Page images
PDF
EPUB

Warm

me.

who are quite prepared to hear. Wordsworth resembled a man coming into a drawing-room with muddy boots and a smock-frock. He courted disgust, and such courtship is pretty sure of success. But Landor made his bow in full court-dress. In spite of the difficulty of his poetry, he had all the natural graces which are apt to propitiate cultivated readers. His prose has merits so conspicuous and so dear to the critical mind, that one might have expected his welcome from the connoisseurs to be

even beyond the limit of sincerity. To praise him was to announce one's own possession of a fine classical taste, and there can be no greater stimulus to critical enthusiasm. One might have guessed that he would be a favourite with all who set up for a discernment superior to that of the vulgar; though the causes which must obstruct a wide recog. nition of his merits are sufficiently obvious. It may be interesting to consider the cause of his illsuccess with some fulness; and it is a comfort to the critic to reflect that in such a case even obtuseness is in some sort a qualification ; for it will enable one to sympathise with the vulgar insensibility to the offered delicacy, if only to substitute articulate rejection for simple stolid silence.

I do not wish, indeed, to put forward such a claim too unreservedly. I will merely take courage to confess that Landor very frequently bores

So do a good many writers whom I thoroughly admire. If any courage be wanted for such a confession, it is certainly not when writing upon Landor that one should be reticent for want of example. Nobody ever spoke his mind more freely about great expectations. He is, for example, almost the only poet who ever admitted that he could not read Spenser continuously. Even Milton in Landor's hands, in defiance of his known opinions, was made to speak contemptuously of The Faery Queen. “There is scarcely a poet of the same eminence," says Porson, obviously representing Landor in this case, “ whom I have found it so delightful to read in, and so hard to read through." What Landor here says of Spenser, I should venture to say of Landor. There are few books of the kind into which one may dip with so great a certainty of finding much to admire as the Imaginary Conversations, and few of any high reputation which are so certain to become wearisome after a time. My apology, if apology be needed, shall be given presently. But I must also admit, that on thinking of the whole five volumes, so emphatically extolled by their author, I feel certain twinges of remorse. There is a vigour of feeling, an originality of character, a fineness of style which makes one understand, if not quite agree to, the audacious self-commendation. Part of the effect is due simply to the sheer quantity of good writing

. Take any essay separately, and one must admit that—to speak only of his contemporaries—there is a greater charm in passages of equal length by Lamb, De Quincey, or even Hazlitt. None of them gets upon such stilts, or seems so anxious to keep the reader at arm's length. But, on the other hand, there is something imposing in so continnous a fow of stately and generally faultless English, with so many weighty aphorisms

[ocr errors]

rising spontaneously, and without a splashing or disturbance, to the surface of talk, and such an easy felicity of theme unmarred by the flash and glitter of the modern epigrammatic style.* Lamb is both sweeter and more profound, to say nothing of his incomparable humour; but then Lamb's flight is short and uncertain. De Quincey's passages of splendid rhetoric are too often succeeded by dead levels of verbosity and laboured puerilities which make annoyance alternate with enthusiasm. Hazlitt is often spasmodic, and his intrusive egotism is pettish and undignified. But so far at least as his style is concerned, Landor's unruffled stream of continuous harmony excites one's admiration the more the longer one reads. Hardly any one who has written' so much has kept so uniformly to a high level, and so seldom descended to empty verbosity or to downright slipshod. It is true that the substance does not always correspond to the perfection of the form. There are frequent discontinuities of thought where the style is smoothest. He reminds one at times of those Alpine glaciers where an exquisitely rounded surface of snow conceals yawning crevasses beneath ; and if one stops for a moment to think, one is apt to break through the crust with an abrupt and annoying jerk.

