crown of snow.” But whether writing of Norway, or Skye, or the Normandy coast, whether recounting his travels in foreign lands or depicting the scenes of his native country—his fishing excursions or his yacht cruisings—the flash of genius illumines the sketches with colours mixed by a true artist spirit, and gives us pictures that attract by their novelty and charm by their loveliness. The state of Buchanan’s health, no less than his profound inclinations, led him for years to roam where new features of sky and sea, and hill and valley, would endear him more to the physical expressions of God’s glory and draw him nearer to the realization of that dream which ever haunts him. One of his latest poems is the “Song of a Dream,” wherein he says:—

“We were made in a dream, and we fade in a dream,
And if death be a dream we die.”

     But he is not one of

“The squeamish dreamers of our time,
Our rainbow bards,”

as I think what I have already said will show. His dreaming is no ordinary business to be read contrariwise or fished out in due form from the packman’s “book of fate.” If troubled with thoughts that make even his Muse restless at times he is not without a faith that aids him to bear the burden of his anxious search after the eternal solution of the problem that he finds in life. In one of his idyls—”Hugh Sutherland’s Pansies”—he compares men to the pansies whom “God the Gardener” tends—

“He smiles to give us sunshine, and we live;
He stoops to pluck us softly, and our hearts
Tremble to see the darkness, knowing not
It is the shadow He, in stooping, casts.”

But the dream ever possesses him—comes to him in Protean forms and will not let him rest. Now and then a calmer mood settles on him, and the good spirits of content and gratitude woo him to the utterance of words that steal into our hearts and make us better than we were. I cannot forbear quoting a sonnet from “The Book of Orm” to illustrate my meaning—

“O sing, clear brook, sing on, while in a dream
     I feel the sweetness of the years go by!
The crags and peaks are softened now, and seem
     Gently to sleep against the gentle sky;
     Old scenes and faces glimmer up and die,
With outlines of sweet thought obscured too long
     Like boys that shout at play, far voices cry.
O sing! for I am weeping at the song.
I know not what I am, but only know
     I have had glimpses tongue may never speak.
No more I balance human joy and woe,
     But think of my transgressions and am meek.
Father forgive the child who fretted so—
     His proud heart yields, the tears are on his cheek.

     In the “Peepshow; or, The Old Theology and the New,” published in the June number of the Gentleman’s Magazine, another phase of Buchanan’s treatment of serious and religious questions may be seen. This poem evinces his masterly grip of a delicate subject, yet there is not a line to which exception can be taken save by the very “Old Lights.” However, from this side of Robert Buchanan’s character I shall now turn away. Like the rest of him it can bear looking at and looking into, and, indeed, suggests the sincerity of the man and his work.

Back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan



‘Our Modern Poets: Robert Buchanan’ by Thomas Bayne
From The St. James’s Magazine (March, 1876.)



III.—Robert Buchanan.

The general definition of poetry is fairly well understood. When certain of our old poets called themselves “Makers,” they differentiated themselves clearly and decisively from other workers in literature. Sir Philip Sidney’s equivalent was “Fainers”—a term that to these times would be applicable mainly to certain writers of verse, who would themselves be the last to see any point in the title. For every real Maker—every “peerless poet” as the “Apologie” has it—there is almost needed a new theory or set of definitions. One finds all the strength and beauty of his art in exact representation, and satisfies himself and his admirers with a faithful copy of Nature. Another balances phrases and makes points by dexterous antithesis, content to remain an acknowledged wit or skilful verbal juggler. There are many that respect the mere outward form and dress but little, if only they can give expression to the thoughts that burn within them; while there are others to whom the flow of the verse is everything, and who will give you melody whatever be the value of their words. There are those who somewhat vengefully sing on though obliged to confess that the British public like them not, and others that ostensibly disarm criticism by coming listlessly forward as the “idle singers of an empty day.” Natural songsters—as the birds are, as Chaucer was, and a few more from his time to Robert Burns and onwards—are never too abundant. In English literature, they might at any time be easily counted on the fingers. Of verse-writers among us there seems to be literally no end, and observers of a statistical turn of mind have from time to time adopted the expedient of naming them in groups, so as to lessen the labour of recognition. Of course critics are fallible, and it is just possible that a mistake may be made now and again, to the horror of the poet, who suddenly finds himself in the wrong pigeon-hole or exalted to the topmost shelf. But the tabulation will be found, on the average, accurate and satisfactory. Dr. Johnson may have been wrong when he invented the somewhat paradoxical title “metaphysical poets,” but it is enough for most readers to learn that an acknowledged critic felt himself justified in applying it.
     After all, it comes very much to this, that he is the true poet who manages most successfully to interpret the people’s thoughts and passions, their feelings and desires. There is wealth of truth in Horace’s comprehensive summary, Proprie communia dicere. It involves not only individual application of common tools, but original moulding of identical material. We go to poetry to be pleased, and not to be puzzled. Youthful students of the binomial theorem are hardly likely to care for similar exercise in other departments of intellectual effort. They go to poetry to be strengthened, refreshed, cheered, elevated, consoled; and if they find they are to be annoyed, confused, thwarted, grieved, and generally addled, then it is more than likely they will have none of it. A parable or an allegory is tolerable so long as the ultimate reference is not too remote; when the meaning needs searching for, the chances are three to one that there will be a scarcity of anxious inquirers. There are probably few Englishmen that could stand an examination on Spenser’s involved allegorical puzzle, and thousands of Shakspere’s most intelligent admirers cannot follow the endless theories put forward about his sonnets. Mr. Disraeli sums up the whole matter in “Tancred,” when he says (though hardly perhaps in this connexion) that English readers, in their most serious moods, leave all other poets in order to listen to the sweet singer of Israel.
     We take it, then, that poetry is not moonshine, or at any rate that the best kind of it is to be defined as anything but nebulous. Yet here we have Mr. Robert Buchanan coming forward in a manner that casts the metaphysical poets into still deeper shade. Unprejudiced readers had been under the impression that Aristotle included all that was recondite, impracticable, and absurd in that branch of study which he described as being “after” or “outside of” physics, and which has found extraordinary expression in modern times in such deliverances as Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” and “The Secret of Hegel.” The philosophers were supposed capable of going any length: nothing could possibly be too much for them. Their Realism and their Nominalism, their Intuition and their Sensation, their Evolution, their Darwinism, and their Positivism had all come to be looked on as mere party cries, with which ordinary mortals had nothing whatever to do. It was felt that the race had never profited by the bray of philosophic strife, and that the wisest policy would be one of non- interference. Now and then the poets had ventured into this troubled region with more or less success—generally with less. Mr. Buchanan might have profited by the fate of Cowley, of Phineas Fletcher’s “Purple Island,” and of Akenside’s “Pleasures of Imagination.” We had almost added Cowper and Wordsworth; but there is more of the philosophy of human life in their writings than of the philosophy of the schools, and therefore their popularity is likely to be enduring.
     But Mr. Robert Buchanan is neither scholastic nor anything else easily definable: he describes himself in an appendix to his poems as “perfectly incurable.” It is always an important step towards an affirmative definition when we reach a distinct negative. Thus when the poet even suspects that there is something wrong in his attitude, when he expresses a strong conviction that the popular verdict will be against him, and adds that he cannot help it, the natural inference is that this poet is not as the majority of poets are.
     M. Taine describes Mr. Carlyle’s method as likely to puzzle readers regarding their centre of gravity. They will have a difficulty, he thinks, after a lengthened perusal of the prophet, in being able to state with any confidence whether they are on their head or their heels. If so, how striking would be the predicament of the same students, after grappling with such attractive problems as “the all and the one,” for example, of German philosophy! How they would envy the bliss of that singer who asserted in his innocence that

