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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.
     It has been objected to these “London Poems” that the stories or subjects of them belong as much to the first country or foreign town one could mention as to London. Were this absolutely so, the poet would be still praiseworthy for having shown a hard and unsympathetic world that there may be heroism slipshod by a coster’s barrow; and that verily “love is of the valley.” But it is unquestionably not true of all these poems that they are accidentally set in London.
     “Liz” is a Londoner, and could be of no other place. Her simple story of evil life wrought out through ignorance and poverty, and wrought out and redeemed by the underlying beauty of the woman’s nature, is an exquisite painting of London life and London habits among the poor. Joe has beaten her and neglected her, and she is dying, leaving a baby to his care. The close is painfully pathetic:—

There’s Joe! I hear his foot upon the stairs!—
He must be wet, poor lad!
He will be angry, like enough, to find
Another little life to clothe and keep.
But show him baby, Parson—speak him kind—
And tell him Doctor thinks I’m going to sleep.
A hard, hard life is his! He need be strong
And rough, to earn his bread and get along.
I think he will be sorry when I go,
And leave the little one and him behind.
I hope he’ll see another to his mind,
To keep him straight and tidy. Poor old Joe!

     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.
     Robert Buchanan wanders among the poverty-stricken and the sinful, whose sins, to the sight of respectability, are repulsive, more from their coarseness than from their unholiness. He shows a poor woman mated, but not wedded, to a wretched dwarf, who is a sorry fellow in all ways. We have the bare, bad facts, and to the ordinary eye they are of unpromising material enough whereon to base poetic utterance. Yet beauty is to be got out of them: beauty that shall melt the harsh judgments of the world, and tend to teach the uncharitable never to judge without reserve of any human life or act. “Barbara Gray,” in the sight of Mrs. Grundy, is a person not to be talked of, under any circumstances, in polite society. And society listens all too willingly to prim madam. Now, what says the poet?—

“Barbara Gray!
Pause, and remember what the world will say,”
I cried, and turning on the threshold fled,
When he was breathing on his dying bed;
     But when, with heart grown bold,
     I cross’d the threshold cold,
Here lay John Hamerton, and he was dead.

And all the house of death was chill and dim,
The dull old housekeeper was looking grim,
The hall-clock ticking slow, the dismal rain
Splashing by fits against the window-pane,
The garden shivering in the twilight dark,
Beyond, the bare trees of the empty park,
And faint gray light upon the great cold bed,
And I alone; and he I turn’d from,—dead.

Ay, “dwarf” they called this man who sleeping lies;
No lady shone upon him with her eyes,
No tender maiden heard his true-love vow,
And pressed her kisses on the great bold brow.
What cared John Hamerton? With light, light laugh,
He halted through the streets upon his staff;
Halt, lame, not beauteous, yet with winning grace
And sweetness in his pale and quiet face;
Fire, hell’s or heaven’s, in his eyes of blue;
Warm words of love upon his tongue thereto;
Could win a woman’s soul with what he said,
And I am here; and here he lieth dead.

I would not blush if the bad world saw now
How by his bed I stoop and kiss his brow!
Ay, kiss it, kiss it, o’er and o’er again,
With all the love that fills my heart and brain.

For where was man had stoop’d to me before,
Though I was maiden still, and girl no more?
Where was the spirit that had deigned to prize
The poor plain features and the envious eyes?
What lips had whisper’d warmly in mine ears,
When had I known the passion and the tears?
Till he I look on sleeping came unto me,
Found me among the shadows, stoop’d to woo me,
Seized on the heart that flutter’d withering here,
Strung it, and wrung it, with new joy and fear;
Yea, brought the rapturous light, and brought the day,
Waken’d the dead heart, withering away;
Put thorns and roses on the unhonour’d head,
That felt but roses till the roses fled!
Who, who, but he crept unto sunless ground,
Content to prize the faded face he found?
John Hamerton, I pardon all—sleep sound, my love, sleep sound!

What fool that crawls shall prate of shame and sin?
Did he not think me fair enough to win?
Yea, stoop and smile upon my face as none,
Living or dead, save he alone, had done?
Bring the bright blush unto my cheek, when ne’er
The full of life and love had mantled there?
And I am all alone; and here lies he,—
The only man that ever smiled on me.

