Scott—The Awakening of Romance
HE 15th of August 1771 was a lucky day for all the boys and
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
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
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
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
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.
This humble boon was granted. The minstrel was led to the room
of state where sat the
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
Other poems followed The Lay, the best being Marmion and The Lady
of the Lake. Scott's
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
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
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
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