Sir Walter Scott as a Critic of Literature
by Margaret Ball
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

In estimating the importance of Scott's studies on any one period we have to think of them as part of a greater whole. The wide range of his investigations would evidently make it impossible to expect a complete treatment of all the subjects he might choose to discuss, and we have found, in fact, that his criticism of mediaeval literature led to systematic results in no other lines than those of the ballad and the romance. But these were large and important matters. Moreover, to all that he wrote in connection with the Middle Ages there attaches a special interest; for with that work he made his real start in literature; and it reflected the peculiarly delightful vein in his own nature which was constant from youth to age, and which gave to his poems and novels some of their most brilliant qualities.[107]


Scott's fondness for the drama and his acquaintance with actors—His ideas about plot structure—His own dramatic experiments—His opinion of the theaters of his day—His knowledge of English dramatic literature—Familiarity with Elizabethan plays shown in his novels—His Essay on the Drama—Ancient drama—French drama—Dramatic unities—German drama—Elizabethan drama—Shakspere—Ben Jonson—Dryden and other Restoration dramatists—Morality of theater-going—Character of Scott's interest in the drama.

Like most of his characteristics, Scott's taste for the theater was exhibited in his childhood. We find him reverting, in a review written in 1826,[108] to his rapturous emotions on the occasion of seeing his first play; and in the private theatricals which he and his brothers and sister performed in the family dining-room he was always the manager. In 1810 he was active in helping to bring out in Edinburgh the Family Legend of his friend Joanna Baillie.[109] One of the actors on that occasion was Daniel Terry,[110] who became an intimate friend of Scott's. For Terry Scott wrote The Doom of Devorgoil, but the piece was not found suitable for presentation. Several of the novels were more successfully dramatized by the same friend, so that we find the "Author" humorously complaining in the "Introductory Epistle" to The Fortunes of Nigel, "I believe my muse would be Terryfied into treading the stage even if I should write a sermon." Among Scott's friends were several other actors, particularly Mrs. Siddons and her brother John Kemble, and the comedian Charles Mathews. In Scott's review of Kelly's Reminiscences and the Life of Kemble we find recorded many of the discriminations he was fond of making in regard to the talents of particular actors.

In his childhood Scott felt well qualified to take the part of Richard III., for he considered that his limp "would do well enough to represent the hump."[111] After a similar fashion we find him commenting on the improbabilities of the tragedy of Douglas: "But the spectator should, and indeed must, make considerable allowances if he expects to receive pleasure from the drama. He must get his mind, according to Tony Lumpkin's phrase, into 'a concatenation accordingly,'[112] since he cannot reasonably expect that scenes of deep and complicated interest shall be placed before him, in close succession, without some force being put upon ordinary probability; and the question is not, how far you have sacrificed your judgment in order to accommodate the fiction, but rather, what is the degree of delight you have received in return."[113]

Scott disclaimed any special knowledge of stage-craft. "I know as little about the division of a drama as the spinster about the division of a battle, to use Iago's simile,"[114] he once wrote to a friend. Yet as a critic he had of course some general ideas about the making of plays, without having worked out any subtle theories on the subject. In criticising a play by Allan Cunningham, who had asked for his judgment on it, he remarked first that the plot was ill-combined. "If the mind can be kept upon one unbroken course of interest, the effect even in perusal is more gratifying. I have always considered this as the great secret in dramatic poetry, and conceive it one of the most difficult exercises of the invention possible, to conduct a story through five acts, developing it gradually in every scene, so as to keep up the attention, yet never till the very conclusion permitting the nature of the catastrophe to become visible,—and all the while to accompany this by the necessary delineation of character and beauty of language."[115] And again he said to the same person, "I hope you will make another dramatic attempt; and in that case I would strongly recommend that you should previously make a model or skeleton of your incidents, dividing them regularly into scenes and acts, so as to insure the dependence of one circumstance upon another, and the simplicity and union of your whole story."[116] Here we find Scott giving advice which by his own admission he was not himself able to follow in the composition of fiction. "I never could lay down a plan, or having laid it down I never could adhere to it," he wrote in his journal[117]. And the "Author" in the introductory epistle to Nigel remarks, "It may pass for one good reason for not writing a play, that I cannot form a plot."

The few experiments that he made he did not seem to regard seriously at any time, though he was rather favorably impressed on rereading the Doom of Devorgoil after it had lain unused for several years.[118] Of Halidon Hill he said, "It is designed to illustrate military antiquities and the manners of chivalry. The drama (if it can be called one) is in no particular either designed or calculated for the stage."[119] He seems to have been "often urged" to write plays, if one may trust Captain Clutterbuck's authority, and the effectiveness of the many poetical mottoes improvised by the Author of Waverley for the chapters of his novels, and subscribed "Old Play,"[120] was naturally used as an argument.[121] Scott's own judgment in the matter was expressed thus: "Nothing so easy when you are full of an author, as to write a few lines in his taste and style; the difficulty is to keep it up. Besides, the greatest success would be but a spiritless imitation, or, at best, what the Italians call a centone [sic] from Shakspeare."[122] When Elliston became manager of Drury Lane in 1819 he applied to Scott for plays, but without effect.[123] Scott seems never to have felt any concern over the fact that the dramatized versions of his novels were often very poor, but Hazlitt wished that he would "not leave it to others to mar what he has sketched so admirably as a ground-work," for he saw no good reason why the author of Waverley could not write "a first-rate tragedy as well, as so many first-rate novels."[124]

Scott felt that to write for the stage in his day was a thankless and almost degrading occupation. "Avowedly I will never write for the stage; if I do, 'call me horse.'" he said in a letter to Terry.[125] Again in a letter to Southey: "I do not think the character of the audience in London is such that one could have the least pleasure in pleasing them.... On the whole, I would far rather write verses for mine honest friend Punch and his audience";[126] and to a would-be tragedian he said: "In the present day there is only one reason which seems to me adequate for the encountering the plague of trying to please a set of conceited performers and a very motley audience,—I mean the want of money."[127] This degraded condition of the London stage Scott thought to be a consequence of limiting the number of theaters. We can hardly suppose, however, that he was pessimistic in regard to the written drama of his day, when he could say of Byron, "There is one who, to judge from the dramatic sketch he has given us in Manfred, must be considered as a match for Aeschylus, even in his sublimest moods of horror";[128] or when he could place Joanna Baillie in the same class with Shakspere[129].

Scott probably did much reading in the drama in his early life. We know that by 1804 he had "long since" annotated his copy of Beaumont and Fletcher sufficiently so that he wished to offer it to Gifford, who, Scott erroneously understood, was about to edit their dramas.[130] The edition of Dryden, published in 1808, shows familiarity with Elizabethan as well as Restoration dramatists. He seems to have had first-hand knowledge of such men as Ford, Webster, Marston, Brome, Shirley, Chapman, and Dekker, whom he mentions as being "little known to the general readers of the present day, even by name."[131] But 1808 was the very year in which appeared Lamb's Specimens of English Dramatic Poets and Coleridge's first course of lectures on Shakspere. The old dramatists were beginning to come to their own, through the sympathetic appreciation of the Romantic critics. Scott never refers, however, to the work of Lamb, Coleridge, or Hazlitt[132] in this field and we conclude that his researches in dramatic literature were the recreation of a man who realized that his business lay in another direction. But in preparing the Dryden, he doubtless read more widely in Restoration drama than he would otherwise have done. Throughout his life he continued to read plays at intervals, as we know from occasional references in the Journal; but after the Dryden appeared we can point to no time in his career when such reading was his especial occupation. His familiarity with Elizabethan drama he showed even more emphatically than by serious critical writings on the subject, in his fragments from mythical "Old Plays,"[133] in his frequent references to single plays, and in the substance of some of the novels, particularly The Fortunes of Nigel and Woodstock, which make use of settings, situations, and characterizations suggested by the drama.[134] Mr. Lang says of The Fortunes of Nigel, "The scenes in Alsatia are a distinct gain to literature, a pearl rescued from the unread mass of Shadwell."[135]

His serious critical writings on the subject comprise little else than his Essay on the Drama, which appeared in the supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published in 1819, and the discussions given in connection with Dryden's plays.[136] Although the Essay was written ten years later than the Dryden, we have no reason to think that Scott changed his views or added greatly to his knowledge in the interval, and using these two sources we may discuss his account of the drama in general without regard to the particular date at which his opinions were expressed.

