- Landor's Cleanness: A Study of Walter Savage Landor by Adam Roberts
New monographs on Walter Savage Landor do not come along very often, so when they do come along, they have a lot of work to do. Each time Landor must be re-mediated for a new generation of readers: Landor, the lifelong classicist devoted to an ideal of the individual imagination, the revolutionary republican who survived into Victorian world, one of the great mavericks of the British Romantic period. One notable challenge for an author who takes on this task is to explain coherently, make selections from, and otherwise tame Landor's enormous, heterodox body of work. Adam Roberts is aware of the scale of the task and, implicitly, of the responsibility that comes with it: "Any critical study, such as this one, is in part an exercise in sifting through the remains of Landor's enormous productivity, for no truly Collected Works has ever been assembled" (p. 105). Another challenge is less flattering to the author under discussion, or even faintly embarrassing. Roberts addresses the problem head-on: "I'm tempted to say that Landor only appears to be boring, and to testify that my own experience of reading him, at length and over time, is that even the least promising of his works yields a variety of fascinating, even thrilling, qualia under scrutiny. But it would be foolish to deny that the cliff face of Landor's total body of work offers a forbidding perspective to the uninitiated" (p. 9).
How should a new critical study make sense of Landor while engaging honestly with these problems in such a way that scholars who are relatively new to this imposing body of work will want to explore further? Roberts's choice of "cleanness" as the central theme and organizing principle for his study is extremely well judged. Purity, chastity, simplicity, frankness, and various other associated concepts are recurrent preoccupations in Landor's writing. Roberts argues persuasively that they frequently invoke their complements and opposites from the equally rich spectrum of dirt and contamination that defines the clean and permits it to exist. The concept is well theorized in a wide-ranging introductory chapter, which expands the implications of "cleanness" from sentence-level micro-instances of classical good style to the historical catastrophes of the twentieth century, inflicted and justified in the name of racial purity and ethnic cleansing. Roberts argues that cleanliness is culturally constructed and persistently conjures and feeds upon its opposite: "We cannot fall in love with cleanness unless we simultaneously fall in love with dirt, however unconsciously or inadvertently we do the latter" (p. 5). A whole body of work can be examined through this lens. Landor's biography adulterates the critical interpretation of his writings. The euphemistic-erotic continually makes incursion upon high-minded moral debate. Imaginary Conversations are an innately promiscuous genre—staged between figures from ancient history and legend ("Diogenes and Plato"; "Leofric and Godiva"), yet anachronistically filtered through the unchanging voice of a nineteenth-century Englishman. Roberts sustains this central device throughout the volume; it lends coherence and focus without being crudely enforced or over-extended.
The study contains some brilliant passages of close reading, especially of lyrical [End Page 178] and epic poetry and the prose Imaginary Conversations. Roberts examines key examples of Landor's lyrics for their dense symbolic structure, submerged Latin puns, and transfers of affect between different personae. The intricacies of these close readings can perhaps become a little over-ingenious at times. But Roberts demonstrates Landor's relevance to the wider debates of Romanticism time and again in the resilience of his writing under close scrutiny.
There is an impressive chapter on epic, including a treatment of probably Landor's most-read text, the early epic poem Gebir (1798; re-written in Latin as Gebirus, 1803). The supernatural tale of a Spanish colonial adventure in Egypt, Gebir has recently been interpreted mainly in terms of orientalism. Roberts departs from this emerging orthodoxy and re-reads the...