1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Walter Savage Landor

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 99-100.



A name mixed up with those of the poets of the Lake School, for much of good and evil, is that of Walter Savage Landor. I can only afford to glance at him here; for although, as an author, he looms large in the distance, the grand basis of his reputation is not poetry. The style, tone, idiom, and manner of Landor are all quite un-English. He never acquired the Saxon geniality of his mother tongue; and his Gebir, Count Julian, and many of his other poems, read exactly like translations, closely rendered. His long residence in a foreign country will not quite account for this; for a large part of his verse was composed long ere he had left England for Italy.

With many high excellencies, Landor's poetry must ever remain "a sealed book" to the multitude; for whoever prefers to the obviously sublime, beautiful, and true, the grotesque, the visionary, and the involved, must submit to be admired by the capricious select, who can alone relish such elements in composition. In the case of Savage Landor, this waywardness is the more to be regretted as in his genius there are elements, vigorous, fine, and fresh, which might have enabled his muse to soar with eagle pinion high over Parnassus. He seems, however, all along, to have systematically addressed himself only to the ear of an audience "fit, though few," and even to ignore the competency of a popular tribunal. He moulds exclusively according to the antique, and often with classical severity; but although quite willing to admit his general power, I cannot help thinking that his independence of thought not infrequently degenerates into a tone something like proud self-sufficiency. We have genius, learning, and knowledge, ever apparently in abundance, but ever of a very peculiar kind; and often, after all, from a sheer love of paradox, he follows, by a side-wind, the very authorities apparently held in contempt. His poetic diction is involved and difficult, obscure from never-ending attempts at compression, and only redeemed by a picturesque power, and a word-painting, in which he was subsequently followed by Hunt, Keats, and Tennyson. His imagery is cold and statuesque — "we start, for life is wanting there;" but the habit of composing his pieces first in Latin, and then translating them into his mother tongue — said to be his actual practice — may readily be set down as a main source of their obscurity and apparent affectation. He has nothing like geniality of feeling, or warmth of colouring, in his portraits or pictures. His wit is cumbrous when he exhibits point, it is rather the poisoned sting than the exciting spur and his glitter can only be compared to sunshine refracted from an icicle. These remarks apply solely to the verse of Landor. As the author of the Imaginary Conversations, and The Trial of Shakspeare, he is an Antaeus on his proper soil.