Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Andrew Lang (1844–1912)
OFTEN as it has been my fortune to write about Sir Walter Scott, I never sit down to do so without a sense of happiness and elation. It is as if one were meeting a dear friend, or at the least were to talk with other friends about him. This emotion is so strong, no doubt, because the name and memory and magic of Sir Walter are entwined with one’s earliest recollections of poetry, and nature, and the rivers and hills of home. Yet the phrase of a lady, a stranger, in an unpublished letter to Scott, “You are such a friendly author,” contains a truth not limited to Scott’s fellow-countrymen and fellow-Borderers. To read him, to read all of him almost, to know his works familiarly, is to have a friend, and as it were, an invisible playmate of the mind. Goethe confessed this spell; it affected even Carlyle; all Europe knew its charm; Alexandre Dumas, the Scott of France, not only felt it but can himself inspire it,—the spell of a great, frank, wise, humorous, and loving nature, accompanied by a rich and sympathetic imagination, and equipped with opulence of knowledge. In modern England, few men have had wider influence than two who in many respects are all unlike Scott,—Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Ruskin; yet their writings are full of admiration for “the Magician who dwelleth in the castle on the Border.” To-day, some very “modern” people of letters, in no way remarkable either for knowledge, fancy, or humor, affect to speak of Scott with disdain. The latest criticism which I chanced to read talked of his “romances of chivalry,” as if they had no connection with actual “life.” He wrote only about three prose “romances of chivalry.” It is life itself that throbs in a score, perhaps a hundred, of his characters. Davie Deans, Jeanie Deans, Bessie Maclure, Nantie Ewart, Wandering Willie, Andrew Fairservice, Louis XI., James VI., Ratcliffe, Madge Wildfire, the Dugald Creature, Callum Beg, Diana Vernon, Dugald Dalgetty, the fishers of ‘The Antiquary,’ Baillie Nicol Jarvie, Claverhouse, Meg Dods,—these are but a few of Scott’s immortally living characters. From kings to gillies, they all display life as it has been, and is, and will be lived. Remoteness and strangeness of time and place and society can never alter nature, nor hide from minds not prejudiced and dwarfed by restricted faculties and slovenly sham education, the creative greatness of Scott.  1
  His life has been told by the first biographer in British literature save Boswell. It has been my lot to read most of the manuscript materials used by Scott’s son-in-law and biographer, Lockhart; and the perusal only increases one’s esteem for his work. Lockhart’s tact in selection was infallible. But his book is a long book; and parts of it which interest a Scot do not strongly appeal to the interest of an Englishman or an American not of Scottish descent. Nevertheless Lockhart’s ‘Biography’ is in itself a delightful, if not indispensable, accompaniment of Sir Walter’s works. No biographer had ever less to conceal: a study of the letters and other unpublished documents makes this certain. The one blot on Sir Walter’s scutcheon—his dabbling in trade—was matter of public knowledge during his own lifetime. Occasional defects of temper, such as beset the noblest natures, Lockhart did not hide; for which he was foolishly blamed. Speaking from the most intimate knowledge now attainable, one may confidently say that Lockhart’s Scott is the real man, “as known to his Maker.”  2
  There is no room here for even a sketch of a life already familiar in outline. Persons so unfortunate as “not to have time” to read Lockhart, will find all that is necessary in Mr. R. H. Hutton’s sketch (‘English Men of Letters’ series), or in Mr. Saintsbury’s ‘Sir Walter Scott’ (‘Famous Scots’ series). The poet and novelist was descended from the Border house of Harden: on the spindle side he had the blood of Campbells, Macdonalls, Haliburtons, and Rutherfords in his veins. All of these are families of extreme antiquity,—the Macdonalls having been almost regal in Galloway and Argyle. Scott’s father (born 1729) was a Writer to the Signet, the Saunders Fairford of ‘Redgauntlet.’  3
