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think, come nearer to Scott's idiosyncrasy than anything else that can
be imagined. He had advanced (or rather returned) from that one-sided
eighteenth-century conception of nature which was content to know
_human_ nature pretty thoroughly up to a certain point, and to dismiss
'prospects,' in Johnson's scornful language to Thrale, as one just like
the other. But he had retained the eighteenth-century grasp of man
himself, while recovering the path to the Idle Lake and the Cave of
Despair, to the many-treed wood through which Una and her knight
journeyed, and the Rich Strand where all the treasures of antiquity lay.
We may think - apparently some of us do think - that we have improved on
him in the recovery, and even in the retaining grasp. The fact of the
improvement on him will take a great deal of proving, I am inclined to
think; of the fact of his achievement there is no doubt.

If I must select Scott's special literary characteristic, next to that
really magical faculty of placing scenes and peopling them with
characters in the memory of his readers which I have noticed before, I
should certainly fix on his humour. It is a good old scholastic
doctrine, that the greatest merit of anything is to be excellent in the
special excellence of its kind. And in that quality which so gloriously
differentiates English literature from all others, Scott is never
wanting, and is almost always pre-eminent. If his patriotism, intense as
it is, is never grotesque or offensive, as patriotism too often is to
readers who do not share it; if his pathos never touches the maudlin; if
his romantic sentiment is always saved by the sense of solid fact, - and
we may assert these things without hesitation or qualification, - it is
due to his humour. For this humour, never merely local, never bases its
appeal on small private sympathies and understandings and pass-words
which leave the world at large cold, or mystified, or even disgusted.
Nor is it perhaps uncritical to set down that pre-eminently happy use,
without abuse, of dialect, which has attracted the admiration of almost
all good judges, to this same humour, warning him alike against the
undisciplined profusion and the injudicious selection which have not
been and are not unknown in some followers of his. And, further, his
universal quality is free from some accompanying drawbacks which must be
acknowledged in the humour of some of the other very great humorists. It
is not coarse - a defect which has made prigs at all times, and
especially at this time, affect horror at Aristophanes; it is not grim,
like that of Swift; it is free from any very strong evidences of its
owner having lived at a particular date, such as may be detected by the
Devil's Advocate even in Fielding, even in Thackeray. No tricks or
grimaces, no mere elaboration, no lingering to bespeak applause; but a
moment of life and nature subjected to the humour-stamp and left
recorded and transformed for ever - there is Scott.

That the necessary counterpart and companion of this breadth of humour
should be depth of feeling can be no surprise to those who accept the
only sound distinction between humour and wit. Scott himself never wore
his heart on his sleeve; but to those who looked a little farther than
the sleeve its beatings were sufficiently evident. The Scott who made
that memorable exclamation on the Mound, and ejaculated 'No, by - - !' at
the discovery of the Regalia,[47] who wrote Jeanie's speech to Queen
Caroline and Habakkuk Mucklewrath's to Claverhouse, had no need ever to
affect emotion, because it was always present, though repressed when it
had no business to exhibit itself. And his romantic imagination was as
sincere as his pathos or his indignation. He never lost the clue to 'the
shores of old romance'; and, at least, great part of the secret which
made him such a magician to his readers was that the spell was on
himself - that the regions of fancy were as open, as familiar as Princes
Street or the Parliament Square to this solid practical Clerk of
Session, who avowed that no food could to his taste equal Scotch broth,
and in everything but the one fatal delusion was as sound a man of
business as ever partook of that nourishing concoction.

