Older Masters: Essays and Reflections on English and American Literature

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

20
The Poetry of Sir Walter Scott

Lockhart tells a story of how Scott, in the midst of writing The Lady of the Lake, decided to measure his own fiction by the facts. He threw himself on horseback and, in Lockhart's words, 'put to the test the practicability of riding from the banks of Loch Vennachar to the Castle of Stirling within the brief space which he had assigned to Fitz-James's Grey Bayard, after the battle with Roderick Dhu'.

It is the sort of anecdote which delighted those many admirers of Scott throughout the nineteenth century who applauded in such episodes of Scott's life, as in the poems themselves, Scott's robust and virile, extroverted attitude to the business of writing. The most authoritative expression of this was by ron's, in Beppo:

One hates an author that's all author, fellows In foolscap uniforms turn'd up with ink,
So very anxious, clever, fine and jealous, One don't know what to say to them, or think,
Unless to puff them with a pair of bellows; Of coxcombry's worst coxcombs e'en the pink
Are preferable to these shreds of paper, These unquench'd snuffings of the midnight taper.

Of these same we see several, and of others, Men of the world, who know the world like men,
Scott, Rogers, Moore, and all the better brothers, Who think of something else besides the pen;

This account of Scott, which ranges him, if with Byron himself, also with Samuel Rogers and Tom Moore as against Coleridge and Wordsworth, is in line, so far as I can see, with our current estimate of Scott as poet. In the present century the case often goes by default; Scott's poetry is quite simply overlooked. But I dare say if challenged, the instructed reader today would agree with Byron, though not in Byron's spirit nor on his grounds, that Scott as poet stands nearer to Rogers than to Wordsworth. However, anyone who thinks it worth while talking about Scott's poetry at all cannot be satisfied with this estimate of Scott as just a representative Regency versifier,

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