ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)
BOOK REVIEWS - POETRY (7)
London Poems (1866) - continued
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (26 August, 1866)
In these “London Poems,” Mr. Robert Buchanan more than redeems the promise of his earlier appearances before the public. There is the stamp of real genius broadly and deeply pressed upon them. They are poems of humble life. The beauty is extracted from the least promising materials. The flowers of poesy are culled in the by-ways. There is deep heart-stirring romance to every imaginative mind, in the toil and moil, the garret tragedies, the thousand quaint forms of life, and thought, and feeling; in the trouble, the haste, the struggle, the splendour, and the rags of the Great City! Mr. Buchanan leans not to the bright and dazzling side, not to the Lady Vere de Veres; but rather goes arm-in-arm with kindly Tom Hood, when he sang of Peggy who hated the scent of her roses. The poet takes the by-way, the slum-life of London, as he finds it, and extracts what is good and beautiful out of lives that are the saddest imaginable. He has the courage of true genius.
There’s Joe! I hear his foot upon the stairs!—
The poet does noble work in the cause of suffering humanity, when out of all that is on the surface repulsive in poverty, and base and brutal in ignorance, he extracts the redeeming goodnesses; and shows the great human heart still at work, where to the sight of the dull surface spectator there is savagery, and squalor, and moral death. There is no danger in such teachings as are conveyed to the world in the utterances of a true genius and a Christian soul, let them be of the basest, the lowest of God’s creatures that ever breathed.
And all the house of death was chill and dim,
Ay, “dwarf” they called this man who sleeping lies;
I would not blush if the bad world saw now
For where was man had stoop’d to me before,
What fool that crawls shall prate of shame and sin?
Here, in his lonely dwelling-house he lies,
According to society’s hard reckoning, Barbara Gray is a bad woman. Does the poet perform a holy or an unholy office, when he cries, not all bad, and shows something of the angel travelling with and brightening the path of the harsh world’s outcast? Mr. Buchanan writes in his poetic introduction:—
And if I list to sing of sad things oft,
He will live, we trust, to hear thanks given to him from far and wide; for his stories of London by-ways are sweet, sad sermons (unlike most sermons, formally preached from pulpits), that will touch the hearts of men and women, and call up generous tears, and teach charity of thought, to many who have been wont to pass by lanes and courts with averted face, deeming them only foul abiding-places of unmixed wickedness. A sweeter picture than “the little milliner” does not, within our knowledge, exist. She is a London slave of the needle, yet is as innocent and fresh as Lucy, who “dwelt by the untrodden ways.”
And just because her heart was pure and glad,
What says church and chapel-going Clapham to this?
Coldly she heard
And her sisters listen, paying according to their well-wrought sum the price of the salvation of their souls. But we beseech the reader to make the acquaintance of Jane Lewson, and Liz, and Barbara Gray, and the rest of the poet’s gallery of humble folk, and learn that Christian charity is a lesson the true poet can teach at least as well as most of the reverend Ebenezers, who “thunder” on Sunday evenings, well-laced each in the “be-mummying wrappers” of his own sect.
*London Poems. By Robert Buchanan, author of “Undertones.” 5s.—Alexander Strahan.
