OTHER ESSAYS (6)
1. Review of Ballads and Poems. By Members of the Glasgow Ballad Club.
2. W. E. Forster: a Personal Reminiscence
3. Mr. Ruskin and Mr. Froude
4. A Note on Emile Zola
5. The Muses In England
6. Robert Buchanan’s Prefatory Notice to Poems of the Hon. Roden Noel. A selection
7. Robert Buchanan’s Preface to The Truth about the Game Laws by J. Connell
8. An Author’s Struggles: Robert Buchanan’s Autobiography
From The Academy - 12 September, 1885 - No. 697, pp. 160-161.
Ballads and Poems. By Members of the Glasgow Ballad Club. (Blackwood.)
AFTER this, let immortal Paisley, the city of twenty thousand weavers, every one of whom is a poet, yield up the laurel to her smoky sister, Glasgow! Here, in this literary pie of singing blackbirds, is a wonderful sample of what the Glasgow Muse can do. Here are a round dozen full-fledged local poets, with not one callow cheeper among them, forming the daintiest of dishes to set before St. Mungo the King. And these are only a few singers out of an immense musical choir! Well may we exclaim, with the Dominie, “Prodigions!”
Seriously, a quite remarkable little book, edited with great cunning, so as to show the local song-loving circle at its best. There is really no mistake about its literary quality, and though few of the pieces read like inspirations, none of them sink to the level of the poetaster. The writers are, for the most part, “newspaper men.” Stoddart is the editor of the Glasgow Daily Herald, Freeland occupies an important post on the same journal, Canton edits the Weekly Herald, and the other members of the ballad club are, I believe, closely connected with journalism. It is positively refreshing, in these anti-poetical days, to find a nest of toilers amusing itself so innocently under the wings of the merry Muses; touching harmless notes of tenderness and pathos, and quite unaffected by the predominant literary vices of the period. The keynote of the whole business is sounded in William Freeland’s delightful verses on “The Peeseweep Inn,” which narrate how the balladists meet from time to time o’er the moor among the heather, and fleet the time carelessly, with whiskey, oatmeal bannocks, and scraps of song. Freeland is, in fact, the king of the little company. Many of my readers will remember him as the faithful friend who stood by the sick-bed of David Gray. A year or two ago he published his first and only volume of verse, A Birth-Song, and other Poems; a book strong, simple, and true, which met, I fear, with but scant appreciation from the world, yet pleased the leal lover of song with sundry pieces which passed right on into literature. No one can become acquainted with Freeland’s poems without loving the man, and admiring his sweet yet sententious style, in which every word hits the mark, and not a syllable is thrown in for the sake of mere ornamentation. His “Birth-Song” is a lovely piece of work; soft as summer wind and innocent as a naked baby. In several of his contributions to the present volume he is seen at his very best. What can be better in its way, for instance, than this closely wrought bit of “morality,” worthy of Sir Henry Wotton?
“A FALLING BLOW.
“The blow is falling! Let it fall,—
Even death were no calamity:
God wot, why should we whine or call?
It cannot hurt our souls at all,
Since we are free.
“A little less of earthly things,
Less favour of the world have we:
What then, proud man? The rede still rings—
’Tis not the crown that maketh kings,
But being free.
“Then let the blow fall ! What if it
Should lay us prone, both you and me?
O Lord of wings, give us the wit
To soar heaven-high, though low we sit,
Content and free.
“To toil, to suffer, live unknown,—
What matter, if brave men we be?
Why, we can live and make no moan,
And, dying, feel the grave a throne,
And here is a song with a refrain which haunts the memory like soft chimes heard over a green upland dell:
“O blythesomc ring, O winsome ring,
That Willie gied to me,
As down thy glen, dear Monymore,
We wondered to the sea.
For we had come by Drumodune,
The rills o’ Toranree,
That croon amang the green breckan
And the blacberrie.
“And saft and couthie were the words
He coo’d into my ear,
Like wafts o’ heavenly wind that blaw
When nane but love can hear.
And sweet and sweeter grew the kiss
For miles he gied to me,
As we gaed through the green breckan
And the blacberrie.
“Then in the Glen o’ Monymore,
Where the brown waters sing,
He took my hand, and fondly bound
My finger wi’ a ring.
O bonnie ring, O faithfu’ ring,
O ring that trysted me,
As we gaed through the green breckan
And the blacberrie!
“I wear the ring, my Willie’s ring;
It clasps me like his arms;
His heart beats in it warm and sweet,
And keeps my life frae harms.
And still it shines, and sae I ken
That he’ll come hame to me,
And kiss me ’mang the green breckan
And the blacberrie.”
More effluence and verbal facility, more of the tricks of modern style, are to be found in the contributions of William Canton, a young poet whose fine poem, “Through the Ages” (reprinted here), won, some few years ago, an enthusiastic article from the editor of the Examiner. Canton has a larger reach, if a less self-contained manner, than his friend Freeland; he is more conscious of literary form, and more susceptible to meretricious influences; but he is a lively and a vigorous singer for all that, and climbs now and then far higher than any of his compeers. His “Kozma the Smith” is a first-rate performance, at once pathetic and picturesque. I note, moreover, as a sample of this writer’s cunning in workmanship, the pretty verses to “The Robin,” where unrhymed stanzas are so cleverly woven together as quite to disguise at a first reading the fact that rhyme is absent—
“When ice is black upon the pond,
And woods and lanes are choked with snow
The robin flutters in!
The little maids, with wide glad eyes,
Stand spellbound, lest a breath or sign
Shall scare him from his crumbs.
“Oft when the fire is keen with frost,
And blinds are drawn and candles lit—
(O robin, flutter in!)
They sit around the cosie hearth,
And hear with wondering love and awe,
How robin’s breast grew red.
“Fond little maids! each fancies now
That somewhere in the great white snow—
(O robin, flutter in!)
That somewhere, lost in wastes of snow,
An icy cross forsaken stands,
And Christ hangs pale and dead!
“A childish fancy! Be it so,
And let me ever be a child,
With robin fluttering in,
Than grow into the man who sees
In wintry wastes of unbelief
A phantom cross and Christ.”
Strong, simple, and manly are the contributions of Mr. Stoddart; naively quaint and humorous his stanzas about the Devil. He is the author of an anonymous poem published a short while ago, and entitled “The Village Life,” the happy touches of character and frank simplicity in which would have delighted Thomas Aird. Among those who sing habitually in the good broad Doric, David Wingate is pre-eminent; his manner pleasantly recalls Whistle-Binkie, that charming collection of the minor minstrelsy of the Scottish Lowlands; but quite as good as anything of the sort in the present collection is, despite certain verbal infelicities, William Allan’s bright little brooklet of melody, “The Burn.”
Frae the hills;
Owre the linns;
’Mang the whins;
Wi’ a bairnie’s glee.
Fu’ o’ pranks;
’Tween the banks;
Wanton, blythe, an’ free.
On its way;
Bank and brae;
Prood an’ bauld,
In the silent sea.”
Even after my ad captandum quotations, no one will require to be told that the book contains, not merely clever verses, but absolute poetry. As I write, I see that it is described contemptuously in a contemporary (the critical vagaries of which are past praying for) as a collection of poetical essays by Scottish antiquarians! I can imagine how such a description will amuse the genial ballad-singers, when they next gather to compare notes at the Peeseweep Inn; for in truth, the only “antiquarian” quality about their work is its simple manliness, heartiness, and independence of silly and ephemeral modern fashions. The Glasgow ballad-book is an honour to Glasgow, and well worthy of the district which has long been famous as a nesting-place of sweet and kindly singers.
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From The Pall Mall Gazette - 9 April, 1886.
W. E. FORSTER: A PERSONAL REMINISCENCE.
BY MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN.
IT was at Fryston Hall, in Yorkshire, the seat of the late Lord Houghton, that I first met the eminent statesman who is the subject of this slight personal sketch. He was staying there with his wife, when, one wild and windy night, I arrived to join a pleasant party of guests. Through some mistake, I had gone to the wrong railway station, thus missing the carriage which had been sent elsewhere to meet me; and on alighting from the train, I found myself, late in the evening, on a forlorn and desolate roadside, with neither inn nor hostelry near, and no kind of conveyance procurable for love or money. So I had to shoulder my portmanteau, and walk on in the darkness towards the hall, some miles distant. Presently, however, I encountered a light country cart, driven by a couple of small boys, who, after some persuasion, agreed to give me a lift. But it was very late, and the night being pitch dark, the boys were very nervous. After proceeding slowly, with many pauses and consultations, for a considerable distance, they at last informed me that they had lost their way, and begged me to alight and continue my journey on foot. Impatient at their stupidity, I did so, and found myself in black darkness, I knew not where. After divers adventures, with which I need not weary the reader, I at last gained the gates of the park, and, still laden with my portmanteau, struggled in to the hall door—much to the astonishment of my host, who had given me up for the night. I dined alone, and after dinner went into the drawing-room, where one of the first persons to greet me was Mr. Forster, who had already been made acquainted with my adventures, and was ready with many a rough, good-humoured joke at my expense.
