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Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter ScottScott’s first poetic inspirations were due to the influence of the ancient literature of his own Border land; for he was a borderer "born out of his native country." Blood, and not the accident of a birthplace, makes a man. Indeed, for the poetic mind, it may be best to be born and brought up far away from the cradle of the clan and race, for it almost certainly ensures an atmosphere of longing and legend, set against a background of romance, at the fireside. His father’s house was naturally a centre of such things, for in it crossed many lines of great magnetic interest to the delicate boy in whose heart beat from the beginning a passionate love for the song and story of the past, and all its braveries.

In the recesses of the glens and moorlands of the old territory from which his people sprang, there lingered a floating mass of broken legend and rugged verse relating to ancient feud and foray, and carrying forward names of wild fighting men whose battle passion still made memory flush with answering sympathy by the hearths of the shepherd folk. His early delicacy brought him into touch with the environment of these, for he was sent as a child to his grandfather’s farm at Sandyknowes, adjacent to the rude peel tower of Smailholme. There he learned his romantic love for the crumbling stone and lime of the strong places which had been homes of the raiders in times long past, and tales of witches and warriors, the battles of Wallace and Bruce, and the more recent risings when the clans swept down through romance and victory, to crawl back weary, through tragedy to defeat for the sake of the ancient native dynasty.

Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry caught his youthful imagination, and deeply stirred his heart. His labour of ballad imitation, translation, and research, meant a splendid apprenticeship for his work both as poet and novelist. In 1792 he began to look into German literature, and especially that ballad manifestation of it which had been awakened by the influence of Percy’s collections. That very year, with Shortrede, the Sheriff-Substitute, he rode for the first time through Liddesdale, then very remote and primitive, searching among the ancient fastnesses for fragments of the old chants of forgotten and nameless bards, who in days long dead had set to scrambling verse the deeds of fearless clansmen. He obtained a copy of Burger’s works, and translated the ballad of Lenoré. Prompted to further activity, he set off on imitations, of his own creation, which he passed through the press of James Ballantyne, the printer at Kelso, who had been at school with him, thus initiating that business connection which became historic, till its culmination in the great tragedy of his life.

Next to the ballad interest in importance for his mental development, was his contact with the Highlands, and especially in regard to the Jacobite enterprise. That tract of territory beyond the Gaelic line was on the verge of a huge process of social and political change, unparalleled in modern times. Under protection of a corporal’s guard from Stirling Castle, he had penetrated to Balquhidder to serve citations on some Maclarens there. And while at Tullibody House, he had heard from Mr. Abercromby, the father of Sir Ralph, how his cattle had been driven off by shouting gillies, and how he had followed them to the very stronghold of the Macgregors, and recovered his property. Then, also, he had met face to face some who had been in the great uprising, and especially men like old Stewart of Invernahyle, full of stories of the sorrows, disappointing agonies, and bitter outcastings that followed the failure of the cause. He was right in the heart of that revulsion of feeling which ensued from the brutalities of "the Butcher" Cumberland in his course of rapine through the glens. In his father’s house, some of these men had come and gone on secret business of their own. Especially memorable were the visits of Murray of Broughton, who, having been Secretary to Prince Charlie, had sat at the Prince’s council table, and then saved his own life by bartering the secrets he had learned there. He used to come under cover of the dark, muffled and skulking, and, after long closeting with Scott’s father, slipped out into the dark again. Mrs. Scott’s feminine curiosity being roused, she attempted to catch a glimpse of the mysterious visitant, by bringing in a cup of tea to him one night in her best china; but, after he had gone, her husband opened the window, and, tossing out the dish, said as it shattered into fragments, "No lip in my house shall touch what a traitor has drunk from!"

