THE FLESHLY SCHOOL OF POETRY - AN ADDITIONAL NOTE
The Fleshly School of Poetry - an additional note
When I was compiling the material for the ‘Fleshly School’ section of this site I naturally fell into the trap of searching for my own answers to the whole affair. Just as with all conspiracy theories, the more significant the event, the more significant must be the cause. Rossetti’s suicide attempt, blamed on Buchanan, must have been the result of something greater than Buchanan waking up one morning, thinking Rossetti wrote mucky poems and deciding the world must be told. So, I went looking for the second gunman on the grassy knoll and came up with a fine and dandy theory which, as with all conspiracy theories, ignored any stray inconvenient facts which didn’t fit, and I started to write it all down, and then I realised it made no sense. So I abandoned it. A good thing too. However, there were three particular questions which still niggled at me and would not lie still. Why did Buchanan attack Rossetti? Why did he take eighteen months to do it? And where does St. Abe and his Seven Wives fit in?
There have only been two detailed accounts of the Fleshly School controversy which have been sympathetic to Buchanan, those of John A. Cassidy (‘Robert Buchanan and the Fleshly Controversy’ published in 1952 in Publications of the Modern Language Association and largely repeated in his book on Buchanan published in 1973) and Christopher D. Murray (‘D. G. Rossetti, A. C. Swinburne and R. W. Buchanan: The Fleshly School Revisited’ published in 1982/83 in Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester and based on his M.A. and PhD. theses of 1970 and 1974). Now I don’t wish to detract from these works in any way, I have nothing but admiration for the attempts of these two academics to explain what happened and, if not exonerate, then, at least, to treat Buchanan fairly. However, I do think that they rely too much on the Harriett Jay biography of Buchanan, and that they did not have access to certain letters which have since come to light. And I also think they both chose to disregard the significance of St. Abe and his Seven Wives.
The problem with Buchanan is the lack of evidence; the bulk of his letters and his journals no long exist and so we are left picking at what remains and imbuing it with a greater significance than it probably deserves. And to fill in the gaps we speculate. Buchanan wakes up one morning, thinks Rossetti writes mucky poems and decides to tell the world. That’s all we really know. All the rest happens on the grassy knoll. But, with that proviso, here is my attempt to answer those three questions which bothered me.
1. Why did Robert Buchanan attack Dante Gabriel Rossetti?
This would seem to be self-evident. Buchanan gives his reasons in ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry’. However, that’s not what bothers me. Both Cassidy and Murray do a fine job of tracing the antagonism between Buchanan and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood back to its roots, noting all the bad reviews and slurs and insults along the way. But, until the publication of ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti is never mentioned; it’s all Algernon Charles Swinburne and William Michael Rossetti. True, Buchanan did write the short story, ‘Lady Letitia’s Lilliput Hand’, which contained a swipe at the PRB, but that was published back in 1862. The earliest evidence of a possible feud between Buchanan and the PRB is the edition of Keats for Moxon’s, for which Buchanan was to be paid £10, but the commission was cancelled and the work handed over to Swinburne. The significance of this event lies more in the letters of W. M. Rossetti and Swinburne which show that they already have some grievance with Buchanan. Swinburne calls Buchanan “a Scotch poetaster” and W.M.R. writes: “I confess a peculiar abhorrence of Buchanan, and satisfaction that his Caledonian faeces are not to bedaub the corpse of Keats.” No reason is given for W.M.R.’s “abhorrence of Buchanan” and as for Swinburne, there is only his remark about the “forthcoming Scotch edition of Keats, who hated the Scotch as much as I do”. Even Dante Gabriel Rossetti commented in a letter to Swinburne: “the puddling of Keats with Buchanan is a fearful thought. In fact it is very seriously to be regretted as a good selection of Keats was needed.”
At this point Buchanan had only published two books of poetry (ignoring, as Buchanan himself did, the two collections he had published in Glasgow before coming to London), Undertones and Idyls and Legends of Inverburn. On the strength of the latter, Buchanan had been declared “a man of genius” by G. H. Lewes in the Fortnightly Review. So, apart from his perceived nationality, what else could have so annoyed the PRB? Is there a possible charge of jealousy to be levelled at the PRB? Which would be ironic, given that jealousy is usually put forward as one of the main reasons for Buchanan’s attack on Rossetti. Surely not. No, not jealousy, but rather, good old-fashioned English snobbery. As Mr. Hawkins Q.C. said to Buchanan during his cross-examination in the 1876 libel trial, “Do you not know that Mr. Swinburne is an Oxford man and a gentleman?” Buchanan, with his unconventional upbringing, his inadequate education, forever scraping a living, was definitely neither an Oxford man nor a gentleman.
The ‘feud’ then develops in print, with Buchanan’s review in the Athenæum of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads in August 1866, and his satirical portrait of Swinburne in ‘The Session of the Poets’ in the Spectator the following month - although the author of the latter is not revealed until much later. Swinburne replies with his comment about ‘idyls of the gutter and the gibbet’ referring to Buchanan’s London Poems, and W.M.R. calls Buchanan a “poor and pretentious ... poetaster”. There are other reviews cited by Cassidy and Murray as possible additions to the feud, but these are unsubstantiated. This is another element in the tale, the number of times the PRB mistakenly attribute bad reviews of their work to Buchanan. This both leads to their growing resentment of him, but also means that Buchanan is ignorant of how he is perceived by them.
The next significant event is Swinburne’s essay, ‘Matthew Arnold’s New Poems’, published in the Fortnightly Review in October 1867. Significant because this was later claimed by Buchanan to be the main reason for his Fleshly School article four years later. Swinburne wrote:
‘The poets that are made by nature are not many; and whatever “vision” an aspirant may possess, he has not the “faculty divine” 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’s.’
Although I take exception to Oswald Doughty’s assessment of Buchanan in his 1949 biography of D. G. Rossetti as:
“Low in mind, low in taste, low in breeding, and, as an apostle of morality, evidently insincere; such was Buchanan. ... For Buchanan was not only a hypocrite, but a clumsy hypocrite; and not through any element of honesty, but through sheer stupidity perhaps the most contemptible figure in English literary history.”
I do have some sympathy with Doughty’s comments about Buchanan over-playing the David Gray card:
“.;. the false pathos Buchanan invented about David Gray and his own self-dedication to his memory had already on more than one occasion served his journalistic ambitions, and might now, he thought, be used to disarm those who, as he noted with growing dismay, had begun to doubt the sincerity of the high moral motives by which he sought to justify his base attack upon a leading contemporary poet, and the self-contradictions and inconsistencies into which it had led him.”
When Swinburne reprinted the article in his Essays and Studies in June 1875, he added a footnote about David Gray which was notably crueller, and it was this note that Buchanan later called the ‘fons et origo of the whole affair” in one of his ‘Latter Day Leaves’ articles for the Sunday Special, and which was quoted by Jay in her biography. Cassidy points up Buchanan’s error but, in fact, Buchanan did write to Browning on 4th March 1872, stating that:
“In the whole morale of the affair, I will only plead guilty to one instinct of recrimination. When these men, not content with outraging literature, violated the memory of the poor boy who went home from me twelve years ago to die, I made a religious vow to have no mercy; & I have had none. Thus far I have been revengeful. The main cause is nevertheless righteous & good.”
So, if this was the cause of the whole affair, then we have to accept that Swinburne was the real target of Buchanan’s wrath, and that he nurtured his vengeful feelings for four years before unleashing his attack, not on Swinburne, but on Rossetti. Surely Swinburne published something between 1867 and 1871 on which Buchanan could have vented his anger, or at least his derision. If nothing else, there was Swinburne’s review of D. G. Rossetti’s Poems in the Fortnightly Review of 1st May 1870, which was ripe (or over-ripe) for satire. But no, Buchanan’s feud with Swinburne continued in silence.
