Wednesday, September 20, 2017

`Who For the Rapier Drop the Cudgell'

In 1858, Walter Savage Landor published a collection of epigrams he titled Dry Sticks, Fagoted. Please understand that fagoted (or faggoted) refers to sticks bundled or bound together for use as fuel. I remember our tenth-grade giggles over all the attention devoted to “gathering faggots” in The Return of the Native. Landor’s title is self-deprecatingly perfect. In his brief preface he writes:

“Among the Dry Sticks many are so slender that they seem to have been cut after a few years’ growth; others are knottier and more gnarled than are usually carried to market, but give out great heat and burn longer . . . . Here are light matters within; twigs, broken buds, and moss: but who, in taking up a volume, has not sometimes had reason to complain of a quality the reverse of lightness? and who is ignorant that the lightest is the best part of many?”

I’m reading the epigrams as collected in Vol. VIII of the nine-volume Works and Life of Walter Savage Landor (1876). Only one do I remember reading before:

“Around the child bend all the three
Sweet Graces: Faith, Hope, Charity.
Around the man bend other faces;
Pride, Envy, Malice, are his Graces.”

Landor can be grim-minded, and some would say cynical, so he is well-suited to the writing of epigrams. There’s little sweetness in him, or happy talk. He was hot-headed and contentious, given to tantrums. He possessed the gift of offending almost everyone he met, though Carlyle, who knew bile and crankiness when he saw it, perceived in Landor “stirring company: a proud irascible, trenchant, yet generous, veracious, and very dignified old man.” In “Old-Fashioned Verse,” Landor traces his poetic family tree:

“In verse alone I ran not wild
When I was hardly more than child,
Contented with the native lay
Of Pope or Prior, Swift or Gay,
Or Goldsmith, or that graver bard
Who led me to the lone church-yard.
Then listened I to Spenser’s strain,
Till Chaucer’s Canterbury train
Came trooping past, and carried me
In more congenial company.
Soon my soul was hurried o’er
This bright scene: the `solemn roar’
Of organ, under Milton’s hand,
Struck me mute: he bade me stand
Where none other ambled near . . .
I obey’d, with love and fear.”

In Landor: A Replevin (1958), Malcolm Elwin reports the poet first wished to call his volume of epigrams Dry Leaves, and then Dry Sticks Fagoted by the late Walter Savage Landor, though he lived for another six years after publication. For some of the poems in Dry Sticks he was sued for libel, prompting him to return to Italy for the remainder of his life. Landor could never walk away from a fight, or he walked away too late. His wit was savage and often amusing, though he knew little of moderation or tact. Here is “My Wit Scanty”:

“I have but little wit, all they
Whose brains are close and curdy say;
They relish best the broadfaced jokes
Of hearty, burly, country-folks,
And are quite certain those must judge ill
Who for the rapier drop the cudgell [sic].”
I’m reminded of another gifted writer of epigrams, R.L. Barth, whose “Don't You Know Your Poems are Hurtful?” is collected in Deeply Dug In (2003):

“Yes, ma’am. Like KA-BAR to the gut,
Well-tempered wit should thrust and cut
Before the victim knows what’s what;
But sometimes, lest the point be missed,
I give the bloody blade a twist.”  


slr in tx said...


I appreciate the pun on Thomas Gray in lines 5 & 6 of WSL's “Old-Fashioned Verse.”

"That savage old Boeotian, Walter Landor,
Who took for swan, Dan Southey's gander."

Byron, on Landor's penchant for invoking mythological antecedents in his verse.

Conor Kelly said...


The best use of faggots in English literature may be in W. B. Yeats's great poem "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory":-

Some burn damp faggots, others may consume
The entire combustible world in one small room
As though dried straw…

My own take on the epigrams of Landor is available at

You might put the briefpoems blog on your blog list, if you like it.