1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

Henry Fothergill Chorley, "Sir Walter Scott" The Authors of England (1838) 8-16.



If in the case of any author of England the few illustrative words demanded from us could be reasonably dispensed with, it would be in Sir Walter Scott's. We should hardly set ourselves to write of the sun that it shines, — of rivers as flowing water; in like manner, when treating of one whose name and fame have filled the world as a household word, and that within the compass of our own memories — whose character offers us no difficulties to solve — whose life contained few mysteries to be unriddled — our task would be sufficiently performed were we to content ourselves with writing down the dates of

His birth — August 15th, 1771.
His marriage — Dec. 29th, 1796.
His death — Sept. 21st, 1832.

As if to make any biographical notice, any allusion to the life and progress of his authorship yet more superfluous, — after the delightful confessions given to the world in the Author of Waverley's own prefaces, and after the mass of panegyric and criticism put on paper by every witling who could hold a pen, and talked by every trifler capable of the exertion of reading a novel, — the public are now receiving an extended biography of the poet and romancer, at the hands of one who, from the connection of a long and affectionate intimacy, no less than the possession of taste and scholarship, seemed the person best fitted for the task.

And yet, on sitting down to fulfil a prescribed duty, it is impossible to avoid feeling with what a freshness of interest we enter upon Scott's life and writings, as though they were a virgin ground, where no feet have anticipated our own. This is the miracle most eminently wrought by Genius when it appears among men in company with the virtues so closely allied to it, but with which, according to the fashion too common among near relations, it shews such a constant tendency to quarrel; when it speaks not merely in a voice that charms every ear and touches every heart, but that charms with holy and lawful spells, and touches but to awaken noble and generous emotions. We are curious about Byron — we are strangely and mournfully interested in Shelley's fate, — but we love Scott, and are as far from being weary of recalling the incidents of his life, of considering the strong healthy lineaments of his mind's features, as we are from wearying of dwelling upon the history — of recalling the well known looks and gestures of some attached and valued friend, long since become a part of ourselves. Whether our children will consent to inherit the predilections of their fathers, or criticise and dismiss what we have loved and cherished, it is not easy to foresee. The age we have elsewhere ventured to characterize as being one whose spirit is change; but, to us, the author of "The Lay," and "Waverley," and "Ivanhoe," stands among the immortals, in the same mansion as Shakspeare, — though, indeed, on a lower throne!

The date of Walter Scott's birth has already been recorded. The precious Abbotsford manuscript with which Mr. Lockhart opens his biography, furnishes us, from the poet's own hand, with an engaging sketch of his ancient and honourable parentage of his warm-hearted grandfather, the most sanguine and imprudent of gentlemen farmers — of his father (the Saunders Fairford of "Redgauntlet"), a shrewd and upright lawyer; though somewhat of a formalist in enforcing domestic discipline and in despising the ornaments of life, not wholly devoid of that sweetness and geniality of temperament which made his son so love-worthy, and which runs like a thread of sterling gold through every page and verse he wrote. Those fond of comparisons, who have been used to regard Scott and Byron side by side, or in opposition, while they remember that both were in infancy marked by the same natural blemish — the former the most seriously — cannot but also advert to the different influences which their lameness exercised over the destinies of the two boys, and contrast, with a sigh, the fortunes of Byron, foreshadowed in his mother's bitter taunts, with those of Scott, sent out while an infant to Sandy Knowe, to be strengthened by the free moorland air — to be nursed by ewe-milkers, and tended by the "Cow-Bailie." The germ of Childe Harold and Cain and Don Juan formed itself within the former during these years of infancy. not more surely and imperceptibly than the germ of Guy Mannering and the Heart of Mid-Lothian was generated at a similar period within the latter, who is still talked of as "sweet tempered bairn, gleg at the up-take," and who, having been forgotten during a thunder-storm, among the heathery knolls, was found lying on his back, clapping his hands at the lightning, and crying "Bonny! bonny!" at every flash.

