ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)
The Critical Response - Henry Murray
From Robert Buchanan: A Critical Appreciation And Other Essays by Henry Murray
I FIRST met Robert Buchanan in the summer of 1885. Our acquaintance, for some time of a lax and ordinary kind, was—very characteristically of such a man—cemented into a warm and enduring friendship by an occurrence which would have brought most acquaintances to an abrupt termination. An article from his pen on ‘The Modern Young Man as Critic’ appeared in a monthly review, attractmg a good deal of attention and a considerable amount of public comment. It compared some of the more prominent among the younger literary personalities of the day with corresponding types with which Buchanan had been familiar in his youth, and denounced their pessimism, their irreverence, and their cheap culture in the cut-and-thrust fashion we had all, long before that date, learned to associate with his polemical utterances. I was at that time associated with a certain weekly publication, now extinct, which enjoyed a great reputation for smart and outspoken comment on current topics, and my editor—who was more or less lié with more than one of the objects of Buchanan’s onslaught— commissioned me to reply to his article. 2 My feelings towards Buchanan at that time were of a somewhat mixed description, compounded of admiration for the genius evident in his best work, and regret that he should so often fall below the lofty level which, in his happier moments, he attained and kept so easily; and in my criticism of ‘The Modern Young Man as Critic’ the second of those sentiments certainly found stronger expression than the first. I had at that time a tendency, which perhaps even now I have not altogether outworn, to let my pen run away with me, and to express the passing mood of the moment with unnecessary strength. What I said was, as Buchanan himself subsequently confessed, true enough, but it was truth savagely spoken, and I have to own that the article was permeated by a certain air of personal resentment, quite unjustified by the circumstances of the case. As the hazards of life drew us closer and closer together I regretted my virulence more and more; and when, some months after the appearance of my ill-tempered article, Buchanan, by a most thoughtful and quite unsolicited act of friendship, showed how kindly he had come to regard me, I felt that the hour for full confession had arrived. I wrote to him, avowing myself the author of the article and apologising more for its manner than its matter. His reply was like himself—frank, cordial, generous. ‘Nobody knows better than I how, in these random fights of the literary arena, a man loses his temper and strikes harder than he need. I have many such sins on my conscience. 3 There is really very little in your article that you need regret, and indeed, knowing how you feel on these matters, I do not see how you could well have written otherwise. . . . . To requite your candour, I was fairly certain that you had written the article, and quite certain, if my belief was true, that you would sooner or later “own up” to it. Don’t avoid me like the plague because you have voluntarily gone into the confessional, but come up to dinner next Sunday and do penance.’ The matter was never again mentioned between us, and this apparently untoward accident was the starting-point of an absolutely uncheckered friendship of more than twelve years’ duration. I mention it here only because it was so richly characteristic of a side of Buchanan’s nature which the majority of people, knowing him merely from his published utterances, could hardly believe him to possess. A man of passionately cherished ideals, most of which were utterly opposed to the practice of his day; a man who, while he lived, must freely speak whatever truth he saw, at whatever cost to the feelings or interests of individuals; he was incapable of the least personal ma1ice towards an opponent. His relations with Rossetti furnish an illustrative case. It is certainly not worth while, at this time of day, to dig up the buried and forgotten bitternesses to which the once famous ‘Fleshly School’ criticism gave rise. The protagonists—Buchanan himself and the men of genius he had attacked—fought their battle vehemently, but 4 honestly. There was hard hitting in plenty, but none ‘below the belt.’ But smaller and less honest partisans envenomed the strife with all sorts of petty falsehood. The absolutely unfounded statement that Buchanan had puffed his own poems in the pseudonymous ‘Thomas Maitland’ article has been quite recently revived, and, so long as the memory of the incident remains, will probably never be finally laid to rest. But all the petty spite imported into the dispute by the outside skirmishers could not prevent Buchanan from owning that he had overstated his case, and in the ardour of over-statement had neglected sufficiently to recognise Rossetti’s genius. To that genius he paid eloquent tribute on more than one occasion, but never so touchingly as in the dedication to Rossetti of his novel, ‘God and the Man.’
TO AN OLD ENEMY.
I would have snatch’d a bay leaf from thy brow,
Pure as thy purpose, blameless as thy song,
Ten months later came the news of Rossetti’s death, and Buchanan added the sad and charming lines:—
Calmly, thy royal robe of Death around thee, 5
I never saw thee living, oh my brother,
A year or two later (in 1877), in ‘A Look Round Literature,’ he emphasised and extended this already sufficient apology, moved thereto by an article in the British Quarterly, the writer of which, says Buchanan, ‘takes occasion to repeat at second-hand, for a wiser generation, all the hasty expressions and uninstructed abuse that I published in hot haste ten years ago, and have since, as my readers know, repented. It is so easy,’ he goes on, ‘to create a nickname that will stick, so difficult to write a criticism that will endure. Perhaps it may be worth while . . . . to show the readers of this book how false a judgment it was, how conventional and Pharisaic a criticism, which chose to dub as “fleshly” the works of this most ethereal and dreamy—in many respects this least carnal and most religious—of modern poets.’ Seldom have royaller compliments been paid by a poet to a contemporary poet than those Buchanan poured at the feet of Rossetti. ‘The man was a magician, of the tribe of Kubla Khan; and at his bidding there rose a stately pleasure dome, every precious stone of which 6 had a name and a mystery, and when he entered it to weave his strange verse, he was within his right in using the language of incantation. . . . . If he was wrong, all the mystics have been wrong; Boehmen was a blunderer, Richter was a proser, Novalis was no poet.’ And in the brief following passage he plumbed the depth of the mystery of Rossetti’s work: ‘He uses amatory forms and carnal images, just as he uses mere sounds and verbalisms, to express ideas which are purely and remotely spiritual; and he takes the language of personal love to express his divine yearning, simply because that language is the most exquisite quintessence of human speech.’ And again: ‘This mood of perfect vision and grave assurance inspires all the best work of Rossetti. He has no questions to ask, no problems to trouble him; he is sibylline, not from being puzzle-headed, but because he has looked behind the curtain of the sibyl. He sees the trees walk, he hears the flowers speak, with a sober certainty of waking bliss. When an angel passes him, he can feel the very texture of his robe, and tell the colour of his eyes. He is as sure of Heaven and all its white-robed angels as ordinary men are of each other.’ Further on, speaking of the Sonnet Sequence, ‘The House of Life,’ which the British Quarterly reviewer had stigmatised as a ‘house of ill-fame,’ he wrote: ‘It is, to a certain extent, monotonous, and the sacrament of flesh and blood has a constant place in it; but out of this sacrament rises the ghostly vision of the Host, 7 and ere he has ended we hear the voices of all the angels praising the Lord of Heavenly Love. And of this strange texture, of this starry woof, is the so-called “fleshly” poetry. . . . . The stairs of the earthly love lead to the heavens; he ascends them step by step, that is all, hand in hand with his sweet guide—who is a bright earthly maiden at the beginning, then a bride, then a shining creature, winged and marvellously transfigured; the rest in order; last, an amethyst! You can transfigure Love, but you can never transfigure Lust; this last never made an angel, or inspired a true poem, yet.’ ‘And so,’ he adds as his final word—a word which, one might be excused for hoping, might be allowed to remain the last regarding the entire business—‘And so, when all is said and done, the friendly criticism remains the best and wisest. Those who have read Mr. Swinburne’s eulogy of his master, and thought it, perhaps, a little strained, may admit, at least, that it was strained, like all eulogy of love, in the right direction. My own abuse was and is, like all hasty contemporary abuse, nothing. Mr. Swinburne’s honest praise was, and is, like all honest praise, something. The poet of “The House of Life” is beyond both; but his fame will remain, when all detraction is forgotten, as a golden symbol, ære perennius, of much that was best and brightest in the culture of our time.’
So, Edward, Henry, pax vobiscum,
The student of Buchanan who would thoroughly understand his work—and more especially his critical work, literary or social—must be careful to keep in mind one pregnant fact regarding him. He was the descendant of a long line of Calvinistic Puritans, and, although half an Englishman by the maternal side, and bred, to his tenth year, south of the Border, he was, in many respects, a thorough-going Scotsman. The Celtic ichor accounted for much of his utterance as a writer, and much of his conduct as a man. When the Cockney critic anathematised him as a ‘provincial,’ he not merely accepted the description, he proclaimed and gloried in it—as also did another Scotsman, with whom in most respects he had little enough in common—Thomas Carlyle. The practice of the literary art in the freest of Bohemian society, influences which act with such deadly effect as solvents on the prejudices, innate or acquired, of most men, never affected in any appreciable degree Buchanan’s philosophy of life. Loathing Calvinistic theology, he remained a Calvinistic moralist to the end of the chapter; and that morality impregnates every serious utterance on life and its mysteries that ever fell from his pen. Absolutely at the antipodes of mere asceticism—no man better loved the good things of this life than he—sensuality 10 was horrible to him. It was for that reason that he fell foul of Rossetti, as on other occasions he fell foul of Mr. Swinburne and Théophile Gautier, because—mistakenly, as we have seen that he candidly and generously confessed—he thought him what Byron, in his ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,’ called Thomas Moore, ‘A mere melodious advocate of lust.’ To Buchanan, sexual love was one of two things. Sanctified by affection, it was the holiest and most beautiful thing in life; not so sanctified, the basest and most degrading. Men of the world find foothold for themselves somewhere between these extremes of opinion; but in many respects Buchanan had no desire to be accepted as a man of the world, and, as one who knew intimately every detail of his personal life for many years, I can testify that he at least sealed his faith by his daily practice. A man is never a Puritan upon one point alone, and Buchanan’s puritanism, so far from being merely sexual, invaded and coloured his views of all the important questions of life. He hated triviality, cackle and small talk and scandal, and anything which could come under Matthew Arnold’s sweeping definition of ‘intellectual levity.’ Consequently, he had scant love for modern journalism, and especially for that department of journalism marked by the prefix ‘Society.’ Hence his vehement onslaughts on Mr. Yates and Mr. Labouchere, and much of the criticism of contemporary art and literature which earned for him, among strangers to his personality, a reputation as a cantankerous spoil-sport.
No Slave at least art thou, on this dull Day
Because thou turnest from our feast of Lies
In many a conversation with Buchanan I expressed my fear that this insistence on the merely ethical outlook of each individual writer by an authority of his weight might act rather for evil than for good. It expressed a mental attitude already too common, to my thinking, among Englishmen, and it has resulted in the cases of people of small artistic feeling or culture in absurdities which have more than once made England the laughing-stock of the intellectual world. An extreme case was the publication, a few years ago, of an edition of ‘David Copperfield,’ from which the episode of Steerforth and little Em’ly had been expunged as unfitted for family reading! To insist to the English public on the propagandist duties of the verbal artist is rather like carrying coals to Newcastle. To mix a metaphor, the pendulum of English opinion has always shown a sufficiently marked inclination to the 14 side of ‘moral value.’ We have, as a nation, at least enough of the utilitarian, as opposed to the purely artistic, leaven in our blood, and stand in greater need of artistic than of moral culture. To persuade Buchanan either of the truth or the expediency of such a standpoint was, of course, quite impossible. The artistic beliefs of such men as he are no more ‘idle’ than were the ‘manners’ of the Knights of the Table Round, they are the fruits of a strong personal intelligence, sedulously cultured.
* ‘Who has ever seen Truth worsted in a fair field?’—Milton’s ‘Areopagitica.’
