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The life of Walter Scott has been given to the public by his son-in-law, J. G. Lockhart, in seven volumes of wholesome reading. The first chapter of the first volume is an autobiographical fragment found, after death, among Sir Walter's papers. This chapter, at least, should be read by every student. Few writers have seen more clearly or have stated more modestly just the circumstances which led them into authorship. In what is left unsaid, as well as in what is said, this short chapter by Scott's own hand is a model of discrimination. The essential events of his early life, that is to say, his life so far as it had a bearing on his work, are given with cheerfulness and vivacity; while occurrences of interest only to his immediate family and friends, occurrences without particular influence on his thought and literary activity, are as cheerfully suppressed. We regret that Scott so abruptly abandons his account as soon as the period of his preparation is past; but, short and unfinished as the fragment is, it is yet long enough and sufficiently complete to direct the young student's attention profitably and to put him on his guard against the two extremes of literary biography.
It is a favorite pastime of some critics to point out exactly how great writers come to be great. After an author has attained celebrity they are able to account for each step in his progress with such minuteness and to cast such a halo of inevitable cause and effect about his head that we almost wonder the world does not see a new star in the sky when an author is born. Other critics, again, leave us an impression that there is no accounting for the appearance of literary ability. Great minds arise as if by chance, do their work in a way unknown to us, bequeath us their masterpieces, and pass away leaving us in ignorance of when and where and whether genius will reappear. The profitable field of thought, especially for students, lies between these extremes. We cannot tell which of the many acorns now forming will become the tallest oak in the forest; but we can be pretty sure there will be oaks, and tall oaks, in the future. We can gain an idea of the particular conditions of soil and climate favorable to forest growth, and when we do find a stately oak, we may be certain that it sprang from an oaken ancestry, that the acorn was sound, that forest conditions were favorable, and that the young tree followed the laws of growth by striking its tap root deep downward, by throwing its branches upward, and its leaves outward to the sunlight. Ability needs not title nor wealth ; but it does not spring from a light and trifling family. Noble thoughts are not begotten by ignoble associations, nor is literary success the offspring of idleness and wasted opportunity. There are periods in the lives of nations when great sowings of ideas are followed by great gatherings of books. When a national stir develops leaders in thought as well as in action, they who are able and ready find opportunity.
Edinburgh was a famous old town, full of cultured homes and promising families with excellent schools and a learned university. Many a bright boy looked up at the old Castle rock with admiration, or took his way through the narrow wynds to school, or spent his half holiday in scaling Arthur's Seat, or in strolling on the sands of Leithside; but just why one particular lad of all these lads became the great poet and novelist of Scotland it would be hard to say. We can only point out the favorable conditions and circumstances under which Walter Scott grew from a story-loving child into a capital story-teller, and from that into a great romancer in prose and in verse.
Ancestry. - Scott's family tree grew in good soil midway between the poverty of the peasantry and the heights of nobility. The young lad had reason to be interested in the doings of his ancestors on both sides of the family. Scotts, Rutherfords, MacDougals, Campbells, Haliburtons, Swintons, and Buccleughs, — they were active in border fight and foray. Pass through the southeastern part of Scotland, through the valleys of the Teith, the Tweed, the Teviot, the Liddel, and the Yarrow, and wherever a crumbling castle calls up a tradition of troublous times you are likely to find that Scott's ancestors were foremost in attacking or else foremost in defending the outworks. In time of war they were prompt and courageous. They followed the royal banner of Scotland through its vicissitudes. They were in the glorious fight of Bannockburn; they fell with their king at Flodden; their bones are beneath the sod of every battlefield.
Wherever he went, Scott found battle grounds in the valleys, castles on the hillsides, and stories and songs in the minds of the people, that brought up not only Border incident and Border life, but the history of his own family as well. Some idea of this may be had from the statement that he had over ten thousand kinsmen (blood relatives), able to bear arms. Scott's ancestry was of just the degree to make him a teller of Scottish story. His grandfather was a sheep-farmer, his father was an attorney in Edinburgh, his mother was the daughter of an eminent physician. Had his father been an earl and he himself a prospective member of the House of Lords, it is quite unlikely that he would have cared for the local traditions and the minstrelsy of his own immediate neighborhood; or, at least, it is altogether probable that his mind would have been taken up with other affairs.
Scott followed up his literary pursuits with unexampled eagerness, but the work was not what he preferred. Scott would have chosen to be the owner of a lordly castle, rather than to be the minstrel who sang at its board. His disposition was essentially martial. To his dying day he would have preferred to be a military hero, a victor at Waterloo or Trafalgar, rather than to be, as he modestly supposed, a mere entertainer of his own day and generation. Had he been, like Burns, the son of a laboring man, his work certainly would have been different. He might not have had an opportunity to collect the minstrelsy of the Border. Even if he had become familiar with it, he could not have felt the interest that comes from family traditions. One would
describe the Tea Party in Boston Harbor with greater zest if he knew that his own great grandfather had dressed as an Indian and thrown some of the tea chests overboard; one could enter into the affair of King's Mountain with keener interest if he knew that his own forefathers wore coonskin caps and carried smoothbore flintlocks in that memorable fight.
As an illustration, the grandfather of Scott's grandfather was the grandson of a Walter Scott called Auld Watt of Harden, who wedded the most beautiful woman in the valley of the Yarrow. Now Auld Watt was a warlike old chieftain who made most of his living by taking a trip every now and again into the northern part of England, whence, unless caught napping, he and his retainers returned to their Yarrow fortress with as fine a drove of cattle as they could find, and as much household gear as they could tie to their saddles. One day, after a period of inactivity, Watt's wife, “The Flower of the Yarrow,” served to him and his friends a dinner, the principal feature of which was a large dish containing nothing but a pair of spurs. They took the hint, so the story runs, went south and returned in due time with abundant supplies for her larder. Scott had scrambled over their fallen dwelling and had heard these tales from early boyhood. What wonder that he made the names of these old ancestors ring, as he himself says, in many a border ditty.
Childhood. — As might be expected from such parentage Walter Scott was a most vigorous infant. Unfortunately, however, he contracted a fever from a consumptive