1876 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Walter Savage Landor

Robert Carruthers, in Chambers's Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1879) 5:181-85.



This gentleman, the representative of an ancient family, was born at Ipsley Court, Warwickshire, on the 30th of January 1775. He was educated at Rugby School, whence he was transferred to Trinity College, Oxford. His first publication was a small volume of poems, dated as far back as 1795. The poet was intended for the army, but, like Southey, he imbibed republican sentiments, and for that cause declined engaging in the profession of arms. His father then offered him an allowance of 400 per annum, on condition that he should study the law, with this alternative, if he refused, that his income should be restricted to one-third of the sum. The independent poet preferred the smaller income with literature as his companion. He must soon, however, have succeeded to the family estates, for in 1806, exasperated by the bad conduct of some of his tenants, he is said to have sold possessions in Warwickshire and Staffordshire, and pulled down a handsome house he had built. This rash impulsiveness will be found pervading his literature as well as his life.

In 1808, Mr. Landor joined the Spaniards in their first insurrectionary movement, raising a troop at his own expense, and contributing 20,000 reals to aid in the struggle. In 1815, he took up his residence in Italy, having purchased a villa near Florence. There he lived for many years, cultivating art and literature, but he again returned to England and settled in Bath. The early poetical works of Landor were collected and republished in 1881. They consist of Gebir, a sort of epic poem, originally written in Latin ("Gebirus," 1802), which De Quincey said had for some time "the sublime distinction of having enjoyed only two readers — Southey and himself," Count Julian, a tragedy, highly praised by Southey; and various miscellaneous poems, to which he continued almost every year to make additions. He also "cultivated private renown," as Byron said, in the shape of Latin verses and essays, for which the noble poet styled him, the "deep-mouthed Boeotian, Savage Landor." This satire, however, was pointless; for as a ripe scholar, imbued with the spirit of antiquity, Mr. Landor transcended most of his contemporaries. His acquirements and genius were afterwards fully displayed in his Imaginary Conversations, a series of dialogues published at intervals between 1824 and 1846, by which time they had amounted to one hundred and twenty-five in number, ranging over all history, all times, and almost all subjects. Mr. Landor's poetry is inferior to his prose. In Gebir there is a fine passage, amplified by Wordsworth in his Excursion, which describes the sound which sea-shells seem to make when placed close to the ear:

But I have sinuous shells of pearly hue
Within, and they that lustre have imbibed
In the sun's palace-porch, where when unyoked
His chariot-wheel stands midway in the wave:
Shake one and it awakens, then apply
Its polished lips to your attentive ear,
And it remembers its august abodes
And murmurs as the ocean murmurs there.

In Count Julian, Mr. Landor adduces the following beautiful illustration of grief:

Wakeful he sits, and lonely and unmoved,
Beyond the arrows, views, or shouts of men;
As oftentimes an eagle, when the sun
Throws o'er the varying earth his early ray,
Stands solitary, stands immovable,
Upon some highest cliff, and rolls his eye,
Clear, constant, unobservant, unabased,
In the cold light.

His smaller poems are mostly of the same meditative and intellectual character. An English scene is thus described:

Clifton, in vain thy varied scenes invite —
The mossy bank, dim glade, and dizzy height;
The sheep that starting from the tufted thyme,
Untune the distant churches' mellow chime;
As o'er each limb a gentle horror creeps,
And shake above our heads the craggy steeps,
Pleasant I've thought it to pursue the rower,
While light and darkness seize the changeful oar,
The frolic Naiads drawing from below
A net of silver round the black canoe.
Now the last lonely solace must it be
To watch pale evening brood o'er land and sea,
Then join my friends, and let those friends believe
My cheeks are moistened by the dews of eve.

The Maid's Lament is a short lyrical flow of picturesque expression and pathos, resembling the effusions of Barry Cornwall:

I loved him not; and yet, now he is gone,
I feel I am alone.
I checked him while he spoke; yet could he speak,
Alas! I would not check.
For reasons not to love him once I sought,
And wearied all my thought
To vex myself and him: I now would give
My love could he but live
Who lately lived for me, and when he found
'Twas vain, in holy ground
He bid his face amid the shades of death!
I waste for him my breath.
Who wasted his for me; but mine returns,
And this lone bosom burns
With stifling heat, heaving it up in sleep,
And waking me to weep
Tears that had melted his soft heart: for years
Wept he as bitter tears!
"Merciful God!" such was his latest prayer,
"These may she never share!"
Quieter is his breath, his breast more cold
Than daisies in the mould.
Where children spell athwart the churchyard gate
His name and life's brief date.
Pray for him, gentle souls, whoe'er ye be,
And oh! pray, too, for me!