His exposition in the Essay on the Drama rested on the basis furnished by a historical study of the stage. He did not, of course, pretend to have formed his own conclusions on all points, and we find him quoting from various authorities, sometimes naming them and sometimes only indicating, perhaps, that he was "abridging from the best antiquaries." This, however, was chiefly in connection with the ancient drama. As I have already remarked, we do not find him referring to recent studies on the English drama. And though Scott had forgotten all his Greek we observe that he is bold enough to disagree with "the ingenious Schlegel" in regard to the comparative value of the Greek New Comedy. In his treatment of the ancient drama the main point for note is the success with which he gives a broad and connected view of the subject. His account of the drama in France needs correction in certain respects,[137] but it seems to indicate some first-hand knowledge and very definite opinions. He quotes Moliere frequently throughout his writings, and always speaks of him with admiration; but with no other French dramatist does he seem to have been familiar to such a degree. Judging French tragic poets too much from the Shaksperian point of view, he was not prepared to do them justice.[138] On the dramatic unities, of which he remarked, "Aristotle says so little and his commentators and followers talk so much," Scott wrote, here and elsewhere, with decision and vivacity. The unities of time and place he calls "fopperies," though time and place, he admits, are not to be lightly changed.[139] He connects the whole discussion with the study of theatrical conditions, and never bows down to authority as such. He says, "Surely it is of less consequence merely to ascertain what was the practice of the ancients, than to consider how far such practice is founded upon truth, good taste, and general effect"; and again, "Aristotle would probably have formulated different rules if he had written in our time." And though he adopted and applied to the drama the Horatian dictum that the end of poetry is to instruct and delight, it was not because Horace and a long line of critics had said it, but because he thought it was true. Doubtless his phrase would have been different if he had not taken what was lying nearest, but his habit was never carefully to avoid the common phrase. His general opinion of French drama was decidedly unfavorable, and he thought it was doubtful whether their plays would ever be any nearer to nature. "That nation," he observes calmly, "is so unfortunate as to have no poetical language."

His remarks on German drama are general in character, though we know that in his early days he was much interested in translating contemporary German plays. His version of Goethe's Goetz von Berlichingen was the most important of these translations. A letter of Scott's contains the following reference to this play:[140] "The publication of Goetz was a great era ... in German literature, and served completely to free them from the French follies of unities and decencies of the scene, and gave an impulse to their dramas which was unique of its kind. Since that, they have been often stark mad but never, I think, stupid. They either divert you by taking the most brilliant leaps through the hoop, or else by tumbling into the custard, as the newspapers averred the Champion did at the Lord Mayor's dinner."

When he is on English ground we can best trace Scott's individual opinions, yet even here he reflects some of the limitations of the less enlightened scholarship of his time, especially in connection with early Elizabethan writers. He passes from Ferrex and Porrex[141] and Gammer Gurton's Needle directly to Shakspere, and quite omits Marlowe and the other immediate predecessors. He was not ignorant of their existence, for against a statement of Dryden's that Shakspere was the first to use blank verse we find in Scott's edition the note,—"This is a mistake. Marlowe and several other dramatic authors used blank verse before the days of Shakespeare";[142] and one of his youthful notebooks contains this comment on Faustus: "A very remarkable thing. Grand subject—end grand."[143] In 1831 Scott intended to write an article for the Quarterly Review on Peele, Greene, and Webster, and in asking Alexander Dyce to have Webster's works sent to him he said, "Marlowe and others I have,—and some acquaintance with the subject, though not much."[144] Webster he considered "one of the best of our ancient dramatists." The proposed article was never written, because of Scott's final illness.

In spite of his statement that "the English stage might be considered equally without rule and without model when Shakspeare arose," Scott did not seem inclined to leave the great man altogether unaccounted for, as some critics have preferred to do, for he says, "The effect of the genius of an individual upon the taste of a nation is mighty; but that genius in its turn is formed according to the opinions prevalent at the period when it comes into existence." These opinions, however, Scott assigns very vaguely to the influence of "a nameless crowd of obscure writers," and thinks it fortunate that Shakspere was unacquainted with classical rules. The critic had evidently made no attempt to define the influence of particular writers upon Shakspere. His criticism is at some points purely conventional, as for instance when he calls the poet "that powerful magician, whose art could fascinate us even by means of deformity itself "; but on the whole Scott seems to write about Shakspere in a very reasonable and discriminating way.

He has a good deal to say of Ben Jonson, in other places as well as in this Essay on the Drama.[145] He was evidently well acquainted with that poet, and admired him without liking him. Somewhere he calls him "the dry and dogged Jonson,"[146] and again he speaks of his genius in very high terms. The contrast between Shakspere and Jonson moved him even to epigram:[147] "In reading Shakespeare we often meet passages so congenial to our nature and feelings that, beautiful as they are, we can hardly help wondering they did not occur to ourselves; in studying Jonson, we have often to marvel how his conceptions could have occurred to any human being." It was characteristic of Scott to note the fact that Shakspere wrote rapidly, Jonson slowly, for he was fond of getting support for his theory that rapid writing is the better.

As early as 1804 Scott referred to The Changeling as "an old play which contains some passages horribly striking,"[148] and in so doing voiced, as Mr. Swinburne says, "the first word of modern tribute to the tragic genius of Thomas Middleton."[149] Scott also praised Massinger highly, especially for his strength in characterization, and once called him "the most gentleman-like of all the old English dramatists."[150] He discussed Beaumont and Fletcher sympathetically, for he knew them well and frequently quoted from them. He named Shirley, Ford, Webster, and Dekker in a group, and spoke of the singular profusion of talents devoted in this period to the writing of plays, an observation which is made more explicitly later in the Journal, when he has just been reading an old play which, he says, "worthless in the extreme, is, like many of the plays in the beginning of the seventeenth century, written to a good tune. The dramatic poets of that time seem to have possessed as joint-stock a highly poetical and abstract tone of language, so that the worst of them often remind you of the very best."[151] This circumstance he accounts for by a reference to the audiences, and this in turn he seems to ascribe partly to the great number of theaters then open in London. He dwells so much on the evils of limiting the number of play-houses to two or three, that we may fairly consider it one of his hobbies, and it is possible that he had some slight influence toward increasing that public opposition to the theatrical monopoly which finally, in 1843, resulted in the nullification of the patents.

Scott's discussion of Restoration drama is admirably vigorous and clear. He probably simplified the matter too much at some points, indeed, as for example in over-estimating the influence exerted upon the stage by Charles II. and his French tastes, and in tracing the origin of the French drama to romances. But in general his facts are right and his deductions fair. Mr. Saintsbury has accused him of depreciating Dryden's plays, especially the comedies, out of disgust at their indecency; yet in judging the period as a whole he seems to discriminate sufficiently between indelicacy and dulness. "The talents of Otway," he says, "in his scenes of passionate affection rival, at least, and sometimes excel those of Shakspeare." Again: "The comedies of Congreve contain probably more wit than was ever before embodied upon the stage; each word was a jest, and yet so characteristic that the repartee of the servant is distinguished from that of the master; the jest of the cox-comb from that of the humorist or fine gentleman of the piece." Lesser writers of the time are also sympathetically characterized,—Shadwell, for instance, whom he thought to be commonly underestimated.[152] The heroic play Scott discussed vivaciously in more than one connection, for, as we should expect, his sense of humor found its absurdities tempting.[153] On the rant in the Conquest of Granada he remarked, "Dryden's apology for these extravagances seems to be that Almanzor is in a passion. But although talking nonsense is a common effect of passion, it seems hardly one of those consequences adapted to show forth the character of a hero in theatrical representation."[154] Scott's opinion of the form of these plays appears in the following comment: "We doubt if, with his utmost efforts, [Moliere] could have been absolutely dull, without the assistance of a pastoral subject and heroic measure."[155] Concerning the indecency of the literature of the period Scott wrote emphatically. He was much troubled by the problem of whether to publish Dryden's works without any cutting, and came near taking Ellis's advice to omit some portions, but he finally adhered to his original determination: "In making an edition of a man of genius's works for libraries and collections ... I must give my author as I find him, and will not tear out the page, even to get rid of the blot, little as I like it."[156]

The question of the morality of theater-going was one Scott felt obliged to discuss when he was writing upon the drama. He found its vindication, characteristically, in a universal human trait,—the impulse toward mimicry and impersonation,—and in the good results that may be supposed to attend it. In naming these he lays what seems like undue stress on the teaching of history by the drama, in language that might quite as well be applied to historical novels. His argument on the literary side also is stated in a somewhat too sweeping way:—"Had there been no drama, Shakespeare would, in all likelihood, have been but the author of Venus and Adonis and of a few sonnets forgotten among the numerous works of the Elizabethan age, and Otway had been only the compiler of fantastic odes."[157] A final plea, in favor of the stage as a democratic agency—though this of course is not Scott's phrasing—seems slightly unusual for him, although not essentially out of character. "The entertainment," he says, "which is the subject of general enjoyment, is of a nature which tends to soften, if not to level, the distinction of ranks."[158] In another mood he admitted the greater likelihood that immoral plays would injure the public character than that moral plays would elevate it.[159]

It is sufficiently apparent to any student of Scott's work that he was personally very fond of the drama. Many of the literary references and allusions which appear in great abundance throughout his writings are from plays, and show, as we have seen, a wide acquaintance with English dramatic writers, from Shakspere to such comparatively little-known playwrights as Suckling and Cowley. In the Letters of Malachi Malagrowther on the Currency, for example, Scott's unusual range of reading reveals itself even in connection with a subject remote from his ordinary field, and here as elsewhere he shows himself prone to quote from the drama.[160] But Scott was interested in plays for what he found in them of characters and manners, of witty and sententious speech, of situations and incidents, and only secondarily in the technical aspects of the drama. Reading his novels we could guess that he would care more for the concrete elements of a play than for the orderly march of events through the various stages of a formally proper construction. In this respect he differs from Coleridge; but indeed the two men may be contrasted at almost every point. In summing up this part of Scott's criticism we must remember also that it was chiefly incidental. Perhaps whatever qualities it exhibits are on this account particularly characteristic: at any rate his opinions on the drama were the reaction of an unusually capable mind upon a department of literature in which his reading was all the more fruitful because it followed the lines of a natural inclination.



Scott's preparations for his edition of Dryden—Wide Scope of the work—Scott's estimation of Dryden—Grounds for putting Dryden above Chaucer and Spenser—Admirable style of the biography—Comments by Scott on other seventeenth century writers.

The edition of Dryden's Complete Works deserves further notice, especially since only eight of the eighteen volumes are occupied with the plays, and these have less commentary than other parts of the works. In 1805 Scott wrote to his friend George Ellis, "My critical notes will not be very numerous but I hope to illustrate the political poems, as Absalom and Achitophel, the Hind and Panther, etc., with some curious annotations. I have already made a complete search among some hundred pamphlets of that pamphlet-writing age, and with considerable success, as I have found several which throw light on my author."[161] He added that another edition of Dryden was proposed, and Ellis wrote in answer, "With regard to your competitors, I feel perfectly at my ease, because I am convinced that though you should generously furnish them with all the materials, they would not know how to use them; non cuivis hominum contingit to write critical notes that anyone will read."[162]

When Scott's Dryden was reedited and reissued in 1882-93 by Professor Saintsbury, the new editor said: "It certainly deserves the credit of being one of the best-edited books on a great scale in English, save in one particular,—the revision of the text."[163] The elaborate historical notes are left untouched, as being "in general thoroughly trustworthy,"[164] though the editor considers them somewhat excessive, especially as sometimes containing illustrative material from perfectly worthless contemporaries. On the other hand, the "explanation of word and phrase is a little defective."[165]

The most notable quality of the Life of Dryden which composes the first of the eighteen volumes is its breadth of scope. Scott's aim may best be given in his own words in the Advertisement: "The general critical view of Dryden's works being sketched by Johnson with unequalled felicity, and the incidents of his life accurately discussed and ascertained by Malone, something seemed to remain for him who should consider these literary productions in their succession, as actuated by, and operating upon, the taste of an age where they had so predominant influence; and who might, at the same time, connect the life of Dryden with the history of his publications, without losing sight of the fate and character of the individual."[166]

Errors of judgment appear in places; sometimes they are due to the imperfect scholarship of the time; sometimes they arise from prejudices of Scott's own. In the very first chapter we find him condemning Lyly and all writers of "conceited" language—particularly of course the Metaphysicals—with a thoroughness that a truly catholic critic ought probably to avoid. Scott had a constitutional dislike for a labored style, and at the same time a fondness for the direct and straightforward way of looking at things. So, though he was open to the emotional appeal of a poem like Christabel, he took no pleasure in the devious processes by which the cold intellect has sometimes tried to give fresh interest to familiar words and ideas. They quite prevented him from seeing the passion in the work of Donne, for example, and he considered all metaphysical poets, in so far as they showed the traits of their class, to be without poetical feeling.

Scott placed Dryden after Shakspere and Milton as third in the list of English writers. I think he would even have been willing to say that Dryden was the third as a poet. For greatly as he admired Chaucer, Scott did not feel Chaucer's full power, and indeed it was only beginning to be possible to read Chaucer with any appreciation of his metrical excellence. Spenser, of whom he once wrote: "No author, perhaps, ever possessed and combined in so brilliant a degree the requisite qualities of a poet,"[167] was more of a favorite with Scott than Chaucer. But at another time he spoke of Drayton as possessing perhaps equal powers of poetry,[168] and he seems to have felt that Spenser becomes tedious through the continued use of his difficult stanza and even more because of the "languor of a continued allegory."[169] In comparing his judgments on Spenser and Dryden we may conclude that the critic found more in the later poet of that solid intellectual basis which he emphasizes in characterizing him. "This power of ratiocination," says Scott, "of investigating, discovering, and appreciating that which is really excellent, if accompanied with the necessary command of fanciful illustration and elegant expression, is the most interesting quality which can be possessed by a poet."[170] Again he lays emphasis on Dryden's versatility,—greater, he says, than that of Shakspere and Milton. In Old Mortality Dryden is referred to as "the great High-priest of all the Nine." Scott would have called this another point of his superiority over Spenser, if he had made the comparison.

Yet he saw Dryden's deficiencies. "It was a consequence of his mental acuteness that his dramatic personages often philosophized and reasoned when they ought only to have felt,"[171] Scott remarks and he frequently deplores Dryden's failure "in expressing the milder and more tender passions."[172] Of Dryden's great gift of style, Scott speaks in the highest terms. "With this power," he says, "Dryden's poetry was gifted in a degree surpassing in modulated harmony that of all who had preceded him and inferior to none that has since written English verse [sic]. He first showed"—and here we see Scott's eighteenth-century affinities—"that the English language was capable of uniting smoothness and strength."[173]

Such criticism as Scott gives on specific parts of Dryden's work is clear-cut, fair for the most part, and has the sanity and reasonableness which are the most noticeable qualities of his criticism in general. It would be easier to find illustrations of shrewdness than of subtlety among his notes, but his discriminations are often effective and satisfying. His discussion, for example, of prologues and epilogues considered in relation to the theatrical conditions which determined their character is admirable.[174] A note on "the cant of supposing that the Iliad contained an obvious and intentional moral"[175] is also full of sense and vigor, but these qualities are so thoroughly diffused through the work that there is no need of particularizing. His praise of Alexander's Feast may be referred to, however, as showing his characteristic delight in objective poetry.[176] As a lyric poet, he says, Dryden "must be allowed to have no equal."[177]

The peculiarly congenial qualities of the subject may have had something to do with the fact that the style in which the Life of Dryden is written is noticeably better than that of Scott's ordinary work. It is marked with a care and accuracy that were not, unfortunately, habitual to him. Perhaps it was an advantage that when he wrote the book he had not yet become altogether familiar with his own facility; certainly the substance and the manner of treatment unite in making this the most important of his critical biographies.

Various references indicate that Scott was acquainted in at least a general way with English writers throughout the whole of Dryden's century. He speaks of the poems of Phineas Fletcher as containing "many passages fully equal to Spenser"[178]; he says that Cowley "is now ... undeservedly forgotten"[179]; he calls Hudibras "the most witty poem that ever was written,"[180] but says, "the perpetual scintillation of Butler's wit is too dazzling to be delightful"[181]; he talks of Waller and quotes from him[182]; he refers to the charming quality of Isaac Walton's work;[183] and he adopts Samuel Pepys as a familiar acquaintance.[184] These references occur mostly in the Dryden or in the novels, and we may conclude that the work for the Dryden gathered up and strengthened all Scott's acquaintance with the literature of the seventeenth century, from Shakspere and Milton down to writers of altogether minor importance; and gave him material for many of the allusions that appear in his later work. It is probably true that there are more quotations from Dryden in Scott's books than from any other one author,[185] though lines from Shakspere occurred more often in his conversation and familiar letters.



The preparation of Swift's Complete Works—Comparison of the Dryden and the Swift—The bibliographical problem presented by Swift's works—Inaccuracies in the biography—Scott's success in portraying a perplexing temperament—Judicious quality of his literary criticism.

As soon as the Dryden was completed Scott was offered twice as much money as he had received for that work, for a similar edition of Swift.[186] He readily undertook the task, and in the midst of many other editorial engagements set to work upon it. The preparation of the book extended over the six years during which Scott ran the greater part of his poetical career. On its appearance one of his friends expressed the feeling which every student of Scott must have had in regard to the large editorial labors that he undertook, in saying, "I am delighted and surprised; for how a person of your turn could wade through, and so accurately analyze what you have done (namely, all the dull things calculated to illustrate your author), seems almost impossible, and a prodigy in the history of the human mind."[187] The work was first published in 1814. Ten years later it was revised and reissued; and Scott's Swift has, like his Dryden, been the standard edition of that author ever since.

In each case Scott had to deal with an important and varied body of literature in the two fields of poetry and prose, though the proportions were different; and in each case he had occasion for illustrative historical annotations of the kind that he wrote with unrivalled facility. He was master of the political intrigues of Queen Anne's reign no less completely than of the circumstances which gave rise to Absalom and Achitophel, and the fact that his notes are less voluminous in the Swift is probably to be accounted for by the comparative absence of quaintness in the literary and social fashions of the eighteenth century.

The peculiar conditions under which Swift's writings had appeared, and his remarkable indifference to literary fame, gave the editor opportunity to look for material which had not before been included in his works. The diligent search of Scott and his various correspondents enabled him to add about thirty poems, between sixty and seventy letters from Swift, and about sixteen other small pieces. The most noteworthy item among these additions was the correspondence between Swift and Miss Vanhomrigh, of which only a very small part had previously been made public.[188]

Scott's notes seem to indicate that most of the necessary searching through newspapers and obscure pamphlets for forgotten work of Swift was performed by "obliging correspondents," and that the editor himself had only to pass judgment on what was brought to his attention. This impression may arise largely from his cordiality in expressing indebtedness to his helpers, but it is certain that his position as a popular poet gave Scott the assistance of many people who would not have been enlisted in the work by an ordinary editor. But Scott had the difficult task of deciding whether the unauthenticated pieces were to be assigned to Swift. The bibliography of Swift is still so uncertain that it is impossible to say how many of the small pamphlets in verse and prose added in this edition are really his work.[189] Scott had good reason for his additions in most cases, though sometimes, as he was aware, the Dean had merely revised the work of other people. The editor was occasionally over-credulous in attributing pieces to Swift, but he was perhaps oftener too generous in giving room to things which he knew had very little claim to be considered Swift's work. When he was in doubt he chose to err on the safe side, according to the principles set forth in the following note on the Letter from Dr. Tripe to Nestor Ironside: "The piece contains a satirical description of Steele's person, and should the editor be mistaken in conjecturing that Swift contributed to compose it, may nevertheless, at this distance of time, merit preservation as a literary curiosity."[190] The ample space afforded by the nineteen volumes of the book gives room to Arbuthnot's History of John Bull—because it was "usually published in Swift's works,"—to the verses addressed to the Dean and those written in memory of him, as well as to the prose and verse miscellanies of Pope and Swift, and the miscellanies and jeux d'esprit of Swift and Sheridan. Swift's correspondence fills the last four and a half volumes.

The biography, which occupies the first volume, is admirable in tone, but the facts Scott gives are less to be relied upon than the inferences and conclusions he derives from them. He corresponded with persons who were in a position to know about Swift from his friends and acquaintances, and probably he trusted too much to these "original sources." We find, as perhaps the most noteworthy instance, that the marriage to Stella is stated as an ascertained fact, on authority that is not now considered convincing. Later biographers of Swift,—Sir Henry Craik, Leslie Stephen, Mr. Churton Collins,—have borne witness to the human interest of Scott's biography, and its preeminence, in spite of inaccuracies, among all the Lives of Swift that have been written. But Mr. Churton Collins thinks Scott did not present a really clear view of Swift's mysterious character, and Craik says he took only the conventional attitude towards Swift's politics, misanthropy, and religion. The charge indicates Scott's weakness, and perhaps also much of his strength, as a biographer and critic, for he had no prejudice against the conventional as such, and was never anxious to exhibit special "insight" of any kind. Yet I think his portrayal of Swift has seemed to most readers a clear presentation of a real and comprehensible character.[191]

Scott's remark when he undertook the work, that Swift was of his early favorites,[192] seems surprising when one remembers how his genial nature recoiled from misanthropy and cynicism; but his treatment of the Dean was so sympathetic that Jeffrey thought him decidedly too lenient, and was moved to express righteous indignation in the pages of the Edinburgh Review.[193] The rebuke was unnecessary, for Scott did not omit to record Swift's failings and to express wholesomely vigorous opinions concerning them, though he felt that they ought to be looked upon as evidences of disease rather than of guilt. He felt also, with perhaps some excess of charity but surely not such as could be in the least harmful, that "if the Dean's principles were misanthropical, his practice was benevolent. Few have written so much with so little view either to fame or to profit, or to aught but benefit to the public."[194] Jeffrey's condemnation of Scott's point of view was mingled with just praise. He said of the biography: "It is quite fair and moderate in politics; and perhaps rather too indulgent and tender towards individuals of all descriptions,—more full, at least, of kindness and veneration for genius and social virtue, than of indignation at baseness and profligacy. Altogether it is not much like the production of a mere man of letters, or a fastidious speculator in sentiment and morality; but exhibits throughout, and in a very pleasing form, the good sense and large toleration of a man of the world."

The very practical motives that inspired most of Swift's pamphlets would naturally attract Scott. Probably it was the remembrance of the Drapier's Letters that suggested to him a similar form of protest against proposed changes in the Scottish currency; certainly the Letters of Malachi Malagrowther had an effect comparable to that of Swift's more consummately ingenious appeal. Another quality in Swift's work that would naturally arouse Scott's admiration was the remarkable directness and lucidity of the style. Scott appreciated the originality force of Swift, even when it was used in the service of satire. Sometimes, he says, "the intensity of his satire gives to his poetry a character of emphatic violence which borders upon grandeur."[195] The editor's discussion of Gulliver's Travels an acute and illuminating little essay, contains one comment that gives an amusing revelation of his point of view. He says in regard to the fourth part of the story: "It is some consolation to remark that the fiction on which this libel on human nature rests is in every respect gross and improbable, and, far from being entitled to the praise due to the management of the first two parts, is inferior in plan even to the third."[196] This is a sound verdict, even if it does contain an extra-literary element. Scott surpassed most of his contemporaries, except the younger Romantic writers, in his ability to eliminate irrelevant considerations in estimating any literary work; and if occasionally his strong moral feeling appears in his criticism, it serves to remind us how much less often this happens than a knowledge of his temperament would lead us to expect. In spite of the qualities in his subject that might naturally bias Scott's judgment, his criticism throughout this edition of Swift seems on the whole very judicious. It defines the literary importance and brings out plainly the power of a man whose work presents unusual perplexities to the critic.

The Somers Tracts

Character of the collection and of Scott's work on it—Occasional carelessness—Purpose of the notes—Scott's attitude towards these studies.

While Scott was working on his Dryden and before he began the Swift he undertook to edit the great collection which had been published fifty years before as Somers' Tracts. His task was to arrange, revise, and annotate pamphlets which represented every reign from Elizabeth to George I. He grouped them chronologically by reigns, and separated them further into sections under the headings,—Ecclesiastical, Historical, Civil, Military, Miscellaneous; he also added eighty-one pamphlets, all written before the time of James II. The largest number of additions in any one section was historical and had reference to Stafford. Among the miscellaneous tracts that he incorporated were Derrick's Image of Ireland from a copy in the Advocates' Library, and Gosson's School of Abuse. Scott's statement in the Advertisement as to why he did not omit any of the original collection shows his unpedantic attitude toward the kind of studies which he was encouraging by the republication of this series. He says: "When the variety of literary pursuits, and the fluctuation of fashionable study is considered, it may seem rash to pass a hasty sentence of exclusion, even upon the dullest and most despised of the essays which this ample collection offers to the public. There may be among the learned, even now, individuals to whom the rabbinical lore of Hugh Broughton presents more charms than the verses of Homer; and a future day may arise when tracts on chronology will bear as high a value among antiquaries as 'Greene's Groats' Worth of Wit,' or 'George Peele's Jests,' the present respectable objects of research and reverence."

In editing this collection Scott made little attempt to decide disputed problems of authorship when the explanation did not lie upon the surface. Indeed the following note regarding the tract called A New Test of the Church of England's Loyalty shows that he sometimes neglected very obvious sources of information, for the piece is given in one of Defoe's own collections of his works: "This defence of whiggish loyalty," says Scott, "seems to have been written by the celebrated Daniel De Foe, a conjecture which is strengthened by the frequent reference to his poem of the True-born Englishman."[197] He was not often so careless, but the rapidity and range of his work during these years undoubtedly gave occasion for more than one lapse of accuracy, while at the same time it perhaps increased the effectiveness of his comment.

His notes and introductions vary in length according to the requirements of the case, for he aimed to provide such material as would prevent the necessity of reference to other works. Matters that were obscure he explained, and he wrote little comment on those that were generally understood. When he left himself so free a hand he could indulge his personal tastes somewhat also, and we are not surprised to find an especial abundance of notes on an account of the Gowrie Conspiracy which presented a perplexing problem in Scottish history.

The connection of Somers' Tracts with other things that Scott did has already been remarked upon.[198] That he found some sort of stimulation in all his scholarly employments is sufficiently evident to anyone who studies his work as a whole, and this fact might well serve as a motive for such study. Yet it is only fair to remember that Scott was not a novelist during these years when he was performing his most laborious editorial tasks. We are accustomed to think of the brilliant use he was afterwards to make of the knowledge he was gaining, but the motives which influenced him were those of the man whose interest in literature and history makes scholarly work seem the most natural way of earning money. "These are studies, indeed, proverbially dull," he once wrote, speaking of Horace Walpole's antiquarian researches, "but it is only when they are pursued by those whose fancies nothing can enliven."[199]

The Lives of the Novelists, and Comments on Other Eighteenth Century Writers

The Novelists' Library—Writers discussed—Value of the Lives—General tone of competence in these essays—Scott's catholic taste—Points of special interest in the discussion—Relations of the novel and the drama—Supernatural machinery in novels—Mistakes in the criticism of Defoe—Realism—Motive in the novel—Aim of the prefaces—Scott's familiarity with eighteenth century literature.

