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

§ 5. Hellenics

It may be matter for question whether this interest is equally maintained in his more numerous but, both as individuals and in the mass, less bulky Hellenics, of which there are some fifty, spread, in point of composition, over a large part of his life. They were above called idylls, and, according to Greek practice, they strictly deserve the name. As such, they are entitled to use or disuse the dramatic or, at least, the dialogic form at pleasure; and they avail themselves of the privilege. Thus, one of the best known, Coresus and Callirrhoe, is a continuous narrative; another, Menelaus and Helen, has both dialogue and action.

There is no doubt, however, that, except to very peculiar, and, perhaps, rather factitious, taste, there is something wanting in these longer poetical works by Landor. They excite esteem very commonly, except when he tries humour or argument; satisfaction and admiration, sometimes; transport, hardly ever save by occasional flashes, mostly of mere description. It was, perhaps, much for Landor to condescend to the admission that his “Cenci” scenes do not challenge comparison with Shelley’s “noble tragedy”; but the comparison forces itself all the more unfortunately, while the preface in which it occurs closes with a piece of that miss-fire irony of which Landor was unluckily prodigal. In reading Acts and Scenes and Hellenics, one finds, and in re-reading them one expects, hardly any “jewels five words long.” A few pieces of the beautiful elaborate, but too often lifeless, description which finds a better home in the prose occur; but nothing (if it be not rash to judge so positively of so wide a field) equal to the best things in Gebir. The situations are often—in fact, usually—well selected; the composition, both in the lower and the higher senses of that word in different arts, is frequently admirable, the execution correct and creditable; but the total effect is too often cold. It is not that Landor is by any means a stickler for what is commonly called propriety. His situations are not seldom of the luscious kind, and, though never guilty of coarseness, he is occasionally chargeable with innuendo. But, in aiming at passion, he too often only attains sentiment. The feeling may be there; in some cases, it certainly is; but it is too often birth-strangled in the expression, partly by an attempt at classical restraint, which, as pointed out above, is not really natural to the writer, and partly by the singular verbosity also glanced at, which, in a way, is the “escapement” and compensation for this restraint. There are comparatively few of Landor’s longer pieces in which he does not, as it were, hold overflow meetings—which he addresses partly with repetitions and partly with ekings of what he has said before.

The advantage, to such a poet, of shorter and, in some cases, definitely limited forms can hardly be over-estimated; and it is enhanced not merely by that blend of classic and romantic which has been noticed, but by a further blend—to some extent consequential—of eighteenth and nineteenth century touch which is more noticeable in Landor than in almost any of his companions. They, for the most part—even Wordsworth, even Scott—grew out of one strain into the other; Landor kept the mixture. He is thus able, in his best so-called epigrams and elsewhere, to observe the neatness and clear outline of eighteenth century occasional pieces, while suffusing it with the later colour and diffusing over it the later atmosphere. A little piece, which comes quite early in the collection of 1846 and which was probably written nearly half a century earlier, for it is one of the Ianthe poems,

  • Pleasure, why thus desert the heart,
  • exhibits this combination remarkably; while it has much to do with the extraordinary charm of the two little masterpieces Rose Aylmer and Dirce. But, through all these mote-like poems and poemlets, the total number of which comes not so very far short of a thousand, though there may be triviality, false wit, dulness and other faults here and there, there is always the chance of coming across that flash and glow of the opal which Landor has in a special manner and measure, which is the dearest of delights to true lovers of poetry and over which he retained command, in these short pieces, almost to his death. Some, even of these pieces, such as Gunlaug (an early attempt) and Guidone and Lucia, may almost be called long, running to five hundred lines or so; and there are numerous pages which only just, or do not quite, suffice for a poem. But the scale runs down to single couplets, even single lines, and a greater number of the constituents does not exceed from half a score to a score of lines. Here, the drawbacks of Landor’s larger pieces, to a great extent, disappear. A considerable number of these smaller pieces are, of course, trivial; but their smallness makes the triviality at once apparent, and they can be passed over without the disappointed and disappointing labour which the conscientious reader of a longer piece undergoes. The miniature jewels above referred to, the larger but almost throughout admirable odes to Wordsworth and Southey, a positive majority of the Ianthe pieces (which would deserve isolation in a separate but complete sheaf, for they have a distinctive quality rare in the vast harvest of love poetry), the Browning sonnet, still, perhaps, the best thing on its subject and in its kind after seventy years, are all consummate; and there are many to add. To the last, in Dry Sticks, he retained that strange occasional command of perfect phrase which was his special merit and privilege, and of which almost his greatest single example is the famous
  • Beyond the arrows, views and shouts of men
  • in Count Julian.

    Seldom or never on pages facing each other in the published work of a man between eighty and ninety can one find two such opposed pieces as the admirable monostich of A Sensible Girl’s Reply to Moore’s “Our couch shall be roses all spangled with dew.”

  • It would give me rheumatics: and so it would you
  • (the best joke as well as one of the last that he ever made), and the contrast:
  • Ah Southey, how we stumble on through life
  • Among the broken images of dreams
  • Not one of them to be raised up again.
  • Yet it must have been later still, so far as time of composition went, that he wrote Rose the Third and other beautiful things. In fact, selections from Landor have not, perhaps, even yet done full justice to his poetry; though there is hardly any poet who requires selection so much.