George Saintsbury.

Sir Walter Scott online

. (page 2 of 12)
Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburySir Walter Scott → online text (page 2 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

some property; legacies from relations added more. Before the
publication of the _Lay_ (when he was barely three-and-thirty), Lockhart
estimates his income, leaving fees and literary work out of the
question, at nearly if not quite a thousand a year; and a thousand a
year at the beginning of the century went as far as fifteen hundred, if
not two thousand, at its close.

Thus, with no necessity to live by his pen, with no immediate or
extraordinary temptation to use it for gain, and as yet, it would seem,
with no overmastering inducement from his genius to do so, while he at
no time of his life felt any stimulus from vanity, it is not surprising
that it was long before Scott began to write in earnest. A few childish
verse translations and exercises of his neither encourage nor forbid any
particular expectations of literature from him; they are neither better
nor worse than those of hundreds, probably thousands, of boys every
year. His first published performance, now of extreme rarity, and not,
of course, produced with any literary object, was his Latin call-thesis
on the rather curious subject (which has been, not improbably, supposed
to be connected with his German studies and the terror-literature of the
last decade of the century) of the disposal of the dead bodies of
legally executed persons. His first English work was directly the result
of the said German studies, to which, like many of his contemporaries,
he had been attracted by fashion. It consisted of nothing more than the
well-known translations of Bürger's _Lenore_ and _Wild Huntsman_, which
were issued in a little quarto volume by Manners & Miller of Edinburgh,
in October 1796 - a date which has the special interest of suggesting
that Scott sought some refuge in literature from the agony of his
rejection by Miss Stuart.

These well-known translations, or rather imitations, the first published
under the title of _William and Helen_, which it retains, the other as
_The Chase_, which was subsequently altered to the better and more
literal rendering, show unmistakably the result of the study of ballads,
both in the printed forms and as orally delivered. Some crudities of
rhyme and expression are said to have been corrected at the instance of
one of Scott's (at this time rather numerous) Egerias, the beautiful
wife of his kinsman, Scott of Harden, a young lady partly of German
extraction, but of the best English breeding. Slight books of the kind,
even translations, made a great deal more mark sometimes in those days
than they would in these; but there were a great many translations of
_Lenore_ about, and except by Scott's friends, little notice was taken
of the volume. There were some excuses for the neglect, the best perhaps
being that English criticism at the time was at nearly as low an ebb as
English poetry. A really acute critic could hardly have mistaken the
difference between Scott's verse and the fustian or tinsel of the Della
Cruscans, the frigid rhetoric of Darwin, or the drivel of Hayley. Only
Southey had as yet written ballad verses with equal vigour and facility;
and, I think, he had not yet published any of them. It is Scott who
tells us that he borrowed

'Tramp, tramp, along the land they rode,
Splash, splash, along the sea,'

from Taylor of Norwich; but Taylor himself had the good taste to see how
much it was improved by the completion -

'The scourge is red, the spur drops blood,
_The fashing pebbles flee_' -

which last line, indeed, Coleridge himself hardly bettered in the not
yet written _Ancient Mariner_, the _ne plus ultra_ of the style. It must
be mainly a question of individual taste whether the sixes and eights of
the _Lenore_ version or the continued eights of the _Huntsman_ please
most. But any one who knows what the present state of British poetry was
in October 1796 will be more than indifferently well satisfied with

It was never Scott's way to be cast down at the failure or the neglect
of any of his work; nor does he seem to have been ever actuated by the
more masculine but perhaps equally childish determination to 'do it
again' and 'shame the fools.' It seems quite on the cards that he might
have calmly acquiesced in want of notoriety, and have continued a mere
literary lawyer, with a pretty turn or verse and a great amount of
reading, if his most intimate friend, William Erskine, had not met
'Monk' Lewis in London, and found him anxious for contributions to his
_Tales of Wonder_. Lewis was a coxcomb, a fribble, and the least bit in
the world of a snob: his _Monk_ is not very clean fustian, and most of
his other work rubbish. But he was, though not according to knowledge, a
sincere Romantic; he had no petty jealousy in matters literary; and,
above all, he had, as Scott recognised, but as has not been always
recognised since, a really remarkable and then novel command of flowing
but fairly strict lyrical measures, the very things needed to thaw the
frost of the eighteenth-century couplet. Erskine offered, and Lewis
gladly accepted, contributions from Scott, and though _Tales of Wonder_
were much delayed, and did not appear till 1801, the project directly
caused the production of Scott's first original work in ballad,
_Glenfinlas_ and _The Eve of St. John_, as well as the less important
pieces of the _Fire King_, _Frederick and Alice_, etc.

