Robert Buchanan Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.