SIR WALTER SCOTT'S POEMS.*
THERE is but one fault to find with this admirable and com- plete edition of Sir Walter Scott's poems,—which appears in two forms, one with broad margins on large paper, which makes its physique as perfect as that of any book can be, and one of a somewhat smaller, though not an inconveniently small, size. Its great merit is that it contains all the poetical mottoes prefixed by Scott to the chapters of his various novels, as well as all his contributions to the Border minstrelsy, and also a brief, adequate, and very discriminating memoir by the editor, whose criticism is always wise and
generous. The fault is, that while all the poems are care- fully dated, they are not,—apparently for some insufficient reason connected with the convenience of the printer,— arranged in chronological order. "The Lady of the Lake" precedes " Marmion," which it ought to follow, and "The Bridal of Triermain," which ought to succeed " Rokeby," and to precede "The Lord of the Isles," is printed last of the long poems. This is almost as much a subject for regret as it would be, in a history of British poetry, to place Scott before Burns, or Wordsworth before Cowper. We under- stand Scott's genius better if we read "The Lady of the Lake" after " Marmion," and "The Lord of the Isles" better if it concludes the series of the longer poems. Bat that is the only fault we have to find with a singularly perfect and attractive edition of Scott's poems. Mr. Dennis's memoir, moreover, displays excellent taste and judgment, though we wish he bad given us a little more of his own fine criticism on Scott as a poet than in his editorial modesty he has thought fit. Sir Walter knew a good deal of the nature of his own genius. Mr. Dennis quotes his remark : "If there be anything good about my poetry or prose either, it is a hurried frankness of composition which pleases soldiers, sailors, and young people of bold, active disposition." And Mr. Dennis adds, very justly, that this "hurried frankness of composition" has often a special charm for people of a very opposite temperament,— that it had, for instance, a special attraction for Cardinal Newman, who confessed that, while he admitted the unques- tionable superiority of Wordsworth, Sir Walter's verse "gave him greater pleasure." When Scott spoke of the principal charm of his style consisting in the "hurried frankness" of his com- position, he was thinking, no doubt, of his battle-pieces, which certainly seem to rush along with all the passion of a charge of horse, as in the Battle of Flodden Field, the combat between James and Roderick Dhu, or the splendid ballad concerning the revenge taken on the Regent Murray in " Cadyow Castle." But except in the battle-scenes, we venture to doubt whether the occasional hurry of Scott's thought,—perhaps there may be a slight hurry in the mere words, in the mere expression of the thought, even where the mood is most tranquil and leisurely, —does display to us his poetry at its best. Pitt, who lived to read and admire profoundly "The Lay of the Last Minstrel," picked out the picture of the old harper's self-distrust and hesitation, and then of his rising courage as he perceives the sympathy of his audience, and feels once more the glow of rapture with which the eager gaze of fair and admiring listeners fills him, for special admiration ; and certainly there is no " hurry " in that exquisite and delicately shaded de- lineation of the ebb and flow of a minstrel's ardour :—
"And then, he said, he would full fain He could recall an ancient strain
He never thought to sing again.
It was not framed for village churls, But for high dames and mighty earls ; He had played it to King Charles the Good When he kept Court in Hol3rrood ; And much he wished, yet feared, to try The long-forgotten melody.
Amid the strings his fingers strayed And an uncertain warbling made, And oft he shook Ms hoary head.
But when he caught the measure wild, The old man raised his face, and smiled,
* The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott. Edited, with Memoir, by John Dennis, Author of " Studies in English Literature," do. In 5 vols. London : George Bell and Sons.
And lightened up his faded eye With all a poet's ecstasy !
In varying cadence, soft or strong, He swept the sounding chords along: The present scene, the future lot, His toils, his wants, were all forgot ; Cold diffidence, and age's frost, In the full tide of song were lost; Each blank in faithless memory void, The poet's glowing thought supplied ; And while his harp responsive rung, 'Twas thus the Latest Minstrel sung."
There is no " hurry " in the thought there. Rather the poet lingers gently on the theme, though he deals with it with the simplicity and frankness of an unstudied ease. Perhaps it is true that the short lines and entire absence of elaboration bespeak there, as in almost all his poetry, a certain indif- ference to the mode of saying what he had to say ; but at least there is no impatience to have done with the theme. He dwells upon his thought witb a happy pathos of detail that expresses anything but the rush of battle. When Mr. Dennis says, in his preface to " Marmion," "For his master on the battle-field we must go back to Homer," we are not at all sure that the exception should have been made. Homer is much more than Scott's master in beauty, in clearness of vision, in brilliancy of touch, in wideness of comprehension, in harmony of treatment ; but as to his battle-scenes, we doubt their conveying half the sense of rapture in war which
is conveyed in the battle-scenes of the rugged Northern minstrel. In his descriptions of conflict he is far more eager, more anxious to show whither the conflict tends, than Homer himself. The fever of the strife gets into his blood. But Scott is not all battle-scenes. And when his mind is dwelling on some fresh and beautiful aspect of human life or external nature, he is often at his very best. Then, though his style gives us all the sense of careless and buoyant frankness, the thought often dwells with a loving and tranquil delight on what his vision shows him. Take, for instance, the various exquisite introductions to the different cantos of " Marmion," the passages in which he recalls with so much rapture the scenery that he had loved as a child or as a youth. Every one knows the delightful picture of Smailholme Tower, and the
"Barren scene and wild,
Where naked cliffs were rudely piled ; But ever and anon between
Lay velvet tufts of loveliest green; And well the lonely infant knew Recesses where the wallflower grew, And honeysuckle loved to crawl Up the low crag and ruined wall."
There is certainly no hurry in the thought of that tender and delightful picture, though the wording there, as everywhere, seems to have something of the swiftness and carelessness of the mountain stream. But let us take a somewhat less well- known passage, that in which his memory recalls his summer wanderings with Mr. Skene :—
"To thee, perchance, this rambling strain
Recalls our summer walks again; When, doing nought,—and, to speak true.
Not anxious to find aught to do,—
The wild unbounded bills we ranged, While oft our talk its topic changed, And, desultory as our way, Ranged, unconfined, from grave to gay.
Even when it flagged, as oft will chance, No effort made to break its trance, We could right pleasantly pursue Our sports in social silence too ; Thou gravely labouring to portray The blighted oak's fantastic spray; I spelling o'er, with much delight, The legend of that antique knight.
Tirante by name, ycleped the White.
At either's feet a trusty squire, • Pandour ' and 'Camp,' with eyes of fire, Jealous, each other's motions viewed, And scarce suppressed their ancient feud. The laverock whistled from the cloud; The stream was lively, but not loud ; From the white thorn the May-flower shed Its dewy fragrance round our head : Not Ariel lived more merrily Under the blossomed bough, than we."
That is the picture of a mind that loved to muse, though it did not dwell on the words in which it shaped its musings with the fastidious delight of Keats or Tennyson. What- ever hurry there is there, is mere hurry of speech ; the thought lingers so wistfully, that it seems to grudge the omission of any detail which would recall the scene more perfectly.
Again, though there is eagerness of expression, how tender and dreamy is the delight which lingers over the description of the heroine, in "The Lady of the Lake" !—
" The maiden paused, as if again She thought to catch the distant strain. With head up-raised, and look intent And eye and ear attentive bent, And locks flung back, and lips apart, Like monument of Grecian art, In listening mood, she seemed to stand, The guardian Naiad of the strand.
And ne'er did Grecian chisel trace A Nymph, a Naiad, or a Grace, Of finer form, or lovelier face !
What though the sun, with ardent frown. Had slightly tinged her cheek with brown,— The sportive toil, which, short and light, Had dyed her glowing hue so bright, Served too in hastier swell to show Short glimpses of a breast of snow : What though no rule of courtly grace To measured mood had trained her pace,— A foot more light, a step more true, Ne'er from the heath-flower dashed the dew ; E'en the slight harebell raised its head, Elastic from her airy tread : What though upon her speech there hung The accents of the mountain tongue,— Those silver sounds, so soft, so dear, The listener held his breath to hear !"
There, again, if there is little or no sense of the fastidious and dainty delight with which the artist in words selects and shades and softens the colours with which to convey his picture, there is at least ample evidence of the rapture with which Scott dwelt upon his theme,—nay, that he was hardly able to tear himself away from it. Indeed, the extract tells very imperfectly what the poem itself proceeds to delineate with innumerable touches. It is only in the expression of Scott's feeling that there is a certain carelessness, as if the poet somewhat despaired of conveying it by speech at all, and passed from one trait to another in impatience of his own im- perfect utterances.
There was, however, at the heart of Scott's poetry, not only this unstudied frankness of utterance, but a passionate sym- pathy with all masculine emotion which gives buoyancy and grandeur to his studies of love, wrath, and revenge. It is not simply the poet who is great ; it is the man whom the poet only half delineates. What can be more descriptive of a suppressed element in Scott's own nature than the haughty and vindictive passion in the noble ballad on the assassina- tion of the Regent Murray ?— " Sternly he spoke—' Tis sweet to hear In good greenwood the bugle blown, But sweeter to Revenge's ear,
To drink a tyrant's dying groan.
Your slaughtered quarry proudly trode, At dawning morn, o'er dale and down, But prouder base-born Murray rode Through old Linlithgow's crowded town.
From the wild Border's humbled side In haughty triumph marched he, While Knox relaxed his bigot pride.
And smiled, the traitorous pomp to see.
But can stern Power, with all his vaunt, Or Pomp, with all her courtly glare, The settled heart of Vengeance daunt, Or change the purpose of Despair?"
And again, how passionate is Scott's reverence for the past— the main secret, no doubt, of Cardinal Newman's great de- light in him. How stately, for instance, is the image by which he tries to persuade his readers that the obsolete poetry of Thomas the Rhymer of Ercildoune, was far superior to the bards of his own degenerate century !—
"In numbers high, the witching tale The prophet poured along ; No after bard might e'er avail Those numbers to prolong.
Yet fragments of the lofty strain Float down the tide of years, Is, buoyant on the stormy main, A parted wreck appears."
All that was left of Thomas the Rhymer was a "parted wreck" indeed ; but it was the imagination of the modern poet which gave it its majestic impressiveness, much more than any trace of grandeur in the broken fragments which survived.