ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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POEMS FROM OTHER SOURCES - 9

 

GRANDDAD IN THE INGLE.

 

I

All on a windy night of yule,
     When snow was falling white
We sat all warm in the marish farm
     Around the yule-logs bright.

The clock ticked low, and the wind did blow,
     And the snow was heaped and blown;
And we laughed and talked, but granddad sat
     As still as any stone.

As still he sat as a cold, gray stone
     Upon the lone sea-sands,
His thin, gray hair as white as foam,
     Like drifting weeds his hands.

His eyes were dead, and dull, and cold,
     As the jelly-fish on the rock,
His ears were closed, and his heart kept time
     To the ticking of the clock.

His cheeks were pale, his lips were dumb,
     He sat in the ingle-glow,
Still as a stone on the lone sea-sand,
     Though the tide doth come and go;

Though the sun may come on its moist, cold side,
     And make a glistering gleam;
Though the storm may dash, and the lightning flash,
     And the startled sea-bird scream.

Too late! too late! he is old, so old,
     He hears no human call;
He cannot smile, he cannot weep,
His blood flows on as dark as sleep -
     He lives, and that is all.

 

II

“Granddad, granddad, look up and speak
     To thy grandchild Marjorie!”
He does not stir, but sits and smiles,
     Like one who doth not see.

He sits and faintly feels the fire,
     And fondles his thin knees;
Flash the light, and rattle the log -
     He neither hears nor sees.

“Granddad! here is thy daughter Joan,
     Come o’er with Cousin Jane!”
“Ay, ay,” he cries, with a feeble flush,
     Then his soul shuts again.

“Ay, ay” - the words have a strange sea-sound
     As they leave his feeble lips,
Of the blowing wind and the tossing sea,
     And the men who sail in ships.

All year long he sat by the fire,
     And we had heard strange tales
Of his life of old, when he tossed and rolled
     Amid the lonesome gales.

And often when his chair was wheeled
     Without into the sun,
And he sat in the porch, we whispered low
     Of the deeds that he had done.

For round his life a mystery hung,
     No soul could wholly clear,
And we children had heard that he had been
     A bloody buccaneer;

That the stain of blood was on his hands,
     That his soul was black and deep,
That he had seen such sights as made
     His spirit shriek in sleep;

That the red, round gold his hands had gained
     Was dyed with blood of men;
And, as we spake, our voices sank,
     And we looked at him again.

Sometimes his face would flash to fire,
     And his hands would clutch his chair,
And some bloody scene within his soul
     Would shake him unaware.

Sometimes his cold lips would unclose,
     And talk in a strange tongue,
And his voice would quicken, his thin arms move,
     And all his ways grow young.

Sometimes his voice was fierce and loud,
     As if he trod the deck;
Sometimes he seemed to toil like men
     Who swim from ships a-wreck.

But ever the life he lived went on
     Within his soul alone;
To all the wash of the waves of life
     He kept as cold as stone.

Yet oft his face would lie in peace,
     As if he knew no sin,
With a light that came not from without,
     But issued from within;

A light like glistening light that sleeps
     On the wet rock by the sea,
As if his thoughts were all at rest,
And some blue heaven within his breast
     Was opening tranquilly.

 

III

Suddenly on that night of yule,
     While we sat whispering there,
The old worn shape waved up his arms,
     And sprang from out his chair.

“See, see!” he cried, and his hair was blown
     Around his brow and eyes;
He pointed with his skinny hand,
     And uttered eager cries.

“Now, granddad, granddad, sit thee down,
     There is no creature nigh!”
He answered not, but stood erect,
     With wildly-glistening eye.

“Hush! man the boats!” and in our sight
     Firm up and down he trod.
“Form line! who stirs a footstep dies!
     She’s sinking - pray to God!

“Nail down the hatches! If the slaves
     Climb up, we all must drown.
If one among them stirs a foot,
     Shoot, hew, and hack him down!

“Away - she sinks!” and both his ears
     He stopped as he did speak.
“Saved, saved!” he moaned, then trembling stood
     With tears upon his cheek.

“God pardon me, and cleanse my soul!”
     He murmured with thin moan,
Then raised his hands into the air,
     And dropped as dead as stone!

