1853 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Letitia Elizabeth Landon

Frederic Rowton, in Female Poets of Great Britian (1853) 424-27.



This remarkable writer, better known perhaps as Miss Landon, or L. E. L., may, I think, be considered the Byron of our poetesses. In character, history, and genius, there are not a few striking points of similitude between her and the great bard referred to: both acquired a world-wide fame in youth; both were shamefully maligned and misrepresented; both became gloomy and misanthropical under the falsehoods asserted of them; both died young, and abroad.

Mrs. Maclean's history is perhaps the more tragic of the two. Early deprived of parental care and assistance, she had almost from childhood to struggle with the worst difficulties of life; and none but those who have experienced similiar endurances can understand how much a young warm heart can be chilled by them, and changed for the worse. When her circumstances became ameliorated by her success in literature, she had to contend against the worst evils of over-praise, unjust censure, and infamous slander. Can we wonder that she acquired unhealthy views of life? Ought we not rather to wonder that her sentiments are on the whole as sound as we find them? Oh, the world is a hard task-master. It first spoils its pupil, and then complains of his deficiencies! Finally, in the zenith of her fame, Mrs. Maclean, formed, more than most beings, for social intercourse, quits her country and her friends, for a solitary home on the coast of Africa: there to pine in loneliness for a month or two, and then to die. Yes! it is a very mournful story.

Of Mrs. Maclean's genius there can be but one opinion. It is distinguished by very great intellectual power, a highly sensitive and ardent imagination, an intense fervour of passionate emotion, and almost unequalled eloquence and fluency. Of mere art she displays but little. Her style is irregular and careless, and her painting sketchy and rough: but there is genius enough in every line she has written.

Mrs. Maclean has herself given us a just portraiture of her peculiar powers. In the concluding lines of her fine poem entitled The Golden Violet, she says

If that I know myself what keys
Yield to my hand their sympathies,
I should say 'tis those whose tone
Is Woman's Love and Sorrow's own.

No writer certainly has written more of Love and Sorrow than Mrs. Maclean. She touches scarcely any other strings. I called her the female Byron: in this respect she is particularly so. Passion and Sadness are the idols of her pen. She herself says

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.

Her love passages are certainly not inferior to Byron's. I would cite the following lines from The Improvisatrice in proof:

I lov'd him as a young Genius loves,
When its own mild and radiant heaven
Of starry thought burns with the light,
The love, the life, by passion given.
I loved him, too, as woman loves—
Reckless of sorrow, sin, or scorn:
Life had no evil destiny
That, with him, I could not have borne! [...]

That Mrs. Maclean could paint Sorrow as well as she could delineate Love we have plenty of proof. Sorrow seems indeed an essential part of her nature. Persons who knew her intimately say that she was not naturally sad: that she was all gaiety and cheerfulness: but there is a mournfulness of soul which is never to be seen on the cheek or in the eye: and this I believe to have dwelt in Mrs. Maclean's breast more than in most people's. How otherwise are we to understand her poetry? We cannot believe her sadness to have been put on like a player's garb: to have been an affectation, an unreality: it is too earnest for that. We must suppose that she felt what she wrote: and if so, her written sadness was real sadness.