1858 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

Cyrus Redding, in Fifty Years' Recollections (1858) 1:65-67; 3:27-31.



Scott's "Marmion" delighted me, and it was well calculated to do so, especially on the first time of perusal. It came out at this period. There was a happy abruptness in the termination, which left a grateful recollection behind It lost much of its attraction on a second perusal, and on the third descended to what it really was, a versified story. Scott was well aware his pretensions as a poet were fallacious, and changed his mood. Verse has its peculiar sentiment and language; the best must "accommodate the shows of things to the desires of the mind." We do not want to hear repeated to us continually the existing or defunct state of things — our senses make that state sufficiently evident; we want something more elevated, better, something which our minds tell us we do not possess, but of which we may laudably aspire to the fruition. There is an innate sentiment of right and justice ever blended in the poet. His colour must not be drab, nor his voice colloquial and prosaic; he must be all brilliancy of hue. He must have a mind that, in place of gasping after kings, courts, and pageantry, can take them at their real worth, climbing above earthly things, along the broad empirean, in place of aspiring to strut under painted ceilings, among the stars of the embroiderer, robes of the tailor's happiest adjustment, jewelled and painted ladies, and courtiers the froth of nations, — a mind that, in place of such cribbed desires, can expatiate upon real greatness, fear no truth, read the better things of nature, and associate with the wise and good of all ages, daring to pass even the bounds of time and space — such a mind, and its peculiar sentiments of greatness and independence, was not that of Scott. Hence he shone peculiarly in his novels, which dealt more with earthly beings in fantastic dresses, and in times nearly forgotten. He had strong yearnings too, after every-day things, which he was continually necessitated to disguise, lest the innate nakedness of his characters should become too palpable. Hence, perhaps, the hero of the novellist — some incorrigible ruffian — he clothed in gorgeous raiment, endowed with a thousand virtues and one great crime, the union forming the staple in the description. The virtue that hangs about the heart of the true poet, reverses this. Virtue never leaves the poetic fancy, if occasionally overlooked in description. The poet describes "the one virtue link'd with a thousand crimes," and in exaggerating it, inflicts no wound upon the ascendency of honourable and virtuous desires, if not clothed in moral beauty. Scott became the enchanter of the age, from possessing, with points in his literary character, some of which resembled those of the poet, others which constituted his own particular excellence as a prose writer, which, while disqualifying him for lasting poetical success, made him the transcendent novelist....

The news of Sir Walter Scott's death came painfully upon my ear. It was nine years since I had seen him. He had gone through town to Scotland, and the result was not unexpected. I had very scanty knowledge of him. He was in London, I think, but twice after my return from the continent. There was nothing about him to strike a stranger at first; and he spoke somewhat in the English northern dialect, rather than the Scotch. His features were eminently Scotch, and common-place, except his forehead, which was high. On the whole, they left little impression of intellectual power. Compared with Canning or Roscoe, his presence was greatly to his disadvantage. He left in the well-built upper part of his person much of the impress of weight and thought, while his slight lameness made his lower limbs appear proportionably feeble. He had not what in England would be called the air of a gentleman, but much that characterised the natives of his own land. His physiognomy, as a whole, bore no mark of the powerful intellect he possessed; his eyes, grey and small, were covered by bushy brows; his hair grey. He was tall — much above the middle height — I should say six feet, or within an inch of it. His countenance greatly improved in expression when he spoke; but his aspect in general appeared to be grave and thoughtful. His manners were wholly unaffected.

Called a poet by many, his fame rests upon his prose works, and mainly upon his fictions — not that his tales in verse are not delightful. He loved verse, and began his career with it; but poetry is something more than story-telling, however spirited the recital of an event may be. It must be pervaded by a peculiar emanation from the heart — nature's own sparing endowment. It is not a confluence of rhyme, which so many imagine to be poetry, which will endure. Scott, in his works of fiction, displayed wonderful skill and resources; while no one understood better how to turn the public to a thrifty advantage. He knew the value of his mystery after he published "Waverley," and made an excellent use of it. The world regards its own momentary gratification alone. It will elevate or depress its idols with the same indifference. It ever keeps to the mode. It is organized without a heart, and, therefore, for a writer to feel gratitude to the world is a needless matter. The glory of "Waverley" made way for the other works, well worthy of their author; and a few that were the reverse. "Waverley" afforded delight to thousands while its author lived, and will delight the unborn millions in their turn, who will not peruse his works because they came out as a mystery, but from their instinctive merit and the pleasure they impart. Scott's prodigious memory and long study of antiquities were great aids. When the story was historical, the names of his heroes, and the bearing of the whole work were familiar, that is, he had not to invent them; much wear and tear of mind this way were spared. Then he had at hand the traditions of his countrymen in relation to barbarous scenes and times, poor among the poorest as they were, some only freebooters. He embellished all. He clothed the semi-barbarous robber in purple, and made heroes of miserable banditti, and even tinselled with ancestral renown the highwayman and cattle-stealer. His exaggerations in this respect were grateful to his countrymen. He raised Scotch pride, not on the ground of the acknowledged industry, economy, and improved condition of their country, so visible in these advanced times, but he made it great by misrepresentation, of which no one knew the fallacy better than himself. He thus tickled the pride of the Scotchman, not with what was his due alone, but with the reflection that he was descended from border rogues, magnified into heroes, whose originals, perhaps, died on a gibbet upon British ground for their exploits, or became the merited victims of justice in the metropolis of their own land. Though Scott's prejudices ran counter to advancing civilization and to freedom — though he barbacued Covenanters with a zeal becoming Laud of high church renown, under the Stuarts, whom he revered — and though he extolled the meanest agents of the lowest despotisms, while the name of Argyle was politically repulsive to him — he painted his scenes so well, so freshly, with so much of nature's truth, so much above all rivalry, that he commanded and merited the admiration he received, even from those conscious of his misrepresentations. He covered the hollow and unsubstantial with gold; he invested the deformed and barbarous in light so dazzling, that they were unobserved; he clothed with beauty scenes of the most ordinary character, and polished the ruffian lord of feudal days with the manners that grace, and the courage which elevates only the refined. He magnified and exalted all. He never revelled in the degrading scenes of vicious and low life, travelling downwards, to render them objects of vulgar admiration. How many proselytes he added to Jacobite notions none can tell; but, if not many, now the Stuart race is gone by for ever, he wonderfully strengthened the patience of those yet within its pale by confirming their political faith. Nor is it impossible that his works have aided those who are now exalting the barbarian glories of the middle ages in creed and the arts. The works of so potent an enchanter operate long and in many directions.

The death of this great writer came upon the world like an electric shock. His name had been so long on every tongue, he had touched the chords of every human feeling so often, that it seemed as if a fibre of the heart bad snapped asunder.

How singular that so powerful a mind should have possessed so little philosophy. Speaking of him and his love of ancestral honours, Wilson told me "they were a passion with Scott." His desire to be the "founder of a family was unconquerable." He had again and again been astonished at Scott's weakness in this respect — it was beyond credibility — it was "an infatuation he, Wilson, could not comprehend."

Where is that infatuation — that ambition-now? — the object of the long toils and the resolute labour of his hard-earned acres? His progeny gone a few years after his own death! Verily, "the spirits of the good do sit in the clouds " and mock man and his monuments, and man will not look up at them and take the lesson of his own nothingness.