ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)
BOOK REVIEWS - ESSAYS (1)
David Gray and other Essays (1868)
The Fleshly School of Poetry (1872)
A Poet’s Sketchbook (1883)
The Atlas (17 February, 1866 - p.5)
Mr. Strahan announces a rather large list of works in preparation, almost, if not all of them being by authors who have already more than once come before the public under his auspices. Among them may be mentioned, “The Parables of Our Lord,” by Dr. Guthrie; and “The Story of David Gray,” by Robert Buchanan. David Gray and Robert Buchanan were young literary aspirants, who came together to London, under circumstances quite as discouraging as those which accompanied Dr. Johnson, Goldsmith, or even Chatterton. Gray soon succumbed, a martyr to consumption. Buchanan has become the most rising literary man, under thirty years of age, whom we can boast. Already he has sweetly told, in the “Cornhill,” the story of his early associate, and we may expect highly of his more extended effort in a larger canvas. Mr. Strahan further announces a new book of poetry by Professor Plumptre; no less than four distinct republications of poems by Dora Greenwell; a new volume, “Truth in Tales,” by John De Liefde; and “Hymns and Hymn-writers of Germany,” (a most delicious theme,) by W. F. Stevenson, the author of “Praying and Working.”
The Atlas (30 June, 1866 - p.5)
We are glad to observe that Mr. Strahan promises for next week Mr. Robert Buchanan’s long promised “London Poems.” The same gentleman has also in preparation “The Poet: An Essay, a Criticism, And a Biography,” the central figure of which, we presume, will be David Gray, Mr. Buchanan’s early friend, on whom he wrote a fine prose epithalamium in the “Cornhill.” Second and enlarged editions of this rising (risen, rather) poet’s “Undertones,” and “Idyls and Legends of Inverburn,” have also been called for.
MR. BUCHANAN’S ESSAYS.*
THIS is a most unequal book, containing many fine things and not a few silly things, much beauty, much bumptiousness, and a little twaddle. Mr. Buchanan shows how true a poet he is not only by the remarkable addition to his power, but by the equally remarkable subtraction from his defects, when he passes from prose into poetry. There is occasionally something a little too bold, almost brazen, about his prose style, of which we have never seen a trace in his poetry; there is effort and defiance in it, here and there; there is a tendency to be feeble and trashy about his satire; there is a marked unripeness about much of his thought; there is great bigotry about his criticism; there is a certain jarring and abrupt prominence of his own personality even about some of the passages written in the deepest and purist strain. With all these faults, and they are conspicuous and even glaring enough, the book is one to possess as well as read, not only for the biographical essay on David Gray, an essay of much more than deep interest, of rare power, and a strange, unimpassioned pathos, but also for certain passages of fine original criticism occurring in essays,—thickly sprinkled, we admit, with foreign substances,—on poetry and the religion and aims which modern poets should put before them. The essays which we should like to have seen omitted are “The Student and his Vocation,” the doctrine of which seems to us utterly false;—on “Walt Whitman,” which entirely fails to make plain to any reader even the vestige of a critical reason for the author’s extraordinary admiration of that straining and self-inflated egoist;—and the essay on “Literary Morality,” which contains much truth, but is neither sufficiently original nor discriminating to make it worth preserving. We remarked at the time it first appeared that the attempt to set up a literary morality based upon ‘sincerity of vision’ alone, seemed to us as mistaken as any other attempt to prove that man need take as amulet into any one particular department of life only a bit of his moral nature, and might put off the rest at the threshold, to resume it again on coming back into the world of general action. To this Mr. Buchanan only replies that he disclaimed at the outset of his essay any final system of ethics, and asks, “How is a man’s work to be proved immoral because it honestly clothes his natural instincts in artistic language?” To which we rejoin that if any man’s natural instincts are below the standard requisite to bring out the full proportions of his subject,—if, for instance, they be such that, like Goethe’s natural instincts as shown in the Elective Affinities, they cloud the natural lights of his subject, and therefore also exclude the natural shadows,—the work is immoral, and will be immoral in its effects, however sincere. If a painter who is so colour-blind as not to be able to distinguish red from green, paints a rich sunset in the woods in spring, he may make a thoroughly sincere picture which is utterly absurd to all who know what he was painting, and thoroughly misleading and dangerous to those in the intermediate stages between colour-blindness and perfect vision. And so, if a great artist very faintly endowed with certain moral perceptions paint a subject demanding the highest moral perceptions of that special kind for its perfect execution, his work must turn out shocking to those who see clearly, and dangerous,—of immoral tendency,—to those (in all probability the great mass of his readers) who share to some extent the artist’s deficiency. How an immoral nature can make its influence moral by mere sincerity, we are at a loss to understand. The best we can say of it is, that such influence will lack the special immorality of insincerity. If Mr. Buchanan replies that he expressly excluded all absolute morality from his definition, we can only rejoin that if so, he excluded everything that was worth discussion, and that we do not know why under these circumstances he did not exclude sincerity also. If he had made his preliminary exclusions clear,—which he did not,—few would have thought his essay a subject for serious study at all.
“We need not go far to seek for an example of a Student who despises his vocation. The last wild utterance of Thomas Carlyle still rings in our ears. This writer began reverently and gained hearers. He read affectionately in books and in nature, wrote nobly, aspired calmly to the contemplation of eternal truth. He secured quiet, and was recognized as a Student. Thus much, however, did not content him; and the first signs of discontent were certain false notes in the voice—German guttural sounds, elaborate word-building, wild mannerism. Clearly hungry for more influence, he wrote privately to a friend that he would begin to ‘prophesy,’ and avowedly with a view to widening his circle of hearers—as if true prophet ever began by perceiving that there was a public, and calculating how such public might be stirred to emotion. He did prophesy. For a time, the crowd listened, till slowly and painfully his interestedness grew upon them. So thoroughly had he begun to despise his vocation, that he no longer took the trouble to utter his prophecies beautifully. So completely did he despise his public, that he deemed the grossest and least-weighed brutalities amply good enough for them. Instead of looking towards eternal truth, he gazed with the vision of a contemporary. How has this ended? The pause he once secured is broken. We merely hear his voice at intervals, and then always in the midst of a roar of voices. He has been whirled down into the crowd, and, though he shriek his loudest, there is no standing still to hear him. . . . . . . Of all our Students, this one [Mr. J. S. Mill] has shown himself, not the most profound, but the most reverent, the most gentle, and the most unassuming. He had the true philosophic calm,—the true rest typical of the eternal. He had no gall. Merciless in argument, he was tender and brotherly to every antagonist. All this was true of Mr. Mill, previous to his entry into Parliament. The Student has since been lost in the politician—the pause difficult to secure—the influence scattered and doubtful. That a thinker so acute and thorough as this should have dreamt it possible to reconcile eternal and contemporary truth—to be a student and a politician at the same time— has been to me one of those mysteries which are to be classed as insoluble. I have watched Mr. Mill’s career with deep and grateful interest,—and thousands, as well as myself, felt bitter when the Light was put under the bushel of the House of Commons. How is it possible to connect eternal truth with the bigotry and folly which is represented to us by the reports in the daily newspapers,—to think of philosophy in connection with the blatant periods of Mr. Bright and the polished pettiness of Mr. Lowe,—and to associate calm and intellectual repose with the juggling insincerities of each successive Chancellor of the Exchequer? Mr. Mill has really done what is being every day done by inferior men.”
