1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 106.



WALTER SCOTT was born in Edinburgh, on the 15th of August, 1771. His father was a writer to the signet, and of ancient and honourable descent. Almost from his birth until the age of sixteen, he was afflicted with ill health; and, either from the weakness of his constitution, or, as some assert, from an accident occasioned by the carelessness of his nurse, his right foot was injured, and he was lame during his life. His early days were passed among the hills and dales of the borders — "famous in war and verse" — "where," we quote from Allan Cunningham, "almost every stone that stands above the ground is the record of some skirmish, or single combat; and every stream, although its waters be so inconsiderable as scarcely to moisten the pasture through which they run, is renowned in song and in ballad." Perhaps to the happy chance of his residence in a district so fertile in legendary lore, the world is indebted for the vast legacy of wealth he bequeathed to it. In 1783, he entered the University of Edinburgh; and in 1792, became an advocate at the Scottish bar: but after a few years' attendance at the Courts, quitted it, in order to devote himself to literature. He had, however, reached his 25th year, before he manifested any desire, or rather intention, to contend for fame in a path so intricate; and as he himself states, his first attempt ended in a transfer of his printed sheets to the service of the trunk-maker. Though discouraged, he was not disheartened. In 1802, the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border obtained a more fortunate destiny; and about three years afterwards, the publication of the Lay of the Last Minstrel, completely established the fame of the writer. From t he appearance of this Poem, the life of the Poet, until towards the close of it, is little else than a history of his writings. Marmion issued from the press in 1808; the Lady of the Lake, in 1810; Don Roderick, in 1811; Rokeby, in 1813; the Lord of the Isles, in 1814; the Bridal of Triermain, and Harold the Dauntless, appeared anonymously, — the former, in 1813; and the latter, in 1817. The publication of his novels and romances commenced with Waverley, in 1814. In 1820, Walter Scott was created a baronet of the United Kingdom. In January, 1826, his publishers became bankrupts; it produced a feeling of the deepest sorrow, — not only in Edinburgh, but throughout the kingdom, when it was ascertained that, through their failure, he was involved in pecuniary responsibilities to a ruinous extent. He encountered adversity with manly fortitude; asked and obtained from his creditors no other boon than time; and in about four years had actually paid off nearly 70,000 of the debt. The price of almost superhuman labour was, however, to be exacted. In 1831, he was attacked with gradual paralysis: in the autumn of that year he was prevailed upon to visit the more genial climate of the south of Europe; — the experiment was unsuccessful in restoring him to health: he returned to Abbotsford, and died there on, the 21st of September, 1832. His loss was mourned not only by his own country, but in every portion of the civilized globe; for his fame had spread throughout all parts of it: and there is scarcely a language into which his works have not been translated. The kindness of his heart, the benevolence of his disposition, the thorough GOODNESS of his nature, were appreciated by all who had the privilege of his acquaintance; but his genius is the vast and valuable property of mankind.

In person he was tall, and had the appearance of a powerful and robust man. His countenance has been rendered familiar by artists in abundance; the justest notion of it is conveyed by the bust of Chantrey. Its expression was peculiarly benevolent; his forehead was broad, and remarkably high.

We have left ourselves but little space to comment upon the poetry of Sir Walter Scott; his fame as a Poet was eclipsed by his reputation as a Novelist; and the appearance of a star of greater magnitude drew from him, by degrees, the popularity he had so long engrossed. Yet we venture to hazard an opinion, that if it be possible for either to be forgotten, his poems will outlive his prose; and that Waverley and Ivanhoe will perish before Marmion and the Lady of the Lake. We can find no rare and valuable quality in the former that we may not find in the latter. A deeply interesting and exciting story, glorious and true pictures of scenery, fine and accurate portraits of character, clear and impressive accounts of ancient customs, details of battles — satisfying to the fancy, yet capable of enduring the sternest test of truth — are to be found in the one class as well as in the other. In addition, we have the most graceful and harmonious verse; and the style is undoubtedly such, as equally to delight those who possess, and those who are without, a refined poetical taste.