The Morning Post (8 September, 1866)
ROBERT BUCHANAN’S POEMS.*
Simple, unaffected poetry, warm from the heart never fails to awaken a sympathetic response in the inmost depths of human nature, if not utterly vitiated by false taste, or beguiled by fantastic illusions. These unsophisticated feelings are living protest against that hideous depravity which a morbid misanthropy alleges to be the inherited characteristic of our race. They announce innate qualities which are destined for higher development. This is the secret charm by which the compositions of Mr. Buchanan’s muse have led multitudes captive, and made their thraldom sweet. Even amid the tumultuous cares and ceaseless turmoil of London,
“Where sordid interest pines in vain,
even there, he has looked for the kindlier dispositions and tenderer affections which lie beneath the surface, and has traced their inner working in harmonious numbers on his pages. His “Little Milliner” is an Idyl of humble life, worth all the Idyls of Royalty which have ever been hailed by peals of noisy laudation. It is an “artless tale,” which we dislike to think a fiction, but hope that it is a veritable history, and would willingly believe it to be his own “Love Poem.” The purity of innocence was never embodied in so fair an animated frame; the veriest sensualist would respect its sanctity, nor dare
“To frighten the dove from so hallowed a nest;”
and the closing picture of domestic happiness, though dimly seen, leaves imagination free to complete its conceptions of the highest and best-deserved bliss that ever strengthened the tie of wedded union. “Langley Lane” is another “Love Poem,” but of a very different cast, for, though sung in the first person, the singer cannot be identified with its author:—
In all the land, range up, range down,
“Little white cottages, all in a row,
This description is the prelude to an unpretending tale of the friendly intercourse between a blind youth and his opposite neighbour, “Fanny of sweet thirteen,” who is deaf and dumb. They are drawn together by their separate privations, of which their mutual attachment is the solace:—
“And though we can never wedded be—
The title of “Artist and Model” tells its own tale; but the painter has chosen a strange time for the utterance of its endearments, during a Saturday night’s walk with his charmer in the busy streets of London:—
“While people go hither and thither,
It reminds us of the annoyance which our old acquaintance, Bridgetina, experienced from the jostling of the unmannerly crowd, as she was pensively meditating on her love amid the throng of foot-passengers on Holborn-hill. In contrast with these and some other rosy-hued scenes are darker delineations from the shaded purlieus of selfishness and crime. “Lawyer Sneak” is the portrait of a man who has raised himself from the lowest rank in life, the son of a tramp and ignorant of a mother, to boast
“I’ve worked my way, plotted, starved, and planned;
Yet this self-reliance is coupled with such a want of feeling and natural affection that he turns his back on his parent:—
“When one has worked his weary way, like me,
So he coolly orders the aged and forlorn pauper to be sent unrelieved from his door, and immediately instructs his clerk to execute a writ against an unfortunate debtor. “Nell,” the female mate of a murderer, gives a harrowing recital of the anguish she endured from the hour of his apprehension by the police to that when he suffered the penalty of his crime. Sallying forth on the dread morning, in gloom and rain, half-unconsciously she approached the fatal spot:
“Ah! then I felt I dared not creep more near,
Here is a picture worthy to be copied with artistic skill. The volume concludes with some “Miscellaneous Poems,” which rather tend to benumb the force of the foregoing pieces; “The Death of Roland” at Roncevalle is so hackneyed a theme, the poet might have found more original matter on which to employ his powers. He terms these “the last of his poems of probation,” and intimates that he is preparing a more important work. We shall look for it with anticipated interest, trusting that he will not let public praise of his earlier productions betray him into over-confidence and carelessness, but stimulate higher inspiration, tempered by chastened judgment and epurated taste.
*London Poems. By Robert Buchanan. London and New York: Alexander Strahan.
The Illustrated London News (8 September, 1866 - p.10)
London Poems, by Robert Buchanan (Alexander Strahan), should be read by those who praise past times, who declare we have no living poets, and who must, consequently, have missed—one can hardly say the pleasure, but one is bound to say—the power which is everywhere discoverable in “Undertones;” ...
The Pall Mall Gazette (29 September, 1866)
BUCHANAN’S LONDON POEMS.*
MR. BUCHANAN’S book is composed of idyls and simple tales, which receive a peculiar character and a deepened pathos from their constantly reminding us of the ugliness of London, and the quantity of insulated and neglected human life which lurks and suffers therein. He writes like a stranger who is still keenly sensible to the smoky air, and who is always regretting brighter horizons or more genial neighbours, left behind him in his far off native province. He seems at times to hint that there are quarters in town in which you might, on the whole, live most agreeably after losing one or two senses. In other respects his tales are interesting, though not ambitiously planned: and the subjects are treated well and thoroughly. His genius is independent, homely, and straightforward, suited to make the best possible direct use of an experience and information which are intimate though somewhat narrow. His language is terse, impressive, and unaffected; it is in general correct and elegant, but we suspect one or two pieces were, originally and for dramatic effect, couched in a more colloquial and vulgar dialect, and then re-formed in all passages but a few that were casually passed over; otherwise, why should we come suddenly on such a phrase as—
He never meant no wrong, was kind and true.
