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13 January, 2012
The Glory Of English Prose|
19. Walter Savage Landor
by Coleridge, Stephen
|My Dear Antony,
There are four very celebrated lines written by Walter Savage
Landor which you may have heard quoted; they were written towards
the close of his life, and are certainly distinguished and
"I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved, and next to Nature Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart."
It does not detract from the merit of the lines that as a fact
Landor was of a fiery disposition, and strove a great deal with
many adversaries, often of his own creation, throughout his long
life ; and although he was of a fierce
and combative nature he displayed in his writings a classical
restraint and tender beauty hardly achieved by his
In the form of an imaginary conversation between Æsop and
Rhodope, Landor makes the latter describe how her father, in the
famine, unbeknown to her, starved that she might have plenty, and,
when all was gone, took her to the market-place to sell her that
she might live. There is an exquisite delicacy in this dialogue
that places it among the wonders of literature:—
"Rhodope. Never shall I forget the morning when my
father, sitting in the coolest part of the house, exchanged his
last measure of grain for a chlamys of scarlet cloth, fringed with
silver. He watched the merchant out of the door, and then looked
wistfully into the cornchest. I, who thought there was something
worth seeing, looked in also, and finding it empty, expressed my
disappointment, not thinking, however, about the corn. A faint and
transient smile came over his countenance at the sight of mine. He
unfolded the chlamys, stretched it out with both hands before me,
and then cast it over my shoulders. I looked down on the glittering
fringe and screamed with joy. He then went out; and I know not what
flowers he gathered, but he gathered many; and some he placed in my
bosom, and some in my hair. But I told him with captious pride,
first that I could arrange them better, and again that I would have
only the white. However, when he had selected all the white and I
had placed a few of them according to my fancy, I told him (rising
in my slipper) he might crown me with the remainder.
The Dream of Petrarca is, I think, more famous but not
more beautiful than this narrative of Rhodope; it lacks the deep
human tragedy and infinite charity of the winsome child, and the
self-contained father silently perishing of hunger for her; but if
the Æsop and Rhodope had never been written, the
Dream of Petrarca would secure its author a place among the
"The splendour of my apparel gave me a sensation of authority.
Soon as the flowers had taken their station on my head, I expressed
a dignified satisfaction at the taste displayed by my father, just
as if I could have seen how they appeared! But he knew that there
was at least as much pleasure as pride in it, and perhaps we
divided the latter (alas! not both) pretty equally.
"He now took me into the market-place, where a concourse of
people were waiting for the purchase of slaves. Merchants came and
looked at me; some commending, others disparaging; but all agreeing
that I was slender and delicate, that I could not live long, and
that I should give much trouble. Many would have bought the
chlamys, but there was something less saleable in the child and
"Æsop. Had thy features been coarse and thy voice
rustic, they would all have patted thy cheeks and found no fault in
"Rhodope. As it was, every one had bought exactly such
another in time past, and been a loser by it. At these speeches, I
perceived the flowers tremble slightly on my bosom, from my
father's agitation. Although he scoffed at them, knowing my
healthiness, he was troubled internally, and said many short
prayers, not very unlike imprecations, turning his head aside.
Proud was I, prouder than ever, when at last several talents were
offered for me, and by the very man who in the beginning had
undervalued me most, and prophesied the worst of me. My father
scowled at him and refused the money. I thought he was playing a
game, and began to wonder what it could be, since I had never seen
it played before. Then I fancied it might be some celebration
because plenty had returned to the city, insomuch that my father
had bartered the last of the corn he hoarded.
"I grew more and more delighted at the sport. But soon there
advanced an elderly man, who said gravely, 'Thou hast stolen this
child; her vesture alone is worth a hundred drachmas. Carry her
home again to her parents, and do it directly, or Nemesis and the
Eumenides will overtake thee.' Knowing the estimation in which my
father had always been holden by his fellow-citizens, I laughed
again and pinched his ear. He, although naturally choleric, burst
forth into no resentment at these reproaches, but said calmly, 'I
think I know thee by name, O guest! Surely thou art Xanthus, the
Samian. Deliver this child from famine.'
"Again I laughed aloud and heartily, and thinking it was now
part of the game, I held out both my arms, and protruded my whole
body toward the stranger. He would not receive me from my father's
neck, but he asked me with benignity and solicitude if I was
hungry; at which I laughed again, and more than ever; for it was
early in the morning, soon after the first meal, and my father had
nourished me most carefully and plentifully in all the days of the
famine. But Xanthus, waiting for no answer, took out of a sack,
which one of his slaves carried at his side, a cake of wheaten
bread and a piece of honeycomb, and gave them to me. I held the
honeycomb to my father's mouth, thinking it the most of a dainty.
He dashed it to the ground, but seizing the bread he began to
devour it ferociously. This also I thought was in the play, and I
clapped my hands at his distortions. But Xanthus looked at him like
one afraid, and smote the cake from him, crying aloud, 'Name the
price,' My father now placed me in his arms, naming a price much
below what the other had offered, saying, 'The gods are ever with
thee, O Xanthus! therefore to thee do I consign my child.'