But if we compare the circumstances of the boyhoods of Byron and Scott, that we may not fail of the example supplied to us by the diligent, benevolent life of the latter as a man, we are bound also to compare their natural gifts, lest we lose hold of that charity which makes us compassionate, while we point out the wanderings and heart-struggles of the former. His genius, the strength of which was essentially the strength of passion, was therefore certain early to force its way to the surface; Scott's, whose mission was to appeal to the gentler sympathies of persons of every age and class required to be ripened, — to be fed by accumulation ere it flowed abroad, rather than burst forth. Though he was remarkable for his quickness as a child, and though the usual number of ready answers, and capricious indications of talent, are recorded of him during his school days, — though he early gave evidence of possessing an amazing memory, as well as tastes indisputably poetical, though he early began to hoard relics, and to collect and recast ballads and faery tales, there was little, — thanks to the equability of his temperament, and the unaffected liveliness of his disposition, — to stamp him with the dangerous gift of admitted pre-eminence among the well-born and well-educated young men with whom he consorted upon entering the legal profession, which he did on the 17th of May, 1786. He was not one of those fantastic and exacting beings, in whom their sensations must be excited by inequality in companionship or licentiousness in adventure, — who must love or loathe, and be "cradled into poetry through wrong," if not of other persons' contriving, of their own. Gifted with a light heart, and a remarkable unconsciousness of his own powers (for he writes of himself as " not blessed with the talents of Burns or Chatterton, and happily exempted from the influence of their violent passions, exasperated by the struggle of feelings which rose up against the decrees of fortune") Scott took the world as he found it, equally contented, it seems, whether he rode about in Liddesdale — Dandie Dinmont's country — by the side of his friend Shortreed, "makin himsel" all the while, or whether he sat cracking jokes, or eating oysters in the Covenant Close, among his clever mates of the Outer House. Something, too, of the excellent and cheerful common sense which distinguishes Scott among his contemporaries, throughout the whole of his literary career, may be ascribed to the influence of his father's example, which must have often made itself felt, even when it was not confessed. It was at his instance that Walter Scott devoted himself to the studies of the law, — it was to his prudence that he owed an exemption as a very young man from those extreme trials of fortune, which, while they so often sting Genius into a feverish activity, drive its impatient possessor into that moral recklessness so fatal to its own happiness, — so injurious to society, as holding up to its notice error far easier to pity than to blame.

It needs not here once again to dwell upon the various preparations through which Walter Scott's mind passed, to detail the cautious and progressive steps by which he entered authorship as a translator — a few German ballads, and the "Goetz von Berlichingen," being the object of his first essay — and as a gatherer of the Minstrelsy of the Border. We have indicated the dispositions and the circumstances which conspired in an extraordinary degree to give his natural genius its fairest play: and the particulars of his romance readings, — of his antiquarian tastes, how they grew, — of the judicious female relations and friends, (Mrs. Scott, of Harden, and Miss Cranstoun, afterwards Countess Purgstall) who encouraged him to go on and prosper in original composition — of his Highland and Lowland forays, in the course of which he learned to know by heart the picturesque scenery of his own land, — are already too well known to the world to require repetition. For a like reason, having already given the date of his marriage with Miss Charpentier, we need not allude to its sequel, including their subsequent residences at Lasswade, Ashestiel, and Abbotsford, except it be for the sake of the beautiful trait recorded by Mr. Lockhart of the poet, who, after he had become a great man, and a renowned author, could not refrain from turning aside from the straight road, when upon a journey, to look at the unpretending cottage, which had been his first country shelter during the years of his married life; and to point out to his friend, Mr. Morritt, the arch of willows above the gate, which, at the time of its construction, he declared himself to have viewed with as large a share of complacency and admiration as he had afterwards to bestow on the romantic splendours of Abbotsford.

Here, then, however strongly tempted to advert to the personal history of the subsequent years of Scott's life, — to dwell upon the hospitality extended by him to guests distinguished and obscure, when his appointment to the Sheriffship of Selkirkshire, and the signal success of his first poems "the Lay," and "Marmion," and "the Lady of the Lake," for a while made his purse full, yet not so full as his heart was open — upon the literary friendships which were the necessary consequence of his fast-growing celebrity, and which were maintained with an enviable and self-postponing courtesy never to be forgotten; upon the diligence, vigilance, and activity which he threw into his pursuits thereby converting the precarious vicissitudes of literature into professional certainties — however much tempted, for example's sake, to dwell upon each or any of these points, they must of necessity be passed by. A bald enumeration, or little more, of the numerous and widely varied compositions, which Scott continued to present to the public, from the time when "the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border" was published, to the days of "Count Robert of Paris" will, of itself, overgrow the space yet left us.

