Alfred H. Miles, ed. Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by Mackenzie Bell
Lætitia Elizabeth Maclean (L. E. L.) (18021838)
LANDOR, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Professor Wilson spoke well of Lætitia Landons poems. Nevertheless it has become so much the custom to disparage them, and not without reason, that we are almost inclined to forget that, after all, they possess some good qualities. It is true they do not exhibit strength of thought, and that they show little or nothing of the higher imagination. It is also true that they are diffusethat they lack concreteness, and are marred by a greater degree of sentimentality than is present even in the poetry of Felicia Hemans. And, if we examine their poetic technique (a quality which, in judging of a poets work, is only less important than grandeur of thought or force of imagination) we find them often exceedingly deficient in melody and frequently halting in metre.
Even those who might be disposed to condone the blemishes in L. E. L.s work on the technical side must admit that the unvarying sentimentality of her poems tends to give a false view of life. Probably the best defence that can be made for her in this respect is made by herself in the preface to The Venetian Bracelet, in which she says:Aware that to elevate I must first soften, and that if I wished to purify I must first touch, I have ever endeavoured to bring forward grief, disappointment, the fallen leaf, the faded flower, the broken heart, and the early grave. Surely we must be less worldly, less interested, from this sympathy with the sorrow in which our unselfish feelings alone can take part.
But, despite their many faults, the poems of L. E. L. show powers of language, a facile and graceful fancy, some lyrical faculty, and, within certain narrow limits, a real dramatic instinct. When Wordsworth said about Scotts poems that they were novels in verse, the remark, though unjust to Scott, would have been a fair criticism of the poems of Scotts imitators. As novels in verse, L. E. L.s poems are undoubtedly interesting: in them the readers attention is often aroused and sustained almost as much as in a prose romance. Lætitia Landon was ignorant of German and Italian, and therefore unacquainted with the fine poetical literature contained in these languages. She had never visited Italy or Germany or the South of France, or, indeed, travelled at all; and, when we remember these facts, and recollect the vivid, if idealised, descriptions of these countries in some of her best work, we shall find it impossible to deny to her the possession of considerable, though somewhat undisciplined, imaginative powers.
Perhaps it need not occasion surprise that L. E. L.s long poems, such as The Improvisatrice (1824), The Troubadour (1825), and The Golden Violet (1826) should more especially be full of the faults mentioned above. For a long poem to be altogether satisfactory its author must possess some of the very qualities in which L. E. L. was most deficient. Her longer efforts are not, however without merit, though it is in her shorter poems that we find her highest excellence. The Moorish Romance, an episode of The Improvisatrice, is a good specimen of L. E. L.s work; so is The Bayadere, which appeared in the same volume, though it suffers by comparison with Goethes masterpiece. The brief pictures comprising the poem called St. Georges Hospital are remarkable when we learn from the Life of L. E. L. that they were produced in a space of time that seems scarcely sufficient for transcribing the lines legibly. The Deserter, also, shows dramatic qualities, while the lines entitled Mont Blanc have some lyrical vigour. Erinna, and The Venetian Bracelet (1829) are two of her best poems. They are too long for quotation here in full. The following brief extract from the latter, however, has a personal interest, and exhibits her increasing command over metrical resources:
Another tale of thine! fair Italie
What makes my lute, my heart, aye turn to thee?
I do not know thy language,that is still
Like the mysterious music of the rill;
And neither have I seen thy cloudless sky,
Where the sun hath his immortality;
Thy cities crownd with palaces, thy halls
Where arts great wonders light the storied walls;
Thy fountains silver sweep; thy groves, where dwell
The rose and orange, summers citadel;
Thy songs that rise at twilight on the air,
Wedding the breath thy thousand flowers sigh there;
Indeed, the fact that The Venetian Bracelet is not only one of her latest poems in point of date, but also one of her best stories told in verse, proves that she was learning more of her art as she grew older. St. Valerie is full of picturesqueness. One of L. E. L.s chief defects is diffuseness of expression, but here the picture is concisely rendered. It is in these short poems with a distinct dramatic motive that L. E. L. is seen at her best. Her series of poems, called Subjects for Pictures, show a marked ability in the grouping of details for pictorial purposes. Doubtless her talent in this respect grew out of the dramatic instinct previously referred to. The Moorish Maidens Vigil, one of the series just named, has real feeling and pathos. Some of her most excellent work is to be found in Poetical Sketches of Modern Pictures. Of these, Juliet after the Masquerade is a good example. It appeared in the Literary Souvenir of 1828, the same volume in which Coleridges Youth and Age first appeared, and described a picture by Henry Thomson, R.A. She was afterwards ill-advised enough to recast it, and her failure to improve it shows how entirely improvisatorial was her power. She turned a lyric of much sweetness of movement into a poem in heroic couplets. The version given here is that which was first written. Felicia Hemans is a graceful and tender tribute to a greater poet than herself, and one who shared with L. E. L. her faults rather than her merits.
Lætitia Elizabeth Landon, the daughter of an army agent, was born at Hans Place, Chelsea, London, on the 14th of August, 1802. As a child she was unusually apt at learning, and, when very young, was in the habit of amusing her father and mother for an hour or two in the evening by telling them about the wonderful castles she had built in her imagination. She became very fond of reading. The books that engaged her attention were miscellaneous in character, but during her childhood she read with her little brother nearly one hundred and fifty volumes of Cookes Poets and Novelists. Though she soon began to compose verses, she found, curiously enough, no small difficulty in acquiring the mechanical part of the art of writing. Mr. Jerdan, editor of the Literary Gazette,then newly establishedhappened to be a neighbour of the Landons. Lætitia received from him advice and encouragement, and soon her poetical efforts appeared regularly in his journal. Her first long poem, The Fate of Adelaide (1820) is noticeable only as an indication of the direction which her poetical powers were afterwards to take. Besides the poems already named, and constant contributions to the literary annuals of the day, with much anonymous criticism in the Literary Gazette, she wrote novels entitled, Romance and Reality (1831), Francesca Carrara (1834), Ethel Churchill (1837), and Lady Anne Granard, which last-mentioned story was published posthumously in 1842. Her best prose work is to be found in a series of essays upon Scotts female characters contributed to the New Monthly Magazine. A poem entitled The Vow of the Peacock, suggested by Maclises picture, appeared in 1835.
It is a striking instance of the power of fashions over literary art, that personally L. E. L. had nothing of the false sentimentality we find in her work; on the contrary, the chief characteristic of her talk and manner was a natural cheerfulness. Her biographer describes her face as one which, though not regular in any feature, became beautiful by expression. She early became her own mistress. Sought after in society, she was not always sufficiently discreet in her conduct. Hence, by-and-by, scandal grew busy with her name, and, though there was no real stain on her character, her happiness was diminished. Strangely enough, although very fond of London where she had lived all her life, she had always cherished dreams of Africa. Partly from this cause, but mainly to be relieved, in a great measure, from the ceaseless annoyance caused by the calumnies respecting her, she married in 1838 Mr. George Maclean, Governor of Cape Coast Castle. She accompanied her husband on his return to Africa, leaving England full of hope for the future, and full of curiosity respecting the new scenes amid which her life was now to be passed. She had also many literary schemes in contemplation. But she died at Cape Coast Castle on the 15th of October, 1838, from the effects, it is believed, of poison, under circumstances which have never been satisfactorily explained. So tragic a conclusion gives to L. E. L.s career more pathetic interest than it would otherwise possess.