Here, in his lonely dwelling-house he lies,
The light all faded from his winsome eyes:
Alone, alone, alone, he slumbers here,
With wife nor little child to shed a tear!
Little, indeed, to him did nature give;
Nor was he good and pure as some that live;
But pinch’d in body, warp’d in limb—
He hated the bad world that loved not him!

Barbara Gray!
Pause, and remember how he turn’d away;
Think of your wrongs, and of your sorrows. Nay!
Woman, think rather of the shame and wrong
Of pining lonely in the dark so long;
Think of the comfort in the grief he brought,
The revelation in the love he taught.
Then, Barbara Gray!
Blush not, nor heed what the cold world will say;
But kiss him, kiss him, o’er and o’er again,
In passion and in pain,
With all the love that fills your heart and brain!
Yea, kiss him, bless him, pray beside his bed,
For you have lived, and here your love lies dead.

     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,
It is that sad things in this life of breath,
Are truest, sweetest, deepest.

     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,
She lack’d the pride that finer ladies had:
She had no scorn for those who lived amiss,
The weary women with their painted bliss;
It never struck her little brain, be sure,
She was so very much more fine and pure.

     What says church and chapel-going Clapham to this?
     Of Jane Lewson, the most important, the most artistic, and the most deeply poetic work in Mr. Buchanan’s volume, the poet says:—

                           Coldly she heard
The daily tale of human sin and wrong,
And the small thunders of the Sunday nights
In chapel.

     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)


     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,
In search of its mistaken gain,”

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,
     Is there ever a place so pleasant and sweet,
As Langley Lane, in London town,
     Just out of the bustle of square and street?

“Little white cottages, all in a row,
Gardens, where bachelors’ buttons grow,
     Swallows’ nests in roof and wall,
And up above the still blue sky,
Where the woolly-white clouds go sailing by.”

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—
     What then? since we hold one another so dear,
     For the sake of the pleasure one cannot hear,
And the pleasure that only one can see.”

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,
     And shops shed a cheerful light.”

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;
Commenced without a penny in my hand,
And never howled for help, or dealt in sham,—
No! I’m a man of principle. I am.”

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,
To comfort and respectability;
Can pay his bills and save a pound or two,
And say his prayers on Sunday in a pew;
Can look the laws of England in the face,
’Tis hard, ’tis hard, ’tis shame, and ’tis disgrace,
That one’s own father—old and worn and grey—
Should be the only hinderance in his way.”

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,
     But went into a lane off Ludgate-hill,
And sitting on a doorstep, I could hear
     The people gathering still.
My elbows on my knees, my fingers dead,
My shawl thrown off, now none could see,—my head,
     Dripping, and wild and bare,
I heard the murmur of a crowd of men,
     And next, a hammering sound I knew full well—
     Then came the solemn tolling of a bell!
How could I sit close by
And neither scream nor cry?
     As if I had been stone, all hard and cold,
But listening, listening, listening, still and dumb,
     While the folk murmured, and the death-bell tolled,
And the day brightened, and his time had come.
     All else was silent but the knell
     Of the slow bell!
And I could only wait, and wait, and wail,
And what I waited for I could not tell,
At last there came a groaning deep and great—
St. Paul’s struck eight—
     I screamed, and seemed to turn to fire, and fell!”

     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)


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
     And strange. Upon the grass around my feet
The rain had hung a million drops of light;
     The air too was so clear, and warm and sweet:
It seemed a sin to breathe it.   .   .   .   .
How swift the hours slipt on! and by-and-by
The sun grew red, big shadows filled the sky,
     The air grew damp with dew,
     And the dark night was coming down, I knew.
Well, I was more afraid than ever then,
     And felt that I should die in such a place,
     So back to London town I turned my face,
And crept into the great black streets again;
And when I breathed the smoke and heard the roar,
     Why, I was better: for in London here
     My heart was busy and I felt no fear.
I never saw the country any more;
And I have stayed in London, well or ill.
     I would not stay out yonder if I could,
     For one feels dead, and all looks pure and good—
I could not bear a life so bright and still.

     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
For fuils to sing;

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
     Sat stitching and snarling—
Who in the world
     Was the tailor’s darling?
To none of his kind
Was he well inclined,
     But he doted on Jack the starling.

     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,
But, like a sea-bird on the sea,
Floating hither, thither, day and night:
The great black waters cannot harm her,
Because she is so weak and light.’

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.
     Our admiration is not indiscriminate. We think it a mistake to have written a poem like ‘The Gift of Eos,’ inviting comparison with the ‘Tithonus’ of Tennyson; for that enshrines all the aerial, exquisitely subtle graces of the elder poet’s elaborately-finished style. Mr.Buchanan’s distinct original faculty comes out chiefly in the homelier subjects he has treated; yet of the vigorous, clear, vivid execution of the ‘Death of Roland,’ we cannot speak too highly; this, too, is realistic in its way; and here the poet again achieves a triumph. We can make no extracts in so short a space, but must conclude our notice by asserting, that we feel sure no genuine lover of poetry can read the lively little poems, ‘Langley Lane,’ and ‘The Blind Linnet,’ or the grand and touching ones ‘Nell’ and ‘Liz,’ without feeling stirred to the depths of his soul; and we record our conviction that if Mr. Buchanan writes no more, he will have permanently enriched English literature by much that he has already accomplished.



The Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review (1 October, 1866)

     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
Under the eyes of lightnings.”

     The following are untrue:—

                           “The leafy nook wherein
The chaffinch breasts her five blue speckled eggs.”

For the eggs of the chaffinch are not blue. The following do not rhyme:—

“Then more of tipsiness and drunken dizziness,
And rage at things done in the way of business.”

The following have neither rhyme nor reason:—

“Or the robe of a vestal virgin,
     Or a nun’s grey gabardine,
And keeping a brother and sister
     By standing and looking divine.”

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)


     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
The buying, and the selling, and the strife
Of little natures”:
         .          .         .          .         .          .
“On my brow dews of aspiring dream;”
         .          .         .          .         .          .
“The wild wind of ambition grew subdued,
And left the changeful current of my soul
Crystal and pure and clear, to glass like water,
The sad and beautiful of human life.”

     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.
     As, however, Mr. Buchanan has thought well to celebrate the origin and expound the general design of his “London Poems,” it is perhaps due to him at present, notwithstanding the adverse opinion we have expressed, that he should be allowed all the advantage he may suppose himself to be able to gain by his introductory poem. We shall, therefore, let it speak, as best it may, for the character and aim of the poems that so wonderfully pass beyond all the indications of good sense and fine feeling that itself contains.
     We wish to show the deepest respect for Mr. Buchanan as mourning “good days dead,” “the well-beloved gone”; and hearing in his solitude “the ocean murmur from afar,” and seeing “phantoms of the misty hills” which he had “loved in other days.” Under these influences, he says, it was that—

     “Not seldom did I seek to make
The busy life of London musical,
And phrase in modern song the troubled lives
Of dwellers in the sunless lanes and streets.”

And, again:—

     “Even in the unsung city’s streets,
Seem’d quiet wonders meet for serious song,
Truth hard to phrase and render musical.
         .          .         .          .         .          .
But easier far the task to sing of kings,
Or weave weird ballads where the moondew glistens,
Than body forth this life in beauteous sound.
         .          .         .          .         .          .
For while I sang, much that was clear before,
The souls of men and women in the streets,
The sounding sea, the presence of the hills,
And all the weariness, and all the fret,
And all the dim, strange pain for what had fled,
Turned into mist, mingled before mine eyes,
Roll’d up like wreaths of smoke to heav’n, and died;
The pen dropt from my hand, mine eyes grew dim,
And the great rear was in mine ears again,
And I was all alone in London streets.”

Then, by-and-bye,—

   “In brighter mood, I sought again
To make the life of London musical,
And sought the mirror of my soul for shapes
That linger’d, faces bright or agonised,
Yet ever liking something beautiful,
From glamour of green branches, and of clouds
That glided piloted by golden airs.”

And, in further introductory verse, he says, much more effectively, as we think, for the interpretation of his purpose,—

“Far away in the dark
     Breaketh that living Sea,
Wave upon wave: and hark!
     These voices are blown to me;
For a great wind rises and blows,
     Wafting the sea-sound near,
But it fitfully comes and goes,
     And I cannot always hear;
Green boughs are flashing around,
     And the flowers at my feet are fair,
And the wind that bringeth the ocean sound
     Grows sweet with the country air.”

     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 sempstress’s linnet sings
     At the window opposite me;—
It feels the sun on its wings,
     Though it cannot see.
Can a bird have thoughts? May be.


