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It is the special purpose of this edition of Scott's poetical masterpieces to render them available for critical study as English Classics. To this end the Notes are adapted. They are devoted to such points as are likely to occur in the course of the critical reading of the poems, under the guidance of a good teacher.
The Etymological Notes do not include words which are explained in the ordinary school dictionaries.
THE COLLEGE, SPRING GROVE,
The chief events in the life of Sir Walter Scott are given in the subjoined Chronological Table, in connection with the literary and political history of his time. That table shows his historical position as a poet much more clearly than any critical exposition could do. Beginning to write five years after the death of Cowper, his fame was at its height when that of Wordsworth and Coleridge was struggling for existence, and when they were creating the poetical taste which was destined to raise them to a higher rank as poets than he has any claim to occupy. Again : his decline as a poetwhich marks the transference of his great powers to another sphere of creative composition—is coincident with the rise of Byron as a poet of the same genus, with well-marked specific differences; and with that of Keats and Shelley as harbingers of the subtle metaphysical poetry of the present generation.
Scott is essentially a Ballad poet. Ballad poetry was in literature his first love—the spring at which he drank his earliest inspiration. Each of his greater poems is a synthesis, or "new concrete," formed out of ballad elements. Some of his poems have been called novels in verse: they may be more correctly described as dilated or expanded ballads. He himself acknowledged this when he described his earliest considerable poem as, in style and form, a revival of Minstrel-craft. The great charms of Scott's poetry are simply the characteristics of the old ballad, refined and chastened by the influences of modern art and higher culture. Narrative in form, and simple in style and language, his poems appeal to the sympathies and state of knowledge of the mass of the people. They are addressed broadly to the national sentiment. They do not subject the intellect to any violent strain. They are entirely free from subtleties of thought-from all nice subjectivities, remote allusions, and hidden meanings. Their tone, too, is eminently manly and healthful. The crowning distinction of their character is, that they are genuine transcripts of nature. There is, withal, a delicious artlessness and abandon in Scott's delineations both of nature and of human nature, which forms the most enduring charm of his works. Without their splendid descriptions of Scottish scenery, and their apt allusions to Scottish feudal history, Scott's poems would, to the great mass of readers, be “flat, stale, and unprofitable.” Indeed, the command he had over these materials, and the manner in which he used them, constituted the great secret of his poetical art.
His power as a descriptive poet lies in the grasp which he takes of the grander and broader features of natural scenery: he deals in bold outlines and striking effects, rather than in minute details. His fancy is apt rather than rich, homely rather than brilliant. The elements, or rudimentary ideas, which go to the composition of his pictures, are surprisingly few.
The topographical element bulks very largely in Scott's poems. They are historical romances set in a geographical framework. The skill with which he manipulates the names of his favourite haunts, and the evident love with which he dwells upon them--- investing them, as he does, with a romantic interest--form one of the chief sources of his popularity. It is to this strong local colouring, as much as to anything else, that his tales are indebted for that vraisemblance which endears them to the hearts of the Scottish people. It is this that makes the south and centre of Scotland preëminently the Land of Scott. It was this that drew so many pilgrims to his shrine; so much so that Mr. Cadell could write: “It is a well-ascertained fact, that, from the publication of 'The Lady of the Lake,' the post-borse duty in Scotland rose in an extraordinary degree; and, indeed, it continued to do so regularly for a number of years, the author's succeeding works keeping up the enthusiasm for our scenery which he had thus originally created.”
Scott's power as a narrative poet--as an expositor rerum gestarumis only second to his power in description. Next to his descriptions of the Trosachs and the Cuchullin mountains, we rank his account of the combat between Fitz-James and Roderick Dhu; of the heroic capture of Turnberry Castle; of the deaths of Marmion, De Boune, and De Argentine. These narratives abound in life and vigour. He sweeps through them with untired wing, and with a glorious sense of freedom and power. It must be admitted that the progress of his stories is often laboured, from the weight of historical and antiquarian detail which they have to carry. In the descriptive passages the reader is sometimes apt to lose his way in the maze of geographical digressions. But in the scenes of heroism and daring adventure, the interest never flags: the poet puts forth all his unfettered strength, and carries his reader along with him in his invincible career.
The delineation of character in Scott's poems-and in this respect they differ from his novels - is subordinate both to the descriptive and to the narrative elements. In no case does the development of the plot depend upon the analysis or development of character. The interest depends rather upon the concurrence of events than upon the triumph of principles. The reader's sympathies are diffused over the general result, rather than centred in the fate of particular personages. Subordinate characters are sometimes more estimable than the ostensible heroes. Cranstoun, the hero of “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” makes a poor figure in the poem, and excites far less interest than William of Deloraine. Roderick Dhu is the real hero, the central character, of “The Lady of the Lake.” Lord Marmion is “ a haughty gallant, gay Lothario,” a cavalier of the seventeenth century, clothed in the trappings of the sixteenth: the real hero of the poem is the Palmer, De Wilton. Ronald, the Lord of the Isles, is a selfish, faithless, and conceited' Highlander. The true dénouement of the poem is not his marriage with the Maid of Lorn, but the triumph of Bruce at Bannockburn.
True to his character as a Ballad poet, Scott makes large use of the supernatural element. “ The Lay of the Last Minstrel” is based upon, as it was suggested by, the legend of Gilpin Horner. The scene at the tomb of Michael Scott, in the same poen, is another weird fancy. In “Marmion,” the host's tale of the Elfin Warrior, and the apparitions at the City Cross, are conceived in the same vein, The Augury of the Taghairm, or Oracle of the Hide, in “ The Lady of the Lake," and the appearance of the phantom beacon in “ The Lord of the Isles," we owe, in like manner, to that fondness for the purely romantic and supernatural aspects of the ballad which Scott had imbibed along with his admiration for Bürger's “ Lenore" and