Scott’s ballad activities found notable issue in The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. And here not only his knowledge of what remained of the "riding songs" of the fighting folk of the Debatable Land, but his understanding of the people of the moors and fastnesses, which he had acquired in his repeated visits to the territory, stood him in very enriching stead. What he had gathered he lavishly amplified by notes which must ever remain as monuments of a full and varied learning and as a fount of antiquarian and historical fact. It is true that in his passion for any relic of the old days he sometimes fell an easy victim of men like Surtees, whose very fine Barthram’s Dirge found place almost worthily among the genuine stuff. A sentimental collector is extremely liable to such a trap, as may indeed be seen in collections since Scott’s day. Of course, to us this class of deception is somewhat difficult to understand fully, but in most cases it may arise from such a real love of antiquity as tempts a man to craeate in verbal music the expression of the spirit of the time he loves.

Scott’s great devotion to clan territory and clan story found in work like this a very congenial field. To him every knoll and glen and lonely stretch of moor into contact with which had been brought the lives of the raiders, became imbued with the light that never was on sea or land. The bare places were transfigured by Love and Memory, in a way and to an extent which other people often could not understand. Thus, Washington Irving, when on his visit to Scott in 1816, was taken up to a height, from which the Wizard enthusiastically pointed out spot after spot associated with tales of Border feud and foray. And Irving wrote, "I gazed about me with mute surprise,—I may say, with disappointment. I beheld a mere succession of gray waving hills, line beyond line, as far as my eye could reach, monotonous in their aspect, and destitute of trees . . . and the far-famed Tweed appeared a naked stream flowing between hills, without a tree or thicket on its banks." It was the heart-sight and not the eye-sight that made the difference,— the soul-passion that gave the vast delight to the spirit which stood beside him, warm with love, though the visitor stood cold. Only twenty-five years previously, in the first Statistical Account of Scotland, the Rev.. Robert Russell, afterwards minister of Yarrow, wrote of the Parish of Ettrick, that it was a "district hilly, bare,"... that its agriculture was scant, only seventeen ploughs and twenty carts being in the Parish; that such roads as existed were almost impassable; and that it was the haunt of chill mists and misery, with gray, inhospitable hills, treacherous bogs, and roaring streams that frightened the travellers from their banks. But this all made for the territory being such a fastness as ancient legend and rugged song might linger in, undisturbed by change. When doors were opened and the torrents bridged, the world of modem life broke into the solitudes and crowded out the "old, unhappy, far-off things," and memories of "battles long ago." To Scott, the mosses became the shelter of the hunted trooper; the mist his cloak of invisibility; the roaring stream the avenue of his glorious adventure, as he dared its thunder, plunging through it while his enemies stood appalled as on the verge of death. And he wrote the remembrance upon the pages of his verse.

The Ettrick Shepherd’s mother had a store of the tresures of the Border lore in her heart, and in the first two volumes of The Minstrelsy Hogg recognised copies of her ballads. How these came, we see in Auld Maitland, which had never been in print before, "for," as the old woman said, "my brothers and me learned it and mony mae frae auld Andrew Moor, and he learned it frae amid Baubie Mettlin wha was housekeeper to the first laird of Tushielaw . . . a grand singer o’ auld songs an’ ballads." Old Mrs. Hogg had her own ideas in regard to the matter, and they were facts of criticism,—though it might well enough be that Hogg used her as the mouthpiece of his own— when she said to Scott, "There war never ane o’ my sangs prentit till ye prentit them yersel, and ye hae spoilt them a’ thegither. They were made for singin’, and no for readin’, but ye hae broken the charm noo, and they’ll never be sung mair."

Hogg also records Scott’s habit of great particularity in description, manifested through all his work. On their visit to Loch Skene he asked and took note of the names of the hills, their height and situation relatively to one another, making Hogg repeat these several times. We see this habit in the minute detail of plant, tree, flower and locality in his poems, and elsewhere. He was the first true teacher of Nature, not as a depressing, melancholic force, but as an inspiration and strength for life. And it was by objective work like his that the popular taste was to be caught.

