Изображения страниц

approached this ideal nearer than any distinguished man of Scott's generation, and it is easy to see the features in which Scott fell short; yet on the whole, if the estimate here taken be just, he also was not far from the lofty standard of Aristotle.

We return to trace Scott's career ; fortunate, if we have truly and distinctly traced what manner of man he was; for it is only if we feel this, that Mr. Lockhart's detailed narrative of his life, the interest of which cannot be transferred to an abridgment, gains its fullest charm and significance. Some contemporary poets now became friends of Scott; he had only seen Burns as a boy, and it is curious that, closely as their lines met in some points, Burns has left no sign of influence on Scott's writings. A greater effect was produced by his intercourse with Wordsworth, whose elevation and simplicity of mind impressed Scott with a sense of his predominance, not the less striking because it was not consciously avowed. The same tacit recognition is traceable in Byron ; one seems also to find it among all Wordsworth's contemporaries in verse; they know that he is the head of the family. “Differing from him in very many points of taste," writes Scott in 1820, “I do not know a man more to be venerated for uprightness of heart and loftiness of genius." Wordsworth, in turn, has recorded his estimate of Scott's power as a poet in some memorable verses, his feeling for the man in an early letter : “Your sincere friend, for such I will call myself, though slow to use a word of such solemn meaning to any one :" (ii : 167.)-Scott had for some years been Sheriff of Selkirkshire ; and that he might live within the district he now (1804) moved to Ashestiel, a single house within the old Ettrick Forest, upon the banks of Tweed, not much above its junction with Yarrow. “The river itself is separated from the high bank on which the house stands only by a narrow meadow of the richest verdure. Opposite, and all around, are the green hills. The valley there is narrow, and the aspect in every direction is that of perfect pastoral repose.” “Not equal in picturesque beauty to the banks of Clyde," says Scott himself, “but so sequestered, so simple, and so solitary, that it seems just to have beauty enough to delight its inhabitants." And again, as a crowning recommendation, he describes Ashes. tiel to his friend the distinguished antiquary, Mr. G. Ellis: “In the very centre of the ancient Reged," otherwise known as the Scoto-British realm of Strathclyde. These passages are extracted, because the general descriptions apply also to the scenery of Abbotsford, except that the landscape is there wider, and more bare, and because they indicate one dominant motive in Scott's mind. The presence of ancient national associations was precisely the point which determined his choice of property : the genius loci which, with an overpowering influence, bound him all his life to the Border, and led him there from Italy to die.

By this time, through study, the collection of traditions, experience of men high or low in rank, solitary thought and imaginative vision, almost all the materials on which Scott was to work were ready. When the first fruits of this long preparation appeared in the “Lay of the Last Minstrel" (1805), its success was not less surprising

to the author than to the public. Begun as a ballad on a large scale to please Lady Dalkeith, gradually moulded into a metrical romance, or “Waverley Novel " in verse, and interspersed with those allusive transitional pieces which no other Englisb poet has managed so gracefully, binding past and present together in one, Scott had here unconsciously put his ideal of life into form, and fairly “found him. self.” “Marmion," the most powerful of the poems, followed in 1808; when also Scott published an elaborate edition of Dryden. Some similar work in the way of skilful editing or compiling he almost always had on hand; he did as much thus for students as if he had not, at the same time, been the Scott who, in Wordsworth's phrase, was "the whole world's darling.” “Labour," he said himself, "is absolutely the charter by which we hold existence." Great regularity, with perfect order and neatness in the arrangements of his library, assisted him in accomplishing so much. Rising at six, he “broke the neck of the day's work" before breakfast : soon after noon, he was on his horse; outdoor employment and conver. sation completed the day; but though study was not resumed, the eye and the mind of such a man were never idle. He knew when he had finished his work ; pat his best into it, and had done: was in good-humour with all his tasks, and thought little of them when finished. So curiously had the “determined indolance" of his nature been conquered by the imperious force of creative imagination! During the next year or two we find him planning the “ Quarterly Review ;' active in encouraging Mr. H. Siddons and a younger theatrical friend, Mr. D. Terry, on the stage; active also in his interest in the war against Napoleon, and (less felicitously) engaged in local politics; then, publishing the “Lady of the Lake.” “Don Roderick," unsuccessful in its attempt to blend the past history of Spain with the interests of the Peninsular War, followed (1811); “Triermain,” and “Rokeby,” the scene of which is lain within the lands of the most valued friend of Scott's middle life, Mr. Morritt, in 1813 : the “Lord of the Isles” (1815) and “Harold ” (1817) complete the list of Poems.

