1833 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

Allan Cunningham, in "Biographical and Critical History of the Literature of the last Fifty Years" The Athenaeum (26 October 1833) 717-18.



Several of the leading poets of our day have been inspired with the present — Sir Walter Scott was inspired with the past. To him, as a poet, the world before his eyes was encumbered with matters too means for his muse; she scorned communion with the times, out of which the soul of chivalry had been crushed, from which picturesque splendour had departed, and in which there was no pomp and antique revelry. She looked on the world around, and seeing it filled with steam-engines, spinning jennies, and men laying down rail-roads, or teaching water to run within walls of hewn stone, and other mechanical and rule-of-three sort of things — glanced back on other days, where she saw so much according to her own taste and spirit, that she strung he harp, and sung of the princes of the Stuart line, and of the chiefs of the Northern chivalry, with all their combats in the lists, meetings on the battle field, their masking, and their minstrelsy. In other words, the school in which he formed and prepared himself, was that of the old metrical romances: and, born and educated as he was among scenes of feudal warfare and romantic song, and in the bosom of a people who cherished the memory of gallant deeds and the names of those who achieved them, his song could not well be otherwise. He was come, too, of a warlike race: his maternal ancestor slew in battle one of the princes of England; and his ancestors in the male line figured in the wars of the Parliament, and one of them was in arms for the Stuarts.

He was born in Edinburgh on the 15th of August, 1771; was lame of the right foot from a child, and sickly, and much under the care of his grandmother. In this school of indulgence he grew strong, self-willed, and fond of all pastimes that required boldness as well as invention. His classic lore no one has praised: a love of literature came early on him, with a leaning to poetry and romance; and he was distinguished among his schoolfellows for a skill and tact in telling stories of haunted castles and knightly feuds. When some sixteen years old or so, he had an opportunity of displaying the line of his reading in the presence of Burns, who, fixing his bright black eyes on him, said, "This boy will be heard of yet." He studied the law, but his heart was with the muse; and it is remarkable, that, though well read in the regular romances, as well as in modern poetry, his first attempt was in ballad verse; and there is extent a letter from Monk Lewis, proving that even of that simple kind of stanza he could not be called the master. His rhymes were not for the eye, but for the singer, who can drown inharmonious terminations in floods of fine sound. Though there is much vigour and picturesque beauty in some of these early essays, the ballad of Glenfinlas was the first poem which gave evidence of genius. It is, indeed, a masterly composition: it unites the spiritual world with the material, gallantry in arms with lady-love — the image of the North is stamped legibly upon it. Other ballads, scarcely inferior, followed; and these were gathered into a collection — The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, in which many of the martial and romantic legends of our ancestors appeared for the first time. This work is distinguished by great knowledge of tradition, history, and poetry. Having secured the national ballads in a fit sanctuary, he turned his thoughts to original and higher matters.

In the year 1805, when the poet was thirty-five years of age, he published The Lay of the Last Minstrel, a poem which has some of the tenderest passages he ever wrote — some most lovely pictures of gentleness and female grace, and scenes full of martial ardour and poetic energy. The story is a little mystical; and though gramery is called in to aid in solving difficult things, there is little done — a knight vanquished, a maiden won, and a castle rescued — but what could have been effected by ordinary means. The spirit of old Scotland, in the days when she had a crown on her head, and glory of her own, is impressed on every page. Marmion, the second great work of the poet, followed; it is a story of Flodden Field, and is filled with adventures of all kinds — contests with spirits, with knights, and with princes; nor is love wanting, though what is pure is too long beset with trouble, and what is successful is not creditable. The charm of the poem abides with the old Earl of Angus and the Fight of Flodden. All battles, ancient or modern, fade away before it: James sets fire to his tents — descends from the hill, and encounters Surrey amid the smoke — the whole whirlwind of battle, the vicissitudes of a heady and desperate fight, with the personal fortunes of warriors whom we love or hate — are all there. The narrative is vehement and fiery: the world welcomed the work with rapturous applause, and desired more from so gifted a hand.

The Lady of the Lake, published in 1810, is a romantic story, told in the poet's happiest way — is full of fine situations, chivalrous feeling, and abounds with incident and character. It is a national epic; has its battles, single combats, and all the varied fortunes of true love. It contained, too, what artists call fine contrasts — the picturesque tartan of the Highlands was opposed to the sober grey of the Lowlands; the semi-barbarous heroism of the mountains, to the polished generousity of the vales. The whole scene recording the adventures of Fitz-James and Roderick Dhu, may be compared with any other passage in poetry, either for life, character, or energy. In his next great poem Scott ventured wholly over the Border, and made a foray on the English. The tale of Rokeby belongs to the great Civil War; and the scenes where it is laid, and the persons engaged in it, are equally interesting and poetic. It is wholly different from his other fictions, and in some things approaches closer to his great prose romances than aught he has written in verse. There is in the scenery much quiet and reposing beauty, and in the characters much of human nature; but both want the boldness and the picturesque magnificence of Marmion or The Lady of the Lake: yet Bertram Risinghame and the outlaw minstrel are to me more original than any of the Highland chiefs or Border leaders; and it cannot be denied that the landscapes have the softness and fairy-like loveliness of the scenes of the South.

In composing Rokeby the poem of The Lord of the Isles dawned on his fancy. When it was published the world felt disappointed, and said so in plain language — the sale was at first slow, and critics were querulous. It would be difficult to say in what it is inferior to his earlier compositions; there is a national story of high interest, adventures by sea, and moving accidents by land; the eye is kept on the alert, watching the movements of princes, and earls, and highborn ladies, on whom the fate of a kingdom depends, and the heart is kept beating with that deep interest which we cannot help taking in bravery and beauty. There is the same fire and impetuosity of action and narrative, and a greater heroic dignity of character than can be found elsewhere in his works. He has explained the cause of failure himself: "I am decidedly of opinion, that a popular, or what is called a taking, title, though well qualified to ensure the publishers against loss, is rather apt to be hazardous than otherwise to the reputation of the author. He who attempts a subject of distinguished popularity, has not the privilege of awakening the enthusiasm of his audience; on the contrary, it is already awakened, and glows, it may be, more ardently than that of the poet himself."

The Don Roderick, The Bride of Triermain, and Harold the Dauntless, all belong to an inferior range of fiction: they contain many noble and stirring passages, but are unequal, both in conception and execution, to the five splendid romances which proceeded them. The main fault of the first of these three works is, the strange long leap which the poet made from the feats of King Roderick to the deeds of Duke Wellington — olden times mingled ungracefully with latter; and the narrative seemed a creature with a broken back — the extremities were living, but they wanted a healthy and muscular connexion. The chief faults of the other two poems are, that the scenes and persons belong to days too remote for exciting sympathy: we scarcely feel an interest in English story till the days of the Norman Conquest. Scott was admonished, by the diminished sale of these works, compared to that of his other productions, that he had already give the world a full feast—

On capon, heron-shew, and crane,
The princely peacock's gilded train,
On tusky boar's head garnished brave,
And cygnet from St. Mary's wave.

Nor was this monotony the sole cause: a new poet had appeared, with such depth of thought, eager abundance of diction, and such wild tales of foreign lands and strange races of people, that he charmed at once the whole land into an auditory. This was Byron: had he preceded Scott, there is not doubt that his bearded Turks and maritime desperados, who united one virtue to a thousand crimes, would have given place to the northern chivalry — "All plaided and plumed in their tartan array." As it was, Byron obtained, for the time, the ascendant, and Scott withdrew from the contest, to raise his banner on another field, and gain honour and glory such as no one save Cervantes can rival.

Scott is a poet truly national and heroic: he finds his scenes in his native land, and his heroes and heroines in British history and tradition. There is astonishing ease, vehemence, and brightness in his verse; his poems are a succession of historical figures, with all the well-defined proportions of statues — with this difference, that they act and speak according to the will of the poet. Yet, though in external elegance and precision of outline they resemble works of art, they have less of the repose of sculpture about them than any characters in modern song. No one since the days of Homer has sung with such an impetuous and burning breath the muster, the march, the onset, and all the fiery vicissitudes of battle. In his Pibroch he has given the very pith and essence of the Highland character, as well as a brilliant picture of manners; and I cannot better show his large genius in small compass then by quoting that extraordinary song:

Pibroch of Donuil Dhu,
Pibroch of Donuil,
Wake thy wild voice anew
Summon Clan Conuil.
Come away, come away,
Hark to the summons;
Come to your war-array,
Gentles and Commons.
Leave the deer, leave the steer,
Leave nets and barges;
Come in your fighting gear,
Broad-swords and targes.
Leave untended the herd,
The flock without shelter;
Leave the corse uninterr'd,
And the bride at the altar.
Come as the winds come when
Forests are rended,
Come as the waves come when
Navies are stranded.
Faster come, faster come,
Faster and faster;
Chief, vassal, page and groom,
Tenant and master.

This song is characteristic of all Scott's poetry — action, action, action, is its fault as well as its excellence. Other bards have indulged their heroes and heroines with pastoral retirements and bowers of bliss; and even the devils of Milton enjoy, at times, a sort of uneasy repose. Scott alone keeps them up and doing, till action becomes almost fatiguing, and the reader longs for pleasant places, where he can sit and ruminate on the perils he has passed, or has yet to encounter. He is one of the most truly national of all our poets.