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Idyls and Legends of Inverburn (1865)


Idyls and Legends of Inverburn (1865)


The Athenæum (13 May, 1865 - pp. 644-645)

Idyls and Legends of Inverburn. By Robert Buchanan. (Strahan.)
IN his second poetical venture, Mr. Buchanan fulfils the anticipations to which his ‘Undertones’ gave rise. We will not say that the present work is richer in aspects of natural beauty than its forerunner, or that it evinces a more poetic design than that which, in ‘Undertones,’ gave a new significance to the old legends of mythology. There is evidence, however, in these ‘Idyls’ of maturing power and of larger experience. The writer’s flight may not be higher, but it is maintained with more uniform ease and certainty. The splendida vitia of a glowing but not fully-disciplined fancy may still be detected, though less frequently than before. Here and there we meet with a forced expression, such as this touching a coquette,—

                                           I ran
To Jessie—found her washing at a tub,
Half guilt—half soap-suds.

Or this describing a hypocrite,—

Blacken’d in sanctity to the finger tips.

Nor is the old tendency to repeat pet phrases quite mastered. The word “honey” and its derivatives, for instance, recur with cloying frequency. From mannerisms of this kind, however, Mr. Buchanan is rapidly freeing himself—learning, even while his power of word-painting grows, that there are limits to what words can effect, and that language is, after all, a compromise with the imagination.
     The contrast in theme between these ‘Idyls’ of to-day and the classic fables of ‘Undertones’ enables their author to prove his capacity for real and homely delineation, as well as for that which is purely imaginative and ideal. Not, let it be understood, that the poems before us lack imagination either in purpose or form. On the contrary, though reality of narrative has been successfully aimed at, there is scarcely a piece here which has not for its centre one of those human truths the perception and development of which are amongst the highest uses of imagination. Thus, in ‘Willie Baird’ we see the simple attachment of a child winning upon and softening the half-sceptical man who before, in missing the presence of love, had missed the atmosphere in which faith could expand. There is an analogous truth in ‘The Two Babes,’ where the little wiles of an infant, and its subsequent death, bring remorse to the heart of a betrayer, and prompt him to reparation. In ‘Poet Andrew’ we have the development of the poetic nature from childhood, its incomprehensibility to those around, and the power of grief to waken at last some comprehension of it even in dull minds. While poor Andrew was in health, his genius was but a stumbling-block to his father, who thus delivers himself,—

                             Mysel’ could get
But little of his company or tongue;
And when we talkt, atweel, a kind of frost,—
My consciousness of silly ignorance,
And worse, my knowledge that the lad himsel’
Felt sorely, keenly, all my ignorant shame,
Made talk a torture out of which we crept
With burning faces. Could you understand.
One who was wild as if he had found a mine
Of golden guineas, when he noticed first
The soft green streaks in a snowdrop’s inner leaves?
And once again, the moonlight glimmering
Thro’ watery transparent stalks of flax?
A flower’s a flower! . . . .

But after the lad comes back from London to die, the father begins to understand him,—

                           For the first last time,
We twa, the lad and I, could sit and crack
With open hearts—free-spoken, at our ease;
I seem’d to know as mucklc then as he,
Because I was sae sad.

     In the idyls already referred to, fidelity to actual life is, perhaps, the characteristic excellence, although the poet’s fancy at times finely asserts itself in descriptions of nature. ‘Lord Ronald’s Wife,’ however, shows ideality of treatment as well as of design. Here the writer deals with what is universal in emotion and external beauty rather than with peculiarities of character and manner. The wife in this lyric is an impulsive, loving, fragile creature, whose April moods are distasteful to her robust and somewhat cold lord, who loves her, nevertheless. At length the wife pines and dies. Lord Ronald knows his sternness then, and gives vent to his remorse:—

All this came back upon my brain
     While I sat alone at your white bedside,
And I remember’d in my pain
     Those words you spoke before you died—
For around my neck your arms you flung, 
     And smiled so sweet though death was near—
“I was so foolish and so young!
     And yet I loved thee!—kiss me, dear!”
I put aside your golden hair,
     And kiss’d you, and you went to sleep;
And when I saw that death was there,
     My grief was cold, I could not weep;
And late last night, when you were dead,
I did not weep beside your bed,
For the curtains were white, and the pane was blue,
               And the moon look’d through,
               And its eye was red—
“How coldly she lies!” I said.

Then loud, so loud, before I knew,
The grey and black cock scream’d and crew,
And I heard the far-off bells intone
               So slowly, so slowly,
The black hound bark’d, and I rose with a groan,
               As the village bells chimed slowly, slowly, slowly.
I dropp’d the hand so cold and thin,
     I gazed, and your face seem’d still and wise,
And I saw the damp dull dawn stare in
     Like a dim drown’d face with oozy eyes;
And I open’d the lattice quietly,
And the cold wet air came in on me
And I pluck’d two roses with fingers chill
From the roses that grew at your window-sill,
I pluck’d two roses, a white and a red,
Stole again to the side of your bed,
Raised the edge of your winding fold.
     Dropp’d the roses upon your breast,
Cover’d them up in the balmy cold,
     That none might know—and there they rest!
And out at the castle-gate I crept
Into the woods, and then . . I wept!
But to-day they carried you from here,
     And I follow’d your coffin with tearless cheek—
They knew not about the roses, dear!—
     I would not have them think me weak.

And I am weary on my bed
Because I know you are cold and dead;
And I see you lie in darkness, Sweet!
With the roses under your winding-sheet;
The days and nights are dreary and cold,
And I am foolish, and weak, and old.

     All this is exquisite—first, for its fine suggestion that the strength which despises the tender graces of life may itself turn to weakness for the want of them; next, for its plaintive music and truth of detail—all the more real for the emotional fancy that suffuses it. Seldom have we met with an epithet more striking than that which throws the shadows of awe and of inscrutable knowledge upon the dead face of the once childlike wife,—

I gazed, and your face seemed still and wise.

