The poems of Walter Savage Landor are like fragile crystals, the clarity of which disguises their masterfully crafted form. The meaning of Landor’s verse often seems transparent; he believed in clarity as a poetic virtue. The seeming ease with which his verse can be understood belies the strenuous efforts Landor made to pare down his phrases and to present his ideas with near-perfect economy. Much of his success in economical phrasing comes from his mastery of a host of meters and poetic subgenres, chief among which were the verse drama, the dramatic scene, the heroic poem, and the Hellenic poem. Landor had a restless mind, requiring activity; he had a voracious appetite for ideas. Writing poetry provided him with relief from such intellectual demands. Poetry was thus more of a hobby than a career; Landor wrote verse for recreation, and the complexity of his prosody and the pureness of his language originate in part from this recreational aspect of his versifying. His poetry represented an effort to find peace of mind, to discharge some of his extraordinary intellectual energy. The literature of ancient Greece and Rome had a long history of amateur scholarly study and had inspired and informed the neoclassical period in England that was just ending when Landor was born, and he found ready materials for such agreeable study in a host of commentaries on form and style. The Greeks supplied him with ideas about life and human relationships; the Latin poets supplied him with high standards for poetic composition and style. He sometimes wrote in Latin, perhaps to capture the elegance and sense of sweet phrasing that typifies much of the best of the poetry of the classical Romans.
Landor’s use of classical materials has long created problems for literary historians. His life spans the Romantic era and ends when the Victorian era was well under way. Although some Romantic poets—notably Percy Bysshe Shelley—used classical myths as subjects, they rarely employed classical forms. A classicist can be identified by his use of the standards of the ancient poets: an emphasis on phrasing, good sense, and logical order. A classicist restrains his emotions in favor of clarity of expression and tends to use classical works as models for his own. The Romantics, on the other hand, reacted to the preceding neoclassical age by emphasizing mysticism, nature, and traditional English poetic forms such as blank verse and the sonnet.
In his tastes and models, Landor was every inch a classicist and had more in common with Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson than with Wordsworth or Shelley, but in his subjects, he turned to nature as an ideal, somewhat as Wordsworth did and even more as did the Renaissance poet Sir Philip Sidney, and he wrote blank verse with a facility that had been alien to many of his neoclassical forebears. He had in common with his contemporaries a vast enthusiasm for poetry, but, whereas his contemporaries lived for their art, Landor’s art was his servant. Emotional outbursts were reined in; uncontrolled poetic fervor was not for Landor. His spirit was as restless as Lord Byron’s, but where Byron turned his restlessness into a poetic ideal, Landor used poetry to subdue his own restlessness. Thus, the determined and hard self-control evident in Landor’s verse sets him apart from the poets of his time. Some critics call him a Romantic, though seemingly more for the age in which he lived than for the qualities of his work. He actually was the son of the neoclassical age; he followed a poetic path that was a logical extension of what the neoclassicists had achieved, while Wordsworth and the Romantics followed a poetic path that was a logical reaction against the neoclassicists. Landor was a classicist in a Romantic age.
As a good student of the classical authors, Landor believed in poetic simplicity. His verse dramas reveal at once the strengths and weaknesses of the simplicity that gives his poetry its crystalline character. Although not the best of his dramatic efforts, perhaps the best known of his dramas is the tragedy of Count Julian. The play resembles a child’s perception of tragedy—all loud voices and grim visages. The characters exclaim instead of converse; each word seems meant for the ages. The welter of “Ohs!” and other short exclamations are sometimes more risible than dramatic. Even so, the subject of Count Julian has much potential for good drama. A Spanish warrior who has driven the Moors from Spain avenges the rape of his daughter by his king by leading the Moors back into his country, with disastrous consequences. The play’s blank verse is austere, remote from the characters and their emotions. Landor had hoped that Count Julian might be performed, but its poetry is more important than its drama; it is now regarded strictly as a closet drama. Andrea of Hungary and its...
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