1909 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Surtees

Florence MacCunn, in Sir Walter Scott's Friends (1909) 127-34.



Among the good gifts that the Border Minstrelsy brought to its editor were interesting letters from unknown correspondents, now enclosing a penny broadsheet, now an additional verse of a ballad, now a letter challenging a phrase or an allusion. The most valuable of these communications reached Scott at Ashestiel late in the autumn of 1806. It bore the post-mark Durham, was dated Mainsforth, signed Robert Surtees, and contained minute historical notes on some of the ballads in the Minstrelsy. This Northumbrian correspondent was a young man of about twenty-six, so wedded to old-fashioned, recluse ways that, though a young squire, he was already an old antiquary. He loved with gentle passion his hereditary acres, the woodland he had, as a boy, sown with columbines, the garden wall planted with single pinks; he loved the valleys and moors of his native country, the fine North Country names, the history of all its old families; he loved the Library, and more especially the Charter-chest, of the Chapter House of Durham; he loved his own old books and the monumental history of Durham at which he toiled all his days; he loved his familiar, often peculiar friends, the schoolboys who spent their holidays at Mainsforth, the schoolmasters who composed elegant Latin verses, the learned clergymen who wrote topographical monographs; he loved one woman, at first hopelessly, romantically as her lover, then for years with absolute dependence on her, as her husband; he loved the Church of England, devoutly and sincerely accepting her teaching and her discipline, — and yet, when it came to ballads, this pious, honourable, single-minded gentleman had as little conscience as Shakespeare's Puck, if we can imagine Puck deserting moonbeams and woodlands for genealogies and marginalia.

It is unlikely that the post ever before or since delivered a packet so full of romantic matter as that which reached Scott in December 1806 from this singular correspondent. It contained, first, a spirited old ballad, a typical Northumbrian ballad, different from the swinging quatrain of the Scottish ballad—

Hoot awa' lads, hoot awa',
Ha' ye heard how the Ridleys and Thirlwalls and a'
Ha' set upon Awbony Featherstonehaugh
And taken his life at the Deadmanshaugh?

This, so Surtees averred, had been taken down from the recitation of an old woman of eighty on Alston Moor, who, as girl, "had heard it sung at merry-makings till the roof rang again."

A still greater find was a curious piece of mediaeval Latin, the work, Surtees surmised, of a monk of Durham telling an eerie tale of an English knight hunting on the Scottish Border who, encountering a stranger on horseback, was overthrown by the same, and then miraculously restored whole and sound by the mysterious agency of his adversary. Fantastic as the tale is, it yields in singularity to the story Surtees tells of the finding of it. An antiquarian friend, a Mr. Gylle, given to annotating his books, had lent him a copy of an old book, Burthogge on the Nature of Spirits, and on a loose interleaved page, in the handwriting of a far older day, was this strange extract which had so deeply impressed Surtees' imagination that he had been at the pains of transcribing it.

On Mr. Gylle's death this book, with others, was put aside for Mr. Surtees at Sotheby's sale, but when the new owner went eagerly to find the extract, it was gone—had fallen out at the sale, and was lost beyond recovery!

Commenting gravely on the tale of The Elfin Knight, Surtees writes: "At any rate, it is a curious case of glamour." It is indeed — of "glamour" cast by Robert Surtees over Walter Scott! The ballad, the Latin tale, and the story of the lost manuscript are all alike figments of Surtees' brain! Still, the contents of the packet were not exhausted. Scott found further a ringing verse purporting to be part of a Jacobite song, Lord Derwentwater's Good-night.

Farewell, farewell, George Collingwood,
Since fate has put us down.
If thou and I have lost our lives,
King James has lost his crown.

Finally Surtees communicates a piece of heraldry so fantastic that it may have been calculated to arouse Scott's suspicions and lead to the whole fabric dissolving in laughter.

