Duncan Campbell Scott

Addresses‚ Essays‚ and Reviews




Walter Savage Landor

 

     When I was afforded the honour of addressing the May Court Club in its series of monologues on the subject of Victorian authors, I made a somewhat arbitrary selection myself of Walter Savage Landor, an author who is not on the original list, but one whom I admire very greatly, and probably out of a feeling of jealousy for his fame I selected him in preference to names better known to you all as great Victorians. If I had not chosen Landor, I think as a champion of lost causes, I might have chosen some of the lesser Victorians, who are in my opinion great or at least worthy of much attention, and for some time even after choosing Landor I vacillated between those two subjects.  However we now stand upon Landor’s ground and I trust you will not regret my choice.
     Of course our author is out of place in this series as he properly cannot be counted a Victorian at all. If you consider that he was born in 1775, just at the close of the 18th century and lived until 1867, you will see that he must be considered as an age rather than as a generation. He is [in] a bracket which seems to contain all the great Victorian names. The greatest of them were his friends, most of them were his acquaintances and admirers. In his youth he was the intimate of Southey, the friend of Coleridge, the antagonist of Byron, the admirer of Keats and Shelley. In his age he was the friend of Dickens, Forster and Browning, and lived to receive the homage and adulation of Swinburne. We have no similar case in English Literature. There is not one of the multitude of his friends from the greatest to the least, who did not recognize Landor’s greatness in his life-time, and very many of them left records of what they thought of him and what they expected posterity to think of him.
     When we think of this long life, this extensive literary production, his eminence among the greatest writers of English, we are [page 274] compelled to ask why at the present time Landor occupies such a short time of English readers, and why he is often left out of consideration when the great thinkers and literary artists come under review. He was not even popular in his life-time. His books hardly paid their way, and certainly none of them were a profitable investment for his publishers. No one was so well aware of his failure to impress himself upon his time as Landor himself. He said, “I claim no place in the world of Letters, I am alone and will be alone as long as I live and after.” He writes in another place, “I never Contended with contemporaries, but walked alone on the far eastern up-lands meditating and remembering.” Speaking of his future fame, he says, “I shall dine late but the dining room will be well lighted, the guests few and select.” It is quite unnecessary to make any apologies to this audience for Landor’s unpopularity. We all know that these things are matters of taste, and that an author who can find readers and satisfy them is worthy of his place as long as he can hold it. The writer who is as sure of his fame as Landor gets his reward, if he needs one, by projecting his character and mentality far into the future and living with his work in the minds of unborn generations to whom he appeals, and of whom he is perfectly sure. The author whose present popularity sells thousands of his books gets his gratification in the rewards that flow from them and in the admiration of his public.
     Landor is one of those writers that one must like instinctively or not at all. They are met with on all the slopes of Mount Parnassus. They contain no broad and general beauties which appeal to all minds, and their beauties appertain only to those minds who seize upon them with a native taste and enjoy them as the utterance of their own spirits. It is these few and select guests that keep alive writers like Landor, Borrow, Sir Thomas Browne, and many others that will occur to you.
     When one realizes that Landor places no difficulties between himself and his readers, one wonders that he is not oftener read for pleasure. There never was an English writer more distinct and less turbid in his style; the stream of his prose and verse runs with a pure liquidity which reminds one of mountain streams and his imagery is always exact and illuminative; he does not dwell upon phases of social life or character which are obscure; he gives you no sentences to puzzle over, and his reflections and aphorisms, while they are true and solid, do not deal with abnormal psychological [page 275] states. Aphorisms, for which he is justly celebrated, abound in his pages. They arrest the attention of the reader at every turn and make him pause for reflection very often, sometimes for dissent but more frequently for admiration and concurrence. The selection of a very few which are readily detached from their context will serve as examples:

Sidney.     Goodness does not more certainly make men happy than happiness makes them good.

Barrow.     Those who are quite satisfied, sit still and do nothing; those who are not quite satisfied, are the sole benefactors of the world.

Vittoria Colonna.     Wishes are by-paths on the declivity to unhappiness; the weaker terminate in the sterile sand, the stronger in the vale of tears.

