Genius, and other essays/Landor
IF the many lovers of the beautiful, into whose hands, we trust, this collection will fall, shall derive from the study of its gems something of the pleasure experienced in their choice and arrangement, the editors thus will be a second time rewarded for most enjoyable labor. The master-artist, to whose exquisite touch these compositions owe their excuse for being, possessed beyond his contemporaries the liberal faculty which endowed some of the great workmen of the past: the double gift upon which the poets, sculptors, and painters of the golden age, before the era of the specialists, were wont to plume themselves. He had the joyous range of Benvenuto Cellini, whom the chroniclers describe as "founder, gold-worker, and medailleur"; who, in his larger moods, devised and cast the Perseus and other massive bronzes which still ennoble the Italian city-squares; yet who found felicitous moments in which to carve the poniard-handles, vaunted by knights and courtiers as their rarest treasures, or to design some wonder of a cup, or bracelet, or other thing of beauty, for the queen or mistress of the monarch who protected him and honored his unrivalled art.
The legend of Walter Savage Landor justly might have been Fineness and Strength, since, while distinguished by his epic and dramatic powers, and at home in the domain of philosophic thought, he had also that delicate quality which enriches the smallest detail, and changes at will from its grander creations to those of subtile and ethereal perfection. He had the strongest touch and the lightest; his vision was of the broadest and the most minute. Leigh Hunt characterized him by saying that he had never known any one of such a vehement nature with so great delicacy of imagination, and that he was "like a stormy mountain-pine that should produce lilies." In this there is something of the universal genius of "men entirely great."
Landor's minor poems, therefore, bear a relation to his more extended work similar to that borne by Shakespeare's songs and sonnets to his immortal plays. Yet they are not songs, because not jubilant with that skylark gush of melody which made so musical the sunrise of English rhythm. They address themselves no less to the eye than to the ear; are the daintiest of lyrical idyls,—things to be seen as well as to be heard; compact of fortunate imagery, of statuesque conceptions marvellously cut in verse. Are we not right in designating them as Cameos? And from what other modern author could a selection of relievos be made, so flawless in outline and perfect in classical grace, for the delight of both the novice and the connoisseur?
So finished are these metrical carvings that the observer, mindful of the art celare artem, might suppose them to be the product of care and elaborate revision. But with Landor's lyrics, however it may be with those of the poets, it is known that the reverse was the case. He was a true improvisator,—and that, too, without recourse to the irregular freedom looked for in improvisations. The spontaneity of the early songsters, at least, was his; these little poems were the overflow of his genius, by means of which he relieved himself of a surplusage of passion, exhilaration, or scorn; and were thrown off with such ease and skill, both natural and acquired, that we are in doubt whether most to admire their beauty or the swift precision with which they grew to excellence beneath his hands.
Who has not chanced upon some lounging philosopher, retentive of his boyish or sea-faring skill, modelling with his penknife a ring or puzzle from a bit of wood,—possibly, a tiny basket from a nutshell,—while engaged in earnest argument; discoursing, it may be, of world-wide topics, and apparently almost unconscious of the work so deftly and gracefully responding to his artistic design? Just so it was Landor's habit while engaged upon his prose masterpieces, the Imaginary Conversations, the Pentameron, Pericles and Aspasia,—or, in poetry, the noble Helenics,—to fashion at any hour or moment some delicious specimen of this cameo-work, without disturbing the progress of his more intellectual and elevated creations.
One of the first qualities which should impress the reader of these verses is the thorough purity and simplicity of their English idiom. In prose and poetry, their author belonged to the school which clings to the natural order and genius of the English tongue, and in both departments of literature he easily ranked with the foremost. Nowadays, when there is so much of what is called word-painting, so much straining after effect through use of words painfully chosen for sound or color, it is difficult to estimate properly the limpid, translucent clearness of Landor's verse. It is Corinthian rather than Composite, and seems to disdain any resort to eccentric or meretricious devices. Doubtless its maker might have put words together as curiously as any imitator of a great poet's youthful style; but "doubtless," as Thomas Fuller would say, he "never did," however tempted by unlimited power of language, and with an exhaustless vocabulary at his control.
