ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

Home
Biography
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

Links
Site Diary
Site Search

LATTER-DAY LEAVES - continued

 

The Echo (23 July, 1891 - p.1)

LATTER-DAY LEAVES.
_____

BY ROBERT BUCHANAN.
_____

VI.—MY FATHER; AND THE OWENITES.

     At the time when the benign Don Quixote of modern Socialism, Robert Owen, was issuing his propaganda of a New Moral World, and when his words of promise sounded like a trumpet-note to so many youthful sons of toil, one of the first to respond was a poor journeyman tailor in Ayrshire, who, throwing down goose and scissors, straightway aspired to the rôle of Socialist reformer; was soon welcomed and appreciated for his keen Scottish intelligence, his wide, if uninstructed reading, and his rugged eloquence on the platform; in due time became one of Owen’s most valued Missionaries; and before many years had elapsed was famous among his own people, and infamous among the orthodox, as Robert Buchanan, poet and iconoclast. That man was my father.

_____

     Sometimes stumping the country as a controversialist on the side of Free-Thought, sometimes travelling from town to town with a magic lantern (one of his great feats being the exposure of the popular theory of “ghosts,” through the production of a mystic Skeleton, which he sent dancing among his affrighted audience), sometimes following his gentle Leader into perilous places where the new gospel was hateful or unknown, he laboured pertinaciously in the good cause until, in or about 1840, well-known to Socialists as the Communistic Year, he married Miss Margaret Williams, daughter of a well-known solicitor (of Socialist leanings) in Stoke-upon-Trent. Robert Owen himself honoured the civil ceremony before the Registrar, and gave Miss Williams away. About a year afterwards, I was born—if not in the odour of sanctity, at least in the full and increasing daylight of the New Moral World.

_____

     It was, as the reader is doubtless aware, a stirring time. The wave of the great Revolution had not yet spent itself, and every day some doomed structure was subsiding into the waste of troubled waters. Many failures had not yet daunted the apostles of Liberty and Co-operation. Instead of the stagnant pessimism which now covers the green fields of Democracy with loathsome pools, an ardent optimism was everywhere at work. Owen’s clear call to arms had been heard all over the land, bringing recruits from the tailor’s shop, the smithy, the cobbler’s bench, the manufactory, the ploughtail, from every place, indeed, where the poor sons of toil had learned to read and think. Many of these men, my father among the number, had splendid gifts; all had the courage of their opinions.

_____

     Those who had the happiness to know Robert Owen knew him as the most benign of men, in whom the enthusiasm of humanity was combined with the most extraordinary powers of practical business. In the words of Duke Bernard of Saxe-Weimar, “Mr. Owen looked for nothing less than to renovate the world, to extirpate all evil, to banish all punishment, to create like views and like wants, and to guard against all conflicts and all hostilities.” His benevolence, however, was entirely scientific—he was, in fact, the father and founder of modern social science. His success—for a time, at least—was phenomenal. In a letter to the Times newspaper, in 1834, he said, addressing his friend Lord Brougham:—“I believe it is known to your lordship that from every point of view no experiment was ever so successful as the one I conducted at New Lanark, although it was commenced and continued in opposition to all the oldest and strongest prejudices of mankind. For twenty-nine years we did without the necessity for magistrates or lawyers; without a single legal punishment; without any known poors-rate; without intemperance or religious animosities. We reduced the hours of labour, well educated all the children from infancy, greatly improved the condition of the adults, diminished their daily hours of labour, paid interest on capital, and cleared upwards of £300,000 of profit.” So far his mission had been practical, and had succeeded; but in 1837 he delivered a formula which made him thenceforth the avowed enemy of all who held orthodox opinions.
     “ALL THE RELIGIONS OF THE WORLD,” he said, “ARE WRONG!”
     From that time forth the influential classes entirely deserted him. He became at once an apostle and a martyr. Personally a Theist, he preached universal toleration—a form of toleration which is, and always has been, to nine- tenths of mankind, quite intolerable.

_____

     The reward of Socialist missionaries in those days was, I fear, quite inadequate to their personal necessities; and my father was one of many who found it necessary to eke out a subsistence by reporting for the Press. Just after I was born he joined the staff of the Sun newspaper, combining with his occupation as reporter that of small newsvendor. A few months later, when I was still an infant, my mother went to join the community at Ham Common, in Surrey, the manager of which was Mr. William Oldham, whose chief eccentricity was a preference for wet sheets to dry ones. The inmates of Alcott House, or, as it was called, the Concordian, were vegetarians, objected to the use of even salt and tea, and, naturally, to all stimulants, and advocated entire abstinence from indulgences of the flesh, including marriage. My mother, as a married woman, was refused admission to the inner, or perfectly sacred, circle, which was presided over by Oldham, the grand “Pater.” A diet consisting almost entirely of uncooked cabbage is apt to grow monotonous, and my mother did not remain at Ham Common long. A year or two later, however, when New Harmony was established, she went on Robert Owen’s special invitation to Queenwood, near Wisbech, Hampshire, a baronial structure surrounded by spacious roads and promenades. The inmates of Queenwood, though they were all believers in the principle of association, consulted their own taste in matters of diet; but the most popular table in the hall was the one where a vegetarian diet alone was served. It was, as I gathered, a happy and innocent community; but infamous reports were spread concerning it by the antagonists of human progress; it was, in fact, described as an immoral association. Members of the Church Orthodox were not likely to forgive a community founded to illustrate the doctrines of the man who denounced all religions as “wrong,” and who, on the platform and in the newspapers, had so often shown the weak points in the armour of Christianity. “Is it possible,” asked an opponent of Socialism at Edinburgh, in 1838, “to train an individual to believe that two and two make five?” “We need not, I fancy, go far for an answer,” replied Owen, with his gentle smile and inimitable courtliness of manner; “I fancy all of us know many persons who are trained to believe that three make one, and who think very ill of you if you differ from them!”

_____

     I have often heard my mother speak of Robert Owen as the kindliest and most gracious of men, with an air of indomitable gentleness peculiarly irritating to individuals whose métier it was to discuss burning questions under burning excitement. I saw the good man often early in my life, but my recollection of him is kaleidoscopic, one tiny sparkle of memory mixed confusedly with things I have only heard. In our home, wherever it might be, he was a sort of religious presence. I heard his name long before I heard that of Jesus Christ. I was taught to think of him as of one wholly unselfish, holy, and morally omniscient. I heard again and again of his gracious deeds and inspiring words. One secret of his extraordinary power was that he was pre-eminently a “gentleman.” Under his refining influence the rough, untutored men who flocked to his standard became gentle too. When persecution came, they took it like their master, patiently and wisely. To know Robert Owen, indeed, was in itself a liberal education.

_____

     My first vivid recollections are of the period when my father, having established himself on the London Press, and residing permanently in London, sent me to a small school at Hampton-wick, kept by a well-known Socialist missionary, Alexander Campbell, known to his circle as “the Patriarch.” He was a grave, simple man, with peculiar notions on the Immanence of the Deity, or what is called Being. With his peculiar religious ideas, he combined, I fancy, eccentric views concerning the diet of the human race. At all events, the children under the care of himself and his daughter pined for lack of fitting nutriment. I, myself, as a very little boy, must have been in danger of starvation, for I vividly remember having to supplement the school diet, which was chiefly vegetarian, by eating snails, gathered in the garden. On going home for the holidays, I was found to be a little skeleton, and my mother took care that I did not return to the establishment.

_____

     I was next sent to a so-called French and German College at Merton, kept by a certain M. de Chastelain, a French gentleman, and, I think, a refugé. It was a large school, excellently conducted, but resembling, in some respects, Mr. Creakle’s establishment, made famous by the author of “David Copperfield.” Just opposite the main entrance was a CHURCH, almost the first I had ever seen, and certainly the first I ever entered. Here, I presume, I became acquainted with the national religion and its sacred terminology. I vividly recall the sense of strangeness I experienced, when I listened, little heathen that I was, to the ordinary vocabulary of Christianity. I had received no religious teaching: if I had heard the name of God, it had been as a voice from far away; and I was old enough to understand that much that was taught in churches was mostly “superstition.” But not till some years afterwards, when I was taken to Scotland, did I completely realise the gloom and narrowness of the popular Christian creed.

_____

     My parents were now residing at Norwood, in a quaint little cottage commanding a distant prospect of St. Paul’s; and thither, chiefly on Sundays, came many of the apostles of progress—hirsute men for the most part, of all characters and of all nations. When my holidays occurred, I saw a good deal of these gentlemen. Two of them I remember vividly, who generally came together — one a little miniature of a man, with tiny feet and hands and an enormous head, generally covered by a chimney-pot hat three or four sizes too large for it; the other a mighty fellow, of gigantic stature, with a chest fit for Hercules and a voice like a trumpet. The first was Louis Blanc, a famous exile; the second was Caussidière, who had been chief of the police in Paris during the last Revolution. Both spoke English fairly, and Blanc wrote it like an Englishman. It was during a visit of this strange pair that I first heard the    “Marseillaise.” Sung by Caussidière in stentorian tones, with kindling eyes and excited gestures, it sounded like a wild conjuration. I listened to these men for hours, as they talked of their country and its sorrows, and named the wondrous words—“Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.”

_____

     In after years I met Louis Blanc again, and by that time only the faintest trace of a foreign accent remained to show that he was a Frenchman. He was at once the keenest and most enthusiastic of little men, neat in his person, brilliant in his talk, and cultured to the finger-nails. He loved England, which had so long afforded him a home, and hated nothing in the world but one thing, the Empire, and one man, the Emperor. He preached the great Socialistic doctrine of solidarity, in writings which were as brilliant as they were closely reasoned; he was an enemy of tyranny in any form; and he lived long enough to see the foulest tyranny of modern times, a tyranny of the senses, ignominiously overthrown at Sedan.

_____

Another friend of my father, and a constant visitor at our house, was Lloyd Jones, lecturer, debater, and journalist. An Irishman with the mellowest of voices, he delighted my young soul with snatches of jovial song—the “Widow  Machree,” “The Leather Bottèl,” and the modern burlesque of that royal ballad, the “Pewter Quart,”—written, I think, by Maguire, and originally published in Blackwood:

Here, boy, take this handful of brass,
Across to the Goose and the Gridiron pass,
Pay the coin on the counter out,
And bring me a pint of foaming stout,
Put it not into bottle or jug,
Cannikin, rumkin, flagon, or mug,
Into nothing at all, in short,
Except the natural PEWTER QUART!

_____

     Jones “troll’d” rather than sang, with robust strength and humour. I found out, when I was a year or two older, that he knew and loved the obscurer early poets, and could recite whole passages from their works by heart. George Wither was a great favourite of his, and he had a fine collection of that poet’s works, many of them very scarce. It was a treat to hear him sing Wither’s charming ballad—

Shall I, wasting in despair,
Die because a woman’s fair?
If she be not fair to me,
What care I how fair she be?

or to hear him recite the same poet’s naïve, yet lively, invocation to the Muse, written in prison—

By a Daisy whose leaves spread,
Shut when Titan goes to bed,
By a lush upon a tree,
She could more infuse in me
Than all Nature’s wonders can
In some other wiser man!

     I owe Lloyd Jones this debt, that he first taught me to love old songs and homespun English poetry. He was a  large-hearted, genial man, not to be forgotten in any chronicle of the Socialistic cause.

_____

     It was not, as I have hinted, until I was taken by my parents to reside in Scotland that I came face to face with the Dismal Superstition against which my father and these men, his friends, were passionately struggling. I then learned for the first time that to fight for human good, to be honest and fearless, to love the Light, was to be branded as an Enemy of Society and an Atheist. I saw my father so branded, and I have not forgotten my first horror when children of my own age avoided me, on the score that I was the son of “an infidel.” But I learned now that there was more real religion, more holy zeal for Humanity, in these revolters against the popular creed, than in most of the Christians who preach one faith and practise another.

Tantum Religio potuit suadere malorum!

