Walter Savage Landor

by Edwin Watts Chubb

Walter Savage Landor, whose course of life ran from 1775 to 1864, in his old age confessed, "I never did a single wise thing in the whole course of my existence, although I have written many which have been thought so." This is the exaggeration of an old man who has been impressed by the frailty of human endeavor. Nevertheless, Landor is a striking illustration of the artistic temperament. He was impractical. Landor could not make a good fist. Even when angry, a frame of mind in which he found himself very frequently, he did not clench his fists without leaving his thumbs in relaxation—a sure sign, it is said, of the lack of tenacity of purpose and tact in practical dealings. He would adjust his spectacles on his forehead, and then, forgetting what he had done, would overturn everything in his wild search for them. When he started out on a trip he would take the greatest pains to remember the key of his portmanteau, and then forget to take the portmanteau; and then on discovering the absence of the portmanteau he would launch out into the most vehement denunciation of the carelessness and depravity of the railroad officials, heaping objurgations upon them, their fathers, and their grandfathers. Then after he had exhausted his vocabulary of invective and eased his soul, the humor of the situation would appeal to him and he would begin to laugh, quietly at first, and then in louder and louder strains until his merriment seemed more formidable than his wrath.

When Landor says that he never did a wise thing but has written many, one is led to think of his marriage. No one wrote about marriage more seriously than Landor, no one entered upon marriage more recklessly. "Death itself," he once wrote, "to the reflecting mind is less serious than marriage. The elder plant is cut down that the younger may have room to nourish; a few tears drop into the loosened soil, and buds and blossoms spring over it. Death is not even a blow, it is not even a pulsation; it is a pause. But marriage unrolls the awful lot of numberless generations." The man who could write thus impressively about marriage one spring evening at Bath attended a ball. There he met a beautiful young lady whom he admired. As soon as he set eyes on her he exclaimed, "By heaven! that's the nicest girl in the room, and I'll marry her." He married her and was ever after unhappy. "God forbid," once growled Landor, "that I should do otherwise than declare that she always was agreeable—to every one but me." Landor was not in the habit of talking about his domestic troubles, but at one time when he was contrasting other and more agreeable marriages he was heard to say that he "unfortunately was taken by a pretty face."

Kenyon related to a friend an incident of the Landor honeymoon that is significant. On one occasion, it seems, the newly married couple were sitting side by side; Landor was reading some of his own verses to his bride—and who could read more exquisitely?—when all at once the lady, releasing herself from his arm, jumped up, saying, "Oh, do stop, Walter, there's that dear delightful Punch performing in the street. I must look out of the window." Exit poetry forever.

It would have been difficult for any woman to live amicably with Landor. In his youth he was suspended from college, and when he was a very old man he was fined $5,000 for writing a libelous article. Between these two periods his life was made up of many fits of passion. His rustication, or suspension from Trinity College, Cambridge, came about in the following manner: One evening Landor invited his friends to wine. His gun, powder, and shot were in the next room, as he had been out hunting in the morning of that day. In a room opposite to Landor's lived a young man whom Landor disliked. The two parties exchanged taunts. Finally in a spirit of bravado Landor took his gun and fired a shot through the closed shutters of the enemy. Quite naturally this bit of pleasantry was not appreciated by the owner of the shutters and complaint was lodged. When the investigation was made the president tried to be as lenient as he possibly could, but his conciliatory manner was stubbornly met by the youthful culprit. When rustication was pronounced it was hoped that Landor would return to the college to honor it and himself by an earnest devotion to his studies. But he never returned.

When Landor was living in Florence the Italians thought him the ideally mad Englishman. He lived for a time in the Medici palace, but his friendly relations with the landlord, a nobleman bearing the distinguished name of the palace, had an abrupt termination. Landor imagined that the marquis had unfairly coaxed away his coachman, and he wrote a letter of complaint. The next day in comes the strutting marquis with his hat on in the presence of Mrs. Landor and some visitors. One of the visitors describes the scene: "He had scarcely advanced three steps from the door, when Landor walked up to him quickly and knocked his hat off, then took him by the arm and turned him out. You should have heard Landor's shout of laughter at his own anger when it was all over; inextinguishable laughter, which none of us could resist." This reminds one of the story Milnes told to Emerson, that Landor once became so enraged at his Italian cook that he picked him up and threw him out of the window, and then exclaimed, "Good God, I never thought of those violets!"

Quite in strong contrast to the irascible side of his nature was his tender love for his children, of which he had four, the last born in 1825. In them he took constant delight. In their games Babbo, as he was affectionately termed, was the most gleeful and frolicsome of them all. When he was separated from them he was in continual anxiety. On one of his trips he received the first childish letter from his son Arnold. In his reply the concluding lines reveal the intense affection of the father:

I shall never be quite happy until I see you again and put my cheek upon your head. Tell my sweet Julia that if I see twenty little girls I will not romp with any of them before I romp with her, and kiss your two dear brothers for me. You must always love them as much as I love you, and you must teach them how to be good boys, which I cannot do so well as you can. God preserve and bless you, my own Arnold. My heart beats as if it would fly to you, my own fierce creature. We shall very soon meet.

Love your,
Babbo.

In literature Landor will be remembered as the author of Imaginary Conversations, composed during his years of retirement at Florence. In these Conversations we hear the great men and women of the past who converse as Landor imagined they might have talked. Landor's prose style is admired, because of its simplicity and classic purity. After the publication of the first two volumes of this work Landor was visited as a man of genius by Englishmen and Americans. One day Hogg, the friend of Shelley, was announced while Hare, a well-known Englishman, was sitting in the room. Landor said, as he considered the names of his two visitors, that he felt like La Fontaine with all the better company of the beasts about him. Hazlitt was one of his frequent visitors. One of their reported conversations is about Wordsworth. Upon Landor's saying that he had never seen the famous Lake poet, Hazlitt asked, "But you have seen a horse, I suppose?" and on receiving an affirmative answer, continued, "Well, sir, if you have seen a horse, I mean his head, sir, you may say you have seen Wordsworth, sir."

Emerson was desirous of seeing Landor. One of the motives that led him to take his first trip abroad was the desire to see five distinguished men. These men were Coleridge, Wordsworth, Landor, DeQuincey, and Carlyle. "On the 15th May," writes Emerson in his English Traits, "I dined with Mr. Landor. I found him noble and courteous, living in a cloud of pictures at his Villa Gherardesca, a fine house commanding a beautiful landscape. I had inferred from his books, or magnified from some anecdotes, an impression of Achillean wrath,—an untamable petulance. I do not know whether the imputation were just or not, but certainly on this May day his courtesy veiled that haughty mind and he was the most patient and gentle of hosts."

Landor used to say somewhat loftily, "I do not remember that resentment has ever made me commit an injustice." And in this connection he related to a friend an incident of his early married life, when he was living at Como, where he had for his next-door neighbor the Princess of Wales. Landor and his royal neighbor had a quarrel arising from trespassing by the domestics of the Princess. "The insolence of her domestics," said Landor, "was only equaled by the intolerable discourtesy of her Royal Highness when she was appealed to in the matter."

Some years later when the Milan Commission was carrying on its "delicate investigation" concerning the character of the Queen, about whom there had been rumors detrimental to her character, Landor was asked to give confidential testimony against Queen Caroline. This made Landor indignant and he replied,—"Her Royal Highness is my enemy; she has deeply injured me, therefore I can say nothing against her, and I never will."

It is significant that shortly before this application for testimony was made, George IV took an opportunity to ask Landor to dinner. "I declined the honor," said the old lion, "on the plea that I had an attack of quinsy. I always have quinsy when royal people ask me to dinner," he added, laughing immoderately.

Ah, what avails the sceptered race,
Ah, what the form divine!
What every virtue, every grace!—
Rose Aylmer, all were thine.
Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes
May weep but never see,
A night of memories and of sighs
I consecrate to thee.