Who Was Sir Walter Scott?

His life: Scott was born in Edinburgh, of an ancient stock of Border freebooters. At the age of eighteen months he was crippled for life by a children’s ailment; and though he grew up to be a man of great physical robustness he never lost his lameness. He was educated at the Royal High School of Edinburgh and at the University of Edinburgh; and there he developed that powerful memory which, though it rejected things of no interest to it, held in tenacious grasp a great store of miscellaneous knowledge. His father was a lawyer, and Scott himself was called to the Scottish Bar (1792). As a pleader he had little success, for he was much more interested in the lore and antiquities of the country. He was glad, therefore, to accept a small legal appointment as Sheriff of Selkirkshire (1799). Just before this, after an unsuccessful love-affair with a Perthshire lady, he had married the daughter of a French exile. In 1806 he obtained the valuable post of Clerk of Session, but for six years he received no salary, as the post was still held by an invalid nominally in charge.

In 1812, on receipt of his first salary as Clerk of Session, he removed from his pleasant home of Ashiestiel to Abbotsford, a small estate near Melrose. For the place he paid ?£4000, which he characteristically obtained half by borrowing and half on security of the poem Rokeby, still unwritten. During the next dozen years he played the laird at Abbotsford, keeping open house, sinking vast sums of money in enlarging his territory, and adorning the house in a manner that was frequently in the reverse of good taste. In 1826 came the crash. In 1802 he had assisted a Border printer, James Ballantyne, to establish a business at Edinburgh. In 1805 Scott secretly became a partner. As a printing firm the concern was a fair success; but in an evil moment, in 1809, Scott, with another brother, John Ballantyne, started a publishing business. The new firm was poorly managed from the beginning; in 1814 it was only the publication of Waverley that kept it on its legs, but the enormous success of the later Waverley Novels gave it abounding prosperity—for the time. Then John Ballantyne, a reckless fellow, plunged heavily into further commitments, which entailed great loss; Scott in his easy fashion also drew heavily upon the firm’s funds; and in 1826 the whole erection tumbled into ruin. With great courage and sterling honesty Scott refused to take the course that the other principals accepted naturally, and compound with his creditors. Instead he attempted what turned out to be the impossible task of paying the debt and surviving it. His liabilities amounted to £117,000, and before he died he had cleared off £70,000. After his death the remainder was made good, chiefly from the proceeds of Lockhart’s Life, and his creditors were paid in full.

The gigantic efforts he made brought about his death. He had a slight paralytic seizure in 1830. It passed, but it left him with a clouded brain. He refused to desist from novel-writing, or even to slacken the pace. Other illness followed, his early lameness becoming more marked. After an ineffectual journey to Italy, he returned to Abbotsford, and died within sound of the river he loved so well.

His poetry: Scott’s earliest poetical efforts were translations into German. Lenore (1796), the most considerable of them, is crude enough, but it has much of his later vigour and clatter. In 1802 appeared the first two volumes of The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, to be followed by a third volume in the next year. In some respects the work is a compilation of old material; but Scott patched up the ancient pieces when it was necessary, and added some original poems of his own, which were done in the ancient manner. The best of his contributions, such as The Eve of St. John, have a strong infusion of the ancient force and fire, as well as a grimly supernatural element.

In The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) there is much more originality. The work is a poem of considerable length written in the Christabel metre, and professing to be the lay of an aged bard who seeks shelter in the castle of Newark. As a tale the poem is confused and difficult; as poetry it is mediocre; but the abounding vitality of the style, the fresh and intimate local knowledge, and the healthy love of nature made it a revelation to a public anxious to welcome the new Romantic methods. The poem was a great and instant success, and was quickly followed up with Marmion (1808).

In popular estimation Marmion is held to be Scott’s masterpiece. The story deals with Flodden Field, and is intricate in detail, as Scott labours to obtain a denouement. For several cantos the tale is cumbered with the masses of antiquarian and topical matter with which Scott’s mind was fully charged. Once the narrative is within touch of Flodden it quickens considerably. The passage dealing with the close of the battle is one of the triumphs of martial verse:

But as they left the dark’ning heath,
More desperate grew the strife of death.
The English shafts in volleys hail’d,
In headlong charge their horse assail’d;
Front, flank, and rear, the squadrons sweep
To break the Scottish circle deep,
That fought around their King.
But yet, though thick the shafts as snow,
Though charging knights like whirlwinds go,
Though bill-men ply the ghastly blow,
Unbroken was the ring;
The stubborn spear-men still made good
Their dark impenetrable wood,
Each stepping where his comrade stood,
The instant that he fell.
No thought was there of dastard flight;
Link’d in the serried phalanx tight,
Groom fought like noble, squire like knight,
As fearlessly and well’
Till utter darkness closed her wing
O’er their thin host and wounded King….

Next came The Lady of the Lake (1810), which was a still greater success. It has all Scott’s usual picturesqueness, and makes particularly effective use of the wild scenery of the Trossachs. It is crammed with incidents and free from the rather wearying digressions of the earlier lays. Without rising to the heights of great poetry, it has considerable vigour and spirit, and contains some of his best lyrics. In Rokeby (1813) the scene shifts to the north of England. As a whole, this poem is inferior to its predecessors, but some of the lyric have a seriousness and depth of tone that are quite uncommon in the spur-and-feather pageantry of Scott’s verse. The Bridal of Triermain (1813) and The Lord of Isles (1814) mark a decline in quality.

In addition to these longer poems, Scott composed many lyrics, some of which are found in the lays, others in his novels, and some of which were contributed to magazines and similar publications. Though his lyrical note is on occasion uncertain, these poems are generally of a more sustained quality than his narrative work, and, to modern tastes, Scott is here seen at his best. One eminent critic has even gone so far as to describe him as the chief lyrical poet between Burns or Blake and Shelley. Though he is no love poet, he successfully handles a wide variety of subjects, from the hearty gaiety of Waken, lords and ladies gay or Bonny Dundee to the martial ardour of Pibroch of Donuil Dhu or the moving, elegiac sadness of Proud Maisie. It is in this last type that he touches on something deeper and finer which provides us with his best lyrics.

He is gone on the mountain,
He is lost to the forest,
Like a summer-dried fountain,
When our need was the sorest.
The font re-appearing
From the rain-drops shall borrow;
But to us comes no cheering,
To Duncan no morrow!

The hand of the reaper
Takes ears that are hoary,
But the voice of the weeper
Wails manhood in glory.
The Autumn winds rushing,
Waft the leaves that are searest,
But our flower was in flushing,
When blighting was nearest.

Fleet foot on the correi,
Sage counsel in cumber,
Red hand in the foray,
How sound is thy slumber!
Like the dew on the mountain,
Like the foam on the river,
Like the bubble on the fountain,
Thou art gone, and for ever!

As a narrative poet Scott’s reputation has depreciated, though, as we have seen, his lyrical qualities have more recently been acclaimed. Of his narratives it may be said that his faults, like his merits, are all on the surface: he lacks the finer poetical virtues, such as reflection, melody, and delicate sympathy; he (in poetry) is deficient in humour; he records crude physical action simply portrayed. Even the vigour that is often ascribed to him exists fitfully, for he loads his narrative with over-abundant detail, often of a technical kind. When he does move freely he has the stamps, the rattle, and the swing of martial music. One must nevertheless do credit to the service he did to poetry by giving new zest to the Romantic methods that had already been adopted in poetry.

His prose: About 1814, Scott largely gave up writing poetry, and save for short pieces, mainly in the novels, wrote no more in verse. As he confessed in the last years of his life, Byron had ‘bet’ him by producing verse tales that were fast swallowing up the popularity of his own. In 1814 Scott returned to a fragment of a Jacobite prose romance that he had started and left unfinished in 1805. He left the opening chapters as they stood, and on to them tacked a rapid and brilliant narrative dealing with the Forty-five. This made the novel Waverley, which was issued anonymously in 1814. Owing chiefly to its ponderous and lifeless beginning, the book hung fire for a space; but the remarkable remainder was almost bound to make it a success. After WaverleyScott went on from strength to strength : Guy Mannering (1815), The Antiquary (1816), The Black Dwarf (1816), Old Mortality (1816), Rob Roy (1818), The Heart of Midlothian (1818), The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), and A Legend of Montrose (1819). All these novels deal with scenes in Scotland, but not all with historical Scotland. They are not of equal merit, and the weakest is The Black Dwarf. Scott now turned his gaze abroad, producing Ivanhoe (1820), the scene of which is pitched in early England; then turned again to Scotland and suffered failure with The Monastery (1820), though he triumphantly rehabilitated himself with The Abbot (1820), a sequel to the last. Henceforth he ranged abroad or stayed at home as he fancied in Kenilworth (1821), The Pirate (1822), The Fortunes of Nigel (1822), Peveril of the Peak (1823), Quentin Durward (1823), St Ronan’s Well (1824), Red Gauntlet (1824), The Betrothed (1825), and The Talisman (1825). By this time such enormous productivity was telling even on his gigantic powers. In the latter books the narrative is often heavier, the humour more cumbrous, and the descriptions more laboured.

Then came the financial deluge, and Scott began a losing battle against misfortune and disease. But even yet the odds were not too great for him; for in succession appeared Woodstock (1826), the Fair Maid of Perth (1828), Anne of Geierstein (1829), Count Robert of Paris (1832), and Castle Dangerous (1832). The last works were dictated from the depths of mental and bodily anguish, and the furrows of mind and brow are all over them. Yet frequently the old spirit revives and the ancient glory is renewed.

It should never be forgotten that along with these literary labours Scott was filling the office of Clerk of Session, was laboriously performing the duties of a Border laird, and was compiling a mass of miscellaneous prose. Among this last are his editions of Dryden (1808) and Swift (1814), heavy tasks in themselves; the Lives of the Novelists (1821-24); the Life of Napoleon (1827), a gigantic work that cost him more labour than ten novels; and the admirable Tales of a Grandfather (1828-30). His miscellaneous articles, pamphlets, journals, and letters are a legion in themselves.

Features of his novels:

(a) Rapidity of production: Scott’s great success as a novelist led to some positive evils, the greatest of which was a too great haste in the composition of his stories. His haphazard financial methods, which often led to his drawing upon future profits, also tended to over-production. Haste is visible in the construction of his plots, which are frequently hurriedly improvised, developed carelessly, and finished anyhow. As for his style, it is spacious and ornate, but he has little ear for rhythm and melody, and his sentences are apt to be shapeless. The same haste is seen in the handling of his characters, which sometimes finish weakly after they have begun strongly. An outstanding case of this is Mike Lambourne in Kenilworth.

It is doubtful if Scott would have done any better if he had taken greater pains. He himself admitted, and to a certain extent gloried in, his slapdash methods. So he must stand the inevitable criticisms that arise when his methods are examined.

(b) His contribution to the novel is very great indeed: To the historical novel he brought a knowledge that was not pedantically exact, but manageable, wide, and bountiful. To the sum of this knowledge he added a life-giving force, a vitalizing energy, an insight, and a genial dexterity that made the historical novel an entirely new species. Earlier historical novels, such as Clara Reeve’s Old English Baron (1777) and Miss Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs (1810), had been lifeless productions; but in the hands of Scott the historical novel became of the first importance, so much so that for a generation after his time it was done almost to death. It should also be noted that he did much to develop the domestic novel, which had several representatives in the Waverley series, such as Guy Mannering and The Antiquary. To this type of fiction he added freshness, as well as his broad and sane handling of character and incident.

(c) His Shakespearen qualities: Scott has often been called the prose Shakespeare, and in several respects the comparison is fairly just. He resembles Shakespeare in the free manner in which he ranges high and low, right and left, in his search for material. On the other hand, in his character-drawing he lacks much of the Elizabethan’s deep penetration. His villains are often melodramatic and his heroes and heroines wooden and dull. His best figures are either Lowland Scots of the middle and lower classes or eccentrics, whose idiosyncrasies are skillfully kept within bounds. He has much of Shakespeare’s genial, tolerant humour, in which he strongly resembles also his great predecessor Fielding. It is probably in this large urbanity that the resemblance to Shakespeare is observed most strongly.

(d) His style: The following extract will give some idea of Scott’s style at its best. It lacks suppleness, but it is powerful, solid, and sure. In his use of the Scottish vernacular he is exceedingly natural and vivacious. His characters who employ the Scottish dialect, such as Cuddie Headrigg or Jeanie Deans, owe much of their freshness and attraction to Scott’s happy use of their native speech:

Fergus, as the presiding judge was putting on the fatal cap of judgment, placed his own bonnet upon his head, regarded him with a steadfast and stern look, and replied in a firm voice: “I cannot let this numerous audience suppose that to such an appeal I have no answer to make. But what I have to say you would not bear to hear, for my defence would be your condemnation. Proceed, then, in the name of God, to do what is permitted to you. Yesterday and the day before you have condemned loyal and honourable blood to be poured forth like water. Spare not mine. Were that of all my ancestors in my veins, I would have perilled it in this quarrel.” He resumed his seat, and refused again to rise.

Even Maccombich looked at him with great earnestness, and, rising up, seemed anxious to speak; but the confusion of the court and the perplexity arising from thinking in a language different from that in which he was to express himself, kept him silent. There was a murmur of compassion among the spectators, from the idea that the poor fellow intended to plead the influence of his superior as an excuse for his crime. The judge commanded silence, and encouraged Evan to proceed.

“I was only ganging to say, my lord,” said Evan, in what he meant to be an insinuating manner, “that if your excellent Honour and the Honourable court would let Vich Ian Vohr go free just this once, and let him gae back to France, and not to trouble King George’s government again, that only six o’ the very best of his clan will be willing to be justified in his stead; and if you’ll just let me gae down to Glennaquoich, I’ll fetch them up to ye myself, to head or hang, and you may begin wi’ me the very first man.”

Written by Lucas Beaumont

Generalist. Wikipedia contributor. Elementary school teacher from Saskatchewan, Canada.

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