1864 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Walter Savage Landor

Harriet Martineau, Obituary in The Daily News (1864); Martineau, Biographical Sketches (1869) 121-29.



The great age to which Mr. Landor attained affords some sort of presumption that certain attributes of his by which he was best known to the multitude were qualities of style rather than of soul — we do not mean of literary style only, but style of expression by life and act, as well as by the pen. Contempt and bitterness are not conducive to long life. As the ancients said, they dry up the vital juices. As we moderns say, they fret the brain and nerves, and intercept the complacent enjoyment of good-humor and benevolence, which eminently promotes length of days. As Walter Savage Landor was born in 1775, and has only now departed, it seems that, after all, he had not any fatal proportion of contempt or bitterness deep down in his nature and the question remains how he came to be so markedly known by as much as he had. The truth is, he had in him a strong faculty of admiration and a deep, pure, fresh current of tenderness and sweetness ran under the film of gall which Nature unhappily shed over his existence at the fountain. This was one of the contradictions of which this paradoxical being was made up; and it is, with the rest, worthy of some contemplation; not because paradoxical persons or the paradoxes they produce are choice objects of study in a striving and practical age like ours, but because Landor achieved some things that were great, and many that were beautiful, in spite of the paradoxical elements of his life and character.

The young of thirty years ago, to whom Literature was an important pursuit and pleasure, were often seen in a transport of admiration, amazement, and anger, when rising from Landor's books. They were quite sure that nothing so noble, nothing so tender, nothing so musical was to be found in our language as the Imaginary Conversations between Pericles and Sophocles, between Demosthenes and Eubulides, between Ascham and Lady Jane Grey, and plenty more. The patriotism, the magnanimity, and the sweet heroism of the sentiments call up the flush or the tear; and the familiarity with the ancients, in their habit of mind and speech, enraptures the youthful scholar. After a time, he relaxes in his reading of Landor — still declares, when he is talked of, that his is a grand and beautiful fragmentary mind; but he no longer reads his later volumes; and at last grows so weary of his Jacobin doctrines, his obtrusive spirit, and sententious style, that when the well-known name in large letters appears in the newspaper, at the foot of a denunciatory letter, or a curse in stanzas, it is a signal to turn the leaf. The standard criticism of the country seems to have undergone something of the same process as the individual student. The Quarterly Review once despised everybody who could stop to notice Landor's faults, and eloquently described the process of the elevation of his fame, till it should become transcendent among the worthies of England; but it may be questioned now whether the Quarterly Review has any more expectation than the Edinburgh that the writings of Landor will survive, except as curiosities in literature. The fact seems to he that, with some of the attributes of genius, Landor fell just short of it. He had not the large spirit and generous temper of genius. His egotism was extreme; but it was not that of genius. He has been called a prose Byron; and certainly he complained abundantly of Man and Life, and abhorred tyrants, and lived long in Italy, and fought for liberty abroad; and especially, he was at once a Jacobin or democrat in literature, and a man of family and fortune; but there the resemblance stops. Where Byron moaned, Landor scolded. Landor had no patience with Royalty, or any rule but the popular, because it stood between men and their happiness; whereas Byron looked upon tyranny as a mere symptom of human corruptness and misery, and saw no happiness on the other side of it. Byron was an embodiment of the growing spirit of his time, which uttered itself through him because his lips had been touched with fire; but Landor's utterances were almost entirely personal and constitutional — expressed no prevalent sentiment or need — not being even the utterance of a party in politics or literature, but the presentment of an unchanging egotism, under majestic or graceful disguises furnished from the stores of his learning or the resources of his imagination. It is one of the paradoxes about Landor, not that he should have but one style — for that might be expected; but that that style should have been dramatic. Well as he succeeded in hitting the mode of thought of many of his discoursing personages, it was by means of his learning, and not of his sympathies, that he did so. They were all raised from the dead in their habits as they lived; but it was in order to be possessed by Landor in every case — his spirit speaking through their brains, perhaps, as well as through their lips — but always his spirit and no other. Hence his failures in the case of Milton, and partly, even in that of Cromwell; though there he might have been expected to succeed pre-eminently. Yet more modern English personages fail more and more conspicuously, in comparison with old Greeks, and mediaeval Italians, and far-away Spaniards; for the obvious reason that the former, living amidst modern associations, and represented by a writer who is too much of an egotist and a mannerist to have genuine dramatic power, must be simply Landor himself, cramped and debilitated by the restraints of his disguise. These are the tokens and proofs of his falling short of true genius. Yet there is so genuine a force of Liberalism in his writings, so constant a vigilance against the encroachments of tyranny, as may neutralize a large admixture of self-love and self-will; and it really is so rare to see the claims of the democracy so presented, amidst the music and the lights reverberated and reflected from the classic ages, that the man who has done that service may be fairly considered an original of high mark, even if he be too paradoxical, and too measured an egotist, to be entitled to high honors of genius.

But paradox carries away others than the inventors and utterers; and we have been commenting on the mind of the vigorous old man who is gone from us, before we have glanced at his life, which was, from first to last, as characteristic as his writings; as characteristic as his face and form, and everything pertaining to him. We may be called paradoxical ourselves if we say (but it is true), that never was anything more of a piece than the mind and life, the surroundings, the utterances and the acts of this wonderfully sane yet thoroughly inconsistent being. His tall, broad, muscular, active frame was characteristic; and so was his head, with the strange elevation of the eyebrows, which expresses self-will as strongly in some cases as astonishment in others. Those eyebrows, mounting up till they comprehend a good portion of the forehead, have been observed in many more paradoxical persons than one. Then there was the retreating but broad forehead, showing the deficiency of reasoning and speculative power, with the preponderance of imagination, and a huge passion for destruction. The massive self-love and self-will carried up his head to something more than a dignified bearing — even to one of arrogance. His vivid and quick eye, and the thoughtful mouth, were fine, and his whole air was that of a man distinguished in his own eyes certainly, but also in those of others. Tradition reports that he was handsome in his youth. In age he was more. The first question about him usually was why, with his frame, and his courage, and his politics, and his social position, he was not in the army. One reply might be, that he could neither obey nor co-operate; another was, that his godfather, General Powell, wished it; and Landor therefore preferred something else. As for that something else — his father offered him 400 a year to study Law, and reside in the Temple for that purpose, whereas he would give him only 150 if he would not; and of course, he took the 150, and went as far as he well could from the Temple — that is, to Swansea. Warwick was his native place. He was born in the best house in the city, where the fine old garden, with its noble elms and horse-chestnuts, might have influenced his imagination, so as to have something to do possibly with his subsequent abode in Italy. His mother was of the ancient family of Savage; and hereditary estates lay about him in Staffordshire and Warwickshire, which had been in the possession of the family for nearly seven centuries. These he sold, to shift himself to Wales; and nowhere did his spirit of destructive waywardness break out more painfully than in the sale of those old estates, and his treatment of the new. He employed many scores of laborers on his Welsh estates, made roads and planted, and built a house which cost him 8,000. He set his heart upon game-preserving (of all pursuits for a democratic republican), and had at times twenty keepers out upon the hills at night, watching his grouse; but, with 12,000 acres of land, he never saw a grouse on his table. His tenants cheated him, he declared, and destroyed his plantations; and, though he got rid of them, he left, not only Wales but Great Britain, in wrath. Then, the steward in charge of his house cheated him, when he not only got rid of the steward, but had his splendid new house pulled down-out of consideration, he declared, for his son's future ease and convenience, in being rid of so vexatious a property. His flatterers called this an act of characteristic indignation. To others it appeared that his republican and self-governing doctrines came rather strangely from one who could not rule his own affairs and his own people; and who, finding his failure, could do nothing better than lay waste the whole scene.

He had obtained some of his scholarship at Rugby, and somewhat more at Oxford — where, however, his stay was short. Having fired a gun in the quadrangle of his college, he was rusticated; and, instead of returning, published a volume of poems, when he was only eighteen. While at Swansea, he studied, and wrote Gebir. On the invasion of Spain, he determined to be a soldier on his own account, raised a small troop at his own expense, and was the first Englishman who landed in aid of the Spaniards. He was rewarded for this aid, and for a gift of money, by the thanks of the Supreme Junta, and by the rank of Colonel on his return to England; but he sent back his commission and the record of thanks when Ferdinand set aside the Constitution. Among many good political acts, perhaps none was better than this. At thirty-six years of age he married a French lady of good family; and a few years after, in 1818, fixed his residence in Italy, — first in the Palazzo Medici, in Florence, and when obliged to leave it, in a charming villa two miles off. That Villa Gherardesca was built by Michel Angelo. Few British travellers in Italy fail to go and see Fiesole; and while Landor lived there he was the prey of lion-hunters, — as he vehemently complained on occasion of the feud between him and N. P. Willis, the American, who lost a MS. confided to him for his opinion. Such a subordination of the full, ripe scholar and discourser to the shallow, flippant sketcher by the wayside, might seem to deserve such a result; but it did not tend to reconcile Landor to lion-hunters. While in Italy, he sent to English newspapers, and especially to the Examiner, frequent comments on passing events in the political world, in the form of letters or of verse. He was collecting pictures all the while; and when he returned to England to pass the rest of his days, as he supposed, he left the bulk of his collection in his villa, for his son's benefit, bringing only a few gems wherewith to adorn such a modest residence as he now intended to have in his own country. That residence was in St. James's-square, Bath, where he became an octogenarian living for a while in peace and quiet — still commenting on men and measures through the Liberal papers, and putting forth, in his eightieth year, the little volume called Last Fruit from an Old Tree. The spectacle of a vigorous, vivid, undaunted old age, true to the aims and convictions of youth, is always a fine one; and it was warmly felt to be so in Landor's case. His prejudices mattered less, when human affairs went on maturing themselves in spite of them; and many of his complaints were silenced in the best possible way — by the reform of the abuses which he, with some unnecessary violence, denounced. He, for his part, talked less about killing kings; and his steady assertion of the claims of the humble fell in better with the spirit of the time, after years had inaugurated the works of peace. About many matters of political principle and practice he was right, while yet the majority of society were wrong; and it would be too much to require that he should be wholly right in doctrine and fact, or very angelic in his way of enforcing his convictions. Nature did not make him a logician, and if we were ever disappointed at not finding him one, the fault was our own. She make him brave, though wayward; an egotist in his method, but with the good of mankind for his aim. He was passionate and prejudiced, but usually in some great cause, and on the right side of it; though there was a deplorable exception to that general rule in the particular instance of defamation which broke up the repose and dignity of his latter days, and caused his self-exile from England for the remnant of his life. This brief notice of the painful fact is enough for truth and justice. As for the rest, he was of aristocratic birth, fortune, and education, with democracy for his political aim, and poverty and helplessness for his clients. All this would have made Walter Savage Landor a remarkable man in his generation, apart from his services to Literature; but when we recall some of his works — such pictures as that of the English officer shot at the Pyramids — such criticism as in his Pentameron — and discourses so elevating and so heart-moving as some which he has put into the mouths of heroes, sages, scholarly and noble women, and saintly and knightly men, we feel that our cumulative obligations to him are very great and that his death is a prominent incident of the time.