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Harriett Jay

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‘Faces on the Wall’, a sequence of 12 sonnets, was originally published in The Saint Pauls magazine in May 1872. A revised version was included in Volume II of the 1874 edition of The Poetical Works (London: H. S. King & Co., Boston: James R. Osgood and Co.) in which the eighth sonnet, ‘Robert Browning’, was omitted. This 11 sonnet version of ‘Faces on the Wall’ was subsequently published in the Chatto & Windus editions of The Poetical Works in 1884 and 1901.)








LONE HOUSE amid the Main, where I abide,
     Faces there are around thy walls; and see!
With constant features, fair and faithful-eyed,
     In solemn silence these admonish me.
     They are the Faces of the strong and free;
Prophets who on the car of Tempest ride;
Martyrs who drift amid the waters wide
     On some frail raft, and pray on bended knee.
Stay with me, Faces! make me free and strong!
     On other walls let flush’d Bacchantes leer;
In quainter rooms of snugger sons of song
     Let old fantastic tapestries appear.
Lone House! for comfort, when the nights are long,
     Let none but future-seeking eyes be here!





The lone House shakes, the wild waves leap around,
     Their sharp mouths foam, their frantic hands wave high;
I hear around me a sad soul of sound,—
     A ceaseless sob,—a melancholy cry.
     Above, there is the trouble of the sky.
On either side stretch waters with no bound.
     Within, my cheek upon my hand, sit I,
Oft startled by sick faces of the drown’d.
     Yet are there golden dawns and glassy days
When the vast Sea is smooth and sunk in rest,
     And in the sea the gentle heaven doth gaze,
And, seeing its own beauty, smiles its best;
     With nights of peace, when, in a virgin haze,
God’s Moon wades thro’ the shallows of the west.





The sea without, the silent room within,
     The mystery above, the void below!
I watch the storms die and the storms begin;
     I see the white ships ghost-like come and go;
     I wave a signal they may see and know,
As, crowding up on deck with faces thin,
The seamen pass,—some sheltered creek to win,
     Or drift to whirling pools of pain and woe.
What prospect, then, on midnights dark and dead,
     When the room rocks and the wild water calls?—
Only to mark the beacon I have fed,
     Whose cold streak glassily on the black sea falls;
Only, while the dim lamp burns overhead,
     To watch the glimmering Faces on the walls.





Look on that picture, and on this. . . . Behold
     The Face that frown’d the rights of realms away;
The imperial forehead, filleted with gold;
     The arrogant chin, the lips of frozen clay.
     This is the later Cæsar, whose great day
Was one long sunset in blood-ruby rolled,
     Till, on an ocean-island lone and gray,
It sank unblest, forgotten, dead, and cold.
     Yea, this is he who swept from plain to plain,
     Watering the harvest-fields with crimson rain;
This is the Eagle who on garbage fed.
     Turn to the wall the pitiless eyes. Art, Thought,
     Law, Science, owed the monster less than nought;
And Nature breath’d again when he was dead.





Nay here, behold the sad Soul of the West                                        [1]
     Passing behind a rainbow bloodily!
     Conscience incarnate, steadfast, strong, and free,
Changeless thro’ change, blessing and ever blessed.
Sad storm-cloud with God’s Iris on his breast,
     Across the troubled ocean travelled he,—
Sad was his passing! gentle be his rest!
     God’s Bow sails with him on another sea!

At first no larger than a prophet’s hand,
     Against the dense insufferable blue
Cloud-like he came; and by a fierce wind fanned,
     Didst gather into greatness ere we knew,
Then, flash by flash, most desolately grand,
     Passed away sadly heavenward, dropping dew!





Friend Whitman! wert thou less serene and kind,
     Surely thou mightest (like our Bard sublime,
Scorn’d by a generation deaf and blind),
     Make thine appeal to the avenger, Time;
     For thou art none of those who upward climb,
Gathering roses with a vacant mind.
Ne’er have thy hands for jaded triflers twined
     Sick flowers of rhetoric and weeds of rhyme.
Nay, thine hath been a Prophet’s stormier fate.
While Lincoln and the martyr’d legions wait
     In the yet widening blue of yonder sky,
On the great strand below them thou art seen,—
Blessing, with something Christ-like in thy mien,
     A sea of turbulent lives that break and die!





