1873 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

Joseph Devey, "Romantic School. Scott" A Comparative View of Modern English Poets (1873) 212-25.



To Scott belongs the great merit of popularizing poetry, or, at least, of awakening the national mind to its uses, at a time when the practice of the art appeared to be expiring in the odes of Pye, and when men failed to appreciate the broader lights which were gradually revealing the approach of a glorious dawn. Wordsworth was comparatively obscure, Byron had not appeared, and Campbell was only becoming known, when Scott, diving into the human heart, discovered the secret of gratifying its taste for the mysterious, and interesting all its sympathies in tales of knightly worth, of feudal renown, and perilous adventure, not, indeed, in the hackneyed style of the old romances, but as connected with some decisive event which served to impart an air of reality to his creations. Men saw revived, as in a glass, all the artistic features of the middle ages, just as the last vestige of them had sunk beneath the tide of modern innovation. It was a startling novelty for the new era to have passed before it, — the kings, priests, and warriors and serfs of the old era, separated by impassable barriers, yet jostling each other in promiscuous groups, with living hearts bounding under antiquated armour, with their lavish code of warm fellowship so absurdly illustrated by the blackness of their feuds, with force instead of law as an arbiter, with tournaments instead of commerce as a pursuit, and with moated castles instead of undefended streets as dwelling-places. By bringing the new in contact with the old, men were enabled to trace the same bounding hopes and fears, the same hatreds and loves, the same rivalries and aspirations, arrayed in different attire, developed under conflicting institutions, which now actuate them, and animating a social structure they had hitherto vainly striven to piece together from the dry investigations of the lawyer, or the tedious narrative of the historian. The poet himself had been led to strike his shaft into this rich mine of art rather by accident than otherwise. The Countess of Dalkeith, infatuated with the elfin legend of "Gilpin Homer," invited Scott, already noted for his ballad minstrelsy, to try his powers upon it. The rich fragment of "Christabel," with which Scott had just made himself familiar, not only suggested both the treatment and the metre, but also made him keenly alive to the feeling of disappointment arising in the reader's mind from applying so splendid a framework to an unfinished subject. The poet, therefore, strove to interweave the magic of his theme with the border feuds of the seventeenth century. The finishing step was to put the whole story into the mouth of an old harper, who, as the last of his race, was supposed to have caught some of the refinements of modem, without losing the simplicity of primitive poetry. Thus sprung into life the "Lay of the Last Minstrel," the first narrative poem which may be said to have taken the English as well as the Scotch public by storm, and which proved as great a favourite in the cottage as in the palace. To the "Lay" succeeded "Marmion" and the "Lady of the Lake," each swelling the triumph of its predecessor. While the epics of Southey lay dead on the shelf, edition after edition of these poems was demanded, with increasing popularity. But, confined to one field, the ablest genius must soon exhaust its combinations, and fatigue his reader, as a singer, by the repetition of the sweetest melodies, with a sense of monotony. As Scott had turned the treatment and metre of "Christabel" to account, so Byron applied Scott's dashing narrative to incidents of a more modern and cosmopolitan character; and the decline of "Rokeby" told its author that the fires of his genius must wane before that of the eccentric luminary whose blaze was just beginning to flood the horizon. But Scott had fulfilled a double mission. He had not only triumphed himself; but prepared the ground for the triumph of his rivals. His appearance, like that of a meteor, attracted the eyes of all his contemporaries to the study of modern poetry, and stimulated the efforts of genius by bringing home to its convictions the fact, that there was an outside public prepared to appreciate its merits and respond to its exertions.

