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Buchanan’s review of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads.


The Athenæum (4 August, 1866 - No. 2023, pp.137-138)

Poems and Ballads. By Algernon Charles Swinburne. (Moxon & Co.)

Mr. Swinburne commenced his literary career with considerable brilliance. His ‘Atalanta in Calydon’ evinced noticeable gifts of word-painting and of music; and his ‘Chastelard,’ though written in a monotone, contained several passages of dramatic force and power. In the latter work, however, there was too open a proclivity to that garish land beyond the region of pure thinking, whither so many inferior writers have been lured for their destruction,—the land where Atys became a raving and sexless maniac, and where Catullus himself would have perished had he not been drawn back to the shadier border-region by the sincerity of his one grand passion. The glory of our modern poetry is its transcendent purity—no less noticeable in the passionate sweetness of Keats and Shelley than in the cold severity of Wordsworth; a purity owing much to the splendid truth of its sensuous colouring. More or less unavailing have been all the efforts of insincere writers to stain the current of our literature with impure thought; and those who have made the attempt have invariably done so with a view to conceal their own literary inferiority. Very rarely indeed a mighty physical nature has found utterance in warmer, less measured terms than are commonly employed in life or art; but it would be difficult, on fair critical grounds, to decide such utterance to be immoral—it is so genuine. The genuineness of the work as Art, we would suggest, can be the only absolute test of immorality in a story or poem. Truly sincere writing, no matter how forcible, seldom really offends us. When, however, we find a writer like the author of these ‘Poems and Ballads,’ who is deliberately and impertinently insincere as an artist,—who has no splendid individual emotions to reveal, and is unclean for the mere sake of uncleanness,—we may safely affirm, in the face of many pages of brilliant writing, that such a man is either no poet at all, or a poet degraded from his high estate, and utterly and miserably lost to the Muses. How old is this young gentleman, whose bosom, it appears, is a flaming fire, whose face is as the fiery foam of flowers, and whose words are as the honeyed kisses of the Shunamite? He is quite the Absalom of modern bards,—long-ringleted, flippant- lipped, down-cheeked, amorous-lidded. He seems, moreover, to have prematurely attained to the fate of his old prototype; for we now find him fixed very fast indeed up a tree, and it will be a miracle if one breath of poetic life remain in him when he is cut down. Meantime, he tosses to us this charming book of verses, which bears some evidence of having been inspired in Holywell Street, composed on the Parade at Brighton, and touched up in the Jardin Mabile. Very sweet things in puerility, as a literary linen-draper might express it,—fine glaring patterns after Alfred de Musset and Georges Sand,—grand bits in the manner of Hugo, with here and there a notable piece of insertion from Ovid and Boccaccio. Yet ere we go further, let us at once disappoint Mr. Swinburne, who would doubtless be charmed if we averred that his poems were capable of having an absolutely immoral influence. They are too juvenile and unreal for that. The strong pulse of true passion beats in no one of them. They are unclean, with little power; and mere uncleanness repulses. Here, in fact, we have Gito, seated in the tub of Diogenes, conscious of the filth and whining at the stars.
     The very first verse in the book, though harmless enough in meaning, is a sample of the utter worthlessness in form of most of the poems:—

I found in dreams a place of wind and flowers,
     Full of sweet trees and colour of glad grass,
     In midst whereof there was
A lady clothed like summer with sweet hours.
Her beauty, fervent as a fiery moon,
     Made my blood burn and swoon
         Like a flame rained upon.
Sorrow had filled her shaken eyelids’ blue,
And her mouth’s sad red heavy rose all through
         Seemed sad with glad things gone.

     Here all the images are false and distracted,—mere dabs of colour distributed carelessly and without art. The following sonnet goes further:—

Lying asleep between the strokes of night
     I saw my love lean over my sad bed,
     Pale as the duskiest lily’s leaf or head,
Smooth-skinned and dark, with bare throat made to bite,
Too wan for blushing and too warm for white,
     But perfect-coloured without white or red.
     And her lips opened amorously, and said—
I wist not what, saving one word—Delight.
And all her face was honey to my mouth,
     And all her body pasture to mine eyes;
         The long lithe arms and hotter hands than fire,
The quivering flanks, hair smelling of the south,
     The bright light feet, the splendid supple thighs
         And glittering eyelids of my soul’s desire.

     It would be idle to quote such prurient trash as that,—save for the purpose of observing that Mr. Swinburne’s thought is on a fair level with his style of expression:—both are untrue, insincere, and therefore unpoetical. Absolute passion there is none; elaborate attempts at thick colouring supply the place of passion. Now, it may be fairly assumed that a writer so hopelessly blind to the simplest decencies of style, so regardless of the first principles of Art, can scarcely fail to offend if he attempt to discuss topics of importance to his fellow creatures, or deal with themes which demand the slightest exercise of thought properly so called. When, therefore, Mr. Swinburne touches on religious questions, he writes such verses as the subjoined which, though put into the mouth of a Roman, are purely personal, implying precisely the same conditions of thought as we find expressed in the lyrical poems elsewhere:—

Wilt thou yet take all, Galilean? but these thou shalt not take,
The laurel, the palms and the pæan, the breasts of the nymphs in the brake;
Breasts more soft than a dove’s, that tremble with tenderer breath;
And all the wings of the Loves, and all the joy before death;
All the feet of the Hours that sound as a single lyre,
Dropped and deep in the flowers, with strings that flicker like fire.
More than these wilt thou give, things fairer than all these things?
Nay, for a little we live, and life hath mutable wings.
A little while and we die; shall life not thrive as it may?
For no man under the sky lives twice, outliving his day.
And grief is a grievous thing, and a man hath enough of his tears:
Why should he labour, and bring fresh grief to blacken his years?
Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;
We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fulness of death.

