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In looking back over this century, which is now so near its close, there is none among its conspicuous figures of pleasanter aspect than that of Scott; and of all the men who have lived during its course there is not one who has contributed more largely to the pleasure of its successive generations. This is a high eulogy; no man could desire a better. To amuse men rationally, to give them wholesome entertainment, is to do them a great service; and to do this through a lifetime more successfully than any one else, is to be worthy of lasting gratitude. This is what Scott did for our fathers, and has done for many of us, and will continue to do for many of our children. At this moment, more than sixty years after the last of his novels was written, two popular editions of them are in course of publication ; while his poems, ninety years after the “ Lay of the Last Minstrel” was first published, are still the delight of youthful readers, and still charm readers of all ages by the interest of their animated narrative, the ease of their versification, and the manliness of their spirit.
* Scott," said Mr. Emerson, is the most lovable of men, and entitled to the world's gratitude for the entertainment he has given to solitude, the relief to headache and heartache. But,” he adds, “ he is not sufficiently alive to ideas to be a great man."
“Into the question whether Scott was a great man or not, we do not propose,” says Carlyle, “ to enter deeply. It is, as too usual, a question about words. There can be no doubt that many men have been named and printed great who were vastly smaller than he; as little doubt, moreover, that of the specially good, a very large portion, according to any genuine standard of man's worth, were worthless in comparison with him. ... The truth is, our best definition of Scott were perhaps even this, that he was, if no great man, then something much pleasanter to be, – a robust, thoroughly healthy, and withal very prosperous and victorious man. An eminently well-conditioned man, healthy in body, healthy in soul; we will call him one of the healthiest of men."
And it is this sound, healthy human nature, on good terms with itself and with the world, with easy mastery of its own faculties, open, sympathetic, cordial, - it is this large, genial nature with which his work, whether in prose or poetry, is inspired. Let us be grateful for such a gift. There is space even on the narrow shelves of the immortals for books such as his. Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, may rest on a higher shelf, but Scott will be nearer at hand for the multitude of readers, and his volumes will require more frequent rebinding.
He was past thirty years old before his poetic genius found its full expression. He was born in 1771, and it was in 1805 that his first long poem, “ The Lay of the Last Minstrel," was published and sprang into the popularity which it has never lost. It was largely a piece of improvisation. It was no poem the writing of which “ made him lean for many years." Once fairly entered upon, it was soon finished, “ proceeding," as he tell us, "at about the rate of a canto per week.” In letter written within a month or two after its publication, he wrote, “ It is deficient in that sort of continuity which a story ought to have, and which, were it to write again, I would endeavor to give it. ... The sixth canto is altogether redundant.” Composed as it was at breakneck speed, it is not surprising that the diction is often careless, that the facile couplets are too apt to drop heavily to a prosaic level, and that there is little depth in the reflections which occasionally intervene in the story. But, on the other hand, the narrative flows with rapid current, the story is full of picturesque and lively scenes, and the verse has what Wordsworth well called “an easy, glowing energy."
The account of William of Deloraine's ride by night quickens the blood till its beat keeps time with the gallop; and, though the last canto be redundant, it contains in the Ballad of Rosabelle one of those fine lyrics within the limits of which Scott's improvising genius seems often to find its best expression. In his modest introduction to his final edition of the Lay in 1830, he gives an interesting account of its origin and composition; but neither he nor his critics have done justice to the chief distinction of the poem, that its mode was practically a new invention, reclaiming poetry from the tediousness of the then prevailing artificial style, to its place as an art of entertainment in the spirited romantic delineation of nature and of life. There had been nothing like it in English literature. It was an extension of the delightful realm of poetry, and in its kind there has been nothing better.
Scott was in no hurry to take advantage of the popularity of his first long poem, and he determined that his second should be less hasty in its composition. “ Accordingly,'' to cite his own words, “particular passages of a
poem which was finally called · Marmion' were labored with a good deal of care by one by whom much care was seldom bestowed ;” and he adds in words which it is pleasant to recall, and which in part account for the excellence of the poem, “The period of its composition was a very happy one in life.” But “ Marmion" was finished in haste, perhaps in too much haste; and yet Scott was right in thinking well of the last canto, of which he wrote to one of his correspondents, “ I have succeeded better than I ventured to hope.” He was, indeed, in this canto at his best; and when “Scott's poetry is at its best,” says Matthew Arnold, “ it is undoubtedly very good indeed.” The description of the Battle of Flodden Field is a splendid piece of verse. My heart is a soldier's, and always has been," Scott once wrote; and his soldier's heart beats in the thick of the battle he describes. After the words I have just cited, Matthew Arnold quotes these verses :
“ Tunstall lies dead upon the field,
His life-blood stains the spotless shield:
And then he adds, “ That is, no doubt, as vigorous as possible, as spirited as possible ; it is exceedingly fine poetry." And there is much hardly less good.
In thànking Scott for a copy of Marmion, Wordsworth wrote to him, with characteristic directness, “I think your end has been attained. That it is not the end which I should wish you to propose to yourself, you will be well aware from what you know of my notions of composition, both as to matter and manner." In view of their relative positions in popular esteem at the time, Scott may well have been more amused than annoyed at his brother poet's unsympathetic disapproval, and have asked him in reply, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin?” Scott's poetic method, and his view of man and nature, were, indeed, widely different from Wor vorth's. But " because thou art virtuous shall there be no more cakes and ale?" He was not given to introspection or meditation ; he sympathized with men more than he studied them, and was more interested in their actions and their earthly fates than in their spiritual elements. He cared little for the order and significance of nature, but delighted in its infinite variety of aspect; and used it in his poems as a picturesque background for his characters, the scenery of the stage on which they played their parts.
"Marmion was published in 1808; and its success was so great from the first, that Scott more than half resolved not to write another long poem, for fear of hazard to his popularity. But this resolution did not last long; and, citing to himself the words of the great Marquis of Montrose,
“ He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
To win or lose it all,"
he began the “ Lady of the Lake," which was to achieve, on its publication in 1810, as instant and as great a success as either of its predecessors, and was to maintain its popularity as firmly and as long. No one of Scott's poems is fuller of movement, of the health of the open air and the charm of the wild landscape than this; and no one of them contains more verses which have become part of the familiar possessions of the English-speaking race. “I like it myself," wrote Scott, as well as any of my former attempts; "and his judgment has been confirmed by the verdict of three generations. FitzJames's horn still wakes a ready echo in the adventurous heart of youth, and many a maiden, on many a lake, wears the form of Katrine's lady in her lover's eyes,
It has, indeed, rarely happened in the history of literature, that poems written off-hand like these, with so little pains and so little revision, have gained more than a brief lease of life. Scott himself, with his delightful modesty, did not look for permanent fame as a poet. “I have enjoyed too extensive popularity in this generation to be entitled to draw long-dated bills on the applause of the next,” he wrote in a letter, just before the “ Lady of the Lake " was published. And twenty years afterward he said, in his preface to the last edition which he was to oversee, “ I can, with honest truth, exculpate myself from having been at any time a partisan of my own poetry, even when it was in the highest fashion with the million." In all that he anywhere says of his poetry his words are quite sound, simple, and unpretending. He recognized the limits of his power and the sources of his popularity; he was pleased, but not elated, by success. Success could, indeed, do nothing but good to so manly and healthy a nature. The real and abiding charm of his verse consists not in its style, nor its stock of ideas, nor in any significance underlying the narrative, but in qualities which depend upon personal character. It is the expression of a generous nature, with a lively interest in the outward spectacle of the world, a quick sympathy with the actors in the long drama of life, and a keen sense of relation to the earth and enjoyment of it. It is the expression of a lover of his own land,