“Man was made to walk upright and gaze upon the stars.”

If stars are present to their vision, they are very different from the lesser lights that gem the firmament! They are the stars that accompany the bewilderment of a rude and sudden shock; they illustrate the law of cause and effect in every instance of knocking the head against a wall. Milton is not a poet whose eyes are “in flood with laughter,” but he must surely have enjoyed his own description of Satan’s unwitting gambols through Chaos. It is an irresistible and highly emblematic passage. Mr. Robert Buchanan asserts that “Mystic Realism” is the secret of existence and the object of true poetics. So far as we can make out, it is rather the dancing of a feather in a vacuum—

“Infert se septus nebula, mirabile dictu,
Per medios, miscetque viris; neque cernitur ulli.”

     Mr. Buchanan apparently has some fears about it himself, and tries to get out of the difficulty by such ingenuous talk as this: “The writer dropped into a world a few years ago like a being fallen from another planet. His first impression was one of surprise and awe; he stood and wondered—and here, on the same spot, he stands and wonders still.” On the first blush the attitude looks rather sublime, but a little familiarity with it is sure to suggest the old saying that extremes meet. At the best it is but a Buddhist and his Nirwhâna; in its most intelligible aspect it is a devotee steadily watching the point of his nose. To ordinary intelligence “Mystic Realism” looks a paradox; it is probably conditioned by descent from another planet.
     But it will be better to give a few specimens of Mr. Buchanan’s interpretation of man and his relations than to attempt further definition of it. The author, on his own confession, sprang into full fruition of his powers at the outset—even as the progenitor of the human race did in Eden—and in all the perfection of his mystic panoply, as if from the head of Jove. It may be added, that it would not be profitable, however pertinent, to ask whence the author got the groundwork of his remarkable simile—where did he see the being he resembles—for the Mystic Realist has nothing to do with paltry explanations. He is intuitional, majestic, and oracular. See him, for example, in this “Coruiskeen Sonnet,” entitled, “We are Deathless.”

“Yet hear me, Mountains! echo me, O Sea!
     Murmur an answer, Winds, from out your caves;
     Cry loudly, Torrents, Mountains, Winds, and Waves—
Hark to me crying all, and echo me:—
All things that live are deathless—I and ye.
     The Father could not slay us if He would;
     The Elements in all their multitude
Will rise against their Master terribly,
If but one hair upon a human head
     Should perish! . . . Darkness grows on crag and steep;
A hollow thunder fills the torrent’s bed;
     The wild mists moan and threaten as they creep;
And hush! now, when all other cries are fled,
     The warning murmur of the white-hair’d Deep.”

The confident tone of this is the first thing that strikes the reader—our poet is not troubled in the very slightest with doubts. He sends his plummet down the great broad universe, and finds no unfathomable depths. Presumably it was in Scotland that Mr. Buchanan alighted when he came to this terrestrial ball, and had he been anything else than a Mystic Realist it might have been interesting to discuss with him the theology he found prevalent there. As it is, however, we can only, like himself, stand and wonder. Nor shall our surprise be lessened as we leave the doctrines and consider the language of these successive appeals. Surely it is to the Realistic Mystic alone that the “wild mists moan,” and that mountains seem to assert their own immortality by echoing the frantic cry of a poet!
     The “Coruiskeen Sonnets” are introductory to the “Book of Orm,” which, it turns out, Mr. Buchanan is willing to risk his reputation on. In a note to the appendix on Mystic Realism, he writes: “The author trusts that future readers will not be misled by the Celtic framework of this poem, which is as modern as any of the rest, and might be entitled, representing as it does the spiritual and non-dramatic side of the author’s nature, the ‘Book of Robert Buchanan.’ Intellectually, it is the key to all his writings.” Some knowledge of this poem, then, is necessary to understand both Mystic Realism and our author. Like the Mysteries of old, this poem undertakes to elucidate the course of events from the Creation to the Day of Judgment, or rather to the purification of the last sinner. The first division of the poem is called the “First Song of the Veil,” in which we find the Creator hiding Himself from His creatures behind a veil of blue, and looking out from time to time at the corruption and misery below.

