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LIFE OF Scott. I. Early life.—Walter Scott was born on August 15, 1771. His father—also a Walterwas a Writer to the Signet, or advocate, in Edinburgh. Young Walter was rendered lame by a fever in his infancy, and being sent for cure to the house of his grandfather, at Sandyknowe, a farm not far from Melrose, he there first contracted that passionate love for the Border-country, which held him through life. His lameness also, detaining him from the ordinary sports of youth, enriched him early with a love of reading. Yet he made no brilliant display at school ; he was not usually dux, but rather dunce, of his class : and in after-years he bitterly regretted that he had neglected to store his mind with a sound knowledge of Greek. His father wished him to follow his own profession, so Walter Scott became a lawyer, but with no taste, no love for his work. In 1797, he married a French lady named Charpentier, but neither his love nor his marriage formed a turning-point in his life, as might perhaps have been expected with a poet. During this period his calling does not seem to have been literature : as a distinct vocation he almost despised it. His only excursion into that field was a translation of Goethe's “Goetz of the Iron Hand.”
II. The “ Border Minstrelsy.” Scott the Poet.-It was in 1802 that he published the “Border Minstrelsy," in itself the work rather of an antiquarian than a poet; but its compilation changed the whole current of his life, by suggesting imitations of the ballads which he had collected, and also by the partnership which it induced him to commence with the Ballantynes.
The sum of the influences which made Scott a poet
will be better estimated later, when we come to consider the roots from which “Marmion " grew, and the criticisms of his poetry shall be reserved for fuller exposition there. Here we give the chronology only of his poems.
In 1804, being appointed Sheriff of Selkirk, he went to live at Ashestiel, in Ettrick Forest, on the Tweed, a little above the spot where the Yarrow joins it.
In 1805, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel ” appeared. Encouraged by its success, in 1808 he published “Marmion.” “The Lady of the Lake” followed. These are generally considered the three best of his longer poems. The rest were “Don Roderick” (1811), “ The Bridal of Triermain,” “Rokeby
(1813), “The Lord of the Isles" (1815), “Harold ” (1817). It was shortly after the publication of “Rokeby " that he purchased Abbotsford, still in the old Border-country, still on the Tweed, the dear home of his later life, and the place of his death.
III.“ Waverley.” Scott the Novelist.—But his later poems were composed after the current of his life had again been changed. They are like pieces of Cromarty in the midst of Ross-shire. The publication of “ Waverley,” in July 1814, showed him that, however successful as a poet, his road henceforth lay in a different direction. The metrical romances became prose poems.
“ What 'series ' followed out of 'Waverley, says Carlyle," and how and with what result, is known to all men,—was witnessed and watched with a kind of rapt astonishment by all. Hardly any literary reputation ever rose so high in our island; no reputation at all ever spread so wide. Walter Scott became Sir Walter Scott, Baronet, of Abbotsford ; on whom Fortune seemed to pour her whole cornucopia of wealth, honour, and worldly good ; the favourite of princes and of peasants, and all intermediate men. His Waverley Series, swift following one on the other, apparently without
end, was the universal reading-looked for like an annual harvest, by all ranks, in all European countries.”
So much for their success: one word, and from no mean critic, on their value. Goethe described him as the “greatest writer of his time,” and said that his art was so high, it was hard to attempt giving a formal opinion on it.
IV. The End.—Most men, it has been remarked, have their troubles at the outset of their life; Scott's came towards the close. Parallel with the last two divisions of his life, there ran another. Scott, the poet and the novelist, was also a printer and publisher. He piqued himself on being a good man of business, he was not ; and during the whole time in which he was engaged in it, the business seems to have been in an unsound state. 1825 was a year of commercial panic. Ballantynes' firm fell before the shock, and bankruptcy was the result. Scott determined to pay his creditors by the help of his pen. But the Muse will not so be forced ; and Scott's later compositions—the end of the “Waverley Series," “History of Scotland,” “ Life of Napoleon,” “Demonology”—are manifestly hurried, made to sell. Nor was it only against fallen fortunes that Scott had to contend. In the year of his bankruptcy (1826), he lost also his wife. His later years were not happy. His troubles, and the forced labour of his old age, broke his health. He went to the Mediterranean for change, but a greater was in store for him : he hurried home to die. It was in his own Abbotsford, and within hearing of the Tweed he loved so well, that he died on September 21, 1832.
His FAME.—The fame of Scott has had a varying history. Hardly any literary man ever enjoyed such popularity as that which Scott won by the publication of his poems, and, enhanced by the mystery of his long-preserved incognito, of the “Waverley Novels.”
This popularity continued to the end of his life, although somewhat weakened by the later novels, and other literary efforts, bred of his pecuniary distresses. Then came a partial reaction, and men began to coincide with the opinions expressed about him by Jeffrey and by Byron; but that the popularity had not gone was shown by the enthusiasm with which Lockhart's “Life” was hailed. This book was, however, followed at once by Carlyle's criticisms in the “Westminster Review,"* since which time many thinking men have followed Carlyle, and Scott has been condemned as superficial and wanting insight. Mr. Ruskin, however, courageously adhered to the opinions which were popular when he was a young man, and herein represents a band of admirers who have stedfastly retained their affection for Scott. With the public generally his reputation has been eclipsed by a younger poet. The present Professor of Poetry t at Oxford said, a little time ago: “Boys in my youth learnt by heart a canto of 'Marmion'; they now learn the Idylls of the King.'”
Let us place the estimates of Ruskin and Carlyle side by side:
Ruskin's Estimate.-Ruskin selects Scott and Turner as “the great representative minds of the age," the one in literature, and the other in art, with a half apology for estimating highly Scott's “poetry of careless glance and reckless rhyme.” The tests of greatness are -(1) humility: Scott never talks about the dignity of literature ; he has no affectation, and, although a mannerist, no assumption of manner; and (2) the ease with which he does his work. But in his faults, likewise, Ruskin finds him a representative of his age :- 1. In faithlessness; 2. In the habit of looking idly back on the past,
* January 1838, now reprinted in the Miscellanies, vol. iv.
Modern Painters, vol. iii. part iv. chap. 16, sec. 23-45.
without understanding it, without a real wish to recall it ; 3. In ignorance of true art; 4. In the melancholy which underlies his scepticism. Observe, further, the way in which he looks at Nature, “ as having an animation and pathos of its own, wholly irrespective of human presence or passion : ” and his preference for colour over form in landscape painting.
Carlyle's estimate is very different. To the question whether Scott was a great man or not, this is his answer, at length:-“ Friends to precision of epithet will probably deny his title to the name great.
One knows not what idea worthy of the name of great, what purpose, instinct, or tendency that could be called great, Scott was ever inspired with. His life was worldly, his ambitions were worldly. There is nothing spiritual in him ; all is economical, material, of the earth, earthy.
l A love of picturesque, of beautiful, vigorous, and graceful things; a genuine love, yet not more genuine than has dwelt in hundreds of men, named minor poets—this is the highest quality to be discerned in him." Yet, on the other hand, he was “genuine," no shadow of cant,” “ an eminently well-conditioned man, healthy in body, healthy in soul ;" a thorough Scotchman, owing much to Knox and Presbyterianism, as all Scotland does. “No Scotchman of his time was more entirely Scotch than Walter Scott: the good and the not so good which all Scotchmen inherit ran through every fibre of him.” No burning fire of genius in him-no real call to literature. “Station in society, solid power over the good things of this world, was Scott's avowed object, towards which the precept of precepts is that of Iago, 'Put money in thy purse.' ” Lastly, on the rapidity of Scott's writing: “On the whole, contrasting Waverley,' which was carefully written, with most of its followers, which were written extempore, one may regret the extempore method.” “ Virgil and Tacitus, were they ready writers ? The