The genius of Walter Scott was perceived by Robert Burns. "I was a lad of fifteen," says the former, when he came to Edinburgh, but had sense and feeling enough to be much interested in his poetry, and would have given the world to know him. I saw him accidentally at Professor Ferguson's: the only thing I remember which was remarkable in Burns's manner, was the effect produced upon him by a print representing a soldier lying dead on the snow, his dog sitting in misery on one side, on the other his widow, with a child in her arms; underneath were some affecting lines; the whole touched Burns so deeply that he shed tears; turning round he inquired by whom the lines were written. I whispered to a friend they are by Langhorne; I was overheard by the poet, who rewarded me with a look and a word, which, though of mere civility, I then received and still recollect with very great pleasure." Humility is an attribute of genius; one who was present. at this fine scene thus completed the picture: — "Burns fixed his large glowing eyes on Scott, and striding up to him laid his hand on his head and said, 'Young man, it is no common spirit which has directed your mind into such a course of study;' and, turning half away, he said to the company, 'This boy will be heard of yet.'" He has since amply fulfilled the prediction of Burns and the intention of Nature.
Scott was long known amongst his friends as a scholar and poet; but the first time that his name came to me it was brought by the "Lay of the Last Minstrel," a poem, which stirred up the spirit of Scotland as effectually as a war-beacon would have done of old. His "Border Minstrelsy," indeed, a work of great talent, taste, and research, had preceded the Minstrel, but it was known to few, at any rate it had failed in impressing upon the public mind that a great original genius had arisen; and, when read by the light which the Lay threw upon it, there were but few to perceive that, in the ballads of' "Glenfinlas," and the "Eve of St. John," there was the true martial and romantic spirit of ballad poetry, while Antiquarians shook their heads at the "pretty considerable" prunings and engraftings visible in many of the rough and time-worn chaunts of our martial ancestors. In truth, Scott was too clever a poet to permit the rent and soiled strains of antiquity to go in such a plight from his hand. There can be no doubt that many of those homely Border ballads received an infusion of poetic life's-blood from his hands; like his own Minstrel, when he strove to recall the half-forgotten strain which he had harped to King Charles the good,
Each blank in faithless memory void
The Poet's glowing thought supplied.
I mention this as a merit, not as a fault. To eke out and restore perishing works of taste and fancy is a meritorious thing — it bears no resemblance to that of polluting the fountains of historic truth by interpolating passages which give a different hue and meaning to the actions of men: history should be held sacred, — it is otherwise with verse.
Ye Gods! should one swear to the truth of a song?
When the glorious battle-ballads of Homer were collected by order of Pisistratus, no doubt he had some Grecian Walter Scott at hand to arrange, correct, eke out, and fuse them into one grand and magnificent work of art; and, to descend to lesser things, when Percy made his collection of the "Reliques of English Poetry," he had better sense than to send them maimed by time and polluted by the ignorance of reciters to encounter the sneers of the captious Steevenses and critical Johnsons of the hour — no, he purified and repaired them, and, when he had set them in a fair and proper light, produced them to the world. Scott did not go any thing like the length of Percy in such emendations; I am not aware that, hitherto, any one has charged him with having either altered or interpolated, but those conversant with the old ballad lore of the Border will, on reading the "Minstrelsy," soon perceive that to him belongs not a little of the praise which he has bestowed on Burns. "We are not here speaking of the avowed lyrical poems of his own composition, but of the manner in which he recomposed and repaired the old songs and fragments for the collection of Johnson and others, when, if his memory supplied the theme or general subject of the song, such as it existed in Scottish lore, his genius contributed that part which was to give life and immortality to the whole." Scott somewhere says, that the first edition of the "Minstrelsy" supplied the demand of the Scottish market. English taste had not been sufficiently awakened to the merits of such rough rude verses; the second edition proved, in the language of the trade, "rather a heavy concern." That, for many years, the "Minstrelsy" had not penetrated farther than the antiquarian circles in England I can bear witness. In 1810, I think, I chanced to be dining in Carlisle when a bet was made concerning some debateable Border story; I appealed to the "Minstrelsy;" the work was sought for among the booksellers, some had not heard of it, and none had it. We decided who was right by referring to the landlord, who declared for both sides like a sensible Border vintner.
The history of the "Lay of the Last Minstrel" the poet has himself related; he is speaking of the difficulty which he felt in finding a subject which might admit of being treated with the simplicity and wildness of the ancient ballad. "Accident," he says, "dictated both a theme and measure which decided the subject as well as the structure of the poem. The lovely young Countess of Dalkeith had come to the land of her husband with a desire of making herself acquainted with its traditions and customs. All who remember this lady will agree that the intellectual character of her extreme beauty, the amenity and courtesy of her manners, the soundness of her understanding, and her unbounded benevolence, gave more the idea of an angelic visitant than of a being belonging to this nether world. She soon heard enough of Border lore; among others Mr. Beattie of Mickledale, near Langholm, communicated to her ladyship the story of 'Gilpin Homer,' a translation, in which the narrator, and many more of that country, were firm believers. The young Countess, much delighted with the legend, and the gravity and full confidence with which it was told, enjoined it on me as a task to compose a ballad on the subject. Of course to hear was to obey, and thus the goblin story, objected by several critics as an excrescence upon the poem, was, in fact, the occasion of its being written. Being provided with a subject, accident supplied him with the measure. Dr. Stoddart, a gentleman of fine taste in poetry, at that time travelling in Scotland, repeated a part of the 'Christabel' of Coleridge, which, from the singularly irregular structure of the stanzas, and the liberty which it allowed the author to adapt the sound to the sense, seemed to be exactly suited to such an extravaganza as I meditated on the subject of Gilpin Homer."