The excellence of Landor's style has, of course, been universally acknowledged, and it is natural that it should be more appreciated by his fellow-craftsmen than by general readers less interested in technical questions. The defects are the natural complements of its merits. When accused of being too figurative, he had a ready reply. “Wordsworth," he says in one of his Conversations, “ slithers on the soft mud, and cannot stop himself until he comes down. In his poetry there is as much of prose as there is of poetry in the prose of Milton. But prose on certain occasions can bear a great deal of poetry; on the other hand, poetry sinks and swoons under a moderate weight of prose, and neither fan nor burnt feather can bring her to herself again.” The remark about the relations of prose and poetry was originally made in a real conversation with Wordsworth, in defence of Landor's own luxuriance. Wordsworth, it is said, took it to himself, and not without reason, as appears by its insertion in this Conversation. The retort, however happy, is no more conclusive than other cases of the tu quoque. We are too often inclined to say to Landor as Southey says to Porson in another place : “Pray leave these tropes and metaphors.” His sense suffers from a superfetation of figures, or from the undue pursuit of a figure, till the “wind of the poor phrase is cracked.” In the phrase just quoted, for example, we could dispense with the “ fan and burnt feather,” which have very little relation to the thought. So, to take an instance of the excessively florid, I may quote the phrase in which Marvell defends his want of respect for the

* Let me remark in passing that Landor should apparently have credit for one epigram which has been adopted by more popular anthors : “Those who have failed as writers turn reviewers,” says Porson to Southey.

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

aristocracy of his day. “Ever too hard upon great men, Mr. Marvel?!" says Bishop Parker; and Marvell replies :

Little men in lofty places, who throw long shadows because our sun is setting; the men so little and the places so lofty that casting my pebble, I only show where they stand. They would be less contented with themselves, if they had obtained their preferment honestly. Luck and dexterity always give more pleasure than intellect and knowledge; because they fill up what they fall on to the brim at once ; and people run to them with acclamations at the splash. Wisdom is reserred and noiseless, contented with hard earnings, and daily letting go some early acquisition to make room for better specimens. But great is the exultation of a worthless man when ho receives for the chips and raspings of his Bridewell logwood a richer reward than the best and risest for extensive tracts of well-cleared truths! Eren he who has sold his country

[ocr errors]

“Forbear, good Mr. Marvell," says Bishop Parker, and one is inclined to sympathise with the poor man drowned under this cascade of tropes. It is certainly imposing, but I should be glad to know the meaning of the metaphor about “luck and dexterity." Passages occur, again, in which we are tempted to think that Landor is falling into an imitation of an obsolete model. Take, for example, the following :

A narrow mind cannot be enlarged, nor can a capacious one be contractod. Are we angry with a phial for not being a flask? or do we wonder that the skin of an elephant sits uneasily on a squirrel ? Or this, in reference to Wordsworth :

Pastiness and flatness are the qualities of a pancake, and thus far he attained his aim: but if he moans it for me, let him place the accessories on the table, lest what is insipid and clammy grow into duller accretion and moister viscidity the more I masticate it. Or a remark given to Newton :

Wherever there is racuity of mind, there must either be flaccidity or craring; and this racuity must necessarily be found in the greater part of princes, from the defects of their education, from tho fear of offending them in its progress by intern gations and admonitions, from the habit of rendering all things ralueless by the facility with which they are obtained, and transitory by the negligence with which they are received and holden.

Should we not remove the names of Porson and Newton from these sentences, and substitute Sam Johnson? The last passage reads very like a quotation from the Rambler. Johnson was, in my opinion and in Landor's, a great writer in spite of his mannerism; but the mannerism is always rather awkward, and in such places we seem to see-certainly not a squirrel—but, say, a thoroughbred horse invested with the skin of an elephant.

These lapses into the inflated are of course exceptional with Landor. There can be no question of the fineness of his perception in all matters of literary form. To say that his standard of style is classical is to repeat a commonplace too obvious for repetition, except to add a doubt whether he is not often too ostentatious and self-conscious in his classi

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

cism. He loves and often exhibits a masculine simplicity and speaks with enthusiasm of Locke and Swift in their own departments. Locke is to be "revered;" he is "too simply grand for admiration;" and no one, he thinks, ever had such a power as Swift of saying forcibly and completely whatever he meant to say. But for his own purposes he generally prefers a different model. The qualities which he specially claims seem to be summed up in the conversation upon Bacon's Essays between Newton and Barrow. Cicero and Bacon, says Barrow, have more wisdom between them than all the philosophers of antiquity. Newton's review of the Essays, he adds, “hath brought back to my recollection so much of shrewd judgment, so much of rich imagery, such a profusion of truths so plain as (without his manner of exhibiting them) to appear almost unimportant, that in various high qualities of the human mind I must acknowledge not only Cicero, but every prose writer among the Greeks, to stand far below him. Cicero is least valued for his highest merits, his fulness and his perspicuity. Bacl judges (and how few are not so !) desire in composition the concise and obscure ; not knowing that the one most frequently arises from paucity of materials, and the other from inability to manage and dispose them.” Landor aims, like Bacon, at rich imagery, at giving to thoughts which appear plain more value by fineness of expression, and at compressing shrewd judgments into weighty aphorisms. He would equally rival Cicero in fulness and perspicuity; whilst a severe rejection of everything slovenly or superfluous would save him from ever deviating into the merely florid. So far as style can be really separated from thought, we may admit unreservedly that he has succeeded in his aim, and has attained a rare harmony of tone and colouring.

