1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

Mary, "Warton and Scott" The Kaleidoscope [Liverpool] NS 2 (23 October 1821) 121.



It is pleasing to trace the steps of genius, and attempt to discover, at least, some of the causes which have led to the developement of its powers, and conducted it into the field of action most congenial to its nature. In lately re-perusing the poems of Thomas Warton, I have been particularly impressed with the similarity of style and feeling between him and Sir Walter Scott; a similarity so stalking, that I have frequently stopped, in surprise, and asked myself — whether our great hard of chivalry does not owe to Warton, and we, through him, more than we have been accustomed to suspect. We regard Scott as a planet, shining forth with unborrowed lustre, or, rather, a whole constellation of underived splendour; as one who shall bequeath to his astonished successors the amazing accumulation of an unbounded wealth of genius, which he himself received from no progenitor. It may be so: I question not the originality of his stupendous powers; but let us not, in the enthusiasm of our admiration, suppose that we are depriving him of his own, in endeavouring to discover whether there may not have been some other luminary, from which he may have caught an additional flame; some soul, with whom it was fortunate he came in contact. It is a pleasant speculation to trace back the tide of genius, not so much to discover its original fountain, an how it has become augmented by the way, and by what breaks and elevations it has been turned into its peculiar course. Original and unassisted genius is merely genius in embryo. It is as impossible for original talent to become independently conspicuous in the literary world, as for great wealth to render an individual, in an abstract sense, independent in common life. In its way to distinction, it must mould and direct itself by the course and labours of others; and insist catch inspiration and impulse from both precursors and contemporaries.

The peculiar character of Scott's poetry is a simplicity of diction, a richness of feeling and description, a constant adherence to nature, and an inherent taste for the antique, whether in building or character. The same is discoverable in Warton, though in an age of artificial poetry, when the muses were made to march in formal and undeviating precision, when their wild and eccentric wanderings would have been deemed indecorous license, the fancy of Warton must of necessity be restrained in some of its most beautiful flights, out of compliment to the customs and prejudices of his contemporaries; yet so far has he ventured to deviate from the straight line of his fellow bards, as to make himself remarkable, from the peculiarity of his predominant feelings. In the present day of unrivalled poetical excellence and freedom, when no barrier of custom is presented to the eccentricities of genius, the native bent of the mind may laudably be encouraged; and where a man exists with a similarity, though superiority of taste to Warton, he will, in the unfettered exercise and cultivation of his mind, shine forth into that fulness of dazzling splendour, of which, in Warton's time, and under his disadvantages, we could only perceive the small and delicate scintillations. The poetry of Thomas Warton is unanimously allowed to rank high among that of hie contemporaries, and has descended to us with an undiminished claim to our favour, from its elegance of sentiment and originality of style, its deep feeling and vivid description of rural scenery, its vigour of fancy, and its predominant characteristic, veneration for Gothic architecture.

Long have I loved to catch the simple chime
Of minstrel harps, and spell the fabling rhyme;
To view the festive rites, the knightly play
That decked heroic Albion's elder day;
To mark the mouldering halls of barons bold,
And the rough castle cast in giant mould;
With Gothic manners, Gothic arts explore,
And muse on the magnificence of yore.

Perhaps cooler and more discriminating heads than mine, may attribute any features, common to them both, to a more casual coincidence, or to their original resemblance of genius and predilections: but for my part, I cannot help figuring to myself the youthful Scott conning over the pages of Warton, till the sentiments and pictures, so congenial to his own, thrilled through his bosom with electric energy. These touching the most sentient feelings of his spirit, the brightest dreams of his youthful imagination, the dearest scenes of his native haunts — were presented with a tenfold vigour and distinctness. The vast capabilities of the subjects which Warton had but touched passingly, were all perceived; and roused with the view, he rushed at once into that immense and enchanting region of Gothic and chivalrous life on which Warton had gazed with enthusiasm, yet lingered timidly on the confines. Over this novel field, Scott's fancy has ranged "with an eye that never winks, and a wing that never tires." Whether, however, this be were conjecture or not, the similarity of style proves, at least, that Warton has been a favourite of Scott's; for style being in a great measure the effect of art, it would he a wonderful circumstance, if so great a likeness should exist between the manner and sentiments of these bards without the one having studied the other. It would he difficult to award the following specimens to one of these authors rather than the other without great familiarity with their writings.

Stately the feast, and high the cheer,
Girt with many an armed peer,
And canopied with golden pall,
Amid Cilgarran's castle-hall,
Sublime, in formidable state,
And warlike splendour, Henry sate;
Prepared to stain the briny flood
Of Shannon's lakes with rebel blood,
Illumining the vaulted roof,
A thousand torches flamed aloof;
From massy cups, with golden gleam,
Sparkled the red metheglin's stream.
To grace the gorgeous festival,
Along the lofty windowed hall
The storied tapestry was hung;
With minstrelsy the rafters rung,
Of harps, that, with reflected light,
From the proud gallery glittered bright,
While gifted bards, &c.

Martial Prince! 'tis thine to save,
From dark oblivion, Arthur's grave!
So may thy ships securely stem
The western frith, thy diadem
Shine victorious in the van,
Nor heed the slings of Ulster's clan;
Thy Norman pikemen win their way
Up the dun rocks of Harold's bay;
And from the rocks of rough Kildare,
Thy prancing hoofs the falcon scare;
So may thy bow's unerring yew,
Its shafts in Roderick's heart imbrue!

Abundant other instances might he adduced from the odes of Warton, but the above will suffice; and, from the general familiarity with Scott's writings, quotations from them for comparison are unnecessary.
MARY.
Hanley, September 25.