Had not the pen of Scott himself traced the words I have quoted, I should have hesitated to give credence to this account of the origin of the measure of "The Lay of the Last Minstrel." All who are acquainted with the rude legendary poetry of our ancestors, are aware that something of the same wild irregularity occurs in the structure of many of the stanzas — nay, that it had been employed by divers poets, living and dead, whose names are known, and, what is more to the point, had been resorted to by Scott himself; in his sufficiently wild ballad of the "Eve of St. John." It is probable enough, that the "singularly wild and beautiful Christabel" induced Scott to string his harp anew with emulating vigour; my belief can go no farther, till I can forget the ballads of Scotland and England, and the works of Hall, Anstey, Wolcot, and of Sir Walter himself. Moreover, had the measure of the "Thalaba" of Southey no influence? a poem original, beautiful, and at that time in print. Sir Walter, however, knows best; and I mean to insinuate no more than that he was unwittingly under earlier influences when he was kneeling at the shrine of Christabel. A whole year elapsed before the poet obeyed the injunctions of' the Countess of Dalkeith. He then composed several stanzas, and, receiving one morning a visit front two friends of learning and talent, read them aloud, and desired their opinion. Now it is not unwise to ask the opinions of friends concerning works of genius; but I hold it desperately unwise to follow them. All productions of an original nature are startling to men whose notions and tastes are formed from works of a totally different character; they look upon every change of style as a departure from the settled principles of taste, and on every innovation in the handling of a subject, as a direct insult to the established opinions of the learned and the critical. They hold, that if poets made critics in the early and barbarous ages, critics in the enlightened ages which followed were quits, by making poets in return. They should study the old saying, " Ilka man wears his ain belt his ain gate," and allow all works of genius, which are true to nature, to be right in taste.
Had these "critics twain" foreseen that the verses at which they shook their sagacious heads would not only become popular, but descend with applause to posterity they doubtless would have exclaimed, "Bravo! go on, Scott, go on!'' but they thought only of their different sound, compared with other men's verses; so they look'd the words which the Scotch philosopher uttered, when invited to dine on stewed snails — "Damned green — damned green!" and so vanished, while the verses — Sir Walter, I am afraid thy temper, so serene now, was hasty in thy youth — the verses were thrown into the fire. But, put not thy faith in critics, should be the motto of all men of genius — lo! on the third day, one of the "twain" returned, inquired for the interesting verses, entered into a friendly expostulation on hearing their fate, said that neither himself nor his companion could judge at once of lines so much out of the beaten road of song, and concluded by earnestly urging the completion of the poem. The poem was accordingly completed — an introduction was added, one of the finest ever written, to enable the common reader to comprehend the story, and in order either to mollify the severity of criticism, — the Edinburgh Review was then holding authors in order with its hang-man's whip, — or from a singular diffidence in the author, the work was shown to many critical friends, and, amongst others, to Francis Jeffrey, who was pleased to nod approbation, and say, "Print it." Archibald Constable set his press to work, and "The Lay of the Last Minstrel" appeared early in the year 1805.
Rivals of no common power were at that time with all their forces in the field. Campbell had produced his "Pleasures of Hope," and some of those lesser inimitable poems, which can never die. Wordsworth had shown unrivalled skill in awaking poetry of the deepest kind from subjects of common occurrence. Coleridge was living on the reputation of the "Ancient Mariner" in print, and "Christabel" in manuscript; and Southey had sent his name over Europe in the "Joan of Arc" and "Thalaba the Destroyer." It is true, that upon these poets, with the exception of Campbell — who was a favourite — the Edinburgh Review had poured forth its satire, its invective, and its venom; but though, no doubt, the sale of the works of those distinguished poets had been much injured by such poisonous criticisms, still they had made their way to thousands of bosoms, and might be considered as serious rivals to any new candidate who should appear in the field. Yet a moment's consideration will satisfy any one that the author of "The Lay" had nothing to fear. His poem was, in fact, an appeal from the critical pedantry and affectations of mankind to national feeling, national taste, and, if you will, to national prejudices. The rapture with which I first read it, I had never before experienced in any work of genius, — a Borderer myself, I was familiar from my cradle with similar traditions, similar supernatural stories, and similar acts of daring or heroism. But then the allurements of glowing verse gave such increase of glory to those rude legends, that they became with me resistless. I carried the poem to a quiet room, and, whether I am believed or not, I assert that I read it twice fairly through before I rose from my seat. The fame of the work spread far and wide — edition was added to edition — it was praised and read by peer and peasant, and critics hinted about the revival of' the fire of homer, and admonished the poet to refine, and polish, and prepare for a higher and more equal flight. "It would be affectation," says the illustrious author, writing five-and-twenty years afterwards, "not to own frankly that the author expected some success from 'The Lay of the Last Minstrel.' The attempt to return to a more simple and natural style of poetry was likely to be welcomed at a time when time public had become tired of heroic hexameters, with all the buckram and binding which belong to them of later days. But whatever might have been his expectations, whether moderate or reasonable, the result left them far behind."
