1811 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

Francis Jeffrey, Review of Scott, Vision of Don Roderick; Edinburgh Review 18 (August 1811) 379-92.



The odds are considerably against the success of any man, when he can only succeed by coming up to the expectations which have been excited in the public by his own great fame, and the supposed inspiration of events of present interest and notoriety.

However cruel or unjust it may appear, it is certainly true, as we think we have intimated before, that a prosperous poet has always harder measure dealt him by the public, in proportion to his former popularity that his most formidable rival is commonly himself; — and that, in comparing his new productions with his old, we are exceedingly apt to judge of the former by their best passages, and of the latter by their worst. Thus the unhappy adventurer on Parnassus is only tasked the more severely for the success of his former exertions, is expected to son foster the more breath he has expended, and pronounced to be falling off in vigour and activity, if he does not appear to move more rapidly over the steep and distant regions at the summit, than he did along the flowery slopes at its base.

His hazards, however, are prodigiously increased, if, in these later appearances, he should venture upon a theme with which all the vulgar echoes of the country are at that moment resounding: — if he should undertake, for instance, to celebrate the heroes of the last Gazette, or the victory for which the bells are still ringing, and the Tower guns roaring in our ears. All experience has shown, that there can be no successful poetry upon subjects of this description: — and there are two very good reasons why it must be so. In the first place, the author, in such cases, can never tell his readers any thing which they did not know better before; and in the second place, he can neither add any ennobling circumstance to the certain and notorious truth, nor suppress any vulgar or degrading ones with which it may happen to be encumbered. The great charm of poetry is, that it places before us the newest and most extraordinary objects; — and by its vivid colours, and artful combinations, makes us present, as it were, to the most remote or fabulous transactions. When it chooses, therefore, to employ itself on transactions that are actually present and before us already, in all their detail and reality, it evidently has no scope for its deceptions; — the great end which it aims at producing, has been already attained, though by more vulgar and ordinary means; — every reader of the authentic narrative, has more facts and more pictures in his memory, than the most diligent verifier could venture to put into stanza; — and therefore the poetical account, while it is in danger of disgusting the judicious, by the misapplication of the common hyperboles of poetry, is almost sure to disappoint every one by its inadequacy and incompleteness.

In this predicament, we think, the work before us is obviously placed. It has been received with less interest by the public than any of the author's other performances; — and has been read, we should imagine, with some degree of disappointment, even by those who took it up with the most reasonable expectations. Yet it is written with very considerable spirit, — and with more care and effort, than most of the author's compositions; — with a degree of effort, indeed, which could scarcely have failed of success, if the author had not succeeded so splendidly on other occasions without any effort at all, or had chosen any other subject than that which fills the cry of our alehouse politicians, and supplies the gabble of all the quidnuncs in this country, — our pending campaigns in Spain and Portugal, — with the exploits of Lord Wellington and the spoliations of the French armies. The nominal subject of the poem, indeed, is the Vision of Don Roderick, in the eighth century; — but this is obviously a mere prelude to the grand piece of our recent battles — a sort of machinery devised to give dignity and effect to their introduction. In point of fact, the poem begins and ends with Lord Wellington; and being written for time benefit of the plundered Portuguese, and upon a Spanish story, the thing could not well have been otherwise. The pubic, at this moment, will listen to nothing about Spain, but the history of the present war; and the old Gothic King, and the Moors, are considered, we dare say, by Mr. Scott's most impatient readers, as very tedious interlopers in the proper business of the piece.

But we are taking it for granted, we find, that our readers are already acquainted with the work to which we profess to introduce them; — and undoubtedly the presumption is, that Mr. Scott's light-winged quartos will be in the hands of one half of them, before our heavy octavos have taken their flight at to overtake them. At the same time, we owe some account of them in the other less fortunate half; — and, at all events, have a few remarks to offer, which we could not otherwise render very intelligible. As the poem, however, is of very moderate length, abstract of it shall be brief in proportion.

The work is written, throughout, in the regular stanza of Spenser; and consists of a long Introduction, — the Vision itself — and a long Conclusion; the whole amounting to about one hundred stanzas. The Introduction begins with lamenting, that, since the death of Homer, there has been nobody worthy sing of the exploits of Lord Wellington and the English armies in Spain; and then the poet proceeds to demand of the Highland Mountains, whether they have not retained a portion of the poetical fire of their antient bards and minstrels, which they might lend him for the occasion. The Mountains reply, very honestly, that it is so long ago since they have seen any of the said fire, that they scarcely think there is a spark of it left; but advise him to turn to the warmer regions of the south, where they understand that the poetical spirit is still in considerable preservation, and where antient and recent events will furnish him with abundance of taking topics. He hears, — and obeys, — and proceeds forth with to the Vision.

Don Roderick, time last of the Gothic kings of Spain, is reported, in certain antient legends, to have descended into an enchanted vault near Toledo, the opening of which had been denounced as fatal to the Spanish Monarchy; and here, it is said, he saw a vision emblematical of his own destruction, and of the impending conquest of his kingdom by the Moors. This legend is the basis of the poem now before us; in which the monarch's prophetic vision is prolonged down to the debarkation of the English forces in Mondego bay, in the year 1808. It begins with a fine description of Don Roderick's midnight confession in the cathedral of Toledo, with his impatient guards waiting on the moonlight shores of the river, and the aged archbishop shuddering with horror at the dreadful disclosures of his impenitent sovereign. Despairing at last of absolution, Don Roderick suddenly insists upon being conducted to the magic vault, where he may at once read the worst of his destiny; and compels the trembling prelate to lead him to the place. With some difficulty he opens the massive doors; and finds himself in a huge arched room of black marble, where he sees two gigantick statutes of bronze; one holding an hour-glass, and the other a ponderous mace, — with scrolls over their heads, announcing them to be respectively Time and Destiny. While the fated intruders are gazing on these strange objects, the last sands ebb out in the hour-glass; and the armed figure, rearing his mace, strikes a large hole in the end wall of the apartment, through which the astonished monarch sees the fates of his remotest descendants. This magnificent pantomime Mr. Scott has distributed into three acts; — the first representing the Moorish conquest and dominion; — the second, the splendid period of the Spanish history, when their valour subdued America and the East, and their superstitions stained the glory of their arms with persecution and bloodshed; — and the third, the exhausted and inglorious, but tranquil, state in which they were left by the decay of their chivalrous and superstitious ardors, — with the rousing produced by the usurpation of Bonaparte, and the heroic example of their English auxiliaries. The last trait, of course, seduces the author into greater minuteness of detail, than he had ventured upon in his sketch of the earlier periods; and accordingly, after giving a full account of the debarkation in Mondego bay, and a description of the constituent parts of the British army, he suddenly checks himself, and recollects the fiction should not be allowed to mix with the records of recent heroism; and, abruptly dismissing Don Roderick, with the vault, and its statues and visions, closes the poem with a few patriotic lines in his own character, and with announcing his intention to be still more patriotic in the Conclusion.

This Conclusion is rightly so called — inasmuch as it concludes the poetical part of the volume before us; but it really might have performed this office, with equal propriety, to any other poetical work whatsoever. It has not, from beginning to end, the least connexion with, or allusion to, Don Roderick and his adventures; but consists of a splendid versification of Lord Wellington's official despatches, from the time of his retreat to Torres Vedras, down to the very latest accounts that had been received from him before the printing of the present work was completed. It begins with Bonaparte's orders to Massena to drive the English army into the sea, — proceeds by the battle of Busaco to the lines before Lisbon, — describes the devastation which accompanied the subsequent retreat of the French, the battles of Fuentes d'Honoro, of Barosa and Albuera, — and ends with a magnificent encomium on Generals Beresford and Grahame.

