REMINISCENCES OF BUCHANAN (2)
Some Celebrities I Have Known by A. Stodart Walker (from Chambers’s Journal - 16 January and 13 February, 1909).
[Note: Archibald Stodart Walker wrote a series of four articles under this title for Chambers’s Journal, beginning in the issue of 19th December, 1908 and ending in the issue of 3rd April, 1909. The section dealing with Robert Buchanan was split over the two intervening issues.]
At home I met many Scotsmen of letters—James Grant, William Black, Alexander Nicholson, Dr Walter Smith, Mr Barrie, Sir Noel Paton, Mr Sellar, Sir Douglas Maclagan, Dr John Brown, Robertson Smith, and others; but of all the personalities that appealed to me by its essential ‘bigness,’ that of Robert Buchanan easily came first. If there ever lived a man who on the surface was the possessor of a definite dual personality, that was the author of The City of Dream and Undertones. To the general member of the great republic of letters Robert Buchanan was often a thorn in the flesh. He seemed to possess the remarkable capacity of quarrelling with nearly every fellow of his craft; with this rider: he always maintained an easy friendship with such men as Lecky, Herbert Spencer, Browning, and Tennyson, and it must not be deduced from this that I infer that all the men with whom he crossed swords were of the smaller fry. His antagonists included Swinburne, Matthew Arnold, and a few of the men of letters who hold at this moment a large place in public estimation. From his own deliberate choice he became, as he called himself, ‘The Ishmael of Song,’ and an Ishmael with the instincts of a fighter. The very curious anomaly in Buchanan’s character was that though he had the best of the combat, he complained that he was unfairly treated in having to fight at all, even though he was the first to put on the gloves. At the beginning of a campaign he, indeed, shook his plumes with fiery glee. Often have I received a letter from him commencing something after this fashion: ‘I am preparing a grand broadside for So-and-so.’ ‘Did you see that X. dares to patronise me in the ——? Look out in Saturday’s ——. You will see that I don’t take this kind of thing lying down.’ And yet, in the spirit of the coster song, ‘He would black your eye one moment and stand a pint the next.’ The spirit of pity never deserted him, and he did not conceive it possible for him to bear a lifelong enmity. One thing is absolutely certain, and is worth remembering by those who complain of Buchanan’s belligerent methods. With the single exception of his anonymous attack on Rossetti—which he withdrew and apologised for in the most graceful and poetical way—he never attacked a man in the press without putting his name on the literary weapon.
For many years I was one of Buchanan’s most intimate friends. We were as opposite temperamentally as the poles are geographically, but during all the years I enjoyed his comradeship we never once came even to the borderland of a quarrel. In private life he was remarkably patient and sympathetic, and was possessed of that first of all virtues, a sense of humour, without which companionship is impossible. He was of a surety a triumph of personality. He seemed an anachronism in the nineteenth century. His blood was too hot, he was too impatient, too downright, too pagan, too Bohemian, too thoroughly irrespectable, for the graceful ways of modern civilisation. He was Richard Steele, Robert Burns, Heine, Charles Dickens, and Walt Whitman rolled into one, with this qualification—if it be necessary—he never was an amorist at large and he never was intemperate. His brain, indeed, was eclectic and nineteenth century, but his heart was of the seventeenth and the eighteenth. He had a marked dislike for bigwigs and crowned authorities, whether in politics, religion, or literature, and an equal disdain of the charlatan and the Pecksniff. He loved Scotland, but he was intolerant to Edinburgh; and when I was first introduced to him, and was indicated as a member of the teaching staff of the Medical Faculty of the University, he immediately labelled me ‘the village apothecary.’
He was full of the joy of living, and heaped bushels of scorn on the dreary crowd of literary undertakers whom he labelled ‘the dismal throng.’ But even at times his own optimism—in the face of failure, neglect, and ill-health—would occasionally waver. ‘It’s all very well,’ he wrote to me once, ‘for me to croak anathema on the Dismal Folk, but I’m a dismal, self-tormenting creature myself; and as for the joy of life, my share in it is a flickering candle. Friday next is my birthday. I shall keep it in the coal-cellar, with a sheet around me and ashes on my head. Why the deuce was I ever born?’ ‘I have had the usual experience of original men,’ he wrote at another time. ‘My worst work has been received with more or less toleration, and my best work misunderstood or neglected; while the self-authorised critical pilots who haunt the shallows of journalism have agreed that I am a factious and opinionated mariner, doomed, like my own Dutchman in The Outcast, to eternal damnation because, like my prototype, I have once or twice been provoked to violent language. For nearly a generation I have suffered a constant literary persecution. Even the good Samaritans have passed me by. Yet I survive, as you know, and may even call myself contented, hating no man, fearing no man, envying no man. Few men, however, have had to struggle harder even for the merest food and air.’
