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below) with the Commissioners of Northern Lights, which also gave the
_décor_ for _The Pirate_. The poem was not more popular than _Rokeby_ in
England, and it was even less so in Scotland, chiefly for the reason,
only to be mentioned with all but silent amazement, that it was 'not
bitter enough against England.' Its faults are, of course, obvious
enough. Central story there is simply none; the inconvenience that
arises to the hero from his being addressed by two young ladies cannot
awake any very sympathetic tear, nor does either Edith of Lorn or Isabel
Bruce awaken any violent desire to offer to relieve him of one of them.
The versification, however, is less uniform than that of _Rokeby_ or
_The Lady of the Lake_, and there are excellent passages - the best
being, no doubt, the Abbot's extorted blessing on the Bruce; the great
picture of Loch Coruisk, which, let people say what they will, is
marvellously faithful; part of the voyage (though one certainly could
spare some of the 'merrilys'); the landing in Carrick; the rescue of the
supposed page; and, finally, Bannockburn, which even Jeffrey admired,
though its want of 'animosity' shocked him.

The two last of the great poems - there was indeed a third, _The Field of
Waterloo_, written hastily for a subscription, and not worthy either of
Scott or of the subject - have not by any means the least interest,
either intrinsic or that of curiosity. Indeed, as a matter of liking,
not quite disjoined from criticism, I should put them very high indeed.
Both were issued anonymously, and with indications intended to mislead
readers into the idea that they were by Erskine; the intention being, it
would seem, partly to ascertain how far the author's mere name counted
in his popularity, partly also to 'fly kites' as to the veering of the
public taste in reference to the verse romance in general. By the time
of the publication of _Harold the Dauntless_ in 1817, Scott could hardly
have had any intention of deserting the new way - his own exclusive
right - in which he was already walking firmly. But the _Bridal of
Triermain_ appeared very shortly after _Rokeby_, and was, no doubt,
seriously intended as a test.

In both pieces the author fell back upon his earlier scheme of metre,
the _Christabel_ blend of iambic with anapæstic passages, instead of the
nearly pure iambs of his middle poems. The _Bridal_, partly to encourage
the Erskine notion, it would seem, is hampered by an intermixed
outline-story, told in the introductions, of the wooing and winning of a
certain Lucy by a certain Arthur, both of whom may be very heartily
wished away. But the actual poem is more thoroughly a Romance of
Adventure than even the _Lay_, has much more central interest than that
poem, and is adorned by passages of hardly less beauty than the best of
the earlier piece. It is astonishing how anyone of the slightest
penetration could have entertained the slightest doubt about the
authorship of

'Come hither, come hither, Henry my page,
Whom I saved from the sack of Hermitage';

still more of that of the well-known opening of the Third Canto, one of
the triumphs of that 'science of names' in which Scott was such a
proficient -

'Bewcastle now must keep the Hold,
Speir-Adam's steeds must bide in stall,
Of Hartley-burn the bowmen bold
Must only shoot from battled wall;
And Liddesdale may buckle spur,
And Teviot now may belt the brand,
Tarras and Ewes keep nightly stir,
And Eskdale foray Cumberland!'

But these are only the most unmistakable, not the best. The opening
specification of the Bride; the admirable 'Lyulph's Tale,' with the
first appearance of the castle, and the stanza (suggested no doubt by a
famous picture) of the damsels dragging Arthur's war-gear; the
courtship, and Guendolen's wiles to retain Arthur, and the parting; the
picture of the King's court; the tournament; all these are good enough.
But I am not sure that the description of Sir Roland's tantalised vigil
in the Vale of St. John, with the moonlit valley (itself a worthy
pendant even to the Melrose), and the sudden and successful revelation
of the magic hold when the knight flings his battle-axe, does not even
surpass the Tale. Nor do I think that the actual adventures of this
Childe Roland in the dark towers are inferior. The trials and
temptations are of stock material, but all the best matter is stock, and
this is handled with a rush and dash which more than saves it. I hope
the tiger was only a magic tiger, and went home comfortably with the
damsels of Zaharak. It seems unfair that he should be actually killed.
But this is the only thing that disquiets me; and it is impossible to
praise too much De Vaux's ingenious compromise between tasteless
asceticism and dangerous indulgence in the matter of 'Asia's willing
maids.'