Of the seventeen poems in the present volume the “Little Milliner” is deservedly set forward as the prettiest tale—though saying that may be no compliment to the poet, who is sometimes above such prettiness. “Liz” is one of the most imaginative, and is subtly and morbidly Londonish, as might be the reflections of a cage-born bear who should escape to Shooter’s Hill, strive a few hours to enjoy his freedom under an oppressive sense of admiration that would come over him, and then slink home in great awe and terror. Such are the impressions of Liz in her first and last country ramble; and Liz is not a bad woman for her part of the town, for she is the faithful mistress of a poor honest fellow who beats her only when he is quite intoxicated. But we must give a little of her narrative in her own words. Here is her noonday in an open field, when by dint of hard walking she has left behind her all the dingy streets and all the long rows of suburban villas:—
I’ll ne’er forget that day. All was so bright
We are here on the very confines of the sublime and the ridiculous; but we are skilfully kept from falling beneath them. Our author is himself something like Liz. He appears by his own confessions to be by nature a worshipper of Baalim on the high places—one who seeks incentives to holiness from the capricious genii of the weather and the landscape much more than from the traditions and examples which have been consecrated by the usages of Christianity and civilized society. Of this we are reminded by his longest and most elaborate poem, “Edward Crowhurst, or ‘a New Poet.’” This is an apology spoken by a loving simple-minded wife for the somewhat faulty career of a provincial song-writer, who has been seduced and betrayed by the fickle and thoughtless patronage of “the quality” in his own neighbourhood, and then in London. They have undermined the independence of his character by teaching him to solicit subscriptions and pocket some affronts with them; they have robbed him of his habitual temperance by indulging his convivial inclinations; he loses their aid when he has married and given up his livelihood on the strength of it; he struggles manfully for a time to retrieve his character and position, and then sinks into irretrievable indolence and despondency. The poem might be no unworthy reflection on the career of Burns, from whose story it certainly derives some interesting characteristics. It represents with much vivacity the Ayrshire bard’s imaginative habit of mind, his genuine love of nature, his wilfulness, his failings, and his singularities; but we feel somehow that the character does not interest us as our author wishes it to do, nor as we ought to be interested in a poet’s idea of a highly gifted poet. We will not complain that we see too little wit or grace in the personation; we should only suggest an invidious comparison between the styles of Burns and Mr. Buchanan. But we may complain that the character of Crowhurst is not ennobled by any such elements of fiery earnestness and manly zeal as we find in Burns. Obliterate these from your recollections of Burns, and you will often be tempted to think of him as a trifler who has spent far too much time—
Stringin’ blethers up in rhyme
and so most readers will doubtless think of Edward Crowhurst, whether he be actually meant to represent Burns or otherwise. There is more solid character in our author’s “Jane Lewson;” but it is as much a Scottish as a London lay. The sisters of the frail heroine are saints after a kirk pattern; she alone is a backslider, such as may be found in most places, except that her nature is sadly stunted by the dulness of her Islington habitat. It is afterwards a little improved by maternal instincts and by her satisfaction in being allowed to acknowledge her bastard child when the latter has grown up and found a wooer. The consummation is attained by skilful management, but we cannot enter into particulars of it, for the tales before us are too numerous. We will end by referring to “the Starling,” which is a description of an atrocious misanthrope, but is so brisk and naïve that we cannot help forgiving the man:—
The little lame tailor
Of course the starling and he die swearing (for want of a reformatory in the country).
* “London Poems.” By Robert Buchanan, Author of “Idyls and Legends of Inverburn,” &c. (London and New York: Strahan and Co. 1866.
The British Quarterly Review (October, 1866, Vol. 44 - p.549-550)
London Poems. By ROBERT BUCHANAN, author of ‘Idylls and Legends of Inverburn,’ ‘Undertones,’ &c. London & New York: Alexander Strahan.