The sempstress is sitting
     High o’er the humming street,
The little blind linnet is flitting
     Between the sun and her seat.
All day long
     She stitches wearily there,
And I know she is not young,
     And I know she is not fair;
For I watch her head bent down
     Throughout the dreary day,
And the thin meek hair o’ brown
     Is threaded with silver gray;
And now and then, with a start
At the fluttering of her heart,
     She lifts her eyes to the bird,
And I see in the dreary place
The gleam of a thin white face,
     And my heart is stirr’d.


Loud and long
The linnet pipes his song!
For he cannot see
     The smoky street all round,
But loud in the sun sings he,
     Though he hears the murmurous sound;
For his poor, blind eyeballs blink,
     While the yellow twilights fall,
And he thinks (if a bird can think) 
     He hears a waterfall,
Or the broad and beautiful river
     Washing fields of corn,
Flowing for ever
     Through the woods where he was born;
And his voice grows stronger,
     While he thinks that he is there,
And louder and longer
     Falls his song on the dusky air.
And oft, in the gloaming still,
     Perhaps (for who can tell?)
     The musk and the muskatel,
That grow on the window sill,
     Cheat him with their smell.


But the sempstress can see
How dark things be;
How black through the town
     The stream is flowing;
And tears fall down
     Upon her sewing.
So at times she tries,
     When her trouble is stirr’d,
To close her eyes,
     And be blind like the bird.
And then, for a minute,
     As sweet things seem
As to the linnet,
     Piping in his dream!
For she feels on her brow
     The sunlight glowing,
And hears nought now
     But a river flowing—
A broad and beautiful river,
     Washing fields of corn,
Flowing for ever
     Through the woods where she was born—
And a wild bird winging
Over her head, and singing!
And she can smell
The musk and the muskatel
     That beside her grow,
And unaware
She murmurs an old air
     That she used to know!”


     *London Poems. By ROBERT BUCHANAN, author of “Legends and Idylls of Inverburn,” “Undertones,” &c. (London: Alexander Strahan.)



The Guardian (17 October, 1866)


POEMS, &c.*

     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.
     Mr. Buchanan is to be congratulated not only on having achieved success as a poet, but as having achieved it without preliminary failures. Some three years since, he was singing in Undertones; and his song, which was confessedly tentative, was recognised as sweet, if not very powerful or original. Last year appeared his Idyls and Legends of Inverburn, which placed him at once, without any show of painful effort on his part, fairly abreast of all but quite our leading poets. His London Poems have carried him still further; he has now attained a definitely advanced position, from which, if he turns his head, he can see many writers of verse behind him, while before him there are only two or three.
     In our notice of the Idyls of Inverburn, we called attention to a resemblance in choice of subject between Mr. Buchanan and Crabbe. The resemblance has strengthened, now that Mr. Buchanan has left the pink of ancient Scottish villages to seek for pathos and sentiment in the low life of London. But “Cælum non animum” is true of poets as of other people; Crabbe retained his caustic vein even when, mellowed and softened by age and experience, he chose a country setting for his Tales of the Hall; and Mr. Buchanan has carried into London streets, and incorporated with his view of London life, influences which belong to the hills. He tells us himself that while he was phrasing in modern song the troubled lives of dwellers in the sunless lanes and streets, other thoughts also were with him:—

     Ever I was haunted from afar
While singing; and the presence of the mountains
Was on me; and the murmur of the sea
Deepen’d my mood; while everywhere I saw,
Flowing beneath the blackness of the streets,
The current of sublimer, sweeter life,
Which is the source of human smiles and tears,
And, melodised, becomes the strength of song.

     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,
     A little man, with yellow, bloodless cheek;
A snappish mingling of the fool and knave,
     Resulting in the hybrid compound—sneak.

     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
     As wicked, Parson dear, in my distress,
But for your friend—you know the one I mean?—
     The tall, pale lady, in the mourning dress.
Though we were cold at first, that wore away—
         She was so mild and young,
         And had so soft a tongue,
And eyes to sweeten what she loved to say.
She never seem’d to scorn me—no, not she;
And (what was best) she seem’d as sad as me!
Not one of those that make a girl feel base,
And call her names, and talk of her disgrace,
And frighten one with thoughts of flaming hell,
     And fierce Lord God, with black and angry brow;
But soft and mild, and sensible as well;
     And oh, I loved her, and I love her now.
She did me good for many and many a day—
     More good than pence could ever do, I swear,
     For she was poor, with little pence to spare—
Learn’d me to read, and quit low words, and pray.
     And, Parson, though I never understood
     How such a life as mine was meant for good,
And could not guess what one so poor and low
     Would do in that sweet place of which she spoke,
And could not feel that God would let me go
     Into so bright a land with gentlefolk,
I liked to hear her talk of such a place,
     And thought of all the angels she was best,
Because her soft voice soothed me, and her face
     Made my words gentle, put my heart at rest.

