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David Gray and other Essays (1868)

The Fleshly School of Poetry (1872)

Master-Spirits (1873)


David Gray and other Essays, chiefly on poetry (1868)


The Atlas (17 February, 1866 - p.5)

     Mr. Strahan announces a rather large list of works in preparation, almost, if not all of them being by authors who have already more than once come before the public under his auspices. Among them may be mentioned, “The Parables of Our Lord,” by Dr. Guthrie; and “The Story of David Gray,” by Robert Buchanan. David Gray and Robert Buchanan were young literary aspirants, who came together to London, under circumstances quite as discouraging as those which accompanied Dr. Johnson, Goldsmith, or even Chatterton. Gray soon succumbed, a martyr to consumption. Buchanan has become the most rising literary man, under thirty years of age, whom we can boast. Already he has sweetly told, in the “Cornhill,” the story of his early associate, and we may expect highly of his more extended effort in a larger canvas. Mr. Strahan further announces a new book of poetry by Professor Plumptre; no less than four distinct republications of poems by Dora Greenwell; a new volume, “Truth in Tales,” by John De Liefde; and “Hymns and Hymn-writers of Germany,” (a most delicious theme,) by W. F. Stevenson, the author of “Praying and Working.”



The Atlas (30 June, 1866 - p.5)

     We are glad to observe that Mr. Strahan promises for next week Mr. Robert Buchanan’s long promised “London Poems.” The same gentleman has also in preparation “The Poet: An Essay, a Criticism, And a Biography,” the central figure of which, we presume, will be David Gray, Mr. Buchanan’s early friend, on whom he wrote a fine prose epithalamium in the “Cornhill.” Second and enlarged editions of this rising (risen, rather) poet’s “Undertones,” and “Idyls and Legends of Inverburn,” have also been called for.



The Spectator (8 February, 1868 - p.15-17)



THIS is a most unequal book, containing many fine things and not a few silly things, much beauty, much bumptiousness, and a little twaddle. Mr. Buchanan shows how true a poet he is not only by the remarkable addition to his power, but by the equally remarkable subtraction from his defects, when he passes from prose into poetry. There is occasionally something a little too bold, almost brazen, about his prose style, of which we have never seen a trace in his poetry; there is effort and defiance in it, here and there; there is a tendency to be feeble and trashy about his satire; there is a marked unripeness about much of his thought; there is great bigotry about his criticism; there is a certain jarring and abrupt prominence of his own personality even about some of the passages written in the deepest and purist strain. With all these faults, and they are conspicuous and even glaring enough, the book is one to possess as well as read, not only for the biographical essay on David Gray, an essay of much more than deep interest, of rare power, and a strange, unimpassioned pathos, but also for certain passages of fine original criticism occurring in essays,—thickly sprinkled, we admit, with foreign substances,—on poetry and the religion and aims which modern poets should put before them. The essays which we should like to have seen omitted are “The Student and his Vocation,” the doctrine of which seems to us utterly false;—on “Walt Whitman,” which entirely fails to make plain to any reader even the vestige of a critical reason for the author’s extraordinary admiration of that straining and self-inflated egoist;—and the essay on “Literary Morality,” which contains much truth, but is neither sufficiently original nor discriminating to make it worth preserving. We remarked at the time it first appeared that the attempt to set up a literary morality based upon ‘sincerity of vision’ alone, seemed to us as mistaken as any other attempt to prove that man need take as amulet into any one particular department of life only a bit of his moral nature, and might put off the rest at the threshold, to resume it again on coming back into the world of general action. To this Mr. Buchanan only replies that he disclaimed at the outset of his essay any final system of ethics, and asks, “How is a man’s work to be proved immoral because it honestly clothes his natural instincts in artistic  language?” To which we rejoin that if any man’s natural instincts are below the standard requisite to bring out the full proportions of his subject,—if, for instance, they be such that, like Goethe’s natural instincts as shown in the Elective Affinities, they cloud the natural lights of his subject, and therefore also exclude the natural shadows,—the work is immoral, and will be immoral in its effects, however sincere. If a painter who is so colour-blind as not to be able to distinguish red from green, paints a rich sunset in the woods in spring, he may make a thoroughly sincere picture which is utterly absurd to all who know what he was painting, and thoroughly misleading and dangerous to those in the intermediate stages between colour-blindness and perfect vision. And so, if a great artist very faintly endowed with certain moral perceptions paint a subject demanding the highest moral perceptions of that special kind for its perfect execution, his work must turn out shocking to those who see clearly, and dangerous,—of immoral tendency,—to those (in all probability the great mass of his readers) who share to some extent the artist’s deficiency. How an immoral nature can make its influence moral by mere sincerity, we are at a loss to understand. The best we can say of it is, that such influence will lack the special immorality of insincerity. If Mr. Buchanan replies that he expressly excluded all absolute morality from his definition, we can only rejoin that if so, he excluded everything that was worth discussion, and that we do not know why under these circumstances he did not exclude sincerity also. If he had made his preliminary exclusions clear,—which he did not,—few would have thought his essay a subject for serious study at all.
     But while the essay on “Literary Morality” is only very defective, the essay on “The Student and his Vocation” seems to us, if we have not misunderstood it, to teach very nearly the opposite of the truth. Mr. Buchanan begins by a distinction which has really no substance in it, at least for the purpose for which he uses it, between what he calls “contemporary truth” and “eternal truth.” Contemporary truth is the accepted popular doctrine of the day; eternal truth is the rectification thereof which lonely and meditative learners try to deduce from looking before and after, sounding the depths of ancient and modern thought, and rising above or diving below the mere fever of momentary feeling. Those who thus retire into the lonely observatory to compute for themselves the law of aberration to which their generation is subject, and modify their own creed thereby, Mr. Buchanan fairly calls true Students. After describing in some fine and poetical sentences how even the Student may win the attention of his generation now and then, and at least warn it of its tendency to error, Mr. Buchanan proceeds to lay down that if once the student abandons the sweetness and calm of manner proper to the mountain top, and speaks with the warmth and bitterness of social heat, he has lost all claim to respect as a student, his “disinterestedness,”—his true claim to a hearing,—is gone, and he is in fact swimming like others in the fretful eddies of “contemporary truth,”—or error. As examples of this “contempt for their vocation” as students, he instances Mr. Carlyle, who has descended into the arena to bandy blows with the mob,—and Mr. J. S. Mill, who has exchanged philosophy for buffetings in Parliament on the same level “with the blatant periods of Mr. Bright and the polished pettiness of Mr. Lowe.”

     “We need not go far to seek for an example of a Student who despises his vocation. The last wild utterance of Thomas Carlyle still rings in our ears. This writer began reverently and gained hearers. He read affectionately in books and in nature, wrote nobly, aspired calmly to the contemplation of eternal truth. He secured quiet, and was recognized as a Student. Thus much, however, did not content him; and the first signs of discontent were certain false notes in the voice—German guttural sounds, elaborate word-building, wild mannerism. Clearly hungry for more influence, he wrote privately to a friend that he would begin to ‘prophesy,’ and avowedly with a view to widening his circle of hearers—as if true prophet ever began by perceiving that there was a public, and calculating how such public might be stirred to emotion. He did prophesy. For a time, the crowd listened, till slowly and painfully his interestedness grew upon them. So thoroughly had he begun to despise his vocation, that he no longer took the trouble to utter his prophecies beautifully. So completely did he despise his public, that he deemed the grossest and least-weighed brutalities amply good enough for them. Instead of looking towards eternal truth, he gazed with the vision of a contemporary. How has this ended? The pause he once secured is broken. We merely hear his voice at intervals, and then always in the midst of a roar of voices. He has been whirled down into the crowd, and, though he shriek his loudest, there is no standing still to hear him. . . . . . . Of all our Students, this one [Mr. J. S. Mill] has shown himself, not the most profound, but the most reverent, the most gentle, and the most unassuming. He had the true philosophic calm,—the true rest typical of the eternal. He had no gall. Merciless in argument, he was tender and brotherly to every antagonist. All this was true of Mr. Mill, previous to his entry into Parliament. The Student has since been lost in the politician—the pause difficult to secure—the influence scattered and doubtful. That a thinker so acute and thorough as this should have dreamt it possible to reconcile eternal and contemporary truth—to be a student and a politician at the same time— has been to me one of those mysteries which are to be classed as insoluble. I have watched Mr. Mill’s career with deep and grateful interest,—and thousands, as well as myself, felt bitter when the Light was put under the bushel of the House of Commons. How is it possible to connect eternal truth with the bigotry and folly which is represented to us by the reports in the daily newspapers,—to think of philosophy in connection with the blatant periods of Mr. Bright and the polished pettiness of Mr. Lowe,—and to associate calm and intellectual repose with the juggling insincerities of each successive Chancellor of the Exchequer? Mr. Mill has really done what is being every day done by inferior men.”

We can scarcely express how false we hold this position to be, both in the abstract and in the individual instances. In the first place, it is not in the least true that tenderness and calm of manner are universal signs of communion with eternal  truth. They may be results of it in individual cases where the temperament is either very cold or very gentle. But the rule undoubtedly has been that those who, after long solitary musing, have grasped most vigorously some teaching which they hold to have been forgotten by their generation, and for want of which they see, as they suppose, that their generation is morally and spiritually perishing, have been driven thereby into language which no earnest man will fail to call disinterested, and which yet he cannot deny to be otherwise than passionate and abrupt. What is Isaiah’s “Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint,” but denunciation of a kind which Mr. Carlyle’s has never surpassed in bitterness. It is true that, as we believe no less than  Mr. Buchanan, Mr. Carlyle’s denunciations start from a mixture of true and false eternal principles, the latter probably predominating,—and Isaiah’s only from true. But we believe Mr. Carlyle to be as “disinterested” as any prophet could possibly be; and while we repudiate most of his teaching with our whole hearts, we do so because we see the astonishing hiatuses in his mind, not because we cannot understand the intensity of conviction with which he really holds what he does hold. Was St. Paul, —nay, was our Lord himself,—so very reticent in denunciation that all passion of moral accusation is to be set down to vulgar and selfish fretfulness? and not rather ascribed to the sublime intensity of natures which cannot but arrest and upbraid with hot words the false soldiers who recoil from the battle, and try to scourge them back with reproaches to their duty? So far from rough and broken utterance being a sign that the student has held no communion with eternal truth, we should hold it the truest sign that he has, that is, is the special sphere of his study has been, as in the case of every true prophet, rather divine life than divine thought. Again, Mr. Buchanan’s notion that the regions of eternal and contemporary truth should be parcelled out to different men, seems to us one of the worst of all recipes for the degradation of society. If thinkers who have devoted their youth to the solitary meditation of the highest problems are not to devote their maturity to their practical application to the ills of society, all political and social movements must be given up to the management of quacks or fanatics who have never meditated how best to reconcile absolute principles with the exigencies of mortal life. We, for our parts, doubt whether Mr. J. S. Mill has brought even one “eternal” truth to the succour of this perplexed generation. But the one great thing he has done, has been to set the example of reconciling the long meditated truths of theoretic contemplation with the difficult life of hasty political emergency. The one indictment Mr. Buchanan brings against him seems to us his greatest claim on our gratitude. What is the value to be attached to truths which even their discoverer declines to take the responsibility of applying to practical life? And does not such a passage as the following add the sin of bad and flippant taste to the sin of bad and dangerous doctrine?—

     “Deep philosophic repose is the air inhaled on the mountain tops, close to the stars, and must by no means be confounded with vulgar consciousness of calm. A person may step forward in an academic gown, saying: ‘My papa was so skilled in developing the juvenile mind as to produce out of fair materials a novelist at fourteen, a philosopher two years later, and at eighteen an authority on every question under the sun—a wondrous little Salaputium, warranted perfect, and certain never to grow any more. Oh, I am so calm, and so clever! Yet see, how admirably I hide my knowledge; that is calm, that is restraint. I am prepared to settle all questions by means of an insect exterminator, which has never been known to fail.’ But how does the public receive such a person. ‘The Student,’ it replies, ‘evinces restraint and calm, does not talk about them; they are, in fact, merely personal qualities. You fellows grow too quickly and stop too soon, and your calm and restraint are merely the inactivity and torpor consequent on a system of early forcing. You have by no means lived enough to determine living questions, and the best proof of that is the unmanliness of your manner.’ And are the public wrong? Do the scholastic persons show any such real love for their kind, any such ignoring of self, any such telling enthusiasm in great questions, as would soon win the confidence of men and women who live in the world outside the academy? I fear not. They are not Students, nor do they live alone. Brought up in classes, inoculated with the usual stuff very early, they hate solitude hugely. They must think in bodies, or they are miserable.”

Of that passage we might say what Mr. Toots said to “The Chicken,”—that its language is coarse and its meaning is obscure; it is forced banter, and consequently not forcible.
     We have occupied so much space with our grumblings over what strikes us as really poor and mischievous matter, wholly unworthy of Mr. Buchanan’s beautiful and spiritual poetry, that we have not left ourselves adequate room to speak of the beautiful essay on the life of David Gray, which contains an exquisite addition to that fine poet’s too few remains; the powerful, though in style somewhat bumptious and ambitious essay on the true nature of poetry; the fine but mystical essay on the passage in Heine about a world of rewards for earthly virtue,—in which there are, to our ears, one or two jarring discords,—and the striking essay (a little spoiled by its affected title) on Mr. Buchanan’s own poetical  aims, in which he shows himself a fine critic of his own poetry, which he clearly understands and knows well how to justify, and not so good a one of other rival poets, whom he seems to understand less. We should not do justice to these essays without giving some specimens of the fine things they contain. Take this, for instance, as a criticism on Milton:—

     “Take Milton, for example; the peculiarity of Milton as a Seer is the angelic spirituality of his sight, its rejection of all but perfectly noble types for poetic contemplation. It would seem that, from having once walked with angels, he sees even common things in a divine white light. He breathes the thin serene air of the mountain-top. He seems calm and passionless; his heart beats in great glorified throbs, with no tremor; his speech is stately and crystal clear; he is for ever referring man to his Maker; for ever comparing our stature with that of angels. Mark, further, that his spiritual creatures are profoundly intellectual creatures, strangely subtle and lofty reasoners. He holds pure intellect so divine a thing that, in spite of himself, he makes the Devil his hero. ‘The end of man,’ he says in effect, ‘is to contemplate God, and enjoy Him for ever.’ But he says this in a way which is not final; there may be truth beyond Milton’s truth, but one does not belie the other; this blind man saw as with the eye, and spake as with the tongue, of angels.”

