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ROBERT BUCHANAN, born here in 1841, was one of the vigorous spirits of last century. His father, also named Robert Buchanan, was a newspaper writer who had started life as a tailor at Ayr, and he took his son back to Scotland, where he was educated at Glasgow University. At 19 Robert came to London with his friend David Gray, a weaver poet who lived just long enough to see of his poems set up in type. Poverty oppressed them both. Robert became a journalist, writing for the Athenaeum and for All the Year Round, edited by Charles Dickens. He thus made many illustrious friends, keeping some all his life, but losing more by his fiery independence of character, which at times became perversity.
He established himself as a poet with his Undertones, followed by a volume of London Poems, revealing a deep and tender sympathy with the unhappy and unfortunate. In these, as in all his best poems (notably a beautiful love story, White Rose and Red), he showed fine narrative power, and a rare mastery of melody.
The perversity of his nature showed itself in a satirical poem, signed Caliban, in which he attacked Swinburne and other poets, who replied with vigour. He then wrote a famous article on "The Fleshly School of Poetry," in which he hotly assailed the Pre-Raphaelites. Rossetti answered this with "The Stealthy School of Criticism," and a long battle of words followed, ending in a libellous letter by Swinburne for which Buchanan recovered £150 damages. Five years later, however, he admitted that his criticisms had been exaggerated and he dedicated his novel God and the Man to Rossetti, "the old enemy."
He wrote a great deal of poetry, some of it with deep feeling and power; in a lighter vein he wrote of Love, sweeter than hearing or seeing, sadder than sorrow or death:
The love that comes to the palace,
That comes to the cottage door:
The ever-abundant chalice
Brimming for rich and poor.
In 1876 he began his career as a novelist, producing year by year work of power and imagination. He had worked in the grip of a bitter personal tragedy, his beautiful wife dying after a long and painful illness. She had shared with him from the age of 20 all the hardships as well as the successes of his life. Her sister Harriet Jay was an actress, and with her help Buchanan now turned his novels into plays and wrote many other dramas which met with success both here and in America. In spite of boundless generosity to friends less fortunate than himself, he seemed on the way to fortune, when suddenly he lost all his savings in an unlucky investment and was made bankrupt. In the same year he was attacked by paralysis and a few months later, in 1901, he died at Streatham, a poor man after all his labours.
Staffordshire. ed. Arthur Mee. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1937.
Last modified 26 September 2002