1883 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Letitia Elizabeth Landon

William Bates, after William Maginn; Maclise Gallery (1883; 1898) 200-05.



LADY! for thee a holier key shall harmonize the chord—
In Heaven's defence, Omnipotence drew an avenging sword;
But when the bolt had crush'd revolt, one angel, fair though frail,
Retain'd his lute, fond attribute! to charm that gloomy vale.
The lyre he kept, his wild hand swept; the music he'd awaken
Would sweetly thrill from the lonely hill where he sat apart forsaken;
There he'd lament his banishment, his thoughts to grief abandon,
And weep his full; 'twas pitiful to see him weep, fair LANDON.

He wept his fault! Hell's gloomy vault grew vocal with his song;
But all throughout, derision's shout burst from the guilty throng:
God pitying view'd his fortitude in that unhallow'd den;
Freed him from hell, but bade him dwell amid the sons of men.
Lady, for us, an exile thus, immortal Poesy
Came upon earth and lutes gave birth to sweetest minstrelsy;
And poets wrought their spell-words, taught by that angelic mind,
And music lent soft blandishment to fascinate mankind.

Religion rose! men sought repose in the shadow of her wings;
Music for her walk'd harbinger, and Genius touch'd the strings:
Tears from the tree of Araby cast on her altar burn'd,
But earth and wave most fragrance gave where Poetry sojourn'd.
Vainly, with hate inveterate, hell labour'd in its rage,
To persecute that angel's lute, and cross his pilgrimage;
Unmoved and calm, his songs pour'd balm on sorrow all the while:
Vice he unmask'd, but virtue bask'd in the radiance of his smile.

Oh! where, among the fair and young, or in what kingly court,
In what gay path, where Pleasure hath her favourite resort,
Where hast thou gone, angelic one? Back to thy native skies?
Or dost thou dwell in cloister'd cell, in pensive hermit's guise?
Methinks I ken a denizen of this our island — nay,
Leave me to guess, fair poetess! queen of the matchless lay!
The thrilling line, lady! is thine; the spirit pure and free;
And England views that angel muse, LANDON! reveal'd in THEE!

These fine lines, addressed to L. E. L., as the "Angel of Poetry," are a paraphrastic translation by "Father Prout," of that exquisite poem, "Je veux pour vous prendre un ton moins frivole," — one of the noblest and highest-wrought amid the songs of Beranger, and may seem a not inappropriate introduction to my few remarks upon this, the brightest, best-loved, earliest-lost, of the daughters of Song.

But first a word about the portrait before us, — the "funnily drawn plate of Miss Landon," as Rossetti terms it. It may, by the uninitiated in matters of art, be, at first sight, thought somewhat stiff and artificial; but Mr. Rossetti would cite it as an instance where the artist "allowed himself to render character by playful exaggeration of the most obvious kind"; and points out that "the kitten-like 'mignonnerie' required is attained by an amusing excess of daintiness in the proportions, with the duly charming result nevertheless." There is, also by Maclise, a charming stipple portrait, engraved by J. Thomson, as vignette title to the Drawing-Room Scrap-Book, for 1840, the editorship of which was then assumed by Mary Howitt. The three-line epigraph has a mournful note of pre-vision:

Alas! hope is not prophecy, — we dream,
But rarely does the glad fulfilment come,
We leave our land — and we return no more.

Laman Blanchard, who wrote her Life and edited her Remains (Colburn, 1841, 8vo), wrote a baker's dozen of quaint, clever quatrains, "On first seeing the Portrait of L. E. L." After exhausting the possible significance of the familiar trinity of initials, he concludes:—

Now fancy's dead; no thought can strike,
No guess, solution, stricture;
And L. E. L. is — simply like
This dainty little picture.

Life to her Lays! However Fame
'Mongst brightest names may set hers,
These three initials — nameless name—
Shall never be dead letters!

Poor L. E. L.! Many of us may yet remember the shock of grief, the vague terror, the dark surmise, that succeeded the news of her early fate, and the pity for one, of nature so tender, so refined, and so susceptible, who had thus early perished among strangers, in an unfamiliar home, and on a savage coast. But I anticipate.

