1826 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

John Gibson Lockhart, in Review of Scott, Lives of the Novelists; Quarterly Review 34 (September 1826) 376-77.



The great novelist of our own time has never framed a plot so perfect as that of Tom Jones; nor has he the wit of a Fielding — to say nothing of a Le Sage; — but he much more than atones for such deficiencies by the display of a far wider combination of excellencies than is to be found in any one novelist besides. He has widened the whole field to an extent of which none that went before him ever dreamed; embellished it by many original graces, as exquisite at least as any that their hands had introduced; and ennobled it by the splendours of a poetical imagination, more powerful and more exalted by far than had ever in former days exerted its energies elsewhere than in the highest of the strictly poetical forms — epic and tragic. Far above any other British novelist in the aggregate quality of what he produces, he still more largely excels the two greatest foreign masters, Cervantes and Le Sage, in the copiousness of his creations. Nor is it, in our judgment, among the least of his merits, that his genius has achieved all these triumphs without for a moment departing from that firm healthiness of feeling, that sustained and masculine purity of mental vigour, of which there are unfortunately but few examples in the works of this class that intervened between Don Quixote and Waverley.

The unexampled popularity of this author has had good effects on our novel literature — and it has also had its evil effects. To that stimulus we, in all probability, owe the appearance of the classical and energetic Anastasius, the beautifully pathetic tale of Margaret Lyndesay, the exquisite humour of the Annals of the Parish, and The Provost, and other works of original merit. But to it we are also indebted for a whole deluge of novels and romances, which not only might not, but could not, have been written, had no Waverley pointed out one particular style and manner of novel-writing. On some of these, we are sorry to observe, considerable talents have been unwisely and unfortunately expended. In the best of them, it is almost needless to say, we seek in vain for any approach to the true excellencies of their master — the delicacy of his humour — the simplicity of his pathos — his tragic energy — the variety and extent of his knowledge — the graceful ease of his style — above all, his original conception of character, and the astonishing fertility of his invention: — these are matters far beyond the reach of knack. If we except two or three of the works of Mr. Cooper, we do not believe that any of these imitations will be remembered a few years hence; and yet we are far from considering that American writer as the ablest man that has imitated the great novelist of our time. His superior success is owing to the superiority of his materials; he has employed a style of delineation which he could never have invented, upon a fresh field, and, which is of still higher importance, on a field of manners and feelings familiar to his own observation. His Spy, Pioneers, &c., may be classed therefore, though "post longum intervallum," with Waverley. His ingenious rivals on this side of the Atlantic have, on the contrary, trusted to reading and imagination for the best part of their materials; and being inferior beyond measure to their master, both in the accomplishment and the faculty, they have produced, at the best, the mere "corpus exsangue" of the historical romance.