A strong dramatic faculty manifesting itself in poetry has become very rare. What there is of it has for the most part taken up its habitation in prose novels. Here is a young poet, however, who unquestionably possesses it, though he writes tales in verse, and not plays. In ‘Willie Baird,’ ‘Poet Andrew,’ and others of the ‘Idylls and Legends of Inverburn’—as now in the present volume—Mr. Buchanan presents us with a series of life-like character-pictures. We have Jane Lewson, the flaccid-natured affectionate woman, in subjection to the rigid iron-grey piety of her old maid sisters; Nan and Liz, deep-hearted and true, however faulty, frail, and unromantic to the superficial or conventional observer—types of how many women in our great cities, reared in and begirt with circumstances unideal enough! ‘the little milliner,’ with her childlike spirit, unharmed by the evil around her, as the poet with exquisite felicity expresses it:—
‘Fear, nor sin, nor shame, hath she,
Then we have the two rough but big-hearted sailors (no land lubbers these in nautical attire!), and poor, erring Effie, in that noble poem ‘The Scaith o' Barth;’ and the neer-do-well father, tutored and moralised over by his prim and respectable (?) son, Attorney Sneak, ‘sharp like atyrant, timid like a slave.’ In this last poem, and the Starling, Mr. Buchanan shows a grim Scotch humour. Mr. Buchanan tells his stories in the person of one of the characters concerned; and the characters he has chosen to depict are never (like those of Mrs. Browning) subtilly intellectual analysts of themselves or others, nor are they persons likely to look at events in a romantic or poetic aspect. This imposes peculiar difficulties on the poet. And there may be an instance or two where the character represented speaks too much like a poet; but, on the whole, the dramatic propriety of each narration is, to us, the strongest test and proof of the rare calibre of Mr. Buchanan’s dramatic faculty. The simplicity of thenatures lie has chosen to portray, and of the incidents in which he has involved them, is calculated to make the poems generally interesting, because generally intelligible. It is in this region that the lights and shadows of human nature are disposed in broad grand masses, little broken up and weakened; and out of such materials the most imperishable of poetry has been built up. He likewise chooses his heroes and heroines chiefly from low and unartificial life; and there is no doubt that such life is by far the most picturesque. However refined, his personages are never offensive, prosaic, or commonplace at the moment when he allows us to see them, whatever they may be at other times. Simple and few as may be his incidents, the poet generally selects them so that they shall be such as to extract for us the very essence and aroma of the characters brought into play; the tragic, pathetic, loveable, or pitiable elements lying down at the root of the simplest and most ordinary natures. And in the person of one whose perception is rendered sensitive and delicate by deep sympathy or interest, he brings out all the subtler features and nuances of the situation with care and fineness oftouch. On this account, in Mr. Buchanan, the metre, the poetic form, has generally a ‘raison d'etre,’ which we do not always feel in Crabbe—of whom Mr. Buchanan in some degree reminds us, nor even in Wordsworth. One more remark we must make, that the moral atmosphere of this book seems to us thoroughly healthy, though there is no preaching in it; and the morality is not pharisaic or merely conventional. But we rise from the perusal of it with larger, kindlier, less artificial, and more hopeful views of our common nature, because we have been looking at it through the eyes of one who sees deep and truly.
Mr. Buchanan’s “London Poems”14 are defaced by one of the most sycophantic prefaces we ever read. The poems, however, are quite good enough for the occasion. The following lines are unintelligible:
“Cries of waves that anguished, and went white
The following are untrue:—
“The leafy nook wherein
For the eggs of the chaffinch are not blue. The following do not rhyme:—
“Then more of tipsiness and drunken dizziness,
The following have neither rhyme nor reason:—
“Or the robe of a vestal virgin,
For a nun does not wear a gabardine, and if she did it would not rhyme to “divine.” So we might go on criticising. Mr. Buchanan once promised better things, and we still hope he may yet accomplish them. At present, however, he appears to be quite spoilt by flattery and bad criticism.
14 “London Poems.” By Robert Buchanan. London: Alexander Strahan. 1866.
