Sir Walter Scott

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:378-81.

WALTER SCOTT was born in the city of Edinburgh ("mine own romantic town") on the 15th of August 1771. His father was a respectable writer to the signet: his mother, Anne Rutherford, was daughter of a physician in extensive practice, and professor of medicine in the university of Edinburgh. By both parents the poet was remotely connected with some respectable ancient Scottish families — a circumstance gratifying to his feelings of nationality, and to his imagination. Delicate health, arising chiefly from lameness, led to his being placed under the charge of some relations in the country; and when a mere child, yet old enough to receive impressions from country life and border stories, he resided with his grandfather at Sandy-Knowe, a romantic situation a few miles from Kelso. The ruined tower of Smailholm (the scene of Scott's ballad, the Eve of St John) was close to the farm, and beside it were the Eildon Hills, the river Tweed, Dryburgh Abbey, and other poetical and historical objects, all enshrined in the lonely contemplative boy's fancy and recollection. He afterwards resided with another relation at Kelso, and here, at the age of thirteen, he first read Percy's Reliques, in an antique garden, under the shade of a huge platanus, or oriental plane-tree. This work had as great an effect in making him a poet as Spenser had on Cowley, but with Scott the seeds were long in germinating. Previous to this he had indeed tried his hand at verse. The following, among other lines, were discovered wrapped up in a cover inscribed by Dr. Adam of the High School, "Walter Scott, July 1783."

Those evening clouds, that setting ray,
And beauteous tints, serve to display
Their great Creator's praise;
Then let the short-lived thing called man,
Whose life's comprised within a span,
To him his homage raise.
We often praise the evening clouds,
And tints so gay and bold,
But seldom think upon our God,
Who tinged these clouds with gold.

The religious education of Scott may be seen in this effusion: his father was a rigid Presbyterian. The youthful poet passed through the High School and university of Edinburgh, and made some proficiency in Latin, and in the classes of ethics, moral philosophy, and history. He had an aversion to Greek, and we may perhaps regret, with Bulwer, that he refused "to enter into that chamber in the magic palace of literature in which the sublimest relics of antiquity are stored." He knew generally, but not critically, the German, French, Italian, and Spanish languages. He was an insatiable reader, and during a long illness in his youth, stored his mind with a vast variety of miscellaneous knowledge. Romances were among his chief favourites, and he had great facility in inventing and telling stories. He also collected ballads from his earliest years. Scott was apprenticed to his father as a writer, after which he studied for the bar, and put on his gown its his twenty-first year. His health was now vigorous and robust, and he made frequent excursions into the country, which he pleasantly denominated raids. The knowledge of rural life, character, traditions, and anecdotes, which he picked up in these rambles, formed afterwards a valuable mine to him, both as a poet and novelist. His manners were easy and agreeable, and he was always a welcome guest. Scott joined the Tory party; and when the dread of an invasion agitated the country, he became one of a band of volunteers, "brothers true," in which he held the rank of quarter-master. His exercises as a cavalry officer, and the jovialties of the mess-room, occupied much of his time; but he still pursued, though irregularly, his literary studies, and an attachment to a Perthshire lady (though ultimately unfortunate) tended still more strongly to prevent his sinking into idle frivolity or dissipation.

Henry Mackenzie, the "Man of Feeling," had introduced a taste for German literature into the intellectual classes of his native city, and Scott was one of its most eager and ardent votaries. In 1796 he published translations of Burger's Lenore and the Wild Huntsman, ballads of singular wildness and power. Next year, while fresh from his first-love disappointment, he was prepared, like Romeo, to "take some new infection to his eye," and, meeting at Gilsland, a watering-place in Cumberland, with a young lady of French parentage, Charlotte Margaret Carpenter, he paid his addresses to her, was accepted, and married on the 24th of December. Miss Carpenter had some fortune, and the young couple retired to a cottage at Lasswade, where they seem to have enjoyed sincere and unalloyed happiness. The ambition of Scott was now fairly wakened — his lighter vanities all blown away. His life henceforward was one of severe but cheerful study and application. In 1799 appeared his translation of Goethe's tragedy, Goetz von Berlichingen, and the same year he obtained the appointment of sheriff of Selkirkshire, worth £300 per annum. Scott now paid a series of visits to Liddisdale, for the purpose of collecting the ballad poetry of the Border, an object in which he was eminently successful. In 1802, the result appeared in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, which contained upwards of forty pieces never before published, and a large quantity of prose illustration, in which might have been seen the germ of that power which he subsequently developed in his novels. A third volume was added next year, containing some imitations of the old minstrels by the poetical editor and his friends. It required little sagacity to foresee that Walter Scott was now to be a great name in Scotland. His next task was editing the metrical romance of Sir Tristrem, supposed to be written by Thomas the Rhymer, or Thomas of Ercildoune, who flourished about the year 1280. The antiquarian knowledge of Scott, and his poetical taste, were exhibited in the dissertations which accompanied this work, and the imitation of the original which was added to complete the romance. At length, in January 1805, appeared the Lay of the Last Minstrel, which instantly stamped him as one of the greatest of the living poets. His legendary lore, his love of the chivalrous and supernatural, and his descriptive powers, were fully brought into play; and though he afterwards improved in versatility and freedom, he achieved nothing which might not have been predicted from this first performance. His conception of the minstrel was inimitable, and won all hearts — even those who were indifferent to the supernatural part of the tale, and opposed to the irregularity of the ballad style.