Of his kindness to me I cannot write in cold ink. It was the embodiment of unselfish generosity, and when I recall the hundreds of little acts of charity performed for others I sometimes wonder why he had so few friends. To me he seemed the most exhilarating and absorbing of men, despite our divergence at myriads of points, in conduct, thought, and belief. Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that most people love the easy-souled paths of diplomatic agreement, which at any rate did not appeal to me when I was younger. He was never squint-brained or knock-kneed in his thoughts. If he were wrong his fallacies were superb. Right or wrong, he was ‘a whole-hogger.’ His inconsistencies were not puny—they were magnificent; he had not the faults of a pigmy but those of a giant. His pawns were not little fishes but big men and big things. He did not fight with a rapier but with a two-edged sword. His aspirations were not towards Chinese lanterns but towards the stars. He hated a snigger; he preferred the hearty laugh or the uncompromising frown. He had no time for an anæmic Mephistopheles, but was quite willing to try conclusions with a full-blooded Satan. This was the man as I found him, given to sad hack-work at times, but capable of superb efforts in literature; and as for his position on the slopes of Parnassus, his time has not yet come.
When the sediment of his work has all been riddled out, it will be found that in his City of Dream, his Undertones, his Ballad of Mary the Mother, his New Rome, he has bequeathed a precious legacy to those whose literary and moral ideals are a little more ambitious than the gutter and the village pump. I have used the word ‘sediment’ advisedly, for Buchanan drew a big distinction between his serious literary efforts and his merely hack-work. And nothing irritated him more than the fact that the world was more familiar with the latter than with the former. His melodramas and his stories had a vogue, and were familiar to many who had never heard of The Wandering Jew or The City of Dream. ‘It makes me savage,’ he wrote to me, ‘when people rave over my inferior efforts and ignore the aftermath of a long life’s thought and aspiration. I find that many people are quite ignorant of my best writings even when considerably interested in me as an author. I never dream of inflicting you with my pot-boilers. I shall send you any work of mine which possesses my own affection, as this [The Devil’s Case] does. This is a book, by the way, which will be torn in pieces and boycotted, which will be thought by many to be the very acme of human blasphemy; but it is true for all that, and will live. I had just finished it when my beloved mother died, and for a time I hesitated about publishing it, and I do so now because I am convinced that she would have approved it, for even in her last illness she clearly and penetratingly held her old eclectic faith. This is the dedication to her, which I transcribe for the first time, and send to you, my dear Walker:
(Nov. 5th, 1894).
While the life-blood was spun
From the heart in her breast,
She look’d on her son,
Smiled, and rock’d him to rest. . . .
How swift the hours run
From the east to the west!
Erect stood the son,
And the mother was blest!
Of all the joys won,
Love like his seem’d the best;
He was ever the son
Whom she rock’d on the breast.
Yet lo! all is done!
(’Twas, my God, Thy behest!)
In his turn, the gray son
Rocks the mother to rest.
All is o’er, ere begun!
Oh my dearest and best,
Sleep in peace, till thy son
Creepeth back to thy breast!’
It may he noted that this differs markedly from the poem as afterwards printed in The Devil’s Case.
Shortly after the appearance of The Devil’s Case I prepared a study of the historical and literary Devil, and a letter which Buchanan wrote me on the subject is noteworthy: ‘What you say about the Devil is very interesting. My Devil is different from all the rest (Milton’s, Marlowe’s, Luther’s, Goethe’s, Calderon’s, and Byron’s), so far as he is really God-evolving, as the spirit of knowledge and sympathy, as opposed to the creeds which say knowledge is evil. Goethe’s Mephisto is as crude a conception as even the Scotch Deil—mere intellect without heart, whereas I hold that intellect implies heart, and true knowledge holiness. Goethe’s typical woman—e.g. Marguerite—is a fool; it is because she is ignorant, not because she is good, that she falls; whereas Goethe poses her as the type of purity and finally as the Eternal Feminine. But it is pure ignorance that makes her spell-bound by the jewels, and leads her to poison her mother and kill her child. My Devil would have saved her, Goethe’s monkey-devil destroys her easily. Goethe, in fact, took the vulgar view. Hence the vogue of his poem.’
Buchanan’s reference to the Scotch Deil I find in another of his letters in my possession: ‘I propose to introduce you, as expressed in your stimulating and suggestive volume, The Struggle for Success, as one of the characters in a forthcoming work of mine on Burns, which I hope to get out before the Centenary. I shall also present that brave old Scot—a man in an age of pigmies—Professor Blackie, and perhaps also that other warm-hearted and big-brained Highlander, Norman Macleod. Blackie and Macleod seem to me to stand quite alone in the history of modern Scotland. My book will make some Scotsmen squirm! ’Tis an odd work, and will greatly tickle you. The following will be the title, or something like it: “The Land of ‘the Deil’: a Story for the Burns Centenary, including the Paradox of Scottish Civilisation, with a Preface by the Devil.” What do you think of that, my limmer?’ As far as I am able to gather, that suggestive volume was only planned and never carried far in its execution.
Buchanan was a man who was constantly in difficulties in regard to money matters, and at one time his coffers were full, at another desperately empty. He would send me an urgent wire asking me to join him on his yacht or to shoot over his moor, and a year after he would be hard at work to make himself the possessor of a living wage. He was extraordinarily improvident, and gave money away right and left to those who appealed to his sympathy—broken-down actors, starving men of letters, helots of the turf, unfortunate women. I found it extremely difficult to get him to accept any money due to him for transactions undertaken for me. If I asked him, ‘How much do I owe you, Bard?’ he invariably answered in the same strain, ‘Eight thousand five hundred and nineteen pounds four shillings and seven pence,’ or ‘Give me half a million, and we will cry quits.’ If we dined together casually, one, two, six of us, he invariably managed to get hold of the bill and pay it. This trick of his, of course, became familiar, and we seldom asked him to dinner unless we had arranged the matter beforehand with the powers that be. When he discovered that fact he would say, ‘Oh, this is a duke’s affair! All right, I expect to be treated as in a ducal mansion.’ It was the same with cabs and trains. He was a large, stout man, but he had a curious faculty of reaching the cabman’s hand or the ticket-office before the slimmest of us.
He was a confirmed turf-speculator—a strange pursuit for a singer of songs and dreamer of dreams; and it need hardly be said he lost far more than he gained; but when he was successful—and occasionally his winnings were large—he always managed to find a means of sharing his good fortune with those less privileged than himself. One of his many methods of telling white lies was this: ‘How are you, X.? I owe you twenty pounds.’ ‘This is the first I have heard of it,’ would likely be the reply. ‘Oh, I took the liberty of putting a sovereign on King Charles for you, and he started at 20 to 1;’ and forthwith he handed over the money. ‘I say, Spider,’ he once called to one of those many vagabond mercenaries who frequent the turf, ‘there’s a fiver for you. I put it on Seaton Deleval in your name, and she came in at 5 to 1.’ The lie was evident enough to us, but as it was intended to relieve the recipient of a feeling of obligation, it was generously conceived—and even in the books of the recording angel probably forgiven.
No man that I ever knew was so loyal to friendship, no one was so imbued with the religion of blood and friend attachment, as Buchanan; and the only real fear that oppressed him, when he drew near the valley of the dark shadow, was that his loyal friend, a devoted young sister-in-law and adopted daughter, might be left penniless. The death of his mother had been the great grief of his latter days. ‘I have laid her to rest at Southend,’ he wrote to me, ‘in a beautiful graveyard by the sea, close to places where she used to be happy. What I shall do now I hardly know. My wits seem numbed, my whole grasp of things gone. Sometimes I hardly seem to grieve at all; at others all my desolation comes back like a torrent. I thought on Sunday last that my own last hour had come, I was so worn out with watching and sorrowing. I absolutely think my reason was saved by a large dose of a homeopathic drug (ignatia amara), which turned my anguish into a sort of horrid apathy, but saved my nervous system from total collapse. In my terrible trial my dear Harriet has proved a blessed comforter, and in more ways than one my darling’s death has been fraught with blessing. Friends who had grown bitter against me came back for her sake, and gave me their hands. All her influence has been good and holy, like herself. There was never such a mother. The world can never match such a love. I would give everything now for such faith as I once felt. I seem to have none. And then what is left if we abandon the idea of eternal life, as reason teaches us to do? Only a horrible nightmare, a devil’s dream.’ ‘My only prayer now is,’ he wrote at another time, ‘that I may live for a year or two to complete certain work. I am miserable, too, because if I go now my dear and only companion, the purest and sweetest angel that has ever come to me in this dark life, will be left penniless, at the mercy of the world. That is really all I care for, and all that unmans me at the thought of death.’
My recollections of Robert Buchanan would be incomplete did I not include a fragment of his which I value highly as being the last verses he ever wrote, and which I was able to publish in a small volume sold privately, and may now reach a larger audience. They seem to me to embody the very essence of Buchanan’s final attitude to the eternities:
‘Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief!’
I murmur’d ’mid the snowstorm of my grief;
Dark as the sunless pall
The folds of darkness fall,
Closing my life’s dim day, so strange, so brief!
Lord, I believe; and yet, O Lord, how chill
And frozen grows the faith I cling to still!
Once it was bright and sweet,
Swift as a young man’s feet,
Fair as a young maid’s smile, strong as a warrior’s will.
The dumb and wistful yearning and desire
Through these dark clouds of sense to something higher,
All the long, lonely years,
I’ve sung through smiles and tears,
But now my hand drops heavily down the lyre!
And lo! instead of gladsome faëry gold,
A few black withered leaves are all I hold.
Help then mine unbelief!
Comfort Thy child’s last grief,
Stoop to Thy wandering sheep, and bear him to Thy fold!
The first line of the third stanza is evidently borrowed from R. H. Hutton’s criticism of the poet: ‘The dumb, wistful yearning in man to something higher—yearning such as the animal creation showed in the Greek period towards the human—has not as yet found any interpreter equal to Buchanan,’ an opinion shortly afterwards seconded by George Henry Lewes, who said: ‘He must unquestionably attain an exalted rank amongst the poets of this century, and produce works which cannot fail to be accepted as incontestably great and worthy of the world’s preservation.’ ‘Whilst such works as The City of Dream are produced by Robert Buchanan,’ said Mr Lecky, ‘it cannot be said that the artistic spirit in English literature has very seriously decayed.’
In my many wanderings with Buchanan he took me to see two men whose personalities interested me deeply. These were the Hon. Roden Noel and Mr Herbert Spencer. Mr Noel was essentially the man as poet, gentle, retiring, unassuming, and cultured; he had no axes to grind nor logs to roll. He reminded me, with his big flap-collar and the lock of hair which made vagabond wanderings over his finely shaped forehead, of certain portraits of Byron, though it need hardly be said that there was little likeness between the two men either in literary quality or in character. Mr Noel was no publicist, and shunned at all times the methods of the artistic adventurer. He had all the traditional characteristics of the reticent and diffident poet, though in private the warmth of his nature and the generous enthusiasm of his ideals made of him a man beloved. Mr Herbert Spencer was a different counter altogether. The mathematical precision with which he carried out his scheme of life has already been noticed by more than one writer. When first I went to call upon him alone, he took his watch from his pocket and laid it on the table beside him, and remarked, ‘I must not allow myself to speak to you for more than a quarter of an hour.’ Consequently, at the end of the appointed time our conversation ended suddenly, and we both fell back upon a marked silence, like the ends of a snapped elastic. I rose to go, but he permitted himself to explain that he hoped his silence would not rob him of the pleasure of my staying to lunch. I accordingly picked up a book till such a time as the oracle would deign to speak. At that time I think I was as convinced a Spencerian as Tolstoi’s hero in Resurrection or Kipling’s ‘Harry Chunder Mookergee.’ Like many another, I fancy, at that time I could have as little omitted the name of Mr Spencer from any of my quondam philosophical writings as the modern woman-novelist could omit quoting from Omar Khayyám. I remember our conversation dealt chiefly with the absence of the cult of satire from modern literature, and he expressed himself in much the same language as he used in a letter to Robert Buchanan which I have in my possession: ‘Why do you not devote yourself to a satire on the times? There is an immensity of matter calling for strong denunciation and display of white-hot anger, and I think you are well capable of dealing with it. More especially I want some one who has the ability, with sufficient intensity of feeling, to denounce the miserable hypocrisy of our religious world, with its pretended observances of Christian principles side by side with the abominations which it habitually assists and countenances.’ He referred to wars and the machinations of the Stock Exchange. ‘In our political life, too, there are multitudinous things which merit the severest castigation: the morals of party strife, and the way in which men are, with utter insincerity, sacrificing their convictions for the sake of political and social position.’ Mr Spencer struck me as being terribly in earnest even about small matters—so much so as to suggest that he had not yet been introduced to Mr George Meredith’s Comic spirit; but at the same time he was a man of large imagination, and in many ways a dreamer. He was no pessimist, but as full of the joy of life as Walt Whitman. He seemed a solitary figure, sitting apart from the world, ‘holding no form of creed, yet contemplating all.’ He was as brave as Heine and as Spinoza in the face of constant illness, giving himself over, even when the light of life grew dim and uncertain, to the completion and perfection of his System. He seemed to me the most simple of men in the youthfulness of his outlook on life, in his buoyant joy in humanity and its possibilities. That he was an optimist cannot he denied, and I remember how he poured disdain upon my views that the altruistic spirit has not evolved in man. He held that the race grew nearer and nearer to ultimate perfection, while I ventured to suggest a series of epicycles as representing the moral action of the centuries; and even he admitted once to me that he believed the present tendency was a drifting back to a moral and intellectual barbarism. It is impossible for me to recall many of his exact dicta; but I do recall one sentence, which rang in my ears for some time; it was spoken with so much modulated care that it echoed in my brain months after: ‘I do not regard,’ he said, ‘a thing as known unless it can be presented in consciousness under some quantitative or qualitative limitation, and for this reason I distinguish the unknowable as that of which we remain vaguely conscious when the limitations implied by knowledge are absent.’ A truly Spencerian deliverance!
I can recall only one visit which Mr Spencer paid to our home—it was at Alta-na-craig, in Argyllshire. There was much domestic terror evinced at the entertaining of such a ‘philosophical monster,’ but matters soon became adjusted when Mr Spencer dashed into a very human and light disquisition on the Highlands and Highland innkeepers, whom he abused frankly; concluding with a special onslaught upon those who tipped railway porters ‘and so contrived every railway disaster ever recorded.’ A battle-royal ensued, and Mr Spencer, with his distaste for heated argument, soon stole, like the Arab, silently away. ‘We have had a very stormy interview, Mrs Blackie,’ were his parting words. During the long and last illness of Mr Buchanan, he wrote frequently to me with anxious and tender inquiries after the health of the poet, and begged of me to assure him that no financial difficulty stood in the way of the careful and skilful nursing of his old friend.
Recollections of Fifty Years by Isabella Fyvie Mayo (Edward Garrett) (London: John Murray, 1910, pp. 215-217)
On the day when Queen Victoria went to St. Paul’s to return thanks for the Prince of Wales’s recovery from dangerous illness, we were invited to witness the procession from 56, Ludgate Hill, the offices of Good Words and the Sunday Magazine. We were then living in Devonshire Square, Bishopsgate, and we were advised that, as our way would be hampered both by crowds and barricades, we had better put in an early appearance. So we arrived in Ludgate Hill soon after St. Paul’s clock struck 6 a.m. We were not at all too soon; the street was already full, and we heard afterwards that some of the people had taken up their positions the night before, and had come well provided with food! Among the guests at our destination we were not the first. A party of four was before us—three ladies and a gentleman. We were unknown to each other, but, being shut up together in the otherwise empty room, it seemed only proper that we should exchange slight civilities, and accordingly my husband addressed the gentleman with some remark about the crowd. The only answer was a growl, and we made no further advance. This gentleman was a man of about thirty, wearing a short jacket and a soft rough hat, and he had his hands in his pockets. One of the three ladies was decidedly elderly, plain in dress and appearance, and not conciliatory in demeanour. The youngest lady was little more than a girl. The intermediate lady had a sweet face and a gentle manner. Such were the observations I made, not dreaming who these people were. I was much interested when I learned that they were Robert Buchanan, his mother, wife, and
Afterwards, when the rooms filled with people—all artists or authors and their belongings—I did not see Robert Buchanan enter into conversation with anybody. I saw his wife speak to one and another, and I heard his mother addressing Miss Strahan in a way that caused some of us to whisper to each other, with some secret rejoicing, that she was letting the publisher’s sister know that she was the poet’s mother!
I own I was disappointed in the appearance and manners of Robert Buchanan, for whose work I had had an intense admiration ever since Mrs. S. C. Hall had lent me “Undertones,” with its poignant dedication. That dedication, “To David in Heaven” I had copied out and had preserved among my literary treasures. My admiration had been increased by “London Poems,” with their keen and fearless sympathy with what lies in the depths of human life.
I had, however, heard from Mrs. S. C. Hall that Robert Buchanan was a young man of forbidding manners. She knew him during his very brief time of struggle, when he and David Gray were living together. He sent some poems to the St. James’s Magazine, which she was then editing. She told me that Mr. Maxwell, the proprietor of the magazine, had treated his young contributor with an inconsideration amounting almost to cruelty, and that, Robert Buchanan having appealed to her, she had spoken to the publisher very plainly.
My Life: Sixty Years’ Recollections of Bohemian London by George R. Sims (London: Eveleigh Nash Company Ltd., 1917, pp. 165-166, 181-182, 203-211, 239-240)