Sir Walter Scott, by Richard Holt Hutton

Chapter 4.

Earliest Poetry and Border Minstrelsy.

Scott’s first serious attempt in poetry was a version of Bürger’s Lenore, a spectre-ballad of the violent kind, much in favour in Germany at a somewhat earlier period, but certainly not a specimen of the higher order of imaginative genius. However, it stirred Scott’s youthful blood, and made him “wish to heaven he could get a skull and two cross-bones!” a modest desire, to be expressed with so much fervour, and one almost immediately gratified. Probably no one ever gave a more spirited version of Bürger’s ballad than Scott has given; but the use to which Miss Cranstoun, a friend and confidante of his love for Miss Stuart Belches, strove to turn it, by getting it printed, blazoned, and richly bound, and presenting it to the young lady as a proof of her admirer’s abilities, was perhaps hardly very sagacious. It is quite possible, at least, that Miss Stuart Belches may have regarded this vehement admirer of spectral wedding journeys and skeleton bridals, as unlikely to prepare for her that comfortable, trim, and decorous future which young ladies usually desire. At any rate, the bold stroke failed. The young lady admired the verses, but, as we have seen, declined the translator. Perhaps she regarded banking as safer, if less brilliant work than the most effective description of skeleton riders. Indeed, Scott at this time — to those who did not know what was in him, which no one, not even excepting himself, did — had no very sure prospects of comfort, to say nothing of wealth. It is curious, too, that his first adventure in literature was thus connected with his interest in the preternatural, for no man ever lived whose genius was sounder and healthier, and less disposed to dwell on the half-and-half lights of a dim and eerie world; yet ghostly subjects always interested him deeply, and he often touched them in his stories, more, I think, from the strong artistic contrast they afforded to his favourite conceptions of life, than from any other motive. There never was, I fancy, an organization less susceptible of this order of fears and superstitions than his own. When a friend jokingly urged him, within a few months of his death, not to leave Rome on a Friday, as it was a day of bad omen for a journey, he replied, laughing, “Superstition is very picturesque, and I make it, at times, stand me in great stead, but I never allow it to interfere with interest or convenience.” Basil Hall reports Scott’s having told him on the last evening of the year 1824, when they were talking over this subject, that “having once arrived at a country inn, he was told there was no bed for him. ‘No place to lie down at all?’ said he. ‘No,’ said the people of the house; ‘none, except a room in which there is a corpse lying.’ ‘Well,’ said he, ‘did the person die of any contagious disorder?’ ‘Oh, no; not at all,’ said they. ‘Well, then,’ continued he, ‘let me have the other bed. So,’ said Sir Walter, ‘I laid me down, and never had a better night’s sleep in my life.’” He was, indeed, a man of iron nerve, whose truest artistic enjoyment was in noting the forms of character seen in full daylight by the light of the most ordinary experience. Perhaps for that reason he can on occasion relate a preternatural incident, such as the appearance of old Alice at the fountain, at the very moment of her death, to the Master of Ravenswood, in The Bride of Lammermoor, with great effect. It was probably the vivacity with which he realized the violence which such incidents do to the terrestrial common sense of our ordinary nature, and at the same time the sedulous accuracy of detail with which he narrated them, rather than any, even the smallest, special susceptibility of his own brain to thrills of the preternatural kind, which gave him rather a unique pleasure in dealing with such preternatural elements. Sometimes, however, his ghosts are a little too muscular to produce their due effect as ghosts. In translating Bürger’s ballad his great success lay in the vividness of the spectre’s horsemanship. For instance —

“Tramp! tramp! along the land they rode,

Splash! splash! along the sea;

The scourge is red, the spur drops blood,

The flashing pebbles flee,”

is far better than any ghostly touch in it; so, too, every one will remember how spirited a rider is the white Lady of Avenel, in The Monastery, and how vigorously she takes fords — as vigorously as the sheriff himself, who was very fond of fords. On the whole, Scott was too sunny and healthy-minded for a ghost-seer; and the skull and cross-bones with which he ornamented his “den” in his father’s house, did not succeed in tempting him into the world of twilight and cobwebs wherein he made his first literary excursion. His William and Helen, the name he gave to his translation of Bürger’s Lenore, made in 1795, was effective, after all, more for its rapid movement, than for the weirdness of its effects.

If, however, it was the raw preternaturalism of such ballads as Bürger’s which first led Scott to test his own powers, his genius soon turned to more appropriate and natural subjects. Ever since his earliest college days he had been collecting, in those excursions of his into Liddesdale and elsewhere, materials for a book on The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border; and the publication of this work, in January, 1802 (in two volumes at first), was his first great literary success. The whole edition of eight hundred copies was sold within the year, while the skill and care which Scott had devoted to the historical illustration of the ballads, and the force and spirit of his own new ballads, written in imitation of the old, gained him at once a very high literary name. And the name was well deserved. The Border Minstrelsy was more commensurate in range with the genius of Scott, than even the romantic poems by which it was soon followed, and which were received with such universal and almost unparalleled delight. For Scott’s Border Minstrelsy gives more than a glimpse of all his many great powers — his historical industry and knowledge, his masculine humour, his delight in restoring the vision of the “old, simple, violent world” of rugged activity and excitement, as well as that power to kindle men’s hearts, as by a trumpet-call, which was the chief secret of the charm of his own greatest poems. It is much easier to discern the great novelist of subsequent years in the Border Minstrelsy than even in The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, and The Lady of the Lake taken together. From those romantic poems you would never guess that Scott entered more eagerly and heartily into the common incidents and common cares of every-day human life than into the most romantic fortunes; from them you would never know how completely he had mastered the leading features of quite different periods of our history; from them you would never infer that you had before you one of the best plodders, as well as one of the most enthusiastic dreamers, in British literature. But all this might have been gathered from the various introductions and notes to the Border Minstrelsy, which are full of skilful illustrations, of comments teeming with humour, and of historic weight. The general introduction gives us a general survey of the graphic pictures of Border quarrels, their simple violence and simple cunning. It enters, for instance, with grave humour into the strong distinction taken in the debatable land between a “freebooter” and a “thief,” and the difficulty which the inland counties had in grasping it, and paints for us, with great vivacity, the various Border superstitions. Another commentary on a very amusing ballad, commemorating the manner in which a blind harper stole a horse and got paid for a mare he had not lost, gives an account of the curious tenure of land, called that of the “king’s rentallers,” or “kindly tenants;” and a third describes, in language as vivid as the historical romance of Kenilworth, written years after, the manner in which Queen Elizabeth received the news of a check to her policy, and vented her spleen on the King of Scotland.