“Now an Evangel,
     Whom God loved deep,
Said, ‘See! the mortals,
     How they weep!
They grope in darkness,
They blunder onward
     From race to race;
Were it not better,
Once and for ever,
     To unveil the Face?’
God smiled.
     He said—‘Not yet!
Much is to remember,
     Much to forget;
Be thou of comfort!
How should the token
     Silence their wail?’

And, with eyes tear-clouded,
He gazed through the luminous,
Star-inwrought, beautiful,
     Folds of the Veil.”

We italicise two lines, to show what Mystic Realism is capable of doing. The picture might be enlarged upon to a painful degree; but we shall only add that, had any but a Mystic drawn it, his conduct would have deserved no description so well as impertinent irreverence. The rest of the “Song of the Veil” describes how Mother Earth, after being at first privileged to look upon the Face, becomes blind, and cannot tell her children of all the ineffable beauty she longs again to behold. They cry, too, that they may be able to look upon it, but they fail to understand the signs all about them. The wise among them scale the heights in quest of knowledge, and, after wasting their energies in vain, they

“Crept faintly down again,
     Looking very old.”

     The next division of the poem is entitled “The Man and the Shadow.” Here the poet grapples with the two mysteries, the forecasts of immortality and the inexplicable reality of death. In this part there is some fine poetry, which it is possible to separate from the general rhapsody. Before quoting any of it, let us take a passage where a very old man that Orm the Celt meets and walks up a mountain with describes how he became impressed with the terrors of his own existence.

“Dost thou remember more than I? My Soul
Remembereth no beginning
                                               One still day,
I saw the Hills around me, and beheld
The Hills had shadows,—for beyond their rim
The fiery Sun was setting;—then I saw
My Ghost upon the ground, and as I ran
Eastward, the melancholy semblance ran
Before my footsteps; and I felt afraid.”

The above italics are the author’s; the statement is not so startling as to warrant such special prominence. It is a relief to get away from morbid musing to something that suggests the possibility of cheerfulness in the world, though we shall hardly expect to escape from the Shadow altogether. The following, with some slight qualification, points to a vein of thought worth nearly all the rest of the poem. Orm and his aged companion are looking over a scene of rare magnificence.

“Here, where the grass gleams emerald, and the spring
Upbubbling faintly seemeth as a sound,
A drowsy hum, heard in the mind itself—
Here, in this stillness, let us pause and mark
The many-colour’d Picture. Far beneath
Sleepeth the glassy Ocean like a sheet
Of liquid mother-o’-pearl, and on its rim
A Ship sleeps, and the shadow of the ship;
Astern the reef juts darkly, edged with foam,
Thro’ the smooth brine: oh, hark, how loudly sings
A wild, weird ditty to a watery tune,
The fisher among his nets upon the shore;
And yonder, far away, his shouting bairns
Are running, dwarf’d by distance small as mice,
Along the yellow sands. Behind us, see
The immeasurable Mountains, rising silent
Against the fields of dreamy blue, wherein
The rayless crescent of the mid-day Moon
Lies like a reaper’s sickle; and before us
The immeasurable Mountains, rising silent
From bourne to bourne, from knolls of thyme and heather,
To leafless slopes of granite, from the slopes
Of granite to the dim and dusky heights
Where, with a silver glimmer, silently
Pausing, the white cloud sheds miraculous Snow
On the heights untravell’d, whither we are bound.”

After the old man dies there is some sturdy reflection put into the mouth of Orm, but he and the author elude ordinary intelligence together upon

“The Bow of Mystery that spans the globe!”

     The thought is next developed by “Songs of Corruption,” designed to show how the Soul is hindered by the Flesh; and thereafter comes “The Soul and the Dwelling,” which is an attempt to prove that no one human being can know another thoroughly. Those who are not mystics have a belief that “one touch of Nature makes the whole world kin,” a thought which goes considerably deeper than raving of this kind:—

                                     “Lovest thou me,
Belovëd, my belovëd? Soul belovëd,
Do I possess thee? Sight and scent and touch
Are insufficient. Open! let me in
To the strange chambers I have never seen!
Heart of the rose, unopen! or I die!”

     The next division of the work is entitled “Songs of Seeking,”—somewhat in the style of that remarkable American prophet, Walt Whitman; and then comes a striking and nearly intelligible fancy entitled “The Lifting of the Veil.” It is descriptive of the supposed effects of the sudden presentation of the Face.

“Thou who the Face Divine wouldst see,
Think,—couldst thou bear the sight and be?”

Some of the pictures are tangible, and painfully vivid. The next series is headed “The Devil’s Mystics,” intended to illustrate the thesis that all Evil is Defect, “but haply in the line of growth.” In this part of the work the poet’s lyric power—which is probably his highest claim as a poet—is well displayed in “The Seeds,” “The Philosophers,” and “Roses.” “The Philosophers” in particular goes with great vigour and a rare melodious swing. There are four stanzas, of which we give the first and the last:—

“We are the Drinkers of Hemlock!
     Lo! we sit apart,
Each right hand is uplifted,
     Each left hand holds a heart;
At our feet rolls by the tumult,
     O’er our heads the still stars gleam—
We are the Drinkers of Hemlock!
     We drink and dream!

     *         *          *         *

We are the Drinkers of Hemlock!
     Spirits pure as snow;
White star-frost is on our foreheads—
     We are weary, we would go.
Hark! the world fades with its voices,
     Fades the tumult and the cry—
We are the Drinkers of Hemlock!
     We drink and die!

The conclusion of the poem—the climax of Mr. Buchanan’s mystical efforts on his own showing—is “The Vision of the Man Accurst.” It describes the last miserable human creature left out cursing in the wide world alone. It deals with a subject as to which the Mystic Realist is more confident than convincing, and on which it were unprofitable to argue with him. His belief is that the Man, after a time of fierce probation, during which reports were statedly taken in to Heaven as to his mood,—and we learn that once “the Lord mused,”—was finally admitted to happiness.

“And in a voice of most exceeding peace
The Lord said (while against the Breast Divine
The Waters of Life leapt, gleaming, gladdening):
‘The Man is saved; let the Man enter in.’”

On the momentous and awful question started here, we offer not a word of comment. The work as a whole is unequal, and certainly overlooks the fact that human life may be bright as well as gloomy, and that there may be as much interest and lasting benefit in a happy contemplation of the sunshine as in a morbid abiding in the shadow.
     We have already indicated our opinion that Mr. Buchanan is best when in a lyric vein, but even here his favourite scheme interferes with the genial current of his song. Why should a lark, for instance, as in his “London Lyrics,” be made to sing of thieves, and tears, and agony, and the “human mystery”? So with “Clari in the Well,” “In London, March  1866,” and others—the lyric power is undoubted, the form replete with much beauty and perfection; but the poet seems determined to propound conundrums. “To David in Heaven” is a very fine poem, chiefly because the poet’s human feeling keeps in check his mystic endeavour. Listen, for instance, to this:—

                   “Upward my face I turn to you,
                   I long for you, I yearn to you,
The spectral vision trances me to utt’rance wild and weak;
                   It is not that I mourn you,—
                   To mourn you were to scorn you,
For you are one step nearer to the secret Singers seek.
                   But I want, and cannot see you;
                   I seek, and cannot find you;
And, see! I touch the Book of Songs you tenderly left behind you!”

     It is not necessary to go over in detail the ballads Mr. Buchanan has written, many of them touching narratives of London life, some of them trifling, and all more or less attuned to the mystic refrain. The “Undertones” are valuable as showing appreciation of Greek culture, lyrical sweetness, and a capable descriptive power. The songs selected from “The Drama of Kings” give evidence of a wisdom that might find additional exercise in still further wielding of the pruning-knife. If the poet would leave Mystic Realism for a time, and confine himself to humorous, descriptive, and lyric poetry, dealing with men and women as he finds them,—or as he might find them, if he moved more and wondered less,— instead of trying to scale the heavens on a ladder of moonshine, the results would be in every way more satisfactory. That Mr. Buchanan can be humorous, pathetic, and natural, when he so wills, his “Idyls and Legends of Inverburn” amply prove. The dry humour, native to the soil, of “Widow Mysie;” the quaint pathos of “Hugh Sutherland’s Pansies,” subdued by high poetic taste; the truth to nature of “Willie Baird,” and “Poet Andrew,” are beyond caviL A few more such cabinet pictures would place their author much higher in the poetic scale than volumes of Mystic Realism. Wordsworth’s Recluse thinks it preferable, after all his wrestlings with deep problems, to keep to the knowable, and he suddenly turns to apostrophise “inglorious implements of craft and toil.” You, he exclaims,

                               “You would I extol,
Not for gross good alone which ye produce,
But for the impertinent and ceaseless strife
Of proofs and reasons ye preclude—in those
Who to your dull society are born,
And with their humble birthright rest content.”

     Very fair specimens of the several styles Mr. Buchanan’s versatile genius adopts are to be found among the poems contributed by him during the last year or so to the Gentleman’s Magazine. If we must have mysticism, it can scarcely be more musically evolved than in the “Song of a Dream,” with its haunting refrain; while for quiet humour, and vivid painting of a homely scene, “The Wedding of Shon Maclean,” with its lilting rhythm, has not often been equalled in modern poetry.

                                                                                                                                       THOMAS BAYNE.



From The Poets and Poetry of Scotland Vol. II by James Grant Wilson
(Blackie and Son, London, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1876 - p. 491)



     ROBERT BUCHANAN, the son of a well-known Socialist missionary, long resident in Glasgow, was born at Caverswall, Staffordshire, Aug. 18, 1841, and was educated at the High-school and University of Glasgow. At an early age he began the career of a man of letters, and in 1860 issued his first volume of poems with the title of Undertones. While it occasionally reflected the manner of Browning and Tennyson, the volume clearly showed that it was the offspring of a genuine poet. His second work, Idyls and Legends of Inverburn, while inferior to Tennyson’s idyls as ornate compositions, are for unstudied pathos and humour greatly superior to the laureate’s. In this volume Mr. Buchanan’s foot is on his native heath, which he bestrides with as much pride as affection. London Poems, his third publication, containing the most representative and original of his creations, was followed by a beautifully illustrated volume entitled Ballad Stories of the Affections, translated from the Scandinavian. His other publications are North Coast and other Poems, The Book of Orm, The Drama of Kings, and The Land of Lorne. The latter volume contains a very full and sympathetic account of the Burns of the Highlands—Duncan Ban Macintyre, to whose memory a monument was recently erected at Glenorchy. Mr. Buchanan is also the author of “A Madcap Prince,” a play produced at the Haymarket Theatre, London, 1874, but written in youth; “Napoleon Fallen,” a lyrical drama; and the tragedy of “The Witchfinder,” brought out at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London. He has edited several works, including a memoir of John James Audubon, the American naturalist, written by his widow; an edition of Henry W. Longfellow’s poems; and is a frequent and favourite contributor to many of the leading magazines. Mr. Buchanan also published anonymously two widely-circulated poems, “St. Abe,” and “White Rose and Red,” both of which he has recently acknowledged, and each of which has gone through many editions. An edition of his acknowledged poetical and prose writings is being published in London in five handsome volumes. In 1870 he received from Mr. Gladstone a pension of £100 per annum, in consideration of his literary merit as a poet.
     The American critic Stedman, himself a poet, thus concludes an appreciative notice of Buchanan and his writings: “His merits lie in his originality, earnestness, and admirable understanding of nature, in freedom of style and strength of general effect. His best poetry grows upon the reader. He is still young, scarcely having begun the mature creative period, and if he will study the graces of restraint, and cling to some department of art in which he is easily foremost, he should not fail of a new and still more successful career.” A still higher authority, Mr. R. H. Hutton of the Spectator, writes, reviewing Mr. Buchanan’s collected works:—“To our mind, after long knowledge of his poems, they seem to us nearly perfect of their kind, realistic and idealistic alike in the highest sense. Nor has the voice of dumb wistful yearning in Man towards something higher—of yearning such as the brute creation seemed to show in the Greek period towards the human—found as yet any interpreter equal to Buchanan.”

[Note: The poems by Buchanan selected for the volume were: ‘Willie Baird’, ‘The Dead Mother’, ‘The Ballad of Judas Iscariot’, ‘The Battle of Drumliemoor’ and ‘The Starling’.]

Back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan



‘English Poets: Robert Williams Buchanan’ by W. Gibson
From The Poets’ Magazine (September and October, 1877.)


The Poets’ Magazine (September, 1877 - pp. 137-145)



     Macaulay, as everybody knows, held the theory that it was almost impossible that poetry could exist alongside science, mechanical appliances, and all the other prosaic adjuncts of modern life. Fortunately the dicta of great men do not always settle questionable points, and though the great historian may have been right in some senses, his sweeping declaration that science and progress, art and commerce, were natural enemies to the “mystic nine,” must be received cum grano salis. Notwithstanding all these disadvantages—if they really may be considered so—the Victoria era, one, by the way, more distinguished than any of its predecessors for prosiness and 138 utilitarianism, poetry has flourished to a far greater extent than at any time since the close of the Elizabethan epoch. It is true that severe and captious critics may say its quality has degenerated—that is a question open to argument—and that modern poets have neither the force nor the spontaneity of the old singers—which, as a general statement, may be admitted—but there remains the broad fact, that not only have the old masters of song been more extensively read in these days than in any that preceded them, and that surely says something, and yet the contemporary poets have, by all accounts, projected and exploited regions never before thought to be within the pale of poetic treatment.
     The real truth, as it seems to me, is that the ideas as to the poetical field have undergone a radical change within a very few years. We all know that, prior to Wordsworth, no poet ever conjectured that out of common life, and every-day experience, poetry was to be extracted. Many still alive can remember the virulence with which some of his lyrics and idylls were assailed—and most of these were cast in the mould that was then altogether novel. But since then Tennyson has written. Keats has produced several poems that are now received as masterpieces in their way. Browning has traversed lands hitherto untouched; and the whole of the late American poets have opened veins that were generally conceived to contain nothing but the utterest prose. That Macaulay, after stirring the heart of the nation by “lays” that belonged to an extinct race, and an almost fossilized condition of events, should have fallen into the easily exploded error is difficult to understand; but it is quite certain that he was judging ex cathedra when he made the statement, and that if his real opinion had been sounded, he would have recognised the possibility of poetry in all ages.
     After all, the Victorian era has been richer in this special department of literature than any since the reign of Queen Anne; and this is universally recognised as an interregnum. Why, then, should it be said that the comprehension of poetry grows dull, or that the power of producing it is extinct?
     139 Charles Dickens may be a writer of prose, but in this form he had contributed poems to the English language. Tom Hood was a jokester, and yet his finest efforts were exercised on behalf of classes which were not only considered “outside the pale of practical poetry”—to travesty a recent political phrase—but beneath the notice of practical men. Did not Mrs. Motherwell do as much for the ordinary life of the Scotch lowlander, “the Corn Law poet” the same for working men’s grievances, the Jacobins of Ireland for their ancient prejudices, and the writers of vers de société for the inanities of the drawing room? The truth is that the venue has changed. It was thought aforetime that the tragic, the sublime, the wonderful, and the heroic offered the only outlets for poetic genius. Wordsworth discovered that—

“The meanest flower that blows
Has thoughts for me that lie too deep for tears.”

and some of his successors have found poetry in tracks which even he would have scorned to tread.
     Among these may be instanced the poet whose name stands at the head of this article. He has found “the element divine” even in the criminal class of society, and has discovered the poetic feeling at the foot of the scaffold, in a nature from its infancy inured to the worst forms of human vice. On this account he has been called “Sonnetteer of the gutter,” and a great many other opprobrious names, just as every man has been who has ever left the beaten track of contemporaneous respectability, or who has dug a mine in strata which the critics declared contained no ore. However, he has lived long enough, and written books enough to confound even these captious gentlemen, and gained for himself a reputation among lovers of song which will outlast him at least as long as the memory of Hamlet’s father, if indeed he be not one of those immortals who defy all time and all changes. William Wordsworth was so descried at the beginning of this century, but since then he has sprung into the front rank of English singers, and by universal acclaim ought to have been there from the first. It 140 is thus that contemporary judgments are rectified and revised by succeeding generations who possess calmer perception and are free from the prejudice which caused the original obliquity.
     Nor did Buchanan escape the ridicule which generally assails the new-fledged singer. Some twenty years ago or more a pitiful scribe in a very small publication—so far as literary merit is concerned—an organ called The Press said of him: “In the monotonous dulness of his blank verse there is nothing noticeable, except occasionally a most poetical vulgarity. But when he comes to rhyme Mr. Buchanan is infinitely silly, without the excuse of being musical.” That any dullard should have received credit for such a remark just shows the depth of literary degradation into which the professional critic has fallen in these latter days. This was said of the book called “Undertones,” in which there occurred, among other gems, “Pygmalion,”—“Iris the Rainbow,”—and many pieces which have since been all but universally recognized as among the best things that one of the three greatest living poets has ever written. Where could the eyes of such a critic have been—if, indeed, he had eyes at all—when he damned a man of genius in view of such a passage as this, instinct with poetic feeling, felicitous in expression, rich in metaphor, gleaming with “the light that never was on sea or land;” and describing in glowing terms the conception and birth of the Rainbow:

Thence with drooping wings bedew’d,
     Folded close about my form,
I alight with feet unview’d
     On the ledges of the storm;
For a moment, cloud-enroll’d
     ’Mid the murm’rous rain I stand
And with meteor eyes behold
     Vapoury ocean, misty land;
Till the thought of Zeus outsprings
     From my ripe mouth with a sigh,
And unto my lips it clings
     Like a shining butterfly.
When I brighten, gleam, and glow,                                                  141
     And my glittering wings unfurl,
And the melting colours flow
     To my foot of dusky pearl;
And the ocean mile on mile
     Gleams thro’ capes, and straits and bays,
And the vales and mountains smile,
     And the leaves are wet with rays,—
While I wave the humid bow
     Of my wings with flash of fire,
And the tempest, crouched below,
     Knows the thought of Zeus, the sire.

     Fiercely, however, as he was assailed on his first appearance, his onward progress has been obstructed in equal virulence ever since, and quite recently a brother poet—a man whose genius none of sense or literary culture denies—has cast mud enough upon him to show anybody that poets, after all, are human, and that the feuds which we know to have existed in the past, through sheer jealousy, that the “Divine gift” had been given to two beings who trod the earth at the same period, follow the same law of recurrence as all facts. This process of vilification was repeated in open court by a lawyer who enjoys a large practice, and a loud reputation upon, apparently, a very slender basis, and the man who had endeavoured—almost for the first time since Milton—“to justify the ways of God and man,” was called brother to the “fleshly school” after having written “The Book of Orm,” and such a sonnet as the twenty-seventh in the tale of those produced by the shores of Cornisk, which I give below:—

O sing clear brook, sing on, while in a dream
     I feel the sweetness of the years go by!
The crags and peaks are softened now, and seem
     Gently to sleep against the gentle sky;
     Old scenes and faces glimmer up and die,
With outlines of sweet thought obscured too long;
     Like boys that shout at play far voices cry;
O sing! for I am weeping at the song,                                              142
     I know not what I am, but only know
     I have had glimpses tongue may never speak;
No more I balance human joy and woe,
     But think of my transgressions, and am meek.
Father forgive the child who fretted so,—
     His proud heart yields!—the tears are on his cheek!

     In spite of all opposition, however, Robert Williams Buchanan has gone on his shining way, created a world of admirers, and left “foot prints on the sands of Time” far above high-water mark, and not, therefore, to be obliterated by those literary or legal Canutes who would fain command the sea. Let any one read the following “Nuptial Song,” and, after thinking calmly over its real intent, say upon how slender a basis all this vilification rests. I quote it because Mr. Hawkins made much of it in the recent trial at Westminster, and do so, well-assured, that the discerning lover of poetry will see in it what legal acumen could never discover. Quidnon mortalia pectora cogis, auri sacra fames:

Where were they wedded? In no temple of ice
     Built up by human fingers;
The floor was strewn with flowers of fair device,
     The wood-birds were their singers.

Who was the Priest? The priest was the still Soul
     Calm, gentle, and low-spoken,
And read the running brooklet like a scroll,
     And trembled at the token.

What was the service? ’Twas the service read
     When Adam’s living faith was plighted!
The tongue was silent, but the lips rose-red
     In silence were united.

Who saw it done? The million starry eyes
     Of one ecstactic heaven.
Who shared the joys? The flowers, the trees, the skies,
     Thrill’d in each kiss was given.

Who was the bride? A spirit strong and true,                                   143
     Beauteous to human seeing;
Soft elements of flesh, air, fire, and dew
     Blent in one rose of being.

What was her consecration? Innocence,
     Pure as the wood-tones round her.
Nothing she knew of rites—the strength intense
     Of God and nature found her.

As freely as maids give a lock away,
     She gave herself unto him.
What was the bridegroom? Clay, and common clay,
     Yet the wild joy slept thro’ him.

Hymen, O Hymen! by the birds was shed
     A matrimonial cadence.

Da nuces! Squirrels strew’d the nuts instead
     Instead of rosy youths and maidens.

Eureka, yea, Eureka was to blame;
     He was an erring creature;
Uncivilized by one wild flush of shame
     He waver’d back on nature.

He kissed her lips, he drank her breath in bliss,
     He drew her to his bosom:
As the clod kindles at the Spring’s first kiss,
     His beauty burst to blossom.

Who rung the bells? The breeze, the merry breeze,
     Set all in bright vibration;
Clear, sweet, yet low, there trembled thro’ the trees,
     The nuptial jubilation.

     That was called sensual. Sensuous it may be, and no doubt is, but what true poetry is not? I could quote pages of the purest singers that ever breathed which, judged by the same narrow canon of criticism, would bear the same “nice comment.” Nay, I will just give another lyric of Buchanan’s—which the most prudish purist cannot twist into “fleshliness,” and, 144 yet, had the keen advocate thought of it, he might with equal truth have cited it as evidence of the proposition he sought to lay down. It is called “Fire and Water; or, a Voice of the Flesh.”

Two white arms, a moss pillow,
     A curtain of green:
Come love me, love me,
     Come clasp me unseen!

As red as a rose is,
     I saw her arise,
Fresh waked from reposes,
     With wild dreamy eyes.

I sprang to her, clasp’d her
     I trembled, I prest,
I drank her warm kisses,
     And kissed her white breast.

With ripple of laughter,
     A dazzle of spray,
She melted, she melted,
     And glimmer’d away.

Down my breast runs the water,
     In my breast burns the fire,
My face is like crimson
     With shame and desire.

