Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. XI. Miscellanies
XXV. Walter Scott
Remarks at the Celebration by the Massachusetts Historical Society of the Centennial Anniversary of His Birth, August 15, 1871
SCOTT, the delight of generous boys.
AS far as Sir Walter Scott aspired to be known for a fine gentleman, so far our sympathies leave him . Our concern is only with the residue, where the man Scott was warmed with a divine ray that clad with beauty every sheet of water, every bald hill in the country he looked upon, and so reanimated the well-nigh obsolete feudal history and illustrated every hidden corner of a barren and disagreeable territory.
Lecture, Being and Seeing, 1838.
THE MEMORY1 of Sir Walter Scott is dear to this Society, of which he was for ten years an honorary member. If only as an eminent antiquary who has shed light on the history of Europe and of the English race, he had high claims to our regard. But to the rare tribute of a centennial anniversary of his birthday, which we gladly join with Scotland, and indeed with Europe, to keep, he is not less entitledperhaps he alone among literary men of this century is entitledby the exceptional debt which all English-speaking men have gladly owed to his character and genius. I think no modern writer has inspired his readers with such affection to his own personality. I can well remember as far back as when The Lord of the Isles was first republished in Boston, in 1815,my own and my school-fellows joy in the book.2 Marmion and The Lay had gone before, but we were then learning to spell. In the face of the later novels, we still claim that his poetry is the delight of boys. But this means that when we reopen these old books we all consent to be boys again. We tread over our youthful grounds with joy. Critics have found them to be only rhymed prose. But I believe that many of those who read them in youth, when, later, they come to dismiss finally their school-days library, will make some fond exception for Scott as for Byron.
It is easy to see the origin of his poems. His own ear had been charmed by old ballads crooned by Scottish dames at firesides, and written down from their lips by antiquaries; and finding them now outgrown and dishonored by the new culture, he attempted to dignify and adapt them to the times in which he lived. Just so much thought, so much picturesque detail in dialogue or description as the old ballad required, so much suppression of details and leaping to the event, he would keep and use, but without any ambition to write a high poem after a classic model. He made no pretension to the lofty style of Spenser, or Milton, or Wordsworth. Compared with their purified songs, purified of all ephemeral color or material, his were vers de société. But he had the skill proper to vers de société,skill to fit his verse to his topic, and not to write solemn pentameters alike on a hero or a spaniel. His good sense probably elected the ballad to make his audience larger. He apprehended in advance the immense enlargement of the reading public, which almost dates from the era of his books,which his books and Byrons inaugurated; and which, though until then unheard of, has become familiar to the present time.
If the success of his poems, however large, was partial, that of his novels was complete. The tone of strength in Waverley at once announced the master, and was more than justified by the superior genius of the following romances, up to the Bride of Lammermoor, which almost goes back to Æschylus for a counterpart as a painting of Fate,leaving on every reader the impression of the highest and purest tragedy.3
His power on the public mind rests on the singular union of two influences. By nature, by his reading and taste an aristocrat, in a time and country which easily gave him that bias, he had the virtues and graces of that class, and by his eminent humanity and his love of labor escaped its harm. He saw in the English Church the symbol and seal of all social order; in the historical aristocracy the benefits to the state which Burke claimed for it; and in his own reading and research such store of legend and renown as won his imagination to their cause. Not less his eminent humanity delighted in the sense and virtue and wit of the common people. In his own household and neighbors he found characters and pets of humble class, with whom he established the best relation,small farmers and tradesmen, shepherds, fishermen, gypsies, peasant-girls, crones,and came with these into real ties of mutual help and good will. From these originals he drew so genially his Jeanie Deans, his Dinmonts and Edie Ochiltrees, Caleb Balderstones and Fairservices, Cuddie Headriggs, Dominies, Meg Merrilies, and Jenny Rintherouts, full of life and reality; making these, too, the pivots on which the plots of his stories turn; and meantime without one word of brag of this discernment,nay, this extreme sympathy reaching down to every beggar and beggars dog, and horse and cow. In the number and variety of his characters he approaches Shakspeare. Other painters in verse or prose have thrown into literature a few type-figures; as Cervantes, De Foe, Richardson, Goldsmith, Sterne and Fielding; but Scott portrayed with equal strength and success every figure in his crowded company.
His strong good sense saved him from the faults and foibles incident to poets,from nervous egotism, sham modesty or jealousy. He played ever a manly part.4 With such a fortune and such a genius, we should look to see what heavy toll the Fates took of him, as of Rousseau or Voltaire, of Swift or Byron. But no: he had no insanity, or vice, or blemish. He was a thoroughly upright, wise and great-hearted man, equal to whatever event or fortune should try him. Disasters only drove him to immense exertion. What an ornament and safeguard is humor! Far better than wit for a poet and writer. It is a genius itself, and so defends from the insanities.
Under what rare conjunction of stars was this man born, that, wherever he lived, he found superior men, passed all his life in the best company, and still found himself the best of the best! He was apprenticed at Edinburgh to a Writer to the Signet, and became a Writer to the Signet, and found himself in his youth and manhood and age in the society of Mackintosh, Horner, Jeffrey, Playfair, Dugald Stewart, Sydney Smith, Leslie, Sir William Hamilton, Wilson, Hogg, De Quincey,to name only some of his literary neighbors, and, as soon as he died, all this brilliant circle was broken up.
Note 1. Although Mr. Emerson, in the period between 1838 and 1848 especially, when considering the higher powers of poetry, spoke slightingly of Scott,in the Dial papers as objective and the poet of society, of patrician and conventional Europe, or in English Traits as a writer of a rhymed travellers guide to Scotland,he had always honor for the noble man, and affectionate remembrance for the poems as well as the novels. In the poem The Harp, when enumerating poets, he calls Scott the delight of generous boys, but the generosus puer was his own delight; the hope of the generation lay in him, and his own best audience was made up of such. In the essay Illusions, he says that the boy has no better friend than Scott, Shakspeare, Plutarch and Homer. The man lives to other objects, but who dare affirm that they are more real? In the essay Aristocracy, he names among the claims of a superior class, Genius, the power to affect the Imagination, and presently speaks of those who think and paint and laugh and weep in their eloquent closets, and then convert the world into a huge whispering-gallery, to report the tale to all men and win smiles and tears from many generations, and gives Scott and Burns among the high company whom he instances. Mr. Emersons children can testify how with regard to Scott he always was ready to become a boy again. As we walked in the woods, he would show us the cellar-holes of the Irish colony that came to Concord to build the railroad, and he named these deserted villages Derncleugh and Ellangowan. The sight recalled Meg Merrilies pathetic lament to the laird at the eviction of the gypsies, which he would then recite. Alice Brand, the Sair Field o Harlaw, which old Elspeth sings to the children in The Antiquary, and Helvellyn were again and again repeated to us with pleasure on both sides. With special affection in later years when we walked in Walden woods he would croon the lines from The Dying Bard,
Dinas Emlinn, lament, for the moment is nigh,
When mute in the woodlands thine echoes shall die.
Perhaps he had foreboding for his loved woods, beginning to be desecrated with rude city picnics, and since burned over repeatedly by the fires from the railroad,
When half of their charms with Cadwallon shall die.
Of this poem he wrote in the journal of 1845: Dinas Emlinn of Scott, like his Helvellyn, shows how near to a poet he was. All the Birmingham part he had, and what taste and sense! Yet never rose into the creative region. As a practitioner or professional poet he is unrivalled in modern times. Yet he immediately adds, In lectures on Poetry almost all Scott would be to be produced. [back]
Note 2. Mr. Emerson took especial pleasure in the passage in the Lord of the Isles where the old abbot, rising to denounce excommunicated Bruce to his foes, is inspired against his will to bless him and prophesy his triumph as Scotlands deliverer. Mr. Emerson, writing in his journal in 1842 of his impatience of superficial city life, during a visit to New York, alludes to the renewed comfort he had in the Lord of the Isles: Life goes headlong. Each of us is always to be found hurrying headlong in the chase of some fact, hunted by some fear or command behind us. Suddenly we meet a friend. We pause. Our hurry and empressement look ridiculous . When I read the Lord of the Isles last week at Staten Island, and when I meet my friend, I have the same feeling of shame at having allowed myself to be a mere huntsman and follower. His boyish love for the Lay of the Last Minstrel remained through life. As we walked on Sunday afternoons he recited to his children the stanzas about the custom of Branksome Hall, and the passage where the Ladye of Branksome defies the spirits of the flood and fell; and the bleak mile of road between Walden woods and home would often call out from him
Note 3. The Bride of Lammermoor was the only dreary tale that Mr. Emerson could abide, except Griselda. Journal, 1856. Eugène Sue, Dumas, etc., when they begin a story, do not know how it will end, but Walter Scott, when he began the Bride of Lammermoor, had no choice; nor Shakspeare, nor Macbeth. [back]
Note 4. Journal. We talked of Scott. There is some greatness in defying posterity and writing for the hour. [back]