Slike strani
[ocr errors][merged small]



§ 1. THOMAS PERCY. The Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. § 2. SIR

Walter Scott. Importance of his work. $ 3. Life and character of Scott. § 4. General features of his poems. 5. His poems in detail. $$ 6 and 7: The Waverley novels. $ 8. Influence and critical faculty of Scott. $ 9. The tale of terror : HORACE WALPOLE, MRS. RADCLIFFE, etc. § 10. Oriental novels : WILLIAM BECKFORD, etc. $ 11. Historical romances : G. P. R. JAMES and W. H. AINSWORTH.

12. The romance and the English novel. Exclusive importance of Scott in romance.


$ 1. The great revolution in taste which drove out classical sentiment and substituted romance in its stead is due, above

everything else, to the labours of Sir Walter Scott;

and the chief source of Scott's romantic enthusiasm (1729-1811). is to be found in the work of THOMAS PERCY.

Percy—the name seems to have been spelt Piercy, and his claims to relationship with the house of Percy to have been rather uncertain—was the son of a grocer at Bridgnorth ; and it is possible that his charming native place may have had a strong romantic attraction for him. He was educated at Bridgnorth grammar school and at Christ Church, Oxford, and having taken Holy Orders, was presented to the college living of Easton Maudit, between Northampton and Wellingborough, which he held, with other appointments, for twenty-nine years. He spent his time here in studying romantic literature, and published some translations from the Chinese, or rather from Portuguese versions of Chinese books. Johnson visited him in 1764 and spent much of his time in reading the old romance of Felismarte of Hyrcania, which he found in the rector's library. In the next year (1765) Percy published his first edition of the

Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. The origin of Reliques

this book, whose influence on Scott was epochof Ancient making, was composite ; the compiler was assisted English Poetry".

by contemporary poets; and the help of Gray, that (1765). most scholarly of students, must have been invaluable.

But the principal ingredient of his work came from a folio manuscript of the age of Charles I, which the servants


of one of his friends had appropriated to light the fire; this manuscript, which he rescued and bound, is now in the British Museum. As a matter of fact Percy troubled himself very little about the ancient texts and their obsolete words and spelling ; his great aim was to popularise ballad literature, and, possessing a very creditable faculty of imitation, he filled up the fragmentary and imperfect parts of the poems with matter of his own invention. The most valuable part of the collection was that which contained the famous Border ballads, Chevy Chase and The Battle of Otterbourne. But Percy did not confine himself to medieval poetry. The book is, in fact, an anthology of English songs and lyrics from the earliest time, and includes some of the best work of the Elizabethan writers and of Percy's own contemporaries. Percy very wisely allowed the poems which he had edited with such pains to speak for themselves ; and his critical remarks, apart from the explanatory notes, are confined to two short dissertations, one on the ancient minstrels and the other on early metrical romances. The collection was dedicated to the Duchess of Northumberland, in whose husband's household Percy was chaplain. Whether his relationship with the historic Percys was real or fictitious, he at all events found the chief bearer of their name a useful patron. In 1778 he was made Dean of Carlisle, and in 1782 he was promoted to the bishopric of Dromore, where he died twenty-nine years later.

§ 2. It was this book of Percy's which, as has been said, kindled the genius of Sir WALTER SCOTT. It may be said once and for all that the critical estimate of Scott's

Influence work has suffered considerable fluctuation, and that in a generation which is keenly sensitive to any Reliquesshort-coming in style, the splendid merits of his upon Sir romances and, in a less degree, of his poems, are Scott frequently forgotten. He was one of those writers (1771-1832). who never trouble their heads about style, even

on the elementary side of correct grammar. In so voracious a reader and so sympathetic a critic this is a remarkable defect ; one would have thought that so assiduous a course of reading, even when it lay among the tortuous periods of Elizabethan prose, should have produced not only a personal attention to the ordinary decencies of English, but a desire to give his own writing some individual favour of style. But Scott is the standing exception to the common run of authors; he is the one instance in which a supreme gift of imagination and an abnormal sense of the picturesque overshadow those faults which would be the ruin of the ordinary mediocrity. Scott's genius was as splendid as it was versatile ; whatever it touched became pure gold or, at the worst, silver-gilt. The complete body of his work, romantic, poetical, historical, and critical, is immense ; there is scarcely a passage in it which is not coloured by his imagination ; even where it is most perfunctory he shows an interest in his subject and communicates it to his reader.

of the

It is just this quality which marks his unique position in English literature. In the first place he is the great original

of that return to nature which is the dominant note Scott's place of nineteenth-century literature. To say this is not tellectual to discover his immediate influence on succeeding history of his time:

writers. His influence upon literature pure and popular simple was not wide. He is the unapproachable character

monarch of romance; and the scanty band of of his work.

authors who, since his day, have entered that perilous realm have followed him at a distance, while some of its members have chosen to tread in the extravagant footsteps of the more imitable Dumas. But he appealed to popular appreciation ; he found, in the great days of his success, a whole continent of readers whose taste hé trained, by his own easy and palatable methods, to recognise in the whole literature of the romantic movement something that it could not have grasped without his aid ; he pointed out to everybody the new road in public opinion. We have seen that not one of the eighteenth-century poets who broke, however feebly, from the traditions of the post-Restoration school, could have effected this revolution ; even had Johnson's dictatorship been wholeheartedly on their side, their movement would not have affected the taste of the whole nation ; it would have confined itself to a small and cultivated circle. In Scott's own day, and even among his own friends, the poetry of the Lake school, and of Shelley and Keats, was regarded as the work of an eccentric clique. It was only through the medium of Scott, through the avenue which he opened up to further vistas, that the English public found their way to an appreciation of that fuller landscape whose range increased as the century advanced; it was his hand which opened the gate of this boundless demesne to the last straggler who wandered in the trim parterres of eighteenthcentury writing.