It has already been said that a large part of Scott's critical work concerned itself with the eighteenth century. Of his greater editorial labors two may be considered as belonging to that period, for Ballantyne's Novelists' Library, though an enterprise which was commercially a failure and which consequently remained incomplete, may from the point of view of Scott's contributions fitly be compared with the Dryden and the Swift. Such parts as were published appeared in 1821. The bulk of the volumes and the small type in which they were printed were considered to be the cause of their failure, and it was not until the critical biographies were extracted and published separately, by Galignani the Parisian bookseller, in 1825, that they seem to have attracted notice.

Scott wrote these Lives of the Novelists at a time when his hands were full of literary projects, altogether for John Ballantyne's benefit. The author afterwards spoke of them as "rather flimsily written,"[200] but we may surmise that to the fact that they were not the result of special study is due something of their ripeness of reflection and breadth of generalization. "They contain a large assemblage of manly and sagacious remarks on human life and manners,"[201] wrote the Quarterly reviewer.

The writers considered were all British, with the exception of LeSage. The choice, or at least the arrangement, seems more or less haphazard. Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett naturally began the group, and Sterne followed after an interval. Johnson and Goldsmith were treated briefly, for the prefaces were to be proportioned to the amount of work by each author included in the text. Horace Walpole, Clara Reeve, and Mrs. Radcliffe represented the Gothic romance. Charles Johnstone, Robert Bage, and Richard Cumberland were among the inferior writers included. Henry Mackenzie, who was still living and was a personal friend of Scott, completes the list so far as it went before the series was terminated by the publisher's death. When Scott's Miscellaneous Prose Works were collected he added the lives of Charlotte Smith and Defoe, but in each of these cases the biographical portion was by another hand, the criticism being his own.[202]

The study of the novel as a genre was naturally undeveloped at that time. Dunlop's History of Prose Fiction had appeared in 1814, evidently a much more ambitious attempt than Scott's; but Scott could treat the British novelists with comparative freedom from the trammels of any established precedent. Of course his position as one who had struck out a wonderful new path in the writing of novels gave to his reflections on other novelists a very special interest. The Lives of the Novelists are not to be neglected even now, and this is the more to be insisted on because the criticism of novels has been practiced with increasing zeal since Scott himself has become a classic and since his successors have made this field of literature more varied and popular, if not greater, than the first masters made it. A recent writer on eighteenth century literature says: "By far the best criticism of the eighteenth century novelists will be found in the prefatory notices contributed by Scott to Ballantyne's Novelists' Library."[203] But the same writer adds: "Sir Walter Scott, indeed, considered Fathom superior to Jonathan Wild, an opinion which must always remain one of the mysteries of criticism."[204]

This comment indicates that there was no lack of assuredness in Scott's treatment, and we do indeed find a very pleasant tone of competence which, though liable to error as in the exaggerated praise bestowed upon Smollett, gives much of their effectiveness to the criticisms. The quality appears elsewhere in Scott's critical work, but it is perhaps especially noticeable here. For example, we find this dictum: "There is no book in existence, in which so much of the human character, under all its various shades and phases, is described in so few words, as in the Diable Boiteux."[205] The illustration is perhaps a trifle extreme, for Scott is not often really dogmatic. From this point of view as from others we naturally make the comparison with Johnson's Lives of the Poets, and we find that without being so sententious, so admirably compact in style, Scott is also not so dictatorial.

We cannot accuse Scott of liking any one kind of novel to the exclusion of others. He ranks Clarissa Harlowe very high;[206] he says Tom Jones is "truth and human nature itself."[207] The Vicar of Wakefield he calls "one of the most delicious morsels of fictitious composition on which the human mind was ever employed." "We return to it again and again," he says, "and bless the memory of an author who contrives so well to reconcile us to human nature."[208] He praises Tristram Shandy, calling Uncle Toby and his faithful Squire, "the most delightful characters in the work, or perhaps in any other."[209] The quiet fictions of Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen, the exciting tales of Mrs. Radcliffe, the sentiment of Sterne, even the satires of Bage,—all pleased him in one way or another. Scott's autobiography contains the following comment on his boyish tastes in the matter of novels: "The whole Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy tribe I abhorred, and it required the art of Burney, or the feeling of Mackenzie, to fix my attention upon a domestic tale. But all that was adventurous and romantic I devoured without much discrimination."[210] In later life he learned to exercise his judgment in regard to stories of adventure not less than those of the "domestic" sort, and perhaps the liking for quiet tales grew upon him; at any rate his taste seems remarkably catholic.

The most interesting portions of the Lives of the Novelists are those which show us, by the frequent recurrence of the same subjects, what parts of the theory of novel-writing had particularly engaged Scott's attention. For example we find him discussing, most fully in the Life of Fielding, the reasons why a successful novelist is likely not to be a successful playwright. The way in which he looks at the matter suggests that he was thinking quite as much of the probability of failure in his own case should he begin to write plays, as of the subject of the memoir; for Fielding wrote his plays before his novels, but the argument assumes a man who writes good novels first and bad plays afterwards. One of his statements seems rather curious and hard to explain,—"Though a good acting play may be made by selecting a plot and characters from a novel, yet scarce any effort of genius could render a play into a narrative romance." Perhaps he expected the "Terryfied" versions of Guy Mannering and Rob Roy to hold the stage longer than fate has permitted them to do. From another point of view also he was interested in the connection of the novel and the drama. He felt that the direction of the drama in the modern period had been largely determined by the influence of successful novels; and he probably overestimated the effect of the "romances of Calprenede and Scuderi" on heroic tragedy.[211]

A subject which recurs even oftener than that of the distinction between drama and novel is the question of supernatural machinery in novels. Horace Walpole is commended for giving us ghosts without furnishing explanations. Indeed the Castle of Otranto is highly praised;[212] but so also is Mrs. Radcliffe's work, except on the one point of the attempt to rationalize mysteries. The kind of romance which she "introduced"[213] is compared with the melodrama, and its particular mode of appeal is analyzed in very interesting fashion. In the Life of Clara Reeve the proper treatment of ghosts is discussed at length, for that author had contended that ghosts should be very mild and of "sober demeanour." Scott justifies her practice, but not her theory, on the following grounds: "What are the limits to be placed to the reader's credulity, when those of common-sense and ordinary nature are at once exceeded? The question admits only one answer, namely, that the author himself, being in fact the magician, shall evoke no spirits whom he is not capable of endowing with manners and language corresponding to their supernatural character."

Scott writes with much enthusiasm about Defoe's famous little ghost-story, The Apparition of Mrs. Veal, praising Defoe's wonderful skill in making the unreal seem credible. In connection with this tale Scott developed a very interesting anecdote to explain the fact that Drelincourt's Defence against the Fear of Death is recommended by the apparition. "Drelincourt's book," he says, "being neglected, lay a dead stock on the hands of the publisher. In this emergency he applied to De Foe to assist him (by dint of such means as were then, as well as now, pretty well understood in the literary world) in rescuing the unfortunate book from the literary death to which general neglect seemed about to consign it." Scott goes on to assert that the story was simply a consummately clever advertising device. He may have found the germ of his hypothesis in a bookseller's tradition, but he states it as an assured fact, and doubtless believed it firmly because it seemed so beautifully reasonable. His explanation became the basis of later statements on the subject, and now obliges everyone who discusses Defoe to supply a contradiction; for the truth is that Drelincourt's book was so highly popular as to have gone through several editions before the ghost of Mrs. Veal mentioned it. Moreover, if Scott's little tale was fictitious, Defoe's, on the other hand, was really a reporter's version of an experience actually related by the person to whom he assigns it, and his skill in achieving verisimilitude was perhaps in this case less wonderful than his critics have generally supposed.[214]

On the subject of realism, Scott was not in general very rigid. In his Life of Richardson he says: "It is unfair to tax an author too severely upon improbabilities, without conceding which his story could have no existence; and we have the less title to do so, because, in the history of real life, that which is actually true bears often very little resemblance to that which is probable."[215] But this is perhaps only a plea for one kind of realism. He also refers to the question of historical "keening," and concludes that it is possible to have so much accuracy that the public will refuse to be interested, as Lear would hardly be popular on the stage if the hero were represented in the bearskin and paint which a Briton of his time doubtless wore.[216]

The motive of the novel is a subject which naturally engages the attention of the novelist-critic. Romantic fiction, he thinks may have sufficient justification if it acts as an opiate for tired spirits. A significant antithesis between his point of view in this matter and the more common attitude taken by critics in his time is illustrated by two reviews of Mrs. Shelley's Frankenstein, to which we may refer, though the book was later than those included in the Novelists' Library. Scott wrote in Blackwood's: "We ... congratulate our readers upon a novel which excites new reflections and untried sources of emotion."[217] The Quarterly reviewer took the opposite and more conservative attitude and expressed himself thus: "Our taste and our judgment alike revolt at this kind of writing, and the greater the ability with which it may be executed the worse it is—it inculcates no lesson of conduct, manners, or morality; it cannot mend, and will not even amuse its readers, unless their taste has been deplorably vitiated—it fatigues the feelings without interesting the understanding; it gratuitously harasses the heart, and wantonly adds to the store, already too great, of painful sensations."[218] In general Scott minimizes the effect of any moral that may be expressed in the novel, but occasionally he seems inconsistent, when he is talking of sentiments that are peculiarly distasteful to him.[219] But his thesis is that "the direct and obvious moral to be deduced from a fictitious narrative is of much less consequence to the public than the mode in which the story is treated in the course of its details."[220] In the Life of Fielding he says of novels: "The best which can be hoped is that they may sometimes instruct the youthful mind by real pictures of life, and sometimes awaken their better feelings and sympathies by strains of generous sentiment, and tales of fictitious woe. Beyond this point they are a mere elegance, a luxury contrived for the amusement of polished life."

He conceived that his prefaces might be useful to warn readers against any ill effects that might otherwise result from the reading of the accompanying texts; and our comments on the Lives of the Novelists may fitly close with a quotation which shows the writer's attitude toward the novels and his own criticisms upon them. The passage is taken from the Life of Bage. "We did not think it proper to reject the works of so eminent an author from this collection, merely on account of speculative errors.[221] We have done our best to place a mark on these; and as we are far from being of opinion that the youngest and most thoughtless derive their serious opinions from productions of this nature, we leave them for our reader's amusement, trusting that he will remember that a good jest is no argument; that the novelist, like the master of a puppet-show, has his drama under his absolute authority, and shapes the events to favour his own opinions; and that whether the Devil flies away with Punch, or Punch strangles the Devil, forms no real argument as to the comparative power of either one or other, but only indicates the special pleasure of the master of the motion."

Scott was deeply in sympathy with the literature of the century within which he was born. To the evidence of his Swift and of the Lives of the Novelists it may be added that he contemplated making a complete edition of Pope, and that he professed to like London and The Vanity of Human Wishes the best of all poems. James Ballantyne said, rather ambiguously, "I think I never saw his countenance more indicative of high admiration than while reciting aloud from those productions."[222] In one of his letters Scott spoke of the "beautiful and feeling verses by Dr. Johnson to the memory of his humble friend Levett, ... which with me, though a tolerably ardent Scotchman, atone for a thousand of his prejudices."[223] Not only did he admire the great biography, but he called Boswell "such a biographer as no man but [Johnson] ever had, or ever deserved to have."[224] But he once said that many of the Ramblers were "little better than a sort of pageant, where trite and obvious maxims are made to swagger in lofty and mystic language, and get some credit only because they are not understood."[225]

Among other eighteenth century writers, Addison is distinguished by high praise in a few casual references,[226] but Scott once admitted that he did not like Addison so much as he felt to be proper.[227] A collection of Prior's poems Scott calls "an English classic of the first order."[228] He speaks of Parnell as "an admirable man and elegant poet,"[229] and mentions "the ponderous, persevering, and laborious dullness of Sir Richard Blackmore."[230] But these observations are of little importance except as they indicate that Scott had read the authors of the eighteenth century and acquiesced in the conventional judgments upon them. It is seldom in his brief and casual comments that Scott is particularly interesting as a critic, except when he is speaking of living writers, for he lacked the gift of conciseness. When he has a large canvas he is at his best, and this he has in the principal works described in this chapter:—The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, the Works of Dryden, the Works of Swift, and the Lives of the Novelists.



Scott's freedom from literary jealousy—His disapproval of the typical reviewer's attitude—Jeffrey, Gifford, and Lockhart—His own practice in regard to reviewing—His informal critical remarks—Opportunity for favorable judgments afforded by the number of important writers in his period.

Poets—Burns—Coleridge—Relation of Christabel to Scott's work—Scott's dislike for extreme Romanticism—Wordsworth—Southey—Scott's review of Kehama—Byron—Scott's opinion of Byron's character—Campbell—Moore—Allan Cunningham—Hogg—Crabbe—Joanna Baillie—Matthew Lewis—Scott's judgment on his early taste for poetry—Absence of comment on the work of Lamb, Landor, Hunt, Hazlitt, and DeQuincey.

Novelists—Jane Austen—Maria Edgeworth—Cooper—Personal relations between Scott and Cooper—Scott's verdict on Americans in general—Washington Irving—Goethe—Fouque—Scott's interest in men of action.

To study Scott's relations with contemporary writers is a very pleasant task because nothing shows better the greatness of his heart. His admirable freedom from literary jealousy was an innate virtue which he deliberately increased by cultivation, taking care, also, never to subject himself to the conditions which he thought accounted for the faults of Pope, who had "neither the business nor the idleness of life to divide his mind from his Parnassian pursuits."[231] "Those who have not his genius may be so far compensated by avoiding his foibles," Scott said; and some years later he wrote,—"When I first saw that a literary profession was to be my fate, I endeavoured by all efforts of stoicism to divest myself of that irritable degree of sensibility—or, to speak plainly, of vanity—which makes the poetical race miserable and ridiculous."[232] The record of his life clearly shows that his kindness towards other men of letters was not limited to words. One who received his good offices has written,—"The sternest words I ever heard him utter were concerning a certain poet: 'That man,' he said, 'has had much in his power, but he never befriended rising genius yet.'"[233] We may safely say that Scott enjoyed liking the work of other men. "I am most delighted with praise from those who convince me of their good taste by admiring the genius of my contemporaries,"[234] he once wrote to Southey.

It is commonly supposed that Scott's amiability led him into absurd excesses of praise for the works of his fellow-craftsmen, and indeed he did say some very surprising things. But when all his references to any one man are brought together, they will be found, with a few exceptions, pretty fairly to characterize the writer. His obiter dicta must be read in the light of one another, and in the light, also, of his known principles. Temperamentally modest about his own work, he was also habitually optimistic, and the combination gave him an utterly different quality from that of the typical Edinburgh or Quarterly critics.

His disapproval of their point of view he expressed more than once.[235] It seemed to him futile and ungentlemanly for the anonymous reviewer to seek primarily for faults, or "to wound any person's feelings ... unless where conceit or false doctrine strongly calls for reprobation."[236] "Where praise can be conscientiously mingled in a larger proportion than blame," he said, "there is always some amusement in throwing together our ideas upon the works of our fellow-labourers." He thought, indeed, that vituperative and satiric criticism was defeating its own end, in the case of the Edinburgh Review since it was overworked to the point of monotony. Such criticism he considered futile as well on this account as because he thought it likely to have an injurious effect on the work of really gifted writers.

An admirer of both Jeffrey and Scott, who once heard a conversation between the two men, has recorded a distinction which is exactly what we should expect.[237] He says: "Jeffrey, for the most part, entertained us, when books were under discussion, with the detection of faults, blunders, absurdities, or plagiarisms: Scott took up the matter where he left it, recalled some compensating beauty or excellence for which no credit had been allowed, and by the recitation, perhaps, of one fine stanza, set the poor victim on his legs again."

On Jeffrey Scott's verdict was, "There is something in his mode of reasoning that leads me greatly to doubt whether, notwithstanding the vivacity of his imagination, he really has any feeling of poetical genius, or whether he has worn it all off by perpetually sharpening his wit on the grindstone of criticism."[238] His comment on Gifford's reviews was to the effect that people were more moved to dislike the critic for his savagery than the guilty victim whom he flagellated.[239] In the early days of Blackwood's Magazine Scott often tried to repress Lockhart's "wicked wit,"[240] and when Lockhart became editor of the Quarterly his father-in-law did not always approve of his work. "Don't like his article on Sheridan's life,"[241] says the Journal. "There is no breadth in it, no general views, the whole flung away in smart but party criticism. Now, no man can take more general and liberal views of literature than J.G.L."[242]

With these opinions, Scott was not likely often to undertake the reviewing of books that did not, in one way or another interest him or move his admiration; and he would lay as much stress as possible on their good points. Gifford told him that "fun and feeling" were his forte.[243] In his early days he was probably somewhat influenced by Jeffrey's method, and his articles on Todd's Spenser and Godwin's Life of Chaucer indicate that he could occasionally adopt something of the tone of the Edinburgh Review. Years afterwards he refused to write an article that Lockhart wanted for the Quarterly, saying, "I cannot write anything about the author unless I know it can hurt no one alive"[244] but for the first volume of the Quarterly he reviewed Sir John Carr's Caledonian Sketches in a way that Sharon Turner seriously objected to, because it made Sir John seem ridiculous.[245] Some of Scott's critics would perhaps apply one of the strictures to himself: "Although Sir John quotes Horace, he has yet to learn that a wise man should not admire too easily; for he frequently falls into a state of wonderment at what appears to us neither very new nor very extraordinary."[246] But if admiration seems to characterize too great a proportion of Scott's critical work, it is because he usually preferred to ignore such books as demanded the sarcastic treatment which he reprehended, but which he felt perfectly capable of applying when he wished. Speaking of a fulsome biography he once said, "I can no more sympathize with a mere eulogist than I can with a ranting hero upon the stage; and it unfortunately happens that some of our disrespect is apt, rather unjustly, to be transferred to the subject of the panegyric in the one case, and to poor Cato in the other."[247]

