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LIFE OF SIR WALTER SCOTT.
TAERE is an old prejudice which strikes its roots very deep in human nature. Christianity and commerce have hitherto striven in vain to destroy it. It takes different forms everywhere. In Scotland and Saxon England it exhibits itself in the distinction created by society between gentle and simple.
The imaginary separation of humanity into these classes is the key to the literary as well as the private character of Sir Walter Scott. The spirit of caste is indeed the source of frightful mischief in general, but it has its periods of utility and its graceful aspects. The latter appeared in their greatest elegance in the works and character of the Scottish bard. To inquire whether 80 amiable, so gifted, and so popular a person descended upon an age, which his genius was fitted to bless, were to open a question which the civilized world has long since settled for itself, by universal and prolonged acclamation.
Walter Scott was born on the 15th August 1771. The site of the house, which was his father's, is now corered by a part of the Edinburgh University. The poet's infancy and childhood were principally spent at his grandfather's farm of Sandyknowe, surrounding the village of Smailholm, near the banks of the Tweed, in the upper part of Berwickshire. Associations connected with this district accompanied him through life. The memories of his ancestry, and the traditions of the wide family of his name, determined for ever the bent of his genius.
The child was remarkably vivacious. It seemed as if the tido of life could not sustain the double strain exerted by the infantine activities of spirit and body. The body yielded. The little imp was only eighteen months old, when his frolics were suspended by a sudden loss of power in the right leg. He was lame for life. Every effort failed to restore the proper powers of the limb. Yet the removals from place to place, involved in these attempts, excited the child's predispositions, and produced indelible local impressions. The growing boy indemnified himself by flights of fancy for the restraints put upon the exertions of his body. Yet he grew up with a powerful frame. His infirmity disqualified him only for those exercises in which regularity and grace of motion are indispensable. He could and did indulge in long excursions on foot. With one arm on the shoulder of a companion, and the aid of a stick at the other side, he wandered in boyhood far and near, about the sides of Arthur Seat, “the furzy hills of Braid," and the more distant Pentlands. The pleasant slopes that surround his “own romantic town” found young Walter an indefatigable explorer. His imagination peopled every spot he trod or saw with the scenes and the inhabitants of former days; and as he conjured up the past with the glowing fancy of youth, be divested it of all its unwelcome elements. The syste. matic education of the schools was not successful in chaining down his mind to the rigorous processes required by the business of life. He received, indeed, some learning there, but his true e:lucation was the acquirement of the stores of knowledge which his hungry spirit gathered up from every source that could minister to the growth of fancy in the romantic direction it took.
Walter Scott, the elder, was a writer to the signet, or attorney at law, in Edinburgh. The family house was in George's Square, then new and fashionable, now somewhat antiquated, but still a favourite locality. But this neighbourhood involved the prudent man of business in nothing that was inconsistent with the most precise proprieties. The time was an age of form. The restraints of home appear to have forced young Walter, although without disregard of filial duty, into habits and opinions, in many respects the reverse of his father's. The latter was Calvinistic and Presbyterian in bis religious belief, and liberal in his politics. The former became Jacobite, Episcopalian, and a Tory. The son grew up in the worship of the modes of earlier generations. His feelings were all away from the present realities of the lawyer's home and office. But where the old tower of Harden reigns over the Border wilds of wood and heather, where the hills and streams of that poetic region, resonant with ballad snatches of wild humour and pathos, mingle the ever present music of nature with the fleeting echoes of the past, there young Walter was in spirit, if not in the body. Not the wordy caution of legal bonds, nor the ready witted shifts of courts of law delighted him, but the bold adventure of that region where law was none in the days of his ancestors. They, in reality a disgrace and a pest living inainly by plunder, shone out through the prison of his fancy with halos of romantic beauty, if not of honourable regard. Thus Scott, by the power of his genius alone, subsequently peopled Scotland throughout with airy forms, created by himself. These, when
united in the imagination with the present majesty of its scencry, have made Scotland the permanent delight, as well as the passing source of pleasure to millions of mankind.
In early youth there blazed through his eyes the light with which his soul was kindled. Every friend, every acquaintance saw in young Scott something beyond the common. It was not only that the lad was bright, but there was a witchery of fascination that was irresistible. The spirit that was so powerful to conceive was also genial to impress. There was a fire of sym. pathy that drew all the life that surged around him into the compass and direction of his spirit. Walter was a favourite with young and old, and the acceptance he always met with drew out his powers in all societies. Essentially aristocratic in all his sentiments, there was yet a grace and kindliness about the lad that drew towards him all hearts, and this gentle spirit Scott ever cherished. It may not have been the true humility that possessed his soul. It may not have been the deepest or widest love that actuated his life. But there was that in his life and character which refined and soothed. In that age Europe was convulsed by war. The fiercest passions agitated for a lengthened time the whole arena of public affairs. But Scott, the magician, was there leavening society by the power of his art, with his own gentleness, through the images of softening beauty with which he filled the imaginations of men.
After leaving school, Walter Scott attended for a short time some of the classes of the Edinburgh University. But an illness interrupted these studies, whilst it promoted still further the education of bis fancy. He was afterwards apprenticed to his father, as a preparation for the profession of advocate or barrister. He was then under fifteen. He acquired, during his apprenticeship, habits of regularity and method which never left him, and became accustomed to what would probably have otherwise been the insufferable drudgery of writing. The manuscript pages of Waverley, exhibited in the Edinburgh Advocates' Library, show how valuable this exercise must have been to him. We are told, besides, that notwithstanding the discursive tendency of his mind, Scott piqued himself on being a man of business. Indeed, the subsequent course of his affairs indicate this part of the training of his youth. It appears as if the gratifications of a literary life demand some serious compensation to destroy the self-satisfaction to which its success gives rise. Thus Scott, partly through his own care to secure for himself all that he might of the inferior reward, and partly to preserve the reputation for honourable dealing to which he was justly entitled, sustained in later years a load of care which, but for a professional acquaint
ance with the relations of business men, might have overwhelmed instead of chastening his spirit. But we anticipate.
In due time the boy began to put on the man. He fell in love, but prudently, as it happened, for the young lady afterwards married another. He became a member of literary societies. He was called to the bar in 1792. Every vacation he made expeditions into the Highlands, and over the most part of the southern counties of Scotland, and the north of England. In these excursions he was indefatigable in the examination of every object of antiquarian interest, and in storing up those memories of ancient days which enabled him to rove at will and with ease throughout the forgotten details of by-past times. In Edinburgh the Parliament House rang with the merriment which succeeded his anecdotes. So did many a supper party of the companions whom he chose to admit to his particular friendship. He studied German, which the author of “The Man of Feeling" introduced to the Edinburgh literati as possessing a rising literature. Goethe, Schiller, and Kant became the companions of the kindred lads. Hitherto we read little of versemaking amongst Scott's accomplishments. There was not any necessity for such expression of his thoughts. They never wanted a friend to whom they might pass in the fresh mood of kindly intercourse. Verse was not in his case either the liberty of a prisoned spirit, or the regulated pastime of a mind wearied with excess of liberty. It became the channel of communication between the poet and the wide world that lay beyond his personal intercourse. Towards that extended audience young Scott began to stretch his flight. A translation from Bürger, a German poet now little heard of, was read at some of the Edinburgh evening parties. Some weeks afterwards, Scott heard of the impression the poem created, sought out the original, and admiring it, resolved to present his friends with a version of his own. This was the origin of the piece entitled, “William and Helen.” The weird character of the German romance of that period, represented to the English mind in the type of Lewis's “Monk,” and subsequently by his tales of wonder, powerfully impressed the readers of German literature. Scott reads one day his poem to a friend. At its concluşion they suffer its unearthly spirit to engross a few minutes' silence. “I wish to heaven," said the poet, “I could get a scull and two cross-bones." His friend takes him immediately to a surgeon. Scott carries home in a handkerchief the sensible images of the dismal feelings of the hour. Mounted on the top of his bookcase, they afterwards found a place amongst the relics of Abbotsford. Some copies of the ballad of William and Helen were printed for private distribution, and this was the poet's first appearance in type. Soon afterwards he completed an. other translation from the same author, which he entitled the * Chase.” The two pieces were published together in October 1796. Amongst the circle of the poet's friends the little volume was heartily welcomed. The public cared nothing about it.
At this time the country was agitated by the warlike movements of the French republic. The aggressions in Italy had roused the spirit of the British youth, who everywhere formed themselves into corps of volunteers. Walter Scott keenly felt his disqualification for infantry drill. But his patriotism was not to be balked. He agitated the forination of a body of cavalry volunteers. He was a fearless rider himself. In the saddle the bold spirit of the Border moss-troopers, his own ancestors, came over him in a better cause. A regiment was formed, of which he became the life and soul. He was appointed paymaster, quartermaster, and secretary. He was actually a great deal more. It was his to animate his comrades with the light spirit of the trooper. In the intervals of the tiresome repetitions of drill, Scott's eye and tongue fired up the flagging zeal which monotony had well-nigh dispelled. His own regimental duties contributed to bring to the budding poet's thoughts the living realities of the military life on horseback. Thus it was that fancy proceeded in him upon a solid basis of fact; and in his actual experience of peculiar situations, the ideal so far blended with the real as to work in him the marvellous faculty of rendering their antagonisms indistinguishable to others. The apparent engrossment of the young advocate's mind, with what were to his fellows only mock military amusements, furnished at this time many a joke at his expense to his less ardent companions. They little knew what was going on in his brain, Scott must have felt a powerful fascination in these cavalry movements. He continued so long as the public mind retained any interest at all in volunteering, as active and as ardent as he was at first.
In the vacation of 1797 Scott met with the lady who became bis wife. She was the daughter of a French royalist, whose widow had taken refuge in England. During an excursion in the north of England, she attracted the attention of Scott and his companions at Gilsland Spa.
The poet's fate was quickly decided by her manifold charms. The young lady possessed some means, and he thought his own professional exertions might make up a sufficiency for both to live on. They were married at Carlisle on the 24th December 1797. They occupied a lodging in Edinburgh, for a short time, until the house in Castle Street was ready.
In the ensuing summer a cottage was taken at Lasswade, a