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“He blew his bugle so loud and hoarse,
Scott's verse has lost its novelty, but in reading such lines as these, we can still feel the force of that magic which once enchanted the world. The Lay was followed by Marmion (1808), The Lady of the Lake (1810), and by other poems.
The Waverley Novels.- Meanwhile, Scott's poetry had found imitators and had lost something of the charm of novelty. Byron, who had sprung into sudden fame by the publication of the first instalment of Childe Harold (1812), was the poetic sensation of the hour. Scott, who never thought himself a great poet, left the field open to his brilliant rival. He gave up writing poetry, he declared with a genuine frankness, because Byron “beat him," and he turned to the writing of novels. In 1814 he published Waverley. The Lay of the Last Minstrel made an epoch in English poetry, Waverley made an epoch in English fiction. Scott had conquered and captivated the public once by his poetry, he was now to conquer it a second time by his prose. Waverley, which had been published anonymously, was followed by novel after novel from the pen of the same mysterious author. After writing some of his best stories of Scottish life, — Guy Mannering (1815) and The Antiquary (1816) among the number, - Scott won a triumph in the field of English history by Ivanhoe (1819), probably the most popular and in some respects the most fascinating of his romances. A
few years later he published Quentin Durward (1823), the first of his novels in which he passed beyond the British Isles and laid the scene in foreign lands. Besides getting through an appalling mass of other work, Scott wrote over thirty novels and stories between 1814 and 1831, an average of about two a year.
Prosperity and Failure. --- In 1812 Scott had bought land on the Tweed near Melrose, and there he built for himself the great house he called Abbotsford. For some years his life at Abbotsford was busy and successful. He was Sheriff of Selkirkshire and Clerk of the Law Courts; he was the country gentleman, the most hospitable of hosts; he was antiquarian, poet, novelist, and man of letters, and
to his sorrow - he was man of business also, a silent partner in the firm of his friends and publishers the Ballantynes. In 1820 Scott was made a Baronet, and two years later he represented Scotland when the King visited Edinburgh. In 1826, when he was at the height of his fame, and when every ambition seemed gratified, Scott found himself involved as secret partner in the failure of the Ballantynes, and personally liable to the extent of £117,000. Scott's goodness and strength were equal to the emergency. He was no longer young, he had worked terribly and his health was breaking, but he set himself to his task with a steadfast courage.
In two years (1826–1828) he had earned nearly £40,000 for his creditors by his painful but unflinching toil. Shortly before his sudden change of fortune Scott had begun to keep a journal. This Journal, written for no eye but his own, has been published, and the reader can now live through those years with Scott, and know him as he was. The Journal is a noble book, the deepest and noblest, in some respects, that Scott
ever wrote. No one can read its brief, manly record of that gallant fight with adversity, no one can follow the story of that struggle, - saddened by domestic losses, by failing health and by waning powers, yet indomitably maintained until the last, - without knowing that here was indeed a man. Great as Scott was in his prosperity, it was only in these years of searching trial that his latent greatness was fully revealed. But the strain on body and mind was not to be borne. After his return from a Continental tour, undertaken in the vain hope of restoring health to mind and body, he died peacefully in his home at Abbotsford, September 21, 1832. He was buried in the ruined Abbey of Dryburgh, among the scenes and associations he had loved.
Character and Work. - There is no need to dwell on Scott's character. A hundred years ago Byron declared that Scott was the only successful genius he ever knew who was
“as genuinely beloved as a man” as he was admired as an author.” From that day to this, the world has loved Sir Walter and honored his manhood as well as read his books. Even Carlyle, who undervalued the Waverley Novels, declared that Scott had no cant about him, and that he was “the soundest specimen of British manhood put together in this eighteenth century of time.”
The position of Scott in literature seems a strikingly isolated one. He not only wrote about the past, but in many respects belonged to it rather than to our modern world. The poetry of the nineteenth century is intellectual, heavy with its burden of thought; Scott's poetry, spirited, rapid in movement, and often careless in execution, is the poetry of action. Scott, indeed, was by nature an old-time man of action, rather than a modern man of letters. Born of good fighting-stock,
he had in him the stuff out of which soldiers and leaders are made. Modern poets are fond of insisting upon the supremacy and permanence of art; Scott set the doer of the deed higher than the poet who celebrated it in song. It was this quality that helped to make him one of the few really successful narrative poets of our literature. It was the minstrel's office to sing the deeds of heroes, and Scott is preëminent among the modern poets
His descriptions of battles, it has often been said, are the most Homeric in English literature. His ballads, The Eve of St. John, Red Harlaw, and the rest, are not mere ingenious imitations, they have the fire and force of the born minstrel. The same vigor and wholesomeness are found in many of Scott's songs.
As Novelist. In the field of fiction Scott is one of the greatest of historical romancers. Although he is not strictly "true to history," he is true to the fundamental and enduring facts of life. In the Waverley Novels he revived for the nineteenth century the life of the Middle Ages, not in its bald realism, but softened and idealized by a poetic imagination, and enveloped in an atmosphere of romance.
His detailed knowledge of the costumes and manners of the past enabled him to people those shadowy centuries for us with men and women, who, if not entirely real or substantial, are interesting, as the figures in an ancient tapestry, because they suggest to the mind the form and color, the glory and action, of a departed time. We must not, however, think of Scott solely as the great revealer of the past. He is probably greatest when he puts aside the trappings of historical romance, and shows us the daily life of the Scottish people, in the smoke of its peat fires, in its humor, its poverty, its tragedy, and its homely toil.