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Memoir of Sir Walter Scott.
BY J. W. LAKE.
SIR WALTER SCOTT, descended from one of the this time to the year 1798, his life appears to have most ancient families of Scotland-the Scotts of passed in a devoted attention to his professional Harden, is the eldest surviving son of a gentleman duties, mindful of the advice,
of the same name, who was an eminent writer to Not to pen stanzas when he should engross. the signet at Edinburgh, where the subject of this sketch was born, August 15, 1771. His mother, matrimonial state with Miss Carpenter, by whom At the last-mentioned date he entered into the Mrs. Elizabeth Scott, was the daughter of David he has four children. At the close of the year folRutherford, esq., writer to the signet, from whom lowing, he received the appointment of sheriffshe obtained a handsome fortune. She was a wo- depute of the county of Selkirk; and in March, man of great virtue and accomplishments, with a 1806, he was named one of the principal clerks of good taste for poetry, as appeared from some of session in Scotland. With regard to this last preher productions, which were deemed worthy of ferment, it should be observed that his warrant, being printed after her death, in 1789. Walter, though drawn, had not passed the seals when the from the tenderness of his constitution, and the death of Mr. Pitt produced an entire change in circumstance of his lameness, occasioned by a fall the ministry. The appointment of Mr. Scott had from his nurse's arms at two years of age, was in been effected through the friendship of lord Mela great measure brought up at home, under the ville, who was then actually under impeachment. immediate care and instruction of this excellent This circumstance seemed very ominous against parent, to whom he was much attached through the confirmation of the nomination; but, fortunately life, and whose loss he sincerely lamented. Of for Mr. Scott, the new ministry consisted of such his early pursuits little is known, except that he men as the late Mr. Fox, Sheridan, lord Erskine, evinced a genius for drawing landscapes after na- and the marquis of Lansdowne, with several others ture.-At a proper age he was sent to the high attached to literature and philosophy; and, in a school at Edinburgh, then directed by Dr. Alex- manner that did them infinite honour, they made ander Adam. In this school, young Scott passed no objection to the advancement of their poetical through the different forms without exhibiting any opponent. Thus, as a witty friend remarked, this of those extraordinary powers of genius, which are seldom remembered till the person to whom they appointment was the "last lay of the old ministry." are ascribed has become, by the maturity of his labour, by the acquisition of two lucrative situaReleased now from the drudgery of professional talents, an object of distinction. It is said, that he tions, and the possession of a handsome estate was considered in his boyhood rather heavy than through the death of his father and that of an unotherwise, and that the late Dr. Hugh Blair had cle, Mr. Scott was enabled to court the muses at discernment enough to predict his future eminence, his pleasure, and to indulge in a variety of literary when the master of the school lamented his dul- pursuits without interruption.-His first publicaness; but this only affords another instance of the tions were translations from the German, at a time fallacy of human opinion in pronouncing upon the when the wildest productions of that country were real capacity of the youthful understanding. Bar- much sought after in England, owing to the recent row, the greatest scholar of his age, was discarded as a blockhead by successive teachers; and his pu-ger. The very year when different versions of that appearance of that horrible story of Lenora of Burpil, the illustrious Newton, was declared to be fit tale came out, and some of these highly ornamentfor nothing but to drive the team, till some friends ed, Mr. Scott produced two German ballads in an succeeded in getting him transplanted to college. English dress, entitled, "The Wild Huntsman," Having completed his classical studies at the and" William and Helen." high school, with as much reputation, we suppose, as others of his standing, Walter Scott was moved to the university of Edinburgh, where, also, he passed the classes in a similar manner.
