1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

George Ticknor; Journal Entry, March 1819; Life, Letters, and Journals of George Ticknor (1876) 1:280-84.



He is, indeed, the lord of the ascendant now in Edinburgh, and well deserves to be, for I look upon him to be quite as remarkable in intercourse and conversation, as he is in any of his writings, even in his novels. He is now about forty-eight, fully six feet high, stout and well made, except in his feet, stoops a little, and besides that his hairs are pretty gray, he carries in his countenance the marks of coming age and infirmity, which, I am told, have increased rapidly in the last two years. His countenance, when at rest, is dull and almost heavy, and even when in common conversation expresses only a high degree of good-nature; but when he is excited, and especially when he is repeating poetry that he likes, his whole expression is changed, and his features kindle into a brightness of which there were no traces before. His talent was developed late. Clerk, the advocate, told me that Scott hardly wrote poetry in his youth, and, in fact, could not easily do it, for, as they had early been schoolfellows, he knew this circumstance well; and even when he was past two-and-twenty and they were going over to Fife one day in a boat together, and tried a long time to make some verses, Scott finally gave up in despair, saying, "Well, it is clear you and I were never made for poets."

He lives in a style of considerable elegance in the city..... Sophia Scott is a remarkable girl, about eighteen or nineteen, with great simplicity and naturalness of manners, not a remarkable degree of talent, and yet full of enthusiasm; with tact in everything, a lover of old ballads, a Jacobite; and, in short, in all respects, such a daughter as Scott ought to have and ought to be proud of. And he is proud of her, as I saw again and again when he could not conceal it.

One evening, after dinner, he told her to take her harp and play five or six ballads he mentioned to her, as a specimen of the different ages of Scottish music. I hardly ever heard anything of the kind that moved me so much. And yet, I imagine, many sing better; but I never saw such an air and manner, such spirit and feeling, such decision and power I was so much excited, that I turned round to Mr. Scott and said to him, probably with great emphasis, "I never heard anything so fine"; and he, seeing how involuntarily I had said it, caught me by the hand, and replied, very earnestly, "Everybody says so, sir," but added in an instant, blushing a little, "but I must not be too vain of her."

I was struck, too, with another little trait in her character and his, that exhibited itself the same evening. Lady Hume asked her to play Rob Roy, an old ballad. A good many persons were present, and she felt a little embarrassed by the recollection of how much her father's name had been mentioned in connection with this strange Highlander's; but, as upon all occasions, she took the most direct means to settle her difficulties she ran across the room to her father, and, blushing pretty deeply, whispered to him. "Yes, my dear," he said, loud enough to be heard, "play it, to be sure, if you are asked, and Waverley and the Antiquary, too, if there be any such ballads."

One afternoon, after I had become more acquainted with them, he asked me to come and dine, and afterwards go to the theatre and hear Rob Roy, — a very good piece made out of his novel, and then playing in Edinburgh with remarkable success. It was a great treat, for he took his whole family, and now saw it himself for the first time. He did not attempt to conceal his delight during the whole performance, and when it was ever, said to me, "That 's fine, sir; I think that is very fine"; and then looked up at me with one of his most comical Scotch expressions of face, half-way between cunning and humor, and added, "All I wish is, that Jedediah Cleishbotham could be here to enjoy it!

I met him in court one morning, when he was not occupied, and he proposed to take a walk with me. He carried me round and showed me the houses of Ferguson, Blair, Hume, Smith, Robertson, Black, and several others, telling, at the same time, amusing anecdotes of these men, and bringing out a story for almost every lane and close we passed; explained and defended more at large the opinion he has advanced in "Guy Mannering," that the days of these men were the golden days of Edinburgh, and that we live in the decline of society there. I am not certain we do not; but I was never less disposed to acknowledge it than at that moment.

———*———*———*———*———*———

Among other anecdotes [editor's note: This anecdote was dictated by Mr. Ticknor in later years], Mr. Scott told me that he once travelled with Tom Campbell in a stagecoach alone, and that, to beguile the time, they talked of poetry and began to repeat some. At last Scott asked Campbell for something of his own, and he said there was one thing he had written but never printed, that was full of "drums and trumpets and blunderbusses and thunder," and he didn't know if there was anything good in it. And then he repeated "Hohenlinden." Scott listened with the greatest interest, and when he had finished, broke out, "But, do you know, that's devilish fine; why, it's the finest thing you ever wrote, and it must be printed!"

———*———*———*———*———*———

On Monday, March 15, early in the morning, I left Edinburgh. I was not alone, for Cogswell came with me, and we had a pleasant drive of six or seven hours down into the Border country, and finally stopped at Kelso, a pleasant town on the beautiful banks of the Tweed. We went immediately to see the ruins of the old abbey....

March 16. — Two miles farther on [beyond Melrose] is the magician's own house, — Scott's, I mean, or the "sherrie's,' as the postilion called him, because he is sheriff of the county, — as odd-looking a thing as can well be seen, neither house nor castle, ancient nor modern, nor an mutation of either, but a complete nondescript. The situation is not very good, though on the bank of the Tweed and opposite the entrance of the Gala, for it is under a hill and has little prospect; but there is a kindness and hospitality there which are better than anything else, and make everything else forgotten. We had come down on an invitation to pass as much time with him as we could, and were received with the simple good-nature and good spirits which I have constantly found in his house. Mrs. Scott was not there, nor either of the sons.... The establishment, therefore, consisted of Mr. Scott, his two girls, Sophia and Anne, and Mr. Skeene, to whom he has dedicated one of the cantos of "Marmion."

Mr. Scott himself was more amusing here than I had found him even in town. He seemed, like Antaeus, to feel that he touched a kindred earth, and to quicken into new life by its influences. The Border country is indeed the natural home of his talent, and it is when walking with him over his own hills and through his own valleys, ... and in the bosom and affections of his own family, that he is all you can imagine or desire him to be. His house itself is a kind of collection of fragments of history; architectural ornaments, — copies from Melrose in one part, the old identical gate of the Tolbooth, or rather the stone part of it, through which the Porteous mob forced its way, in another, — an old fountain before the house, and odd inscriptions and statues everywhere, make such a kind of irregular, poetical habitation as ought to belong to him. Then for every big stone on his estate, as well as for all the great points of the country about, he has a tradition or a ballad, which he repeats with an enthusiasm that kindles his face to an animation that forms a singular contrast to the quiet in which it usually rests.

Sophia shares and enjoys these local feelings and attachments, and can tell as many Border stories as her father, and repeat perhaps as marry ballads, and certainly more Jacobite songs. She is, indeed, in some respects, an extraordinary person. There is nothing romantic about her, for she is as perfectly right-minded as I ever saw one so young; and, indeed, perhaps right-mindedness is the prevailing feature in her character. She has no uncommon talent, and yet I am sure he must have little taste or feeling who could find her conversation dull; she is not beautiful, through after seeing her several times in company with those handsomer than herself, I found my eye at last rested with most pleasure on the playful simplicity and natural openness of her countenance.... Annie is younger, no less natural, and perhaps has more talent, and is generally thought prettier; but nobody, I think, places her in competition with her sister....

Nobody came to Abbotsford while we stayed there, and of course we had a happy time. The breakfast-hour was nine, and after that we all walked out together and heard any number of amusing stories, for Mr. Scott has a story for everything; and so we continued walking about and visiting till nearly dinner-time, at half past four. As soon as we were seated the piper struck up a pibroch before the windows, dressed in his full Highland costume, and one of the best-looking and most vain, self-sufficient dogs I ever saw; and he continued walking about, and playing on his bagpipes until the dessert arrived, when he was called in, received his dram, and was dismissed. Mr. Scott likes to sit at table and talk, and therefore dinner, or rather the latter part of it, was long. Coffee followed, and then in a neighboring large room the piper was heard again, and we all went in and danced Scotch reels till we were tired. An hour's conversation afterwards brought us to ten o'clock and supper; and two very short and gay hours at the supper-table, or by the fire, brought us to bedtime.

I delighted to talk with these original creatures about themselves and one another, for they do it with simplicity, and often make curious remarks. Mr. Scott gave me an odd account of the education of his whole family. His great object has always been, not to over-educate, and to follow the natural indications of character, rather than to form other traits. The strongest instance is his son Walter, a young man with little talent; "and so," said Mr. Scott, "I gave him as much schooling as I thought would do him good, and taught him to ride well, and shoot well, and tell the truth; and I think now that he will make a good soldier, and serve his country well, instead of a poor scholar or advocate, doing no good to himself or anybody else." Sophia, however, did not seem to be quite well satisfied with her father's system of education in some respects. "He's always just telling us our faults," said she, with her little Scotch accent and idiom, "but never takes such very serious pains to have us mend. I think sometimes he would like to have us different from other girls and boys, even though it should be by having us worse."...

But the visit that began so happily, and continued for two days so brightly, had a sad close. During the second night Mr. Scott was seized with violent spasms in his stomach, which could be controlled neither by laudanum nor bleeding. A surgeon was sent for, who continued with him all night, ... and the next morning the family was filled with the most cruel apprehensions, for though he has been subject to such attacks, none had come on with such violence. We therefore abruptly ended our visit a day sooner than we intended, and crossed to the main road at Selkirk, where I had a very sad parting from Cogswell.