     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,
     Comes, with her still gray eyes,
Kisses my forehead coldly,
     Whispers to make me wise;
And, too late, comes the revelation,
     After the feast and the play,
That she works her end, not by giving,
     But cruelly taking away:
By burning the heart till it shrivels,
     Scorching it dry and deep
And changing the flower of living
     To a poor dried flower that may keep!
What wonder if often and often
     The passion, the wonder dies;
And I hate the terrible angel,
     And shrink from her passionless eyes,—
Who, instead of the rapture and vision,
     I held as the poet’s dower—
Instead of the glory of living,
     The impulse, the splendour, the power—
Instead of the singing raiment,
     The trumpet proclaiming the day,
Gives, and so coldly, only
     A pipe whereon to play!
While the spirit of boyhood hath perish’d,
     And never again can be,
And the singing seems so worthless,
     Since the glory hath gone from me,—
Though the far blue misty mountains,
     And the earth, and the air, and the sea,
And the manifold music and beauty,
     Are grand as they used to be!

     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)




     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.
     This is a very neat volume of neat rhymes. Its fair pages, clear type and versified narratives are winsome to the eye. The quotations from Greek, Latin and German indicate culture, and suggest intellectual discipline. The dedication to the accomplished editor of the Athenæum, now on a visit to this country, evinces a manly gratitude for early words of kindly recognition and literary encouragement. The plan and scope of the volume are well fitted to propitiate criticism, inasmuch as they include subjects open to daily observation and near to average sympathies,—subjects such as would naturally attract a young poet dwelling in a large city, and such as sympathetic observation can legitimately develop and illustrate; subjects, in a word, which might easily inspire a fresh and kindly bard; and therefore yielding a favorable contrast to those remote and conventional themes so often chosen by inexperienced but ambitious singers—not from affinity, but audacity. Thus predisposed in the author’s favor by the aspect and aim of the volume before us, we sit down to its perusal in a candid and gracious mood. We find a command of language and rhyme, a fluent, and, on the whole, natural expressiveness and considerable narrative skill; many of the stories are pleasant reading—much of the art displayed is pretty and graceful. There is a series of episodes or incidents, characters and phases of London life—drawn from its toilsome, poor, patient, reckless or ruined classes; and described in the simple language of colloquial heroics, easy  ballad-metre or Wordsworthian blank verse. The titles give a not inadequate idea of the kind of local histories and anecdotes thus versified: Such as “The Little Milliner,” “Artist and Model,” “Attorney Sneak,” “Nell,” and “Liz.” Familiar and often literal in style, sometimes quite musical and usually ingenious either in the details or plot, these “London Poems” are quite readable, and we should think would be popular, especially among readers unfamiliar with English poetry—to whom they will have the charm of novelty. But those who have fondly explored and critically studied that rich and rare field of literature, and who vividly remember the salient characters and scenes of modern English fiction—these “London Poems” will prove reminiscent and familiar rather than fresh and impressive. The subjects, the scenes, the characters, the incidents, often the very ideas and expressions, recall DICKENS, CRABBE, HUNT, HOOD, Mrs. BROWNING, and others, who have sought to apply the “sad music of humanity” to the mysterious vicissitudes of humble toil, sin and indigence. “Barbara Gray,” “Nell” and “Liz,”—the “Blind Linnet” of the poor seamstress, the pet starling of the poor tailor, the frugal loves of the “Little Milliner,” and the poor clerk, and of the “Artist and Model”—are conceived in an identical vein, and narrated with more or less imitative skill—as some of CRABBE’S stories, passages of Aurora Leigh and the Princess, or the lyrics of metropolitan misery by HOOD. Despite this family likeness the stories are pleasantly told and prettily versified. The style of versification and narrative tact of the author may be fairly estimated by the following extracts from two of the Poems:


Lo! I stand at the gateway of Honor,
     And see the lights flashing within,
And I murmur these songs of the city,
     Its sorrow, its joy, and its sin;
And the sweetness is heavy upon me,
     Though grown of the past and its wrong;
My losses are sure if that sweetness
     Be felt in the soul of the song.
I murmur these songs of the city,
     And cast them as bread on the sea;
And mine eyes are dim with the singing
     That is all in the world to me!

*    *    *    *    *    *



*    *    *    *    *    *

     ’Twas when the Spring was coming, when the snow
Had melted, and fresh winds began to blow,
And girls were selling violets in the town,
That suddenly a fever struck me down.
The world was changed, the sense of life was pain’d,
And nothing but a shadow-land remained;
Death came in a dark mist and look’d at me,
I felt his breathing, though I could not see,
But heavily I lay and did not stir,
And had strange images and dreams of her. 
Then came a vacancy: with feeble breath,
I shiver’d under the cold touch of Death,
And swoon’d among strange visions of the dead,
When a voice call’d from Heaven, and he fled;
And suddenly I waken’d, as it seem’d,
From a deep sleep wherein I had not dream’d.

     And it was night, and I could see and hear,
And I was in the room I held so dear,
And unaware, stretch’d out upon my bed,
I hearken’d for a footstep overhead.

     But all was hush’d. I look’d around the room,
And slowly made out shapes amid the gloom.
The wall was redden’d by a rosy light,
A faint fire flicker’d, and I knew ’twas night,
Because below there was a sound of feet
Dying away along the quiet street,—
When, turning my pale face and sighing low,
I saw a vision in the quiet glow:
A little figure, in a cotton gown,
Looking upon the fire and stooping down,
Her side to me, her face illumed, she eyed
Two chestnuts burning slowly, side by side,—
Her lips apart, her clear eyes strain’d to see,
Her little hands clasp’d tight around her knee,
The firelight gleaming on her golden head,
And tinting her white neck to rosy red,
Her features bright, and beautiful, and pure,
With childish fear and yearning half demure.

     Oh, sweet, sweet dream! I thought, and strain’d mine eyes,
Fearing to break the spell with words and sighs.

     Softly she stoop’d, her dear face sweetly fair,
And sweeter since a light like love was there,
Brightening, watching, more and more elate,
As the nuts glow’d together in the grate,
Crackling with little jets of fiery light,
Till side by side they turn’d to ashes white,—
Then up she leapt, her face cast off its fear
For rapture that itself was radiance clear,
And would have clapp’d her little hands in glee,
But, pausing, bit her lips and peep’d at me,
And met the face that yearn’d on her so whitely,
And gave a cry and trembled, blushing brightly, 
While, raised on elbow, as she turn’d to flee,
Polly!” I cried,—and grew as red as she!

     It was no dream!—for soon my thoughts were clear,
And she could tell me all, and I could hear:
How in my sickness friendless I had lain,
How the hard people pitied not my pain;
How, in despite of what bad people said,
She left her labours, stopp’d beside my bed,
And nursed me, thinking sadly I would die;
How, in the end, the danger pass’d me by;
How she had sought to steal away before
The sickness pass’d, and I was strong once more.
By fits she told the story in mine ear,
And troubled all the telling with a fear
Lest by my cold man’s heart she should be chid,
Lest I should think her bold in what she did;
But, lying on my bed, I dared to say,
How I had watch’d and loved her many a day,
How dear she was to me, and dearer still
For that strange kindness done while I was ill,
And how I could but think that Heaven above
Had done it all to bind our lives in love.
And Polly cried, turning her face away,   
And seem’d afraid, and answer’d “yea” nor “nay;”
Then stealing close, with little pants and sighs,
Look’d on my pale thin face and earnest eyes,
And seem’d in act to fling her arms about
My neck, then, blushing, paused, in fluttering doubt,
Last, sprang upon my heart, sighing and sobbing,—
That I might feel how gladly hers was throbbing!

     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.
     We have dwelt, in this and previous instances, upon the rifacimento school of modern poets, because we honor the craft and delight in the glory of the Muse—and would fain see her wooed with absolute freshness and freedom and not second-hand, and by virtue of sympathetic and artistic facility, rather than individual emprise and affinity. “These,” says ROBERT BUCHANAN, in his preface, “are the last of my Poems of Probation wherein I have fairly hinted what I am trying to assimilate in mind and thought.” So be it; only let the assimilation be directly from inward experience or outward observation—not through the medium of other, however gifted, interpreters of nature and of life.

Back to Reviews, Bibliography, Poetry or London Poems



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.


Book Reviews - Poetry continued

Combined Reviews:

Undertones,  Idyls and Legends of Inverburn and London Poems








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


The Critical Response
Harriett Jay


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