The Nonconformist (17 October, 1866)
MR. BUCHANAN’S “LONDON POEMS.”*
It has been almost universally admitted that the author of the “Idylls and Legends of Inverburn” has true poetic genius. We claim for ourselves to be amongst those who have greeted him with cordial admiration, and with due respect for both his original power and his faithful workmanship. He has, no doubt, been rather extravagantly praised by some of his reviewers. But we see no reason to think that his name will hereafter enjoy the companionship of the greatest contemporary names in poetry: and we may, perhaps, indicate our own sense of his place—without any offensiveness—if we say that, so long as Mr. Buchanan is remembered, Philip James Bailey, Sydney Dobell, and Alexander Smith will certainly not be forgotten. Mr. Buchanan, however, seems greedily to have received and implicitly to have believed, the wildest words of praise that have been written about his poetry; and, in his new volume, has committed two errors which we sincerely regret. Mr. Hepworth Dixon has been a warm and confident praiser of Mr. Buchanan: and Mr. Buchanan says to him in return— “Of your fine qualities I will say nothing: your candour may offend knaves and your reticence mislead fools; but be happy in your goodness, and in the loving homage of those dearest to you.” Mr. George Henry Lewes has freely praised Mr. Buchanan: and Mr. Buchanan accordingly finds Mr. Lewes “gentle, true, far-seeing.” The dedication of this volume to Mr. Dixon may be very genuine and grateful, but notwithstanding is singularly absurd; and is an unpleasant disclosure of the egotism and bad taste of the author. The second error to which we have alluded is the introductory poem, entitled, “Bexhill, 1866,” in which Mr. Buchanan gives account of the origin and purpose of the poems that follow. He had better far have left them to speak for themselves; they would have been none the less intelligible to all the readers whose approbation he need desire to obtain. The introduction displays a self-consciousness, and an anxiety to place his work in a strong light, which lay him open to a suspicion of littleness, that might have been avoided by more reticence, not to say modesty. “You were one of two who first believed that I was fitted for noble efforts . . . . nor have you failed to exhibit the virtue, not possessed by one writer in a hundred, of daring to express publicly your confidence in an unacknowledged author”: - these words to Mr. Dixon, of which those in italics are, we are glad to believe, utterly false, form a fitting prelude to such personal assertion as—
“lonely I abode amid
This is not the mood and manner of great natures, however much Mr. Buchanan may think himself above “the strife of little natures”; and we very much hope that this dedication and this introductory poem may be omitted from any future edition of the volume; and his honest admirers, ourselves amongst them, will then be very glad to forget the unquestionable mistake he has made.
“Not seldom did I seek to make
“Even in the unsung city’s streets,
“In brighter mood, I sought again
And, in further introductory verse, he says, much more effectively, as we think, for the interpretation of his purpose,—
“Far away in the dark
The “London Poems” thus introduced are thoroughly original in conception, have much true dramatic power, and disclose a wonderful knowledge of the human heart. Some have the deepest pathos; some are cheerful and beautiful exceedingly; and one or two are almost overwhelming by their very simplicity and sad truth. It is amazing to us that the writer of “Liz,” and “Nell,” and—to pass beyond the “London Poems” to one that might have made a name at any time for its author—“The Scaith o’ Bartle,” should have perpetrated the mistakes on which we have freely commented. We do not know any dramatic lyric— though we have had so many by many hands—since Mr. Browning’s first—that has a deeper truth and more searching power than the “Nell” we have just named. “Edward Crowhurst” is also a poem that only the clearest insight and most vital sympathy could have produced: and its story of a peasant poet and the influence on himself of patronage and notoriety, seems to us to express most truly, and with the highest instructiveness, what we have ourselves felt more prosaically in contemplating the career and fortunes of William Thorn and of Critchley Prince. “The Death of Roland” is in Mr. Buchanan’s earlier style; and “The Gift of Eos” still more so;—each a fine poem, full of imagination, intellect, and moral significance. We could readily find fault with occasional representations, and with side hits that are more practical than poetical, and more prejudiced than true, in a few pieces: but, as the author regards these as “the last of his ‘poems of probation,’” we willingly wait the mature, and, we believe they will be, the more perfect works, in which his genius, chastened and purified, shall express itself adequately and to the contentment of his most expectant admirers. We select for quotation one of the shortest, and, though a slight thing, one of the most enjoyable, of these “London Poems”:—
“THE BLIND LINNET.
The sempstress’s linnet sings
The sempstress is sitting
Loud and long
But the sempstress can see
*London Poems. By ROBERT BUCHANAN, author of “Legends and Idylls of Inverburn,” “Undertones,” &c. (London: Alexander Strahan.)
The Guardian (17 October, 1866)
A mental glance at the collective works of our living poets gives us a sensation like that which is often felt at a visit to the Royal Academy. There is little change discernible among the foremost men; and the progress which is made by the younger artists leaves them still in the second rank, though pushing on vigorously towards the front. So at least it seems for the most part; but occasionally a man steps out, leaving his competitors behind; and he has won a leading place, though we can scarcely say when he won it.
