Sir Walter Scott

IF it is true, as is often affirmed, that Scott no longer has as many readers and admirers as he did, say, fifty years ago, the reason is not hard to find. Our grandfathers, as well as many of ourselves, found in him the first guide into the regions of romance, and when he stood without a rival it is no wonder that he carried everything before him. But, as we all know, there is generally a reaction of the public taste against a writer who has been long admired, — a reaction felt by a later generation, which fully responds only to its own contemporaries, who speak its own language and echo its own desires and regrets; and, besides this, the same persons who once admired an author have a certain feeling of disappointment when, in later years, they read him again, and miss the surprise, the glow, that thrilled them when they were younger. We now see something of the same kind going on in the case of Macaulay, of Dickens, and, possibly, of Tennyson. Twenty years ago, when Macaulay died, a feeling of personal loss went through the English-speaking people, and yet since then we have all been taught to have our fling at him for being uncomplex, without the power of perceiving delicate shades of distinction, and over-fond of an elaborately simple style. As for Dickens, how many people nowadays devote any part of the winter holidays to reading over those Christmas stories to which we all used to look forward as eagerly as do children for the tardy dawn of that day ? Those who read Dickens when they were children, now that they are grown up, are prone to detect inaccuracy where once there seemed to be no fault. Who reads the Pickwick Papers with the glee with which he read it twenty years ago ? Those who laughed over it then have no longer the same high spirits ; the pathos of his other books has grown hackneyed in the hands of later writers, and we who are no longer aroused by it to the once familiar emotion are ungrateful enough to put the blame upon the author.

There is something of this indifference in the way that many people regard Scott. His successors no longer choose large canvases. Where he took a whole century and packed it full of living people, the novelists of to-day busy themselves with a sort of literary pre-Raphaelitism: they take a brief period and, generally, commonplace people, and describe a few tepid passions that flourish in every block in the street. Where Scott drew inspiration from spoken or written history, some of the novels of today read as if they were based on that record of contemporary history, the newspaper. Imagine a man of to-day writing a novel with Queen Elizabeth, or Louis XI. of France, among the characters! Imagine the book-seller who would take the novel in his hand except as a missile! To state it more precisely, the romance has given place to the novel; and the writer of the historical novel has almost disappeared from the surface of the globe.

Since there is so great a change of taste between the time when Scott wrote and the present, those readers who cannot like anything but literary analysis must smile at his broadly drawn characters and heroic incidents. Yet, in general, it is hard to believe that this indifference is not exaggerated by those who write about Scott. He does not receive undivided attachment, but he is still very sincerely admired. That there is a change in the feeling of the world concerning him cannot be denied, but it is a change that can be readily accounted for. We must not forget that he lived in the time of a great literary revival, when, as it were, a great mist had been blown away from a past that had been looked upon with contempt, and the picturesqueness of things suddenly became their most striking quality. The eighteenth century had been a period in which much had been sacrificed to taste. That had been a sort of fetish, just as the principal unromantic enthusiasm of the present day is for scientific exactness. What did Scott care for a few anachronisms that would be the ruin of one of our contemporaries? He thought nothing of confusing all the dates about Shakespeare, in his Woodstock, — and the list of his sins in this respect might be made a long one, — and there are really few readers who are disturbed by such errors, if indeed they be errors. After all, the scientific laws of the imagination are not yet drawn up, and an anachronism is more pardonable than the pedantry that is shocked by it. But what we have learned to admire is precision, completeness of detail, and the analysis of passion : these are not the things that are most abundant in Scott.

It is an old story that it was Bürger’s poems that started Scott out to writing poetry, and Bürger, it must not be forgotten, had been inspired by Percy’s Reliques; the native product had more value when it returned from abroad, like those simple American cheeses that return from England, dubbed with some well-known name, to find extravagant purchasers in the land of their birth. It was only by a sort of reflected light that shone from Germany that this most national of writers was shown the path to immortality, He was already crammed to the lips with old ballads and traditions of Scotland, and in his poems he gave them a literary form, although it was nine years after he published his translations that he offered to the world his Lay of the Last Minstrel, the first of his original poems.

If there is any part of Scott’s work that it is the fashion to look upon with indifference, it is certainly his poetry ; it enjoys the quasi-immortality of the reading-book and the Boy’s Speaker, to be sure, but few grown people read it except for the pleasure of getting an echo of the enthusiasm they felt for it when they were younger. Yet this they are surer to find there than in some of the poetry they once admired. Although it was driven from the field by Byron’s verses, we may well wonder whether it does not now meet more favor than do the greater poet’s Oriental poems. The Corsair, for instance, one might say, has to our ears a note of ungenuineness that is not in what Scott wrote.

When we read Byron’s lines, —

“He knew himself a villain, but he deemed
The rest no better than the thing he seemed ;
And scorned the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
He knew himself detested, but he knew
The hearts that loathed him, crouched and dreaded too.
Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alone exempt
From all affection and from all contempt:
His name could sadden and his acts surprise,
But they that feared him dared not to despise,” etc., —

when we read these lines, and the many that are like them, we see that they introduced a wholly new element, a dramatic interest, which made Scott’s knights and dames appear like figures on a tapestry; but to us Byron’s heroes seem like characters in private theatricals, and Scott’s defiant speeches and wholesome fighting give us a thrill that we are not so sure to receive from Byron’s more successful and more complicated tales. When Byron was at his best, however, his poetry of course far surpassed Scott’s, and it is one of the many instances of Scott’s rare knowledge of himself that he, as he said, struck sail before his new rival. He seems always to have known just what his own powers were; it was one of the many beautiful qualities of his character that he was never spoiled by flattery; and it is a question whether character is not one of the surest means of keeping for a man the fame that must first be won by something done, or said, or written. it would seem as if Ben Jonson’s fame were more a matter of tradition, of inherited respect, than the result of keen appreciation of the value of his heavy plays; and Scott’s lovableness, his kindliness, and pleasant dignity have undoubtedly done their part in keeping his memory fresh. Certainly, no one has ever accused him of vanity, and yet he knew what he could do, and he recognized his limitations in his journal, under date of March 14, 1826. “Also read again,” he says, “ and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going ; but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.” No critic could say a truer thing about him than that.

But what he calls the Big Bow-wow strain is not so simple a thing as it seemed to him. He found no difficulty in it; his rich imagination and copious fund of information enabled him to run on without interruption ; but others have tried the same thing with less success. Mr. Matthew Arnold, with perfect justice, denies what, to be sure, no one had affirmed, namely, the existence of the Homeric quality in Scott’s poetry ; but in his prose there is something of the easy abundance that marks the Greek bard. This unlimited fertility of invention, the representation of diverse stages of civilization, has been made one of the arguments in favor of dividing among a number of poets the honors given to a single Homer. But it is precisely one of the peculiarities of genius to be able to do single-handed what can otherwise be done, if at all, only by a number of ordinary men; and it is not hard to imagine circumstances under which an argument might be made against the likelihood that Guy Mannering and Quentin Durward were written by the same person. It is, above all, this wonderful abundance and variety of invention that won Scott his high position. Nothing about him is more striking than his unwearying imagination. It seldom soars to the greatest tragic heights, but it still less frequently flags. In his treatment of historical incidents he taught historians how they should look upon the chronicles of the past. While they had written about wars and treaties, he set before his readers the feelings of the people. The histories written in the last century had been unsatisfactory, from the fact that while they showed research they contained no definite statement of the underlying causes that made history. They touched only the outside of things, but Scott, and, indeed, in his inaccurate way, Châteaubriand, told what the people felt. Scott saw the people living, and he represented them living on his crowded pages. It may be safely said that there is no subsequent historian who has not felt his influence. Augustin Thierry acknowledged his indebtedness to the great romancer in the warmest terms, calling him the greatest master there has ever been in the matter of historical divination.

Scott not only drew the feelings of the people in the times he wrote about, but he had especial power in representing the most famous characters. He gave the kings and queens in his novels an air of royalty such as Vandyke gave to them on canvas. His James I., in the Fortunes of Nigel; his Charles the Bold and Louis XI., in Quentin Durward ; his Queen Elizabeth, in Kenilworth,— to mention but a few, — are characters never to be forgotten. This reverential side of Scott’s imagination showed itself in his private life after a fashion that is sometimes mentioned with a little sneer. The incident of his putting into his coat-tail pocket the glass from which George IV. had just drunk has been often repeated, with particular delight when the end of the story is reached and we are told that Scott destroyed his relic by sitting down on it when he came home. Yet this is but the more or less ludicrous appearance in private life of the same imagination that drew royalty so well in fiction.

Some people object to the amount of his work. Carlyle, for instance, says that Scott was always writing impromptu novels, and the reason is said, with some justice, to have been his desire to make money. But if we condemn all novelists who write for money, we shall have but few left to praise ; and Scott’s haste, which is what is really condemned, was but one of the conditions inseparable from his great facility of improvisation. To lament that Scott did not write more slowly is like complaining that Napoleon was so swift a campaigner. It was in his nature to compose swiftly ; he himself said that he regretted the necessity of finishing his novels, and that he would have been happier if he could have written but the first two volumes, and have left the end to some one else. Like the rest of the world, he had the faults of his qualities, and compression, conciseness, was not a possible thing for him. We feel the want of it in the prolonged conversations, in the occasionally heavy humor, and in the conventionality of his youthful heroes. For Scott’s imagination, while it was abundant in certain directions, was lacking in others. Kings and queens, peasants and adventurers, he knew how to describe admirably, but what may be called every-day society people he drew less well. Even Darsie Latimer and Alan Fairford, whom he painted from his friend William Clerk, and himself, respectively, are but cold creations.

As for the superabundant buff-jerkins and other mediæval paraphernalia, they are a direct inheritance from the Castle of Otranto and those novels which were the first to bring into repute a notion of Gothic antiquity. Scott took the material that lay ready to his hand, and his fame suffers somewhat from his easy choice. The inner life of his heroes had but little interest for him, in comparison with the general life of their time ; their especial method of making love seemed to him a trivial matter, in comparison with things of wider bearing ; and while he paid his tribute to the demands of novel-readers by bringing the subject into his novels, it generally holds a subordinate place there. The Bride of Lammermoor is an exception in this respect to the majority of the Waverley novels; yet even here Scott is wholly remote from the modern point of view, which makes courtship the main thing in life. This novel, particularly in contrast with those we are accustomed to read nowadays, is in the grand style. There is a classic air about its tragedy which raises it far above an ordinary love story.

The readers of these later days, or at least some of them, say of Scott’s novels that the historical part is untrustworthy, and the part that they share with ordinary novels is poorly done. But, after all, who reads novels for exact information about dates ? And is there not a good deal on the credit side of Scott’s account with history ? As for the second charge brought against the novels, argument is in vain. It is undeniable that later writers have performed so much vivisection on the human heart that to the more experienced readers of to-day the crude love-making of Scott’s heroes seems simplicity itself, like the caresses of rustics in the cars. But to children and to their parents there are apt to be things of more importance and interest than the relations of young people to one another. In answering questions like these there is one test of the truth, and that is our own experience ; and how many are there of his readers who do not fall under the charm of his genius? Indeed, when one thinks of what Scott is, the very notion of putting him, as it were, on the defensive against the accusations of a later generation savors of unwisdom. The first thing to be proved is the goodness of the plaintiff’s taste. So much may be said while acknowledging limitations to the excellence of Scott’s work; but those who refuse to call him great are like the man who said that Heine was not really witty, he only went about saying witty things to convey that false impression to other people. After all, Scott’s powers are distinctly noteworthy for their bulk, so to speak. One is reminded, not so much of those little streams which all people agree in calling lovely, as of a large, broad river, flowing with uniform current. Other men have beaten him at this thing and at that: one has more pathos, another a subtler humor, and a great many have a more charming style, — compare, for instance, Mérimée’s Chronique du Règne de Charles IX. with any of Scott’s work by which it was inspired, — yet where else do we find anything like Scott’s abundant picturesqueness of imagination ? We have, to be sure, learned more things concerning the kings he wrote about than he put into his novel, but does our learning give us a more definite, and for that matter a more precise, impression of, for example, James I. than Scott gives us ? There is but one answer.

When he had plainer people to draw, his method was very different from that which is current nowadays, as we can see by comparing his Caleb Balderstone, for instance, with one of Thomas Hardy’s minor characters, such as Joseph Poorgrass, in Far from the Madding Crowd. Joseph had just been asked to tell one of his stories. “‘No, no, no ; not that story! ’ expostulated the modest man, forcing a laugh to bury his concern, and forcing out too much for the purpose, — laughing over the greater part of his skin, round to his ears, and up among his hair, insomuch that Shepherd Oak, who was rather sensitive himself, was surfeited, and felt he would never adopt that plan for hiding trepidation any more.”

Scott does not take his reader behind the scenes, as it were, in this way ; he busies himself with the words and actions of his people, and leaves them to make their own impression, without these little confidences as to their feelings. That is to say, his novels have a sort of old-fashioned air ; they are set in frames, as it were, like works of art, and nowadays novels are what some one has called slices out of life. But with all the tendency towards realism that has been talked about so much of late, though it has always been one of the main characteristics of English literature, and, for that matter, extremely common in the French, Scott’s realism in his treatment of the Scotch peasants, for instance, is something in which he has not yet been excelled. His David Deans, in the Heart of Mid-Lothian, is a good example of his way of putting a character vividly before us. He is a man drawn from the life, and but one of the many characters with which Scott’s imagination has peopled the world of fiction.

From his life, we see what a pleasant, easy-going person Scott was ; how his genius was a companion to him, and not a tyrant that disturbed his life, as in the case of Byron. His views on all matters were simple, like those of an ordinary country gentleman who had a fervent belief in the divine origin of aristocracy, and more interest in the picturesque past than in the present. His story-writing kept him as busy as if he had been at work shoe-making, and hence some have blamed him for looking upon the composition of his novels as a trade. It was at any rate wholesale trade, which is generally regarded as a very respectable thing.

Carping of this kind about a man of Scott’s calibre is small work, and there are few who will feel disposed to quarrel with the number of the Waverley novels : they will rather accept the abundance with a grateful heart. When one considers the many periods of history that Scott’s imagination illuminated for us ; the host of characters he taught us to know and love ; the generous philosophy with which he looked upon life, not hiding its afflictions, but, without sentimentality, showing us its consolations, — for even the pessimist can comfort himself by admiring his own intelligence in knowing how bad the world is,— when one considers these things and the nature of the man who enriched literature in this way, one asks where his like can be found in modern literature.

The upshot of all criticism of him is that in some particular ways others have surpassed him. And this, as was said before, must be granted. Take for an example his treatment of nature. Few writers give us so distinctly the feeling of open air, of being out-of-doors, as he does. His love of nature is neither the classical elegance of the writers of the last century, nor the modern analysis of our feelings before natural phenomena, as we see it in certain modern writers. Nor does he cloy us with labored picturesqueness. His is a prose treatment of the subject, as of a man who is, so to speak, of the same family as the blue sky and the green grass and the rushing water, and who is thereby saved from the excessive emotions of those who know nature less well. We feel that he lived out-of-doors, and that he had what may be called a good appetite for scenery, and that he enjoyed it without looking at himself at the same time to see how it struck him.

In his poetry, his descriptions of nature are very simple, and at times the comparisons in which they are used are like tales in words of one syllable. Thus, in Rokeby, Canto 2, IV. : —

— " the stream rejoicing free,
As captive set at liberty,
Flashing her sparkling waves abroad,
And clamoring joyful on her road ;
Pointing where, up the sunny banks,
The trees retire in scattered ranks,
Save when, advanced before the rest,
On knoll or hillock rears his crest,
Lonely and huge, the giant oak,
As champions, when their band is broke,
Stand forth to guard the rearward post,
The bulwark of the scattered host,” etc.

