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Calamus Ense Potentior Est: Walter Savage Landor's Poetic War of Words

  • Titus Bicknell

…plus d’informations

  • Titus Bicknell
    University of York

In an essay championing the cause of Latin composition, Walter Savage Landor, then nineteen and recently sent down from Oxford for shooting at a fellow undergraduate, wrote:

Siquid forte iocosius cuivis in mentem veniat, id, vernacule , puderet, non enim tantummodo in luce agitur sed etiam in publico. Idem Latine neque indecens neque invenustum foret; quippe quod minime sit publici iuris, et nec ad aures nisi castigatas obversetur.  [1]

[If perhaps something playful comes to mind it would cause shame in the vernacular, for it not only happens in the light but also in public. The same thing would be neither indecent nor unattractive in Latin, in as much as it is in no way a mark of public jurisdiction, nor for hearing unless directed towards restrained ears.]

By applying this principle I have endeavoured to obviate the shame inherent in using such a trite cliche in my title by rendering it in Latin, though I hope through the course of this paper to illustrate the degree to which the pen really is mightier than sword.

Within the life and works of Landor there are two important battles on which the frame of poetry and history can be brought to bear - the Latin battle Landor waged against the vernacular politics and poetry of his day, and the surreptitious battle fought against Landor's Latin by his critics and biographers. In an anachronistic move that I shall justify later, let us start with this posthumous critical battle in which Landor was unable to defend himself, before turning to his Latin poems and their significance for the revolutionary zeitgeist in which Landor found himself.

Few people have lived as long or as fully as Walter Savage Landor, whose literary career alone spans almost seventy years from 1795 to 1863, and fewer still embody Shakespeare's description of the seven ages of man more fittingly. Though there is little documentary evidence of Landor's "Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms"  [2] the irascible nature of his adult character suggests that he was probably no angel as a baby. His schooling was tumultuous; he was not only asked to leave Rugby for suggesting in print that his Latin poems, judged worthy of a half-day holiday for the whole school, were "pessima carminum quae Landor unquam scripsit", but was also - as we have seen - sent down from Oxford for perilous experiments in ballistics that would have worried even William Tell. As "the lover,/Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad/Made to his mistress' eyebrow", he was perhaps too successful and by the publication of his first volume of poems in 1795 Landor, then aged nineteen, had fathered an illegitimate child and faced dis-inheritance for living with his lover, Nancy Jones, and their daughter, Anne, in Swansea. The child died and his relationship with Nancy was superseded by another, the ardour of which was to sustain Landor throughout his life. Sophia Jane Swift, later the Countess de Molande, captured Landor's heart in 1803 and, since she was already engaged to a cousin, their relationship was never formalised or legitimated. She therefore became Landor's Beatrice, or perhaps more accurately Maud Gonne, and is immortalised in Landor's poems as Ianthe. They conducted an affair before and during Jane Swift's first marriage by skating between the indulgences and taboos of 19th century British society and the necessary discretion and reticence to which Landor was bound led to passionate poetic outbursts. In a poem reminiscent of Sulpicia's "Tandem venit amor",  [3] Landor lamented that

Nec possum tibi nec tuis amicis
Quod summo mihi pendet usque labro
Proferre; heu cadit illud, intimoque
Fundo pectoris omnibusque fibris
Exardet.  [4]

[Neither to you nor to your friends can I utter what constantly hangs from my upper lip; alas it falls, and burns from the most intimate foundation and from every fibre of my heart.]

Yet in Landor's case the revelation of this love is tantamount to silence since even the object of the poem could not understand Latin. It was Ianthe's resolve to remain with her husband that pushed Landor to become "a soldier,/ . . . Seeking the bubble reputation/Even in the cannon's mouth." On the eve of his departure to Spain in 1808 to lead a legion of volunteers against the invading French army, Landor claimed in verse

Et quoniam mentem non verteret, ire coegit
Quo vocat abreptus turbine Martis Iber.  [5]

[And because she would not change her mind, she forced me to go whither Spain called, torn apart by the commotion of war.]

Despite seeing no active service, Landor returned to England a decorated Spanish hero, and set about establishing an estate at Llanthony in Wales where his attempts to become a magistrate in 1812 were foiled by the Duke of Beaufort. Though Landor was "Full of wise saws and modern instances" an early attack of gout pledged him against rich foods and he never sported the "fair round belly with good capon lin'd" that was perhaps the more important qualification for the job. To play "the lean and slipper'd pantaloon", Landor appropriately left England for Italy as a result of a libel suit brought against him by one of his tenants. From 1815 until 1863 Landor charmed the expatriate community in Florence, save an interlude in Bath that ended with his fleeing a second libel charge, and fended off the "mere oblivion [of] second childishness" until he finally died aged eighty-nine "Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything" as his protege, Kate Field, alluded in her article in The Atlantic Monthly for April, 1866.

With so much living to contend with, it is hardly surprising that Landor's story has been told by six different biographers, one of whom made two meticulous attempts at it, but sadly these efforts to elucidate the complete Landor have consistently amputated crucial elements - none more so than the Latin opera that constitute his greatest and most prolonged endeavour. Though the halcyon days of neo-Latin had passed before Landor enjoyed his salad days, Landor fought a Quixotic battle beneath the Latin standard, but, unlike King Canute, seemed convinced that his Latin verse and prose could resist the vernacular tide that swept through literary and academic circles in the latter half of the eighteenth century. His armoury includes no less than three hundred Latin poems, political tracts and essays, all of which are steeped in classical and neo-Latin allusion and rich in the verisimilitude that characterises excellent fiction.

It is perhaps his longevity, or the anachronistic and atavistic style he chose to employ that has precluded him from the canon of Romantic and Victorian literature, but there has been no cessation in the efforts of scholars and biographers to promote him to a position commensurate with his poetic endeavours. He had scarcely breathed his last before biographers and historians began squabbling over the carrion of his literary estate in order to begin the litany of biographies and selected editions that have periodically augmented Landor's oeuvre. While some of these works are sycophantic, extolling their authors more than the subject of their inquest, much conscientious biographical and textual analysis of Landor's life and works has been achieved, particularly by Malcolm Elwin, R. H. Super and the indomitable team of Stephen Wheeler and T. Earle Welby, who produced The Complete Works of Walter Savage Landor in sixteen volumes between 1927 and 1936. All such efforts have, however, side-stepped Landor's anomalous position in literary history by making almost no mention of his Latin. Indeed, the comprehensive edition of Wheeler and Welby contains none of his Latin poetry or prose.  [6] By eliding the Latin texts, Landor's biographers and critics have removed a facet from their commentaries that leaves us with a two-dimensional portrait of a figure more than worthy of being sculpted in three.

Despite a consensus among Landor critics that the Latin texts have been greatly neglected and that, as R. H. Super intimates, "a careful study of Landor's Latin writings would be one of the most fruitful undertakings upon which the Landor student could embark,"  [7] discussions of his Latinity have to date been marginal and cursory. Leicester Bradner devotes a section to Landor in Musae Anglicanae - his seminal survey of British Neo-Latin from 1500-1925 - but acknowledges that it is "merely a preliminary attack on the problem".  [8] In The Latin poetry of English Poets, Andrea Kelly takes up Super's call to arms and extends Bradner's initial stab, providing a detailed account of the major themes of Landor's shorter poems against a backdrop of 19th century history and politics. And John Buxton, echoing Super's astute comment on Landor's English verse that his "style is rather Hellenistic . . . than Hellenic"  [9] provides a fascinating analysis of Landor's unrealised aspirations to be a Greek poet in his book The Grecian Taste .  [10] Among the biographers, however, little more than lip service has been paid to Landor's greatest endeavour, thereby privileging his English writings. That Landor published in Italian as well is barely mentioned, confirming an implicit linguistic prejudice and xenophobia on the part of Landor's anglophone biographers. This view is supported by Pierre Vitoux's exquisite French study, L'Oeuvre de Walter Savage Landor , which not only considers the Latin works within the wider body of Landor's literary output, but examines the classical influences and stylistic allusions displayed in the poems. Since Latin and English are equally foreign to Vitoux, he treats Landor's works as a unified corpus, and, though his analysis is not exhaustive, this text provides a valuable schema for future Landor criticism in English.  [11]

To address the geographical expulsion inherent in the biographical treatment of Landor's work, I should like to enlist the help of David Nye, whose book, The Invented Self , offers a brilliant challenge and alternative to the strictures of traditional biography. By cataloguing as an example the vast archive of information about Thomas Edison, Nye designs an anti-biography, whose aim is to avoid the construction of a single identity through the elision of contradictory or distasteful evidence, while positing a topography of the individual free from the epistemological desire for origins. As Nye points out:

