Andrew Lownie and William Milne, editors

Scottish Cultural Press, #12.95

JOHN BUCHAN's first published work was not, as the reference books claim, a critical approach to Francis Lord Bacon (1894). It was ``A New Year's Hymn'' (1887), written for the Pathhead Free Church, where his old man - a minor poet who published the twee Tweedside Echoes and Moorland Musings in 1881 - was minister. Composed when Buchan was 11, ``A New Year's Hymn'' is the work of a born preacher, not a born poet. A creature of prosaic prejudice, not poetic creation.

The mercies, Lord, are great,

Which Thou to us hast given;

They meet us at each turn in life,

To lead us on to heaven.

Like to the morning mist,

Earth's glory soon shall die;

Oh, lead us onward till we reach

Our happy home on high.

Stylistically, Buchan went on to better things when he turned from pedestrian English verse to swiftly shifting English prose. As he boasted in his autobiography, Memory Hold-the-Door (1940), he was ``a natural story-teller . . . especially fascinated by the notion of hurried journeys''. Like his hero Richard Hannay, Buchan was always merry on the move.

Like Hannay, who raced around Scotland after returning from South Africa in The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), Buchan was a racist, as is evident from a poem he wrote in 1902 after going to South Africa to work as private secretary to High Commissioner Lord Milner. Casting his thoughts in the Standard Rabbie stanza, Buchan addressed his old Oxford friend, Stair Gillon:

Dear Stair, a scribble frae your pen

Delights me weel, as fine ye ken,

Forwandered in the but-and-ben,

They ca' Transvaal,

A land o' Jews and neeger men,

Nae guid at all.

Many have denied Buchan was a racist but these few lines reveal an appalling attitude to those he obviously regarded as his inferiors.

Another poem from the South African period is a dramatic monologue entitled ``The Semitic Spirit Speaks'' (1903). According to Andrew Lownie and William Milne, Buchan did not endorse the anti-Semitism of the English establishment yet the dogma expressed in the doggerel of ``The Semitic Spirit Speaks'' gives the lie to the editorial assertion:

For me the courage of the lare,

The humour of the affair is mine,

My tastes are even of the swine,

But I'm still a multi-millionaire.

Admittedly, major poets like Pound and Eliot smuggled anti-Semitic opinions into their poems but these poems amounted to more than their opinions. Buchan's ``The Semitic Spirit Speaks'' has no subtlety. It is poisoned by prejudice.

Though the editors disagree with the informed view of Buchan as a man motivated by violent prejudices and try to make a case for him as a compassionate poet of the people, the collected poems range from racism to the study of snobbery with violence. From 1892-95 Buchan studied at Glasgow University and his poem ``The Strong Man Armed'' was published in the Glasgow University Magazine of November 1897.

Two lines from the last stanza speak volumes about the nature of Buchan's verse: ``The sword in my hand and the foot to the race,/The wind in my teeth and the rain in my face''. Compare that with the aforementioned phrase about ``Jews and neeger men'' and the foot to the race sounds like a boot from a racist.

After graduating from Glasgow University, Buchan went to Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Poetry Prize for ``The Pilgrim Fathers'' (1898). This work asks a racist rhetorical question: ``The wide creation travaileth in pain;/And shall the pigmy in his griefs complain?'' And it goes on to impose imperial ambitions on the spectacle of ``the holy race,/Fleeing from Egypt to their destined place''. For Buchan, the holy race could only be run triumphantly by the English, which is why he left Scotland to pursue a legal and parliamentary career in England then moved to Canada as Governor-General with the grand title of Lord Tweedsmuir.

Introducing this first complete edition of Buchan's poems, Lownie and Milne suggest their poet only found his own voice when he wrote in the Scots vernacular. Let us look at Buchan's most famous Scots poem - ``Fisher Jamie'' (1916), a lament for a Borderer killed in the First World War. The point of the poem is not the poignant loss of some poor soul but the stupidity of the eponymous hero. Jamie ``lo'ed nae music, kenned nae tunes''; Jamie's only love was ``a kep o' decent tweed''; Jamie ``dreamed o' nocht but fish''. Jamie was a fish out of water in the First World War and keen fisherman Buchan put a low value on the lives of fishes.

First published in Buchan's collection Poems Scots and English (1917), ``Fisher Jamie'' became extremely popular. It was reprinted in Northern Numbers (1920) edited by Christopher Murray Grieve who kicked off a column in the Scottish Educational Journal in 1925 by honouring Buchan as ``Dean of the Faculty of Contemporary Scottish Letters'' and praising ``Fisher Jamie'' as ``a little classic of Doric verse''.

Better known by his pseudonym Hugh MacDiarmid, Grieve detested the sickeningly sentimental style of poems like ``Fisher Jamie'' but could not kick off his own literary career without a little help from his friend Fisher Johnny Buchan. Grieve dedicated his first book, Annals of the Five Senses (1923), to Buchan and persuaded Buchan to write an introduction to Sangschaw (1925), the first collection of poems attributed to MacDiarmid.

After taking Buchan's name in vain as a boost to his own perfectly understandable vanity, MacDiarmid produced a masterpiece - ``A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle'' (1926) - which puts all other Scottish poetry in perspective. As a poet Buchan never came close to MacDiarmid or to the prosaic Scottish poets he adored, namely Scott and Stevenson. He wasted too many words in his efforts to achieve the emotional precision of poetry. He relied too dogmatically on the religious routine that made his poems so predictable with their mainly monosyllabic rhymes:

I've been an elder forty year,

I've tried to keep the narrow way,

I've walked afore the Lord in fear,

I've never missed the kirk a day.

Metrical safety came first in Buchan's verse, as in the above revised version of ``The Shorter Catechism'' he first included in The Moon Endureth (1912) and duly entered in Poems Scots and English.

As a writer of such ``shockers'' as The Thirty-Nine Steps and its sequels Buchan was always impressive, always enthusiastically and occasionally objectively behind the decent chap on his breathless journey. As a writer of verse he was the victim of his own opinions and knew not how to hide them under the surface of the shimmering style he could only manage in prose.

Lownie and Milne must be congratulated on their scholarly research and for expertly annotating all the poems they associate with Buchan. They are, after all, in the difficult position of fans of the poems of a writer who did his best in prose and worst in verse.

q The Scottish Cultural Press edition of John Buchan's poems, reviewed above, will be formally launched on Saturday at a meeting of the John Buchan Society in Peebles Hydro.