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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Cranston Lawton (1853–1941)

By Walter Savage Landor (1775–1864)

PERHAPS there is no English author save Gray to whom the epithet “classical” is oftener applied than to Landor. This is not merely a tribute to his mastery of Latin equally with English verse. Even his unrivaled masterpiece, the imaginary correspondence of Pericles and Aspasia, is no mere marvel of learning, no mosaic of remembered details; but rather a great free-hand ideal picture, conforming only to the larger frame of historic fact. Nearly all his work is equally creative, and has a peculiarly detached effect, independent of all else whether in reality or fiction, like the best of Hawthorne’s imaginings. This unlimited fountain of original though not sustained creativeness is the greatest proof of Landor’s genius. Next to it is a style, in all his prose and the best of his verse, so polished, graceful, indeed faultless, that we may at first fail to perceive beneath it the pulse of life, the heat of conscious effort, which is after all essential to the highest enjoyment. This very fact, however, marks the most striking contrast between Landor’s art and his outward life. That contrast will to some extent vanish on closer scrutiny of both.

Count no life happy until its close, said Solon. Rarely indeed has a man been born and bred with fairer prospects, lived in more constant turmoil, known greater depths of self-inflicted unhappiness, or spent his last earthly days more utterly forlorn, than Landor. “I never did a single wise thing in the whole course of my existence,” said he near the end of his long life. Too sweeping though this is, we are tempted to cry Amen! It is really incredible that a man endowed with so many virtues, and of such wondrous intellect, should have failed so utterly, and one may say so invariably, to adjust himself to the necessary relations with his fellow-mortals. Yet it is equally certain that he “never did a single” cowardly, cruel, or coldly selfish thing. His life, however, long as it was, seems like the unbroken activity of a volcano. Were his genius less rare and lofty, his later years especially would tempt us to an ignobler comparison; for we are reminded of a piece of firework, occasionally sending a bright star heavenward, but never ceasing to sputter and flare until it burns its own heart out at last!

Landor was the eldest son of a prosperous physician at Warwick. By entail he was assured heir, through his mother, of estates in Warwickshire worth nearly £80,000. Sent to Rugby at the age of ten, he immediately distinguished himself by the quality of his Latin verses. Indeed, his delightful biographer, Sidney Colvin, calls him “the one known instance in which the traditional classical education took full effect.” This does not appear to be a slur on the quality of Professor Jebb’s Pindaric odes, or of the Latin hexameters with which Munro supplies the gaps large or small in Lucretius’s text. But Landor by lifelong impulse poured forth creative verse quite as rapidly and forcibly, though not quite so faultlessly, in Latin as in English. For satire especially he seems to have preferred the strength of the deathless Roman speech. Much of his English poetry is a reluctant translation from his own classic originals.

When his master gave the school a half-holiday “for Landor’s Latin verses,” the boy complained fiercely that his poorest performance was selected for the honor. This belief was expressed in an abusive addition to the copy of verse itself! Similar outbreaks of his Muse finally led to his enforced withdrawal from the school. There, as afterward at college, he always refused to compete for prizes: valuing his own performances too highly to let them be measured at all against rivals’ work.

He entered Oxford at eighteen, and was known during his one year there as “the mad Jacobin,” in a time when the French Revolution had frightened even the students of England away from radicalism. His departure in disgrace from Oxford was brought about by a lawless prank. Aggrieved that a Tory neighbor dared entertain socially the same night as himself, he riddled his shutters with a shotgun. His arrival home was signalized by a violent quarrel, at the end of which he left his father’s house “forever.”

Until his thirtieth year he had a small allowance, lived partly in a remote corner of Wales and partly at Bath, read hard chiefly in the classics and English poets, and tried his own wings. Love was not one of his chief teachers, though the lady whose name, Jane, is glorified as “Ianthe,” had a lasting influence over him. Resenting Byron’s adoption of this beloved title, he declares he

  • “—planted in a fresh parterre
  • Ianthe; it was blooming when a youth
  • Leapt o’er the hedge, and snatching at the stem,
  • Broke off the label from my favorite flower,
  • And stuck it on a sorrier of his own.”
  • Rose Aylmer,—the short-lived daughter of Lord Aylmer,—whose beautiful name has been immortalized in a lyric brief as Catullus and “sad as tear-drops of Simonides,” was Landor’s neighbor and friend in Wales. She lent him a book containing the sorry “Arabian” tale which suggested his first important poem. ‘Gebir’ is a romantic and tragical epic. Into less than two thousand lines of blank verse is packed action enough for an Iliad. It is very hard to follow the plot. The close-knit blank verse is rather too regular also. Still it is a great creative work; chaotic and aimless ethically, but in detail often masterly. It had no readers then save Southey, and few at any time since. Landor said loftily that he would have been encouraged to write more if even foolish men had read it, since “there is something of summer even in the hum of insects.”

    ‘Gebir’ has influenced English poetry profoundly, nevertheless. Southey loved it from the first. Shelley, like Charles Lamb, was never weary of repeating certain passages. Of our own contemporaries, Swinburne pours out loyal praise, with his usual lavishness, in the article on Landor in the ‘Britannica.’ In the same year (1798) appeared the famous ‘Lyrical Ballads,’ beginning with Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’ and ending with Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey.’ Either of these has still a thousand readers to ‘Gebir’s’ one. Which was really the weightiest portent of the new day may well be questioned. Landor never sought, and probably never seriously hoped for, wide popularity, even in the future. “I shall dine late,” he says; “but the dining-room will be well lighted, the guests few and select.” This fantastic epic by a youth of twenty-three already justified those haughty words; and all the brother poets just mentioned, with a goodly number besides, have testified to its influence upon them. Byron indeed—and others—attempted to appropriate such gems as the verses on the sea-shell:—

  • “Shake one and it awakens; then apply
  • Its polisht lips to your attentive ear,
  • And it remembers its august abodes,
  • And murmurs as the ocean murmurs there.”
  • The year 1808 was like an epitome of Landor’s whole life. The wealth recently inherited from his father (the estates being released from entail by special act of Parliament) was all absorbed by a magnificent estate some eight miles in extent, in Monmouthshire. His plans—to build up the ruined abbey of Llanthony which gave the place its name, to erect for himself a goodly mansion, to reclaim the land and reform the peasantry—were all broken in upon by a sudden expedition to Spain, where Landor went campaigning against Napoleon with a regiment equipped at his own expense. Presently the volunteers had all melted away; and their generous patron, having quarreled out with his hosts, his allies, and his superior officers, recrossed the Channel, to resume his denunciation of all in political office and his strife with every one within five leagues of his estate.

    The chief fruit of his Spanish tour was the tragedy ‘Count Julian.’ Like his other plays, it is quite unsuited to the stage. The hero, who turns against his king to avenge his daughter, is a careful psychological study. The drama, however, like all Landor’s longer works, is read and remembered, if at all, rather for details, for picked passages, than for its general effect. Mr. Lowell’s remark is an acute one,—that Landor is hardly a great thinker, though he has certainly uttered adequately great thoughts. He lacks the longer, the lasting inspiration, that merges all the exquisite detail of an ‘Othello’ or of a ‘Prometheus’ in the resistless sweep of the master’s design. When he is for the moment indeed inspired, his perfect command of style, of utterance, carries him with perfect ease to a height where he has absolutely no masters.

    As we are trying to indicate, Landor’s life and his work help to explain each other—and both need explanation. His marriage was perhaps his gravest mistake. He fell in love with a stranger’s pretty face, and instantly avowed his choice. He married a few weeks later, in 1811. The bride was sixteen years younger than he; and not content with quarrels of his creating, seems to have started them forever after, at will, by taunting him on his age! Whether any woman could have guided this stormy nature through life may be doubted.

    By 1814 he had sunk £70,000 in his estate, and fled from England to escape his creditors. Llanthony passed into his mother’s wise control. She was able to meet all demands, make provision for the support of Landor’s family, and transmit the estate much improved to his posterity. Even upon his southward flight he parted in anger with his wife at Jersey, and hurried to France alone in an oyster-boat! But the “irrevocable” breach was closed within a year.

    During the next two decades Landor lived almost wholly in Italy, chiefly in Florence and Fiesole. This is the happiest period of his career, and probably his warmest admirers wish it had been the last. The works also on which his fame rests most secure are the fruit of this epoch. The ‘Imaginary Conversations’ cover an astonishingly wide range in ancient and modern life. Though an untiring reader, Landor had not by any means an encyclopædic memory in matters historical or biographical. He owned at any one time few books; for though he bought many, he gave them away no less eagerly. His dramatic scenes are not in the least mosaics pieced together from “authorities” or “sources.” On the contrary, he chose by deliberate preference events which might have occurred, but were quite unrecorded; and he austerely refused to lay upon his interlocutors’ lips any single sentiment or thought save what he believed to be original with himself!

    The elemental impulses of Landor’s nature were generous, and not ignoble. He had thirteen pitched battles as a schoolboy, and won eleven; but they were all against older boys, and probably waged to put down bullying. He once threw his cook out of the kitchen window; but put his head out instantly thereafter, exclaiming ruefully, “My God! I forgot the violets!” Not only toward flowers but toward all animals he was humane to the point of eccentricity. He would not shoot any living creature, nor even hook a fish. Profuse as he was in unwise giving, unable to resist playing the generous patron whether himself penniless or prosperous, his own needs were of the simplest. Even his fiercest quarrels were rarely in behalf of his own rights; and many of the most threatening outbreaks vanished in peals of uproarious and most infectious laughter, whenever his sense of humor could be touched before his stubborn pride was too firmly set.

    Of course, Landor’s life in Italy was by no means a monotonously peaceful one. He had to flee from more than one resting-place “for speaking ill of authorities,” preferably in scurrilous Latin verse. The current Italian remark quoted about him is perhaps too delicious to be merely true: “Tutti gli Inglesi sono pazzi, ma questo poi!” (All the English are crazy, but oh—this one!) Had he died at sixty, in the bosom of his family, in his lovely Fiesolan villa, he would have left not only the ‘Conversations,’ but the ‘Examination of Shakespeare,’ the ‘Pentameron,’ and even the greater part of his perfect masterpiece, ‘Pericles and Aspasia.’ These three may all be regarded, indeed, as Imaginary Conversations which have burst the lesser frame.

