Walter Savage Landor once said, “Poetry was always my amusement, prose my study and business.” When he was forty-five years of age, after having devoted many years to poetic composition, he began what became Imaginary Conversations of Literary Men and Statesmen, in which he found the form best suited to the peculiar aim and direction of his art. Although some of his poetry attains a gemlike perfection, it suffers by comparison with the work of his more famous contemporaries. While the major Romantic writers, with their emphasis on imagination, were bringing new life to poetry, Landor chose not to go beyond ideas that could be clearly grasped. His poetry thus lacks the emotional appeal necessary to the highest attainment in this form. In prose writing, however, where clarity and restraint are more to be desired, Landor deserves consideration with the best of his age.
By the nature of his character, Landor was drawn for guidance and inspiration to the classical tradition. One side of his personality admired balance, moderation, and precision, qualities admirably displayed in his writing. The other side was irascible, impractical, and impulsive; these traits are revealed in some of his personal relationships. Like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Landor appears to have found in his restrained and faultless art a counterpoise to his external world of turbulence.
Landor was a true classicist, not a belated adherent of neoclassicism with its emphasis on rules over substance. He was rigorously trained in youth and continued his scholarly pursuits throughout his adult life. His knowledge was no mere surface phenomenon; he was so immersed in the ancients that he took on their characteristic habits of thought. Thus these five volumes not only make use of events and characters from the Greco-Roman civilization but also are infused with classical ideals of clarity and precision in style and tough intellectualism in content.
The “conversations” in Imaginary Conversations of Literary Men and Statesmen are grouped into classical dialogues, dialogues of sovereigns and statesmen, dialogues of literary men, dialogues of famous women, and miscellaneous dialogues. The conversations, usually between two people, cover many centuries, ranging from the time of the Trojan War to Landor’s own period, and they include people from many geographical areas. Many of the scenes are based on suggestions from history or mythology, but the actual remarks of the individuals are never used. Landor did not attempt to re-create a sense of the past by use of artificial or archaic language. He did, however, endeavor to represent faithfully the spirit of the age and the essential nature of the personage presented.
Landor is, above all, concerned with interpretation of character. Although he displays brilliant insights into human nature, he does not aim toward fully developed characters but toward abstract idealizations. They are not products of observation directly reported but of observation, especially that gained from reading, filtered through a long process of reflection. Never are the predilections of the author—his sympathies and his aversions—far from the surface.
Many of the dialogues depict a manly, heroic character; two examples of this type are found in “Marcellus and Hannibal.” History records the death of Marcellus in the Second Punic War and the respect paid him by Hannibal. Landor creates a scene in which Marcellus survives long enough to converse with the Carthaginian leader. When the wounded Marcellus is brought to the camp, Hannibal makes every effort to save his life and to make him comfortable. A contrast to Hannibal’s chivalric behavior is provided by that of his ally, a Gallic chief...
(The entire section is 1531 words.)