Friday, January 30, 2009

Walter Savage Landor

Today is the birthday of British poet Walter Savage Landor, who was born in Warwick, England, on January 30, 1775. At left is a photograph of his birthplace on Smith Street in Warwick, just outside the medieval Eastgate of the city. I took the photograph on a walk to Warwick in March 2007. Landor House, with its blue door, is now the home of the King's High School for Girls.

Landor's father was a physician, and sent his son off to receive his education at nearby Rugby. Unfortunately, headstrong young Walter quarreled with the headmaster and was expelled. Later, he was also expelled from Trinity College, Oxford, after an incident in which he fired a gun at the window of a house where an irritating fellow student was entertaining guests.

For many years after that incident, Landor led an unsettled life. One constant was his love for Latin, and in particular, Latin poetry. It was a love he shared with Dr. Samuel Parr, perpetual curate of the little church in Hatton, a short walk from Landor's birthplace in Warwick. Both Landor and Parr enjoyed composing epigrams in both Latin and English. Here's one of Landor's English epigrams:
On love, on grief, on every human thing,
Time sprinkles Lethe's water with his wing.
Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky writes of this epigram's "mysterious kind of economy," its "delicacy and finality," and the manner in which it "refreshes" clich├ęs, accomplishing all this in just fifteen words.

Robert Pinsky is not the only fellow poet who appreciated Landor. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, wrote: "Mr. Landor is one of the foremost of that small class who make good in the nineteenth-century the claims of pure literature." The poet Swinburne later wrote: "If we except Catullus and Simonides, it might be hard to match and it would be impossible to overmatch the flawless and blameless yet living and breathing beauty of his most perfect elegies, epigrams or epitaphs."

The 1923 edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse includes twenty of his poems, including this lovely little meditation on the power of poetry, inspired, like much of Landor's poetry, by the classics:
Past ruin'd Ilion Helen lives,
Alcestis rises from the shades;
Verse calls them forth; 'tis verse that gives
Immortal youth to mortal maids.

Soon shall Oblivion's deepening veil
Hide all the peopled hills you see,
The gay, the proud, while lovers hail
These many summers you and me.
Landor wrote several epigrams in appreciation of specific classical poets, including Catullus, about whose poetry he had a typical Victorian ambivalence:
Among these treasures there are some
That floated past the wreck of Rome;
But others, for their place unfit,
Are sullied by uncleanly wit.
So in its shell the pearl is found
With rank putridity around.
As a prose writer, Landor is best known for his collection of Imaginary Conversations (1829), a series of fictional conversations between historical figures. As Landor himself explained: "
When I was younger..[a]mong the chief pleasures of my life, and among the commonest of my occupations, was the bringing before me such heroes and heroines of antiquity, such poets and sages, such of the prosperous and unfortunate as most interested me …[and e]ngaging them in conversations best suited to their characters." The collection includes imaginary conversations between numerous classical figures, such as Pericles and Sophocles, Diogenes and Plato, Alcibiades and Xenophon. But some consider his prose masterpiece to be the collection of imaginary letters, Pericles and Aspasia (1836).

Imaginary Conversations was dedicated to Landor's friend Charles Dickens, who in Bleak House created a memorable portrait of Landor in the character of Boythorn, Mr. Jarndyce's bluff, good-natured friend whose thunderous laugh "makes the whole house vibrate."

Landor spent many years living in Bath, and died in Florence, Italy, at the age of 89.

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