The poetic genius of Scott, high as it stands, is confined within very narrow limits. He has not the slightest pretension to any merit in the delineation of passion, a sphere in which Byron ruled supreme; neither has he the melting tenderness of Burns, or the fire, and animation of Campbell, or the gushing sentimentality of Moore, or the grand abstraction and deep reflectiveness of Wordsworth. In fact, no poet who ever attained eminence, has been so devoid of any of these great characteristics as Scott. Even his most sentimental scenes have a certain hardness of outline, which reminds us of the man who was constantly hammering at the literary anvil, in the bosom of his family, and who never suffered himself to be the victim of any passion which could imperil his worldly sagacity, or his reputation for common sense. With his rivals, poetry was not so much a calling as a vocation. It was part of their nature, which they drunk in with every breath of their life. With Scott it was merely an external mantle, which he put on by accident, and which he cast off when it had served his purpose, and when he found another sphere wherein to reign without a competitor. But, with the millinery of the conventional artist, he has accomplished more than poets of more profound sensibility, by massing together large bodies of men in some animating spectacle, and imparting to their leaders those individual traits of character which kindle the scene into life and activity. His pages glow with the multitudinous groups of Frith's canvas; but, while the painter never gets beyond the material vulgarities of the 19th century, the poet uses the external embodiment of the 16th, only to throw out, into bolder relief; all the ardour, romance, and enthusiasm which distinguished Scotland during this crisis of her fate. Hence, his triumphs are confined, not merely to one chapter in the drama of human events, but to one page in the history of his country. Even his marvellous delineations of scenery rarely cross the Tweed. The truth is, Scott wrote about no subject in which his heart was not profoundly interested, or with the details of which he was not perfectly familiar. This is the real secret of his success. He idolized the wild scenery of his native country, and has described it in imperishable language. His love for the mysterious led him early to haunt ruined castles, and re-people them with the phantoms of their past existence. Hence the study of antiquarian lore became a necessity of his being. He read up old chronicles, devoured legendary tales, tracked to its source every heraldic distinction, studied feudal customs, until chivalry became to him the only real thing in the world which had any meaning. When, therefore, the spark of poetry kindled his soul, it was only to light up, in one effulgent blaze, the knowledge thus acquired. He could sing only of ancient feuds, of magical enchantments, of mailed knights bent upon feats of war or gallantry, of gentle dames and cowled priests crossing each other's paths in the intrigues of love and state craft, of errant damsels in moated castles, perplexed by the claims of rival chieftains; but this was done with a brilliancy of effect, with a splendour of colouring, with a fidelity to nature down to the most minute detail, which has never been surpassed, and with a truthful accuracy which simulated life in every degree of rank, and which may be said to have generalized history. Had Scott allowed his genius free bridle over a wider field; had he chosen subjects for his muse from a period in which wandering harpers could find no place, he would have lost rank in Parnassus. It was only by concentrating his poetic powers upon the subject he knew most about, that he was enabled to place his name among the first-class poets of his epoch.

Scott was too sedulously employed in reconstructing the past, to enlighten the present, or to anticipate the future. The reader will not get from him the slightest glimpse into man's loftier destinies, or the least glimmering of light upon any of the perplexing enigmas which are at present haunting humanity. Scott, like Moore, was too objective to infuse philosophy into any of his themes; but, though each looked at man from opposite poles of political thought, the reflective poetry of both is tinged with the same hues of melancholy. The sadness of Moore, however, appears to spring from the decay of ephemeral hopes, and from the fleeting nature of earthly joys; while the melancholy of Scott is that of the minstrel, who feels that society is entering upon new and untried paths, and breaking up all the old landmarks which connected life with chivalrous feeling and romantic sentiment The perfection of social existence with Scott, was that presented by the feudal lord surrounded by his band of dependants, who, in return for his protection, returned to him willing service and spontaneous homage. The study of chivalry appears to have led him to value men according to their heraldic distinctions. He was too aristocratic in his feelings to have much sympathy with the spirit of his age, which was gradually levelling the barriers between the higher and lower ranks of society. Other poet's might take waggoners or pirates for their subject, but Scott, in verse, would make a hero of no man who had not an emblazoned scutcheon, or who could not trace his ancestry back to the Conquest. He moves among courts and camps, with the air of a man born to companion nobles and princes. To him, the great mass of the people seemed only of importance so far as they augment the greatness, and afford scope for the benevolence, of their masters. The poet had a capacious heart as well as a large head, and sought to indulge the generosity, which distinguished his nature, by the same acts which gratified his ambition.

Scott, therefore, arrayed the pride of ancestry against the power of intellect. Byron reversed the process. Both poets acted in singular contrariety to the position from which they set out in life. Byron with his proud Norman abbey and lordly escutcheon, seemed never so happy as when he could forget both. The aim of Scott's life was to possess himself of those aristocratic appendages, which his rival, on the threshold of his career, tossed from him with scornful depreciation. Byron snapt asunder the links which bound him to the past, to live in the present; Scott tore himself from the present, to live in the past. Byron, though an aristocrat, enlisted the fervour of his muse, and even drew his sword, in favour of liberty; Scott, though a commoner, exhausted all his powers in the embellishment of villanage and feudal dependence. It would be idle to expect from one treading so opposite to the tendencies of his times, any light for the guidance of humanity; and Scott's sympathies were too deeply entangled with the old elements of society, to look forward with hope to new combinations.

It is only, then, as the reviver of the mediaeval aspects of his country, that Scott, as a poet, is entitled to claim our regard. He is the bard of Scotch chivalry, and nothing more. And even in this limited sphere, his triumphs are confined to narrative poetry. As a lyrist, he was too deficient in passion and earnestness of feeling to challenge exclusive attention to his merits; and he has shown great judgment in interweaving his songs with his narrative, which imparts to them an interest they would not otherwise possess. For Scott always contrived for his lyrics a brilliant setting, in order that they might reflect light upon his scenic delineations, while these, in turn, imparted to them those hues which soften down much of their original harshness. A song scattered from a harp's strings, by moonlight, over the waters of a silver mere, or the ditty of a maiden arresting the steps of her lover in a wild glen, or a refrain in a banditti's cave or baronial hall, foreshadowing the glare of the impending strife on the morrow, — each possess an interest to which the isolated lyric can lay no claim whatever. In fact, if the best of Scott's songs be taken out of the magnificent framework of his narrative, they will be found far below those of Moore and Campbell on kindred subjects, while a considerable number of them are not much above mediocrity.

It speaks much in favour of Scott's good sense, that he should have restricted his efforts to that department of poetry in which his faculties best qualified him to shine. Necessity has no law, and men can only succeed in that walk for which nature has fitted them. The poet could only supply his want of abstract grandeur, of mental introspection, of profound pathos, by thrilling incident, by startling contrasts of situation, by grand scenic effects, by powerful delineation of character; and these could not, without the accompaniment of intense feeling, be combined with success except in the narrative poem. To say that Scott combined these qualities in a more effective manner than had been accomplished before, is praise of a high character; but it is praise to which he is justly entitled. By blending truth with fiction, he has imparted to his pictures an air of reality which, considering their relations to the weird world, surpasses that achieved by any other poet who has ventured to throw aside the curtains of the material universe.

In intermingling weird superstitions with his narrative, Scott was true to the character of the times he was endeavouring to depict; but in confounding these with the whole machinery of the supernatural then existing, the poet committed an error which should not be overlooked in any fair estimate of his powers. Scott's intellect, like Byron's, was of that broad character to require for its exhibition nothing less than the reproduction of an age; but Byron had his triumphs in other branches of his art, whereas Scott's merits are to be tried by his success in this sphere exclusively. When, therefore, the poet sacrifices that broad spirit of Christianity permeating all the institutions of chivalry to a few wild legends, he dwarfs the leading element of the age, and substitutes an excrescence, springing out of the luxuriance of belief, for the vital principle generating life-blood at the core. But this mistake the poet was hurried into by the objective bent of his genius. Of the abyssmal depths of religious feeling and the deeper mysteries of the human heart, Scott knew very little, and discoursed less. Hence, while the martial tendencies of the age are thrown into glaring prominence, all the glimpses we get of that belief which piled up our huge cathedrals, which threw Europe with unsheathed sabre upon the throat of Asia, which resurrectionized art in Italy, are one or two monkish processions calculated to call up a smile on the face of the greenest Ritualist by the complete manner in which the prescriptions of the Latin rubric are set at defiance. The velvet-bound breviary and Benedictine habit of Lady Clare are but poor exemplifications of that spirit which led a crowd of delicately-trained women to maintain a constant warfare, behind conventual grills, with their own nature within, and the pomps of life without, cheerlessly wasting upon prison solitudes that beauty intended to illuminate the atmosphere of busy life. In not diving beneath the surface, in giving us a mere travesty of the external embodiment in which this intensity of religious feeling had wrapped itself, Scott so far was untrue to the spirit of the age he would represent. That the poet, however, has raised the ghost of chivalry from the tomb in such a manner as to interest the public in its lineaments, is sufficiently evident from the popularity which his works still command. But the phantom does not glare upon us in its religious aspects, simply because the poet has been too intent upon colouring its integuments rather than making them the medium for flashing forth its soul. It is very rare to find an author who, like Shakespeare, can instruct and amuse in equal proportion; and Scott, out of an anxious desire to gratify the low standard of the popular taste, stooped from the lofty requirements of his art. His was not the bold genius which could reconstruct an age, with all that breadth of design and matchless symmetry of parts as to lead the public mind to forget its present baubles in the overpowering sense of joy felt in the delineation.

In construction of plot, Scott's merits are not of the highest order. He was too intent upon the gorgeous contrasts and picturesque grouping of the parts to attend to the completeness of the whole. But merit, which he could only share with the novelist, seemed to him very secondary, compared with the enhancement of the higher qualities which are the exclusive heritage of the poet. Hence, with the single exception of the "Lady of the Lake," the juncture and ligaments of Scott's fables will not bear minute analysis. In "Marmion," the main incidents of the story are treated in a fragmentary fashion, and the reader is left to connect the broken links as he best may, while the interest turns upon a multitude of improbable occurrences, which require the infantine stage of credulity to realize. In the first, as well as in the last of his tales, there are two distinct parts having no natural connection with each other. The achievements of the wizard Scott with the adventures of his magical book, had no more to do with the border feuds of Howard and Douglas, than the perplexing loves of Lord Ronald with the fates of Robert Bruce; nor has the poet succeeded in moulding the alien elements so closely as to make one spring out of the other, or even had the poor merit of assigning to each a sphere proportionate to its dignity. But in both the "Lay" and the "Lord of the Isles" he has dwarfed the leading event into an episode, and exalted what ought to have been an episode into the leading event. In "Rokeby" we have unity of action, but probability of incident is set more resolutely at defiance, and the thread of the story more hopelessly entangled than in "Marmion." That the poet should make us forget such defects by the magic of his treatment, is one of the triumphs of his art. The individual scenes are so artistically finished, the minor incidents are so elaborated, that we lose sight of the incongruities, marring the framework of the design, in the lavish shower of beauties flung with reckless profusion at our feet.

It is in the embellishment of his plots by graphic incidents, as well as in his matchless delineation of character, that Scott's powers as a poet are most conspicuous. He knew how to crowd his canvas with those lights and shades which have the effect of conveying the poet's creations, with all their freshness and reality, into the reader's heart. The picture of delicate beauty confronting giant strength, of the quiet repose of nature disturbed with the shaggy panoply of arms, of the silence and darkness of midnight broken by the war-whoop of the trooper or the torch of the incendiary, — these and other kindred points of contrast, the poet brings out with a minuteness of touch which sets up the entire scene with all its gorgeous diversity of colouring before our eyes, while the faintest reverberation of its sounds echo on the ear. The explorations of Deloraine in Melrose Abbey, the battle-scene in "Marmion," the adventure of Fitz James with Roderic Dhu, and the moonlight etchings of all his pieces, are hardly to be surpassed by anything of the same kind in modern poetry. When, in addition to these excellences, we get a story so faultless in construction as the "Lady of the Lake," the author has achieved the highest success that could be attained in a narrative poem embodying the external rather than the internal features of his subject.

In the delineation of masculine character, Scott leaves few things to be desired; but he is far more happy in his portraiture of men than in that of women. I suppose we must ascribe it to the gallantry of his nature, that he thought every woman an angel by right of her sex. His heroines from Margaret to Matilda, or from Lady Clare to Isabel, are all perfect in character, and therefore very imperfect in execution. Perhaps, there was some charm in the middle ages which made virtue the never-failing appendage of weakness, and vice of strength. But Matilda was far removed from the times of Margaret or Lady Clare; yet they only need exchange costumes, to exchange places with each other. The Benedictine gown and the breviary would have become Ellen quite as well as the Scotch plaid. Constance is the only one of his heroines who displays a spark of fire; yet this is in connection with guilt so revolting that imagination shrinks from uniting it with the soft beauty of a delicate woman. Scott would appear to have produced his feminine creations as types for the study of boarding-school girls; and when he went in for goodness or frailty, laid on the colour in order to deter or allure as heavily as possible. Nor am I without a suspicion, from the popularity of his works, that the consequent tameness of his heroines has not produced its results in much of the mawkish and monotonous insipidity we meet with in many of the women of the present day. How different are the Medoras, the Parasinas, the Zuleikas, the Haidees of Lord Byron — beings starting into life with all the distinctness which appertain to different climes, yet as true to nature as if they had been chiseled out of a block of granite by Praxiteles, mingling their spiritual essence with the fiery glow of desire, with all that we know of heaven, in their eyes, and all that we feel of voluptuous passion, on their lips. The fact is, no man can paint women who has not a gushing well-spring of tenderness in himself. And the absence of the quality which Scott wanted to make him a first-class lyrist, was painfully evinced, when Scott sat down to limn the features of any of the more interesting half of the human race.

The male characters of Scott have an individuality to which his female embodiments cannot pretend, and the wonder is that he, who drew women so badly, should have sketched men so well. In all his pieces his heroes stand out with a distinctness of outline in their bolder features, and with a peculiarity of tinge in the lighter and more evanescent traits of character, which make them not only life-like themselves, but out of the light of their own reality, to shed the quickening beams of animation upon all with whom they are brought in contact. The heavy but daring Deloraine, — the courtly but fearless Cranistoun, — the soldier-monk, whose wan features occasionally gleam with the fires of his crusading days; — the fiery Dacre, and the pacific Howard, each appear in the "Lay" to act as the counterfoil to the other, while they remain quite distinct from the personages to whom Scott introduces us, anywhere else. The character of Roderick Dhu with its conflicting traits of savage cruelty in peace, and its delicate susceptibilities of honour during war, is a study in itself. Sensuousness is blended in James, with the silken graces and airy blandishments of a king who lives in the gaieties of others; in "Marmion," with the hardened scepticism and testy disposition of a knight, who lives only in the aggrandisement of himself. These diversities of character, springing out of the same passion, operating upon different temperaments, are not the result of laboured effort. For Scott, though elaborately minute in the specification of the dress and equipage of his heroes, though he will suspend his narrative until he has settled the martlets on their shields, and told us whether the field of their scutcheons is argent, or d'or, when he comes to their character, seizes at once upon the master passion, and, by two or three leading strokes, stamps the man's history on his face, in hues which impart a meaning to the least of his actions. Scott's painstaking description of articles of attire, which occasionally has the air of an inventory, though frequently censured, was to some extent necessary, to impart an appearance of reality to those few touches on which he relied for breathing animation into figures decorated with so much skill. But here, again, the aristocratic feelings of the poet prevailed over the claims of his art. Scott, rarely wastes his descriptive powers upon any characters, but those who compose the cream of society. A man below the grade of squire is not fit for elaborate notice. He selects, in his poems, for the subject of full-length portraiture, none but warriors, knights, princes, abbots, and lords. But it cannot be overlooked that this limited range of selection, which would have been fatal to any artistic representation of modem society, is not out of character with the representation of a feudal community, in which the fate of the people was merged in the fortunes of their chiefs. Scott's vassals and retainers, if summarily disposed of in his pictures, occupy a position analogous to that which they hold in the state of society he describes; and the characters of their chiefs are so well delineated, that the age to which both belonged, at least in its martial aspects, though long since calcined to dust, is made to revive again with all the animation of yesterday.

It is owing to his success in breathing into the martial relics of chivalry the spirit of human life, that Scott is entitled to a high place in narrative poetry. If he wants the passion and fire of Moore and Campbell, his pictures are more true to nature than either. His tales have much more incident, and his heroes stride before us with an earnestness endued with the vitality of history, rather than with the sentimentality which speaks of the atmosphere of romance. Other narrative poets have simply confined their attention to the illustration of some particular virtue, or the development of one definite action. Chaucer, Spenser, Byron, and Scott, have alone endeavoured to reproduce an age, by weaving the tissues of many single destinies into one magnificent delineation of human life. They only have unrolled the myriad-minded tapestry of the Fates before us, in depicting the conjoint lives of a generation. Though Scott's canvas embraces a far greater number of groups than that of any of his three rivals, he is decidedly the last in rank. He is far less ideal than Spenser, less comprehensive than Byron, less truthful than Chaucer, less original than Crabbe. Even Burns excels him in reproducing, fresh, as it were, from the mint, the lineaments of nature, though "Tam o'Shanter" is so brief a sketch, that it is hardly fair to Scott to institute a comparison. His words seldom pierce the heart; the passions never obey his call. If Scott seems, however, to shine with steadier light in narrative poetry than most of his contemporaries, it is because he excels them in creative force, in the breadth of his designs, in the vivid grouping of external objects, in portraying critical phases of character under striking situations, rather than in deep feeling, profound thought, or in those bold flights of imagination which fire the soul with a feeling of sublimity. To Byron and Wordsworth, his general inferiority is beyond question; in respect of genuine poetic fire, he is beneath Burns, Moore, and Campbell, while he is superior to any of his rivals in the creation of incidents, in the manipulation of events, and the grouping of his characters, with a view to secure that dramatic interest so necessary to the success of a narrative poem. If he had not so great a genius as some of his contemporaries, he was possessed, to a greater degree than any, of that hard-working talent which is able in the eyes of the million to magnify genius into thrice its actual dimensions. And nowhere is that talent capable of being turned to more account than in the department on which Scott lavished all his strength. But artistic talent, even here, would not have sufficed to account for Scott's eminence, without some creative power, and both combined have equally contributed to place him in the rear of the first group of narrative poets, at some distance from those of the foremost rank, who may, nevertheless, feel proud of his companionship, as the reviver of one of the most interesting fragments in the history of nations.