We can scarcely express how false we hold this position to be, both in the abstract and in the individual instances. In the first place, it is not in the least true that tenderness and calm of manner are universal signs of communion with eternal truth. They may be results of it in individual cases where the temperament is either very cold or very gentle. But the rule undoubtedly has been that those who, after long solitary musing, have grasped most vigorously some teaching which they hold to have been forgotten by their generation, and for want of which they see, as they suppose, that their generation is morally and spiritually perishing, have been driven thereby into language which no earnest man will fail to call disinterested, and which yet he cannot deny to be otherwise than passionate and abrupt. What is Isaiah’s “Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint,” but denunciation of a kind which Mr. Carlyle’s has never surpassed in bitterness. It is true that, as we believe no less than Mr. Buchanan, Mr. Carlyle’s denunciations start from a mixture of true and false eternal principles, the latter probably predominating,—and Isaiah’s only from true. But we believe Mr. Carlyle to be as “disinterested” as any prophet could possibly be; and while we repudiate most of his teaching with our whole hearts, we do so because we see the astonishing hiatuses in his mind, not because we cannot understand the intensity of conviction with which he really holds what he does hold. Was St. Paul, —nay, was our Lord himself,—so very reticent in denunciation that all passion of moral accusation is to be set down to vulgar and selfish fretfulness? and not rather ascribed to the sublime intensity of natures which cannot but arrest and upbraid with hot words the false soldiers who recoil from the battle, and try to scourge them back with reproaches to their duty? So far from rough and broken utterance being a sign that the student has held no communion with eternal truth, we should hold it the truest sign that he has, that is, is the special sphere of his study has been, as in the case of every true prophet, rather divine life than divine thought. Again, Mr. Buchanan’s notion that the regions of eternal and contemporary truth should be parcelled out to different men, seems to us one of the worst of all recipes for the degradation of society. If thinkers who have devoted their youth to the solitary meditation of the highest problems are not to devote their maturity to their practical application to the ills of society, all political and social movements must be given up to the management of quacks or fanatics who have never meditated how best to reconcile absolute principles with the exigencies of mortal life. We, for our parts, doubt whether Mr. J. S. Mill has brought even one “eternal” truth to the succour of this perplexed generation. But the one great thing he has done, has been to set the example of reconciling the long meditated truths of theoretic contemplation with the difficult life of hasty political emergency. The one indictment Mr. Buchanan brings against him seems to us his greatest claim on our gratitude. What is the value to be attached to truths which even their discoverer declines to take the responsibility of applying to practical life? And does not such a passage as the following add the sin of bad and flippant taste to the sin of bad and dangerous doctrine?—
“Deep philosophic repose is the air inhaled on the mountain tops, close to the stars, and must by no means be confounded with vulgar consciousness of calm. A person may step forward in an academic gown, saying: ‘My papa was so skilled in developing the juvenile mind as to produce out of fair materials a novelist at fourteen, a philosopher two years later, and at eighteen an authority on every question under the sun—a wondrous little Salaputium, warranted perfect, and certain never to grow any more. Oh, I am so calm, and so clever! Yet see, how admirably I hide my knowledge; that is calm, that is restraint. I am prepared to settle all questions by means of an insect exterminator, which has never been known to fail.’ But how does the public receive such a person. ‘The Student,’ it replies, ‘evinces restraint and calm, does not talk about them; they are, in fact, merely personal qualities. You fellows grow too quickly and stop too soon, and your calm and restraint are merely the inactivity and torpor consequent on a system of early forcing. You have by no means lived enough to determine living questions, and the best proof of that is the unmanliness of your manner.’ And are the public wrong? Do the scholastic persons show any such real love for their kind, any such ignoring of self, any such telling enthusiasm in great questions, as would soon win the confidence of men and women who live in the world outside the academy? I fear not. They are not Students, nor do they live alone. Brought up in classes, inoculated with the usual stuff very early, they hate solitude hugely. They must think in bodies, or they are miserable.”
Of that passage we might say what Mr. Toots said to “The Chicken,”—that its language is coarse and its meaning is obscure; it is forced banter, and consequently not forcible.
“Take Milton, for example; the peculiarity of Milton as a Seer is the angelic spirituality of his sight, its rejection of all but perfectly noble types for poetic contemplation. It would seem that, from having once walked with angels, he sees even common things in a divine white light. He breathes the thin serene air of the mountain-top. He seems calm and passionless; his heart beats in great glorified throbs, with no tremor; his speech is stately and crystal clear; he is for ever referring man to his Maker; for ever comparing our stature with that of angels. Mark, further, that his spiritual creatures are profoundly intellectual creatures, strangely subtle and lofty reasoners. He holds pure intellect so divine a thing that, in spite of himself, he makes the Devil his hero. ‘The end of man,’ he says in effect, ‘is to contemplate God, and enjoy Him for ever.’ But he says this in a way which is not final; there may be truth beyond Milton’s truth, but one does not belie the other; this blind man saw as with the eye, and spake as with the tongue, of angels.”
“His heart beats in great glorified throbs, with no tremor,”—no description could be more perfect,—but, after all, “a heart beating in great glorified throbs, with no tremor,” conveys a certain impression of pedantry, which no one can read Milton’s prose works without finding confirmed. The music and grandeur of the poetry conceal it. Or take this fine criticism of the pain at the bottom of Greek drama:—
“It is here that all professed ‘imitations’ of the classics fail. They reproduce the repose so admirably, as in many cases to send the reader to sleep. But we search in vain in them for the representation of the great fires, the burning passions, of the originals. Insensibly, as has been shrewdly remarked, we derive our notions of Greek art from Greek sculpture, and forget that although calm evolution was rendered necessary by the requirements of the great amphitheatre, it was no calm life, no dainty passion, no subdued woe, that was thus evolved. The lineaments of the actor’s mask were fixed, but what sort of expression did each mask wear?—the glazed hopeless stare of Œdipus, the white horror-stricken look of Agamemnon, the stony glitter of the eyes of Clytemnestra, the horridly distorted glare of the Promethean furies, the sick, suffering, and ghastly pale features of Philoctetes. Where was the calm here? The movement of the drama was simple and slow, yet there was no calm in the heart of the actors, each of whom must fit to his mask a monotone— the sneer of Ulysses, the blunted groan of Cassandra, the fierce shriek of Orestes. The passion and power have made these plays immortal; not the slow evolution, the necessity of the early stage. They are full of the lyrical light.”
In the essay on his own poetical aims,—which Mr. Buchanan horribly calls “Tentatives,”—he defends very powerfully his own attempt to spiritualize into poetry the thoughts and feelings of the humblest classes, saying, with what seems to us irresistible force,—
“Poetic art has been tacitly regarded, like music and painting, as an accomplishment for the refined, and it has suffered immeasurably as an art, from its ridiculous fetters. It has dealt with life in a fragmentary form, and with the least earnest and least picturesque phases of life. Yet the intensity of being (for example) among those who daily face peril, who are never beyond want, who have constant presentiments of danger, who wallow in sin and trouble, ought to bring to the poet, as to the painter, as lofty an inspiration as may be gained from those living in comfort, who make lamentation a luxury and invent futilities to mourn over. The world is full of these voices, and the poet has to set them into perfect speech. But this truth has been little understood, and but partially acted upon. Our earliest English poets had some leanings towards the heroism of fate-stricken men; and Chaucer could dwell on the love of a hind with the same affection as upon the devotion of a knight. The old poet had a wholesome regard for merit unbiassed by accessories; but the broad light he wrote in has suffered a long eclipse.”
It is, indeed, the pressure of life on “fate-stricken” men which brings out the highest elements of poetry; and Mr. Buchanan seems to us very happy in his justification of the method which he has adopted for giving us their true feelings unidealized and yet spiritualized by being stripped of encumbering and distracting accessories. Nor does Mr. Buchanan, in theory at least, claim for humble contemporary life “the only legitimate material of the modern poet.” He especially disclaims this, yet a great deal of his criticism really does assume this. Is it impossible for him to find “fate-stricken” men anywhere but in fustian clothes? If not, how can he be guilty of such a blunder as in saying that “Mr. Arnold no sooner touches the ground of contemporary thought, than all his grace forsakes him, and his utterance becomes the merest prose.” If ever poetry were truly described as the poetry of ‘fate-stricken men,’ that poetry is Mr. Arnold’s ever-recurring, never exhausted lament over the extinction of faith in the educated classes of modern society. Whether he writes of the English Titan, ‘with deaf ears and labour-dimmed eyes staggering on to his goal,’—
“Bearing on shoulders immense
—or whether he likens his own sympathy with the Carthusian friars in the Grande Chartreuse to that of a Greek musing over the obsolete faith symbolized on a Runic stone,
“For both were faiths, and both are gone,”
the burden is ever the same,—“fate-stricken” men yearning for belief, and with eyes opened to see that their yearnings cannot be granted,—
“Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
If that is not the cry of a “fate-stricken” man, what is?
* David Gray, and other Essays, chiefly on Poetry. By Robert Buchanan. London: Sampson Low.
[Note: Buchanan wrote two letters to The Spectator in response to this review. They are available in the Letters to the Press section.]
David Gray, and other Essays, chiefly on Poetry. By Robert Buchanan. (Low & Co.)
OF the several papers in this interesting and thoughtful volume, we first notice that to which the author himself assigns leading importance. The memoir of David Gray here given comprises several of his own letters, and fascinates us by its full and artless revelation of the hopes, the struggles, and the fate of a young man whose poetic genius was obvious to the few qualified judges who knew him. But apart from this charm, the merits of Mr. Buchanan as a biographer are undoubtedly great. His simplicity of manner, his earnestness, his sympathetic perception of all that was most individual in his friend, enable him to tell whatever was to be told in the most pertinent and impressive way; while the ardour of personal affection gives a tender glow to his narrative, which perhaps more rivets us than even its merits in point of art. The fact that the greater part of this pathetic story has already appeared in the pages of a contemporary renders quotation from it unnecessary, especially as other topics in the book have an urgent claim on attention. But the way in which Mr. Buchanan recounts the effect of poor David Gray’s life and career upon his father, a Scottish weaver, evinces a faculty which we have no right to demand even from excellent biographers. The writer shows us how the somewhat over-practical mind of this Scottish craftsman was wrought upon by that imaginative quality in his son’s nature which he affected to despise,—how a glory, felt, though dimly apprehended, visited the father’s mind, and, withdrawn by the lad’s death, left him conscious that something of
The light that never was on sea or land
had vanished from the earth. “We feel very weary now David has gone,” was the cry of the elder Gray, who ere long was gathered to the side of him for whom he mourned. To paint all this as Mr. Buchanan has done, requires that vision of the poet which looks beyond the seemingly inconsistent phases of character to the deeper humanity which explains and reconciles them.
“The Poet, briefly described, is he whose existence constitutes a new experience—who sees life newly, assimilates it emotionally, and contrives to utter it musically. His qualities, therefore, are triune. His sight must be individual, his reception of impressions must be emotional, and his utterance must be musical. Deficiency in any one of the three qualities is fatal to his claims for office.”
Nothing is wanting to make this summary complete except the necessity in the poet for the perception of beauty. Mr. Buchanan probably intended to include this quality in “musical utterance”; and it is plain, both in this and in other essays, that he proceeds on the assumption of its paramount importance.
“One word, in this place, as to the end of Art—poetic art particularly, and the mistaken ideas concerning that end. That end has been described from time immemorial as ‘pleasure.’ Now, art is doubtless pleasant to the taste. It may be said, further, that art, even when it uses the most painful machinery, when it chronicles human agony and pictures tears and despair, does so in such a way as to cause a certain enjoyment. But the pleasure thus produced is not the aim, but an accompaniment of the aim, proportioned and regulated by qualities existing in materials extracted from life itself. The aim of all life is accompanied by pleasure, includes pleasure, in the highest sense of that word. The specific aim of art, in its definite purity, is spiritualization; and pleasure results from that aim, because the spiritualization of the materials of life renders them, for subtle reasons connected with the soul, more beautifully and deliciously acceptable to the inner consciousness. Even in very low art we find spiritualization of a kind. But pleasure, as mere pleasure, is produced on every side of us by the simplest and least intricate experiences of existence itself. The woe and hopelessness of the popular creed is that it thoroughly separates art from utility. Pleasure, merely as pleasure, is worthless to beings sent down on earth to seek that euphrasy which purges the vision of the inner eye—beings to whom art was given, not a mere musical accompaniment to a dull drama, but as the toucher of the mysterious chords of inquiry which invest that drama with a grand and divine signification. Nor must we confound the purifying spirit of art with didactic sermonizing and direct moral teaching. The spirit who seizes the forms of life, and passes their spiritual equivalents into the minds of men on chords of exquisite sensation, wears no academic gown, writes no formal treatises in verse. The exquisite sensation is a means, and not an end. It is a consequence of the divine system on which she works, and she produces it as much for its own sake as Nature creates a butterfly for the sake of the down on its wings. * * Contemporary critics are fond of affirming that art, so far from having any moral purpose, has nothing to do with morality. This is saying in effect that nature has nothing to do with morality. For art is the spiritual representation, the alter ego, of nature; and nothing that is true in nature is false in art. Astronomy as much as morality, concrete experiences as well as abstract ideas, have their place in nature and in art; they are a part of the whole, which has two lives, the lower and the higher, the real and the artistic. An essentially immoral form, a bestiality, a lie, an insincerity, is an outrage in life; but it has no permanent place in art, because spiritualization is fatal to its very perceptibility. The basest things have their spiritual significance, but their baseness has evaporated when the significance is apparent. The puddle becomes part of the rainbow.”
These extracts will sufficiently prove both Mr. Buchanan’s high tone of feeling, and his happiness of expression. Taking the word “pleasure” in its usual sense, he is undoubtedly right in disdaining to accept it as the end of Art, however inseparable it may be from the results of Art. In the noblest conception of Imagination it may be that Beauty, Utility and Goodness are identified. In this view, pleasure or beauty may be the end of Art, but only because it is then one with the Lovely and the Perfect. Imagination does not always directly travel towards spiritual objects; but its indirect effect, as when it deals with the beauty of Nature, is always morally to exalt. It is true that the poetic character has frequently offered a complicated problem. The author of ‘Don Juan’ describes a storm, and in his sense of what is externally beautiful and grand he is, like Nature herself, indirectly a Moral Force. The same poet, as it were from a different stratum of his being, gives vent to affected misanthropy or to licentiousness. Just in the degree that he becomes an immoral agent he fails as a poet. Still it should be remembered that a large measure of descriptive power may consist with the lowest kind of theme and impulse. This being borne in mind, it is scarcely too much to say that the Base and the Ugly are synonyms.
“The mania for false refinement, which distinguishes educated vulgarity, must not blind us to the truth that a large portion of the public, and these highly-intellectual people, are quite incapable of perceiving the poetry existing close to their own thresholds. The little world in which they move is so vulgar and sordid, or so artificial, that the further they escape from its suggestions they feel the freer. What they cannot feel in the office or the drawing-room they try to feel in the garden of Academus. Their daily life, their daily knowledge and duty, is not earnest enough to supply their spiritual needs, and they very naturally conclude that the experience of their neighbours is as mean as theirs. In the ranks of such men we not seldom find the lost Student; but the majority call themselves cultured, as their neighbours call themselves virtuous,—just for want of some other spicier peculiarity to distinguish them from their fellows. Let it be at once conceded that our modern life is complex and irritating, and, at a superficial glance, sadly deficient in picturesqueness. Streets are not beautiful, and this is the age of streets; trade seems selfish and common, and this is the age of trade; railways, educational establishments, poorhouses, debating societies, are not romantic, and this is the age of all these. But if we strip off the hard outer crust of these things, if we pass from the unpicturesqueness of externals to the currents which flow beneath, who then shall say that this life is barren of poetry? Never, I think, did such strange lights and shades glimmer on the soul’s depths, never was suffering more heroic or courage more sublime, never was the reticence of deep emotion woven in so closely with the mystery and the wonder of the world.”
What is here said is all the more in season, because our best recent poetry seems to have ignored contemporary life altogether. Yet it is doubtless a pregnant truth, that the present time is no jot further from the ideal life which is “a consecration and the poet’s dream,” than the most remote and legendary period. Mr. Buchanan’s testimony in this respect is a valuable addition to that of previous witnesses. But, at the same time, we must guard against the inference that the present is more poetical than the past on account of its actuality. It is as poetical in spite of its actuality, because the action of true ideas and of true emotion overcomes that over-prominence of the accidental features of the time, which is in itself prosaic. If, on the one hand, such accidental features be more obvious in a modern subject than in a remote one, on the other hand there is a greater intensity of feeling to purify them from their dross. Yet while we hold that no man can be a great poet who does not, in a large measure, both reflect and instruct his age, a modern tone of thought and feeling is even more important than modernness of subject.
MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN’S ESSAYS.*
THERE are some books which have the peculiarity of unmistakably stamping the men who wrote them, of definitely marking their quality and stuff, of settling once for all the class in which they ought to be placed. This diverting volume is one of them. We may have had our doubts about Mr. Buchanan before. Were his writings those of a man with fair sensibility, generous sympathy, decent power of observation, who might with industry and experience acquire skill enough in his instrument to earn a place among versifiers of the third or fourth rate, or were they the compositions of a sheer poetaster? The question was to some extent open, for the reason that two critics of considerable weight and judgment maintained that Mr. Buchanan’s verse, though marked with the faults of inexperience and inadequate cultivation, gave promise of the finest things. But for this, there would hardly have been much dispute in the matter. However, one was inclined to give Mr. Buchanan credit for a certain graceful, if sometimes maudlin, tenderness of sentiment—a certain modest, if sometimes overdone, sweetness of mood. And the forms of his composition, if they could not wholly conceal, at least did a good deal to modify, a decidedly unpoetic tendency to twaddle; for in anything that affects the style of lyric poetry everything, twaddle included, must be condensed, and twaddle is not intolerable when it is very short. But these prose fragments, excepting the pathetic memoir of David Gray, where the author knew what he was writing about, show Mr. Buchanan in a very different light. They show that the excess of sugary praise with which he has been treated in one or two quarters has turned into an acid and flatulent humour which will pain nobody so much as the too kindly folk who have hitherto been willing to admire him. That a young writer, especially if he be a writer of verse, should think himself a very great and wonderful being is not particularly strange nor particularly culpable. That Mr. Buchanan should, on the strength of three or four volumes of decently successful poems, write an article upon himself, and parade in a mincing manner before a mirror on one side and the British public on the other, and invite your attention now to this bit of lovely simplicity and truthfulness, and now to that bit of lurid tragedy in his own compositions, that he should publicly “congratulate” himself on having attempted to touch the poetry of humanity, and declare with all the éclat of Latin quotation that he will try a road by which he may rise from the ground “victorque virûm volitaire per ora”—all this may show that Mr. Buchanan is very vain, but with this private fact about him the general reader is not much concerned. We may, indeed, wish that the tremendous importance of the theme of his “own tentatives,” as he calls them, had inspired him with a rather less flabby and weedy kind of prose style; it is amusing enough to hear Mr. Buchanan harangue upon Mr. Buchanan, only why such weak talk about a true poem having “a body and soul that reach down to the heart’s beatings and up to the very heaven of mysteries; it is virtually inexhaustible—large, typical, human”? We remember once seeing an elaborate puff of a big French hotel, in which the writer wound up, like Mr. Buchanan, by declaring, in the noble French manner, that his hotel was large, typical, human! This sort of stuff is the most certain sign of hopeless poverty of thought; and as for such phrases as a poet “catching the throb of the great heart of modern time,” they are never used by anybody who believes that words ought to represent clear ideas. How does one catch throbs, and what do you mean by the throb of the heart of a time? We fancied that this was left for “Books of Beauty” or stump orators. The only thing that can be said for Mr. Buchanan when he is impressive is that he is better then than when he is sprightly. What poorer thing was ever said of La Fontaine than that “We hear his wit tinkling against his subject, like ice tapping on the side of a beaker of champagne”? What does he mean when he says that “there was no finicism” in Walter Scott? After this sort of talk, we may endure “Plato’s grand great brow,” abominable as it is, and “the green cheek of the earth,” little as one relishes the figure of a green cheek, and even “the fetid breath of Sappho.”
shall persuade us that Mr. Buchanan knows anything at all about Athenian inquiry. In another way, what can be more charming than to find De Quincey, certainly one of the most closely analytical minds and polished stylists of the century, jauntily snubbed as “a loose but occasionally felicitous writer”? Literary incompetence, however, is no crime, however gross; and conceit is no crime, however unbearable. But graceless vituperation of the efforts of one’s fellow-workers is the offensive sign of a very poor and sour nature. Mr. Buchanan says in his parting quotation that he too must try a way to raise himself from the ground. Precisely; the sooner the better.
* “David Gray, and other Essays, chiefly in Poetry.” By Robert Buchanan. (London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marston. 1868.)
The Examiner (29 February, 1868)
David Gray and other Essays, chiefly on Poetry. By Robert Buchanan. Sampson Low, Son, and Marston.
Mr Buchanan here brings together eight essays, of which the longest and best is a memoir of his friend David Gray. David Gray, born in 1838, was the son of a handloom weaver, in the neighbourhood of Glasgow. A clever baby and a clever boy, he was intended by his parents for the Kirk, and with that end received, at Glasgow University, such an education as peasant boys and mechanics’ sons can get only in Scotland. But he had learnt to read out of Chaucer and all the poets down to Wordsworth, and he was fascinated, as Mr Buchanan says, by “the desire to make deathless music,” and he openly declared himself to be “a foster son of Keats, the dreamily divine.” He began to write a Shakespearean play, and before his college work was over had to vex his parents’ hearts by deciding that he must serve God better than by becoming a minister. That he was a poet and a great poet he made no doubt; but how to make the world believe this? “I am so accustomed to compare my own mental progress with that of such men as Shakespeare, and Goethe, and Wordsworth,” he said, “that the dream of my life will not be fulfilled if my fame equal not, at least, that of the latter of these three!” “I tell you,” he also said, “that, if I live, my name and fame shall be second to few of any age, to none of my own. I speak this because I feel power.” In such strains he wrote to friends and strangers; but neither friends nor strangers would trouble themselves to read a pretty lyric, ‘The Luggie,’ which he had written, and which he believed to afford ample proof of his greatness. He remembered that one before him had found that a prophet was without honour in his own country, and therefore, at the age of twenty-one, he left his Nazareth of Glasgow to make himself heard in London. His ‘Luggie’ was in his carpet-bag, and a score or so of shillings were in his pocket. Those shillings were all his wealth, and, with an unpoet-like resolve to husband them, he made his bed for the first night in Hyde Park. Thereby he caught a cold which issued in consumption, and killed him in nineteen months. Before a day was over, too, a chill fell on his hopes and his ambition. “What brought me here?” he said, in one of his doleful letters. “God knows, for I don’t.” He bethought himself, thinking perhaps of the fable about Shakespeare and the horses, of trying for a place as a supernumerary in one of the playhouses. He introduced himself, however, to Mr Monckton Milnes, now Lord Houghton. Mr Milnes treated him kindly, asked Thackeray to insert ‘The Luggie’ in the Cornhill—but without success—and did as much else for him as he could.
He ran away to London and thence, after the generous efforts of friends to induce him to accept shelter in some comfortable place, he was sent back to his mother. He died in December, 1861, not quite four-and-twenty, having written this epitaph for himself a few weeks before:
Below lies one whose name was traced in sand—
His ‘Luggie’ was published soon afterwards, and then the world knew that a sweet singer, perhaps one who really might have proved himself a poet, had lived and died.
The Contemporary Review (March, 1868 - Vol. VII, p.470-472)
David Gray, and other Essays, chiefly on Poetry. By ROBERT BUCHANAN.
THIS volume is quite original as a specimen of book-making. It could only have been produced by a man of fine insights, exquisite literary tact, and great shrewdness, yet in whom there is a lack of that patience which gives the last perfect prevailing touch, leaving nought to be desired. Indeed, occasional turns, abrupt, almost indelicate, reveal to us something like the absence of those higher elements which have their root in a “sublime discontent,” such as would certainly have made impossible the blunt, overweening, self-satisfied egotism of many passages we find here. Mr. Buchanan’s evil demon is a false culture, which justifies itself by unduly despising other forms of culture, and which almost makes him incapable of generously acknowledging a benefit. The result is that very often he degrades to the imagination what he is too eagerly anxious to exalt to the intellect; or perhaps it would be more correct to say that he seeks to storm the one, while he ought to softly and indirectly appeal to the other. He is, in this respect, truer in his poetry than in his prose; but even his poetry witnesses to this tendency. In this volume he gives a chapter—“On my own Tentatives”— which only too clearly proves his eagerness to justify to the intellect, against critical carping, what would most certainly have been better left to justify itself in the imaginations of those who know and love his poems. For, after all, that must be the ultimate answer to the criticism he deprecates. But with respect to the poetry there cannot be the least doubt that Mr. Buchanan himself unconsciously hits at once his strong and his weak point, when he admits us to his theory about the use of dialects (p. 304). The present writer had thoughts in that direction months ago; and strangely enough chanced to re- read just at the time that surprising passage of Max Müller’s, beginning at p. 57 of his “Science of Language,” in which the professor shows the necessity written languages are ever under of being constantly fed from the streams of rude living dialects, if they would not become stagnant lakes. This suggests a great question as to the relation in which art, through language, must stand to life to recover reality, force, virility. And Mr. Buchanan, in his conscious theory, is an illustration of how a great principle may be only half applied, through being seized by the intellect alone. Of all men living, Mr. Buchanan most thoroughly realizes the power that lies in a dialect or vulgar form of speech to restore that warmth, that living glow as of very blood, which has to such an extent passed out of the pale, polished countenance of our written language, pent up as it has been so long with the proprieties. His use of the low London dialects and the Scotch, in “Liz” and other poems, is most skilful, looked at intellectually and critically. But then it has in his case been too much reduced to a system, or rather, perhaps, has never taken rise in that deepest sympathy or imaginative community which unconsciously uses language as its eager and pliant minister, transforming rude phrases and forms of speech into complete poems like diamonds, flashing out on all sides in the clear-intense lights of emotion. In one word, Mr. Buchanan loses concentration, and consequently dramatic clearness and consistency, by his conscious determination after select and intellectually-assorted phrases. His very skill in this defeats a deeper end of art, of which it should be but the servant. Mr. Buchanan has either been too timid or too bold. We do not want verisimilitude as of photography; but we do want the verisimilitude of imagination; and this Mr. Buchanan has sometimes failed to give us, with the consequent result of amplification without spiritual relief and balance. Hence the discontent generally felt with the language put into the mouth of his characters, and the complaint that the writer’s own spectacles have been put on the eyes of low and ignorant persons: the very process of conscious selection which Mr. Buchanan’s rule makes necessary, in a certain respect justifies the complaint. But Mr. Buchanan is certainly no imitator. He has tremendous power in using the mere form or body of unwritten speech which the present period supplies to the artist, and which others have neglected or despised; and it is because of this that he has received, as he deserves, such a measure of acceptance. But still the rags of a false philology hang about him; he scarcely grasps the spirit in close imaginative embrace, and only half creates the characters he presents to us. With the exception of some paragraphs in “Liz,” and portions of “Poet Andrew,” where intense sympathy seems to have given wing to touching words, the more that it was artificially restrained, all Mr. Buchanan’s later poems oppress us with a sense of incomplete sympathetic conception, proving itself by an inharmoniousness and low- lighted diffuseness of speech. The article “On my own Tentatives” has not removed, but rather confirmed these impressions independently formed. Mr. Buchanan is too conscious in his reaction against the scholastic poets, as he calls them, and does not appreciate as he ought the favour they have done him in unwittingly smoothing his road to the public ear.
Glasgow Herald (12 March, 1868)
DAVID GRAY AND OTHER ESSAYS, CHIEFLY ON POETRY. By Robert Buchanan. London: Sampson Low, Son & Marston. (Pp.318.)
THE biography that gives the name to this handsomely got up volume is worthy of all praise. We believe the larger portion of it appeared some time ago in the pages of the Cornhill Magazine, but as a graceful and loving portrait of a dear friend of the author it was well worthy of being reproduced. The life of the author of the Luggie is quite as interesting as his poetry, which, though sometimes reaching high excellence, has always seemed to us as being somewhat thin. Fame, which Milton calls the “last infirmity of noble minds,” seems to have been with David Gray a devouring passion. Had he lived this morbid craving for poetical admiration might have sobered down to that steady incentive to action which, in some form or other, has been the motive power of excellence in all eminent men. Mr. Buchanan shows us his friend as he was, excusing with tenderness where he cannot commend, but not concealing any real characteristic whether in consonance with received ideas of propriety or not. It is a sad history—such a restless, excited mind, yet with springs of genius and beauty in it!—too feverishly impulsive for this hard, granite world. David Gray died early, and, like too many poets, just as the first premonitions of his powers caught the attention of the world. That rosy dawn of fame, of which he had so often dreamed, coloured his deathbed.
The Daily News (26 March, 1868)
Mr. Robert Buchanan has collected in a single volume several of his prose writings, under the general title of David Gray, and other Essays, chiefly on Poetry, by Robert Buchanan (Sampson Low, Son, and Marston). David Gray was the young Scotch poet—friend and fellow-countryman of Mr. Buchanan—who a few years ago wrote some poems of considerable promise, puzzled his plain, humble, loving parents by (to them) unaccountable longings, broke his heart in feverish graspings after fame, and died of consumption at three-and-twenty, in December, 1861. We have already been made obscurely acquainted with the sad life and death of this young writer in some of the poems of Mr. Buchanan, and the substance of the present essay is in itself not new to the public, having been originally published in the Cornhill Magazine some years back; but it has been largely added to in the present volume, and a more pathetic story never was written. Poor Gray’s last moments remind one of those of Keats, as in his genius there was a certain similarity. Both died in the bloom of youth, and in the flush of half-developed genius—died with passionate desire of life, with wasting hunger of fame—perishing of consumption while yet the flower was in the bud. Mr. Buchanan has told this painful story with much feeling and emotion, and the essay devoted to David Gray is one of the most interesting in the volume. The other chapters, however, also show the hand of a thoughtful and energetic writer. The nature of poetry in general, the vocation of the student, the strange rhapsodies of Walt Whitman, Herrick’s “Hesperides,” morals in literature, the hopes of humanity, and Mr. Buchanan’s own objects and purposes in composing poetry, are the other subjects handled in the volume. They are handled well—with no little reflectiveness and insight, and with much richness of language and wealth of illustration. The fault of Mr. Buchanan’s prose, indeed, is that, as in the prose writings of poets generally, it is too ornate, too heavily brocaded with metaphor, too prone to take refuge in figures which illuminate rather than define the meaning. This is perfectly legitimate in poetry; but, in criticism, emotion should be kept more in subjection to judgment. The opinions put forth by Mr. Buchanan are of course open to canvassing on several points. Often they seem to us very just and noble; sometimes of doubtful value; occasionally quite wrong. We suspect that Mr. Buchanan knows very little about politics—a failing rather incident to poets; and when he talks with flippant audacity of “the blatant periods of Mr. bright,” we venture to tell him that he is exhibiting nothing more than his own incompetency to judge a great, though it may be a passionate, nature, who has put more of heart into politics than any man of his time. The last essay—“On my own tentatives”—is Mr. Buchanan’s exposition of his motives in choosing actual subjects of every-day life for his poems, rather than subjects distant in time and country. We cannot conceal from ourselves that this essay will expose its author to the charge of presumption and egotism. Mr. Buchanan is still a young man, and he has not written enough, nor taken a sufficiently assured or definite position with the public to assume as yet the part of his own critic. His volume would have been better for the absence of this essay.
Notes and Queries (Vol. 1 4th S. (21) 23 May, 1868 - p.499)
David Gray and other Essays, chiefly on Poetry. By Robert Buchanan. (Sampson Low.)
Essays on Robert Browning’s Poetry. By John T. Nettleship. (Macmillan.)
These two volumes are very similar in their character. In the first, Mr. Buchanan, himself no mean poet, gives us his Confession of Faith, and touches briefly on several great and magnificent questions affecting the poetic personality, illustrating his views by sketches of Whitman’s writings and Notes on Herrick. But the portion of the book which will interest most readers is that in which he tells, with much sympathy and feeling, the painful story of David Gray—his struggles and his early death, and calls attention to his poem “The Luggie,” a work but little known, but clearly deserving of more notice than it has yet received.
The Standard (15 August, 1868 - p.3)
David Gray, and other Essays. By Robert Buchanan. London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marston.—A poet who has attained a certain amount of popularity may naturally suppose that the public will be ready and anxious to hear his opinion on the subject of his art, and provided he expresses himself with thoughtfulness and moderation his views are likely to be regarded with interest. But the nature of the poet is so different from, in fact so opposite to, that of the critic, that it is very doubtful whether the opinions to which he attaches so much importance possess any critical value. Mr. Robert Buchanan will not raise his reputation by his essays in prose. Known hitherto as the author of some graceful and melodious lyrics, and some longer and more pretentious but not so successful efforts in idyllic verse, he now puts himself forward as the expositor of a system, which is certainly not new, and concerning the truth of which serious doubts may be entertained. Disclaiming in his preface the skill of the critic, he occasionally exhibits more than a critic’s proverbial dogmatism. When he speaks of the verse of David Gray as “the truest, purest, tenderest lyrical note that has floated to English ears this half century,” when he describes Thomas De Quincey as “a loose but occasionally felicitous writer;” when he talks of Thomas Carlyle as “preaching brutalism in language as harsh as the barking of Cerberus,” he seems to imagine that the reader will accept the dictum of Mr. Robert Buchanan as that of an impartial and competent judge. The two most noticeable essays in the book, apart from the biographical sketch of David Gray, the writer’s college friend and constant companion, are those entitled “The Student and his Vocation,” and “On My Own Tentatives.” In the former, Mr. Buchanan expresses in a very diluted form some of the opinions which are usually associated with the name of Mr. Matthew Arnold. He strains rather painfully after verbal felicities, and indulges frequently in vague platitudes, such as “the sublimest sign of perfect culture is Divine philanthropy,” and “the nearer man approaches God, the more he seems to exhibit the mysterious and God-like quality of love for the species.” High-sounding phrases, such as “Divine philoprogenitiveness,” “we are moving on to multiplicity,” may be considered to need interpretation. In the second essay to which we have referred, the author enters upon the defence of his own poems. He has been doing his best, he states, to show that actual life is the true material for poetic art; but in carrying out this principle it seems that he has encountered criticism and opposition. One of his contemporaries upbraids him for writing “Idyls of the Gallows and the Gutter;” and, pathetic fact! “gentlemen from the universities shake their heads over him sadly, and complain, somewhat irrelevantly, that he is not Greek.” To vindicate himself Mr. Buchanan inveighs against the mania for false refinement, and complains that highly-educated people do not see the poetry outside their own doors. More than once his eloquence becomes exceedingly cloudy and obscure. A “a dramatic situation, however undignified, however vulgar to the unimaginative, is made to intersect through the medium of lyrical emotion with the entire mystery of human life,” is a problem which may have been solved by Mr. Buchanan, but which will somewhat perplex the ordinary reader. The most interesting and the best written fragment in the book is the sketch of David Gray. It is natural enough that friendship should lead the writer to overrate in some measure the powers of one with whom he had the closest and most affectionate intercourse. Gray was one of those ardent and impressionable natures who are apt to mistake susceptibility for high poetic power. That he did, however, possess the poetic faculty, and that he wrote with fine pathos and naturalness about the familiar “Luggie” may be readily conceded. Self-conscious, and impatient as he was, full of the conviction, frequently and unhesitatingly expressed, that if he lived “his name and fame should be second to few of any age and to none of his own,” David Gray was really an affectionate and talented young man, whose praises, proclaimed without stint by Mr. Buchanan, are, to a large extent, justified by the simplicity and earnestness of his character.
The Saturday Review (12 September, 1868 - Vol. p.372-373)
MR. BUCHANAN’S ESSAYS.*
“THE Scotch intellect,” says Mr. Buckle, “during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was pre-eminently deductive.” If he had cared to generalize from the single instance of Mr. Robert Buchanan, he might have added that the Scotch intellect of the nineteenth century was pre-eminently dogmatic. For a book so absolutely brimming with self- confidence as this volume of Essays, we never had the good fortune to meet with before. Great writers and great speakers disposed of in a single line; the law laid down with a definiteness and conciseness worthy of the Code Napoléon; principles of art, morality, politics, stated as if the bare statement of them by Mr. Buchanan ought to carry conviction to all minds—these form the staple of almost every page. And the difficulty is that Mr. Buchanan puts it entirely out of our power to disallow any of his positions. The title of his first essay is “The Poet, or Seer”; the one faculty that he claims for the poet and critic (the persons in his case being identical) is that of sight. Of course, de sensibus non est disputandum. When a man tells us that he sees such and such a thing, we are bound to believe him, and to own that he must be the best judge of what his senses tell him. In his very entertaining Lessons in Elementary Physiology, Professor Huxley quotes from Brewster’s Natural Magic “the famous case of Mrs. A.”—the lady who, although in perfect health and full possession of her faculties, was constantly the victim of the most extraordinary sensory delusions; and after an account of some of these he goes on:—
Mrs. A. undoubtedly saw what she said she saw. The evidence of her eyes as to the existence of the apparitions, and of her ears as to those of the voices, was, in itself, as perfectly trustworthy as their evidence would have been had the objects really existed. For there can be no doubt that exactly those parts of her retina which would have been affected by the image of a cat, and those parts of her auditory organ which would have been set vibrating by her husband’s voice, were thrown into the same condition by some internal cause.
It is the same with Mr. Robert Buchanan as with Mrs. A. He says that the poet is the man who sees, and we cannot of course suppose that the poet doffs his powers of vision when he turns critic. Therefore, when the critic tells us that Mr. Bright talks in blatant periods, and that Mr. Lowe is given over to polished pettiness; when he speaks of the “brutality” of Mr. Carlyle and the “merest prose" of Mr. Arnold; when he calls attention to the heroes and heroines of his own poems, and speaks of “the intense loving tenderness of the coarse woman, Nell, towards her brutal paramour, the exquisite delicacy and fine spiritual vision of the old village schoolmaster,” we are bound to believe that he really sees and hears these things, and that they have an objective existence as indisputable as the cat that Mrs. A. saw and the voices that sounded in her ears. What the “internal cause” may be that throws Mr. Buchanan’s critical retina and auditory organ into this peculiar condition is of course to us no more than a matter of speculation. We cannot speak with any certainty; but we should imagine that it was simply inordinate vanity, fostered by the rash desire to make his prose eclipse the moderate but respectable reputation which his verse had won for him.
Thus here and there, by the busy wayside, the earthly traveller catches glimpses of faint footpaths, some leading to places of nestling green, others winding up to the mountain-peaks, others conducting to the brink of waste waters peopled by the phantoms of the clouds. These paths wind to the nooks where the students dwell, hearing faintly from afar the tramp of busy feet and the cry of voices. Not always, however, do the students remain apart. Ever and anon, at the point where the footpath joins the highway, appears a pale face, and a white hand is uplifted enjoining silence. The student has stept down with a message. Ere that message can be heard the crowd must still itself and pause, and in that pause all loud cries are lost, and the student is heard saying, “Rest awhile. Listen to the message I bring you! I want you just for a minute to turn with me to the infinite.”
We seem to catch, like an echo, the familiar tones of Mrs. Hominy:—“Howls the Sublime, and softly sleeps the calm Ideal in the whispering chambers of Imagination.” Well may Mr. Buchanan claim to add a saving clause, which once more puts him beyond the power of criticism. The student aims, he says, at the beautiful. “He shapes his glowing thoughts into melodious syllables, such as common men may not employ. Add to perfect disinterestedness perfect sweetness of voice—and the people are spellbound. Their souls are raised, their ears are delighted.” Speaking for ourselves, we must own to being rather glad that common men may not employ these melodious syllables. But sometimes, alas! even the student forgets himself, and what happens on such occasions Mr. Buchanan describes so vividly, and with such prophetic instinct; that we dare not even paraphrase his words:—
But when the student not only brings his message, but lards it with follies and insolencies of his own, the public retort is simple:—“The message you bring is a LIE.” “Brutes! idiots!” perhaps screams the Student, “do ye dare to despise eternal truth?” And the public, justly exasperated, lynches the fellow, crying, “Eternal truth is all very fine, but we are now convinced of the contemporary truth, that you are a humbug and a ranter.”
“Humbug” and “ranter” are hard names for a man to call himself, even prophetically; but as the words are Mr. Buchanan’s own, we have no choice about accepting them. Yet of ourselves we should have had no difficulty in finding out that Mr. Buchanan is, if not “a humbug and a ranter,” at least very positive, very vain, and very fond of airing his ignorance. What his opinion of Mr. Carlyle, Mr. Bright, and Mr. Lowe is, we have already said. He has a place in the universe ready ticketed for everybody. Scott is at once pronounced “the greatest novelist that ever lived,” and the claims of Cervantes, Defoe, Fielding, Balzac, George Sand, George Eliot are quietly put away unheard. Thackeray is a “much smaller writer and inferior artist; he worked in his own sickening and peculiar fashion.” Fancy the author of the Legends of Inverburn passing a sentence of this sort on the author of Vanity Fair! Shakspeare he very rightly pronounces “occasionally gross”; yet “Jonson, an inferior writer, though a straightforward and splendid nature, is singularly pure.” We ask Mr. Buchanan has he ever read Every Man in his Humour, or The Devil is an Ass? But it is where he touches subjects that he calls academic that Mr. Buchanan appears to the best advantage. He has no language severe enough for the “vulgarity of schoolmen,” and for “all the tribe of people who remain at school all their lives.” Some eminent persons, of one of whom even Mr. Buchanan speaks with respect—we mean Mr. Mill—have been known to hold that with men who are worth anything education is a lifelong matter; in other words, that the best men are those who “remain at school all their lives.” If Mr. Buchanan had remained at school a little longer he might at least have learnt not hopelessly to mistranslate Horace; he might even have learnt to understand the Greek spirit, and its bearing on the modern world. He would not have translated “domus exilis Plutonia” a Plutonian house of exiles; nor would he hopelessly muddle the mythologies. A man who shows his thorough misapprehension of even the outlines of classical culture has small right to be heard as an authority when he “indicates how exotic teachers have emasculated the youth and the flower of our schools and Universities.” “We have nothing in common,” he says, “with the Athenian civilization. . . . Our natures have a glow of emotion quite unknown to the frigid spirit of Athenian inquiry.” Nothing in common with Athenian civilization!—the audacious fallacy is scarcely worth refuting. We should like to know where our ideas of art would be if we had not the perfect criterion of the Greek Heiterkeit und Allgemeinheit to judge them by? We should like to know what the loss to the language of daily life would be if we could blot out of history the existence and the influence of Socrates. The fact is that, in these axioms that he lays down (and those we have quoted are but specimens of them), Mr. Buchanan only shows the lamentable imperfections of his knowledge. Let him, before he calls Ben Jonson pure, study the Elizabethan dramatists a little more closely; let him read Agathon’s speech in the Symposium before he ventures to declaim about the frigid spirit of Athenian inquiry.
* David Gray and other Essays, chiefly on Poetry. By Robert Buchanan. London: Sampson Low, Son, & Marston. 1868.
[Reviews of The Fleshly School of Poetry and Other Phenomena of the Day are available in The Fleshly School Controversy section of the site.]
The Examiner (6 December, 1873)
Master-Spirits. By Robert Buchanan. H. S. King and Co.
“Good books,” says Milton—and Mr Buchanan quotes the remark in explanation of his title—“are like the precious life-blood of master-spirits.” Mr Buchanan has here given us a reprint of articles on literary topics from the Contemporary, the Fortnightly, St Paul’s, Good Words, and the Athenæum; but as one of these is devoted to the “Birds of the Hebrides,” and as in some of the others the spirits in question are not treated with much politeness, we suppose that the title of the book is adopted, like so many of our modern titles, faute de mieux. But, having said this, we make haste to say that Mr Buchanan has given us a very pleasant and readable book, from which a large supply of entertainment may be drawn, with here and there a morsel of entirely original criticism. Three discriminating notices of Dickens, Browning, and Tennyson, the latter of whom is compared with Heine and De Musset, and is not suffered to lose by the comparison, are of that chatty sort which we might expect from a professed poet, who himself admits it to be “desultory,” and declares that his “real work lies in another field.” It is to be hoped that he has solaced himself in his retirement at Malvern (the cause whereof we greatly regret) as much by writing these articles as others will be charmed by reading them, provided they do not expect any very strong meat. In “Scandinavian Studies” Mr Buchanan was manifestly in his element; and, indeed, he has done much to earn the gratitude of those to whom news of the old Norse heroes and the old Norse poetry is an ever-welcome pleasure. He has, in fact, laid his finger on a decided blot in the fame of English critics. At Copenhagen he found a hospitable professor who, somewhat ostentatiously, began conversation by quoting a verse of Browning’s. “What! you read Browning?” said Mr Buchanan, with artless simplicity. “I do, indeed,” replied the professor, “and so do many of my friends. Let me tell you, sir, that we in Denmark do know something of English literature, while you in England know next to nothing of the literature of the North. The only man of whom you do really know anything is Hans Christian Andersen; he represents northern poesy in your eyes, while many of us will not allow that he is a poet at all. Holberg, Evald, Baggesen, Ohlenschläger, Grundtvig, Rahbek, Ingemann, Holberg (sic), Molbech! what do you know of these?” The professor was just in his reflection, and Mr Buchanan rightly infers that Englishmen are guilty of unpardonable insularity in neglecting the Scandinavian poets, and that it is well worth his while to try and lighten our darkness.
The Athenæum (13 December, 1973)
ANOTHER re-issue from periodicals is Master-Spirits, by Mr. R. Buchanan, which we are told “may be accepted as mere desultory notes on literary subjects of permanent interest, by one whose real work lies in another field.” Mr. Buchanan has included in his reprints some articles from the Athenæum, but has not had the courtesy to ask permission to do so. We presume he reserves his politeness for his “real work.” Messrs. H. S. King & Co. are his publishers.
The Westminster Review (January, 1874 - p.145)
“Master Spirits” 34 is a collection of Mr. Buchanan’s lighter contributions to periodical literature. They are, however, the author says in a short preface, to be regarded as “mere desultory notes on literary subjects of permanent interest, by one whose real work lies in another field.” There was scarcely any need of this apology. All the papers possess considerable interest. We, however, disagree from a great many of Mr. Buchanan’s views and opinions. The paper which will probably be read with most interest is the introductory one, “Criticism as one of the Fine Arts.” The title is ironical. Mr. Buchanan is apparently of the same opinion as Mr. Disraeli, that critics are “those who have failed in literature and art.” Mr. Buchanan’s condemnation, although not so sweeping, is as severe as the ex-Premier’s. Mr. Buchanan, instead of dealing in vague generalities, gives us two instances to show what manner of people critics are. He takes the case of Mr. Grote’s “Plato.” According to Mr. Buchanan, Grote’s typical reviewer is a certain Tomkins, who “knows little of Greek beyondthe alphabet.” Now if Mr. Buchanan will turn to Grote’s recently published life, he may find out from a letter of Mill’s what kind of men Grote’s reviewers were. Mill mentions one of them by name. Instead of being a person who “knows little of Greek beyond the alphabet,” he turns out to be a man of European reputation, the Rector of Lincoln College, who is quite as capable of forming an opinion upon Plato as Grote. The other crucial case given by Mr. Buchanan might be as easily refuted. Generally speaking, however, as we have said, Mr. Buchanan’s papers are full of interest. One of the most picturesque is “The Birds of the Hebrides.” We have said nothing of Mr. Buchanan’s attack on the editor of The Fortnightly Review. Mr. Morley is quite able to take care of himself.
34 “Master-Spirits.” By Robert Buchanan. London: Henry S. King. 1873.
The Graphic (31 January, 1874)
Those readers, and their number is every day increasing, who admire and appreciate Mr. Robert Buchanan’s poetry, will not be sorry to have in a collected form some of the best of his lighter prose essays. “Master-Spirits,” by Robert Buchanan (Henry S. King), consists of some of his contributions to periodical literature, and it is in every way pleasant reading. We do not always agree with the author, but it is always worth considering the question which may be raised by the fact of our disagreement; at the same time we must deny that Gay’s humour is “shrill and wicked.” What! the humour of “The Shepherd’s Week,” or “The What d’ye Call it?” wicked! We can hardly fancy but that there is a mistake somewhere. Mr. Buchanan is at his best in speaking of Dickens, in his “Scandinavian Studies,” and in the remarks on Tennyson, but even here he manages to jar one by talking of “the loss of a mere friend” (sic) when discussing “In Memoriam.” But all the essays are more or less worth reading, and make one heartily desire the more serious work which is promised.
Pall Mall Gazette (9 February, 1874 - pp.11-12)
“MASTER SPIRITS.” *
MR. BUCHANAN is so exceedingly severe on anonymous criticism in the first essay of this volume that we approach the task of criticising our unsparing critic with no ordinary degree of diffidence. We hope to disarm him, however, by a candid admission at the outset. His strictures on the class of reviewers whom he personifies under two not very happily chosen proper names we allow to be in the main just. We give up Tomkins of the Megatherium, and even (though with more trepidation) Chesterfield Junior of the Dilettante Gazette, to Mr. Buchanan’s tender mercies. We admit his position that off-hand, unsympathetic, and unintelligent criticism is at the same time a bad thing and much too common a thing. What we cannot admit, because we fail to see its sequence, is Mr. Buchanan’s conclusion that anonymous criticism is to be condemned, and that the attachment of a signature would improve the quality, or diminish the quantity, or materially neutralize the injurious effects of inferior critical work. We regret to hear Mr. Buchanan repeating the cuckoo cry, long since, we had hoped, silenced, “Who says so? That is what we want to get at. If it be Smith, let Smith come forward and sign his name?” But surely it is not who says it, but what is said which is the important point. How much the wiser would Mr. Buchanan or his admirers be if Smith did sign his name? No doubt, there is an advantage in knowing a critic’s name, if it conveys any information of his character; and what Mr. Buchanan says about our mode of reading such criticism as that of M. Taine, Sir Arthur Helps, and Mr. Matthew Arnold is true enough. We know, he says, of M. Taine “almost by instinct where he will be right and where he may be wrong.” But that is because we know M. Taine and his literary character and intellectual cast dehors the particular criticism before us. We are examining a known instead of an unknown witness; we can make for ourselves the necessary deductions from or additions to his evidence, and no doubt, through the possibility of such a process, obtain more accurate results. But the subscription of Smith’s signature to his article would not enable us to perform this process at all. We should know no more of the character of the critic, of his strength or weakness in particular directions, than we did before. What Mr. Buchanan’s demand really amounts to is this—that the critic’s name should not only be signed but well known. Eminence, in fact, should only be admitted to judge of the eminent; so that any young undistinguished Jeffrey should be condemned to silence.
Secretiveness, indeed, must be at once admitted as a prominent quality of Mr. Browning’s power. Indeed, it is this quality which so fascinates the few and repels the many. It tempts the possessor, magpie-like, to play a constant game at hiding away precious and glittering things in obscure and mysterious corners, and—still magpie-like—to search for bright and glittering things in all sorts of unpleasant and unlikely places. Mr. Browning’s manner reminds us of the magpie’s manner when, having secretly stolen a spoon or swallowed a jewel, the bird swaggers jauntily up and down, peering rakishly up and chuckling to itself over its last successful feat of knowingness and diablerie.
Now this, we insist, in spite of Mr. Buchanan’s limitation of criticism to the domain of art, has a distinctly scientific, in addition to its artistic, value. Over and above its merits as a piece of observation, it adds distinctly to our knowledge and appreciation of the writer to whom it relates. We have all experienced the impression Mr. Buchanan speaks of, but we have experienced it “in combination” only, as a part of the complex whole of emotions which Mr. Browning’s poetry calls up. Now that analysis has disengaged the sensation and referred it to its causal quality in the poet, it not only explains some of the involution of his style, but supplements our conception of his artistic character. On the other hand, take this one from “The ‘good genie’ of Fiction” (Charles Dickens):—
Between Shakspeare and Dickens only one humourist of the truly divine sort rose, flirted magically for a moment, and passed away, leaving the Primrose family as his legacy to posterity. Swift’s humour was of the earth earthy; Gay’s was shrill and wicked; Fielding’s was judicial, with flashes of heaven-like promise; Smollett’s was cumbrous and not spiritualizing; Sterne’s was a mockery and a lie (shades of Uncle Toby and Widow Wadman, forgive us, but it is true!); and—not to catalogue till the reader is breathless—Scott’s was feudal, with all the feudal limitations, in spite of his magnificent scope and depth.
This may be “criticism of the fine art” kind, but the art strikes us as being of what is known as the “slap-dash” order. It is a record of “impressions” which one can hardly conceive the writer to have defined to himself, and which he certainly fails to justify or render intelligible to his readers. Surely “Swift’s humour was of the earth earthy” is a very incomplete account of so strange and terrible an intellectual apparition. And how was Fielding’s humour “judicial” or Scott’s “feudal” other than in the sense that Fielding was a magistrate as well as a humourist, and Scott a humourist with strong feudal sympathies? The profession of the one and the proclivities of the other may or may not have coloured their humour: we neither deny nor assert it, but what we say is that the connection has to be shown by analysis and cannot be thrown out as a “mere impression.” To do so is about as instructive as it would be to say that Vanbrugh’s wit was “architectural,” or that Charles Lamb’s humour had “all the limitations of the India House.” Then again. when Mr. Buchanan calls Sterne’s humour a mockery and a lie, he must see (and his parenthetic apostrophe seems to show that he sees) the difficulty he has to get over. In Uncle Toby he mentions the name of the character in the portrayal of whom Sterne’s simious nature shows its profoundly human side, and his artificial and prurient persiflage gives place again and again to humour high and deep. It is not sufficient, therefore, to apologize to Uncle Toby; it is necessary to explain him away. The “fine art” criticism is all very well in its place, as where Mr. Buchanan says that “Mystic touches of humour in Aristophanes sweetened the Athenian mind when philosophy and the dramatic muses were souring and curdling, and at the mad laughter of Rabelais the cloud pavilion of monasticism parted to let the merry sky peep through.” Here, no doubt, to be picturesque is sufficient; but in the previously quoted passage Mr. Buchanan was attempting to assign Dickens’s exact place in the ranks of English humourists, and that is a work which can only be done by the steady light of analysis, and cannot be carried on by flashes of lightning, which leave the darkness thicker than before. It is to this mode of treating its subject that the incompleteness of Mr. Buchanan’s criticism on Dickens is mainly due. From his theory (if at times somewhat strained and fanciful) of Dickens’s mode of working and cast of observation we do not altogether dissent; but it does not go by any means to the root of the matter. It relates, after all, only to the mere mannerisms of the author, which it admits while it palliates (and indeed by its mode of palliation admits somewhat too unreservedly), while it deals little, or not at all, with the inner qualities of Dickens’s humour. It is enough to add that, if there were no more to be said about Dickens as a humourist than Mr. Buchanan has said or thought out sufficiently to say clearly, the strictures of his severest critics would be justified. It is because Dickens had a gift of humour unique and original in essence apart from form, and because this is lost sight of by many of those who are wearied and irritated by its manner, that we could wish that Mr. Buchanan had been at more pains to separate the two for our instruction. In “Browning’s Masterpiece” Mr. Buchanan is, critically speaking, at his best—partly perhaps because it is impossible to approach Mr. Browning at all except in the analytic vein. The initial difficulty of “construing” him stimulates the critical faculty to the utmost, and, like the clock in Sheridan’s “Critic,” begets the “awful attention” necessary for following the windings of the poet’s thought. Mr. Buchanan’s study of “The Ring and the Book” is alike sound and subtle, and if we do not everywhere agree with it, it everywhere suggests trains of thought which it is the most valuable function of criticism to arouse. “Hugo in 1872” and “A young English Positivist” (a paper on Mr. Morley’s essays) are easier subjects more slightly treated, and the latter disfigured by an intemperate criticism of Mr. Carlyle. “Tennyson, Heine, and De Musset” is the least satisfactory of the series, as must always be the case where criticism condescends to answer one irrelevance by another. Mr. Buchanan should reflect that if it be uncritical to depreciate Tennyson because he is the poet of the “domestic idea,” it is equally so to retort upon the depreciators that Heine and De Musset are none the better for being poets of quite another sort of idea. They are none the better, but, artistically speaking, they are none the worse, as Mr. Buchanan’s polemic requires that they should be, and as his whole argument implies that they are. The whole essay only shows that in the world-old contest between Philistia and Bohemia neither side has a monopoly of prejudice.
* “Master Spirits.” By Robert Buchanan. (London: Henry S. King and Co. 1874.)
The Academy (14 February, 1874 - pp.166-167)
Master-Spirits. By Robert Buchanan. (H. S. King & Co.)
MR. BUCHANAN is one of the most formidable beings that await the critic in his path through life. He sits, spider-like, in the den of his own individuality—a den he has himself hewn out by the side of the highway of literature; and though, like Giant Pope, he has grown so crazy and stiff in his joints that he can do little more than sit in his cave’s mouth, yet still he grins at pilgrims as they go by, and bites his nails because he cannot come at them. This new book of his is 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. We are, personally, exceedingly well disposed towards Mr. Robert Buchanan; we have always regarded him as quite a gifted person in certain ways, and accordingly we have been afflicted, in reading Master-Spirits, to notice what an instrument this book will undoubtedly be in the hands of those ill-affected people that do not like Mr. Buchanan. For ourselves, we hardly know how to proceed; thistles are so tall and so prickly around the den of Giant Pope, and the very air, like that about the grave of Archilochos, is so full of hellebore and the poison of wasp-stings, that a single step will embarrass us. The opening chapter of the book is intended to chastise and correct us at the outset. It is entitled “Criticism as one of the Fine Arts,” and is so excessively inartistic, so languid, so commonplace, so diffuse, that it may be considered as showing on a small scale the internal anatomy of Mr. Buchanan’s mind,—a mind gifted with some perception of the features of nature, some slight knowledge of men and books, and a profound ignorance of itself. That a book which consists of a string of unconnected, desultory, and prejudiced essays in infantile criticism should open with an article whose very aim is to show that criticism must be unbiassed, artistic in form, complete, adult, is a curious fact in the intellectual development of the writer.
“In the distance calling,
Mr. Buchanan has evidently forgotten that a certain William Wordsworth wrote—
“And the cuckoo’s sovereign cry
As a matter of fact the Luggie was a work of much less promise than Undertones. Personal bias may easily be pushed too far in either direction. The other obscure poet is even less known, but far more worthy. It was a positive delight to us to read something about the man who invented our old friend Willie Winkie, that enfant terrible who “rattles in an iron jug, wi’ an iron spoon.” Everybody has enjoyed Willie Winkie, but how many people know that his creator was a certain W. Miller, whose poems, as here largely quoted, seem to be all of the same tenderly humorous class? It is with something akin to remorse that we learn that this poet has lately died, in extreme penury, at Glasgow.
The Pall Mall Gazette (13 November, 1883)
“A POET’S SKETCHBOOK.” *
MANY hard things have been said, and some of them very justly said, of Mr. Robert Buchanan in his literary capacity. But there is one thing which may fairly be said in his favour, and that is that he is much less shy than most men of letters in applying the scissors to his own work. A dozen years ago he brought out a huge volume called “The Drama of Kings,” and before three years were over made a frank confession, by including only a small part of it in his collected poems, that the rest was rubbish. Recently he has published selections of his own poems, to which the same modest origin may charitably be assigned, and now he appears with a similar sifting of his prose works. It is true that there is in the title something of that curious arrogance which was once described by a person who could not forgive Mr. Buchanan’s most famous and least creditable literary exploit as “cantankerous fatuity;” but that may pass. It is certain that both in poetry and in prose Mr. Buchanan is a writer exceptionally suited for excerption and revision; for he has been extremely productive, and his work has been extremely unequal. No really impartial critic can deny him at his best a considerable faculty of poetic imagination, unluckily too often combined with a complete indifference to poetic form, in verse, and a considerable command both of pathos and of description in prose. But then he is by no means always or often at his best.
* “A Poet’s Sketchbook.” Selected from the Prose Works of Robert Buchanan. (London: Chatto and Windus. 1883.)
The Graphic (17 November, 1883)
Few authors who have written much are strong enough to resist those promptings which urge them to collect from time to time all their half-forgotten fugitive pieces, and launch them once again in all the dignity of good paper and cloth binding upon the troubled waters of public criticism. No matter how slight and imperfect the workmanship, or how trivial the subject, out come the fugitive pieces from their hiding-places. “A Poet’s Sketch Book” (Chatto and Windus) is Mr. Robert Buchanan’s latest contribution to the great library of collected pieces. The title is somewhat ill-chosen (unless the poet wishes us to see that he can work in more than one medium), for these are all prose pieces. They “will be chiefly interesting,” says Mr. Buchanan, “to those who take an interest in the author as a writer of poems.” Except to these persons it will probably seem that it was not necessary to reprint more than half the contents of the present volume. The memoirs of David Gray and of Peacock and the essays on Dickens and Ossian contain solid matter, and in “The Poet or Seer; a Definition,” there is a good deal of technical study of verse which is always of interest when it is well done, as in the present case.
The British Quarterly Review (July, 1884 - p.203)
A Poet’s Sketch Book. Selections from the Prose Writings of Robert Buchanan. Chatto and Windus.
Mr. Buchanan has made two mistakes in this book—in his title, and in giving so much space to his memoir of David Gray—which may once more lay him open to the charge of egotism. His writings present abundant materials for varied extract, and it is a pity that on one side there should have been such a tendency to disproportion. He has sketched scenery in Ireland, in Brittany, and in many other places; but his ‘nature-sketches’ here are all concerned with the Scottish highlands and islands. The section ‘Literary Sketches’ treats on Peacock, Dickens, Ossian, Heine, De Musset, and Victor Hugo; but Mr. Buchanan has written on Goethe, and many others, and could have given greater variety. To many it will seem that the ‘Poet or Seer’ is an unfortunate opening piece. But Mr. Buchanan is always full of vigour, colour, and resolution. This volume, we trust, will have the effect of drawing to him a new class of readers; for he is a prose-poet, with a quite distinct individual flavour, and he will, we venture to say, more and more deserve study, and more and more reward it.
A Look Round Literature (1887) to On Descending into Hell (1889)