O Faces! that look forward, eyes that spell
     The future time for signs, what see ye there?
On what far gleams of portent do ye dwell?
     Whither, with lips like quivering leaves and hair
     Back-blowing in the whirlwind, do ye stare
So steadfast and so still? O speak and tell!
Is the soul safe? shall the sick world be well?
     Will morning glimmer soon, and all be fair?
O Faces! ye are pale, and somewhat sad,
     And in your eyes there swim the fatal tears;
But on your brows the dawn gleams cold and hoar.
     I, too, gaze forward, and my heart grows glad;
I catch the comfort of the golden years;
     I see the Soul is safe for evermore!





Bearded like some strong shipman, with a beam
     Of grey orbs glancing upward at the sky,
O friend, thou standest, pondering thy theme,
     And watching, while the troublous days blow by
     Their cloudy signs and portents; then thine eye
Falleth, and, reading with poetic gleam
     The human lineaments that round thee lie,
Peers to the soul, and softens into dream.
O dweller in the winds and waves of life,
Reader of living faces foul and fair,
     No nobler mariner may mortal meet!
Steadfast and sure thou movest thro’ the strife,
Knowing the signs and symbols of the air,
     Yet gentle as the dews about thy feet.





Go, latter Della Cruscans. Far, O far                                                [1]
     Be your thin monotone, your brows flower-crown’d,
Your backward-looking faces; for ye mar
     The pregnant time with silly sooth of sound,
     With flowers around the feverish temples bound,
And withering in the close air of the feast.
     Take all the hothouse-garlands ye have found,                               [7]
While Circe-charm’d ye turn to bird and beast.
     Meantime I sit apart, a lonely wight
On this bare rock amid this fitful sea,
     And in the wind and rain I try to light
A little lamp that may a beacon be,
     Whereby poor ship-folk, driving thro’ the night,
May gain the Ocean-course, and think of me!





God’s blessing on poor ship-folk! Peace and prayer
     Fall on their eyelids till they close in sleep!
God send them gentle winds and summer air,
     For the great sea is treacherous and deep.
     Light me up lamps on every ocean-steep,—
Beacon the shallows with a living care.                                              [6]
     Ay me! the wind cries and the wild waves leap,
And on they drive—God knows—they know not—where.
     Come Poets! come, O Prophets! yea, disown
The phantasies and phantoms ye pursue!
     Lights! lights! with fatal snares the sea is sown.
Guide the poor ship-folk lone beneath the blue.
     Nay, do not light for Lazarus alone,
But light for Dives and the Devil too.





Lone is his life who, on a sea-tower blind,
     Watcheth all weathers o’er the beacon-light.
Ah! woe to him if, mad with his own mind,
     He groweth sick for scenes more sweet and bright;
     For round him, in the dreadful winter night,
The snow drifts, and the waves beat, and the wind
     Shrieks desolately, while with feeble sight
He readeth some old Scripture left behind
     By those who sat before him in that place,
And in their season perish’d, one and all. . . .
Wild raves the wind: the Faces on the wall
     Seem phantoms: features dark and dim to trace.
He starteth up—he tottereth—he would fall,
     When, lo! the gleam of one Diviner Face!





O Faces! fade upon the wall, and leave
     This only, for the watcher to implore.
Dim with the peace that starry twilights weave,
     It riseth, and the storm is hush’d and o’er.
     Trembling I feed my feeble lamp once more,
Tho’ all be placid as a summer eve.
See there it moves where weary waters grieve,—
     O mariners! look yonder and adore!
     Spirit, grow brighter on my nights and days;
Shine out of heaven; my guide and comfort be:
     Pilot the wanderers through the ocean ways:
Keep the stars steadfast, and the waters free:
     Lighten thy lonely creature while he prays:
Keep his Soul strong amid the mighty Sea!


