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It chanced that the young Countess of Dalkeith came to the land of her husband; and as she was desirous of becoming acquainted with its customs and traditions, she found many willing to satisfy her curiosity; amongst others, Mr. Beattie, of Mickledale, who declared he had a memory for an old-world idle story, but none for a sound evangelical sermon, was ready with his legends, and, with some others of a less remarkable kind, related the story of Gilpin Horner. The young Countess,' said Scott,'much delighted with the legend, and the gravity and full confidence with which it was told, enjoined it on me, as a task, to com pose a ballad on the subject. Of course, to hear was to obey; and thus the goblin story, objected to by several critics, as an excrescence upon the poem, was, in fact, the occasion of its being written.' How the goblin page could have been spared out of the poem, no critic took it upon him to say: his presence or his power prevades every part: much that is done in war or love is influenced by him; and we may as well require the sap to be taken out of a tree in spring, with the hope that it will live, as take away the page and the book of gramery: the interest of the poem depends, in short, upon the supernatural; and the supernatural was the belief of the times, of which the poet gives so true an image.
Having got a subject from the lips of a lady, the poet says, he took, for the model of his verse, the Christabel' of Coleridge, and immediately wrote several passages in that wild irregular measure, which he submitted to two friends of acknowledged taste; they shook their heads at verses composed on principles they had not been accustomed to: they loked upon these specimens as a desperate departure from the settled principles of taste, and as an insult to the established maxims of the learned and the critical. They made a full pause at the startling line
Jesu Maria, shield us well! took up their hats, and went on their way. It appeared, however, that on their road home they considered the matter ripely, and concluded that, though both the subject and manner of verse were much out of the common way, it would be best for the poet to go on with the composition. Thus cheered, the task proceeded; but the author, still doubtful, or perhaps willing, like Pope, to soothe churlish criticism, submitted it to Mr. Jeffrey, who had been for some time distinguish. ed for critical talent; the plan and verse met his approbation; and now, says Scott,' the poem, being once licensed by the critics as fit for the market, was soon finished, proceeding at the rate of about a canto a week. It was finally published in 1805, and may be regarded as the first work in which the writer, who has been since so voluminous, laid his claim to be considered as an original writer. Amongst those who smiled on the poet and his labors are to be numbered Pitt and Fox; but neither of them had much taste for poetry; and I must therefore place their approbation to the account of public opinion.
"Marmion,' the second great work of Scott, followed close-too close, the critics averred on the · Lay of the Last Minstrel,' as if a work of genius can be written too fast, when the author's heart and mind are in trim. The poet now left his little cottage on the side of the Esk, for Ashjesteel on the pleasant. er banks of the Tweed, a place of picturesque beauty, and in a land rife with song and story. Such a step the duties of his station as sheriff required; but there is no doubt that Tweed's silver stream, with its fine fishings, its ancient woods, green glades, and a loftier house and more extensive gardens, had each and all their influence. I visited this place last year in the great poet's company, and looked with an interest, which it was vain to conceal, on the groves of birch, and on the gabel walls of the house itself, where the Author of Waverley had lived and walked. He seemed the better for a sight of the place; and as we passed the river and ascended the oposite bank, looked back at the house, rising tall amid the trees on the precipitous scaur. I consider · Marmion'as the least happy in its story, and the most fiery and impetuous in its narrative, of all the poet's compositions. If we dislike the detail of the fortunes of Clare and De Wilton, and feel little interest in the conversation of Sir David Lindsay, it is quite otherwise with Marmion, villain though he be, and with old Bell-the-Cat, Earl of Angus, and even with the squires, one of vulgar and the other of high degree. But whoever can resist being pleased with these personages, and I think few can, who is not kindled up, as with a trumpet, when Surrey crosses the Till, and James descends from the heights of Flodden to attack him? I know of no poetic description of a battle, in either ancient or modern times, to compare with that of Flodden Field: the whirlwind of action, the vicissitudes of a heady and desperate fight, with the individual fortunes of warriors whom we love or fear, are these ; yet all is in keeping with history. James was a chivalrous prince, Surrey a romantic warrior; they could not, nor did they, fight in a common way: the poet has painted us a picture, and imposed the ideal scene upon us for the reality of truth. The applause of the world on its appearance was loud and long; it lay upon every gentleman's table ; it found a place in every lady's travelling carriage; and pleased all, save certain of the critics. Jeffrey, who, perhaps, had not been consulted before publication, wrote a review at once bitter and complimentary, and it is said had the hardihood to carry the proof-sheets to Scott's dinner-lable, and lay them before him. The poet, acting upon his own maxim of forbearance and gentleness, read the article, and saying • Very well-very well,' returned it to the author. The poet's wife snatched it out of his hand, and glancing over it, exclaimed, I wonder at your boldness in writing such a thing, and more at your hardihood in bringing it to this table!' The review, though friendly in many places, did nothing like justice to the merits of the poem, while it dwelt with relentless severity where haste or carelessness, real or imaginary, were presumed. If I condemn the injustice of Jeffrey, what shall I say of Lord Byron, who made the circumstance of Scott's receiving a thousand pounds for the poem a matter of reproach to the author ? His Lordship, with all his talents and his property, was more solicitous about a high price for his works than all the poets of his day and generation put together, and penned the most urgent letters for high prices and prompt payments that ever a bard wrote.
I have said that Pitt and Fox smiled on the minstrel and his works: the former, it appears, expressed a desire to William Dundas to be of service to the poet; and the situation of a principal clerk in the Court of Session having been pointed out as likely to be soon vacant, arrangemenents were made by which the incumbent was permitted to retire on his full salary, the poet performing the duty gratis till death should render it no longer necessary. Pitt died before he could sanction this arrangement, though the commission lay in the office ready for the sig. nature of His Majesty. What was left undone by Pitt was fulfilled by his suc. cessor Fox, for Earl Spencer, in the handsomest manner, gave directions that all should be completed as Pitt had planned. For five or six years the poet labored without recompense ; at last all obstacles were removed, and he obtained the emoluments of his situation. For these marks of ministerial kindness, Whig and Tory, Scott speaks with the most humble thankfulness : he was certainly the best judge, at least, of his own feelings; but when we consider that the Court of Session requires such services, and that the places are filled up with men who cannot have a tithe of his talent, our admiration of government patronage will be lessened.
I have omitted, or rather delayed to mention till now, a new edition which the poet gave us of the romance of Sir Tristrem,' accompanied by a dissertation suficiently ingenious and speculative upon the poetry of the century preceding Chaucer. It is professedly a learned work ; but on no production, however barren, could Scott labor without turninır sterility into fruitfulness, and barrenness into beauty. I shall not say anything of the anthor's theory, that the Scotch minstrels of the Border wrote a more poetic and elegant English in the reign of Alexander the Third, than the English themselves, because, though he seeins to make good his assertion, I cannot at all believe it: I turn with more pleasure to his edition of Dryden, which, in 1809, followed. Marmion. Of the dramas and prose of Dryden-- the latter the best part of his works-the world knew little ; and the editor made it his business to arrange all that he wrote in the order of composition, illustrate the text with such notes as distance of time rendered necessary, and add a new life, written with much care and knowledge, into which were admitted such anecdotes and incidents as had come to light since the days of Johnson. This, which to other men would have been the work of a life-time, he completed in the compass of a twelve-month, and set his hand
at liberty for a poem which he always, I am told, regarded as the best of his poetic compositions.
The Lady of the Lake,' written in 1809, and published in 1810, I have always considered as the most interesting of all the epic stories, which Scott told in verse; nor is this all the merit; it is very various and picturesque, full of fine situations, and incident, and character. I suspect that its great success arose mainly from the sort of set-on, which the highland tartan made against the hod. din gray of the lowlands; the demi-barbarous heroism of the mountains, against the more polished generosity of the vales. All this was new to the world, and novelty is an attractive commodity, and rather a scarce one. The poems of Ossian gave us the feelings and manners of a remote era, but did not contain a single picture of what could be confirmed by tradition or by history; they were also reckoned spurious by very sensible men. Scott had therefore no rival to remove from the people's love; nor had any poet arisen, whose song was so agree. able to the world as his own. Regarding the composition of this poem, he says, • I had read a great deal, and heard more, concerning that romantic country, where I was in the habit of spending some time every autumn; and the scenery of Loch Katrine was connected with the recollection of many a dear friend and merry expedition of former days. A lady to whom I was nearly related, and with whom I lived during her whole life, on the most brotherly terms of affection, was residing with me at the time when the work was in progress, and used to ask me what I could possibly do, to rise so early in the morning, (that happening to be the most convenient time to me for composition). At last, I told her the subject of my meditations; and I can never forget the anxiety and affection expressed in her reply. Do not be so rash,' she said, “iny dearest cousin. You are already popular--more so, perhaps, than you yourself will believe, or than I can even fairly allow to your merits. You stand high; do not rashly attempt to climb higher, and incur the risk of a fall; for depend upon it, a favorite will not even be allowed to stumble with impunity.' I replied to this affectionate expostulation, in the words of Montrose,
He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
To gain or lose it all." If I fail, I said, it is a sign I ought never to have succeeded, and I will write prose for life : you shall see no change in my temper, nor shall I eat a single meal the worse. But if I succeed,
" Up with the bonnie blue bonnet,
The dirk and the feather an'a'." If I remember right, the critics were pretty unaminous in their commendations of the - Lady of the Lake ; 'but such was the popularity of the poet, that the pubo lic may be fairly said to have taken up the matter for themselves, regardless of the admonition of the learned, or the colder cautions of critics. It has many and various beauties : the retreat of Ellen Douglas in her Bower in the Loch Katrine isle, may be read any time along with the fine retreat of Erminia in Tasso ; the rising of the Clans at the signal of the Fiery Cross, is more poetic than any arousal by message or by trumpet ; the highland ambush rising at the signal of Roderick Dhu, and then disappearing at a wave of his hand; the single coinbat between the Chief and Fitz-James, and the chains and warders for the Græme' scene at the conclusion, are all in the truest spirit of chivalry and heroism.
Scott had other pursuits which he set as much store by as poetry ; indeed, he generally wished us to understand, that he was not an over-zealous worshipper of the muse-one who sometimes paid her a visit, rather than belonged to her household. He resolved to avoid living upon the bounty, as he refused to wear the livery, of her Parnassian ladyship ; and he was right in this; for her bounty, as some of our best poets, were they living, could safely affirm, is seldom equal to the purposes of life ; in short, he resolved to make literature a staff and not a crutch. It followed, therefore, that literary men were not alone to be his friends and companions. It was my first resolution,' he says, 'to keep as far as was in my power, abreast of society, continuing to maintain my place in general coinpany, without yielding to the very natural temptation of narrowing myself to what is called literary society. By doing so, I imagined I should escape the besetting sin of listening to language, which, from one motive or other, ascribes a very undue degree of consequence to literary pursuits, as if they were, indeed, the business, rather than the amusement of life. The world is always willing enough to think lightly of intellectual works, and it is not perhaps very becoming in one who owed his fame and importance to these matters, which lie calls . amusements,' to help the world to pull them down. Literary men form a portion of society, and their productions are a matter of trade like any other commodity ; they are at least, therefore, entitled to be ranked with those who not only embellish life, but perform some of its business. Among other things. the poet prided himself not a little on his services in a squadron of volunteer cay. alry, at a time when thousands, and hundreds of thousands, appeared on horse or on foot,- when Pitt, to use the poet's own language
Armed the freeman's hand to guard the freeman's laws. My services,' he says, ' were found useful in assisting to maintain the discipline of the corps, being the point on which their constitution rendered them most amenable to military criticism. My attention to the corps took up a good deal of time; and while it occupied many of the happiest hours of my life, it fur. nished an additional reason for my reluctance again to encounter the serere course of study, indispensable to success in the juridical profession,' These I consider as not unpleasing traits in the life of this illustrious person : one is amused to think, how useful the poet of · Marmion' appeared in his own eyes, riding out to the Links of Leith, marshalling the equestrian heroes of the year of grace 1810, and how pleased he was, to think that he could sit in his saddle, and shake his sword in the sun as well as the best of the band.
Between the appearance of the Lady of the Lake' and . Rokeby,' three years elapsed, and these were dedicated to other matters than verse. Of Ashiesteel, he was but the tenant ; and it was his wish to become the proprietor of some fair and pleasant spot, where he could build a house according to his own notions, plan an orchard and garden in keeping with his own fancy. He found the place which he wanted in Abbotsford, six or seven miles farther down the Tweed. It did not,' said Scott,' possess the romantic character of Ashiesteel, my former residence ; but it had a stretch of meadow-land along the river, and possessed, in the phrase of the landscape gardener, considerable capabilities.' Above all, the land was my own. It had been an early wish of mine, to connect myself with my mother earth, and prosecute those experiments, by which a spe. cies of creative power is exercised over the face of nature.' He wished too, he said, to be able to take the quaint counsel of the old writer, who advised his friend, for health's sake, to take a walk of a mile or two before breakfast, and, if possible, to do it on his own land. The house of Abbotsford-called by a travelling Frenchman, a Romance in stone and lime, and by the poet himself a dreamlike mansion-is in a sort of castellated gothic style, and stands closely embow. ered in woods of its great owner's own planting; the library contains many rare and valuable works; the armory, many arms which belonged to heroes, or otherwise remarkable men ; nor is painting or sculpture wanting to add the charms of art to the beauty of the place. There is beauty without, and plenty of accommodation within. The Tweed runs broad and fair past the walls ; the Cowdenknowes may be seen from the turrels; the Eildon Hills cloven in three, by the magic of old Michael, tower up so stately and high, that they almost overlook the house ; the Huntley Burn, where True Thomas had his adventure with the Fairy Queen, and the magnificent ruins of Melrose Abbey, are in the neighborhood; and on the whole,
It is, I ween, a lovely spot of ground. Having built his house, planted his lands, and laid out his garden-all of which he superintended himself, and was, I have been told, somewhat difficult to please, he turned his attention to verse once more, and in the year 1813 an
nounced · Rokeby. Public expectation was raised very high; and Scott had yet to prove that his old works might be the greatest rivals his new had to encounter. The story of Rokeby 'is not so well told as that of the · The Lady of the Lake;' it has not such stirring truopet-tongued chapters as · Marmion, nor has it so much tranquil grace as may be found in the · Lay of the Last Minstrel ;' neither are his English Buccaneers so captivating as his Highland Chiefs; yet, it is a noble poem, abounding with spirit and originality. I am disposed to think the characters of Bertram Risinghame, and the Knave-Minstrel, are superior to any other which the poet had yet drawn; they more than approach the heroes of the Waverley Novels. On the day of publication, I met the Editor of a London Journal with the volume under his arm, and inquired how he liked it; he gave his shoulders a shrug, and said, 'So, so !-a better kind of ballad-style ! --a better kind of ballad-style!' A light and sarcastic poem by Moore, makes one lady ask another,
Pray have you got Rokeby ?-for I hwe got minem
The mail-coach edition, prodigiously fine. Booksellers, it seems, had found it profitable to hurry the volume from Edinburgh by the mail-coach.
When Scott was writing · Rokeby,' another subject, he says, presented itselfthis was the adventures of the Bruce, as related in the · Lord of the Isles.' He now took up the Scottish story ; finished and produced it to the world : it was not even so warmly welcomed as 'Rokeby.' The author found out the error which he had committed: 'I could hardly ,' he says, “have chosen a subject more popular in Scotland, than anything connected with the Bruce's history, unless I had attempted that of Wallace ; but I am decidedly of opinion, thată popular or what is called a taking title, though well qualified to ensure the pubfishers against loss, is rather apt to be hazardous than otherwise to the reputation of the author. He who attempts a subject of distinguished popularity, has not the privilege of awakening the enthusiasm of his audience ; on the contrary, it is already awakened, and glows, it may be, more ardently than that of the author himself,' The author seems to be of the same opinion as the world, respecting this poem; yet it would be difficult to show in what it is inferior to the best. There is the same fire and impetuosity of diction and narrative, and a higher heroic dignity of character than in any of the other poems. The two Bruces are drawn with fine historical skill; the death of the page is one of the most touching episodes ever written ; the voyage from Arran Isle, under the influence of the supernatural light, is sublime in an eminent degree ; and the Battle of Bannockburn may almost vie with that of Flodden. It is inferior, because it is not better: the world is not satisfied with an author unless he be continually surpass. ing himself. “The sale of fifteen thousand copies,' says Scott, 'enabled the au. thor to retreat from the field with the honors of war.'
I may class the · Don Roderick,' and · The Bridal of Triermain,' and · Harold the Dauntless,' together; not because they have any resemblance to each other, but I consider them as inferior works in conception and execution, and not quite worthy of being named with the five noble romances which preceded them.
Don Roderick was sharply handled by the critics; it did not suit with the aim of the poem, which was to arouse the spirit of resistance against an usurper in Spain and Portugal, to describe repulse and defeat. Had the poet related the disastrous retreat of Sir John Moore, he would have destroyed the unity as well as the propriety of his poem. The chief fault of the work was the strange long step which the author tvok, from the days of King Roderick to those of Lord Wellington; the olden times mingled ungracefully with latter events; the story seemed like a creature with a broken back-the extremities were living, but there was no healthy or muscular connexion. · The Bridal of Triermain,' and Harold the Dauntless,' require no lengthened examination; they were chiefly remarkable for the vigorous images which they gave, particularly the latter, of times which we have no sympathy in, and for being published anonymously. There was something of an imitation, it seems, attempted in the Bridal of Triermain,' of the manner of William Erskine, As he was more than suspected,' says Scott, of a laste for poetry, and as I took care in several places to mix something which