“His heart beats in great glorified throbs, with no tremor,”—no description could be more perfect,—but, after all, “a heart beating in great glorified throbs, with no tremor,” conveys a certain impression of pedantry, which no one can read Milton’s prose works without finding confirmed. The music and grandeur of the poetry conceal it. Or take this fine criticism of the pain at the bottom of Greek drama:—

     “It is here that all professed ‘imitations’ of the classics fail. They reproduce the repose so admirably, as in many cases to send the reader to sleep. But we search in vain in them for the representation of the great fires, the burning passions, of the originals. Insensibly, as has been shrewdly remarked, we derive our notions of Greek art from Greek sculpture, and forget that although calm evolution was rendered necessary by the requirements of the great amphitheatre, it was no calm life, no dainty passion, no subdued woe, that was thus evolved. The lineaments of the actor’s mask were fixed, but what sort of expression did each mask wear?—the glazed hopeless stare of Œdipus, the white horror-stricken look of Agamemnon, the stony glitter of the eyes of Clytemnestra, the horridly distorted glare of the Promethean furies, the sick, suffering, and ghastly pale features of Philoctetes. Where was the calm here? The movement of the drama was simple and slow, yet there was no calm in the heart of the actors, each of whom must fit to his mask a monotone— the sneer of Ulysses, the blunted groan of Cassandra, the fierce shriek of Orestes. The passion and power have made these plays immortal; not the slow evolution, the necessity of the early stage. They are full of the lyrical light.”

In the essay on his own poetical aims,—which Mr. Buchanan horribly calls “Tentatives,”—he defends very powerfully his own attempt to spiritualize into poetry the thoughts and feelings of the humblest classes, saying, with what seems to us irresistible force,—

     “Poetic art has been tacitly regarded, like music and painting, as an accomplishment for the refined, and it has suffered immeasurably as an art, from its ridiculous fetters. It has dealt with life in a fragmentary form, and with the least earnest and least picturesque phases of life. Yet the intensity of being (for example) among those who daily face peril, who are never beyond want, who have constant presentiments of danger, who wallow in sin and trouble, ought to bring to the poet, as to the painter, as lofty an inspiration as may be gained from those living in comfort, who make lamentation a luxury and invent futilities to mourn over. The world is full of these voices, and the poet has to set them into perfect speech. But this truth has been little understood, and but partially acted upon. Our earliest English poets had some leanings towards the heroism of fate-stricken men; and Chaucer could dwell on the love of a hind with the same affection as upon the devotion of a knight. The old poet had a wholesome regard for merit unbiassed by accessories; but the broad light he wrote in has suffered a long eclipse.”

It is, indeed, the pressure of life on “fate-stricken” men which brings out the highest elements of poetry; and Mr. Buchanan seems to us very happy in his justification of the method which he has adopted for giving us their true feelings unidealized and yet spiritualized by being stripped of encumbering and distracting accessories. Nor does Mr. Buchanan, in theory at least, claim for humble contemporary life “the only legitimate material of the modern poet.” He especially disclaims this, yet a great deal of his criticism really does assume this. Is it impossible for him to find “fate-stricken” men anywhere but in fustian clothes? If not, how can he be guilty of such a blunder as in saying that “Mr. Arnold no sooner touches the ground of contemporary thought, than all his grace forsakes him, and his utterance becomes the merest  prose.” If ever poetry were truly described as the poetry of ‘fate-stricken men,’ that poetry is Mr. Arnold’s ever-recurring, never exhausted lament over the extinction of faith in the educated classes of modern society. Whether he writes of the English Titan, ‘with deaf ears and labour-dimmed eyes staggering on to his goal,’—

“Bearing on shoulders immense
Atlantëan, the load,
Well nigh not to be borne,
Of the too vast orb of his fate,”

—or whether he likens his own sympathy with the Carthusian friars in the Grande Chartreuse to that of a Greek musing over the obsolete faith symbolized on a Runic stone,

“For both were faiths, and both are gone,”

the burden is ever the same,—“fate-stricken” men yearning for belief, and with eyes opened to see that their yearnings cannot be granted,—

“Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head,
Like these, on earth I wait forlorn;
Their faith, my tears, the world deride,
I come to shed them at their side.”

If that is not the cry of a “fate-stricken” man, what is?
     On the whole, this book, with much of power and beauty and truth in it, has still more, as we hold, of weakness and disproportion and error. The essay on David Gray is its greatest beauty, and the touching passage on the effect of David Gray’s death in opening his old father’s soul to the meaning of poetry is the finest thing in the volume. There is much of light thrown on Mr. Buchanan’s own poems, and fine snatches of criticism on the older poets. There are one or two fine things on theology,—with a certain visible leaning, however, to make Charity the be-all and end-all of the Divine Mind, which seems, to us, to empty the divine love of its awful fires for the impure elements of human life. Finally, there is here and there a jarring self-assertion about the book. All, or almost all, that we dislike in this volume disappears the moment Mr. Buchanan passes into poetry,—which is the best proof how true a poet he is, and how valuable are the materials which this volume contains for supplementing the knowledge which we derive of the poet from his poems.

     * David Gray, and other Essays, chiefly on Poetry. By Robert Buchanan. London: Sampson Low.


[Note: Buchanan wrote two letters to The Spectator in response to this review. They are available in the Letters to the Press section.]



The Athenæum (15 February, 1868 - No. 2103, pp. 244-245)

David Gray, and other Essays, chiefly on Poetry. By Robert Buchanan. (Low & Co.)

OF the several papers in this interesting and thoughtful volume, we first notice that to which the author himself assigns leading importance. The memoir of David Gray here given comprises several of his own letters, and fascinates us by its full and artless revelation of the hopes, the struggles, and the fate of a young man whose poetic genius was obvious to the few qualified judges who knew him. But apart from this charm, the merits of Mr. Buchanan as a biographer are undoubtedly great. His simplicity of manner, his earnestness, his sympathetic perception of all that was most individual in his friend, enable him to tell whatever was to be told in the most pertinent and impressive way; while the ardour of personal affection gives a tender glow to his narrative, which perhaps more rivets us than even its merits in point of art. The fact that the greater part of this pathetic story has already appeared in the pages of a contemporary renders quotation from it unnecessary, especially as other topics in the book have an urgent claim on attention. But the way in which Mr. Buchanan recounts the effect of poor David Gray’s life and career upon his father, a Scottish weaver, evinces a faculty which we have no right to demand even from excellent biographers. The writer shows us how the somewhat over-practical mind of this Scottish craftsman was wrought upon by that imaginative quality in his son’s nature which he affected to despise,—how a glory, felt, though dimly apprehended, visited the father’s mind, and, withdrawn by the lad’s death, left him conscious that something of

The light that never was on sea or land

had vanished from the earth. “We feel very weary now David has gone,” was the cry of the elder Gray, who ere long was gathered to the side of him for whom he mourned. To paint all this as Mr. Buchanan has done, requires that vision of the poet which looks beyond the seemingly inconsistent phases of character to the deeper humanity which explains and reconciles them.
     Of the Essays in the book, the two which will attract most attention are entitled respectively ‘The Poet or Seer’ and ‘On my own Tentatives.’ In the former we have this definition of the poet:—

     “The Poet, briefly described, is he whose existence constitutes a new experience—who sees life newly, assimilates it emotionally, and contrives to utter it musically. His qualities, therefore, are triune. His sight must be individual, his reception of impressions must be emotional, and his utterance must be musical. Deficiency in any one of the three qualities is fatal to his claims for office.”

     Nothing is wanting to make this summary complete except the necessity in the poet for the perception of beauty. Mr. Buchanan probably intended to include this quality in “musical utterance”; and it is plain, both in this and in other essays, that he proceeds on the assumption of its paramount importance.
     The observations on the end of Art and on the morality of Art deserve the most serious consideration. They are sound and weighty protests against a school of thought which has at present too many disciples:—

     “One word, in this place, as to the end of Art—poetic art particularly, and the mistaken ideas concerning that end. That end has been described from time immemorial as ‘pleasure.’ Now, art is doubtless pleasant to the taste. It may be said, further, that art, even when it uses the most painful machinery, when it chronicles human agony and pictures tears and despair, does so in such a way as to cause a certain enjoyment. But the pleasure thus produced is not the aim, but an accompaniment of the aim, proportioned and regulated by qualities existing in materials extracted from life itself. The aim of all life is accompanied by pleasure, includes pleasure, in the highest sense of that word. The specific aim of art, in its definite purity, is spiritualization; and pleasure results from that aim, because the spiritualization of the materials of life renders them, for subtle reasons connected with the soul, more beautifully and deliciously acceptable to the inner consciousness. Even in very low art we find spiritualization of a kind. But pleasure, as mere pleasure, is produced on every side of us by the simplest and least intricate experiences of existence itself. The woe and hopelessness of the popular creed is that it thoroughly separates art from utility. Pleasure, merely as pleasure, is worthless to beings sent down on earth to seek that euphrasy which purges the vision of the inner eye—beings to whom art was given, not a mere musical accompaniment to a dull drama, but as the toucher of the mysterious chords of inquiry which invest that drama with a grand and divine signification. Nor must we confound the purifying spirit of art with didactic sermonizing and direct moral teaching. The spirit who seizes the forms of life, and passes their spiritual equivalents into the minds of men on chords of exquisite sensation, wears no academic gown, writes no formal treatises in verse. The exquisite sensation is a means, and not an end. It is a consequence of the divine system on which she works, and she produces it as much for its own sake as Nature creates a butterfly for the sake of the down on its wings. * * Contemporary critics are fond of affirming that art, so far from having any moral purpose, has nothing to do with morality. This is saying in effect that nature has nothing to do with morality. For art is the spiritual representation, the alter ego, of nature; and nothing that is true in nature is false in art. Astronomy as much as morality, concrete experiences as well as abstract ideas, have their place in nature and in art; they are a part of the whole, which has two lives, the lower and the higher, the real and the artistic. An essentially immoral form, a bestiality, a lie, an insincerity, is an outrage in life; but it has no permanent place in art, because spiritualization is fatal to its very perceptibility. The basest things have their spiritual significance, but their baseness has evaporated when the significance is apparent. The puddle becomes part of the rainbow.”

     These extracts will sufficiently prove both Mr. Buchanan’s high tone of feeling, and his happiness of expression. Taking the word “pleasure” in its usual sense, he is undoubtedly right in disdaining to accept it as the end of Art, however inseparable it may be from the results of Art. In the noblest conception of Imagination it may be that Beauty, Utility and Goodness are identified. In this view, pleasure or beauty may be the end of Art, but only because it is then one with the Lovely and the Perfect. Imagination does not always directly travel towards spiritual objects; but its indirect effect, as when it deals with the beauty of Nature, is always morally to exalt. It is true that the poetic character has frequently offered a complicated problem. The author of ‘Don Juan’ describes a storm, and in his sense of what is externally beautiful and grand he is, like Nature herself, indirectly a Moral Force. The same poet, as it were from a different stratum of his being, gives vent to affected misanthropy or to licentiousness. Just in the degree that he becomes an immoral agent he fails as a poet. Still it should be remembered that a large measure of descriptive power may consist with the lowest kind of theme and impulse. This being borne in mind, it is scarcely too much to say that the Base and the Ugly are synonyms.
     In Mr. Buchanan’s exposition of his principles of Art, in the essay ‘On my own Tentatives,’ it will be observed that the author refers to the ideas upon which he has proceeded, not to the success of his process. He must, therefore, stand acquitted of all objectionable egotism; for the interest which a man exhibits in the Art to which he has devoted his life is the measure of his earnestness rather than of his vanity. The leading idea here asserted is the supreme fitness of modern and national life, even in their homeliest forms, for poetic treatment. Upon this head Mr. Buchanan observes—

     “The mania for false refinement, which distinguishes educated vulgarity, must not blind us to the truth that a large portion of the public, and these highly-intellectual people, are quite incapable of perceiving the poetry existing close to their own thresholds. The little world in which they move is so vulgar and sordid, or so artificial, that the further they escape from its suggestions they feel the freer. What they cannot feel in the office or the drawing-room they try to feel in the garden of Academus. Their daily life, their daily knowledge and duty, is not earnest enough to supply their spiritual needs, and they very naturally conclude that the experience of their neighbours is as mean as theirs. In the ranks of such men we not seldom find the lost Student; but the majority call themselves cultured, as their neighbours call themselves virtuous,—just for want of some other spicier peculiarity to distinguish them from their fellows. Let it be at once conceded that our modern life is complex and irritating, and, at a superficial glance, sadly deficient in picturesqueness. Streets are not beautiful, and this is the age of streets; trade seems selfish and common, and this is the age of trade; railways, educational establishments, poorhouses, debating societies, are not romantic, and this is the age of all these. But if we strip off the hard outer crust of these things, if we pass from the unpicturesqueness of externals to the currents which flow beneath, who then shall say that this life is barren of poetry? Never, I think, did such strange lights and shades glimmer on the soul’s depths, never was suffering more heroic or courage more sublime, never was the reticence of deep emotion woven in so closely with the mystery and the wonder of the world.”

     What is here said is all the more in season, because our best recent poetry seems to have ignored contemporary life altogether. Yet it is doubtless a pregnant truth, that the present time is no jot further from the ideal life which is “a consecration and the poet’s dream,” than the most remote and legendary period. Mr. Buchanan’s testimony in this respect is a valuable addition to that of previous witnesses. But, at the same time, we must guard against the inference that the present is more poetical than the past on account of its actuality. It is as poetical in spite of its actuality, because the action of true ideas and of true emotion overcomes that over-prominence of the accidental features of the time, which is in itself prosaic. If, on the one hand, such accidental features be more obvious in a modern subject than in a remote one, on the other hand there is a greater intensity of feeling to purify them from their dross. Yet while we hold that no man can be a great poet who does not, in a large measure, both reflect and instruct his age, a modern tone of thought and feeling is even more important than modernness of subject.
     Of the remaining essays, the most important are those on ‘The Vocation of the Student,’ on ‘Literary Morality,’ and on ‘A Passage in Heine.’ We are far from assenting to all Mr. Buchanan’s conclusions; while in his reasoning we now and then find a dogmatic tone on questions which have held men of no mean sagacity in doubt. A kindred but more serious error is the levity and contempt with which he occasionally speaks of men whose acknowledged services and whose position with the public should have been their title to respect. But the book, on the whole, is that of an ardent, sincere, and generous thinker, whose views are always suggestive, and whose style has the charms of clearness, vivacity, and poetic fancy.



The Pall Mall Gazette (21 February, 1868 - p.11-12)


THERE are some books which have the peculiarity of unmistakably stamping the men who wrote them, of definitely marking their quality and stuff, of settling once for all the class in which they ought to be placed. This diverting volume is one of them. We may have had our doubts about Mr. Buchanan before. Were his writings those of a man with fair sensibility, generous sympathy, decent power of observation, who might with industry and experience acquire skill enough in his instrument to earn a place among versifiers of the third or fourth rate, or were they the compositions of a sheer poetaster? The question was to some extent open, for the reason that two critics of considerable weight and judgment maintained that Mr. Buchanan’s verse, though marked with the faults of inexperience and inadequate  cultivation, gave promise of the finest things. But for this, there would hardly have been much dispute in the matter. However, one was inclined to give Mr. Buchanan credit for a certain graceful, if sometimes maudlin, tenderness of sentiment—a certain modest, if sometimes overdone, sweetness of mood. And the forms of his composition, if they could not wholly conceal, at least did a good deal to modify, a decidedly unpoetic tendency to twaddle; for in anything that affects the style of lyric poetry everything, twaddle included, must be condensed, and twaddle is not intolerable when it is very short. But these prose fragments, excepting the pathetic memoir of David Gray, where the author knew what he was writing about, show Mr. Buchanan in a very different light. They show that the excess of sugary praise with which he has been treated in one or two quarters has turned into an acid and flatulent humour which will pain nobody so much as the too kindly folk who have hitherto been willing to admire him. That a young writer, especially if he be a writer of verse, should think himself a very great and wonderful being is not particularly strange nor particularly culpable. That Mr. Buchanan should, on the strength of three or four volumes of decently successful poems, write an article upon himself, and parade in a mincing manner before a mirror on one side and the British public on the other, and invite your attention now to this bit of lovely simplicity and truthfulness, and now to that bit of lurid tragedy in his own compositions, that he should publicly “congratulate” himself on having attempted to touch the poetry of humanity, and declare with all the éclat of Latin quotation that he will try a road by which he may rise from the ground “victorque virûm volitaire per ora”—all this may show that Mr. Buchanan is very vain, but with this private fact about him the general reader is not much concerned. We may, indeed, wish that the tremendous importance of the theme of his “own tentatives,” as he calls them, had inspired him with a rather less flabby and weedy kind of prose style; it is amusing enough to hear Mr. Buchanan harangue upon Mr. Buchanan, only why such weak talk about a true poem having “a body and soul that reach down to the heart’s beatings and up to the very heaven of mysteries; it is virtually inexhaustible—large, typical, human”? We remember once seeing an elaborate puff of a big French hotel, in which the writer wound up, like Mr. Buchanan, by declaring, in the noble French manner, that his hotel was large, typical, human! This sort of stuff is the most certain sign of hopeless poverty of thought; and as for such phrases as a poet “catching the throb of the great heart of modern time,” they are never used by anybody who believes that words ought to represent clear ideas. How does one catch throbs, and what do you mean by the throb of the heart of a time? We fancied that this was left for “Books of Beauty” or stump orators. The only thing that can be said for Mr. Buchanan when he is impressive is that he is better then than when he is sprightly. What poorer thing was ever said of La Fontaine than that “We hear his wit tinkling against his subject, like ice tapping on the side of a beaker of champagne”? What does he mean when he says that “there was no finicism” in Walter Scott? After this sort of talk, we may endure “Plato’s grand great brow,” abominable as it is, and “the green cheek of the earth,” little as one relishes the figure of a green cheek, and even “the fetid breath of Sappho.”
     However, it is not impossible, though not probable, that a person who writes utterly contemptible prose should write decent poetry. The striking fault of these essays is neither that they are badly written, though they are that too, nor that they show too plainly the conceit of the author. It lies in their intolerably bad spirit. Here is a critic, who, maintaining that he is working at the poetry of humanity and that charity is the virtue most needed nowadays in art and life, yet has not a good word for anybody. A young poet who starts life without a broad and generous love for all poetry in all forms, though not without preferences of his own, is a very poor creature, and will accomplish little, either in the poetry of humanity or in any other sort. Instead of enjoying the good in literary work, Mr. Buchanan is full of sour denunciation and impotent bitterness. Swift is “a strangely little spirit.” Thackeray was not only “a smaller writer and inferior artist” beside Scott, which is a perfectly tenable, if doubtful, opinion, but he works in “a sickening fashion.” Mark the refined delicacy and the comprehensiveness of the criticism. Hood Mr. Buchanan is good enough to admire, but takes care to say that by all the rest of us poor devils his genius has been “totally misunderstood.” With the exception of “a few faint utterances of Wordsworth, all our other religious poetry”—Keble, we suppose, and Miss Rossetti and Dr. Newman—“is conventional and inartistic.” Mr. Mill, it is true, Mr. Buchanan once really took a deep interest in, which it is truly gratifying to learn. “of all our students, this one has shown himself, not the most profound”—of course Mr. Buchanan goes a good deal deeper than Mr. Mill, and therefore knows to a nicety how profound he is—“but the most reverent,” and so forth. But Mr. Mill has done for himself. “To think of philosophy in connection with the blatant periods of Mr. Bright and the polished pettiness of Mr. Lowe!” Mr. Mill’s miserable fall is a sign that the student is losing the fine old reverence for his own vocation; “he would decide great controversies by private authority, instead of calmly throwing the radiance of private sight on the tendencies of his time. Dogmatism and puppyism supervene.” The last discovery va sans dire to anybody with this volume in his hands, but what does the rest mean? Does Mr. Mill try to decide great controversies by his private authority? And as for this calm throwing of private radiance, it is all very well for a young gentleman who sees his way pretty straight to being the poet of humanity, as Anacharsis Clootz was its orator, to be calmly radiant, but he ought at least to be mildly forbearing to poor souls like Mr. Bright and Mr. Lowe, who, though of course they cannot write lovely idyls about costermongers, still do such modest work as they can by repealing corn laws, improving education, and so forth. It will probably occur to most people, in this beautiful talk about calmly throwing your private radiance upon tendencies, that our friend has been reading Mr. Matthew Arnold, has unconsciously pilfered one of Mr. Arnold’s central ideas, and then brought it out of his pocket just a little crumpled and soiled. And we should have thought so too, were it not that Mr. Buchanan despises Mr. Matthew Arnold with a contempt that all but chokes him. “I call Mr. Arnold,” he says, in a politely explanatory letter, “a thin egotist, faintly inflated with intellectuality.” This gracious language is excelled in a passage in the volume itself, where the gentleman who says that, like Virgil, he means “volitare per ora virûm,” warning us against confounding “repose on the mountain tops, close to the stars,” with “vulgar consciousness of calm,” introduces “a person in an academic gown, saying, ‘My papa was so skilled in developing the juvenile mind as to produce out of fair materials a novelist at fourteen, a philosopher two years later, and at eighteen an authority on every question under the sun—a wondrous little Salaputium, warranted perfect, and certain never to grow any more. Oh! I am so calm and so clever. I am prepared to settle all questions by means of an insect exterminator, which has never been known to fail.’” It needs no critic to call the reader’s attention to the elegance of expression, the exquisitely good taste, the terrific and appalling strength of this. The total absence of flippancy and vulgarity and silliness must strike a person of the very meanest critical capacity. Some people, indeed, may hold that for a scribe who calls out that the great need of the world is charity to talk in this manner is not particularly consistent. They may think, too, that nobody with the least elevation of mind or the least power of grateful sympathy would have allowed himself to write thus of the author of “Sohrab and Rustum,” of “Thyrsis” and “The Scholar Gipsy,” of “The Forsaken Merman.”
     Mr. Carlyle is even more utterly despicable in Mr. Buchanan’s eyes than Mr. Arnold. The apostle of charity begins by attributing the meanest of motives to him. At first, he admits, Mr. Carlyle “aspired calmly to the contemplation of eternal truth”—a process we don’t profess to understand as exactly as we could desire, but if the contemplation of eternal truth means an ill-natured and ignorant contempt for intellectual and moral superiors, we are not sorry that Mr. Carlyle abandoned it. But how shall we help regretting that he abandoned it from the paltry desire to be talked about? He was “clearly hungry for more influence.” He was not content with being recognized as a student. So he began to lard his learning, our charitable friend assures us, “with follies and insolences of his own.” People replied to him, in Mr. Buchanan’s calmly radiant language, “The message you bring is a lie. We are convinced that you are a humbug and a ranter.” Let us pause to think how many things there are to admire in this delightful passage. First, there is the naked vigour of phrase—a humbug and a ranter. Second, there is the noble courage of making this broad, unhesitating charge of dishonesty and insincerity against a writer, without supporting it by a jot or tittle of proof or reason. Third, consider how graceful and becoming it is in a young and comparatively obscure writer to bring such a charge, expressed in such peculiarly unexceptionable phrase as humbug and ranter, against a veteran who has borne the heat and toil of the day, who, in spite of many extravagances, has done so much for history, for literature, for poetry, and whom some of the most eminent of those who differ from him at all practical points yet admit to have done more to stimulate his generation than any other living person. Why, there is more “spiritualization,” if we must use our instructor’s jargon, more broad sympathy, more poetry, in the “Essay on Burns” or in a single chapter of the “French Revolution” than in a whole workhouseful of “Nells” and “Megs” and “Lizes” and the other trulls of Mr. Buchanan’s frowsy muse.
     We shall certainly not pay the author the compliment of seriously discussing any of the crudities which he announces as critical principles. It will amuse the “thin egotist, faintly inflated with intellectuality,” and the fallen Mr. Mill, and the polishedly petty Mr. Lowe, and that humbug and ranter Mr. Carlyle, to hear of “the frigid spirit of Athenian inquiry.” The frigid Socrates and the frigid Plato, par example! Not even the faultless quotation in real Greek characters of that tremendously abstruse bit,


shall persuade us that Mr. Buchanan knows anything at all about Athenian inquiry. In another way, what can be more charming than to find De Quincey, certainly one of the most closely analytical minds and polished stylists of the century, jauntily snubbed as “a loose but occasionally felicitous writer”? Literary incompetence, however, is no crime, however gross; and conceit is no crime, however unbearable. But graceless vituperation of the efforts of one’s fellow-workers is the offensive sign of a very poor and sour nature. Mr. Buchanan says in his parting quotation that he too must try a way to raise himself from the ground. Precisely; the sooner the better.

     * “David Gray, and other Essays, chiefly in Poetry.” By Robert Buchanan. (London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marston. 1868.)



The Examiner (29 February, 1868)

     David Gray and other Essays, chiefly on Poetry.  By Robert Buchanan. Sampson Low, Son, and Marston.

     Mr Buchanan here brings together eight essays, of which the longest and best is a memoir of his friend David Gray. David Gray, born in 1838, was the son of a handloom weaver, in the neighbourhood of Glasgow. A clever baby and a clever boy, he was intended by his parents for the Kirk, and with that end received, at Glasgow University, such an education as peasant boys and mechanics’ sons can get only in Scotland. But he had learnt to read out of Chaucer and all the poets down to Wordsworth, and he was fascinated, as Mr Buchanan says, by “the desire to make deathless music,” and he openly declared himself to be “a foster son of Keats, the dreamily divine.” He began to write a Shakespearean play, and before his college work was over had to vex his parents’ hearts by deciding that he must serve God better than by becoming a minister. That he was a poet and a great poet he made no doubt; but how to make the world believe this? “I am so accustomed to compare my own mental progress with that of such men as Shakespeare, and Goethe, and Wordsworth,” he said, “that the dream of my life will not be fulfilled if my fame equal not, at least, that of the latter of these three!” “I tell you,” he also said, “that, if I live, my name and fame shall be second to few of any age, to none of my own. I speak this because I feel power.” In such strains he wrote to friends and strangers;  but neither friends nor strangers would trouble themselves to read a pretty lyric, ‘The Luggie,’ which he had written, and which he believed to afford ample proof of his greatness. He remembered that one before him had found that a prophet was without honour in his own country, and therefore, at the age of twenty-one, he left his Nazareth of Glasgow to make himself heard in London. His ‘Luggie’ was in his carpet-bag, and a score or so of shillings were in his pocket. Those shillings were all his wealth, and, with an unpoet-like resolve to husband them, he made his bed for the first night in Hyde Park. Thereby he caught a cold which issued in consumption, and killed him in nineteen months. Before a day was over, too, a chill fell on his hopes and his ambition. “What brought me here?” he said, in one of his doleful letters. “God knows, for I don’t.” He bethought himself, thinking perhaps of the fable about Shakespeare and the horses, of trying for a place as a supernumerary in one of the playhouses. He introduced himself, however, to Mr Monckton Milnes, now Lord Houghton. Mr Milnes treated him kindly, asked Thackeray to insert ‘The Luggie’ in the Cornhill—but without success—and did as much else for him as he could.
     Lord Houghton briefly and vividly describes his intercourse with the young poet in London. He had written to Gray strongly urging him not to make the hazardous experiment of a literary life, but to aim after a professional independence. “A few weeks afterwards,” he writes, “I was told that a young man wished to see me, and when he came into the room I at once saw that it could be no other than the young Scotch poet. It was a light, well-built, but somewhat stooping figure, with a countenance that at once brought strongly to my recollection a cast of the face of Shelley in his youth, which I had seen at Mr Leigh Hunt’s. There was the same full brow, out-looking eyes, and sensitive, melancholy mouth. He told me at once that he had come to London in consequence of my letter, as from the tone of it he was sure I should befriend him. I was dismayed at this unexpected result of my advice, and could do no more than press him to return home as soon as possible. I painted as darkly as I could the chances and difficulties of a literary struggle in the crowded competition of this great city, and how strong a swimmer it required to be not to sink in such a sea of tumultuous life. ‘No, he would not return.’ I determined in my own mind that he should do so before I myself left town for the country, but at the same time I believed that he might derive advantage from a short personal experience of hard realities. He had confidence in his own powers, a simple certainty of his own worth, which I saw would keep him in good heart and preserve him from base temptations. He refused to take money, saying he had enough to go on with; but I gave him some light literary work, for which he was very grateful. When he came to me again I went over some of his verse with him, and I shall not forget the passionate gratification he showed when I told him that, in my judgment, he was an undeniable poet. After this admission he was ready to submit to my criticism or correction, though he was sadly depressed at the rejection of one of his poems, over which he had evidently spent much labour and care, by the editor of a distinguished popular periodical, to whom I had sent it with a hearty recommendation. His, indeed, was not a spirit to be seriously injured by a temporary disappointment; but when he fell ill so soon afterwards, one had something of the feeling of regret that the notorious review of Keats inspires in connection with the premature loss of the author of ‘Endymion.’ It was only a few weeks after his arrival in London, that the poor boy came to my house apparently under the influence of violent fever. He said he had caught cold in the wet weather, having been insufficiently protected by clothing; but had delayed coming to me for fear of giving me unnecessary trouble. I at once sent him hack to his lodgings, which were sufficiently comfortable, and put him under good medical superintendence. It soon became apparent that pulmonary disease had set in, but there were good hopes of arresting its progress. I visited him often, and every time with increasing interest. He had somehow found out that his lungs were affected, and the image of the destiny of Keats was ever before him.”
     Mr Buchanan, who had left Glasgow for London on the same day, though without meeting Gray for a week, and who knew the ways of the world a little better, helped to keep him from starving. He sought in vain for some literary employment through the summer and autumn. In November he was sent home to his parents; but there it was found that with consumption upon him he could not live many weeks. Therefore a lady’s bounty brought him back to London, there to be an inmate of Brompton Hospital. Instead of that Mr Milnes sent him to Torquay, and thence he wrote home letters like this:

         DEAR PARENTS,
     I am coming home—home-sick. I cannot stay from home any longer. What’s the good of me being so far from home, and sick and ill? I don’t know whether I’ll be able to come back—sleeping none at night—crying out for my mother, and her so far away. O God, I wish I were home never to leave it more! Tell everybody that I’m coming back—no better—worse, worse. What’s about climate—about frost or snow or cold weather when one is at home? I wish I had never left it.    
     But how am I to get back without money, and my expenses for the journey newly paid yesterday? I came here yesterday scarcely able to walk. Oh, how I wish I saw my father’s face— shall I ever see it? I have no money, and I want to get home, home, home! What shall I do, O God? Father, I shall steal to see you again, because I did not use you rightly—my conduct to you all the time I was at home makes me miserable, miserable, miserable! Will you forgive me?—do I ask that? forgiven, forgiven, forgiven! If I can’t get money to pay for my box, I shall leave box and everything behind. I shall try and be at home by Saturday, January 12th. Mind the day— if I am not home—God knows were I shall be. I have come through things that would make your hearts ache for me—things which I shall never tell to anybody but you, and you shall keep them secret as the grave. Get my own little room ready, quick, quick; have it all tidy and clean and cosy against my home-coming. I wish to die there, and nobody shall nurse me, except my own dear mother, ever, ever again, O home, home, home!
     I will try and write again, but mind the day. Perhaps my father will come into Glasgow, if I can tell him beforehand how, when, and where I shall be. I shall try all I can to let him know.
     Mind and tell everybody that I am coming back, because I wish to be back, and cannot stay away. Tell everybody; but I shall come back in the dark, because I am so utterly unhappy. No more, no more. Mind the day,—Yours, D. G.
     Don’t answer—not even think of answering.

     He ran away to London and thence, after the generous efforts of friends to induce him to accept shelter in some comfortable place, he was sent back to his mother. He died in December, 1861, not quite four-and-twenty, having written this epitaph for himself a few weeks before:

Below lies one whose name was traced in sand—
He died, not knowing what it was to live:
Died while the first sweet consciousness of manhood
And maiden thought electrified his soul:
Faint beatings in the calyx of the rose.
Bewildered reader, pass without a sigh
In a proud sorrow!   There is life with God,
In other kingdom of a sweeter air;
In Eden every flower is blown. Amen.

     His ‘Luggie’ was published soon afterwards, and then the world knew that a sweet singer, perhaps one who really might have proved himself a poet, had lived and died.
     Mr Buchanan’s record of his friend’s life is told with much pathos and is by far the most interesting portion of this volume. The other portions are chiefly interesting as exhibitions of Mr Buchanan’s own temper. They are essays on ‘The Poet, or Seer,’ on ‘The Student and his Vocation,’ on ‘Literary Morality,’ on ‘Walt Whitman,’ on ‘Herrick’s  Hesperides,’ ‘On a Passage in Heine,’ ‘On my own Tentatives.’ Mr Buchanan speaks his opinions from a lofty height and in sonorous phrase. He denounces Mr Carlyle as one whom the world considers a liar—of course in a literary and not in a literal sense. He quarrels with Mr Mill because he has dared to place philosophy “in connection with the blatant periods of Mr Bright and the polished pithiness of Mr Lowe and the juggling insincerities of each successive Chancellor of the Exchequer.” He condemns a good many people, and on all points speaks as one having authority,—after the manner of the modern Philistines.
     There is not much agreement, however, save in tone of voice, between Mr Buchanan and Mr Matthew Arnold. These essays make no great pretence, and doubtless Mr Buchanan means only to give plain utterance to some earnest thoughts. We do not question their earnestness, but they are not very profound and not very well expressed.



The Contemporary Review (March, 1868 - Vol. VII, p.470-472)

David Gray, and other Essays, chiefly on Poetry. By ROBERT BUCHANAN.
London: Sampson Low, Son, & Co. 1868.

     THIS volume is quite original as a specimen of book-making. It could only have been produced by a man of fine insights, exquisite literary tact, and great shrewdness, yet in whom there is a lack of that patience which gives the last perfect prevailing touch, leaving nought to be desired. Indeed, occasional turns, abrupt, almost indelicate, reveal to us something like the absence of those higher elements which have their root in a “sublime discontent,” such as would certainly have made impossible the blunt, overweening, self-satisfied egotism of many passages we find here. Mr. Buchanan’s evil demon is a false culture, which justifies itself by unduly despising other forms of culture, and which almost makes him incapable of generously acknowledging a benefit. The result is that very often he degrades to the imagination what he is too eagerly anxious to exalt to the intellect; or perhaps it would be more correct to say that he seeks to storm the one, while he ought to softly and indirectly appeal to the other. He is, in this respect, truer in his poetry than in his prose; but even his poetry witnesses to this tendency. In this volume he gives a chapter—“On my own Tentatives”— which only too clearly proves his eagerness to justify to the intellect, against critical carping, what would most certainly have been better left to justify itself in the imaginations of those who know and love his poems. For, after all, that must be the ultimate answer to the criticism he deprecates. But with respect to the poetry there cannot be the least doubt that Mr. Buchanan himself unconsciously hits at once his strong and his weak point, when he admits us to his theory about the use of dialects (p. 304). The present writer had thoughts in that direction months ago; and strangely enough chanced to re- read just at the time that surprising passage of Max Müller’s, beginning at p. 57 of his “Science of Language,” in which the professor shows the necessity written languages are ever under of being constantly fed from the streams of rude living dialects, if they would not become stagnant lakes. This suggests a great question as to the relation in which art, through language, must stand to life to recover reality, force, virility. And Mr. Buchanan, in his conscious theory, is an illustration of how a great principle may be only half applied, through being seized by the intellect alone. Of all men living, Mr. Buchanan most thoroughly realizes the power that lies in a dialect or vulgar form of speech to restore that warmth, that living glow as of very blood, which has to such an extent passed out of the pale, polished countenance of our written language, pent up as it has been so long with the proprieties. His use of the low London dialects and the Scotch, in “Liz” and other poems, is most skilful, looked at intellectually and critically. But then it has in his case been too much reduced to a system, or rather, perhaps, has never taken rise in that deepest sympathy or imaginative community which unconsciously uses language as its eager and pliant minister, transforming rude phrases and forms of speech into complete poems like diamonds, flashing out on all sides in the clear-intense lights of emotion. In one word, Mr. Buchanan loses concentration, and consequently dramatic clearness and consistency, by his conscious determination after select and intellectually-assorted phrases. His very skill in this defeats a deeper end of art, of which it should be but the servant. Mr. Buchanan has either been too timid or too bold. We do not want verisimilitude as of photography; but we do want the verisimilitude of imagination; and this Mr. Buchanan has sometimes failed to give us, with the consequent result of amplification without spiritual relief and balance. Hence the discontent generally felt with the language put into the mouth of his characters, and the complaint that the writer’s own spectacles have been put on the eyes of low and ignorant persons: the very process of conscious selection which Mr. Buchanan’s rule makes necessary, in a certain respect justifies the complaint. But Mr. Buchanan is certainly no imitator. He has tremendous power in using the mere form or body of unwritten speech which the present period supplies to the artist, and which others have neglected or despised; and it is because of this that he has received, as he deserves, such a measure of acceptance. But still the rags of a false philology hang about him; he scarcely grasps the spirit in close imaginative embrace, and only half creates the characters he presents to us. With the exception of some paragraphs in “Liz,” and portions of “Poet Andrew,” where intense sympathy seems to have given wing to touching words, the more that it was artificially restrained, all Mr. Buchanan’s later poems oppress us with a sense of incomplete sympathetic conception, proving itself by an inharmoniousness and low- lighted diffuseness of speech. The article “On my own Tentatives” has not removed, but rather confirmed these impressions independently formed. Mr. Buchanan is too conscious in his reaction against the scholastic poets, as he calls them, and does not appreciate as he ought the favour they have done him in unwittingly smoothing his road to the public ear.
     But when we said the volume was an original specimen of book-making, we meant what we said. What is really of the least value we have met with somewhere or other before; and so badly, and in such a slovenly way, has the thing been put together, that we confess we felt, and still feel, that the scraps Mr. Buchanan has cut out of the newspapers looked far better in their old setting. The only paragraphs in the first essay which do not verge on ruddy rhetoric, or which have real critical value, have been thus thrown in—that on the “End of Art,” for instance, being from the review of “Dallas’s Gay Science” in the Spectator of May 25, 1867. Here Mr. Buchanan, with a proper respect to the worthy editorial powers that be, shows himself just in process of describing a circuit from his law of sincerity to that of spiritualization, in which this Review, June, 1967, too, may claim credit for having given him a further small, though unacknowledged impulse. Certain it is, that several of Mr. Buchanan’s omissions and additions in the article on “Literary Morality,” and sentences elsewhere, would seem to signify as much, even although it went no further than forcing him to the acknowledgment that “faithfulness to the [essential] tendencies of one’s time”—which are, in fact, the gathered result of the struggles and defeats of all former ages—was worthy of being taken into account along with the idea of sincerity  (p. 56), now shown by Mr. Buchanan himself to be very “inexhaustive;” and in compelling him to the insertion of Goethe’s remark (pp. 244, 259), on which we said his article was hung, as a sermon on its text, where it had much better have been at first. It is hopeful to see that Mr. Buchanan is not wholly unamenable to true and fair criticism. But, by the way, why is it that he so obstinately refuses to see the beauty of the “Northern Farmer?” He admires “The Brook” and “The Grandmother,” because of the great wave of emotion on which common experience is uplifted as into cruelly- pathetic sunlight of springtide (p. 296). Is it not possible that, in the later and more powerful poem, we have the touching contrast between the weakness and unavailableness of the individual and the strong iron forces of Nature, even when restricted within the narrow bounds of the lowliest daily work? To make such an unideal character-medium as the Northern Farmer vibrate, charged with such a universal emotional current (strangely kindred, too, with the fatalistic “hopelessness of the struggle,” yet “grand by the very desire of struggling” characteristic of the Greeks themselves), and nevertheless to keep the teaching so subordinate to typical traits as even to deceive a man like Mr. Buchanan, seems to us, we confess, a very triumph of dramatic power.
     Mr. Buchanan being really a man of genius, and an excellent writer, it is unnecessary to say that this book abounds in fine passages, in which we have keen glances cast sharply into deep and dark places, though, generally speaking, his attitude is unsteady and his writing without due groundwork of calm reflection. His thoughts lie like crystals thrown carelessly on marble, with prismatic lights playing over them, and alternately confusing and dazzling the eye of the onlooker. He may write such an essay on art as will last, if he will but thoroughly think out the theme: in this volume he has been but trifling, or at best playing with it, though even in playing he throws together prime materials. The essay on David Gray is simple and touching, yet spoiled a little by a self-assertive tone; which, however, the bits of poetry—and it is genuine poetry—almost satisfactorily atone for. The essay on “Walt Whitman” is a puzzle, both as respects the way in which Mr. Buchanan escapes anything like applying definite principles of criticism, and his peculiar blindness to the real genesis of that materialistico-mystical form of thought, the seeds of which, blown from the far East as if by secret winds, have found a new soil in the Western world. We do not see that Mr. Buchanan has completely grasped Whitman’s secret, but he has doubtless done something in guiding others to do it. His distinction between contemporary and eternal truth, however, is the merest figment of the brain; these two, for subtle reasons connected with the “faithfulness to one’s time,” being with the artist essentially one. On the whole, this volume might not inaptly have been titled “My own Tentatives,” inasmuch as it gives promise of perfect prose and scientific criticism, rather than in any respect attains them. It is, we regret to see, full of errors and misprints; but that fault may not be the author’s: can it be that of the Chiswick Press?



Glasgow Herald (12 March, 1868)

DAVID GRAY AND OTHER ESSAYS, CHIEFLY ON POETRY. By Robert Buchanan. London: Sampson Low, Son & Marston. (Pp.318.)

THE biography that gives the name to this handsomely got up volume is worthy of all praise. We believe the larger portion of it appeared some time ago in the pages of the Cornhill Magazine, but as a graceful and loving portrait of a dear friend of the author it was well worthy of being reproduced. The life of the author of the Luggie is quite as interesting as his poetry, which, though sometimes reaching high excellence, has always seemed to us as being somewhat thin. Fame, which Milton calls the “last infirmity of noble minds,” seems to have been with David Gray a devouring passion. Had he lived this morbid craving for poetical admiration might have sobered down to that steady incentive to action which, in some form or other, has been the motive power of excellence in all eminent men. Mr. Buchanan shows us his friend as he was, excusing with tenderness where he cannot commend, but not concealing any real characteristic whether in consonance with received ideas of propriety or not. It is a sad history—such a restless, excited mind, yet with springs of genius and beauty in it!—too feverishly impulsive for this hard, granite world. David Gray died early, and, like too many poets, just as the first premonitions of his powers caught the attention of the world. That rosy dawn of fame, of which he had so often dreamed, coloured his deathbed.
     We have less to say of the other Essays in Mr. Buchanan’s volume. Some of them are slight, small things, thrown off, no doubt, in haste, and not worthy of being sent to the world with the hope of making them an addition to his permanent works. The first on the Poet or Seer contains nothing that is either new or striking, while the last, a criticism on the poems of the author, offends less for what it contains than because it was written at all. It concerns us very little to know what Mr Buchanan’s views were in writing the “Legends of Inverburn” or the “London Poems,” because we should much rather judge of Mr Buchanan’s artistic conceptions by their embodiment than by what he tells us of them. There seems, too, a slight tinge of “bumptiousness” in so young an author taking the public into his confidence, and pointing out what an able fellow he, the author, is, and upon what an original plan he has worked. That which might have been looked upon as confidence in a man whose works had fixed their place in public estimation will be considered forwardness in an author just starting upon his career, and who, as in Mr Buchanan’s case, has only shown that he can accomplish something far higher than he has yet attempted.



