Walter Scott.

The poetical works of Sir Walter Scott, Baronet online

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which did not partake of the rudeness of the
old Ballad, or Metrical Romance.

"For these reasons, the Poem was put into
the mouth of an ancient Minstrel, the last of
the race, who, as he is supposed to have sur-
vived the Revolution, might have caught some-
what of the refinement of modern poetry, without
losing the simplicity of his original model. The
date of the Tale itself is about the middle of the
sixteenth century, when most of the personages
actually flourished. The time occupied by the
action is Three Nights and Three Days."

The edition of 1830 had the following " Intro-
duction " : —

"A Poem of nearly thirty years' standing may
be supposed hardly to need an Introduction,
since, without one, it has been able to keep itself
afloat through the best part of a generation.
Nevertheless, as, in the edition of the Waverley
Novels now in course of publication [1830], I
have imposed on myself the task of saying some-

thing concerning the purpose and history of
each, in their turn, I am desirous that the Poems
for which I first received some marks of the
public favor should also be accompanied with
such scraps of their literary history as may be
supposed to carry interest along with them.
Even if I should be mistaken in thinking that
the secret history of what was once so popular
may still attract public attention and curiosity,
it seems to me not without its use to record the
manner and circumstances under which the pres-
ent, and other Poems on the same plan, attained
for a season an extensive reputation.

" I must resume the story of my literary la-
bors at the period at which I broke off in the
Essay on the Imitation of Popular Poetry, 1
when I had enjoyed the first gleam of public
favour, by the success of the first edition of the
Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. The second
edition of that work, published in 1803, proved,
in the language of the trade, rather a heavy con-
cern. The demand in Scotland had been sup-
plied by the first edition, and the curiosity of
the English was not much awakened by poems
in the rude garb of antiquity, accompanied with
notes referring to the obscure feuds of barbar-
ous clans, of whose very names civilized his-
tory was ignorant. It was, on the whole, one of
those books which are more praised than they
are read.

" At this time I stood personally in a different
position from that which I occupied when I
first dipt my desperate pen in ink for other pur-
poses than those of my profession. In 1796,
when I first published the translations from
Burger, I was an insulated individual, with only
my own wants to provide for, and having, in a
great measure, my own inclinations alone to
consult. In 1803, when the second edition of

1 In this essay, printed in the 1830 edition of the Bor-
der Minstrelsy, Scott gives an account of his schoolboy
attempts at writing verse, of his translations of Burger's
Lenore and Der Wilde Jtiger (brought out in 1796 under
the title of William and Helen, but " a dead loss " to the
publishers), of his subsequent versions of sundry German
dramas, of his first attempts at ballad-writing (Glen/inlas
and The Ev< of St. John, included in " Monk " Lewis's
Tales 0/ Wonder in 1801), and of his first literary success
in the Border Minstrelsy of 1S02.



the Minstrelsy appeared, I had arrived at a
period of life when men. however thoughtless,
encounter duties and circumstances which press
consideration and plans of life upon the most
careless minds. I had been for some time mar-
ried, — was the father of a rising family, and,
though fully enabled to meet the consequent
demands upon me, it was my duty and desire to
place myself in a situation which would enable
me to make honorable provision against the
various contingencies of life.

" It may be readily supposed that the attempts
which I had made in literature had been unfav-
orable to my success at the bar. The goddess
Themis is, at Edinburgh, and I suppose every-
where else, of a peculiarly jealous disposition.
She will not readily consent to share her au-
thority, and sternly demands from her votaries,
not only that real duty be carefully attended to
and discharged, but that a certain air of busi-
ness shall be observed even in the midst of total
idleness. It is prudent, if not absolutely neces-
sary, in a young barrister, to appear completely
engrossed by his profession ; however destitute
of employment he may in reality be, he ought
to preserve, if possible, the appearance of full
occupation. He should, therefore, seem per-
petually engaged among his law-papers, dust-
ing them, as it were ; and, as Ovid advises the

' Si nullus erit pulvis, tamen excute nullum.' *
Perhaps such extremity of attention is more
especially required, considering the great num-
ber of counsellors who are called to the bar, and
how very small a proportion of them are finally
disposed, or find encouragement, to follow the
law as a profession. Hence the number of
deserters is so great that the least lingering
look behind occasions a young novice to be set
down as one of the intending fugitives. Certain
it is, that the Scottish Themis was at this time
peculiarly jealous of any flirtation with the
Muses, on the part of those who had ranged
themselves under her banners. This was prob-
ably owing to her consciousness of the superior
attractions of her rivals. Of late, however, she
has relaxed in some instances in this particular,
an eminent example of which has been shown
in the case of my friend Mr. Jeffrey, who, after
long conducting one of the most influential lit-
erary periodicals of the age with unquestion-
able ability, has been, by the general consent of
hi> brethren, recently elected to be their Dean of
Faculty, or President, — being the highest ac-
knowledgment of his professional talents which
they had it in their power to offer. But this is
an incident much beyond the ideas of a period
of thirty years' distance, when a barrister who
really possessed any turn for lighter literature
M much pains to conceal it as if it had
in reality been something to be ashamed of; and
f could mention more than one instance in which
literature and society have suffered much loss
that jurisprudence might be enriched.

was not my case ; for the

1 •' If dust be none, yet brush that none away."

reader wili not wonder that my open interfer-
ence with matters of light literature diminished
my employment in the weightier matters of the
law. Nor did the solicitors, upon whose choice
the counsel takes rank in his profession, do me
less than justice, by regarding others among my
contemporaries as fitter to discharge the duty
due to their clients, than a young man who was
taken up with running after ballads, whether
Teutonic or national. My profession and I,
therefore, came to stand nearly upon the foot-
ing which honest Slender consoled himself on
having established with Mistress Anne Page :
' There was no great love between us at the be-
ginning, and it pleased Heaven to decrease it
on farther acquaintance.' I became sensible
that the time was come when I must either
buckle myself resolutely to the 'toil by day, the
lamp by night,' renouncing all the Delilahs of
my imagination, or bid adieu to the profession
of the law, and hold another course.

" I confess my own inclination revolted from
the more severe choice, which might have been
deemed by many the wiser alternative As my
transgressions had been numerous, my repent-
ance must have been signalized by unusual sac-
rifices. I ought to have mentioned that since
my fourteenth or fifteenth year my health, ori-
ginally delicate, had become extremely robust.
From infancy I had labored under the infirmity
of a severe lameness ; but, as I believe is usu-
ally the case with men of spirit who suffer under
personal inconveniences of this nature, I had,
since the improvement of my health, in defi-
ance of this incapacitating circumstance, dis-
tinguished myself by the endurance of toil on
foot or horseback, having often walked thirty
miles a day, and rode upwards of a hundred,
without resting. In this manner I made many
pleasant journeys through parts of the country
then not very accessible, gaining more amuse-
ment and instruction than I have been able to
acquire since I have travelled in a more com-
modious manner. I practised most sylvan sports
also, with some success and with great delight.
But these pleasures must have been all resigned,
or used with great moderation, had I determined
to regain my station at the bar. It was even
doubtful whether I could, with perfect character
as a jurisconsult, retain a situation in a volun-
teer corps of cavalry, which I then held. The
threats of invasion were at this time instant and
menacing; the call by Britain on her children
was universal, and was answered by some, who,
like myself, consulted rather their" desire than
their ability to bear arms. My services, how-
ever, were found useful in assisting to maintain
the discipline of the corps, being the point on
which their constitution rendered them most
amenable to military criticism. In other re-
spects the squadron was a fine one, consisting
chiefly of handsome men, well mounted and
armed at their own expense. My attention to
the corps took up a good deal of time ; and
while it occupied many of the happiest hours
of my life, it furnished an additional reason for
my reluctance again to encounter the severe



course of study indispensable to success in the
juridical profession.

" On the other hand, my father, whose feel-
ings might have been hurt by my quitting the
bar, had been for two or three years dead, so
that I had no control to thwart my own inclina-
tion ; and my income being equal to all the com-
forts, and some of the elegancies, of life, I was
not pressed to an irksome labor by necessity,
that most powerful of motives ; consequently,
I was the more easily seduced to choose the
employment which was most agreeable to me.
This was yet the easier, that in 1800 I had ob-
tained the preferment of Sheriff of Selkirkshire,
about ^300 a-year in value, and which was the
more agreeable to me as in that county I had sev-
eral friends and relations. But I did not abandon
the profession to which I had been educated
without certain prudential resolutions, which,
at the risk of some egotism, I will here men-
tion ; not without the hope that they may be
useful to young persons who may stand in cir-
cumstances similar to those in which I then

" In the first place, upon considering the lives
and fortunes of persons who had given them-
selves up to literature, or to the task of pleas-
ing the public, it seemed to me that the circum-
stances which chiefly affected their happiness
and character were those from which Horace
has bestowed upon authors the epithet of the
Irritable Race. It requires no depth of philo-
sophic reflection to perceive that the petty war-
fare of Pope with the Dunces of his period
could not have been carried on without his suf-
fering the most acute torture, such as a man
must endure from mosquitoes, by whose stings
he suffers agony, although he can crush them
in his grasp by myriads. Nor is it necessary to
call to memory the many humiliating instances
in which men of the greatest genius have, to
avenge some pitiful quarrel, made themselves
ridiculous during their lives, to become the
still more degraded objects of pity to future

" Upon the whole, as I had no pretension to
the genius of the distinguished persons who had
fallen into such errors, I concluded there could
be no occasion for imitating them in their mis-
takes, or what I considered as such ; and, in
adopting literary pursuits as the principal occu-
pation of my future life, I resolved, if possible,
to avoid those weaknesses of temper which
seemed to have most easily beset my more
celebrated predecessors.

" With this view, it was my first resolution
to keep as far as was in my power abreast of
society, continuing to maintain my place in gen-
eral company, without yielding to the very nat-
ural temptation of narrowing myself to what is
called literary society. By doing so, I imagined
I should escape the besetting sin of listening to
language which, from one motive or other, is apt
to ascribe a very undue degree of consequence
to literary pursuits, as if they were, indeed, the
business, rather than the amusement, of life.
The opposite course can only be compared to

the injudicious conduct of one who pampers
himself with cordial and luscious draughts,
until he is unable to endure wholesome bit-
ters. • Like Gil Bias, therefore, I resolved to
stick by the society of my contmis, instead of
seeking that of a more literary cast, and to main-
tain my general interest in what was going on
around me, reserving the man of letters for the
desk and the library.

" My second resolution was a corollary from
the first. I determined that, without shutting
my ears to the voice of true criticism, I would
pay no regard to that which assumes the form
of satire. I therefore resolved to arm myself
with that triple brass of Horace, of which those
of my profession are seldom held deficient,
against all the roving warfare of satire, parody,
and sarcasm ; to laugh if the jest was a good
one; or, if otherwise, to let it hum and buzz
itself to sleep.

"It is to the observance of these rules (ac-
cording to my best belief) that, after a life of
thirty years engaged in literary labors of vari-
ous kinds, I attribute my never having been en-
tangled in any literary quarrel or controversy ;
and, which is a still more pleasing result, that I
have been distinguished by the personal friend-
ship of my most approved contemporaries of
all parties.

" I adopted, at the same time, another reso-
lution, on which it may doubtless be remarked
that it was well for me that I had it in my
power to do so, and that, therefore, it is a line
of conduct which, depending upon accident, can
be less generally applicable in other cases. Yet
I fail not to record this part of my plan, con-
vinced that, though it may not be in every one's
power to adopt exactly the same resolution, he
may nevertheless, by his own exertions, in some
shape or other, attain the object on which it
was founded, namely, to secure the means of
subsistence, without relying exclusively on liter-
ary talents. In this respect, I determined, that
literature should be my staff, but not my crutch,
and that the profits of my literary labor, how-
ever convenient otherwise, should not, if I
could help it, become necessary to my ordi-
nary expenses. With this purpose I resolved,
if the interest of my friends could so far favor
me, to retire upon any of the respectable offices
of the law, in which persons of that profession
are glad to take refuge, when they feel them-
selves, or are judged by others, incompetent to
aspire to its higher honors. Upon such a
post an author might hope to retreat, without
any perceptible alteration of circumstances,
whenever the time should arrive that the pub-
lic grew weary of his endeavors to please, or
he himself should tire of the pen. At this
period of my life, I possessed so many friends
capable of assisting me in this object of ambi-
tion, that I could hardly overrate my own
prospects of obtaining the preferment to which
I limited my wishes ; and, in fact, I obtained,
in no long period, the reversion of a situation
which completely met them.

" Thus far all was well, and the Author had



been guilty, perhaps, of no great imprudence,
when he relinquished his forensic practice with
the hope of making some figure in the field of
literature. But an established character with
the public, in my new capacity, still remained
to be acquired. I have noticed that the trans-
lations from Burger had been unsuccessful, nor
had the original poetry which appeared under
the auspices of Mr. Lewis, in the 'Tales of
Wonder,' in any great degree raised my reputa-
tion. It is true, I had private friends disposed
to second me in my efforts to obtain popular-
ity. But I was sportsman enough to know, that
if the greyhound does not run well, the halloos
of his patrons will not obtain the prize for

"Neither was I ignorant that the practice
of ballad-writing was for the present out of
fashion, and that any attempt to revive it, or
to found a poetical character upon it, would
certainly fail of success. The ballad measure
itself, which was once listened to as to an en-
chanting melody, had become hackneyed and
sickening, from its being the accompaniment
of every grinding hand-organ ; and besides, a
long work in quatrains, whether those of the
common ballad, or such as are termed elegiac,
has an effect upon the mind like that of the
bed of Procrustes upon the human body; for,
as it must be both awkward and difficult to
carry on a long sentence from one stanza to
another, it follows that the meaning of each
period must be comprehended within four lines,
and equally so that it must be extended so as
to fill that space. The alternate dilation and
contraction thus rendered necessary is singu-
larly unfavorable to narrative composition;
and the 4 Gondibert' of Sir William D'Ave-
nant, though containing many striking passages,
has never become popular, owing chiefly to its
being told in this species of elegiac verse.

" In the dilemma occasioned by this objec-
tion, the idea occurred to the Author of using
the measured short line, which forms the struc-
ture of so much minstrel poetry, that it may be
properly termed the Romantic stanza, by way
of distinction ; and which appears so natural
to our language, that the very best of our poets
have not been able to protract it into the verse
properly called Heroic, without the use of epi-
thets which are, to say the least, unnecessary. 1
But, on the other hand, the extreme facility of
the short couplet, which seems congenial to our
language, and was, doubtless for that reason,
so popular with our old minstrels, is, for the
same reason, apt to prove a snare to the com-
poser who uses it in more modern days, by
encouraging him in a habit of slovenly com-

* "Thus it has been often remarked, that, in the open-
ing: couplets of Pope's translation of the Iliad, there are two
syllables forming a superfluous word in each line, as may
be observed by attending to such words as are printed in

' Achillas' wrath to < .rcece the direful spring

i'd, heavenly goddess, sifiir :
That wrath which sent to Pluto's gloomy reign,
lis of mighty chiefs in Kittle slain,
iinluiried on the desert shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.' "

position. The necessity of occasional pauses
often forces the young poet to pay more
attention to sense, as the boy's kite rises
highest when the train is loaded by a due
counterpoise. The Author was therefore intimi-
dated by what Byron calls the 'fatal facility'
of the octosyllabic verse, which was otherwise
better adapted to his purpose of imitating the
more ancient poetry.

" I was not less at a loss for a subject which
might admit of being treated with the simp]ic T
ity and wildness of the ancient ballad. But
accident dictated both a theme and measure
which decided the subject as well as the struc-
ture of the poem.

"The lovely young Countess of Dalkeith,
afterwards Harriet Duchess of Buccleuch,
had come to the land of her husband with
the desire of making herself acquainted with
its traditions and customs, as well as its man-
ners and history. All who remember this lady
will agree that the intellectual character of her
extreme beauty, the amenity and courtesy of
her manners, the soundness of her understand-
ing, and her unbounded benevolence, gave
more the idea of an angelic visitant than of
a being belonging to this nether world ; and
such a thought was but too consistent with the
short space she was permitted to tarry among
us. Of course, where all made it a pride and
pleasure to gratify her wishes, she soon heard
enough of Border lore ; among others, an aged
gentleman of property, 1 near Langholm, com-
municated to her ladyship the story of Gilpin
Horner, a tradition in which the narrator, and
many more of that country, were firm believers.
The young Countess, much delighted with the
legend, and the gravity and full confidence with
which it was told, enjoined on me as a task to
compose a ballad on the subject. Of course, to
hear was to obey ; and thus the goblin story ob-
jected to by several critics as an excrescence
upon the poem was, in fact, the occasion of its
being written.

** A chance similar to that which dictated the
subject gave me also the hint of a new mode
of treating it. We had at that time the lease
of a pleasant cottage near Lasswade, on the
romantic banks of the Esk, to which we es-
caped when the vacations of the Court per-
mitted me so much leisure. Here I had the
pleasure to receive a visit from Mr. Stoddart
(now Sir John Stoddart, Judge- Advocate at
Malta), who was at that time collecting the
particulars which he afterwards embodied in

x This was Mr. Beattie of Mickledale, a man then con-
siderably upwards of eighty, of a shrewd and sarcastic
temper, which he did not at all times suppress, as the fol-
lowing anecdote will show: — A worthy clergyman, now
deceased, with better good-will than tact, was endeavor-
ing to push the senior forward in his recollection of Border
ballads and legends, by expressing reiterated surprise at
his wonderful memory. " No, sir," said old Mickledale ;
my memory is good for little, for it connot retain what
ought to be preserved. I can remember all these stories
about the auld riding days, which are of no earthly im-
portance ; but were you, reverend sir v to repeat your best
sermon in this drawing-room, I could not tell you half an
hour afterwards what you had been speaking about. "



his Remarks on Local Scenery in Scotland. I
was of some use to him in procuring the in-
formation which he desired, and guiding him
to the scenes which he wished to see. In re-
turn, he made me better acquainted than I had
hitherto been with the poetic effusions which
have since made the Lakes of Westmoreland,
and the authors by whom they have been sung,
so famous wherever the English tongue is

"I was already acquainted with the 'Joan of
Arc/ the ■ Thalaba,' and the ' Metrical Ballads »
of Mr. Southey, which had found their way to
Scotland, and were generally admired. But
Mr. Stoddart, who had the advantage of per-
sonal friendship with the authors, and who pos-,
sessed a strong memory with an excellent taste,
was able to repeat to me many long specimens
of their poetry, which had not yet appeared in
print. Amongst others, was the striking frag-
ment called Christabel, by Mr. Coleridge, which,
from the singularly irregular structure of the
stanzas, and the liberty which it allowed the
author to adapt the sound to the sense, seemed
to be exactly suited to such an extravaganza as
I meditated on the subject of Gilpin Horner.
As applied to comic and humorous poetry, this
mescolanza of measures had been already used
by Anthony Hall, Anstey, Dr. Wolcott, and
others; but it was in Christabel that I first
found it used in serious poetry, and it is to Mr.
Coleridge that I am bound to make the ac-
knowledgment due from the pupil to his
master. I observe that Lord Byron, in notic-
ing my obligations to Mr. Coleridge, which I
have been always most ready to acknowledge,
expressed, or was understood to express, a
hope that I did not write an unfriendly review
on Mr. Coleridge's productions. On this sub-
ject I have only to say that I do not even know
the review which is alluded to ; and were I ever
to take the unbecoming freedom of censuring
a man of Mr. Coleridge's extraordinary talents,
it would be on account of the caprice and in-
dolence with which he has thrown from him,
as if in mere wantonness, those unfinished
scraps of poetry, which, like the Torso of an-
tiquity, defy the skill of his poetical brethren
to complete them. The charming fragments
which the author abandons to their fate, are
surely too valuable to be treated like the proofs
of careless engravers, the sweepings of whose
studios often make the fortune of some pains-
taking collector.

" I did not immediately proceed upon my
projected labor, though I was now furnished
with a subject, and with a structure of verse
which might have the effect of novelty to the

Online LibraryWalter ScottThe poetical works of Sir Walter Scott, Baronet → online text (page 61 of 78)