POETS Day! Walter Savage Landor

Walter Savage Landor

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

I like Jeopardy. They read the answer and you respond with the question? That’s crazy. Backward games fascinate me. I like the “get to know the contestants” segment after the first round of plaintiff lawyer and Rinvoq ads. Ken Jennings or Mayim Bialik, depending on who’s turn it is to be unfairly compared to Alex Trebek, says hi to each player and prompts them to tell a little about a producer-approved vignette from their life so viewers get a humanizing glimpse of the person they just made fun of for thinking the Bismarck bombarded Spitzbergen in September, 1943. A recent contestant was asked about playing in cornhole tournaments. She played in two. In one, her team placed third, but she said they did better in the other, by which I assume she meant they took second. She added that there were fewer teams in the second tournament. This wasn’t James Holzhauer with a thirty-two game win streak and reams of biographical material already spent trying to cull together some parental awws as filler. This was the woman’s first and possibly only “my life” story in front of a national audience. The big time. As it turns out, she won and became the new champion, so on the next show we got to hear the penultimate scintillating producer-approved morsel from her time on this planet: A famous person told her “Happy Mother’s Day.” As it turns out, the famous person was speaking at her daughter’s graduation so the “Happy Mother’s Day” was to the audience. But she was in it! Unfortunately, she didn’t win again so there was no dramatic rendition the following day of the time she thought her front tire was flat but it turned out to be a shadow. All we got was that she threw bean bags moderately well and sat in a crowd.

I want to know what stories the producers passed on. Did cornhole and a speech attendance get picked because they were somehow the most interesting, or was she freakishly NC-17 and everything else she shared involved farm animals and out of state fireworks? I’m imagining a wits end production meeting: “Backstage at Guns & Roses is a no-go, the statute hasn’t run out on the Florida trip one, and the airplane stunt… I keep telling her you can’t say midget on T.V. anymore but it’s like I’m speaking to Don Rickles. I can’t believe we have to go with cornhole – which is still a risk considering the mouth on her. Did she really know Adam West?”

If bean bags and general well wishes were as interesting as it got, you may be saying she needs a POETS Day release to make memorable mischief. If she’s running ultraviolet on the network-okayed colorful character spectrum and the show settled for the only stories they wouldn’t have to bleep, you may be saying she needs to be honored as a POETS Day Patron Saint. I don’t know enough to decide either way, but I am saying Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday because you have to grab a Friday afternoon away from work and watch Jeopardy. It’s on at 3:30 in my market and I’m assuming a similar time in yours. It’s a great show and that cornhole lady seemed sweet.


When I was in school I read all the poetry I was supposed to read. I knew about “Evangeline” and “The Faerie Queen” even if I don’t remember much now. I read Paradise Lost, “Annabelle Lee” and “The Raven,” “Leaves of Grass,” and I learned about tigers burning and despair. I still remember the first twenty-plus lines of The Canterbury Tales and can say them really fast. I also still remember old English bad words for lady parts from “The Miller’s Tale.” I did what was asked and passed the tests.

None of the poetry I was assigned resonated with me back then because I compared them all to Robert Graves. There was a letter from Graves on the wall of my father’s study at home. As a college student, dad sent Graves a few poems he wrote and Graves responded with encouragement, I’m pretty sure (the handwriting leaves room for almost any interpretation in spots.) Picturing it on the wall, the blue matting matched the fountain pen strokes that from dart throwing distance appear less like words than like musical notation or lines of Arabic script. At least that’s my memory of it. It’s only a ten-minute drive from where I’m sitting so it would be easy enough to check, but it’s years away since I gave it more than a passing glance, another frame decorating a wall. When I was a kid, though, it was a demarcation. There were people who wrote poetry, and there was Graves. Poets do, Graves is.

For romantic reasons he went to fight and found the least romantic war to date. He was disillusioned and wise. Poets I was required to read used “thee,” ended verbs with “eth,” and seemed to live on the verge of emotional panic. Graves wrote colloquially and it seemed effortless, as if metered poetry were his default for even casual conversation.

Expect Nothing
Robert Graves (1895-1985)

Give, ask for nothing, hope for nothing,
Subsist on crumbs, though scattered casually
Not for you (she smiles) but for the birds.
Though only a thief’s diet, it staves off
Dire starvation, nor does she grow fat
On the bread she crumbles, while the lonely truth
Of love is honoured, and her word pledged.

He was cool. A few years ago I started reading poetry differently. I can’t tell you why; I just got the itch, picked up a book, and became a fan – a hobbyist reader maybe.

Now I’m enamored of a cavalcade. Pound especially, but Eliot, Moore, Bishop, Plath, Schwartz, and Crane to get started, and that’s just the Modern Poets. I’m promiscuous so the list goes on. There’s so much to admire and so many who have their own brand of cool, but Graves still stands above.

A week or so ago I was reading Pound’s ABC of Reading, and near the end he included a poem listed as “LANDOR: Poems and Epigrams, probably edition of 1846, CLXXXIX.” Pound himself notes that he’s been accused of selling publishers his notebooks and manages to shrug an admission to the charge. The “probably” was necessary, but misplaced, as the poem that followed was from Walter Savage Landor’s 1846 collection, but it was not CLXXXIX. I hope he was more precise working as Yeats’s assistant because it took me forever to find.