Take, again, the famous passage in the beginning of the Lady of the Lake : —

“ The western waves of ebbing day
Rolled o’er the glen their level way;
Each purple peak, each flinty spire,
Was bathed in floods of living fire.
But not a setting beam could glow
Within the dark ravines below,
Where twined the path in shadow hid,
Round many a rocky pyramid,
Shooting abruptly from the dell
Its thunder-splintered pinnacle;
Round many an insulated mass,
The native bulwarks of the pass,
Formed turret, dome, or battlement,
Or seemed fantastically set
With cupola or minaret,
Wild crests as pagod ever decked,
Or masque of Eastern architect.
Nor were these earth-born castles bare,
Nor lacked they many a banner fair;
For, from their shivered brows display’d,
Ear o’er the unfathomable glade,
All twinkling with the dewdrops’ sheen,
The brier-rose fell in streamers green,
And creeping shrubs, of thousand dyes,
Waved in the west-wind’s summer sighs.”

Surely, this is simplicity itself, and is very different from the sort of simplicity, one of choice rather than of nature, that we find in Wordsworth, for example, in his Influences of Natural Objects, when, “ shod with steel, we hissed along the polished ice,” — for so in the phraseology of the last century he called skating : —

“ With the din
Meanwhile the precipices rang aloud;
The leafless trees and every icy crag
Tinkled like iron; while the distant hills
Into the tumult sent an alien sound
Of melancholy, not unnoticed; while the stars,
Eastward, were sparkling clear, and in the west
The orange sky of evening died away.”

It is easy to see the vast difference between Wordsworth’s impressive lines and Scott’s clever verse-making; yet there is in Scott’s longer poems a vivacity that is not of course the highest quality that poetry can have, but one that few readers are wholly indifferent to, and some of his short poems, such as Proud Maisie in the Wood, are almost faultless in their way. In his prose-writing he never sets too much store by the scenery he describes ; he does not try to make it play a more important part in his novels than it does in real life; yet his descriptions seldom fail to impress the memory of those that read them.

In novel-writing there are many things he has done well which other men have done better, but no one maker of fiction has combined so many rare qualities as he. There are always plenty of men cleverer than he, but he has no rival in a sort of majestic abundance of power. In fact, his prose is epic. For that sort of composition there is no need of precise and superfluous detail; what is required is a sort of grandeur and massive strength, such as Scott alone has possessed in modern times. The form that he chose, in accordance with the taste of the day, — for to sit down to compose an epic poem would have been like sacrificing a bull to Jupiter, — is one that other dexterous craftsmen have worked in a more intricate fashion; so that his novels bear the same relation to modern stories that one of Nelson’s seventy-two-gun frigates bears to a mastless steel-clad ram. Hence it is that some people are inclined to look upon him as old-fashioned; but there are certain things that never go out of fashion, even if they undergo seasons of neglect, or even if they are weighed down by acknowledged deficiencies. It is easy to learn that the Middle Ages were something very different from what Scott thought them to be, and that there is inexactness in his accounts of the crusades and the crusaders, but it will be a long time before the completest collection of details will bring before us those remote times with anything like the vividness of Scott’s portrayal. The siege of Troy was doubtless something very unlike Homer’s account of it, but what Hector and Helen and Achilles have done for Homer, Scott’s characters will do to keep his fame fresh when all the stucco and paste of his ornamentation have fallen away.

Scott, it must be remembered, does not belong to readers of English alone. He and Byron are the only English writers of this century, — and Shakespeare is the only other, — whose fame has spread over the whole of Europe, and Scott’s influence over his contemporaries is really beyond estimation.

The invention of English writers has gone back to its customary channels, those of domestic incident and inartistic detail, but readers still possess the faculty of imagination, and those who care more for the free air of romance than for narrow precision still return to him as the last purely imaginative writer of English fiction.

Thomas Sergeant Perry.

  1. 2Life of Sir Walter Scott. By J. G. LOCKHART. Illustrated Library Edition. With Portraits and Steel Plates. 3 vols. Boston : Houghton, Osgood & Co. 1879.