The English poet, essayist, and critic Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864) is best known for his "Imaginary Conversations," a series of dialogues between historical personages.
Walter Savage Landor was born on Jan. 30, 1775, the eldest son of Walter Landor, a doctor, and Elizabeth Savage Landor, an heiress whose fortune of £80,000 was entailed on her eldest son, though she had three more. Dr. Landor owned Hughenden Manor, later bought by Benjamin Disraeli. Walter Savage was sent away to school at 4 and at 9 went to Rugby School. He loved all nature: he did not pick flowers, pulled boys' ears for stoning rooks, never took a bird's nest, and never hunted. By 1789 he was writing bawdy verses and vociferously approving the French Revolution.
In 1793 Landor went to Trinity College, Oxford, where he was thought a "mad Jacobin" because he wore unpowdered hair. He was sent down in 1794 for shooting a fellow student and spent a summer at Tenby in Wales, where he made love to a woman named Nancy Jones, later "banging angrily" out of his father's house to live with her at Swansea until the birth of their child. His father allowed him only £150 a year, and he went home when that was spent. In 1796 on the Welsh coast, he met and fell in love with Rose Aylmer, aged 17, and wrote poetry for her; she died in 1800 in India. In 1803 he published "Gebir," an Oriental story written in blank verse.
In 1799 Landor got a job on the Morning Chronicle and wrote against the "drunken democracy of Mr. William Pitt." In 1807 he met the poet Robert Southey, with whom he remained friends all his life. In 1808 he went to Spain to fight Napoleon Bonaparte and tried to raise a regiment; he stayed for some months but never saw action. He returned to England, having spent an enormous amount of money and having been made an honorary colonel in the Spanish army. He published Count Julian (1812), a tragedy, and wrote many excellent poems, modeled on classical Greek and Roman works, to Sophia Jane Swift, whom he called lanthe.
In 1807 Landor bought the ruins of Llanthony Abbey in Wales; he renovated the abbey, ruining himself and quarreling with his neighbors in the process. Southey urged him to marry, and on May 24, 1811, he did so, his bride being Julia Thuillier, the 20-year-old daughter of a ruined Swiss banker living in Banbury. He took her to Llanthony but soon left for France. From 1815 to 1818 he and his wife lived at Como, Italy, where their eldest son, Arnold Savage, was born. From 1821 to 1829 the Landors lived in Florence at the Villa Castiglione and in 1829 moved to the Villa Gherardesca in Fiesole, where he left his wife and children and returned to England. He settled at Bath, where he lived for 20 years.
Between 1824 and 1853 Landor's Imaginary Conversations appeared and established him as one of the great English men of letters. In 1858 he fled back to Florence to avoid a libel action, and his children, to whom he had made over all his money, received him as did King Lear's elder daughters, with icy ingratitude. Old, shabby, distraught, Landor would have starved but for the kindness of Robert Browning, who said he owed more to Landor than to anyone. Landor retained his powers into old age, publishing Last Fruit off an Old Tree in 1853 and Heroic Idyls in 1863. He died in Florence on Sept. 17, 1864.
"Talking, laughing or snoring, his lungs made the beams of the house shake," wrote Charles Dickens, who loved him, though he was 37 years younger than Landor. He used Landor as the basis of the character Laurence Boythorn in Bleak House. Crabb Robinson described him as "a man of florid complexion, large full eyes, altogether a leonine man, with the fierceness of tone well suited to his name." Landor was seldom free of amorous entanglements and had a quick temper: at his Florentine villa, after throwing his cook out of a window he exclaimed, "Damn—I forgot the violets."
Further Reading on Walter Savage Landor
The complete edition of Landor's poetry, edited by Stephen Wheeler, has long been out of print. E. K. Chambers, Landor: Poetry and Prose (1946), is a small, very limited selection. A more recent edition, Poems, edited with an introduction by Geoffrey Grigson (1965), is an extensive volume of selections of Landor's poetry which includes the whole of "Gebir." Biographies of Landor are Robert Henry Super, Walter Savage Landor: A Biography (1954); Malcolm Elwin, Landor: A Replevin (1958); and George Rostrevor Hamilton, Walter Savage Landor (1960). For historical background and for Landor's place in English poetry see Douglas Bush, English Poetry: The Main Currents from Chaucer to the Present (1952).
Additional Biography Sources
Super, R. H. (Robert Henry), Walter Savage Landor: a biography, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977, 1954.