1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

Anonymous, "Biographical Memoir of Walter Scott" New British Lady's Magazine 2 (January-February 1819) 1-4, 49-51.



Although it will always be one of the principal objects of our miscellany to present to its fair readers those eminent females, whose living worth or departed excellence have placed them deservedly high in public estimation; and whose memoirs may afford both instruction and amusement to the British fair, we at the same time feel confident, that in occasionally selecting a distinguished character of the other sex, we shall meet the wishes of our friends more fully than by rigidly adhering to the plan of some of our cotemporaries, frequently presenting a biography of no present interest, and consequently with no claim to the notice of posterity.

The subject of our present memoir has been so long a distinguished favourite with the British fair, — the agreeable companion of their leisure hours — the sweet soother of their solitude, that we are sure we only anticipate the wishes of our readers in presenting them with the portrait of one who has been more eminently successful than almost any of his predecessors; one who, as the poet says—

never wrote
One line that, dying, he would wish to blot.

We quote this in a moral sense, not meaning to convey an idea that every effort of his muse has been equally successful, or that he is not himself conscious that much of what he has written might have been improved: but there is thrown over his writings a sprinkling of morality and pathos which finds its way directly to the heart.

The rapid progress of our author's fame, and the very great remuneration he received for his productions, strongly prove the liberality of the age in which we live, when we consider the long obscurity and poverty of some of the greatest geniuses to which our favoured land has given birth, and how little the public attention was directed to the works of some of our greatest poets, until a monumental stone was all that could then be bestowed on him, who in life wanted bread.

Although the present popularity of the novels so universally, and we believe correctly, attributed to our author, has somewhat eclipsed the fame of his poetry, the sweetly flowing numbers of his "Lay of the last Minstrel," and "Lady of the Lake," which have not been excelled by any of his later productions, must still rest on the memory of all who have read them, — and who has not?

Mr. Scott professes himself to be the bard of chivalry; he paints the rude and romantic manners of an age when all the various passions of men were reduced to love and heroism; of an age whose real events were improbable, and whose fictions have the charm of ease, simplicity, and nature. It cannot be denied that this system of habits and feelings, when accompanied with all its proper appendages and connections, may be made a source of what is beautiful, tender, and elevated, in poetry. — The two favourite, if not the two best bards of Italy, Ariosto and Tasso, have concentrated all their powers to adorn the fictions of chivalry. In our own country, Spenser has dignified the same system almost to a degree of perfection, and with an enthusiasm which seems to have been peculiar to the age in which he lived. Mr. Scott has followed in this track with unequal success; in Glenfinlas, and some minor pieces, he is almost universally acknowledged to have outstripped all his rivals; but in some of his more laboured productions he has occasionally evinced a want of taste or skill; and in his diction he frequently jumbles together the words of all ages, without the least regard to any thing but rhyme.

In his female portraiture Mr. Scott has been most successful: — his Margaret of Branksome; his Clara of Clare; his Constance de Beverley, and his Lady of the Lake, are worthy to rank with the best heroines of the courts of Charlemagne or Arthur.

Who, that has any relish for poetry, can avoid being delighted with this apostrophe to Woman, in the last Canto of Marmion;—

O woman! in our hours of ease,
Uncertain, coy, and hard to please,
And variable as the shade,
By the light quivering aspen made;
When pain and anguish wring the brow,
A ministering angel thou!

Next to this his greatest excellence, must be placed his animated sketching of simple passion and heroic action: a conference of love, or a battle, he will give to the very life, and with a spirit of freshness that reminds us of the lively vigour of Homer. His description of scenery, though much incumbered with words, is pleasing and picturesque.

The man of letters, it has been often observed, presents but few incidents for the pen of the biographer, and the subject of the present memoir is not an exception to this rule. He was born at Edinburgh, August 15, 1771. His father, of whom he is the eldest surviving son, was likewise named Walter Scott, and was an advocate, or writer to the signet; his mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Scott, was the daughter of David Rutherford, Esq. writer to the signet. She was a very accomplished woman, and after her death in 1789 were published some of her poetical productions.

Walter being lame, and of a very tender constitution, received the first rudiments of his education from his excellent mother, to whom he was always much endeared. He was afterwards sent to the High School of Edinburgh, under the direction of Dr. Alexander Adam. Here young Scott evinced no extraordinary powers, and was considered rather a heavy boy; his genius seemed to be chiefly directed to drawing landscapes after nature; but it is said, that when the master of the school lamented his dullness, the late Dr. Hugh Blair predicted his future eminence. His classical studies being completed at the High School, he was then removed to the University of Edinburgh, but here he could not have remained long, for we find him, after serving the prescribed terms in the office of a writer to the signet, admitted an Advocate of the Scotch bar before he had attained his twenty-first year; here he most assiduously attended his professional duties, and in the year 1798 he married Miss Carpenter, by whom he has four children. At the end of the next year he was appointed Sheriff Depute of the county of Selkirk, and in March, 1806, one of the principal clerks of Session in Scotland. For these appointments Mr. Scott is indebted to the friendship of Lord Melville, though at that time his Lordship was actually under impeachment. Mr. Scott now pursued his literary inclinations at pleasure, for in addition to his two lucrative situations which produce from £800 to £1000 per annum, he came into possession a handsome estate, through the death of his father, and an uncle. His first productions were the translations of two German ballads, "The Chace," and "William and Helen," these pieces were merely written for amusement, and would not have been published but for the earnest solicitation of his friends. After a lapse of three years, Mr. Scott again appeared in a translation of Goethe's tragedy of "Goetz of Berlinchingen," and two years after this his "Glenfinlas" and "Eve of St. John" appeared in the late Mr. Lewis's Tales of Wonder. But his first work of any importance, "The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders" came out in 1802. This work consists of historical and romantic ballads, collected in the southern counties of Scotland; with a few of modern date, founded upon local tradition. Each ballad is introduced by a preliminary essay, explanatory of the subject, and is succeeded by notes illustrative of those allusions to local circumstances, which were likely to have escaped the English reader. In this arduous undertaking Mr. S. has evinced a sound judgment and thorough knowledge of border history.

His next work was the editing from the Auchinleck manuscripts "Sir Tristram, a metrical romance of the thirteenth century; by Thomas of Ercildown;" this appeared in 1803 — and the following year produced his chef-d'oeuvre the "Lay of the last Minstrel." The story of this poem, though simple, is interesting: an aged minstrel, the last of the race, is supposed to be wandering near the seat of the Duchess of Buceleuch, widow to the unfortunate Duke of Monmouth, who was beheaded in the reign of James II. he is invited into the castle, cheered and refreshed by the kindness of the Duchess and her ladies, and, to gratify them, he sings to his harp a tale of feats of arms and chivalry, the action of which is supposed to pass about the middle of the sixteenth century, when most of the characters mentioned in it actually flourished. This poem will be long read and admired for the interest of the story, the ease and harmony of the language, the picturesqueness of the incidents and scenery, and for the delineation of the manners of the ancient borderers. This last, indeed, is avowed to be the primary object of its author, and for the attainment of it, he adopted the plan of the ancient metrical romance, which, to use his own words "allows greater latitude, in this respect, than would be consistent with the dignity of a regular poem. The same model afforded other facilities, as it permits an occasional alteration of the measure, which in some degree authorises the change of rhythm in the text. The machinery also adopted, from popular belief, would have seemed puerile in a poem, which did not partake of the rudeness of the old ballad or metrical romance....

In 1806, he published a collection of "Ballads and Lyrical Pieces," many of which had appeared before, but not in a collected form.

In 1808 appeared "Marmion, a Tale of Flodden Field." The story of this poem turns upon the private adventures of a fictitious character; but is called a Tale of Flodden Field, because the hero's fate is connected with that memorable defeat, and the causes which led to it. The poem opens about the beginning of August: and ends with the defeat of Flodden, September 4, 1513. The rapidity of Mr. Scott's pen shone conspicuous this year; for, in addition to Marmion, he published "Descriptions and Illustrations of the Lay of the Last Minstrel," and a complete edition of the works of Dryden; in which he gave a new life of that great writer, and numerous notes. Very shortly after this, he undertook the editing of Lord Somers's collection of Historical Tracts; Sir Ralph Sadler's State Papers, and Anna Seward's Poetical Works.

By the terms of Miss Seward's will, the posthumous publication of her poetical works was deputed to Mr. Scott, and of the epistolary works to Mr. Constable, with neither of whom the fair testatrix had any thing more than the most superficial acquaintance. This year Mr. Scott was most actively employed; for, in addition to these tasks, he produced his "Lady of the Lake," a poem abounding in interest and poetical beauties, which are greatly enriched by his description of Loch-katrine and its vicinity, in the western highlands of Perthshire, where the scene of the poem is laid. His description of the stranger's first meeting with Ellen, the Lady of the Lake, is among his happiest efforts:

But scarce again his horn he wound
When lo, forth starting at the sound,
From underneath an aged oak,
That slanted from the islet rock,
A damsel, guider of its way,
A little skiff shot to the bay,
That round the promontory steep
Led its deep line in graceful sweep,
Eddying in almost viewless wave,
The weeping willow twig to have,
And kiss, with whispering sound and slow,
The beach of pebbles, bright as snow.
The boat had touched this silver strand
Just as the hunter left his stand,
And stood concealed amid the brake,
To view this Lady of the Lake.
The maiden paused, as if again
She thought to catch the distant strain,
With head up-raised, and look intent,
And eye and ear attentive bent;
And locks flung back, and lips apart,
Like monument of Graecian art:
In listening mood she seemed to stand,
The guardian Naiad of the strand.

In 1811 appeared "The Vision of Don Roderick," a work in which public expectation was much disappointed, as it was certainly very inferior to his former productions.

In 1813 he published "Rokeby," which, though superior to Don Roderick, did not much increase his fame. The narrative of this poem is confessedly fictitious, but the date of the supposed events is immediately subsequent to the great battle of Marston Moor, 3d July, 1644. The description of Matilda is very naturally depicted.

Wreathed in dark-brown rings her hair
Half hid Matilda's forehead fair,
Half hid and half revealed to view
Her full dark eye of hazel hue.
The rose, with faint and feeble streak,
So slightly tinged the maiden's cheek,
That you had said her hue was pale.
But if she faced the summer gale,
Or spoke or sung, or quicker moved,
Or heard the praise of those she loved,
Or when of interest was expressed,
Aught that waked feeling in her breast,
The mantling blood in ready play
Rivalled the blush of rising day.
There was a soft and pensive grace,
A cast of thought upon her face,
That suited well the forehead high,
The eye-lash dark and downcast eye;
The mild expression spoke a mind
In duty firm, composed, resigned;—
Tis that which Roman art has given
To mark their maiden Queen of Heaven.
In hours of sport, that mood gave way
To fancy's light and frolic play,
And when the dance, or tale, or song,
In harmless mirth sped time along,
Full oft her doating sire would call
His Maud the merriest of them all.

Towards the close of the year 1814 came out "The Lord of the Isles," a poem abounding in interest, and very superior to any since the Lady of the Lake. Bruce is the chief personage of the poem, and his assertion of his country's independence, and successful attempt at the crown, supply the incidents.

In the year 1815 he brought out a very interesting work on the "Border Antiquities of England;" a new edition of the works of Swift, with a biography, and numerous annotations; and "The Field of Waterloo," a poem. Here our author, in wandering from his native land, seemed to have left his muse behind; it is deservedly the least successful of his poetical effusions. Mr. Scott in contemplating the field of Waterloo, covered with its dreadful carnage, certainly did not catch the fire of his subject in so poetical a manner, as when he meditated the chivalrous deeds of old on Marston Moor, or in Flodden Field; but, with all its faults, we think it has been treated with too much critical severity. His apostrophe to Buonaparte has surely some merit.

Yet, even in you sequester'd spot,
May worthier conquest be thy lot,
Than yet thy life has known;
Conquest, unbought by blood or harm,
That needs not foreign aid nor arm,
A triumph all thine own.
Such waits thee when thou shalt controul
Those passions wild, that stubborn soul,
That marr'd thy prosperous scene;
Hear this from no unmoved heart,
Which sighs, comparing what THOU ART,
With what thou MIGHT'ST HAVE BEEN!

About the same time as "The Field of Waterloo" appeared a prose work, chiefly on the same subject, intituled "Paul's Letters to his Kinsfolk." This work has been generally ascribed to Mr. Scott, and we see no reason to doubt its being the production of his prolific pen.

From this period Mr. Scott's name has not appeared to any publication, but he is the universally reputed author of a series of most interesting novels. The first of which, "Waverley," appeared in 1814, dedicated to the celebrated Henry Mackenzie, by "an unknown admirer of his genius." The scenes are laid in the highlands of Scotland — it abounds in Scottish peculiarities, and the incidents are taken from the Scotch history.

In 1815 "Guy Mannering" came out, affording additional reasons for believing Mr. Scott to be the real author. This novel abounds in interest, and is the most amusing of the series.

These were rapidly followed by "The Antiquary," "Rob Roy," and in 1817, "Tales of my Landlord." This last, according to the title, is supposed to be written by "Jedediah Cleishbotham, schoolmaster and parish clerk of Gandercleugh." These tales consisted of "Old Mortality," and "The Black Dwarf." A second series has been published, containing but one tale, "The Heart of Mid-Lothian." And a third series is nearly ready, which we understand will consist of a tale called "Montrose." These tales bear such a similarity to the novels, that we feel no hesitation in pronouncing them to be the production of the same pen.

A Scotch periodical publication attempted to ascertain the real author of these works, and attributed them to the celebrated Mrs. Grant of Laggan, publishing at the same time a number of quotations to prove the similarity of style, but that lady has declared that she cannot take to herself the merit of their productions. They have also been attributed to a brother of Mr. Scott, a resident in America; but we have never heard any sufficient reason for this conclusion.

Although nothing has appeared with Mr. Scott's name, since the "Field of Waterloo," two small poems have very recently been inserted in a list of his works, which were published anonymously, one is called "The Bridal of Triermain," and the other, "Harold the Dauntless." These pieces were very favourably received, though not with the least suspicion of their author. He is understood to be at present engaged in illustrating a graphic work on the antiquities of Scotland.

Mr. Scott, in addition to a considerable family property of which he is possessed, and the valuable appointments to which he has been preferred, has amassed immense wealth by his literary exertions, for the copyright of "Marmion" he received 3000 guineas. What a contrast! Milton for his Paradise Lost received three times £5.

Mr. S. it is reported, is to be honoured with a baronetage.

With the following extract from a letter written sometime since we shall conclude this memoir of a man, who has furnished the world with so many entertaining and interesting works.

"Few travellers visit Edinburgh without inquiring whether Walter Scott is visible. In a small dark room where one of the courts is held, he is to be seen every morning in term time, seated at a small table with the acts of the court before him. He is a short, broad-shouldered and rather robust man, with light hair, eyes between blue and grey, broad nose and round face. Though a great number of travellers have letters of recommendation to Mr. Scott, yet his parties are not numerous. His manners are agreeable, untainted with vanity: and the only affectation to be seen in him is, that he is solicitous not to appear as a poet. He is very lively and full of anecdote; and though not brilliant in company, is always cheerful and unassuming. He often relates that in his infancy the old people used to take him upon their knees, call him Little Watty, and tell him all sorts of old stories and legends while his brothers were abroad at work, from which he was exempted on account of his lameness."