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Poetry_, _Histories of the Culdees_, Wilson's _History of James the
First_, and the rest.

As the beginning of 1805 saw the first birth of his real books, so the
end of it saw that of the last of his children according to the flesh.
His firstborn, as has been said, did not live. But Walter (born November
1799), Sophia (born October 1801), Anne (born February 1803), and
Charles (born December 1805) survived infancy; and it is quite probable
that these regular increases to his family, by suggesting that he might
have a large one, stimulated Scott's desire to enlarge his income. As a
matter of fact, however, the quartette of two boys and two girls was not
exceeded. The domestic life at Castle Street and Ashestiel, from the
publication of the _Lay_ to that of _Marmion_ in 1808, - indeed to that
of _The Lady of the Lake_ in May 1810, - ran smoothly enough; and there
can be little doubt that these five years were the happiest, and in
reality the most prosperous, of Scott's life. He had at once attained
great fame, and was increasing it by each successive poem; his immense
intellectual activity found vent besides in almost innumerable projects,
some of which were in a way successful, and some of which, if they did
himself no very great good pecuniarily, did good to more or less
deserving friends and _protégés_. His health had, as yet, shown no signs
whatever of breaking down; he was physically in perfect condition for,
and at Ashestiel he had every opportunity of indulging in, the field
sports in which his soul delighted at least as much as in reading and
writing; he had pleasant intervals of wandering; and, to crown it all,
he was, during this period, established in reversionary prospect, if not
yet in actual possession, of an income which should have put even his
anxieties at rest, and which certainly might have made him dissociate
himself from the dangerous and doubtful commercial enterprises in which
he had engaged. This reversion was that of a Clerkship of Session, one
of an honourable, well-paid, and by no means laborious group of offices
which seems to have been accepted as a comely and comfortable set of
shelves for advocates of ability, position, and influence, who, for this
reason or that, were not making absolutely first-rate mark at the Bar.
The post to which Scott was appointed was in the possession of a certain
Mr. Hope, and as no retiring pension was attached to these places, it
was customary to hold them on the rather uncomfortable terms of doing
the work till the former holder died, without getting any money. But
before many years a pension scheme was put in operation; Mr. Hope took
his share of it, and Scott entered upon thirteen hundred a year in
addition to his Sheriffship and to his private property, without taking
any account at all of literary gains. The appointment had not actually
been completed, though the patent had been signed, when the Fox and
Grenville Government came in, and it so happened that the document had
been so made out as to have enabled Scott, if he chose, to draw the
whole salary and leave his predecessor in the cold. But this was soon
set right.

In the visit to London which he paid (apparently for the purpose of
getting the error corrected), he made the acquaintance of the unlucky
Princess of Wales, who was at this time rather a favourite with the
Tories. And when he came back to Scotland, the trial of Lord Melville
gave him an opportunity of distinguishing himself by a natural and very
pardonable partisanship, which made his Whig friends rather sore.
Politics in Edinburgh ran very high during this short break in the long
Tory domination, and from it dates a story, to some minds, perhaps, one
of the most interesting of all those about Scott, and connected
indelibly with the scene of its occurrence. It tells how, as he was
coming down the Mound with Jeffrey and another Whig, after a discussion
in the Faculty of Advocates on some proposals of innovation, Jeffrey
tried to laugh the difference off, and how Scott, usually stoical
enough, save in point of humour, broke out with actual tears in his
eyes, 'No, no! it is no laughing matter. Little by little, whatever your
wishes may be, you will destroy and undermine until nothing of what
makes Scotland Scotland shall remain!' He would probably have found no
great reason at the other end of the century to account himself a false
prophet; and he might have thought his prophecies in fair way of
fulfilment not in Scotland only.

During 1806 and 1807 the main occupations of Scott's leisure (if he can
ever be said to have had such a thing) were the _Dryden_ and _Marmion_.
The latter of these appeared in February and the former in April 1808, a
perhaps unique example of an original work, and one of criticism and
compilation, both of unusual bulk and excellence, appearing, with so
short an interval, from the same pen.

As for _Marmion_, it is surely by far the greatest, taking all
constituents of poetical greatness together, of Scott's poems. It was
not helped at the time, and probably never has been helped, by the
author's plan of prefixing to each canto introductions of very
considerable length, each addressed to one or other of his chief
literary friends, and having little or nothing at all to do with the
subject of the tale. Contemporaries complained that the main poem was
thereby intolerably interrupted; posterity, I believe, has taken the
line of ignoring the introductions altogether. This is a very great
pity, for not only do they contain some of Scott's best and oftenest
quoted lines, but each is a really charming piece of occasional verse,
and something more, in itself. The beautiful description of Tweedside in
late autumn, the dirge on Nelson, Pitt, and Fox (which last, of course,
infuriated Jeffrey), and, above all, the splendid passage on the _Morte
d'Arthur_ (which Scott had at this time thought of editing, but gave up
to Southey) adorn the epistle to Rose; the picture of Ettrick Forest in
that to Marriott is one of the best sustained things the poet ever did;
the personal interest of the Erskine piece is of the highest, though it
has fewer 'purple' passages, and it is well-matched with that to Skene;
while the fifth to Ellis and the sixth and last to Heber nobly complete
the batch. Only, though the things in this case _are_ both rich and
rare,

'We wonder what the devil they do there';

and Lockhart unearthed, what Scott seems to have forgotten, the fact
that they were originally intended to appear by themselves. It is a pity
they did not; for, excellent as they are, they are quite out of place as
interludes to a story, the serried range of which not only does not
require but positively rejects them.

For here, while Scott had lost little, if anything, of the formal graces
of the _Lay_, he had improved immensely in grip and force. Clare may be
a bread-and-butter heroine, and Wilton a milk-and-water lover, but the
designs of Marmion against both give a real story-interest, which is
quite absent from the _Lay_. The figure of Constance is really tragic,
not melodramatic merely, and makes one regret that Scott, in his prose
novels, did not repeat and vary her. All the accessories, both in
incident and figure, are good, and it is almost superfluous to praise
the last canto. It extorted admiration from the partisan rancour and the
literary prudishness of Jeffrey; it made the disturbed dowagers of the
_Critical Review_, who thought, with Rymer, that 'a hero ought to be
virtuous,' mingle applause with their fie-fies; it has been the delight
of every reader, not a milksop, or a faddist, or a poetical
man-of-one-idea, ever since. The last canto of _Marmion_ and the last
few 'Aventiuren' of the _Nibelungen Lied_ are perhaps the only things in
all poetry where a set continuous battle (not a series of duels as in
Homer) is related with unerring success; and the steady _crescendo_ of
the whole, considering its length and intensity, is really miraculous.
Nay, even without this astonishing finale, the poem that contained the
opening sketch of Norham, the voyage from Whitby to Holy Island, the
final speech of Constance, and the famous passage of her knell, the
Host's Tale, the pictures of Crichton and the Blackford Hill view, the
'air and fire' of the 'Lochinvar' song, the phantom summons from the
Cross of Edinburgh, and the parting of Douglas and Marmion, could spare
half of these and still remain one of the best of its kind, while every
passage so spared would be enough to distinguish any poem in which it
occurred.

The considerable change in the metre of _Marmion_ as compared with the
_Lay_ is worth noticing. Here, as there, the 'introductions' are, for
the most part, if not throughout, in continuous octosyllabic couplets.
But, in the text, the couplet plays also a much larger part than it
does in the _Lay_, and where it is dropped the substitute is not usually
the light and extremely varied medley of the earlier poem, so much as a
sort of irregular (and sometimes almost regular) stanza arrangement,
sets of (usually three) octosyllables being interspersed with sixes,
rhyming independently. The batches of monorhymed octosyllables sometimes
extend to even four in number, with remarkably good effect, as, for
instance, in the infernal proclamation from the Cross. Altogether the
metrical scheme is of a graver cast than that of the _Lay_, and suits
the more serious and tragical colour of the story.

It has been mentioned above in passing that Jeffrey reviewed _Marmion_
on the whole unfavourably. The story of this review is well known: how
the editor-reviewer (with the best intentions doubtless) sent the proof
with a kind of apology to Scott on the morning of a dinner-party in
Castle Street; how Scott showed at least outward indifference, and Mrs.
Scott a not unamiable petulance; and how, though the affair caused no
open breach of private friendship, it doubtless gave help to the
increasing Whiggery of the _Review_ and its pusillanimous policy in
regard to the Spanish War in severing Scott's connection with it, and
determining him to promote, heart and soul, the opposition venture of
the _Quarterly_. Of this latter it was naturally enough proposed by
Canning that Scott should be editor; but, as naturally, he does not seem
to have even considered the proposal. He would have hated living in
London; no salary that could have been offered him could have done more
than equal, if so much, the stipends of his Sheriffship and the coming
Clerkship, which he would have had to give up; and the work would have
interfered much more seriously than his actual vocations with his
literary avocations. Besides, it is quite certain that he would not have
made a good editor. In the first place, he was fitted neither by
education nor by temperament for the troublesome and 'meticulous'
business of knocking contributions into shape. And, in the second, he
would most assuredly have fallen into the most fatal of all editorial
errors - that of inserting articles, not because they were actually good
or likely to be popular, but because the subjects were interesting, or
the writers agreeable, to himself. But he backed the venture manfully
with advice, by recruiting for it, and afterwards by contributing to it.

It so happened, too, that about the same time he had dissensions with
the publisher as well as with the editor of the _Edinburgh_. Constable,
though he had not entered into the intimate relations with Scott and the
Ballantynes that were afterwards so fatal, had made the spirited bid of
a thousand pounds for _Marmion_, and the much more spirited and (it is
to be feared) much less profitable one of fifteen hundred for the
_Swift_. He had, however, recently taken into partnership a certain Mr.
Hunter of Blackness. This Hunter must have had some merits - he had at
any rate sufficient wit to throw the blame of the fact that sojourn in
Scotland did not always agree with Englishmen on their disgusting habit
of 'eating too much _and not drinking enough_.' But he was a laird of
some family, and he seems to have thought that he might bring into
business the slightly hectoring ways which were then tolerated in
Scotland from persons of quality to persons of none or less. He was a
very bitter Whig, and, therefore, ill disposed towards Scott. And,
lastly, he had, or thought he had, a grievance against his distinguished
'hand' in respect of the _Swift_, to wit, that the editor of that
well-paid compilation did not devote himself to it by any means
exclusively enough. Now Scott, though the most good-natured of men and
only too easy to lead, was absolutely impossible to drive; and his blood
was as ready as the 'bluid of M'Foy' itself to be set on fire at the
notion of a cock-laird from Fife not merely treating a Scott with
discourtesy, but imputing doubtful conduct to him. He offered to throw
up the _Swift_, and though this was not accepted, broke for a time all
other connection with Constable - an unfortunate breach, as it helped to
bring about the establishment of the Ballantyne publishing business, and
so unquestionably began Scott's own ruin. It is remarkable that a
similar impatience of interference afterwards broke Scott's just-begun
connection with Blackwood, which, could it have lasted, would probably
have saved him. For that sagacious person would certainly never have
plunged, or, if he could have helped it, let anyone else plunge, into
Charybdis.

Between the publication of _Marmion_ and that of _The Lady of the Lake_
Scott was very busy in bookmaking and bookselling projects. It was
characteristic of the mixture of bad luck and bad management which hung
on the Ballantynes from the first that even their _Edinburgh Annual
Register_, published as it was in the most stirring times, and written
by Scott, by Southey, and others of the very best hands, was a failure.
He made some visits to London, and (for the scenery of the new poem) to
the Trossachs and Loch Lomond; and had other matters of concern, the
chief of which were the death of his famous bull-terrier Camp, and two
troublesome affairs connected with his brothers. One of these, the
youngest, Daniel, after misconduct of various kinds, had, as mentioned
above, shown the white feather during a negro insurrection in Jamaica,
and so disgusted his brother that when he came home to die, Scott would
neither see him, nor, when he died, go to his funeral. The other
concerned his brother Thomas, who, after his failure as a writer, had
gone from prudential motives to the Isle of Man, where he for a time was
an officer in the local Fencibles. But before leaving Edinburgh, and
while he was still a practising lawyer, his brother had appointed him to
a small post in his own gift as Clerk. Not only was there nothing
discreditable in this according to the idea of any time, - for Thomas
Scott's education and profession qualified him fully for the
office, - but there were circumstances which, at that time, showed rather
heroic and uncommon virtue. For the actual vacancy had occurred in a
higher and more valuable post, also in Scott's gift, and he, instead of
appointing his brother to this, promoted a deserving subordinate
veteran, and gave the lower and less valuable place to Thomas. The
latter's circumstances, however, obliged him to perform his duties by
deputy, and a Commission then sitting ultimately abolished the office
altogether, with a retiring allowance of about half the salary. Certain
Whig peers took this up as a job, and Lord Lauderdale, supported by Lord
Holland, made in the House of Lords very offensive charges against Scott
personally for having appointed his brother to a place which he knew
would be abolished,[13] and against Thomas for claiming compensation in
respect of duties which he had never performed. The Bill was, however,
carried; but Scott was indignant at the loss threatened to his brother
and the imputation made on himself, and 'cut' Lord Holland at a
semi-public dinner not long afterwards. For this he was and has since
been severely blamed, and his behaviour was perhaps a little
'perfervid.' But everybody knows, or should know, that there are few
things more trying to humanity than to be accused of improper conduct
when a man is hugging himself on having behaved with unusual and
saint-like propriety.

_The Lady of the Lake_ appeared in May 1810, being published by
Ballantyne and Miller, and at once attained enormous popularity. Twenty
thousand copies were sold within the year, two thousand of which were
costly quartos; and while there can be no doubt that this was the
highest point of Scott's poetical vogue, there is, I believe, not much
doubt that the poem has always continued to be a greater favourite with
the general than any other of his. It actually, more than any other,
created the _furore_ for Scottish scenery and touring, which has never
ceased since; it supplied in the descriptions of that scenery, in the
fight between Roderick and Fitz-James, and in other things, his most
popular passages; and it has remained probably the type of his poetry to
the main body of readers.

Yet there are some who like it less than any other of the major
divisions of that poetry, and this is by no means necessarily due either
to a desire to be eccentric or to the subtler but almost equally
illegitimate operation of the want of novelty - of the fact that its best
effects are but repetitions of those of _Marmion_ and the _Lay_. For,
fine as it is, it seems to me to display the drawbacks of Scott's scheme
and method more than any of the longer poems. Douglas, Ellen, Malcolm,
are null; Roderick and the king have a touch of theatricality which I
look for in vain elsewhere in Scott; there is nothing fantastic in the
piece like the Goblin Page, and nothing tragical like Constance. There
is something teasing in what has been profanely called the 'guide-book'
character - the cicerone-like fidelity which contrasts so strongly with
the skilfully subordinated description in the two earlier and even in
the later poems. Moreover, though Ellis ought not to have called the
octosyllable 'the Hudibrastic measure' (which is only a very special
variety of it), he was certainly right in objecting to its great
predominance in unmixed form here.

The critics, however, sang the praises of the poem lustily. Even
Jeffrey - perhaps because it was purely Scottish (he had thought
_Marmion_ not Scottish enough), perhaps because its greater
conventionality appealed to him, perhaps because he wished to make
atonement - was extremely complimentary. And certainly no one need be at
a loss for things to commend positively, whatever may be his comparative
estimate. The fine Spenserian openings (which Byron copied almost
slavishly in the form of the stanza he took for _Harold_), the famous
beginning of the stag, the description of the pass (till Fitz-James
begins to soliloquise), some of the songs (especially the masterly
'Coronach'), the passage of the Fiery Cross, the apparition of the clan
(not perhaps so great as some have thought it, but still great), the
struggle, the guard-room (which shocked Jeffrey dreadfully) - these are
only some of the best things. But I own that I turn from the best of
them to the last stand of the spearmen at Flodden, and the unburying of
the Book in the _Lay_.

It may, perhaps, not be undesirable to anticipate somewhat, in order to
complete the sketch of the verse romances in this chapter; for not very
long after the publication of the _Lady of the Lake_, Scott resumed the
writing of _Waverley_, which effected an entire change in the direction
of his literature; and it was not a twelvemonth later that he planned
the establishment at Abbotsford, which was thenceforward the
headquarters of his life.

The first poem to follow was one which lay out of the series in subject,
scheme, and dress, and which perhaps should rather be counted with his
minor and miscellaneous pieces - _The Vision of Don Roderick_. It was
written with rapidity, even for him, and with a special purpose; the
profits being promised beforehand to the Committee of the Portuguese
Relief Fund, formed to assist the sufferers from Massena's devastations.
It consists of rather less than a hundred Spenserian stanzas, the story
of Roderick merely ushering in a magical revelation, to that too-amorous
monarch, of the fortunes of the Peninsular War and its heroes up to the
date of writing. The _Edinburgh Review_, which hated the war, was very
angry because Scott did not celebrate Sir John Moore (whether as a good
Whig or a bad general it did not explain); but even Jeffrey was not
entirely unfavourable, and the piece was otherwise well received. The
description of the subterranean hall beneath the Cathedral of Toledo is
as good as we should expect, and the verses on Saragossa and on the
forces of the three kingdoms are very fine. But the whole was something
of a _torso_, and it is improbable that Scott could ever have used the
Spenserian stanza to good effect for continuous narrative. Even in its
individual shape, that great form requires the artistic patience as well
as the natural gift of men like its inventor, or like Thomson, Shelley,
and Tennyson, in other times and of other schools, to get the full
effect out of it; while to connect it satisfactorily with its kind and
adjust it to narrative is harder still.

The true succession, however, after this parenthesis, was taken up by
_Rokeby_, which was dated on the very last day of 1812. Its reception
was not exceedingly enthusiastic; for Byron, borrowing most of his
technique and general scheme from Scott, and joining with these greater
apparent passion and a more novel and unfamiliar local colour, had
appeared on the scene as a 'second lion.' The public, a 'great-sized
monster of ingratitudes,' had got accustomed to Scott, if not weary of
him. The title[12] was not very happy; and perhaps some harm was really
done by one of the best of Moore's many good jokes in the _Twopenny
Postbag_, where he represented Scott as coming from Edinburgh to London

'To do all the gentlemen's seats by the way'

in romances of half a dozen cantos.

The poem, however, is a very delightful one, and to some tastes at least
very far above the _Lady of the Lake_. Scott, indeed, clung to the
uninterrupted octosyllable more than ever; but that verse, if a poet
knows how to manage it, is by no means so unsuited for story-telling as
Ellis thought; and Scott had here more story to tell than in any of his
preceding pieces, except _Marmion_. The only character, indeed, in which
one takes much interest is Bertram Risingham; but he is a really
excellent person, the cream of Scott's ruffians, whether in prose or
verse; appearing well, conducting himself better, and ending best of
all. Nor is Oswald, the contrasted villain, by any means to be despised;
while the passages - on which the romance, in contradistinction to the
classical epic, stands or falls - are equal to all but the very best in
_Marmion_ or the _Lay_. Bertram's account of the first and happier
events at Marston Moor, as well as of his feelings as to his
comradeship with Mortham; the singularly beautiful opening of the
second canto -

'Far in the chambers of the west';

with the description of Upper Teesdale; Bertram's clamber on the cliff,
with its reminiscences of the 'Kittle Nine Steps,' - these lead on to
many other things as good, ending with that altogether admirable bit of
workmanship, Bertram's revenge on Oswald and his own death. Matilda is
one of the best of Scott's verse-heroines, except Constance - that is to
say, the best of his good girls - and she has the interest of being
avowedly modelled on 'Green Mantle.' Nor in any of the poems do the
lyrics give more satisfactory setting-off to the main text. Indeed, it
may be questioned whether any contains such a garland as - to mention
only the best - is formed by

'O, Brignall banks are wild and fair';

the exquisite

'A weary lot is thine, fair maid,'

adapted from older matter with a skill worthy of Burns himself; the
capital bravura of Allen-a-Dale; and that noble Cavalier lyric -

'When the dawn on the mountain was misty and grey.'

_The Bridal of Triermain_ was published in 1813, not long after
_Rokeby_, and, like that poem, drew its scenery from the North of
England; but in circumstances, scale, and other ways it forms a pair
with _Harold the Dauntless_, and they had best be noticed together.

_The Lord of the Isles_, the last of the great quintet, appeared in
December 1814. Scott had obtained part of the scenery for it in an
earlier visit to the Hebrides, and the rest in his yachting voyage (see


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Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburySir Walter Scott → online text (page 4 of 12)