1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

William Clarke and Robert Shelton Mackenzie, in The Georgian Era: Memoirs of the most eminent Persons who have flourished in Great Britain (1832-34) 3:425-30.



This illustrious author, descended from a respectable family, and the son of a writer to the signet, was born at Edinburgh, on the 15th of August, 1771. Ill health rendered necessary his early removal to a farm in the country, called Sandyknow, near the Vale of Tweed, where he resided for some time, under the care of his paternal grandfather. The mode in which he passed this portion of his youth, and the scenery by which he was surrounded, are strikingly described in the introduction to the third canto of Marmion. He received the rudiments of education at an academy kept by a Mr. Leechman, in Edinburgh, whence he was removed to the high school, then under the superintendence of Dr. Adam; but, during the four years he remained there, he does not appear to have displayed any remarkable abilities. There is his own authority for saying, observes the writer of his life in Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, that even in the exercise of metrical translation, he fell far short of some of his companions, although others preserve a somewhat different recollection, and state, that this was a department in which he always manifested a superiority. His passion for tale-telling probably was no small hindrance to his advancement at school, as he himself confesses in his general introduction to a new edition of his novels. "I believe;" he says, "some of my old schoolfellows can still bear witness that I had a distinguished character for that talent, at a time when the applause of my companions was my recompense for the disgraces and punishments, which the future romance writer incurred, for being idle himself and keeping others idle, during hours that should have been employed on our tasks. The chief enjoyment of my holidays was to escape with a chosen friend, who had the same taste with myself, and alternately to recite to each other such wild adventures as we were able to devise. We told, each in turn, interminable tales of knight errantry, and battles and enchantments, which were continued from one day to another as opportunity offered, without our ever thinking of bringing them to a conclusion. As we observed a strict secrecy on the subject of this intercourse, it acquired all the character of a concealed pleasure; and we used to select, for the scenes of our indulgence, long walks through the solitary and romantic environs of Arthur's Seat, Salisbury Craigs, Braid Hills, and similar places in the vicinity of Edinburgh; and the recollection of those holidays still forms an oasis in the pilgrimage which I have to look back upon."

On leaving school, in 1783, he appears to have had a strong desire for a military life; but a lameness in his right leg prevented him from following his inclination. On being told that this defect was an insuperable bar to his wishes, he, in an agony of mortified feeling, went and suspended himself by the wrists from his bed-room window, and on being discovered in this situation, said he wished to prove, that however unfitted by his limbs for the profession of a soldier, he was at least strong enough in his arms. In the October of the year last-mentioned, he became a student of the University of Edinburgh, and left it in a year or two, without having added much to his stock of classical knowledge. At the age of fifteen, the breaking of a blood-vessel brought on an illness, which, to use his own words, "threw him back on the kingdom of fiction, as if by a species of fatality." Being for some time forbidden to speak or move, he did nothing but read, from m morning to night; and by a perusal of old romances, old plays, and epic poetry, was unconsciously amassing materials for his future writings. His studies, he tells us, resembled those of Waverley in a similar situation; "the passages concerning whose reading," he adds, "were imitated from recollections of my own." In his sixteenth year, he commenced studying for the bar, and became an apprentice to his father, and a pupil of Professor Dick, the professor of civil law in the university. On the 10th of July, 1792, he passed advocate, and began life in an elegant house in the most fashionable part of the town; but being already placed beyond the reach of want by the affluence of his father, and his intellect being by no means of the forensic cast, he, with the exception of one occasion in defence of a prisoner, gave no indication of professional capacities, nor exerted himself to display them.

Taking advantage, therefore, of the occurrence of circumstances favourable to the developement of his poetical genius, he, after a few years' practice, gave up the bar, and devoted himself to literary pursuits. This was primarily in consequence of an introduction to Mr. Lewis, author of The Monk, whose imitations of the German ballad poets had acquired for their author a degree of fame which roused the ambition of Scott. He had already made some progress in the language alluded to, but, with the exception of a few verses on a thunder storm, and other subjects, composed at the high school, he does not appear, up to this period, to have attempted any thing in rhyme. "I had not, for ten years," he says, "indulged the wish to couple so much as love and dove; when, finding Lewis in possession of so much reputation, and conceiving that, if I fell behind him in poetical powers, I considerably exceeded him in general information, I suddenly took it into my head to attempt the style by which he had raised himself to fame." His first essay was a translation of Burger's Leonore, which, consisting of sixty-six stanzas, he began one evening after supper, and finished by day-break the following morning. He published it, together with The Wild Huntsman, in 1796, under the title of The Chase, and William and Helen; but its fate, he confesses, was by no means flattering, and a great part of the edition was condemned to the service of the trunkmakers.

