John Lord.

Beacon Lights of History, Volume 13 Great Writers; Dr Lord's Uncompleted Plan, Supplemented with Essays by Emerson, Macaulay, Hedge, and Mercer Adam online

. (page 4 of 25)
Online LibraryJohn LordBeacon Lights of History, Volume 13 Great Writers; Dr Lord's Uncompleted Plan, Supplemented with Essays by Emerson, Macaulay, Hedge, and Mercer Adam → online text (page 4 of 25)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


this marriage, although only five survived very early youth.

Walter, the ninth child, was born on the 15th of August, 1771, and when
quite young, in consequence of a fever, lost for a time the use of his
right leg. By the advice of his grandfather, Dr. Rutherford, he was sent
into the country for his health. As his lameness continued, he was, at
the age of four, removed to Bath, going to London by sea. Bath was then
a noted resort, and its waters were supposed to cure everything. Here
little Walter remained a year under the care of his aunt, when he
returned to Edinburgh, to his father's house in George Square, which was
his residence until his marriage, with occasional visits to the county
seat of his maternal grandfather. He completely regained his health,
although he was always lame.

From the autobiography which Scott began but did not complete, it would
appear that his lameness and solitary habits were favorable to reading;
that even as a child he was greatly excited by tales and poems of
adventure; and that as a youth he devoured everything he could find
pertaining to early Scottish poetry and romance, of which he was
passionately fond. He was also peculiarly susceptible to the beauties of
Scottish scenery, being thus led to enjoy the country and its sports at
a much earlier age than is common with boys, - which love was never lost,
but grew with his advancing years. Among his fellows he was a hearty
player, a forward fighter in boyish "bickers," and a teller of tales
that delighted his comrades. He was sweet-tempered, merry, generous, and
well-beloved, yet peremptory and pertinacious in pursuit of his
own ideas.

In 1779, Walter was sent to the High School in Edinburgh; but his
progress here was by no means remarkable, although he laid a good
foundation for the acquisition of the Latin language. He also had a
tutor at home, and from him learned the rudiments of French. With a head
all on fire for chivalry and Scottish ballads, he admired the old Tory
cavaliers and hated the Roundheads and Presbyterians. In three years he
had become fairly familiar with Caesar, Livy, Sallust, Virgil, Horace,
and Terence. He also distinguished himself by making Latin verses. From
the High School he entered the University of Edinburgh, very well
grounded in French and Latin. For Greek and mathematics he had an
aversion, but made up for this deficiency by considerable acquisitions
in English literature. He was delighted with both Ossian and Spenser,
and could repeat the "Faërie Queene" by heart. His memory, like that of
Macaulay, was remarkable. What delighted him more than Spenser were
Hoole's translations of Tasso and Ariosto (later he learned Italian, and
read these in the original), and Percy's "Reliques of Ancient Poetry."
At college he also read the best novels of the day, especially the works
of Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett. He made respectable progress in
philosophy under the teaching of the celebrated Dugald Stewart and
Professor Bruce, and in history under Lord Woodhouselee. On the whole,
he was not a remarkable boy, except for his notable memory (which,
however, kept only what pleased him), and his very decided bent toward
the poetic and chivalric in history, life, and literature.

Walter was trained by his father to the law, and on leaving college he
served the ordinary apprenticeship of five years in his father's office
and attendance upon the law classes in the University; but the drudgery
of the law was irksome to him. When the time came to select his
profession, as a Writer to the Signet or an advocate, he preferred the
latter; although success here was more uncertain than as a solicitor. Up
to the time of his admission to the bar he had read an enormous number
of books, in a desultory way, and made many friends, some of whom
afterwards became distinguished. His greatest pleasures were in long
walks in the country with chosen companions. His love of Nature amounted
to a passion, and in his long rambles he acquired not only vigorous
health, but the capacity of undergoing great fatigue.