The Daily News (26 March, 1868)

     Mr. Robert Buchanan has collected in a single volume several of his prose writings, under the general title of David Gray, and other Essays, chiefly on Poetry, by Robert Buchanan (Sampson Low, Son, and Marston). David Gray was the young Scotch poet—friend and fellow-countryman of Mr. Buchanan—who a few years ago wrote some poems of considerable promise, puzzled his plain, humble, loving parents by (to them) unaccountable longings, broke his heart in feverish graspings after fame, and died of consumption at three-and-twenty, in December, 1861. We have already been made obscurely acquainted with the sad life and death of this young writer in some of the poems of Mr. Buchanan, and the substance of the present essay is in itself not new to the public, having been originally published in the Cornhill Magazine some years back; but it has been largely added to in the present volume, and a more pathetic story never was written. Poor Gray’s last moments remind one of those of Keats, as in his genius there was a certain similarity. Both died in the bloom of youth, and in the flush of half-developed genius—died with passionate desire of life, with wasting hunger of fame—perishing of consumption while yet the flower was in the bud. Mr. Buchanan has told this painful story with much feeling and emotion, and the essay devoted to David Gray is one of the most interesting in the volume. The other chapters, however, also show the hand of a thoughtful and energetic writer. The nature of poetry in general, the vocation of the student, the strange rhapsodies of Walt Whitman, Herrick’s “Hesperides,” morals in literature, the hopes of humanity, and Mr. Buchanan’s own objects and purposes in composing poetry, are the other subjects handled in the volume. They are handled well—with no little reflectiveness and insight, and with much richness of language and wealth of illustration. The fault of Mr. Buchanan’s prose, indeed, is that, as in the prose writings of poets generally, it is too ornate, too heavily brocaded with metaphor, too prone to take refuge in figures which illuminate rather than define the meaning. This is perfectly legitimate in poetry; but, in criticism, emotion should be kept more in subjection to judgment. The opinions put forth by Mr. Buchanan are of course open to canvassing on several points. Often they seem to us very just and noble; sometimes of doubtful value; occasionally quite wrong. We suspect that Mr. Buchanan knows very little about politics—a failing rather incident to poets; and when he talks with flippant audacity of “the blatant periods of Mr. bright,” we venture to tell him that he is exhibiting nothing more than his own incompetency to judge a great, though it may be a passionate, nature, who has put more of heart into politics than any man of his time. The last essay—“On my own tentatives”—is Mr. Buchanan’s exposition of his motives in choosing actual subjects of every-day life for his poems, rather than subjects distant in time and country. We cannot conceal from ourselves that this essay will expose its author to the charge of presumption and egotism. Mr. Buchanan is still a young man, and he has not written enough, nor taken a sufficiently assured or definite position with the public to assume as yet the part of his own critic. His volume would have been better for the absence of this essay.



Notes and Queries (Vol. 1 4th S. (21) 23 May, 1868 - p.499)

David Gray and other Essays, chiefly on Poetry. By Robert Buchanan. (Sampson Low.)

Essays on Robert Browning’s Poetry. By John T. Nettleship. (Macmillan.)

     These two volumes are very similar in their character. In the first, Mr. Buchanan, himself no mean poet, gives us his Confession of Faith, and touches briefly on several great and magnificent questions affecting the poetic personality, illustrating his views by sketches of Whitman’s writings and Notes on Herrick. But the portion of the book which will interest most readers is that in which he tells, with much sympathy and feeling, the painful story of David Gray—his struggles and his early death, and calls attention to his poem “The Luggie,” a work but little known, but clearly deserving of more notice than it has yet received.
     The volume of Mr. Nettleship, who is an enthusiastic admirer of Robert Browning, is an outpouring of that admiration, and a tribute of acknowledgment of the beneficial influences which the poet has exercised over the writer—of those tender warnings and encouragements which have times out of number intensified the desire for truth and right, cheered despondencies, and sweetened triumphs.



The Standard (15 August, 1868 - p.3)

     David Gray, and other Essays. By Robert Buchanan. London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marston.—A poet who has attained a certain amount of popularity may naturally suppose that the public will be ready and anxious to hear his opinion on the subject of his art, and provided he expresses himself with thoughtfulness and moderation his views are likely to be regarded with interest. But the nature of the poet is so different from, in fact so opposite to, that of the critic, that it is very doubtful whether the opinions to which he attaches so much importance possess any critical value. Mr. Robert Buchanan will not raise his reputation by his essays in prose. Known hitherto as the author of some graceful and melodious lyrics, and some longer and more pretentious but not so successful efforts in idyllic verse, he now puts himself forward as the expositor of a system, which is certainly not new, and concerning the truth of which serious doubts may be entertained. Disclaiming in his preface the skill of the critic, he occasionally exhibits more than a critic’s proverbial dogmatism. When he speaks of the verse of David Gray as “the truest, purest, tenderest lyrical note that has floated to English ears this half century,” when he describes Thomas De Quincey as “a loose but occasionally felicitous writer;” when he talks of Thomas Carlyle as “preaching brutalism in language as harsh as the barking of Cerberus,” he seems to imagine that the reader will accept the dictum of Mr. Robert Buchanan as that of an impartial and competent judge. The two most noticeable essays in the book, apart from the biographical sketch of David Gray, the writer’s college friend and constant companion, are those entitled “The Student and his Vocation,” and “On My Own Tentatives.” In the former,  Mr. Buchanan expresses in a very diluted form some of the opinions which are usually associated with the name of Mr. Matthew Arnold. He strains rather painfully after verbal felicities, and indulges frequently in vague platitudes, such as “the sublimest sign of perfect culture is Divine philanthropy,” and “the nearer man approaches God, the more he seems to exhibit the mysterious and God-like quality of love for the species.” High-sounding phrases, such as “Divine philoprogenitiveness,” “we are moving on to multiplicity,” may be considered to need interpretation. In the second essay to which we have referred, the author enters upon the defence of his own poems. He has been doing his best, he states, to show that actual life is the true material for poetic art; but in carrying out this principle it seems that he has encountered criticism and opposition. One of his contemporaries upbraids him for writing “Idyls of the Gallows and the Gutter;” and, pathetic fact! “gentlemen from the universities shake their heads over him sadly, and complain, somewhat irrelevantly, that he is not Greek.” To vindicate himself Mr. Buchanan inveighs against the mania for false refinement, and complains that highly-educated people do not see the poetry outside their own doors. More than once his eloquence becomes exceedingly cloudy and obscure. A “a dramatic situation, however undignified, however vulgar to the unimaginative, is made to intersect through the medium of lyrical emotion with the entire mystery of human life,” is a problem which may have been solved by Mr. Buchanan, but which will somewhat perplex the ordinary reader. The most interesting and the best written fragment in the book is the sketch of David Gray. It is natural enough that friendship should lead the writer to overrate in some measure the powers of one with whom he had the closest and most affectionate intercourse. Gray was one of those ardent and impressionable natures who are apt to mistake susceptibility for high poetic power. That he did, however, possess the poetic faculty, and that he wrote with fine pathos and naturalness about the familiar “Luggie” may be readily conceded. Self-conscious, and impatient as he was, full of the conviction, frequently and unhesitatingly expressed, that if he lived “his name and fame should be second to few of any age and to none of his own,” David Gray was really an affectionate and talented young man, whose praises, proclaimed without stint by Mr. Buchanan, are, to a large extent, justified by the simplicity and earnestness of his character.



The Saturday Review (12 September, 1868 - Vol. p.372-373)


“THE Scotch intellect,” says Mr. Buckle, “during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was pre-eminently deductive.” If he had cared to generalize from the single instance of Mr. Robert Buchanan, he might have added that the Scotch intellect of the nineteenth century was pre-eminently dogmatic. For a book so absolutely brimming with self- confidence as this volume of Essays, we never had the good fortune to meet with before. Great writers and great speakers disposed of in a single line; the law laid down with a definiteness and conciseness worthy of the Code Napoléon; principles of art, morality, politics, stated as if the bare statement of them by Mr. Buchanan ought to carry conviction to all minds—these form the staple of almost every page. And the difficulty is that Mr. Buchanan puts it entirely out of our power to disallow any of his positions. The title of his first essay is “The Poet, or Seer”; the one faculty that he claims for the poet and critic (the persons in his case being identical) is that of sight. Of course, de sensibus non est disputandum. When a man tells us that he sees such and such a thing, we are bound to believe him, and to own that he must be the best judge of what his senses tell him. In his very entertaining Lessons in Elementary Physiology, Professor Huxley quotes from Brewster’s Natural Magic “the famous case of Mrs. A.”—the lady who, although in perfect health and full possession of her faculties, was constantly the victim of the most extraordinary sensory delusions; and after an account of some of these he goes on:—

     Mrs. A. undoubtedly saw what she said she saw. The evidence of her eyes as to the existence of the apparitions, and of her ears as to those of the voices, was, in itself, as perfectly trustworthy as their evidence would have been had the objects really existed. For there can be no doubt that exactly those parts of her retina which would have been affected by the image of a cat, and those parts of her auditory organ which would have been set vibrating by her husband’s voice, were thrown into the same condition by some internal cause.

It is the same with Mr. Robert Buchanan as with Mrs. A. He says that the poet is the man who sees, and we cannot of course suppose that the poet doffs his powers of vision when he turns critic. Therefore, when the critic tells us that Mr. Bright talks in blatant periods, and that Mr. Lowe is given over to polished pettiness; when he speaks of the “brutality” of Mr. Carlyle and the “merest prose" of Mr. Arnold; when he calls attention to the heroes and heroines of his own poems, and speaks of “the intense loving tenderness of the coarse woman, Nell, towards her brutal paramour, the exquisite delicacy and fine spiritual vision of the old village schoolmaster,” we are bound to believe that he really sees and hears these things, and that they have an objective existence as indisputable as the cat that Mrs. A. saw and the voices that sounded in her ears. What the “internal cause” may be that throws Mr. Buchanan’s critical retina and auditory organ into this peculiar condition is of course to us no more than a matter of speculation. We cannot speak with any certainty; but we should imagine that it was simply inordinate vanity, fostered by the rash desire to make his prose eclipse the moderate but respectable reputation which his verse had won for him.
     We are sorry to have to pass this harsh judgment on the book, because the essay from which it takes its name shows that when Mr. Buchanan will consent to keep himself in the background he can write what is not only readable but extremely interesting. Yet here, if anywhere, he had an excellent excuse, had he chosen to avail himself of it, for putting himself forward. Linked for many years in a close and tender friendship with David Gray, sharing with him the struggles of a student’s life at Glasgow and of a literary début without money or friends in London, he might be expected, in this paper of all others, to assert himself. Yet the pathos of the story, and the genuine emotion that the writing of it must have called out, preserve him from that. The result is that the memoir is unquestionably the best part of the book. As he himself says, speaking of Walt Whitman’s wonderful Drum-taps, “Here, in proportion to the absence of self-consciousness, and the presence of vivid emotion, we find absolute music, culminating once or twice in poetry.” Indeed the history of David Gray is full of melancholy interest; less tragic, it is true, than that of Chatterton, less absorbing, because of the infinitely smaller proportions of the central figure, than that of Keats, and yet simple enough and sad enough to win the regretful sympathies of every reader. Gray, the son of a handloom weaver, was born at Merkland, near Glasgow, in I838, and died there in 1861, just before completing his twenty-fourth year. His early life showed nothing extraordinary; it was that of a thousand other “sons of the soil” whose studious ways redeem them from the loom or the plough, and get them sent at fourteen to Glasgow University. There his career was that of many another young student—a being mainly emotional, whose delight was in devouring the poets “from Chaucer to Wordsworth,” and in scribbling, under their inspiration, scraps for the poet’s-corner of the Glasgow Citizen; living meanwhile a life of poverty and privation, “subsisting chiefly on oatmeal and butter forwarded from home.” At Glasgow he fell in with his biographer, a young man of similar tastes and not dissimilar temperament, and with no more settled prospects than his own. Their friendship soon became close, and their lives interwoven; and meanwhile David had deliberately assented to what he thought the moving force within him, and had pronounced himself a poet. Keats naturally enough enthralled him first, and under his influence he wrote a good deal. One of the poems of this period Mr. Buchanan publishes; it is the soliloquy of Empedocles before he plunges into the crater. Printed now for the first time, it seems, of course, to challenge comparison with Mr. Arnold—a comparison which, it is needless to say, it will not bear for a moment; and yet, in spite of its crowded adjectives and its quaint confusions between “thou” and “you,” it is a remarkable poem for a youth of twenty to have written. When the stage of Keats and that of Shakspeare, which followed for a short time, had passed away, his powers found their right expression, and he wrote the Luggie, the pastoral poem that celebrates the scenes around his home. Then, when it was written, his trials and troubles began. He could not afford to publish it; none of the great men to whom he wrote could spare time and attention to read the verses of a perfect stranger who came to them with no recommendation but his own. Repeated disappointments, as Mr. Buchanan writes, only made him the more dogged and self-asserting. “I am a poet; let that be understood distinctly,” he wrote to a stranger; like André Chénier on the scaffold, he struck his forehead and cried, “I1 y avait pourtant quelque chose là”! He owned that the dream of his life would not be fulfilled if his fame did not equal that of Wordsworth at least, if not that of Goethe or Shakspeare; he talked of what would happen when his biography came to be written. Yet with all this he was, except in his letters, all modesty and reverence; he who talked of rivalling Wordsworth confessed that to read even Thomson made him despair. Indeed, his life was a constant opposition of extremes. His large black eyes and feminine shape betrayed his character accurately; extravagant in his ideas of his own, power, and yet constantly desponding, quick in his decisions, and still quicker in repenting of them, strong in his sympathies and dislikes. He came to London to push his fortune, with no introductions, and absolutely penniless; and in his night wanderings in Hyde Park (a bed would have been a useless extravagance, he thought, and this was a right and romantic beginning for a poet’s struggle in London), he probably sewed the seeds of the consumption that soon brought him to his grave. The rest of his career is of uninterrupted sadness. Mr. Monckton Milnes, who has always had an enthusiasm for young poets, took him up, and did for him all that the most persevering kindness could do. But the disease grew worse, and disappointment aggravated it and set him longing still more eagerly for impossibilities. Thackeray declined to print the “Luggie” in the Cornhill and David’s hopes of realizing his life’s dream grew fainter and fainter. He must return home; yet when he has arrived there he finds that he cannot, except at the cost of his life, face the Scotch winter. All sorts of schemes occur to him; he will visit Natal, or Jamaica, or he will “go to Florence and throw himself on the poetical sympathy of Robert Browning.” Finally, by the kindness of his few Southron friends, he is brought back to London, and sent on thence to Torquay. Here the morbid craving for home, or at least for flight from his fellow-patients, came upon him and overwhelmed him. “What’s the good of me being so far from home and sick and ill?” he writes to his parents. “. . . Tell everybody that I’m coming back—no better—worse, worse.” When he arrived at his friend’s lodgings in London the fit was upon him still; it would of course have been vain to resist his wild appeals. He went home, and died in less than a year. To the last, the thought of the publication of his poem haunted him; “it troubles me like an ever-present demon.” At length, chiefly by Mr. Sydney Dobell’s unwearying exertions, it was printed, and a specimen-page was sent to him. “David, with the shadow of death even then dark upon him, gazed long and lingeringly at the printed page. All the mysterious past—the boyish yearnings, the flash of anticipated fame, the black surroundings of the great city—flitted across his vision like a dream. It was ‘good news,’ he said.” This was on the 2nd of December, 1861, and the next day he died.
     What we complain of is, that it is unfair to the memory of David Gray that his story, well and simply told as it is, should have to contend against the dead-weight of the rest of the book. Seventy-five good pages have no chance against three times that number of bad ones. For with perhaps two exceptions—the short essays on Walt Whitman and Herrick’s Hesperides, in both of which Mr. Buchanan saves himself by not aiming too high—we cannot call the rest of the volume anything but bad. It is not always that what the writer means is bad; it is that the way he says it is so intolerable. We have said that the dogmatism is perfect, and that the quiet suppression of eminent men is wonderfully amusing; but perhaps the eloquence is the worst of all. Take this specimen from “The Student and his Vocation”—“the Student” being one of the many parts that Mr. Buchanan delights to play:—

     Thus here and there, by the busy wayside, the earthly traveller catches glimpses of faint footpaths, some leading to places of nestling green, others winding up to the mountain-peaks, others conducting to the brink of waste waters peopled by the phantoms of the clouds. These paths wind to the nooks where the students dwell, hearing faintly from afar the tramp of busy feet and the cry of voices. Not always, however, do the students remain apart. Ever and anon, at the point where the footpath joins the highway, appears a pale  face, and a white hand is uplifted enjoining silence. The student has stept down with a message. Ere that message can be heard the crowd must still itself and pause, and in that pause all loud cries are lost, and the student is heard saying, “Rest awhile. Listen to the message I bring you! I want you just for a minute to turn with me to the infinite.”

We seem to catch, like an echo, the familiar tones of Mrs. Hominy:—“Howls the Sublime, and softly sleeps the calm Ideal in the whispering chambers of Imagination.” Well may Mr. Buchanan claim to add a saving clause, which once more puts him beyond the power of criticism. The student aims, he says, at the beautiful. “He shapes his glowing thoughts into melodious syllables, such as common men may not employ. Add to perfect disinterestedness perfect sweetness of voice—and the people are spellbound. Their souls are raised, their ears are delighted.” Speaking for ourselves, we must own to being rather glad that common men may not employ these melodious syllables. But sometimes, alas! even the student forgets himself, and what happens on such occasions Mr. Buchanan describes so vividly, and with such prophetic instinct; that we dare not even paraphrase his words:—

     But when the student not only brings his message, but lards it with follies and insolencies of his own, the public retort is simple:—“The message you bring is a LIE.” “Brutes! idiots!” perhaps screams the Student, “do ye dare to despise eternal truth?” And the public, justly exasperated, lynches the fellow, crying, “Eternal truth is all very fine, but we are now convinced of the contemporary truth, that you are a humbug and a ranter.”

     “Humbug” and “ranter” are hard names for a man to call himself, even prophetically; but as the words are Mr. Buchanan’s own, we have no choice about accepting them. Yet of ourselves we should have had no difficulty in finding out that Mr. Buchanan is, if not “a humbug and a ranter,” at least very positive, very vain, and very fond of airing his ignorance. What his opinion of Mr. Carlyle, Mr. Bright, and Mr. Lowe is, we have already said. He has a place in the universe ready ticketed for everybody. Scott is at once pronounced “the greatest novelist that ever lived,” and the claims of Cervantes, Defoe, Fielding, Balzac, George Sand, George Eliot are quietly put away unheard. Thackeray is a “much smaller writer and inferior artist; he worked in his own sickening and peculiar fashion.” Fancy the author of the Legends of Inverburn passing a sentence of this sort on the author of Vanity Fair! Shakspeare he very rightly pronounces “occasionally gross”; yet “Jonson, an inferior writer, though a straightforward and splendid nature, is singularly pure.” We ask Mr. Buchanan has he ever read Every Man in his Humour, or The Devil is an Ass? But it is where he touches subjects that he calls academic that Mr. Buchanan appears to the best advantage. He has no language severe enough for the “vulgarity of schoolmen,” and for “all the tribe of people who remain at school all their lives.” Some eminent persons, of one of whom even Mr. Buchanan speaks with respect—we mean Mr. Mill—have been known to hold that with men who are worth anything education is a lifelong matter; in other words, that the best men are those who “remain at school all their lives.” If Mr. Buchanan had remained at school a little longer he might at least have learnt not hopelessly to mistranslate Horace; he might even have learnt to understand the Greek spirit, and its bearing on the modern world. He would not have translated “domus exilis Plutonia” a Plutonian house of exiles; nor would he hopelessly muddle the mythologies. A man who shows his thorough misapprehension of even the outlines of classical culture has small right to be heard as an authority when he “indicates how exotic teachers have emasculated the youth and the flower of our schools and Universities.” “We have nothing in common,” he says, “with the Athenian civilization.    . . . Our natures have a glow of emotion quite unknown to the frigid spirit of Athenian inquiry.” Nothing in common with Athenian civilization!—the audacious fallacy is scarcely worth refuting. We should like to know where our ideas of art would be if we had not the perfect criterion of the Greek Heiterkeit und Allgemeinheit to judge them by? We should like to know what the loss to the language of daily life would be if we could blot out of history the existence and the influence of Socrates. The fact is that, in these axioms that he lays down (and those we have quoted are but specimens of them), Mr. Buchanan only shows the lamentable imperfections of his knowledge. Let him, before he calls Ben Jonson pure, study the Elizabethan dramatists a little more closely; let him read Agathon’s speech in the Symposium before he ventures to declaim about the frigid spirit of Athenian inquiry.

     * David Gray and other Essays, chiefly on Poetry. By Robert Buchanan. London: Sampson Low, Son, & Marston. 1868.

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The Fleshly School of Poetry and Other Phenomena of the Day (1872)


[Reviews of The Fleshly School of Poetry and Other Phenomena of the Day are available in The Fleshly School Controversy section of the site.]



Master-Spirits (1873)


The Examiner (6 December, 1873)


     Master-Spirits. By Robert Buchanan. H. S. King and Co.

     “Good books,” says Milton—and Mr Buchanan quotes the remark in explanation of his title—“are like the precious life-blood of master-spirits.” Mr Buchanan has here given us a reprint of articles on literary topics from the Contemporary, the Fortnightly, St Paul’s, Good Words, and the Athenæum; but as one of these is devoted to the “Birds of the Hebrides,” and as in some of the others the spirits in question are not treated with much politeness, we suppose that the title of the book is adopted, like so many of our modern titles, faute de mieux. But, having said this, we make haste to say that Mr Buchanan has given us a very pleasant and readable book, from which a large supply of entertainment may be drawn, with here and there a morsel of entirely original criticism. Three discriminating notices of Dickens, Browning, and Tennyson, the latter of whom is compared with Heine and De Musset, and is not suffered to lose by the comparison, are of that chatty sort which we might expect from a professed poet, who himself admits it to be “desultory,” and declares that his “real work lies in another field.” It is to be hoped that he has solaced himself in his retirement at Malvern (the cause whereof we greatly regret) as much by writing these articles as others will be charmed by reading them, provided they do not expect any very strong meat. In “Scandinavian Studies” Mr Buchanan was manifestly in his element; and, indeed, he has done much to earn the gratitude of those to whom news of the old Norse heroes and the old Norse poetry is an ever-welcome pleasure. He has, in fact, laid his finger on a decided blot in the fame of English critics. At Copenhagen he found a hospitable professor who, somewhat ostentatiously, began conversation by quoting a verse of Browning’s. “What! you read Browning?” said Mr Buchanan, with artless simplicity. “I do, indeed,” replied the professor, “and so do many of my friends. Let me tell you, sir, that we in Denmark do know something of English literature, while you in England know next to nothing of the literature of the North. The only man of whom you do really know anything is Hans Christian Andersen; he represents northern poesy in your eyes, while many of us will not allow that he is a poet at all. Holberg, Evald, Baggesen, Ohlenschläger, Grundtvig, Rahbek, Ingemann, Holberg (sic), Molbech! what do you know of these?” The professor was just in his reflection, and Mr Buchanan rightly infers that Englishmen are guilty of unpardonable insularity in neglecting the Scandinavian poets, and that it is well worth his while to try and lighten our darkness.
     In only one instance does the poet attempt a subject which travels out of the domain of poetry, and that is where he discusses, under the title of “A Young English Positivist,” the ‘Critical Miscellanies’ of Mr John Morley. We cannot compliment the poet on his mode of dealing with philosophers. He is not only flippant, which might have been expected, but he too clearly displays the fact that it was impossible for him to criticise fairly a writer who has no large infusion of poetry in him. Of his flippancy we need not give many examples. He begins by saying, “The world is wrong on most subjects, and Mr John Morley, with the encyclopædic pretensions of his school, is going to set it as right as may be.” And a little further on, “Condorcet was no more a first-class intellect than is Professor Huxley,”—nothing whatever having been said to lead up to this off-hand mention of the Professor’s name. And again, a doubly objectionable  sentence, because written without a word of reasoning to support it:—“Adherence to their [the Positivists’] cardinal principle of scientific procedure is quite enough to make them countenance encyclopædic pretensions in anybody; and it is with no regret that they perceive the infallible airs of men who, except from the point of view of the true faith, have no claim whatever to the title of first-class intellects.” It is manifest that, in endeavouring to criticise work like that of Mr Morley, the author of some of the prettiest songs of our day has sadly overstepped the fairy ring which should circumscribe a poet’s vagaries. We cannot consent to look upon this particular essay of Mr Buchanan’s as undertaken in a serious mood. It is true, as he himself says, that “much injustice is done to authors by criticising their works as if they were actually something else than they really profess to be;” and the book before us is avowedly published as “mere desultory notes on literary subjects of permanent interest, by one whose work lies in another field.” We thought it was by this time well understood that nothing could serve an author less than an apology in his preface. Every apology implies that, to that extent at least, the publication of the book was a mistake; and it might have been better if Mr Buchanan had not drawn our attention to the fact that he was printing 350 pages of mere desultory notes on subjects of permanent interest. The mistake is all the more inexcusable because, as Mr Buchanan informs us in a note, he has already been severely handled in spite of a still more childish apology.
                                                                                                                                                               J. P.



The Athenæum (13 December, 1973)

     ANOTHER re-issue from periodicals is Master-Spirits, by Mr. R. Buchanan, which we are told “may be accepted as mere desultory notes on literary subjects of permanent interest, by one whose real work lies in another field.” Mr. Buchanan has included in his reprints some articles from the Athenæum, but has not had the courtesy to ask permission to do so. We presume he reserves his politeness for his “real work.” Messrs. H. S. King & Co. are his publishers.



The Westminster Review (January, 1874 - p.145)

     “Master Spirits” 34 is a collection of Mr. Buchanan’s lighter contributions to periodical literature. They are, however, the author says in a short preface, to be regarded as “mere desultory notes on literary subjects of permanent interest, by one whose real work lies in another field.” There was scarcely any need of this apology. All the papers possess considerable interest. We, however, disagree from a great many of Mr. Buchanan’s views and opinions. The paper which will probably be read with most interest is the introductory one, “Criticism as one of the Fine Arts.” The title is ironical. Mr. Buchanan is apparently of the same opinion as Mr. Disraeli, that critics are “those who have failed in literature and art.” Mr. Buchanan’s condemnation, although not so sweeping, is as severe as the ex-Premier’s. Mr. Buchanan, instead of dealing in vague generalities, gives us two instances to show what manner of people critics are. He takes the case of Mr. Grote’s “Plato.” According to Mr. Buchanan, Grote’s typical reviewer is a certain Tomkins, who “knows little of Greek beyondthe alphabet.” Now if Mr. Buchanan will turn to Grote’s recently published life, he may find out from a letter of Mill’s what kind of men Grote’s reviewers were. Mill mentions one of them by name. Instead of being a person who “knows little of Greek beyond the alphabet,” he turns out to be a man of European reputation, the Rector of Lincoln College, who is quite as capable of forming an opinion upon Plato as Grote. The other crucial case given by Mr. Buchanan might be as easily refuted. Generally speaking, however, as we have said, Mr. Buchanan’s papers are full of interest. One of the most picturesque is “The Birds of the Hebrides.” We have said nothing of Mr. Buchanan’s attack on the editor of The Fortnightly Review. Mr. Morley is quite able to take care of himself.

     34 “Master-Spirits.” By Robert Buchanan. London: Henry S. King. 1873.



The Saturday Review (3 January, 1874 - pp.21-22)


