Walter Savage Landor 1775 – 1864
January 17, 2009
Walter Savage Landor 1775 – 1864 was an English writer and poet.
Walter Savage Landor was a friend of the Countess of Blessington, Robert Browning, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, Albany William Fonblanque, John Forster, Edward Bulwer Lytton, Kenneth Robert Henderson MacKenzie, Frederick Hervey Foster Quin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Arthur de Noe Walker.
Landor was the mentor of Eliza Lynn Linton.
In a long and active life of eighty nine years Landor produced a considerable amount of work in various genres. This can perhaps be classified into four main areas – prose, lyric poetry, political writings including epigrams and Latin. His prose and poetry have received most acclaim, but critics are divided in their preference between them.
Landor’s prose is best represented by the Imaginary Conversations. He drew on a vast array of historical characters from Greek philosophers to contemporary writers and composed conversations between pairs of characters that covered areas of philosophy, politics, romance and many other topics.
These exercises proved a more successful application of Landor’s natural ability for writing dialogue than his plays. Although these have many quotable passages the overall effect suffered because he never learned the art of drama.
Landor wrote much sensitive and beautiful poetry. The love poems were inspired by a succession of female romantic ideals – Ione, Ianthe, Rose Aylmer and Rose Paynter. Equally sensitive are his “domestic” poems about his sister and his children.
In the course of his career Landor wrote for various journals on a range of topics that interested him from anti-Pitt politics to the unification of Italy. He was also a master of the epigram which he used to good effect and wrote satirically to avenge himself on politicians and other people who upset him.
Landor wrote over three hundred Latin poems, political tracts and essays, but these have generally been ignored in the collections of his work. Landor found Latin useful for expressing things that might otherwise have been “indecent or unattractive” as he put it and as a cover for libellous material. Fellow classical scholars of the time put Landor’s Latin work on a par with his English writing.
Landor’s life is a story in its own right. It is an amazing catalogue of incidents and misfortunes, many of them self-inflicted but some of no fault of his own. His headstrong nature and hot-headed temperament, combined with a complete contempt for authority, landed him in a great deal of trouble over the years.
By a succession of bizarre actions, he was successively thrown out of Rugby, Oxford and from time to time from the family home. In the course of his life he came into conflict deliberately with his political enemies - the supporters of William Pitt - but inadvertently with a succession of Lord Lieutenants, Bishops, Lord Chancellors, Spanish officers, Italian Grand Dukes, nuncio legatos, lawyers and other minor officials.
He usually gained the upper hand, if not with an immediate hilarious response, then possibly many years later with a biting epithet.
Landor’s writing often landed him on the wrong side of the laws of libel, and even his refuge in Latin proved of no avail in Italy. Many times his friends had to come to his aid in smoothing the ruffled feathers of his opponents or in encouraging him to moderate his behaviour.
His friends were equally active in the desperate attempts to get his work published, where he offended or felt cheated by a succession of publishers who found his work either unsellable or unpublishable.
He was repeatedly involved in legal disputes with his neighbours whether in England or Italy and Charles Dickens’ characterisation of him in Bleak House revolves around such a dispute over a gate between Boythorn and Sir Leicester Dedlock.
Fate dealt with him unfairly when he tried to put into practice his bold and generous ideas to improve the lot of man, or when he was mistaken at one time for an agent of the Prince of Wales and at another for a tramp.
His stormy marriage with his long-suffering wife resulted in a long separation, and then when she had finally taken him back to a series of sad attempts to escape.
And yet Landor was described as “the kindest and gentlest of men”. He collected a coterie of friends who went to great lengths to help him as “his loyalty and liberality of heart were as inexhaustible as his bounty and beneficence of hand”.
It was said that “praise and encouragement, deserved or undeserved, came more readily to his lips than challenge or defiance”.
The numerous accounts of those with whom he came in contact reveal that he was fascinating company and he dined out on his wit and knowledge for a great part of his life. Landor’s powerful sense of humour, expressed in his tremendous and famous laughs no doubt contributed to and yet helped assuage the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
“His passionate compassion, his bitter and burning pity for all wrongs endured in all the world, found outlet in his lifelong defence of tyrannicide. His tender and ardent love of children, of animals and of flowers makes fragrant alike the pages of his writing and the records of his life”.