Such is the argument, or naked outline of the poem before us. It has scarcely any story, the reader will perceive, — and scarcely any characters; and consists, in truth, almost entirely a series of descriptions, intermingled with plaudits and execrations. The descriptions are many of them very fine, though the style is more turgid and verbose than in the better parts of Mr. Scott's other productions; but the invectives and acclamations are too vehement and too frequent, to be either graceful or impressive. There is no climax or progression to relieve the ear, or stimulate the imagination. Mr. Scott sets out on the very highest pitch of his voice; and keeps it up to the end of the measure. There are no grand swells, therefore, or overpowering bursts in his song. All, from first to last, is loud, and clamorous, and obtrusive, — indiscriminately noisy, and often ineffectually exaggerated. He has fewer new images than in his other poetry, — his tone is less natural and varied, — and he moves, upon the whole, with a slower and more laborious pace. We cannot afford a whole dissertation, however, upon the peculiarities of this new style; and shall intersperse the few other remarks we have to with the specimens which we are about to exhibit.

The Introduction, though splendidly written, is too long for so short a poem; and the poet's dialogue with his native mountains, is somewhat too startling and unnatural. The most spirited part of it, we think, is their direction to Spanish themes.

No! search romantic lands, where the near Sun
Gives with unstinted boon ethereal flame,
Where the rude villager, his labour done,
In verse spontaneous chants some favoured name,
Whether Olalia's charms his tribute claim,
Her eye of diamond and her locks of jet;
Or whether, kindling at the deeds of Graeme,
He sing, to wild Morisco measure set,
Old Albin's red claymore, green Erin's bayonet!

Explore those regions, where the flinty crest
Of wild Nevada ever gleams with snows,
Where in the proud Alhambra's ruined breast
Barbaric monuments of pomp repose;
Or where the banners of more ruthless foes
Than the fierce Moor float o'er Toledo's fane,
From whose tall towers even now the patriot throws
An anxious glance, to spy upon the plain
The blended ranks of England, Portugal, and Spain.

There, of Numantian fire a swarthy spark
Still lightens in the sunburnt native's eye;
The stately port, slow step, and visage dark
Still mark enduring pride and constancy.
And, if the glow of feudal chivalry
Beam not, as once, thy nobles' dearest pride,
Iberia! oft thy crestless peasantry
Have seen the plumed Hidalgo quit their side,
Have seen, yet dauntless stood — 'gainst fortune fought and died.

After this, our great objection to the Vision is, that it carries us too fur away from the themes which are hem announced, — or brings us too soon back to them. For a mere introduction to the exploits of our English commanders, the story of Don Roderick's sins and confessions, — the minute description of his army and attendants, — and the whole interest and machinery of the enchanted vault, with the greater part of the Vision itself, are far too long and elaborate. They withdraw our curiosity and attention from the subjects for which they had been bespoken, and gradually engage them upon a new and independent series, of romantic adventures, in which it is not easy to see how Lord Wellington and Bonaparte can have in any concern. But, on the other hand, no sooner is this new interest excited, — no sooner have we surrendered our imaginations into the hands of this dark enchanter, and heated our fancies to the proper pitch for sympathising in the fortunes of Gothic kings and Moorish invaders, with their imposing accompaniments of harnessed knights, ravished damsels, and enchanted statues, than the whole romantic group vanishes at once from our sight; and we are hurried, with minds yet disturbed with these powerful apparitions, to the comparatively sober and cold narration of Bonaparte's villanies, and to drawn battles between mere mortal combatants in and French uniforms. The vast and elaborate vestibule, in short, in which we had been so long detained,

Where wonders wild of Arabesque combine
With Gothic imagery of darker shade,

has no corresponding palace attached to and the long noviciate we are made to serve to the mysterious powers of Romance, is not repaid, after all, by an introduction to their awful presence. The poem comes, in this way, to be substantially divided into two compartments; — the one representing the fabulous or prodigious acts of Don Roderick's own time, — and the other, the recent occurrences which have since signalized the same quarter of the world. Mr. Scott, we think, is most at home in the first of these fields; and we think, upon the whole, most success in it. The opening of the poem affords a fine specimen of his unrivalled powers of description.

Rearing their crests amid the cloudless skies,
And darkly clustering in the pale moonlight,
Toledo's holy towers and spires arise,
As from a trembling lake of silver-white.
Their mingled shadows intercept the sight
Of the broad burial-ground outstretched below,
And nought disturbs the silence of the night;
All sleeps in sullen shade, or silver glow,
All save the heavy swell of Teio's ceaseless flow.

