1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

Anonymous, "Literature of the Nineteenth Century: The Author of Waverley" Literary Magnet 3 (1825) 165-66.



Had Byron never existed, or delighted the world with the energies of his genius — had Shelley passed from life to death without creating any immortal medium, the halo that is thrown around, or rather conceals, the name of the AUTHOR of WAVERLEY, would have been sufficient to snatch this splendid era from the ever-yawning gulf of obscurity. The Scotch Novels are, in themselves, gorgeous monuments of the march that intellect has made in the progress of time. No period of the world could be more favourable for a literary revolution than that graced by the birth of the first-born of these masterly productions of nature and art. The taste of the public was disgusted with the name of Fiction, by the offspring of the ever-teeming womb of the Radcliffe school: the repulsive distortions and mawkish sensibility with which it abounded, had brought with them their own remedy. The spirits of romance and imagination seemed for a while to drop into a torpid slumber, to be awakened by the nervous call of the Northern magician. No author has succeeded so well in throwing an air of romance over the dull realities of life, and in giving an air of identity to the creations of his fancy. His imagination, though she owns no shackles, is for ever subservient to his judgment, and the dreams of enchantment into which he occasionally throws the senses, are never disturbed by any revolting image which, destroys the illusion, and sends the mind back upon herself — the invariable consequence of those who deliver up the reins of their understandings to the impulses of their imagination. Another distinguishing characteristic of this great man is, that he always prefers the portraiture of the kind and more genial affections of our nature to the darker and more mysterious workings of the soul; which, although he has the power of displaying he never unnecessarily portrays. Like Shakspeare, he is a Prometheus, a monarch of an invisible world; inhabited by beings of his own fashioning; which, though modelled from the great mirror of nature, are such as the world never saw. The truth at once strikes us, if we contemplate the lofty and soul-elevating grandeur of Fergus Mac Ivor, the more than mortal devotion of his sister, or the terrible majesty of his Meg Merrilies. Can we forget thee even, Dominie Sampson? No, we look upon thee as one of the friends of our boyhood: how is it possible that thou art to be regarded as one that the world never did, nor ever will see? Yet as such thou art, no more than the creation of a human mind! Thou, being of the kindest, and gentlest sympathies of our nature, who art ever as present to our mind as the forms of our best and dearest relatives, how painful it is to reflect, that thou art nothing more than an ideal speculation!

Independent of this masterly knowledge of the human heart and character, the unknown author has given the most complete evidence of his regarding nature with the eye and observation of a genuine poet — he has shewn her not only in her most captivating dress, but has brought her before our eyes in her rudest and most forbidding aspect, and each picture with a faithfulness that never fails of assuring us with its identity to the great original. We are not only kept independent of the business and avocations of life while under the influence of his spell, but rise from his works with an antipathy of being obliged once more to form part of a world, from whose passions and feelings he has kept us so elevated. May he live as free from, as he is careless of, the insidious attacks of his foes, in the absorbing admiration of the best and most worthy of mankind, with the majority of which, though unseen and unknown, he is linked in the tenderest ties of friendship. Well do we know, when he is gone, "Quando ullum invenient parem."