     We could willingly indulge in quotation, did our limits permit. The schoolmaster in ‘Willie Baird,’ and. his fellow-mourner, the dog, endowed with that half-human feeling and intelligence which Landseer gives in painting,—the growth of Poet Andrew’s mind,—the delight of “Hugh Sutherland” amongst his pansies,—to say nothing of some melodies from fay-land, full of grace and funtasy,—offer temptations for extract which we do not easily resist. We make room, however, for a. detached passage or two of description or of moral beauty.—


There came a rural music on my ears,—
The waggons in the lanes, the waterfall
With cool sound plunging in its wood-nest wild,
The rooks amid the windy rookery,
The shouts of children, and far away
The crowing of a cock. Then o’er the bridge
I bent, above the river gushing down
Thro’ mossy boulders, making underneath
Green-shaded pools where now and then a trout
Sank in the ripple of its own quick leap;
And like some olden and familiar tune,
Half humm’d aloud, half tinkling in the brain,
Troublously, faintly, came the buzz of looms.


Amid the deep green woods of pine, whose boughs
Made a sea-music overhead, and caught
White flakes of sunlight on their highest leaves,
I foster’d solemn meditations.


While thus I stood the hollow murmur grew
Deeper, the wold grew darker, and the snow
Rush’d downward, whirling in a shadowy mist.
I walk’d to yonder door and open’d it.
Whirr! the wind swung it from me with a clang,
And in upon me with an iron-like crash
Swoop’d in the drift. With pinch’d sharp face I gazed
Out on the storm!


And “Hugh,” I said, “if God the Gardener
Neglected those he rears as you have done
Your pansies and your Pansy, it were ill
For we who blossom in His garden. Night
And morning He is busy at His work.
He smiles to give us sunshine, and we live:
He stoops to pluck us softly, and our hearts
Tremble to see the darkness, knowing not
It is the shadow He, in stooping, casts.

     These extracts and those previously given will doubtless send our readers to the book that contains them.



The London Review (20 May, 1865)

     We turn from the poems of an Irishman to those of a Scotchman. Mr. Buchanan’s “Idyls and Legends of Inverburn” show an increase of power on the volume entitled “Undertones,” which we noticed in the early part of last year, a more positive knowledge of nature, and a greater simplicity of language, yet with no lack of imaginative warmth and richness. The poet has forsaken the fields and mountain heights of Thessaly and Arcadia for the more familiar scenes of his native country. He describes himself in the “Preamble” as quitting London for the little village of Inverburn, partly for the sake of change of air, partly to escape for awhile from the uncongenial society of one Higgs,—

“The shallow cockney with the humorous vein;”

for of course Mr. Buchanan, being a Scotchman, could not possibly write a book without having his little fling at “cockneys.” Higgs, however, appears to be, in one way or another, an unescapable presence; for the poet cannot get him out of his thoughts even when at Inverburn, and, having come to the conclusion that

                                 “Higgs survives,
Higgism is, has been, and still will be,”

he philosophically determines to sing in despite of him and it, and presently plunges into the midst of his “Idyls and Legends.” Why Mr. Buchanan should empty such vials of wrath upon the good old Saxon name of Higgs, as anciently familiar with West of England soil as the very oak roots, when there is nothing in the nature of things why a Higgs should not be among the best and pleasantest of men, is past our conjecture; but we suppose a poet must have his way in such matters. The poems that ensue are, for the most part, drawn from actual Scottish life, as it exists in our days, these being varied by a few elfin fancies and ghostly traditions of the North. The more matter-of-fact sketches are in the manner of Mr. Tennyson’s poems of familiar life, allowing for the difference between English and Scotch; but the imitation is not slavish, and is very probably involuntary. Mr. Buchanan writes with great nerve and force. His delineation of character is often life-like; his pathos, deep, true, and homely; his descriptions of scenery, full of pastoral beauty, tenderness, and sweetness; his touches of the supernatural, instinct with “eerie” feeling; and his versification easy, varied, and expressive. We look forward to his taking a place among the younger poets of the day.



Illustrated Times (20 May, 1865)

Idyls and Legends of Inverburn. By ROBERT BUCHANAN, Author of “Undertones.” (Alex. Strahan.)

     This, also, is a volume of undertones; not like the former, such as might be caught by a listener sitting on a cloud, but such as rise up from an old familiar place to a man with a prepared, affectionate ear. Weary of Higgs,

The callous cockney with the humorous vein,

and his everlasting refrain of “nothing new under the sun,” the singer runs down to Inverburn,

The pink of ancient Scottish villages,

and finds out, as he was sure to do, that there are two sides to the teaching of Higgs—that there is quite enough in what is old under the sun to make us disregard the complaint that there is nothing new. All the human gossip in the place—tragedy, comedy, and tragi-comedy; and all the fairy gossip of the place float up to him as he looks at the place with a kindly, open eye; the peace and rest of his quiet nook turn to music in his mind; and his delight, “though wearing a woodland crown,” begins to look at him with the serious eyes of a generous ambition. In other words, the action of his mind becomes so strong as to demand as large a sympathy as he can possibly get from the world; and the result is this volume, which is, externally, one of the prettiest ever issued, without having about it one atom of ornament that is not in the chastest “woodland” taste.
     The world knows very well that Mr. Buchanan is a poet, and some of the highest among those by whom the world expects to be helped to decisive conclusions about such matters think his name stands written on the very “forehead of the age.” His first volume, however, appealed to the kind of public which must always be limited; it contained but little that was to be really understood without a good deal of cultivated thinking, on the part of the reader; though a reciter would make it intelligible to anyone, cultivated or not. Even in the present volume the atmosphere of thought is rare and fine; but there is so much human warmth in it that no one can turn away saying it is too rare. Here we have no longer the “sweet-breathing presence” of the gods and the “lids of Juno’s eyes,” but the colour and scent of garden-flowers and the smoke of humble cottagers. It is surely no ground of complaint that the poet follows the household smoke upwards till it passes through “the regions of the rain” to an inner heaven.
     One great distinguishing praise belongs to Mr. Buchanan as a writer of pastoral poetry—he is not “ornate” in the bad sense. There is nothing in all he has written like that astonishing line in “Enoch Arden” where Mr. Tennyson, intending to inform the reader that Enoch took some of his codfish up to the hall every Friday, says that the hall’s “Friday fare was Enoch’s ministering.” Nor is Mr. Buchanan over Scottish; he has no unnecessary provincialisms though he retains enough to keep up the characteristique of the song, considered as Scotch song.
     These poems are, briefly described, a collection of village tales, human and fairy, put into very beautiful and picturesque music. The little boy who was the schoolmaster’s pet and died; the half-wit that fell in love; the cottage home from which the first-born went up to London to fight the battle of ambition and fell in the first encounter; the stepmother who came back from her grave and took away her bairns to her bosom one by one; the beautiful village widow (every village has a beautiful widow, who keeps the inn), “buxom as a sheaf of wheat;” the Minister of Woodilee, whom the elfin beauty could not turn from God; and all the “undertones” of Inverburn are here. Best of all we like “The English Huswife’s Gossip,” “The Two Babes,” “Widow Mysie,” “January Wind,” and “The Stepmother.” But “Hugh Sutherland’s Pansies” is a beautiful poem, and it is hard to choose. We shall quote