There may, indeed, be some doubt as to his perspicuity. Southey said that Landor was obscure, whilst adding that he could not explain the cause of the obscurity. Causes enough may be suggested. Besides his incoherency his love of figures' ich sometimes become half detached from the underlying thought, and an over-anxiety to avoid meresmartness which sometimes leads to real vagueness, he expects too much from his readers, or perhaps despises them too much. He will not condescend to explanation if you do not catch his drift at half a word. He is so desirous to round off his transitions gracefully, that he obliterates the necessary indications of the main divisions of the subject. When criticising Milton or Dante, he can hardly keep his hand off the finest passages in his desire to pare away superfluities. Treating himself in the same fashion, he leaves none of those little signs which, like the typographical hand prefixed to a notice, are extremely convenient, though strictly superfluous. It is doubtless unpleasant to have the hard framework of logical divisions showing too distinctly in an argument, or to have a too elaborate statement of dates and places and external rela tions in a romance.

But such aids to the memory may be removed too freely. The building may be injured in taking away the scaffolding.

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

Such remarks, however, will not explain Landor's failure to get a real hold upon a large body of readers. Writers of far greater obscurity and much more repellent blemishes of style to set against much lower merits, have gained a far wider popularity. The want of sympathy between so eminent a literary artist and his time must rest upon some deeper divergence of sentiment. Landor's writings present the same kind of problem as his life. We are told, and we can see for ourselves, that he was a man of many very high, and many very amiable qualities. He was full of chivalrous feeling; capable of the most flowing and delicate courtesy; easily stirred to righteous indignation against every kind of tyranny and bigotry ; capable, too, of a tenderness pleasantly contrasted with his outbursts of passing wrath ; passionately fond of children, and a true lover of dogs. But with all this, he could never live long at peace with anybody. He was the most impracticable of men, and every turning point in his career was decided by some vehement quarrel. He had to leave school in consequence of a quarrel, trifling in itself, but aggravated by a fierce defiance of all authority and a refusal to ask forgiveness.” He got into a preposterous scrape at Oxford, and forced the authorities to rusticate him. This branched out into a quarrel with his father. When he set up as a country gentleman at Llanthony Abbey, he managed to quarrel with his neighbours and his tenants, until the accumulating consequences to his purse forced him to go to Italy. On the road thither, he began the first of many quarrels with his wife, which ultimately developed into a chronic quarrel and drove him back to England. From England he was finally dislodged by another quarrel which drove him back to Italy. Intermediate quarrels of minor importance are intercalated between those which provoked decisive crises. The lightheartedness which provoked all these difficulties is not more remarkable than the ease with which he threw them off his mind. Blown hither and thither by his own gusts of passion, he always seems to fall on his feet, and forgets his trouble as a schoolboy forgets yesterday's flogging. On the first transitory separation from his wife, he made himself quite happy by writing Latin verses; and he always seems to bave found sufficient consolation in such literary occupation for vexations which would have driven some people out of their mind. He would not, he writes, encounter the rudeness of a certain lawyer to save all his property; but he adds, “I have chastised him in my Latin poetry now in the press.” Such a mode of chastisement seems to have been as completely satisfactory to Landor as it doubtless was to the lawyer.

His quarrels do not alienate us, for it is evident that they did not proceed from any malignant passion. If his temper was ungovernable, his passions were not odious, or, in any low sense, selfish. In many, if not all of his quarrels he seems to have had at least a very strong show of right on his side, and to have put himself in the wrong by an excessive insistance upon his own dignity. He was one of those ingenious people who always contrive to be punctilious in the wrong place It is amusing

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »