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Poems (1866)


Poems (1866)


[An American edition only, comprising Undertones, Idyls and Legends of Inverburn, and ‘Liz’ and ’Langley Lane’ from London Poems.]


The Round Table (New York) (23 December, 1865)



A LITTLE more than five years ago two friends, both young, both poor in money and connections, went up from Glasgow to London to try their fortunes in the literary world. One of them, David Gray, has since died, and the story of his life has been given to us by kind hands; the other was Robert Buchanan, who is, fortunately, not yet a subject for biography, but only for criticism.
     And yet we may say of Mr. Buchanan that a young man who, as a stranger in a strange land, has managed not only to win bread, but to publish two such volumes as he has given us, is entitled to the praise of extraordinary industry. Living, as Gray characterized it, in a “dear old ghostly bankrupt garret,” harassed by want, dependence, and uncertainty, the successful publication, within three years, of the “Undertones” might seem almost incredible, were it not that literary history tells of many like cases. Judged upon its merits only, the “Undertones” is valuable chiefly for its promise of better things; how rich that promise is may be inferred from the fact that the book has already passed to a second edition. Perhaps we shall do well not to press this consideration in view of the market that is often found for what Holmes calls “intellectual green fruit.” Still it is something that a book treating upon subjects for which the ordinary reading public care little or nothing, coming modestly from a youth unknown and unconnected, should meet with so ready a recognition. The themes are from Greek mythology, and are, for the most part (the longer poems, without exception), of a grave, even pathetic, character. These motives somehow give the name to the volume, contemplating

                             “That ideal height
Where, in low undertones, those spirits plain’d,
Each full of special glory unattain’d.”

     There is Ades, who has won Persephone to his ghostly realm only to find, after all, that she is no bride for him; Pan, who mourns that he was made a god, yet not endowed with the presence of a god; Penelope, grown old in waiting for Ulysses, and still constant and watching; Pygmalion, who has forgotten his pure love of art in a lower passion, and who finds a scourge in the seeming answer of his desire; and, best of all, that wherein a story of one Eumolpus and the Siren is made to repeat the old lesson of Ecclesiastes, “Vanitas vanitatum” being pronounced as the legend written at the bottom of every cup, not only of joy, but of love as well, and hope and fame. These are all pleasing poems; there are passages of great beauty in nearly every one of them; yet, putting aside from consideration “Penelope” and the “Siren,” our judgment of these and of others in the volume would be thus: enjoyable as they are, they somehow escape being Greek. It is not that sometimes, as in “Pygmalion,” the author takes liberties with the legend. That might be passed over in an isolated case as not affecting more than one poem. It is not that he sometimes gives us the Greek form of a name, sometimes the Latin; nor even is it that the frequent over-luxuriance of his language contrasts with the tempered grace of the classic models which have come down to us. The young Bion, or the young Theocritus, may have needed pruning as well as he. It is partly what we find and partly what we miss that persuades us that these are but Birmingham-Chinese wares; good enough in themselves, but not exactly what they seem. We miss the frequent patronymics and curt ancestries of classic poetry—the all-pervading presence of divinities and heroes, the directness of expression; we miss the characteristics of Greek landscape as painted by the Greeks themselves, where everything was valuable as it ministered to man. The  shade-giving trees, the herbage good for flocks, the vines which yielded grapes, and the running streams that kept the meadows green. These were the things they loved. The feeling of beauty in nature aside from things whose use they knew seems to have been exceptional and rare. In Mr. Buchanan, however, the modern feeling for landscape, a love for its beauty quite aside from any usefulness there may be in it, crops out continually even in passages where he has chosen each feature of his scene as a Greek might have chosen. And somehow or other, the careful reader will easily perceive it, the heroes of Mr. Buchanan are not the heroes of antique fable. They are not so bad, they are not so good, and, above all, the old spirit has gone out of them, as, indeed, might have been expected after so long lapse of time. For the sake of contrast we were tempted to give here the passage where Polyphemus woos Galatea in Mr. Buchanan’s book side by side with a similar passage from the eleventh idyl of Theocritus. But, as our limits forbid, we must ask the reader to do so for himself, and then consider whether the difference is so much between one man and another as between two ages far apart in time, in faith, and in feeling. In fact, the sources of Mr. Buchanan’s inspiration would seem to be not the real masters of ancient song, but the authors of “Hyperion” and “The Lotus Eaters.” Yet from whatever source he drew, he could not draw the Greek spirit. It may be acknowledged that Keats and Tennyson have not really succeeded when they have attempted like subjects, but we can forgive more to “Hyperion” and “The Lotus Eaters,” for the sake of what they are, than we can to “Pan” and “Pygmalion.” These poems, it is true, have many of the characteristics of real poetry, and often seem as if they were just about to rise into indisputable excellence; but Mr. Buchanan is a man with whom we may insist that he shall not be the echo of anybody else, no matter who may be that other.
     The right to be thus exacting with our author is given us by this very volume. We have before said that “Undertones” is valuable chiefly as a work of promise. There are indications scattered all through the book that better things were to be expected when the author should have become matured and more skilled in the ways of composition. But, as we have hinted, there are two poems where this promise is so strikingly displayed as almost to become fulfillment. The first of these is “Penelope.” The poem is simple, dignified, touching; perhaps, too, the most purely “classic” thing in the volume. The reason seems to be that the subject is within the range of human sympathy for human sorrow, and that Mr. Buchanan is strong where his heart is engaged, and weak where it is not. His mind only is interested in Polyphemus and Galatea with much the same regard that any man of nice feeling and sufficient education has for that story. But in the wifely affection and longing of Penelope he has more than a common interest. Where his heart is touched he sees more than common men—not as much more as we shall find he can see when trusting more entirely to his own feeling and experience and less to his reading, but still enough more to raise this poem above all which have gone before, and to show us what kind of excellence we may expect from the poet hereafter. “The Siren” exhibits quite a different sort of promise. The promise of Penelope is fulfilled in the “Idyls,” that of the Siren, which indeed is a later work than the other and only included in the second edition of the “Undertones,” looks toward the future. We have already somewhat indicated the treatment of this subject. It is only necessary to say further that the story is the usual one of the Siren, with such difference in character as would naturally be given to it by its transformation into an allegory. It is but a slender thread of a story. Eumolpus, who borrows his name from the mythical good singer of Thrace, is lured by a voice to wander for years over the sea—the melody always receding—until, in his old age, he finds the Siren, only to die in her arms. It is told in the form of a dialogue between Eumolpus and the Siren, and derives its chief interest from the fact that Eumolpus stands for a poet pursuing his ideal. The beautiful vision is always before him and always distant, until in the moment of realization he finds that attainment is but death. Under one shape or another the idea of this poem is old enough, and we fear that our bald synopsis of it does Mr. Buchanan injustice. Its faults are in manner, not in the subject; yet, despite an occasional blemish, the “Siren” is a beautiful whole. The versification is by far the most melodious that Mr. Buchanan has given us, while the beauty of the imagery, the passion and pathos of this poem, are to us a token of earnest and tender feeling that may surpass even the beautiful work of the “Idyls.”
     It is, however, in his second book that our author gives the full measure of his strength. Here, in the “Idyls,” he is writing from his own experience. These people he has truly and thoroughly known. And what a difference! We find him, when writing of what he has merely read, uniformly commonplace, and continually suggesting some one who has done the same thing better (to save us from adding anything more about them hereafter, we will say now that the legends of the second book are, to the fullest extent, open to this objection against the classic poems); while, whenever he writes from his heart and personal knowledge, he is as uniformly clear, straightforward, and forcible. He is not always beautiful. “Indeed,” as Mr. Lewes has said, “a delicate ear will miss in these ‘Idyls’ much of the charm of fine blank verse.” But he is always interesting. The people of the little Scottish weaving village live before us. Not only do we know their stories, but we know all about them, so truthfully and delicately are their characters drawn. The village, Inverburn, may be fixed, from on of the poems, as Kirkintilloch, a town about eight miles from Glasgow, the Edinglass of the book; though it may be that the actual scenes of one idyl should not be insisted on as those of all. The stories may have been gathered in many places and the scene made one merely for the poet’s convenience.
     The first idyl, “Willie Baird,” seems as likely as any to attain a general popularity. The characters are slightly yet sufficiently defined, the story is striking and picturesquely told. The narrator is the gray-haired dominie, a lonely old man, and the subject of his story is a little pupil of his who had once won his heart, and who was lost in a snow-storm on his way home from school. The story is told with force, truth, and tenderness. The pictures are beautiful and vivid, yet the speaker never loses character as a plain, and even rude, old man; never is betrayed into elegant sentiments or fine language, unless one should except the image, so good that it may be forgiven,

“Old Winter tumbled shrieking from the hills,
His white hair blowing in the wind.”

Indeed, in all these idyls, the firm evenness with which the characters are maintained is a noticeable excellence. Mr. Buchanan has the reticence of true dramatic force. He can keep himself out of sight, and trust to the genuineness of his subjects for effect.
     “Poet Andrew” is the sad story of David Gray’s life, as told by his father. There are, doubtless, some among our readers who remember this story, told by Robert Buchanan himself, in the “Cornhill,” last year, revealing, as connected with Gray, all that we know of his own life. The poem, however, leaves out all that London struggle, with its flickering hopes—the father, an unlettered weaver in a Scotch village, could not be supposed to tell that—and confines the story to its home aspects. The task is done with exquisite grace and insight. The father destines his studious boy to college and the ministry. Money was hard to get, but he held to his purpose until the lad

“Grew up among us, and at seventeen
His hands were genty white, and he was tall
And slim and narrow-shouldered: pale of face,
Silent and bashful. Then we first began
To feel how muckle more he knew than we;
To eye his knowledge in a kind of fear,
As folk might look upon a crouching beast—
Bonnie, but like enough to rise and bite.
Up came the cloud between us silly folk
And the young lad that sat among his books
Amid the silence of the night, and oft
It pained us sore to fancy he would learn
Enough to make him look with shame and scorn
On this old dwelling.”

The cloud deepened when the weaver found that Andrew was reading and writing poetry—a mere vagabond amusement in his sight—and when his displeasure found vent in words, the estrangement between the two became broad and painful. Still the college scheme was not given up, and the lad went on further and further from his father, until the end of his London career brought him home to die. We wish we had room for the exquisite passage recounting the change of feeling that came over the old man when hope was given up, and nothing was left but the love of child and father for each other. We can only give a part:

     “And as he nearer grew to God the Lord,
Nearer and dearer ilka day he grew
To Mysie and mysel; our own to love,
The world’s no longer. For the first, last time
We twa, the lad and I, could sit and crack
With open hearts, free spoken at our ease;
I seemed to know as muckle then as he,
Because I was sae sad
*          *         *          *         *          *         *
                 “To me it somehow seemed
His care for lovely earthly things had changed—
Changed from the curious love it once had been,
Grown larger, bigger, holier, peacefuler;
And though he never lost the luxury
Of loving beauteous things for poetry’s sake,
His heart was God the Lord’s, and he was calm.
Death came to lengthen out his solemn thoughts
Like shadows to the sunset
. So no more
We wonder’d. What is folly in a lad
Healthy and heartsome, one with work to do,
Befits the freedom of a dying man
Mother, who chided loud the idle lad
Of old, now sat her sadly by his side,
And read from out the Bible soft and low,
Or lilted lowly, keeking in his face,
The old Scots songs that made his een so dim.
I went about my daily work as one
Who waits to hear a knocking at the door,
Ere Death creeps in and shadows those that watch
And seated here at e’en i’ the ingleside,
I watched the pictures in the fire and smoked
My pipe in silence; for my head was fu’
Of many rhymes the lad had made of old
(Rhymes I had read in secret, as I said),
No one of which I minded till they came
Unsummoned, buzzing—buzzing in my ears
Like bees among the leaves.”

And after death the father remembers with pride even the poetry he could not understand, but loves best to think of his son asleep,

“Near to our hearts as when he was a bairn,
Without the poetry and human pride
That came between us, to our grief, langsyne.”

We think that these extracts, even cut away as they are from their belongings, cannot fail to make themselves felt by all lovers of true poetry.
     Of equal delicacy of delineation, and of nearly equal interest, is the “English Huswife’s Gossip.” The truth with which the character of the subject is drawn, and the manner in which the talker reveals herself, are worthy of study. “The Two Babes,” and “Hugh Sutherland’s Pansies,” though abounding in pleasant passages, are not so forcible or so interesting as those which go before, nor as the one which follows. “Widow Mysie: An Idyl of Love and Whisky,” is a charming story of a coquettish landlady who allowed herself to be wooed by the narrator, and finally became his mother-in-law.
     The often-quoted line of Terence,

“Homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto,”

seems to us to exhibit the range and the truth of Mr. Buchanan’s genius. That it shows the range of his power is evident from the fact that he is weak when he echoes his reading, but strong when writing from his genuine impulses of human sympathy. And this fact need not be considered long to make it show the truth of his genius, if, indeed, that acknowledgment is not involved in its statement. Mr. Buchanan’s sympathies are quick and delicate, and his peculiar strength is in the keenness of his insight wherever his heart is concerned. As a single example of the subtlety of his observation, we may be allowed to give one more extract from “Poet Andrew,” chosen from this poem rather than from any other because we have already made the unfamiliar reader better acquainted with it than with the rest:

                               “He was born with love
For things both great and small; yet seem’d to prize
The small things best. To me, it seem’d, indeed,
The callant cared for nothing for itsel’,
But for some special quality it had
To set him thinking, thinking, or bestow
A tearful sense he took for luxury
He loved us in his silent fashion weel;
But in our feckless ignorance we knew 
’Twas when the humour seized him—with a sense
Of some queer power we had to waken up
The poetry
—ay, and help him in his rhyme!
A kind of patronizing tenderness, 
A pitying pleasure in our Scottish speech
And homely ways, a love that made him note
Both ways and speech with the same curious joy
As fill’d him when he watch’d the birds and flowers.”

     This passage alone would seem to justify our praise of Mr. Buchanan, for no man bent merely on exhibiting himself and writing a fine poem could ever have seen deeply and truly enough to have written it.
     These two volumes are very neatly published by Mr. Strahan, and at a price which renders a reprint unnecessary. Nevertheless they have been reprinted by Roberts Brothers in one handsome volume, which includes, besides two other poems which are to be included in the new volume, “London Idyls.”
                                                                                                                                                   J. S. F.


     * “Undertones,” by Robert Buchanan. Second edition, enlarged and revised. London: Alexander Strahan. 1865. Pp. 235.
     “Idyls and Legends of Inverburn,” by Robert Buchanan, author of “Undertones.” London: Alexander Strahan. 1865. Pp. 206.
     “Poems,” by Robert Buchanan. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1866.



The North American Review (Vol. 102, Issue 211, April 1866 - p. 555-556)

Poems by ROBERT BUCHANAN. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1866. 12mo. pp.311.

     THE invasion of ancient Hellas from the East by force of arms seems to have been no less distinctly a failure, than the modern attack from the West by force of imagination. Her new strategy is a masterly inactivity; strangers may come to her shores and she makes no resistance; they may climb her hills, may listen to her brooks, may peer into her caves, but the Gods and Muses are not there, and no invader can find the living source of the old poetry. When men worshipped, the Gods fought side by side with them in native strength and thunder; but they scoff at those who ransack their temples and kneel at their shrines for spoils, and remain veiled.
     We doubt if it be possible for a modern to treat classical literary subjects in the classical manner; for it is not by the power of imitation, but of total change in mind and heart, that such a triumph of genius can be attained. For how shall a gentleman of the last half of the nineteenth century, who moves by steam, learns by gas, writes by telegraph, fights with gunpowder, reads print, sails by the needle, knows of political economy, electricity, and comparative philology, teaches his children that the sun does not rise in the east, that the moon is a mirror, and that the whole universe is an illusion, conceive of the world without these things? To reproduce the first Olympiad he must have a mind capable of believing the earth supported by a tortoise, of peopling the trees, rivers, and winds with gods and demigods, and a heart so formed that it can worship beings combining divine power with the meanest and most brutal passions, for it is to worshippers, not sceptical philosophers, that the Muses sing.
     If Mr. Buchanan has not done this, he has done the next best thing, and, feeling the impossibility, has abandoned the attempt. A Scotch Eumolpus, in the clutches of the Siren, he says,

                               “Where am I, where?
Where is my country, and that vision olden?”

and with better fortune than Eumolpus, has the luck to be able to bid the Siren firmly, though politely, farewell, and return to the land of his birth. Not but that he has brought back some very pretty poetry, but it is not Grecian poetry.
     Indeed, now that Mr. Buchanan has got back to Scotland, he must himself wonder how he could ever have been such a gad-about; for he belongs peculiarly to Britain, and the Britain too of our day. In his poetry may be continually traced the effect upon English literature of his predecessors and contemporaries. He has studied the expression of simplicity under Wordsworth, of force under Browning, of sentiment under Tennyson, while he shows the delicate dramatic power in the portraiture of character which an age of analytic novel-writing has produced. We do not speak of him as a   copyist,—he apes no one; but he is limited as yet by those bounds of time and space which original and greatest genius does not know; and the die of his age has left its impress on him,—a die making him current for the time. His poems are not the pure nuggets of gold as they come from the mine, but after they have passed through the mint, and become national by having a little home-made alloy put in them.
     Mr. Buchanan has imagination and humor, a great deal of very pretty fancy, and has shown in one or two poems—as, for example, “Hugh Sutherland’s Pansies”—an excellent perception of form. He has genuine faith, tenderness, and manliness, and shows self-command in his choice of dramatic rather than lyrical forms. The great genius which can use to the highest purpose all these qualities he has not yet shown; but let those who doubt whether he may show it at least give him the benefit of their doubt.

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The Fleshly School Controversy
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Harriett Jay


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