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

The Critical Response
Harriett Jay

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Under The Microscope by Algernon Charles Swinburne - continued


57   This preference for the province of reflex poets and echoing philosophers came to a climax of expression in the transcendant remark that Mr. Lowell had in one critical essay so taken Mr. Carlyle to pieces, that it would seem impossible ever to put him together again. Under the stroke of that recollected sentence, the staggered spirit of a sane man who desires to retain his sanity can but pause and reflect on what Mr. Ruskin, if I rightly remember, has somewhere said, that ever since Mr. Carlyle began to write you can tell by the reflex action of his genius the nobler from the ignobler of his contemporaries; as ever having won the most of reverence and praise from the most honourable among these, and (what is perhaps as sure a warrant of sovereign worth) from the most despicable among them the most of abhorrence and abuse.
     A notable example of this latter sort was not long since (in his “Fors Clavigera”) selected and chastised by Mr. Ruskin himself with a few strokes of such a lash as might thenceforward, one would think, have secured silence at least, if neither penitence nor shame, on the part of
58 the offender. This person, whose abuse of Mr. Carlyle he justly describes as matchless “in its platitudinous obliquity,” was cited by the name of one Buchanan—


but whether by his right name or another, who shall say? for the god of song himself had not more names or addresses. Now yachting among the Scottish (not English) Hebrides; now wrestling with fleshly sin (like his countryman Holy Willie) in “a great city of civilization;” now absorbed in studious emulation of the Persæ of Æschylus or the “enormously fine” work of “the tremendous creature” Dante;* now descending from the familiar heights of men whose praise he knows so well how to sing, for the not less noble purpose of crushing a school of poetic sensualists whose works are “wearing to the brain;” now “walking down the streets” and watching “harlots stare from the shop-windows,” while “in the broad day a dozen hands offer him indecent prints;” now “beguiling many an hour, when snug at anchor


* Lest it should seem impossible that these and the like could be the actual expressions of any articulate creature, I have invariably in such a context marked as quotations only the exact words of this unutterable author, either as I find them cited by others or as they fall under my own eye in glancing among his essays. More trouble than this I am not disposed to take with him.


59 in some lovely Highland loch, with the inimitable, yet questionable, pictures of Parisian life left by Paul de Kock;” landsman and seaman, Londoner and Scotchman, Delian and Patarene Buchanan. How should one address him?

“Matutine pater, seu Jane libentiùs audis?”

As Janus rather, one would think, being so in all men’s sight a natural son of the double-faced divinity. Yet it might be well for the son of Janus if he had read and remembered in time the inscription on the statue of another divine person, before taking his name in vain as a word wherewith to revile men born in the ordinary way of the flesh:—

“Youngsters! who write false names, and slink behind
The honest garden-god to hide yourselves,

In vain would I try to play the part of a prologuizer before this latest rival of the Hellenic dramatists, who sings from the height of “mystic realism,” not with notes echoed from a Grecian strain, but as a Greek poet himself might have sung, in “massive grandeur of style,” of a great contemporary event. He alone is fit, in Euripidean fashion, to prologuize for himself.




He has often written, it seems, under false or assumed names; always doubtless “with the best of all motives,” that which induced his friends in his absence to alter an article abusive of his betters and suppress the name which would otherwise have signed it, that of saving the writer from persecution and letting his charges stand on their own merits; and this simple and very natural precaution has singularly enough exposed his fair fame to “the inventions of cowards”—a form of attack naturally intolerable though contemptible to this polyonymous moralist. He was not used to it; in the cradle where his genius had been hatched he could remember no taint of such nastiness. Other friends than such had fostered into maturity the genius that now lightens far and wide the fields of poetry and criticism. All things must have their beginnings; and there were those who watched with prophetic hope the beginnings of Mr. Buchanan; who tended the rosy and lisping infancy of his genius with a care for its comfort and cleanliness not unworthy the nurse of Orestes; and took indeed much the


* There are other readings of the two last lines:



61 same pains to keep it sweet and neat under the eye and nose of the public as those on which the good woman dwelt with such pathetic minuteness of recollection in after years. The babe may not always have been discreet;


and there were others who found its swaddling clothes not invariably in such condition as to dispense with the services of the “fuller;”


     In effect there were those who found the woes and devotions of Doll Tearsheet or Nell Nameless as set forth in the lyric verse of Mr. Buchanan calculated rather to turn the stomach than to melt the heart. But in spite of these exceptional tastes the nursing journals, it should seem, abated no jot of heart or hope for their nursling.

“Petit poisson deviendra grand
Pourvu que Dieu lui prête vie.”

Petit bonhomme will not, it appears.The tadpole poet will never grow into anything bigger than a frog; not though in that stage of development he should puff and blow himself till he bursts with windy adulation at the heels of the laurelled ox.
     When some time since a passing notice was bestowed by writers of another sort on Mr. Buchanan’s dramatic performance in the part of Thomas Maitland, it was observed with very 62 just indignation by a literary ally that Mr. Rossetti was not ashamed to avow in the face of heaven and the press his utter ignorance of the writings of that poet—or perhaps we should say of those poets. The loss was too certainly his own. It is no light thing for a man who has any interest in the poetic production of his time to be ignorant of works which have won from the critic, who of all others must be most competent to speak on the subject with the authority of the most intimate acquaintance, such eloquence of praise as has deservedly been lavished on Mr. Buchanan. A living critic of no less note in the world of letters than himself has drawn public attention to the deep and delicate beauties of his work; to “the intense loving tenderness of the coarse woman Nell towards her brutal paramour, the exquisite delicacy and fine spiritual vision of the old village schoolmaster,” &c. &c. This pathetic tribute to the poet Buchanan was paid by no less a person than Buchanan the critic. Its effect is heightened by comparison with the just but rigid severity of that writer’s verdict on other men—on the “gross” work of Shakespeare, the “brutal” work of Carlyle, the “sickening and peculiar” work of Thackeray, the “wooden-headed,” “hectic,” and “hysterical” qualities which are severally notable and condemnable in the work of Landor, of Keats, and of Shelley. In like manner his condemnation of contemporary impurities is thrown into 63 fuller relief by his tribute to the moral sincerity of Petronius and the “singular purity” of Ben Jonson. For once I have the honour and pleasure to agree with him; I find the “purity” of the author of “Bartholomew Fair” a very “singular” sort of purity indeed. There is however another play of that great writer's, which, though it might be commended by his well-wlshers to the special study of Mr. Buchanan, I can hardly suppose to be the favourite work which has raised the old poet so high in his esteem. In this play Jonson has traced with his bitterest fidelity the career of a “gentleman parcel-poet,” one Laberius Crispinus, whose life is spent in the struggle to make his way among his betters by a happy alternation and admixture of calumny with servility; one who will fasten himself uninvited on the acquaintance of a superior with fulsome and obtrusive ostentation of good- will; inflict upon his passive and reluctant victim the recitation of his verses in a public place; offer him friendship and alliance against all other poets, so as “to lift the best of them out of favour;” protest to him, “Do but taste me once, if I do know myself and my own virtues truly, thou wilt not make that esteem of Varius, or Virgil, or Tibullus, or any of ’em indeed, as now in thy ignorance thou dost; which I am content to forgive; I would fain see which of these could pen more verses in a day or with more facility than I.” After this, it 64 need hardly be added that the dog returns to his vomit, and has in the end to be restrained by authority from venting “divers and sundry calumnies” against the victim aforesaid “or any other eminent man transcending him in merit, whom his envy shall find cause to work upon, either for that, or for keeping himself in better acquaintance, or enjoying better friends;” and the play is aptly wound up by his public exposure and ignominious punishment. The title of this admirable comedy is “The Poetaster; or, His Arraignment;” and the prologue is spoken by Envy.
     It is really to be regretted that the new fashion of self-criticism should never have been set till now. How much petty trouble, how many paltry wrangles and provocations, what endless warfare of the cranes and pigmies might have been prevented—and by how simple a remedy! How valuable would the applauding comments of other great poets on their own work have been to us for all time! All students of poetry must lament that it did not occur to Milton for example to express in public his admiration of “Paradise Lost.” It might have helped to support the reputation of that poem against the severe sentence passed by Mr. Buchanan on its frequently flat and prosaic quality. And, like all truly great discoveries, this one looks so easy now we have it before us, that we cannot but wonder it was reserved for Mr. Buchanan to 65 make: we cannot but feel it singular that Mr. Tennyson should never have thought fit to call our attention in person to the beauties of “Maud;” that Mr. Browning should never have come forward, “motley on back and pointing- pole in hand,” to bid us remark the value of “The Ring and the Book;” that Mr. Arnold should have left to others the task of praising his“Thyrsis” and “Empedocles.” The last-named poet might otherwise have held his own even against the imputation of writing “mere prose” which now he shares with Milton: so sharp is the critical judgment, so high the critical standard, of the author of “The Book of Orm.”
     However, even in the face of the rebuke so deservedly incurred by the avowal of Mr. Rossetti’s gross and deplorable ignorance of that and other great works from the same hand, I am bound in honesty to admit that my own studies in that line are hardly much less limited. I cannot profess to have read any book of Mr. Buchanan’s; for aught I know, they may deserve all his praises; it is neither my business nor my desire to decide. But sundry of his contributions in verse and prose to various magazines and newspapers I have looked through or glanced over—not, I trust, without profit; not, I know, without amusement. From these casual sources I have gathered—as he who runs may gather—not a little information on no unimportant 66 matters of critical and autobiographical interest. With the kindliest forethought, the most judicious care to anticipate the anxious researches of a late posterity, Mr. Buchanan has once and again poured out his personal confidences into the sympathetic bosom of the nursing journals. He is resolved that his country shall not always have cause to complain how little she knows of her greatest sons. Time may have hidden from the eye of biography the facts of Shakespeare’s life, as time has revealed to the eye of criticism the grossness of his works and the purity of his rival’s; but none need fear that the next age will have to lament the absence of materials for a life of Buchanan. Not once or twice has he told in simple prose of his sorrows and aspirations, his strugglesand his aims. He has told us what good man gave him in his need a cup of cold water, and what bad man accused him of sycophancy in the expression of his thanks. He has told us what advantage was taken of his tender age by heartless publishers, what construction was put upon his gushing gratitude by heartless reviewers. He has told us that he never can forget his first friends; he has shown us that he never can forget himself. He has told us that the versicles of one David Gray, a poor young poeticule of the same breed as his panegyrist (who however, it should in fairness be said, died without giving any sign of future distinction in the field of pseudonymous 67 libel), will be read when the works of other contemporaries “have gone to the limbo of affettuosos.” (May I suggest that the library edition of Mr. Buchanan’s collected works should be furnished with a glossary for the use of students unskilled in the varieties of the Buchananese dialect? Justly contemptuous as he has shown himself of all foreign affectations of speech or style in an English writer, such a remarkable word in its apparent defiance of analogy as the one last quoted is not a little perplexing to their ignorance. I hardly think it can be Scotch; at least to a southern eye it bears no recognizable affinity to the language of Burns.) In like manner, if we may trust the evidence of Byron, did Porson prophesy of Southey that his epics would he read when Homer and Virgil were forgotten; and in like manner may the humblest of his contemporaries prophesy that Mr. Buchanan’s idyls will be read by generations which have forgotten the idyls of Theocritus and of Landor, of Tennyson and of Chénier.
     In that singularly interesting essay on “his own tentatives” from which we have already taken occasion to glean certain flowers of comparative criticism Mr. Buchanan remarks of this contemporary that he seems rather fond of throwing stones in his (Mr. Buchanan’s) direction. This contemporary however is not in the habit of throwing stones; it is a pastime which he leaves to the smaller fry of the literary gutter. 68 These it is sometimes not unamusing to watch as they dodge and shirk round the street-corner after the discharge of their popgun pellet, with the ready plea on their lips that it was not this boy but that—not the good boy Robert, for instance, but the rude boy Thomas. But there is probably only one man living who could imagine it worth his contemporary’s while to launch the smallest stone from his sling in such a direction as that—who could conceive the very idlest of marksmen to be capable of taking aim unprovoked at so pitiful a target. Mr. Buchanan and his nursing journals have informed us that to his other laurels he is entitled to add those of an accomplished sportsman. Surely he must know that there are animals which no one counts as game—which are classed under quite another head than that. Their proper designation it is needless here to repeat; it is one that suffices to exempt them from the honour and the danger common to creatures of a higher kind. Of their natural history I did not know enough till now to remark without surprise that specimens of the race may be found which are ambitious to be ranked among objects of sport. For my part, as long as I am not suspected of any inclination to join in the chase, such an one should be welcome to lay that flattering unction to his soul, and believe himself in secret one of the nobler beasts of game; even though itwere but a weasel that would fain pass muster as a hart of 69 grice. It must no doubt be “very soothing” to Mr. Buchanan’s modesty to imagine himself the object of such notice as he claims to have received; but we may observe from how small a seed so large a growth of self-esteem may shoot up:—


from a slight passing mention of “idyls of the gutter and the gibbet,” in a passage referring to the idyllic schools of our  day, Mr. Buchanan has built up this fabric of induction; he is led by even so much notice as this to infer that his work must be to the writer an object of especial attention, and even (God save the mark!) of especial attack. He is welcome to hug himself in that fond belief, and fool himself to the top of his bent; but he will hardly persuade any one else that to find his “neck-verse” merely repulsive; to feel no responsive vibration to “the intense loving tenderness” of his street-walker, as she neighs and brays over her “gallows-carrion;” is the same thing as to deny the infinite value, the incalculable significance, to a great poet, of such matters, as this luckless poeticule has here taken into his “hangman’s hands.” Neither the work nor the workman is to be judged by the casual preferences of social convention. It is not more praiseworthy or more pardonable to write bad verse about costermongers and gaol-birds than to write bad verse about kings and knights; nor (as would otherwise naturally be the case) 70 is it to be expected that because some among the greatest of poets have been born among the poorest of men, therefore the literature of a nation is to suffer joyfully an inundation or eruption of rubbish from all threshers, cobblers, and milkwomen who now, as in the age of Pope, of Johnson, or of Byron, may be stung to madness by the gadfly of poetic ambition. As in one rank we find for a single Byron a score of Roscommons, Mulgraves, and Winchilseas, so in another rank we find for a single Burns a score of Ducks, Bloomfields, and Yearsleys. And if it does not follow that a poet must be great if he be but of low birth, neither does it follow that a poem must be good if it be but written on a subject of low life. The sins and sorrows of all that suffer wrong, the oppressions that are done under the sun, the dark days and shining deeds of the poor whom society casts out and crushes down, are assuredly material for poetry of a most high order; for the heroic passion of Victor Hugo’s, for the angelic passion of Mrs. Browning’s. Let another such arise to do such work as “Les Pauvres Gens” or the “Cry of the Children,” and there will be no lack of response to that singing. But they who can only “grate on their scrannel-pipes of wretched straw” some pitiful “idyl” to milk the maudlin eyes of the nursing journals, must be content with such applause as their own; for in higher latitudes they will find none.
71   It is not my purpose in this little scientific excursion to remark further than may be necessary on the symptoms of a poetical sort which the skilful eye may discern in the immediate objects of examination. To play the critic of their idyllic or satirical verse is not an office to which my ambition can aspire. Nevertheless, in the process of research, it may be useful to take note of the casual secretions observable in a fine live specimen of the breed in which we are interested, as well as of its general properties; for thus we may be the better able to determine, if we find that worth while, its special and differential attributes. I have therefore given a first and last glance to the poetic excretions of the present subject. Even from such things as these there might be something to learn, if men would bring to a task so unpromising and uninviting the patient eye and humble spirit of investigation by experiment. Such investigation would secure them against the common critical fallacy of assuming that a poem must be good because written on a subject, and it may be written with an aim, not unworthy of a better man than the writer; that a bad poem, for instance, on the life of our own day and the sorrows of our own people can only be condemned by those who would equally condemn a good poem on the same subject; who would admit nothing as fit matter for artistic handling, which was not of a more remote and ideal kind than this: a theory 72 invaluable to all worthless and ambitious journeymen of verse, who, were it once admitted as a law, would have only the trouble left them of selecting the subject whereon to emit their superfluity of metrical matter. Akin to this is a fallacy more amiable if not less absurd; the exact converse of the old superstition that anything written “by a person of quality” must be precious and praiseworthy. The same unreasoning and valueless admiration is now poured out at the feet of almost any one who comes forward under the contrary plea, as a poet of the people; and men forget that by this promiscuous effusion of praise they betray as complete a disbelief in any real equality of natural rank as did those who fell down before their idols of the other class. Such critics seem bent on verifying the worn old jest of the Irish reformer: “Is not one man as good as another; ay, and a deal better too?” No one now writes or speaks as if he supposed that every man born in what is called the aristocratic class must needs and naturally, if he should make verses, take his place beside Shelley or Byron; the assumption would be felt on all hands as an impertinence rather than a compliment offered to that class; and how can it be other than an impertinence offered to a larger class to assume, or pretend to assume, that any one born in the opposite rank who may be put forward as a poet must naturally be the equal of Béranger or of Burns? Such an assumption is simply an 73 inverted form of tuft-hunting; it implies at once the arrogant condescension of the patron to his parasite, and the lurking contempt of the parasite for his patron; not a beautiful or profitable combination of qualities.
