Thursday, April 05, 2018

`Excel in Some Way by Mere Words'

An old friend reminds me of how “stirring and tough-minded” a poet Walter Savage Landor could be:

“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.”

Sometimes titled “Dying Speech of an Old Philosopher” (recalling “To an Old Philosopher in Rome”), the epigram was written in 1849, on the occasion of Landor’s seventy-fourth birthday. He would live another fifteen years and remain as touchy and hot-tempered as ever. With Carlyle, he is one of literature’s world-class cranks – and a great writer. In naming his loves, Landor ignores women, children, family, friends. Boswell recounts this exchange between him and Johnson: “`But is not the fear of death natural to man?’ Johnson: `So much so, Sir, that the whole of life is but keeping away the thoughts of it.’” Landor would have us think he had dispensed with the entire subject. The poem brings to mind “To Walter Savage Landor” (The London Zoo, 1961) by C.H. Sisson, a poet not often generous with praise:

“No poet uses a chisel in quite the way
You do, or lays the marble chips together
In the sunlight, chip by chip.

“If you had this girl before you, you
Would make her excel in some way by mere words
But I have only my pity and little to show
For forty-five years. Memoranda
Are strictly not to be memorised. It is the fleeting moments
Sunlit leaf upon leaf, your speech
That remains.”

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