The first of the works, by which, as Scott himself says, "he laid his claim to be considered as an original writer," the Lay of the last Minstrel — began, he tells us, to please the young Countess of Buccleuch, and wrought out in a measure suggested by the "Christabel" of Coleridge, — made its appearance in the year 1805. The public had been, in some measure, prepared for an outbreak of the spirit of old Romance in this its wildest form, by the publication of the Border Minstrelsy, and the ballads which Scott had contributed to the miscellany collected by Monk Lewis; and yet more by the treasury of quaint legendary lore, annexed in the notes of the first-mentioned work, and told with that gusto which distinguishes the poet from the antiquarian. But "the Lay," must have a thousand-fold exceeded whatever expectations had been excited. Here and there, indeed, a critic might be found protesting against the supernatural machinery introduced, or counting on his fingers the syllables of its wild but musical verses, or recommending Mr. Scott to bestow time, pains, and talents on an epic. What mattered their exceptions? "The public," as Allan Cunningham pleasantly says, in speaking of the Lady of the Lake, "took up the matter for themselves, regardless of the admonitions of the learned, and the cautions of the critics." Scott had touched the right chord; and he who could do so, not only once, but twice, and even a third time, — who could make fair Melrose and Loch Katrine and the Trosachs a Mecca to pilgrims from every corner of Europe, and place Flodden Field before us, peopling it with all the life and motion of the olden struggle, might well afford "to hear, and to see, and to say nothing." But as he was temperate in the estimate of his own powers, so also was Scott eminently candid in listening to counsel and in considering his relations with the public. Whilst he was conscious that elaborate polish and formal construction, and constant reference to a calculated purpose, were impossible to him, and therefore bestowed less labour in change and correction, than some thought seemly, no author was ever more rationally awake to every fluctuation in the pulse of public favour, — or more respectfully unwilling to reserve the regard of his audience, by exhibiting those fantastic tricks, by which others have endeavoured, with a short-sighted tyranny, to extort a blind homage from their admirers. No one ever enjoyed fame more honestly than Scott; but when he found that "Rokeby," and "the Lord of the Isles," and his other minor poems "Don Roderick," and "Harold the Dauntless," and "the Bridal of Triermain," were each in its degree, less successful than his first rhymed romances: — he gave up his celebrity as easily as he had acquired it — without vexation or envy. Let us see in what unaffected language he discusses the decline of his popularity. "The manner or style," he says, "which, by its novelty, attracted the public in an unusual degree, had now, after having been so long before them, begun to lose its charms. For this there was no remedy: the harmony became tiresome and ordinary, and both the original inventor and his invention must have fallen into contempt, if he had not found out another road to public favour." * * * * "Besides all this" (Scott has been speaking of the most of his imitators) a mighty and unexpected rival was advancing on the stage — a rival not in poetical powers only, but in attracting popularity, in which the present writer had preceded better men than himself. The reader will see that Byron is here meant, who, after a little vatilation of no great promise, now appeared as a serious candidate in the first canto of "Childe Harold."

The same excellent judgment and hopefulness of spirit, so evident in the foregoing passage, — which being applied to regulate a genius, versatile as it was rich, produced such a splendid result of fame, — may be traced throughout the whole of Scott's literary career. They helped him pleasantly through the heavy labours of editorship, with which he proceeded steadily during all the period when his creative powers were the busiest at work. The new editions of Dryden and Swift, of the Somers' Tracts, and the Sadler Papers, were tasks long and heavy enough for the lifetime of an ordinary literary man: they were disposed of by Scott, with no more apparent fatigue than if they had been ephemeral and unimportant works. He found time, too, to lend a most efficient hand to the critical organ of his party, then just established — the Quarterly Review — to say nothing of the completion of many other and lighter literary undertakings, and of the private counsel and assistance bestowed by him upon his less eminent brethren.

