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Be lulled with songs of mine. Fair world, adieu!
WALTER SAVAGE LANDOR.
[WALTER SAVAGE LANDOR was born at Warwick, Jan. 30. 1775; died at Florence, Dec. 17, 1864. He resided in Italy almost continuously from 1815 to 1835, and afterwards 21 years in Bath. His writings, the dates of which range from 1795 to almost the year of his death, were first collected by himself in two large volumes (1846), and afterwards (1876), with his Life, by Mr. John Forster, in eight vols. 8vo.]
There is always some difficulty in discussing the characteristics and merits of the poetry of an eminent writer in prose. There are indeed exceptions, in which the one production has no more to do with the other than the misletoe with the old oak to which it is attached, but in most cases there is sufficient analogy to compel comparison, and sufficient difference to disturb the clear comprehension of the literary character. But the prose and poetry of Landor are especially homogeneous, not only in the sense of the dominant imaginativeness that constitutes what is ordinarily called poetical power, but in the melody and determinateness of poetry that pervades so much of his simplest writing. If this selection had included dramatic pieces, many of the Imaginary Conversations might have taken their place in it as becomingly as if written in poetical rhythm, and there would be no difficulty in culling passages from them and in other works which recur to the memory of the reader rather as screeds of song than as passages of eloquence, beauty, or wisdom. In the limited sketch of the poet which is here attempted it will be seen that there is an unity of intellectual faculty and moral purpose which made this similarity of production almost a necessity. He lived in a past world of heroic thought, unaltered by the events of common life, commencing from his school and college days and enduring for some ninety years. He passed nearly through the most eventful century of the world without learning from experience and almost without adding to his ideas, and
thus the conceit of his difference from, and superiority to, others never translated itself into fact, and, aided by his imperious temper, kept him aloof at once from the intrusion and sympathy of his contemporaries. The elder son of a physician of large practice in the town of Warwick, young Landor had all the advantages of good birth and of the best education of his time. Besides his father's property in Staffordshire, he inherited through his mother the ancient estates of the Savages of Ipsley Court and Tachbrooke. At Rugby, and at Trinity College, Oxford, the classical culture which at that period was all the gentleman's education, however artificial and enforced, seemed to find in him a natural affinity that in any other youth would have been the delight of his teachers and the gratification of a just ambition. But to his wayward temperament all competition was not only distasteful but repugnant, and the very sense of superiority was distorted into a contempt for success. He thus left both school and college not only without the ordinary distinctions of scholarship, but prematurely as an offender against ordinary discipline.
At about twenty years of age he settled himself at Tenby in South Wales, and between that secluded sea-place and Swansea, with an occasional visit to Warwick, he passed three years in continuous and lonely study. It was a thrifty and almost pastoral existence, and the sandy dells and dingles covered with moss-roses and golden snap-dragons were always associated in his mind with the production of Gebir.
'Play-day for Landor's Latin verses' is a remembrance of one of his Rugby contemporaries, and his first steps in English poetry had been translations and adaptations from the classics; but a small volume published in 1795, suppressed and forgotten, contains original verse far above the juvenile standard, and distinguished by a satiric gaiety, with no trace of immaturity about it. To this is appended Poematum Latinorum Libellus et Latine scribendi Defensio, and there is extant a letter from one of the objects of his satire praising its ease and continuity, and curiously speaking of the Hendecasyllabi, many of which were reprinted in the Pisan edition of 1820, as worthy of Catullus, his lifelong model of the perfection of literary grace.
It was during the studious solitude in South Wales that he happened to light on a collection of tales by Clara Reeve, a now forgotten novelist, one of which, an Arabian romance, attracted
his fancy. It related to the mythic founder of Gibraltar, and on this he constructed an epic in seven books, which still remains the only sustained poetic effort of his genius, and which, but for certain accidents of the poetic literature of the time, and its author's subsequent fame as a great prose writer, might have only survived as a curiosity of precocious intellectual power. It was composed under the double inspiration of the great classics and of Milton, fortuitously in Latin or in English as his inclination prompted, and it would be difficult if not impossible to discriminate the original medium of poetic thought. It has no interest of plot, and no delicate discrimination of character. Two brothers, representatives of the militant and peaceful natures, are each, after the ancient manner, assisted by sympathetic supernatural agencies, and display the old moralities of the barrenness of conquest and the omnipotence of love. There is the Virgilian descent to the world of future Destiny, with its ancestral and heroic shapes of doom, allegorizing among other objects of his reprobation, not only George the Third 'with eyebrows white and slanting brow,' and Louis Seize, who 'shrinks yelling from that sword there enginehung,' but 'William miscalled Deliverer,' contrasted curiously with a vision in another part of Bonaparte as 'a mortal man above all mortal praise,' but these are the only disturbances of the general unity and consistency of the poem'. The happy issue of the pastoral affection of Tamar, and the disastrous close of that of Gebir, afford occasion for an accumulated wealth of imagery which wants but some human relation to raise itself to the utmost heights of epic grandeur, and there are other salient passages, which we hear without wonder that Shelley was never tired of reciting, and which Coleridge could describe as 'eminences as excessively bright as the ground was dark around and between them.'
It was a dreary period of English poetic literature. The gentle voice of Cowper alone rose above a factitious and uninteresting mediocrity, and the small group of writers whose destiny it
1 It is interesting to contrast with this the after-estimate of Napoleon in the only Greek epigram of his which is extant
Τίς ποτε Ναπόλεον τὰ σὰ πρῶτα καὶ ὕστατα γράψει
Translated by Mr. Algernon Swinburne
"Thy life-long works, Napoleon, who shall write?
was to recall our verse to a truer sense of nature and a purer diction, were just struggling into existence through a hostile and contemptuous criticism. One of these, Robert Southey, who had been Landor's contemporary at Oxford, and who said that 'he would have sought his acquaintance from his Jacobinism, but was repelled by his eccentricity,' happened to light upon Gebir, and found in it'some of the most exquisite poetry in the language. I would go a hundred miles to see the author.' He declared it more Homeric than anything in modern poetical writing. The attention of such men as Coleridge, Taylor of Norwich, the Hebers, and later De Quincey, and Shelley, was attracted to the poem, and what was far more important, that friendship with Southey was secured to him, which overcame every discrepancy of character, survived every change of political opinion, and, though little fostered by personal intercourse, was constant to the last. 'Landor, my Landor,' Southey repeated softly to himself, when almost every name had passed from his perception. And Landor wrote, with pathetic conceit,
'Southey and I have run in the same traces,
When we break down, what pair shall fill our places?'
Five years after Gebir, Landor printed at Warwick a small volume containing the commencement of another epic, on the story of the Phocæans, the invaders of Gaul who built Marseilles, with the same power of fragmentary imagery and thought compressed into obscurity. The beautiful address To Tacæa (Tachbrooke) given in these extracts, first appeared in these pages, but henceforth Landor's poetic faculty seems to have found no serious exercise, though there is a record of another similar fasciculus' called Simonidia, containing some admirable Latin verse, afterwards collected, and some English pieces addressed to certain objects of his admiration at Bath, where he resided for some time, under the then conventional names of 'Ione' and 'Ianthe.'
An expedition in aid of Spanish freedom elicited the tragedy of Count Julian, in which, and in later dramatic pieces, he showed none of the power of transformation and self-forgetfulness essential to a great dramatic writer, but every page contains some passage of no common order of thought or expression. His correspondence with Southey during this period abounds in poetical criticism of much interest, interspersed with such paradoxical judgments as the ‘jargon of the flimsy and fantastic Spenser.'