16 Wholesale corruption never yet came from corrupt literature, which is the effect, not the cause, of social libertinage. Do we find morality so plentiful among the godly farmers and drovers of Annandale, or among the unco’ guid of Ayrshire or Dumfriesshire—thumbers of the Bible, sheep of the Kirk? Stands Scotland anywhere but where it did, though it has not yet acquired an æsthetic taste for the Abominable, but merely realises occasionally the primitive instincts of La Terre? Dwells perfect purity in Brittany and in Normandy, despite the fact that Zola there is an unknown quantity, and Paris itself a thing of dream? Bestialism, animalism, sensualism, realism, call it by what name you will, is antecedent to, and triumphant over, all books whatsoever. Books may reflect it, that is all; and I fail to see why they should not, since it exists. I love my Burns and like my Byron, though neither was a virtuous or even a ‘decent’ person. My Juvenal, my Lucretius, my Catullus, and even my porcus porcorum Petronius, are well read. My Decameron, with all its incidence of amativeness, is a breeding-nest of poets. Age cannot wither, nor custom stale, La Fontaine’s infinite variety. But I take such books as these, as I take all such mental food, cum grano salis, a pinch of which keeps each from corruption. Even the fly-blown Gautier looks well, cold and inedible, garnished with Style’s fresh parsley. But I have never found that what my teeth nibble at has any power to pollute my immortal part. I must stand on the earth, with Montaigne and Rabelais, but does that prevent me flying heavenward with Jean Paul, or walking the mountain-tops with the Shepherd of Rydal? Inspection of the dung-heaps and slaughter-houses with Jonathan Swift and Zola only makes me more anxious to get away with Rousseau to the peaceful height where the Savoyard Vicar prays. By evil only shall ye distinguish good, says the Master; yea, and by the husks shall ye know the grain.
17 In his generally admirable study, recently published, entitled ‘Robert Buchanan, the Poet of Revolt,’ Mr. Archibald Stodart-Walker says of his subject that, to the end, he preserved ‘an almost childish sensitiveness to criticism, and a fanatical hatred to . . . . critical injustice.’ The second of these allegations is perfectly true; the first is a curiously wrong- headed statement, proceeding as it does from the pen of a writer who was for some years one of Buchanan’s personal friends. As a matter of fact, I have never met a man more serenely indifferent to criticism, merely as criticism, than was Buchanan. That he waged eternal war with the motley mob of gentlemen of the Press who chronicle and criticise the current literature of the day is, of course, matter of literary history; but the motive of his polemical activity is to be sought in the second of Mr. Stodart-Walker’s statements, not in the first. Buchanan hated ‘critical’ as he hated all other forms of injustice, and as he hated ignorance, arrogance, presumption, bad faith, and tawdry, sham enthusiasm, of which elements latter-day criticism is so largely compact. Elsewhere, Mr. Stodart-Walker says, ‘There is a deadly want of the sense of humour in attacking criticism as a whole.’ The statement is challengeable, merely as it stands, for the entire history of criticism—even criticism as written by men of large powers and wide culture—is little more than a record of the stupid injustice with which the world at large has received its greatest and its best. And criticism ‘as she is wrote’ to-day is 18 little more and little else than an impertinence and a darkening of counsel. Among the thousands of newspapers published in Great Britain there are few which do not employ the services of a ‘critic,’ and, viewed in the light of that simple fact, criticism, ‘as a whole,’ is reduced to an absurdity, inasmuch as the writer capable of dealing adequately with any book worth noticing at all is almost as rare a phenomenon as the writer capable of producing such a book. Nor is mere incapacity the worst feature of modern criticism—it becomes easily tolerable when set beside the cynical defiance of mere common intellectual honesty which is the stock-in-trade of so many of the critical tribe. It is a matter of sad fact that—with the possible exception of Mr. Rudyard Kipling, who, despite his many vulgarisms of manner and the flat banality of his outlook upon life, has real force and fine literary power—there is not a contemporary English author alive to-day under the age of sixty who approaches the first rank of excellence; yet, to judge by the current criticism of the newspapers and reviews we should believe that England was groaning in a positive plethora of literary genius. We have been gravely informed—and expected to believe—that Mr. Rider Haggard was the superior of the elder Dumas, that the cherry-stone chef d’oeuvres of the late Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson had quite hid from sight the granite monoliths which bear witness to the mighty mallet-hand of Scott, that Mr. George Moore is ‘a greater Zola,’ that Mr. Kipling is a ‘greater Dickens,’ 19 that Mr. Henry James eclipses Thackeray, that in Mr. Stephen Phillips we have a dramatic poet who unites the excellences of Sardou and Tennyson, Milton and Dumas père. When the late Hugh Conway died, I read a sonnet in a professedly literary journal—I refrain from naming the journal for fear of possible error—in which he was compared to a ‘thunder-smitten eagle!’ There is probably hardly a journal in England bearing the date of the day on which I write these words which is not proclaiming as ‘a masterpiece’ some tawdry performance whose author’s name, six months hence, it will require an effort of memory to recall. A century ago, in the early days of ‘Blackwood’s’ and the ‘Quarterly,’ he was the greatest critic who was foulest in insult, most careless of decency, who had stabbed most reputations, who had inspired most despair in the breast of budding talent. Those bad old days have vanished, and to- day the greatest critic is he whose benevolently microscopic eye can detect the greatest number of ‘geniuses’ among the heterogeneous mob whose crude prose and cruder verse replenish the shelves of the circulating library. En revanche, it was only at the moment of Robert Browning’s death that the Press, with anything like unanimity, hailed him for what he was—one of the greatest and most certainly enduring glories of English literature. Buchanan’s statement that ‘Browning’s life was darkened by constant neglect and infinite detraction;’ and that, ‘if it had not been for the efforts of a small body of devoted worshippers, who preached 20 Browningese in spite of endless ridicule, he would scarcely have been heard of by the great public,’ is the simple statement of a simple truth. ‘Again and again, when he was issuing his works of thought and imagination, he was informed that it was a Poet’s duty, not to instruct, but to amuse, his generation. A leading critical authority compared him to a noisy and mannered “Auctioneer.” He was requested to favour the world with light performances, suitable for the suburban reciter and drawing-room entertainer. Since he was an eager man among men, en rapport with everything human, he was described as a worldling and a diner-out. Suddenly, on his death, the world discovered that he was a sublime person, a great person. Column upon column was written in his praise by gentlemen who had scarcely read one of his works. “He was great,” was the cry, “bury him at Westminster.” And scarcely was he cold when it was deeply regretted that he missed wearing the laurel, still worn, we Poets thank God, by the Galahad of modern Poesy.’ And he—the good and great Tennyson — how had the current criticism of his early days received him? As ‘a new star in the milky-way of poetry,’ of which ‘Johnny Keats’ was a specimen-luminary! It was only when Tennyson assumed the laurel, ‘greener from the brows’ of Wordsworth — himself too the subject of ‘constant neglect and infinite detraction’— that the critical snobs recognised his value. Hermann Melville —
21 the ‘Yankee-Greek,’ greatest and best of all writers of the sea, years ago broke his pen, swearing never more to write a line; sick of the futile struggle against the platitudinous mediocrities bepuffed by the newspaper critic. ‘Imagine this Titan silenced,’ said Buchanan, ‘and the book-shops flooded with the illustrated magazines!’ George Meredith, the possessor of the widest and acutest intellect which has ever bent itself to the production of prose fiction, was grey before our critical ciceroni mentioned—or apparently knew—his name. Criticism, ‘as a whole,’ has sought to atone for insulting or neglecting these men, together with Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and James Thomson, by discovering an earth-shaking portent in ‘our schoolroom classic, Stevenson,’ and by deifying the author of ‘Herod.’
* ‘The Outcast.’ Epistle Dedicatory.
24 is right?’ that they wrote and argued. Johnson himself had not a more robust contempt for that puerile vanity which makes ‘intellect’ an excuse for any weakness or any meanness in the mind of the fribble who flatters himself that ‘intellect’ is the gift in which he is especially rich. ‘I have never yet discovered,’ wrote Buchanan, ‘in myself, or in any man, any gift which entitles me to despise the meanest of my fellows.’*
To love the worst, to feel
to claim no exemption from common labour or common duty on the ground of superior intelligence, but rather to demand that a higher intellectuality should be the corollary of a loftier moral sense—this was Buchanan’s creed. It was the creed he imported not merely into his daily life, it partly furnishes the explanation of his huge literary activity. ‘I have not escaped the charge of selling my birthright for a mess of pottage; of gaining my bread by hodman’s labour, when I might have been sitting empty-stomached on Parnassus. . . . . My errors, however, have arisen from excess of human sympathy, from ardour of human activity, rather than from any great love of the loaves and fishes. Lacking the pride of intellect, I have by superabundant activity tried to prove myself a man among men, not a mere littérateur. . . . . So I have stooped to hodman’s work
* ‘The Outcast.’ Epistle Dedicatory.
25 occasionally, mainly because I cannot pose in the god-like manner of your lotus eaters. I have not humoured my reputation. I have thought no work undignified which did not convert me into a Specialist or a Prig. I have written for all men and in all moods. But the birthright which belongs to all Poets has never been offered by me in any market, and my manhood has never been stained by any sham hate or sham affection.’
Infinite as are the points of diversity between the poetical literature of the latter half of the nineteenth century and that of all preceding epochs, there is one among them which the unborn reader will find supreme in interest above all others —the intrusion, into the poetic field, of the polemist and theologian. England has been described as the native land of paradox, but among all the paradoxes discoverable in her history there is none stranger than the indifference of most of her great poets to the theological struggles whose fluctuations and developments have gone so far towards making up her national history. It is not, of course, surprising that Chaucer and his predecessors and contemporaries should be free from any expression of theological bias. That Chaucer was a man of fixed and humble piety is made certain by every serious page he ever wrote. Being for his day a man of wide culture, he was probably well read in the current divinity. But, in Chaucer’s day, there was only one theology, and it was accepted by all 26 men. If any manifestation of the spirit of Lollardism ever came his way, it left him untouched so far as is discoverable from his writings, and most probably left him untouched altogether, for he does not seem to have been of the kind of stuff of which, in any age, the polemist is made. The good green earth, and what grew and moved thereon, was enough for him, as it was enough for his unlettered neighbours, the farmer in his furrow and the cobbler in his stall. Life, intellectually and morally, was life reduced to its simplest terms. The morning prayer, the daily toil, the well-earned sleep which was the guerdon of their labour, filled men’s lives. They accepted, with the simplicity of children, the teaching of their pastors, that life was a probation, that he who bore its labours and its trials with patience and submission would be wafted on the wings of angels to an eternal paradise, that the wicked and rebellious would go to people a real objective hell. It was all so simple:—
The world was rich in man and maid,
and heaven itself was only a little beyond the sunset clouds.
