1845 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Walter Savage Landor

George Gilfillan, "Walter Savage Landor" Gallery of Literary Portraits (1845) 232-37.



Among the great unknowns or half-knowns of the day, there are few less generally appreciated than the author of Gebir, the Imaginary Conversations, and the Examination of Shakspeare. We remember once asking at the keeper of a large public library if he had any of Landor's works? The reply was, "None, except his Travels in Africa. Has he written any more?" confounding him, "proh pudor!" with Clapperton's enterprising body-man. It was in keeping with the story of a person in a commercial town, who, when some wight from Edinburgh was speaking of Coleridge and Shelley, asked eagerly, "What firm is that? I never heard of it before; does it drive a good business?" And yet there are not many authors of the age about whom Posterity will make more particular inquiries, than about this same recluse, saturnine, and high-minded Savage. His soul is deeply steeped in the proud element of the past. He is not only a man of profound and varied erudition, but he lives and has his being in the olden time. His style is dyed in antiquity; his genius wears upon its wings, like a rich sunset, the hues of all perished ages. He goes farther back than Scott, whose view was bounded by the tenth century, who never could reproduce the classical periods, and whose sympathies were principally with the Gothic in the human soul. Landor, on the contrary, is a Greek, and yet holds of the romantic, school too; — loves equally the stately and buskined heroes of Athenian song, and the "serene creators of immortal things," who have written in the "shadow of Skiddaw and by Grasmere springs." He is a solitary enthusiast sitting with half-shut eye in his still study, or under the groves of golden Italy, and in quaint dialogue or fine pantomime conversing with the past. The "dead, but sceptred sovereigns, who still rule our spirits from their urns," appear at his spell, and range themselves around him. Pericles, the Jupiter of Athens, stands with folded arms and collected might, as when he wont to "shake the arsenal and fulmine over Greece." Aspasia bends beside him her majestic form, and turns toward him her lovelit eyes. Alcibiades, a restless shade, wanders to and fro. Spenser stands up serene, pouring out melancholy and mellow accents, as erst on "Mulla's shore." Shakspeare's divine front — Milton's eyes, twinkling in vain to find the day — Cromwell's haggard countenance — Chatham's face inflamed, and tempestuous gesture — Fox's choking accents of fervour — Pitt's stately solemnity — Napoleon's eagle gaze — Southey's form, erect as his own holly tree — the large gray eyes of Porson, — are all reproduced as in a magic mirror, and the soul of the day-dreamer is glad. He speaks to them in their own language, for he has learned "the large utterance of those early Gods," and, as a younger brother, do they make him, too, free of their awful policy, and admit him into their lofty circle. Landor is suited for a former age; — Greece in the days of its glory, or Rome when still a republic, or England when Elizabeth was on the throne, Burleigh in the council, Raleigh on the deck, Bacon on the woolsack, Shakspeare on the stage — any of these ages would have been the element of his spirit. The dim light of imperfect civilization, when rare, but rude virtues, and gigantic intellects, towering at deep angles from the crowd, loomed most largely, would have been the light for him. Every thing about him — his thought, his style, his disinterested daring of tone and spirit, the air of eld which breathes around, remind us of primitive ages, when the human heart, the human soul, the human size, were larger than now — when the heavens were nearer, the skies clearer, the clouds more gorgeous, the foam of the sea brighter, the fat of the earth richer, than in our degenerate days — when the sense of the ideal, and the infinite, of things unseen and eternal, still overtopped the seen, the tangible, and the temporal — when in our groves were still seen the shadows of angels, and on our mountains the smoking footsteps of God. How can such a man sympathize with the ongoings of an age like this? How turn from marking the fine parabola of the eagle's flight to watch the bickering movements of a railway train? No wonder, that while love and admiration are freely accorded by him to the past, his abiding feeling for the present is disdain. Some such feeling does at times curl his lip, and ruffle the deep of his mind. You see it, they tell us, in his air of reserve and haughty bearing. You see it, we know, in the impatient, large, fierce, and contemptuous character of his handwriting, as if it were beneath him to sign his name. You have it dashed in your face in those ebullitions of personal and political prejudice by which it, pleases him to spoil the symmetry and mar the spirit of his best speculations, and to cause the very voices of the dead to ventriloquize the passions of his nature. You see it in the extreme fastidiousness of his taste, and the unmitigated harshness of the verdicts he passes on contemporary talent. Yet even in this disdain there is something noble; — it resembles what we could imagine the feeling of some superhuman potentate, cast down from his starry throne to a subordinate station on earth, or that of one of the great of antiquity fallen from his high estate and. heroic age upon the evil days and evil tongues of a cold and late generation; or he may be compared to his own shell, which might be conceived to mingle contempt for the commonplace ornaments by which it is surrounded, with the joy wherewith—

Pleased it remembers its august abodes,
And murmurs as the ocean murmurs there.