Besides Scott's formal reviews, we find cited as evidence of his extreme amiability his letters, his journal, and the remarks he made to friends in moments of enthusiasm. These do indeed contain some sweeping statements, but in almost every case one can see some reason, other than the desire to be obliging, why he made them. He was not double-faced. One of the nearest approaches to it seems to have been in the case of Miss Seward's poetry, for which he wrote such an introduction as hardly prepares the reader for the remark he made to Miss Baillie, that most of it was "absolutely execrable." His comment in the edition of the poems—the publication of which Miss Seward really forced upon him as a dying request—is sedulously kind, and in Waverley he quotes from her a couple of lines which he calls "beautiful." But the essay is most carefully guarded, and throughout it the editor implies that the woman was more admirable than the poetry. Personally, indeed, he seems to have liked and admired her.[248]

The catalogue of Scott's contemporaries is so full of important names that his genius for the enjoyment of other men's work had a wide opportunity to display itself without becoming absurd. An argument early used to prove that Scott was the author of Waverley was the frequency of quotation in the novels from all living poets except Scott himself, and he felt constrained to throw in a reference or two to his own poetry in order to weaken the force of the evidence.[249] The reader is irresistibly reminded of the following description, given by Lockhart in a letter to his wife, of a morning walk taken by Wordsworth and Scott in company: "The Unknown was continually quoting Wordsworth's Poetry and Wordsworth ditto, but the great Laker never uttered one syllable by which it might have been intimated to a stranger that your Papa had ever written a line either of verse or prose since he was born."[250]

Scott's opinions in regard to his fellow craftsmen may best be given largely in his own words—words which cannot fail to be interesting, however little evidence they show of any attempt to make them quotable.

In considering Scott's estimation of his contemporaries it is chronologically proper to mention Burns first. As a boy of fifteen Scott met Burns, an event which filled him with the suitable amount of awe. He was most favorably impressed with the poet's appearance and with everything in his manner. The boy thought, however, that "Burns' acquaintance with English poetry was rather limited, and also, that having twenty times the abilities of Allan Ramsay and of Ferguson, he talked of them with too much humility as his models."[251] Scott's admiration of Burns was always expressed in the highest and, if one may say so, the most affectionate terms. He refused to let himself be named "in the same day" with Burns.[252] "Long life to thy fame and peace to thy soul, Rob Burns!" he exclaimed, in his Journal; "when I want to express a sentiment which I feel strongly, I find the phrase in Shakespeare—or thee."[253] On another day he compared Burns with Shakspere as excelling all other poets in "the power of exciting the most varied and discordant emotions with such rapid transitions."[254] Again, "The Jolly Beggars, for humorous description and nice discrimination of character, is inferior to no poem of the same length in the whole range of English poetry."[255] Scott wished that Burns might have carried out his plan of dramatic composition, and regretted, from that point of view, the excessive labor at songs which in the nature of things could not all be masterpieces.[256]

Of writers who were more precisely contemporaries of Scott, the Lake Poets and Byron are the most important. The precedence ought to be given to Coleridge because of the suggestion Scott caught from a chance recitation of Christabel for the meter he made so popular in the Lay.[257] Fragments from Christabel are quoted or alluded to so often in the novels[258] and throughout Scott's work that we should conclude it had made a greater impression upon him than any other single poem written in his own time, if Lockhart had not spoken of Wordsworth's sonnet on Neidpath Castle as one which Scott was perhaps fondest of quoting.[259] Christabel is not the only one of Coleridge's poems which Scott used for allusion or reference, but it was the favorite. "He is naturally a grand poet," Scott once wrote to a friend. "His verses on Love, I think, are among the most beautiful in the English language. Let me know if you have seen them, as I have a copy of them as they stood in their original form, which was afterwards altered for the worse."[260] The Ancient Mariner also made a decided impression on him, if we judge from the fact that he quoted from it several times.[261] Scott evidently felt that Coleridge was a most tantalizing poet, and once intimated that future generations would in regard to him feel something like Milton's desire "to call up him who left half told the story of Cambuscan bold."[262] "No man has all the resources of poetry in such profusion, but he cannot manage them so as to bring out anything of his own on a large scale at all worthy of his genius.... His fancy and diction would have long ago placed him above all his contemporaries, had they been under the direction of a sound judgment and a steady will."[263] Such, in effect, was the opinion that Scott always expressed concerning Coleridge, and it is practically that of posterity. In The Monastery Coleridge is called "the most imaginative of our modern bards." In another connection, after speaking of the "exquisite powers of poetry he has suffered to remain uncultivated," Scott adds, "Let us be thankful for what we have received, however. The unfashioned ore, drawn from so rich a mine, is worth all to which art can add its highest decorations, when drawn from less abundant sources."[264] These remarks are worth quoting, not only because of their wisdom, but also because Scott had small personal acquaintance with Coleridge and was rather repelled than attracted by what he knew of the character of the author of Christabel. His praises cannot in this case be called the tribute of friendship, and his own remarkable power of self-control might have made him a stern judge of Coleridge's shortcomings.

One of his most interesting comments on Coleridge is contained in a discussion of Byron's Darkness, a poem which to his mind recalled "the wild, unbridled, and fiery imagination of Coleridge."[265] Darkness is characterized as a mass of images and ideas, unarranged, and the critic goes on to warn the author against indulging in this sort of poetry. He says: "The feeling of reverence which we entertain for that which is difficult of comprehension, gives way to weariness whenever we begin to suspect that it cannot be distinctly comprehended by anyone.... The strength of poetical conception and beauty of diction bestowed upon such prolusions [sic], is as much thrown away as the colors of a painter, could he take a cloud of mist or a wreath of smoke for his canvas." It is disappointing that we have no comment from Scott upon Shelley's poetry, but we can imagine what is would have been.[266] Scott's position as the great popularizer of the Romantic movement in poetry makes particularly interesting his very evident though not often expressed repugnance to the more extreme development of that movement.

Wordsworth's peculiar theory of poetry seemed to Scott superfluous and unnecessary, though he was never, so far as we can judge, especially irritated by it.[267] Of Wordsworth and Southey he wrote to Miss Seward: "Were it not for the unfortunate idea of forming a new school of poetry, these men are calculated to give it a new impulse; but I think they sometimes lose their energy in trying to find not a better but a different path from what has been travelled by their predecessors."[268] Scott paid tribute in the introduction to The Antiquary to as much of Wordsworth's poetical creed as he could acquiesce in when he said, "The lower orders are less restrained by the habit of suppressing their feelings, and ... I agree with my friend Wordsworth that they seldom fail to express them in the strongest and most powerful language." In a letter to Southey Scott calls Wordsworth "a great master of the passions,"[269] and in his Journal he said: His imagination "is naturally exquisite, and highly cultivated by constant exercise."[270] At another time he compared Wordsworth and Southey as scholars and commented on the "freshness, vivacity, and spring" of Wordsworth's mind.[271]

The personal relations between Scott and Wordsworth were, as Wordsworth's tribute in Yarrow Revisited would indicate, those of affectionate intimacy. And if Scott took exception to Wordsworth's choice of subjects and manner, Wordsworth used the same freedom in disagreeing with Scott's poetical ideals. "Thank you," he wrote in 1808, "for Marmion, which I have read with lively pleasure. I think your end has been attained. That it is not in every respect the end which I should wish you to purpose to yourself, you will be well aware, from what you know of my notions of composition, both as to matter and manner."[272] When, in 1821, Chantrey was about to exhibit together his busts of the two poets, Scott wrote: "I am happy my effigy is to go with that of Wordsworth, for (differing from him in very many points of taste) I do not know a man more to be venerated for uprightness of heart and loftiness of genius. Why he will sometimes choose to crawl upon all fours, when God has given him so noble a countenance to lift to heaven, I am as little able to account for as for his quarrelling (as you tell me) with the wrinkles which time and meditation have stamped his brow withal."[273]

These remarks upon Wordsworth and Coleridge touch merely the fringe of the subject, and indeed we do not find that Scott exercised any such sublimated ingenuity in appreciating these men as has often been considered essential. We can see that he admired certain parts of their work intensely, but we look in vain for any real analysis of their quality. But as he never had occasion to write essays upon their poetry, it is perhaps hardly fair to expect anything more than the general remarks that we actually do find, and as far as they go they are satisfactory.

