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The Critical Response - Henry Murray


From Robert Buchanan: A Critical Appreciation And Other Essays by Henry Murray
(Philip Wellby, 1901 - pp. 1-115.)


Robert Buchanan.


I FIRST met Robert Buchanan in the summer of 1885. Our acquaintance, for some time of a lax and ordinary kind, was—very characteristically of such a man—cemented into a warm and enduring friendship by an occurrence which would have brought most acquaintances to an abrupt termination. An article from his pen on ‘The Modern Young Man as Critic’ appeared in a monthly review, attractmg a good deal of attention and a considerable amount of public comment. It compared some of the more prominent among the younger literary personalities of the day with corresponding types with which Buchanan had been familiar in his youth, and denounced their pessimism, their irreverence, and their cheap culture in the cut-and-thrust fashion we had all, long before that date, learned to associate with his polemical utterances. I was at that time associated with a certain weekly publication, now extinct, which enjoyed a great reputation for smart and outspoken comment on current topics, and my editor—who was more or less lié with more than one of the objects of Buchanan’s onslaught— commissioned me to reply to his article. 2 My feelings towards Buchanan at that time were of a somewhat mixed description, compounded of admiration for the genius evident in his best work, and regret that he should so often fall below the lofty level which, in his happier moments, he attained and kept so easily; and in my criticism of ‘The Modern Young Man as Critic’ the second of those sentiments certainly found stronger expression than the first. I had at that time a tendency, which perhaps even now I have not altogether outworn, to let my pen run away with me, and to express the passing mood of the moment with unnecessary strength. What I said was, as Buchanan himself subsequently confessed, true enough, but it was truth savagely spoken, and I have to own that the article was permeated by a certain air of personal resentment, quite unjustified by the circumstances of the case. As the hazards of life drew us closer and closer together I regretted my virulence more and more; and when, some months after the appearance of my ill-tempered article, Buchanan, by a most thoughtful and quite unsolicited act of friendship, showed how kindly he had come to regard me, I felt that the hour for full confession had arrived. I wrote to him, avowing myself the author of the article and apologising more for its manner than its matter. His reply was like himself—frank, cordial, generous. ‘Nobody knows better than I how, in these random fights of the literary arena, a man loses his temper and strikes harder than he need. I have many such sins on my conscience. 3 There is really very little in your article that you need regret, and indeed, knowing how you feel on these matters, I do not see how you could well have written otherwise. . . . . To requite your candour, I was fairly certain that you had written the article, and quite certain, if my belief was true, that you would sooner or later “own up” to it. Don’t avoid me like the plague because you have voluntarily gone into the confessional, but come up to dinner next Sunday and do penance.’ The matter was never again mentioned between us, and this apparently untoward accident was the starting-point of an absolutely uncheckered friendship of more than twelve years’ duration. I mention it here only because it was so richly characteristic of a side of Buchanan’s nature which the majority of people, knowing him merely from his published utterances, could hardly believe him to possess. A man of passionately cherished ideals, most of which were utterly opposed to the practice of his day; a man who, while he lived, must freely speak whatever truth he saw, at whatever cost to the feelings or interests of individuals; he was incapable of the least personal ma1ice towards an opponent. His relations with Rossetti furnish an illustrative case. It is certainly not worth while, at this time of day, to dig up the buried and forgotten bitternesses to which the once famous ‘Fleshly School’ criticism gave rise. The protagonists—Buchanan himself and the men of genius he had attacked—fought their battle vehemently, but 4 honestly. There was hard hitting in plenty, but none ‘below the belt.’ But smaller and less honest partisans envenomed the strife with all sorts of petty falsehood. The absolutely unfounded statement that Buchanan had puffed his own poems in the pseudonymous ‘Thomas Maitland’ article has been quite recently revived, and, so long as the memory of the incident remains, will probably never be finally laid to rest. But all the petty spite imported into the dispute by the outside skirmishers could not prevent Buchanan from owning that he had overstated his case, and in the ardour of over-statement had neglected sufficiently to recognise Rossetti’s genius. To that genius he paid eloquent tribute on more than one occasion, but never so touchingly as in the dedication to Rossetti of his novel, ‘God and the Man.’


I would have snatch’d a bay leaf from thy brow,
     Wronging the chaplet on an honoured head;
In peace and tenderness I bring thee now
     A lily-flower instead.

Pure as thy purpose, blameless as thy song,
     Sweet as thy spirit, may this offering be:
Forget the bitter blame that did thee wrong,
     And take the gift from me.

     Ten months later came the news of Rossetti’s death, and Buchanan added the sad and charming lines:—

Calmly, thy royal robe of Death around thee,                                         5
     Thou sleepest, and weeping Brethren round thee stand;
Gently they placed, ere yet God’s angel crowned thee,
     My lily in thy hand.

I never saw thee living, oh my brother,
     But on thy breast my lily of love now lies,
And by that token we shall know each other
     When God’s voice saith ‘Arise !’

     A year or two later (in 1877), in ‘A Look Round Literature,’ he emphasised and extended this already sufficient apology, moved thereto by an article in the British Quarterly, the writer of which, says Buchanan, ‘takes occasion to repeat at second-hand, for a wiser generation, all the hasty expressions and uninstructed abuse that I published in hot haste ten years ago, and have since, as my readers know, repented. It is so easy,’ he goes on, ‘to create a nickname that will stick, so difficult to write a criticism that will endure. Perhaps it may be worth while . . . . to show the readers of this book how false a judgment it was, how conventional and Pharisaic a criticism, which chose to dub as “fleshly” the works of this most ethereal and dreamy—in many respects this least carnal and most religious—of modern poets.’ Seldom have royaller compliments been paid by a poet to a contemporary poet than those Buchanan poured at the feet of Rossetti. ‘The man was a magician, of the tribe of Kubla Khan; and at his bidding there rose a stately pleasure dome, every precious stone of which 6 had a name and a mystery, and when he entered it to weave his strange verse, he was within his right in using the language of incantation. . . . . If he was wrong, all the mystics have been wrong; Boehmen was a blunderer, Richter was a proser, Novalis was no poet.’ And in the brief following passage he plumbed the depth of the mystery of Rossetti’s work: ‘He uses amatory forms and carnal images, just as he uses mere sounds and verbalisms, to express ideas which are purely and remotely spiritual; and he takes the language of personal love to express his divine yearning, simply because that language is the most exquisite quintessence of human speech.’ And again: ‘This mood of perfect vision and grave assurance inspires all the best work of Rossetti. He has no questions to ask, no problems to trouble him; he is sibylline, not from being puzzle-headed, but because he has looked behind the curtain of the sibyl. He sees the trees walk, he hears the flowers speak, with a sober certainty of waking bliss. When an angel passes him, he can feel the very texture of his robe, and tell the colour of his eyes. He is as sure of Heaven and all its white-robed angels as ordinary men are of each other.’ Further on, speaking of the Sonnet Sequence, ‘The House of Life,’ which the British Quarterly reviewer had stigmatised as a ‘house of ill-fame,’ he wrote: ‘It is, to a certain extent, monotonous, and the sacrament of flesh and blood has a constant place in it; but out of this sacrament rises the ghostly vision of the Host, 7 and ere he has ended we hear the voices of all the angels praising the Lord of Heavenly Love. And of this strange  texture, of this starry woof, is the so-called “fleshly” poetry. . . . . The stairs of the earthly love lead to the heavens; he ascends them step by step, that is all, hand in hand with his sweet guide—who is a bright earthly maiden at the beginning, then a bride, then a shining creature, winged and marvellously transfigured; the rest in order; last, an amethyst! You can transfigure Love, but you can never transfigure Lust; this last never made an angel, or inspired a true poem, yet.’ ‘And so,’ he adds as his final word—a word which, one might be excused for hoping, might be allowed to remain the last regarding the entire business—‘And so, when all is said and done, the friendly criticism remains the best and wisest. Those who have read Mr. Swinburne’s eulogy of his master, and thought it, perhaps, a little strained, may admit, at least, that it was strained, like all eulogy of love, in the right direction. My own abuse was and is, like all hasty contemporary abuse, nothing. Mr. Swinburne’s honest praise was, and is, like all honest praise, something. The poet of “The House of Life” is beyond both; but his fame will remain, when all detraction is forgotten, as a golden symbol, ære perennius, of much that was best and brightest in the culture of our time.’
     It is pleasant also to know that, even in the first heat of the strife occasioned by Buchanan’s 8 original criticism, Rossetti could recognise the high qualities of his assailant, as he showed when he interrupted the denunciations of an ardent partisan by the emphatic exclamation, ‘Yes—but, by Jove, he’s a poet!’ As Christopher North said, when he held out the olive-branch to his old foeman, Leigh Hunt, ‘The animosities pass, the humanities are eternal.’
     It may interest the reader, and may serve as a further illustration of the real kindliness of personal feeling which underlay Buchanan’s occasional virulence of attack, to read the brief address to two of his oldest and most persistent opponents, the late Edmund Yates and the living Henry Labouchere, which was, by a mere accident, left out of its proper place in the first—and at present, only—volume of ‘The Outcast.’

So, Edward, Henry, pax vobiscum,
     Arcades ambo, here’s adieu!
All strife, all hate, at last to this come—
     The silent grave, the sunless yew.
The scandal-monger, the truth-seeker,
     The man of this world or a fairer,
Must drink at last of the same beaker,
     Whereof a skeleton is bearer.
A little space a little life,
A little time a little strife,
Then calm, then rest, then slumber deep,
‘Mid the black brotherhood of sleep.
As Rome was once, when on the Tree
Bloom’d the blood-rose of Calvary,
So is our England now, and you
Perform your parts like Romans true.
Afoot or horse-back, proud or prone,                                                 9
     Continue beautiful and brave,
And take a smile, and not a stone,
From him who walketh all alone
     The common highway to the grave.

     The student of Buchanan who would thoroughly understand his work—and more especially his critical work, literary or social—must be careful to keep in mind one pregnant fact regarding him. He was the descendant of a long line of Calvinistic Puritans, and, although half an Englishman by the maternal side, and bred, to his tenth year, south of the Border, he was, in many respects, a thorough-going Scotsman. The Celtic ichor accounted for much of his utterance as a writer, and much of his conduct as a man. When the Cockney critic anathematised him as a ‘provincial,’ he not merely accepted the description, he proclaimed and gloried in it—as also did another Scotsman, with whom in most respects he had little enough in common—Thomas Carlyle. The practice of the literary art in the freest of Bohemian society, influences which act with such deadly effect as solvents on the prejudices, innate or acquired, of most men, never affected in any appreciable degree Buchanan’s philosophy of life. Loathing Calvinistic theology, he remained a Calvinistic moralist to the end of the chapter; and that morality impregnates every serious utterance on life and its mysteries that ever fell from his pen. Absolutely at the antipodes of mere asceticism—no man better loved the good things of this life than he—sensuality 10 was horrible to him. It was for that reason that he fell foul of Rossetti, as on other occasions he fell foul of Mr. Swinburne and Théophile Gautier, because—mistakenly, as we have seen that he candidly and generously confessed—he thought him what Byron, in his ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,’ called Thomas Moore, ‘A mere melodious advocate of lust.’ To Buchanan, sexual love was one of two things. Sanctified by affection, it was the holiest and most beautiful thing in life; not so sanctified, the basest and most degrading. Men of the world find foothold for themselves somewhere between these extremes of opinion; but in many respects Buchanan had no desire to be accepted as a man of the world, and, as one who knew intimately every detail of his personal life for many years, I can testify that he at least sealed his faith by his daily practice. A man is never a Puritan upon one point alone, and Buchanan’s puritanism, so far from being merely sexual, invaded and coloured his views of all the important questions of life. He hated triviality, cackle and small talk and scandal, and anything which could come under Matthew Arnold’s sweeping definition of ‘intellectual levity.’ Consequently, he had scant love for modern journalism, and especially for that department of journalism marked by the prefix ‘Society.’ Hence his vehement onslaughts on Mr. Yates and Mr. Labouchere, and much of the criticism of contemporary art and literature which earned for him, among strangers to his personality, a reputation as a cantankerous spoil-sport.
11   It was Buchanan’s innate tendency and cultivated habit to look almost entirely to the ethical value of any literary work which attracted his attention. He summed up his critical doctrine in a single phrase in the ‘Epistle Dedicatory’ of ‘The Outcast,’ to ‘C. W. S.,’ a phrase to the effect that ‘a Poet was a Prophet and a Propagandist or nothing.’ This present utterance of mine being intended, not as a eulogy at-any-price—a form of literary exercise which Buchanan detested—but as a critical appreciation, I may say that this phrase neatly defines the battle-ground of many a tough and interminable argument between us. I do not go so far as absolutely to reverse Buchanan’s dictum, or even so far as to say that a poet is never less a poet than when he is engaged in preaching or propagandising; though either of those positions is, I believe, quite tenable, and both have been frequently and ably defended. Personally, I fly very light in the matter of artistic dogma. The one qualification I inexorably demand of an artist is—that he shall know his business. So long as a painter’s pictures are beautiful in form and colour, so long as a poet’s verses are clear in meaning and exquisite in verbal expression, they are good enough for me — barring, of course, the artistic expression of cases of abnormal ethical aberration, such as have sometimes, though very rarely, occurred. La correction de la forme, c’est la vertu, said Théophile Gautier, and in matters artistic I accept that ruling, with certain private reservations which I feel no need to express at length.
12   To a man of Buchanan’s mental habits, such a declaration necessarily appeared as the confession of a Sadducee and a dilettante trifler, tolerant of all moralities for the simple reason that he had none of his own—the view taken by the dogmatist of the latitudinarian in all ages. But I cannot but think that his intransigeance on this point cost him much. It certainly blinded him to the mere artistic beauty of much work which happened to be based upon interpretations of the eternal verities differing from his own—such, for instance, as that of Mr. Rudyard Kipling. Though I share to the full Buchanan’s hatred of the ultra-Jingo views which Mr. Kipling has made it his business to interpret, I cannot but think it a pity that any divergence of opinion should disable a critic of that gentleman’s work from perceiving and enjoying even its merely technical excellence, or should cause him to ignore much of Mr. Kipling’s writing from which the taint of chauvinism is altogether absent—such work as ‘In the Rukh,’ or the little tale which has been described, not unworthily, as ‘the best short story in the language,’ ‘Without Benefit of Clergy;’ or such of his verses as ‘Recessional’ and ‘What the People said;’ or to forget the splendid verbal strength and directness which make even his banalities and vulgarisms more than half pardonable. So also, in judging Mr. Bernard Shaw, Buchanan laid stress on the irresponsible cynical mockery which—if that singularly constructed man of genius could only be persuaded to see it—is his weakness, rather than on his really admirable powers as a 13 dramatic constructor, and as a writer of trenchant and characteristic dialogue. It should be added, in justice both to Buchanan and to Mr. Shaw, that Buchanan revised—or rather supplemented—his original criticism by the following lines, published in ‘The New Rome.’

No Slave at least art thou, on this dull Day
     When slaves and knaves throng in Life’s banquet-hall! . . .
Who listens to thy scornful laugh must say
     ‘Wormwood, though bitter, is medicinal!’

Because thou turnest from our feast of Lies
     Where prosperous priests with whores and warriors feed,
Because thy Jester’s mask hides loving eyes
     I name thee here, and bid thy work ‘God speed!’

     In many a conversation with Buchanan I expressed my fear that this insistence on the merely ethical outlook of each individual writer by an authority of his weight might act rather for evil than for good. It expressed a mental attitude already too common, to my thinking, among Englishmen, and it has resulted in the cases of people of small artistic feeling or culture in absurdities which have more than once made England the laughing-stock of the intellectual world. An extreme case was the publication, a few years ago, of an edition of ‘David Copperfield,’ from which the episode of Steerforth and little Em’ly had been expunged as unfitted for family reading! To insist to the English public on the propagandist duties of the verbal artist is rather like carrying coals to Newcastle. To mix a metaphor, the pendulum of English opinion has always shown a sufficiently marked inclination to the 14 side of ‘moral value.’ We have, as a nation, at least enough of the utilitarian, as opposed to the purely artistic, leaven in our blood, and stand in greater need of artistic than of moral culture. To persuade Buchanan either of the truth or the expediency of such a standpoint was, of course, quite impossible. The artistic beliefs of such men as he are no more ‘idle’ than were the ‘manners’ of the Knights of the Table Round, they are the fruits of a strong personal intelligence, sedulously cultured.
     But, when any great principle was at stake, no man was less hidebound by preconceptions than Buchanan. Much as he loved, and fiercely as he defended, certain minor dogmas, he would forego their interests where major interests were concerned, as he proved by his warm defence of Emile Zola, long before that great writer—and greater Man—had won the suffrage of every honest man alive by his splendidly heroic defence and rescue of the unfortunate Dreyfus, and when he was at the very nadir of English public opinion.
     Everybody will remember how, in 1889, the veteran publicist and historian, Mr. Henry Vizetelly, was condemned, through the action of a clique of pestilent busybodies known as the ‘National Vigilance Association,’ to a term of imprisonment for publishing translations of Zola’s novels. The Press for the most part applauded the foolish and tyrannical proceeding, and Buchanan was the one English man of letters of any weight or position who resented the barefaced outrage on literature and liberty. He addressed an open 15 letter, in the form of a pamphlet, to Mr. Henry Matthews, then Home Secretary, praying, in the interests of justice and humanity, for Mr. Vizetelly’s release. English officialism could, of course, take no note of so irregular a plea, however well supported by logic and eloquence; but ‘On Descending into Hell’ (the pamphlet in question) deserves to take its place by Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ and John Mill’s ‘Essay on Liberty’ as an irrefutable argument on the side of freedom of thought and expression. Had Shakespeare or Victor Hugo been the insulted author instead of the writer of ‘Pot-Bouille’ and ‘La Terre,’ this ‘speech for the defence’ could not have been conducted with closer reasoning or more generous fervour. ‘I affirm,’ wrote Buchanan, ‘that Emile Zola was bound to be printed, translated, read. Little as I sympathise with his views of life, greatly as I loathe his pictures of human vice and depravity, I have learned much from him, and others may learn much; and had I been unable to read French, these translations would have been to me an intellectual help and boon. I like to have the Devil’s case thoroughly stated, because I know it refutes itself.* As an artist, Zola is unjustifiable; as a moralist, he is answerable; but as a free man, a man of letters, he can decline to accept the fiat of a criminal tribunal.’ The pamphlet ends with a passage which, for terseness of argument and cogency of illustration, has few rivals in nineteenth-century polemical literature:—


     * ‘Who has ever seen Truth worsted in a fair field?’—Milton’s ‘Areopagitica.’


16   Wholesale corruption never yet came from corrupt literature, which is the effect, not the cause, of social libertinage. Do we find morality so plentiful among the godly farmers and drovers of Annandale, or among the unco’ guid of Ayrshire or Dumfriesshire—thumbers of the Bible, sheep of the Kirk? Stands Scotland anywhere but where it did, though it has not yet acquired an æsthetic taste for the Abominable, but merely realises occasionally the primitive instincts of La Terre? Dwells perfect purity in Brittany and in Normandy, despite the fact that Zola there is an unknown quantity, and Paris itself a thing of dream? Bestialism, animalism, sensualism, realism, call it by what name you will, is antecedent to, and triumphant over, all books whatsoever. Books may reflect it, that is all; and I fail to see why they should not, since it exists. I love my Burns and like my Byron, though neither was a virtuous or even a ‘decent’ person. My Juvenal, my Lucretius, my Catullus, and even my porcus porcorum Petronius, are well read. My Decameron, with all its incidence of amativeness, is a breeding-nest of poets. Age cannot wither, nor custom stale, La Fontaine’s infinite variety. But I take such books as these, as I take all such mental food, cum grano salis, a pinch of which keeps each from corruption. Even the fly-blown Gautier looks well, cold and inedible, garnished with Style’s fresh parsley. But I have never found that what my teeth nibble at has any power to pollute my immortal part. I must stand on the earth, with Montaigne and Rabelais, but does that prevent me flying heavenward with Jean Paul, or walking the mountain-tops with the Shepherd of Rydal? Inspection of the dung-heaps and slaughter-houses with Jonathan Swift and Zola only makes me more anxious to get away with Rousseau to the peaceful height where the Savoyard Vicar prays. By evil only shall ye distinguish good, says the Master; yea, and by the husks shall ye know the grain.
     The man who says that a book has power to pollute his soul, ranks his soul lower than a book. I rank mine infinitely higher.

