Characteristics Of Landor
( Originally Published 1906 )
" Whoever you are, to you endless announcements."
IF Walter Savage Landor could be characterized in a phrase, it would be in Walt Whitman's words as a man of " endless announcements." For almost seventy years he was an active figure in letters ; his first published work appeared in 1795, when he was a youth of twenty ; his last work was published in 1863, when he was in his eighty-ninth year, and while the earliest work had much of that significance usually associated only with maturity, the latest work had also much of the fire and glow of youth. The gods are immortally young, and Landor is one of those immortals. His life is full of paradoxes. It was passed in the most brilliant social and scenic setting, and is yet little known to the general public. Ranking always among the great, he is now, within less than half a century after his death, almost ignored save by a minority. A poet for poets, he was never enthroned in the hearts of the people. In the large majority of the volumes of representative selections from the masters of English literature Landor is not represented, either by extracts from his in-comparable prose or by any of his poems. In a large proportion of the volumes of critical essays on the English poets Landor's name is not mentioned. Neither Lowell, Matthew Arnold, nor John Morley includes Landor among the subjects for critical literary study in their many volumes of literary essays. Dr. Edward Dowden has made a study of Landor in one of the finest of his discriminating essays, portraying Landor with that marvellous spiritual analysis of which he holds the secret, and which, in his biography of Shelley, has made that poet known to the present age as few poets are ever known ; and beside the able biography of Landor by his literary executor, John Forster, and the later one, of exquisite values, by Sidney Colvin, A.M., Slade Professor of Fine Arts in Cambridge University, there has also grown up some measure of Landorania, though much less in volume than has gathered around the name of many a lesser man of letters. The contemporary of Byron, Wordsworth, Scott, Coleridge, Cowper, and Southey ; the watcher on the threshold of the poetic flights of Shelley and of Keats ; the poet who, in the zenith f his own life, saw arise Tennyson and Browning, and who lived on to receive the homage of Swinburne, -- Landor yet remained essentially more the companion of Catullus and other Latin poets than of his own contemporaries. He loved Shakespeare and Milton ; he had the most ardent personal friendship for Southey ; he recognized in his own courtly fashion the genius of Browning on the appearance of "Paracelsus " ; but by nature Landor was detached from the currents of life. He had the temperament of isolation, and he could not enter into easy relations with humanity. He was the critic of life rather than the participator in life. Inattentive, if not actually unsympathetic to others, Landor was intensely sensitive to the attitude toward himself, and singularly susceptible to attention and courtesy. A pleasant story has come down to us of a sup-per given by Talfourd (in 1835) where the guests included Landor and Wordsworth, and also Robert Browning, then in the first flush of his youthful fame as the author of " Paracelsus." The host proposed a toast to Mr. Browning, and Landor rose and bowed to the younger poet, with his inimitably courteous grace, raising his glass to his lips. A certain classic stateliness was inseparable from Landor. It was a part of his individuality. " His strength was not in the management of life," says Professor Sidney Col-vin, " but in the creative and critical operations of the mind. Of all men who ever lived, no one furnishes a more complete type of what Mr. Mat-thew Arnold, in speaking of Dante, calls ' the born artist, the born solitary,' the man to be judged not by his acts but by his utterances. Or if we are to judge these unpractical spirits by their acts also, by their outward as well as by their inward manifestations, then the test which we apply must be the test not of success, but of intention. It is not in their nature to be successful ; it was in Landor's nature least of all. Dashed by his volcanic temperament and his blinding imagination into collision with facts, he suffered shipwreck once and again. But if we apply to his character and career the measure not of real results, but of intention, we shall acknowledge in Landor a model on the heroic scale of many noble and manly virtues. He had a heart infinitely kind and tender. His generosity was royal, delicate, never hesitating. In his pride there was no moroseness, in his independence there was not a shadow of jealousy. From spite, meanness, or uncharitableness he was utterly exempt. He was loyal and devoted in friendship, and, what is rare, at least as prone to idealize the virtues of his friends as the vices of his enemies. Quick as was his resentment of a slight, his fiercest indignations were never those which he conceived on personal grounds, but those with which he pursued an injustice or an act of cruelty, nor is there wanting an element of nobleness and chivalry in even the wildest of his breaches with social custom. He was no less a worshipper of true greatness than he was a despiser of false. He hated nothing but tyranny and fraud, and for these his hatred was implacable. . . . At the worst he is like a gigantic and Olympian schoolboy ; a nature passionate, unteachable, but withal noble, courageous, loving-hearted, bountiful, wholesome, and sterling to the heart's core."
Among the Landorania is a volume of selections made from the " Imaginary Conversations " of Landor, by George S. Hillard, on the method of detached and epigrammatic sayings, rather than on that of presenting the argument as a whole ; but no knowledge of the best of English literature can be adequate that does not include familiarity with these brilliant and immortal creations in their full completeness. For the prose f Landor is that of the most faultless art. His poetry, with the exception of a few stanzas, has less claim to artistic perfection be-cause of its too great subjection to the constraint of logical and rational statement. Except in a few instances it lacks that rush and glow f spontaneity which imparts its magnetism. The great exception to this will always be the immortal lyric of Rose Aylmer. A curious criticism has been made on these lines (which are quoted in full on page 199 in this volume) to the effect that the next to the last line should read
" A life of memories and of sighs,"
" A night of memories and of sighs."
But when one takes the lyric in its completeness, noting the preceding line,
"Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes,"
the word " wakeful " implying the lying awake at night, not in the daytime, and thus restricting this reminiscence to the night watches, one sees how inappropriate would be the substitution of " life" for " night," and how flawless is the entire expression. Among the few perfect lyrics of the English language this must always find a lofty and permanent place.
Mr. William Watson has told us that " the true function of the poet is to keep fresh within us our often flagging sense of the greatness and grandeur of life a sense without which no man ever did anything great or grand. Like that Helen to whom Edgar Poe addressed in early youth some of his most exquisite verses her whose classic beauty
'Brought him home
like her, the poet recalls us, ' brings us home' to a glory we are but too prone to lose sight of, to a grandeur we continually forget. But woe be unto him if he himself forgets that the ancient and only way in which he can truly perform this function is by marrying his wisdom to a worthy music, as the Grecian or Celtic or Scandinavian bard married his words to the strings of the harp or cithara ! We have had poets among us who forgot this lesson, and their inevitable nemesis is to be themselves forgotten. Neither his intellectual brilliancy and subtlety nor his wealth of fancy has saved Donne from the fate which overtakes all poets who lack the crowning grace of harmonious utterance."
This high purpose than whom no contemporary poet save Watson himself has more fulfilled with a body of some of the noblest poetry, the most exquisite and uplifting, of our time is with Landor more conspicuous in his prose work. Yet how much of the simple charm of nature and delicate beauty of feeling is in his little cyclamen ; and who, that has wandered in enchantment over the hills about Florence but has half unconsciously found himself repeating :
"I come to visit thee again,
In later years Landor changed the fifth line to read
"What could thy careful guardian find,"
a change for the worse rather than the better.
One more only of these brief lyrics must find space here :
"Past ruin'd Ilion Helen lives,
"Soon shall Oblivion's deepening veil
His love for Italy was one of the strongest feelings in his life, and through all his work the reader catches glimpses of this devotion. He loved to watch that incomparably beautiful visita from his villa, when
"Gray olives twinkle in this wintry sun,
But in all Landor's poetry there is a lofty seriousness ; a high recognition of truth and significance that endow it with the qualities that endure. He was no singer of the day ; few of his poems have the enchantment of music, but they are never devoid of a saving ideal of grace as well as power.
In his imaginary conversation between Epictetus and Seneca, Landor has revealed much of his conviction regarding truth in literary work ; as seen, for instance, in this extract :
" Seneca. Let us reason a little upon style. I would set you right, and remove from before you the prejudices of a somewhat rustic education. We may adorn the simplicity of the wisest.
" Epictetus. Thou canst not adorn simplicity. What is naked or defective is susceptible of decoration : what is decorated is simplicity no longer. Thou mayest give another thing in exchange for it ; but if thou wert master of it, thou wouldst preserve it inviolate. It is no wonder that we mortals, little able as we are to see truth, should be less able to express it.
" Seneca. You have formed at present no idea of style.
" Epictetus. I never think about it. First, I consider whether what I am about to say is true ; then, whether I can say it with brevity, in such a manner as that others shall see it as clearly as I do in the light of truth ; for, if they survey it as an ingenuity, my desire is ungratified, my duty unfulfilled. I go not with those who dance round the image of Truth, less out of honour to her than to display their agility and address.
" Seneca. We must attract the attention of readers by novelty and force and grandeur of expression.
Epictetus. We must. Nothing is so grand as truth, nothing so forcible, nothing so novel.
Seneca. Sonorous sentences are wanted to awaken the lethargy of indolence.
Epictetus. Awaken it to what ? Here lies the question ; and a weighty one it is. If thou awakenest men when they can see nothing and do no work, it is better to let them rest : but will not they, thinkest thou, look up at a rainbow, unless they are called to it by a clap of thunder ?
" Seneca. Your early youth, Epictetus, has been, I will not say neglected, but cultivated with rude instruments and unskilful hands.
Epictetus. I thank God for it. Those rude instruments have left the turf lying yet toward the sun ; and those unskilful hands have plucked out the docks.