A tall unwieldy form, a craggy face and brow, deepset piercing eyes, and a deep, not too musical, voice, were the peculiarities which first struck me in the man who stood squaring his shoulders on the hearthrug, and talking to me like an old friend. Had I not known him well by reputation, I should have taken him for some yeoman farmer or stalwart herdsman of the dales. I found, somewhat to my astonishment, that he knew me in connection with certain journalistic work which I had done, of no importance in itself, but which had attracted his attention as a politician. Before the night was out we talked on many themes—or perhaps I should rather say that he talked and I listened, eager to catch the living utterance of a man whom I had long reverenced for his simplicity of life, his independence, and his noble Christian charity. What struck me at once were his utter freedom from affectation, his bluff, uncompromising honesty, and his grim sense of humour. Although I was so many years his junior, and a mere cipher in a world where he was a leading figure, he spoke to me as some simple and unknown farmer, with strong opinions of his own but becoming modesty, might speak to a chance visitor who was in every respect his equal. A man so eminent, and yet so modest, was a novelty to one who had lived his life among pretentious reputations. My wonder grew greater when I discovered that he was perfectly well acquainted with my own early literary life, and particularly with the pathetic episode of the life and early death of the young Scottish poet, David Gray. A new pleasure awaited me when he introduced me to Mrs. Forster, a lady who had a double title to respect in my eyes, as the daughter of Arnold of Rugby, and as the sister of Arnold the poet.
The next day, Mr. Forster and I, accompanied by Lord Houghton and other gentlemen, rambled through the park and over the home farm. I wish I could more clearly remember our conversation that day, which confirmed me in my admiration for my new acquaintance. One point, however, recurs to me with extreme vividness. We had talked a great deal about Auguste Comte and Positivism, and Mr. Forster, while informing me that he knew Comte only through Harriet Martineau’s translation, expressed his regret that he had little or no facility in reading modern languages. “I would give half I know,” he said, emphatically, “if I could read French and German without difficulty and converse in them fluently,” adding his opinion that these two tongues should form a leading part of every man’s education. In this, as in everything else, he was completely without false pretence—never assuming a knowledge which he did not possess, and curiously categorical in criticising the knowledge of other persons. All that he did know, and it was much, he knew thoroughly and completely; where his knowledge was the least vague, he eagerly confessed it and sought information. From Comte and Positivism, we naturally passed to religion in general; when I found, as I had expected, that this rough- hewn and simple-minded man, a dalesman in appearance and in speech, had a dalesman’s simple faith in the eternal verities which sham philosophy has sought in vain to destroy. I was not the least astonished, afterwards, to find his statesmanship leaning sympathetically, much to the horror of extreme Radicals, in the direction of religious education; and I remembered in this connection that strangely pathetic exclamation of his, chronicled by Harriet Martineau—“I would rather be damned than annihilated!”
The fearless honesty, the unassuming manliness, and the perfect independence of Mr. Forster were born of the same nature which endowed him with such great moral and physical courage. Those who know best are aware how that courage was put to the test when, with his very life in his hand, he went for the second time to Ireland—not, as on the first occasion, to acquaint himself personally with the sorrowful details of a famine, but to legislate as Chief Secretary and feel the pulse of the fever-possessed nation. Again and again he was in imminent danger of assassination; once, at least, only a miracle saved him. Yet, as is well known, he utterly discarded police protection, and went about in calm indifference to the warnings which were showered upon him.
After our first meeting at Fryston Hall, we met again from time to time in London, and frequently corresponded. I had practical proof of his sympathy when, some years afterwards, I was under the painful necessity of prosecuting a literary journal for a series of libels, and upon other occasions. Again and again, when I needed a friend’s advice and a wise man’s guidance, I found both in Mr. Forster. Later on, when he was Chief Secretary for Ireland, he showed an eager interest and sympathy with the books on Irish themes written by my sister-in-law, and particularly in the “Priest’s Blessing;” and one of my latest communications from him was a cordial invitation for us both to visit him at the Secretary’s Lodge in Dublin.
After the splendid but not too glowing tribute just paid to this great and good man in the House of Commons, it is pleasant to remember the terms in which he invariably spoke of Mr. Gladstone. I remember on one occasion, when we were together, expressing my wonder at the sheep-like docility with which certain politicians followed the changes of Mr. Gladstone’s somewhat chameleonic mind. Mr. Forster’s reply was an enthusiastic tribute to the powers of personal magnetism possessed by the leader of the Liberal party. No one, he said, could understand it who had not come within its direct influence, but it filled strong men with the kind of sentiment with which certain magnetic natures imbue women. His own tone towards Mr. Gladstone was one of tender and respectful affection, even when he was compelled to differ from him most, and when at last they fell asunder on Imperial questions, he felt the acutest personal pain. Events must prove very soon, once and for ever whether or not Mr. Forster erred in breaking with his master. For my own part, I believe he did not err; but let it always be remembered that the man who saw no cure for Irish discontent but sharp, swift, and unshrinking justice, was the man who, more than most, was capable of sympathy with the Irish temperament, and who had proved, by practical self-sacrifice, his deep interest in the Irish nation. Mr. Forster, though he was the very soul of human kindness, though he would have parted with his last shilling to assist the suffering, was not a sentimentalist. He had the keen, penetrating vision of a man of the world, of a man of the people. In Lincoln’s place he would have played Lincoln’s part; firm and unyielding to the end in the cause of duty, though tender throughout to the cause of sorrow. His heroic nature rebelled at the infamies done in the name of Irish nationality. He was taken from his post at the very moment when he was most needed: and all the world knows what followed.
The keynote to Mr. Forster’s character was, as I have already suggested, its deep and constitutional natural piety. In every conversation we had together this note ever sounded uppermost; and whether the subject of discussion was politics, or philosophy, or general literature, he always spoke as one with a yeoman’s faith in practical religion. In all the great questions which modern scientific speculation has opened up for us, he took a constant interest. Books attracted him chiefly where they touched on the great mysterious issues of human life and death. Thus, though he was the most practical of politicians, he remained until the last one who breathed an atmosphere far removed from that of “angry politics never at rest.” Gentle, sane, and wise, he looked to a Light higher than the light of human intellect to guide all his thoughts, and to sanction all his acts; and we may be sure that Light shone upon him when, a few days ago, he was gathered to his rest, honoured by men of all parties save one only, and leaving behind him, in the world he brightened, troops of known and unknown friends.
[Note: Buchanan later defended W. E. Forster’s reputation in a letter to The Telegraph of 10th November, 1892).]
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From The Pall Mall Gazette - 15 June, 1886 - p. 6.
MR. RUSKIN AND MR. FROUDE.
BY MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN.
