Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 1. Walter Savage Landor’s prose and verse

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

IX. The Landors, Leigh Hunt, De Quincey

§ 1. Walter Savage Landor’s prose and verse

THE THREE writers who form the main subject of this chapter, when regarded individually, may seem, at first sight, to have extremely little in common, except their date, the unusual length of time during which they were contemporaries and the closely connected fact that they survived all the greater men, and most of the smaller, of their own generation. But, when they come to be considered more narrowly and from the standpoint of strictly historical criticism, points of resemblance, or of that contrast which is often almost as much of a bond as resemblance for the purposes of such treatment, will rapidly emerge; and the advantage of treating them otherwise than as by three entirely disjoined articles in a dictionary will emerge likewise.

Two of them were ambidextrous in respect of the harmonies of written speech—employing prose and verse with equal facility, though not, in both cases, in equal measure. De Quincey was a prose-writer only—at least, his verse is small in quantity and quite unimportant in quality; though he had the weakness to hint that, an he would, he could have versed it with the best of them. But he had another cross-connection with Landor (this time Leigh Hunt stood out), that both were elaborate and deliberate writers of the most ornate prose that English had known since the seventeenth century. Leigh Hunt and De Quincey—again to cross the ties—were both eminent examples of “the man-of-letters-of-all-work,” who, arising in the late seventeenth, and earlier eighteenth, century, had been promoted quite out of Grub street early in the nineteenth. Landor’s circumstances, ill as he managed them, precluded him from following this occupation of necessity; and this was fortunate, for, otherwise, the cook whose legendary body crushed the violet bed at Florence would have found more hapless fellows in the persons of many editors on the harder couches of Fleet street and Paternoster row. But, except in this ticklish point, he had all the ethos of the “polygraph.” No special subject shows itself as exercising obsession, or receiving preference, in the vast exuberance of his Poems and Conversations and Miscellanies, except a strong tendency towards that criticism which is ever dominant, if not predominant, in the others. Even his classicism is a thing more of manner than of subject; and, though he shows it often in subject also, that is mainly because the one is germane to the other. Now, this polygraphic tendency is an essential characteristic of the new age.

Yet, further, though we may here enter on more disputable matter, the three resemble each other in a characteristic difficult to formulate without making the field of dispute larger than it strictly should be. Although they all had talent—amounting, in Landor certainly, in De Quincey arguably, in Hunt scarcely, to genius—few critics accustomed to the taking of wide comparative views would put them in the first rank, absolutely, of their contemporaries. The mention of the names of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Byron, Shelley, Keats, at once, if it does not dwarf, lessens them, though, perhaps, some would deny this in the case of Landor. Even Southey, who, no doubt, in many, if not most, judgments is regarded as the dark star of the new pleiad, is, in popular language, “a bigger man” than Leigh Hunt or De Quincey, though there may be individual things by De Quincey certainly, by Hunt perhaps, which Southey could not have done. Even Landor himself (who, be it remembered, though not much given to modesty, thought Southey at least his own equal) becomes artificial, academic, restricted to exquisite construction of sometimes rather lifeless form, beside his friend. Yet, if still keeping an eye on these general similarities and differences, we turn to more individual treatment, we shall find, if not primacy in them as wholes, such accomplishment in particulars and such distinction as, in some literatures, would make them actually supreme and, even in ours, assure them minor supremacies in detail.

Biography, almost always unnecessary here, is, in this special place, almost wholly negligible; and this is fortunate because, while nothing really important happened to any to them, all three are surrounded with a sort of anti-halo of gossip which it would be most unprofitable to discuss. Whether Landor was wholly or only partly Boythorn; whether Hunt was wholly, partly or not at all Skimpole; whether the former’s dignity was really dignified or a mixture of the grandiose and the childish; whether Hunt, again, was “a noble fellow” or, at best, a good-natured Bohemian; whether De Quincey was an acute observer merely or a venomous carper on one side of his character, a deliberate mystifier or even falsifier of fact or a person with a marvellous gift for translating reality into romance on the other—these, and not a few more, are points upon which it is impossible for us to dilate. The reader whose curiosity is excited will find no difficulty, with the aid of the bibliography, in satisfying, and, perhaps, satiating, himself with accounts and discussions of the facts. He will also, one dare say, discover, later if not sooner, that the discussion, in almost every case, has very little to do with the literary appreciation of the exceedingly voluminous bodies of work added by them to English literature, which contain not a few instances of its finest work, which, in some cases, have exercised remarkable influence and which, though complete exploration of them is, in some cases, not easy, will never be explored by any affectionate and competent student of that literature without the discovery of treasures such as a student will revisit again and again.