In _Glenfinlas_ and _The Eve_ the real Scott first shows, and the better
of the two is the second. It is not merely that, though Scott had a
great liking for and much proficiency in 'eights,' that metre is never
so effective for ballad purposes as eights and sixes; nor that, as
Lockhart admits, _Glenfinlas_ exhibits a Germanisation which is at the
same time an adulteration; nor even that, well as Scott knew the
Perthshire Highlands, they could not appeal to him with the same subtle
intimacy of touch as that possessed by the ruined tower where, as a
half-paralysed infant, he had been herded with the lambs. But all these
causes together, and others, join to produce a freer effect in _The
Eve_. The eighteenth century is farther off; the genuine mediæval
inspiration is nearer. And it is especially noticeable that, as in most
of the early performances of the great poetical periods, an alteration
of metrical etiquette (as we may call it) plays a great part. Scott had
not yet heard that recitation of _Christabel_ which had so great an
effect on his work, and through it on the work of others. But he had
mastered for himself, and by study of the originals, the secret of the
_Christabel_ metre, that is to say, the wide licence of equivalence in
trisyllabic and dissyllabic feet,[10] of metre catalectic or not, as need
was, of anacrusis and the rest. As is natural to a novice, he rather
exaggerates his liberties, especially in the cases where the internal
rhyme seduces him. It is necessary not merely to slur, but to gabble, in
order to get some of these into proper rhythm, while in other places the
mistake is made of using so many anapæsts that the metre becomes, not
as it should be, iambic, with anapæsts for variation, but anapæstic
without even a single iamb. But these are 'sma' sums, sma' sums,' as
saith his own Bailie Jarvie, and on the whole the required effect of
vigour and variety, of narrative giving place to terror and terror to
narrative is capitally achieved. Above all, in neither piece, in the
less no more than in the more successful, do we find anything of what
the poet has so well characterised in one of his early reviews as the
'spurious style of tawdry and affected simplicity which trickles through
the legendary ditties' of the eighteenth century. 'The hunt is up' in
earnest; and we are chasing the tall deer in the open hills, not
coursing rabbits with toy terriers on a bowling-green.

The writing of these pieces had, however, been preceded by the
publication of Scott's second volume, the translation of _Goetz von
Berlichingen_, for which Lewis had arranged with a London bookseller, so
that this time the author was not defrauded of his hire. He received
twenty-five guineas, and was to have as much more for a second edition,
which the short date of copyright forestalled. The book appeared in
February 1799, and received more attention than the ballads, though, as
Lockhart saw, it was in fact belated, the brief English interest in
German _Sturm und Drang_ having ceased directly, though indirectly it
gave Byron much of his hold on the public a dozen years later. At about
the same time Scott executed, but did not publish, an original, or
partly original, dramatic work of the same kind, _The House of Aspen_,
which he contributed thirty years later to _The Keepsake_. Few good
words have ever been said for this, and perhaps not many persons have
ever cared much for the _Goetz_, either in the original or in the
translation. Goethe did not, in drama at least, understand adventurous
matter, and Scott had no grasp of dramatic form.[9]

It has been said that there was considerable delay in the publication of
the _Tales of Wonder_; and some have discussed what direct influence
this delay had on Scott's further and further advance into the waters of
literature. It is certain that he at one time thought of publishing his
contributions independently, and that he did actually print a few copies
of them privately; and it is extremely probable that his little
experiments in publication, mere _hors-d'oeuvre_ as they were, had
whetted his appetite. Even the accident of his friend Ballantyne's
having taken to publishing a newspaper, and having room at his press for
what I believe printers profanely call 'job-work,' may not have been
without influence. What is certain is that the project of editing a few
Border ballads - a selection of his collection which might make 'a neat
little volume of four or five shillings' - was formed roughly in the late
autumn of 1799, and had taken very definite shape by April 1800. Heber,
the great bibliophile and brother of the Bishop, introduced Scott to
that curious person Leyden, whose gifts, both original and erudite, are
undoubted, although perhaps his exile and early death have not hurt
their fame. And it so happened that Leyden was both an amateur of old
ballads and (for the two things went together then, though they are
sternly kept apart now) a skilful fabricator of new. The impetuous
Borderer pooh-poohed a 'thin thing' such as a four or five shilling
book, and Scott, nothing loath, extended his project. Most of his spare
time during 1800 and 1801 was spent on it; and besides corresponding
with the man who 'fished this murex up,' Bishop Percy, he entered into
literary relations with Joseph Ritson. Even Ritson's waspish character
seems to have been softened by Scott's courtesy, and perhaps even more
by the joint facts that he had as yet attained no literary reputation,
and neither at this nor at any other time gave himself literary airs. He
also made the acquaintance of George Ellis, who became a warm and
intimate friend. These were the three men of the day who, since Warton's
death, knew most of early English poetry, and though Percy was too old
to help, the others were not.

The scheme grew and grew, especially by the inclusion in it of the
publication not merely of ballads, but of the romance of _Sir Tristrem_
(of the authorship of which by someone else than Thomas the Rhymer,
Scott never would be convinced), till the neat four or five shilling
volume was quite out of the question. When at last the two volumes of
the first (Kelso) edition appeared in 1802, not merely was _Sir
Tristrem_ omitted, but much else which, still without 'the knight who
fought for England,' subsequently appeared in a third. The earliest form
of the _Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border_ is a very pretty book; it
deservedly established the fame of Ballantyne as a printer, and as it
was not printed in the huge numbers which have reduced the money value
of Sir Walter's later books, it is rather surprising that it is not more
sought after than it is at present. My copy - I do not know whether by
exception or not - wears the rather unusual livery of pink boards instead
of the common blue, grey, or drab. The paper and type are excellent; the
printing (with a few slips in the Latin quotations such as _concedunt_
for _comedunt_) is very accurate, and the frontispiece, a view of
Hermitage Castle in the rain, has the interest of presenting what is
said to have been a very faithful view of the actual state of Lord
Soulis' stronghold and the place of the martyrdom of Ramsay, attained by
the curious stages of (1) a drawing by Scott, who could not draw at all;
(2) a rifacimento by Clerk, who had never seen the place; and (3) an
engraving by an artist who was equally innocent of local knowledge.

The book, however, which brought in the modest profit of rather less
than eighty pounds, would have been of equal moment under whatever guise
it had pleased to assume. The shock of Percy's _Reliques_ was renewed,
and in a far more favourable atmosphere, before a far better prepared
audience. The public indeed had not yet been 'ground-baited' up to the
consummation of thousands of copies of poetry as they were later by
Scott himself and Byron; but an edition of eight hundred copies went off
in the course of the year, and a second, with the additional volume, was
at once called for. It contained, indeed, not much original verse,
though 'Glenfinlas' and 'The Eve,' with Leyden's 'Cout of Keeldar,'
'Lord Soulis,' etc., appeared in it after a fashion which Percy had set
and Evans had continued. But the ballads, familiar as they have become
since, not merely in the _Minstrelsy_ itself, but in a hundred fresh
collections, selections, and what not, could never be mistaken by
anyone fitted to appreciate them. 'The Outlaw Murray,' with its
rub-a-dub of _e_ rhymes throughout, opens the book very cunningly, with
something not of the best, but good enough to excite expectation, - an
expectation surely not to be disappointed by the immortal agony (dashed
with one stroke of magnificent wrath) of 'Helen of Kirkconnell,' the
bustle, frolic, and battle-joy of the Border pieces proper, the solemn
notes of 'The Lyke-Wake Dirge,' the eeriness of 'Clerk Saunders' and
'The Wife of Usher's Well.'

Even Percy had not been lucky enough to hit upon anything so
characteristic of the _average_ ballad style at its best as the opening
stanza of 'Fause Foodrage' -

'King Easter courted her for her lands,
King Wester for her fee,
King Honour for her comely face
And for her fair bodie';

and Percy would no doubt have been tempted to 'polish' such more than
average touches as Margaret's 'turning,' without waking, in the arms of
her lover as he receives his deathblow, or as the incomparable stanza in
'The Wife of Usher's Well' which tells how -

'By the gates of Paradise
That birk grew fair enough.'

Those who study literature in what they are pleased to call a scientific
manner have, as was to be expected, found fault (mildly or not,
according to their degree of sense and taste) with Scott, for the manner
in which he edited these ballads. It may be admitted that the practice
of mixing imitations with originals is a questionable one; and that in
some other cases, Scott, though he was far from the illegitimate and
tasteless fashion of alteration, of which in their different ways Allan
Ramsay and Percy himself had set the example, was not always up to the
highest lights on this subject of editorial faithfulness. It must, for
instance, seem odd to the least pedantic nowadays that he should have
thought proper to print Dryden's _Virgil_ with Dr. Somebody's pedantic
improvements instead of Dryden's own text. But the case of the ballads
is very different. Here, it must be remembered, there is no authentic
original at all. Even in the rare cases, where very early printed or MS.
copies exist, we not only do not know that these are the originals, we
have every reasonable reason for being pretty certain that they are not.
In the case of ballads taken down from repetition, we know as a matter
of certainty that, according to the ordinary laws of human nature, the
reciter has altered the text which he or she heard, that that text was
in its day and way altered by someone else, and so on almost _ad
infinitum_. 'Mrs. Brown's version,' therefore, or Mr. Smith's, or Mr.
Anybody's, has absolutely no claims to sacrosanctity. It is well, no
doubt, that all such versions should be collected by someone (as in this
case by Professor Child) who has the means, the time, and the patience.
But for the purposes of reading, for the purposes of poetic enjoyment,
such a collection is nearly valueless. We must have it for reference, of
course; nobody grudges the guineas he has spent for the best part of the
last twenty years on Professor Child's stately, if rather cumbrous,
volumes. But who can _read_ a dozen versions, say, of 'The Queen's
Marie' with any pleasure? What is exquisite in one is watered, messed,
spoiled by the others.

Therefore I shall maintain that though the most excellent way of all
might have been to record his alterations, and the original, in an
appendix-dustbin of _apparatus criticus_, Scott was right, and trebly
right, in such dealing as that with the first stanza of 'Fause
Foodrage,' which I have quoted and praised. That stanza, as it stands
above, does not occur in any of the extant quasi-originals. 'Mrs.
Brown's MS.,' from which, as Professor Child says, with almost silent
reproach, Scott took his text, 'with some forty small changes,' reads -

'King Easter has courted her for her gowd,
King Wester for her fee,
King Honour for her lands sae braid,
And for her fair bodie.'

Now this is clearly wrong. Either 'gowd' or 'lands' is a mere repetition
of 'fee,' and if not,[8] the reading does not point any ethical
antithesis between Kings Easter and Wester and their more chivalrous
rival. As it happens, there are two other versions, shorter and less
dramatic, but one of them distinctly giving, the other implying, the
sense of Scott's alteration. Therefore I say that Scott was fully
justified in adjusting the one text that he did print, especially as he
did it in his own right way, and not in the wrong one of Percy and
Mickle. There is here no Bentleian impertinence, no gratuitous meddling
with the at least possibly genuine text of a known and definite author.
The editor simply picks out of the mud, and wipes clean, something
precious, which has been defaced by bad usage, and has become

The third volume of the _Minstrelsy_ was pretty speedily got ready, with
more matter; and _Sir Tristrem_ (which is in a way a fourth) was not
very long in following. This last part contained a _tour de force_ in
the shape of a completion of the missing part by Scott himself, a
completion which, of course, shocks philologists, but which was
certainly never written for them, and possesses its own value for

Not the least part of the interest of the _Minstrelsy_ itself was the
editor's appearance as a prose-writer. Percy had started, and others
down to Ritson had continued, the practice of interspersing verse
collections with dissertations in prose; and while the first volume of
the _Minstrelsy_ contained a long general introduction of more than a
hundred pages, and most of the ballads had separate prefaces of more or
less length, the preface to 'Young Tamlane' turned itself into a
disquisition on fairy lore, which, being printed in small type, is
probably not much shorter than the general introduction. In these pieces
(the Fairy essay is said to be based on information partly furnished by
Leyden) all the well-known characteristics of Scott's prose style
appear - its occasional incorrectness, from the strictly scholastic point
of view, as well as its far more than counterbalancing merits of vivid
presentation, of arrangement, not orderly in appearance but curiously
effective in result, of multifarious facts and reading, of the bold
pictorial vigour of its narrative, of its pleasant humour, and its
incessant variety.

Nor was this the only opportunity for exercising himself in the medium
which, even more than verse, was to be his, that the earliest years of
the century afforded to Scott. The _Edinburgh Review_, as everybody
knows, was started in 1802. Although its politics were not Scott's,
they were for some years much less violently put forward and exclusively
enforced than was the case later; indeed, the Whig Review started with
much the same ostensible policy as the Whig Deliverer a century before,
the policy, at least in declared intention, of using both parties as far
as might be for the public good. The attempt, if made _bona fide_, was
not more successful in one case than in the other; but it at least
permitted Tories to enlist under the blue-and-yellow banner. The
standard-bearer, Jeffrey, moreover, was a very old, an intimate, and a
never-quite-to-be-divorced friend of Scott's. At a later period, Scott's
contributions to periodicals attained an excellence which has been
obscured by the fame of the poems and novels together, even more
unjustly than the poems have been obscured by the novels alone. His
reviews at this time on Southey's _Amadis_, on Godwin's _Chaucer_, on
Ellis's _Specimens_, etc., are a little crude and amateurish, especially
in the direction (well known, to those who have ever had to do with
editing, as a besetting sin of novices) of substituting a mere account
of the book, with a few expressions of like and dislike, for a grasped
and reasoned criticism of it. But this is far less peculiar to them than
those who have not read the early numbers of the great reviews may
suppose. The fact is that Jeffrey himself, Sydney Smith, Scott, and
others were only feeling for the principles and practice of reviewing,
as they themselves later, and the brilliant second generation of Carlyle
and Macaulay, De Quincey and Lockhart, were to carry it out. Perhaps the
very best specimens of Scott's powers in this direction are the prefaces
which he contributed much later and gratuitously to John Ballantyne's
_Novelists' Library_ - things which hardly yield to Johnson's _Lives_ as
examples of the combined arts of criticism and biography. At the time
of which we speak he was 'making himself' in this direction as in
others. I hope that Jeffrey and not he was responsible for a fling at
Mary Woollstonecraft in the Godwin article, which would have been
ungenerous in any case, and which in this was unpardonable. But there is
nothing else to object to, and the _Amadis_ review in particular is a
very interesting one.

We must now look back a little, so as to give a brief sketch of Scott's
domestic life, from his marriage until the publication of _The Lay of
the Last Minstrel_, which, with that of _Waverley_ and the crash of
1825-26, supplies the three turning-points of his career. After a very
brief sojourn in lodgings (where the landlady was shocked at Mrs.
Scott's habit of sitting constantly in her drawing-room), the young
couple took up their abode in South Castle Street. Hence, not very long
afterwards, they moved to the house - the famous No. 39 - in the northern
division of the same street, which continued to be her home for the rest
of her Edinburgh life, and Scott's so long as he could afford a house in
Edinburgh. Their first child was born on the 14th of October 1798, but
did not live many hours. As was (and for the matter of that is) much
more customary with Edinburgh residents, even of moderate means, than it
has been for at least a century with Londoners, Scott, while his own
income was still very modest, took a cottage at Lasswade in the
neighbourhood. Here he lived during the summer for years; and in March
1799 he and his wife went to London, for the first time in his case
since he had been almost a baby. His father died during this visit,
after a painful breakdown, which is said to have suggested the touching
particulars of the deathbed of Chrystal Croftangry's benefactor (not
'the elder Croftangry,' as is said in a letter quoted by Lockhart), and
was repeated to some extent in Scott's own case.

His appointment to the Sheriff[depute]ship of Selkirkshire was made in
December 1799, and gave, for light work, three hundred a year. It need
not have interfered with even an active practice at the Bar had such
fallen to him, and at first did not impose on him even a partial
residence. The Lord-Lieutenant, however, Lord Napier of Ettrick,
insisted on this, and though Scott rather resented a strictness which
seems not to have been universal, he had to comply. He did not, however,

2 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburySir Walter Scott → online text (page 2 of 12)