Le bon Dieu, gravely interfering
27 was to them, as actual and real a person as his vicegerent on earth, ‘the Pope that dwelled in Rome,’ and not much further off. Chaucer died in 1400, and literature slept for a century, to awaken, in common with every other manifestation of intellectual energy, amid the glorious turmoil of the Renaissance; and it is at this point in history that the theological indifferentism of our great poets becomes so truly remarkable. For in no field was the human spirit in the sixteenth century more active than in the domain of theology. The geographical isolation of England made us somewhat slow to catch the contagion of new religious thought. The healthy conservatism and hatred of extremes joined with the fundamental tolerance and bonhomie which are among the best points of our national character to make the struggle between new and old at once less bitter and less prolonged than it was in some continental countries; yet the fight, while it lasted, was sharp and bitter enough. But, while Henry and Edward and Mary and Elizabeth hanged and burned and racked and tortured; and while the Continent, from Spain to Friesland, was torn by a strife as deadly as it has ever witnessed; the Muse of English poesy still dreamed on in her own quiet fairyland, as unmoved by the ghastly turmoil as Proserpine in her garden. Neither politics nor theology nor war—for so long a time almost interchangeable terms— stirred her from her golden calm. The glories of a new-found world enriched her 28 metaphors and coloured her vocabulary, but, though all England was shrieking horror over the American devilries of the Spanish freebooters, she had no word of pity for outraged humanity. The soil of Holland was like a sponge blood-soaked with the life-stream of thousands of the martyrs of the faith which England had adopted, and Holland’s and humanity’s greatest and purest hero was meeting with splendid courage and defeating with incredible success the tremendous armaments of Spain, our bitterest enemy, with whom we also were girding ourselves to come to inevitable death-grips; but martyrdom and heroism and the fear, which all men felt, of Spanish tyranny, left this strange sprite unmoved. There is nothing so amazing in all intellectual history as this complete aloofness from every most passionate interest of humanity which was displayed at that epoch by the great poets of England. Who, that was ignorant of the date of Shakespeare, could guess, from any internal evidence disclosed by his writings, the political storm and stress by which his life must have been surrounded; or that his fellow-citizens were being racked, mutilated and hanged for differences of theological opinion? Unless—which it is impossible to believe—a score of passages in his plays are mere fulsome rant meant to tickle the groundlings, Shakespeare was an ardent patriot. It would be an even greater absurdity to suppose that he had neither the heart to sympathise with the aborigines of America and the Protestants of Holland, nor the modicum of political sagacity to foresee the 29 possibility of curses as dire as those from which they suffered falling upon his own friends and neighbours. He must have sympathised with other nations, he must have feared for the country he loved so well. He must passionately have desired the triumph of liberty and the downfall of oppression. Yet where, in the entire bulk of the work we owe to him, do we find the smallest indication that he had ever so much as heard the name of Montezuma, of William the Silent, of Luther, on the one hand, or of Charles the Fifth or Philip the Second on the other? His treatment of the clerical element in his plays is curiously mild; the priestly figures which cross his stage from time to time, ‘Pandulph, of fair Milan Cardinal,’ Wolsey and Campeius and his friars, might, for any internal evidence yielded by the style of portraiture, have been painted by the hand of the most fervent Romanist. Yet he was almost contemporary with Alexander the Sixth and Cæsar Borgia, and actually contemporary with Cardinal Granvelle, the priestly minister of the insane and puerile cruelties of Philip; a trio, not merely of the most unworthy prelates, but of the most bestial criminals the world has seen. Were these men and their acts never discussed at the Mermaid, never canvassed in the tiring-room of the Globe? One might think so, from Shakespeare’s public silence concerning them. And what is true of Shakespeare in this particular is true of his contemporaries without exception.
Colonel Ingersoll is very fond of proclaiming his admiration for the great scientific teachers of his age; but in reality he is as far away in spirit from the thought of Darwin as from the 34 vision of Shakespeare, as obtuse to the scientific problems as to the pathetic poetic fallacy. Religion is the grave, elder daughter of Poetry, and to understand religious questions a man must have the heart of a poet. Science, too, is the daughter of Poetry; indeed, her youngest born; while calmer and colder than her mother, she has the same far-away, rapt look into the heaven of heavens; and her teaching is for poetic hearts also, not for those who confound her with her sordid and hard-working handmaid, Invention. Science ranges the universe, touches the farthest suns, reaches the farthest cloud confines, and cries honestly and loudly, ‘Thus far—no farther— here I pause;’ and then even she begins to dream. Invention squats on the ground, sets her little water- wheel, lights her little lamp, pieces her mechanical puzzles, does homely work, delightful and useful to everybody. But Invention-worship is fetish-worship, and Colonel Ingersoll is a fetish-worshipper—that is to say, an individual exactly at the savage state where neither religion nor science begins.
‘The last word of science,’ said George Henry Lewes to Buchanan on one occasion, when the latter had asked if that ‘last word’ would be one of negation and despair, ‘will not be spoken for many a century yet. Who can guess what it will be?’ Meanwhile, and pending that far-off consummation, the wise man who gives himself time to think will arrive at the comforting conclusion that, no more than Science and Imagination, can Science and Religion be truly inimical. Science is no horrible Djinn, solidified from the smoke of our nineteenth-century retorts, like the imprisoned demon of the ‘Arabian Nights’ from the vapour of his bottle. It is coeval with humanity, and therefore coeval with Religion itself. Some Religion Man must always have had, 35 there is no race so low in the scale as to have none at all. Some Science Man must always have possessed—how otherwise should he have lived at all? Religion is eternal—the holocaust of creeds leaves her untouched, nay, it has imparted to her new strength and vitality, as the lopping away of vegetable parasites quickens the vigour of a forest tree.
What can I gain on the denying side?
There was but one genuine and indubitable English poet who ever went so far as even to mistake himself for an atheist— Shelley. And if the ‘Adonais’is of any authority, Shelley, towards the end of his life, had drifted at least as far as Theism:—
The one remains, the many change and pass,
and long after Shelley’s time, and even to the present day, the poets who have believed that science had robbed them of God, have proclaimed themselves the most desolate of orphans. The melancholy end of Alfred de Musset was as clearly traceable to the assumed impossibility of religious belief as to any 37 one of the more frequently cited causes. His pages are full of laments for the lost Fatherhood, and he attacked Voltaire with a virulence rarely lavished on any but a contemporary enemy.
Dors-tu content, ô Voltaire, et ton hideux sourire
Et que nous reste-t-il, à nous, les déicides?
And de Musset’s great and strangely neglected contemporary, Auguste Barbier, was even less polite to Voltaire’s memory, when he called him
Singe assis sur les décombres—
Je suis né trop tard dans un siècle trop vieux—
feeling, as a Godless poet of his time must have felt, like a worshipper with his hands full of incense who can find no altar whereon to lay it. Verlaine, in his unregenerate days, ranked himself with as much sadness as pride among
les suprèmes poètes,
38 The crushing sense of the orphaned condition of humanity drove James Thomson to the fallacious comfort of alcohol, and sent him to the grave. It is curious to remember, in this connexion, that Voltaire wrote the wistful and charming quatrain:
On a banni les démons et les fées,
It is even more curious to remember that he penned the lines—
Le passé n’est pour nous qu’un triste souvenir;
but the lines are his, none the less, and would seem to indicate that ‘the great architect of ruin’ knew moments in which he doubted the sanity and justice of the task he performed with so terrible a completeness. This fear of the destructive tendencies of science—a fear which blinded men of less clear mental insight to its constructive value—is strongly evident in the work of both Browning and Tennyson. Both were ardent students of the most advanced thought of their time, and each, in his fashion, fought in the ranks of religious conservatism.
* Messrs. Macmillan (Eversleigh Series).
40 Sutherland Orr should have made such a remark, and stranger still that Hutton should have repeated it. For, if one thing in Buchanan’s theological scheme is more plain and explicit than another, it is the scientific rigidity of his definition of the word ‘Christian.’ Christianity, Buchanan was never tired of repeating, is a number of dogmas, accurately summed up in the Credo taught to children. Do you believe in the Immaculate Conception and in the efficacy of the Atonement? If so, you are a Christian. If not, you may be anything else you choose to call yourself, but a Christian you are not. You may love and admire the character of Christ, you may preach and practise the virtues He extolled, but nothing short of the definite acceptance of the dogmas of the Godhead and the Redemption can qualify you to stand within the Christian pale.* It was in that plain sense that Browning understood Buchanan’s categorical inquiry, ‘Are you not,
* Some six or seven years ago, Mr. Richard Le Gallienne gave Buchanan an additional chance of insisting on this hard-and-fast definition by the publication of his book, ‘The Religion of a Literary Man,’ wherein, having carefully ruled himself out of acceptance of any sort of dogma whatsoever, he described himself as ‘essentially a Christian;’ after which feather-headed pronouncement he went off; as Buchanan said, ‘to tipple and flirt in the society of that archmaterialist, Omar Khayyam.’ Mr. Le Gallienne’s claim to stand within the Christian fold provoked the elder poet to the committal of a bit of rollicking verse, which appeared originally in the Star newspaper, and was afterwards incorporated in ‘The Devil’s Sabbath’ (The New Rome).
If I desire to end my days at peace with all theologies,
In Miracles I don’t believe, or in Man’s Immortality—
41 then, a Christian?’ And it was with a full sense of the meaning his reply would bear in Buchanan’s mind that Browning replied—‘thundered’ is Buchanan’s expression—‘No!’ And, in the circumstance that Buchanan, knowing Browning’s work so well as he did, should have felt the need to ask such a question at all; and in that other circumstance, that, with Browning’s reply on record before him, Hutton could still, sincerely (as I have already said), and with any chance of finding agreement with the view, still claim Browning as a Christian poet, lies matter for interesting reflection, as we shall presently perceive.
‘Tis the weakness in strength, that I cry for! my flesh, that I seek
Taken as an isolated statement, nothing could be completer, nothing more splendidly fervent, as a proclamation of the godhead of Christ. But it cannot be so taken. It must be examined as part of a whole, and so examined it ceases to be a confession of personal faith on the part of its writer, and becomes a mere bit of literature. For the utterance is dramatic, and the speaker is not Robert Browning, but David the shepherd minstrel. It is of no more authority as evidence that its author was an Orthodox Christian than Tennyson’s 43 ‘Tithonus’ could be in supporting the thesis that the late Laureate was an Hellenic Pantheist. And precisely the same thing may be said of the passages which were in Hutton’s mind when he spoke of ‘The Ring and the Book.’ They also are purely dramatic, and Browning’s own personal theology finds less expression in the scholarly subtleties of the good Pope Innocent than in the simple, childlike trustfulness of poor Pompilia, praying on her hospital bed for the wretch who murdered her:—
We shall not meet in this world or the next,
Before passing on to ‘Christmas Eve and Easter Day,’ let us look for a moment at some other of his theological pronouncements. It has been stated that ‘only a Christian could have written “A Death in the Desert.”’ The only meaning this statement can be taken as bearing is that nobody but a Christian could have felt the fervid love for and belief in Christ which Browning expresses by the lips of the dying John. But in this poem we must again notice that it is dramatic, not lyrical. In the body of the poem it is the voice of the Apostle, in the appended passage it is the voice of Pamphylax the Antiochene. And in that addendum there is a statement, more direct and forceful than any made by John upon the other side, of the difficulty, to a mere human, logical 44 intelligence, of accepting the splendid promises of Christ:—
If Christ, as thou affirmest, be of men
There is a direct, a terrible simplicity in this exposition of doubt which is quite absent from John’s proclamation of belief. That proclamation is subtle, ingenious, eloquent to a high degree—the very perfection of polemics; but in the force of its appeal to human understanding it is no more comparable to the passage I have quoted than is a flight of thistledown to a volley of grapeshot. True, the addendum has itself an addendum, in the words completing the last 45 line of the poem —‘But ‘twas Cerinthus that is lost.’ Yet those few words—even if I am wrong in taking them also as a dramatic utterance added by some later commentator than ‘Pamphylax the Antiochene’—are little to set against the appallingly plain statement of the difficulty of belief. And if they are to be taken as expressing Browning’s personal adherence to Christian dogma, all that can be said is that they form the only definite proclamation of that adherence to be found in the whole range of his poetical work.
A man! a right, true man, however,
at which point the poet follows his divine Guide out into the darkness, and, as he flies through the air in His wake, muses on the Professor’s lecture. ‘Thus much of Christ does he (the Professor) reject?’ asks Browning—
And what retain? His intellect?
* * * * *
If this passage can be accused of obscurity, it is only of such obscurity as even cultured people who have not made themselves familiar with Browning’s occasional jerkiness of utterance often complain of—the obscurity is merely verbal. That small difficulty conquered, the thought of this passage is as simple, plain, and direct as thought can be. And it is a 48 denunciatory criticism of the claims of Christ, even to the measure of merely human greatness which the Atheistic Professor left to him, to which most other diatribes of the kind in modern literature are mere child’s play. It says, with a plainness which leaves no chance for quibbling, that if Christ were not God, he was little more than nothing; it grudges him even a place among great ethical teachers. ‘Ah, but,’ you can hear the Christian claimant of Browning replying, ‘Browning goes on to reconstruct the Divine Figure. Read the end of the poem.’ You can read the end of the poem. You can read it with a microscope, and there is absolutely no reconstruction of the divinity of Christ to be found in it. It is merely nebulous rhetoric. It is impossible to print here the following and concluding passages, which make some hundreds of lines. Nor is it necessary. The onus of proof lies on the critics who claim Browning as a Christian poet. Let one among them cite, either from ‘Christmas Eve’ or from any other of his utterances, any passage on their side as plain, direct, logical, and indubitable in meaning as those quoted in support of the contrary affirmation.