Alterations in the 1884 edition of The Poetical Works of Robert Buchanan:
The title, ‘Faces on the Wall’, is followed by the date 1876.
l. 1: TURN; and, behold the sad Soul of the West
Title changed to ‘TO TRIFLERS.’
l. 1: GO, triflers with God’s secret. Far, oh far
l. 7: Take all the summer pleasures ye have found,
l. 6: Beacon the shallows with a loving care.

Buchanan’s reason for omitting the Browning sonnet is not known, but it is fairly safe to speculate that Browning raised some objection to it. It had already been published in Saint Pauls before Buchanan sought Browning’s approval, as revealed in the letter of May 2nd 1872, which begins:
     “I enclose a copy of St Pauls in which (amid “Faces on the Wall”) you will see a sonnet to yourself: which I hope you will take in good part.”
The Browning sonnet was later published in Frederick J. Furnivall’s Browning Society’s Papers, Part I (1881) and in Aleph Tanner's Homage to Robert Browning (Waco, Texas: Baylor University, 1920).

The only other significant change in the later version of ‘Faces on the Wall’, concerns the original ninth sonnet, which has its title changed from “To The Della Cruscans” to “To Triflers”. This original version is an obvious attack on the Pre- Raphaelites. ‘Faces on the Wall’ was published at the height of the ‘Fleshly School’ controversy, in the same month as Buchanan’s pamphlet, The Fleshly School of Poetry and Other Phenomena of the Day, which included references to an anonymous article, ‘Coterie Glory’ (Saturday Review, 24th February 1872) comparing the Pre-Raphaelites to the “Della Cruscan school” on the grounds that all their reviews were written by their friends. Although that is not the only derogatory element in the comparison, as this passage from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature (1907-21) makes clear:

"For the nadir of the art, however—which, as if to justify divers sayings, was reached just before the close of the eighteenth century, and just before those ascents to the zenith which illustrated its actual end, and the early nineteenth— one must go beyond Darwin, beyond even Hayley, to Robert Merry and those about him—to the school commonly called the Della Cruscans, from the famous Florentine academy to which Merry actually belonged, and the title of which he took as signature. Darwin, as has been said, is a pattern of mistaken elaborateness, and Hayley one of well- intentioned nullity. But Darwin was not imbecile; and Hayley was not, or not very, pretentious. The school just referred to was preceded in its characteristics by some earlier work, such as that of Helen Maria Williams and Sir James Bland Burges (later Sir James Lamb). But, in itself, it united pretentiousness and imbecility after a fashion not easy to parallel elsewhere; and was, inadequately, rather than excessively, chastised in the satires of Gifford and Mathias. It does not appear that all its members were, personally, absolute fools. Merry himself is credited by Southey and others with a sort of irregular touch of genius: and “Anna Matilda”—Mrs. Cowley, the author of The Belle’s Stratagem—certainly had wits. But they, and still more their followers, “Laura,” “Arley,” “Benedict,” “Cesario,” “The Bard,” etc. (some of whom can be identified, while others, fortunately for themselves cannot) drank themselves drunk at the heady tap of German Sturm-und-Drang romanticism, blending it with French sentimentality and Italian trifling, so as to produce almost inconceivable balderdash. Even the widest reading of English verse could hardly enable anyone to collect from the accumulated poetry of the last three centuries an anthology of folly and bad taste surpassing the two volumes of The British Album, the crop of a very few years and the labour of some half-a-dozen or half-a-score pens."

Why Buchanan toned down the reference in the 1874 version of the poem, “latter Della Cruscans” becoming “triflers with God’s secret”, is not known, but one assumes that the original was written in the first flush of enthusiasm for the fight at hand. It is worth noting that Buchanan wrote ‘Faces on the Wall’ while he was living at Oban, in Scotland, and he casts himself as an exile from the literary world - “Meantime I sit apart, a lonely wight / On this bare rock amid this fitful sea,” - while assuming the moral high ground. Two years later, realising how much damage the ‘Fleshly School’ controversy had done both to Rossetti’s health and his own reputation, Buchanan presumably wanted to distance himself a little.]



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


The Critical Response
Harriett Jay


Site Diary
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