The event was very far from that. Scott, like all great creators, acted on Moliere's principle: "Je prend mon bien ou je le trouve." At this moment he was simmering over his Tale of Flodden Field, and saw at once the use to be made of the new treasures. "Albany Featherstonehaugh," introduced as the song of a minstrel, would make excellent decoration, illustrating the age and locality, while The Elfin Knight was to become the very pivot on which the story of Marmion hinges.

It was a curious characteristic of the genius of Surtees — for the touch of genius was certainly there — that it only found adequate utterance under the guise of imposture. It was the freakish device of a modest and sensitive mind, conscious of the beauty of its own inspirations.

In 1809, when Scott was preparing a third edition of the Border Minstrelsy, Surtees sent him a ballad fragment taken down, so he declared, from the recitation of Anne Douglas, an old crone who weeded in his garden.

Both Scott and Leyden had written ballads, and if we forget for a while Clerk Saunders, and The Douglas Tragedy, we can find something to admire in the Eve of St. John, and the Ballad of Lord Soulis, but we merely lend our minds to the beauties of these poems; with the first line of Bertram's Dirge the mind is taken captive:—

They shot him at the Nine Stane Rig,
Beside the Headless Cross.

This is obviously no ancient ballad. It is merely a beautiful poem which, for fulness of romantic suggestion in fewest words, may stand just behind Coleridge's Sir Arthur O'Kellyn:—

Where is the grave of Sir Arthur O'Kellyn?
Where may the grave of that good knight be?

Surtees must have been a little taken aback when Scott, in writing to thank him for "the most beautiful fragment he had seen for many a long day," identified the Nine Stane Rig with a stream near the Hermitage, and told the incident of the finding of the prostrate cross in the unnamed glen in Liddesdale. To stop further inquiries Surtees had to kill off his old chauntress.

The question here forces itself on one, How far Scott was the unconscious, how far the willing victim of Surtees' imposture? His cynical friend, Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, used in this connection to say significantly, "Walter knows a hawk from a hernshaw." Scott's primary interest was in beautiful song or story. As the last minstrel, perhaps, he claimed the same right as his predecessors to add new cloth to the old garment. But the delicate patchings of Scott and other collectors are nothing to the wholesale creations of Surtees.

Even when his heart was inly stirred, it was in ballad form that he found most natural expression. His happy married life had not been crowned by children, but a bright young sister-in-law had supplied a daughter's place to him. She died early, and neither mother nor sister mourned her more tenderly than her brother-in-law.

Who that has left his dead in the darkness of the grave but has been haunted by the thought of them lying chill and lonely under inclement skies? The old sad verses of Clerk Saunders rhymed on in Surtees' brain in the first blank days of bereavement, and his sorrow appropriated their music:—

Is there any room at your head, Emma?
Is there any room at your feet?
Is there any room at your side, Emma,
Where I may sleep so sweet?'

There's no room at my head, Robin,
There's no room at my feet.
My bed is dark and narrow now,
But oh! my sleep is sweet.

I've often sat by your fire, Robin,
I've often sat on your knee;
Your ingle bright will blaze this night,
But it will not blaze for me.

As was the case with several of his correspondents, the friendship with Scott was the most romantic circumstance in Surtees' placid life. It would be difficult to imagine days made up of simpler and gentler elements than his. He divided his interest between his paternal acres and his history of Durham. He was a practical, useful country gentleman as well as a laborious absent-minded antiquary. His love of old books and new flowers affords a pretty anecdote. When the dahlia was first introduced into his garden he was delighted to find what he believed to be an exact description of the flower in a mediaeval romance.

In Surtees' pleasant humdrum existence, incidents, humorous or pathetic, were furnished by journeys made in stage-coaches with brother antiquaries to visit places of interest. On one such occasion Raine, his biographer, was his companion. "Late one afternoon a lady in the coach began to talk. She said that she was on her way from Edinburgh, that she knew Scott quite well, that he was not lame at all, with other unfounded details. Night fell and there was a general silence. 'Raine, are you asleep?' 'No.' 'Is she asleep?' 'I don't think so.' 'Oh man! get her to tell us some more lies.'"

Another little story might be appended to Lamb's Essay on Modern Gallantry. The coach had arrived at York at midnight, and a passenger, a young servant girl, anxiously inquired her way to Accomb, where she was to find a dying friend. The place was at some distance; the girl neither knew her way nor had money to pay her guide. "Surtees witnessed her distress, and pitied her with all his heart." He knew the way, and, silently taking her arm in his, walked off with her into the darkness.

It is characteristic of Surtees that his courtesies are most pleasing when they have a fine edge of gratuitous falsehood. Once, at a party, a foolish gentleman "but kind-hearted, and of the most unassuming manners and charitable to the poor," anxious to contribute to the literary conversation going on, declared 'that he really could not make up his mind to believe the whole of Gulliver's Travels.' Surtees, by a single beseeching look, checked the roar of laughter. 'I cannot help your unbelief, sir,' said he quietly, addressing the gentleman without even a smile, 'but I, for my part, believe every word of it.'"

It was a great event in the life of the two antiquaries when, in 1819, Surtees carried off Raine for a visit to Scotland. Scott was not in Edinburgh, but James Hogg gleefully constituted himself their guide and friend, "amusing us," Raine adds slyly, "with the history of himself." It was hot July weather, and the Shepherd, in his "maud," insisted on walking arm-in-arm with his new friends along Princes Street, old-fashioned punctilio stifling resistance on their parts. Warm was the welcome that greeted the travellers at Abbotsford. Such old-fashioned pilgrims with "the rust of antiquarianism" on them were guests after Scott's own heart. He showed them all his treasures, and it was a shy satisfaction to Raine to add to these. On his way North, a friend had given him a volume of black-letter ballads — the sort of thing an antiquary would generally be as reluctant to part with as with life itself, — but the pleasure of giving Scott pleasure was not to be resisted. "The book that had been mine for so short a time instantly became Scott's."

The last meeting between Scott and Surtees occurred of all unlikely places, in a ball-room. In 1827 Scott, reluctantly allowing himself a holiday from "Napoleon," took part in the festivities in Durham in honour of the Duke of Wellington.

He was himself almost as great a lion as the Duke, and Sir Walter always felt it due to his entertainers to play the part assigned to him. Surtees had absented himself from the public dinner — his shyness taking alarm at the possibility of having to make a speech, — but on the chance of waylaying Scott, he, faced the more impersonal terrors of a ball-room. "Scott had just entered the passage leading into the room from the street when a gentle hand was laid on his shoulder from behind, and two lines from an old ballad were whispered in his ear. 'That must be my Surtees,' said Scott, even before he had time to look round him." The two old gentlemen retired into the ladies' cloak-room and pleasantly discussed their "antiquarian old-womanries," as Scott called his favourite subject of conversation. When they had talked a good hour Sir Walter asked Surtees to accompany him into the ball-room, and Surtees replied that he was "not in the habit of going to balls, but for the pleasure of entering with Scott he would go."

In a poem addressed to Sir Cuthbert Sharp, the kind host on this occasion, Sir Walter refers pleasantly to this incident: "Can I . . .

Forget your kindness found for all room
In what, though large, seemed still a small room?
Forget my Surtees in a ball-room?
Forget you? No!

Surtees lived to hear of the death of Scott: he said little the morning the news came, but walked pensively up and down his lawn, and for some days after was sad and abstracted in his mood.

Two years later his own call came. Life that he had tasted so temperately was pleasant to Surtees. There were many things he was reluctant to leave. The last time he left his library he looked wistfully round: "Annie, I shall never be here again; these books will be yours." As he lay in his upper chamber the spring sunshine was broadening on the fields he loved. That was a still keener regret. "I shall never more see the peach-blossom nor the flowers of spring. It is hard to die in the spring."