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N Introduction to Scott's Poems would hardly be complete without a brief
wrote them, even though to write of Scott is to tell a thrice-told tale.
Walter Scott, the lineal descendant of that Border hero who took three days to consider whether he would marry Sir Gideon Murray's ugly daughter, Meikle-mouthed Meg, or hang on Sir Gideon's gallows, was the son of a Writer to the Signet, whose portrait he has drawn in the character of Alexander Fairford, in REDGAUNTLET. His mother was a Miss Rutherford, the daughter of a physician. He was thus born in perhaps the most advantageous rank of life for an ambitious lad, for he belonged to a good old family, of which he might be justly proud, and was taught by all around him that the road to success lies through hard work. If he inherited little of his father's love of order, thrift, and stately ceremonial manners, he learned from his example industry and perseverance.
He was born on August 15th, 1771, the ninth of twelve children, of whom six died in infancy. At the age of eighteen months the child fell lame, and remained so throughout life. But this lameness did not affect his activity of body, which was always very remarkable. His reputation at school was better among his comrades than with his masters, who, however, seem to have recognised the ability of the precocious boy, who would extemporise stories when he was not organising street fights or climbing the Castle rocks.
He became a lawyer, and practised at the bar, nominally, for fourteen years, never making any large income by his work, though he is said to have been a sound lawyer. Eight years after being called, he was appointed Sheriff of Selkirkshire, a post worth £300 a-year, and he discharged the duties of a Clerk of Session for five years gratuitously, in order to secure his succession when the post should fall vacant. The acceptance of these two posts shows clearly that he had little hope of real or brilliant success in his profession. Lawyers who hope to obtain the splendid prizes of the profession do not accept these small offices. During these years, however, he was becoming known for other things than the law: he was an enthusiastic antiquarian; he loved ballads; and he was drifting gradually, but surely, into literature.
His first serious attempt was a translation of Bürger's Lenore, vigorous and spirited.
" Tramp! tramp! along the land they rode;
Splash! splash! along the sea:
The flashing pebbles fice."
But his first literary success was with his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, which appeared in January, 1802, in two volumes. The success of this work was immediate and very great, the whole of the first edition of 800 copies having been sold within the year.
In this year also Scott composed the first canto of his Lay of the Last Minstrel, which was not published until the year 1805. So great was the success of this poem that 44,000 copies were sold in the space of twenty-five years. Marmion, Scott's greatest poem, was published three years
later. His course was now plainly before him ; we hear no more of nibbling at the law; literature claimed him altogether. The poems followed each other in rapid succession, but none of them reached the same level, the same force as was shown in Marmion. Yet the Lord of the Isles and Rokeby are wonderful productions. It was in 1814 that the Waverley Novels were first commenced.
The rest of the life of Sir Walter Scott-how he wrote novels long after the first force and rush of his genius had fallen low; how he bought lands and proposed to found a family ; how he speared salmon and rode to hounds; how he was made a baronet; how he fell into dire troubles, and struggled manfully to pay off enormous debts which he had not contracted; how his brain clouded gradually, and how he died on September the 21st, 1832, six months after Goethe-all this may be read in the
pages of Lockhart.
Many critics have discussed the reasons for the charm of Scott's verse, the limits of his powers, the characteristics of his style. It is the province of criticism to find out why poetry delights, and the different kinds and degrees of delight afforded by poets. Many of the criticisms on Scott-for example, the discussion as to whether he possessed any of the Homeric spirit, and if so, in what measure-seem idle and futile in the extreme. The charms do not seem to be difficult to understand-Scott is simple; he is vigorous; he is sympathetic; he is clear in conception; he is musical. What more is wanted to explain his magical powers? If anything more, then the fact that he is full of action; his poetry is never dull; it is never introspective; the lines are always strongly drawn. As a piece of descriptive poetry what can be finer than this?
"November's sky is chill and drear,
November's leaf is red and sear:
And, foaming brown with doubled speed,
This is description of a kind which any one can understand. It is simple, clear, and full of colour. It is to be observed that Scott had a remarkably keen eye for colour, and that his best effects, as Ruskin has pointed out, are due to the employment of colour. The above is descriptive of scenery ; but let us take a description of another kind. Here is his account of the tents near Edinburgh:
"A thousand, did I say? I ween
Thousands on thousands there were seen,
The streamlet and the town;
Remark, here, the extraordinary directness. Nothing is put in "for the sake of the rhyme;" all is clear, simple, and direct; and there is, besides, thrown in, as it were, out of the fulness of the poet's heart, that glow of sympathy which none but a born poet can command. It is in description, of course, that Scott chiefly excels. Here is one more extract, a description of a Scotch winter :
"! The sheep before the pinching heaven
To sheltered down and dale are driven,
Stray sadly by Glenkinnon's rill." We extract from a recent remarkable work on Scottt a few words on the opening of the Lay of the Last Minstrel, which seem to us to sum up nearly all that may be said as to Scott's method.
“ The singular depth of the romantic glow in this passage, and its equally singular simplicity,-a simplicity which makes it intelligible to every one, -are conspicuous to every reader. It is not what is called classical poetry, for there is no severe outline, -no sculptured completeness and repose,-no satisfying wholeness of effect to the eye or the mind,
,-no embodiment of a great action. The poet gives us a breath, a ripple of alternating fear and hope in the heart of an old man, and that is
† Hutton's Scott, p. 49; Macmillan & Co., 1880.
all. He catches an emotion that had its roots deep in the past, and that is striving onward towards something in the future;—he traces the wistfulness and self-distrust with which age seeks to recover the feelings of youth,—the delight with which it greets them when they come, -the hesitation and diffidence with which it recalls them as they pass away, and questions the triumph it has just won,-and he paints all this without subtlety, without complexity, but with a swiftness such as few poets ever surpassed."