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{ Robert Buchanan: Some Account Of His Life, His Life’s Work And His Literary Friendships }





     ROBERT BUCHANAN, poet, novelist, dramatist, was born at Caverswall in Staffordshire on the 18th of August, 1841.
     An unworldly man, whose life was chiefly occupied with the child’s puzzle of natural religion. A worker, yet a dreamer who fought Don Quixote-like with many windmills; a lover of truth and beauty, yet darkly doomed to much ignoble
pot-boiling, a dweller between the fringe of literary Bohemia and the beginning of mere cloudland, who, while giving a careless glance at the present generation, ever fixed a long, hopeful, wistful look towards posterity.
     The story of his life which to the best of my ability I am about to set down, is in many respects a sad one. He had few friends and many enemies, and he received from the world many cruel blows. From the beginning I fear he lacked the true literary temper, but he always tried to preach the truth as he saw it, never counting the cost to himself. A fearless, upright, honest man, whose life, if rightly studied, cannot fail to be of interest to the world.
     It was perhaps because he heard the name of God for the first time so late in boyhood that the mention 2 of that name never grew tiresome to him. He was born in the strangest odour of infidelity, hence infidelity amused him less than most men, but for infidels and revolters he had ever a kindly feeling quite irrespective of their creed or his. His life was a lonely one—he was from first to last a lonely man; not unsociable by disposition, not unsympathetic, but seldom travelling far for sympathy—always climbing, climbing, but never quite reaching the heights on which he had set his intellectual ideals. Had his father not broken down in health and fortune all might have been very different with him; he would at least have had a foothold apart from the dangerous quicksands of literature. For many years he suffered a martyrdom from ill health, from the infinite delicacies of an over-wrought nervous system, thence came isolation, friendlessness, bitterness, misconception, and despair.
     Perhaps no man has been oftener abused, yet no man needed kindness so much and received so little. He was stabbed again and again, and scarcely one arm was ever stretched out in his defence; yet he bore his burthen with cheerfulness and infinite hope, and now, in reviewing his life, I can truly say that it was honest even in its utmost blindness; unselfish in its one lingering aspiration to be truthful, and not to fear the truth. He was never an ambitious man; he reaped what he sowed, and it was a blessed harvest; for, in spite of many trials and temptations, he never lost the deep poetic heart which he brought with him into the world as his only birthright.
     As far back as the year 1891, when giving some account of his early experiences, he wrote:—
     “At the time when the benign Don Quixote of modern Socialism, Robert Owen, was issuing his 3 propaganda of a New Moral World, and when his Words of promise sounded like a trumpet-note to so many youthful sons of toil, one of the first to respond was a poor journeyman tailor in Ayrshire, who, throwing down goose and scissors, straightway aspired to the rôle of Socialist reformer; was soon welcomed and appreciated for his keen Scottish intelligence, his wide, if uninstructed reading, and his rugged eloquence on the platform; in due time became one of Owen’s most valued Missionaries; and before many years had elapsed was famous among his own people, and infamous among the orthodox, as Robert Buchanan, poet and iconoclast. That man was my father.
     “Sometimes stumping the country as a controversialist on the side of Free-Thought, sometimes travelling from town to town with a magic lantern (one of his great feats being the exposure of the popular theory of ‘ghosts,’ through the production of a mystic Skeleton which he sent dancing among his affrighted audience), sometimes following his gentle Leader into perilous places where the new gospel was hateful or unknown, he laboured pertinaciously in the good cause till, in or about 1840, well known to Socialists as the Communistic Year, he married Miss Margaret Williams, daughter of a well-known solicitor (of Socialistic leanings) in Stoke-upon-Trent. Robert Owen himself honoured the civil ceremony before the Registrar, and gave Miss Williams away. About a year afterwards I was born—if not in the odour of sanctity, at least in the full and increasing daylight of the New Moral World.
     “It was, as the reader is doubtless aware, a stirring time. The wave of the great Revolution had not yet spent itself, and every day some doomed structure 4 was subsiding into the waste of troubled waters. Many failures had not yet daunted the apostles of Liberty and Co-operation. Instead of the stagnant pessimism which now covers the green fields of Democracy with loathsome pools, an ardent optimism was everywhere at work. Owen’s clear call to arms had been heard all over the land, bringing recruits from the tailor’s shop, the smithy, the cobbler’s bench, the manufactory, the plough-tail, from every place indeed, where the poor sons of toil had learned to read and think. Many of these men, my father among the number, had splendid gifts; all had the courage of their opinions.
     “Those who had the happiness to know Robert Owen knew him as the most benign of men, in whom the enthusiasm of humanity was combined with the most extraordinary powers of practical business. In the words of Duke Bernard of Saxe-Weimar, ‘Mr. Owen looked for nothing less than to renovate the world, to extirpate all evil, to banish all punishment, to create like views and like wants, and to guard against all conflicts and all hostilities.’ His benevolence, however, was entirely scientific—he was, in fact, the father and founder of modern social science. His success, for a time at least, was phenomenal. In a letter to the Times newspaper in 1834 he said, addressing his friend Lord Brougham: ‘I believe it is known to your lordship that from every point of view no experiment was ever so successful as the one I conducted at New Lanark, although it was commenced and continued in opposition to all the oldest and strongest prejudices of mankind. For twenty-nine years we did without the necessity for magistrates or lawyers; without a single legal punishment; without any known poor’s-rate, without intemperance or 5 religious animosities. We reduced the hours of labour, well educated all the children from infancy, greatly improved the condition of the adults, diminished their daily hours of labour, paid interest on capital, and cleared upwards of £300,000 of profit!’ So far his mission had been practical, and had succeeded; but in 1837 he delivered a formula which made him thenceforth the avowed enemy of all who held orthodox opinions.
     “‘ALL THE RELIGIONS OF THE WORLD,’ he said, ‘ARE WRONG!’ From that time forth the influential classes entirely deserted him. He became at once an apostle and a martyr. Personally a Theist, he preached universal toleration, a form of toleration which is, and always has been, to nine-tenths of mankind, quite intolerable.
     “Only those who have carefully followed the history of the Socialistic movement under Owen can have any notion whatever of the condition of England in those troublous times. A freethinker, a proclaimer of the right to private judgment, often carried his life in his hand. The priest and the capitalist, the bigot and the landowner, worked everywhere against the new doctrines, which, they contended, were poisoning the air—the missionaries of Socialism were very generally regarded as agents of the Prince of Darkness conspiring to plunge the country into anarchy and revolution. Owen’s views on religion were generally considered blasphemous, horrible, atheistical, but it was his ideas on marriage, in the moral programme which he advanced with persuasive eloquence, that aroused the most frenzied opposition, particularly among the women of the lower classes, who were firmly persuaded that the object was to rob them of their husbands and by 6 reducing all sexual union to a simple contract, revokable at pleasure, to leave them at the mercy of male caprice and to bastardise their children. This delusion drove the wives and mothers of the toiling classes to absolute frenzy, and made them the chief leaders and abettors of the many acts of violence to which Owen’s missionaries were subjected.” 1
     The poet’s grandfather, known throughout the Midlands as “Lawyer Williams,” was a very remarkable man. Quite early in his career he had come under the influence of Robert Owen and had accepted that philanthropist’s ideas on social, political, and religious problems—in fact, he was a freethinker of the most advanced school. He fearlessly proclaimed his opinions in and out of season, and this exceptional candour, so far from hindering his progress in his profession, gained for him the respect of his most bitter opponents. It was a favourite dictum of his, that there was no such anachronism as an “honest lawyer,” but he himself was honesty incarnate, a living refutation of his own dictum; and his fearlessness, his unselfishness in helping the weak and in denouncing every form of injustice, earned for him the title of the “poor man’s friend.”
     At the time that the war against Capital and Superstition was raging, “Lawyer Williams” followed his profession as a solicitor in Stoke-upon-Trent, and his house became the temporary home of every wandering preacher of the cause who visited the district. He entertained the lecturers, he presided at their meetings, he furthered, both publicly and privately, the dissemination of the new doctrines, and only his great popularity with the lower classes saved him from personal violence. Again and again when the 7 mob rose in its fury, when public halls were wrecked and Owen’s lecturers were compelled to fly for their lives, the only refuge in Stoke was the house of “Lawyer Williams,” and while some trembling apostle of freethought was being smuggled away through the back door, the “poor man’s friend” faced the furies and diverted their attention to his own person. Any other man’s house would have been burned down or razed to the ground; any other man would, in all likelihood, have been torn to pieces. Both the men and women of Stoke respected the man who had befriended them in a thousand ways, who had sacrificed time and money and reputation to the legal defence of the poorest and most wretched among them, and much as they loathed the opinions which he fearlessly shared, not one hand in all the crowd was raised against him. Nor was it among the poor and wretched alone that his name was a synonym for honesty, kindliness, and philanthropy. Even amongst the clergy, his bitterest opponents, he had sympathisers and well-wishers. Doctor Vale, the Vicar of Stoke, was the intimate friend of the lawyer and his wife, and on one occasion Mr. Williams protected him from the wild mob of hungry men and women who would otherwise have had his life.
     To the lawyer and his wife were born two children, a son and a daughter, the latter of whom became the poet’s mother. She was a very beautiful girl—blue-eyed and golden-haired. Almost with her first breath she inhaled the atmosphere of Socialism and freethought. Throughout her long life she had two supreme objects of idolatry—her father, who reciprocated her passionate attachment, and Robert Owen, whom she had been taught to regard as the wisest and best of men.
8     To the house of “Lawyer Williams” came from time to time all the preachers of the cause. Among these men was the poet’s father, who, when quite a boy, had run away from home to seek his fortune. He was a dark, somewhat reserved young man, an omnivorous reader, and a fairly fluent speaker, but it was in the height of fiery argument on the public platform that he appeared at his best. Some of his fellow missionaries excelled him in oratorical gifts, but in knowledge of the subjects discussed, and in range of general information he had no equal among them. His manners were far from courtly, but his strong intellectual qualities attracted Miss Williams, and before they had been very long acquainted they were engaged to be married. The marriage took place in the autumn of 1840, and on the 18th day of August, 1841, Robert, their only son, was born. About twelve years later Mrs. Buchanan gave birth to a little girl, who died in infancy, so Robert was practically their only child.
     The fact that his parents had no other surviving children was, I think, the chief misfortune of his life, as well as its crowning blessing. An only child, he became the idol of his mother, whose affection for him he returned with absolutely overmastering intensity. His feeling towards his father, he often said, was one of ordinary, though strong affection, but towards his mother it was far from ordinary. His earliest memories were of her beauty and quite girlish grace. She was a particularly young-looking woman at all times, and he could never, at any hour of his life, realise the fact that she was growing old. In looking at her even when she was close upon eighty years of age, he saw only the soft blue eyes and golden hair as he had seen them long ago, and I 9 have heard him remark again and again that it always gave him a shock if any one happened to refer to her as “old.” “I cannot imagine my mother old,” he would say, and again, the very day after she died, “I do not feel that she is dead, for I cannot imagine the world without my mother!” As I have said, he adored her, and was in turn adored. Thus reared and sheltered from every harsh influence, he grew sensitive beyond measure, and his naturally nervous temperament became so highly strung, that he was ill prepared for the struggles of the world. This was a misfortune, and the cause later on of infinite pain and heartache. He was spoiled by too much tenderness and solicitude, weakened by too many gusts of childish passion which wrung his heart the more because he was not openly demonstrative, but given on the contrary to the concealment of his deepest feelings. But the influence of his mother was not merely emotional. He learned from her teaching to be sympathetic and tender-hearted, to worship goodness and to rise in revolt against any form of injustice or oppression. The words of the great Humanitarians were on her lips, she had learned them at her father’s knee, and he learned them in turn at hers.
     From his parents he had no religious training whatever, yet slowly and imperceptibly there grew in him a deep and abiding sense of natural religion, of awe and reverence for the mysterious Power which moves the world. He could never remember when he first began to say his prayers, but he knew that as a child he said them, and later on to my knowledge on two memorable occasions he said them—first, by the dead body of his wife, next by the dead body of his mother, she who to him was the symbol of all that was beautiful and loving in humanity.

1 “Latter Day Leaves.”


(ROBERT BUCHANAN. - The Poet’s Father.)





     “THE reward of Socialist missionaries in those days was, I fear, quite inadequate to their personal necessities, and my father was one of many who found it necessary to eke out a subsistence by reporting for the Press. Just after I was born he joined the staff of the Sun newspaper, combining with his occupation of reporter that of small news-vendor. A few months later, when I was still an infant, my mother went to join the community at Ham Common, in Surrey, the manager of which was Mr. William Oldham, whose chief eccentricity was a preference for wet sheets to dry ones. The inmates of Alcott House, or, as it was called, the Concordian, were vegetarians, objected to the use of even salt and tea, and, naturally, to all stimulants, and advocated entire abstinence from indulgences of the flesh, including marriage. My mother, as a married woman, was refused admission to the inner, or perfectly sacred, circle, which was presided over by Oldham, the grand “Pater.” A diet consisting almost entirely of uncooked cabbage is apt to grow monotonous, and my mother did not remain at Ham Common long. A year or two later, however, when New Harmony was established, she went on Robert Owen’s special 11 invitation to Queenwood, near Wisbech, Norfolk, a baronial structure surrounded by spacious woods and promenades. The inmates of Queenwood, though they were all believers in the principle of association, consulted their own taste in matters of diet, but the most popular table in the Hall was the one where a vegetarian diet alone was served. It was, as I gathered, a happy and innocent community; but infamous reports were spread concerning it by the antagonists of human progress; it was, in fact, described as an immoral association. Members of the Church Orthodox were not likely to forgive a community founded to illustrate the doctrines of the man who denounced all religions as ‘wrong,’ and who on the platform and in the newspapers had so often shown the weak points in the armour of Christianity. ‘Is it possible’ asked an opponent of Socialism at Edinburgh, in 1838, ‘to train an individual to believe that two and two make five?’ ‘We need not, I fancy, go far for an answer,’ replied Owen, with his gentle smile and inimitable courtliness of manner, ‘I fancy all of us know many persons who are trained to believe that three make one, and who think very ill of you if you differ from them.’
     “I have often heard my mother speak of Robert Owen as the kindliest and most gracious of men, with an air of indomitable gentleness peculiarly irritating to individuals whose métier it was to discuss burning questions under burning excitement. I saw the good man often early in my life, but my recollection of him is kaleidoscopic—one tiny sparkle of memory mixed confusedly with things I have only heard. In our home, wherever it might be, he was a sort of religious presence. I heard his name long before I heard that of Jesus Christ. I was taught to 12 think of him as of one wholly unselfish, holy, and morally omniscient. I heard again and again of his gracious deeds and inspiring words. One secret of his extraordinary power was that he was pre-eminently a ‘gentleman.’ Under his refining influence the rough, untutored men who flocked to his standard became gentle too. When persecution came they took it like their master, patiently and wisely. To know Robert Owen was in itself a liberal education.
     “My first vivid recollections are of the period when my father, having established himself on the London Press, and residing permanently in London, sent me to a small school at Hampton Wick, kept by a well-known Socialist missionary, Alexander Campbell, known to his circle as the ‘Patriarch.’ He was a grave, simple man, with peculiar notions on the Immanence of the Deity, or what is called Being. With his peculiar religious ideas he combined, I fancy, eccentric views concerning the diet of the human race. At all events, the children under the care of himself and his daughter pined for lack of fitting nutriment. I myself as a very little boy, must have been in danger of starvation, for I vividly remember having to supplement the school diet, which was chiefly vegetarian, by eating snails gathered in the garden. On going home for the holidays I was found to be a little skeleton, and my mother took care that I did not return to the establishment.
     “I was next sent to a so-called French and German College at Merton, kept by a certain M. de Chastelain, a French gentleman and, I think, a refugee. It was a large school, excellently conducted, but resembling, in some respects, Mr. Creakle’s establishment, made famous by the author of “David Copperfield.” Just opposite the main entrance was a CHURCH, 13 almost the first I had ever seen, and certainly the first I ever entered. Here, I presume, I became acquainted with the national religion and its sacred terminology. I vividly recall the sense of strangeness I experienced when I listened, little heathen that I was, to the ordinary vocabulary of Christianity. I had received no religious teaching: if I had heard the name of God, it had been as a voice from far away; and I was old enough to understand that much that was taught in churches was mostly ‘superstition.’ But not till some years afterwards, when I was taken to Scotland, did I completely realise the gloom and narrowness of the popular Christian creed.
     “My parents were now residing at Norwood, in a quaint little cottage commanding a distant prospect of St. Paul’s; and thither, chiefly on Sundays, came many of the apostles of progress—hirsute men for the most part, of all characters and of all nations. When my holidays occurred I saw a good deal of these gentlemen. Two of them I remember vividly, who generally came together: one a little miniature of a man with tiny feet and hands and an enormous head, generally covered by a chimney-pot hat three or four sizes too large for it; the other a mighty fellow, of gigantic stature, with a chest fit for Hercules and a voice like a trumpet. The first was Louis Blanc, a famous exile: the second was Caussidière, who had been chief of the police in Paris during the last Revolution. Both spoke English fairly, and Blanc wrote it like an Englishman. It was during a visit of this strange pair that I first heard the ‘Marseillaise.’ Sung by Caussidière in stentorian tones, with kindling eyes and excited gestures, it sounded like a wild conjuration. I listened to these men for hours, as they talked of their country and its sorrows, and named 14 the wondrous words, ‘Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.’
     “In after years I met Louis Blanc again, and by that time only the faintest trace of a foreign accent remained to show that he was a Frenchman. He was at once the keenest and most enthusiastic of little men, neat in his person, brilliant in his talk, and cultured to the finger-nails. He loved England, which had so long afforded him a home, and hated nothing in the world but one thing, the Empire, and one man, the Emperor. He preached the great Socialistic doctrine of solidarity, in writings which were as brilliant as they were closely reasoned; he was an enemy of tyranny in any form; and he lived long enough to see the foulest tyranny of modern times, a tyranny of the senses, ignominiously overthrown at Sedan.
     “Another friend of my father, and a constant visitor at our house, was Lloyd Jones, lecturer, debater, and journalist. An Irishman with the mellowest of voices, he delighted my young soul with snatches of jovial song, ‘The Widow Machree,’ ‘The Leather Bottél,’ and the modern burlesque of that royal ballad, ‘The Pewter Quart,’ written, I think, by Macguire, and originally published in Blackwood—

‘Here, boy, take this handful of brass,
Across to the Goose and the Gridiron pass,
Pay the coin on the counter out,
And bring me a pint of foaming stout,
Put it not into bottle or jug,
Cannikin, rumkin, flagon, or mug,
Into nothing at all, in short,
Except the natural Pewter Quart!’