In his execution both in prose and verse, but especially, or at least
more obviously, in the latter there are certain peculiarities, in the
nature (at least partly) of defect, which strike every critical eye at
once. At no time, and in no case, was Scott of the order of the careful,
anxious miniaturists of work, who repaint every stroke a hundred times,
adjust every detail of composition over and over again, and can never
have done with rehandling and perfecting. Nor did he belong to that very
rare class whose work seems to be, at any rate after a slight
apprenticeship, faultless from the first, to whom inelegancies of style,
incorrect rhymes, licences of metre - not deliberate and intended to
produce the effect they achieve, but the effect of carelessness or of
momentary inability to do what is wanted - are by nature or education
impossible. His nature did not give him this endowment, and his
education was of the very last sort to procure it for him. He himself,
not out of pique or conceit, things utterly alien from his nature, still
less out of laziness, but, I believe, as a genuine, and, what is more, a
correct self-criticism, has left in his private writings repeated
expressions of his belief that revision and correction in his case not
only did not improve the work, but were in most cases likely to do it
positive harm, that the spoon was made or the horn spoiled (to adapt his
country proverb) at the first draft, and once for all. I think that this
was a correct judgment, and I do not see that it implies any inferiority
on his part. It is not as if he ever aimed at the methods of the
precisians and failed, as if it was his desire to be a 'correct' writer,
a careful observer of proportion and construction, a producer of artful
felicities in metre, rhythm, rhyme, phrase. We may yield to no one in
the delight of tracing the exact correspondence of strophe and
antistrophe in a Greek chorus, the subtle vowel-music of a Latin hymn or
a passage of Rossetti's. But I cannot see why, because we rejoice in
these things, we should demand them of all poetry, or why, because we
rejoice in the faultless construction of Fielding or the exquisite
finish of Jane Austen as novelists, we should despise the looser
handling and more sweeping touch of Scott in prose fiction. It is
extremely probable that, as Mr. Balfour suggested the other day in
unveiling the Westminster Abbey monument, this breadth of touch obtained
him his popularity abroad, nor need it impair his fame at home.

Unquestionably, though he had many minor gifts and graces, including
that of incomparable lyric snatch, from the drums and fifes of
'Lochinvar' and 'Bonnie Dundee' to the elfin music of 'Proud Maisie,'
his faculty of weaving a story in prose or in verse, with varied
decorations of dialogue and description and character, rather than on a
cunning canvas of plot, was Scott's main forte. If it is in verse - and
admirable as it is here, I think we must allow it to be - less
pre-eminent than in prose, it is, first, because minor formal defects
are more felt in verse than in prose; secondly, because the scope of the
medium is less; and thirdly, because the medium itself was in reality
not what he wanted. The verse romance of Scott is a great achievement
and a delightful possession: it has had extraordinary influence on
English literature, from the work of Byron, which it directly produced,
and which pretty certainly would never have been produced without it, to
that of Mr. William Morris, which may not impossibly have been its last
echo - transformed and refreshed, but still an echo - for some time to
come. But there was a little of the falsetto in it, and the interludes,
of which the introductions to _Marmion_ and to the _Bridal_ are the most
considerable, show that it gave no outlets, or outlets only awkward, for
much of what he wanted to say. He defines his own general literary
object admirably in a letter to Morritt. 'I have tried to induce the
public to relax some of the rules of criticism, and to be amused with
that medley of tragic and comic with which life presents us, not only in
the same course of action, but in the same character.' The detailed
remarks which have been given in earlier chapters make it unnecessary to
bring out the application of this to all his work, both verse and prose.
And it need but be pointed out in passing how much more satisfactorily
the form of prose fiction lent itself, than the form of verse romance,
to the expression of a creed which, as it had been that of Shakespeare,
so it was the creed of Scott.

But a few words must be added in reference to the complaint which is
often openly made, and which, I understand, is still more often secretly
entertained, or taken for proved, by the younger generation - to wit, the
complaint that Scott is 'commonplace' and 'conventional,' not merely in
thought, but in expression. As to the thought, that is best met by the
reply churlish, if not even by the reproof valiant. Scott's thought is
never commonplace, and never merely conventional: it can only seem so to
those who have given their own judgments in bondage to a conventional
and temporary cant of unconventionality. In respect of expression, the
complaint will admit of some argument which may best take the form of
example. It is perfectly true that Scott's expression is not
'quintessenced' - that it has to a hasty eye an air of lacking what is
called distinction; and, especially, that it has no very definite savour
of any particular time. At present, as at other periods during the
recorded story of literature, there is a marked preference for all these
things which it is not; and so Scott is, with certain persons, in
disfavour accordingly. But it so happens that the study of this now
long record of literature is itself sufficient to convince anyone how
treacherous the tests thus suggested are. There never, for instance, was
an English writer fuller of all the marks which these, our younger
critics, desiderate in Scott, and admire in some authors of our own day,
than John Lyly, the author of _Euphues_, of a large handful of very
charming and interesting court dramas, and of some delightful lyrics.
Those who have to teach literature impress the importance, and try to
impress the interest, of Lyly on students and readers, and they do
right. For he was a man not merely of talent, but (with respect to my
friend Mr. Courthope, who thinks differently), I think, of genius. He
had a poetical fancy, a keen and biting wit, a fairly exact proficiency
in the scholarship of his time. He eschewed the obvious, the commonplace
in thought, and still more in style, as passionately as any man ever has
eschewed it, and, having not merely will and delicacy, but power, he not
only achieved an immense temporary popularity, but even influenced the
English language permanently. Yet - and those who thus praise him know
it - he, the apostle of ornate prose, the model of a whole generation of
the greatest wits that England has seen, the master of Shakespeare in
more things than one, including romantic comedy, the originator of the
English analytic novel, the 'raiser' (as I think they call it) 'of his
native language to a higher power,' is dead. We shall never get anybody
outside the necessarily small number of those who have cultivated the
historic as well as the æsthetic sense in literature, to read him except
as a curiosity or a task, because he not merely cultivated art, but
neglected nature for it; because he fooled the time to the top of its
bent, and let the time fool him in return; because, instead of making
the common as though it were not common, he aimed and strained at the
uncommon _in_ and _per se_.

Scott did just the contrary. He never tried to be unlike somebody else;
if he hit, as he did hit, upon great new styles of
literature, - absolutely new in the case of the historical novel, revived
after long trance in the case of the verse tale, - it was from no desire
to innovate, but because his genius called him. Though in ordinary ways
he was very much a man of his time, he did not contort himself in any
fashion by way of expressing a (then) modern spirit, a Georgian
idiosyncrasy, or anything of that sort; he was content with the language
of the best writers and the thoughts of the best men. He was no amateur
of the topsy-turvy, and had not the very slightest desire to show how a
literary head could grow beneath the shoulders. He was satisfied that
his genius should flow naturally. And the consequence is that it was
never checked, that it flows still for us with all its spontaneous
charm, and that it will flow _in omne volubilis ævum_. Among many
instances of the strength which accompanied this absence of strain one
already alluded to may be mentioned again. Scott is one of the most
literary of all writers. He was saturated with reading; nothing could
happen but it brought some felicitous quotation, some quaint parallel to
his mind from the great wits, or the small, of old. Yet no writer is
less _bookish_ than he; none insults his readers less with any parade,
with any apparent consciousness of erudition; and he wears his learning
so lightly that pedants have even accused him of lacking it because he
lacks pedantry. His stream, to resume the simile, carries in solution
more reading as well as more wit, more knowledge of life and nature,
more gifts of almost all kinds than would suffice for twenty men of
letters, yet the very power of its solvent force, as well as the vigour
of its current, makes these things comparatively invisible.

In dealing with an author so voluminous and so various in his kinds and
subjects of composition, it is a hard matter to say what has to be said
within prescribed limits such as these, just as it is still harder to
select from so copious a store of biographical information details which
may be sufficient, and not more than sufficient, to give a firm and
distinct picture of his life. Yet it may perhaps be questioned whether
very elaborate handling is necessary for Scott. No man probably,
certainly no man of letters, is more of a piece than he. As he has been
subjected to an almost unparalleled trial in the revelation of his
private thoughts, so his literary powers and performances extend over a
range which is unusual, if not absolutely singular, in men of letters of
the first rank. Yet he is the same throughout, in romance as in review,
in novel as in note-writing. Except his dramatic work, a department for
which he seems to have been almost totally unfitted (despite the
felicity of his 'Old Play' fragments), nothing of his can be neglected
by those who wish to enjoy him to the full. Yet though there is no
monotony, there is a uniformity which is all the more delightfully
brought out by the minor variations of subject and kind. The last as the
first word about Scott should perhaps be, 'Read him. And, as far as may
be, read all of him.'

When, in comparatively early days of his acquaintance with Lockhart,
Scott, thinking himself near death in the paroxysms of his cramps,
bequeathed to his future son-in-law, in the words of the ballad, 'the
vanguard of the three,' the duty of burying him and continuing his work,
if possible, he had himself limited the heritage to the defence of
ancient faith and loyalty - a great one enough. But his is, in fact, a
greater. From generation to generation, whosoever determines, in so far
as fate and the gods allow, to hold these things fast, and, moreover, to
love all good literature, to temper erudition with common sense, to let
humour wait always upon fancy, and duty upon romance; whosoever at least
tries to be true to the past, to show a bold front to the present, and
to let the future be as it may; whosoever 'spurns the vulgar' while
endeavouring to be just to individuals, and faces 'the Secret' with
neither bravado nor cringing, - he may take, if not the vanguard, yet a
place according to his worth and merit, in the legion which this great
captain led. Of the frequent parallels or contrasts drawn between him
and Shakespeare it is not the least noteworthy that he is, of all men of
letters, that one of whom we have the most intimate and the fullest
revelation, while of Shakespeare we have the least. There need be very
little doubt that if we knew everything about Shakespeare, he would
come, as a man of mould might, scathless from the test. But we do know
everything, or almost everything, about Scott, and he comes out nearly
as well as anyone but a faultless monster could. For all the works of
the Lord in literature, as in other things, let us give thanks - for
Blake and for Beddoes as well as for Shelley and for Swift. But let
everyone who by himself, or by his fathers, claims origin between
Tol-Pedn-Penwith and Dunnet Head give thanks, with more energy and more
confidence than in any other case save one, for the fact that his is the
race and his the language of Sir Walter Scott.


[47] So, in a still earlier generation, Johnson, after calling his
step-daughter 'my dearest love,' and writing in the simplest way, will
end, and quite properly, with, 'Madam, your obedient, humble servant.'

[48] He made, as is well known, preparations to 'meet' General Gourgaud,
who was wroth about the _Napoleon_, but who never actually challenged

[49] Most injustice has perforce been done to his miscellaneous verse
lying outside the great poems, and not all of it included in the novels.
It would be impossible to dwell on all the good things, from _Helvellyn_
and _The Norman Horseshoe_ onward; and useless to select a few. Some of
his best things are among them: few are without force, and fire, and
unstudied melody. The song-scraps, like the mottoes, in his novels are
often really marvellous snatches of improvisation.

[50] Il y a plus de philosophie dans ses écrits ... que dans bon nombre
de _romans philosophiques_.

[51] When some tactless person tried to play tricks with the Crown.


