ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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THE DISMAL THRONG

 

‘The Dismal Throng’, illustrated by George Hutchinson and with an explanatory note by Buchanan, was published in the July 1893 edition of Jerome K. Jerome’s magazine, The Idler. The complete edition is available at Project Gutenberg.

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THE Fairy Tale of Life is done,
     The horns of Fairyland cease blowing,
The Gods have left us one by one,
     And the last Poets, too, are going!
Ended is all the mirth and song,
     Fled are the merry Music-makers;
And what remains? The Dismal Throng
     Of literary Undertakers!

Clad in deep black of funeral cut,
    
With faces of forlorn expression,
Their eyes half open, souls close shut,
     They stalk along in pale procession;
The latest seed of Schopenhauer,
     Born of a Trull of Flaubert’s choosing,
They cry, while on the ground they glower,
     “There’s nothing in the world amusing!”

zola

There’s Miss Matilda1 in the south,
     There’s Valdes2 in Madrid and Seville,
         There’s mad Verlaine3 with gangrened mouth
               Grinning at Rimbaud and the Devil.
From every nation of the earth,
     Instead of smiling music-makers,
         They come, the foes of Love and Mirth,
               The Dismal Throng of Undertakers.

There’s Tolstoi, towering in his place
     O’er all the rest by head and shoulders;
     No sunshine on that noble face
Which Nature meant to charm beholders!
     Mad with his self-made martyr’s shirt,
Obscene through hatred of obsceneness,
     He from a pulpit built of Dirt
Shrieks his Apocalypse of Cleanness!

ibsen
hardy

There’s Zola, grimy as his theme,
     Nosing the sewers with cynic pleasure,
Sceptic of all that poets dream,
     All hopes that simple mortals treasure;
With sense most keen for odours strong,
     He stirs the Drains and scents disaster,
Grim monarch of the Dismal Throng
     Who bow their heads before “the Master.”

tolstoi

There’s Ibsen,4 puckering up his lips,
     Squirming at Nature and Society,
Drawing with tingling finger-tips
     The clothes off naked Impropriety!
So nice, so nasty, and so grim,
     He hugs his gloomy bottled thunder;
To summon up one smile from him
     Would be a miracle of wonder!

There’s Maupassant,5 who takes his cue
     From Dame Bovary’s bourgeois troubles;
There’s Bourget, dyed his own sick “blue,”
     There’s Loti, blowing blue soap-bubbles;
There’s Mendès6 (no Catullus, he!)
     There’s Richepin,7 sick with sensual passion.
The Dismal Throng! So foul, so free,
     Yet sombre all, as is the fashion.

“Turn down the lights! put out the Sun!
     Man is unclean and morals muddy,
         The Fairy Tale of Life is done,
               Disease and Dirt must be our study!
Tear open Nature’s genial heart,
     Let neither God nor gods escape us,
         But spare, to give our subjects zest,
               The basest god of all—Priapus!”

The Dismal Throng! ’Tis thus they preach,
     From Christiania to Cadiz,
         Recruited as they talk and teach
               By dingy lads and draggled ladies;
Without a sunbeam or a song,
     With no clear Heaven to hunger after;
         The Dismal Throng! the Dismal Throng!
               The foes of Life and Love and Laughter!

By Shakespere’s Soul! if this goes on,
     From every face of man and woman
         The gift of gladness will be gone,
               And laughter will be thought inhuman!
The only beast who smiles is Man!
     That marks him out from meaner creatures!
         Confound the Dismal Throng, who plan
               To take God’s birth-mark from our features!

Manfreds who walk the hospitals,
     Laras and Giaours grown scientific,
         They wear the clothes and bear the palls
               Of Stormy Ones once thought terrific;
They play the same old funeral tune,
     And posture with the same dejection,
         But turn from howling at the moon
               To literary vivisection!

And while they loom before our view,
     Dark’ning the air that should be sunny,
Here’s Oscar,8 growing dismal too,
     Our Oscar, who was once so funny!
Blue china ceases to delight
     The dear curl’d darling of society,
Changed are his breeches, once so bright,
     For foreign breaches of propriety!

loti
wilde
moore

I like my Oscar, tolerate
     My Archer9 of the Dauntless Grammar,
Nay, e’en my Moore10 I estimate
     Not too unkindly, ’spite his clamour;
But I prefer my roses still
     To all the garlic in their garden—
Let Hedda gabble as she will,
     I’ll stay with Rosalind, in Arden!

O for one laugh of Rabelais,
     To rout these moralising croakers!
         (The cowls were mightier far than they,
               Yet fled before that King of Jokers).
O for a slash of Fielding’s pen
     To bleed these pimps of Melancholy!
         O for a Boz, born once again
               To play the Dickens with such folly!

twain

Yet stay! why bid the dead arise?
     Why call them back from Charon’s wherry?
Come, Yankee Mark, with twinkling eyes,
     Confuse these ghouls with something merry!
Come, Kipling, with thy soldiers three,
     Thy barrack-ladies frail and fervent,
Forsake thy themes of butchery
     And be the merry Muses’ servant!

Come, Dickens’ foster-son, Bret Harte!
     Come, Sims, though gigmen flout thy labours!
         Tom Hardy, blow the clouds apart
               With sound of rustic fifes and tabors!
Dick Blackmore, full of homely joy,
     Come from thy garden by the river,
         And pelt with fruit and flowers, old boy,
               These dismal bores who drone for ever!

