ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)
BOOK REVIEWS - POETRY (10)
The Book of Orm: a prelude to the epic (1870)
The Athenæum (30 January, 1869 - No. 2153, p.178)
OUR WEEKLY GOSSIP.
. . .
Mr. Robert Buchanan has two works on the eve of publication: a new poem entitled ‘The Book of Orm: a Prelude to the Epic’; and a prose volume of picture and adventure, portions of which have appeared in the Spectator, entitled ‘Hebrides: the Cruise of the Tern through the Scottish Isles.’
The Oban Times (9 April, 1870 - p.2)
“THE BOOK OF ORM.”—Mr Robert Buchanan, author of “London Poems,” Undertones, &c., has just issued a new book from the press of Messrs Strahan & Co., London. It is “The Book of the Visions seen by Orm the Celt,” and contains the following songs and visions:—“The First Song of the Veil,” “The Man and the Shadow,” “Songs of Corruption,” “The Soul and the Dwelling,” “Songs of Seeking,” “The Lifting of the Veil,” “Coruisken Sonnets,” “The Coruisken Vision,” “The Devil’s Mystics,” “The Man Accurst.” Mr Buchanan has been a residenter in the neighbourhood of Oban for about a year.
“THE BOOK OF ORM.”*
Mr. Buchanan’s genius has struck root into [a] new form of life and feeling—subtle, delicate, and marvellously fair, and charged with all the mystery and wonder that seem to rest upon the cheek of a dying maiden, or the first glance of the eyes of a wakening child. Of his ability to catch coarse and common forms of feeling, and to give them a kind of bald dramatic setting—the poetic light suffusing the hidden side, and giving a tone of purity to the whole, yet never escaping round the outline to create a nimbus about it—we had of course had ample proof in his “London Poems,” and some of his earlier idylls. Sometimes, indeed, we were compelled to blame him for what appeared an occasional touch of coarseness, suggesting too much of the earth, earthy. We had, too, in these poems a constant return upon the mystery of nature, a rapt listening to the messages of winds and waves and clouds; but there was unmistakeably some feeling as if of a puzzle and contradiction that kept nature and man absolutely apart—an oppression and a terrible disjuncture which gave an undertone of pathetic impatience and an unrestful haunting sense of a problem yet unsolved. When poor “Liz” goes to the country and is so overcome by the purity and health of its suggestion, that she must rush back to the City, with its smoke and mire and sin for the sake of imperative relief, the poet expresses more the ground of his own relations to nature and to man than any feeling possible to such a character in such circumstances as she was placed in.
“Yet mark me closely!
The halo of the Celtic glamour that wells and spreads round all the problems of life is there, and the measure is most happily used to express it. We have not quoted this passage as being the most effective in the book; but only as showing how characteristically Mr. Buchanan has caught the Celtic spirit, and how completely he can adapt his rhythms to express it. “The Songs of the Veil” are the various forms in which the questionings as to this primal mystery have revealed themselves, as read through the Celtic character; and indeed there is an attempt throughout the book to indirectly deal with the main lines of philosophic thought of the present day. The poem—the “Philosophers”—in this section, and several others further on, are decisive proof of this.
“Now at the bottom of a snowy mountain
Saying, ‘O Angel of the Lord, come hither,
I curse thee that I cannot look upon him!
I laid my little girl upon a wood-bier,
I put my silver mother in the darkness,
And green, green were their quiet sleeping-places,
The closing of dead eyelids is not dreadful,
And we can sit above them where they slumber,
And again this put into the mouth of another:—
“ ‘Whither, and O whither,’ said the woman,
For, lo! we wandered forth at early morning,
Looked violets at the violets, and their hair
And suddenly my little son looked upward,
And my little son was gone. My little daughter
By the sign he gives the stricken, that the lost one
I sought him in the sunlight and the starlight,
And I forgot my little bright-haired daughter,
And stilly, in the starlight, came I backward
And saw two little shoes filled up with dew,
This, then, is the lyric of the bliss and comfort of death and corruption.
“We are the Drinkers of Hemlock!