    It is generally said that the heat and turmoil of Landor’s outward life are absent from his literary creations. In some degree this is certainly true. His workmanship—above all, the finished detail in word and phrase—gives a certain sculpturesque calm and coolness to his work. Nevertheless, his fierce hatred of tyranny and of brutal selfishness, his tender sympathy with helpless innocence, may be felt throbbing beneath every word of such scenes as Henry VIII.’s last interview with Anne Boleyn. There is no purer patriot than the dying Marcellus, who gives his generous foeman Hannibal a new conception of Roman character. Polybius, as he rides in sad triumph through burning Carthage, receives from the vanquished an awful lesson in retributive justice. The womanly tenderness of Godiva is set in a dazzling light which makes the last laureate’s graceful verses seem tame. The sweetness of human destiny is wonderfully touched in the words of Thetis, herself an immortal, when her husband grieves that he grows old: “There is a loveliness which youth may be without, and which the gods want. To the voice of compassion not a shell in all the ocean is attuned; and no tear ever dropped upon Olympus.”

    The happiest subject and the most perfect execution, however, must be sought in ‘Pericles and Aspasia.’ While largely true to the outlines as we know them from Thucydides and others, this is still a creative romance, depicting adequately a noble attachment which ended only with life.

    It is with the greater reluctance, therefore, with pity, and even with bewilderment, that we recall how, in the very days when this supreme and happy masterpiece was approaching completion, the sixty-year-old Landor deserted his wife and children in Fiesole, and after a few months’ leisurely sojourn in other parts of Italy, passed on with little evidence of regret to England. The quarrel was in its origin almost trivial. Mrs. Landor, we are told, had indulged once too often in the lifelong habit of criticizing her husband in the children’s presence! He indulged, we believe, in no abusive Latin verses on this occasion. He promptly stripped himself of nearly his entire income, leaving the deserted family in comparative affluence; but all the well-meant intercession of friends proved vain. He established a modest home in England. Some stanch friends remained to him. His literary career was by no means ended; indeed, his fame grew in the next decade.

    Twenty-three years later, quite penniless, fleeing from the disastrous results of an ignoble libel, the incorrigible octogenarian schoolboy arrived, wild-eyed and combative as ever, at his own gate! After repeated quarrels had made his longer stay there impossible, Mr. Browning took the old lion under his protection. Prosperous brothers in England provided a modest pension. In these days Swinburne made a pilgrimage to Italy expressly to see his revered master; and among the most faithful to the end, Kate Field has an honored place.

    Some of our judgments on Landor’s character as man and poet we have already attempted to deliver. Yet the Titanic, the elemental type of humanity is peculiarly difficult for ephemeral man to see fairly or to describe rationally. The mistakes and sins of Landor’s career seem unpardonable. Yet a thousand incidents prove him the tenderest, the most self-sacrificing—we had nearly said the most heroic—of men. His life was not, we incline to believe, even unhappy upon the whole. Certainly it was most fruitful. A sort of dæmonic good fortune, indeed, seemed to attend him and his. Even his great Welsh estate was not actually ruined, after all, by his early extravagance. His family was not disgraced, nor plunged into poverty, by his desertion twenty years later.

    As for his literary creations, his proudly modest prediction seems already more than fulfilled. He himself saw the scattered children of his genius gathered up in two tall octavos in 1846. The fuller library edition, since his death, and the exhaustive biography, we owe to Landor’s faithful friend John Forster. We wish however to refer with especial gratitude to two little books by Sidney Colvin. To the admirable biography in the ‘English Men of Letters’ the present essayist confesses a heavy debt. Moreover, the ‘Golden Treasury’ series includes a capital anthology from Landor, culled by the same hand. As we have indicated, our author lends himself better to this treatment than almost any other. We know of no volume which contains more helpful example and suggestion for the aspiring literary artist.

    Landor is not one of those single-throated purely lyric natures, like Heine or Burns, whose every utterance comes straight from the singer’s own heart. He could enjoy the full development of both sides in an argument. He could realize vividly, and even tolerate patiently, characters with which he was in very imperfect sympathy. In this he reminds us of Browning, or that ancient author whom he signally failed to appreciate, Plato. His sense of poetic limitation would never have permitted so merciless a creation as ‘The Ring and the Book.’ With a tithe of Browning’s or Plato’s ethical purpose and staying power, he might have created a really great drama. He has left us, perhaps, nothing which can be set among the indispensable masterpieces of humanity. Yet he may always remain, as painters say of Andrea del Sarto, an all-but faultless master of technique, and so, indispensable among the models for his fellow craftsmen.

    In spite of much graceful verse, and at least one perfect lyric, Landor seems on the whole to have felt the fixed rhythmical form as a fetter, not as an inspiration. As with Emerson, nearly all his most poetic utterances are in polished prose. In the selections given below, we have endeavored usually to choose passages where Landor speaks in deepest earnest, and with the loftiest purpose.