So much as to the breadth of the literary area which this first book of Scott’s covered. As regards the poetic power which his own new ballads, in imitation of the old ones, evinced, I cannot say that those of the first issue of the Border Minstrelsy indicated anything like the force which might have been expected from one who was so soon to be the author of Marmion, though many of Scott’s warmest admirers, including Sir Francis Doyle, seem to place Glenfinlas among his finest productions. But in the third volume of the Border Minstrelsy, which did not appear till 1803, is contained a ballad on the assassination of the Regent Murray, the story being told by his assassin, which seems to me a specimen of his very highest poetical powers. In Cadyow Castle you have not only that rousing trumpet-note which you hear in Marmion, but the pomp and glitter of a grand martial scene is painted with all Scott’s peculiar terseness and vigour. The opening is singularly happy in preparing the reader for the description of a violent deed. The Earl of Arran, chief of the clan of Hamiltons, is chasing among the old oaks of Cadyow Castle — oaks which belonged to the ancient Caledonian forest — the fierce, wild bulls, milk-white, with black muzzles, which were not extirpated till shortly before Scott’s own birth:—

“Through the huge oaks of Evandale,

Whose limbs a thousand years have worn,

What sullen roar comes down the gale,

And drowns the hunter’s pealing horn?

“Mightiest of all the beasts of chase

That roam in woody Caledon,

Crashing the forest in his race,

The mountain bull comes thundering on.

“Fierce on the hunter’s quiver’d band

He rolls his eyes of swarthy glow,

Spurns, with black hoof and horn, the sand,

And tosses high his mane of snow.

“Aim’d well, the chieftain’s lance has flown;

Struggling in blood the savage lies;

His roar is sunk in hollow groan —

Sound, merry huntsman! sound the pryse!”

It is while the hunters are resting after this feat, that Bothwellhaugh dashes among them headlong, spurring his jaded steed with poniard instead of spur:—

“From gory selle and reeling steed,

Sprang the fierce horseman with a bound,

And reeking from the recent deed,

He dash’d his carbine on the ground.”

And then Bothwellhaugh tells his tale of blood, describing the procession from which he had singled out his prey:—

“‘Dark Morton, girt with many a spear,

Murder’s foul minion, led the van;

And clash’d their broadswords in the rear

The wild Macfarlanes’ plaided clan.

“‘Glencairn and stout Parkhead were nigh,

Obsequious at their Regent’s rein,

And haggard Lindsay’s iron eye,

That saw fair Mary weep in vain.

“”Mid pennon’d spears, a steely grove,

Proud Murray’s plumage floated high;

Scarce could his trampling charger move,

So close the minions crowded nigh.

“‘From the raised vizor’s shade, his eye,

Dark rolling, glanced the ranks along,

And his steel truncheon waved on high,

Seem’d marshalling the iron throng.

“‘But yet his sadden’d brow confess’d

A passing shade of doubt and awe;

Some fiend was whispering in his breast,

“Beware of injured Bothwellhaugh!”

“‘The death-shot parts — the charger springs —

Wild rises tumult’s startling roar!

And Murray’s plumy helmet rings —

Rings on the ground to rise no more.’”

This was the ballad which made so strong an impression on Thomas Campbell, the poet. Referring to some of the lines I have quoted, Campbell said — “I have repeated them so often on the North Bridge that the whole fraternity of coachmen know me by tongue as I pass. To be sure, to a mind in sober, serious, street-walking humour, it must bear an appearance of lunacy when one stamps with the hurried pace and fervent shake of the head which strong, pithy poetry excites.”1 I suppose anecdotes of this kind have been oftener told of Scott than of any other English poet. Indeed, Sir Walter, who understood himself well, gives the explanation in one of his diaries:—“I am sensible,” he says, “that if there be anything good about my poetry or prose either, it is a hurried frankness of composition, which pleases soldiers, sailors, and young people of bold and active dispositions.”2 He might have included old people too. I have heard of two old men — complete strangers — passing each other on a dark London night, when one of them happened to be repeating to himself, just as Campbell did to the hackney coachmen of the North Bridge of Edinburgh, the last lines of the account of Flodden Field in Marmion, “Charge, Chester, charge,” when suddenly a reply came out of the darkness, “On, Stanley, on,” whereupon they finished the death of Marmion between them, took off their hats to each other, and parted, laughing. Scott’s is almost the only poetry in the English language that not only runs thus in the head of average men, but heats the head in which it runs by the mere force of its hurried frankness of style, to use Scott’s own terms, or by that of its strong and pithy eloquence, as Campbell phrased it. And in Cadyow Castle this style is at its culminating point.

1 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, ii. 79.

2 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, viii. 370.

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