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The Study Of Literature
English Literature Of The 19th Century:
 First Or Pre-victorian Period--1800-1837

 Walter Scott

 Lord Byron

 Thomas Moore

 Percy Bysshe Shelley

 John Keats

 Leigh Hunt

 William Wordsworth

 Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 Robert Southey

 Read More Articles About: English Literature Of The 19th Century

Walter Scott

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

English literature in the Eighteenth Century had sunk into general monotony. The prevailing form of prose-writing was smooth didactic or reflective essays, except so far as some daring but incompetent novelists tried spasmodic, melodramatic tales. The established manner in poetry was the heroic couplet of Pope, whose aim was to be "correct" in matter and style. Thomson and Cowper had introduced a more varied and natural mode, but were more praised than imitated. Suddenly, with the opening of a new century, came a burst of free-dom. Sir Walter Scott, Byron, Moore, Shelley, Keats, Southey, and Crabbe, displayed new varieties of metre, new wealth of subjects, new brilliance of description. Most of them published tales in verse or minor epics, some of them ballads and lyrical pieces. Wordsworth and Coleridge issued "Lyrical Ballads," and the former proclaimed the discovery of a new law of poetic diction, which he himself forsook in his better work. Foremost in popularity were the lilting lays of Scott, which revealed to the English the scenery, characters and traditions of North Britain.

Walter Scott, born in Edinburgh, August 15, 1771, had spent his childhood in the romantic Scottish Border, and been imbued with its traditions of warfare and superstition. After passing through the University of Edinburgh he had learned German, then a rare accomplishment. Filled with enthusiasm for its romanticism, he translated ballads from Bürger and Goethe, and made a spirited version of the latter's youthful tragedy, "Götz von Berlichingen." Though slightly lame, Scott was active on foot and horseback, and when in 1799 he was made sheriff of Selkirkshire, he galloped around the country in search of ballads and legends. Thus were obtained three volumes of the "Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border," published in 1802. Its phenomenal success led the Countess of Dalkeith to request Scott to turn into verse the story of the goblin page connected with her family traditions. The result appeared in "The Lay of the Last Minstrel" (1805), which was received with universal acclamation and sank deeply into the popular heart. No English poem had ever sold so widely before, and Scott decided to give up practice at the bar for authorship. His official income, indeed, gave him ample means, and his generosity induced him to advance capital to James Ballantyne, the printer of his books. Ballantyne proved incompetent in business affairs, and eventually ruined himself and his trusting friend.

Scott in his "Lay" used octosyllabic verse, which, though founded on the metre of the Norman trouvères, had not previously been employed in English for serious poems. Its easy gallop and freedom from strict rules caused it to submit readily to the author's caprice. He varied it in passages expressing strong feeling or violent movement with an occasional short verse, while the longer lines rhyme sometimes in threes or fours. Scott wrote with great rapidity and did not pause to polish or correct, yet his flowing versification echoes well the sentiment of the moment. An admirable feature of his "Lay" is the framing of the story of sorcery and chivalric adventure the description of the aged minstrel, his diffidence in the presence of the great lady, his gradual recall of youthful inspiration, and the outbursts of poetic exaltation when his feelings are fully aroused. The most striking scene is the opening of the tomb of Michael Scott, and the taking of the book of gramarye from the lifeless hand of the mighty wizard.

Scott followed up the unprecedented success of the "Lay" by producing "Marmion," a somewhat similar tale, in 18o8. It related the visit of a valiant but unscrupulous English knight to Scotland, and concluded with the fatal field of Flodden (1513). A memorable tragic scene describes the immuring of Constance before a grim tribunal in the vaults of Lindisfarn Abbey. The battle is also grandly produced with true Homeric directness, and the death of conscience-haunted Marmion is an appropriate conclusion. Two years later appeared "The Lady of the Lake," generally regarded as Scott's masterpiece. It sets forth the conflict between the civilized Lowlanders and the wild Highland clan, under the leadership of Roderick Dhu. Few scenes are more impressive than the carrying of the Fiery Cross to summon the clansmen to war, the battle of Beal' an Duine, and the death of Roderick.

Scott issued more metrical tales, but he seems to have felt that he had exhausted the best of his poetic vein. Later, with his notable generosity to the merits of other writers, he acknowledged that the more dazzling and forcible genius of Byron had surpassed his own, and he quietly retired from the field of contest. But not to be idle; on the contrary, to work more strenuously than ever in the new realm of prose fiction. In 1814 appeared anonymously, "Waverley; or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since," an attempt to recall the stirring events of 1745, when the defeat of Culloden gave the death-blow to the hopes of the Stuart Pretenders. The story was eagerly welcomed by the people, many among whom could vouch for the truth of the picture. Scott, though full of enthusiasm for his native land and its people, had yet sufficient sympathy with English ideas to be able to treat his country-men with the necessary aloofness for true perspective. He avoided the grossness and indecency which had prevailed in previous novel-writing and by his dignified self-respect commended his work to a wider circle of readers. Without disclosing his authorship, he soon issued "Guy Mannering," in which a young Englishman ventures into Scotland and becomes involved in the fate of some of its people. Among the striking characters presented were Meg Merrilies, the Gipsy seeress, and Dominic Sampson, the schoolmaster, overflowing with learning and kindness. A still more vigorous sketch of Scotch life and manners is found in "The Antiquary," in which he made friendly sport of the foibles of his friend, George Constable, and indeed of his own. Meantime, to keep up the mystification about "The Great Unknown," Scott prepared under his own name treatises on chivalry, romance, and the drama, edited the works of Dryden and Swift, issued new poems, and wrote much for an "Annual Register." He had bought land at Abbotsford in 1812, and entered upon vast schemes for building a medioeval castle. When the foolishness of his printer friend and partner threatened bankruptcy, the liberality of other publishers helped to tide over the crisis.

In "The Black Dwarf" and "Old Mortality" (1816) Scott entered on a new field of Scotch life, the struggles of the Covenanters, and when he was accused of treating them unfairly, he boldly reviewed his own novels in the "Quarterly," stated the principles and ideal of historical romance, and claimed high merit in truth of character for the works of the mysterious author. "Rob Roy," a spirited presentation of Highland life and manners, appeared in 1817, and then "The Heart of Midlothian," the pathetic tale of Jeanie and Effie Deans, perhaps the best of his novels in delineation of passion. It was followed by "The Bride of Lammermoor," a domestic tragedy of similar excellence; and "The Legend of Montrose," noted for the character of Major Dugald Dalgetty, pedantic soldier of fortune.

In 1819 the prolific author for the first time turned to England for the main scene of his story, and in "Ivanhoe" described that country in the time of lingering Norman and Saxon strife in the reign of Richard Coeur de Lion. The portrait of the Jewess Rebecca, one of his finest female characters, was suggested by Washington Irving's description of a lady of Philadelphia. "Ivanhoe," being free from the embarrassment of the Scotch dialect, and rich in pictures of feudal chivalry, has received wider popular approval than any other of Scott's works. "Kenilworth" is also a favorite, describing Queen Elizabeth's visit to the Earl of Leicester's castle in Warwickshire, and her interview with the beautiful and unfortunate Amy Robsart. "The Fortunes of Nigel relate to London life, when the Scotch King had come to the English throne as James I. In "Quentin Durward" Scott at last ventured to cross to the Continent, and portrayed the strife between the crafty, superstitious Louis XI of France and Charles the Bold of Burgundy. In other stories of less merit Scott had returned to his native heath and presented both historic and domestic scenes. In 1825 he published the "Tales of the Crusaders," with Richard Coeur de Lion as a prominent personage.

Scott had for some years believed himself entirely freed from pecuniary embarrassments by the arrangements made by his partners in 1818. But the financial crash of 1825 carried down the London and Edinburgh houses with which the Ballantynes were involved, and the silent partner was astounded to find himself legally liable for not less than £130,000. Scott was now fifty-four years old and might easily have taken advantage of the bankrupt law, but his pride or high sense of honor would not permit. Refusing all assistance, he deter-mined to pay his debts or die in the effort. His wife soon died, and he suffered other painful bereavements. Leaving the grandeur of Abbotsford, he took modest lodgings in Edinburgh. The first novel written in the new quarters was "Woodstock," a tale of Charles II's wanderings and restoration to the throne. It was written in three months and brought L8,000. Within two years, as the proceeds of some novels, including "The Fair Maid of Perth," an elaborate but strongly prejudiced "Life of Napoleon Buonaparte," and "Tales of a Grandfather," relating to Scottish history, Scott had accumulated 140,000 for his creditors. But the steady drain on the vital powers was too much for his endurance. Illness began in 1829, and in the following February he had a stroke of paralysis. Yet he worked on, and in spite of friends and physicians would not take rest. His last novels, "Count Robert of Paris" and "Castle Dangerous," show signs of failing powers. He became possessed of the idea that his debts were paid, and then consented to take a sea-voyage, recommended by his physicians. On a government vessel he sailed for Naples and cruised about the Mediterranean for some months. When he felt that his end was near, he insisted on being taken back to Abbotsford. There he died September 21, 1832.

Monuments have been erected to his memory in Edinburgh and other cities, but his true monument is Scotland itself, nearly every province and town of which has been made familiar by his magic pen. He was "The Wizard of the North" who conjured up the men and manners of the past, "who bestowed upon Scotland an imperishable name." His works abound in wonderful variety of character and incident; while he excelled in delineating the Scotch of both high and low degree, he was able from his historical and antiquarian researches to present portraits of other nationalities sufficiently individualized. By his skillful handling of subjects, he taught later historians how to write, to give vivid effect to what would otherwise be chronological details or philosophical abstractions. Scott was an omnivorous reader, and no critic was more generous in acknowledging the merits of his contemporaries. Thoughtful critics confess his poetic excellence and admit his matchless power in turning back the thoughts of men to the storied past, in giving a grand impetus to the study of medieval history and art.

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