Sir Walter Scott, by Richard Holt Hutton

Chapter 6.

Companions and Friends.

I have anticipated in some degree, in speaking of Scott’s later poetical works, what, in point of time at least, should follow some slight sketch of his chosen companions, and of his occupations in the first period of his married life. Scott’s most intimate friend for some time after he went to college, probably the one who most stimulated his imagination in his youth, and certainly one of his most intimate friends to the very last, was William Clerk, who was called to the bar on the same day as Scott. He was the son of John Clerk of Eldin, the author of a book of some celebrity in its time on Naval Tactics. Even in the earliest days of this intimacy, the lads who had been Scott’s fellow-apprentices in his father’s office, saw with some jealousy his growing friendship with William Clerk, and remonstrated with Scott on the decline of his regard for them, but only succeeded in eliciting from him one of those outbursts of peremptory frankness which anything that he regarded as an attempt to encroach on his own interior liberty of choice always provoked. “I will never cut any man,” he said, “unless I detect him in scoundrelism, but I know not what right any of you have to interfere with my choice of my company. As it is, I fairly own that though I like many of you very much, and have long done so, I think William Clerk well worth you all put together.”1 Scott never lost the friendship which began with this eager enthusiasm, but his chief intimacy with Clerk was during his younger days.

In 1808 Scott describes Clerk as “a man of the most acute intellects and powerful apprehension, who, if he should ever shake loose the fetters of indolence by which he has been hitherto trammelled, cannot fail to be distinguished in the highest degree.” Whether for the reason suggested, or for some other, Clerk never actually gained any other distinction so great as his friendship with Scott conferred upon him. Probably Scott had discerned the true secret of his friend’s comparative obscurity. Even while preparing for the bar, when they had agreed to go on alternate mornings to each other’s lodgings to read together, Scott found it necessary to modify the arrangement by always visiting his friend, whom he usually found in bed. It was William Clerk who sat for the picture of Darsie Latimer, the hero of Redgauntlet — whence we should suppose him to have been a lively, generous, susceptible, contentious, and rather helter-skelter young man, much alive to the ludicrous in all situations, very eager to see life in all its phases, and somewhat vain of his power of adapting himself equally to all these phases. Scott tells a story of Clerk’s being once baffled — almost for the first time — by a stranger in a stage coach, who would not, or could not, talk to him on any subject, until at last Clerk addressed to him this stately remonstrance, “I have talked to you, my friend, on all the ordinary subjects — literature, farming, merchandise, gaming, game-laws, horse-races, suits-at-law, politics, swindling, blasphemy, and philosophy — is there any one subject that you will favour me by opening upon?” “Sir,” replied the inscrutable stranger, “can you say anything clever about ‘bend-leather’?”2 No doubt this superficial familiarity with a vast number of subjects was a great fascination to Scott, and a great stimulus to his own imagination. To the last he held the same opinion of his friend’s latent powers. “To my thinking,” he wrote in his diary in 1825, “I never met a man of greater powers, of more complete information on all desirable subjects.” But in youth at least Clerk seems to have had what Sir Walter calls a characteristic Edinburgh complaint, the “itch for disputation,” and though he softened this down in later life, he had always that slight contentiousness of bias which enthusiastic men do not often heartily like, and which may have prevented Scott from continuing to the full the close intimacy of those earlier years. Yet almost his last record of a really delightful evening, refers to a bachelor’s dinner given by Mr. Clerk, who remained unmarried, as late as 1827, after all Sir Walter’s worst troubles had come upon him. “In short,” says the diary, “we really laughed, and real laughter is as rare as real tears. I must say, too, there was a heart, a kindly feeling prevailed over the party. Can London give such a dinner?”3 It is clear, then, that Clerk’s charm for his friend survived to the last, and that it was not the mere inexperience of boyhood, which made Scott esteem him so highly in his early days.

If Clerk pricked, stimulated, and sometimes badgered Scott, another of his friends who became more and more intimate with him, as life went on, and who died before him, always soothed him, partly by his gentleness, partly by his almost feminine dependence. This was William Erskine, also a barrister, and son of an Episcopalian clergyman in Perthshire — to whose influence it is probably due that Scott himself always read the English Church service in his own country house, and does not appear to have retained the Presbyterianism into which he was born. Erskine, who was afterwards raised to the Bench as Lord Kinnedder — a distinction which he did not survive for many months — was a good classic, a man of fine, or, as some of his companions thought, of almost superfine taste. The style apparently for which he had credit must have been a somewhat mimini-pimini style, if we may judge by Scott’s attempt in The Bridal of Triermain, to write in a manner which he intended to be attributed to his friend. Erskine was left a widower in middle life, and Scott used to accuse him of philandering with pretty women —— a mode of love-making which Scott certainly contrived to render into verse, in painting Arthur’s love-making to Lucy in that poem. It seems that some absolutely false accusation brought against Lord Kinnedder, of an intrigue with a lady with whom he had been thus philandering, broke poor Erskine’s heart, during his first year as a Judge. “The Counsellor (as Scott always called him) was,” says Mr. Lockhart, “a little man of feeble make, who seemed unhappy when his pony got beyond a footpace, and had never, I should suppose, addicted himself to any out of door’s sports whatever. He would, I fancy, as soon have thought of slaying his own mutton as of handling a fowling-piece; he used to shudder when he saw a party equipped for coursing, as if murder was in the wind; but the cool, meditative angler was in his eyes the abomination of abominations. His small elegant features, hectic cheek and soft hazel eyes, were the index of the quick, sensitive, gentle spirit within.” “He would dismount to lead his horse down what his friend hardly perceived to be a descent at all; grew pale at a precipice; and, unlike the white lady of Avenel, would go a long way round for a bridge.” He shrank from general society, and lived in closer intimacies, and his intimacy with Scott was of the closest. He was Scott’s confidant in all literary matters, and his advice was oftener followed on questions of style and form, and of literary enterprise, than that of any other of Scott’s friends. It is into Erskine’s mouth that Scott puts the supposed exhortation to himself to choose more classical subjects for his poems:—

“‘Approach those masters o’er whose tomb

Immortal laurels ever bloom;

Instructive of the feebler bard,

Still from the grave their voice is heard;

From them, and from the paths they show’d,

Choose honour’d guide and practised road;

Nor ramble on through brake and maze,

With harpers rude of barbarous days.”

And it is to Erskine that Scott replies —

“For me, thus nurtured, dost thou ask

The classic poet’s well-conn’d task?

Nay, Erskine, nay — on the wild hill

Let the wild heath-bell flourish still;

Cherish the tulip, prune the vine,

But freely let the woodbine twine,

And leave untrimm’d the eglantine:

Nay, my friend, nay — since oft thy praise

Hath given fresh vigour to my lays;

Since oft thy judgment could refine

My flatten’d thought or cumbrous line,

Still kind, as is thy wont, attend,

And in the minstrel spare the friend!”

It was Erskine, too, as Scott expressly states in his introduction to the Chronicles of the Canongate, who reviewed with far too much partiality the Tales of my Landlord, in the Quarterly Review, for January, 1817 — a review unjustifiably included among Scott’s own critical essays, on the very insufficient ground that the MS. reached Murray in Scott’s own handwriting. There can, however, be no doubt at all that Scott copied out his friend’s MS., in order to increase the mystification which he so much enjoyed as to the authorship of his variously named series of tales. Possibly enough, too, he may have drawn Erskine’s attention to the evidence which justified his sketch of the Puritans in Old Mortality, evidence which he certainly intended at one time to embody in a reply of his own to the adverse criticism on that book. But though Erskine was Scott’s alter ego for literary purposes, it is certain that Erskine, with his fastidious, not to say finical, sense of honour, would never have lent his name to cover a puff written by Scott of his own works. A man who, in Scott’s own words, died “a victim to a hellishly false story, or rather, I should say, to the sensibility of his own nature, which could not endure even the shadow of reproach — like the ermine, which is said to pine if its fur is soiled,” was not the man to father a puff, even by his dearest friend, on that friend’s own creations. Erskine was indeed almost feminine in his love of Scott; but he was feminine with all the irritable and scrupulous delicacy of a man who could not derogate from his own ideal of right, even to serve a friend.