The wind, wife, the wind; how it blows, how it blows;
It grips the latch, it shakes the house, it whistles, it screams, it crows,
It dashes on the window-pane, then rushes off with a cry,
Ye scarce can hear your own loud voice, it clatters so loud and high;
And far away upon the sea it floats with thunder-call,
The wind, wife, the wind, wife; the wind that did it all!

The wind, wife, the wind; how it blew, how it blew;
The very night our boy was born, it whistled, it screamed, it crew;
And while you moan’d upon your bed, and your heart was dark with fright,
I swear it mingled with the soul of the boy you bore that night;
It scarcely seems a winter since, and the wind is with us still,—
The wind, wife; the wind, wife; the wind that blew us ill!

The wind, wife, the wind; how it blows, how it blows!
It changes, shifts, without a cause, it ceases, it comes and goes;
And David ever was the same, wayward, and wild, and bold—
For wilful lad will have his way, and the wind no hand can hold;
But ah! the wind, the changeful wind, was more in the blame than he;
The wind, wife; the wind, wife, that blew him out to sea!

The wind, wife, the wind; now ’tis still, now ’tis still;
And as we sit I seem to feel the silence shiver and thrill,
’Twas thus the night he went away, and we sat in silence here,
We listen’d to our beating hearts, and all was weary and drear;
We long’d to hear the wind again, and to hold our David’s hand—
The wind, wife; the wind, wife, that blew him out from land!

The wind, wife, the wind; up again, up again!
It blew our David round the world, yet shriek’d at our window-pane;
And ever since that time, old wife, in rain, and in sun, and in snow,
Whether I work or weary here, I hear it whistle and blow,
It moans around, it groans around, it wanders with scream and cry—
The wind, wife; the wind, wife; may it blow him home to die!

And then a few lines from


O sweet was Widow Mysie, sweet and sleek!
The peach’s blush and down were on her cheek,
And there were dimples in her tender chin
For Cupids small to hunt for honey in;
Dark-glossy were her ringlets, each a prize,
And wicked, wicked were her beaded eyes;
Plump was her figure, rounded and complete,
And tender were her tiny tinkling feet!
All this was nothing to the warmth and light
That seem’d to hover o’er her day and night;
Where’er she moved, she seem’d to soothe and please
With honeyed murmurs as of honeyed bees;
Her small plump hands on public missions flew
Like snow-white doves that flying crow and coo;
Her feet fell patter, cheep, like little mice;
Her breath was soft with sugar and with spice;
And when her finger—so!—your hand would press,
You tingle to the toes with lovliness,
While her dark eyes, with lessening zone in zone,
Flasht sunlight on the mirrors of your own,
Dazzling your spirit with a wicked sense
That seem’d more innocent than innocence!

Sure one so beauteous and so sweet had graced
And cheer’d the scene, where’er by Fortune placed;
But with a background of the pewter bright,
Whereon the fire cast gleams of rosy light,
With jingling glasses round her, and a scent
Of spice and lemon-peel where’er she went,
What wonder she should to the cronies seem
An angel, in a cloud of toddy steam?
What wonder, while I sipt my glass one day,
She, and the whisky, stole my heart away?

     One of these idyls will be recognised at once as having a specific interest, that the reader who knows the story of a young poet whose compositions Lord Houghton edited will seize at once. But the book stands in need of no personal or peculiar interest to make it delightful. It is a gift to be grateful for. We do not call to mind any volume of modern poetry so rich in tenderly-told story, beautifully-painted picture, and abundant, spontaneous music. For the few Scotticisms which the author thinks fit to employ there is a glossary, which will be welcome to English readers.



Glasgow Herald (3 June, 1865)


IDYLS AND LEGENDS OF INVERBURN. By Robert Buchanan, author of “Undertones.” London: Alexander Strahan. (Pp. 206.)

MR. BUCHANAN’S “Undertones,” or new readings of some of the old stories of the Grecian mythology, were productions showing very considerable thought in so young an author, richness of imagination, and bold and sometimes original colouring. They were wordy no doubt, but the very wealth of language displayed was full of promise, and we took occasion when reviewing them to express an opinion that Mr. Buchanan, by careful study, would yet secure a forward position amongst British poets. “The Idyls and Legends of Inverburn” are neither so original nor so suggestive as the “Undertones.” The author has been less ambitious, and has struck a lower key, but we have no doubt his second effort will be much more popular than the first, for he now deals not with half-incomprehensible gods, goddesses, fauns, and satyrs, but with simple, pathetic tales of village life. The plan of the book is described in a beautiful preamble. The author revisits his native village of Inverburn, and recounts the stories and legends of its rustic inhabitant. Chief of these are the Idyls “Willie Baird,” “Poet Andrew,” “The English Huswife’s Gossip,” and “The Two Babes.” The village itself is thus described—

