26 OCTOBER 1867, Page 17


MR. BUCHANAN'S NEW POEMS.* Tars book, by its ornamental appearance, excellent engravings, and somewhat premature birth—it is dated 1868—would seem to • be one of the candidates for the favour of Christmas and New Year givers of gifts. It is, however, something much more than this, a book full of genius of no mean order ; and, good as the engravings are,—some of them are really of striking excellence,— we cannot help regretting that it has appeared for the first time in a form in which the lovers of poetry for its own sake will never like to keep it. In the first place, illustrations and gift-book paper make it heavy, and a book that men are to love should be light and easily held in the hand. Then the show and glitter of the pictorial art and its belongings distract the mind from the field of true poetry. Illustrations of poetry should, we hold, be published

North Coast, and other Poems. By Robert Buchanan. With Illustrations by the Messrs. Dalziel, Wok', Houghton, Pinweh, Zwecker, and Small. Eligravel by the Brotte.s Dadziet. Loudon; Rootlelr. 1818. separately, and not interleaved with the verses they illustrate. Painting and poetry are so distinct that the state of mind in which you study the poet will scarcely mingle at all with the state of mind in which you study the painter. We do not even want to see with anything but "the mind's eye," Mephisto- pheles and Faust riding their black horses past the swinging gallows on the barren heath at the same time at which we read Goethe's eerie scene between them as they dimly hurry past. The poetic continuity of the poem is broken by the pictorial study, not in- tensified. But whether illustrations should be put beside the poetry they illustrate or not, they should at least be delayed till the poetic beauty of a work of genius has been separately appre- hended and mastered. No true lover of poetry ever kept the poets he loved in an illustrated edition for familiar use, and yet he loves to keep for familiar use the very edition in which he first made acquaintance with a new and fine poem. Illustrated and gorgeously got up poems are for drawing-room tables (if for any place), not for the shelf where we store the links of our truest intellectual delights.

However, though we would far rather have had these poems of Mr. Buchanan's, at least for the first time, without these often very beautiful, and, in one or two cases at least, very powerful engrav- ings, and for all times without the heavy red and gold blazonry on the back in which Christmas books are accustomed to appear, we must say at once that there is nothing whatever of the nature of tinsel, or of the gift-book-annual character, about the poems in- side. They contain, we think, Mr. Buchanan's most powerful work, and there is a variety about the power they show which is a sign of great strength and genuiueneas in the genius which has produced them. The art is of the simplest kind ; there is no great wealth of words, no profusion of metaphor, and at times even a baroness about the form which verges upon nakedness. The music, such as there is, is in the movement of the thought, and not in the ringing beauty of the words. But there is in the volume the truest pathos, a most dramatic humour, a high spiritual imagination, and a mood of brooding, mystic feeling, perfectly original and curiously thrilling of its kind. Of the poetic worth of the poems of this last kind, the " mystic " poems after the Celtic school, which stand last in the volume, it would be presuming to speak certainly till they have been tried by the test of time,—that is, by the test of many moods and many readers. Our first impression of them is of a singular charm, but we are well aware that poems so remote from the stir of ordinary human life sometimes exert their greatest fascination at first, and afterwards lose their hold over us. Butof the poetic depth and durable fame of such poems as "Meg Blane," or of the "Ballad-Maker," or the English and the Scottish Eclogues, we cannot feel a doubt. At every reading they grow upon the heart of the reader. There is a union in them of vivid homeliness of eye, and of depth of spiritual insight, which satisfies the double passion for both the outward and the inward realism, the realism of the senses and the realism of the spirit. The shell of outward things is painted with all the homely signs which endear it most to us, but the starlike flashes of the mind are given too. There is a bitterness indeed in some of the poems, —especially in the very striking but offensive piece of cynical imagination called the "Saint's Story,"—which approaches Mr. Browning's most savage satire somewhat too closely, and a tone of spiritual hopelessness in two of those we have named, the English and Scottish Eclogues, which strike painfully upon one. But no one can deny that even this bitterness, except in the cynical "Saint's Story," never exceeds that of one of the most characteristic and truthful moods of modern feeling on matters of faith,—one of those moods which, though not the highest, though it misses the fulness of divine light, expresses most powerfully the fulness of yearning for that light,—crying out against the depth of shadow in which the truest natures so often find themselves enveloped.

