ページの画像
PDF
[ocr errors][merged small][merged small]

Sir Walten Scott, descended from one of the most ancient families of Scotland—the Scotts of Harden, is the eldest surviving son of a gentleman of the same name, who was an eminent writer to the signet at Flinburgh, where the subject of this sketch was born, August 15, 1771. His mother, Mrs Elizabeth Scott, was the daughter of David Rutherford, Esq., writer to the signet, from whom she obtained a handsome fortune. She was a woman of great virtue and accomplishments, with a good taste for poetry, as appeared from some of her productions, which were deemed worthy of being printed after her death, in 1789. Walter, from the tenderness of his constitution, and the circumstance of his lameness, occasioned by a fall from his nurse's arms at two years of age, was in a great measure brought up at home, under the immediate care and instruction of this excellent parent, to whom he was much attached through life, and whose loss he sincerely lamented. Of his early pursuits little is known, except that he evinced a genius for drawing landscapes after nature.—At a proper age he was sent to the High School at Edinburgh, then directed by Dr Alexander Adam. In this school, young Scott passed through the different forms without exhibiting any of those extraordinary powers of genius, which are seldom remembered till the person to whom they are ascribed has become, by the maturity of his talents, an object of distinction. It is said, that he was considered in his boyhood rather heavy than otherwise, and that the late Dr Hugh Blair had discernment enough to predict his future eminence, when the master of the school lamented his dulmess; but this only affords another instance of the fallacy of human opinion in pronouncing upon the real capacity of the youthful understanding." Barrow, the greatest scholar of his age, was discarded as a blockhead by successive teachers; and his pupil, the illustrious Newton,

* The prediction of Dr Blair, here alluded to, arose out of the following circumstances. Shortly after Dr Paterson succeeded to the grammar-school, Musselburgh, where Walter Scott was a short time a pupil, Blair, accompanied by some friends, paid him a visit; in the course of which he examinca several, 4 his pupils, and paid particular

was declared to be fit for nothing but to drive the team, till some friends succeeded in getting him transplanted to college. Having completed his classical studies at the High School, with as much reputation, we suppose, as others of his standing, Walter Scott was removed to the University of Edinburgh, where, also, he passed the classes in a similar manner. His continuance here, however, could not have been long; for, after serving the prescribed terms in the office of a writer to the signet, he was admitted an advocate of the Scotch bar, when he had not quite attained the age of twenty-one.— From this time to the year 1798, his life appears to have passed in a devoted attention to his professional duties, mindful of the advice,

Not to pen stanzas when he should engross.

At the last-mentioned date he entered into the matrimonial state with Miss Carpenter, by whom he has four children. At the close of the year following, he received the appointment of sheriff-Depute of the county of Selkirk; and in March, 1806, he was named one of the principal clerks of Session in Scousand. With regard to this last preferment, it should be observed that his warrant, though drawn, had not passed the . seals when the death of Mr Pitt produced an entire change in the ministry. The appointment of Mr Scott had been effected through the friendship of Lord Melville, who was then actually under impeachment. This circumstance seemed very ominous against the confirmation of the nomination; but, fortunately for Mr Scott, the new ministry consisted of such men as the late Mr Fox, Sheridan, Lord Erskine, and the Marquis of Lansdowne, with several others attached to literature and philosophy; and, in a manner that did them infinite honour, they made no objection to the advancement of their poetical opponent. Thus, as a witty friend remarked, this appointment was the last Lay of the old Ministry.,

attention to young Scott. Dr Paterson thought it was the youth's stupidity that engaged the doctor's notice, and said, “My predecessor tells me, that boy has the thickest skull in the school.” “May be son replied Dr Blair, a but through that thick skull I can discern many bright rays of future genius.”

rt

Released now from the drudgery of professional labour, by the acquisition of two lucrative situations, and the possession of a handsome estate through the death of his father and that of an uncle, Mr Scott was enabled to court the Muses at his pleasure, and to indulge in a variety of literary pursuits without interruption.— His first publications were translations from the German, at a time when the wildest productions of that country were much sought after in England, owing to the recent appearance of that horrible story of Lenora of Burger. The very year when different versions of that tale came out, and some of these highly ornamented, Mr Scott produced two German ballads in an English dress, entitled, “ The Wild Huntsmen," and • William and Helen."

These little pieces, however, were not origimally intended for the press, being nothing more than exercises in the way of amusement, till a friend, to whom they were shown, prevailed upon the author to publish them, and at the same time contributed the preface. Three years elapsed before Mr Scott ventured to appear again in print, when he produced another translation

from the German, a Goetz of Berlichingen,” a

tragedy, by Gathe. Two years afterwards the late Matthew Gregory (commonly called Monk) Lewis, enriched his a Tales of Wonder - with two ballads communicated to him by our author, one entitled a The Eve of Saint John,” and the other • Glenfinlas." In 1802 his first great work, “ The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border," came out, beautifully printed at Kelso, by Ballantyne. This collection immediately arrested (oneral attention, and though the pieces of which it is composed are very unequal, the master-mind and soaring gemius of the poet are conspicuous throughout. The studies of our author at this time were entirely antiquarian. He lived and breathed only among the knights, the heroes, the monks, and robbers of olden time; the feats of chivalry, and the rough heroism of northern warfare and border feuds, were the scenes in which his soul delighted to dwell. He drank deeply of the stream of history as it darkly flowed over the middle ages, and his spirit seemed for a time to be inbued with the mysteries, the superstitions, and the romantic valour which characterised the then chieftains of the north countrie. His next production was a Sir Tristrain, a metrical romance of the thirteenth century, by Thomas of Ercildoun," printed in 1804. Still, however, Mr Scott may be said as yet to have been only rising in fame: but he soon gained enough to have intoxicated an ordinary mind in the applause bestowed upon his - Lay of the last

Minstrel,” which appeared, in quarto, in 1805.The following year he published a collection of • Ballads and Lyrical Pieces.” Shortly after this, public expectation was raised by the promise of a poem, on the perfection of which the hard was said to labour as for immortality. Accordingly, in SoS, appeared - Marmion, a tale of Flodden Field,” which the author himself has characterised as a containing the best and the worst poetry he has ever written." The same year Mr Scott favoured the world with a complete edition of the Works of Dryden, in which he gave a new life of that great writers and numerous notes. But this was not the only instance of the fecundity of his genius and the rapidity of his pen, for, while these volumes were proceeding through the press, he found time for a quarto of a Descriptions and Illustrations of the Lay of the Last Minstrel.• Within a few months after this he undertook, at the request of the booksellers, the superintendence of a new edition of Lord Somers's collection of Historical Tracts; and at the same time edited Sir Ralph Sadler's State Papers, and Anna Seward's Poetical Works. Yet the very year in which these last publications appeared witnessed the birth of another original offspring of his prolific muse. This was . The Lady of the Lake,” the most popular of all his poems, though, in the opinion of many, inferior in several respects to his a Lay of the Last Minstrel.” • The Vision of Don Roderick appeared in 1811, and was intended by its author to commemorate the achievements of the Duke of Wellington and the British army in Spain. This poem is considered a complete failure. • Rokeby was published in 1812-13. It comprises, in an eminent degree, all the beauties and all the defects of our poet's muse. In 1814 a The Lord of the Isles n appeared, but failed to excite equal interest with most of its predecessors. This is the last grand original poem of the northern bard. In the last-mentioned year he also published a prose work, entitled, “ The Border Antiquities of Englandfand Scotland, with Descriptions and Illustrations," and brought out a new edition of Swift, with a biographical memoir and annotations. These were followed by two performances, one in prose and the other in verse, the first entitled a Paul's Letters to his Kinsfolk,” and the other * The Battle of Waterloo. " As an instance of the popularity of Scott's poems, we subjoin a statement of the sale of a Rokeby and . The Lady of the Lake,” in nearly four months, as submitted by the publishers.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[merged small][ocr errors][ocr errors]

8,000 9,548l. We shall now attempt to offer a few critical observations on the three most deservedly popular poems of Walter Scott, viz. The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, and The Lady of the Lake. The Lay of the Last MINsrael is an endeavour to transfer the refinements of modern poetry to the matter and the manner of the ancient metrical romance. The author, enamoured of the lofty visions of chivalry, and partial to the strains in which they were formerly embodied, employed all the resources of his genius in endeavouring to recal them to the favour and admiration of the public, and in adapting to the taste of modern readers a species of poetry, which was once the delight of the courtly, but which has long ceased to gladden any other eyes than those of the scholar and the antiquary. This is a romance, therefore, composed by a minstrel of the present day, or such a romance as we may suppose would have been written in modern times, if that style of composition had been cultivated, and partaken, consequently, of the improvements which every branch of literature has received since the time of its desertion. Upon this supposition, it was evidently the author's business to retain all that was good, and to reject all that was bad, in the models upon which he was to form himself; adding, at the same time, all the interest and the beauty which could possibly be assimilated to the manner and spirit of his original. It was his duty, therefore, to reform the rambling, obscure, and interminable narratives of the ancient romancers, to moderate their digressions,—to abridge or retrench their prolix or needless descriptions,—and to expunge altogether those feeble and prosaic passages, the rude stupidity of which is so apt to excite the derision of a modern reader: at the same time he was to rival, if he could, the force and vivacity of their minute and varied representations—the characteristic simplicity of their pictures of manners—the energy and conciseness

with which they frequently describe great events —and the lively colouring and accurate drawing by which they give the effect of reality to every scene they undertake to delineate. In executing this arduous task, he was permitted to avail himself of all the variety of style and manner which had been sanctioned by the ancient practice, and bound to embellish his performance with all the graces of diction and versification which could be reconciled to the simplicity and familiarity of the minstrel's song. The success which attended Mr Scott's efforts in the execution of this adventurous essay is well known;–he produced a very beautiful and entertaining poem, in a style which might fairly be considered as original, and the public approbation afforded the most flattering evidence of the genius of the author. Perhaps, indeed, his partiality for the strains of antiquity imposed a little upon the severity of his judgment, and impaired the beauty of his imitation, by directing his attention rather to what was characteristic, than to what was unexceptionable in his originals. Though he spared too many of their faults, however, he improved upon their beauties, and while it was regretted by many, that the feuds of border chieftains should have monopolized as much poetry as might have served to immortalize the whole baronage of the empire, yet it produced a stronger inclination to admire the interest and magnificence which he contrived to communicate to a subject so unpromising. MARMion has more tedious and flat passages, and more ostentation of historical and antiquarian lore, than its predecessor, but it has also greater richness and variety, both of character and incident; and, if it has less sweetness and pathos in the softer passages, it has certainly more vehemence and force of colouring in the loftier and busier representations of action and emotion. The place of the prologuizing minstrel is but ill supplied, indeed, by the epistolary dissertations which are prefixed to each book of this poem; but there is more airiness and spirit in the lighter delineations, and the story, if not more skilfully conducted, is at least better complicated, and extended through a wider field of adventure. The characteristics of both, however, are evidently the same;— a broken narrative—a redundancy of minute description—bursts of unequal and energetic poetry—and a general tone of spirit and animation, unchecked by timidity or affectation, and unchastened by any great delicacy of taste, or elegance of fancy. The Lady of the Lake is more polished in its diction, and more regular in its versification, than the author's preceding poems; the story is constructed with infinitely more skill and address;

there is a greater proportion of pleasing and tender passages, with much less antiquarian detail, and, upon the whole, a larger variety of characters, more artfully and judiciously contrasted. There is nothing so fine, perhaps, as the battle in Marmion, or so picturesque as some of the scattered sketches in the Lay of the Last Minstrel; but there is a richness and a spirit in the Lady of the Lake, which does not pervade either of these poems; a profusion of incident, and a shifting brilliancy of colouring, that reminds us of the witchery of Ariosto, and a constant elasticity and occasional energy, which seem to belong more peculiarly to the author himself. At this period Mr Scott had outstripped all his poetical competitors in the race of popularity. The mighty star of Byron had not yet risen; and we doubt whether any British poet had ever had so many of his books sold, or so many of his verses read and admired by such a multitude of persons in so short a time as Walter Scott. Confident in the force and originality of his own genius, he was not afraid to avail himself of diction and of sentiment, wherever they appeared to be beautiful and impressive, using them, however, at all times, with the skill and spirit of an inventor; and, quite certain that he could not be mistaken for a plagiarist or imitator, he made free use of that great treasury of characters, images, and expressions, which had been accumulated by the most celebrated of his predecessors; at the same time that the rapidity of his transitions, the novelty of his combinations, and the spirit and variety of his own thoughts and inventions, show plainly that he was a borrower from any thing but poverty, and took only what he could have given if he had been born in an earlier age. The great secret of his popularity at the time, and the leading characteristic of his poetry, consisted evi. dently in this, that he made use of more common topics, images, and expressions, than any original poet of later times; and, at the same time, displayed more genius and originality than any recent author who had hitherto worked in the same materials. By the latter peculiarity, he entitled himself to the admiration of every description of readers; by the former he came recommended in an especial manner to the inexperienced, at the hazard of some little offence to the more cultivated and fastidious. In the choice of his subjects, for example, he did not attempt to interest merely by fine observations or pathetic sentiment, but took the assistance of a story, and enlisted the reader's curiosity among his motives for attention. Then his characters were all selected from the most common dramatis personae of poetry—kings, warriors, knights, outlaws, nuns, minstrels, secluded dam

[ocr errors]

sels, wizards, and true lovers. He never ventured to carry us into the cottage of the peasant, like Crabbe or Cowper; nor into the bosom of domestic privacy, like Campbell; nor among creatures of the imagination, like Southey or Darwin. Such personages, assuredly, are not in themselves so interesting or striking as those to which our poet devoted himself; but they are far less familiar in poetry, and are therefore more likely to engage the attention of those to whom poetry is familiar. In the management of the passions, again, he pursued the same popular and comparatively easy course. He raised all the most familiar and poetical emotions, by the most obvious aggravations, and in the most compendious and judicious way. He dazzled the reader with the splendour, and even warmed him with the transient heat of various affections; but he nowhere fairly kindled him into enthusiasm, or melted him into tenderness. Writing for the world at large (unlike Byron), he wisely abstained from attempting to raise any passion to a height to which worldly people could not be transported, and contented himself with giving his reader the chance of feeling as a brave, kind, and affectionate gentleman should often feel in the ordinary course of his existence, without trying to breathe into him either that lofty enthusiasin which disdains the ordinary business and amusements of life, or that quiet and deep sensibility, which unfits for all its pursuits. With regard to diction and imagery, too, it is quite obvious that he aimed not at writing in either a pure or very common style. He seems to have been anxious only to strike, and to be easily and universally understood; and, for this purpose, to have culled the most glittering and conspicuous expressions of the most popular authors, and to have interwoven them in splendid confusion with his own nervous diction and irregular versification. Indifferent whether he coins or borrows, and drawing with equal freedom on his memory and his imagination, he went boldly forward, in full reliance on a never-failing abundance, and dazzled, with his richness and variety, even those who are most apt to be offended with his glare and irregularity. There is nothing in Scott's poetry of the severe and majestic style of Milton—or of the terse and fine composition of Pope—or of the elaborate elegance and melody of Campbell—or even of the flowing and redundant diction of Southey ; but there is a medley of bright images and glowing words, set carelessly and loosely together—a diction tinged successively with the careless richness of Shakspeare, the harshness and antique simplicity of the old romances, the homeiiness of vulgar ballads and anecdotes, and the sentimental glitter of the most modern poetry

[ocr errors]

passing from the borders of the ludicrous to those of the sublime—alternately minute and energetic —sometimes artificial, and frequently negligent, but always full of spirit and vivacity—abounding in images that are striking, at first sight, to minds of every contexture—and never expressing a sentiment which it can cost the most ordinary reader any exertion to comprehend. Among the peculiarities of Scott, as a poet, we might notice his singular talent for description, and especially for that of scenes abounding in motion or action of any kind. In this department, indeed, he may be considered almost without a rival, either among modern or ancient bards; and the character and process of his descriptions are as extraordinary as their effect is astonishing. He places before the eyes of his readers a more distinct and complete picture, perhaps, than any other artist ever presented by mere words; and yet he does not enumerate all the visible parts of the subject with any degree of minuteness, nor confine himself by any means to what is visible. The singular merit of his delineations, on the contrary, consists in this, that, with a few bold and abrupt strokes, he sketches a most spirited outline, and then instantly kindles it by the sudden light and colour of some moral affection. There are none of his fine descriptions, accordingly, which do not derive a great part of their clearness and picturesque effect, as well as their interest, from the quantity of character and moral expression which is thus blended with their details, and which, so far from interrupting the conception of the external object, very powerfully stimulate the fancy of the reader to complete it; and give a grace and a spirit to the whole representation, of which we do not know where to look for a similar example. Walter Scott has many other characteristic excellencies, but we must not detain our readers any longer with this imperfect sketch of his poetical character. To the list of poetical works given, above, we have here to add two poems, at first published anonymously, but since acknowledged, viz. ... The Bridal of Triermain,” and a Harold the Dauntless;" and, in 1822, a dramatic sketch called a Halidon Hill." In his preface to the latter, the poet says, that his dramatic sketch is in no particular designed or calculated for the stage, and that any attempt to produce it in action will be at the peril of those who make the experiment. The truth is that, like most of the higher poetical spirits of the age, he has found out a far safer and surer way to equitable judgments and fame, than trusting to the hazardous presentment of the characters he draws, by the heroes of the sock and

buskin, and to the dubious and captious shouts of the pit and gallery. That HalidoN Hill is a native, heroic, and chivalrous dramat—clear, brief, and moving in its story—full of pictures, living and breathing, and impressed with the stamp of romantic and peculiar times, and expressed in language rich and felicitous, must be felt by the most obtuse intellect; yet we are not sure that its success would be great on the stage, if for the stage it had ever been designed. The beauties by which it charms and enchains attention in the closet—those bright and innumerable glimpses of past times—those frequent allusions to ancient deeds and departed heroes—the action of speech rather than of body, would be lost in the vast London theatres, where a play is wanted, adapted to the eye rather than to the head or heart. The time of action equals, it is true, the wishes of the most limited critic; the place, too, the foot of Halidon, and its barren ascent, cannot be much more ample than the space from the further side of the stage to the upper regions of the gallery; and the heroes who "are called forth to triumph and to die are native flesh and blood, who yet live in their descendants. It has all the claims which a dramatic poem can well have on a British audience; yet we always hoped it would escape the clutches of those who cut up quantities for the theatres. The transfer which the poet has avowedly made of the incidents of the battle of Homildon to the Hill of Halidon, seems such a violation of authentic history, as the remarkable similarity of those two disastrous battles can never excuse. It is dangerous to attempt this violent shifting of heroic deeds. The field of Bannockburn would never tell of any other victory than the one which has rendered it renowned: History lifts up her voice against it; nor can the Hill of Homildon tell the story of the Hill of Haidon, nor that of any other battle but its own. It will scarcely be expected that, in this rapid sketch, we should enter into a respective analysis of those works, so well known, and so universally admired, by the appellation of the Waverley Novels.” The painful circumstances which compelled their author to disclose himself are still fresh in the recollection and the sympathy of the public: the motives, or no motives, which induced him so long and so pertinaciously to abstain from avowing himself, it is not our province to criticise, nor do we wish to make a boast of having always believed what could scarcely be ever doubted, viz. that the Great Unknown and the author of Marmion were a one and indivisible.” The annexed is a list of the novels in question,

« 前へ次へ »