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Poet on Poet of the Week on Friday, 10 July 2020
Walter Savage Landor
The poet who is the author of perhaps the greatest of very short poems in English had a veryTaken from 'Poets on Poets'...
long life (1775-1864). When Landor was a child, there was an old woman in his village who was
said to have spoken with John Milton, when she was very young. Young Swinburne paid tribute on
a visit to Landor as a young Pound paid tribute to Swinburne, so that Landor embodies a kind of
link between Milton and the modern period.
The poems are suitable to this link: deeply romantic in feeling, classical in formal economy and
bite, they have a sculptural clarity that appealed mightily to Pound.
It is a truism that Landor is a poet's poet. I once heard Elizabeth Bishop, in the course of a
conversation with Robert Lowell, recite 'Past Ruin'd Ilion' for the edification of Lowell and
me. 'That is the kind of poetry we all should write,' she told Lowell, rather scoldingly. The
sounds of that poem, of his four brilliant lines on the hair of Lucrezia Borgia, and in
particular of his poem 'Separation' ('There is a mountain and a wood between us') stand as a
kind of measure for the best in poetic writing, for me.
Landor wrote wonderful poems longer than these ('The Fiesolan Idyl', 'To His Child Carlino'),
but I have chosen to keep to the songs and epigrams in this selection. The great stylist kept
his powers into his very old age, and I have included the extraordinary poem 'Memory', which
along with the epigram beginning 'To my ninth decad I have tottered on' surely embodies some of
the most powerful writing imaginable on the subject of feeling one's powers failing in old age.
Past Ruin'd Ilion
Past ruin'd Ilion Helen lives,
Alcestis rises from the shades;
Verse calls them forth; 'tis verse that gives
Immortal youth to mortal maids.
Soon shall Oblivion's deepening veil
Hide all the peopled hills you see,
The gay, the proud, while lovers hail
In distant ages you and me.
The tear for fading beauty check,
For passing glory cease to sigh;
One form shall rise above the wreck,
One name, Ianthe, shall not die.
On Seeing a Hair of Lucretia Borgia
Borgia, thou once wert almost too august,
And high for adoration; - now thou 'rt dust!
All that remains of thee these plaits infold -
Calm hair, meand'ring with pellucid gold!
Wormwood and Rue
Wormwood and rue be on his tongue
And ashes on his head,
Who chills the feast and checks the song
With emblems of the dead!
By young and jovial, wise and brave,
Such mummers are derided.
His sacred rites shall Bacchus have,
Unspared and undivided.
Coucht by my friends, I fear no mask
Impending from above,
I only fear the later flask
That holds me from my love.
Death of the Day
My pictures blacken in their frames
As night comes on,
And youthful maids and wrinkled dames
Are now all one.
Death of the day! a sterner Death
Did worse before;
The fairest form, the sweetest breath,
Away he bore.
There is a mountain and a wood between us,
Where the lone shepherd and late bird have seen us
Morning and noon and even-tide repass.
Between us now the mountain and the wood
Seem standing darker than last year they stood,
And say we must not cross, alas! alas!
To Robert Browining
There is delight in singing, though none hear
Beside the singer; and there is delight
In praising, though the praiser sit alone
And see the prais'd far off him, far above.
Shakespeare is not our poet, but the world's,
Therefore on him no speech; and short for thee,
Browning! Since Chaucer was alive and hale,
No man hath walk'd along our roads with step
So active, so inquiring eye, or tongue
So varied in discourse. But warmer climes
Give brighter plumage, stronger wing; the breeze
Of Alpine heights thou playst with, borne on
Beyond Sorrento and Amalfi, where
The Siren waits thee, singing song for song.
The Leaves are Falling
The leaves are falling; so am I;
The few late flowers have moisture in the eye;
So have I too.
Scarcely on any bough is heard
Joyous, or even unjoyous, bird
The whole wood through.
Winter may come: he brings but nigher
His circle (yearly narrowing) to the fire
Where old friends meet:
Let him; now heaven is overcast,
And spring and summer both are past,
And all things sweet.
Mother, I cannot mind my wheel;
My fingers ache, my lips are dry:
Oh! if you felt the pain I feel!
But Oh, who ever felt as I?
No longer could I doubt him true;
All other men may use deceit:
He always said my eyes were blue,
And often swore my lips were sweet.
Ah what avails the sceptred race,
Ah what the form divine!
What, every virtue, every grace!
For, Aylmer, all were thine.
Sweet Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes
May weep, but never see,
A night of sorrows and of sighs
I consecrate to thee.
The mother of the Muses, we are taught,
Is Memory: she has left me; they remain,
And shake my shoulder, urging me to sing
About the summer days, my loves of old.
Alas! alas! is all I can reply.
Memory has left with me that name alone,
Harmonious name, which other bards may sing,
But her bright image in my darkest hour
Comes back, in vain comes back, call'd or uncall'd.
Forgotten are the names of visitors
Ready to press my hand but yesterday;
Forgotten are the names of earlier friends
Whose genial converse and glad countenance
Are fresh as ever to mine ear and eye;
To these, when I have written, and besought
Remembrance of me, the word Dear alone
Hangs on the upper verge, and waits in vain.
A blessing wert thou, O oblivion,
If thy stream carried only weeds away,
But vernal and autumnal flowers alike
It hurries down to wither on the strand.
'To my ninth decad i have tottered on'
To my ninth decad I have tottered on,
And no soft arm bends now my steps to steady;
She, who once led me where she would, is gone,
So when he calls me, Death shall find me ready.
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