ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)
The Critical Response - Henry Murray
Robert Buchanan: A Critical Appreciation And Other Essays by Henry Murray - continued
This is obviously not the place in which to attempt a complete appreciation of the work of the two great poets with whose theological tendencies I have thus briefly dealt, and I must rely upon the candour of my readers to understand that the gift of imagination and the power of expression 66 which were the especial glories both of Browning and Tennyson have no warmer living admirer than myself. Nor, when I claim for Buchanan—as I shall presently attempt to prove—that, in his views and treatment of theological questions, he came nearer than they to expressing the trend of his generation, do I make any claim for him of genius generally superior to theirs. He would himself have been the first to repudiate any such claim. The frank and cordial admiration he extended to both his great rivals was repeatedly expressed. He held Tennyson facile princeps as a verbal artist, and he laboured hard for many years among the little band of critics whose generous praise did so much to atone to Browning for journalistic insult and public neglect. In offering my appraisement of him for what it may be worth, I enjoy a complete sense of critical liberty, inasmuch as I know that, could it reach his knowledge, he would ask no more than I have to give; that he would neither desire nor accept a critical verdict which would place him one inch higher than he has a right to be at the expense of contemporaries whose splendid gifts he was himself ever the first to recognise and acclaim. That he might, had he so chosen, have stood beside the greatest merely as a poetic stylist, is my express conviction. The boy who, in the early twenties, could write verse of the quality of that Buchanan wrote in the ‘Undertones’ had nothing to fear, as a writer of verse, even from the impeccable Tennyson. But, in his later years, he was content to forego what, 67 unfortunately, he had come to consider a prize not worth the grasping. He had educated himself into a contempt of verbal chic or prettiness—an unwise contempt, since even mere chic is distinctly worth having—and had a fierce impatience of mere perfection of verbal form, not giving it the importance it fairly possesses even when its beauty is merely the fitting garniture of noble thought. ‘Two-thirds of our native poetic growth from Euphues downwards is mere verbiage,’ he wrote, ‘and of late years verbiage has blossomed with the amazing splendour of a sunflower.’ The theory which guided him throughout the latter years of his career was, as he himself expressed it, ‘the theory that the end and crown of Art is simplicity, and that words, when they only conceal thought, are the veriest weeds, to be cut remorselessly away.’ But it cannot be said for him that, in avoiding mere floweriness, he always succeeded in avoiding verbiage, and the careless rapidity with which he wrote but too often made his style unworthy of his matter. It was a favourite saying of his that, if the thought was clear, the vocabulary to clothe it came of itself, which, though true enough to an extent, is only a half-truth. Thought is common to all intelligent people, and most ideas may fairly be said to be common property. Solomon nor Shakespeare had no keener—perhaps no deeper—sense of the mystery of life than many a thoughtful peasant, but the peasant can only at some passing moment of high emotion find the phrase which 68 illumines the depth of his own heart. I remember, years ago, hearing the news broken to a working miner that the home he had left safe and happy only an hour or two before had been swallowed in a landslip determined by the sinking of the ground above the gallery of a worked-out mine. His mother, his wife, and his two children had perished. Except that the man’s face went ashen grey in colour, he showed little sign of emotion, but after a minute of dumb immobility he passed his hand across his eyes like a man struggling against an overpowering dizziness, and said, ‘I shall wake by-and-by.’ The sentiment conveyed by the words is identical with that tremendous line of the Elizabethan poet, put into the mouth of Titus Andronicus, who, like the illiterate miner, was staggered by a catastrophe too great for instant comprehension
When will this fearful slumber have an end?
A poet might write any number of such verses quite coolly, moved only by the mere artistic thrill of pleasure in his creation of a strong and living line. The rude phrase of the miner was probably the one striking utterance of his life. A local poet of the same district—the South Staffordshire Black Country—ran Burns neck-and-neck so far as the sentiment of his verse was concerned, in such doggerel as the following:—
The sun that shines so bright above
Where is the difference, save in that all-essential quality of style, between this and Burns’s anguished cry:—
Ye’ll break my heart, ye little birds
The only meed we can yield the pitman-poet is a smile. The phrase of Burns, which is, verbally, almost as simple, wrings the heart-strings; yet both express an identical feeling—the sense of angry revolt at the indifference of external Nature to our personal woe.
For modern music more perfect than this we must 71 go to Keats, to Shelley, or to the mature work of Tennyson. More than one other of the poems in the same collection has this magic of melody. Listen to the varied, changing syllabic beat of ‘Selene the Moon.’
