The Critical Response (4)
1. Hugh Walker
2. Arthur Waugh
3. Lafcadio Hearn
4. George Saintsbury
5. The Murray Pioneer
6. T. L. Adamson
From The Literature of the Victorian Era by Hugh Walker
(Cambridge University Press, 1910.)
Part II: Creative Art. A. Poetry. Chapter VII: Later Developments.
2. The Celtic Poets (pp. 574-585.)
There remains one Celt of the most varied gifts, and of genius which ought to be unquestionable, though it has been questioned—Robert Buchanan (1841-1901). Of blood half Scotch, quarter Welsh and quarter English, Buchanan, though born in England, as it were adopted Scotland for his country. He lived and was educated there for about ten years; by his choice of a subject for one of the most ambitious of his poems he proclaimed himself of the Celtic school; and by his power he vindicated his right to be considered its head.
As the son of a Glasgow journalist, Buchanan may be said to have been born on the fringe of literature; but ambition and a well-founded consciousness of high gifts impelled him towards the centre. Even from boyhood he was conscious of the inspiration of the poet. Like many another Scot of talent, he felt his surroundings to be too narrow for him: the world was his oyster and London the place where the oyster must be opened. To this decision he was helped by the friendship he had formed with David Gray (1838-1861), whose three years’ seniority were enough to give him considerable influence over a character stronger than his own. The two set out in 1860 for the metropolis,—Gray to creep home and die in the following year, Buchanan to fight a long hard battle, to write poems, dramas and novels, and to tell simply, tastefully and beautifully the pathetic story of his friend’s life.
The short memoir of David Gray is a model of what a biography ought to be. There are few facts to record, but the story of the Kirkintilloch weaver’s poet-son is full of human interest, and in some seventy or eighty pages Buchanan gives a vivid impression of character and talent. Gray had a very considerable, perhaps he had even a great, poetic gift “There 575 was in him,” says Monckton Milnes, “the making of a great man”; but poor Gray did not live to prove the soundness of this judgment. Soon after he went to London he caught through exposure a cold which sowed the seeds of consumption, and he died at the age of twenty-three. Buchanan shows that Gray was no “morbid, unwholesome young gentleman, without natural weaknesses—a kind of aqueous Henry Kirke White, brandied faintly with ambition”; but it is also evident from his sketch that there was a certain want of stability in Gray’s character, which, notwithstanding his ambition, might have proved disastrous. Gray’s principal poem, The Luggie, was published after his death; he had seen a proof-sheet just the day before he died. It is a blank-verse piece of some 1200 lines, not so much descriptive of the little stream from which the name is taken, as inspired by its scenery. It cannot have been composed without some thought of the work of Thomson, and there are occasional echoes of him, of Keats and of Wordsworth. There is also evidence of the immaturity of the writer, and perhaps of the fact that the hand of death was on him as he wrote; but nevertheless The Luggie is the work of a poetic spirit, keenly sensitive to the beauties of nature. The series of sonnets, In the Shadows—a pathetic record of the poet’s thoughts and feelings as the gloom of death deepened around him—are richer and stronger.
Robert Buchanan was a man of remarkable independence of mind. There is even something defiant in his independence: “A man’s a man for a’ that” may be sung with a certain blatancy. And as the impulse to write came to him from the sense that he had something to say which the poets of the time either could not or would not say, it was to be expected that he would show himself even aggressively self-reliant. And so, on the whole, he does. But nevertheless even Buchanan had to pass through his period of initiation. His first volume of verse, entitled Undertones (1864), is essentially imitative. It consists chiefly of studies of classical themes, a sort of work suggested to him doubtless by Tennyson and Arnold, hut one which was ill calculated to bring out his own strength.
576 Next year came the Idyls and Legends of Inverburn, where Buchanan found his true field, or rather one of his true fields, and made an immense stride upwards. There are still crudities and evidences of imperfect training; and sometimes, in the original edition, there were even gross solecisms. But the collection as a whole is excellent. The poems are written with great force and with admirable lucidity, often with pathos, sometimes with remarkable dramatic power. Willie Baird is a touching little tale; The English Huswife’s Gossip is satisfactory evidence of the author’s power to realise and to portray character; Poet Andrew owes its pathos to the thought of poor Gray. Elsewhere in his works two other pieces, To the Luggie and To David in Heaven, are avowedly dedicated to Gray’s memory. It is noticeable that in the Idyls and Legends of Inverburn, the lyrical legends are less successful than the idyls. Buchanan had not yet attained mastery over lyrical measures.
Buchanan’s next volume, London Poems (1866), broke fresh ground; but in North Coast and other Poems (1868) he reverted once more to something like the Inverburn poems. These and the North Coast Poems belong to a type of verse which he never abandoned and in which not a little of his best work was done. Pieces like The Scaith o’ Bartle and Meg Blane are among the best of modern legendary and ballad poems. Buchanan tells his story rapidly and impressively, bringing both scene and actors vividly before the eye. Again, in the powerful and affecting ballad, The Lights of Leith, the hopes and fears of the sailor as he draws near the shore and prepares to enter his old mother’s hut are depicted with the graphic power of a true dramatist. The story is almost too painful, but it is “an ower true tale,” and it is well that we should be reminded still that such things were once done in the name of religion.
Buchanan is the most Scottish of all recent poets: his nationality is one of his distinguishing marks, the one by which perhaps his work can best be discriminated from that of any of his contemporaries. No other contemporary Scotchman, after the death of Alexander Smith, had a mind so poetic; and nobody but a Scotchman or a native of the North of England could have 577 written the Inverburn and the North Coast Poems. It is not merely a matter of dialect with Buchanan. He could use dialect with skill; but the brand of nationality is on many of his poems which are written in pure English, We see it in the scenery and in the characters. The coast is the east coast of Scotland, the people are Scotch sailors, Scotch peasants and shepherds, and their mothers and wives and sisters. Another national note of a very different quality is sounded in The Book of Orm; but in the group of poems now under consideration the basis, as has been hinted, is realism. It is, however, a realism warmed by imagination, and occasionally there are even hints of mysticism, foreshadowing The Book of Orm.
The London Poems, different as is their setting from that of these poems of the North, have more kinship with them than is at first sight apparent, The idyllic and legendary elements are gone, and the realism is more pronounced; but the tales are still touched and lit with imagination which lifts them out of the gutters of the “mean streets” wherein they are enacted, and sets them on a higher plane than that of the more recent stories of sordid London life. Buchanan was always poetic in mind, and he could never descend to such depths. The conclusion of Tiger Bay expresses the spirit which inspires the London Poems. The human in the dens of London vice is hardly distinguishable from the bestial in the Indian jungle; but nevertheless in the former there is just the spark of soul which, fanned and cherished, will burn away the bestial:—
“God said, moreover: ‘The spark shall grow—
’Tis blest, it gathers, its flame shall lighten,
Bless it and nurse it—let it brighten!
’Tis scattered abroad, ’tis a Seed I sow.
And the seed is a Soul, and the Soul is the Human;
And it lighteth the face with a sign and a flame.
Not unto beasts have I given the same,
But to man and to woman.
The light shall scatter the dark:
Where murmur the Wind and the Rain,
Where the jungle darkens the plain,
And in street and lane.’
. . . So faint, so dim, so sad to seeing, 578
Behold it burning! Only a spark!
So faint as yet, and so dim to mark,
In the tigress-eyes of the human being.
Fan it, feed it, in love and duty,
Track it, watch it in every place—
Till it burns the bestial frame and face
To its own dim beauty.
A spark that grows in the dark;
A spark that burns in the brain;
Spite of the Wind and the Rain,
Spite of the Curse and the Stain;
Over the Sea and the Plain,
And in street and lane.”
Though there is as much power in these London Poems as in the poems of the North Country, they are not so pleasant to read; and as pleasure is one of the ends of poetry, they are for that reason less poetical. The sordid streets and dens are not more real than the wild northern coast and the lonely glens, while they are infinitely less sweet and wholesome. The inhabitants of those streets are not more, rather they are less, human than the fishermen and rustics. Nell is full of strength; but it is not the kind of poem we elect to remember. If it abides in the memory it does so by reason of its force, uninvited. Though none of the London Poems is superior to Nell, some of the others are more attractive. In spite of its sordidness, Lily is beautiful from its pathos. The Little Milliner is a London love-tale, very simply and pleasingly told. Edward Crowhurst has pathos of another sort. It is a wonderfully terse and strong narrative of the life of a labourer-poet, who is flattered, patronised, corrupted, neglected, and at last becomes mad. It embodies many of the facts of the life of John Clare, who was evidently in Buchanan’s mind, with, perhaps, Burns and his own friend Gray. His imagination had been rendered sensitive by what he had witnessed in the case of Gray, and the idea of “mighty poets in their misery dead” touched it keenly.
From these groups of poems it is easy to detect the difference 579 between Buchanan and the poets who reigned in his early day. It is a wide one. His cry is, back to nature and reality; not to nature as she is when cultivated and trimmed and pruned by man, nor to human character as it is when smoothed and polished by education and convention; but to nature free and wild, to characters unsophisticated, strong of passion, rude and forcible of speech.
“I have wrought
No garland of the rose and passion-flower
Grown in a careful garden in the sun;
But I have gathered samphire dizzily,
Close to the hollow roaring of a sea.”
Buchanan had no quarrel with the classical poets: for a moment, as we have seen, he even followed their lead, though afterwards he knew that their method was wrong for him. But he had a quarrel with the Pre-Raphaelite poets; and it is probably their “careful garden in the sun” to which he refers in these lines. His critical instinct was not wrong in suggesting to him the sense of an irreconcilable difference between himself and the Pre-Raphaelites, for he and they are in spirit poles asunder. But he would have done well to reflect that Parnassus is a mountain of more than one peak and of innumerable slopes and ridges. There might be room for them to fulfil their mission as well as for him—the word is appropriate, for both Buchanan and the Pre-Raphaelites are rather obviously conscious of a mission.