_Harold the Dauntless_ is much slighter, as indeed might be expected,
considering that it was finished in a hurry, long after the author had
given up poetry as a main occupation. But the half burlesque Spenserians
of the overture are very good; the contrasted songs, 'Dweller of the
Cairn' and 'A Danish Maid for Me,' are happy. Harold's interview with
the Chapter is a famous bit of bravura; and all concerning the Castle of
the Seven Shields, from the ballad introducing it, through the
description of its actual appearance (in which, by the way, Scott shows
almost a better grasp of the serious Spenserian stanza than anywhere
else) to the final battle of Odin and Harold, is of the very best
Romantic quality. Perhaps, indeed, it is because (as the _Critical
Review_, the Abdiel of 'classical' orthodoxy among the reviews of the
time, scornfully said), 'both poems are romantic enough to satisfy all
the parlour-boarders of all the ladies' schools in England,' that they
are so pleasant. It is something, in one's grey and critical age, to
feel genuine sympathy with the parlour-boarder.

The chapter has already stretched to nearly the utmost proportions
compatible with the scale of this little book, and we must not indulge
in very many critical remarks on the general character of the
compositions discussed in it. But I have never carried out the plan
(which I think indispensable) of reading over again whatever work,
however well known, one has to write about, with more satisfaction. The
main defects lie on the surface. Despite great felicities of a certain
kind, these poems have no claim to formal perfection, and occasionally
sin by very great carelessness, if not by something worse. The poet
frankly shows himself as one whose appeal is not that of 'jewels five
words long,' set and arranged in phrases of that magical and unending
beauty which the very greatest poets of the world command. His effect,
even in description, is rather of mass than of detail. He does not
attempt analysis in character, and only skirts passion. Although
prodigal enough of incident, he is very careless of connected plot. But
his great and abiding glory is that he revived the art, lost for
centuries in England, of telling an interesting story in verse, of
riveting the attention through thousands of lines of poetry neither
didactic nor argumentative. And of his separate passages, his patches of
description and incident, when the worst has been said of them, it will
remain true that, in their own way and for their own purpose, they
cannot be surpassed. The already noticed comparison of any of Scott's
best verse-tales with _Christabel_, which they formally imitated to some
extent, and with the _White Doe of Rylstone_, which followed them, will
no doubt show that Coleridge and Wordsworth had access to mansions in
the house of poetry where Scott is never seen. But in some respects even
their best passages are not superior to his; and as tales, as romances,
his are altogether superior to theirs.

FOOTNOTES:

[12] It is fair to him to say that he made no public complaints, and
that when some gutter-scribbler in 1810 made charges of plagiarism from
him against Scott, he furnished Southey with the means of clearing him
from all share in the matter (_Lockhart_, iii. 293; Southey's _Life and
Correspondence_, iii. 291). But there is a suspicion of fretfulness even
in the Preface to _Christabel_; and the references to Scott's poetry
(not to himself) in the _Table Talk_, etc., are almost uniformly
disparaging. It is true that these last are not strictly evidence.

[13] The objection taken to this word by precisians seems to ignore a
useful distinction. The _antiquary_ is a collector; the _antiquarian_ a
student or writer. The same person may be both; but he may not.

[14] _Waverley_, chap. vi. It owes a little to Smollett's Introduction
to _Humphry Clinker_, but as usual improves the loan greatly.

[15] Inasmuch as he himself was secretary to the Commission which did
away with it.

[16] Taken from the name of his friend Morritt's place on the Greta.