_____

 

‘Granddad In The Ingle’ was published in the March, 1874 edition of Cassell’s Magazine. It was reprinted in Appleton’s journal: a monthly miscellany of popular literature on March 14th, 1874 (Volume 11, Issue 260). It was reprinted in two anthologies published by Cassell, Gleanings From Popular Authors, Grave and Gay (Cassell & Co., 1882) and Gems from the Best Authors, Grave and Gay (Cassell & Co., 1887), accompanied by the following illustration:

grandad

Buchanan recycled the idea of the mute old man, haunted by something in his past, for the opening of his novel ‘God and the Man’ which was published in 1881.

_____

 

ERÔS ATHANATOS.

BY THE AUTHOR OF “WHITE ROSE AND RED.”
_____

 

[A GARDEN. THE NUPTIAL NIGHT OF HYACINTHUS AND IRENE.]

Two shapes that walk together, and caress,
Amid a garden sweet with silentness,
And watching every flower and pulsing star,
Share their souls’ rapture with all things that are.
Thro’ the wide casement, open to the sky,
White-footed gleams the bed where they shall lie;
And from the chamber, luminously dim,
Red marble steps slope downward to the brim
Of a white fountain in the garden, where
A marble dryad glimmers thro’ the air.
Scented the garden lies and blossom-strewn,
And still as sleep beneath the rising Moon,
Save from a blooming rose-grove warm and still
Soft steals the nightingale’s thick amorous trill.

 

HYACINTHUS.

SEEST thou two waifs of cloud in the dim blue
         Meandering moonward in the vap’rous light?
Methinks they are two spirits bright and true,
Blending their silvern breaths, and born anew,
         In the still rapture of this heavenly night!
See! how like flowers the stars their path bestrew,
Till the Moon turns, and smiles, and looks them thro’,
         Breathing upon them, when with bosoms white
         They melt on one another, and unite.
Now they are gone! they vanish from our view,
         Lost in that rapture exquisitely bright!
O love! my love! methinks that thou and I
         Resemble those thin waifs in Heaven astray;
We meet, we blend, grow bright!

 

IRENE.

                                       And we must die!

 

HYACINTHUS.

         Nay, sweet, for Love can never pass away!

 

IRENE.

Are they not gone? and, dear, shall we not go?
         O Love is life, but after life comes death!

 

HYACINTHUS.

No flower, no drop of rain, no flake of snow,
No beauteous thing that blossometh below,
         May perish, tho’ it vanish ev’n as breath!
The bright Moon drinks those wanderers of the west,
They melt in her warm beauty, and are blest.
We see them not, yet in that light divine
Upgather’d, they are happy, and they shine:
Not lost, but vanish’d, grown ev’n unawares
A part of a diviner life than theirs!

 

NIGHTINGALES SING.

Thro’ our throats the raptures rise,
In the scented air they swim;
From the skies,
With their own love-lustre dim,
Gaze innumerable eyes!—
Sweet, O sweet,
Grows the music from each throat,
Thick and fleet,
Note on note,
Till in ecstasy we float!

 

IRENE.

How vast looks Heaven! how solitary and deep!
     Dost thou believe that Spirits walk the air,
Treading those azure fields, and downward peep
With sad great eyes when Earth is fast asleep?

 

HYACINTHUS.

     One spirit, at least, immortal LOVE, walks there!

 

A SHOOTING STAR.

Swift from my bliss, in the silence above,
I slip to thy kiss, O my star! O my love!

 

SPIRITS IN THE LEAVES.

Who are these twain in the garden-bowers?
They glide with a rapture rich as ours.
Touch them, feel them, and drink their sighs,
Brush their lips and their cheeks and eyes!

How their hearts beat! how they glow!
Brightly, lightly, they come and go;
Upward gazing they look in bliss,
Save when softly they pause, to kiss.

Kiss them also and share the light
That fills their breathing this golden night.
Touch them! clasp them! round them twine,
Their lips are burning with dews divine.

 

HYACINTHUS.

Love, tread this way with rosy feet;
And resting on the shadowy seat
’Neath the laburnum’s golden rain,
Watch how with murmurous refrain
The fountain leaps, its basin dark
Flashing in many a starry spark.
With such a bliss, with such a light,
With such an iteration bright,
Our souls upbubbling from the clay,
Leap, sparkle, blend in silvern spray,
Gleam in the Moon, and, falling still,
Sink duskily with a thick thrill,
Together blent with kiss and press,
In the dark silence of caress.
Yet there they pause not, but, cast free
After surcease of ecstasy,
Heavenward they leap together clinging,
And like the fountain flash, upspringing!

 

THE FOUNTAIN LEAPING.

Higher, still higher!
     With a trembling and gleaming
     Still upward streaming,
In the silvern fire
Of a dim desire;
Still higher, higher,
     With a bright pulsation
     Of aspiration,—
Higher!

Higher, still higher!
     To the lights above me;
     They gleam, they love me,
They beckon me nigher,
And my waves aspire,
Still higher, higher;—
     But I fall down failing,
     Still wildly wailing—
Higher!

 

NIGHTINGALES SING.

Deeper let the glory glow;
Sweeter let our voices croon!
Yet more slow,
Let our happy music flow,
Sweet and slow, hush’d and low,
Now the gray cloud veils the Moon.
Sweet, O sweet!
Watch her as our wild hearts beat.
See! she quits the clasping cloud,
Forth she sails on silvern feet,
Smiling with her bright head bow’d!
Pour the living rapture loud!
Thick and fleet,
Sweet, O sweet,
Let the notes of rapture crowd!

 

IRENE (to herself).

And this is Love!—Until this hour
I never lived; but like a flower
Close prest i’ the bud, with sleeping senses,
I drank the dark dim influences
Of sunlight, moonlight, shade, and dew.
At last I open, thrilling thro’
With Love’s strange scent, which seemeth part
Of the warm life within my heart,
Part of the air around. O bliss!
Was ever night so sweet as this?
It is enough to breathe, to be,
As if one were a flower, a tree,
A leaf o’ the bough, just stirring light
With the warm breathing of the night!

 

SPIRITS IN THE LEAVES.

Whisper, what are they doing now?
He is kissing his lady’s brow,
Holding her face up to the light
Like a beautiful tablet marble-white.

The Moon is smiling upon it—lo!
Whiter it is than driven snow,
He kisses again and speaketh gay;
Whisper, whisper, what doth he say?

 

HYACINTHUS.

For ever and ever! for ever and ever!
     As the fount that upleaps, as the breezes that blow,
                         Love thou me!
For ever and ever, for ever and ever,
     While the nightingales sing and the rose garlands glow,
                         Love I thee!
For ever and ever, with all things to prove us,
In this world, in that world that bendeth above us,
Asleeping, awaking, in earth, as in Heaven,
By this kiss, this other, by thousands ungiven,
By the hands which now touch thee, the arms that enfold thee,
By the soul in my eyes that now swoons to behold thee,
By starlight, by moonlight, by scented rose-blossoms,
By all things partaking the joy of our bosoms,
By the rapture within us, the rapture around us,
By God who has made us and Love who hath crown’d us,
One sense and one soul we are blent, ne’er to sever.
For ever and ever! for ever and ever!
More kisses to seal it.——For ever and ever!

 

THE WOOD ECHOES.

     For ever and ever!

 

THE WIND SINGS.

Hush, no more—for they are fled.
Foot by foot and tread by tread
I pursue them; all is said,
Till Apollo rises red.

Here they sat, and there, and there!
Here stood clinging thou may’st swear,
For the spirit of the air
Still their scented breath doth bear.

All is done, and all grows chill.
Here upon the window-sill
I will lean and feel a thrill
From the sleeping chamber still.

Blow the curtain back and peep:
Silvern bright the moonbeams creep.
Hush! Still pale with passion deep,
See them lying, fast asleep.

                                                               ROBERT BUCHANAN.

_____

 

’Erôs Athanatos’ was published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, May, 1874.

_____

 

THE LAST POET.

A VISION.

BY ROBERT BUCHANAN.
_____

 

     “If ever there should come a time when MAN, having measured heavens and
earth, counted the ocean drop by drop, fathomed the ether and all therein, shall
proclaim that there is no God but one—his own image glass’d in the rapid river of
Time—all things perchance may bring him the worship he deemeth due; but if
there be left in the world one
POET, Man’s self-constituted deity will not arise
without such a protest as may shake the very foundations of Nature itself.

EDELMAN’S “ERINDRINGER.”
     “Of the World will be made a World-Machine, of the Ether a Gas, of God a
Force, and of the Second World——a Coffin!
JEAN PAUL.

 

I HAD a dream, and saw him. All the rest
Were dead, or worse than dead; but he survived,
Old, gaunt, aple, famine-stricken, hugging rags
To keep him from the bleak breath of the wind.
God help him! God’s last Poet! the last Soul
Who kept his faith in God!

                                     The lonely Earth,
His Mother, and the gray Mother of all men,
Was older by a thousabd years than now,
And on her hair Eternity’s thin snow
Was visible already; and for long
All mortals had forgotten their old thirst
And stifled their old hunger. They had search’d
The Ocean to its depths, soar’d into air
Higher than living eagle ever soar’d
In wingëd chariots soft as eagle-plumes,
Measured the stars, set right by their hearts’ throbbings
The tangled clockwork of the Sun and Moon,
Clomb to the peaks and seized the hand of air
That smoothed the snow and poised the avalanche,
Tamed all things to their bidding—Thunder, Frost,
Fever, and Lightning with his luminous eyes.
Then hating gloom and the dim sheen of stars,
They hung the world with variegated lamps,
Sapphire, and ruby, and chalcedony,
So that Night was not. Then the Poets cried,
Flinging their wild hair backward, “Pause a space!
Kneel now,—give thanks to GOD!”

                                                 Up rose to heaven,
Like one vast tidal wave, supremely strong,
The mocking laugh of men. “To God? what God?”
They cried—“all gods are dead, dissolved, destroyed—
Zeus, Astaroth, Brahm, Odin, Christ, Menu,
Balder, Pan, Demiurgus, all are dead,—
But Man survives,—Man, God unto himself,
Potent, serene, calm, strong, and beautiful,—
Man who hath strangled Sin and conquer’d Night,—
Kneel now, and worship him!” Half mockingly,
With kingly smile they knelt, these sons of Man,
And many of their Poets also knelt,
Singing aloud.

                 That passed. All struggle passed.
Pain was not, nor starvation, nor unrest;
For every living thing was clothed and fed,
And calmly, slowly, like a Titan’s heart,
Thrill’d the still tide of life. Much peace abode
With mortals; for the voice of Wars was hush’d,
The restless cried of Poets died away,
And Pestilence, and Sorrow, and Disease
Had gone away with all the other gods.

At last, all men were busy and content
(Since all was known that mortals cared to know,
And all was gain’d that mortals cared to gain),
Coming and going in the happy light
Of variegated lamps a thousandfold,
And one Man only—old, pale, desolate
(Ev’n as in a dream I saw him)—crept away
In silence, to a silent place [for yet
One still was silent, where the dead were sleeping];
And there he found the Earth, his Mother, in tears,
Sitting alone, with her blind orbs upgazing,
As if they felt a light they could not see.

He crept upon her breast, and round him softly
Trembled her wasting arms. “Why dost thou weep,
Dear Mother?” said he, weeping too. Her lips,
Dumb as in the beginning, answer’d not.
“Mother,” he murmured, “who is coming yonder,
Silently, with a light in his right hand?”
She answer’d not, but seemed to clutch him closer;
For down the tombs a silent Shadow came—
A Shadow with a lamp. “I know him, mother!
It is my Father’s Son, my Brother Death,
The last sad spirit that still walks unslain.
All’s o’er; he comes to raze me with the rest.
But first uplift me, high as thou canst reach,
Into the air—up, up, in thy strong arms,
That like a lark, prest close against the blue,
I sing my last strong song!”

                                   The Shadow crept
Nearer, but waited. In her trembling arms
The mighty Mother lifted up her son,
High, high as is the highest mountain peak.
And lo, again he saw the stars, and felt
Their light upon his eyelids blown like breath.
Then sang he! In my dream I heard that song:
Despairing, yet in scorn ineffable,
It rang thro’ heaven, one perpetual note,
Like the one trill-trill of the nightingale,
And all the umbrage of the upper heaven
Was hush’d around it like dark forest leaves.

 

THE POET’S SONG.

He clasps the strong Stream by the hair,
He links the Avalanche to its lair,
All things obey him, frail or fair—
He sits as gods sat, god down there.

The vast Sea like a human frame
Bends to his bidding; Frost and Flame
Fly eager at his finger aim;
The Lightning like a serpent tame

Coils round his neck; before his look
Each god hath withered in his nook.
Under the might of his rebuke
Pan died and Demiurgus shook.

Man the god or god the Man,
Greater than Odin, Zeus, or Pan,
All blooms according to his plan,
All withers underneath his ban.

All things that are beneath the sky
Obey him as he passeth by,
All things save only Death and I:
Death smiles and lives; I smile and die.

O Father! Father! God Supreme!
Light! Passion! Glory! Rapture! Dream!
Thou who hast served with silent gleam
A thousand poets for a theme!

All these are dumb, and one alone,
About to clasp within his own
His brother Death’s hand, cold as stone,
Cries to Thee, flies to Thee, sees Thy Throne.

Like to the thin prick of a star,
Throbbing deep down the Void afar!—
Thou art not as those dead gods are,
Crush’d underneath Man’s conquering car.

Oh, blest be Death, the sweet, the still,
The last calm servant of Thy Will;
Sweet as the cool lips of a rill
His kiss will come, his love fulfil

Thy love, my Father! Gentle-eyed
Thou and Thy servant both abide:
Take me, while this last song is sighed,
From Man the mocker, deified.

And as for him, the great god-Man,
Chief of earth’s gods since Time began,
Forgive him! Pardon his wild plan
The Void to plumb, the Arch to span,

Seeking Thee never. For a space
Let him drink godhead in his place,
Lord of the reason, fair of face,
God of the human, race by race.

Then, smite him gently! With a kiss
Let Death unloose him from his bliss.
Unking’d, let him depart like this,
And softly slip to the Abyss!

 

Ev’n so he sang. Then suddenly the Voice
Was hush’d, the fond arms set their burthen down,
The Shadow crept up close, and bent above him,
Flashing its Lamp on the dead Poet’s face,
And lo! ’twas smiling like a sleeping child’s!

_____

 

‘The Last Poet’ was published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, June, 1874.

_____

 

THE GOD-LIKE LOVE.

BY ROBERT BUCHANAN.
_____

 

I.

IN bright Hellas, long ago,
Did fair mortals come and go
In a larger light than ours,—
     For the gods came earthward, passing
Thro’ its sunshine and its showers.

Gods who God’s creation trod,
They were seraphim of God:
Zeus the Lover, fair and white,
     Hermes too, with blue eyes glassing
All life’s revel, all love’s light!

Then Agenor’s child beheld
How the mystic glory well’d
From the breast of the Divine;
     Then did Leda seek her lover
On the waters crystalline;

Then round Danaë’s naked form
Fell that lustre golden-warm
With the thrill of kisses bright,
     While the Blest One bent above her
In the silence of the night.

Very beautiful and fair,
With a glory on their hair,
With a secret in their eyes,
     Walk’d these gods, these sweet Immortals,
Down the darkness of the skies.

Yea, and Erôs!—one and all,
In the night, with soft foot-fall,
Crept they down the starry stair,
     And they paused at human portals,
And they hung their garlands there.

Then, O Erôs, thou wast young!
And thy twinkling lamps were hung
Round the white bed of the Bride:
     She lay waiting, she lay dozing,
She lay dreaming, drowsy-eyed.

And the nightingales around
Sooth’d her swooning soul with sound,
While the pale Moon shrank her beam,
     Till, her queenly lids unclosing,
Psyche look’d upon her Dream!

Then, indeed, Love lived below!
When Earth’s vestal souls might glow
On the bosoms of the Best,
     With one kiss of fire might capture
Love or Death, and so be blest.

Tho’ the godlike Form might fly,
Yet the wonder could not die—
’Twas enough for souls supine
     To have sipt life’s honest rapture,
To have known the Love Divine.

 

II.

O nightingales, last night,
While the leaves thrill’d silvern white
’Neath the cold feet of the Moon,
     Here in England, by still waters,
I could hear your voices croon.

Yet not so ye sang of old,
For your melody seem’d cold,
Cold and cheerless, sad and still,—
     And the sweetest of Love’s daughters
Listen’d too, and felt no thrill.

All is ended! all is done!
They are perish’d, every one!
E’en as shapes of marble stone,
     In the dark Earth’s silent places,
Lie those gods, all overthrown!

There they linger dark and dim,
Shatter’d, broken, limb by limb,
In the woods of pine and yew—
     And a white Christ’s silent face is
Bent above them, turning too

Into marble. Nevermore
Will they walk on sea or shore,
Nevermore will those gods teach
     The immortal love and glory,
The immortal kiss and speech.

Only one survives; and he
Walks in silence by the Sea,
While the sparkling waters laugh:
     It is Erôs, old and hoary,
Leaning heavy on a staff.

For he looketh on the Main,
Sighing, “Nevermore again
Will my brethren lift the head,
     And the hearts of men are frozen,
And the Love Divine seems dead.”

 

III.

O Woman-Soul! O thou
Of the pale-as-marble brow!
Be of courage, tho’ no more
     Down from Heaven comes the Chosen,
Whom thy bosom doth adore.

“Whom the Love Divine doth bless,
Shall be ne’er content with less!”
And that Love doth still arise—
     Thou wilt know him, by the beauty
Of the heavenly lips and eyes!

Tho’ a lower love have rest
On the pillow of thy breast,
Thou shalt cast that love aside,
     And shalt follow in deep duty
Where the god-like Love doth guide.

Thou shalt follow, sense and soul,
Tho’ the tempest round thee roll,
Wheresoe’er Love’s feet shall wend—
     Yea, tho’ all thy life be wasted,
And thou lose him in the end.

Tho’ thou lose him, ev’n as they,
In the ages pass’d away,
Lost their gods; thou too shalt cry:—
     “’Tis enough once to have tasted
Love immortal, tho’ it fly!

“I have loved, and I am wise,
I am proven, I arise
To thy statue, O my Dream!
     And upon my head there lingers
Thy deep consecrated gleam!

“Thou hast left me, thou art lost,
And I sit with soft hands cross’d
Praying here:—and unaware
     Comes the thrill of thy soft fingers
On my brow and on my hair.

“Thou hast left me, but I know
Something stays that cannot go,
Something lives that cannot flee:
     I have found my Soul; say rather,
Thou didst find that Soul for me!

“Tho’ I lose, my loss is gain!
Tho’ thou ne’er wilt come again,
On the very path we trod,
     Stooping silently, I gather
The immortelle-flowers of God!”

_____

‘The God-like Love’ was published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, October, 1874.

_____

 

THE BATTLE OF ISANDÚLA.

(Zululand, January 2, 1879.)

 

IN the wilds of Isandúla, far away,
The little band of British soldiers lay,
     When a warning voice cried, “Fly!
     For the savage swarms are nigh!
     See, they loom in war-array
         Against the sky!
     Ere they come in all the might
     Of their legions black as night,
Form in order and take flight from Isandúla.”

Then our soldiers look in one another’s eyes, . . .
Less in terror than in wondering surmise,
     And a cold breath of despair
     Seems to chill the golden air,
     When a voice of thunder cries:
         “Men, prepare!
     Though no human help be by,
     We are here our strength to try,
Yea, to keep the camp, or die in Isandúla!”

So an English cheer arises wild and shrill,
As they form and face the onset with a will,
     For clearly now each one
     Can see the black hordes run
     Swift as wolves across the hill
         In the sun—
     They can see the host at last
     Coming terrible and vast,
Like a torrent, rolling fast on Isandúla! . . .

Soon upon them in their living thousands fell
The blacks like screaming devils out of Hell,
     Swarming down in mad desire
     As our gunners open’d fire—
     At that thunder, with shrill yell,
         They swept nigher!
     “Fire!” again the order ran,
     As the bloody strife began
With the lion-hearted van, at Isandúla.

’Tis to struggle with the avalanche’s force!
It enwraps them, it consumes them, in its course;
     Round the guns its dark floods flow,
     See, the gunners gasping low!
     It o’erwhelms them, foot and horse,
         At a blow!
     “Retreat!” the voice hath cried,
     And in order, steadfast-eyed,
They stem that sable tide at Isandúla.

Back to back, all sides surrounded, slowly led,
Their fire upon the foe, they downward tread;
     While at last the sable stream,
     Sweeping on them, teeth agleam,
     Before their crimson lead
         Pause and scream!
     And at that another cheer
     Arises wild and clear,
And the foe fall back to hear, in Isandúla!

But ’tis only for an instant they refrain,
At the challenge of that cheer they shriek again,
     They swarm on every hand
     O’er the little steadfast band,
     Till again, the crimson rain
         Makes them stand!
     Like a torrent—nay, a sea!—
     They roll onward bloodily,
But no white man turns to flee from Isandúla!

Still as stone, our soldiers face the savage crew—
“Fix your bayonets! die as English soldiers do!”
     It is done—all stand at bay—
     But their strength is cast away;
     And the black swarms shriek anew
         As they slay!
     Ah, God! the battle-throes!
     With their dead for shields, they close,—
Where the slaughter ebbs and flows, in Isandúla!

And as fast as one form falls, another springs—
They are tigers, not like human-hearted things—
     Surging onward they abound,
     With a clangour of shrill sound,
     With a clash of shields, like wings
         Waving round!
     As our brave men one by one
     Fall death-smitten in the sun,
O’er their corpses legions run, in Isandúla!

“Save the colours!” shrieks a dying voice, and lo!
Two horsemen breast the raging ranks, and go—
     (In thy sacred list, O Fame!
     Keep each dear and noble name!*)
     See, they flash upon the foe,
         Fierce as flame—
     And one undaunted form
     Lifts a British banner, warm
With the blood-rain and the storm of Isandúla!

“Save the colours!” and amidst a flood of foes,
At gallop, sword in hand, each horseman goes—
     Around the steeds they stride
     Cling devils crimson-dyed,
     But God! through butchering blows,
         How they ride!
     Their horses’ hooves are red
     With blood of dying and dead,
Trampled down beneath their tread at Isandúla!

“Save the colours!”—They are saved—and side by side
The horsemen swim a raging river’s tide—
     They are safe—they are alone—
     But one, without a groan,
     After tottering filmy-eyed,
         Drops like stone;
     And before his comrade true
     Can reach his side, he too
Falls, smitten through and through at Isandúla! . . .

Bless the Lord, who in the hollow of His hand,
Kept the remnant of that little British band!
     But give honour everywhere
     To the brave who perish’d there,
     Speak their praise throughout the land
         With a prayer—
     More than sorrow they can claim:
     They have won the crown of Fame!
They have glorified the name of Isandúla!

                                                                   ROBERT BUCHANAN.

* Lieut. Nevill Josiah Aylmer Coghill (24th Regt.), Lieut. Teignmouth Melvill (24th Regt.), both killed while escaping with the colours, Jan. 22, 1879.

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‘The Battle of Isandúla’ was published in the Contemporary Review (April, 1879 - p.153-156). The Guardian (4 April, 1879 - p.6) described it as follows:

     ‘The Contemporary Review contains a poem on “Isandula” by Mr. Robert Buchanan. Its versification is spirited, but it cannot be said to be on the whole successful. In particular, there is an obvious jar in speaking of the Zulus as “devils,” “tigers,” &c. This is not the way in which brave men or the bards who worthily sing brave men’s deeds speak of opponents in fair fight.’

The poem is particularly interesting given Buchanan’s regular anti-war and anti-Empire stance - one presumes that was the reason it was not included in The Poetical Works of 1884. The battle of Isandula (or Isandlwana - best pronounced with a Welsh accent and the mellifluous tones of Richard Burton as in the prologue to the 1964 film, Zulu) took place on 22nd. January 1879 (the date is misprinted in the subtitle but corrected in the footnote) and, according to Wikipedia, it remains “the greatest British military defeat at the hands of native forces in history.”

(I’d like to thank Phil Johnson of Keele University Library for originally taking the time to find, scan and send me a copy of the poem.)

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