The Scotsman (Tuesday, 11 June, 1901 - p.5)
THE LATE ROBERT BUCHANAN
MR ROBERT BUCHANAN, novelist, poet, and dramatist, has died within a year from the time he was struck down with paralysis. He died yesterday morning at the residence of his sister-in-law, at Streatham, London. For more than two years preceding the attack Mr Buchanan was subject to pneumonia and heart disease following on influenza. Next came insomnia, and the sturdy spirit breaking down, he was plunged into profound fits of melancholia. Two or three months later he made a wonderful recovery, and with characteristic energy resumed his work. He wrote a serial story, finished a play, and was making a rapid progress with his autobiography when the blow fell. He was talking with a friend in the highest spirits, discussing future plans, when, without warning or signal of danger, he was stricken down paralysed and speechless. It is little more than forty years since Mr Buchanan went to London. He told in a pathetic story welcomed by Thackeray, in the then young “Cornhill Magazine,” how he and his companion, having nowhere to lay their heads, passed the night in the park; how his comrade, a poet of promise, caught cold and died. Since then, as author and dramatist, he had been much to the fore. But some four or five years ago, entering into a speculation that proved disastrous, he became bankrupt, the copyright of his works disappearing with his other assets. A pension of £100 was granted him from the civil list by Mr Gladstone.
Though born in Warwickshire in 1841, Robert Buchanan was the son of a native of Kilbarchan, who has been described as “schoolmaster, Socialist, lecturer, and author.” He was educated at the High School and University of Glasgow, where he had for his college companion and intimate friend David Gray, son of a weaver near Kirkintilloch. The friends and literary aspirants (so it is told in “Celebrities of the Century”) concocted the scheme of leaving Glasgow for London. Gray was to carry with him the inevitable poem which was to take the world by storm. Buchanan’s masterpiece was yet in embryo. They set out for the Metropolis, without giving warning to their friends, on the same evening, but, owing to a contretemps, by different lines of railway, and arriving at opposite sides of London about the same hour next morning, their companionship was for the time interrupted. Afterwards they shared a garret until the consumption from which Gray eventually died made his return to Scotland a necessity. He did not live to witness the recognition of his early efforts. In 1860 Mr Buchanan produced a volume of poems, “Undertones,” which attained considerable popularity. It was dedicated to the friend of his college days in a pathetic poem, entitled “To David in Heaven.” Five years later came “Idylls and Legends of Inverburn,” and the following year, “London Poems,” in which Mr Buchanan depicted humble life in the Metropolis with great vividness, much humour, and genuine pathos. The volume proved very popular. It was followed by a translation of Danish ballads and a collection of “Wayside Posies.” In 1871 appeared a lyrical drama, “Napoleon Fallen,” a volume of magazine articles issued under the title of “The Land of Lorne,” containing delightful sketches of Argyllshire; and “The Drama of Kings.” In 1876, under a pseudonym, he contributed a paper to the “Contemporary Review” on “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” which gave rise to much discussion and brought Mr Buchanan into warm controversy with Mr Swinburne. In the end Mr Buchanan withdrew some of his charges. In later years Mr Buchanan was more widely known as a novelist and as a dramatist, some of his stories and plays achieving a great success. His last years, as has been indicated, were somewhat clouded by financial difficulties, and towards the end of 1900, when he was struck down by paralysis, a movement was privately set on foot to raise a fund for the purpose of maintaining him in comfort during his closing days.
The Press Association, in giving some details of Mr Buchanan’s illness, says:—In October last, after a morning’s severe cycling exertion, Mr Buchanan was prostrated by a paralytic stroke. Since then he has been completely invalided, totally bereft of the faculty of speech, and with the exception of a few carriage drives, wholly confined to his room. On Friday last he suffered an attack of congestion of the lungs, from which, being too weak to rally, he gradually sank, and passed peacefully away in the presence of his sisters-in-law, Misses Harriet Jay and M’Dear, who have nursed him throughout his illness. Mr Buchanan was a widower, his wife having predeceased him in 1881. He will be interred at Southend in the family grave, in which his wife and mother are buried. A book of his complete poems is even now going through the press. Proofs had been returned only the other day to Messrs Chatto & Windus, the publishers, by Miss Harriet Jay.
REMINISCENCES OF MR BUCHANAN.
“One who knew Him” writes to last evening’s “Westminster Gazette:”—By the death of Robert Buchanan a stormy and turbulent literary career has been closed. Seen through the public spectacles, he cannot be said to have presented a very amiable personality. He was aggressive, combative, sudden of quarrel, and he often seemed unnecessarily bitter of speech. But to his friends “Bob” Buchanan was a very different man—kindly, genial, and even over-hospitable in the tranquillity of his own home, and little concerned about his quarrels with the world once the street door had been closed upon them. It was the harshness of his early struggles in literature that embittered Buchanan’s life. A little over forty years ago, when a lad of seventeen, he left his father’s office in Glasgow—the office of the old dead-and-gone newspaper, the “Sentinel”—where he made his beginnings in journalism. There, even as a boy, he used to be found lolling back in his father’s easy chair with a smoking cap on his head and a long pipe in his mouth, thinking out plots and verses, and devising marvellous letters to literary celebrities in the hope that he might disclose his young genius to advantage in the high places of literature. In one letter to George Henry Lewes he demanded—“Am I, or am I not, a poet?” while in another to Philip Hamerton he made the formal declaration—“I mean, after Tennyson’s death, to be Poet-Laureate.” Such ambitions would not long permit “Bob” to remain in the stodgy old office of the “Sentinel,” so off to London he determined to go. In this determination he was joined by three other youths from Glasgow. One was David Gray, the young poet, whose death was almost as tragic in its way as Chatterton’s; Charles Gibbon and William Black, the novelists, were the others. Buchanan and Gray were to go by the same train, but somehow they missed each other, and for days they were kept apart in London. Half-a-crown apiece was all they possessed after paying their fares, and to save his humble capital Gray spent his first night under the stars in Hyde Park—an experience which cost him his life, for he caught a chill which sent him home to die. Buchanan, however, found better shelter than was offered by the Hotel de Belle Etoile, and finally put up in a “dear old ghastly bankrupt garret” at 66 Stamford Street, Waterloo Bridge, for which he paid, when he had the money, seven shillings a week. Thither he bore his poor friend Gray, coughing piteously; and thither came such men as Monckton-Milnes, Laurence Oliphant, and Sydney Dobell to see the dying boy-poet.
Nevertheless it was a happy, though hungry, time; and Buchanan once described his splendid isolation, for he made no friends, in his manner:—”What did my isolation matter when I had all the gods in Greece for company, to say nothing of the fays and trolls of Scottish Fairyland? Pallas and Aphrodite haunted that old garret; and on Waterloo Bridge, night after night, I saw Selene and all her nymphs; and when my heart sank low, the fairies of Scotland sang me lullabies! It was a happy time. Sometimes, for a fortnight together, I never had a dinner—save perhaps, on Sunday, when the good-natured Hebe would bring me covertly a slice from the landlord’s joint. My favourite place of refreshment was the Caledonian Coffee House in Covent Garden. Here, for a few coppers, I could feast on coffee and muffins—muffins saturated with butter, and worthy of the gods! Then, issuing forth, full-fed, glowing, oleaginous, I would light my pipe and wander out into the lighted streets.”
Gradually, however, Buchanan made his way into literary journalism. Criticisms for the “Athenæum” brought him half-a-guinea a column, and work for the “Literary Gazette,” then edited by John Morley, fetched him about the same fee. Then he came into contact with Dickens, and contributed to “Household Words.” “Bob” Buchanan could never talk of Dickens without enthusiasm. Here is his memory of the great novelist:—”Two or three times a week, walking, black bag in hand, from Charing Cross Station to the office of ‘All the Year Round’ in Wellington Street, came the good, the only Dickens. From that good genius the poor straggler from fairyland got solid help and sympathy. Few can realise now what Dickens was then to London. His humour filled its literature like broad sunlight; the gospel of plum-pudding warmed every poor devil in Bohemia.”
Buchanan’s first book was a little volume of verse published in Glasgow; others followed in London, and he was in the fair way to making a name as a poet—a name which, judging from the standard of to-day, it is not extravagant to suppose might have given him the coveted Laureateship—when he suddenly became enamoured of fiction, and rushed into print with “The Shadow of the Sword” in 1870, followed by “A Child of Nature,” “God and the Man,” and others, wedged in with all sorts of plays—even a Mormon melodrama entitled “St Abe and His Seven Wives.” Some of Buchanan’s French adaptations, however, made very good plays, notably “A Man’s Shadow,” produced by Mr Beerbohm Tree, which was a version of “Roger La Honte.” Notable also were his renderings into dramatic form of Fielding’s “Tom Jones” and Richardson’s “Clarissa Harlowe.” His methods of adaptation were interesting. “I never translate and I never extract,” he once told me. “I read the original through twice or perhaps three times, then close the book for ever, and write my play.” He, however, also did a good deal of original work, and wrote a number of Adelphi dramas in collaboration with George R. Sims. “A Society Butterfly” was written for Mrs Langtry.
Robert Buchanan, however, was by no means so conspicuous a figure in literature as he might have been had his talents been better directed. He seemed only to flirt with the muses, so that we have a composite figure of a poet- novelist-dramatist with no outstanding merit in the combination save that of uncommon versatility. He lacked definite aim in his work, and therein lay his failure to achieve the highest success. Then his frank outspokenness gave him in a large degree the gentle art of making enemies. He hated hero-worship; indeed, he had no love for gods of any kind, so that when Rudyard Kipling and Lord Kitchener became the heroes of their hours Buchanan must needs attack them—not with a modest rapier like a Christian, but with the sword Excalibur.
In his closing years he became sadly embittered with his stormy fortunes, and railed against the world. “It is a badly stage-managed world,” he said to me scarcely more than a year ago. “Oh, it will be all right on the night,” I replied, quoting from a well-known play. “Not a bit of it,” said Buchanan; “it is not rehearsing it needs, but reconstruction.”
This reminiscence of Buchanan was also reprinted in The Westminster Budget (14 June, 1901 -p.28).]
The Times (Tuesday, 11 June, 1901 - p.7)
MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN.
