1902 Encyclopedia > Walter Savage Landor

Walter Savage Landor
English writer and poet

WALTER SAVAGE LANDOR (1775-1864), born at Warwick, January 30, 1775, died at Florence, September 17, 1864. In the course of this long life he had won for himself such a double crown of glory in verse and in prose as has been won by no other Englishman but Milton. And with that special object of his lifelong veneration he had likewise in common other claims upon our reverence to which no third competitor among English poets can equally pretend. He had the same constancy to the same principles, the same devotion to the same ideal of civic and heroic life; the same love, the same loyalty, the same wrath, scorn, and hatred, for the same several objects respectively; the same affection and kinship to the spirit of the Bornans, the same natural enjoyment and mastery of their tongue. Not accident merely but attraction must in any case have drawn them to enlist in the ranks and serve under the standard of the ancient Latin army of patriots and poets. But to Landor even more than to Milton the service of the Boman Muse was a natural and necessary expression of his genius, a spontaneous and just direction of its full and exuberant forces. At the age of twenty he published an eloquent and elegant vindication of her claims upon the service and devotion of modern writers,—the first sketch or suggestion of a longer essay, to be published in its final form just fifty-two years later. In 1795 appeared in a small volume, divided into three books, The Poems of Walter Savage Landor, and, in pamphlet form of nineteen pages, an anonymous Moral Epistle, respectfidly dedicated to Earl Stanhope. No poet at the age of twenty ever had more vigour of style and fluency of verse ; nor perhaps has any ever shown such masterly command of epigram and satire, made vivid and vital by the purest enthusiasm and most generous indignation. Three years later appeared the first edition of the first great work which was to inscribe his name for ever among the great names in English poetry. The second edition of Gebir appeared in 1803, with a text corrected of grave errors and improved by magnificent additions. About the same time the whole poem was also published in a Latin form, which for might and melody of line, for power and perfection of language, must always dispute the palm of precedence with the English version. In 1808, under an impulse not less heroic than that which was afterwards to lead Byron to a glorious death in redemption of Greece and his own good fame, Landor, then aged thirty-three, left England for Spain as a volunteer to serve in the national army against Napoleon at the head of a regiment raised and supported at his sole expense. After some three months' campaigning came the affair of Cintra and its disasters ; " his troop," in the words of his biographer, " dispersed or melted away, and he came back to England in as great a hurry as he had left it," but bringing with him the honourable recollection of a brave design unselfishly attempted, and the material in his memory for the sublimest poem published in our language between the last master-piece of Milton and the first masterpiece of Shelley—one equally worthy to stand unchallenged beside either for poetic perfection as well as moral majesty—the lofty tragedy of Count Julian, which appeared in 1812, without the name of its author. No comparable work is to be found in English poetry between the date of Samson Agonistes and the date of Prometheus Unbound ; and with both these great works it has some points of greatness in common. The superhuman isolation of agony and endurance which encircles and exalts the hero is in each case expressed with equally appropriate magnificence of effect. The style of Count Julian, if somewhat deficient in dramatic ease and the fluency of natural dialogue, has such might and purity and majesty of speech as elsewhere we find only in Milton so long and so steadily sustained.

In May 1811 Landor had suddenly married Miss Julia Thuillier, with whose looks he had fallen in love at first sight in a ball-room at Bath; and in June they settled for awhile at Llanthony Abbey in Wales, from whence he was worried in three years' time by the combined vexation of neighbours and tenants, lawyers and lords-lieutenant; not before muck toil and money bad been nobly wasted on attempts to improve the sterility of the land, to relieve the wretchedness and raise the condition of the peasantry. He left England for France at first, but after a brief residence at Tours took up his abode for three years at Como ; " and three more wandering years he passed," says his biographer, " between Pisa and Pistoja, before he pitched his tent in Florence in 1821." In 1821 appeared the first series of his Imaginary Conversations, in 1826 "the second edition, corrected and enlarged"; a supple-mentary third volume was added in 1828; and in 1829 the second series was given to the world. Not until 1846 was a fresh instalment added, in the second volume of his collected and selected works. During the interval he had published his three other most famous and greatest books in prose: The Citation and Examination of William Shakespieare, 1834 ; Pericles and Aspasia, 1836 ; The Pentameron, 1837. To the last of these was originally appended The Pentalogia, containing five of the very finest among his shorter studies in dramatic poetry. In 1847 he published his most important Latin work, Poemata et Inscriptiones, comprising, with large additions, the main contents of two former volumes of idyllic, satiric, elegiac, and lyric verse ; and in the same golden year of his poetic life appeared the very crown and flower of its manifold labours, The Hellenics of Walter Savage Landor, enlarged and completed. Twelve years later this book was reissued, with additions of more or less value, with alterations generally to be regretted, and with omissions invariably to be deplored. In 1853 he put forth The Last Fruit off an Old Tree, containing fresh conversations, critical and con-troversial essays, miscellaneous epigrams, lyrics, and occa-sional poems of various kind and merit, closing with Five Scenes on the martyrdom of Beatrice Cenci, unsurpassed even by their author himself for noble and heroic pathos, for subtle and genial, tragic and profound, ardent and compassionate insight into character, with consummate mastery of dramatic and spiritual truth. In 1856 he pub-lished Antony and Octavius—Scenes for the Study, twelve consecutive poems in dialogue which alone would suffice to place him high among the few great masters of historic drama. In 1858 appeared a metrical miscellany bearing the title of Dry Sticks Fagoted by W. S. Landor, and con-taining among other things graver and lighter certain epigrammatic and satirical attacks which reinvolved him in the troubles of an action for libel; and in July of the same year he returned for the last six years of his life to Italy, which he had left for England in 1835. Embittered and distracted by domestic dissensions, if brightened and relieved by the affection and veneration of friends and strangers, this final period of his troubled and splendid career came at last to a quiet end on the 17th of September 1864. In the preceding year he had published a last volume of Heroic Idyls, with additional poems, English and Latin,—the better part of them well worthy to be indeed the "last fruit" of a genius which after a life of eighty-eight years had lost nothing of its majestic and pathetic power, its exquisite and exalted loveliness.