     A critic in the Contemporary Review, but neither Robert Maitland nor Thomas Buchanan, once took occasion to inquire with emphatic sarcasm, what did Shelley care, or what does another writer whom he did the honour to call the second Shelley—how undeservedly no one can be more conscious than the person so unduly exalted—care for the people, for the sufferings and the cause of the poor? To be accused of caring no more for the people than Shelley did may seem to some men much the same thing as to be accused of caring no more for France than Victor Hugo does, or for Italy than did one whose name I will not now bring into such a paper as this. But to some men, on the other hand, it may appear that this cruel charge will serve to explain the jealous acrimony with which the writer thus condemned and dismissed in such evil company “seems” incessantly and secretly to have assailed the fame of Mr. Buchanan—the rancorous malignity with which he must have long looked up from the hiding-place of a furtive obscurity towards the unapproachable heights, the unattainable honours, of the mountains climbed and the prizes grasped by the Poet of the Poor.It mattered little that his disguise was 74 impenetrable to every other eye; that those nearest him had no suspicion of the villainous design which must ever have been at work in his brain, even when itself unconscious of itself; that his left hand knew not what his right hand was doing (as it most certainly did not) when it cast stones at the sweet lyrist of the slums; masked and cloaked, under the thickest muffler of anonymous or pseudonymous counterfeit, the stealthy and cowering felon stood revealed to the naked eye of honesty—stood detected, convicted, exposed to the frank and fearless gaze of Mr. Buchanan. Can a figure more pitiful or more shameful be conceived? The only atonement that can ever be made for such a rascally form of malevolence is that which is here offered in the way of confession and penance; the only excuse that can be advanced for such a viperous method of attack is that envy and hatred of his betters have ever been the natural signs and the inevitable appanages of a bad poet, whether he had studied in the fleshly or the skinny school. Remembering this, we can but too easily understand how Mr. Buchanan may have excited the general ill-will of his inferiors; we may deplore, but we cannot wonder, that the author of “Liz” and “Nell” should havearoused a sense of impotent envy in the author of “Jenny” and “Sister Helen;” it would not surprise though it could not but grieve us to hear that the author of “The Earthly Paradise” was inwardly consumed 75 by the canker of jealousy when he thought of the “Legends of Inverburn;” while with burning cheeks and downcast eyes it must be confessed that the author of “Atalanta in Calydon” may well be the prey of rancour yet more keen than theirs when he looks on the laurels that naturally prevent him from sleeping—the classic chaplets that crown the author of “Undertones.”
     It is but too well known that the three minor minstrels above named, who may perhaps be taken as collectively equivalent in station and intelligence to the single Buchanan, have long been banded together in a dark and unscrupulous league to decry all works and all reputations but their own. In the first and third persons of this unholy trinity the reptile passions of selfishness and envy have constantly broken out in every variety of ugliness; in the leprous eruption of naked insult, in the cancerous process of that rank and rotten malevolence which works its infectious way by hints and indications, in the nervous spasm of epileptic agony which convulses the whole frame of the soul at another’s praise, and ends in a sort of moral tetanus at sight of another’s triumph.That thus, and thus only, have their wretched spirits been affected by the spectacle of good and great things done by other men, the whole course of their artistic life and the whole tenor of their critical or illustrative work may be cited against them to bear witness. The least reference to the latter will suffice to 76 show the narrow range and the insincere assumption of their hollow and self-centred sympathies, the poisonous bitterness and the rancorous meanness of their furtive and virulent antipathies. Thomas Maitland, in his character of the loyal detective, has also done the state of letters some service by exposing the shameless reciprocity of systematic applause kept up on all hands by this “mutual admiration society.” Especial attention should be given to the candid and clear-sighted remarks of the critic on the “puffing” reviews of his accomplices by the senior member of the gang, and of the third party to this plot by both his colleagues in corruption and conspiracy. If any one outside their obscure and restricted circle of reciprocal intrigue and malignant secrecy has ever won from any of them the slightest dole of reluctant and grudging commendation, it has been easily traceable to the muddy source of self-interest or of sycophancy. To men of such long-established eminence and influence that it must evidently bring more of immediate profit to applaud them than to revile, there are writers who will ever be at hand to pour the nauseous libations of a parasite. Envy itself in such natures will change places on alternate days with self-interest; and a hand which the poor cur’s tooth would otherwise be fain to bite, his tongue will then be fain to beslaver. More especially when there is a chance of discharging its natural venom in the very act of that servile caress; 77 when the obsequious lip finds a way to insinuate by flattery of one superior some stealthy calumny of another. “Ah, my lord and master,” says the jackal to the lion (or for that matter to any other animal from whose charity or contempt it may hope for toleration and a stray bone or so now and then), “observe how all other living creatures belong but to some sub-leonine class,* some school of dependents and subordinates such as the poor slave who has now the honour to lick your foot!” This is a somewhat ignoble attitude on the poor slave’s part, though excusable perhaps in a hungry four-footed brute; but if any such biped as a minor poet were to play such a game as this of the jackal’s, what word could we properly apply to him? and what inference should we be justified in drawing as to the origin of his vicious antipathy to other names not less eminent than his chosen patron’s? Might we not imagine that some of the men at whose heels he now snaps instead of cringing have found it necessary before now to “spurn him like a cur out of their way”? It is of course possible that a man may honestly admire


* If we could imagine about 1820 some parasitic poeticule of the order of Kirke White classifying together Coleridge and Keats, Byron and Shelley, as members of “the sub-Wordsworthian school,” we might hope to find an intellectual ancestor for Mr. Robert Buchanan; but that hope is denied us; we are reduced to believe that Mr. Buchanan must be autochthonous, or sprung perhaps from a cairngorm pebble cast behind him by the hand of some Scotch Deucalion.


78 Mr. Tennyson who feels nothing but scorn and distaste for Mr. Carlyle or Mr. Thackeray; but if the latter feeling, expressed as it may be with bare-faced and open-mouthed insolence, be as genuine and natural to him as the former, sprung from no petty grudge or privy spite, but reared in the normal soil or manured with the native compost of his mind, —the admiration of such an one is hardly a thing to be desired.
     If however any one of that envious and currish triumvirate whom the open voice of honest criticism has already stigmatized should think in future of setting a trap for the illustrious object of their common malice, he will, it is to be hoped, take heed that his feet be not caught in his own snare. He will remember that the judgment of men now or hereafter on the work of an artist in any kind does not wholly depend on the evidence or the opinions of any Jack Alias or Tom Alibi who may sneak into court and out again when detected. He will not think to protect himself from the degradation of public exposure by the assumption of some such pseudonym as Joseph Surface or Seth Pecksniff. He will not feel that all is safe when he has assured the public that a review article alternating between covert praise of himself and overt abuse of his superiors was only through the merest inadvertence not issued in his own name; that it never would have appeared under the signature of Mr. Alias but that Mr. Alibi happened 79 by the most untoward of accidents to be just then away “in his yacht” on a cruise among “the western Hebrides;” otherwise, and but for the blundering oversight of some unhappy publisher or editor, the passages which refer with more or less stealthy and suggestive insinuation of preference or of praise to the avowed publications of Mr. Alibi would have come before us with the warrant of that gentleman’s honoured name. Credat Judæus Apella! but even the foolishest of our furtive triumvirate will hardly, I should imagine, expect that any son of circumcision or of uncircumcision would believe such a “legend” or give ear to such an “idyl” as that. Rather will he be inclined to meditate somewhat thus, after the fashion of the American poetess at Elijah Pogram’s levee: “To be presented to a Maitland,” he will reflect, “by a Buchanan, indeed, an impressive moment is it on what we call our feelings. But why we call them so, or why impressed they are, or if impressed they are at all, or if at all we are, or if there really is, oh gasping one! a Maitland or a Buchanan, or any active principle to which we give those titles, is a topic spirit-searching, light-abandoned, much too vast to enter on at this unlooked-for crisis.” Or it may be he will call to mind an old couplet of some such fashion as this:—

“A man of letters would Crispinus be;
He is a man of letters; yes, of three.”

80 How many names he may have on hand it might not be so easy to resolve: nor which of these, if any, may be genuine; but for the three letters he need look no further than his Latin dictionary; if such a reference be not something more than superfluous for a writer of “epiludes” who renders “domus exilis Plutonia” by “a Plutonian house of exiles:” a version not properly to be criticized in any “school” by simple application of goose-quill to paper.* The disciple on whom “the deep delicious stream of the Latinity” of Petronius has made such an impression that he finds also a deep delicious morality in the pure and sincere pages of a book from which less pure-minded readers and writers less sincere than himself are compelled to turn


* I am reminded here of another contemporary somewhat more notorious than this classic namesake and successor of George Buchanan, but like him a man of many and questionable names, who lately had occasion, while figuring on a more public stage than that of literature, to translate the words “Laus Deo semper” by “The laws of God for ever.” It must evidently be from the same source that Mr. Buchanan and the Tichborne claimant have drawn their first and last draught of “the humanities.” Fellow-students, whether at Stonyhurst or elsewhere, they ought certainly to have been. Can it be the rankling recollection of some boyish quarrel in which he came by the worst of it that keeps alive in the noble soul of Mr. Buchanan a dislike of “fleshly persons?” The result would be worthy of such a “fons et origo mali”—a phrase, I may add for the benefit of such scholars, which is not adequately or exactly rendered by “the fount of original sin.” Perhaps some day we may be gratified—but let us hope without any necessary intervention of lawyers—by some further discovery of the early associations which may have clustered around the promising boyhood of Thomas Maitland. Meantime it is a comfort to reflect that the assumption of a forged name for a dirty purpose does not always involve the theft of thousands, or the ruin of any reputation more valuable than that of a literary underling. May we not now also hope that Mr. Buchanan’s fellow-scholar will be the next (in old-world phrase) to “oblige the reading public” with his views on ancient and modern literature? For such a work, whether undertaken in the calm of Newgate or the seclusion of the Hebrides, or any other haunt of lettered ease and leisure, he surely could not fail to find a publisher who in his turn would not fail to find him an alibi whenever necessary—whether eastward or westward of St. Kilda.


81 away sick and silent with disgust after a second vain attempt to look it over—this loving student and satellite so ready to shift a trencher at the banquet of Trimalchio—has less of tolerance, we are scarcely surprised to find, for Æschylean Greece than for Neronian Rome. Among the imperfect and obsolete productions of the Greek stage he does indeed assign a marked pre-eminence over all others to the Persæ. To the famous epitaph of Æschylus which tells only in four terse lines of his service as a soldier against the Persians, there should now be added a couplet in commemoration of the precedence granted to his play by a poet who would not stoop to imitate and a student who need not hesitate to pass sentence. Against this good opinion, however, we are bound to set on record the memorable expression of that deep and thoughtful contempt which a mind so enlightened and a soul so exalted must naturally feel for “the 82 shallow and barbarous myth of Prometheus.” Well may this incomparable critic, this unique and sovereign arbiter of thought and letters ancient and modern, remark with compassion and condemnation how inevitably a training in Grecian literature must tend to “emasculate” the student so trained: and well may we congratulate ourselves that no such process as robbed of all strength and manhood the intelligence of Milton has had power to impair the virility of Mr. Buchanan’s robust and masculine genius. To that strong and severe figure we turn from the sexless and nerveless company of shrill-voiced singers who share with Milton the curse of enforced effeminacy; from the pitiful soprano notes of such dubious creatures as Marlowe, Jonson, Chapman, Gray, Coleridge, Shelley, Landor, “cum semiviro comitatu,” we avert our ears to catch the higher and manlier harmonies of a poet with all his natural parts and powers complete. For truly, if love or knowledge of ancient art and wisdom be the sure mark of “emasculation,” and the absence of any taint of such love or any tincture of such knowledge (as then in consistency it must be) the supreme sign of perfect manhood, Mr. Robert Buchanan should be amply competent to renew the thirteenth labour of Hercules.

“One would not be a young maid in his way
For more than blushing comes to.”

Nevertheless, in a country where (as Mr. 83 Carlyle says in his essay on Diderot) indecent exposure is an offence cognizable at police-offices, it might have been as well for him to uncover with less immodest publicity the gigantic nakedness of his ignorance. Any sense of shame must probably be as alien to the Heracleidan blood as any sense of fear; but the spectators of such an exhibition may be excused if they could wish that at least the shirt of Nessus or another were happily at hand to fling over the more than human display of that massive and muscular impudence, in all the abnormal development of its monstrous proportions. It is possible that out Scottish demigod of song has made too long a sojourn in “the land of Lorne,” and learnt from his Highland comrades to dispense in public with what is not usually discarded in any British latitude far south of “the western Hebrides.”
     At this point, and even after this incomparable windfall in the way of entomology, I begin to doubt whether after all I shall ever make any way as a scientific student. The savours, the forms, the sounds, the contortions, of the singular living things which this science commands us to submit to examination, need a stouter stomach to cope with them than mine. No doubt they have their reasons for being; they were probably meant for some momentary action and passion of their own, harmful or harmless; and how can the naturalist suppose that merely by 84 accurate analysis of their phenomena he has gauged the secret of their mysterious existence? It is so hard to see the reason why they should be, that we are compelled to think the reason must be very grave.
     And if once we cease to regard such things scientifically, there is assuredly no reason why we should regard them at all. Historically considered, they have no interest whatever; the historian discerns no perceptible variation in their tribe for centuries on centuries. It is only because this age is not unlike other ages that the children of Zoilus whet their teeth against your epic, the children of Rymer against your play; the children—no, not the children; let us at least be accurate —the successors of Fréron and Desfontaines lift up their throats against your worship of women:

“Monsieur Veuillot t’appelle avec esprit citrouille;”