Nature-love, in fact, came late into Scottish poetry. Nature-fear was first—the shudder of the soul in desolation, and in the face of bleak might. William Drummond of Hawthornden was the earliest to see beauty in snow-covered hills, probably reminiscently of the Alps whose majesty he had noted. Montgomerie, in his Cherrie and the Slae, depicted a linn of which Bums’s picture in Hallowe’en seems almost a counterpart with amplification of visual and vocalic touches. Allan Ramsay’s Nature-love was that of a man of the plainstones, who, though country-born, had become a denizen of the streets and lanes. Macpherson’s Ossian made men feel the awe of the gray desolations, but the doubt as to its genuineness tended to obscure its power. The rural love of the eighteenth century was somewhat like that of a picnic party,—like the admiration of the people who are fond of remoteness and quiet as seen from a char-a-banc which is conveying them rapidly back to town, or who would like, in theory, to live in a cottage of moss-covered thatch, though they go home and write immediately to the factor about a loose slate or a draughty door.

So, too, it must be admitted, Scott’s love of the Border reiver was the love of a well-settled man of imaginative tendency but at a safe distance of time. He would not have admired him so much had he seen Will Armstrong or Jock o’ the Syde riding into the stockyard of Abbotsford! Yet we all admire courage and fearlessness, especially if our own blood was in the ploy long ago. Sir Walter would not have been so keen to gather the shreds and scraps of a ballad that mocked the Scotts. And we can all understand that; and we have only to look at Kinmont Willie to see what a glorious thing he made out of a few rags of memory, of the achievement of Buccleuch and the scorn of a clansman for his foes.

Scott’s poetic course was a clearly marked triumph, for seven years, beginning with his Lay of the Last Minstrel, till in 1812 his star waned before the blazing comet of Lord Byron. He showed some irritation at Byron’s reference to him in the English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, writing, "It is funny enough to see a whelp a young Lord Byron abusing me, of whose circumstances he knows nothing, for endeavouring to scratch out a living with my pen. . . I can assure the noble imp of fame that it is not my fault that I was not born to a park and £5000 a year, as it is not his lordship’s merit, although it may be his good fortune, that he was not born to live by his literary talents or success." He bore no malice for his eclipse, but moved on into the conquest of another kingdom in prose Romance, with the wonderful procession of the Waverley Novels, which now overshadow the fact that he began and still remains as a great poet.

When he struck his fresh note, he had on one side those who clung still to the modes of the eighteenth century, the form of verse and the fashion of thought of that dull period of English poetry, when men preferred the poem of reflection on the life and manners, especially, of city people. It is true that Macpherson had loosened the gray wind, mist-laden, over English literature, and James Thomson had brought into this his Scottish fields and rivers, and Scottish thunderstorms, clothed in English blank verse, with a Scottish accent. But Scott gave a clear view of Nature as the background and setting for chivalrous and romantic action of living men and women, in a day either entirely passing, or on the verge of change. There were also some who were perfectly aware of what Wordsworth really was, and a few who knew what he was yet to be, but these were scarce indeed, for the period of men and manners could not grasp that understanding of the spiritual core of Nature, regarding which Wordsworth was pre-eminently and uniquely the voice. Scott’s view of Nature was entirely different from Wordsworth’s and the Ossianic view, being really external or objective. He saw her, for the most part, as an offset to life. It was different, even in this respect, from the backgrounds of river, crag, and woodland which the old masters flung behind the figures of saints and heroes; for with him it stood out more clearly, and is in itself a subject, though not obliterating or obscuring the personality of his characters. It is only occasionally that you find in his verse the pathetic fallacy—the keen, poignant cry as with Burns, the glamour vision of Keats, or the deep-voiced majesty of Wordsworth when that poet leans out and looks into the mystery of the Unknown which Nature veils.

