Obrazy na stronie

not a mere affectation and pretence. The result has been, on the part of some critics, the almost complete abdication of the censorial office, and the restriction of themselves to the business of noting, describing, and applauding the feats of every new entrant upon the literary arena-while the entrants themselves, aware of this, and knowing, too, that novelty and energy carry off the largest share of honour, are tempted into playing tricks of contortion and other unworthy artifices,-for in no way can they so easily attain the first merit, which is novelty, or so generally acquire a reputation for superior power, seeing that most men lazily take those manifestations of intellect to be great which are unusual ; although, in truth, they are often the offspring of weakness in all the better qualities in union with some vigour in ingenuity.

But such critics and their disciples are clearly in the wrong. The good old plan of calling authors before the judgment-seat must not be abandoned. The cause of truth, and beauty, and decency, must be upheld, and falsehood, deformity, and all the foul brood of indecorum scourged out of the precincts of literature. At the same time, we may doubt whether the rules of the old criticism were not too severe and narrow. These were founded upon the experience of one literature, the earliest of the civilized world, and the producer of indisputably the highest style of beauty hitherto attained. For a long time it was believed that no higher was possible, and it may be that this opinion will at last prove true. Meantime, however, it is allowable to suspect that, inasmuch as the social state in which that literature was developed was imperfect, some parts of man's nature, both intellectual and moral, having been there either dormant or suppressed, the ideas of the beautiful among its cultivators may have been, if not imperfect, yet not of so high an order as man is able to conceive. And we may hope that such possible conceptions of surpassing grace will reveal themselves in some age yet to come, when

genius will fashion into forms nobler than any heretofore beheld, the whole elements, whether old and known, or new and just brought to light by man's progress in civilization, of the sublime and beautiful. Impressed with some such expectation, the true critic keeps his mind, as it were, awake to recognize, and his hand open to embrace, whatever new impersonation of the beautiful in literature the time may send us. With this view, he is more cautious in his judgments, less dogmatic in his opinions, less scornful in his censures than was once the habit of his profession ; and he looks even upon the vagaries and licenses of aspirants to literary fame with an indulgence which amounts sometimes to a hurtful encouragement, because he is afraid lest severity to faults, however just in itself, should repress the advance of some timid beauty lying

beneath, and needing the sunshine of approbation for the unfolding of its charms.

These reflections have been suggested by the author before us, we cannot well say how, unless it be by something in his manner which reminds us of the old times and of the new, which carries back our thoughts to the classic masters, yet ever makes us feel that this is a genuine son of the present day. It is now, we believe, nearly half a century since Mr. Walter Savage Landor made his first appearance as an author. He has ventured forth in the same character repeatedly since, and has always attracted the notice, not indeed of the whole populace of literature, but of a respectable number of the more studious and thoughtful among them. And some may think it affords a presumption, that although wanting in the qualities that command instant applause from the popular crowd, he yet is endowed with superior merit, to find that time which commonly lessens, and ere long extinguishes more rapid reputations, is acting otherways by him. Of the lights which are every year thrown up into the firmament of literature, most part blaze but for an instant, few burn through the space of a season; but of those, if there be any, which have a perennial fire, and a heavenly buoyancy, it is the lot to seem to be growing in splendour, and mounting in station as time advances; for, at every step which the world takes from the spot whence they ascended, their altitude becomes more apparent, while their fires are no longer dimmed by the glare of the transient meteors that infest the lower atmosphere, but glow each of them apart and aloft in the clear dark heavens, fixing the gaze of countless myriads in place of the few who watched their rising. Whether from possessing this starry virtue, or whether from some other cause, Mr. Landor seems now to be acquiring among a circle, compared with which his earlier admirers were but a handful, the reputation of being one of the luminaries of this æra. Proofs of this may be seen in the many and laudatory notices taken of his works by the organs of the literary public, whose praise is the more remarkable because of their previous censures. A more unequivocal proof is this bulky republication of his collected works, for it seems to intimate that they are becoming in the opinion of the lovers of our literature one of those books which libraries cannot be without. If he be truly worthy of the enviable station of a classic, let him have it. He will take it if he deserve it. We have a deep reverence for public opinion in every department; believing, that although a foolish multitude may dictate the cry of the hour, the ultimate verdict of society is according to the judgment of the right-minded and wise. It may be questioned, however, whether it has as yet been fairly made up and pronounced in regard to Mr. Landor. It seems rather to be still in the process

of formation, and this therefore is just the favourable moment for critics, such as we, to come forward with our doubts and difficulties in the matter, our advices and our oracles.

Mr. Landor has tried both prose and verse, and these volumes accordingly consist of pieces in both kinds. His prose is, however, much more bulky than his verse, which, indeed, occupies not so much as a fourth part of this collection. And if we gather correctly the opinion of the critics, the respective merits of the two are adjudged to be in the proportion of their volume. We confess that we are of the common opinion on this point, and believe that had Mr. Landor produced nothing but his poetry he would probably have attracted no notice at all, and certainly have been already among the forgotten. Not that his pieces, more especially some of the Hellenics, for the first time published in these volumes, have not merit. They present, in fact, most of the materials of good poetry—such as thoughts of a sort that hardly belong to a prosaic mood, great plenty of imagery, sometimes graceful and generally lively, words usually expressive, and sometimes delicate and beautiful, and lines and passages of sounding and pleasing harmony. But withal there is, we feel, a damning defect--the materials are here, but the building has not been put together by the hand of a master. There is no grand governing conception, keeping them all in subordination, and imparting to them clearness and unity. Neither is there any pure and continuous stream of emotion, any pervading honest passion; but rather an irregular animation proceeding from the intellect or the temper, not the heart. Hence a certain faintness and indistinctness in the impression from each piece on the reader's mind, nor have we met with any able to take possession of the soul, and which memory will care to retain, or place in its gallery of poetic creations. We except from this remark one passage well known, and probably the only thing by which most men will remember that Mr. Landor attempted poetry. We refer to the happy fancy, most happily expressed, interpretative of the mysterious murmuring of the ocean shells. It is contained in his poem of “ Gebir;" from which we will transfer it to our pages :

