Page images
PDF
EPUB

wonders of the author's own prose romances, were, at the time, an actual infusion of new life-blood into the public. They were the opening up of a totally new world, fresh and beautiful as the imagination could conceive. They actually seemed to smell of the heather. Every rock, hung with its dark pines, or graceful birches; every romantic lake, bosomed in its lonely mountains; the hunt careering along its richly-coloured glens ; the warrior, full of a martial and chivalrous spirit; the lithe Highlander, with dirk and philibeg, crouching in the heath, like the Indian in his forest, or speeding from clan to clan with the fiery cross of war,—every one of these vivid images was as new to the English public as if they had been brought from the furthest regions of Japan. Then the whole of these newly-discovered regions, the Highlands, for such they were, was covered with traditions of strangest exploits; the people were a wild, irritable, vengeful, but still high-minded people, exhibiting the equally prominent virtues and crimes of a demi-civilized race. How refreshing was the contemplation of such scenes and people to the jaded minds of the English, so long doomed to mediocre monotony! I well remember, then a youth, with what avidity a new poem of Walter Scott's was awaited for and devoured. It was a poetry welcome to all, because it had not merely the qualities of good poetry, which would have been lost on the majority of readers, but it had all this novelty of scenery and character, and the excitement of brilliant story, to recommend it. Then it was perpetually shifting its ground. It was now amid the lonely regions of the south of Scotland; now high up amid heaths, and lochs, and pinehung mountains, the shepherd's sheiling, the roar of the cataract, and the cry of the eagle mixing with the wild sound of the distant pibroch ; and now amid the green naked mountains and islands of the west, and savage rocks, and thundering seas, and the cries of sea-birds, as they were roused by the wandering Bruce and his followers, on their way to win back the crown of Scotland from the English invader.

The sensation which these poems produced is now forgotten, and can only be conceived by those who remember their coming out; but these were soon to be eclipsed by the prose romances of the same author. The ground, the spirit, and the machinery were the same; but these were now allowed to work in broad, unfettered prose, and a thousand traits and personages were introduced, which could by no possibility have found a place in verse. The variety of grotesque characters, the full country dialect and dialogues of all sorts of actors in the scenes, thus gave an infinite superiority to the prose over the poetry. The first reading of Waverley was an era in the existence of every man of taste. There was a life, a colour, a feeling given to his mind, which he had never before experienced. To have lived at that period when, ever and anon, it was announced that a new novel by the Author of Waverley was coming out;

to have sate down the moment it could be laid hold of, and have entered through it into another new world, full of new objects of admiration, new friends, and new subjects of delight and discussion, -was, in truth, a real privilege. The fame of Scott, before great, now became unbounded. It flew over sea and land. His novela were translated into every language which could boast of a printing press; and the glory of two such men as himself and Byron wade still more proud the renown of that invincible island, wbich stood against all the assaults of Napoleon, and had now even chained that terrible conqueror, as its captive, on a far sea-rock.

I say the fame of Scott was thus augmented by the Waverley Novels. Yes, they were, long before they were owned to be his, felt by the public to be nobody else's. The question might be, and 428 agitated, but still there was a tacit feeling that Scott was their author, far and wide diffused. Dense, indeed, must they have been wbu could doubt it. What were they but prose amplifications of his Lady of the Lake, his Marmion, and his Lord of the Isles? So early as 1822, rambling on foot with Mrs. Howitt in the Highlands, we came to Aberfoil, where the minister, Mr. Graham, who had written Sketches of the Scenery of Perthshire, accompanied us to spots in that neighbourhood which are marked ones in the novel of Rob Rog. It was he who had first turned the attention of Scott to the scenery of Loch Katrine and the Trosachs. “Can there be any doubt," te asked, “ that Scott is the author of Waverley ?” “Could it possibly be anybody else ?” he replied. “If the whole spirit and essence of those stories did not show it, his visits here during the writing of Rob Roy would have been decisive enough. He came here, and inquired out all the traditionary haunts of Rob. I accompanied him upon Loch Ard, and at a particular spot I saw his attention fixed; he observed 'my notice, but desired his daughter to sing something to divert it, but I felt assured that before long I should see that spot described—and there, indeed, was Helen Macgregor made to give her celebrated breakfast.” Long before the forma acknowledgment was made, few, in fact, were they who were not as fully satisfied of the identity of Walter Scott and the author of Waverley, as was the shrewd Ettrick Shepherd, who from the first had the Waverley Novels bound and labelled, "Scott's Novela" No one could have seen Abbotsford itself without being at once convinced of it, if he had never been so before. Without, the very stones of the old gateway of the Tolbooth of Edinburgh stared the fact in his face ; within, it was a perfect collection of testimonies to the fact. The gun of Rob Roy; the pistols of Claverhouse ; the thumbikins which had tortured the covenanters; nay, a whole host of things cried out, “We belong to the author of Waverley."

And never did fame so richly follow the accomplishment of deeds of immortality as in the case of Sir Walter. From the monarch to the meanest reader ; from Edinburgh to the farthest wilds of Russia and America, the enthusiastic admiration of “The Great Northern Magician,” as he was called, was one universal sentiment. Wherever he went he was made to feel it; and from every quarter streamed crowds on crowds to Abbotsford to see him. He was on the kiudliest terms of friendship with almost every known writer ; to his most distinguished cotemporaries, especially Byron, Miss Edgeworth, and Miss Joanna Baillie, he seemed as though he could not testify sufficient honour ; and, on the other hand, the highest nobility, nay, royalty itself, felt the pride of his presence and acquaintance. Never had the glory of any literary man-not even of those who, like Petrarch, had been crowned publicly as the poetic monarchs of the age-reached such a pitch of intense and universal splendour. The field of this glory was not one country,—it was that of the vast civilized world, in which almost every man was a reader. No evidences more striking of this were ever given than on his tour in Ireland, where the play was not allowed to go on in Dublin till he showed himself to the eager people ; and on his return from whence, he declared that his whole journey had been an ovation. It was the same on his last going on the Continent. But the fact mentioned by Lockhart as occurring during his attendance in London at the coronation of George IV. in 1821, is worth a thousand others, as it shows how truly he was held in honour by the common people. He was returning from the coronation banquet in Westminster Hall. He had missed his carriage, and “ had to return on foot between two and three in the morning, when he and a young gentleman, his companion, found themselves locked in the crowd, somewhere near Whitehall; and the bustle and tumult were such, that his friend was afraid some accident might happen to the lame limb. A space for the dignitaries was kept clear at that point by the Scots Greys. Sir Walter addressed a sergeant of this celebrated regiment, begging to be allowed to pass by him into the open ground in the middle of the street. The man answered shortly, that his orders were strictthat the thing was impossible. While he was endeavouring to persuade the sergeant to relent, some new wave of turbulence approached from behind, and his young companion exclaimed, in a loud voice• Take care, Sir Walter Scott, take care !' The stalwart dragoon, hearing the name, said—What ! Sir Walter Scott ? He shall get through anyhow.' He then addressed the soldiers near him—Make room, men, for Sir Walter Scott, our illustrious countryman!' The men answered—Sir Walter Scott! God bless him!' and he was in a moment within the guarded line of safety."

This is beautiful. Sir Walter had won a proud immortality, and lived now in the very noon of its living radiance. But the romance is still behind. When about six-and-twenty, at the pleasant little watering-place of Gilsland, in Cumberland, he fell in love with a young French lady, Charlotte Margaret Charpentier. The meeting was like one of those in his own novels. He was riding with his friend Adam Fergusson-the joyous, genial friend of his whole lifeone day in that neighbourhood, when they met a young lady taking in airing on horseback, whom neither of them had before seen. They were so much struck with her appearance, as to keep her in view till they were sure that she was a visitor at the wells. The same evening they met her at a ball ; and so much was Scott charmed with her, that he soon made her a proposal, and she became his wife. All who knew her in her youth speak of her as a very charming person, though I confess that her portrait at Abbotsford does not give me much idea of her personal charms. But, says Mr. Lockhart, who had the best opportunity of knowing, “Without the features of a regular beauty, she was rich in personal attractions ; “a form that was fashioned as light as a fairy's; a complexion of the clearest and the brightest olive; eyes large, deep-set, and dazzling of the finest Italian brown ; and a profusion of silken tresses, black as the raven's wing: her address hovering between the reserve of a pretty Englishwoman who has not mingled largely in general society, and å certain natural archness and gaiety that suited well with the accompaniment of a French accent. A lovelier vision, as all who remember her in the bloom of her days have assured me, could hardly have been imagined."

With his charming young wife, Scott settled at Lasswade, about seven miles from Edinburgh. Here he had a lonely and retired cottage, in a most beautiful neighbourhood; and was within au tasy distance of Edinburgh, and his practice there as an advocate. Here he busied himself in his literary pursuits, and made those escursions into Liddesdale, and Ettrick forest, and other parts of the border country, in quest of materials for his Border Minstrelsy, in which he found such exquisite delight. Here he found Shortreed, Hogg, Lailaw,-men all enthusiastic in the same pursuits and tastes. At this time, too, he became acquainted in Edinburgh with Leyden, also a border man, full of ballad and poetry, and with powers as gigantic as Scott himself, though uncouth as a colt from the moors. There is nothing in any biography which strikes me so full of the enjoyment of life as Scott's ruids, as he called them, into Liddesdale, and other border wildernesses, at that period. He found everywhere a new country, untrodden by tourists, unknown to fame, but richly deserving of it. There was a new land discovered, full frora end to end of wild scenery, and strange, rude, but original character, rich in native wit, humour, and fun. Down Liddesdale there was no road; in it there was no inn. Scott's gig, on the last of seven years' randa, was the first wheel carriage that ever entered it. “ The travellers passed from the shepherd's hut to the minister's manso ; and again from the cheerful hospitality of the manse, to the rough and jolly welcome of the homestead.” “ To these rambles,” says Lockhart, “Scott owed much of the material of his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, and not less of that intimate acquaintance with the living manners of those unsophisticated regions, which constitutes the chief charm of one of the most charming of his prose works." * He was makin' himsel a' the time,” said Mr. Shortreed," but he did na ken, may be, what he was about till years had passed. At first he thought o'little, I dare say, but the queerness and the fun.” That overflowing enjoyment of life, which so much distinguished Scott at all periods, except the short melancholy one of his decline, now exhibited itself in all its exuberance. "Eh me!” says Mr. Shortreed, “sic an endless fund o'humour and drollery as he then had wi' him! Never ten yards but we were either laughing, or roaring, and singing. Wherever we stopped, how brawlie he suited himsel to everybody! He aye did as the lave did ; never made himsel' the great man, or took ony airs in the company.” It was in one of these raids that they fell in with the original of Dandie Dinmont.

His Border Minstrelsy came out; his fame spread. His Metrical Romances followed ; and he was the most popular man of the day. In matters of business he rapidly advanced. He was made Clerk of Session and Sheriff of Selkirk. He quitted his cottage at Lasswade for the still more beautiful, but more solitary farm of Ashestiel, on the banks the Tweed. Lord Byron's poetry blazed out; but Scott took another flight, in the Historical Novel, and was still, if not the greatest poet, the most popular man of his age. Never had there been any evidence of such pecuniary success in the literary world. He made about 15,0001. by his poetry; but by his prose he made, by a single work, his 5,0001., his 10,0001., his 12,0001. His facility was equal to his success; it was no long and laborious task to complete one of these truly golden volumes—they were thrown off as fast as he could write ; and in three months a novel, worth eight or ten thousand pounds in the market, was finished ! Well might his hopes and views tower to an unprecedented height. The spirit of poetry and romance revelled in his brain, and began to show itself not only in the construction of volumes, but in building of a castle, an estate, a family to stand amid the aristocratic families for ever. The name of Walter Scott should not only descend with his children as that of an illustrious writer, but should clothe them with the worldhonoured mantle of titular rank. And everything was auspicious. The tide of fortune flowed on, the wind of public favour blew wondrously. Work after work was thrown off; enormous sums often were netted. Publishers and printers struggled for his patronage; but Constable and the Ballantynes, acquaintances of his youth, were selected for his favour,-and great became their standing and business. There seemed not one fortune, but three secure of accomplishment. The poet, in the romantic solitude of Ashestiel, or galloping over the heathy hills in the neighbourhood, as he mused on new and ever-succeeding visions of romances amongst them, conceived the most fascinating scheme of all. It was to purchase lands, to raise himself a fairy castle, to become, not the minstrel of a lord, as were many of those of old, but a minstrel-lord himself. Thé practical romance grew. On the banks of the Tweed, then, began to rise the fairy castle. Quaint and beautiful as one of his descriptions, it arose ; lands were added to lands ; over hill and dale spread the dark embossment of future woods; and Abbotsford began to be spoken of far and wide. The poet had chosen his seat in the midst of the very land of ancient poetry itself. At three miles distance stood the fair pile of Melrose, which he had made so attractive by his Lay of the Last Minstrel to the whole world. Near that showed themselves the Eildon hills, the haunt of True Thomas; at their feet ran the classic stream of Huntly burn. The Cowdenknows lifted its black summit further down the Tweed ; and upwards was a whole fairyland-Carterhaugh, Newark tower, Ettrick forest, St. Mary's lake, and the Dowie Dens of Yarrow. There was scarcely an object in the whole country round-neither hill, nor wood, nor

« PreviousContinue »