And then comes “Homunculus; or the Song of Deicides,” whose reference will be clearly enough seen from a few stanzas:—
It seems but yesterday the dim
O had I then so far foreseen,
“The Vision of the Man Accurst,” is a most powerful poem, justifying the thought of ultimate restoration even to the worst of men, and exhibiting the peculiar form of hope and faith which the Celtic mind, in its incapacity to fix itself to definite forms of belief, is destined to throw across the later conclusions respecting the final destiny of humanity. No idea could possibly be given of the poem by any extract—to attempt it would simply be like cutting off a part of a living thing to show the beauty of its life, but we are sure that no reader could read this poem without being touched to tender sympathy, and to some enlargement of human hopes.
* The Book of Orm. A Prelude to the Epic. By ROBERT BUCHANAN. (Strahan and Co.)
The Athenæum (28 May, 1870)
The Book of Orm: a Prelude to the Epic. By Robert Buchanan. (Strahan & Co.)
NOT only in the title, but also in much of the contents of this volume there is a certain mystery, or mistiness, which we do not profess to be able entirely to disperse. It is said on its title-page to the “a prelude to the Epic”; and a kind of brief proem is headed ‘The Book of the Visions seen by Orm the Celt,’ and thus begins:—
There is a mortal, and his name is Orm,
The body of the book is divided into ten sections, comprising altogether some seventy poems, mostly short, in a variety of metres; and the whole work owes such homogeneity as it possesses not to any ground-plan, nor to any continuous threads of narrative, of characterization or of reflection, but to the general hue of the recurrent thoughts. The old puzzles of good and evil, fate and freewill, God and Man, are reproduced again by this modern singer, and handled after his own fashion, which in some considerable measure is also the fashion of the present time. The conventional orthodox doctrines on many of the questions most interesting to man as a moral and religious being Mr. Buchanan strenuously and often indignantly rejects:—
For I cried: O Thou Unseen, how shall I praise Thee—
He frequently denounces those who judge others with a pretence of heavenly authority, as in these lines, entitled ‘God’s Dream’:—
I hear a voice, “How should God pardon sin?
Further I hear, “How should God pardon lust?
Further I hear, “How should God pardon blood?
And God is on His throne; and in a dream
And sees the shapes look up into His eyes,
God dreams this, and His dreaming is the world;
The poet’s sympathy with the view sometimes called Universalism is expressed in some striking forms, lyrically on page 117, and further on in a blank-verse poem of some length, which is the last in the volume, entitled ‘The Man Accurst.’ This is an expansion of the saying of somebody (was it Leigh Hunt, or did Leigh Hunt only quote it with approval?) that the knowledge that one human being was suffering eternal torture would be enough to destroy the happiness of Heaven—an opinion very unlike that of St. Jerome, who was in hopes of actually seeing from his blissful seat the torments of multitudes of men, women and children, and of deriving from it a delicious gratification;—so widely may good men differ. In Mr. Buchanan’s poem, which has striking points in treatment, the fierce cry of the Man Accurst rings through Heaven; at last the Lord asks if any one will go forth to him; then,
like mournful mist
They are willing to go forth to the Accurst one:—
Then said the Lord,
The man weeps; and he is permitted to enter the Gate.
And methought, affrighted,
This extract brings us to consider the metrical forms which Mr. Buchanan has chosen to employ in his present volume. The above is not, to our mind, satisfactory in point of form; but there are many passages which are still less so; for example—
As in the snowy stillness,
Here and elsewhere ‘The Book of Orm’ is looser than ‘Thalaba,’ and almost as shapeless as Walt Whitman himself. Mr. Buchanan is a practised and skilful metrist, as he proves in this very volume, and we would submit to his own consideration whether many of the lines printed as lyrical are not more like a first rough copy than like finished work. Several recent writers ( and among them we should reckon Mr. Matthew Arnold) have been led astray, as we conceive, by the impressiveness of certain passages translated into English in loose unrhymed quasi-metres, from great poets like Goethe or Sophocles, forgetting that these owe nearly all their power to the weight of matter of the thought and to the prestige of the original, helped slightly (very slightly in most cases) by some faint reflex of the force of the original language and verse-form. Deliberately to choose such a shuffling and slipshod gait under the pretence of tripping it along lightly and harmoniously in true lyrical measure, is treason to Euterpe. Mr. Buchanan, as we have said, can write very differently from this, when he will give himself the trouble. His blank verse is not only picturesque but often sonorous; and his sonnets, of which there are near three dozen in these pages, show, among other high merits, a strong feeling for metre. ‘The Motion of the Mists’ would have delighted Wordsworth,—especially if he had written it himself—but we will quote in preference a picture of a gentler scene and a milder mood:—
O sing, clear Brook, sing on, while in a dream
Some of the subjects treated in ‘The Book of Orm’ are handled in a spirit which may to some appear too daring, and the whole is full of modern sadness and unrest; but we cannot doubt that the poet’s sympathies are with goodness and true beauty, and that in his promised Epic he will not fail to show that man’s becoming attitude in presence of the great mysteries of the Universe is one not of cowardice but of humility.
