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Robert Williams Buchanan, poet, novelist, critic, and playwright, was born at Caverswall, Staffordshire, 18th August, 1841, the son of Robert Buchanan, a poor journeyman tailor of Ayrshire, himself a poet and an author.
The life of the elder Buchanan was unconventional, and makes very interesting reading. Attracted by the teaching of the iconoclastic Robert Owen, he became a Socialist lecturer, and one of that reformer's most valued missionaries. He made a romantic marriage with Margaret Williams, the daughter of "Lawyer Williams" (as he was known throughout the Staffordshire Midlands), of Stoke-upon-Trent.
The Buchanans eventually got to Glasgow, where the disciple of Robert Owen became a prosperous newspaper proprietor; and his son, the idol of his mother's heart, received a good education.
The boy was sent to Glasgow High School and afterwards to the University, where his closest friend was David Gray, one of Scotland's little known minor poets. When young Robert was about nineteen his father's business suddenly came to grief, and the son had to look about him for some means of earning his own livelihood. He unhesitatingly resolved, having already published one or two little poems, to try the thorny paths of literature.
In 1860, much against the advice of his family, Buchanan and his friend Gray set out for London; but gloom and poverty dogged the steps of the two would-be poets, and recognition came all too late for the latter, who passed away of consumption with the closing hours of the year 1861.
The struggle, though brief, had been a severe one; and the friendship of Gray and Buchanan during this period of their early manhood is one of the most beautiful and touching episodes in the history of modern literature. In later life, Gray's place in Buchanan's affection was taken by the Hon. Roden Noel, poet and critic.
With all the leading lights of the Victorian age of letters, Robert Buchanan soon became well acquainted, if not always happily known. His entrance into the Bohemian life of London was made through the introduction of Dr. Westland Marston, the dramatic poet, in whose house at Primrose Hill he met stage celebrities like Hermann Vezin and Adelaide Neilson, H. G. Wills, the playwright, and Dinah Muloch, the authoress of "John Halifax, Gentleman." The last-named, some years his senior, carried him off to her cottage on Hampstead Heath, instilled into his mind the idea that he would become a great man, and in encouragement of the aspiration, placed her small library at his disposal.
Fame and fortune, however, were slow to find the young aspirant. About this time he struck up an acquaintance with Charles Gibbon, with whom he shared the tenancy of a poverty-stricken garret, where the two industriously produced a number of magazine articles which usually found acceptance, if they did not bring much grist to the mill. One day, tired of the awful struggle for bread, Buchanan announced his determination to win instant and certain immortality by killing a publisher. He produced a stout cudgel, and before starting out for the office of Mr. John Maxwell, who then owned "Temple Bar" and the "St. James's Magazine," thus addressed his companion in wretchedness — "I am going to see Maxwell — I will see him, and if be is offensive as usual, I will beat out what brains the ruffian possesses, and offer him up as a sacrifice to the Muses."
Buchanan is said to have meant this seriously; but as it happened, Mr. Maxwell received the young author affably, bought his manuscript, and handed him his little cheque.
Soon after this incident Maxwell gave Buchanan the editorship of one of his publications, "The Welcome Guest;" here he made the acquaintance of the popular novelist, Miss Braddon, who subsequently became the wife of Maxwell.
Though his acquaintances were many, his friends were but few. The one he took closest to his heart was Thomas Love Peacock, the friend of Shelley, to be near whom he took lodgings at Chertsey. Here the monotony of life was occasionally varied by a little boating, in company with Peacock, and the latter's special pet, Clara Leigh Hunt, a bright-eyed girl of fifteen. Under this genial influence Buchanan wrote many of his pseudo-classic poems, which were afterwards collected in his first volume of "Undertones," the publication of which secured for him at one bound the coveted name of poet.
It is interesting at the present moment to notice that one of Buchanan's early works, "The Book of Orm," published in 1870, has recently been adapted by Dr. F. H. Cowen to form the libretto of his new composition for the Cardiff musical festival. The poem is the outcome of the state of mind expressed in the lines:
A hunger for the wherefore of my being;
A wonder from what regions I had fallen;
I gladdened to the glad things of the world:
Yet crying always: Wherefore and oh wherefore?
What am I? Wherefore doth the world seem happy?
The poet takes the name "Orm" as signifying the human race, and the poem is animated by the belief in a personal immortality that filled Buchanan at that time; and it carries out his ideas that an eternal happiness hereafter should reward man for the sufferings he undergoes in this world. In the eerie style usual to him, it tells of the fate of him who denies and resists God; but who, cast into the outside gloom, can be won to grace again by the love of the woman who bore him and of the woman who bore his children. Thus the "Book of Orm" ends with the spirit of human love more fully vindicated than anything else, and the many other great questions left unsolved.
Dr. Cowen's work on the subject is entitled "The Veil," and is undoubtedly that composer's masterpiece. It achieved an unqualified success on its production (1910), and would no doubt have delighted Buchanan's heart could he have lived to hear it.
To resume. Struggling on doggedly through the strident sixties, each succeeding year extended the circle of the young aspirant's acquaintance, which already included Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Edmund Yates.
Whether Robert Buchanan had made a study of "the gentle art of making enemies" or not, his reminiscences give several striking illustrations of the supersensitiveness of the artistic temperament, and, the frequency of literary quarrels.
He tells of Thackeray having Yates expelled from the Garrick Club for the contemptibly trivial offence of making allusion, in his journalistic gossip, to his (Thackeray's) unshapely nose. He relates with contemptuous amusement how George Eliot posed almost as a goddess, to whom her husband, George Henry Lewes, acted as showman, and whom no one was allowed to approach except with reverence, fear, and bated breath. He quotes Leigh Hunt as his authority for the assertion that even the great Browning was greedy of praise.
In the story of literary animosities, nothing perhaps exceeds the bitterness of Buchanan's own experience. One of his articles contributed to the Contemporary Review of October, 1871, under the pseudonym of "Thomas Maitland," on "The Fleshly School of Poetry," earned an unhappy notoriety. The writer was severely taken to task for his bitter, if merited, attack on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Swinburne, and the rest of the "school" The attack was undoubtedly violent; yet it may not have been entirely without justification. It appears that some little time before it was penned, Swinburne had gone out of his way to print, in a note to one of his prose essays, an insulting allusion to David Gray, the friend of Buchanan's boyhood. The rage and indignation which boiled up in Buchanan's loyal heart may be imagined. After showing the spiteful note to Lord Houghton, who had been a friend and helper of poor David Gray, he vowed his vengeance; and "The Fleshly School of Poetry" was the result. "It was a torrent of invective which for destructive power has no equal in the whole range of English literature." Its effectiveness was as deadly as it was immediate. Before that trenchant blow the coterie collapsed like a house of cards; but from that day forth its members never forgave Robert Buchanan, and did everything in their power to prevent him from making a literary name.
That he suffered from wilful misconstruction and deliberate persecution more than most men is certain; but, on the other hand, Buchanan knew that he could wield the literary bludgeon more effectively than any of his contemporaries, and he sometimes took a fierce pleasure in displaying his prowess. Toward the close of his stormy career, for instance, he made a savage onslaught upon Mr. Rudyard Kipling, in whose defence Sir Walter Besant took up a more generous pen.
It is gratifying, after all, to know that no ill-natured attempt at repression could keep Buchanan out of his rightful inheritance; he attained to the very foremost rank in the kingdom of letters.
Between 1863 and 1900 he poured out volumes of verse, though he declared that he could never do anything unless he "felt the afflatus." Physically he was not so robust as he appeared to be; he suffered from a weak chest, to which often was added the distracting pain of neuralgia.
It was not till be had passed his fortieth birthday that he obtained any real success on the stage. The state of his health precluded his making himself thoroughly familiar with stage-craft. His first play was "The Witchfinder"; then hisİ "Madcap Prince" was produced in 1876, at the Haymarket Theatre, by J. B. Buckstone. At last "Stormbeaten," a dramatised version of his novel, "God and the Man," brought him an adequate money reward. But it was the production of "Sophia" at the Vaudeville Theatre which was the real beginning of his dramatic success. Other happy theatrical experiences were afterwards associated with his "Joseph's Sweetheart," and "A Man's Shadow."
For four years he collaborated with Mr. George R. Sims in the production of such melodramatic plays as the "The English Rose" and "The Trumpet Call."
With all this hard work and prolific output, Robert Buchanan never became one penny the richer. He was always given to reckless speculation; but it was the signal failure of a play, entitled "A Society Butterfly," written for Mrs. Langtry, which precipitated his bankruptcy.
In 1869 he had, in imitation of Charles Dickens, given public readings; but though they were successful the strain upon his constitution was too great, and the first great breakdown in his health occurred. From this severe attack he was nursed slowly back to strength again by his brave and beautiful young wife; and his genius was recognised by Mr. W. E. Gladstone, through whose efforts he was granted a pension of £100 a year, which he received to the day of his death.
His plays and novels subsequently brought him a large income, and he might have become a wealthy man had he been careful. But he was of luxurious habits; he was foolishly given to speculation; and he was ever most generous in extending a helping hand to his poorer brethren of the pen. The result was inevitable, especially as his wife was equally thriftless — she was a sister of Miss Harriet Jay, who afterwards wrote his biography. And, as she puts it, "they just muddled through life."
In 1899 Robert Buchanan exhibited marked symptoms of heart disease, and in the October of the following year he was struck down by paralysis. For eight weary months he lingered on, in considerable suffering, finally passing away on June 10th, 1901. The poet's last cry was the beautiful one of an expectant hope —
Forget me not, but come, O King,
And find me softly slumbering
In dark and troubled dreams of Thee.
Then, with one waft of Thy bright wing,
Hackwood, Frederick Wm. Staffordshire Worthies. Stafford: "Chronicle" Press, 1911.
Last modified 26 September 2002