1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

L., "Memoir of Sir Walter Scott" Living Poets of England: Specimens of the Living British Poets (1827) 2:214-16.



SIR WALTER SCOTT is descended from one of the most ancient and distinguished families in Scotland, the Scotts of Harden. At this moment there are but a few lines between him and the possession of the estates of the family. The alliances of this family have been for many ages of the highest class — His father was a writer to the signet, in Edinburgh — i.e. an attorney of what is considered the highest order. He has always been represented as having been a gentleman of perfect probity and honour. — Sir Walter Scott's mother, was a woman of much shrewdness, sagacity, and humour. The stories about her writing poetry etc., are without a particle of truth. She belonged to the family of Ratherford; her father and brother were both of them physicians and professors in the University of Edinburgh. The former was the pupil of Boerhave and the friend of Pitcairn, and may be ranked with the founders of the medical school of the northern Athens. This family was always distinguished for talent. His origin is noble; and the name, like that of Scott of Harden, occurs frequently in the traditional poetry of the Border. Scott was born in 1771 in the high-street of Edinburgh where his parents then lived. He was one of a family of thirteen brothers and sisters all of whom are now dead but himself. One of them, Thomas Scott, who died last year in Canada, had much of the same talent for conversation. — Scott became lame in consequence of a fall from his nurse's arms at two years of age. He was when very young much at Smaitholm tower the residence of his paternal grandfather and here he has laid the scene of his fine ballad The eve of St. John. As he grew up, he became a great wanderer — traversed on foot and on horseback every glen of Scotland, and so acquired an intimate acquaintance with the people and the scenery of his country. His lameness did not prevent him from being capable of much bodily exertion. He was even remarkable for his horsemanship — a hereditary accomplishment of all the race of the Scotts.

He was called to the Bar at the age of 21. As an advocate he distinguished himself sometimes in criminal trials, but on the whole did not appear to be rising so rapidly in the profession, as might have been expected by those who knew him. He had occasion once to speak before the assembly of the church, and being irritated accidentally poured out a flood of eloquence. The eminent Dr. Blair was present and said. "This will he a great man." This was the earliest perception of any thing like his real power. — He married Miss Carpenter in the year 1799, and shortly afterwards became, through the kindness of the house of Buccleugh, (the head of the Scotts) sheriff of Selkirkshire. This is an office of 300 per annum, and, his estates lying close to the county of Selkirkshire, he still retains it. He published in 1799 the first productions of his literary exertions — some translations from Burger's ballads and a version of Goethe von Berlichergen. These brought him to the acquaintance of Lewis, author of the strange romance The Monk. Scott contributed to Lewis's Tales of wonders, two original ballads, The eve of St. John, and Glenfinlass. — His first and important publication was the Minstrelsy of the Scott's border. His Lay of the last Minstrel — Marmion — Lady of the lake — Rokeby — and The Lord of the isles now appeared in rapid succession. Harold the Dauntless and The Bridal of Triermain appeared anonymously, but have since been claimed by Sir Walter Scott. At the time, they were generally ascribed to his friend, the late William Erskine, Lord Kinnedder. — Another series of works of quite another sort was all this while proceeding for him — Antiquarian Essays — the editions of Swift and Dryden — the edition of Sir Tristram — articles in the Edinburgh and quarterly reviews — large contributions to the Edinburgh annual register, etc., etc., etc. — Shortly after the publication of Marmion he was made a clerk of the court of session this office, worth from 12 to 1500 per annum, being added to his sheriffdom and his patrimony, placed Scott in perfect ease as to his worldly affairs; so he has never written because he wanted money. It is pleasing to state that although a change of ministry took place just after this office had been promised to Scott, and before the grant was formally drawn out, the successors of the former government took a pride in fulfilling their intentions. Mr. Fox is reported to have said. "This is proceeding for a man of genius? The precedent cannot be very dangerous for us." — Sir Walter Scott has been, through life, attached to the Tory party of Scotland but without bigotry, and above all without the least touch of bitterness. The stories in the newspapers and Hazzlit's essays, representing him as a savage Ultra are despised by all who know him. Among his most intimate personal friends he has always counted many entirely opposed to him as to politics, and he lives with such at this moment. — Sir Walter Scott had been able, chiefly from his literary success, to lay the foundation of a very handsome fortune. Every body has heard of his recent losses. He possesses a large estate on the banks of the Tweed and has just completed a mansion-house of great extent and elegance, in the taste of the reign of queen Elizabeth. This curious residence is described in Dr. P—t's historical and literary Tour in Scotland, vol. the 3d.

He has two sons and two daughters; his eldest son is lieutenant in the 15th hussars and lately married Miss Jobson of Dundee. — Sir Walter Scott resides more than half the year at Abbotsford his country-seat while there, his house is crowded with visitors from every part of the world and he at least appears to be devoted entirely to them.

The only recent works to which Sir Walter Scott has given his name is a dramatic sketch in verse called Halidon Hill published in 1822. He was the first person on whom George IV. conferred the rank of Baronet. Sir Walter Scott has always lived in the first society of his country and is universally esteemed in proportion as he is known.

He is on terms of affectionate intercourse with all the great men of letters in Britain — such as Wordsworth, Southey, Davy, Mackenzie, Jeffrey, Campbell, Wilson, Rose. Miss Edgeworth and Mrs. Baillie are among his chief favourites. In earlier days he lived much with Canning, Frere, Ellis and others, in that high and polished circle of wits now dispersed by death and otherwise.

Sir Walter Scott is thoroughly acquainted with German literature and of course French and Italian; he also knows the Spanish and Danish languages. In historical and Antiquarian learning he is probably the first man now in Britain.