It was at the turning point of Scott's literary career, when he was passing out of fashion as a poet, and ere he had won his spurs as a romancer, that he took up his residence at Abbotsford. In establishing himself upon his new purchase, and beautifying it, all his healthy natural tastes were called into play. Here he indulged his picturesque fancy by planting and building a romance which he has somewhere or other playfully characterized as the one of his works of which he was proudest. By the manner in which he distributed his time, he was enabled to close at noon the literary day, which was begun when the rest of the world are in bed, and thus to provide himself with ample leisure to superintend his young plantations, or to direct viva voce, how and where this carved stone, or the other morsel of ancient sculpture, was to be imbedded in the walls of his new building, — or to receive and enjoy the society of the myriad of strangers of every rank, and class, and station, who poured across the border, all naturally most eager to gaze upon the master spirit of Scotland. Hence it was, that upon the completion and publication of Waverley (in 1814), a work, be it remembered, which had been laid aside for some half dozen years, at the instigation of cautious advisers, — though there were many who recognized in a moment the "True Prince" through his disguise, as certainly as if he had presented himself before them in his own costume; — though Miss Edgeworth (no mean authority) attacked him at once with her "Aut Scotus aut Diabolus;" a large number of matter-of-fact persons refused to believe the evidence of their senses, and pronounced unhesitatingly that the Novel could not be Scott's; every nook and corner of whose literary leisure was known to be crowded with assigned occupations. Another company, again, formed of those who will always be wiser than their neighbours, and "could speak an they would," chose to represent themselves as partakers in the mystery, and to throw out something more than hints of ladies in the Highlands, of officers in Canada and the West Indies, to whom the parentage of "the illustrious stranger" and his followers was to be ascribed.

It is amusing now, to look back at the absurdities vented concerning the Waverley Novels on their first appearing; it is curious to reflect how completely the sensation they excited is a thing of past times. We doubt, whether any work or works, even as original in their manner as they were, and addressing as large a class as they did, could, in the present days, when enthusiasm is gone to sleep, and one event is jostled out of sight by another ere it has had time to produce any impression, excite a similar sensation. Well might Scott, after a six weeks' absence from home, and seclusion from the world of rumours, be surprised and pleased at the success which had already attended his new essay. Well might he gird himself up, strong in the consciousness of his immense resources, to produce another, and another, and another — a "Guy Mannering," a "Rob Roy," an "Old Mortality," a "Bride of Lammermoor," and an "Ivanhoe:" in each and all of these scattering about hints and inventions, and incidental characters, which, of themselves, if fully wrought out, were enough to have made the fortune of any novelist! And here, having been led by accident to the remark, we cannot but insist upon Scott's fertility as one of his most remarkable characteristics — the more strongly because it has been less emphatically dwelt upon, than, in its proportion, it deserved. Almost every figure in his works, even if sketched but as an accessory, is a character, whose untold exploits and endurances we can work out for ourselves. Do we not see Mrs. Flockhart, the warm hearted Scotch landlady, as clearly as Fergus and Flora, or as the pedantic and courteous old Baron of Bradwardine, and the faithful Evan Dhu Maccombich? And are not Martha Trapbois, and the scarlet-hosed Gillian, whose coquettish desire to attract the male sex, was stronger than age and poverty, as familiar to us as gentle King Jamie, or The Constable of Chester, the more prominent figures in each romance? Our examples have been purposely selected at random, and from the later as well as the earlier novels, to show that his affluence of creative power did not forsake Scott till the last. He would himself speak of it with an almost disparaging candour, pleading in excuse for the inartificial structure of many of his plots, the impossibility of restraining himself from finishing to a disproportionate importance his secondary characters, whose forms, often determined by accident in the first instance, chanced to please him, and, in the end, seduced him from the principal personages of his story.

Hitherto the world had only looked upon Scott as sailing upon the stream of good fortune; as winning golden opinions from all classes of men, and wearing in his heart the blessed consciousness that, beyond all his contemporaries, he had ministered to the healthy enjoyment of his countrymen. The freedom of his works, not merely from thoughts, but from words that are exceptionable, considering their vast extent, and the rapidity with which they were composed, is extraordinary; a thing which should never be lost sight of. And his fame, as it deserved to be, was fed by love and not curiosity. Who was there in all Great Britain that did not feel when he was made a Baronet that the title had fallen on the head which would do it honour; and yet what was his Baronetcy to the affection (the word is not too strong) with which he was regarded by all classes, from the highest to the lowest? The anecdote of the Scots Grey opening a way for him down Abingdon-street on the day of the Coronation; of the fishmonger toiling up from the City to Regent's Park, rather than he should be disappointed, are more than merely amusing, if they are read as evidences of the empire which the gifted may exercise over their fellow-men. On the other hand, we might string together a thousand traits of beneficence and consideration on the part of Scott as a man, which are no less worthy of remembrance. We might speak of the largeness of his sympathies, which remained unspoiled to the last. The author who could come forward so calmly, and yet so nobly, to stem the tide of obloquy setting in with such unjust vehemence against Byron, could also in Paris remember the little tastes and fancies of all his retainers and servants, and "the bonnie Mull" which the Laird brought home for the old quarryman, remains as striking a testimony to the amiability of his spirit, as his generous and eloquent defence of the author of "Fare thee well."

