Изображения страниц

Turner's lovely drawing, than the lordship of these barren acres was to Scott by the predominating poet within him.

In 1814 Scott was one of a cheerful company who coasted round Scotland in a yacht engaged upon lighthouse business, touching at the Hebrides, Orkneys, Western Isles, and north of Ireland. A pleasant journal records the incidents of this trip, saddened at the close by the death of a dear friend, the Duchess of Buccleuch. It is a curious point of likeness between Scott and Goethe that, both being poets eminently interested in seeing men, and cities, and wild zature, and both also personally independent, yet the journeys of both were remarkably limited. Goethe never saw London, Paris, or Vienna. Except a hasty trip in 1810, Scott made but this one visit to the North and West of Scotland, and hardly knew more of England than lay between Berwick and London. The world must have lost much by this ; but it is possible that the poets were guided by a true instinct, and feared lest the amount and vividness of the impressions which would have poured in upon them might be overpowering to the free exercise of their genius.

With an exultation natural to him, Scott now witnessed the first fall of Napoleon. He also completed his valuable edition of Swift's works. But the year is most remarkable to his biographer through that event which marks the beginning of the third epoch in Scott's life,—the publication of “Waverley.”


During the period here closed, powerful rivals in poetry had risen to divide the popularity of Scott. Byron had carried the manner of his tales into more passionate scenes of life. Crabbe had enlarged that gallery of human character which, if wanting in beauty, in originality and number stands alone amongst the poems of the time. The allegiance of those lovers of the inmost spirit of poetry who give the law to the next generation had been secured by Wordsworth. The brilliant dawn of Shelley was breaking on a yet unconscious world. Our modern school had passed the circle within which Scott had once been the chief magician. He felt this; and, never strictly a believer in his own powers, had already set himself to put into the prose form which suited it best some of the vast material which he had gathered ; beginning with the last greatly romantic event in Scottish history. “Waverley," commenced in 1805 (whence the second title “ Sixty Years Since"), taken up in 1810, was completed now, and published in July 1814. The last two volumes were written within three weeks of that summer of excitement, a fact of which Mr. Lockhart tells a very striking anecdote (iv: 172,3). From motives already touched on, Scott carefully concealed the authorship; and although long before his name was announced (1827) little

doubt remained in the minds of intelligent men, this first novel wanted the impulse of his already acquired fame: yet the blow went home, the success was immediate, and the writer had once more “found himself” in literature.

A few more dates will mark, in a general way, the course of the writer's genius in this field. “Guy Mannering" appeared in 1815; “ The Antiquary” and “Old Mortality" next year; “The Heart of Mid-Lothian," 1818; “ Bride of Lammermoor" and "Ivanhoe," 1819; “Kenilworth” and “The Pirate," 1821 ; “St. Ronan's Well," 1823; the “Fair Maid of Perth," 1828. These may be considered the typical works of the series ; though there is hardly one which does not display the wonderful versatility of their author. Take even the feeblest of the “Waverley Novels," when shall we see the like again, in this style of romance ?-Goethe was accustomed to speak of Scott as the “greatest writer of his time," as unique and unequalled. When asked to put his views on paper, he replied with the remark which he made also upon Shakespeare, Scott's art was so high, that it was hard to attempt giving a formal opinion on it. But a few words may be added on the relation borne by the Novels to the author's character. Putting aside those written in depressed spirits and failing health, the inequality of merit in the remainder appears almost exactly proportioned, not to their date, but to the degree in which they are founded on Scottish life during the century preceding 1771. In this leading characteristic they are the absolute reproduction of the writer's own habitual thoughts and interests. Once more, we find in them a practical compromise between past and present. We have had no writer whose own country was more completely his inspiration. But he is inspired by the “ain countree" he had seen, or heard of from those who were old during his youth. As he recedes from Scotland and from "sixty years since," his strength progressively declines. What we see as the series advances, are not so much signs that he had exhausted himself, as symptoms that he had exhausted the great situations of the century before his own birth; and “St. Ronan's Well" remains the solitary proof that, had events encouraged Scott to throw himself frankly into contemporary life, he might (in the writer's judgment) have been first of the English novelists here, as he indisputably is in the romance of the past.

It has been observed that one of the curious contrasts which make up that complex creature, Walter Scott, is the strong attraction which drew him, as a Lowlander the born natural antagonist of the Gael, to the Highland people. Looking back on the Celtic clans as we happily may, as a thing of the far past, softened by distance, coloured by the finest tints of poetry, and with that background of noble scenery which has afforded to many of us such pure and lofty pleasure, we cannot conceive without a painful effort that within a few years of Scott's own birth the Highlander had been to the Lowlander much what the Hindoo,-the Afghan or Mahratta at least,-is at present to the Englishman. All that we admire in the Gael had been to the Scot proper the source of contempt and of repugnance. Such a feeling is one of the worst instincts of human nature; it is an unmistakeable part of the brute animal within us; more than any other cause, the hatred of race to race has hampered the progress of man. There is also no feeling which is more persistent and obstinate. But it has been entirely conquered in case of the Saxon and the Gael. Now this vast and salutary change in national opinion is directly due to Scott. Something of the kind might possibly have come with time ; but he, in fact, was the man whose lot was to accomplish it. This may be regarded, on the whole, as his greatest achievement. He united the sympathies of two hostile races by the sheer force of genius. He healed the bitterness of centuries. Scott did much in idealizing, as poetry should, the common life of his contemporaries. He equally did much in rendering the past history, and the history of other countries in which Sootchmen played a conspicuous part, real to us. But it is hardly a figure of speech to say, that he created the Celtic Highlands in the eyes of the whole civi. lized world

If this be not first-rate power, it may be asked where we are to find it. The admirable spirit and picturesqueness of Scott's poems and novels carry us along with them so rapidly, whilst at the same time the weaknesses and inequalities of his work are so borne upon the surface, that we do not always feel how unique they are in literature. Scott is often inaccurate in historical painting, and puts modern feeling into the past. He was not called upon, as we have noticed, to represent mental struggles, but the element of original thought is deficient in his Creations. “Scott's,” says an able critic," is a healthy and genial world of reflection, but it wants the charm of delicate exactitude ; we miss the consecrating power : " (National Review, April, 1858). He is altogether inferior to Miss Austen in describing the finer elements of the womanly nature; we rarely know how the heroine feels; the author paints love powerfully in its effects and its dominating influence ; he does not lead us to "the inmost enchanted fountain ” of the heart. In creating types of actual human life Scott is perhaps surpassed by Crabbe; he does not analyse character, or delineate it in its depths, but exhibits the man rather by speech and action; he is "extensive” rather than “intensive ;" has more of Chaucer in him than of Goethe ; yet, if we look at the variety and richness of his gallery, at his command over pathos and terror, the laughter and the tears, at the many large interests beside those of romance which he realizes to us, at the way in which he paints the whole life of men, not their humours or passions alone, at his unfailing wholesomeness and freshness, like the sea and air and great elementary forces of Nature, it may be pronounced a just estimate which,—without trying to measure the space which separates these stars, -places Scott second in our creative or imaginative literature to Shakespeare. “All is great in the Waverley Novels," said Goethe in 1831, “material, effect, characters, execution.” Astronomers tell us that there are no fixed points in the heavens, and that earth and sun momentarily shift their bearings. An analogous displacement may be preparing for the loftiest glories of the human

intellect; Homer may become dim, and Shakespeare too distant. Perhaps the same fate is destined for Scott. But it would be idle to speculate on this, or try to predict the time when men will no longer be impressed by the vividness of “Waverley," or the pathos of “Lammermoor.”

