Review of Book Count Julian by Walter Savage Landor



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Book Title : Count Julian 
Author : Walter Savage Landor
LoC Class : Language and Literatures: English literature
Subject : Tragedies; Spain — History — 711-1516 — Drama; Julián, Governor of Ceuta, active 711 — Drama
Language English

 

Review of the book Count Julian by Walter Savage Landor

Count Julian of Ceuta was a figure from the early 8th century infamous for assisting the Moors gain a foothold in Spain and thus considered the greatest traitor in that countries history.

As usual in such cases, the truth is either obscured or more complicated. Julian was certainly a Christian who sold out to the Muslims, but he was most likely a Berber and not a Spaniard (or Visigoth, as the ruling elite in Spain were at that time) and nobody really knows why he did what he did, though a legend survives to this day.

The king of the Visigoths, named Roderic, supposedly betrayed a trust by making Julian’s daughter pregnant. Out of revenge he aided the Islamic leader Musa bin Nusayr in his conquest of Hispania. Maybe he hoped to become king himself, historians can’t decide.

I didn’t learn all this from reading Landor’s tragic play, because to be honest I found the plot pretty difficult to follow. I took time to look up the history because I really enjoyed the verse and felt it deserved a second read, one where I wasn’t distracted by an uncertain understanding of just exactly what was going on.

That makes me sound pretty stupid I know, but Landor made full use of the ambiguities of his subject’s history in this retelling, while making minimal use of clear exposition. If this play was ever actually performed I can well imagine members of the audience being as confused as I was.

Rumour and misunderstanding prove to be important drivers of the plot. Most accuse Julian of ambition and falsehood, though in his way he remains true throughout. He doesn’t even admit to personal revenge as his motive, citing instead the sanctity of Spanish ‘laws o’erturn’d’ by the king.

The crucial character and motive of Opas – named a Metropolitan of Seville – was another puzzler. On top of all that, because Julian himself is utterly conflicted about his betrayal it’s doubly difficult to be sure about which way the action is going, let alone try and make sense of the themes and sympathies of the author.

Written in blank verse the poetic dialogue is of the highest order, yet on first reading the drama was mostly lacking, largely due to the elliptical and baffling nature of the action. Landor’s way with language was instantly apparent, though it took that second reading to pick out the important phrases.

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The play opens with Roderigo defeated but Julian already lamenting the fall which he has brought about:

Opas. I never yet have seen where long success
Hath followed him who warred with his king.
Julian. Because the virtue which inflicts the stroke dies
With him

He waxes lyrical about a everyman’s love for his country (‘Tis the old mansion of their earliest friends, / The chapel of their first and best devotions’) yet scorns the chance to change allegiance after the deposed king visits him in the disguise of a herald.

The Moorish invaders are treated pretty fairly, not subjected to any prejudicial demonising. They simply benefit from Julian’s revenge on Roderigo’s and his honour as a fighting man:

Muza. The blood / Of Spaniards shall win Spain for us.
Hernando. The soldier, not the Spaniard, shall obey.

As treachery is the central to the play I thought I would pick out this exchange as best illustrating both the theme and the quality of the verse:

Opas. Corruption may subvert
What force could never.
Sis. Traitors may.
Opas. Alas!
If traitors can, the basis is but frail,
I mean such traitors as the vacant world
Echoes most stunningly; not fur-robed knaves
Whose whispers raise the dreaming bloodhounds ear
Against benighted famished wanderers



The king’s wronged wife, Egilona, turns out to be the least admirable of the piece, too easily believing the worst of the rumours in order to satisfy her sense of disgrace. She throws herself into the arms of Abdalazis the Muslim prince when she hears (incorrectly) that Julian intends to marry his daughter to her husband.

Landor was a contemporary of Byron and shared many similarities with him, including a dislike for Wordsworth, strident anti-Tory political sentiments, and actively fighting for the cause of freedom in a foreign land, helping the Spanish against Napoleon in the Peninsula War.

About the Author Walter Savage Landor

In 1808, he had an heroic impulse to take part in the Peninsular War. At the age of 33, he left England for Spain as a volunteer to serve in the national army against Napoleon. He landed at Corunna, introduced himself to the British envoy, offered 10,000 reals for the relief of Venturada, and set out to join the army of General Joaquín Blake y Joyes. He was disappointed not to take part in any real action and found himself giving support at Bilbao where he was nearly captured.

A couple of months later the Convention of Sintra brought an end to the campaign and Landor returned to England. The Spanish Government offered its thanks to him, and King Ferdinand appointed him a Colonel in the Spanish Army. However, when the King restored the Jesuits Landor returned his commission.

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When he returned to England, he joined Wordsworth and Southey in denouncing the Convention of Sintra, which had excited general indignation. In 1809 Landor wrote “Three letters to Don Francisco Riquelme” giving him the benefit of his wisdom as a participant in the war. He wrote an ode in Latin to Gustav IV of Sweden and wrote to press under various pseudonyms. In 1810 he wrote “a brave and good letter to Sir Francis Burdett.”

The Spanish experience provided inspiration for the tragedy of Count Julian, based on Julian, count of Ceuta. Although this demonstrated Landor’s distinctive style of writing, it suffered from his failure to study the art of drama and so made little impression. The plot is difficult to follow unless the story is previously known and concerns a complicated situation after the defeat of the last Visigoth King of Spain. It carries the moral tone of crime propagating crime.

Southey undertook to arrange publication and eventually got it published by Murray in 1812, after an initial refusal by Longmans which led Landor to burn another tragedy “Ferranti and Giulio”. Thomas de Quincey later wrote of the work “Mr Landor is probably the one man in Europe that has adequately conceived the situation, the stern self-dependency and monumental misery of Count Julian”. Swinburne described it as “the sublimest poem published in our language, between the last masterpiece of Milton (Samson Agonistes) and the first masterpiece of Shelley, (Prometheus Unbound) one equally worthy to stand unchallenged beside either for poetic perfection as well as moral majesty.

The superhuman isolation of agony and endurance which encircles and exalts the hero is in each case expressed with equally appropriate magnificence of effect. The style of Count Julian, if somewhat deficient in dramatic ease and the fluency of natural dialogue, has such might and purity and majesty of speech as elsewhere we find only in Milton so long and so steadily sustained.”

 

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