The Poets' Chantry/Aubrey de Vere

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The Poets' Chantry by Katherine Brégy
Aubrey de Vere


It is a misfortune, even if a flattering one, for an author's personality to overshadow his literary reputation. Such, long ago, was the fate of the patriarchal Dr. Johnson (about whom we have all read so much), and such, in a modern instance, would seem to be the case with Aubrey de Vere. His own Recollections, and the more exhaustive Memoir by his friend Wilfrid Ward, are on the shelves of many a library which boasts few volumes of his prose and none at all of his poetry. The gracious culture of his Irish home at Curragh Chase; the story of his travels and his friendships with the greatest men and women of the time; the Famine years which woke the dreamer into a man of heroic action; the spiritual pilgrimage which led him eventually into the Catholic communion—all this is familiar enough to need no repetition. It is Aubrey de Vere's poetic achievement to which adequate recognition is but seldom accorded. "I have lived among poets a great deal and have known greater poets than he is," wrote Sara Coleridge in a memorable passage, "but a more entire poet, and one more a poet in his whole mind and temperament, I never knew or met with."

Aubrey de Vere's half-century of poetic preoccupation was richly various in its fruitfulness. The Search after Proserpine appeared in 1843; ten years later, a volume of Miscellaneous and Sacred Poems; in 1857 came the first of the May Carols (completed in 1881); in 1861, Inisfail, The Sisters,

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Aubrey de Vere
At the age of 20

From a coloured drawing by Walter L. Cotts

etc.; 1872, Legends of St. Patrick; 1874, Alexander the Great; 1876, St. Thomas of Canterbury; 1882, The Foray of Queene Maeve and Legends of Ireland's Heroic Age; 1887, Legends and Records of the Church and the Empire; 1893, Mediæval Records and Sonnets; and in 1897 (his eighty-third year), St. Peter's Chains, a series of sonnets on the Italian Revolution. While incomplete, this bibliography includes epic, lyric, and dramatic verse.

Elsewhere tracing Irish history back almost to the legendary days of the Sidhe, in the latter part of Inisfail, and in numerous minor poems, de Vere tells the tragic story of his country's recent years. The beautiful closing stanzas of "The Year of Sorrow" illustrate how much of pathos yet how little of bitterness de Vere infused into his elegy of 1849:

Fall, snow, and cease not! Flake by flake
 The decent winding-sheet compose.
Thy task is just and pious; make
 An end of blasphemies and woes.

· · · · ·

On quaking moor and mountain moss,
 With eyes upstaring at the sky,
With arms extended like a cross,
 The long-expectant sufferers lie.

Bend o'er them, white-robed Acolyte!
 Put forth thine hand from cloud and mist,
And minister the last sad Rite,
 Where altar there is none, nor priest.

Touch thou the gates of soul and sense;
 Touch darkening eyes and dying ears:
Touch stiffening bands and feet, and thence
 Remove the trace of sin and tears.

· · · · ·

This night the Absolver issues forth
 This night the Eternal Victim bleeds
O winds and woods—O heaven and earth!
 Be still this night. The Rite proceeds!

Back through the days of the Penal Laws and the Wars of Religion, through the three centuries of outlawry following the Norman Conquest, runs this "lyrical chronicle," Inisfail; its parts bound together by a continuity of tears and by the poet's insistence upon Ireland's spiritual vocation among the nations of the earth. "No other poem of mine," de Vere wrote some thirty-five years later, "was written more intensely, I may say painfully, from my heart, than Inisfail." And no other poem of his has surpassed it in sweetness or pathos or in a certain fiery, elemental vigour.

In the earlier record, St. Patrick, crozier in hand, passes before us, treading the hills and vales of Erin, preaching to the poor, baptising those sweet sister-princesses, the "Red Rose" and " Ethna the Fair," confounding the proud and winning them to humility:

The Saint his great soul flung upon the world,
And took the people with him like a wind

to the very feet of Christ. It is a series of noble national poems, ending with the final "Striving of St. Patrick" on Mount Cruachan. De Vere's Legends of the Saxon Saints form a companion-work of hagiology. "The English differed much from the Irish," says the poet, "even in their primitive saints. There was less of the wild and strange about them . . . less of the missionary, but more of the Christian subject and citizen." Much of the material for this volume was taken from the Venerable Bede, with which there is an interweaving of the Odin legends and prophecies.

His further interest in the old heroic and bardic literature was evident in his "Oiseen" poems; but it was not until 1880, when he became familiar with various MS. collections in the Royal Irish Academy of Dublin, that it took any notable form. Lady Gregory had not yet produced her epoch-making translations of the old Irish sagas; neither Yeats nor Fiona MacLeod nor any of the younger poets had brought the wild notes of Gaelic poetry to English hearing. Aubrey de Vere was the pioneer in re-creating that epoch of primitive and barbaric glory. His Legends of Ireland's Heroic Age told anew of the hapless Foray of Queen Maeve, of the mighty Cuchullain whose "starry head" was destined so soon to sleep in death, of the Children of Lir, and of Deirdre and the Sons of Usnach. When we recall that the poet drew his material from a few incomplete English translations of the great epics, it is amazing, not that he lacked the ingenuous and unforgettable charm of Lady Gregory's version, but that he reproduced so well the spirit of those "great-hearted and light-hearted" heroes.

Many of the greatest stories of Christendom are included in de Vere's two volumes of Records. The Middle Ages (however imperfectly understood) have been an unfailing source of literary inspiration; but the period preceding them—from about 50 A.D. to the reign of Charlemagne—has, to all but specialists, been a sort of "outer darkness." Aubrey de Vere, adding the poet's insight to the amateur's erudition, recognised it as covering several of the most significant eras of human history. His Legends of the Church and The Empire cover this whole wondrous period. They sing the death of outworn Paganism and the triumph of that young Church whose face shone as the dawn even when her robe was crimsoned by the sands of the arena; moans of an impotent and effete civilisation mingle with the battle-cries of Constantine or Theodoric; and mighty as some resistless sea is the onrushing sweep of those Northern hordes who triumph at last in the Fall of Rome. It seemed a second Deluge, even to men like St. Jerome. But succeeding legends show how the songs of a new Sion brought their message into the Stranger's Land; they tell of the peaceful conquests of Boniface and Germanus, of the sweet sanctity of St. Genevieve or Queen Clothilde—and at last of Charlemagne's coronation as first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Mediæval Records and Sonnets continue the history, recounting with the same earnest felicity the Cid's conquests over Moslem power, the stories of Queen Bertha and Jeanne d'Arc and Robert Bruce, of Columbus the discoverer and Copernicus the astronomer. Occasional translations from St. Gertrude or the Fioretti, and a poem of notable beauty and elevation ("The Higher Purgatory") partially transcribed from St. Catherine of Genoa, are further evidence of de Vere's affectionate intimacy with mediæval life. "It was imaginative, not critical," writes the poet in his Preface: "with much of a childish instability and something of that strange and heedless cruelty sometimes to be found in children, it united a childlike simplicity. It loved to wonder and was not afraid of proving mistaken. Stormy passions swept over it, and great crimes alternated with heroic deeds; but it was comparatively free from a more insidious snare than the passions—that of self-love." Perhaps the heaviest charge to be brought against the dramatic reality of the poems is that they do obscure the full stress of these "stormy passions." De Vere kept his eyes upon the heights, forgetting, or not forgetting, that only the saints dwell thereon. All too little is there in his Records of that fierce conflict of soul and sense, that youthful, passionate ardour both in good and evil, to which the very penances of the ancient Church bear witness.

 A bridal then, and now a death,
A short, glad space between them! Such is life!
That means our earthly life is but betrothal;
The marriage is where marriage vows are none—

so declares one of de Vere's youthful knights, with a detachment and a spiritual grasp characteristic, indeed, of the modern poet—and in no age possible, one suspects, to the mass of men and women.

Quotations from narrative poems are seldom satisfying when the poet's virtue lies rather in sustained and comprehensive excellence than in "purple passages." But a number of these legends or records resolve themselves, through their strongly personal quality, into the form of dramatic monologues. The chosen spokesmen are all of exalted and philosophic tendencies, and they are depicted at moments when "life's fitful fever" is well-nigh spent. Yet there is no dull uniformity in the setting of the sun—still less in the passing of a soul. De Vere has made the contrast of temperament exceedingly forcible, for instance, in the final soliloquies of Constantine and St. Jerome. Each looks back upon a "life of wars"; upon aspiration and failure and much hunger of the spirit; but the difference is as of storm-cloud and starlight. Grimly the frustrated Emperor reviews his gigantic efforts to rebuild the Roman structure, and his cry is vanitas:

Some power there was that counter-worked my work
With hand too swift for sight, which, crossing mine,
Set warp 'gainst woof and ever with my dawn
Inwove its night. What hand was that I know not:
Perchance it was the Demon's of my House;
Perchance a Hand Divine.

But as the great silence draws upon Jerome, his voice rings out in challenge:

 Paula, what is earth?
A little bubble trembling ere it breaks,
The plaything of that grey-haired infant, Time,
Who breaks whate'er he plays with. I was strong:
See how he played with me. Am I not broken?
Albeit I strove with men of might; albeit
Those two great Gregories clasped me palm to palm;
Albeit I fought with beasts at Ephesus
And bear their tokens still; albeit the wastes
Knew me, and lions fled; albeit this hand,
Wrinkled and prone, hurled to the dust God's scorners,
Am I not broken? Lo, this hour I raise
High o'er that ruin and wreck of life not less
This unsubverted head that bent not ever,
And make my great confession ere I die,
Since hope I have, though earthly hope no more.
And this is my confession: God is great;
There is no other greatness: God is good;
There is no other goodness. He alone
Is true existence: all beside is dream.

That is de Vere's high-water mark in the dramatic monologue; there are less felicitous instances. Browning's method in the soliloquy was, it will be remembered, to reproduce the broken sentences, the seemingly irrelevant thoughts, the passionate outbursts of a soul communing with itself; hence his dramatic truthfulness—hence, also, a measure of ambiguity. With de Vere the tendency was rather to be too clear, too exhaustive; and, as in the "Death of Copernicus," unconvincingly replete.

Stricter dramatic canons, however, are more fairly applied to de Vere's tragedies. They are but two in number (if one except the fragmentary Fall of Rora)—Alexander the Great, and St. Thomas of Canterbury—both of which are quite impossible theatrically. Yet these two "closet dramas" contain much of the noblest poetry de Vere ever produced. None but the greatest genius could vivify a theme so remote as that of Alexander; but de Vere presents a series of splendid and moving tableaux, glowing at times with descriptive passages of surpassing beauty. The character-drawing, while slight, is often impressive: the Persian princess Arsinoe—to whom are given many of the loveliest lines of the play—being one of those tender, meditative souls whom de Vere understood so well how to delineate. The Conqueror himself is scarcely more than a majestic lay figure, our clearest conception of his genius coming less from any revelation of his own than from Ptolemy's brief and telling estimate:

 He swifter than the morn
O'er rushed the globe. Expectant centuries
Condensed themselves into a few brief years
To work his will.

On the other band, Aubrey de Vere's characterisation of Thomas à Becket is deeply convincing: probably the very best portrait of the great primate in English literature.[1] With consummate art and uncompromising historic truth is traced that thorny path which led the amiable young diplomat up to heights of Christian sainthood. We hear of Thomas first when, as Chancellor of King Henry, he visits the French court in a pageant of mediæval splendour:

"Of his own household there were two hundred—clerics and knights—chanting hymns. Then followed his hounds—ten couples. Next came eight wagons with five horses each . . . then followed twelve sumpter horses. The esquires bore the shields and the falconers the hawks on their fists; after them came those that held the banners; and last, my lord on a milk-white horse. . . . Thomas gave gifts to all—to the princes, and the clergy, and the knights, and to the poor more than to the rich . . . when he feasted the beggars, he bade them take with them the gilded spoons and goblets."


Becket is raised to the see of Canterbury, and thenceforth, step by step, the poet pictures his struggle for the freedom of the English Church. Single-handed he fights the pride and treachery of his king, the weakness of his bishops, the guile of tireless enemies; until, on that black December night of 1170, the blow of martyrdom is struck. It is a scene noble even to sublimity. Vesper time draws near in the great Cathedral, and two priests are speaking brokenly of their Primate:

 At yonder altar of Saint Benedict
He said his mass; then in the chapter-house
Conversed with two old monks of things divine:
Next for his confessor he sent, and made
Confession with his humble wont, but briefly;
Last, sat with us an hour, and held discourse
Full gladsomely. . . . An old monk cried,
"Thank God, my lord, you make good cheer!"
 He answered,
"Who goeth to his Master should be glad."

(John of Salisbury):
His Master! Ay, his Master! Still as such
He thought of God; he loved Him; in himself
Saw nothing great or wise—simply a servant.
Ere yet his earliest troubles had begun
I heard him say, "A bishop should protect
That holy thing, God's Church, to him committed,
Not only from the world but from himself,
Loving, not hers, but her, with reverent love,
A servant's love that, gazing, fears to touch her."

· · · · · ·

Peace, peace! O God, we make our tale of him
As men that praise the dead!

Becket enters in procession from the cloister, and, while in a near-by chapel the monks are chanting, those four traitor-knights steal in. There is a brief colloquy, a briefer prayer—and St. Thomas falls dead beneath their swords.

The lyrics scattered in Elizabethan manner through both dramas claim a mention as graceful and in entire sympathy with the action. Perhaps most charming of all is that little Trouvère serenade in St. Thomas, beginning

I make not songs, but only find;
Love following still the circling sun
His carol casts on every wind,
And other singer is there none.

This is one of the instances in which de Vere's verse rings with the true lyric quality. His early lines "To Keats" flash back a gleam of that singer's own "white fire" of beauty; there is a delightful play of fancy throughout his Greek Idyls and through that gracious and delicate masque, "The Search after Proserpine." But in the marvellous felicity of epithet, in the winged lightness of thought and radiance of imagery; above all, in that consummate sense of the music of words which makes the lyrist's eternal heritage, Aubrey de Vere was—save in supreme moments—deficient. There were indeed these moments. Here, for instance, is a little song, Shakespearian in its sweet and naïve inevitability:

When I was young, I said to Sorrow,
 "Come, and I will play with thee":
  He is near me now all day
  And at night returns to say,
"I will come again to-morrow,
 I will come and stay with thee."

Through the woods we walk together;
 His soft footsteps rustle nigh me;
  To shield an unregarded head,
  He hath built a winter shed;
And all night in rainy weather,
 I hear his gentle breathings by me.

Yet in the main, this poet's message was too closely reasoned to be sung: a Gregorian chant would seem the only possible or appropriate vehicle. Weakness of form, Matthew Arnold contended, is nearly always accompanied by weakness of matter and thought. Nevertheless, there are poets whose habitual merit lies in the enchanting beauty of their verse-effects; and others there are whose highest excellence lies in the soul rather than the body of their verse. So it was with Aubrey de Vere. Blank verse, the ode, the sonnet, and various simpler forms he has used with excellent effect: but one feels that in avoiding more ornate and intricate verse-schemes he was wisely aware of the lyrical deficiencies already noted.

"The Martyrdom," and others of the earlier devotional poems, betray the influence of well and Crashaw, to whose sweet memory they were dedicated; but de Vere's affinities were not with these choristers of the fiery heart and rapturous voice. His later and abiding model was Wordsworth, whose simple diction, his deep sincerity and Nature-brooding, mark de Vere's religious cycle, the May Carols. These are infallibly tender and reverent; they are lucid, even epigrammatic at moments; their subject-matter is sublimely spiritual. But the poems (save, perhaps, those exquisite little interspersed landscape reveries) are not carols at all. They are a prolonged meditation upon Christian truths centring round about the Incarnation. "Mater Christi," one of the least theological, will illustrate the tranquil beauty of the series:

He willed to lack, he willed to bear;
 He willed by suffering to be schooled;
He willed the chains of flesh to wear:
 Yet from her arms the world He ruled.

· · · · · ·

He sat beside the lowly door;
 His homeless eyes appeared to trace
In evening skies remembered lore,
 And shadows of His Father's face.
One only knew him. She alone
 Who nightly to His cradle crept,
And, lying like the moonbeams prone,
 Worshipped her Maker as He slept.

It is the obtrusion of a sort of glorified catechetical instruction, and the subordination of the pure poetic quality, which mars many of these May Carols. The tendency is not towards the mystical but towards the metaphysical. Sadly enough, all this was merely de Vere's passionate love of truth, "strained from its fair use" with the usual calamitous result. In this case the effect was a consistent restraint of the imaginative and emotional faculties, a philosophic aloofness from "life's beauteous nothings writ in dust"—in one word, preoccupation with the catechetical rather than the æsthetic aspect of life. That he contrived to put so much grace into sonnets on—let us say—"Church Discipline," "Evidences of Religion," the "Irish Constitution of 1872," that he so successfully linked temporary interests with the ultimate and universal in his "occasional" verses, is strongest evidence of his incorrigibly poetic nature. None the less, it is a relief to extricate from this mass of political and commemorative work that bearing the authentic hall-mark. Aubrey de Vere was a great artist; he was even a greater man. But alike by instinct and by conviction was he given to polemics. "I wish either to be considered as a teacher or as nothing," declared Wordsworth, his friend and most potential model; and one knows that every artist is a teacher according to the measure of truth within his soul. The danger lies in forgetting—or in ignoring—how much more he must also be.

But the poet does all things more graciously than other men, and de Vere's keen sense of beauty transfigured his didacticism even as the illuminator was wont to brighten with bird and flower the page of some old manuscript. One can forgive an occasional zeal in pointing morals to him whose message is summed up perfect, crystal-clear, in that memorably beautiful sonnet, "Sorrow":

Count each affliction, whether light or grave,
God's messenger sent down to thee; do thou
With courtesy receive him; rise and bow;
And, ere his shadow pass thy threshold, crave
Permission first his heavenly feet to lave;
Then lay before him all thou hast: allow

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Aubrey de Vere
In his old age

No cloud of passion to usurp thy brow,
Or mar thy hospitality; no wave
Of mortal tumult to obliterate
The soul's marmoreal calmness: Grief should be,
Like joy, majestic, equable, sedate,
Confirming, cleansing, raising, making free;
Strong to consume small troubles; to commend
Great thoughts, grave thoughts, thoughts lasting to the end.

Great and grave thoughts, high and holy thoughts: such were the habitual companions of Aubrey de Vere. He weighed life by those spiritual values which were to him the only realities. And so the religious, the Catholic element permeates his work as sunlight radiates a summer noon. But religion transfigures without changing the character; it spiritualises without in any wise stereotyping the imagination. It may, as in Crashaw or Coventry Patmore, surcharge the emotions; or it may dominate the intellect in its most characteristic channel—with de Vere the channel of philosophic meditation. He looked not merely through the deeds of men, but equally through the pageant of external Nature. When, for example, one reads his finely poetical "Autumnal Ode," one meets very little of that mournful or exultant sensuousness with which poets have immemorially watched the death of summer. There are loving suggestions of the blackbird's last carol, of "dusk-bright cobwebs" and the glory of "sunset forests," but through this symbolic pageant of autumn the poet passes to thoughts of the saintly dead. Precisely this same passion for interpretation runs through his beautiful "Ascent of the Apennines." It is plaintive in that most characteristic "Ode to an Eolian Harp," and in very truth it penetrates his entire secular and religious verse.

 Sweetly and sagely
In order grave the Maker of all Worlds
Still modulates the rhythm of human progress;
His angels, on whose songs the seasons float,
Keep measured cadence: all good things keep time
Lest Good should strangle Better,

declares his dying Copernicus. And this poet's work is more than peaceful, it is joyous. The St. Thecla of his legend is not only "beauteous as a rose new-blown," she is the " blithesomest" of hermit-missionaries. His St. Dorothea (whom so great a dramatist as Massinger succeeded in portraying only as an heroic prig) speaks gaily, and has room in her consecrated heart for all "lovely things and fair." "Glad man was he, our Cid," cry the companions of the great mediæval warrior; and one learns with no surprise of Erin's apostle that

There was ever laughter in his heart,
And music in that laughter.

So has de Vere dwelt upon the blitheness of Christian character, upon the God-like stillness which may dwell even in the tempest's heart. It is all very tranquil and beautiful, this golden haze wrapping the world in peace. And if it be not quite like human life as most of us know it, why—so much the worse for us!

"I am doing what in me lies to keep alive poetry with a little conscience in it," he once said, adding with characteristic humility, "if I fail in that attempt I shall not fret about it; others will do it later—what I have aimed at doing—and will probably do it better." The nobility of this aim sweeps through his pages, pure and keen as the mountain's breath. We feel it in his own high seriousness and self-possession, in that tenderness which is not passion, in the solid and sublime philosophy which underlies his utterance. But the Muse is imperious, and will not brook too close restraint. A little rigidity, a suspicion of coldness, a lack of that glorious spontaneity which brings the world down to a poet's feet—such is the penalty for reining in the bright spirit! May it not be, after all, that de Vere put too much conscience into his poetry; or that he put it too patently and insistently? For there is a wisdom of fools—and alas! a folly of the wise—not solely in the spiritual life.

It has frequently been proclaimed that the writing of even inferior verse is the best possible recipe for such a good prose style as may be acquired. We find in the poet's use of prose not only the habitual delicacy and picturesqueness we should have foreseen, but also a notable precision and sense of proportion—as though the use of wings had taught all the possible graces of walking. It was thus with Aubrey de Vere—in the many essays he contributed to the Reviews, in his memories of friends like Tennyson, in his voluminous correspondence, in his Reminiscences, and the other prose volumes that make prouder, as Landor said his verse did, "his proud name." We do not claim for him the distinction, and music, and vitality of unforgettable prose; but at least this—that his intellectual breadth and seriousness, his poetic sensibility and critical acumen, coupled with his good English and that gracious versatility which one thinks of as Irish (when one knows it is not French) render Aubrey de Vere worthy of a throne among the scribes of the island Israel.

During the same years of the nineteenth century, English-speaking Catholics possessed three vastly different apologists. They were all converts: John Henry Newman, Isaac Hecker and Aubrey de Vere. Newman's appeal was to the past, to Patristic evidences, to the unity (including, of course, the development) of primitive Christian faith. Father Hecker's appeal was to the present: to the natural laws upon which the supernatural rest, to that "heart's hunger and soul's thirst" which vital Catholic truth alone can satisfy. But Aubrey de Vere was conscious of no past or present in religious experience. In theology, as in all departments of thought, he was a psychological critic. His appeal was to the intuitive sense and "spiritual discernment" first of all and then, because Catholicity included these, to authority and to human nature. And in his prose, no less than in his verse, he regarded life and art from a standpoint equally soulful.

His own spiritual nature, and long habits of analytic thought, necessitated this. We find him making fine and delicate distinctions in words (which are always at the same time distinctions of thought), as between reasoning and reason, pleasure and enjoyment; we find him pointing out how "in Coleridge's poetry the reasoning faculty is chiefly that of contemplation and reflection, in Wordsworth's the meditative and discursive prevail"; again we find him weighing the Elizabethan drama by psychological standards, where Ruskin would have used ethical, and Matthew Arnold æsthetic values. And throughout his entire critical work the moral and artistic elements constantly interpenetrate. Man, however minutely studied, became a symbol of mankind, and all minor verities, whether of sense or intellect, resolved themselves into one immutable and comprehensive Truth. De Vere has observed that the Greek knew no landscape, although he delighted in detached objects of natural beauty. He himself saw all details as part of some harmonious whole; nor could his view stop short of the distant horizon. In a measure, this comprehensiveness is part of all criticism, but with De Vere it was a distinct characteristic. It almost became the measure of his "personal equation"; and it goes far toward explaining why he could so thoroughly interpret Spenser or Wordsworth, while of Patmore's poetry he should be merely appreciative but not illuminating. De Vere was unusually quick to recognize traces of a solid, universal greatness; he was less sensitive to beauties of an exotic or esoteric character.

We live by Admiration, Hope and Love;
And, even as these are well and wisely fixed,
In dignity of being we ascend.

These words, loved by De Vere, and chosen as the text of his Essays Chiefly on Poetry, strike the keynote of his attitude toward letters and toward life. His criticism as a whole was overwhelmingly constructive; and while he abhorred "sensual" or "sensational" literature, materialistic and unsound philosophies, and whatever wars against the soul's life, he still—and to the end—"enjoyed praising as inferior men enjoy sneering."[2]

  1. For an interesting comparative study of de Vere's St. Thomas and Tennyson's Becket, see "Imitators of Shakespeare" in Dr. Egan's Ghost in Hamlet, and Other Essays.
  2. Aubrey de Vere's own comment on Landor.