The leading idea of this sketch of Scott's character is, that, under the disguise of worldly sense and shrewdness, the poetical nature predominated in his life. In regard to his conduct and career, this point has perhaps been sufficiently illustrated. Looking at him now as an imaginative writer ; from many causes, amongst which modesty and pride played an equal part, he has told us little of his own mind. Compared with Byron's (see the correspondence between them,-iii : 394), Scott's letters are superficial; until misfortune unveiled him to himself, there are no “ Confessions” in his journal. Then we find, what discerning friends had long noticed, that the strong man had carried with him through life the sensitiveness of his childhood. One, to whose papers in Fraser's Magazine (1835-6) this sketch is indebted for some observations not found elsewhere, remarks that Scott was often subject to fits of abstraction, when he would be so completely absorbed in thickcoming fancies, that he became unconscious where he was, or what he was writing. Scott's stern repression and strong wish to do before the world only what the world does, render these points at once more hard to trace, and more significant. The emotion of such a character is deep in proportion to the resistance which it meets from the other elements. The fervour which melted Scott would have consumed a less powerful nature. When among scenes of wild Nature he was so rapt and excited that his friends felt it the wisest and kindest thing “to leave him to himself” (iv: 181). This was in the height of his vigour and assumed stoicism. Later on, but some time before decline had seized him, he writes, “The beauty of the evening, the sighing of the summer breeze, bring the tears into my eyes not unpleasantly:" or again, “I spent the day wandering from place to place in the woods, idly stirred by the succession of a thousand vague thoughts and fears, the gay strangely mingled with those of dismal melancholy; tears which seemed ready to flow unbidden; smiles which approached to those of insanity." And then he adds, “I scribbled some verses, or rather, composed them in my memory." If the one eminent English critic who has expressed a formal judgment upon Scott as a writer, had not insisted chiefly upon the rapidity of his writings, treating them as superficial and transient in interest, it would have been unnecessary to dwell upon this point; it really is no more than that imagination is never displayed but by a man of imaginative mind; that poetry can be written only by a poet. But even the charge of overhaste appears to be pressed by Mr. Carlyle too far. Scott's idea of poetical style, it must be allowed, errs upon the side of spontaneous impulse; he would rather be unfinished than overfinished, preferred vigour to refinement, and aimed at the qualities he admired in Dryden, “perpetual animation and elasticity of thought;" did not make the most of his admirable materials; atoned for the random and the reckless by picturesqueness and movement. But there is nothing to be atoned for in perfect work; "incompleteness cannot enter into it;" the rival forces, as in Nature, balance each other. In a word, Scott's was the Gothic mind throughout, not the Greek; he wants that indefinable air of distinction which even the lesser ancient authors have ; no writer of such power has furnished fewer quotations ; "he used the first sufficient words which came uppermost ;" he does not bring his idea to a consammate expression, such as incorporates itself within the memory; thought and the phrase, matter and spirit, rarely seem to form one indivisible whole. It is in this quarter that he is perhaps most in danger from the hand of Time To say that such was Scott's nature, and that he did best to follow it, whether in his genius or in his life, would be to assume that he was incapable of the peculiar attribute of genius, its capacity for improvement. Yet we must not conclude that his writing cost him little ; it should be remembered that he hardly touched original work till he was of mature age, and had collected rast stores ; he is like the musician who plays the most difficult piece at sight, as the reward and the result of years of practice. “What infinite diligence in the preparatory studies; what truth of detail in the execution,” said Goethe. The speed with which Scott actually composed, in fact, consumed him ; the fire of heaven destroyed the conductor. When we read that “Guy Mannering ” was completed within six weeks, we may say, “These things were his paralysis." Nothing came to Scott“ in his sleep.” “I will avoid,” he says, in one of the few letters where he speaks out, “any occupation so laborious and agitating, as poetry must be to be worth anything” (vi : 400).

The one of all Scott's writings which has the highest qualities of pathos and of anity, -the one which, on the whole, may be called his greatest and most poetical, affords the clearest example of what this essay aims most at proving, the dominant intensity of the imaginative element in Scott. He dictated the “Bride of Lammermoor” while recovering from very severe illness (1819): but on regaining health, “when it was first put into his hands in a complete form, he did not recollect one single incident, character, or conversation it contained.” Of all that we know about Scott, this incident is the most remarkable, especially if we recall the conspicuous sanity of his temperament; it casts the deepest light upon his nature ; it shows how, when he wrote most powerfully, he was so inspired and penetrated by

his subject that it flowed from him as if by a kind of rapture or possession; it I makes one ready to say that, when least himself, he was most himself.

But many pages might be given to the criticism of Scott as a writer. It is time that we should resume his life, and try to complete the picture of his character. Scott had once or twice visited London in his earlier days, when he was known mainly as an antiquarian; in 1815 he was received there “ with all the honours." "Waverley," everywhere recognized as his, put him at the head of our imaginative prose; as a poet, he was second in popularity to Byron alone. Byron's boyish

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »