Sunday, April 10, 2016

`Not of Much Use to Us'

Walter Savage Landor is one of literature’s pungent gag writers. His timing is flawless, his conscience unburdened with delicacy, his prose pithy. To his credit, he never sets himself up as a comedian, which, of course, boosts the humor. He merely speaks his mind, and often it’s funny, usually intentionally. While looking up something else in John Forster’s Walter Savage Landor: A Biography (1869) I happened on this:

“Hazlitt’s books are delightful to read, pleasant always, often eloquent and affecting in the extreme. But I don't get much valuable criticism out of them. Coleridge was worth fifty of him in that respect. A point may be very sharp, and yet not go very deep; and the deficiency of penetrating may be the result of its fineness. A shoemaker whose shoes are always well pollisht and always neatly cut out, but rarely fit, is not of much use to us.”

Hazlitt (born on this date, April 10, in 1778) wrote some of the best prose in the language, had silly things to say about Dr. Johnson, but was on-the-money when it came to Shelley: “Though a man in knowledge, he is a child in feeling.” And here is Landor on a forgotten figure, William Gifford, a critic and poet, author of The Baviad and The Maeviad:

“I am reading another volume of Southey’s Letters. What an invidious knave it shows Gifford to have been, and how much trouble he took to spoil Southey's reviews! This cobbler cut away so much of leather, The shoe would neither fit nor hold together. His tastes were detestable. He ought to have kept his nose eternally over Juvenal’s full cess-pool.”

Not that Landor always played the attack dog. Here he is on the master pit bull, Swift:

“I am reading once more the work I have read oftener than any other prose work in our language [A Tale of a Tub]. I cannot bring to my recollection the number of copies I have given away, chiefly to young Catholic ladies. I really believe I converted one by it unintentionally. What a writer! not the most imaginative or the most simple, not Bacon or Goldsmith, had the power of saying more forcibly or completely whatever he meant to say!”

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