Robert Buchanan Essay - Critical Essays

Buchanan, Robert


Robert Buchanan 1841-1901

English poet, novelist, playwright, and critic.

A controversial figure in Victorian literature, Buchanan was out of sympathy with the leading figures of his age, chiefly the Pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne. Deriding the efforts of what he termed “the fleshly school of poetry,” Buchanan wrote work expressive of his fluctuating moral views and his strong opinions on social and political matters. The chief influences on his literary style were the Romantic poets John Keats, George Gordon, and Lord Byron. Buchanan, out of financial need, penned a number of plays and novels of decidedly inferior quality.

Biographical Information

Born in Staffordshire, England, to a Scottish socialist and a woman whose father was a prominent radical lawyer, Buchanan inherited his parents' political convictions. By the time he moved to Glasgow for his university studies, however, he also had developed a taste for poetry. With his friend David Gray, he moved to London with the intention of living the life of a poet. Instead, he found himself acting, writing journalism, and married to a sixteen-year-old girl whose younger sister he adopted. (Harriett Jay, the adopted daughter, went on to write Buchanan's biography.) He eventually managed to publish short stories and verse; a collection of poems titled Undertones was issued in 1863. The book was well received by Robert Browning, George Eliot, and Eliot's mentor and partner George Henry Lewes, and Buchanan developed a particularly close association with Thomas Love Peacock.

Buchanan reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown after his father's death in 1866. The disturbances he underwent accentuated his displeasure with what he considered the amoral excesses of Swinburne and Rossetti. This displeasure extended to the poets' lives as well as their works, and Buchanan vented his feelings in The Fleshly School of Poetry and Other Phenomena of the Day (1872). The book created a stir in London literary circles and left its author alienated from those who had been his friends and supporters. He then lived for short periods in Scotland and Ireland.

Buchanan returned to London in 1878, founding a short-lived literary journal called Light. By this time his poetic aspirations were constantly put aside for his desire to be heard on political interests and his ambitions toward popular, rather than distinguished, achievement in the theater. He wrote editorials on numerous issues of the day, including vivisection, the rights of women, and, in 1890, the fate of the Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, whose career had been derailed by an illicit affair. Five years later, Buchanan spoke up on behalf of Oscar Wilde when the controversial poet and dramatist became embroiled in a ruinous lawsuit. He also championed the poetry of Walt Whitman and traveled to meet the American poet in New Jersey in 1884.

After a series of theatrical successes with such melodramas as Alone in London (1885) and Sophia (1886), his adaptation of Henry Fielding's novel Tom Jones, Buchanan began to take risks on careless productions, and his confrontational style often stood in the way of business matters. The playwright met with financial ruin in 1894, and bankruptcy proceedings began the same month his mother died. After repeated struggles to set his financial life in order, Buchanan suffered a stroke in 1900 and died the following year.

Major Works

Best remembered for his critical attack on the Pre-Raphaelite poets, Buchanan produced great amounts of poetry, drama, and fiction that have not approached a comparable level of fame. Undertones, written as a series of dramatic monologues set in ancient Greece and Rome, was followed by Idyls and Legends of Inverburn (1865), which practiced the same technique but transferred the setting to Scotland. He was, however, capable of other styles: Saint Abe and His Seven Wives: A Tale of Salt Lake City (1872) was a satire on Mormon polygamy; Effie Hetherington (1896) presented a fictional consideration of prostitution. Buchanan's collected works also include detective stories and speculative fiction.

Critical Reception

After the promise of his first published works, Buchanan's literary reputation was uneven at best. William Michael Rossetti, writing in defense of his brother Dante, jeered at Buchanan as a “poor and pretentious poetaster,” although given the circumstances this judgment is clearly biased. However, when The Spectator labeled Buchanan's novel Stormy Waters: A Story of To-Day (1885) “unworthy of the merest literary hack,” there is no indication that the harshness of the judgment was due to personal animosity.

