1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

George Ellis, in Review of Scott, Rokeby; Quarterly Review 8 (December 1812) 506-07.



The original fiction from which the poem is derived, appears to us to be constructed with considerable ability: but it is on the felicity with which the poet has expanded and dramatized it; on the diversity of the characters; on the skill with which they are unfolded, and on the ingenuity with which every incident is rendered subservient to his final purpose, that we chiefly found our preference of this, over his former productions. From the first canto to the last, nothing is superfluous. The arrival of a nocturnal visitor at Barnard Castle is announced with such solemnity, the previous terrors of Oswald, the arrogance and ferocity of Bertram, his abruptness and discourtesy of demeanour, are so minutely delineated, that the picture seems as if it had been introduced for the sole purpose of displaying the author's powers of description; yet it is from this visit, that all the subsequent incidents naturally, and almost necessarily flow. Our curiosity is, at the very commencement of the poem, most powerfully excited; the principal actors in the scene, exhibit themselves distinctly to our view, the development of the plot is perfectly continuous, and our attention is never interrupted, or suffered to relax.

In delineating the actors of this dramatic tale, we have little hesitation in saying that Mr. Scott has been more successful than on any former occasion. Wilfrid, a personage of the first importance in the whole management of the plot, exhibits an assemblage of qualities not unfrequently combined in real life, but, so far as we can recollect, never before represented in poetry. It is indeed a character which required to be touched with great art and delicacy. The reader generally expects to find beauty of form, strength, grace, and agility, united with powerful passions, iii the prominent figures of romance; because these visible qualities are the most frequent themes of panegyric, and usually the best passports to admiration. The absence of them is supposed to throw an air of ridicule on the pretensions of a candidate for love, or glory. An ordinary poet, therefore, would have despaired of awakening our sympathies in favor of that lofty and generous spirit, and keen sensibility, which at once animate and consume the frail and sickly frame of Wilfrid: yet Wilfrid is, in fact, extremely interesting; and his death, though obviously necessary to the condign punishment of Oswald, to the future repose of Matilda, and consequently to the consummation of the poem, leaves strong emotions of pity and regret in the mind of the reader.

In estimating the relative merits of similar productions of art, it is but fair to take into consideration the relative difficulties which the artist was compelled to encounter. We have, on a former occasion, hazarded the opinion, that the feudal ages of modern Europe, like the heroic ages of Greece, are peculiarly fertile in subjects adapted to the purposes of poetry. Mr. Scott, we presume, entertained the same opinion, and being familiar with the legends of what was once called history, and is now considered as romance, ventured into this untrodden field, and giving the reins to his genius, expatiated for a time, with perfect liberty, and was accompanied by very general applause. He has now confined himself within much narrower limits, and, by descending to the sober annals of the seventeenth century, has renounced nearly all those ornaments of Gothic pageantry which, in consequence of the taste with which he displayed them, had been tolerated, and even admired, by modern readers. He has subjected his style to a severer code of criticism. The language of the poet is often unconsciously referred to the date of the incidents which he relates; so that what is careless or idiomatic escapes censure, as a supposed anomaly of antique diction: and it is, perhaps, partly owing to this impression, that the phraseology of "Marmion," and of the "Lady of the Lake," has appeared to its to be less faulty than that of the present poem.

But, be this as it may, we confidently persist in thinking that in this last experiment, Mr. Scott's popularity will be still farther confirmed; because we have found by experience that, although during the first hasty inspection of the poem, undertaken for the gratification of our curiosity, some blemishes intruded themselves upon our notice, the merits of the story, and the minute shades of character displayed in the conduct of it, have been sufficient, during many succeeding perusals, to awaken our feelings, and to reanimate and sustain our attention,