     “Jones ‘troll’d’ rather than sang, with robust strength and humour. I found out when I was a 15 year or two older, that he knew and loved the obscurer early poets, and could recite whole passages from their works by heart. George Wither was a great favourite of his, and he had a fine collection of that poet’s works, many of them very scarce. It was a great treat to hear him sing Wither’s charming ballad—

‘Shall I, wasting in despair,
Die because a woman’s fair?
If she be not fair to me,
What care I how fair she be?’

or to hear him recite the same poet’s naïve, yet lively invocation to the Muse, written in prison—

‘By a Daisy whose leaves spread,
Shut when Titan goes to bed,
By a lush upon a tree,
She could more infuse in me
Than all Nature’s wonders can
In some other wiser man!’

     I owe Lloyd Jones this debt, that he first taught me to love old songs and homespun English poetry. He was a
large-hearted, genial man, not to be forgotten in any chronicle of the Socialistic cause.
     “It was not, as I have hinted, until I was taken by my parents to reside in Scotland that I came face to face with the Dismal Superstition against which my father and these men, his friends, were passionately struggling. I then learned for the first time that to fight for human good, to be honest and fearless, to love the Light, was to be branded as an Enemy of Society and an Atheist. I saw my father so branded, and I have not forgotten my first horror when children of my own age avoided me, on the score that I was the son of an ‘infidel.’ But I learned now that 16 there was more real religion, more holy zeal for Humanity, in these revolters against the popular creed than in most of the Christians who preach one faith and practise another. 
     “Tantum Religio potuit suadere malorum.
     “The world has advanced somewhat since those early days of which I have been writing. There is no sign as yet, however, that the warning uttered long ago by Lucretius, and echoed by the minority from generation to generation, has been of much avail.” 1

1 “Latter Day Leaves.”



BOYHOOD, 1850–56


     THE poet was about ten years of age when he left the French and German College at Merton, and accompanied his parents to Glasgow, where his father had undertaken to edit a newspaper of advanced liberal views, the Glasgow Sentinel. It was in Glasgow, therefore, that he spent a large portion of his boyhood and early youth. The newspaper office was up a dingy street in the neighbourhood of the Trongate, and all around stretched the darkest slums and dens of the city. Just below it was the newspaper shop of William Love, who had some sort of share in the proprietorship of the Sentinel.
     William Love was a cripple, with one leg much smaller than the other. He had been the mainstay of a large family of brothers and sisters, and was destined in after years to become the largest bookseller in Glasgow. At the time of which I write he was in a very small way of business indeed, but what his occupation lacked in one way was amply made up for in another. On that dingy counter lay the whole armoury of the new moral world, tracts for the times, Owen’s speeches, Holyoake’s debates, all the 18 literature of Socialism. There, from time to time, gathered the local apostles of freethinking—Lloyd Jones, Alexander Campbell, William Turvey, and Mr. Buchanan, sen. Thus, as a boy, Robert Buchanan listened to the oracles and drank in the atmosphere of unbelief.
     To understand the boy’s position at that period of his life it is necessary to remember that Glasgow was at that time the very stronghold of Godliness and more particularly of Sabbatarianism. The men of whom I am writing were looked upon as social outcasts. When they appeared upon the platform to face the champions of orthodoxy, it was often at the peril of their lives. Even when walking in the streets they were frequently assailed with insulting epithets, and threatened with personal violence. The poet’s father was an object of special detestation, and he himself, as the son of a notorious unbeliever, was very often taught the lesson of social persecution. If he made an acquaintance of his own age, that boy was generally warned against him and taught to give him the cold shoulder. “Don’t play with yon laddie,” the boys themselves would say, “his father’s an infidel!” Ridiculous as the record of this persecution may appear, it caused the lad at the time a great deal of misery, and later on, when we spoke together of those days of his youth, he assured me that many a time he had prayed with all his soul that his father would mend his ways, go to church, and accept the social sanctities like other men!
     Meantime the boy was sent to a small day school in the suburb of Glasgow where the family had taken up their abode. It seems to have been a poor establishment compared to the college at Merton, but he learned in it the rudiments of Latin and mathematics, 19 and throve under the strict yet kindly care of the master, one of those zealous pedagogues to be found only in Scotland. But his real education went on in his father’s house, and at the house of William Love, where his father went every Sunday to read the secular journals of the week.
     In his very able article, written during the poet’s last illness, and published shortly before his death, Mr. Henry Murray says: “From a brief period of God-intoxication, through many doubts and battles and fluctuations, he came at last to face the facts of Life and Death, with only the thinnest veil of mysticism to hide their stern nakedness. Thin as that veil was, it was growing ever thinner. From the broken arc we may divine the perfect round, and it is my fixed belief that, had the subtle and cruel malady which struck him down but spared him for a little longer time, he would logically have completed the evolution of so many years, and have definitely proclaimed himself as an Agnostic, perhaps even as an atheist.”1
     An agnostic he undoubtedly was, but it seems to me that a man of his emotional temperament could never have become an atheist.
     “For the life of me I cannot tell how the sweet spirit of natural piety arose within me. All my experience, my birth, my education, my entire surroundings were against its birth or growth, all the human beings I had known or listened to were confirmed sceptics or boisterous unbelievers. Yet while my father was confidently preaching God’s nonexistence, I was praying to God in the language of the canonical books. I cannot even remember a time when I did not kneel by my bedside before going to 20 sleep, and repeat the Lord’s Prayer. So far away was I from any human sympathy in this foolish matter, that this praying of mine was ever done secretly, with a strong sense of shame and dread of discovery.”2
     As late as the year 1896, he wrote:—
     “‘The dumb, wistful yearning in man to something higher—yearning such as the animal creation showed in the Greek period to the human—has not yet found any interpreter equal to Buchanan.’ These words, written by a writer in the Spectator in the course of a general estimate of modern poets, are the highest tribute I have ever received from any contemporary critic, and because I think they are true, in so far as they recognise what I have at least attempted to do in poetry, I am proud to quote them. I am ready to admit au rest, that my religion is only a yearning, my hope only a hope, born even out of a certain kind of despair; but through all the aberrations of a stormy personal career, and amid all the vicissitudes of fame and fortune, I have never ceased to cherish it, and the day it dies within me will be the day of my intellectual and moral extinction. It includes, I need not say, the forlorn and perhaps foolish faith of my childhood—the faith (to be carefully distinguished from belief) in personal immortality, in a supreme God or Good, and in the Life after Death. A faith very much out of fashion. To many good and wise men, to many more men who are neither good nor wise, such a faith is merely a survival from the lower forms of intelligence, and will become less and less possible as human beings realise the actual conditions of existence and energise more and more unselfishly for the good of the great and perfect being, Humanity. 21 But to me, a dreamer of dreams, the ‘dumb, wistful yearning’ is born solely and wholly, not out of love for the race, but out of acute, intimate, possibly selfish personal love; my religion, like my charity, begins at home, and my philanthropy is only the generalisation of individual experience and affection. It is this fact which has made me, after thirty years of thought on religious subjects, see in the Christian religion, as still preached and taught, the hereditary enemy of human aspiration. Christianity is not dead; it will never die so long as the deductive method, arguing from generalisations to particulars, possess any fascination for the human mind, in preference to the method which instructs religion on the basis of particular and individual proofs and discovers in it the only possible solution of an eternal enigma.”
     In writing to Mr. Leslie Stephen, in the year 1896, he said:—
     “I always feel that this life is worthless without the idea of permanence in the affections, and I am afraid I reiterate the thought too often in my writings. And the very idea of Evolution, if upbuilt of limitless death and suffering, is horrible without some further explanation. . . . I know that I am struggling in deep waters and can land on neither side—neither on the side of orthodox Religion, nor on that of outright Materialism—so that I am in danger of pleasing no one. But I have a very clear idea, nevertheless, of where I am drifting. Intellectually speaking, I find no ground whatever for believing in a Divine solution of this Puzzle—emotionally, I feel surer. I cannot say that I am of your opinion that this life is worth anything without another and a higher. Frankly I hope I shall never think so.”
     Meanwhile his father’s editorship throve, and he 22 soon became the proprietor of the paper. By that time the Glasgow Sentinel, though still of limited circulation, was a recognised power in Glasgow. The leaven was slowly working. After the abolition of the stamp duty on newspapers the Sentinel acquired, with a large increase of subscribers and purchasers, an increase of influence in due proportion. Meantime, for the better furtherance of the boy’s education he was sent to a boarding-school at Rothesay, in the Island of Bute.
     It was a small school, kept by a person named Munro, whom Robert afterwards recalled as a delicate, gentle,
pink-complexioned man, who would sit in the middle of the schoolroom bathing his poor aching head with cold water, and suffering all the martyrdom of nervous headache. The boarders were chiefly boys from Glasgow or the neighbourhood, but there were a couple of dingy-complexioned lads from Demerara, and several little girls from the same mysterious region. If the boy’s religious studies had been previously neglected, they were now vigorously and rigorously pursued. The good schoolmaster, catering for pious parents, dosed his scholars daily with long Scripture lessons and hymns to be got by heart. There were prayers too, morning and evening, grace before and after meat, while on Sunday the scholars were marched away to Port Bannatyne to hear two services and two long sermons, with an interval between for refreshments, consisting of a few biscuits partaken of in a chilly schoolroom attached to the “kirk.” Sick as he had become of social outlawry, the boy thought all this highly proper and respectable, not that it failed to bore him as it did the others, not that he failed to slumber tranquilly during the sermon, or to play odds-and-evens with marbles 23 during the service, but he always looked back on those days as among the happiest of his life. Most of his schoolfellows had had a surfeit of Sabbatarianism, from infancy upwards, and cordially hated the very name of the Sabbath, but he, to whom it was a new experience, found the pious influence most refreshing. In later years he never heard the church bells, but he recalled with a thrill of pleasure that peaceful time.
     He often spoke, too, of the intense home-sickness which possessed him in those days, and which mastered him like a passion. He had the gentlest and fondest of mothers, and it was torture to him to be away from her side—torture deepened by the long and loving letters which she sent him almost daily. “My life has been a turbulous one,” he said, “not free from bitter sorrows, but never since have I endured a keener anguish than possessed me when homesick in those boyish days. I would sit for hours together, with the tears streaming down my face, looking across the dark waters of the firth, and thinking of my home—so near and yet so far away.”3
     I mention this home-sickness because, with it, began his first promptings to express emotion in that poetic art by the pursuit of which he is now chiefly known. About that time, at any rate, he began to scribble verses. Of many of these verses his mother was the theme, but some years later he one day recalled for our edification two abominable lines which had for subject a certain young lady of dazzling beauty whom he met at a school party, one Halloween. The name of this divinity was Rebecca, and she was a farmer’s daughter, and he addressed to 24 her his first love poem, which culminated as follows:—

