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The Glory of English Prose / Letters to My Grandson By Stephen Coleridge Characters: 12433

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

My Dear Antony,

There are four very celebrated lines written by Walter Savage Landor which you may have heard quoted; they were written towards the close of his life, and are certainly distinguished and memorable:-

"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."

It does not detract from the merit of the lines that as a fact Landor was of a fiery disposition, and strove a great deal with many adversaries, often of his own creation, throughout his long life[1]; and although he was of a fierce and combative nature he displayed in his writings a classical restraint and tender beauty hardly achieved by his contemporaries.

In the form of an imaginary conversation between ?sop and Rhodope, Landor makes the latter describe how her father, in the famine, unbeknown to her, starved that she might have plenty, and, when all was gone, took her to the market-place to sell her that she might live. There is an exquisite delicacy in this dialogue that places it among the wonders of literature:-

"Rhodope. Never shall I forget the morning when my father, sitting in the coolest part of the house, exchanged his last measure of grain for a chlamys of scarlet cloth, fringed with silver. He watched the merchant out of the door, and then looked wistfully into the cornchest. I, who thought there was something worth seeing, looked in also, and finding it empty, expressed my disappointment, not thinking, however, about the corn. A faint and transient smile came over his countenance at the sight of mine. He unfolded the chlamys, stretched it out with both hands before me, and then cast it over my shoulders. I looked down on the glittering fringe and screamed with joy. He then went out; and I know not what flowers he gathered, but he gathered many; and some he placed in my bosom, and some in my hair. But I told him with captious pride, first that I could arrange them better, and again that I would have only the white. However, when he had selected all the white and I had placed a few of them according to my fancy, I told him (rising in my slipper) he might crown me with the remainder.

"The splendour of my apparel gave me a sensation of authority. Soon as the flowers had taken their station on my head, I expressed a dignified satisfaction at the taste displayed by my father, just as if I could have seen how they appeared! But he knew that there was at least as much pleasure as pride in it, and perhaps we divided the latter (alas! not both) pretty equally.

"He now took me into the market-place, where a concourse of people were waiting for the purchase of slaves. Merchants came and looked at me; some commending, others disparaging; but all agreeing that I was slender and delicate, that I could not live long, and that I should give much trouble. Many would have bought the chlamys, but there was something less saleable in the child and flowers.

"?sop. Had thy features been coarse and thy voice rustic, they would all have patted thy cheeks and found no fault in thee.

"Rhodope. As it was, every one had bought exactly such another in time past, and been a loser by it. At these speeches, I perceived the flowers tremble slightly on my bosom, from my father's agitation. Although he scoffed at them, knowing my healthiness, he was troubled internally, and said many short prayers, not very unlike imprecations, turning his head aside. Proud was I, prouder than ever, when at last several talents were offered for me, and by the very man who in the beginning had undervalued me most, and prophesied the worst of me. My father scowled at him and refused the money. I thought he was playing a game, and began to wonder what it could be, since I had never seen it played before. Then I fancied it might be some celebration because plenty had returned to the city, insomuch that my father had bartered the last of the corn he hoarded.

"I grew more and more delighted at the sport. But soon there advanced an elderly man, who said gravely, 'Thou hast stolen this child; her vesture alone is worth a hundred drachmas. Carry her home again to her parents, and do it directly, or Nemesis and the Eumenides will overtake thee.' Knowing the estimation in which my father had always been holden by his fellow-citizens, I laughed again and pinched his ear. He, although naturally choleric, burst forth into no resentment at these reproaches, but said calmly, 'I think I know thee by name, O guest! Surely thou art Xanthus, the Samian. Deliver this child from famine.'

"Again I laughed aloud and heartily, and thinking it was now part of the game, I held out both my arms, and protruded my whole body toward the stranger. He would not receive me from my father's neck, but he asked me with benignity and solicitude if I was hungry; at which I laughed again, and more than ever; for it was early in the morning, soon after the first meal, and my father had nourished me most carefully and plentifully in all the days of the famine. But Xanthus, waiting for no answer, took out of a sack, which one of his slaves carried at his side, a cake of wheaten bread and a piece of honeycomb, and gave them to me. I held the honeycomb to my father's mouth, thinking it the most of a dainty. He dashed it to the ground, but seizing the bread he began to devour it ferociously. This also I thought was in the play, and I clapped my hands at his distortions. But Xanthus looked at him like one afraid, and smote the cake from him, crying aloud, 'Name the price,' My father now placed me in his arms, naming a price much below what the other had offered, saying, 'The gods are ever with thee, O Xanthus! therefore to thee do I consign my child.'

"But while Xanthus was counting out the silver my father seized the cake again, which the slave had taken up and was about to replace in the wallet. His hunger was exasperated by the taste, and the delay. Suddenly there arose much tumult. Turning round in the old woman's bosom who had received me from Xanthus, I saw my beloved father struggling on the ground, livid and speechless. The more violent my cries, t

he more rapidly they hurried me away; and many were soon between us.

