1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 119-29.



At this shrine [ballad poetry] Scott kindled the torch of his genius, and set himself in earnest to work out scenes of interest, and images of beauty and power, from the warblings of scalds, and bards, and troubadours, and minnesingers — in short, from the vast mass of materials which were open to him in the hitherto almost unappropriated and rich vast quarry of the feudal system and the first grand result came forth in The Lay of the Last Minstrel — a poem which at once took public opinion by storm, and distanced, utterly distanced, all competition in the race of popularity. Whiteheads, Pyes, Hooles, Hayleys, Darwins, and Sewards, were at a coup swept from the literary theatre stage, like the unoccupied chairs and shifting scenes, and we were called in at once to witness the death and burial of Boileau and French criticism. "The strain now heard was of a higher mood;" it was one of freedom and freshness and force. By a wave of his wand, the magician repeopled his country with the burghers of the past — regarrisoned each time-worn castle with helmet and spear, and buff-jerkin — reawoke the melodious choir in each grey crumbling abbey — and gave back to Night her ghost, her witch, and her fairy, — in whose mystic presence Scott hesitated not to say of the most stalwart knight, Sir William of Deloraine — of one who feared not the face of man — that

—somewhat was he chilled with dread,
And the hair did bristle upon his head.

In short, the only analogy to the sweeping current of his verse is to be found in his own description of a stream swollen by autumnal rains, which

—from fetters freed,
Down from the mountains did roaring come;
Each wave was crested with tawny foam,
Like the mane of a chestnut steed.

In energy and originality, and in affluence of thought and matter, The Lay takes the lead, in excellence as in priority of appearance, of all Scott's other great works. In it he is like a man who has opened up a rich vein of gold and precious metal, and is prodigally lavish of the treasures around him — the first digger in a newly-discovered California. It is not only fine in passages, but gorgeously rich through all its parts. His figures have the bold outline and ornate costume of Vandyke; while his landscapes combine the freshness of Gainsborough, and the picturesqueness of Turner, with the massy shadows of Thomson of Duddingstone. As if the subject in hand was not enough, each canto opens, by way of voluntary, with a burst so vigorous and fresh as can only be likened to the luxury of vegetation on the first digging over of a fertile virgin soil; and the description of Melrose Abbey by moonlight — the apostrophe to love — the comparison of the Teviot to the tide of life — and the invocation to Caledonia — have only to be once read to remain for ever impressed on the memory of all true lovers of the lyre.

Breathes there a man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own — my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned,
From wandering on a foreign strand?
If such there be, go mark him well;
For him no minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish could claim,
Despite these titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living shall forfeit fair renown,
And doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile earth from which he spring,
Unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.

With less of enthusiasm and splendour in parts, Marmion surpasses The Lay as a whole in varied tissue of incident, in mellowness of colouring, and in ingenuity of plot. It is painted on a broader canvass, yet is more coherent and regular; its foregrounds are more artistically shaded, and its general tone more softened and elaborated. It is also more diversified in action, and displays a larger, a more extended insight into human character. In depth of interest, and in impress of dread reality, the subterranean judgment-scene at Holy Island may stand comparison with the disinterring of Michael Scott in Melrose Abbey; and the dying speech of Constance passes from the pathetic to the sublime in its melting tenderness, its energetic passion, its prophetic denouncements, and its heart-crushing despair.

The Lady of the Lake is cast in a more dramatic form. It is a succession of beautifully painted scenes, where contrasts are admirably brought out — the Highlands and the Lowlands — the Gael and the Saxon; and in mere story it ranks above either of its predecessors, commencing with a stag-hunt to entrap the gentlemen, and concluding with a marriage to propitiate the ladies. The night-rencontre between Fitz-James and Roderick Dhu is in Scott's very best manner; it is finely conceived; and the collateral incidents are made to develop themselves with that ingenuity and telling effect which remind us of Fielding's consummate art in the management of plot, and bespeak the master's hand. There is something like melodramatic straining, I think, in the marriage and death scenes, which abide the perambulations of the Fiery Cross; yet I am perfectly aware, at the same time, that it would be next to impossible to have otherwise given such a striking illustration of the devotedness of the Highland clans to their chieftains, as is there exhibited — a devotedness romantically proved in 1745. Perhaps the finest thing in the poem — and it abounds with fine things — is the lay of Allan Bane in the prison cell of the dying Roderick; the variations of whose melody imitate the vicissitudes of the battle-field — now bursting forth in stormy tones of thunder — now undulating in mournful murmurs, like the sough of the winter wind in the forest, and now hurrying imagination, as it were, from the crashing onset on through the crossing and conflict of sword and targe to the struggle for life and death — and on, still on, to the waning sounds of defeat, the implorations for quarter, and the dirge-like wailing over the departed.

