Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. IV. The Nineteenth Century: Wordsworth to Rossetti
Critical Introduction by Lord Houghton
Walter Savage Landor (17751864)
[Walter Savage Landor was born at Warwick, Jan. 30. 1775; died at Florence, Dec. 17, 1864. He resided in Italy almost continuously from 1815 to 1835, and afterwards 21 years in Bath. His writings, the dates of which range from 1795 to almost the year of his death, were first collected by himself in two large volumes (1846), and afterwards (1876), with his Life, by Mr. John Forster, in eight vols. 8vo.]
THERE is always some difficulty in discussing the characteristics and merits of the poetry of an eminent writer in prose. There are indeed exceptions, in which the one production has no more to do with the other than the mistletoe with the old oak to which it is attached, but in most cases there is sufficient analogy to compel comparison, and sufficient difference to disturb the clear comprehension of the literary character. But the prose and poetry of Landor are especially homogeneous, not only in the sense of the dominant imaginativeness that constitutes what is ordinarily called poetical power, but in the melody and determinateness of poetry that pervades so much of his simplest writing. If this selection had included dramatic pieces, many of the Imaginary Conversations might have taken their place in it as becomingly as if written in poetical rhythm, and there would be no difficulty in culling passages from them and in other works which recur to the memory of the reader rather as screeds of song than as passages of eloquence, beauty, or wisdom. In the limited sketch of the poet which is here attempted it will be seen that there is an unity of intellectual faculty and moral purpose which made this similarity of production almost a necessity. He lived in a past world of heroic thought, unaltered by the events of common life, commencing from his school and college days and enduring for some ninety years. He passed nearly through the most eventful century of the world without learning from experience and almost without adding to his ideas, and thus the conceit of his difference from, and superiority to, others never translated itself into fact, and, aided by his imperious temper, kept him aloof at once from the intrusion and sympathy of his contemporaries. The elder son of a physician of large practice in the town of Warwick, young Landor had all the advantages of good birth and of the best education of his time. Besides his fathers property in Staffordshire, he inherited through his mother the ancient estates of the Savages of Ipsley Court and Tachbrooke. At Rugby, and at Trinity College, Oxford, the classical culture which at that period was all the gentlemans education, however artificial and enforced, seemed to find in him a natural affinity that in any other youth would have been the delight of his teachers and the gratification of a just ambition. But to his wayward temperament all competition was not only distasteful but repugnant, and the very sense of superiority was distorted into a contempt for success. He thus left both school and college not only without the ordinary distinctions of scholarship, but prematurely as an offender against ordinary discipline.
At about twenty years of age he settled himself at Tenby in South Wales, and between that secluded sea-place and Swansea, with an occasional visit to Warwick, he passed three years in continuous and lonely study. It was a thrifty and almost pastoral existence, and the sandy dells and dingles covered with moss-roses and golden snap-dragons were always associated in his mind with the production of Gebir.
Play-day for Landers Latin verses is a remembrance of one of his Rugby contemporaries, and his first steps in English poetry had been translations and adaptations from the classics; but a small volume published in 1795, suppressed and forgotten, contains original verse far above the juvenile standard, and distinguished by a satiric gaiety, with no trace of immaturity about it. To this is appended Poematum Latinorum Libellus et Latine scribendi Defensio, and there is extant a letter from one of the objects of his satire praising its case and continuity, and curiously speaking of the Hendecasyllabi, many of which were reprinted in the Pisan edition of 1820, as worthy of Catullus, his lifelong model of the perfection of literary grace.
It was during the studious solitude in South Wales that he happened to light on a collection of tales by Clara Reeve, a now forgotten novelist, one of which, an Arabian romance, attracted his fancy. It related to the mythic founder of Gibraltar, and on this he constructed an epic in seven books, which still remains the only sustained poetic effort of his genius, and which, but for certain accidents of the poetic literature of the time, and its authors subsequent fame as a great prose writer, might have only survived as a curiosity of precocious intellectual power. It was composed under the double inspiration of the great classics and of Milton, fortuitously in Latin or in English as his inclination prompted, and it would be difficult if not impossible to discriminate the original medium of poetic thought. It has no interest of plot, and no delicate discrimination of character. Two brothers, representatives of the militant and peaceful natures, are each, after the ancient manner, assisted by sympathetic supernatural agencies, and display the old moralities of the barrenness of conquest and the omnipotence of love. There is the Virgilian descent to the world of future Destiny, with its ancestral and heroic shapes of doom, allegorizing among other objects of his reprobation, not only George the Third with eyebrows white and slanting brow, and Louis Seize, who shrinks yelling from that sword there engine-hung, but William miscalled Deliverer, contrasted curiously with a vision in another part of Bonaparte as a mortal man above all mortal praise, but these are the only disturbances of the general unity and consistency of the poem.1 The happy issue of the pastoral affection of Tamar, and the disastrous close of that of Gebir, afford occasion for an accumulated wealth of imagery which wants but some human relation to raise itself to the utmost heights of epic grandeur, and there are other salient passages, which we hear without wonder that Shelley was never tired of reciting, and which Coleridge could describe as eminences as excessively bright as the ground was dark around and between them.