re-intended for the press, being nothing more than These little pieces, however, were not originally exercises in the way of amusement, till a friend, His continuance here, however, could not have thor to publish them, and at the same time conto whom they were shown, prevailed upon the aubeen long; for, after serving the prescribed terms tributed the preface. Three years elapsed before in the office of a writer to the signet, he was ad- Mr. Scott ventured to appear again in print, wher mitted an advocate of the Scotch bar, when he had he produced another translation from the German, not quite attained the age of twenty-one.-From « Goetz of Berlichingen," a tragedy, by Goethe. The prediction of Dr. Blair, here alluded to, arose out Two years afterwards the late Matthew Gregory of the following circumstances. Shortly after Dr. Pater-(cominonly called Monk) Lewis, enriched his son succeeded to the grammar-school, Musselburgh, where Tales of Wonder" with two ballads communiWalter Scott was a short time a pupil, Blair, accompanied cated to him by our author, one entitled "The by some friends, paid him a visit; in the course of which he examined several of his pupils, and paid particular at- Eve of Saint John," and the other "Glenfinlas." tention to young Scott. Dr. Paterson thought it was the youth's stupidity that engaged the doctor's notice, and said, "My predecessor tells me, that boy has the thickest skull in the school." "May be so," replied Dr. Blair, but through that thick skull I can discern many bright rays ef future genius."
In 1802 his first great work, "The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border," came out, beautifully printed at Kelso, by Ballantyne. This collection immediately arrested general attention, and though the pieces of which it is composed are very une
qual, the master-mind and soaring genius of the poet are conspicuous throughout.
The studies of our author at this time were entirely antiquarian. He lived and breathed only among the knights, the heroes, the monks, and robbers of olden time; the feats of chivalry, and the rough heroism of northern warfare and border feuds, were the scenes in which his soul delighted to dwell. He drank deeply of the stream of history as it darkly flowed over the middle ages, and his spirit seemed for a time to be imbued with the mysteries, the superstitions, and the romantic valour which characterised the then chieftains of the north countrie.
Sold of "Rokeby," in three months (Jan. 14th to April 14th, 1813,)
3,000 quarto, at 21. 28. (less
120 remaining)......... 6,0487. 5,000 octavo, at 148...........
His next production was "Sir Tristram, a metrical romance of the thirteenth century, by Thomas of Ercildoun," printed in 1804. Still, however, Mr. Scott may be said as yet to have been only rising in fame: but he soon gained enough to We shall now attempt to offer a few critical obhave intoxicated an ordinary mind in the applause servations on the three most deservedly popular bestowed upon his "Lay of the last Minstrel," poems of Walter Scott, viz. The Lay of the Last which appeared, in quarto, in 1805.-The follow-Minstrel, Marmion, and The Lady of the Lake. ing year he published a collection of "Ballads and The LAY OF THE LAST MINSTREL is an endeavour Lyrical Pieces." Shortly after this, public expec- to transfer the refinements of modern poetry to the tation was raised by the promise of a poem, on the matter and the manner of the ancient metrical roperfection of which the bard was said to labour as mance. The author, enamoured of the lofty visions for immortality. Accordingly, in 1808, appeared of chivalry, and partial to the strains in which they "Marmion, a tale of Flodden Field," which the were formerly embodied, employed all the reauthor himself has characterised as "containing sources of his genius in endeavouring to recal them the best and the worst poetry he has ever written." to the favour and admiration of the public, and in The same year Mr. Scott favoured the world adapting to the taste of modern readers a species with a complete edition of the Works of Dryden, of poetry, which was once the delight of the courtly, in which he gave a new life of that great writer, and numerous notes. But this was not the only instance of the fecundity of his genius and the rapidity of his pen, for, while these volumes were proceeding through the press, he found time for a quarto of Descriptions and Illustrations of the Lay of the Last Minstrel."
but which has long ceased to gladden any other eyes than those of the scholar and the antiquary. This is a romance, therefore, composed by a minstrel of the present day, or such a romance as we may suppose would have been written in modern times, if that style of composition had been cultivated, and partaken, consequently, of the improvements which every branch of literature has re
Within a few months after this he undertook, at the request of the booksellers, the superintend-ceived since the time of its desertion. ence of a new edition of lord Somers's collection of Historical Tracts; and at the same time edited sir Ralph Sadler's State Papers, and Anna Seward's Poetical Works. Yet the very year in which these last publications appeared witnessed the birth of another original offspring of his prolific muse. This was "The Lady of the Lake," the most popular of all his poems, though, in the opinion of many, inferior in several respects to his "Lay of the Last Minstrel."
Upon this supposition, it was evidently the author's business to retain all that was good, and to reject all that was bad, in the models upon which he was to form himself; adding, at the same time, all the interest and beauty which could possibly be assimilated to the manner and spirit of his original. It was his duty, therefore, to reform the rambling, obscure, and interminable narratives of the ancient romancers,―to moderate their digressions, -to abridge or retrench their prolix or needless descriptions, and to expunge altogether those feeble and prosaic passages, the rude stupidity of which is so apt to excite the derision of a modern reader: at the same time he was to rival, if he could, the force and vivacity of their minute and varied representations-the characteristic simpli city of their pictures of manners-the energy and conciseness with which they frequently describe In 1814 "The Lord of the Isles" appeared, but great events-and the lively colouring and accufailed to excite equal interest with most of its pre-rate drawing by which they give the effect of redecessors. This is the last grand original poem of ality to every scene they undertake to delineate. the northern bard. In executing this arduous task, he was permitted
"The Vision of Don Roderick" appeared in 1811, and was intended by its author to commemorate the achievements of the duke of Wellington and the British army in Spain. This poem is considered a complete failure.
"Rokeby" was published in 1812-13. It comprises, in an eminent degree, all the beauties and all the defects of our poct's muse.
In the last-mentioned year he also published a to avail himself of all the variety of style and manprose work, entitled, "The Border Antiquities of ner which had been sanctioned by the ancient prac England and Scotland, with Descriptions and Il- tice, and bound to embellish his performance with lustrations," and brought out a new edition of Swift, with a biographical memoir and annotations.
These were followed by two performances, one in prose and the other in verse, the first entitled "Paul's Letters to his Kinsfolk," and the other "The Battle of Waterloo."
all the graces of diction, and versification which could be reconciled to the simplicity and familiarity of the minstrel's song.
The success which attended Mr. Scott's efforts in the execution of this adventurous essay is well known;-he produced a very beautiful and enter
taining poem, in a style which might fairly be con- had been accumulated by the most celebrated of sidered as original, and the public approbation af- his predecessors; at the same time that the raforded the most flattering evidence of the genius pidity of his transitions, the novelty of his combiof the author. Perhaps, indeed, his partiality for the nations, and the spirit and variety of his own strains of antiquity imposed a little upon the seve- thoughts and inventions, show plainly that he was rity of his judgment, and impaired the beauty of his a borrower from an thing but poverty, and took imitation, by directing his attention rather to what only what he could have given if he had been born was characteristic, than to what was unexception- in an earlier age. The great secret of his populariable in his originals. Though he spared too many ty at the time, and the leading characteristic of his of their faults, however, he improved upon their poetry, consisted evidently in this, that he made beauties, and while it was regretted by many, that use of more common topics, images, and expresthe feuds of border chieftains should have mono- sions, than any original poet of later times; and, polized as much poetry as might have served to at the same time, displayed more genius and oriimmortalize the whole baronage of the empire, ginality than any recent author who had hitherto yet it produced a stronger inclination to admire worked in the same materials. By the latter pethe interest and magnificence which he contrived culiarity, he entitled himself to the admiration of to communicate to a subject so unpromising. every description of readers; by the former he MARMION has more tedious and flat passages, came recommended in an especial manner to the and more ostentation of historical and antiquarian inexperienced, at the hazard of some little offence lore, than its predecessor, but it has also greater to the more cultivated and fastidious. richness and variety, both of character and inci- In the choice of his subjects, for example, he dent; and, if it has less sweetness and pathos in did not attempt to interest merely by fine observathe softer passages, it has certainly more vehe- tions or pathetic sentiment, but took the assistance mence and force of colouring in the loftier and of a story, and enlisted the reader's curiosity among buster representations of action and emotion. his motives for attention. Then his characters The place of the prologuizing minstrel is but were all selected from the most common dramatis ill supplied, indeed, by the epistolary disserta-persone of poetry-kings, warriors, knights, outtions which are prefixed to each book of this po- laws, nuns, minstrels, secluded damsels, wizards, em; but there is more airiness and spirit in the and true lovers. He never ventured to carry us lighter delineations, and the story, if not more into the cottage of the peasant, like Crabbe or Cowskilfully conducted, is at least better complicated, per; nor into the bosom of domestic privacy, like and extended through a wider field of adventure. Campbell; nor among creatures of the imagination, The characteristics of both, however, are evidently like Southey or Darwin. Such personages, assurthe same; a broken narrative-a redundancy of minute description-bursts of unequal and energetic poetry-and a general tone of spirit and animation, unchecked by timidity or affectation, and unchastened by any great delicacy of taste, or elegance of fancy.