The world has advanced somewhat since these early days of which I have been writing. There is no sign as yet, however, that the warning uttered long ago by Lucretius, and echoed by the minority from generation to generation, has been of much avail.

__________

 

[Notes:
Harriett Jay quotes all of this article in her biography of Buchanan. She corrects a couple of obvious misprints in the Echo version (and I’ve followed her example - the Owen quote, “All the Religions of the World are Wrong!” was printed as “All the Religions of the Word are Wrong!”) and also corrects Buchanan’s geography, placing Wisbech in Norfolk rather than Hampshire. The biggest change is that Jay adds another paragraph to the account of Robert Owen and his followers. This occurs after the fourth paragraph, before the account of Buchanan’s early education:

     “Only those who have carefully followed the history of the Socialistic movement under Owen can have any notion whatever of the condition of England in those troublous times. A freethinker, a proclaimer of the right to private judgment, often carried his life in his hand. The priest and the capitalist, the bigot and the landowner, worked everywhere against the new doctrines, which, they contended, were poisoning the air—the missionaries of Socialism were very generally regarded as agents of the Prince of Darkness conspiring to plunge the country into anarchy and revolution. Owen’s views on religion were generally considered blasphemous, horrible, atheistical, but it was his ideas on marriage, in the moral programme which he advanced with persuasive eloquence, that aroused the most frenzied opposition, particularly among the women of the lower classes, who were firmly persuaded that the object was to rob them of their husbands and by reducing all sexual union to a simple contract, revokable at pleasure, to leave them at the mercy of male caprice and to bastardise their children. This delusion drove the wives and mothers of the toiling classes to absolute frenzy, and made them the chief leaders and abettors of the many acts of violence to which Owen’s missionaries were subjected.”

Which raises the question of the source of Jay’s article. She mentions that Buchanan wrote this account of his early experiences in 1891, the year of its appearance in The Echo, but this extra paragraph does suggest that she was not just copying (and correcting) that newspaper clipping. Perhaps she was working with Buchanan’s original copy, or maybe some of the ‘Latter-day Leaves’ in The Echo were recycled for The Sunday Special.]

__________

 

Following the sixth article in the series, The Echo, in its ‘Daily Gossip’ section, printed an item objecting to Buchanan’s ‘Latter-Day Leaves’. A few days later, a letter appeared in support of Buchanan.

 

The Echo (24 July, 1891 - p.2)

     A Correspondent asks, “How much of The Echo is Mr. Robert Buchanan to have to talk about himself? I see that he has written six unusually long letters, or articles, or contributions to The Echo, and five out of the six are overflowing with Mr. Robert Buchanan’s admiration of himself. This is, no doubt, a fascinating theme for Mr. Buchanan. Query, is it so fascinating to Echo readers generally?”

___

 

The Echo (29 July, 1891 - p.4)

HEAR ALL SIDES.
_____

TO THE EDITOR OF THE ECHO.

ROBERT BUCHANAN.

     SIR,—Newspaper editors more than anyone, perhaps, know how impossible it is to please everyone; but, apropos of the plaint by your correspondent against Robert Buchanan’s columns, I venture to think that this “matter” is acceptable to a greater number of your readers than it is disagreeable to. For my part, having some small enthusiasm for humanity, and therefore an eager reader of The Echo, I positively delight in the words and sentiments of such an unconventional, open, and daring spirit as Robert Buchanan—a man who has known at the most impressionable age the great father of Socialism, Robert Owen, of blessed memory. Hoping that you will take small notice of the remarks of your croaking correspondent,—I am, yours &c.,
                                                                                       H. E. WILMOT.
     9, Church-road, Upper Norwood, S.E., July, 27.

__________

 

The Echo (30 July, 1891 - p.1)

LATTER-DAY LEAVES.
_____

BY ROBERT BUCHANAN.
_____

VII.—VALEDICTORY.

     Having now practically exhausted those portions of my note-book which might be supposed to possess interest for general readers, I propose to bid the readers of The Echo a respectful farewell. For six weeks I have expressed my own opinions without interference from the liberal-minded Editor, who invited me to contribute to his columns as long as I was in the humour; but I cannot conceal from myself the fact that a newspaper is scarcely the place for either unconventional thinking or personal confessions of heterodoxy. Besides, the sun is shining, and the hegira from Babylon has begun. I, too, like other pilgrims, shall soon be on my way to the Mecca of rest-seekers, the Ocean, and shall be wandering, before many days have passed, far from the voices of this great City.

_____

     Glancing, before I go, over the last few issues of this journal, I find myself face to face with those calamities which fill the spirit with despair. The ghastly record of accidents in France and America, the story of the tortures of helpless human beings at Gateshead, the daily holocaust and human sacrifice, the parade of Militancy, the evil passions of men and nations, leave me still wondering, with Voltaire, at the capriciousness of what good men called Providence.

_____

     Lisbonne est abîmée, et l’on danse à Paris! Even the Christian is not spared; but a worthy preacher of the popular creed is scorched playfully by Lightning while presiding over a school-feast of children, and members of his flock are struck dead at his side. The prayers of the faithful, with the prayers of many non-faithful superadded, go up in vain for Mr. Spurgeon; and not even that manifesto of faith in a place of eternal punishment for unbelievers is of the slightest avail. Death wings to and fro, and strikes, like the peregrine, for the pure sport of striking. As the poor dying miner said in Hard Times, “It’s all a muddle!” How should my feeble twitterings in these columns serve any better purpose than that of proving my own discontent with the world and distaste for prevalent superstitions? All might be well with me if I could swallow any of the nostrums which are still fashionable, but none of them will go down; neither the late Cardinal Newman’s soporific, nor Mr. Spurgeon’s hot restorative, nor Dr. Congreve’s “patent pill to purge the liver of religion.” I live in a Christian land, governed by the ethics of “reasoned savagery.” I am providentially superintended in every act of life, and shadowed by every form of organised force, from the policeman to the Influenza. If I were merely a well-constructed human machine, such as they manufacture at Woolwich and Aldershot, or at Oxford and Maynooth, I could exist in comfort. As it is, I am only the voice of one crying in the wilderness, in a world which was bungled over at the beginning.

