Imaginary Conversations by Walter Savage Landor

Walter Savage Landor, writer, scholar, poet, and, it might almost be said, quarreller, said of his own fame, "I shall dine late, but the dining-room will be well lighted, the guests few and select." A powerful, turbulent spirit, he attracted great men. Emerson, Browning, Dickens, and Swinburne travelled to sit at his feet, and he knew Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Lamb, and Southey. Born at Warwick, on January 30, 1775, he was dismissed from Rugby School at the age of fifteen, and from Oxford at the age of nineteen; was estranged from his father; several times left the wife whom he had married for her golden hair, and spent the last years of his life, lonely but lionised, at Florence. To the last—which came on September 17, 1864—he wrote both prose and verse. Landor appears, to the average appreciator of English literature, an interesting personality rather than a great writer, though his epic, "Gebir" (1798), and his tragedy, "Count Julian" (1812), like some of his minor verse, contain passages of great beauty. But it was in the "Imaginary Conversations," written between 1821 and 1829, and first sampled by the public in review form in 1823, that he endowed the English language with his most permanent achievement. Nearly 150 of these "Conversations" were written in all, and we epitomise here five of the best-known.

I.—Peter the Great and Alexis

Peter: And so, after flying from thy father's house, thou hast returned again from Vienna. After this affront in the face of Europe, thou darest to appear before me?

Alexis: My emperor and father! I am brought before your majesty not at my own desire.

Peter: I believe it well. What hope hast thou, rebel, in thy flight to Vienna?

Alexis: The hope of peace and privacy; the hope of security, and, above all things, of never more offending you.

Peter: Didst thou take money?

 Alexis: A few gold pieces. Hitherto your liberality, my father, hath supplied my wants of every kind.

Peter: Not of wisdom, not of duty, not of spirit, not of courage, not of ambition. I have educated thee among my guards and horses, among my drums and trumpets, among my flags and masts. I have rolled cannon balls before thee over iron plates; I have shown thee bright new arms, bayonets, and sabres. I have myself led thee forth to the window when fellows were hanged and shot; and I have made thee, in spite of thee, look steadfastly upon them, incorrigible coward! Thy intention, I know, is to subvert the institutions it has been the labour of my lifetime to establish. Thou hast never rejoiced at my victories.

Alexis: I have rejoiced at your happiness and your safety.

Peter: Liar! Coward! Traitor! When the Polanders and the Swedes fell before me, didst thou congratulate me? Didst thou praise the Lord of Hosts? Wert thou not silent and civil and low-spirited?

Alexis: I lamented the irretrievable loss of human life, I lamented that the bravest and noblest were swept away the first, that order was succeeded by confusion, and that your majesty was destroying the glorious plans you alone were capable of devising.

Peter: Of what plans art thou speaking?

Alexis: Of civilising the Muscovites. The Polanders in parts were civilised; the Swedes more than any other nation.

Peter: Civilised, forsooth? Why the robes of the metropolitan, him at Upsal, are not worth three ducats. But I am wasting my words. Thine are tenets that strike at the root of politeness and sound government.

Alexis: When I hear the God of Mercy invoked to massacres, and thanked for furthering what He reprobates and condemns—I look back in vain on any barbarous people for worse barbarism.

 Peter: Malignant atheist! Am I Czar of Muscovy, and hear discourse on reason and religion—from my own son, too? No, by the Holy Trinity! thou art no son of mine. Unnatural brute, I have no more to do with thee. Ho there! Chancellor! What! Come at last! Wert napping, or counting thy ducats?

Chancellor: Your majesty's will, and pleasure!

Peter: Is the senate assembled?

Chancellor: Every member, sire.

Peter: Conduct this youth with thee, and let them judge him; thou understandest?

Chancellor: Your majesty's commands are the breath of our nostrils.

Peter: If these rascals are amiss, I will try my new cargo of Livonian hemp upon 'em.

Chancellor (returning): Sire! Sire!

Peter: Speak, fellow! Surely they have not condemned him to death without giving themselves time to read the accusation, that thou comest back so quickly.

Chancellor: No, sire! Nor has either been done.

Peter: Then thy head quits thy shoulders.

Chancellor: O sire! he fell.

Peter: Tie him up to thy chair, then. Cowardly beast! What made him fall?

Chancellor: The hand of death.

Peter: Prythee speak plainlier.