edly, are not in themselves so interesting or striking as those to which our poet devoted himself; but they are far less familiar in poetry, and are therefore more likely to engage the attention of those to whom poetry is familiar. In the management of the passions, again, he pursued the same THE LADY OF THE LAKE is more polished in its popular and comparatively easy course. He raised diction, and more regular in its versification, than all the most familiar and poetical emotions, by the the author's preceding poems; the story is con- most obvious aggravations, and in the most comstructed with infinitely more skill and address; pendious and judicious way. He dazzled the readthere is a greater proportion of pleasing and ten-er with the splendour, and even warmed him with der passages, with much less antiquarian detail, the transient heat of various affections: but he noand, upon the whole, a larger variety of characters, where fairly kindled him into enthusiasm, or meltmore artfully and judiciously contrasted. There ed him into tenderness. Writing for the world at is nothing so fine, perhaps, as the battle in Mar- large, (unlike Byron,) he wisely abstained from atmion, or so picturesque as some of the scattered tempting to raise any passion to a height to which sketches in the Lay of the Last Minstrel; but there worldly people could not be transported, and conis a richness and a spirit in the Lady of the Lake, tented himself with giving his reader the chance which does not pervade either of these poems; a of feeling as a brave, kind, and affectionate gentleprofusion of incident, and a shifting brilliancy of man should often feel in the ordinary course of his colouring, that reminds us of the witchery of Ari- existence, without trying to breathe into him eiosto, and a constant elasticity and occasional ener-ther that lofty enthusiasm which disdains the ordigy, which seem to belong more peculiarly to the author himself.
nary business and amusements of life, or that quiet and deep sensibility, which unfits for all its purAt this period Mr. Scott had outstripped all his suits. With regard to dietion and imagery, too, poetical competitors in the race of popularity. The it is quite obvious that he aimed not at writing mighty star of Byron had not yet risen; and we in either a pure or very common style. He doubt whether any British poet had ever had so seems to have been anxious only to strike, and many of his books sold, or so many of his verses to be easily and universally understood; and, for read and admired by such a multitude of persons this purpose, to have culled the most glittering and in so short a time as Walter Scott. Confident in conspicuous expressions of the most popular the force and originality of his own genius, he was authors, and to have interwoven them in splendid not afraid to avail himself of diction and of senti- confusion with his own nervous diction and irregument, wherever they appeared to be beautiful and lar versification. Indifferent whether he coins or impressive, using them, however, at all times, with borrows, and drawing with equal freedom on his the skill and spirit of an inventor; and, quite cer-memory and his imagination, he went boldly fortain that he could not be mistaken for a plagiarist ward, in full reliance on a never failing abundance, or imitator, he made free use of that great trea- and dazzled, with his richness and variety, even sury of characters, images, and expressions, which those who are most apt to be offended with his