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Robert Williams Buchanan was born at Caverswall, North Staffordshire, on August 18, 1841. His father, Robert Buchanan, was originally a tailor of Ayr, but at his son's birth was engaged as an itinerant lecturer in support of Robert Owen's schemes of Co-operation and Socialism.
Robert Buchanan, the poet, was identified with Staffordshire other than by the mere accident of birth, by the fact that his mother, Margaret Williams, was the daughter of a Staffordshire lawyer of Stoke-on-Trent.
Soon after the poet's birth the father removed to London, where he became a journalist, and at an early age his son was sent to school at Hampton Wick and Merton. When the poet was about nine years old the family settled in Glasgow. In this necessarily short sketch we must pass over the period of boyhood and adolescence, briefly recording the fact that Buchanan early proved himself an apt scholar, an omnivorous reader, and an ardent disciple of the Muses.
At the age of nineteen he crossed his Rubicon. He ventured on a perilous step. In a word, Buchanan engaged himself to win from an indifferent public not merely the fadeless lustre of poetic fame, but the material means of keeping body and soul together. Literary history provides numberless romances of young and ardent hearts setting out to compel a busy and a more-or-less heedless world to recognise the genius which they bring for its spiritual sustenance and refreshing; and of these romances, few are more touching than that in which the names of Robert Buchanan and David Gray are for ever associated.
Two young men, friends, and poets both, migrated from Glasgow to London, with little in their pockets save manuscripts, intent on earning a living by exercising their poetic genius, and, incidentally, winning immortal fame. The struggle was bitter. Poor Gray soon went under, but not before leaving to the world a few beautiful fragments of song and several pathetic sonnets written beneath the shadows of the wing of quick, oncoming Death.
Buchanan lived on, struggling and suffering until fame and competence were won. It may have been this early grim fight against adverse fate, so disastrous to his beloved comrade, so triumphant to himself, which made Buchanan henceforth and for ever a fighter: for in a few years he, almost unknown, so young and inexperienced, was waging a bitter and protracted feud against some of the greatest poets of his day — Swinburne, Rossetti, and Morris, the leading bards of what Buchanan termed "The Fleshly School of Poetry." For years did this feud continue, culminating at length in a libel action, in which Buchanan was awarded £150 damages. A better understanding eventually took place, and Buchanan dedicated his novel, God and the Man, to Rossetti. It may afford to the cynic an hour's diversion when fellow-craftsmen fall foul of each other in a riot of invective; but to well-wishers and lovers of that craft, and to all honest workers in its mystery, the spectacle is not only unedifying, but painful.
Not yet sated with wordy warfare, the poet later on in life waged strife against publishers in general, adopting as slogan, "Now Barabbas was a publisher," and for a time Buchanan became his own publisher.
Let us thank whatever gods there be that in all his immense output of verse we find its sweetness little tainted by any overflowings from the cesspool of embittered controversy. Indeed, if one virtue more than another permeates Buchanan's poetry, it is his consideration for and love of humanity, especially the sad, the suffering, the outcast. His first book of verse, Undertones, was published in 1864. It was dedicated in a beautiful and pathetic poem to his dead poet-friend, David in Heaven. This volume was followed in 1865 by Idyls and Legends of Inverburn, to be succeeded in the following year by London Poems, a collection differing greatly, as may be guessed by the title, in subject-matter and treatment from his earlier volumes.
In London Poems Buchanan deals mainly with the life of suffering which he found so prodigally strewn around him in the thousand roaring streets of the metropolis, tragedies of suffering chiefly caused by poverty and vice, springing out of a soil often fitly prepared for it by man's inhumanity to man: or, in the poet's words —
"I sing of the stain'd outcast at Love's feet —
Love with his wild eyes on the evening light.
I sing of sad lives trampled down like wheat
Under the heel of Lust, in Love's despite;
I glean behind those wretched shapes ye see
In the cold harvest-fields of Infamy."
Here was "no idle singer of an empty day." Although Buchanan takes us deep down into some of the lowest strata of humanity, giving us a true and vivid picture of sordid and pitiful lives, he fails not to bring to light and life any little virtuous bud that may peep out of the noisome clay of spiritual, moral, and physical corruption. Buchanan's characters are mainly poor human waifs for whom environment is too rank a soil for the growth of the fine flowers of virtue. They have run to weeds — these poor blossoms that in happier conditions might have been pure lilies or shy violets; yet, despite this, there is at least in these sad human weeds the desire for the cleansing rains of Heaven and its Sun of Righteousness.
