Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Landor's Life

Prefixed to the second volume of Mr. Forster's admirable biography
of Walter Savage Landor, {1} is an engraving from a portrait of that
remarkable man when seventy-seven years of age, by Boxall. The
writer of these lines can testify that the original picture is a
singularly good likeness, the result of close and subtle observation
on the part of the painter; but, for this very reason, the engraving
gives a most inadequate idea of the merit of the picture and the
character of the man.

From the engraving, the arms and hands are omitted. In the picture,
they are, as they were in nature, indispensable to a correct reading
of the vigorous face. The arms were very peculiar. They were
rather short, and were curiously restrained and checked in their
action at the elbows; in the action of the hands, even when
separately clenched, there was the same kind of pause, and a
noticeable tendency to relaxation on the part of the thumb. Let the
face be never so intense or fierce, there was a commentary of
gentleness in the hands, essential to be taken along with it. Like
Hamlet, Landor would speak daggers, but use none. In the expression
of his hands, though angrily closed, there was always gentleness and
tenderness; just as when they were open, and the handsome old
gentleman would wave them with a little courtly flourish that sat
well upon him, as he recalled some classic compliment that he had
rendered to some reigning Beauty, there was a chivalrous grace about
them such as pervades his softer verses. Thus the fictitious Mr.
Boythorn (to whom we may refer without impropriety in this
connexion, as Mr. Forster does) declaims "with unimaginable energy"
the while his bird is "perched upon his thumb", and he "softly
smooths its feathers with his forefinger".

From the spirit of Mr. Forster's Biography these characteristic
hands are never omitted, and hence (apart from its literary merits)
its great value. As the same masterly writer's Life and Times of
Oliver Goldsmith is a generous and yet conscientious picture of a
period, so this is a not less generous and yet conscientious picture
of one life; of a life, with all its aspirations, achievements, and
disappointments; all its capabilities, opportunities, and
irretrievable mistakes. It is essentially a sad book, and herein
lies proof of its truth and worth. The life of almost any man
possessing great gifts, would be a sad book to himself; and this
book enables us not only to see its subject, but to be its subject,
if we will.

Mr. Forster is of opinion that "Landor's fame very surely awaits
him". This point admitted or doubted, the value of the book remains
the same. It needs not to know his works (otherwise than through
his biographer's exposition), it needs not to have known himself, to
find a deep interest in these pages. More or less of their warning
is in every conscience; and some admiration of a fine genius, and of
a great, wild, generous nature, incapable of mean self-extenuation
or dissimulation--if unhappily incapable of self-repression too--
should be in every breast. "There may be still living many
persons", Walter Landor's brother, Robert, writes to Mr. Forster of
this book, "who would contradict any narrative of yours in which the
best qualities were remembered, the worst forgotten." Mr. Forster's
comment is: "I had not waited for this appeal to resolve, that, if
this memoir were written at all, it should contain, as far as might
lie within my power, a fair statement of the truth". And this
eloquent passage of truth immediately follows: "Few of his
infirmities are without something kindly or generous about them; and
we are not long in discovering there is nothing so wildly incredible
that he will not himself in perfect good faith believe. When he
published his first book of poems on quitting Oxford, the profits
were to be reserved for a distressed clergyman. When he published
his Latin poems, the poor of Leipzig were to have the sum they
realised. When his comedy was ready to be acted, a Spaniard who had
sheltered him at Castro was to be made richer by it. When he
competed for the prize of the Academy of Stockholm, it was to go to
the poor of Sweden. If nobody got anything from any one of these
enterprises, the fault at all events was not his. With his
extraordinary power of forgetting disappointments, he was prepared
at each successive failure to start afresh, as if each had been a
triumph. I shall have to delineate this peculiarity as strongly in
the last half as in the first half of his life, and it was certainly
an amiable one. He was ready at all times to set aside, out of his
own possessions, something for somebody who might please him for the
time; and when frailties of temper and tongue are noted, this other
eccentricity should not be omitted. He desired eagerly the love as
well as the good opinion of those whom for the time he esteemed, and
no one was more affectionate while under such influences. It is not
a small virtue to feel such genuine pleasure, as he always did in
giving and receiving pleasure. His generosity, too, was bestowed
chiefly on those who could make small acknowledgment in thanks and
no return in kind."

Some of his earlier contemporaries may have thought him a vain man.
Most assuredly he was not, in the common acceptation of the term. A
vain man has little or no admiration to bestow upon competitors.
Landor had an inexhaustible fund. He thought well of his writings,
or he would not have preserved them. He said and wrote that he
thought well of them, because that was his mind about them, and he
said and wrote his mind. He was one of the few men of whom you
might always know the whole: of whom you might always know the
worst, as well as the best. He had no reservations or duplicities.
"No, by Heaven!" he would say ("with unimaginable energy"), if any
good adjective were coupled with him which he did not deserve: "I
am nothing of the kind. I wish I were; but I don't deserve the
attribute, and I never did, and I never shall!" His intense
consciousness of himself never led to his poorly excusing himself,
and seldom to his violently asserting himself. When he told some
little story of his bygone social experiences, in Florence, or where
not, as he was fond of doing, it took the innocent form of making
all the interlocutors, Landors. It was observable, too, that they
always called him "Mr. Landor"--rather ceremoniously and
submissively. There was a certain "Caro Pedre Abete Marina"--
invariably so addressed in these anecdotes--who figured through a
great many of them, and who always expressed himself in this
deferential tone.

Mr. Forster writes of Landor's character thus:

"A man must be judged, at first, by what he says and does. But with
him such extravagance as I have referred to was little more than the
habitual indulgence (on such themes) of passionate feelings and
language, indecent indeed but utterly purposeless; the mere
explosion of wrath provoked by tyranny or cruelty; the
irregularities of an overheated steam-engine too weak for its own
vapour. It is very certain that no one could detest oppression more
truly than Landor did in all seasons and times; and if no one
expressed that scorn, that abhorrence of tyranny and fraud, more
hastily or more intemperately, all his fire and fury signified
really little else than ill-temper too easily provoked. Not to
justify or excuse such language, but to explain it, this
consideration is urged. If not uniformly placable, Landor was
always compassionate. He was tender-hearted rather than bloody-
minded at all times, and upon only the most partial acquaintance
with his writings could other opinion be formed. A completer
knowledge of them would satisfy any one that he had as little real
disposition to kill a king as to kill a mouse. In fact there is not
a more marked peculiarity in his genius than the union with its
strength of a most uncommon gentleness, and in the personal ways of
the man this was equally manifest."--Vol. i. p. 496.

Of his works, thus:

"Though his mind was cast in the antique mould, it had opened itself
to every kind of impression through a long and varied life; he has
written with equal excellence in both poetry and prose, which can
hardly be said of any of his contemporaries; and perhaps the single
epithet by which his books would be best described is that reserved
exclusively for books not characterised only by genius, but also by
special individuality. They are unique. Having possessed them, we
should miss them. Their place would be supplied by no others. They
have that about them, moreover, which renders it almost certain that
they will frequently be resorted to in future time. There are none
in the language more quotable. Even where impulsiveness and want of
patience have left them most fragmentary, this rich compensation is
offered to the reader. There is hardly a conceivable subject, in
life or literature, which they do not illustrate by striking
aphorisms, by concise and profound observations, by wisdom ever
applicable to the deeds of men, and by wit as available for their
enjoyment. Nor, above all, will there anywhere be found a more
pervading passion for liberty, a fiercer hatred of the base, a wider
sympathy with the wronged and the oppressed, or help more ready at
all times for those who fight at odds and disadvantage against the
powerful and the fortunate, than in the writings of Walter Savage
Landor."--Last page of second volume.

The impression was strong upon the present writer's mind, as on Mr.
Forster's, during years of close friendship with the subject of this
biography, that his animosities were chiefly referable to the
singular inability in him to dissociate other people's ways of
thinking from his own. He had, to the last, a ludicrous grievance
(both Mr. Forster and the writer have often amused themselves with
it) against a good-natured nobleman, doubtless perfectly unconscious
of having ever given him offence. The offence was, that on the
occasion of some dinner party in another nobleman's house, many
years before, this innocent lord (then a commoner) had passed in to
dinner, through some door, before him, as he himself was about to
pass in through that same door with a lady on his arm. Now, Landor
was a gentleman of most scrupulous politeness, and in his carriage
of himself towards ladies there was a certain mixture of stateliness
and deference, belonging to quite another time, and, as Mr. Pepys
would observe, "mighty pretty to see". If he could by any effort
imagine himself committing such a high crime and misdemeanour as
that in question, he could only imagine himself as doing it of a set
purpose, under the sting of some vast injury, to inflict a great
affront. A deliberately designed affront on the part of another
man, it therefore remained to the end of his days. The manner in
which, as time went on, he permeated the unfortunate lord's ancestry
with this offence, was whimsically characteristic of Landor. The
writer remembers very well when only the individual himself was held
responsible in the story for the breach of good breeding; but in
another ten years or so, it began to appear that his father had
always been remarkable for ill manners; and in yet another ten years
or so, his grandfather developed into quite a prodigy of coarse

Mr. Boythorn--if he may again be quoted--said of his adversary, Sir
Leicester Dedlock: "That fellow is, AND HIS FATHER WAS, AND HIS
GRANDFATHER WAS, the most stiff-necked, arrogant, imbecile, pig-
headed numskull, ever, by some inexplicable mistake of Nature, born
in any station of life but a walking-stick's!"

The strength of some of Mr. Landor's most captivating kind qualities
was traceable to the same source. Knowing how keenly he himself
would feel the being at any small social disadvantage, or the being
unconsciously placed in any ridiculous light, he was wonderfully
considerate of shy people, or of such as might be below the level of
his usual conversation, or otherwise out of their element. The
writer once observed him in the keenest distress of mind in behalf
of a modest young stranger who came into a drawing-room with a glove
on his head. An expressive commentary on this sympathetic
condition, and on the delicacy with which he advanced to the young
stranger's rescue, was afterwards furnished by himself at a friendly
dinner at Gore House, when it was the most delightful of houses.
His dress--say, his cravat or shirt-collar--had become slightly
disarranged on a hot evening, and Count D'Orsay laughingly called
his attention to the circumstance as we rose from table. Landor
became flushed, and greatly agitated: "My dear Count D'Orsay, I
thank you! My dear Count D'Orsay, I thank you from my soul for
pointing out to me the abominable condition to which I am reduced!
If I had entered the Drawing-room, and presented myself before Lady
Blessington in so absurd a light, I would have instantly gone home,
put a pistol to my head, and blown my brains out!"

