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Ballad Stories of the Affections: from the Scandinavian (1866)

North Coast and Other Poems (1867)


Ballad Stories of the Affections: from the Scandinavian (1866)


The Standard (22 December, 1866 - p.3)



     A right noble book, like the four last named from the firm of Messrs. Routledge, is Ballad Stories of the Affections, from the Scandinavian, by Mr. Robert Buchanan. A true poet, though not such a poet as his more enthusiastic admirers hold him—he has yet to work hard—Mr. Buchanan beautifies all that he touches upon in verse. Here are subjects which test the ring of the metal whereof he is made, and the sound comes out sharp and clear. They of the ice-ribbed North in olden time were a hardy and rugged race, but they were a hearty people too, and from their hearts came many a spark of true love when the saga writers struck with the steel of their genius. Mr. Buchanan echoes their whole tone in these pages. No other poet of the day, perhaps, could have done it so well; and we regret that in such brief space as we can here afford it is impossible to do full justice to his remarkable success. He has power and tenderness and truth in his mind; he brings them all out in these pages, which are very well and copiously illustrated by Pinwell, Houghton, J. D. Watson, and others, whose drawings are very well presented by Messrs. Dalziel.



Illustrated Times (22 December, 1866)


Ballad Stories of the Affections. From the Scandinavian. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. With Illustrations by G. J. Pinwell, E. Dalziel, W. Small, T. Dalziel, J. D. Watson, A. B. Houghton, and J. Lawson.

This handsome volume has reached us far too late for the examination which should precede criticism; but Mr. Buchanan’s name will go much farther than any opinion we could give. The illustrations have been done with great care. Some are most admirable, and all of them are good. But, alas! here is Mr. Pinwell again, with his “human face” hideous. We could not at first remember where we had seen the faces recalled to our memory by the drawing at page 109; but at last we recollected—it was at an infirmary; there were some scrofulous women waiting their turn. The artist has hit them off to a horror. We do assure Mr. Pinwell that his “Maid Mettelil,” at page 47, makes us shiver. Look at her elbows and her jaw! We seem to feel the edge of her collarbone as we look at this miserable starveling of a woman. Does the artist say we have no business to think of such things? We beg his pardon. He has no business to make us think of such things. The fact is, it is very easy to make either a pretty face and form or an ugly face and form; and very hard to make them of a truly natural type. Yet this medium course is the only tolerable one; the majority even of quite ordinary faces are so much handsomer than Mr. Pinwell’s that we cannot imagine where he gets his from. Nor, if they were exact copies of ordinary faces, would it mend his case; for as the artist cannot possibly give us that beauty of life which belongs even to a plain face, he is bound to give us the outlines at their best. These figures will haunt our dreams, like cripples or leprous beggars. It is a vast pity these things should be so, for Mr. Pinwell has great power, and devotes much study to truth of accessory, and indeed, truth in general. Add to which, he is one of the few artists for the wood-block who seem to know what the special function of wood-engraving is, and sticks faithfully to that function. We hope he will soon get over this mania of ugliness, and do justice to his own fine faculties. In the meanwhile we do beg him to believe that, while we like realism both in picture and song, we at present turn to—and, alas! from—many of his drawings with a thrill of repulsion. Unluckily, the very merits of his work as wood-engravings, including his great decision of outline, make his mannerism of ugliness all the more glaring.



The Illustrated London News (29 December, 1866 - p.10-11)

     The book of translations from the old Danish and Norwegian ballad-literature, for which we are indebted also to Mr. Buchanan, is worthy to be classed with Mr. Tom Taylor’s volume of specimens of the ballads of Brittany, published a year or two since. Both are deserving of study for the light they may throw upon the mental and moral characteristics of the ancient races, Teutonic in Northern Europe and Celtic in the West, to which they respectively belong. And both, in our judgment, may be regarded as instructive examples of that genuine and spontaneous popular poetry which has never failed to spring up in the heart of every nation at a certain stage of its social existence, when the lawless turbulence and the benighted superstition of the age of barbarism, having but recently departed, have left a deep impression on the intellectual habits and sentiments of the people. At such a period the mythical legends of extraordinary personal prowess or heroism, and of dæmonic influence or fate, with irresistible force disposing of the common herd of mankind, are sure to take this shape. As Mr. Buchanan remarks of his Scandinavian ballads, “In the region to which we are here introduced, everything we see is colossal, things as well as men being fashioned on a mighty scale; the adventurous nature burns fierce as fire, lives fall thickly as leaves in the autumn wind, and the heroes sweep hither and thither, strong as the sword-blow, bright as the sword-flash. Two powers exist—physical strength and the command of the supernatural. Again and again, however, we leave the battle-field, and come upon places of nestling green, where dwell those gentler emotions which belong to all time, and are universal; we have love-making, ploughing and tilling, drinking and singing. At every step we meet a beautiful maiden, frequently unfortunate, generally in love, and invariably with golden hair.” This extract from Mr. Buchanan’s thoughtful preface is enough to show the general character of the interesting collection he has translated for our reading. He has added several pieces by the modern writers, Oehlenschläger, Möller, Claudius Rosenhoff, and others, which seem like commonplace imitations or feeble echoes of poetry, compared with the vivid freshness and energy of the antique legends; the introductory poem, however, by F. L. Hoedt, is a graceful and appropriate commentary on the poetical associations of the Past. There are sixteen or seventeen distinct stories—for every one of the old poems is a story—from that of Signelil, or Little Signe, the Queen’s handmaiden, beloved of the Queen’s son, to that of Signe, another young woman of the same name, who was poisoned by her royal mistress for dancing with the King and his merry men at a late hour in the evening after the Queen had gone to bed. “Axel and Walborg,” the sad tale of two lovers who were first cousins, forbidden to marry by the priests on account of their consanguinity, but really sacrificed to a court intrigue, is of great value, as Mr. Buchanan observes, for its representation of ancient manners and customs, as well as for its indirect protest against the abuse of ecclesiastical authority; but we find it much too lengthy. “Cloister Robbing,” and “The Lover’s Stratagem,” both which turn upon the successful abduction of a girl who was to have been made a nun, bear witness to the same Protestant spirit. “The Two Sisters,” in which a couple of girls put on the armour and take the swords of men to avenge the wrongs of their family upon a cruel and licentious baron, is a stern outbreak of indignation against the feudal tyrants of the age; while “The Bonnie Groom,” and “Little Christina’s Dance,” express the conflicting claims of true love and conventional difference of rank; in the one case, a lady being won in play by a groom who is a prince in disguise; in the other case, a maiden being wedded to a sailor, who afterwards turns out to be the king. Then we have “Sir Morten of Fogelsang,” the dead man, who cannot rest in his grave because he defrauded the children intrusted to his care, and who bids his wife look at midnight to see if his shoes be not full of blood. One of the pleasanter tales is that of the impudent little gnome or earth-fairy, who came to a peasant’s house, and insisted on carrying off his wife; but, on her invoking the name of Jesus, was changed into a noble and gallant knight, who became the husband of her daughter instead. The story of Ebbe Skammelson is a gloomy one of treachery and dire revenge. In his absence at the Emperor’s court, in Germany, his brother, Peter Skammelson, with the connivance of his mother, persuades Adelaide, who was betrothed to Ebbe, to become Peter’s bride. This is the scene represented in the illustration, designed by Mr. J. D. Watson, which we have borrowed. The other artists employed on the volume are Messrs. G. J. Pinwell, A. B. Houghton, E. Dalziel, T. Dalziel, W. Small, and J. Lawson; the engravers being the Brothers Dalziel. Some of the designs, particularly that of the Gnome’s astonishing the peasant family, by Mr. E. Dalziel, that of Sir Tonne’s meeting with the Elf-King, by Mr. Houghton, and other groups of figures, are of the best we have seen in any illustrated books of this season; but we cannot say much for the rendering of the clouds, sea-waves, and atmospheric phenomena in some of the other engravings, which have a harsh, obscure, and heavy effect.



The Daily News (15 January, 1867)


Ballad Stories of the Affections. From the Scandinavian. By ROBERT BUCHANAN, author of “London Poems,” “Idylls of Inverburn,” &c. With illustrations by eminent artists, engraved by the Brothers Dalziel. London: Routledge and Sons.

     Most Scotchmen have a marked affinity with the old Scandinavian genius. The Norse blood yet beats strongly in their hearts, modifies their characters, and directs their tastes. We in the south, have certainly as large a share of Danish and Norwegian pedigree as our neighbours across the Tweed; but it has been qualified in a greater degree by an older civilization, by closer contact with the central nations of Europe, by a softer climate and more luxuriant vegetation, and by the traditions of the Roman occupation of this part of the island, extending over a period of about four hundred years. Scotland has been left to the undivided influence of the Celt and the Scandinavian; and the modern Scotchman is very much one or the other, according as he comes from the Highlands or the Lowlands. The old Scotch ballads, which originated and were brought to perfection in the border country, or not far beyond it, partook largely of the Norse element, and modern Scotch poetry has a good deal of the same character. It is lyrical, passionate, picturesque, strong even to violence, and dealing rather with the simple elements of emotion than with the complexities of character. Mr. Buchanan himself has shown mist of these tendencies in his original poems. He has the northern gloom and ruggedness, the northern love of wild and supernatural subjects, side by side with something prosaic and literal, almost to the forbidding. His mind has, therefore, been naturally attracted by the old legends and ballads of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, and it may be taken for granted that he has translated the present work con amore. He regrets he has not been at liberty to render his originals in “broad old Scotch, the only really fitting equivalent for old Danish;” but he feared to bewilder English readers, and has therefore only introduced Scotch words occasionally, and merely such as are familiar to most readers, even in the south. The poems with which he has here presented us are for the most part antique, and of unknown authorship; but a few are from modern writers of name and fame, such as Oehlenschlager. Many of the former exhibit great power, and bear unmistakable marks of their Scandinavian parentage. Love, sorrow, jealousy, revenge—the tumult of battle, and the quiet of the mossy churchyard—coarse northern revelry, and ghastly doings of spectre, and troll and dwarf, and merman—such are the threads, whether gloomy or bright, but more often the former than the latter, of which these ballad tales are woven. We cannot deny that there is a sameness in them. The motives of the characters, moreover, are sometimes so different from those of modern men and women as to be removed beyond the pale of our sympathies; and the savage ways of the wild, ice-bound people are not in themselves attractive. But the stories form a good addition to our ballad literature, and it would not be surprising if some of them were to get into general circulation, as legends of the nursery and of the juvenile library. Some of the modern poems—such as “The  Lead-melting” of Claudius Rosenhoff—ought not to have been included in the volume, because they are quite distinct in spirit from the ancient ballads, and are not “stories” at all, but sentiments. Occasionally, even in the veritable old ballads, Mr. Buchanan, if we mistake not, has wandered by inadvertence into the modern manner; as in “Axeland Walborg,” where we find this stanza descriptive of the education of a young girl:

She turns into a maiden fair,
     And maidenly things is taught;
And strange old songs and ancient lore
Sweeten her face with thought.

This is very beautiful; but it is so much in the conscious, analytical, meditative, or purely literary spirit of modern times that we suspect it to be an interpolation by Mr. Buchanan himself. Generally, however, the tone is mediæval and the imitation good, though, of course, not without the drawback that it is an imitation, and nothing more.
     The illustrations to the volume are by Messrs. G. J. Pinwell, E. Dalziel, T. Dalziel, W. Small, A. B. Houghton, J. Lawson, and J. D. Watson, and, though undoubtedly clever in some of the faces and figures, are deformed by all the worst affectations of those artists—by their most wanton defiance of proportion, perspective, texture, and the general truth of things.

Back to Reviews, Bibliography, Poetry or Ballad Stories of the Affections: from the Scandinavian.



North Coast and Other Poems (1867)


The Athenæum (19 October, 1867 - No. 2086, pp. 497-498)

North Coast and other Poems. By Robert Buchanan. With Illustrations. (Routledge & Sons.)

IT is a pity, we think, that ‘North Coast Poems’ should appear in their earlier stage of life in such brilliant binding, and with such capital illustrations as accompany them in this first edition. These poems are in many ways remarkable; and our fear is, lest a careless reader, judging from the gold and green outside, should class them with the bright ephemera of the Christmas-tide. He who does so will make a very great mistake, since ‘North Coast Poems’ and ‘Celtic Mystics’ are genuine additions to our store of poetic wealth.
     We fancy there is some defect of sorting in the way in which the several pieces are put together. The ‘North Coast Poems’ do not follow each other in the book as they would seem to do in the poet’s plan. Mediæval and even miscellaneous pieces are thrust between them, bewildering the reader to no end, so far as we can see. Thus, the ‘Prelude’ should obviously have gone before the other pieces, since it gives the key in which all the rest are set, and even expresses the poet’s mind in dealing with the images and allegories in the midst of which he works out his morals. All these defects in printing bring a sense of confusion into the drama which is needless and disturbing. We should advise all readers to take the Prelude first of all; and to mark the opening verses of the song:—

O thou whose ears incline unto my singing,
Turn with me to the mountains, and behold
A sad thing in the land wherein thou dwellest.

I have to utter dread things of man’s heart;
I have to point at evil with my finger;
I have to find the light of GOD in evil.

And yet I am no wielder of the thunders;
I have no little curse to hurl at sinners;
My full heart hungers out unto the stainéd.

I have a word to leave upon my tombstone;
I have a token for the men who follow:—
“This man’s heart hungered out unto the stainéd.

     This sympathy with the “stained” is not new with Mr. Buchanan. It has been read in all his verses, and it has tended more than any other passion of the poet to inspire his work with a sad and sombre spirit. To many it has appeared as the chief source of his poetic efforts, and for this interpretation he has had to bear some blame. For in the eyes of many it is wrong for a poet to have a purpose in his song beyond keen enjoyment in the exercise of a happy gift. Art, these critics say, is one thing, and reform another: poets are given us that they may make us glad; they are our wine, our feast of love, our holiday companions; the business of their art is to make us happier, not to make us better as men and women. When we need to repent, we shall call in the preacher with his book and candle, not the minstrel with his harp and roundelay. But this light view of the poet’s calling is not Mr. Buchanan’s view. His lyre is set to a graver tune:—

And love and sorrow and wrong shall scent my song;
From discords I will wring harmonious breathings,
Sounding a plea for all men, here and yonder.

For I have stains upon me, and am base:
It is not much that such a man can say;
And yet ’tis much, if said with all his might.

     The poet cannot help but see the saddest things. As he casts his eyes about the world, he sees the good man tear his hair and weep, the bad man tread on human necks, the fair women wearing chains, the innocent child pressed down in the throng,—he asks himself why these things are so, and pries about him in the streets and lanes for some little sign that God is looking on. There he surely reads such signs. In places where a hasty man would never dream of looking, he finds some tokens that the heavenly Father has been nigh:—

Have I not found them in an outcast’s hair?
And in the breast and on the feet of sinners?
There is no place so base that GOD hath scorned it.

And ever, when he comes upon such tokens,
A glamour fills the vision of the singer,
And he is sure the LORD hath passed that way.

     And when the singer finds such signs, he makes it his task to throw about that place the “euphrasy of beauty”: so that the world may be got to know it, and to feel its duty in regard to this remembered vineyard of the Lord. Indeed, this Prelude gives the key in which all these rough, rich studies of simple things have been cast.
     With this high note of sympathy in our ears we may profitably turn to the tale of Maggie Blane, one of those erring women who pile up so high the terrible pathos of our common life. Maggie’s story is simple even to baldness; she loves a sailor laddie, and is deceived; she gives birth to a witless boy, whom she supports as a fisher-wife, living on in the hope that Angus will return to her and the bairn; she saves her lover from a wreck, but only to hear that he has married another woman; after which she droops and pines until she dies. How little there appears in such a tale to enthral the heart, yet with how strong a power the poet contrives to work upon the imagination, every reader of sensibility will own. How sharply is the loving and forsaken woman painted:—

Not old in years, though youth had passed away,
And the meek hair was tinged with silver gray,
Close to the gloaming of the day of life,
She stood, calm featured like a wedded wife;
And yet no wedded wife was she, but one
     Whose foot had left the pathways of the just,
And meekly, since her penance had been done,
     Her soft eyes sought men’s faces, not the dust.
Her tearful days were over: she had found
Firm footing, work to do upon the ground;
The elements had welded her at length
         To their own truth and strength.

This woman was no slight and tear-strung thing,
Whose easy tears fall sweet on suffering,
But one in whom no stranger’s eyes would seek
         For pity mild and meek.
Man’s height was hers—man’s strength and will thereto,
     Her shoulders broad, her step man-like and long;
’Mong fishermen she dwelt, a rude, rough crew,
     And more than one had found her fist was strong.
And yet her face was gentle, though the sun
         Had made it dark and dun;
               Her silver-threaded hair
Was combed behind her ears with cleanly care;
And she had eyes liquid and sorrow-fraught,
     And round her mouth were delicate lines that told
She was a woman sweet with her own thought,
     Though built upon a large, heroic mould.
         Who did not know Meg Blane?
What hearth but heard the deeds that Meg had done?
         What fisher of the main
But knew her, and her little-witted son?
For in the fiercest waters of the coast
Her black boat hovered and her net was tost,
And lonely in the watery solitude
The son and mother fished for daily food.
When on calm nights the herring hosts went by,
     Her black boat followed the red smacks from shore,
And smoking in the stern the man would lie
     While Meg was hoisting sail or plying oar;
Till, a black speck against the morning sky,
     The boat came homeward, with its silver store.
And Meg was cunning in the ways of things,
     And watched what every changing lineament
     Of wind and sea and cloud and water meant,
Knowing how Nature threatens ere she springs.
     She knew the clouds as shepherds know their sheep,
To eyes unskilled alike, yet different each;
     She knew the wondrous voices of the deep;
The tones of sea-birds were to her speech.
     Much faith was hers in GOD, who was her Guide;
Courage was hers such as GOD gives to few,
     For she could face His terrors fearless-eyed,
Yet keep the still weird woman’s nature true.
     Lives had she snatched out of the waste by night,
         When stormy winds were blowing;
     And to sick-beds sad her presence carried light,
     When like a thin sail lessening out of sight
Some rude, rough life to the unknown sea was going;
     For he who scorned a feeble woman’s wail
Would heark to one so strong and brave as she,
     Whose face had braved the lightning and the gale,
         And scarce grown pale,
Save when it looked on other lives at sea.
Yet often, as she lay a-sleeping there,
     She started up, blushing as if in shame,
And stretched out arms embracing the thin air,
         And named an unknown name;
And there was a strange listening in her face
     If sudden footsteps sounded in her ear;
And when strange seamen came unto the place
     She read their faces in a quiet fear;
And finding not the object of her quest,
Her hand she presséd hard upon her breast,
And wore a white look, and drew feeble breath,
         Like one that hungereth.

     The idiot son of this brave and suffering creature is not less strongly limned by the poet; a witless lad, bred by the sea-side, and loving the waters like a dolphin:—

     For Angus Blane, not fearless as the wise
Are fearless, loved the waters like a thing
Born in their still depths of the slimy ooze.
A child, he sported on their rim, and crept
Splashing with little hands amid the foam;
And when his limbs were stronger, and he reached
A young man’s stature, the old sea had grown
Dear and familiar as his mother’s face.
Far out he swam, on windless summer days,
Floating like some sea-monster far from land,
Plunging from terror-stricken fishermen,
With eldrich cry and wild unearthly face;
And in the untrodden deeps below the sea,
Awaking wondrous echoes, that had slept
Since first the watery Spirit stirred and breathed.
On summer gloamings, in the bay for hours
He glistened like a sea-snake in the moon,
Splashing with trail of glistening phosphor-fire,
And laughing shrill till echo answeréd,
And the pale helmsman on the passing boat,
Thinking some demon of the waters cried,
Shivered and prayed. His playmates were the waves,
The sea his playground. On his ear were sounds
Kinder than human voices; on his soul,
Though misted with his witless thoughts, there passed
A motion and a glamour that at times
Broke through his lips, and troubled witless words
With weird sea-music. When he was a child
Children had mocked him—he had shunned their sports,
And haunted ocean places,—nurturing
The bright, fierce, animal splendour of a soul
That ne’er was clouded through the pensive mists
Of mind that smoke the souls of wiser men.
Only in winter seasons he was sad;
For then the loving Spirit of the Deep
Repulsed him, and its smile was kind no more;
And on the strand he wandered; from deep caves
Gazed at the tempest; and from day to day
Moaned to his mother for the happy time
When the white swallows glisten from the South,
And summer glimmers through the rain, and brings
Smiles and a windless silence to the sea.

     And as the deepening of strange melody,
Caught from the unknown shores beyond the seas,
Was the outspreading of his life to her
Who bare him; yea, at times, the woman's womb
Seemed laden with the throes of him unborn,
So close his being clave unto her flesh,
So strangely linked his spirit with her own.
For the forebodings of her heart, when first
She saw the mind-mists in his infant eyes,
And knew him witless, turned as years went on
Into more spiritual, mysterious love
Than common mothers feel; and he had power
To make her nature deeper, more alive
Unto the spiritual feet that walk
Our dark and troubled waters. Thence was born
Much of her courage on the sea, her trust
In the sea’s MASTER; thence, moreover, grew
Her faith in visions, warnings, fantasies,
Such as came thronging on her heart when most
Her eyes looked inward—to the place wherein
She hid a secret sorrow.

     We forbear to tell more of the history of these two lives than we have already told. It is a simple story, with as deep a moral as anything ever done into heroic verse.
     The other verses in this volume are many, and of great merit. Of the Celtic Mystics we have spoken already. ‘An English Eclogue,’ ‘A Scottish Eclogue,’ and ‘The Northern Muse’ have appeared in print elsewhere; but the reader will be glad to find them here collected.
     A few words of fault-finding we reserve to the last. Mr. Buchanan has a fine ear for metre; but we think he deceives himself if he fancies that the continual repetition of poetical accents on the final syllables, never heard in actual speech, is musical. Now and then, for the sake of a rhyme, this artificial accent may be pardoned; but it is always a blemish, to be avoided by a true artist, like any other imperfect work. So, again, of the trick of throwing adjectives behind their proper nouns for the sake of rhyme. “Rafters dim,” “churches bare,” and “apron old” are forms of speech which are not English, either of our own time or of any time. In one less highly gifted in the use of language they would be taken as indications of verbal poverty. As it is, they vex the ear to no end; except so far as they may hint that the poet is, after all, less earnest in his work than poets should be.
     The illustrations, drawn by Messrs. Wolf, Houghton, Pinwell, Small, and others, and engraved by the Brothers Dalziel, are of high merit, often illustrating the verse with singular brilliancy and closeness.



Illustrated Times (26 October, 1867)


     Your readers may be glad to hear, Mr. Editor, not only that there is the usual activity going on in the matter of Christmas annuals just now, but that they may expect one or two things entirely new, and of unusual merit. The old nonsense—the Boar’s Heads and Holly, turned up with cant—was kicked out some time ago; but the real, good new thing to take its place, we have not yet seen. Let us live in hope, however. “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and
to-morrow”—yes, it is a good word, even though “all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death;” which, however, is the speech of a bad man, Macbeth, not of Shakspeare in his own gentle, hopeful person.
     As it will take some little time to do justice to a beautiful new volume, just to hand, from Messrs. Routledge and Sons—“North Coast, and other Poems,” by Robert Buchanan, with Illustrations—for it contains some quite new elements, pray allow me a line or two in which to say that this book will take by surprise even many of those who had faith in Mr. Buchanan’s genius. There has been some difference of opinion about certain of his poems, notably about the last volume; but there will be none about this. It is impossible to turn it over without being deeply moved—not only by the poetry itself, but by an element of personal passion which runs through nearly all of it. Briefly, this dainty volume contains immortal work.



