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THE BORDER POEMS
T Ashestiel, Scott's new home, were passed the
happiest years of his life, those in which he
attained the height of his fame as a poet, and had not yet begun to suffer either from the anxieties of commercial speculation or from the inconvenient attentions of lion-hunting visitors. Its situation was infinitely finer than that of Abbotsford. Approached through an old-fashioned garden with holly hedges and broad green terrace walks, the house stood on a high bank above the Tweed, separated from it only by a rich meadow, beautiful trees clothing the river bank. Behind and all around were green hills, which hid from sight the Yarrow (some three miles distant), the
classic Yarrow" of Burns, the “river bare ” of Wordsworth, the fabulosus Hydaspes of all Lowland poetry. "The aspect in every direction,” wrote Lockhart, “is that of perfect pastoral repose.”
Nowadays, alas! although the beauties of surrounding nature (whose autumn shades are so winsomely painted in the introduction to the first canto of Marmion) retain their charm undiminished, and the house yet remains in possession of the family from whom Scott had it,
there is little left to remind us of him. Not only has an east wing been added to the building since his day, but the whole conception of the cottage has been revolutionised. It now fronts the hills instead of the river; and the windows of the old dining-room in which he used to write while his dogs leapt in and out have disappeared. None of Scott's books remain, and the sole memorials of him are a portrait, a punch-bowl, and an old invalid chair. The last, which was a present from him to his cousin Jane Russell, is said to have cost £40. It is certainly, as the present writer can testify, uncommonly comfortable.
Ashestiel was over five miles from the nearest town and four from the nearest suitable neighbour; and Scott, in his letters, not only made frequent allusions to the dependence of its inhabitants on sport—it is a famous angling centre—for its food-supply, but to Lady Abercorn averred that he had to go out and shoot a crow in order to get a pen to write with! The noble marchioness soon after sent him a supply of quills, for which he was duly grateful. Scott rented a small sheep-farm, which he at first thought of committing to the charge of his protégé Hogg, but finally decided to entrust to a man who had come before him in his capacity of Sheriff as a poacher, but had won his heart by his half-humorous, half-pathetic exculpation. This was Tom Purdie—thenceforth one of his trustiest henchmen and most attached friends. As the Sheriff had now set up a close carriage, he also took into
his service as coachman Purdie's brother-in-law, Peter Mathieson, who became another of the Abbotsford retinue.
Some months before leaving the Esk for Tweedside, Scott had got another step towards fortune through the legacy from his uncle Robert of an estate near Kelso. The next was the successful publication of the Lay; and the third and last was the acquisition of the reversion to a clerkship in the Court of Session, which, though for some years he did the work but drew no salary from it, enabled him finally to make of literature a very serviceable staff though not the indispensable crutch. The chief duty of these clerks was to record the decisions of the Court of Session; and this involved attendance for several hours during five days of the week (four only every second week) during about half
The position was lucrative and honourable, and was given to advocates of position who yet had relinquished all thoughts of a seat on the bench. There was much camaraderie among the clerks, whose children were accustomed to speak of each other's parents as uncles and aunts. Scott owed his appointment primarily to the powerful Dundas and Buccleuch interest; but the admiration felt by Pitt and the leading Whigs (who succeeded him in office before the patent was passed) for the poetry of the Lay counted for something
Having seen Scott safely established for life (as it seemed), let us turn back a little and look at the poem
of the year.
which made his literary reputation and finally determined his career.
The Lay of the Last Minstrel, originally intended as a modern ballad for the Border Minstrelsy, in which the Elfin Page was to have played the chief part, grew to be what has been well called a vivid panorama of old Border life, in which he is but an incidental personage. But beyond this the poem has a special interest for the readers of Scott's life as being more than any of his works a direct expression of his own personality. As he himself told Wordsworth, “it has the merit of being written with heart and good will, and for no other reason than to discharge my mind of the ideas which from infancy have rushed upon it.” He himself is the Minstrel ; the ancestor of his friend Cranstoun is the hero, who overthrows first Deloraine, and then the English Musgrave; Newark Castle, where the recital is supposed to take place, and Branksome Tower and Melrose, the two chief scenes of its action, are all in the Buccleuch territory; while the Scott clan is represented by some of its leading personages, as Watt of Harden and Michael Scott, the dread magician. For reasons already given, I find it impossible to identify Margaret of Branksome with the poet's lost love, although it is likely enough that her image lent warmth to the presentation. The poem is not only an epic of the Border : it is the epic of the Scott clan, written by its own minstrel under the inspiration of its future chieftainess. The
The “Aimsiness” of the story was admitted by the author, who rightly rested its value
upon its “style,” or as we should say, its atmosphere. For the magic of its metre Scott was indebted to an as yet unpublished work, Coleridge's Christabel, part of which he had heard repeated. The closing lines, with their picture of
“ The little garden hedged with green,
The cheerful hearth and lattice clean," where,
“Close beneath proud Newark's tower,” the Minstrel was wont
“to sing achievements high And circumstance of chivalry,”
and cause the rapt traveller to stay and forget the closing day, have been thought to have reference to the desire which Scott had entertained, while writing it, of purchasing the small estate of Broadmeadow on the Yarrow, a design which was unfortunately replaced by the more ambitious Abbotsford scheme. The sale of the Lay was such as nowadays no work but a popular novel could have (in twenty-five years 40,000 copies were disposed of); but the author attributed its popularity mainly to chance and novelty, and assured a literary correspondent that he was unable in his “most distant imagination ” to range himself beside “the great Bards” of the past.
Far from being blinded by a popular success such as few poets before or since have enjoyed, Scott was able to reflect that the very facility with which he could turn out what he called “the light and loose sort of poetry