We regret to learn that Mr. Robert Buchanan’s long illness ended yesterday in his death at Streatham, in the house of his sister-in-law and sometime collaborator, Miss Harriet Jay. He was in his 60th year. In the middle of October, last year, Mr. Buchanan was struck down by paralysis without any warning. He had been in indifferent health for some time before, and had been obliged almost to give up work, depending upon the assistance of friends and a small Government pension. His savings had been swept away in a disastrous speculation, which obliged him to go through the Bankruptcy Court and to part with all his copyrights. Just before the stroke of paralysis, however, he had begun to gain strength and to recover his spirits, and had taken up work again. In his helpless state he had once more to rely upon the aid of friends. He had been a very generous man when he was prosperous himself. He had never refused help to any one in distress, and in his time of need he was generously assisted. His old friend Mr. John Coleman, actor and author, busied himself in starting a fund, and enough money was raised to meet the immediate needs of the case. It was seen from the first that no permanent recovery could be hoped for, and the end has come as a merciful release from a state of the most pitiful helplessness and living death.
Mr. Buchanan was a man of great mental activity, who seemed at one time to be in the way to become a permanent intellectual force. Twenty-five years ago he was regarded by many good judges as the coming poet. But his energies were at once too widespread and too undisciplined for his mind to make a mark upon the age. It was not the fact that he was “ever a fighter” which told against him; it was his method of controversy and the nature of the subjects which took him into the field. Activity of mind he inherited, for his father was, in his own words, a “Socialist missionary,” lecturer, and journalist; and no doubt he inherited, too, that dissatisfaction with the world as it is which came out especially in his later life, and which made his humour often bitter and his endeavours to alter this “sorry scheme of things” seem over- hasty and petulant. Had he devoted himself with single aim either to poetry or to fiction, or even to criticism, he would probably have gained a lasting name. As it is, the future chronicler of letters will take note of him mainly as a very industrious worker in various fields of literature who was once connected with an incident that greatly stirred the literary world. This incident was, of course, Buchanan’s attack upon Rossetti in the pseudonymous article called “The Fleshly School of Poetry” which appeared in the Contemporary Review in 1871. Even to those who do not recollect the article the nature of the attack is sufficiently indicated by its title. In itself it was unimportant—merely one of those attacks to which most poets of distinction are subjected in the course of their careers. Mr. Buchanan himself soon saw that he had done Rossetti an injustice, and showed it, among other ways, by dedicating “God and the Man” to “An Old Enemy.” But it created some sensation at the time, and in Rossetti’s life it became “deplorably prominent,” since, according to his brother, it happened just at the worst possible moment and had an effect upon the poet’s mind from which he never recovered.
At the time when this incident brought him prominently into the public eye, Mr. Buchanan had already attracted notice by his poetry. His first book, issued in 1860, was dedicated to the memory of his unfortunate friend David Gray, with whom he first came to London. They were at Glasgow University together, and, both bitten by the desire of literary fame, they determined to take their fortunes to the great city where they were sure speedy recognition and fame awaited them. The sequel was sad. Gray, a delicate lad, gradually wasted away in consumption, and he died before he had time to give full proof of his talent. Mr. Buchanan felt his loss keenly and always spoke of this early friendship with touching, wistful pathos. He himself was of more robust constitution, and he soon found his place in the world of letters. His work improved rapidly, and the reputation that he and Gray had dreamed of came to him in full measure. His first book of poems, “Undertones,” appeared in 1860, and his talent was recognized at once. The dedication verses “To David in Heaven” were of a moving pathos and beauty, and the young writer’s gift of expression was clear proof of poetic power. “London Poems” (1866) brought him into wider notice. The lyrics which composed it were the outcome of his life—a lonely and, for the most part, a sad life—in a London garret. They hit off phases and episodes now with humour, now with a pathetic force that touched the chord of tears, always vividly and effectively. “Napoleon Fallen” was ambitious, too ambitious for his powers, but there are fine passages in it. The same may be said about “The City of Dream,” which, however, won public praise from Mr. Lecky. Mr. Buchanan’s verse came too easily and he was too little self-critical to distil his inspiration into the vessels that would best have held it. Still, he had an individual talent; and, although it was intermittent, there was inspiration in his work. If he had kept to poetry, the promise of his youth might have been fulfilled. But his energies were dissipated in too many directions at once. He became a novelist and a playwright as well as a poet and critic. His fiction was vigorous and often boldly original. “God and the Man” is the best remembered of his novels, but there were several others well above the average. He was no more constant, however, to novel-writing than he had been to poetry. He found a profitable outlet for his energies in the drama, and for a number of years he provided the stage with a fairly constant succession of plays of all kinds. His greatest success was with an adaptation of “Tom Jones” which was played at the Vaudeville Theatre under the name of Sophia for nearly two years. Encouraged by this, he extracted plays also from “Joseph Andrews” and “Clarissa Harlowe” and managed again to hit the popular taste. Among his other successful efforts in this line was a familiar melodrama called Alone in London, which still holds the stage.
Of late Mr. Buchanan had turned again to verse, but, though there was still plenty of vigour, there were lacking the poetic qualities that promised well in his earlier work. He had been for several years his own publisher, but he undertook this additional labour too late to profit much by it.
The Glasgow Herald (11 June, 1901 - p.9)
DEATH OF TWO MEN
Mr Robert Buchanan, the poet and novelist, died yesterday morning. He had been alarmingly ill for many months past, and his death was not unexpected. He died very peacefully at ten minutes past eight o’clock, at the residence of his sister-in-law, Miss Harriet Jay, 90 Lewin Road, Streatham. Mr Buchanan was predeceased by his wife. He had no family, and Miss Jay is the only relative he leaves behind. Scotsman as he was by blood and upbringing, Robert Buchanan was by the accident of birthplace an Englishman, having been born at Caverswall, Staffordshire, on the 18th of August, 1841. His boyhood and youth were spent in Glasgow, where he had his education at the High School and University, and where also he felt the first stirrings of literary ambition. “I can scarcely remember the time,” he wrote long afterwards, “when the idea of winning fame as an author had not occurred to me, and so I determined very early to adopt the literary profession, a determination which I unfortunately carried out, to my own life-long discomfort, and the annoyance of a large portion of the reading public.” During those early days he made the acquaintance of David Gray, who was penning stanzas when he should have been studying for the Free Church pulpit, and the two young aspirants, in Buchanan’s own phrase, spent their time “reading books together, plotting great works, writing extravagant letters to men of eminence and wandering about the country on vagrant freaks.” They were neither of them wanting in confidence. Gray regarded himself as the equal in genius of Goethe and Shakespeare, and declared that, if he lived, he would be buried in Westminster Abbey, while Buchanan wrote to Philip Hamerton that after Tennyson’s death he meant to be Poet Laureate. London was the natural objective of such ambition, and in May, 1860, the two friends, aged nineteen and twenty-two respectively, set off thither with light hearts and yet lighter pockets—Buchanan, when he arrived at King’s Cross Railway Station, having “literally and absolutely the conventional half-crown.” Through some blunder of arrangement they had left Glasgow at different stations, and it was more than a week before they came together in London—Gray with the fatal cold already upon him which he caught by “sleeping out” a night in Hyde Park. By that time Buchanan was quartered in a garret, for which he paid seven shillings weekly, at 66, Stamford Street, Waterloo Bridge, and there the two friends settled together. Their shifts and privations were extreme and manifold, and one of them (was it Buchanan?) turned “super” in a theatre for a while. But very soon Gray was gone—first to a health-retreat in the south of England, and then home to die in his father’s house at Kirkintilloch, and Buchanan was left alone, in the “dear old ghastly bankrupt garret,” with the memory of a friendship to which he remained faithful all his days.
For years he had a hard struggle. A little work on the magazines and newspapers—criticisms, for example, in the Literary Gazette and the Athenæum—kept soul and body together, and allowed him to work at two sets of poems on which his hopes of fame were based. Some helpful friendships were made, with Westland Marston, with Sydney Dobell, and Thomas Love Peacock, and at last, in 1864, the “Undertones,” his first volume, appeared. Introduced by a prologue, “To David in Heaven,” it comprised some 20 short poems on classical themes—“Pan,” “The Satyr,” “Pygmalion the Sculptor,” “The Swan-Song of Apollo,” and so on. In spite of some crudeness, and of such borrowing here and there as is seen in “Iris, the Rainbow,” which is a clear imitation of the “Cloud” of Shelley, “Undertones” was the utterance of a fresh and original poetic voice. Its treatment of the Greek mythology has nothing of the instinctive Hellenism of the poet of “Hyperian” and “Lamia”; in fact, it is often rather outré and barbarian; but unquestionably it is the work of a poet, and not of a mere imitator of classic models and themes. In the history of Mr Buchanan’s literary development, however, it is somewhat less important than the volume which appeared the year after—the “Idylls and Legends of Inverburn.” Here the poet struck the vein which was to be the most profitable one for his reputation. In the homely sketches of “Willie Baird,” and “Poet Andrew,” and “Hugh Sutherland’s Pansies,” he gave the first examples of the work which was to be recognised as characteristic of him, and associated most of all with his name. In more than one work published within the next five years the same vein was wrought successfully—in the “London Poems” (1866- 70), with their pictures of “Liz” and “Nell” and “The Little Milliner,” and in “North Coast” (1867-68), which is notable for the powerful and pathetic poem of “Meg Blane.” Everyday griefs and joys, commonplace sins and virtues—these were the themes on which Mr Buchanan as a poet was most at home always, and in the treatment of them, in genre pictures as it were, with an emphasis and a kind of sentimentalism that remind one not a little of Dickens, he achieved undoubtedly his best success in literature, and produced a body of work which none even of the contemporaries who excelled him could match.
More ambitious efforts followed. “The Book of Orm” (1870) is a series of half-mythical rhapsodies, not wanting in vigour, yet not a little bombastical at times. Bombast, indeed, was one of the besetting sins of Mr Buchanan when he essayed any lofty flight, and he was apt, too, to exercise the poetical licenses of rhyme and vocabulary in a way which the finished artist does not, and need not, attempt. The same faults are perceptible in “Napoleon Fallen” and a “Drama of Kings” (1871), in which the poet attempted to deal in a fashion half Æschylean and half Shelleyesque with the events of the Franco-German war. The latter Mr Buchanan admitted to have been “written under a false conception, which no one discarded sooner than the author,” but parts of it he preserved in the collected editions of his poems offering them not unjustifiably as specimens of his lyrical power. A few years later two of his most successful works appeared anonymously—“St. Abe and his Seven Wives” and “White Rose and Red,” The themes in these poems are American, and, while the treatment is essentially original, the characteristic tone of American humour and pathos is caught with no little skill. The picture of the saints in Utah might almost have been done by an American born; but still better—indeed one of the very best things in Mr Buchanan’s whole work—is the story of Eureka Hart and his intrigue with Red Rose, and of the poor Indian’s journey with her baby, through the terrors of the Great Snow. Not long before the publication of these poems two volumes of prose from Mr Buchanan’s pen had appeared. “The Land of Lorn” (1871), a series of vivid and picturesque Highland sketches, and a collection of critical essays entitled “Master Spirits” (1873). As a prose writer Mr Buchanan was master of a style full of vigour and colour and emphasis—the prose style of a poet unmistakably—but deficient in ease and grace. And in his critical work quite analogous excellencies and foibles are to be discerned—a power of enthusiastic appreciation, but the lack of a calm judgment to guide it always aright.
This latter defect was shown in an unfortunate and unpleasant manner in a controversy which ranks among the fiercest literary quarrels of the age. In October, 1871, Mr Buchanan published an article entitled “The Fleshly School of Poetry” in the Contemporary Review. This article contained a very ferocious and unfair attack on certain of Mr Buchanan’s contemporaries—on Swinburne and Rossetti most notably—and, what was the most unlucky feature about it, it did not bear the author’s name, but was signed with “Thomas Maitland” as a nom de plume. The authorship, however, was soon divined. The article created a great “sensation,” or rather perhaps a scandal, and the two poets who had been attacked were prompt in reply. Rossetti’s answer appeared in the pages of the Athenæum under the title of “The Stealthy School of Criticism,” while Mr Swinburne, after his wont, gave railing for railing in “Under the Microscope,” a pamphlet published in 1872. Mr Buchanan in rejoinder reprinted his article with additions as a volume. The most unpleasant result of the controversy, however, came four years later, when the famous libel action Buchanan versus Taylor was tried in the Court of Common Pleas. A poem called “Jonas Fisher” had been published anonymously by the Earl of Northesk in 1875, and on this poem the Examiner newspaper, which then was edited by the late Professor Minto, remarked in November of that year that it was “the work either of Mr Robert Buchanan or the devil.” A week or two later the same journal contained a letter entitled “The Devil’s Due,” in which Mr Buchanan was spoken of as a “multifaced idyllist of the gutter and a poly-pseudonymous lyrist and libeller,” and charged with taking “questionable ways of keeping his name before the public.” It was well known that this letter was Mr Swinburne’s, but Mr Buchanan preferred to raise his action for £5000 against the proprietor of the Examiner, Mr P. A. Taylor. The trial lasted for several days in the beginning of July, 1876, and the plaintiff, after being somewhat roughly handled in the witness-box, was awarded damages of £150. The “Fleshly School” controversy, which was only the most notable of Mr Buchanan’s many literary warfares, had a really damaging effect on his reputation and career. There was quite fair matter for heavy adverse criticism in the erotic crudities of Swinburne, and even sometimes of Rossetti, but it was universally felt that by intemperance of judgment and language, and by a certain lack of magnanimity, the critic had irretrievably spoiled a good case.
About the same time as this controversy was raging Mr Buchanan appeared before the public in the new character of novelist and playwright. “The Shadow of the Sword,” his first story, was published in 1876, and was followed by “A Child of Nature” (1879), “God and the Man” (1881), “The Martyrdom of Madeline” (1882), “Love Me for Ever” (1883), and “Foxglove Manor” (1884). The last of these, which is also the best, is a really powerful story; but on the whole Mr Buchanan as a novelist made but a minor success. Much the same must be said about his dramatic work. In August, 1874, his comedy of “The Madcap Prince” was produced at the Haymarket, and among its many successors we may mention “A Nine Days’ Queen,” “The Queen of Connaught,” “Paul Clifford,” “Alone in London” (written along with his sister-in-law, Miss Harriet Jay, and produced in 1885 at the Olympic), and “Sophia,” a daring but successful adaptation of “Tom Jones,” which was acted in 1886. But no more as a playwright than as a novelist will Mr Buchanan be remembered. His dramas at the most are evidence of his cleverness, his industry, and perhaps, too, of the necessities which often drive the literary artist to work which is lower than the artistic ideal.
Among Mr Buchanan’s later poems the most noteworthy is “Balder the Beautiful,” a version of the old Norse myth which already had exercised so many pens. Mr Buchanan had a decided liking for Norse subjects, and some years before, in 1868, he had translated the Danish Ballads, which appeared in “Wayside Poems.” In his handling of the Balder Myth he claimed to be quite original, and exhorted his readers to put out of their minds all recollection of the Eddas, Ewald, Oehlenschlager, and Matthew Arnold’s “Balder Dead.” The moral of his poem, that “the gods are brethren” and that
“Each rainbow’d from the rack of Time
Casts broken lights across God’s dream.”
is not an entirely novel one, but the glow and freshness of the old story in his rendering of it, and the vigour and variety of the metres, make it one of the most powerful and charming of his poems. It represents undoubtedly the highest reach of his idealistic genius, as the “Idyls and Legends” and “London Poems” give the best examples of his realistic. A far more daring excursion into the mythic region, as Mr Buchanan himself would have called it, was made in “The Wandering Jew: a Christmas Carol,” embodying a fierce attack on the imperfections of actual Christianity, which appeared in the end of 1892. It is significant of the versatility of Mr Buchanan’s powers that, while engaged on works like these, he could also throw off such spirited ballads as “The Lights of Leith,” “Phil Blood’s Leap,” and the immortal “Wedding of Shon Maclean,” one of the very best lyrics of its kind in the language, and perhaps the most perfect specimen of its author’s metric art.
Mr Buchanan was a frequent contributor, both in verse and prose, to periodical literature, and for a while (1878) he acted as editor of the weekly and monthly journal called Light. His poetic eminence was recognised in 1870, when Mr Gladstone conferred on him a Civil List pension of £100 a year. Shortly afterwards (1874) a collected edition of his poems was published in three volumes, and a selection from them appeared in 1882. It is pretty safe to say that in this latter book the valuable and permanent part of his work is to be found. An industrious and versatile man of letters, Mr Buchanan was essentially a poet, endowed, as Mr Stedman has remarked, with “great earnestness, strength of conviction, and sensitiveness to points of right and wrong,” and displaying, in his very foibles of egotism, pugnacity, and perhaps a spice of jealousy, the characteristic weaknesses of the poetic mind.
A Glasgow correspondent who knew the poet writes as follows:—Robert Buchanan, though born in Staffordshire, was essentially a Glasgow boy, for it was in Glasgow he was reared from comparative infancy. In early youth he was bundled off to the High School, and later on to the Glasgow University, in both of which institutions he imbibed some Latin, a little Greek, the elements of French, and a few other things which very soon gave him a sense of battling manhood. His mother was an Englishwoman of superior quality, his father was a Scotchman, a native of Kilbarchan, and therefore, like the great majority of his fellow-townsmen, a Radical and a Socialist, or “social missionary” as his son called him in the dedication of one of his books, wherein he also described him as a poet. The elder Buchanan did, indeed, write verse under the inspiration of his Socialistic or humanitarian beliefs. He was a man of considerable mental power and advanced political views; and, as he owned the “Sentinel,” a weekly newspaper, he had the opportunity of propagating the Radical and social faiths of the time in a somewhat unrefined but decidedly vigorous style. It was from an early period, therefore, that young Buchanan heard preached the faith by which alone the people could be relieved from their social and political wrongs. The blood of the father flowed in the veins of the son, with this difference, that there was added to inherited bias in the son a far higher and purer quality of intellectual force, which irresistibly, as the lad grew in years, aimed at and finally issued in superior forms of poetry and prose which had been impossible in the case of his father. It might be said, in the usual prophetic manner, that Robert Buchanan scribbled in his cradle. He was certainly a very early ink-spiller, ample opportunity being afforded in the columns of his father’s paper. He could dream dreams and see visions, but he was so energetic and ambitious that he never rested until he had compelled them to take visible poetic or literary form. It was while he was ploughing his way through his college classes that an event occurred which gave the wheel of fortune a turn. He met a literary and very sympathetic mate, and his mate met in him a mate equally sympathetic. The two were Robert Buchanan and David Gray. From that date they grew together, poetic aspirants, dreaming, scheming, scribbling, and nursing a noble ambition, with ever one great goal in view. There was no end to the great things they would accomplish. What other poets had done they would do, and even more. So they scribbled and published in an experimental way—the one in his father’s “Sentinel,” the other in Hedderwick’s “Citizen.” But all this was not enough. Buchanan published a little volume of verse which was extremely interesting, strikingly imitative—a sort of literary mirror, in which the ideas of the great poets were unconsciously reflected. This defect was only too visible, with the result that the book was dropped and disappeared beyond the ken of any but a cruelly-remembering few. Gray had no book prepared, but a friend suggested to him a theme which quite took his affection, and the poem of “The Luggie,” the name of his native stream, was the result. What was next to be done? The stage upon which they were in a sense rehearsing was too local and therefore too small for the great dramas yet to be created to astonish the world. Their ideas took a Metropolitan colour, and at last they resolved to wing their way to London. The resolution was premature and rash. They turned a deaf ear to counsels of caution. They were poor, and had barely enough cash to pay their railway fare to the wonderful city whose streets were paved with the customary gold, and whose very air was thirsting for the works of genius coming in the brains of the two Scottish poet-pilgrims. Well, they came and they saw, but, unlike Cæsar, they did not conquer—at least not the maiden-like singer from the banks of the clear Luggie; and not for years even the masculine bard from the shores of the drumly Clyde. They had missed each other at starting from Glasgow, and as they arrived in London by different lines, they were for a time separately alone in the might city. When they did meet, through the instrumentality of Sir Monckton Milnes (later Lord Houghton), Buchanan discovered that Gray, who had wandered one whole night in Hyde Park, had caught what in the end proved to be his death-cold. Hardly more pathetic tragedy has been recorded in the annals of aspiring and despairing literary genius. But the story is well known, and need not be detailed here. Buchanan’s early life in London was a desperate yet an heroic struggle. Much did her suffer, but, his physical and intellectual nature being compounded of tougher if not finer material than that of his comrade, he survived the severest penalties of his rashness; and his literary conquests, to accord them that imperial name, are to be found in many books, written in prose and verse.
The Guardian (11 June, 1901)
We regret to announce the death of Mr. Robert Buchanan, which occurred at Streatham yesterday, after a long illness.
Robert Buchanan was born in 1841 at Caverswall, Staffordshire. He was the only son of Robert Buchanan, a Scottish schoolmaster long settled in Lancashire, who had become well known both there (while Manchester was a sort of centre of Owenism) and afterwards at Glasgow as an exponent of the doctrines associated with the name of Robert Owen. The elder Buchanan lectured and contributed to the “Northern Star,” played a certain part as a Chartist—though always opposed to the employment of violent means,—and published some volumes of sociology. His son, the future author, was brought up in Glasgow and educated at the Academy, the High School, and at Glasgow University.
