1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

Robert Story, in Love and Literature; being the Reminiscences, Literary Opinions, and Fugitive Pieces of a Poet in Humble Life (1842) 166-73.



"I visited Wark, the renowned village of my birth, so peaceful now, so martial of old! I worshipped at 'Bamboro,' in 'King Ida's castle,' and in the cave of 'Spinilstone Hugh,' where was performed that wonderful enchantment commemorated in the metrical legend of Duncan Frasier. I perambulated the Field of Flodden, and I did so now in much loftier moods. I had bright visions of heroic tales and encountering armies, of blazing beacons and Border feuds! But I was soon to see all my plans eclipsed by the last and greates of the Minstrels — Sir Walter Scott.

"The 'Lay of the last Minstrel,' as it was the first lengthened effort of its author, so it was the first work of his that I perused. I had been sated with the uniformity of the heroic couplet; but here was a poem, with some dignity from its action and characters, which set at defiance all established precedents. Here was a Pegasus that, forsaking the smooth and beaten track that had been trodden so long, scampered over hill and dale, all the world. wondering at his thousand freaks and his thousand graces. I knew that this poem had obtained praise from critics of all sects and of all parties, and a circulation almost unparalleled in the annals of polite literature; yet I read it at the time with little pleasure. It struck me that the writer, in breaking away from the shackles of excessive refinement, had run to the other extreme of uncontrolled barbarism. The description of Melrose Abbey as seen by moonlight — the solemn opening of the Wizard's tomb, whence the sepulchral lamp flashed on the cowl of the monk and the plume of the warrior — would, I fancied, have told better in better language. I was not sorry to see discarded the rules by which the Pope school was governed; but the 'Lay' was, in its versification, absolutely without rule; it was built on no principle; it was harsh, puerile, and fantastic. Still, there were passages of great power and beauty, which indicated the hand of a Proteus, who, though he adopted the style of 'Harpers rude,' was equally a master of legitimate rhyme. To say that I wished to see his versification strictly regular, were to contradict much of what I have advanced; but of two extremes I wanted the medium, and I found it in the other volumes of the same prolific author.

"I shall not enter into any analysis of these delightful works; but as I have given you my first impressions from a perusal of the 'Lay,' something akin to which will probably have been the first impressions of readers in general, — I will state what I conceive to have been the cause in my own case, and perhaps in that of others, of some misconception with regard to Sir Walter Scott's poetry. — It has been tried by standards which its very nature disavows, and with which it had been a defect in it to have harmonised. It has been measured by the epic scale, and praised for agreement, or abused for disagreement therewith, the critic never seeming to notice a distinction, of which the author himself had so often reminded the world. Sir Walter Scott is professedly not a poet, but a Minstrel. The representative of that once-honoured class of bards, whose strains of chivalry and love, sung to the harp, enlivened the banquets of the great in days of yore — he strikes his lyre not for 'the reading public,' but for 'lords and knights and ladies gay.' He never addresses his reader, but his audience; and that audience is always supposed to be made up of

the high-born and the proud. His constant appeal is

Expect not, noble dames and lords,
That I should tell, &c.

or

Here pause we, gentles, for a space,
And if our tale hath won your grace,
Grant us brief patience, and again
We will resume the minstrel strain.

In the light of minstrel strains, then, his poetry ought ever to be viewed; and bearing this in mind, all its peculiarities will be easily accounted for.

"He has been charged with lowering the dignity of his poetry by pages of flat and insipid narrative; by this means showing himself unequal to Moore, who is always sparkling, and to Byron, who, in his serious pieces, is always energetic. It does not appear to have struck the originators of this charge, that for the unflagging spirit of their writings these poets are indebted chiefly, if not altogether, to the fragment style which they employ — a style which, by leaving minor details to the reader's imagination, deals only in the prominent and the impassioned. But whatever may be its excellencies, this is plainly not the style an ancient minstrel can be supposed to have adopted. His lays must have been so framed, as to be readily comprehended by a gay audience; and to effect this, the connecting links of the narrative must have been distinctly seen. — It is therefore a merit in Sir Walter Scott to possess, as it would be a defect to want, this characteristic inequality.

"His talent for description has been generally acknowledged; yet some have asserted that he is a mere landscape painter — that he can make a delightful sketch or picture — but nothing more. He cannot, as it were, blend his feelings with the scene — he cannot become a part of it, like Byron, or draw from flowers, winds, waters, and mountains, the deep moralities of Wordsworth. But, putting aside the question of power — the absence of which no one has a right to assume — it is manifest that descriptions of this nature could never with propriety have been admitted into the poetry of Sir Walter Scott. In the songs of the minstrels, descriptions of scenery could only have been of secondary importance. They may have been employed to give a picture-like air to the feats commemorated, or to relieve the hearers' attention; but never, most assuredly, as a vehicle of morality. The moral of their songs was possibly very little attended to; it would naturally emanate from strong contrasts of virtue and vice, meanness and magnanimity; in no other way, at any rate, would an ancient minstrel enforce it. — If Sir Walter Scott's descriptions of external nature, therefore, have truth and spirit — and who will deny it? — they have all that they ought to have in consistency with his assumed character.

"I do not know that any particular objection has ever been made to his versification. There is generally a sweetness about it which makes even its extravagances agreeable. But were this not the case, its license might be triumphantly defended on the same ground — on the fact, namely, that it is meant to be imitative of models which were marked with irregularities still wilder.

"I believe that no one ever read the poetry of Sir Walter Scott, without feeling persuaded that he could compose such with the greatest facility. The apparent, and, in truth, the real rapidity with which it has flowed from the mind of the Minstrel, and the dashing impetuosity of its general course — by communicating to the least poetical reader a degree of sympathetic agitation — impose on him the flattering assumption I have alluded to. But notwithstanding the number of imitations which have thus been called forth, we do not possess one that is even endurable. The lyre of Scott yields its grandest music only in the hands of its proper master. I, too, was deluded into imitation. I projected, and in part executed, Tales of the Border; described ladies and knights and harpers; and imagined battles characterised by horrors far exceeding those of Flodden Field. But I soon discovered that I was proceeding in a career which must terminate in disappointment. I foresaw that my poetry — though it might have been admired had Sir Walter Scott never existed — must eventually be looked upon as a clever imitation, and I myself as a person of some taste, but of no original genius. Considerations of this kind had the effect of cooling my imitative ardour. I abandoned my plans — left unfinished my lays — and turned to themes into which his ideas were less likely to insinuate themselves. But my progress was again interrupted, and my attention engrossed, by poetry of a widely different description. This was the poetry of Lord Byron.