It is odd, that Buchanan, who is always portrayed as a hot-blooded Scotsman, ready to hit out at any perceived enemy at the drop of a bad review, is, in this one instance, transformed into a brooding, Machiavellian figure, sitting alone on his hilltop in Oban, stroking his cat and waiting patiently for the perfect moment to strike. So Machiavellian in fact that he invited Swinburne, the hated enemy, to his Poetry Reading in London in January 1869 (Swinburne sent a polite reply that he would not be able to attend, but there is evidence that he did go to the second one in March, presumably at Buchanan’s invitation). And then there is the curious story that, on hearing that Swinburne was unwell, Buchanan urged Dr. Chapman to contact W. M. Rossetti to see if Swinburne would benefit from one of Chapman’s remedies which Buchanan had found beneficial. Machiavellian indeed. The fact of the matter is that Buchanan was not that good at bearing grudges. When Edmund Yates ended up in jail, Buchanan leapt to the defence of the man who had called him a ‘scrofulous Scotch poet’. Buchanan had no time for the novels of Emile Zola, but, again, leapt to the defence of Henry Vizetelly, when he was imprisoned for publishing English translations of them. And his newspaper battles with John Coleman and David Christie Murray did not seem to affect their friendships. There’s a sentence in a letter from Buchanan to George Bernard Shaw of 7th March 1896 which perhaps explains all this:
“You may smile at the assertion, but nothing troubles me quite so much as inflicting suffering, tho’ I’m afraid I do it often enough, for ‘words are quick & vain’.”
Buchanan was no saint, he made plenty of enemies and would attack anyone who annoyed him. But, on reflection, if he thought he was wrong, he would apologise, as he eventually did with Rossetti. But this blaming of Swinburne for a passing remark about David Gray and a subsequent four year wait to have his revenge, does seem out of character. Searching for an extra motive in his letter to Browning, he plays the ‘David Gray card’ because that seems more reasonable than just admitting that he woke up one morning and thought he’d tell the world about Rossetti’s mucky poems. Or, maybe there was another reason, which he was prevented from mentioning, but we’ll get to that later.
Of course, the ‘Fleshly School’ essay itself should present all the reasons why Buchanan chose to attack Rossetti, but there are problems with this as well. Not least for Buchanan’s subsequent reputation. Because of the nature of his assault on Rossetti’s poems, and especially in light of the expansion of his argument in the pamphlet version, Buchanan has been dismissed in the history of English Literature as a Victorian prude, the sort of man who would cover up the legs of his piano, a dour Calvinist Scot railing against the perceived immorality of the age. But here’s another quote from a letter to Shaw of 2nd March, 1892:
“Personally, I have never been a Puritan, & when long ago I attacked the so-called Fleshly writers, it was on the ground that they pictured, not human carnality, but that of cats on the housetops. They retaliated by classing me with the upholders of ‘common or garden’ Morality, & hence many tears.”
Buchanan’s parents were both atheists, devoted followers of the Socialist, Robert Owen, and he was brought up to believe in both those ‘religions’. His conventional education was provided in Glasgow by the High School and the University, but his real education was provided by the journalists in his father’s newspaper office and the actors at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal. Buchanan often wrote about the period when he first moved down to London after his father’s bankruptcy. He obviously embroidered his tale a little, but he saw himself then as a thorough Bohemian, scraping a living with his pen, while living among the people whom he would later write about in his London Poems, Swinburne’s ‘costermongers and their trulls’. After the ‘Fleshly School’ article had placed him in the eyes of the public as this guardian of public morals, he tried to tarnish that reputation by writing a couple of poems for The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1874, which The Nonconformist denounced as ‘fleshly’, and, although it was published anonymously, White Rose and Red would also be used in the 1876 libel case as an example of Buchanan’s own ‘fleshliness’.
This apparent inconsistency in Buchanan’s attitude to the ‘fleshly’ leads Murray in his PhD. thesis, writing of the introduction to the pamphlet version of ‘The Fleshly School’, to this conclusion:
“While he may have been trying to be funny at times in the pamphlet, here surely, is a sick man fighting something he finds frightening in himself, putting on record evidence of his own unnatural attitudes to sex. ‘To the pure, all things are pure’ is an adage often repeated in this controversy; and it was Buchanan’s own impurity that detected the impurities in Rossetti’s poetry; and his contemporaries were not slow to point this out. Claiming to articulate a healthy attitude to sensualism, Buchanan was not mentioning the unmentionable so much as he was advertising it in a particuarly meretricious and self-revelatory way.”
Which echoes Cassidy’s opinion in his description of the pamphlet:
“From this he proceeded to his attack, which was so farfetched, so ridiculous and phantasmagoric that the only conclusion one can reach is that it was the product of an abnormal mind. The record of his physical and mental troubles from 1866 to 1874 shows that he was neurotic and unstable; the Fleshly School pamphlet is proof that he had gone far toward catastrophe.”
Fair enough for speculation, but it would be helpful if we had some facts. One fact, Buchanan’s initial response to Rossetti’s poems, is revealed in a surviving fragment of a letter to his friend, Roden Noel. Neither Cassidy nor Murray mention this, and I believe neither knew of its existence. This is the passage which gives his first impressions of the poetry of Rossetti:
“I have just been reading Rossetti & Morris this for the first time. Rossetti is justly described by the North American Review as ‘a poetical man’; he has the instrumental without the shaping capacity; and his nature seems very poor & thin. Morris, I fancy, mistakes his vocation entirely when he writes in verse; his shallow stories & false style will not bear the poetical test; best if he had told the same tales in prose, something in the manner of his ‘Grettir’, he would have produced a book that would have lived. A more barren week I never spent than when reading these men. I am not flattering you, believe me, when I say that there is more absolute poetry in your ‘Palingenesis’, ‘Pan’, & ‘Ganymede’ than in all these two have written: more, I mean, that comes upon one with the freshness & newness of insight.”
One would have thought, if the poems of Rossetti had horrified Buchanan so much with their ‘fleshliness’, that he would have conveyed this to his friend. Instead, he just seems to be rather dismissive of Rossetti and spends more time on William Morris. Perhaps this can be put down to envy, but even so, there does not seem to be any hint of anger or outrage. And then there is another letter to Roden Noel, written on 1st August, 1871 (the month before Buchanan stated he wrote the ‘Fleshly School’ article), which includes this:
“You were right enough in all you said abt the Session of Poets, but the jeu d’esprit was hardly worth criticism. The words abt Arnold were ungentlemanly, &, I daresay, would have been altered; but I do not propose publishing the piece—or indeed the volume of which it formed part—just at present.
Whatever Ruskin may say on any conceivable subject is to me a matter of such supreme indifference that the only wonder to me is that any intelligent thinker can quote the words of such a foolish gibbering person. Ruskin never had any insight, tho’ he got the glimpse of an artistic truth by inverting the classicism of Lessing; and people are at last beginning to perceive his extreme shallowness & affectation.
I do not plead guilty to any wanton desire to make enemies. If you will examine my motives for any personal attack, you will find they are invariably moral & in a sense sacred. I have never yet attacked any man on merely literary grounds.”
Again, all we can do is speculate. Had Buchanan mentioned to Roden Noel his plan to attack Rossetti, prompting this reply? And what to make of that last paragraph, was the ‘Fleshly School’ article written on ‘moral’ and ‘in a sense sacred’ grounds? The use of the word ‘sacred’ chimes with his comment to Browning about making “a religious vow to have no mercy” on the men who had “violated the memory” of David Gray. Perhaps there is no mystery about why Buchanan chose to attack Rossetti, perhaps he did just do it in revenge for Swinburne’s throwaway remark about David Gray in his essay on Matthew Arnold. The need to find a more weighty motive, and a need to trace some definite pattern of events to lead up to the fateful attack, is the problem of the conspiracy theorist. Perhaps Buchanan just woke up one morning, shortly after reading Rossetti’s “shallow” and “false” poems, and hit on a way to have his revenge on Swinburne for daring to impugn the memory of his friend, and so he decided to tell the world that Rossetti wrote mucky poems. But why wait so long?
2. Why did Buchanan wait for 18 months before he attacked Rossetti?
The fragment of the letter to Roden Noel is, annoyingly, undated. Chapter XVI of the Jay biography opens as follows:
“It was in the summer of 1870, when he was still living at Oban, that Mr. Buchanan read the poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which had been received with much praise by the entire newspaper press, to the accompaniment of rapturous salvoes from the writer’s friends and personal admirers.”
However, in the ‘Fleshly School’ pamphlet, Buchanan opens Chapter V with:
“I had written thus far of Mr. Rossetti’s poems, just after reading them for the first time when cruising among the Western Isles of Scotland in the summer of 1871”.
The fragment of the letter to Roden Noel mentions the review of Rossetti’s Poems in The North American Review which was published in October, 1870, and the first part of the fragment seems to be suggesting to Roden Noel that he visit Buchanan in August, both of which favour Buchanan’s ‘date’ of the summer of 1871. Rossetti’s Poems were published in April, 1870. Which means that Buchanan waited well over a year before he even bothered to read Rossetti’s book.
Buchanan had moved to Scotland sometime in 1868 (the date is uncertain), staying initially in Gourock, before moving to Oban in the summer of 1869. The reason for the move to Scotland is not known but, considering the reception Buchanan got from his creditors in London when he gave his public readings in London in the spring of 1869, it can be assumed that money, or, rather, the lack of it, was a contributing factor. When Buchanan moved even further into exile in the autumn of 1873 to the west coast of Ireland, he wrote to William Canton:
“I came here for economy and just now, calculating up, I find it costs me as much as London, though we only live in a tiny cottage. There are so many Poor who must and will be assisted.”
So, I think the assumption is probably correct. It should also be pointed out that Buchanan’s household in Scotland consisted of himself, his wife, his teenage sister-in-law, his mother and, I would suggest, his grandmother. The latter is listed in the 1871 census for Soroba Cottage and since she was living with his parents in Glasgow before his father’s bankruptcy, I think it is fairly safe to assume that Buchanan inherited her. So, Buchanan was supporting four other people by his writing, which, at the time was confined to poetry and items for magazines. The lucrative plays and novels were yet to come. Although, according to a letter to Browning in May 1869 (in which he asks for a loan of £20) he was still writing plays, but they weren’t being produced. His attempt to launch himself into a new career, giving public recitations of his poetry (in emulation of one of his great heroes, Charles Dickens) ended in failure. And to add to his financial problems, there was the poor health of his wife, and his own health problems during 1869, to contend with.
In the spring of 1870 Buchanan published his first religious epic, The Book of Orm. It appeared around the same time as Rossetti’s Poems. The difference in the critical response to the two books has been cited as a reason for Buchanan’s subsequent attack on Rossetti. Actually the reviews of Orm weren’t all bad, but, of course, the reviews for Rossetti were all good, since he’d made sure they were all written by his mates. While I was getting comfortable on the grassy knoll, I did wonder what would have happened had Buchanan’s temperament been a little less robust. If he, after spending a couple of years trudging round the wild landscape of Argyll, communing with God and writing his great epic about the meaning of existence, only to find it dismissed in the London journals in favour of some painter’s poems about elves and fairies, threw himself into the sea and drowned. Would he have become renowned as yet another poet with a tortured soul, and would Rossetti be the villain of the piece. And for a while I did go along with the idea that it was the disappointing critical reception for The Book of Orm and Rossetti’s blatant logrolling, which was the main cause of the ‘Fleshly School’ affair. But then I came up against the 18 months’ gap. I tried to fill it, but I gave up in the end. Even if Buchanan didn’t read Rossetti’s Poems until the summer of 1871, he would have known about the book and its fantastic reception in the spring of 1870, since he’d be scanning the newspapers and magazines for the reviews of The Book of Orm. And yet, he did nothing. For18 months. If he had been quietly plotting his revenge on Swinburne and saw Rossetti as his mentor, then this would be the perfect opportunity to attack. If, as another popular theory has it, he was fired up with jealousy about Rossetti’s superior talent and greater success, then now would be the perfect opportunity to vent his wrath. But, instead, he waits for another 18 months.
Later in his career, Buchanan would attack anything that moved, in the pages of various London newspapers, from pleading for the life of the latest murderer condemned to hang, to trying to overturn the banning of an ‘indecent’ poster advertising a trapeze artiste. But in 1870, there’s no sign of the fiery Scot, ready to take on the world at the drop of a bad review. Instead, he just carries on with his work - I think, for two reasons. The first is the change in his poetical output, and, resulting in part from this, the second is his precarious financial position.
From the age of 15 Buchanan had been publishing poetry, reviews and essays, beginning with his father’s newspapers in Glasgow. His first signed poem in The Glasgow Sentinel was ‘On the Death of an Infant Sister’, published on 18th October, 1856, which followed his father’s poem, ‘Little Mary’, published in the Sentinel a month before, relating to the death of his daughter three years before. Buchanan’s first book of poetry, Poems & Love Lyrics, was published in 1857, when he was 16. His second, Mary, and other Poems, in January, 1859. It’s also worth noting that amongst the poems published in The Glasgow Sentinel on 23rd April, 1859, was ‘In the May Woods’, which echoes Sir John Suckling’s ‘A Session of the Poets’ and prefigures Buchanan’s later contemporary version. Later in 1859, Buchanan became editor of The West of Scotland Magazine and Review for a short time before heading to London and becoming a professional writer, submitting poems, reviews and articles to a variety of magazines until the publication of his third book of poems, Undertones, in December, 1863. This pattern of work (with occasional forays into the theatre and short stories) continued for the next few years. Poems, reviews and essays in the magazines, books of short poems loosely based around certain themes, which were generally well received by critics and public alike. His subjects had ranged from the Classical (‘Undertones’) to the Wordsworthian rural (‘Inverburn’) to the lives of the urban poor and outcast (‘London Poems’) to translations of Scandinavian ballads and occasional poems on various subjects for Christmas giftbooks engraved by the Brothers Dalziel. In the last of these, North Coast and other Poems, Buchanan included a final 32 page section entitled ‘Celtic Mystics’. This he later reworked into his first book-length, epic poem on the relation of man to God, published in May, 1870 - The Book of Orm. For over fourteen years he’d been writing short poems on all the subjects under the sun, legends of Greece and Rome, of Camelot, of medieval monks and nuns, poems about heroes and heroines, “idyls of the gallows and the gutters ... songs of costermongers and their trulls”, sentimental tales about dead babies and heartfelt poems about his dead friend, ghost stories and love stories, and pastoral odes and lyrics and ballads. Now he wanted to move up a gear and write an epic on what, to a nineteenth century mind, must have seemed the most important question of the age. So he sequestered himself far away from the madding crowd and the distractions of the city, and wrote The Book of Orm. Which was not really understood, although parts of it, notably ‘The Dream of the World Without Death’ and ‘The Vision of the Man Accursed’, were singled out for praise. And then, Buchanan wrote another epic, a poetic drama, based on contemporary events, concerning Napoleon III and the Franco-Prussian war, Napoleon Fallen. Again, this received, should we say, a lukewarm response from critics and public alike. Between the publication of The Book of Orm in May 1870, and Napoleon Fallen in January 1871, the only Buchanan items to appear in the magazines were a couple of reprints of poems in Good Words.
I do sometimes wonder what would have happened had Buchanan stuck to the short poems and left the epics alone. I have this image of him as a 19th century equivalent of Woody Allen, whose regular audience was disenchanted when he came under the spell of European arthouse cinema, and “I prefer his earlier funny films” became a shorthand summation of his career. You wonder how many times the members of the monstrous regiment he supported suggested he knock off another ‘Baby Grace’ or ‘Willie Baird’, or any dead baby poem, to put some food on the table. This struggle in Buchanan between the hack and the artist continued throughout his life and affected all his work, and, in a strange way, the fallout from the Fleshly Poetry affair, the fact that he would never get a fair response from the critics to his poetry, could be seen as a benefit in a way to his poetic output. There was no point writing poetry to make money, because it would always attract bad reviews. So, his hack work was confined, for the most part, to his novels and plays, and, when it came to his poetry, he could write what the hell he liked. But that was later. In May, 1871 a series of articles on contemporary poetry written by Harry Buxton Forman for Tinsley’s Magazine and the London Quarterly Review were collected into the book, Our Living Poets. Robert Buchanan did not make the list. Buchanan, who had been declared a genius by G. H. Lewes in 1865, was now, six years later, seemingly a forgotten man.
In his letter to Tennyson of 7th June, 1871, Buchanan wrote: “It seems, however, that my works have not been selling so well lately.” But Buchanan had prepared for the possible lack of income from his two epic poems by reviving a variation on an idea he’d first pitched to the Dalziel Brothers in a letter of 23rd June, 1866 - a guide book for Scotland. The Dalziel Brothers turned him down, but in March 1871 Chapman and Hall published Buchanan’s The Land of Lorne, including the Cruise of the “Tern” to the Outer Hebrides. Buchanan went to the trouble of getting royal approval for the book, and it was dedicated to Princess Louise, who was shortly to be married to John, Marquess of Lorne, son of the Duke of Argyll. Unfortunately Buchanan included a 32 page prologue to the book which criticised the Princess’ future father-in-law and his treatment of his tenantry, and it was this prologue, thought to be in very bad taste, which was the subject of most of the reviews in the press.
