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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

Some Reminiscences of Landor

By Kate Field (1838–1896)

[Born in St. Louis, Mo., 1838. Died in Honolulu, Hi., 1896. Last Days of Walter Savage Landor.—The Atlantic Monthly. 1866.]

IT was a modest house in a modest street that Landor inhabited during the last six years of his life. Tourists can have no recollection of the Via Nunziatina, directly back of the “Carmine,” in the old part of Florence; but there is no loving lounger about those picturesque streets that does not remember how, strolling up the Via dei Seragli, one encounters the old shrine to the Madonna which marks the entrance to that street made historical henceforth for having sheltered a great English writer. There, half-way down the via, in that little two-story casa, No. 2671, dwelt Walter Savage Landor, with his English housekeeper and cameriera. Sitting-room, bed-room, and dining-room opened into each other; and in the former he was always found, in a large arm-chair, surrounded by paintings; for he declared he could not live without them. His snowy hair and beard of patriarchal proportions, clear, keen, gray eyes, and grand head, made the old poet greatly resemble Michel Angelo’s world-renowned masterpiece of “Moses”; nor was the formation of Landor’s forehead unlike that of Shakespeare. “If, as you declare,” said he, jokingly, one day, “I look like that meekest of men, Moses, and like Shakespeare, I ought to be exceedingly good and somewhat clever.”

At Landor’s feet was always crouched a beautiful Pomeranian dog, the gift of his kind American friend, William W. Story. The affection existing between “Gaillo” and his master was really touching. Gaillo’s eyes were always turned towards Landor’s; and upon the least encouragement the dog would jump into his lap, lay his head most lovingly upon his master’s neck, and generally deport himself in a very human manner. “Gaillo is such a dear dog!” said Landor, one day, while patting him. “We are very fond of each other, and always have a game of play after dinner; sometimes, when he is very good, we have two. I am sure I could not live if he died; and I know that when I am gone he will grieve for me.” Thereupon Gaillo wagged his tail, and looked piteously into padrone’s face, as much as to say he would be grieved indeed. Upon being asked if he thought dogs would be admitted into heaven, Landor answered: “And, pray, why not? They have all of the good and none of the bad qualities of man.” No matter upon what subject conversation turned, Gaillo’s feelings were consulted. He was the only and chosen companion of Landor in his walks; but few of the Florentines who stopped to remark the vecchio con quel bel canino knew how great was the man upon whom they thus commented.

It is seldom that England gives birth to so rampant a republican as Landor. Born on the 30th of January, two years before our Declaration of Independence, it is probable that the volcanic action of those troublous times had no little influence in permeating the mind of the embryo poet with that enthusiasm for and love of liberty for which he was distinguished in maturer years. From early youth Landor was a poor respecter of royalty and rank per se. He often related, with great good-humor, an incident of his boyhood which brought his democratic ideas into domestic disgrace. An influential bishop of the Church of England, happening to dine with young Landor’s father one day, assailed Porson, and, with self-assumed superiority, thinking to annihilate the old Grecian, exclaimed: “We have no opinion of his scholarship.” Irate at this stupid pronunciamento against so renowned a man, young Landor looked up, and, with a sarcasm the point of which was not in the least blunted by age, retorted: “We, my Lord?” Of course such unheard of audacity and contempt of my Lord Bishop’s capacity for criticism was severely reprobated by Landor senior; but no amount of reproof could force his son into a confession of sorrow.

“At Oxford,” said Landor, “I was about the first student who wore his hair without powder. ‘Take care,’ said my tutor; ‘they will stone you for a republican.’ The Whigs (not the wigs) were then unpopular; but I stuck to my plain hair and queue tied with black ribbon.”

Of Landor’s mature opinion of republics in general we glean much from a passage of the “Pentameron,” in which the author adorns Petrarca with his own fine thoughts:

“When the familiars of absolute princes taunt us, as they are wont to do, with the only apothegm they ever learnt by heart—namely, that it is better to be ruled by one master than by many—I quite agree with them; unity of power being the principle of republicanism, while the principle of despotism is division and delegation. In the one system, every man conducts his own affairs, either personally or through the agency of some trustworthy representative, which is essentially the same: in the other system, no man, in quality of citizen, has any affairs of his own to conduct; but a tutor has been as much set over him as over a lunatic, as little with his option or consent, and without any provision, as there is in the case of the lunatic, for returning reason. Meanwhile, the spirit of republics is omnipresent in them, as active in the particles as in the mass, in the circumference as in the centre. Eternal it must be, as truth and justice are, although not stationary.”

Let Europeans who, having predicted the dismemberment of our Union, proclaimed death to democracy, and those thoughtless Americans who believe that liberty cannot survive the destruction of our Republic, think well of what great men have written. Though North America were submerged to-morrow, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans rushing over our buried hopes to a riotous embrace, republicanism would live as long as the elements endure—borne on every wind, inhaled in every breath of air, abiding its opportunity to become an active principle. Absorbed in our own peculiar form of egotism, we believe that a Supreme Being has cast the cause of humanity upon one die, to prosper or perish by the chances of our game. What belittling of the Almighty! what magnifying of ourselves!

Though often urged, Landor never became a candidate for Parliamentary honors. Political wire-pulling was not to the taste of a man who, notwithstanding large landed interests, could say: “I never was at a public dinner, at a club or hustings. I never influenced or attempted to influence a vote, and yet many, and not only my own tenants, have asked me to whom they should give theirs.” Nor was he ever presented at court, although a presentation would have been at the request of the (at that time) regent. Landor would not countenance a system of court-favor that opens its arms to every noodle wearing an officer’s uniform, and almost universally turns its back upon intellect. He put not his faith in princes, and of titles says: “Formerly titles were inherited by men who could not write; they now are conferred on men who will not let others. Theirs may have been the darker age; ours is the duller. In theirs a high spirit was provoked; in ours, proscribed. In theirs the bravest were preëminent; in ours, the basest.”…

It was impossible to be in Landor’s society a half-hour and not reap advantage. His great learning, varied information, extensive acquaintance with the world’s celebrities, ready wit, and even readier repartee, rendered his conversation wonderfully entertaining. He would narrate anecdote after anecdote with surprising accuracy, being possessed of a singularly retentive memory, that could refer to a catalogue of notables far longer than Don Giovanni’s picture-gallery of conquests. Names, it is true, he was frequently unable to recall, and supplied their place with a “God bless my soul, I forget everything”; but facts were indelibly stamped upon his mind. He referred back to the year one with as much facility as a person of the rising generation invokes the shade of some deed dead a few years. I looked with wonder upon a person who remembered Napoleon Bonaparte as a slender young man, and listened with delight to a voice from so dim a past. “I was in Paris,” said Landor one day, “at the time that Bonaparte made his entrance as First Consul. I was standing within a few feet of him when he passed, and had a capital good look at him. He was exceedingly handsome then, with a rich olive complexion and oval face, youthful as a girl’s. Near him rode Murat, mounted upon a gold-clad charger, and very handsome he was too, but coxcombical.”

Like the rest of human kind. Landor had his prejudices; they were very many. Foremost among them was an antipathy to the Bonaparte family. It is not necessary to have known him personally to be aware of his detestation of the first Napoleon, as in the conversation between himself, an English and a Florentine visitor, he gives expression to a generous indignation, which may well be inserted here, as it contains the pith of what Landor repeated in many a social talk. “This Holy Alliance will soon appear unholy to every nation in Europe. I despised Napoleon in the plenitude of his power no less than others despise him in the solitude of his exile: I thought him no less an impostor when he took the ermine than when he took the emetic. I confess I do not love him the better, as some mercenaries in England and Scotland do, for having been the enemy of my country; nor should I love him the less for it had his enmity been principled and manly. In what manner did this cruel wretch treat his enthusiastic admirer and humble follower, Toussaint l’Ouverture? He was thrown into a subterranean cell, solitary, dark, damp, pestiferously unclean, where rheumatism racked his limbs, and where famine terminated his existence.” Again, in his written opinions of Cæsar, Cromwell, Milton, and Bonaparte, Landor criticises the career of the latter with no fondness, but with much truth, and justly says that “Napoleon, in the last years of his sovereignty, fought without aim, vanquished without glory, and perished without defeat.”

Great as was Landor’s dislike to the uncle, it paled before his detestation of the reigning Emperor—a detestation too general to be designated an idiosyncrasy on the part of the poet. We always knew who was meant when a sentence was prefaced with “that rascal” or “that scoundrel”; such were the epithets substituted for the name of Louis Napoleon. Believing the third Napoleon to be the worst enemy of his foster-mother, Italy, as well as of France, Landor bestowed upon him less love, if possible, than the majority of Englishmen. Having been personally acquainted with the Emperor when he lived in England as an exile, Landor, unlike many of Napoleon’s enemies, acknowledged the superiority of his intellect. “I used to see a great deal of the Prince when he was in London. I met him very frequently of an evening at Lady Blessington’s, and had many conversations with him, as he always sought me and made himself particularly civil. He was a very clever man, well informed on most subjects. The fops used to laugh at him and call him a bore. A coxcombical young lord came up to me one evening after the Prince had taken his leave, and said, ‘Mr. Landor, how can you talk to that fool, Prince Napoleon?’ To which I replied, ‘My Lord, it takes a fool to find out that he is not a wise man!’ His Lordship retired somewhat discomfited,” added Landor with a laugh. “The Prince presented me with his work on Artillery, and invited me to his house. He had a very handsome establishment, and was not at all the poor man he is often said to have been.” Of this book Landor writes in an article to the “Quarterly Review” (I think): “If it is any honor, it has been conferred on me, to have received from Napoleon’s heir the literary work he composed in prison, well knowing, as he did, and expressing his regret for, my sentiments on his uncle. The explosion of the first cannon against Rome threw us apart forever.”