In these London Poems we find not only pathos, beauty, dramatic interest, power of graphic description, as in Liz, Nell, The Blind Linnet, but in Tiger Bay we have a conscious and successful attempt to trace the development of the human soul from the first faint glimmerings of conscience in man's half-brute ancestor. It is a poem illustrative of the working of Evolution. And the soul has not yet reached its final stage of development.
In a brief sketch like this it is impossible even to mention every volume of poetry Buchanan produced. He was a very prolific writer, not only of poetry, but of novels and plays; but here we cannot do more than direct attention to his chief poetic works. His claims as a novelist and playwright do not concern us here.
We must pass over that very fine narrative poem, Meg Blane, and for a moment turn attention to the Coruisken Sonnets of 1870. Written in the gloaming of the year, amid most gloomy surroundings, these sonnets deal with the soul-problem of man which daily rises in him, demanding answer, and to which man has perhaps not yet discovered answers truly satisfying. The great forbidding mountains, cold and impassive, unanswering either to praise or curse, are, in our fretful moods, type of the remoteness of God; but, then, from the very heart of those mountains comes the singing of a happy rill, and a rainbow hangs its radiant colours upon the grey peaks, until the poet is forced to admit that "God is good." Apart from the sublime subjects treated of in these sonnets, the poetry itself often rises to heights of intense beauty, as in Sonnet xxii -
"Come to green under-glooms — and in your hair
Weave nightshade, foxglove red, and rank wolfsbane,
And slumber and forget Him;› if in vain
Ye try to slumber off your sorrow there,
Arise once more and openly repair
To busy haunts where men and women sigh,
And if all things but echo back your care,
Cry out aloud, " There is no God!" and die.
But if upon a day when all is dark,
Thou, stooping in the public ways, shalt mark
Strange luminous footprints as of feet that shine —
Follow them! follow them! O soul bereaven!
God had a Son — He hath pass'd that way to heaven:
Follow, and look upon the Face Divine!"
The most casual reader of Buchanan cannot help but be struck by the wonderful diversity of his poetry. There are few kinds of verse which he did not attempt; few subjects of human interest which he did not sing; and the marvel is that so seldom did he fall below a high standard.
In the books already noticed he proved himself a dramatic poet and a writer of sonnets dealing with a high spiritual theme. In 1870 followed his Book of Orm, in which he showed the world yet another phase of his poetic genius. Here he was the religious mystic. "This poem" (so James Ashcroft Noble wrote) "is a vindication of that higher optimism which does not content itself with the sanguine and illogical fatalism of the maxim, 'whatever is, is right,' but only with an assured faith in a Being whose existence provides a guarantee that the being which is, and which is at the same time recognised as evil, must be doomed to ultimate destruction."
Beginning with the weaving of the "Veil of Blue" by God to hide Himself from the earth and her children, in poems revealing rare imagery and power, the poet deals with what we may call the spiritual history of the human race from the Creation to the day following the Judgment, when even the Man Accurst, the only soul shut out from Heaven, so terribly-vile he was, was redeemed through Love, and finally admitted to the society of the Blessed. The Book of Orm consists of a series of poems all linked together in logical sequence, whose purpose it is "to vindicate the ways of God to man." The very titles of certain sections are immediately arresting, and suggestive of a content and a treatment that are nothing if not original — as "Songs of Corruption," "The Dream of the World Without Death," "The Devil's Mystics." But these titles are not always suggestive of the content of the poems.. For example, one section entitled "Roses" opens —
"Sad and sweet and wise
Here a child reposes;
Dust is on his eyes,
Quietly he lies —
Satan, strew Roses!"
In "The Dream of the World Without Death," whose subject is treated with originality, high imagination, and considerable descriptive power, we are shown a world from which " The Master on His Throne ... beckoneth back the angel men name Death." But the world grew terrified when Death (Corruption) no longer moved among the ranks of mortals, for a great horror took its place: Folk vanished out of the world unseen by their friends.
"One struck a brother fiercely, and he fell,
And faded in a darkness ; and that other
Tore his hair, and was afraid, and could not perish:
One struck his aged mother on the mouth,
And she vanished with. a grey grief from his hearthstone."
If space permitted, "that wild and wonderful" conception, "The Vision of the Man Accurst," would find a place here.
