MR. BUCIL1NAN'S LONDON POEMS.*
Mn. BUCHANAN is far more than a minor poet. The volume before us would seem to prove that there is scarcely any eminence, short of the very highest, in our poetic literature which he may not hope to reach. He has not shown as yet the highest order of lyrical genius nor the highest fertility of dramatic conception, but his peculiar province is the union of lyrical with dramatic con- ceptions so that he seems, to use a mathematical metaphor, to hit the locus of the points of intersection between the genius of Wordsworth and the genius of Browning. What Wordsworth called "the power of hills" is on him ; and he has not a little also of Wordsworth's power of conceiving a typical character in essence, or rather of painting its reflected image in another mind, as Wordsworth conceived Hartley Coleridge at three years of age, painted Coleridge himself in the lines written in Thomson's "Castle of Indolence," and delineated charac- ter in "Michael," and "The Happy Warrior," and many others. But while Wordsworth, led by his meditative genius, always painted the reflected image of others in himself, always holding up the same clear, deep, solitary intellectual mirror,—like the face of some mountain lake,—to the subject he was occupied with, Mr. Buchanan's method, though narrative, is more dramatic, more like that of Mr. Browning. He approaches his subjects at second hand through some other mind naturally related to the one he wishes to image, and delineates not, like Wordsworth, his own view,—which perhaps it would puzzle him to give,—but a view rendered distinct and determinate by the natural relations of the character he is studying to some other person, so that he is not
* London Poona. By,Hobert Buchsulan. London : Alexander Strohm'.
compelled as it were to have a view of his own, or meditations of his own, on the subject at all. Thus he combines many of the beauties of Wordsworth with something of the dramatic vivacity and realism of Mr. Browning ; and the glory of nature gives a sweet- ness, a melody, and melancholy to his verses, which is seldom or never to be found in Browning's shrewd, loquacious. " apologies" for all sorts of characters. The lyrical poet is far deeper and sweeter in Mr. Buchanan than in Mr. Browning. Nor is Mr. Buchanan so fond of argumentative and almost formally intellectual apologetic writings. For while Browning loves to make his Bishop Blogram, or his Fra Lippo Lippi, or even Caliban, defend himself, which is necessarily a shrewd, hard, self-love-showing process, Mr. Buchanan prefers to give only such apology for his charac- ters as the love of another very near and dear would natur- ally devise. By this means he manages to combine the definite, determinate, sharply drawn dramatic delineation of Mr. Brown- ing with a sweet sad note of yearning and of love that permits the introduction of an exquisite thread of lyrical beauty. Even when, as in one or two of ths poems, and perhaps the finest of them, the main subject of the poem is the emotion of the person supposed to be speaking, even then the emotion expressed is not self-respecting and therefore hard and argumentative, as generally with Browning, but is all centred on some external object of love and solicitude. Thus the two poems called " Liz " and "Neil," the finest perhaps in the volume, and in their way some of the finest poems of the present generation, are the expressions of the feelings of two poor London women, the one dying after the birth of her first child, born not in wedlock, but still in what the woman regarded as wedlock, with Joe, a costermonger,—the other such as the woman who lived with poor Wright (who was hanged for murder) might have spoken had he been hanged for the murder of some one other than herself, instead of, as it happened to be in that case, that she herself was the victim of his habit of drinking. We do not mean of course that either of these beauti- ful poems,—poems unique in their mixture of city-life realism with lyrical beauty,—could actually have been spoken by the women whom they delineate. "Art," as Mr. Buchanan says, with a somewhat different drift, in the very fine poem called "London, 1864," "works her end not by giving, but by cruelly taking away,"—and she has taken away accordingly from the bizarre language in which these poor creatures would probably have en- deavoured to clothe the thoughts that arose in them, all that hid, instead of really expressing, those thoughts, and left two poems such as we should not find it easy to match in any language for making us see
"Flowing beneath the blackness of the streets, The current of sublimer, sweeter life, Which is the source of human smiles and tears, And inelodized, becomes the strength of song."
There is nothing finer, as we have intimated, in these poems than the strength with which Mr. Buchanan combines what Wordsworth called "the power of hills" with " the power of cities." Those who feel the one often feel the other,—Wordsworth himself did so, as he showed in the exquisite sonnet written on Westminster Bridge, —but rarely indeed has the same man the faculty of giving voice to both. The great feature in the most striking of these poems which we have already named,—" Liz" and " Nell,"—is the force with which both of them express the peculiar and mighty attraction of a great city,—London most of all great cities,—for those who have become familiar with it. As the heart leaps up at the sight of "the old revisited mountains," so we will not say it always leaps up, —for sometimes it may cower down,—but it will always feel the strange spell of London after any considerable absence. This spell breathes through most of Mr. Buchanan's London Poems, and gives us that ground-swell of London that corresponds to the ground-swell of the sea which underlies the life of its waves. He expresses in his own person with great power this fascination of London in the fine opening stanzas dated Bexhill. He could not sing of London, he says, while London was still present with him. Then the roar of London sounded in his ears like the roar of the waves near his old Scotch home, and brought back the pictures of his native hills ; but when he settled quietly beside the Sussex sea, the life of London grew upon his imagination, and he expresses thus finely its effect :— " Hither to pastoral solitude I came, Happy to breathe again serener air And feel a purer sunshine ; and the woods And meadows were to me an ecstasy, The singing birds a glory, and the trees A green perpetual feast to fill the eye And shimmer in upon the soul ; but chief There came the murmur of the waters, sounds Of sunny tides that wash on silver sands,
Or cries of waves that anguish'd and went white Under the eyes of lightnings, 'Twas a bliss Beyond the bliss of dreaming, yet in time It grew familiar as my mother's face; And when the wonder and the ecstasy Had mingled with the beatings of my heart, The terrible City loom'd from far away And gathered on me cloudily, dropping dews, Even as those phantoms of departed days Had haunted me in London streets and lanes.
Wherefore in brighter mood I sought again To make the life of London musical, And sought the mirror of my soul for shapes That linger'd, faces bright or agonized, Yet ever taking something beautiful From glamour of green branches, and of clouds That glided piloted by golden airs.
"And if I list to sing of sad things oft, It is that sad, things in this life of breath Are truest, sweetest, deepest. Tears bring forth
The richness of our natures as the rain Sweetens the smelling brier ; and I, thank God ! Have anguish'd here in no ignoble tears— Tears for the pale friend with the singing lips, Tears for the father with the gentle eyes (My dearest up in heaven next to God) Who loved me like a woman. I have wrought No girlond of the rose and passion-flower, Grown in a careful garden in the sun ; But I have gather'd samphire dizzily, Close to the hollow roaring of a Sea."
The last two lines express, not only grandly, but we think truly, the powerful fascination which the great city exerted upon Mr. Buchanan's imagination. In the poem which, on the whole, we incline to think the finest of the volume, called "Liz,"—for, it borrows less from the fascination of a tragic sub- ject than the almost equally fine one called "Nell,"—he describes with a force that long haunts the imagination of those who read it the need for the stimulus of London which grows into the heart of a poor woman born and bred there, and who has lived from the first the life of the streets, and the awe with which the solitary splendour of Nature strikes upon her :— " For I was sick of hunger, cold, and strife,
And took a sudden fancy in my head To try the country, and to earn my bread Out among the fields, where I had heard one's life
Was easier and brighter. So, that day,
I took my basket up and stole away,
Just after sunrise. As I went along,
Trembling and loath to leave the busy place, I felt that I was doing something wrong, And fear'd to look policemen in the face.
And all was dim : the streets were gray and wet After a rainy night : and all was still; I held my shawl around me with a chill, And dropt my eyes from every face I met ; Until the streets began to fade, the road Grew fresh and clean and wide, Fine houses where the gentlefolk abode, And gardens full of flowers, on every side.
That made me walk and quicker—on, on, on—
As if I were asleep with half shut eyes.
And all at once I saw, to my surprise,
The houses of the gentlefolk were gone, And I was standing still, Shading my face, upon a high green hill; And the bright sun was blazing, And all the blue above me seem'd to melt To burning, flashing gold, while I was gazing
On the great smoky cloud where I had dwelt.
"I'll ne'er forget that day. All was so bright
And strange. Upon the grass around my feet The rain had hung a million drops of light ;
The air, too, was so clear and warm and sweet It seem'd a sin to breathe it. All around Were hills and fields and trees that trembled through A burning, blazing fire of gold and blue ; And there was not a sound, Save a bird singing, singing in the skies, And the soft wind, that ran along the ground, And blew full sweetly on my lips and eyes.
Then, with my heavy hand upon my chest, Because the bright air pain'd me, trembling, sighing„ I stole into a dewy field to rest.
And oh, the green, green grass where I was lying Was fresh and living-.--and the bird Bang loud, Out of a golden cloud— And I was looking up at him and crying !
"How swift the hours slipt on ! And by and by The sun grew red, big shadows fill'd the sky, The air grew damp with dew, And the dark night was coming down, I knew.
Well, I was more afraid than ever, then, And felt that I should die in such a place,— So back to London town I tarn'd my face,
And crept into the great black streets again ;
And when I breathed the smoke and heard the roar, Why, I was better, for in London here
My heart was busy, and I felt no fear.
I never saw the country any more.
And I have stafd in London, well or ill—
I would not stay oat yonder if I could,
For one feels dead, and all looks pure and good—
I could not bear a lif o so bright and still.
All that I want is sleep, Under the flags and stones, so deep, so deep! God won't be hard on one so mean, but He, Perhaps, will let a tired girl slumber sound There in the deep cold darkness under ground ; And I shall waken up in time, may be, Better and stronger, not afraid to soo The great, still Light that folds Him round and round!"
The poem from which this is taken was first published months ago in the pages of the Fortnightly Review, and it has grown upon us so much in memory that we are able to apply to it a severer test—the test of time—than to any quite new poem. The best critic that ever lived would not probably know exactly the com- parative value of new poems. For often that which takes hold of us most at first sight relaxes its hold gradually as we become more and more familiar with it, till at last it becomes poor, while that which but half impresses us at first grows like a seed in the imagination till it becomes one of the permanent shelters and beauties of our inner world. Both the poems which we recog- nize here as formerly published elsewhere have taken this hold upon us, and hence we feel leas doubt in asserting their poetic strength and value. "The Starling" is a poem of less imagina- tive body altogether, yet it is singularly fine of its kind. The clearness and singleness of its intention, — to express the sort of animal misanthropy which possesses sonic of the more wretched dwellers in great cities who feel, like a crippled bird in a grimy cage, some vague longing for the freer life they have lost, and who express their misery in a sort of hoarse vicious swearing which is rather selfish woe than malignity, — is not surpassed in any other of these London Poems. Perhaps we may venture to extract this much of it intelligibly without spoiling the whole :— -" A haggard and ruffled
Old fellow was Jack, With a grim face muffled In ragged black, And his coat was rusty And never neat, And his wings were dusty From the dismal street, And he sidelong peer'd, With eyes of soot too, And scowl'd and sneer'd,— And was lame of a foot tool And he long'd to go From whence he came ;- And the tailor, you know, Wm just the same.
All kinds of weather They felt confined, And swore together At all mankind; For their mirth was done,
There are poems which have little or no relation to London life amongst the London Poems, as, for example, that called -" Edward Crowhurst," and written on the fate of poor John Clare, which only just touches the literary life of great cities in its power to disenchant a rustic poet of his vision and faculty divine. But on the whole those which are most penetrated with London im- pressions, like those we have mentioned, and also "The Little Milli- ner," and "Artist and Model," seem to us the finest. The poem • on. John Clare, though beautiful, has a far less intense life, a far more straggling life,—like its subject,—than most of the others, and "Jane Lawson" in parts falls below the general level of Mr. Buchanan's poetry. "The Death of Roland," widely different in .style and subject as it is from the others, has a singalar grandeur of its own—grandeur of a weird, romantic sort. Another piece of t he kind furthest removed from the London Poems, called "The Gift of Eos," is a sort of supplement to Mr. Tennyson's Tithonus, a poetic defence for the immortality conferred on a mortal by his ambitious love of a goddess, against Mr. Tennyson's representation' of it as a boon of pure misery. The idea of the poem is concen- trated finely in the stanza which Mr. Buchanan extracts from it as a motto, but which is also much the finest stanza in the poem :— " Not in a mist of loveless eyes dies he
Who loveth truly nobler light than theirs ; To him, nor weariness nor agony, Purblind appeals, nor prayers ;
To him, the priceless boon To watch from heights divine till all be done :
Cahn in each dreamy rising of the Moon,
Glad in each glorious corning of the Sun."
We suspect that Mr. Buchanan wrote the poem in elaboration of this fine stanza, but if so he has scarcely written up to his own And they felt like brothers,
And the swearing of one Meant no more than the other's; 'Twas just a way
They had learn'd, you see,—
Each wanted to say
Only this= Woe's me!
I'm a poor old fellow,
And I'm prison'd so, While the sun shines mellow, And the corn waves yellow,
And the fresh winds blow,—
And the folk don't care If I live or die, But I long for air, And I wish to fly !'
Yet nnableto utter it, And too wild to boar, They could only mutter it, And swear."
motto for it. As a whole it does not satisfy the imagination excited by so fine an overture. Mr. Buchanan takes as his motto Goethe's fine lines :—
" Greift nur hinein in's voile Menschenleben! Ein jeder lebt's, nicht vielen ist's bekatuat, Und wo ihr's packt, da ist's interessant,"
—and nobly on the whole does he work out the idea so often reit- erated in our generation, so seldom successfully applied, at least in
poetry. No volume of poems has appeared for many years in Lon- don which so certainly announces a true poetic fame. Unquestion- ably the volume is a great advance on the Idyls of Inverburn, clear,
sweet, and beautiful as they were. We trust the splendour of the daylight may not be belied by the brilliant promise of the dawn.