"But while Xanthus was counting out the silver my father seized
the cake again, which the slave had taken up and was about to
replace in the wallet. His hunger was exasperated by the taste, and
the delay. Suddenly there arose much tumult. Turning round in the
old woman's bosom who had received me from Xanthus, I saw my
beloved father struggling on the ground, livid and speechless. The
more violent my cries, the more rapidly they hurried me away; and
many were soon between us.
"Little was I suspicious that he had suffered the pangs of
famine long before: alas! and he had suffered them for me. Do I
weep while I am telling you they ended? I could not have closed his
eyes; I was too young; but I might have received his last breath,
the only comfort of an orphan's bosom. Do you now think him
blameable, O Æsop?"
"Æsop. It was sublime humanity; it was forbearance
and self-denial which even the immortal gods have never shown
"... Wearied with the length of my walk over the mountains, and
finding a soft molehill, covered with grey moss, by the wayside, I
laid my head upon it and slept. I cannot tell how long it was
before a species of dream or vision came over me.
There is something most rare and refined and precious in this
vision, told as it is with a sweet serenity. But it does not touch
the heart like the Æsop and Rhodope.
"Two beautiful youths appeared beside me; each was winged; but
the wings were hanging down and seemed ill-adapted to flight. One
of them, whose voice was the softest I ever heard, looking at me
frequently, said to the other, 'He is under my guardianship for the
present; do not awaken him with that feather.' Methought, on
hearing the whisper, I saw something like the feather on an arrow;
and then the arrow itself; the whole of it, even to the point,
although he carried it in such a manner that it was difficult at
first to discover more than a palm's length of it; the rest of the
shaft (and the whole of the barb) was behind his ankles.
"'This feather never awakens anyone,' replied he, rather
petulantly, 'but it brings more of confident security, and more of
cherished dreams, than you, without me, are capable of
"'Be it so!' answered the gentler; 'none is less inclined to
quarrel or dispute than am I. Many whom you have wounded grievously
call upon me for succour; but so little am I disposed to thwart
you, it is seldom I venture to do more for them than to whisper a
few words of comfort in passing. How many reproaches on these
occasions have been cast upon me for indifference and infidelity!
Nearly as many, and nearly in the same terms as upon you.'
"'Odd enough that we, O Sleep! should be thought so alike!' said
Love contemptuously. 'Yonder is he who bears a nearer resemblance
to you; the dullest have observed it.' I fancied I turned my eyes
to where he was pointing, and saw at a distance the figure he
designated. Meanwhile the contention went on uninterruptedly. Sleep
was slow in asserting his power or his benefits. Love recapitulated
them; but only that he might assert his own above them.
"Suddenly he called upon me to decide, and to choose my patron.
Under the influence, first of the one, then of the other, I sprang
from repose to rapture, I alighted from rapture on repose, and knew
not which was sweetest. Love was very angry with me, and declared
he would cross me through the whole of my existence. Whatever I
might on other occasions have thought of his veracity, I now felt
too surely that he would keep his word.
"At last, before the close of the altercation, the third Genius
had advanced, and stood near us. I cannot tell you how I knew him,
but I knew him to be the Genius of Death. Breathless as I was at
beholding him, I soon became familiar with his features. First they
seemed only calm; presently they grew contemplative; and lastly
beautiful; those of the Graces themselves are less regular, less
harmonious, less composed.
"Love glanced at him unsteadily, with a countenance in which
there was somewhat of anxiety, somewhat of disdain; and cried, 'Go
away! go away! nothing that thou touchest, lives!' 'Say rather,
child!' replied the advancing form, and advancing grew loftier and
statelier, 'say rather that nothing of beautiful or of glorious
lives its own true life until my wing hath passed over it.'
"Love pouted, and rumpled and bent down with his forefinger the
stiff short feathers on his arrow-head, but replied not. Although
he frowned worse than ever, and at me, I dreaded him less and less,
and scarcely looked towards him. The milder and calmer Genius, the
third, in proportion as I took courage to contemplate him, regarded
me with more and more complacency. He held neither flower nor arrow
as the others did, but throwing back the clusters of dark curls
that overshadowed his countenance, he presented to me his hand,
openly and benignly. I shrank on looking at him so near, and yet I
sighed to love him. He smiled, not without an expression of pity,
at perceiving my diffidence, my timidity; for I remembered how soft
was the hand of Sleep, how warm and entrancing was Love's.
"By degrees I became ashamed of my ingratitude, and turning my
face away, I held out my arms, and I felt my neck within his; the
coolness of freshest morning breathed around; the heavens seemed to
open above me, while the beautiful cheek of my deliverer rested on
my head. I would now have looked for those others, but knowing my
intention by my gesture, he said consolatorily, 'Sleep is on his
way to the Earth, where many are calling him; but it is not to
these he hastens, for every call only makes him fly further off.
Sedately and gravely as he looks, he is nearly as capricious and
volatile as the more arrogant and ferocious one.'
"'And Love!' said I, 'whither is he departed? If not too late, I
would propitiate and appease him.'
"'He who cannot follow me; he who cannot overtake and pass me,'
said the Genius, 'is unworthy of the name, the most glorious in
earth or heaven. Look up! Love is yonder, and ready to receive
"I looked: the earth was under me: I saw only the clear blue
sky, and something brighter above it."
Your loving old
Born 1775, died 1864.