These are the far-famed lines on a shell, which Wordsworth has imitated, and every body praised, and which, if they will not immortalize the name of Landor, nor embalm the poem of Gebir, where they occur, have assuredly immortalized and embalmed themselves. And never, in remotest time, shall any one who has once heard or read them gaze into the white depth of the child of ocean, or apply to his ear its polished coolness, and hear, or seem to hear, the faint and far-off murmur of the main, without imagining that these are the words which the gentle oracle is uttering, and this the meaning of the spiritual and mysterious music. They are among those rare lines which, giving to a common thought or belief an expression poetic and ideally perfect, stamp themselves at once on the heart and memory of the world. Enviable the powers which, by one true and strong line, render oblivion impossible. Who does not bless the nameless warrior who has left the noble epitaph, "Siste ciator, heroem caleas," as his sole memorial; and with deeper gratitude the Eton boy, also nameless, who, when verses were prescribed on the miracle of turning water into wine, brought up the single line, "Vidit et erubuit pudica Deum?" So cheaply, sometimes, does genius purchase immortal fame. But, apart from those felicitous lines, the Conversations form the main pillar of Landor's reputation. They are too often, it is true, destitute of vraisemblance and dramatic skill; too often resemble uneasy interlocutions between the various faculties and phases of one mind; are poisoned by political allusion; swarm with quaintnesses and crotchets; nor are the speeches always characteristic; nor do the speakers, in Boswell phrase, always "talk their best." The Second Dialogue, published in Blackwood, between Southey and Porson, is senselessly and malignantly minute. No poetry can stand such criticism. It is itself a proof — Coleridge to the contrary, notwithstanding — that malevolence may clothe itself in wealthy and redundant imagery, and remain malevolence still. We surrender it entire into the hands of its clever caricaturist. Not so Tasso and Cornelia, where, at length, the quicksilver of that strange mind is caught and fixed. It is worth many "Laments of Tasso." How delicately contrasted is the wayward irritability of the poet, and the more than motherly tenderness of the sister. It is "love watching madness with unalterable mien." Glide where the wild river of his mind may, she follows it like a soft green bank, at once restraining and beautifying its course. In all those dialogues we are compelled to admire the hoarded wisdom — the familiarity with the details of the most distant periods — the original apothegms — the infinite variety and quaint felicity of illustration. And we reflect with keen regret on the fantastic, and fragmentary form in which they present themselves to our notice. In these "disjecta membra" he has scattered and shattered powers, adequate to the most heroic tasks. He has sent forth a flight of November meteors when he might have built up a sun.

Such is, perhaps we should say such was, Walter Savage Landor, who deems himself a hero in an unheroic age — a giant in Lilliput — and who is a sleep-walker amid the passing crowd. Gifted, in the very prodigality of nature, with "energic reason and a shaping mind," — with penetration, fancy, eloquence of a jagged brilliance, and an unrivalled power of reproducing and rekindling the cold ashes of the past, he has become little more than the echo-cliff, catching, concentrating, warping, repeating the varied voices of antiquity; and a picturesque, towering station he thus holds. Like Mont Blanc reflecting the light of day after it has died to the valley, does he shower upon us the relict radiance of other ages. This is the high end he has in part fulfilled, and which in part covers his coldness and contempt for the "ignorant present time," his faults of taste, and acerbities of temper. Enough surely for one man, in a period when labour is so intensely divided, when every corner of the literary vineyard is so fully occupied, to have heated the Athenian age in his Pericles and Aspasia; to have unrolled the shroud of Shakspere; "built up" that pile of forehead, cleansed and kindled those sagacious eyes, and put into those rich revived lips words not unworthy of the myriad-minded, in the Examination; in his poetry to have illumined the intrenched obscurities of his unavoidable style by gleams of rare power and beauty; and in the Imaginary Conversations to have ranged over every age — shooting his soul into sages, and statesmen, and poets, and grammarians, and conquerors of every shape and degree — catching their spirit — dissecting their motives — thinking their thoughts — speaking their words, yet casting into, and over all, the peculiarity and boldness of his own intellect.