His second work was "Marmion." If the legend of the booksellers' shops be true, Scott had neglected to smooth the raven down of criticism till it smiled — in other words, the imprimatur of Jeffrey had not been obtained, and the "toothy critic" was displeased. He accordingly penned a criticism, sufficiently severe and captious and with the proof-sheet in his pocket, sat down at the dinner-table of the poet, and laid his audacious article before his friend. Scott, it is said, nodded his head, saying in a low tone, "Very well — very well" — and was in the act of returning it to the critic, when Mrs. Scott — whom the courteous manner of her husband had not deceived — snatched it up, and running over the article, with a glowing face, said, as she threw it back — "I wonder at the hardihood which penned such a criticism, and more at the boldness of bringing it to this table." The criticism, though its tone was friendly in many places, did nothing like justice to the great merits of the poem, and dwelt with relentless severity upon passages, where haste or carelessness, real or imaginary, were perceived. Now there is no long poem, nor can there be a long poem, without passages of little moment, which, like cement in palaces, unite the other richer materials together. The tree of the fancy, as well as an ordinary fruit-tree, must condescend to bear leaves as well as fruit; the most magnificent structure in architecture cannot be wholly made of capitals and columns; nor should the most eloquent speech at either bar or senate be composed of nothing but snatches of brilliant wit, or sallies of imagination. The heroes of Homer eat fully and frequently, and his goddesses scold and talk scandal; for the business of life must go on. There are men who think his dinners are the best parts of his poem; and I have heard of a lady, who studied the courtesies of domestic life from the social bickerings between Juno and her lord. At is charitable to suppose, that Jeffrey would have refrained from being so severe on "Marmion," had he known, what was then not publicly known, that the poem was hurried into existence, that the thousand pounds which it brought might he applied in aiding a near and dear relative in his unmerited distresses. Lord Byron was less merciful. He saw something so heinous in the circumstance of a bookseller giving a popular author a thousand pounds for a poem, that he included Scott in his sharp satire, called "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers." Adverting to this, Sir Walter says in one of his many prefaces, "I never could conceive how an arrangement between an author and his publishers, it' satisfactory to the persons concerned, could afford matter of censure to any third party: I had taken no unusual or ungenerous means of enhancing the value of my Merchandise; I had never higgled a moment about the bargain, but accepted at once what I considered the handsome offer of my publishers."
Amid much censure, and far more praise, "Marmion" rose at once into popularity. The structure of verse was borrowed, or rather formed upon that of the metrical romances, so was the mode of the narrative: but he added to those wild legends clearness, character and strength. He found the minstrel lore of his country feeble, rambling, and confused, and breathed a freer spirit into it, bestowed life and speech, and a form at once durable and splendid. His pictures of romantic loveliness and domestic beauty are only rivalled by his martial scenes. I know of no battle in ancient or modern song to compare with that of Flodden-field. The whirlwind of action, and the varied vicissitudes of a heady and desperate fight, are there — yet not one word is said inconsistent with history; he has imposed his own ideal scene upon us for the reality of truth. From the moment that Surrey passes the river, till the close of the catastrophe, the reader has no command over himself, but is hurried here and there at the will of the enchanter. He charges with Home and with Gordon; snatches with the fiery Blount the banner of Marmion from the ground; aids Fitz Eustace in bearing his wounded lord from the press of Scottish spears; charges with Stanley; changes sides, and, spear in hand, makes good the desperate ring which protected the wounded King of Scotland. There is a spell upon the reader. Every character and scene is invested with something so natural and national, so original and so peculiar, while the whole is emblazoned with Scotland — Scotland; the rough-bearded thistle and the warning Latin legend represent her no better. This I reckon a great beauty; the voice of a poet should be the echo of that of his country — the cry of a young eagle resembles not that of the crow, nor the voice of the raven the note of the nightingale. Few of the poets have stamped their native land so effectually on their works as Sir Walter Scott has, and few have enjoyed a wider or more merited popularity. In three years were sold thirty thousand copies of the "Lay of the Last Minstrel;" and up to the year 1825, no less than thirty-six thousand copies of "Marmion" were circulated.
During the sittings of the Court of Session, where Scott by a severe servitude had secured the situation of chief-clerk, he lived in North-Castle-street, in the New Town of Edinburgh; and during the recess of the Court, he retired to a romantic house at Ashiesteel on the Tweed, from which place the beautiful introductions prefixed to "Marmion" are dated. I have reason to remember his house in North-Castle-street; for various pilgrimages I made before it with the hope of seeing the poet, and though I was gratified at last, I did not succeed till I had in a manner become familiarly acquainted with almost every stone which composed the front of the building. My wanderings, too, were attended with something like an adventure. I have said that the "Lay of the Last Minstrel" re-echoed my own Border feelings, "Marmion" had a stronger influence still; I resolved to see with my own eyes the man who had contributed so much to my happiness. I did not know a soul in Edinburgh who could introduce me; or rather I had such a sense of my own unworthiness, as compared to so great a poet that I did not desire an introduction, but strove to see him and peruse his face without being put to the torture of conversation — I could have faced a battery sooner. On the second or third day of my pilgrimage, I had passed and repassed before the house several times, when, to my surprise, a lady looked out at window in the adjoining house, and calling me by name, desired a servant to open the door and let me in. This was a person of some consideration in my native place, who was residing there with her family, and to whom I was slightly known. "I saw you," she said, "walking up and down, and thought you might well spend your time here as waste it in the street." — "I was not exactly wasting it," I answered: "I am come to Edinburgh to see Walter Scott, and as he lives here, I hope to see him as he goes into his own house." — "This is an affair of poetry, then, I find," said the lady with a smile: "I cannot help you in it, for I have not the honour of his acquaintance, though his neighbour; but you shall see him nevertheless, for this is about his time of coming home — and here he is!" — "What!" I said, "that tall, stalwart man, with the staff in his hand, and — ?" — "The same, the same!" answered my friend, laying her hand on my arm: "speak softly. Why, I protest, he is coming here!" Scott passed his own door, and — the houses of Edinburgh, it must be borne in mind, are as like each other as bricks — walked up the steps of that in which I was, and announced himself with the knocker. He was instantly admitted. He was in some poetic reverie or other, and had made a mistake; he no sooner saw the bonnets of three or four boys on the pegs where he was about to hang his hat, than he said loud enough for us to hear him, "Heydey! here's oure mony bairns' bonnets for the house to be mine!" and apologizing to the servant, withdrew hastily.
