ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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BOOK REVIEWS - POETRY (11)

 

The Book of Orm (1870) - continued

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[Advert from The Graphic (30 July, 1870).]

 

The North British Review (July, 1870)

CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE.

.....

49. The Book of Orm: A Prelude to the Epic. By Robert Buchanan. (London: Strahan.)
50. Poems. By Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (London: Ellis.)

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     49. MR. BUCHANAN has attempted many kinds of poetry, never without success, but never with perfect mastery. For he has great energy, pathos, and command of language; and the aspects of nature and the problems of the time move him deeply, indeed too deeply. The incompleteness of his genius is apparent in the fact that he has had no imitators; for imitation is an attempt to reproduce that fascinating and unmistakeable novelty of music which every new master of poetry possesses, and which Mr. Buchanan distinctly lacks. The motive of the best of his former poems, “Meg Blaine” and “London Lyrics,” is a deeply-felt sense of the misery of the poor. It may be doubted whether this feeling, however, earnest and passionate, can ever result in true poetry, except when it awakens the lyric cry in some one of the actual sufferers, when it finds utterance in the spontaneous ballad verse of which some fragments remain from the popular wretchedness of the later middle ages. In his present volume Mr. Buchanan deserts the subject which he once thought it his mission to win into the realm of art for that of the general misery of life. Orm is a Celtic singer, born in the evening of the world; and The Book of Orm is a record of visions seen through the mixed lights and melancholy vapours of Loch Coruisk. Here, like Obermann among fairer mountains, Orm broods on the great ultimate questions of life; but the harsh expression of his despair differs from the gentler melancholy of Senancour, as the meres and crags of Skye differ from the heights and lakes of Switzerland. The great blot of the book, indeed, is that it is too harsh and bitter in spirit; that the emotions it exhibits—those of religious longing turning with words of despair and anger on the God it cannot find—are unfit for poetic expression. Orm’s soul is described as

                                             “a Wind
Prisoned in flesh, and shrieking to be free
To blow on the high places of the Lord;”

and the description is true of the matter and tone of the book. The Celtic seer is seeking for a sign; and, like many of the modern poets who choose religious subjects, he seeks with all the confidence, and none of the success of Lord Herbert of Cherbury.
     Some of the poems have already appeared in print; and several pieces which ought to complete the whole are  wanting. The first part of the book deals with the weaving of the veil of the visible world, and is expressed in verse which has a kind of vague solemnity and splendour, though it would have taxed the genius of Shelley to give interest to the indefinite Orm and his shadowy interlocutors, Spirits of the Book, Voices, and Old Men. The following passage from “The Man and the Shadow” seems to reproduce a theory ascribed to Schopenhauer:—

“Lift up thine eyes, old man, and look on me;
Like thee, a dark point in the scheme of things,
Where the dumb Spirit that pervadeth all—
Grass, trees, beasts, man—and lives and grows in all—
Pauses upon itself, and awe-struck feels
The shadow of the next and imminent
Transfiguration. So, a living Man!

     In the “Songs of Corruption” the Sage is reconciled to the common ordinances of decay and death, by a vision in which the bodies of the dead seem no longer to remain and be mingled with the earth, but vanish suddenly with the vanishing of life:—

“And men and women feared the earth behind them;
And for lack of its green graves the world was hateful.”

The “Lifting of the Veil,” in like manner, consoles him for the absence of the sign he had so eagerly desired, by showing what would be the effects of the constant and open presence of the Beatific Vision. The continual splendour petrifies all life and action; and in the details of this vision Mr. Buchanan appears at his best.

     “Hard by I noted
     Little children
     Toddling and playing
     In a field o’ hay—
The Face was looking,
But they were gazing
At one another,
     And what cared they?

     But one I noted,
     A little maiden,
     Look’d up o’ sudden
         And ceased her play,
And she dropped her garland
And stood up gazing,
With hair like sunlight
     And face like clay.”

What connection there may be between the calm of the Sage when he wakens and finds that this strange time was but a dream, and the forced misotheism of the succeeding Coruisken sonnets, it is not easy to see. In these unfortunate verses Mr. Buchanan has exceeded the irreverence, while he has none of the fiery and fitful music, of the choruses in Atalanta in Calydon. If the Palinode of the twenty-ninth sonnet has any sincerity, those entitled “God is Pitiless” and “Could God be Judged” are doubly convicted of being insincere. This assumed Titanism, the affectation of struggle and reconciliation with Destiny, is an offence to the quiet and dignity of poetry. Mr. Buchanan might remember with advantage the words of Althæa in the play which seems so powerfully to have affected him: “Small praise gets man dispraising the high Gods.” In the sonnets “What Spirit Cometh” and “Stay, O Spirit,” he shows what he can do on the ground of human affections and natural pathos. These he deserts again in the poems called “The Devil’s Mystics,” of which all that need be said is that they contain, among much obscurity, reflections of the thought of Clough and Blake. Better things may be looked for from Mr. Buchanan when he returns, in a happier spirit, to the subjects he has by previous treatment made peculiarly his own.

     50. MR. ROSSETTI’S Poems have the unwonted and personal qualities of all really original work. The sense of strangeness is soon lost in admiration of the great beauty of the verses, of their wide range of subject, their various and appropriate music, their lyric fire, their lofty tone, and their high level of common perfection. This perfection becomes almost a difficulty to the critic. For there are scarcely any failures to be set against successes; and the slightest songs are as complete in thought, as elaborate in art, as fitly set to their appropriate melody, as the sonnets or the tragic ballads.
     Some of the sonnets which now appear in “The House of Life,” have already been published under the title of “Sonnets of Love and Life and Death;” and these are indeed the theme with which the greater part of the volume is concerned. It is the elementary, the fundamental passions of human nature, that Mr. Rossetti handles, adding to the universality of his subject the most subtly modern treatment. Love in his poems unites the fervour of the eternal passion with the refinement and reflection of later days—of the love that has thought on itself, and found its own image, with a difference, in the light desires of Greek antiquity, and in the ecstasy of mystic mediæval longings. In this affection are wedded the delight of the eyes and the joy of the heart; and both find perfect utterance in the sonnet called “Love- Sweetness,” which contains the very essence of Mr. Rossetti’s love poetry:—

“Sweet dimness of her loosened hair’s downfall
     About thy face; her sweet hands round thy head
     In gracious fostering union garlanded;
Her tremulous smiles; her glance’s sweet recall
Of love; her murmuring sighs memorial;
     Her mouth’s culled sweetness by thy kisses shed
     On cheeks and neck, and eyelids, and so led
Back to her mouth, which answers there for all:—
     What sweeter things than these, except the thing
     In lacking which all these would lose their sweet:—
     The confident heart’s still fervour; the swift beat
And soft subsidence of the spirit’s wing,
Then when it feels, in cloud-girt wayfaring,
     The breath of kindred plumes against its feet?”

The grief that dwells in this House of Life is not less gracious than the love; it is more patient than hopeful, saddened and soothed with memory, and does “with symbols play” of Christian art. The keynote of many poems is struck in the beautiful preluding verses of “The Blessed Damozel.” There all that it has not entered into the mind of man to conceive, of the joy prepared for tried and reunited lovers, is set forth in figures which recall the early grace of Raphael, and the pure colour of Angelico. But in “The Blessed Damozel” there is more of the glow and movement of real life than in Angelico’s art. Hers is not a painless sympathy with pain”:—

“She cast her arms along
     The golden barriers,
And laid her face between her hands,
     And wept. (I heard her tears.)”

The song of “The Woodspurge” depicts another mood of sorrow, newborn, and scarcely realized, the dull continual pain of a soul shaken from its harmony by stress of the bitter passion whose will is like the wind’s will:—

“The wind flapped loose, the wind was still,
Shaken out dead from tree and hill;
I had walked on at the wind’s will,—
I sat now, for the wind was still.

Between my knees my forehead was,—
My lips drawn in, said not Alas!
My hair was over in the grass,
My naked ears heard the day pass.

My eyes, wide open, had the run
Of some ten weeds to fix upon;
Among these few, out of the sun,
The woodspurge flowered, three cups in one.

From perfect grief there need not be
Wisdom or even memory:
One thing then learnt remains to me,—
The woodspurge has a cup of three.”

     Apart from the main stream of personal emotions are the five poems “Jenny,” “Sister Helen,” “Edenbower,” “The Burden of Nineveh,” and a “Last Confession,” which show the dramatic side of Mr. Rossetti’s genius. Of “Jenny” it may be said that the beauty of modern life, its melancholy, doubt, self-questioning, sad pleasures, and extremes of luxury and wretchedness, have never been more finely treated by poets who find in modern life the only proper subject of modern art; nor has any one of the many authors who have been attracted by the “splendours and miseries of courtezans” seen more clearly “the pity of it,” and the hopelessness:—

“What if to her all this were said?
Why as a volume seldom read,
Being opened halfway, shuts again,
So might the pages of her brain
Be parted at such words, and thence,
Close back upon the dusty sense.”

The necessarily painful character of this poem is relieved by the image of the “rose shut in a book, in which pure women may not look,” as the tragic weight of “A Last Confession” is lightened by the gaiety and charm of the Italian song, and the picture of the loveliness of the girl

               “whose dark lashes evermore
Shook to her laugh, as when a bird flies low
Between the water and the willow leaves,
And the shade quivers till he wins the light.”

The transition from “Jenny” to “Sister Helen” proves, in its abruptness, the versatility of Mr. Rossetti’s genius. In this ballad the depth of sorrow of “the Bonny Hind” and the weirdness of superstition of “the Lykewake Dirge” meet and give each other force and gloom. As in a tragic rendering of the Theocritean idyl, the spells of a revengeful leman bring back the soul of her treacherous lover to the “far abode” where it shall never be severed from the soul of its victim and destroyer. “Edenbower” again, the strange music of which seems to glow with the litheness and life of the most subtle of the beats of the field, is the song of vengeance of the serpent bride of Adam. The power shown in it of adapting music to subject is again displayed in “the Burden of Nineveh,” perhaps the most thoughtful of Mr. Rossetti’s poems.
     While it is too early to attempt to estimate Mr. Rossetti’s place among contemporary poets, it is already obvious that he will not attain immediate popularity. He does not deal at all with easy metaphysics, or touch, in belief or scepticism, on popular theology. Nor has he the sensuous facility of describing nature, though he interprets it with magical fidelity in such lines as

“The empty pastures blind with rain”

or,

“At Iglio, in the first thin shade o’ the hills.”

As a rule, he reads his own emotions into the outward world, as in “The Woodspurge,” or people nature with gracious forms of love, “and many a shape whose name not itself knoweth.” Here, and always, he is a poet of the school of art; and it may be believed that his very highest merits, the personality of a genius only satisfied with artistic perfection, will prove the greatest bar to his general acceptance.

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The London Quarterly (July, 1870)

Glaphyra, and Other Poems. By Francis Reynolds, Author of “Alice Rushton, and Other Poems.” London: Longmans. 1870.
The Book of Orm; a Prelude to the Epic. By Robert Buchanan. Strahan & Co. 1870.
A Tale of Eternity, and Other Poems. By Gerald Massey. Strahan & Co. 1870.
London Lyrics. By Frederic Locker. Strahan & Co. 1870.

     THAT the present age, viewed on one side, is materialistic and utilitarian, cannot be doubted. Nevertheless, there has seldom been an age in any country in which the springs of poetry were fuller or more frequent; or the forms of poetry more fresh, and various, and original. Here are Robert Buchanan and Gerald Massey, both of them exuberant as well as genuine, and often very beautiful, poets, sending forth each a new volume. Here is Mr. Reynolds, a name as yet but little known, but which will undoubtedly take a place among the poets of rarer culture and of higher mark. Here is Mr.  Locker, in a style, it is true, redolent of city-life, and far removed from the sphere of either of the other poets, but in a  vein, notwithstanding, of genuine minstrelsy, putting forth vers de société which may almost rank with those of Praed.
     Modern poetry is too often either sensuous (not to say sensual), and merely objective, whether lyrical, or narrative, or idyllic; or, if subjective, it is sorrowful and sceptical. Mr. Reynolds’s poetry has not a little of the latter character; Buchanan’s Book of Orm has very much. Mr. Reynolds, however, has more philosophy; has a mind more regularly disciplined; and has more thorough culture, especially more of the ancient classic culture, than Buchanan. We cannot pretend, in this brief notice, to give any account of the leading poem, “Glaphyra;” of the longer piece, entitled “Cephalus and Procris,” which follows; of the pathetic but mystical and distempered lines entitled “Absolution;” or of the many minor pieces of the volume. We quote one sonnet, as a sample of the poet’s mastery of measure and language—

“I love thee, Autumn; whether, rude and loud,
     The moist battalions of the bordering main
     Storm through the uplands, leaving in their train
The chastisement of all that hath not bowed;
Whether the morning, decked in amber shroud,
     Looks through the drift of gently falling rain—
     Or moonlight spreads above the steamy plain
Blue straits of sky, and continents of cloud.
I love thee, Autumn;—all thy charms are those
     Which with no rich exceeding vex the mind,
Nor for vain visions barter its repose;
     But in their soft departure leave behind
That true content which bears with present shows,
     Yet to their future meaning is not blind.”

     Buchanan’s Book of Orm has been written, as appears from a note of the author’s, whilst ill-health has weighed upon him. This has prevented the volume from being published in a complete form. “A Rune Found in the Starlight,” “The Songs of Heaven,” are written, but cannot, in Mr. Buchanan’s present state of health, “be made perfect for press.” “The all-important ‘Devil’s Dirge,’” also, we are informed, is wanting in the present edition.
     The body of the volume is divided into ten sections, each section being made up by a number of poems, mostly very short. “Orm the Celt” and his “Visions” appear, in a shadowy, uncertain, phantasmatic way throughout the book, the outline or method of which it would be very difficult to describe. Much of the writing is exceedingly beautiful, though full of sorrow, doubt, and unrest; but more of it is misty and mystical. The old and insoluble problems of the world are perpetually recurring, Mr. Buchanan’s gospel being universalistic. Altogether the tone of the book is so troubled and morbid, that we can well understand that ill-health has given an infection of misery to it throughout. Its obscurity also is almost as pervasive as its sadness.
     Our readers do not need any specimens to be given them of the poet’s power of word-painting, or of the exquisite melodiousness which frequently distinguishes his verse. It is more to the purpose to remark that he has in this book allowed himself in not a few instances to follow Mr. Arnold’s bad example in publishing so-called poems, which are altogether lege soluta, which have neither rhyme, nor metre, nor rhythm. Furthermore, Mr. Buchanan has, unfortunately, no classical culture. Even this, however, is hardly sufficient to account for such a solecism in all ways as that which occurs in the first lines of those we are about to quote:

“Now an evangel
     Whom God loved deep,
Said, ‘See! the mortals,
     How they weep!
They grope in darkness,’” &c., &c.

     The wild “Tale of Eternity” will not add to the fame of Gerald Massey, whose dreams as to eternity and the eternal world, by the way, are very different indeed in their character from those of Buchanan. But the “Carmina Nuptialia,” and the other parts of the volume, are full of the characteristic beauties of Mr. Massey, whose gift (and he has a rare and precious gift) is that of a lyrist. We think we have seen the poem on the late Mr. Thackeray somewhere before, but we are sorry that our limits forbid us to print here lines so true, so touching, so altogether admirable.
     Of the poems of Locker we have already said a word, perhaps enough: they are bright, graceful, and eminently Londonish.

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The Echo (5 August, 1870 - p.2)

     The Book of Orm, by Robert Buchanan (Strahan and Co.).—We cannot say that Mr. Buchanan’s last work appears to us an advance on his previous volumes. It is very clever—sometimes something more; and the “Vision of the Man Accurst”—but for a certain diffuseness and mistiness in parts—would have been really a remarkable poem. But the general impression which the book produces is that of laboured effort, coupled with an autocratic tone which is more or less audible in all Mr. Buchanan’s utterances, and which is the perhaps pardonable fault of a young man. In the “Book of Orm” he comes somewhat too ostentatiously forward to settle once and for ever the greatest mysteries of life; and such sonnets as that entitled “Could God be Judged” betray a self-conscious effort to be bold and striking which is out of place, when we consider the subject. The finest example of human self-assertion which we know is the celebrated quatrain of David Elginbrod, and much in the “Book of Orm” seems to us a windy expansion of that terse and memorable epigram. Mr. Buchanan, with Mr. Matthew Arnold, believes in the Celt; but, whereas Mr. Arnold expects much from the Celt’s leaven of mysticism and imagination, Mr. Buchanan also expects him to conquer the world. “The world’s great future rests with thee,” he says; and, if this be true, we hope the Celt will lose no time in setting about the task, for at present it looks as though the world were crushing the Celt into remote corners, and slowly obliterating him. We should do great injustice to the “Book of Orm,” however, if we omitted to mention that it contains several very finely imaginative passages; and we are bound, besides, to make allowances for the absence of what the author tells us is an “all-important” part of it. Mr. Buchanan, this book informs us, is engaged on an epic. A more modest poet would have published the book, and left others to judge of its epic qualities.

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The Illustrated London News (3 September, 1870 - p.26)

     The Book of Orm. By Robert Buchanan. (Strahan and Co.) The author has by common consent been placed high amongst our modern bards, and this volume will tend to confirm his position so far as his intellectual gifts and his mastery of the mechanical appliances peculiar to his craft are concerned. It is not everybody, however, who can assume the frame of mind required for the proper appreciation of sombre, mystic, enigmatical poetry; and if this volume should become popular, it will show that morbid, melancholy, ghostly feelings and yearnings are more common than one would have supposed amongst our practical population. A perusal of the pages begets such a condition of spirit as might be engendered by a twilight stroll in a beautiful churchyard or a solitary ramble through a fine ruin with a reputation for being haunted. No doubt a certain elevation and chastening of soul may be thus attained; but there is a contemporaneous depression of vital energy and slackness of the nervous system.

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The Guardian (5 October, 1870)

[Note: Another review in which The Book of Orm was compared unfavorably with Rossetti’s Poems. I have included the final paragraph of the Rossetti review, but the full version is available here.]

Reviews.
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Poems. By DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI. Ellis.
The Book of Orm. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. Strahan.
Portraits. By AUGUSTA WEBSTER. Macmillan.

...

     We might search long either in book or memory for a poem which excels this little song in touching our sense of mystery without departing far from the sights and sounds of ordinary earth. Mr. Rossetti’s volume affords many more striking specimens of his power as a poet; but nothing, perhaps, which bears a sharper and more distinctive impress. We have here his simplicity of manner, his directness of expression, his sensibility to impressions from without, and that peculiar skill in blending facts of sense with each other which gives tone, keeping, and moderation to his treatment of the harmonies of thought.
     We wish that on the present occasion we could give Mr. Buchanan praise for merits akin to those of Mr. Rossetti.  Mr. Buchanan is now a poet well known and deservedly esteemed. When some seven years ago he made his appearance as the author of Undertones, he had been, under very disadvantageous circumstances, a student of classical models, and had learned from them some, though by no means all, of the lessons they are fitted to teach. In later volumes he has shown himself a skilful and sympathetic delineator of human nature—a nature essentially the same, whether it is developed in solitude by the side of a Scotch burn, or in the crowded lanes of a great city. A change has now come over him, and he is attempting to deal in verse with those mighty questions which dwarf humanity by their grandeur, making us feel that if we are strong enough to ask them, we are far too weak to answer them. He writes of Earth as of a blind mother, and of God as of a veiled Father; unlike Mr. Rossetti, he insists on the contrast rather than on the connection of the soul and its corporeal dwelling-place; he is a seeker, a doubter, a seer of heavenly visions, an explorer of infernal mysteries. As the mouthpiece of his enigmatical poems, he employs an enigmatical person—Orm the Celt, at once real and imaginary, at once old and young, at once Mr. Buchanan and somebody else. So far as The Book of Orm is associated with any particular place, its scene is one which we trust the Skye Railroad will not divest of its ancient and impressive loneliness—the craggy, cloudy, gleamy, misty Loch Coruisk. It is on its shores that Mr. Buchanan, who is also Orm the Celt, has watched, prayed, struggled; asserted, recanted; interrogated his own spirit and also the Spirit of the Universe. It may be partly in consequence of these stormy experiences that Mr. Buchanan is ill; he has not been able to give his ideas the completeness of form which he desired; among the omissions he regrets is what he calls “the all- important Devil’s Dirge.” The result of his genuine but often ill-directed efforts is a volume of wailing, broken, and intermittent aspiration—interesting to the student of thought as the record of an inner history which has too many parallels, but not to be submitted to untrained readers as a commendable work of art. To make things worse, The Book of Orm is, as we are told, a prelude to an epic. In that epic, if its writer’s mind continues in the same frame, we can no more hope to find the unstrained and continuous music of a fully developed thought than we could expect a regular melody supported by consistent harmonies from the strings of an Æolian harp when strained to the point of breaking, or beyond it, by a strong, rainy, and fitful wind from the south-west. In these days, reviews are written to form the judgment of readers, not to correct the taste of authors; and we cannot assume that these remarks will ever meet the eyes of Mr. Buchanan. But if they should have that honour, we would ask him to consider whether as a poet, and perhaps as a man, he is not in danger of removing himself too far from

The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor prating, though of ample power
To soften and subdue.

     There are times at which society is better than solitude, and the soft warmth of the lowland valley more favourable to health of body and mind than the chilly and austere desolation of the mountain-top. Or if Mr. Buchanan is obliged to move among the solitary peaks of thought, he would, if we are not mistaken, employ himself at present more wisely in drawing, petal by petal, some of the flowers that bloom in the crevices of the rock, than in trying to climb higher and higher at the risk of injurious tension of limb and lung. The work of life, we know, must be done; and we should be sorry to discourage Mr. Buchanan in his course of habitual literary activity. But it is seldom or never a matter of plain duty to write an epic; and Mr. Buchanan had better abstain from proceeding with such a task till his nerves are more firmly  strung, his strength re-established, his command of form more complete, and his thoughts and feelings in a state more capable of satisfactory condensation.

Back to Reviews, Bibliography, Poetry or The Book of Orm.

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Book Reviews - Poetry continued

Napoleon Fallen (1871)

 

Home
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Poetry
Plays
Fiction

 

Essays
Reviews
Letters

 

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

 

The Critical Response
Harriett Jay
Miscellanea

 

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