The Maclise Portrait-Gallery/Sir Walter Scott

Sketch of Walter Scott, author of "Waverley," as published in "The Maclise Portrait-Gallery"

The Author of "Waverley"


"There he is," says Maginn, "sauntering about his grounds, with his Lowland bonnet in his hand, dressed in his old green shooting-jacket, telling stories of every stone and bush, and tree and stream, in sight—tales of battles and raids—or ghosts and fairies, as the case may be, of the days of yore.

'———ere Scotland's griefs began,
When every man you met had killed his man !'"

As to the portrait, whatever may be its inferiority, as an artistic work, we have the further testimony of the " Doctor" to the effect that "everything is correct in the picture, from the peak of his head down to his very cudgel"; while Mr. D. G. Rossetti does not doubt that " in its unflinching enjoyment of peculiarities, it gives a more exact impression of the man, as equipped for his daily life, than any likeness that could be met with."[1] It has been asserted too positively that Maginn never saw Scott on his native heather; but this he certainly may have done when visiting Blackwood at Edinburgh in 1820. Other opportunities may have occurred subsequently; but anyway, from his intimacy with Lockhart and other friends of the "Ariosto of the North," he might readily have acquired a knowledge of his peculiarities even down to the Shandean flourish of his bamboo-cane, "in the manner of Corporal Trim," adds Maginn, "as follows:"—

The desire of becoming acquainted in the body with those from whose minds we have long received delight, is natural enough; as is also the expectation to find in the one the "outward and visible sign" of the "inward and spiritual grace" we have known in the other. But this is a desire, often if not always, productive of disappointment, and could never, hardly, one would imagine, be more so than in the present instance. What becomes of the doctrine of "correspondence" if we have a faithful representation of the "Wizard of the North" in the coarse ungainly figure before us,—a bundle of amorphous garments, surmounted by a conical, shock-headed protuberance, unkempt and slovenly, as was Mephibosheth, when he came down to meet his royal patron,—though the son of Jonathan was lame in both his feet, instead of one only, a fact of which our artist has cleverly reminded us.

Pascal, the Provincial epistolographer, excused himself for writing at length, on the ground he had not time to be brief In a similar spirit of paradox, I might well apologize for writing so little about Scott because there is so much to say.

"Scott, the Magician!"—as Parr ejaculated:—

"Irritat, mulcet, falsis terroribus implet
 Ut magus, et modo me Thebis, modo ponit Athenis."

This great writer was born in the year 1771. For the details of his childish history, and the events of his after-life, reference must alike be made to his own charming autobiography, and the illustrations of Lockhart, whose life of his great father-in-law may be said to exhibit,—with the single exception of Boswell's Life of Johnson,—the most lucid, candid and complete account which has ever been given of one man by another. His first attempts in verse appeared in the very year of the death of Burns. It is a little singular that the earliest inspiration of his muse was not the indigenous traditional minstrelsy of his own land of historic flood and fell, but That German ballad poetry, which, tinged by a mystic and gloomy supernaturalism, enjoyed a brief popularity during the early part of the present century. It was the Lenore of Bürger which Scott chose to translate; and it must be admitted that his version has all the vividness and freedom of an original poem. But the influence which produced it was accidental and evanescent, and his genius reverted to that direction for which early association had prepared it. His childhood had been passed at the farm of Sandy-Knowe where every field had its battle, and every brook its legend; the Rebellion of '45 still dwelt in the memory of the simple Borderers, and the atrocities of the " Butcher Cumberland" were not forgotten. The taste for ballad-literature had been awakened in the public mind by the collections of Percy, Ritson, Evans and Pinkerton; and hence, the Border Ministrelsy of Scott, which appeared in 1802 at once achieved a remarkable success. It contained, as a critic of the day prophetically remarked, " the elements of a hundred romances "; and did much, with the labours of the other editors I have mentioned, to break up the old classic style, and influence the compositions of Southey, Coleridge and Wordsworth. For the small original edition, Scott had received £100; and he was finally enabled to sell_ the copyright for £500 to Longman's,—who had previously, however, decided that the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge were not worth anything at all. Next came the Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, and the Lady of the Lake; and by the year 1810, fame and fortune were his own. Scott was even then,—before, be it marked, he had written a line of prose,—the "Great Magician"; and, with the irresistible influence ot his own Lochinvar, led the whole world captive. The Delia Cruscans died away; and the minor stars of Whitehead, Hoole, Pye, Darwin, Seward and Hayley paled their ineffectual fires before the new and effulgent luminary. Still, it must not be forgotten that the voice of praise was not altogether unanimous, and that, among others, Leigh Hunt and Hazlitt were disposed to underestimate the poetry of Scott,—as Waller had depreciated Milton; Madame de Staël, Corneille; and Voltaire, Shakespeare.

On the other hand, Moir, a judicious critic, not less than an elegant poet, wrote of his immortal countryman:—

"Brother of Homer, and of him
On Avon's banks, by twilight dim,
Who dreamt immortal dreams, and took
From Nature's hand her storied book;
Earth hath not seen, Time may not see,
Till ends his march, such other three,"

—and with all due allowance for national predilection, it may be said that in simplicity and majesty of conception, picturesqueness of description, ardour of narration, rapid recurrence of striking incident, and manly avoidance of false sentiment and affectation, the Scottish poet has only been surpassed by the Bards of Chios and Avon. But these are not qualities in request in these days of spasmodic utterance, rugged diction, affected profundity and false sentiment. "Sir," said Dr. Johnson, speaking of some such atrocities of his own day, "a man might write such stuff for ever, if he could but abandon his mind to it"; and yet some modern critic,—his name is not of much matter,—has positively characterized these "poets "in "schools," and "groups," Romantic, Idyllic and so forth, God save the mark! One's consolation is, that, after drinking awhile at these turbid puddles, one must revert to the pure fount at last, and that Scott, with the older masters, will some day cease to be underrated, merely because they can be understood.

But these metrical poems are but the introduction to the greater achievement of his life,—in which Scott may be truly said to have conquered himself, and eclipsed his own glory,—his prose poems, for such in very truth are his Novels, Tales, and Romances. These may be said to have now passed out of the region of criticism; and need not detailed notice here or elsewhere. Scott created the modern novel. We had Richardson, it is true, and the earlier lucubrations of the Minerva press; but that peculiar form of prose poetry, which in our own day seems an indispensable need, and brings to thousands solace and distraction amid the spiramenta of professional and commercial life, was then unborn. It is Scott, once more, to whom we owe it;— with the assistance, be it remembered, of those charming writers of the softer sex, Edgeworth, Austen and Ferrier, who accompanied the greater light, like moons about a planet. Scott, in this immortal series, has opened to our gaze a new and enchanted world; and the creations of his teeming fancy, like those of Shakespeare, people our waking remembrance with all the vividness of material entities. Moreover, with that perfervid love for his native country which is only comparable with the Florentine nationalism of Dante, he may lay claim to have discovered to the world his own beloved land of mist and mountain,—whose past history he has illuminated, whose lonely glens he has peopled, and which he has invested with a perennial charm for all the nations of the earth.

It is a curious story;—how, desirous of trying his hand at a prose romance, he had written the earlier chapters of Waverley; and how, discouraged by his friends, he consigned the sheets to a slumber in his desk of almost Horatian length;[2] how he finished the book at a heat, and determined on its publication, notwithstanding the adverse opinion of James Ballantyne, who found it dull and vulgar! We all know,—some of us may remember—how the modest story took the world by storm,—with what electrical enthusiasm it was received as the first fruits of a new and delightful harvest of literature. "My opinion of it," said Lord Holland, when some one asked him what he thought of the new novel, "none of us went to bed all night, and nothing slept but my gout." Once more Scott had. taken by assault the world of letters. One solitary individual, avid of notoriety, and seeking, like Herostratus of old, to gain it quocunque modo, is said to have made himself remarkable as "the man who had never read the Waverley novels." To such a one, if he has a follower in these, latter days, criticism would be useless; while to the rest of the world, who read and love them, it would be alike supererogatory.