The very God! think, Abib, dost thou think?
The madman saith He said so; it is strange.
Karshish, one may say, is the veritable Browning himself, the eager student and close cross-questioner of Nature, hoping that his pryings into natural secrets may one day give him certainty of the existence of some stronger divine sanction than his iron logic will yet permit him to believe in.
when the sensuous frame
would drive a sensitive organization to stark madness. There are moments when the statement ‘God’s in his heaven’ seems questionable to the staunchest believer, as we know it did at moments even to John Henry Newman. And there are frequent moments when ‘All’s right with the world!’ is a gratuitous insult to common sense and common eyesight. Optimism is no doubt a virtue, of sorts, but pushed too far it becomes, not optimism, but insensibility—to use no harsher word.
When the fight begins within himself
* * * * *
All his life long, though he kept his eyes resolutely 54 fixed upon the sunlit mountain summits, Tennyson’s feet trod the thorny ways of the Valley of the Shadow. Granted foreknowledge of his love for Arthur Hallam and the tragic end of that heroic friendship, ‘In Memoriam’ might have been prophesied from the pen which wrote ‘The Two Voices’ and ‘Maud.’
A still small voice spoke unto me—
* * * * *
He found an answer to the dull murmur within his heart, but the answer was hardly satisfactory, and the spectre of doubt was never finally laid. It reared its head again in ‘Maud,’ and made of ‘the brave o’er-hanging firmament, fretted with golden fire’ a terrible witness to human insignificance:—
A sad astrology—the boundless plan
And we may be certain that when, many years later, he wrote that terrible poem ‘Despair,’ the utterance was not merely and wholly dramatic, but that, though it probably did not express the mood in which it was 55 actually written, its bitterness was inspired by memories of many hours of torturing personal doubt.
And the suns of the limitless Universe sparkled and shone in the sky,
He often felt chilled and homeless in the vastnesses of Time and Space:—
Many an Æon moulded earth before her highest, Man, was born,
and at moments they so crushed him that he breaks out with a cry of angry contempt of himself and the impotent race to which he belongs,
What is it all but the trouble of ants, in the gleam of a million million of suns?
It is impossible not to recognise and admire the courage which goes so far, which does not shrink from posing, squarely and honestly, some of the more powerful reasons for doubt and denial. It is certainly in no carping or malicious spirit that I venture to criticise the faith of such a man, or the processes by which he arrived at that faith. When all possible exceptions and 56 all fair deductions have been made, the bulk of Tennyson’s utterances upon the problems of his century will remain a document of the highest value. He failed to speak the final word—not the final word of a controversy which will probably still be raging when the sun goes out—but the final word which it is within the power of the humblest of us to speak, the final word of individual opinion; because, with that timidity which was one of the few flaws of a conspicuously noble nature, he did not dare to follow his brains, to trust his intelligence in the denial of much which his heart so passionately desired. So deep a student and so reverent a lover of Tennyson as Mr. Masterman is forced to admit so much:—
Tennyson, in fact, in his treatment of contemporary life around him, directly opposes the principle of Evolution which, in theory, he had accepted. In religious speculation, and in practical affairs, he never did actually launch out into the deep. He always was one of those who hugged the shore, ever directing the prow of his ship towards the illimitable ocean, but ever again seeking shelter under the shadow of the land.*
Mr. Masterman is so valuable a witness that I shall make no apology for quoting rather freely from his book—the most admirable critical utterance regarding Tennyson with which I am acquainted, and one of the most capable and luminous critical exercises in the language. Here, for instance, is a passage which
* ‘Tennyson as a Religious Teacher,’ by Charles F. G. Masterman.
57 sheds a penetrating light on much of Tennyson’s philosophy:—
Tennyson’s first attempts to solve this great problem (the apparent vastness of the Universe and the insignificance of Man) consist of mere affirmation without explanation—affirmation of the reality of self through the reality of love. He deliberately turns away from the immensity of Space, and refuses any longer to contemplate it. I am: I love: this, at least, is certain. . . . . This is the reply of the hero of ‘Maud’ to the maddening thoughts suggested by his ‘sad astrology.’
But now shine on, and what care I,
* * * * *
But in this first attempt to encounter the problem the human intellect cannot rest satisfied; it must go forward in an effort to escape from this unsatisfactory dualism, the reality of the macrocosmos without us, the reality of the microcosmos within. The mind incessantly craves for some kind of harmony, and refuses to acquiesce in the discord between these two entities, and so Tennyson was compelled to essay an explanation. He found it in the form of idealism taught by that philosopher who had never wearied of contemplating the sublimity both of the starry heavens without and the moral law within. This was the assertion of the subjective element in space; that space is not a reality outside our own consciousness, but, at least as apprehended by us, a product of this consciousness itself.
This indeed seems to me to be a case in which
Physic of metaphysic begs defence,
and the call is disregarded. There is, of course, no appeal, in the realm of pure reason, from Kant’s. pronouncement. Time and Space must be regarded, for purposes of thought, as mere emanations of the human intelligence, mere abstractions, having no necessary—perhaps no probable—relationship to the
* ‘Tennyson as a Religious Teacher.’
59 actual scheme of the universe. But to transplant that idea from its native realm, and to attempt to base upon it a plan of daily action, is impossible. For, if Space and Time are merely human ideas, why should we grant the objective existence of those ‘beings possessing organizations similar to our own,’ whose reality Tennyson—and apparently Mr. Masterman —somewhat unphilosophically take for granted? Metaphysically, my fellow men are as merely ‘phenomena’ as the stars in the sky or the figures on the dial, and, so viewed for the purposes of my daily life, can have no possible claim on my consideration. Unless I grant the real, objective existence of my neighbour, and his capacity to suffer as I suffer and to enjoy as I enjoy, where is my moral obligation to take him into account at all? Good metaphysics may be very questionable common sense. Laugh as we may at old Samuel Johnson smiting the table to prove the existence of matter, we must all literally accept his ruling in our daily life. ‘The universe,’ says Mr. Masterman, ‘need no longer affright us through its greatness,’ but I fear he will find few to echo the sentiment, or to discover in his proffered solution any comfort which will survive a moment’s thought. De deux choses, l’une—the entire macrocosm, of which Time and Space are but the vastest features, and which includes Man as it includes them, is real or a dream. One cannot choose portions of such a whole and deny to them an objective reality granted to the rest.
We have reduced everything, says Mr. Masterman, to two fundamental propositions, and these appear mutually destructive. On the one hand, that the Universe is fundamentally perfect; on the other, the presence of imperfection: in theological language, the existence of God and the existence of evil. And apparently we can go no further. We can retrace our steps along each line, without finding a flaw in any link of the chain; but placing one proposition against the other, both representing facts, we can see no possibility of subordinating one to the other or of including both in some higher synthesis. If the adoption of imperfection was necessary for the attainment of greater perfection, then God was not originally perfect. If the adoption of imperfection was not necessary, then why does imperfection exist? . . . . And so at length we arrive at a blank outlook, and realise that, with our present limited, imperfect knowledge, intellectual consideration will carry us no farther.
Well might Buchanan proclaim the hopeless illogicality of all who ‘seek to trim and tinker the bewildering popular religion.’† We are, says Tennyson
* ‘Tennyson as a Religious Teacher.’ (The italics are mine.)
62 —and apparently Mr. Masterman echoes the statement—to evade the sense of personal insignificance provoked by the vastness of the Universe by declaring that part of the phenomena which so affright us is only phenomenal, while admitting the objective reality of the rest. And further, we are to reconcile the eternal paradox of the cruelty or indifference of Nature by taking for granted a ‘possible harmony’ of which, it is confessed, we have not even ‘a glimmering!’ I have read somewhere of one of the old quacksalvers and projectors of the Middle Ages that he made it a sine quâ non with all pupils who committed themselves to his tuition that, for three years, they should study no system but his, and permit no doubt of his teaching to find room in their minds. A royal road to belief indeed, but not one which is likely to commend itself to a generation fed by the thought of Spencer and Huxley. Such a philosophy is impossible of acceptance by the thinking minority who have made up their minds to know, even if the whole sum of knowledge they can arrive at is that they can know nothing. One turns from such a feast of husks, such ‘vacant chaff well meant for grain,’ to the dish-and-all-swallowing ‘faith’ of Bishop Blougram with a sense of positive relief:—
I hear you recommend, I might at least
Here, at least, something like an intellectual foothold is possible. We may call the man who clings to such a position a moral and intellectual ‘skulker,’ but all the logical cannonading in the world will not dislodge one stone of his fortress. He is neither above nor below logical argument—he is out of its range altogether. Tennyson was nearer, in his theological standpoint, to Bishop Blougram than to the leaders of scientific thought. Mr. Masterman, with a healthy scorn for the mere ‘case-making’ advocacy which will have the object of its adulation right on all points, owns as much:—
It was the safe rather than the heroic course that Tennyson exalted in the world of thought and of action. In his own speculation he never launched out on the turmoil of modern doubt. He was always crushing his doubts, refusing to let them shake his belief in the older ideal. . . . And the consequence of all this is, that for the more adventurous minds, Tennyson, as a teacher, can never give that full satisfaction which they can derive from those who have journeyed freely, and gone forward 64 wherever they may be led. He is too much prepared to judge success and failure by the mere worldly standard; he cannot see that ‘earth’s failure’ may be necessary for ‘heaven’s success,’ and that it is better to have failed in a great cause than to have contentedly acquiesced in a lower ideal. It is well to remember the lesson insisted on by a great contemporary writer, ‘While in all things that we see or do we are to desire perfection, and to strife for it, we are, nevertheless, not to set the narrow thing, in its narrow accomplishment, above the noble thing, in its mighty progress; not to esteem smooth minuteness above shattered majesty; not to prefer mean victory to honourable defeat, not to lower the level of our aims that we may surely enjoy the complacency of success.’
This intellectual timidity runs all through Tennyson’s work, bounding his outlook, shortening his hands, cramping the effort of which, had it been backed by an extra grain of mental courage, such a genius as his might have been capable. Let us once more listen to Mr. Masterman:—
‘Trim hedges, smooth lawns, butterflies, posies, and nightingales’—a quiet English scenery—is the scenery loved by Tennyson. This is peopled by contented peasants, who bow deferentially to their superiors, a society organized in a hierarchy culminating in the great house. Here dwell a select and cultured few, who discuss mild philosophy, profess a languid enthusiasm for slowly broadening freedom, and, in moments of leisure, thank God for the existence of the narrow seas that protect them from ‘the mad fool- fury of the Seine.’ Such was Tennyson’s ideal of the perfect life. And it was because he lived to see the gradual destruction of this order, and seemed powerless to restrain the incoming tide, that in his latter years his voice so often rose in a melancholy cry of despair. His ideal was benevolence descending, halo- crowned, 65 received with enthusiastic gratitude by those below. ‘Why,’ he asked, as if suddenly discovering some marvellous act of kindness,
Why should not these great Sirs
He lived, alas! to see ‘the people’ claiming as their own right that which was to be granted as a gracious favour; the hedges broken down, the motley crowd flooding in on to the pleasant preserves; strange shapes, socialists, democrats, anarchists, each preaching some new creed, which was to create the new heaven and the new earth; the downfall of the older ideal; the stormful birth of the new era. Small wonder, if he turned away in disgust from—
This earth a stage so gloomed with woe,
Small wonder indeed that a man of such a temperament should so turn away, but something surely of a pity that the most divinely beautiful of all English singers should have found no message for the downtrodden helots of an effete hierarchy other than that conveyed in the old familiar jingle:—
Always know your proper stations,