IN the daily journals of last week appeared communications from two elderly gentlemen claiming to speak with authority, and not as the scribes. The Hermit of the English Lakes publishes an epistle addressed by him to somebody who had requested him to subscribe to a fund for the building of a church; and Mr. J. A. Froude, just returned from stumping the Pacific Islands, favours an American correspondent, real or mythical, with his views on the Irish question. Widely different as are the themes and manners of these two gratuitous lucubrations, they resemble each other in one thing—in their air of shabby omniscience, and in their tone of pompous irritation against human nature. Now, both Mr. Ruskin and Mr. Froude have long been known as highly cultivated disciples of the latter-day Timon of Cheyne-row. For Mr. Ruskin’s full-blooded opinions on the fine arts, even the uninstructed have a long and lingering respect, not altogether destroyed by his ghastly opinions on modern science and political economy; while to Mr. J. A. Froude the public owes an even deeper debt of gratitude, since through his zealous and mistaken efforts the gospel of hero-worship according to the printer’s devil has been once and for ever destroyed. But it is right for some person to protest, I think, when in times like these—at a crisis like the present—when good and just men are trying to sow the seeds of benevolence and justice, the public is asked to listen to the preachings of a middle-class Jeremiah and a small literary Ananias. For at least twenty years Mr. Carlyle threw the weight of his influence into the scale of the Tories, only one or two individuals, threadbare Jacobins like myself, daring to proclaim that his gospel was a sham and his prophesy for the most part fatuous and false. He died in the fulness of a false fame, and then we Jacobins were fully avenged, for Mr. Froude edited his autobiography. Meantime, the great tidal wave of public opinion had been slowly swelling. Sane teachers, with no pretension to prophetic function, had arisen. Science had spoken her fiat in the name of outraged human nature. Politicians had discovered, as they are still discovering, that the true political creed is not that of “blood and iron,” or of providential repression from above, but that of large and ever-growing human sympathy, of the rights of the majority, and, above all, of retrospective moral justice. Stern and stubborn truths, founded on scientific verification, had disintegrated the superstitions, religious, moral, social, and literary, which had ruled the world so long. No new Timon arose, for Timonism had been found out to be a fraud. Though a handful of pertinacious pessimists might curse the world with Schopenhauer, it was only in the back slums and alleys of journalism, not out in the clear sunshine of progress where great problems are solved and great deeds are done.
All this being admitted, is it not somewhat sad and pitiful to find our two elderly gentlemen still scolding and posing as if the days of easy prophecy were still with us; to hear one railing aloud at a poor clerical beggar as if such begging affected the order of the universe, and seizing the occasion to exhibit his old-fashioned airs of moral superiority; to hear the other, untaught by the collapse of the idol he worshipped so long, talking from the tripod in the long forgotten manner of his master? Mr. Ruskin is, in spite of his eccentricities, a very good judge of pictures. Mr. Froude is a very amusing historical showman. But neither of these gentlemen has any claim whatever to the title of philosopher; both are old-fashioned and retrograde, both distinguished by a very bad temper. Publication of their views on any subject under the sun is now quite unnecessary; both love an Imperial policy in politics as well as literature, and both hate the proletariat. For many a long year they stood at the back of their master, piping where he thundered, and saying to the ocean of human progress “Thus far, no further;” but the tide rises and rises, and the world is too busy to heed the pigmies gesticulating on the sands.
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From The Pall Mall Gazette - 20 September, 1886.
(Reprinted in A Look Round Literature (London: Ward and Downey, 1887).)
A NOTE ON ÉMILE ZOLA.
BY ROBERT BUCHANAN.
AS one grows older, one wonders less at the proverbial philosophy of contemporary criticism. While the Saturday Review still exists, though toothless and moribund, a journalistic Dogberry proclaiming the watches of the literary night to a generation still unaware of sunrise and of Mr. Spencer, there will always be a class of readers which takes its opinions on faith and eagerly echoes the anathemas pronounced by senile watchmen against “one Deformed” and other disturbers of the public peace. We smile at Dogberry, though it is sad to reflect that never once, from the beginning of his official career, has he done a sane or a generous thing, has he recognized a new thought or a rising reputation, has he ceased to regard all men of genius as malefactors, and all mediocrities as men of genius. Among the great men of our time who are oftenest “run in” by the old-fashioned literary watch, perhaps the most phlegmatic of all is Emile Zola. Despite a chorus of uninstructed abuse he goes doggedly on his way, and even when hauled up before the magistrates he continues to assert his right of private judgment and his complete contempt for critical authority. I confess that I admire this stolid attitude, so different to that of most revolutionaries. I confess that I like to see this sublime contempt for Dogberry and Verges. Poor Thackeray was irritated when told by the watch that he was “no gentleman.” Dickens was actually angry when informed on the same authority that his “Tale of Two Cities” was idle rubbish. Nous avons changé tout cela. We are merely amused when we hear the old cry, “This is your charge: you shall comprehend all vagrom men; you are to bid any man stand, in the Prince’s name.” It is only when men who should be wiser join in the persecution that one’s amusement turns into indignation. For my own part, I am amazed as well as indignant when Mr. R. L. Stevenson, who ought to know better, accuses the author of “Une Page d’Amour” of being possessed by “erotic madness”! Then I smile again, seeing the good Mr. Howells from Boston, gentle apostle of man-millinery, interpose for the defence, and generously affirm that Zola, though a sad offender against good taste, is a severe moralist, and, at the same time, the cleverest Frenchman alive!
The fact is, Zola is to literature what Schopenhauer is to philosophy—the preacher of a creed of utter despair. No living writer has a stronger and purer sense of the beauty of moral goodness; no living man finds so little goodness in the world to awaken his faith or enlarge his hope. But if Zola is “erotic,” then a demonstrator of morbid anatomy is a sensualist, and a human physiologist is a person of unclean proclivities. True enough, he is conscious, even morbidly conscious, of the great part which the god Priapus plays in modern life, more especially in those phases of life which are Parisian. Everywhere he diagnoses disease—
Disease and Anguish walking hand in hand
The downward slope to Death!
Naturally, too, he is a little unhealthy, for the stench of the dissecting-room does not conduce to vigour. But of all men that wield a pen, he is perhaps, the least “erotic.” A little “mad” he may be, for, after all, some of us hold pessimism to be scarcely short of madness. His hatred of sensuality, his loathing of vice in all its forms, amounts to a passion. He finds, with Schopenhauer, that human nature is corrupt to the very core, but he always remembers, with Schopenhauer, that self-sacrifice and spiritual love, where they exist, are infinitely beautiful and noble. To him, the apples of the Hesperides are merest Dead Sea fruit. To him the god Eros is a corpse, smelling of corruption. To him, nevertheless, purity is a fact, —the one grain of salt sprinkled on a putrefying world. As I write, the face of little Jeanne, gazing out of “Une Page d’Amour,” rebukes the lie which brands its creator as infamous and unclean; but even over this divine child bends the Nemesis of Sin, cruel, piteous, and hideous—the same Nemesis that leant over the disease-disfigured countenance of Nana the courtezan, and over the figure of the old woman, paralyzed in her chair, whose son married Thérèse Raquin. “Erotic,” quotha! Spirits of mutual admiration, genial souls of the Savile Club, is this your indictment? Come, Messires Dogberry and Verges, arrest this rogue “Deformed,” and haul him up for judgment; then, when Zola is sentenced to his fourteen days, go and seize Pasteur in his laboratory, suppress Huxley, stifle the physiologist and the philosopher as offenders against public decency, and put Herbert Spencer into the stocks!
Grim moralist and stern physiologist as he is, and as such supremely justified, Zola is nevertheless all wrong. To say that, however, is neither to impute his motives nor to deny his genius. Like all Frenchmen, he is possessed by one overmastering ethical notion, which causes him to sermonize ad nauseam. Even the French Empire, with all its faults, was something more than a subject for morbid anatomy. A man may die of syphilitic caries, yet be a living soul. In reading Zola, great as he is, one has to hold one’s nose; whereas life, real life, smells wholesome, and it is a very phenomenal city whose existence can only be determined by its lupanars and its sewers. Large as is the part which sensualism plays in life, and which it must play as long as the beast’s brain subsists within the man’s, it is merely a minor part after all. To Schopenhauer, the singing of the little birds was only one among many signs of their agony; to Zola, the music even of human love is a discord, ending in despair. Yet only a pessimist believes that the birds are utterly miserable, and that human creatures are completely vile or unhappy. So that, when all is said and done, the charge against Zola amounts to this—that he is a pessimist, and that pessimism is superficially impertinent and fundamentally wrong. As it is.
The subject of Zola’s intellectual weakness is too long to discuss in a mere note, but it may be easily grasped by the reader who will refer to Zola’s own notes on Proudhon. Proudhon is the philosopher who solves great social and literary problems by the power of generalization. Zola is the artist who cannot generalize. “Une œuvre d’art est un coin de la création vu à travers un tempérament,” says the artist; attempting a minor definition which in no way invalidates the philosopher’s larger generalization that temperaments and works of art are the products not merely of individuals, but of the collective temperament of nations and of humanity. Naturally, Zola misconceives Proudhon altogether. Great men, he thinks, are men who permit themselves to possess genius without “consulting humanity,” who say what they have in their “entrails” (sic), and not what lies in the entrails of their “imbecile contemporaries.” But perhaps no great man that ever lived was ever so representative of his contemporaries, “imbecile” or otherwise, as Emile Zola. He is a Frenchman of the Empire, seeing the world à travers the temperaments of all his fellow Frenchmen—not seeing it clearly, not seeing it whole, not seeing anything in it but infinite corruption and infinite despair. “En un mot, je suis diamétralement opposé à Proudhon: il veut que l’art soit le produit de la nation; j’exige qu’il soit le produit de l’individu!” But that Proudhon is right, Zola himself offers the strongest literary demonstration.
Despite all this, Zola is a great man and a great writer, and I am glad to be able to say even these few words in his justification.
[‘A Note on Émile Zola’ was reprinted in Buchanan’s 1887 collection of essays, A Look Round Literature. The only change in the text was Buchanan’s opinion of Zola’s ‘greatness’:
‘In reading Zola, sane as he is’ instead of ‘great as he is’.
‘But perhaps no man that ever lived’ instead of ‘great man’.
‘Zola is an earnest man and a strong writer’ instead of ‘Zola is a great man and a great writer’.]
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From The Argus (Melbourne, Australia) - 1 October, 1892 - p.4.
THE MUSES IN ENGLAND.
POETS, POETRY, AND POETICAL CRITICISM.
BY ROBERT BUCHANAN.
It is now many a long day since Byron’s shrill cry of revolt startled English propriety and ruffled the “piggish virtues” (as Mr. John Morley has christened them) of the Georges. From that time until this present year of grace, when a few amiable gentlemen have gathered together at Horsham to celebrate the centenary of Shelley, Poetry has passed through a period of national neglect, and so forlorn, so discredited has the art become that it often shows signs of dying away altogether. This may appear a startling statement in view of the popularity of writers like Lord Tennyson, and the “vogue” of writers like Robert Browning; but it would be easy to show that neither of these distinguished authors owes any measure of his success to any real love of verse on the part of general readers. The laureate has been appreciated all along for his skill in expressing the social and political sentiments of the middle classes; the late Robert Browning, after many years of absolute neglect, became the idol of a clique or coterie, and was only credited, for a few years before his death, with a serious influence over the life and thought of his generation. In neither case, however, has the pulse of the great public been stirred to any strong enthusiasm—like that which greeted the Phaethon-like flight and fall of Byron as a poet, or like that which followed, step by step, the advance of Walter Scott as a writer of prose romance.
It may be contended, nevertheless, that Poetry, like Providence itself, “moves in most mysterious ways its wonders to fulfil;” that, in other words, Poetry is not to be judged by its broad effects upon the public, but by its subtle influence on individual minds. Doubtless this is the case, and doubtless, also, popularity is the falsest of all tests to apply to the work of any artist or thinker. But it is by examining the kind of reception which a poet does gain that we are enabled to calculate, if not the nature of his gift, at least the variety of his accomplishment.
The career of our poet laureate, from the first appearance of the little green-bound “small octavo” volumes until the poet’s peaceful entry into the House of Lords, has been singularly characteristic. Had any other modern poet accepted a coronet there would have been a general howl of execration, so singularly out-of-place would have seemed the adornment. But, more than any poet of supreme attainment, Lord Tennyson represents English institutions. He sings of the English country, the manor-house and homestead, the park and farm, the village and the village church. If he has ever sounded a strenuous note it has been one of orthodox nationality. His poetry is as beautiful as a Surrey landscape and as elegantly laid out. A great artist in words, a noble thinker, a gentle and sympathetic soul, at peace with all established laws, the author of “In Memoriam” takes his place among those poets of the first order, whose mission it is to crystallise, not to create. If there should ever come a day when the old landmarks of society are swept away before the great wave of socialism, pictures of the old order will still survive in Tennyson’s pages—just as surely as the pastoral life of Greece survives in the idyls of Theocritus.
At Freshwater, in the Isle of Wight, and at Hazlemere, in Surrey, Lord Tennyson has lived the life of a quiet country gentleman, surrounded by those scenes of rural beauty which charm us in his lovely verse. From first to last he has been a recluse, seldom or never going into society, and, when in company, a silent man, quiet, grave, and observant.
Very different was his great contemporary, Robert Browning, a man so keen and alert in all company, so quick and full of knowledge of the world, that few meeting him accidentally would have taken him for a poet. Much of his time had been passed in Italy—a fact which he himself greatly regretted. During the last twenty years of his life, when fame and honour were moving slowly towards him, he was a well-known figure in London society, and no great social “function,” from the opening dinner of the Royal Academy to the closing soirée of the season, was complete without his presence. Calumny described him, therefore, as a worldling, a diner-out, and a hanger-on to the aristocracy, and he was galled at every step by the malice of the minor criticism. Thanks to the labours of a fussy little society, headed by Dr. Furnival, but consisting chiefly of ladies, he secured, just at the last, a certain measure of appreciation, and the writers who had abused him most when living hailed him among the immortals when he died. He was a great and good man, content to take the world as he found it, and a lover of humankind. Of his wife (née Elizabeth Barrett) even more may be said; she was perhaps the greatest woman who ever wrote in verse. Her novel in blank verse, Aurora Leigh, was greeted by Mr. Ruskin as the finest work of the century. To my mind it is only inferior to its prose prototype, Jane Eyre. It is characteristic, however, of the half-hearted interest taken by the public in things poetical that both Mrs. Browning and her masterpiece are already practically forgotten.
Contemporaries of the three great poets I have named were Sir Henry Taylor, the author of “Philip van Artevelde,” and Coventry Patmore, the author of the “Angel in the House.” Sir Henry Taylor enjoyed a highly respectable reputation as a vigorous, if somewhat old-fashioned, writer of dramatic poetry. Mr. Patmore still survives, and some of his shorter poems are remarkable for their pathetic simplicity. One of them, “The Toys,” is among the most beautiful pieces in our language.
About the time when Mr. Ruskin was sounding the praises of the new pre-Raphaelitism in painting, Mr. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Mr. William Morris formed a school of pre-Raphaelitism (so, at least, it was called) in poetry. For a long time this school remained obscure and unknown, but suddenly, in the sixties, it achieved a certain notoriety, chiefly through the accession of a young and remarkable writer, Mr. A. C. Swinburne, whose volume of Poems and Ballads was suppressed by the self-elected custodian of public morals, Mr. Mudie the librarian. For several years the pre-Raphaelite poets enjoyed a large measure of literary attention. Their earnestness, their emphatic sympathy, and their verbal power were unquestionable. In the case of Mr. Swinburne there was added a large measure of political enthusiasm. The public, nevertheless, exhibited only the most languid interest in works which stirred the cliques and delighted the coteries, and at the present moment the pre-Raphaelite school is about as dead a thing as the “spasmodic” school of Sydney Dobell and Alexander Smith. Mr. Swinburne has openly recanted all his heresies, both moral and political, and is living quietly at Putney, near London, contributing elegiac verses to the magazines, and writing long essays on the old dramatists. Mr. Morris, a fine and noble personality, has joined the advance-guard of the army of Socialism, and has given up to mankind the powers which once achieved such fine results in poetry.
Meantime, while Poetry has been dead or moribund, awakening no response whatever in the national thought and conscience, there have been constant epidemics of poetical criticism—indeed, the disease of this generation has been criticism of the most trivial kind. I am quite in accord with the late Mr. Matthew Arnold (a critic by temperament and a poet by strenuous application) in attributing much of our poetical decadence, or at any rate much of the loss of interest in things poetical, to the influence of Shelley. Shelley remains to this hour the god of the criticaster and the darling of the coterie. It is flat heresy to apply to him any other epithet than that of “divine.” Yet his gifts, remarkable as they were, and especially his wonderful lyrical faculty, end where poetry should begin—in verbalism. His verse has the many colours of the kaleidoscope, blended and interblended with marvellous literary cunning, but the effect is often tawdry and seldom satisfying. All his powerful imagination, all his enthusiasm of invention, does not save him from the doom of unreality. He is the poet of fancies, verbal felicities, involutions—a spectral poet, far removed from poets of flesh and blood. And what is often fine and impressive in his manner becomes absolutely tedious in his imitators—a feeble echo, and nothing more. It was a fatal day for English poetry when the noble simplicity of Wordsworth and Coleridge, not to speak of the fearless breadth of Byron, was abandoned in favour of the false methods, the coruscating conceits of the “godlike” Shelley.