Principal Works

The Rathboys [with Charles Gibbon] (drama) 1862

Storm Beaten; or, Christmas Eve at the “Old Anchor” Inn [with Charles Gibbon] (drama) 1862

Undertones (poetry) 1863

The Witch Finder (drama) 1864

Idyls and Legends of Inverburn (poetry) 1865

Ballad Stories of the Affections: From the Scandinavian (poetry) 1866

London Poems (poetry) 1866

David Gray and Other Essays, Chiefly on Poetry (essays) 1868

North Coast and Other Poems (poetry) 1868

The Book of Orm: A Prelude to the Epic (poetry) 1870

Napoleon Fallen: A Lyrical Drama (poetry) 1870

The Drama of Kings (poetry) 1871

The Land of Lorne 2 vols. (essays) 1871

The Fleshly School of Poetry and Other Phenomena of the Day (essays) 1872

Saint Abe and His Seven Wives: A Tale of Salt Lake City (poetry) 1872

Master-Spirits (essays) 1873

White Rose and Red: A Love Story (poetry) 1873

A Madcap Prince (drama) 1874

The Poetical Works 3 vols. (poetry) 1874

Corinne (drama) 1876

The Shadow of the Sword (novel) 1876

Balder the Beautiful: A Song of Divine Death (poetry) 1877

The Nine Days' Queen (drama) 1880

A Child of Nature (novel) 1881

The Exiles of Erin (drama) 1881


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The Nation (essay date 1866)

SOURCE: A review of Poems, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 2, No. 27, January 4, 1866, pp. 22-4.

[The following essay offers a review of Undertones and Idyls and Legends of Iverburn.]

One has not to read far in this collection of Mr. Buchanan's poetry to see that he is a poet, but one should read it through before deciding on his defects and merits. This is due to him as well as to most young poets, the present transition school of verse reflecting so positively the characteristics of two or three of its masters that originality is about the last thing we look to find in a new disciple. Mr. Buchanan is an original poet, the reader will discover, but not to any great extent in his first volume, Undertones, which contains nineteen poems on what may be carelessly considered classical subjects, exclusive of the poet's prologue, “To David in Heaven,” and his epilogue, “To Mary on Earth.” The former of these superfluous productions is commemorative of David Gray, the young Scottish poet, who came up to London with Mr. Buchanan some half-a-dozen or more years ago, with the wildest notions of what he would accomplish, looking for nothing less than immediate reputation, and, finally, a monument in Westminster Abbey, but who, poor fellow, soon died, leaving his unpublished verse to the tender care of Lord Houghton, Mr. Buchanan, and the pity of the English public. As a tribute to the memory of his friend, the prologue does honor to Mr. Buchanan's feelings; as a poem, it is scarcely more than a bad compound of the mannerisms of both the Brownings, particularly of the peculiar cadences and rhythms of Mrs. Browning, the jarring imperfection of whose double rhymes it caricatures. What can be worse, for instance, than such rhymes as “also” and “falls so,” “you thought” and “truth ought,” and “silence” and “mile hence?” The enthusiasm of the poem is of a cheap order, and, of course, vastly overrates the dead poet who is its subject.

About one-half of the classical poems are on mythological themes, and it is not so much the fault of the poet as of the time that they are not informed with the true Greek spirit. A good deal of supposed Greek poetry has been written in England within the last forty or fifty years, but we can recall only two poets who seem to have been Greeks by nature—John Keats and Walter Savage Landor, the latter a perfect pagan in more senses than one. We should include, perhaps, in this catalogue the Tennyson of “Enone” and “Ulysses,” Mr. Matthew Arnold, whose little-known tragedy of “Merope” is a noble antique, and Mr. Algernon Charles Swinburne, whose “Atlanta in Calydon” is a notable production for a young man. As these poets, however, and others who might be named, have achieved their greatest successes in the school of romantic art, they can hardly be added to the list of really Greek poets. What the present rage for Homeric translation will end in cannot be foreseen, but hardly, we conjecture, in a new race of Greek poets in England. The defect of most of the modern attempts at Greek poetry comes from what may be called the reflective character of the modern mind, which is not content to exercise itself upon the simply sensuous element of Greek literature—the beautiful fictions of its divinities and the more or less historical legends of its heroes—but is fain to find something deeper in both, to impart some of its own tendencies to them; in short,

“To point a moral and adorn a tale.”

