Biography of Walter Savage Landor (1775 – 1864)
Walter Savage Landor (January 30, 1775 – September 17, 1864), English writer, eldest son of Walter Landor and his wife Elizabeth Savage, was born at Warwick.
He was sent to Rugby School, but was removed at the headmaster’s request and studied privately with Mr Langley, vicar of Ashbourne. In 1793 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge. He adopted republican principles and in 1794 fired a gun at the windows of a Tory for whom he had an aversion. He was rusticated for a year, and, although the authorities were willing to condone the offence, he refused to return. The affair led to a quarrel with his father in which Landor expressed his intention of leaving home for ever. He was, however, reconciled with his family through the efforts of his friend Dorothea Lyttelton. He entered no profession, but his father allowed him £150 a year, and he was free to live at home or not as he pleased.
In 1793 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, respectfully 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. His father’s death in 1802 put him in possession of an independent fortune. Landor settled in Bath.
Here in 1808 he met Southey, and the mutual appreciation of the two poets led to a warm friendship. 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 honorable recollection of a brave design unselfishly attempted.
The campaign also furnished the material in his memory for the sublimest poem published in our language, between the last masterpiece 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 Agoniites 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 a while at Llanthony Abbey in Monmouthshire, whence he was worried in three years time by the combined vexation of neighbors and tenants, lawyers and lords-lieutenant; not before much toil and money had been nobly wasted on attempts to improve the sterility of the land, to relieve the wretchedness and raise the condition of tIe 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 1835 he had an unfortunate difference with his wife which ended in a complete separation. In 1824 appeared the first series of his Imaginary Conversations, in 1826 the second edition, corrected and enlarged; a supplementary 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 Shakespeare (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 labors, the Hellenics of Walter Savage Landor, enlarged and completed. Twelve years later this book was re-issued, 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 controversial essays, miscellaneous epigrams, lyrics and occasional 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 1857 he published 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 containing 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. He was advised to make over his property to his family, on whom he was now dependent. They appear to have refused to make him an allowance unless he returned to England. By the exertions of Robert Browning an allowance was secured. Browning settled him first at Siena and then at Florence. 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 correspondence 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 Roman 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 sometimes 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 tapid 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 withoit the usual help of a connecting plank. Even in his dramatic works, where least of all it should have been found, this lack of visible connection 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 blameless 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 mans 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 defiance.
Reviled 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 Robert (Robert Eyres Landor 1781 – 1869) he lavished sympathetic praise.
He was a classic, and no formalist; the wide range of his 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 beautiful and vivid studies of medieval Italy and Shakespearean England.
The very finest flower of his dialogues is probably to be found in the single volume Imaginary Conversations of Greeks and Romans; his command of passion and pathos may be tested by its success in the distilled and concentrated tragedy of Tiberius and Vipsania, where for once he shows a quality more proper to romantic than classical imagination: 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.
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