In 1797, he became quarter-master in the Edinburgh volunteer light dragoons; and, in the same year, he married Miss Margaret Carpenter, daughter of a French refugee, and who possessed an annuity of 400 per annum. He soon afterwards took a house at Lasswade, on the banks of the Eske; and, in 1799, he was appointed sheriff of Selkirkshire, into which county he consequently removed, and engaged the house of Asherteil, on the banks of the Tweed, where he resided until his removal to Abbotsford. In the same year, he published Goetz of Berlichingen, a tragedy, translated from the German of Goethe; and, in 1802, appeared his first publication of any note, entitled The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, in two volumes, to which a third was added in the following year. The work displayed much curious and abstruse learning, and gained the author a considerable reputation as an historical and traditionary poet. In 1803, he came to the final resolution of quitting his profession, observing "there was no great love between us at the beginning, and it pleased heaven to decrease it on farther acquaintance." In his introductory narrative to a late edition of The Lay of the Last Minstrel, he gives a very interesting sketch of his reasons for renouncing the bar, and of the manner in which he had passed part of his time previous to the above period. "Since my fourteenth or fifteenth year," he says, "my health, originally delicate, had been extremely robust and in defiance of his lameness, he continues, "I had often walked thirty miles a day, and rode upwards of a hundred without stopping." An unwillingness to resign this sort of exercise was not one of the least inducements to his secession from the bar; whilst his income, as he says, being equal to all the comforts and some of the elegancies of life, he was not pressed to an irksome employment by necessity, and was, consequently, the more easily seduced to choose the employment which was most agreeable.

In 1805, he published The Lay of the Last Minstrel, which was composed at the rate of a canto per week; and, on its completion, produced him 600. He was shortly afterwards appointed a principal clerk in the court of session, on the retirement of Mr. Home, upon an understanding, at our author's request, that the former should continue to draw the emoluments until his decease. When George the Third signed the commission, he is reported to have said that he was happy to have it in his power to reward a man of genius, and a person of such distinguished merit. Mr. Scott received the salary attached to the office about six years afterwards, which, together with the profits of his shrievalty, amounted to 1,500 per annum. In 1806, appeared a collection of his poems, entitled Ballads and Lyrical Pieces, which were succeeded by an elegant edition of his Poetical Works, in five volumes. In 1808, he sold, for 1,000, his Marmion; the extraordinary success of which induced him, he says, for the first and last time in his life, to feel something approaching to vanity. It was succeeded by his edition of Dryden's Works, with a life of the author; and, in 1809, he assisted in editing The State Papers and Letters of Sir Ralph Sadler, which were published in two quarto volumes. In 1810, he composed his Lady of the Lake; in his introduction to a late edition of which, he tells us, that a lady of taste having strongly advised him not to risk a fall in the estimation of the public by the publication of this poem, he replied, "If I fail, it is a sign that I ought never to have succeeded, and I will write prose for life." Its success, he adds, was so extraordinary, as to induce him, for the moment, to conclude that he had at last fixed a nail in the proverbially inconstant wheel of fortune, whose stability in behalf of an individual who had so boldly courted her favours for three successive times, had not, as yet, been shaken. In 1811, appeared his Don Roderick; and, in 1813, Rokeby, which met with a less favourable reception than a burlesque upon it under the title of Jokeby. It was succeeded, in 1814, by The Lord of the Isles; but it made so little impression upon the public, that, in allusion to this, and the two preceding productions, a friend observed to him, "his works only found a tolerable sale in consequence of having his name upon the title-page." To put this assertion to the proof, he published his next poems anonymously, entitled The Bridal of Triermain, and Harold the Dauntless, which are certainly the least popular of his poetical compositions.

