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do so at once, and during the last year of the century and its two
successors, Lasswade and Castle Street were Scott's habitats, with
various radiations; while in the spring of 1803 he and Mrs. Scott
repeated their visit to London and extended it to Oxford. It is not
surprising to read his confession in sad days, a quarter of a century
later, of the 'ecstatic feeling' with which he first saw this, the place
in all the island which was his spiritual home. The same year saw the
alarm of invasion which followed the resumption of hostilities after the
armistice of Amiens; and Scott's attention to his quartermastership,
which he still held, seems to have given Lord Napier the idea that he
was devoting himself, not only _tam Marti quam Mercurio_, but to Mars
rather at Mercury's expense.[7] Scott, however, was never fond of being
dictated to, and he and his wife were still at Lasswade when the
Wordsworths visited them in the autumn, though Scott accompanied them to
his sheriffdom on their way back to Westmoreland. He had not yet wholly
given up practice, and though its rewards were not munificent, they
reached about this time, it would seem, their maximum sum of £218,
which, in the days of his fairy-money, he must often have earned by a
single morning's work.

Lord Napier, by no means improperly (for it was a legal requirement,
though often evaded, that four months' residence per annum should be
observed), persisted; and Scott, after a pleasing but impracticable
dream of taking up his summer residence in the Tower of Harden itself,
which was offered to him, took a lease of Ashestiel, a pleasant country
house, - 'a decent farmhouse,' he calls it, in his usual way, - the owner
of which was his relation, and absent in India. The place was not far
from Selkirk, on the banks of the Tweed and in the centre of the
Buccleuch country. He seems to have settled there by the end of July
1804. The family, after leaving it for the late autumn session in
Edinburgh, returned at Christmas, by which time _The Lay of the Last
Minstrel_, though not actually published, was printed and ready. It was
issued in the first week of the new year 1805, being, except
Wordsworth's and Coleridge's, the first book published, which was
distinctly and originally characteristic of the new poetry of the
nineteenth century.


[7] Not many years before, Johnson had denied that it was possible for a
working man of letters to earn even _six_ guineas a sheet (the
_Edinburgh_ began at ten and proceeded to a minimum of sixteen),
'_communibus sheetibus_,' as he put it jocularly to Boswell. Southey, in
the year of Scott's marriage, seems to have thought about ten shillings
(certainly not more) 'not amiss' for a morning's work in reviewing.

[8] For an interesting passage showing how slow contemporary ears were
to admit this, see Southey's excellent defence of his own practice to
Wynn (_Letters_, i. 69).

[9] His attempts at the kind may best be despatched in a note here.
Their want of merit contrasts strangely with the admirable quality of
the 'Old Play' fragments scattered about the novels. _Halidon Hill_
(1822), in the subject of which Scott had an ancestral interest from his
Swinton blood, reminds one much more of Joanna Baillie than of its
author. _Macduff's Cross_ (1823), a very brief thing, is still more like
Joanna, was dedicated to her, and appeared in a miscellany which she
edited for a charitable purpose. _The Doom of Devorgoil_, written for
Terry in the first 'cramp' attack of 1817, but not published till 1830,
has a fine supernatural subject, but hardly any other merit.
_Auchindrane_, the last, is by far the best.

[10] It is quite possible that Mrs. Brown's illiterate authority, or one
of his predecessors in title, took 'fee' in the _third_ sense of

[11] He wrote for his corps the 'War Song of the Edinburgh Light
Dragoons,' which appeared in the _Scots Magazine_ for 1802, but was
written earlier. It is good, but not so good as it would have been a few
years later.



Although Scott was hard upon his thirty-fifth year when the _Lay_
appeared, and although he had already a considerable literary reputation
in Edinburgh, and some in London, the amount of his original
publications was then but small. Indeed, on the austere principles of
those who deny 'originality' to such things as reviews, or as the essays
in the _Minstrelsy_, it must be limited to a mere handful, though of
very pleasant delights, the half-dozen of ballads made up by
'Glenfinlas,' 'The Eve of St. John,' the rather inferior 'Fire King,'
the beautiful 'Cadzow Castle' (not yet mentioned, but containing some of
its author's most charming _topic_ lines), the fragment of 'The Grey
Brother,' and a few minor pieces.

With the _Lay_ he took an entirely different position. The mere bulk of
the poem was considerable; and, putting for the instant entirely out of
question its peculiarities of subject, metre, and general treatment, it
was a daring innovation in point of class. The eighteenth century had,
even under its own laws and conditions, distinctly eschewed long
narrative poems, the unreadable epics of Glover, for instance, belonging
to that class of exception which really does prove the rule. Pope's
_Rape_ had been burlesque, and his _Dunciad_, satire; hardly the ghost
of a narrative had appeared in Thomson and Young; Shenstone, Collins,
Gray, had nothing _de longue haleine_; the entire poetical works of
Goldsmith probably do not exceed in length a canto of the Lay; Cowper
had never attempted narrative; Crabbe was resting on the early laurels
of his brief _Village_, etc., and had not begun his tales. _Thalaba_,
indeed, had been published, and no doubt was not without effect on Scott
himself; but it was not popular, and the author was still under the sway
of the craze against rhyme. To all intents and purposes the poet was
addressing the public, in a work combining the attractions of fiction
with the attractions of verse at considerable length, for the first time
since Dryden had done so in his _Fables_, a hundred and five years
before. And though the mastery of the method might be less, the stories
were original, they were continuous, and they displayed an entirely new
gust and seasoning both of subject and of style.

There can be no doubt at all, for those who put metre in its proper
place, that a very large, perhaps the much larger, part of the appeal of
the _Lay_ was metrical. The public was sick of the couplet - had indeed
been sickened twice over, if the abortive revolt of Gray and Collins be
counted. It did not take, and was quite right in not taking, to the
rhymeless, shortened Pindaric of Sayers and Southey, as to anything but
an eccentric 'sport' of poetry. What Scott had to offer was practically
new, or at least novel. It is universally known - and Scott, who was only
too careless of his own claims, and the very last of men to steal or
conceal those of others, made no secret of it - that the suggestion of
the _Lay_ in metre came from a private recitation or reading of
Coleridge's _Christabel_, written in the year of Scott's marriage, but
not published till twenty years later, and more than ten after the
appearance of the _Lay_. Coleridge seems to have regarded Scott's
priority with an irritability less suitable to his philosophic than to
his poetical character.[16] But he had, in the first place, only himself,
if anybody, to blame; in the second, Scott more than made the loan his
own property by the variations executed on its motive; and in the third,
Coleridge's original right was far less than he seems to have honestly
thought, and than most people have guilelessly assumed since.

For the iambic dimeter, freely altered by the licences of equivalence,
anacrusis, and catalexis, though not recently practised in English when
_Christabel_ and the _Lay_ set the example, is an inevitable result of
the clash between accented, alliterative, asyllabic rhythm and
quantitative, exactly syllabic metre, which accompanied the
transformation of Anglo-Saxon into English. We have distinct approaches
to it in the thirteenth century _Genesis_; it attains considerable
development in Spenser's _The Oak and the Brere_; anybody can see that
the latter part of Milton's _Comus_ was written under the breath of its
spirit. But it had not hitherto been applied on any great scale, and the
delusions under which the eighteenth century laboured as to the syllabic
restrictions of English poetry had made it almost impossible that it
should be. At the same time, that century, by its lighter practice on
the one hand in the octosyllable, on the other in the four-footed
anapæstic, was making the way easier for those who dared a little: and
Coleridge first, then Scott, did the rest.

We have seen that in some of his early ballad work Scott had a little
overdone the licence of equivalence, but this had probably been one of
the formal points on which, as we know, the advice of Lewis, no poet but
a remarkably good metrist, had been of use to him. And he acquitted
himself now in a manner which, if it never quite attains the weird charm
of _Christabel_ itself at its best, is more varied, better sustained,
and, above all, better suited to the story-telling which was, of course,
Scott's supremest gift. It is very curious to compare Coleridge's
remarks on Scott's verse with those of Wordsworth, in reference to the
_White Doe of Rylstone_. Neither in _Christabel_, nor in the _White
Doe_, is there a real _story_ really told. Coleridge, but for his fatal
weaknesses, undoubtedly could have told such a story; it is pretty
certain that Wordsworth could not. But Scott could tell a story as few
other men who have ever drawn breath on the earth could tell it. He had
been distinguished in the conversational branch of the art from his
youth up, and though it was to be long before he could write a story in
prose, he showed now, at the first attempt, how he could write one in

Construction, of course, was not his forte; it never was. The plot of
the _Lay_, if not exactly non-existent, is of the simplest and loosest
description; the whole being in effect a series of episodes strung
together by the loves of Margaret and Cranstoun and the misdeeds of the
Goblin Page. Even the Book supplies no real or necessary _nexus_. But
the romance proper has never required elaborate construction, and has
very rarely, if ever, received it. A succession of engaging or exciting
episodes, each plausibly joined to each, contents its easy wants; and
such a succession is liberally provided here. So, too, it does not
require strict character-drawing - a gift with which Scott was indeed
amply provided, but which he did not exhibit, and had no call to
exhibit, here. If the personages will play their parts, that is enough.
And they all play them very well here, though the hero and heroine do
certainly exhibit something of that curious nullity which has been
objected to the heroes nearly always, the heroines too frequently, of
the later prose novels.

But even those critics who, as too many critics are wont to do, forgot
and forget that 'the prettiest girl in the world' not only cannot give,
but ought not to be asked to give, more than she has, must have been,
and must be, very unreasonable if they find fault with the subject and
stuff of the _Lay_. Jeffrey's remark about 'the present age not
enduring' the Border and mosstrooping details was contradicted by the
fact, and was, as a matter of taste, one of those strange blunders which
diversified his often admirably acute critical utterances. When he
feared their effects on '_English_ readers,' he showed himself, as was
not common with him, actually ignorant of one of the simplest general
principles of the poetic appeal, that is to say, the element of
_strangeness_. But we must not criticise criticism here, and must only
add that another great appeal, that of variety, is amply given, as well
as that of unfamiliarity. The graceful and touching, if a little
conventional, overture of the Minstrel introduces with the truest art
the vigorous sketch of Branksome Tower. The spirits of flood and fell
are allowed to impress and not allowed to bore us; for the quickest of
changes is made to Deloraine's ride - a kind of thing in which Scott
never failed, even in his latest and saddest days. The splendid Melrose
opening of the Second Canto supports itself through the discovery of the
Book, and finds due contrast in the description (or no-description) of
the lovers' meeting; the fight and the Goblin Page's misbehaviour and
punishment (to all, at least, but those, surely few now, who are
troubled by the Jeffreyan sense of 'dignity'), the decoying and capture
of young Buccleuch, and the warning of the clans are certainly no
ungenerous provision for the Third; nor the clan anecdotes (especially
the capital episode of the Beattisons), the parley, the quarrel of
Howard and Dacre, and the challenge, for the Fourth. There is perhaps
less in the Fifth, for Scott seems to have been afraid of another fight
in detail; but the description of the night before, and the famous
couplet -

'I'd give the lands of Deloraine
Dark Musgrave were alive again' -

would save it if there were nothing else, as there is much. And if the
actual conclusion has no great interest (Scott was never good at
conclusions, as we shall find Lady Louisa Stuart telling him frankly
later), the Sixth Canto is full, and more than full, of brilliant
things - the feast, the Goblin's tricks, his carrying-off, the
pilgrimage, and, above all, the songs, especially 'Rosabelle' and the
version of the 'Dies Iræ.'

The mention of these last may fairly introduce a few words on the formal
and metrical characteristics of the poem, remarks which perhaps some
readers resent, but which must nevertheless be made, inasmuch as they
are to my mind by far the most important part of poetical criticism.
Scott evidently arranged his scheme of metre with extreme care here,
though it is possible that after this severe exercise he let it take
care of itself to some extent later. His introduction is in the strict
octosyllable, with only such licences of slur or elision -

'The pi | _tying Duch_ | ess praised its chime,'
'_He had played_ | it to King Charles the Good' -

as the greatest precisians might have allowed themselves. But the First
Canto breaks at once into the full licence, not merely of
equivalence, - that is to say, of substituting an anapæst or a trochee
for an iamb, - but of shifting the base and rhythm of any particular
verse, or of set batches of verses, between the three ground-feet, and,
further, of occasionally introducing sixes, as in the ballad metre, and
even fours -

'Bards long | shall tell
How Lord Wal | ter fell,'

instead of the usual eights.

In similar fashion he varies the rhymes, passing as the subject or the
accompaniment of the word-music may require, from the couplet to the
quatrain, and from the quatrain to the irregularly rhymed 'Pindaric';
always, however, taking care that, except in the set lyric, the quatrain
shall not fall too much into definite stanza, but be interlaced in sense
or sound sufficiently to carry on the narrative. The result, to some
tastes, is a medium quite unsurpassed for the particular purpose. The
only objection to it at all capable of being maintained, that I can
think of, is that the total effect is rather lyrical than epic. And so
much of this must be perhaps allowed as comes to granting that Scott's
verse-romance is rather a long and cunningly sustained and varied ballad
than an epic proper.

The _Lay_, though not received with quite that eager appetite for poetry
which Scott was 'born to introduce,' and of which he lived long enough
to see the glutting, had a large and immediate sale. The author, not yet
aware what a gold mine his copyrights were, parted with this after the
first edition, and received in all rather less than £770, a sum trifling
in comparison with his after gains; but probably the largest that had as
yet been received by any English poet for a single volume not published
by subscription. It is curious that, at the estimated rate of three for
one in comparing the value of money at the end of the seventeenth and
the beginning of the nineteenth century, the sum almost exactly equals
that paid by Tonson for Dryden's _Fables_, the last book, before the
_Lay_ itself, which had united popularity, merit, and bulk in English
verse. But Dryden was the acknowledged head of English literature at the
time, and Scott was a mere beginner. He was probably even better pleased
with the quality of the praise than with the quantity of the pudding.
For though professional criticism, then in no very vigorous state, said
some silly things, it was generally favourable; and a saying of Pitt
(most indifferent, as a rule, of all Prime Ministers to English
literature) is memorable not merely as summing up the general
impression, but as defining what that impression was in a fashion quite
invaluable to the student of literary history. The Pilot that Weathered
the Storm, it seems, said of the description of the Minstrel's
hesitation before playing, 'This is a sort of thing I might have
expected in painting, but could never have fancied capable of being
given by poetry.' To the present generation and the last, the reverse
expression would probably seem more natural. We say, of Mr. Watts or of
Sir Edward Burne-Jones, that they have put, in 'Love and Death' or in
'Love among the Ruins,' what we might have expected from poetry, but
could hardly have thought possible in painting. But a hundred years of
studious convention and generality, of deliberate avoidance of the
poignant, and the vivid, and the detailed, and the coloured in poetry
had made Pitt's confession as natural as another hundred years of
contrary practice from Coleridge to Rossetti have made ours.

The publication of the _Lay_ immediately preceded, and perhaps its
success had no small share in deciding, the most momentous and
unfortunate step of Scott's life, his entry into partnership with James
Ballantyne. The discussion of the whole of this business will best be
postponed till the date of its catastrophe is reached, but a few words
may be said on the probable reasons for it. Much, no doubt, was the
result of that combination of incalculable things which foolish persons
of one kind call mere chance, of which foolish persons of another kind
deny the existence, and which wise men term, from different but not
irreconcilable points of view, Providence, or Luck, or Fate. But a
little can be cleared up. Scott had evidently made up his mind that he
should not succeed at the Bar, and had also persuaded himself that the
very success of the _Lay_ had made failure certain. The ill success of
his brother Thomas, with the writer's business inherited from their
father, perhaps inconvenienced and no doubt frightened him. In fact,
though his harsher judges are wrong in attributing to him any undue
haste to be rich, he certainly does seem to have been under a dread of
being poor; a dread no doubt not wholly intelligible and partly morbid
in a young man still under thirty-five, with brilliant literary and some
legal prospects, who had, independently of fees, literary or legal, a
secured income of about a thousand a year. He probably thought, and was
right in thinking, that the book trade was going to 'look up' to a
degree previously unknown; he seems throughout to have been under one of
those inexplicable attractions towards the Ballantynes which now and
then exist, as Hobbes says, 'in the greater towards the meaner, but not
contrary'; and perhaps there was another cause which has not been
usually allowed for enough. Good Christian and good-natured man as he
was, Scott was exceedingly proud; and though joining himself with
persons of dubious social position in mercantile operations seems an odd
way of pride, it had its temptations. I do not doubt but that from the
first Scott intended, more or less vaguely and dimly, to extend the
printing business into a publishing one, and so to free himself from any
necessity of going cap-in-hand to publishers.

