LETTERS TO THE PRESS (1)
The Athenæum (22 November, 1862 - No. 1830, p.669)
James Macfarlan.—A Correspondent sends us the following:—“Nations have their poets, and so have small communities; and the poets of each class are too often compelled (in the words of Pamphlet, in ‘Love and a Bottle’) “to write themselves into a consumption before they gain reputation.” To flutter away a butterfly life in the Poet’s Corner of a provincial newspaper, and to have in prospect the epigrammatic epitaph of a small editor, is the destiny of the humble muse; but it now and then happens that a local rhymester passes away unnoticed, less from deficiency of mental power than from the impossibility of comparing his power with that of less restricted intellects. To James Macfarlan, a young writer famous in Glasgow and the surrounding district, and who has just died in indigence, belonged an amount of spontaneous genius which, under more favourable circumstances, might have produced verses of not ephemeral worth. The son of an itinerant pedlar, and without education or intelligent companionship, Macfarlan managed to write such lyrics as the following:—
The sunset burns, the hamlet spire
Gleams grandly, sheathed in evening fire,
The river rolleth red.
The flowers are drenched in floating haze,
The churchyard brightens, and old days
Seem smiling on the dead.
From pendent boughs, like drops of gold,
The peaches hang; the mansion old,
From out its nest of green,
Looks joyful through its golden eyes
Back on the sunset-burnished skies
A smile o’er all the scene.
The running child, whose wavy hair
Takes from the sunset’s level glare
A purer, brighter tinge,
Rolls on the grass; the evening star
Above yon streak of cloudy bar
Hangs on Day’s purple fringe.
Where latest sunshine slanting falls,
Above the ivied orchard walls,
The tall tree-shadows lean,
In waving lines of shade, that nod
Like dusky streams across the road
With banks of light between.
The streams are gilt, the towering vane
Stands burnished; and the cottage pane
Seems melting in the sun;
The lost lark wavers down the sky,
The husky crow slides careless by,
The golden day is done.
The above is not first-class, and it is one of the poorest pieces produced by its author; but it is the only piece which I can lay hands on in time to procure an early insertion of these lines, and it is at least vastly superior to the ordinary contributions to Poet’s Corner. Among the ‘City Poems’ and the ‘Lyrics of Life’ (two small volumes published some years ago), and among numerous contributions to All the Year Round, there are many really fine poems,—extraordinarily fine as emanating from the mind of a man who for many years trudged about as a common pedlar, whose days were spent in hardship and poverty, and who was destined to die, when only thirty years of age, a pauper. On the causes of Macfarlan’s misfortunes, apart from the serious misfortunes of a low birth and a wretched education, it would be tedious to dwell; but it has now become necessary to point out the fact that his wife and child are without a penny, and that they have a certain claim on the benevolence of all men and women who love letters. I am sorry that this brief obituary resolves itself into an appeal to private sympathy. The local poet, however, being useful in his way, and the humble kinsman of the poet of a nation, deserves some little kindly recognition. Some few of your readers will be satisfied with the fact that Mr. Charles Dickens believed in Mr. Macfarlan and assisted him most cheerfully; and these few may regard favourably the subscription, at present being raised in Glasgow, for the benefit of widow and child.
[Note: I came across this ‘letter’ through finding Buchanan’s letter to William Hepworth Dixon (editor of The Athenæum) which must have accompanied it, in the James Macfarlan section of the Gerald Massey site:
Nov. 14, 1862.
Dear Mr. Dixon,
To procure insertion of the enclosed in the Athenæum, I think that it will only be necessary to point out two or three facts. Macfarlan’s little books have received highly favourable notice in your columns; Macfarlan himself was an object of interest to very many discerning men, including Mr. Dickens; and the poor fellow’s widow & child are nearly, if not absolutely, starving! It is important that the case should be noticed at once.
Hepworth Dixon Esq. ]
David Gray’s Monument
The Athenæum (12 August, 1865 - No. 1972, p.215)
DAVID GRAY’S MONUMENT.
Bexhill, near Hastings, August 7.
David Gray, the young poet of the Luggie, the pure and shining spirit who passed from earth so speedily, and whose writings have gained a loving circle so soon, has received the last honour which local sympathy can confer upon him. A monument—the result of subscriptions sent in from all quarters of the land, and from all classes—has been erected over his grave in the Auld Aisle Burying Ground, Merkland, Kirkintilloch. Of the obelisk form, the memorial is composed of the finest white granite, from the Wigton Bay Quarries. The basement consists of three blocks, in which is placed the needle, the height of the whole being eleven feet. Near the top of the needle is sculptured a harp surrounded with a garland of bay-leaves. This is the inscription, written by Lord Houghton: “This Monument of Affection, Admiration, and Regret, is erected to David Gray, the Poet of Merkland, by friends from far and near, desirous that his grave should be remembered amid the scenes of his rare genius and early death, and by the Luggie, now numbered with the streams illustrious in Scottish song. Born, 29th January, 1838; Died, 3rd December, 1861.” The monument, from its elevated site, commands an extensive prospect, embracing most of the spots made familiar by the poet’s song—the Luggie, the little Bothlin, and the faint blue background of the Campsie hills.
Of course, and unfortunately, there was a ceremony; it will be long before good people perceive the bad taste of talking commonplace on such graves. The feeling was admirable, but the effect must have been wearisome mockery. Somebody was called into the chair. Mr. Sheriff Bell made a speech, full of the best possible sentiment, but far from the purpose. The worthy sheriff, indeed, occupied a good deal of time in telling how many people had met David Gray and befriended him, and how kind it was of those people to have done so. He quoted one letter to show that a young authoress had admired Gray’s poetry; and another to prove that a local professor thought Gray a genuine poet. This was idle drifting about a question which the mere subscription to the memorial had settled; and it sounded very like “patronage”—that vapid insipidity against which poet after poet has driven shafts of song, which drove Clare mad, and which measures the faculty divine by the tattle of a tea-table. I am not blaming Sheriff Bell, who was manifestly at a loss what to say or do. Forced into a corner, he was constrained to speak; and on such an occasion, what could he talk to the purpose? Silence, that respect which is too deep for speech, would have been the best consecration of such a ceremony. The proceedings appropriately ended with the stereotyped vote of thanks.
The last ceremony is over now, however. David Gray is left to his sleep, his poems remain in the hearts of the loving circle they have gained. Old David, too, the father of the poet, lies also in his grave. With a strange halo, a confusing wonder, around his simple life, he pined away in the shadow of that son whom he loved with a love transcending that of woman. His last cry was the poet’s own plaint, “I am weary.” That manifestation of the divine faculty, that lurid sorrow which shone upon the face of the dying boy, changed the current of the old man’s peaceful days, and thenceforward life was a puzzle which his untaught brain could not solve, an unrest which made the simple round of daily duty meaningless and without joy. The mother lives, a tender, simple-hearted woman, and will be cared for. But now that the two Davids, father and son, are joined once more, the pathos of the homely tragedy is complete, and its abode henceforth is, not in the little weaving cottage, but in the hearts of those who love the singer.
In the writing of the inscription, Lord Houghton did the last good office for the young poet in whom he took such tender interest. His should have been the last words; they told the whole tale, and perfected the whole ceremony.
The Dundee Courier & Argus (24 August, 1865)
THE POET OF MONKLAND.
IT is seldom that Scotland can do anything to please critical Southern friends. Her religion, her poetry, her taste, all equally outrage English refinement. If there is a place where this aversion to the North more particularly centres, that place is London. So intense is Cockney antipathy to all our ways, and all our modes of thought or of action, that a Scot can never get fairly naturalised in Cockneydom without flattering this weakness. It is not many years since Mr ROBERT BUCHANAN left Glasgow for London. His success in that city has been heard of with pleasure by old friends here. But the pleasure is somewhat marred when they find him writing the letter which appeared last week in the columns of the Athenæum upon the Poet of Monkland’s monument. Most of the readers of this paper have heard something of the author of “The Luggie.” The story of his pure and brief life, of his genius and death, as told by Mr JAMES HEDDERWICK, has made multitudes who knew nothing of DAVID GRAY while he lived sigh in sorrow over his premature departure. The son of honest and industrious parents in that small weaving village Kirkintulloch, sitting in the shadow of Glasgow, DAVID was destined for something better than the loom. In common with so many of the Scottish peasantry who have striven to advance their offspring, GRAY’S parents dedicated him to the Church. The pulpit, worthily filled, is the noblest place man can occupy. In pursuance of the design that DAVID GRAY should occupy it, he entered the University of Glasgow, and passed with success through the curriculum there. But, while devoting himself with commendable assiduity to the acquisition of the special culture of the university, his spirit revelled in a literature it is generally considered should rather be eschewed during “student life.” But however the rank and file of undergraduates may conform to the antiquated routine of university life, there are always some minds incapable of being thus ground into “professionals.” DAVID GRAY’S was one of these. He was, it is true, proud of his university, and felt honoured by having his name enrolled among its alumni; but there was something beyond the university that had for him surpassing charms. From his earliest years WORDSWORTH and THOMSON had been the poets of his affection. Following the example of the bard of Rydal Mount, GRAY chose an humble theme on which to attune his muse, “The Luggie.” This small stream, flowing past his native village, was utterly unknown until he selected it as the subject of his song. There was nothing remarkable about the “Luggie.” But with a genius akin to his, in whom the meanest flower that blows awakened “thought too deep for tears,” it was not necessary it should be remarkable; “though not likely to attract a painter’s eye, it sufficed for the poet’s love.” The tiny stream is sung of in strains of sweet and pensive meditation, reminding us not a little of the Bard of Lochleven—like GRAY, a student of Divinity, and like him also, wooed from the sterner walks of theology by the graces of poesy. More illustrative of GRAY’S genius and more eminently original than even “The Luggie,” are those sonnets he has entitled “Under the Shadows,” all, or at least nearly all, written during the closing year of his life. As exhibiting the pathos and beauty of these sonnets, we select the last of them, as it lies before us in the Poet’s own somewhat quaint but beautiful caligraphy, dated Sept. 27, 1861, and entitled “My Epitaph”:—
“Below lies one whose name was traced in sand.
He died, not knowing what it was to live;
Died, while the first sweet consciousness of manhood
And maiden thought electrified his soul.
Faint beatings in the calyx of the rose.
Bewildered reader, pass without a sign
In proud sorrow! There is life with God
In other kingdom, of a sweeter air;
In Eden every flower is blown! Amen.”