     Here, as in the other poems, we find no token of sincerity. It is quite obvious that Mr. Swinburne has never thought at all on religious questions, but imagines that rank blasphemy will be esteemed very clever. He describes the Almighty as throwing dice with the Devil for the soul of Faustine; and in the ‘Laus Veneris,’ inserts the following lines, which he himself, doubtless, considers very grand:—

Lo, she was thus when her clear limbs enticed
All lips that now grow sad with kissing Christ,
     Stained with blood fallen from the feet of God,
The feet and hands whereat our souls were priced.

Alas, Lord, surely thou art great and fair.
But lo, her wonderfully woven hair!
     And thou didst heal us with thy piteous kiss;
But see now, Lord; her mouth is lovelier.

She is right fair; what hath she done to thee?
Nay, fair Lord Christ, lift up thine eyes and see;
     Had now thy mother such a lip—like this?

     Impertinence like the above can only be the work either of a misdirected and most disagreeable youth or of a very silly man. It is writing of which no true poet, fairly cultured, could have been guilty.
     Gross insincerity in dealing with simple subjects, and rank raving on serious themes, make one suspicious of a writer’s quality in all things; and a very little examination enables us to perceive that these poems are essentially imitative. Indeed, Mr. Swinburne’s knack of parody is very remarkable, though it weighs heavily against his literary quality. Nothing could be cleverer than his imitation, here printed, of an old miracle-play; or than his numerous copies of the French lyric writers; or than his ingenious parrotings of the way of Mr. Browning. In no single instance does he free himself from the style of the copyist. His skill in transferring an old or modern master would be an enviable gift for any writer but one who hoped to prove himself a poet. Then again, though clever and whimsical to the last degree, he is satisfied with most simple effects. After a little while we find out there is a trick in his very versification, that it owes its music to the most extraordinary style of alliteration:—

It will grow not again, this fruit of my heart,
     Smitten with sunbeams, ruined with rain.
The singing seasons divide and depart,
     Winter and summer depart in twain.

It will grow not again, it is ruined at root,
The bloodlike blossom, the dull red fruit;
Though the heart yet sickens, the lips yet smart,
     With sullen savour of poisonous pain.

This kind of writing, abounding in adjectives chosen merely because they alliterate, soon cloys and sickens; directly we find out the trick our pleasure departs. We soon perceive also that Mr. Swinburne’s pictures are bright and worthless. We detect no real taste for colour; the skies are all Prussian blue, the flesh-tints all vermilion, the sunlights all gamboge. The writer, who has no meditative faculty, evinces total ignorance of nature; his eye rolls like that of a drunkard, whose vision is clouded with fumes.
     But we fear we have lingered too long over this book; criticism is thriftless here. We have hinted very slightly at the tone of the poems,—in all of which pure thinking is treated with scorn, and sensuality paraded as the end of life. The impure thought finds its natural expression in insincere verses, without real music, without true colour. One word with Mr. Swinburne before we conclude; perhaps it is not too late for him to turn back from ruin; perhaps, being young, he has evil advisers. Let him, then, seek wisdom, and cast evil advisers aside. Some few years hence he will feel that the only sure hold on the public is the reputation of earnestness in life, and of sincerity in thought; yet, after publishing these poems, he will find it hard, very hard, to convince his readers that he is an earnest man or a sincere thinker. His very parasites will abandon him, and the purer light, pouring in his sick eyes, will agonize and perhaps end him. Let him seek out Nature, let him humble himself, let him try to think seriously on life and art. He it was who, in a recent preface to Byron, described Wordsworth as slicing up Nature for culinary purposes. If that description be true, a sound course of discipline in the kitchen will do Mr. Swinburne a great deal of good; for he will, at least, learn to distinguish the ingredients of things, what will or will not harmonize together, and what kind of dishes form wholesome food for grown- up men.



John Morley’s review of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads.


The Saturday Review (4 August, 1866 - Vol. 22, pp.145-147)

[Click the pictures for readable versions.]

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The Session of the Poets.


The Spectator (15 September, 1866 - p.16)


Dî magni, salaputium disertum!—CAT. LIB. LIII.



AT the Session of Poets held lately in London,
     The Bard of Freshwater was voted the chair:
With his tresses unbrush’d, and his shirt-collar undone,
     He loll’d at his ease like a good-humour’d Bear;
“Come, boys!” he exclaimed, “we’ll be merry together!”
     And lit up his pipe with a smile on his cheek;—
While with eye, like a skipper’s, cock’d up at the weather,
     Sat the Vice-Chairman Browning, thinking in Greek.



The company gather’d embraced great and small bards,
     Both strong bards and weak bards, funny and grave,
Fat bards and lean bards, little and tall bards,
     Bards who wear whiskers, and others who shave.
Of books, men, and things was the bards’ conversation,—
     Some praised Ecce Homo, some deemed it so-so—
And then there was talk of the state of the nation,
     And when the Unwash’d would devour Mister Lowe.



Right stately sat Arnold,—his black gown adjusted
     Genteelly, his Rhine wine deliciously iced,—
With puddingish England serenely disgusted,
     And looking in vain (in the mirror) for “Geist;”
He heark’d to the Chairman, with “Surely!” And “Really?”
     Aghast at both collar and cutty of clay,—
Then felt in his pocket, and breath’d again freely,
     On touching the leaves of his own classic play.



