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

§ 7. Landor as a critic

When, however, we leave this charming quality of style, it is not so easy to keep to the path of simple eulogy. There are few more curious instances of difference of opinion in the history of literary criticism, though it shows many such, than the varying estimates of Landor’s humour. There are those, sometimes men of renown, who find it “exquisite”; there are others, not perhaps by any means very limited in their appreciation of the elusive but important quality, who are seldom, if ever, able to enjoy it at all—who think it, from The Citation and Examination of Shakespeare down to the conversation entitled The Duke de Richelieu, Sir Firebrace Cotes, Lady G. and Mr. Normanby, the most depressing exhibition that ever a man of genius made of himself, to whom it seems forced, trivial, at best schoolboyish, at worst almost, if not quite, vulgar. Appreciation of his sentiment does not, perhaps, swing the pendulum through so enormous an arc, but it occupies a sufficiently wide one in its variety, as may be seen from the fact that what some of his greatest admirers call “girlish,” others, no less enthusiastic on the whole, style “missish,” a difference slight in word, formidable in sense. Few, even of these partisans, have ranked his reasoning powers high, and still fewer, even of those who, in a way, sympathise with him politically, have shown much eagerness to accept him as a mouthpiece of their own political views. He seems—and this is one of the legacies of the century of his birth—to have spoken of religious and ecclesiastical matters without the slightest real conception of what these matters mean; and, in his miscellaneous utterances, especially on contemporary subjects, there is a perpetual atmosphere of “fling,” through which the missiles dart and hurtle as if from a dozen different quarters at once, with a result which recalls all attributes of chaos—noise, darkness, confusion. The escapes from this—in themselves not always quite continuous—provided by Pericles and Aspasia, by the Boccaccio and Petrarca pieces, Euthymedes and, fortunately, not a few others, may, perhaps, acquire an additional character of paradises from their association with this Tartarus or Limbo; but the critical historical estimate can hardly neglect the latter. There is probably no part of Landor’s work, not even the long poems, which has been less read than his chiefly critical miscellanies in prose; and, though the general reader, perhaps, is not to be blamed for his neglect, the student will not pass them by except to his great loss. It is true that nowhere does that uncritical quality which accompanies Landor when he is most critical more distinctly appear, whether it be in more general matters, such as his spelling reform crotchet, or in direct comment on individual books and authors. But, just as in Poems and Conversations you are never without hope and seldom without satisfaction of beauty, so, here, you need never despair of luminous flashes of critical utterance. In short, you are driven to say that while there is hardly in the whole of literature an author so difficult to read through without constant dissatisfaction, so there is none whom it is so necessary to read through in order to judge him fairly and enjoy him intelligently.

The result of such a reading to those who look first to form and expression can hardly but be satisfactory; to those who look no further, if there be any such, few writers can be Landor’s rivals. But there is still another split of opinion between his actual admirers as to the positive value of his matter. Some have gone so far—while, of course, admitting the extreme unwisdom of Landor’s conduct—as to allow his literary work, when not expressive of mere irritation, crotchet, or prejudice, the supreme merit of “wisdom” itself. Some have called him a great thinker, though a feeble reasoner in support of his thoughts; and he has actually been credited with having uttered “more delicate aphorisms of human nature than anyone except Shakespeare.” It is true that there may have been latent guile in the adjective “delicate,” covertly, though not openly, narrowing the compliment. Yet, there is no doubt that high intellectual and moral value is attributed to Landor by some. Others, prepared to go almost the furthest lengths possible admiration of his expression at its best, find it impossible to rank him very high in these other respects. They do not share the vulgar objection to the commonplace and obvious; they know that the greatest things in prose and poetry alike are commonplaces on which the writer has thrown (to use Coleridge’s consummate image) the special moonlight or sunlight of his own thought and treatment, thus differentiating and subliming them. But this is what they rarely, if ever, find in Landor. There is exquisite expression, but it is seldom more than the expression, exquisite indeed, but without halo or aura, of what may almost be called copy-book truths or drawing-book pictures. He has scores of true, tender, touching, charming things on death and love and youth and age on the one side, and, in his sober moments, not a little commonsense on the other. He has almost always at hand, if not actually present, perfection of expression. But, for acuteness of practical intellect dividing joint and marrow, and shattering fallacy, you will never find in him anything like Johnson’s “You do not know, Sir, that he is guilty till the judge has decided”; nor, for the disclosure of poetic altitudes and abysses, will you find anything like

  • We are such stuff
  • As dreams are made on, and our little life
  • Is rounded with a sleep,
  • or
  • Our noisy years seem moments in the being
  • Of the eternal Silence.
  • Indeed, though Landor lived to receive the homage of Swinburne, his schoolboy walks had taken him past the house where still lingered the daughter of Addison; and, outrageous though the statement may seem, there is still much in him which reminds one more of Pope than of Shakespeare or Wordsworth.

    It would be negligent in such a place as the present to take no notice of some, at least, of the opinions which have existed in reference to this remarkable writer. His own more than sufficiently quoted remark (which is, perhaps, not subject to the charge of mixed metaphor sometimes brought against it) has not been quite so exactly fulfilled as is also commonly said; for, in his sense, he “dined” very early, and the guests, though certainly few, were as certainly select. From Southey’s eulogies, which were, however, often accompanied by judicious warnings, some deductions must, no doubt, be made. They had entered too early into a quite uncorrupt and very interesting but rather disabling mutual admiration society of practically unlimited liability; and, with some strong differences, there was too great a sympathy between them for perfectly achromatic judgment. “You and I,” said a very distinguished man of letters of a later generation to one not quite so eminent, “ought not to review each other.” But Southey was by no means Landor’s only admirer, nor were Southey and De Quincey alone in the condemnation above referred to; Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Lamb, Shelley, Leigh Hunt, with whatever minor differences, joined in the admiration, and the only first-rate dissident, whose dissent was chequered by not a little eulogy, was the certainly unsurpassed but wayward and somewhat incalculable spirit of Hazlitt. In the middle generation of the nineteeth century “all the wits were there,” in the same sense, from Tennyson and Browning, Carlyle and Dickens downwards. Later still, the unmeasured laudation of Swinburne and the less exuberant and unqualified but almost as high estimate of Sir Sidney Colvin followed; and there is no sign of much alteration in the youngest opinion. “For the vulgus never: for the clerus surely” has been the almost hackneyed but well-justified summary. In such cases, there is always a temptation either to join the chorus or to take the equally easy but even less commendable line of more or less paradoxical disparagement. In the foregoing estimate, a strenuous endeavour, based on long acquaintance and frequently revised impression, has been made to keep the difficult and dangerous middle way of strict criticism.

    The quality in Landor which repels, or, at least, fails to attract, some readers, except from the side of pure form, was well, if almost accidentally, pointed out by a critic hardly professional, at least as regards English literature, but exceptionally scholarly, and not in the least given to carping—the late Lewis Campbell, who complained of his “aloofness and unreality.” It is only in the apices of his poetry, such as Rose Aylmer and in a few passages of his prose, such as the purple passages of the “dreams,” the scholar episode of The Citation and Examination of Shakespeare and a few others, where these peculiarities are overcome by genuine passion or, in one way or another, positively suit the subject, that Landor escapes a certain artificiality. Another very happy phrase of Campbell, applied to Landor’s friend Dickens, emphatically does not apply, except on these rarest occasions, to Landor himself. His characters are never exactly “human effluences,” they are effluences of books and of a fantastic individual combination of scholarly taste and wilful temperament. His aloofness is not the poetic aloofness which Matthew Arnold adumbrates in the famous passage of Resignation—a critical but, at the same time, sympathetic contemplativeness—for, except in relation to literature, and even largely as to that, he is nothing if not uncritical; while even his sympathies, which are often keen, are so twisted and tossed by whims and crazes and crotchets of all kinds that they are never to be depended on. That his humour is even more uncertain has been said already. When any lover of style and form remembers not merely his great show pieces but the smaller patches—the “stripes of purple,” as Quintilian would say, woven into all the prose, and not sparingly scattered over the verse—he is apt to pronounce Landor one of the mightiest of magicians; and so, at these times, he is. But he is a Prospero with a most imperfect and intermittent command over his Ariel, and, perhaps, always better suited to uttermost isles of fancy than to the Milans of the actual world.