I afterwards learned that he was busied at that time with the "Lady of the Lake," one of the most regular, and equal, and fascinating of his poems. His own account of the conception and composing of it is exceedingly interesting: — "A lady to whom I was nearly related, and with whom I lived during her whole life on the most brotherly terms of affection, was residing with me during the time the work was in progress, and used to ask me what I could possibly do to rise so early in the morning? that happening to he the most convenient time to me for composition. At last I told her the subject of my meditations, and I can never forget the anxiety and affection expressed in her reply. 'Do not be so rash,' she said, 'my dearest cousin. You are already popular, more so perhaps than you yourself will believe, or than even I or other partial friends can fairly allow to your merit. You stand high; do not rashly attempt to climb higher, and incur the risk of a fall; for, depend upon it, a favourite will not be allowed to stumble with impunity.''' The first canto of the poem dispersed the fears of the affectionate monitor; she retracted her judgment, and entreated him to go on. A critic of another stamp was consulted, a man, says Scott, of warm poetic feeling and fine understanding, and of an imperfect education. To this auxiliary the first canto was read. "He placed," says my authority, "his hand across his brow, and listened with great attention through the whole account of the stag-hunt, till the dogs throw themselves into the lake to follow their master, who embarks with Ellen Douglas. He started up with a sudden exclamation, struck his hand on the table, and declared in a voice of censure calculated for the occasion, that the dogs must have been totally ruined by being permitted to take the water after such a severe chase." The poet owned that he felt encouraged and comforted by the way in which the story had impressed his auditor into a belief of its reality.
This poem made its appearance in 1810, and was beyond all example successful, and most deservedly so the story was more regular and consistent than the story of either "The Lay" or of "Marmion;" a deeper dash of chivalry was infused into it, while the incidents were equally heroic and enchaining, and moreover the whole had a touch of the tartan — a certain Highland wildness, which was as touching as it was new. Edition followed edition, criticism was either mute or laudatory — the man who could not quote the choicest passages was scarcely reckoned well-bred, and the booksellers envied Constable the possession of a poet at once so popular and prolific. The only person who seems not to have believed in the altitude of the star of Scott was the poet himself. "As the celebrated John Wilkes," observes the bard, in one of his latter prefaces, "is said to have explained to his Majesty that he himself; amid his full tide of popularity, was never a Wilkite, so I can with honest truth exculpate myself from having been at any time a partisan of my own poetry, even when it was in the height of fashion with the million. It must not be supposed that I was either so ungrateful or superabundantly candid as to despise or scorn the value of those whose voice had elevated me so much higher than my own opinion told me I deserved. I felt, on the contrary, more grateful to the public, as receiving that from partiality to me which I could not have claimed from merit." It is exceedingly difficult for an author to be the gauge of his own genius, and decide when he is popular to the point of his deservings. If Scott believes that his poetry is less popular than when it was first published, from the circumstance of the sale being less, he should consider that thirty or forty thousand copies have supplied the demand of many libraries — that, like a dextrous cook, he has appeased an enormous appetite, and cannot force the public to continue to eat, unless it were under a spell, such as affected Dominie Samson when Meg Merrilies presented her ladle-full of soup, crying "Gape sinner, and swallow!"
I suspect the eminent minstrel imagines himself a greater novelist than poet, and seeks to console himself for this eclipse of his muse by thinking of his works in prose. I mean neither to dispute his judgment, nor call in question the public taste, but I sincerely believe that a dozen writers might be found capable of approaching him in prose for one fit to cope with him in verse. What living man can hope to rival the fiery rapidity of his battle scenes, or that singular power which he possesses of interweaving the actions, and motives, and characters of men with the web of his narrative. In romance rhyme he is fairly unrivalled; then why are his romances in verse less popular than his romances in prose? Marry for a sufficient reason! Poetry requires a certain elevation of style and purity of character, which lift it a little above the ordinary sympathies of mankind — it rejects the grosser materials of life, and holds no communion with such spirits as the Dandie Dinmonts, the Sir Dugald Dalgettys, and the Andrew Fairservices of the Waverley Novels. Thersites, indeed, plays the bully in Homer, and Blount is a sworn horse-racer in Scott; but such characters as these appear but for a moment, and mingle not necessarily with the texture of the story, while in "Guy Mannering," and "Rob Roy," and the "Legend of Montrose," the gross characters we have named are part of the life and soul of the respective tales. Thus in the lower regions of prose, being enabled to he more dramatic and more lively, ten thousand associations are awakened which poetry can never hope to move. The knaveries of Falstaff are reckoned by a million of men superior to the fiery heroism of Percy; and full thousand will laugh at the humorous and concentrated selfishness of the grave-digger in "The Bride of Lammermoor," where ten will admire the doomed, and stern, and heroic Ravenswood. It required higher qualities, in my opinion, to write the last canto of "Marmion," than to compose any two chapters in all the inimitable Waverley novels.