Not only was Scott helped in the novel freshness of his utterance, form, and subject, by the fact of his quick interest in the recent romantic pain of the Forty-five, but he was also brought into touch with popular feeling by the clang of the period of Trafalgar and Waterloo. Scott’s note was the reveille for which the world had been waiting. But he was in this so much the pioneer that, when the world became fully conscious of his challenge, it followed another star than his. Yet when the star of Lord Byron sank in cloud and gloom and for ever lost its spell, this did not mean that Scott’s had renewal of its glory. The upper galleries of Parnassus got crowded with Crabbe, Moore, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, and finally Tennyson. Scott could not give what they gave. He had made his path, and opened his door to the kingdom, but he was builded out of the world he had founded. He was himself, in fact, the Last Minstrel. He was himself Roderick Dhu, pleading, in the face of change, for the old loyalties to ancient dreams,—his own Marmion, though, unlike his hero, chaste of soul, and clothed in armour of untarnished honour. He was the last man in panoply of steel, in Chivalry’s dying gleam. The next armoured chief was Tennyson’s Arthur, though that king was depicted rather as a kind of hero out of the Eglinton Tournament, presiding over a Y.M.C.A. committee. It was remarkable how Scott made us, through his love for chivalry, forget that Marmion was a forger, a seducer, and yet in spite of his deficiencies lifted into the very centre of sympathy by the power of knightliness, whereby he achieved valour and a brave man’s end.

Sir Walter’s outlook on life was strongly coloured by his Tory worship of aristocracy; and yet he was not at all a snob it relation to his inferiors. His world was an aristocratic democracy—the spirit of the clan, yet always thirled to passionate devotion to the chief. His patriotism speaks, not as Thomson in Rule Britannia, nor as Bums in Scots wha hae, nor as Wordsworth in his Sonnets, but rather as the right of a man to dare and do, remembering the history of men rolled in battle for sake of the ancient blood, the honour of the family, the credit of the name and the native hills. He may be said to have universalised the spirit of the parish and made its pride a power in the life of the widest patriotism of country and empire. The fidelities of the clan stiffened and steadied the nation’s faith. His worship of George IV. was genuine enough, though he must have seen the flimsy worthlessness of his character. The divine right dazzled his judgment. He looked upon Buccleuch with passionate devotion as chief of all the Scotts, though wrongly. His clan passion blinded him to the fact that his own name outshone all the barons that ever had been of the blood. It never seemed to strike him that instead of his connection with these by descent giving note to himself, it was he that lifted them out of obscurity and gave them an abiding place in the sun. Yet all this explained his life’s struggle and its disaster, though at the same time it gave the most real significance to his battle for his honour at the last, when everything had fallen like a house of cards about him, and he became the old Border fighter, dying in the last ditch for the credit of his name and the integrity of his pledge.

Remarkably, for a Borderer, Scott gripped the wonder of Highland scenery and story. Before his day, to the outsider, the Highlands were but untraversed tracts of crag and torrent, the home of savage hillmen, haunts of bitter feud, while the Highlander was but a ragged robber of undefended cattle-folds on the lowland side of the mountain wall. The Lowlander’s ignorance of the clansman’s Gaelic tongue was set up as a mark of superior intelligence, while the clansman’s ignorance of English was taken as a mark of barbaric unintelligence. Lowland poets like Dunbar laughed at the heroes of Celtic poetry, at the Gael’s primitive customs and superstitions, and his unsophisticated appearance when he emerged from his fastnesses penetrating to the market places and the streets of towns. The Jacobite invasions and victories, the irresistible storm of the Highland charge in battle, made to many the very name of the Gael like a red rag to a bull. But the broken walls of division through which the new roads ran led inquirers into contact with Highland hospitalities and warmth of sentiment and the mysticism of the Celtic mentality in song and legend; while the courage of the new Highland regiments, that could not brook defeat, flung a glory around the tartans of the brave who wrote fresh pride upon the flag everywhere. Sir Walter brought the world into sympathy with all this, and hung the glamour of romance over loch and mountain, moor and glen; and, especially, of course, in the Highland border-land, set a beauty over the ancient customs of the clans as great as that which he had set already over the scrambling conflicts of his own Border folk. He made even the Highlander himself see the picturesque charm of his own country, and changed the general conception thereof with others. Captain Burt, writing from Inverness, expressed a very common feeling when he said that the mountains were grim, bare, savage, and particularly ugly when the heather was in bloom! Scott changed all that by the wonder of his verse. His spell got in among the feet of the touring folk, and turned them North and West with a power that has increased since his thy. No man outside of the Highlands—with the exception of Stevenson in his Alan Breck, Catriona, and Seumas Mor MacGregor—ever understood the loyalties, passionate capacity for sacrificial service, and frequently pitiable weakness of the Celt, so clearly, so sympathetically, or so powerfully as Scott. Even his Minstrel in the Lay had a Highland connection, for his only son had fallen with the gallant Graham—Black John of the Battles—in Killiecrankie’s whirling death-charge of the clans. It was he who made everybody Highland in sentiment, and set the figure of a kilted Celt as the symbol of all Scotland everywhere.