I hide myself in the cloud that flies
* * * * *
I do not wish to overload my pages with quotation, but a certain latitude in this matter is allowable, and indeed necessary; and I must ask the liberty to allow Buchanan to speak for himself in justification of certain claims I make for him in cases where his own personal utterance alone can carry conviction of the justice of the claim. His later work, dealing always honestly, and sometimes fiercely, with vital questions of conduct and outlook regarding which every thinking man must needs work out his own belief naturally attracted an amount of notice which has tended to throw into the shade of forgetfulness the earlier achievements upon which, as an artist, his fame will ultimately rest. Critical duty would be only partially fulfilled were not the attention of the reader redirected to work of lofty artistic quality, which in the polemical excitement occasioned by such utterances as ‘The Wandering Jew,’ and ‘Mary the Mother,’ has been, if only temporarily and partially, forgotten or ignored. Finally forgotten or neglected it could not be; its artistic quality will ensure it a place in the anthology of English poetry, and there is more than a mere off-chance in the 73 possibility of its finally eclipsing in the popular affection the later work in which its author had the greater faith as a passport to the consideration of posterity. Beauty in a work of art must always be a paramount quality, and, when once recognised, is in small danger of ever being forgotten. I shall permit myself one final and perhaps rather lengthy quotation from the ‘Undertones,’ in which Buchanan touched the highwater.mark of his poetical achievement, a poem worthy of the supreme beauty and divine significance of the affections to which it owed its creation. ‘Undertones’ were preceded by a Prologue, addressed to ‘David in Heaven,’ and closed by an Epilogue dedicated to ‘Mary on Earth.’ ‘David’ was David Gray, the poet of the Luggie, the splendidly gifted and unfortunate young writer to whom Buchanan was united by the bonds of an affection which may be soberly described as passionate. His early death was, to the surviving friend, as bitter a blow as the loss of Arthur Henry Hallam was to Tennyson. And, as Hallam’s death inspired one of the most exquisite poems in the literature of the entire world, so the death of David Gray moved Buchanan to utterances of sorrow which, to my ear and heart at least, are scarcely less beautiful. ‘Mary’ was Mary Jay, Buchanan’s dearly loved wife, whose loss, some sixteen years ago, caused him a sorrow even more poignant than that which dwelt about the memory of his boyish friend. She was living at the date of the poem which bears her name, and for some years thereafter, and in that poem Buchanan brought 74 into sweet accord the two loftiest and most abiding influences of his life, his yearning for his dead friend, his affection for his living bride. I quote the poem in its entirety, feeling it too sacred for mutilation, and feeling also that it alone will suffice to justify the claim I make—that its author stands of right among the great poets of England.
So, now the task is ended; and to-night,
First, sit beside me. Place your hand in mine.
My heart to-night is calm as peaceful dreams.—
Yet this is bitter. We were boy and boy,
Love gains in giving. What had I to give
No, Love, it is not bitter! Thoughts like these
I said, Love gains by giving. And to know
Most just is God, who bids me not be sad
This knowledge.— Better in your arms to rest,
Ay, all the thanks that I on earth can render
It is undeniable that during the latter years of his life Buchanan failed not merely to improve in verbal technique, but even to hold anything like the high level of excellence which he had formerly attained and held so easily. There are several explanations of this merely artistic decadence. He had passed the earlier years of his life in bitter struggle in London, and, after that period of enforced poverty, had chosen to spend a further time in the wilder portions of Scotland and Ireland, living a life of the completest simplicity. Had he continued that existence his work would, in all probability, have been very much smaller in bulk, and proportionately finer in texture. But he heard the great world calling; he sickened of the loneliness of the mountain and the moor, feeling, as he himself has told us, that, ‘after ten years of solitude he should have gone mad if he had not rushed back into the thick of life.’ Weary of solitary dreaming, he found an almost fierce delight in ‘superabundant activity.’ Fame had come to him, and with fame came too a large increase in the wages of his work. Every magazine and review in London was open to him, the theatre held out golden lures. His facility of execution was something astounding—almost disquieting. I have known him produce a one-volume novel of the length of fifty thousand words in twelve days, and a three-act comedy, 79 which ran for over a year in London, was invented and written in less than a week. All the vast mass of thought, scholarship and experience which he had accumulated during the first tranquil twenty years of his active intellectual life was seething and fermenting in his brain; length of practice as a writer had given him enormous facility of expression; the costly life of London demanded far more money than had sufficed for the simpler existence of Skye and Connemara; and by a natural and inevitable consequence, his literary output grew in extent and— but too frequently—declined in quality. His professedly poetical work alone makes something like the bulk of Browning’s, and many times the bulk of Tennyson’s. Add to that the writing (and personal production) of over fifty plays; the writing of more than thirty novels and of a camel-load of critical, polemical, and sociological ‘etceteras’ in the forms of pamphlet, review, and ‘Letters to the Editor’ of the Telegraph, the Chronicle, the Star, the Sunday Special, and other metropolitan journals; and a huge mass of unpublished and unfinished work in prose and rhyme, and it will be seen that the forty years of intellectual activity allotted to Buchanan were fairly well filled; and that it is little wonder that he fell out of the running, merely as an artist, with craftsmen whose leisurely habits of production allowed them to ‘smoke seven pipes’ over the polishing of a single phrase. An incurable contempt of money, joined to the tenderest heart in the world, helped not a little towards this consummation. Robert 80 Buchanan could hear of no case of poverty or suffering and rest until he had relieved it, and for many years he was the milch-cow of every impecunious scribbler in London. His nationality must have cost him many scores of pounds per annum, because, at all times open to the moving influence of a tale of woe, he would always reward with a double gratuity any such tale that was told with a Scotch accent. The actor who had fallen on evil times dined sumptuously on the day he met Buchanan. Often laughing at himself for being the dupe of people he knew to be morally unworthy, he never knotted his purse-strings for such a reason. It was enough that the applicant was poor. He had little faith in ‘organized’ charity, and detested the self-advertisement of the published subscription list. He felt that charity was hardly charity at all unless the alms could pass from hand to hand, accompanied by a word of hopeful cheer which doubled the value of the gift. The days of his own early struggles remained with him a living memory, and kept his heart soft for all the stepsons of Dame Fortune:—
Et ego in Bohemia fui!
The position I claim for Buchanan in the Victorian period of English literature, is, then, briefly this — that his failure to attain the highest rank as an executive artist was greatly determined by the power of circumstance and in part by his own deliberate choice. I pass now to the second half of my claim, which is, that as an exponent of the deeper intellectual life of his epoch as evidenced in its religious evolution he was truer, more complete, and therefore, in so far greater, than his two great and friendly rivals, Browning and Tennyson, whose credentials to be accepted as the typical vocalisers of modern religious thought I have already ventured to examine. To sum up as briefly as may be their positions in this matter, I think it may fairly be said that Browning failed by ambiguity of expression, an ambiguity so marked that, to his own ‘amazement 82 and concern,’* he found himself acclaimed as the public champion of a Church whose membership, in private, he unmistakably repudiated. Tennyson failed, as the most scholarly and one of the most admiring of his critics has found himself forced to confess, because he had not that full measure of moral and intellectual audacity firmly to face, and pitilessly to dissect, the doubts he could but feel. It now remains for us to consider the treatment accorded to identical problems by the third great English poet who, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, made it his business to deal with them.
