Walter William Landor

Walter William Landor

Someone who could so readily turn out such things as:

With much ado you fail to tell
The requisites for writing well;
But, what bad writing is, you quite
Have proved by every line you write.

Was not going to make many friends, and it was Landor’s fate not only to be at cross purposes to his age in taste and political opinions, but to keep producing what the public did not want to read. In later life Landor had the independent means to finance publication, and generally had to, since none of his prolific output in verse and prose was a commercial success. In fact it often  lost money through libel actions, and the author was several times obliged to decamp for more indulgent climes.

But there was more to it than that.  Landor the man was courageous, irascible and opinionated, but the better poetry had a lapidary reserve, the words as carefully fitted as those of the Latin poets he could imitate so well.

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
      In distant ages you and me.

The tear for fading beauty check,
      For passing glory cease to sigh;
One form shall rise above the wreck,
      One name, Ianthe, shall not die.

Perhaps that is enough for anyone, that and a scattering of other perfect lines. We don’t read the extended pieces today, and his contemporaries also complained that Landor had no gift for plot or narrative. The lines didn’t smolder with suppressed emotion. The plot didn’t bring his characters to life. The reader was not carried forward on a wave  of reforming purpose or melodrama, the like of which animated Shelley or Byron in their longer works. Contemporary writers admired Landor’s work, but the public expected a flood of heart-easing emotion, and got jibes, polished fragments or pretty trifles like:

Here, ever since you went abroad,
   If there be change no change I see:
I only walk our wonted road,
   The road is only walk’d by me.

Yes; I forgot; a change there is–
   Was it of that you bade me tell?
I catch at times, at times I miss
   The sight, the tone, I know so well.

Only two months since you stood here?
   Two shortest months? Then tell me why
Voices are harsher than they were,
   And tears are longer ere they dry.

Or a Europe recovering from the Napoleonic excesses was treated to this from ‘Imaginary Conversations’:

Laodamia died; Helen died; Leda the beloved of Jupiter, went before. It is better to repose in the earth betimes than to sit up late; better, than to cling pertinaciously to what we feel crumbling under us and protract an inevitable fall. We may enjoy the present while we are insensible of infirmity and decay; but the present, like a note in music is nothing but as it it appertains to what is past and what is to come. There are no fields of amaranth on this side of the grave; there are not voices, O Rhodope, that are not too soon mute, however tuneful; there is no name, with whatever emphasis of passionate love repeated, of which the echo is not faint at last.

Let me suggest the problems with some Horace translations I’m currently working on. Here is the famous Ode 1.5 in its present form:

What slim, rich-scented youth, on roses lain,
now courts you, Pyrrha, in the grotto’s shade?
For whom is it you tuck each skein
of hair into that simple braid?
How soon is he to learn that all things change,
that even faith will meet adversities:
for dark it is when the storm clouds range
across the wild, tempestuous seas.
Yes, he will love you in those golden hours,
for ever beautiful in that rapt gaze.
But rapidly the soft wind lours
on one whom recklessness betrays.
Your eyes delight him and out-dazzle day,
but far and deep I know the sea god roves.
With votive temple-hung, I pray
he does not note my storm-drenched clothes.

It’s neat, I hope, and close to the prose meaning (which in Horace is not altogether straightforward.) But to our ears it’s also strangely unfinished. And so? we want to ask. Who are these people and what happens to them? Horace doesn’t say. An enormous amount of ingenuity went into adapting the Greek lyric measures to Latin verse, ten years of repeated artifice and polishing, but the reception disappointed their author. In due course Horace became a classic, to be studied by schoolboys in Latin and later times, but no one took the experiment further. Because no succeeding poet had the gifts and industry to match Horace is one explanation, and the darkening political atmosphere of imperial Rome is another. But a further reason concerns the well-springs of poetry.

Horace seems too sensible, balanced, detached and politically astute to act as spokesman for the deeper currents of his age. Fellow poets paid lip service to the Odes, and its lapidary phrases became the quotes of educated men, but craft was not something that the public much cared about. It doesn’t now. As I may have mentioned, many workshop attendees, hearing that Geoffrey Hill was a poet to admire, have assured me that Mercian Hymns was indeed one of their favourite pieces, something that dumbfounded me at the time, and dumbfounds me now. That prose-poem is, frankly, pretty dreadful, and one that Hill continues to see printed but has happily not taken further. Prose poetry à la Claudel or St. John Perse is extremely difficult in English, where the hybrid creature tends to slip into blank verse in its more elevated gambollings, to turn into the purple patches of The Stones of Venice etc, with which I’m quite happy in small doses, but is not very popular now.

To return to Horace and Landor: the problem is really the disjointed nature of the production process. Each poem has to be created afresh. Each stanza has to add a related point or illustration. Each segment has to fit together neatly, without obvious contrivance. All three are major challenges, and the result can be intellectual cleverness, a continuing firework display that eventually becomes a little tiresome. So I find Horace, and will probably not translate more than the first book of Odes and a handful of the more famous poems in succeeding volumes. They are much of a muchness, all of them, requiring endless fiddling and polishing, which is no doubt how Horace wrote them in the first place.

Style matters. In both prose and poetry we look for the personality speaking to us on matters of deep common concern. We want that concern to be genuine, and will make allowance for infelicities, as we often have to in the case of Hardy or Hopkins. Their heart is in the right place, we say, and may prefer their sometimes maladroit expressions to the flowing eloquence of their Victorian forebears.

But the emotion being expressed has to be real: a painless juggling with words is not going to move us, however clever, however supported by awards and publishing history. Most particularly this applies to the current vogue for the epiphany arising from everyday events. Do poets really see the world in these terms? Such pieces have something of the contrived about them, and call for enormous effort from their creators, and corresponding forbearance from their readers, who must suspend disbelief, and put their minds into new gear at each assault on the improbable.

Landor’s stance attracted Ezra Pound, and there will no doubt be a revival of interest  in Landor’s works, or perhaps a canonization of their author, at least by academics. To me it would  seem wiser to understand the nature of literary appeal, how and why some works are successful and others not, than once again berate the impercipient general reader.


1. Walter Savage Landor. Wikipedia.
2. Imaginary Conversations. Wikipedia.
3. Walter Savage Landor
Walter Savage Landor
4. Walter Savage Landor.


  1. This blog post was absolutely fantastic. When I used to work in electroplating they sometimes encouraged us to write, but I could never come up with something as well written as that.

  2. Some really nice poetry,here, I am enchanted by them.

  3. Excellent post. academia research I was checking constantly this blog and I’m impressed !

  4. I like these poems; they seem to be so passionate and heartwarming. I was interested in the history of their creation and whom they are dedicated to. Maybe I will find some information at

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