A complete list of Landor's writings, published or privately printed, in English, Latin, and Italian, including pamphlets, fly-sheets, and occasional newspaper correspond-ence on political or literary questions, it would be difficult to give anywhere and impossible to give here. From nineteen almost to ninety his intellectual and literary activity was indefatigably incessant; but, herein at least like Charles Lamb, whose cordial admiration he so cordially returned, he could not write a note of three lines which did not bear the mark of his "Boman hand " in its matchless and inimitable command of a style at once the most powerful and the purest of his age. The one charge which can ever seriously be brought and maintained against it is that of such occasional obscurity or difficulty as may arise from excessive strictness in condensation of phrase and expurgation of matter not always superfluous, and some-times almost indispensable. His English prose and his Latin verse are perhaps more frequently and more gravely liable to this charge than either his English verse or his Latin prose. At times it is well nigh impossible for an eye less keen and swift, a scholarship less exquisite and ready than his own, to catch the precise direction and follow the perfect course of his rapid thought and radiant utterance. This apparently studious pursuit and preference of the most terse and elliptic expression which could be found for anything he might have to say could not but occasionally make even so sovereign a master of two great languages appear " dark with excess of light"; but from no former master of either tongue in prose or verse was ever the quality of real obscurity, of loose and nebulous incertitude, more utterly alien or more naturally remote. There is nothing of cloud or fog about the path on which he leads us ; but we feel now and then the want of a bridge or a handrail; we have to leap from point to point of narrative or argument without the usual help of a connect-ing plank. Even in his dramatic works, where least of all it should have been found, this lack of visible connexion or sequence in details of thought or action is too often a source of sensible perplexity. In his noble trilogy on the history of Giovanna queen of Naples it is sometimes actually difficult to realize on a first reading what has? happened or is happening, or how, or why, or by what agency,—a defect alone sufficient, but unhappily sufficient in itself, to explain the too general ignorance of a work so rich in subtle and noble treatment of character, so sure and strong in its grasp and rendering of "high actions and high passions," so rich in humour and in pathos, so royally serene in its commanding power upon the tragic mainsprings of terror and of pity. As a poet, he may be said on the whole to stand midway between Byron and Shelley,—about as far above the former as below the latter. If we except Catullus and Simonides, it might be hard to match and it would be impossible to overmatch the flawless and blame' less yet living and breathing beauty of his most perfect elegies, epigrams, or epitaphs. As truly as prettily was he likened by Leigh Hunt " to a stormy mountain pine which should produce lilies." His passionate compassion, his bitter and burning pity for all wrongs endured in all the world, found only their natural and inevitable outlet in his lifelong defence or advocacy of tyrannicide as the last resource of baffled justice, the last discharge of heroic duty. His tender and ardent love of children, of animals, and of flowers, makes fragrant alike the pages of his writing and the records of his life. He was as surely the most gentle and generous as the most headstrong and hot-headed of heroes or of men. Nor ever was any man's best work more thoroughly imbued and informed with evidence of his noblest qualities. His loyalty and liberality of heart were as inexhaustible as his bounty and beneficence of hand. Praise and encouragement, deserved or undeserved, came yet more readily to his lips than challenge or de-fiance. Beviled and ridiculed by Lord Byron, he retorted on the offender living less readily and less warmly than he lamented and extolled him dead. On the noble dramatic works of his brother Bobert he lavished a magnificence of sympathetic praise which his utmost self-estimate would never have exacted for his own. Age and the lapse of time could neither heighten nor lessen the fulness of this rich and ready generosity. To the poets of his own and of the next generation he was not readier to do honour than to those of a later growth, and not seldom of deserts far lower and far lesser claims than theirs. That he was not unconscious of his own, and avowed it with the frank simplicity of nobler times, is not more evident or more certain than that in comparison with his friends and fellows he was liable rather to undervalue than to overrate himself. He was a classic, and no formalist; the wide range of hit just and loyal admiration had room for a genius so far from classical as Blake's. Nor in his own highest mood or method of creative as of critical work was he a classic only, in any narrow or exclusive sense of the term. On either side, immediately or hardly below his mighty masterpiece of Pericles and Aspasia, stand the two scarcely less beauti- ful and vivid studies of mediaeval Italy and Shakespearean England. The very finest flower of his immortal dialogues is probably to be found in the single volume comprising only "Imaginary Conversations of Greeks and Romans"; his utmost command of passion and pathos may be tested by its transcendent success in the distilled and concentrated tragedy of Tiberius and Vipsania, where for once he shows a quality more proper to romantic than classical imagina- tion,—the subtle and sublime and terrible power to enter the dark vestibule of distraction, to throw the whole force of his fancy, the whole fire of his spirit, into the "shadowing passion " (as Shakespeare calls it) of gradually imminent insanity. Yet, if this and all other studies from ancient history or legend could be subtracted from the volume of his work, enough would be left whereon to rest the foundation of a fame which time could not sensibly impair. (A. C. S.)

The above article was written by Algernon C. Swinburne.

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