It was a dreary period of English poetic literature. The gentle voice of Cowper alone rose above a factitious and uninteresting mediocrity, and the small group of writers whose destiny it was to recall our verse to a truer sense of nature and a purer diction, were just struggling into existence through a hostile and contemptuous criticism. One of these, Robert Southey, who had been Landors contemporary at Oxford, and who said that he would have sought his acquaintance from his Jacobinism, but was repelled by his eccentricity, happened to light upon Gebir, and found in it some of the most exquisite poetry in the language. I would go a hundred miles to see the author. He declared it more Homeric than anything in modern poetical writing. The attention of such men as Coleridge, Taylor of Norwich, the Hebers, and later De Quincey, and Shelley, was attracted to the poem, and what was far more important, that friendship with Southey was secured to him, which overcame every discrepancy of character, survived every change of political opinion, and, though little fostered by personal intercourse, was constant to the last. Landor, my Landor, Southey repeated softly to himself, when almost every name had passed from his perception. And Landor wrote, with pathetic conceit,
Southey and I have run in the same traces,
When we break down, what pair shall fill our places?
Five years after Gebir, Landor printed at Warwick a small volume containing the commencement of another epic, on the story of the Phocæans, the invaders of Gaul who built Marseilles, with the same power of fragmentary imagery and thought compressed into obscurity. The beautiful address To Tacæa (Tachbrooke) given in these extracts, first appeared in these pages, but henceforth Landors poetic faculty seems to have found no serious exercise, though there is a record of another similar fasciculus called Simonidia, containing some admirable Latin verse, afterwards collected, and some English pieces addressed to certain objects of his admiration at Bath, where he resided for some time, under the then conventional names of Ione and Ianthe.
An expedition in aid of Spanish freedom elicited the tragedy of Count Julian, in which, and in later dramatic pieces, he showed none of the power of transformation and self-forgetfulness essential to a great dramatic writer, but every page contains some passage of no common order of thought or expression. His correspondence with Southey during this period abounds in poetical criticism of much interest, interspersed with such paradoxical judgments as the jargon of the flimsy and fantastic Spenser.
The story of the purchase of Llanthony Abbey at the sacrifice of Tachbrooke, and its speedy abandonmenthis hasty and ill-assorted marriage, of which he wrote
The brightest stars are not the best
To follow on the way to rest.
his flight from his friends and countryhis subsequent wanderings in France and Italyand his ultimate settlement on the beautiful slopes of Fiesole, is told by Mr. Forster with a combination of affectionate interest and biographic tact such as has fallen to the lot of few men of letters to secure. It was during this time that the felicitous project of the Imaginary Conversations was conceived and matureda form of composition cognate to both his intellectual and moral peculiarities, and the success of which was almost a compensation for all the mischances of his outward and inner life. With such a vehicle for thought and language, no wonder that poetry was abandoned, and all his energies devoted to this great and appropriate work. Not that the habit which he had acquired and cultivated of casting into verse any pleasant, picturesque, humorous, or tender thought that suggested itself as appropriate was discontinued. As I had never drunk wine, he had written, I am forced every now and then to write half a dozen verses that I may forget what is passing round about. Some of these exercises had appeared in the scattered opuscula, but it was mainly in his letters that they were inserted, and his correspondence was frequent and large. After the completion of the main body of the Conversations, the practice grew upon him to such an extent that these lyric and epigrammatic forms of verse became his chief literary occupation, and are the substance of several volumes published under quaint designations, while there are no doubt many still in manuscript in the hands of his friends or their representatives. Of them the best are of the very best, perhaps unsurpassed in our language, and in foreign literature only equalled by Voltaire and Goethe. In his later years he was pained by the thought that he had wasted in such trivialities something of the genius which might have been concentrated on higher purposes, and gave expression to this feeling very characteristically in a passage of an Imaginary Conversation between himself and one of his truest friends:
It is objected that most of my poems are occasional .
Of your poems the smaller alone are occasional: now not only are the smaller, but the best of Catullus and Horace, and all of Pindar. Were not the speeches of Lysias, Aeschines, Demosthenes, occasional? Draw nearer home. What but occasional were the Letters of Junius? Materiem superabat opus.
True. The ministers and their king are now mould and worms; they were little better when aboveground; but the bag-wig and point-lace of Junius are suspended aloft upon a golden peg for curiosity and admiration.
Regarding the occasional in poetry; is there less merit in taking and treating what is before us, than in seeking and wandering through an open field as we would for mushrooms?
I stand out a rude rock in the middle of a river, with no exotic or parasitical plant on it, and few others. Eddies and dimples and froth and bubbles pass rapidly by, without shaking me. Here indeed is little room for picnic and polka.
Praise and censure are received by you with nearly the same indifference.
Not yours. Praise on poetry, said to be the most exhilarating of all, affects my brain but little. Certainly I never attempted to snatch the peculiar graces so generally delightful. My rusticity has at least thus much of modesty in it.
It is interesting to observe how large a portion of these occasional poems are personal. Landor affected, or rather persuaded himself, that he felt not only an entire contempt for the opinions of others, but even a dislike to the general commerce of mankind, and yet there is hardly any one, even of his casual acquaintance, with whom he does not link himself on by some token of poetical sympathy. He had indeed written over the entrance of his Villa
Hominum satis superque
Multi viderunt naturae nemo
Et in parvis eam ut in maximis mirabilem
Pio animo heic et ubique contemplator;
and he poured out on the humblest objects of Nature an abundant tenderness that in a less vigorous temperament would have had the character of a morbid sentimentalism. The beautiful lines in which he deprecates the plucking of flowers will be found in the Faesulan Idyl, and the destruction of some sparrows elicited this solemn reprobation.
This is not the place to enlarge on Landors command of the Latin language, which enabled him to use it for every purpose, and to adapt it to every theme, from the fables of Greek mythology to the incidents and characters of his own day. His style, wrote Bishop Thirlwall, is not that either of the golden or the silver or of any earlier or later age of Latinity. It is the style of Landor, and it is marked with the stamp not only of his intellect, but of his personal idiosyncrasy. This is the cause of that obscurity which must be felt, even by scholars, to mar to some extent the enjoyment of his Latin poetry.2 The composition of two delightful reviews on Catullus and Theocritus about 1842, accompanied by the necessity of translating certain passages into English, produced a revival of that peculiar alternation of classic and English expressions of poetic thought of which Gebir was the early illustration. Of these one of the first was the Hamadryad, a dramatic idyl of the time when to every man the shapes of Nature were but the reflections of his own, and in the Collection of all his writings during the next three years he not only added other similar pieces, such as the Cymodameia, but translated most of the Latin idyls already printed with a force and ingenuity that left no trace of their original form. These again were brought together in a volume under the title of Hellenics, and others later under that of Heroic Idyls, after he had returned to England in consequence of domestic discomforts and had established himself once more at Bath, the scene of his happiest youthful days. He returned once more to Italy, and died at Florence in his 90th year.
The consummate grace of many of Landers smaller pieces will ever recommend them to the general reader, but the bulk of his poetry can only be appreciated by those who possess cognate tastes and something of similar acquisitions. There remains however a just interest in this signal example of the enduring dominion of the old classic forms of thought not only over the young imagination but over the matured and most cultivated intelligence. To Keats they assimilated themselves almost without learning by a certain natural affinity; to the industrious and scholarly Landor they became the lifelong vital forces not only of poetic generation but of moral sustenance. They gave to his character the heroic influences which alone subdued the wilfulness of his temperament, and amid all the confusions of life kept his heart high and his fancy pure. But they did not limit the powers they controlled: in the Examination of Shakespeare he is the Englishman of the Elizabethan age, in the Pentameron the Italian of that of Petrarch and Boccaccio, as even when most Greek and most Latin he is ever Landor himself alone.