Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott, portrait gallery, 1831


IF ever there was a man, to whom the past and the present do, and the future will, owe an equal debt of gratitude, that man is SIR WALTER SCOTT-. It would baffle the calculating boy himself, to reckon the hours that have been, and that will be spent, in delight over his pages. If to have the applause of the many, the appreciation of a few; if to have made a name in his native land, which has been re-echoed where the English tongue was before an unfamiliar sound ; if to have kept the school-boy from his play, and the man from his business; if to take his place in the carved oak library, and on the little shelf heaped with a choice of favourite books ; if to have made his own country classical, as associations of the mind, only, can make a country ; if all these do not give that fame which is an earthly immortality, we doubt its existence even for the author of " The Lay of the last Minstrel," and of " Waverley." We live in a careless and hurrying age ; and, as in the action of that eternal rule, which has never yet had an exception, every good has its evil, and every evil its good ; so, refinement hardens into indifference, and indulgence into selfishness. We want some other interest to balance our own ; and in literary pursuits, and in mental pleasures, we find the best counteracting influence : and for how large a portion of these do we stand indebted to Sir Walter Scott ! The Luther of literature—the publication of Waverley may be considered the Reformation of Romance.

Comparisons may be odious, but they are, nevertheless, just ; and, unless we compare his works with their predecessors and compeers, we cannot appreciate the extraordinary power and originality of his mind. The sceptre of romance had passed into female hands, and they wielded it quite feebly enough to justify the Salic law : he is the founder of a new dynasty, both in poetry and in prose. The author of the Lay of the Last Minstrel was like the young prince of The Fairy Tale—he broke the heavy sleep of beauty,, and led her forth into life and love. Sir Walter's is a pleasant page in literary life, too often a record of pain and of sorrow. He had to encounter-none of those difficulties which so crush the young spirit in its earlier and unaided efforts ; he had to struggle with no dependence, that so breaks the mind which it bows ; and poverty, that one word which says all that can be said of degradation and of bitterness, was to him a thing unknown. From the first, his path was smooth before him.

Born in that most respectable class, of upper middle life, which, if not the happiest, has the most means of happiness within its reach, equally removed from the toil of constant labour, and the lassitude of unmotived indolence ; fortunate in kind and affectionate friends ; his entrance into life was easy and unembarrassed. With j ust enough of exertion necessary to give leisure the relish of employment, his existence, as a private individual, may be summed up in a few words ; it has been passed in content and respectability. But his public career is universal property ; and, as such, it is of univeral interest.

WALTER Scott was the eldest son of Walter Scott, Esq. W. S. Edinburgh ; his mother was the daughter of David Rutherford, a distinguished member of the same profession : he was born on the 15th of August, 1771. We cannot but consider his early history as the most complete refutation of that showy but false doctrine, that early impressions and external influences make the poet. Among. Scott's youthful companions, how many delighted in the legendary lore, and roamed through the beautiful scenery of their country ? He especially alludes to one favourite companion, whose love of fictitious narrative equalled his own : but on none of these was a similar effect produced ; the seed was sown, but the soil received it not. His own account of this period is too delightful and too characteristic to be omitted.

" I must refer to a very early period of my life,—were I to point out my first achievements as a tale-teller—but, I believe, some of my old school-fellows can still bear witness, that I had a distinguished character for that talent, at a time when the applause of my companions was my recompense for the disgraces and punishments which the future romance-writer incurred for being idle himself, and keeping others idle, during hours that should have been employed on our tasks. The chief enjoyment of my holidays was to escape with a chosen friend, who had the same taste with myself, and, alternately, to recite to each other such wild adventures as we were able to devise.

We told, each in turn, interminable tales of knight-errantry, and battles, and enchantments, which were continued from one day to another, as opportunity offered, without our ever thinking of bringing them to a conclusion. As we observed a strict secrecy on the subject of this intercourse, it acquired all the character of a concealed pleasure ; and we used to select, for the scenes of our indulgence, long walks through the solitary and romantic environs of Arthur's Seat, Salisbury Craigs, Braid Hills, and similar places in the vicinity of Edinburgh ; and the recollection of those holidays still forms an oasis in the pilgrimage which I have to look back upon."

" The boy was not father to the man," in both these instances; though Scott's childhood was a fitting percursor to his manhood. The peculiar bent of his mind was confirmed by the pursuits to which a severe illness gave rise. Books became the only resource of a youth debarred from more active amusement. Severe confinement, and abstinence, were the consequences of his breaking a blood-vessel ; and the shelves of a circulating library at Edinburgh, filled with romances, novels, travels, &c., amused his solitary hours. He alludes to this miscellaneous species of reading in a more deprecatory tone than we humbly think is called for by the occasion. That particular sciences require particular studies, is, of course, not to be denied; but, for the future imaginative writer, we cannot think any other course would have been more beneficial. Almost all our great authors have been desultory readers, extracting nourishment from what might seem most unpromising food-

" Whereon the mind did grow to large increase."

Destined to the same profession as his father, his earlier years were given to the study of the law; when, as he himself says, "the success of a few ballads changed all the purpose and tenor of my life, and converted a painstaki g lawyer into a follower of literature." His friendship with Mr. Lewis led to the publication of Glenfinlas, and the Eve of St. John ; while his own research in, and taste for, the legendary lore of Scotland, occasioned that of the Border Minstrelsy. At length the Lay of the Last Minstrel appeared.

A Jacobite phrase will best express the effect—"the heather was on fire," a new element seemed suddenly added to the world of poetry; the story was as new as the style. Then first might the poet exclaim, in Wordsworth's noble adaption of Michael Angelo's thought, there " My soul felt her destiny divine," and the genius was confessed in public, which in private had been denied.

Appreciation belongs to strangers, and the words of praise are ever spoken by strange lips. Scott says himself, "I made one or two faint attempts at verse—but some friend or other always advised me to put my verses in the fire, and, like Dorax in the play, I submitted, 'though with a swelling heart." He wanted, in this submission, that cool judgment, and shrewd penetration of men's motives, which are such features in his character. Our friends are over the last to discover, and the first to deny, our merits ; our success takes them by surprise, and that surprise usually cools down into envy ; but much of this last and natural consequence, Sir Walter's frank kindliness has averted. Though not our own individual favourite in all his poems, we have yet a most ample share of praise to bestow on the " Last Minstrel." It was a tableau vivante of those days of chivalry and necromancy, when such was the disorder, that the forty knights at Branksome Castle, who

 "Drank the red wine thro' the helmet barr'd,"

were a protection as necessary as the order of the blue, that is, the police. are in the present day. What an idea of the restless tumult of the time does the borderer's ejaculation give, when, describing an inroad of the English, he says,

" They burned my little lonely tower,                                                                                              It had not been burned for a year or more."

What a state of domestic quiet, when it is thought quite a long period, not to have your house burnt " for a year or more." Equally in keeping with the time, is the lady of Buccleugh not weeping her husband's death, till her infant boy vows vengeance for it :

"Then fast her trickling tears 'gan seek

To dew the infant's kindling cheek."

But there is one touch of natural feeling, which has always struck us as perfect. Sir William Deloraine has dug up the body of Michael Scott ; but the old monk his companion, and the former friend of the wizzard, turns aside his head,

" For he might not abide the sight to see, Of the man he had loved so brotherly."

The success of the Lay might well induce its publishers to give a thousand pounds for Marmion; and so little cause, had they to repent of their bargain, that they supplied their author's cellar with, to use his own phrase, that " always acceptable present to a young Scottish housekeeper, namely, a hogshead of excellent claret." A publisher like Mr. Constable deserves to meet with a writer like Scott, gentlemanlike in his manners, kindly in his feelings, liberal in his dealings; a man like Constable is enough to redeem half the satire that the discontented have lavished on a body, who, as George Withers says, are " the wasps that prey on the honey of the poor Athenian bees: Marmion is a noble poem, such as a minstrel might have sung at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, when two kings were present to give the prize. Perhaps the trial scene of Constance, and the death of Marmion, are unequalled in our language.

The Lady of the Lake lost none of the popularity of its predecessors. Perhaps this poem may be characterized as the domestic life of chivalry ; it brings before us its more private scenes, and its gentler affections, while pathos and action are blended together. How full of feeling are the few lines which paint Fitz-James's dream of

" Friends, whose hearts were long estranged,
They come, in dim procession led,
The cold, the faithless, and the dead.
As warm each hand, each brow as gay,
As if they parted yesterday;
And doubt distracts him at the view-
O were his senses false or true?
Dreamed he of death, or broken vow,
Or is it all a vision now ?"

Happy is he whose sleep has never been visited by such dreams; happy, if there does exist such a being. There is one of those fine touches of human feeling, after the curse pronounced by the hermit ; the first two denunciations meet with ready reply from the fiery race who surround him, but the unearthly horror of the last appals them-

 " No echo gave again
The murmur of the deep Amen."

His powers of description have met with due appreciation; but we doubt whether, amid the many passages that have received their meed of applause, a finer can be found than that which paints the advance of the Saxon warriors, together with the noble burst of warlike feeling with which it ends.

" There is no breeze upon the fern,
No ripple on the lake,
Upon her eyrie nods the erne,
The deer has sought the brake;
The small birds will not sing aloud,
The springing trout lies still,
So darkly glooms yon thunder-cloud,
That swathes, as with a purple shroud,
Benledi's distant hill.
Is it the thunder's solemn sound
That mutters deep and dread,
Or echoes from the groaning ground
The warrior's measured tread ?
Is it the lightning's quivering glance
That o'er you thicket streams,
Or do they flash on spear and lance
The sun's retiring beams?
I see the dagger crest of Mar,
I see the Moray's silver star
Wave o'er the flag of Alpine war,
That up the lake comes winding far !
To hero bonne for battle strife
To bard of martial lay.
'Twere worth ten years of peaceful life.
One glance at their array '"

But we are forgetting the briefness of our space in the interest of our criticism, for these poems come back to our memory with all the freshness of the youth, of which they were the delight. We now come to what has always been our favourite. Rokeby, to say nothing of its interesting story, its fine descriptions, and its snatches of beautiful song; the nicely drawn contrasts of character would alone establish its claim to first-rate excellence. The daring villany of Bertram Risinghame is brought out into stronger relief by the cold cruelty of the cowardly Oswald, while Wilfrid and Edmond are exquisite in their mental likeness and moral difference. Both have the same wayward sensibility, the same acute feeling, the same gift of song ; both are unhappy in their love, but the weakness of the one is turned to evil, that of the other to good. The Lord of the Isles was the last; but besides these avowed children, were two sent into the world incognito.The Bridal of Triermain, and Harold the Dauntless, both of which, we are free to confess, we like exceedingly; they are the fairy tales of poetry. But Sir Walter, with that shrewd eye to reality which is one of his most striking qualities, was now about to abdicate that poetical throne he could no longer retain.

The temporary eclipse (for only temporary it has proved to have been) of Scott's poetical popularity, may be ascribed to three causes : first, to the change which had taken place in the author's own mind, for the rich warm colouring that imagination throws upon romance, would seem especially to belong to the earlier period of our existence; secondly, to the intense interest excited by Lord Byron's most engrossing, writings ; and, thirdly, to that desire of novelty which belongs to the reading world, as well as to every other. Scott's imitators did more to take off the gloss of novelty than any thing else. Yet, of the crowd that copied all they could copy, the remembrance of not even one remains; but at the time their little barrel-organ repetitions served to make the sweet music, they only echoed to debase—stale and common. A man's friends are bad enough, but his imitators are even worse : they call breaking the string, bending the bow of. Ulysses. Really poetry should take out a patent for its protection. But before we proceed to the prose world into which we are now entering, we must quote what is characteristic of the author, and what we may call Sir Walter's profession of
literary faith.

" It may be readily supposed that the attempts which I had made in literature had been unfavourable to my success at the bar. The goddess Themis is, at Edinburgh, and I suppose every where else, of a peculiarly jealous disposition. She will not readily consent to share her authority, and sternly demands from her votaries not only that real duty be carefully attended to and discharged, but that a certain air of business shall be observed even in the midst of total idleness. It is prudent, if not absolutely necessary, in a young barrister, to appear completely engrossed by his profession ; however destitute of employment be may be, he ought to preserve, if possible, the appearance of full occupation. He shoud at least seem perpetually engaged among his law-papers, dusting them, as it were ; and, as Ovid advises the fair,
Si minus erit pulvis„ tamen excute annum.

