1909 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joseph Ritson

Florence MacCunn, in Sir Walter Scott's Friends (1909) 122-26.



It was Walter Scott's fate, all through life, to excite affection in unexpected quarters. But neither the devotion of the silly hen nor of the little black pig at Abbotsford is more remarkable than the confidence and affection which he, a ballad-collector, excited in the self-appointed gadfly of all collectors and editors, Joseph Ritson. One would even strain a point to include this waspish little critic among "Sir Walter's friends," — for in his agitated lifetime no one called Ritson friend, — but there is the authority of Scott's own words, written after Ritson's death, "I loved poor Ritson with all his singularities: he was always kind and indulgent to me."

For this venomous, indefatigable, and absolutely honest antiquary, this "scurrilous miscreant" who so terrorised Warton that he abstained from publishing for the last seven years of his life, this thorn in the flesh of the dignified Bishop of Dromore, this opponent who faced Pinkerton with a fury as shrill and intemperate as his own, this irreconcilable critic welcomed the 'Minstrelsy' with generous enthusiasm. On the appearance of the first volumes he wrote of Scott and Leyden to a correspondent: "I have two prodigious geniuses who are ready to give me every satisfaction." And to Scott himself, to whom he was introduced by George Ellis, he wrote: "There are no men in the world I am so desirous of seeing as Leyden and yourself." Here at last were ballad-collectors after his own heart, to whom the authentic words as they found them were sacred, not because they approached them in the scientific spirit — that spirit was still unborn — but because the rough music, plain speech, and plaintive repetition of an old ballad were dearer to them than any artificial poetry. This attitude of mind, enthusiastic and not apologetic, was new in ballad-collectors. Herd, indeed, had been honest if uncritical in his collection, and his modest and beautiful little preface is full of the right feeling, and of Herd Ritson speaks respectfully. But towards Percy, the doyen of ballad-collectors, Ritson's attitude was one of angry defiance and mistrust. So great is the debt that the world owes to the Bishop of Dromore, that it is startling to find the reverend editor himself regarding his labours at once with the patronising pomposity of a prelate and the commercial spirit of a bookseller. Writing to Pinkerton in 1778, he says: "I only considered these things as pardonable among the levities — I had almost said follies — of my youth. I have taken up these trifles as other grave men have done cards, to unbend or amuse the mind." Nevertheless, he has the shrewdness to perceive the value of the collection as an asset for his son. The young man is to inherit the ballads as a sort of family business which may serve to "fill up the vacuities of his academic studies." With a fatuous exposure of his methods the bishop adds: "I neglect no opportunities of amending and enlarging them, and shall much improve them for him by this delay." And after this confession Percy still complains of Ritson's "wanton insults" and "unprovoked outrage." He could not understand the generous weakness of a man who could get into a paroxysm of rage at a breach of literary integrity.

In controversy, it must be confessed, Ritson claimed absolute licence of speech. "I abominate all refinements and restrictions," he writes, "and wish every one at full liberty to adopt the language of Rabelais." As Pinkerton, while disagreeing in everything else, agreed on this fashion of conducting argument, their literary duel may take rank with that of Milton and Salmasius or of Dr. Johnson and Adam Smith. The point at issue between them was the Gothic or Celtic origin of the Picts. The reader who wearily struggles through the first pages of the controversy is haunted by a sense of something heard before when he finds an important issue hinging on the name of a town, "called in the Pictish language Peanvahel, meaning the head of a wall, from Pen, head, and vallum, a wall, which word both Picts and Britons had adopted from the Romans." Waking up, like Mr Lovel, from a perplexing reverie, he finds that he has all along been in the company of Sir Arthur Wardour and Mr Jonathan Oldbuck! This was always Scott's method: he kept the odds and ends that took his fancy for twice seven years in his memory, to find triumphant use for them at last. He could laugh whole-heartedly at these antiquarian problems just because they never lost their fascination for him.

It was probably in the summer of 1802 that Ritson paid his promised (or threatened) visit to Walter Scott at Lasswade. One may respect a man whose fury is excited by impersonal matters, scientific, historical, or even antiquarian, but such an one makes an uneasy guest: the most considerate host is unaware what innocent subject may lead to an explosion. To start with, Ritson had as violent a prejudice against Scotsmen as Dr. Johnson. We are perhaps wrong in regarding Dr. Johnson's sentiments as a humorous exaggeration; comparing them with utterances of Ritson's, one is driven to conclude that in the eighteenth century irritated contempt was the attitude of Englishmen to their proud and suspicious neighbours. It was not the least part of Scott's work to touch the imagination of England into sympathy with his own country.

If Ritson as an Englishman despised Scotsmen, as an antiquary he believed them all to be liars — "Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes, — I dread a Scotsman bringing ancient verse." Politics were likely to be a thorny subject in a Tory household, as Ritson professed Jacobinism, and was only restrained by fear of Botany Bay from addressing his friends as "citizens." To be sure, he combined his hatred of kings with fealty to Henry IX. as the last of the Stuarts, and romantic admiration of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Ritson was besides, from horror of animal suffering, a strict vegetarian, but this question of diet concerned only his kind hostess, Mrs. Scott.

The visit passed off with perfect success. Scott had not only the patient courtesy of a host, but the humorist's pleasure in all marked individuality. Moreover, Ritson could bring out of his treasure-house the very things Scott best loved, — snatches of old satiric poetry, sung by Scottish girls in honour of Bannockburn, Court lyrics composed for Elizabeth, wife of Henry VII., the authentic version of the "Raid of Rookhope," which Ritson promised to send him but never did. Scott already acted on two golden maxims which he laid down later. One occurs in the delightful introduction to Quentin Durward: "I had learned — but it was several years after I had left the University of Edinburgh — that the real end of conversation is not victorious argument but to gain new information and ideas from one's interlocutor." Even more to the purpose is this that he puts into the mouth of Chrystal Croftangry: "I had long before learnt never to waste sense where nonsense answers the purpose equally."

It was more difficult to induce Leyden, whose good temper and hilarious spirits were quite unconnected with any sense of humour, to observe the same wise rule of conduct.

R. P. Gillies, in his little book, Recollections of Sir W. Scott, has given a lively picture of a collision between Scott's two eccentric guests. He represents Scott as dusting Leyden about the ears with a long feather brush, — a trick Scott may well have used as a "nonsense" argument. Unfortunately Gillies confesses in another place that the scene is compounded from various occasions, and delightful as it is, the account has little historical value. There certainly was a terrific explosion between Ritson and Leyden in London just before Leyden sailed for India. The Borderer had grown so impatient of poor Ritson's denunciations of animal food that — the Kinmont Willie element being uppermost in him at the moment — he sent to the kitchen for a raw beefsteak and ate it before the eyes of the horrified antiquary.

One must regret the loss of even one human affection in a life so denuded as poor Ritson's had become. In 1803 he writes to Scott: "I can hardly flatter myself with another pleasant and interesting visit to Lasswade." By the end of another year Ritson was dead, bankrupt — for he had speculated away all his means, — and in a madhouse.