Rokeby may be taken in extract to great advantage; but, as a whole, it is less felicitous than the magnificent works now glanced at. A giant on his native soil, Scott had here for the first time crossed the Border, and, like Samson in bonds, seemed somewhat shorn of his strength, or at least of his confidence in it; for he could not but feel himself surrounded with new associations. The savage character of Bertram, and the gentle one of Wilfred, are alike exquisitely drawn — the former a compound of his own William of Deloraine and Lord Marmion, with an additional dash of savagery; the latter of Beattie's Edwin in the Minstrel, and of Mackenzie's "Man of Feeling," Harley; and they indicate much of that intuitive or preceptive power which Scott afterwards triumphantly displayed in his matchless immortal prose tales. As a descriptive poem, it is rich to luxuriance; but neither there nor in The Lord of the Isles — grand and majestic, in parts, though it also be — have we the same ample measure of poetical riches "heaped up, pressed down, and yet flowing over," which forms the striking characteristic of The Lay, and Marmion.

The Lord of the Isles is a misnomer; for certainly King Robert the Bruce is not only the hero of the poem, but the greatest part of its interest centres in him. He is drawn with minute historical accuracy; and his coolness, his sagacity, and determined resolution, are brought out in fine contrast with the more boisterous and unbridled daring of his brother Edward. The Lord of the Isles is himself perplexing, and his bride Edith unsatisfactory — neither carries our sympathies along with them; and, finely as Bannockburn is described, it lacks the bold vigour and glowing picturesqueness of Flodden. The most strange and striking portions of the work are those which relate to the Isle of Skye, where, in depicting desolate and savage grandeur, and a tribe of inhabitants "with minds as barren, and with hearts as hard," Scott taxes himself to the very height of his powers, and with triumphant success.

Besides these great, and, in their walk, hitherto unrivalled poems, Sir Walter Scott left others — Don Roderick, The Bridal of Triermain, Harold the Dauntless, and lyrics, songs, and miscellanies — amply sufficient in themselves to have secured a high reputation for any other writer, but which can only be regarded as second-rate, when classed with the master-pieces of his own genius. Of his ballads, the finest are Eve of St. John, itself an epic in miniature; the dirge of Rosabelle in the Lay; Lochinvar in Marmion; Alice Brand in the Lady of the Lake; Brignal Banks in Rokeby; and the third part of Thomas the Rhymer in the Minstrelsy, one of the earliest attempts of its author, but one which, in poetical excellence, whether we regard style, manner, or matter, he never surpassed; and its silvery cadences, unrivalled in their flow, save by Coleridge's Genevieve, have been the source of many a fond but futile imitation. In song-writing, Sir Walter Scott is, as in all other things, great; but there even he must yield, as all others must, to Robert Burns, who is, in that department, indeed "above all Greek, above all Roman fame," — a more than Simonides in pathos, as in his Highland Mary; a more than Tyrtaeus in fire, as in his Scots wha ha'e wi' Wallace bled; and a softer than Sappho in love, as in his—

Had we never loved so kindly,
Had we never loved so blindly,
Never met — or never parted,
We had ne'er been broken-hearted.

I have given one of Sir Walter Scott's trumpet tones; now for a gentle whisper from his lute, — The Hymn of the Hebrew Maid:

When Israel, of the Lord beloved,
Out from the land of bondage came,
Her father's God before her moved,
An awful guide in smoke and flame.
By day, along the astonished lands,
The cloudy pillar glided slow;
By night, Arabia's crimsoned sands
Returned the fiery column's glow.

There rose the choral hymn of praise,
And trump and timbrel answered keen,
And Sion's daughters poured their lays,
With priest's and warrior's voice between.
No portents now our foes amaze,
Forsaken Israel wanders lone;
Our fathers would not know Thy ways,
And Thou hast left them to their own.

But, present still, though now unseen
When brightly shines the prosperous day,
Be thoughts of Thee a cloudy screen
To temper the deceitful ray.
And oh when stoops on Judah's path
In shade and storm the frequent night,
Be Thou, long-suffering, slow to wrath,
A burning and a shining light!

Our harps we left by Babel's streams,
The tyrants jest, the Gentile's scorn;
No censer round our altar beams,
And mute our timbrel, trump, and horn.
But Thou hast said, the blood of goat,
The flesh of rains, I will not prize;
A contrite heart, an humble thought,
Are mine accepted sacrifice.

From the appearance of The Lay through the series of years to 1812, Sir Walter Scott reigned the undisputed "Napoleon of the realms of rhyme;" and the swarm of imitators which his success called forth would not be credited in after times, could not reference be made to the contemporary book-lists. Nine-tenths of these imitations were — as might have been expected — "voces et praeterea nihil," mere bodiless echoes. A few had stamina, which endured for a season — as Margaret of Anjou, The fight of Falkirk, Christina, the Maid of the South Seas, The Legend of Iona, and some half-dozen others; but the battalia of romances in six cantos, with historical notes, whose name was legion, have, without one exception now occurring to me, long since gone to the tomb of the Capulets, having, after lying undisturbed many long years in their dusty sheets on the subterranean shelves of bookseller's warehouses, been at last bargained for, taken compassion on, and entombed by that tender-hearted body of United Samaritans, the pastry-cooks and trunk-liners.

This body of romancing rhymsters, however they might otherwise differ, seemed harmoniously to adhere to the elements of the following recipe — Take a fair and love-lorn damsel — a valorous knight of the six-feet club, in black or white armour, with plumes vice versa; a fiery-eyed horse, that neighs well, richly caparisoned; two thin pale nuns, and a bold fat friar; a leash of staghounds; an ivied castle, with a moat, drawbridge, and grim-looking donjon keep, in which last place a forlorn captive; warders, grooms, and serving-men ad libitum; a dark oak-forest, with a hairy hermit in sackcloth, who feeds on wild honey and crosses; a ruined abbey, palpably haunted; and a "Wizard of the North." Throw in, for seasoning, according to current taste, a shipwreck; a storm of thunder, with forked-lightning of the bluest; a ferocious murder, and a gorgeous marriage; and, having commingled well, serve up to the public.

Sir Walter Scott was characterised by the manly straightforwardness of his genius; by his disdain of petty ornament; by his dealing with grand first principles; by the simple majesty of his conceptions; by his vigour of execution; by his boundless acquired knowledge; by his unequalled eye for the picturesque; by felicitous combination of incident; by striking individuality of portraiture, alike in heroic action, and in melting tenderness — in short, by all the highest qualities which have ever distinguished the mighty masters of the lyre; and, if we are to translate the term "poet" into "maker," or inventor," and are thus enabled to add to his productions in verse those novels and romances which have delighted the world — more than half of the whole accumulated writings of the last fifty years put together — I at once put him far beyond Byron, Wordsworth, or any other competitor for supremacy, on a throne by the side of Shakspcare — to be regarded at least as a younger brother of the prince of all the world's poets. And yet, of all writers in verse, from Homer and Chaucer, his grand prototypes — the former in ancient, the latter in modern times — to Byron and Wordsworth, his mightiest cotemporary rivals, there is not one whom it would be less fair to judge of by mere extract than Scott; for his power lay far more in the comprehensiveness of his design, and the general mastery of his execution, than in separate excellencies or in detached beauties.

It has been a fashion of recent years for some people, about as capable of appreciating Marmion as the Iliad or The Divine Comedy, to underrate Scott's poetry, as compared with his prose; nay, to talk slightingly of it, as being careless, loose, and superficial. Anything from dunces! but will it be credited that Hazlitt, who, with all his violent prejudices, certainly was none, should set Scott down as "a mere narrative and descriptive poet, garrulous of the old time;" or that Leigh Hunt, himself a poet, should say of his verse, that it is "a little thinking conveyed in a great many words?" Such oracular nonsense, however, is not recommended to us even as novel. Be it remembered that Waller, also himself a poet, alludes to the author of Paradise Lost as "one John Milton, a blind old schoolmaster;" and that Voltaire characterises Shakspeare as "an inspired barbarian." Individuals may err, but the great law of the world is ever ultimately just; and (mirabile dictu!) Milton, Shakspeare, and even Scott, yet survive! Great merit may exist for some time without recognition; and, on the contrary, great temporary popularity may be acquired by what is utterly worthless; but I challenge one instance from the whole history of literature, where that popularity, whether slow or sudden, which was not deserved, has continued to endure. And assuredly Scott's must, while a single human heart continues to heat.

Of the Novels and Romances, those glowing, glorious, and immortal tales, which make us proud to think that we are of the same country as their author, it is not my province here to speak; but be it remembered that the fame of Scott had penetrated to the ends of the earth as a poet, and as a poet only, long before a single page of these was written that that poetry is now part of the stock-literature of the world, and has been translated into the languages of almost every civilised nation. It would, therefore, be a mere waste of words to discuss a question regarding which the great bulk of mankind seem to have come to an unhesitating verdict, whatever critics have done. So truly mighty, in my opinion, was the genius of our countryman, that we are even yet too near him to regard it in its just proportions and I have not abated, by one iota, in the admiration which induced me, twenty years ago, to inscribe under his portrait these six lines—

Brother of Homer, and of him
On Avon's banks, by twilight dim
Who dreamt immortal dreams, and took
From Nature's hand her storied book:
Earth hath not seen, Time may not see,
Till ends his march, such other three.

From 1805, when the Lay of the Last Minstrel appeared, we find British poetry in its meridian splendour, with a host of distinguished aspirants in the field — Campbell, Crabbe, Wordsworth, Moore, Southey, Coleridge, Rogers, Montgomery, not to mention several other scarcely less bright names: but Scott far, and deservedly far, beyond all in the race of popularity.