1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

Anonymous, "Anecdotes of Eminent Persons. Walter Scott" New York Journal and Belles-Lettres Repository 1 (1 May 1819) 15-17.



The life of a poet seldom abounds with much to interest public attention; his days are spent in seclusion and study, and if he does sometimes venture into the world, it is into that part of it not fertile of adventure. "The field's his study; nature is his book." The dangers he encounters are those of fancy, as are many of the pleasures he is supposed to enjoy. He draws boldly on the bank of fiction, but sparingly on that of reality; and those who look for singular events in his life will look in vain. His occupation is a solitary one: he derives his importance from his genius, and if you inquire into his domestic habits, they will be found similar to those of other men, except, as being more sedentary, they appear less amiable.

An exception may, however, be made in favour of the subject of the following anecdotes. The country which had the honour of receiving into being Walter Scott, is the land of the Muses, where every valley is an Arcadia, and every mountain a Parnassus: inspiration breathes around. The soul of a Spencer, a Drummond, of Hawthornden, and a Burns, hovers over the scene; and none can tread the soil without recollecting a name dear to every lover of nature, Thomson. Here also fought "The Wallace;" and here the rival of Homer — here Ossian sang in strains sublime the praises of Fingal and the sorrows of Colma. No man possessing the smallest spark of poetic tire in his bosom, but would here soon find it kindle into a flame, which fanned by the breath of Amor Patriae, (for which the Caledonian is so deservedly celebrated,) must produce the very soul of song.

WALTER SCOTT appears to be smitten, in a great degree, with the love of country, and tainted rather strongly with the pride of ancestry; and yet, contrary to general opinion — contrary to all the accounts which national vanity has given of this eminent and irregularly sweet and soothing bard, he was not ushered into a bright and pleasing existence from the down bed of prosperity. In early youth,

Adversity, companion of his way,
Long o'er her victim hung with iron sway.

It has been propagated by his admirers, and the colouring of his poems sanctioned the opinion, or rather gave rise to the opinion, that he is a near relation to the noble family of Scott, Duke of Buccleugh, (a family whose munificent benevolence does honour to Scotland and the human race;) this is not correct. He is most certainly a descendant of that noble race; and probably has a little of the wizard, Michael Scott's blood in his veins. At all events, the "witching tales" he has told lead us to think so. He is a very distant relation, indeed, of that noble house; but the "boast of heraldry, the pomp of power," cannot add any thing glorious to the name of Walter Scott. Ennobled by his superior talent and genius, he has no occasion for assistance from the records of Stirling castle to spread abroad his name, and hand it down to posterity. The Buccleugh family does no honour to the name of Walter Scott: he does honour to them, and of him they have reason to be proud — proud as a great and good man — proud of him as one of the sweetest bards that ever tuned his harp on Moray Hills, and assisted in giving immortality to the mountain scenery of his native land, and the invincible courage of her gallant children.

The father of Walter Scott was a well-informed man and a gentleman, his mother a woman of the most amiable disposition, with more common sense than in general falls to female share, and was the intimate friend of Allan Ramsay, Blacklock, and Burns. It was her who moulded the mind of her son, and gave him that excessive tone of sensibility which breathes through all his works. She was remarkably attached to rural life and the poets; and to her rambling in the glens and forests of Scotland, with a book in one hand and her son in the other, we are indebted for the landscapes in "The Lady of the Lake," and all those beautiful descriptions of the Highland scenery, which, whilst we are perusing, we actually imagine before our eyes; and it is not until we have finished the sentence or period, that we awaken from our dream of rapture.

In boyhood, Walter Scott was never attached to childish amusements. At seven years of age he went to school, under the tuition of a person named More, Presenter to the Kirk at Muselburgh.

Mr. Scott carried with him to school such knowledge as we may suppose a youth of seven years of age capable of acquiring from a father very attentive to his little favourite in every respect. In fact, he could read well, and had such a propensity for drawing, that all his books were scribbled over with rude figures of men, houses, and trees, whenever he could get a pen or a pencil. At this early age we may mark this fact as the dawning of a poetical genius; poetry and painting are as closely allied as music and love. This taste for drawing did not advance with his advancing years, though we have seen a sketch of his of the port of Loch Lomond, taken from the west side, in 1803, very well executed; it is done on a blank leaf of Hector Macneill's poems, and is now in possession of Captain Fullerton. Like Milton, Swift, and other great geniuses, he was, as the latter said of himself, at school "very justly celebrated for his stupidity." Perhaps much of his stupidity was owing to the want of talent in his master, or rather his want of method in the art of teaching. Be that as it may, young Scott certainly did not shine in his early career as a scholar. He learnt to read, write, and attained a tolerable knowledge of the mathematics. In Latin he did not advance far until his tenth year, when Doctor Paterson, a clergyman of the church of Scotland, succeeded to the school at Musselburgh, and the progress of young Scott became rapid. Dr. Blair, on a visit at Musselburgh, shortly after Mr. Paterson took charge of the school, accompanied by some friends, examined several of the pupils; he paid particular attention to young Scott. Mr. Paterson thought it was the youth's stupidity occupied the Doctor's time, and said, "My predecessor tells me that boy has the thickest skull in the school." "Maybe so," replied Dr. Blair, "but through that thick skull I can discern many bright rays of future genius."