"Little was I suspicious that he had suffered the pangs of famine long before: alas! and he had suffered them for me. Do I weep while I am telling you they ended? I could not have closed his eyes; I was too young; but I might have received his last breath, the only comfort of an orphan's bosom. Do you now think him blameable, O ?sop?"

"?sop. It was sublime humanity; it was forbearance and self-denial which even the immortal gods have never shown us."

The Dream of Petrarca is, I think, more famous but not more beautiful than this narrative of Rhodope; it lacks the deep human tragedy and infinite charity of the winsome child, and the self-contained father silently perishing of hunger for her; but if the ?sop and Rhodope had never been written, the Dream of Petrarca would secure its author a place among the immortals:-

"... Wearied with the length of my walk over the mountains, and finding a soft molehill, covered with grey moss, by the wayside, I laid my head upon it and slept. I cannot tell how long it was before a species of dream or vision came over me.

"Two beautiful youths appeared beside me; each was winged; but the wings were hanging down and seemed ill-adapted to flight. One of them, whose voice was the softest I ever heard, looking at me frequently, said to the other, 'He is under my guardianship for the present; do not awaken him with that feather.' Methought, on hearing the whisper, I saw something like the feather on an arrow; and then the arrow itself; the whole of it, even to the point, although he carried it in such a manner that it was difficult at first to discover more than a palm's length of it; the rest of the shaft (and the whole of the barb) was behind his ankles.

"'This feather never awakens anyone,' replied he, rather petulantly, 'but it brings more of confident security, and more of cherished dreams, than you, without me, are capable of imparting.'

"'Be it so!' answered the gentler; 'none is less inclined to quarrel or dispute than am I. Many whom you have wounded grievously call upon me for succour; but so little am I disposed to thwart you, it is seldom I venture to do more for them than to whisper a few words of comfort in passing. How many reproaches on these occasions have been cast upon me for indifference and infidelity! Nearly as many, and nearly in the same terms as upon you.'

"'Odd enough that we, O Sleep! should be thought so alike!' said Love contemptuously. 'Yonder is he who bears a nearer resemblance to you; the dullest have observed it.' I fancied I turned my eyes to where he was pointing, and saw at a distance the figure he designated. Meanwhile the contention went on uninterruptedly. Sleep was slow in asserting his power or his benefits. Love recapitulated them; but only that he might assert his own above them.

"Suddenly he called upon me to decide, and to choose my patron. Under the influence, first of the one, then of the other, I sprang from repose to rapture, I alighted from rapture on repose, and knew not which was sweetest. Love was very angry with me, and declared he would cross me through the whole of my existence. Whatever I might on other occasions have thought of his veracity, I now felt too surely that he would keep his word.

"At last, before the close of the altercation, the third Genius had advanced, and stood near us. I cannot tell you how I knew him, but I knew him to be the Genius of Death. Breathless as I was at beholding him, I soon became familiar with his features. First they seemed only calm; presently they grew contemplative; and lastly beautiful; those of the Graces themselves are less regular, less harmonious, less composed.

"Love glanced at him unsteadily, with a countenance in which there was somewhat of anxiety, somewhat of disdain; and cried, 'Go away! go away! nothing that thou touchest, lives!' 'Say rather, child!' replied the advancing form, and advancing grew loftier and statelier, 'say rather that nothing of beautiful or of glorious lives its own true life until my wing hath passed over it.'

"Love pouted, and rumpled and bent down with his forefinger the stiff short feathers on his arrow-head, but replied not. Although he frowned worse than ever, and at me, I dreaded him less and less, and scarcely looked towards him. The milder and calmer Genius, the third, in proportion as I took courage to contemplate him, regarded me with more and more complacency. He held neither flower nor arrow as the others did, but throwing back the clusters of dark curls that overshadowed his countenance, he presented to me his hand, openly and benignly. I shrank on looking at him so near, and yet I sighed to love him. He smiled, not without an expression of pity, at perceiving my diffidence, my timidity; for I remembered how soft was the hand of Sleep, how warm and entrancing was Love's.

"By degrees I became ashamed of my ingratitude, and turning my face away, I held out my arms, and I felt my neck within his; the coolness of freshest morning breathed around; the heavens seemed to open above me, while the beautiful cheek of my deliverer rested on my head. I would now have looked for those others, but knowing my intention by my gesture, he said consolatorily, 'Sleep is on his way to the Earth, where many are calling him; but it is not to these he hastens, for every call only makes him fly further off. Sedately and gravely as he looks, he is nearly as capricious and volatile as the more arrogant and ferocious one.'

"'And Love!' said I, 'whither is he departed? If not too late, I would propitiate and appease him.'

"'He who cannot follow me; he who cannot overtake and pass me,' said the Genius, 'is unworthy of the name, the most glorious in earth or heaven. Look up! Love is yonder, and ready to receive thee.'

"I looked: the earth was under me: I saw only the clear blue sky, and something brighter above it."

There is something most rare and refined and precious in this vision, told as it is with a sweet serenity. But it does not touch the heart like the ?sop and Rhodope.

Your loving old



Born 1775, died 1864.

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