  The poet and novelist was born on August 15th, 1771, and died in 1832. The details of his infancy, his lameness, his genius in childhood, his studious and adventurous boyhood, his incomplete education (like St. Augustine he would not learn Greek), his adoption of the profession of advocate, may be found in every ‘Life.’ “The first to begin a row and the last to end it,” Scott knew intimately all ranks of society before he had published a line. Duchesses, gipsies, thieves, Highlanders, Lowlanders, students, judges, attorneys’ clerks, actors, gamekeepers, farmers, tramps,—he was at home with all of them, while he had read everything in literature that most people do not know. It was his fortune to be a poet while England yet had two kings: George III. de facto, Charles III. and Henry IX. de jure. Hopeless as the Jacobite cause now was, the sentiment lingered; and Scott knew intimately the man who sent the Fiery Cross through Appin in 1745,—Invernahyle. A portrait of Prince Charles was one of his earliest purchases. He had seen Burns, who wrote the last ‘Birthday Ode’ for a royal Stuart. Yet his youth was contemporary with the French Revolution, which only made him more of a Tory. His infancy dwelt with sad excitement on our disasters in the American War of Independence. Thus he lived in the Medea’s-caldron of history, with a head and heart full of the knowledge and love of the past,—in poetry, ballad, legend, charter, custom. From all this rich experience of men and women, of the European “Twilight of the Gods,” of clashing societies and politics, of war and literature, came the peculiar and original ply of his genius.  4
  This was ripened probably by a love affair which ended when he was twenty-five (1796); ended as far as hope was concerned, otherwise it closed only with his earthly life, if then. If aught of man’s personality persists after death, then what has so deeply colored and become one with the self as a love like Scott’s, never dies. You find its traces in his novels, and poems, and Journal: it even peeps out in his review of Miss Austen’s novels. From living tradition—on the authority of a lady who, having seen her once, loved her to her own death in extreme age—we are able to say that Scott’s lost love was “an angel rather than a woman.”  5
  To please her he began to aim at success in letters, starting with a translation of Bürger’s romantic ballad, ‘Lenore.’ But it was in vain. Scott bore his loss like a man. The result was not elegiac poetry, but, as Mr. Saintsbury justly remarks, the conquest of “the violence of Scott’s most irritable and ungovernable mind,” so described by an early and intimate friend.  6
  To understand Scott, all this must be kept in memory. People complain of his want of “passion.” Of passion in its purest and strongest phase no man had known more. But if his passion was potent, more potent was his character. He does not deal in embraces, and such descriptions of physical charms and raptures as fill the lines of Burns and Carew, and Paulus Silentiarius. “I may not, must not sing of love,” says his minstrel; but whoever has read ‘Rob Roy,’ and lost his heart to Diana Vernon, ought to understand. “The rest, they may live and learn.” Scott, in Carlyle’s phrase, “consumed his own smoke”; which Carlyle never did.  7
  Next year (1797) Scott married the lady—Miss Carpenter or Charpentier—to whom he was the fondest and most faithful of husbands. Hogg calls her “a perfect beauty”; small, dark, and piquante, and “a sweet, kind, affectionate creature.” Mrs. Scott had humor and high spirits, as one or two of her letters show; she made no kind of literary pretensions; and a certain fretfulness in her latest years may be attributed to the effects of a lingering and fatal illness. Scott and she were very happy together.  8
  The details of his professional career at the bar may be omitted. He was an unsuccessful pleader, but got the remunerative office of “sheriff of the forest” of Ettrick. He roamed in Galloway, Liddesdale, and the Highlands; he met “Monk” Lewis, and began some ballads for a collection of his. Already, in ‘The Eve of St. John,’ we see the qualities of Scott—and the defects. In 1802 appeared his ‘Border Minstrelsy,’ printed at Kelm by his school friend, James Ballantyne. This was the beginning of a fatal connection. Scott became secretly a printer and publisher. Though he owns, and justly, to “a thread of the attorney” in his nature, he had neither the leisure nor the balance for a man of business. He became entangled in the system of fictitious credit; he never shook off its meshes; and when a commercial crash came in 1825–26, he was financially ruined. The poet in him had been acquiring treasures of things old, books and curios; he had built for these Abbotsford, an expensive villa on a bad site, but near Tweed; he had purchased land, at exorbitant rates, mainly for antiquarian and poetical reasons of association, partly from the old Scottish territorial sentiment; he had kept open house, and given money with royal munificence; a portion of his gains was fairy gold, mere paper. So Sir Walter was ruined; and he killed himself, and broke his brain, in the effort to pay his creditors. He succeeded, but did not live to see his success. That, in the briefest form, and omitting his politics (which were chivalrous), is the story of a long life, strenuous almost beyond literary example, and happy as men may look for happiness. Of his sons and daughters only one left offspring,—Sophia, wife of John Gibson Lockhart. Of their children, again, only one, the wife of Mr. Hope, later Hope-Scott, left issue,—Mr. Maxwell Scott, from whom descend a flourishing family.  9
  Of Scott’s poems it must be said that he is, first of all and above all, a teller of tales in rhyme. Since Spenser, perhaps, no one had been able to interest the world in a rhymed romaunt. Byron, following Scott, outdid him for the hour in popularity; our own age has seen Tennyson’s Idylls and Mr. William Morris. Thus rare is success in the ancient art of romance in verse. The genre is scarcely compatible (except in Homer’s hands) with deep reflection, or with highly finished language. At Alexandria, in the third century before our era, poets and critics were already disputing as to whether long narrative poems were any longer possible; and on the whole they preferred, like Lord Tennyson, brief “idylls” on epic themes.  10
  Sir Walter, of course, chose not epic but romance; he follows the mediæval romanticists in verse, adding popular ballad qualities after the example, in method and versification, of Coleridge’s ‘Christabel.’ The result was a new form; often imitated, but never successfully. How welcome it was to an age wearied with the convention of the Popeian heroic couplet, in incompetent hands, need not be said. In our age Scott’s narrative verse mainly appeals (as he said himself that he appealed) to young people. Older lovers of poetry want subtler style and deeper thought.
  “Though wild as cloud, as stream, as gale,
Flow forth, flow unrestrained, my Tale,”
said the poet. He judged himself, on the negative side, with perfect accuracy. Nobody knew his own defects better. “Our father says that nothing is so bad for young people as reading bad poetry,” says his daughter; and he did not wish his children to read his ‘Lays’ and ‘Ladys.’ Yet he knew by an amiable inconsistency that his appeal was to young people.
  In responding to that appeal, the present writer is, and hopes to remain, young. The nine-and-twenty knights of fame who stabled their steeds in Branxholme Hall charm him as much as they did when his years were six. The Ride of William of Deloraine remains the best of riding ballads. The Goblin Page abideth terrible and grotesque. And it is so with the rest. We cannot force our tastes on others. If any man’s blood is not stirred by the last stand of the spears of Scotland at Flodden, when
  “The stubborn spearmen still made good
Their dark impenetrable wood,
Each stepping where his comrade stood
      The instant that he fell,”
in that man’s blood there can be very little iron. It is not that one would always be reading poetry of war. But war too has its poetry, and here it is chanted as never before nor since. Scott’s “scenery” now wearies many readers; but in the early century it was novel; and was usually seen at the speed of The Chase, or of the hurrying of the Fiery Cross, in the ‘Lady of the Lake.’ How often, looking at the ruined shells of feudal castles of the west,—Ardtornish, Dunstaffnage, and the others,—one has thought of his verse on these fortresses,—
  “Each on its own dark cape reclined,
And listening to its own wild wind.”
  The task of reviving Celtic romance was left to a Lowland Scot, with very little of Celtic blood in his veins. In ‘Rokeby’ my own taste prefers the lyrics, as “Oh, Brignall banks are wild and fair,” and “A weary lot is thine, fair maid,” and “When the dawn on the mountain was misty and gray.” The ‘Lord of the Isles’ is comparatively confused and feeble.  13
  Apart from—and I think, above—Scott’s success in rhymed narrative, his lyrics hold their place. I heard lately of a very “modern” lady, who, for a collection of exquisite lyrics, could find nothing in Scott worth gathering and binding. This it is to be cultivated beyond one’s intellect! Mr. Palgrave, in ‘The Golden Treasury,’ and Mr. Swinburne, have not been of the fair critic’s opinion. I have myself edited a collection of all Scott’s lyrics. They vary much in merit: but for the essence of all romance, and pitiful contrast of youth and pride and death, ‘Proud Maisie’ is noted; for fire, speed, and loyalty, ‘A Health to King Charles,’ ‘Bonnie Dundee,’ ‘Young Lochinvar,’ Flora MacIvor’s Clan Roll-Call; for restrained melancholy, ‘The Sun upon the Weirdlaw Hill’; for all qualities of the old ballad, ‘The Red Harlaw.’ The great objections to Scott’s narrative poems are, in a hurried age, their length and their diffuseness. In his lyrics he has all his good qualities without the defects. Among defects one would not include want of meditativeness, of the “subjective,” of the magically selected word, because these great merits are not included in his aim. About himself, his passions and emotions (the material of most lyrics and elegiacs), he was not going to speak.  14
  Of Scott’s novels it is nearly as impossible to write here, in space so brief, as of Shakespeare’s plays. Let us take first their defects, to which the author himself pleads guilty. The shortest way to an understanding of Scott’s self-criticism is the reading of his Introductions to ‘The Abbot’ and ‘Nigel.’ He admits his deficiency in plot and construction,—things of charpentage, within the reach of ordinary talent, but often oddly disregarded by genius; witness Shakespeare and Molière. Scott’s conclusions, he owns, are “huddled up”; he probably borrowed the word from his friend, Lady Louisa Stuart. “Yet I have not been fool enough to neglect ordinary precautions. I have repeatedly laid down my work to scale, dividing it into volumes and chapters, and endeavored to construct a story which I meant should evolve itself gradually and strikingly, maintain suspense, and stimulate curiosity, and which finally should terminate in a striking catastrophe.” But he could not do it. He met Dugald Dalgetty, or Baillie Jarvie, who led him away from his purpose. If he resisted temptation, he “wrote painfully to himself, and under a consciousness of flagging which made him flag still more…. In short, sir, on such occasions I think I am bewitched.” So he followed his genius, which was not architectonic. He contented himself with writing “with sense and spirit a few unlabored and loosely put together scenes, but which had sufficient interest in them to amuse.”  15
  As for his style, he tells Lockhart that he “never learned grammar.” His manner is often not only incorrect, but trailingly diffuse; he was apt to pack a crowd of details and explanations, about which he did not care, into a sentence which began anywhere and died out anyhow. This was arrant carelessness. But it was usually accompanied by simplicity and spontaneity; if it does not charm us by cadence, it never irritates us by self-consciousness and futile research. Such are Scott’s palpable defects: and he had of course the “old-fashionedness” of his generation,—not a graceful or magnificent sort of old fashion. For his heroes, and many of his heroines, he entertained a complete contempt,—especially for Waverley. They are only ordinary young people: brave, strong, not clever, honorable, a good deal puzzled by the historical crises in which they find themselves. They are often neither Whig nor Tory, neither Covenanter nor Cavalier, with any energy. The story moves on round them; the characters come and go,—they are not the real interest. Rose Bradwardine is a good, affectionate, ignorant, confiding, pretty girl; perfectly true to nature, but no Rosalind nor Beatrice. Di Vernon, and Catherine Seton, and Rebecca—especially Miss Vernon—are among the few heroines whom we can remember and adore. Then it must be conceded that Scott does not deal in moral or social “problems.” His characters, not unlike most of us, know what is the right thing to do, and do it or leave it alone. Ivanhoe vastly preferred Rebecca to Rowena. An author might give us chapters on his moral and psychological difficulties, and they might be excellent chapters. But Ivanhoe merely conquers his passion practically; and as to the secret of his heart, only a word is dropped. Scott never lingers over interminable tragedies of the emotions. Most of us can supply what is lacking for ourselves in that respect.  16
  It will be seen that Scott’s novels have the obvious blemishes of which many readers are most intolerant, and lack the qualities (“passion,” and “subtlety,” and “style”) of which people literary do now most delight to be talking. We can love Scott with Goethe, Dumas, Thackeray, Mr. Ruskin,—or we can carp at him with Mr. George Moore. It is a matter of taste, which is in great part a matter of character, training, association, and education. But we who admire, and take lifelong pleasure in, Sir Walter, “have great allies,”—the greatest of critical names; we need not fear to speak with the adversary in the gate. We admit the absence of some excellent qualities: we admit the presence of diffuseness, and of what, to exclusive readers of recent novels, is tediousness. Moreover, if like Huckleberry Finn you have “no use for dead people,” and hate history, of course you cannot be pleased with any historical novels. Gentle King Jamie, Queen Mary, Richard of the Lion Heart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Cavaliers and Covenanters, knights and archers, speak a language which you cannot understand, about matters which do not concern you, thrall as you are to your little day of ideas and vogue.  17
  But Sir Walter, “for a’ that,” has qualities which delighted all Europe, and which still delight people who love the past, and love humor, adventure, the spectacle of life. These people are not few; for they must be the purchasers of the endless new editions, cheap or dear, of the Waverley Novels. Sir Walter can tell a story, and he can create men and women—not to mention horses and dogs—of endless varieties, and in every rank. Moreover he can create places: Tully Veolan and many others are, as Mr. Saintsbury says, “our own—our own to pass freely through until the end of time.”  18
  Scott is old now: in his time, as poet and as romancer, he was absolutely new. The poems did not proceed obviously, and by way of manifest gradual evolution, from anything familiar to most men. The old French rhymed romances, Barbour’s ‘Bruce,’ the ancient ballads, and ‘Christabel,’ all went to their begetting; but in themselves they were new. New also was the historical novel, based on vast knowledge, and informed with such life as Shakespeare poured into ‘Henry IV.’ or ‘Julius Cæsar.’ Scott created the genre: without him there had been no ‘Esmond,’ no ‘Master of Ballantrae,’ no ‘Mousquetaires.’ Alexandre Dumas, as historical novelist, is the greatest of Scott’s works.  19
  There is here no space for detailed criticism of the novels. A man might do worse than read ‘Waverley,’ the earliest, and then ‘Redgauntlet,’ the most autobiographical, in succession. Here is the romance of the fallen dynasty, of the kings landless, whose tomb the dying Scott visited in Rome. Had I to choose my private favorite, it would be ‘Old Mortality’; which might be followed (as ‘Waverley’ by ‘Redgauntlet’) by the decline of the Cameronians in ‘The Heart of Mid-Lothian.’ For chivalry ‘Ivanhoe’ is pre-eminent; with ‘Quentin Durward’ for adventure and construction. And after these a man cannot go wrong; though ‘Count Robert of Paris,’ ‘Peveril,’ ‘Castle Dangerous,’ and (in Scott’s opinion) ‘Anne of Geierstein,’ are saddening, and “smack of the apoplexy.” ‘The Pirate’ and ‘The Monastery’ are certainly not novels to begin with, nor is ‘St. Ronan’s Well.’  20
  Of his historical works, ‘The Tales of a Grandfather’ can never be superseded; the ‘Napoleon,’ though readable, is superseded, and was ungrateful taskwork. The essays are a great treasure of enjoyment; the ‘Swift’ is an excellent and wise biography. The ‘Journal’ is the picture of the man,—so much greater, better, kinder, and more friendly than even the author. “Be a good man, my dear,” was his last word to Lockhart: it is the unobtrusive moral of all that he wrote and was.  21

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