"While the harness sore galls, and the spurs his side goad,
 The high-mettled Racer's a hack on the road"—

The peculiarity in the conformation of Scott's head is noteworthy; but the apex of the cone is more sharply fastigated here than in a cast after death on a bracket before me. This is said to be due to an enlargement of the organ of "veneration," and phrenologists strive to render the fact accordant with their theory by pointing to his reverent regard for the monuments and records of the past. But this was manifested only with regard to those of his own country. When in his last dire struggle against Debt and Disgrace,—his superhuman efforts to free himself by mere brain-work from the immense habilities in which, from circumstances into which I have no space now to enter, he had become involved,—he rendered applicable to himself the lines of Dibdin:—

and made a hopeless voyage to Italy in search of health, he showed no sympathy with the ancients, and derived no gratification from the sight of classical antiquities. Rome to him, as it was to some other traveller, appeared naught but a " fine city, very much out of repair." No feeling was awakened, even when he stood amid the galleries of the Coliseum, or the ruined arches of the Baths of Caracalla; and the Temple of Apollo, the Forum, the Bay of Baise, the Lake of Avernus, and the storied Misenum, only served to suggest a line of a Jacobite ditty! Like the stricken warrior of Virgil:—

"———dulces moriens reminiscitur Argos,"—

and it was only when he returned to the old familiar scenes that he seemed for a time to regain some portion of that health and strength which he had gone so far to seek. "I have seen much," he said, "but nothing like my ain house." Here he lingered for a few days, and died at Abbotsford, on September 17th, 1832, in the sixty-second year of his age. His last intelligible words to Lockhart were,—"I may have but a minute to speak to you. My dear, be a good man,—be virtuous,—be religious,—be a good man. Nothing else will give you any comfort, when you come to lie here."

I have alluded to the financial liabilities of Sir Walter,— a long and intricate question to unravel. Lockhart's allusions to these in the life of his father-in-law gave great offence to the trustees and executors of James Ballantyne: and these gentlemen sought to vindicate the character and conduct of their friend, "so foully aspersed," by the publication of a lengthy pamphlet entitled. Refutation of the Misstatements and Calumnies contained in Mr. Lockhart's Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart., respecting the Messrs. Ballantyne, etc. (London, 1838, 8vo, pp. 96). This was answered at length by Lockhart, and the entire question is treated fairly and explicitly, though not altogether to the advantage of Scott and his biographer, in a number of Chambers's Journal, about that period.

In my notes on Jerdan I have made allusion to Sir Walter's liability to literary imposition. There I was thinking of one particular instance, which, inasmuch as it has escaped the industry of, or been intentionally overlooked by, Lockhart, may be noticed here as showing that the black-letter sagacity of the "Shirra" himself might be caught napping, and that with the simple credulity of his own Monkbarns, he could mistake the "bit bourock of the mason-callants " for a Roman Prætorium.

I allude to a brochure of five pages, entitled The Raid of Featherstonehaugh: a Border Ballad. This was really written by Sir Walter's early friend, Mr. Robert Surtees, of Mainsforth, author of the History of Durham, some of whose other impositions upon the poet were printed in the Border Minstrelsy, or inserted in notes to his Metrical Romances. Of this poem, in particular. Sir Walter entertained so high an opinion that he has incorporated a verse from it in Marmion, and given it entire in a note, as a genuine relic of antiquity, gravely commenting upon it in a most elaborate manner, and pointing out its exemplifications of the then state of society. It will be found in Marmion, Canto i. verse 13:—

"The whiles a Northern harper rude," etc.

Yet another pleasant hoax on the poet may be recorded. In a letter to Southey, September, 1810, he states that " a witty rogue had proved him guilty of stealing a passage from one of Hieronymus Vida's Latin poems which he had never seen or heard of." The passage in question was the well-known distich in Marmion:—

"When pain and anguish wring the brow,
A ministering angel thou!"

The reference was to Vida's Ad Eranen, El. ii. v. 21;—

"Cum dolor atque supercilio gravis imminet angor,
Fungeris angelico sola ministerio."

If these lines were actually to be found among the poems of the learned Bishop of Alba, the coincidence would certainly have been a remarkable one ; but I need not say that they are of more modern fabrication, being the production of the Rev. Henry I. T. Drury, afterwards "subdidasculus" of Harrow, who took it into his head, in his college days, to perpetrate this clever trick upon Scott, after the manner of Lauder upon Milton. The other lines of the piece, "Marmio ad Claram," are given in the Arundines Cami p. 36.

Who wrote the Waverley Novels? This is the title of an ingenious pamphlet by W. J. F.,—to which, and to Notes and Queries, Series i. and ii., passim, the curious must be referred for a discussion of the apparently futile question.