Mr. Forster tells a similar story of his keeping a company waiting
dinner, through losing his way; and of his seeing no remedy for that
breach of politeness but cutting his throat, or drowning himself,
unless a countryman whom he met could direct him by a short road to
the house where the party were assembled. Surely these are
expressive notes on the gravity and reality of his explosive
inclinations to kill kings!

His manner towards boys was charming, and the earnestness of his
wish to be on equal terms with them and to win their confidence was
quite touching. Few, reading Mr. Forster's book, can fall to see in
this, his pensive remembrance of that "studious wilful boy at once
shy and impetuous", who had not many intimacies at Rugby, but who
was "generally popular and respected, and used his influence often
to save the younger boys from undue harshness or violence". The
impulsive yearnings of his passionate heart towards his own boy, on
their meeting at Bath, after years of separation, likewise burn
through this phase of his character.

But a more spiritual, softened, and unselfish aspect of it, was to
derived from his respectful belief in happiness which he himself had
missed. His marriage had not been a felicitous one--it may be
fairly assumed for either side--but no trace of bitterness or
distrust concerning other marriages was in his mind. He was never
more serene than in the midst of a domestic circle, and was
invariably remarkable for a perfectly benignant interest in young
couples and young lovers. That, in his ever-fresh fancy, he
conceived in this association innumerable histories of himself
involving far more unlikely events that never happened than Isaac
D'Israeli ever imagined, is hardly to be doubted; but as to this
part of his real history he was mute, or revealed his nobleness in
an impulse to be generously just. We verge on delicate ground, but
a slight remembrance rises in the writer which can grate nowhere.
Mr. Forster relates how a certain friend, being in Florence, sent
him home a leaf from the garden of his old house at Fiesole. That
friend had first asked him what he should send him home, and he had
stipulated for this gift--found by Mr. Forster among his papers
after his death. The friend, on coming back to England, related to
Landor that he had been much embarrassed, on going in search of the
leaf, by his driver's suddenly stopping his horses in a narrow lane,
and presenting him (the friend) to "La Signora Landora". The lady
was walking alone on a bright Italian-winter-day; and the man,
having been told to drive to the Villa Landora, inferred that he
must be conveying a guest or visitor. "I pulled off my hat," said
the friend, "apologised for the coachman's mistake, and drove on.
The lady was walking with a rapid and firm step, had bright eyes, a
fine fresh colour, and looked animated and agreeable." Landor
checked off each clause of the description, with a stately nod of
more than ready assent, and replied, with all his tremendous energy
concentrated into the sentence: "And the Lord forbid that I should
do otherwise than declare that she always WAS agreeable--to every
one but ME!"

Mr. Forster step by step builds up the evidence on which he writes
this life and states this character. In like manner, he gives the
evidence for his high estimation of Landor's works, and--it may be
added--for their recompense against some neglect, in finding so
sympathetic, acute, and devoted a champion. Nothing in the book is
more remarkable than his examination of each of Landor's successive
pieces of writing, his delicate discernment of their beauties, and
his strong desire to impart his own perceptions in this wise to the
great audience that is yet to come. It rarely befalls an author to
have such a commentator: to become the subject of so much artistic
skill and knowledge, combined with such infinite and loving pains.
Alike as a piece of Biography, and as a commentary upon the beauties
of a great writer, the book is a massive book; as the man and the
writer were massive too. Sometimes, when the balance held by Mr.
Forster has seemed for a moment to turn a little heavily against the
infirmities of temperament of a grand old friend, we have felt
something of a shock; but we have not once been able to gainsay the
justice of the scales. This feeling, too, has only fluttered out of
the detail, here or there, and has vanished before the whole. We
fully agree with Mr. Forster that "judgment has been passed"--as it
should be--"with an equal desire to be only just on all the
qualities of his temperament which affected necessarily not his own
life only. But, now that the story is told, no one will have
difficulty in striking the balance between its good and ill; and
what was really imperishable in Landor's genius will not be
treasured less, or less understood, for the more perfect knowledge
of his character".

Mr. Forster's second volume gives a facsimile of Landor's writing at
seventy-five. It may be interesting to those who are curious in
calligraphy, to know that its resemblance to the recent handwriting
of that great genius, M. Victor Hugo, is singularly strong.

In a military burial-ground in India, the name of Walter Landor is
associated with the present writer's over the grave of a young
officer. No name could stand there, more inseparably associated in
the writer's mind with the dignity of generosity: with a noble
scorn of all littleness, all cruelty, oppression, fraud, and false

Charles Dickens

Sorry, no summary available yet.