1810 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

Walter Scott (anonymously), "Living Poets" in Edinburgh Annual Register for 1808 (1810) 423-26.



The author of the Lay of the Last Minstrel and Marmion may be considered as the minion of modern popularity; for the works of no living, and of few dead authors, have been so widely and so rapidly diffused. — We are, we believe, correct in stating, that upwards of 25,000 copies of the Lay have been printed in the space of six years, and 17,000 copies of Marmion since its first appearance in spring 1808. The effect of this extensive popularity has been almost ludicrous. Upon the annuciation of an expected poem, we are well assured that at least four musicians have prepared notes for unwritten songs; — two artists have been retained to illustrate scenes which were yet to be born of the author; — and as many satirists, having blessed God and the founder, have set them down to parody a work yet in embryo. These pleasing and painful marks of notoriety go in the main to prove the same issue; for even the master of a dung-barge knows enough of navigation to discover which vessel is likely to get soonest under weigh, and to obtain her assistance, if possible, to tow him out of harbour. We have been at some pains to discover the talisman upon which this popular enthusiasm depends, but we find it more easy to express ourselves on the subject by negatives than by positive assertion. Mr. Scott's fame certainly does not rest on the art of his story, for of that he has hitherto given no example; on the contrary, the incidents, both in the Lay and Marmion, are of themselves slightly interesting, and loosely put together. Neither can we consider his characters, though drawn with a bold and determined pencil, as entitling him, on their account, to occupy the distinguished rank which he holds in the poetical calendar. They are, properly speaking, the portraits of "genera" rather than of individuals. William of Deloraine, Marmion, Clara, and Constance, are just such persons as might represent any one predatory freebooter, ambitious noble, sentimental damsel, and reprobate nun, that ever dignified the pages of romance....

Mr. Scott, we have remarked, seems to be fully sensible of his strength in thus embodying and presenting his scene to the imagination of his readers, and has studiously avoided sliding into distinct narration. Every incident is usually conveyed by the means of indirect description; and, so remarkably is this the case, that, even when a narrative is placed in the mouth of a personage of the poem, the scene is instantly shifted, and the incidents of that very tale help up in motion and action to the reader, something a-kin to the phenomena observed in dreams, where every thing is presented to the eye, and little or nothing to the ear; and where, if our fancy is crossed by the supposed report of another course of action, that secondary train of ideas is immediately substituted for the original vision, and we imagine ourselves spectators of it instead of being only auditors. It is indisputable, that the art of thus rivetting the attention of the audience forms one great source of this author's popularity.

We must not omit to mention Mr. Scott's learning, by which we mean his knowledge of the manners of the time in which his scenes are laid. The display of this knowledge has, perhaps, here and there, degenerated into antiquarian pedantry, but the possession of it was essential to the purpose of the author. "Sapere est principium et fons." It is the true touch of manners which gives justice to a narrative poem, and discriminates it from those which are either founded upon the vague imagination of an author, or tamely copied from the model or some more original writer. The difference can be discovered by the least enlightened, just as an individual portrait can be distinguished from a fancy sketch even by those who are unacquainted with the original. With these remarks upon the truth and spirit of his poetry, we leave Mr. Scott, no unworthy member of the triumvirate [Campbell, Southey, Scott] with whom he has divided the public applause.