Walter Scott ranks in imaginative power hardly below any writer save Homer and Shakespeare. His best works are his novels; but he holds a high place as a poet in virtue of his metrical romances and of his lyrical pieces and ballads. He was the first great British writer of the Romantic school, and the first who turned the thoughts and hearts of his countrymen towards the Middle Ages. The author of The Castle of Otranto and the builder of Strawberry Hill was his feeble precursor: Bishop Percy with his Reliques had lighted the way: Ellis with his Specimens of Early English Poems and Romances ministered to the same taste. In Germany the Romantic school prevailed at the same time over the Classical. There is in the poetry of Coleridge an element derived from that school; and Scott's earliest works were translations from the German ballads of Burger and of a romantic tragedy by Goethe, though the rill of foreign influence was soon lost in a river which flowed from a more abundant spring.
It is always said of Scott that he was above all things a Scotchman. The pride of Scotland he was indeed; and by the varied scenery and rich stores of romance, Lowland and Highland, Island and Border, which lie within the compass of that small realm, his creative genius was awakened and the materials for its exercise were supplied. But his culture, connections, and interests were British, and for the British public he wrote. To the Highland Celts, whose picturesqueness made them the special darlings of his patriotic fancy, he was, like other Lowlanders, really an alien. In his poems, at least, there is little which, so far as language or sentiment is concerned, might not have been written by a native of any part of the island. Even the scenes and character, of his great poems are partly English, and only to a small extent taken from Scott's own Lowlands. The Lowland Scotch generally were Presbyterians and Whigs: Scott was an Episcopalian and a Tory. He descended and loved to trace his descent from the wild Borderers who were not more Scotch than English. His solidity of character, his geniality, his shrewdness, like his massive head and shaggy brows, were of Southern Scotland; but a Southern Scotchman is a Northern Englishman. On the other hand, his genius and education were in an important sense Scotch, as not being classical: he knew no Greek, and his Latin was not so much classical as mediaeval. He belonged entirely either to his own day or to the feudal age. Of Italian and Spanish Romance he had a tincture, but no deep dye.
The poetry of Scott flowed from a nature in which strength, high spirit, and active energy were united with tender sensibility and with an imagination wonderfully lively and directed by historic and antiquarian surroundings and by personal associations towards the feudal past. Homer may have been a warrior debarred from battle by blindness: Scott would perhaps have been a soldier if he had not been lame. War and its pageantry were his delight. He was the ardent quarter-master of a volunteer corps, and rode a hundred miles in twenty-four hours to muster, composing a poem by the way. It was not the only poem he composed on horseback "Oh! man, I had many a grand gallop among those braes when I was thinking of Marmion." In boyhood, despite his lameness, he was renowned as a pugilist, both "in single fight and mixed affray," and in after-life he was a keen sportsman, though he liked the chase best when it took him to historic scenes.
He loved to be and to be thought a man of action. Set to the law, though he did not love it, he faced the hard work gallantly, and could boast that when he was at the oar, no man pulled it harder: in fact it seems that had not his literary genius called him away he might have been a good lawyer. Of literature as a profession he was not so proud as he ought to have been, though no man ever pursued it more steadily or made more by it. He thought much of his pedigree, which connected him through Border chiefs with the House of Buccleuch, and above all things he desired to be a gentleman. "Author as I am, I wish these good people would recollect that I began with being a gentleman and don't mean to give up the character." In his eagerness to become the owner of a lordship and of the rank attached to it, which had a romantic as well as a social value in his eyes, he wrecked his fortune and brought on his declining age tragic calamity, which he faced with unquailing courage. The character of the strong and proud man with the weaknesses attendant on pride underlies all his productions.
"The Violet" is the memorial of an early cross in love, which perhaps left its trace on Scott's character in a shade of pensiveness. He afterwards made a marriage of intellectual disparagement, but in his family as in his social relations he was happy. Loved by all, men and animals, he embraced in his sympathies everything that was not mean or cowardly. Though himself a keen Tory, he reconciled in his art Tory and Whig, Cavalier and Covenanter, Catholic and Puritan. He loves to depict the mutual courtesies of generous foes. Once he forgot his chivalry in attacking Fox; but in the introduction to the first canto of Marmion he made full amends.
A nature so joyous, a life so happy, so full of physical as well as of mental enjoyment, social success so great excluded all questionings about the mystery of being and all sympathy with the desire of change. There is not in Scott's poems a particle of the philosophy which we find in Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley, or a shade of the melancholy which we find in the last two. He is as purely pictorial as Homer. The Revolution politically was his aversion; it seemed to him merely vulgar and leveling. He wished "to cleave the politic pates" of its Cobbetts as Homer revelled in the drubbing of Thersites. Intellectually it has left no more trace upon his poems than upon the waters of Loch Katrine.