In those fine prefaces which Scott has lately prefixed to his poems, he says plainly that his popularity was at its height with the "Lady of the Lake," and that it waned with "Rokeby" and the "Lord of the Isles." This he attributes to a certain monotony of style in his works, and also to the appearance of a new candidate in the field of fame. But civil war and domestic bloodshed — and "Rokeby" involved both — are unsuitable for poetry. We cannot well become hearty partisans, where brothers are ranked up on both sides with swords in their bands, and mothers are running about with dishevelled hair. Yet Bertram and the Vagabond Minstrel are two of the most original characters which he has drawn. They step down, it is true, from their heroic elevation a little, and approach nearer the commoner realities of life, thereby resembling more the pictures of men in his prose romances. In the "Lord of the Isles," the poet has done his best to give a true image of one of the most heroic and wise kings that ever blessed a people; nor has he failed; he is on the contrary eminently successful — then why is the poem not popular? I answer thus — more was expected from the fine subject than a poet could well perform. To the public imagination, a work of a grander and more lofty character appeared; with this, the "Lord of the Isles" was measured, and found wanting. Nor was this all. The story of "The Bruce" was as familiar as scripture to the lips of the multitude; the people knew every legend concerning him — every action of his life was registered in their memories, nor had they refrained from embellishing the events of his heroic career with all the splendours of fiction. The image of the royal chief was standing magnified in the popular eye to colossal dimensions, and the poet could do little more than put a garland on his brow. There was nothing new to be told, and thus one of the chief sources of wonder and delight was consequently dried up. There are, nevertheless, many scenes of surpassing spirit and beauty. Bruce, with his brother and sister, driven by storm to the unfriendly castle of the highland Earl — the page's dream, and death in the cavern — the supernatural beacon, which lighted Bruce to Turnberry castle, and the battle of Bannockburn itself, are passages worthy of any age and any poet.
When Sir Walter Scott said that a mighty and unexpected rival was advancing on the stage, — a rival not in poetical powers only, but in that of attracting popularity — he alluded to Lord Byron, and to the appearance of "Childe Harold." — "I was astonished," he says, "at the power evinced by that work, which neither the 'Hours of idleness,' nor the 'English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,' had prepared me to expect from its author. There was a depth in his thought, an eager abundance in his diction, which argued full confidence in the inexhaustible resources of which he felt himself possessed: and there was some appearance of that labour of the file, which indicates that the author is conscious of the necessity of doing every justice to his work, that it may pass warrant. Lord Byron was also a traveller — a man whose ideas were fired by having seen, in distant scenes of difficulty and danger, the places whose very names are recorded in our bosoms as the shrines of ancient poetry." All this is just and true, and shows the fine, frank, manly spirit of Sir Walter concerning a satirist, who made a stab at him foully; but I imagine the same result would have happened regarding "Rokeby," and "The Lord of the Isles," had Byron never appeared. The public — a monster, which expects that every new morsel presented to its ravenous mouth should be better seasoned and richer than the last — instead of exclaiming, like the witch in Macbeth, "Give me!" or, like the giant in Homer, when tippling charmed wine — with Ulysses,—
More! — give me more! — this is divine!
closed its appeased lips, and refused to swallow, though the viands were choice and wholesome. Now, the drugged and spiced "hickery-pickery" — (a capital compound from Scott) — of the noble Bard came like a well-devilled limb of a fowl, a curried lark, or an anchovy toast, to awaken an appetite, and make men gape for wine. Nor is the comparison so far from the mark. Scott had given us a full feast on the proper dishes of our isle — of beef; of venison, of heron-shew and crane, and cygnet from St. Mary's Lake: we had nearly enough, when in came Byron with his supplementary course of made-dishes from the isles of Greece and Turkey-land, and we accordingly ate, like the Civic authority in Hogarth's "Election Dinner," till nigh fainting. Be all that as it may, Scott imagined himself jostled from his popular station by the peer. "I declined," he said, "as a poet, to figure as a novelist."
I come now to the prose romances and novels of this most voluminous of all British writers. In these words he describes the sort of works to which he addressed his fancy. "A romance is a fictitious narrative, in prose or verse, the interest of which turns upon marvellous or uncommon incidents; and a novel is a fictitious narrative, wherein the events are accommodated to the ordinary train of human occurrences, and the modern state of society." There is a secret in the history of the composition of these works, not as yet, I believe, fully revealed, which will go far to show that they were not the consequence of Byron's appearance and popularity, but rather came unbidden from the overflowing fulness of Scott's own mind, and that at an early period. During the year in which "Marmion" was published, I was told, by one who had the means of knowing, that Scott was busied with a work, the scenes of which were laid in the Rebellion of 1745, and that considerable progress was made. If I remember right, the author, in one of his numerous prefaces, in alluding to the origin of "Waverley," claims a period for its composition previous to the appearance of "The Cottagers of Glenburnie." There can be little doubt that a portion of the series was written before the outburst of "Childe Harold." Scott, therefore, only laid aside his shield and spear, and dismounted from his barbed steed, to undertake, like an ordinary mortal, a less heroic adventure. For seven years and more he had been the darling poet of the nation; he was now to achieve a wider but not a higher fame, by becoming the first novelist of the land, either living or dead.