_____

     “To be truthful, and to energise towards good,” was the law of life, written in letters of gold, by Asclepios. A man, if he covets the honours of martyrdom, may be fairly truthful, but, energise as one may, goodness is impossible. The prevalent theory at present is that goodness may be attained by simply ignoring the laws of Life, by postulating a perfectly impossible human nature, by assuming that we have neither bodies nor passions, and that, whatever horrors confront us, everything is constituted for our welfare.

_____

Aux cris demi-formés de leurs voix expirants,
Au spectacle effrayant de leurs cendres fumantes,
Direz-vous: C’ést l’effet des éternelles lois,
Qui d’un Dieu libre et bons nécessitent le choix?
Direz-vous, Envoyant cet amas des victimes:
Dieu s’est vengé, leur mort est le prix de leur crimes?
Quelle crime, quelle faute ont commis ces enfans
Sur le sein maternel écrasés et sanglans?

That passionate cry of the poet, uttered just after the Earthquake at Lisbon, has not been answered yet. Before the record of blind force and cruelty contained in any one number of The Echo the poor but honest doubter stands aghast.

_____

     Human Nature is very funny. If you talk, for example, to any intelligent woman, or to any collection of women, of existing “immorality,” it is immediately assumed that there is only one immorality—that relating to the sexes; and the same assumption is made nowadays by every clergyman, every philanthropist, and almost every journalist. Few people appear to reflect that Morality represents the whole of life—not merely a part of it. They would stare if I said that our religion, our political life, our social system, our immaculate literature, our cheap science, were all radically immoral; that Mr. Parnell was infinitely more moral than the late Lord Beaconsfield; that any given “Bishop Blougram” is far more immoral than M. Zola. Yet this is actually the case. The real enemy of human progress is not the man who errs in conduct or in judgment, but the man who lies and compromises. Englishmen, as a nation, temporise between Expedience and Christianity. If the one great social ulcer of Prostitution were eradicated, and if truer notions of the ethics of War were prevalent, they would be, morally, very excellent Mahomedans—Christians they are not, and can never be. It is because they assume to be Christians that Englishmen, as a nation, are immoral.

_____

     The columns of The Echo show daily how eager the average human being is in energising for good, how deeply he sympathises with suffering both of man and beast, how gladly he would redress all human wrongs. Through the excellent correspondence of this journal, the heart palpitates with true philanthropy. But in the region of pure thought, of simple reasoning, how great is the diversity! how wild is the wrangle over dead dogmas! how feeble is the perception of intellectual truths! No greater example of the indifference to simple logic could be given than the Editor’s own final comment on the “Scented Garden” controversy, which I apologise for alluding to even for a moment. The whole point of my argument was that no human Soul has the right, under any plea whatever, to sacrifice the rights of another Soul. Instead of answering this, or even taking it into consideration, the able Editor blandly drifts away into the tide of irrelevancy, talks about the public safety and the public good, affirms that the best judge of literature, the noblest and purest judge, is the person incapable of producing, or even understanding it. Here, again, the idea of sexual immorality as the only immorality existing blinds the eyes to the whole great ethical question involved.

_____

     To bring these rambling valedictory remarks to a close, let me thank the Editor of The Echo for opening his columns to me at all. If my contributions have been for the most part autobiographical and personal, that is not his fault, but mine. To be candid, I am much more interested in and puzzled by Myself than by any human being, and as life advances I seem to understand myself less and less in relation to the problems which surround me.

__________

 

[Notes:
Buchanan’s final article prompted the following letter.]

 

The Echo (5 August, 1891 - p.4)

THE BLUNTED MORAL SENSE.

     SIR,—Thanks to Robert Buchanan for “the whole point of his argument, that no human Soul has the right, under any plea whatever, to sacrifice the rights of another Soul,” that “Morality represents the whole of life—not merely a part of it.” Now, let us apply this all round to everyday life. Let Christians, more especially ministers of the Gospel and their wives who stand upon their dignity, reflect upon the other side of dignity due to those who have to serve them. If the lower must serve the higher, as in the order of procedure, it is inevitable that one is preferred before another, so that nothing should be out of its true place. Does it not follow that a lower place in the social order has its just dignity and sense of Soul right to maintain, and that no one has a right to sacrifice the right of another beneath them for the sake of useage or custom? “Are servants bound to wear caps?” Surely, it is humiliating enough to have to submit to servitude from necessity of unequal circumstances, without having to submit to an unnecessary indignity of station. Why impose a badge of degrading servitude as the highest crown of social life to a menial. Apart from all sense of right—to wit “The Golden Rule of Jesus, and of Confucious before him”—can one class degrade another class without degrading themselves morally? If not, it is useless to cry to God as miserable sinners for mercy every Sunday, when we concede not our indebtedness to the rights of those beneath us. How can the right alone to which we are indebted be granted or forgiven if we trespass against others? Let Christians see “to the whole morality of life.” Judge Bayley, in the Westminster Court on Wednesday last, decided rightly that the servant girl of a Mr. Kennedy was not bound to wear a cap. What about the moral side of indignity to the servant-girl class?—Yours, &c.,           W. Y.

__________

 

Latter-Day Leaves IX

 

According to an item in The Dundee Evening Telegraph of Saturday, 12th March, 1898:

     ‘Mr Robert Buchanan is writing a series of “Latterday Letters” for the Sunday Special. He rails against all things and persons conventional. The first “Letter,” which appears on Sunday, is addressed to the Prince of Wales, and attacks the Censor of Plays.’

