1808 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

Samuel Egerton Brydges, "Of Modern Poetry; and particularly Scott's Romance of Marmion" Censura Literaria 7 (1808) 310-15.



While a wanton departure from ancient models is liable to just censure, a servile adherence to them is still more offensive. On one hand a grace may be snatched beyond the reach of art; on the other, every thing must be dull and creeping. We are apt to think highly of the ages that are past, and to complain mechanically of the dearth of genius in our own. In the poetical world seldom has the complaint been more ill founded than at present. As I would scorn to let envy suppress the praise of my cotemporaries, so would I scorn to sacrifice my sincerity for the purpose of flattering any one. From my heart I believe, that, though in these days we neither possess a Shakspeare, a Spenser, nor a Milton, yet seldom have we had such a galaxy of genuine poets as at present adorn this country. A due regard to delicacy, and the just feelings of individuals, precludes me from a regular enumeration of them.

But a poem, which has been published in the present month, has filled me with delight so singular in its kind, and so high in its degree, that I will not suppress the generous emotion of gratitude that impels me to record my pleasure. Mr. Walter Scott's Romance of Marmion, a Tale of Floddon Field, contains a series of Introductory Epistles, novel in their kind, and as highly poetical and attractive as they are new.

The author has given its free and natural range to a mind most richly and exquisitely adorned with all the feelings and images of genuine poetry. How enchantingly, and with what ease and grace he exercises the wand of the magician, and brings before us the varied and changing creations of a moral, sentimental, and picturesque fancy, will he better felt than expressed by every reader of taste and sensibility! Poetry here appears in its natural shape, uncramped by rules, and unfettered by proto-types.

Mason, I think, somewhere says, that what is easy reading is not easy writing. The remark has always struck me as singularly unhappy. Studied writings never pursue the natural association of ideas, and are therefore seldom perused without labour, and deliberate attention. The intermediate links are imperceptibly dropped by the painful composer; and all that freshness and raciness, which finds an instant mirror in every mind, is gone. Dr. Warton records a curious anecdote of Dryden's noble Ode on Alexander's Feast, which he says was composed at a sitting, and which accounts for that irresistible charm of vigour and brilliance that pervades the whole of it.

Let not idleness and imbecility take advantage of these remarks. Faculties of an ordinary cast must not presume to shew their nakedness. It is only for heads and hearts highly endowed to pour forth their stores without premeditation. Others must be left to the humbler kind of merit, that is attainable by study and toil. From the sacred paths of poetry, from all that is to hurry away the mind into scenes of imaginary splendour, they would do well to abstain. The frigid labour of forcing words into rhythm, of seeking for figures in which to invest trite thoughts, will never succeed in producing the effects of genuine poetry. The infatuated operator may have the luck of procuring the praise of the mechanical critic, who judges by rules; but the public will sleep over his work, and then quit it for more rational prose, which has all its merit without any of its defects.

What a contrast are the effusions of Walter Scott! He seizes the lyre, and scatters about his wild strains at every careless touch! His notes

—sweet music breathe
Above, about, or underneath
Sent by. some spirit to mortal's good,
Or th' unseen genius of the wood.

His six epistles are addressed to 1. William Stewart Rose, Esq. 2. The Rev. John Marriot. 3. William Erskine, Esq. 4. James Skene, Esq. 5. George Ellis, Esq. 6. Richard Heber, Esq. The first opens thus:

Ashesteel, Ettricke Forest.
November's sky is chill and drear,
November's leaf is red and sear:
Late, gazing down the steepy linn,
That hems our little garden in;
Low in its dark and narrow glen
You scarce the rivulet might ken,
So thick the tangled greenwood grew,
So feeble trill'd the streamlet through:
Now murmuring hoarse and frequent seen
Through bush and brier, no longer green,
An angry brook, it sweeps the glade,
Brass is over brook and wild cascade,
And, foaming brown with doubled speed,
Hurries its waters to the Tweed.

No longer Autumn's glowing red
Upon our forest hills is shed;
No more beneath the evening beam,
Fair Tweed reflects their purple gleam;
Away hath pass'd the heather-bell,
That bloom'd so rich on Need-path fell.
Sallow his brows and russet bare,
Are now the sister heights of Yair.
The sheep, before the pinching heaven,
To shelter'd dale and down, are driven
Where yet some faded herbage pines,
And yet a watery sunbeam shines:
In meek despondency they eye
The withered sward and wintry sky,
And far beneath their summer hill
Stray sadly by Glenkinnon's rill:
The shepherd shifts his mantle's fold,
And wraps him closer from the cold;
His dogs no merry circles wheel,
But, shivering, follow at his heel;
A cowering glance they often cast,
As deeper moans the gathering blast.

I cannot refrain from giving one more specimen, taken from the Third Epistle.

Thus while I ape the measure wild
Of tales that charmed me yet a child,
Rude though they be, still with the chime
Return the thoughts of early time;
And feelings rous'd in life's first day
Glow in the line, and prompt the lay.
Then rise those crags, that mountain tower,
Which charmed my fancy's wakening hour:
Though no broad river swept along
To claim perchance heroic song;
Though sighed no groves in summer gale,
To prompt of love a softer tale;
Though scarce a puny streamlet's speed
Claimed homage from a shepherd's reed;
Yet was poetic impulse given,
By the green hill and clear blue heaven.
It was a barren scene and wild,
Where naked cliffs, were rudely pil'd;
But ever and anon between
Lay velvet tufts of loveliest green;
And well the lonely infant knew
Recesses where the wall-flower grew,
And honey-suckle loved to crawl
Up the low crag and ruined wall.
I deemed such nooks the sweetest shade,
The sun in all his round surveyed;
And still I thought that shattered tower
The mightiest work of human power;
And marvelled, as the aged hind
With some strange tale bewitched my mind
Of Forayers, who, with headlong force,
Down from that strength had spurred their horse,
Their southern rapine to renew,
Far in the distant Cheviots blue,
And, home returning, filled the hall
With revel, wassell-route, and brawl.
Methought that still with tramp and clang
The gate-way's broken arches rang;
Methought grim features, seamed with scars,
Glared through the window's rusty bars.
And ever by the winter hearth,
Old tales I heard of woe or mirth,
Of lover's sleights, of ladies' charms,
Of witch's spells, of warriors arms;
Of patriot battles, won of old
By Wallace wight and Bruce the bold;
Of later fields of feud and sleight,
When pouring from their Highland height,
The Scottish clans, in headlong sway,
Had swept the scarlet ranks away.
While stretch'd at length upon the floor,
Again I fought each combat o'er,
Pebbles and shells, in order laid,
The mimic ranks of war displayed;
And onward still the Scottish lion bore,
And still the scatter'd Southron fled before.

March 17, 1808.