1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

Thomas Barnes, "Portraits of Authors. Mr. Scott" The Champion (12 February 1814) 54-55.



In estimating the poetical character of Mr. Scott, it will be proper to consider the pretensions of that class of poets to whom he is so anxious to belong, as well as his own particular rank in that class. The sacred name of poet has been bestowed with tolerable liberality on almost every person, who has shewn a more than ordinary skill in metrical composition, from the writer of an Epic down to the inditer of Chansons a boire: and, indeed, it would be absurd to suppose that poetry cannot exist except in works of a certain length, as to hold that the soul of a hero cannot animate a bulk less than six feet in height. It will, however, be admitted, without much difficulty, that there are certain forms and modifications of the great art, which are less dignified than others. For instance, Anacreon has sung the praises of wine and beauty in strains of the amiable simplicity; yet we should laugh at the man who would compare this pleasing trifler with Homer. Horace has uttered the most sparkling delicacies, the most exquisite prettinesses, about this lady's farce, and that lady's lips, and the other lady's arm; yet no one in his senses, I suppose, ever thought of putting his elegant vers de societe on an equality with the mystic visions and sublime pathos of Virgil. It is evident, then, that there are different departments of the art, and that the chiefs of the several divisions are by no means of equal consideration. Mr. SCOTT professes himself to be the bard of chivalry: he undertakes to paint the rude and romantic manners of an age, when all the various passions of men were reduced to love and heroism: of an age whose real events were monstrous and improbable, and whose fictions alone have the charm of ease, simplicity, and nature. It cannot be denied that this system of habits and feelings, when accompanied with all its proper appendages and connections, may be made a source of all that is beautiful, tender, and elevated in poetry. Its superstitions alone, are enough to satisfy the most ardent imagination: — its courteous fairies, its terrible enchanters, and those portentous fellows the giants, who serve as a sort of link between the natural and supernatural world. The main thing wanting, is the moral sublime in character, a quality, indeed, which could hardly be suspected from a race of men whose best actions were the fruits of mere impulses, and never the results of deep reflection. The bards of these days, whose knowledge was little else than personal observation, and whose ambition never rises higher than to please the barbarous understandings of their usual auditors, could scarcely dare to conceive any more perfect examples of character than were to be found among their patron knights. Thus their chief hero, the very mirror in which all excellence was to be formed, the grand president of that peerless band who were worthy to sit at the "Round Table," — even Arthur himself, is weak and indecisive, subject to fits of passion, a dupe to his friend, and a fool to his wife. In short, this beau ideal of fabulous romance, has not one twentieth part of those noble virtues which history in sober truth has ascribed to our real Alfred. Next to Arthur, in chivalrous story, ranks that "jewel of a man," Sir Lancelot du Lac, from whom we might expect a more than common portion of goodness, for he received the best of all possible educations, being brought up in the court of a fairy. His contemporaries evidently thought that human intellect could go no further; for one of his friends calls him "the curtiest knight, the truest friend, the kindest, the meekest, and the gentillest of men:" yet, when we read the record of Arthur, whose beautiful and frail wife, poor Guenever, is the ever willing slave of his desires, though she at the same time enjoys the love and protection of her credulous husband. It would be ridiculous, however, at this time of day, to waste any moral criticism on a class of persons whom nobody thinks of imitating. I have merely made these allusions for the purpose of shewing, that want of the moral sublime, to which I have before alluded, and whose effect is to deprive poetry of one of its finest limbs, or rather of the animating soul which alone gives grace and majesty to the most elaborate symmetry.

I do not mean that a poet should delineate none but perfect characters: this would be to betray the grossest ignorance of the best poets of all ages, from Homer to Shakspeare and Milton: I only mean that none are entitled to stand in the first line of poets, who do not appear capable of feeling and describing the sublime in morals, as well as the sublime in scenery and action. Now the old metrical Trouveurs, are, in this point, notoriously defective, and therefore must without hesitation be degraded from the highest order. They are never very anxious to obtrude on their readers their sentiments and reflections, and their admiration of virtue never seems to comprehend any thing beyond the fidelity of lovers and generosity to enemies. A fine May-day is to them a far more inspiring subject than the contemplative of angelic excellence, while a gorgeous tournament, or dazzling procession, is in their estimation worth a dozen beatific visions. The case could not well be otherwise among men of half-informed minds and limited resources: and it may therefore still be a question, whether, with a more intellectual race, the same subjects may not admit of more dignity in the management. Their fitness for poetry, and their tempting nature has been well proved by the fondness manifested for them by the first poets of modern times. The two favourite, if not the two best bards of Italy, have concentrated all their powers to adorn the fictions of chivalry. The eldest, Ariosto, a man of simple taste, and not very fastidious morality, has been content to take the system pretty much as he found it. Tasso, a man of severer mind and purer views, has purged the romantic manners of much of their grossness, and has chastised and softened them with some of the amiable thinking of Virgil. In our own country, Spenser has dignified the same system almost to a degree of perfection; and with an enthusiasm which seems to have been peculiar to his age, — for we find nothing of it before Lord Surrey, nor after Sir Philip Sydney. Milton was evidently deeply smitten with the same passion, and though he afterwards gave up his mighty powers to the fabrication of a very different work, and one which no doubt appeared to him of greater majesty, yet he never seems entirely absorbed by his new theme, but is perpetually displaying a fondness to linger about the object of his first love.