The Northern poems and the London poems constitute two great sections of Buchanan’s work, but his restless intellect impelled him to try many other things. Napoleon Fallen (1871) was among his failures. In Saint Abe and his Seven Wives (1872) and in White Rose and Red (1873) he crossed the Atlantic for his subject. But of course he could not possess that intimacy of knowledge and depth of sympathy which mark his North Country poems. E. C. Stedman, who on this point speaks with authority, declares that Buchanan “has succeeded only in being faithful to a British ideal of American frontier life.” These two poems were published anonymously and the secret of their authorship was very carefully guarded. Buchanan was then under the cloud 580 caused by his virulent attack upon Rossetti in The Fleshly School of Poetry, and he believed that only under the veil of anonymity could he hope to receive fair treatment from the critics. The two poems certainly were welcomed with unusual warmth; but this might be due to the fact that they are stories in verse, lucidly and vigorously told.
In the opinion of many, however, Buchanan achieved his highest triumphs in the Celtic poems, and especially in The Book of Orm (1870), where the quondam realist showed himself a pronounced mystic. Buchanan was conscious of the Highland blood in his veins: he was a clansman, a Celt; and it was this clan-feeling which hurried him into the Celtic Revival, to which his principal contribution was this Book of Orm.
Whatever may be the value of the distinction between the Celtic and the Teutonic elements in English literature, what Buchanan himself regarded as the Celtic element in this poem is plain enough, The poet has declared that the object of The Book of Orm is to “vindicate the ways of God to man.” But the phrase is far too clear and definite. We no longer know the Deity as we know “the man in the next street”; and a reasoned justification like that of Milton or that of Pope would be out of place, and is not attempted, in Buchanan’s poem. But still, beneath the veil of mysticism there dimly glimmer those great problems of life and death which occupied and perplexed Tennyson and Browning as well as Buchanan.
Buchanan sent forth The Book of Orm as an avowed contribution to racial poetry. Perhaps he was too conscious and deliberate in his purpose to be wholly natural. The keynote is struck in the prefatory lines:—
“Read these faint rimes of Mystery,
O Celt, at home and o’er the sea;
The bond is loosed—the pool are free—
The world’s great future rests with thee!
Till the soil—bid cities rise—
Be strong, O Celt—be rich, be wise—
But still, with those divine grave eyes,
Respect the realm of Mysteries.”
581The whole poem is in the same spirit. The author evidently regarded mysticism as the essence of the Celtic contribution to poetry; and The Book of Orm is profoundly mystical. In this lies at once its charm and, perhaps, its defect. Nothing makes a greater draught upon the poetical powers than mysticism: it is so difficult to keep it from passing into mistiness. Buchanan’s powers were great, but possibly not quite great enough for his purpose. For one thing, he is not sufficiently a master of metre and rhythm; for in proportion as the poet leaves the world of hard fact behind him, the sensuous enchantments of verse gain importance. Where there is a definite story, or a definite thought addressed to the understanding, the simpler harmonies of verse will suffice. Pope’s couplets are nearly as good as their kind could be made. But Tennyson’s Lotos-Eaters and Coleridge’s Christabel demand a very much more subtle rhythm. In this respect Buchanan was a competent but not a great artist. There is a roughness, often intentional, but nevertheless unpleasing, in the verse of The Book of Orm.
Perhaps too Buchanan was not altogether great enough in thought; and he was certainly not spontaneous enough in his use of the supernatural. He could call spirits from the vasty deep; but the depth from which they came was not so profound as that from which certain mere Teutons have drawn. Sometimes (conspicuously in the Prayer from the Deeps) there is too plain a revelation of the modern critical spirit, which harmonises ill with mysticism. On the other hand, the section to which this prayer belongs, The Devils Mystics, is as a whole strongly conceived and strongly written; and still more powerful is The Vision of the Man Accurst.
Another group of the Celtic poems, the Coruisken Sonnets, are all fine, and some of them are exceptionally beautiful. Among the best are The Hills on their Thrones, King Blaabhein and Blaabhein in the Mists,—titles which remind the reader that Alexander Smith found inspiration in the same scenes. Buchanan attempts no transcript of scenery; but he achieves something far greater, a rendering of its spirit.
The Vision of the Man Accurst deals with a kind of theme in 582 the treatment of which Buchanan was a master. It is akin to, but stronger and more original than, The Ballad of Judas Iscariot. Though the latter is essentially Buchanan’s own, yet once and again the poet draws hints from the past. Not only is it pervaded with the spirit of the old ballads, but there are hints from Hood’s Eugene Aram and from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. There are no such echoes in The Vision of the Man Accurst; and in depth and force as well as in originality that poem seems to be the greater of the two.
For the first ten years of his literary life Buchanan’s work had been mainly poetical; but shortly after the publication of White Rose and Red he became conspicuous both as a writer for the stage, in which capacity he won fame and money, and as the author of a series of novels bearing the mark of his strong personality and his earnestness of purpose. These activities necessarily drew his attention away from verse; but, though he was convinced that the public did not want poetry and would not reward the poet, the old love survived, and the poetic output of the later period is in the aggregate large. Some of it is as good as anything he ever wrote, but on the whole the poet will take his place rather by virtue of his earlier than of his later work. Like many others, he had the ambition to write long poems; and he thought, erroneously, that it was pure perversity or dislike of poetry as such on the part of the public, that made his more ambitious ventures less successful than some of the shorter pieces. Though his Balder the Beautiful: A Song of Divine Death (1877) contains some fine poetry (best of all, perhaps, the Proem to his wife), it is not a well-knit whole. Buchanan justly claimed for it the praise of originality; for it owes little to what he called “the vulgar myths of the Edda.” But this phrase suggests a question. Surely it must be wrong to pour new wine into old bottles, thinking all the time that the bottles are worthless; and the reason why Buchanan’s “song of divine death” is unsatisfactory may perhaps be found in this incongruity between the original and that which is fashioned from it.
Problems such as that indicated by the sub-title were at this period occupying much of Buchanan’s attention, and they profoundly influenced his prose as well as his verse. He had been 583 bred in ignorance of the creeds of the Churches, for his father was a sceptic and a follower of Robert Owen the Socialist. Buchanan had therefore no “Hebrew old clothes” to cast off; on the contrary, it was in manhood that he gradually familiarised himself with, and in some degree adopted, conceptions which the child generally drinks in with its mother’s milk. But he never approached what is commonly regarded as orthodoxy, and, what is much more serious, he never seems to have been able to make up his own mind. “If,” he writes on the death of his wife to his friend, Roden Noel, “if this parting is only for a time, I see its blessedness—but if, as I dread and fear, it is a parting forever, what then1?” In the following year he dedicated his poems to his dead wife, “weeping and sorrowing, yet in sure and certain hope of a blessed resurrection2.” This looks like conviction; but later we come again upon evidences of doubt. Buchanan’s next long poem, The City of Dream (1888), an allegory dedicated “to the sainted spirit of John Bunyan,” is the story of the pilgrimage of Ishmael (Buchanan himself) to seek the heavenly city. The picture of Christopolis shows clearly enough that the hand of Ishmael was against most men, and suggests why most men’s hands were against him. It is no reproach to the poet that he does not answer the unanswerable. A work like The City of Dream must, in the nature of things, be vague and inconclusive. But it is not only inconclusive, it is unsuggestive; the author himself is in the mist, and naturally he cannot lead the reader into sunlight. The curious catechism he constructed with reference to The Wandering Jew (1893) illustrates the confusion of his mind. There he declares his belief in a future life; but then he adds: “It is only a belief, not a certainty, a hope, a faith even, not a reality. The testimony of all Science is against it3.”
The Wandering Jew is the most remarkable and by far the most intelligible of the poems of this class. Though it was begun long before the others, it was the last to be published. As early as 1866 Buchanan had written part of it, and he had finished it some years before its publication. The reason was not doubt as to its value—it was “his favourite child”—but a fixed idea that it would
1 Jay’s Robert Buchanan, 221. 2 ibid. 3 ibid. 264.
584 prove the end of his career. The fundamental conception of a Christ old and grey, worn and weary, is impressive and pathetic. The poet finds ample material to support his thesis that the professed followers of Christ have, under the cloak of his name, wrought all the sins and cruelties most abhorrent to his nature. Thus he explains the weariness and sadness of the aged figure and makes intelligible his concluding prayer for death and the answer of the Judge:—
Death that brought peace thyself didst seek to slay!
Death that was merciful and very fair,
Sweet dove-eyed Death that hush’d the Earth’s despair,
Death that shed balm on tirèd eyes like thine,
Death that was Lord of Life and all Divine,
Thou didst deny us, offering instead
The Soul’s fierce famine that can ne’er be fed—
Death shall abide to bless all things that be,
But evermore shall turn aside from thee.”
Buchanan was the possessor of one more talent which, in justice to him, must still be noticed. He had the gift of humour in a higher degree than any other recent poet except Mr Rudyard Kipling. Saint Abe and White Rose and Red are richly humorous; so are a number of the North Country poems. Kitty Kemble blends satire with humour, and The Wedding of Shon Maclean has a wild rollick unequalled since Outram’s Law Lyrics. It might be compared to a scene from Charles O’Malley, in verse, and transferred from the Irish bogs to the Highland mountains.