Another friend of Scott’s earlier days was John Leyden, Scott’s most efficient coadjutor in the collection of the Border Minstrelsy — that eccentric genius, marvellous linguist, and good-natured bear, who, bred a shepherd in one of the wildest valleys of Roxburghshire, had accumulated before the age of nineteen an amount of learning which confounded the Edinburgh Professors, and who, without any previous knowledge of medicine, prepared himself to pass an examination for the medical profession, at six months’ notice of the offer of an assistant-surgeoncy in the East India Company. It was Leyden who once walked between forty and fifty miles and back, for the sole purpose of visiting an old person who possessed a copy of a border ballad that was wanting for the Minstrelsy. Scott was sitting at dinner one day with company, when he heard a sound at a distance, “like that of the whistling of a tempest through the torn rigging of a vessel which scuds before it. The sounds increased as they approached more near; and Leyden (to the great astonishment of such of the guests as did not know him) burst into the room chanting the desiderated ballad with the most enthusiastic gesture, and all the energy of what he used to call the saw-tones of his voice.”4 Leyden’s great antipathy was Ritson, an ill-conditioned antiquarian, of vegetarian principles, whom Scott alone of all the antiquarians of that day could manage to tame and tolerate. In Scott’s absence one day, during his early married life at Lasswade, Mrs. Scott inadvertently offered Ritson a slice of beef, when that strange man burst out in such outrageous tones at what he chose to suppose an insult, that Leyden threatened to “thraw his neck” if he were not silent, a threat which frightened Ritson out of the cottage. On another occasion, simply in order to tease Ritson, Leyden complained that the meat was overdone, and sent to the kitchen for a plate of literally raw beef, and ate it up solely for the purpose of shocking his crazy rival in antiquarian research. Poor Leyden did not long survive his experience of the Indian climate. And with him died a passion for knowledge of a very high order, combined with no inconsiderable poetical gifts. It was in the study of such eccentric beings as Leyden that Scott doubtless acquired his taste for painting the humours of Scotch character.

Another wild shepherd, and wilder genius among Scott’s associates, not only in those earlier days, but to the end, was that famous Ettrick Shepherd, James Hogg, who was always quarrelling with his brother poet, as far as Scott permitted it, and making it up again when his better feelings returned. In a shepherd’s dress, and with hands fresh from sheep-shearing, he came to dine for the first time with Scott in Castle Street, and finding Mrs. Scott lying on the sofa, immediately stretched himself at full length on another sofa; for, as he explained afterwards, “I thought I could not do better than to imitate the lady of the house.” At dinner, as the wine passed, he advanced from “Mr. Scott,” to “Shirra” (Sheriff), “Scott,” “Walter,” and finally “Wattie,” till at supper he convulsed every one by addressing Mrs. Scott familiarly as “Charlotte.”5 Hogg wrote certain short poems, the beauty of which in their kind Sir Walter himself never approached; but he was a man almost without self-restraint or self-knowledge, though he had a great deal of self-importance, and hardly knew how much he owed to Scott’s magnanimous and ever-forbearing kindness, or if he did, felt the weight of gratitude a burden on his heart. Very different was William Laidlaw, a farmer on the banks of the Yarrow, always Scott’s friend, and afterwards his manager at Abbotsford, through whose hand he dictated many of his novels. Mr. Laidlaw was one of Scott’s humbler friends — a class of friends with whom he seems always to have felt more completely at his ease than any others — who gave at least as much as he received, one of those wise, loyal, and thoughtful men in a comparatively modest position of life, whom Scott delighted to trust, and never trusted without finding his trust justified. In addition to these Scotch friends, Scott had made, even before the publication of his Border Minstrelsy, not a few in London or its neighbourhood — of whom the most important at this time was the grey-eyed, hatchet-faced, courteous George Ellis, as Leyden described him, the author of various works on ancient English poetry and romance, who combined with a shrewd, satirical vein, and a great knowledge of the world, political as well as literary, an exquisite taste in poetry, and a warm heart. Certainly Ellis’s criticism on his poems was the truest and best that Scott ever received; and had he lived to read his novels — only one of which was published before Ellis’s death — he might have given Scott more useful help than either Ballantyne or even Erskine.

1 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, i. 214.

2 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, iii. 344.

3 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, ix. 75.

4 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, ii. 56.

5 Lockhart’s Life of Scott, ii. 168–9.

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