Page images


Novis signatur cera figuris,
Nec manet ut fuerat, nec formas servat easdem,

Sed tamen ipsa eadem est.

Ovid. Met. Lib. XV. I. 169, &c.

Softly, my masters; is not this the tale

We heard from him o' the forest, that shrewd harper
With the brief northern name? Just so it ran, sure;
There was the knave that masked it in a cowl,
And stared away men's stomachs at their meat,
('Twas a mad jest); the old knight and his daughter;
(But he was then called Valentine, she Isabel)
The youth that loved two maidens, fought for both, too;
And the crazed wench that wander'd on the hills
All pale and faded, like the languid moon'
By day seen slumbering o'er a misty stream.
Go thy ways, wag, do'st think we hear a story

And take no note on't?


WE enter now, Sir, upon a narrower field of criticism. Our attention has hitherto been directed to general characteristics; to the prevailing spirit of works collectively considered, rather than to the peculiar turn of separate productions. In the comparison which remains to be made of particular stories, incidents, and phrases, I think I shall be able to point out some resemblances so striking and undeniable, that it will almost appear a waste of

labour to have urged any argument derived from other topics. But occasional and partial coincidences, however pointed, may sometimes fail of producing absolute conviction; similarity of fable, or of language, may be imputed to chance, to the necessary tendency of the subject, to inadvertent plagiarism, or to voluntary imitation. It is only when there appears, as I have endeavoured to show in the present instance, a manifest conformity of general character, that minute and detached correspondencies can be undoubtingly relied on, not as the beginnings of presumption, but as the crown and consummation of proof.


It cannot, I think, be necessary to introduce the ensuing remarks by any extended criticism on the construction and management of fable, as exemplified in the productions, collectively taken, of the novelist or poet. This subject has already been touched upon, and all its most important points will be embraced by the observations to which we are proceeding.

The circumstance in which the novels and poems most generally coincide is, a close connexion of the story with historic truth and topographical reality. Each tale is in fact an essay on the manners and political state of England or Scotland at a given period, as well as a narrative of romantic adventures. Most of the novels, indeed, are professedly constructed on this plan. To praise the correctness of either writer in assigning to each particular age, country, and class of people its proper habits and usages, social forms and ways of thinking, would be an insufficient as well as needless commendation; for they always treat of these subjects, not merely with accuracy, but with a learned exuberance, nay gratuitous prodigality of illustration, which can only be afforded by industry enamoured of its task.

It is remarkable in the novels as well as poems, that the

author, while he traces an accurate and comprehensive general picture of the times, often shows great judgment also in selecting some one peculiarity, some striking custom, fashion, or mode of life, to stand as a principal object in the foreground. The Border gathering, in the Lay of the Last Minstrel; the Chapter at Holy Island, in Marmion; the circulating of the Fiery Cross, in the Lady of the Lake; the Highland feast and stag hunt, in Waverley*; the tournament, in Ivanhoe; and the Masque of Unreason, in the Abbot+; are among the detached subjects of archæological curiosity, which have been thus ingeniously turned to advantage: the moss-trooper and the Liddesdale yeoman, in the poem first mentioned; the buccaneer, in Rokeby; the Blue-gown, in the Antiquary; the Covenanters, in Old Mortality; and the soldier of fortune, in a Legend of Montrose, are specimens of character singled out in the same manner to fill central places in the various pictures of society to which they belong, and form leading points of the composition.

There is not, I believe, a single tale of either writer (except perhaps Guy Mannering) in which the adventures have not some connexion, more or less direct, with public affairs. In all the metrical romances, and nearly all the novels, a material part of the interest hinges on some popular insurrection, tumult, or civil war. In more than half the novels, and most of the poems, events important to the story are made to depend on the issue of a siege or battle, which is described, I need not again say with what vigour and animation. The political and moral surveys, whether national or local, and the views of individual character and conduct, as forming a portion of history, are in all these

Vol. i. ch. 20.; ii. ch. 1.

+ Vol. i. ch. 14.

productions much more learned and profound than the nature of such fiction requires; and the authors not only labour that their narratives may coincide with the grand outline of recorded events, but endeavour to render the vraisemblance still more pointed by their attention to minute details of provincial and family tradition.

In most (if not all) of the novels, and in the poems without exception, we find some real place marked out as the principal scene of events; a fact sufficiently impressed upon the minds of those

"Travellers from southern fields,

Whether in tilbury, barouche, or mail *,”

who have periodically halted after the romantic Muse from castle to abbey, and from highland to island. Both writers show a singular address in making use of their local knowledge; their incidents are contrived with an accurate consideration of distances and the relative position of places, which gives the whole fable an imposing air of truth; and the natural features and artificial embellishments of the region, whether softness, or sublimity, or antique majesty, be their distinctive character, are celebrated with such warmth of feeling and yet justness of observation, that the narrative gains richness, point, and energy from poetic description, which, in other hands, too often introduces only feebleness and incoherence. By a singular versatility of imagination, both writers appear to become naturalized at will in any spot with which it pleases them to connect their story. Local allusions, whether to events or objects, or to persons and families with which these are

*Harold the Dauntless, canto vi. st. 1.

connected, come from them with an artless facility, and glide into discourse with a frequency and unforced readiness that might at first sight be deemed the genuine result of early and long-cherished associations, if we did not know with what success both novelist and poet have exercised the same talent of appearing at home through the whole extent of their romantic excursions, from Angus to Galloway, from Kenilworth to Loch Katrine, from the Vale of Don to the Sound of Mull.

In those few novels where the principal scenes of action are denoted by fictitious names, the topographical details are not more vague or inconsistent on that account; but, on the contrary, are laid down with a circumstantial exactness, which often leads us to presume, and sometimes to conclude undoubtingly, that real places are intended. Thus we may, I suppose, pronounce, without fear of mistake, that Fairport* means Arbroath, and that the novelist's Kennaquhair+ is the place by men called Melrose‡. The

* Antiquary.

+ Monastery and Abbot.

[ocr errors]

It is true the abbey of Kennaquhair is mentioned in the first chapter of the Monastery, as founded in the same reign' with Melrose, Jedburgh, and Kelso; an expression which appears to discountenance this conjecture. I am not sufficiently acquainted with the antiquities of Roxburghshire to know, whether there exist in that county more than one magnificent ruin of a religious structure dedicated to St. Mary, founded by David the First, in a rich Gothic style (see The Abbot, vol. i. ch. 13), having curiously ornamented cloisters (Ibid, and Monastery, vol. iii. ch. 9), bordering on the Tweed, in a serpentine part of its course, and near a ford (Ibid. ch. 1,5), overshadowed by mountains on the southward (Ibid. vol. iii. ch. 4), giving celebrity by its ruins to a neighbouring village, and said to have anciently enjoyed nearly two thousand pounds in yearly money

« PreviousContinue »