" Seneca. We hope and believe that we have attained a vein f eloquence, brighter and more varied than has been hitherto laid open to the world.
" Epictetus. Than any in the Greek ?
"Seneca. We trust so.
" Epictetus. Than your Cicero's?
"Seneca. If the declaration may be made without an offence to modesty. Surely, you cannot estimate or value the eloquence of that noble pleader?
"Epictetus. Imperfectly, not being born in Italy and the noble pleader is a much less man with me than the noble philosopher.
"Epictetus. Seneca ! where God hath placed a mine, he hath placed the materials of an earthquake.
" Seneca. A true philosopher is beyond the reach of Fortune."
The Conversation between Lucullus and Caesar is one of the most important among Landor's works, and in the character of Lucullus he apparently reveals much of himself ; as when he makes Lucullus say :
" Must we give men blows because they will not look at us ? or chain them to make them hold the balance evener ?
Do not expect to be acknowledged for what you are, much less for what you would be ; since no one can well measure a great man but upon the bier."
And, again, in the character of Lucullus, he thus portrays the influence that music had on his own life :
" Lucullus. No, indeed ; nor can I be said to have one here ; for I love best the music of a single instrument, and listen to it willingly at all times, but most willingly while I am reading. At such seasons a voice or even a whisper disturbs me ; but music refreshes my brain when I have read long, and strengthens it from the be-ginning. I find also that if I write anything in poetry (a youthful propensity still remaining), it gives rapidity and variety and brightness to my ideas. On ceasing, I command a fresh measure and instrument, or another voice ; which is to the mind like a change of posture, or of air to the body. My health is benefited by the gentle play thus opened to the most delicate of the fibres."
If one were to search for the reason of so incredible a fact as that of the general negligence manifested toward Walter Savage Landor, it would undoubtedly be found in his own detachment of nature and temperament, and his imperial attitude.
" I strove with none, for none was worth my strife ;
In those lines are recorded the very autobiography of Landor. It is also true that he
" _______ warmed both hands before the fire of life,"
that he was by no means unresponsive nor unsympathetic, the very reverse, indeed, to those who awakened the vibration of sympathy and response. His nature resembled that of the latter-day system of wireless telegraphy, where the receiver of any station is in the most exquisitely instant response to the wave that touches its vibration, but is insensible to all others. Kate Field, who as a young girl knew Landor intimately and who had the magic of key and f clue to unlock and enter into the infinite treasures of his wonderful mind, notes that when Landor died newspaper readers in our country asked, " Who is Landor ? " and that the few who had known him, chiefly, only through the medium of Mr. Hillard's volume of selections from the "Imaginary Conversations," asked, " What ! did he not die long ago ? "
The half dozen Americans really familiar with this author knew that the fire of a genius unequalled in its way had gone out," continues Miss Field. " Two or three who were better acquainted with the man even than with his books, sighed, and thanked God ! They thanked God that the old man's prayer was answered and the curtain drawn on his life. But Landor's walk into the dark valley was slow and majestic."
Miss Field asserts that Landor was chivalry incarnate. "His courtly manner toward ladies was noticeable, and it was a pleasure to receive compliments from him as they generally lay imbedded in the sauce piquante of a bon mot." On one occasion when Landor had dropped his eye-glasses Miss Field picked them up for him, and he exclaimed, with a grace not to be translated into words, "Ah, this is not the first time you have caught my eyes ! "
Professor Colvin, alluding to this beautiful friendship between the classic old poet and the young girl, says :
He had found a great pleasure in the society of a young American lady, Miss Kate Field, who has given us an affectionate portrait of the old man in these declining days. . . . He could still be royal company when he pleased. He taught his young American friend Latin, and opened out for her with delight the still abundant treasures of his mind. . . ."
In her transcriptions of Landor Miss Field emphasizes his enthusiasm for Shakespeare.
" Landor's enthusiasm for Shakespeare grew young as he grew old," she notes, " and it was his desire to bid farewell to earth with his eyes resting upon the Shakespeare that so constantly lay open before him. Nothing excited his indignation more than to hear people pretentiously criticise the man whom he makes Southey, in a discussion with Porson (in the Imaginary Conversations) declare, that 'all the faults that ever were committed in poetry would be but as air to earth if we could weigh them against one single thought or image such as almost every scene exhibits in every drama of this unrivalled genius."
To Kate Field, Landor sent an autograph copy of his lines entitled " Shakespeare in Italy," the poem prefaced by these words :
" An old man sends the last verses he has written, or probably he may ever write, to his young friend, Kate Field."
The lines are : --
"Beyond our shores, beyond the Apennines,
July 1, 1860."
This manuscript is now in the Boston Public Library, to which it was presented, with the letters of Landor and those of the Brownings and many others, written to Miss Field, all of which, mounted in albums, constitute an interesting collection.
That Landor was eminently sympathetic with all nobleness is revealed in a multitude of his unpublished letters and fragments of criticism, and perhaps in no one more convincingly than in a note written to Miss Field, who had conceived the idea, after reading his note appended to the Conversation between " Galileo, Milton, and A Dominican," that he entertained a poor opinion of Alfieri. Expressing to Landor her inference from this note, Landor read it again, and replied : " This is a mistake. It was never my intention to condemn Alfieri so sweepingly." A few days later he wrote to Miss Field, saying :
Keats, in whom the spirit of Poetry was stronger than in any contemporary, at home or abroad, delighted in Hellenic imagery and mythology, displaying them admirably ; but no poet came nearer than Alfieri to the heroic, since Virgil. . . . My words, ' There is not a glimpse of poetry in Alfieri's Tragedies,' should read, ' There is not an extraneous glimpse,' etc."
A little later Landor addressed some lines to Alfieri, which open :
" Thou art present in my sight
It is curious to recognize that Landor was not an admirer of Dante. He was eloquent in his appreciation of the true greatness of it gran poeta, but he declared that to him not one sixth of Dante was intelligible or pleasurable. Yet, of the episode of Francesca da Rimini, Landor makes Boccaccio say, in one of the Conversations, " Such a depth of intuitive judgment, such a delicacy of perception, exists not in any other work of human genius " ; but of Dante's Paradiso Landor also observes : But how greatly is he to be pitied who can find nothing better in Paradise than a sterile theology !
Landor felt the deepest sympathy, however, in the love between Dante and Beatrice, " and it was my good fortune to hear him read this most beautiful of the ` Imaginary Conversations,' " said Miss Field ; " to witness the aged poet throwing the pathos of his voice into the pathos of his intellect, his eyes flooded with tears, was a scene of uncommon interest. ' Ah,' said he, on closing the book, ' I never wrote anything half so good as that, and I never can read it but that the tears do not come.' Landor's voice must have been exceedingly rich and harmonious, as it even then possessed much fulness. This was the first and only time 1 ever heard him read aloud one of his own Conversations."
Miss Field records Landor's high appreciation of both Petrarca and Boccaccio, and she speaks of the couleur locale of " The Pentameron " as marvellous. Margaret Fuller (Marchesa d'Ossoli) wrote to Mrs. Browning of the Pentameron as compared with Petrarca, and said : " I find the prose of the Englishman worthy of the verse of the Italian. It is a happiness to see such marble beauty in the halls of a contemporary."
Toward Byron Landor had conceived a strong personal animosity, but that did not make him unfair to Byron's poetry, which he characterized as " keen and imaginative." Byron's assaults upon Southey aroused Landor's indignation, by no means a negligible quality in his character, as did Emerson's inadvertent remark,
He pestered me with Southey. Who is Southey ? " after his visit to Landor in Florence. In an open letter Landor indignantly replied " Southey is the poet who has written the most imaginative poem of any in our own times, such is the ' Curse of Kehama.' Southey is the prose-man who has written the purest prose ; Southey is the critic the most cordial and the least invidious. Show me another, of any note, without captiousness, without arrogance, and without malignity."
The friendship between Landor and Southey is one of the beautiful things in literature and life, and Landor delighted to immortalize his friend, as he has in one of the " Imaginary Conversations."
Landor's impetuosity of nature has long since classed him in the ou tout ou rien ranks, but this very intensity sprang from that consciousness of power, too frequently mistaken for egoism, but really having nothing in common with mere self-love or self-assertion. In all English literature he is one of the most significant figures. I found him noble and courteous," says Emerson ; and Landor's ideals of conduct as well as of literary production were essentially classic ; he was formed in the classic mould ; he had no trace of petty egoistic strivings to impose himself upon the multitude.
" I strove with none, for none was worth my strife,"
we must again recall ; he looked with scorn upon any self-exhibition, and the salient qualities of his character were essentially great, lofty, in-formed with the most tender and loyal affections and friendships, generous to a fault, always ready, as we have seen in the case of Alfieri, to retract an unjust judgment with overwhelming liberality of the amende. Landor was a great master in literary art, and from that standpoint alone can he be adequately contemplated. His wit and courtesy were of the priceless order ; he was a poet to the last, and to him were always the " endless announcements "; the least popular, he is one of the most impressive of authors ; upon all who are prepared to receive it, he casts the spell of genius ; he was heroic in every attribute, and while Literature shall endure the name of Walter Savage Landor must remain immortal as an incomparable artist.
" Should Time let die a song that's true and sweet,