1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Walter Savage Landor

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:350-51.



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 1793. 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. On succeeding to the family estate, Mr. Landor sold it off, and purchased two others in Monmouthshire, where it is said he expended nearly £70,000 in improvements. The ill conduct of some of his tenants mortified and exasperated the sensitive land-owner to such a degree, that he pulled down a fine house which he had erected, and left the country for Italy, where he has chiefly resided since the year 1815. Mr. Landor's works consist of Gebir, a poem; dramas entitled Andrea of Hungary, Giovanni of Naples, Fra Rupert, Pericles and Aspasia, &c. His principal prose work is a series of Imaginary Conversations of Literary Men and Statesmen, three volumes of which were published in 1824, and three more in 1836. In Gebir there is a fine passage, amplified by Mr. Wordsworth in his Excursion, which describes the sound which sea-shells seem to make when placed close to the ear:—

And I have sinuous shells of pearly hue;
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, a tragedy founded on Spanish story, 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 immoveable,
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 massy 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 e'er land and sea,
Then join my friends, and let these 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 more recent 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 hid 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 beat, 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, entitled 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 beheld 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 will be remembered rather as a prose writer than a poet, and yet his writings of that kind are marked by singular and great blemishes. A moody egotistic nature, ill at ease with the common timings of life, has flourished up in his case into a most portentous crop of crotchets and prejudices, which, regardless of the reprobation of his fellowmen, he issues 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 him own professed opinions may be consistent with each other: hence he contradicts himself almost as often as any other body. Jeffrey, in one of his meet 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. To agree with it is an impertinence; to differ from it a crime. It tramples on old prejudices; it is jealous of new pretensions. It seizes with avidity on all that is startling or obnoxious in opinions, and when they are countenanced by any one else, discards them as no longer fit for its use. Thus persons of this temper affect atheism by way of distinction; and if they can succeed in bringing it into fashion, become orthodox again, in order not to be with the vulgar. Their creed is at the mercy of every one who assents to, or who contradicts it. 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 fire-arms, and return to the use of the bow, he will not deem this general description far from inapplicable in the case. And yet the Imaginary Conversations and other writings of Mr. Landor are amongst the most remarkable prose productions of our age, written in pure nervous English, and foil of thoughts which fasten themselves on the mind, and are "a joy for ever."