“ But I have sinuous shells of pearly hue

Within, and they that lustre have imbibed
In the sun's palace porch, where when unyoked
His chariot-wheel stands midway in the wave :
Shake one and it awakens, then apply
The polish'd lips to your attentive ear,
And it remembers its august abodes,

And murmurs as the ocean murmurs there."
It is as a prose writer that Mr. Landor is remarkable, and de-

serving of attention, of which he himself seems to be aware, and has accordingly explored his prosaic much oftener than his poetic vein, if we may judge by the number and size of the two kinds of composition. In his prose what first attracts attention is the plan on which he has generally constructed it. Nearly all his pieces are “ Imaginary Conversations,” carried on between two or more speakers. This plan of composition is of very ancient invention, and has been tried by very famous writers. Mr. Landor has the merit, we think, of having enlarged and perhaps adorned it beyond example in English literature. The range of characters is more comprehensive than in any former specimen ; including, as it does, men and women, ancients and moderns, the dead and the living, monarchs and subjects, masters and servants, priests, statesmen, warriors, philosophers, jurists, poets, wits, men of letters, men of the world. These belong to all ages and nations; a few are fictitious, but the most are known in history, and many known to fame; for Mr. Landor, with a courage to be envied, delights in flying at the noblest game; he invests his puppets with the most awful names; and more confidently undertakes to personate a Shakespeare, a Bacon, or a Plato, than another man would a fictitious Theron or nominal A. B. His Conversations possess another distinction in the greater diversity of the topics over which the separate groups of speakers wander, and yet another in what may be called the setting of the groups; the places where they talk, and the incidents of scenery and action occurring as the talk proceeds, being made of greater importance in the composition, and contributing more decidedly than usual to the impression on the reader. The most remarkable peculiarity is, we think, the general aim or object of his conversations. Whether of set purpose and consciously on his part, or unconsciously and through a failure to execute what he designed, if his conversations have a general end at all, it is of an unusually complex nature. It is neither simply the didactic exposition of particular subjects, nor the controversial discussion of doctrines, nor the satirical reprehension of opinions and practices, nor the development of character only, but, in addition to these, and, perhaps mainly, they aim at expressing the emotions and passions natural in given situations, occasional moods of mind, and transient actions of the intellect and temper. We remark this peculiarity, not only because it is such, but because, along with the desultory and unruly character of the author's genius, it is the cause of a want of definite purpose in these Dialogues taken as a whole, and of a wavering and uncertainty in the purpose of almost every Dialogue individually, unfavourable to their ranking very high as works of skill, contrasting them as it does with the specimens in Plato,

Xenophon, and Cicero, to which the Dialogue owes its place in classic literature. We remark it also because the knowledge of it may protect our readers from a mistake in regard to Mr. Landor's productions, into which we ourselves fell. For a time we took Mr. Landor to be an expounder of truth, and corrector of the opinions of mankind—led into that notion by certain pretensions to superior wisdom, and a most unbounded arrogance, which are ever and anon breaking forth in his pages. Nor do we doubt that in Mr. Landor's own opinion, he is fitted for that function, and has been performing it. But it is a great mistake; and, while under it, no reasonable man will read his compositions with pleasure or in peace, irritated as he will be by unceasingly questioning and quarrelling the doctrines and opinions he meets with. Mr. Landor himself, indeed, seems to be partially apprehensive of this, by an announcement prefixed to the Conversations, in which he begs the reader to avoid a mistake in attributing to the writer any opinions in this book, but what are spoken under his own name.” We will not comply with this request, so far as wholly to exempt him from responsibility for the opinions which his characters express. But we willingly do so, as far as it merely implies his resignation of all pretensions in these conversations to the part of a wise thinker and teacher of systematic and permanent truths. Upon no other terms, indeed, could we receive what literary enjoyment is derivable from them, than by putting the question of the reasonableness of the opinions he ventilates into abeyance for the time, and consenting to take them as merely exponents of the mood in which he would wish us to feel his characters to be.

By assigning to his Dialogists, historical names, Mr. Landor begets an expectation that they shall think and speak in character. In general, however, this expectation is not gratified ; sometimes the historical idea of the speaker is not only not followed, but contradicted; and sometimes the departure from it is so great, and so perverse, as to transgress even the license of caricature, and run into pure calumny. Of simple failure to reproduce the bespoken character, a signal instance is the conversation between Dr. Johnson and Horne Tooke, wherein the former is made to listen—as he never did to man or woman, that is

in humble and almost dumb patience to long and tedious prosing from the latter. Among other unwarrantable and calumnious perversions of the real character, we may point to those where Wilberforce is made to utter rank Antinomianism, where the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Inglis converse like a couple of idiots, and where Sir Robert Peel and Mr. Croker confer together as confessed scoundrels. There are instances, however, in which he hits upon, and for a short time maintains a


« PoprzedniaDalej »