17   In his generally admirable study, recently published, entitled ‘Robert Buchanan, the Poet of Revolt,’ Mr. Archibald Stodart-Walker says of his subject that, to the end, he preserved ‘an almost childish sensitiveness to criticism, and a fanatical hatred to . . . . critical injustice.’ The second of these allegations is perfectly true; the first is a curiously wrong- headed statement, proceeding as it does from the pen of a writer who was for some years one of Buchanan’s personal friends. As a matter of fact, I have never met a man more serenely indifferent to criticism, merely as criticism, than was Buchanan. That he waged eternal war with the motley mob of gentlemen of the Press who chronicle and criticise the current literature of the day is, of course, matter of literary history; but the motive of his polemical activity is to be sought in the second of Mr. Stodart-Walker’s statements, not in the first. Buchanan hated ‘critical’ as he hated all other forms of injustice, and as he hated ignorance, arrogance, presumption, bad faith, and tawdry, sham enthusiasm, of which elements latter-day criticism is so largely compact. Elsewhere, Mr. Stodart-Walker says, ‘There is a deadly want of the sense of humour in attacking criticism as a whole.’ The statement is challengeable, merely as it stands, for the entire history of criticism—even criticism as written by men of large powers and wide culture—is little more than a record of the stupid injustice with which the world at large has received its greatest and its best. And criticism ‘as she is wrote’ to-day is 18 little more and little else than an impertinence and a darkening of counsel. Among the thousands of newspapers published in Great Britain there are few which do not employ the services of a ‘critic,’ and, viewed in the light of that simple fact, criticism, ‘as a whole,’ is reduced to an absurdity, inasmuch as the writer capable of dealing adequately with any book worth noticing at all is almost as rare a phenomenon as the writer capable of producing such a book. Nor is mere incapacity the worst feature of modern criticism—it becomes easily tolerable when set beside the cynical defiance of mere common intellectual honesty which is the stock-in-trade of so many of the critical tribe. It is a matter of sad fact that—with the possible exception of Mr. Rudyard Kipling, who, despite his many vulgarisms of manner and the flat banality of his outlook upon life, has real force and fine literary power—there is not a contemporary English author alive to-day under the age of sixty who approaches the first rank of excellence; yet, to judge by the current criticism of the newspapers and reviews we should believe that England was groaning in a positive plethora of literary genius. We have been gravely informed—and expected to believe—that Mr. Rider Haggard was the superior of the elder Dumas, that the cherry-stone chef d’oeuvres of the late Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson had quite hid from sight the granite monoliths which bear witness to the mighty mallet-hand of Scott, that Mr. George Moore is ‘a greater Zola,’ that Mr. Kipling is a ‘greater Dickens,’ 19 that Mr. Henry James eclipses Thackeray, that in Mr. Stephen Phillips we have a dramatic poet who unites the excellences of Sardou and Tennyson, Milton and Dumas père. When the late Hugh Conway died, I read a sonnet in a professedly literary journal—I refrain from naming the journal for fear of possible error—in which he was compared to a ‘thunder-smitten eagle!’ There is probably hardly a journal in England bearing the date of the day on which I write these words which is not proclaiming as ‘a masterpiece’ some tawdry performance whose author’s name, six months hence, it will require an effort of memory to recall. A century ago, in the early days of ‘Blackwood’s’ and the  ‘Quarterly,’ he was the greatest critic who was foulest in insult, most careless of decency, who had stabbed most reputations, who had inspired most despair in the breast of budding talent. Those bad old days have vanished, and to- day the greatest critic is he whose benevolently microscopic eye can detect the greatest number of ‘geniuses’ among the heterogeneous mob whose crude prose and cruder verse replenish the shelves of the circulating library. En revanche, it was only at the moment of Robert Browning’s death that the Press, with anything like unanimity, hailed him for what he was—one of the greatest and most certainly enduring glories of English literature. Buchanan’s statement that ‘Browning’s life was darkened by constant neglect and infinite detraction;’ and that, ‘if it had not been for the efforts of a small body of devoted worshippers, who preached 20 Browningese in spite of endless ridicule, he would scarcely have been heard of by the great public,’ is the simple statement of a simple truth. ‘Again and again, when he was issuing his works of thought and imagination, he was informed that it was a Poet’s duty, not to instruct, but to amuse, his generation. A leading critical authority compared him to a noisy and mannered “Auctioneer.” He was requested to favour the world with light performances, suitable for the suburban reciter and drawing-room entertainer. Since he was an eager man among men, en rapport with everything human, he was described as a worldling and a diner-out. Suddenly, on his death, the world discovered that he was a sublime person, a great person. Column upon column was written in his praise by gentlemen who had scarcely read one of his works. “He was great,” was the cry, “bury him at Westminster.” And scarcely was he cold when it was deeply regretted that he missed wearing the laurel, still worn, we Poets thank God, by the Galahad of modern Poesy.’ And he—the good and great Tennyson — how had the current criticism of his early days received him? As ‘a new star in the milky-way of poetry,’ of which ‘Johnny Keats’ was a specimen-luminary! It was only when Tennyson assumed the laurel, ‘greener from the brows’ of Wordsworth — himself too the subject of ‘constant neglect and infinite detraction’— that the critical snobs recognised his value. Hermann Melville —

The surges trumpet into fame—

21 the ‘Yankee-Greek,’ greatest and best of all writers of the sea, years ago broke his pen, swearing never more to write a line; sick of the futile struggle against the platitudinous mediocrities bepuffed by the newspaper critic. ‘Imagine this Titan silenced,’ said Buchanan, ‘and the book-shops flooded with the illustrated magazines!’ George Meredith, the possessor of the widest and acutest intellect which has ever bent itself to the production of prose fiction, was grey before our critical ciceroni mentioned—or apparently knew—his name. Criticism, ‘as a whole,’ has sought to atone for insulting or neglecting these men, together with Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and James Thomson, by discovering an earth-shaking portent in ‘our schoolroom classic, Stevenson,’ and by deifying the author of ‘Herod.’
     That there was a spice of personal feeling in Buchanan’s frequent and furious onslaughts on the current criticism of his day is true enough. He would have been something more than mortal man had it been otherwise. It would be a task as barren as distasteful to burrow in the sarcophagi of out-of-date newspapers for specimens of the malicious detraction and spiteful stupidity with which hordes of anonymous scribblers greeted his work for many years. He scored a sweet and decisive revenge about the year  1873, in which he published his two poems, ‘St. Abe and His Seven Wives,’ and ‘White Rose and Red.’ Both volumes appeared anonymously, and were received with roars of applause by journals 22 which, till that date, had never failed to stigmatise their author as ‘a pretentious poetaster,’ ‘a dullard,’ ‘a madman,’ and a condemned Scotsman. As both were American in subject and story, and possessed moreover a certain carefully maintained Transatlantic literary flavour, they were generally ascribed to James Russell Lowell—one of the few writers of real value for whom the contemporary Press had much enthusiasm. One incident in this business afforded Buchanan a great amount of justifiably malicious satisfaction. A leading London daily sent a representative to the publisher of ‘St. Abe’ (Mr. Strahan) with a proof of a highly laudatory review of two columns in length, to ask—in strict confidence, of course—whether the popular belief was true, and Lowell was really the author of the book. Mr. Strahan, meticulously faithful to his pledge of secrecy, declined to answer ‘Yea’ or ‘Nay;’ and no notice at all of the poem appeared in the columns of the inquisitive journal! Small wonder that, when a man with such an experience fell foul of the critical scribes he threw a little extra muscle into the strokes of the dog-whip. But that Buchanan was personally sensitive to criticism, printed or spoken, is a quite mistaken idea. He hailed a critical misstatement or stupidity with positive joy, because it gave him a chance of replying to it, and so afforded an opportunity for additional exploitation of his idea. He fell foul of puffery of bad work and of neglect of good work because, as Mr. Stodart-Walker puts it, he hated critical injustice, and because nothing gave 23 him greater pleasure than to puncture an overblown reputation—except to vindicate neglected talent. Two of his utterances in this connexion are memorable, because they are richly typical of the man who made them. ‘I have my own opinion of myself,’ he once remarked in the course of conversation. ‘It is a lower one than people might fancy, but it suffices.’ And on another occasion, in answer to a phrase of condolence regarding a bitter attack upon one of his books, he wrote, ‘My soul will survive in my poetry, and can take care of itself.’ Sensitiveness to criticism is, I fancy, generally allied with spiritual weakness of some sort, and especially with vanity. It is the intimate curse of the man who takes himself more seriously than the ideas he has to express. A man conscious of having something to say worth the world’s hearing will pretty generally be prepared, in Buchanan’s own phrase, for ‘the neglect of the idle and the misconstruction of the impatient.’* ‘My dear Doctor,’ said tough old Johnson to the weeping Goldsmith, ‘what man is the worse for being called Holofernes?’ There was a strong resemblance between the characters of Johnson and Buchanan. Both were hard hitters, strenuous fighters for ideas they believed to be true and necessary to be expressed; both were free from malice because it was fundamentally to settle the great question, ‘What is right?’ and not the infinitely little question, ‘Who


     * ‘The Outcast.’ Epistle Dedicatory.


24 is right?’ that they wrote and argued. Johnson himself had not a more robust contempt for that puerile vanity which makes ‘intellect’ an excuse for any weakness or any meanness in the mind of the fribble who flatters himself that ‘intellect’ is the gift in which he is especially rich. ‘I have never yet discovered,’ wrote Buchanan, ‘in myself, or in any man, any gift which entitles me to despise the meanest of my fellows.’*

To love the worst, to feel
The least is even as I—

to claim no exemption from common labour or common duty on the ground of superior intelligence, but rather to demand that a higher intellectuality should be the corollary of a loftier moral sense—this was Buchanan’s creed. It was the creed he imported not merely into his daily life, it partly furnishes the explanation of his huge literary activity. ‘I have not escaped the charge of selling my birthright for a mess of pottage; of gaining my bread by hodman’s labour, when I might have been sitting empty-stomached on Parnassus. . . . . My errors, however, have arisen from excess of human sympathy, from ardour of human activity, rather than from any great love of the loaves and fishes. Lacking the pride of intellect, I have by superabundant activity tried to prove myself a man among men, not a mere littérateur. . . . . So I have stooped to hodman’s work


     * ‘The Outcast.’ Epistle Dedicatory.