These lines were written amidst the glories of the waning year; and by the 3d of December—within little more than two months—the Eden sung was reached. Thus, while yet scarcely twenty-three, the Poet passes into that land of “shadows.” DAVID GRAY was gathered to his fathers near his native village. His place of rest is a bit of elevated tableland about a mile to the south of Kirkintulloch, in the shadow of the Campsie Hills. Friends who knew and loved him thought some memorial of his genius should be raised on the spot where his dust reposes. The idea of this memorial was first suggested by a gentleman foremost in every good work, Mr WILLIAM LOGAN, Glasgow. The funds necessary to “give bond in stone” to the appreciation of GRAY’S genius were quickly raised; and a granite obelisk, the “monument of the affection, admiration,, and regret” of friends, tells the story of his life and fate who sleeps below. It is but a few weeks since this monument was raised, and naturally enough, as we thought at the time, the thing was done with touching, though not ostentatious ceremony. The Scotch are accused of making too little of the solemnities of the grave. Our dead are consigned to their last resting-place in silence, a custom in which we stand unique among nations. We were, therefore, rather pleased to see the silence broken at the tomb of the bard. Sheriff BELL is known as a most genial and accomplished man, and upon him it devolved to say the few things fitting to be spoken upon the occasion. The Sheriff’s address gave unmistakable evidence he fully appreciated the genius thus fallen in all the leaves of his spring.
Mr ROBERT BUCHANAN, however, fails to see it exactly in that light, and has addressed a letter to the Athenæum on the epistle, full of superciliousness and sneering, for which the Athenæum has been so long conspicuous. The ceremony we thought so natural is denounced, and the bad taste of talking common-place on such graves rebuked. Common-places are rather a bore, whether in the churchyard or out of it. But it is simply a piece of impertinence to describe Sheriff BELL’S speech as commonplace. ROBERT BUCHANAN knew DAVID GRAY better than the Sheriff; but nowhere, that we have seen, has he given a better estimate of his powers. Mr BUCHANAN says some things about the elder DAVID GRAY, meant not to be commonplace, but striking. To those who knew the old man, they exhibit as great a misconception of his character as could possibly have been put upon paper. “Life, after his boy’s death,” we are told, was “a puzzle to his untaught brain, an unrest which made the simple round of duty meaningless and without joy.” We dare say ROBERT BUCHANAN thinks this very far from commonplace; but, if not commonplace, it is something worse, being simply nonsense. Mr BUCHANAN resents the patronising, but is there not a tone of the arrogance of the patron in that reference to the old man’s “untaught brain?” From his sublime height the author of “Undertones” looks down with the mingled compassion of the poet and philosopher upon the puzzle the death of the younger has proved to the elder GRAY. Now, what is the fact? This simple and unostentatious village weaver had read the riddle of life and the mystery of death in a book where both are unfolded with a clearness which the most rustic intelligence and the most untaught brain can comprehend. His life, it is true, passed on a narrow theatre, but it was passed as “ever in the great Taskmaster’s eye;” and, being so, duty could never degenerate into the “meaningless.”
[Note: The report of the ceremony from The Glasgow Daily Herald is available here, and there are photographs of David Gray’s monument in the Miscellanea section of the site.]
The Athenæum (10 November, 1866 - No. 2037, p.608)
November 6, 1866.
A provincial newspaper contains the following paragraph, which I find copied into the Bookseller of October the 31st:—
“Mr. Robert Buchanan.—Authors seem to have forgotten that their best weapons are those which they are most accustomed to wield, and that the public appreciate literary warfare far better than legal. 1f the reports which are current in certain circles be well founded, the law courts will have plenty to do before long in settling the disputes between various literary gentlemen of more or less reputation. First of all, Mr. Robert Buchanan—a poet of whose genius there can be no doubt—chose, from motives of personal friendship and gratitude, to dedicate his last volume to Mr. Hepworth Dixon, of the Athenæum. The critic of the Westminster, who, being a poet himself, has, perhaps, a right to devote himself to ‘the choking of singing birds,’ chose to fall foul of this dedication, and to attribute ‘sycophancy’ to the poet, whereat are great wrath and a threatened lawsuit. The same plaintiff will appear in another action against Mr. Bentley, the proprietor of Temple Bar, for publishing his name as that of the author of a poem called ‘Hugo the Bastard.’ Mr. Buchanan does not deny his paternity; but as the piece is not a favourable specimen of his style, he thinks that he has a right to maintain his anonymity if he chose.”
Now, who may have favoured the writer of this paragraph with his information, I am at a loss to guess; for I am quite unconscious of having expressed to anybody (save one rather intimate friend) my opinion concerning the two affairs in question; and since some readers whom I respect may be led to believe me rasher than I ought to be, I feel bound to volunteer a little explanation.
The objectionable passage in the Westminster Review was as follows:—“Mr. Buchanan’s ‘London Poems’ are disfigured by one of the most sycophantic prefaces we ever read,”—meaning, of course, the dedication to Mr. Hepworth Dixon. I will not deny that these words of the anonymous writer gave me a certain pain; for when one is bitten, it matters little whether the attack come from a pure breed or a mongrel. Let one who has undergone a sore struggle in the pursuit alike of bread and fame examine his feelings towards the first man who whispered confidence and afforded help, and he will know what my feelings were and are towards Mr. Dixon. With me at east, gratitude towards those who brought the cup of water, while priest and Pharisee passed by, is a passion deep as tears,—as pure as the elements drunk down in that refreshing draught, and as eternal. These things are trifles to all the rest of the world, but they are immortal memories to the recipients; and whosoever forgot them or feared to utter his gratitude for them, would assuredly be doomed to a dog’s paradise—the comfortable, painless region where there is yelping and wagging of tails, but no shining of souls. The word “sycophantic,” as written in the Westminster Review, expressed every imputation which to a pure mind is horrible and loathsome,—reflected hideously on my private character as a man,—tampered foully with my holiest private feelings,—and, in a word, was distinctly of that complexion which the law terms libellous. Yet a very little reflection convinced me that to seek redress from the cowardly author of the assault would be to demean a stainless reputation to the brutal level where such base things are conceived and perpetrated,—to pass into the foul region whither no man, howsoever earnest his indignation may be, can venture with clean feet. So I left the assaulter to his dog’s paradise, content that he should howl and rot there, and faintly hoping that the consciousness of public contempt might prevent him from ever again venturing on the highways of literature.
The affair in which Mr. Bentley is concerned is of infinitely less consequence, yet was, in fact, more likely to result in a lawsuit. Some years ago, a London publisher requested me to hand over to him some of my juvenile writings, for use in a magazine; and I complied, on the express understanding that, as they were early and immature work, they should be printed anonymously. Shortly afterwards, that publisher ceased business, and the writings, by some extraordinary means, fell into the hands of the publisher of Temple Bar. On one of the pieces appearing some months ago, under my signature, in Temple Bar, I wrote to Mr. Bentley and protested—against the signature; and that gentleman responded by a distinct promise that nothing of the kind should occur again. But another poem appeared shortly afterwards, with my signature, and I protested still more strongly, and Mr. George Bentley, in a letter, just received, replies: “Until your letter drew our attention to it, we were ignorant that your name had been appended to the poem in question.” That is how the matter stands, and I am puzzled to guess how the wind should have carried it so far. I have now reason to believe that Mr. Bentley intended no discourtesy, and that the whole difficulty has arisen through the awkward and peculiar way in which my manuscripts were transferred to the hands of his editors.
I cannot conclude this letter without calling attention to a careless statement in the Examiner, that the ‘London Poems’ consist of my contributions to magazines. This is as injurious as it is untrue. Only three of the seventeen poems were previously printed—one in the Argosy, and two in the Fortnightly Review. I have found it necessary to write variously for bread; and although, in so doing, I attempt to write well and responsibly, I should only under very extraordinary circumstances reprint what was so written. What is produced to serve one purpose, and serves it, is quite unlikely to serve another and a higher purpose; and although it is at all times a misfortune to the man and a disgrace to the country that an original writer should be compelled to drudge with his pen for subsistence, the public has been too generous to judge me by any productions save those which, in the intervals of labour, I have carefully nurtured, and which I am able boldly and candidly to avow.
The Saturday Review (17 November, 1866 - pp.604-605)
THE WOES OF POETIC GENIUS.
THE whole earth seems for the moment to be filled with the sound of the angry bellowings and shriekings of young poets. First one, then another, rushes with all his troubles and furies into the press, snorting and kicking and stirring up dust and uproar. Up to a certain point, the freaks of these inspired young gentlemen are really amusing. The spectators sit aloft, well out of the reach of these phrenetic youngsters, belabouring the air and one another with windy futile thwacks. By and by, perhaps, the thing may grow a nuisance, and we may pray for a little dust with which to still the furious insects. Meanwhile, their sound and fury signifying nothing are uncommonly funny to contemplate. One young poet, for instance, in whom one or two respectable critics think they see the genius of the future, has written a letter to a contemporary which is an admirable example of the humour with which these holy bards treat anybody who is guilty of the enormity of standing up in their presence, instead of falling down and worshipping them without quibble or question. He has sung many things about Scotch boys, and old men and old women, and, as a truly amiable brother poet has said, about “costermongers and their trulls.” However, a great many worthy people like subjects of this sort, and Mr. Buchanan has a reputation among them. As he is a poet of the “goody” kind, his admirers will, we fear, be very much shocked at the terrific outburst of bad language to which in a naughty moment he has unfortunately yielded. Some critic accused him of writing a “sycophantic” dedication to a newspaper editor. This word, shrieks the poet, “expressed every imputation which to a pure mind is horrible and loathsome—reflected hideously on my private character as a man—tampered foully with my holiest private feelings,” and so forth. Then there is more about “the cowardly author of the assault,” and the poet’s “stainless reputation,” and the poet’s unwillingness to demean his stainless reputation “to the brutal level where such base things are conceived and perpetrated—to pass into the foul region whither no man, howsoever earnest his indignation may be, can venture with clean feet.” “So,” says the poet, with mild philosophy and elegant phrase, “I left the assaulter to his dog’s paradise, content that he should howl and rot there.” This last shriek is perfectly delicious—so full of courtesy as it is, of dignity, of self-respect, and so very poetic too. The same dignified and gracious comparison of the critic to a dog had occurred a little earlier in the letter. The poet admits that to be suspected of sycophancy annoyed him, “for when one is bitten, it matters little whether the attack come from a pure breed or a mongrel.” The critic, that is to say, is the mongrel. But people who can descend to the howling and rotting style of language are invariably addicted also to turning on the tap of maudlin washy stuff which finds favour in some circles. And the poet is no exception. As he does not think it undignified to call his critic a dog and a mongrel, and to bid him howl and rot in his dog’s paradise, so neither does he think it inconsistent with self-respect to defend himself formally against the obnoxious charge of sycophancy. He declares that the person to whom he dedicated the book “whispered confidence and afforded help” “in the sore struggle in pursuit of bread and fame”; and then, with unutterable magnificence of the superb-washy stamp, he would have the public know that, with him at least, “gratitude toward those who brought the cup of water, while priest and Pharisee passed by, is a passion deep as tears—as pure as the elements drunk down in that refreshing draught, and as eternal.” As if the public cared one jot about his cup of water, and about his passions deep as tears, and as pure and as eternal as a refreshing draught. The public will by and by, we suppose, be asked to assist at the auditing of the weekly bills of all its poets, and the accounts of the poetic pocket-money.
And this notion, which occurs to one as a joke in this place, actually appears before us in sober earnest and reality before we get to the end of the poet’s letter. For, besides his grievance against the dog of a critic, by this time howling and rotting somewhere, the poet has, or had, a grievance against somebody who had the daring to put Mr. Buchanan’s name at the bottom of one or two of Mr. Buchanan’s poems, when they were printed. The poet does not relish this. He does not wish either to own to or to reprint all that he writes. “I have found it necessary to write variously for bread; and although in so doing I attempt to write well and responsibly, I should only under very extraordinary circumstances reprint what was so written. What is produced to serve one purpose, and serves it, is quite unlikely to serve another and higher purpose.” And here he is perfectly right in a certain sense. There is a great deal of writing which is very useful, both in procuring an honourable subsistence for the writer and in giving information, ideas, or amusement to the public, and yet which the writer would neither be particularly proud of, nor particularly anxious to reprint. But is poetry writing of this stamp? Both experience and theory seem to say that there is no room in the world for mediocre poetry, even if spontaneous; but what shall we say of poetry which is mediocre deliberately and consciously, which the poet knows and wills to be mediocre, which serves the purpose of procuring bread, but, by his own confession, is not likely to serve any other and higher purpose? It is a commonplace, but one that cannot be too frequently urged, that all work should be as well done as the workman can possibly do it, after its own kind. If he is a literary workman, there can be no other rule. Whether he undertakes a five-act tragedy, or a leading article, or a sonnet to his mistress’s eyebrows, or a history, he is equally bound to do the very best he can in his special matter. But if Mr. Buchanan’s avowed position is tenable, this is absurd, and he need not do his best in all that he produces. Poems, like the ingenious pedlar’s razors, may justifiably be made not to shave, but to sell. Provided they look like poems, and fetch their price as poems, they serve their purpose. Whether they are poems or not is immaterial. The same principle, we think, would be of equal force in vindicating plaster of Paris sweetmeats, wooden nutmegs, clocks that don’t go, and the too great mass of commodities of the same moral stamp. Il faut vivre. Mr. Buchanan draws the line between these mere bread-winning effusions and “those which in the intervals of labour I have carefully nurtured, and which I am able boldly and candidly to avow.” A more fatal confession was never made, whether we look to its principle or to its bearing on the writer’s own future as a poet.
But it seems, after all, that this manufacture of what are called in artists’ slang “pot-boilers” is the poet’s misfortune, and not at all his fault. The fault lies elsewhere, for “it is at all times a misfortune to the man and a disgrace to the country that an original writer should be compelled to drudge with his pen for subsistence.” It is the nation which is to blame, if any poet turns out inferior work under stress. That is, we suppose, as soon as an original writer make his appearance, the eager State should instantly seize him and place him in a poetic almshouse, or else give him outdoor relief, so that he may be above the coarse cares of the other sons of men. This may be sound doctrine, only it must be extended still further to be worth anything. It must comprehend all sorts of original people, if any at all; not the writer merely, but the mechanical inventor, the experimental chemist, the astronomer, and all other sorts and conditions of men who think they have more brains than their neighbours, yet are too original to prove it in the ordinary way by making an honest living. There must be a downright army of State pensionaries. Then, again, who is to be the judge of the conditions which are to entitle a man to enter into this admirable paradise? There are poets and painters and philosophers about whom there would be no doubt or cavil; but there are crowds of others about whose claims to originality no two people in the world could be got to agree. And suppose a man were to choose to say that, though no writer, yet, like the parrot of the story, he was a perfect angel to think, and so had a right to be maintained by the parish, who could contradict him, and why should he be excluded? However, it is rather fearful to think of the sycophancy which would intrude into literature if any one or other number of Ministers had it in their power to determine who is, and who is not, original enough to deserve to be kept by his neighbours Then, again, it remains to be proved, in the face of experience, that original people are never idle; that they are far above all temptations to indolence; and that they would work harder and better, and do more for the world, if they were in a position to please themselves whether they worked at all or not. When the man of genius has done good work, then let him receive the reward after his days of work are over; this will in itself be a stimulus and an inducement to industry. But payment in advance is not likely to work any better in authorship than in other transactions. Over and above all these considerations, there is the great truth that acquaintance with practical affairs, rubbing up against his fellowmen in business, is good and wholesome for a man. It acts, somebody has justly said, as the outer air acts upon the lungs. The original writer is not better, but much worse, for leading the hothouse Strasburg-goose life which Mr. Buchanan demands for him. Good literary work cannot come from moral and intellectual valetudinarians, and a man who is lifted into an atmosphere of ease and complacency far above the healthy cares and anxieties and interests of other mortals, is pretty sure to become a valetudinarian of this sort. Who is the “original writer” that he should be lifted up by the State into a seventh heaven of, say, two hundred pounds per annum? You might as well say that the virtuous writer, or for that matter the virtuous person of any sort, should be kept by the State, lest his virtue should be tempted.
The poet may make it matter of complaint that he is compelled to drudge with his pen for his subsistence; but, we would ask, who compelled him to drudge with his pen? To resort to the pen for his livelihood was his own free act and deed. He might have kept a shop or a school, or turned tinker or tailor, or anything else that other men are. A poet’s verses would not suffer from the breath of outer air which a practical calling entails. Let it once be known that the State is going to provide houses and bread and cheese for all original writers, and the number of these persons will very speedily become fabulously large, and the intolerable vulgarity and coarseness of the ordinary trades and professions will become magnified in due proportion. Bread and cheese, however, would not suffice for our literary benefactors. If they are to be maintained at all, they ought to live in palaces, be clothed in purple and fine linen, and fare sumptuously every day. The only theory on which they have any claim to maintenance would also justify a claim to maintenance after the kingly fashion. There are, in short, a hundred objections to this notion, while there is not much to be said for it, except that we should perhaps have fewer bad and worthless verses in the world. Yet even this is doubtful; because everybody who wrote worthless verses would still think himself an original writer, and deserving of State recognition, and so would go on writing to the end of his days.
[Note: The review of London Poems in the Westminster Review is in the Reviews section. The poem ‘Hugo the Bastard’ is also available on this site. Buchanan intended to reply to the article in The Saturday Review, but was advised against it. His letters to William Hepworth Dixon and Robert Browning on the subject are available in the Letters Section.]
The Spectator (15 February, 1868 - p.13-14)
MR. BUCHANAN ON LITERARY MORALITY.
[TO THE EDITOR OF THE “SPECTATOR.”]
SIR,—It would be highly reprehensible on my part to reply in any but the most friendly terms to the thoughtful reviewer of my Essays in last week’s Spectator,—since I am (I believe) indebted to that writer for much kind appreciation and high- minded sympathy. Still, I am bound to protest, and I will do so as briefly as possible, against several errors on his part, and at least one total misconstruction.
Firstly, I reject wholly and unreservedly the criticism which implies that there is any such thing as a distinctively “immoral nature,” and I repeat that every nature, however strange and crooked to scrutiny, is moral up to that point where it diverges into insincerity. I do exclude absolute morality from my definition, although admitting that a definitive standard, called for practical purposes “moral,” is necessary to the welfare of the State. Perfectly honest and sincere utterance is all the critic has any right to insist upon; and on this showing Walt Whitman as much as Professor Seeley, and Mr. Swinburne as much as the author of the Christian Year, have their full claim to a hearing. But, you rejoin, “If any man’s natural instincts are below the standard requisite to bring out the full proportions of his subject, the work is immoral, and will be immoral in its effects, however sincere.” I thought I had answered that objection very fully in my article. In such a case, “the question of immorality need not be introduced at all. It is settled by the decision that the work under review is not literature.”
The fact of the matter is, that if a work is to be judged by its effects, we shall soon have no true standard of criticism whatever. It would not be difficult to show the terribly immoral effects (as I and others call them) on many minds of even pure and truly artistic productions, works crowned and chosen for the great library of nations. Does Milton’s severe white lamp dazzle no poor seekers after truth? Have the Greek tragedians wrecked no hapless human souls? Does Wordsworth’s cold white hand lead always to the day;—does it push none into darkness? Yet who shall compute the well-doing and the ill-doing? True literature is a lightning. It glorifies and it withers; it beautifies and it blinds.
Put the public out of sight altogether; away with effects—they are incalculable. Is a work sincere and is it beautiful? That is the only question criticism has to answer. If the answer be in the affirmative, out with the critic’s label, and the work is—“moral.”
Secondly, I have to point to some misconstruction in your estimate of my remarks on “eternal” as distinguished from “contemporary truth,” and on the true mission of the Student. Your reviewer grants so much, that I am amazed to find him granting so little. I by no means insist that tenderness and calm of manner are invariable signs of communion with eternal truth, and I quite agree that “rough and broken utterance” is the characteristic of many a true prophet or student. But the underlying mood in every case is calm and grand—disturbed by no brutalities of thought. A broken or rough utterance is quite consistent with calm and with tenderness; not so a brutal or a rowdy utterance. And the student may show heat, but it is white heat,—and white is calm.
When your reviewer mentions as denunciators Carlyle, and then Isaiah, and then, again, St. Paul, and even Jesus himself,—all in the same breath,—I can scarcely conceive him. The Hebrew prophet seems to me the perfection of a student, and so does St. Paul; while I place Christ in a diviner category still. But nothing can be further removed from their method than the wild and, as I hold, insincere brutalities of our German Scotchman. “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, if the special sphere of his study has been, as in the case of every true prophet, rather divine life than divine thought.” In the last part of this sentence we have the heart of the whole misconstruction. Directly we pass beyond the horizon of “contemporary truth” and reach the region of “eternal truth,” divine life and divine thought are one.
For the rest, your reviewer does little justice to Mr. Mill, and much undervalues the work which such students are expected to do.
Thirdly, let me disclaim once and for ever your reviewer’s fancy that the lazaretto crying of Mr. Matthew Arnold is to be confounded with the heart wrung utterance of “fate-stricken men.” Your reviewer calls Walt Whitman a “straining and self-inflated egoist;” I call Mr. Arnold a thin egotist, faintly inflated with intellectuality. I shall certainly not call him “fate- stricken,” because he lacks faith. Why should men whine out merely for that reason? Alfred de Musset had exhausted life, and therefore his lack of faith deepened into strange sadness. Faith is not a jewel to be worn by intellectual prudes; it is the crown of life. On every side of me, every day, I hear literary youths saying, “Alas, I don’t believe!” and writing clever little articles with a sceptic tendency. To such I would merely reply, “Stop whining after what you do not understand! Do you love anything; books, men, women, the world? Have you grappled with life, and suffered? Is faith all you yet need, or are there a hundred directions yet remaining for your activity.” If Mr. Arnold were converted to- morrow, he would perhaps wear the crown to life somewhat offensively. I wish him the crown with all my heart, but he is no King David. I alter nothing of my opinion upon him and his colleagues, although I readily plead guilty to “bad and flippant taste” in one paragraph you quote. Further, you cite two bits of verse, neither contemporary,* in answer to my remark en passant that Mr. Arnold loses all his grace when approaching contemporary thought; and you class Mr. Arnold with “fate-stricken” men. Mariners bruised and beaten by storms, havenless, homeless, pale with hunger or withered with disease, raising wild eyes to the blue rift in the cloud, praying, perhaps blaspheming,—these are the “fate- stricken” creatures,—defeated and defiled at every effort, spat upon by the elements, scourged by the passions, shrieking for bread or for light, lifting the poor forehead to the lightning flash, and blessing the footsteps of Death as he comes in thunder. He who is inflated, as is written of Mr. Arnold in the very same number of the Spectator, “with an intellectual scorn for unintellectual persons” has nothing in common with the fate-stricken. He is a trifler, a theorist, who has only half lived, and therefore sees only one side of human life and thought.
* Our correspondent appears to have some esoteric and peculiar interpretation for this remarkable word. Both quotations are the latest reflections of a modern mind on modern phenomena.—ED. Spectator.
Lastly, I will admit my “visible leaning to make Charity the be-all and end-all of the Divine Mind.” With the “awful fires” your reviewer speaks of I am well acquainted. I see them everywhere, pitiless, horrid, unexplainable, save by that very Charity I hold as the only light, both human and divine. I want no fresh assurance of the tortures and inhumanities the fate-stricken suffer; I only want to be assured that a God, and not a Setebos, is looking on; and the assurance comes to me from the lips of Charity, standing by deathbeds, walking where there is little light,—the last of the angels lingering among us, now that Faith has returned to heaven, and Hope, gone mad, is singing an old wild song that there is no God. —I am, Sir, &c.,
[Mr. Buchanan does not understand either Mr. Carlyle or Mr. Arnold, and should not criticize what he does not understand. He understands even less that last remark of our own, which he criticizes somewhat too eloquently.—ED. Spectator.]
The Spectator (22 February, 1868 - p.15-16)
MR. BUCHANAN AND HIS REVIEWER.
[TO THE EDITOR OF THE “SPECTATOR.”]
SIR,—I hardly expected to have had to complain of unmannerliness on your part; yet when, instead of leaving silently, or honestly answering, my letter printed in your issue of February 15, you merely remark that “Mr. Buchanan does not understand either Mr. Carlyle or Mr. Arnold, and should not criticize what he does not understand,” you are neither just to yourself, nor courteous to me. Suppose I had so retorted on your reviewer’s flippant and unfair estimate (as I deem it) of Walt Whitman? or suppose I were so to retort on the reviewer who describes Emerson (to my mind the most wondrous living illustration of spiritual insight mingled with severe common-sense perception of the tendencies of his time) as merely “unreal and romantic?” Would you have acquitted me of bad and flippant taste for so doing?
No man, I believe, can be more fully awake than I am to the good influence of Mr. Carlyle as a great spiritual force, or to the merits of Mr. Arnold as a dilettante; but in the paper you criticized, my business was merely to point out where these writers had subsided into insincerity and brutality in the one case, and self-inflated egotism and retrograde perfection on the other. To my mind, their sins against the race blot out all their services to the nation or to classes. I said there, and I say here, that these two writers lack “charity,”—the misfortune being, of course, that I over-value the worth of charity—God’s or man’s.
You are mistaken if you imagine me unfamiliar with the kind of reasoning pursued in books like Ecce Homo, where Charity is discriminated well from the Enthusiasm of Humanity, and holy Fire gets its due place in the Christian list of implements. So curiously am I constituted, that such reasoning—fine as it is, like your own, —takes me no further. It draws plans of a Temple of God, but it always leaves a corner to get in an intellectual looking-glass. I have to go back to Charity in the end, and find her the most worldly-wise, despite her homely features.
These are themes I shall touch upon again, and the more fully, because I have been misconstrued even by so fine an intellect as yours.—I am, Sir, &c.,
[We should have thought Mr. Buchanan perfectly right in saying that we do not understand Walt Whitman and have absolutely no right to criticize him, for that is precisely the fact. Our objection to Mr. Buchanan’s criticism was exactly that he did not help us to see what he admired in Walt Whitman, and our opinion was not an “estimate,” but an explanation of the superficial impression which we expected sympathetic criticism to remove. As to Emerson, we could illustrate the force of both epithets by a hundred passages of his essays and poems, but we carefully guarded against the supposition that we would describe him by such epithets “merely,” or deny him very high imaginative qualities consistent with them—ED. Spectator.]
[Note: The Spectator’s review of David Gray and other Essays, chiefly on poetry is in the Reviews section.]
A Recent Trial By Jury
Glasgow Herald (28 April, 1868 - p.2)
A RECENT TRIAL BY JURY.
To the Editor of the Glasgow Herald.
SIR,—Permit me to avail myself of your extensive circulation in making some remarks on a criminal law case in which I was cited as a witness—the case of John Simpson Oman, heard before Lord Deas, at the Glasgow Circuit Court, on Wednesday last the 22d inst.
The indictment was a very simple one. Oman, the captain of the screw-steamer Arbutus, was charged with culpable homicide and reckless neglect of duty, for having, on the 18th December last, run down a fishing smack on the river Clyde, and drowned John Kerr, the master and owner. The evidence was, on every honest showing, overwhelming—the summing up of Lord Deas was as fatal as it was masterly; yet, nevertheless, the panel left the dock licensed to act in the same manner for the remainder of his days. Never, perhaps, was such an instance of the obtusity of a jury or the brutality of a mixed audience; for the verdict which was offered, in daring parody of justice, was welcomed with considerable applause.
Now, just look back over the mere facts of the case, as I see them. John Kerr, two other men, and a boy are in a smack becalmed near the Cloch Lighthouse on the river Clyde. The sails are set, but there is no wind. The morning is clear and bright. Two miles off the screw Arbutus rounds Kempoch Point, sights the smack at that distance, and comes steadily onward until she cuts the smack in two/ John Inglis, a coachmen, standing on the shore less than a quarter of a mile off, and I, sitting five hundred yards off in a small boat, see the impending danger, hear the frantic cries of the smacksmen, observe that the steamer does not alter her course in the slightest degree, and finally sicken at the dull crash of the collision. Well, this is clearly proved on trial; in no tittle did the witnesses contradict each other. Moreover, Mr McAlpine, keeper of the Cloch Lighthouse, swore that the morning was windless, and that the boat was almost if not quite motionless. A navigation teacher from Greenock proved that the tide was running out.
This was, briefly, the case for the prosecution, nowhere shaken, everywhere coherent, and supported in the main particulars by at least three independent and unprejudiced witnesses. Take next the case for the defence, supported chiefly by the crew of the steamer Arbutus, quite disinterested persons, of course, particularly the admirable steersman, who cut the smack so neatly through the middle.
What these sailors swear to first is this—That on the morning of the accident there was a fresh breeze; that the smack was sighted lying two miles distant, straight across the steamer’s bows, and going at the rate of three or four knots an hour; and that the accident took place because the smack when the screw was fifty yards off suddenly put about across the steamer’s bows. This is, of course, highly probably, since, admitting the fresh breeze, the collision would not have taken place at all, if (as was averred) the screw going at the rate of eight knots an hour kept straight on her course to the spot where the smack was first sighted. Pass that, however, in the meantime, and pass, too, the extraordinary contradictions of the various seamen as to the quarter from which the “fresh breeze” was blowing. It is further stated, and may be accepted as possibly true, that the captain, on finding himself about fifty yards from the smack, ordered the engineer to “reverse full speed,” so as to lessen the force of the shock as much as possible. The highly disinterested pilot, however, vows that the steamer had no way on her at all when she reached the fatal spot, and that if any accident occurred it was because the poor smack ran broadside into the steamer, not because the steamer cut (with a loud crash) through the smack—a clear parallel to the case of the man who when summoned for “punching” another’s head, averred that the fault was in the head, which came quite unaccountably in collision with his hands.
The three other witnesses for the defence may just be mentioned. The captain of a schooner, after some statements consequent on a preconceived knowledge of the accident he did not see, breaks down in trying to show there was wind, and actually lets out that his own vessel was very nearly run down by the same steamer that very morning! Hugh Turner, a river pilot, saw nothing of the affair, but thinks he would have done what Oman did under the same circumstances—a statement I am quite willing to believe trustworthy as coming from so good an authority. Finally, Mr Beith, Superintendent of the Belfast Steamship Company, depones that Oman is an able seaman and a person of good character.
A reference to the newspaper reports of the 23d inst. will show that I have nowhere exaggerated in these particulars; yet the majority of the jury, chiefly, I think, because Lord Deas was conclusive and very severe in his summing up, brought in their verdict of “Not guilty.” The Judge is not popular in Glasgow, chiefly, I think, because he scented too sharply the blood on the fingers of Jessie McLachlan.
Now, what are the results of this trial? I place aside the sad result to the poor family of fishermen on Loch Ranza, who have lost their dear brother, and are probably ruined for life, since about £100 in money sank with the little craft, and are to be added to the loss of her. I look only to the future fate of the poor smacksmen on these coasts. Henceforth it is clear that their lives are of small estimation in the opinion of a Glasgow jury. God knows their perils were numerous enough already, in those poor, scarce seaworthy, dangerous boats of theirs, without the licensing of steam monsters to kill and ruin. And I can testify, too, that the masters of these monsters were reckless enough already, without receiving more encouragement from a jury of persons who, when winds blow and seas rise, are smirking snugly in their shops.
The enlightened British jury had just before, on far slighter evidence, found a poor tempted fellow guilty of forging a cheque for £250, and Lord Deas (with a severity I am the last to admire) had passed a sentence of five years’ penal servitude. You see this is a great commercial country, an economical country, and lives being numerous, while bawbees are scarce, my existence is a trifle compared with my pocket. So far as the enlightened jury is concerned it is the dialogue from the “Critic” repeated over again:—“Your country? No! Your honour? No! A thousand pounds? Ha, you have touched me nearly!”
My last word shall be one of appeal on behalf of the poor ruined fishermen, who, I fear, will never be able to take the case into a civil court. But even here, can I hope much from the public, when I read (in the report of the case in question) such words as the following quoted as part of the evidence of one of the fishermen?—
“The steamer came straight on and ran through us.” (Laughter.)
In fact, the whole affair seems to have struck the audience in rather a funny light,—as rather a good joke than otherwise. They were terribly serious over the Bawbee Case; and the only thing to have brought them back to solemnity in this instance would have been the public statement of the loss in cash.—I am, &c.
[Note: The report of the trial from the Glasgow Herald of 23rd April, 1868 is available here.]
The Spectator (1 January, 1870)
MR. BUCHANAN AND HIS PUBLISHERS.
[TO THE EDITOR OF THE “SPECTATOR.”]
SIR,—I observe in last Saturday’s Spectator a review of a work entitled “Stormbeaten,” published by Messrs. Ward and Lock, and purporting to be a new work by “Messrs. Robert Buchanan and Charles Gibbon.” As the publication of the work at the present moment involves a double deception, permit me to offer some words of explanation.
Some years ago, when I was a lad of 19, subsisting entirely by my pen, I published, in conjunction with another young lad of my own age, Mr. Gibbon, a little Christmas book of prose and verse, consisting chiefly of reprints from cheap magazines. The book was named as the joint work of “Williams Buchanan and Charles Gibbon,” the former being a kind of nom de plume attached by me in those days to work issued under my direction, but not necessarily the literary production of myself solely. “Stormbeaten,” as the book was called, was issued to the press, reviewed, and sold rather extensively, and then, as the author confidently expected, died the natural death of all trifles produced only for the temporary amusement of the hour. My own portion of the work, indeed, had by that time served a double purpose, for the poems you reviewed as new work last Saturday had previously appeared in Mr. Dickens’s All the Year Round, being written and published when I was about 18 years of age.
Note now the deception on the public. The work you reviewed last week, and which has been issued everywhere to the press and the public as a new work, is the same “Stormbeaten” published, issued to the press, and reviewed nine years ago. You are not the only critic who has fallen a victim to this deception.
Note now the second unfairness,—that upon the authors. Secretly, without one word of warning, reckless apparently of all consequences, the publishers have re-issued a work which was, as I maintain, their property for a Christmas season nine years ago, and which ever since has been the sole and undisputed property of the writers. Of course there is now only one court of appeal,—that of the law; and into that court the matter will be carried without delay. Meanwhile let me hope that through your columns this matter may be brought under the notice of the Press generally, and that reviewers may be warned away from the trap into which even so astute a critic as yourself has fallen.—I am, Sir, &c., ROBERT BUCHANAN.
The Land of Lorne
[Although the following is only an edited extract of a letter, I thought I might as well place it here as well as with the reviews of The Land of Lorne - many of which objected strongly to Buchanan’s Prologue to the book, which was addressed to the Princess Louise.]
The Athenæum (3 December, 1870 - No. 2249, p.721)
THE LAND OF LORNE.
MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN writes to us complaining that a periodical has accused him of being “engaged in book-making, and hungering for royal patronage,” because he has dedicated ‘The Hebrides and the Land of Lorne,’ by permission, to the Princess Louise. “Without pausing,” he says, “to complain of the rather gratuitous and unfair accusation of ‘book-making,’ applied by prevision to a work as yet unpublished, may I ask if it is really in bad taste to inscribe to the Princess a set of pictures which is to be a great extent descriptive of her future home, and which, if it at all realize the writer’s hopes, is likely to awaken her sympathies for the Highland people, of whom she will shortly see so much? . . . My book is a sad one, full of lamentation, instinct with the most pathetic poetry of real life and suffering; and scarcely is it ready for publication, when there comes the radiant gleam of this betrothal to the Campbell. Princess Louise is a veritable Star of Hope, arising on a dark and melancholy wild, where (to quote my own Prologue) Absenteeism, Overseerism, all sorts of other ‘isms’ gather griffin-like around the porches of the proud Highland land-proprietors; and when I, whose whole song has been of the poor, and for the poor, and with the poor, cry ‘God speed,’ in the poor Celt’s name, to the Princess and the man of her choice, I hardly expect to be accused of merely ‘hungering for royal patronage.’ It may not be amiss to add, in deprecation of the charge of ‘book-making,’ that portions of the forthcoming work appeared as early as 1869 in the columns of the Spectator, and that since then I have lingered over my task,—a veritable labour of love,—with quite as much care and tenderness as an artist gives to his painting, or a poet to his verse.”
The Fleshly School of Poetry
[Following the publication of Buchanan’s article, ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry:Mr. D. G. Rossetti’ in October, 1871 edition of The Contemporary Review, Buchanan wrote two letters to The Athenæum. To put these in context, they are to be found on the following page of The Fleshly School Controversy section of the site.]
The Stealthy School of Criticism
The Athenæum (11 March, 1876 - p.361)
FROM time to time echoes reach this country, from across the Atlantic, of controversies regarding the literary and worldly well-being of the American poet, Walt Whitman. For instance, Mr. Joaquin Miller delivers a lecture to an American audience, telling them that Whitman is disgracefully treated by his countrymen; and forthwith some one writes from the United States to a London review to say that Mr. Miller is all in the wrong, and the American public well affected, and even affectionately disposed, towards Whitman. Lately the West Jersey Press (26th January) has published an article named “Walt Whitman’s Actual American Position.” It comes to us authenticated by Whitman’s own words:—“My theory is that the plain truth of the situation here is best stated; it is even worse than described in the article.” It may, therefore, interest some of our readers if we reproduce the principal passages:—
“The real truth is that with the exception of a very few readers (women equally with men), Whitman’s poems in their public reception have fallen still-born in this country. They have been met, and are met to-day, with the determined denial, disgust, and scorn of orthodox American authors, publishers, and editors, and, in a pecuniary and worldly sense, have certainly wrecked the life of their author.
“From 1845 to 1855 Whitman, then in Brooklyn and New York cities, bade fair to be a good business man, and to make his mark and fortune in the usual way—owned several houses, was worth some money, and ‘doing well.’ But, about the latter date, he suddenly abandoned all, and commenced writing poems, got possessed by the notion that he must make epics or lyrics, ‘fit for the New World.’ . . . . Little or no impression (at least ostensibly) seems to have been made. Still he stands alone. No established publishing house will yet publish his books. Most of the stores will not even sell them. In fact, his works have never been really published at all. Worse still; for the last three years he left them in charge of book agents in New York city, who, taking advantage of the author’s illness and helplessness, have, three of them, one after another, successively thievishly embezzled every dollar of the proceeds!
“Repeated attempts to secure a small income by writing for the magazines during his illness have been utter failures. The Atlantic will not touch him. His offerings to Scribner are returned with insulting notes; the Galaxy the same. Harper’s did print a couple of his pieces two years ago, but imperative orders from head-quarters have stopped anything further. All the established American poets studiously ignore Whitman. . . . . But the poet himself is more resolute and persevering than ever. ‘Old, poor, and paralyzed,’ he has, for a twelvemonth past, been occupying himself by preparing, largely with his own handiwork, here in Camden, a small edition of his complete works in two volumes, which he himself now sells, partly ‘to keep the wolf from the door’ in old age, and partly to give, before he dies, as absolute an expression as may be to his ideas. ‘Leaves of Grass’ is mainly the same volume previously issued, but has some small new pieces, and gives two characteristic portraits. Of ‘Two Rivulets’ he has printed the newer parts here in Camden.”
Daily News (13 March, 1876)
THE POSITION OF WALT WHITMAN.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE DAILY NEWS.
SIR,—Simultaneously with your American Correspondent’s article on the new poem by Walt Whitman there appears in the Athenæum [of yesterday] a startling series of extracts from the West Jersey Press relative to the poet’s own temporal and worldly condition. For full particulars of the truth I must refer the public to the pages of your contemporary. It is enough to explain here that Whitman, “old, poor, and paralysed,” is in absolute and miserable poverty; that his “repeated attempts to secure a small income by writing for the magazines during his illness have been utter failures”; that the publishers will not publish, the book-storekeepers will not keep for sale, his great experiments in poetry; and, lastly—“O rem ridiculam, Cato, et jocosam:”—all “the established American poets studiously ignore” him, while he lies at Camden preparing, largely with his own handiwork, a small edition of his works in two volumes, which he now himself sells to keep the wolf from the door.” This is neither the time nor the place to discuss in detail so solemn a matter as the claims of this discarded and insulted poet to literary immortality. If those claims are as true as I and many others in England deem them to be, God will justify his works to an early posterity; but this is certainly the time, and your columns are possibly the place, for an expression of English indignation against the “orthodox American authors, publishers, and editors” who greet such a man as the author of “Leaves of Grass” with “determined denial, disgust, and scorn.” One can understand the publishers, for American publishers have been justly described by Whitman himself as “mostly sharks;” one can forgive the editors, for all men know of what pudding a typical Yankee editor’s brains are made; but as for the “orthodox American authors” and the “established American poets”—orthodox perhaps in the sense of their affiliation to the Church of English literature, and “established” truly in their custom of picking the brains of British bards—there is but one word for them, and that may be lengthened into a parable. He who wanders through the solitudes of far-off Uist or lonely Donegal may often behold the Golden Eagle sick to death, worn with age or famine, or with both, passing with weary waft of wing from promontory to promontory, from peak to peak, pursued by a crowd of prosperous rooks and crows, which fall screaming back whenever the noble bird turns his indignant head, and which follow frantically once more, hooting behind him, whenever he wends again upon his way. The rook is a “recognised” bird; the crow is perfectly “established.” But for the Eagle, when he sails aloft in the splendour of his strength, who shall perfectly discern and measure his flight?
Perhaps, after all, the so-called “established poets” of America, despite their resemblance to the birds that blacken the fallows and stubbles of English literature, may claim to be at least as indigenous as the loon, the snow-bunting, and the whip-poor-will, birds well “recognised” even here in England and duly “established” in popular liking. For such denizens of the Bostonian pond or farm-rail to crouch down in disgust and scorn when the King of Birds passes overhead is no more than natural. It is less conceivable that that other eagle of American literature, aquiline of breed but born and degenerated in captivity, should see in silence the sufferings of his freer and sublime brother, should utter no note of warning or of sympathy, should seem to approve by tacit and implicit silence the neglect and scorn of the little New England songsters who peck about his cage. It was the voice of Emerson—a noble and a reverberatory voice then and now—which first proclaimed the name of Whitman to America, in words of homage such as not twice in one century is paid by one poet authenticated to another obscure. It is the voice of Emerson which should be heard again for the vindication of the honour of America, now likely to be tarnished eternally by the murder of its only remaining Prophet. It cannot be that a long captivity in the cage of respectability, and daily association with the choir of hedgerow warblers, has so weakened the heart of Emerson that he falters from his first faith, that he no longer recognises the wild eagle his kinsman, because that kinsman’s flight is afar off, and his wings, though old and feeble, are still free! There is in England no sincerer admirer of Emerson than the present writer, who awaits with anxiety the moment of explanation and justification.
Meantime is Walt Whitman to die because America is too blind to understand him? or rather shall not we in England, who love and revere the Prophet of Democracy, pay our mite of interest on the debt which we accept, and which America is backward to disown? Speaking in the name of many admirers of Whitman, I unhesitatingly suggest such a course as will be at once a help and an honour to the “good gray Poet”—a help temporary and feeble it is true, but given for love’s sake, reverently, to one far nobler than ourselves.
We never bowed but to superior worth,
Nor ever failed in our allegiance there!
Strong as is the prejudice in some circles even here against Whitman—for alas! even England does not lack its “orthodox authors, publishers, and editors”—I believe there is scarcely one living English poet who will not rejoice to lend his aid in a cause so righteous, yet so forlorn. But for the general public—for that public which runs as it reads, and judges as it runs—it is necessary to explain that Whitman is not merely an author whose literary claims set authors by the ears; that he is something far nobler even than a great poet—a martyred man, perhaps the best and noblest now breathing on our plane, one to whom good men would almost kneel, if they knew his beneficence; one whose hand I, at least, would kiss reverently, in full token of my own unworthiness and infinite inferiority. He has acted as well as preached his gospel of universal love and charity; he has given away his substance to his poor brethren; and he has contracted his hopeless disease solely through his personal devotion to the sick and wounded in the late American war. “The pity of it, the pity of it, Iago!” Even those Americans who deny his poetic claims admit (with a ....) his ineffable goodness; but, alas! goodness is not a commodity in demand among “orthodox authors, publishers, and editors,” nor is it strictly desiderated among “established” and money-making poets. Nevertheless, only this last consecration of Martyrdom was wanting to complete our poet’s apotheosis. As Christ had His crown of thorns (I make the comparison in all reverence), and as Socrates had his hemlock cup, so Walt Whitman has his final glory and doom even though it come miserably in the shape of literary outlawry and official persecution. Meantime, while the birds of the fallow are chirping and cramming, he leaves, as certainly at least as the second of these Divine sufferers, a living scripture to the world; which the world will read presently; which for every ten that know it now will count hereafter its tens of thousands; which will not be lost to humanity as long as poetry lives and the thoughts of men are free.
What I have to suggest is simply this. I have already said that Whitman is preparing an edition of his works in two volumes. Now, let a committee be formed here in England, and a subscription instituted to collect subscriptions for the purchase, to begin with, of (say) some five hundred copies of the poet’s complete works. This, calculating the price at 10s. per copy, would require only some £250; and such a sum, which a prosperous writer may make with a few strokes of the pen, would be more than sufficient for the poet’s temporary needs, while furnishing at the same time a substantial proof of the honour in which he is held here in the heart of England. If the five hundred copies could be extended to a thousand, or more, so much the better for the poet, so much the more honour to En gland, so much the more shame to the literary coteries which emasculate America. With regard to the copies of the works so purchased, I should suggest their gratuitous, or partly gratuitous, distribution on some such plan as that adopted and admirably carried out by the Swedenborgian Society. To many a poor and struggling thinker such a gift would be as manna, such teaching as that of Whitman would be as Heavenly seed. I throw out the hint for what it is worth; but to save misconception, let me disclaim entire sympathy with Whitman’s materialistic idealism, which seems to go too far in the direction of illuminating the execrable. One scripture, however, supplements another, and he is perhaps the wisest who harmonises them all. That the teaching of Whitman is destined to exercise an extraordinary influence on the future of religion as well as poetry, no one who has read his works will deny. Unfortunately the process of perusal, which is usually supposed to be preliminary to literary judgment, is just the process which general readers and particular critics refuse to apply in this instance; and still more unfortunately, Whitman is the worst poet in the world to be judged by mere “dipping,” or by any amount of extracts, however admirably chosen.—I am, &c., ROBERT BUCHANAN.
P.S.—Any communications on the subject of this letter may be addressed under care of Messrs. Strahan and Co., 36, Paternoster-row, who will, I am sure, as enlightened English publishers, further the object in view by all means in their power. R. B.
Daily News (14 March, 1876)
MR. WALT WHITMAN’S POEMS.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE DAILY NEWS.
SIR,—You cannot, I am sure, have foreseen the probable consequences of publishing Mr. Robert Buchanan’s letter. We Americans are known to be a thin-skinned race, and I do not see how we can possibly survive the expression of Mr. Robert Buchanan’s opinion of us. True, Mr. Robert Buchanan’s name is unknown in America; but the Daily News is well known there—known as a journal usually friendly to us, and always as civil as circumstances permit. So, when we learn from your columns that we must abandon henceforth those claims to distinction in literature which we have lately been told were our best title to respect, I can think of nothing so likely to occur in the States as a general happy-despatch. What publisher can value life after being called by Mr. Robert Buchanan, a shark? What “Yankee editor,” when he is told that “all men know of what pudding his brains are made,” will not hasten to blow them out? What verse-writer will not take flight to a better world to escape being catalogued in a “choir of hedgerow warblers?” With a splendour of ornithological erudition I cannot sufficiently admire, Mr. Robert Buchanan likens our American poets to snow-buntings, whip-poor-wills, and loons, to rooks and carrion crows. They are creatures who have lived and fattened by “picking the brains of British bards.” Whether Mr. Robert Buchanan means to complain that his own brains have gone to furnish the empty skulls of Lowell and Longfellow, I do not know, any more than I know whether he himself expects immortality as British Bard under the name of Robert Buchanan, or as Scotch Reviewer under that of Thomas Maitland. His American victims may find some slight comfort in the fact that no one of them has yet been accused of singing his own praises under a fictitious signature.
As to Mr. Walt Whitman’s claims, for the pushing of which Mr. Robert Buchanan has striven to insult every other American writer, living or dead, I do not care to express an opinion. I know the English public well enough to believe that Mr. Whitman will be judged on his merits, and that they will not second Mr. Buchanan’s efforts to raise a new idol on the ruins of old reputations. Nor, on the other hand, ought Mr. Whitman to suffer because he has incurred Mr. Robert Buchanan’s praise.—
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
AN OBSCURE AMERICAN.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE DAILY NEWS.
SIR,—I have read—and read with much general concurrence and satisfaction—the letter by Mr. Robert Buchanan, published in your paper of to-day, urging that the English admirers of Walt Whitman should show their feeling towards him by some such act as the purchase of a large number of copies of his forthcoming books. As this is a matter in which I am warmly interested, and to some extent personally concerned, I take leave to address you on the subject. It was to me that Whitman wrote those word, published in the Athenæum of last Saturday, vouching for the entire truth of the statements regarding him made in the West Jersey press (also partially reproduced in the Athenæum). Several days ago, in conjunction with another of Whitman’s English admirers (a lady), I wrote to the poet commissioning for each of us a certain number of his forthcoming volumes—in fact, therefore, I have already done what Mr. Buchanan suggests; and so has the friend just mentioned, and another friend, a distinguished literary man, who has been in frequent communication with me for months past, as to this or any other appropriate form in which English sympathy and regard for Whitman might take shape. In writing to the poet to bespeak the books, I asked him expressly whether he would like the same course, or any other course, to be adopted by others of his admirers in this country, and in the event of his replying affirmatively, I offered to undertake the requisite correspondence at starting. His answer may probably reach me within a fortnight or so. Let us therefore trust that, what between the steps that have been already taken, and those that will almost for certain ensue upon Mr. Buchanan’s printed letter, some substantial expression will shortly be given to the feelings of a good number of English, Scotch, and Irish admirers of this powerful and moving poet. Will his own countrymen yet exhibit the fruits of a late repentance, and allow themselves to be encouraged or shamed into some measure of justice to his claims?—Your faithful servant,
WM. MICHAEL ROSSETTI.
66, Euston-square, March 13.
Daily News (16 March, 1876)
MR. WALT WHITMAN.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE DAILY NEWS.
SIR,—A large number of sympathetic letters have already reached me in response to my letter concerning the American poet Whitman, and I have every reason to believe that substantial help will be forthcoming. Meantime I take cognisance of the letter from Mr. William Rossetti, published in your columns of to-day, and as that gentleman is, I am glad to see, prepared to undertake the organisation of a fund for the purchase of Whitman’s works, I think all future correspondence, subscriptions, &c., should be addressed to him. For my own part I shall be glad to co-operate in any scheme for Whitman’s benefit. I would only quote one expression from a letter just received from the Rev. John T. Robinson—“Bis dat qui cito dat; your plan, I fear, would work too slowly. I am sure it would be easy to send help at once in some pleasant and brotherly way that would not be offensive to Whitman’s feelings.” It is gratifying to observe that most of my correspondents are men of business, who understand the holiness and dignity of labour. No man has sung so nobly as Whitman the righteousness and beauty of Work; and high and low, from him who works with his brain to him who works with his hands, would be strengthened by the poetic scripture of this colossal workman and bard. Some one—a voice in the dark—an “obscure” echo—accuses me of abusing “Lowell and Longfellow.” I take leave to observe—with timidity, lest my praise may “injure” the pride or the pockets of those prosperous poets—that I should be ungrateful indeed if I failed to remember with pleasure the voice which sang “the Present Crisis” and “the Courtin,” or that other voice which has made immortal for every fireside the story of “Evangeline.” I trust I have a heart for every true singer who makes music, whatever his rank may be in the poetic choir. It would be a better reply to my general complaints if any American, “obscure” or otherwise, could tell me how much sympathy either Mr. Lowell or Mr. Longfellow, or any other wealthy and influential singer, has shown for the great Poet and Martyr who now lies neglected, insulted, “old and paralysed,” at Camden dedicating his completed work, as another great poet and martyr did before him, “To Time,” which obliterates the pigmies, and only preserves the mastodons, of history and literature.—I am, &c.,
P.S.—I have to acknowledge subscriptions of one pound each from Messrs. John Browning, R. Salaman, and Alfred Marks; a promise of one pound each from Messrs. William Robins and John T. Robinson, and of three pounds from Mr. A. D. Smith. All these unknown correspondents stipulate, I am proud to say, for copies of the poet’s works.
[We cannot acknowledge further subscriptions.]
TO THE EDITOR OF THE DAILY NEWS.
SIR,—It is unfortunate Mr. Buchanan should have clouded a question of benevolence with untimely literary fervour. There appear to be different opinions as to the merits of what Mr. Whitman believes to be poetry. Some persons apparently admire it vastly, and regard his literary method as a new revelation. Others conceive “prose-poetry” to be at best a sort of “two-headed nightingale,” curious as a study, but not otherwise pleasant to contemplate. Time will arbitrate between them. But I have never heard but one opinion as to the nobility of Mr. Whitman’s character; and while folks argue, he starves. I for one revere a man who aspires to be a poet, whether he succeeds in being one or not, and still more the man who in a greedy age, abandons profitable employment to follow what he thinks his vocation. Therefore, let every one bring his obolus, if it really be required, without any reference to canons of criticism. At the same time, I believe the American people to be second to none in native kindliness of heart; and though they may not think Mr. Whitman a poet, I am sure they will be the first to help his distress. He nursed their wounded during their sad fratricidal war with incessant charity; and to have done this is to have done more than to have composed all the poetry that was ever written.—Your obedient servant,
Cleveland Daily Plain Dealer (16 March, 1876 - p.1)
THE New York Herald, apropos of ROBERT BUCHANAN’S indignant outburst at the “impoverishment” of WALT WHITMAN, expresses the hope “that the liberal thinkers of America will not leave the work of helping WALT WHITMAN in his time of suffering entirely in foreign hands.” A long line of waste baskets, stretching away to the crack of doom, admonishes us that if people are expected to come to the rescue of every writer of gibberish whose “poetry” is not appreciated, we might as well stop talking about paying the public debt.
The Saturday Review (18 March, 1876)
A STRANGELY impudent agitation has just been started with regard to what is called “Walt Whitman’s Actual American Position.” Whitman, it may be explained, is an American writer who some years back attracted attention by a volume of so-called poems which were chiefly remarkable for their absurd extravagance and shameless obscenity, and who has since, we are glad to say, been little heard of among decent people. It now appears that, although there is a small coterie of persons in this country who are not ashamed to confess their liking for Whitman’s nastiness, his own countrymen have universally repudiated him. “The real truth,” says an American journal, which has taken up the subject apparently in the interest of Whitman, “ is that, with the exception of a very few readers, Whitman’s poems in their public reception have fallen still-born in this country. They have been met, and are met to-day, with the determined denial, disgust, and scorn of orthodox American authors, publishers, and editors, and in a pecuniary and worldly sense have certainly wrecked the life of their author.” “No established publishing house will publish his books. Most of the stores will not even sell them.” “Repeated attempts to secure a small income by writing for the magazines during his illness have been utter failures. The Atlantic will not touch him. His offerings to Scribner are returned with insulting notes; the Galaxy the same. Harper’s did print a couple of his pieces two years ago, but imperative orders from head-quarters have stopped anything further. All the established American poets studiously ignore Whitman.” We are of course sorry that Whitman, or any other man, should be in sore distress, but we must say that we are very glad indeed to hear that his writings are unsaleable, and that no respectable publisher or editor in America will give him countenance by printing his contributions. This fact, if it is true, shows that the moral sense of the American public is, after all, not quite so much deadened as some recent events might lead one to imagine. If the New York Herald will not have anything to do with Walt Whitman, it is a proof that even the Herald draws the line somewhere. We can only regret that the same view is not taken by all publishers on this side of the ocean, and that there is one firm at least in London which is not ashamed to advertise a “complete” edition of Whitman’s works. We have no desire to pry into the details of Whitman’s private life. The description which he gives of himself in his writings as “disorderly, fleshly, sensual,” and fond of loafing, is not perhaps to be taken in a literal sense; and in any case we have no desire to speculate as to how far his private life may have been imprudent or irregular. The important fact is that he has found it impossible to get a living by his writings, which are everywhere shunned and rejected. Considering the character of these writings, this seems to us a very natural and desirable result, and it is difficult to understand why people should be expected to buy an article which disgusts them. Some of Mr. Whitman’s friends and admirers in London have, however, worked themselves into a state of theatrical indignation with regard to the treatment of this great man by his unappreciative and ungrateful countrymen. Mr. Robert Buchanan, who has made himself the mouthpiece of this extraordinary agitation, not only claims for Whitman “literary immortality,” but exalts his “ineffable goodness” and “beneficence,” and declares, in a passage flavoured with a touch of blasphemy which we prefer not to quote, that “only this last consecration of Martyrdom was wanting to complete our poet’s apotheosis.” Mr. Buchanan, being himself a poet, naturally chafes against the restraints of ordinary prose, and we are treated to a wonderful picture, in the highest style of fine language, of a “golden eagle sick to death, worn with age and famine, or with both, passing with weary waft of wing from promontory to promontory, from peak to peak, pursued by a crowd of prosperous rooks and crows, who fall screaming back whenever the noble bird turns his indignant head, and which follow frantically once more, hooting behind him, whenever he ascends again on his way.” This is all very fine no doubt in its way, but it may be thought to be hardly a fair description of the case of a dirty bird which is shunned on account of its unclean habits. Mr. Buchanan also breaks out into furious vituperation against all American publishers and men of letters, whom he abuses in the most vulgar terms; and warns the American nation collectively that its “honour will be tarnished eternally by the murder of its only remaining prophet.” Mr. Buchanan concludes by what is really an insulting appeal to his own countrymen, as “loving and revering” this apostle of beastliness, to give him “a substantial proof of the honour in which he is held here in the heart of England.”
From the height of this rhapsodical outburst it is a sad descent to the prosaic facts of the case. It is of course open to any one who admires, or is simply sorry for, Whitman to subscribe for his support; but it is difficult to understand why those who dislike his flagrant indecencies should be denounced because they do not feel inclined to give him any encouragement. Mr. Buchanan himself, though he does not scruple to rank Whitman with the Saviour, and declares that his teaching is “as Heavenly manna,” thinks it necessary to “disclaim entire sympathy with Whitman’s materialistic idealism, which seems to go too far in the direction of illuminating the execrable.” Mr. Buchanan does not explain exactly what he means by “execrable,” but in any sense such an admission goes far to justify the distrust and loathing with which Whitman is regarded both here and in America. Mr. Buchanan holds that “these great experiments in poetry” are “destined to exercise an extraordinary influence on the future of religion as well as poetry,” and this, he says “no one who has read his works will deny.” Public opinion, however, both here and in America, has expressed itself very decisively as to these great experiments; and there is very little chance of Mr. Buchanan or any of his associates bringing the world round to a different view. It is no doubt true that there are many people who have never read Whitman’s so-called poetry all through, but enough is known to show that it is an attempt to make animal brutality and indecency pass for poetry. No doubt the present effort to revive curiosity on the subject will be a useful advertisement to any bookseller who happens to have a stock of Whitman’s garbage on hand. It must be remembered, however, that his earlier works have been before the public for some twenty years, and that during the whole of that time the opinion originally formed of them has been steadily sustained, and, if possible, intensified; and there is, we imagine, very little danger of this judgment being now reversed by friendly puffery and agitation, even when such great authorities as Mr. Buchanan supposes himself to be take up the matter. There are, no doubt, questions both of art and philosophy on which public opinion at times goes astray; but in the present instance the elementary instincts of mankind are sufficient to settle the question. There would indeed need to be a very remarkable change both in the moral and intellectual constitution of educated people before such writings as those of Whitman could be accepted as, in any sense, honest literature.
When Mr. Buchanan screeches about “literary outlawry,” “murder,” and “official persecution,” he is obviously only talking nonsense. We have no desire to say anything in disparagement of American publishers, but they are no doubt not absolutely exempt from the weaknesses of other tradesmen; and we suspect that, if there really were a market anywhere for Whitman’s wares, he would have no difficulty in finding some one to retail them for him. It is reasonable to assume that American publishers and editors know their own business, and that they have sufficient reasons for having nothing to do with Mr. Whitman. He has chosen to identify himself with unsavoury things, and whatever he might now write, his name would be a taint to any respectable periodical. The fact is that it was only the indecent exposure which Whitman made of himself in the first instance that attracted passing attention to him as a sort of psychological monstrosity. Apart from his scandalous eccentricities, his writings are poor stuff, and the affectation of deep philosophy is easily seen through. The assumption that a man who sets himself to outrage public decency should be gratefully supported by public charity is certainly a very curious one. Mr. Buchanan asserts that his idol has many worshippers in this country, but we venture to say that this is a part of his delusion; and we may add that those who are so unfortunate in their tastes as to belong to this sect would perhaps act prudently for themselves in not proclaiming it too loudly. The conclusion would seem to be that the “illumination of the execrable” is not a remunerative business; and so far the lesson is a useful one, and may be taken to heart by any other writers who have a weakness that way. There is also, however, a general principle underlying Mr. Buchanan’s letter which deserves notice. He appears to imagine that society is bound, as a matter of course, to contribute to the maintenance of any one who chooses to set up as a man of genius. The genius may he less apparent than some other characteristics, but society is bound all the same to accept implicitly the claimant’s own assurance, and that of a few sympathetic friends, that he is a genius, and to provide for him accordingly. This, we fancy, is a favourite idea with a certain class of poets, who have usually reasons of their own for holding that their incomes ought not to be dependent merely on the popularity of their works and the respect in which they are held by those who know them. Instances can no doubt he mentioned of great poets who were not sufficiently appreciated while alive; but, on the other hand, it would be rather hazardous to undertake to provide for every one who, believing himself to be a poet, could not get a living by his works. We should then have a fine flock of hard-up “golden eagles” eager to take advantage of public charity. If the appeal on behalf of Whitman were based simply on his age and indigence, we should not think ourselves bound to say anything against it. But the plan proposed is to help him to circulate his writings, and thus implies approval of them. It is satisfactory to believe that agitation for such a purpose is likely to prove as futile as it is audacious.
Cleveland Daily Plain Dealer (20 March, 1876 - p.2)
Mr. Robert Buchanan, the poet and novelist, is well and widely appreciated as a writer and a man of intellect throughout the United States, but in loudly espousing the cause of Walt Whitman and parading before the British literary world his poetry to the detriment of the United States he acts a very ungracious and officiously impertinent part. Because Mr. Macdonald and some other eccentric critics of English verse choose to see beauties in the poetry of Mr. Whitman which American publishers and readers are unable to perceive, neither the poet nor his English friends have any reason to complain if the latter do not purchase an article which they consider in many cases unfit to lie upon their table. If Mr. Whitman is the neglected genius Mr. Macdonald would have us believe, he must recollect that were the United States to try her very utmost during the next century she could not hold a candle to the mother country in its cold and merciless neglect of that exceedingly rare commodity. In truth, there are but few among those whose works adorn the libraries of British poetry who, if they were alive to-day, could not point a bony finger at the native neglect and scorn. With the exception of Tennyson, we do not remember one single instance of a well paid poet in Great Britain; and Burns, the greatest song-writer the country ever produced, died in abject fear of a pauper’s grave. Mr. Whitman has not been neglected by the country. He held a government office at a good fair salary until it was found that his poetry occupied more of his attention than his desk. If he has been improvident that is not the nation’s fault, and for the present the United States does not regard his poetry of sufficiently enduring grandeur or originality to entitle him to more consideration than is given to others of his craft, viz.: the right to make a living in the way which seems unto him best. At the same time the United States, within recent years, has put a great deal of money into the pockets of hungry British authors and lecturers, and if they really wish to return the compliment we have not the slightest objection to their picking out the “good gray poet” and providing for his immediate necessities.—Chicago Inter-Ocean.
The Gentleman’s Magazine (April, 1876)
BY SYLVANUS URBAN, GENTLEMAN.
. . .
“THAT Walt Whitman is a great poet is now almost universally recognised,” wrote Mr. Arthur Clive in that article in this magazine last year on “The Trammels of Poetic Expression” which gave rise to so much interesting controversy on poetry with and poetry without rhyme and metrical rhythm; and presently he added, as a text for his subject: “A great poet has actually refused to write in rhyme or verse.” Some months later the same appreciative and eloquent critic, putting aside the moot point whether or not verse and metre are “trammels,” contributed a paper on the merits of Walt Whitman, which ended thus: -- “He is the noblest literary product of modern times, and his influence is invigorating and refining beyond expression.” The recollection of those articles has led Mr. Robert Buchanan—who speaks of Mr. Clive as “zealously and brilliantly advocating the claims of Walt Whitman to literary recognition”—to address a letter to SYLVANUS URBAN touching the present condition of Walt Whitman and the appeal that has been made in his behalf during the past month:—
To those who have not read my letter in the Daily News of March 13 (Mr. Buchanan proceeds), I may briefly recapitulate the particulars, which were first made current in the Athenæum, and are vouched for as true by the poet himself in a letter to Mr. W. M. Rossetti. It appears that Whitman is systematically ignored by American “publishers, editors, and booksellers”; that his attempts to earn a precarious livelihood by “contributing to the magazines” have been received with contempt and derision; that the “established” poets persistently turn their backs upon him; and that now, in his old age, poor and paralysed, he is lying at Camden, West Jersey, preparing with his own weary hands a complete edition of his works in two volumes, by the sale of which he tries “to keep the wolf from the door.” I need not repeat what I have already said in public concerning the conduct of Americans in general and American poets in particular towards Whitman; enough to say that it amounts to distinct persecution, and that some decades hence, when the great Bard of Democracy gains his apotheosis, the remembrance of this neglect will be sackcloth on the body and ashes on the head of America. That a man like this—the only bard America has yet produced (she has been prolific enough in singers), the greatest Voice and with one exception the most humane Presence that has yet trod that continent of gigantic powers and stupendous abominations—that Whitman should reach out his hands towards these Islands in protestation against the neglect and derision of his countrymen, is a terrible and a startling thing; only one thing could to my mind be more startling and terrible, and that would be British neglect of the appeal. Fortunately, for every admirer in America the “good gray poet” counts ten here, and still more fortunately, almost every member of the younger generation of poets (who, however they may quarrel among themselves, are quite content to meet here on a common platform of love and sympathy) already recognises Whitman as the greatest poetic individuality America has yet produced, as indeed the counterpart in literature of what Lincoln was in politics, or the supreme soul and conscience of the West. The difficulty here in England is to conquer a certain prejudice which has been diligently fostered by drawling gentlemen at dinner parties, and which affirms that the poetry of Whitman is barbaric, shapeless, and positively indecent; yet, indeed, it would be as wise to talk of the “barbarity” of Hafiz or the “indecency” of Shakespeare as to hurl such epithets against Walt Whitman. True, there are some half-dozen physiological pages in “Leaves of Grass” which are offensive to people who would blush over a medical textbook or find dirt in a diagram of the human body; and I have already said elsewhere that the poet might as well have left such particulars out, not because they are indecent in themselves, but because they are by no means necessary to his theme. Again, many readers may object to Whitman because he is a “democratic” poet; but here they are frightened by an adjective, and forget, if they knew, the utter catholicity of his religious and political creed. I have no hesitation in saying that any sane man, be his belief what it may, will find consolation and encouragement in this writer, whose divine mission it is to relegate mere belief to its proper place and to proclaim the righteousness of Work and “works.” The subject, however, is too vast a one to be discussed now. My object is simply to repeat my appeal to all lovers of poetry on behalf of a martyred man. It is proposed to purchase direct from Whitman a certain number of his collected works for circulation in England; and by the time this appears a committee will doubtless have been organised for the collection of the necessary funds. In the meantime subscriptions maybe addressed under care of Messrs. Strahan and Co., publishers, 36, Paternoster Row. If the movement thus begun is successful, Great Britain will at once have the pleasure, as ultimately she will have the glory, of rescuing one of the greatest and best of living men from the neglect and persecution of the literary class in America. Nay, I am sure that Americans themselves, when they learn the real state of affairs, will gladly co-operate with Englishmen, Scotchmen, and Irishmen to see justice done.
I NEED add nothing to my correspondent’s letter, but I take the liberty of making the timely quotation of a sonnet from Robert Buchanan’s “Collected Poems”:—
Walt Whitman, wert thou less serene and kind,
Surely thou mightest, like our Bard sublime,
Scorn’d by a generation deaf and blind,
Make thine appeal to the avenger, TIME!
For thou art none of those who upward climb,
Gathering roses with a vacant mind;
Ne’er have thine hands for jaded triflers twined
Sick flowers of rhetoric and weeds of rhyme.
Nay, thine hath been a Prophet’s stormier fate!
While LINCOLN and the martyr’d legions wait
In the yet widening blue of yonder sky,
On the great strand below them thou art seen,
Blessing, with something Christ-like in thy mien,
A Sea of turbulent waves that break and die!
‘The Trammels of Poetic Expression’ by Arthur Clive, The Gentleman’s Magazine, February, 1875. (Vol. XIV, January - June, 1875, pp. 184-197 - available at HathiTrust.]
Daily Alta California (16 April, 1876)
MR. ROBERT BUCHANAN AND WALT. WHITMAN.
Mr. Robert Buchanan is an Englishman, or a Scotchman, a poet, and, in addition, an avowed admirer of Walt. Whitman, our American spinner out of verse—no, not of verse, but of words and ideas which he considers poetry and which certain English poets so consider, for instance, Buchanan, Rosetti, Browning, we believe, and probably many others. Whitman, who is poor and partially paralyzed, has written considerable, and it seems to vex our English brethren that our American public cannot be made to appreciate Mr. Whitman as a great poet. Buchanan claims him as the poet of the future, as Wagner claims for his music, that it is the music of the future. They may both be correct, for that the poetry of Whitman and the music of Wagner are of the present is a claim that few will accept as true. Whitman may be a very great poet, but we have not yet reached that height on Parnassus that we can appreciate and admire it.
Macphersons’ “Ossian” may be poetical but it is not poetry. That it is poetic prose will not be denied. But it takes more than the idea to make it poetry. Browning may be a poet and a great one. But much which he has written, if poetry at all, is of that class which abounds in certain ancient books which no one has yet understood. The chief complaint made by Mr. Robert Buchanan against our American authors, publishers and editors, is that they do not appreciate Walt. Whitman’s writings, and, although he is poor, do not relieve him, publish nor buy his poetry, nor praise it. And he flourishes, does Mr. B., in a vast variety of abusive phrases of our American writers, poets and others. But he should know that Whitman was indebted for the last place he held under Government to the interest taken in him by these very American poets and writers, at the head of whom, as his active friend, was Mr. Stedman. We are inclined to think that Robert Buchanan has got to learn many things yet ere he shall prove a competent judge in regard to Whitman and our literary men.
The Daily News (25 April, 1876 - p.6)
(FROM OUR OWN CORRESPONDENT.)
NEW YORK, APRIL 5.
Mr. John Burroughs, whose name may not be familiar to you in England, though he has a reputation here among the literary class, writes a letter to the Tribune defending Walt Whitman and complaining of the Daily News. Mr. Burroughs, I am happy to say, has a better temper than some of the gentlemen who have mingled in this discussion on the other side of the Atlantic, and though he is a warm admirer of the poet whom Mr. Buchanan has painted as a sick eagle, he does not consider it necessary to abuse the hedge-row warblers like Longfellow and Emerson, and the whole of that tolerably large class of readers who persist in preferring “Evangeline” to “Leaves of Grass.” Does not abuse them, I should say, in set terms, but this extract from his judgment of Whitman carries a rather comical implication. “He seems to me,” says Mr. Burroughs, “about the only American poet that a man, apart from the versifier, the scholar, the professor, the gentleman of elegant leisure, &c., would want to read, because in him alone there is a breeze, bracing and masculine, as of the mountain or the shore. I am aware that there is something rude and forbidding about him, just as there is about the open air, and that certain delicate indoor temperaments cannot endure him; but it is so much the worse for them that they cannot. . . The trouble with Whitman is, he gives us something more and better than mere literature or art, and the main influence of his poems is in the direction of health, character, and manly activity, and can never be to beget a critical, sophisticated, or over intellectual race, which is the tendency of literary culture as such. What he gives us is well oxygenated; it is red arterial blood, and has in it the making of virile robust men. Can the same thing be said of the works of our popular poets?” Mr. Burroughs believes that in cultivated times like ours, the great mass of poetry is worthless stuff, written out of an atmosphere “rotten with poetic and literary consciousness;” and, if I understand a rather obscure passage in his letter, he looks forward to a time when the highest form of art shall be “the analogue of the power and informality of elemental nature”—which seems to me very much like no art at all. Whitman gives us a glimpse of this chaotic future, and “it is a kind of disloyalty to nature to say that he has no form. He has not form as a house, or a shield, or a heart, or a moulder’s pattern, or a sonnet of Hood’s, or a dainty bit of verse by Longfellow has form; but he has form as a tree, a river, the clouds, a cataract, a flash of lightning, or any vital and progressive thing has form, and this is all the form he aims at.” Mr. Burroughs reminds me of General Cyrus Choke and the Honourable Elijah Pogram—but no matter.
The best characterisation of Walt Whitman I ever heard was that which defined him as a poet in the third generation before birth. The Tribune has a review of the recent discussion of his claims in England, and urges that this inchoate and merely potential poetry is not what America needs. The barbaric singer, “who frees his nature from its last reserve, and exhibits himself wholly to his fellow-men,” is the type of “a condition from which most men of earnest intelligence among us are trying to escape. We have enough, and more than enough, of unresolved elements in our American life; we crave the attainment of that harmony in literary achievement which will restore to us the lost blessing of repose.” And the Tribune accounts for the extraordinary enthusiasm manifested in England over some of the untamed verse-makers of the New World by assuming that “the English brain, blasé with respectable proprieties of utterance, surfeited with decorous elegance of style,” is startled into a new sense of life by the grotesque and lawless. To a certain extent the favour of England draws after it the favour of the United States. Whitman is indebted much more to Buchanan, Rossetti, Roden Noel, and Swinburne for such success as he has had at home than to his own powers, and Joaquin Miller is chiefly valued here for the value which is supposed to be placed upon him abroad; but all this reflected glory quickly fades, and as the writer in the Tribune whom I have already quoted truly says, America insists upon judging American poetry for herself. “Heretofore we have responded rather too readily to the taste and critical judgment of England because her voice seemed to us, if not that of posterity, at least that of an intelligent and impartial contemporary. There is now a point of divergence the causes of which we have presented in outline; they might be illustrated much more widely. A few of our writers may still acknowledge the old authority and endeavour to share in its present morbid craving for new and strong sensations; but by far the greater part will cling with independent faith to their own convictions.”
As for Mr. Buchanan’s rebuke, America has taken it with irritating composure. The country is neither angry nor ashamed. Not angry, because—if I must say so—it does not care much for Mr. Buchanan. Not ashamed, because it is not conscious of starving a prophet, or killing a martyr, or doing any of the other dreadful things of which it has been accused. But the story of Whitman’s poverty and suffering has aroused a great deal of sympathy among Americans, who honour his personal character, without feeling obliged to read his verses. Mr. E. C. Stedman has given graceful expression to the sentiments of the literary class in a letter to one of the newspapers. Mr. M[?] Morgan has offered a benefit at the Lyceum Theatre; and when Mr. Whitman’s book appears, it will, no doubt, find purchasers here, actuated by the same benevolent desire which animates Mr. Rossetti. As for the old poet’s condition, I presume that the Camden (New Jersey) Post which is published at his home, tells about the truth in the following paragraph. After announcing that a “card” on the subject, from Mr. M. D. Conway is unauthorised, it adds:—“No one supposed Whitman was starving for food, or in beggar’s rags. The true points are that the old chap’s savings have been exhausted by over three years’ sickness and expense; that, though not actually suffering from want, not with the least idea of ever so suffering, he is without means and likely to be henceforth, and disabled from the usual employments; that he may, perhaps, live several years, has all the usual wants and expenses, is pretty freehanded with is money when he has any; that some of his friends and brethren in Great Britain and America have voluntarily done what they have done; and that Whitman has expressed himself entirely contented with their action, and, without abating a jot of his manliness, thankfully accepts the results. To all the flummery and the frivolous falsehoods and personal impertinences which the matter has evoked, of course he makes no reply at all, and takes no notice.”
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