While the few readers of English verse have been enjoying themselves chiefly with the feats of verbalista, a great American poet, Walt Whitman, has passed away almost without recognition, and it has been proposed to place a monument to Mr. James Russell Lowell, an American dilettante, in Westminster Abbey. The enthusiasm of the literary class in favour of successful mediocritíes, of writers without one single virtue or prerogative of genius, would appear very wonderful, if we did not pause to remember that the literary class is always the last to understand the meaning of literature. It was the literary class which attempted to suppress Wordsworth, and had not a good word to say for either Keats or Shelley. It was the literary class which persecuted Byron. It was the literary class which, for at least thirty years, interposed between the public and Robert Browning. It is the literary class which, at the present moment, is doing its best to crush the last spark of life out of English poetry.
I have made no attempt whatever in the above remarks to chronicle the names and works of many distinguished living writers who still employ verse as to the medium of expression. Among the most original of these are Mr. George Meredith and the Hon. Roden Noel. Mr. Meredith has written little verse of late years; that little, however, has been marked by extraordinary qualities of thought and style—indeed, 1 know of nothing more beautiful in our language than some of this writer’s nature poetry. It is curious, moreover, to observe that Mr. Meredith, whose prose is so overburthened and overweighted with the insoluted verbalism now so common, has preserved in his verse the huge simplicity of perfect expression. The Hon. Roden Noel stands quite alone as a philosophical poet and a poet of nature. When the work of this generation comes to be summed up and judged on its merits, such pieces as “Thalatta” and “Pan” will be classed among the highest achievements of modern thought and imagination.
That Poetry should intrench itself in verbalism at the very moment when literature en masse is moving more and more towards the realistic representation of life is a fatal misfortune. It is only a crowning illustration, however, of the indifference to poetic methods of the public at large. If Poetry really appealed to the public, if it were understood and relished with anything resembling the interest given to the drama and to prose fiction, if it were not already classed as an exotic art with little influence on humanity, the outlook might be very different. It was the opinion of the late Charles Reade (expressed by him to me again and again) that a “great story” told in “great verse,” if written now, would have the old Homeric charm for thousands of readers; and although Reade’s taste in literature was simple and primitive, there is a possibility that he was right in his opinion. It is certain, at all events, that the popular ideas concerning verse-Poetry may be summed up in the words of the old German tutor who, when questioned by a pupil concerning the meaning of a certain passage, testily replied,—“Meaning? How stupid you are! It has no meaning—it is poetry!”
But Poetry, in its supremest form, is perfect human speech, and in the whole history of literature there is no example of any great poetical work which fails when tried by the canon of simplicity. From Homer to Æschylus, from Virgil to Dante, from Catullus to Burns, from Shakspeare to Milton, from Goethe to Heine, from Wordsworth to Tennyson, all the greatest masters of verse have triumphed exactly m proportion to the fineness of their subject matter, combined with the sancta simplicitas of its expression. To paraphrase the words of our laureate—
“To have the deep poetic thought
Is more than all poetic phrases!”
And here, at last, we touch the quick of the whole matter, so far as the public appreciation of Poetry is concerned. It is because so much of our verse is barren of all intellectual purpose, of all moral enthusiasm, of all deep passion and insight, of all human interest, that it remains neglected and disregarded. It is associated in the public mind, and justly, with artifice and insincerity. Even indifferent poetry, when it condescends to be articulate, finds appreciation. The writings of the American poet Longfellow are a case in point; and in the ease of Lord Tennyson, the public has overlooked a certain excess of ornament in view of the noble thought underlying and interpenetrating every line. Now, in nine writers out of ten, the ornament destroys the thought, instead of vivifying it; the manner is fatal to the matter. A case in point occurs to me as I write. I have recently been reading Ibsen’s Scandinavian poem, Brand, a work in which the subject is not obscured, but disfigured, by a barbarous hop-step-and jump versification, tiresome, trivial, and without variety. Turning to a prose translation in English I find myself interested and even moved, where I fail to be either moved or interested in the original. Freed from a bad and slovenly style, the idea of the poem, even when reduced to simple prose, becomes attractive. Adopt this test and apply it to a really great poem, where expression and idea are in perfect harmony—the “Faust” of Goethe. I first read “Faust” in Mr. Hayward’s admirable prose translation, and I need hardly say how the splendid subject-matter, in its bare nudity, carried mc away. But when I came to read Goethe’s own poem, I realised for the first time why the world had classed it as a masterpiece. The subject-matter was wonderful, but no less wonderful was the form, and this it true, without variation, of all masterpieces.
In a recent article contributed to a leading review, a humorous critic, calculating that the English nation possessed just now some “fifty” living Poets of more or less intellectual magnitude, amused himself by suggesting that this calculation represented a perfect plethora of poetical achievement. Just in the same way have we been reminded lately that so fashionable has novel-writing become, it is rather a distinction not to have written a novel. But the humorous critic in question, when including in his catalogue the names of all men and women who have printed and published verse, might have extended his catalogue indefinitely. To write and publish verses is not to become a Poet any more than to whistle tunes is to become a musician, or to paint on canvas is to become an artist. So far from there being fifty living English Poets, it is doubtful if there are half a dozen; indeed, the men who express great original thought in great metrical language may be counted in any generation on one’s fingers. Yet the art of verse writing is a common pursuit of literary dilettantes, and there are many writers who have, upon occasion written fervid and felicitous verse. Mr. Alfred Austin, Mr. Lewis Morris, Mr. Garnett, Lord de Tabley, Mr. Herman Merivale, Mr. Austin Dobson, Mr. Wilfrid Blunt, Mr. J. A. Symonds, Mr. Cosmo Monkhouse, and others, may be mentioned with praise in this connection.
A careful examination of contemporary verse cannot fail to lead us to the conclusion that 90 per cent. of all so called poems are mere specimens of literary trifling, and that wherever a fine Poet has emerged from the army of verse-writers, it has been by virtue of powers which would have carried him to eminence in any form of literature. A poet, to be worthy of the name at all, must have some original thought to express, some spiritual message to deliver. When the Poet Laureate first began to secure an audience it was by qualities far transcending even his wonderful technical gifts; and the same high moral enthusiasm, the same supremacy of vision, was to be found in the writings of his less popular but equally great contemporary, Robert Browning. Mr. Swinburne won the public ear not merely by his gift of melody, but his strenuous sympathy with great political movements. His songs of Liberty were clarion-notes, long to be remembered. But of late years, thanks to the epidemic of verbalism, thanks to the monstrous assumption that the art of Poetry is the art of manufacturing verses, there has been a positive stagnation of all poetical enthusiasm. A crowning example of the degradation into which the poetic art has sunk may be found, this very moment, in the chorus of praise with which English newspapers have greeted a positive relapse into literary barbarism, as exemplified in two books of verse which have recently appeared.
One of these books is, I believe, written by a Scotchman, the other by an Anglo-Indian. Both are Tories, and (in the worst sense of the word) “Jingoes.” Heavy on the soul of each weighs the dread that Christian sympathy is encroaching, and that men are becoming morally feeble through too much '”sentiment.” Both exhibit the same temperamental omniscience, allied to a sort of middle-aged precocity. Mr. Henley is the editor of a newspaper, the National Observer; Mr. Rudyard Kipling is, as we all know, a literary “infant phenomenon.” Now, I personally should have nothing to say to these gentlemen on literary grounds alone. To deny talent to Mr. Henley, or genius to Mr. Kipling, would be looking a gift horse in the mouth. But it is to their intellectual squalor, their moral littleness, that I beg to direct attention. They are worshippers of the god Jingo, men who fail to see any shame in cowardly and ignoble assaults committed on helpless foreign races, or to realise that Bobadilism, Bounce, and Brag are as contemptible in the nation as in the individual. Even in Mr. Kipling’s admirable sketches of Anglo-life in India there were traces of this savagery. But not until his book of Ballads appeared, simultaneously with Mr. Henley’s Song of the Sword, was the god Jingo really justified of his worshippers. Fierce and stark, strenuous and brutal, brandishing the toy Sword and foaming at the mouth, the poets of latter-day Bobadilism shriek for “gore.” It is not war, but it is terrible!
Ho! then, the sound
Of my voice, the implacable
Angel of Destiny!
I am the Sword!
croaks, in Tory Whitmanese, the awful Mr. Henley.
Ow the loot!
