Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Landor wrote Imaginary Conversations

Walter Savage Landor
It is the birthday of English poet and writer Walter Savage Landor (1775), whose best-known work, the five-volume Imaginary Conversations (1824-1829), presents imagined dialogue between such luminaries as Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Cecil, the secretary of state; Henry VII and Anne Boleyn; George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, and Greek philosophers Diogenes and Plato. He was also known for his poetry, though he was better received by contemporary reviewers and fellow poets than by the general public. He was quick-tempered and headstrong, and given to great feuds and petty squabbles.

Rose Aylmer is his best-known poem. It was written for the sister of a friend Lord Aylmer, a British military officer who commanded forces in British North America, including the American colonies.  In Rose, he found a literary companion. Unfortunately, she died of cholera in India.

Ah what avails the sceptred race,
         Ah what the form divine!
What every virtue, every grace!
         Rose Aylmer, all were thine.
Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes
         May weep, but never see,
A night of memories and of sighs
         I consecrate to thee.

Inspired by a book lent to him by Rose Alymer, Landor produced the poem that set his reputation as a gifted poet. Gebir told the story of a Spanish prince who falls in love with Egyptian Queen Charoba. Critics raved, comparing him with Milton, Wordsworth and Coleridge. One critic wrote: "The vividness with which everything in it is presented to sight as well as through the wealth of its imagery, its moods of language — these are characteristics pre-eminent in Gebir."

Landor often wrote in Latin in an effort to veil his biting commentary. Once, while he was living in Como, Italy, he wrote a particularly vindictive piece against an Italian poet, also targeting local officials. He didn't realize that in Italy libel laws applied to anything written in Latin as well as Italian. Whe he was taken to task, he threatened to beat up a local official and was order to leave the city. He and his family settled in Florence, where he produced some of his best work, including the first volumes of Imaginary Conversations.

Some of his humorous epigrams display a biting wit inflicted on contemporary politicians and royalty. He clearly had little use for the House of Hanover.

George the First was always reckoned
Vile, but viler George the Second.
And what mortal ever heard
Any good of George the Third,
But when from earth the Fourth descended
God be praised the Georges ended

He is said to have influenced W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, and Robert Frost, among others.

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