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IN studying Scott's poems we have the advantage of
1 having notes by the Author. The value of these notes is not so much that they support his statements and prove his pictures to be drawn from the life ; it is rather that they shew how Scott composed, and how large an element memory supplied in his imagination. The popular view of imagination, as a faculty that invents out of nothing, is contradicted at once by the practice of inventors as well as by the philosophy of the mind. Imagination draws its food from the storehouse of memory. It may in fact be defined as “ productive association, that is, a power of linking together old impressions so as to produce new combinations. Shakspere did not build out of nothing: he took his plots from the chroniclers or from former playwrights, a course which Goethe most strongly recommends—“it is only when facts and characters are provided that the poet's task begins of animating them into a whole.”And in this respect Ruskin happily compares Scott to Turner :
“How far I could shew that it held with all great inventors, I know not, but with all those whom I have carefully studied (Dante, Scott, Turner, and Tintoret) it seems to me to hold absolutely: that their imagination consists, not in a voluntary production of new images, but an involuntary remembrance, exactly at the right moment, of something they had actually seen.
“Imagine all that any of these men had seen or heard in the whole course of their lives, laid up accurately in
* Cp. i. 20, obs.
their memories as in vast storehouses, extending, with the poets, even to the slightest intonations of syllables heard in the beginning of their lives, and, with the painters, down to minute folds of drapery, and shapes of leaves or stones; and over all this unindexed and immeasurable mass of treasure, the imagination brooding and wandering, but dream-gifted, so as to summon at any moment exactly such groups of ideas as shall justly fit each other : this I conceive to be the real nature of the imaginative mind, and this, I believe, it would be oftener explained to us as being by the men themselves who possess it, but that they have no idea what the state of other persons' minds is in comparison; they suppose every one remembers all that he has seen in the same way, and do not understand how it happens that they alone can produce good drawings or great thoughts."
It was this memory with “his infinite diligence in the preparatory studies” which was the parent of Scott's truth of detail in execution and of the rapidity or “spontaneous impulse” of his compositions. But Scott's memory and diligence would have been nothing unless animated by the intensity of his enthusiasm. A lady has given us a picture of Scott at six years old. “He was reading to his mother a description of a shipwreck. His passion rose with the storm, he lifted his eyes and hands; there's the mast gone, says he ; crash it goes !they will all perish !” And when a little older, we read, “ He used to interest us by telling us the visions, as he called them, which he had had when lying alone. ... Child as he was, I could not help being highly delighted with the description of the glories he had seen. ... The marvellous seemed to have such power over him that the expression of his face shewed a deep intensity of feeling, as if he were awed even by his own recital.' He says of himself, “ The love of natural beauty, more especially when combined with ancient ruins, became
RUSKIN, Modern Painters, Part v. ii. 17.
with me an insatiable passion.” In later years he was often “subject to fits of abstraction, becoming so completely absorbed in thick-coming fancies as to be unconscious of where he was and of what he was writing."2
Scott describes the powers of his own imagination in the Introduction to Marmion :
“ Stay yet, illusion, stay a while,
My wilder'd fancy still beguile!
Though all their mingled streams could flow-
Of Tweed's dark waters rushing on." This imaginative power is the key to his greatness as a romance-writer.3 To it he owes his wonderful power of realizing the actions of his characters, and of depicting
These proofs of Scott's “poetic temperament” are taken from Mr. Palgrave's interesting Introduction to the Globe Edition of Scott, p. xiii. xv. the scenes they move in. His greatness appears more in his novels than in his poems, though in these too great narrative power is shewn. A good specimen of this is the meeting of Fitz-James and Roderick Dhu in the Lady of the Lake, with its climax in the Combat. The descriptions of Nature in his poems, such as the stanzas on the Trosachs, are at least equal any of the same kind in the novels.
2 Fraser's Magazine, apud Palgrave
3 Scott defines a Romance as “a fictitious narrative in prose or verse, the interest of which turns upon marvellous and uncommon incidents," thus distinguishing it from the Novel, in which “the events are accommodated to the ordinary train of human events and the modern state of society."
It is instructive to watch the growth of a poem. The germ of the Lay was a suggestion that Scott should write on the legend of Gilpin Horner. This was a mischievous dwarf, perhaps invented to account for the unaccountable blunders men make through their own clumsiness. It is a natural instinct to “cry over spilt milk," and we like to vent our spleen on some creature other than ourselves. Now, we should abuse our friends for putting something in our way; in earlier times, we should have abused some imp as the cause of our misfortune. Such an imp was Gilpin Horner. His fiendish origin was proved by his crying “Tint, tint, tint” (i.e lost, lost, lost), to which the hearer answered, “What de'il has tint you?” The imp replying “Be-te-ram," the “de'il” in question received the name of Peter Bertram, and when he called, the dwarf said, “ That is me: I must away”—the spiriting away happily accounting for the imp's disappearance when his mischief was done.
There are two obvious difficulties in founding a romance on such a story.
In the first place, it is not very credible. This is met by the plot being laid in barbarous times before “the schoolmaster was abroad” in the land. If the poet has art enough to make us identify ourselves with the actors, we shall sympathize with their beliefs, and our imagination will make these our own for the time ; especially if the supernatural incidents do not take the shape of isolated interferences with the general order of the world, but win a poetic probability or fitness from having
* Cp. Note on i. 14.