The Examiner (28 May, 1870)
The Book of Orm. By Robert Buchanan. Strahan and Co.
Mr Buchanan is favourably known to the public by his ‘Undertones’—a series of colour-pictures of the old Greek legends—and by several volumes of narrative-poetry, in which, with great cleverness, a number of rough and uncultivated men and women are made to assume the sensitiveness and utter the language of finer natures. He now adventures upon the region of theology and mysticism; and we observe, from an advertisement, that his next effort is to be an epic. This vacillation of purpose may be the result either of immaturity or of a grave doubt on the part of the writer as to which is his proper bent. That is a problem which we cannot assist him in solving—a young man must almost of necessity chop and change about until he discovers where his greatest strength lies. To say that Mr Buchanan’s work is full of promise would be offering an insult to an author who has written so much and written so well; and yet we cannot help thinking that this tremulousness and indecision point to a certain lack of development. Indeed, Mr Buchanan’s ‘Undertones’ seem to us to have more originality and complete work in them than anything he has written since; and we are bound to confess that the present work—undeniably picturesque and expressive as it is in parts—has less than any of his other books of this character. We do not think Mr Buchanan has been in this instance fortunate in his choice of a subject. The Christian religion was not particularly in want of his help; even if it were possible for him to have said something new on a theme that the greatest intellects of the world have puzzled over. Mr Buchanan’s method of treatment is short and simple. If a reader were to lose sight of the picturesque writing of the ‘Book of Orm,’ and merely state its argument, he would probably put the matter in this way: “In the beginning two and two were five. But a veil was drawn over that circumstance, and men of science, philosophers, and such people, came to consider that two and two were four. This is a mistake; for I, the poet, can see through the veil, and I give you my word that two and two are five. If you do not agree with me, you are an ass and an unbeliever, fit for nothing but the bottomless pit.” Now we have heard something of this way of reasoning before; and we do not think it mends matters much. We admit, however, that it is very unfair to ask of mystical poetry what it really means; and, to do justice to the ‘Book of Orm,’ we must look at its power of harmonious sounds, its occasional felicities of epithet, and to frequent glimpses of nature of a very vivid and refreshing kind. If Mr Buchanan does not paint large and impressive pictures, he shows, at least, that he is alive to the colours and forms of a landscape; and we have many happy phrases in this book descriptive of the misty aspect of Highland scenery. Mr Buchanan should, however, avoid the constant use of the word “scream,” which comes into these imaginative pictures at most unseasonable times. Everything in his writings “screams,”—from a partridge to a mountain—although it is only the ear of a poet that has ever heard either give forth such a peculiar note. But for the line which describes Blaabhein (the mountain, we presume, which Alexander Smith called Blavin) as uttering
“An indistinct and senile scream,”
the sonnet referring to this mountain would be very good indeed. Very good, too, is the companion sonnet, called “The Hills on their Thrones.” With all desire to do justice to the “Book of Orm,” we must acknowledge our preference for those parts of it which are most widely disconnected from its principal topic—the doings and sayings of the Celtic seer. Some portions of the latter (for instance, the verses entitled “Roses”) may express some meaning of the author; but they will be to the vast majority of readers merely unintelligible. We are bound to speak thus of the book, because Mr Buchanan is an author who deserves criticism; and the best we can hope for him is that in the epic forthcoming (to which the book is stated to be a prelude) he will put forward some of that strength which we know he possesses.
Glasgow Herald (16 June, 1870)
THE BOOK OF ORM: A Prelude to the Epic. By Robert Buchanan. London: Strahan & Co.
“WHICH things are an allegory,” would be a fitting text to Mr Buchanan’s new volume. A plain man reading the book—if we can imagine plain men attracted to “The Book of Orm” at all—would be apt to scratch his head, and inquire what it all meant. Probably, the plain man’s bewilderment would be the measure of his understanding. Yet we can imagine very clever readers puzzling over some of these poems, and honestly wondering what evil spirit it was that tempted Mr Buchanan to disguise what meaning he had in forms that almost no common reader can be expected to understand, or will take the trouble to penetrate. The central figure in the work is Orm the Celt, out of whom, or round whom, the various visions, songs, psalms, and serious satires issue and flicker like poetic nebulæ:—
There is a mortal, and his name is Orm,
In a couple of preliminary text-verses, the poet says:—
Read these faint runes of Mystery,
Till the soil—bid cities rise—
Evidently, if these lines mean anything, the poet is of opinion that the Celtic race are a chosen people, since, as he says, the world’s great future rests with them. Or by “Celt” does he mean some special representative feature in the whole race of man, possessed perhaps in greatest abundance by the Celtic people? One of the great predominating features in the Celtic race is their inextinguishable belief in the supernatural, and in all the mysteries issuing, or which are supposed to issue thence. It is to the “Celt, at home and o’er the sea,” that the book seems, figuratively, addressed; and it is, if one may say so, to the mystical and supernatural ear of the Celtic people, or the Celtic spirit in general humanity, that the poet (or Orm, in the sunset of life) chants his “mystical lore.” Let the Celt—or the Celtic in man—till the soil, build cities, grow rich, and become wise; but, with all their getting and growing, if they wish to remain great, let them still “respect the realm of mysteries.”
Master, if there be Doom,
Were I a Soul in heaven,
I hear a voice, “How should God pardon sin?
Further I hear, “How should God pardon lust?
Further I hear, “How should God pardon blood?
And God is on his throne; and in a dream
And sees the shapes look up into His eyes,
God dreams this, and His dreaming is the world;
The “Song of the Veil,” and the “Lifting of the Veil” contain some fine lines and images; but the kind of verse adopted is poor and unmelodious—a happy-go-lucky, hop-step-and-jump sort of measure—much better adapted for nursery rhyming than for singing of the profoundest religious mysteries. Among the poems called “The Devil’s Mystics,” there are things which have been written or dreamed in Orm’s most Satanic and satirical mood. With all their cleverness, however, and some of them are very clever, there is hardly a gleam of true poetry in any of them. From one called “The Seeds,” which is allegorical of the creation of living things, from the grass to man, we quote some verses:—
When standing in the perfect light
From all the rest he drew apart,
He stood so terrible, so dread,
And since that day He hid away
And since that day, with cloudy face,
That is pretty bold for Orm the Celt, not to mention the poet at all.
CRY OF THE LITTLE BROOK.
Christ help me! whither would my dark thoughts run!
The last poem in the volume—“The Vision of the Man Accursed”—is the one which shows most power, if it does not contain most poetry. It is definite and complete. Its plan is unique and perfect, its aim is grand, and its effect is truly great. The “man accursed” is the only man unsaved at the Judgment Day. He has sinned all sins—killed his mother and horribly abused his wife. He is so very bad that there seems no hope for him. It is asked, however, whether any spirit in heaven will go out and lighten the burden, by sharing the exile, of the detestable creature. His mother and wife go out, and, by their tender ministries, soften the man’s heart, so that he weeps, and is at last saved. The poem is worked out with great force, and points apparently to the final redemption of all mankind.
The Daily Telegraph (20 June, 1870 - p.5)
Mr. Robert Buchanan’s new work, “The Book of Orm; a Prelude to the Epic” (Strahan and Co.), is of unequal merits; but all its merits are high. Musical intonation, graceful expression, fit choice of forcible and significant words, perfect command of rhythm and rhyme—all the literary and mechanical characteristics of the best poetry—abound here. But the claims of the book are considerably higher. It is not absolutely obvious what Mr. Buchanan meant to be the burthen, the moral, or lesson, of his poem. Somewhat disjointed in the form of its original conception, made perhaps even more jerky and inconsequent in places through the author’s ill health, “The Book of Orm” may be broadly described as an indignant, half-articulate protest against the disguised and distorted shape in which Man has so often presented God to his fellow-men. The indignation reaches a wild and tempestuous, almost, it might seem, a blasphemous pitch in a series of powerful compositions entitled “Coruisken Sonnets,” singularly clear in their utterance and close in their sequence; in which, passing through mad, defiant moods, the poet culminates with a declaration of Divine futility and helplessness, and suddenly finds all the clue to the mystery of God in the human manifestation of His nature—sinks into peace in the revelation of Christianity, which disarms of all terrors the angry Deity of Man’s own creation, and reconciles the humanity of God with the divinity of man. Orm the Celt is supposed to see visions and dream dreams in some far back age of the world’s history—certainly at a time too far back to justify Mr. Buchanan in putting into his mouth a reference to a “watch” as an illustration or simile. Of those visions there are two—the “Dream of the World without Death,” and the “Vision of the Man Accurst”—which, for power and beauty, deserve to rank with the highest English poetry of the present or the past generation. In the first, there is a marvellous blending of pathos, profound sympathy, and powerful word-painting, as the author slays the fear and the horror of death, by showing us what infinitely worse states of things we should suffer if death were simply a vanishing, and left no ashes behind for kindly care and not unhopeful mourning. And, in the second poem, there is a majesty and a beauty, a tenderness and deep teaching of love, which show Mr. Buchanan as the very best and noblest manifestation of his undoubted poetic genius. The passages of the book that are cast in the mould of the old Sagas are, perhaps, the least satisfactory; but they are only a small proportion; and not only in the choice of measure, but in the manipulation of his verse, the author shows a wealth and vigour rare among the songsters of our day. “The Book of Orm” is a volume to be read and re-read with pleasure and potent teaching; and parts of it will long survive the generation that saw its birth.
MR. BUCHANAN’S NEW VOLUME.*
IN a previous volume of poems,—two or three of which are republished here in their natural connection, with a great additional number of the same cycle,—Mr. Buchanan gave us specimens of studies after the genius of the Celtic literature, i.e., of the wild, and tender, and ghostly treatment of the emblems of Nature, as if she were, not what Wordsworth and his school found or made her, a minister of human strength and wisdom, a rich field whence the hardy spirit of self-possessing humanity can draw an endless store of joy and guidance, but rather a mighty and mystic phantom, scaring us with strange hieroglyphs of infinite meaning, and startling our ears as with the inarticulate moan of a waste and “melancholy ocean.” Had not Mr. Buchanan shown in previous volumes with how strong and true a hand he can draw what is definite and positive in human life, this volume of almost banshee-like lamentations and weird prophecy might have seemed to some the mere wails and presages of a morbid imagination. But from the man who has written the Legends of Inverburn and the London Lyrics, who has told us the stories of ‘Liz’ and ‘Nell,’ and of the ill-conditioned tailor and his worse-conditioned starling, we may feel certain that these ghostly fancies are no results of the weakness which shrinks from the realities of human life.