The range of Buchanan is such as only an extraordinary spirit could have compassed. And to estimate him aright we must also take account of his independence. This is the secret of his combative career. He both felt himself to be and called himself an Ishmael, and he struck out fiercely against those whose hand he believed to be raised against him. Even where he adopted current forms of verse, he used them in a way of his own. He wrote idylls in an age of idylls; but his have far more of mother earth about them than the Tennysonian idylls. Buchanan’s are related to these as his countryman Allan Ramsay’s pastoral is related to the pastorals 585 of Pope. In his own way Buchanan was a leader of a new return to nature. He was spokesman for a generation rising into manhood when the impulse of the early Victorian poets was beginning to fail, and when their ideals were no longer accepted as all that the heart could desire. The North Country and the London poems were his attempt to satisfy the want, and of all that were made it was the one which offered most hope. The principal alternatives were such Neo-Pre-Raphaelitism as we find in O'Shaughnessy, and the graceful society verse of Mr Austin Dobson and his followers. But society verse can never be the staple of great poetry; and Pre- Raphaelitism carried within it from the start the seeds of decay. A sense of the preciosity, even of the masters, roused Buchanan’s wrath; and he made it his business to combat this and all the other signs of decadence. But, while Buchanan himself had imitators, he founded no great school. This was partly owing to his fault, or rather his insufficiency. He could not fuse the elements of greatness that were in him. Had he been able to weld the mysticism of Orm with the realism of the London Poems, the result would have been something greater than English literature has produced in recent years. As it is, they stand apart—opposite shores separated by a gulf across which Buchanan has built no bridge.
Review of The Literature of the Victorian Era
The Guardian (22 February, 1910 - p.7)
Professor Hugh Walker, of St. David’s College, Lampeter, has written a stupendous manual dealing between two covers with THE LITERATURE OF THE VICTORIAN ERA (Cambridge University Press, pp. viii. 1,067, 10s. net). Everything that could be treated has been treated—philosophy, theology, poetry, fiction, criticism. It was a vast undertaking, and it seems merely churlish to feel anything but gratitude to the man who took his dive and came through the wave without being submerged by it. Yet Professor Walker, excellent though on the whole his judgments are, does not quite convince us that he was the man for the task. Was it not, for example, a singularly unhappy chance—it cannot surely have been anything more than a chance—that led him to take Oscar Wilde as the theme of his last paragraph and to write of him as though he were the representative of the concluding years of the nineteenth century? If this were a reasonable opinion, we should have heard of it before now; a school or college manual is not the place in which to air it for the first time. Meredith’s poetry, again, is poetry, and must be treated as such; it cannot be disposed of in a chapter devoted to the “Later Fiction.” Moreover, if it is to be dismissed in five pages, can Robert Buchanan’s need eleven? And does not Professor Walker needlessly swell his work with names that have already been visited with a merciful oblivion? Tennyson and Browning come off splendidly, of course, with forty pages each, and forty more between them. Swinburne has sixteen, but he, like Buchanan, is a “later development.” The chief merit of the book is that it teems with life and originality; obviously Professor Walker gives no opinions at second hand. Yet it may not be unreasonable to regard a manual like this as a book the object of which should be to represent the opinions of the average rather than of the individual critic.
Back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan
From Reticence in Literature, and Other Papers by Arthur Waugh
(J. G. Wilson, London, 1915 - pp. 154-160.)
THE story of Robert Buchanan’s literary life, if it were written frankly and with knowledge, would present a record of as much adventure and emotion as that of any of his own adventurous novels. It started in a spirit of the eighteenth century, and it ran the gamut of almost all the varied interests of the last half of the nineteenth; it joined hands, either in friendship or in combat, with most of the representative writers of the time, and it was above all things the career of a man passionately interested in his fellow-men, a creature of impulse, a child of emotion, capable alike of generous friendship and of equally ungenerous enmity; unreasoning, unreasonable, but often instinctively right, and generally downright and sincere. Judged externally, it would be pronounced successful; for while Buchanan came up to London, like the waifs and Whittingtons of a bygone age, without money or prospects, he passed in his time through most of the phases of popularity and material comfort; he had a hard struggle as a boy, but he enjoyed in his manhood more of the moderate plenty of life than falls to the lot of many men of greater ability and equal industry. And yet his career is one that criticism cannot regard altogether complacently, for Buchanan certainly did not do the good things that at the outset he promised to do; he achieved a great deal, but only a small portion of it was on a distinctively high level. Mr. William Archer has 155 said that he was “guilty of the most unpardonable sin a craftsman can commit—that of not doing his best.” But this is, perhaps, rather too uncompromising a judgment; and we may arrive at a juster estimate by distinguishing rather more carefully some of the issues and necessities of the situation.
Buchanan arrived in London (in 1860), with the romantic confidence of boyhood, “to seek his fortune.” He was nineteen years old, the son of a Stafford socialistic missionary, and of Scots descent. He had been educated at Glasgow High School and University, and he brought with him to London a fellow student of the same ambition, the pair having sworn comradeship in the pursuit of literary fame. The story of the early struggles of Buchanan and his friend David Gray is generally familiar. It is the story of privation in a Grub-street garret, which recalls the early misfortunes of Richard Savage, and it ended for one of the combatants in a premature and pitiful death. Buchanan’s was the stronger temperament; he lived through the lean years of half-starvation, and overcame the obstacles which bristle about the start of a literary career, and in a few years he was making his way steadily upon the newspaper press. Those, however, who watched Buchanan’s career closely were inclined to think that the experiences of those early days in London had set a mark upon him which the circumstances of later life never wholly obliterated. Privation is a cruel taskmistress, and in those probationary years he learnt that to please the public you must provide what the public wants. Material success was essential to one in Buchanan’s 156 position. He had not the provision which might have enabled him to choose the work he would have preferred; he was obliged to write what he could find a market for. And so it was not, perhaps, so much the case that he deliberately did not do his best, as that he fell more and more unconsciously into the habit of working upon lines which he saw elsewhere successful, and in which he knew he could himself succeed most easily. The result in any case was much the same; a true artist was wasted in the necessary pursuit of popular favour.
For the unfortunate part of this compromise with necessity was that it fostered in Buchanan the very defects to which his work was most fatally prone. He was, as we have said, a creature of emotion, and his temperament was always swaying between emotional excesses. When for a moment the balance lay level, he would produce, as he often did in his early career, poems of intense and poignant humanity, genuine and sincere utterances of a man of high feeling and deep sympathy. But the balance was momentary, and with its decline he plunged at once into melodramatic exaggeration. Over-emphasis both of detraction and admiration marred his loyalty to what were often most commendable causes, and in his creative work the same over-emphasis dragged him into lurid and hyperbolical effects which simply defeated their own object. He became the victim of untutored emotion, playing into the hands of the crowd.
And yet he was at heart a true poet, of the vigorous and emotional order. He began to write, perhaps, in an unfortunate time; for the spasmodic, 157 sentimental, and rather formless poetic movement of the ’sixties was precisely the sort of movement to call out in him the qualities which he most needed to restrain, and he yielded himself readily to its fascination. A natural melodist, he was content with loose and flaccid metrical excesses, and his harmony often dissolves itself into the mechanical jingle of the barrel-organ. A rapid and volcanic thinker, he indulged himself in unshapely diffusions; form became the last thing to be considered; effect, effect, and always effect was the mainspring of his work. Later on, too, he assumed subjects far beyond the range of his imagination, and the nebulous and rather pretentious parables in which he attempted to set forth some sort of philosophy of the divine will are found, on careful analysis, to be often very tawdry and always theatrical. But poetry was undoubtedly his sphere. Here, more than anywhere else, he found expression for the most humane and sincere trait in his nature—his generous care and sympathy for the sufferings of the unfortunate. Here, too, he often wrote with persuasive simplicity and directness. It was in his early poetry that he held out promise richer, alas! than any later fulfilment.
Poetry, however, is a poor staff upon which to support a household; and Buchanan, like so many others, turned in time to the more popular field of fiction. Some of his earlier novels are full of power, even if it is rather crudely employed. “The Shadow of the Sword” is not without taint of his besetting sin; it is over-emphatic and over-eager; but it has fine passages and is marked by open and broad sincerity. “God and 158 the Man,” again, has theatrical faults (indeed, it was afterwards recast as a melodrama); but there are scenes of abounding vigour, and in working up emotion to a fever heat Buchanan was not only adroit, but electrically effective. Still, as time went on, Buchanan’s fiction declined in quality more than any other side of his work. As he began to give his attention more and more to the stage, the influence of the theatre affected his fiction to such a degree that one seemed to see in every new novel the process by which it had been hastily recast from a first rough dramatic draft. No doubt, this was not actually the case; and many of the novels which looked like re-adjusted melodramas may have begun and ended their history in their final form of fiction. Still, the pervading influence of the theatre was fatal to good work in the novel, the dialogue became stagey, the effects suggested the footlights, and there was no “conviction” in the whole of the workmanship.
Meanwhile, Buchanan was gaining much popularity in the theatre. It cannot, indeed, be said that he enriched the stage with literature, but he turned out many workmanlike dramas which served their purpose, and were upon the whole healthy and vigorous enough in tone. Sentimentality, a perverted form of his emotionalism, warped some of his effects; and in his adaptations of Fielding and Richardson in particular he imported into the stage versions of the eighteenth century novel a sugary sort of sentiment which was not much in harmony with the virile savour of the originals. On the other hand, he was thoroughly aware of the value of stagecraft, and some of his melodramas, 159 such, for example, as the adapted “Man’s Shadow,” were in their theatrical way genuinely impressive. It is doubtful, however, if any of them would stand literary criticism, if printed; and this, it need scarcely be said, is rather a serious consideration when applied to the work of a professedly literary man.
Finally, some reference is demanded to Buchanan’s excursions into literary controversy, the best-remembered instance of which is his attack upon the Pre-Raphaelites in the article he called “The Fleshly School of Poetry.” Buchanan was, of course, no critic; the violences of his temperament were against him. But he was a tremendous fighter, and he loved controversy, if not for its own sake, at any rate for the opportunity it gave him of venting opinions which increased in emphasis with every outburst of opposition. As a combatant he lacked every grace and chivalry of the lists; urbanity and persuasiveness were apparently distasteful to him, for he lost no opportunity of outraging them with diversities of violence. His attack upon Rossetti was quite without method or stability of judgment; it wounded its victim to the quick, but it probably persuaded no one of its justice. “The Coming Terror,” a volume of controversial essays which aroused some interest more than twenty years ago, contains some sensible ideas intermingled with a great deal of indiscriminate buffeting of the air, and this defect is representative of all his critical arguments. Yet his enthusiasm was as generous in praise as it was violent in difference. The consideration of dates renders it unlikely that Buchanan spoke by the book when he said 160 that he was one of the first to give Browning welcome at a time when all the critical world was contemning him; but it is at least true that among the voices raised to proclaim a new talent Buchanan’s was often among the earliest and the most hearty. His view was not always sound, and the hyperbole with which it was expressed was almost invariably unsound, but he gave encouragement to many literary beginners at a time when they needed it most urgently. Here, too, perhaps the memories of his own early struggles prompted him, and to a better purpose.
We take leave, then, of Robert Buchanan with a sense of kindly and sincere regret. He was a man of real talent and of generous emotion, driven, as we believe, by the force of circumstances to make less of his abilities than might have been made under advantages of leisure and of competency. The struggle of life affects different men in different ways. Some go down under it altogether; some, but these are very few, rise above it and seem to thrive upon opposition; others, and these the great majority, compromise with it, and are content to swim with the tide. Buchanan went with the tide and the majority. The compromise brought him success and his reward; but it would be injustice to his memory to pretend that, under other circumstances and with other advantages, the success might not have been on higher levels and the reward itself more enduring.
Back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan
From Appreciations of Poetry by Lafcadio Hearn
(Dodd, Mead and Company, New York, 1916 - pp. 359-375.)
A NOTE ON ROBERT BUCHANAN
AMONG the minor poets of the Victorian period, Robert Buchanan cannot be passed over unnoticed. A contemporary of all the great singers, he seems to have been always a little isolated; I mean that he formed no strong literary friendships within the great circle. Most great poets must live to a certain extent in solitude; the man who can at once mix freely in society and find time for the production of masterpieces is a rare phenomenon. George Meredith is said to be such a person. But Tennyson, Rossetti, Swinburne, Browning, Fitzgerald, were all very reserved and retired men, though they had little circles of their own, and a certain common sympathy. The case of Buchanan is different. His aloofness from the rest has been, not the result of any literary desire for quiet, but the result, on the contrary, of a strong spirit of opposition. Not only did he have no real sympathy with the great poets, but he represented in himself the very prejudices against which they had to contend. Hard headed Scotchman as he was, he manifested in his attitude to his brother poets a good deal of the peculiar, harsh conservatism of which Scotchmen seemed to be particularly capable. And he did himself immense injury in his younger days by an anonymous attack upon the morals, or rather upon the moral tone, of such poets as Rossetti and Swinburne. Swinburne’s reply to this attack was terrible and withering. That of Rossetti was very mild and gentle, but so effective that English literary circles almost unanimously condemned Buchanan, and attributed his attack to mere jealousy. I think the attack was less due to jealousy than to character, to prejudice, to the harshness of a mind insensible to particular forms of 360 beauty. And for more than twenty years Buchanan has suffered extremely from the results of his own action. Thousands of people have ignored him and his books simply because it was remembered that he gave wanton pain to Rossetti, a poet much too sensitive to endure unjust criticism. I suppose that for many years to come Buchanan will still be remembered in this light, notwithstanding that he tried at a later day to make honourable amends to the memory of Rossetti, by dedicating to him, with a beautiful sonnet of apology, the definitive edition of his own works.
But the time has now passed when Buchanan can be treated as an indifferent figure in English literature. In spite of all disadvantages he has been a successful poet, a successful novelist, and a very considerable influence in the literature of criticism. Besides, he has written at least one poem that will probably live as long as the English language, and he has an originality quite apart and quite extraordinary, though weaker than the originality of the greater singers of his time. As to his personal history, little need to be said. He was educated at Glasgow University, and his literary efforts have always been somewhat coloured by Scotch sentiment, in spite of his long life in literary London.
Three volumes represent his poetical production. In these are contained a remarkable variety of poems—narrative, mystical, fantastic, classical, romantic, ranging from the simplest form of ballad to the complex form of the sonnet and the ode. The narrative poems would, I think, interest you least; they are gloomy studies of human suffering, physical and moral, among the poor, and are not so good as the work of Crabbe in the same direction. The mystical poems, on the contrary, are of a very curious kind; for Buchanan actually made a religious philosophy of his own, and put it into the form of verse. It is a Christian mysticism, an extremely liberal Unitarianism forming the basis of it; but the author’s notions about the perpetual 361 order of things are all his own. He has, moreover, put these queer fancies into a form of verse imitating the ancient Celtic poetry. We shall afterward briefly consider the mystical poetry. But the great production of Buchanan is a simple ballad, which you find very properly placed at the beginning of his collected poems. This is a beautiful and extraordinary thing, quite in accordance with the poet’s peculiar views of Christianity. It is called “The Ballad of Judas Iscariot.” If you know only this composition, you will know all that it is absolutely necessary to know of Robert Buchanan. It is by this poem that his place is marked in nineteenth century literature.
Before we turn to the poem itself, I must explain to you something of the legend of Judas Iscariot. You know, of course, that Judas was the disciple of Christ who betrayed his master. He betrayed him for thirty pieces of silver, according to the tradition; and he betrayed him with a kiss, for he said to the soldiers whom he was guiding, “The man whom I shall kiss is the man you want.” So Judas went up to Christ, and kissed his face; and then the soldiers seized Christ. From this has come the proverbial phrase common to so many Western languages, a “Judas-kiss.” Afterwards Judas, being seized with remorse, is said to have hanged himself; and there the Scriptural story ends. But in Church legends the fate of Judas continues to be discussed in the Middle Ages. As he was the betrayer of a person whom the Church considered to be God, it was deemed that he was necessarily the greatest of all traitors; and as he had indirectly helped to bring about the death of God, he was condemned as the greatest of all murderers. It was said that in hell the very lowest place was given to Judas, and that his tortures exceeded all other tortures. But once every year, it was said, Judas could leave hell, and go out to cool himself upon the ice of the Northern seas. That is the legend of the Middle Ages.
Now Robert Buchanan perceived that the Church legends 362 of the punishment of Judas might be strongly questioned from a moral point of view. Revenge is indeed in the spirit of the Old Testament; but revenge is not exactly in the spirit of the teaching of Christ. The true question as to the fate of Judas ought to be answered by supposing what Christ himself would have wished in the matter. Would Christ have wished to see his betrayer burning for ever in the fires of hell? Or would he have shown to him some of that spirit manifested in his teachings, “Do good unto them that hate you; forgive your enemies”? As a result of thinking about the matter, Buchanan produced his ballad. All that could be said against it from a religious point of view is that the spirit of it is even more Christian than Christianity itself. From the poetical point of view we must acknowledge it to be one of the grandest ballads produced in the whole period of Victorian literature. You will not find so exquisite a finish here as in some of the ballads of Rossetti; but you will find a weirdness and a beauty and an emotional power that make up for slenderness in workmanship.
In order to understand the beginning of the ballad clearly, you should know the particulars about another superstition concerning Judas. It is said that all the elements refused to suffer the body to be committed to them; fire would not burn it; water would not let it sink to rest; every time it was buried, the earth would spew it out again. Man could not bury that body, so the ghosts endeavoured to get rid of it. The Field of Blood referred to in the ballad is the Aceldama of Scriptural legend, the place where Judas hanged himself.
’Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
Lay in the Field of Blood ;
’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Beside the body stood.
Black was the earth by night,
And black was the sky.
Black, black were the broken clouds, 363
Though the red Moon went by.
. . . . . .
Then the soul of Judas Iscariot
Did make a gentle moan—
“I will bury underneath the ground
My flesh and blood and bone.
. . . . . .
“The stones of the field are sharp as steel
And hard and cold, God wot;
And I must bear my body hence
Until I find a spot !”
’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot,
So grim, and gaunt, and grey,
Raised the body of Judas Iscariot
And carried it away.
And as he bare it from the field
Its touch was cold as ice,
And the ivory teeth within the jaw
Rattled aloud, like dice.
The use of the word “ivory” here has a double function; dice are usually made of ivory; and the suggestion of whiteness heightens the weird effect.
As the soul of Judas Iscariot
Carried its load with pain,
The Eye of Heaven, like a lanthorn’s eye,
Opened and shut again.
Half he walk’d, and half he seemed
Lifted on the cold wind;
He did not turn, for chilly hands
Were pushing from behind.
The first place that he came unto
It was the open wold
And underneath were pricky whins,
And a wind that blew so cold.
The next place that he came unto 364
It was a stagnant pool,
And when he threw the body in
It floated light as wool.
He drew the body on his back,
And it was dripping chill,
And the next place he came unto
Was a Cross upon a hill.
A Cross upon the windy hill,
And a cross on either side,
Three skeletons that swing thereon,
Who had been crucified.