Ancestry and parentage, 9, 10;
birth, 10;
infancy, 11;
school and college days, _ibid._;
apprenticeship, _ibid._;
friends and early occupations, 12, 13;
call to the Bar, 12, 14;
first love, 14-16;
engagement and marriage, 16;
briefs, fights, and volunteering, 17;
journeys to Galloway and elsewhere, 18, 19;
slowness of literary production and its causes, 20, 21;
call-thesis and translations of Bürger, 22;
reception of these last and their merit, 23;
contributes to _Tales of Wonder_, 24;
remarks on _Glenfinlas_ and _The Eve of St. John_, 25, 26;
_Goetz von Berlichingen_ and _The House of Aspen_, 26;
dramatic work generally, 27, _note_;
friendship with Leyden, Ritson, and Ellis, 28;
_Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border_, 28-33;
contributes to the _Edinburgh Review_, 33-35;
his domestic life for the first seven years after his marriage, 35-37;
_The Lay of the Last Minstrel_, 38-46;
partnership with Ballantyne, 46-50;
children and pecuniary affairs, 50, 51;
Clerkship of Session, 51;
politics during Fox and Grenville administration, 52;
anecdote of, on Mound, _ibid._;
_Marmion_, 52-55;
coolness with _Edinburgh_ and starting of _Quarterly Review_, 55, 56;
quarrel with Constable, 56, 57;
affair of Thomas Scott's appointment, 58, 59;
_The Lady of the Lake_, 59, 60;
_The Vision of Don Roderick_, 61;
_Rokeby_, 61-63;
_The Lord of the Isles_, 63, 64;
_The Bridal of Triermain_, 64-66;
_Harold the Dauntless_, 66, 67;
remarks on the verse romances generally, 67, 68;
_Waverley_, its origin, character, and reception, 69-76;
settlement at Abbotsford, 70, 71;
danger of Ballantyne & Co., and closer alliance with Constable, 71, 72;
yachting tour, 72;
_Guy Mannering_, 77-79;
introduced in London to the Regent and to Byron, 79;
journey to Brussels, _Field of Waterloo_, and _Paul's Letters_, 79;
_The Antiquary_, 80;
original mottoes, 81 and _note_;
_Old Mortality_ and _Black Dwarf_, 81-84;
quarrel with Blackwood, 82;
_Rob Roy_, 84, 85;
domestic affairs, 85-87;
_Heart of Midlothian_, 87, 88;
_Bride of Lammermoor_ and _Legend of Montrose_, 88-91;
attacked by cramp, 84, 86, 89, _note_;
domestic affairs, 91-93;
_Ivanhoe_, 93, 96;
_The Monastery_, 95, 96;
_The Abbot_ and _Kenilworth_, 96, 97;
_The Pirate_, 97, 98;
_The Fortunes of Nigel_, 99;
_Peveril of the Peak_, 100;
_Quentin Durward_, 100, 101;
_St. Ronan's Well_, 101, 102;
_Redgauntlet_, 102, 103;
_Tales of the Crusaders_, 104, 105;
domestic affairs, to tour in Ireland, 105, 106;
commercial crisis and fall of Constable and Ballantyne, 106, 107;
discussion of the facts, 107-114;
the _Journal_, 114-117;
death of Lady Scott, 116;
_Life of Napoleon_, 118-121;
_Woodstock_, 121-123;
_Letters of Malachi Malagrowther_, 123;
'Bonnie Dundee,' _ibid._;
_Chronicles of the Canongate_, 124-126;
_Tales of a Grandfather_, 126, 127;
_The Fair Maid of Perth_ and the '_Magnum Opus_,' 128;
_Anne of Geierstein_, 129;
declining health, 130;
success of the '_Magnum_,' _ibid._;
stroke of paralysis and resignation of Clerkship, 131;
_Letters on Demonology_ and Christopher North's criticism, 131, 132;
_Count Robert of Paris_ and _Castle Dangerous_, 133;
political annoyances and insults at Jedburgh, 134;
last visit of Wordsworth and departure for Italy, 135;
sojourn on the Mediterranean, 136;
return and death, 137;
settlement of debts, _ibid._;
monuments to Scott, 138;
general view of Scott desirable, 139;
his physique and conversation, 140;
his alleged subserviency to rank, 141, 142;
his moral and religious character, 142, 143;
his politics, 144;
characteristics of his thought, 145-147;
his combination of the practical and the romantic, 147;
his humour, 148;
his feeling, 149;
his style, 150;
his power of story, 151;
not 'commonplace,' 151, 154;
comparison with Lyly, 153;
final remarks, 155, 156.


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Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburySir Walter Scott → online text (page 11 of 12)