LETITIA ELIZABETH LANDON was born at Hans Place, Chelsea, August 14th, 1802. 1 shall not dwell upon her early life, of which it is supposed that she has given the history in the last tale in her Trails and Trials of Early Life (1837). She had plenty of anxiety and trouble, we know. She was thrown an orphan upon the world; deprived of the patrimony that should have been hers, and neglected by the family that should have educated and provided for her. But she pushed bravely on, and found friends. Jerdan had sight of the earliest fruits of her muse, and encouraged them with his approbation (1822). To the Literary Gazette she was a very copious contributor for years, and the friendship of its genial conductor did much to stimulate her efforts, and gain for her acceptance with the public. Her earliest substantive work was published by Warren, of Bond Street, and is now quite forgotten. It is entitled The Fate of Adelaide, a Swiss Tale of Romance, and other Poems. Then followed her other works; first, The Improvisatrice and other Poems, in 1824, and in due succession, The Troubadour, The Golden Violet, The Venetian Bracelet. and The Vow of the Peacock, — all poems. These are full of elegant fancy and tender feeling; conventional rather than natural; wanting in individuality of character, and deficient in the concentration of thought and evidence of culture which characterize the higher orders of poetry. Many of these defects are probably due to early education and impulsiveness of character; and there is evidence that she was endeavouring, at the time of her death, to increase and systematize her knowledge, and refine her taste. In prose fiction, I only call to mind, at the present moment, her novels Romance and Reality, Francesca Carrara, and Ethel Churchill. Like her poems, these are marked by brilliant beauties and striking defects. In the two latter, which exhibit a marked improvement, the fair authoress has shown, under the characters of "Guido" and "Walter Maynard," her admiration of genius, and the view which she took of its probable fate; under those of "Francesca" and "Ethel," the sufferings which fall to the lot of high-minded and sensitive women.

Of the Drawing-Room Scrap-Book, which was edited by L. E. L., from its commencement in 1832 to 1839, and in which she was wont to say that some of her best poetry had appeared, I have already spoken. Another set of volumes of miniature size, bear on their title-pages the same well-known initials, and deserve special mention, as veritable curiosities of bibliography. I allude to the Bijou Almanachs, the proprietor of which was a personage well known to the London press, — A. Schloss, — sometime secretary to Staudigl, the singer, and afterwards employed in the office of Dickens's Household Words. The issue of 1837 was dedicated to Queen Adelaide. It was richly bound in gilt vellum; illustrated with miniature portraits of Malibran, Pastor and others, with fairy-like leaves of music; was enclosed in a case of purple velvet; and actually supplied with a magnifying glass to enable the reader to master its contents! It was in the issue of 1839 that the editress bade farewell to England.

"Latet anguis in herba." If the childhood of L. E. L. was not devoid of care, a dark cloud hangs over her womanhood, which I shall hardly feel inclined here to dispel or penetrate. Rumour was busy with her name, and slander whispered dark suspicions as to her maiden purity. Mrs. Thomson, in her Recollections of Literary Characters, speaks of "one false step"; Laman Blanchard, in his Life and Remains of L. E. L., vaguely hints at a mystery; Madden, in his Life of Lady Blessington, does the same; and Grantley Berkeley, in his Life and Reminiscences, offers (vol. iii. p. 185) "The true story of L. E. L.," but does not conclusively solve the enigma. According to the latter authority, — on which I do not place much reliance, — the fair poetess appealed to him to protect her from the persecutions of Dr. Maginn, who was making use of the critical power which he wielded, to compass her "personal seduction." Acting upon the advice of her chosen champion, Miss Landon excluded the "Doctor" from her house. The latter learnt the cause of the novel treatment, and revenged himself, by his truculent and scurrilous review of Berkeley Castle, upon its supposed cause. "Hinc illae lacrymae," — Fraser's flogging, Maginn's duel, the action-at-law, and the final kicks at the dead lion in the Reminiscences of the honourable author. Other stories are afloat, and other names have been mentioned. A letter from Lady Blessington (January 29th, 1839) speaks of two editors, both married men, as by public report, Miss Landon's lovers. Mrs. S. C. Hall, while defending her purity, conflictingly acknowledges that her conduct with Maginn was "extremely imprudent"; and admits that she engaged in a correspondence with him that excited the jealousy of his wife; while Berkeley styles one of her alleged paramours "a hoary ruffian," and openly calls Maginn her "murderer." S. C. Hall — and no one was more competent to judge — speaks of the "misconception which embittered her whole life, which made Fame a mockery, and Glory a deceit"; — and, attributing it, in the main, to the "large secretiveness which was her bane," says that "a slander more utterly groundless was never propagated." Bulwer, in a noble vindicatory letter to Laman Blanchard, alludes to the "calumny," to which, he says, he would never listen; and exclaims, "even if partially true, what excuses! Friendless, alone, with that lively fancy, — no mother, no guide, no protector. Who could be more exposed? Who should be more pitied?" But I have said enough, and leave the matter for the further investigation of the curious reader, in aid of which I have given the foregoing indications. Certain it is that Maginn was deeply attached to Miss Landon; his feeling for the fair poetess constituting, according to his biographer, Kenealy, "one of the most remarkable features of his life." He is said to have contributed at least a fourth of the poetry in the Drawing-Room Scrap-Book, when it was under her guidance; he was disconsolate at her death, and almost lost his senses for two days; and he fancied that he saw, and conversed with, her attendant spirit, in the last hours of his life.

