T HE 15th of August 1771 was a lucky day for all the boys and girls and grown-up people too of the English-speaking race, for on that day Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh. Literature had already begun to shake off its fetters of art. Romance had begun to stir in her long sleep, for six years before sturdy baby Walter was born, Bishop Percy had published a book called Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. In this book he had gathered together many old ballads and songs, such as those of Robin Hood and Patrick Spens. They had almost been forgotten, and yet they are poems which stir the heart with their plaintive notes, telling as they do—
"Of old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago;
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again!"
Bishop Percy, like a knight of old, laid his lance in rest and tilted against the prickly briar hedge that had grown up around the Sleeping Beauty, Romance. But he could not win through and wake the princess. And although Burns and Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, all knowing it or not, fought on his side, it was left for another knight to break through the hedge and make us free of the Enchanted Land. And that knight's name was Walter—Sir Walter, too—for, like a true knight, he won his title in the service of his lady.
Little Walter's father was a kindly Scots lawyer, but he came of a good old Border family, "A hardy race who never shrunk from war." Among his forbears had been wild moss-troopers and cattle-reivers, lairds of their own lands, as powerful as kings in their own countryside. There were stories enough of their bold and daring deeds to fill many books, so that we feel that Walter had been born into a heritage of Romance.
Walter was a strong, healthy child, but when he was about eighteen months old he had an illness which left him lame in his right leg. Everything was done that could be done to restore the lost power, and although it was partly regained, Scott walked with a limp to the end of his days. Meanwhile he had a by no means unhappy childhood. He spent a great deal of time at the farm belonging to his grandfather. Little Wat was a winsome laddie, and the whole household loved him. On fine days he was carried out and laid down among the crags and rocks, beside an old shepherd who tended his sheep and little Walter too, telling him strange tales the while—
"Of forayers, who, with headlong force,
Down from that strength had spurr'd their horse,
Their southern rapine to renew,
Far in the distant Cheviots blue,
And, home returning, fill'd the hall
With revel, wassel-rout, and brawl."
At other times Walter listened to the stories of his grandmother, hearing all about the wild doings of his forbears, or the brave deeds of Bruce and Wallace. He was taken to the seaside, to Bath, and to London, and at length, grown into a sturdy little boy, though still lame, he went back to his father's house in Edinburgh. Here he says he soon felt the change from being a single indulged brat, to becoming the member of a large family.
He now went to school, but did not show himself to be very clever. He was not a dunce, but an "incorrigibly idle imp," and in spite of his lameness he was better at games than at lessons. In some ways, owing to his idleness, he was behind his fellows, on the other hand he had read far more than they. And now he read everything he could, in season and out of season. Pope's Homer, Shakespeare, Ossian, and especially Spenser were among his favorites. Then one happy day he came upon a volume of Percy's Reliques. All one summer day he read and read, forgetting the world, forgetting even to be hungry. After that he was for ever entertaining his schoolfellows with scraps of tragic ballads, and as soon as he could scrape enough money together, he bought a copy of the book for himself.
So the years passed, Walter left school, went to Edinburgh University, and began to study law. It was at this time, as a boy of sixteen, that for the first and only time he met Robert Burns, who had just come to Edinburgh, and was delighted at receiving a kind word and look from the poet. He still found time to read a great deal, to ride, and to take long, rambling walks, for, in spite of his limp, he was a great walker and could go twenty or thirty miles. Indeed he used to tramp the countryside so far and so long that his father would say he feared his son was born to be nothing better than a wandering peddler.
After a time it was decided that Walter should be a barrister, or, as it is called in Scotland, an advocate, and in 1792 he was called to the Bar. His work as an advocate was at first not very constant, and it left him plenty of time for long, rambling excursions or raids, as he used to call them, in different parts of Scotland and in the north of England. He traveled about, listening to the ballads of the country folk, gathering tales, storing his mind with memories of people and places. "He was making himself a' the time," said a friend who went with him, "but he didna ken maybe what he was about till years had passed. At first he thought o' little, I daresay, but the queerness and the fun."
It was in an expedition to the English Lakes with his brother and a friend that Scott met his wife. One day while out riding he saw a lady also riding. She had raven black hair and deep brown eyes, which found a way at once to the poet's heart. In true poet fashion he loved her. That night there was a ball, and though Walter Scott could not dance, he went to the ball and met his lady love. She was Charlotte Margaret Carpenter, the daughter of a Frenchman who had taken refuge in England from the fury of the Revolution. Walter was able to win his lady's heart, and before the end of the year had married her and carried her off to Scotland.
Two or three years after his marriage, Scott published a book of Border Ballads. It was the outcome of his wanderings in the Border country. In it Scott had gathered together many ballads which he heard from the country folk, but he altered and bettered them as he thought fit, and among them were new ballads by himself and some of his friends.
The book was only a moderate success, but in it we may find the germ of all Scott's later triumphs. For it was the spirit of these ballads with which his mind was so full which made it possible for him to write the Metrical Romances that made him famous.
It is now many chapters since we spoke of Metrical Romances. They were, you remember, the chief literature from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, which time was also the time of the early ballads. And now that people had begun again to see the beauty of ballads, they were ready also to turn again to the simplicity of Metrical Romances. These rime stories which Scott now began to write, burst on our Island with the splendor of something new, and yet it was simply the old-time spirit in which Scott had steeped himself, which found a new birth—a Renascence. Scott was a stalwart Border chieftain born out of time. But as another writer says, instead of harrying cattle and cracking crowns, this Border chief was appointed to be the song-singer and pleasant tale-teller to Britain and to Europe. "It was the time for such a new literature; and this Walter Scott was the man for it."
