1855 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Letitia Elizabeth Landon

Sarah Josepha Hale, Woman's Record; or, Sketches of all Distinguished Women (1852; 1855) 382-84.



LETITIA ELIZABETH LANDON, generally known as L. E. L., in consequence of having first published under her initials only, was born at Hans Place, Chelsea, in 1802. Her father, Mr. Landon, was a partner in the house of Adairs, army agents. When about seven years of age, Miss Landon's parents removed to Trevor Park, not far from East Barnet, where, amidst scenes vividly depicted in various passages in her later works, were passed many of the happiest days of her childhood. In the "Traits and Trials of Early Life," in ''The History of a Child," she is supposed to have pourtrayed that of her own early years; but the account is part romance and part reality: She describes "a large, old, and somewhat dilapidated place," — of which "only part of the grounds were kept in their original high order." Here she was wont "to wander in the almost deserted shrubberies, where the flowers grew in all the luxuriance of neglect over the walls." According to the same fictitious picture, on a small island, in a deep pond, almost dark with the depth of shadow, and partly covered with water-lilies, "with the large green leaves that support the loveliest of ivory boats, fit for the fairy queen and her summer court," grew one curiously-shaped but huge yew-tree, and in the shadows of this gloomy tree the embryo poetess was wont to conceal herself for the whole of her playtime, "chewing the cud of sweet and bitter fancy," and brooding over the troubles and sorrows which necessarily await every shy and sensitive person, and which are perhaps never more acutely felt than n the days of early childhood. Her childhood, however, was cheerful and often joyous.

In 1815, when Miss Landon was about thirteen years of age, the family quitted Trevor Park; and after a twelvemonths' residence at Lewis Place, Fulham, Mr. Landon removed to Brompton, where a considerable part of his daughter's youth was passed, excepting a year or two spent with her grandmother in Sloane street, and some occasional visits to her relations. Here, no sooner was she emancipated from the school-room, and allowed to pursue the bent of her own mind, than her poetical reveries were committed to paper; and through the encouraging kindness of Mr. Jerdan, the editor of the Literary Gazette, to whose judgment they were submitted, while still in her teens, the youthful writer had the pleasure of seeing some of her verses first appear in print, in the pages of that periodical, and visions of fame, perhaps, in some degree, comforted her for the reverses to which her family were then beginning to be subjected.

"The Fate of Adelaide," a romantic tale, and some minor poems, were published in 1821, when Miss Landon was nineteen; and the first of her principal poetical works was issued in 1824. In the summer of 1825, the "Troubadour" appeared, and some other volumes of her poetry.

Her father died about this time, and Miss Landon's literary exertions were directed to support her family and assist her brother. An extract from a letter of hers touchingly alludes to the painful circumstances in which this delicate daughter of the muse was placed:

"The more I think of my past life, and of my future prospects, the more dreary do they seen. I have known little else than privation, disappointment, unkindness, and harassment; from the time I was fifteen, my life has been one continual struggle, in some shape or other, against absolute poverty; and I must say not a tithe of my profit have I ever expended on myself. And here I can not but allude to the remarks on my dress. It is easy for those whose only trouble on that head is change, to find fault with one who never in her life knew what it was to have two dresses at a time. No one knows but myself what I have had to contend with."

Miss Landon has herself remarked, that "a history of the how and where works of imagination have been produced, would often be more extraordinary than the works themselves." A friend of hers observes, that ''though a dilettante of literature would assign for the scene of her authorship a fairy-like boudoir, with rose-coloured and silver hangings, filled with all the luxuries of a fastidious taste," yet the reality was of a very different nature; for though her drawing-room was prettily furnished, it was her invariable habit to write in her bed-room, — "a homely-looking, almost uncomfortable room, fronting the street, and barely furnished — with a simple white bed, at the foot of which was a small, old, oblong-shaped sort of dressing-table, quite covered with a common worn writing-desk, heaped with papers, while some strewed the ground, the table being too small for aught besides the desk. A little high-backed cane chair, which gave you any idea but that of comfort, and a few books scattered about, completed the author's paraphernalia."

"Miss Landon was not strictly handsome, her eyes being the only good feature in her face; but her countenance was intellectual and piquant, and her figure slight and beautifully proportioned. Altogether, however, her clear complexion, dark hair and eyes, the vivacious expression with which the latter were lighted up when animated and in good health, combined with her kind and fascinating manners, to render her extremely attractive: so that the rustic expression of sentiment from the Ettrick Shepherd, when he was first introduced to her, 'I did nae think ye had been sae bonny,' was perhaps the feeling experienced by many when they first beheld L. E. L."

Such is the portrait of this fascinating writer, drawn by one of her biographers. William Howitt, in his notice of Miss Landon, gives a sweeter touch to the picture. "Your first impressions of her were — what a little, light, simple-looking girl! If you had not been aware of her being a popular poetess, you would have suspected her of nothing more than an agreeable, bright, and joyous young lady. This feeling in her own house, or among a few congenial people, was quickly followed by a feeling of the kind-heartedness and goodness about her. You felt that you could not be long with her without loving her."

In her later productions, Miss Landon greatly improved in the philosophy of her art. She addresses other feelings besides love; her style has more simplicity and strength, and the sentiment becomes elevated and womanly — for we hold that the loftiest, purest, and best qualities of our nature, the moral feelings, are peculiarly suitable, for their development and description, to the genius of woman. "The Lost Pleiad" and "The History of the Lyre," have many passages of true and simple feeling, united with an elevated moral sentiment, and that accurate knowledge of life, which shows the observing and reasoning mind in rapid progress. Such are the following passages;—

Can that man be dead
Whose spiritual influence is upon his kind?
He lives in glory; and such speaking dust
Has more of life thus half its breathing moulds.
Welcome a grave, with memories such as these,
Making the sunshine of our moral world.
———*———*———*———*———
Love mine, I know toy weakness, and I know
How far I fall short of the glorious goal
I purpose to myself; yet if one line
Has stolen from the eye unconscious tears,
Recalled one lover to fidelity,
Which in the holiness of love — or bade
One maiden sicken at cold vanity,
When dreaming o'er affection's tenderness,
The deep, the true, the honoured of my song,—
If but one worldly soil has been effaced,
That song has not been utterly in vain.
One true, deep feeling purifies the heart.

In 1838, Miss Landon married George Maclean, governor of Cape-Coast castle, and soon after sailed for Cape-Coast with her husband. She landed there in August, and was resuming, for the benefit of her family in England, her literary engagements in her solitary African home, when one morning, after writing the previous night some cheerful and affectionate letters to her friends in England, she was (October 16th) found dead in her room, with a bottle, which had contained prussic acid, in her hand. It was conjectured that she had undesignedly taken an overdose of this fatal medicine, as a relief from spasms in the stomach, to which she was subject. Her last poems are superior in freedom, force, and originality, to her first. She is most distinguished for her poetical writings, though her tales and romances show great wit, vivacity, and knowledge of life. Her principal poetical works are "The Improvisatrice;" ''The Troubadour;" "The Golden Violet;" "The Golden Bracelet;" and "This Vow of the Peacock." Besides these, she has written three novels, "Romance and Reality;" "Francesca Carrera;" and ''Ethel Churchill;" and a volume of tales, entitled "Traits and Trials," in which she is supposed to have depicted the history of her own childhood. She was a frequent contributor to many of the periodicals, and nearly all the annuals of the day. Many of her best poems were written for those publications, and may be found in "Literary Remains of L. E. L., with Memoirs of her Life." Edited by Laman Blanchard. In our selections, we will cull a few of this aphorisms and sentiments which make her prose remarkable for its boldness of truth and sympathy will, "those who suffer and are sad."