Some general remarks on Scott's style as a writer have been reserved for the notice of his Novels. These have naturally overshadowed his fame as a poet ; they are more singularly and strikingly original-more unique in literature; and the form of the prose story, admitting readily of narrative details, and allowing the author to explain remote allusions as he advancos, was more capable of giving free play for Scott's tastes and materials, than poetry, however irregular in its structure. Hence he did not make himself quite so much at home in his Poems. Perhaps they depend a little too much on archaeology; the ancient manners, dresses, and customs painted occasionally compete in interest with the delineation of human character ; those marvellous scenes from common life which are true in all ages, or those sketches of contemporary manners, which Scott has employed with such skill and power to counterpoise the antiquarian element in the Novels, could hardly find a place in verse. He has indeed given us something of this kind in the beautifr

Introductions to the “ Lay” and “Marmion," and, less successfully, though even here with much grace, in "Triermain ;” but they are not wrought up into a whole; they do not form an integral portion of the poem. On the other hand, the metrical descriptions of scenery, if not more picturesque and vivid than those of the romances, tell more forcibly; they also relieve the narrative, by allowing the writer's own thoughts and interests to touch our hearts: an expedient used by Scott with singular skill. The “Edinburgh” of “Marmion" is a splendid example; but others are scattered through the less familiarly known poems, which, it is hoped, will in this edition find a fresh circle of readers, who are little likely to regret the study.

Scott's incompleteness of style, which is more injurious to poetry than to prose, his “careless glance and reckless rhyme," have been alleged by a great writer of our time as one reason why he is now less popular as a poet than he was in his own day, when from two to three thousand copies of his metrical romances were yearly sold. Beside these faults, which are visible almost everywhere, the charge that he wants depth and penetrative insight, has been often brought. He does not "wrestle with the mystery of existence," it is said ; he does not try to solve the problems of human life. Scott, could he have foreseen this criticism, would probably not have been very careful to answer it. He might have allowed its correctness, and said that one man might have this work to do, but his was another. High and enduring pleasure, however conveyed, is the end of poetry. “Othello” gives this by its profound display of tragic passion. “Paradise Lost" gives it by its religious sublimity : “Childe Harold" by its meditative picturesqueness : the “ Lay” by its brilliant delineation of ancient life and manners. These are but scanty samples of the vast range of poetry. In that house are many mansions. All poets may be seers and teachers; but some teach directly, others by a less ostensible and larger process. Scott never lays bare the workings of his mind, like Goethe or Shelley; he does not draw out the moral of the landscape, like Wordsworth ; rather, after the fashion of Homer and the writers of the ages before criticism, he presents a scene, and leaves it to work its own effect on the reader. His most perfect and lovely poems, the short songs which occur scattered through the metrical or the prose narratives, are excellent instances. He is the most unselfconscious of our modern poets; perhaps, of all our poets; the difference in this respect between him and his friends Byron and Wordsworth is like a difference of centuries. If they give us the inner spirit of modern life, or of nature, enter into our perplexities, or probe our deeper passions, Scott has a dramatic faculty not less delightful and precious. He hence attained eminent success in one of the rarest and most difficult aims of Poetry, -sustained vigour, clearness, and interest in narration. If we reckon up the poets of the world, we may be surprised to find how very few (dramatists not included) have accomplished this, and may be hence led to estimate Scott's rank in his art more justly. One looks through the English poetry of the first half of the century in vain, unless it be here and there indicated in Keats, for such a power of vividly throwing himself into others 25 that of Scott. His contemporaries, Crabbe excepted, paint emotions. He paints men when strongly moved. They draw the moral; but he can invent the sable. It would be rash to try to strike a balance between men, each so great in his own way; the picture of one could not be painted with the other's palette ; all are first-rate in their kind; and every reader can choose the style which gives him the highest, healthiest, and most lasting pleasure.

It is, however, only by considering Scott in relation to his own age and the circumstances in which he formed himself, that we can reach a full estimate of him as a poet. This mode of viewing a man, it is true, has been sometimes pressed too far. Genius, in one sense the child of its century, in another is its father. Circumstances explain much : but they do not account for it. The individuality of the poet will always be the central point in him; there is an element in the soul Esoluble to the most scientific analysis of a man's surroundings. But much light is undoubtedly gained by examining them. Scott received early, as we have seen, his direction in literature. Coming at the close of an age of criticism, he inaugurated an age of revival and of creation. It has been already noticed that there was something of reaction in this. Love of the ballads of Scotland, of mediaeval legends, of German romantic poetry, had unconsciously impressed his style upon him before 1800. Already his passion was to describe wild and adventurous characters, to delineate the natural landscape, to seek the persons of his drama in feudal times or in the common life around him. The weighty satire of Dryden or Johnson, the cultivated world of Pope, the classical finish of Gray, although admired for their own merits, had no share in his heart of hearts. The friend of Dr. Blacklock, the child of the Edinburgh of Hume and Adam Smith, he was a “born romantic" without knowing it. Beyond any one he is the discoverer or creator of the *modern style." How much is implied in this ! ... It is true that by 1805 two other great leaders had already begun their career. Coleridge's fragment of “Christabel” was known to Scott, and influenced him in the “Lay." Wordsworth had published some of the most charming of his lyrics. But these men had as yet produced little effect, and the new faith nowhere found fewer believers than in Edinburgh; where, partly through the reluctance of the ordinary mind to accept originality, in part through the intense conservatism of literature, poets who now rank among the glories of England were treated as heretics with idle condemnation. It was some time before Scott could raise himself above this atmosphere, and say of the leading critic of the time, “ Our very ideas of what is poetry differ so widely, that we rarely talk upon these subjects. There is something in Mr. Jeffrey's mode of reasoning that leads me greatly to doubt whether he really has any feeling of poetical genius." Few people are now likely to dispute this estimate; and no one did more to discredit the narrow criticism prevalent sixty years since than Scott. If Lord Macaulay!

opinion be correct, that Byron's poetry served to introduce and to popularize Wordsworth's, Scott's even more decidedly cleared the way for “Childe Harold ” and the “Giaour.” Indeed, much in Byron is modelled upon the older poet, to whom he always looked up with a respectful affection which makes one of the brightest spots in his own chequered story. “Of all men Scott is the most open, the most honourable, the most amiable."

With the proceeds of “Rokeby” Scott made himself master of a cottage then called Clarty Hole, but soon characteristically renamed Abbotsford, close to the Tweed, about midway between Melrose, Ashestiel, and Selkirk. · Bare and essentially unimproveable is most of the land hereabout: Scott did something for it by planting,--the favourite outdoor employment of his middle life ; yet to an English eye the trees have a poor, sad, nay (what from his work one did not expect), even a formal and unpicturesque, air; the wider views over the Border are rather desolate than impressive; there is neither the sweet “pastoral melancholy” of Yarrow, nor the verdure and richness of Melrose. But to the inner eye of the poet this region displayed scenes more lovely than Sorrento, more romantic than Monte Rosa. There was the Roman way to the ford by the house, the “ Catrail” which had bounded

Reged wide
And fair Strath-Clyde;

the glen of Thomas the Rhymer, famous in fairy tradition; the haunted ruins of Boldside; the field of the battle of Melrose, the last great clan-fight of the Borders ;-Melrose visible eastward, the Eildon Hills cleft into their picturesque serration by Michael Scott, south ; Tweed flowing below the house and audible in it with its silver ripple . . . . Some ambition to found a line of " Scotts of Abbotsford,” fated not to be fulfilled ; even some fancy less worthy of a great mind, to be himself a lord of acres, may have influenced him when he laid out so much money and energy on the lands of Abbotsford, and on the endless antiquarian details of the house which he built there. Yet many phrases in his writings, and, far more, what we know of Scott's nature through life, afford convincing proofs that the possessions he really and veritably sought for were these memories of the past : these relics of that ancient Scotland for which he felt,“ like a lover or a child," with a rare and noble passion. Abbotsford, with its Gothic architecture,— tasteful and poetically-imagined, if, to our more trained eyes, imperfect in many particulars--its armour and stained glass and carved oak, its library of precious mediaeval lore, poetry and history, its museum of little things consecrated by great remembrances, to Scott was a place where actual life was beautified by the ideal of his imagination, a Waverley romance realized in stone, a castle of his waking dreams, -and held, also, as it proved, like those he sung of, rather by some fanciful and fairy tenure than by matter-of-fact possession. The gray mass of Abbotsford, with its sombre plantations, is not more enriched and glorified in

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »