- The Honourable Sir Walter Scott [Biography]
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Outlines of English and American Literature
The Work of Walter Scott
by Long, William J.

To read Scott is to read Scotland. Of no other modern author can it so freely be said that he gave to literature a whole country, its scenery, its people, its history and traditions, its ideals of faith and courage and loyalty.

That is a large achievement, but that is not all. It was Scott, more than any other author, who brought poetry and romance home to ordinary readers; and with romance came pleasure, wholesome and refreshing as a drink from a living spring. When he began to write, the novel was in a sad state,--sentimental, sensational, fantastic, devoted to what Charles Lamb described as wildly improbable events and to characters that belong neither to this world nor to any other conceivable one. When his work was done, the novel had been raised to its present position as the most powerful literary influence that bears upon the human mind. Among novelists, therefore, Scott deserves his title of "the first of the modern race of giants."


To his family, descendants of the old Borderers, Scott owed that intensely patriotic quality which glows in all his work. He is said to have borne strong resemblance to his grandfather, "Old Bardie Scott," an unbending clansman who vowed never to cut his beard till a Stuart prince came back to the throne. The clansmen were now citizens of the Empire, but their loyalty to hereditary chiefs is reflected in Scott's reverence for everything pertaining to rank or royalty.

First Impressions

He was born (1771) in Edinburgh, but his early associations were all of the open country. Some illness had left him lame of foot, and with the hope of a cure he was sent to relatives at Sandy Knowe. There in the heart of the Border he spent his days on the hills with the shepherds, listening to Scottish legends. At bedtime his grandmother told him tales of the clans; and when he could read for himself he learned by heart Percy's Reliques of Ancient Poetry. So the scenes which he loved because of their wild beauty became sacred because of their historical association. Even in that early day his heart had framed the sentiment which found expression in his Lay of the Last Minstrel:

      Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
      Who never to himself hath said:
            This is my own, my native land?

Work and Play

At school, and at college at Edinburgh, the boy's heart was never in his books, unless perchance they contained something of the tradition of Scotland. After college he worked in his father's law office, became an advocate, and for twenty years followed the law. His vacations were spent "making raids," as he said, into the Highlands, adding to his enormous store of old tales and ballads. A companion on one of these trips gives us a picture of the man:

        "Eh me, sic an endless fund o' humour and drollery as he
        had wi' him! Never ten yards but we were either laughing or
        roaring and singing. Whenever 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

This boyish delight in roaming, in new scenes, in new people met frankly under the open sky, is characteristic of Scott's poems and novels, which never move freely until they are out of doors. The vigor of these works may be partially accounted for by the fact that Scott was a hard worker and a hearty player,--a capital combination.

His Poems

He was past thirty when he began to write. [Footnote: This refers to original composition. In 1796 Scott published some translations of German romantic ballads, and in 1802 his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. The latter was a collection of old ballads, to some of which Scott gave a more modern form.] By that time he had been appointed Clerk of Sessions, and also Sheriff of Selkirkshire (he took that hangman's job, and kept it even after he had won fame, just for the money there was in it); and these offices, together with his wife's dowry, provided a comfortable income. When his first poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), met with immense success he gladly gave up the law, and wrote Marmion (1808) and The Lady of the Lake (1810). These increased his good fortune; but his later poems were of inferior quality, and met with a cool reception. Meanwhile Byron had appeared to dazzle the reading public. Scott recognized the greater poetic genius of the author of Childe Harold, and sought another field where he was safe from all rivals.

First Romances

Rummaging in a cabinet one day after some fishing tackle, he found a manuscript long neglected and forgotten. Instead of going fishing Scott read his manuscript, was fascinated by it, and presently began to write in headlong fashion. In three weeks he added sixty-five chapters to his old romance, and published it as Waverley (1814) without signing his name. Then he went away on another "raid" to the Highlands. When he returned, at the end of the summer, he learned that his book had made a tremendous sensation, and that Fame, hat in hand, had been waiting at his door for some weeks.

In the next ten years Scott won his name of "the Wizard of the North," for it seemed that only magic could produce stories of such quality in such numbers: Guy Mannering, Rob Roy, Old Mortality, Redgauntlet, Heart of Midlothian, portraying the deathless romance of Scotland; and Ivanhoe, Kenilworth, The Talisman and other novels which changed dull history to a drama of fascinating characters. Not only England but the Continent hailed this magnificent work with delight. Money and fame poured in upon the author. Fortune appeared for once "with both hands full." Then the crash came.

To understand the calamity one must remember that Scott regarded literature not as an art but as a profitable business; that he aimed to be not a great writer but a lord of high degree. He had been made a baronet, and was childishly proud of the title; his work and his vast earnings were devoted to the dream of a feudal house which should endure through the centuries and look back to Sir Walter as its noble founder. While living modestly on his income at Ashestiel he had used the earnings of his poems to buy a rough farm at Clarty Hole, on the Tweed, and had changed its unromantic name to Abbotsford. More land was rapidly added and "improved" to make a lordly estate; then came the building of a castle, where Scott entertained lavishly, as lavishly as any laird or chieftain of the olden time, offering to all visitors "the honors of Scotland."

Enormous sums were spent on this bubble, and still more money was needed. To increase his income Scott went into secret partnership with his publishers, indulged in speculative ventures, ran the firm upon the shoals, drew large sums in advance of his earnings. Suddenly came a business panic; the publishing firm failed miserably, and at fifty five Scott, having too much honest pride to take advantage of the bankruptcy laws, found himself facing a debt of more than a hundred thousand pounds.

His Last Years

His last years were spent in an heroic struggle to retrieve his lost fortunes. He wrote more novels, but without much zest or inspiration; he undertook other works, such as the voluminous Life of Napoleon, for which he was hardly fitted, but which brought him money in large measure. In four years he had repaid the greater part of his debt, but mind and body were breaking under the strain. When the end came, in 1832, he had literally worked himself to death. The murmur of the Tweed over its shallows, music that he had loved since childhood, was the last earthly sound of which he was conscious. The house of Abbotsford, for which he had planned and toiled, went into strange hands, and the noble family which he had hoped to found died out within a few years. Only his work remains, and that endures the wear of time and the tooth of criticism.

The Poems of Scott

Three good poems of Scott are Marmion, The Lay of the Last Minstrel and The Lady of the Lake; three others, not so good, are Rokeby, Vision of Don Roderick and Lord of the Isles. Among these The Lady of the Lake is such a favorite that, if one were to question the tourists who annually visit the Trossachs, a surprisingly large number of them would probably confess that they were led not so much by love of natural beauty as by desire to visit "Fair Ellen's Isle" and other scenes which Scott has immortalized in verse.

We may as well admit frankly that even the best of these poems is not first-class; that it shows careless workmanship, and is lacking in the finer elements of beauty and imagination. But Scott did not aim to create a work of beauty; his purpose was to tell a good story, and in that he succeeded. His Lady of the Lake, for example, has at least two virtues: it holds the reader's attention; and it fulfills the first law of poetry, which is to give pleasure.

Quality of the Poems

Another charm of the poems, for young readers especially, is that they are simple, vigorous, easily understood. Their rapid action and flying verse show hardly a trace of conscious effort. Reading them is like sweeping downstream with a good current, no labor required save for steering, and attention free for what awaits us around the next bend. When the bend is passed, Scott has always something new and interesting: charming scenery, heroic adventure, picturesque incidents (such as the flight of the Fiery Cross to summon the clans), interesting fragments of folklore, and occasionally a ballad like "Lochinvar," or a song like "Bonnie Dundee," which stays with us as a happy memory long after the poem is forgotten.

A secondary reason for the success of these poems was that they satisfied a fashion, very popular in Scott's day, which we have not yet outgrown. That fashion was to attribute chivalrous virtues to outlaws and other merry men, who in their own day and generation were imprisoned or hanged, and who deserved their fate. Robin Hood's gang, for example, or the Raiders of the Border, were in fact a tough lot of thieves and cutthroats; but when they appeared in romantic literature they must of course appeal to ladies; so Scott made them fine, dashing, manly fellows, sacrificing to the fashion of the hour the truth of history and humanity. As Andrew Lang says:

    "In their own days the Border Riders were regarded as public
    nuisances by statesmen, who attempted to educate them by means of
    the gibbet. But now they were the delight of fine ladies,
    contending who should be most extravagant in encomium. A blessing
    on such fine ladies, who know what is good when they see it!"
    [Footnote: Quoted in Nicoll and Seccombe, A History of English
    Literature, Vol. Ill, p. 957.]

Scott's Novels

To appreciate the value of Scott's work one should read some of the novels that were fashionable in his day,--silly, sentimental novels, portraying the "sensibilities" of imaginary ladies. [Footnote: In America, Cooper's first romance, Precaution (1820), was of this artificial type. After Scott's outdoor romances appeared, Cooper discovered his talent, and wrote The Spy and the Leather-Stocking tales. Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen began to improve or naturalize the English novel before Scott attempted it.] That Scott was influenced by this inane fashion appears plainly in some of his characters, his fine ladies especially, who pose and sentimentalize till we are mortally weary of them; but this influence passed when he discovered his real power, which was to portray men and women in vigorous action. Waverley, Rob Roy, Ivanhoe, Redgauntlet,--such stories of brave adventure were like the winds of the North, bringing to novel-readers the tang of the sea and the earth and the heather. They braced their readers for life, made them feel their kinship with nature and humanity. Incidentally, they announced that two new types of fiction, the outdoor romance and the historical novel, had appeared with power to influence the work of Cooper, Thackeray, Dickens and a host of minor novelists.

Groups of Stories

The most convenient way of dealing with Scott's works is to arrange them in three groups. In the first are the novels of Scotland: Waverley, dealing with the loyalty of the clans to the Pretender; Old Mortality, with the faith and struggles of the Covenanters; Redgauntlet, with the plots of the Jacobites; The Abbot and The Monastery, with the traditions concerning Mary Queen of Scots; Guy Mannering, The Antiquary and The Heart of Midlothian, with private life and humble Scottish characters.

In the second group are the novels which reveal the romance of English history: Ivanhoe, dealing with Saxon and Norman in the stormy days when Richard Lionheart returned to his kingdom; Kenilworth, with the intrigues of Elizabeth's Court; The Fortunes of Nigel, with London life in the days of Charles First; Woodstock, with Cromwell's iron age; Peveril of the Peak, with the conflict between Puritan and Cavalier during the Restoration period.

In the third group are the novels which take us to foreign lands: Quentin Durward, showing us the French court as dominated by the cunning of Louis Eleventh, and The Talisman, dealing with the Third Crusade.

In the above list we have named not all but only the best of Scott's novels. They differ superficially, in scenes or incidents; they are all alike in motive, which is to tell a tale of adventure that shall be true to human nature, no matter what liberties it may take with the facts of history.

Quality of the Novels

In all these novels the faults are almost as numerous as the virtues; but while the faults appear small, having little influence on the final result, the virtues are big, manly, wholesome,--such virtues as only the greatest writers of fiction possess. Probably all Scott's faults spring from one fundamental weakness: he never had a high ideal of his own art. He wrote to make money, and was inclined to regard his day's labor as "so much scribbling." Hence his style is frequently slovenly, lacking vigor and concentration; his characters talk too much, apparently to fill space; he caters to the romantic fashion (and at the same time indulges his Tory prejudice) by enlarging on the somewhat imaginary virtues of knights, nobles, feudal or royal institutions, and so presents a one-sided view of history.

On the other hand, Scott strove to be true to the great movements of history, and to the moral forces which, in the end, prevail in all human activity. His sympathies were broad; he mingled in comradeship with all classes of society, saw the best in each; and from his observation and sympathy came an enormous number of characters, high or low, good or bad, grave or ridiculous, but nearly all natural and human, because drawn from life and experience.

Scene and Incident

Another of Scott's literary virtues is his love of wild nature, which led him to depict many grand or gloomy scenes, partly for their own sake, but largely because they formed a fitting background for human action. Thus, The Talisman opens with a pen picture of a solitary Crusader moving across a sun-scorched desert towards a distant island of green. Every line in that description points to action, to the rush of a horseman from the oasis, to the fierce trial of arms before the enemies speak truce and drink together from the same spring. Many another of Scott's descriptions of wild nature is followed by some gallant adventure, which we enjoy the more because we imagine that adventures ought to occur (though they seldom do) amid romantic surroundings.

What to Read

At least one novel in each group should be read; but if it be asked, Which one? the answer is as much a matter of taste as of judgment. Of the novels dealing with Scottish life, Waverley, which was Scott's first attempt, is still an excellent measure of his story-telling genius; but there is more adventurous interest in Old Mortality or Rob Roy; and in The Heart of Midlothian (regarded by many as the finest of Scott's works) one feels closer to nature and human nature, and especially to the heart of Scotland. Ivanhoe is perhaps the best of the romances of English history; and of stories dealing with adventure in strange lands, The Talisman will probably appeal strongest to young readers, and Quentin Durward to their elders. To these may be added The Antiquary, which is a good story, and which has an element of personal interest in that it gives us glimpses of Scott himself, surrounded by old armor, old legends, old costumes,--mute testimonies to the dreams and deeds of yesterday's men and women.

Such novels should be read once for the story, as Scott intended; and then, if one should grow weary of modern-problem novels, they may be read again for their wholesome, bracing atmosphere, for their tenderness and wisdom, for their wide horizons, for their joy of climbing to heights where we look out upon a glorious Present, and a yet more glorious Past that is not dead but living.


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