Messala.     From the mysteries of religion the veil is seldom to be drawn, from the mysteries of love never. For this offence the gods take away from us our freshness of heart and our susceptibility of pure delight. The well loses the spring that fed it, and what is exposed in the shallow basin soon evaporates.

Sidney.     Friendship is a vase, which, when it is flawed by heat, or violence, or accident, may as well be broken at once; it never can be trusted after. The more graceful and ornamental it was, the more clearly do we discern the hopelessness of restoring it to its former state. Coarse stones, if they are fractured, may be cemented again; precious ones never.

Lord Brooke.     When a woman hath ceased to be quite the same to us, it matters little how different she becomes.

     Certainly the reason for Landor’s unpopularity will not be found in any of these considerations. It is, I think, chargeable to his remoteness from his own life and time. He meditated and remembered, but he remembered things that were far off and of another age. Another reason for the condition which we find, is the perverseness with which he chose a form of literary expression which alienates the sympathy of a large number of intelligent people. Landor’s character was obstinate and perverse. There is no greater evidence of it than the form in which he chose to cast his wonderful store of knowledge and philosophy. [page 276]
     The imaginary conversations and the work called Pericles and Aspasia are his chief monuments to fame. The first is a series of conversations between historical characters and the second is a series of letters interchanged between Pericles, the enlightened ruler of Athens, and the brilliant woman who was his consort. Landor had been interested in drama from his youth, and one of his first efforts was Count Julian, a drama in blank verse, but he had very little dramatic ability, and considered as an acting play, Count Julian was a failure, while the subject in itself was eminently dramatic. Landor’s intense appreciation of character led him to throw his vast store of knowledge into quasi dramatic form. In a footnote to one of his imaginary conversations referring to a patent anachronism, he brushes it aside by saying, “character is our business.”
     Occasionally the imaginary conversations are dramatic, that is you can see the action developing as the dialogue proceeds, but not often; for the most part they are stationary and the conversationalists seem to be disembodied spirits, often with wonderful vitality and drawn to the life, but still not moving and re-acting as do characters in real life. Dialogues are not grateful to the general reader, neither is an interchange of letters, but Landor chose both these forms for his work. Another important work, The Citation and Examination of William Shakespeare, which has been much admired by some critics, is an imaginary trial scene in which Shakespeare is indicted for poaching on Sir Thomas Lucy’s park. The subject one would think sufficiently remote, and the result has always appeared to me the least successful of Landor’s efforts.
     From this short resume of his best work you will see that he did not assist his own fame by the choice of a métier for his thoughts and ideas. The result is unique. Just the other day George Moore, the witty Irishman, said that Landor had created more souls than Shakespeare. I suppose by souls he meant merely individuals or characters, and numerically he is correct. As I said before, there are over 300 characters in the imaginary conversations and beginning in the mythical past with the dialogue between Helen and Achilles he brought it into his immediate present with dialogues in which Canning, Peel, Alfieri take part with their contemporaries. Alexander confers with the Priest of Hammon, Machiavelli with Michaelangelo, William Penn with Lord Peterborough, Boccaccio, Chaucer and Petrarch spend an hour together under the pine trees at Arezzo. Henry VIII visits Anne Boleyn under sentence of death and moralizes [page 277] and browbeats. Landor and Southey discuss line by line whole passages of Wordsworth, Dante and Milton.
     Landor has dealt with over 300 characters in his imaginary conversations. These characters are, of course, developed in their proper surroundings and atmosphere, and they speak with a naturalness which is deceiving, and the illusion is sometimes perfect that we have before us the real words of Diogenes and Plato, or of Chaucer or Petrarch, and we awaken from our dream to realize that all the wonder is created from the brain of this nineteenth century Englishman, teeming as it was with knowledge of the past life of the world and instinct with a marvellous fecundity of ideas.
     In poetry he was not supreme as in prose, although his verse has many of the qualities of his prose, and both derived from classical sources. He remained remote from all the romantic influences of his time. The introspection of such writers as Coleridge and De Quincey never troubled him and while strangely enough he admired the romantic poetry of Keats and Shelley and could appreciate them, he was never influenced by the new movements and did not alter his style or enlarge the boundary of his intellectual province by reason of his enthusiasm for the work of younger men. To the last he continued to write such sentences as these—

Cleone. There is a gloom in deep love, as in deep water; there is a silence in it which suspends the foot, and the folded arms and the dejected head are the images it reflects. No voice shakes its surface: the Muses themselves approach it with a tardy and timid step, and with a low and tremulous and melancholy song.

He never could have been content either with the style or matter in which De Quincey dealt. He never, for instance, could have written the following sentence—

And her eyes if they were ever seen would be neither sweet or subtle; no man could read their story; they would be found filled with perishing dreams and with wrecks of forgotten delirium.

     As Sydney Colvin has said he dwelt “upon purely human facts of existence, its natural sorrows and natural consolations.” When he came to deal with these he dealt with them in a style which exactly suited and his writing was unconfused, perfectly clear and [page 278] at the same time rounded with a cadence which has remained unequalled.

Aesop. Laodameia died; Helen died; Leda, the beloved of Jupiter, went before. It is better to repose in the earth betimes than to sit up late; better, than to cling pertinaciously to what we feel crumbling under us, and to protract an inevitable fall. We may enjoy the present while we are insensible of infirmity and decay: but the present, like a note in music, is nothing but as it appertains to what is past and what is to come. There are no fields of amaranth on this side of the grave: there are no voices, O Rhodope, that are not soon mute, however tuneful: there is no name, with whatever emphasis of passionate love repeated, of which the echo is not faint at last.

     But I must not consume too much time in these critical observations before giving you a very condensed sketch of Landor’s life.
     He was born at Warwick on the 30th of January, 1775. His family was an ancient one, and had for a long time a position of importance in Staffordshire. He was the eldest child of his parents, and was heir to a very considerable fortune.
     He went to Rugby at 10, and was soon amongst the best Latin scholars of that famous school, and he afterwards went up to Oxford, and entered Trinity College.
     All through his school career he had been noted for his turbulence, and, as he had adopted revolutionary sentiments, he was a marked man.
     He rendered himself conspicuous by appearing in Hall and else-where with his hair unpowdered. He was an outcast so far as the dons and the Tory students were concerned, and his career culminated in an escapade which ended in his firing a shotgun into the shutters of one of his adversaries. He was rusticated and never returned to college. He was then 19 years of age, and the ensuing 20 years were spent in independent reading and production, so far as the literary life is concerned. He published his narrative poem, Gebir, when he was 23 years of age. When he was 30 his father died, and he came into his property.
     He visited France several times, and in 1808, when he was 33, he went to Spain to join the insurgent army, which was fighting against Napoleon. He very soon became disgusted with the Spaniards, and returned to England. In the year that I have mentioned he entered on one of his maddest experiments, in the purchase of a property in  [page 279] Monmouthshire, Wales, on which he squandered a large amount, and, when he had quarreled with all his neighbours, he left in disgust.
     Throughout his life he made important decisions in the most reckless fashion, and his marriage is no exception to the rule. When he was 36, and, one would think, old enough to know better, he entered a ballroom in Bath, and his eye fell upon a pretty girl, Julia Thuillier. He remarked: “That is the prettiest girl in the room, and I am going to marry her.” He did marry her, and, while their life together had intervals of calm, he enjoyed to the full the pleasures of disagreement with his wife. He was always reticent about these private troubles, but once he growled out: “God forbid that I should do otherwise than declare that she always was agreeable to everyone but me.” Meredith has a witty observation on affairs of this kind: “That he is in the right who has the most friends” and in these domestic affairs Landor seems to have had the most friends.
     The Landors went to live in Italy shortly after their marriage, and, after living at Pisa and Florence, one of his admirers, a Mr. Ablett, a rich, Welsh brewer, assisted him in purchasing the Villa Gherardesca, a fine property at Fiesole, which had associations with Boccaccio. He lived in this villa for 5 years, until a savage and final quarrel with his wife led him to go to England.
     Landor has two friendships with women which coloured his whole life, and the record of which runs through his poems, the first was with Rose Aylmer, the beautiful daughter of the fourth Baron Aylmer, and a sister of his successor Baron Lord Aylmer who was Governor General of Canada from 1830 to 1835. She was only 20 years of age when she died in India in 1800. When he heard of her death he wrote the lines which are more famous than anything else he ever wrote, and which are unexcelled in beauty and pathos:—

                    Ah what avails the sceptred race,
                        Ah what the form divine!
                    What every virtue, every grace!
                        Rose Aylmer, all were thine.
                    Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes
                        May weep, but never see,
                    A night of memories and of sighs
                        I consecrate to thee. [page 280]

     His other inspiration was a Miss Swift, an Irish beauty, who was vivacious and charming. She first married her cousin, and, after his death, Count de Molande, a Norman nobleman. After his death she was simultaneously courted by an English earl and a French duke, but she did not marry again. Landor was greatly attached to her, and she had a sincere friendship for him. He addressed numerous verses to her under the name of “Ianthe.” The following are among the best known lines:


Years After

           “Do you remember me? or are you proud?”
           Lightly advancing thro’ her star-trimm’d crowd,
               Ianthe said, and look’d into my eyes.
           “A, yes, a yes to both: for memory
           Where you but once have been must ever be.
               And at your voice Pride from his throne must rise.”

     Landor’s association with women was always more or less pre-carious. At the end of his life Browning wrote: “And whatever he may profess, the thing he really loves is a pretty girl to talk nonsense with.”
     His 20 years’ residence at Bath, during which time he was loved and honoured by the best intellects of England, came to an untimely end, owing to his association with a clergyman’s wife and a young woman, her bosom friend, until the quarrel arose. He had made over a small legacy in money to the young girl in token of friendship, and, as the quarrel developed, the clergyman’s lady made some insinuations against the character of her young friend, which Landor resented. He wrote letters that have been called odious to the clergyman’s wife, and the whole thing ended in a libel suit, which necessitated Landor’s sudden departure to the Continent.
     He left Bath and went to London where he appeared unexpectedly at John Forster’s who was having a dinner party. Dickens was one of the guests and when he heard that Landor, who was too tired to appear, had arrived, he went to his room to see him. He found him not at all cast down by his position brought about by his own folly and want of discretion and control, and the old man plunged at once into a discussion upon the characters of Catullus, Tibullus and other Latin poets. Dickens afterwards wrote of this incident “I would not blot him out, in his tender gallantry, as he sat upon his [page 281] bed at Forster’s that night for a million of wild mistakes at 84.” Dickens portrays one side of his character, the violent obstinate outbursts of passion followed by the gentle hearted tenderness, in Lawrence Boythorn in Bleak House, you will remember Boythorn with his temper, his wild uncontrolled laughter and his threats and thunderous demonstrations, his love for his pet canary. While Landor was deeper than Boythorn the fiction depicts those two contrasted elements in his temperament; the boisterous dangerous lack of control and the tenderness that followed it. Boythorn’s love of his canary is typical of Landor’s love of his dogs and in fact all animals and of inanimate nature. His dog Pomero was as well known at Bath as his master and his last days at Florence were gladdened by a successor to Pomero in Gallo. The contradictions of his character, his violent thoughtlessness and his tender consideration for the things he loved is shown in the well-known story of his exclamation after he had in a violent temper thrown his cook out of the window of his villa at Florence into the garden—“By heaven, I forgot the violets.”
     A list of Landor’s friends certifies to his wonderful charm. Forster his biographer writes of “His fine presence, manly voice, and cordial smile, the amusing exaggerations of his speech, the irresistible contagion of his laugh, and the subtle charm of his genius dif-fused over all, made him quite irresistible.” These qualities called him to the friendship of intellectual England and the praise of his friends gave him a wide celebrity.
     He was 83 years of age when he left England and the town that he most loved, and made his way to Italy. The last 6 years of his life were spent in Florence, and, though he had but little money and few friends there, the wonderful quality of the friendship of Robert Browning and his wife, the American sculptor, Storey, and his family, and a few others were a sufficient compensation.
     He continued to write until the very last and these utterances of his at the age of nearly 90 are astonishingly clear and youthful. Viewing the end of his life approaching, he writes—

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife,
       Nature I loved, and next to Nature, art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life,
       It sinks, and I am ready to depart. [page 282]
 
Death stands above me, whispering low
       I know not what into my ear:
Of his strange language all I know
       Is, there is not a word of fear.

     He died on September 17, 1864, at the age of 89, and was buried in the English cemetery at Florence. [page 283]

 

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