But there is none of this bitterness in "Meg Blane." There we have a lyrical ballad of the saddest kind, darkening into the deepest gloom, and yet a transparency with light behind, in which there is a perfect delineation of the mysterious darkness of the saddest of human destinies with a "silver lining" of inner light such as leaves no dullness of despair on the picture, and fills the imagina-. don with a gladness of its own as the melancholy story ends. We know nowhere so fine a poetic success in picturing a fate almost irredeemably sad, sad without anyattempt to "vindicate," as we idly say, the divine purposewhich sends human anguish, and without any pretence of spiritual discipline attained through sadness,—saddest, indeed, because the faith of the sufferer dwindles to the last and almost expires in apathy,—and yet a fate which is so pictured as to make the reader see a visionary light behind this deepen- ing gloom, giving the story a beauty and a glory in our eyes which we cannot indeed explain or interpret, but which is

utterly inconsistent with the mood of scepticism and cynical des- pair. Though, as with many a tragedy in this world, the gloom grows regularly deeper to the close, though Meg Blane herself loses heart and faith and fades away from sheer inability to meet the strain of life when once her most cherished hope is extin- guished, though, again, her big, witless son survives her only to moan himself into the grave beside her, yet so subtle is the poet's art that no one can read the poem without feeling a deeper spiritual light in the mystery of this darkness than in most of the common narratives of faith growing into perfect serenity beneath the heavy band of God. Without the slightest attempt to discover a purpose in the apathy of the mother or the helpless sympathy of the witless son, the poet makes you feel, by the mere latent glow of his own intensity of feeling, that the dark lines of destiny converge to some bright point beyond. There is nothing harrowing in the poem, in spite of its ever deepening gloom. The spirit glows through it, so that the infinite pity of God seems to blend with every touch of deepening pathos.

Meg Blane's idiot son, a witless, bearded man, very finely por- trayed, is a natural son. She herself has never seen his father since this son's birth, and lives in a perpetual dream of longing for his return, supporting herself and her son meanwhile by her herring boat. A ship is wrecked on the coast, and the only sailor saved is the father of her son, for whose fulfilment of his promise to marry her, Meg still fervently hopes. He has forgotten her and been married for years. The poem is lovely enough up to this point, but it is after the crisis that the greatest power comes out. Nothing can be finer than the verses which depict the void left in Meg's heart, when the dream of twenty years is destroyed :— " Lord, with how small a thing

Thou canst prop up the heart against the grave ! A little glimmering

Is all we crave ;

Tho coming of a love That bath no being ; The thin point of a little star above, Flashing and fleeing, Contents our seeing.

The house that never will be built ; the gold That never will be told ; The task we leave undone when we are cold ; Tho dear face that returns not, but is lying, Licked by the leopard, in an Indian cave; The coming rest that cometh not, till, sighing, Wo turn our weary oyes upon the grave.

• And, Lord, how should we dare Thither in peace to fall,

But for a feeble glimmering even there— Falsest, perchance, of all ?

We are as children in Thy hands indeed, And Thou hest easy comfort for our need,— The shining of a lamp, the tinkling of a boll, Content us well.

" And even when Thou bringest to our eyes A little thing, to show its worthlessness, Anon we see another thing arise, And we aro comforted in our distress ; And, waiting on, we watch it glittering, Till in its turn it is a worthless thing ; And even as we weep Another rises, and we smile again ; Till, wearied out with watching on in vain, We fall to sleep.

4' And often one poor light that looks divine

Is all one soul seeketh along the ground; There are no more to shine When that one thing is found.

If it be worthless, then what shall suffice ?

The lean hand grips a speck that was a spark, The heart is turned to ice, And all the world is dark.

Hard are Thy ways when that one thing is brought Close, touched, and proven nought. Far off it is a mighty spell, and strong To help a life along.