“O, were she mine, with countless gems I’d deck her,
And give my all to beautiful Rebecca!”

     About that time he became a refractory and troublesome pupil. What between homesickness and natural restlessness of temperament, he was soon driven to open mutiny. On one occasion when returning to school in one of the Clyde steamers after a brief holiday, he left the boat at Dunoon, immersed himself bodily in the sea, and taking the next boat home again appeared before his mother dripping and bedraggled, saying that he had fallen overboard and had narrowly escaped drowning. His story was discredited and he was sent away again in no little disgrace. But from that hour he was determined not to remain in the boarding-school, and went steadily to work to get himself expelled. He must have been a sore trial to his schoolmaster, for a gentleman writing to him some years later, asked, naively, “Were you that devil of a boy who was at school with my daughter at Rothesay?”
     I am afraid there is no doubt that he had fairly earned the title of “a devil of a boy.” His mischief-making culminated in a ridiculous episode, worthy to be chronicled in the Boy’s Journal. After many days of mutinous planning, during which he devised a wild scheme to quit the school and seek his fortune, he succeeded in persuading two of his schoolfellows to join him in running away. Robert had armed himself with an old pistol, the lock of which was broken, and which required infinite persuasion before it would go off, but for all that he felt a positive desperado ready 25 to sell his life dearly should violent hands be laid upon him. Early one day the three boys left the school and ran to Rothesay, some two miles distant. The moment their absence was discovered they were pursued, caught, and brought ignominiously back. Next morning Mr. Munro took Robert into his private room, and after giving him a long and very sensible lecture, informed him that he must leave the school, as he was a mutinous spirit which it was necessary to expel. The very next day, therefore, he was sent home to Glasgow.
     To one other episode of his life at Rothesay I may briefly allude before I pass on to other matters. A little before he planned to run away he had fallen desperately in love, the object of his affections being a little girl whom he had met at a school dance. He was just twelve years old, she about nine, and their love seemed to be a very passionate business indeed. One day she told him she was going away with her parents. Stunned by the news, the boy implored her to remain, but it was of no avail. A little later their last meeting came, taking place in a “close” at Rothesay. “Again and again,” he said, when describing this incident, “my youthful Juliet rushed into my arms, again and again our tears mingled together. She went and I never saw her again. The parting was a blow to me, and helped to create the spirit of recklessness which was the ultimate cause of my being expelled from the school.”
     So, at twelve years of age, he had already begun to live. Love, innocent but potent had already found him out, and childish sorrow had deepened love’s impression. By that time he was writing verses and beginning to understand the magic of the word “poetry.” Nor had Nature neglected her 26 ministrations. In the sea-girt little island of Bute he had become familiar with two great natural phenomena—the hills and the ocean. He carried away with him visions of the sunset clouds on Goatfell, of moonlight on the waters, of sunlight on the open heathery moor. Not till some years later, when he read Wordsworth, did he learn to look on Nature with the eye of a poet or a lover, but the love for sea and mountains which afterwards became his passion and his inspiration began with his school life on the Clyde.
     By this time Mr. Buchanan was a fairly prosperous newspaper proprietor, owning besides the Sentinel two other newspapers which he had started, the Glasgow Times and the Penny Post. He had taken a flat in the West end of Glasgow, close to the Park, and there, when his son left Rothesay, he resided with his parents. His first day-school was the Glasgow Academy, where he attended the Latin classes of Doctor Corrie. From the Academy he passed on to the High School, attending the French and English classes under teachers whose names I have heard but forget, and the Latin classes under Doctor Lowe, whom he ever remembered as the kindest of schoolmasters and who first instructed him in the mysteries of the manufacture of Latin verse. Now that he was able to pursue his studies at home he was perfectly happy, the more so, owing to the fact that in addition to his very perfunctory work at school, he was already beginning to compose both prose and verse, and contributing anonymously before he was fifteen years of age to one of the Glasgow daily newspapers, and one, moreover, which did not belong to his father. His effusions were printed and he was, of course, in the seventh heaven of delight.
27     His early flights into the fields of literature were not discountenanced. His first efforts delighted his mother and, better still, did not displease his father, and it was soon whispered about that the infidel editor’s curly-headed son was a poet in embryo. That being so, he found a friendly sympathiser and adviser. At that time Mr. Buchanan’s literary lieutenant on his newspapers was called Hugh Macdonald. He was an artizan who had turned poet and become a writer for the press. He was a great pedestrian and knew every hill, stream, clump of woodland, old castle and wayside inn for miles round the smoky city. He was besides a practical botanist and could tell the name of every flower which grew in that region. He was also familiar with the names and notes of all the birds. But his knowledge was specially that of a
poet. If a bird or flower had a sweet Doric name, if it was celebrated in old or modern song, he knew it. His talk was full of the music of Scottish glens, and a day out among the woods with him was a delight to be remembered.
     As Macdonald was in Mr. Buchanan’s employment, and a frequent guest at his house, the youthful poet soon made his acquaintance, and when he discovered that the boy had a turn for writing verse he did all he could to foster the aspiration. He bought the lad’s first long poem, a weird and wondrous ballad, for half a crown, and published it in the Glasgow Times, hugely to the delight of the author, of course. From that time forth he dubbed himself the lad’s “literary godfather.” But the chief boon he conferred upon his godson was the knowledge of his delightful personality. Hitherto the men with whom Robert had come in contact were, with few exceptions, prose 28 men, political and social reformers of harsh and arid experience, always excepting his father, who loved the Muses with all his soul. But Hugh Macdonald was different. He “babbled o’ green fields,” he could sing old Scotch songs and recite old Scotch ballads in a way to fire the blood. He first of all made the boy aware of the magic of the simple speech of the lyrics woven by Tannahill and Motherwell, of the broad, human touch of Burns, of the winsome tenderness of such fireside singers as William Miller, and when he grew to manhood he never forgot this debt. Under this influence he discovered that the smoky city, and the cities in its neighbourhood, were very birdsnests of melody, full of happy singers who made songs to the trotting of the ploughman’s team and the whuzzing of the loom. The very air was full of poetry. Why, in the adjacent town of Paisley alone the poets were to be counted by thousands. Macdonald knew them all. Wherever he went with his stout staff in his hand he was a welcome guest. He seems, however, to have had one failing, which, alas! was too common among the Scotchmen of that time, he was too fond of what is called “the social glass,” and as he grew older he yielded more and more to that temptation. When he left Mr. Buchanan’s employment to assume a more lucrative post on another newspaper, the son saw little or nothing of him. He died shortly afterwards in the very prime of his manhood.
     But it was not merely personal influence like that of Hugh the Rambler which filled the boy’s soul with the impulse to write and sing. As I have said, the whole air he breathed was alive with music, from the piercing notes of the old ballads to the tear- and laughter-compelling songs of Burns. Wherever he 29 went, into fine house or poor cottage, down dark streets or across green fields, the poets were whistling away like so many blackbirds, the living emulating the dead, and the dead as vocal as if they were only newly born! How could a boy resist the magic? Why, he heard more music and inhaled more poetical delight in one short Scottish summer than he might have done in London during many years. It is more than likely that if you stopped a policeman on his beat in the streets of Glasgow, you would find that he was a poet, and that he knew his Shakespeare and even his Shelley, to say nothing of his Burns!
     At that time there was at all events one true poet living in Glasgow, but the youth did not meet him till several years later. His name was William Freeland; the name is still his, for he is still living, and in the same city, and he wrote very touchingly of Robert Buchanan’s death.
     “I knew him as a handsome and healthy lad in Glasgow, and I have followed his career, generally with admiration, and often with astonishment. He was ever a fighter, and there was a time when, full of life and vigour, it might have been predicted that he would live to a brave and bright old age. It was in his father’s paper that he began to ‘strike the lyre,’ and he did so in a manner which foreshadowed the future poet. It is by his poetry that his name will live, and if the opinion of one or two excellent critics may be trusted, his fame is fairly well assured. One of these critics was the late
Mr. R. H. Hutton, of the Spectator, who, in noticing an edition of his collected works, could hardly put a limit to his praise. ‘To our mind,’ said Mr. Hutton, ‘after long knowledge of his poems, they seem to us nearly perfect of their kind, realistic and idealistic alike in the highest sense.’ Mr. Steadman, 30 in referring to ‘Willie Baird,’ one of the ‘Idyls of Inverburn,’ described him as a ‘most faithful poet to Nature’; saying further: ‘He is her familiar, and in this respect it would seem as if the mantle of Wordsworth had fallen to him from some fine sunset or misty height.’ These are friendly words, but they are not unwarranted—in whatever form Mr. Buchanan wrote, he was never false to his poetic function. He was a poet of a high order, and his best poetry is rich with beauty and music and truth.”

