CHAPTER XXXIV. THE NEW ROMANTIC POETRY: SCOTT.
Walter Scott. Translations and Minstrelsy. The Lay of the Last
Minstrel. Other Poems. The Waverly Novels. Particular Mention.
Pecuniary Troubles. His Manly Purpose. Powers Overtasked. Fruitless
Journey. Return and Death. His Fame.
The transition school, as we have seen, in returning to nature, had redeemed the pastoral, and had cultivated sentiment at the expense of the epic. As a slight reaction, and yet a progress, and as influenced by the tales of modern fiction, and also as subsidizing the antiquarian lore and taste of the age, there arose a school of poetry which is best represented by its Tales in verse;—some treating subjects of the olden time, some laying their scenes in distant countries, and some describing home incidents of the simplest kind. They were all minor epics: such were the poetic stories of Scott, the Lalla Rookh of Moore, The Bride and The Giaour of Byron, and The Village and The Borough of Crabbe; all of which mark the taste and the demand of the period.
WALTER SCOTT.—First in order of the new romantic poets was Scott, alike renowned for his Lays and for his wonderful prose fictions; at once the most equable and the most prolific of English authors.
Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh, on the 15th of August, 1771. His father was a writer to the signet; his mother was Anne Rutherford, the daughter of a medical professor in the University of Edinburgh. His father's family belonged to the clan Buccleugh. Lame from his early childhood, and thus debarred the more active pleasures of children, his imagination was unusually vigorous; and he took special pleasure in the many stories, current at the time, of predatory warfare, border forays, bogles, warlocks, and second sight. He spent some of his early days in the country, and thus became robust and healthy; although his lameness remained throughout life. He was educated in Edinburgh, at the High School and the university; and, although not noted for excellence as a scholar, he exhibited precocity in verse, and delighted his companions by his readiness in reproducing old stories or improving new ones. After leaving the university he studied law, and ranged himself in politics as a Conservative or Tory.
Although never an accurate classical scholar, he had a superficial knowledge of several languages, and was an industrious collector of old ballads and relics of the antiquities of his country. He was, however, better than a scholar;—he had genius, enthusiasm, and industry: he could create character, adapt incident, and, in picturesque description, he was without a rival.
During the rumors of the invasion of Scotland by the French, which he has treated with such comical humor in The Antiquary, his lameness did not prevent his taking part with the volunteers, as quartermaster—a post given him to spare him the fatigue and rough service of the ranks. The French did not come; and Scott returned to his studies with a budget of incident for future use.
TRANSLATIONS AND MINSTRELSY.—The study of the German language was then almost a new thing, even among educated people in England; and Scott made his first public essay in the form of translations from the German. Among these were versions of the Erl Koenig of Goethe, and the Lenore and The Wild Huntsman of Buerger, which appeared in 1796. In 1797 he rendered into English Otho of Wittelsbach by Steinburg, and in 1799 Goethe's tragedy, Goetz von Berlichingen. These were the trial efforts of his “'prentice hand,” which predicted a coming master.
On the 24th of December, 1797, he married Miss Carpenter, or Charpentier, a lady of French parentage, and retired to a cottage at Lasswade, where he began his studies, and cherished his literary aspirations in earnest and for life.
In 1799 he was so fortunate as to receive the appointment of Sheriff of Selkirkshire, with a salary of L300 per annum. His duties were not onerous: he had ample time to scour the country, ostensibly in search of game, and really in seeking for the songs and traditions of Scotland, border ballads, and tales, and in storing his fancy with those picturesque views which he was afterwards to describe so well in verse and prose. In 1802 he was thus enabled to present to the world his first considerable work, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, containing many new ballads which he had collected, with very valuable local and historical notes. This was followed, in 1804, by the metrical romance of Sir Tristrem, the original of which was by Thomas of Ercildoune, of the thirteenth century, known as Thomas the Rhymer : it was he who dreamed on Huntley bank that he met the Queen of Elfland,
And, till seven years were gone and past,
True Thomas on earth was never seen.
The reputation acquired by these productions led the world to expect something distinctly original and brilliant from his pen; a hope which was at once realized.
THE LAY OF THE LAST MINSTREL.—In 1805 appeared his first great poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, which immediately established his fame: it was a charming presentation of the olden time to the new. It originated in a request of the Countess of Dalkeith that he would write a ballad on the legend of Gilpin Horner. The picture of the last minstrel, “infirm and old,” fired by remembrance as he begins to tell an old-time story of Scottish valor, is vividly drawn. The bard is supposed to be the last of his fraternity, and to have lived down to 1690. The tale, mixed of truth and fable, is exceedingly interesting. The octo-syllabic measure, with an occasional line of three feet, to break the monotony, is purely minstrelic, and reproduces the effect of the troubadours and trouveres. The wizard agency of Gilpin Horner's brood, and the miracle at the tomb of Michael Scott, are by no means out of keeping with the minstrel and the age of which he sings. The dramatic effects are good, and the descriptions very vivid. The poem was received with great enthusiasm, and rapidly passed through several editions. One element of its success is modestly and justly stated by the author in his introduction to a later edition: “The attempt to return to a more simple and natural style of poetry was likely to be welcomed at a time when the public had become tired of heroic hexameters, with all the buckram and binding that belong to them in modern days.”
With an annual income of L1000, and an honorable ambition, Scott worked his new literary mine with great vigor. He saw not only fame but wealth within his reach. He entered into a silent partnership with the publisher, James Ballantyne, which was for a long time lucrative, by reason of the unprecedented sums he received for his works. In 1806 he was appointed to the reversion—on the death of the incumbent—of the clerkship of the Court of Sessions, a place worth L1300 per annum.
OTHER POEMS.—In 1808, before The Lay had lost its freshness, Marmion appeared: it was kindred in subject and form, and was received with equal favor. The Lady of the Lake, the most popular of these poems, was published in 1810; and with it his poetical talent culminated. The later poems were not equal to any of those mentioned, although they were not without many beauties and individual excellences.
The Vision of Don Roderick, which appeared in 1811, is founded upon the legend of a visit made by one of the Gothic kings of Spain to an enchanted cavern near Toledo. Rokeby was published in 1812;The Bridal of Triermain in 1813; The Lord of the Isles, founded upon incidents in the life of Bruce, in 1815; and Harold the Dauntless in 1817. With the decline of his poetic power, manifest to himself, he retired from the field of poetry, but only to appear upon another and a grander field with astonishing brilliancy: it was the domain of the historical romance. Such, however, was the popular estimate of his poetry, that in 1813 the Prince Regent offered him the position of poet-laureate, which was gratefully and wisely declined.
Just at this time the new poets came forth, in his own style, and actuated by his example and success. He recognized in Byron, Moore, Crabbe, and others, genius and talent; and, with his generous spirit, exaggerated their merits by depreciating his own, which he compared to cairngorms beside the real jewels of his competitors. The mystics, following the lead of the Lake poets, were ready to increase the depreciation. It soon became fashionable to speak of The Lay, and Marmion, and The Lady of the Lake as spirited little stories, not equal to Byron's, and not to be mentioned beside the occult philosophy ofThalaba and gentle egotism of The Prelude. That day is passed: even the critical world returns to its first fancies. In the words of Carlyle, a great balance-striker of literary fame, speaking in 1838: “It were late in the day to write criticisms on those metrical romances; at the same time, the great popularity they had seems natural enough. In the first place, there was the indisputable impress of worth, of genuine human force in them ... Pictures were actually painted and presented; human emotions conceived and sympathized with. Considering that wretched Dellacruscan and other vamping up of wornout tattlers was the staple article then, it may be granted that Scott's excellence was superior and supreme.” Without preferring any claim to epic grandeur, or to a rank among the few great poets of the first class, Scott is entitled to the highest eminence in minstrelic power. He is the great modern troubadour. His descriptions of nature are simple and exquisite. There is nothing in this respect more beautiful than the opening ofThe Lady of the Lake. His battle-pieces live and resound again: what can be finer than Flodden field in Marmion, and The Battle of Beal and Duine in The Lady of the Lake?
His love scenes are at once chaste, impassioned, and tender; and his harp songs and battle lyrics are unrivalled in harmony. And, besides these merits, he gives us everywhere glimpses of history, which, before his day, were covered by the clouds of ignorance, and which his breath was to sweep away.
Such are his claims as the first of the new romantic poets. We might here leave him, to consider his prose works in another connection; but it seems juster to his fame to continue and complete a sketch of his life, because all its parts are of connected interest. The poems were a grand proem to the novels.
While he was achieving fame by his poetry, and reaping golden rewards as well as golden opinions, he was also ambitious to establish a family name and estate. To this end, he bought a hundred acres of land on the banks of the Tweed, near Melrose Abbey, and added to these from time to time by the purchase of adjoining properties. Here he built a great mansion, which became famous as Abbotsford: he called it one of his air-castles reduced to solid stone and mortar. Here he played the part of a feudal proprietor, and did the honors for Scotland to distinguished men from all quarters: his hospitality was generous and unbounded.
THE WAVERLEY NOVELS.—As early as 1805, while producing his beautiful poems, he had tried his hand upon a story in prose, based upon the stirring events in 1745, resulting in the fatal battle of Culloden, which gave a death-blow to the cause of the Stuarts, and to their attempts to regain the crown. Dissatisfied with the effort, and considering it at that time less promising than poetry, he had thrown the manuscript aside in a desk with some old fishing-tackle. There it remained undisturbed for eight years. With the decline of his poetic powers, he returned to the former notion of writing historical fiction; and so, exhuming his manuscript, he modified and finished it, and presented it anonymously to the world in 1814. He had at first proposed the title of Waverley, or 'Tis Fifty Years Since, which was afterwards altered to 'Tis Sixty Years Since. This, the first of his splendid series of fictions, which has given a name to the whole series, is by no means the best; but it was good and novel enough to strike a chord in the popular heart at once. Its delineations of personal characters already known to history were masterly; its historical pictures were in a new and striking style of art. There were men yet living to whom he could appeal—men who had been out in the '45, who had seen Charles Edward and many of the originals of the author's heroes and heroines. In his researches and wanderings, he had imbibed the very spirit of Scottish life and history; and the Waverley novels are among the most striking literary types and expounders of history.
PARTICULAR MENTION.—In 1815, before half the reading world had delighted themselves with Waverley, his rapid pen had produced Guy Mannering, a story of English and Scottish life, superior to Waverley in its original descriptions and more general interest. He is said to have written it in six weeks at Christmas time. The scope of this volume will not permit a critical examination of the Waverley novels. The world knows them almost by heart. In The Antiquary, which appeared in 1816, we have a rare delineation of local manners, the creation of distinct characters, and a humorous description of the sudden arming of volunteers in fear of invasion by the French. The Antiquary was a free portrait or sketch of Mr. George Constable, filled in perhaps unconsciously from the author's own life; for he, no less than his friend, delighted in collecting relics, and in studying out the lines, praetoria, and general castrametation of the Roman armies. Andrew Gemmels was the original of that Edie Ochiltree who was bold enough to dispute the antiquary's more learned assertions.
In the same year, 1816, was published the first series of The Tales of my Landlord, containing The Black Dwarf and Old Mortality, both valuable as contributions to Scottish history. The former is not of much literary merit; and the author was so little pleased with it, that he brought it to a hasty conclusion; the latter is an extremely animated sketch of the sufferings of the Covenanters at the hands of Grahame of Claverhouse, with a fairer picture of that redoubted commander than the Covenanters have drawn. Rob Roy, the best existing presentation of Highland life and manners, appeared in 1817. Thus Scott's prolific pen, like nature, produced annuals. In 1818 appeared The Heart of Mid-Lothian, that touching story of Jeanie and Effie Deans, which awakens the warmest sympathy of every reader, and teaches to successive generations a moral lesson of great significance and power.
In 1819 he wrote The Bride of Lammermoor, the story of a domestic tragedy, which warns the world that outraged nature will sometimes assert herself in fury; a story so popular that it has been since arranged as an Italian opera. With that came The Legend of Montrose, another historic sketch of great power, and especially famous for the character of Major Dugald Dalgetty, soldier of fortune and pedant of Marischal College, Aberdeen. The year 1819 also beheld the appearance of Ivanhoe, which many consider the best of the series. It describes rural England during the regency of John, the romantic return of Richard Lion-heart, the glowing embers of Norman and Saxon strife, and the story of the Templars. His portraiture of the Jewess Rebecca is one of the finest in the Waverley Gallery.
The next year, 1820, brought forth The Monastery, the least popular of the novels thus far produced; and, as Scott tells us, on the principle of sending a second arrow to find one that was lost, he wrote The Abbot, a sequel, to which we are indebted for a masterly portrait of Mary Stuart in her prison of Lochleven. The Abbot, to some extent, redeemed and sustained its weaker brother. In this same year Scott was created a baronet, in recognition of his great services to English Literature and history. The next five years added worthy companion-novels to the marvellous series. Kenilworth is founded upon the visit of Queen Elizabeth to her favorite Leicester, in that picturesque palace in Warwickshire, and contains that beautiful and touching picture of Amy Robsart. The Pirate is a story the scene of which is laid in Shetland, and the material for which he gathered in a pleasure tour among those islands. In The Fortunes of Nigel, London life during the reign of James I. is described; and it contains life-like portraits of that monarch, of his unfortunate son, Prince Charles, and of Buckingham. Peveril of the Peak is a story of the time of Charles II., which is not of equal merit with the other novels. Quentin Durward, one of the very best, describes the strife between Louis XI. of France and Charles the Bold of Burgundy, and gives full-length historic portraits of these princes. The scene of St. Ronan's Well is among the English lakes in Cumberland, and the story describes the manners of the day at a retired watering-place. Red Gauntlet is a curious narrative connected with one of the latest attempts of Charles Edward—abortive at the outset—to effect a rising in Scotland. In 1825 appeared his Tales of the Crusaders, comprising The Betrothed and The Talisman, of which the latter is the more popular, as it describes with romantic power the deeds of Richard and his comrades in the second crusade.
A glance at this almost tabular statement will show the scope and versatility of his mind, the historic range of his studies, the fertility of his fancy, and the rapidity of his pen. He had attained the height of fame and happiness; his success had partaken of the miraculous; but misfortune came to mar it all, for a time.
PECUNIARY TROUBLES.—In the financial crash of 1825-6, he was largely involved. As a silent partner in the publishing house of the Ballantynes, and as connected with them in the affairs of Constable &Co., he found himself, by the failure of these houses, legally liable to the amount of L117,000. To relieve himself, he might have taken the benefit of the bankrupt law; or, such was his popularity, that his friends desired to raise a subscription to cover the amount of his indebtedness; but he was now to show by his conduct that, if the author was great, the man was greater. He refused all assistance, and even rejected general sympathy. He determined to relieve himself, to pay his debts, or die in the effort. He left Abbotsford, and took frugal lodgings in Edinburgh; curtailed all his expenses, and went to work—which was over-work—not for fame, but for guineas; and he gained both.
His first novel after this, and the one which was to test the practicability of his plan, was Woodstock, a tale of the troublous times of the Civil War, in the last chapter of which he draws the picture of the restored Charles coming in peaceful procession to his throne. This he wrote in three months; and for it he received upwards of L8000. With this and the proceeds of his succeeding works, he was enabled to pay over to his creditors the large sum of L70,000; a feat unparalleled in the history of literature. But the anxiety and the labor were too much even for his powerful constitution: he died in his heroic attempt.
HIS MANLY PURPOSE.—More for money than for reputation, he compiled hastily, and from partial and incomplete material, a Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, which appeared in 1827. The style is charming and the work eminently readable; but it contains many faults, is by no means unprejudiced, and, as far as pure truth is concerned, is, in parts, almost as much of a romance as any of the Waverley novels; but, for the first two editions, he received the enormous sum of L18,000. The work was accomplished in the space of one year. Among the other task-work books were the two series of The Chronicles of the Canongate (1827 and 1828), the latter of which contains the beautiful story of St. Valentine's Day, or The Fair Maid of Perth. It is written in his finest vein, especially in those chapters which describe the famous Battle of the Clans. In 1829 appeared Anne of Geierstein, another story presenting the figure of Charles of Burgundy, and his defeat and death in the battle with the Swiss at Nancy.
POWERS OVERTASKED.—And now new misfortunes were to come upon him. In 1826 he had lost his wife: his sorrows weighed upon him, and his superhuman exertions were too much for his strength. In 1829 he was seized with a nervous attack, accompanied by hemorrhages of a peculiar kind. In February, 1830, a slight paralysis occurred, from which he speedily recovered; this was soon succeeded by another; and it was manifest that his mind was giving way. His last novel, Count Robert of Paris, was begun in 1830, as one of a fourth series of The Tales of My Landlord: it bears manifest marks of his failing powers, but is of value for the historic stores which it draws from the Byzantine historians, and especially from the unique work of Anna Comnena: “I almost wish,” he said, “I had named it Anna Comnena.” A slight attack of apoplexy in November, 1830, was followed by a severer one in the spring of 1831. Even then he tried to write, and was able to produce Castle Dangerous. With that the powerful pen ended its marvellous work. The manly spirit still chafed that his debts were not paid, and could not be, by the labor of his hands.
FRUITLESS JOURNEY.—In order to divert his mind, and, as a last chance for health, a trip to the Mediterranean was projected. The Barham frigate was placed by the government at his disposal; and he wandered with a party of friends to Malta, Naples, Pompeii, Paestum, and Rome. But feeling the end approaching, he exclaimed, “Let us to Abbotsford:” for the final hour he craved the grata quies patriae ; to which an admiring world has added the remainder of the verse— sed et omnis terra sepulchrum. It was not a moment too soon: he travelled northward to the Rhine, down that river by boat, and reached London “totally exhausted;” thence, as soon as he could be moved, he was taken to Abbotsford.
RETURN AND DEATH.—There he lingered from July to September, and died peacefully on the 21st of the latter month, surrounded by his family and lulled to repose by the rippling of the Tweed. Among the noted dead of 1832, including Goethe, Cuvier, Crabbe, and Mackintosh, he was the most distinguished; and all Scotland and all the civilized world mourned his loss.
HIS FAME.—At Edinburgh a colossal monument has been erected to his memory, within which sits his marble figure. Numerous other memorial columns are found in other cities, but all Scotland is his true monument, every province and town of which he has touched with his magic pen. Indeed, Scotland may be said to owe to him a new existence. In the words of Lord Meadowbank,—who presided at the Theatrical Fund dinner in 1827, and who there made the first public announcement of the authorship of the Waverley novels,—Scott was “the mighty magician who rolled back the current of time, and conjured up before our living senses the men and manners of days which have long since passed away ... It is he who has conferred a new reputation on our national character, and bestowed on Scotland an imperishable name.”
Besides his poetry and novels, he wrote very much of a miscellaneous character for the reviews, and edited the works of the poets with valuable introductions and congenial biographies. Most of his fictions are historical in plot and personages; and those which deal with Scottish subjects are enriched by those types of character, those descriptions of manners—national and local—and those peculiarities of language, which give them additional and more useful historical value. It has been justly said that, by his masterly handling of historical subjects, he has taught the later historians how to write, how to give vivid and pictorial effects to what was before a detail of chronology or a dry schedule of philosophy. His critical powers may be doubted: he was too kind and genial for a critic; and in reading contemporary authors seems to have endued their inferior works with something of his own fancy.
The Life of Scott, by his son-in-law, J. G. Lockhart, is one of the most complete and interesting biographies in the language. In it the student will find a list of all his works, with the dates of their production; and will wonder that an author who was so rapid and so prolific could write so much that was of the highest excellence. If not the greatest genius of his age, he was its greatest literary benefactor; and it is for this reason that we have given so much space to the record of his life and works.