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Poem of the week: The Solar Microscope by Walter Savage Landor


Victorian science provides the imagery for a droll vision of competing poets devouring each other's status

Walter Savage Landor begins his 1858 collection, Dry Sticks Fagoted, with a graceful but not entirely modest apologia. His "sticks" may be slender, he says, short of leaves, gnarled and knotty, but they might also be "laurels of a species uncultivated in England" (the 83-year-old poet was living mainly in Italy at the time).

"Here are light matters within," he adds, "twigs, broken buds, moss: but who, in making up a volume, has not sometimes had reason to complain of a quality the reverse of lightness?" The same goes for readers, one might add, especially readers of Victorian poetry. So, for this week's poem, a twig – unlike the beautifully-polished miniatures usually chosen by anthologists to represent Landor's English verse. The Solar Microscope is not a masterpiece but it engagingly combines a young man's curiosity with an old man's irony to remind us that, as Landor's admirer, Yeats, went on to say, concerning poets: "The only thing certain about us is that we are too many."

At 10 lines, The Solar Microscope is epigrammatic without quite being an epigram. Its first six lines seem to have an underlying didactic and descriptive impulse. It's almost as if the speaker had begun by letting himself get pleasantly lost in examining this new scientific gadget – a microscope using mirrors and sunlight to project enlarged images on a screen.

Landor would probably have seen such a microscope and observed its projections. Did he perhaps visit the Regent Street shop of the brilliant optical inventor, Philip Carpenter, and witness a demonstration of lucernal microscopes? Perhaps he simply saw the cartoon by William Heath, inspired by Carpenter's demonstrations [PDF], and entitled Monster Soup commonly called Thames Water.

Landor's "animalcules" (wonderful old word!) are perceived from the start as predators, constantly in pursuit of "each that goes before" and spoiling for a fight with their challengers, as line six seems to imply. It's only a small step across the stanza break from animalcules to analogy, and the subject of the apostrophe, "Poets!"

Landor includes himself in the throng he imagines caught struggling in their watery moment. No doubt, as a writer whose career ranged over several generations, he was acutely aware of the march of his successors. The major Romantics lived and died within his lifespan. Yet it's hard to imagine him as a poet heavily motivated by early reputation-seeking, or subsequent envy of the young. He was surely too confident an individualist. And he seems to have had good relations with several younger writers, Southey and Browning, for example, and Charles Dickens, for whom he provided the model for Lawrence Boythorn in Bleak House.

"Impetuous" Landor may have been in his loves and lawsuits, but the poems often express a dry and darkly amused stoicism. He translates into English the temperament, as well as the sentence-structure, of the classical writers he loved, with all the stylishness of Housman (his true successor?) and a little less of the sentimentality. Not that Landor is never sentimental: a tone of tender amorousness persists throughout his writing, and seems a particularly endearing quality in the poems of his old age:

 Lo! where the four mimosas blend their shade
In calm repose at last is Landor laid;
For ere he slept he saw them planted here
By her his soul had ever held most dear,
And he had liv'd enough when he had dried her tear.
    (From an Epitaph at Fiesole)

Some commentators consider that Landor's best poems are to be found among the many verses he wrote in Latin, and that his reputation has suffered as a result of their neglect. That may be so, but how well, today, are even Landor's English poems known? Fine as the anthology favourites are, there are many other stylish, funny, sad, spritely short pieces which deserve to be discovered by any poetry reader who ever " … had reason to complain of a quality the reverse of lightness".

The Solar Microscope

You want a powerful lens to see
What animalcules those may be,
Which float about the smallest drop
Of water, and which never stop,
Pursuing each that goes before,
And rolling in unrest for more.

Poets! a watery world is ours,
Where each floats after, each devours,
Its little unsubstantial prey …
Strange animalcules … we and they !

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