Buts lo ! it darkens hitherward, and now Droppeth, a rayless stone, upon the sod.—

The world is lost : perchance not even Thou Survivest it, Lord God!

"In poverty, in pain, For weary years and long, One hope, one fear, had comforted Meg Blain, Yea, made her brave and strong ; A hope so faint, it seemed not hope at all, But a sweet trouble and a dreamy fear, A hearkening for a voice, a soft footfall, She never hoped in sober heart to hear : This had been all her cheer; And with this balm Her soul might have kept calm For many another year.

In terror and in desolation, she Had been sustained, And never felt abandoned utterly While that remained. Lord, in how small and poor a space can hide The motives of our terror and our pride, The clue unto the fortunate man's distress, The secret of the hero's fearlessness!

What had sustained this woman on the sea When strong men turned to flee ?

Not courage, not despair, Not pride, not household care, Not faith in Thee !

Nought but a hungry instinct blind and dim— A fear, a nameless pain'

A dreamy wish to gaze again on him She never wholly hoped to see again."

This is poetry of no common order, and yet it is far finer—as it ought to be—in the context of this most powerful lyrical tale, than it can appear as we extract it. It needs the picture of Meg Blane's hard sea-wife's courage before the blow,—of her longing, and hopeful longing, to see the father of her witless son once more, and to be remembered and owned by him,—of the keenness of the first blow, and the wearing off of the first pain, to give this delineation of her lapse into weakness and apathy its full meaning and power. We must quote also the verses in which Meg expresses to her idiot son her fears for him when she is gone. There are few verses of truer pathos in the poetry of this generation :—

" 0 bairn, when I am dead,

How shall yo keep free harm ? What hand will gie yo bread ? Whit fire will keep ye warm ?

How shall ye dwell on earth awa' frae me?' 0 mither, diuna doe !'

0 bairn, by night or day I hear nae sounds ava', But voices o' winds that blew, And the voices o' gliaista that say I must awn'.

The Lord that made the wind, and made the sea, Is hard on my bairn and me, And I melt in His breath like snaw.'— ' 0 mither, dinna dee !'

" 0 bairn, it is but elosing up the eon, And lying down never to rise again. Many a strong man's sleeping hae I seen,— There is use pain !

I'm weary, weary, and I konna why ; My summer has gone by,

And sweet were sleep, but for the sake o' thee.'— '0 mither, dinna dee!' "

The "Ballad Singer" is a poem of less power and of less depth of conception, but of exquisite pathos in the same vein of feeling, but we must pass it by. "Northern Wooing," a Hallowe'en story, is a much lighter piece, exceedingly graceful in its own fashion,—that of a homely idyl of Scotch life. It is light and true, and full of living pictures. Of the lyrical narratives, "'The Exiles of Oona " and the "Ballad of the Stork" are the only ones which have not, as far as we can see, any great power or merit. The Scottish and English Eclogues are perfect after their kind, which is no common kind ;—the only defect in either of them being that the noble verse in the "English Eclogue" in which the Eng- lish rustic criticizes the poor dead Methodist's religious fanaticism, is all but dramatically impossible in that rustic's mouth. It is the poet's own criticism, and not Timothy's. Holy Tommy was an English farm labourer whose bead was turned by Methodism, who lost his expertness as a labourer in dreaming of his faith, and after leaving his employment mooned himself to death with fretting over the enigma which lost him this world and did not seem to open to him the next. His fate is the subject of a discussion between two farmers, and this is the concluding judgment of one of them :—


"His head was gone, that's clear enough—the chapel sot it turning.


"Now, this is how I look at it, although I have no learning: In this hero world, to do like him is nothing but sell-slaughter,- He went close to the edge o' life, and heard a roar like water, His head went round, his face grew pale, his blood lost life and motion,- 'Twas just as vi'lets lose their scent when set beside the ocean. But there's the parson riding up, with Dr. Barth, his crony ; Some of these days the parson's weight will kill that blessed pony ! Ah, he's the matt to settle things that make the wits unsteady ! Wife, here's the parson ! Draw some ale, and set the table ready."

Those first lines can't be dramatic. Mr. Buchanan, and not Timothy, thought,

"He went close to the edge o' life and heard a roar like water."

But the lines are exceedingly fine, and the one which compares Tommy's loss of living power in consequence, to the loss of fragrance which violets suffer near the sea is one of the finest images in modern poetry.

Mr. Buchanan's less realistic poetry is, as we have said, harder to judge than his spiritualized ballads of homely life. But the principal piece among his "Celtic Mystics" is singularly original in conception, and seems to us of a very high imaginative power. It is a vision of what life would be if death were not accompanied by any of the mortal accidents of a corruptible body. He first sup- poses the anguish of corruption to weigh so deeply upon a mourner that in his sleep he sees a vision of the earth with the physical side of death abolished. Men no longer sicken and die, but "vanish upon God" when His spirit calls them, leaving no mortal trace behind, no pale corpse, no funeral preparations, no quiet graves. The idea is exquisitely worked out, and it is very finely shown how the physical accidents of death assuage instead of embittering the agony inseparable from it. It is written after the Ossianic style of art, but has scarcely any of the false notes of that school. Take this as a specimen :—

"And, behold ! I saw a woman in a mud-hut,

Raking the white spent embers with her fingers, And fouling her bright hair with the white ashes ; "And her mouth was very bitter with the ashes ; Her eyes with dust were blinded ; and her sorrow Sobbed in the throat of her like gurgling water.

"And all around the voiceless hills were hoary, And a red light scorched their edges ; and above her There was a soundless trouble of the cloud-reek.

"'Whither, and, oh, whither,' said the woman,

'0 Spirit of the Lord, best thou convoyed them—

My little ones, any little son and daughter ?

"'For, lo! we wandered forth at early morning, And winds were blowing round us, and their mouths Blew rose-buds to the rose-buds, and their eyes "'Looked violets at the violets, and their hair Made a sunshine in the sunshine, and their passing Left a pleasure in the dewy leaves behind them ; "'And suddenly my little son looked upward, And his eyes were dried like dew-drops ; and his going Was like a blow of fire upon my face.

"'And my little son was gone. My little daughter Looked round me for him, clinging to my vesture, But the Lord had blown him from me, and I knew it "'By the sign He gives the stricken that the lost one Lingers nowhere on the earth on hill or valley, Neither underneath the grasses or the tree-root.

" ' And my shriek was like the splitting of an ice-reef, And I sank among my hair, and all my palm Was moist and warm where the little hand had filled it.

"'Then I fled and sought him wildly hither—thither-

Though I knew that he was stricken from me wholly By the token that the spirit gives the stricken.

"'I sought him in the sunlight and the starlight, I sought him in the forests, and in waters Whore I saw mine own pale image looking at me.

"'And I forgot any little bright-haired daughter, Though her voice was like a wild bird far behind me, Till the voice ceased, and the universe was silent. And stilly, in the starlight, came I backward To the forest where I missed him; and no voices Brake tho stillness as I stooped down in the starlight, "'And saw two little shoos filled up with dew, And no mark of little footsteps any farther, And knew my little daughter had gone also.'"

The anguish of desolation expressed in the last verse seems to us in the highest style of the mystic school. Perhaps, logically speak- ing, there should be no earthly trace of the lost, not even the "two little shoes filled up with dew," to take the place of the mortal

body. But the emotion which this one pathetic vestige of the child's earthly life excites heightens the whole art of the poem, by bridging, as it were, the transition between the absolute loss of all trace of the body, and the schooling through which the heart goes in death as we know it.

The book has singularly little poetical mannerism in it. Now and then, indeed, there are phrases, like the use of " ghastly " as as an active verb "to ghastly," and the sentimental phrase,

"The man's heart hungered out unto the staindd,"

which fret and repel the reader. But we know but few poets so free from mannerisms of this class. We do not doubt that this book will greatly raise Mr. Buchanan's reputation as an original poet of high imaginative power and a singularly pure art.