The extent of Buchanan’s financial problems in the summer of 1871 can be gauged by the size of the loan which he begged from Tennyson - £200. This is a tremendous sum - the equivalent of £23,000 in today’s money (although such comparisons are a bit dubious - a better indication would be that the annual rent of 25 Maresfield Gardens, Buchanan’s substantial house in Hampstead during the glory years of theatrical success, was £195). The letter (which neither Cassidy or Murray mention, so I believe they were unaware of it) adds this postscript: “I made no arrangement for ‘Napoleon Fallen’ before publication, & of course have not received a penny for that either, as it has not sold sufficiently to leave a profit for the author.” He also writes that he received no advance for The Drama of Kings. Tennyson gave him the money, but, even then, in a letter of 28th November, 1871, Buchanan asks him for another £100 (which he doesn’t get). And all this after Browning had campaigned on his behalf to get him a Civil List pension of £100 a year in April, 1870.
So, in the summer of 1871, isolated from the literary world of London, stuck on the side of a mountain, surrounded by women, his reputation as a poet seemingly non-existent, Buchanan reads the poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti for the first time.
Then waits for a few more months before the full import of Rossetti’s work hits him and he feels the need to tell the world about the mucky poems. In fact waits for a few more months (and I don’t think there’s any evidence that the ‘Fleshly School’ article was worked at and pored over and refined and rewritten, that was not Buchanan’s way, it would be the work of a few days, a week at most) before unleashing it on the public at, seemingly for him, the most inopportune moment, when his latest epic is due to the hit the shelves alongside a secret project, a project which was more important than either, since it was the only one which Buchanan believed would make him money.
3. Where does St. Abe fit in?
In the Tennyson letter of 7th June, 1871, Buchanan writes:
“I have been sick & ailing for years—with horrible cerebral symptoms— scarcely able to lift a pen; but last autumn I revived suddenly, & have worked hard all the winter at my ‘Drama of Kings,’ an ambitious Trilogy, which Strahan is just publishing.”
A week later Buchanan wrote to Tennyson again, thanking him for granting his request and saying:
“You may certainly rely on my repaying the money as soon as I can, though, as I said, I hardly expect to do it through my ‘Drama of Kings.’ Yet the work may be more popular than I expect, for I have often found these matters regulated by others quite beyond the author’s knowledge or control.”
‘The Fleshly School of Poetry: Mr. D. G. Rossetti’ is published in the October issue of The Contemporary Review.
On 16th November Buchanan sends Tennyson a copy of the newly published The Drama of Kings and adds:
“I fear this book wont put much into my pockets, as it has few elements of popularity; but I am labouring in other ways, and do not forget my obligations.”
Then on 28th November, Buchanan asks Tennyson for another £100 and writes this:
“But, strictly in confidence, let me say that I have other work of a more successful kind slowly making its way, and that what that work has already done for me makes it next to certain that I shall have plenty of money in a month or little more.”
On 6th December Buchanan writes to Browning, asking him for another loan of £20, saying:
“Several schemes have gone wrong & I am in a fix—not that your loan would clear me, but I am absolutely at a stand for spare cash.
Along with what seems dispiriting, I've better news to communicate. In the first place, I can repay you with certainty on Janry 1st. In the next, I shall after that date be in a very different position, as I have accepted a definite appointment of no arduous kind. In the third, altho’ the Drama of Kings is not lucrative, other work—which I dare not name—is likely to be so.”
On 8th December Strahan published the anonymous work, St. Abe and His Seven Wives.
The ‘definite appointment’ Buchanan mentions in his begging letter to Browning is the editorship of The Saint Pauls Magazine (published by Alexander Strahan). The ‘other work’ which he mentions in the Browning letter and the second November letter to Tennyson, is St. Abe.
The chronology is important. Napoleon Fallen is published in January 1871. The Land of Lorne appears in March and in the same month Buchanan’s article on ‘George Heath, The Moorland Poet’ is printed in Good Words (published by Strahan). It should be mentioned at this point that the article contained the following attack on Swinburne, supporting Buchanan’s claim that the latter’s swipe at David Gray in his essay on Matthew Arnold was the cause of the Fleshly School affair:
“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.”
Still no mention of Rossetti though. Back to the chronology of 1871. In April an extract from The Drama of Kings, ‘The Teuton before Paris’ was published in The Saint Pauls Magazine. In April a poem, ‘Spring Song In The City’ published in Good Words. Then in June an essay on ‘Mr. John Morley’s Essays’ in The Contemporary Review. It’s worth repeating that all three journals were Strahan titles. The Morley essay is also notable for the savage attack on Thomas Carlyle, which was noted by John Ruskin in Fors Clavigera, Letter X, dated 7th September, 1871:
“There was an article—I believe it got in by mistake, but the Editor, of course, won’t say so—in the Contemporary Review, two months back, on Mr Morley’s Essays, by a Mr Buchanan; with an incidental page on Carlyle in it, unmatchable (to the length of my poor knowledge) for obliquitous platitude, in the mud-walks of literature.”
This was then noticed by The Examiner in relation to the ‘Fleshly School’ article, which added to the quote from Ruskin the following:
“Many will be disposed to say nearly the same of an article in this month’s ‘Contemporary,’ by a Mr Thomas Maitland, who commences a series of strictures on ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry,’ with seventeen pages about Mr Dante Rossetti.”
This was published on 7th October, 1871, one of the first reviews of Buchanan’s essay, and it would have saved a lot of trouble if the hint had been taken a little further and the identity of ‘Thomas Maitland’ had been revealed at this early stage in the controversy.
The Morley essay is unconnected to the ‘Fleshly School’ article (i.e. despite the section on Carlyle, it was not intended as the first in a series of attacks on famous figures of the day) but it is an indication that Buchanan is back to doing purely commercial work, to improve his economic situation. This does seem to be with the assistance of Alexander Strahan, and in July ‘Tiger Bay’ appears in Good Words, and the following month, ‘Clari in the Well’. And in June he also writes to Browning and Gerald Massey for permission to include some of their poems in an anthology he is preparing (which never seems to materialise).
And then on 1st August he writes that letter to Roden Noel (quoted above) which can be picked at ad nauseam - is it referring to the Morley essay and is Buchanan defending his attacks on others than Carlyle (Ruskin had an article in the same issue of The Contemporary Review, so that is probably why he is mentioned, rather than some prescient glimpse into the future issue of Fors Clavigera)? Or has Buchanan intimated to Noel his intention of writing the ‘Fleshly School’ article? All speculation again but there is one fact in the letter - Alexander Strahan is due to visit the Buchanans in Oban. Should Strahan be brought into the conspiracy? It has been suggested that he put Buchanan up to it. That he was really the one offended by the ‘Fleshly School’. No evidence, but if there is another shooter on the grassy knoll, then Strahan’s your man, since he was the publisher of the three works in question.
‘The Fleshly School of Poetry: Mr. D. G. Rossetti’ appeared at the start of October, 1871. The Drama of Kings at the start of November and St. Abe and His Seven Wives at the beginning of December. The ‘Fleshly School’ article was signed Thomas Maitland - whether by design or accident, we don’t know. Buchanan claimed that he wanted it to be anonymous and Strahan attached the pseudonym because The Contemporary Review only printed signed articles. The Drama of Kings was issued under Buchanan’s name - obviously since it contained a reprint of Napoleon Fallen, which had appeared in January. And St. Abe was anonymous and concerned an American subject and the obvious intention was to imply that the author was an American. So is there a connection between these three works?
In Cassidy’s 1952 essay, ‘Robert Buchanan and the Fleshly Controversy’, there’s no mention of St. Abe, just this:
“The effects upon his literary work were immediately apparent. Many of his magazine contributions through 1872 and his White Rose and Red of 1873 were published anonymously to escape the onslaught of his enemies.”
In Murray’s 1982 essay, ‘D. G. Rossetti, A. C. Swinburne and R. W. Buchanan: The Fleshly School Revisited’ there is a footnote:
“There is an added irony to the entire episode that should be recorded here. In October 1871 Buchanan put the finishing touches to his St. Abe and his Seven Wives, which he published anonymously in December. This series of monologues is a satire on Mormon polygamy written with a lightness of touch and verve of which few would credit Buchanan of being capable when discussing matters sexual. Buchanan published it anonymously so that it could find its way without any preconceptions about its authorship beclouding its critical reception: this as a deliberate response to [Rossetti’s] Poems’ publication the previous year (as Buchanan wrote when republishing it over his own name and imprint in 1896, p. 171). St. Abe was the most successful verse that Buchanan ever published, and by May 1872 a “third, enlarged edition” was being advertised. What heightens the irony is Odette Bornand’s opinion (Diary, p. 154) that William Michael [Rossetti] himself reviewed the work most favourably in the Athenaeum, 23 December 1871 (the review being frequently quoted thereafter to promote sales) and his brother found it to have “considerable force and spirit” (Memoir, i. 299), all this just when the brothers were mounting counter-attacks against its author.”
Fair enough, Murray mentions St. Abe, links it to the ‘Fleshly School’ controversy and, apart from pointing out that The Athenaeum Index of Reviews and Reviewers: 1830-1870 assigns the review to Thomas Purnell (a friend of Swinburne’s) not W. M. Rossetti, nothing more need be said. In his unpublished M.A. thesis, ‘Robert Buchanan and the Fleshly Controversy: A Reconsideration’ from 1970, Murray writes:
“The feud continued with Buchanan, apparently being forced to publish St. Abe and his Seven Wives and White Rose and Red anonymously to escape the vehement scorn of reviewers incensed at the effect that Buchanan’s criticism was known to have had on Rossetti.”
With the footnote: “See Cassidy, p. 81, who follows Jay, p.164.”
In his 1974 PhD. thesis (unfortunately also unpublished), ‘Robert Buchanan (1841-1901) : An assessment of his career’, Murray comments on St. Abe and White Rose and Red in the chapter on Buchanan’s poetry and while rating both highly (particularly the latter) and mentioning their publication during the period of the ‘Fleshly School’ affair, he takes it no further and does not mention them at all in his section on the affair.
In Cassidy’s 1973 book, Robert W. Buchanan, we finally come a little closer to the whole story, not in the section on the ‘Fleshly School’ where he just repeats the comment from his 1952 essay, but in the second part (pp. 69-75) of ‘Chapter 3: The Reluctant Critic’ (available below). It is worth reading since Cassidy does state that Buchanan’s publication of The Drama of Kings and St. Abe at roughly the same time was a deliberate scam to fool the critics. However he still reckons it occurred after, and was engendered by the publication and resultant furore of the ‘Fleshly School’ article. This is wrong. ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry: Mr. D. G. Rossetti’ appeared in the October issue of the Contemporary Review. In The Daily News of 30th October, Strahan placed an advert for both The Drama of Kings, available next week, and St. Abe (under a heading of “The Mormon Difficulty”) to be published in a few days. Rossetti’s response to Buchanan’s article, ‘The Stealthy School of Criticism’ did not appear until 16th December. Prior to that there were the odd bits from Sidney Colvin in The Athenæum but hardly a full-blown assault that would have sent Buchanan racing to finish two long poetical works. So, the scam was planned well before the appearance of the ‘Fleshly School’ article and was not motivated by it, or the response of the Rossetti clan.
Unfortunately, Cassidy lets his own low opinion of St. Abe (and White Rose and Red) confuse the details of the scam. It was not Buchanan’s intention to prove all critics were fools. His intention was to show that anything with his name on it would get a bad review, whereas an anonymous work of similar merit would be praised. And it had to be of similar merit, or else the critics would have ignored it, or else, quite rightly, given it a similar bad review. In Murray’s opinion St. Abe is good, and White Rose and Red is even better. For the scam to work perfectly, Buchanan should have put something more characteristic (such as a Balder the Beautiful) up against The Drama of Kings, but he erred on the side of caution, disguising himself as an American poet with a good sense of humour. Personally, when I first read St. Abe, I did find it amusing and a much pleasanter ‘read’ than some of Buchanan’s more ‘important’ works. Plus, I think it should be pointed out that St. Abe probably had more of a satirical edge when it first appeared. It was only a little over a decade before that President Buchanan (no relation) had sent the U.S. army into Utah to deal with the Mormons. Cassidy’s objection to the lack of authenticity in the American setting is also rather unfair, presumably prompted by Cassidy being American. True, Buchanan had never been to America at this point, but he was an avid reader of American literature, a vocal supporter of Walt Whitman, a fan of Bret Harte and James Fenimore Cooper (the Indian chief in Buchanan’s 1881 play, The Mormons is called Chingachook), and he had also edited the biography of Audubon and an edition of Longfellow. Also, the novelisation of the play which Buchanan took to America in 1884 and which was rejected by the theatre managers, A Hero In Spite Of Himself, includes a character of a frontier sheriff whose description is very close to that of Buchanan himself. Perhaps he didn’t fool some of the American critics, but he did manage to fool all the English ones. And it should also be pointed out that it was The Drama of Kings which was eviscerated by Buchanan for the 1884 edition of The Poetical Works, while St. Abe and White Rose and Red were both included intact. Also (although this may have been a commercial decision), when Buchanan became his own publisher in 1896, he chose to reprint St. Abe. There is also the evidence of the few surviving letters where both works, at the time they were published, were of equal value to Buchanan, although he recognises that St. Abe will make more money than The Drama of Kings.
One more thing to mention, but whether it has any significance I don’t really know, is a letter from Buchanan to Professor Blackie, returning a book of poems by Joaquin Miller - a genuine American poet and one whom members of the PRB had taken to their firesides. Buchanan’s verdict on the poems:
“Miller’s poems come fresh in these days, with their Byronic echoes, but they are without depth or real power. Note for example the lame device in the first poem, & contrast it with the same situation at the end of Tennyson’s “Brook.” Neither as to the sentiment nor the psychology will the poems bear criticism. But they rattle along, and they are picturesque—actual merits in poems of this class; and they will be popular with young ladies and generally with people destitute of real imagination.”
The letter was written on 14th October, 1871. The ‘Fleshly School’ article is now published, and The Drama of Kings and the fake American poem, St. Abe, are at the printers. Buchanan’s dismissive assessment of Joaquin Miller is probably due to his having just finished his own poem in the American style, a poem, in fact, that he hopes will appeal to the same audience that has lapped up Miller’s Songs of the Sierras (published in England in May, 1871) and presumably the book borrowed from Professor Blackie. There is no obvious relationship between Miller and Buchanan. There were plenty of other American poets to emulate, and without further evidence we can’t speculate that it was the PRB’s championing of Miller which put the idea of writing an ‘American’ poem into Buchanan’s head. Neither do we know how long Buchanan had kept the book, so we can’t blame Miller directly for St. Abe. However there is a faint similarity between Miller’s ‘The Tale of the Tall Alcalde’ (from Songs of the Sierras) and Buchanan’s next ‘American’ book - White Rose and Red.
So, in the autumn of 1871, Buchanan publishes two books of poetry and an article attacking Rossetti, at roughly the same time. Why? Why decide to bring out a reprint of and sequel to Napoleon Fallen, which had not been rapturously received at the beginning of the year and from which he admitted he’d made no money, and run the risk of alienating the critics further by issuing an anonymous article attacking the poet who had been so highly praised eighteen months before. And then, bring out another anonymous work at the same time, one on which he was staking his financial future. If Cassidy is right and Buchanan was running a scam to fool the critics, then was ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry’ part of the plan?
Of course, as scams go, there is an obvious flaw in this one. If the critics and reviewers are taken in, dismiss The Drama of Kings and praise St. Abe to the skies (as many of them did, the best example being The Graphic of 13th January, 1872, where the two reviews are contiguous) then those critics and reviewers are hardly likely then to slap Buchanan on the back and laugh at their own foolishness. Rather they will tend to resent the joke and deal with Buchanan accordingly in the future. In a way, although the ‘Fleshly School’ affair is rightly blamed for Buchanan’s poetry not gaining a fair hearing in the years that followed, I think part of that blame could also be laid at the door of the ‘American poet’ scam. But was it a scam? Buchanan never admitted it as such. Even in the note to the 1896 edition of St. Abe, he just states that they were published at the same time and describes the results, but surely he must have wondered at some point what might happen. Plus, the letter to Tennyson of 7th June, 1871, gives the title of The Drama of Kings, describes it as “an ambitious Trilogy, which Strahan is just publishing” and rather implies that it is finished. This is five months before it is finally published. Of course, we don’t know whether it is finished, or whether Buchanan is just saying this to give Tennyson some hope that his £200 loan will be repaid. But, in that letter there is no mention of St. Abe and so, speculation again, perhaps he puts The Drama of Kings aside and writes the popular piece which is going to make him money. And in the meantime, he reads Rossetti’s poems.