The unprecedented success of the poem inclined Scott to relax any exertions he had ever made to advance at the bar, although his cautious disposition made him at all times fear to depend over much upon literature. He had altogether a clear income of about £1000 per annum; but his views stretched beyond this easy competence; he was ambitious of founding a family that might vie with the ancient Border names he venerated, and to attain this, it was necessary to become a landed proprietor, and to practise a liberal and graceful hospitality. Well was he fitted to adorn and dignify the character! But his ambition, though free from any tinge of sordid acquisition, proved a snare for his strong good sense and penetration. Scott and his family had gone to reside at Ashestiel, a beautiful residence on the banks of the Tweed, as it was necessary for him, in his capacity of sheriff, to live part of the year in the county of Selkirk. Shortly after the publication of the Lay, be entered into partnership with his old schoolfellow, James Ballantyne, then rising into extensive business as a printer in Edinburgh. The copartnery was kept a secret, and few things in business that require secrecy are prosperous or beneficial. The establishment, upon which was afterwards engrafted a publishing business, demanded large advances of money, and Scott's name became mixed up with pecuniary transactions and losses to a great amount. In 1806, the powerful friends of the poet procured him the appointment of one of the principal clerkships of the Court of Session, worth about £1300 per annum; but the emoluments were not received by Scott until six years after the date of his appointment, when his predecessor died. In his share of the printing business, and the certainty of his clerkship, the poet seemed, however, to have laid up (in addition to his literary gains and his sheriffdom) an honourable and even opulent provision for his family.

In 1808 appeared his great poem of Marmion, the most magnificent of his chivalrous tales, and the same year he published his edition of Dryden. In 1810 appeared the Lady of the Lake, which was still more popular than either of its predecessors; in 1811, The Vision of Don Roderick; in 1813, Rokeby, and The Bridal of Trieremain; in 1814, The Lord of the isles; in 1815, The Field of Waterloo; and in 1817, Harold the Dauntless. Some dramatic pieces, scarcely worthy of his genius, were also written during this busy period. It could not be concealed, that the later works of the great minstrel were inferior to his early ones. His style was now familiar, and the world had become tired of it. Byron had made his appearance, and the readers of poetry were bent on the new worship. Scott, however, was too dauntless and intrepid, and possessed of too great resources, to despond under this reverse. "As the old mine gave symptoms of exhaustion," says Bulwer, "the new mine, ten times more affluent, at least in the precious metals, was discovered; and just as in Rokeby and Triermain the Genius of the Ring seemed to flag in its powers, came the more potent Genius of the Lamp in the shape of Waverley." The long and magnificent series of his prose fictions we shall afterwards advert to. They were poured forth even more prodigally than his verse, and for seventeen years — from 1814 to 1831 — the world hung with delight on the varied creations of the potent enchanter.