                             Why, yonder stood,
A fledgling’s downward flight beyond the spire,
The grey old manse, endear’d by memories
Of Jean the daughter of the minister;
And in the cottage with the painted sign,
Hard by the bridge, how many a winter night
Had I with politicians sapient-eyed
Discuss’d the county paper’s latest news
And tippled Sandie’s best!—And nought seem’d changed!
The very gig before the smithy door,
The barefoot lassie with the milking pail   
Pausing and looking backward from the bridge,
The last rook wavering homeward to the wood,
All seem’d a sunset-picture, every tint
Unchanged, since I had bade the place farewell. 
My heart grew garrulous of olden times, 
And my face sadden’d, as I saunter’d down.
There came a rural music on my ears,—   
The waggons in the lanes, the waterfall
With cool sound plunging in its wood-nest wild,
The rooks amid the windy rookery,
The shouts of children, and afar away   
The crowing of a cock. Then o’er the bridge
I bent, above the river gushing down
Thro’ mossy boulders, making underneath
Green-shaded pools where now and then a trout
Sank in the ripple of its own quick leap;
And like some olden and familiar tune,
Half humm’d aloud, half tinkling in the brain,
Troublously, faintly, came the buzz of looms.

     The schoolmaster tells the story of Willie Baird and his dog Donald, two favourite pupils, who weaned the simple- hearted Dominie from his pride of learning and scepticism back to the faith of his childhood—

“For, mind you, like my betters, I had been
Half scoffer, half believer.”

     Willie perished in a snowstorm after leaving school to walk home with his faithful companion Donald, and round this little tragic incident Mr. Buchanan has gathered some of the finest poetic thoughts in his book. Scotchmen will admire the skill with which Scotch words are woven into the narrative. They are always expressive, and seem just the natural slips of the tongue which a schoolmaster would make when speaking in earnest. Here, for example, is a good illustration—

                   “‘Come here, my bairn!”
And timid as a lamb he seedled up.
‘What do they call ye?’ ‘Willie,’ coo’d the wean,
Up-peeping slyly, scraping with his feet.”

     The Scotch words in Italics are exquisite, and could only have been used by one who is a thorough master of the beautiful Doric that still lingers in remote villages. There is much in this fine poem that we could quote, to show how delicately and powerfully at times the poet handles his theme, but we have only space to give the description of the storm in which the little hero perished:—

     I started to my feet, look’d out, and knew
The winter wind was whistling from the clouds
To lash the snow-clothed plain, and to myself
I prophesied a storm before the night.
Then with an icy pain, an eldritch gleam,
I thought of Willie; but I cheer’d my heart,
“He’s home, and with his mother, long ere this!”
While thus I stood the hollow murmur grew
Deeper, the wold grew darker, and the snow
Rush’d downward, whirling in a shadowy mist.
I walk’d to yonder door and open’d it.
Whirr! the wind swung it from me with a clang,
And in upon me with an iron-like crash
Swoop’d in the drift. With pinch’d sharp face I gazed
Out on the storm! Dark, dark was all! A mist,
A blinding, whirling mist, of chilly snow,
The falling and the driven; for the wind
Swept round and round in clouds upon the earth,
And birm’d the deathly drift aloft with moans,
Till all was swooning darkness. Far above
A voice was shrieking, like a human cry.

     In “Poet Andrew” is exhibited the upbringing of genius in the house of a poor weaver. Mr. Buchanan most appropriately makes the father tell the story of his gifted son—all his fears, hopes, and aspirations for the youth, the sorrow of himself and mother when they found that he was idling his time in making silly rhymes instead of preparing himself to “wag his head in a poopit.” Andrew is misunderstood at home and amongst the villagers, and, after one session at college, fairly breaks loose from all restraint and goes to London, “to win himself an everlasting name.” But consumption, the mortal enemy of many a young bard, seizes him, and he comes back to Inverburn to be thoroughly reconciled to his good parents and to die. Andrew’s father is a Scotch peasant of the very best class, somewhat stern in demeanour, shrewd, and tinctured with the least grain of worldliness, but with genuine tenderness of heart breaking through his uncultured nature. The following passage show the hard side of the Inverburn weaver:—

                               ’Twas his manner, sir!
He seldom lookt his father in the face,
And when he walkt about the dwelling, seem’d
Like one superior; dumbly he would steal
To the burnside, or into Lintlin Woods,
With some new-farrant book,—and when I peep’d,
Behold a book of jingling-jangling rhyme,
Fine-written nothings on a printed page;  
And, press’d between the leaves, a flower perchance,
Anemone or blue Forget-me-not,  
Pluckt in the grassy loanin’. Then I peep’d   
Into his drawer, among his papers there,
And found—you guess?—a heap of idle rhymes,
Big-sounding, like the worthless printed book:
Some in old copies scribbled, some on scraps
Of writing paper, others finely writ
With spirls and flourishes on big white sheets.
I clench’d my teeth, and groan’d. The beauteous dream
Of the good Preacher in his braw black dress,
With house and income snug, began to fade
Before the picture of a drunken loon
Bawling out songs beneath the moon and stars,—
Of poet Willie Clay, who wrote a book
About King Robert Bruce, and aye got fu’, 
And scatter’d stars in verse, and aye got fu’,
Wept the world’s sins, and then got fu’ again,

     This is the softer nature of the man:—

     . . And you think weel of Andrew’s book? You think
That folk will love him, for the poetry’s sake,
Many a year to come? We take it kind
You speak so weel of Andrew!—As for me,
I can make naething of the printed book;
I am no scholar, sir, as I have said,
And Mysie there can just read print a wee.
Ay! we are feckless, ignorant of the world!
And though ’twere joy to have our boy again
And place him far above our lowly house,
We like to think of Andrew as he was
When, dumb and wee, he hung his gold and gems
Round Mysie’s neck; or—as he is this night—
Lying asleep, his face to heaven,—asleep, 
Near to our hearts, as when he was a bairn,
Without the poetry and human pride
That came between us, to our grief, langsyne.