We quote one more chaste and graceful fancy:

SIXTEEN.
In Clementina's artless mien
Lucilla asks me what I see,
And are the roses of sixteen
Enough for me?

Lucilla asks if that be all,
Have I not culled as sweet before?
Ah yes, Lucilla! and their fall
I still deplore.

I now behold another scene,
Where pleasure beams with heaven's own light,
More pure, more constant, more serene,
And not less bright.

Faith, on whose breast the loves repose,
Whose chain of flowers no force can sever,
And Modesty, who, when she goes,
Is gone for ever.

Mr. Landor continued to write far beyond his eightieth year. In 1851, he published a pamphlet entitled Popery, British and Foreign, and about this time he contributed largely to the columns of The Examiner weekly journal. Though living the life of a recluse, he was an accurate observer of public events, and an eager though inconsistent and impracticable politician. In 1853, he issued a volume of essays and poetical pieces, entitled The Last Fruit off an Old Tree; and in 1858, another volume of the same kind, called Dry Sticks fagoted by Walter Savage Landor. For certain grossly indecent verses and slanders in this work, directed against a lady in Bath, the author underwent the indignity of a trial for defamation, was convicted, and amerced in damages to the amount of 1000.

Shortly before this, Mr. Landor had published a declaration that of his fortune he had but a small sum left, with which he proposed to endow the widow of any person who would assassinate the Emperor of the French! Thus poor, old, and dishonoured, Mr. Landor again left England — a spectacle more pitiable, considering his high intellectual endowments, his early friendships, and his once noble aspirations, than any other calamity recorded in our literary annals, "After some months of wretchedness at Fiesole," says a memoir of Landor in the English Cyclopaedia, "his friends came to his rescue. A plain but comfortable lodging was found for him at Florence, his surviving brothers undertook to supply an annuity of 200, which Robert Browning generously saw duly employed as long as he remained in Florence. And thus one more gleam of sunshine seemed to settle on the 'old man eloquent.' Though deaf and ailing, he continued to find solace in his pen. He wrote and published occasional verses, and two or three more Imaginary Conversations, in which the old fire burned not dimly; collected some earlier scraps, which appeared as Heroic Idylls, and was still working in his 90th year at new Conversations, when, on the 17th of September 1864, death ended his labours and sorrows." A biography of Landor by John Forster, was published in 1868.

The writings of Walter Savage Landor have been said to "bear the stamp of the old mocking paganism." A moody egotistic nature, ill at ease with the common things of life, had flourished up in his case into a most portentous crop of crotchets and prejudices, which, regardless of the reprobation of his fellow-men, he issued forth in prodigious confusion, often in language offensive in the last degree to good taste. Eager to contradict whatever is generally received, he never stops to consider how far his own professed opinions may be consistent with each other: hence he contradicts himself almost as often as he does others. Jeffrey, in one of his most brilliant papers, has characterised in happy terms the class of minds to which Mr. Landor belongs. "The work before, us," says he, "is an edifying example of the spirit of literary Jacobinism — flying at all game, running a-muck at all opinions, and at continual cross-purposes with its own. This spirit admits neither of equal nor superior, follower nor precursor: 'It travels in a road so narrow, where but one goes abreast.' It claims a monopoly of sense, wit, and wisdom. All their ambition, all their endeavour is, to seem wiser than the whole world besides. They hate whatever falls short of, whatever goes beyond their favourite theories. In the one case, they hurry on before to get the start of you; in the other, they suddenly turn back to hinder you, and defeat themselves. An inordinate, restless, incorrigible self-love is the key to all their actions and opinions, extravagances and meannesses, servility and arrogance. Whatever soothes and pampers this, they applaud; whatever wounds or interferes with it, they utterly and vindictively abhor. A general is with them a hero, if he is unsuccessful or a traitor; if he is a conqueror in the cause of liberty, or a martyr to it, he is a poltroon. Whatever is doubtful, remote, visionary in philosophy or wild and dangerous in politics, they fasten upon eagerly, 'recommending and insisting on nothing less;' reduce the one to demonstration, the other to practice, and they turn their backs upon their own most darling schemes, and leave them in the lurch immediately."

When the reader learns that Mr. Landor justifies Tiberius and Nero, speaks of Pitt as a poor creature, and Fox as a charlatan, declares Alfieri to have been the greatest man in Europe, and recommends the Greeks, in their struggles with the Turks, to discard firearms, and return to the use of the bow, he will not deem this general description far from inapplicable in the case of Landor. And yet his Imaginary Conversations and other writings are amongst the most remarkable prose productions of our age, written in pure nervous English, and full of thoughts which fasten themselves on the mind and are "a joy forever." It would require many specimens from these works to make good what is here said for and against their author, we subjoin a few passages affording both an example of his love of paradox and of the extraordinary beauties of thought and expression by which he leads us captive.