Sir Walter Scott, by Richard Holt Hutton

Chapter 5.

Scott’s Maturer Poems.

Scott’s genius flowered late. Cadyow Castle, the first of his poems, I think, that has indisputable genius plainly stamped on its terse and fiery lines, was composed in 1802, when he was already thirty-one years of age. It was in the same year that he wrote the first canto of his first great romance in verse, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, a poem which did not appear till 1805, when he was thirty-four. The first canto (not including the framework, of which the aged harper is the principal figure) was written in the lodgings to which he was confined for a fortnight in 1802, by a kick received from a horse on Portobello sands, during a charge of the Volunteer Cavalry in which Scott was cornet. The poem was originally intended to be included in the Border Minstrelsy, as one of the studies in the antique style, but soon outgrew the limits of such a study both in length and in the freedom of its manner. Both the poorest and the best parts of The Lay were in a special manner due to Lady Dalkeith (afterwards Duchess of Buccleugh), who suggested it, and in whose honour the poem was written. It was she who requested Scott to write a poem on the legend of the goblin page, Gilpin Horner, and this Scott attempted — and, so far as the goblin himself was concerned, conspicuously failed. He himself clearly saw that the story of this unmanageable imp was both confused and uninteresting, and that in fact he had to extricate himself from the original groundwork of the tale, as from a regular literary scrape, in the best way he could. In a letter to Miss Seward, Scott says — “At length the story appeared so uncouth that I was fain to put it into the mouth of my old minstrel, lest the nature of it should be misunderstood, and I should be suspected of setting up a new school of poetry, instead of a feeble attempt to imitate the old. In the process of the romance, the page, intended to be a principal person in the work, contrived (from the baseness of his natural propensities, I suppose) to slink down stairs into the kitchen, and now he must e’en abide there.”1 And I venture to say that no reader of the poem ever has distinctly understood what the goblin page did or did not do, what it was that was “lost” throughout the poem and “found” at the conclusion, what was the object of his personating the young heir of the house of Scott, and whether or not that object was answered — what use, if any, the magic book of Michael Scott was to the Lady of Branksome, or whether it was only harm to her; and I doubt moreover whether any one ever cared an iota what answer, or whether any answer, might be given to any of these questions. All this, as Scott himself clearly perceived, was left confused, and not simply vague. The goblin imp had been more certainly an imp of mischief to him than even to his boyish ancestor. But if Lady Dalkeith suggested the poorest part of the poem, she certainly inspired its best part. Scott says, as we have seen, that he brought in the aged harper to save himself from the imputation of “setting-up a new school of poetry” instead of humbly imitating an old school. But I think that the chivalrous wish to do honour to Lady Dalkeith, both as a personal friend and as the wife of his “chief,”— as he always called the head of the house of Scott — had more to do with the introduction of the aged harper, than the wish to guard himself against the imputation of attempting a new poetic style. He clearly intended the Duchess of The Lay to represent the Countess for whom he wrote it, and the aged harper, with his reverence and gratitude and self-distrust, was only the disguise in which he felt that he could best pour out his loyalty, and the romantic devotion with which both Lord and Lady Dalkeith, but especially the latter, had inspired him. It was certainly this beautiful framework which assured the immediate success and permanent charm of the poem; and the immediate success was for that day something marvellous. The magnificent quarto edition of 750 copies was soon exhausted, and an octavo edition of 1500 copies was sold out within the year. In the following year two editions, containing together 4250 copies, were disposed of, and before twenty-five years had elapsed, that is, before 1830, 44,000 copies of the poem had been bought by the public in this country, taking account of the legitimate trade alone. Scott gained in all by The Lay 769l., an unprecedented sum in those times for an author to obtain from any poem. Little more than half a century before, Johnson received but fifteen guineas for his stately poem on The Vanity of Human Wishes, and but ten guineas for his London. I do not say that Scott’s poem had not much more in it of true poetic fire, though Scott himself, I believe, preferred these poems of Johnson’s to anything that he himself ever wrote. But the disproportion in the reward was certainly enormous, and yet what Scott gained by his Lay was of course much less than he gained by any of his subsequent poems of equal, or anything like equal, length. Thus for Marmion he received 1000 guineas long before the poem was published, and for one half of the copyright of The Lord of the Isles Constable paid Scott 1500 guineas. If we ask ourselves to what this vast popularity of Scott’s poems, and especially of the earlier of them (for, as often happens, he was better remunerated for his later and much inferior poems than for his earlier and more brilliant productions) is due, I think the answer must be for the most part, the high romantic glow and extraordinary romantic simplicity of the poetical elements they contained. Take the old harper of The Lay, a figure which arrested the attention of Pitt during even that last most anxious year of his anxious life, the year of Ulm and Austerlitz. The lines in which Scott describes the old man’s embarrassment when first urged to play, produced on Pitt, according to his own account, “an effect which I might have expected in painting, but could never have fancied capable of being given in poetry.”2

Every one knows the lines to which Pitt refers:—

“The humble boon was soon obtain’d;

The aged minstrel audience gain’d.

