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romance and produced The Lay of the Last Minstrel. The Last Minstrel is the poet himself, who revives in a prosaic and degenerate age the heroic memories of the olden time. Of those which followed The Lady of the Lake was the first revelation to the world of the lovely scenery and the poetry of clan life which lay enclasped and unknown to the cultivated world in the Highlands, into the fastnesses of which, physical and social, he had penetrated on a legal errand. This gave the poem an immense popularity. Otherwise Marmion is the greatest of his poems, while the Lay is the freshest. Rokeby and The Lord of the Isles show exhaustion, the last in a sad degree. Two minor romances, The Bridal of Triermain and Harold the Dauntless, have not taken rank with the five : Harold the Dauntless is weak; but Triermain, in narrative skill and picturesqueness, is certainly superior to The Lord of the Isles. The Vision of Don Roderick has been justly described by Mr. Palgrave as an unsuccessful attempt to blend the past history of Spain with the interests of the Peninsular War. The Epistles introductory to the cantos of Marmion have been deemed out of place; but they are in themselves charming pictures of Scott among his literary friends. They seem also to show that he well knew he was living in the present while he amused himself and his readers with the romantic past ; although he was sometimes enough under the illusion to be taken with ravishment by the mock-feudalism of George the Fourth’s coronation, and to play with heart and soul the cockney Highlander on the occasion of the same monarch's farcical visit to Scotland.
Before The Lord of the Isles, Waverley appeared. Scott's career as a novelist began as his career as a poet ended. His vein was worked out, his popularity flagged, he was being eclipsed by Byron, one part of whose talisman the high-minded and self-repressing gentleman certainly would not have condescended to borrow.
Scott has vindicated the metre of his tales as preferable to Pope's couplet : in the case of a romance which was a development of the ballad, the vindication was needless. Scott's metre is the true English counterpart, if there be one, of Homer. In The Lady of the Lake and Rokeby it is the simple eight-syllable couplet. In the other poems variations are freely introduced with the best effect. Scott had no ear for music, but he had an ear for
In each of the romances, The Lord of the Isles perhaps excepted, there is an exciting story, well told, for Scott was a thorough master
of narration. In The Lay of the Last Minstrel, it is true, the diablerie sits lorn on the general plot; but it was an imposed task, not his own idea. We are always carried on, as the writer was himself when he was composing Marmion, by the elastic stride of a strong horse over green turf and in the freshest air. Abounding power alike of invention and expression is always there ; and we feel throughout the influence of Scott's strong though genial and sympathetic character and the control of his masculine sense, which never permits bad taste or extravagance. The language however, always good and flowing, is never very choice or memorable. There is not seldom a want of finish; and under the seductive influence of the facile measure, the wonderful ease not seldom runs into diffuseness, and sometimes, in the weaker poems, into a prolixity of common-place.
• Though wild as cloud, as stream, as gale,
Flow forth, flow unrestrained, my tale!' Scott was a little too fond of unrestrained flow; and perhaps it rather pleased him to think that his works were carelessly thrown off, by a gentleman writing for his amusement, not laboured by a professional writer.
He was a painter of action rather than of character, at least in its higher grades. Something of insight and experience which Homer had he wanted. All the heroes of his novels are insipid except the Master of Ravenswood, who interests not by his character but by his circumstances; all the heroines except Di Vernon, who interests by her circumstances and her horsemanship. So it is with the heroes and heroines of the poems. Margaret, in the Lay of the Last Minstrel, comes on with a charming movement, but she remains merely the fairest maid of Teviotdale. The best characters are heroic scoundrels, such as Marmion the stately forger, and Bertram Risingham the buccaneer with a vein of good in his evil nature. The worst of all my undertakings,' says Scott himself, “is that my rogue always in despite of me turns out my hero. The author of Paradise Lost met with the same misfortune. Marmion is an almost impossible mixture of majesty and felony; but he is better than a seraph of a gentleman. There is not a happier passage in the poems than that in which, as a gentle judgment on his career of criminal ambition, the peasant takes his place in the baronial tomb. It is marred by the moralising at the end. Scott did not know when enough had been said.
"To write a modern romance of chivalry,' said Jeffrey in his review of Marmion, 'seems to be much such a phantasy as to build a modern abbey or an English pagoda.' Restorations are forced and therefore they are weak, even when the mind of the restorer is so steeped in the lore of the past as was that of Scott. His best works, after all, are his novels of contemporary or nearly contemporary life. A revival, whether in fiction or in painting, is a masquerade. Scott knew the Middle Ages better perhaps than any other man of his time ; but he did not know them as they are known now; and an antiquary would pick many holes in his costume. His baronial mansion at Abbotsford was bastard Gothic, and so are many details of his poems. The pageantry not seldom makes us think of the circus, while in the sentiment there is too often a strain of the historical melodrama. The Convent Scene in Marmion is injured by the melodramatic passage in the speech of Constance about the impending dissolution of the monasteries.
All that a reviver could do by love of his period Scott did. He shows his passionate desire of realising feudal life, and at the same time his circumstantial vividness of fancy, by a minuteness of detail like that which we find in Homer, who perhaps was also a Last Minstrel. He resembles Homer too in his love of local names, which to him were full of associations.
Scott has said of himself—'To me the wandering over the field of Bannockburn was the source of more exquisite pleasure than gazing upon the celebrated landscape from the battlements of Stirling Castle. I do not by any means infer that I was dead to the feeling of picturesque scenery ; on the contrary, few delighted more in its general effect. But I was unable with the eye of a painter to dissect the various parts of the scene, to comprehend how the one bore on the other, to estimate the effect which various features of the view had in producing its leading and general effect.' It is true that he had not a painter's eye any more than he had a musician's ear; and we may be sure that the landscape charmed him most when it was the scene of some famous deed or the setting of some legendary tower. Yet he had a passionate love of the beauties of nature and communicated it to his readers. He turned the Highlands from a wilderness at the thought of which culture shuddered into a place of universal pilgrimage. He was conscientious in his study of nature, going over the scene of Rokeby with book in hand and taking down all the plants and shrubs, though he sometimes lapsed into a closet description, as in saying of the buttresses of Melrose in the moonlight that they seem framed alternately of ebon and ivory. Many of his pictures, such as that of Coriskin, are examples of pure landscape painting without the aid of historical accessories. In a nature so warm, feeling for colour was sure not to be wanting ; the best judges have pronounced that Scott possessed this gift in an eminent degree; and his picture of Edinburgh and the Camp in Marmion has been given as an example. He never thought of lending a soul to Nature like the author of Tintern Abbey, to whose genius he paid hearty homage across a wide gult of difference. But he could give her life ; and he could make her sympathise with the human drama, as in the lines at the end of the Convent Canto of Marmion and in the opening of Rokeby, which rivals the opening of Hamlet in the cold winter night on the lonely platform of Elsinore.
Of the ballads and lyrical pieces some were Scott's earliest productions ; among these is the Eve of St. John, in which his romantic imagination is at its height. Others are scattered through the romances and novels. In the ballads, even when they are most successful as imitations of the antique, there is inevitably something modern : but so, it may be said, there is in the old ballads themselves, or they would not touch us as they do. Edmund's song in Rokeby is an old ballad, only with a finer grace and a more tender pathos. There is nothing in Scott's lyrical poetry deep or spiritual ; the same fresh, joyous unphilosophising character runs through all his works : but in ‘County Guy' he shows a true lyrica! power of awakening by suggestion thoughts which would suffer by distinct expression.
THE LAST MINSTREL
[From The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Introduction to Canto I.]
The way was long, the wind was cold,
He pass'd where Newark's stately tower