His domestic history merits our notice as much as the history of his works; for no author has borne his fortunes more meekly, or displayed less of that intellectual pride, which is only more endurable than the pride of wealth from having the show of a reasonable foundation. He had been long a husband and a father — and a most affectionate one — and by a life of regularity and temperance had shown that he despised that wild power said to be claimed by genius, of dispensing with the courtesies of social intercourse and the soberer decencies of life. Poetry had aided, too, in another matter: a gentleman by birth; paternally allied to the noble house of Buccleugh, and maternally descended from that Sir Allan Swinton who slew the Duke of Clarence in the battle of Beague, his fortune was nevertheless but small: the dew, however, fell upon the Muses' fleece, and men and critics stared when the poet purchased some hundreds of acres of land on the pleasant banks of the Tweed, near Melrose, and began to build that singular house, since known far and near by the name of Abbotsford. For what he did and felt on this event, take his own account: — "With the satisfaction of having attained the fulfilment of an early and long-cherished hope, I commenced my improvements, as delightful in their progress as those of the child who first makes a dress for a new doll. The nakedness of the land was in time hidden by woodlands of considerable extent; the smallest of possible cottages was progressively expanded into a sort of dream of a mansion-house, whimsical in the exterior, but convenient within. Nor did I forget, what is the natural pleasure of every man who has been a reader — I mean the filling the shelves of a tolerably large library. All these objects I kept in view, to be executed as convenience should serve; and although I knew many years must elapse before they could be attained, I was of a disposition to comfort myself with the Spanish proverb, 'Time and I against two.'" He still continued his residence in Castle-street, Edinburgh; and though he made an occasional tour to the highlands — or presided at Selkirk, of which district he was made Sheriff, — or visited some romantic glen, such as Creehope, where John Balfour fought the Devil, he was generally to be found at home, and often in the midst of very charming company.
The new French rebellion, 300,000 strong, did not break out more suddenly, or perplex monarchs more, than did the tale of "Waverley," when, in the year 1814, it came to delight the country, and puzzle and confound criticism. Who he could be that had done this deed without a name, all inquired, yet no man knew — the newspapers were filled with quotations and conjectures — the reviews followed, but with a caution which deserves description. Turn over the pages of all those works, quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily, and the universal note is, "This is a clever work — an unique thing — full of faults and beauties — contains some striking descriptions — has a few pleasing dialogues — some pretensions to local humour — is not unworthy of Miss Edgeworth, &c. &c." God save the poor men; they could not see, nor could they feel, the beauties — scattered as thick as the leaves in the brooks at autumn — which stud every page. They heard the loud praise of a hundred thousand tongues, and could not distinguish whether it were the random hurra of an ignorant mob, or the considerate and settled approbation of the vast body of the people, who had snapped like reeds the chains forged round them by criticism, and were thinking for themselves. Each critic stared like a bewildered phrenologist, when he extends his fingers to the capacious forehead of a stranger, and is afraid to say what the developements mean, till some one tells him, by signs, that he is a poet, and a distinguished one. In like manner, the critics groped their way — their applause of "Waverley" was feeble — that of "Guy Mannering" a little stronger — "The Antiquary" caused a shaking of some heads, he was thought inferior to "Waverley," but then "Waverley," having two years fame on him, could be safely praised: they accordingly laid it on with a trowel. "Rob Roy" came next, "Old Mortality" followed, and then "The Bride of Lammermoor:" the country — I may say the civilized world — was ringing from centre to circumference with the applause of those masterly works. Criticism alone was captious, querulous, and ill to please. I can make the charge good if called upon: it is sufficient to say, that to every successive work — some better than "Waverley," and some worse — the usual outcry of criticism was, that the author was huddling up his plots too much — was growing careless in the conduct of his narratives, and regardless, withal, of public taste. "Waverley," and "Guy Mannering," whose beauties those gentlemen had not been able to taste at first, now became to them as good wine — the better for being old; they rose in the mercury of their admiration at the rate of ten degrees in the year, while all the later works, a compared to their elder brethren, were treated as humbler compositions. This shows the worth of contemporary criticism — the ludicrous spleen, and judgment not grown to man's estate, of some who set themselves up as the guides of public taste, and "the glass of fashion and the mould of form" to this believing age.
