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than immediate reputation, and, finally, a monument in Westminster Abbey, but who, poor fellow, soon died, leaving his unpublished verse to the tender care of Lord Houghton, Mr.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...
(The entire section is 2043 words.)