Scott had now removed from his pleasant cottage at Ashestiel: the territorial dream was about to be realised. In 1811 he purchased a hundred acres of moorland on the banks of the Tweed, near Melrose. The neighbourhood was full of historical associations, but the spot itself was bleak and bare. Four thousand pounds were expanded on this purchase; and the interesting and now immortal name of Abbotsford was substituted for the very ordinary one of Cartley Hole. Other purchases of land followed, generally at prices considerably above their value — Kaeside, £4100; Outfield of Toftfield, £6000; Toftfield, and parks, £10,000; Abbotslea, £3000; field at Langside, £500; Shearing Flat, £3500; Broomilees, £4200; Short Acres and Scrabtree Park, £700; &c. From these farms and "pendicles" was formed the estate of Abbotsford. In planting and draining, about £5000 were expended; and in erecting the mansion-house (that "romance of stone and mortar," as it has been termed), and constructing the garden, &c., a sum not less than £20,000 was spent. In his baronial residence the poet received innumerable visitors — princes, peers, and poets — men of all ranks and grades. His mornings were devoted to composition (for he had long practised the invaluable habit of early rising), and the rest of the day to riding among his plantations, and entertaining his guests and family. The honour of the baronetcy was conferred upon him in 1820 by George IV., who had taste enough to appreciate cordially his genius. Never, certainly, had literature done more for any of its countless votaries, ancient or modern. Shakspeare had retired early on an easy competency, and also become a rural squire; but his gains must have been chiefly those of the theatrical manager, not of the poet. Scott's splendour was purely the result of his pen: to this he owed his acres, his castle, and his means of hospitality. His official income was but as a feather in the balance. Who does not wish that the dream had continued to the end of his life? It was suddenly and painfully dissolved. The commercial distresses of 1825-6 fell upon publishers as on other classes, and the bankruptcy of constable involved the poet in losses and engagements to the amount of about £60,000. His wealth, indeed, had been almost wholly illusory; for he had been paid for his works chiefly by bills, and these ultimately proved valueless. In the management of his publishing house, Scott's sagacity seems to have forsaken him: unsaleable works were printed in thousands; and while these losses were yearly accumulating, the princely hospitalities of Abbotsford knew no check or pause. Heavy was the day of reckoning — terrible the reverse; for when the spell broke in January 1826, it was found that, including the Constable engagements, Scott, under the commercial denomination of James Ballantyne and Co., owed £117,000. If this was a blot in the poet's scutcheon, never, it might be said, did man make nobler efforts to redeem the honour of his name. He would listen to no overtures of composition with his creditors — his only demand was for time. He ceased "doing the honours for all Scotland," sold off his Edinburgh house, and taking lodgings there, laboured incessantly at his literary tasks. "The fountain was awakened from its inmost recesses, as if the spirit of affliction had troubled it in his passage." In four years he had realised for his creditors no less than £70,000.

English literature presents two memorable and striking events which have never been paralleled in any other nation. The first is, Milton advanced in years, blind, and in misfortune, entering upon the composition of a great epic that was to determine his future fame, and hazard the glory of his country in competition with what had been achieved in the classic ages of antiquity. The counterpart to this noble picture is Walter Scott, at nearly the same age, his private affairs in ruin, undertaking to liquidate, by intellectual labours alone, a debt of £117,000. Both tasks may be classed with the moral sublime of life. Glory, pure and unsullied, was the ruling aim and motive of Milton; honour and integrity formed the incentives to Scott. Neither shrunk from the steady prosecution of his gigantic self-imposed labour. But years rolled on, seasons returned and passed away, amidst public cares and private calamity, and the pressure of increasing infirmities, era the seed sown amidst clouds and storms was white in the field. In six years Milton had realised the object of his hopes and prayers by the completion of Paradise Lost. His task was done; the field of glory was gained; he held in his hand his passport to immortality. In six years Scott had nearly reached the goal of his ambition. He had ranged the wide fields of romance, and the public had liberally rewarded their illustrious favourite. The ultimate prize was within view, and the world cheered him on, eagerly anticipating his triumph; but the victor sank exhausted on the course. He had spent his life in the struggle. The strong man was bowed down, and his living honour, genius, and integrity, were extinguished by delirium and death.

