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SIR WALTER SCOTT.
THE greatest literary figure during the first quarter of the present century is undoubtedly Sir Walter Scott. He occupied scarcely less relative prominence for a time than did Samuel Johnson a few decades earlier. It is not uncommon to associate his name with the period in which he was pre-eminent. He distinguished himself in both poetry and prose. He created a species of romantic poetry that was received with great applause until it was eclipsed by the intenser productions of Byron. "Why did you quit poetry?" a friend once inquired of Scott. "Because Byron beat me," was the remarkably frank reply. He then turned to fiction; and in his splendid series of historical romances he stands pre-eminent not only among the writers of England, but of the world.
Sir Walter Scott descended from a line distinguished for sports and arms rather than letters.` One of his remote ancestors was once given the choice of being hanged, or marrying a woman who had won the prize for ugliness in four counties. After three days' deliberation he decided in favor of "meiklemouthed Meg," who, be it said, made him an excellent wife. It was from her that our author possibly inherited his large mouth. His father was a dignified man, orderly in his habits, and fond of ceremony. It is said that he "absolutely loved a funeral;" and from far and near he was sent for to superintend mortuary ceremonies. As a lawyer he frequently lost clients by insisting that they should be just a sturdy uprightness that was transmitted to his illustrious son.
Sir Walter's mother was a woman of superior native ability and of excellent education. She had a good memory, and a talent for narration. "If I have been able to do anything in
the way of painting past times," he once wrote, “it is very much from the studies with which she presented me." He loved his mother tenderly; and the evening after his burial, a number of small objects that had once belonged to her were found arranged in careful order in his desk, where his eye might rest upon them every morning before he began his task. This is an instance of filial piety as touching as it is beautiful.
Walter Scott, the ninth of twelve children, was born in Edinburgh, Aug. 15, 1771. On account of sickness he was sent into the country, where his childhood was spent in the midst of attractive scenery. Left lying out of doors one day, a thunder-storm arose; and when his aunt ran to bring him in, she found him delighted with the raging elements, and shouting, "Bonny, bonny!" at every flash of lightning. One of the old servants spoke of him as "a sweet-tempered bairn, a darling with all about the house." But at the same time he was active, fearless, and passionate. The Laird of Raeburn, a relative, once wrung the neck of a pet starling. "I flew at his throat like a wild cat," said Sir Walter, as he recalled the circumstance fifty years afterwards, "and was torn from him with no little difficulty."
At school he established a reputation for irregular ability. He possessed great energy, vitality, and pride, and was naturally a leader among his fellow-pupils. He had the gift of story-telling in a remarkable degree. He found difficulty in confining himself to the prescribed studies, and persistently declined to learn Greek. In Latin he made fair attainments. He delighted in the past, reverenced existing institutions, sympathized with royalty, and as a boy, as in after life, he was a Tory.
As a student of law at the University of Edinburgh, Scott was noted for his gigantic memory and enormous capacity for work. His literary tastes ran in the direction of medieval life, and he devoured legend and romance and border song with great avidity. He learned Italian to read Ariosto, and Spanish to read Cervantes, whose novels, he said, "first inspired him
with the desire to excel in fiction." But his memory retained only what suited his genius. He used to illustrate this characteristic by the story of an old borderer who once said to a Scotch divine: "No, sir, I have no command of my memory. It only retains what hits my fancy; and probably, sir, if you were to preach to me for two hours, I would not be able, when you finished, to remember a word you had been saying."
As a lawyer Scott was not notably successful. He was fond of making excursions over the country to visit localities celebrated for natural beauty or historic events. In view of this habit, his father reproached him as being better fitted for a pedler than for a lawyer. He was rather fond, it must be said, of living,
"But drunk or sober," such is the testimony of one of his companions at this time, "he was aye the gentleman." Scott practised at the bar fourteen years; but his earnings never amounted to much more than two hundred pounds a year. In 1799 he was made sheriff of Selkirkshire on a salary of three hundred pounds; and a few years later he became Clerk of the Session, an officer in the Court of Edinburgh, a position that increased his income to sixteen hundred pounds. He was not eloquent as a pleader; his tastes were averse to legal drudgery; and his proclivities for poetry and for rambling over the country did not enhance his reputation as a lawyer. But whether practising at the bar or wandering over the country, "he was makin' himself a' the time" storing his mind with the facts, legends, and characters which he was afterwards to embody in his immortal works. The life of Scott was not without its romance, and, but for the effect upon his character and works, we might say, alas, its sorrow. He one day offered his umbrella to a beautiful young lady who was coming out of the Greyfriars church during a shower. It was graciously accepted. The incident led to an acquaintance, and, at least on the part of Scott, to
"One crowded hour of glorious life."
a deep attachment. His large romantic nature was filled with visions of happiness. Then came disappointment. For some reason the fair Margaret rejected his attentions, and married a rival. After the first resentment was past, this attachment remained throughout his life a source of tender recollections. Years afterwards he went to visit Margaret's mother, and noted in his diary: "I fairly softened myself, like an old fool, with recalling old stories till I was fit for nothing but shedding tears and repeating verses for the whole night." Within a twelvemonth of his disappointment, urged on it may be by his pride, he married Miss Carpenter, a lady of French birth and parentage. Though it was "a bird of paradise mating with an eagle,” she made a good wife, and the union was upon the whole a happy one.
Though Scott's greatest literary work was to be in prose, he began with poetry. His first undertaking was a translation from the German of Bürger's spectral ballad, "Lenore." Though his rendering is spirited, he was far too healthy-minded to be perfectly at home in treating spectral themes. He soon turned to more congenial subjects. From his college days he had been making a collection of old Scottish ballads. In 1802 he published in two volumes "The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border," which was an immediate success.
The native bent of his mind, and his studies for many years, peculiarly fitted him to restore and illustrate the simplicity and violence of the old border life. The transition to original poems, in which the legends and history of the same region were embodied, was easily made. "The Lay of the Last Minstrel" was published in 1805, and at once became widely popular. More than two thousand copies were sold the first year; and by 1830 the sales reached forty-four thousand copies, bringing the author nearly a thousand pounds.
Three years later "Marmion," his greatest poem, appeared; and this was followed in 1810 by "The Lady of the Lake.” They were read with enthusiasm. They were new in subject and treatment. Without any pretension to classical regularity
and finish, they were rapid, energetic, and romantic- the style exactly suited to the subject. "I am sensible," the author said, "that 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 and active dispositions." They are so simple in structure and thought as to be easily comprehended; they abound in wild scenes and daring deeds; they are suffused with a patriotic, martial spirit, and the delirious enjoyment of wild out-door life.
Nearly all of Scott's poetry was written in a beautiful little country house at Ashestiel. The locality is vividly depicted in the first canto of "Marmion "
"November's sky is chill and drear,
He devoted the first part of the day to his literary work. Arrayed in his shooting-jacket, or whatever dress he meant to use till dinner-time, he was seated at his desk by six o'clock, all his papers arranged before him in the most accurate order, and his books of reference marshalled around him on the floor, while at least one favorite dog lay watching his eye, just beyond the line of circumvallation. Thus, by the time the family assembled for breakfast, between nine and ten, he had done enough, in his own language, 'to break the neck of the day's work.'
Late, gazing down the steepy linn,
During the seven years of his residence at Ashestiel, his