But, when he reach’d the room of state,

Where she with all her ladies sate,

Perchance he wish’d his boon denied;

For, when to tune the harp he tried,

His trembling hand had lost the ease

Which marks security to please;

And scenes long past, of joy and pain,

Came wildering o’er his aged brain —

He tried to tune his harp in vain!

The pitying Duchess praised its chime,

And gave him heart, and gave him time,

Till every string’s according glee

Was blended into harmony.

And then, he said, he would full fain

He could recall an ancient strain

He never thought to sing again.

It was not framed for village churls,

But for high dames and mighty earls;

He’d play’d it to King Charles the Good,

When he kept Court at Holyrood;

And much he wish’d, yet fear’d, to try

The long-forgotten melody.

Amid the strings his fingers stray’d,

And an uncertain warbling made,

And oft he shook his hoary head.

But when he caught the measure wild

The old man raised his face, and smiled;

And lighten’d up his faded eye,

With all a poet’s ecstasy!

In varying cadence, soft or strong,

He swept the sounding chords along;

The present scene, the future lot,

His toils, his wants, were all forgot;

Cold diffidence and age’s frost

In the full tide of song were lost;

Each blank in faithless memory void

The poet’s glowing thought supplied;

And, while his harp responsive rung,

’Twas thus the latest minstrel sung.


Here paused the harp; and with its swell

The master’s fire and courage fell;

Dejectedly and low he bow’d,

And, gazing timid on the crowd,

He seem’d to seek in every eye

If they approved his minstrelsy;

And, diffident of present praise,

Somewhat he spoke of former days,

And how old age, and wandering long,

Had done his hand and harp some wrong.”

These lines hardly illustrate, I think, the particular form of Mr. Pitt’s criticism, for a quick succession of fine shades of feeling of this kind could never have been delineated in a painting, or indeed in a series of paintings, at all, while they are so given in the poem. But the praise itself, if not its exact form, is amply deserved. The singular depth of the romantic glow in this passage, and its equally singular simplicity — a simplicity which makes it intelligible to every one — are conspicuous to every reader. It is not what is called classical poetry, for there is no severe outline — no sculptured completeness and repose — no satisfying wholeness of effect to the eye of the mind — no embodiment of a great action. The poet gives us a breath, a ripple of alternating fear and hope in the heart of an old man, and that is all. He catches an emotion that had its roots deep in the past, and that is striving onward towards something in the future — he traces the wistfulness and self-distrust with which age seeks to recover the feelings of youth — the delight with which it greets them when they come — the hesitation and diffidence with which it recalls them as they pass away, and questions the triumph it has just won — and he paints all this without subtlety, without complexity, but with a swiftness such as few poets ever surpassed. Generally, however, Scott prefers action itself for his subject, to any feeling, however active in its bent. The cases in which he makes a study of any mood of feeling, as he does of this harper’s feeling, are comparatively rare. Deloraine’s night-ride to Melrose is a good deal more in Scott’s ordinary way, than this study of the old harper’s wistful mood. But whatever his subject, his treatment of it is the same. His lines are always strongly drawn; his handling is always simple; and his subject always romantic. But though romantic, it is simple almost to bareness — one of the great causes both of his popularity, and of that deficiency in his poetry of which so many of his admirers become conscious when they compare him with other and richer poets. Scott used to say that in poetry Byron “bet” him; and no doubt that in which chiefly as a poet he “bet” him, was in the variety, the richness, the lustre of his effects. A certain ruggedness and bareness was of the essence of Scott’s idealism and romance. It was so in relation to scenery. He told Washington Irving that he loved the very nakedness of the Border country. “It has something,” he said, “bold and stern and solitary about it. When I have been for some time in the rich scenery about Edinburgh, which is like ornamented garden-land, I begin to wish myself back again among my honest grey hills, and if I did not see the heather at least once a year, I think I should die.”3 Now, the bareness which Scott so loved in his native scenery, there is in all his romantic elements of feeling. It is while he is bold and stern, that he is at his highest ideal point. Directly he begins to attempt rich or pretty subjects, as in parts of The Lady of the Lake, and a good deal of The Lord of the Isles, and still more in The Bridal of Triermain, his charm disappears. It is in painting those moods and exploits, in relation to which Scott shares most completely the feelings of ordinary men, but experiences them with far greater strength and purity than ordinary men, that he triumphs as a poet. Mr. Lockhart tells us that some of Scott’s senses were decidedly “blunt,” and one seems to recognize this in the simplicity of his romantic effects. “It is a fact,” he says, “which some philosophers may think worth setting down, that Scott’s organization, as to more than one of the senses, was the reverse of exquisite. He had very little of what musicians call an ear; his smell was hardly more delicate. I have seen him stare about, quite unconscious of the cause, when his whole company betrayed their uneasiness at the approach of an overkept haunch of venison; and neither by the nose nor the palate could he distinguish corked wine from sound. He could never tell Madeira from sherry — nay, an Oriental friend having sent him a butt of sheeraz, when he remembered the circumstance some time afterwards and called for a bottle to have Sir John Malcolm’s opinion of its quality, it turned out that his butler, mistaking the label, had already served up half the bin as sherry. Port he considered as physic . . . in truth he liked no wines except sparkling champagne and claret; but even as to the last he was no connoisseur, and sincerely preferred a tumbler of whisky-toddy to the most precious ‘liquid-ruby’ that ever flowed in the cup of a prince.”4

However, Scott’s eye was very keen:—“It was commonly him,” as his little son once said, “that saw the hare sitting.” And his perception of colour was very delicate as well as his mere sight. As Mr. Ruskin has pointed out, his landscape painting is almost all done by the lucid use of colour. Nevertheless this bluntness of organization in relation to the less important senses, no doubt contributed something to the singleness and simplicity of the deeper and more vital of Scott’s romantic impressions; at least there is good reason to suppose that delicate and complicated susceptibilities do at least diminish the chance of living a strong and concentrated life — do risk the frittering away of feeling on the mere backwaters of sensations, even if they do not directly tend towards artificial and indirect forms of character. Scott’s romance is like his native scenery — bold, bare and rugged, with a swift deep stream of strong pure feeling running through it. There is plenty of colour in his pictures, as there is on the Scotch hills when the heather is out. And so too there is plenty of intensity in his romantic situations; but it is the intensity of simple, natural, unsophisticated, hardy, and manly characters. But as for subtleties and fine shades of feeling in his poems, or anything like the manifold harmonies of the richer arts, they are not to be found, or, if such complicated shading is to be found — and it is perhaps attempted in some faint measure in The Bridal of Triermain, the poem in which Scott tried to pass himself off for Erskine — it is only at the expense of the higher qualities of his romantic poetry, that even in this small measure it is supplied. Again, there is no rich music in his verse. It is its rapid onset, its hurrying strength, which so fixes it in the mind.

It was not till 1808, three years after the publication of The Lay, that Marmion, Scott’s greatest poem, was published. But I may as well say what seems necessary of that and his other poems, while I am on the subject of his poetry. Marmion has all the advantage over The Lay of the Last Minstrel that a coherent story told with force and fulness, and concerned with the same class of subjects as The Lay, must have over a confused and ill-managed legend, the only original purpose of which was to serve as the opportunity for a picture of Border life and strife. Scott’s poems have sometimes been depreciated as mere novelettes in verse, and I think that some of them may be more or less liable to this criticism. For instance, The Lady of the Lake, with the exception of two or three brilliant passages, has always seemed to me more of a versified novelette — without the higher and broader characteristics of Scott’s prose novels — than of a poem. I suppose what one expects from a poem as distinguished from a romance — even though the poem incorporates a story — is that it should not rest for its chief interest on the mere development of the story; but rather that the narrative should be quite subordinate to that insight into the deeper side of life and manners, in expressing which poetry has so great an advantage over prose. Of The Lay and Marmion this is true; less true of The Lady of the Lake, and still less of Rokeby, or The Lord of the Isles, and this is why The Lay and Marmion seem so much superior as poems to the others. They lean less on the interest of mere incident, more on that of romantic feeling and the great social and historic features of the day. Marmion was composed in great part in the saddle, and the stir of a charge of cavalry seems to be at the very core of it. “For myself,” said Scott, writing to a lady correspondent at a time when he was in active service as a volunteer, “I must own that to one who has, like myself, la tête un peu exaltée, the pomp and circumstance of war gives, for a time, a very poignant and pleasing sensation.”5 And you feel this all through Marmion even more than in The Lay. Mr. Darwin would probably say that Auld Wat of Harden had about as much responsibility for Marmion as Sir Walter himself. “You will expect,” he wrote to the same lady, who was personally unknown to him at that time, “to see a person who had dedicated himself to literary pursuits, and you will find me a rattle-skulled, half-lawyer, half-sportsman, through whose head a regiment of horse has been exercising since he was five years old.”6 And what Scott himself felt in relation to the martial elements of his poetry, soldiers in the field felt with equal force. “In the course of the day when The Lady of the Lake first reached Sir Adam Fergusson, he was posted with his company on a point of ground exposed to the enemy’s artillery, somewhere no doubt on the lines of Torres Vedras. The men were ordered to lie prostrate on the ground; while they kept that attitude, the captain, kneeling at the head, read aloud the description of the battle in Canto VI., and the listening soldiers only interrupted him by a joyous huzza when the French shot struck the bank close above them.”7 It is not often that martial poetry has been put to such a test; but we can well understand with what rapture a Scotch force lying on the ground to shelter from the French fire, would enter into such passages as the following:—

“Their light-arm’d archers far and near

Survey’d the tangled ground,

Their centre ranks, with pike and spear,

A twilight forest frown’d,

Their barbèd horsemen, in the rear,

The stern battalia crown’d.

No cymbal clash’d, no clarion rang,

Still were the pipe and drum;

Save heavy tread, and armour’s clang,

The sullen march was dumb.

There breathed no wind their crests to shake,

Or wave their flags abroad;

Scarce the frail aspen seem’d to quake,

That shadow’d o’er their road.

Their vanward scouts no tidings bring,

Can rouse no lurking foe,

Nor spy a trace of living thing

Save when they stirr’d the roe;

The host moves like a deep-sea wave,

Where rise no rocks its power to brave,

High-swelling, dark, and slow.

The lake is pass’d, and now they gain

A narrow and a broken plain,

Before the Trosach’s rugged jaws,

And here the horse and spearmen pause,

While, to explore the dangerous glen,

Dive through the pass the archer-men.

“At once there rose so wild a yell

Within that dark and narrow dell,

As all the fiends from heaven that fell

Had peal’d the banner-cry of Hell!

Forth from the pass, in tumult driven,

Like chaff before the wind of heaven,

The archery appear;

For life! for life! their plight they ply,

And shriek, and shout, and battle-cry,

And plaids and bonnets waving high,

And broadswords flashing to the sky,

Are maddening in the rear.

Onward they drive, in dreadful race,

Pursuers and pursued;

Before that tide of flight and chase,

How shall it keep its rooted place,

The spearmen’s twilight wood?

Down, down, cried Mar, ‘your lances down

Bear back both friend and foe!’

Like reeds before the tempest’s frown,

That serried grove of lances brown

At once lay levell’d low;

And, closely shouldering side to side,

The bristling ranks the onset bide —

‘We’ll quell the savage mountaineer,

As their Tinchel cows the game!

They came as fleet as forest deer,

We’ll drive them back as tame.’”

But admirable in its stern and deep excitement as that is, the battle of Flodden in Marmion passes it in vigour, and constitutes perhaps the most perfect description of war by one who was — almost — both poet and warrior, which the English language contains.

And Marmion registers the high-water mark of Scott’s poetical power, not only in relation to the painting of war, but in relation to the painting of nature. Critics from the beginning onwards have complained of the six introductory epistles, as breaking the unity of the story. But I cannot see that the remark has weight. No poem is written for those who read it as they do a novel — merely to follow the interest of the story; or if any poem be written for such readers, it deserves to die. On such a principle — which treats a poem as a mere novel and nothing else — you might object to Homer that he interrupts the battle so often to dwell on the origin of the heroes who are waging it; or to Byron that he deserts Childe Harold to meditate on the rapture of solitude. To my mind the ease and frankness of these confessions of the author’s recollections give a picture of his life and character while writing Marmion, which adds greatly to its attraction as a poem. You have a picture at once not only of the scenery, but of the mind in which that scenery is mirrored, and are brought back frankly, at fit intervals, from the one to the other, in the mode best adapted to help you to appreciate the relation of the poet to the poem. At least if Milton’s various interruptions of a much more ambitious theme, to muse upon his own qualifications or disqualifications for the task he had attempted, be not artistic mistakes — and I never heard of any one who thought them so — I cannot see any reason why Scott’s periodic recurrence to his own personal history should be artistic mistakes either. If Scott’s reverie was less lofty than Milton’s, so also was his story. It seems to me as fitting to describe the relation between the poet and his theme in the one case as in the other. What can be more truly a part of Marmion, as a poem, though not as a story, than that introduction to the first canto in which Scott expresses his passionate sympathy with the high national feeling of the moment, in his tribute to Pitt and Fox, and then reproaches himself for attempting so great a subject and returns to what he calls his “rude legend,” the very essence of which was, however, a passionate appeal to the spirit of national independence? What can be more germane to the poem than the delineation of the strength the poet had derived from musing in the bare and rugged solitudes of St. Mary’s Lake, in the introduction to the second canto? Or than the striking autobiographical study of his own infancy which I have before extracted from the introduction to the third? It seems to me that Marmion without these introductions would be like the hills which border Yarrow, without the stream and lake in which they are reflected.

Never at all events in any later poem was Scott’s touch as a mere painter so terse and strong. What a picture of a Scotch winter is given in these few lines:—

“The sheep before the pinching heaven

To shelter’d dale and down are driven,

Where yet some faded herbage pines,

And yet a watery sunbeam shines:

In meek despondency they eye

The wither’d sward and wintry sky,

And from beneath their summer hill

Stray sadly by Glenkinnon’s rill.”

Again, if Scott is ever Homeric (which I cannot think he often is), in spite of Sir Francis Doyle’s able criticism — (he is too short, too sharp, and too eagerly bent on his rugged way, for a poet who is always delighting to find loopholes, even in battle, from which to look out upon the great story of human nature), he is certainly nearest to it in such a passage as this:—

“The Isles-men carried at their backs

The ancient Danish battle-axe.

They raised a wild and wondering cry

As with his guide rode Marmion by.

Loud were their clamouring tongues, as when

The clanging sea-fowl leave the fen,

And, with their cries discordant mix’d,

Grumbled and yell’d the pipes betwixt.”

In hardly any of Scott’s poetry do we find much of what is called the curiosa felicitas of expression — the magic use of words, as distinguished from the mere general effect of vigour, purity, and concentration of purpose. But in Marmion occasionally we do find such a use. Take this description, for instance, of the Scotch tents near Edinburgh:—

“A thousand did I say? I ween

Thousands on thousands there were seen,

That chequer’d all the heath between

The streamlet and the town;

In crossing ranks extending far,

Forming a camp irregular;

Oft giving way where still there stood

Some relics of the old oak wood,

That darkly huge did intervene,

And tamed the glaring white with green;

In these extended lines there lay

A martial kingdom’s vast array.”

The line I have italicized seems to me to have more of the poet’s special magic of expression than is at all usual with Scott. The conception of the peaceful green oak wood taming the glaring white of the tented field, is as fine in idea as it is in relation to the effect of the mere colour on the eye. Judge Scott’s poetry by whatever test you will — whether it be a test of that which is peculiar to it, its glow of national feeling, its martial ardour, its swift and rugged simplicity, or whether it be a test of that which is common to it with most other poetry, its attraction for all romantic excitements, its special feeling for the pomp and circumstance of war, its love of light and colour — and tested either way, Marmion will remain his finest poem. The battle of Flodden Field touches his highest point in its expression of stern patriotic feeling, in its passionate love of daring, and in the force and swiftness of its movement, no less than in the brilliancy of its romantic interests, the charm of its picturesque detail, and the glow of its scenic colouring. No poet ever equalled Scott in the description of wild and simple scenes and the expression of wild and simple feelings. But I have said enough now of his poetry, in which, good as it is, Scott’s genius did not reach its highest point. The hurried tramp of his somewhat monotonous metre, is apt to weary the ears of men who do not find their sufficient happiness, as he did, in dreaming of the wild and daring enterprises of his loved Border-land. The very quality in his verse which makes it seize so powerfully on the imaginations of plain, bold, adventurous men, often makes it hammer fatiguingly against the brain of those who need the relief of a wider horizon and a richer world.

1 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, ii. 217.

2 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, ii. 226.

3 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, v. 248.

4 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, v. 338.

5 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, ii. 137.

6 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, ii. 259.

7 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, iii. 327.

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