I’ve not seen any of the pieces Buchanan wrote for The Sunday Special, but his ninth, published on 31st December 1899, is included in Chapter 29 of Harriett Jay’s biography of Buchanan, prefaced by these remarks:

     “It was about this time that his attention was called to a book which dealt with the cure of heart disease by means of the Nauheim Baths, and on our return to town he consulted the author of the work in question and was advised by him to undergo a course of treatment. It was not the season to go to Nauheim, but he was assured that certain ingredients could be used and the baths taken quite as effectively at home. Two courses were open to him—he could either remain in London, or he could go to Hastings and place himself under the care of a local doctor and a nurse, the special attention of both a doctor and a nurse being necessary, as the patient while undergoing the treatment required to be very carefully watched. Mr. Buchanan chose to adopt the latter course. We arrived at Hastings during the first week in December, and a few days after our arrival the first bath was taken; after the second bath the patient was prostrated by a severe stomach attack, and so for a time they were discontinued, and he took to his bed, passing his Christmas Day in the endurance of much pain. The attack, however, passed off, leaving him little, if any, the worse for it—indeed, between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day he was sufficiently recovered to write the following article, which appeared in the Sunday Special. I give it in its entirety, because, being almost the last thing he wrote, it will have become invested with special interest to the public.”

I’ve found one other reference to the article, in the Bibliography section of the Walt Whitman Archive where the title is given as "Latter-Day Leaves. No. 9—The Last Year of the Century." In the Jay biography the title is “The End of the Century”.

Sunday Special (31 December, 1899) as reprinted in Robert Buchanan by Harriett Jay (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903)

 

THE END OF THE CENTURY.

     Sitting apart by the troubled waters of the Sea, close to the Eve of the last Year of a wonderful Century, I, the writer of these leaves, am conscious of three great Personalities, with each of whom I have had more or less personal communication. Of the first I wrote only a few days ago in these columns, to the second I carried my affection and my homage, somewhat over a decade ago, in America; the third is still with us in England, flashing the light of his inspiration far away into the Age to come. All three, I fear, have been Dreamers, staking their eternal salvation on ideas which are still more or less indifferent to our latter-day Civilisation; all three represent what is visionary rather than what is fixed and real; yet the influence of all three is potent still, in spite of the World’s forgetfulness, indifference, or neglect. The first represents Fairyland, the second Democracy, the third Philosophy; and strange to say all three words, like all three men, possess a meaning which is interchangeable; for when the hope of Democracy is realised, the prophecy of Philosophy will be fulfilled, and finally we shall discover that the World is Fairyland after all!
     ‘The World knows little of its wisest men.’ On my arrival in the United States some twelve years ago, I discovered to my amazement that the one great poet whom America had produced, the one man whose electric thought had travelled into Europe to illuminate the Eastern mind, was practically non-existent to the popular or Bostonian intelligence, while innumerable men of straw (or snow, or mud, or plaster) were set up in every literary market-place and photographed in every magazine. ‘Where are your gods, O Americans?’ I demanded; and, ‘Look round,’ they answered, ‘they are here!’ I looked around and I beheld them: divers deft man-milliners and drapers, busy in the manufacture of European underclothing and the importation of fashionable hats from Paris; an amiable old gentleman playing old Lutheran hymns on a musical-box made in Germany, a belated Quarterly Reviewer, plus Poetaster, posing in an English court dress as a lover of Liberty and a pioneer; and half a hundred other deities of the same sort, from a good-humoured medical practitioner and Chatterbox in Boston to a Byron in red shirt and breeches just discovered out West. I asked for bread, and they offered me Publisher’s or Nestlé’s food; I inquired about Walt Whitman, and they volubly assured me that Lowell and Holmes and Longfellow were still alive! Then faintly remembering that the literary classes in America had not used Whitman very kindly, I said as much to an authoritative city Scribe, who combined the avocations of banking and poetical criticism. ‘O you are quite mistaken,’ was his reply, ‘we have never been unkind to Whitman. On the contrary, we all like the old fellow exceedingly, and are very sorry for him!’
     There it was—they liked him exceedingly, and were very sorry for him!—as the learned gentlemen in Greece were sorry for Socrates, as the more strenuous gentlemen in Palestine were sorry for one still Divine.
     I sent my New Year’s greetings to Walt Whitman, with the assurance that at least half a dozen Englishmen joined with me in that message of affectionate homage; and shortly afterwards I visited him personally in his lonely lodgings in New Jersey, across the ferry from Philadelphia. He was old, worn, weary and weather-beaten but when the chord of fellowship was struck as gently dominant and simply wise as ever. The rooms where he dwelt were very poor, his diet appeared chiefly to consist of brackish tea and custard pie—many English labourers indeed have better shelter and more sumptuous fare. And his talk! Well, I have heard Scottish peasants and English mariners talk as simply, with something of the same grave faith in the Law of Life which flows to righteousness. His very vanity was beautiful and childlike. I had with me a lady who had been reared in the belief that Walt was a great and Christlike man, and when she asked for his photograph he offered her not one but many, writing his autograph under each with boyish satisfaction and delight. Yet with all this he was sublimely free of the slightest literary self-consciousness, only it seemed to him the most natural thing in the world that we should be there with him, offering him the eager tribute of our love. He had not one word of regret over his pitiable poverty, or of bitterness towards the literary classes which had insulted and neglected him; he was perfectly satisfied with himself, with the world, with all Humanity. Though he loved such simple fame as came to him, though praise and sympathy made him happy, he did not live for these things—his thoughts were fixed higher, in the region of a perfectly peaceful and innocent Joy of Life.
     ‘Pioneers, O Pioneers!’ As I sat and looked at Walt, with his own brave words ringing in my brain, I thought of that other great Personality (first of the three to be memorised in this article), who, unlike the American, had spent all his days in the full light and prosperity of earthly Fame. At a first glance no two writers could seem so different, so utterly unlike, as Walt Whitman and Charles Dickens; yet the instant that I shook hands with Walt, and shared his custard pie, and saw how simple and sweet and childlike he was to the bottom of his big heart, I knew that Democracy, too, meant Fairyland, the one real Fairyland of Brotherhood and Love. It would need the pen of Dickens himself to describe the good grey Poet as he sat there, despised by all the Talents, but surrounded by all the Elves! His own countrymen knew him not, but the spirits of Democracy had woven for him an immortal crown!
     What Dickens found in the dark streets of this City of London, Walt discovered everywhere in the many-coloured life of America, the spirit of natural Love and Sympathy filling every occupation with enchantment and turning Earth into Wonderland. Whitman expressed in colossal cypher the same rudimentary Joy of Life, the same elemental passions and affections, which Dickens expressed in delightful Fairy Tales; and in both one faith was supreme and dominant, faith in Man and in the divinity of Man’s human destiny. Democracy to Walt was Fairyland, because it meant Joy and Love incarnate, emerging wherever human beings lived and breathed. Walt was a great Poet and Philosopher, Dickens was a great Poet and Romancist, but both were close akin in that elemental faith of which I have spoken, and both were simple, lovable, child-like men—Dickens in spite of his popularity and waistcoats, Walt in spite of that florid diffusiveness which caused him to be christened by an English criticaster as ‘the Jack Bunsby of Parnassus!’
     It was not until some years later that I found myself face to face with the third of the great Personalities to whom my thoughts are turning at this close of the Year, and of whom, since he still lives, I must speak more guardedly, though not less reverently. At the first glance, again, he was utterly unlike the others, yet the instant that we met I realised that the Philosopher, as well as the Romancist and the Democrat, was a Wanderer from Fairyland! For many a long day I had drunk knowledge and inspiration from his inspired pages, and once or twice we had corresponded, and now it fell about that we were near neighbours, I dwelling at Hampstead, he at Avenue Road, Regent’s Park. Little did I fancy as I entered his doors for the first time that I should find the Elves of Dreamland even there! He who had proclaimed the doom of all the gods, who had explored all the Heavens of Theology, and found every throne therein empty, was as veritable a dreamer, as gentle and child-like an optimist as either Dickens or Whitman. And moreover his Dream was their Dream—the perfectibility of human nature the gradual growth of Love and Altruism among men, until the Earth in the good time coming should be a Fairy Place indeed!
     As full as either of those others of the beautiful Joy of Life, as simple as Dickens, as brave and fearless as  Whitman, Herbert Spencer sat there apart, ‘holding no form of creed yet contemplating all.’ For year after year, in the face of constant physical illness, with the flame of life often flickering so low as to threaten to go out altogether, he had devoted himself to the perfection of that great Synthesis which has made his name memorable wherever human Science is known and understood. For so mighty an achievement, so splendid a devotion to pure thought, we must go as far back as Spinoza, but Spinoza was never so stretched upon the rack of pain, he had never to fight so wearily for very breath. But what was most wonderful in the personality of Mr. Spencer was the cheerfulness, the sweet reasonableness, the simplicity of his outlook on Life, and his buoyant delight in human activity and joy. There was indignation, of course, and deep resentment against things evil in our political and social systems, but no faltering, no bitterness, no despair!
     The kernel of Herbert Spencer’s moral teaching is that Race is continually advancing through the gradual adaptation of human nature to the conditions of social life; that, in other words, the egoistic impulses are decreasing in favour of the impulses which are altruistic. It is far outside the scope of the present paper to criticise a philosophy which is illustrated with such a perfection of illustrative detail, and illuminated with all the light of modern Science. One feature of it however, is of extraordinary interest at the present moment, when the Century is drawing to a close, and that is the belief that as Humanity advances, Wars must decrease. Instead of the militant type characterising the struggle of Nations as well as of individuals for existence, the industrial type triumphs. Life becomes less painful and more beneficent, and the race grows nearer and nearer to a state of ultimate perfection. This is the belief of the profoundest thinker of the century, and without daring to assert whether it is true or false, justified or not justified by the teachings of History, I still think that it is in its very essence a beautiful Dream, like Dickens’s Dream of human Fairyland, like Whitman’s Dream of a triumphant Democracy. At the present juncture particularly, when a great wave of Militantism appears to be sweeping us back bodily into Barbarism, it is as difficult to believe in one Dream as in either of the others.
     New Year’s Eve comes again, and in little more than a year the wonderful Century will be completed. What has it taught us? What has it brought to us, and what has it taken away? The delight in Fairyland has vanished with Dickens and the other Dreamers. Democracy has dwindled and become half-hearted with the passing away of Whitman and his fellow humanitarians. Herbert Spencer survives, holding aloft the torch of Science, and flashing its rays into the dark Future. When he too leaves us, who will seize the torch of the Optimist, and pass the inspiring message on?
     Reflect for a moment how the last Century ended, after the thrones of Empire had been shaken, and Humanity had hailed its Avatar, who melted away in his season like a man of Snow. The Dream of human perfection filled the air. Prophets in England echoed the cry which Rousseau and the rest had raised in France, and which had passed from mouth to mouth as far away as the remotest East and West. Great Poets were singing the hopes of the human race; Byron and Shelley, Schiller and Goethe were full of the Golden Age to come. War was indeed decreasing, Industrialism, and Altruism were indeed triumphing. With the advance of the Century came the final apotheosis of natural Science, the discrediting of Superstition and Supernaturalism, and the realising of Goethe’s great Vision, ‘The Draining of the Marsh!’ More practical good was done in a decade for poor Humanity by human Knowledge than had been done by Supernaturalism in hundreds of years. It seemed indeed that the Earth was to become a fairy place, the fit habitation of creatures who were slowly learning to love one another.
     But, alas! as the new Century grew older and older, men awoke to the fact that something had been lost, although so much had been achieved and gained. In its exultation at the discovery of new truths, Humanity had forgotten that deeper than all Science, more paramount than all progress, had been the belief in God—the God emerging—the God that has been, is, and is to be. That belief being practically dead, the voices of all the Prophets suddenly became silent, the music of great Poets was heard no more. True, here and there a voice was heard crying vainly for light and comfort. Poor Tennyson turned his eyes from the human God emerging, to bewail the God who was dead and buried, the militant and national God of a discredited supernaturalism. Carlyle, a broken-hearted, grey-hair’d child, cried aloud in his despair that ‘God did nothing,’ and so passed wearily away.
     And now?
     The Poets and the Fairy Tale-tellers are silent, Democracy and Humanitarianism are almost as discredited as Christianity, the Dream of perfection is over, and instead of the old Fairyland we have the endless babble of journalism and the triumph of the Banjo in the Street! Among all the great Prophets of the dying Century, only one remains to us—Herbert Spencer, on his sick-bed, still proclaiming Utopia, in the very face of a steadily increasing Darkness! Great indeed must be his faith if it has survived until this moment. So far, unfortunately, it has only been translated into the literature of imagination by the inspired pupil-teacher, who turned its moral axioms into the vocabulary of Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies; but George Eliot is already forgotten, or is remembered, if at all, only for her occasional somewhat flat-footed ventures into Fairyland.
     ‘Pioneers, O pioneers!’ Whence will they come now, and what will they preach? The new Century is close upon us, and all the old Creeds (including the last despairing Dream of a transcendental Ethics, offered to poor men and women as a substitute for the Joy of Life) have been contemptuously rejected. Up to the present hour no one has suggested a reasonable substitute. Are we drifting carelessly back to Barbarism after all, and beginning all over again by cutting each other’s throats?

__________

 

A Few Press Comments

 

The first run of Buchanan’s ‘Latter-Day Leaves’ in The Echo attracted the following comments in various provincial newspapers.

 

The Yorkshire Evening Post (19 June, 1891 - p.3)

     “I don’t like that young man. He talks to me as if he was God Almighty or Lord Byron.” This was a characteristic description given by a publisher of Mr. Robert Buchanan when he was a struggling journalist. It applies to him as well to-day. When he is not pronouncing a thundering judgment on men and manners he is a literary dreamer, not indeed in Byron’s sensuous style, but equally indifferent to public opinion, and full of a colossal pride. Mr. Buchanan tells the above story of himself in a weekly column of “Latter-day leaves” which he has commenced in the Echo. The first instalment, despite its frank egotism, is excellent reading.
     Mr. Buchanan tells the story of his early struggles in Fleet Street, of his loneliness and his yearnings. And this is the portrait he gives of himself:—“From the loafer and the tavern-haunter, as from my first friend the thief, I got help, friendliness, and comfort. But I wanted something else, and I knew not what. I was full of insane visions and aspirations. Poetry possessed me like a passion. Reticent by nature, idiosyncratic, opinionated, hating to show my heart upon my sleeve, I had no one to share my sorrows or my hopes.” There will not be people wanting to assert that he is still idiosyncratic and opinionated. He gives the usual advice of successful writers. Better break stones on the road than try literature if you cannot be commonplace and acquiescent, believing “in no God but Cæsar.” Which, I may say, is nonsense. Mr. Buchanan is himself an illustration of its nonsense.

___

 

The Newcastle Courant (27 June, 1891 - p.5)

NOTES FROM FLEET STREET.
_____

(BY OUR OWN CORRESPONDENT.)

     The autobiographical reminiscences which Mr Robert Buchanan, poet and dramatist, is supplying to a London evening paper, promise to be very racy reading. If he keeps to his promise to speak openly of his enemies within the gate there will be much laughter in Bohemia once a week, and a very bad quarter of an hour for certain folk in Robert’s long list of acquaintances. He has been credited by those who ought to know with being the master of a masculine style of writing. It is all that plus pugnacity and aggressiveness. He is a man of great and versatile intellectuality. Nobody in the least acquainted with his works would think of questioning that. He is essentially a poet, and moreover a true poet, and one who is more likely to be appreciated properly in the next, or succeeding generation to that, than now. His finest work has not won the ear of the public as it deserves. Take at random his “Bride of Love,” a composition of extraordinary power and beauty, some of its lines being fully equal to almost anything to be found in Shakespeare; in every way a masterpiece, upon which any amount of labour and thought have been expended in the process of refining. Yet the public turned a cold shoulder upon a work that any man might well be proud to have his name connected with. As a contrast he writes a common-place melodrama in conjunction with another playwright, and the public go “daft” over it, and it brings him in, comparatively speaking, a princely revenue. Again, he writes one of the sweetest, freshest, and most enjoyable of English comedies; it is received with a hurricane of praise, and yet this delightful bit of work did not prove the success anticipated. Such experiences as these are apt to try a man; and if he shows a little irritability now and again at the critics and their sad lack of insight in many cases, it may be said of him that few public men have more to plead in extenuation. As I have remarked, Mr Buchanan is a poet by nature, and he has all the quick sensitiveness of the sins of inspiration.

___

 

The Lancashire Evening Post (31 July, 1891 - p.2)

     For six weeks Mr. Robert Buchanan has filled one or two columns of the Echo with what has been termed his reminiscences. They have been mainly variations on the texts of Mr. Buchanan, and it is not a little comical to find him concluding them thus:—“To bring these rambling valedictory remarks to a close, let me thank the Editor of the Echo for opening his columns to me at all. If my contributions have been for the most part autobiographical and personal, that is not his  fault, but mine. To be candid, I am much more interested in and puzzled by Myself than by any human being, and as life advances I seem to understand myself less and less in relation to the problems which surround me.” “Myself,” with a capital “M” is good!

__________

 

Robert Buchanan’s Autobiography

 

Over the years there were several mentions of Buchanan’s autobiography in the newspapers:

 

The Methodist (26 November, 1884)

     Mr. Robert Buchanan has written his autobiography, and it is shortly coming out under the title of ‘Reminiscences of a Literary Career.’ The volume will contain a portrait of the author.

___

 

The Putney and Wandsworth Borough News (24 October, 1885)

     It is the fashion for living authors to write their autobiographies. Mr. Edmund Yates has favoured us with his “Reminiscences,” and now Mr. Robert Buchanan is about to take the world into his confidence about his personal history. It will be interesting to note whether Mr. Buchanan says much about a little passage of arms which he had with Mr. Yates, who rebuked him in an article that belongs to the old-fashioned days of literary bludgeoning. Mr. Buchanan quarrelled, too, with Mr. Swinburne, but has since written apologetic and amicable dedications to the bard. Few literary men of marked ability have had a more severe struggle for recognition than Mr. Buchanan, and this part of the record ought to be instructive.

___

 

The New York Times (2 November, 1885)

     Mr. Robert Buchanan has in press his “Reminiscences of a Literary Career.”

___

 

The Boston Daily Globe (12 October, 1888)

Works of Robert Buchanan.

     It must be conceded that Robert Buchanan, poet, novelist and dramatist, and occasionally effective in each impersonation, manages to keep his end up all the time. He has lately written a story, the title of which is not mentioned, which has been purchased by a syndicate of newspapers in which it will appear, tuning its peals to the chiming of Bow Bells. Mr. Buchanan has also completed a poem of considerable length and of a novel character, and containing a mixture of satirical and romantic verse. He has, furthermore, completed his autobiography in which he will narrate, with as few embellishments as possible, the story of his early days with Bert Owen at Lanark and the curious persons by whom that fertile reformer was surrounded.
     Continuing his earlier checkered career he will then relate his reminiscences of several of his distinguished contemporaries, not forgetting David Gray, a poor lad who in any event could not have lived long, and of whom the world soon grew weary—thanks to the well-meant but ill advice and laudation of Lord Houghton and Mr. Buchanan.
     This done, he will deal with certain other contemporaries, including Mr. Swinburn, whom he reviewed savagely under an assumed name, and who retorted by studying him as animalcule in a bitter pamphlet entitled “Under the Microscope.”
     It was the war of the pygmies and the cranes over again, neither winning or losing the fight but all covering themselves with disgrace. Thereupon other quarrels arose into which the Rosettis were drawn with Sala and Yates, the last of whom made the customary reference to the Duke of Argyle and his remedy for cutaneous disorders. The combat was scurrillous on all sides, but was soon repented by Mr. Buchanan, who made such amends as he could to Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who forgave him, remembering that evil is wrought by want of thought as well as by want of heart.

___

 

The Echo (11 June, 1889)
From ‘An Hour With Robert Buchanan’:

     “Are you writing anything now?” “Yes, my autobiography, I think it’ll be interesting.”

[Note: ‘An Hour With Robert Buchanan’ is available in the Interviews section.]

___

 

The Dundee Evening Telegraph (7 July, 1897 - p.2)

     Mr Robert Buchanan is about to publish the story of his curious and often thrilling experiences in life and literature. Beginning in the early sixties, when Mr Buchanan first came to London in company with the young Scottish poet, David Grey, the narrative will extend to the present day, and will form a sort of personal review of the literature, the criticism, the drama, as well as the religion and social progress, of the later Victorian era.
     Some notion of the nature of the narrative may be gathered from the titles of a few of the sections:—“Free Thought in Scotland,” “From Fairy Land to Fleet Street,” “Owen’s Pioneers,” “With Dickens in Bohemia,” “Lewes and George Eliot,” “The Great Fleshly School Controversy,” “The Discovery of the Kailyard,” “The American Socrates.”

___

 

The Yorkshire Evening Post (15 July, 1898 - p.2)

MR. BUCHANAN WITH HIS GLOVES OFF.

     Mr. Robert Buchanan is writing his reminiscences. He is doing so, says the British Weekly, with the gloves off, and this is to be no dead-and-alive book. It will take up frankly his life from the beginning, and his old battles will be fought over again. Mr. Buchanan is courageous, as the volume is to be published at the price of about 14s.

___

 

The Era (23 July, 1898)

     MR ROBERT BUCHANAN is writing his experiences, his early struggles—and they were very sour indeed—his literary battles, and his stage adventures, failures, and triumphs, and he is working on the reminiscences “with the gloss off, and this is to be no dead-and-alive book. It will take up frankly his life from the beginning, and his old battles will be fought over again.” It ought to prove lively reading.

___

 

The New York Times (13 August, 1898)
From William L. Alden’s ‘London Literary Letter’:

     We are soon to have the autobiography of Robert Buchanan. It is some time since Mr. Buchanan has publicly quarreled with any one, and he will doubtless make amends for this in his new book. His last antagonist was Mr. Le Gallienne, with whom he carried on a discussion of an ostensibly theological character. I have forgotten the exact subject under discussion, but I rather think Mr. Buchanan maintained that Christianity could not be true for the reason that the Scriptures contained no allusion to the coming of Robert Buchanan; while Mr. le Gallienne stood up for the truth of Christianity, maintaining that it was really a very pretty thing, and that it fully deserved to be mentioned in one of his minor poems. In Mr. Buchanan’s autobiography we shall have a full exposition of his views of everybody and everything, and if the book does not produce a moral revolution wherever it is read it will undoubtedly please the author as much as it will displease most other contemporary authors. It is rather odd that, although Mr. Buchanan goes through life with a large club, breaking the skulls of all who come in his way, he is in private life one of the most amiable and kind-hearted of men. He has been a novelist, a poet, a playwright, and an essayist, and has been fairly successful in everything he has undertaken. I venture to say, however, that his autobiography will be by far the most interesting thing he has ever written.

_____

 

Buchanan never published his autobiography (and of course there is the suspicion that despite these press notices, he never actually wrote it) but I think it is fairly safe to assume that the biographical pieces in The Echo and The Sunday Special and the items in the Harriett Jay biography referenced as Latter-Day Leaves would have been chapters from the book. There is a letter from Buchanan in the Mortlake Collection of Pennsylvania State University, the description of which is as follows:

“ALS, 27 September 1900, to publisher Grant Richards, about three books, Latterday Letters, Recollections, and The Coming Terror.”

And, following Buchanan’s death, W. Robertson Nicoll wrote the following in the ‘Literary London’ column of the American edition of The Bookman in August, 1901:

“At one period when he was very hard up he resolved to write his autobiography, and made some progress in planning and preparing it. I happened to see the scheme. If the book had been written as he designed, it would have involved its unfortunate publisher in endless actions for libel. A few chapters of it appeared in a Sunday paper, but these were carefully revised. Even as they stood they made an unpleasant impression. They were full of inaccuracies, to say nothing more. Buchanan’s memory had largely failed him.”

__________

 

On to Buchanan’s Letters to the Press

or back to Latter-Day Leaves menu

or Buchanan and the Press main menu

 

Home
Biography
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

 

Links
Site Diary
Site Search