With such authority in his behalf, Mr. Scott need not blush that his affection for the tales of romantic minstrelsy: if he should blush, it must be for a different reason — for attempting what is above his powers, or for failing to embellish his subject with all the graces of which it is now capable. On the first score he is not entirely safe, on the second he is entirely culpable. Had he been content to excel in that minor branch of old poetry, the war-song or the love-ballad, the author of Glenfinlas and the Eve of St. John must have been allowed, with a very few exceptions, to have outstripped all his rivals, and to be worthy of sitting side by side even with the minstrel Taillefer himself. But he has undertaken to do more: he has ventured on what may be called the romantic Epic, and surely it is not too much to say that his subject is beyond his handling, when we find that he has utterly left untouched its finest and most poetical part, its delightful and awful superstitions. One specimen, and one only, he has given of the faery Mythology, the detestable goblin-page, a portrait which shews at once his want of taste and want of skill. If he really could have invested these enchanting mysteries with all their appropriate beauties, one must then despise that low ambition which could be content to do its work by halves, instead of panting to realize the ideal image in the mind. The meanness of his taste may also be discovered in is acquiescence in those semi-barbarous models, which the worst times of chivalry present, instead of using the fair license of the poet to select the best heroes of the best ages, or even to invent a character of consistent probability. This is what Tasso and Spenser have done, and if Ariosto thought differently, Mr. Scott must not be allowed to quote that eccentric example till he has shewn that he can write poetry equally attractive to the universal taste. His most ambitious delineation is that of Marmion, who is intended to be an object of much admiration: to a certain extent the shades of good and evil in the character are blended with much skill; but what shall we say to the taste which could spoil this harmony by that atrocious leaven of baseness, which keeps the mind in an agonizing suspense between contempt and esteem, between abhorrence and veneration. There could not be such a being. Mr. Scott has been more successful in his female portraits. Women, indeed, have been much the same in every age: in the most accomplished and the most barbarous states of society their faculties and their passions have been equally cramped, and their full capacities have scarcely been developed a dozen times since the beginning of history. It seems to follow then, that, though in an enlightened age a lady will be a more intelligent being than in times of comparative ignorance, yet she will have scarcely room to shew more virtues: devotedness in affection and patience in affliction are almost all that can be looked for from her. Hence it is, that, while the heroes of romance differ as much as from us modern men, as Hercules does from the merest dancing-master, yet the women seem the very transcripts of our daily acquaintance. Yseults and Gueveners (though without their faults) may be found in every town, while you might travel the world three times round and see no such persons as Sir Tristan and Sir Lancelot. One cannot praise Mr. Scott too much for his delightful description of women: his Margaret of Branksome, his Clara of Clare, his Constance de Beverley, and his Lady of the Lake, are worthy to rank with the best heroines of the courts of Charlemagne or Arthur. Mr. Scott's next excellence is his animated sketching of simple passion and heroic action: a conference of love, or a battle, he will give to the very life, and with a spirit of freshness that reminds one of the lively vigour of old Homer. His description of scenery, though exceedingly incumbered with words, is pleasing and picturesque: and there is thrown over his works a sprinkling of moral and pathetic sentiment, which finds its way directly to every heart. This is the charm which has produced his vast popularity: this is the charm which, in spite of all his faults, will ensure him an immortality of fame.

I come now to the great and leading fault of his poems; the diction in which they are written. It is compounded of the languages of all ages, which are jumbled together without the least regard to any thing but rhyme. In the same page, and sometimes in the same sentence, you shall have a substantive of the best old Scotch dialect, a verb warranted Roman, an adjective of the age of Richard the Second, an adverb from Spenser, a participle of Queen Anne's time, with a couple of conjunctions or interjections of the true modern stamp. This Babylonish dialect so infects the whole stream of his language, that one can scarcely quote a passage which shall be entirely intelligible to a person only skilled in the dialect of one age.

It is curious, and to be lamented, that Mr. Scott's march in search of fame has been retrograde. Marmion was much inferior to the Lay of the Last Minstrel: the Lady of the Lake was little else but a well-told story, and Rokeby seemed merely a versification of one of those absurd fictions, called Modern Romances, which are written by contract for the circulating libraries.