THE title Master Spirits includes a variety of Mr. Buchanan’s “lighter and more generally interesting contributions to periodical literature.” The chief “Master Spirits” upon whom he here discourses are Mr. Tennyson, Mr. Browning, Dickens, Victor Hugo, and Mr. John Morley. There are also some studies on Danish literature and on obscure Scotch poets, and a couple of interesting æsthetical essays. We had almost used the word “critical” as descriptive of Mr. Buchanan’s writing. Against this he would apparently protest. He is indignant with some luckless reviewers who treated a former publication of his as “critical”; and he declares at the end of the essay upon Dickens that “criticism” is “a barbarity which he would wish to avoid.” The opening essay of the volume gives his theory upon this subject. Criticism, he tells us, is a creative form of composition, of which the real value is that it reveals the tendencies, not of its subject, but of its author. “Scientific criticism is fudge, as sheer fudge as scientific poetry, or scientific painting; but criticism does belong to the Fine Arts, and for that reason its future prospects are positively unlimited.” We demur a little to this last piece of logic; for surely the sciences have prospects as unlimited as the arts; but we demur also to the whole of Mr. Buchanan’s ingenious theory. If he merely meant to say that the science of criticism had still to be invented, we would not dispute his statement; but we hold in opposition to him that criticism is, or should be, an inchoate science, and not, properly speaking, an art. A critic, that is, should aim at discovering certain general laws, though at present he must be content with crude and empirical statements. Mr. Buchanan’s arguments are amusingly stated, but strike us as irrelevant. He says that much modern criticism is written by utterly incompetent people. This is quite true; but the fact that people judge harshly and rashly of art is no more a reason for denying that there are rules about art than a parallel rashness in moral judgments would be a reason for denying that there are invariable moral laws. It only proves that critics are not infallible. Voltaire judged wrongly of Shakspeare, and Johnson of Milton; just as some writers have maligned Cromwell, and others have made a hero of Richard III. It no more follows that a sane judgment about Shakspeare or Milton is unattainable than it follows that sound historical criticism cannot arrive at satisfactory conclusions about Cromwell and Richard. Again, Mr. Buchanan tells us that critical canons have varied from time to time; and that Shakspeare, for example, was damned for not adhering to the unities. So, as moralists tell us, the ethical standard has varied from time to time; duellists and ascetics have been alternately admired and condemned, and yet we do not doubt that some fixed principles are ascertainable as to the morality of both practices. The great mistake in the older criticism was the same which vitiated contemporary historical and moral judgments. People declared their own rules to be absolutely true for all time, and Shakspeare and Dante were condemned for not conforming to the practice of Voltaire and Pope. A sounder method shows the fallacy of such verdicts, but by no means destroys the value of the rules thus misapplied. The theories, for example, of the eighteenth-century critics were narrow and inadequate. When they measured the great men of former days by their own foot-rule, they went hopelessly wrong; but the rules were useful enough for testing the merit of those who were bound by them. Addison was an excellent judge of the merits of Pope, though he blundered grievously when he tested Homer and Milton by the rules laid down in M. Bossu’s treatise upon epic poetry. The science of criticism, whenever it is constituted, will not simply abolish the earlier rules, but find a place for them in wider generalizations, and show how far they were merely relative and temporary, and how far they were partial expressions of permanent truth. If art is the means by which a writer expresses the best sentiments and thoughts of his own age, it is obvious that the rules for expression must vary from time to time with the changing modes of contemplating the world, and yet that there may be some general principles common to all forms of expression. Criticism should, therefore, in our view, be not an art, but an approximation to a scientific theory; and such it has been in the hands of its greater masters, such as Sainte-Beuve. That even the greatest critics are fallible and biassed by personal prejudice is as true as that a deduction for personal error must be made even from the observations of astronomers, and much more from the teachings of the ablest men who deal with sciences more closely connected with human passions.
     Whatever the truth may be, Mr. Buchanan should be the last man to deny the scientific character of criticism. It is true that he is primarily a poet and a man of intuition, and only secondarily a propounder of scientific formulas. And yet, though he gives a concrete form to his criticisms, he not only proclaims abstract theories, but can be as dogmatic as any of the writers whom he denounces. We take, for example, the essay upon Dickens, where he guards himself against the barbarity of a possible lapse into criticism. The essay is in every way charming; Dickens, according to him, is the “good genie” of fiction; and Mr. Buchanan deduces all his peculiarities from this fundamental definition as rigorously as M. Taine, though the logic is carefully concealed, instead of being obtrusively flourished in our faces. But it is there all the same. Mr. Buchanan has a distinct theory about Dickens, and is ready to call anybody who differs from him cynical or obtuse. Mr. Buchanan, for example, is a warm admirer of Dickens’s humour. He calls it richer than the humour of Aristophanes; truer and more human than that of Rabelais, Swift, or Sterne; more “distinctively unctuous” than that of Chaucer; more poetical than that of Thackeray; and inferior to Shakspeare only in pathos. Here are a set of definite propositions, each of which may be tested and may give rise to a series of intelligible arguments. We, for example, differ from Mr. Buchanan, because we hold that Dickens’s humour is far shallower than that of any of these great writers. It shows infinitely less passion, for example, than the humour of Swift, and less intellectual power than the humour of Thackeray; and we might proceed to urge that superficiality is fatal to the enduring power of any author. Thereupon Mr. Buchanan would join issue with us, and would insist, as he does with great skill, upon the fact that Dickens was to the end of his days a “great, grown-up, dreamy, impulsive child”—just like that hateful creature (we beg Mr. Buchanan’s pardon for expressing our opinion), little Paul Dombey. Mr. Buchanan, with possibly unconscious ingenuity, gives to an apology the air of an eulogy. We ought, he insinuates, to look upon Dickens as we look upon a child; to sympathize with his impulses, and forgive his foibles. We should reply that we are quite prepared to read him in that sense; but we cannot place so highly as he does a writer who asks us to be children and is a child himself. To praise him under cover of that name is simply to admit that Dickens’s writings are wanting in intellectual interest, and to give to the admission the air of a compliment. Mr. Buchanan carries this principle into Dickens’s life, and declares that his resentment against his mother’s conduct and his caricature of his father as Micawber are not inconsistent with his possession of “a noble soul, a beneficent mind, and a loving heart.” We should say that they were inconsistent with the self-respect of a strong intellect capable of real depth of emotion, though not inconsistent with the amiability of a sensitive child. And here we come to a moral problem which to our thinking is susceptible of a definite and conclusive answer. If Mr. Buchanan is right, we ought to give all but the highest place to work significant of the moral qualities implied in Dickens’s relation to his parents, because those qualities are really noble. Denying them to be noble, we deny Mr. Buchanan’s conclusions. Doubtless the controversy will not be settled speedily; like most other moral problems, it will strike different people in different lights, and the ultimate test will be Dickens’s power of affecting the consciences or the æsthetic tastes of future generations. Still it is not a mere question of taste, to which the only answer could be, Mr. Buchanan prefers this, and we prefer that, but is as definite, though not as easily answerable, as the question whether a particular prisoner is or is not guilty of theft. The ablest critics may differ, and must be guided by instinct as much as by reasoning; but, in proportion to their ability, they will be able to anticipate the verdict of posterity. And therefore we should value the judgment of a sound critic as something more than the mere record of an impression. His impression indeed must go for much; but the impression leads to statements which can be exposed to definite tests, and which therefore come to some extent within the domain of scientific observation.
     Here, we see, the artistic question runs into a moral question; and this brings us to another reason why Mr. Buchanan should admit that criticism is something more than one of the fine arts. In fact, he has distinguished himself by proclaiming most emphatically the connexion between art and morality. He seldom misses an occasion of administering a blow in passing to what he calls the “musical ravings of diseased animahsm.” He condemns Mr. Carlyle in the most unmeasured terms for what he considers to be his universal want of sympathy for humanity, and declares that his “very name has become the synonym for moral heartlessness and political obtusity.” We will not here take up the cudgels for Mr. Carlyle, though we utterly deny the correctness of Mr. Buchanan’s judgment, and agree to some extent with the inferior Scotchman who set down such criticisms to defective appreciation of Carlylean humour. We merely remark that here, again, the discussion passes beyond the sphere of simple personal impression. To decide upon Mr. Carlyle’s literary merits, we must decide upon the depth of his spiritual insight; and therefore, to some extent, upon the truth or falsehood of his opinions. Mr. Carlyle, says Mr. Buchanan rather passionately, “has never been on the side of the truth. He was for the lie in Jamaica, the lie in the South, the lie in Alsace and Lorraine.” If this merely means that on each of those occasions Mr. Carlyle took the opposite side to Mr. Buchanan, the word “lie” is out of place. Mr. Buchanan really means to assert that Mr. Carlyle showed his “obtusity” by a mistaken view of the questions at issue. To decide, therefore, upon the amount of penetration implied in Mr. Carlyle’s judgment, we must decide upon the rights and wrongs of the French and German war. That is a question of facts, and not of mere personal impressions. It is true that it is not a question which anybody is now entitled to answer dogmatically; but a hundred years hence, when passions are cooler and the issues clearer, critics will be able to form an accurate judgment of the amount of insight implied in the unreserved acceptance of one view of the quarrel. We quite admit that, in such complex questions, our judgments must be guided in great measure by the simple instinctive appreciations formed without any conscious logical process; but it is also true that our judgments may be guided and checked by many external criteria, which give to our ultimate decision, not a really scientific value, but that kind of weight which is due to the opinions of a candid judge pronouncing upon a complicated case. Such a judge will be biassed by a perception, of which he can give no distinct account, that one witness is a liar and another a true man; but he would scandalously neglect his duty if he confined himself to such methods of discovering the truth.
     Perhaps we have been drawn into too long a discussion of a minor point, which Mr. Buchanan did not mean to state too precisely. we are, however, really justifying Mr. Buchanan’s practice at the expense of his principles. He lays down many critical judgments from which we dissent in various degrees, and some with which we can heartily agree. But in all serious cases he goes far beyond telling us simply that he has such or such tastes, and proceeds to justify his opinions by arguments of more or less cogency. As in the essay upon Dickens, they are generally implied in a lively portrait of the person under consideration, rather than worked out in the form of analytical discussion. They are almost always instructive, even where we differ from them; for Mr. Buchanan has the poetical faculty of sympathizing very keenly with many different kinds of merit. The essay upon Victor Hugo strikes us as the best in the volume; though there is also much that is very interesting in the chapters upon Danish literature, and upon the “poets in obscurity.” We have, however, no space for doing more than simply acknowledge their merits, and adding that Mr. Buchanan’s volume, though of unequal merit, is full of fresh and vigorous writing, such as can only be produced by a man of keen and independent intellect. Though we may differ from him as to the proper functions of a critic, we may willingly admit that he so far fulfils his own theories as to give us a very lively impression of his own intellectual idiosyncracies; and this is in all cases a pleasant sensation, if only as a contrast to the ordinary jog- trot of conventional criticism.

     * Master Spirits. By Robert Buchanan. London: Henry S. King & Co. 1873.



The Graphic (31 January, 1874)

     Those readers, and their number is every day increasing, who admire and appreciate Mr. Robert Buchanan’s poetry, will not be sorry to have in a collected form some of the best of his lighter prose essays. “Master-Spirits,” by Robert Buchanan (Henry S. King), consists of some of his contributions to periodical literature, and it is in every way pleasant reading. We do not always agree with the author, but it is always worth considering the question which may be raised by the fact of our disagreement; at the same time we must deny that Gay’s humour is “shrill and wicked.” What! the humour of “The Shepherd’s Week,” or “The What d’ye Call it?” wicked! We can hardly fancy but that there is a mistake somewhere. Mr. Buchanan is at his best in speaking of Dickens, in his “Scandinavian Studies,” and in the remarks on Tennyson, but even here he manages to jar one by talking of “the loss of a mere friend” (sic) when discussing “In Memoriam.” But all the essays are more or less worth reading, and make one heartily desire the more serious work which is promised.



Pall Mall Gazette (9 February, 1874 - pp.11-12)


MR. BUCHANAN is so exceedingly severe on anonymous criticism in the first essay of this volume that we approach the task of criticising our unsparing critic with no ordinary degree of diffidence. We hope to disarm him, however, by a candid admission at the outset. His strictures on the class of reviewers whom he personifies under two not very happily chosen proper names we allow to be in the main just. We give up Tomkins of the Megatherium, and even (though with more trepidation) Chesterfield Junior of the Dilettante Gazette, to Mr. Buchanan’s tender mercies. We admit his position that off-hand, unsympathetic, and unintelligent criticism is at the same time a bad thing and much too common a thing. What we cannot admit, because we fail to see its sequence, is Mr. Buchanan’s conclusion that anonymous criticism is to be condemned, and that the attachment of a signature would improve the quality, or diminish the quantity, or materially neutralize the injurious effects of inferior critical work. We regret to hear Mr. Buchanan repeating the cuckoo cry, long since, we had hoped, silenced, “Who says so? That is what we want to get at. If it be Smith, let Smith come forward and sign his name?” But surely it is not who says it, but what is said which is the important point. How much the wiser would Mr. Buchanan or his admirers be if Smith did sign his name? No doubt, there is an advantage in knowing a critic’s name, if it conveys any information of his character; and what Mr. Buchanan says about our mode of reading such criticism as that of M. Taine, Sir Arthur Helps, and Mr. Matthew Arnold is true enough. We know, he says, of M. Taine “almost by instinct where he will be right and where he may be wrong.” But that is because we know M. Taine and his literary character and intellectual cast dehors the particular criticism before us. We are examining a known instead of an unknown witness; we can make for ourselves the necessary deductions from or additions to his evidence, and no doubt, through the possibility of such a process, obtain more accurate results. But the subscription of Smith’s signature to his article would not enable us to perform this process at all. We should know no more of the character of the critic, of his strength or weakness in particular directions, than we did before. What Mr. Buchanan’s demand really amounts to is this—that the critic’s name should not only be signed but well known. Eminence, in fact, should only be admitted to judge of the eminent; so that any young undistinguished Jeffrey should be condemned to silence.
     We gather, however, from Mr. Buchanan’s first essay in this volume, “Criticism as one of the Fine Arts,” that he himself would not hesitate. His position, we take it, is this:—Criticism is not a science, because equally destitute of any absolute and universal objective tests of the soundness of its method, and by any means of verifying its results. It is, however, a very graceful intellectual exercise, capable of being brought to great perfection and of giving refined pleasure, and indirectly some information, to the reader. Its end is now seen to be, not truth, because in criticism verifiable truth is unattainable, but beauty. In surrendering its false claim to be a science it takes its true place as a fine art. The judgments of criticism having no objective value as truths, it would follow that all criticism which has nothing but judgments to offer and is unable to charm by its method of delivering them, is itself without value or indeed raison d’être. Mr. Buchanan, it is true, nowhere pushes his speculations to so definite a conclusion, but, as we read them, they clearly imply it, and we do not think he would repudiate it. Without any particular disposition to magnify our office, we must deprecate so sweeping a conclusion, based, as we think it is, on Mr. Buchanan’s inadequate conception, or at any rate inadequate account, of the function—be it scientific or artistic—which he undertakes to define. The righteous reaction against the oracular or, if Mr. Buchanan prefers it, the “editorial” style of criticism, has carried him much too far in the opposite direction. Because the era of cathedral judgements without reasons and without appeal has passed away, it does not follow that every claim for present and posthumous reputation is to remain a perpetual lis pendens. Because the public has refused to grant prolongation to “Jeffrey’s patent,” or to allow the successors of Giffard and Co. to retain an exclusive right of stamping literature as “warranted sound,” need we therefore deny the existence or the possibility of tests? If Goldsmiths’ Hall were abolished, nitric acid would still retain its virtue. Mr. Buchanan’s main objection to the judgments of criticism, that they are and must be purely subjective, mere records of individual impressions, is, properly speaking, an objection to every species of human utterance whatever. All interchange of thought whatever assumes a certain uniformity of impression between the speaker and his hearers, and though this expectation is, we admit, more often disappointed in “matters of taste” than in anything else, it has quite enough foundation to enable us to work upon it, if we only go the right way to work. This is what the dogmatic critic in nine cases out of ten did not know, and it is the point which Mr. Buchanan himself seems to have missed. Criticising literary work is not, as Mr. Buchanan’s argument theoretically assumes and as the old school of critics assumed practically, an exactly analogous process to that of tasting wine, otherwise we should allow all Mr. Buchanan contends for. If A., the critical “taster,” says, “This is nice,” and B., the reader, replies, “I think it is nasty,” there is an end of the matter. In former days the critic would have rejoined sternly, “But I say it is nice, sir; and if you don’t think so, you ought to think so.” This answer has nowadays fallen into discredit; and r. Buchanan holds there is no more to be said. But there is, and for this reason:—The intellectual pleasure derived from good literature is not a simple ultimate impression, like the physical sensation of taste; it is a complex emotion, resolvable into a variety of elements, and it is the true function of criticism so to resolve it. By so doing, the critic cannot, of course, modify the general distasteful effect of the whole upon the mind of the dissentient reader; but he renders him the invaluable service of showing him how and why their tastes differ, while he informs and directs the appreciation of those who already agree with him. Criticism, in short, is not the mere record of impressions which M. Buchanan everywhere implies it to be. It is not a record merely, but an analysis of impressions, and it is as such alone that it is of any value. As a mere record of them, it can never be highly instructive, and may often be quite valueless. But since it abandoned the summary and oracular and adopted the analytic method, criticism, even in the hands of the obscure Smith and Tomkins, has made a progress of which Mr. Buchanan seems to us by no means adequately conscious,
     W have dwelt at some length on this point because it seems to us to furnish the true explanation of the inequality of Mr. Buchanan’s own critical work, and to account for the appearance among much that is acute and suggestive of much also that is neither the one nor the other. Throughout these essays, in “The ‘Good Genie’ of Fiction” notably, but also in “Tennyson, Heine, and De Musset,” in “A Young English Positivist” and in “Prose and Verse,” we see the injurious effects of Mr. Buchanan’s avowed views on criticism—his neglect of the analytic power which he possesses in no inconsiderable degree, and his undue confidence in the “impressions” which he has not troubled himself to sift and scrutinize before presenting to his readers. He shows us, almost turn and turn about, both what criticism is and what it is not. Take for a specimen of the first this reflection on Mr. Browning’s style, from one of the best essays of the volume “Browning’s Masterpiece:”—

     Secretiveness, indeed, must be at once admitted as a prominent quality of Mr. Browning’s power. Indeed, it is this quality which so fascinates the few and repels the many. It tempts the possessor, magpie-like, to play a constant game at hiding away precious and glittering things in obscure and mysterious corners, and—still magpie-like—to search for bright and glittering things in all sorts of unpleasant and unlikely places. Mr. Browning’s manner reminds us of the magpie’s manner when, having secretly stolen a spoon or swallowed a jewel, the bird swaggers jauntily up and down, peering rakishly up and chuckling to itself over its last successful feat of knowingness and diablerie.

     Now this, we insist, in spite of Mr. Buchanan’s limitation of criticism to the domain of art, has a distinctly scientific, in addition to its artistic, value. Over and above its merits as a piece of observation, it adds distinctly to our knowledge and appreciation of the writer to whom it relates. We have all experienced the impression Mr. Buchanan speaks of, but we have experienced it “in combination” only, as a part of the complex whole of emotions which Mr. Browning’s poetry calls up. Now that analysis has disengaged the sensation and referred it to its causal quality in the poet, it not only explains some of the involution of his style, but supplements our conception of his artistic character. On the other hand, take this one from “The ‘good genie’ of Fiction” (Charles Dickens):—

     Between Shakspeare and Dickens only one humourist of the truly divine sort rose, flirted magically for a moment, and passed away, leaving the Primrose family as his legacy to posterity. Swift’s humour was of the earth earthy; Gay’s was shrill and wicked; Fielding’s was judicial, with flashes of heaven-like promise; Smollett’s was cumbrous and not spiritualizing; Sterne’s was a mockery and a lie (shades of Uncle Toby and Widow Wadman, forgive us, but it is true!); and—not to catalogue till the reader is breathless—Scott’s was feudal, with all the feudal limitations, in spite of his magnificent scope and depth.

This may be “criticism of the fine art” kind, but the art strikes us as being of what is known as the “slap-dash” order. It is a record of “impressions” which one can hardly conceive the writer to have defined to himself, and which he certainly fails to justify or render intelligible to his readers. Surely “Swift’s humour was of the earth earthy” is a very incomplete account of so strange and terrible an intellectual apparition. And how was Fielding’s humour “judicial” or Scott’s “feudal” other than in the sense that Fielding was a magistrate as well as a humourist, and Scott a humourist with strong feudal sympathies? The profession of the one and the proclivities of the other may or may not have coloured their humour: we neither deny nor assert it, but what we say is that the connection has to be shown by analysis and cannot be thrown out as a “mere impression.” To do so is about as instructive as it would be to say that Vanbrugh’s wit was “architectural,” or that Charles Lamb’s humour had “all the limitations of the India House.” Then again. when Mr. Buchanan calls Sterne’s humour a mockery and a lie, he must see (and his parenthetic apostrophe seems to show that he sees) the difficulty he has to get over. In Uncle Toby he mentions the name of the character in the portrayal of whom Sterne’s simious nature shows its profoundly human side, and his artificial and prurient persiflage gives place again and again to humour high and deep. It is not sufficient, therefore, to apologize to Uncle Toby; it is necessary to explain him away. The “fine art” criticism is all very well in its place, as where Mr. Buchanan says that “Mystic touches of humour in Aristophanes sweetened the Athenian mind when philosophy and the dramatic muses were souring and curdling, and at the mad laughter of Rabelais the cloud pavilion of monasticism parted to let the merry sky peep through.” Here, no doubt, to be picturesque is sufficient; but in the previously quoted passage Mr. Buchanan was attempting to assign Dickens’s exact place in the ranks of English humourists, and that is a work which can only be done by the steady light of analysis, and cannot be carried on by flashes of lightning, which leave the darkness thicker than before. It is to this mode of treating its subject that the incompleteness of Mr. Buchanan’s criticism on Dickens is mainly due. From his theory (if at times somewhat strained and fanciful) of Dickens’s mode of working and cast of observation we do not altogether dissent; but it does not go by any means to the root of the matter. It relates, after all, only to the mere mannerisms of the author, which it admits while it palliates (and indeed by its mode of palliation admits somewhat too unreservedly), while it deals little, or not at all, with the inner qualities of Dickens’s humour. It is enough to add that, if there were no more to be said about Dickens as a humourist than Mr. Buchanan has said or thought out sufficiently to say clearly, the strictures of his severest critics would be justified. It is because Dickens had a gift of humour unique and original in essence apart from form, and because this is lost sight of by many of those who are wearied and irritated by its manner, that we could wish that Mr. Buchanan had been at more pains to separate the two for our instruction. In “Browning’s Masterpiece” Mr. Buchanan is, critically speaking, at his best—partly perhaps because it is impossible to approach Mr. Browning at all except in the analytic vein. The initial difficulty of “construing” him stimulates the critical faculty to the utmost, and, like the clock in Sheridan’s “Critic,” begets the “awful attention” necessary for following the windings of the poet’s thought. Mr. Buchanan’s study of “The Ring and the Book” is alike sound and subtle, and if we do not everywhere agree with it, it everywhere suggests trains of thought which it is the most valuable function of criticism to arouse. “Hugo in 1872” and “A young English Positivist” (a paper on Mr. Morley’s essays) are easier subjects more slightly treated, and the latter disfigured by an intemperate criticism of Mr. Carlyle. “Tennyson, Heine, and De Musset” is the least satisfactory of the series, as must always be the case where criticism condescends to answer one irrelevance by another. Mr. Buchanan should reflect that if it be uncritical to depreciate Tennyson because he is the poet of the “domestic idea,” it is equally so to retort upon the depreciators that Heine and De Musset are none the better for being poets of quite another sort of idea. They are none the better, but, artistically speaking, they are none the worse, as Mr. Buchanan’s polemic requires that they should be, and as his whole argument implies that they are. The whole essay only shows that in the world-old contest between Philistia and Bohemia neither side has a monopoly of prejudice.
     We must here close our notice of Mr. Buchanan’s volume. We owe him an apology not only for reviewing as a work of scientific criticism what he insists on regarding as a work of art alone, but for doing this at such length as to have left ourselves no space to notice its artistic merits. For the first offence our excuse must be that Mr. Buchanan meditates, as he tells us, the publication of certain “more strictly critical and philosophic” papers, and we think it a pity that he should not make them (if he does not altogether disdain hints from an anonymous critic) more precise and valuable than his definition of criticism would otherwise allow us to hop. For the second there is perhaps less apology required. In the artistic sense the work before us speaks for itself; and its readers will not require to be told that Mr. Buchanan’s style is pure, vigorous, and pointed; and that it again and again shows some of that peculiar charm which we meet with only in the prose of those to whom prose is not the only language.

     * “Master Spirits.” By Robert Buchanan. (London: Henry S. King and Co. 1874.)



The Academy (14 February, 1874 - pp.166-167)

Master-Spirits. By Robert Buchanan. (H. S. King & Co.)

MR. BUCHANAN is one of the most formidable beings that await the critic in his path through life. He sits, spider-like, in the den of his own individuality—a den he has himself hewn out by the side of the highway of literature; and though, like Giant Pope, he has grown so crazy and stiff in his joints that he can do little more than sit in his cave’s mouth, yet still he grins at pilgrims as they go by, and bites his nails because he cannot come at them. This new book of his is little more than a series of infirm grins at the critics that misapprehend him, at the worn-out leprous world that does not read his books, and at the slavish wretched writers that do succeed in being read. We are, personally, exceedingly well disposed towards Mr. Robert Buchanan; we have always regarded him as quite a gifted person in certain ways, and accordingly we have been afflicted, in reading Master-Spirits, to notice what an instrument this book will undoubtedly be in the hands of those ill-affected people that do not like Mr. Buchanan. For ourselves, we hardly know how to proceed; thistles are so tall and so prickly around the den of Giant Pope, and the very air, like that about the grave of Archilochos, is so full of hellebore and the poison of wasp-stings, that a single step will embarrass us. The opening chapter of the book is intended to chastise and correct us at the outset. It is entitled  “Criticism as one of the Fine Arts,” and is so excessively inartistic, so languid, so commonplace, so diffuse, that it may be considered as showing on a small scale the internal anatomy of Mr. Buchanan’s mind,—a mind gifted with some perception of the features of nature, some slight knowledge of men and books, and a profound ignorance of itself. That a book which consists of a string of unconnected, desultory, and prejudiced essays in infantile criticism should open with an article whose very aim is to show that criticism must be unbiassed, artistic in form, complete, adult, is a curious fact in the intellectual development of the writer.
     We shall not take the reader very carefully through the book. Having been doomed ourselves to its slow and complete perusal, we feel, in looking back, that to urge the task on others would be inhuman. Briefly, then, the second essay is a sort of fairy tale about Dickens, a spasmodic effort to say something startling about a writer, whom, being dead, Mr. Buchanan is willing to praise. It is not exactly stupid, it is not exactly clever, and Mr. Buchanan is never quite dull, but it is simply unimportant. The next—on Tennyson, De Musset, and Heine — is worse than unimportant; it is positively shallow and misleading, being solely occupied with the laudable design of showing that De Musset was a sensualist and Heine a mocker, while Tennyson is the pure and spotless flower of the chivalry of English poetry. Very good; no doubt this is the first and most obvious side on which the three great lyrists display themselves; but we have  had, unfortunately, the valuable distinction pointed out before, penny-readings have rung with it, debating societies have prosed over it, and Mr. Buchanan need not have taken up thirty-five pages in telling us anything so excessively trite.
     As the author is so desultory, perhaps we may be excused for making a digression. It was just at this point in our reading that we hit upon a new idea, and we cannot refrain from taking our readers into our confidence about it. It is our profound conviction that Mr. Buchanan is looking out for the poet-laureateship. We cannot sketch his attitude of mind, as it seems to reveal itself, in any politer form. We have had two Laureates who have uttered nothing base; one still walks among us, and may he do so for many decades yet! But Mr. Buchanan undoubtedly feels that it is as well to be ready for any emergency, and in lieu of the two terse lines of delicate eulogy which sufficed Tennyson in speaking of his dead predecessor, we have many pages of Mr. Buchanan’s rather open flattery of his own still-living predecessor. It is wonderful that Mr. Buchanan, who is, we repeat, really a gifted person, should not have perceived that to pay so very many and so very heavily-perfumed compliments to Mr. Tennyson was to overact his deftly-chosen rôle. If Mr. Buchanan is to be the next Poet-Laureate, well and good; we need not moot the advisability of doing away with the office till the time comes. In the meanwhile the man who warmly praises none of his contemporaries should beware of making the present office-bearer his sole exception.
     By far the best part of the book is a series of Scandinavian studies, the first on Danish poets; the second, much better done, on the Old Danish Ballads, with translations, which would have been quite excellent but for the characteristic omission of any reference to Dr. Prior’s labours in the same direction; the third, on Björnstjerne Björnsen’s great trilogy of Sigurd Slembe, is the best paper in the book, eloquently and sympathetically written, and illustrated with exceedingly fine translations. With Mr. Buchanan’s judgment of Björnsen’s position in the literature of the North we do not quite coincide. It has always seemed to us that Ibsen is facile princeps among living Scandinavians. The fourth of these studies, on Danish ballad-romances, is not quite so well done.
     The volume winds up with two chapters on two obscure British poets. Concerning the first, George Heath, after reading his writings and his deeply-pathetic diary, we find ourselves full of tender regret for the poor dying lad, crossed in love, broken in body, and wrapped round with dreariness and discomfort. It would have been sweet to amuse and comfort him; but now that he is dead, it is vain to try to persuade us that his verses had any real merit, save that of genuine desire after musical expression. They are much worse than David Gray’s, of whom, by the way, we are told that he possessed “supreme poetic workmanship and a marvellous lyrical faculty,” qualities that the author attempts to prove by quoting these words of Gray’s:—

                               “In the distance calling,
The cuckoo answers, with a sovereign sound.”

Mr. Buchanan has evidently forgotten that a certain William Wordsworth wrote—

“And the cuckoo’s sovereign cry
Fills all the hollow of the sky.”

As a matter of fact the Luggie was a work of much less promise than Undertones. Personal bias may easily be pushed too far in either direction. The other obscure poet is even less known, but far more worthy. It was a positive delight to us to read something about the man who invented our old friend Willie Winkie, that enfant terrible who “rattles in an iron jug, wi’ an iron spoon.” Everybody has enjoyed Willie Winkie, but how many people know that his creator was a certain W. Miller, whose poems, as here largely quoted, seem to be all of the same tenderly humorous class? It is with something akin to remorse that we learn that this poet has lately died, in extreme penury, at Glasgow.
     The end of Mr. Buchanan’s book has almost made us forget the sins of the beginning, and we would lay down his critical motley as good-humouredly as possible. But there are certain things in the book that it is difficult to forgive, and some things that one can hardly understand the publication of. Surely Mr. Buchanan’s publisher cannot be aware of all that Master-Spirits contains. He would undoubtedly have remonstrated against the indecency of talking of Balaustion’s Adventure as a “mixing up of Euripides and water into a diluted tipple for groggy schoolmasters,” and of an attack on Mr. Carlyle which charges him with the possession of “a heart so obtuse as never, in the long course of sixty years, to have felt one single pang for the distresses of man.” Such writing is not “criticism treated as one of the Fine Arts.”
                                                                                                                                       EDMUND W. GOSSE.

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