     Posterity will read these exquisite poems in their true light, and then men will wonder how such things were said of them. I can quite understand that “Venus and Adonis” in an age when the moral tone of society was low and coarse would rouse the basest passions—though the poet in writing it never intended that to be the result—and yet in an epoch that is healthful, allusions which would fire emasculation, warm without kindling, and rouse without waking desire. After all a poem is vile or pure according to the taste and nature of the reader. 145 Most people have seen the picture—or at least an engraving of it—where the old lady says to her husband “Come along! do,” and can understand that the contemplation of sculpture does not necessarily involve what she thought it did. The reproof of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to the young lady who blushed at the figure of Apollo in one of the famous galleries in Rome confirms my view, and if I wanted further proof of the same thing I might quote the anecdote that is told of the famous English lexicographer. A lady came to him one day, and complimented him for having kept out of his dictionary “all the naughty words.” “I thank you, madam,” retorted the Doctor, “but I am sorry to see that you have been looking for them.”



The Poets’ Magazine (October, 1877 - pp. 220-227)



     People do not always see that when making such charges against a poet, they are admitting his titles to one of a poet’s chief characteristics—that he should be a man of his time, paint what he sees, and embody what the age feels. Buchanan himself has always claimed this. “I have,” he says, “been doing my best to show that active life, independent of accessories, is the true material for poetic art; that actual national life is the perfectly approven material for every British poet. The farther the poet finds it necessary to recede from his own time, the less trustworthy his imagination, the more constrained his sympathy, and the smaller his chance of creating true and durable types for human contemplation.” If we leave out “Undertones,” which was the first flight of a young poetic genius, published in 1860, all that he has done has had that end mainly in view. The “Idylls and Legends of Inverburn,” which appeared in 1865, is a plain, almost Wordsworthian picture of Scottish village life, as he himself had found it; and yet these idylls have all the polish of Tennyson, and pathos of Mrs. Browning’s “Aurora Leigh.” Who, for instance, can read the touching story of “Willie Baird,” or the still more pathetic one entitled “Poet Andrew,” without feeling better for the 221 task? Take this bit, chosen at random from the former, and showing how child life can make chords vibrate that have been silent for years in the souls of full-grown and aged—

                                 “’Tis strange—’tis strange!
But when I look’d on Willie’s face, it seem’d
That I had known it in some beauteous life
That I had left behind me in the North:
This fancy grew and grew, till oft I sat—
The buzzing school around me—and would seem
To be among the mists, the tracks of rain,
Nearing the hueless silence of the snow.
Slowly and surely I began to feel
That I was all alone in the world,
And that my mother and my father slept
Far, far away in some forbidden kirk—
Remember’d but in dreams. Alone at nights,
I read my Bible more, and Euclid less—
For, mind you, like my betters, I had been
Half scoffer, half believer; on the whole,
I thought the life beyond, a useless dream,
That puzzled mathematics. But at last,
When Willie Baird and I grew friends, and thoughts
Came to me from beyond my father’s grave,
I found ’twas pleasant late at e’en to read
My Bible—haply only just to pick
Some easy chapter for my pet to learn—
Yet night by night my soul was guided on,
Like a blind man some angel hand convoys,

     “London Poems” (1866) contain many examples, of a similar character, where every-day circumstances, and in the main, the ordinary language of the class from which the samples are taken, are transferred to the page, simply having undergone a subtle ethearialization by passing through the poet’s soul. “Liz,” “Nell,” and the “Little Milliner,” though not the only ones, are good examples of this second incursion into the haunts and homes of humble life. No doubt Buchanan drank at the fountains of Crabbe, Wordsworth, and Tennyson—the first the 222 creator, the second the purifier, and the last the tone-master in this style of writing; but he is no slavish imitator of either. He is minute as Crabbe, simple and true to his type as Wordsworth, and if there is not always the wondrous cadence of “Dora,” there are always passages of rich harmony, true poetic feeling, melting pathos, quaint, weird, comic, sparkling humour, and living imagery. In addition to those already named, it will be enough here to indicate “The Two Babes,” “Hugh Sutherland’s Pansies,” “The Scarth o’ Bartle,” and “Attorney Sneak.” It has been well said, by a discerning critic of this class of writing, that “our English and American poets are working this rich vein well; but, with the exception of one or two in their best moods, none have better samples than Buchanan.”
     A power cognate to this of telling the stories of the old times is that of projecting oneself into the life and legendary lore of the past; and few living, or recent poets, have had it in the same fulness as the author whose works we are examining. If Keats, Tennyson in the “Idylls of the King,” and Motherwell, in those wonderful saga songs of his, are set aside, who, among British singers of this century, has the same power over the eerie, the fanciful, the legendary, and the chivalric? Had he written nothing more than that extraordinary poem, “The Death of Roland,” his fame in this department must have been secured; but there are “Meg Blane” and “Sigurd of Saxony,” besides many others, equally attesting his power. Nor is he less happy in those mystico-lyrical ballads, such as “The Dead Mother,” “Judas Iscariot,” or “Clari in The Well,” while the chastened severity of “Polypheme’s Passion,” when placed beside the terrible realism of “Nell,” show how wide the range of his vision and faculty is. His flight in one word has been ever higher and higher, just as his power of wing has strengthened. Since many of these lyrics first appeared, they have undergone severe revision, and some others have emerged from the process “clear and finished as anything in Goethe or Matthew Arnold;” but a few would be none the worse of further amendment.
     Of the lyric, pure and simple, I shall content myself with one 223 example, which shall stand for all the rest, perhaps because it is less widely known than many he has written. It has been said somewhere that Wordsworth is pre-eminently “the cloud poet,” and perhaps he was the first to embody poetic musings about the fantastic sky-vapours, as the Germans call them; but nothing in the great “lake” dreamer about these is more charming than Buchanan’s “Cloudland,” a portion of which I quote—

     White as a flock of sheep,
     Slender, and soft, and deep,
     With a radiance mild and faint
     As the smile of a pictured Saint;
Or the light that flies from a mother’s eyes
     On the face of a babe asleep.

     Yonder, with dripping hair,
     Is Aphrodite the fair,
     Fresh from the foam, whose dress
     Enfleeces her loveliness,
But melts like a mist from the limbs sun-kiss’d
     That are kindling unaware.

     One, like a Titan cold,
     With banner about him roll’d,
     Bereft of sense, and hurl’d
     To the wondrous under-world,
And drifting down, with a weedy crown,
     Some miraculous river old.

     One, like a bank of snows,
     Which flushes to crimson, and glows;
     One, like a goddess tall,
     In a violet robe;—and all
Have a motion that seems like the motion of dreams—
     A dimly disturbed repose:

     A motion such as you see                                                          224
     In the pictured divinity,
     By the touch of an artist thrown
     On a Naïad sculptured in stone,
For ever and ever about to quiver
     To a frightened flush, and flee!

     Beautiful, stately, slow,
     The pageants changefully grow;
     And in my bewilder’d brain
     Comes the distinct refrain
Of the stately speech and the mighty reach
     Of songs made long ago.

     Into my heart there throng
     Rich melodies worshipped long;
     The epic of Troy divine,
     Milton’s majestical line,
The palfrey pace and the glittering grace
     Of Spenser’s magical song.

     Do whatever I may,
     I cannot shake them away;
     They are haunting voices to move
     Like the wondrous shapes above;
Stately and slow they come and they go
     Like measured words when we pray.

     One section of his works still remains to be considered—and that the most important of all. It may be represented by the “Book of Orm,” in which, under the form of a celtic fantasy, the poet deals with some of the greatest and most difficult problems of the time. Taking the mystic genius of the Highlands as the type by which he can best illustrate and expound those questions, which aim at “vindicating the ways of God to man,” he has composed a series of poems, upon which, after all, I fancy his ultimate position in poetry will rest. Where he deals with purely intellectual difficulties, he may not shine as he 225 does where passion and mystery, struggling to rid themselves from theology and science, retreat upon themselves. “Songs of the Veil,” where the questionings of the human soul into the how, whence, and wherefore of its existence, and the law of its relation to the inscrutable Jehovah, are exquisite. “The Man and the Shadow,” in which the poet tries to show that the things most phantasmagorical are after all most real, is full of power and felicity. “The Songs of Seeking,” wherein the spiritual and upward strivings of Christianity in man are set forth, seem to me both hopeful and true; and “The Lifting of the Veil,” and the “Coruisken Sonnets,” in which the search for the human ideal is shown to blend in the finding of the spiritual, are helpful and healthy. But it is after all in the “Vision of the Man Accurs’d” that the poet reaches the summit of his power, and however strait-laced orthodoxy may carp at its philosophy, no one can deny its startling power, and profound thought and insight. I am tempted to quote the latter position in extenso, but have only room for the closing lines—

                         “Have they beheld the Man?”
The Lord said, and the Seraph answer’d, “Yea;”
And the Lord said again, “What doeth the Man?”

“He lieth like a log in the wild blast;
And as he lieth, lo! one sitting, takes
His head into her lap, and moans his name,
And smoothes his matted hair from off his brow,
And croons, in a low voice, a cradle song;
And lo! the other kneeleth at his side,
Half-shrinking in the old habit of her fear,
Yet hungering with her eyes, and passionately
Kissing his bloody hands.”

                       Then said the Lord,
“Will they go forth with him?” A voice replied,
         *          *         *          *         *
I will go forth with him!”

                           Still hushedly                                                      226
Snow’d down the Thought Divine; the Waters of Life
Flow'd softly, sadly, for an alien sound,
A piteous human cry, a sob forlorn,
Thrill’d the heart of Heaven.

                           The Man wept:
And, in a voice of most exceeding peace,
The Lord said (while against the Breast Divine
The Waters of Life leapt, gleaming, gladdening):
“The Man is saved; let the Man enter in.”

     All else had been wasted upon him; but by those human loves which touched his rude nature on earth, he is brought at last to a tearful state of penitence. The lesson may be extreme, but it is not less likely to be true.
     I must very hurriedly say a few words as to the genius of our poet in the abstract, having already endeavoured to show it in the concrete, and, first of all, his life philosophy seems to have been affected, as Tennyson’s was, by the death of a very dear friend with whom he struggled during his four first years’ residence in the metropolis. There runs through the poetry of the Laureate the sadness begotten by the sudden cutting off of young Hallam, just as in Buchanan’s, the melancholy which came to him through the early and unexpected loss of David Gray—that bright promising bard, the author of the “Luggie, and other Poems.” Endowed with considerable dramatic talent, as may be seen in the “Drama of Kings,” he is yet essentially a lyrist full of fire and passion, and yet with deeper soul-throbs, which beat grandly to the great heart of humanity. It is always where his touch seems to tremble on the verge of the perilous that he is at his best; but he has always freshness and a breadth of grasp, which makes him at once picturesque and ornate. He has more force of mind than the power of controlling it; and hence he sometimes sacrifices elegance to power, and music to a sort of wild cadence that chimes with his own burning thoughts; yet at times he seems to climb those Wordsworthian heights, whence he calmly displays the meanness, 227 or quietly enjoys the heroism of men. He has perhaps written more extensively than he should, but, unlike the Laureate, or Mr. Browning, he has had to struggle, all his poetical career, not only against obloquy, but to labour almost necessarily for the things that perish. No monied case has been his lot, but like many other men of letters, his nose has been kept to the grindstone; and if he is not always equal to himself, it is that he has had to call upon his muse to flutter on a tired wing, and to prophesy when she should have slept. He has always had the faith which makes the poet—faith in himself, in his work, and in mankind; and if his views of life are somewhat vague, they are neither pagan or weak. He has not the finish of Tennyson, nor the rude strength of Browning; but he has power combined with sweetness and beauty; and having given sterling proof of his abilities in all styles—having sounded the gamut from “grave to gay, from lively to severe” in a manner which all admire and recognize, he should (though may the day be far distant) take in his own right the honoured and honourable lays that fall from the Laureate’s noble brow.

                                                                                                                                               W. GIBSON.



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