The anti-biography assumes that there are no primary sources and that therefore there are no "secondary" sources. It decenters the entire notion of source itself necessary as a mythic underpinning to writing a life and reconnects documents to the cultural systems that produce them. These systems expressed as structures in the documents become the subject of the anti-biography. The individual ceases to exist as a unitary object and becomes only a series of meeting points, a pattern of possibilities.... [Thus the subject] can be mapped, but there is no single way to follow the lines of connection on that map. The reader must grasp the work as a set of relationships, not as a sequence of events.  [12]

Allowing history to be read as a space, rather than as linear time, the need to establish chronology and hierarchy among aspects of the subject's life is removed, thus neutralising the temptation to offer as an historical document a traditional narrative or as Nye defines it a "literary artifact whose form creates much of the meaning we find in it".  [13] The importance of this model to Landor's biography can be attested by a single example.

All Landor's biographers are quick to cite the caricature of Landor that appears in Dickens's Bleak House, with particular emphasis on the accuracy of the portrayal as evidence of the deep friendship and literary affinity that existed between the two men. Indeed in the figure of Lawrence Boythorn, Dickens captures, in a few impressionistic brush strokes, the manner and style of Landor that most commended him as a man. His impetuous sense of fair play and chivalry - inflamed to hyperbolic proportions by the slightest affront to feminine virtue or generosity - and the florid, sometimes purple, prose he used to condemn those he deemed guilty of such crimes, appear in a handful of perspicacious descriptions. What few have admitted is the convenience of perceiving the enormous detail and complexity of Landor's life through Dickens's loveable caricature. Fiction is so much more manageable than fact and what follows is a series of adulatory biographies in which the unpleasant and contradictory elements of Landor are dismissed because they do not fit the character of Boythorn. It was Malcolm Elwin who blew the whistle on his predecessors,  [14] and, in an effort to compensate, produced his second biography of Landor, ironically entitled Landor: a replevin , which contains such a litany of indiscretions and personal details that one is left doubting the facts for their sheer volume and irrefutable nature. Elwin's effort to account for every element of Landor's life as part of a unitary subject leaves the reader with a legal or scientific account devoid of humanity and personal spark. But the traditional form of biographical investigation demands this series of contradictory challenges to the established portrayals of previous biographers: a process akin to successive literary patricide. Fiction is not, however, bound by the same rules and a closer look at Bleak House reveals that Dickens extends Landor's caricature far beyond the figure of Boythorn in a move consistent with Nye's topological stance on biography. Recognisable Landorian traits appear predominantly in the boisterous frame of Boythorn, but the character of Richard, the young ward in the notorious Jarndyce case, whose naive faith in the legal system to return a favourable verdict leads to his slow demise at the hands of a debilitating disease, offers an uncanny resemblance to the young Landor, complete with details of his failure to finish school. Dickens's character Esther recounts that Richard

had been eight years in a public school, had learnt, I understood, to make Latin Verses of several sorts, in the most admirable manner. . . . He had been adapted to the Verses, and had learnt the art of making them to such perfection, that if he had remained at school until he was of age, I suppose he could have gone on making them over and over again. . . . [A]lthough I had no doubt that they were very beautiful, and very improving, and very sufficient for a great many purposes of life, and always remembered all through life, I did doubt whether Richard would not have profited by some one studying him a little instead of his studying them quite so much.  [15]

Aware that Landor could not be characterised by a single fictional account, Dickens offers the reader two simultaneous facets of one man in two stages of his life, juxtaposing radically different characteristics in a manner impossible within chronological biography. Dickens has created a topography of Landor in which youth and maturity are contiguous sites, albeit defined as separate characters, unrelated place names as it were. This fictional space provides room for more reality than a documentation of reality allows, by figuring a given subject as his many selves. What remains problematic is that in order to analyse one of those selves the other permutations must be put aside, exiled from the discourse, thereby returning to the familiar 'take' on Landor in which one linguistic practice is given precedence over another.

To examine Landor's Latin opera without merely inverting the familiar hierarchy that has privileged his English works requires more than simply elevating Latin to the same status awarded to English. There is no doubt that collecting the Latin poems and essays from the assorted slim volumes and pamphlets in which Landor published them, thereby providing the missing seventeenth volume to the Complete Works of Wheeler and Welby, is an essential prerequisite to the writing of "a satisfactory essay upon them"  [16] as Leicester Bradner clearly indicates. Any analysis of those texts must, however, embrace a critical stance that resists, as Nye explains, a simple "recovery" of the unitary self, in which "all contradictions must be overcome rather than explored in the quest".  [17] It must recognise instead the "underlying coherence" achieved when, in the words of Michel Foucault, these "immediately visible contradictions. . . this display of dispersed light [is] concentrated into a single focus."  [18] For the subject Walter Savage Landor, the "underlying coherence" is a topography that charts not only his familiar territory as an English poet, but also the new world of his Latin opera.

The most prominent feature on this map is Landor's appeal to authorities other than those he was born to. Since a particular language system implies the authority of a given nation, Landor's use of Latin invokes an alternative to English authority, one perhaps that he put more faith in considering he held British politicians and the monarch of the day in contempt. Ironically at that time in England one could not be sued for libel if the offending remark was made in Latin, further evidence that Latin was perceived to be above and beyond the law.

The most alarming examples occur in a group of Inscriptiones published in 1847 in which Landor constructed epitaphs for those he admired as well as those he despised. As Andrea Kelly, in The Latin Poetry of English Poets , so elegantly put it "death was not necessarily a prerequisite for an epitaph from Landor, who considered the desirability of certain people's decease to be in itself sufficient."  [19] One example will be sufficient to indicate the severity of these fictitious tombstones, and after the exceptional programme, A Royal Scandal, I have chosen that of George IV, whose cruel treatment of Caroline of Brunswick was matched only by the intensity of her revenge or the vitriol of Landor's slander.

Heic. jacet,
Qui. ubique. et. semper. jacebat
Familiae. pessimae. homo. pessimus
Georgius. Britanniae. Rex. ejus. nominis. IV
Arca. ut. decet. ampla. et. opipare. ornata. est
Continet. enim. omnes. Nerones.  [20]

[Here lies the man
who, while alive, lay everywhere and always.
The worst man of the worst family,
George, King of England, fourth of that name.
It is fitting that the sepulchre be large and sumptuously decorated,
it contains a whole family of Neros.]

In much the same way that Landor expressed the intensity of his illicit relationship with Ianthe in Latin to avoid the censure of 19th century mores, his political poems seem to invoke an authority beyond or even above the British legal system of the day. It is an appeal to fas rather than ius that Landor carried a stage further in his poems of support for the Italian cause during the Risorgimento. By the time Garibaldi began his campaign against the Papal forces and the occupying French army, Landor had lived in Italy for twenty years and in his most explicit invocation of the ancient Roman republic he wrote

Dum patrio sermone meo celebrare parabam
Facta tua, Italiae gloria summa, Liger!
Hoc monitu calamum correptum Musa repressit
"Conveniunt potius verba latina duci.
Ille quidem Liger est, sed et est Romanus, et Urbem
Tutatus, vindex protulit arma foras.
Concinuere tubae fulgentque sub Alpibus illa . .
Quo fugit Austriacus? quo fugit iste minax?
Libertatem alii produnt, victricia f dant.
Signa, sed absimilis regibus unus adest:
Ergo Romana Garibaldus voce canendus
Atque inter fastos concelebrandus erit."  [21]

[While I was preparing to celebrate your deeds, with my native tongue, highest glory of Italy, Ligurian, the Muse repressed my pen having been snatched up with this warning "Latin words are more fitting to the leader. Indeed he is a Ligurian, but he is also a Roman, and having protected the City, he extended the defences outside as a protector. The trumpets of war sounded and gleamed beneath the Alps. Whither flees the Austrian? whither flees that threatener? Others betray liberty, defile victorious signs, but one man unlike kings is present: Therefore Garibaldi will need to be sung of with a Roman voice and to be celebrated among the festival days."]

Not only does the poem echo the opening of Ovid's Amores where Cupid intercedes to create the heroic couplet by stealing a foot from every second line, but it places Garibaldi in an historical succession that reinforces his claim. Though Liger is not the normal appellation for a Ligurian, and could well be a printing mistake for Ligur ,  [22] it seems likely that Landor, aware that Garibaldi was born in Nice, evokes this ancient race as his direct ancestors much as Henry V used the Salic law to claim the throne of France. Landor takes this classical comparison further in a direct comparison with the Roman general Fabius, whose delay tactics caused the attrition of Hannibal's troops and put an end to the Carthaginian invasion. By developing an almost exact quotation of a fragment in praise of Fabius by Ennius,  [23] Landor bolstered Garibaldi with more historical verisimilitude:

Unus homo Romae cunctando restituit Rem;
Restituet non cunctando (deus adiuvet!) alter.  [24]

[One man restored the Roman republic by delaying; a second (god willing) will restore it by not.]

