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

  • Titus Bicknell

…more information

  • 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: 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" 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 The child died and his relationship with Nancy was superseded by another, the ardour of which was to sustain Landor throughout his life.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", Landor lamented that 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 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 …