Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. Macneile Dixon
Walter Savage Landor (17751864)
[Walter Savage Landor, the son of a Warwick physician, was born in 1775. At Rugby, where he was partly educated, the ungovernable temper that brought so much misery into his life displayed itself from the first, and at the headmasters request he was removed. A private tutor prepared him for the University, and at eighteen he entered Trinity College, Oxford, but was rusticated in 1794. The rustication led to a quarrel with his father, and he left home for London, where during a short residence he published his first volume of Poems (1795). After a reconciliation with his father Landor retired on an allowance to South Wales, where he wrote Gebir, published in 1798. On his fathers death in 1805 he settled in Bath, and in 1808 went on an expedition to Spain to assist in driving out the French armies of occupation. After his return he purchased the estate of Llanthony in Wales, and in 1811 married a Miss Thuiller. In the same year he published Count Julian. In 1814 came the first of a series of quarrels with his wife, and Landor crossed to France alone. A reconciliation was brought about in the following year, and until 1835 the Landors lived in Italy, where their eldest son was born in 1817. During these years spent at Como, Pisa, Florence, and Fiesole were written the Imaginary Conversations (vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5), and in 1834 the Citation and Examination of William Shakespeare. A second serious quarrel with his wife took place in 1835, and Landor returned to England. Pericles and Aspasia was published in 1836, and the Pentameron in 1837. From 1838 until 1857 he resided at Bath, and published a new series of the Imaginary Conversations in 1846; the Hellenics and a collection of Latin poems [Pmata et Inscriptiones) in 1847. In 1853 appeared Imaginary Conversations of Greeks and Romans and the Last Fruit off an Old Tree. Landors conduct at Bath involved him in grave difficulties arising out of quarrels and scandals, which culminated in a law-suit on the publication of Dry Sticks fagoted by W. S. Landor. While the suit was pending he left England for the last time, and judgment, with a thousand pounds costs, was given against him in his absence. Finding life with his family at his Villa Gherardesca in Fiesole impossible, on the advice of Robert Browning and other friends, he took rooms for himself in Florence, where in 1863 he published Heroic Idyls, his last work. Landor died at Florence in 1864.]
LANDOR is the great solitary of English literature. So strangely were the elements mixed in him, that, with many of the qualities that endear men to their fellows, to keep on terms with society was too severe a tax upon his temper. Nor are the friends of the author much more numerous than were those of the man. He was content to keep his way apart in life, and content too that the path he trod as a writer should be little travelled. I shall dine late, he said, but the dining-room will be well lighted, the guests few and select. They are few and select, and Landor, who was not a man of his time, will never be the peoples man. At an epoch, when the cold fires of the classic ritual of eighteenth-century literature began to pale before the passion and colour and mystery of the mediæval revival, with singular indifference to contemporary fashion he began to speak English with a purer classic accent than had yet been heard in the modern world. And the modern world, with its complex interests, its haste and excitement and widening horizons, could not stay to appreciate the unemphasised attraction of themes of mere abstract intellectual moment, however finely articulated the thought, or linger to admire austere beauty of style or the quiet justice of a perfect phrase. And Landor had no stirring message for his time, no revelation, like Wordsworths, of neglected or undiscovered truth; nor did he write, as did Byron, to make public confession of the sins and disappointments of his life. Not so much because of the classic severity of his form, as because his attitude, his way of thought belong to the pre-Christian world, because he lacks the spirituality, the ethical fervour and elevation that the modern world demands, is he likely to remain a solitary. His own favourites among the greater writers of the past were not those in whom our later age still finds succour for its spiritual needs. Cicero and Ovid and Plutarch were his close intellectual companions and allies; but for Plato and Dante he had no real affection, and Milton he worshipped not as a Puritan, nor for the Hebraic spirit of his theology, but because he was a hater of tyranny and an artist in the great style. His aloofness from the problems that trouble us, the serene distinction with which he sits apart, this and the fact that his ethical code is the code of the fine gentleman who is also a scholar and philosopher, rather than the Christian, give Landor unique place and audience among the writers of the century. And though where he shines, he shines with a brilliance splendid and unborrowed; though at times the heroic, at times the tender strain of his eloquence wins its way to the heart; one cannot accept him as a guide to life or feel that in his company the human mind takes any step in advance.
For an author who makes such continual demand upon our appreciation, who is so full of fine thoughts, Landor is singularly disconnected, frequently unreasonable; and, since his creed of rebellion against kings and priests is merely passionate and elementary, to take him seriously, as we take Milton, in his disquisitions upon politics or religion is impossible. A search for any underlying unity in his thought would be in vain, the lack of sequence in his ideas is a weariness to the reader, and, if it can be said with truth that his writings present any philosophy, it is an unschematised philosophy that bears no fruit.
But when all this has been said, the rest is admiration. Let it not be claimed for Landor that he is a creative artist of the first order, a sure critic of art or life, that he reaches the sympathies that lie at the roots of our higher spiritual nature. He is a critic of genius, a writer of indisputable originality, who in his best moments mingles a marvellous grace and sweetness with his strength, displays a largeness and sanity in his choice of subject as in the management of his form, and preserves throughout his work a certain royalty of mien, writing as one familiar with great circumstances and great men.
Unlike most poets he preferred his prose to his poetryPoetry was always my amusement, prose my study and businessand he was unlike them in this also that, while the law under which he worked was the law of the severest parsimony, he permitted himself indulgence in a richer vein of fancy and employed a more copious imagery in his prose than in his verse. The Imaginary Conversations compel an interest somewhat akin to the interest of Plutarch. We have in English no such storehouse of epigrammata weighty with a simple gravity of thought, nor, save in the plays of Shakespeare, an equal body of writing which presents such noble groups of men and women with more natural directness or with purer human feeling. For these reasons the dialogues must remain a part of ever current literature, and for one other reason. The author who is a child of his age and speaks a word to his own time secures success, and with success comes at least a transient glory; to style alone the forgetful fates are kind. Without achieving success Landor by reason of his style takes undisputed place among the masters of English prose. The majestic march, the solemn cadences and sustained harmonies of his Roman period are among the golden joys of the student of literature. Landors was the art of the statuary. His instinct was for that form of excellence which consists in firmly outlined intellectual drawing, and words that fit the thing. To achieve distinction in this manner is to be subject to no changes of fashion, and to be numbered among those in whose quiet gardens, as in the courts of some ancient college, the artist loves to linger, to recall and meditate the past, secure from the bustle of the crowd and the faces of anxious men.