CHAPTER IV

THE NOVELS, FROM _WAVERLEY_ TO _REDGAUNTLET_


In the opening introduction to the collected edition of the novels,
Scott has given a very full account of the genesis of _Waverley_. These
introductions, written before the final inroad had been made on his
powers by the united strength of physical and moral misfortune, animated
at once by the last glow of those powers, and by the indefinable charm
of a fond retrospection, displaying every faculty in autumn luxuriance,
are so delightful that they sometimes seem to be the very cream and
essence of his literary work in prose. Indeed, I have always wondered
why they have not been published separately as a History of the Waverley
Novels by their author. Yet the public, I believe, with what I fear must
be called its usual lack of judgment in some such matters, seems never
to have read them very widely. An exception, however, may possibly have
been made in the case of this first one, opening as it has long done
every new issue of the whole set of novels. At anyrate, in one way or
another, it is probably known, at least to those who take an interest in
Scott, that he had begun _Waverley_ and thrown it aside some ten years
before its actual appearance, at a time when he was yet a novice in
literature. He had also attempted one or two other things, - a completion
of Strutt's _Queenhoo Hall_, the beginning of a tale about Thomas the
Rhymer, etc., which are now appended to the introduction itself, - and he
had once, in 1810, resumed _Waverley_, and again thrown it aside. At
last, when his supremacy as a popular poet was threatened by Byron, and
when, perhaps, he himself was a little wearying of the verse tale, he
discovered the fragment while searching for fishing-tackle in the old
desk where he had put it, and after a time resolved to make a new and
anonymous attempt on public favour.

By the time - 1814 - when the book actually appeared, considerable
changes, both for good and for bad, had occurred in Scott's
circumstances; and the total of his literary work, independently of the
poems mentioned in the last chapter, had been a good deal increased.
Ashestiel had been exchanged for Abbotsford; the new house was being
planned and carried out so as to become, if not exactly a palace,
something much more than the cottage which had been first talked of; and
the owner's passion for buying, at extravagant prices, every
neighbouring patch of mostly thankless soil that he could get hold of
was growing by indulgence. He himself, in 1811 and the following years,
was extremely happy and extremely busy, planting trees, planning rooms,
working away at _Rokeby_ and _Triermain_ in the general sitting-room of
the makeshift house, with hammering all about him (now, the hammer and
the pen are perhaps of all manual implements the most deadly and
irreconcilable foes!), corresponding with all sorts and conditions of
men; furnishing introductions and contributions (in some cases never yet
collected) to all sorts and conditions of books, and struggling, as best
he saw his way, though the way was unfortunately not the right one, with
the ever-increasing difficulties of Ballantyne & Company. I forget
whether there is any evidence that Dickens consciously took his humorous
incarnation of the duties of a 'Co.' from Scott's own experience. But
Scott as certainly had to provide the money, the sense, the good-humour,
and the rest of the working capital as Mark Tapley himself. The merely
pecuniary part of these matters may be left to the next chapter; it is
sufficient to say that, aggravated by misjudgment in the selection and
carrying out of the literary part, it brought the firm in 1814
exceedingly near the complete smash which actually happened ten years
later. One is tempted to wish that the crash had come, for it was only
averted by the alliance with Constable which was the cause of the final
downfall. Also, it would have come at a time when Scott was physically
better able to bear it; it could hardly in any degree have interfered
with the appearance of _Waverley_ and its followers; and it would have
had at least a chance of awakening their author to a sense of the double
mistake of engaging his credit in directly commercial concerns, and of
sinking his money in land and building. However, things were to be as
they were, and not otherwise.

How anxious Constable must have been to recover Scott (Hunter, the stone
of stumbling, was now removed by death) is evident from the mere list of
the titles of the books which he took over in whole or part from the
Ballantynes. Even his Napoleonic audacity quailed before the _Edinburgh
Annual Register_, with its handsome annual loss of a thousand a year, at
Brewster's _Persian Astronomy_, in 4to and 8vo, and at _General Views of
the County of Dumfries_. But he saddled himself with a good deal of the
'stock' (which in this case most certainly had not its old sense of
'assets'), and in May 1813, Scott seems to have thought that if John
Ballantyne would curb his taste for long-dated bills, things might go
well. Unluckily, John did not choose to do so, and Scott, despite the
warning, was equally unable to curb his own for peat-bogs, marl-pits,
the Cauldshiels Loch, and splendid lots of ancient armour. By July there
was again trouble, and in August things were so bad that they were only
cleared by Scott's obtaining from the Duke of Buccleuch a guarantee for
£4000. It was in consenting to this that the Duke expressed his approval
of Scott's determination to refuse the Laureateship, which had been
offered to him, and which, in consequence of his refusal and at his
suggestion, was conferred upon Southey. Even the guarantee, though it
did save the firm, saved it with great difficulty.

In the following winter Scott had an adventure with his eccentric German
amanuensis, Henry Weber, who had for some time been going mad, and who
proposed a duel with pistols (which he produced) to his employer in the
study at Castle Street. _Swift_ appeared at last in the summer, and it
was in June 1814 that the first of a series of wonderful _tours de
force_ was achieved by the completion, in about three weeks, of the last
half of _Waverley_. One of the most striking things in Lockhart is the
story of the idle apprentice who became industrious by seeing Scott's
hand traversing the paper hour after hour at his study window. The novel
actually appeared on July 7, and, being anonymous, made no immediate
'move,' as booksellers say, before Scott set off a fortnight later for
his long-planned tour with the Commissioners of Northern Lights - the
Scottish Trinity House - in their yacht, round the northern half of the
island and to Orkney and Shetland. To abstract his own admirable account
of the tour[27] would be a task grateful neither to writer nor to
reader, the latter of whom, if he does not know it already, had better
lose no time in making its acquaintance. On the return in September,
Scott was met by two pieces of bad and good tidings respectively - the
death of the Duchess of Buccleuch, and the distinct, though not as yet
'furious,' success of his novel.

There is no doubt that the early fragments in tale-telling which have
been noticed above do not display any particular skill in the art; nor
is there much need to quarrel with those who declare that the opening of
_Waverley_[26] itself ranks little, if at all, above them. I always read
it myself; but I believe most people plunge almost at once into the
Tullyveolan visit. By doing so, however, they miss not merely the
critical pleasure of comparing a man's work (as can rarely be done)
during his period of groping for the way, with his actual stumble into
it for the first time, but also such justification as there is for the
hero's figure. Nobody ever judged the unlucky captain of Gardiner's
better than his creator, who at the time frankly called him 'a sneaking
piece of imbecility,' and avowed, with as much probability as right,
that 'if he had married Flora, she would have set him up on the
chimney-piece, as Count Borowlaski's[25] wife used to do.' But his
weaknesses have at least an excuse from his education and antecedents,
which does not appear if these antecedents are neglected.

Still, the story-interest only begins when Waverley rides into the
bear-warded avenue; it certainly never ceases till the golden image of
the same totem is replaced in the Baron of Bradwardine's hand. And it is
very particularly to be observed that this interest is of a kind
absolutely novel in combination and idiosyncrasy. The elements of
literary interest are nowhere new, except in what is, for aught we know,
accidentally the earliest literature _to us_. They are all to be found
in Homer, in the Book of Job, in the _Agamemnon_, in the _Lancelot_, in
the _Poem of the Cid_. But from time to time, in the hands of the men of
greater genius, they are shaken up afresh, they receive new adjustments,
and a touch of something personal which transforms them. This new
adjustment and touch produced in Scott's case what we call the
Historical Novel.[24] It is quite a mistake to think that he was limited
to this. _Guy Mannering_ and _The Antiquary_ among the earlier novels,
_St. Ronan's Well_ and the exquisite introductory sketch to the
_Chronicles of the Canongate_ among the later, would disprove that. But
the historical novel was the new kind that he was 'born to introduce,'
after many failures in many generations. It is difficult to say whether
it was accident or property which made his success in it co-existent
with his success in depicting national character, scenery, and manners.
Attempts at this, not always unsuccessful attempts, had indeed been made
before. It had been tried frequently, though usually in the sense of
caricature, on the stage; it had been done quite recently in the novel
by Miss Edgeworth (whom Scott at least professed to regard as his
governess here), and much earlier in this very department of Scotch
matters by Smollett. But it had never been done with really commanding
ability on the great scale.

In _Waverley_ Scott supplied these two aspects, the historical-romantic
and the national-characteristic, with a felicity perhaps all the more
unerring in that it seems to have been only partly conscious. The
subject of 'the Forty-five' was now fully out of taboo, and yet retained
an interest more than antiquarian. The author had the amplest stores of
knowledge, and that sympathy which is so invaluable to the artist when
he keeps it within the limits of art. He seems to have possessed by
instinct (for there was nobody to teach him) the paramount secret of the
historical novelist, the secret of making his central and prominent
characters fictitious, and the real ones mostly subsidiary. On the other
hand, the knowledge of his native country, which he had been
accumulating for almost the whole of his nearly four-and-forty years of
life, was joined in him with that universal knowledge of humanity which
only men of the greatest genius have. I am, indeed, aware that both
these positions have been attacked. I was much pleased, some time after
I had begun to write this little book, to find in a review of the
present year of grace these words: 'Scott only knew a small portion of
human nature, and he was unable to portray the physiognomy of the past.'
I feared at first that this might be only one of the numerous flings of
our young barbarians, a pleasant, or pleasantly intended, flirt of the
heels of the New Humour. But the context showed that the writer was in
deadly earnest. I shall not attempt here to explain to him, in a popular
or any other style, that he is, perhaps, not quite right. Life itself is
not long enough - 'little books' are decidedly too short - for a
demonstration that the Pacific Ocean is not really a small portion of
the terrestrial water-space, or that Alexander was able to overrun
foreign countries. We may find a little room in the Conclusion to say
something more about Scott's range and his faculty. Here it will be
enough to wear our friend's rue with a slight difference, and to say
that _Waverley_ and its successors showed in their author knowledge,
complete in all but certain small parts, of human nature, and an almost
unlimited faculty of portraying the physiognomy of the past.

It was scarcely to be expected that a book which was anonymous, and of
which only a very few persons knew the real authorship, while even those
who guessed it at all early were not so very many, should attain
immediate popularity. Lockhart says that the slowness of the success was
exaggerated, but his own figures prove that it was somewhat leisurely.
Five editions, one (the second) of two thousand, the others of one
thousand each, supplied the demand of the first six months, and a
thousand copies more that of the next eighteen months - a difference from
the almost instantaneous myriads of the poems, quite sufficient to show
very eloquently how low the prose novel then stood in popular favour. It
is the greatest triumph of Scott, from this low point of view, that his
repeated blows heated the public as they did, till at the fourth
publication, within but a year or two, Constable actually dared to start
with ten thousand copies at once, and they were all absorbed in no time.

Scott had always been a rapid worker, but it was only now, under the
combined stimulus of the new-found gift, the desire for more land and a
statelier Abbotsford, and the pressure of the affairs of Ballantyne &
Co., that he began to work at the portentous rate which, though I do
not believe that it at all injured the quality of his production, pretty
certainly endangered his health. During 1814 he had written nearly all
his _Life of Swift_, nearly all _Waverley_, the _Lord of the Isles_, and
an abundance of 'small wares,' essays, introductions, and what not. The
major part of _Guy Mannering_ - perhaps the very best of the novels, for
merit of construction and interest of detail - seems to have been written
in less than a month, at the extreme end of this year and the beginning
of 1815. The whole appears to have been done in six weeks, to 'shake
himself free of _Waverley_' - probably the most gigantic exhibition of
the 'hair of the dog' recorded in literature.

The _donnée_ of this novel was furnished by a Dumfries surveyor of
taxes, Mr. Train, the scenery by that early visit to Galloway, in the
interest of the reverend toyer with sweetie-wives, which has been
recorded. Other indebtedness, such as that of Hatteraick to the
historical or legendary free-trader, Yawkins, and the like, has been
traced. But the charm of the whole lies in none of these things, nor in
all together, but in Scott's own fashion of working them up. Nothing at
first could seem to be a greater contrast with _Waverley_ than this
tale. No big wars, no political hazards; but a double and tenfold
portion of human nature and local colour. This last element had in the
earlier book been almost entirely supplied by Tullyveolan and its
master; for Fergus and the Highland scenes, good as they are, are not
much more than a furbishing up of the poem-matter of this kind,
especially in the _Lady of the Lake_. But here the supply of character
was liberal and the variety of scenery extraordinary. We cannot judge
the innovation fully now, but let anyone turn to the theatrical
properties of Godwin and Holcroft, of Mrs. Radcliffe and 'Monk' Lewis,
and he will begin to have a better idea of what _Guy Mannering_ must
have been to its first readers. As usual, the personages who head the
_dramatis personæ_ are not the best. Bertram, though less of a
nincompoop than Waverley, is not very much; Lucy is a less lively _ange


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Online LibraryGeorge SaintsburySir Walter Scott → online text (page 5 of 12)