Undertones and Idyls and Legends of Inverburn

by Robert Buchanan

MY first serious effort in literature was what I may call a double-barrelled one; in other words, I was seriously engaged upon two books at the same time, and it was by the merest accident that they did not appear simultaneously. As it was, only a few months divided one from the other, and they are always, in my own mind, inseparable, or Siamese, twins. The book of poems called 'Undertones' was the one; the book of poems called 'Idyls and Legends of Inverburn' was the other. They were published nearly thirty years ago, when I was still a boy, and as they happened to bring me into connection, more or less intimately, with some of the leading spirits of the age, a few notes concerning them may be of interest.

A word, first, as to my literary beginnings. I can scarcely remember the time when the idea of winning fame as an author had not occurred to me, and so I determined very early to adopt the literary profession, a determination which I unfortunately carried out, to my own life-long discomfort, and the annoyance of a large portion of the reading public. When a boy in Glasgow, I made the acquaintance of David Gray, who was fired with a similar ambition to fly incontinently to London—

The terrible City whose neglect is Death,
Whose smile is Fame!

and to take it by storm. It seemed so easy! 'Westminster Abbey,' wrote my friend to a correspondent; 'if I live, I shall be buried there—so help me God!' 'I mean, after Tennyson's death,' I myself wrote to Philip Hamerton, 'to be Poet Laureate!' From these samples of our callow speech, the modesty of our ambition may be inferred. Well, it all happened just as we planned, only otherwise! Through some blunder of arrangement we two started for London on the same day, but from different railway stations, and, until some weeks afterwards, one knew nothing of the other's exodus. I arrived at King's Cross Railway Station with the conventional half-crown in my pocket; literally and absolutely half-a-crown; I wandered about the Great City till I was weary, fell in with a Thief and Good Samaritan who sheltered me, starved and struggled with abundant happiness, and finally found myself located at 66 Stamford Street, Waterloo Bridge, in a top room, for which I paid, when I had the money, seven shillings a week. Here I lived royally, with Duke Humphrey, for many a day; and hither, one sad morning, I brought my poor friend Gray, whom I had discovered languishing somewhere in the Borough, and who was already death-struck through 'sleeping out' one night in Hyde Park. 'Westminster Abbey—if I live, I shall be buried there!' Poor country singing-bird, the great Dismal Cage of the Dead was not for him, thank God! He lies under the open Heaven, close to the little river which he immortalised in song. After a brief sojourn in the 'dear old ghastly bankrupt garret at No. 66,' he fluttered home to die.

To that old garret, in these days, came living men of letters who were of large and important interest to us poor cheepers from the North: Richard Monckton Milnes, Laurence Oliphant, Sydney Dobell, among others, who took a kindly interest in my dying comrade. But afterwards, when I was left to fight the battle alone, the place was solitary. Ever

drawing by Geo. Hutchinson
signed: Truly yours,
Robert Buchanan

reserved and independent, not to say 'dour' and opinionated, I made no friends, and cared for none. I had found a little work on the newspapers and magazines, just enough to keep body and soul alive, and while occupied with this I was busy on the literary twins to which I referred at the opening of this paper. What did my isolation matter, when I had all the gods of Greece for company, to say nothing of the fays and trolls of Scottish Fairyland? Pallas and Aphrodite haunted that old garret; out on Waterloo Bridge, night after night, I saw Selene and all her nymphs; and when my heart sank low, the fairies of Scotland sang me lullabies! It was a happy time. Sometimes, for a fortnight together, I never had a dinner—save, perhaps, on Sunday, when a good-natured Hebe would bring me covertly a slice from the landlord's joint. My favourite place of refreshment was the Caledonian Coffee House in Covent Garden. Here, for a few coppers, I could feast on coffee and muffins—muffins saturated with butter, and worthy of the gods! Then, issuing forth, full-fed, glowing, oleaginous, I would light my pipe, and wander out into the lighted streets.

Criticisms for the Athenæum, then edited by Hepworth Dixon, brought me ten-and-sixpence a column. I used to go to the old office in Wellington Street and have my contributions measured off on the current number with a foot-rule, by good old John Francis, the publisher. I wrote, too, for the Literary Gazette, where the pay was less princely—seven-and-sixpence a column, I think, but with all extracts deducted! The Gazette was then edited by John Morley, who came to the office daily with a big dog. 'I well remember the time when you, a boy, came to me, a boy, in Catherine Street,' wrote honest John to me years afterwards. But the neighbourhood of Covent Garden had greater wonders! Two or three times a week, walking, black bag in hand, from Charing Cross Station to the office of All the Year Round in Wellington Street, came the good, the only Dickens! From that good genie the poor straggler from Fairyland got solid help and sympathy. Few can realise now what Dickens was then to London. His humour filled its literature like broad sunlight; the Gospel of Plum-pudding warmed every poor devil in Bohemia.


At this time, I was (save the mark!) terribly in earnest, with a dogged determination to bow down to no graven literary idol, but to judge men of all ranks on their personal merits. I never had much reverence for gods of any sort; if the superior persons could not win me by love, I remained heretical. So it was a long time before I came close to any living souls, and all that time I was working away at my poems. Then, a little later, I used to go o' Sundays to the open house of Westland Marston, which was then a great haunt of literary Bohemians. Here I first met Dinah Muloch, the author of 'John Halifax,' who took a great fancy to me, used to carry me off to her little nest on Hampstead Heath, and lend me all her books. At Hampstead, too, I foregathered with Sydney Dobell, a strangely beautiful soul, with (what seemed to me then) very effeminate manners. Dobell's mouth was ever full of very pretty Latinity, for the most part Virgilian. He was fond of quoting, as an example of perfect expression, sound conveying absolute sense of the thing described, the doggrel lines—

Down the stairs the young missises ran
To have a look at Miss Kate's young man!

The sibilants in the first line, he thought, admirably suggested the idea of the young ladies slipping along the banisters and peeping into the hall!

But I had other friends, more helpful to me in preparing my first twin-offering to the Muses; the faces under the gas, the painted women on the bridge (how many a night have I walked up and down by their sides, and talked to them for hours together), the actors in the theatres, the ragged groups at the stage doors. London to me, then, was still Fairyland! Even in the Haymarket, with its babbles of nymph and satyr, there was wonderful life from midnight to dawn—deep sympathy with which told me that I was a born Pagan, and could never be really comfortable in any modern Temple of the Proprieties. On other points connected with that old life on the borders of Bohemia, I need not touch; it has all been so well done already by Murger, in the 'Vie de Bohème,' and it will not bear translation into contemporary English. There were cakes and ale, pipes and beer, and ginger was hot in the mouth too! Et ego fui in Bohemiâ! There were inky fellows and bouncing girls, then; now there are only fine ladies, and respectable, God-fearing men of letters.

It was while the twins were fashioning, that I went down in summer time to live at Chertsey on the Thames, chiefly in order to be near to one I had long admired, Thomas Love Peacock, the friend of Shelley and the author of 'Headlong Hall'—'Greekey Peekey,' as they called him, on account of his prodigious knowledge of things and books Hellenic. I soon grew to love the dear old man, and sat at his feet, like an obedient pupil, in his green old-fashioned garden at Lower Halliford. To him I first read some of my 'Undertones,' getting many a rap over the knuckles for my sacrilegious tampering with Divine Myths. What mercy could I expect from one who had never forgiven 'Johnny' Keats for his frightful perversion of the sacred mystery of Endymion and Selene? and who was horrified at the base 'modernism' of Shelley's 'Prometheus Unbound?' But to think of it! He had known Shelley, and all the rest of the demigods, and his speech was golden with memories of them all! Dear old Pagan, wonderful in his death as in his life. When, shortly before he died, his house caught fire, and the mild curate of the parish begged him to withdraw from the library of books he loved so well, he flatly refused to listen, and cried roundly, in a line of vehement blank verse, 'By the immortal gods, I will not stir!'

Under such auspices, and with all the ardour of youth to help, my Book, or Books, progressed. Meantime, I was breaking out into poetry in the magazines, and writing 'criticism' by the yard. At last the time came when I remembered another friend with whom I had corresponded, and whose advice I thought I might now ask with some confidence. This was George Henry Lewes, to whom, when I was a boy in Glasgow, I had sent a bundle of manuscript, with the blunt question, 'Am I, or am I not, a Poet?' To my delight he had replied to me with a qualified affirmative, saying that in the productions he had 'discerned a real faculty, and perhaps a future poet. I say perhaps,' he added, 'because I do not know your age, and because there are so many poetical blossoms which never come to fruit.' He had, furthermore, advised me 'to write as much as I felt impelled to write, but to publish nothing'—at any rate, for a couple of years. Three years had passed, and I had neither published anything—that is to say, in book form—nor had I had any further communication with my kind correspondent. To Lewes, then, I wrote, reminding him of our correspondence, telling him that I had waited, not two years, but three, and that I now felt inclined to face the public. I soon received an answer, the result of which was that I went, on Lewes's invitation, to the Priory, North Bank, Regent's Park, and met my friend and his partner, better known as 'George Eliot.'

But, as the novelists say, I am anticipating. Sick to death, David Gray had returned to the cottage of his father, the handloom weaver, at Kirkintilloch, and there had peacefully passed away, leaving as his legacy to the world the volume of beautiful poems published under the auspices of Lord Houghton. I knew of his death the hour he died; awaking in the night, I was certain of my loss, and spoke of it (long before the formal news reached me) to a friend. This by the way; but what is more to the purpose is that my first grief for a beloved comrade had expressed itself in the words which were to form the 'proem' of my first book—

Poet gentle hearted,
Are you then departed,
And have you ceased to dream the dream we loved of old so well?
Has the deeply-cherish'd
Aspiration perished,
And are you happy, David, in that heaven where you dwell?
Have you found the secret
We, so wildly, sought for,
And is your soul enswath'd at last in the singing robes you fought for?

Full of my dead friend, I spoke of him to Lewes and George Eliot, telling them the piteous story of his life and death. Both were deeply touched, and Lewes cried, 'Tell that story to the public'; which I did, immediately afterwards, in the Cornhill Magazine. By this time I had my Twins ready, and had discovered a publisher for one of them, Undertones. The other, Idyls and Legends of Inverburn, was a ruggeder bantling, containing almost the first blank verse poems ever written in Scottish dialect. I selected one of the poems, 'Willie Baird,' and showed it to Lewes. He expressed himself delighted, and asked for more. I then showed him the 'Two Babes.' 'Better and better!' he wrote; 'publish a volume of such poems and your position is assured.' More than this, he at once found me a publisher, Mr. George Smith, of Messrs. Smith and Elder, who offered me a good round sum (such it seemed to me then) for the copyright. Eventually, however, after 'Willie Baird' had been published in the Cornhill, I withdrew the manuscript from Messrs. Smith and Elder, and transferred it to Mr. Alexander Strahan, who offered me both more liberal terms and more enthusiastic appreciation.


It was just after the appearance of my story of David Gray in the Cornhill that I first met, at the Priory, North Bank, with Robert Browning. It was an odd and representative gathering of men, only one lady being present, the hostess, George Eliot. I was never much of a hero-worshipper, but I had long been a sympathetic Browningite, and I well remember George Eliot taking me aside after my first tête-à-tête with the poet, and saying, 'Well, what do you think of him? Does he come up to your ideal?' He didn't quite, I must confess, but I afterwards learned to know him well and to understand him better. He was delighted with my statement that one of Gray's wild ideas was to rush over to Florence and 'throw himself on the sympathy of Robert Browning.'

Phantoms of these first books of mine, how they begin to rise around me! Faces of friends and counsellors that have flown for ever; the sibylline Marian Evans with her long, weird, dreamy face; Lewes, with his big brow and keen thoughtful eyes; Browning, pale and spruce, his eye like a skipper's cocked-up at the weather; Peacock, with his round, mellifluous speech of the old Greeks; David Gray, great-eyed and beautiful, like Shelley's ghost; Lord Houghton, with his warm worldly smile and easy-fitting enthusiasm. Where are they all now? Where are the roses of last summer, the snows of yester year? I passed by the Priory to-day, and it looked like a great lonely Tomb. In those days, the house where I live now was not built; all up here Hampstead-ways was grass and fields. It was over these fields that Herbert Spencer and George Eliot used to walk on their way to Hampstead Heath. The Sibyl has gone, but the great Philosopher still remains, to brighten the sunshine. It was not my luck to know him then—would it had been!—but he is my friend and neighbour in these latter days, and, thanks to him, I still get glimpses of the manners of the old gods.

With the publication of my first two books, I was fairly launched, I may say, on the stormy waters of literature. When the Athenæum told its readers that 'this was poetry, and of a noble kind,' and when Lewes vowed in the Fortnightly Review that even if I 'never wrote another line, my place among the pastoral poets would be undisputed,' I suppose I felt happy enough—far more happy than any praise could make me now. Poor little pigmy in a cockle-boat, I thought Creation was ringing with my name! I think I must have seemed rather conceited and 'bounceable,' for I have a vivid remembrance of a Fortnightly dinner at the Star and Garter, Richmond, when Anthony Trollope, angry with me for expressing a doubt about the poetical greatness of Horace, wanted to fling a decanter at my head! It was about this time that an omniscient publisher, after an interview with me, exclaimed (the circumstance is historical), 'I don't like that young man; he talked to me as if he was God Almighty, or Lord Byron!' But in sober truth, I never had the sort of conceit with which men credited me; I merely lacked gullibility, and saw, at the first glance, the whole unmistakable humbug and insincerity of the Literary Life. I think still that, as a rule, the profession of letters narrows the sympathy and warps the intelligence. When I saw the importance which a great man or woman could attach to a piece of perfunctory criticism, when I saw the care with which this Eminent Person 'humoured his reputation,' and the anxiety with which that Eminent Person concealed his true character, I found my young illusions very rapidly fading. On one occasion, when George Eliot was very much pestered by an unknown lady, an insignificant individual, who had thrust herself somewhat pertinaciously upon her, she turned to me and asked, with a smile, for my opinion. I gave it, rudely enough, to the effect that it was good for 'distinguished people' to be reminded occasionally of how very small consequence they really were, in the mighty life of the World!

From that time until the present I have pursued the vocation into which fatal Fortune, during boyhood, incontinently thrust me, and have subsisted, ill sometimes, well sometimes, by a busy pen. I may, therefore, with a certain experience, if with little authority, imitate those who have preceded me in giving reminiscences of their first literary beginnings, and offer a few words of advice to my younger brethren—to those persons, I mean, who are entering the profession of Literature. To begin with, I entirely agree with Mr. Grant Allen in his recent avowal that Literature is the poorest and least satisfactory of all professions; I will go even further, and affirm that it is one of the least ennobling. With a fairly extensive knowledge of the writers of my own period, I can honestly say that I have scarcely met one individual who has not deteriorated morally by the pursuit of literary Fame. For complete literary success among contemporaries, it is imperative that a man should either have no real opinions, or be able to conceal such as he possesses, that he should have one eye on the market and the other on the public journals, that he should humbug himself into the delusion that book-writing is the highest work in the Universe, and that he should regulate his likes and dislikes by one law, that of expediency. If his nature is in arms against anything that is rotten in Society or in Literature itself, he must be silent. Above all, he must lay this solemn truth to heart, that when the World speaks well of him the World will demand the price of praise, and that price will possibly be his living Soul. He may tinker, he may trim, he may succeed, he may be buried in Westminster Abbey, he may hear before he dies all the people saying, 'How good and great he is! how perfect is his art! how gloriously he embodies the Tendencies of his Time!' but he will know all the same that the price has been paid, and that his living Soul has gone, to furnish that whitewashed Sepulchre, a Blameless Reputation.

For one other thing, also, the Neophyte in Literature had better be prepared. He will never be able to subsist by creative writing unless it so happens that the form of expression he chooses is popular in form (fiction, for example), and even in that case, the work he does, if he is to live by it, must be in harmony with the social and artistic status quo. Revolt


of any kind is always disagreeable. Three-fourths of the success of Lord Tennyson (to take an example) was due to the fact that this fine poet regarded Life and all its phenomena from the standpoint of the English public school, that he ethically and artistically embodied the sentiments of our excellent middle-class education. His great American contemporary, Whitman, in some respects the most commanding spirit of this generation, gained only a few disciples, and was entirely misunderstood and neglected by contemporary criticism. Another prosperous writer, to whom I have already alluded, George Eliot, enjoyed enormous popularity in her lifetime, while the most strenuous and passionate novelist of her period, Charles Reade, was entirely distanced by her in the immediate race for Fame. In Literature, as in all things, manners and costume are most important; the hall-mark of contemporary success is perfect Respectability. It is not respectable to be too candid on any subject, religious, moral, or political. It is very respectable to say, or imply, that this country is the best of all possible countries, that War is a noble institution, that the Protestant Religion is grandly liberal, and that social evils are only diversified forms of social good. Above all, to be respectable, one must have 'beautiful ideas.' 'Beautiful ideas' are the very best stock-in-trade a young writer can begin with. They are indispensable to every complete literary outfit. Without them, the short cut to Parnassus will never be discovered, even though one starts from Rugby.