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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Robert Buchanan and the fleshly controversy : a reconsideration Murray, Christopher David


The importance of Robert Buchanan's onslaught upon Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Poems in 1871-2 has never been minimised by the poet's biographers. This crucial episode undoubtedly contributed to Rossetti's death ten years later. Buchanan's criticism also raises the question of the poetry's "fleshliness", with which all Rossetti students eventually have to come to terms. Some critics consider him to be a romantic, trying to express his apprehension of the eternal to be found behind natural phenomena; others see him, as Buchanan saw him, as a man vainly trying to etherealise man's basest drives, a sensual materialist masquerading as a spiritual idealist. Buchanan's indictment has been said to be clearly representative of "the 'classical' or conservative school of criticism." Swinburne's Poems and Ballads, published in 1866, had shocked many. It was widely known that Rossetti had been one of the major influences upon the younger poet, and Buchanan expressed the outrage many felt at the immorality of the more mature, and thus more reprehensible, Rossetti. Buchanan's manner and tone were adopted to impress readers with his judicious impartiality, even though personal animus certainly inspired his criticism. Buchanan despised Rossetti's effeminacy, his lack of sanity, his lack of humanity, even; he despised his introspection, his effete luxuriation "in his own exquisite emotions." While such objections are virtually the same as those made against Keats, Buchanan did subscribe to the romantic belief that the sincere expression of some clearly perceived truth gave poetry its distinguishing characteristic of "spiritualization." To him, Rossetti's insincerity was the most patently obvious thing about his work. Thus it can be seen that Buchanan used both classical and romantic criteria to achieve his purpose. Buchanan, on the one hand, and Swinburne and William Michael Rossetti, on the other, had been exchanging polemical broadsides for at least five years prior to 1871. The thesis traces the origins and the course of the controversy, and presents salvoes by both Buchanan and Swinburne which have hitherto gone unnoted. Rossetti had not figured in the controversy before, but it was Buchanan's harsh review of William Michael's edition of Shelley that prompted the poet to organize the critical reception of Poems in the first months of 1870. This fact, until recently, has received scant attention in other accounts of the controversy, but this "working the oracle", besides giving Buchanan another stick with which to beat Rossetti, must have made the anticipated attack all the more deadly when it finally came. The continuation of the controversy after Rossetti's breakdown in June 1872 is described, as is the reluctant involvement in it of Walt Whitman, a poet whom both sides admired greatly. To assess what validity that attack may have had for Rossetti, a close textual collation has been made between the "fifth" edition of Poems, that reviewed by Buchanan in the Contemporary Review of October 1871, and subsequent republications of the poetry. It is clear that Rossetti did revise several poems because of the views that Buchanan represented. The omission of the sonnet "Nuptial Sleep" from subsequent collections has long been known to be directly attributable to Buchanan's attack. The thesis ends with a brief account of Buchanan's literary career from 1871 until his death in 1901. A confirmed mutineer and controversialist, he gradually lost credit as a poet worthy of serious consideration, and now his work has found a neglect that it may not totally deserve.

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