Ever I was haunted from afar
These lines are quite Wordsworthian; and Mr. Buchanan is far nearer to Wordsworth’s view of human nature than to Crabbe’s. There is only one poem in his volume devoted to the delineation of a character to which he places himself in decided antagonism—that of an attorney—
Sharp like a tyrant, timid like a slave,
He is generally sympathetic, seizing the amiable side of weakness, and regarding some forms of wrong-doing with an interest like that which a kind physician feels in the presence of bodily disease. The following lines are put into the mouth of a poor creature who, though she has broken one of our most important social laws, sees some of her frail sisters beneath her in depths which she has avoided:—
But I’ve no call to boast. I might have been
Some of our readers who are interested in Sisterhoods would like to know whether the mourning dress is to be considered as an essential feature in this striking picture. Mr. Buchanan takes us lower down the moral and social scale than this, where he makes Nell tell the tale of her dismal wandering in London streets on the morning of the execution of the man with whom she had been living; but he has the rare power of treating such subjects without making them too horrible, or, which is far worse, sweetening them till they are nauseous as well as shocking. He is quite aware that the transcript of misery and suffering may be too literal: thus he has given, in his Edward Crowhurst, rather a softened than an exaggerated version of the actual history of poor John Clare. Occasionally he shows in his poems the critical side of his nature: the following remarkable verses prove that he has not studied nature either among hills or in cities without pausing to contemplate the reflex action of his studies on his own mind:—
Art, the avenging angel,
At the close of the London Poems, Mr. Buchanan has printed some miscellaneous verses. Among them is a Death of Roland, which can be read with deep satisfaction and pleasure even when we have the ring of Mr. Tennyson’s “Morte d’Arthur” fresh in our ears and our minds. It suggests comparison without challenging competition. It is, so to speak, Byzantine, not Classical, in style—heavy, massive, crowded with figures; at times almost grotesque, yet thoroughly impressive. In the exercise of his varied power, Mr. Buchanan is always himself; never a mere imitator, too versatile to be genuine and original. He must be allowed a high rank among our living poets; and it is quite possible that he may yet develop powers which, even after the success which he has achieved, will take the world by surprise.
* London Poems. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. Strahan.
The New York Times (8 November, 1866)
LONDON POEMS. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. London and New-York: ALEXANDER STRAHAN.
The first thing which strikes us in this book is the publisher’s name identified with “London and New-York.” Such is the present state of our laws relative to the manufacture of books that a London house can compete successfully, in our own market, and find it a lucrative enterprise to maintain branch houses on this side of the Atlantic. We merely note the facts, although they are a fruitful subject for comment, especially in connection with other facts stated by ANTHONY TROLLOPE in his recent paper read before the Social Science Congress at Manchester in regard to an International Copyright Law. All who cherish an intelligent and patriotic interest in the claims and progress of American literature and of popular education, in the broadest sense of the phrase—on this continent—should unite to secure a revision of our laws, taxes and tariffs, so far as literary property and book manufacture in the United States are concerned. Meantime, let us turn to the work before us.
LONDON IN 1864.
Lo! I stand at the gateway of Honor,
* * * * * *
THE LITTLE MILLINER.
* * * * * *
’Twas when the Spring was coming, when the snow
And it was night, and I could see and hear,
But all was hush’d. I look’d around the room,
Oh, sweet, sweet dream! I thought, and strain’d mine eyes,
Softly she stoop’d, her dear face sweetly fair,
It was no dream!—for soon my thoughts were clear,
It is not as a creditable caterer to public taste or the rhymed requisites of the day that we challenge ROBERT BUCHANAN’S originality—but as a new aspirant for the Laurel, as a young poet whose promise should be hailed with cordiality but not without discrimination. The miscellaneous poems appended to the “London Poems” are chiefly ballads, which have the old ring of LOCKHART’S, and sometimes remind us of ROBERT BROWNING. In subject and legend, more or less striking, they are often skillfully versified and gracefully turned.
Following the publication of London Poems several articles were published giving an overview of Buchanan’s position as a poet, combining reviews of Undertones, Idyls and Legends of Inverburn and London Poems.
Undertones, Idyls and Legends of Inverburn and London Poems