It has been said that his poetry was sad. But it was rather that his day was under the shadow of great change and placed between regret and expectation. Where the fresh water meets the salt lip of the tide there is continuous change of temperature and frequent mist. So when a soul that sees and sings is set on the border-line between the old and passing and the uncertain novelty that is coming with strange footfall, there is inevitable-shadow. Men’s love for the ancient day, with its pride of name and race, the ancient loyalties and leisures of chivalric dream, cannot but be tuned to a certain note of pain over what is lost or perishing. What is being born can never be the same to them as what has been familiarly loved. The sunsets of yesterday are memorable, but who knows how the sun of To-day shall go down, or what the unknown sunrise shall advance? So, Scott’s Lay, his Lady of the Lake, his Marmion, reminding and teaching his countrymen what were the materials, the struggles, the greatness and littleness, achievements and failures, out of which their day had been upbuilded,—while they had the enhancing hues of setting suns which made even poor hills and barren moors beautifully purple, and gave a pensive tone to every breeze, made men of Scott’s politics and outlook sad for the uncertainty of what the French Revolution and the Napoleonic upheaval might bring into the settled conservatism of their day. The Carinagnole and The Marseillaise meant not only the birth-song of an undreamed-of freedom, but the burial-chant of the past, and of much that had become very dear to many. In this Scott differed, by a whole world’s depth rather than breadth, from Bums and Shelley, who saw the road of a new opportunity stretching ahead even through the gleaming tears of humanity’s hopes and sorrows. To Bums, though he loved Chivalry and Romance, one living heart-beat was worth all the rhymes of Arthur’s Court. To Scott, the moonlight on a ruined arch or the glimmer of starlight on a battered shield was worth the whole world’s promise.

And yet he did what had never been attempted and never since has been achieved. On one side of the altar of English poetry stood Satire and Meditation; on the other, Nature, romantic History, and formal Patriotism. Poetry made an eye-appeal, being) written to be read by a man in an easy chair—reflections on man, God, Nature, human life—a kind of sermonising with a chiming tag at the end of each pentameter. Right into the midst of this, with a  "View Hallo!" for Chivalry, broke Scott at a rousing canter, with a star-tipped spear in his hand, and fighting names in the mouth of his song. It was a world-challenge—the breath of life blown through the valley of bones. It was the renascence of action—the song of the thing done or attempted, out of which springs romance, being rooted in passion, pain, failure, or triumph. It was the activity of whole manhood—the song of the restless spirit out for conquest, all touched as it never had been, since Shakespeare’s day. Men suddenly realised the wonderful worth of the wind in the heath; the charm of the starry spaces: and the hearts of the drowsers were stirred. The blood of the sluggards leapt into the race, and their lives ran forward with the moss-troopers, the clansmen, and the folk who fell in that brave line round a dying king. Romantic history, set to great music of clashing words, lived, as by resurrection, in the land again.