" Perhaps such extremity of attention is more especially required, considering the great number of counsellors who are called to the bar, and how very small a proportion of them are finally disposed, or find encouragement, to follow the law as a profession. Hence the number of deserters is so great, that the least lingering look behind occasions a young novice to be set down as one of the intending fugitives. Certain it is, that the Scottish Themis was at this time peculiarly jealous of any flirtation with the Muses on the part of those who had ranged themselves under her banners. This was probably owing to her consciousness of the superior attractions of her rivals.

"Of late, however, she has relaxed in some instances in this particular ; an eminent example of which, has been shewn in the case of my friend, Mr. Jeffrey, who, after long conducting one of the most influential literary periodicals of the age, with unquestionable ability, has been, by the general consent of his brethren, recently elected to be their Dean of Faculty, or President, being the highest acknowledgment of his ,professional talents which they had it in their power to offer. But this is an incident much beyond the ideas of a period of thirty years' distance, when a barrister who really possessed any turn for lighter literature, was at as much pains to conceal it, as if it had in reality been something to be ashamed of; and I could mention more than one instance, in which literature and society have suffered loss, that jurisprudence might be enriched. Such, however, was not my case ; for the reader will not wonder that my open interference with matters of light literature diminished my employment in the weightier matters of the law.

"Nor did the solicitors, upon whose choice the counsel takes rank in his profession, do me less than justice by regarding others among my contemporaries as fitter to discharge the duty due to their clients, than a young man who was taken up with running after ballads, whether Teutonic or national. My profession and I, therefore, came to stand nearly upon the footing on which honest Synder consoled himself with having established with Mistress Anne Page : ' There was no great love between us at the beginning, and it pleased Heaven to decrease it on farther acquaintance.' I became sensible that the time was come when I must either buckle myself resolutely to the 'toil by day, the lamp by night,' renouncing all the Delilahs of my imagination, or bid adieu to the profession of the law, and hold another course. I confess my own inclination revolted from the more severe choice, which might have been deemed by many the wiser alternative. As my transgressions had been numerous, my repentance must have been signalised by unusual sacrifices.

"I ought to have mentioned, that, since -y fourteenth or fifteenth year, my health, originally delicate, had become extremely robust. From infancy I had laboured under the infirmity of a severe lameness, but, as I believe is usually the case with men of spirit who suffer under personal inconveniences of this nature, I had, since the improvement of my health, in defiance of this incapacitating circumstance, distinguished myself by the endurance of toil on foot or horseback, having often walked thirty miles a day, and rode upwards of a hundred, without stopping. In this manner I made many pleasant journeys through parts of the country then not very accessible, gaining more amusement and instruction than I have been able to acquire since I have travelled in a more commodious manner. I practised most sylvan sports, also, with some success, and with great delight. But these pleasures must have been all resigned, or used with great moderation, had I determined to regain my station at the bar.

" It was even doubtful whether I could, with perfect character as a jurisconsult, retain a situation in a volunteer corps of cavalry, which I then held. The threats of invasion were at this time instant and menacing; the call by Britain on her children was universal, and was answered by many, who, like myself, consulted rather their will than their ability to bear arms. My services, however, were found useful in assisting to maintain the discipline of the corps, being the point on which their constitution rendered them most amenable to military criticism. In other respects the squadron was a fine one, consisting of handsome men, well mounted and armed at their own expense. My attention to the corps took up a good deal of time ; and while it occupied many of the happiest hours of my life, it furnished an additional reason for my reluctance again to encounter the severe course of study indispensable to success in the juridical profession.

" On the other hand, my father, whose feelings might have been hurt by my quitting the bar, had been for two or three years dead ; so that I had no control to thwart my own inclination ; and my income being equal to all the comforts, and some of the elegancies of life, I was not pressed to an irksome labour by necessity, that most powerful of motives ; consequently, I was the more easily seduced to choose the employment which was most agreeable. This was yet the easier, that in 1800 I had obtained the preferment of Sheriff of Selkirkshire, about 3001. a year in value. and which was the more agreeable to me, as in that county I had several friends and relations. But I did not abandon the profession to which I had been educated. without certain prudential resolutions, which, at the risk of some egotism, I will here mention: not without the hope that they may be useful to young perms who may stand i circumstances similar to those in which I then stood.

" In the first place, upoa considering the been and felonies of persons who had given themselves up to literature, or to the tash of pleasing the public, it seemed to me that the circumstances which chicle affected their happiness and character, were those from which Horace has bestowed upon auditors the epithet of the irritable race. It requires no depth of philosophic refection to perceive, that the petty warfare of Pope with the dunces of his period, could not have been carried on, without his suffering the most acute torture, such as a man must endure from musquitoes, by whose stings he suffers agony, although he can crush them in his grasp by myriads. Nor is it necessary to call to memory the many humiliating instances in which men of the greatest genius have, to avenge some pitiful quarrel, made themselves ridiculous during their lives, to become the still more degraded objects of pity in future times.

"Upon the whole, as I had no pretension to the genius of the distinguished persons who had fallen into such errors, I concluded there could be no occasion for imitating them in these mistakes, or what I considered as such ; and, in adopting literary pursuits as the principal occupation of my future life, I resolved, if possible, to avoid those Weaknesses of temper which seemed to have most easily beset my more celebrated predecessors.

" With this view, it was my first resolution to keep, as far as was in my power, abreast of society; continuing to maintain my place in general company, without yielding to the very natural temptation of narrowing myself to what is called literary society. By doing so, I imagined I should escape the besetting sin of listening to language which, from one motive or other. ascribes a s cry undue degree of consequence to literary pursuits ; as if they were, indeed. the business. rather than the amusement of life. The opposite course can only be compared to the injudicicos conduct of one who pampers himself with cordial and luscious dranghts, until he is unable to endure wholesome bitters. Like Gil Bias, therefore, I resolved to stick by the society of my commis, instead of seeking that of a more literary cast ; and to maintain my general interest in what was going on around me, reserving the man of letters for the desk and the library.

" My second resolution was a corollary from the first. I determined that, without shutting my ears to the voice of true criticism, I would pay no regard to that which assumes the form of satire. I therefore resolved to arm myself, with the triple brass of Horace, against all the roving warfare of satire, parody, and sarcasm ; to laugh, if the jest was a good one ; or, if otherwise, to let it hum and buz itself to sleep. It is to the observance of these rules (according to my best belief,) that, after a life of thirty years engaged in literary labours of various kinds, I attribute my never having been entangled in any literary quarrel or controversy ; and, which is a more pleasing result, that I have been distinguished by the personal friendship of my most approved contemporaries of all parties.

"I adopted, at the same time, another resolution, on which it may doubtless be remarked, that it was well for me that I had it in my power to do so, and that, therefore, it is a line of conduct which can be less generally applicable in other cases. Yet I fail not to record this part of my plan, convinced that, though it may not be in every one's power to adopt exactly the same resolution, he may nevertheless, by his own exertions, in some shape or other, attain the object on which it was fonnded ; namely, to secure the means of subsistence, without relying exclusively on literary talents. In this respect, I determined that literature should be my staff, but not my crutch ; and that the profits of my labour, however convenient otherwise, should not become neces- sary to my ordinary expenses. With this purpose, I resolved, if the interest of my friends could so far favour me, to retire upon any of the respectable offices of the law, in which persons of that profession are glad to take refuge, when they feel themselves, or are judged by others, incompetent to aspire to its higher offices and honours. Upon such an office an author might hope to retreat, without any perceptible alteration of circumstances, whenever the time should arrive that the public grew weary of his endeavours to please, or he himself should tire of the occupation of authorship. At this period of my life I possessed so many friends capable of assisting me in this object of ambition, that I could hardly overrate my own prospects of obtaining the moderate preferment to which I limited my wishes ; and, in fact, I obtained, in no long period, the reversion of a situation which completely met them."

We have been tempted to this lone extract, because it so completely embodies the man himself: the calm calculation, the clear plain sense, the shrewd eye to a due return ; all invested with his peculiar grace of narration—all excepting his imagination, and that he reserved for his works. For so powerful a faculty as his imagination must be, it has been singularly under Control ; it has never excited his feelings, or ruled his actions ; it was truly " like a star, and dwelt apart !" Perhaps the most accurate idea will be given of Scott, by saying that his, is the beau ideal of the Scotch character.

The first sketch of Waverley was drawn up, and it was advertised by Ballantyne, as "Waverley, or, 'Tis Fifty Years Since," afterwards altered to " Sixty," to suit the actual time of publication. The wisest man has his weakness, and here Sir Walter shewed his—he again submitted the MS. of about seven chapters to a friend ; of course, the decision was unfavourable. The publication was abandoned, and the papers were mislaid. A chance search for some fishing-tackle brought them to light.

Two different circumstances had then turned their author's attention to prose ; first his emulation had been stirred by the success of Miss Edgeworth's Tales of Irish Life ; and also his having been called upon to edite John Strutt's posthumous romance of Queenhoo Hall, whose want of success suggested to the judicious editor the necessity of a different plan : he observes, " By rendering his language too ancient, and displaying his antiquarian knowledge too liberally, the ingenious author had raised an obstacle to his own success." This hint has been forgotten by many of his followers : the majority of our present writers are the Dr. Meyricks of romance ; they search, they compile, and they put the pieces of armour together, glaive and gauntlet, helm and hauberk, nothing is wanting but the life within. The truth is, it is so much easier to compile than to create.

At length Waverley appeared ; and from that time to the present, Sir Walter Scott has floated on the full tide of popularity.

To give any thing like a detailed account of his various productions, is impossible within our limits. His works are a library of themselves. Among his contributions to the periodicals of the day was a noble tribute to the memory of Lord Byron. This article, which appeared in Blackwood, was as beautiful in style as it was in feeling, written in the generous spirit of a great mind doing justice to an equal ;--but envy, like cunning, is the vice of petty natures. Of the secrecy observed about the writer of works so popular, we can only observe, that, at least, an author may be permitted to say, " I will do what I please with my own :" besides, Sir Walter was much too acute not to know the attraction of mystery. The confession at last was any thing but voluntary; it was the inevitable consequence of poor Constable's failure.

If we look but at the quantity which Scott has written, it would seem incredible ; but when we also look at the quality, and remember the vast mass of material that he must have accumulated, it adds wonder to applause. People are very apt to talk of the luxury of literary pursuits—the pleasures of an author.
The pleasure of literature is like the pleasure of any other business, to the professional writer ; and those who talk of literary ease know nothing of the mere manual exertion of writing, the absolute bodily fatigue, to say nothing of the wear and tear of mind, whose powers are in continual requisition. Hardly earned are both the honors and profits of literature ; and well does Sir Walter deserve his share of both. Equally appreciated at home and abroad, never has author received more tokens of universal admiration. His works are translated into most known languages ; and Mrs. Charles Gore mentions, in her Hungarian Tales, that in one of the inns, the head of " Valter Skote" is hung up as a sign. Abbotsford, the place in which he has taken so much pleasure and pride, is, as Halleck beautifully says of Robert Burns' grave, one of the

—" Shrines to no code or creed confined, The Delphian vales, the Palestines, The Meccas of the mind"

The rank of Baronet, with which our author has been honored, is the first instance of such a distinction being conferred on literary merit. His conversational powers are very great ; perhaps his style of telling a story is unrivalled in its dramatic effect. His memory is very extraordinary, and dwells to this day with delight on its early tales of legendary lore. We heard a little anecdote of him, with which we cannot do better than conclude.

Walking with Wordsworth last summer, he was detailing his many literary plans. " Why, you are laying down work for a life," said his companion. " No, no, not for a life," rejoined Sir Walter, " but for twenty years ; I have twenty years' mind and health in me yet." May these words be prophetical.
In an age like the present, so universal is the diffusion of civilization and of literature, that, in a brief while, she may exclaim-

" Far as the winds can sweep, the waves can roam—Survey our empire, and behold our home."

What a futurity of fame is before such a man as Sir Walter Scott ! May he long survive, to put forth fresh claims to its applause.*

* Of his private life, family, &c. we have said nothing; because every periodical in the country has been filled with their details ; and they are familiar to every one.