The main evidence against the idea of a scam is the fact that there’s no payoff. Buchanan never does the big reveal and announces to the world that he is the author of St. Abe and all the critics are fools. This is easily explained. The trick had worked too well, St. Abe was his most popular book to date, with critics and public alike, and he was now possessed of a ‘pseudonym’ which not only meant that he could write whatever he liked and have it reviewed fairly, he was also in possession of a successful, money-making ‘pseudonym’, which, to Buchanan, was probably far more important. As well as St. Abe, Buchanan used his American persona for several poems which he published in The Saint Pauls Magazine, as well as White Rose and Red. And the panicky tone of his letter to John Chapman, publisher of The Westminster Review, explaining that the copy of the latter had been sent to editor of that magazine, rather than a private copy intended for Chapman, does seem to indicate that Buchanan had not finished with his American persona when the scam was finally ‘revealed’. In fact it was more of a slow leak in the press and the only ‘semi-official’ revelation was provided by George Barnett Smith in the puff piece he wrote for Buchanan in The Contemporary Review of November 1873, just prior to the publication of the three-volume edition of Buchanan’s poetry by H. S. King. The fact that this ‘Collected Works’ did not include any of his ‘American’ poems, although other anonymous works like ‘The Ballad of Judas Iscariot’ were present, is perhaps another indicator that Buchanan had not intended to abandon his American persona quite so soon.
Despite all the criticism of his use of a pseudonym to attack Rossetti, Buchanan continued to use pseudonyms and also publish anonymously. It was useful in 1872 when he was editing The Saint Pauls Magazine where his work was printed under a variety of guises and he also planned to publish The City of Dream anonymously. He’d been using pseudonyms since his early days in London, before in fact. Newton Neville first appeared in the November, 1859 edition of The West of Scotland Magazine and Review, edited by Buchanan before continuing his short-lived career in The St. James’s Magazine of the early 1860s. And a letter to Hepworth Dixon of 30th June, 1863, reveals Buchanan’s original intention to publish Undertones under a pseudonym, partly to differentiate himself from his father. There is also the matter of Harriett Jay’s first novel, The Queen of Connaught, and the rumour that it was the work of Charles Reade - one wonders where that rumour started, and how much help Buchanan gave his sister-in-law. Why I mention all this is because Buchanan did enjoy tricks and schemes, with which to publicise his work. So he would not be above such a scam as that involving The Drama of Kings and St. Abe. And, possibly, ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry; Mr. D. G. Rossetti’.
But what would be the point? Surely Buchanan woke up one morning and suddenly realised that Rossetti wrote mucky poems and the world should be informed. That makes perfect sense. What seems far-fetched is the possibility that Buchanan had devised a scam to show how biased the critics were to his poetry, but he felt it needed a little extra to really sell it to the crowd. And so we sit on the grassy knoll and offer this as an explanation.
Buchanan, after the year he’s had, after the career he’s had, the life he’s had, the 30 years of life he’s had, embarks upon a scheme. Possibly at Strahan’s urging. Strahan is definitely in there somewhere, privy to Buchanan’s stratagems, aware of his duty of silence and secrecy (and possibly buggering up the whole thing with his insisting on a pseudonym to keep within the rules of The Contemporary Review). Strahan is, in the end, the publisher of all three of the items involved in the scheme. If three there were. The Drama of Kings, no chance of success, but a serious work nonetheless. St. Abe, a different beast altogether and one which, if handled correctly, could bring in the money. And ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry’, why run the risk of alienating the critics further and jeopardizing the St. Abe profits? There are two possible reasons. Buchanan knew that ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry’ would cause a bit of a fuss. That’s why he did not want his name attached to it. I don’t really want to go any further into the affair, but I do think that all the condemnation of the ‘Thomas Maitland’ pseudonym, seems a bit ridiculous, as though, if the article had been anonymous, Rossetti and the rest would have accepted it with equanimity and wouldn’t have spent the same amount of effort trying to find the author. Buchanan must have expected the secret to leak out at some point. So, why run the risk of upsetting the critics at the same time as they would be reviewing The Drama of Kings? I suppose it could be argued that by October 1871 there had been a few negative reviews of Rossetti’s Poems and the effect of the original puffs organised among his friends had dissipated somewhat, so Buchanan might have felt the tide had turned a little against Rossetti. But he still insisted on anonymity, so maybe not. But what it could have been, this dredging up of an 18 month-old book of poetry for another review, was a reminder of how it had been reviewed originally, the excesses of those reviews by Swinburne and the rest of Rossetti’s pals. But in order to cause enough of a stir, the attack on logrolling has to be strengthened - if the poems were works of genius then what did it matter if Rossetti’s friends said so - by denigrating the poems and implying that they were unworthy of praise. So Buchanan says they are ‘mucky poems’. The article is published in the October edition of The Contemporary Review. As expected, a stir is caused, made greater (unintentionally) by Thomas Maitland. In November The Drama of Kings appears and, as Buchanan expected, the reviews are mostly bad. In December it’s the turn of St. Abe and the reviews, again as Buchanan expected, are mostly good - in some cases exceptionally good. Too good to ignore, and so Buchanan decides to skip the big reveal and walks off, not back to the Highland Hills like a good little Scottish soldier, but back down to London with the St. Abe money in his pocket and the promise of a job at The St Pauls Magazine. Which leaves the Fleshly School affair hanging.
So, to answer the three questions which niggled at me:
Why did Buchanan attack Rossetti?
Because he needed to show up the inconsistency and the favouritism of the London reviewers and a good case in point was the publication of Rossetti’s Poems in April, 1870. It had nothing to do with the poems being ‘fleshly’. That was just to spice it up a bit and make more of a fuss.
Why did he take eighteen months to do it?
Because he didn’t read Rossetti’s Poems until the summer of 1871, and at that point he had not finished the two books which he would use to fool the London reviewers into making complete idiots of themselves. When everything was in place, the ‘Fleshly School’ article was published as a sort of curtain-raiser to the main event.
And where does St. Abe fit in?
That was the main event. To con all the critics and fool the London reviewers.
It makes a kind of sense and answers the questions, but so does the ‘mucky poems’ theory, that nothing was connected, it all just happened by chance.
If one rejects any connection between St. Abe and the publication of the original 'Fleshly School of Poetry’ article, one cannot deny the effect which St. Abe had on the subsequent chapters of the Fleshly School affair. There is a massive change in Buchanan’s circumstances between the time he wrote his original article (stuck in a house on a hill in Oban, surrounded by his regiment of women, desperate for money) and when he came to write the pamphlet version (a lot of the time back in London, with regular work producing copy for The Saint Pauls Magazine, financially secure because of the success of St. Abe, and also smug in the knowledge that he had put one over on all the critics of the London literary establishment, as well as Mr. Rossetti and his crew). Some accounts of the affair question Buchanan’s sanity when it comes to the’leg-disease’ portion of the pamphlet, others point to it as an example of his excessive prudery, and some see the humour in it. It seems to me that Buchanan is just having fun. The introduction to the Fleshly School pamphlet is just pure jazz, with that ringing cymbal crash of the closing line. And when Swinburne replies with his own pamphlet, Under the Microscope, with its savage indictment of Buchanan, what is the response to his sworn enemy? Tired of the whole affair, Buchanan calls him a monkey and leaves it at that.
Under the Microscope appears in July 1872, and then, three years later in November, 1875, Swinburne attacks again in the pages of The Examiner, first with his ‘Epitaph on a Slanderer’, then, the following month, with his ‘Devil’s Due’ letter. Why? Buchanan is by now even further in exile on the west coast of Ireland, once again broke, and is engaged in a new scheme of writing novels, and possibly a new scam of promoting his sister-in-law’s anonymous career as a novelist while dropping hints that The Queen of Connaught was written by Charles Reade. But he has not engaged with Swinburne or the PRB for years. In fact, when Buchanan reprinted the ‘Walter Hutcheson’ essay, ‘Criticism as one of the Fine Arts’, in Master-Spirits (published by H. S. King in December, 1873) a sentence referring to “The Mutual Admiration School of Poetry” and a whole paragraph naming Swinburne were omitted.
