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

§ 11. Robert Eyres Landor

At least a postscript to this chapter should, in such a history as the present, remind readers of what is too often forgotten, that the fame of Walter Savage Landor, inadequate to his merits as it is sometimes thought, has been able to overshadow, in no just degree, that of his younger brother, Robert Eyres Landor. Robert’s obscurity was, indeed, partly his own fault; for the fallentis semita vitae of a country parsonage was his deliberate and strictly maintained choice; he made little effort (none for a long time) to protest against the attribution of his early play The Count Arezzi to Byron, and of his later story The Fawn of Sertorius, to his brother Walter; and he is believed to have destroyed most of the copies of the three other plays which came between—The Earl of Brecon, Faith’s Fraud and The Ferryman. Earlier than this, in 1828, he had written and published a poem, The Impious Feast; and, later than the latest, he gave another prose work, The Fountain of Arethusa. But all his books are rare, and, of the few people who have read him, most, perhaps, know only The Fawn of Sertorius, a prose story blending delightful fantasy with learning, and a genuinely tragic touch. All good judges who have been acquainted with the works of the two brothers seem to have acknowledged the remarkable family likeness, involving no “copying.” In verse, Robert did not, perhaps, possess either what have been called above the opal flashes of his brother’s most ambitious attempts or the exquisite finish of his finest epigrams; and his prose is less ornate. But, for what Dante calls gravitas sententiae, and for phrase worthy of it, he is, probably, Walter’s superior. It must be admitted that this family likeness includes—perhaps involves—a somewhat self-willed eccentricity. The Impious Feast (Belshazzar’s) is mainly written (with a preface defending the form) in what may be called, in all seriousness, rimed blank verse—or, in other words, verse constructed on the lines of a blank verse paragraph but with rimes—completed at entirely irregular intervals, and occasionally tipped or sandwiched with an Alexandrine. The book is so far from common that a specimen may be given:

  • Still in her native glory unsubdued,
  • And indestructible for force or time
  • That first of mightiest cities, mistress, queen,
  • Even as of old earth’s boast and marvel, stood;
  • Imperious, inaccessible, sublime:
  • If changed she might be all that she had been.
  • No conscious doubts abased her regal eye,
  • Rest had not made it weak, but more serene;
  • Those who repelled her power, revered her majesty.
  • Full at her feet wealth’s largest fountain streamed;
  • Dominion crowned her head; on either side
  • Were sceptred power and armed strength; she seemed
  • Above mischance imperishably high;
  • Though half the nations of the earth defied,
  • They raged, but could not harm her—fierce disdain
  • Beheld the rebel kingdoms storm in vain.
  • What were their threats to her—Bel’s daughter and his pride?
  • Whether this irregular cymbal-accompaniment of rime pleases or displeases in a poem of some six or seven thousand lines—varied only by occasional lyric interludes, sometimes fully strophic in form—must depend much, if not wholly, on individual taste. But the poem, though it has not the craggy splendour of Gebir, is, at least, as good as Southey’s non-lyrical epics, and superior to almost all those of the lesser poets mentioned elsewhere.

    The Fawn of Sertorius has real charm and interest; its prose companion will certainly surprise and may disappoint, though there are good things in it. The Fountain of Arethusa consists—after a preliminary narrative, lively enough in matter and picture, of a journey from the depths of a Derbyshire cavern to the Other end of Nowhere—of two volumes of dialogue, rather resembling Southey’s Colloquies than the fraternal Conversations, between a certain Antony Lugwardine and divers great men of antiquity, especially Aristotle and Cicero, the talk being more or less framed by a continuation of the narrative, both in incident and description. The general scheme is, of course, familiar enough, and so are some of the details, including the provision of a purely John Bull companion who cannot, like his friend Lugwardine, speak Latin or Greek, and who is rather cruelly killed at the end to make a dying fall. The often-tried contrast of ancient and modern thought and manners presents the usual opportunities for criticism. But the whole is admirably written and gives abundant proof that Robert’s humour (as, indeed, we could guess from his letters printed by Forster) was of a somewhat surer kind than Walter’s, while his description is sometimes hardly less good though never quite so elaborate. The chapter of recovery of his farm by the peasant Spanus after his delivery of the fawn to Sertorius is a perfect example of the Landorian method, permeated by an economy of attractions which is hardly to be matched in the works of the more famous brother. That, like almost all classical novels, the book is somewhat overloaded with Charicles-and-Gallus detail, is the only fault, and the passion of the end is real and deep. So it is in the three curious plays (two tragedies and a tragicomic “drama”) of 1841, while their versification, if deficient in lissomeness, is of high quality, and supplies numerous striking short passages somewhat resembling Scott’s “old play” fragment-mottoes. But, on the other hand, the diction and phrasing are among the obscurest in English—concealing, rather than revealing, the thought, motive and even action of the characters. Robert Landor, in short, is a most interesting instance of a “strong nativity” defrauded of its possible developments, certainly by an unduly recluse life, perhaps by other causes which we do not know. In the case of hardly any other English author would it be more desirable to see, in one of his own phrases, “what nature first meant [him] to be till some misadventure interposed.”