Sir Walter Scott as a Critic of Literature
by Margaret Ball
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Scott felt that his own taste in respect to poetry became more rigorous as he grew older. In 1823 in a letter to Miss Baillie he commented on Mrs. Hemans as "somewhat too poetical for my taste—too many flowers, I mean, and too little fruit—but that may be the cynical criticism of an elderly gentleman; for it is certain that when I was young I read verses of every kind with infinitely more indulgence, because with more pleasure than I can now do—the more shame for me now to refuse the complaisance which I have had so often to solicit."[311] Similarly he speaks in the preface to Kenilworth of having once been delighted with the poems of Mickle and Langhorne: "There is a period in youth when the mere power of numbers has a more strong effect on ear and imagination than in after-life." With these comments we may put Lockhart's sagacious remark: "His propensity to think too well of other men's works sprung, of course, mainly from his modesty and good nature; but the brilliancy of his imagination greatly sustained the delusion. It unconsciously gave precision to the trembling outline, and life and warmth to the vapid colours before him."[312] This and his kindness would account for the latter half of the observation made by his publisher: "I like well Scott's ain bairns—but heaven preserve me from those of his fathering."[313]

I have found no reference to Landor, a poet whom Southey and Wordsworth read with eagerness, but Mr. Forster makes this statement in his Biography of Landor: "Among Landor's papers I found a list, prepared by himself, of resemblances to passages of his own writing to be found in Scott's Tales of the Crusaders. There were several from Gebir.... The poem had made a great impression on Scott, who read it at Southey's suggestion."[314] Forster also notes the fact that Southey, in a letter to Scott written in 1812, spoke very highly of Landor's Count Julian.[315] I am similarly unable to cite any comment by Scott on the writings of Lamb. Was it because Scott's genius clung to Scotland and Lamb's to London, that the two seemed so little to notice each other? It does seem odd that Scott never refers to the delightful Specimens of English Dramatic Poets. At one time Lamb wrote to Sir Walter asking a contribution toward a fund that was being raised to help William Godwin out of pecuniary troubles, and Scott replied, through the artist Haydon, with a cheque for ten pounds and a pleasant message to Mr. Lamb, "whom I should be happy to see in Scotland, though I have not forgotten his metropolitan preference of houses to rocks, and citizens to wild rustics and highland men."[316] Hazlitt and Hunt were two other writers whose literary work Scott ignored.[317] This, as well as his neglect of Lamb's and DeQuincey's essays, may be due largely to the fact that he seldom read newspapers and magazines, and these writers were journalists and contributors to periodicals. Voracious reader as Scott was, he had to economize time somewhere, and the hours saved from papers could be given to books. We do find one or two references to these men as political writers. Scott hoped Lockhart would learn, as editor of the Quarterly, to despise petty adversaries, for "to take notice of such men as Hazlitt and Hunt in the Quarterly would be to introduce them into a world which is scarce conscious of their existence."[318]

Among novelists, those of Scott's contemporaries to whom he gave the highest praise were women. This is, however to be expected, and it is natural to find Jane Austen receiving the highest praise of all; since Scott was emphatically not of the tribe of critics who are able to appreciate only one kind of novel or poem. Her novels seemed to grow upon him and he read them often. It was in connection with her "exquisite touch" that he was moved to reflect, in the words so often quoted from his Journal, "The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going."[319] Among the expressions of admiration which occur in his review of Emma,[320] Scott records a characteristic bit of protest in regard to the tendency of Miss Austen and other novelists to make prudence the guiding motive of all their favorite young women characters, especially in matters of the heart. He did not like this pushing out of Cupid to make way for so moderate a virtue as prudence; he thought that it is often good for young people to fall in love without regard to worldly considerations. Scott rated Miss Edgeworth nearly as high as Miss Austen, and hers is the added honor of having inspired the author of Waverley with a desire to emulate her power.[321] With these two novelists he associated Miss Ferrier, as well as the somewhat earlier writer, Fanny Burney.[322]

Aside from these women and Henry Mackenzie, perhaps the highest praise that Scott bestowed on any contemporary novelist was given to Cooper. Here, as in the case of Byron, Scott seemed to ignore the other writer's indebtedness to himself. He speaks, in the general preface to the Waverley Novels, of "that striking field in which Mr. Cooper has achieved so many triumphs"; and at another time calls him "the justly celebrated American novelist." In his Journal he comments on The Red Rover[323] and The Prairie;[324] The Pilot he recommends warmly in a letter to Miss Edgeworth.[325]

The personal relations between "the Scotch and American lions," as Scott called himself and Cooper, when they met in Parisian society in 1826,[326] had some interesting consequences. Cooper suggested to Scott that he try to secure for himself part of the profits arising from the publication of his works in America, by entering them as the property of some citizen.[327] They finally concluded to substitute for this plan one suggested by Scott, which involved the writing by the Author of Waverley, of a letter addressed to Cooper, to be transmitted by him to some American publisher who would undertake the publication of an authorized edition of which half the profits should go to the author. Future works were to be sent over to this publisher in advance of their appearance in England. The letter was really an appeal to the justice of the American people, and contained an allusion to the publication of Irving's works in England according to a plan very similar to that proposed by Scott. But the scheme failed here in America, and apparently the letter was not made public until Cooper, irritated by the appearance in Lockhart's Life of Scott of Sir Walter's comments on his personal manner,[328] explained the affair (except the reason for dropping the plan), and published the correspondence in the Knickerbocker Magazine for April, 1838.[329] Later in the same year Cooper wrote a severe review of the biography of Scott, attacking his character in a way that seems absurdly exaggerated.[330] Yet Charles Sumner seems to have thought that Cooper made his points, and Mr. Lounsbury is inclined to agree with him.[331]

One of the milder strictures in Cooper's review was as follows "As he was ambitious of, so was he careful to preserve, his personal popularity, of which we have a striking proof in the studied kindnesses that for years were laid before this country in deeds and words, as compared with his real acts and sentiments toward America and Americans which are now revealed in his letters." A passage which doubtless roused Cooper's ire may be quoted. Of the Americans Scott said, in a letter to Miss Edgeworth, "They are a people possessed of very considerable energy, quickened and brought into eager action by an honourable love of their country and pride in their institutions; but they are as yet rude in their ideas of social intercourse, and totally ignorant, speaking generally, of all the art of good breeding, which consists chiefly in a postponement of one's own petty wishes or comforts to those of others. By rude questions and observations, an absolute disrespect to other people's feelings, and a ready indulgence of their own, they make one feverish in their company, though perhaps you may be ashamed to confess the reason. But this will wear off and is already wearing away. Men, when they have once got benches, will soon fall into the use of cushions. They are advancing in the lists of our literature, and they will not be long deficient in the petite morale, especially as they have, like ourselves, the rage for travelling."[332]

Scott liked George Ticknor,[333] and he called Washington Irving "one of the best and pleasantest acquaintances I have made this many a day."[334] In later life he congratulated himself on having from the first foreseen Irving's success.[335] When we remember also that Scott quotes from Poor Richard,[336] refers to Cotton Mather's Magnalia,[337] and speaks of "the American Brown" as one whose novels might be reprinted in England,[338] we ought probably to conclude that his acquaintance with our literature was as comprehensive as could have been expected.

Among continental writers belonging to his period, Goethe was very properly the one for whom Scott had the strongest admiration. But we find comparatively few references to his reading the great German after the early period of translation. Throughout Lockhart's Life of Scott it is evident that the biographer had a more thorough acquaintance with Goethe than had Scott, and it seems probable that the younger man influenced the elder in his judgment on Faust and on Goethe's character. In the Introduction to Quentin Durward we find an interesting comment on Goethe's success in creating a really wicked Mephistopheles, who escapes the noble dignity that Milton and Byron gave to their pictures of Satan. Goethe and Scott exchanged letters once in 1827,[339] and it was a personal grief to Sir Walter that the German poet's death prevented a visit Scott proposed to make him in 1832. In Anne of Geierstein Goethe is called "an author born to arouse the slumbering fame of his country";[340] and in the Journal Scott characterizes him as "the Ariosto at once and almost the Voltaire of Germany."[341] The suggestion for the character of Fenella in Peveril of the Peak was taken from Goethe, as we learn by Scott's acknowledgment in the Introduction. Another German from whom Scott borrowed a suggestion—this time for the unlucky "White Lady of Avenel"—was the Baron de la Motte Fouque. Scott was evidently interested in his work, though he thought Fouque sometimes used such a profusion of historical and antiquarian lore that readers would find it difficult to follow the narrative.[342] Sir Walter asked his son to tell the Baroness de la Motte Fouque that he had been much interested in her writings and those of the Baron, and added, "It will be civil, for folks like to know that they are known and respected beyond the limits of their own country."[343]

In the literary circles of Paris Scott more than once experienced the pleasure of finding himself "known and respected" by foreigners,[344] and he had intimate relations with men of letters in London. On one of his visits there he saw Byron almost every morning for some time, at the house of Murray the publisher. In Edinburgh society Scott was naturally a prominent figure, being noted for his fund of anecdote and his superior gifts in presiding at dinners. But however much his kindly personal feeling is reflected in his comments on the literary work of his friends, he was too well-balanced to assume anything of the patronizing tone that such success as his might have made natural to another sort of man. His fellow-poets thought him a delightful person whom they liked so much that they could almost forgive the preposterous success of his facile and unimportant poetry.

His full-blooded enjoyment of life and literature tempered without obscuring his critical instinct, and though he was "willing to be pleased by those who were desirous to give pleasure",[345] he noted the weak points of men to whose power he gladly paid tribute. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, and Byron, whom he classed as the great English poets of his time, may, with the exception of Southey, be given the places he assigned to them. In regard to Byron, Scott expressed a critical estimate that the public is only now getting ready to accept after a long period of depreciating Byron's genius. The men whose work Scott judged fairly and sympathetically represent widely different types. With some of them he was connected by the new impulse that they were imparting to English poetry, but he was so close to the transition period that he could look backward to his predecessors with no sense of strangeness. He was never inclined to quarrel with the "erroneous system" of a poem which he really liked. His comments on Byron's Darkness suggest that if he had read more than he did of Shelley and others among his younger contemporaries he might have found much to reprehend, but he held that "we must not limit poetical merit to the class of composition which exactly suits one's own particular taste."[346] Among novelists even less than among poets can we trace a "school" to which he paid special allegiance. He read and enjoyed all sorts of good stories, growing in this respect more catholic in his tastes, though perhaps more severe in his standards, as he grew older.

In speaking of Scott's relations with his contemporaries, we must especially remember his ardent interest in those realities of life which he considered greater than the greatest books. In one of his reviews he laid stress on the merit of writing on contemporary events,[347] and he seemed to think there was too little of such celebration. There are many evidences of his great admiration for those of his contemporaries who were men of action, but it is sufficient to remember that the only man in whose presence Scott felt abashed was the Duke of Wellington, for he counted that famous commander the greatest man of his time.



Lack of dogmatism about his own work—Harmony between his talents and his tastes—His conviction of the value of spontaneity and abundance—Merits of a rapid meter—Greater care necessary in verse writing a reason why he turned to prose—His attitude in regard to revision—Modesty about his own work—His opinion of the popular judgment—Importance of novelty—Rivalry with Byron—Scott's attempts to keep ahead of his imitators—Devices to secure novelty—His resolution to write history—Historical motives of his novels—His comments on the use of historical material—His verdict in regard to his descriptive abilities and methods—Lack of emphasis on the ethical aspect of his work—His judgment on the position of the novel in literature.

"Scott is invariably his own best critic," says Mr. Andrew Lang.[348] Of this Scott was not himself in the least convinced, and when we recall how, to please his printer, James Ballantyne, he tacked on a last scene to Rokeby, resuscitated the dead Athelstane in Ivanhoe, and eliminated the main motive of St. Ronan's Well, we wish he had been more uniformly inclined to trust his own critical judgment.

He never scheduled the qualities of his own genius. A man who could sincerely say what he did about literary immortality would not be apt to develop any dogma in regard to his artistic achievement. "Let me please my own generation," he said, "and let those that come after us judge of their taste and my performances as they please; the anticipation of their neglect or censure will affect me very little."[349] His opinions about his own work are to be deduced largely from casual remarks scattered through his letters and journals. His introductions to his novels, in the Opus Magnum, are valuable sources, however, and the "Epistle" preceding The Fortunes of Nigel is a mine of material, though, unlike the later introductions, it was written "according to the trick," when he was still preserving his anonymity. We have an article which he wrote for the Quarterly on two of his own books, the review of Tales of My Landlord.[350] His criticism of the work of other people is also very helpful in this connection, since from it we may learn what qualities he wished to find in poetry and in the novel, as well as in history, biography, and criticism, the fields in which he did much, though less famous work.

The student of his criticism is struck at once by the fact that the qualities which Scott particularly admired in literature were those for which he was himself preeminent. Yet he cannot be accused, as Poe may be, of constructing a theory that those types of art were greatest which he found himself most skilful in exemplifying. Scott's nature was of that most efficient kind that enables a man to do such things as he likes to see done. We cannot argue that he was incapable of attending to minute niceties and on this account chose to emphasize the large qualities of literature. For notwithstanding that lack of delicacy which characterized his physical senses and which we might therefore conclude would affect his literary discernment, we have among his small poems some that show his power, occasionally at least, to satisfy the most fastidious critic of detail. Evidently he could write in more than one style, and though the style he used most is undoubtedly that which was most natural to him, it was also that which he thought, on other grounds than the character of his own talents, best worth while. Yet he had so little vanity in regard to his own work that he could hardly understand his success, though it depended on those very qualities which, in other authors, excited his utmost admiration.

One of his fundamental opinions about literary work was that to write much and with abundant spontaneity is better than to polish minutely. Over and over again we find this idea expressed, most noticeably in connection with the poet Campbell, whom Scott could scarcely forgive for making so little use of his poetical gifts. He applauded the much-criticised fertility of Byron, whose genius was in that respect akin to his own. "I never knew name or fame burn brighter by over-chary keeping of it,"[351] Scott said. The greatest writers he observed, have been the most voluminous. His position was one that could be fortified by inductive reasoning, contrasting in this respect with theories which seem plausible only until they are tested by actual facts, as, for example, Poe's idea that long poems lose effectiveness by their length. But perhaps Scott did not sufficiently take into account the circular nature of his argument; for since the world has refused to consider the men very great who "never spoke out," the truth is not so much that a great man ought to write copiously as that if a man does not write copiously he will not be counted great. Scott seemed to think it was mere wilfulness that prevented a man of such gifts as Campbell's from writing abundantly.

The corresponding disadvantages of rapid composition were of course evident to him. From the first appearance of the Lay to the end of his career he lamented his inability to plan a story in an orderly manner and follow out the scheme; he admitted also that "the misfortune of writing fast is that one cannot at the same time write concisely."[352] Of Marmion he told Southey, "I had not time to write the poem shorter."[353]

His grief on these points seems qualified, however, by a conviction that he could not write with deliberation and method and still produce the effect of vivacious spontaneity. He thought Fielding was almost the only novelist who had thoroughly succeeded in combining these various admirable qualities,[354] and he said in this connection, "To demand equal correctness and felicity in those who may follow in the track of that illustrious novelist, would be to fetter too much the power of giving pleasure, by surrounding it with penal rules; since of this sort of light literature it may be especially said—tout genre est permis, hors le genre ennuyeux."[355] "To confess to you the truth," says the "Author" in the Introductory Epistle to Nigel, "the works and passages in which I have succeeded, have uniformly been written with the greatest rapidity; and when I have seen some of these placed in opposition with others, and commended as more highly finished, I could appeal to pen and standish, that the parts in which I have come feebly off were by much the more laboured." He attempted to write Rokeby with great care, but threw the first version into the fire because he concluded that he had "corrected the spirit out of it, as a lively pupil is sometimes flogged into a dunce by a severe schoolmaster."[356] He was better satisfied with the result when he resumed his pen in his "old Cossack manner."[357] Similarly he writes of John Home's tragedy, Douglas, that the finest scene was, "we learn with pleasure but without surprise," unchanged from the first draft;[358] and elsewhere he speaks of the greater chance for popularity of the "bold, decisive, but light-touched strain of poetry or narrative in literary composition," over the "more highly-wrought performance."[359]