In all of Buchanan's poems which deal with matters of highest import — the mysteries of Life, Death and Sin, Doubt, Belief, Eternity — we are led by a careful and natural process from the intangibilities and the discordant elements of a chaos to a universe whose parts are symphoniously attuned to one concordant whole. The poet employs no poetic licence, no supernatural legerdemain, in order to translate, without effort on its part, suffering humanity to some abode of bliss and blessed repose; but we watch it being guided, step by step, through pain and suffering, like spent pilgrims through a desert, until the oasis is reached where springs the well of perfect knowledge and understanding, and where the vultures of Sin and Doubt and Death prey not. ›››› Another long poem possessing a spiritual significance is Balder the Beautiful, a Song of Divine Death. In taking the Balder myth as a subject for an ambitious poem, Buchanan showed his habitual courage; for Matthew Arnold and Sydney Dobell had gone to the same source for poems which brought them fame. Here, life is a dream and death the awakening, as we see in the "Proem," hence the subtle significance of such lyrical lines as these —
"O what is this cry in our burning ears,
And what is this light on our eyes, dear love?
The cry is the cry of the rolling years,
As they break on the sun-rock, far above;
And the light is the light of that rock of gold
As it burneth bright in a starry sea,
And the cry is clearer a hundredfold,
And the light more bright, when I gaze on thee.
My weak eyes dazzle beneath that gleam,
My sad ears deafen to hear that cry:
I was born in a dream, and I dwell in a dream,
And I go in a dream to die!"
One of Buchanan's best-known long poems is Saint Abe and His Seven Wives, a tale of Salt Lake City. Still another long poem, White Rose and Red, tells a pathetic story, the scene of which is, again, laid in America — a country the poet visited. When we consider these two poems, and add to them others of, perhaps, equal merit, we are on secure ground in saying that, among his contemporaries, few, if any, could be found to tell a tale in verse so cleverly as Buchanan. No review of Buchanan's poetry, however brief, could be deemed satisfactory which did not make some reference to his consummate art of ballad writing — one of the most difficult kinds of poetry to write in these days, when life is no longer lived close to Nature. In days when the old ballads were begotten, men lived simply, and saw with wondering eyes a thousand marvellous things now unnoted, since Science has explained them away. And so, unless the modern poet can capture much of the simplicity, the atmosphere, the colour, the psychology of those dead ages, his ballads will be of little merit. Buchanan's finest ballads, too long for inclusion here, are The Lights of Leith, and The Ballad of Judas Iscariot. Of these splendid and powerful poems, one may venture to say that the greatest poet, not only of the Victorian but of any age, might have legitimately been proud to lay claim to their authorship.
As Buchanan's work belonged to almost every genre of poetry, as he sought his material close at hand and afar off, so did he sweep the whole compass of human interests and emotions. He could describe, equally well, the eerie as the natural; the passionate as the tender; the pathetic as the delightfully humorous. To catch the spirit of the weird read The Dead Mother, with its opening lines —
"As I lay asleep, as I lay asleep,
Under the grass as I lay so deep,
As I lay asleep in my cotton serk,
Under the shade of Our Lady's kirk,
I wakened up in the dead of night,
I wakened up in my death-serk white,
And I heard a cry from far away,
And I knew the voice of my daughter May."
And then, for humour in its finest flavour, turn to The Wake of Tim O'Hara or The Wedding of Shon Maclean, with its unforgettable swing: —
"To the wedding of Shon Maclean,
Twenty Pipers together
Came in the wind and the rain
Playing across the heather;
Backward their ribbons flew,
Blast upon blast they blew,
Each clad in tartan new,
Bonnet and blackcock feather:
And every Piper was fou
Twenty Pipers together!"
Dowered with those fine gifts that go to the making of poetry, if not great, yet surely of a distinguished order, it is little less than amazing that Robert Buchanan, as a poet, is almost unknown to the intelligent man in the street, and, it must be confessed, little known to the average lover and reader of poetry. This is all the more strange, as Buchanan the playwright produced dramas which filled theatres night after night, winning him fame, and presumably no inconsiderable monetary returns — yet, attacked by paralysis, he died in poverty at Streatham on June 10, 1901. Again, though Buchanan the novelist wrote many novels, one or two bearing the stamp of rare talent, if hardly genius, nevertheless he was indubitably a poet before all things, and it is by his poetry that he will surely live. So little does the verse seem to be called for, that to-day it is possible to enter provincial libraries on whose shelves lie all Buchanan's novels, but whose shelves and catalogues are alike innocent of any reference to his poems.
This unpopularity is all the more surprising when we reflect that much of his poetry is of that genre which generally appeals to those readers who, caring little about "pure" poetry, are ready and willing to be interested in verse which tells a tale with dramatic effect; and this, as has been said, is one of the great characteristics of his genius. Some of his best stories are to be sought for — not in his novels; some of his finest dramatic studies are to be discovered — not in his plays; but in his verse. But Time, the great and unerring assessor, will see to it that„
"All that is beautiful shall abide,
All that is base shall die." — Balder
Last modified 26 September 2002