At nineteen, having migrated to London, he published his first volume of poetry, “Undertones.” Few are the writers whose first attempts are really characteristic. “Undertones,” though many of its subjects are conventionally classical, showed at once the qualities and defects which never left Buchanan—the prodigious facility of versification, the abundant energy, the spirit of revolt which made him all his life an Ishmael among writers, the carelessness and the tendency to melodramatic effects. The volume contains nothing perfect, but nothing insipid; it rises occasionally to splendid heights of passion, as in the “Prologue to David in Heaven,” and even attains an austere dignity and limpidity of expression with “Penelope”; originality could hardly be denied to this first book, which to us who read it “after the event” seems in some respects to have heralded the dazzling poetic appearances of a few years later. But the public of 1860, which was only just beginning to tolerate Browning, ignored this remarkable essay. A few distinguished men, however, among whom were George Henry Lewes, William Hepworth Dixon, and John Westland Marston, encouraged the young poet with their approval. He published in 1865 a less striking collection of Highland idylls and legends; and in 1866 “London Poems,” having in the meantime recommended himself to the publishers as a compiler and translator of Danish. “London Poems” could not but confirm the impression of power which “Undertones” had made upon a few attentive readers; though several of these portraits of London types are marred by a false idyllicism, though the satire is too obvious and the humanitarian intention a little obtrusive, the book contains much excellent poetry and reflects an observant mind and a heart burning with the hatred of injustice. It was succeeded the year following by “North Coast Poems,” and “The Book of Orm” appeared in 1868. Buchanan, perhaps the most fertile author of his generation, was to attempt every form. In 1871 he wrote a lyrical drama, “Napoleon Fallen,” and in the same year “The Drama of Kings” was published. These works, in which the iconoclastic side of his genius was chiefly represented, were never, we fancy, put upon the stage. But, having turned to drama, Buchanan now produced at short intervals several plays which, without winning any remarkable success, made his name familiar to the theatre-going public. Among them may be mentioned “The Witchfinders,” produced at Sadler’s Wells in 1873; “A Madcap Prince,” which was presented at the Haymarket; and “A Nine Days’ Queen,” in which last piece the author’s sister-in-law, the novelist Miss Harriett Jay, made her first appearance. For some years Buchanan ceased to write for the stage, but a comedy called “Lady Clare” from his pen was produced at the Globe Theatre in 1883.
But as early as 1872 the poet and playwright became known also as a critic. It was in that year that “The Fleshly School of Poetry” appeared. This virulent, anonymous, and unjustified attack upon a school of poets with which but for it Buchanan’s own work might easily have been confounded by an undiscriminating public gave rise to a violent literary quarrel. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the writers principally assailed, replied with the crushing article on “The Stealthy School of Criticism,” which now finds a place in his collected works; nor did the friends of Mr. Swinburne keep silent. In justice to Buchanan it should here be noticed that he candidly acknowledged the authorship of the offensive essay, and acknowledged also that he had not been justified in the personal imputations he had made against some men of genius whose artistic ideals were not his. From this time he contributed frequently, and on all sorts of subjects, to the periodicals; he was for long most intimately connected with the “Contemporary Review.” With so voluminous an author it would be hopeless to attempt any sort of classification of his more ephemeral work. He appeared perhaps most often in the reviews in the character of a literary iconoclast, and amongst his recent diatribes our readers will hardly have forgotten the attack on Mr. Rudyard Kipling, “the poet of the Hooligan.” In 1874 Buchanan published a collected edition of his poems. In 1875 “Saint Abe and his Seven Wives” startled and enlivened both the English and the American public. This witty and vigorous satire directed against Mormonism was perhaps the most wholly successful effort of Buchanan’s muse, and, by a kind of fatality, it was issued anonymously, and for long confidently attributed to Lowell. The work was reprinted in Buchanan’s name as lately as 1898.
He brought out shortly after this his first novel, “The Shadow of the Sword,” and from this time forward he produced more fiction than anything else. No one who knows Buchanan’s best poetry can doubt that as a novelist he fell nearly always far below his highest powers. Fiction, however, was the easiest way to win a popular recognition that had escaped him, and having much imagination, and gradually acquiring the technical part of the story-teller’s art, he was in the latter part of his career successful above the average with a prolific output of stories, some of them adroitly sensational and others very obviously written “with a purpose.” It will be enough to mention a few of Buchanan’s earlier performances in fiction. “A Child of Nature” was published in 1879, “God and the Man” in 1881, “The Martyrdom of Madeline” in 1882, “Love Me for Ever” in 1883, “The New Absalom” in 1884. He continued to produce novels until the end; “Andromeda” appeared only a year ago. But his abandonment of poetry, which we are constrained to attribute to disappointment and disgust, was not quite complete. “Ballads of Life, Love, and Humour” (1882) should not be forgotten; “The City of Dream” (1888), a somewhat tedious pilgrim’s progress through pages of invective alternating with vague and languid descriptions, was intended to express the poet’s yearnings for a better social state; and last year saw the publication of a rhapsodical collection of satires, often effective and wholly outrageous to the spirit of the hour, directed against luxury, greed, and—Imperialism. It ought to be mentioned that, having quarrelled with the publishers, Buchanan was from 1890 onwards for several years to some extent his own publisher.
Any general estimate of Buchanan’s works as a whole would be evidently premature. We cannot forbear expressing a belief that in his lifetime, through a variety of causes to which he himself contributed not a little, justice has not been done to his real poetical powers—powers which, indeed, he sometimes did his best to obscure by a constant attitude of revolt, by little eccentricities, and by frequent lapses of taste and carelessness of form. But he was unfortunate in the moment at which he appeared before the world; he was eclipsed before he had had a chance of recognition by men of greater powers who, with widely different ideals, appeared superficially to resemble him. Let us hope that not everything will perish of the perverse and inconsequent but virile and magnanimous idealist.
The Daily News (11 June, 1901 - p.6)
Mr. Robert Buchanan, poet, novelist, critic, and playwright, died yesterday morning at his residence in Lewin-road, Streatham Common. His too early death was the result of a paralytic stroke that prostrated him in the early autumn of last year. Its immediate cause was congestion of the lungs, from which he had been suffering since last Friday.
Robert Buchanan was an industrious writer, with poetic imagination, inventive faculty, and a knowledge of life which stood him in good stead when writing for the novel-reading public and for the stage. He had his admirers in both these fields, as, indeed, he had also in the walk of poetry; but he could not afford to be a poet, and he had to abandon the dream with which he himself playfully said he came to London—that he was going to be Poet Laureate after Tennyson. There is much bitterness in his own complaint of the disappointments of literature, written long after he was in the eyes of all the world a successful novelist and playwright. He took up a saying of the late Grant Allen’s, and agreed with him that literature was the poorest and least satisfactory of all professions. He further affirmed it to be the least ennobling. The pursuit of literary fame he held to have demoralised most of the writers of his period. “For complete literary success among contemporaries,” said he, “it is imperative that a man should either have no real opinions, or be able to conceal such as he possesses, that he should have one eye on the market and the other on the public journals, that he should humbug himself into the delusion that bookwriting is the highest work in the universe, and that he should regulate his likes and dislikes by one law, that of expediency. If his nature is in arms against anything that is rotten in society or in literature itself he must be silent. Above all, he must lay this solemn truth to heart, that when the world speaks well of him, the world will demand the price of praise, and that price will possibly be his living soul.” Thus wrote Buchanan at the age of 52, in the heyday of his prosperity, as if the ideals of his life had vanished. How different from the days of his early dreams!
A Scotsman by origin, and the son of a provincial journalist and Socialist lecturer, Robert Buchanan was born in Staffordshire in 1841. He was educated at the High School and the University of Glasgow. His first literary efforts appeared in the Glasgow “Sentinel.” Tired of smoky Glasgow, and hungry for a higher and wider career than its newspaper Press afforded, young Buchanan—then about the age of nineteen—started for London. He was one of five young Scotsmen who, at that time, left for London on the same errand as his own. Besides Buchanan himself, there were his College friend David Gray, Charles Gibbon, and William Black. Buchanan and Gray, who were to have travelled to London together, missed each other at the start. Shortly afterwards, before chance re-united them in London, David Gray had received his death stroke, through sleeping one night in the open-air in Hyde Park. Poor young Gray, whose poem, “The Luggie,” was recognised as the promise of better things, had been reduced to his last half-crown. Buchanan himself has related the story of his meeting with Gray, and of the manner of the young poet’s death. Having found his friend, Buchanan took him to his own poor lodging in Stamford-street, Blackfriars. There the two lived for some weeks together. “Strangely enough,” wrote Buchanan, in a recent number of “M.A.P.”, “neither Gray nor myself had any suspicion of his real physical condition.” But Lord Houghton, who befriended Gray, detected his protégé’s evil plight, and placed him under medical care. But for the invalid there was no cure; and he went home to die—“leaving me,” said his robuster friend Buchanan, “to fight the battle of life alone.” Of this early part of Buchanan’s life in London, the following is one of his reminiscences:
The man who has not lived in London all alone, without a relation or a friend, scarcely knows what loneliness is. For day after day, for week after week, for month after month, I dwelt by myself in the “dear old, ghastly, bankrupt garret,” as David Gray has christened it, and the only human soul with whom I exchanged a word, with the exception of the one or two strangers on whom I called when seeking for employment, was the draggled maid-of-all-work who attended upon me and the other lodgers, scarcely one of whom I knew even by sight.
I had no companions, I had not even an acquaintance, save Hepworth Dixon, of the “Athenæum,” from whom I carefully concealed my poverty and terrible isolation, and whom I saw at intervals in his editorial office in Wellington-street, Strand. A little later on, I introduced myself to W. G. Wills, of “All the Year Round,” and to John Morley, then a boy like myself, and editing the “Literary Gazette,” and still later I made the acquaintance, at the General Post Office, of Edmund Yates, who was sub-editing “Temple Bar”; but, in reality, these men were strangers to me—strangers to whom I could neither retail my troubles nor unburthen my ambition.
I had to fall back on solitude, and on my fellow-outcasts in the streets. The friend of my boyhood was dying in Scotland, my mother and father were there also and in desperate straits, and the only source of human sympathy and companionship came to me in correspondence from these dear ones. I seldom went out in the daytime, except to visit the offices of the journals where I had found a little work; I wrote, thought, read, and studied from dawn to dusk; and at night, when darkness had fallen, I wandered out into the streets, down by the riverside, on the lonely bridge immortalised in Hood’s piteous poem. I had a roof to shelter me, that was all; in other respects, I was nearly as forlorn as the weary women with whom I often stood and talked, and from whom I do not recollect ever hearing a coarse or an unkind word.
But high as my heart was, and sanguine as I was of winning both fame and fortune, I was lonely beyond measure; and so heavy did the sense of solitude weigh upon me that it often became almost more than I could bear. The one thing that saved me from utter despair was the thought of my mother in Scotland, praying for the time when she would again be united to her son. Her letters came daily—always loving, always divinely tender; and wherever I went her face was with me, blessing every footstep of the way. I prayed for her as I had never prayed before; and from that hour to this she has never ceased to be the load-star of my life.
But he had also his buoyant, hopeful moods. He could revel in his imaginings. “I had all the gods of Greece for company,” said he, “to say nothing of the fays and trolls of Scottish fairyland. Pallas and Aphrodite haunted that old garret; out on Waterloo Bridge, night after night I saw Selene and all her nymphs; and when my heart sank low the fairies of Scotland sang me lullabies! It was a happy time.” He boasted of his Bohemian experiences and his sympathy with life; sympathy which told him he was “a born Pagan and could never be really comfortable in any modern temple of the proprieties.” His early experiences gave spirit and life to his poems. His first book, “Undertones,” and another called “London Poems,” were hailed as true and genuine work, the result of real observation and personal emotion, and it was said his verses had been lived before they were written down. Besides writing poems himself, he translated from other languages. His Ballads of the Affections, from the Scandinavian, were published in 1866. His “Napoleon Fallen; a Lyrical Drama,” published in 1871, was severely criticised; and “Balder the Beautiful, a Song of Divine Death,” which appeared some years later, was both scarified and exalted, his qualities and defects both justifying, perhaps, the unequal criticism. He was a most uncompromising critic himself, and had, therefore, little cause to be sensitive to the criticism of others; but this is a golden rule of life which few authors ever attain to; certainly Mr. Buchanan did not. His controversies were familiar in the newspapers, and the memory of them will be especially fresh in the minds of Mr. Archer, Mr. Bernard Shaw, and Mr. Edmund Gosse. The last-named did not spare him. Referring to “Master Spirits,” a series of essays on literary celebrities, Mr. Gosse said they were “little more than a series of infirm grins at the critics that misapprehend him, at the worn-out leprous world that does not read his books, and at the slavish, wretched writers that do succeed in being read.” There is more temper in that criticism than is calculated to commend it to confidence, and the public did not endorse such harsh judgments of Mr. Buchanan’s works, especially of his numerous romances. He showed in these a vigorous personality and the possession of ideals. Exempted from the fierceness of his criticisms of some other authors was the late Mr. Charles Reade, whom he admired so much that he declared her would rather have written “The Cloister and the Hearth” than half-a-dozen Romolas. He detested Ibsen’s writings and all sickly modern realism; but was roused to red-hot indignation when the law took such liberties with the freedom of literature as to prosecute Mr. Vizetelly for the publication of Zola in English.
Among Mr. Buchanan’s many assaults in the literary arena, none excited a greater flutter at the time then his attack on D. G. Rossetti in 1871. It had been preceded by an attack on Mr. Swinburne in 1866. In that year a burlesque poem appeared in the “Spectator” entitled “The Session of the Poets.” It contained the following lines:
Up jumped, with his neck stretching out like a gander,
Master Swinburne, and squealed, glaring out through his hair,
“All Virtue is bosh! Hallelujah for Landor!
I disbelieve wholly in everything!—There!”
With language so awful he dared then to treat ’em,
Miss Ingelow fainted in Tennyson’s arms,
Poor Arnold rushed out, crying “Saecl’ inficetum!”
And great bards and small bards were full of alarms;
Till Tennyson, flaming and red as a gypsy,
Struck his fist on the table and uttered a shout:
“To the door with the boy! Call a cab! He is tipsy!”
And they carried the naughty young gentleman out.
This burlesque was published anonymously, but its authorship was afterwards avowed by Buchanan. In 1870, Rossetti’s “Poems” appeared, and in the following year Buchanan contributed to “The Contemporary Review,” under the pseudonym of “Thomas Maitland,” a violent, not to say virulent, attack on what he called “The Fleshly School of Poetry.” To this Rossetti replied with an article on “The Stealthy School of Criticism.” Buchanan’s rejoinder was to republish his article as a pamphlet with some added censures. The affair caused, as we have said, a good deal of fluster in literary circles at the time. Ten years later, Buchanan recanted. He “freely admitted” that “Rossetti never was a fleshly poet at all,” and to him as “an old enemy” he dedicated his romance entitled, “God and the Man.” The affair was characteristic of Buchanan’s hot temper and vigorous pen; perhaps also of his impatience of literary reputations. His article, he explained, was “a mere drop of gall in an ocean of eau sucrée.”
As a dramatist, Mr. Buchanan made many successes, although they did not apparently bring great satisfaction to him, if we may judge from his angry reflections upon the times on which he had fallen. He said, in his reminiscences of Charles Reade, that the period was one in which the dramatic art was without honour, and when the only standard of its success was commercial. It was in regard to his plays that he became angriest with his critics. But he had not much reason to complain. For some of his dramas, especially his later ones, had a good run, and earned the praise of even those critics whom he was most angered against on other occasions. “The Charlatan,” in which Mr. Beerbohm Tree made a hit, was popular at the Haymarket, and was praised as picturesque and romantic, and full of light and clever badinage. His dramatic version of Miss Rhoda Broughton’s “Nancy,” which provided Miss Hughes with such an opportunity for displaying her vivacious humour at the Royalty, was greeted with high favour. “The Romance of the Shopwalker,” one of several plays which he wrote in conjunction with “Charles Marlowe” (Miss Harriet Jay), was another successful play, the popularity of which was aided by the acting of Mr. Weedon Grossmith and the late David James. “A Society Butterfly” was a joint production with Mr. Henry Murray. His adaptation of Fielding’s “Tom Jones,” called “Sophia,” ran at the Vaudeville for nearly two years. “Joseph’s Sweetheart” had a run of eighteen months. “Alone in London” was written by him and Miss Harriet Jay. Among his other plays, “A Man’s Shadow” may be recalled. His litigation with Mrs. Langtry created no small interest in 1889. He had written for her a play entitled “Lady Gladys,” and he brought an action against her because she did not open the New York season with that play according to agreement. The fact that the late Sir Frank Lockwood was Mrs. Langtry’s counsel added to the amusement of the town. The case he submitted to the jury was that the play was to be suited to the actress’s powers, and that she was to be at liberty to reject it. Mr. Buchanan won the day in spite of the odds against him. His adaptation of Sardou’s “Theodora” was, at Miss Hawthorn’s request, thrown into blank verse and completed in eight days. Mr. Buchanan’s versatility was also proved by the voluminous extent of his contributions to periodical literature. He worked too hard and too fast to realise his own ideals, and his disappointment with his own success is visible in the passage we have quoted from his writings. In the retrospects of the literary art of the latter half of the nineteenth century his name will not take that place to which his youthful ambition soared, but they will be very cursory and inadequate retrospects indeed in which his name does not at least appear with the tribute due to his talent and his industry.
The Aberdeen Journal (11 June, 1901 - p.5)
DEATH OF ROBERT BUCHANAN.
A VERSATILE CAREER.
Mr Robert Buchanan died yesterday morning at the residence of his sister-in-law, Streatham, London. He had been ill for many months, having had a paralytic stroke, which deprived him of speech.
Robert Williams Buchanan, poet and prose writer, was born at Caverswall, Staffordshire, on August 18, 1841, and was the only son of Robert Buchanan, Socialist, missionary, and journalist, and his wife, Margaret Williams, of Stoke-upon-Trent. Though thus born in one of the English midland counties, Robert Buchanan was mainly regarded and mainly looked upon himself as a Scotsman. His father became editor of one of the Glasgow newspapers, and when Robert was quite young the family removed to the Western Metropolis of Scotland. The future poet matriculated at Glasgow University at the early age when Scottish students are permitted to don the scarlet gown. It was in the old college in the High Street of Glasgow that Buchanan met the ill-fated David Gray as a fellow-student, and though Gray was three years older, and more advanced in his studies, the two became constant companions. “We spent,” wrote Robert Buchanan, “year after year together in intimate communion, varying the monotony of our existence by reading books together, plotting great works, writing extravagant letters to men of eminence, and wandering about the country on vagrant freaks.” So close was their intimacy that it led to an adventure that ultimately shaped their separate careers. Gray had been engaged upon his poem “The Luggie” for a considerable time, and, like every sanguine poet, was sure that it had only to be published to bring fame and fortune to him. Buchanan shared his enthusiasm, and the two lads determined to make a combined attack upon London. The enterprise was kept secret from their parents, and they set out upon their hare-brained expedition in February, 1860, without any reasonable preparation. By an accident they were separated, and carried by different lines of railway to opposite parts of London; but they managed to find each other, and took lodgings together in the Borough. Gray had written to Monckton Milnes (afterwards Lord Houghton) regarding his poem, and had received so much encouragement that he fondly hoped for success. But mortal sickness had seized him, and, after protracted suffering, he died before his poem was published. Through all his illness Buchanan loyally attended him; and there is an interesting note written to Lord Houghton, in which Buchanan thus described himself:—“You will not have forgotten the melancholic young gentleman whom you were accustomed to see when you carried beef tea to Gray at Stamford Street.”
Buchanan himself put on record in the “Idler” an interesting account of those early experiences. Through some blunder of arrangement—he wrote—we two started for London on the same day, but from different railway stations, and, until some weeks afterwards, one knew nothing of the other’s exodus. I arrived at King’s Cross Railway Station with the conventional half-crown in my pocket; literally and absolutely, half-a-crown. I wandered about the great city till I was weary, fell in with a thief and Good Samaritan who sheltered me; starved and struggled with abundant happiness, and finally found myself located at 66 Stamford Street, Waterloo Bridge, in a top room, for which I paid, when I had the money, seven shillings a week. Here I lived royally, with Duke Humphrey, for many a day; and hither, one sad morning, I brought my poor friend Gray, whom I had discovered languishing somewhere in the Borough, and who was already death-struck through “sleeping out” one night in Hyde Park. “Westminster Abbey—if I live,” Gray had exclaimed, “I shall be buried there!” Poor country singing bird, the great dismal cage of the dead was not for him, thank God! He lies under the open heaven, close to the little river which he immortalised in song. After a brief sojourn in the “dear old ghastly bankrupt garret at No. 66,” he fluttered home to die. To that old garret, in these days, came living men of letters who were of large and important interest to us poor cheepers from the north—Richard Monckton Milnes, Laurence Oliphant, Sydney Dobell, among others, who took a kindly interest in my dying comrade. But afterwards, when I was left to fight the battle alone, the place was solitary. Ever reserved and independent, not to say “dour” and opinionated, I made no friends, and cared for none. I had found a little work on the newspapers and magazines, just enough to keep body and soul alive. What did my isolation matter, when I had all the gods in Greece for company, to say nothing of the fays and trolls of Scottish Fairyland? Pallas and Aphrodite haunted that old garret; out on Waterloo Bridge, night after night, I saw Selene and all her nymphs; and when my heart sank low, the fairies of Scotland sang me lullabies! It was a happy time. Sometimes, for a fortnight together, I never had a dinner—save, perhaps, on Sunday, when a good-natured Hebe would bring me covertly a slice from the landlord’s joint. My favourite place of refreshment was the Caledonian Coffee House in Covent Garden. Here, for a few coppers, I could feast on coffee and muffins—muffins saturated with butter, and worthy of the gods! Then, issuing forth, full-fed, glowing, oleaginous, I would light my pipe, and wander out into the lighted streets. Criticisms for the “Athenæum,” then edited by Hepworth Dixon, brought me 10s 6d a column. I used to go to the old office in Wellington Street and have my contributions measured off on the current number with a foot-rule, by good old John Francis, the publisher. I wrote, too, for the “Literary Gazette,” where the pay was less princely—7s 6d a column, I think, but with all extracts deducted! The “Gazette” was then edited by John Morley, who came to the office daily with a big dog. “I well remember the time when you, a boy, came to me, a boy, in Catherine Street,” wrote honest John to me years afterwards. But the neighbourhood of Covent Garden had greater wonders! Two or three times a week, walking, black bag in hand, from Charing Cross Station to the office of “All the Year Round” in Wellington Street, came the good, the only Dickens! From that good Genii the poor straggler from Fairyland got solid help and sympathy.
It was partly through Lord Houghton’s assistance that Robert Buchanan was able to publish his first volume “Undertones,” a miscellaneous collection of poems, prefaced by memorial verses addressed to Gray, and entitled “To David in heaven.” This maiden effort saw the light towards the close of 1860 and had a fair measure of success. In 1865 he published his “Idylls and Legends of Inverburn,” a series of poems and ballads so strikingly original that they attracted much attention. But in those days the interest in literature with a Scottish flavour was not so great as it now is. Buchanan speedily learned that to gain the Cockney ear he must write of affairs that happened within the sound of Bow Bells, and accordingly, with a commercial instinct seldom found in the mere moonstruck poet, he set himself to produce his “London Poems,” and was at once hailed as a marvel. A critic of the period has said, “The humble life of the great city has rarely been so vividly, so humorously, and so pathetically delineated as in these poems.” Meantime, as a journalist, Mr Buchanan did much newspaper work, and went to Schleswig-Holstein and Denmark towards the end of the Franco-German war as correspondent of the “Morning Star.” He translated the “Danish Ballads,” and wrote freely on Scandinavian literature, then little known. For a brief period he attained notoriety by his article upon D. G. Rosetti in the “Contemporary Review” for October, 1871, entitled “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” in which he denounced the mawkish, erotic sentimentality which had been made fashionable by a few dyspeptic poets. A fierce controversy arose, and the combativeness of Robert Buchanan had full play. In 1881, however, Mr Buchanan realised how much he had misjudged the gentle mediæval Italian spirit which flickered in Rosetti’s breast, and it is characteristic of the honesty and strength of the man that he immediately dedicated to his former foe a strong an d remarkable novel, called “God and the Man,” strangely similar, in drift and purport, to Mr Hall Caine’s “Bondman,” prefaced by some facile verses about Rosetti’s “honoured head,” pure purpose, blameless song, and sweet spirit. As a ballad writer Mr Buchanan finds admirable scope for his imperfectly drilled vigour and vivacity, and a good example of his most popular style may be seen in “The Lights o’ Leith.” Still better—indeed, almost the best thing in print of artistic finish that he has ever given us—is that wonderful bit of humorous description (a production of a later year, by the way), the “Wedding of Shon Maclean.” His humorous power is shown also in “St Abe and his Seven Wives.” Some critics are said to have taken that for the work of an American—a fact that is certainly significant of the versatile skill that directed Mr Buchanan’s pen. There are few unprejudiced critics who will deny him high rank among latter day poets. He did not equal browning in true, creative power, or Tennyson in exquisite and perfect finish, or Swinburne in lyric rush and penetration and fire, but few will desire to place him below any but these among the poets of our time.
Buchanan’s first essay as a novelist was in 1880, when he published in the “People’s Friend” a serial, entitled “The Tryst of Arranmore,” and followed it next year with “The Martyrdom of Madeline” in the same periodical. His other principal novels have been “The Shadow of the Sword,” “God and the Man,” “The New Abelard,” and “Foxglove Manor.” In some of these he trod very closely upon the heels of the “fleshly” poets, whom he had so bitterly decried, but they were masterpieces all the same. In “The Shadow of the Sword,” a tale of infinitely beautiful, picturesque, and romantic Brittany, with its menhirs, dolmans, cathedral-like coast caverns, white sea birds, and quaintly-garbed peasant folk, and the record of a humble hero who had the Titanic moral courage to stand up against Napoleon the Great, the man-devouring demi-god of war, he gave us, as a critic has truly said, a novel worthy to be talked of in the same breath as “Hypatia,” “Romola,” “Richard Feverel,” and such great works.
Buchanan next sought fame as a dramatist, and several of his plays had remarkable passing popularity. Amongst these are “A Nine Days’ Queen,” “Lady Clare,” “Storm-Beaten,” “Sophia,” and “Joseph’s Sweetheart,” besides several very popular dramas brought out in collaboration with George R. Sims. His dramas were so skilfully written and contrived that they were as suitable for the study as for the stage. As an original worker in this field, however, from “The Witchfinder” to “Fascination,” he scored no very great success. As an adapter he earned many laurels, the least of which was his “Partners; or, The Honour of the House,” done out of Daudet’s master fiction, and the greatest, “Sophia,” for the triumph of Miss Kate Rorke, hewn out of “Tom Jones.” His great fault was over-production. Mr Buchanan was essentially Scottish, and untameably aggressive. Contention was as the breath of life to him. But he commanded respect by his strong masculinity, his detestation of all coquetting with honeyed sensualities, and the honest faith and confidence that was in him, in his own words, that “that soul alone blasphemes which trembles and despairs.”
The footlights, however, were not wholly to fascinate him, for he still clung to verse, and in 1888 published his remarkable poem, “The City of Dreams,” a most weird and enthralling work. A strange occult romance was published in the following year, called “The Moment After,” detailing the experiences of Maurizio Modena after life had become extinct. In 1891 Mr Heinemann published a volume of essays by Buchanan, called “The Coming Terror,” in which the author mercilessly lashed the follies of the age with the whip of a Triboulet and the stinging satire of a Swift. By this time he had become thoroughly pessimistic, and he scourged the frivolities and vices of the time with an unsparing hand.
“His services to literature as a poet” were recognised by the State more than 20 years ago, when Mr Gladstone placed him on the Civil List for a pension of £100 a year. Besides being a dramatist, he was for a short time an actor and a theatrical manager, but some of the thousands who have enjoyed his books and his plays will learn with surprise that he was vainer of his qualities as a sportsman and a sailor than of his literary work. His proudest moment was when the “Spectator” said, reviewing his yachting adventures, that he was “worthy of an A1 naval certificate.” He has written largely anonymously on sport—yachting, shooting, and salmon fishing—and on natural phenomena. Mr Buchanan resided for some time in France, Normandy, and Brittany, where he got the material for “The Shadow of the Sword.” He also spent a year in America, and his plays, especially “Lady Clare,” “Storm-Beaten,” and “Alone in London”—the last written with Miss Jay—were very popular there. He lived for three years in the wild west of Ireland, and about the same period in the Scottish Highlands, where he wrote “The Hebrid Isles,” and “The Book of Orm.”
The Sheffield Daily Telegraph (11 June, 1901 - p.5)
DEATH OF MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN.
Mr. Robert Buchanan died very peacefully at ten minutes past eight o’clock yesterday morning, at the residence of his sister-in-law, Miss Harriet Jay, 90, Lewis Road, Streatham Common. Mr. Buchanan in October last, after a morning’s severe cycling exertion, was prostrated by a paralytic stroke. Since then he was completely invalided, bereft of the faculty of speech, and, with the exception of a few carriage drives, confined to his room. Last Friday he suffered from an attack of congestion of the lungs, from which he gradually sank and expired. Mr Buchanan, who had no children, will be interred at Southend in the family grave, in which his wife and mother are buried.
Robert Williams Buchanan was popularly supposed to be a wild Scot; but he was only half a Scotchman. Though his father was Scotch, his mother belonged to Stoke-upon-Trent, and he himself was born at Caverswall, in Staffordshire. That event happened on August 18th, 1841; and Robert Buchanan proved a man of war from his youth up. He was educated at Glasgow University. “Undertones,” his first book, was published in 1862. It was published in Glasgow; but two years before he had left the “Sentinel” office in that city, where, under his father, he had been trying his ’prentice hand at journalistic work, and had gone to London to seek fame and fortune.
He had for companion there, in his early struggles, poor David Gray, the Scottish Chatterton. It was a terrible fight. Long afterwards, he wrote:—
“I myself, after weeks of curious adventure, had found anchorage, in Stamford Street, Blackfriars, my lodging being ‘next to the sky,’ in a bedroom or garret wherein I was busily invoking the Muses. Thither poor Gray gladly accompanied me, and for some little time thereafter we lived together. Strangely enough, neither Gray nor myself had any suspicion of his real physical condition, until one evening I accompanied him to the house of Richard Monckton Milnes (afterwards Lord Houghton), who had shown him much good-natured sympathy. I waited outside in the street until Gray had finished the interview with his patron; directly he reappeared he said: ‘Milnes says I’m in a fever, and that I’m to go home, get to bed at once, and he’ll send his own doctor to-morrow to examine me.’ Even then neither of us realised the danger, and we strolled away quite merrily through the crowded streets. Next day the physician came, and reported that Gray’s condition was grave indeed, pleurisy having suddenly set in, with indications of latent tuberculosis. I nursed him as well as I was able through the acute stages of his malady, and fortunately, through the ministrations of Milnes and his friends, he lacked for nothing. How he would have fared otherwise I know not, for he was as poor as Lazarus, and so was I. He finally returned ton his humble home in Scotland, where he died, leaving me to fight the battle of life alone.
“To me, who still survives, the recollection of these early days in London seems, at this distance of time, only a kind of wild dream; but I can see the ghastly ‘garret’ still, and poor Gray stretched on the bed or sitting up in a fanciful old dressing-gown which I had given to him, still hopeful, still full of feverish plans and aspirations, still not realising that he was doomed to die. He had kindly visitors from time to time—Milnes himself, Laurence Oliphant, Charles Mackay, and others; so that he was not quite desolate. When he departed and I was left to my own devices, I myself was desolate indeed.
“I had no companions, I had not even an acquaintance, save Hepworth Dixon, of the ‘Athenæum,’ from whom I carefully concealed my poverty and terrible isolation, and whom I saw at intervals in his editorial office in Wellington Street, Strand. A little later on I introduced myself to W. G. Wills, of ‘All the Year Round,’ and to John Morley, then a boy like myself, and editing the ‘Literary Gazette,’ and still later I made the acquaintance, at the General Post Office, of Edmund Yates, who was sub-editing ‘Temple Bar’; but, in reality, these men were strangers to me—strangers to whom I could neither retail my troubles nor unburthen my ambition.”
Meanwhile, he went on writing poetry. “Legends of Inverburn” followed “Undertones” in 1863. Then came “London Poems,” and the fine “North Coast Poems” in 1866 and 1867. There was a translation of the “National Ballads of Denmark” also; and a lyrical drama, entitled “Napoleon Fallen,” and “The Drama of Kings” appeared in 1871. In 1872 “The Fleshly School of Poetry” saw the light. It was a slashing attack on Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Mr. Swinburne, which landed him in the Law Courts. Even thus early he was at loggerheads with the critics; but he had a rare revenge. In 1871 he published “The Drama of Kings,” with his name on the title-page, and “St. Abe and His Seven Wives” anonymously. “The Drama of Kings” was torn to shreds in every newspaper; “St. Abe,” because no one suspected who had written it, was at once hailed as a masterpiece. One paper avowed in one breath that Robert Buchanan was utterly devoid of dramatic power, while the author of “St. Abe” was a man of dramatic genius. The general impression at the time was that the latter poem was written by James Russell Lowell. Some suggested Bret Harte. “No one,” said Mr. Buchanan afterwards,” suspected for one moment that the work was written by a Scotchman, who, up to that date, had never even visited America. The ‘Spectator’ devoted a long leading article to proving that humour of this particular kind could have been produced only in the Far West, while a leading magazine bewailed the fact that we had no such humorists in England, since ‘ with Thackeray our last writer of humour left us.’” An edition, published at the end of 1897, was the first which bore the author’s name on the title-page. In spite of the critics, some of Mr. Buchanan’s poetry is very fine.
Mr. Buchanan’s first novel, “The Shadow of the Sword,” appeared in 1876. “God and the Man” followed in 1881. His others, of which there were several, were not on a level with these. “Lady Clare,” a comedy, was produced at the Globe Theatre in 1883. “Alone in London” was produced at the Olympic in 1885. It was not a great success in London, but it holds the boards in the provinces to this day. “Sophia” and “Joseph’s Sweetheart,” produced at the Vaudeville, were exceedingly popular. The former, which was an adaptation of Fielding’s “Tom Jones,” ran for nearly two years. “A Man’s Shadow” was produced at the Haymarket in 1890. All the while, Mr. Buchanan was producing poems, novels, and essays in rapid succession. He ended as he began—at war. One of his latest efforts was an attack on Mr. Rudyard Kipling, which appeared in the “Contemporary Review,” under the title of “The Hooligan in Literature.” Mr. Buchanan’s later years, unfortunately, were clouded by financial difficulties.
The Dundee Evening Post (11 June, 1901 - p.1)
A Disappointing Genius.
“The shadow of the sword” and “God and the man” were novels like nothing else in the fiction of their time for sheer epic, sweep, and strength. It seemed for a moment as if their author might be the great novelist of the future, for whom the world had been looking since the deaths of Thackeray and Dickens, but he produced nothing afterwards that could sustain for a moment the comparison in what had gone before. He has left no lyric that can claim a place in the anthologies of the future, and his longer poems with all their eloquence, strength, and pungency fail in eventual distinctness and distinction of meaning, and will not escape oblivion. Unless “The Shadow of the Sword” should be remembered as one of the representative achievements of Victorian fiction nothing will remain to convince posterity that Robert Buchanan was as full of the raw stuff of greatness as any man who ever lacked the crystallising touch of genius.—Daily Telegraph.
A NOTABLE TRIO.
FALL BEFORE DEATH’S SICKLE.
THE SCOTTISH POET.
A strange melancholy, in depressing contrast with the lovely fine weather, pervaded London yesterday, writes a correspondent, when the papers announced that no fewer than three eminent men had fallen before Death’s sickle:—Lord Wantage, Mr Robert Buchanan, and Sir Walter Besant. Of the three Mr Robert Buchanan is, perhaps, the best known in Scotland. He was dowered by temperament with the “perfervidum ingenium Scotorum” with which he combined a unique mixture of the “genus irritable.” Forty years ago he left the office of his father’s paper, the Sentinel, and migrated to London, persuaded that he was a poet, and started life as the companion of David Gray, the weaver’s gifted boy from Kirkintilloch. probably the fame of the author of “The Luggie,” the Scottish Chatterton, will live as long as that of Buchanan, notwithstanding the latter’s busy life and extensive catalogue of books in verse and prose. His death was not unexpected. “After life’s fitful fever, he sleeps well,” and it is pleasant to reflect how his end came peacefully at ten minutes past eight o’clock yesterday morning in golden summer weather and at the beautiful altitude of the suburb of Streatham, where he was nursed to the last by his devoted sister-in-law, Miss Harriet Jay.
Daily Express (11 June, 1901 - p.1)
DEATHS OF SIR W. BESANT AND
Sir Walter Besant died on Sunday afternoon at his house in Frognal End, Hampstead. Though he had been seriously ill for several weeks, the end was not expected immediately, and came as a great shock.
Sir Walter’s health had for many months been such as to cause his friends serious concern, and it was noted with sorrow how greatly he appeared to have aged in the new century. It is only a matter of weeks since he was actually confined to the house.
Death was due to a complication of internal ailments, following upon gastric catarrh. Lady besant was with her husband to the last.
The death was also reported yesterday of Mr. Robert Buchanan, at Streatham. Mr. Buchanan suffered a severe stroke of paralysis some months ago, and it was recognised from the first that his case was hopeless.
Appreciations of the life-work of Sir Walter Besant and of Mr. Robert Buchanan will be found on Page 4.
The New York Times (11 June, 1901)
ROBERT W. BUCHANAN DEAD.
Career as Poet, Novelist, Playwright, and Controversialist Started in a London Garret.
LONDON, June 10.—Robert Williams Buchanan, poet, critic, and novelist, is dead.
Robert Williams Buchanan, poet, critic, novelist, playwright, and literary controversialist, was born at Caversnall, Staffordshire, England, Aug. 18, 1841. He was the only son of Robert Buchanan, Socialist, missionary, and journalist. Having been graduated from the University of Glasgow, he went to London with his schoolmate, Daniel Gray, who, like Buchanan, was destined to achieve a reputation as a poet. The two shared a garret room. Buchanan’s literary career began in 1860. The same year he and Gray reached London. The under world of London had a great fascination for him, and his first work of note, “Undertones,” was inspired by his study of the poor and erring of the great city. From 1862 to 1872 he produced several books of poems, among them “London Poems,” “North Coast Poems,” and “Napoleon Fallen,” a lyrical drama. His first drama was “The Witchfinder.” Others were “A Madcap Prince,” “A nine-Days’ Queen,” “Lady Clare,” “Alone in London,” “Sophia,” “Joseph’s Sweetheart,” “Dick Sheridan,” and “The Charlatan.” Among his novels were “The Shadow of the Sword,” “God and the Man,” “Love Me Forever,” and “The Gifted Lady.”
There is one incident in the career of Buchanan which is as yet uninterpreted to his advantage. In 1869 Dante Gabrielle Rossetti recovered the manuscript of a number of poems from the coffin of his wife, who had died seven years before, and published them. They, together with poems by Rossetti’s friends, were bitterly assailed by Buchanan in an article under a pseudonym, which appeared in The Contemporary; later the article, which was entitled “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” was brought out in pamphlet form. Rossetti was seriously affected by the criticism, and never entirely recovered from the blow, which, by his morbid sentimentality, he imagined had been delivered directly at the memory of his dead wife.
But Rossetti did not go unavenged; the poet Swinburne issued a counter pamphlet, which, under the title of “Under the Microscope,” flayed Buchanan alive.
Mr. Buchanan visited the United States in 1884-5. In 1893 he published “The Wandering Jew,” a poem which led to much controversy in the English journals.
The Dundee Evening Telegraph (11 June, 1901 - p.3)
A STRONG AND RUGGED CHARACTER.
GEORGE R. SIMS REMINISCENT.
Mr George R. Sims contributes to the “Morning Leader” an interesting appreciation of the late Mr Robert Buchanan. Mr Sims writes:—During the years that I was on terms of almost daily intercourse with Robert Buchanan, there were two things that always struck me. They were his utter absence of literary cant and his almost boyish love of fun. In his home he was absolutely adored. His devotion to his mother through all the years of her life was a poem. He gathered round his table young men who spoke of him affectionately as “The Bard,” and old men who had known him in his early days of struggle, and for whom, because they had once done him a kindness, he kept open house. To-day I look back upon the nightly gatherings around the bard’s hospitable supper table as among the happiest recollections of my life. No one who listened to the genial, joking, laughing host would imagine that he had spent the preceding six hours in his study mercilessly hacking and hewing some public man whose opinions or whose works were objectionable to him.
Of all his work, I think he liked the dramatic best—at least, he told me so. It was a relief to him to direct the rehearsals, and he enjoyed the Bohemianism which still lingers among the children of Thespis. When we were rehearsing “The English Rose” at the Adelphi I came down one afternoon, and found him brandishing his umbrella—by his umbrella and his white waistcoat you might know him in those days—and instructing a sergeant of the Scots Guards to say to his men “Enter the church.” The sergeant ventured to suggest that the proper command would be “Right turn—quick march.” It took me all my powers of persuasion to induce the bard to yield to the sergeant on a point of military procedure.
A marvellously quick worker, he would spend five or six hours in his study writing almost without alteration or erasure, then he would give up the rest of the day to enjoyment.
Once at Southend we went to bed at three. At half-past eight he was up and ready for a stroll before breakfast. We walked about Southend for an hour. Suddenly my companion left me, saying—“Go back to the hotel, I’ll be with you directly.” When he came in, I noticed that the knees of his trousers were covered with chalk. He had gone to the churchyard to see the grave of his wife. He had found the gate locked, and had climbed over the wall.
He gave money away when he had it recklessly, and was sometimes more generous than just. An unpopular cause appealed to him, and he rushed into print in defence of more than one criminal against whom public opinion was running high. One of the causes he publicly championed was that of the Boers at the time of the Jameson raid.
But with all his combativeness he never attacked a weak foe. Always a fighter, he fought with fortune and he fought with fate. When he had written a play that he could not get a manager to accept he took a theatre and produced it himself.
He was a sportsman and a bon vivant, and always happiest when, surrounded by good company, he told and listened to the merry jest in the “wee short hours ayont the twal.”
The inscription he wrote for his own grave was—“Et ille in Bohemia fuit.”
The Edinburgh Evening News (12 June, 1901 - p.6)
ROBERT BUCHANAN’S LOSSES.—The late Mr Buchanan’s savings had been swept away in a disastrous speculation, which obliged him to go through the Bankruptcy Court and to part with all his copyrights. In his helpless state, after his stroke of paralysis, he had once more to rely upon the aid of friends. He had been a very generous man when he was prosperous himself. He had never refused help to anyone in distress, and in his time of need he was generously assisted.
The Stage (13 June, 1901 - p.14)
DEATH OF MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN.
On Monday morning the long and hopeless illness of Mr. Robert Buchanan came to a merciful end. Since October last Mr. Buchanan had lingered in a helpless state from the effects of a paralytic stroke. The immediate cause of death was congestion of the lungs. He died at the residence of his sister-in-law, Miss Harriet Jay, at Streatham. Mr. Buchanan, who had been a widower since 1881, leaves no children.
Robert Williams Buchanan, child of a Scots father and an English mother, was born at Caverswall, in Staffordshire, on August 18, 1841. Thus in barely sixty years of life Mr. Buchanan crowded the writings of an exceptionally busy and varied literary career. He left few departments of literature untouched. Poetry, plays, novels, essays, and polemics of all sorts engaged his large gifts and strong, even intractable individuality. In poetry he first made his mark—as a very young man, between the years 1860-5; and in poetry—especially in some of his ballads—his work is likeliest to survive. As a poet he had imagination, feeling, felicity of phrase, often intensity of mood and expression; and if his poetry could not sustain the higher qualities, if it was too personal, erratic, and at times crude and distasteful in character, it had more than a spark of the divine fire. His poetic endowment, indeed, was genuine and considerable; and that it should have been so widely diffused and should have ended in so little perfected work would seem to be one of the losses of modern literature. The energies that Mr. Buchanan gave to playwriting had their outcome on a much lower plane. One recalls the farcical futilities of such a piece as The Strange Adventures of Miss Brown. Some of the most successful attempts on Mr. Buchanan’s part in a branch of authorship in which he tried again and again were in plays of semi-originality—his Sophia and Joseph’s Sweetheart, for example, which had long runs at the Vaudeville. Sweet Nancy, which he dramatised from Rhoda Broughton’s novel, was another instance, as was A Man’s Shadow, from the French of Roger la Honte. His adaptations, indeed, were numerous. They included, further, Lady Clare (Le Maître de Forges), Agnes (L’Ecole des Femmes), Partners (based on Daudet’s “Fromont Jeune et Risler Aîné”), The Struggle for Life (in collaboration with Fred Horner from La Lutte pour la Vie), Theodora (Sardou), and the last of his pieces (in collaboration with Miss Jay) to be produced, Two Little Maids from School (Les Demoiselles de St. Cyr), which was given at the Metropole, Camberwell, on November 21, 1898. In his original works Mr. Buchanan chiefly won the favour of playgoers in melodrama. Alone in London is a case in point. This freely compounded piece he wrote in conjunction with Harriett Jay. It was brought out by Mrs. Conover at the Olympic on November 2, 1885. In the provinces Alone in London has enjoyed a long-standing popularity. Some years later—beginning in 1891—Mr. Buchanan joined George R. Sims in Adelphi drama, the first fruits of the collaboration being The Trumpet Call, which was succeeded by The White Rose, The Lights of Home, and The Black Domino. With the late Sir Augustus Harris he wrote A Sailor and His Lass for Drury Lane. Amongst more ambitious plays may be named some early dramatisations—The Queen of Connaught (Olympic), The Shadow of the Sword (Olympic), and Storm Beaten (Adelphi)—from his own novels; also The Bride of Love (Adelphi), in verse; The Charlatan (Haymarket), comedy, in which Mr. Beerbohm Tree made a hit; The Sixth Commandment (Shaftesbury), drama; and Dick Sheridan (Comedy), drama. In lighter vein were Fascination, in collaboration with Miss Jay (Olympic), That Doctor Cupid (Vaudeville), The Romance of the Shopwalker (Vaudeville), also jointly with Miss Jay; and various others. Often as he wooed fortune as a playwright, and great as the attraction of the stage evidently was for him, Mr. Buchanan did in this medium little that was worthy of his better powers. His most effective work, curiously enough in a writer of much originality and personal force, came from other inspiration than his own. As a dramatist, in fact, he made the least of his successes; and this failure may have done much to induce the bitterness with which in later years he spoke of theatrical conditions. In fiction, some of his achievements were more decisive. “The Shadow of the Sword,” “A Child of Nature,” “The Martyrdom of Madeleine,” and “God and the Man,” are amongst his best known novels. Consideration of Mr. Buchanan as controversialist need not detain us here. His opinions were more vehement than well considered, and were frequently recanted, as in so crucial a case as “The Fleshly School of Poetry,” the Contemporary Review article on the poetry of Swinburne and Rossetti.
The funeral will take place at Southend.
The Staffordshire Sentinel (13 June, 1901)
Mr. Robert Buchanan, the author, who died on Monday, was, of course, a local man. He was born at Caverswall in 1841, and was the only son of Robert Buchanan, and Margaret Williams, of Stoke. Robert Buchanan pere was one of the earliest disciples of Robert Owen in North Staffordshire, and took a prominent part in the great strike of 1836, afterwards going to Scotland to follow his trade there, but becoming instead a “Socialist, missionary, and journalist.”
The Echo (13 June, 1901 - p.1)
Robert Buchanan as Dramatist.
Robert Buchanan was a good and true poet, witness his “Coruisken” sonnets in “The Book of Orm” and that pathetic-grotesque ballad “The Dead Mother.” He must be reckoned a brilliant if too tactless and ferocious a journalist, as readers of “The Echo” and other daily papers must allow. At his best, that is to say, a certain kind of Hugo-esque epic of humanitarianism and of elemental passion, like “The Shadow of the Sword,” “God and the Man,” and “The Martyrdom of Madeline,” he will rank as a very distinguished novelist. But, though he cultivated the drama with an assiduity as invincible as that displayed by the author of “Peg Woffington,” Robert Buchanan obtained in the theatre a success commensurate only with that scored by Charles Reade. A workmanlike and I should think a well-paid playwright he always remained, but he failed conspicuously to be anything save a second-rate and a quite negligible dramatist.
How explain this curious futility of effort? Futility it must certainly be called, for of the scores of plays which Robert Buchanan adapted or composed, is there a single one which will live as a piece of art? Such versions of foreign novels or plays as “Lady Clare,” “Partners,” “A Man’s Shadow,” “The Struggle for Life,” and “The Sixth Commandment” may be put aside at once as mere manipulation of scissors and paste. The costume plays— “Joseph’s Sweetheart,” “Miss Tomboy,” “Clarissa,” and “Dick Sheridan”—are nothing more than adroit falsifications of eighteenth century documents; while melodramas like “Alone in London,” “A Sailor and His Lass,” “Storm-Beaten,” “The Trumpet Call,” and “The Black Domino” only serve to show the fatal facility with which a man of letters can descend to transpontine romance.
There remain for consideration “The Bride of Love,” a poetic drama; “That Doctor Cupid,” a fantastic comedy; “The Romance of the Shop-Walker,” a farcical comedy; “The Charlatan,” a modern romantic drama; and “The Gifted Lady,” a skit directed against the theatre of Dr. Ibsen. Of these it need only be said that “The Bride of Love” is compact of stuff little better than the stage poetry of Merivale and Wills, that “The Charlatan” is about as valuable as a good third-rate novel, and that “The Gifted Lady” was a parody which exposed nothing save Mr. Buchanan’s Scotch facility for “joking with deeficulty.” The two comedies contain some rather good material. The Vaudeville play worked the notion of the bottle-imp rather prettily, caught too, sometime of the atmosphere of the penultimate century. And the Weedon Grossmith piece, though it scarcely extracted all the fun or all the romance from the shop-walker’s life, yet contrived to anticipate with no small success an idea subsequently developed by Mr. H. G. Wells.
Mr. Buchanan’s failure then as a dramatist cannot well be denied. It remains to seek the cause of this failure. Perhaps it may be discovered in the playwright’s reluctance to take his calling very seriously. The fact of the matter seems to be that, though he possessed that maid-of-all-work faculty which distinguished the eighteenth century man of letters, Mr. Buchanan was never willing to bring any fresh or original energy to his dramaturgical studies. He would adapt cleverly enough to the English taste a French novel or a French play. Knowing the stage sufficiently well, he could write a good second-rate farce, a good second-rate comedy of hoary sentiment. He could write a very bad melodrama; certainly he never wrote a good one. But a first-rate play of any kind, whether comedy, drama, or romantic play, he would not take the trouble to write. Himself a romanticist—if a melodramatic romanticist—he never brought himself seriously to consider modern spiritual and sexual problems, and he attacked those who did consider such problems. So he wrote not one single play of modern life which will survive. And, despite his love for romance, he produced—melodrama excepted—not one tolerable romantic drama. True he reduced his two best romances to plays, but he merely revealed the sensationalism of their scheme and converted them into, or shall I say revealed them as, picturesque melodrama. Robert Buchanan, in fact, failed in the theatre because he refused to bring his best work to the theatre, because he did not respect his craft.
F. G. B.
The Edinburgh Evening News (13 June, 1901 - p.2)
Little note seems to be taken of the fact that the late Mr Robert Buchanan enjoyed a Civil List pension of £100 from the time that he was 29 years of age.
The Dundee Evening Post (13 June, 1901 - p.2)
The late Mr Robert Buchanan was a good Scotsman spoiled by a bad liver. He wrote many novels and a great deal of poetry; but in literary circles in London he will be remembered chiefly for his cultivation of the gentle art of making enemies. His fixed idea that Barabbas was a publisher. He had been out of the world for a long time, and may a kindly earth rest lightly on his ashes.
The inscription Robert Buchanan wrote for his own grave was:—“Et ille in Bohemia fuit.”
Next: Robert Buchanan Obituaries - continued
[The Last Months of Robert Buchanan] [Obituaries 1] [Obituaries 2]
[Obituaries 3: Buchanan and Besant] [Obituaries 4: Buchanan and Besant 2]
[The Funeral of Robert Buchanan] [The Grave of Robert Buchanan]
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