That’s the thing to make the boys get up and shoot!
shrieks, in some fanciful dialect of Tommy Atkins, the sanguinary Mr. Kipling. Of the two, Mr. Henley is perhaps the more self-possessed and decent. There is a cold-blooded self-possession in the midst of his incoherence, which makes us sometimes fancy that he is only playing at brutality. But about Mr. Kipling’s hideous sincerity there can be no doubt whatever. He positively revels m the ferocity of his vocabulary. His “Barrack-room Ballads” are simply as retrograde and as brutal as mad self-conceit, fed on coarse popularity, can make any human utterance. That they present in any true sense a picture of the English soldier, I do not for one moment believe. Tommy Atkins himself would be the first to execrate them. Neither in their manner nor their matter do they do any sort of justice to their theme, coarse and debasing as the theme itself is.
I do not think Mr. W. E. Henley need trouble us very much. His style is too impish for sincerity, and his swagger is only that of the Tory journalist semi-intoxicated with the praise of his fellow-penmen. Mr. Kipling is a bird of another feather. He possesses talents of a high order, which he is sacrificing on the altar of an obscene god, and if he goes on as he has begun he will fall to a far lower limbo than that of literary failure—the limbo of moral disgrace.
A straw, though itself light as air, may show in what quarter the wind blows. Though Mr. Kipling’s ballads have no claim to be called poetry, they represent, in their sudden popularity, the fatal disease infecting and destroying the poetic spirit in England. To Mr. Kipling belongs the proud distinction, if it is a distinction of beginning where most men end—in the basest sort of Toryism. It goes without saying that no writer worthy of the name of Poet could have ever conceived such verses. A Poet stands singing in the vanguard of Progress; only a Versifier can squat whistling among the baggage in the extreme rear. A Poet is not behind his age or generation, but well in advance. The mission of a Poet is to keep fresh and vital all that is most spiritual and ennobling in the troubled life of Man; to sympathise with human sorrow, to denounce evil, to utter the truth fearlessly and beautifully, and to brighten and ameliorise the world. If he fails in this task; if he lends himself, consciously or unconsciously, to any truce with baseness; if he treads back on the footprints of Humanity, instead of pointing and looking forward, he may speak with the tongue of an angel, but his voice is the voice of the beasts of the field. It is because verbalism and affectation have superseded sympathy and enthusiasm; because our literature is losing all love for humanity and all faith in God, that Poetry is, just at present, moribund. The public appear to have utterly forgotten what a Poet is—to believe that he is simply a manufacturer of clever verses, of jingling rhymes, and to have assumed on that account that he is scarcely worthy of serious attention. For this contempt and indifference on the part of readers our modern writers of verse have themselves to blame.
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Robert Buchanan’s Prefatory Notice
to Poems of the Hon. Roden Noel. A selection (London, New York: W. Scott, 1892 - pp. ix-xxiv.)
IT is something, in this age of disillusion, when the Poet is a well-bred gentleman on easy terms of relationship with his publisher and his banker, to have come across one who wears, in good Hellenic fashion, the loose singing robes of Apollo, who sings for singing’s sake, and who is comparatively indifferent to the praise or blame of coterie critics and literary cicerones. Out of the portals of a Temple of white marble, glimmering through the fogs and clouds of contemporary literature, Roden Noel stept like a young god, with a message from the old Greek world which is ever new. The joy of earth was with him, the sunlight of a lost Divinity clung around him, and so light was his footstep that he seemed to walk on air. Even so I saw him approaching, many years ago, and my heart went out to meet him, in the full certainty that he could speak to me of the hidden things of Hellas, of the vanished Wonderland where gods were born. This he surely did, so that for me, as for Sainte-Beuve, Ganymede, Pan, and the Water-nymph lived again. Even then, however, there was something foreign, even uncouth, in his accent and expression, as if he were struggling with the idioms of an alien tongue. He had forgotten his native Greek, in which he could have expressed himself x so perfectly, and was stumbling through the intricacies of our savage English. This was a minor trouble; the greater and supreme trouble came when this young god, or poet of godlike breed, found himself out in the world and confronted with the carven Christs of the altar and the roadside. How could a poet sing the joy of earth with those piteous eyes upon him! How could the lover of the mountains and the sea pass on merrily, singing of youth and godhead, when the spectres of Calvary gathered around him! That he did continue to sing, that he still preserved much of the old swinging movement of human happiness, was little short of miraculous. Many a year has passed since then, and the poet, still living, exhibits both in life and song this striking incongruity,—the happy impulse and fervid animalism of ancient Greece mingled with the doubt, the mystery, the introspection of modern England.
What will first strike a reader unfamiliar with these poems is the point to which I have already alluded,—the frequent inefficacy and barbarity of the expression. If the reader is one who assumes that in verse a spade must be called a spade, or that musical singsong is essential, he will doubtless turn elsewhere, to his own great subsequent loss; but if, on the contrary, he is an idealist, seeking for the very soul of poetry and disdaining all mere tricks of popular patter, he will soon discover in Roden Noel one of those divine messengers whom the gods send now and then to “brighten the sunshine.” Three qualities distinguish this poet from most, if not from all, of his contemporaries:—(1) a subtlety of sensuousness and of sensuous perception only to be found among pre-Christian singers; (2) an ever-present mood of moral exaltation; and (3) a phenomenal power of sympathising with and interpreting the most secret moods of Nature. And first, as to the quality of sensuousness xi and sensuous perception. In the majority of these poems it is tempered and chastened by the Welt-Schmertz of modern thought; but in some, as in Ganymede, it is frankly and fearlessly pagan,—interpenetrated, that is to say, with the joy and glory of mere life, with that sense of living beauty which is primitive and instinctive. Take this passage, opening the poem so loved by Sainte-Beuve, to which I have twice alluded:—
Azure the heaven, with rare a feathery cloud;
Azure the sea, far-scintillating light,
Soft, rich, like velvet yielding to the eye;
Horizons haunted with soft dreamlike sails;
A temple hypæthral open to sweet air
Nigh, on the height, columned with solid flame,
Of flutings and acanthus-work instinct
With lithe green lizards and the shadows sharp
Slant, barring golden floor and inner wall.
A locust-tree condensing all the light
On glossy leaves, and flaky spilling some
Sparkling among cool umbrage underneath;
There magically sobered, mellow, soft,
At unaware beholding gently laid
A youth barelimbed, the loveliest in the world,
Gloatingly falling on his lily side,
Smoothing one rounded arm and dainty hand,
Whereon his head, conscious and conquering,
All chestnut-curled, rests listless and superb;
Near him, and leaning on the chequered bole,
Sits his companions gazing on him fond,
A goat-herd, whose rough hand on bulky knee
Holds a rude hollow reeden pipe of Pan,
Tanned, clad with goatskin, rudely moulded, huge;
While yonder, browsing in the rosemary
And cytisus, you hear a bearded goat,
Hear a fly humming, with a droning bee
In yon wild thyme and in the myrtles low,
That breathe in every feebly-blowing air;
Whose foamy bloom fair Ganymede anon
Plucks with a royal motion and an aim
Towards his comrade’s tolerant fond face. xii
Far off cicada shrills among the pine,
And one may hear low tinkling where a stream
Yonder in planes and willows, from the beam
Of day coy hiding, runs with many a pool,
Where the twain bathe how often in the cool!
The expression is archaic, awkward even, but when we brush aside the mannerism, as one puts aside overhanging branches, what a picture comes before the vision, and what instances of verbal felicity, such as the magical line,
“Horizons haunted with soft dreamlike sails!”
Here, and throughout the poem, the very atmosphere is loaded with Greek sunlight. Then, for supreme sensuousness, take the description of the beautiful boy in the eagle’s grasp:—
“So lightly lovingly those eagle talons
Lock the soft yielding flesh of either flank,
His back so tender, thigh and shoulder pillowed
How warmly, whitely, in the tawny down
Of that imperial eagle amorous!”
We should have to search for a long time, out of Keats, for effects so close akin to those of pictorial Art. But in the inevitable nature of things the golden boy was to be left far behind,* while the poet, haunted still by the beauty of all the gods, full still of the old sunlight of the old landscape, came face to face with the Man of Sorrows who is not yet dumb. I do not know, I have not cared to inquire, to what extent and in what measure Roden Noel accepts the popular religion (to my thinking a poet’s opinions are of little consequence, so long as they do not imply belief in baseness), but it is from popular religion
— * Ganymede is one of the author’s early poems, and I have quoted from the poem as originally published. —
xiii that he derives his second great quality as a poet, that of moral exaltation. No singer of our time is so eager to perceive, so quick to apprehend, the problem of Evil; in poem after poem he shows himself alive, not merely to personal sorrow, but to the pain of Humanity at large; yet no singer of our time, of equal gifts, is so stirred to exalted utterance by a spiritual message. Let it be noted that the poet’s religious mood is as childlike and primitive, as direct and simple, as his former mood of pagan sensuousness. Nowhere in our language is personal sorrow more supremely expressed than in the noble series of poems called with touching tenderness A Little Child’s Monument. This is a book for all loving souls, above all for the bereaven, and I am glad to know that its popularity with the great public has been in proportion to its merits as poetry. It is not only with his own suffering as an individual, however, that the poet has to deal. His personal sorrow is merely a key to the great heart of humanity. Just as surely as he felt the joy and sunlight of the pagan world, does he feel the storm and stress of the post-Christian. The same vivid keenness of perception, of insight, is brought to bear here as there—
“On massy bridge, on broad-built quay,
Tumultuous tides of hurrying wealth
Sweep the marred sons of misery
(Who thrid by sufferance, by stealth,
Their faint way; near the parapet
Cower, dull aware of fume and fret,)
Sweep them to where they may forget!
For riverward wan eyes are bowed;
Beside whom roars the traffic loud,
And the many-nationed crowd.”
Everywhere in the poem from which these lines are quoted, Poor People’s Christmas, there is the same haunting sense of the details of misery, the same xiv picturesqueness of chiaroscuro. And the eyes of the Christ look out upon us from the printed page.
“The poor are Mine, that I may heal!”
says the voice from the Cross. Roden Noel’s so-called spiritual poems have, moreover, one great merit to distinguish them from the latter-day poetry of Christian apology; they are seldom or never rectangular and argumentative, like, e.g., many of the poems of Browning. The poet approaches the truth in the frank, free spirit of the lost paganism, eager to see all, to learn all, to suffer and sympathise with all, and he finds his answer to the problem of Evil in his own heartbeats, by becoming (according to the precept) even as a little child.
But it is when we turn to this writer’s third great quality as a poet, his power of sympathising with and interpreting the most secret moods of Nature, that we realise to what extent and how wonderfully, in his genius, the pagan and the Christian blend. I have no hesitation in saying that no living poet whatsoever equals Roden Noel in wealth and variety, power and profundity, of natural description. It is quite true, of course, that no living poet has attempted so much in this direction. Beautiful transcripts of Nature abound in modern verse,—they are our inheritance from Wordsworth and Byron, and to some extent from Shelley; but seldom or never are they charged with the informing spirit of human passion, and still less seldom do they exhibit vital elemental sympathy as distinguished from merely curious observation. As observers of Nature, Virgil and Tennyson are unsurpassed, but both these fine poets view it as spectators, as artists, rather than as sharers of its elemental joy. With the poet of Thalatta and Suspiria, it is altogether different. What a sea-swing and cadence there is in these mighty lines!
“I bathe and wade in the pools, rich-wrought with flowers of the ocean, xv
Or over the yellow sand run swift to meet the sea,
Dive under the walls of foam, or float on a weariless motion
Of the alive, clear wave, heaving undulant under me!”
The tautological sound and cadence—“heaving undulant under me”—perfectly represent the monotonous movement of ocean-waves, and the newly-coined word “weariless” is curiously felicitous. But it is not by verbal excellence that Mr. Noel’s Nature-poems will win admirers. Some of them, indeed, are far from admirable in style. The poet, wrestling with his vocabulary, tries to express too much of what he feels and knows, and becomes inarticulate from pure emotion. Yet in the main the Nature-poems are wonderful for their knowledge, their insight, and their natural passion. Even when most rugged, they are imposing and “elemental.”
I have just glanced at the three great qualities of the poet who came to me years ago full of youthful enthusiasm and fresh from wanderings in the far East. I was living, in somewhat Bohemian fashion, in a village on the Sussex coast, not far from Hastings; and thither, one summer day, wended the author of Beatrice. We were three in number, a nest of young Radicals, and not much predisposed to one who put “honourable” before his name, and was an aristocrat by birth and education; but before many days had passed the freemasonry of youth and poetry had bound me close to a new friend. It is a far cry to that time now, to the time when we swam together in the tumbling waters of the Channel, wandered in the Sussex lanes, and talked of the old poets and the old gods. I got one of my first lessons in toleration when I first met and talked with the aged Earl of Gainborough, simple, child-like, a Christian, and with that beautiful soul his Countess, a peerless woman and a loving mother. From xvi this good and gracious stock came Roden Noel, fortunate in an inheritance of sane and gentle blood. His early youth had been spent at his father’s seat in Rutlandshire and at the Irish seat of his maternal grandfather, the Earl of Roden. At twenty he went to Cambridge, with a view of studying for the Church, but religious scruples intervened and he never took orders. Soon after taking his degree he spent two long years in the East, visiting Egypt and the Holy Land, Lebanon, Greece, Turkey, and Palmyra, and gathering in the course of many romantic adventures the materials for some of his finest poetry. His marriage took place during this pilgrimage, and was a little romance in itself. Struck down with fever at Beyrout, he was nursed back to life by Madame de Broë, wife of the director of the Ottoman Bank, and he married her eldest daughter Alice shortly after his recovery. That marriage, I think, was the crown of a fortunate life! It has kept this poet calm and happy, in times when most of us are troubled and storm-tossed; and it has given to him the consecration of a faithful and pure domestic love. While others have been fighting with windmills and struggling for bread, peace and rest have dwelt with the young wayfarer from Hellas; and if he has known, as all must know, the acute agonies of human sorrow, if his hearth has been darkened by the wings of the destroying Angel, the issue has still been holy, thanks to the faith that comes to us through Love alone. Often as his thoughts may wander back to Hellas, while the pagan stirs within his blood and he hears from afar the voices of the Dryad and the Naiad, the Satyr and Sylvanus, he has learnt by his own fire the one great modern lesson,—that the god of Humanity has conquered and subdued to his own likeness all the gods of the world that lies beneath his feet.
In making the above remarks I have not attempted to xvii conceal that the writer of the following poems has been for many years my personal friend. I have little or no faith, as my readers possibly know, in the wisdom or the honesty of contemporary criticism, and I am well aware, moreover, that those who roll most logs for their acquaintances will protest most loudly against an Ishmaelite like myself following their example. Yet I am writing after due deliberation, with the full knowledge that I shall be confronted with my own folly if I overstep the mark. As a rule, friends, honest friends, are tricksy critics, presuming on their intimacy with the subject to animadvert most strongly upon shortcomings; but after all, the best critics of literature are those who appreciate it, and my appreciation of the writer under review dates far back behind the time when I first was favoured with his companionship. In reality, the poems of Roden Noel required no introduction, and I need hardly say that any introduction from me would prejudice many readers against the subject. I shall nevertheless, in the present summary preface, as in all my writings to the public, say exactly what I think, without any sort of hesitation or apology.
That Roden Noel will ever become, in any broad sense of the word, a popular poet, I do not for a moment believe. There is little or nothing in his writings to appeal to those who regard a poet as a manufacturer of pretty verses, and their marked mannerism, their composite structure, their often barbaric expression, are certain to awaken polite antagonism. Moreover, they are too intensely speculative, too wistful, and too problem-haunted, for all who, like our Cockneys, measure their masterpieces by rule of thumb. We must cut the fruit right down the middle, right through the rough and husky rind, to get at the heart of this pomegranate! Having done this, and having xviii rejected everything that is merely outward and superficial, we shall find here, what we miss in nearly all contemporary products—the very fruit and essence of original poetry.
Spiritual in the very highest sense are nearly all these poems; a few of them, like Pan and Summer Clouds to a Swan, are perfect in form, while many, though somewhat formless at first sight, have in reality a fine and masterly coherence. If we turn for a moment from them to the writer’s efforts in simple prose, we shall be reminded that he possesses, besides his gifts as a poet, those of a very remarkable speculative philosopher; so clearly is this the case that it is certain he might, had he chosen, have attained high rank as a metaphysician pure and simple. His articles on philosophical themes, and notably his masterly summary of the teachings of Schopenhauer, fully establish this position. No poet of our time surpasses him in extent of reasoning power on abstract subjects. This power, exhibited from time to time in prose, underlies all his poetry,—clouds and troubles it indeed not unfrequently, and makes it difficult reading. Fortunately, he never forgets for long that the crowning beauty of all great verse is absolute directness and simplicity. He never trifles with his art, or blows bubbles for the mere sake of prettiness. A deep and benign purpose, a fine if somewhat fitful inspiration, animates all his work, both the worst and the best. He is, in a word, as every real poet must be, a Thinker, a man whose business it is to help us to fathom the problems of life and thought. Fortunately for himself, all the shafts of modern doubt have failed to penetrate the white armour of his fully reasoned faith. He has passed his forty days in the wilderness of moral despair, only to return secure in insight and certain of his mission, which is to offer the good tidings of Hope to all men. xix He is, in other words, the poet of Christian Thought. Surely a strange sight is here; the young pagan, fresh from the woodlands of Pan, and from the dark, shadowy mountains of modern speculation, flinging himself down on his knees at the foot of the Cross!
If we miss this fact in Roden Noel’s poetry, we shall miss its whole power and purpose. He is a Christian thinker, a Christian singer, or nothing. Not that I conceive for one moment that he accepts the whole impedimenta of Christian orthodoxy,—he is far too much of a pagan still ever to arrive at that. But he believes, as so many of us have sought in vain to believe, in the absolute logic of the Christian message: that logic which is to me a miracle of clear reasoning raised on false premises, and which to others is false premises and false reasoning all through. To me the historical Christ, the Christ of popular teaching, is a Phantom, the Christ-God a very Spectre of the Brocken, cast by the miserable pigmy Man on the cloudland surrounding and environing him. I conceive only the ideal Christ, as an Elder Brother who lived and suffered and died as I have done and must do; and while I love him in so far as he is human and my fellow-creature, I shrink from him in so far as he claims to be Divine. With Roden Noel, as with so many other favoured souls, it is different. Where we can find little comfort and no solution, he finds both. He embraces in full affluence of sympathy and love that ghostly godhead, and credits him with all the mercy, all the knowledge, all the love and power, which we believe to be the common birthright of Humanity,—the accumulation of spiritual ideals from century after century. But where I and those who think with me are at one with Roden Noel is in the absolute moral certainty that, in the estimate of the Supreme Intelligence, what we believe counts for nothing, in so far as it merely represents what we know. xx The atheist and the Christian, the believer and the unbeliever, meet on the same platform of a common beneficence. Faith in Love is all-sufficient, without faith in any supernatural or godlike form of Love.
There is nothing nebulous, however, about Roden Noel’s religious belief. It is clear, direct, and logically reasoned out. He is, moreover, in the highest sense of the word, a spiritualist, as all true poets must be. The pessimism of Schopenhauer and Leopardi is as far away from his sympathy as the gross materialism of Holbach and Zola. Even disease transmutes itself, under his tender gaze, into images of loveliness and hope. At the present epoch of our progress, thinkers of this kind are sadly wanted. The history of our poetry for the last twenty years has been a melancholy record of mere artificiality and verbalism; and in spite of the splendid flashes of power shown by one or two of our prosperous poets, there has been little or no effort to touch the quick of human life. True, the miasmic cloud of Realism, which is darkening and destroying all literature by robbing it of sunshine and fresh air, has not yet reached our poetry; the majority of those who write in verse being neither realists nor idealists—only triflers, who imagine verse to be a schoolboy’s exercise or an idle man’s amusement. Hence the utter neglect of Verse; and the attitude of indifference towards verse-products, shown by the reading public; hence the decadence of original thought, and the preponderance of dilettante criticism. If Poetry is ever to resume again its old prophetic function, and to regain any influence over the lives and thoughts of men, it will be through the help of such writers as Mr. Noel,—men who believe with Novalis that Poetry is the only absolute Reality, the only living Truth, who sound in their verse the highest and solemnest notes of life and thought, and who reject with all their soul the fatal tricks and trivialities xxi of the poetaster, or mocking-bird. Let it be said in this connection that Mr. Noel’s work, however variously it may be estimated by various minds, is absolutely and entirely his own. The thought, the feeling, the style, the merits and the blemishes, are invariably sui generis. No living poet of equal power appears so free from the influence of any school, past or present. This in itself is something, but taking cognisance of the intrinsic value of the utterance, it is much. In these poems we are offered no mild Tennysonian infusion, no decoction of Browning and commonplace, no dilution of Byron’s strong tipple or of Shelley’s etherealised dillwater.
It was right that the task of making the following selection should be assigned to the poet himself; he alone was the judge of what should be submitted, as samples of his quality, to the general public. The result, it appears to me, is a happy one, affording the most occasional reader an opportunity of estimating, as far as lies in his power, the extent and range of the poet’s accomplishment. At the same time, it should be clearly explained that much of the writer’s work is injured, rather than helped, by detachment from its context, since it is by total strength and coherence, rather than by occasional felicity, that such a poet as Mr. Noel should be judged. A Little Child’s Monument, for example, suffers greatly through being represented by detached poems. To be thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated, it must be read in sequence, poem by poem; for although it assumes no continuity in form, it is as homogeneous a production as In Memoriam. From the simplest murmurs of natural hardly-articulate anguish, up to the highest cadence of spiritual utterance, it passes musically on. The keynote of passionate pain and sympathy for all weak created things is struck again and again, as in the following lines of most child-like simplicity:—
“THAT THEY ALL MAY BE ONE.”
Whene’er there comes a little child,
My darling comes with him;
Whene’er I hear a birdie wild
Who sings his merry whim,
Mine sings with him:
If a low strain of music sails
Among melodious hills and dales,
When a white lamb or kitten leaps,
Or star, or vernal flower peeps,
When rainbow dews are pulsing joy,
Or sunny waves, or leaflets toy,
Then he who sleeps
Softly wakes within my heart;
With a kiss from him I start;
He lays his head upon my breast,
Tho’ I may not see my guest,
In all that’s pure and fair and good,
I feel the spring-time of thy blood,
Hear thy whispered accents flow
To lighten woe,
Feel them blend,
Although I fail to comprehend.
And if one woundeth with harsh word,
Or deed, a child, or beast, or bird,
It seems to strike weak Innocence
Through him, who hath for his defence
Thunder of the All-loving Sire,
And mine, to whom He gave the fire.
But from mere pain and sympathy we rise again and again to inspiration, and to insight. It is not until we have read the entire book that we fully understand the varied wisdom and wide catholicity of the writer. Fortunately for purposes of selection, however, Mr. Noel has written few poems of any great length. A Modern Faust is the longest, and even that is in reality a series of poems linked together by an elastic theme, rather than a single poem of one shape and form. If a fault is to be found with the last-named poem, it is a little formless and xxiii inchoate, exhibiting far more lyrical and emotional, than shaping and dramatic, faculty. The House of Ravensburg, with all its moral grandeur, shows conclusively that the poet’s genius is not dramatic. His business is to phrase his own fine thoughts and intuitions, not than to express the moods and passions of other men. His sympathy with humanity is wide and far-reaching, but it is seldom or never specialised in the way of individual characterisation. He is no more a dramatist than Shelley, to whose genius that of Mr. Noel is in many respects closely akin.
My present purpose, however, is not to criticise the works I have enjoyed, but to draw attention to their general importance as contributions to literature. The office of literary cicerone, so eagerly filled by many in those days of ciceroneship, is distasteful to me, and I decline to imitate the performances of the many holders of the office, who glibly pass judgment on the rank of dead and living writers. It is enough, I think, to know that a man is a poet by natural sight and prerogative, without deciding how far he falls short of or excels predecessors or contemporaries. In the republic of Poetry, there is no aristocracy; all the citizens are equal by right of a common gift; and it is only those who have never learned what Poetry is, or what the poetic power and temperament mean, who presume to distinguish impertinently between poet and poet, and to throw around one the purple they deny to the other. That Roden Noel is a poet, no reader of these selections will doubt. That he is a very remarkable and original poet, I personally believe. My personal belief and bias, however, can be nothing whatever to those whose sympathies he may fail to touch, and who may prefer lighter styles and less difficult methods. The only true critic of all good literature is he who understands and enjoys it. With this preamble I must leave the reader to the perusal of the following selections, merely xxiv hoping that he may be able to share my own enjoyment of them. Whatever final judgment he may pass on individual merits, he will be certain to recognise several qualities not too common in English verse,—deep earnestness, ever-present sympathy, and fully reasoned-out faith in the divine destiny of Man.
Back to Essays
Robert Buchanan’s Preface
to The Truth about the Game Laws: a record of cruelty, selfishness, and oppression
by J. Connell (London: William Reeves, 1898.)