I CANNOT help taking fire at anything said in disparagement of Walter Scott. I feel that I have got from his writings, not only immense pleasure, but some good. He was a truly noble-hearted gentleman, a model of that class, and his character is impressed on all the works of his pen. A type, he seems to me, of social chivalry. In all his writings, too, there is the buoyancy of perfect health. In reading them you breathe the air of the Scotch hills. I can conceive no better mental febrifuge, no better antidote to depression, no more sovereign remedy for dull care.
Scott was a hot Tory, perhaps a Jacobite, and his worship of monarchy in the person of George IV betrayed him into the one ridiculous action of his life. I have always been glad that he sat down upon the wineglass which he had put into his pocket to be kept as a relic because it had touched the sacred lips of the King. But his Toryism was not flunkyish. Nor was it narrow. It did not interfere in the slightest degree with the catholicity of his historical appreciation. His tolerance, considering the political fury of those times, is really wonderful. He would, no doubt, have joyously donned his yeomanry uniform and shed his blood in battle against the French Revolution. Yet in the Antiquary he speaks of the Revolution with perfect calmness, and he dropped a poetic tear over the grave of Fox.
However, a word as to his poetry, of which Mr. Arthur Symons in the November number of the Atlantic Monthly spoke rather disparagingly. It is, of course, by no means equal to his novels, which of novels are surely the most interesting, as well as the healthiest. He was quite right in giving up the poem for the novel. But before we disrate his poetry, we must settle our rule of judgment. I was taken gently to task the other day for saying that it was the function of poetry to give us pleasure. What I had actually said was that Browning did not give me pleasure of that sort which it is supposed to be the special function of poetry to give. If what we want is philosophy in verse, we shall certainly not find what we want in Scott, while we shall find it in Browning, with a vengeance. But the sort of pleasure which Browning or any poet of the philosophical class gives me, or would give me if I were properly constituted, is that of severe mental effort more or less rewarded, not that which Milton had in his mind when he said that poetry ought to be simple, sensuous, and passionate. I will beg the exclusive lovers of the philosophical school to mark that the greatest master of didactic poetry, Lucretius, has so far recognized the distinction between the philosophical and the poetic as avowedly to commend the philosophic draught by touching the rim of the cup with poetic honey.
Scott, like Homer, Virgil, Tasso, and Milton, is a narrative poet, and must be judged by the interest of his story and by his poetic skill in telling it. Is not the story of Marmion interesting? Is not great poetic skill shown in telling it ? Is not the character of Marmion one that you never forget? Is not the judgment scene in Holy Isle supremely tragical? Can anything be much brighter than the picture of Edinburgh and the Scottish camp ? Has anything in English literature more of Homeric spirit than the battle scene of Flodden ? Are we not carried along through the whole poem, as it were by a sea breeze fresh and strong ? Are there not ever and anon charming little touches, such as the lines at the end of Marmion telling us how the woodman took the place of the Baron in the Baron's sumptuous tomb?
One must, no doubt, have something of the boy left in one to read Marmion again with delight. But he who reads Marmion wholly without delight cannot have much left in him of the boy.
There could, of course, be nothing like Homer in English poetry. But I suspect that the one great writer of martial and chivalric poetry had something in him akin to the other. Depend upon it, the blind old man of Scio's rocky isle had not always been blind. He had "drunk delight of battle with his peers." There was kinship between his spirit and that of the enthusiastic Captain of Yeomanry who once rode on a military errand a hundred miles in a day.
If the Introduction to the first canto of Marmion is not poetry, it surely must be because nothing is poetry that is not abstruse, or that performs the homely function of giving pleasure. It is too much spun out. Scott's fluency and facility are very apt to run away with him. Nor did he ever, either in his poems or in his novels, use the pruning-knife enough. But this fault makes itself less felt in Marmion than in the other poems.
The love of local names rich with associations is common to Scott with Homer, and to both of them with Milton.
Next of the poems in excellence to Marmion, it appears to me, is Rokeby, at least the early part of it. The opening is fine, and strikes well the keynote of a tragic tale. Very fine is the character of the buccaneer, and his entrance on the scene with haughty stride. In Rokeby we have
the loveliest of those songs or ballads introduced in the narrative poems, which would surely of themselves suffice to give their writer no mean place among English poets. In the story of Rokeby, though it is interesting, there is a flaw. There is no intelligible reason for the conduct of Mortham in withdrawing himself from sight, his party having been victorious at Marston Moor.
Of the Lady of the Lake, the first part, barring the hunt, in which Scott is thoroughly at home, is somewhat diffuse and heavy. But the interest improves when Roderick Dhu and Fitzjames suddenly confront each other. The acute reader will perhaps have divined Fitzjames's rank from his use of his bugle to summon attendance after the duel with Roderick Dhu. Still, the disclosure in the palace at Holyrood is a very pretty passage.
Mr. Symons refers to Ruskin's eulogy of Scott as the master of the modern landscape in verse. Scott had an intense and genuine feeling for nature, but, with profound deference for Ruskin, I am not sure that I should have pitched upon him as its most accurate delineator. The vividness of the coloring it was that struck me, and I think would strike most people, in Loch Katrine. The description of Coriskin in the Lord of the Isles seems to me more spirited than accurate. In his descriptions of scenery I have sometimes thought that Scott says much that is true, but not exactly the right word. However, I bow to Ruskin.
In Marmion, the Lady of the Lake, and Rokeby, Scott has the historic characters and circumstances pretty well within the grasp of his imagination. The same cannot be said with regard to the Lay of the Last Minstrel. That poem was the first of the series, and was at the time a prodigious success. The ballad style was a great relief after the Popian, and the romance of the Middle Ages was almost as complete a revelation in its way to the English public as was the romance of Highland scenery and life in Waverley. There are passages in the poem, such as the opening of the first and third cantos, which are now recognized gems of our popular poetry. Margaret comes on the scene with one of those graceful turns of which Scott was master. But the picture of the Middle Ages in the Lay, like that in Ivanhoe and the Talisman, so dear to boys, borders, to say the least, on the extravagant. There never was a castle, certainly there never was on the Scotch border, with a garrison of forty knights, twenty of them always in armor, sleeping in it, and with their visors down drinking their wine through the bars. Nor did any mediæval commander order his bowmen and billmen to assault a fortress without besieging it. The plot, though not without interest, is ill constructed; the natural and supernatural parts are not interwoven with each other. The mysterious powers of the Lady of Branksome, the mighty book of Michael Scott, so awfully disinterred, and the Elfin Page, with his impish pranks, have hardly anything to do with the story.
The last of the series of poems, the Lord of the Isles, is decidedly inferior to the rest. The towering popularity of Bvron may have helped to turn Scott from poetry to the novel. But the Lord, of the Isles shows with painful clearness that the vein had been exhausted, and that the time for opening a fresh vein had come.
However, one might almost as well try to argue a man into or out of love for a woman as into or out of taste for a poet. Boys will be boys, and will persist in venerating Browning and loving Scott.
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