That Swinburne still bore a grudge is obvious from his letters, and it is understandable. Despite the effect on his reputation, Buchanan came out of the affair relatively intact. Swinburne, on the other hand, had witnessed the devastating effect of the affair on his friend, D. G. Rossetti,, whose mental breakdown and subsequent suicide attempt in June 1872 were partly blamed on the publication of the Fleshly School pamphlet. Not only that, but following Swinburne’s publication of Under the Microscope in July, William Michael Rossetti wrote to Swinburne telling him that his brother no longer wanted to see him. Given these serious consequences, it may be disingenuous to suppose that the revelation that Buchanan was the author of St. Abe and White Rose and Red in August 1873, was of major importance to Swinburne, but it still must have annoyed him a little, to know that Buchanan had managed to fool them all. In fact, to resurrect Joaquin Miller again, the PRB’s warm relationship with the real American poet, could have been taken as a more personal slight when it came to Buchanan’s fake one. Speculation again, but it is interesting that what sparks the next phase in the Fleshly School affair, is Swinburne’s mistaken belief that Buchanan was, if you like, at it again.
The anonymous publication of the poem, Jonas Fisher, and the speculation in the press that it was the work of Buchanan led to Swinburne's libels in The Examiner. Buchanan saw it as an opportunity to make some money and sued the proprietor of the paper (rather than Swinburne himself) for £5000. The case against Swinburne and The Examiner was clear-cut, but when Buchanan took the stand, it became more a case of ‘spot the fleshly poet’, with Buchanan's White Rose and Red and his recent championing of Walt Whitman in the press, being used to muddy the waters. The jury found for Buchanan, but only awarded £150 in damages. If Swinburne had been forced to take the stand, had one of Buchanan’s lawyers not been Colin Ritchie McClymont, a friend of Swinburne’s, and another ‘Oxford man’, perhaps Buchanan would have received more. Who knows?
And we’ll leave it there, since, despite all this dancing round the few facts at hand, in the end, that’s about as useful a summing-up as we can hope for. Who knows?
From Robert W. Buchanan by John A. Cassidy (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1973) pp. 69-75:
“II. A Matched Pair of Wooden Horses
Shortly after the publication of his Fleshly article in October, 1871, Buchanan became convinced that he was a marked man and that the Rossettis and their friends—many of whom held key positions as critics and reviewers on leading magazines and newspapers—would blast anything of his printed under his name. As he phrased it: “All the cockney bastions of criticism were swarming with sharpshooters on the lookout for the ‘d——d Scotchman’ who had dared to denounce Logrolling.” His biographer and sister-in-law, Harriet Jay, says that he was “relentlessly pursued” by a “band of Mohawks” who drove him into anonymity, and that “when the story is told of how they have laboured to discredit him . . . it will form one of the most humiliating episodes in the literary history of our generation.”
The story has not yet been told, but the body of it can now be pieced together with the aid of fact and conjecture so that it forms a coherent tale. It is more amusing than tragic, and whatever humiliation it created was felt by Buchanan’s foes, not by their intended victim. It supports Buchanan’s thesis that criticism is so closely interconnected with and influenced by the critic’s personal bias that errors in judgment are inescapable.
Buchanan sized up his opponents as being so eager to come at him that their very impetuosity could be used against them. If he could concoct a scheme to expose their bias and critical ineptitude, he could so discredit them that they would be objects of ridicule. Such a stratagem readily occurred to him: he would publish two poetical works simultaneously, or almost so. One, signed with 70 his name, would be a serious work of as high quality as he could make it. The other would be anonymous, would be camouflaged in matter and style to appear as much unlike Buchanan’s previous verse as possible and as much like the work of some popular poet as Buchanan’s imitative abilities could fashion it, but it would be mere doggerel. If his assailants fell into the trap by condemning the good work and praising the farce, he could then expose them to the world and enjoy their chagrin.
He was not long in putting his plan into effect. The serious work, The Drama of Kings, was a book-length poem examining the careers of Napoleon I and III in order to determine whether there was a God and whether there was concrete evidence of His intervention in the affairs of men during the Napoleonic Wars and the Franco-Prussian War. The issue is still in some doubt at the conclusion of some four hundred and fifty pages of somewhat noisy verse, for Buchanan has been unable to find any clear evidence of the Almighty in the bloody campaigns of the Bonapartes. Appearing in the latter half of November, 1871, little more than a month after the Fleshly articles in the Contemporary Review, the Drama of Kings was a hastily composed, ill-fated attempt to make poetic capital out of the recently concluded strife across the Channel. To it Buchanan appended a “Note on Mystic Realism,” asserting that the Drama represented an innovation in modern literature because it utilized the form and manner of Greek drama in depicting great historical events. He concluded with a plea for a patient hearing for his epic, and then he dourly observed that he had little hope of getting it—certainly poor salesmanship unless his real intent was to invite adverse criticism.
The second work, the farcical St. Abe and his Seven Wives: A Tale of Salt Lake City, was published anonymously one month later in the latter half of December, 1871. The flimsy melodramatic plot centers about the troubles experienced by “St.” Abe Clewson, a Mormon elder, with his six older wives when he marries a young and beautiful seventh. The story ends with his flight to New England with the young wife and his bequeathing the six belligerent older ladies to Brigham Young in a letter delivered after Abe’s departure.
Poor as the story is, Buchanan’s manner of telling it is even worse. The viewpoint is author-observer; the prosody is rhymed couplets, varying from iambic tetrameter to iambic heptameter; it is doggerel, not poetry. As an example, we cite the opening scene 71 that describes Buchanan’s stagecoach ride to Salt Lake:
“Grrr!” shrieked the boss, with teeth clench’d tight,
Just as the lone ranche hove in sight,
And with a face of ghastly hue
He flogg’d the horses till they flew
As if the devil were at their back,
Along the wild and stony track.
From side to side the waggon swung,
While to the quaking seat I clung.
Dogs bark’d; on each side of the pass
The cattle grazing on the grass
Raised heads and stared; and with a cry
Out the men rush’d as we roll’d by.
On other counts also St. Abe leaves much to be desired. The humor is so forced that it often becomes grotesque. Neither the story, the characters. nor the setting has immediacy. Buchanan deliberately and prudently shied away from the specific in dealing with his material. His West is any place with a winding road, hills, cattle, and dogs. Salt Lake City shines in the distance and could as well be Camelot. In details of dialect, his misconception is often ludicrous, for the stage-driver speaks like a Cockney. The whole work is so very poor that any critic who praised it would stand convicted either of puffery or of utter lack of critical discernment.
But for Buchanan’s purpose his wooden horse was well conceived and executed. It was an American story set in America, and Buchanan’s enemies were aware that he had never been any nearer to America than the English coast. Also, while Buchanan’s earlier poetic works had been highly serious, St. Abe was a humorous satire on Mormonism. Furthermore, Buchanan through his Fleshly article had taken the mantle of a guardian of the public morals, but in St. Abe he treats of polygamy and free love with a salacious relish that is excellent camouflage. Likewise, he went to great lengths to convince his foemen that St. Abe was the work of an American poet and that the poet was none other than James Russell Lowell. In his dedication to Chaucer, he speaks of England as “the Mother-land” and his dateline for the dedication was “Newport, October, 1871.” Lowell’s satirical Biglow Papers had been sufficiently popular in England to run through nine editions before 1872, and St. Abe employed much of the tone, the manner, 72 the prosody, and the dialect of the Biglow Papers. The dedication to Chaucer was shrewdly contrived, for Lowell’s Conversations on Some of the Old Poets published in 1845 expresses his admiration for Chaucer. Finally, it would have been in character for Lowell to publish St. Abe anonymously because both his Fable for Critics and his Biglow Papers had originally been published thus. If Lowell could be indicated as the author of St. Abe, it would be assured of a favorable critical reception. In 1871, the British were anxious to repair their breach with the United States that had come about during the Civil War: and Lowell was one of the most popular American men of letters.
The result was all that Buchanan could have hoped for. The critical press belabored the Drama with ferocity. The Athenaeum devoted more than four columns to a strongly negative review in which it pointed out that he was imitating his arch-enemy, Swinburne. The Academy sneered that he had failed to fulfill his early promise to become “the costermonger’s Wordsworth” and that his later works proved that he was “essentially a spasmodic poet.” The London Quarterly found in the Drama “no dearth of materials that indicate the hand of a word-monger rather than the head and heart of a poet.” The Graphic suspected that his “Note” showed that he considered his readers stupid for failing to comprehend his writings, and the British Quarterly acidly recommended shortening the poem by at least a hundred pages.
In sharp contrast was the chorus of praise that greeted St. Abe. The Athenaeum found the description of Salt Lake City and the Mormons to be especially good. The cleverness of the poem and the satire of the Mormons delighted the London Quarterly. The British Quarterly strongly suspected Lowell to be the poet of St. Abe and declared the quality of the poetry to be superior to that of Hans Breitmann, Bret Harte, or Joaquin Miller. Like the Athenaeum, it singled out as especially meritorious the “characteristic scenes of Mormon life.” The Graphic plunged headlong into the trap: on the same page and immediately below its unfavorable review of the Drama quoted above, it said: “St. Abe and His Seven Wives . . . belongs to a very different class of poetry. The author has one advantage over Mr. Buchanan, that his muse deals in realism mixed, and nobody need be in any doubt as to what he means . . . Such vigorous, racy, determined satire has not been met with for many a long day, certainly not in verse.” Temple Bar carried 73 this strain to an even higher key. After agreeing that St. Abe must be the work of Lowell and that it was clearly one of the best poems of the season, it concluded with a remark that Buchanan quoted gleefully in later years: “Truly, if America has more than one writer who can write in such a rich vein of satire, humour, pathos, and wit as we have here, England must look to her laurels.”
Buchanan had every reason to be pleased with his “haul.” Although he must have recognized that the merits of his Drama were open to debate, the demerits of St. Abe were beyond question. He did not, however, immediately expose his victims—and for readily understandable reasons. Ill and in need of money, he was gratified to see that St. Abe, aided by the favorable reviews, was selling better than anything he had published for years. For its creator to have revealed that it was a spurious poem, a hoax, would surely have been to kill its sale and to stop the flow of money into his empty pockets. Much wiser would it be to forgo his revenge—a least temporarily—come out with a second venture of the same general character, and reap a double harvest. An added advantage of such a course would be to establish the culpability or incapability of his critical antagonists beyond argument.
This was precisely what Buchanan did. His White Rose and Red appeared during the first two weeks of August, 1873. Another melodrama of the American West, it deals with a Maine farmer youth who goes to the Far West, is captured by Indians, secretly marries the daughter of the chief, gets free of the Indians and returns to Maine, marries a white girl, and settles down to the life of a farmer, forgetting the Indian girl and his promise to return to her. But she has not forgotten him. With her child in her arms she wanders over rivers, mountains, and plains, in scenes reminiscent of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, until she comes at last to her husband’s home in Maine. There she obligingly dies from exhaustion, leaving her child to its father and his white wife—an excellent arrangement because their marriage has been childless. Buchanan supplemented this threadbare plot by repeating most of the devices that had been successful in palming off St. Abe as an American work, again with indications of Lowell as the author. The same prosody, the same dialect, the same easy tolerance of sensuality and immorality—all are in evidence. This work is also anonymous, the title page containing the information that it was “by the author of St. Abe.”
Once again the bag of reviewers was eminently successful, and 74 the sale of the book highly gratifying to the Scottish strategist. The Athenaeum, the British Quarterly, the Illustrated News, and even the usually astute Spectator marshaled platoons of encomiastic phrases to express their approbation, most of them singling out the ludicrously spurious descriptions of American scenes and characters for especial praise as being vivid and authentic.
As early as October, 1873, less than two months after the publication of White Rose, the secret began to leak out with the announcement in the Westminster Review that the author of the poem was not an American, although “his poetry has a wonderful likeness to that of the new American school.” This was followed in November, 1873, with an article on Buchanan in the Contemporary by George Barnett Smith, suggesting that Buchanan had done both St. Abe and White Rose. Since Alexander Strahan, publisher of the Contemporary had also published both St. Abe and White Rose, the suggestion had almost the weight of an official announcement.
Except that Buchanan’s health was still poor and his finances were even worse, there is no ready answer as to why he did not appear in print late in 1873 or early in 1874 with the exposé of his enemies. Certainly the cat was out of the bag, and the time was ripe to let the world know of the success of his scheme. He could be certain that Smith’s article had made clear to his foes how he had tricked them. They would be waiting in daily apprehension for Buchanan’s article to hold them up to public ridicule. Perhaps he considered it more refined torture to keep them in an agony of suspense than to give them the coup de grâce. Furthermore, not all the reviewers and reviewing organs were inimical to Buchanan. Some of them, like Richard Holt Hutton of the Spectator, were long-time friends. Exposure would have hurt them as well as the others. For whatever reasons, the article was never published.
Not until 1882, in his novel The Martyrdom of Madeline, did Buchanan treat himself to the delicious pleasure of ribbing his critical adversaries. He did it by introducing a scene in which several critics are gathered together in an artist’s salon, discussing the merits of a poem, Lily and Rue, recently published. All agree that it is of high excellence until they learn, to their consternation, that it is the work of a man they hate, a cantankerous Scotsman named MacAlpine. The news is so disturbing that the editor of the Megatherium, a leading critical journal, staggers from the room. 75 The others change their opinions abruptly, now finding that Lily and Rue is worthless drivel.
Lily and Rue is, of course, White Rose; MacAlpine is Buchanan; and the Megatherium is the Athenaeum. One of Buchanan’s friends at the gathering reminds the chagrined critics that this is the second time the Scotsman has hoodwinked them. He adds a cutting remark that their vaunted critical insight is nothing but bias: they can see nothing but faults in the works of their enemies; nothing but virtues in those of their friends.
Thus Buchanan had a partial measure of his revenge at last. Most of the London literary world would know the full import of the scene in the novel; many of them would know the identities of the befooled reviewers. The reviewers themselves would most certainly know how they had been diddled by “the damned Scotchman.” Best of all, from Buchanan’s viewpoint, they must suffer in silence; they could not answer him back directly without further publicizing their own sorry predicament. It had been a most successful venture. As his friend Archibald Stodart-Walker later remarked, Buchanan in St. Abe and White Rose had “risked a fall with the Philistine, and succeeded even beyond his most ambitious hope.” To his own satisfaction at least, Buchanan felt that he had demonstrated the hopeless bias of contemporary criticism.
From The Martyrdom of Madeline:
One night, Crieff, who knew everybody, took Sutherland to the lodgings of Gavrolles, and introduced him. Quite a little symposium was there, including Ponto the fatuous; Cassius Gass, a lean and limp critic from Cambridge; Blanco Serena, and several other painters; young Botticelli Jones, and one or two more callow poets, not to speak of Wallace MacNeill, the editor of the ‘Megatherium.’
Sutherland sat very silent. After the first, quick look at Gavrolles, and a second shock of recognition, he remained quiescent, but quietly observant.
The talk was of ‘Lily and Rue,’ an anonymous poem which had just appeared, and which Ponto had just criticised with admiration.
‘I wonder who is the writer?’ said Botticelli Jones. ‘There are passages in it which are worthy of Byron.’
‘Byron was a Philistine,’ cried Ponto’; ‘he could never have written a piece of this kind. Look at the technique of his verse! It would disgrace a schoolboy! No, this is a cameo cut by an artist.’
‘Shall I confess it!’ observed Gavrolles, smiling languidly. ‘I am of Henri Taine’s opinion, and prefer to your Byron our Alfred de Musset.’
Here Crieff, who was puffing carelessly at a briar-root pipe, threw himself back in his chair and laughed loudly.
‘I say! Is it possible you don’t know?’
‘What?’ cried several voices.
A shudder ran through the assemblage at the mention of the hated name.
‘That MacAlpine has acknowledged the authorship of this poem.’
‘What poem?’ demanded Ponto, trembling and turning pale.
‘Why, of “Lily and Rue.” Go and buy the third edition—you’ll find his name on the title-page.’
A terrible silence followed. The men looked in horror at one another. One man rose, livid and ghastly, put his hand to his head and left without a word. It was the editor of the ‘Megatherium.’
‘Poor MacNeill,’ cried Crieff, with another laugh. ‘This is the second trick of the kind that MacAlpine has played him; this is the second time that he has devoted columns of praise to an author whom he would gladly see handed over, like the old heretics, to the secular arm. It only shows what humbug criticism is!’
‘Excuse me,’ said Gass the critic, hysterically, ‘criticism is not humbug. It would be easy to show, on a profounder examination of this disagreeable work, that it is the work of a Philistine. The over-accentuation of the sensuous passages (which, by the way, are not sensuous, but prurient and ponderous), the want of finish in the trochaic couplets, the crudeness of the poetic terminology——’
‘Would all have been evident enough,’ interrupted Crieff, dryly, ‘if MacAlpine’s name had been on the title-page. Without that, even superhuman insight, like yours, could not detect them.’
Christopher D. Murray’s assessment of St Abe and White Rose and Red in “Robert Buchanan (1841-1901) : An assessment of his career” (Queen Mary, University of London, 1974) pp. 46-55.
Robert Buchanan’s ‘Bibliographical Note on St. Abe and his Seven Wives’ from the 1896 edition.
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