In February 1830 Scott had an attack of paralysis. He continued, however, to write several hours every day. In April 1831 he suffered a still more severe attack; and he was prevailed upon, as a means of withdrawing him from mental labour, to undertake a foreign tour. The admiralty furnished a ship of war, and the poet sailed for Malta and Naples. At the latter place he resided from the 17th of December 1831 to the 16th of April following. He still laboured at unfinished romances, but his mind was in ruins. From Naples the poet went to Rome. On the 11th of May he began his return homewards, and reached London on the 13th of June. Another attack of apoplexy, combined with paralysis, had laid prostrate his powers, and he was conveyed to Abbotsford a helpless and almost unconscious wreck. He lingered on for some time, listening occasionally to passages read to him from the Bible, and from his favourite author Crabbe. Once he tried to write, but his fingers would not close upon the pen. He never spoke of his literary labours or success. At times his imagination was busy preparing for the reception of the Duke of Wellington at Abbotsford; at other times he was exercising the functions of a Scottish judge, as if presiding at the trial of members of his own family. His mind never appeared to wander in its delirium towards those works which had filled all Europe with his fame. This we learn from undoubted authority, and the fact is of interest in literary history. But the contest was soon to be over; "the plough was nearing the end of the furrow." "About half-past one, P.M.," says Mr. Lockhart, "on the 21st of September 1832, Sir Walter breathed his last, in the presence of all his children. It was a beautiful day — so warm that every window was wide open — and so perfectly still that the sound of all others most delicious to his ear, the gentle ripple of the Tweed over its pebbles, was distinctly audible as we knelt around the bed, and his eldest son kissed and closed his eyes."

Call it not vain; they do not err
Who say, that when the poet dies,
Mute nature mourns her worshipper,
And celebrates his obsequies;
Who say tall cliff and cavern lone,
For the departed bard make moan;
That mountains weep in crystal rill;
That flowers in tears of balm distil;
Through his loved groves that breezes sigh,
And oaks, in deeper groans, reply;
And rivers teach their rushing wave
To murmur dirges round his grave.

The novelty and originality of Scott's style of poetry, though exhausted by himself, and debased by imitators, formed his first passport to public favour and applause. The English reader had to go back to Spenser and Chaucer ere he could find so knightly and chivalrous a poet, or such paintings of antique manners and institutions. The works of the elder worthies were also obscured by a dim and obsolete phraseology; while Scott, in expression, sentiment, and description, could be read and understood by all. The perfect clearness and transparency of his style is one of his distinguishing features; and it was further aided by his peculiar versification. Coleridge had exemplified the fitness of the octosyllabic measure for romantic narrative poetry, and parts of his "Christabel" having been recited to Scott, he adopted its wild rhythm and harmony, joining to it some of the abruptness and irregularity of the old ballad metre. In his hands it became a powerful and flexible instrument, whether for light narrative and pure description, or for scenes of tragic wildness and terror, such as the trial and death of Constance in Marmion, or the swell and agitation of a battle-field. The knowledge and enthusiasm requisite for a chivalrous poet Scott possessed in an eminent degree. He was an early worshipper of "hoar antiquity". He was in the maturity of his powers (thirty-four years of age) when the Lay was published, and was perhaps better informed on such subjects than any other man living. Border story and romance had been the study and the passion of his whole life. In writing Marmion and Ivanhoe, or in building Abbotsford, he was impelled by a natural and irresistible impulse. The baronial castle, the court and camp — the wild Highland chase, feud, and foray — the antique blazonry, and institutions of feudalism, were constantly present to his thoughts and imagination. Then, his powers of description were unequalled — certainly hover surpassed. His landscapes, his characters and situations, were all real delineations; in general effect and individual details, they were equally perfect. None of his contemporaries had the same picturesqueness, fancy, or invention; none so graphic in depicting manners and customs; none so fertile in inventing incidents; none so fascinating in narrative, or so various and powerful in description. His diction was proverbially careless and incorrect. Neither in prose nor poetry was Scott a polished writer. He looked only at broad and general effects; his words had to make pictures, not melody. Whatever could be grouped and described, whatever was visible and tangible, lay within his reach. Below the surface he had less power. The language of the heart was not his familiar study; the passions did not obey his call. The contrasted effects of passion and situation he could portray vividly and distinctly — the sin and suffering of Constance, the remorse of Marmion and Bertram, the pathetic character of Wilfrid, the knightly grace of Fitz-James, and the rugged virtues and savage death of Roderick Dhu, are all fine specimens of moral painting. Byron has nothing better, and indeed the noble poet in some of his tales copied or paraphrased the sterner passages of Scott. But even in those gloomy and powerful traits of his genius, the force lies in the situation, not in the thoughts and expression. There are no talismanic words that pierce the heart or usurp the memory; none of the impassioned and reflective style of Byron, the melodious pathos of Campbell, or the profound sympathy of Wordsworth. The great strength of Scott undoubtedly lay in the prolific richness of his fancy, and the abundant stores of his memory, that could create, collect, and arrange such a multitude of scenes and adventures; that could find materials for stirring and romantic poetry in the most minute and barren antiquarian details; and that could reanimate the past, and paint the present, in scenery and manners with a vividness and energy unknown since the period of Homer.