Scott's autobiography closes with his admission to the bar. From his own
account his early career had not been particularly promising, although
he was neither idle nor immoral. He was fond of convivial pleasures, but
ever had uncommon self-control. All his instructors were gentlemanly,
and he had access to the best society in Edinburgh, when that city was
noted for its number of distinguished men in literature and in the
different professions. His most intimate friends were John Irving, Sir
Archibald Campbell, the Earl of Dalhousie, and Adam Ferguson, with whom
he made excursions to the Highlands, and to ruined castles and abbeys of
historic interest, - following with tireless search the new trail of an
old Border ballad, or taking a thirty-mile walk to clear up some local
legend of battle, foray, or historic event. In all these antiquarian
raids the young fellows mingled freely with the people, and tramped the
counties round about in most hilarious mood, by no means escaping the
habits of the day in tavern sprees and drinking-bouts, - although Scott's
companions testify to his temperate indulgence.

The young lawyer was, indeed, unwittingly preparing for his mission to
paint Scottish scenery so vividly, and Scottish character so charmingly,
that he may almost be said to have created a new country which
succeeding generations delight to visit. No man was ever a greater
benefactor to Scotland, whose glories and beauties he was the first to
reveal, showing how the most thrifty, practical, and parsimonious people
may be at the same time the most poetic. Here Burns and he go hand in
hand, although as a poet Scott declared that he was not to be named in
the same day with the most unfortunate man of genius that his country
and his century produced. How singular that in all worldly matters the
greater genius should have been a failure, while he, who as a born poet
was the lesser light, should have been the greatest popular success of
which Scotland can boast! And yet there is something almost as pathetic
and tragical in the career of the man who worked himself to death, as in
that of the man who drank himself to death. The most supremely fortunate
writer of his day came to a mournful end, notwithstanding his
unparalleled honors and his magnificent rewards.

At the time Scott was admitted to the bar he was not, of course, aware
of his great original creative powers, nor could he have had very
sanguine expectations of a brilliant career. The profession he had
chosen was not congenial with his habits or his genius, and hence as a
lawyer he was not a success. And yet he was not a failure, for he had
the respect of some of the finest minds in Edinburgh, and at once gained
as an advocate enough to support himself respectably among aristocratic
people, - aided no doubt by his father who, as a prosperous Writer to the
Signet, threw business into his hands. Amid his practice at the courts
he found time to visit some of the most interesting spots in Scotland,
and he had money enough to gratify his tastes. He was a thriving rather
than a prosperous lawyer; that is to say, he earned his living.

But Scott was too much absorbed in literary studies and in writing
ballads, to give to his numerous friends the hope of a distinguished
legal career. No man can serve two masters. "His heart" was "in the
Highlands a-chasing the deer," or ransacking distant villages for
antiquarian lore, or collecting ancient Scottish minstrelsy, or visiting
moss-covered and ivy-clad ruins, famous before John Knox swept
monasteries and nunneries away as cages of unclean birds; but most of
all was he interested in the feuds between the Lowland and Highland
chieftains, and in the contest between Roundheads and Cavaliers when
Scotland lost her political independence. He did, however, find much in
Scotch law to enrich his mind, with entanglements and antiquarian
records, as well as the humors and tragedies of the courts; and of this
his writings show many traces.

No young lawyer ever had more efficient friends than Walter Scott. And
richly he deserved them, for he was generous, companionable, loyal, a
brilliant story-teller, a good hunter and sportsman, bright, cheerful,
and witty, doubtless one of the most interesting young men in his
beautiful city; modest, too, and unpretentious, yet proud, claiming
nothing that nothing might be denied him, a favorite in the most select
circles. His most striking peculiarity was his good sense, keeping him
from all exaggerations, which were always offensive to him. He was a
Tory, indeed; but no aristocrat ever had a more genial humanity, taking
pleasure in any society where he could learn anything. His appetite was
so healthy, from his rural sports and pedestrian feats, that he could
dine equally well on a broiled haddock or a saddle of venison, although
from the minuteness of his descriptions of Scottish banquets one might
infer that he had great appreciation of the pleasures of the table.