All save the rushing swell of Teio's tide,
Or, distant heard, a courser's neigh or tramp,
Their changing rounds as watchful horsemen ride,
To guard the limits of King Roderick's camp.
For, through the river's night-fog rolling damp,
Was many a proud pavilion dimly seen,
Which glimmer'd back, against the moon's fair lamp,
Tissues of silk and silver twisted sheen,
And standards proudly pitch'd, and warders armed between. p. 13, 14.

But, far within, Toledo's prelate lent
An ear of fearful wonder to the king;
The silver lamp a fitful lustre sent,
So long that sad confession witnessing:
For Roderick told of many a hidden thing,
Such as are lothly uttered to the air,
When Fear, Remorse, and Shame the bosom wring, &c.

Full on the Prelate's face and silver hair
The stream of failing light was feebly roll'd;
But Roderick's visage, though his head was bare,
Was shadowed by his hand and mantle's fold.
While of his hidden soul the sins he told. p. 16, 17.

The description of the enchanted hall is in the same strain of excellence.

Long, large, and lofty was that vaulted hall;
Roof, walls, and floor were all of marble stone,
Of polished marble, black as funeral pall,
Carved o'er with signs and characters unknown.
A paly light, as of the dawning, shone
Through the sad bounds, but whence they could not spy;
For window to the upper air was none;
Yet by that light, Don Roderick could descry
Wonders that ne'er till then were seen by mortal eye.

Grim centinels, against the upper wall,
Of molten bronze, two Statues held their place;
Massive their naked limbs, their stature tall,
Their frowning foreheads golden circles grace.
Moulded they seemed for kings of giant race,
That lived and sinned before the avenging flood;
This grasped a scythe, that rested on a mace;
This spread his wings for flight, that pondering stood;
Each stubborn seemed and stern, immutable of mood. p. 21-2.

The three grand and comprehensive pictures in which Mr. Scott has delineated the state of Spain, during the three periods to which we have already alluded, are conceived with much genius, and executed with very considerable, though unequal felicity. — That of the Moorish dominion, is drawn, we think, with the greatest spirit. — The reign of Chivalry and Superstition we do not think so happily represented, by a long and laboured description of two allegorical personages called Bigotry and Valour. — Nor is it very easy to conceive how Don Roderick was to learn the fortunes of his country, merely by inspecting the physiognomy and furnishing of these two figurantes. The truth seems to be, that Mr. Scott has been tempted, on this occasion, to extend a mere Metaphor into an allegory; — and to prolong a figure which might have given great grace and spirit to a single stanza, into the heavy subject of seven or eight. His representation of the recent state of Spain, we think, displays the talent and address of the author to the greatest advantage; for the subject was by no means inspiring; — nor was it easy, we should imagine, to make the picture of decay and inglorious indolence so engaging.

And well such strains the opening scene became;
For VALOUR had relaxed his ardent look,
And at a lady's feet, like lion tame,
Lay stretched, full loath the weight of arms to brook;
And softened BIGOTRY upon his book,
Pattered a task of little good or ill;
But the blithe peasant plied his pruning-hook,
Whistled the muleteer o'er vale and hill,
And rung from village-green the merry Seguidille.

Grey Royalty, grown impotent of toil,
Let the grave sceptre slip his lazy hold;
And careless saw his rule become the spoil
Of a loose Female and her Minion bold;
But peace was on the cottage and the fold,
From court intrigue, from bickering faction far;
Beneath the chestnut tree Love's tale was told,
And to the tinkling of the light guitar,
Sweet stooped the western sun, sweet rose the evening star. p. 35, 36.

We have the same objection, however, to the visible form of Ambition stalking before him with a blazing torch, that we have already stated to the allegorical presentment of Valour and Bigotry; — nor can we very greatly admire the history of the coronation of the "wan fraternal shade;" — nor the commemoration of the services of "our Lady of the Pillar." — The landing the English, however, is admirably described; nor is there any thing finer in the whole poem than the following passage, — the exception always of the three concluding lines, which appear to us to be very nearly as bad as possible.

Don Roderick turned him as the shout grew loud—
A varied scene the changeful vision showed,
For, where the ocean mingled with the cloud,
A gallant navy stemmed the billows broad.
From mast and stern Saint George's symbol flow'd,
Blent with the silver cross to Scotland dear;
Mottling the sea their landward barges rowed,
And flashed the sun on bayonet, brand, and spear,
And the wild beach returned the seamen's jovial cheer.

It was a dread yet spirit stirring sight!
The billows foamed beneath a thousand oars,
Fast as they land the red-cross ranks unite,
Legions on legions brightening all the shores.
Then banners rise and cannon-signal roars,
Then peals the warlike thunder of the drum,
Thrills the loud fife, the trumpet-flourish pours,
And patriot hopes awake and doubts are dumb,
For, bold in Freedom's cause, the bands of Ocean come!

A various host they came — whose ranks display
Each mode in which the warrior meets the fight;
The deep battalion locks its firm array,
And meditates his aim the marksman light;
Far glance the lines of sabres flashing bright,
Where mounted squadrons shake the echoing mead;
Lacks not artillery breathing flame and night,
Nor the fleet ordnance whirled by rapid steed,
That rivals lightning's flash in ruin and in speed. p. 49-51.

The three succeeding stanzas are elaborate; but we think, on the whole, successful. They will probably be oftener quoted than any other passage in the poem.

A various host — from kindred realms they came,
Brethren in arms but rivals in renown—
For yon fair bands shall merry England claim,
And with their deeds of valour deck her crown.
Hers their bold port, and hers their martial frown,
And hers their scorn of death in freedom's cause,
Their eyes of azure, and their locks of brown,
And the blunt speech that bursts without a pause,
And freeborn thoughts which league the Soldier with the Laws.

And O! loved warriors of the Minstrel's land!
Yonder your bonnets nod, your tartans wave!
The rugged form may mark the mountain band,
And harsher features, and a mien more grave;
But ne'er in battle-field throbbed heart so brave
As that which beats beneath the Scottish plaid;
And when the pibroch bids the battle rave,
And level for the charge your arms are laid,
Where lives the desperate foe, that for such onset staid?

Hark! from yon stately ranks what laughter rings,
Mingling wild mirth with war's stern minstrelsy,
His jest while each blithe comrade round him flings,
And moves to death with military glee:
Boast, Erin, boast them! tameless, frank, and free,
In kindness warm and fierce in danger known,
Rough Nature's children, humorous as she:
And HE, yon Chieftain — strike the proudest tone
Of thy bold harp, green Isle! — the Hero is thine own. p. 51-53.

The Conclusion is, on the whole, rather noisy than spirited; and makes up, by a kind of sonorous impetuosity, for whatever it may want in novelty, or variety of conception. The following verses are from a powerful hand certainly; — and vet they might be matched, perhaps, without any great expenditure of power. — The tone, to our ears, is decidedly vulgar; — and if Mr. Scott had never written any thing better, his poetical reputation would not at this moment have stood much higher than that of the author of the Battles of Talavera.

Go, baffled boaster! teach thy haughty mood
To plead at thine imperious master's throne!
Say, thou hast left his legions in their blood,
Deceived his hopes and frustrated thine own;
Say, that thine utmost skill and valour shown
By British skill and valour were outvied;
Last say, thy conqueror was WELLINGTON!
And if he chafe, be his own fortune tried—
God and our cause to friend, the venture we'll abide.

Yes! hard the task, when Britons wield the sword
To give each chief and every field its fame:
Hark! Albuera thunders BERESFORD,
And red Barosa shouts for dauntless GRAEME!
O for a verse of tumult and of flame,
Bold as the bursting of their cannon sound,
To bid the world re-echo to their fame!
For never upon gory battle-ground
With conquest's well-bought wreath were braver victors crowned!

O who shall grudge him Albuera's bays
Who brought a race regenerate to the field,
Roused them to emulate their fathers' praise,
Tempered their headlong rage, their courage steel'd,
And raised fair Lusitania's fallen shield,
And gave new edge to Lusitania's sword,
And taught her sons forgotten arms to wield—
Shivered my harp and burst its every chord,
If it forget thy worth, victorious BERESFORD! p. 64-66.

Perhaps it is our nationality which makes us like better the following tribute to General Graham — though there is thing, we believe, in the softness of the sentiment that will be felt, even by English readers, as a relief from the exceeding clamour and loud boastings of all the surrounding stanzas.

Nor be his praise o'erpast who strove to hide
Beneath the warrior's vest affection's wound,
Whose wish, Heaven for his country's weal denied;
Danger and fate he sought, but glory found.
From clime to clime, where'er war's trumpets sound,
The wanderer went; yet, Caledonia! still
Thine was his thought in march and tented ground;
He dreamed 'mid Alpine cliffs of Athole's hill,
And heard in Ebro's roar his Lyndoch's lovely rill. p. 67.

We are not very apt to quarrel with a poet for his politics — and really supposed it next to impossible that Mr. Scott should have given us any ground of dissatisfaction on this score, in the management of his present theme. Lord Wellington and his fellow-soldiers have well deserved the laurels they have won; — nor is there one British heart, we believe, that will not feel proud and grateful for all the honours with which British genius can invest their names. In the praises which Mr. Scott has bestowed, therefore, all his readers will sympathize; but for those which he has withheld, there are some that will not so readily forgive him: And in our eyes, we will confess, it is a sin not easily to be expiated, that in a poem written substantially for the purpose of commemorating the brave who have fought or fallen in Spain and Portugal, — and written by a Scotchman, — there should he no mention of the name of MOORE! — of the only commander in chief who has fallen in this memorable contest; — of a commander who was acknowledged as the model and pattern of a British soldier, when British soldiers stood most in need of such an example; — and was, at the same time, distinguished not less for every manly virtue and generous affection, than for skill and gallantry in his profession.. A more pure, or a more exalted character, certainly has not yet appeared upon that scene which Mr. Scott has sought to illustrate with the splendour of his genius; and it is with a mixture of shame and indignation, that we find him grudging a single ray of that profuse and readily yielded glory to gild the grave of his lamented countryman. To offer a lavish tribute of praise to the living, whose task is still incomplete, may be generous and munificent; — but, to departed merit, it is due in strictness of justice. Who will deny that Sir John Moore was all that we have now said of him? — or who will doubt that his untimely death, in the hour of victory, would have been eagerly seized upon by an impartial poet, as a noble theme for generous lamentation and eloquent praise? — But Mr. Scott's political friends have fancied it for their interest to calumniate the memory of this illustrious and accomplished person; — and Mr. Scott has permitted the spirit of party to stand in the way, not only of poetical justice, but of patriotic and generous feeling.

It is this for which we grieve, and feel ashamed; — this hardening and deadening effect of political animosities, in cases where politics should have nothing to do; — this apparent perversion, not merely of the judgment, but of the heart; — this implacable resentment, which wars not only with the living but with the dead; — and thinks it a reason for defrauding a departed warrior of his glory, that a political antagonist has been zealous in his praise. These things are lamentable; and they cannot be alluded to, without some emotions of sorrow and resentment. But they affect not the fame of him, on whose account these emotions me suggested. The wars of Spain, and the merits of Sir John Moore, will be commemorated in a more impartial, and a more imperishable record, than the Vision of Don Roderick; — and his humble monument in the citadel of Corunna, will draw the tears and the admiration of thousands, who concern not themselves about the exploits of his more fortunate associates. — [Greek characters].

From reflections like these we cannot return to point out the verbal inaccuracies of Mr. Scott, or his faults of versification. The former are at least as numerous in this, as in any of his former productions; — the latter, though less frequent, are of a more offensive character. Upon the whole, we can hardly recommend it to him to leave his own old style for that of which he has here presented us with a specimen; — and earnestly entreat him not to throw away his tine talents upon subjects of temporary interest; subjects on which a bombastical pamphlet will always produce more present effect than the most exquisite poetry, — and to which no poetical merit will ever be able to draw the attention of posterity.