“How God in the beginning drew
and telling us that Earth once had the full vision of her Master and Creator; but that when man came to live on earth she was struck blind and dumb, lest she should tell him too much for his peace. Earth’s wise men, using the utmost resources of science, fail to pierce behind the veil, and report to the people that there is no God, and that it is better not to be, as they descend wearily from their dreary heights of frigid speculation. After this pröem on the mystery which seems to draw a physical veil over the face of God, there follow various books intended to illustrate the analogous mystery of the physical veil which is drawn over the soul of man, and its uses,—the shadow of fear ever haunting the body, and yet the body in some sense softening the violence of purely spiritual changes. Both the unity and the discord between the soul and the body are insisted upon with a weird emphasis:—
“My Soul, thou art wed
The touch of the smelling dead,
In contrast to this strongly-flavoured assertion of the lesson which the carnal has for the spiritual part of man, take the following equally strong assertion of the imprisoning and eclipsing character of the bodily tenement which the soul inhabits:—
“Not yet, not yet,
From this delineation of the mystery inherent in the tie between soul and flesh, Mr. Buchanan returns again to the other and still deeper mystery of the relation between man and God, and in a series of short but passionate poems expresses the sense of mystery excited by God’s apparent tolerance of evil, rejects the ‘severe’ codes of religion which justify the condemnation of sinners to enduring pain, and cries for a revelation of the true divine life behind the veil. Then he answers his own impatient cry in a striking dream of the petrifying effect which a real unveiling of the infinite Life would have upon such finite natures as ours. The veil of blue is supposed to be drawn aside, and the immutable face of the Almighty seen gazing calmly down on earth, with this result:—
“At the city gateway
In pale groups gather’d
We hardly apprehend the relation of the section which follows to the plan of the book. It consists of a number of sonnets, apparently written near Loch Coruisk in the island of Skye, and representing the varying moods and emotions of man toward the Divine Ruler,—from bitter rebellion to profound humility and repentance,—and scarcely seems to contribute anything to the progress of the thought. It repeats the complaint of God’s invisibility, of which a mystical explanation had been already offered, accuses God of being at once beautiful and pitiless, and altogether seems to be a return to an earlier stage in the development of the thought. Last, come sections in which a more or less coherent attempt is made to explain away all moral evil as ‘defect,’ and justify the existence even of sin and temptation as forms of good. We will give a specimen, not by any means the finest, but one of the shortest and most easily separable from the context:—
‘Sad, and sweet, and wise,
Weeping low, creeping slow,
‘I am old,’ he thought,
By his side the mother came
‘Swift he came and swift he flew,
The Devil gripped the woman’s heart,
‘Lord God, One in Three!
The voice cried out, ‘Rejoice! rejoice!
—of which it is, we suppose, the general drift to teach that the spirit of evil itself bewails the death of innocence, strews its grave with blossoms which represent something more than innocence, namely, love and the red life-blood of self- immolation, and strengthens that parent humanity which gave birth to innocence, so that it is able to endure its loss,—in return for which that childlike innocence which died but has recovered a transfigured life in a purer world, prays for the pardon of the spirit which has thus strewn its grave with the most perfect blossoms of beauty, and is assured that its prayer shall be heard. The rest among this cycle of poems are all in the same general strain, intended to hint that,—
“All evil is defect;
—to which in general Mr. Buchanan seems to add that the body which limits the soul, and the physical aspects of the universe which limit our knowledge of God, are also what he deems moral evil, “defect, but in the line of growth,”—a creed which he works out with much depth and beauty, and, let us add, a creed in no way necessarily connected with his theory of moral evil. On the contrary, the only way in which we can explain the false interpretation which we so often put on mere “defect,” is by supposing that there is in man a deep and direct sense of absolute responsibility and guilt, though without any means of measuring how much of its appearance in others is due to “defect,” and how much to absolute sin. Of course, we cannot be expected to accord any very special admiration to the creed which Mr. Buchanan has chosen for poetic illustration, of which many articles appear to us false and shallow, nor is his method free from confusions and repetitions. Indeed, the poems themselves, subtle and powerful as they frequently are, convey little of that sense of rest in the mind of the poet which one would expect from an imaginative statement of a poet’s heartfelt creed. On the contrary, they not unfrequently burn with the fever of Shelley’s hectic effusions, and the Coruisken sonnets especially show alternations of mood which seem to us to break the design of the poem as far as we have apprehended it.
I think this is the very stillest place
Mr. Buchanan might fairly have taken as his motto, along with the quotation from Lord Bacon, the two finest lines of this sonnet,—
“There is no rest at all afar or near,
* The Book of Orm: a Prelude to the Epic. By Robert Buchanan. Strahan and Co.
Illustrated Times (25 June, 1870)
The Book of Orm—a Prelude to the Epic. By ROBERT BUCHANAN.
Everybody will regret that the state of Mr. Buchanan’s health prevents his completing at present the scheme of which this volume is a hint—a large, powerful, and beautiful hint, and one that is sufficiently illuminatory for readers of a certain class, but still scarcely even a hint for the majority of the public, and leaving some work for the most apprehensive lovers of mystical poetry. In these striking—often startling— poems, there is plenty to enjoy; but we want more, and it is to be hoped we shall before long have the remainder of the design before us. In the mean while, it is little to the credit of the “Saxon” that this appeal, in the name of the mysticism of the “Celt,” to his apprehensiveness has met, here and there, with so very dull a reception. People should really remember that their own understandings and sensibilities are not necessarily the measure of all that may profitably or beautifully be said or sung, and that when a man who is otherwise sane says something which appears to them meaningless, it may be their own want of sensibility which is in fault. There is a class of perceptions and emotions which exists in a greater or less degree in every human mind: though some people are faintly conscious of them, others barely at all. These perceptions and emotions are naturally busied with the inscrutable things of life and their symbols in nature, and are perpetually striving in minds oppressed by them to become more and more articulate; but wholly articulate they never can become. They try hard in music, poetry, and the other arts; but we are never satisfied with what these say for us, unless they make us feel that there is something more which they cannot say. The borderland in which what can be definitely put shades off into what cannot is the realm of mystery. In that realm birth, death, corruption, beauty, love, hate, sin, God; life, past, present, and to come; stars, clouds, seas, mountains, winds, flowers, and running waters, lightnings, sunshine, and darkness become related. Night is deathly; the brook is peaceful and glad; the breath of the flower is tender; the hills are mighty; the winds have voices; and the stars are the eyes of God. To expect poetry which is conversant with this realm of mystery to read like Sir Walter Scott, or Byron’s story- poems, or Crabbe, or Chaucer, is as absurd as to go to the binomial theorem for spiritual consolation. Nor is it less so to expect such poetry to yield all its meaning at one glance. It was not intended to be plain and straightforward. It was designed expressly to affect the mind through the medium of certain special sensibilities.
FLOWER OF THE WORLD.
Wherever men sinned and wept,
This Flower had human eyes,
Whatever was base and unclean,
Whatever was formless and base
Then I thought, “O Flower of the World!
“O beautiful Flower of the World,
And I cried, “O Spirit divine!
Quoted by itself, or read inattentively, this poem may prove almost as devoid of articulate meaning as one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words; but there is something wanting in the structure of the mind which it does not instantly affect. Now let us take two sonnets. First:
GOD IS BEAUTIFUL.
O Thou art beautiful! and Thou dost bestow
THE MOTION OF THE MISTS.
Here by the sunless lake there is no air,
Here we have utterance much more definite, though the colouring is still highly mystical, and God is at once in the world and above the world in the first sonnet; and in the second conscious life fluctuates between the soul and what it sees. Several of the poems are much less intelligible; and the merit is, of course, not equally distributed. But we thing some of the work is, of its kind, as high as any the world has yet seen. Mr. Buchanan is aware, and frankly confesses, that there may be touches here and there of what is morbid; and there are. But our object is chiefly to call careful attention to a volume of poetry which, with some faults, is almost surcharged with beauty and significance, wonderfully fine in workmanship, and entitled to the serious study of readers who really care for poetry.
A note prefixed to Mr. Buchanan’s “Book of Orm” 21 states that continued ill-health compels the omission of two poems, “A Rune found in the Starlight” and the “Song of Heaven.” From the same cause, too, we regret to learn that section ix. is incomplete, and wants an all-important canto. Of course such important omissions preclude us from passing and final judgment on the work. We will not take upon ourselves to decide how far the state of Mr. Buchanan’s health has affected what we already possess. Certainly the poem, as it stands, is pervaded with a wild, feverish unrest. Mr. Buchanan’s mind appears to be in a transitional state. We think, considering the vast importance of the subject, that it is a pity he did not adopt the Horatian maxim. The passages which we like best may most of them be found in the section entitled “The Man and the Shadow.” Mr. Buchanan is here himself again. He treads the firm ground of reality. His descriptions are clear and sharp-cut. Take for instance the following picture:—
“Here let us pause:
There is a sustained beauty and simplicity about this passage which show that Mr. Buchanan has lost none of his old cunning. From the same section, however, other passages equally fine and simple might easily be quoted. Of the remaining sections the “Songs of Seeking” are perhaps the most remarkable. A more spiritual insight is revealed than we have before noticed in any of Mr. Buchanan’s writings. Here his progress is most fully seen. The feeling is both deep and pure. “The Devil’s Mystics” are somewhat too acrid; but it is at present impossible to judge of them in their incompleted state. The power, however, is undoubted. With this short notice, we must close our account of a book which will most certainly leave an impression upon the younger minds of the present generation.
“Once more the changed year’s turning wheel returns:
But it is the wide octave which Mr. Rossetti sketches, which impresses us most. Nearly every metre may be found in the compass of this small volume, and each has yielded new music. He has given us infinite variety, from the sweetness of the sonnets up to the weirdness of “Sister Helen,” with its wild lilt. Each poem, however short, is marked by an individuality of its own. And there is no test of genius like this. Just as we say such and such a piece is Wordsworthian, so we should say, now that we have been let into the secret, this is Rossetti. Mr. Rossetti has, in fact, widened the limits of poetry. He has also dared to treat subjects which no other modern poet has dared. And his success is his best justification. Of “Jenny” it may be truly said, omnia munda mundis, immunda immundis. Of the songs we can simply say that, except in Shakspeare and Goethe, we know of none where thought and pathos are linked together in such melody. Our praise, however, will probably not seem so very extravagant by those who can feel the beauty of the following:—
“In a soft-complexioned sky,
Where the inmost leaf is stirred
Have you seen, at heaven’s mid-height,
After reading this we think every one will exclaim with us, “Here is a new singer!”
21 “The Book of Orm.” A Prelude to the Epic. By Robert Buchanan. London: Strahan and Co. 1870.
* May, a maid.
John Bull (23 July, 1870 - p.12)
The Book of Orm. By Robert Buchanan.—London: Strahan and Co., 1870.
Mr. Buchanan is a poet with many admirers, and his imaginative power and command of language are no doubt very great. He is decidedly not one of the commonplace poetasters who so grievously vex our spirit. But still the “Book of Orm” is not much to our taste. We are no great lovers of the spasmodic school of poetry, and we have not encountered anything more spasmodic since the time when Alexander Smith ushered that school into the world. No doubt many passages in it are very striking, and the lurid glow which pervades it is at times impressive; but, as a whole, it is a poem which will be read with more pain than pleasure. Exaggeration of language and a not unfrequent overstepping of the narrow limit which separates the sublime from the ridiculous are faults into which Mr. Buchanan too often falls. The following specimen, which is not without a certain grandeur of conception, however we may quarrel with the details, illustrates the characteristic defects and merits of the author in a remarkable manner:—
O hoary hills, tho’ ye look aged, ye
The series of sonnets from which this is taken are open to yet graver objection, and, we most own, appear to us to border very closely on the blasphemous. This is strong language, but if the reader will turn, for example, to the fourteenth sonnet, headed “Could God be Judged,” he will hardly think it too strong. To some the most striking and powerful poem in the volume, the “Vision of the Man Accurst,” may seem open to the same charge, but not we think with so much justice. We hope that when the Epic appears, to which the present volume is announced to be the Prelude, we shall find the author somewhat more careful in this respect. We would also hope, though this is perhaps too much to expect, that there will less in it to remind ns of the brilliant satire of “Firmilian,” the effect of which has been so beneficial to most of Mr. Alexander Smith’s disciples, though apparently lost hitherto upon Mr. Buchanan. If Professor Aytoun were still alive, the “Book of Orm” would be sufficient to goad him into a second “Student of Badajoz.”
The Scotsman (28 July, 1870 - p. 6)
THE BOOK OF ORM: A Prelude to the Epic. By Robert Buchanan. Strahan & Co.
“READ these faint runes of mystery.” We have done so, and with what feeling? There is but one way of expressing it, and it is by saying that “The Book of Orm” impresses one precisely as music heard at a distance. Too far away to catch the meaning of the sound, unable to follow the rises and falls and modulations, the ear is gratified by the stream of pleasingly monotonous sound, and may extract greater delight from this soothing monotony than from the quick and fatiguing successions of varied notes. And the indistinct imagery, the vague meaning, the repetitions, of “The Book of Orm” act precisely like distant music. We know not very well what is meant; we nevertheless listen with a pleasure felt we hardly know why. Take, for example, these verses:—
“Yet mark me closely!
“The Book of Orm” we can imagine delighting one of mystical mind. He could dream what he liked into these vague words. There are so much raw material to be worked up into whatever shape he pleases, and one may make of it what one pleases.
The Book of Orm (1870) - continued