Chancellor: He said calmly, but not without sighing twice or thrice, "Lead me to the scaffold; I am weary of life. My father says, too truly, I am not courageous, but the death that leads me to my God shall never terrify me." When he heard your majesty's name accusing him of treason and attempts at parricide, he fell speechless. We raised him up: he was dead!

Peter: Inconsiderate and barbarous varlet as thou art, dost thou recite this ill accident to a father—and to one who has not dined? Bring me a glass of brandy. Away and bring it: scamper! Hark ye! bring the bottle with it: and—hark ye! a rasher of bacon on thy life! and some pickled sturgeon, and some krout and caviar.

II.—Joseph Scaliger and Montaigne

Montaigne: What could have brought you, M. de l'Escale, other than a good heart? You rise early, I see; you must have risen with the sun, to be here at this hour. I have capital white wine, and the best cheese in Auvergne. Pierre, thou hast done well; set it upon the table, and tell Master Matthew to split a couple of chickens and broil them.

Scaliger: This, I perceive, is the ante-chamber to your library; here are your every-day books.

Montaigne: Faith! I have no other. These are plenty, methinks.

Scaliger: You have great resources within yourself, and therefore can do with fewer.

Montaigne: Why, how many now do you think here may be?

Scaliger: I did not believe at first that there could be above fourscore.

Montaigne: Well! are fourscore few? Are we talking of peas and beans?

Scaliger: I and my father (put together) have written well-nigh as many.

Montaigne: Ah! to write them is quite another thing. How do you like my wine? If you prefer your own country wine, only say it. I have several bottles in my cellar. I do not know, M. de l'Escale, whether you are particular in these matters?

Scaliger: I know three things—wine, poetry, and the world.

Montaigne: You know one too many, then. I hardly know whether I know anything about poetry; for I like Clem Marot better than Ronsard.

Scaliger: It pleases me greatly that you like Marot. His version of the Psalms is lately set to music, and added to the New Testament of Geneva.

Montaigne: It is putting a slice of honeycomb into a barrel of vinegar, which will never grow the sweeter for it.

Scaliger: Surely, you do not think in this fashion of the New Testament?

Montaigne: Who supposes it? Whatever is mild and kindly is there. But Jack Calvin has thrown bird-lime and vitriol upon it, and whoever but touches the cover dirties his fingers or burns them.

Scaliger: Calvin is a very great man.

Montaigne: I do not like your great men who beckon me to them, call me their begotten, their dear child, and their entrails; and, if I happen to say on any occasion, "I beg leave, sir, to dissent a little from you," stamp and cry, "The devil you do!" and whistle to the executioner.

Scaliger: John Calvin is a grave man, orderly, and reasonable.

Montaigne: In my opinion he has not the order nor the reason of my cook. Mat never twitched God by the sleeve and swore He should not have his own way.

Scaliger: M. de Montaigne, have you ever studied the doctrine of predestination?

Montaigne: I should not understand it if I had; and I would not break through an old fence merely to get into a cavern. Would it make me honester or happier, or, in other things, wiser?

Scaliger: I do not know whether it would materially.

Montaigne: I should be an egregious fool, then, to care about it. Come, walk about with me; after a ride you can do nothing better to take off fatigue. I can show you nothing but my house and my dairy.

Scaliger: Permit me to look a little at those banners. They remind me of my own family, we being descended from the great Cane della Scala, Prince of Verona, and from the House of Hapsburg, as you must have heard from my father.

 Montaigne: What signifies it to the world whether the great Cane was tied to his grandmother or not? As for the House of Hapsburg, if you could put together as many such houses as would make up a city larger than Cairo, they would not be worth his study, or a sheet of paper on the table of it.

III.—Bossuet and the Duchesse de Fontanges

Bossuet: Mademoiselle, it is the king's desire that I compliment you on the elevation you have attained.

Fontanges: O monseigneur, I know very well what you mean. His majesty is kind and polite to everybody. The last thing he said to me was, "Angélique! do not forget to compliment monseigneur the bishop on the dignity I have conferred upon him, of almoner to the dauphiness. I desired the appointment for him only that he might be of rank sufficient to confess you, now you are duchess." You are so agreeable a man, monseigneur, I will confess to you, directly.

Bossuet: Have you brought yourself to a proper frame of mind, young lady?

Fontanges: What is that?

Bossuet: Do you hate sin?

Fontanges: Very much.

Bossuet: Do you hate the world?

Fontanges: A good deal of it; all Picardy, for example, and all Sologne; nothing is uglier—and, oh my life! what frightful men and women!

Bossuet: I would say in plain language, do you hate the flesh and the devil?

Fontanges: Who does not hate the devil? If you will hold my hand the while, I will tell him so—"I hate you, beast!" There now. As for flesh, I never could bear a fat man. Such people can neither dance nor hunt, nor do anything that I know of.

Bossuet: Mademoiselle Marie Angélique de Scoraille de Rousille, Duchesse de Fontanges! Do you hate titles, and dignities, and yourself?

Fontanges: Myself! Does anyone hate me? Why should I be the first? Hatred is the worst thing in the world; it makes one so very ugly.

Bossuet: We must detest our bodies if we would save our souls.

Fontanges: That is hard. How can I do it? I see nothing so detestable in mine. Do you? As God hath not hated me, why should I? As for titles and dignities, I am glad to be a duchess. Would not you rather be a duchess than a waiting-maid if the king gave you your choice?

Bossuet: Pardon me, mademoiselle. I am confounded at the levity of your question. If you really have anything to confess, and desire that I should have the honour of absolving you, it would be better to proceed.

Fontanges: You must first direct me, monseigneur. I have nothing particular. What was it that dropped on the floor as you were speaking?

Bossuet: Leave it there!

Fontanges: Your ring fell from your hand, my lord bishop! How quick you are! Could not you have trusted me to pick it up?

Bossuet: Madame is too condescending. My hand is shrivelled; the ring has ceased to fit it. A pebble has moved you more than my words.

Fontanges: It pleases me vastly. I admire rubies. I will ask the king for one exactly like it. This is the time he usually comes from the chase. I am sorry you cannot be present to hear how prettily I shall ask him. I am sure he will order the ring for me, and I will confess to you with it upon my finger. But, first, I must be cautious and particular to know of him how much it is his royal will that I should say.

IV.—The Empress Catharine and Princess Dashkof

Catharine: Into his heart! Into his heart! If he escapes, we perish! Do you think, Dashkof, they can hear me through the double door? Yes, hark! they heard me. They have done it! What bubbling and gurgling! He groaned but once. Listen! His blood is busier now than it ever was before. I should not have thought it could have splashed so loud upon the floor. Put you ear against the lock.

Dashkof: I hear nothing.

Catharine: My ears are quicker than yours, and know these notes better. Let me come. There! There again! The drops are now like lead. How now? Which of these fools has brought his dog with him? What trampling and lapping! The creature will carry the marks all about the palace with his feet! You turn pale, and tremble. You should have supported me, in case I had required it.

Dashkof: I thought only of the tyrant. Neither in life nor in death could any one of these miscreants make me tremble. But the husband slain by his wife! What will Russia—what will Europe say?

Catharine: Russia has no more voice than a whale. She may toss about in her turbulence, but my artillery (for now, indeed, I can safely call it mine) shall stun and quiet her.

Dashkof: I fear for your renown.

Catharine: Europe shall be informed of my reasons, if she should ever find out that I countenanced the conspiracy. She shall be persuaded that her repose made the step necessary; that my own life was in danger; that I fell upon my knees to soften the conspirators; that only when I had fainted, the horrible deed was done.

Dashkof: Europe may be more easily subjugated than duped.

 Catharine: She shall be both, God willing! Is the rouge off my face?

Dashkof: It is rather in streaks and mottles, excepting just under the eyes, where it sits as it should do.

Catharine: I am heated and thirsty. I cannot imagine how. I think we have not yet taken our coffee. I could eat only a slice of melon at breakfast—my duty urged me then—and dinner is yet to come. Remember, I am to faint at the midst of it, when the intelligence comes in, or, rather, when, in despite of every effort to conceal it from me, the awful truth has flashed upon my mind. Remember, too, you are to catch me, and to cry for help, and to tear those fine flaxen hairs which we laid up together on the toilet; and we are both to be as inconsolable as we can be for the life of us.

Come, sing. I know not how to fill up the interval. Two long hours yet! How stupid and tiresome! I wish all things of the sort could be done and be over in a day. They are mightily disagreeable when by nature one is not cruel. People little know my character. I have the tenderest heart upon earth. Ivan must follow next; he is heir to the throne. But not now. Another time. Two such scenes together, and without some interlude, would perplex people.

I thought we spoke of singing. Do not make me wait. Cannot you sing as usual, without smoothing your dove's throat with your handkerchief, and taking off your necklace? Sing, sing! I am quite impatient!

V.—Bacon and Richard Hooker

Bacon: Hearing much of your worthiness and wisdom, Master Richard Hooker, I have besought your comfort and consolation in this my too heavy affliction, for we often do stand in need of hearing what we know full well, and our own balsams must be poured into our breasts by another's hand. Withdrawn, as you live, from court and courtly men, and having ears occupied by better reports than such as are flying about me, yet haply so hard a case as mine, befalling a man heretofore not averse from the studies in which you take delight, may have touched you with some concern.

Hooker: I do think, my lord of Verulam, that the day which in his wisdom he appointed for your trial was the very day on which the king's majesty gave unto your ward and custody the great seal of his English realm. And—let me utter it without offence—your features and stature were from that day forward no longer what they were before. Such an effect do rank and power and office produce even on prudent and religious men. You, my lord, as befits you, are smitten and contrite; but I know that there is always a balm which lies uppermost in these afflictions.

Bacon: Master Richard, it is surely no small matter to lose the respect of those who looked up to us for countenance; and the favour of a right learned king, and, O Master Hooker, such a power of money! But money is mere dross. I should always hold it so, if it possessed not two qualities—that of making men treat us reverently, and that of enabling us to help the needy.

Hooker: The respect, I think, of those who respect us for what a fool can give and a rogue can take away, may easily be dispensed with; but it is indeed a high prerogative to help the needy, and when it pleases the Almighty to deprive us of it, he hath removed a most fearful responsibility.

Bacon: Methinks it beginneth to rain, Master Richard. What if we comfort our bodies with a small cup of wine, against the ill-temper of the air. Pledge me; hither comes our wine.(To the servant) Dolt! Is not this the beverage I reserve for myself?

Bear with me, good Master Hooker, but verily I have little of this wine, and I keep it as a medicine for my many and growing infirmities. You are healthy at present: God, in His infinite mercy, long maintain you so! Weaker drink is more wholesome for you. But this Malmsey, this Malmsey, flies from centre to circumference, and makes youthful blood boil.

Hooker: Of a truth, my knowledge in such matters is but sparse. My lord of Canterbury once ordered part of a goblet, containing some strong Spanish wine, to be taken to me from his table when I dined by sufferance with his chaplains, and, although a most discreet, prudent man, as befitteth his high station, was not so chary of my health as your lordship. Wine is little to be trifled with; physic less. The Cretans, the brewers of this Malmsey, have many aromatic and powerful herbs among them. On their mountains, and notably on Ida, grows that dittany which works such marvels, and which perhaps may give activity to this hot medicinal drink of theirs. I would not touch it knowingly; an unregarded leaf dropped into it above the ordinary might add such puissance to the concoction as almost to break the buckles in my shoes.

Bacon: When I read of such things I doubt them: but if I could procure a plant of dittany I would persuade my apothecary and my gamekeeper to make experiments.

Hooker: I dare not distrust what grave writers have declared in matters beyond my knowledge.

Bacon: Good Master Hooker, I have read many of your reasonings, and they are admirably well sustained. Yet forgive me, in God's name my worthy master, if you descried in me some expression of wonder at your simplicity. You would define to a hair's breadth the qualities, states, and dependencies of principalities, dominations, and powers; you would be unerring about the apostles and the churches, and 'tis marvellous how you wander about a pot-herb!

Hooker: I know my poor, weak intellects, most noble lord, and how scantily they have profited by my hard painstaking. Wisdom consisteth not in knowing many things, nor even in knowing them thoroughly, but in choosing and in following what conduces the most certainly to our lasting happiness and true glory.

Bacon: I have observed among the well-informed and the ill-informed nearly the same quantity of infirmities and follies; those who are rather the wiser keep them separate, and those who are wisest of all keep them better out of sight. I have persuaded men, and shall persuade them for ages, that I possess a wide range of thought unexplored by others, and first thrown open by me, with many fair enclosures of choice and abstruse knowledge. One subject, however, hath almost escaped me, and surely one worth the trouble.

Hooker: Pray, my lord, if I am guilty of no indiscretion, what may it be?

Bacon: Francis Bacon.