Sir Walter Scott, by Richard Holt Hutton

Chapter 16.

The Last Year.

In the month of September, 1831, the disease of the brain which had long been in existence must have made a considerable step in advance. For the first time the illusion seemed to possess Sir Walter that he had paid off all the debt for which he was liable, and that he was once more free to give as his generosity prompted. Scott sent Mr. Lockhart 50l. to save his grandchildren some slight inconvenience, and told another of his correspondents that he had “put his decayed fortune into as good a condition as he could desire.” It was well, therefore, that he had at last consented to try the effect of travel on his health — not that he could hope to arrest by it such a disease as his, but that it diverted him from the most painful of all efforts, that of trying anew the spell which had at last failed him, and perceiving in the disappointed eyes of his old admirers that the magic of his imagination was a thing of the past. The last day of real enjoyment at Abbotsford — for when Sir Walter returned to it to die, it was but to catch once more the outlines of its walls, the rustle of its woods, and the gleam of its waters, through senses already darkened to all less familiar and less fascinating visions — was the 22nd September, 1831. On the 21st, Wordsworth had come to bid his old friend adieu, and on the 22nd — the last day at home — they spent the morning together in a visit to Newark. It was a day to deepen alike in Scott and in Wordsworth whatever of sympathy either of them had with the very different genius of the other, and that it had this result in Wordsworth’s case, we know from the very beautiful poem — “Yarrow Revisited,”— and the sonnet which the occasion also produced. And even Scott, who was so little of a Wordsworthian, who enjoyed Johnson’s stately but formal verse, and Crabbe’s vivid Dutch painting, more than he enjoyed the poetry of the transcendental school, must have recurred that day with more than usual emotion to his favourite Wordsworthian poem. Soon after his wife’s death, he had remarked in his diary how finely “the effect of grief upon persons who like myself are highly susceptible of humour” had been “touched by Wordsworth in the character of the merry village teacher, Matthew, whom Jeffrey profanely calls a half-crazy, sentimental person.”1 And long before this time, during the brightest period of his life, Scott had made the old Antiquary of his novel quote the same poem of Wordsworth’s, in a passage where the period of life at which he had now arrived is anticipated with singular pathos and force. “It is at such moments as these,” says Mr. Oldbuck, “that we feel the changes of time. The same objects are before us — those inanimate things which we have gazed on in wayward infancy and impetuous youth, in anxious and scheming manhood — they are permanent and the same; but when we look upon them in cold, unfeeling old age, can we, changed in our temper, our pursuits, our feelings — changed in our form, our limbs, and our strength — can we be ourselves called the same? or do we not rather look back with a sort of wonder upon our former selves as beings separate and distinct from what we now are? The philosopher who appealed from Philip inflamed with wine to Philip in his hours of sobriety, did not claim a judge so different as if he had appealed from Philip in his youth to Philip in his old age. I cannot but be touched with the feeling so beautifully expressed in a poem which I have heard repeated:—

‘My eyes are dim with childish tears,

My heart is idly stirr’d,

For the same sound is in my ears

Which in those days I heard.

Thus fares it still in our decay,

And yet the wiser mind

Mourns less for what age takes away

Than what it leaves behind.’"2

Sir Walter’s memory, which, in spite of the slight failure of brain and the mild illusions to which, on the subject of his own prospects, he was now liable, had as yet been little impaired — indeed, he could still quote whole pages from all his favourite authors — must have recurred to those favourite Wordsworthian lines of his with singular force, as, with Wordsworth for his companion, he gazed on the refuge of the last Minstrel of his imagination for the last time, and felt in himself how much of joy in the sight, age had taken away, and how much, too, of the habit of expecting it, it had unfortunately left behind. Whether Sir Walter recalled this poem of Wordsworth’s on this occasion or not — and if he recalled it, his delight in giving pleasure would assuredly have led him to let Wordsworth know that he recalled it — the mood it paints was unquestionably that in which his last day at Abbotsford was passed. In the evening, referring to the journey which was to begin the next day, he remarked that Fielding and Smollett had been driven abroad by declining health, and that they had never returned; while Wordsworth — willing perhaps to bring out a brighter feature in the present picture — regretted that the last days of those two great novelists had not been surrounded by due marks of respect. With Sir Walter, as he well knew, it was different. The Liberal Government that he had so bitterly opposed were pressing on him signs of the honour in which he was held, and a ship of his Majesty’s navy had been placed at his disposal to take him to the Mediterranean. And Wordsworth himself added his own more durable token of reverence. As long as English poetry lives, Englishmen will know something of that last day of the last Minstrel at Newark:—

“Grave thoughts ruled wide on that sweet day,

Their dignity installing

In gentle bosoms, while sere leaves

Were on the bough or falling;

But breezes play’d, and sunshine gleam’d

The forest to embolden,

Redden’d the fiery hues, and shot

Transparence through the golden.

“For busy thoughts the stream flow’d on

In foamy agitation;

And slept in many a crystal pool

For quiet contemplation:

No public and no private care

The free-born mind enthralling,

We made a day of happy hours,

Our happy days recalling.


“And if, as Yarrow through the woods

And down the meadow ranging,

Did meet us with unalter’d face,

Though we were changed and changing;

If then some natural shadow spread

Our inward prospect over,

The soul’s deep valley was not slow

Its brightness to recover.

“Eternal blessings on the Muse

And her divine employment,

The blameless Muse who trains her sons

For hope and calm enjoyment;

Albeit sickness lingering yet

Has o’er their pillow brooded,

And care waylays their steps — a sprite

Not easily eluded.


“Nor deem that localized Romance

Plays false with our affections;

Unsanctifies our tears — made sport

For fanciful dejections:

Ah, no! the visions of the past

Sustain the heart in feeling

Life as she is — our changeful Life

With friends and kindred dealing.

“Bear witness ye, whose thoughts that day

In Yarrow’s groves were centred,

Who through the silent portal arch

Of mouldering Newark enter’d;

And clomb the winding stair that once

Too timidly was mounted

By the last Minstrel — not the last! —

Ere he his tale recounted.”

Thus did the meditative poetry, the day of which was not yet, do honour to itself in doing homage to the Minstrel of romantic energy and martial enterprise, who, with the school of poetry he loved, was passing away.

On the 23rd September Scott left Abbotsford, spending five days on his journey to London; nor would he allow any of the old objects of interest to be passed without getting out of the carriage to see them. He did not leave London for Portsmouth till the 23rd October, but spent the intervening time in London, where he took medical advice, and with his old shrewdness wheeled his chair into a dark corner during the physicians’ absence from the room to consult, that he might read their faces clearly on their return without their being able to read his. They recognized traces of brain disease, but Sir Walter was relieved by their comparatively favourable opinion, for he admitted that he had feared insanity, and therefore had “feared them.” On the 29th October he sailed for Malta, and on the 20th November Sir Walter insisted on being landed on a small volcanic island which had appeared four months previously, and which disappeared again in a few days, and on clambering about its crumbling lava, in spite of sinking at nearly every step almost up to his knees, in order that he might send a description of it to his old friend Mr. Skene. On the 22nd November he reached Malta, where he looked eagerly at the antiquities of the place, for he still hoped to write a novel — and, indeed, actually wrote one at Naples, which was never published, called The Siege of Malta— on the subject of the Knights of Malta, who had interested him so much in his youth. From Malta Scott went to Naples, which he reached on the 17th December, and where he found much pleasure in the society of Sir William Gell, an invalid like himself, but not one who, like himself, struggled against the admission of his infirmities, and refused to be carried when his own legs would not safely carry him. Sir William Gell’s dog delighted the old man; he would pat it and call it “Poor boy!” and confide to Sir William how he had at home “two very fine favourite dogs, so large that I am always afraid they look too large and too feudal for my diminished income.” In all his letters home he gave some injunction to Mr. Laidlaw about the poor people and the dogs.

On the 22nd of March, 1832, Goethe died, an event which made a great impression on Scott, who had intended to visit Weimar on his way back, on purpose to see Goethe, and this much increased his eager desire to return home. Accordingly on the 16th of April, the last day on which he made any entry in his diary, he quitted Naples for Rome, where he stayed long enough only to let his daughter see something of the place, and hurried off homewards on the 21st of May. In Venice he was still strong enough to insist on scrambling down into the dungeons adjoining the Bridge of Sighs; and at Frankfort he entered a bookseller’s shop, when the man brought out a lithograph of Abbotsford, and Scott remarking, “I know that already, sir,” left the shop unrecognized, more than ever craving for home. At Nimeguen, on the 9th of June, while in a steamboat on the Rhine, he had his most serious attack of apoplexy, but would not discontinue his journey, was lifted into an English steamboat at Rotterdam on the 11th of June, and arrived in London on the 13th. There he recognized his children, and appeared to expect immediate death, as he gave them repeatedly his most solemn blessing, but for the most part he lay at the St. James’s Hotel, in Jermyn Street, without any power to converse. There it was that Allan Cunningham, on walking home one night, found a group of working men at the corner of the street, who stopped him and asked, “as if there was but one death-bed in London, ‘Do you know, sir, if this is the street where he is lying?’” According to the usual irony of destiny, it was while the working men were doing him this hearty and unconscious homage, that Sir Walter, whenever disturbed by the noises of the street, imagined himself at the polling-booth of Jedburgh, where the people had cried out, “Burk Sir Walter.” And it was while lying here — only now and then uttering a few words — that Mr. Lockhart says of him, “He expressed his will as determinedly as ever, and expressed it with the same apt and good-natured irony that he was wont to use.”

Sir Walter’s great and urgent desire was to return to Abbotsford, and at last his physicians yielded. On the 7th July he was lifted into his carriage, followed by his trembling and weeping daughters, and so taken to a steamboat, where the captain gave up his private cabin — a cabin on deck — for his use. He remained unconscious of any change till after his arrival in Edinburgh, when, on the 11th July, he was placed again in his carriage, and remained in it quite unconscious during the first two stages of the journey to Tweedside. But as the carriage entered the valley of the Gala, he began to look about him. Presently he murmured a name or two, “Gala water, surely — Buckholm — Torwoodlee.” When the outline of the Eildon hills came in view, Scott’s excitement was great, and when his eye caught the towers of Abbotsford, he sprang up with a cry of delight, and while the towers remained in sight it took his physician, his son-inlaw, and his servant, to keep him in the carriage. Mr. Laidlaw was waiting for him, and he met him with a cry, “Ha! Willie Laidlaw! O, man, how often I have thought of you!” His dogs came round his chair and began to fawn on him and lick his hands, while Sir Walter smiled or sobbed over them. The next morning he was wheeled about his garden, and on the following morning was out in this way for a couple of hours; within a day or two he fancied that he could write again, but on taking the pen into his hand, his fingers could not clasp it, and he sank back with tears rolling down his cheek. Later, when Laidlaw said in his hearing that Sir Walter had had a little repose, he replied, “No, Willie; no repose for Sir Walter but in the grave.” As the tears rushed from his eyes, his old pride revived. “Friends,” he said, “don’t let me expose myself — get me to bed — that is the only place.”

After this Sir Walter never left his room. Occasionally he dropped off into delirium, and the old painful memory — that cry of “Burk Sir Walter,”— might be again heard on his lips. He lingered, however, till the 21st September — more than two months from the day of his reaching home, and a year from the day of Wordsworth’s arrival at Abbotsford before his departure for the Mediterranean, with only one clear interval of consciousness, on Monday, the 17th September. On that day Mr. Lockhart was called to Sir Walter’s bedside with the news that he had awakened in a state of composure and consciousness, and wished to see him. “‘Lockhart,’ he said, ‘I may have but a minute to speak to you. My dear, be a good man — be virtuous — be religious — be a good man. Nothing else will give you any comfort when you come to lie here.’ He paused, and I said, ‘Shall I send for Sophia and Anne?’ ‘No,’ said he, ‘don’t disturb them. Poor souls! I know they were up all night. God bless you all!’” With this he sank into a very tranquil sleep, and, indeed, he scarcely afterwards gave any sign of consciousness except for an instant on the arrival of his sons. And so four days afterwards, on the day of the autumnal equinox in 1832, at half-past one in the afternoon, on a glorious autumn day, with every window wide open, and the ripple of the Tweed over its pebbles distinctly audible in his room, he passed away, and “his eldest son kissed and closed his eyes.” He died a month after completing his sixty-first year. Nearly seven years earlier, on the 7th December, 1825, he had in his diary taken a survey of his own health in relation to the age reached by his father and other members of his family, and had stated as the result of his considerations, “Square the odds and good night, Sir Walter, about sixty. I care not if I leave my name unstained and my family property settled. Sat est vixisse.” Thus he lived just a year — but a year of gradual death — beyond his own calculation.

1 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, ix. 63.

2 The Antiquary, chap. x.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29