Robert Buchanan's Humanitarianism
by Henry S. Salt
I AM asked to write my impressions of Robert Buchanan as a humanitarian, and I do so the more gladly because I think this aspect of his many-sided genius has generally been overlooked, though to some of his readers it constitutes not the least of his numerous claims to their gratitude and admiration. Whatever else may be said of him, in praise or dispraise, this can never be denied—that a passionate love of humanity lay at the root of his most memorable work, and that his great powers were enlisted on behalf of the weak and suffering, and in defiance of the tyrannous and strong. It will be said, perhaps, that humanitarianism is concerned with the lower animals as well as with mankind, and that Mr. Buchanan, who was at one time an ardent lover of sport, cannot be classed as an out and out humanitarian. I have no wish to lay undue stress on one side of his character, but it will be seen that, in his latter years, his sympathies were so widened as to include not only human beings but all sentient life.
It was, I believe, through our mutual friend, the Hon. Roden Noel, that I became acquainted with Mr. Buchanan some ten or twelve years ago, and in 1892 and 1893 I had correspondence with him about the inclusion of some of his poems in an anthology of ‘Songs of Freedom’ which I was then editing, and on other literary matters. On March 4, 1893, he wrote to me as follows:—
“Many thanks for the brochure on Tennyson. It contains, to a great extent, the truth as I feel it, though I could not, owing to my personal relations with the poet, give it expression. Bunting asked me to write a memorial article on T. for the Contemporary, but I refused, on the score that if I wrote at all I should have to express my honest convictions.
“What a satire on literature it is, to find the whole world flocking to worship the poets of Good Taste, while a singer like James Thomson dies neglected! We are ringed all round with shams—sham sweetness and light, sham criticism, sham morality, sham Christianity; and the man who tries to break through must assuredly pay the penalty of his foolhardihood. To exist comfortably, one must dance like a tame bear in the middle of Society’s charmed circle, and then the world will cry, ‘How pretty! how self-controlled! how full of beautiful ideas!’—those ‘beautiful ideas’ which are the death of all honest manhood.”
On August 10, 1894, he became a member of the Humanitarian League, of which I was Hon. Secretary. “I will gladly join your League,” he wrote, “as I sympathise outright with all its objects.” In the same letter he expressed a wish to see Francis Adams’s “Songs of the Army of the Night,” a copy of which I accordingly sent him. On this subject he wrote a few days later as follows:—
“Many thanks for the poems, which I have just received on returning from a few days’ run into Normandy; also for the pamphlets which have arrived. A glance at the newspaper notice reminds me of the piteous circumstances under which poor Adams died, and which impressed me very sadly at the time.
“I have only just glanced at the poems, and to be frank, feel rather repelled by some of them, finely human though they are. The indignation seems somewhat overdone, and the sympathy not too healthy. But I reserve all judgment till by and by, when I know the book, as far as my nature will allow me to know it. Of late years (I suppose it is because I am growing old) I am less in accord than I used to be with some forms of democracy, and I look forward with anxiety to a millennium of labour. Certainly the problem of human suffering will have to be solved, but will its solution come from the many-headed god, Demos? I doubt it. Is it not rather the inclination of Demos to suppress individual happiness, and to reduce life to a tyrannical rule of thumb? Is there much difference between a tyranny of one person and the tyranny of an organisation?
“And why do the labour people adopt the jargon of Christianity? Adams does so habitually. Surely the time has come to show that the mistakes of Christianity were the mistakes of its Founder?”
In 1894 Mr. Buchanan sent me a copy of his poem “The Devil’s Case,” referred to in the following letter, dated March 31st:—
“I am specially glad that you like the form of the ‘Devil’s Case,’ for it was chosen after long thought, and I myself feel that no other form was possible. Not one of the idiots who have described it as easy and careless have perceived that it is subtly assonantic and very difficult to manage. Your suggestion for a ‘Satanic Series’ is distinctly good, and I shall seriously think of it.”
Readers of the “Devil’s Case” will remember that it contains some magnificent humanitarian passages—
“Cast thy thought along the Ages!
Walk the sepulchres of Nations!
Mourn, with me, the fair things perish’d!
Mark the martyrdoms of men!
Say, can any latter blessing
Cleanse the blood-stain’d Book of Being?
Can a remnant render’d happy
Wipe out centuries of sorrow?
Nay, one broken life outweigheth
Twenty thousand lives made perfect!
Nay, I scorn the God whose pathway
Lieth over broken hearts!
Man, thou say’st, shall yet be happy?
What avails a bliss created
Out of hecatombs of evil,
Out of endless years of pain?
Even now the life he liveth
Builded is of shame and sorrow!
Even now his flesh is fashion’d
Of the creatures that surround him.
From the sward the stench of slaughter
Riseth hourly to his nostrils.
By his will the beast doth anguish,
And the wounded dove doth die.”
In 1897 Mr. Buchanan, who had been one of the signatories of the memorial against the Royal Buckhounds, was asked to write a preface to a pamphlet entitled “The Truth about the Game Laws,” which Mr. J. Connell was then preparing for the Humanitarian League. On October 10th he wrote to me as follows:—
“I shall be glad to see proofs of pamphlet, but I have to confess with shame that I was for years an ardent sportsman myself! I don’t know whether ’tis merely sour grapes and advancing years, but I feel very differently now on the subject, and if I write for you should resemble the ‘converted clown.’”
The same confession was made by him in the preface itself, but this did not hinder him from writing a very strong and trenchant criticism of the sportsman and the game-preserver:—
“When all is said and done, however, sport, in so far as it embraces the hunting and killing of wild animals, is invariably more or less demoralising—is, in fact, a relapse from civilisation to barbarism. Therein lies its real fascination for men bored with the proprieties and duties of the nineteenth century. The instincts of the primeval man—food-hunting, predatory, self-preserving—re-emerge in the modern; moral sanctions are disregarded, the rights of inferior races are forgotten, and the hunter feels himself, figuratively speaking, naked, savage, bloodthirsty, and unashamed. Sportsmen for this reason are invariably selfish and conservative. A sportsman who is a Radical in politics and a pioneer in social science is an impossibility.
“It is hopeless, therefore, to expect from sportsmen any sympathy whatever with the agitation against the cruel and iniquitous Game Laws. The agitation began, and it must continue, among the men who shrink from cruelty of any kind, and prefer the amenities of civilisation to the coarse pleasures of barbarism. Now, more than ever, the fight in the higher planes of life is between philanthropy and savagery, culture and brutality, the pleasures of the thinking being and the amusements of the naked man.”
Nor was it only on the question of sport that Mr. Buchanan had avowed humanitarian sympathies. There is a terrible and most impressive passage in his “City of Dream,” in which he describes the vivisection of a dog in the Temple of Science—
“I look’d no more;
But covering up mine eyes, I shrieked aloud
And rush’d in horror from the accursed place;
But at the door I turn’d, and turning met
The piteous eyeballs fix’d in agony
Beneath a forehead by the knife laid bare!”
And in a later contribution to the Zoophilist (June 1, 1899) he reaffirms the same judgment on the tortures of the laboratory:—
“That which has hitherto been deemed most godlike in humanity, that which has brought comfort and hope and moral salvation to countless human beings, is the one thing which the arch-priests of a false science seek to eliminate for ever from the human conscience—the sentiment of Pity, which is only another name for the idea of Justice. If animals have no rights, then men and women have no rights; if men and women have no rights, then the conception of a Divine Providence, of a Law which works invariably for righteousness, is no more than a drunkard’s dream.”
A few months after the publication of the Game Laws pamphlet the League was permitted to reprint a notable article on the “Law of Infanticide” which Mr. Buchanan had contributed to the Star, with reference to the case of Kate Shoesmith, the “Hetty Sorrel” of the occasion. “No words of mine,” he wrote, “could express the horror and the pity of the whole business; yet the story is as old as our marriage market and is repeated with heartbreaking variations every day. . . . In truth we are still a savage and uncivilised people, able and willing to mow down with artillery such subject races as are not of our way of thinking, but utterly blind and indifferent to the sorrows of the weak and the sufferings of the martyred poor.”
