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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mr. Robert Buchanan as a Diabolist
The Speaker, May 4, 1901

Robert Buchanan: The Poet of Modern Revolt. By A. Stodard-Walker. London: Grand Richards. 6s

It is a very dangerous and even destructive thing to have a large supply of righteous indignation. Having a large supply of unrighteous indignation hurts nobody; it is merely a series of human interludes. But righteous indignation possesses the whole man, and that way madness lies, particularly when the man has a surplus stock of ideal passion, and nobody in particular to work it off upon. This one essentially noble frailty is the chief of the difficulties of Mr. Robert Buchanan, a study of whose distinguished poetical career now lies before us. He has constantly been led by a mere inward prompting for battle, and struck out powerfully right and left at his contemporaries, often without disagreeing with them, and always without listening to them. This would matter little, for it is only one phase of an otherwise humane man, but that the author of the sketch of Mr. Buchanan now under our consideration selects this ferocious aspect of the matter for special study, and calls his book "Robert Buchanan: The Poet of Modern Revolt."

Now, this resounding title does not impress us by any means. It may be questioned whether poets, as a class, are the better for being poets of revolt, or whether, as a class, they ever are poets of revolt. Poets sing of the common and therefore of the ancient things. Even where they do celebrate a kind of revolt, their revolt is commonly rather a reaction. They are a kind of Legitimists; when they rebel against the very stones of the street it is commonly in the interest of the rightful dynasty of trees. Few poets have ever rebelled against the oldest things; few have ever criticised the colour of the grass or the pattern of the stars, and Mr. Buchanan would certainly be the very last to do this. His mind is of the loyal type essentially; he defends the elementary charities against a mushroom crop of kings and priests. To call him a poet of revolt is simply to state his philosophy in negative instead of positive terms. Nor is there anything intellectually creditable in being in a constant condition of revolt. A thinker who calls himself simply a revolutionist is as foolish as a surgeon who should call himself an  "amputationist": it can mean nothing except an enduring mania for extreme measures. But Mr. Stodart-Walker has chosen to treat Mr. Buchanan from this, as it seems to us, frivolous and pugnacious point of view, and it is necessary for us to follow him.

The idea that the glory of Mr. Buchanan consists in being in "revolt," is most strongly and completely expressed in the chapter called "The Devil," which is devoted to the study of Mr. Buchanan's poem entitled "The Devil's Case." We are used nowadays to sombrely sympathetic studies of Satan, and are perhaps inclined to ask for a little more devilry in our devils. We ourselves doubt very much whether the Devil is as white as he is painted. But literature has never seen so thoroughly impeccable a fiend as Mr. Buchanan's, who is described as a "spirit of pity" leading men to light and knowledge, praising Christ for his tenderness and helping the weak and humble. This certainly impresses us, not as revolt, but as the most aimless sort of sentimentalism. To justify Satan against the saints by making him saintly seems to have no intellectual significance whatever. And we lose patience altogether when Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Stodart-Walker openly vaunt their emasculated Arimanes over the sublime lost spirits of Milton and Goethe. This is what Mr. Buchanan, in one of his worst moments, we suppose, says about the conception of Mephistopheles in "Faust":
"Goethe's Mephisto is as crude a conception as even the Scotch 'De'il,' mere intellect without heart, whereas I hold that intellect implies heart and true knowledge holiness. Goethe's typical woman, e.g., Marguerite, is a fool. . .'My' Devil would have saved her; Goethe's monkey-devil destroys her easily. Goethe, in fact, took the vulgar view held by every parson. Hence the vogue of his poem."
To the dim and rambling mind of Goethe it never occurred, we conceive, that the object of a devil was to save people. Goethe had uncommonly little respect for that amateurish "spirit of revolt" which can tolerate an angel perfectly so long as he is called a devil. His object in describing Mephisto was not to gain the boyish delights of a Devil-worshipper, but to give a high and philosophic version of what he conceived to be actually the evil and baffling element in things. And this was the object of all the great poets who have dealt with the Devil in literature, and whose various performances Mr. Stodart-Walker passes in lofty and disdainful review. Milton, for instance, asked himself the question, "What force can be conceived as really fighting against and often frustrating the normal health and order of things?" His answer was that Will, or the deification of Will, was such a force: that the Devil was the personal unit who would not be reconciled or assimilated or destroyed or even forgiven. To Milton, as to many modern Socialists, the Devil was the Individual. Then came Goethe and asked the same question, but gave a different answer. The Will, he said in effect, was essentially right in its tendency: but the utterly sterile and uncelestial element in things was the cold and cruel intellect, which seems to itself to see everything from heaven to hell, but cannot even see the heart of man. Both these devils are real devils, for they are forces broken loose and blindly fighting against good. But Mr. Buchanan's devil is nothing at all but a sort of shadowy Christ. To say that "intellect implies heart" is merely to take refuge in vague words. It is painfully like "the vulgar view held by every parson."

But in truth Mr. Robert Buchanan is not what Mr. Stodart-Walker designates him, a poet of revolt, but something very much better. In some cases he has even carried conservatism too far, as in the case of "The Fleshly School," in which he treated other poets of revolt as purely revolting. But from Mr. Stodart-Walker's book alone could be deduced a sufficient mass of evidence to show that Mr. Buchanan's genius is, at its best, as cheerful a champion of the beaten paths as that of Aristophanes or Mr. Anstey. The beautiful poem which deals with the sorrows of the Virgin Mary is profoundly conservative, and only has the appearance of theological audacity because motherhood is a much older thing than Christianity. Mr. Buchanan shows his bitter and abiding Toryism in the quatrains about contemporary writers which Mr. Stodart-Walker quotes
"There's Ibsen puckering up his lips,
Squirming at Nature and Society;
Drawing with tingling finger-tips
The clothes off naked Impropriety.
This is entirely unworthy of Mr. Buchanan; in fact, we have a suspicion, in reading it, that he has never read any Ibsen. Ibsen has many defects; in some moods we would give all his clear and callous criticisms for one featherheaded song by Mr. Buchanan. But the theory of Ibsen's indelicacy of language is an entire invention of the Daily Telegraph. There is not, so far as we can remember, one sentence in the whole of Ibsen which approaches to the coarseness of the above four lines.
But whether this note on the great Norwegian be justifiable or no, no one can question the reactionary sentiment, the almost rich antiquity, of the mental attitude. The truth is that Mr. Buchanan has made one of the few mistakes of his life in attempting to be blasphemous and novel. It does not come from his heart, which is emphatically in the right place. Swinburne could do this sort of thing, because he had really "wearied of sorrow and joy" at a certain period: Mr. Buchanan is no more weary of sorrow and joy than when he was a boy catching butterflies. There will always be those who really are what Mr. Stodart-Walker would call "poets of revolt." It is the chief aim of most of us to adapt ourselves to the universe; there will always be a certain number of persons who spend an exciting, if brief, career in endeavouring to adapt the universe to themselves. But Mr. Buchanan is not one of these pitiable irreconcileables. He has had his frenzies and his denunciations, and his storms in a tea-cup, but he is, at the end of all, a man with a clean and universal appetite. Purity would always touch him, if it were not legalised; sanity would be his motto if it were not the motto of the Philistines; Christianity would enrapture him if it had not succeeded. Whatever may be his faults, he has nothing in common with that race of bloodless sensualists who sicken of the plain colours of earth and sky as a man might sicken after a heavy meal. The carnation in his button-hole is red.

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