     The English Huswife’s Gossip is all about her husband’s brother, a half-natural,

At three-and-forty, simple as a child,
Soft as a sheep yet curious as a daw;
Wise, cunning, in a fashion of his own,
Queer, watchful, strange, a puzzle to us all:—
That’s John!

     John’s story is his love for a village flirt, who courts him for fun, and at last flings off the artless lover and takes to a shameful life at Edinglass. John finds her out in her misery, and when at last a glimmering of her sad condition dawns upon his comprehension, he sinks under the thought. The “Two Babes” is Mr. Buchanan’s most ambitious effort in the present volume; but we are inclined to think that he has laboured too much in its production. It bears the marks of the hammer. The character of Matthew Bell is that of the conventional, greedy, and godly Scotch farmer, who keeps “John Calvin’s Sabbath all the gloomy week” in his house, and whose sour precepts and rules, and the still sourer temper of a second wife whom he marries, alienates from him the heart of his only daughter. Robin Anderson comes as man servant to the farm, talks over with glozing tongue the farmer and his wife, and also the farmer’s daughter, who has at last to fly and hide her disgrace from her stern parents. But Anderson, the author of the evil, remains and flourishes, a fact which seems to us quite unaccountable under the circumstances. He is not all evil, however, for the prattle of a child brings him in mind of his own paternal duties, and all comes well in the end. The character of this man is powerfully drawn. Here are the first outlines of it:—

     A clever lad was Robin Anderson!
A clever, clever lad with fox’s eyes!
A clever, clever lad in lambskin’s gear!
Kirk over, Matthew took him by the arm,
And, with a grim inquisitorial look,
Question’d the trembling lad upon the text,—
And scarce a word the preacher dropt that day
But Robin had by heart. Then Matthew Bell
Was hugely pleased to see the lad so good—
So grand a worker with the reaping-hook,
And such a pattern at his prayers beside:
“Keep on, my lad,” he said, “as you begin;
You’ll be a wealthy man, before you die
And go to glory.” After that, to kirk
Went Robin, never missing night or morn.
Next, later on, one Sabbath night, the lad
Came stumping to the kitchen, in his hand
An old torn Bible, and, with hums and haws,
And mighty fear of giving some offence,
Would have the Farmer open and expound
A text that puzzled sore. Now, nothing pleased
Old Matthew better than the like of this—
A chance of showing off the grace of God,
And his own Scripture learning, both at once.
He smiled and took the Book, put on his specs,
And read, and as he read expounded all,
With godly-worldly comment of his own,
Till Robin stared in awe, and saw it plain,
And thank’d his teacher with a hungry look,
And with a sigh that seem’d to rend his heart
Wish’d he were half as holy, half as good,
Or half as learn’d, as Matthew. After that,
He came on other errands ben the house,
Hearken’d to Matthew like a hungry sheep,
And grew so pious, holy, and so good,
That when the wheat was shorn and strain’d and put
With golden glitter in the bank in town,
Old Matthew paid the crowd of reapers off,
But kept the creeshie Robin Anderson
To do a labourer’s work about the farm.

     From “Hugh Sutherland’s Pansies” and “The Widow Mysie,” the one pathetic and other humorous, we might cull several well-written passages as samples of Mr. Buchanan’s powers; but we are certain we have already given sufficient to induce many of our readers to turn to his book and find these out for themselves. One or two of the lyrical pieces are very fine, especially “Lord Ronald’s Wife,” and “The Legend of the Stepmother.” The latter, in its intense feeling, seems to us to catch the spirit of some of the eerie old ballads, and one experiences a strange creeping sensation while reading it. We append the first two stanzas:—

As I lay asleep, as I lay asleep,
Under the grass as I lay so deep,
As I lay asleep in my cotton serk
Under the shade of Our Lady’s Kirk,
I waken’d up in the dead of night,
I waken’d up in my death-serk white,
And I heard a cry from far away,
And I knew the voice of my daughter May:
“Mother, mother, come hither to me!
Mother, mother, come hither and see!
Mother, mother, mother dear,
Another mother is sitting here:
My body is bruised, and in pain I cry,
On straw in the dark afraid I lie,
I thirst and hunger for drink and meat, 
And mother, mother, to sleep were sweet!”
I heard the cry, though my grave was deep,
And awoke from sleep, and awoke from sleep.

I awoke from sleep, I awoke from sleep,
Up I rose from my grave so deep!
The earth was black, but overhead
The stars were yellow, the moon was red;
And I walk’d along all white and thin,
And lifted the latch and enter’d in,
And reach’d the chamber as dark as night,
And though it was dark my face was white;
“Mother, mother, I look on thee!
Mother, mother, you frighten me!
For your cheeks are thin and your hair is grey!”
But I smiled, and kiss’d her fears away,
I smooth’d her hair and I sang a song,
And on my knee I rock’d her long:
“O mother, mother, sing low to me—
I am sleepy now, and I cannot see!”
I kiss’d her, but I could not weep, 
And she went to sleep, she went to sleep.

     We heartily recommend Mr. Buchanan’s work to all lovers of true poetry.



The Pall Mall Gazette (7 June, 1865)


WHEN the new brightness, which in KEATS and SHELLEY had been too chromatic, passed through the steadier mind of WORDSWORTH, and laid itself in level shafts of unconfusing light across nature and human story, there was done for poetry a work the good effects of which have perhaps reached their limit, so far as our own time can recognize them. It is neither desirable nor possible for young poets to escape the influence of that tendency which Mr. TENNYSON, taking the work out of the hands of WORDSWORTH, and pursuing it with a more fastidious touch, has carried to such perfection in the enamelled manner that we can scarcely bring ourselves to think of poetry without it—the tendency, namely, to converge the light and to isolate the colour in masses. Neither is it easy for young poets to help falling into that way of looking at nature which is so very characteristic of modern poetry and so direct a consequence of modern habits—a way in which the country is looked at from the town, with the sharply discriminating eye of one who seeks out nature, asking for a sympathy which he cannot find in the city. Yet this is growing almost wearisome. We cannot help longing, now and then, for a freer, broader way of dealing with nature and life; a manner that should not draw lines so sharply; that should not separate nature, but find her, meet her, walk with her; the manner that hangs the myrtle on the sword-hilt, and drops the garland in the street. We weary, too, of this level, converging light of poetry, even when it glows and flushes as it does in a volume like that before us.
     We think, indeed, that our young poets would paint better pictures if they would take less thought about the framing. To those who call to mind Mr. ALEXANDER SMITH’S early rhetoric of simile, and Mr. SWINBURNE’S quite recent superfœtation of metaphor, it may seem absurd to urge upon young poets to be a little wilder, to “let go” more. But the advice is needed. This framing of poetic picture is becoming too much of a pursuit. This studious bouquet-making leaves us ready to welcome a gypsy muse who might be surprised into letting fall a lap-full of wildings; from whose unliterary lips the music might be shaken like cherry-blooms in the wind:—

Oh for the flowers that, frighted, thou lett’st fall
From Diss’s waggon!

The spilt garland, the shot colour, the prismatic light—this is of the very essence of poetry. The steadying of the light is well, is excellent as a discipline, but for all that, it is “the intimate and ineradicable peculiarity of the poet to work on and on for ever in a purely ideal element, according to a law totally unlike that of rational association;” and all the set stones and framed pictures in the world, however beautiful (and those of Mr. BUCHANAN are beautiful), will not still the longing in our bosoms for that which is “simple, sensuary, and passionate.”
     We might go on to say that the “passionate” element is wanting, too, in a great deal of this idyllic poetry that is so plentiful. The frequent writing of such verse is apt to take what Mr. MATTHEW ARNOLD has with such exquisite felicity called “the lyrical cry” out of the poet’s music. We once read some verses of Mr. BUCHANAN’S (“To DAVID in  Heaven”) prefixed to his Undertones, in which there was the lyrical cry; but it is scarcely heard through the music in the lyrics which appear in this volume. The poet has chastised himself too severely in one direction. The lyrical cry should be here, considering what sort of man Mr. BUCHANAN has shown himself to be; and it should be of a quality all his own, not, as in SHELLEY, the scream of a fainting woman; nor the blunted moan which is heard in Mr. ARNOLD’S Faded Leaves; nor the manly appeal of BURNS against the coming tears—

For pity’s sake, sweet bird, nae mair,
Or my puir heart is broken;

but something wholly original and cognate. We cannot describe it till we hear it, but if Mr. BUCHANAN would take courage and let us hear it, he would, we dare to say, write poetry which would live in company of a high order. We should naturally expect to find, but we do not find (unless our ears are dull, which may, of course, be), the lyrical cry in the beautiful little poem called January Wind”—one of the village voices of Inverburn—of which here are two verses:—

The wind, wife, the wind; how it blows, how it blows;
It grips the latch, it shakes the house, it whistles, it screams, it crows,
It dashes on the window-pane, then rushes off with a cry,
Ye scarce can hear your own loud voice, it clatters so loud and high;
And far away upon the sea it floats with thunder-call;
The wind, wife; the wind, wife; the wind that did it all!

The wind, wife, the wind; up again, up again!
It blew our David round the world, yet shrieked at our window-pane;
And ever since that time, old wife, in rain, and in sun, and in snow,
Whether I work or weary here, I hear it whistle and blow,
It moans around, it groans around, it wanders with scream and cry—
The wind, wife; the wind, wife; may it blow him home to die!

     Nobody will deny the merit of this, but it does not seem to us to have the wail in it that is wanted, and that we found somewhere else, when we were not looking for it, namely, in the idyl of the “Two Babes”;—

If, wedded, I had such another child
As lies before me, and the child should die
For lack of such a love as I could give,
Would all the gold and silver in the world,
Wipe from my soul that piteous baby-face?
Would twenty thousand prayers, pray’d day and night,
Drown in the hearing of the Lord my God
The cry my babe had utter’d as it died?

This is positively faulty, but it is real, and there is in it no excess of music over emotion. Indeed, in fifty passages throughout the book, we catch accents of distinct pathetic beauty; but none so strong as these totally unlooked-for lines, which really seem rather to have fallen into the poem than to have been put there. It appears to us that Mr. BUCHANAN has a true insight into the workings of the heart, and a true and tender reverence for simple, uncultivated goodness— which may, indeed, mislead him into forgetfulness of those poetic affinities which, for some years to come, must be dominant. For, however large his emotional experience may be, and his knowledge of life, we should suppose he is much too young for that “solidarity” of experience and imagination to have been brought about which can alone make the highest kind of “human” poetry possible to even the most exquisite artist.
     After all this, the patient reader will be glad to learn that Idyls and Legends of Inverburn is a volume of genuine poetry of distinguished merit, in which the homely gossip and the fairy (and other) legends of a village are sung in bright and varied measures. It is, indeed, one of the most charming volumes of poetic narrative that we know. Some people can manipulate a story in verse more or less grotesquely; but Mr. BUCHANAN can tell one, and it is a rare gift.
     Among the best poems in the book are “The Two Babes,” “The Widow Mysie,” “The English Huswife’s Gossip,” and “The Legend of the Stepmother.” After considerable debate, we decide for ourselves—but endeavouring to set aside all merely personal likings—that “The Widow Mysie” comes nearer to the unity which makes a work of art than any other poem in the book. Now and then we get a little monotony in the rhythm of the blank verse (which, after Mr. BUCHANAN’S Undertones, surprises us), and there are of course faulty lines; but we believe everybody who looks into the volume will covet it for his own book-shelves.

     *Idyls and Legends of Inverburn. By ROBERT BUCHANAN, Author of “Undertones.” (London: Strahan and Co.)



The Reader (17 June, 1865)

     Mr Buchanan has here attempted to set modern life—more especially that of the lower Scotch classes— into poetry. Nor can we regard the attempt as a failure, though it is far from a complete success. To write a novel in verse requires the same great qualifications as are necessary for a dramatist. Mr Buchanan is at times excessively happy in his descriptions of local scenery; shows the power of seizing the traits of child-life; and exhibits now and then, not only humour, but a delicate pathos. Many of these rare qualities, however, are marred by a want of a severer discipline than any to which Mr Buchanan has apparently accustomed himself. The descriptions become at times over-loaded and the humour once or twice degenerates into vulgarism. But, after all, it is the poet himself who must perform the difficult task of criticism—he who without shrinking must mark his own shortcomings, and discover where his strength lies. This a critic can but partially tell him. Mr Buchanan has not only given us promise, but performance. We have purposely abstained from making any quotations from his words, hoping that our readers may be induced to read the original, especially the story of Willie Baird.



The Nonconformist (21 June, 1865)


     Under the above title, Mr. Buchanan presents us with some very pleasant scenes and sketches. They are all Scottish; and profess to be the result of a “recreation tour,” far away from the stir and excitement of great cities, and where life still keeps its unfaded aroma of simplicity and nature. It is pleasant to see how much of the verse, which is being poured so unintermittingly from our press, deals with the scenes and affections of domestic life. When a writer is seeking to attract our attention, he does not try to accomplish his end by what is remote from us. The favourite hero of the day is not one

“Sated of home, of wife and children tired.”

We are apt to suspect that the misanthrope and the cynic are what they are, not because their hearts are too deep, but rather because they are shallow and unsympathising. Mr. Tennyson, we admit, never uttered a truer word than when he described the poet as

“Dowered with the love of love, the hate
Of hate, the scorn of scorn.”

And it is in this kindly, genial spirit that Mr. Buchanan writes.
     A pleasant unity is given to this “poet’s portfolio” by the description of the scenery with which it is associated. Very refreshing under the burning sun, is

                       “The waterfall,
With cool sound plunging in its wood-nest wild”—

nor less tempting,

“The deep green woods of pine, whose boughs
Made a sea-music overhead, and caught
White flakes of sunlight on their highest leaves.”

Within reach is the old familiar village, with its “glimmering spire that peeped above the firs,” the manse, the cottage “with the painted sign,” haunt of “politicians sapient-eyed”; while around stretches the wide fringe of moor and hill-side. May such be your summer paradise, courteous reader, when the over-taxed brain begins to feel even its chosen work a drudgery, and Duty herself, goddess high and austere, yields with a smile the claim to well-merited repose.
     We do not claim for these sketches any great amount of originality or even of force. They deal mostly with the more common elements of human experience; without exhibiting much of that conflict of feeling, or that subtler complexity of motive, which characterise, for example, the Laureate’s latest idyll. There are depths sounded in “Enoch Arden” which the author of these “Idyls and Legends” nowhere explores. But though they do not possess merits of this kind, it is impossible to withhold from them the praise which belongs to whatever is written with simplicity, pathos, and truth to human nature. Our favourite amongst them all is “Willie Baird.” This is the name of a dear little lad, of some six summers, the pet scholar of the village dominie, who, in “grey hose and clumpy boots,” exercises his despotic authority among the youth of Inverburn. “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings”—saith Holy Writ; and we have met with few things sweeter than the way in which the tenderness and heaven-freshness of infancy, twining as it does here, about the dried ruggedness of the old man, who had learnt to think “the life beyond a useless dream, best left alone,” causes it to blossom anew with the sweet flowers of affection and piety. Little Willie has a collie dog, who seems half a brother to him, bringing him to school and taking him home again, and we are touchingly made to feel how a child’s queries—as here, respecting his dumb companion’s destiny—may outstrip a wise man’s answers.

“He speired of death; and were the sleepers cold  
Down in the dark wet earth? and was it God
That put the grass and flowers in the kirk-yard?
What kind of dwelling-place was heaven above?
And was it full of flowers? and were there schools
And dominies there? and was it far away?
Then, with a look that made your eyes grow dim,
Clasping his wee white hands round Donald’s neck,
‘Do doggies gang to heaven?’ he would ask;
‘Would Donald gang?’ and keeked in Donald’s face,
While Donald blinked with meditative gaze,
As if he knew full brawly what we said,
And pondered o’er it, wiser far than we,
But how I answered, how explained these themes,
I know not. Oft I could not speak at all,
Yet every question made me think of things
Forgotten, puzzled so, and when I strove
To reason, puzzled me so much the more,
That, flinging logic to the winds, I went
Straight forward to the mark in Willie’s way,
Took most for granted, laid down premises
Of Faith, imagined, gave my wit the reins,
And oft on nights at e’en, to my surprise,
Felt palpably an angel’s glowing face
Glimmering down upon me, while mine eyes
Dimmed their old orbs with tears that came unbid
To bear the glory of the light they saw.”

     Poor Willie’s end, with the snowdrift for his grave, is told with a pathos that will moisten not a few eyes! Here and there, indeed, in this as in the other poems, weak lines occur. Thus the words, “to my surprise,” (tears) “that came   unbid,” in the above extract, add nothing to the sense, and would be much better away. But it is not often that the writer errs in this way.
     “Poet Andrew” is the “ower true tale” of the sadness and premature death of a child of genius. Andrew promised to be a “scholar,” and the simple ambition of his parents—in a country where university culture is not out of the reach of the peasant—pictured him already “drest in decent black, throned in a pulpit.” But culture and poetry—neither deep nor true enough to harmonise with the unambitious life of home—comes like a cold, keen knife, between parent and child to estrange him. At length, like another Chatterton, Andrew sets off for London, as the proper sphere for genius, only to return, breast and cheek glowing with the death-mark of consumption. We must find room for the passage in which the touching story of reconcilement is told:—

                     “Andrew was dying, dying:
The beauteous dream had melted like a mist
The sunlight feeds on: a’ remaining now
Was Andrew, bare and barren of his pride,
Stark of conceit, a weel-belovëd child,
Helpless to help himsel’, and dearer thus,
As when his yaumer—like the corn-craik’s cry
Heard in a field of wheat at dead o’ night—
Brake on the hearkening darkness of the bield.

     “And as he nearer grew to God the Lord,
Nearer and dearer ilka day he grew
To Mysie and mysel’—our own to love,
The world’s no longer. For the first last time,
We twa, the lad and I, could sit and crack
With open hearts—free-spoken, at our ease;
I seem’d to know as muckle then as he,
Because I was sae sad

     Less to our liking is the story called, “The Two Babes.” Unless we are mistaken, we catch here an echo from the Laureate’s exquisite and, in our opinion, much undervalued poem, “Sea Dreams.” The farmer, who is almost as well read in his Bible as in his ledger, with his “puzzling texts,” and “dismal pictures of the Pit” that frightened his innocent wife “up to Heaven before her time,” bears a tolerably close resemblance to the worthy who could refer you to “Daniel seven and ten,” while throwing on a sand-bank all your “poor scrapings from a dozen years.” “The Two Babes” is an unpleasing picture from beginning to end; and all the moral it contains seems to be that “stolen sweets and fleshly vanities” may work a change even in the deepest dyed of hypocrites. This whole piece is conceived more in the hard realistic spirit of Crabbe than the rest; and the difference is not a recommendation to our taste. With these house and home pictures are interspersed a few shorter pieces, based, apparently, on the folk-lore of the neighbourhood. We confess to having rather lost faith in “fays” and “gnomes,” et hoc genus omne. But the verses are at least pretty and musical.
     It will be seen from the extracts given that the language employed by Mr. Buchanan partakes to a considerable extent of the Lowland Scotch. But this will be to most a recommendation rather than a drawback. How much our vocabulary is enriched by such Scotticisms as “to crack” (to gossip, chat), “feckless,” “daft,” “gloaming,” “gumlie,” “to keek,” “sough,” “reek,” and others which Mr. Buchanan has thought it necessary to explain in the short glossary which he has very properly added for the benefit of readers who have still their Scotch to learn. We may remark, however, that while the said glossary, brief as it is, contains some words which whatever their origin, are now universally accepted as English, it omits a considerable number which are unquestionably Scotch. Take, for instance, among others, “byre,” “creeshie,” “lawlan,” “stumpie-stowsie” (?), “tapsileeries”—both which last may well be unknown to the English reader, as we confess they are to us—except from the context. We may remark, that Mr. Buchanan has a way of doubling words which we do not always see the propriety of. “Scrape—scrape—scrape”as descriptive of the action of a dog seeking admittance by a closed door, is rather vivid than elegant, but it may perhaps be justified or excused. But the use of such reduplications as “tingling, tingling,” “humming, humming,” “thinking, thinking,” “dragging, dragging,” “sough—soughing,” strikes us as childish. No doubt people do often express themselves in this way; but, for ourselves, we have never given in to the theory, that the language of common life must necessarily be poetic. There is little to offend even a fastidious taste in this volume, but with that little we must class “unpetticoated Eve,” and “breekless Adam Gardener,” as offensive vulgarisms—no way commended by the semi-jocose way in which they are introduced. Nor do we see any peculiar felicity in the epithet “mixtie-maxtie” applied by the writer to dull, confused echoes. “Whuzzle-whazzle,” an onomatopœic word (if word it may be called), indicating the back and forward whirr of the loom, though equally uncouth, has at least the merit before referred to, of telling its own tale with unmistakeable plainness; but hardly this can be pleaded for the extraordinary nursery compound under discussion. Then it seems to us a needless mystification to talk about “Edinglass,” in confessedly Scotch stories. Of course, everybody will discover the said proper name to be made up of the fore parts of the names, Edinburgh and Glasgow, and that therefore it cannot properly be identified with either. But what object is gained? Where would be the harm of leaving the reader to locate Andrew or Maggie in Edinburgh or Glasgow, instead of some imaginary city which is to be neither? This is a favourite trick of nomenclature in the present day—Mr. Anthony Trollope’s novels having perhaps set the example. Of course it is the duty of the writer of fiction so to use the materials of his experience, as to render the identification of his characters with actual persons impossible to the public; but we do not see how this end is in any considerable degree, or indeed at all, facilitated by the use of so transparent an artifice as that employed by our author. It rather seems likely to defeat it, by provoking curiosity by a thin disguise.
     Mr. Buchanan has been already favourably introduced to the readers of poetry, by a previous volume, and the present bouquet of “Idyls and Legends” will be sure to make him more extensively a favourite.

     * Idyls and Legends of Inverburn. By ROBERT BUCHANAN, author of “Undertones.” Strahan.



The Guardian (27 June, 1865 - p.6)

Idyls and Legends of Inverburn. By Robert Buchanan, author of “Undertones.”
     London: Strahan.

     The promise of excellence made in “Undertones” is not sustained in these “Idyls and Legends.” They contain much common-place writing, poetry only by courtesy, and much that is not poetry at all, despite blank verse and measured length of line. To our mind there is a certain dignity of subject and of treatment appropriate to the poet’s art. Mr. Buchanan does violence to such a feeling, and so far, we think, fails as a singer. Turn where we may, passages open to this charge face us. Take a random selection: here is an extract from “The Two Babes:”—

But Robin! .* * and the laddie’s looks were cast
Full modest on his book, his jet black hair
Was neatly comb’d behind his rabbit ears;
His poor old clothes were patch’d and cleanly brush’d,
And butter soft seem’d melting in his mouth,—
And when he met his master’s canker’d gaze,
He blush’d like any maid and seem’d ashamed.

A clever lad was Robin Anderson!
A clever clever lad with fox’s eyes!
A clever clever lad in lambkin’s gear! &c.

Scarcely the stuff, we fancy, out of which to earn an “immortality of fame.” The author of “Undertones” has done, and can do, better, much better, than this.



Book Reviews - Poetry continued

Idyls and Legends of Inverburn (1865) - continued








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


The Critical Response
Harriett Jay


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