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

§ 2. His classicism

He stands almost, but not quite, equally alone in his strange compound (for it is a real chemical compound, not a mere mechanical mixture) of classic and romantic. The names of Spenser, Milton, Gray, Matthew Arnold again and Swinburne, may rise to some lips by way of objection; but, in all cases, when they are examined, the elements will be found more separate than in Landor. He would himself probably have disliked—have, indeed, disclaimed, in his most Boythornian vein—any sympathy with romanticism. He boasted his indifference to Spenser himself; of his own contemporaries, he preferred Southey, who, in some ways though not in all, was the least romantic of them. But it is what a man does, not what he says, that, in the higher courts of criticism, “may be used against him.” That Landor’s scholarship, except as regards his remarkable faculty of writing Latin verse, was not very deep or very wide, has long been known. Despite his fondness for Greek subjects, and the magical air of Hellenic quality which he has managed to throw over his treatment of them, it is admitted that, at one time, he was rather ignorant of Greek literature, and at no time thoroughly familiar with it, though he caught a good deal of it through Latin, with which he was thoroughly familiar, and of which some acute judges have found more real flavour in him than of Greek. But the important point for us at the moment is that, wold he nold he, this assumption of a classical grab, the selection of classical subjects, even this attempt to create and to diffuse a classical atmosphere, were all subtly conditioned by an underlying romantic influence which was of the age as well as of the man and which he could not resist. Except in a few of what may be justly called his epigrams, in the proper original sense, he never shows classical restraint in expression—even his avowed efforts to “unload” and “cut out” frequently result in an obscure concentration and compression of “beauties” rather than in classical conciseness and perspicuity combined. It is impossible to imagine anything more inconsistent with even the laxest classical conception of an epic than Gebir or any less Aristotelian drama than Count Julian. The only classical form which Imaginary Conversations, whether in verse or prose, suggest, is that ambiguous and, unfortunately, only in small part extant department the mime; while the elaborate and beautiful descriptions in prose recall only the very late and, to some extent, degenerate ecphrases of Greek rhetoricians and romancers. The famous lines of Swinburne,

  • And through the trumpet of a child of Rome
  • Rang the pure music of the flutes of Greece,
  • are absolutely critical as regards the Romanising of the Hellenic in Landor; but exception might be taken, in no cavilling spirit, to the epithet “pure.” The music was singularly blended—a mixed mode of Greek and Roman and modern—and though, perhaps, the musician’s efforts were always or often consciously directed towards keeping down the modern element, he frequently failed, and sometimes, when he came nearest to success, succeeded only in artifice or variability. Still, as has been said, there is no one exactly like him or even very near to him in this blended character; and its results, at their happiest, were such as even English literature could not afford to lose.

    Although, to the general reader, Landor, if he is anything at all, is a writer of prose, his poetical work deserves to be considered first, for more reasons than that of the general priority of verse. This, though, in later days, he affected to regard it as an amusement only, was, to him, a life-long occupation; he only took to prose—he certainly only published it—in middle and later age, and it may be not ungenerously doubted whether despair of gaining the public ear with verse did not induce in him a certain “turning to the Gentiles” with prose. Although the bulk of his verse is almost necessarily less than that of his prose, it is very considerable; and may run, at a rough guess, to between forty and fifty thousand lines. The kinds of it are also sufficiently, if not extremely, various, ranging from the already mentioned epic and closet-drama through dialogues of a less and less theatrically dramatic kind, idylls with some conversation in them, and idylls purely narrative to an immense multitude—hundreds and almost thousands—of shorter pieces; epigrams, sometimes in the modern, but nearly always in the Greek, sense, of all lengths and in a variety of metres, though Landor moulded his practice to his own mistaken theory of the comparative poverty of English in this respect and seldom tried, while he still more seldom succeeded in, anything which had not an iambic or trochaic base.