But the tapestry was now to be turned; the great change to be made known which shadowed the later years of Scott's life. We can hardly call this a misfortune, which called forth in so eminent a degree all that was noble in his nature. "Sir Walter," says Mr. Cunningham, "owing to the failure of commercial speculations in which he was a partner, became responsible for the payment of one hundred and twenty thousand pounds; he refused to become a bankrupt, considering, like the elder Osbaldistone of his own immortal pages, commercial honour as dear as any other honour, and undertook within the compass of ten years to pay capital and interest of the enormous sum. At that time he was hale and vigorous, and capable of wondrous exertions; he gave up his house in Edinburgh, now less necessary to him, on account of the death of Lady Scott, and singling out various objects of interest, proceeded to retrieve his broken fortunes with a spirit at once calm and unsubdued. The bankruptcy of his booksellers rendered longer concealment of the Waverley Novels impossible." Accordingly, at the annual dinner of the Edinburgh Theatrical Fund, on the 24th of February 1827, after thirteen years of such conjuration as the world, we suspect, will not presently see again; — "the wand was broken and the rod buried;" and the Great Unknown (to use his own simile) was driven to the perilous experiment of laying by his harlequin's mask, and endeavouring to maintain his power over his audience in his own unassisted person.

There is still less occasion to speak one by one of the works which he spurred himself to execute during the last five years of his life, than of the productions of his easier days. If the children of his decline were not so vigorous as those of his ripe manhood, they had still features which assured the world of their parentage. Those who had talked of Scott writing himself out, when the "Antiquary" appeared, might well feel rebuked when they read his "Highland Widow," or traced the hand of the master as strongly in Harry Wynd, and Conochar, as in Meg Merrilies, and Edie Ochiltree. Even in the last but one of his novels, Anne of Geierstein, a work written when the body had begun to yield to the unremitting exertion of mind, there are to be found a few pages (Rudolph Donnerhugel's Fairy Tale) thrown in by accident, worth the whole three volumes written by many a renowned romancer in his prime. And it must be remarked that till the very last, whether in the tales above mentioned, or in the "Tales of a Grandfather" that king of child's books, or in the "Life of Napoleon," or in the "History of Scotland," (a task-work); nay, even in the prefaces of the new edition of the Waverley Novels, when the poet came before the public with his heart in his hand, not one trace of a depressed or discontented spirit is to be found. The thewes and sinews might indeed wear out in the honourable struggle, but the master-mind continued to be calm and hopeful, till disease laid its freezing hand there also.

We cannot dwell upon the last days of Scott's life, — upon the illness by which he was stricken early in the year 1831, or his melancholy voyage to the South, through whose beauties and wonders he dragged himself feebly, with the dull eye of a dying man. The change was tried too late; the scenes which would, some five years earlier, have inspired him with a thousand fresh and lovely ideas, and the air and sunshine, which would have poured a new life into his veins, now but bewildered him, or restored him only to a fitful and sickly consciousness. He seems, even while at Naples and Rome, to have been haunted with a longing to be at rest once more among his own people; and the longing was granted, though only in letter; for when he reached Abbotsford, in July 1832, after his second and fatal seizure while upon the Rhine, he was only permitted for a few days, and feebly, to recognize the woods he had planted, and the friends and kinsmen he loved best. The date of his death has already been given. He was buried at Dryburgh Abbey, on Wednesday, the twenty-fifth of September. "The hills were covered, and the villages filled with mourners; he was borne from the hearse by his own domestics, and laid in the grave by the hands of his children."