On November 2, 1898, he wrote to me with reference to his last volume of poems:—
“I am about to publish my ‘New Rome; Ballads and Poems of our Empire,’ and much of it will appeal, I think, to your circle, though the critics generally will cordially detest it. It is an attack on our civilisation all round, in the name of Humanity. One poem in it, ‘The Song of the Fur Seal,’ was suggested by passages in your journal.1 I shall really be glad of any sympathy you can show me, for I am certain to get very scant justice in other quarters. I have poured out the belief that is in me, however, and I don’t think it will be altogether wasted.”
“The New Rome” is indeed inspired by the most passionate humanitarian feeling. Under the title “Songs of Empire” the poet denounces the selfish and aggressive militarism which was then practising on native races the barbarities which have since reached their climax in the war on the South African Republics. His “Song of the Slain” breathes the true democratic spirit, and no more trenchant satire has been written of late years than his “Ballad of Kiplingson” and “The Chartered Companie.” Nor are the poems conceived in a spirit of mere denunciation; for many of them express with consummate tenderness and beauty the new gospel of Humaneness. Here, for example, are some stanzas from “God Evolving,” which might be taken as the hymn of Humanitarianism:—
“Where’er great pity is and piteousness,
Where’er great Love and Love’s strange sorrow stay,
Where’er men cease to curse, but bend to bless,
Frail brethren fashion’d like themselves of clay.
Where’er the lamb and lion side by side
Lie down in peace, where’er on land or sea
Infinite Love and Mercy heavenly-eyed
Emerge, there stirs the God that is to be!
His light is round the slaughter’d bird and
As round the forehead of Man crucified,—
All things that live, the greatest and the least,
Await the coming of this Lord and Guide;
And every gentle deed by mortals done,
Yea, every holy thought and loving breath,
Lighten poor Nature’s travail with this Son
Who shall be Lord and God of Life and Death!
No God behind us in the empty Vast,
No God enthroned on yonder heights above,
But God emerging, and evolved at last.
Out of the inmost heart of human Love!”
On social questions Buchanan’s outlook was not less humane, and his abiding sense of the close kinship of all sentient life is shown in many of his poems—in none perhaps more nobly than in the magnificent verses that have reference to “fallen women”:—
“How? Thou be saved and one of these be
The least of these be spent, and thou soar free?
Nay! for these things are thou—these tempest-tost
Waves of the darkness are but forms of thee.
Shall these be cast away? Then rest thou sure
No hopes abide for thee if none for these.
Would’st thou be heal’d? Then hast thou these to cure;
Thine is their shame, their foulness, their disease.”
Nor were the lower animals excluded from his sympathies, as is testified by the stanzas on “Man of the Red Right Hand,” “Be Pitiful,” “The Song of the Fur Seal,” and many others. It is on this oneness of mankind, and of all sentient life, that Humanitarianism, if it be more than a passing sentiment, must be based, and this is the spirit in which “The New Rome” is written.
“I had been taught by sharp experience,” says Buchanan in his preface, “that such poems were not wanted by the public.” This sort of admonition, however, was always disregarded by him, and herein, perhaps, is the reason why his great poetical qualities have been so strangely undervalued in dominant literary circles. No thoughtful lover of poetry can be unaware that Mr. Buchanan’s equipment, intellectual and artistic, would have been sufficient to fit out some half-dozen of the popular poets whom Society delights to honour; but his inveterate habit of calling a spade a spade almost condemned him to the rôle of a prophet crying in the wilderness. All the more, then, do humanitarians owe a tribute of gratitude to this most humane and fearless writer, whose poems are a living testimony to the fact that true poetry does not lose, but is greatly a gainer, by association with compassionate feeling. It is right that this side of Robert Buchanan’s genius should receive the appreciation which it deserves.
1 “The Cost of a Sealskin Cloak,” by Joseph Collinson, reprinted from Humanity, as one of the Humanitarian League’s pamphlets.
Published: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903