Like most of his distinguished contemporaries, Scott held the work of Southey in surprisingly high estimation.[274] Southey, more than anyone else except Wordsworth, and more than Wordsworth in some ways, was the "real poet" of the period, devoting his whole heart to literature and his whole time to literary pursuits. Scott commented on the fact, saying, "Southey's ideas are all poetical," and, "In this respect, as well as in many others, he is a most striking and interesting character."[275] Nevertheless Scott found it easy to criticise Southey's poems adversely, as we may see from his correspondence. Writing to Miss Seward he pointed out flaws in the story and the characterization of Madoc,[276] yet after repeated readings he saw enough to convince him that Madoc would in the future "assume his real place at the feet of Milton."[277] Thalaba was one of the poems he liked to have read aloud on Sunday evenings.[278] A review of The Curse of Kehama, in which he seemed to express the opinion that this surpassed the poet's previous work, illustrates his professed creed as to criticism. He wrote to Ellis concerning his article: "What I could I did, which was to throw as much weight as possible upon the beautiful passages, of which there are many, and to slur over the absurdities, of which there are not a few.... This said Kehama affords cruel openings for the quizzers, and I suppose will get it roundly in the Edinburgh Review. I could have made a very different hand of it, indeed, had the order of the day been pour dechirer."[279] If Scott had to make an effort in writing the review, he made it with abundant energy. Some absurdities are indeed mentioned, but various particular passages are characterized in the most enthusiastic way, with such phrases as "horribly sublime," "impressive and affecting," "reminds us of the Satan of Milton, yet stands the comparison," "all the gloomy power of Dante." It may be noted that Scott used Milton's name rather freely in comparisons, and that for Dante his admiration was altogether unimpassioned,[280] but the review, after all, is on the whole very laudatory.[281] In it Scott awards to Southey the palm for a surpassing share of imagination, which he elsewhere gave to Coleridge. Possibly Scott was the less inclined to be severe over the absurdities of Kehama because Southey agreed with his own theory as to the evil of fastidious corrections.[282] At any rate he seems to have been quite sincere in saying to Southey, in connection with the poet-laureateship which, according to Scott's suggestion, was offered to him in 1813, "I am not such an ass as not to know that you are my better in poetry, though I have had, probably but for a time, the tide of popularity in my favour."[283]

Much as Scott admired Southey, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, he considered Byron the great poetical genius of the period. He once spoke of Byron as the only poet of transcendent talents that England had had since Dryden.[284] At another time his comment was: "He wrote from impulse, never from effort; and therefore I have always reckoned Burns and Byron the most genuine poetical geniuses of my time, and half a century before me. We have ... many men of high poetical talent, but none, I think, of that ever-gushing and perennial fountain of natural water."[285] The likenesses between Byron's poetical manner and Scott's own must have made it easy for the elder poet to recognize the power of the younger, since Scott was innocent of all repining or envy over the fact which he so freely acknowledged in later years, that Byron "beat" him out of the field.[286] From the time of the appearance of the first two cantos of Childe Harold he acknowledged the author's "extraordinary power,"[287] and even before that he had tried to soften Jeffrey's harsh treatment of Hours of Idleness.[288] In 1814 he was ready to say, "Byron hits the mark where I don't even pretend to fledge my arrow."[289]

It was Byron, rather than Scott, who realized the debt of the new popular favorite to the old; and their personal relations were of the pleasantest, though they were never intimate as Scott was with Southey and Wordsworth. As poets, Scott and Byron seem to have understood each other thoroughly.[290] None of the other great poets of the period did justice to Scott, nor did he succeed so well in defining the power of any of the others. His first review of Childe Harold is the most important of all his articles on the poetry of his time; and his remarks written at the death of Lord Byron, though brief, are not less full of good judgment. Originality, spontaneity, and the ability and inclination to write rapidly were traits Scott admired most in Byron, and in the vigor and beauty of the poems he found the fine flower of all these qualities. "We cannot but repeat our conviction," he says, "that poetry, being, in its higher classes, an art which has for its elements sublimity and unaffected beauty, is more liable than any other to suffer from the labour of polishing.... It must be remembered that we speak of the higher tones of composition; there are others of a subordinate character where extreme art and labour are not bestowed in vain. But we cannot consider over-anxious correction as likely to be employed with advantage upon poems like those of Lord Byron, which have for their object to rouse the imagination and awaken the passions."[291]

Byron's temperament was far from being of a sort that Scott could admire, though he was very susceptible to his personal charm: "Byron's countenance is a thing to dream of," he once said;[292] but he felt that popular estimation did Byron injustice. His articles on this poet contain some of his most characteristic moral reflections. Something of Byron's gloominess Scott attributes to the sensitive poetic organization which he felt that Byron had in an extreme degree; but more to the perverted habit of looking within rather than around upon the realities of life, in which Providence intended men to find their happiness. The philosophy is not novel or brilliant; it is only very sincere and very just; and it supplies to Scott's criticism of Byron that element of moral reflection which we feel was necessary to the occasion.[293]

But though Scott never failed to express disapproval of Byron's attitude toward life, he kept his criticism on this point essentially distinct from his judgment on the poetry. In a way it was impossible to separate the two subjects, and the public demanded some discussion of the man when his poetry was reviewed. But Scott's verdict on the importance of the poems as such was unaffected by his disapproval of the author's point of view. He praised Don Juan no less heartily than Childe Harold.

His criticism of Don Juan is, however, to be gathered only from short and incidental remarks, as he never reviewed the poem. A satire written by R.P. Gillies is commemorated thus in Scott's Journal: "This poem goes to the tune of Don Juan, but it is the champagne after it has stood two days with the cork drawn."[294] He called Byron "as various in composition as Shakspeare himself"; and added, "this will be admitted by all who are acquainted with his Don Juan.... Neither Childe Harold, nor any of the most beautiful of Byron's earlier tales, contain more exquisite morsels of poetry than are to be found scattered through the cantos of Don Juan."[295] The defence of Cain which Scott wrote in accepting the dedication of that poem to himself is well known.[296] He calls it a "very grand and tremendous drama," and continues, "Byron has certainly matched Milton on his own ground. Some part of the language is bold, and may shock one class of readers, whose tone will be adopted by others out of affectation or envy. But then they must condemn the Paradise Lost, if they have a mind to be consistent."

Scott's comments on Byron are closely paralleled by those of Goethe, who considered that Byron had the greatest talent of any man of his century.[297] The opinions of continental critics in general were similar. Among English critics Matthew Arnold aroused many protests when he ranked Byron as one of the two greatest English poets of the nineteenth century, but his views seem perfectly rational now; and though he remarked upon the extravagance of Scott's phrases his own verdict was not very unlike that we have been considering.

Scott's enthusiasm about the literature of his own time seems natural enough when we consider that the list of his notable contemporaries is far from exhausted after Burns, the Lake Poets, and Byron have been named. Campbell was a poet of whose powers he thought very highly, but who, he believed had given only a sample of the great things he might do if he would cease to "fear the shadow of his own reputation." Before he wrote about Byron Scott had given in his review of Gertrude of Wyoming an exposition of his opinion as to the dangers of extreme care in revision. "The truth is," he says, "that an author cannot work upon a beautiful poem beyond a certain point without doing it real and irreparable injury in more respects than one."[298] He felt that Campbell had worked, in many cases, beyond the "certain point." For the "impetuous lyric sally," like the Mariners of England and the Battle of the Baltic, Scott rightly thought that Campbell excelled all his contemporaries. Moore was another lyrist whose poetry Scott greatly admired. In Moore's case, as in Southey's, the contemporary estimate was higher than can now be maintained, but Moore is to-day underrated. From what Scott says about him we conclude that the man's personality and his way of singing added much to the exquisiteness of his songs. "He seems almost to think in music," Scott said, "the notes and words are so happily suited to each other";[299] and, "it would be a delightful addition to life if T.M. had a cottage within two miles of one."[300] Allan Cunningham was a young protege of Scott whose songs, "Its hame and it's hame," and "A wet sheet and a flowing sea," seemed to him "among the best going."[301] Another poet who received Scott's good offices was Hogg, whose relations with the greater man are described so vividly and at some points so amusingly by Lockhart. Scott called him a "wonderful creature for his opportunities."[302]

For the poet Crabbe, Scott, like Byron and Wordsworth,[303] had a steady and high admiration. In the Sunday evening readings that Lockhart describes as being so pleasant a feature of the life of the family in Edinburgh, Crabbe was perhaps the chief standing resource after Shakspere.[304] His work was particularly recommended to the young people of the family,[305] and when the venerable poet visited the Scotts in 1822, he was received as a man whom they always looked upon as nobly gifted. Scott once wrote of him: "I think if he had cultivated the sublime and the pathetic instead of the satirical cast of poetry, he must have stood very high (as indeed he does at any rate) on the list of British poets. His Sir Eustace Grey and The Hall of Justice indicate prodigious talent."[306] Scott did not like Crabbe's choice of subjects,[307] but he appreciated the "force and vigour" of a poet whom students of our own day are once more beginning to admire, after a period during which he was practically ignored.

Scott's very high estimation of Joanna Baillie has already been mentioned.[308] In this case as in many others he was proud and happy in the personal friendship of the writer whose works he admired. He once wrote to Miss Edgeworth: "I have always felt the value of having access to persons of talent and genius to be the best part of a literary man's prerogative."[309] Almost the earliest of the writers for whose friendship Scott felt grateful was Matthew Lewis, famed as the author of The Monk. Lewis was also something of a poet, and was really helpful to Scott in giving him advice on literary subjects. Though Scott perceived that Lewis's talents "would not stand much creaming"[310] he continued to regard him as one who had had high imagination and a "finer ear for rhythm than Byron's."

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse