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Scot on the Rocks

Why readers should rediscover Sir Walter Scott.

Oct 24, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 06 • By BARTON SWAIM
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Scott left Edinburgh University to become an advocate, but he had no great talent for law, and consequently plenty of free time. That was in 1792. The revolution was at its height in France, British opinion about it was hotly divided, and the two countries were on the brink of war. Yet Scott, in sharp contrast to contemporaries such as William Wordsworth, said and wrote little about it. Instead he went rambling around Scotland playing the role of amateur anthropologist and antiquary, visiting ruins, collecting artifacts, drinking with country folk, and listening to their stories. In 1800, on one of his “ballad raids” in northern England, Scott heard Coleridge’s unpublished poem “Christabel” recited by a friend of the poet. Either Scott was given a copy of the poem (which wouldn’t be published for another 16 years) or was able to memorize it after one hearing. In any case he recognized in Coleridge’s poem a major metrical innovation—what Gerard Manley Hopkins would later call “sprung rhythm,” lines that are scanned according to stresses rather than syllables.

Scott put Coleridge’s rhythmic innovation to work in his first metrical romance, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805). A four-stress sprung rhythm gave the poem two special qualities. First, the freedom of counting by stresses rather than syllabic feet allowed his lines to say much more than they could have in strict iambic tetrameter (eight syllables per line). Second, using only four stresses instead of the traditional five (pentameter) gave the lines a driving pulse that pushed the narrative forward at a riveting speed.

Here, for instance, is the meeting on horseback between two rivals, Sir William Deloraine and Lord Cranstoun.

In rapid round the Baron bent;

He sigh’d a sigh, and pray’d a prayer:

The prayer was to his patron saint,

The sigh was to his ladye fair.

Stout Deloraine nor sigh’d nor pray’d,

Nor saint, nor ladye, call’d to aid;

But he stoop’d his head, and couch’d
his spear,

And spurred his steed to full career.

The meeting of these champions proud

Seem’d like the bursting thunder-cloud.


Stern was the dint the Borderer lent!

The stately Baron backwards bent;

Bent backwards to his horse’s tail

And his plumes went scattering on the gale;

The tough ash spear, so stout and true,

Into a thousand flinders flew.

But Cranstoun’s lance, of more avail

Pierc’d through, like silk, the Borderer’s mail;

Through shield, and jack, and acton, past,

Deep in his bosom broke at last.


The Lay of the Last Minstrel is the tale of a 16th-century feud in the Scottish Borders, told by an aged minstrel, a man who made his living by telling tales. That’s precisely what Scott wanted to be, a simple teller of tales. The minstrel’s poem wasn’t written down; he told it from memory. And Scott’s metrical romances possess an entrancing aural quality that almost forces the reader to read aloud.

For the same reason, however, none of Scott’s long poems is flawless. They are a pleasure to read, but Scott was more craftsman than artist. Sometimes he contorted his lines for the sake of the rhyme—a defect more pronounced in the later poetry than in the earlier, but one that a more conscientious poet wouldn’t have allowed at all. When a friend urged him to pursue literary greatness, he replied that it simply wasn’t in him: “As for poetry it is very little labour to me; indeed ’twere pity of my life should I spend much time on the light and loose sort of poetry which alone I can pretend to write.”

New poems came quickly. Marmion in 1808, The Lady of the Lake in 1810, Rokeby and The Bridal of Triermain in 1813. Scott was also a competent scholar, editing a massive edition of John Dryden, another of Jonathan Swift, as well as a 13-volume Collection of Scarce and Valuable Tracts. By this time he had become one of the most famous men of letters in Great Britain. With the publication of his first novel in 1814, however, he became an international celebrity.

The old story that Scott began the novel but abandoned it, then a few years later found it in an old drawer while looking for fishing tackle, is almost certainly false. What is true, however, is that Scott labored very little on Waverley. Like all Scott’s literary works, this one was, if not an afterthought, an experiment undertaken in his spare time. And yet it is a masterpiece. Waverley is the story of Edward Waverley, a young English soldier and aristocrat whose talents and intelligence have as yet been given no direction. Through coincidence he falls in with a band of Scottish Highlanders just as they’re preparing to mount an insurrection and attempt to restore the Stuart monarchy. The year is 1745—the novel’s subtitle is ’Tis Sixty Years Since—and the Jacobite cause has yet to die. (Jacobites, of course, were those who believed that the removal of James II from the English throne in 1688 had been unjust, and that the subsequent Hanoverian monarchy was therefore illegitimate.) Edward has no wish to be an insurrectionist, but he has been ill-treated by the Hanoverian government, and there is the fact that well-loved ancestors had been loyal to the Stuarts. He chooses to fight for the son of the exiled James II, Charles Edward Stuart, “The Pretender,” “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” for the excellent reason that he has no honorable alternative.

Waverley is, among other things, a sustained reflection on the meaning of a deadly conflict. By placing his hero in such a momentously ambivalent position, Scott gave his readers a sense of how morally perplexing human conflict can be. Waverley—and the same is true of Scott’s other great war novel, Old Mortality—reminds its readers that honorable motives can exist on both sides of a desperate upheaval, and that the dissension producing it is not, for that reason, foolish or illogical.

It was also new: Scott hadn’t merely set his story in the past; he had dealt with the historical through fiction, and done so in a way that held the attention of everybody from chambermaids to the king. Print runs sold out one after another. Scott had published the novel anonymously, and speculation over its authorship (so recalled the Scottish jurist Henry Cockburn) “occupied every company, and almost every two men who met and spoke in the street.” In due course the secret was discovered; but Scott, who wished to be known as a “man of affairs” rather than a “man of letters,” would never allow his name to appear on the title pages of his novels. Most of them were billed to “the Author of Waverley,” hence the “Waverley novels.”

From 1814 until the end of his life in 1832, Scott published 28 novels. For a time, each one seemed to exceed the last in popularity and profits. Some, such as Ivanhoe and the Elizabethan romance Kenilworth, were blockbusters. When Quentin Durward appeared in 1823, fashionable women in Paris wore gowns made of Stuart tartan as a mark of solidarity with the novel’s Scottish hero. His productivity was staggering: In addition to writing his own major works, Scott wrote essays and reviews, edited the works of past authors, edited an historical journal, and wrote prefaces for new books. Once he even reviewed his own book—unfavorably. But in addition to all this, and on top of his professional duties, he had become (secretly and, as events would show, foolishly) a partner in his publisher’s firm. He had a major financial stake in his printer’s firm, too, and in 1808 he took a leading part in founding a London-based Tory journal, the Quarterly Review, for which he often reviewed books. For a time, therefore, he could write a novel, have it printed, have it published, and have it reviewed, all at his own discretion.

By the mid-1820s, his fame at its zenith, Sir Walter Scott’s finances had reached a breaking point. His publisher Archibald Constable was financing the company on the strength of future bestsellers and neglecting to shore up capital; for his part, Scott had spent far more than he could afford on Abbotsford. The crash came in 1826 and Scott lost everything—on paper, at least. He was allowed to keep much of what he owned, on the condition that he pay back his massive debts. He himself insisted on that condition; his were debts of honor, and he intended to pay them without benefit of charity.

“My own right hand shall do it,” he recorded in his journal. Friends and admirers from all over the country offered to help, but “a penny I will not borrow”—a vow he kept almost literally.

From the time be began publishing fiction in 1814, Scott published, on average, a novel every nine months. But it would be a mistake to conclude from this that they lack substance. The Waverley novels were never predictable or formulaic, and Scott rarely wrote the same novel twice. He was an innovator. He originated not only the historical novel but also the perverse heroine, the sage lackey, and the sequel novel. The Bride of Lammermoor (1819)—dictated while Scott suffered from gallstones—amalgamates genres and time sequences in ways that make postmodern fiction seem derivative (which of course it is). And Scott, like his contemporary Jane Austen, was no Romantic: He did not believe himself to possess, as a writer of Literature, some mysterious access to Truth. Authorship was, for him, a pastime—with the virtue of being highly remunerative. His reluctance to take himself too seriously is what makes Scott attractive as an author, what makes his prose so warm—and what made his productions less than what they might have been. He was too preoccupied with civic duties and business interests to perfect his novels, and it shows. Some of his books were insufficiently researched, a fault arising from his old aversion to schoolwork drudgery, and his plots sometimes depend heavily on improbabilities, some of which are complex to the point of convolution.

But formal deficiencies don’t begin to explain the oblivion into which he has fallen. Scott is quite as consistently readable as Dickens, and infinitely more sophisticated than the Brontë sisters. The reasons for Scott’s demise are cultural rather than aesthetic: He spoke in a moral language that is now, for the great majority of Anglophone readers, indecipherable. His fictional world was defined by honor, loyalty, and blood lineage. His heroes and heroines did not change the world by hard work and persistence; they satisfied the demands history and circumstance placed on them by becoming the people they were meant to be.

So there is no hope of reviving Walter Scott. Which is precisely why he’s worth reading.

Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.

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