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Letitia Elizabeth Landon's “The Crusader” and “The Knight’s Tale”


Letitia Elizabeth Landon's “The Crusader” and “The Knight’s Tale”

The poet and novelist Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802-1838) is one of several early nineteenth-century female authors whose works combine Romantic and Victorian concerns.  Landon’s works were enormously popular in her day, despite (or perhaps because of) scandals that dominated the later years of her life. Her early works were signed only “L.E.L.” to preserve the author’s anonymity, an acronym that persisted even after Landon’s identity became known.  Like Felicia Hemans, a contemporary poet who similarly bridges the generic conventions of realism and romanticism, Landon demonstrates a considerable interest in history and medievalism throughout her works.  Her other historically-themed poems include the Arthurian “A Legend of Tintagel Castle” and the classicist “Philip and Alexander.”  The longer “The Troubadour” also draws on historical, chivalric themes, but is less explicitly dated and does not appear to draw upon a specific historical figure.  Like much nineteenth-century crusades literature, her poems “The Crusader” and “A Knight’s Tale” focus on the domestic impact of the crusades rather than on the chivalric action of the wars itself.  Whereas “A Knight’s Tale” reunites the lovers who were separated by the crusade, “The Crusader” demonstrates considerably more concern about the problems caused by the knights’ desertion of England and preoccupation with the Holy Land.

 “The Crusader”

“The Crusader” begins by constructing a chivalric, heroic frame for an unnamed knight, “come from the land of the sword and shrine/ From the sainted battles of Palestine” (49).  Palestine thus becomes the locus of sacred violence in the poem; it serves as a frame that both begins the poem and, ultimately, ends it.  As the poem begins, however, the crusade itself appears only as a past event that contextualizes the knight’s return to his homeland.  In this context, the honors that the knight has earned during the crusade take on a slightly ominous tone: “The snow plumes wave o’er his victor crest,/ Like a glory, the red cross hangs at his breast” (49). In these lines, we see the knight being honored for a victory that we have not seen him earn, a formula that, within the conventions of nineteenth-century poetry, nearly always signals an impending fall.  Furthermore, by describing the “red cross” as “a glory,” Landon hints at the secularization of the crusade, also a common theme within nineteenth-century crusades romance.

This poem engages much more explicitly with nineteenth-century post-colonial fears than do most of the works considered in this study.  In the second stanza of the poem, Landon notes the knight’s transformation through encounter with the foreign land: “He comes not back the same that he went;/ For his sword has been tried, and his strength has been spent” (49). The knight has been transformed by his military engagement in the Holy Land. The effect of this experience is an overall darkening of the body, suggesting that the knight himself becomes closer to his foreign enemy, who is unnamed and undescribed in this poem. Landon writes that:
His golden hair has a deeper brown,
And his brow has caught a darker frown,
And his lip has lost its youthful red,
And the shade of the South o’er his cheek is spread. (49)
The darkness which now characterizes the unnamed knight’s body transforms him from the idealized image of an English knight into a figure that is more sinister, and also potentially threatening to England’s racial unity.  Landon’s statement that “the shade of the South o’er his cheek is spread” indicates a gradual corruption of the knight’s body by his environment, and by the very chivalric combat in which he engaged. 

Thus transformed, the knight returns to a deserted castle and a murdered family; the symbolic violence which transformed the knight’s body also impacted his country of origin.  Hence, the knight returns to a ruined castle, in which “The turrets were falling, the vassals were flown, and the bat ruled the halls, he had called his own”(49). The decay of the knight’s domestic space appears as a direct result and a natural extension of the knight’s transformation in the Holy Land.  In seeing his demolished homeland, which he neglected in favor of the Holy Land, the knight loses his symbolic center, the root of his cultural memory.  Landon’s description clearly establishes this loss by indicating that “He never might think of his boyish years,/ Till his eyes grew dim with those sweet warm tears,/ Which hope and memory shed when they meet” (49). By deserting his homeland and going on crusade, the knight has essentially lost both domestic felicity and undermined the strength of his race, his national heritage: “The grave of his kindred was at his feet—/ He stood alone, the last of his race/ With the cold wide world for his dwelling place” (49).

Crusading—or perhaps chivalric conflict itself—thus operates in direct opposition to the domestic nationalism championed by this poem. Landon establishes the potential for conflict in the first stanza by considering the dual symbolism of the token that the knight wears:
And he wears a scarf of broidery rare,
The last love gift of his lady fair;
It bore for the device a cross and a dove,
And the words—‘I am vowed to my god and my love.’ (49) 
As a symbolic object, the scarf merges the symbols of love and religion into a cohesive doctrine: the combination of the dove and the cross suggests a peaceful version of Christianity that can operate within a domestic framework.  This vision of Christianity, however, directly opposes the militant evangelism typically exhibited by nineteenth-century crusades narratives.  Even in this opening stanza of the poem, before the knight realizes that family home has been deserted and destroyed, Landon signals the failure of the lady’s attempt to merge God and love by indicating that this is her “last love-gift” (emphasis mine). 

This conflict between love and chivalry ultimately destroys not only the love, but also the motivation for the chivalric struggle:
No one to welcome, no one to share
The laurel, he no more was proud to wear:
He came, in the pride of his war-success
But to weep over very desolateness. (50)
Too late, the knight discovers that the chivalric ethos that motivated his crusade demands the consolatory framework of the domestic sphere in order to acquire true value.  This emphasis on domesticity echoes the typical social mores of the Victorian crusades romance, which frequently emphasizes the need for a recursive return to home and family in order for the crusade to be truly successful.  Instead, the knight must return to Palestine and the struggle, not for glory, but for death: “It is not for glory he seeks the field,/ For a blasted tree is upon his shield” (50). The crusade thus becomes a self-destructive endeavor that breaks down the structures of both chivalry and domesticity.

“The Knight’s Tale”

Landon’s “The Knight’s Tale,” also included in a series of romantic tales presented in The Poetical Works of Miss Landon, offers a dual point of view that sympathizes with both the crusading knight and his abandoned lady. The opening stanzas of “The Knight’s Tale” contrast a pastoral scene that idealizes the British landscape as a scene of domestic beauty, rent by the parting tears of the lady. The imagery associated with this haven continually emphasizes its protective qualities: Landon describes the “proud trees” which are “sheltering a green park” which in turn feeds and supports the “gentle faun/ which sported by its mother’s spotted side” (226). These lines portray nested layers of domesticity, a mutually nurturing environment that can effectively shield its inhabitants from the world.  Even at the very beginning of the poem, however, Landon marks the shattering of this domestic idyll with the exclamation “And there are bitter tears in Arnold’s hall—/A wail of passionate lament!”  The preparations of the knights starkly contrast their natural surroundings throughout this scene, indicating that the acts of war for which they prepare counter nature’s domestic impulses: “A sound is in the courts,/ Of arms and arm’d men; the ring of spears,/ The stamp of iron feet, and voices, mix’d/ In deep confusion” (226).  This chaotic tumult, which interrupts the night, is a direct result of the lord’s impending crusade: “With the morning’s rise, / Lord Arnold leads these men to Palestine” (226).  Landon thus considers the crusade’s disruption of the domestic connections that should exist within a coherent paternal hall.

Landon employs the motif of the swan song in the poem to indicate not only the potential for personal loss and mourning occasioned by the crusade, but also to signal the end of the domestic culture that characterizes England.  She describes a group of swans gathered on the “diamond sheet/ of clear bright water,” in the midst of which appears a single dying swan: “and there was one/ Laid on a little island which the leaves/ Of the waterfall had made” (226).  Within the broader nationalist context of the poem, this image of the dying swan presents a tempting allegory for England itself.  Adeline, the poem’s heroine, flings herself on the departing crusader’s breast and claims that “[the unearthly song] was her warrior’s dirge and hers”: Arnold’s departure signals a threat to the civilization and domestic ideology which are represented by Arnold’s hall and the pastoral beauties which surround it.

After this opening domestic scene, the poem follows the fortunes of the departing Arnold, who swears to return to his lady “Before the spring / Had cover’d twice the plants with its white flowers” (227).  Although this image suggests Arnold’s attempt to remain within the domestic discourses of nature and regeneration, he is caught and detained by the Eastern armies.  Landon passes over Arnold’s actual experience on Crusade in a few brief lines, moving directly to his return.  The nurturing floral imagery of the poem, however, has turned against the returning crusader. He returns to “his sweet garden and its thousand flowers,” only to find that “The roses were in blossom, and the air/ Oppressed him with its fragrance” (227).  Likewise, the “branch of myrtle” that Arnold finds in the path “just fallen from some beauty’s hair” does indeed belong to Adeline, but she is not alone.  He sees her with “Her white arm round a stranger’s neck, her fair brow/ Bow’d on his shoulder” (227).  Arnold fails to recognize this stranger as Adeline’s brother; his absence has rendered him unable accurately identify the ties which characterize the domestic relationships of England.  He promptly flees England, transformed:
He did not go,
As the young warrior goes, with hope and pride,
As once he went, but as a pilgrim, roam’d
O’er other countries, any but his own
At last his steps sought pleasant Italy. (227)
Arnold’s transformation from warrior to pilgrim suggests that the loss of his domestic idyll fundamentally alters the kind of masculinity that he can enact.  Without the underlying certainty that he can return to a home and family, Arnold becomes a rootless pilgrim rather than a warrior.  Although many nineteenth-century writers, including Paul Creswick and Gertrude Hollis, portray the crusade as a road to a more active and powerful masculinity, Landon instead hints that the crusade may result in loss not only of domestic security, but also of the very active masculinity that its participants sought.
Arnold eventually finds rest in a peculiar shrine that, like the glades of England described earlier in the poem, is shielded by the foliage that surrounds it: it is “hid/ By the sole group cypresses, whose bows/ As the green weeping of the seaweed, hung/ Like grief or care around” (227).  Unlike the sheltering trees of England, these cypresses shield the temple with their grief rather than with their pride: their function is to sequester rather than to nurture.  Landon notes the replacement of idolatry with Christian faith within this temple:
In other days,
Some nymph or goddess had been worshipp’d there,
Whose name was gone, even from her own shrine.
The cross stood on the alter, and above
There hung the picture of Saint Valerie. (227)
The replacement of pagan symbolism with Christian imagery is key to the resolution of the poem’s dramatic narrative.  Arnold takes up the life of a hermit, and Adeline, who has vowed to make a barefoot pilgrimage to aid her brother’s search for her missing lover, eventually arrives at the shrine herself.  The lovers achieve happiness by replacing their endless quest for each other with a quest for religious aid.  Pilgrimage, Landon thus suggests, should replace crusade as the means of restoring England’s domestic tranquility.  The poem concludes with Adeline and Arnold’s return to their original sanctuary: “There is that English castle once again,/ With its clean sweep of park and its clear lake,” now supplemented by its own temple and statue of St. Valerie (227).

Primary Sources:

Landon, Letitia Elizabeth. “The Crusader.” The Poetical Works of Miss Landon. London: L. Carey and Hart, 1838. 49-50.

---. “The Knight’s Tale.” The Poetical Works of Miss Landon. London: L. Carey and Hart, 1838. 226-8.

Secondary Source:

Byron, Glennis. ‘Landon , Letitia Elizabeth (1802–1838).’ Oxford Dictionary of National  Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006.