About 1826, the time approached for the marriage of L. E. L. to a gentleman who had long been her literary adviser and firm friend; and it was thought right that the reports which affected her fair fame should be traced, if possible, to their source. This was done; and I believe that it was satisfactorily shown to all parties that they were destitute of foundation. The name of the gentleman in question has been hitherto, withheld; but I see no cause for reticence now, and believe that I am correct in stating that it was the late John Forster, the biographer of Dickens, who was to have been honoured with the hand of the poetess. His behaviour throughout was of the most honourable character, and he was perfectly willing to carry out the engagement. But the lady determined to break it off; the mental worry and pain brought a severe illness upon her; and a few months after her recovery, to the astonishment of all her friends, she accepted a proposition of matrimony from Mr. George Maclean, Governor of Cape Coast Settlement, in West Africa. She was married June 7th, 1838, by her brother, the Rev. Whittington Landon, and "given away" by her staunch friend and admirer Sir Edward Lytton Bulwer; sailed from Portsmouth July 5th; landed at the Cape August 16th, after a prosperous voyage, during which her pen was not idle; and was at once installed as the responsible mistress of Cape Coast Castle.

Two short months of apparent peace and contentment passed away in her new home, to the duties and habits of which she seemed to be growing accustomed, when on October 15th, 1838, she was found dead on the floor of her bedroom, with an empty bottle in her hand, labelled "Acid. Hydrocyanicum Dilutum Pharm. Lond. 1836," — that terrible agent which Shelley termed the "golden key to the chamber of perpetual rest," and which he said it was a comfort always to have about one. An inquest took place, on which her husband deposed that she was subject to spasms and hysterical affections, and had been in the habit of using the medicine as a remedy, as prescribed by her former medical attendant in London. Mr. Cobbold, her then medical adviser, gave his opinion that death had been caused by an improper use of the medicine; and the jury returned the verdict that it was the result "of her having incautiously taken an overdose of prussic acid, which from evidence, it appeared she was in the habit of taking as a remedy for spasmodic affections to which she was subject." With the opinion thus expressed we must be content, though doubt and dissatisfaction prevailed at the time. The husband, whose reluctance to fulfil his matrimonial engagement, had been subject of public comment, fell under grave suspicion; and dark hints were rife of a treacherous page, a poisoned cup of coffee, and a native mistress. A rigid inquiry into all the circumstances of the fearful tragedy was made by Dr. Madden, who visited Cape Coast a few months after its occurrence, and resulted in the conviction that the unfortunate lady had actually died of an overdose of prussic acid, administered by herself; but whether accidentally or designedly, there was no further evidence to show. Here, however, it is right to mention, as militating against the conclusion involved in the latter supposition, that two letters are extant, the one written probably on the evening before her decease, and the other on the fatal morning. The latter was produced by Mr. Maclean at the inquest, as affording evidence of the happy and contented state of the writer's mind; and the former, which was on its way to England, is not less cheerful in tone. Both are addressed to Mrs. S. C. Hall, one of the earliest and most esteemed of her friends; were published by that lady in the Times; and thence transferred to the Gentleman's Magazine for February, 1839, p. 150. Other important evidence in the elucidation of the mystery is not wanting. Bulwer, in the letter to Blanchard which I have already cited, writes, "I conclude from your letter that the persecutors were not contented with exile, and that their malice found her in Africa." Shortly after the news of the sad occurrence, the suspicious death became the subject of conversation at the table of Dr. Anthony Todd Thomson the eminent physician. "I knew her well," said he, "and attended her from her infancy; she was the last woman whom I should have supposed likely to destroy herself. She was said to have died from prussic acid. Now I fitted out the medicine chest she took with her to Cape Coast Castle, and know that there was no prussic acid in her possession. I am convinced that she did not die from its effects, and we must seek for her death from some other cause." [Author's note: Autobiographical Reminiscences of the Medical Profession, by J. F. Clarke, 1874, 8vo, page 308.]

I must conclude. As Lord Byron was wont to date the later events of his life from "his funeral with Miss Milbanke," so the "baked meats" of poor L. E. L.'s marriage might have furnished forth her burial breakfast. It has been remarked that the features of Charles Stuart bore an expression of sadness prophetic of his doom; and in like manner, a peculiar and marked characteristic of Miss Landon's writings is the pervading feeling of blight, disappointment, and misery, and the prevision of untimely and solitary death:—

Sad were my shades; methinks they had
Almost a tone of prophecy—
I ever had from earliest youth,
A feeling what my fate would be.

"Whether," writes the late William Howitt, "the melancholy belief in the tendency of the great subject of her writings, both in prose and poetry; this irresistible annunciation, like another Cassandra, of woe and desolation; this evolution of scenes and characters in her last work, bearing such dark resemblance to those of her own after-experience; this tendency in all her plots to a tragic catastrophe, and this final tragedy itself, — whether these be all mere coincidences, or not, they are still but the parts of an unsolved mystery. If they be, they are more than strange, and ought to make us superstitious. But surely, if ever 'Coming events cast their shadow before,' they did so in the foreboding tone of this gifted spirit."

Still, after all, this kind of thing may be but the natural reaction of a gay and joyous temperament, delighting in contrast, — just as Thomson, who used to lie in bed all day because there was nothing worth getting up for, was eloquent in praise of early rising. But this peculiarity is, nevertheless, curious as a coincidence; as also is the frequent mention of Prussic acid in connection with one of her characters — "Lady Marchmont," in Ethel Churchill.

As I began with verse, so do I round off with some fine stanzas, by Charles Swain, to the memory of L. E. L., in the Friendship's Offering shortly after her death:—

Still mourns Erinna — ever by that coast,
Whose dismal winds shriek to each weeping cloud
Whose waves sweep solemn as a funeral host,
Still mourns the Loves' own Minstrel, in her shroud;
The Sappho of that Isle, in genius proud;
The IMPROVISATRICE of our land;
The daughter of our soil — our fame-endow'd!
For her Erinna seeks the fatal strand,
And lifts to distant shores her woe-prophetic hand!

The blighted one! the breast, whose sister-tear
Sprang to each touch of feeling — heaves no more!
Our LANDON, silent on her funeral bier,
Far from our hearth, sleeps on a foreign shore.
The voice of her, — the song-inspired, — is o'er.
Oh! she who wept for others, found no tone
To soothe the many parting griefs she bore;
Nor had a tear for that sweet spirit lone,
All sorrows found a balm save that fair minstrel's one!

Thou, who receivedst her rose-encircled head,
Our Minstrel, in the bloom of her young fame,
Give back our lost and loved! Restore our dead!
Return once more her first and dearest name!
We claim her ashes! 'tis a nation's claim!
Her, in her wealth of mind, to thee we gave
Yet plead we for the dust of that dear frame;
Oh, bear our world-lamented o'er the wave!
Let England hold at last, — 'tis all she asks — her grave! — 1840.

The plea was never answered; and L. E. L. sleeps on in the barren sands of Africa, where "the mournful music of the billows, to which she listened in her solitary sea-girt dwelling, is now the dirge that resounds o'er her distant grave."