Of parodies upon, and imitations of, Scott, there are plenty. One of the best known is Jokeby : a Burlesque on Rokeby, a Poem, in Six Cantos. By an Amateur of Fashion (London, 8vo, 8th ed. 18 13). I fail to see much talent in this, although it has gone through so many editions; and of its various attributions to John Roby, Thomas Tegg (its publisher), or the "Adelphi," James and Horace Smith, whose well-known imitation in the Rejected Addresses is of quite different merit, probably none is correct. There is also "Smokeby," a parody of the same poem, in an early number of the Ephemerides, a literary serial, published at Edinburgh, in 1813. Then we have Marmion Travestied. By Peter Pry, a Tale of Modern Times (1809, 8vo), touching on the notorious scandal of the Duke of York and Mary Anne Clarke; and the Lay of the Scottish Fiddle: a Poem in Five Cantos,— supposed to be written by W—— S——, Esq. (London, 1814, 8vo), which has been attributed to Washington Irving, but which I would rather ascribe to his brother-in-law, the celebrated American writer, James Kirke Paulding,[3] a classic on the other side of the Atlantic, though so little knovrn here. Lastly, there is a two volume novel entitled Walladmor (1825, 2 vols. 8vo), which professes to have been "Freely translated into German from the English of Sir Walter Scott, and now freely translated from the German into English." In verity, there is a good deal of " freedom " here. At the half-yearly literary Fair at Leipsic, translations from the most recent works of Europeon authors are a prominent commodity, and some obliging hack is always at hand to act as proxy for a lazy writer. Scott ceased to produce, so a novel was written for him to meet the demand. The hoax was successful, and the Germans at least were for a time duped by the forgery.[4]

Abbotsford, the pet creation of Sir Walter, and the home, as he fondly but vainly hoped, of a long progeny, has been termed a mediaeval romance in stone and cement. Like many other romances, it is characterized by those incongruities and anachronisms of style which Maginn has satirized in his humorous novel, Whitehall: or the Days of George the Fourth; but is certainly imposing and picturesque in its general effect. It was executed in a transitional period; and its architect, Blore, who died in September, 1879, after a retirement of thirty years from professional life, gained but a questionable reputation from his magnum opus. It is well described by Washington Irving, who visited Sir Walter in 1816, in his Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey (London, 1835), and by N. P. Willis, in his Pencillings by the Way, vol. iii. chap. xxx.

The bibliography of Scott would require a volume, and must not be attempted here. But there is one volume which, standing by itself in character, may fitly be recorded. This is the Descriptive Account of the Po7-traits, Busts, Published Writings, and Manuscripts of Sir Walter Scott, Bart. Collected and Exhibited at Edinburgh on occasion of the Scott Centenary in 1871. Prepared for publication by Sir William Stirling Maxwell, Bart., David Laing, LL.D., James Drummond, R. S.A. Illustrated with Thirty-two portraits, and numerous facsimiles of original Manuscripts by the author of Waverley. Edinburgh, William Paterson. MDCCCLXXIV., 4to.

As History repeats herself, so does Biography. I round off these necessarily desultory illustrations of the great writer by the citation of an extraordinary epigram, which, whether it is to be regarded as a record or a prophecy, certainly merits preservation. All that I know of it is that it is ascribed to "an old Greek poet who flourished after the time of Hesiod." It is as follows:—

"Έν σκοτίᾳ ΣΚΟΤΟΣ ἔπετο καὶ φῶς ἥκε φάοσδε,
Κίκλησκον μὶν ἌΪΣΤΟΝ ὅου κλεός οὐρὰεον ἵκει,"

—which may be roughly traduced for the nonce:—

"In Scotland there was Scott, and a man emerged to day;
 They called him the Unknown, and his fame to heaven made way."

  1. The Academy, April 15, 1871.
  2. "Nonum prematur in annum." Herat., De Arte Poët, 388.
  3. Paulding was, I believe, the author of a book entitled A Sketch of Old England by a New Englandman, in a Series of Letters to his Brother (New York, 1822, 2 vols. 12mo)—replete with errors, misconceptions and misstatements.
  4. London Magazine, vol. x. p. 353. It is not generally known that this "free" translation, with the bantering dedication prefixed, was the work of De Quincey.