Though graven in the purest English, many of these gems reflect the manner of those Latin lyrists, with whom their author, in his gownsman days, became so familiar,—so imbued with their blithe and delicate spirit, that he may dispute with rare old Robert Herrick the title of the British Catullus. His epigrams are by turns playful and spleenful, and pointed as those of Martial; but among these, and in the lightness of his festive or amatory strains, there often is little of that emotion which takes the heart captive. You are not moved to tears, as by the passion of Mrs. Browning, the devotion and aspiration of Whittier, the pathos of Thomas Hood. Many of them are, as we have entitled them, just precious little works of art; to be prized, studied, marvelled over,—like the carved and mounted treasures of a virtuoso's collection,—for beauty, pure and simple, and the perfection of their rhythmical execution.
Yet even in Tibullus there is nothing sweeter, and little more touching and tender in the anthology of our own tongue, than the stanzas composed by Landor when his personal feelings really were claiming utterance. As he laid bare his heart, whether in fiery youth, or old and lonely as the oak that has outlived its forest companions, he never gave voice to an unmanly or pitiful complaint. Yet, lion and eagle as he was, he was not ashamed of the softest natural emotion; it spontaneously broke out in his numbers; the glitter of a tear is in many a line; there is a wandering echo in many a stanza which haunts the mind long after. Such is the charm of "Rose Aylmer," of which it may be said that,—although it has happened often that some minor lyric has entered the common heart, and gained for an author that popular regard which greater works have failed to procure him,—there hardly is another instance in recent literature where eight simple lines have so fascinated poetic and sensitive natures. Crabb Robinson recounts of Charles Lamb, that, "both tipsy and sober, he is ever muttering 'Rose Aylmer'"; and Lamb said, in his own letter to Landor, "'Tis for 'Rose Aylmer,' which has a charm I cannot explain. I lived upon it for weeks." The spell has been felt by many choice spirits, and continues to this day; a letter before us, from one of the most refined American essayists, says of Lamb's extravagance: "Living on it for weeks is a daring thing to say,—yet it is just what I did." The Roses of two later generations were dear to Landor for his first love's sake, and, as we have embraced in this collection other verses inspired by her beautiful memory, it will be seen how loyally and tenderly he clung to it throughout the dreams and ventures of a prolonged, impulsive lifetime.
"Agläe," "Aspasia to Cleone," "Pyrrha," and other antiques, are to be found, strung along at intervals, in Pericles and Aspasia,—that unequalled product of classical idealism, written in the most perfect English prose. Indeed, the conception of the present volume arose from the statement in a recent essay, that a book might be made of the lyrical gems with which Landor's prose writings, even, are interspersed. "The Maid's Lament" is a ditty put into the mouth of the youthful Shakespeare, in that remarkable Elizabethan study of the supposed Citation of the future dramatist before Sir Thomas Lucy upon a charge of deer-stealing. Some of the poet's lighter stanzas are winsome for their careless, troubadour spirit,—a mood not affected by him, but his sustainer to the last; and our readers will not quarrel with us for resetting "The One White Hair," "Sixteen," "Time to be Wise," familiar as these may be, on the pages of the volume before them.
Speaking of "occasional" verses, Forster rightly says, that "the finest examples of such writings are often found in men who have also written poetry of the highest order." As Landor's trifles often were composed for the pleasure of exercising a natural gift, their fantasy of compliment or spleen was exaggerated to suit the poet's artistic caprice. He was not half so bitter as his epigrams pretended; was only "making believe," like some vieux moustache chaffing with a group of youngsters. When more in earnest, they served him as a safety-vent. One can hear the roar of laughter with which his rancor went to the winds, as he contemplated the imaginary flight of those at whom he aimed his winged shafts. In certain amatory verses, he really was more in love with his art than with its object. When he needed a heroine he took the nearest one, adorned her with regal expenditure, and invested her with the attributes of his own idea. There was the pretty Countess de Molandé, the Ianthe of his youth; in age, a sprightly and buxom Irish widow, with Landor still her devoted friend and cavalier. He used her as a layfigure all his life, and dedicated lyrics to her that might have tempted a Vestal. No doubt she had as much appreciation of his songs as Lesbia for those of Catullus. Possibly she exclaimed, with Rosalind, "I never was so berhymed since Pythagoras' time"; yet thought no less of her minstrel, for was he not a rich and well-born Englishman, as handsome and robust a gallant as even an Irish beauty could desire? After all, his feeling for her was more than poetic affectation. There is something Quixotic in the regard of most poets for women, and having once determined that Dulcinea should be a princess, Landor persuaded himself that she was nothing less. Indeed, like Burns, he went to the extreme of chivalry with every woman he admired, and for the time was sincere in all the honors paid to her. How closely these two men,—one born in a cottage, the other inheriting an ancient name and estate,—were akin in their manly health, their free poetic vigor, their courtliness to women, their tenderness to children and animals, their sturdy and portentous defiance of bigots, charlatans, and snobs!
Landor's wit, especially in the sprightly rhymes of which his later years were prolific, occasionally was tinctured with the freedom of his Latin satirists; but rather in playful imitation of them than from any grossness in his own nature. It was a fault to write, and a still greater one to print, such verses; but it was the fault of that time of life when the faculty outstays the judgment. Of course, such indecorous trifles drew the attention and merciless censure of numberless Philistines, who chose to ignore, or were unconscious of the wisdom, goodness, and beauty of his serious literary achievements. In actual life he was a man without a vice, and whose every error might be traced to the infirmity of a most proud and obstreperous temper. Correct, temperate, and pure, he found a zest in outdoor communion with Nature, which maintained his inherent vitality to a grand old age. If his foibles subjected him to the charge of Paganism, his strength broke out in love of liberty, sympathy with the downtrodden, devotion to his honored poets and patriots, hatred of pretension and superstition. Among minor pieces which thus illustrate his character, their brevity and finish enable us to select the enduring verses to Browning, the lines upon Roland and Corday, and the tributes to Miss Mitford and Julius Hare.
Mrs. Browning declared Landor to be "of all living writers the most unconventional in thought and word, the most classical, because the freest from mere classicalism, the most Greek, because pre-eminently and purely English." It seems to us that precisely the amount of benefit which a familiarity with the antique models can render to a modern poet is discernible in the greater portion of our selections. Their clearness and terseness are of the classic mould, but the language, thought, emotion, are Landorian and English. Of this twofold quality there are no better examples in our language than the companion-pieces, "To Youth" and "To Age." In finish these bear comparison with Collins's "Dirge in Cymbeline," and in feeling and purpose excel that melodious lyric. In respect to their theme, it may be said that no other poet has left so many or so beautiful verses inspired by the presence and sentiment of Age. Living long after he was content to die, he retained to the ninetieth year his sweetness of utterance and need for expression. It was the voice of Tithonus, whom Aurora had loved, thrilling tunefully and loudly after his bodily vigor had departed. It is said that poets die young; at all events the mass of poetry is ardent with the forward-looking hope of Youth; but in Landor's most felicitous strains he searches the brooding and pathetic memory of the past for imaginative suggestion, as one who has discovered that all Time is relative, and that to the poet who looks before and after there is no choice between the beginning and the end of days.
The reader has perceived that these introductory comments are restricted to the lyrical quality of Landor's genius, and to its productions, as displayed in the following exhibition. Our object having been to compose the latter solely of those faultless minor lyrics which come within the application of its title, of course many, and equally admirable, pieces are omitted. There is nothing in this volume which, from its length, severity, or freedom, will weary or repel the holder. Our intention has been to have it pure and charming, from the first selection to the end.
To many, these Cameos will present the graciousness of long familiar beauty, loveliest because best-remembered; to others, possibly, they may come as a first introduction to an author who only of late is beginning to be widely read, and whose works never have been placed fairly within the popular reach. To all such we offer this book in propitiation, assuring them that they are like wayfarers who have crossed the threshold of a royal, world-enriched Museum, and are examining a few of the more delicate treasures within its cabinets; glancing now at a carven seashell, and again at a winged head, cut upon agate or onyx for the finger of some beauty of the past; while around them are lofty walls laden with historical and dramatic paintings,—niches filled with statues of heroes, heroines, and "many a fallen old Divinity,"—and, in extended halls beyond, unique and changeful panoramas depicting every country and time. In hope that they will be led to look further for themselves, we now invite them to examine these sculptured gems; to note the hues of one, the matchless outlines of another, and the satisfying grace and repose which the hand of the same cunning artist has bestowed upon them all.
- Introduction to Cameos. Selected from the works of Walter Savage Landor by Edmund C. Stedman and Thomas Bailey Aldrich. Boston: James R. Osgood & Company, 1873.