It is not easy to tell when Scott began to write poetry, but probably
when he was quite young. He wrote for the pleasure of it, without any
idea of devoting his life to literature. Writing ballads was the solace
of his leisure hours. His acquaintance with Francis, Lord Jeffrey began
in 1791, at a club, where he read an essay on ballads which so much
interested the future critic that he sought an introduction to its
author, and the acquaintance thus begun between these two young men,
both of whom unconsciously stood on the threshold of great careers,
ripened into friendship. This happened before Scott was called to the
bar in 1792. It was two years afterwards that he produced a poem which
took by surprise a literary friend, Miss Cranstoun, and caused her to
exclaim, "Upon my word, Walter Scott is going to turn out a poet,
something of a cross between Burns and Gray!"

In 1795 Scott was appointed one of the Curators of the Advocates'
Library, - a compliment bestowed only on those members of the bar known
to have a zeal in literary affairs; but I do not read that he published
anything until 1796, when appeared his translation from the German of
Bürger's ballads, "The Wild Huntsman" and "Lenore." This called out high
commendation from Dugald Stewart, the famous professor of moral
philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, and from other men of note,
but obtained no recognition in England.

It was during one of his rambles with his friend Ferguson to the English
Lakes in 1797 that Scott met Miss Charlotte Margaret Carpenter, or
Charpentier, a young French lady of notable beauty and lovely character.
She had an income of about £200 a year, which, added to his earnings as
an advocate, then about £150, encouraged him to offer to her his hand.
For a young couple just starting in life £350 was an independence. The
engagement met with no opposition from the lady's family; and in
December of 1797 Scott was married, and took a modest house in Castle
Street, being then twenty-six years of age. The marriage turned out to
be a happy one, although _convenance_ had something to do with it.

Of course, so healthy and romantic a nature as Scott's had not passed
through the susceptible time of youth without a love affair. From so
small a circumstance as the lending of his umbrella to a young lady
(Margaret, the beautiful daughter of Sir John Belches) he enjoyed five
years of affection and of what seems to have been a reasonable hope,
which, however, was finally ended by the young lady's marrying Mr.
William Forbes, a well-to-do banker, and later one of Scott's best
friends. "Three years of dreaming and two years of waking," Scott calls
it in one of his diaries, thirty years later; and his own marriage
followed within a year after that of his lost love.

With an income sufficient only for the necessities of life, as a married
man in society Scott had not much to spare for expensive dinners,
although given to hospitality. What money he could save was spent for
books and travel. At twenty-six, he had visited what was most
interesting in Scotland, either in scenery or historical associations,
and some parts of England, especially the Cumberland Lakes. He took a
cottage at Lasswade, near Edinburgh, and began there the fascinating
pursuit of tree-planting and "place"-making. His vacations when the
Courts were not in session were spent in excursions to mountain scenery
and those retired villages where he could pick up antiquarian lore,
particularly old Border ballads, heroic traditions of the times of
chivalry, and of the conflicts of Scottish chieftains. Concerning these
no man in Scotland knew so much as he, his knowledge furnishing the
foundation alike of his lays and his romances. His enthusiasm for these
scenic and historic interests was unquenchable, - a source of perpetual
enjoyment, which made him a most acceptable visitor wherever he chose to
go, both among antiquaries and literary men, and ladies of rank
and fashion.

In March, 1799, Mr. and Mrs. Scott visited London, where they were
introduced to many distinguished literary men. On their return to
Edinburgh, the office of sheriff depute of Selkirkshire having become
vacant, worth £300 a year, Scott received the appointment, which
increased his income to about £700. Although his labors were light, the
office entailed the necessity of living in that county a few months in
each year. It was a pastoral, quiet, peaceful part of the country,
belonging to the Duke of Buccleuch, his friend and patron. His published
translation in this year of Goethe's "Goetz of Berlichingen" added to
his growing reputation, and led him on towards his career.

With a secure and settled income, Scott now meditated a literary life. A
hundred years ago such a life was impossible without independent means,
if a man would mingle in society and live conventionally, and what was
called respectably. Even Burns had to accept a public office, although
it was a humble one, and far from lucrative; but it gave him what poetry
could not, - his daily bread. Hogg, peasant-poet of the Ettrick forest,
was supported in all his earlier years by tending sheep and borrowing
money from his friends.

The first genuine literary adventure of Scott was his collection of a
"Scottish Minstrelsy," printed for him by James Ballantyne, a former
schoolfellow, who had been encouraged by Scott to open a shop in
Edinburgh. The preparation of this labor of love occupied the editor a
year, assisted by John Leyden, a man of great promise, who died in India
in 1811, having made a mark as an Orientalist. About this time began
Scott's memorable friendship with George Ellis, the most discriminating
and useful of all his literary friends. In the same year he made the
acquaintance of Thomas Campbell, the poet, who had already achieved fame
by his "Pleasures of Hope."

It was in 1802 that the first and second volumes of the "Minstrelsy"
appeared, in an edition of eight hundred copies, Scott's share of the
profits amounting to £78 10 _s_., which did not pay him for the actual
expenditure in the collection of his materials. The historical notes
with which he elucidated the value of the ancient ballads, and the
freshness and vigor of those which he himself wrote for the collection,
secured warm commendations from Ellis, Ritson, and other friends, and
the whole edition was sold; yet the work did not bring him wide fame.
The third and last volume was issued in 1803.

The work is full of Scott's best characteristics, - wide historical
knowledge, wonderful industry, humor, pathos, and a sympathetic
understanding of life - that of the peasant as well as the knight - such
as seizes the imagination. Lockhart quotes a passage of Scott's own
self-criticism: "I am sensible that if there be anything good about my
poetry, or prose either, it is _a hurried frankness of composition_,
which pleases soldiers, sailors, and young people of bold and active
dispositions." His ability to "toil terribly" in accumulating choice
material, and then, fusing it in his own spirit, to throw it forth among
men with this "hurried frankness" that stirs the blood, was the secret
of his power.

Scott did not become famous, however, until his first original poem
appeared, - "The Lay of the Last Minstrel," printed by Ballantyne in
1805, and published by Longman of London, and Constable of Edinburgh. It
was a great success; nearly fifty thousand copies were sold in Great
Britain alone by 1830. For the first edition of seven hundred and fifty
copies quarto, Scott received £169 6 s., and then sold the copyright
for £500.

In the meantime, a rich uncle died without children, and Scott's share
of the property enabled him, in 1804, to rent from his cousin,
Major-General Sir James Russell, the pretty property called
Ashestiel, - a cottage and farm on the banks of the Tweed, altogether a
beautiful place, where he lived when discharging his duties of sheriff
of Selkirkshire. He has celebrated the charms of Ashestiel in the canto
introduction to "Marmion." His income at this time amounted to about
£1000 a year, which gave him a position among the squires of the
neighborhood, complete independence, and leisure to cultivate his taste.
His fortune was now made: with poetic fame besides, and powerful
friends, he was a man every way to be envied.

"The Lay of the Last Minstrel" placed Scott among the three great poets
of Scotland, for originality and beauty of rhyme. It is not marked by
pathos or by philosophical reflections. It is a purely descriptive poem
of great vivacity and vividness, easy to read, and true to nature. It is
a tale of chivalry, and is to poetry what Froissart's "Chronicles" are
to history. Nothing exactly like it had before appeared in English
literature. It appealed to all people of romantic tastes, and was
reproachless from a moral point of view. It was a book for a lady's
bower, full of chivalric sentiments and stirring incidents, and of
unflagging interest from beginning to end, - partly warlike and partly
monastic, describing the adventures of knights and monks. It deals with
wizards, harpers, dwarfs, priests, warriors, and noble dames. It sings
of love and wassailings, of gentle ladies' tears, of castles and festal
halls, of pennons and lances, -

"Of ancient deeds, so long forgot,
Of feuds whose memory was not,
Of forests now laid waste and bare,
Of towers which harbor now the hare."

In "The Lay of the Last Minstrel" there is at least one immortal stanza
which would redeem the poem even if otherwise mediocre. How few poets
can claim as much as this! Very few poems live except for some splendid
passages which cannot be forgotten, and which give fame. I know of
nothing, even in Burns, finer than the following lines: -

"Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand?
If such there breathe, go, mark him well!
For him no minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim, -
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonored, and unsung."

The favor with which "The Lay of the Last Minstrel" was received,
greater than that of any narrative poem of equal length which had
appeared for two generations, even since Dryden's day, naturally brought
great commendation from Jeffrey, the keenest critic of the age, in the
famous magazine of which he was the editor. The Edinburgh Review had
been started only in 1802 by three young men of genius, - Jeffrey,
Brougham, and Sydney Smith, - and had already attained great popularity,
but not such marvellous influence as it wielded ten years afterwards,
when nine thousand copies were published every three months, and at
such a price as gave to its contributors a splendid remuneration, and to
its editors absolute critical independence. The only objection to this
powerful periodical was the severity of its criticisms, which often also
were unjust. It seemed to be the intent of the reviewers to demolish
everything that was not of extraordinary merit. Fierce attacks are not
criticism. The articles in the Edinburgh Review were of a different sort
from the polished and candid literary dissections which made Ste.-Beuve
so justly celebrated. In the beginning of the century, however, these
savage attacks were all the fashion and to be expected; yet they stung
authors almost to madness, as in the case of the review of Byron's early
poetry. Literary courtesy did not exist. Justice gave place generally to
ridicule or sarcasm. The Edinburgh Review was a terror to all
pretenders, and often to men of real merit. But it was published when
most judges were cruel and severe, even in the halls of justice.

The friendship between Scott and Jeffrey had been very close for ten
years before the inception of the Edinburgh Review; and although Scott
was (perhaps growing out of his love for antiquarian researches and
admiration of the things that had been) an inveterate conservative and
Tory, while the new Review was slashingly liberal and progressive, he
was drawn in by friendship and literary interest to be a frequent
contributor during its first three or four years. The politics of the
Edinburgh Review, however, and the establishment in 1808 of the
conservative Quarterly Review, caused a gradual cessation of this
literary connection, without marring the friendly relations between
the two men.

About this time began Scott's friendship with Wordsworth, for whom he
had great respect. Indeed, his modesty led him to prefer everybody's
good poetry to his own. He felt himself inferior not only to Burns, but
also to Wordsworth and Campbell and Coleridge and Byron, - as in many
respects he undoubtedly was; but it requires in an author discernment
and humility of a rare kind, to make him capable of such a
discrimination.

More important to him than any literary friendship was his partnership
with James Ballantyne, the printer, whom he had known from his youth.
This in the end proved unfortunate, and nearly ruined him; for
Ballantyne, though an accomplished man and a fine printer, as well as
enterprising and sensible, was not a safe business man, being
over-sanguine. For a time, however, this partnership, which was kept
secret, was an advantage to both parties, although Scott embarked in the
enterprise his whole available capital, about £5000. In connection with
the publishing business, soon added to the printing, with James
Ballantyne's brother John as figure-head of the concern, - a talented but
dissipated and reckless "good fellow," with no more head for business
than either James Ballantyne or Scott, - the association bound Scott hand
and foot for twenty years, and prompted him to adventurous undertakings.
But it must be said that the Ballantynes always deferred to him, having
for him a sentiment little short of veneration. One of the first results
of this partnership was an eighteen-volume edition of Dryden's poems,
with a Life, which must have been to Scott little more than drudgery. He
was well paid for his work, although it added but little to his fame,
except for intelligent literary industry.

Before the Dryden, however, in the same year, 1808, appeared the poem of
"Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field," which was received by the public
with great avidity, and unbounded delight. Jeffrey wrote a chilling
review, for which Scott with difficulty forgave him, since with all his
humility and amiability he could not bear unfriendly or severe
criticism.

In a letter to Joanna Baillie, Scott makes some very sensible remarks as
to the incapability of such a man as Jeffrey appreciating a work of the
imagination, distinguished as he was: -

"I really have often told him that I think he wants the taste for
poetry which is essentially necessary to enjoy, and of course to
criticize with justice. He is learned with the most learned in its
canons and laws, skilled in its modulations, and an excellent judge of
the justice of the sentiments which it conveys; but he wants that
enthusiastic feeling which, like sunshine upon a landscape, lights up
every beauty, and palliates if it cannot hide every defect. To offer a
poem of imagination to a man whose whole life and study have been to



Online LibraryJohn LordBeacon Lights of History, Volume 13 Great Writers; Dr Lord's Uncompleted Plan, Supplemented with Essays by Emerson, Macaulay, Hedge, and Mercer Adam → online text (page 4 of 25)