25 occasionally, mainly because I cannot pose in the god-like manner of your lotus eaters. I have not humoured my reputation. I have thought no work undignified which did not convert me into a Specialist or a Prig. I have written for all men and in all moods. But the birthright which belongs to all Poets has never been offered by me in any market, and my manhood has never been stained by any sham hate or sham affection.’

     Infinite as are the points of diversity between the poetical literature of the latter half of the nineteenth century and that of all preceding epochs, there is one among them which the unborn reader will find supreme in interest above all others —the intrusion, into the poetic field, of the polemist and theologian. England has been described as the native land of paradox, but among all the paradoxes discoverable in her history there is none stranger than the indifference of most of her great poets to the theological struggles whose fluctuations and developments have gone so far towards making up her national history. It is not, of course, surprising that Chaucer and his predecessors and contemporaries should be free from any expression of theological bias. That Chaucer was a man of fixed and humble piety is made certain by every serious page he ever wrote. Being for his day a man of wide culture, he was probably well read in the current divinity. But, in Chaucer’s day, there was only one theology, and it was accepted by all 26 men. If any manifestation of the spirit of Lollardism ever came his way, it left him untouched so far as is discoverable from his writings, and most probably left him untouched altogether, for he does not seem to have been of the kind of stuff of which, in any age, the polemist is made. The good green earth, and what grew and moved thereon, was enough for him, as it was enough for his unlettered neighbours, the farmer in his furrow and the cobbler in his stall. Life, intellectually and morally, was life reduced to its simplest terms. The morning prayer, the daily toil, the well-earned sleep which was the guerdon of their labour, filled men’s lives. They accepted, with the simplicity of children, the teaching of their pastors, that life was a probation, that he who bore its labours and its trials with patience and submission would be wafted on the wings of angels to an eternal paradise, that the wicked and rebellious would go to people a real objective hell. It was all so simple:—

The world was rich in man and maid,
     With fair horizons bound;
This whole wide earth of light and shade
     Came out a perfect round,

and heaven itself was only a little beyond the sunset clouds.

Le bon Dieu, gravely interfering
     In all humanity’s affairs,
Bending his kind grey head, and hearing
     The orphan’s cry, the widow’s prayers,

27 was to them, as actual and real a person as his vicegerent on earth, ‘the Pope that dwelled in Rome,’ and not much further off. Chaucer died in 1400, and literature slept for a century, to awaken, in common with every other manifestation of intellectual energy, amid the glorious turmoil of the Renaissance; and it is at this point in history that the theological indifferentism of our great poets becomes so truly remarkable. For in no field was the human spirit in the sixteenth century more active than in the domain of theology. The geographical isolation of England made us somewhat slow to catch the contagion of new religious thought. The healthy conservatism and hatred of extremes joined with the fundamental tolerance and bonhomie which are among the best points of our national character to make the struggle between new and old at once less bitter and less prolonged than it was in some continental countries; yet the fight, while it lasted, was sharp and bitter enough. But, while Henry and Edward and Mary and Elizabeth hanged and burned and racked and tortured; and while the Continent, from Spain to Friesland, was torn by a strife as deadly as it has ever witnessed; the Muse of English poesy still dreamed on in her own quiet fairyland, as unmoved by the ghastly turmoil as Proserpine in her garden. Neither politics nor theology nor war—for so long a time almost interchangeable terms— stirred her from her golden calm. The glories of a new-found world enriched her 28 metaphors and coloured her vocabulary, but, though all England was shrieking horror over the American devilries of the Spanish freebooters, she had no word of pity for outraged humanity. The soil of Holland was like a sponge blood-soaked with the life-stream of thousands of the martyrs of the faith which England had adopted, and Holland’s and humanity’s greatest and purest hero was meeting with splendid courage and defeating with incredible success the tremendous armaments of Spain, our bitterest enemy, with whom we also were girding ourselves to come to inevitable death-grips; but martyrdom and heroism and the fear, which all men felt, of Spanish tyranny, left this strange sprite unmoved. There is nothing so amazing in all intellectual history as this complete aloofness from every most passionate interest of humanity which was displayed at that epoch by the great poets of England. Who, that was ignorant of the date of Shakespeare, could guess, from any internal evidence disclosed by his writings, the political storm and stress by which his life must have been surrounded; or that his fellow-citizens were being racked, mutilated and hanged for differences of theological opinion? Unless—which it is impossible to believe—a score of passages in his plays are mere fulsome rant meant to tickle the groundlings, Shakespeare was an ardent patriot. It would be an even greater absurdity to suppose that he had neither the heart to sympathise with the aborigines of America and the Protestants of Holland, nor the modicum of political sagacity to foresee the 29 possibility of curses as dire as those from which they suffered falling upon his own friends and neighbours. He must have sympathised with other nations, he must have feared for the country he loved so well. He must passionately have desired the triumph of liberty and the downfall of oppression. Yet where, in the entire bulk of the work we owe to him, do we find the smallest indication that he had ever so much as heard the name of Montezuma, of William the Silent, of Luther, on the one hand, or of Charles the Fifth or Philip the Second on the other? His treatment of the clerical element in his plays is curiously mild; the priestly figures which cross his stage from time to time, ‘Pandulph, of fair Milan Cardinal,’ Wolsey and Campeius and his friars, might, for any internal evidence yielded by the style of portraiture, have been painted by the hand of the most fervent Romanist. Yet he was almost contemporary with Alexander the Sixth and Cæsar Borgia, and actually contemporary with Cardinal Granvelle, the priestly minister of the insane and puerile cruelties of Philip; a trio, not merely of the most unworthy prelates, but of the most bestial criminals the world has seen. Were these men and their acts never discussed at the Mermaid, never canvassed in the tiring-room of the Globe? One might think so, from Shakespeare’s public silence concerning them. And what is true of Shakespeare in this particular is true of his contemporaries without exception.
     Milton would appear to have been the first English 30 poet of real importance to break through the bonds of this strange reticence, and to bring the light of the poetic intelligence to bear upon the problems of his day. His prose ‘Areopagitica’ and his noble sonnet on the persecution of the Protestants of Piedmont have never been surpassed as instances of the incommensurable value of the poetic-speculative treatment of the ‘burning questions’ of which every generation has its share. With him, poetry ceased to be the mere idle pastime it had been, the poet was no longer only the denizen and painter of a fairy world removed from every vital interest of human daily life. Stony as was the ground on which his seed was fated to fall, ill-fitted as was the atmosphere of the Restoration to encourage loftiness of thought or freedom of expression, the seed was sown, and its own innate vitality kept it from utter corruption or complete sterility. The plant was fostered by the literary harlot, Dryden, and the fungoid growth of affectation which overspread it during the period of Queen Anne could not kill it. We smile over the strings of prim and polished aphorisms in which Pope expressed his tea-table system of theology and ethics, but his tinselled and beribboned candlestick served at least to keep the flame alight, and it burned serenely in the pages of Cowper, and through that dreary gap in the succession of genius in which Hayley and Pye and Crabbe were hailed as poets, to spring to a vivid blaze in the opening years of the nineteenth century. Keats is the only indubitably great poet of that epoch who 31 was content to dwell in the old celestial lubber-land which Shakespeare and Spenser idled away their time. Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Burns—even the dreamy and unpractical Coleridge, descended into the political and theological arenas, and fought in the ranks of humanity, side by side with common men. Buchanan’s dictum, already quoted, that ‘a Poet is a Prophet and a Propagandist, or nothing,’ is only an exaggeration of what is to-day a universal sentiment. The mere idle melodist can never hope again to take rank with the truly great poets. We have seen this illustrated in the career of one of the most gifted singers of the century—Algernon Charles Swinburne. Great in imaginative faculty, rich in melody, a superb verbal technician, he has failed in holding a place among the great singers of his time, because, alone among them, he has had no gospel to proclaim, no message to deliver. He ranks, as a poet, as Gounod ranks as a musician. Set beside Browning, Tennyson, and Buchanan, his stature seems to dwindle to something less than its true and fair proportion, as Gounod’s delicious melodies seem thin and vapid beside the graver strains of Beethoven and Wagner.
     At the beginning of the present century there was prevalent a superstition, which found its most lasting and familiar expression in a famous passage in Macaulay’s ‘Essay on Milton,’ that the spirit of science and the spirit of poetry were and must be inter-destructive, that a civilisation based upon science must necessarily be incapable of producing great 32 poetry. That superstition has long since been abandoned, and it is now among the most widespread of critical commonplaces that out of the fusion of Poetry and Science will arise a literature nobler than any the world has yet possessed. That conclusion, we may be pardoned for thinking, is one that might surely have been arrived at by the à priori method of reasoning. All good influences, all forces which make for righteousness, are friendly one to another, and must needs work in harmony. If Science be the bread of life, as it is, Poetry is its air and sunlight, and, as the body does not live by bread alone, so the soul will for all time demand that lighter and less tangible nutriment, which only imagination can supply. Shakespeare possibly believed that the swallows which nested in the eaves of his father’s house in summer time took refuge from the winter’s cold under the waters of the horse-pond. He possibly believed that the witches he drew in ‘Macbeth,’ the fairies which peopled his ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ and the spectres which broke the sleep of Richard and haunted the midnight watch of Marcellus had their genuine counterparts in the actual economy of nature. Tennyson was a scientific ornithologist, to whom the horsepond-hibernation theory would hardly appeal, but nevertheless he wrote about the swallow one of the sweetest lyrics in the language. He probably had no belief in ghosts, but he used them as powerfully as if he had, in the last act of ‘Harold.’ The mind of man is tenacious of all that is of mental or imaginative value, and 33 even the most modern of readers is content to go back for a while into the region of ghosts and ghouls in the company of any guide who has the art to make his spooks sufficiently convincing. Science and imagination can never be really inimical one to another.
     Macaulay was a young man when he propounded the theory just briefly discussed; he had grown old when a vastly more venerable bugbear was disinterred from among the ashes of the past, and the cry rang shrilly from all the churches and conventicles of Europe and America, that Science was killing Religion. It was certainly killing much that passed by that name, and the holocausts of superstitions by which its march was marked were no doubt very terrible to that numerous body to whom the sanctity of superstition meant daily bread. The militant Atheist, who would appear at times to be a sillier—and even less decent—person than his enemy, the dogmatic religionist, fell into the same obvious pitfall, and from the depths of his ignorance clamoured his glee in the ‘destruction’ of Religion as loudly as the priest and the parson wailed their grief and terror. There is an illuminating passage regarding this matter in Buchanan’s article on ‘Free Thought in America’ (A Look Round Literature), apropos of the utterances of that once notorious atheistic lecturer, Colonel Robert Ingersoll:—

     Colonel Ingersoll is very fond of proclaiming his admiration for the great scientific teachers of his age; but in reality he is as far away in spirit from the thought of Darwin as from the 34 vision of Shakespeare, as obtuse to the scientific problems as to the pathetic poetic fallacy. Religion is the grave, elder daughter of Poetry, and to understand religious questions a man must have the heart of a poet. Science, too, is the daughter of Poetry; indeed, her youngest born; while calmer and colder than her mother, she has the same far-away, rapt look into the heaven of heavens; and her teaching is for poetic hearts also, not for those who confound her with her sordid and hard-working handmaid, Invention. Science ranges the universe, touches the farthest suns, reaches the farthest cloud confines, and cries honestly and loudly, ‘Thus far—no farther— here I pause;’ and then even she begins to dream. Invention squats on the ground, sets her little water- wheel, lights her little lamp, pieces her mechanical puzzles, does homely work, delightful and useful to everybody. But Invention-worship is fetish-worship, and Colonel Ingersoll is a fetish-worshipper—that is to say, an individual exactly at the savage state where neither religion nor science begins.