Our generation has seen a strong current of religious reaction setting towards the Middle Ages. Of this there is nothing in Scott. The things which he loved in medieval life were the chivalry, the adventure, the feudal force of character, the aristocratic sentiment, the military picturesqueness. For Dante he cared little, while he cared much for Ariosto. Roman Catholicism he contemned as a weak and effeminate superstition. Asceticism was utterly alien to him; in the Guard-room Song in The Lady of the Lake he is anti-ascetic to the verge of coarseness. A boon companion was in his eyes "worth the whole Bernardine brood." In his writings the churchman appears only as the chaplain of the warrior. His priests and friars are either jolly fellows who patter a hasty mass for lords and knights impatient to be in their saddles, or wizards like Michael Scott. Ecclesiastical ruins, though he loves them as an antiquary, do not seem to move his reverence. At Kirkwall and Iona he thinks much more about the tombs of chieftains than about the monuments of religion. In Kirkwall Cathedral, the Canterbury of the Orkneys, he says: "The church is as well fitted up as could be expected; much of the old carved oak remains, but with a motley mixture of modern deal pews: all however is neat and clean, and does great honour to the Kirk Session who maintain its decency." Not so would he have spoken of a famous castle of the Middle Ages.
The poet first drew the breath of mental life at Sandy Knowe, the home of his grandfather. There he looked on a district "in which every field has its battle and every rivulet its song;" on the ruined tower of Smailholme, the scene of The Eve of St. John, Mertoune and Hume Castle, Dryburgh and Melrose, the purple bosks of Eildon, the hill of Faerie, the distant mountain region of the Gala, the Ettrick and the Yarrow. Edinburgh, in which he lived while reading law, he might well call "his own romantic town." In his vacations it was his delight to ramble through the dales of the Border, above all through Teviotdale, living with the dalesmen, drinking whiskey with them — sometimes too much, for there was an element of coarse conviviality as well as of popular joviality in his character — and garnering in his eager mind their Border tales and ballads. The fruits were a collection of Border Minstrelsy (1802), with which he published some ballads of his own. Being asked by Lady Dalkeith, wife of the heir of his "chieftain," the Duke of Buccleuch, to write her a ballad on the legend of Gilpin Horner, and finding the subject grow under his pen, he in a happy hour developed the ballad into the metrical romance and produced The Lay the Last Minstrel. The Last Minstrel is the poet himself, who revives in a prosaic and degenerate age the heroic memories of the olden time. Of those which followed The Lady of the Lake was the first revelation to the world of the lovely scenery and the poetry of clan life which lay enclasped and unknown to the cultivated world in the Highlands, into the fastnesses of which, physical and social, he had penetrated on a legal errand. This gave the poem an immense popularity. Otherwise Marmion is the greatest of his poems, while the Lay is the freshest. Rokeby and The Lord of the Isles show exhaustion, the last in a sad degree. Two minor romances, The Bridal of Triermain and Harold the Dauntless, have not taken rank with the five: Harold the Dauntless is weak; but Triermain, in narrative skill and picturesqueness, is certainly superior to The Lord of the Isles. The Vision of Don Roderick has been justly described by Mr. Palgrave as an unsuccessful attempt to blend the past history of Spain with the interests of the Peninsular War. The Epistles introductory to the cantos of Marmion have been deemed out of place; but they are in themselves charming pictures of Scott among his literary friends. They seem also to show that he well knew he was living in the present while he amused himself and his readers with the romantic past; although he was sometimes enough under the illusion to be taken with ravishment by the mock-feudalism of George the Fourth's coronation, and to play with heart and soul the cockney Highlander on the occasion of the same monarch's farcical visit to Scotland.
Before The Lord of the Isles, Waverley appeared. Scott's career as a novelist began as his career as a poet ended. His vein was worked out, his popularity flagged, he was being eclipsed by Byron, one part of whose talisman the high-minded and self-repressing gentleman certainly would not have condescended to borrow.
Scott has vindicated the metre of his tales as preferable to Pope's couplet: in the case of a romance which was a development of the ballad, the vindication was needless. Scott's metre is the true English counterpart, if there be one, of Homer. In The Lady of The Lake and Rokeby it is the simple eight-syllable couplet. In the other poems variations are freely introduced with the best effect. Scott had no ear for music, but he had an ear for verse.
In each of the romances, The Lord of the Isles perhaps excepted, there is an exciting story, well told, for Scott was a thorough master of narration. In The Lay of the Last Minstrel, it is true, the diablerie sits lorn on the general plot; but it was an imposed task, not his own idea. We are always carried on, as the writer was himself when he was composing Marmion, by the elastic stride of a strong horse over green turf and in the freshest air. Abounding power alike of invention and expression is always there; and we feel throughout the influence of Scott's strong though genial and sympathetic character and the, control of his masculine sense, which never permits bad taste or extravagance. The language however, always good and flowing, is never very choice or memorable. There is not seldom a want of finish; and under the seductive influence of the facile measure, the wonderful ease not seldom runs into diffuseness, and sometimes, in the weaker poems, into a prolixity of common-place.