The lack of ease just glanced at requires, even with the assistance of the bibliography itself, a few remarks. It exists least in the case of Landor, though, even in his case, the fullest collection—Forster’s—is not quite complete and has not been for some time past very easy to obtain. It appears, however, to include all that is indispensable, though some additions recently made by Mr. Stephen Wheeler are almost of importance, and amply provided with interest. With De Quincey, matters become, if not more recondite (for some of Landor’s work seems almost inaccessible in the original editions), more complicated. To the completest edition of his collected works, by the late professor Masson, at least seven volumes of Miscellanea, printed since in different forms and shapes, have to be added; while his eccentric habit of leaving deposits of unpublished writing in his various abodes (sometimes merely lodgings) makes the discovery of yet more not very unlikely.

But Leigh Hunt’s is the worst case of all. No attempt even at a complete edition has ever been made; and it may be doubted whether the materials for one exist together in any library. If the whole were assembled it would probably make a collection of works as large, at least, as that of Voltaire. For Hunt, though, as has been said, a good deal of a Bohemian, had little or nothing of the idleness ascribed to the citizens of the spiritual Prague; and, if he had not the knack of managing or keeping money, was untiring in his efforts to earn it, though he does not seem, like De Quincey, to have written for the sake of writing, whether “hunger and request of friends” pressed or not.

But these inconveniences, though they exist, are not really so important as they may appear. In all three cases, the additions made from time to time to what may be called the working textus receptus have thrown very little new light on the general literary character of the authors; and that character, in two cases (Landor’s and De Quincey’s), is so clearly and deeply stamped, in the other (Leigh Hunt’s) diffused in a manner so light but pervading and fully perceptible, that even the most bountiful “windfall of the muses” possible now, though it might give additional pleasure, would hardly give new pleasure and would pretty certainly add nothing to our critical instruction. Let us, therefore, take them in order, directing the main survey on the individuals so as to prevent dispersion and confusion of view, but utilising whatever lights of community and comparison may present themselves.

The two points which a careful student of Landor will soon discover for himself, are that singular ambidexterity in verse and prose already referred to, possessed by him in measure and manner utterly different from the fashion and degree in which it was possessed by Hunt, and, secondly, the equally unparallelled but much stranger fashion in which “classic” and “romantic” tendencies and characteristics were combined in him. Until these two points are independently reached by the student, or unless he consents to take them on trust till he has confirmed them by his own study, there is constant danger of misapprehension; and from that misapprehension some enthusiastic and otherwise valuable studies of him have not been free. The two propositions themselves require careful handling. Landor has been already contrasted with Hunt as to the special character of their joint addiction to prose and verse; but, in this particular respect, they are too far asunder for contrast to be anything but a contrast. Except a certain easy fluency which sometimes runs close to the undistinguished, if not to the distinctly slipshod, there is not much kinship between Hunt’s style in prose and his style in verse. In some other poets who have also been great prose-writers there might even be said to have been a broad difference between their verse and their prose style, such as may be found in instances so different in themselves as Dryden and Matthew Arnold. Moreover, the styles and dictions of verse and prose have always, in English, been strongly contrasted; it is the case even in a writer like Wordsworth, who held theories adverse to such a contrast. But Landor’s prose and Landor’s verse are so strangely allied that there is practically nothing save the presence or absence of metre which distinguishes them, though, reversing the usual practice with his usual self-will, the prose diction and the prose imagery are sometimes more “flowery and starry” than those of the verse. This is a real idiosyncrasy; and it can hardly be matched except in a language and literature which, oddly enough, Landor detested above all others—in French. And, even there—even in Voltaire and Victor Hugo, great as the likeness of their prose and their verse is in each of two cases which differ much from each other—the identity of the two manners is not so great as in Landor.