Saturday, September 1, 2007

Landor on Karma, Coleridge & Presence

[Walter Savage Landor to Countess of Blessington]

Firenze, March 16th, 1835.

After a year or more, I receive your reminiscences of Byron.* Never, for the love of God, send any thing again by a Welshman—I mean, any thing lit­erary. Lord D—'s brother, like Lord D— himself, is a very good man, and if you had sent me a cheese, would have delivered it safely in due season. But a book is a thing that does not spoil so soon. Alas! how few are there who know the aches of expectancy, when we have long been looking up high for some suspended gift of bright imagination!

Thanks upon thanks for making me think Byron a better and a wiser man than I had thought him. Since this precious volume, I have been read­ing the English Opium-eater's Recollections of Coleridge, a genius of the highest order, even in poetry.

I was amused—when I was a youth I should have been shocked and dis­gusted—at his solution of Pythagoras's enigma on bears.

When I was at Oxford, I wrote my opinion on the origin of the religion of the Druids. It appeared to me that Pythagoras, who settled in Italy, and who had many followers in the Greek colony of the Phœnicians at Marseilles, had ingrafted on a barbarous and bloodthirsty religion the humane doctrine of the Metempsychosis.

It would have been vain to say, Do not murder: no people ever minded this doctrine; but he frightened the savages by saying, If you are cruel even to beasts and insects, the cruelty will fall upon yourselves: you shall be the same. In this disquisition, I gave exactly the same solution as (it appears) Coleridge gave. Our friend Parr was delighted with it, and beyond a doubt it remains among my letters, &c., sent to him. I did not allow any of these to be published by Dr. John Johnston, his biographer, who asked my permis­sion.

Infinite as are the pains I take in composing and correcting my 'Imag­inary Conversations' (having no right to make other people speak and think worse than they did), I may indulge all my natural idleness in regard to my­self.

Mr. Robinson, the soundest man that ever stepped through the trammels of law, gave me, a few days ago, the sorrowful information that another of our great writers had joined Coleridge. Poor Charles Lamb, what a tender, good, joyous heart had he! What playfulness! what purity of style and thought! His sister is yet living, much older than himself. One of her tales is, with the exception of the "Bride of Lammermoor", the most beautiful tale in prose composition in any language, ancient or modern. A young girl has lost her mother; the father marries again, and marries a friend of his former wife. The child is ill reconciled to it, but, being dressed in new clothes for the marriage, she runs up to her mother's chamber, filled with the idea how happy that dear mother would be at seeing her in all her glory—not reflect­ing, poor soul! that it was only by her mother's death that she appeared in it. How natural, how novel is all this! Did you ever imagine that a fresh source of the pathetic would burst forth before us in this trodden and harden­ed world? I never did, and when I found myself upon it, I pressed my tem­ples with both hands, and tears ran down to my elbows.

The Opium-eater calls Coleridge 'the largest and most spacious intellect, the subtlest and most comprehensive that has yet existed among men. Im­piety to Shakspeare! treason to Milton! I give up the rest, even Bacon. Certainly, since their day, we have seen nothing at all comparable to him. Byron and Scott were but as gun-flints to a granite mountain; Wordsworth has one angle of resemblance; Southey has written more, and all well, much admirably. Forster has said grand things about me; but I sit upon the earth with my heels under me, looking up devoutly to this last glorious ascension. Never ask me about the rest. If you do, I shall only answer, in the cries that you are very likely to hear at this moment from your window, 'Ground ivy! ground ivy! ground ivy!'

Can not you teach those about you to write somewhat more purely? I am very fastidious. Three days ago I was obliged to correct a friend of mine, a man of fashion, who so far forgot the graces as to say of a lady, 'I have not often been in her company. ' 'Say presence;' we are in the company of men, in the presence of angels and of women. . . .

W. S. L.

*Conversations With Lord Byron (1834).

-from The Literary Life and Correspondence of the Countess of Blessington (New York: Harper ) vol. 2, p. 122-24.

No comments: