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The early poems of Walter Savage Landor: a study of his development and debt to Milton online

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writings which are now to be considered.

The first and longest poem in the volume is entitled
The Birth of Poesy. It comprises 1,210 verses in three
Cantos and was begun about 1792, when the author was
but seventeen years of age. Three years later he finished
it and sent it to the Morning Chronicle, intending the
proceeds from its sale for the benefit of a distressed
clergyman. The poem was declined, however, and Landor
printed, with some corrections, what may still be seen in a
copy at the British Museum. The preface, from which
these facts have been taken, also informs the reader that
the Birth of Poesy was designed to contain five cantos
and to comprehend the dramatic WTiters of Greece.

It is clear that so large an undertaking was beyond the
powers of his youthful mind. There is hardly any
reference to the Greek dramas. In the notes at the end
he discusses the origin of modulated sounds and adds that
it was judged more proper to place the observations on


this subject in a note, " than to descant on them in the
Essay ; since they relate as much to language as to
poetry ' ' — that ' ' elegant accomplishment . ' ' Such remarks
leave no doubt as to the extent of his ambition at that
time, and would be a sufficient condemnation of his
taste, if we had not the evidence of his other attempts
to mitigate our judgment. There is nothing to suggest
the influence of Gray's Ode called The Progress of Poesy
except perhaps the name, nor any resemblance, either in
substance or form, to that work. Landor drew his
inspiration from his classical studies, from Lucretius and
Ovid, the odes of Sappho, from Anacreon and others.
He used the recognised eighteenth century form, and
imitated in style and choice of material, above all others,
Pope. He gives, however, some slight indication^ of a
knowledge of Milton in at least one passage. A few
extracts will serve to support these conclusions and to
display the general character of Landor 's Birth of Poesy,
The first Canto opens with the lines :

1-4. Haste, heavenly Muse ! to whom these arts belong.
To trace the sources of eternal song.
Say first, Omniscient ! say what genial clime
Bore beauteous Poesy ; what happy time ?

39-40. With mimic breath the whisper soft assay'd —

When lo ! the yielding reed his mimic breath obey'd.

Referring in the notes to this passage he quotes (p. 147)
from the fifth book of Lucretius :

At liquidas avium voces imitarier ore

Ante fuit multo . . .

Et Zephyri, cava per calamorum, sibila primum,

Agrestes docuere cavas inflare cicutas.

The versification remains of the same character
throughout the poem, varied only by an occasional
alexandrine. Landor was plainly under the rule of Pope,
and had probably no great knowledge of the less common


metrical forms used before Dryden. Yet he had read
Cowley, and in the third canto, as will be seen, he attempts
an imitation of that poet's Elegy upon Anacreon. He
must therefore have been acquainted with the alexandrine
at its best in English verse (^). None the less he chooses
to follow Dryden or Pope rather than Cowley, and as in
the abo^'e example, his hexameters break in the middle.
The approach to rhyme adds a further defect and converts
what should be a single, long, and supple verse, into a
weak couplet :

When lo ! the yielding reed
His mimic breath obey'd.

This example may serve for many which could be extracted
from his first poems to show that the young author had
not yet studied the laws of English metre. He accepted
the eighteenth century model without question. In the
same way he makes great use of alliteration. He retained,
indeed, his fondness for this ornament until after he wrote
Gehir. Like Pope, from whom he probably acquired the
habit, he is partial to the play upon the sound of s, if
indeed this be a partiality and not merely, as I think, an
accident due to the far greater frequency of words
beginning with that letter. In Abbott's Concordance
to the works of Pope (^) the fact is referred to as if it
were difficult to explain. Surely the explanation here
given is sufficient. Milton himself in the early poems
is not free from this inharmonious heaping together
of sibilants, as for example, in Psalm Ixxxvi., 58. So
also in this first canto of the Birth of Poesy we find ' sources
of eternal song,' ' the whisper soft assay'd,' ' she breathes
ambrosial,' ' seize their leaping sinews and unsteady
knees,' ' the rolling spheres tune not so sweetly to celestial
ears,' ' the sacred sound ' ; and the same is true of the
other two cantos.

(*) This is the view stated in The Flower of the Mind, by Alice Meynell,
P- 339-

(2) Edition London, 1875, Preface, p. xiv.


Continuing the examination of the poem, the next
point of interest is the brief description of the Creation :

63-64. All else completed God at length began
The lovely fabric of immortal Man.

The description of Adam in Paradise and of his dream
concerning Eve, whom he sees on awaking, is clothed in
the conventional language of which an example has been
given above. The subject seems strangely out of place
in the general scheme of the poem.

It is surprising that Landor should have been able to
write such verses if he had indeed read those of Milton in
Paradise Lost. A few specimens of his manner of treating
the theme, which occupies the verses 50-220, must be given.

Of Eve he writes :

77-80. She breathes ambrosial ; and her locks of gold
Gales, airy finger 'd, negligently hold.
Around her balsam-breathing florets scent
The paths of pleasure, virtue, and content.

135-138. Remote from others stands one sacred tree ;
Of bitter fruit, but beautiful to see.
Death on each blossom sheds the mist of Pain :
Death marks it for his own : then, fear it, and refrain.

209-220. Now, bashful Modesty no more her guide.

She fell, she wept, her shame she could not hide.
But when the sun had shot his parting ray
Unhappy Adam pointed out the way.'
No river, there, majestically flow'd.
Nor yet resembled aught their late abode.
For mossy bowers, and undulating rills,
Plains long extended lay, and lofty hills.
Their eyes reverting oft, they slowly went,
Hand claspt in hand, to wander and repent.
Thus early shepherds, amebean, sung
The pleasing lesson to the pliant young.

The couplet referring to shepherds or shepherdesses
occurs at intervals as though to give a lyric touch to the
poem. Thus at verse 89 we read :

O peaceful shepherdesses ! happy they
Who thus in raptures pass the fleeting day.


The same kind of repetition may be found in the
Pastorals of Pope, as. for instance, in Autumn (17, 22, 31,
39, etc.) :

Go, gentle gales, and bear my sighs away !
The language approaches most nearly to that of the
Messiah by the same poet ; and as in that work a few
faint suggestions of the influence of Milton are to be found,
so also, in Landor's lines about the Creation and the fall
of Adam and Eve in Paradise, there are some slight
traces of the same influence. In the notes on this part
there is a discussion of the biblical narrative and a
comparison with Greek fables, but no word about Milton's
Paradise Lost. Reasons have been given in Chapter I.
for thinking that Landor had probably read that work,
and the following words in one of his later poems seem
to prove it :

. . . the force
Of Milton was for boyhood too austere,
Yet often did I steal a glance at Eve.

Perhaps the effect of this shght acquaintance may be
seen in the introduction of such a subject at all in a
poem which was ' to comprehend the dramatic writers of
Greece.' The appearance of Eve to Adam in a dream
recalls the same incident in Paradise Lost. There are
also occasional lines which can be compared with Milton
rather than with Pope, as, for instance :

85. Now Mom from urns of cr^'stal sprinkled dew.

177. Thou ! to whom Pleasure leads the laughing Hours.

Also the words ' vegetable gold ' in the serpent's address
to Eve :

Dear to my soul ! how lovely to behold
That blooming apple's vegetable gold.
In vain thou livest on ambrosial food.

In Paradise Lost, IV. 218, we read :

And all amid them stood the tree of life
High eminent, blooming Ambrosial fruit
Of vegetable Gold ;


One of the few couplets cast in simple and affecting
language is the following :

217-218. Their eyes reverting oft they slowly went
Hand claspt in hand to wander and repent.

Cf. Paradise Lost, XII., 641-648 :

They looking back, all th' Eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat.

They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way.

After lamenting the evils of Tyranny, the first canto
proceeds to sing the fates of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Verses 371-374 are as follows :

Orpheus ! thy dirge begins : the rolling spheres
Tune not so sweetly to celestial ears ;
Feign'd, as they are, to run an endless round
In ether pure, mid floods of liquid sound.

The version, like the references of Milton in Lycidas (58)
and II Penseroso (105) seems to be based on Ovid. The
subject was a favourite with Landor, and a fine transla-
tion of the same episode from Virgil made by him in 1794
may be seen in Forster (Vol. I., p. ;^S) (^).

The second canto continues the story of Orpheus, and
includes a lament by Linus which has some slight resem-
blance to the same theme in Lycidas.

159-164. But thee, my Orpheus ! thee I hear rehearse
Our Argonautic deeds in deathless verse.
O cruel Muses ! playing on what hill,
Or dancing heedless near what favor'd rill,
Were ye, O where, when Death's dark cloud dispread
Around your child, your Orpheus hallow 'd head !

Cf. Lycidas, 50-63. ' Deathless verse ' is also a httle
suggestive of Milton, who has ' deathless praise ' in
Comus (973), ' deathless pain ' (P. L., X. 775) and ' death-
less Death ' (P. L., X. 79S), while the adjective nowhere
occurs in Pope.

(1) A list of all books cited in these pages will be found on p. vii.,
ante, where the editions used are particularised. ,

P.L. C


Verse 109 contains the three names * Thoe,' ' Clymene,'
' lanthe/ taken from Hesiod, as already mentioned (^).
Verse 220 refers to Louis XVL ; a note states that it was
written when he had returned to Paris after his flight
but before the execution. This part therefore was
composed in 1791 or 1792.

From Orpheus the poem wanders to Troy, and relates
the story of Achilles and the fates of Hector and Andro-
mache. The canto closes with the legend of Sappho,
based, like Pope's Sappho to Phaon, upon Ovid.

The third canto, beginning in Virgilian style, ' Arms
are my theme,' narrates some incidents of the second
Messenian war, with the desertion of the poet Alceus and
the bravery of Tyrteus at the siege of Thome. Verses
181-185 have a more personal interest, giving indications
of the poet's philosophy :

Thus throughout nature every part affords
More sound instruction than from winged words.
By me more felt, more studied, than the rules
Of pedants strutting in sophistic schools ;
Who argumentative, with endless strife.
In search of living lose the ends of life.
Or willing exiles from fair Pleasure's train.
Howl at the happy from the dens of pain.

The ideas are not unlike those of Pope in the follo\ving
verses :

With too much quickness ever to be taught ;

With too much thinking to have common thought :

You purchase Pain with all that Joy can give,

And die of nothing but a rage to live.

{Moral Essays, II. 97-100.)

Verses 189-236 deal with Anacreon and the subject of
love. There is then an appeal to Britons to overthrow
Tyranny. After relating the story of Medea and of the
Argo, the poem closes with a lament on the death of

What has been said of the Birth of Poesy, together
(1) a. p. 10


with the extracts, can leave no doubt of its general
character. It is an eighteenth century essay in verse in
the style and language of Pope and his followers. It
illustrates the wide classical studies of the youthful
author, bears very faint traces of the influence of EngUsh
literature previous to the pseudo-c\a.ssic period, and
betrays the defects and limitations of that period.

The Apology for Satire has chiefly political interest.
It was inspired by the prosecution of Holcroft and Tooke
in 1794, and by the author's hatred of slavery and of
oppression in every guise. It takes the form of a dialogue
between the poet and a friend, resembling in this respect
the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot.

55-60. F. Hush ! why complain ? of treason have a care ;
You heard of Holcroft and of Tooke — beware —
P. Without their talents I have only aim'd
Gently to hint what Pope aloud proclaim'd.

In Pope's Epistle, 75 :

A . Good friend, forbear ! you deal in dangerous things ;
I'd never name queens, ministers or kings ;

And in Landor's Apology, 152 :

F. Mistaken youth ! the milder plan pursue,

To love what statesmen and what monarchs do.

When both mention slavery, the resemblance is again
noticeable. E.g., Pope, in Windsor Forest, 407-410.

O stretch thy reign, fair Peace, from Shore to Shore
Till Conquest cease and Slavery be no more :
Till the freed Indians in their native groves
Reap their own Fruits and woo their sable loves.

Landor, in Apology for Satire, 49-53 :

He happier now, in Sleep's enchanting chains
Is borne again amid his native plains ;
Reclined at ease, in date impurplcd groves
Clasps in mad ecstasy his dusky loves. (')

The reference to Holcroft and Tooke seems to imply
that it was written late in 1794, perhaps in 1795, when the

(1) Gray has also ' dusky loves ' in the Progress of Poesy, II. 2. For
Landor's appreciation of Gray's Elegy see his Postscript to Gebir. Cf.
post, p. 05, note C^).

C 2


third partition of Poland mentioned in verse 149 was
imminent. It may therefore be regarded as Landor's
last production in this style, except the Moral Epistle,
which it resembles.

Pyramns and Thisbe, based on Ovid, and written in
the same artificial vein as the Birth of Poesy, offers
nothing of interest.

The fourth and last of the longer poems in the volume
is an Epistle from Ahelard to Eloise. In the preface the
author admits that ' he must necessarily labour under
many disadvantages. The very title caUs to recollection
that excellent epistle by Pope, which might have been
better had it suffered a few retrenchments, but which,
still, is unrivalled in the smaller provinces of Poetry.'
The statement is interesting, especially if he means to
include aU the poetry of Pope in ' the smaller provinces.'
It would then indicate on Landor's part a somewhat
wider poetic vision and a sounder judgment than he has
generally been credited with at this stage of his develop-
ment. Perhaps, however, he only means ' among shorter
poems.' Continuing ' he contents himself not with what
has been already said but with what might have been.'
He considers that the letters of Eloise present far better
material for poetic treatment than those of Abelard, and
regards this as the ground of Pope's choice. Finally he
concludes, ' The Author is aware this may be a reason
for having failed in, rather than the least apology
for having attempted so difficult a task ! ' This plea for
attempting the new rather than repeating the oft-repeated
brings to mind the dictum of Pope in a letter to Walsh : —
' It seems not so much the perfection of sense to say
those things that have never been said before, as to
express those best that have been said oftenest ' (^).

In spite of his preface, however, it is improbable that
the idea of writing Abelard's epistle in verse occurred to
Landor independently. He had certainly read the letters

(') Abbott's Concordance, p. v.


of the two lovers, as may be seen from the contents of his
verses and as the preface implies. His most likely source
is a volume entitled Letters of Abelard and Eloisa, with a
particular account of their Lives, Amours, and Misfortunes,
by John Hughes, Esq., to which are added several Poems
by Mr. Pope and other Authors : London, 1785.

The book first appeared in 1765 and went through
many editions. It contains an Enghsh version of the
actual letters. Pope's Epistle from Eloisa to Abelard, and
no fewer than five versified replies of Abelard by various
authors. All these keep fairly close to Abelard's own
letter and show little originality in form and substance.
The subject was evidently a favourite one at the time.
Another example may be mentioned, namely, Abelard to
Eloisa, an epistle by Thomas Warwick : London, 1785.
Landor could hardly expect to add much to so well worn
a theme, nor does he succeed.

The opening lines deserve to be quoted :

Verses 1-6 :

Still can thy heart, O Eloise ! regret
My painful absence ; nor awhile forget
Joys past for ever, nor await the doom
Of lingering life and misery to come ?
I, O my Eloise ! I too have mourn'd
Our cruel fate, and sigh for sigh return'd.

They are almost the only verses in the four poems thus
far considered which show enjambement and a welcome
freedom of accentuation. The language also is free from
artificiality. The manner, however, is immediately lost
and the poet sinks back into the monotony and con-
ventionality of his models. Thus he continues :

Yes, hapless Abelard will ever prove
The dear, the dread, ubiquity of love.

As before, he loses no opportunity of alliterating at all


Verse 51 :

But here Affliction fills her bitter bowl
Whose poison pierces to my sick'ning soul.


Shortly afterwards there is a return to a less artificial
style in a few Hnes of description which seem to contain
one unmistakable touch of Milton's influence :

Verses 105- no :

The daisy pied, the yellow cup of May
WTience sips the Grasshopper at break of day ;
The modest violet, and the azure bell.
That love, as we were wont, the silent dell.
Oft I review them, oft adown their bed
The sudden soul-subduing tear I shed.(^)

' The daisy pied ' was transplanted from Shakespeare's
song in Love's Labour's Lost (Act V., Sc. ii.) by Milton
into the Allegro, verse 75. The epithet does not occur
m Pope. Indeed, as is well-known, that poet has written
few pieces of natural description in simple language.
The above passage indicates then a departure from the
conventional mode and an approach to Milton or Shake-
speare. It is interesting to observe in passing that Pope
also, in his epistle, borrowed one or two epithets and ideas
from his greater predecessor, as in the following verses :

Shrines where their vigils pale-eyed virgins keep.
And pitying saints, whose statues learn to weep !
Though cold like you, unmov'd and silent grown,
I have not yet forgot myself to stone.

' Pale-eyed priest ' in Milton's Nativity Hynm (180) and
' Forget myself to marble ' in // Penseroso (42) were the
probable source.

A certahi originality of application may be found in
the lines where Abelard is represented as yielding for a
time to a longing for a more natural and simple religion :

Verses 136-148 :

Me from my Eloise my vow detains.
And Piety in cold and adamantine chains.
Blessed, thrice blessed ! is the harden'd mind
No God can terrify, no vow can bind.

(■) Cf. Collins' Ode on The Passions (50), ' soul-subduing voice.'
Some other slight resemblances occur, e.g., ' mimic soul ' of music.
Cf. Birth of Poesy, I. 40, ' mimic breath.'


Love unrestricted and unbroken rest
Inhabit only the untutor'd breast.
Happy the mortal in his natural state !
No fears alarm him and no ills await.
Unbounded honor swells his manly heart.
Nor leaves to Bigotry her usual part.
When on the lonely, loud-resounding shores
The billow rises, and the ocean roars.
He falls, he kneels, he trembles, he adores.

As usual, however, it is possible to find similar ideas in
Pope, though otherwise apphed. The above seems to be
an expansion of the line, ' When love is hberty and Nature
law ' (which is verse 92 of the Epistle of Eloisa to Abelard
and is also in the Essay on Man, III. 208), combined with
recollections of the couplet,

Lo, the poor Indian ! whose untutor'd mind
Sees God in clouds or hears him in the wind ;

(Essay on Man, I. 99.)

Other resemblances can easily be found.

Landor's Epistle concludes in the usual way with the
last request of Abelard :

189-190. O ! in one tomb when Eloise may die
Once more united let us ever lie.

The consideration of these four poems reveals clearly
enough that their author had formed at that date no
independent ideals as a poet. The subjects chosen were
familiar, and, judging Landor by his achievement up to
this point, no one would place him above scores of his
predecessors. But it is only fair to add that he himself
did not claim originality for his work. He regarded
these productions as exercises on well-known themes in a
well-established and recognised style.

A word in the preface seems to imply some such attitude ;
for, after the introductory remarks upon the first four
poems, he goes on to say : ' After this Epistle {Abelard to
Eloise) are some little original pieces and some Imitations


from Catullus.' This sounds as if he did not regard the
preceding poems as original in the strict sense.

Of the shorter poems there is little to be said. There
are two showing a genuine love of Nature and of peaceful
solitude, consisting of Stanzas written by the Water Side
and verses on a Sunday in May. They are simple and
unaffected in language, and the metre is that of the
quatrain with alternate rhymes. Thus the first begins
with the lines :

Swan gently gliding on the silvery lake
With plume unruffled, and elated crest,
Majestic Bird ! O may I once partake
Thy silent pleasure and unenvied rest.

And in the six stanzas which follow he writes of
Solitude and of Friendship, without mythological or
classical references. It is English poetry not unlike the
earher poems of Wordsworth, quiet and harmonious but
without much depth or strength. To a Lady during
Illness is again more artificial, with references to Hebe and
Hymen and the Destinies. The second stanza in the piece
contains a grammatical errOr which may indicate that the
verses were of a hurried, occasional kind.

Haste, Hebe ! haste ; and rosy Health !
Fly from the Destinies by stealth :
A little longer bid them spare
To violate that auburn hair.
Where little Loves in ambush lay.
Or, not unartful, round it play.

An Ode on the Departure of Mary, Queen of Scots, from
France expresses a romantic sympathy for the unhappy
fate of that Queen which is of a kind unusual in Landor's
writings. The history of England provided him with no
subjects which could arouse his enthusiasm or inspire his
muse. His devotion to the classics and his repubhcan
faith left no room for such interests. The French Villagers
and The Patriot are inspired by his love of freedom, while


in the Grape he laments the death of Anacreon and extols

The Ode to General Washington is the most original in
thought and the most vigorous in style of these short
poems. The metre varies in the course of the nine
stanzas. Among the rest it is not surprising to find the
name of Pope twice in the English and again in the Latin
verses which close the volume.

Taking the book as a whole, what is most evident is
the absence, except in the political pieces, of all genuine
feeling arising from the writer's own experience. It is this
that deprives the poetry of vital interest. Had such
feehng existed, Landor could not have written the cold
and imitative verses which take up the greater part of the


The Phoc^ans.

The work which must now be considered, consists of
four fragments and comprises 1,067 verses. Unfor-
tunately no edition of Landor's works includes the four
parts, so that the poem is still inaccessible to the student.
This is to be regretted, for the PhoccBans represents a most
important stage in the development of Landor's art. It
forms the connecting link between those early writings
which have been examined in the preceding chapter and
the more mature poetry of his masterpiece Gebir.
Although first published four years after, it was most
probably written before Gebir, and is therefore the
author's first considerable production in blank verse.

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Online LibraryWilliam BradleyThe early poems of Walter Savage Landor: a study of his development and debt to Milton → online text (page 2 of 9)