A good exposition of Scott's real opinion in regard to his own style is to be found in his review of Tales of My Landlord. Some parts of the article were probably inserted by his friend William Erskine, but the section I quote bears unmistakable evidence that it was written by the author himself, for it expresses that combined reprobation and approval of his style which is amusingly characteristic of him. He says: "Our author has told us that it was his object to present a series of scenes and characters connected with Scotland in its past and present state, and we must own that his stories are so slightly constructed as to remind us of the showman's thread with which he draws up his pictures and presents them successively to the eye of the spectator.... Against this slovenly indifference we have already remonstrated, and we again enter our protest.... We are the more earnest in this matter, because it seems that the author errs chiefly from carelessness. There may be something of system in it, however, for we have remarked, that with an attention which amounts even to affectation, he has avoided the common language of narrative and thrown his story, as much as possible, into a dramatic shape. In many cases this has added greatly to the effect, by keeping both the actors and action continually before the reader and placing him, in some measure, in the situation of an audience at a theater, who are compelled to gather the meaning of the scene from what the dramatis personae say to each other, and not from any explanation addressed immediately to themselves. But though the author gain this advantage, and thereby compel the reader to think of the personages of the novel and not of the writer, yet the practice, especially pushed to the extent we have noticed, is a principal cause of the flimsiness and incoherent texture of which his greatest admirers are compelled to complain."[360]

Lockhart points out that the fruit of Scott's study of Dryden may have been to fortify his opinion as to what the greatness of literature really consists in, and applies to Scott himself some of the phrases used in the characterization of the earlier poet. "'Rapidity of conception, a readiness of expressing every idea, without losing anything by the way'; 'perpetual animation and elasticity of thought'; and language 'never laboured, never loitering, never (in Dryden's own phrase) cursedly confined,'" are set over against "pointed and nicely turned lines, sedulous study, and long and repeated correction and revision," and are pronounced the superior virtues.[361] The concluding paragraph of Scott's review of a poem on the Battle of Talavera exemplifies his use of this doctrine. "We have shunned, in the present instance," he says, "the unpleasant task of pointing out and dwelling upon individual inaccuracies. There are several hasty expressions, flat lines, and deficient rhymes, which prove to us little more than that the composition was a hurried one. These, in a poem of a different description, we should have thought it our duty to point out to the notice of the author. But after all it is the spirit of a poet that we consider as demanding our chief attention; and upon its ardour or rapidity must finally hinge our applause or condemnation."[362]

Scott's opinions about meters reflect the same taste. He persuaded himself, when he was writing The Lady of the Lake, that the eight-syllable line is "more congenial to the English language—more favourable to narrative poetry at least—than that which has been commonly termed heroic verse,"[363] and he proceeded to show that the first half-dozen lines of Pope's Iliad were each "bolstered out" with a superfluous adjective. "The case is different in descriptive poetry," he added, "because there epithets, if they are happily selected, are rather to be sought after than avoided.... But if in narrative you are frequently compelled to tag your substantives with adjectives, it must frequently happen that you are forced upon those that are merely commonplaces." He mentions other beauties of his favorite verse,—the opportunities for variation by double rhyme and by occasionally dropping a syllable, and the correspondence between the length of line and our natural intervals between punctuation,—but gives as his final excuse for using it his "better knack at this 'false gallop' of verse." The argument is ingenious enough, but his analysis of heroic verse has only a limited application, and his last reason probably was, as he was candid enough to admit, the most weighty. George Ellis replied to his defence thus: "I don't think, after all the eloquence with which you plead for your favourite metre, that you really like it from any other motive than that sainte paresse—that delightful indolence—which induces one to delight in those things which we can do with the least fatigue."[364] This seems hardly a fair return for the poet's appeal to Ellis in one of the epistles of Marmion:[365]

"Come listen! bold in thy applause, The bard shall scorn pedantic laws."

Another introduction in the same poem is given up to a justification of the author's "unconfined" style, on the score of his love for the wild songs of his own country and the freedom of his early training.[366]

Scott practically never rewrote his prose, and the result gave Hazlitt opportunity to say:[367] "We should think the writer could not possibly read the manuscript after he has once written it, or overlook the press."[368] His habit of carrying two trains of thought on together was also responsible for slips in diction and syntax. An amanuensis working for him noticed this peculiarity, and Scott said in his Journal: "There must be two currents of ideas going on in my mind at the same time.... I always laugh when I hear people say, Do one thing at once. I have done a dozen things at once all my life."[369]

But the making of poetry required more attention. "Verse I write twice, and sometimes three times over,"[370] he said, and one is moved to wonder whether the distaste for writing poetry, that he professed about 1822, arose largely from a growing aversion to what he probably considered extreme care in composition.[371] A series of three comments on his own poetry may be given to illustrate his widely varying moods in regard to it. They are all taken from letters written not far from the time when Marmion was published. "As for poetry, it is very little labour to me; indeed 'twere pity of my life should I spend much time on the light and loose sort of poetry which alone I can pretend to write."[372] "I believe no man now alive writes more rapidly than I do (no great recommendation), but I never think of making verses till I have a sufficient stock of poetical ideas to supply them."[373] "If I ever write another poem, I am determined to make every single couplet of it as perfect as my uttermost care and attention can possibly effect."[374] In spite of this momentary resolution to take more pains with his next poem, he was unable to do so when the time came; or if, as in the case of Rokeby he did make the attempt, the results seemed to him unsatisfactory. Yet verse required much more careful finishing than prose, even when it was written by Scott, and this fact has been too little emphasized in discussions of his transition from verse to prose romances.

Scott's temperamental aversion to revising what he had once written was evidently sanctioned by his literary creed. Near the end of his life he recalled how he had submitted one of his earliest poems to the criticism of several acquaintances, with the consequence that after he had adopted their suggestions, hardly a line remained unaltered, and yet the changes failed to satisfy the critics.[375] He said: "This unexpected result, after about a fortnight's anxiety, led me to adopt a rule from which I have seldom departed during more than thirty years of literary life. When a friend whose judgment I respect has decided and upon good advisement told me that a manuscript was worth nothing, or at least possessed no redeeming qualities sufficient to atone for its defects, I have generally cast it aside; but I am little in the custom of paying attention to minute criticisms or of offering such to any friend who may do me the honour to consult me. I am convinced that, in general, in removing even errors of a trivial or venial kind, the character of originality is lost, which, upon the whole, may be that which is most valuable in the production." This position appears doubly significant when we remember that it was assumed by a man who had only the slightest possible amount of paternal jealousy in regard to his writings.[376]

Scott did not always adhere to this resolution, for he did accept criticism and make alterations, more in compliance with the wishes of James Ballantyne, his friend and printer, than to meet the desires of anyone else. He considered that Ballantyne represented the ordinary popular taste, and he was ready to make some sacrifice of his own judgment in order to satisfy his public. He sent the conclusion of Rokeby to Ballantyne with this note: "Dear James,—I send you this out of deference to opinions so strongly expressed, but still retaining my own, that it spoils one effect without producing another."

When one of his books was adversely criticised by the public he received the judgment with open mind, and often analyzed it with much acuteness. The introduction to The Monastery is a good example of frank, though not servile, submission to the decree of public opinion. That he was deeply impressed with his blunder in managing the White Lady of Avenel may be surmised from the fact that in several later discussions of the effect of supernatural apparitions in novels, he emphasized the necessity of keeping them sufficiently infrequent to preserve an atmosphere of mystery. Of The Monastery he said: "I agree with the public in thinking the work not very interesting; but it was written with as much care as the others—that is, with no care at all."[377] But sometimes he felt inclined to rebel against a popular verdict, as when Norna, in The Pirate, was said to be a mere copy of Meg Merrilies.[378]

In his later days he grew more and more unsure of himself, as he felt compelled to work at his topmost speed. His Journal for 1829 has the following record in regard to a review he was writing: "I began to warm in my gear, and am about to awake the whole controversy of Goth and Celt. I wish I may not make some careless blunders."[379] The criticisms of "J.B." became more frequent and more irritating to him as he felt a growing inability to achieve precision in details.[380] When Lockhart pointed out some lapses in his style, he wrote in his Journal, "Well! I will try to remember all this, but after all I write grammar as I speak, to make my meaning known, and a solecism in point of composition, like a Scotch word in speaking, is indifferent to me."[381] Until he felt his powers failing, he was for the most part at once good-natured and independent in his manner of receiving criticism. Whether or not he agreed with the opinion expressed, he usually thought that what he had once written might best stand, though he might be influenced in later work by the advice that had been given.[382]

"I am sensible that if there be anything good about my poetry or prose either," Scott wrote, in a passage that has often been quoted, "it is a hurried frankness of composition which pleases soldiers, sailors and young people of bold and active disposition."[383] I have tried to show that this quality was one which he not only enjoyed, in his own work and in that of other writers, but that as a critic he very seriously approved of it.

Yet in spite of his belief that the greatest literature is not the result of slow and painful labor, it was probably the ease with which he wrote which led him to undervalue his own work. However we may account for it, he found difficulty in regarding himself as a great author.[384] When this modesty of his came into conflict with the other opinion that he had always been inclined to hold—that the popularity of books is a test of their merit—the result is amusing. He was impelled at times to utter contemptuous words about the foolishness of the public, and of course he could not help being moved also in the other direction—to believe there was more in his writings than he had realized. In one mood he said, "I thank God I can write ill enough for the present taste";[385] and "I have very little respect for that dear publicum whom I am doomed to amuse, like Goody Trash in Bartholomew Fair, with rattles and gingerbread; and I should deal very uncandidly with those who may read my confessions were I to say I knew a public worth caring for, or capable of distinguishing the nicer beauties of composition. They weigh good and evil qualities by the pound. Get a good name and you may write trash. Get a bad one and you may write like Homer, without pleasing a single reader."[386] Looking back from the end of his career to the time when The Lady of the Lake was in the height of its success, he wrote: "It must not be supposed that I was either so ungrateful or so superabundantly candid as to despise or scorn the value of those whose voice had elevated me so much higher than my own opinion told me I deserved. I felt, on the contrary, the more grateful to the public as receiving that from partiality which I could not have claimed from merit; and I endeavoured to deserve the partiality by continuing such exertions as I was capable of for their amusement."[387] The perfect respectability of these remarks tempts the reader to set over against them this earlier observation by the same writer in the guise of Chrystal Croftangry, "One thing I have learned in life—never to speak sense when nonsense will answer the purpose as well."[388]

Whatever Scott might think of the worth of public admiration, he frankly attempted to write what would be popular. He had none of the feeling which has characterized many very interesting men of letters, that the desire for self-expression is the one motive of the author; his personal literary impulse, on the contrary, was always guided by the thought of the audience whom he was addressing. "No one shall find me rowing against the stream," says the "Author" in the Introductory Epistle to Nigel. "I care not who knows it—I write for general amusement; and though I will never aim at popularity by what I think unworthy means, I will not, on the other hand, be pertinacious in the defence of my own errors against the voice of the public." Of his last "apoplectic books," he wrote, "I am ashamed, for the first time in my life, of the two novels, but since the pensive public have taken them, there is no more to be said but to eat my pudding and to hold my tongue."[389] Early in his career he seems to have felt that he could make a good deal of money by writing, if he should wish.[390] Towards the end he said, "I know that no literary speculation ever succeeded with me but where my own works were concerned; and that, on the other hand, these have rarely failed."[391]

The popularity of his own books was so great that they required a special category. He seemed to be incapable of ascribing their success to extraordinary excellence, and he settled down to the opinion that it was simply their novelty that the public cared for. The enthusiastic welcome given him by the Irish when he visited Dublin caused him to say in one of his letters, "Were it not from the chilling recollection that novelty is easily substituted for merit, I should think, like the booby in Steele's play,[392] that I had been kept back, and that there was something more about me than I had ever been led to suspect."[393]

He assumed that he had studied popular taste enough to have some knowledge of its shiftings, so that he might "set every sail towards the breeze."[394] "I may be mistaken," he once wrote, "but I do think the tale of Elspat M'Tavish in my bettermost manner, but J.B. roars for chivalry. He does not quite understand that everything may be overdone in this world, or sufficiently estimate the necessity of novelty. The Highlanders have been off the field now for some time."[395] His comment on Ivanhoe was still more emphatic. "Novelty is what this giddy-paced time demands imperiously, and I certainly studies as much as I could to get out of the old beaten track, leaving those who like to keep the road, which I have rutted pretty well."[396]

Believing from the beginning of his career that novelty was the chief merit of his work, he was prepared to live up to his principles. So it was that when he was "beaten" by Byron in metrical romances, he dropped with hardly a regret, so far as we can judge, the kind of writing in which he had attained such remarkable popularity, and turned to another kind. "Since one line has failed, we must just stick to something else," he remarked, calmly.[397] This was when the small sales of The Lord of the Isles as compared with the earlier poems warned Scott and his publisher in a very tangible way that the field had been captured by Byron. At this time Waverley was in the market and Guy Mannering was in process of composition. Though it was to his poetry that he chose to give his name, Scott had little reason to feel forlorn, as the sale of the novels from the very beginning was a pretty effective consolation for any possible hurt to his vanity. He could have owned them as his at any moment, had he chosen to do so. He did not read criticisms of his books, but was satisfied, as one of his friends observed, "to accept the intense avidity with which his novels are read, the enormous and continued sale of his works, as a sufficient commendation of them."[398] In the case of Byron, as always when the public approved the works of one of his brother authors, he considered the popular judgment right.

Scott did not altogether stop writing poetry, however, as is sometimes supposed. The Field of Waterloo and Harold the Dauntless were both written after this time; and the mottoes and lyrics in the novels compose a delightful body of verse. The fact seems to be that he lost zest for writing long poems, partly because of the favor with which Byron's poems were received, and his own consequent feeling of inferiority in poetic composition; partly because of his discovery of the greater ease with which he could write prose, and the greater scope it gave him. The more ambitious attempts among the poems which he wrote after 1814 are comparative failures. But the poetry in his nature prevented him from entirely giving over the composition of verse, and he found real delight in the occasional writing of short pieces that required no continued effort. They were usually made to be used in the novels, for after the publication of Guy Mannering novel-writing became specifically Scott's occupation.[399]

The price of his success in any direction was that he was unable to keep his field to himself. Having set a fashion, he was more than once annoyed by the crowd who wrote in his style and made him feel the necessity of striking out a new line.[400] It was comparatively easy for the vigorous man who wrote Waverley, but in the end, when through his losses he was more than ever obliged to hit the popular taste, to feel that he must find a new style seemed a hard fate. Yet he meant to be beforehand in the race. This is the record in his Journal: "Hard pressed as I am by these imitators, who must put the thing out of fashion at last, I consider, like a fox at his last shifts, whether there be a way to dodge them—some new device to throw them off, and have a mile or two of free ground while I have legs and wind left to use it. There is one way to give novelty: to depend for success on the interest of a well-contrived story. But woe's me! that requires thought, consideration—the writing out a regular plan or plot—above all, the adhering to one—which I never can do, for the ideas rise as I write, and bear such a disproportioned extent to that which each occupied at the first concoction, that (cocksnowns!) I shall never be able to take the trouble; and yet to make the world stare, and gain a new march ahead of them all! Well, something we still will do."[401]

By an easy extension of his principle, he came to believe that novelty would always succeed for a time. The opinion is expressed often in his reviews, and in his journal and letters is applied to his own work. So it was that when any one of his books seemed partially to fail with the public, his immediate impulse was to look for something new to be done.[402] One of his schemes was a work on popular superstitions, projected when Quentin Durward seemed to be falling flat; but the success of the novel made the immediate execution of the plan unnecessary.[403]

It was largely his desire to secure variety that encouraged him to undertake historical writing. He had also a theory about how history should be written, and so he felt that the novelty would consist in something more than the fact that the Author of Waverley had taken a new line. He wished, as Thackeray did later when he proposed to write a history of the Age of Queen Anne, to use in an avowedly serious book the material with which he had stored his imagination; and he believed he could present it with a vivacity that was not characteristic of professional historians. The success of the first series of Tales of a Grandfather served to confirm the opinion he had expressed about them,—"I care not who knows it, I think well of them. Nay, I will hash history with anybody, be he who he will."[404]

Scott had a very just sense of the value of his great stores of information. He did say that he would give one half his knowledge if so he might put the other half upon a well-built foundation,[405] but as years went on he learned to use with ease the accumulations of knowledge which in his youth had proved often unwieldy; and more than once he congratulated himself that he beat his imitators by possessing historical and antiquarian lore which they could only acquire by "reading up."[406] Though he testified that in the beginning of his first novel he described his own education, he could hardly apply to himself what is there said of Waverley, that, "While he was thus permitted to read only for the gratification of his amusement, he foresaw not that he was losing forever the opportunity of acquiring habits of firm and assiduous application, of gaining the art of controlling, directing, and concentrating the powers of his mind for earnest investigation."[407] It was otherwise with Scott himself. The result of the wide and desultory reading of his youth, acting upon a remarkably strong memory, was to put him into the position, as he says, of "an ignorant gamester, who kept a good hand until he knew how to play it."[408] So it was that he said of those who followed his lead in writing historical novels, "They may do their fooling with better grace; but I, like Sir Andrew Aguecheek, do it more natural."[409] His knowledge of history and antiquities was that part of his intellectual equipment in which he seemed to take most pride. He had the highest opinion of the value of historical study for ripening men's judgment of current affairs,[410] and indeed there were few relations of life in which an acquaintance with history did not seem to him indispensable.

But he felt that historical writing had not been adapted "to the demands of the increased circles among which literature does already find its way."[411] Accordingly he resolved to use in the service of history that "knack ... for selecting the striking and interesting points out of dull details," which he felt was his endowment.[412] The original introduction to the Tales of the Crusaders has the following burlesque announcement of his intention, in the words of the Eidolon Chairman: "I intend to write the most wonderful book which the world ever read—a book in which every incident shall be incredible, yet strictly true—a work recalling recollections with which the ears of this generation once tingled, and which shall be read by our children with an admiration approaching to incredulity. Such shall be the Life of Napoleon, by the Author of Waverley." He wished to controvert "the vulgar opinion that the flattest and dullest mode of detailing events must uniformly be that which approaches nearest to the truth."[413] There is no doubt that his histories are readable, yet we feel that Southey was right in his comment on the Life of Napoleon,—"It was not possible that Sir Walter could keep up as a historian the character which he had obtained as a novelist; and in the first announcement of this 'Life' he had, not very wisely, promised something as stimulating as his novels. Alas! he forgot that there could be no stimulus of curiosity in it."[414] A recent critic has said, "Scott lost half his power of vitalizing the past when he sat down formally to record it—when he turned from his marvellous recreation of James I. to give a laboured but very ordinary portrait of Napoleon."[415] His partial failure in this instance may have been due to an unfortunate choice of subject. Only a few years before he wrote the book Scott had been thinking of Napoleon as a "tyrannical monster,"[416] a "singular emanation of the Evil Principle,"[417] "the arch-enemy of mankind,"[418]—phrases which, in spite of their vividness, hardly seem to promise a life-like portrayal of the man.[419]

In one notable respect, Scott's conception of how history should be written was very modern: he would depict the life of the people, not simply the actions of kings and statesmen. His historical novels, said Carlyle, "taught all men this truth, which looks like a truism, and yet was as good as unknown to writers of history and others, till so taught: that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state-papers, controversies, and abstractions of men."[420] One who has the academic notion that a novel, to be great, must be written with no ulterior purpose, is almost startled to observe how definitely Scott considered it the function of his novels to portray ancient manners. Speaking of old romances as a source which we may use for studying about our ancestors, he said: "From the romance, we learn what they were; from the history, what they did: and were we to be deprived of one of these two kinds of information, it might well be made a question, which is most useful or interesting."[421] He wished to make his own romances serve much the same purpose as those written in the midst of the customs which they unconsciously reflected. Of Waverley he said, "It may really boast to be a tolerably faithful portrait of Scottish manners."[422] He interrupts the story of The Pirate to describe the charm of the leaden heart, and offers this excuse: "As this simple and original remedy is peculiar to the isles of Thule, it were unpardonable not to preserve it at length, in a narrative connected with Scottish antiquities."[423] His comment on Ivanhoe was as follows: "I am convinced that however I myself may fail in the ensuing attempt, yet, with more labour in collecting, or more skill in using, the materials within his reach, illustrated as they have been by the labours of Dr. Henry, of the late Mr. Strutt, and above all, of Mr. Sharon Turner, an abler hand would have been successful."[424]

Scott's early reading was only the basis for the research that he undertook afterwards.[425] Much of this later study was accomplished when he was engaged upon such books as Somers' Tracts, Dryden's and Swift's Works, and the other historical publications that make the bibliography of Scott so surprising to the ordinary reader; but some of his investigations were undertaken specifically for the novels. The Literary Correspondence of his publisher, Archibald Constable, contains many evidences of Scott's efforts, assisted often by Constable, to get antiquarian and topographical details correct in the novels. In 1821 Constable suggested that Sir Walter write a story of the time of James I. of England, and was told, "If you can suggest anything about the period I will be happy to hear from you; you are always happy in your hints."[426] Some years earlier the author and the publisher had a correspondence concerning a series of letters on the history of Scotland which the former was planning to write, and which he wished to publish anonymously for the following reason: "I have not the least doubt that I will make a popular book, for I trust it will be both interesting and useful; but I never intended to engage in any proper historical labour, for which I have neither time, talent, nor inclination.... In truth it would take ten years of any man's life to write such a History of Scotland as he should put his name to."[427] He called his Napoleon "the most severe and laborious undertaking which choice or accident ever placed on my shoulders."[428]

More than once Scott expresses the opinion that though novels may be useful to arouse curiosity about history, and to impart some knowledge to people who will not do any serious thinking, they may, on the other hand, work harm by satisfying with their superficial information those who would otherwise read history.[429] It seems as if he designed the Life of Napoleon and the History of Scotland for a new reading class that the novels had been creating, and as if he wished to make the step of transition not too long. We can almost fancy them as a series of graded books arranged to lead the people of Great Britain up to a sufficient height of historical information. The Tales of a Grandfather were intended for the beginners who had never been infected by the common heresy concerning the dulness of history, and who were blessed with sufficiently active imagination to make the sugar-coating of fiction superfluous.[430]

But great as was the interest that Scott took in the historical aspect of his work, his artistic sense guided his use of materials, and he was well aware of the danger of over-working the mine. The principles on which he chose periods and events to represent are illustrated in many of the introductions. Of The Fortunes of Nigel he said: "The reign of James I., in which George Heriot flourished, gave unbounded scope to invention in the fable, while at the same time it afforded greater variety and discrimination of character than could, with historical consistency, have been introduced if the scene had been laid a century earlier."[431]

His first published attempt at fiction-writing was a conclusion to the novel, Queenhoo-Hall,[432] of which his opinion was that it would never be popular because antiquarian knowledge was displayed in it too liberally. "The author," he says, "forgot ... that extensive neutral ground, the large proportion, that is, of manners and sentiments which are common to us and to our ancestors, having been handed down unaltered from them to us, or which, arising out of the principles of our common nature, must have existed in either state of society."[433] Scott's practice in regard to the language of his historical novels was based on much the same theory. He intended to admit "no word or turn of phraseology betraying an origin directly modern,"[434] but to avoid obsolete words for the most part; and he never attempted to follow with fidelity the style of the exact age of which he was writing. The translation of Froissart by Lord Berners seemed to him a sufficiently good model to serve for the whole mediaeval period.[435] In his review of Tales of My Landlord he says of the proem to his book: "It is written in the quaint style of that prefixed by Gay to his Pastorals, being, as Johnson terms it, 'such imitation as he could obtain of obsolete language, and by consequence, in a style that was never written or spoken in any age or place.'"

His Journal contains observations on several historical novels which were of little consequence, as, for example, on one by a Mr. Bell,—"He goes not the way to write it; he is too general, and not sufficiently minute";[436] and on The Spae-Wife, by Galt,—"He has made his story difficult to understand, by adopting a region of history little known."[437] On the other hand he remarked, when someone had suggested a number of historical subjects to him,—"People will not consider that a thing may already be so well told in history, that romance ought not in prudence to meddle with it";[438] and at another time he spoke of "the usual habit of antiquarians," to "neglect what is useful for things that are merely curious."[439]

Aside from the familiar knowledge of ancient manners which he thought enabled him to give his tales the necessary touch of novelty, and from the "hurried frankness," or spontaneity of style which endowed them with vitality, Scott believed that his talents included a special knack at description. He felt, however, that a sense of the picturesque in action was a different thing from a similar perception in regard to scenery, and that though the first was natural to him, he was obliged to use effort to develop the second.[440] Some study of drawing in his youth helped him to comprehend the demands of perspective, and he endeavored to carry out the principle of describing a scene in the way in which it would naturally strike the spectator, neither overloading with confused detail nor over-emphasizing what should be subordinate.[441] That his plan was consciously adopted may be seen from his discussion of Byron's skill in description and from his comments on the descriptive passages of the mediaeval romances.[442]

At the same time he understood the advantages of the realistic method. On one occasion he stated as his creed, "that in nature herself no two scenes were exactly alike, and that whoever copied truly what was before his eyes would possess the same variety in his descriptions, and exhibit apparently an imagination as boundless as the range of nature in the scenes he recorded; whereas, whoever trusted to imagination would soon find his own mind circumscribed and contracted to a few favourite images, and the repetition of these would sooner or later produce that very monotony and barrenness which had always haunted descriptive poetry in the hands of any but the patient worshippers of truth."[443] Wordsworth disapproved of Scott's method in description. He is quoted as having said: "Nature does not permit an inventory to be made of her charms! He should have left his pencil and note-book at home [and] fixed his eye as he walked with a reverent attention on all that surrounded him."[444] Somewhat like a rejoinder sounds another remark of Scott's, in phrases that Wordsworth would have detested. Scott said cheerfully, "As to the actual study of nature, if you mean the landscape gardening of poetry ... I can get on quite as well from recollection, while sitting in the Parliament house, as if wandering through wood and wold."[445] At another time he said, "If a man will paint from nature, he will be likely to amuse those who are daily looking at it."[446]

Though Scott prided himself somewhat on his descriptive powers he realized that he could not do his best work on minute canvases. We have already seen how he contrasted himself with Jane Austen. "The exquisite touch," he said, "which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me."[447]

Of Scott's opinion in regard to the ethical effect of novels, I have already spoken.[448] The fact that he refused to use the conventional plea of a desire to improve public morals, and that he understood how little a reader is really influenced by the exalted sentiments of heroes of fiction, gave Carlyle a fit of righteous indignation;[449] but it is futile to say that Scott "had no message to deliver to the world." He might have retorted, in the words which he once used about Homer,—"Doubtless an admirable moral may be often extracted from his poem; because it contains an accurate picture of human nature, which can never be truly presented without conveying a lesson of instruction. But it may shrewdly be suspected that the moral was as little intended by the author as it would have been the object of an historian, whose work is equally pregnant with morality, though a detail of facts be only intended."[450] It was a comfort to Scott at the end of his life to reflect that the tendency of all he had written was morally good,[451] and we can well believe that he was pleased by the enthusiastic tribute of his young critic, J.L. Adolphus, who said of his books: "There is not an unhandsome action or degrading sentiment recorded of any person who is recommended to the full esteem of the reader."[452]

That Scott considered poetical power very important for a writer of novels, he made evident in his Lives of the Novelists. Mr. Herford has said, but surely without good reason, that Scott wholly lacked the sense of mystery, and that in this respect Mrs. Radcliffe was more modern than he.[453] Yet it was Scott who censured Mrs. Radcliffe for explaining her mysteries. He had a vein of superstition in his nature, too, about which he might have said, using the words given to a character in one of his stories,—"It soothes my imagination, without influencing my reason or conduct."[454] A liking for the wonderful and terrible, which he felt from his earliest childhood, was one manifestation of a poetical temperament which is so apparent that there is no need of reciting the evidence. The poetical qualities in the Waverley novels gave Adolphus one of his favorite arguments in the attempt to prove that Scott was the author.

Yet Scott seemed to feel that his position as a writer of popular fiction, however much the novel is capable of being the vehicle of imagination and poetical power, was not a really high one. James Ballantyne persuaded him to omit from one of his introductions a passage that seemed to belittle the occupation of his life,[455] but in the introduction to The Abbot he wrote: "Though it were worse than affectation to deny that my vanity was satisfied at my success in the department in which chance had in some measure enlisted me, I was nevertheless far from thinking that the novelist or romance-writer stands high in the ranks of literature." The ideal which he set for himself is indicated in the following passage of his article on Tales of My Landlord: "If ... the features of an age gone by can be recalled in a spirit of delineation at once faithful and striking ... the composition is in every point of view dignified and improved; and the author, leaving the light and frivolous associates with whom a careless observer would be disposed to ally him, takes his seat on the bench of the historians of his time and country." He once expressed the opinion that the historical romance approaches, in some measure, when it is nobly executed, to the epic in poetry.[456] When a medal of Scott, engraved from the bust by Chantrey, was struck off, he suggested the motto which was used:

"Bardorum citharas patrio qui reddidit Istro,"

and said, "because I am far more vain of having been able to fix some share of public attention upon the ancient poetry and manners of my country, than of any original efforts which I have been able to make in literature."[457] The following commendation, which he wrote for a book of portraits accompanied by essays, might be made to apply to his novels: "It is impossible for me to conceive a work which ought to be more interesting to the present age than that which exhibits before our eyes our 'fathers as they lived'"[458] He felt strongly the value and importance of past manners, faiths and ideals for the present, and from this point of view took satisfaction in the social and ethical teaching of his novels.

On the whole, Scott's opinions about his own work fitted well with his general literary principles, except that his modesty inclined him to discount his own performance while he overestimated that of others. With this qualification we may remember that he always spoke sensibly about his work, without affectation, and with abundant geniality. We are reminded of the comment on Moliere quoted by Scott from a French writer,—"He had the good fortune to escape the most dangerous fault of an author writing upon his own compositions, and to exhibit wit, where some people would only have shown vanity and self-conceit."[459]



Comparison of Scott with Jeffrey and with the Romantic critics—His criticism largely appreciative—Romantic in special cases and Augustan in attitude—Comparison with Coleridge—Scott's respect for the verdict of the public—His opinion that elucidation is the function of criticism—Use of historical illustration—Hesitation about analysing poetry—Political criticism—Verdict of his contemporaries on his criticism—Influence as a critic—Literary prophecies—Character of his critical work as a whole—His attitude towards it—Lack of system—Broad fields he covered—His greatness a reason for the importance of his criticism.

Important as Scott's poetry was in the English Romantic revival, as a critic he can hardly be counted among the Romanticists. His attitude, nevertheless, differed radically from that of the school represented by Jeffrey and Gifford. We have already seen that he disliked their manner of reviewing, and that he was conscious of complete disagreement with Jeffrey in regard to poetic ideals. Of Jeffrey Mr. Gates has said: "[He] rarely appreciates a piece of literature.... He is always for or against his author; he is always making points."[460] That Scott was influenced in his early critical work by the tone of the Edinburgh Review is undeniable, but temperamentally he was inclined to give any writer a fair chance to stir his emotions; and he did not adopt the magisterial mood that dictated the famous remark, "This will never do." Scott's style lacked the adroitness and pungency which helped Jeffrey successfully to take the attitude of the censor, and which made his satire triumphant among his contemporaries. Scott declined, moreover, to cultivate skill in a method which he considered unfair. Compared with Jeffrey's his criticism wanted incisiveness, but it wears better.

The period was transitional, and Jeffrey did not go so far as Scott in breaking away from the dictation of his predecessors. But his attitude was on the whole more modern than the reader would infer from the following sentence in one of his earliest reviews: "Poetry has this much at least in common with religion, that its standards were fixed long ago by certain inspired writers, whose authority it is no longer lawful to call in question."[461] He considered himself rather an interpreter of public opinion than a judge defining ancient legislation, but he used the opinion of himself and like-minded men as an unimpeachable test of what the greater public ought to believe in regard to literature. We may remember that the enthusiasm over the Elizabethan dramatists which seems a special property of Lamb and Hazlitt, and which Scott shared, was characteristic also of Jeffrey himself. It was Jeffrey's dogmatism and his repugnance to certain fundamental ideas which were to become dominant in the poetry of the nineteenth century that lead us to consider him one of the last representatives of the eighteenth century critical tradition. Scott praised the Augustan writers as warmly as Jeffrey did, but he was more hospitable to the newer literary impulse. "Perhaps the most damaging accusation that can be made against Jeffrey as a critic," says Mr. Gates, "is inability to read and interpret the age in which he lived."[462]

Scott's criticism was largely appreciative, but appreciative on a somewhat different plane from that of the contemporary critics whom we are accustomed to place in a more modern school: Hazlitt, Hunt, Lamb, and Coleridge. His judgments were less delicate and subtle than the judgments of these men were apt to be, and more "reasonable" in the eighteenth-century sense; they were marked, however, by a regard for the imagination that would have seemed most unreasonable to many men of the eighteenth century.

Scott had not a fixed theory of literature which could dominate his mind when he approached any work. He was open-minded, and in spite of his extreme fondness for the poetry of Dr. Johnson he was apt to be on the Romantic side in any specific critical utterance. We have seen also that he resembled the Romanticists in his power to disengage his verdicts on literature from ethical considerations. On the other hand he seems always to have deferred to the standard authorities of the classical criticism of his time when his own knowledge was not sufficient to guide him. In discussing Roscommon's Essay on Translated Verse he wrote: "It must be remembered that the rules of criticism, now so well known as to be even trite and hackneyed, were then almost new to the literary world."[463]

Perhaps the main reason why one would not class Scott's critical work with that of the Romanticists is that he had no desire to proclaim a new era in creative literature or in criticism. Like the Romanticists he was ready to substitute "for the absolute method of judging by reference to an external standard of 'taste,' a method at once imaginative and historical";[464] yet he talked less about imagination than about good sense. The comparison with Boileau suggests itself, for Scott admired that critic in the conventional fashion, calling him "a supereminent authority,"[465] and Boileau also had said much about "reason and good sense." But Scott had an appreciation of the furor poeticus that made "good sense" quite a different thing to him from what it was to Boileau. He did not say, moreover, that the poet should be supremely characterized by good sense, but that the critic, recognizing the facts about human emotion, should make use of that quality.

The subjective process by which experience is transmuted into literature engaged Scott's attention very little: in this respect also he stands apart from the newer school of critics. The metaphysical description of imagination or fancy interested him less than the piece of literature in which these qualities were exhibited. His own mental activities were more easily set in motion than analysed, and the introspective or philosophical attitude of mind was unnatural to him. Because of his adoption of the historical method of studying literature, and the similarity of many of his judgments to those which were in general characteristic of the Romantic school, we may say that Scott's criticism looks forward; but it shows the influence of the earlier period in its acceptance of traditional judgments based on external standards which disregarded the nature of the creative process.

From Coleridge Scott is separated in the most definite way. Coleridge began at the foundation, building up a set of principles such as the new impulse in literature seemed to demand. Scott preferred the concrete, and was stimulated by the particular book to express opinions that would never have come to his mind as the result of pursuing a train of unembodied ideas. Coleridge's judgments, moreover, would be unaffected by public estimation, for he sought to found them on the spiritual and philosophic consciousness that exists apart from the crowd.[466] Scott, on the other hand, was ready to use popular judgment as an important test of his opinions. Coleridge himself pointed out another interesting contrast. He wrote: "Dear Sir Walter Scott and myself were exact, but harmonious opposites in this;—that every old ruin, hill, river, or tree, called up in his mind a host of historical or biographical associations, ... whereas, for myself, notwithstanding Dr. Johnson, I believe I should walk over the plain of Marathon without taking more interest in it than in any other plain of similar features."[467] We might perhaps say that Coleridge's affection was given to ideas, Scott's, to objects; hence Coleridge was a critic of literary principles and theories, Scott a critic of individual books and writers. It follows that Scott was on the whole an impressionistic critic. A study of his personality is essential to a consideration of his critical work, for he was not so much a systematic student of literature, guided by fixed principles, as a man of a certain temperament who read particular things and made particular remarks about them as he felt inclined. The inconsistencies and contradictions which would naturally result from such a procedure are occasionally noticeable, but they are fewer than would occur in the work of a less well-balanced man than himself.

His ideas about criticism were influenced by his feeling that the judgment of the public would after all take its own course, and that it was in the long run the best criterion. He used his opinion that an author, even in his own lifetime, commonly receives fair treatment from the public, as an argument against establishing in England any literary body having the power of pensioning literary men.[468] On this subject he said, "There is ... really no occasion for encouraging by a society the competition of authors. The land is before them, and if they really have merit they seldom fail to conquer their share of public applause and private profit.... I cannot, in my knowledge of letters, recollect more than two men whose merit is undeniable while, I am afraid, their circumstances are narrow. I mean Coleridge and Maturin."

Scott's whole attitude toward criticism shows that he felt its supreme function to be elucidation. It should also, he believed, warn the world against books that were foolish, or pernicious, intellectually or morally; but unless there were good reason for issuing such warnings the bad books should be ignored and the good treated sympathetically, not without such discrimination as should distinguish between the better and the worse in them, but with emphasis on the better. His literary creed, though not formulated into a system, was conscious and fairly definite; but it consisted of general principles which never resolved themselves into intricate subtleties requiring great space for their development. Scott could not think in that way, and he felt convinced that such thinking was useless and worse than useless. A magazine-writer of his own period who said of him,—"The author of Waverley, we apprehend, has neither the patience nor the disposition requisite for writing philosophically upon any subject,"[469] was mistaken, for much of Scott's criticism, without making any pretensions, is really philosophical. But any fine-drawn analysis seemed to him to serve the vanity of the critic rather than the need of the public; and he despised that arrogance in the critic which leads him to assume to direct literary taste.

Historical illustration was that kind of editorial work which he found most congenial, and which harmonized best with his critical principles; for when he could bring definite facts to the service of elucidation he felt that he was doing something worth while. Among all the introductions and annotations that we have from his hand, including those of the Dryden and the Swift, this kind of explanation greatly predominates over the more strictly literary comment; in his reviews, also, it is evident that he seized every opportunity for turning from literary to historical discussion. He was in the habit of "embroidering the subject, whatever it might be, with lively anecdotic illustration,"[470] as one of his biographers says. We are not to conclude that in writing on specifically literary subjects he felt ill at ease. He felt, on the contrary, that the objection lay in the too great ease with which the critic might become dictatorial. He was fond enough of details when they were concrete and vital. The facts of literary history were in this category to him, as distinguished from the notions of literary theory; and we find that his critical principles are apt to appear incidentally among remarks on what seemed to him the more tangible and important facts of literary and social history. The books he chose to review were chiefly those which gave him a chance to use his historical information and imagination. His ideas were concrete, as those of a great novelist must inevitably be. Indeed the dividing line between creative work and criticism seems often to be obliterated in Scott's literary discussions, since he was inclined to amplify and illustrate instead of dissecting the book under consideration. As a critic he was distinguished by the qualities which appear in his novels, and which may be described in Hazlitt's words, as "the most amazing retentiveness of memory, and vividness of conception of what would happen, be seen, and felt by everybody in given circumstances."[471]

Scott felt that there was especial danger of futile theorizing in the criticism of poetry. In writing about Alexander's Feast he discussed for a moment the possibility of detecting points at which the author had paused in his work, but almost immediately he stopped himself with the characteristic remark—"There may be something fanciful ... in this reasoning, which I therefore abandon to the reader's mercy; only begging him to observe, that we have no mode of estimating the exertions of a quality so capricious as a poetic imagination."[472] Early in his career he gave this rather over-amiable explanation of the fact that he had never undertaken to review poetry: "I am sensible there is a greater difference of tastes in that department than in any other, and that there is much excellent poetry which I am not nowadays able to read without falling asleep, and which would nevertheless have given me great pleasure at an earlier period of my life. Now I think there is something hard in blaming the poor cook for the fault of our own palate or deficiency of appetite."[473] We have seen that he did review poetry afterwards, but that he was inclined to do it with the least possible emphasis on the specifically aesthetic elements. On the subject of novel-writing he developed a somewhat fuller critical theory, but here also his discussions concerned themselves rather with the kind of ideas set forth than with the manner of presentation.

It does indeed seem as if Scott's feelings were more easily aroused to the point of formulating "laws" in the field of political criticism than in that which appears to us his more legitimate sphere. He has his fling, to be sure, at Madame de Stael, because she "lived and died in the belief that revolutions were to be effected, and countries governed, by a proper succession of clever pamphlets."[474] But in proposing the establishment of the Quarterly Review he made no secret of the fact that his motives were political. The literary aspect of the periodical was thought of as a subordinate, though a necessary and not unimportant phase of the undertaking. The Letters of Malachi Malagrowther contain some very definite maxims on the subject of political economy, and just as decided are the remarks made in the last of Paul's Letters, as well as in the Life of Napoleon and elsewhere, as to how Louis XVIII. ought to set about the task of calming his distracted kingdom of France. But however emphatic Scott may be in the comments on government which appear throughout his writings, he was as strongly averse in this matter as in literary affairs to any separation of philosophy from fact: his maxims are always derived from experience. The following statement of opinion is typical: "In legislating for an ancient people, the question is not, what is the best possible system of law, but what is the best they can bear. Their habitudes and prejudices must always be respected; and, whenever it is practicable, those prejudices, instead of being destroyed, ought to be taken as the basis of the new regulations."[475]

It was Scott's political creed that roused the ire of such men as Hazlitt and Hunt, though they may also have been exasperated at the unprecedented success of poetry which seemed so facile and so superficial to them as Scott's. Leigh Hunt calls him "a poet of a purely conventional order," "a bitter and not very large-minded politician," "a critic more agreeable than subtle."[476] But Scott's politics may be looked at in another way. "In his patriotism," says Mr. Courthope, "his passionate love of the past, and his reverence for established authority, literary or political, Scott is the best representative among English men of letters of Conservatism in its most generous form."[477]