"The mightiest chiefs of British song
Scorn'd not such legends to prolong:
They gleam through Spenser's elfin dream,
And mix in Milton's heavenly theme."
The first of Scott's song stories was called The Lay of the Last Minstrel. In it he pictures an old minstrel, the last of all his race, wandering neglected and despised about the countryside. But at Newark Castle, the seat of the Duchess of Buccleuch, he receives kindly entertainment.
"When kindness had his wants supplied,
And the old man was gratified,
Began to rise his minstrel pride:
And he began to talk anon,
Of good Earl Francis, dead and gone,
And of Earl Walter, rest him, God!
A braver ne'er to battle rode;
And how full many a tale he knew,
Of the old warriors of Buccleuch;
And, would the noble Duchess deign
To listen to an old man's strain,
Though stiff his hand, his voice though weak,
He thought even yet, the sooth to speak,
That, if she loved the harp to hear,
He could make music to her ear."
This humble boon was granted. The minstrel was led to the room of state where sat the noble-hearted Duchess with her ladies, and there began his lay. You must read The Lay itself to learn about William of Deloraine, the Goblin Page, the Lady Margaret, and Lord Cranstoun, and all the rest. The meter in which Scott wrote was taken from Coleridge's Christabel. For, though it was not yet published, it had long been in manuscript, and Scott had heard part of it repeated by a friend.
The Lay of the Last Minstrel was a success. From henceforth Scott was an author. But he had no need to write for money, as money came to him in other ways. So none of the struggles of a rising author fell to his lot. His career was simply a triumphant march. And good-natured, courteous, happy-hearted Scott took his triumphs joyously.
Other poems followed The Lay, the best being Marmion and The Lady of the Lake. Scott's son-in-law says, "The Lay is, I should say, generally considered as the most natural and original, Marmion as the most powerful and splendid, The Lady of the Lake as the most interesting, romantic, picturesque, and graceful of his great poems." Fame and money poured in upon Scott, and not upon him only, but upon Scotland. For the new poet had sung the beauties of the rugged country so well that hundreds of English flocked to see it for themselves. Scotland became the fashion, and has remained so ever since.
In 1799 Scott had been appointed Sheriff-deputy of Selkirkshire, and as this obliged him to live part of the year at least in the district, he rented a house not far from Selkirk. But now that he saw himself becoming wealthy, he bought an estate in his beloved Border country and began to build the house of Abbotsford. To this house he and his family removed in May 1812. Here, amid the noise of carpenters and masons, with only one room fit to sit in, and that shared by chattering children, he went on with his work. To a friend he writes, "As for the house and the poem, there are twelve masons hammering at the one, and one poor noddle at the other—so they are both in progress."
It was at Abbotsford that Scott made his home for the rest of his life. Here he put off the gown and wig of a barrister, and played the part of a country gentleman. He rode about accompanied by his children and his friends, and followed by his dogs. He fished, and walked, and learned to know every one around, high and low. He was beloved by all the countryside, for he was kindly and courteous to all, and was "aye the gentleman." He would sit and talk with a poor man in his cottage, listening to his tales of long ago, with the same ease and friendliness as he would entertain the great in his own beautiful house. And that house was always thronged with visitors, invited and uninvited, with friends who came out of love of the genial host, with strangers who came out of curiosity to see the great novelist. For great as Scott's fame as a poet, it was nothing to the fame he earned as a story-teller.
The first story he published was called Waverley, or 'Tis Sixty Years Since. He had begun to write this tale years before, but had put it aside as some of his friends did not think well of it. One day he came upon the manuscript by accident, thought himself that the story was worth something, and resolved to publish it. Finishing the writing in three weeks he published the novel without putting his name upon the title-page. He did this, he said, because he thought it was not quite dignified for a grave advocate and Sheriff of the county to write novels. The book was a wild success, everybody read it, everybody was eager to know who the author was. Many people guessed that it was Scott, but, for more than ten years, he would not own it. At public dinners when the health of the author of Waverley was drunk, people would look meaningly at Scott, but he would appear quite unconcerned, and drink the health and cheer with the rest. To keep the mystery up he even reviewed his own books. And so curiosity grew. Who was this Great Unknown, this Wizard of the North?
Waverley is a story of the Jacobite times, of the rebellion of '45. The hero, Edward Waverley, who is no such great hero either, his author calling him indeed "a sneaking piece of imbecility," gives his name to the book. He meets Bonnie Prince Charlie, is present at the famous ball at Holyrood, fights at the battle of Prestonpans, and marches with the rebel army into England.
Thus we have the beginning of the historical novel. Scott takes real people, and real incidents, and with them he interweaves the story of the fortunes of make-believe people and make-believe incidents. Scott does not always keep quite strictly to fact. He is of the same mind as the old poet Davenant who thought it folly to take away the liberty of a poet and fetter his feet in the shackles of an historian. Why, he asked, should a poet not make and mend a story and frame it more delightfully, merely because austere historians have entered into a bond to truth. So Scott takes liberties with history, but he always gives us the spirit of the times of which he writes. Thus in one sense he is true to history. And perhaps from Waverley we get the better idea of the state of Scotland, at the time of the last Jacobite rebellion, than from any number of histories. In the next chapter Scott himself shall give you an account of the battle of Prestonpans.