1 “Robert Buchanan and other Essays.”
2 “Latter Day Leaves.”
3 Letter to Mr. Gentles



YOUTH, 1856–58


     FROM the High School, where he acquired a fair knowledge of Latin, Robert Buchanan passed on to the University, where he took the Latin course under Ramsay and the Greek under Lushington. The last-named Professor had a wonderful interest in the boy’s eyes, for it was reported that he knew Tennyson.
     During his studies at the University the young poet had a tutor, a mild and kindly man who did his best to keep his pupil close to his studies, but who usually failed, for at that time one Temple of Pleasure above all was attracting him, and that was the theatre, to which his father’s position as a newspaper proprietor gave him the privilege of constant entrance.
     “Among the few imperishable Dramas which are not merely poetical but greatly and truly human, I think that the ‘King Lear’ of Shakespeare stands supreme. This work was the one with which I first became acquainted, at a time when all my boyish soul was hungry for the teaching of great Poetry.
     “I was then a boy in Glasgow, and the elder Vandenhoff was playing in Scotland, accompanied by his niece, known as ‘Miss Vandenhoff.’ When they 32 came to the West of Scotland I saw them in nearly all their impersonations, and also attended their public readings of the ‘Antigone’ of Sophocles; it was not, however, until I saw the play of ‘Lear’ for the first time, with Vandenhoff as the old King and his niece as Cordelia, that I fully realised the significance of the great tragedy.
     “To this day I retain the impression left upon me by this performance, without parallel in my experience for splendour and pathos of poetical effect. Compared with much of the other work of Shakespeare, this play of ‘Lear’ towers solitary and supreme: and to turn to it from such fustian as ‘King John’ and other of the historical plays, is to leave what Mr. Walkley calls the ‘padded room’ and come face to face with a modern mind and a nobler spirit. It is the fashion, of course, to treat all the great dramatist’s work as if it was impeccable; whereas a portion of the work he did for the stage was almost beneath contempt, both in subject and in treatment. Curiously enough, some of his least inspired productions are the very ones which hold possession of the stage. ‘King Lear’ is seldom or never represented, for the reason possibly that it demands greater insight and a larger method in its exponents than are nowadays forthcoming on the boards. I have seen several Lears since the Lear of Vandenhoff, but all of them seemed to me either uninspired, or melodramatic or inarticulate. Unfortunately I missed the Lear of Salvini, which possessed, I am assured, remarkable qualities.
     “But for me, ‘King Lear’ remains, and will remain, the soul-moving poem which swept me beyond myself when I was a boy. I feel now, as I felt then, the unapproachable truth and sublimity of such passages 33 as the one in Act III., where the storm-beaten Monarch first realises the mystery of human wretchedness and pain. Here, and in many other passages, the very quick of Pity is touched. From the soul-moving situation, where the old man’s tremulous hands reach out to feel the tears on the lids of his sobbing daughter, down to the crowning pathos, the heart-breaking last cry, the whole story moves on to such music as has never been made by poet either before or since, culminating in the solemn words of Kent, uttered just before the curtain falls. I feel still, as I felt more than thirty years ago, that this work of Shakespeare ranks among the highest possible achievements of the human mind. Yet the speech in which it is written, observe, is the simple speech of ordinary life, which, with all its wonderful modulations, is as natural to-day as in the day when it was first uttered.
     “The influence on my own character of this masterpiece was deep and abiding. I first gained from it that perception of the piteousness of life which has been, despite all aberrations into contemporary savagery, the inspiration of all my writings. To me the storm-tost figure of Lear represented Humanity itself, swept hither and thither by the elemental and seemingly aimless cruelty of Nature, yet coming at last to anchorage, so far as the individual is concerned, in an equally elemental peace and calm. I was taught by the contemplation of his wretchedness, as he himself was taught by personal strife and sorrow, to feel for that sorrow of which I had hitherto taken ‘too little care.’ In weeping for him I wept for all those who suffer, either through their own passions or through the anarchy of society, and from that time forward I was alert to catch any genuine 34 cri du coeur from the troubled waters of the world. Other influences, of course, co-operated—my upbringing among the Socialists, my mother’s supreme sympathy for all suffering, my general reading in the literature I was beginning to love—but I think, nay, I am sure, that ‘King Lear’ focussed my feelings into humanitarianism, and gave to my mind no little of the human sympathy which I hope it possesses. I mention this, not to claim any special interest for my own literary development, but to emphasise the belief I have long held—that environment shapes character, for good or evil, quite as much as natural temperament and inherited qualities. Up to a certain period of my boyhood I was, I think, indifferent to suffering, capable of selfish cruelty, careless of all pain save my own. From the moment that I drank into my being the full significance of Shakespeare’s tragedy I possessed a clue to all the mystery of Life, and realised that if I personally had ever any message to deliver, it would be a message on behalf of suffering humanity.
     “I learned also from ‘King Lear’ another thing, which I have never quite forgotten—the truth that simplicity of thought and phrase is the inevitable characteristic of all great literary work. The more I studied the masterpiece (and of course I rushed from the playhouse to study the printed text), the more I saw that its effects were obtained by absolute truth to nature and to the language of common life. In the finest passages, words of one syllable predominated, strong Saxon words for the most part, rendered poetically wonderful by the magic of their phrasing. Like many young readers, and like all young poets, I was charmed, of course, by the verbal felicity in which Shakespeare still remains supreme. I lingered like a 35 lover over such expressions as: ‘drinks the green mantle of the deadly pool,’ ‘as mad as the vexed sea,’ ‘strange oeiliads and most speaking looks,’ ‘the shrill-gorged lark,’ ‘the wheel has come full circle,—I am here,’ and a hundred others more or less apt and masterful. Of course these things concerned the mere vocabulary of poetical art, but if I needed any clue to the cunning of great Literature, they supplied it to me. I was thenceforth free of the realms of Poesy, so far as its masonic signs are concerned. It took me many a long year to discover that, without a deeper and more abiding inspiration, the masonic signs meant nothing, though I may remark, en passant, that I know of no instance in literature where consummate mastery of verbal expression is associated with deficient intellectual power. Even Keats, the least meditative and the most passionate of all the poets and the nearest in power of verbal magic to Shakespeare, was intellectually prescient to the inmost fibres of his poetical being—pure absolute thinking and conceiving power being at the very root of his unexampled sensuous instinct, and leading him to those miracles of phrasing in which, I conceive, he has no modern rival. It so happened that at the very time when my eyes were becoming opened to the secrets of human imagination, while hungry, with a lad’s insensate hunger, for the thrills of Life itself that chance threw me among the very men who were the liege servants of the great Dramatist; and a rare crowd they were, with much of the savagery, but no little of the personal charm, of Shakespeare’s own contemporaries.
     “The Theatre Royal, Glasgow, was then under the management of Edmund Glover, a man of remarkable gifts, full-blooded, able, and quick both in thought 36 and execution, an actor of power and passion, fascinating and humorous. As my father was the editor and proprietor of a leading local newspaper, I had free entrance to the Theatre, which I haunted in and out of season; but not satisfied with this, I followed the Players into the privacy of their lives, or such doubtful privacy as they found in the hostelry round the corner. Well, they were for the most part merry fellows, wild in their ways, loose in their gait and their conversation, living in an atmosphere which constantly reminded me of that breathed by Falstaff and the rogues of his following. It would be idle to deny that they were not a sober crew—their spirits and their manners were ever under the influence of my Host of the Garter, for the actor then was still a vagabond, who had not yet acquired the respectability of the counter-jumper or the fine airs of the man about town. Such as they were I loved them, and I am still quite sure that they were true kinsmen and leal descendants of the players who lived and died in the times of good Queen Bess. Morals they had none, or none to boast of; they tippled, they swaggered, they ran after petticoats and petticoats ran after them; but the spirit of the savage old literature ran in their veins like blood, and they had the fine qualities of their defects. Their very speech was archaic, their very oaths were reminiscent of Bardolph and Pistol. Tom Powerie, Henry Vivash, Harry Ashley, George Vincent—these are some of the names that recur to me as I think of those wild young days. Powerie was the best Falconbridge I ever encountered, either on or off the stage; as reckless, as fiery, as masterful as the great Bastard himself. He died early, the victim of his own fierce energy and abandonment. Henry Vivash drifted to 37 London and died there in harness. Ashley became famous afterwards as a wonderful impersonator of quaint ‘old men,’ especially in comic opera. George Vincent came to London also, startling the city by his wonderful performance of Melter Moss when the ‘Ticket-of-leave Man’ was first produced, and afterwards, in other productions at the Olympic, showing an extraordinary versatility.
     “To the boy on the threshold of life, still a student in his quieter hours, these men were wonderful beyond measure, for they were, as I have suggested, Shakespeare’s men—virile, reckless, and strangely merry—and their presence in that sad Sabbatarian City, from whose blessings and sympathies they were outcast, was to all seeming as wonderful as themselves. I learned to know them well, and, as I have said, to love them, and I still think that the hours I spent with them were far from wasted. Among them, for a short period, drifted a young player of another nature, afterwards known to the world as Henry Irving. A quiet, studious young man, even then ambitious, but exhibiting little talent even as a ‘walking gentleman,’ I was much drawn to him by his thoughtful personality, so different to the wilder personalities of his companions, and I took him to my father’s house and introduced him to my mother. He went away suddenly, and the last message I had from him came in the shape of a long letter dated from the British Museum in London.”1
     The boy might have had a worse environment than he was blessed with in Glasgow during those early years when he inhaled the atmosphere of freethought among his father’s friends. At that time he had several friends of his own, students like himself, but 38 none for whom he greatly cared, so he was thrown for companionship into the society of grown men, all many years his senior. In this respect, therefore, he was somewhat lonely, until one day Providence sent him a comrade only a few years older than himself, but even more boyish and unsophisticated in the world’s ways. His name was David Gray, and he was then, while preparing for the University, a pupil teacher in connection with the Normal schools.
     The two youthful poets, who were destined to become such friends, first met at a cricket match on Glasgow Green, to which they had both been invited by a mutual friend, Mr. John Steven, and after the match there was a supper given to the young cricketers, at which both David Gray and Robert Buchanan was present. David Gray was very diffident and retiring by nature, but on that eventful evening it seems he was the life and soul of the little gathering.
     From the beginning of their boyish friendship David Gray, although he was the elder, always leant upon his friend, and was influenced both for good and evil by his more strenuous and pertinacious character. There was also this curious feature in their relationship, that Robert Buchanan had been bred among comparatively educated people, superior in social station to the peasantry among whom Gray was reared. His knowledge of his lowly origin made him very diffident, even to the extent of dreading and avoiding cultivated society, more particularly that of educated women; he preferred to mix with men and women of the lower classes, with whom he was thoroughly at home.
     “It always struck me as rather droll,” said the poet, “that I should stand in this relationship to my 39 friend, for my own family was certainly not aristocratic in any sense of the word, but so it was, and even my own dear mother regarded David as practically a social inferior, very gauche in manner, and almost boorish in his silent and bashful ways. Few people saw him as I saw him—free, natural, and unconstrained. Alone with me, or in the company of kindred spirits like myself, he became transformed, even physically; his tongue was loosened, his eyes flashed fire, and he was to all intents and purposes another being. But despite all this I was generally the one to lead, he the one to follow; and he followed me, I fear, into many queer scenes and into a great deal of doubtful company.
     “Poor David, not in one respect only but in a hundred respects he was too frail and sensitive for this rough world, and it is little wonder that he withered up so soon at the first breath of its unkindness. He was woman-like in both face and form, and he was woman-like too in his sympathies and disposition. His feelings were like running water, for ever changing, passionately pure, ineffably soft and tender, yet the sport of every wind that blew. Of the two I was by far the most introspective, my emotions being always tempered by purely mental impressions. His only taste was for poetry pure and simple—verse poetry from that of Shakespeare to that of Burns, and neither religion nor philosophy awakened his interest. Partly from natural disposition, partly through my early training, I was altogether different. Poetry to me was merely the handmaid of the severer Muses. True I ‘lisped in numbers,’ but less for the mere music’s sake than for some strange clue it seemed to give to the subtler business of life and thought. I had steeped myself 40 in all the philosophical literature of the last century, more particularly that of the English Deists and the French materialists, and I was already beginning to ask myself if there was any clue to life’s mystery. To David there was no mystery about it, to him life was a golden wonder and delight flooded with the memories of the great singers. He heard nothing else, cried for nothing else; poetry was his absolute life and death. Nevertheless I shared his enthusiasm and rapture when we began linking hands, as it were, to thread our delightful way through the Wonderland of the English Muses. We sat and read together, often turning night into day, and comparing our impressions of the books we read. In my father’s library was Anderson’s edition of the English Poets, closely printed in double columns and extending to fourteen or fifteen volumes, including verse translations of the classics. We waded gladly and unweariedly through these enormous tomes, though they consisted for the most part of sad rubbish. But among the rubbish there was solid gold, of course. It was in this edition that Gray first read Chaucer’s ‘Legend of Good Women’ and Drayton’s poems, and Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Paradise Regained,’ underlining all the precious passages.”2
     Robert treasured those volumes all his life, and he has often pointed out to me the “precious passages marked by Gray’s own hand. “Neither of us at that time cared much for the classic poets of Greece or Rome. Gray was a fairly good Latin scholar, but had very little Greek, and such poor scholarship as I possess came to me afterwards, when I revived the impression of what I had learned at school and college. It seems to me singular now that although 41 I had a boy’s familiarity with Homer and Virgil I never seemed to go to those sources for the phrasing which bewitched me so much in the poets of my native land. To me they were class books, and little more. The explanation is no doubt that Shakespeare and the rest took such absolute possession of me, that they left me no room to seek elsewhere the verbal felicities which I loved so much.”2
     It will be seen that even at that time he was beginning to realise that poetry in its highest and best aspect meant far more than mere phrases or beautiful ideas. It was to him inspiration, imagination, religion. The supreme tragedy of “King Lear” softened his character, and flooded his soul with human pity. Next to that in influence came, I think, the first reading of Wordsworth, whom he ever regarded as one of the greatest of modern poets. The one-volume edition of Wordsworth, published by Moxon, had been given to him by his father as a present on his fourteenth birthday. It was in every way a priceless gift, and before long he had nearly all the poems by heart. The other poets were to him beautiful singers, but Wordsworth he felt was a prophet and a seer. He alone knew Nature at the fountain head, he alone delivered oracles, some of which sounded to the boy’s soul like the very voice of Nature’s God.

1 “Latter Day Leaves.”
2 Letter to Mr. Gentles.





     IN or about the year 1859 Robert Buchanan the elder became insolvent, and a full chorus of his friends and enemies averred that he had brought the catastrophe upon himself by reckless speculation and extravagant living. His wife shared this delusion and resented, chiefly for her son’s sake, the sudden change in their fortunes. The boy had been reared and educated in the belief that the newspaper business which his father had established was a kind of indestructible property guaranteeing for his son and heir at least a competence for life. How the lad’s fortunes would have shaped had this really been the case one cannot of course divine; as it was, he found himself at eighteen years of age without any prospect before him (since he had been put to no profession), and bereft at one blow of what had seemed an independence. At that moment, however, his sympathies appear to have been with his father; and partly perhaps because he did not quite realise what the change in his own prospects meant, partly because his sense of justice divined at once that the change was the result of simple accident, he was 43 righteously indignant with those summer friends who visited his father with such bitter blame.
     In point of fact the very enterprise which had enabled Mr. Buchanan to succeed was the sole or chief cause of his ultimate downfall and ruin. Coming almost unknown to Glasgow, he had practically founded the Glasgow Sentinel as an organ of freethought and liberal opinion and had gradually established in connection with that newspaper a prosperous printing business. Encouraged by his success he had added to his ventures the Glasgow Times and the Penny Post. For years fortune favoured him, and everything he touched succeeded. It was not until he was tempted to extend his ventures beyond the locality where he resided that the tide of his fortunes seems to have turned. He became involved in serious liabilities and finally failed to meet his responsibilities.
     The blow must have been a heavy one, but Mr. Buchanan felt it chiefly on account of his wife—he himself was too light-hearted, too hopeful, too unselfish to fret much over his own misfortunes. “Even had I never loved my father before, I should have loved and venerated him then for the patience and gentleness with which he accepted the blow. All his friends, or nearly all, turned from him, and did much to embitter his position, but he never moaned or complained, he uttered no word of self-pity, and he seemed utterly incapable of remembering, with the slightest resentment, the cruel conduct of some of those who had called themselves his friends. I had long, even as a boy, perceived that goodness and kindness as estimated by the world were very composite qualities. My father, I know, was not a good man—not, that is to say, a moral man in the strict 44 sense—his relations with my mother were not happy, and he was to no little extent to blame, and in many respects he was weak as water. But looking back over the years I see in him who had so many faults a nobility, a loving-kindness which I have scarcely seen in any other man. For the rest he was a childish creature, dear and simple as a child. His very faults were childish, nay, his very vices, but it is much to be able to say of him—what could not be said of one man in a thousand—that in all my recollection of him I cannot remember one cruel or unkind act, or even one unkind word.”1
     The Scottish method of dealing with the insolvent is swift and speedy, and Mr. Buchanan found himself in a moment, as it were, stripped bare of his remaining substance and thrust out into the streets to face the world. Even then he was not daunted, but prepared with reckless energy to start another newspaper! It was at this juncture that the boy, who seemed to have inherited a good deal of his father’s dauntless spirit, went to his mother and proposed to her that he should start for London to seek his fortune. It was clear, he said, that he could do nothing in Glasgow, where he was only a burden on his father’s scanty resources. In London, on the other hand, he could at least secure a maintenance of some sort. Long and anxious were the talks he had with his mother until, finding it quite impossible to gain her consent to the separation, he, not, as he afterwards said, without many regrets, made arrangements to leave his home without her knowledge.
     He had long dreamed of taking the world by storm, for his boyish heart was full of recollections of the mighty dead who had fallen or triumphed, and 45 even if his father had continued to prosper, I think he would eventually have tried his fortune in London as so many others had done, but of course he would then have done so under less cruel a handicap—as it was he had scarcely a shilling in the world.
     For eighteen years he had never known what it was to suffer privation or to want money; he had been reared in comparative luxury, in a bright and happy home, the spoiled darling of a loving mother, but he felt that in arranging to go from home, even under circumstances so disadvantageous, he surely could not come to harm. Thus it was that on Saturday, the 5th of May, 1860, he set forth from the Central Railway Station, Glasgow, and, after he had paid his third-class fare to London, had only a few shillings in his pocket with which to face the world. In one respect, however, he was better equipped than most young literary adventurers—he had an excellent stock of clothes, and amongst it a sumptuous silk-quilted dressing-gown, which his mother had bought for him just before his father failed. Once fairly started on his journey, he sat in a corner of the carriage as miserable a lad as could be. “As one by one my companions fell asleep in the darkness, my heart swelled and my eyes were dim with tears, as I realised for the first time that I was quite friendless and alone. I thought of my dear mother praying for me at home, and I longed to turn back and ask her forgiveness for the pain I had caused her. Even now I never take a railway journey in the night without again realising the dismal heartache of that midnight journey to London.”2
     He had made no plans to guide him on entering the great city, nor had he any personal acquaintances 46 there who might give him a helping hand. Shortly before his father’s misfortune he had sent some verses to Hepworth Dixon, who had printed them in the Athenæum, then under his editorship, and he had some faint hope that Mr. Dixon might give him a little work. He had corresponded also with George Henry Lewes and Bryan Procter (Barry Cornwall), both of whom had strongly dissuaded him from attempting to live by literature. Sydney Dobell, another of his correspondents, lived far away from London, and was unlikely to be able to be of much service to him in the metropolis. He had no plans, and literally no prospects.
     As ill-luck would have it, he managed to lose his railway ticket, and when it was asked for he had to confess the loss. After some delay he was suffered to proceed, but on his arrival at the terminus he was treated like a culprit, and marched off to the superintendent’s office. The result was that his luggage was detained, pending inquiries at Glasgow, and he walked away into the streets of London without any personal effects whatever. But his heart was light. The morning had brought bolder thoughts; with youth and strength on his side he seemed to be ready for any emergency that might happen, so after telegraphing to his mother that he was safe and well, he swaggered forth into the Euston Road.
     He must have breakfasted somewhere—possibly in one of the numerous coffee- houses close to King’s Cross Station—but that episode he could never recall. His next recollection was of strolling carelessly forward in the early forenoon and making his way in the direction of Regent’s Park. Lonely and sick at heart he wandered hither and thither, hungering to accost one of the many strangers who passed him by, 47 but he was young, so he went on in silence till he found a green spot in the Park, when he threw himself down and began to think.
     “As I lay thus seeing the bright sunlight through a mist of boyish tears, I was conscious of a pair of eyes steadfastly regarding me. They belonged to a youth of about my own age, who was sprawling on the grass and smoking a clay pipe. His head was close- cropped and his general expression pugilistic, but he looked good-humoured. He reminded me instantly of the famous Mr. Dawkins, better known as the Artful Dodger, and by that token he was quite as ragged and disreputable-looking. We got into conversation, and presently on hearing that I was without a home, he invited me to accompany him to his quarters in the neighbourhood of Shoreditch. I was so friendless and lonely that I would have gone anywhere with the devil himself if he had invited me, and late that afternoon I found myself in the east of London, in a sort of low lodging-house, or thieves’ kitchen. It is all like a dream now, but I remember my new friend was very kind to me, and saved me from impolite attentions on the part of his companions. The whole place reminded me of ‘Oliver Twist,’ and I fancy Fagin was there as well as my friend the Dodger, whose bed I shared that night, throwing myself full dressed upon it, and sleeping like a top till morning. There were other beds in the wretched room, and other youths and men of my friend’s persuasion, but no one molested me, and, what is more wonderful, no one robbed me of the small sum in my pocket. I rose up in the early dawn and shook hands with my friend, who was still half asleep. I never saw him again, but I often think of him with gratitude for his kindness to me, a stranger.
48     “I took some breakfast at a coffee-stall in Shoreditch, and then strolled westwards through the crowded streets, past the Bank, and along Newgate Street to the Old Bailey, and thence into Fleet Street and along the Strand. I had no particular object and went along still like one in a dream even as a straw drifts with the current of a brook, indifferent whither it goes or where it rests. I was in London, that was enough for me; accident, fortunate, or the reverse, would do the rest. The glory of my youth was on me, I saw everything around me with enchanted eyes!”3
     He was still puzzled what to do, when he bethought him of a schoolfellow who had been with him at Merton, and whose father, one of the Socialistic brotherhood, had a business somewhere in the Edgware Road, which business turned out to be a prosperous ham and beef shop, where food could be purchased for home use, or consumed on the premises. He did not find his schoolfellow, but he interviewed the father, who stood behind the counter arrayed in a white apron, and before many minutes had passed Robert was seated at a table devouring a plateful of ham and beef, while the good man stood over him questioning him about his position. “I forget whether he gave me any further assistance in the shape of money, but I fancy that he did not, although he made me promise to come to him again if I needed assistance. It is more than likely that I concealed from him the full extent of my poverty, although I accepted gratefully his hospitable offer of a good square meal. I was very doubtful as to where I should look for my next night’s longing, and was still debating what to do, when I remembered a 49 friend who owed both my father and mother a large debt of gratitude for kindness received. His name was Merriman. At the time when my father was a small newsvendor in Holywell Street, Merriman, then a youth, had been a sort of errand boy. At the time of my arrival in London he was studying for the law after several years of busy journalism in the provinces, and, I had no doubt whatever that if I could find him out I should at least obtain from him a temporary shelter. I succeeded in finding him, and no sooner had I appeared than I met with the kindliest of welcomes.”4
     Mr. Merriman was then living with his wife and family in the Euston Road, not far from King’s Cross Railway Station, and when informed of the detention of the luggage he accompanied his youthful guest to claim the property. Information had come from Glasgow that he had not travelled without a ticket, and his small impedimenta were handed to him with apologies, the authorities in Scotland having conveyed the information that his father was a prominent member of the newspaper press, who might make the affair unpleasant.
     A week or so later he left the shelter of Mr. Merriman’s roof, and betook himself to the afterwards famous garret, No. 66, Stamford Street, Blackfriars, where he settled down in earnest to begin life in the Great City. The room which he occupied—a bedsitting-room—was situated at the very top of the lodging-house, and the rent of it was seven shillings a week, including attendance. The furniture was very ramshackle, and the bed, a large old-fashioned wooden one, with a festooned tent or awning overhanging it. There was an old, worn carpet on the 50 floor and a tumbledown armchair by the fireplace; but shabby and dismal as the room was, it was his own, and he rejoiced accordingly. He was alone in the Great City, but he was neither sad nor desolate. In the first place he had his books, the few favourite books which he had brought with him—the tiny Pickering editions of Catullus, Dante, and the Greek New Testament, an old copy of Horace, and the poems of Keats and Shelley. When he had placed them on the mantelpiece and lit his pipe (he smoked a pipe in those days), he felt quite at home. All he required besides was paper, a pen, and some ink, and he was ready to storm the heights of Fame.
     He generally took one meal at home—his breakfast, and it consisted mainly of strong tea and bread-and-butter. Now and then, not often, the London egg appeared, as a relish. If he dined at home—and it was very seldom—tea and bread-and-butter formed the meal, but his favourite repast was taken at the Caledonian Coffee House in Covent Garden, and consisted of coffee and muffins, saturated with butter. On Sundays, however, his landlady occasionally sent him up a cut from her own joint. He was supposed, as I have said, to have “attendance.” This consisted in the occasional apparition of a shock-headed Irish servant, very much in the style of the “Marchioness,” who tumbled up and down stairs in a most alarming manner. Apart from this individual he saw no one, except a fellow-lodger who occupied a room on the same floor as his own. He was a printer, and was generally in a state of intoxication. I have often heard the story of how one morning he entered “the garret” in his shirt sleeves, with an open razor in his hand, and besought his neighbour to cut off a button on the neck of his shirt, which he had tried in vain 51 to undo. He was relieved from strangulation, whereupon he retired to his own apartment and immediately cut his throat.
     Almost daily the young aspirant to literary fame received a letter from his mother, full of loving instructions for his guidance. To one of these missives the following is a reply:—

                                                                                                           66, STAMFORD STREET, S.
                                                                                                                           “Saturday afternoon.

     “MY VERY DEAR MOTHER,—I dash off a line or two in answer to your letter, which I have just received. My other letter has gone off but it is of no consequence.
     “In the name of God don’t credit for a moment what the common liar says—stuff your ears when those contemptible hounds talk slander into them. If every married woman in the world was to break down under the first falsehood levelled at her husband, or even under the first unpleasant truth, goodbye to Utopia. True or untrue, don’t give ear to those infernal tales. Anything, false or true circulated for a sinister, vile purpose is morally an irretrievable lie. Human nature learns to endure such things—it must endure them. We have all our troubles; and the troubles resulting from matrimony, although often the keenest, are seldom the most lasting.
     “Take the worst like a stoic! even if, as I do not believe, the worst should come. I will earn enough to keep the whole family, if it comes to that. I have kind friends in London who will not see me overcome. I can do something yet, thank God. So, for my sake, keep up heart.
     “A fall in life is very bitter and trying, but if a man endeavours to climb a precipice and tumbles down in 52 the attempt, the fall is not necessarily degradation. Again, I say your duty demands woman’s strength,— stronger it is than man’s strength in such a crisis after all.
     “Don’t forget that I have still hands and a brain, both of which may accomplish miracles. The world is before me, and if I don’t tear this lying tongue you talk about out of its jaws, I am a swindler.
                                                           “With best and warmest love,
                                                                           “Your affectionate son,
                                                                                               “ROBERT BUCHANAN.”

     This letter, stained and torn and marked with age, came into my possession in a curious manner. I had often heard his mother speak of it with pride—such pride as I think would fill the heart of any woman receiving such a letter from a son barely nineteen years of age; and when she died, in 1894, I found it hidden away among her most treasured belongings. I gave it to her son. A few years later, after his own death, I again found it when looking over his papers, and I give it here, because it seems to me that the spirit which then animated the boy was in after years so eminently characteristic of the man.

1 Letter to Mr. Gentles.
2 Letter to Mr. Gentles.
3 Letter to Mr. Gentles.
4 Letter to Mr. Gentles.







     IT was one thing to possess a lodging and to be monarch of all he surveyed over the moonlit tiles of Lambeth; it was quite another thing to be able to pay the rent, and to command if not the roast beef of old England, at least bread-and- butter. His modest calculation had been that a pound a week would be sufficient for all his needs, including tobacco, but how to earn that pound was another question. Hepworth Dixon, of the Athenæum, had given him a few unimportant books to review, in order (as he said) to “get his hand in,” but it was uncertain how soon those contributions would be used, and the pay, ten shillings and sixpence per column, was very small. He had sent some papers to All the Year Round, but whether they would be accepted or not was still uncertain. His pocket was almost empty when he thought of Bryan Procter (Barry Cornwall), with whom he had corresponded when in Glasgow, and who had, as I have said, warned him not to attempt to live by literature. “The work you now do with pleasure,” he wrote, “will possibly become a torture to you, and you will discover, as so many others have done, that what you eat is turned to bitter bread.” The boy, full of enthusiasm for his art, had disregarded this warning, and was therefore almost ashamed to present 54 himself before the man who had given it in vain. So he wrote to the poet telling him that he had come to London, and asking for the honour of an interview. He received an answer almost immediately appointing a meeting at Mr. Procter’s house in Weymouth Street, Portland Place. The next morning the youth presented himself, “and I fear my appearance must have been somewhat forlorn, for I vividly remember the looks of gentle sympathy and pity which Procter cast upon me. He was then growing old and was somewhat infirm, but when we talked his eye sparkled and he seemed to forget the burthen of his years. It was pleasant no doubt for the old poet to meet with even a boy-worshipper, one who knew well his works, which the world had already almost forgotten. As I looked into his gentle face I could not but feel reverence for the man who had been the friend of Landor and Southey, and who had lived so long among literary giants. He repeated, with a sad smile, for the mischief was done, his former warning against the literary life, but he promised to help me as far as lay in his power, and as we parted invited me to see him soon again. While I held his hand he pressed into mine something wrapped up in a piece of paper, and as he did so I saw the tears in his eyes. When I got into the street I opened the paper and found three sovereigns! I had said nothing of my extremity, but I presume that the old man guessed it without much prompting.”1
     After that interview the two never met.
     “Again and again I proposed going to him, but from one cause or another I never did. It was not that I was ungrateful or forgetful; night after night I thought of “Barry Cornwall,” and named him in my 55 prayers, but I had drifted away with the tide of life, and was a stranger even to some of my closest friends. I remember Browning reminding me some years afterwards that Procter had inquired after me, rather wondering that he had never seen me again. Browning, when he was in London, visited the old poet regularly every Sunday. To my shame let it be chronicled that I forgot my duty in this instance, as in many others. I shall always regret that I was so remiss. Before I could make amends Procter had passed away.”2
     In those days, so far as his fellow-craftsmen were concerned, Robert Buchanan was not a little of a recluse, and the habit of keeping apart from professional company remained with him more or less all his life. Hating all intellectual pretensions, and preferring to be simply a man among men, he sought every kind of society save that called “literary,” and was at home everywhere except among literary men. This habit of seclusion grew rather than diminished with age—indeed, during the latter years of his life it became almost a mania with him. On the occasion of our returning from a visit we paid to New York in the year 1885 he was rather taken with one of our fellow-passengers, and during the evenings the two would frequently pace the deck of the ship in earnest conversation, each not having the least idea of the identity of the other. As our journey was nearing its end the stranger came to me one morning and said how sorry he was that we were about to part. “I have quite enjoyed my conversations with your brother,” he said, “he seems to be so fond of poetry!
     The admiration which he was unwilling to court he was just as unwilling to give. He was never a hero-worshipper; strength, either of mind or body, did not 56 attract him, while gentle deeds and modest worth invariably did. In point of fact he was a born Bohemian, and cared nothing whatever for the prosperous or successful men. I do not mention this to explain or palliate his forgetfulness with regard to Mr. Procter, or rather I should say his carelessness in acknowledging his obligation to him, for he never forgot a kindness or failed, if occasion came, to repay it. Had the old man been in need of his sympathy, he would have acted differently, but he was happy and prosperous, and so the youth did not hurry to recall himself to his memory.
     Another motive may have weighed greatly with him. He was proud as Lucifer, and he hesitated to greet the good old poet again till he could show him that he was no longer a pauper, and that he had done some good work to justify his belief in him. He sent him his first books, and was preparing to follow them into the kindly presence, when he heard to his great regret that the poet was dead.
     Meantime he stayed on in his “garret” earning scarcely enough to keep body and soul together, but he never gave up hope or lost heart.
     He was not unhappy, indeed he looked back upon that time as one of the happiest in his life. It was only now and then that a sense of desolation came upon him, and he realised his helplessness in the world. The light of Fairyland was still following him, and he had all his young illusions to keep him strong and glad.
     But his pride of heart and gladness in mere life were not to be without qualification. His first great experience of the world’s sorrow was coming to him, for his dear comrade and companion, David Gray, was about to join him, wounded and broken, after his first flight into the great world of London.

1 Letter to Mr. Gentles.
2 Letter to Mr. Gentles.


To Chapter VII: David Gray, 1860

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


The Critical Response
Harriett Jay


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