1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

Anonymous, "Critical Sketches of living Poetical Characters in Edinburgh" Scots Magazine 75 (January 1812) 9-10.



Know thine own worth, and reverence the Lyre.
BEATTIE.

Never was there an age in which Poetry was cultivated with more success, never was a period in which the corruscations of genius shone with such renovated splendor. From the stately majestic march of the Epic muse, to the humbler walks of the Epigrammatist and Sonneteer, we have to boast of characters worthy of immortality: but amid all this brilliancy of intellect, this poetic radiance, still we may discover a partial darkness, like the nebulae upon the disc of the sun; yet this darkness serves only to heighten the brilliancy of those glories which no passing errors. may for a moment obscure.

If there existed in nature such a standard of discrimination, by which we might be enabled to judge the different merits of different Poets; we might, with the greatest facility, point out to our readers that standard, by which the true criterion of genius was to be estimated and ascertained. But, as no such standard does exist, every person is therefore left at liberty (like the painter in the fable) to mark those beauties more immediately in unison with his own taste. — Hence it is, that one is struck with the bold enthusiasm of romantic fiction, another with the grandeur and sublimity of nature; while a third, possessed perhaps of as sound a judgement as either of the former, is pleased to contemplate those minute, tho' beautiful portraits of domestic tenderness, sensibility, and affection, or pause with awe and admiration over the venerable picture of virtue descending in ruins to the dust. Such has been the opinion of men in all ages, such was the opinion of one, whose decision in a case of this kind we shall consider as conclusive.

Different minds (says he,)
Incline to different objects. One pursues
The vast alone, the wonderful, the wild;
Another sighs for Harmony and Grace,
And gentlest Beauty, &c.

Not to dwell any longer at present upon this prefatory disquisition, we shall proceed to investigate the merits of those living characters who diffuse a splendor and radiance round our literary horizon, to add one trophy to the worth of exalted genius, and rescue, if possible, a few names from that unmerited oblivion to which they seem fast verging.

As the first, in the first rank, we may mention Walter Scott, from no partiality whatever, but that his genius undoubtedly entitles him to this venerable distinction as a describer of scenes, a discriminator of characters, his efforts stand unrivalled in this arduous department. In the Lay of the Last Minstrel, the first of his poetical effusions, we meet with all that simplicity of diction, that energy of fancy, that fine spirit of romantic sublimity, which characterise those immortal strains of the Lyric Bards of antiquity. No species of writing, with which we are acquainted, can possess such a potency of charm, such a powerful appeal to the fancy, as those metrical legends, tho' founded in fiction, which preserve to us the prominent features of feudal raid and foray. No doubt, there is much extraneous matter to be found in these pages, much which the nice ear of criticism would turn from with disgust but as in a beautiful building the most magnificent materials are made subservient to the grandeur and stability of the whole, so in Mr. Scott's most trifling passages, still we recognize the hand of a master, sketching the outlines of that grand picture of feudal manners and times. As an Editor, he will still bold an elevated rank among that class of gleaners; the universal approbation bestowed upon his Border Minstrelsy fully warrant this assertion, and its numberless editions bear witness to its merits.

Marmion, his next production, possesses a more firm and decisive tone of poetry than that of the Lay of the Last Minstrel. In the former, we are harried irresistibly on from the description of one scene to another, with such accuracy of judgment as makes even insulated puerilities wear the resemblance of finished declamation. In the latter, the action is often suffered to stagnate for want of sufficient incident in the plot. In Marmion, we have scenes of the finest sensibility and affection contrasted with that gloomy superstitious horror the natural attendant upon Monks and Cells. But the Battle Canto, in Marmion, would have insured celebrity for any poem; and had Mr. S. written nothing else, still we should have recognized his claims to immortality in that single effort.

The Lady of the Lake is still a more finished production than either of the former. Remote alike from that wild enthusiasm of vaults and conclaves, and from that taedium and languor of unmeaning, empty form, it combines at once, all that is amiable in love and life, with martial pomp and deeds of high emprize, its denoument is happy beyond that of any poem in these our days. Still, however, Mr. Scott has been severely reprimanded from the bar of criticism, for blending historical truth with mere empty fantastical illusion.

His Don Roderick hath added little to his fame, tho' some of his finest poetry is to be found in its pages. Let the lion rest, the superstructure of his fame is sufficiently broad to bear this accumulating honours of his age, without resting any part of it upon his Toledo Rack, or Giant's Mace. With impatience, mingled high in hope, we look forward to the publication of Rokeby, and hail the merry Christmas hour, when its enlivening flow will operate in union with "gambol and with cheer," to dispel the gloom of that solitary and uncomfortable season.