As Garibaldi's success was assured, Landor strengthened his opinion in a second poem:

Unus homo Romae cunctando restituit Rem:
At non cunctando restituet melior:
Vive, vale, Garibalde! parat tibi certa triumphos,
Iam gladio fracto perfidus hostis abit.  [25]

[One man restored the Roman republic by delaying: but a better man will restore it by not: live, be strong, Garibaldi! certainty prepares victories for you, already the treacherous foe flees with a broken sword.]

Significantly libel laws in Italy extended to Latin, as Landor discovered to his horror in 1818 when he was expelled from Como for writing verses against the Prefect of the city.  [26] Thus his Latin encomia for Garibaldi were a direct challenge to the Papal authorities but have a seal of Classical approval on which he built his case. Landor's challenge to human law resembles the challenge that Jacques Lacan has seen posed by Antigone.  [27] She buries her brother Polynices, Lacan posits, to fulfill the Gods law—fas—and thereby prevent them from taking offence, but in so doing breaks the human law—ius—pronounced by Creon. Landor appealed to Antigone's position by breaking the law of Papal Rome, but ironically he did so by using Latin, the language with which the Church attempted to make its own law divine. Fortunately for Landor his fate was not as severe as Antigone's, but the dual exile he suffered, first from the vernacular by choosing to write in Latin and second because his views, when expressed in English, forced him to flee England, left him isolated from both mother tongue and father land. Where he went, however, can be most clearly explained by examining the case of another old man whose relationship to Latin allowed him an escape from his surroundings.

In her novel The Old Man and the Wolves , Julia Kristeva shrouds the Bulgaria of her childhood and the death of her own father, a Classics professor, who died in a military hospital there, in an intricate psychological detective story. The old man of the title, Septicius Clarus, is also a Latin teacher convinced that his home in Santa Varvara is being overrun by wolves, but fears the people themselves are metamorphosing into wolves. The old man retreats from his nightmares into the love poetry of Tibullus and Ovid until he dies mysteriously in a hospital under the care of Dr Vespasian. Kristeva has underpinned the entire novel with Latin quotations and references and one senses that the old man's plight is deeply ironic. Latin, the language of Rome, itself nurtured in the myth of Romulus and Remus by a she-wolf, sustains the old man until he finally loses his life at the hands of a wolf. The cycle is unbreakable and offers no cure, but escape is in one sense possible. Part of Kristeva's theoretical writing addresses poetic language and the semiotic: the choric register where poetry like prayer gains meaning from its ritual repetition.  [28] It is this embrocation that the old man seeks in Latin poems, and insists on reading and rereading, citing and reciting them, not merely for their meaning but for what cannot be translated into another language.

With this in mind, Landor's Latin becomes more poignant. Perhaps his most telling comment occurs at the very end of essay he wrote to explain why neo-Latin authors were read less or not at all during the 19th century. He said: "literatis omnibus, et nobis praecipue qui latine scribimus, [for all educated people especially us who write in Latin] Roma patria est".  [29] He is clearly not referring to the 19th century city, bludgeoned by Papal control, but to Urbs Romana as the metonym of Roman Republicanism. As Freud, in his famous essay "Civilisation and its Discontents", describes Rome "not as a human habitation but [as] a psychic entity"  [30] in which all of its archaeological layers can be perceived simultaneously, so Landor maps ancient and modern history through the common medium of Latin, thereby creating a mental space to inhabit with all the rights of a Roman citizen. As Julia Kristeva aptly describes it:

the screen of dreams doesn't go blank immediately when the body starts to withdraw toward the void. The organs may deteriorate . . [b]ut a kind of speech remains. Not necessarily articulate or audible or communicable, though it should be that too. And that pulse persisted stubbornly in the Old Man. It went on displaying a dream life that was fiercer and thus infinitely more living than his now enfeebled body. It wasn't that [he] wanted to cling at all costs to a world that had driven him to despair. . . . It was rather that he was now autonomous, detached from his departing body because of the artificial existence he had created for himself, from childhood onward, by learning to speak, read, write, and even identify with a dead language. Dead for his contemporaries, but for him a source of revelation, showing there was such a thing as the happy chance of being able to live in the mind.  [31]

It is here that we find both Septicius Clarus warding off the wolves and Landor spinning out his time in search of peers long dead and a place that no longer exists per se though its bricks and mortar still provide a tempting mirage.

Parties annexes