And on the middle cross-bar sat
A white Dove slumbering;
Dim it sat in the dim light,
With its head beneath its wing.
And underneath the middle Cross
A grave yawned wide and vast,
But the soul of Judas Iscariot
Shiver’d, and glided past.
We are not told what this hill was, but every reader knows that Calvary is meant, and the skeletons upon the crosses are those of Christ and the two thieves crucified with him. The ghostly hand had pushed Judas to the place of all places where he would have wished not to go. We need not mind the traditional discrepancy suggested by the three skeletons; as a matter of fact, the bodies of malefactors were not commonly left upon the crosses long enough to become skeletons, and of course the legend is that Christ’s body was on the cross only for a short time. But we may suppose that the whole description is of a phantasm, purposely shaped to stir the remorse of Judas. The white dove sleeping upon the middle cross suggests the soul of Christ, and the great grave made below might have been prepared out of mercy for the body of Judas. If the dove 365 had awoke and spoken to him, would it not have said, “You can put your body here, in my grave; nobody will torment you.” But the soul of Judas cannot even think of daring to approach the place of the crucification.
The fourth place that he came unto,
It was the Brig of Dread,
And the great torrents rushing down
Were deep, and swift, and red.
He dared not fling the body in
For fear of faces dim,
And arms were waved in the wild water
To thrust it back to him.
There is here a poetical effect borrowed from sources having nothing to do with the Judas tradition. In old Northern folklore there is the legend of a River of Blood, in which all the blood ever shed in this world continues to flow; and there is a reference to this river in the old Scotch ballad of “Thomas the Rhymer.”
It was mirk, mirk night, and there was nae light,
And they waded in red blude up to the knee,
For a’ the blude that’s shed on earth,
Rins through the springs o’ that countrie.
Judas leaves the dreadful bridge and continues his wanderings over the mountain, through woods and through great desolate plains:
For months and years, in grief and tears,
He walked the silent night ;
Then the soul of Judas Iscariot
Perceived a far-off light.
A far-off light across the waste,
As dim as dim might be,
That came and went like a lighthouse gleam
On a black night at sea.
’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot 366
Crawled to the distant gleam ;
And the rain came down, and the rain was blown
Against him with a scream.
’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot,
Strange, and sad, and tall,
Stood all alone at dead of night
Before a lighted hall.
And the wold was white with snow,
And his foot-marks black and damp,
And the ghost of the silver Moon arose,
Holding her yellow lamp.
And the icicles were on the eaves,
And the walls were deep with white,
And the shadows of the guests within
Passed on the window light.
The shadows of the wedding guests
Did strangely come and go,
And the body of Judas Iscariot
Lay stretch’d along the snow.
But only the body. The soul which has carried it does not lie down, but runs round and round the lighted hall, where the wedding guests are assembled. What wedding? What guests? This is the mystical banquet told of in the parable of the New Testament; the bridegroom is Christ himself; the guests are the twelve disciples, or rather, the eleven, Judas himself having been once the twelfth. And the guests see the soul of Judas looking in at the window.
’Twas the Bridegroom sat at the table-head,
And the lights burnt bright and clear—
“Oh, who is that,” the Bridegroom said,
“Whose weary feet I hear?”
’Twas one look’d from the lighted hall,
And answered soft and slow,
“It is a wolf runs up and down 367
With a black track in the snow.”
The Bridegroom in his robe of white
Sat at the table-head—
“Oh, who is that who moans without?”
The blessed Bridegroom said.
’Twas one looked from the lighted hall,
And answered fierce and low,
“ ’Tis the soul of Judas Iscariot
Gliding to and fro.”
’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Did hush itself and stand,
And saw the Bridegroom at the door
With a light in his hand.
The Bridegroom stood in the open door
And he was clad in white,
And far within the Lord’s Supper
Was spread so broad and bright.
The Bridegroom shaded his eyes and looked,
And his face was bright to see—
“What dost thou here at the Lord’s Supper
With thy body’s sins?” said he.
’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot,
Stood black, and sad, and bare—
“I have wandered many nights and days ;
There is no light elsewhere.”
’Twas the wedding guests cried out within,
And their eyes were fierce and bright—
“Scourge the soul of Judas Iscariot,
Away into the night!”
The Bridegroom stood in the open door
And he waved hands still and slow,
And the third time that he waved his hands
The air was thick with snow.
And of every flake of falling snow, 368
Before it touched the ground,
There came a dove, and a thousand doves
Made sweet sound.
’Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
Floated away full fleet,
And the wings of the doves that bare it off
Were like its winding-sheet.
’Twas the Bridegroom stood at the open door,
And beckon’d, smiling sweet;
’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Stole in, and fell at his feet.
“The Holy Supper is spread within,
And the many candles shine,
And I have waited long for thee
Before I poured the wine!”
It would have been better, I think, to finish the ballad at this stanza; there is one more, but it does not add at all to the effect of what goes before. When the doves, emblems of divine love, have carried away the sinful body, and the Master comes to the soul, smiling and saying: “I have been waiting for you a long time, waiting for your coming before I poured the wine”—there is nothing more to be said. We do not want to hear any more; we know that the Eleven had again become Twelve; we do not require to be told that the wine is poured out, or that Judas repents his fault. The startling and beautiful thing is the loving call and the welcome to the Divine Supper. You will find the whole of this poem in the “Victorian Anthology,” but I should advise any person who might think of making a Japanese translation to drop the final stanza and to leave out a few of the others, if his judgment agrees with mine.
Read this again to yourselves, and see how beautiful it is. 369 The beauty is chiefly in the central idea of forgiveness; but the workmanship of this composition has also a very remarkable beauty, a Celtic beauty of weirdness, such as we seldom find in a modern composition touching religious tradition. It were interesting to know how the poet was able to imagine such a piece of work. I think I can tell a little of the secret. Only a man with a great knowledge and love of old ballads could have written it. Having once decided upon the skeleton of the story, he must have gone to his old Celtic literature and to old Northern ballads for further inspiration. I have already suggested that the ballad of “Thomas the Rhymer” was one source of his inspiration, with its strange story of the River of Blood. Thomas was sitting under a tree, the legend goes, when he saw a woman approaching so beautiful that he thought she was an angel or the Virgin Mary, and he addressed her on his knees. But she sat down beside him, and said, “I am no angel nor saint; I am only a fairy. But if you think that I am so beautiful, take care that you do not kiss me, for if you do, then I shall have power over you.” Thomas immediately did much more than kiss her, and he therefore became her slave. She took him at once to fairy land, and on their way they passed through strange wild countries, much like those described in Robert Buchanan’s ballad; they passed the River of Blood; they passed dark trees laden with magical food; and they saw the road that reaches Heaven and the road that reaches Hell. But Buchanan could take only a few ideas from this poem. Other ideas I think were inspired by a ballad of Goethe’s, or at least by Sir Walter Scott’s version of it, “Frederick and Alice.” Frederick is a handsome young soldier who seduces a girl called Alice under promise of marriage, and then leaves her. He rides to join the army in France. The girl becomes insane with grief and shame; and the second day later she dies at four o’clock in the morning. Meantime Frederick unexpectedly loses his way; the rest I may best 370 tell in the original weird form. The horse has been frightened by the sound of a church bell striking the hour of four.
Heard ye not the boding sound,
As the tongue of yonder tower,
Slowly, to the hills around,
Told the fourth, the fated hour?
Starts the steed, and snuffs the air,
Yet no cause of dread appears;
Bristles high the rider’s hair,
Struck with strange mysterious fears.
Desperate as his terrors rise,
In the steed the spur he hides;
From himself in vain he flies;
Anxious, restless, on he rides.
Seven long days, and seven long nights,
Wild he wandered, woe the while !
Ceaseless care, and causeless fright,
Urge his footsteps many a mile.
Dark the seventh sad night descends;
Rivers swell, and rain-streams pour
While the deafening thunder lends
All the terrors of its roar.
At the worst part of his dreary wandering over an unknown and gloomy country, Frederick suddenly sees a light far away. This seems to him, as it seemed in Buchanan’s ballad to the soul of Judas, a light of hope. He goes to the light, and finds himself in front of a vast and ruinous looking church. Inside there is a light; he leaps down from his horse, descends some steps, and enters the building. Suddenly all is darkness again; he has to feel his way.
Long drear vaults before him lie!
Glimmering lights are seen to glide!—
“Blessed Mary, hear my cry!
Deign a sinner’s steps to guide!”
Often lost their quivering beam, 371
Still the lights move slow before,
Till they rest their ghastly gleam
Right against an iron door.
He is really in the underground burial place of a church, in the vaults of the dead, but he does not know it. He hears voices.
Thundering voices from within,
Mixed with peals of laughter, rose;
As they fell, a solemn strain
Lent its wild and wondrous close!
’Midst the din, he seem’d to hear
Voice of friends, by death removed;—
Well he knew that solemn air,
’Twas the lay that Alice loved.
Suddenly a great bell booms four times, and the iron door opens. He sees within a strange banquet; the seats are coffins, the tables are draped with black, and the dead are the guests.
Alice, in her grave-clothes bound,
Ghastly smiling, points a seat,
All arose with thundering sound;
All the expected stranger greet.
High their meagre arms they wave,
Wild their notes of welcome swell;
“Welcome, traitor, to the grave!
Perjured, bid the light farewell!”
I have given the greater part of this strange ballad because of its intrinsic value and the celebrity of its German author. But the part that may have inspired Buchanan is only the part concerning the wandering over the black moor, the light seen in the distance, the ghostly banquet of the dead, and the ruined vaults. A great poet would have easily found in these details the suggestion which Buchanan 372 found for the wandering of Judas to the light and the unexpected vision of the dead assembling to a banquet with him—but only this. The complete transformation of the fancy, the transmutation of the purely horrible into a ghostly beauty and tenderness, is the wonderful thing. After all, this is the chief duty of the poet in this world, to discover beauty even in the ugly, suggestions of beauty even in the cruel and terrible. This Buchanan did once so very well that his work will never be forgotten, but he received thereafter no equal inspiration, and the “Ballad of Judas” remains, alone of its kind, his only real claim to high distinction.
The poetry of Robert Buchanan is not great enough as poetry to justify many quotations, but as thinking it demands some attention. His third volume is especially of interest in this respect, because it contains a curious exposition of his religious idealism. Buchanan is a mystic; there is no doubt that he has been very much influenced by the mysticism of Blake. The whole of the poems collectively entitled “The Devil’s Mystics,” must have been suggested by Blake’s nomenclature. This collection belongs to “the Book of Orm,” which might have been well called “The Book of Robert Buchanan.” Orm ought to be a familiar name to students of English literature, one of the old English books also being called “The Ormulum,” because it was written by a man named Orm. Buchanan’s Orm is represented to be an ancient Celt, who has visions and dreams about the mystery of the universe, and who puts these visions and dreams, which are Buchanan’s, into old-fashioned verse.
The great Ernest Renan said in his “Dialogues Philosophiques” that if everybody in the world who had thought much about the mystery of things were to write down his ideas regarding the Infinite, some great truth might be discovered or deduced from the result. Buchanan has tried to follow this suggestion; for he has very boldly put down 373 all his thoughts about the world and man and God. As to results, however, I can find nothing particularly original except two or three queer fancies, none of which relates to the deeper riddles of being. In a preface in verse, the author further tells us that when he speaks of God he does not mean the Christian God or the God of India nor any particular God, but only the all- including Spirit of Life. Be that as it may, we find his imagery to be certainly borrowed from old Hebrew and old Christian thinkers; here he has not fulfilled expectations. But the imagery is used to express some ideas which I think you will find rather new—not exactly philosophical ideas, but moral parables.
One of these is a parable about the possible consequences of seeing or knowing the divine power which is behind the shadows of things. Suppose that there were an omnipotent God whom we could see; what would be the consequences of seeing him? Orm discovered that the blue of the sky was a blue veil drawn across Immensity to hide the face of God. One day, in answer to prayer, God drew aside the blue veil. Then all mankind were terrified because they saw, by day and by night, an awful face looking down upon them out of the sky, the sleepless eyes of the face seeming to watch each person constantly wherever he was. Did this make men happy? Not at all. They became tired of life, finding themselves perpetually watched; they covered their cities with roofs, and lived by lamp light only, in order to avoid being looked at by the face, God. This queer parable, recounted in the form of a dream, has a meaning worth thinking about. The ultimate suggestion, of course, is that we do not know and see many things because it would make us very unhappy to know them.
An equally curious parable, also related in the form of a dream, treats of the consolations of death. What would become of mankind if there were no death? I think you will remember that I told you how the young poet William Watson took up the same subject a few years ago, in his 374 remarkable poem “A Dream of Man.” Watson's supposition is that men became so wise, so scientific, that they were able to make themselves immortal and to conquer death. But at last they became frightfully unhappy, unutterably tired of life, and were obliged to beg God to give them back death again. And God said to them, “You are happier than I am. You can die; I cannot. The only happiness of existence is effort. Now you can have your friend death back again.” Buchanan’s idea was quite different from this. His poem is called “The Dream of the World without Death.” Men prayed to God that there might be no more death or decay of the body; and the prayer was granted. People continued to disappear from the world, but they did not die. They simply vanished, when their time came, as ghosts. A child goes out to play in the field, for example, and never comes back again; the mother finds only the empty clothes of her darling. Or a peasant goes to the fields to work, and his body is never seen again. People found that this was a much worse condition of things than had been before. For the consolation of knowledge, of certainty, was not given them. The dead body is a certificate of death; nature uses corruption as a seal, an official exhibit and proof of the certainty of death. But when there is no body, no corpse, no possible sign, how horrible is the disappearance of the persons we love. The mystery of it is a much worse pain than the certain knowledge of death. Doubt is the worst form of torture. Well, when mankind had this experience, they began to think that, after all, death was a beautiful and good thing, and they prayed most fervently that they might again have the privilege of dying in the old way, of putting the bodies of their dead into beautiful tombs, of being able to visit the graves of their beloved from time to time. So God took pity on them and gave them back death, and the poet sings his gratitude thus:
And I cried, “O unseen Sender of Corruption, 373
I bless thee for the wonder of Thy mercy,
Which softeneth the mystery and the parting.
“I bless Thee for the change and for the comfort,
The bloomless face, shut eyes, and waxen fingers,—
For Sleeping, and for Silence, and Corruption."
This idea is worth something, if only as a vivid teaching of the necessity of things as they are. The two fantasies thus commented upon are the most original things in the range of this mystical book. I could not recommend any further reading or study of the poet, except perhaps of his “Vision of the Man Accurst.” But even this has not the true stamp of originality; and only the “Ballad of Judas Iscariot” is certain not to be soon forgotten.
[A Note on Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904).
The full text of Appreciations of Poetry is available for download on the Internet Archive site. It was published in 1916 and is a selection (by John Erskine) of lectures delivered at the University of Tokyo between 1896 and 1902 when Lafcadio Hearn held the chair of English Literature. Hearn is perhaps best known today, at least in the West, for his translations of Japanese folk tales and ghost stories - particularly In Ghostly Japan and Kwaidan (filmed in 1964 by Masaki Kobayashi) - but if you want to find out more about this fascinating writer, I’d suggest this Lafcadio Hearn website.
As for Hearn’s ‘Note on Robert Buchanan’, I suppose one should be grateful that he bothered to mention him at all but to dismiss everything apart from ‘The Ballad of Judas Iscariot’ and a few selections from ‘The Book of Orm’ does seem rather unfair. Even if the lecture was delivered in 1896, you would still expect some mention of the longer works - Balder The Beautiful, The City of Dream, The Wandering Jew. Perhaps Hearn felt these weren’t worth mentioning, but I do wonder, since he states that, “Three volumes represent his poetical production”, if he was taking as his text the three volume ‘Poetical Works’, published in London by H. S. King, and in Boston by James R. Osgood, in 1874.]
Back to The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan
The Cambridge History of English Literature. Vol XIII The Nineteenth Century
(Cambridge University Press, 1916)
From ‘Chapter VI: Lesser Poets of the Middle and Later Nineteenth Century’ by George Saintsbury.
The notable poets born in the forties who can be noticed here are rather fewer in number than those of the previous decade, but they are of more uniform merit; and, once more, they introduce, as a group, new influences of the highest importance from a historical point of viw. Almost all of them felt early, and most of them felt from the beginning of their poetical career, the great new impulse of the pre-Raphaelite movement, in development, in revolt, or in simple agreement or difference. In chonological order they include John Addington Symonds, Robert Buchanan, Frederic Myers, Gerard Hopkins, Andrew Lang and William Ernest Henley.
. . . mawkishness.
That, at least, is a fault which could not be charged against his junior by a year, Robert Buchanan. A novelist, a dramatist, a miscellaneous writer of all sorts, Buchanan underwent to the full the drawback and the danger (here often pointed out) of such divagation; and his temper, rather than his genius, exposed him to another set-back. He was quite entitled to attack the pre-Raphaelite school if he wished to do so; but his unluckily pseudonymous assault (if it had been anonymous it would hardly have mattered much, and if it had been signed nothing at all) on the ‘fleshly’ school of poetry combined the violence of Esau with the disingenuousness of Jacob; and, though some of those whom it attacked were magnanimous enough to forgive it, it could not be easily forgotten. It ought to be said, however, that Buchanan showed no bad blood in regard to open counter-attacks on himself, and his verse, as always, is entitled to be judged without regard to this misadventure, after the dues of history are paid. His verse, though produced rather in the earlier than in the later part of his career, was voluminous, and it was exceedingly unequal; but it has, what many of his contemporaries lacked, a certain sincerity sufficient to atone for an occasional imitation which he shared with them. Ratcliffe Meg, one of his most commonly praised poems, is rather a close approach to success than an attainment of it. But The Vision of the Man Accurst, The Ballad of Judas Iscariot (perhaps the best of the numerous attempts on the subject) and some passages on awe-inspiring aspects of the scenery in the Coolin and Coruisk districts of Skye, are poetry.
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Robert Buchanan: Concerning a Forgotten Poet
From The Murray Pioneer (Renmark, South Australia) (14 October, 1927 - p.8)
Concerning a Forgotten Poet
A Mypolonga friend; to whom I am indebted for various kindnesses, has sent me the complete poetical works of Robert Buchanan in two beautifully bound volumes. On sundry occasions, in the rare letters that have passed between us, we have discussed the merits of this writer, and though I don’t share my friend’s enthusiasm for Buchanan as a poet, or only very partially, I am glad to have the volumes and am much obliged to him for his thoughtfulness.
Buchanan was a writer who enjoyed a very considerable vogue in his day—the seventies, eighties and nineties of last century, as poet, novelist and dramatist, and critic. He is remembered today by little beyond his fierce and unscrupulous attack on Dante Rossetti’s poetry (“the Fleshly School of Poetry”), which is said to have been the primary cause of Rossetti’s death, and by two or three of his ballads—by “Judas Iscariot”, and (through the concert platform) by “Phil Blood’s Leap.”
As a lad at school I was immensely impressed by the reading of Buchanan’s “Shadow of the Sword”—the story of a French “conscientious objector” in Napoleon’s day, and in later years by his novel “God and the Man.” I do not know how they would appeal to me today. It is sometimes a disenchanting experience to re-read the idols of one’s youth. In later years, some 36 years ago, I bought a slender volume of ballads by Buchanan which appealed strongly to me. The book was lost, and I have tried in vain of recent years to get another copy for the sake of two of the ballads it contained—one about Magellan and one with a refrain based on the haunting words of Mary Magdalene at the tomb: “They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him.”
An old volume of Buchanan’s collected poems which I picked up many years ago contained his poems only up to 1883, and neither of these ballads are in it. They are both in the new volumes my friend has sent me. The “Voyage of Magellan” is longer than I remembered it as being but stands re-reading well. Like “Storm in the Night,” in which the Biblical line that haunted me occurs, it is part of a long narrative poem, “The Earthquake”, on the model of the Decameron, Heptameron, Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”, and Longfellow’s “Tales of a Wayside Inn.” Either my memory played me false, or Buchanan afterwards thought to improve on the Biblical utterance, for the line appears in the “Collected Works” in, what seems to me a much less effective form, “They have taken my Lord,”
Storm in the night! and a voice in the storm is crying:
‘They have taken my Lord, and I know not where he is lying!
‘I sat in the Tomb by His side, with a soul unshaken,
I chafed his clay-cold hands—for I knew he must waken.
‘Before he closed His eyes, He said to the weeping—
“’Tis but a little while—I shall wake from sleeping!”
‘Cold and stiff He lay, not seeing or hearing;
The Tomb was sealed with a rock—but I sat unfearing.
‘For a light lay on His eyes, and His face was gleaming;
I heard Him sigh in His sleep, and thought “He is dreaming!”
‘And then, with a thunder-peal, the rock was riven;
Bright in the mouth of the Tomb, stood Angels of Heaven!
‘He did not stir, though I whispered, “Master, awaken!”
Then brightness blinded my eyes,—and lo, He was taken!
* * *
‘Twice—on the desert sands, in the City Holy,
I have found two piercèd footprints, vanishing slowly!
* * *
;And now they say, “He is dead—hath the world forsaken.”
Ah no, He hath promised!—hath wakened—or will awaken!’
Storm in the night! and a voice in the Storm still crying:
‘They have taken my lord, and I know not where He is lying!’
The man who could write that deserves not to be wholly forgotten. He would probably have been remembered better had he written less. Like Swinburne, a vastly greater poet, he suffered from what Carlyle called “a diarrhoea of words.” He had enormous facility in verse, especially in the ballad form, and wrote too much and too lengthily. There are 524 doubled-columned, closely printed pages in one of the volumes of verse before me and 432 in the other, and what there is of good in his poetry is buried under mountains of mediocre, though generally readable, verse that few will have the courage or the patience to wade through.
Buchanan was himself a voice crying in the storm. Though he had rejected the dogmas of the Church he stood, in his writings, for the old loyalties—for truth, purity, freedom, and chivalric honour, and was a fierce defender of the oppressed. It is probably for these things that my friend loves him, as much as for his poetry as such. But in his life he does not appear to have been altogether admirable. He was scathingly criticised by Robertson Nicoll in The British Weekly (in an article afterwards republished in “A Bookman’s Letters”) on the occasion of the appearance of the “Life of Robert Buchanan” by his adopted daughter Miss Harriet Jay in 1902. My friend writes that he has read this book, and it has evidently not destroyed his admiration for its subject. He writes of it as “an absorbing book, which reveals the poet intimately and his Divine quest, perhaps not realized, the more remarkable because he was the son of a renowned agnostic lecturer, whom, however, he loved with deep and lasting affection.”
Nicoll, who wrote very scathingly of Buchanan with respect to some aspects of his life and work, notes, as heavily in his favour, “that he retained through life the warm affection of three such women as his mother, his wife, and his sister-in-law.” Of his work generally Nicoll says: “He had an unquestionable touch of genius, and has done some fine things. But by far the larger part of his work is quite dead, and only the merest fragments can survive.” I fancy a well edited selection from his ballads would still be read by many.
Rossetti, who had been deeply injured by Buchanan, is said to have been much touched by “The Ballad of Judas Iscariot” when it was brought under his notice, and Buchanan acknowledged his repentance for his vile attack on the far greater poet in a rhymed preface to “God and the Man.” My friend, in the letter from which I have already quoted, says: “The closing verses of ‘Iscariot’ seem to reveal a beautiful conception of divine love that appeals strongly to me.”
’Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
Floated away full fleet,
And the wings of the dove that bare it off
Were like its winding-sheet.
’Twas the Bridegroom stood at the open door,
And beckoned, smiling sweet;
’Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Stole in, and fell at his feet.
‘The Holy Supper is spread within,
And the many candles shine,
And I have waited long for thee
Before I poured the wine!’
The supper wine is poured at last,
The lights burn bright and fair,
Iscariot washes the Bridegroom’s feet,
And dries them with his hair.
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‘The Poetry of Robert Buchanan’ by T. L. Adamson
From The Poetry Review (July-August, 1929.)
THE POETRY OF ROBERT BUCHANAN
ROBERT BUCHANAN was born in Caverswall in Lancashire of Scottish parents on August 18th, 1841. His father was a keen follower of Robert Owen, the Socialist poet, and at one time used to stump the country as a controversialist on the side of Free Thought. When he moved to London, his house in Norwood became a rallying point for all types of apostles of progress. It was in this stimulating atmosphere of free and frank discussion that young Robert, an only child, spent his earliest years. He had a boy’s ordinary affection for his father, but for his mother an overmastering worship that remained steadfast throughout her long life of eighty years. It is only natural that his mother idolised him. As a boy he was never happy away from her, and sheltered from adverse influences, his naturally sensitive nature became over-sensitive and too highly strung, and proved a handicap to him in the rough and tumble of later years. Although he had no formal religious teaching from his parents, his mother developed and deepened his sympathy with others and his instinctive hatred of injustice and oppression. At the age of ten his father moved to Scotland, and young Robert soon learned the meaning of intolerance, for, as the son of a free-thinking father in a land of the strictest orthodoxy, he was treated as a social outcast. His resentment of this treatment culminated in his being expelled from a school at Rothesay for being restless and mutinous.
But his Scottish environment was not all unhappiness. Poetry was in that Scottish air, and he drank it in with a growing delight. At that period poems were read and discussed in every village in the neighbourhood; indeed, there were few villages that could not boast a poet who had appeared in print. Then with all his boyish soul hungry for the greatest poetry he was taken to see the actor Vandenhoff in King Lear. It was his first real contact with Shakespeare. The effect of that first contact on an artistic mind is always profoundly interesting. On one it may be the harmonious beauty of the language, on another the wonderful imagery, on a third the marvellous insight into character that makes the greatest impression. But let Buchanan himself tell us what appealed to him.
“It swept me beyond myself when I was a boy. I feel now, as I felt then, the unapproachable truth and sublimity of such passages as the one in Act III, where the storm-beaten monarch first realises the mystery of human wretchedness and pain. Here the very quick of pity is touched. . . . The influence on my own character of this masterpiece was deep and abiding. I first gained from it that perception of the piteousness of life which has been, despite all aberrations into contemporary savagery, the inspiration of all my writings. To me the storm-tossed figure of Lear represented humanity itself, swept hither and thither by the elemental and seemingly aimless cruelty of nature, yet coming at last to anchorage and an equally elemental peace and calm. I was taught by the contemplation of his wretchedness, as he himself was taught by personal strife and sorrow, to feel for that sorrow of which I had hitherto taken ‘too little heed’.”
It is on the poems with this inspiration that Buchanan’s claim to greatness must rest.
At the age of nineteen, he came to London with a friend and fellow poet, David Gray, to try his fortunes. Gray lived but a short time leaving his sorrowing friend to struggle on alone. After a hard fight, Buchanan gradually won recognition not only as a poet but also as a novelist, essayist, biographer, critic, and playwright. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that in his prime Robert Buchanan was the most versatile man in England, with the possible exception of Lord Lytton. It was during this hard fight for recognition that he narrowly escaped disaster. Young and very proud, he sometimes felt acutely and resented bitterly the patronising way in which Mr. Maxwell, a newspaper proprietor, occasionally received him. So one morning he picked up a parcel of MS., procured a thick cudgel and went to see Mr. Maxwell, fully intending (to use his own words) “to beat out what brains the ruffian possessed and offer him up as a sacrifice to the Muses!” Buchanan says he was really in earnest, but fortunately his reception on that occasion was friendly, and the cudgel was not even hinted at during the interview. It is an example of the lengths to which an oversensitive man is sometimes prepared to go.
Throughout a lifetime that only lasted sixty years, Buchanan’s energy seemed inexhaustible. Despite all his other activities, including the long and bitter controversy with what he called The Fleshly School of Poetry, his literary output was enormous, his poems alone running to over 1,000 pages, in double columns, of closely printed type. This article is solely concerned with his poems, in which his range was as great as his output. Sonnets, lyrics, ballads, narrative and dramatic poems all came easily from his pen, but his greatest work is to be found in his poems of the life of the underworld of London, and in a series of mystical poems in which he embodied with a fine imagination his theories of the ultimate meaning of life.
Let us first turn to his lyrics, many of which are embedded in his longer poems. Here is a stanza from “A Spring Song in the City.”
“Little barefoot maiden,
Selling violets blue,
Hast thou ever pictured
Where the sweetlings grew?—
Oh, the warm wild woodland ways,
Deep in dewy grasses,
Where the wind-blown shadow strays,
Scented as it passes!”
And another from “The Birth of Balder” in “Balder the Beautiful”:—
“There blent with his growing,
The leaf and the flower
The wind lightly blowing
Its balm from afar,
The smile of the sunshine
The sob of the shower,
The beam of the moonshine,
The gleam of the star.
’Mid shining of faces
And waving of wings,
With gifts from all places
Came beautiful things;
The blush from the blossom,
The bloom from the corn,
Blent into his bosom,
Ere Balder was born.”
Is not this word pattern pleasing with its delightful interweaving of the richer vowel sounds?
The following is from “The Outcast.”
“And slowly, softly, down the night
O’er the smooth black and glistering sea,
The starry urns of crystal light
Were filled and emptied momently!
Then in the centre of the glimmer
The round moon ripen’d as she rose,
And covered with the milk-white shimmer
The glassy waters took repose;
And round the isle a murmur deep
Of troubled surges half asleep
Broke faintlier and faintlier
As midnight took her shadowy throne;
In heaven, on earth, no breath, no stir,
No sound, save that deep slumbrous tone!
Wonder of darkness!—’neath its wing
All living things sank slumbering.”
“The Wedding of Shon Maclean” is a bagpipe melody which tells us that Buchanan was by no means an anchorite or a mere visionary, but a man whose feet were on the earth and who was fully appreciative of the joys of conviviality. I defy any Scotsman to read the chorus of this ballad without some stirring of his pulse!
“To the wedding of Shon Maclean,
Twenty Pipers together
Came in the wind and the rain
Playing across the heather;
Backward their ribbons flew,
Blast upon blast they blew,
Each clad in tartan new
Bonnet and blackcock feather:
And every Piper was fou,
Twenty Pipers together”:
with the inevitable conclusion!
“And the twenty Pipers at break of day
In twenty different bogholes lay,
Serenely sleeping upon their way
From the wedding of Shon Maclean!”
And now let us turn to the more serious works of Robert Buchanan. Chief among these are the London Poems, which he wrote a few years after he came to London. I have already mentioned that his struggle was a hard one, and in the course of that struggle he came into close touch with the underworld of London. His natural sympathy with suffering and injustice was quickened, and in London Poems he expresses his sympathy with types of humanity that are not usually food for poetic thought.
Mr. J. A. Noble, in an introduction to some of Robert Buchanan’s poems, has said that:
“Years before Buchanan was born, Thomas Hood had sung of the suicide of an ‘unfortunate’ and by so singing had triumphantly defied the traditions of poetical responsibility.Still in the midst of the defiance, there was a suggestion of compromise. Hood did not dare to be quite true to the actual, and the picture was accordingly touched up. We know that any picture of a subject such as that treated in the ‘Bridge of Sighs,’ in which there appears ‘only the beautiful’ is not simply an idealisation, but a transformation of reality; and while true idealisation enhances this, false idealisation detracts from the value of any work of art in which it is found. There are two errors into one of which those poets who deal in homely and human themes are apt to fall. The first is that of men who, like Hood, preserve the poetry by keeping back some of the truth; the second is that of a writer like Crabbe, who lets us see all the truth but seems unable to show us the underlying poetry.”
In Robert Buchanan, he says, we find both truth and poetry.
One of the London Poems is “In Tiger Bay.” A man sees in a dream a tigress watching and finally killing a sleeping negro. Then he sees a “tigress-woman” watching and thirsting to kill a dying sailor in a garret for the sake of his money. But
“The light on his face appalIeth her . . .
His soul shines out and she fears his soul,
Tho’ he lieth sleeping.”
And she does not kill him.
Then follows an impassioned protest by the dreamer to God who made both the tigress and the “tigress-woman.” God’s reply is one of the most beautiful things that Buchanan ever wrote. Here, indeed, is power, sincerity and serenity.
“. . . Only a spark!
So faint as yet, and so dim to mark,
. . . . .
Fan it, feed it, in love and duty,
. . . . .
Till it burns the bestial frame and face
To its own dim beauty. . . .”
Two other London Poems almost as powerful and imaginative are “Nell,” which describes the sorrows of an unmarried mother on the day her man is hanged for murder, and “Liz”, the pathetic tale of another unmarried mother, who dies leaving a little boy for her Joe.
In all these London Poems, sad as they are, there is a strong under-current of unquenchable hope. However degraded, demoralised or bestial a human being might appear to be, Buchanan still believed that the great God or good which rules the world had implanted a “spark,” and that in that “spark” was ever the possibility of ultimate redemption. Throughout his life this belief was of the very fibre of his being.
This same unquenchable hope of redemption is instinct in his “Ballad of Judas Iscariot,” in which the soul of Judas Iscariot, after vainly trying to bury his body, at long last finds forgiveness of the Bridegroom, who is Christ. The form of this poem is reminiscent of The Ancient Mariner.
London Poems may be described as the expression of Buchanan’s imagination of what happens before the veil. In his Book of Orm, the Celt are his imaginings of what happens behind the veil. In the final vision of Orm is another and even more brilliant flight of the imagination on the theme of the redeeming power of love. God’s judgment has been pronounced and all the world, save one man, has been redeemed. That man had sinned all sins; his soul was “a blackness and foul odour.” He is unrepentant, has no desire for any contact with good, but finally makes one appeal to God.
“. . . He is content to dwell
In the Cold Clime for ever, so thou sendest
A face to look upon, a heart that beats,
A hand to touch—albeit like himself,
Black, venomous, unblest, exiled and base:
Give him this thing, he will be very still,
Nor trouble thee again.”
Only two in Heaven are willing to go to comfort him—the one his mother whom he slew in anger, the other his wife whom “he stript, with ravenous claws, of raiment and of food.” They go. Their love overcomes him. “For an alien sound, a piteous human cry, a sob forlorn, thrilled to the heart of Heaven” and “The Man is saved; let the Man enter in!”
The same thought is lightly touched on in The Outcast. This somewhat bitter poem is, however, chiefly interesting in providing a comparison of two poets in their expression of similar ideas.
In The Outcast we read:
Falls like a garment to my feet.
Naked I front thy Judgment Seat.”
This seems to find a distant echo in
“Naked I wait Thy love’s uplifted stroke
My harness piece by piece thou hast hewn from me.”
“Or when with sudden thunderous cry
The chariots of the clouds roll by”
might almost have directly inspired:
“Or whether thunder-driven
They clanged his chariot ’thwart a heaven.”
Robert Buchanan and Francis Thompson certainly had affinities.
In conclusion, here are two sonnets typical of many written during a holiday by Lake Coruisk.
The Cup of Tears.
My God! My God! with passionate appeal
Pardon I crave for these mad moods of mine—
Can I remember, with no heart to feel,
The gift of Thy dear Son, the Man Divine—
My God! what agonies of love were Thine,
Sitting alone, forgotten, on Thy height,
Pale, powerless, awful in that Lonely Light,
While ’neath Thy feet the cloudy hyaline
Rain’d blood upon the darkness—where Thine Own
Held the black Cup of all earth’s tears, and cried!
Ev’n then, tho’ Thou wert conscious of his groan,
Pale in that Lonely Light Thou did’st abide,
Nor dared, even then, tho’ shaken on Thy throne,
To reach Thy hand and dash the Cup aside.
The Happy Hearts of Earth.
Whence thou hast come, thou knowest not, little Brook,
Nor whither thou art bound. Yet wild and gay,
Pleased in thyself, and pleasing all that look,
Thou wendest, all the seasons, on thy way;
The lonely glen grows gladsome with thy play,
Thou glidest lamb-like through the ghostly shade;
To think of solemn things thou wast not made,
But to sing on, for pleasure, night and day.
Such happy hearts are wandering, crystal clear,
In the great world where men and women dwell;
Earth’s mighty shows they neither love nor fear,
They are content to be, while I rebel,
Out of their own delight dispensing cheer,
And ever softly whispering, “All is well!”
Buchanan appears to be a neglected poet to-day, but in his best poems there is an imaginative power, an individual beauty of expression and above all, such a strong and tender human sympathy that he must surely in the years to come win a place among the Immortals.
T. L. ADAMSON.
[I came across the following review of Adamson’s article in The Devon and Exeter Gazette of 13th August, 1929:
‘“THE POETRY REVIEW,” for July-August, contains some notable contributions. This magazine, the Journal of the Poetry Society, 16 Featherstone Buildings, London, W.C.1., published at 1s. 3d. net, is always worth the money. Besides original poems written by well-known poets, one always comes across something out of the common. This month I find an extremely interesting article on J. K. Huysmans as a poet. So many regard him as a novelist, but very few as a poet. Readers of the eighties were familiar with “A Reboura,” “Marthe,” and “Les Sœurs Vatard,” and later on we were treated to “En Route,” “La Cathedrale,” and “L’Oblat.” We read these wonderful works as novels, but Signor Federico Olivero makes us look upon them as poems. He is right when he says that Huysman’s whole work “may be considered as a poem of the soul, a lyrical manifestation in prose.” Miss Maisie Spens gives a timely appreciation of Ralph Hodgson, and Mr. T. L. Adamson has written a splendid article on the poetry of Robert Buchanan. Buchanan was one of the most versatile men of his time. It is astonishing that he has been so neglected as a poet. His abilities surpassed many who have been recognised as outstanding writers. He was a great novelist, dramatist, and poet. But somehow he managed to ruffle people. His article, “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” was a big mistake, but he made amends to Rossetti in a generous dedication. Memories, however, are long, and undoubtedly the article roused the ire of the critics. Buchanan’s poetry is well worth careful study, and I have no hesitation in saying that much of it will live. I have only mentioned a few of the interesting things to be found in this number; there are many more which I will leave the reader to discover for himself.’ ]
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