Though it seems to have been a common opinion among the literary men of his own time that Scott's criticism was superficial, his knowledge of mediaeval literature was, as we have seen, recognized and respected. Favorable comments by his contemporaries on other parts of his critical work are not difficult to find. For example, Gifford wrote to Murray in regard to the article on Lady Suffolk's Correspondence: "Scott's paper is a clever, sensible thing—the work of a man who knows what he is about."[478] Isaac D'Israeli made the following observation on another of Scott's papers: "The article on Pepys, after so many have been written, is the only one which, in the most charming manner possible, shows the real value of these works, which I can assure you many good scholars have no idea of."[479] A more recent verdict may be set beside those just quoted, and it is in perfect agreement with them. "His critical faculty," says Professor Saintsbury, "if not extraordinarily subtle, was always as sound and shrewd as it was good-natured."[480]

Scott's influence as a critic was not very great, but his creative work exerted a strong influence on criticism as well as on the whole intellectual life of his age. His own novels demanded of the critic that kind of appreciation of the large qualities and negligence of the small which he had insisted on considering the function of criticism; and they became a fact in literature which determined to some degree the attitude taken toward ephemeral ideas. Newman notes the popularity of Scott's novels as one of the influences which prepared the ground for the Tractarian movement, for Scott enriched the visions of men by his pictures of the past, gave them noble ideas, and created a desire for a greater richness of spiritual life.[481] Much of his criticism also was inspired by the wish to construct an adequate picture of the past; so far it worked in the same direction with the novels. Its most important offices aside from this were perhaps to present large and kindly views of literature and literary characters, especially through biographical essays; and to ameliorate somewhat the prevailing asperity of periodical criticism.

A man of Scott's temperament was little likely to set himself up for a prophet, and probably no literary prophecies of his were in the least influential. Though he sometimes boasted that he understood the varying currents of popular taste, his experience in the publishing business taught him the fallibility of his impressions when the work of writers other than himself was concerned. He once wrote,—"The friends who know me best, and to whose judgment I am myself in the constant habit of trusting, reckon me a very capricious and uncertain judge of poetry; and I have had repeated occasion to observe that I have often failed in anticipating the reception of poetry from the public."[482] But it is beyond the strength of flesh and blood to resist saying things about the future sometimes, and Scott occasionally yielded to the temptation, helped, no doubt, by his amiability. Southey's Madoc, however, has not yet assumed that place at the feet of Milton which, as we have seen, he ventured to predict for it. Yet, if we may trust the memory of one of his friends, Scott foresaw the literary success of two of his greatest contemporaries. R.P. Gillies said in his Recollections: "I remember well how correct Scott's impressions were of such beginners in the literary world as had not then acquired any fixed character. Of Lord Byron he had from the first a favourable impression.... Of Wordsworth he always spoke favourably, insisting that he was a true poet, but predicting that it would be long ere his works obtained the praise which they merited from the public."[483] Scott explicitly prided himself on two of his prophecies: that Washington Irving would make a name for himself, and that Sir Arthur Wellesley would become known as an extraordinary man.

Though Scott's critical work is comparatively little known, and though it presents no solidly organized front by which the public may be impressed, the opinions of so notable a writer have always had a certain weight. Mr. Churton Collins thinks Scott's judgment on Dunbar has led modern editors to indulge in very exaggerated statements concerning the merit of that poet.[484] A heavier charge has been laid at Scott's door on the score of his edition of the Memoirs of Captain Carleton. He concluded on very insufficient evidence, says Colonel Parnell, that these memoirs were genuinely historical, published them as such, and by the weight of his opinion falsified "the whole stream of nineteenth-century history bearing on the reign of Queen Anne."[485] Stanhope, Macaulay, and other historians were ready to accept Scott's judgment without further investigation, it seems; and if the accusation be true we may conclude that his influence as a critic has reached farther than might at first sight appear. Yet we may be content to follow his lead in general, except in those bits of enthusiasm over his friends which bear witness to a generously optimistic nature rather than to a rigid critical attitude such as we should hardly demand in any case from a man of letters commenting on his contemporaries and friends. George Ticknor was greatly impressed by the "right-mindedness" of the young Sophia Scott,[486] and we may fairly adopt the word to describe the father whom she so much resembled. There was in him, as Carlyle said, "such a sunny current of true humour and humanity, a free joyful sympathy with so many things; what of fire he had all lying so beautifully latent, as radical latent heat, as fruitful internal warmth of life;—a most robust, healthy man!"[487]

Writers upon Scott have made much, perhaps too much, of his feeling that his position as a landed gentleman was more enviable than his prominence as a writer. The point would be of greater consequence if it performed so important a function in explaining his work as has commonly been assigned to it. We are told that he wrote much and hastily because he wanted money to establish and support an estate; but the truth is that if he wrote at all he had to write in this way. He justly believed that he could do his best work so. Yet it was a natural result of his facility that he should look upon the literature he produced as of comparatively little moment. Some of his remarks about his critical work, however, show that he really regarded creative writing as the business of his life, and that in contrast with it he considered his criticism a relief from more arduous labor. After the publication of Marmion he wrote: "I have done with poetry for some time—it is a scourging crop, and ought not to be hastily repeated. Editing, therefore, may be considered as a green crop of turnips or peas, extremely useful for those whose circumstances do not admit of giving their farm a summer fallow."[488] After years of novel-writing he said of writing a review, "No one that has not laboured as I have done on imaginary topics can judge of the comfort afforded by walking on all-fours, and being grave and dull."[489]

From what Scott said about Dryden as a critic we may conclude that the unsystematic character of his own scholarly work may have been a matter of principle as well as inclination. "Dryden," he wrote, "forebore, from prudence, indolence, or a regard for the freedom of Parnassus, to erect himself into a legislator."[490] The words remind us of comments made upon Scott's own work, as for example by Professor Masson, who spoke of "the shrewdness and sagacity of some of his critical prefaces to his novels, where he discusses principles of literature without seeming to call them such."[491] Scott was quick to notice "cant and slang"[492] in the professional language of men in all arts; and he valued most highly the remarks of those whose intelligence had not been overlaid by a conventional pedantry.

Knowing that criticism was not the main business of his life, we are inclined to be surprised at the broad fields which he seemed to have no hesitation in entering upon. His remarkable memory doubtless had something to do with this, but he lived in a period when generalization was more possible and more permissible than it is in this era of special monographs. The large tendencies and characteristics that he traced in his essay on Romance, for instance, are undoubtedly to be qualified at numberless points, but writing when he did, Scott was comparatively untroubled by these limitations. Moreover, he had the gift of seeing things broadly, so that in essentials his survey remains true. But the amount of his work is almost as astonishing as its scope and variety. He could accomplish so much only by disregarding details of form; and that he did so we know from our study of his principles of composition, confirmed by the evidence of the passages from him that have here been quoted. It is clear, also, that he was not limited by that "horror of the obvious," which, as Mr. Saintsbury says, "bad taste at all times has taken for a virtue."[493] Beyond this we have to fall back for explanation on the unusual qualities of his mind. An observing friend said of him that, "With a degree of patience and quietude which are seldom combined with much energy, he could get through an incredible extent of literary labour."[494]

Every quality which made Scott a great man contributes to the interest and importance of his criticism. Such a body of criticism, formulated by a large creative genius, would be of special consequence if it served merely as the basis for a study of his other work, a commentary on the principles which underlay his whole literary achievement. But it would be strange if a man of Scott's intellectual personality could write criticism which was not important in itself, and we can only account for the general neglect of this part of his work by considering how large a place his poems and novels give him in the history of our literature. If he deserves a still larger place, we may remember with satisfaction that as a man he was great enough to support honorably any distinction won by his mind.



The bibliography of Scott's writings is given in three parts, as follows:

1. Books which Scott wrote or edited, or to which he was an important contributor. The list is chronological.

2. Contributions to periodicals.

3. Books which contain letters written by Scott. These titles are arranged approximately in the order of their importance from the point of view of a study of Scott.

1. Books which Scott wrote or edited, or to which he was an important contributor.

(In the following list the first editions of the poems and novels are noted without bibliographical details. In the case of other works the main facts in regard to publication are given; and an attempt is made to indicate the nature of the books named, unless they have been discussed in the text.)

1796 The Chase and William and Helen. (Translated from Buerger.)

1799 Goetz of Berlichingen. (Translated from Goethe.)

Apology for Tales of Terror.

Twelve copies were privately printed, to exhibit the work of the Ballantyne press at Kelso. The title was occasioned by the delay in the publication of Matthew Lewis's Tales of Terror, and the little book contains poems which Scott had contributed to that work. (The contents are named in the Catalogue of the Centenary Exhibition.)

1800 The Eve of St. John, a Border ballad.

1802-3 Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border; consisting of historical and romantic ballads, collected in the southern counties of Scotland; with a few of modern date founded upon local tradition.

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