     ‘The last word of science,’ said George Henry Lewes to Buchanan on one occasion, when the latter had asked if that ‘last word’ would be one of negation and despair, ‘will not be spoken for many a century yet. Who can guess what it will be?’ Meanwhile, and pending that far-off consummation, the wise man who gives himself time to think will arrive at the comforting conclusion that, no more than Science and Imagination, can Science and Religion be truly inimical. Science is no horrible Djinn, solidified from the smoke of our nineteenth-century retorts, like the imprisoned demon of the ‘Arabian Nights’ from the vapour of his bottle. It is coeval with humanity, and therefore coeval with Religion itself. Some Religion Man must always have had, 35 there is no race so low in the scale as to have none at all. Some Science Man must always have possessed—how otherwise should he have lived at all? Religion is eternal—the holocaust of creeds leaves her untouched, nay, it has imparted to her new strength and vitality, as the lopping away of vegetable parasites quickens the vigour of a forest tree.
     I have already set in juxtaposition the names of the three poets of the Victorian era who are, as I believe, securest of posthumous regard—the names of Tennyson, Browning, and Buchanan—and I have tried at least to adumbrate the reasons which prompt me to that selection. The conditions of the contest for the crown of poetic supremacy have changed from what they were in former times. That crown is awarded no longer to him who is merely the sweetest singer of his generation—otherwise the public vote would place it on the head of Mr. Swinburne. A sweet singer, a poet in the old restricted sense, every candidate who aspires to wear it must needs still—and always—be. But he must be very much beside and beyond that. He must combine, with the purely poetic gift, the gifts of the historian, the sociologist, the philosopher, the theologian, the legislative reformer. He must absorb and render back the desires and aspirations of his generation, and indicate the road that it must walk in its progress towards their realisation; his utterance must be not only a sweet sound in men’s ears, but a guiding light unto their feet. And it is because the three poets I have named 36 combined each in his individual person and expressed each in his proper work, the gifts here dwelt upon, that their influence on the minds and lives of men is certain to endure.
     The critical superstition of Macaulay’s earlier days, that Science and Poetry are necessarily antagonistic, had, and still has to many minds, a surface plausibility. The poetic and religious spirits are more nearly akin than the poetic and scientific, and if science necessarily ended in atheism, the Poets would never have had much to say to it. An atheistic poet was, a generation ago, almost a contradiction in terms. The Poet felt with Browning’s ‘Bishop Blougram’:—

What can I gain on the denying side?
Ice makes no conflagration.

There was but one genuine and indubitable English poet who ever went so far as even to mistake himself for an atheist— Shelley. And if the ‘Adonais’is of any authority, Shelley, towards the end of his life, had drifted at least as far as Theism:—

The one remains, the many change and pass,
God for all time abides, earth’s shadows flee—

and long after Shelley’s time, and even to the present day, the poets who have believed that science had robbed them of God, have proclaimed themselves the most desolate of orphans. The melancholy end of Alfred de Musset was as clearly traceable to the assumed impossibility of religious belief as to any 37 one of the more frequently cited causes. His pages are full of laments for the lost Fatherhood, and he attacked Voltaire with a virulence rarely lavished on any but a contemporary enemy.

Dors-tu content, ô Voltaire, et ton hideux sourire
     Voltige-t-il encore sur tes os décharnés?
Ton siècle, dit-on, était trop jeune pour te lire—
     Le nôtre doit te plaire, et tes hommes sont nés.
La Mort devait t’attendre avec impatience
     Pendant quatre-vingt ans que tu lui fis ta cour.

And again:

Et que nous reste-t-il, à nous, les déicides?
Pour qui travailliez-vous, démolliseurs stupides,
Lorsque vous disséquiez le Christ sur son autel?

And de Musset’s great and strangely neglected contemporary, Auguste Barbier, was even less polite to Voltaire’s memory, when he called him

         Singe assis sur les décombres—
Marteau encore brulant de démolition.

Baudelaire complained:

Je suis né trop tard dans un siècle trop vieux—

feeling, as a Godless poet of his time must have felt, like a worshipper with his hands full of incense who can find no altar whereon to lay it. Verlaine, in his unregenerate days, ranked himself with as much sadness as pride among

                                       les suprèmes poètes,
Qui vénérons les dieux et qui n’y croyons pas.

38 The crushing sense of the orphaned condition of humanity drove James Thomson to the fallacious comfort of alcohol, and sent him to the grave. It is curious to remember, in this connexion, that Voltaire wrote the wistful and charming quatrain:

On a banni les démons et les fées,
     Le raisonneur tristement s’accrédite:
On court, hélas, après la verité,
     Ah, croyez-moi, l’erreur a son mérite.

     It is even more curious to remember that he penned the lines—

Le passé n’est pour nous qu’un triste souvenir;
Le présent est affreux, s’il n’est point d’avenir,
Si la nuit du tombeau détruit l’être qui pense—

but the lines are his, none the less, and would seem to indicate that ‘the great architect of ruin’ knew moments in which he doubted the sanity and justice of the task he performed with so terrible a completeness. This fear of the destructive tendencies of science—a fear which blinded men of less clear mental insight to its constructive value—is strongly evident in the work of both Browning and Tennyson. Both were ardent students of the most advanced thought of their time, and each, in his fashion, fought in the ranks of religious conservatism.
     It is quite a common thing, even to-day, to hear Browning spoken of as ‘a Christian poet.’ That claim was made, with obvious sincerity, by Richard 39 Hutton in the columns of the Spectator, and quite recently I re-read the article, which has been republished by Hutton’s literary executor in a volume entitled ‘Aspects of Religious and Scientific Thought.’* That claim seems as strange and as wildly untenable as any claim well could be. That the average reader—perhaps even the average reader of Browning— should make or admit it is no great wonder. But that a man of Hutton’s critical capacity should be the victim of such a delusion is curious indeed. Hutton admits that ‘Browning was very jealous of its being supposed that he accepted literally the cut-and-dried formulas of any Christian Church.’ A few lines further on, he continues, ‘In “Saul,” in “Christmas Eve and Easter Day,” in “The Ring and the Book,” and fifty other poems, Browning has endeavoured to depict the very heart of his own faith, and of course he prefers his own mode of indicating that faith to that of the narrow-minded Evangelical preacher, or the technical scholastic theologian, or the cold rationalistic critic. No doubt,’ Hutton goes on, ‘he told Mr. Buchanan that in his (Mr. Buchanan’s) sense of the term, he did not profess to be a Christian; but, as Mrs. Sutherland Orr puts it, we want to know exactly what meaning Mr. Buchanan had put upon the term, before we can attach any great importance to this asserted denial.’
     It is strange, to say the least of it, that Mrs.


     * Messrs. Macmillan (Eversleigh Series).


40 Sutherland Orr should have made such a remark, and stranger still that Hutton should have repeated it. For, if one thing in Buchanan’s theological scheme is more plain and explicit than another, it is the scientific rigidity of his definition of the word ‘Christian.’ Christianity, Buchanan was never tired of repeating, is a number of dogmas, accurately summed up in the Credo taught to children. Do you believe in the Immaculate Conception and in the efficacy of the Atonement? If so, you are a Christian. If not, you may be anything else you choose to call yourself, but a Christian you are not. You may love and admire the character of Christ, you may preach and practise the virtues He extolled, but nothing short of the definite acceptance of the dogmas of the Godhead and the Redemption can qualify you to stand within the Christian  pale.* It was in that plain sense that Browning understood Buchanan’s categorical inquiry, ‘Are you not,


     * Some six or seven years ago, Mr. Richard Le Gallienne gave Buchanan an additional chance of insisting on this hard-and-fast definition by the publication of his book, ‘The Religion of a Literary Man,’ wherein, having carefully ruled himself out of acceptance of any sort of dogma whatsoever, he described himself as ‘essentially a Christian;’ after which feather-headed pronouncement he went off; as Buchanan said, ‘to tipple and flirt in the society of that archmaterialist, Omar Khayyam.’ Mr. Le Gallienne’s claim to stand within the Christian fold provoked the elder poet to the committal of a bit of rollicking verse, which appeared originally in the Star newspaper, and was afterwards incorporated in ‘The Devil’s Sabbath’ (The New Rome).

If I desire to end my days at peace with all theologies,
To win the penny-a-liner’s praise, the Editor’s apologies,
Don’t think I mean to cast aside the Christian’s pure beatitude,
Or cease my vagrant steps to guide with Christian prayer and platitude.
No, I’m a Christian out and out, and claim the kind appellative
Because, however much I doubt, my doubts are simply Relative;
For this is law, and this I teach, tho’ some may think it vanity,
That whatsoever creed men preach, ‘tis Essential Christianity!

In Miracles I don’t believe, or in Man’s Immortality—
The Lord was laughing in his sleeve, save when he taught Morality;
He saw that flesh is only grass, and (though you grieve to learn it) he
Knew that the personal Soul must pass and never reach Eternity.
In short, the essence of his creed was gentle nebulosity
Compounded for a foolish breed who gaped at his verbosity;
And this is law, and this I teach, tho’ you may think it vanity,
That whatsoever creed men preach, ‘tis Essential Christianity!


41 then, a Christian?’ And it was with a full sense of the meaning his reply would bear in Buchanan’s mind that Browning replied—‘thundered’ is Buchanan’s expression—‘No!’ And, in the circumstance that Buchanan, knowing Browning’s work so well as he did, should have felt the need to ask such a question at all; and in that other circumstance, that, with Browning’s reply on record before him, Hutton could still, sincerely (as I have already said), and with any chance of finding agreement with the view, still claim Browning as a Christian poet, lies matter for interesting reflection, as we shall presently perceive.
     Browning wrote much on theological subjects. His early education, his serious cast of mind, the very character of his genius, all tended to make theological speculation interesting to him. Even the most meagre citation of the passages in which he treated of the eternal mysteries and of men’s guesses 42 at their meaning would absorb a quite disproportionate amount of space, and I shall select as my field of quotation those only of his poems which contain the fullest and directest expression of his attitude towards the question of the divine birth and ambassadorship of Christ. Among these, Hutton mentions ‘Saul,’ ‘Christmas Eve and Easter Day,’ and ‘The Ring and the Book.’ Let us examine them.
     ‘Saul’ contains one passage, and only one, which, taken apart from its context and from the entire atmosphere of the poem, can possibly be regarded as an affirmation of the divinity of Christ.

‘Tis the weakness in strength, that I cry for! my flesh, that I seek
In the Godhead! I seek and I find it! O Saul, it shall be
A Face like my face that receives thee; a Man like to me
Thou shalt love, and be loved by, for ever: a Hand like this hand
Shall throw open the gates of new life to thee! See the Christ stand!

     Taken as an isolated statement, nothing could be completer, nothing more splendidly fervent, as a proclamation of the godhead of Christ. But it cannot be so taken. It must be examined as part of a whole, and so examined it ceases to be a confession of personal faith on the part of its writer, and becomes a mere bit of literature. For the utterance is dramatic, and the speaker is not Robert Browning, but David the shepherd minstrel. It is of no more authority as evidence that its author was an Orthodox Christian than Tennyson’s 43 ‘Tithonus’ could be in supporting the thesis that the late Laureate was an Hellenic Pantheist. And precisely the same thing may be said of the passages which were in Hutton’s mind when he spoke of ‘The Ring and the Book.’ They also are purely dramatic, and Browning’s own personal theology finds less expression in the scholarly subtleties of the good Pope Innocent than in the simple, childlike trustfulness of poor Pompilia, praying on her hospital bed for the wretch who murdered her:—

We shall not meet in this world or the next,
But where will God be absent? In His light
Is healing; in His shadow, healing too—
Let Guido touch the shadow, and be healed.

     Before passing on to ‘Christmas Eve and Easter Day,’ let us look for a moment at some other of his theological pronouncements. It has been stated that ‘only a Christian could have written “A Death in the Desert.”’ The only meaning this statement can be taken as bearing is that nobody but a Christian could have felt the fervid love for and belief in Christ which Browning expresses by the lips of the dying John. But in this poem we must again notice that it is dramatic, not lyrical. In the body of the poem it is the voice of the Apostle, in the appended passage it is the voice of Pamphylax the Antiochene. And in that addendum there is a statement, more direct and forceful than any made by John upon the other side, of the difficulty, to a mere human, logical 44 intelligence, of accepting the splendid promises of Christ:—

If Christ, as thou affirmest, be of men
Mere man, the first and best, but nothing more—
Account Him, for reward of what He was,
Now and forever, wretchedest of all.
For see; Himself conceived of life as love,
Conceived of love as what must enter in,
Fill up, make one with His each soul He loved:
Thus much for man’s joy, all men’s joy for Him.
Well, He is gone, thou sayest, to fit reward.
But by this time are many souls set free,
And very many still retained alive:
Nay, should His coming be delayed awhile,
Say, ten years longer (twelve years, some compute)
See if, for every finger of thy hands,
There be not found, that day the world shall end,
Hundreds of souls, each holding by Christ’s word
That He will grow incorporate with each,
With me as Pamphylax, with him as John,
Groom for each bride! Can a mere man do this?
Yet Christ saith, this He lived and died to do.
Call Christ, then, the illimitable God,
Or lost!

     There is a direct, a terrible simplicity in this exposition of doubt which is quite absent from John’s proclamation of belief. That proclamation is subtle, ingenious, eloquent to a high degree—the very perfection of polemics; but in the force of its appeal to human understanding it is no more comparable to the passage I have quoted than is a flight of thistledown to a volley of grapeshot. True, the addendum has itself an addendum, in the words completing the last 45 line of the poem —‘But ‘twas Cerinthus that is lost.’ Yet those few words—even if I am wrong in taking them also as a dramatic utterance added by some later commentator than ‘Pamphylax the Antiochene’—are little to set against the appallingly plain statement of the difficulty of belief. And if they are to be taken as expressing Browning’s personal adherence to Christian dogma, all that can be said is that they form the only definite proclamation of that adherence to be found in the whole range of his poetical work.
     ‘Christmas Eve,’ and, in a less measure, ‘Easter Day,’ are certainly Browning’s most important contributions to theological literature. They owe something of that importance to the fact that they are the longest of his works which treat of theological ideas, and most of it to the other fact that they are personal, not dramatic, utterances. Let us see on which side they testify most strongly. In ‘Christmas Eve,’ the poet is transported in his trance to the lecture room in Gottingen, and listens to the address delivered by ‘the hawk-nosed, high-cheekboned Professor,’ who, after demolishing the divine claims of Christ by a cannonade of Teutonic-scientific criticism, tells his audience that the ‘myth’ thus pulverised still leaves, ‘for residuum,

A man! a right, true man, however,
Whose work was worthy a man’s endeavour;
Work, that gave warrant almost sufficient
     To his disciples, for rather believing
He was just omnipotent and omniscient,
     As it gives to us, for as frankly receiving                                             46
His word, their tradition—which, though it meant
Something entirely different
From all that those who only heard it,
In their simplicity thought and averred it,
Had yet a meaning quite as respectable—

at which point the poet follows his divine Guide out into the darkness, and, as he flies through the air in His wake, muses on the Professor’s lecture. ‘Thus much of Christ does he (the Professor) reject?’ asks Browning—

And what retain? His intellect?
What is it I must reverence duly?
Poor intellect for worship, truly,
Which tells me simply what was told
     (If mere morality, bereft
     Of the God in Christ, be all that’s left)
Elsewhere by voices manifold;
With this advantage, that the stater
     Made nowise the important stumble
     Of adding, he, the sage and humble,
Was also one with the Creator.
You urge Christ’s followers’ simplicity:
     But how does shifting blame evade it?
Have Wisdom’s words no more felicity?
     The stumbling-block, his speech, who made it?
How comes it that, for one found able
To sift the truth of it from fable,
Millions believe it to the letter?
Christ’s goodness, then—does that fare better?
Strange goodness, which, upon the score
     Of being goodness, the mere due
Of man to fellow-man, much more
     To God—should take another view
Of its possessor’s privilege,                                                                  47
And bid him rule his race!

     *          *          *          *          *
The goodness—how did he acquire it?
Was it self-gained, did God inspire it?
Choose which; then tell me, on what ground
Should its possessor dare propound
His claim to rise o’er us an inch?
     Were goodness all some man’s invention,
     Who arbitrarily made mention
What we should follow, and whence flinch—
What qualities might take the style
     Of right and wrong—and had such guessing
     Met with as general acquiescing
As graced the alphabet erewhile,
When A got leave an Ox to be,
No Camel (quoth the Jews) like G,—
For thus inventing thing and title
Worship were that man’s fit requital.
But if the common conscience must
Be ultimately judge, adjust
Its apt name to each quality
Already known—I would decree
Worship for such mere demonstration,
     And simple work of nomenclature,
     Only the day I praised, not Nature,
But Harvey, for the circulation.

     If this passage can be accused of obscurity, it is only of such obscurity as even cultured people who have not made themselves familiar with Browning’s occasional jerkiness of utterance often complain of—the obscurity is merely verbal. That small difficulty conquered, the thought of this passage is as simple, plain, and direct as thought can be. And it is a 48 denunciatory criticism of the claims of Christ, even to the measure of merely human greatness which the Atheistic Professor left to him, to which most other diatribes of the kind in modern literature are mere child’s play. It says, with a plainness which leaves no chance for quibbling, that if Christ were not God, he was little more than nothing; it grudges him even a place among great ethical teachers. ‘Ah, but,’ you can hear the Christian claimant of Browning replying, ‘Browning goes on to reconstruct the Divine Figure. Read the end of the poem.’ You can read the end of the poem. You can read it with a microscope, and there is absolutely no reconstruction of the divinity of Christ to be found in it. It is merely nebulous rhetoric. It is impossible to print here the following and concluding passages, which make some hundreds of lines. Nor is it necessary. The onus of proof lies on the critics who claim Browning as a Christian poet. Let one among them cite, either from ‘Christmas Eve’ or from any other of his utterances, any passage on their side as plain, direct, logical, and indubitable in meaning as those quoted in support of the contrary affirmation.
     In the course of his essay Hutton says, ‘It is as plain as vivid imaginative expressions can make it, that if Browning was not in some very deep and true sense a Christian—a believer even in the divinity of Christ—his language is elaborately adapted rather to conceal and misrepresent his mind than to express it’ — a remark which seems to me a little shallow and lacking in critical insight. There is no need to conclude that 49 Browning was so untrue to his genius and manhood as to palter with us in a double sense on the gravest of all human problems. I am not defending him from that injurious charge from any sentimental belief that a great brain must needs mean great courage and great honesty. On the contrary, it seems to me that what we call ‘great men,’ taken in the lump, have been pretty poor specimens of humanity. The simple explanation of Browning’s ambiguity in his theological utterances is as follows. He was strongly attracted by theological questions, by the Divine Mysteries, and loved to think and write about them. He believed—passionately, whole-heartedly believed—in God, and in God’s personal supervision of the world. About that at least, any shadow of doubt is impossible to any intelligent student of his poetry, and his letters to Elizabeth Barrett testify to it almost on every page. And he would have loved to believe in Christ, to have accepted the Divine Legend in its entirety. But that he could not do, the character of his intelligence, the strain of tough logicality which ran through his mind, forbade it. There was in Browning a dual personality, the poet who longed to believe, the logician who clamoured for absolute demonstration. He had not the heart to attack overtly so beautiful a creed as Christianity, and he could not keep his pen from writing about it. So he found a keen delight in expressing his love for the character of Christ in the form in which it could be expressed most completely—by dramatic utterances put into the mouths of men of 50 absolute and unquestioning faith. Read in the light of that belief, his work contains a pathetic beauty, an adumbration of the great heart-hunger of our orphaned and sorrowful humanity. There is one dramatic utterance of Browning’s in which he did indeed speak his whole heart—the final lines of the ‘Epistle’ of Karshish, the wandering Arab physician, who had met and talked with Lazarus, the living witness of the miraculous power of Christ.

The very God! think, Abib, dost thou think?
So, the All-Great, were the All-loving too—
So, through the thunder comes a human voice
Saying, ‘O heart I made, a heart beats here!
Face, my hands fashioned, see it in myself!
Thou hast no power nor may conceive of mine,
But love I gave thee, with myself to love,
And thou must love me who have died for thee!’

The madman saith He said so; it is strange.

     Karshish, one may say, is the veritable Browning himself, the eager student and close cross-questioner of Nature, hoping that his pryings into natural secrets may one day give him certainty of the existence of some stronger divine sanction than his iron logic will yet permit him to believe in.
     But, though Browning cannot be found ‘guilty’ on the alternative charge which Hutton brought against him—the charge of consciously paltering in his written utterances with what he personally regarded as the gravest of all human problems, there is a minor accusation from which he would have found it difficult 51 to free himself. The fact remains that many of his readers claim him as a Christian poet, and that such a classification was sufficiently plausible to find endorsement by a man of the critical acumen of Hutton. That Browning refrained from writing, in his own proper person, any word which could be accepted as proclaiming the validity of the Christian hope is in itself enough to acquit him of the grievous stigma of having pandered to popular sentiment, or of designedly misleading his readers. But that was not enough. The man who, being asked in private conversation, ‘Are you not a Christian?’ could ‘thunder’ so decisive a negative, should not have permitted his sentimental or æsthetic leanings to make so vital a matter at all questionable in his public utterances. This is a point of cardinal importance. It proves in Browning a lack of that completer moral courage exhibited by his two most prominent rivals in the field of poetical polemics, Tennyson and Buchanan, about whose convictions on kindred topics it would be impossible for any reader of average intelligence to harbour the smallest uncertainty. And it has the further disquieting effect of provoking doubt as to whether ‘the poet of optimism par excellence, as Browning has been called, was thoroughly sincere in his eternal cry of ‘Sursum corda! One cannot but ask oneself if it was indeed possible that a man of the world, ‘an eager man among men’ of whom it was as impossible to predicate ignorance of the actualities of life as lack of intelligence to understand them, should really be so blind to the sin 52 and misery, the filth and failure, the injustice, the brutality, the hydra-headed horror which dominates existence. His optimism was not merely robust, it was at moments positively impertinent. To read Browning in sickness or in great sorrow or physical suffering—

               when the sensuous frame
Is racked by pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame—

would drive a sensitive organization to stark madness. There are moments when the statement ‘God’s in his heaven’ seems questionable to the staunchest believer, as we know it did at moments even to John Henry Newman. And there are frequent moments when ‘All’s right with the world!’ is a gratuitous insult to common sense and common eyesight. Optimism is no doubt a virtue, of sorts, but pushed too far it becomes, not optimism, but insensibility—to use no harsher word.
     Very different was the regard with which Tennyson looked upon the world; far more valuable to heart and brain was the verdict he pronounced on the strange inchoate drama we call ‘Life.’ An optimist to the end, his optimism, less insistent and less loud than the violent asseveration of Browning, ‘All’s love and all’s law,’ brings a more real comfort with it, for we feel that it is based, not on an almost brutal denial of the reality of pain and disappointment, but on a frank recognition of all the phenomena of life. 53 Tennyson’s intellectual courage was far from complete, he was not armed at all points, he made, as we shall see, unjustifiable reservations and claims philosophically inadmissible; but the great grief of his life was, intellectually, life’s greatest boon to him—it forced a naturally reverent and rather timid soul to face and fight ‘the spectres of the mind,’ and to tell his generation, with a beautiful and noble candour, the progress and the issue of the struggle. He was by far the most powerful advocate of revealed religion produced by the nineteenth century, simply because he brought to his task not merely his consummate literary ability, but so large a share of candour to his opponents; so frank a recognition of much that was true in their teaching; so free a confession of the doubts and difficulties which assailed, but could not kill, his faith in the eternal Fatherhood. He realised, as Browning in his own person certainly never did, the thought which Browning so splendidly expresses by the lips of Bishop Blougram:

When the fight begins within himself
A man’s worth something. God stoops o’er his head,
Satan looks up beneath his feet—both tug—
He’s left, himself, i’ the middle: the soul wakes
And grows. Prolong that battle through his life!
Never leave growing till the life to come.

           *           *           *           *           *
The sum of all is—yes, my doubt is great,
My faith’s still greater, then, my faith’s enough.

     All his life long, though he kept his eyes resolutely 54 fixed upon the sunlit mountain summits, Tennyson’s feet trod the thorny ways of the Valley of the Shadow. Granted foreknowledge of his love for Arthur Hallam and the tragic end of that heroic friendship, ‘In Memoriam’ might have been prophesied from the pen which wrote ‘The Two Voices’ and ‘Maud.’

A still small voice spoke unto me—
‘Thou art so full of misery
Were it not better not to be?’

     *           *           *           *           *
A life of nothings, nothing worth,
From that first nothing ere his birth
To that last nothing under earth.

He found an answer to the dull murmur within his heart, but the answer was hardly satisfactory, and the spectre of doubt was never finally laid. It reared its head again in ‘Maud,’ and made of ‘the brave o’er-hanging firmament, fretted with golden fire’ a terrible witness to human insignificance:—

A sad astrology—the boundless plan
That made you tyrants in your iron skies,
Innumerable, pitiless, passionless eyes,
Cold fires, yet with power to burn and brand
His nothingness into man.

And we may be certain that when, many years later, he wrote that terrible poem ‘Despair,’ the utterance was not merely and wholly dramatic, but that, though it probably did not express the mood in which it was 55 actually written, its bitterness was inspired by memories of many hours of torturing personal doubt.

And the suns of the limitless Universe sparkled and shone in the sky,
Flashing with fires as of God; but we know that their light was a lie—
Bright as with deathless hope—but, however they sparkled and shone
The dark little worlds running round them were worlds of woe like our own—
No soul in the heaven above, no soul on the earth below,
A fiery scroll written over with lamentation and woe.

He often felt chilled and homeless in the vastnesses of  Time and Space:—

Many an Æon moulded earth before her highest, Man, was born,
Many an Æon too may pass when earth is manless and forlorn,

and at moments they so crushed him that he breaks out with a cry of angry contempt of himself and the impotent race to which he belongs,

What is it all but the trouble of ants, in the gleam of a million million of suns?

It is impossible not to recognise and admire the courage which goes so far, which does not shrink from posing, squarely and honestly, some of the more powerful reasons for doubt and denial. It is certainly in no carping or malicious spirit that I venture to criticise the faith of such a man, or the processes by which he arrived at that faith. When all possible exceptions and 56 all fair deductions have been made, the bulk of Tennyson’s utterances upon the problems of his century will remain a document of the highest value. He failed to speak the final word—not the final word of a controversy which will probably still be raging when the sun goes out—but the final word which it is within the power of the humblest of us to speak, the final word of individual opinion; because, with that timidity which was one of the few flaws of a conspicuously noble nature, he did not dare to follow his brains, to trust his intelligence in the denial of much which his heart so passionately desired. So deep a student and so reverent a lover of Tennyson as Mr. Masterman is forced to admit so much:—

     Tennyson, in fact, in his treatment of contemporary life around him, directly opposes the principle of Evolution which, in theory, he had accepted. In religious speculation, and in practical affairs, he never did actually launch out into the deep. He always was one of those who hugged the shore, ever directing the prow of his ship towards the illimitable ocean, but ever again seeking shelter under the shadow of the land.*

     Mr. Masterman is so valuable a witness that I shall make no apology for quoting rather freely from his book—the most admirable critical utterance regarding Tennyson with which I am acquainted, and one of the most capable and luminous critical exercises in the language. Here, for instance, is a passage which


     * ‘Tennyson as a Religious Teacher,’ by Charles F. G. Masterman.


57 sheds a penetrating light on much of Tennyson’s philosophy:—

     Tennyson’s first attempts to solve this great problem (the apparent vastness of the Universe and the insignificance of Man) consist of mere affirmation without explanation—affirmation of the reality of self through the reality of love. He deliberately turns away from the immensity of Space, and refuses any longer to contemplate it. I am: I love: this, at least, is certain. . . . . This is the reply of the hero of ‘Maud’ to the maddening thoughts suggested by his ‘sad astrology.’

But now shine on, and what care I,
     Who in this stormy gulf have found a pearl,
The countercharm of space and hollow sky,
And do accept my madness, and would die
     To save from one slight shame one simple girl.

           *           *           *           *           *

     But in this first attempt to encounter the problem the human intellect cannot rest satisfied; it must go forward in an effort to escape from this unsatisfactory dualism, the reality of the macrocosmos without us, the reality of the microcosmos within. The mind incessantly craves for some kind of harmony, and refuses to acquiesce in the discord between these two entities, and so Tennyson was compelled to essay an explanation. He found it in the form of idealism taught by that philosopher who had never wearied of contemplating the sublimity both of the starry heavens without and the moral law within. This was the assertion of the subjective element in space; that space is not a reality outside our own consciousness, but, at least as apprehended by us, a product of this consciousness itself.
     ‘Space is nothing but the form of all phenomena of the external senses,’ says Kant; ‘it is the subjective condition of our sensibility, without which no external intuition is possible 58 for us;’ and again, ‘If we drop our subject, or the subjective form of our senses, all qualities, all relations of objects in Space and Time,  nay, Space and Time themselves, would vanish.’
     The world as we know it, the whole material universe, Tennyson maintains, is but a vision or a picture in our minds and the minds of beings possessing organizations similar to our own. Impressions have rained down upon us from something beyond ourselves; each of us has woven these impressions into a unity, which he terms the Natural World. How different this may be from the real world outside ourselves we cannot at present apprehend; but we can at least emphasise the impossibility of being content with the first naïve view of things, the impossibility of the assertion that this manifestation of consciousness must possess a real tangible existence outside the minds which apprehend it. In this sense it is untrue to affirm that humanity could be removed from the solar system without making any practical difference in the economy of the universe; for if all consciousness were simultaneously to cease, the whole material system would suddenly disappear; ‘the great globe itself and all which it inherit’ would vanish like a dream, leaving ‘not a rack behind.’*

     This indeed seems to me to be a case in which

Physic of metaphysic begs defence,
And metaphysic calls for aid on sense—

and the call is disregarded. There is, of course, no appeal, in the realm of pure reason, from Kant’s. pronouncement. Time and Space must be regarded, for purposes of thought, as mere emanations of the human intelligence, mere abstractions, having no necessary—perhaps no probable—relationship to the


     * ‘Tennyson as a Religious Teacher.’


59 actual scheme of the universe. But to transplant that idea from its native realm, and to attempt to base upon it a plan of daily action, is impossible. For, if Space and Time are merely human ideas, why should we grant the objective existence of those ‘beings possessing organizations similar to our own,’ whose reality Tennyson—and apparently Mr. Masterman —somewhat unphilosophically take for granted? Metaphysically, my fellow men are as merely ‘phenomena’ as the stars in the sky or the figures on the dial, and, so viewed for the purposes of my daily life, can have no possible claim on my consideration. Unless I grant the real, objective existence of my neighbour, and his capacity to suffer as I suffer and to enjoy as I enjoy, where is my moral obligation to take him into account at all? Good metaphysics may be very questionable common sense. Laugh as we may at old Samuel Johnson smiting the table to prove the existence of matter, we must all literally accept his ruling in our daily life. ‘The universe,’ says Mr. Masterman, ‘need no longer affright us through its greatness,’ but I fear he will find few to echo the sentiment, or to discover in his proffered solution any comfort which will survive a moment’s thought. De deux choses, l’une—the entire macrocosm, of which Time and Space are but the vastest features, and which includes Man as it includes them, is real or a dream. One cannot choose portions of such a whole and deny to them an objective reality granted to the rest.
     Mr. Masterman, having exhibited the process by 60 which Tennyson exorcised the disquieting phantom of ‘Vastness,’ proceeds, in the second chapter of his book, to discuss that by which he arrived at the ‘Faith’ which he made it his lifelong task to inculcate in the mind of his generation. Here again it will be well to let Mr. Masterman speak for himself and his great subject.

     We have reduced everything, says Mr. Masterman, to two fundamental propositions, and these appear mutually destructive. On the one hand, that the Universe is fundamentally perfect; on the other, the presence of imperfection: in theological language, the existence of God and the existence of evil. And apparently we can go no further. We can retrace our steps along each line, without finding a flaw in any link of the chain; but placing one proposition against the other, both representing facts, we can see no possibility of subordinating one to the other or of including both in some higher synthesis. If the adoption of imperfection was necessary for the attainment of greater perfection, then God was not originally perfect. If the adoption of imperfection was not necessary, then why does imperfection exist? . . . . And so at length we arrive at a blank outlook, and realise that, with our present limited, imperfect knowledge, intellectual consideration will carry us no farther.
     Tennyson declines to be content with this impossible conclusion. He clearly recognises this knowledge, and the limitation of human intelligence. Yet he will not adopt the ready expedient of shutting his eyes to either set of facts. To take refuge in a a blank atheism would be to neglect the one chain of reasoning. To refuse to acknowledge the evil of the world, and assert a blind optimism, would be to neglect the other. To suspend judgment, and refuse to commit oneself to either alternative, is impossible in a world where action is imperative: every word and deed, every conscious choice of daily 61 life must depend implicitly, if not explicitly, on the decision which is accepted. We are compelled, by the conditions of our existence in a world of change, to act as if we had solved the problem; and the theoretical oscillation, which might be possible in a world of thought, becomes intolerable in a world of free choice between conflicting claims.
     And here, Tennyson asserts, is the true sphere for the operation of faith. Faith furnishes the impulse and predominant motive demanded for action by the bold assertion that, in some manner unknown to us, these contradictory propositions are reconcilable. It emphasises our refusal to shut our eyes to either facts of experience; but it trusts that in some higher unity, the nature of which we cannot even conceive, these two contrary propositions may be harmonised. To every man, to the determined Pyrrhonist or most convinced Sceptic, some measure of faith is necessary for the transition from his metaphysic to his practical philosophy. Recognise that evil possesses real existence, and we can assail it, and battle with it, and pass our lives in conflict with it; but for support in this combat, and for motive in the long day’s struggle, we must also maintain faith in the reality of goodness, and the unity of the world, and the ultimate triumph of righteousness. And although, intellectually, we may have no glimmerings of a possible harmony; yet if we are faithful to our belief we may find other reasons for adhering to it. Doubts will still trouble us, but deep in the human heart there will arise a conviction which no logical argument can destroy, a confident apprehension that ‘all is well.’ *

     Well might Buchanan proclaim the hopeless illogicality of all who ‘seek to trim and tinker the bewildering popular religion.’ We are, says Tennyson


     * ‘Tennyson as a Religious Teacher.’ (The italics are mine.)
     Prose note to ‘The Ballad of Mary the Mother.’


62 —and apparently Mr. Masterman echoes the statement—to evade the sense of personal insignificance provoked by the vastness of the Universe by declaring that part of the phenomena which so affright us is only phenomenal, while admitting the objective reality of the rest. And further, we are to reconcile the eternal paradox of the cruelty or indifference of Nature by taking for granted a ‘possible harmony’ of which, it is confessed, we have not even ‘a glimmering!’ I have read somewhere of one of the old quacksalvers and projectors of the Middle Ages that he made it a sine quâ non with all pupils who committed themselves to his tuition that, for three years, they should study no system but his, and permit no doubt of his teaching to find room in their minds. A royal road to belief indeed, but not one which is likely to commend itself to a generation fed by the thought of Spencer and Huxley. Such a philosophy is impossible of acceptance by the thinking minority who have made up their minds to know, even if the whole sum of knowledge they can arrive at is that they can know nothing. One turns from such a feast of husks, such ‘vacant chaff well meant for   grain,’ to the dish-and-all-swallowing ‘faith’ of Bishop Blougram with a sense of positive relief:—

I hear you recommend, I might at least
Eliminate, decrassify my faith
Since I adopt it, keeping what I must
And leaving what I can—such points as this.
I won’t—that is, I can’t throw one away.
Supposing there’s no truth in what I hold
About the need of trial to men’s faith,                                                    63
Still, when you bid me purify the same
To such a process I discern no end.
Clearing off one excrescence to see two,
There’s ever a next in size, now grown as big
That meets the knife: I cut and cut again!
First cut the Liquefaction, what comes last
But Fichte’s clever cut at God himself?
Experimentalize on sacred things!
I trust nor hand, nor eye, nor heart, nor brain,
To stop betimes; they all get drunk alike.
The first step, I am master not to take.

     Here, at least, something like an intellectual foothold is possible. We may call the man who clings to such a position a moral and intellectual ‘skulker,’ but all the logical cannonading in the world will not dislodge one stone of his fortress. He is neither above nor below logical argument—he is out of its range altogether. Tennyson was nearer, in his theological standpoint, to Bishop Blougram than to the leaders of scientific thought. Mr. Masterman, with a healthy scorn for the mere ‘case-making’ advocacy which will have the object of its adulation right on all points, owns as much:—

     It was the safe rather than the heroic course that Tennyson exalted in the world of thought and of action. In his own speculation he never launched out on the turmoil of modern doubt. He was always crushing his doubts, refusing to let them shake his belief in the older ideal. . . . And the consequence of all this is, that for the more adventurous minds, Tennyson, as a teacher, can never give that full satisfaction which they can derive from those who have journeyed freely, and gone forward 64 wherever they may be led. He is too much prepared to judge success and failure by the mere worldly standard; he cannot see that ‘earth’s failure’ may be necessary for ‘heaven’s success,’ and that it is better to have failed in a great cause than to have contentedly acquiesced in a lower ideal. It is well to remember the lesson insisted on by a great contemporary writer, ‘While in all things that we see or do we are to desire perfection, and to strife for it, we are, nevertheless, not to set the narrow thing, in its narrow accomplishment, above the noble thing, in its mighty progress; not to esteem smooth minuteness above shattered majesty; not to prefer mean victory to honourable defeat, not to lower the level of our aims that we may surely enjoy the complacency of success.’

     This intellectual timidity runs all through Tennyson’s work, bounding his outlook, shortening his hands, cramping the effort of which, had it been backed by an extra grain of mental courage, such a genius as his might have been capable. Let us once more listen to Mr. Masterman:—

     ‘Trim hedges, smooth lawns, butterflies, posies, and nightingales’—a quiet English scenery—is the scenery loved by Tennyson. This is peopled by contented peasants, who bow deferentially to their superiors, a society organized in a hierarchy culminating in the great house. Here dwell a select and cultured few, who discuss mild philosophy, profess a languid enthusiasm for slowly broadening freedom, and, in moments of leisure, thank God for the existence of the narrow seas that protect them from ‘the mad fool- fury of the Seine.’ Such was Tennyson’s ideal of the perfect life. And it was because he lived to see the gradual destruction of this order, and seemed powerless to restrain the incoming tide, that in his latter years his voice so often rose in a melancholy cry of despair. His ideal was benevolence descending, halo- crowned, 65 received with enthusiastic gratitude by those below. ‘Why,’ he asked, as if suddenly discovering some marvellous act of kindness,

       Why should not these great Sirs
Give up their parks some dozen times a year,
To let the people breathe?

     He lived, alas! to see ‘the people’ claiming as their own right that which was to be granted as a gracious favour; the hedges broken down, the motley crowd flooding in on to the pleasant preserves; strange shapes, socialists, democrats, anarchists, each preaching some new creed, which was to create the new heaven and the new earth; the downfall of the older ideal; the stormful birth of the new era. Small wonder, if he turned away in disgust from—

This earth a stage so gloomed with woe,
You all but sicken at the shifting scenes.

     Small wonder indeed that a man of such a temperament should so turn away, but something surely of a pity that the most divinely beautiful of all English singers should have found no message for the downtrodden helots of an effete hierarchy other than that conveyed in the old familiar jingle:—

Always know your proper stations,
Live upon your daily rations,
And bless the Squire and his relations.



Robert Buchanan: A Critical Appreciation And Other Essays by Henry Murray - continued







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


The Critical Response
Harriett Jay


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