Walter Savage Landor, who has been described as a classic writer in a romantic age, was an isolated figure who outlived by many years the period of the Romantic triumph in England. Possessing from his earliest youth a strong attachment to both the ideals and the styles of Greek and Latin literature, he nevertheless admired and sympathized with the artistry of Byron, Shelley, and Keats. On the whole, however, the more restrained manner of his own poetry tended toward the temper best exemplified by Browning and Tennyson. Often he composed first in Latin and then translated his work into English, consciously preserving the classical qualities of the original.
Having studied at Rugby, Landor matriculated at Oxford in 1795, when the tide of republicanism and revolutionism was running high. His active sympathy with the ascendant ideals of liberty brought him into difficulties with the university officials and eventually led to his withdrawing from Oxford without a degree. But the excellent training in Latin which he received there was to leave a distinctive mark on all his writings. Unmistakably and pervasively it is evident in the noble restraint and chastened expression which give Landor’s poems a typically classical touch.
At the same time, with the Romantics, he was a worshiper of nature and an unflinching defender of the downtrodden and helpless. In actuality, there is in the man, as in his poetry and prose, not a diametric clash of classical and Romantic contraries but, rather, a mingling of these opposing tendencies. Landor declared sincerely that he was not seeking wide popularity as a poet. To explain this attitude he used the effective metaphor, “I shall dine late, but the dining room will be well-lighted, the guests few and select.” Although their mutual influence seems not to have been great, he appreciated, and was appreciated by, such notable contemporaries as Carlyle, Dickens, Browning, and Wordsworth.
In his first volume of poetry, POEMS, which appeared in 1795, Landor displayed considerable dignity of phrase and artistry of style. Yet this volume appears-inconsequential when compared to GEBIR, an Oriental tale in blank verse written during two solitary years in Wales and published in 1798. In its seven books this epic recounts the adventures of the mythic founder of Gibraltar. The elevated style and cadence of the poem suggest that Landor’s models were Milton and classical authors such as Pindar. GEBIR drew attention and admiration from a number of Landor’s discriminating contemporaries, but was too weak in characterization and narrative content to appeal to the general reader. The one passage of the poem which has achieved lasting recognition is the episode of “Tamar’s Wrestling,” in which the outclassed shepherd loses to the “nymph divine” both the wrestling match and the sheep he has wagered.
“Shepherd,” said she, “and will youwrestle now.And with the sailor’s hardier race en-gage?”“Whether a shepherd, as indeed youseem,Or whether of the hardier race youboast,I am not daunted, no: I will engage.”Now she came forward, eager to en-gage;But, first her dress, her bosom then,survey’d,And heav’d it, doubting if she coulddeceive.Her bosom seem’d, inclos’d in haze likeheav’n,To baffle touch; and rose forth unde-fined.Above her knees she drew the robe suc-cinct,Above her breast, and just below herarms:“This will preserve my breath, whentightly bound,If struggle and equal strength shouldso constrain.”Thus, pulling hard to fasten it, shespoke,And rushing at me, closed. I thrill’dthroughoutAnd seem’d to lessen and shrink upwith cold.Again, with violent impulse gushed myblood;And hearing nought external, thus ab-sorb’d,I heard it rushing through each turbidvein,Shake my unsteady swimming sight inair.Yet with unyielding though uncertainarms,I clung around her neck; the vest be-neathRustled against our slippery limbs en-twined:Often mine, springing with eludedforce, Started aside, and...
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