Come, too, George Meredith, whose eyes,
     Though oft with vapours shadow’d over,
Can catch the sunlight from the skies
     And flash it down on lass and lover;
Tell us of Life, and Love’s young dream,
     Show the prismatic soul of Woman,
Bring back the Light, whose morning beam
     First made the Beast upright and human!

You can be merry, George, I vow!
     Wit through your cloudiest prosing twinkles!
         Brood as you may, upon your brow
               The cynic, Art, has left no wrinkles!
For you’re a poet to the core,
     No ghouls can from the Muses win you;
         So throw your cap i’ the air once more,
               And show the joy of earth that’s in you!

By Heaven! we want you one and all,
     For Hypochondria is reigning—
The Mater Dolorosa’s squall
     Makes Nature hideous with complaining!
Ah! who will paint the Face that smiled
     When Art was virginal and vernal—
The pure Madonna with her Child,
     Pure as the light, and as eternal!

Pest on these dreary, dolent airs!
     Confound these funeral pomps and poses!
Is Life Dyspepsia’s and Despair’s,
     And Love’s complexion all chlorosis?
A lie! There’s Health, and Mirth, and Song,
     The World still laughs, and goes a-Maying—
The dismal, droning, doleful Throng
     Are only smuts in sunshine playing!

Play up, ye horns of Fairyland!
     Shine out, O sun, and planets seven!
Beyond these clouds a beckoning Hand
     Gleams from the lattices of Heaven!
The World’s alive—still quick, not dead,
     It needs no Undertaker’s warning;
So put the Dismal Throng to bed,
     And wake once more to Light and Morning!

meredith

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1 Mathilde Serao, an Italian novelist. [back]
2 A Spanish novelist. [back]
3 Verlaine and Rimbaud, two poets of the Parisian Decadence. [back]
4 A Norwegian playwright. [back]
5 Guy de Maupassant, Paul Bourget, and Pierre Loti, novelists of the Decadence. [back]
6 Catulle Mendès, a Parisian poet and novelist. [back]
7 Jean Richepin, ditto. [back]
8 Mr. Oscar Wilde. [back]
9 Mr. William Archer, a newspaper critic. [back]
10 Mr. George Moore, an author and newspaper critic. [back]

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NOTE.—These verses refer to a literary phenomenon that will in time become historical, that phenomenon being the sudden growth, in all parts of Europe, of a fungus-literature bred of Foulness and Decay; and contemporaneously, the intrusion into all parts of human life of a Calvinistic yet materialistic Morality. This literature of a sunless Decadence has spread widely, by virtue of its own uncleanness, and its leading characteristics are gloom, ugliness, prurience, preachiness, and weedy flabbiness of style. That it has not flourished in Great Britain, save among a small and discredited Cockney minority, is due to the inherent manliness and vigour of the national character. The land of Shakespere, Scott, Burns, Fielding, Dickens, and Charles Reade is protected against literary miasmas by the strength of its humour and the sunniness of its temperament.—R.B.

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‘The Dismal Throng’ prompted this response from The Stage (6 July, 1893 - p.11):

     The Idler for this month has an interesting descriptive paper, illustrated on the usual scale of liberality adopted by the editors, on Alphonse Daudet at home. Mr. Robert Buchanan, in a set of verses, girds at the leaders of the Ibsen and other naturalistic schools—”The dismal throng of literary undertakers” he calls them. This idea the artist, George Hutchinson, bears out by representing the objects of Mr. Buchanan’s ire as funeral mutes. Taste of this sort is not of the best. The vignettes side by side with the stanzas are, however, capital, more so than some of the verses. There is a droll one to this stanza about Henrik Ibsen—

There’s Ibsen, puckering up his lips,
     Squirming at Nature and Society,
Drawing with tingling finger-tips
     The clothes off naked Impropriety!
So nice, so nasty, and so grim,
     He hugs his gloomy bottled thunder;
To summon up one smile from him
     Would be a miracle of wonder!

This not over brilliant stanza is quite polite in comparison with some of the others. But is it quite fair? How can the venerable little Scandinavian be logically accused of taking the clothes off naked impropriety? To the verses there is this remarkable footnote:—

     These verses refer to a literary phenomenon that will in time become historical, that phenomenon being the sudden growth, in all parts of Europe, of a fungus-literature bred of Foulness and Decay; and contemporaneously, the intrusion into all parts of human life of a Calvinistic yet materialistic Morality. This literature of a sunless Decadence has spread widely, by virtue of its own uncleanness, and its leading characteristics are gloom, ugliness, prurience, preachiness, and weedy flabbiness of style. That it has not flourished in Great Britain, save among a small and discredited Cockney minority, is due to the inherent manliness and vigour of the national character. The land of Shakespere, Scott, Burns, Fielding, Dickens, and Charles Reade is protected against literary miasmas by the strength of its humour and the sunniness of its temperament.—R.B.

The general contents of the part, including contributions by Jerome K. Jerome, Joseph Hatton, Eden Philpotts, Alfred Berlyn, Robert Barr, &c., are again entertaining.

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Back to The New Rome: ‘The Dismal Throng’

 

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Bibliography

 

Poetry
Plays
Fiction

 

Essays
Reviews
Letters

 

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

 

The Critical Response
Harriett Jay
Miscellanea

 

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