Mr. Buchanan indicates to all Hebridean eyes the flaws and affectations in your style, as in that of an amatory foreigner; Mr. Lowell assures his market that the best coin you have to offer is brass, and more than hints that it is stolen brass— whether from his own or another forehead, he scorns to specify; and the Montrouge Jesuit, the Grub-street poet, the Mayflower Puritan, finds each his perfect echo in his natural child; in the first voice you catch the twang of Garasse and Nonotte, in the second of Flecknoe 85 and Dennis, in the third of Tribulation Wholesome and Zeal-of-the-Land Busy. Perhaps then after all their use is to show that the age is not a bastard, but the legitimate heir and representative of other centuries; degenerate, if so it please you to say—all ages have been degenerate in their turn—as to its poets and  workers, but surely not degenerate as to these. Poor then as it may be in other things, the very lapse of years which has left it weak may help it more surely to determine than stronger ages could the nature of the critical animal. Has not popular opinion passed through wellnigh the same stages with regard to the critic and to the toad? What was thought in the time of Shakespeare by dukes as well as peasants, we may all find written in his verse; but we know now on taking up a Buchanan that, though very ugly, it is not in the least venomous, and assuredly wears no precious jewel in its head. Yet it is rather like a newt or blind-worm than a toad; there is a mendacious air of the old serpent about it at first sight; and the thing is not even viperous: its sting is as false as its tongue is; its very venom is a lie. But when once we have seen the fang, though innocuous, protrude from a mouth which would fain distil poison and can only distil froth, we need no revelation to assure us that the doom of the creature is to go upon its belly and eat dust all the days of its life.














AUGUST, 1866

Dî magni, salaputium disertum!CAT. LIB. LIII

“MR. SWINBURNE’S volume of Poems and Ballads having excited a fluster in 1866, a burlesque poem appeared in the Spectator for 15 September, 1866, named The Session of the Poets. It was anonymous; but rumour—since then confirmed by himself—ascribed it to Mr. Buchanan.” Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family Letters, with a Memoir by W. M. Rossetti. (Octavo, 2 vols. London, 1895.) Vol. I, p. 294.



At the Session of Poets held lately in London,
     The Bard of Freshwater was voted the chair:
With his tresses unbrushed, and his shirt-collar undone,
     He lolled at his ease like a good-humoured Bear:
“Come, boys!” he exclaimed, “we’ll be merry together!”
     And lit up his pipe with a smile on his cheek;—
While with eye, like a skipper’s, cocked up at the weather,
     Sat the Vice-Chairman Browning, thinking in Greek.



The company gathered embraced great and small bards,
     Both strong bards and weak bards, funny and grave,
Fat bards and lean bards, little and tall bards,
     Bards who wear whiskers, and others who shave.
Of books, men, and things was the bards’ conversation,—                  90
     Some praised Ecce Homo, some deemed it so-so,—
And then there was talk of the state of the nation,
     And when the Unwashed would devour Mister Lowe.



Right stately sat Arnold,—his black gown adjusted
     Genteelly, his Rhine wine deliciously iced,—
With puddingish England serenely disgusted,
     And looking in vain (in the mirror) for “Geist”;
He hearked to the Chairman, with “Surely!” And “Really?”
     Aghast at both collar and cutty of clay,—
Then felt in his pocket, and breathed again freely,
     On touching the leaves of his own classic play.



Close at hand, lingered Lytton, whose Icarus-winglets
     Had often betrayed him in regions of rhyme,—
How glittered the eye underneath his gray ringlets,
     A hunger within it unlessened by time!
Remoter sat Bailey,—satirical, surly,—
     Who studied the language of Goethe too soon,
And sang himself hoarse to the stars very early,
     And cracked a weak voice with too lofty a tune.



How name all that wonderful company over?—
     Prim Patmore, mild Alford,—and Kingsley alsoe?
Among the small sparks, who was realler than Lover?
     Among Misses, who sweeter than Miss Ingelow?
There sat, looking moony, conceited, and narrow,
     Buchanan,—who, finding, when foolish and young,
Apollo asleep on a coster-girl’s barrow,
     Straight dragged him away to see somebody hung.



What was said? what was done? was there prosing or rhyming?
     Was nothing noteworthy in deed or in word?—
Why, just as the hour of the supper was chiming,
     The only event of the evening occurred.
Up jumped, with his neck stretching out like a gander,
     Master Swinburne, and squealed, glaring out thro’ his hair,
“All Virtue is bosh! Hallelujah for Landor!
     I disbelieve wholly in everything!—There!”



With language so awful he dared then to treat ’em,—
     Miss Ingelow fainted in Tennyson’s arms,
Poor Arnold rushed out, crying “Sœcl’ inficetum!”
     And great bards and small bards were full of alarms;
Till Tennyson, flaming and red as a gypsy,
     Struck his fist on the table and uttered a shout:
“To the door with the boy! Call a cab! He is tipsy!”
     And they carried the naughty young gentleman out.



After that, all the pleasanter talking was done there,—
     Who ever had known such an insult before?
The Chairman tried hard to rekindle the fun there,
     But the Muses were shocked, and the pleasure was o’er.
Then “Ah!” cried the Chairman, “this teaches me knowledge,—
     The future shall find me more wise, by the powers!
This comes of assigning to younkers from college
     Too early a place in such meetings as ours!”





THE poets of “the fleshly school” across the water are having a lively, but not an edifying, fight among themselves. The young Scottish knight, Robert Buchanan, threw down the gauntlet; and Sir Swinburne of Brittany has picked it up, and has also picked up Robert Buchanan, and put him “Under the Microscope,”—that being the title of Swinburne’s thunderbolt. With this prelude, the following verses from the last number of the Saint Pauls Magazine require no explanation:—
                                                                           (EVERY SATURDAY, Boston, August 31st, 1872.)


“Once, when the wondrous work was new,
I deemed Darwinian dreams untrue;
But now I must admit with shame
The caudal stock from which we came,—
Seeing a sight to slay all hope:
A monkey with a Microscope!
A clever monkey,—he can squeak,
Scream, bite, munch, mumble, all but speak;
Studies not merely monkey-sport,
But vices of a human sort;
Is petulant to most, but sweet
To those who pat him, give him meat;
Can imitate to admiration
Man’s gestures, gait, gesticulation;
Is amorous, and takes no pain
To hide his aphrodital vein;
And altogether, trimly drest                                                           93
In human breeches, coat, and vest,
Looks human; and, upon the whole,
Lacks nothing, save, perchance, a soul.

For never did his gestures strike
As so absurdly human-like,
As now, when, having found with joy
Some poor old human Pedant’s toy,
A microscope, he squats to view it,
Turns up and down, peers in and thro’ it,
Screws up his cunning eye to scan,
Just like a clever little man!
And from his skin, with radiant features,
Selecting small inferior creatures,
Makes mortal wonder in what college he
Saw real men study entomology?

A clever monkey!—worth a smile!
How really human is his style;
How worthy of our admiration
Is such delicious imitation!
And I believe with all my might
Religion wrong, and Science right,—
Seeing a sight to slay all hope:
A monkey use a Microscope!”

                                                                       ROBERT BUCHANAN.






IT is well to give the exact language used by Buchanan in making his amende honourable to Rossetti. The letter was addressed to Mr. Hall Caine after the poet’s death (Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. London, 1882. Pp. 71, 72), and read as follows:

     “In perfect frankness, let me say a few words concerning our old quarrel. While admitting freely that my article in the Contemporary Review was unjust to Rossetti’s claims as a poet, I have ever held, and still hold, that it contained nothing to warrant the manner in which it was received by the poet and his circle. At the time it was written, the newspapers were full of panegyric; mine was a mere drop of gall in an ocean of eau sucrée. That it could have had on any man the effect you describe, I can scarcely believe; indeed, I think that no living man had so little to complain of as Rossetti, on the score of criticism. Well, my protest was received in a way which turned irritation into wrath, wrath into violence; and then ensued the paper war which lasted for years. If you compare what I have written of Rossetti with what his admirers have written of myself, I think you will admit that there has been some cause for me to complain, to shun society, to feel bitter against the world; but happily, I have a thick 95 epidermis, and the courage of an approving conscience. I was unjust, as I have said; most unjust when I impugned the purity and misconceived the passion of writings too hurriedly read and reviewed currente calamo; but I was at least honest and fearless, and wrote with no personal malignity. Save for the action of the literary defence, if I may so term it, my article would have been as ephemeral as the mood which induced its composition. I make full admission of Rossetti’s claims to the purest kind of literary renown, and if I were to criticise his poems now, I should write very differently. But nothing will shake my conviction that the cruelty, the unfairness, the pusillanimity has been on the other side, not on mine. The amende of my Dedication in God and the Man was a sacred thing; between his spirit and mine; not between my character and the cowards who have attacked it. I thought he would understand,—which would have been, and indeed is, sufficient. I cried, and cry, no truce with the horde of slanderers who hid themselves within his shadow. That is all. But when all is said, there still remains the pity that our quarrel should ever have been. Our little lives are too short for such animosities. Your friend is at peace with God,—that God who will justify and cherish him, who has dried his tears, and who will turn the shadow of his sad life-dream into full sunshine. My only regret now is that we did not meet,—that I did not take him by the hand; but I am old-fashioned enough to believe that this world is only a prelude, and that our meeting may take place—even yet.”

     It is also well to quote Mr. W. M. Rossetti’s final comment on the foregoing retractation:

96   “Let me sum up briefly the chief stages in this miserable, and in some aspects disgraceful, affair. 1. Mr. Buchanan, whether anonymously or pseudonymously—being a poet, veritable or reputed—attacked another poet, a year and a half after the works of the latter had been received with general and high applause. 2. He attacked him on grounds partly literary, but more prominently moral. 3. After he had had every opportunity for reflection, he repeated the attack in a greatly aggravated form. 4. At a later date he knew that the author in question was not a bad poet, nor a poet with an immoral purpose. The question naturally arises—If he knew this in or before 1881, why did he know or suppose the exact contrary in 1871 and 1872? Here is a question to which no answer (within my cognizance) has ever been given by Mr. Buchanan, and it is one to which some readers may risk their own reply. That is their affair. If Mr. Robert Buchanan concludes that Mr. Thomas Maitland told an untruth, it is not for me to say him nay.”
Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family Letters, with a Memoir by William Michael Rossetti, 2 vols. Octavo, London, 1895. Vol. I, p. 301.

     Let us close this old unhappy subject by reprinting the dedication prefixed to Buchanan’s romance of God and the Man (1881):



I would have snatch’d a bay-leaf from thy brow,
     Wronging the chaplet on an honoured head;
In peace and tenderness I bring thee now
     A lily-flower instead.

Pure as thy purpose, blameless as thy song,                                    97
Sweet as thy spirit, may this offering be;
Forget the bitter blame that did thee wrong,
     And take the gift from me!


     In a later edition the following verses were added to the dedication:



Calmly, thy royal robe of death around thee,
     Thou sleepest, and weeping brethren round thee stand—
Gently they placed, ere yet God’s angel crown’d thee,
         My lily in thy hand!

I never knew thee living, O my brother!
     But on thy breast my lily of love now lies;
And by that token, we shall know each other,
         When God’s voice saith “Arise!”



Back to Under The Microscope Contents

The Critical Response to Robert Buchanan or The Fleshly School Controversy








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


The Critical Response
Harriett Jay


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