* ‘The Outcast.’ Epistle Dedicatory.
83 music of his verse, and the verse grows sadder, as it needs must do when a poet turns from the moonlit, opalescent wraiths of an extinct dreamland to the practicalities of life. The note of sadness deepens from volume to volume, though it is still relieved by such bits of innocent gaiety as ‘Clari in the Well,’ and of rollicking Irish devilry as ‘The Wake of Tim O’Hara,’ until, in the year 1870, being then in his twenty-eighth year, Buchanan struck the keynote of his future main life- work in ‘Coruisken Sonnets.’ It was during his wanderings amid the stern grandeurs of the Isle of Skye that the problems on whose discussion he first entered in that little volume took a firm grip of him and assumed the disquieting proportions they never afterwards lost. Small as the volume is, it is important to the student of Buchanan’s theological evolution, and by no means unimportant in the poetical history of the last century. I know of nothing quite like these Sonnets, of no utterance which is, in some ways, more strange and interesting, more expressive of the spiritual unrest which is the tormenting inheritance of every thinking man born in our times. As in Browning, as in Tennyson, as in every powerful personality in any marked degree in touch with the conflicting hopes and doubts of the century, there was in Buchanan ‘a dual personality;’ that of the poet, the eternal child, who would so gladly be content with what he himself has called ‘the fairy tales of God,’ happy in the dim light and incense-laden air of the Temple of Faith, did not his adult alter ego clamour for satisfaction of the reason, for 84 iron-bound logic, for precise rectangular demonstration. The second of these personalities had hitherto been asleep, stirring faintly at moments when a shadow had fallen on his closed eyelids. It was obvious that the young lad who had joined gaily in the cheap revels of the literary Bohemia, and had shared the jokes and junkets of ‘inky-boys and bouncing lasses;’ who had recreated his fancy by translating into song the crystalline babble of the mountain brook; had toyed with Grecian legend and depicted old Horatius Flaccus chirping over his Falernian on the Digentia; had hitherto found life too good and sweet, too satisfactorily explanatory of its own excellence, to grizzle over the problem of its ultimate outcome and meaning. But, in the weird solitudes dominated by the shadow of Mount Blaabhein the doubting half of him awoke to life:—
Late in the gloaming of the year
It is worthy of notice that this ‘questioning’ of God was not, as in the case of Tennyson, the result of a sudden shock to any individual human affection. The loss of David Gray had wounded Buchanan’s heart much as the loss of Arthur Hallam had lacerated Tennyson’s, but so far from having suggested to him doubt of the goodness, or of the very existence, of the Divine Fatherhood, it had actually strengthened belief 85 and acquiescence. It was God’s ‘justice,’ not his cruelty, which had inspired the stroke that parted the two friends. The dead friend lived still in the ‘influence and warning and delight’ he rained upon the living, and, in his loneliness the survivor could still ‘smile with joy and pride’ in the friend who was as a veritable ambassador of his love to the throne of God. It was before the impassivity of external nature, the eternal silence of the hills, the inarticulate moan of the tormented waters, beneath the chill immensity and aloofness of the inaccessible sky, that he felt suddenly
Cold are all these as snow, and still as stone.
Not in the anguish of sudden personal loss, but in the contrast between the stony calm of the huge cosmos reflected in a waste solitude, the question rose ‘Does God exist at all?’ For—
I found Thee not by the starved widow’s bed,
There the question is posed and answered by a bitter 86 negative. This particular sonnet is peculiarly interesting for the double reason that while it is almost the first utterance of Buchanan’s dealing with the problem of Godhead, it is also the last and only one I have been able to find in his work in which the existence of a Diety is flatly denied by the poet in his own person. An ‘Atheist’ in the true meaning of the word, Buchanan never was, and that he should have written this sonnet, even in his blackest mood so early in his career, is all but incredible. He knew many fluctuations of feeling and belief regarding the being of a personal God, and expressed most of them; and it is just because of that, because he found the courage not merely to face and dwell upon the problem—a courage common enough—and also because he possessed the rarer courage to feel no shame in professing and proclaiming every phase of his incertitude, that he seems to me so pre-eminently the poet of his day. He was profoundly in sympathy with the dictum of Goethe that ‘Religion stands in the same relation to Art as any other of the higher interests of life.’ Accepting that dictum, he asked, ‘Where is the great poem, where the noble music built on that wondrous theme? . . . . The reticence of false culture steals over the life of many who might instruct us deeply by their experience. . . . There is a great emotional and spiritual life yet unrepresented, there are rude forces not yet brought into play, but all of which must sooner or later have their place in art.’ He practised himself the spiritual and intellectual freedom 87 whose necessity he proclaimed, he marked every halting-place on the line of his own theological evolution by a volume or a song: he travelled far and wide, but never at any later period of his life did he arrive at the goal of Atheism, which yet, upon the testimony of this one sonnet, might be taken for his starting point. ‘Without the sanction of the Supernatural, the certainty of the Superhuman, Life to me is nothing,’ he wrote in the Epistle Dedicatory to ‘The Outcast,’ and I remember him saying one day that ‘God and his own soul’ were the only entities in the universe of which he felt any abiding certainty. But, to a mind with any strong tinge of what may perhaps be called ‘intellectual practicality,’ the ‘God’ of Buchanan seems at best but a misty, uncertain, and rather useless personality. He is certainly not the God over whose dethronement the poet mourned in the opening passages of ‘The Outcast,’ or defined, if ‘definition’ is not too precise a name for so shadowy a performance, in the Proem to ‘The Book of Orm,’ in lines of singular beauty:—
When in these songs I name the Name of God,
Nebulous enough! but nebulosity is the natural and inevitable result of any endeavour to define the indefinable. There was, to a positive mind, little enough to cling to even in such a Deity as this, but faint and far away as are the personality and the locale here described, both grew fainter yet in the poet’s later years. In his last published volume, ‘The New Rome,’ he declares God to be ‘in process of becoming,’ and a rather slow and laborious process it would appear to be:—
Turn from that mirage of a God on high
The God unborn, the God that is to be,
Fed with the blood and tears of living things,
Alas, the long slow travail and the pain
Where’er great pity is and piteousness,
Where’er the lamb and lion side by side
His light is round the slaughtered bird and beast
And every gentle deed by mortals done,
No God behind us in the empty Vast,
One can only say, in this connexion, that theological terminology is at its best so misty and uncertain, that the attempt to pin any believer in any form of Godhead down to a scientific definition of the object of veneration, is to ask the impossible: and for the believer to make the attempt unasked is to attempt the impossible. Browning, wiser in his generation, was content to aver that he was ‘very sure of God,’ but he nowhere, in his proper person, gave any definition or description of the 90 God of Whom he was so certain. God, as already said, has seemed hitherto an absolute necessity to the poetic intelligence. It is a word, more infinitely full of vague suggestion than ‘Mesopotamia,’ and the poet finds a mysterious comfort in repeating it, and in clinging to some shadowy and nameless outside force for which it serves as a sort of algebraic symbol. It was the Celtic strain in Buchanan’s blood which made him cling to this diaphanous spectre of Deity, though there were moments when the Divine Donothingness moved his passionately human heart to outcries of revolt, as in that bitter parody, ‘The Devil’s Prayer,’ printed originally in the sixth section of ‘The Book of Orm’:—
Father, which art in Heaven,—not here below;
The first of the ‘Antiphones,’ which follow and complete the ‘Ballad of Mary the Mother,’ opens with the tremendous adjuration:—
How can I love Thee, God that madest me?
91 a statement which the poet absolutely explained and justified:—
Thy works, thy wonders, thine Omnipotence?
* * * * *
But Thee—I love not Thee!—Stoop down, come near
There’s never a helpless thing surrounding me,
I love the maid I woo, the mother whose touch
Thou Vision of my Thought! Thou Mystery
I seek the gentle ones who once were near,
More than one professedly religious journal 92 denounced this utterance as ‘blasphemous.’ Yet, after all, what is it but another facet of the truth proclaimed by Tennyson:—
Merit lives from man to man,
a statement placidly accepted by all and sundry. The fundamental idea is here the same as that expressed in the dedication of ‘The Wandering Jew’ to Buchanan’s dead father, ‘Robert Buchanan, Poet and Social Missionary’:—
Father on Earth, for whom I wept bereaven,
and in it is clearly readable, to any sympathetic and intelligent student of Buchanan’s work, the spirit which informed alike his work and his life.
All this season
* * *
* * *
So catholic a study of modern thought could have but one result upon a normal intelligence.
which Bishop Blougram speaks of as
Greek endings, each the little passing bell
are rather to be compared to mordant acids, fatally certain to eat out the heart of the robustest faith; though some hollow simulacrum, like Buchanan’s ‘God’ may still be left erect in some dark corner of the mind. Frequently, in his earlier work, Buchanan consoled himself, as did Tennyson, by the dream of a God who was not indifferent, but merely working out with infinite pity and infinite patience an all-embracing scheme of salvation, in which wretchedness and wrong were only temporary expedients, to be justified presently to the sufferers by the granting of a fuller knowledge. One may be glad that he passed through such a phase of thought, for out of that phase came much noble and beautiful work, as, for instance, ‘The Vision of the Man Accurst’ in ‘The Book of Orm.’ In this Vision, the poet beholds the world after the Day of Judgement, a solitude but for one Man
Who had sinned all sins, whose soul
96 and whose dread fate it is to wander among the deserts of earth in a solitude and silence broken only by his own blasphemies. Summoned after a period to the presence of God, he is still fiercely unrepentant, and defies God by the mouth of God’s ambassador:—
He saith his Soul is filled
God asks, ‘What doth he crave?’
Neither Thy Heaven, nor Thy holy ways.
But there is not ‘in all the waste of worlds,’ another like the Man Accurst, ‘the basest mortal born,’ but God says—
Yet ‘tis not meet
Two shapes answer to this appeal, and, at the 97 Divine command, reveal themselves as the mother and the wife of the doomed wretch. Both plead to be allowed to share his exile, though he had slain the one, and made the life on earth of the other a long and cruel torment. And
The man wept.
And in a voice of most exceeding peace
The idea here is, as will at once be seen, identical with that which informs the ‘Ballad of Judas Iscariot,’ the most popular and widely known—one is glad to know, for the credit of the popular judgment—of all Buchanan’s briefer pieces. It is the note of all that is finest and best in Buchanan’s achievement. In these two poems, the Tennysonian faith
That not one life shall be destroyed
is very beautifully exemplified. But the study of life and of the lessons of modern science were disintegrating any such hope, and so, in Buchanan’s deeper work, viewed as a whole, there is to be beheld a curious spectacle—the spectacle of a man who, clinging with despairing grip to a shibboleth, yet frequently belabours the figure whose label is the very shibboleth itself. The calm indifference of a fainéant Deity, sitting aloof in ‘impotence of Godhead,’ stirred the poet to warn 98 and lecture the Celestial Majesty in a fashion which the orthodox believer was quite justified in thinking disrespectful. In this same ‘Book of Orm,’ the poet addresses the Deity in the following terms—
Master, if there be Doom,
* * *
In ‘The City of Dream’ a cognate idea is set forth with logical sobriety:—
That duty the created owes
In the already quoted ‘Devil’s Prayer’ and in a passage of ‘Carmen Deific’ (‘The New Rome’), the statement is stronger:—
If I were a God like you, and you were a man like me,
99 Here, we are far indeed from the God Who pardoned Judas Iscariot and the Man Accurst; far away from the ‘solace and certainty’ which, in another time and mood, the poet had found on ‘the shore of the celestial ocean.’*
* See the last book of ‘The City of Dream.’
100 for all living things. Balder is the object of his Father’s fear and hatred; Christ, in the latter poem, is not hated by his Divine parent—he is simply the sufferer by His cynical carelessness and indifference.
* See article on ‘The Master Christian.’
101 Even more surprising to relate, the Pulpit took up and advertised the book by the mouths of several of its most distinguished orators. ‘Let me say,’ said the Rev. Hugh Price Hughes, ‘that it will do all orthodox and devout Christians immense and endless good to read, ponder, and remember the attack upon historic and ecclesiastical Christianity which this poem utters. I say that nothing better could be done than that Robert Buchanan should rub these facts well into our ecclesiastical skins. I freely admit that through all the centuries the name of Christ has been identified with every kind of devilry. . . . There is nothing in this terrible poem to give intelligent Christians fear.’ In that last phrase Mr. Hughes was no doubt doing his best to make the best of a bad case, but his frank recognition of much that is true in the book, coming from such a source, was exceedingly grateful. Dr. Joseph Parker said that ‘Mr. Buchanan was on his way to the eternal altar’—a true and pregnant phrase, though hardly, I think, in the fashion its author hoped.
‘For God’s sake, mortal, let me lean on thee!’
O then, meseemed, the womb of Heaven afar
The Poet’s first clear idea of the old wayfarer’s identity is that he is Ahasuerus, the ‘Wandering Jew’ of legend, but, seeing upon his frozen hands the stigmata of the Great Sacrifice, he recognises Christ.
At last I knew
Anon, the Poet finds himself
upon an open Plain
Here, a figure sits in Judgement:—
Human he seemed, and yet his eyeballs shone
A shadowy advocate rises from amid the mass, and opens his speech for the prosecution with the adjuration:—
O Judge, Death reigned since Time began,
104 In a passage of some hundreds of lines, packed close with splendid imagery and eloquence, the Advocate extends and presses this accusation, the clanging periods of his oratory closing with the tremendous line —
I demand doom and justice on this Jew!
Then appear the witnesses for the Prosecution—Judas, Ahasuerus, Pilate, Nero, Julian, Hypatia, some solitary, others attended by vast cohorts of dumb followers. Then comes Mahomet, escorted by the innumerable millions who have hailed him as the Prophet, and Buddha
Star-eyed and sad and very beautiful . . . .
Zoroaster, ‘crownëd like a king,’ Menu and Moses, Confucius and
Prometheus, dragging yet his broken chain
They pass in interminable procession,
Each kingly in his place, and in his train
The souls of mitred Popes and priests, of Galileo and of the innumerable nameless martyrs of science; Justinian,
The Master of the Templars, du Molay,
Abelard and Eloise, Frederick,
Pale Petrarch, laurel.crownèd, gazing on
105 Huss and Columbus and de Gama and Magellan; and from West and East, vast swarms of the victims slain in the name of Christ; Montezuma and the last of the Incas. Then comes Voltaire, with Calas blessing and embracing him; and after him Holbach, Diderot, and the rest,
The foes of Godhead and the friends of Man,
and finally, the innumerable hosts of Israel,
The children of the Ghetto, gathering there,
It would be impossible, without transcending all precedent in the way of free quotation, to give the faintest idea of the oceanic effect of this series of pictures, which, alone among painters, Gustave Doré might have realised in form and colour. Challenged to produce his Witnesses, Jesus replies
‘Hosts of the happy Dead whom I have blest!’
‘Call! Let them come!’
‘I would not break their rest!’
‘Thou hast lied to them, O Jew!’ the dark Judge cried.
And Jesus said, ‘O Judge, I have not lied!’
‘False was thy promise—false and mad and drear—
‘Father, dost Thou hear?’
106 For the last of many times, Jesus looks heavenwards for some sign. None comes, and the Judge resumes:—
‘Enough. Renew thy miracles, and prove
On the starry skies,
John the Precursor, and ‘that other John’
Whom Jesus to his breast
Mary the mother and her gentle namesake the Magdalen, appear and testify, and at the summons of Paul,
Shapes of dead Saints arose, a shining throng,
But the greater throng of the victims of his false priests clamour them down and shriek for judgment. And Judgment is spoken, in words no man who has ever once perused can forget, at least in spirit and in essence.
Since thou hast quickened that thou canst not kill,
And lo! while all men come and pass away,
God help the Christ, that Christ may help us all!
The commonest critical error made in envisaging this poem was in describing it as a direct and frontal attack upon Jesus. That to a certain extent of course it is, but it is also a flank assault. The Rev. Hugh Price Hughes set his finger on its central significance in admitting ‘that through all the centuries the name of Christ has been identified with every kind of devilry.’ The failure of Christ has been a failure to leave a Christ-like human progeny, to make the seed of his divinely beautiful spirit flourish in the rocky and thorny soil of human nature. The poem is at least as much a denunciation of the stupidity and cruelty of man as of the splendid and heroic folly of the greatest of the Paracletes, for whose nature and teaching it breathes nothing but love and admiration. ‘I distinguish absolutely,’ writes its author, ‘between the character of Jesus and the character of Christianity—in other words between Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Christ. Shorn of all supernatural pretensions, Jesus emerges from the gross mass of human beings as an almost perfect type of simplicity, veracity, and natural 108 affection.’ ‘According to my critics it is secularism, and not Christianity, which is played out “intellectually.” If they mean by “secularism” the base and irreverent spirit which gibes and mocks at the beautiful dream of Jesus, and in so doing defames the stainless elder brother of all suffering men, I am cordially at one with them; but if they mean by secularism the spirit which rejects all compromises and frauds, however innocent, which affirms that the business of humanity is not to wear sackcloth and ashes, but to enlarge the area of its own happiness, and which incidentally, by way of illustration, points out the evils that other-worldliness has brought on man, I take leave to say, that at no time in the world’s history has secularism exercised so benign an influence over the lives of all who think and feel. . . . . It is only in so far as Christianity is itself secular that it is of the slightest influence upon the age in which we live. . . . . It is because the nebulæ of [Christ’s] love never cohered to an orb of rational piety, because mere sentiment can never save man till it changes into a science of life; because if this world is not something joyful and beautiful, all other worlds are dismal delusions, that Christ’s message to humanity has been spoken in vain. Human love and self-respect, human science and verification, human perception of the limitation of knowledge, have done more in half a century to justify God and prove the Godliness of life, than the doctrines of other-worldliness have done in nineteen hundred years.’ Mark, in the second of the phrases here underlined, the curious obsession already alluded 109 to, the clinging to the shibboleth of a name which had ceased to denote any fixed or definable idea. Eliminate that, and the rest of the utterance might, in spirit and essence, have proceeded from the pen of Thomas Huxley.
* Prose Note to ‘The Ballad of Mary the Mother.’
110 choice of his own Balder, to turn his back upon the discredited hierarchy of Heaven and to stay on earth with Man. He obeyed the logic of his nature, he dared to ‘follow his brains,’ to accept the counsel of his own Dæmon, the great Æon,
Fear not, love not, and revere not,
With unwilling and sometimes retrograde steps, he arrived ultimately where we now find him, discarding by the way many pleasant dreams, many happy fictions, his heart and brain in incessant conflict, the first clamouring at all costs to believe, the latter sternly insisting on the sacredness of Truth.
The creeds I’ve cast away
As Mirabeau with political, so he with theological formulas—il les avait humés tous. From a brief period of God- intoxication, through many doubts and battles and fluctuations, he came at last to face the facts of Life and Death, with only the thinnest veil of mysticism to hide their stern nakedness. Thin as that veil was, it was growing ever thinner. From the broken arc we may divine the perfect round, and it is my fixed belief that, had the subtle and cruel malady which struck him down but spared him for a little longer
* ‘The Devil’s Case.’
111 time, he would logically have completed the evolution of so many years, and have definitely proclaimed himself as an Agnostic, perhaps even as an Atheist. Tennyson, who ‘crushed’ his doubts
like a vice of blood
might cling to the outworn superstition expressed in the lines of the second ‘Locksley Hall’—
Truth for truth, and good for good! The Good, the True, the Pure, the Just—
but with a man of Buchanan’s robuster temperament, to whom Doubt was a troublesome, but still a welcome, guest, such a belief, absolutely incompatible with historical fact and daily experience, could not long abide. Even Ruskin, hide- bound religionist as he was, could rise to a loftier conception of human nature than to think that it must needs tumble into nothingness the moment it let go of the apron-string of some grand-motherly Deity.
A brave belief in death has been assuredly held by many not ignoble persons; and it is a sign of the last depravity in the Church itself, when it assumes that such a belief is inconsistent with either purity of character or energy of hand. The shortness of life is not, to any rational person, a conclusive reason for wasting the space of it which may be granted him; nor does the anticipation of death, to-morrow, suggest, to any one but a drunkard, the expediency of drunkenness to-day. To teach that there is no device in the grave, may indeed make the deviceless person more contented in his dullness: but 112 it will make the deviser only more earnest in devising: nor is human conduct likely, in every case, to be purer, under the conviction that all its evil may in a moment be pardoned, and all its wrong-doing in a moment redeemed; and that the sigh of repentance, which purges the guilt of the past, will waft the soul into a felicity which forgets its pain—than it may be under the sterner, and to many not unwise minds, more probable, apprehension, that ‘what a man soweth that shall he also reap’—or others reap—when he, the living seed of pestilence, walketh no more in darkness, but lies down therein.*
Entire races, to whom it never occurred to look ‘one foot beyond the grave,’ have produced societies as excellent, and individual natures as noble and unselfish, as have ever been suckled on the feeding-bottles of revealed religion, and the more than inexpediency of proclaiming Atheism in Christian countries has naturally resulted in placing the declared Atheist perforce among the worthiest individuals of his generation. Militant Atheism is, of course, as absurd a blunder as militant Theism. The plain fact of the matter is that we do not know, and, by the very constitution of the human intelligence, never can know, the nature of the forces which environ us; and it is as foolish to regard them as malevolent as to proclaim their benignity. They are neither malignant nor benign, they are simply indifferent.
The world rolls round for ever like a mill;
* ‘The Crown of Wild Olive’ (Introduction).
113 Science and philosophy, speaking by the pen of their best-furnished exponent in this generation* have divided the entire Cosmos into two perfectly clean halves, the ‘Knowable’ and the ‘Unknowable,’ and the cultured common-sense of the world has accepted this ruling. If it had but been earlier done—if all the priceless enthusiasm, all the energy, all the effort and time and money which have been wasted on the propaganda of revealed religion had been concentrated on the elucidation of the laws of nature, the culture of the intellect, and the relief and prevention of human suffering, in what a different world we should all be dwelling now! We, of this generation, may at least be glad that we live in the dim dawn of another and a better day, a day in which men of intellect will frankly recognise the necessary limits of their own intelligence, and be content to work ‘while their brief light endures’ towards tangible ends and assured results, leaving the Eternal Mysteries where they must needs remain, in the realm of mystery. Humanity has too long wasted its time and effort in prostrations as barren of result as the exercises of St. Simeon on his pillar:
I, ‘tween the spring and downfall of the light,
If mankind is ever to arrive at happiness it will not be by the worship of any Fetish, concrete or invisible,
* Mr. Herbert Spencer, ‘First Principles.’
114 but by arduous study and slow conquest of the immutable laws by which it is surrounded. Buchanan had come to recognise so much; he was indeed on his way, as Dr. Parker said, ‘to the Eternal Altar,’ the Altar of the Religion of Humanity, which was standing before any other was built, and will endure when every other has crumbled to the dust. I am not ignorant how contemptuously he more than once turned his back on the fane in which that Altar burns:—
Worship MAN? Go back once more
The old leaven, ‘the filthy virus of the obscene
* ‘The Outcast.’
115 vaccination of Faith,’ as Gerald Massey years ago called it, worked furiously in his veins at times; the cherished superstitions clung like mandrake in the soil of his mind, and were only torn up with groans as of the parting spirit. Such a passage as this must be set beside the entire bulk of his last ten years’ work, and, so placed, its very virulence of denial amounts to an assent. It was the Poet of the dual personality protesting, and protesting vastly too much, against the too- cogent logic of the Thinker.
Reviews of Robert Buchanan: A Critical Appreciation And Other Essays
The Aberdeen Journal (15 July, 1901 - p.2)
ROBERT BUCHANAN: A Critical Appreciation and other Essays, by Henry Murray. (London: Philip Wellby, 6 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden.)
It is not often worth while to publish in permanent form reviews of current literature however able, vigorous, or appreciative, and the man who does so may generally be supposed to be sadly lacking in the delightful quality of modesty, so rare in these modern days, and at the same time vexatiously barren in the matter of literary output. But some people seem to be so constituted that they must rush into print, whether they have anything to say or not, without the slightest reference to the public taste in literature. These strictures, however, apply only in very small measure to the essays collected in this tastefully got-up volume. Dealing as they do with subjects in which the reading public is meantime intensely interested, such as Rudyard Kipling, Marie Corelli, Ruskin, and Carlyle, Zola, and Swinburne, these essays do have a wider claim to preservation than most reviews of books. All the same it is extremely doubtful whether the public will be much enlightened by the articles on Kipling, Swinburne, the Brownings, and Marie Corelli. Mr Henry Murray is extremely virulent in his somewhat ludicrous attacks on the newspaper reviewers, roundly accusing them of unfairness, prejudice, and incompetence. His own review of the “Master Christian” is about as ill-natured a production as ever we were tempted to write on much inferior work. Mr Murray keeps his undiluted appreciation for the work of the late Mr Robert Buchanan, whom he classes with Tennyson and Browning, as one of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century. The world, it has been said, does not know its greatest men, and as an insignificant proof of this fact we may mention that until we took up this book we had never read a scrap that Mr Robert Buchanan had written. We are indebted to Mr Henry Murray for discovering him to us, and we shall endeavour in the future to atone for our neglect of his hero in the past. His appreciation of “Robert Buchanan” occupies nearly one-half of the volume, and, to be honest, it is extremely well done from a literary point of view. He wastes a good deal of time needlessly, however, in attempting to prove that Browning was not a Christian, and that Tennyson had hardly the courage of his convictions. Coming, as it does, from an avowed agnostic, a good deal of it looks like special pleading. Mr Murray, however, has a fine literary style, and his essays, whether we agree with his conclusions or not, make capital reading. The book is beautifully printed, and handsomely bound—a credit to the publisher.
The Aberdeen Journal (17 July, 1901 - p.3)
READERS & WRITERS
(By J. CUTHBERT HADDEN.)
What absurd things some of his literary friends have been saying about poor Robert Buchanan! Here, for example, is Mr Henry Murray seriously contending, in an “appreciation” which runs to over a hundred pages of an octavo volume, that Buchanan as a poet was the equal of Tennyson and Browning. Nay, Mr Murray would have us believe that in one respect Buchanan was their superior. Browning, if I rightly understand Mr Murray, had no business to be the militant optimist that he was, because all is emphatically not right with the world. Moreover, Browning was practically an atheist, and he had not the courage to say so in plain terms. Then Tennyson, though not exactly an atheist, clearly had his doubts, and he lacked the moral and intellectual audacity firmly to face and pitilessly to dissect those doubts.
So much for Tennyson and Browning. What about Buchanan? Well, in Mr Murray’s view, he is a greater poet than his two rivals simply because he possessed the audacity which they lacked—because he preached the futility of human endeavour, the indifference of the Deity to the sin and suffering, the filth and failure, the injustice, the brutality, which he saw everywhere around him. It is a curious conception of the great poet, and it would be superfluous to point out how erroneous it is. The literary world has already decided about Robert Buchanan. It is seldom unjust in its ultimate verdicts, and Mr Murray is sufficiently answered by the fact that, though Buchanan had been writing verse for close on twenty years, he was practically neglected as a poet. The truth is that the English people will never take to a poet who gibes and jeers at their most cherished religious hopes. The philosophy of Omar Khayyum, which bids us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die, may take hold of a narrow circle of fresh, exuberant spirits, but it can never be more than a passing cult. Life and ,love must despair when faith in God and the hope of a future are taken from the world, and it is largely because Buchanan sought to rob humanity of its greatest solace that he has failed to win the regard of his countrymen.
In this same book of Mr Henry Murray’s I find some extraordinary “views of a literary man on the literary life,” in the form of an epistle addressed to a youth of promise who contemplates joining the profession of letters. Mr Murray is a London litterateur, yet he declares that it is impossible for a man at once honest and able to make a living in the literary circle of London. He can, indeed, be “negatively honest,” but at the price of more or less discomfort. He can hold aloof from the men with whom he is forced by the exigencies of his work to mix, and so avoid belonging to a literary clique, and shun temptations to critical honesty. If he makes friends among the literary class he can only hope to keep them by puffing their work through thick and thin, for to speak or write unfavourably of it is to be denounced and shunned as a traitor. “Claw me and I’ll claw thee” is the universal rule, and literary men are “so dishonest in the matter of criticism as to be incapable of comprehending honesty.” And “honest in the truest and highest sense, honest to his own convictions, to his public duty, no man who writes for his livelihood can possibly be at any less cost than starvation.” Thus Mr Henry Murray.
It is always a curious spectacle to me, this decrying of the literary profession by those who more or less successfully practise it. Mr Andrew Lang must be making something like £2000 a year by his pen, yet he has been known to express regret that the fates had condemned him to earn his living by the ink-pen. The late Mr Grant Allen, a fairly successful man, in his later years at any rate, advised all literary aspirants to abandon the quest of literature, get hold of a broom, and annex a crossing-sweeper. And then there was Robert Buchanan, of whom we have been speaking. Literature, he said, is “the poorest and the least satisfactory of all professions.” Nay, Buchanan went further, and declared that it is one of the least ennobling. “With a fairly extensive knowledge of the writers of my own period, I can honestly say that I have scarcely met one individual who has not deteriorated morally by the pursuit of literary fame.” A man must, of course, be allowed to speak for his friends, but it cannot be said that Mr Buchanan gave his a handsome testimonial. In any case, so long as this is a free country, no man need go in for literature who is not prepared to accept the conditions of the profession. Mr Lang might have mended pots and pans, like his ancestors, and Mr Buchanan might have broken stones on the highway. They took to pen and ink with their eyes open, and we ought to have heard nothing about their disappointments.
Mr Murray is, however, right about literary men puffing each other’s work. It is done wholesale by the London critics, and the most worthless books are boomed and paragraphed simply because the boomers and paragraphists happen to be friends of the writers, to have met them at the club or in some other social capacity. Provincial critics do not sin in this way, for the sufficient reason that they are seldom personally acquainted with the writers whom they criticise. But I do not see that a reviewer need starve because he is honest in his criticisms. I have been a reviewer for a good many years now, and I never wrote a notice of a book which I did not believe to be an honest expression of opinion, so far as I was competent to form an opinion. Moreover, when a book written by a friend of my own has by chance been sent to me for review I have promptly returned it, begging to be excused. Your friend may be a very excellent fellow, but he may write a deplorably bad book all the same, and it would never do for you to say so—not if you desired to retain his friendship, at any rate. Still, you are losing money by declining to notice your friend’s book.
The Yorkshire Post (31 July, 1901 - p.7)
Mr. Henry Murray’s critical appreciation of the late Robert Buchanan (Philip Welby, 6, Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, W.C., 5s.), is at once an able and an unsatisfactory piece of work. It is able in so far as it is lucid and thorough, and full of ideas; it is unsatisfactory because Mr. Murray misrepresents Buchanan. Much of the poet’s work, in his poetry and his prose, many people may hold in abhorrence, and they would do so the more if they shared Mr. Murray’s views as to his aim in it. From the way in which he leads up to the conclusion that if Buchanan had lived a little longer he would have proclaimed himself an atheist, one sees that Mr. Murray would have wished it so, and this wish colours his criticism.
The Times (5 September, 1901 - p.13)
There are two kinds of criticism which it does one good to encounter—illuminating comment, which really helps towards the proper understanding of an author’s aims and place in literature; and vigorous polemic that stimulates us into activity of disagreement and protest. In Mr. Henry Murray’s volume, ROBERT BUCHANAN AND OTHER ESSAYS (Wellby) we get a little of the former and a great deal of the latter kind. Mr. Murray does help us to form a just view of Buchanan’s work, though he will scarcely persuade any one to adopt his own enthusiastic measure of this poet’s genius. In the other papers there is much to arouse antagonism, and yet one is not sorry in the end to have set oneself to grapple with the curiously violent judgments in which the pages abound. Mr. Murray writes with little regard for style, but he is always energetic and generally interesting. We doubt whether it is worth while to insist upon what everybody of taste knows—that the works of Miss Corelli have no connexion with literature; or to explain at great length and with much repetition that there is a very small market for really good work in letters. But the other essays are of more solid interest, and the appreciation of Buchanan which fills half the volume is a useful tribute to the work of a poet whose literary vagaries prevented his genuine poetical talent from receiving the recognition it deserved.
A review of Henry Murray’s autobiography, A Stepson of Fortune: The memories, Confessions, and Opinions of Henry Murray (New York: The Baker-Taylor Company, 1910), in The New York Times of 9th April, 1910, contains the following paragraph:
“Murray wrote for The People, a weekly newspaper, and his first contribution to its columns, “The Hotel of the Beautiful Star,” described his experiences as a nightly lodger on the benches of the Thames Embankment the previous week. He praises highly Sabastian Evans, the first editor of The People, and has words of praise, too, for George R. Sims and T. P. O’Connor. He met George Meredith, who was kind to him. He had a pleasant acquaintance with Whistler. He extols Sir Augustus Harris. But his hero of heroes is Robert Buchanan, a writer whose huge capacity for turning out poor stuff weakened the reputation he deserved for the really good things he wrote, whose violent temper often placed him in a pitiable light in the public eye, whose fondness for controversy sometimes made him seem ridiculous. Buchanan was unquestionably a man of extraordinary personality and unusual talent. Men who knew him well esteemed him highly. Henry Murray collaborated in playwriting with him, and also with another famous figure of London’s Bohemia in late Victorian days—Henry Herman.”