The Spectator (26 October, 1867 - p.17-18)



THIS book by its ornamental appearance, excellent engravings, and somewhat premature birth—it is dated 1868—would seem to be one of the candidates for the favour of Christmas and New Year givers of gifts. It is, however, something much more than this, a book full of genius of no mean order; and, good as the engravings are,—some of them are really of striking excellence,—we cannot help regretting that it has appeared for the first time in a form in which the lovers of poetry for its own sake will never like to keep it. In the first place, illustrations and gift-book paper make it heavy, and a book that men are to love should be light and easily held in the hand. Then the show and glitter of the pictorial art and its belongings distract the mind from the field of true poetry. Illustrations of poetry should, we hold, be published separately, and not interleaved with the verses they illustrate. Painting and poetry are so distinct that the state of mind in which you study the poet will scarcely mingle at all with the state of mind in which you study the painter. We do not even want to see with anything but “the mind’s eye,” Mephistopheles and Faust riding their black horses past the swinging gallows on the barren heath at the same time at which we read Goethe’s eerie scene between them as they dimly hurry past. The poetic continuity of the poem is broken by the pictorial study, not intensified. But whether illustrations should be put beside the poetry they illustrate or not, they should at least be delayed till the poetic beauty of a work of genius has been separately apprehended and mastered. No true lover of poetry ever kept the poets he loved in an illustrated edition for familiar use, and yet he loves to keep for familiar use the very edition in which he first made acquaintance with a new and fine poem. Illustrated and gorgeously got up poems are for drawing-room tables (if for any place), not for the shelf where we store the links of our truest intellectual delights.
     However, though we would far rather have had these poems of Mr. Buchanan’s, at least for the first time, without these often very beautiful, and, in one or two cases at least, very powerful engravings, and for all times without the heavy red and gold blazonry on the back in which Christmas books are accustomed to appear, we must say at once that there is nothing whatever of the nature of tinsel, or of the gift-book-annual character, about the poems inside. They contain, we think, Mr. Buchanan’s most powerful work, and there is a variety about the power they show which is a sign of great strength and genuineness in the genius which has produced them. The art is of the simplest kind; there is no great wealth of words, no profusion of metaphor, and at times even a bareness about the form which verges upon nakedness. The music, such as there is, is in the movement of the thought, and not in the ringing beauty of the words. But there is in the volume the truest pathos, a most dramatic humour, a high spiritual imagination, and a mood of brooding, mystic feeling, perfectly original and curiously thrilling of its kind. Of the poetic worth of the poems of this last kind, the “mystic” poems after the Celtic school, which stand last in the volume, it would be presuming to speak certainly till they have been tried by the test of time,—that is, by the test of many moods and many readers. Our first impression of them is of a singular charm, but we are well aware that poems so remote from the stir of ordinary human life sometimes exert their greatest fascination at first, and afterwards lose their hold over us. But of the poetic depth and durable fame of such poems as “Meg Blane,” or of the “Ballad-Maker,” or the English and the Scottish Eclogues, we cannot feel a doubt. At every reading they grow upon the heart of the reader. There is a union in them of vivid homeliness of eye, and of depth of spiritual insight, which satisfies the double passion for both the outward and the inward realism, the realism of the senses and the realism of the spirit. The shell of outward things is painted with all the homely signs which endear it most to us, but the starlike flashes of the mind are given too. There is a bitterness indeed in some of the poems,—especially in the very striking but offensive piece of cynical imagination called the “Saint’s Story,”—which approaches Mr. Browning’s most savage satire somewhat too closely, and a tone of spiritual hopelessness in two of those we have named, the English and Scottish Eclogues, which strike painfully upon one. But no one can deny that even this bitterness, except in the cynical “Saint’s Story,” never exceeds that of one of the most characteristic and truthful moods of modern feeling on matters of faith,—one of those moods which, though not the highest, though it misses the fulness of divine light, expresses most powerfully the fulness of yearning for that light,—crying out against the depth of shadow in which the truest natures so often find themselves enveloped.
     But there is none of this bitterness in “Meg Blane.” There we have a lyrical ballad of the saddest kind, darkening into the deepest gloom, and yet a transparency with light behind, in which there is a perfect delineation of the mysterious darkness of the saddest of human destinies with a “silver lining” of inner light such as leaves no dullness of despair on the picture, and fills the imagination with a gladness of its own as the melancholy story ends. We know nowhere so fine a poetic success in picturing a fate almost irredeemably sad, sad without any attempt to “vindicate,” as we idly say, the divine purpose which sends human anguish, and without any pretence of spiritual discipline attained through sadness,— saddest, indeed, because the faith of the sufferer dwindles to the last and almost expires in apathy,—and yet a fate which is so pictured as to make the reader see a visionary light behind this deepening gloom, giving the story a beauty and a glory in our eyes which we cannot indeed explain or interpret, but which is utterly inconsistent with the mood of scepticism and cynical despair. Though, as with many a tragedy in this world, the gloom grows regularly deeper to the close, though Meg Blane herself loses heart and faith and fades away from sheer inability to meet the strain of life when once her most cherished hope is extinguished, though, again, her big, witless son survives her only to moan himself into the grave beside her, yet so subtle is the poet’s art that no one can read the poem without feeling a deeper spiritual light in the mystery of this darkness than in most of the common narratives of faith growing into perfect serenity beneath the heavy band of God. Without the slightest attempt to discover a purpose in the apathy of the mother or the helpless sympathy of the witless son, the poet makes you feel, by the mere latent glow of his own intensity of feeling, that the dark lines of destiny converge to some bright point beyond. There is nothing harrowing in the poem, in spite of its ever deepening gloom. The spirit glows through it, so that the infinite pity of God seems to blend with every touch of deepening pathos.
     Meg Blane’s idiot son, a witless, bearded man, very finely portrayed, is a natural son. She herself has never seen his father since this son’s birth, and lives in a perpetual dream of longing for his return, supporting herself and her son meanwhile by her herring boat. A ship is wrecked on the coast, and the only sailor saved is the father of her son, for whose fulfilment of his promise to marry her, Meg still fervently hopes. He has forgotten her and been married for years. The poem is lovely enough up to this point, but it is after the crisis that the greatest power comes out. Nothing can be finer than the verses which depict the void left in Meg’s heart, when the dream of twenty years is destroyed:—

         “Lord, with how small a thing
Thou canst prop up the heart against the grave!
               A little glimmering
                   Is all we crave;
               The coming of a love
                   That hath no being;
         The thin point of a little star above,
               Flashing and fleeing,
               Contents our seeing.
The house that never will be built; the gold
         That never will be told;
The task we leave undone when we are cold;
The dear face that returns not, but is lying,
     Licked by the leopard, in an Indian cave;
The coming rest that cometh not, till, sighing,
     We turn our weary eyes upon the grave.
         And, LORD, how should we dare
               Thither in peace to fall,
     But for a feeble glimmering even there—
               Falsest, perchance, of all?
We are as children in Thy hands indeed,
And Thou hast easy comfort for our need,—
The shining of a lamp, the tinkling of a bell,
                   Content us well.