Close at hand, lingered Lytton, whose Icarus-winglets
     Had often betrayed him in regions of rhyme,—
How glitter’d the eye underneath his grey ringlets,
     A hunger within it unlessen’d by time!
Remoter sat Bailey—satirical, surly—
     Who studied the language of Goethe too soon,
And sang himself hoarse to the stars very early,
     And crack’d a weak voice with too lofty a tune.



How name all that wonderful company over?—
     Prim Patmore, mild Alford,—and Kingsley alsoe?
Among the small sparks, who was realler than Lover?
     Among misses, who sweeter than Miss Ingelow?
There sat, looking moony, conceited, and narrow,
     Buchanan,—who, finding, when foolish and young,
Apollo asleep on a coster-girl’s barrow,
     Straight dragged him away to see somebody hung.



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



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



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




Swinburne’s Notes on Poems and Reviews.

Page 22 of Notes on Poems and Reviews by Algernon Charles Swinburne (London: John Camden Hotten, 1866.)


Review of Swinburne’s Notes on Poems and Reviews.

According to a letter to W. M. Rossetti of 12th November, Swinburne believed Buchanan to be the author of this review. Both Cassidy and Murray accept the attribution. However The Athenæum Index of Reviews and Reviewers: 1830-1870 assigns the authorship to Dr. John Doran.


The Athenæum (3 November, 1866 - No. 2036, p.564-565)

Notes on Poems and Reviews. By Algernon Charles Swinburne. (Hotten.)

Mr. Swinburne, with a reluctance which may be easily understood, heralds the new issue of his ‘Poems and Ballads’ by these Notes on his work and on what was said of it by his reviewers. He stoops, however, to the commonplace and vulgar affectation of scorning his critics. He cares as little for their praise as for their censure. He repudiates the idea of making any apology, vindication, answer, or appeal, and then proceeds to make what he repudiates. He might never have heard, he says, in a certain lofty way, of his adverse critics “but for their attacks.” This is exactly what is felt, if not said, by every offender, with respect to the unbiassed officials who calmly state their case against him, before the as calmly listening judge.
     Could Mr. Swinburne have imitated this calmness, he and his apology, vindication, answer and appeal would have been certainly not the less successful for it. But he forgets the dignity of the poet by indulging in the poor argument of calling foul names. With the alliterative trick which mars some of his best poetry, he speaks of the “prurient prudery and the virulent virtue of pressmen and prostitutes.” Anaxarchus was within the limits of propriety when he cried to the men who were braying him in a mortar, “Pound away! You bruise my body; you cannot hurt my soul.” But when the philosopher bit his tongue in two, and spat the fragment in the face of one of the pounders, he lost his temper and hurt his reputation.
     Part of Mr. Swinburne’s apology consists in his protest against the sentiments expressed by his personages being attributed to him as his own. This is to be respected; but when he adds that Byron and Shelley mocked and reviled all that the England of their day held sacred, that they did this “with sublime effect,” and that “I do not say that, if I chose, I would not do so to the best of my power,” we see something of the value of the protest. Further, Mr. Swinburne, while warning us that the personages of his poems are alone to be saddled with the responsibility of their worst utterances, he makes those utterances his own by asserting that the impurity with which they are charged is really born in the mind of the reader. It is a way of repeating, with a difference, Swift’s saying that a nice man is a man of nasty ideas; but Swift furnished the ideas, as Mr. Swinburne does, before honest men expressed their disgust at them.
     As the author has, according to his own showing, seen only “a few” of the remarks made on his book, but has been told “there are many,” he is not fairly in a condition to reply. He takes one of his adversaries, however, whom he allows to be “a gentleman,” on very sufficient grounds as it seems to us, since this critic pronounces two of Mr. Swinburne’s poems to be “especially horrible.” The author, of course, does not see the reasons for such a verdict; he tells us that he is “proud and glad of the distinction.” We are told that some of the poet’s friends defend him, on the ground that, steeped to the lips as he is in classical lore, and with an ardent love for all that belongs to the gods and goddesses, nymphs, and heroes of remote antiquity, in him is to be seen the natural result of a devotion to classical learning, combined with the rare power of painting in words the subjects which he chooses to illustrate. But Mr. Swinburne has so abused this power that, if the possession of it were the sole result of classical study, we should be induced to call it an accursed thing. Too often a similar excuse is made for men whose vicious tastes are put under the protection of the classic and antique shield. A learned curiosity as to the mysteries of Sun-worship has been the excuse for some men who gather into the upper closets of their libraries every illustration of that worship, whether the obscenity be ancient or modern, and who, dying, leave to their children the saddest of bequests—the knowledge of what swine they had for their sires!
     Mr. Swinburne condescends to inform us that he “never worked for praise or pay, but simply by impulse, and to please myself.” He may rest assured that some of his impulses have been wrong. The eulogy of his admirers has doubtless been as honest as the censure of his opponents, but difference of opinion makes no difference in facts. Every critic awards to the author of ‘Atalanta’ the full measure of praise that is his due. If Mr. Swinburne scorns alike their laudation or their reproof, they are equally indifferent as to his estimation of the value of their judgment. He almost admits the full weight of what has been alleged against him by admitting that he does not write for children or girls. But it is not, therefore, true, as he asserts (of course alliteratively). that he deals neither “in poison nor in pap.” There is too much of the former in his ware, though he affects to deny it. Something may be allowed, perhaps, to “high Art,” when it has for its subject a story of ancient gods or men; but Mr. Swinburne does not seem satisfied with this licence. To our thinking, nothing can be more horribly impure, more utterly loathsome, than the story of the unclean priest and his leprous mistress, —few things less holy than the legend of St. Dorothy when the saint and her lover meet in Heaven, apparently with all the dross of earth about them,—nor anything much more revolting than when the graves of poor mortality are torn open to exhibit the tenants influenced by feelings which have the fierce passions of earth about them. Finally, no writer but one like Mr. Swinburne, to whom the verdict of “judges with or without a name” is a “matter of infinite indifference”—and who says “it is of equally small moment to me whether in such eyes as theirs I appear moral or immoral, Christian or pagan,”—only to such writers could it be possible to take a story of the Noyades, and strike from it, as our defiant author has done, all that could attach such story to human sympathy and human respect. Mr. Swinburne’s truculent pamphlet, however, will not prevent us from hoping to see the author in a better frame of mind, and winning that public testimony of universal esteem which is always ready to be awarded as the crown of the pure, the sincere, and the inspired poet.



Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads. A Criticism by William Michael Rossetti

Opening sentence of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads. A Criticism by William Michael Rossetti (London: John Camden Hotten, 1866).


‘Mr. Arnold’s New Poems’ by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Buchanan would later call this mention of David Gray in Swinburne’s article as ‘the fons et origo of the whole affair’. Although Buchanan confuses this with the later footnote on Gray which Swinburne added to the article when it was published in Essays and Studies (London: Chatto & Windus, 1875), his article on ‘George Heath, The Moorland Poet’ published in Good Words in March 1871, includes this footnote:

‘Mr. Algernon Charles Swinburne, author of “Atalanta in Calydon,” went some years ago far out of his way to call David Gray a “dumb poet”—meaning by that a person with great poetical feeling, but no adequate powers of expression. So many excellent critics have resented both this impertinence and the unfeeling language in which it was expressed, that Mr. Swinburne is doubtless ashamed enough of his words by this time; but would it not have been as well if, before vilifying a dead man, he had first read his works, which, if they possess any characteristic whatever, are noticeable for crystalline perfection of poetic form, unparalleled felicity of epithet (witness the one word “sov’reign” as applied to the cry of the cuckoo), and emotion always expressed in simple music? When Mr. Swinburne and the school he follows are consigned to the limbo of affettuosos, David Gray’s dying sonnets will be part of the literature of humanity.’


The Fortnightly Review (October, 1867 - Vol. 8, p. 428)


Mr. Swinburne as Critic

This review of Swinburne’s essay on Matthew Arnold is believed by Murray to have been written by Buchanan (he cites  Clyde Kenneth Hyder’s Swinburne’s Literary Career and Fame and Swinburne Replies as supporting this view). Murray also quotes part of a letter from Swinburne to W. M. Rossetti, written on 11th October, referring to Henry Kingsley:

“He is also excited about the very gross insolence and scurrility of the Spectator and we both think the polecat’s nest wants smoking out. For Urizen’s sake—or rather Orc’s—hasten the Whitman work if you can—for I see advertsied in a thing called the ‘Broadway’—this! ‘Walt Whitman: by Robert Buchanan;’ the word ‘polecat’ reminded me.”


The Spectator (5 October, 1867 - pp. 9-11)


IN a recent article, in many respects of no common merit, on Mr. Swinburne’s poetry, and one, like almost all those which have hitherto appeared in our contemporary the Chronicle, marked by an intellectual care, thoroughness, and precision of thought which make its pages far more instructive than those of almost any weekly journal of the day, the reviewer asserts that Mr. Swinburne’s poetry, with all its “wealth of lyrical sweetness,” is marked by “barren poverty of thought.” There is truth in this; there is no intellectual thread in any single poem of his that we can remember; and in his last, on Italy, where there was most need of intellectual study, the trace of an intellect vanished altogether. But though Mr. Swinburne has never shown the least intellectual sympathy even with the most characteristic currents of thought in his own favourite Greece, he has the natural delight of true poetic genius in the greater poets of every age, and whatever intellectual discrimination he has, has been exercised in studying the individual characteristics of his favourite singers. In the new number of the Fortnightly Review he measures himself with. great boldness against the most accomplished critic of the day, Mr. Matthew Arnold, and scatters over a review of that fine poet many brilliant remarks on English and French poets which show that he has studied them deeply, and that he has often caught accurately, and when he has caught accurately can delineate with unequalled power, their finest individual traits. But in spite of a much greater wealth of critical perception than we might have expected from him, in spite of many fine and some splendid sayings, in spite of an obviously great effort at the tranquillity and calm of his model for the time being,—Mr. Arnold,—we doubt if Mr. Swinburne ever placed himself to greater disadvantage than in the position of critic to that thoughtful and equal-minded poet. It is not that he makes very many false criticisms on his special subject,—most of them are true, and many brilliantly expressed,—but that while his critical eye is often true, he never for a moment falls into the mood of true criticism, the mood in which you feel that the critic is surrendering himself, so far as he can without unfaithfulness to his own inner judgment, to the overruling control of another’s imagination or thought. There is barely a single sentence written in this mood through the entire article. When Mr. Swinburne praises, which he often does with great force, you feel that he is trying to cap the quality he is praising by the brilliance of the language in which he describes it. Never for a complete sentence, seldom for half a sentence, do you lose the excitable personality of the critic. Like a humming-bird, he dashes about among the blossoms of the author whom he panegyrizes, vying with them in colour, and restlessly displaying his own wonderful activity as well. There is, too, an odious strut in his style which will seldom let you forget the vanity of his brilliant sayings in their truth and aptness. If he rises into eloquence, as he often does, he is not content till he rises out of it again into that harsh, shrill, peculiar note,—like the peacock’s dissonant cry,—which drowns the note proper to his subject, and racks the ear with its discord. The essay abounds in happy sayings, spoiled by this dissonant and impatient treble, in which you seem to hear Mr. Swinburne’s feverish desire to surpass the excellences he criticizes. This, at the best, is not criticism, for you are never for a moment left with your “eye simply on the object.” Directly the critic’s eye rests for an instant on his object, he sets to work to bring such a battery of fireworks to play on the point in question, that he and everybody else thinks a great deal more of the iridescent lights than of the thing illuminated. If he cannot succeed, as he often can, in getting up a much more exciting display on the outside of the show by his description, than those who go in to look at it themselves will find, he goes out of the way to say something irrelevant in a note, the only function of which is to startle or challenge. A more successful intellectual irritant than Mr. Swinburne’s criticisms we do not ever remember to have met with. When we agree with him most entirely, and admire his unwonted power of expression most deeply, we are perhaps even more chafed by his shrill falsetto climax than we are when he tauntingly drags us aside into the private audience of a note, only in order to stick a pin into us. Nothing could be finer or truer, for instance, than this on Wordsworth:—

