Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Landor as a Classic

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Landor as a Classic

By Horace Elisha Scudder (1838–1902)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1838. Died there, 1902. Men and Letters. 1888.]

DO readers nowadays resort to Landor’s “Imaginary Conversations”? Writers of English respect the work so highly that it is a rare thing for any one to attempt to imitate Landor in this form of composition. He invented a variation of literary form, and was so consummate a master in it that it is almost as if he had taken out a patent which cautious authors feared to infringe. Readers thus have a peculiar possession in the work, though I suspect that it is writers chiefly who have recourse to Landor—that he is a literary man’s author, as others have been poets of poets.

The general reader who does not treat himself severely in the matter of reading may be expected to pass by some of the more recondite subjects and to rest at those volumes which contain the “Dialogues of Literary Men and Famous Women,” and the “Miscellaneous Dialogues.” For while all the dialogues presuppose a knowledge of history and literature, the actors in these are most familiar to the reader, and the topics discussed are neither so obscure nor so remote from common interest as are those presented in the other volumes. Not that Landor is ever exclusive in his interests; it is the very reach of his sympathy which makes some of his dialogues more unreadable than others, for there are few humiliations to the ingenuous reader of modern English literature deeper than that which awaits him when he tries to follow the lead of this remarkable writer, who passes without the sign of toil from converse with ancients to talk with moderns, and seems capable of displaying a wonderful puppet-show of all history.

Perhaps the rank respectfully but without enthusiasm accorded to Landor is due mainly to the exactions which he makes of the reader. There must be omniscient readers for such an omniscient writer, and it cannot be denied that the ordinary reader takes his enjoyment of Landor with a certain stiffening of his faculties; he feels it impossible to read him lazily. The case is not very unlike that of a listener to music, who has not a musical education and has an honest delight in a difficult work, while yet perfectly aware that he is missing, through his lack of technical knowledge, some of the finest expression. With classical works as with music, one commonly prefers to read what he has read before. Hamlet to the occasional reader of Shakespeare is like the Fifth Symphony to the occasional hearer of Beethoven. To ask him to read Landor is to ask him to hear Kalkbrenner, requiring him to form new judgments upon the old standard.

The pleasure which awaits the trained reader, on taking up Landor, is very great. At first there is the breadth and sweetness of the style. To come upon it after the negligence, the awkwardness, or the cheap brilliancy of much that passes for good writing, is to feel that one has entered the society of one’s intellectual superiors. One might almost expect, upon discovering how hard Landor rode his hobby of linguistic reform, to find conceits and archaisms, or fantastic experiments in language; but as it was Landor’s respect for sound words which lay at the bottom of his inconsistent attempts to remove other inconsistencies, the same respect forbade him to use the English language as if it were an individual possession of his own. Neither can it be said that his familiarity with Latin forms misled him into solecisms in English; here, again, the very perfection of his classical skill was turned to account in rendering his use of English the masterly employment of one of the dialects of all language. Yet, though there is no pedantry of a scholar perceptible in the English style, the phrase falls upon the ear almost as a translation. It is idiomatic English, yet seems to have a relation to other languages. This is partly to be referred to the subjects of many of the dialogues, partly to the dignity and scholarly tone of the work, but is mainly the result of the cast of mind in Landor, which was eminently classic, freed, that is, from enslaving accidents, yet always using with perfect fitness the characteristics which seem at a near glance to be merely accidents. This is well illustrated by those dialogues which are placed in periods strongly individualized, as the Elizabethan and the Puritan, or present speakers whose tone is easily caught when overheard. A weaker writer would, for example, mimic Johnson in the conversations which occur between him and Horne Tooke; Landor catches Johnson’s tone without tickling the ear with idle sonorous phrases. A writer who had read the dramatists freely, and set out to represent them in dialogue, would be very likely to use mere tricks of speech, but Landor carefully avoids all stucco ornamentation, and makes the reader sure that he has overheard the very men themselves. It was the pride of Landor’s design not to insert in any one of his conversations “a single sentence written by or recorded of the personages who are supposed to hold them.” In the conversation between Lord Brooke and Sir Philip Sidney, he makes Sidney say, “To write as the ancients have written, without borrowing a thought or expression from them, is the most difficult thing we can achieve in poetry”; and the task which Landor set himself was an infinitely higher and finer one than the merely ingenious construction of a closely joined mosaic. He has extended the lives of the men and women who appear in his dialogues.

The faithfulness with which Landor has reproduced the voices of his characters follows from the truthfulness of the characters, as they betray their natures in these conversations. This I have already intimated, and it is the discovery of the reader who penetrates the scenes and is able in any case to compare the men and women of Landor with the same as they stand revealed in history or literature. The impersonations are necessarily outlined in conversation. Revelation through action is not granted, except occasionally in some such delicate form as hinted in the charming scene between Walton, Cotton, and Oldways. These delicate hints of action will sometimes escape the reader through their subtlety, but they tell upon the art of the conversations very strongly. Still, the labor of disclosing character is borne by the dialogue, and success won in this field is of the highest order. No one who uses conversation freely in novel-writing, when the talk is not to advance the incidents of the story, but to fix the traits of character held by the persons, can fail to perceive Landor’s remarkable power. He deals, it is true, with characters already somewhat definitely existing in the minds of his intelligent readers, yet he gives himself no advantage of a setting for his conversation, by which one might make place, circumstance, scenery, auxiliary to the interchange of sentiment and opinion. Perhaps the most perfect example of a conversation instinct with meaning, and permitting, one may say, an indefinite column of footnotes, is the brief, exquisitely modulated one between Henry VIII. and Anne Boleyn.

It may be that we have received the best good to be had from literature when we have been enabled to perceive men and women brightly, and to hold for a time before our eyes those who once were seen by persons more blessed only than we. Certain it is that to the solitary student, placed, it may be, in untoward circumstance, such a gift is priceless. But it belongs with this as a necessary accompaniment, if not a further good, to have such a discovery of character as comes through high thought and wise sentiment. The persons whom Landor has vivified have burst their cerements for no mean purpose. They are summoned, not for idle chit-chat, but to speak words befitting them in their best moments. Southey is said to have remarked on the conversation which he is made to hold with Porson, that they might not have conversed as Landor had shown them, “but we could neither of us have talked better.” It is Landor’s power not only to inhabit the characters, but to inhabit them worthily, that makes these books great. The subjects discussed are such as great-minded men might discuss, and it is when one marks the range of topics and the height to which the thought rises that he perceives in Landor a moralist as well as a dramatist. It is true that the judgments and opinions which he puts into the mouths of speakers partake of his own wayward, impetuous nature, and it would not be hard to find cases where the characters clearly Landorize, but the errors are in noble not in petty concerns.

There is, doubtless, something of labor in reading Landor’s “Conversations” if one is not conversant with high thinking, and if one is but slenderly endowed with the historic imagination, but the labor is not in the writing. The very form of conversation permits a quickness of transition and sudden shifting of subject and scene which enliven the art and give an inexhaustible variety of light and shade. One returns to passages again and again for their exceeding beauty of expression and their exquisite setting. To one accustomed to the glitter of current epigrammatic writing, the brilliancy of some of Landor’s sentences may not at first be counted for its real worth, but to go from Landor to smart writers is to exchange jewels for paste.

What I have said may serve partly to explain the limited audience which Landor has had and must continue to have. If it is a liberal education to read his writings, it requires one to receive them freely. The appeal which Landor makes to the literary class is very strong, and apart from a course of study in the Greek and Latin classics, I doubt if any single study would serve an author so well as the study of Landor. Indeed, there is perhaps no modern work which gives to the reader not familiar with Greek or Latin so good an idea of what we call classical literature. Better than a translation is the original writing of Landor for conveying the aroma which a translation so easily loses. The dignity of the classics, the formality, the fine use of sarcasm, the consciousness of an art in literature—all these are to be found in the “Imaginary Conversations”; and if a reader used to the highly seasoned literature of recent times complains that there is rather an absence of humor, and that he finds Landor sometimes dull, why, heaven knows we do not often get hilarious over our ancient authors, and Landor, for his contemporaries, is an ancient author with a very fiery soul.

A survey of all his work increases the admiration, not unmixed with fear, with which one contemplates the range of this extraordinary writer. The greatest of his dialogues are great indeed, but the facility with which he used this form betrayed him into employing it for the venting of mere vagaries, and the prolix discussion of topics of contemporary politics and history, by no means of general interest. Still, after all deductions are made, the work as a whole remains great, and I repeat that a study of Landor would be of signal service to any faithful man of letters. In his style he would discover a strength and purity which would constantly rebuke his own tendencies to verbosity and unmeaning phrases; in the respect which Landor had for great writers he would learn the contemptible character of current irreverence in literature; in the sustained flight of Landor’s thought he would find a stimulus for his own less resolute nature; and as Landor was himself no imitator, so the student of Landor would discover how impossible it was to imitate him, how much more positive was the lesson to make himself a master by an unceasing reverence of masters and a fearless independence of inferiors. Landor is sometimes characterized as arrogant and conceited; stray words and acts might easily be cited in support of this, but no one can read his “Conversations” intelligently and not perceive how noble was his scorn of mean men, how steadfast his admiration of great men.