He now resolved to attempt prose writing; and, in the year last-mentioned, he published Waverley, about a third of which he had written eleven years previously, but had thrown it aside in consequence of the unfavourable opinion of a critical friend. It seems that he took more than ordinary pains to conceal that he was the author of this work, even after it had been fully established in the estimation of the public. The writer of his life, before quoted from, assigns as one reason for this, Sir Walter's reluctance to be considered as one writing for fortune, and having previously expressed an opinion, that our author's desire of becoming a land proprietor was a passion which far exceeded his appetite for literary fame, observes, "It was now the principal spring of his actions, to add as much as possible to the little realm of Abbotsford, in order that he might take his place — not among the great literary names which posterity is to revere, but among the county gentlemen of Roxburgshire." With a view, according to the same authority, of procuring the means of extending his estate, Sir Walter composed that delightful series of fiction, which, at the termination of the Georgian era, amounted to no less than seventy volumes. From 1815 to 1819, appeared, successively, Guy Mannering; the Antiquary; and the first series of The Tales of My Landlord, containing The Black Dwarf and Old Mortality; Rob Roy; and the second series of The Tales of My Landlord, containing The Heart of Mid Lothian; and the third series of Tales of My Landlord, containing The Bride of Lammermoor and A Legend of Montrose. In all of these, with the exception of Old Mortality, h e had contrived to keep clear of national prejudices; but, in the work just alluded to, his partial portraiture of the cavaliers offended his countrymen, and gave rise to a pamphlet from Dr. M'Crie in The Christian Instructor, which Sir Walter answered in a subsequent series of The Tales of My Landlord. In 1820, in which year he was made a baronet, were published Ivanhoe, one of the most popular, and The Monastery and The Abbot, the least meritorious, of the Waverley novels. In 1821, appeared Kenilworth; which was succeeded, successively, by The Pirate; The Fortunes of Nigel; Peveril of the Peak;. Quentin Durward; Tales of the Crusaders; Woodstock; Chronicles of the Canongate, first and second series; and Anne of Geierstein, which was published in 1829. In the mean time, some of the most important transactions of his life had occurred; the bankruptcy of Messrs. Constable and Co., in January, 1826, had involved him in obligations to the amount of 100,000; and, in the following May, he had the misfortune to lose his wife. He bore the former event with great magnanimity. "It is very hard," was his observation to a friend on the occasion, "thus to lose all the labours of a lifetime, and be made a poor man at last, when I ought to have been otherwise. But if God grant me health and strength for a few years longer, I have no doubt that I shall redeem it all." He now felt himself called upon to redouble his literary exertions; and, after having sold his house and furniture in Edinburgh, he published, in 1827, his Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, in nine volumes octavo; the profits of which, amounting to 12,000, with other earnings and resources, enabled him to pay his creditors a dividend of about six shillings in the pound.

It was in this Year at the first annual dinner of the Edinburgh Theatrical Fund Association, that Sir Walter avowed himself to be the author of The Waverley Novels, and threw off the mantle of disguise, which, as he afterwards remarked to a friend, was getting somewhat tattered. "He did not think," he said, "that in coming to the assembly rooms that day, he would have the task of acknowledging, before three hundred gentlemen, a secret, which, considering that it was communicated to more than twenty people, had been remarkably well kept. He was now before the bar of his country, and might be understood to be on his trial before Lord Meadowbank as an offender, yet he was sure that every impartial jury would bring in a verdict of not proven. He did not now think it necessary to enter into the reasons of his long silence: perhaps caprice had a great share in it. He had only to say, however, that the merits of these works, if they had any, and their faults, were entirely imputable to himself."

In November, 1828, he published the first, and in 1829, the second part of a juvenile history of Scotland, entitled The Tales of a Grandfather; and in the same year appeared a new edition of the Waverley Novels, the copyright of which was purchased for 8,400. This was illustrated by notes and prefaces, and, in some parts, amended by the author, whose creditors or himself were to have half of the profits, in consideration of Sir Walter's literary aid. In addition to those already mentioned, our author wrote several minor and fugitive works, particularly the lives of Swift and Dryden, with an edition of their works; Paul's Letters to his Kinsfolk; a poem called The Field of Waterloo; An Account of the Regalia of Scotland; Halidon Hill, a dramatic poem; An Introductory Essay to Border Antiquities; and the articles, Chivalry, Romance, and The Drama, for the Supplement of the sixth edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica. He had also written some political papers on the Tory side, particularly in a weekly journal called The Beacon; but those for which he is most celebrated are the letters signed Malachi Malagrowther, in which he opposed the parliamentary regulations, then in progress, for reducing the monetary system of Scotland to an equality with that of England. He was particularly careful about the proof of these letters; which being remarked to him by Mr. Ballantyne, the printer, "Yes," said he, in a tone that electrified even this familiar friend, "my former works were for myself, but this is for my country."

Sir Walter Scott, is upwards of six feet in height; bulky, but not corpulent in the upper part of his body; and slightly lame in his right limb, which requires to be supported by a staff. The most remarkable part of his person is said to be his head, which is tall and cylindrical, with a small chin, large bushy eyebrows, thin lips, and little grey eyes, possessing, says his biographer, "the extraordinary property of shutting as much below as from above, when their possessor is excited by a ludicrous idea." When not animated by conversation, his countenance is sometimes heavy, if not vacant; but the cheerfulnes; of his mind renders, in general, his aspect more humorous than solemn.

His great intellectual characteristics are, his powers of memory and imagination, his faculty of combining and embellishing past events, and his skill in portraying natural character. As a poet, he is neither profound nor sublime; he deals, as in his prose, with the beings of the past; but, having little or no scope for the delineation of familiar character, his verses, though replete with good feeling and pleasing imagery, are deficient in interest to the general reader, and fail to awaken his sympathies, though they may gratify his taste.

It is in the character of a novelist that his name will go down to posterity, as the inventor of a new class of fictitious writing, in which respect he is only equalled by Shakspeare, Milton, Byron, Godwin, Banim, and Shelley. His Life of Napoleon is a decided failure; we in vain look either for the accuracy of the historian or the profundity of the philosopher; and imagination takes up much of the ground where we are entitled to expect the fruits of research. As a writer of English, if he be considered in that light only, he does not rank high; many of his sentences being slovenly and defective in their construction, and deformed by no small quantity of Scotticisms. Perhaps the most objectionable feature in his novels is their unvarving tone of deference to established authority, and the aristocratic manners which he infuses into all his descriptions of a character in ordinary life. "He seems," says a writer, from whom we have before quoted, "to have never conceived the idea of a manly character in middle or humble life; and, in his novels, where an individual of these classes is introduced, he is never invested with any virtues, unless obedience, or even servility to superiors, be of the number."

The private character of Sir Walter Scott is irreproachable, and he is said to have passed through every period of his life without a single stain upon his character. He is generous and benevolent, affable and gracious, and so totally free from literary vanity, that he might be almost supposed to be unconscious of the reputation he has attained. Riding and walking form his favourite exercise, and this, with the superintendence of his planting and agricultural operations, occupies the chief part of his day from eleven till five; his hours of composition being confined to the time between seven o'clock and the former hour in the morning. He is passionately fond of field sports, and every thing connected with them, and is particularly attached to dogs and horses.

Sir Walter held a conspicuous place in the esteem of George the Fourth, during whose visit to Scotland he acted as a sort of master of the ceremonies; and when his majesty was first informed of his approach to the royal vessel in the Leith Roads, he exclaimed, "What, Sir Walter Scott? — the man in Scotland I most wish to see: let him come up." An anecdote is told of Burns and Scott, when the latter was fifteen years of age, and was in the company of the former at Edinburgh. Burns happening to ask who was the author of some lines under a picture, no one was able to inform him but Scott, on which the Ayrshire poet complimented him for his good taste, in reading such an author as the one who had been the subject of inquiry; and, turning half away, said to the company, "This boy will be heard of yet." Sir Walter, it is said, is much given to punning: — a friend borrowing a book, one day, he put it into his hands with these words: — "Now I consider it necessary to remind you, that this volume should he soon returned; for, trust me, I find, that although many of my friends are bad arithmeticians, almost all of them are good book-keepers."

Of the memory of the subject of our memoir, two wonderful instances are recorded: one, of his having repeated the whole of Campbell's Pleasures of Hope, after twice perusing it; and the other, of his going through the whole of a ballad, three years after he had first heard it.