Though wild as cloud, as stream, as gale,
Flow forth, flow unrestrained, my tale!
Scott was a little too fond of unrestrained flow; and perhaps it rather pleased him to think that his works were carelessly thrown off, by a gentleman writing for his amusement, not laboured by a professional writer.
He was a painter of action rather than of character, at least in its higher grades. Something of insight and experience which Homer had he wanted. All the heroes of his novels are insipid except the Master of Ravenswood, who interests not by his character but by his circumstances; all the heroines except Di Vernon, who interests by her circumstances and her horsemanship. So it is with the heroes and heroines of the poems. Margaret, in the Lay of the Last Minstrel, comes on with a charming movement, but she remains merely the fairest maid of Teviotdale. The best characters are heroic scoundrels, such as Marmion the stately forger, and Bertram Risingham the buccaneer with a vein of good in his evil nature. "The worst of all my undertakings," says Scott himself, "is that my rogue always in despite of me turns out my hero." The author of Paradise Lost met with the same misfortune. Marmion is an almost impossible mixture of majesty and felony; but he is better than a seraph of a gentleman. There is not a happier passage in the poems than that in which, as a gentle judgment on his career of criminal ambition, the peasant takes his place in the baronial tomb. It is marred by the moralising at the end. Scott did not know when enough had been said.
"To write a modern romance of chivalry," said Jeffrey in his review at Marmion, "seems to be much such a phantasy as to build a modern abbey or an English pagoda." Restorations are forced and therefore they are weak, even when the mind of the restorer is so steeped in the lore of the past was that of Scott. His best works, after all, are his novels of contemporary or nearly contemporary life. A revival, whether in fiction or in painting, is a masquerade. Scott knew the Middle Ages better perhaps than any other man of his time; but he did not know them as they are known now; and an antiquary would pick many holes in his costume. His baronial mansion at Abbotsford was bastard Gothic, and so are many details of his poems. The pageantry not seldom makes us think of the circus, while in the sentiment there is too often a strain of the historical melodrama. The Convent Scene in Marmion is injured by the melodramatic passage in the speech of Constance about the impending dissolution of the monasteries.
All that a reviver could do by love of his period Scott did. He shows his passionate desire of realising feudal life, and at the same time his circumstantial vividness of fancy, by a minuteness of detail like that which we find in Homer, who perhaps was also a Last Minstrel. He resembles Homer too in his love of local names, which to him were full of associations.
Scott has said of himself — "To me the wandering over the field of Bannockburn was the source of more exquisite pleasure than gazing upon the celebrated landscape from the battlements of Stirling Castle. I do not by any means infer that I was dead to the feeling of picturesque scenery; on the contrary, few delighted more in its general effect. But I was unable with the eye of a painter to dissect the various parts of the scene, to comprehend how the one bore on the other, to estimate the effect which various features of the view had in producing its leading and general effect." It is true that he had not a painter's eye any more than he had a musician's ear; and we may be sure that the landscape charmed him most when it was the scene of some famous deed or the setting of some legendary tower. Yet he had a passionate love of the beauties of nature and communicated it to his readers. He turned the Highlands from a wilderness at the thought of which culture shuddered into a place of universal pilgrimage. He was conscientious in his study of nature, going over the scene of Rokeby with book in hand and taking down all the plants and shrubs, though he sometimes lapsed into a closet description, as in saying of the buttresses of Melrose in the moonlight that they seem framed alternately of ebon and ivory. Many of his pictures, such as that of Coriskin, are examples of pure landscape painting without the aid of historical accessories. In a nature so warm, feeling for colour was sure not to be wanting; the best judges have pronounced that Scott possessed this gift in an eminent degree; and his picture of Edinburgh and the Camp in Marmion has been given as an example. He never thought of lending a soul to Nature like the author of Tintern Abbey, to whose genius he paid hearty homage across a wide gulf of difference. But he could give her life; and he could make her sympathise with the human drama, as in the lines at the end of the Convent Canto of Marmion and in the opening of Rokeby, which rivals the opening of Hamlet in the cold winter night on the lonely platform of Elsinore.
Of the ballads and lyrical pieces some were Scott's earliest productions; among these is the Eve of St. John, in which his romantic imagination is at its height. Others are scattered through the romances and novels. In the ballads, even when they are most successful as imitations of the antique, there is inevitably something modern: but so, it may be said, there is in the old ballads themselves, or they would not touch us as they do. Edmund's song in Rokeby is an old ballad, only with a finer grace and a more tender pathos. There is nothing in Scott's lyrical poetry deep or spiritual; the same fresh, joyous unphilosophising character runs through all his works: but in "County Guy" he shows a true lyrical power of awakening by suggestion thoughts which would suffer by distinct expression.