But not only did it stir the inactive. The magic of it gripped men of action also. We have to go to the story of the Athenian Captives of the Sicilian Expedition being set free by their enemies because they could recite the choruses of Euripides, or to the quickening spell of Wolfe reading softly Gray’s Elegy as the boats crept up over the dark river to Quebec, ere we find a parallel to the incident told by Lockhart. At Tones Vedras The Lady of the Lake reached Sir Adam Fergusson, and he made his company lie down while he read to them the account of the battle in the sixth canto, while the French shot sang over their heads. This was surely a triumph rare indeed, and very excellent; for, as has been truly said, Scott "recalled poetry to action, and men of action to poetry."

It is amusing to see from the page of Jeffrey, how Scott’s freshness of subject and material startled a drawing-room age. That critic objected to the unaristocratic introduction of the names of the "Todrig or Johnstone clans, or of Elliots, Armstrongs and Tinlinns. Still less can we relish the introduction of Black John of Athelstane, Whitslade the Hawk, Arthur-fire-the-braes, Red Roland Forster. . . into a poem which has any pretensions to seriousness or dignity. . . . Mr. Scott must either sacrifice his Border prejudices or offend all his readers in the other parts of the Empire." He approves, however, of the "dark knight of Liddesdale," or the "gallant chief of Otterbourne." But the common fellows who could not have faced an Edinburgh drawing-room, though they could laugh in the eye of death, must be excluded. He objects also to the irregularity of the poet’s verse, so much away from the approved conventions of the century. But yet even he had to say, "While we can scarcely help regretting that the feuds of Border chieftains should have monopolised as much poetry as might have served to immortalise the whole baronage of the Empire, we are the more inclined to admire the interest and magnificence which he has contrived to communicate to a subject so unpromising." In the same way he speaks in regard to the Highland poems, which would have satisfied him better had they been written around a Duke or two, instead of hunted outlaws and broken clansmen. He spoke for the refined soul,—the coterie of evening-dress readers, who then would fain have forgotten the rude rock in the desert from which they had sprung, and the wilderness wells from which their fathers drank life’s inspirations.

His clarity of vision, his simplicity of utterance, his ease of style, open his message plainly to the plain man’s mind. He entered as by right to the huts where poor men lie just as freely as to the homes of the intellectual and cultured. I have seen the tired men in a bothy, after the day’s toil, hushed by the magician’s spell, as I have also seen the heart of the man in a carpeted library surrender to his power. That is any poet’s genuine and final test. His poetry has no conundrums. There is no headache in its message. He who runs may read, and he does read as he runs. It is life’s marching song; for everybody can keep step to it; and it keeps up the marcher’s heart as well as his chin, from the general to the last fellow lumbering up behind: Scott’s very lameness made him even the more clearly sing the song of the great heart-longing that was his and so many another’s, for a share in the grapple of the strong in the battle of life.

He re-awoke humanity to active chivalrousness, and to a love of Nature as the comrade and not merely as the garment of human achievement. The world became a brave place where brave deeds were done, and not just a kind of graveyard where rhymesters wrote moralities on tombstones. Himself had, in fact, the soul of a great captain, and he needed all which that stood for in his own last brave fight, though he fell, yet with his face set towards victory.

Alongside of his voluminous poems and his great mass of prose romance, we are apt to forget his beauty as a lyrical poet. In this he has never received full justice, for many of his lyrics are entitled to be considered as among the finest in the English language. And sufficient attention had not been paid to the scraps of verse which he set as chapter-headings in his novels, and which are full of strength and power, many of them like bugle-calls for life’s true conflict.

The world needs to listen to him again, to-day, and always, lest fidelity grow cheap, and honourable sacrifice a thing to be too lightly forgotten by the hearts of men.


You can read some of his works on Electric Scotland in e-text format


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