     His concentration, his majesty, his pathos have no parallel; some have gone higher, many lower, none have touched precisely the same point as he; some poets have had more of all these qualities, and better; none have had exactly his gift. His pathos, for instance, cannot be matched against any other man’s; it is trenchant, and not tender; it is an iron pathos. Take, for example, the most passionate of his poems, the “Affliction of Margaret;” it is hard and fiery, dry and persistent as the agony of a lonely and a common soul which endures through life a suffering which runs always in one groove, without relief or shift. Because he is dull, and dry, and hard, when set by the side of a great lyrist or dramatist; because of these faults and defects, he is so intense and irresistible when his iron hand has hold of some chord which it knows how to play upon. How utterly unlike his is the pathos of Homer or Æschylus, Chaucer or Dante, Shakespeare or Hugo; all these greater poets feel the moisture and flame of the fever and the tears they paint; their pathos when sharpest is full of sensitive life, of subtle tenderness, of playing pulses and melting colours; his has but the downright and trenchant weight of swinging steel; he strikes like the German headsman, one stroke of a loaded sword.

Yet while we admire, we chafe at the various turns in the sentence, which show you how little the critic is thinking of Wordsworth as he writes, how much of his own fine scales for weighing Wordsworth. “The downright and trenchant weight of swinging steel,” the “German headsman’s one stroke of a loaded sword,” are ornamental sentences as far as possible from the tone of Wordsworth,—mere efforts to bring the critic forward again after his true and fine previous description of Wordsworth’s pathos. When he had said of “The Affliction of Margaret” that it is “hard and fiery, dry and persistent, as the agony of a lonely and a common soul, which endures, through life, a suffering which runs always in one groove, without relief or shift,”—he had described with unequalled power the drift of such lines as,—

My apprehensions come in crowds,
     I dread the rustling of the grass;
The very shadows of the clouds
     Have power to shake me as they pass,

—but he cannot rest there. His critical mood is feverish and restless till he has eclipsed the object of his vision by some of his own feats of language, and so he gets into his “swinging steel” and “one stroke of a loaded sword,” which are about as inexpressive of that strange possession by the genius of common but ineffaceable and undiminishable misery, which enabled Wordsworth to write as he did, as any form of words that could be invented. The “stroke of swinging steel” expresses force and momentum of will, not that truthfulness which comes from the singleness of a haunted and overridden imagination. This figure is a rhetorical flourish of Mr. Swinburne’s sword, not of Wordsworth’s, and, instead of clinching the thought, cleaves it in two, and makes you stare up at the brandishing hand which you had barely for a moment forgotten.
     Or, take his very fine and delicate criticism on Mr. Arnold’s style, spoiled, as usual, by the self-conscious and rhetorical magniloquence of the closing sentence, where Mr. Swinburne feels that there has been too much of Mr.  Arnold, and that the grander presence of the younger poet must be asserted before the period can be complete:—

     The supreme charm of Mr. Arnold’s work is a sense of right resulting in a spontaneous temperance which bears no mark of curb or snaffle, but obeys the hand with imperceptible submission and gracious reserve. Other and older poets are to the full as vivid, as incisive and impressive; others have a more pungent colour, a more trenchant outline; others as deep knowledge and as fervid enjoyment of natural things. But no one has in like measure that tender and final quality of touch which tempers the excessive light and suffuses the refluent shade; which as it were washes with soft air the sides of the earth, steeps with dew of quiet and dyes with colours of repose the ambient ardour of noon, the fiery affluence of evening.

Down to “refluent shade” we are simply delighted with so artistic a delineation of Mr. Arnold’s style, but then we get to a rush of adjectives which have the effect of entirely drowning Mr. Arnold, and making us hold our breath at the lavish wealth of language of his gorgeous critic. “Ambient ardour of noon” and “fiery affluence of evening” seem expressly intended to extinguish the remembrance of Mr. Arnold’s delicate and temperate touch. Mr. Swinburne cannot bear to rest in the cool shower of Mr. Arnold’s placid truthfulness; he feels that he must blaze out upon it like the sun, and light up in it the many-coloured bow of his own more splendid genius.
     The utter incapacity of Mr. Swinburne, with all his fine aperçus, for the mood of criticism,—a mood which must be self-forgetting, or at least self-remembering only where it is jarred by a fault of judgment and art in its object,—is shown in nothing more remarkably than his pert digressions from his subject simply to strike a blow or interpolate an irrelevant sneer. Thus, in writing on Mr. Arnold’s “Empedocles” and his grand pagan “self-sufficience,” as he prefers to call it (on the ground that self- sufficiency is already stamped with an accent of reproach), he says:—

     I take leave to forge this word, because “self-sufficingness” is a compound of too barbaric sound, and “self-sufficiency” has fallen into a form of reproach. Archbishop Trench has pointed out how and why a word which to the ancient Greek signified a noble virtue came to signify to the modern Christian the base vice of presumption. I do not see that human language has gained by this change of meaning, or that the later mood of mind which dictated this debasement of the word is at all in advance of the older, or indicative of any spiritual improvement; rather the alteration seems to me a loss and discredit, and the tone of thought which made the quality venerable more sound and wise than that which declares it vile.

This is rather like a schoolboy’s irreverent taste for making impertinent signs at the authorities of his home or school. It has nothing to do with the drift of the criticism, and as Mr. Swinburne has never shown the slightest sign of spiritual insight into either Christian ideas, or Christian ethics, or Christian sentiment, as there is no vestige of his ever having passed through even a phase of temporary sympathy with the highest literature of the last eighteen centuries, this childish little gesture of irrelevant pertness can derive not the slightest force from his unquestionable genius. The whole article is marred and spotted by this restless vanity, which is always driving Mr. Swinburne into little digressions of moral grimace. What, for example, should have induced him, by way of illustrating Mr. Arnold’s happy executive skill as a poet, to go off into the following digression on the theory of ‘dumb poets’ and ‘handless painters,’ unless it be the pleasure of the sneer at an exquisite poet who died in his youth, with which it is illustrated? It is as foreign to the subject of the article as a fly to the amber in which it is preserved, and a very nasty fly in amber it seems to us:—

     There is no such thing as a dumb poet or a handless painter. The essence of an artist is that he should be articulate. It is the mere impudence of weakness to arrogate the name of poet or painter with no other claim than a susceptible and impressible sense of outward or inward beauty, producing an impotent desire to paint or sing. The poets that are made by nature are not many; and whatever “vision” an aspirant may possess, he has not the “divine faculty” if he cannot use his vision to any poetic purpose. There is no cant more pernicious to such as these, more wearisome to all other men, than that which asserts the reverse. It is a drug which weakens the feeble and intoxicates the drunken; which makes those swagger who have not learnt to walk, and teach who have not been taught to learn. Such talk as this of Wordsworth’s is the poison of poor souls like David Gray. Men listen, and depart with the belief that they have this faculty or this vision which alone, they are told, makes the poet; and once imbued with that belief, soon pass or slide from the inarticulate to the articulate stage of debility and disease. Inspiration foiled and impotent is a piteous thing enough, but friends and teachers of this sort make it ridiculous as well. A man can no more win a place among poets by dreaming of it or lusting after it than he can win by dream or desire a woman’s beauty or a king’s command; and those encourage him to fill his belly with the east wind who feign to accept the will for the deed, and treat inarticulate or inadequate pretenders as actual associates in art. The Muses can bear children and Apollo can give crowns to those only who are able to win the crown and beget the child; but in the school of theoretic sentiment it is apparently believed that this can be done by wishing.

     We are inclined to accept (with some wonder, and a good deal of allowance for the spirit of opposition which breathes in Mr. Swinburne’s panegyrics on poets of no name) our critic’s positive insights,—though he does overdo his ecstasies, as, for instance, concerning Miss Christina Rossetti, who, it appears, could, with any one verse or word, “absorb and consume” Eugenie de Guérin, “as a sunbeam of the fiery heaven, a dew drop of the dawning earth.” We are disposed to think sincerely that the fault must be in ourselves, if we have read with faint interest and no admiration poems in which Mr. Swinburne can feel so much delight as he certainly does in a hymn of Miss Rossetti’s. But we do not feel the slightest respect for his incidental sneers, like that at David Gray. There are several of David Gray’s sonnets which, with all our reverence for Mr. Arnold, seem to us far above any of Mr. Arnold’s sonnets, except the one great sonnet on Sophocles. Many of David Gray’s, —for example, the one ending,

I weigh the loaded hours till life is bare,
O God! for one clear day, a snow drop, and sweet air!

will live as long as English literature. In fact, so far from being a dumb poet, David Gray’s powers of sweet, clear, low music of language have rarely been equalled. Nothing shows us how Mr. Swinburne’s fine critical aperçus are prevented from developing into anything like a fair, tranquil, critical insight, more than these horrid blotches, needlessly and disastrously spotted over his essay, apparently for mere caprice or pique.
     There is another sort of digression with which Mr. Swinburne laboriously spoils what has in it the materials of a very fine essay, and that is the digression in search of indecency. To that we are so accustomed in him, that we shall only point out that his elaborate pleasantries on the French Academy, as a Delilah on whose bosom Mr. Arnold is to be betrayed and shorn of his strength, will seem to most of his readers, perhaps the most unpleasant and inartistic blotch contained in this curious mixture of delicate insights, and gaudy, flaunting, impure taste. Nothing shows more completely how little his mind is filled with his subject—Mr. Arnold—than this squeal of vulgar merriment over his own cleverness in drawing Mr. Arnold as the lover of a French literary fille de joie.
     The truth is, that Mr. Swinburne, with the rarest faculty for special critical insights, can never succeed as a critic while he continues to let the image of himself be continually flitting between his eye and the object on which it is cast. This dancing image is constantly irritating him into affected eloquence, false digressions, meaningless impertinence, and eager indecency. There is no more irritating task than reading such an article as this. One must read it,—for its occasional touches of wonderful genius,—but it is like applying a sort of literary cantharides to one’s mind, to read these patched and blotched and disfigured criticisms on one whose own critical nature is so perfectly tempered and refined, by a man capable of discerning this temperance and refinement, but wholly incapable of emulating them.



Introduction to David Gray and other Essays, chiefly on poetry
(London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marston, 1868.)



IT is from no desire to appear in a new character that I publish the present volume. The following Essays, indeed, are prose additions and notes to my publications in verse, rather than mere attempts at general criticism, for which, indeed, I have little aptitude. They are my Confession of Faith. I have here briefly touched on several great and magnificent questions immediately affecting the poetic personality:—on the nature and character of the Poet par excellence, on the Student’s Vocation, on what is and what is not moral in the Student’s Utterance, slightly on religious light and truth; illustrating my matter by such sketches as that of Whitman, and such notes as that on Herrick’s Hesperides. More would have been added, and particularly an Essay on “The Poetry of David Gray,” had not my health suddenly broken down just as the volume was going to press. The book, however, is complete as it stands,—an epitome of what may be said hereafter in different ways.
     The biography of David Gray is another matter. A large portion of it appeared some years ago in the “Cornhill Magazine,” but the additions, now first published, are very important. It is a story known and told as only one could know and tell it; and will, I trust, send still more readers to Gray’s wonderful poems. The little green-bound duodecimo, “The Luggie and other Poems, by the late David Gray,” was wafted out unto the great world, heralded by a kindly preface and a brief memoir. It excited little or no comment. The exquisite music was too low and tender to attract crowds, or to entice coteries delighted with the scream of the whipper-snapper. Nevertheless, a few rare spirits heard and welcomed the truest, purest, tenderest lyrical note that has floated to English ears this half-century.

                                                                                                                                 ROBERT BUCHANAN.
     Sligachan, Isle of Skye,
               Dec. 1, 1867.



Athenæum review of W. M. Rossetti’s edition of Shelley

Both Cassidy and Murray attribute this review of William Michael Rossetti’s The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley to Buchanan. However The Athenæum Index of Reviews and Reviewers: 1830-1870 assigns the authorship to Thomas Watson Jackson.


The Athenæum (29 January, 1870 - No. 2205, p. 154-156)

athshelleyp1thmb athshelleyp2thmb athshelleyp3thmb

Page 1                                                                       Page 2                                                                    Page 3

Click the pictures for readable versions.
The next issue of The Athenæum contained the following letter from W. M. Rossetti concerning the review..


The Athenæum (5 February, 1870 - No. 2206, p. 195-196)


The Brothers by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

This poem was included in the unpublished pamphlet version of Rossetti’s reply to Buchanan’s ‘Fleshly School’ article, ‘The Stealthy School of Criticism’. A revised version of the poem was included in the 1911 edition of The Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.


I AM two brothers with one face,
So which is the real man who can trace?
     (My wrongs are raging inside of me.)

Here are some poets and they sell,
Therefore revenge becomes me well.
     (Oh Robert-Thomas is dread to see.)

My books aren’t bought; it’s a burning shame,
But it doesn’t pay to puff my name:
     (My wrongs are boiling inside of me.)

So at least all other bards I’ll slate
Till no one sells but the Laureate.
     (Oh Robert-Thomas is dread to see.)

I took a beast of a poet’s tome
And nailed a cheque, and brought them home;
     (My wrongs were howling inside of me.)

And after supper, in lieu of bed,
I wound wet towels round my head.
     (Oh Robert-Thomas is dread to see.)

Of eyelids kissed and all the rest,
And rosy cheeks that lie on one’s breast,
     (My wrongs were yelling inside of me)

I told the worst that pen can tell,—
And won’t the Laureate love me well?
     (Oh Robert-Thomas is dread to see.)

I crowed out loud in the silent night,
I made my digs so sharp and bright:
     (My wrongs were gnashing inside of me.)

In our Contemptible Review
I stuck the beggar through and through.
     (Oh Robert-Thomas is dread to see.)

I tanned his hide and combed his head
And that bard, for one, I left for dead.
     (My wrongs are hooting inside of me.)

And now he’s wrapped in a printer’s sheet,
Let’s fling him at the Laureate’s feet.
     (Oh Robert-Thomas is dread to see.)


Later version from The Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1911) p. 276:





I AM two brothers with one face,
So which is the real man who can trace?
     (My wrongs are raging inside of me.)
Here are some poets and they sell,
Therefore revenge becomes me well.
     (Oh Robert-Thomas is dread to see.)

Of course you know it’s a burning shame,
But of my last books the press makes game!
     (My wrongs are boiling inside of me.)
So at least all other bards I’ll slate
Till no one sells but the Laureate.
     (Oh Robert-Thomas is dread to see.)

I took a beast of a poet’s tome
And nailed a cheque, and brought them home;
     (My wrongs were howling inside of me.)
And after supper, in lieu of bed,
I wound wet towels round my head.
     (Oh Robert-Thomas is dread to see.)

Of eyelids kissed and all the rest,
And rosy cheeks that lie on one’s breast,
     (My wrongs were yelling inside of me)
I told the worst that pen can tell,—
And Strahan and Company loved me well.
     (Oh Robert-Thomas is dread to see.)

I crowed out loud in the silent night,
I made my digs so sharp and bright:
     (My wrongs were gnashing inside of me.)
In our Contemptible Review
I struck the beggar through and through.
     (Oh Robert-Thomas is dread to see.)

I tanned his hide and combed his head,
And that bard, for one, I left for dead.
     (My wrongs are hooting inside of me.)
And now he’s wrapped in a printer’s sheet,
Let’s fling him at our Public’s feet.
     (Oh Robert-Thomas is dread to see.)



‘Among the Books of Seventy-one’ in Temple Bar

Not all of the responses to Buchanan’s ‘Fleshly School’ article were hostile.


Temple Bar (December, 1871)

From ‘Among the Books of Seventy-one, by a Reader,’ (Vol. 34, pp. 97-112)

pp. 98-100

     Every regiment marches with its band first. Let us begin with our musicians, the poets.
     Swinburne. A memory as of dancing women and tossing arms; limbs glancing as they turn to the music of harps; clinging lips, biting kisses, arms that will not loose their hold, delirium and intoxication; an awaking, to find that it was but the dream of a youthful poet, and a blush to think that words should so enthrall the brain. He comes again, but this time in more sober mood. ‘Clytie’ and ‘Phryne’ are put away out of sight; he plays in another key—graviora canit; in the ‘Songs before Sunrise’ he is the republican and the herald of liberty, the forerunner of that fullness of day which is, he tells us, to drive kings and priests, religions and creeds, into eternal hiding.
     The new volume contains all the charm of Mr. Swinburne’s earlier poems; his incomparable melody and sweetness; his intensity and fervour of expression; his perfect grace and taste. It sustains a reputation which, young as the poet is, will not, I believe, ever be greater. For when we have recovered from the first intoxication of his rhythm, when the strain of his music dies away, we are able to perceive how unreal is this red-hot ardour; how meaningless all this denunciation; how commonplace the thoughts; how careless the poet is of anything but the ring of his own words. Take, for instance, the poem called ‘Before a Crucifix.’ The world is full of evil and wrong; the women kneel and pray before the roadside image of their faith. Then Swinburne, accusing:

“I, too, that have not tongue nor knee
For prayer, I have a word for thee.

“It was for this, that prayers like these
     Should spend themselves about thy feet,
And with hard overlaboured knees,
     Kneeling, these slaves of men should beat
Bosoms too lean to suckle sons,
And fruitless as their orisons?

“It was for this, that men should make
     Thy name a fetter on men’s necks—
Poor men’s, made poorer for thy sake,
     And women’s, withered out of sex?
It was for this, that slaves should be,
Thy word was passed to set men free?”

     What is the use of reminding a poet who writes thus recklessly that the world is growing steadily, if slowly, better?— that year by year men become more free; kings lose every year something of their power; priests every year concede, bon gré mal gré, something of their pretensions, and life does really become to the world at large brighter, better, and more healthy? But no; he will see nothing of all this. “Come down,” he shrieks, regardless of the infinite pain his words may give to others—

“Come down: be done with: cease: give o’er:
Hide thyself: strive not: be no more.”

     The words are so intense that we doubt the genuineness of their feeling. The argument is so weak that the conclusion shows like a shriek of hatred. If Christianity has no more mighty assailant than Mr. Swinburne, her reign will be long indeed.
     “Have we then,” was asked, when the ‘Atalanta in Calydon’ appeared, “a new poet?” Surely we have. In spite of all his faults Mr. Swinburne is a true and born poet. Unluckily, his studies of the art divine have as yet only brought him to the setting of his words. When he contrives, if ever he does, to get fitter thought for that exquisite music of his, a groom more manly for a bride so peerless, he may put himself into the very first and foremost rank Meanwhile, is not his rhythm magical? Head the following from ‘Messidor’:

“The dumb dread people, that sat
All night without screen for the night,
All day without food for the day,
They shall not give their harvest away:
They shall eat of its fruit and wax fat,
     They shall see the desire of their sight;
Though the way of the seasons be steep,
     They shall climb with face to the light.
Put in the sickles and reap.”

     Mr. Swinburne wants a faith—a faith in the commonest nostrum would be something—to give him ballast. The vagueness of his verse comes from a sheer inability to define his aspirations. Even his erotic verse, warm enough in all conscience, wants reality. There is the delirium of passion, exaggeration of the maddest desire; but where is the reverence, where the reticence of true love? The poet does not know love, any more than he knows the Christianity at which he shrieks, or the pretended sufferings of the people which he attempts to sing.
     I should like to have delivered my soul about another “new poet,” Mr. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but all I had to say about him has been already said. In a recent paper in the ‘Contemporary,’ called ‘The Fleshly School,’ Mr. Rossetti and his admirers have been told a few wholesome truths. There is in all the writings of this school a fleshliness which is meant to be natural, but is exaggerated and unwholesome: the verses reek with what the writer in the ‘Contemporary’ calls “their inordinate and extravagant desire for some person of the other sex;” and love, which should be secret, tender, and shrinking, becomes blatant, fierce, and loud; and what it then deserves to be called we may leave to the more outspoken critic. By the “mutual admiration society” system the verses of Mr. Rossetti have been greatly belauded; but we believe that the British public, who must expect, of course, to be called Philistines, have been pretty unanimous in refusing to be goaded into admiration. And yet there is really much to admire. Mr. Rossetti is a most careful artist; every line is studied; nothing is hasty; nothing against verbal taste; but his verses are cold—cold and hard. One little ballad with the tearful ring in it, one single song where we can feel that the poet is thinking more of what he says than of how he says it, is worth a cartload of these volumes. Cannot cultivated men perceive that verse writing is an art which may be successfully studied by almost everybody, but that the art of poetry can never be taught?
     And as for this passion of love, which lights up men’s lives like the sunshine, what kind of art is it which so exaggerates and distorts its importance as to make it seem the sole end and aim of life instead of one joy out of many? Are we fallen back on the old Provençal views of art? Or are Messrs. Swinburne, Rossetti, and the rest, like some of the later poets of the Midi—allegorists, who, under the garb of erotic verse, teach truths of a lofty and mystical nature to a small band of initiés?



Related Documents - continued








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


The Critical Response
Harriett Jay


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