In the second place, Scott and the romantic movement are almost synonymous terms. For the great majority of English

men he re-created the Middle Ages and gave history Scott's

a living interest ; he prepared the way for the free dominant medievalism.

circulation of that spirit which, from the beginning

to the end of the nineteenth century, has connected the present more and more closely with the past. It is true that Scott's medievalism was not always the real thing, that it had a certain crudity and shallowness of detail, and that its ornament was too often of plaster. His art in this respect was identical with that of the architects who, in his own age, were building faint and inadequate imitations of Gothic churchesmen who desired to do their best and yet were not sufficiently emancipated from pseudo-classical forms to see their models clearly. Just as their art was no great advance on Strawberry Hill, so Scott now and then perilously recalls the sham medievalism of The Castle of Otranto. He was to all intents and purposes the first worker in an unknown field. No one hitherto had attempted to give anything like a connected picture of the age of chivalry. Ivanhoe, The Talisman, Marmion, were novel experiments. And it is certain that, to the modern reader who is not deeply concerned with minutiæ of correct detail, these crowded pictures of bygone days give exactly the same pleasure, the same sense of reality, which they gave to Scott's immediate public. Even the highly critical reader whose appreciations are trained to an intimate familiarity with medieval life and art is bound to confess that, beneath the meretricious surface of much that Scott wrote, there is a real vitality which is wanting in the more scrupulously considered works of later years. In short, by the general favour shown to these poems and novels, by the recognition of a spark in them that quickened and revived an apparently dead mechanism, the English mind was gradually but thoroughly prepared for the most important movements, religious, social, political, and artistic, of the years that followed. With Scott nineteenth-century literature may be said to open; the curiosity which in time made every Englishman a reader begins with him.

$ 3. He was born on August 15, 1771, in Edinburgh, his own romantic town." His father, whose portrait he afterwards drew in Redgauntlet, was a Writer to the Signet and

His life. came of the Border family of Scott of Harden ; his mother was a Rutherford ; and thus on both sides he could claim Border ancestry. An illness in childhood left him with a slight lameness, which long after became a serious trouble. Owing to his weakness he was sent to stay with his grandfather near Kelso, in the midst of that picturesque and legendary country which he was to make so peculiarly his own. At the Edinburgh High School and University he showed no great promise, but was popular and a good sportsman. However, he was even then a devourer of miscellaneous books, his taste leading him to prefer poetry and fiction. Novels and romances were not very common then, as we know; and Scott fed himself chiefly on the picturesque romances of medieval chivalry. On leaving the University he prepared to go to the bar and practised as an advocate in Edinburgh ; his real vocation was, however, very different; and his legal experience did little more than furnish him with hints of incidents and traits of human nature which he afterwards worked up in his romances. While still in his teens he fell in love with Miss Williamina Belsches, who disappointed him in 1797 by marrying Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo. The memory of this attachment seems never to have forsaken him altogether, although at the end of the same year he married a Miss Charlotte Carpenter. This young lady was of French extraction. The marriage took place at Carlisle on a Christmas Eve; and the young couple went to live at Lasswade, a pleasant village near Edinburgh. They also took lodgings in Edinburgh itself, where they eventually went into a house,


first No. 10, then No. 39, Castle Street. Just about this time the German romantic movement was making itself felt in other

countries. Bürger's Lenore, which had appeared in Early pub.

1774, and Goethe's early dramas and ballads, set

light to a fire that had been kindling for many years. Among other places, Edinburgh was touched by the novelty; and Scott, who hitherto had confined his interest to the antiquities of the Border, felt the enthusiasm. The immediate result was a translation, or rather imitation, of Lenore and other German pieces (1796). After his marriage he brought out a translation of Götz von Berlichingen (1799). Meanwhile, the idea of collecting the Border ballads never left him. These traditional songs still existed in an oral form among the descendants of the Liddesdale and Annandale mosstroopers; and Scott, like Macpherson in search of his Highland Ossian, but with a greater honesty, travelled all over the Lowlands, accumulating material and gaining familiarity with the country.

He filled himself with its strange traditions until he became wedded, as it were, to every foot of land in the district. How close this alliance was may be seen in the ballads called Glenfinlas and The Eve of St. John, which he contributed, with two German translations, to“ Monk Lewis' Tales of Wonder (1801).

In 1800 Scott became Sheriff-depute of Selkirkshire, and was able to live without depending entirely on the law. Not

long after, in 1802, he published, through James The Min.

Ballantyne, a friend of his boyhood, the first two strelsy

volumes of The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Scottish

This collection, the fruit of his travels, was simply Border" (1802-3), etc.

a magnificent tribute to the example of Percy.

As an editor, Scott did all that could have been done, and in his notes and illustrations, in which he incorporated a great amount of subsidiary matter, he showed early promise of his skill in narrative. In 1804 he published, with a commentary, the old romance of Sir Tristram, of which a unique copy existed in the Advocates' Library. He mistakenly attributed this to that mysterious person, Thomas the Rhymer, whose prophecies had been regarded with awe and reverence from the thirteenth century downwards. In 1804 also Scott moved from Lasswade to a house at Ashestiel on the Tweed. By this time he had determined to give up the law for literature. The solicitors, on his own confession, did not do him “less than justice by regarding others among my contemporaries as fitter to discharge the duty due to their clients than a young man who was taken up with running after ballads, whether Teutonic or national. My profession and I, therefore, came to stand nearly upon the footing which honest Slender consoled himself on having established with Mistress Anne Page : 'There was no great love between us at the beginning, and it pleased Heaven to decrease it on farther

of the

« PrejšnjaNaprej »