This is a grave mistake, however skillfully it may be concealed, and, of course, Mr. Buchanan shares it in common with his contemporaries. The first of his semi-mythological poems, “Proteus,” is not an endeavor to embody the old Greek ideal of a for ever changing deity, as the reader might naturally expect from its title, but an attempt to indicate on a broader scale the play of the eternal law of change, especially as shown in human creeds. Even in this it is not successful, since it is too brief to touch upon even the strong points of the ancient and modern mythologies. The theme of the next poem, “Ades,” is much finer, but its execution is in no sense Greek, though it is certainly meritorious from the stand-point of the present schools of verse. Its chief faults are an entire absence of the dramatic, and an overwhelming presence of the descriptive, faculty—Ades, the speaker, never for a moment reminding us of himself, but always of the poet, whose puppet he is, and who makes him describe, in detail, his subterranean kingdom, the appearance of Persephone above him, how the earth looked around her, how he felt, what she did, etc., etc., through forty pretty stanzas. So abundant, indeed, are the details that the poem, as a whole, leaves no definite impression on the mind.

“Pan,” which is in a higher mood, is a fair specimen of Mr. Buchanan's blank verse, which flows smoothly, after the luxuriant...

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The North American Review (review date 1866)

SOURCE: A review of Poems, in The North American Review, Vol. 102, No. 210, January, 1866, pp. 555-56.

[In the following review, a critic discusses strengths and weaknesses of Poems.]

The invasion of ancient Hellas from the East by force of arms seems to have been no less distinctly a failure, than the modern attack from the West by force of imagination. Her new strategy is a masterly inactivity; strangers may come to her shores and she makes no resistance; they may climb her hills, may listen to her brooks, may peer into her caves, but the Gods and Muses are not there, and no invader can find the living source of the old poetry. When men worshipped, the Gods...

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The Nation (review date 1867)

SOURCE: A review of North Coast and Other Poems, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 5, No. 130, December 26, 1867, pp. 524-25.

[In the following review, a reviewer identifies strong points and shortcomings in North Coast and Other Poems.]

Mr. Buchanan's strength as a writer seems to lie almost wholly in the fulness and tenderness of his sympathy with the poor, the unfortunate and the criminal, the lowly and the low. He says in the prelude to his miscellaneous poems:

“My full heart hungers out unto the stainèd.”

So it does. We may add that this hunger is not often expressed with much more of force or beauty than in the verse above...

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The London Quarterly Review (review date 1870)

SOURCE: A review of Book of Orm, in The London Quarterly Review, Vol. XXXIV, April & July, 1870, p. 525.

[In the following excerpt, a reviewer presents a mixed appraisal of The Book of Orm.]

Buchanan's Book of Orm has been written, as appears from a note of the author's, whilst ill-health has weighed upon him. This has prevented the volume from being published in a complete form. “A Rune Found in the Starlight,” “The Songs of Heaven,” are written, but cannot, in Mr. Buchanan's present state of health, “be made perfect for press.” “The all-important ‘Devil's Dirge,’” also, we are informed, is wanting in the present edition.


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The Nation (review date 1870)

SOURCE: A review of The Book of Orm, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 11, No. 266, August 4, 1870, pp. 76-7.

[The following review offers an unfavorable assessment of The Book of Orm.]

In previous volumes, Mr. Buchanan has published verses which were not precisely good poetry, and which were not very agreeable reading, but which, nevertheless, showed that he had in him something of poetic power. The imagination in them was of the purely sympathetic order, and was unaccompanied by any but a weak and futile way of thinking, and was unaccompanied, too, so far as appeared, by any perception of the beautiful or sense of the humorous. The impression given was of a...

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W. B. Yeats (review date 1893)

SOURCE: A review of The Wandering Jew, in The Bookman, London, Vol. IV, No. 19, April, 1893, p. 21.

[In the following review, Yeats faults The Wandering Jew with intellectual deficiency.]

De La Motte Fouqué in one of his romances describes the Father of Evil as having a face that no man could remember, and a name that sounded “Greek and noble,” but passed out of men's minds as soon as it was uttered. I find Mr. Buchanan's new poem [The Wandering Jew] well-nigh as hard to remember now that I take it up a month after first reading it. I have a vague recollection of something vehement, insistent, eloquent, and chaotic, with here and there a touch...

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Archibald Stodart-Walker (essay date 1901)

SOURCE: “Conclusion—Mr. Buchanan's Significance,” in Robert Buchanan: The Poet of Modern History, Grant Richards, 1901, pp. 299-333.

[In the following essay, Stodart-Walker locates Buchanan's significance as a poet in his pursuit of “eternal truths” outside the teachings of organized religions.]

It is expedient, occasionally, for the wisest man to recall some of the commonplaces upon which he built his wisdom, and one of these is the truth that all criticism of literature and of life must depend upon the point of view. Not that we are to be blinded by the heresy, that every point of view conveys an equally good perspective of the Truth, and that one view is...

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Arthur Symons (essay date 1901)

SOURCE: “Robert Buchanan,” in Studies in Prose and Verse, E. P. Dutton & Co., 1922, pp. 121-23.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1901, Symons comments on the combative tone of many of Buchanan's writings.]

Robert Buchanan was a soldier of fortune who fought under any leader or against any cause so long as there was heavy fighting to be done. After a battle or two, he left the camp and enlisted elsewhere, usually with the enemy. He was, or aimed at being, a poet, a critic, a novelist, a playwright; he was above all a controversialist; he also tried being his own publisher. As a poet he wrote ballads, lyrics, epics, dramas, was realist and...

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Harriett Jay (essay date 1903)

SOURCE: “Play-Writing,” in Robert Buchanan: Some Account of His Life, His Life's Work and His Literary Friendships, T. Fisher Unwin, 1903, pp. 231-49.

[In the following essay, Jay surveys Buchanan's plays.]

It was not till he had passed the forties that Mr. Buchanan obtained any real success upon the stage. From the time of the production of the Witchfinder he had never ceased to regard it as a possible means of livelihood, knowing as he did that in this connection far greater prizes were to be obtained than from the mere writing of books, even of novels, but for many years the life he led was not conducive to his being able even to make a bid for theatrical...

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Lafcadio Hearn (essay date 1922)

SOURCE: “A Note on Robert Buchanan,” in Pre-Raphaelite and Other Poets, edited by John Erskine, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1922, pp. 386-406.

[In the following essay, Hearn offers a laudatory overview of Buchanan's poetry, focusing on the “Ballad of Judas Iscariot.”]

Among the minor poets of the Victorian period, Robert Buchanan cannot be passed over unnoticed. A contemporary of all the great singers, he seems to have been always a little isolated; I mean that he formed no strong literary friendships within the great circle. Most great poets must live to a certain extent in solitude; the man who can at once mix freely in society and find time for the production of...

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Hoxie N. Fairchild (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: “The Immediate Source of The Dynasts,1” in PMLA, Vol. LXVII, No. 2, March, 1952, pp. 43-64.

[In the following essay, Fairchild traces evidence that suggests Buchanan's The Drama of Kings as a source of Thomas Hardy's The Dynasts.]

In my opinion Robert (“Fleshly School”) Buchanan's The Drama of Kings (1871) exerted so strong an influence on Hardy's Dynasts that it deserves to be regarded as the immediate source of that work. The contention would appear to be virginal.2 The biographies and critical studies of Abercrombie, Blunden, Brennecke, Chakravarty, Chew, Duffin, Florence Emily Hardy, Hedgcock,...

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John A. Cassidy (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: “Robert Buchanan and the Fleshly Controversy,” in PMLA, Vol. LXVII, No. 2, March, 1952, pp. 65-93.

[In the following essay, Cassidy discusses Buchanan's role in the Fleshly Controversy—a literary conflict ignited when Buchanan published a scathing assessment of the poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.]

In the long history of literary polemics none has been more savage or more far-reaching in its consequences than the Fleshly Controversy, which raged in Victorian England during the 1870's with Robert Buchanan on one side and Swinburne, William Michael Rossetti, and the unfortunate Dante Gabriel Rossetti on the other. The literary importance of the latter...

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George G. Storey (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: “Robert Buchanan's Critical Principles,” in PMLA, Vol. LXVIII, No. 5, December, 1953, pp. 1228-32.

[In the following essay, Storey discusses evidence of personal animosity on the part of Algernon Swinburne and William Rossetti for Buchanan that predates Buchanan's controversial review of Swinburne's Poems & Ballads (1866).]

John A. Cassidy's recent article, “Robert Buchanan and the Fleshly Controversy” (PMLA, LXVII, 65-93), is the first complete and wholly impartial account of the celebrated quarrel to be published. Mr. Cassidy has showed that the attack on Rossetti, “while reprehensible, was not made without some provocation” (p....

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Hoxie Neale Fairchild (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: “Buchanan and Noel,” in Religious Trends in English Poetry, Vol. IV: 1830-1880, Christianity and Romanticism in the Victorian Era, Columbia University Press, 1957, pp. 216-39.

[In the following essay, Fairchild compares the treatment of religious subjects and themes in the works of Buchanan and Roden Berkeley Wriothesley Noel.]

Although several of the Seers and Seekers are writers of some literary as well as historical interest, none of them occupies so important a position on the main highway of English poetry as to deserve a separate chapter. Two of them, however, are so rewarding to the student of spiritual pathology that they are worth particular...

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William D. Jenkins (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “Swinburne, Robert Buchanan, and W. S. Gilbert: The Pain that Was All but a Pleasure,” in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXIX, No. 3, July, 1972, pp. 369-87.

[In the following essay, Jenkins identifies Buchanan as the model for Archibald Grosvenor in Gilbert & Sullivan's Patience.]

The middle-aged spinster as an object of ridicule in the Gilbert and Sullivan operas has been the subject of much inconclusive controversy. Many commentators have interpreted Gilbert's frequent use of the “old maid” joke as indicating a streak of cruelty in his character; the word “sadism” has been specifically applied.1 However, at the very worst, Gilbert was...

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John A. Cassidy (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “The Victorian Novelist,” in Robert W. Buchanan, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1973, pp. 137-49

[In the following essay, Cassidy surveys major themes in Buchanan's novels.]

As a novelist, Buchanan displays the same extraordinary productivity we have seen in his poems and plays. In the twenty-four years, beginning in 1876 and ending in 1900, he published twenty-five full-length novels, or better than one a year. These figures tell once again the story of writing too rapidly and too much, and they result from the same combination of unfortunate circumstances that plagued Buchanan throughout his career. He was forced into novel-writing by his ever increasing need...

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Further Reading


Blodgett, Harold. “Whitman and Buchanan.” American Literature 2 (1930-31): 131-40.

Traces Buchanan's enthusiastic critical endorsement of Walt Whitman.

Purcell, E. Review of The Martyrdom of Madeline, by Robert Buchanan. The Academy 21, No. 528 (17 June 1882): 428-29.

Notes numerous weaknesses in the novel, chiefly discussing implausible characters and plot details.

Review of London Poems, by Robert Buchanan. The Spectator, 39, No. 1,987 (28 July 1866): 832-34.

Favorable assessment locating Buchanan's particular strength in “the union of...

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