49. (Walter Savage Landor)

Walter Savage Landor is the forgotten Romantic, both because he is rarely read and because the tradition in which his name has been preserved is antagonistic to Romanticism: Pound sets him on a pedestal against the spilt excesses of the early nineteenth century. Among major critics, Donald Davie is perhaps alone in asking that we remember Landor in the Romantic tradition, point out that Landor praised Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth; but Davie does not memorialize Landor. He is heavily qualified in his praise: in The Purity of Diction in English Verse, he announces that he thinks Landor not only a lesser poet than Scott and Crabbe, but also Hogg and Darley. Davie quotes approvingly C.H. Hereford’s 1897 judgment: “though hardly a great poet, he is full of symptoms of greatness.” Fine.

When Landor is read, it is probably mostly in the shorter poems, the epigrammatic and lapidary verses to which Davie attends. When Landor is recalled, it is probably when readers of Dickens’ Bleak House turn to the notes to see that Lawrence Boythorn is Landor re-imagined. 

The Imaginary Conversations will probably receive an upsurge in academic critical attention, soon; they are political, Republican, learned. They are precursors to Browning’s monologues, to Pound’s historical sense, and they represent an intersection between the historical, the literary, and the political that is, because of its immediate grasp on the distant past, modern.

But the poetry is worth attention too, and not just for symptoms; like all poetry worth reading, it is capable of renewed surprise, both in readers, and at itself. Landor’s poetry occasionally jolts with moments of discovery that are not “epiphanies”—which are often set apart in the structure, rather than being of the structure: his poems move to discover what, for them, are truths both personal and impersonal.

Davie quotes two excellent passages from Landor’s prose and takes them as indications that Landor’s poetic technique was founded on a principle of the “poet as sculptor.” I accept that, but would see in them something else too. In the first passage, Landor speaks through Diogenes. In the second, through Izaak Walton praising Donne.

There is no mass of sincerity in any place. What there is must be picked up patiently, a grain or two at a time; and the season for it is after a storm, after the overflowing of banks, and bursting of mounds, and sweeping away of landmarks. Men will always hold something back: they must be shaken and loosened a little, to make them let go what is deepest in them, and weights and purest.

So ingenious are men when the spring torrent of passion shakes up and carries away their thoughts, covering (as it were) the green meadow of still homely life with pebbles and shingles, some colorless and obtuse, some sharp and sparkling.

Landor must have had Wordsworth in mind with that word “overflowing.” But how different Landor’s description from Wordsworth, even as it agrees in so many respects. The poetry, for Landor, is not just in what overflows; not even in what is left after the banks have overflowed; it is, I think these metaphors implies, in the act of finding, selecting, and grasping what has overflowed. It is the tactile discernment of the poet walking on the banks, after the storm, finding in the debris what is essential for, to, of herself.

Here are lines from Landor’s “To Corinth,” a poem written with Greek Independence sharing Landor’s mind with his extraordinary love for the Classical Greek past. Recalling Medea’s Corinthian days; the scene where Jason sees the bodies of his and her children:


And tears have often stopt, upon that ridge

So perilous, him who brought before his eye

The Colchian babes. ‘Stay! spare him! save the last!

Medea! Is that blood? again! it drops

From my implying hand upon my feet!

I will invoke the Eumenides no more,

I will forgive thee, bless thee, bend to thee

In all thy wishes, do but thou, Medea,

Tell me, one lives.’ ‘And shall I too deceive?’

Cries from the fiery car an angry voice;

And swifter than two falling stars descend,

Two breathless bodies; warm, soft, motionless,

As flowers in stillest noon before the sun,

They lie three paces from him: such they lie

As when he left them sleeping side by side,

A mother’s arm round each, a mother’s cheeks

Between them, flush with happiness and love.

He was more changed than they were, doomed to show

Thee and the stranger, how defaced and scared 

Grief hunts us down the precipice of years,

And whom the faithless prey upon the last.


There are several moments of discovery here. There is the awful irony in the juxtaposition of “swifter” and “motionless”: “And swifter than two falling stars descend, | Two breathless bodies; warm, soft, motionless.”  “Warm” because they are still warm, not yet cooled; warm too because like “flowers in stillest noon before the sun,” they are heated by day, unnaturally from without rather than from within.  There is the  helpless specificity of “they lie three paces from him”—where “three paces” is a distance that means nothing, since he is too late to act.

Then there is the descent into what, in the hands of say, Coventry Patmore, would be Victorian mawkishness: “As when he left them sleeping side by side, | A mother’s arm round each, a mother’s cheek”—but even if it were mawkish (and it is not), it would be a dramatic descent, and so would be felt movingly as a melting into tears rather than a swimming through them. But it is not mawkish on account of one article: “a”.  Not “the mother’s” and not “their mother’s”—“a” mother’s. We know full well which mother it is, but that word asks us to set aside that knowledge, and so both more deeply incriminates Medea, and also more ably recognizes the love for her children before it was corrupted.

But the moment of most startling recognition, where Landor seems to have found something turned up from within himself, comes next: “He was more changed than they were, doomed to show.”

(The poem that this speaks to is Eliot’s “Marina”; there is maybe an echo of Shakespeare’s sonnet 94, “They that have power to harm and will do none| Who will not do the thing they most do show,| Who moving others, are themselves as stone” (an echo that would reverberate nicely with the political context of the Sonnet, which we are supposed to recognize: the violence done to Medea’s children resembles the violence done to Corinth, etc).)

And what shocks is not only the stuff of the assertion, that Jason was more changed than his murdered children, but the direct turn to “He” and then the shift, through “Thee” (the city, but also the reader?) and “the stranger” to “us,” inclusive of Landor also.

Christopher Ricks on romanticism and classicism, in an essay on Larkin—an insight that, whatever its limitations as a literary-historical claim, articulates the achievement of Landor, too:

Romanticism’s pathos of self-attention, its grounded pity for itself, always risks self-pity and soft warmth; classicism’s stoicism, its grounded grief at the human lot, always risks frostiness. What Larkin achieves is an extraordinary complementarity; a classical pronouncement is protected against a carven coldness by the ghostly presence o an arching counter-thrust, a romantic swell of feeling; and the romantic swell is protected against a melting self-solicitude by the bracing counterthrust of classical impersonality.

For Larkin, read Landor: a Classicist among Romanticists, or, in the long-view, a Romantic in the Classical tradition.The discovery of “To Corinth” is a discovery that depends upon Landor’s embracing, and bridging, the two pillars of principle that Ricks describes.


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