“And even when Thou bringest to our eyes
     A little thing, to show its worthlessness,
Anon we see another thing arise,
     And we are comforted in our distress;
And, waiting on, we watch it glittering,
Till in its turn it is a worthless thing;
               And even as we weep
Another rises, and we smile again;
Till, wearied out with watching on in vain,
               We fall to sleep.

“And often one poor light that looks divine
Is all one soul seeketh along the ground;
               There are no more to shine
         When that one thing is found.
     If it be worthless, then what shall suffice?
The lean hand grips a speck that was a spark,
               The heart is turned to ice,
                   And all the world is dark.
Hard are Thy ways when that one thing is brought
         Close, touched, and proven nought.
Far off it is a mighty spell, and strong
               To help a life along.
But, lo! it darkens hitherward, and now
Droppeth, a rayless stone, upon the sod.—
The world is lost: perchance not even Thou
               Survivest it, Lord God!

               “In poverty, in pain,
         For weary years and long,
One hope, one fear, had comforted Meg Blane,
         Yea, made her brave and strong;
A hope so faint, it seemed not hope at all,
But a sweet trouble and a dreamy fear,
A hearkening for a voice, a soft footfall,
She never hoped in sober heart to hear:
         This had been all her cheer;
               And with this balm
               Her soul might have kept calm
         For many another year.
         In terror and in desolation, she
               Had been sustained,
         And never felt abandoned utterly
               While that remained.
Lord, in how small and poor a space can hide
The motives of our terror and our pride,
The clue unto the fortunate man’s distress,
The secret of the hero’s fearlessness!
What had sustained this woman on the sea
         When strong men turned to flee?
               Not courage, not despair,
               Not pride, not household care,
         Not faith in Thee!
Nought but a hungry instinct blind and dim—
         A fear, a nameless pain,
A dreamy wish to gaze again on him
     She never wholly hoped to see again.”

This is poetry of no common order, and yet it is far finer—as it ought to be—in the context of this most powerful lyrical tale, than it can appear as we extract it. It needs the picture of Meg Blane’s hard sea-wife’s courage before the blow,— of her longing, and hopeful longing, to see the father of her witless son once more, and to be remembered and owned by him,—of the keenness of the first blow, and the wearing off of the first pain, to give this delineation of her lapse into weakness and apathy its full meaning and power. We must quote also the verses in which Meg expresses to her idiot son her fears for him when she is gone. There are few verses of truer pathos in the poetry of this generation:—

         “‘O bairn, when I am dead,
               How shall ye keep frae harm?
         What hand will gie ye bread?
               What fire will keep ye warm?
How shall ye dwell on earth awa’ frae me?’
               ‘O mither, dinna dee!’

         ‘O bairn, by night or day
               I hear nae sounds ava’,
               But voices o’ winds that blaw,
               And the voices o’ ghaists that say
                             I must awa’.
The LORD that made the wind, and made the sea,
               Is hard on my bairn and me,
         And I melt in His breath like snaw,’—
               ‘O mither, dinna dee!’

         “‘O bairn, it is but closing up the een,
               And lying down never to rise again.
         Many a strong man’s sleeping hae I seen,—
                   There is nae pain!
         I’m weary, weary, and I kenna why;
               My summer has gone by,
And sweet were sleep, but for the sake o’ thee.’—
               ‘O mither, dinna dee!

The “Ballad Singer” is a poem of less power and of less depth of conception, but of exquisite pathos in the same vein of feeling, but we must pass it by. “Northern Wooing,” a Hallowe’en story, is a much lighter piece, exceedingly graceful in its own fashion,—that of a homely idyl of Scotch life. It is light and true, and full of living pictures. Of the lyrical narratives, “The Exiles of Oona” and the “Ballad of the Stork” are the only ones which have not, as far as we can see, any great power or merit. The Scottish and English Eclogues are perfect after their kind, which is no common kind;—the only defect in either of them being that the noble verse in the “English Eclogue” in which the English rustic criticizes the poor dead Methodist’s religious fanaticism, is all but dramatically impossible in that rustic’s mouth. It is the poet’s own criticism, and not Timothy’s. Holy Tommy was an English farm labourer whose head was turned by Methodism, who lost his expertness as a labourer in dreaming of his faith, and after leaving his employment mooned himself to death with fretting over the enigma which lost him this world and did not seem to open to him the next. His fate is the subject of a discussion between two farmers, and this is the concluding judgment of one of them:—


“His head was gone, that’s clear enough—the chapel set it turning.


“Now, this is how I look at it, although I have no learning:
In this here world, to do like him is nothing but sell-slaughter,—
He went close to the edge o’ life, and heard a roar like water,
His head went round, his face grew pale, his blood lost life and motion,—
’Twas just as vi’lets lose their scent when set beside the ocean.
But there’s the parson riding up, with Dr. Barth, his crony;
Some of these days the parson’s weight will kill that blessed pony!
Ah, he’s the matt to settle things that make the wits unsteady!
Wife, here’s the parson! Draw some ale, and set the table ready.”

Those first lines can’t be dramatic. Mr. Buchanan, and not Timothy, thought,

“He went close to the edge o’ life and heard a roar like water.”

But the lines are exceedingly fine, and the one which compares Tommy’s loss of living power in consequence, to the loss of fragrance which violets suffer near the sea is one of the finest images in modern poetry.
     Mr. Buchanan’s less realistic poetry is, as we have said, harder to judge than his spiritualized ballads of homely life. But the principal piece among his “Celtic Mystics” is singularly original in conception, and seems to us of a very high imaginative power. It is a vision of what life would be if death were not accompanied by any of the mortal accidents of a corruptible body. He first supposes the anguish of corruption to weigh so deeply upon a mourner that in his sleep he sees a vision of the earth with the physical side of death abolished. Men no longer sicken and die, but “vanish upon God” when His spirit calls them, leaving no mortal trace behind, no pale corpse, no funeral preparations, no quiet graves. The idea is exquisitely worked out, and it is very finely shown how the physical accidents of death assuage instead of embittering the agony inseparable from it. It is written after the Ossianic style of art, but has scarcely any of the false notes of that school. Take this as a specimen:—

“And, behold! I saw a woman in a mud-hut,
Raking the white spent embers with her fingers,
And fouling her bright hair with the white ashes;

“And her mouth was very bitter with the ashes;
Her eyes with dust were blinded; and her sorrow
Sobbed in the throat of her like gurgling water.

“And all around the voiceless hills were hoary,
And a red light scorched their edges; and above her
There was a soundless trouble of the cloud-reek.

“‘Whither, and, oh, whither,’ said the woman,
‘O Spirit of the Lord, hast thou conveyed them—
My little ones, my little son and daughter?

“‘For, lo! we wandered forth at early morning,
And winds were blowing round us, and their mouths
Blew rose-buds to the rose-buds, and their eyes

“‘Looked violets at the violets, and their hair
Made a sunshine in the sunshine, and their passing
Left a pleasure in the dewy leaves behind them;

“‘And suddenly my little son looked upward,
And his eyes were dried like dew-drops; and his going
Was like a blow of fire upon my face.

“‘And my little son was gone. My little daughter
Looked round me for him, clinging to my vesture;
But the Lord had blown him from me, and I knew it

“‘By the sign He gives the stricken that the lost one
Lingers nowhere on the earth on hill or valley,
Neither underneath the grasses or the tree-roots.

“‘And my shriek was like the splitting of an ice-reef,
And I sank among my hair, and all my palm
Was moist and warm where the little hand had filled it.

“‘Then I fled and sought him wildly hither—thither—
Though I knew that he was stricken from me wholly
By the token that the spirit gives the stricken.

“‘I sought him in the sunlight and the starlight,
I sought him in the forests, and in waters
Where I saw mine own pale image looking at me.

‘And I forgot my little bright-haired daughter,
Though her voice was like a wild bird far behind me,
Till the voice ceased, and the universe was silent.

“‘And stilly, in the starlight, came I backward
To the forest where I missed him; and no voices
Brake the stillness as I stooped down in the starlight,

“‘And saw two little shoes filled up with dew,
And no mark of little footsteps any farther,
And knew my little daughter had gone also.’”

The anguish of desolation expressed in the last verse seems to us in the highest style of the mystic school. Perhaps, logically speaking, there should be no earthly trace of the lost, not even the “two little shoes filled up with dew,” to take the place of the mortal body. But the emotion which this one pathetic vestige of the child’s earthly life excites heightens the whole art of the poem, by bridging, as it were, the transition between the absolute loss of all trace of the body, and the schooling through which the heart goes in death as we know it.
     The book has singularly little poetical mannerism in it. Now and then, indeed, there are phrases, like the use of “ghastly” as as an active verb “to ghastly,” and the sentimental phrase,

“The man’s heart hungered out unto the stained,”

which fret and repel the reader. But we know but few poets so free from mannerisms of this class. We do not doubt that this book will greatly raise Mr. Buchanan’s reputation as an original poet of high imaginative power and a singularly pure art.


     * North Coast, and other Poems. By Robert Buchanan. With Illustrations by the Messrs. Dalziel, Wolf, Houghton, Pinwell, Zwecker, and Small. Engraved by the Brothers Dalziel. London: Routledge. 1868.



Notes and Queries (Vol. 12 3rd S. (305) 2 November, 1867 - p.365)

The North Coast, and other Poems, by Robert Buchanan. With Illustrations by Wolf, Dalziel, Houghton, Pinwell, Zwecker, Small, and E. Dalziel. Engraved by the Brothers Dalziel. (Routledge).

     The first Christmas book which has reached us has, in addition to its beauty, a strong claim on our attention from the novelty of its character. Instead of seeking to win public favour by reproducing, with all the luxury of type and paper and corresponding artistic embellishment, some well-established masterpiece of English Poetry, or an anthology contributed by the popular writers of the day, Messrs. Routledge have found, in a collection of original poems by Mr. Buchanan, an admirable Christmas Book. Mr. Buchanan is a true Poet. Gifted with deep sympathy for human sufferings and human trials, a deep sense of the pathetic, and great dramatic power, his thoughts find utterance in verses of great melody. These Poems will, we think, add to Mr. Buchanan’s reputation; and admirable as are the numerous illustrations with which the volume is enriched, the Poems themselves will, we are sure, prove the most attractive portion of this very handsome volume.



The Examiner (9 November, 1867)


     The first drops have fallen of the coming shower of Christmas books. Messrs Routledge were first in the field, with the best we have yet seen, a volume of poetry by Mr Robert Buchanan, ‘North Coast and other Poems’, all new but a piece or two, and some of it up to the highest mark reached in his former books. The illustrations to this volume are free from the defects—or the merits which we look on as defects—that have characterized some of the Christmas books upon which Messrs Dalziel have spent their best work in former years. There is no wilful ugliness or obtrusive pre-Raphaelitism. The illustrations to ‘Meg Blane,’ by Messrs T. Dalziel and A. B. Houghton, are very true, and Mr Houghton’s contain much of the pathos of the story. Mr. T. Dalziel is a liberal contributor of illustrations; we do not think we have ever before seen so much of his good work in one volume, and admired it so thoroughly. Mr Houghton has been his chief collaborator, but there are six pictures by Mr G. J. Pinwell; three, two of deer, and one a moorhen among sedge, by Mr Wolf, prince of book illustrators when the question if of bird or beast, and a good reindeer picture by Mr Zwecker. Add two pictures by Mr W. Small, and the catalogue is complete of artists who have embellished this beautiful Christmas book with pictures worthy of good verse.



Glasgow Herald (30 November, 1867 - p.2)


NORTH COAST, AND OTHER POEMS. By Robert Buchanan. With illustrations. London: George Routledge & Sons. 1868.

THIS is, in every respect, a handsome volume. The binding is gorgeous, in blue and gold, the paper is thick as vellum and fine as satin, while the typography is exquisite. The illustrations, which are 53 in number, would, we daresay, have carried off the book at this season without any further attractions. They are all remarkably well designed and engraved and some of them have more than ordinary merit. But there are other merits besides the illustrations and the ornamental style of    get-up in the volume. Some of the poems are quite equal to anything that Mr Buchanan has yet produced; and the chief piece, “Meg Blane,” is a poem of the truest and most profound pathos. We do not know that it is matched by any of the fine poetic sketches which the author gave us some time ago in the “Idylls and Legends of Inverburn.” Meg Blane is a fisher-woman, and is thus pourtrayed:—

“Not old in years, though youth had passed away,
And the meek hair was tinged with silver gray;
Close to the gloaming of the day of life
She stood, calm featured, like a wedded wife;
         And yet no wedded wife was she, but one
Whose foot had left the pathways of the just;
         And meekly, since her penance had been done,
Her true eyes sought men’s faces, not the dust—
Her tearful days were over: she had found
Firm footing work to do upon the ground;
The elements had welded her at length
         To their own truth and strength.

This woman was no slight and tear-strong thing,
Whose easy tears fall sweet on suffering,
But one in whom no stranger’s eyes would seek
         For pity mild and meek.
Man’s height was hers—man’s strength and will thereto,
     Her shoulders broad, her step man-like and long;
’Mong fishermen she dwelt—a rude, rough crew—
     And more than one had found her fist was strong.
And yet her face was gentle, though the sun
     Had made it dark and dun;
         Her silver-threaded hair
     Was combed behind her ears with cleanly care;
And she had eyes liquid and sorrow-fraught,
     And round her mouth were delicate lines that told
She was a woman sweet with her own thought,
     Though built upon a large heroic mould.”

     This is an unpromising Amazonian to make a heroine out of; and yet Mr Buchanan manages it with exquisite skill, and with a slight story. Meg has a half-witted son, grown to manhood, whom she supports by her own hard industry, and during all her weary life has cherished the hope that the Father will return. One wild night in summer the cry rises that a ship is wrecked, and Meg Blane is the first to start for the rescue, and the first to take her seat in the boat to reach the jeopardised crew. The out-look upon the sea and the wrecking vessel is powerfully described:—

               “Black was the oozy lift,
               Black was the sea and land;
Hither and thither, thick with foam and drift,
               Did the deep waters shift,
Swinging with iron clash on rock and sand.
Faintlier the heavy rain was falling, 
Faintlier, faintlier the wind was calling
     With hollower echoes up the drifting dark;
And the swift rockets shooting through the night,
Ghastlied the foamy reef with pale blue light,
     And showed the piteous outline of the bark
         Rising and falling like a living thing,
               Shuddering and shivering;
While howling, beast-like, the white waters there
Spat blindness in the dank eyes of despair.”

     Only one of the crew was saved, and that one was the father of Meg’s witless son. Meg recognises him; but after an interview, which is delicately described, she returns to her sea-side hut, her one hope for ever crushed and broken. She becomes feeble and unable longer to battle with the stout waves, and is forced to pick up a melancholy subsistence for herself and her son the best way she can. Thus years pass, the mother and son clinging closer together, till at length death interferes to separate the two. Nothing could be more touching in its way than the murmuring of the mother with regard to her “bairn,” as she feels that she is melting away; or more in harmony with the melancholy from which the incidents of Meg’s life stand out as from a very dark background. She moans:—

“‘My God! when I am gone, how will he fare?’
 And for a little time, for Angus’ sake,
     Her bruised heart would ache,
 And all life’s stir and anguish once again
     Would swoon across her brain.

     ‘O bairn, when I am dead,
           How shall ye keep frae harm?
     What hand shall gie ye bread?
           What fire will keep ye warm?
 How shall ye dwell on earth awa’ frae me?’—
           ‘O mither, dinna dee!’ 

 ‘O bairn, by night or day
           I hear nae sounds ava’,
     But voices o’ winds that blaw,
And the voices o’ ghaists that say
           I must awa’.
The Lord that made the wind, and made the sea
     Is hard on my bairn and me,
And I melt in His breath like snaw,’—
         ‘O mither, dinna dee!’

‘O bairn, it is but closing up the een,
     And lying down never to rise again;
Many a strong man’s sleeping hae I seen,—
         There is nae pain!
I’m weary, weary, and I kenna why;
   My summer has gone by,
And sweet were sleep, but for the sake o’ thee.’—
   ‘O mither, dinna dee!’”

     The subject is taken up in all its hardness, and worked out in the realistic spirit, but somehow it becomes fused with the deepest poetry and pathos under Mr Buchanan’s hand. It is seldom that we find so much completeness in such a slight sketch. Many of the other poems have also rare merit; and amongst these we would notice the English and Scottish Eclogues, both of which, especially the latter, are admirable. The “Ballad Maker,” the “Northern Wooing,” and the “Exiles of Oona” are also fair specimens of Mr Buchanan’s powers; but none of them reach the high standard of the first poem in the volume. It is almost a pity that so much fine poetry has been so overlaid with tinsel ornament. The public scarcely ever expects to find much of literary worth under gaudy covers, and accompanied with fine tones paper and beautiful illustrations. Books of this character are bought, like articles of vertu, as drawing-room ornaments. Moreover, it is difficult to peruse such splendid productions of the pictorial and typographical arts without spoiling them, when they happen, as in the present case, to contain substance as well as show.



Book Reviews - Poetry continued

North Coast and Other Poems (1867) - continued








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