Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 6. Imaginary Conversations

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

§ 6. Imaginary Conversations

It is, however, undoubtedly, as a writer of prose that Landor is most generally known, so far as he can be said to be generally known at all; and it was in prose that the most copious and individual products of his genius were supplied even to his most critical admirers. Imaginary Conversations did not begin to be published till he was past the middle of his unusually long life; but he was untiring in the production of them to the very last, and their bulk is very considerable indeed, especially if we include Pericles and Aspasia and The Pentameron of right and The Citation and Examination of Shakespeare of grace. Their subjects are of the most varied nature possible—ranging from Greek to actually contemporary matters, and Landor, at least, endeavours to make the treatments as various. It has been pointed out already that his verse Acts and Scenes have much of the character of verse-novels, and, in Imaginary Conversations, which include a good deal of action as well as conversation, the absence of the restraints of verse is accompanied naturally enough by a still wider expatiation in both speech and incident. The result very often, if not always, gives the same restoration of interest which has been already noticed. Tragedy and comedy, history and imagination, scenery and sentiment, all are made to come in, and, to enhance the attraction, Landor endeavours, after a fashion which, indeed, had been essayed by others, especially by De Quincey in Confessions of an English Opium Eater, to throw over large parts of his work a charm of elaborate prose style emulating the most ambitious efforts of the poet. In poetry itself, he had been almost rigidly eighteenth century in form if not quite in diction. He had actually deprecated, in his correspondence with Southey, the adoption of any but familiar and consecrated metrical forms, not merely as regarded exotic and archaic devices, classical metres, and so forth, but even as concerned new stanza-combinations of already recognised lineforms. But, in prose, he summoned to his aid every device of rhythm, colour, word-value, sound-concert and other helps that rhetoric and prosody itself, used in the most general way, could give him. There was no longer, as in his verse, any effort to “boil away,” to “cart off loads” of matter likely to be attractive to the general: there was, on the other hand, evident effort to “let everything go in,” to “load every rift with ore.”

The effect, from the point of view last suggested especially, was triumphant success, except in the eyes of those who, reversing Landor’s position, held, as to prose, the same views which he held as to verse, and disliked lavish and gorgeous ornament in it. More beautiful things—from the famous “dreams” which sometimes fill pages, to the little phrases, clauses and passages which occur constantly—are not to be found in literature, ancient or modern, English or foreign. Some have gone so far as to insist that there are none so beautiful; a position which a critic whose memory is fairly full and his judgment fairly catholic will be slow to accept, and which is itself, perhaps, essentially uncritical. In their own way, they are perfect, and that is enough.