Nor was this all. He was accused of poisoning the pure fountains of historic truth, and a vehement outcry was raised against him, because of his picture of the Cameronians. To be true to human nature, and give the proper light and shade of the times in which the scenes are laid, seems enough for a work of fiction; and more was never asked, till it was demanded from the author of Waverley. It was his own fault; his characters are in every respect so essentially human, that we cannot look at them as airy forms, in which fiction deals. We believe as surely that Fergus Mac Ivor fought at Preston-Pans, as that Sir John Cope was defeated there; we are, more-over, certain of having in our youth conversed on the subject of' the dog Tobit with the second sun of Gifted Gilfillan; and of this we are sure, when attending the divinity classes in Edinburgh, we were lodged with the daughter of Mrs. Flockhart, and saw the bonnet and plume of the Vich Ian Vohr. The author has paid the penalty for dealing in such exact similitudes — a charge which cannot consistently be brought against any other living novelist. In what way he has misrepresented the Cameronians, I cannot conceive. Was John Balfour a worthier man than he has made him? Were their preachers wiser than Kettledrumle, or more eloquent than Macbriar? and did they fight better than Henry Morton? Let those who have read, as I have done, the whole literary works of the "Broken Remnant," from the "Cloud of Witnesses" to the "Prophecies of the Reverend Alexander Peden," explain in what point they, are misrepresented in "Old Mortality." In fact, they were not so wise, and they were a little more mad; and that is all. The name of Dalzell has more cause for complaint; but none has been preferred. It would be superfluous to continue the list of his prose works; they are numerous; but they are in all people's hands, and censure or praise would come equally late. He has triumphed over every difficulty of subject, place, or time, — exhibited characters humble and high, cowardly and brave, selfish and generous, vulgar and polished, and is at home in them all. I was present one evening, when Coleridge, in a long and eloquent harangue, accused the author of Waverley of treason against Nature, in not drawing his characters after the fashion of Shakspeare, but in a manner of his own. This, without being meant, was the highest praise Scott could well receive. Perhaps the finest compliment ever paid him, was at the time of the late coronation, I think. The streets were crowded so densely, that he could not make his way from Charing-cross down to Rose's, in Abingdon Street, though he elbowed ever so stoutly. He applied for help to a serjeant of the Scotch Greys, whose regiment lined the streets. "Countryman," said the soldier, "I am sorry I cannot help you," and made no exertion. Scott whispered his name — the blood rushed to the soldier's brow — he raised his bridle-hand, and exclaimed — "Then, by G—d, Sir, you shall go down — Corporal Gordon, here — see this gentleman safely to Abingdon Street, come what will!" It is needless to say how well the order was obeyed.
I have related how I travelled to Edinburgh to see Scott, and how curiously my wishes were fulfilled; years rolled on, and when he came to London to be knighted, I was not so undistinguished as to be unknown to him by name, or to be thought unworthy of his acquaintance. I was given to understand, from what his own Ailie Gourlay calls a sure hand, that a call from me was expected, and that I would be well received. I went to his lodgings in Piccadilly with much of the same palpitation of heart which Boswell experienced when introduced to Johnson. I was welcomed with both hands, and such kind, and even complimentary words, that confusion and fear alike forsook me. When I saw him in Edinburgh, he was in the very pith and flush of life — even in my opinion a thought more fat than bard beseems; when I looked on him now, thirteen years had not passed over him and left no mark behind: his hair was growing thin and grey; the stamp of years and study was on his brow: he told me he had suffered much lately from ill-health, and that he once doubted of recovery. His eldest son, a tall, handsome youth — now a Major in the army — was with him. From that time, till he left London, I was frequently in his company. He spoke of my pursuits and prospects in life with interest and with feeling — of my little attempts in verse and prose with a knowledge that he had read them carefully — offered to help me to such information as I should require, and even mentioned a subject in which he thought I could appear to advantage. "If you try your hand on a story," he observed, "I would advise you to prepare a kind of skeleton, and when you have pleased yourself with the line of narrative, you may then leisurely clothe it with flesh and blood."
Some years afterwards, I reminded him of this advice. "Did you follow it?" he inquired. "I tried, I said; "but I had not gone far on the road till some confounded Will-o'-wisp came in and dazzled my so that I deviated from the path and never found it again." — "It is the same way with myself;" said he, smiling; "I form my plan, and then I deviate." — "Ay, ay," I replied, "I understand — we both deviate — but you deviate into excellence, and I into absurdity."
I have seen many distinguished poets, Burns, Byron, Southey, Wordsworth, Campbell, Rogers, Wilson, Crabbe, and Coleridge; but, with the exception of Burns, Scott, for personal vigour, surpasses them all. Burns was, indeed, a powerful man, and Wilson is celebrated for feats of strength and agility; I think, however, the stalworth frame, the long nervous arms, and well-knit joints of Scott are worthy of the best days of the Border, and would have gained him distinction at the foray which followed the feast of spurs. On one occasion he talked of his ancestry, Sir Thomas Lawrence, I think, was present. One of his forefathers, if my memory is just, sided with the Parliament in the Civil War, and the family estate suffered curtailment in consequence. To make amends, however, his son, resolving not to commit the error of his father, joined the Pretender, and with his brother was engaged in that unfortunate adventure which ended in a skirmish and captivity at Preston in 1715. It was the fashion of those times for all persons of the rank of gentlemen to wear scarlet waistcoats — a ball had struck one of the brothers and carried a part of this dress into his body; it was also the practice to strip the captives. Thus wounded, and nearly naked, having only a shirt on and an old sack about him, the ancestor of the great poet was sitting along with his brother and an hundred and fifty unfortunate gentlemen in a granary at Preston. The wounded man fell sick, as the story goes, and vomited the scarlet which the ball had forced into the wound. "L—d, Wattie!" cried his brother, "if you have got a wardrobe in your wame, I wish ye would bring me a pair of breeks, for I have meikle need of them." The wound healed — I know not whether he was one of those fortunate men who mastered the guard at Newgate, and escaped to the Continent.
The mystery which hung so long over the authorship of the Waverley Novels, was cleared up by a misfortune which all the world deplores, and which would have crushed any other spirit save that of Scott. This stroke of evil fortune did not, perhaps, come quite unexpected; it was, however, unavoidable, and it arose from no mismanagement or miscalculation of his own, unless I may consider — which I do not — his embarking in the hazards of a printing-house, a piece of miscalculation. It is said, that he received warnings the paper of Constable the bookseller, or, to speak plainer, long money-bills were much in circulation; one of them, for a large sum, made its appearance in the Bank of Scotland, with Scott's name upon it, and a Secretary sent for Sir Walter. "Do you know," said he, "that Constable has many such bills abroad — Sir Walter, I warn you." — "Well," answered Sir Walter, "it is, perhaps, as you say, and I thank you but (raising his voice) Archie Constable was a good friend to me when friends were rarer than now, and I will not see him baulked for the sake of a few thousand pounds." The amount of the sum for which Scott, on the failure of Constable, became responsible, I have heard various accounts of — varying from fifty to seventy thousand pounds. Some generous and wealthy person sent him a blank check, properly signed, upon the Bank, desiring him to fill in the sum, and relieve himself; but he returned it, with proper acknowledgements. He took, as it were, the debt upon himself, as a loan, the whole payable, with interest, in ten years; and to work he went, with head, and heart, and hand, to amend his broken fortunes. I had several letters from him during these disastrous days; the language was cheerful, and there were no allusions to what had happened. It is true, there was no occasion for him to mention these occurrences to me: all that he said about them was, "I miss my daughter, Mrs. Lockhart, who used to sing to me — I have some need of her now." No general, after a bloody and disastrous battle, ever set about preparing himself for a more successful contest than did this distinguished man. Work succeeded work with unheard of rapidity; the chief of which was "The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte," in nine volumes — a production of singular power, and an almost perfect work, with the exception of the parts which treat of the French Revolution, and the captivity of the great prisoner. I had the curiosity, on seeing one of the reviews praising Hazlitt's description of the Battle of the Pyramids, to turn to the account of Scott. I need not say which was best: Scott's was like the sounding of a trumpet. The present cheap and truly elegant edition of the works of the Author of "Waverley," has, with its deservedly unrivalled sale, relieved the poet from his difficulties, and the cloud which hung so long over the towers of Abbotsford has given place to sunshine.
Of Abbotsford itself, the best description ever given, at least the briefest, was, "A Romance in stone and lime." It is a Gothic structure, of irregular form, with towers, and pinnacles, and battlements, — plenty of variety without, and abundance of accommodation within, — the fair Tweed running beside it; the magnificent ruins of Melrose rising at no great distance; while the Eildon hills, clove in three by the magic of Old Michael, are in the neighbourhood. All around, too, lie battle-fields, and hills, and streams, renowned in song and story. In the interior, there is a fine armoury, exhibiting all kinds of old Scottish mail and weapons and a splendid library, of which one curious corner contains three or four hundred strange volumes or, witchcraft and demonology. A marble bust, by Chantrey, of Scott himself — a present from the artist — stands in the library. All the nations of the earth are by this time acquainted with this fine work of art, — two thousand were surreptitiously shipped to America, and fifteen hundred to the West Indies, during one year, and multitudes to other parts of the world. It would require a volume to describe all the curiosities, ancient and modern, living and dead, which are here gathered together. I say living, because a menagerie might be formed out of birds and beasts, sent as presents from distant lands. A friend told me he was at Abbotsford one evening, when a servant announced, "A present from" — I forget what chieftain in the North, "Bring it in," said the poet. The sound of strange feet were soon heard, and in came two beautiful Shetland ponies, with long manes and uncut tails, and so small, that they might have been sent to Elfland to the Queen of the Fairies herself. One poor Scotsman, to show his gratitude for some kindness Scott, as Sheriff, had shown him, sent two kangaroos from New Holland; and Washington Irving lately told me, that some Spaniard or other, having caught two young Wild Andalusian boars, consulted him how he might have them sent to the Author of "The Vision of Don Roderick."
This distinguished poet and novelist is now some sixty years old — hale, fresh, and vigorous, with his imagination as bright, and his conceptions as clear and graphic, as ever. I have now before me a dozen or fifteen volumes of his poetry, including his latest — "Halidon Hill," one of the most heroically-touching poems of modern times — and somewhere about eighty volumes of his prose: his letters, were they collected, would amount to fifty volumes more. Some authors — though not in this land — have been even more prolific; but their progeny were ill-formed at their birth, and could never walk alone; whereas the mental offspring of our illustrious countryman came healthy and vigorous into the world, and promise long to continue. To vary the metaphor — the tree of some other men's fancy bears fruit at the rate of a pint of apples to a peck of crabs; whereas the tree of the great magician bears the sweetest fruit — large and red-cheeked — fair to look upon, and right pleasant to the taste. I shall conclude with the words of Sir Walter, which no man can contradict, and which many can attest: "I never refused a literary person of merit such services in smoothing his way to the public as were in my power; and I had the advantage — rather an uncommon one with our irritable race — to enjoy general favour, without incurring permanent ill-will, so far as is known to me, among any of my contemporaries."