However, for good or for ill, - I think it was mainly for ill, - for this
reason or for that, the partnership was formed, at first indirectly by
way of loan, then directly by further advance on security of a share in
the business, and finally so that Scott became, though he did not
appear, the leading partner. And the very first letter that we have of
his about business shows the fatal flaw which he, the soul of honour,
seems never to have detected till too late, if even then. The scheme for
an edition of Dryden was already afloat, and the first editor proposed
was a certain Mr. Foster, who 'howled about the expense of printing.' 'I
still,' says Scott to Ballantyne, 'stick to my answer that _I know
nothing of the matter_, but that, settle it how he and you will, _it
must be printed by you or be no concern of mine. This gives you an
advantage in driving the bargain._' Perhaps; but how about the advantage
to Mr. Foster of being advised by Ballantyne's partner to employ
Ballantyne, while he was innocent of the knowledge of the identity of
partner and adviser, and was even told that Scott 'knew nothing of the

Even before the quarrel which soon occurred with Constable established
the Ballantynes - nominally the other brother John - as publishers, Scott
had begun, and was constantly pressing upon the different publishing
houses with which he was connected, a variety of literary schemes of the
most ambitious and costly character. All these books were to be printed
by Ballantyne, and many of them edited by himself; while, when the
direct publishing business was added, there was no longer any check on
this dangerous proceeding. It is most curious how Scott, the shrewdest
and sanest of men in the vast majority of affairs, seems to have lost
his head wherever books or lands were concerned. Himself both an
antiquary and an antiquarian,[15] as well as a lover of literature, he
seems to have taken it for granted that the same combination of tastes
existed in the public to an extent which would pay all expenses, however
lavishly incurred. To us, nowadays, who know how cold a face publishers
turn on what we call really interesting schemes, and how often these
schemes, even when fostered, miscarry or barely pay expenses, - who are
aware that even the editors of literary societies, where expenses are
assured beforehand, have to work for love or for merely nominal fees,
simply because the public will not buy the books, - it is not so
wonderful that some of Scott's schemes never got into being at all, and
that others were dead losses, as that any 'got home.' His _Dryden_, an
altogether admirable book, on which he lavished labour, and great part
of which appealed to a still dominant prestige, may just have carried
the editor's certainly not excessive fee of forty guineas a volume, or
about £750 for the whole. But when one reads of twice that sum paid for
the _Swift_, of £1300 for the thirteen quartos of the _Somers Papers_,
and so forth, the feeling is not that the sums paid were at all too much
for the work done, but that the publishers must have been very lucky men
if they ever saw their money again. The two first of these schemes
certainly, the third perhaps, deserved success; and still more so did a
great scheme for the publication of the entire _British Poets_, to be
edited by Scott and Campbell, which indeed fell through in itself, but
resulted indirectly in Campbell's excellent _Specimens_ and Chalmers's
invaluable if not very comely _Poets_. Even another project, a _Corpus
Historicorum_, would have been magnificent, though it could hardly have
been bookselling war. But the _Somers Tracts_ themselves, the _Memoirs_
and papers of Sadler, Slingsby, Carleton, Cary, etc., were of the class
of book which requires subvention of some kind to prevent it from being
a dead loss; and when the preventive check of the unwillingness of
publishers was removed by the fatal establishment of '_John_ Ballantyne
& Co.,' things became worse still. There are few better instances of the
eternal irony of fate than that the author of the admirable description
of the bookseller's horror at Mr. Pembroke's Sermons[14] should have
permitted, should have positively caused, the publishing at what was in
effect his own risk, or rather his own certainty of loss, not merely of
Weber's ambitious _Beaumont and Fletcher_, but of collections of _Tixall

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Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburySir Walter Scott → online text (page 3 of 12)