1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

Moschus, "Walter Scott's Poetry" New York Journal and Belles-Lettres Repository 4 (March 1821) 321-22.



Although criticism has generally done justice to the writings of SCOTT, yet there are beauties in his poems which have been but cursorily mentioned, or not even noticed. Thinking that something interesting to the general reader may be added to what has already been observed, a few loose remarks on the subject are now offered to the public, through the pages of your useful and entertaining magazine.

It is certainly a great honour to Walter Scott, and an evidence of the admiration excited by his poetry, as well as of his good judgment, that his general versification has been closely copied by many men of genius, since his poems first appeared; for although fashion may sometimes introduce a metre which has nothing to recommend it but its novelty; yet this metre will seldom be used, excepting by those who cannot perceive its defects. If suited to the disposition and feelings of an intelligent author, it is true, lines of barbarous sound and harsh arrangement may meet with approbation, but they will never be imitated by men of good sense.

Since the first appearance of Scott's poems, they have rather declined in the estimation of the public; and while all the world seem enraptured with the supposed prose writings of the same author, there are but few, comparatively speaking, who remember the delight they have formerly received from the perusal of the poems of Scott; and although many proofs of weight might possibly be alleged for the justice of the preference, yet it is certain, that at present the author of Marmion and the Lady of the Lake does not receive the praises which, as a poet he justly merits. Time will, however, probably correct this error in taste, and a century hence, Scott may be cited as the chastest and truest poet of the present age.

The scenes which Scott chooses for the development of his poems, are generally national; and this, in a poet, is great excellence. It is owing to this circumstance that the reputation of Burns stands at present so very high with the world, and is so much honoured by his countrymen; and if Byron had been more national in his writings, although he might not perhaps have excited so vivid an interest in his productions, he would probably have attained praises more to be valued, than those which general feeling bestows on every man who excels his fellows in attainments comparatively trifling; for it is one of the first duties of a man of genius to honour his country, and she is justly indignant when she receives nothing at his hands. It has often been said, that Southey's poems bear a great resemblance to Scott's, and in some particulars they are indeed not very dissimilar; but although Southey is a pleasing poet, and generally admired, he has a certain dryness of expression, and a tedious protraction of thought, which forbid him to rank very high as a poet, and place him far beneath Scott; for he must have but a barren fancy, who is obliged to husband it; and we all know, that profusion of imagination, governed, however, by a correct judgment, constitutes one of the greatest and almost indispensable requisites of the true poet.

The literary world is much divided as to the respective merits of Scott and Byron, and perhaps are rather inclined to favour the latter; but there are many considerations which should induce the close thinker to prefer the former: for instance, in point of morals Scott far exceeds Byron, and in uniform chastity of expression is entirely his superior. Byron's forte lies in describing the tumultuous workings of a passionate mind, and the vagaries of a distempered imagination; but his writings fatigue us because they exhaust the passions, for it is as unwise in an author to keep the feelings of his readers continually at their highest pitch, as it is impossible for us to retain an excess of feeling in common life on every subject which at first excites our passions. Or the contrary, Scott excels in poetical sketches of real scenery, and in the delineation of probable occurrences. When the subject requires it, Scott can rise to the sublime, but he is never impious in his grandeur. In a word, Byron's genius may be great, but it is perverted; — the attainments of Scott are always directed to some laudable end.

The faults of Scott are, too voluminous a body of notes, tameness in describing passions and ecstasies, sameness in rhyme, an affected quaintness of expression in some cases, not unfrequently a superfluity of words, and combining too great a variety of imaginary characters with real ones, thereby misleading the judgment; in other words, romancing too much on matters of fact, and making matters of fact too romantic. Yet with all these imperfections on his head, there is, perhaps, no modern poet who can fairly cope with him in general excellence.