Does it become a girl so wise,
So exquisite in harmonies,
To ask me when do I intend
To write a sonnet? What? my friend!
A sonnet? Never. Rhyme o’erflows
Italian, which hath scarcely prose;
And I have larded full three-score
With sorte, morte, cuor, amor.
But why should we, altho’ we have
Enough for all things, gay or grave,
Say, on your conscience, why should we
Who draw deep scans along the sea,
Cut them in pieces to beset
The shallows with a cabbage-net?
Now if you ever ask again
A thing so troublesome and vain,
By all your charms! before the morn,
To show my anger and my scorn,
First I will write your name a-top,
Then from this very ink shall drop
A score of sonnets; every one
Shall call you star, or moon, or sun,
Till, swallowing such warm-water verse,
Even sonnet-sippers sicken worse.

Before reading Pound’s book, I’d never heard of Landor, but he struck me right away. It seems so effortless. He’s witty and knowing and measured. He’s cool. Graves cool.

Since reading that poem I’ve had a great time with his shorter works. He does do some of the “thee” and “-eth” stuff but I forgive him that because that kind of thing doesn’t bother me when it’s not anachronistic, or at least not yet an anachronistic anachronism. Landor was writing in the late eighteenth and early and mid-nineteenth centuries. Writers from that period hadn’t the time to purge all the Pilgrim’s Progress from their grammar. Pound writes to “thou” sometimes and it makes my eyes roll.

Landor is best known for his Imaginary Conversations, prose dialogues between remarkable dead or fictitious figures, of which he wrote nearly one hundred and fifty. His poetry didn’t sell well, which suited him as he was in the inheritance business, or as Yeats later wrote, his life was “leisured learning and unprofitable publication.” Recounting that Lou Reed told him the first Velvet Underground album sold less than thirty thousand copies, Brian Eno said “I think everyone who bought one of those thirty thousand copies started a band!” Influence is not always measured by sales. Such with Landor.

Robert Browning, Algernon Swinburne, and Kipling were fans. Dickens based the character Lawrence Boythorn in Bleak House on him. He also named his second son Walter Savage Landor Dickens. William Gifford wrote that Landor’s epic Gebir was “A jumble of incomprehensible trash… the most vile and despicable effusion of a mad and muddy brain…” but there’s always going to be one. For the most part, he was admired or held in awe by notable poets and reviewers alike.

Landor seems to have inspired great loyalty in those close to him and his legendary temper caused those not close to sue him, often. One of his favorite ploys was to libel those with whom he had dispute in Latin, a language in which he wrote prolifically, because for reasons beyond me English law at the time allowed you to print anything about anyone so long as it was written in that dead tongue. Not realizing this was a quirk of English law, I suppose, got him in trouble in Italy. He was kicked out of Como, where he’d been living for two years, after writing savagely about a local government official. I can see him explaining “But…? Latin.” to a bemused (or not) judiciary.

He wrote a great many love poems. His most famous is to Rose Aylmer, a sister of a friend he had feelings for, on hearing that she died in India of cholera.

CII (Rose Aylmer)

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.

It’s not a bad poem, but I’m at a loss as to why it’s singled out for praise. It doesn’t strike me as personal. It’s like he had a “Elegy of Great Import and Emotion For Public Consumption” how-to manual laying about. It seems out of place.

He wrote others to Ione, the name he used to refer to Nancy Evans. His father disapproved of the match so Landor ran off to London with the girl. She later died in childbirth. Others to Rose Poynter, a girl he met in Bath, and still others to Sophia Jane Swift, another Bath meeting whom he called Ianthe in verse. Family duty forced her to marry another, but his feelings for her, and I believe hers for him, never faltered. On learning of her death, he wrote the best of his love poems I’ve yet read, though I can’t seem to find the title:

Sophia! whom I seldom call’d by name,
And trembled when I wrote it; O my friend
Severed so long from me! one morn I dreamt
That we were walking hand in hand thro’ paths
Slippery with sunshine: after many years
Had flown away, and seas and realms been crost,
And much (alas how much!) by both endured
We joined our hands together and told our tale.
And now thy hand hath slipt away from mine,
And the cold marble cramps it; I dream one,
Dost thou dream too? and are our dreams the same?

In 1811, again in Bath, he saw Julia Thuillier at a ball. “That’s the nicest girl in the room,” he reportedly said, “and I’ll marry her.” And he did. Her father was in financial trouble and had abandoned his family so he didn’t marry her for money. He must have felt for the girl, but I’ve read he never wrote a poem for her. I can’t confirm that as I’ve not read the oeuvre, but I haven’t come across her name. Maybe one of the ones written to an unnamed woman were to her? It’s odd.

I wish I had more insight on the man, but as I said, Landor is brand new to me. If your looking for a new distraction, he’s a good binge. I’ll leave you with one more of Landor’s in his best Graves cool voice.

Walter Savage Landor (1775 – 1864)

Did I then ask of you why one so wise –
Should often look on life with downcast eyes,
And mar sometimes their brightness with a tear?
The vainer and less gentle are more gay,
Over the level wave they glide away,
And little know what hidden rocks are near.

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