Saturday, December 01, 2012

`I Am Ready to Depart'

Not the most promising of titles: Landor, a Replevin. Macdonald & Co. of London published Malcolm Elwin’s biography of Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864) in 1958. The library copy I borrowed, according to the dates stamped in the back, hasn’t circulated since 1963. This is significant because for all I knew, “Replevin,” in the context of the title, might have signified an ethnic or religious group. I’d never seen the word before but the Oxford English Dictionary came to my rescue. It’s a legal term: 

“The restoration to or recovery by a person of goods or chattels distrained or confiscated, upon giving a surety to have the matter tried in a court of justice and to return the goods if the case is lost.” 

The OED adds that in the U.S., the word has come to mean “the restoration or recovery of any goods claimed to be unlawfully taken or withheld.” In other words, if the repo man takes your car even though you’ve made all the payments on time, you might secure a writ of replevin to get it back. What does this have to do with Landor, a classicist who wrote poetry in Latin and English, and is remembered, if at all, for Imaginary Conversations? Elwin explains in his first chapter that he wrote his 502-page volume to rescue Landor from his earlier biographers: 

“This book is described as `a replevin’ because it is an attempt to recover Landor’s character from misrepresentation and his work from neglect. So far as possible, he is allowed to speak for himself; if there is more copious quotation than seems strictly necessary to the biographical narrative, it is because much of his work is difficult of access and examples of its quality may induce readers to seek for more.” 

I’ve only dabbled in Landor. The Complete Works, published between 1927 and 1936, totals sixteen volumes. Yvor Winters, who possessed some of Landor’s cussedness, judged him, at least on occasion, a great poet. I admire Elwin’s loyalty to his subject, his will to rescue Landor from vultures. Of an earlier biographer he writes: “…his readers must wonder why he persevered so long in studying a subject with whom he felt so little sympathy.” Vindictively judgmental biographies constitute a sub-genre of the form, often driven by retrospective superiority. Among those receiving self-righteous post-mortems have been Jefferson, Lincoln and Philip Larkin. Others are condemned by being ignored. No one has written Yvor Winters’ life, though a biography of the unreadable Robert Duncan was recently published, and another hagiography of Allen Ginsberg is on the way -- biography as politics. In 1849, on the occasion of his seventy-fourth birthday, Landor wrote his own epitaph, later titled “Dying Speech of an Old Philosopher”: 

“I strove with none, for none was worth my strife.
Nature I loved, and, next to nature, Art;
I warm'd both hands before the fire of Life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.”    

[See Robert Pinsky’s reading of a Landor epigram.]


George said...

There is the comedian in Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers who concludes his reading of the epitaph by identifying Art as the delivery boy at the corner grocer's.

I have read a few of Landor's poems, mostly in anthologies. Henry Adams, reading his way through Landor on a ship traveling to the South Pacific, did not enjoy him: "Landor drives one to mania by his commonplace classicism, which is doubly trying, because it is both dogmatic and second-rate." (Letter to Elizabeth Cameron, 26 August, 1891)

Helen Pinkerton said...

Thanks, Patrick, and thanks to Robert Pinsky for Landor's true epigram.