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   Chapter 5 SCOTT'S PLACE IN THE ROMANTIC MOVEMENT

The Life of Buddha and Its Lessons By Henry Steel Olcott Characters: 9784

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


In order rightly to appreciate the poetry of Scott it is necessary to understand something of that remarkable "Romantic Movement" which took place toward the end of the eighteenth century, and within a space of twenty-five years completely changed the face of English literature. Both the causes and the effects of this movement were much more than merely literary; the "romantic revival" penetrated every crevice and ramification of life in those parts of Europe which it affected; its social, political, and religious results were all deeply significant. But we must here confine ourselves to such aspects of the revival as showed themselves in English poetry.

Eighteenth century poetry had been distinguished by its polish, its formal correctness, or-to use a term in much favor with critics of that day-its "elegance." The various and wayward metrical effects of the Elizabethan and Jacobean poets had been discarded for a few well-recognized verse forms, which themselves in turn had become still further limited by the application to them of precise rules of structure. Hand in hand with this restricting process in meter, had gone a similar tendency in diction. The simple, concrete phrases of daily speech had given way to stately periphrases; the rich and riotous vocabulary of earlier poetry had been replaced by one more decorous, measured, and high-sounding. A corresponding process of selection and exclusion was applied to the subject matter of poetry. Passion, lyric exaltation, delight in the concrete life of man and nature, passed out of fashion; in their stead came social satire, criticism, generalized observation. While the classical influence, as it is usually called, was at its height, with such men as Dryden and Pope to exemplify it, it did a great work; but toward the end of the eighth decade of the eighteenth century it had visibly run to seed. The feeble Hayley, the silly Della Crusca, the arid Erasmus Darwin, were its only exemplars. England was ripe for a literary revolution, a return to nature and to passion; and such a revolution was not slow in coming.

It announced itself first in George Crabbe, who turned to paint the life of the poor with patient realism; in Burns, who poured out in his songs the passion of love, the passion of sorrow, the passion of conviviality; in Blake, who tried to reach across the horizon of visible fact to mystical heavens of more enduring reality. Following close upon these men came the four poets destined to accomplish the revolution which the early comers had begun. They were born within four years of each other, Wordsworth in 1770, Scott in 1771, Coleridge in 1772, Southey in 1774. As we look at these four men now, and estimate their worth as poets, we see that Southey drops almost out of the account, and that Wordsworth and Coleridge stand, so far as the highest qualities of poetry go, far above Scott, as, indeed, Blake and Burns do also. But the contemporary judgment upon them was directly the reverse; and Scott's poetry exercised an influence over his age immeasurably greater than that of any of the other three. Let us attempt to discover what qualities this poetry possessed which gave it its astonishing hold upon the age when it was written. In so doing, we may discover indirectly some of the reasons why it still retains a large portion of its popularity, and perhaps arrive at some grounds of judgment by which we may test its right thereto.

One reason why Scott's poetry was immediately welcomed, while that of Wordsworth and of Coleridge lay neglected, is to be found in the fact that in the matter of diction Scott was much less revolutionary than they. By nature and education he was conservative; he put The Lay of the Last Minstrel into the mouth of a rude harper of the North in order to shield himself from the charge of "attempting to set up a new school in poetry," and he never throughout his life violated the conventions, literary or social, if he could possibly avoid doing so. This bias toward conservatism and conventionality shows itself particularly in the language of his poems. He was compelled, of course, to use much more concrete and vivid terms than the eighteenth century poets had used, because he was dealing with much more concrete and vivid matter; but his language, nevertheless, has a prevailing stateliness, and at times an artificiality, which recommended it to readers tired of the inanities of Hayley and Mason, but unwilling to accept the startling simplicity and concreteness of diction exemplified by the Lake poets at their best.

Another peculiarity of Scott's poetry which made powerfully for its popularity, was its spirited meter. People were weary of the heroic couplet, and turned eagerly to these hurried verses, that went on their way with the sharp tramp of moss-troopers, and heated the blood like a drum. The meters of Coleridge, s

ubtle, delicate, and poignant, had been passed by with indifference-had not been heard perhaps, for lack of ears trained to hear; but Scott's metrical effects were such as a child could appreciate, and a soldier could carry in his head.

Analogous to this treatment of meter, though belonging to a less formal side of his art, was Scott's treatment of nature, the landscape setting of his stories. Perhaps the most obvious feature of the romantic revival was a reawakening of interest in out-door nature. It was as if for a hundred years past people had been stricken blind as soon as they passed from the city streets into the country. A trim garden, an artfully placed country house, a well-kept preserve, they might see; but for the great shaggy world of mountain and sea-it had been shut out of man's elegant vision. Before Scott began to write there had been no lack of prophets of the new nature-worship, but none of them of a sort to catch the general ear. Wordsworth's pantheism was too mystical, too delicate and intuitive, to recommend itself to any but chosen spirits; Crabbe's descriptions were too minute, Coleridge's too intense, to please. Scott was the first to paint nature with a broad, free touch, without raptures or philosophizing, but with a healthy pleasure in its obvious beauties, such as appeal to average men. His "scenery" seldom exists for its own sake, but serves, as it should, for background and setting of his story. As his readers followed the fortunes of William of Deloraine or Roderick Dhu, they traversed by sunlight and by moonlight landscapes of wild romantic charm, and felt their beauty quite naturally, as a part of the excitement of that wild life. They felt it the more readily because of a touch of artificial stateliness in the handling, a slight theatrical heightening of effect-from an absolute point of view a defect, but highly congenial to the taste of the time. It was the scenic side of nature which Scott gave, and gave inimitably, while Burns was piercing to the inner heart of her tenderness in his lines "To a Mountain Daisy" and "To a Mouse," while Wordsworth was mystically communing with her soul, in his "Tintern Abbey." It was the scenic side of nature for which the perceptions of men were ripe; so they left profounder poets to their musings, and followed after the poet who could give them a brilliant story set in a brilliant scene.

Again, the emotional key to Scott's poetry was on a comprehensible plane. The situations with which he deals, the passions, ambitions, satisfactions, which he portrays, belong, in one form or another, to all men, or at least are easily grasped by the imaginations of all men. It has often been said that Scott is the most Homeric of English poets; so far as the claim rests on considerations of style, it is hardly to be granted, for nothing could be farther than the hurrying torrent of Scott's verse from the "long and refluent music" of Homer. But in this other respect, that he deals in the rudimentary stuff of human character in a straightforward way, without a hint of modern complexities and super-subtleties, he is really akin to the master poet of antiquity. This, added to the crude wild life which he pictures, the vigorous sweep of his action, the sincere glow of romance which bathes his story-all so tonic in their effect upon minds long used to the stuffy decorum of didactic poetry, completed the triumph of The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, and The Lady of the Lake, over their age.

As has been already suggested, Scott cannot be put in the first rank of poets. No compromise can be made on this point, because upon it the whole theory of poetry depends. Neither on the formal nor on the essential sides of his art is he among the small company of the supreme. And no one understood this better than himself. He touched the keynote of his own power, though with too great modesty, when he said, "I am sensible that if there is anything good about my poetry ... it is a hurried frankness of composition which pleases soldiers, sailors, and young people of bold and active dispositions." The poet Campbell, who was so fascinated by Scott's ballad of "Cadyow Castle" that he used to repeat it aloud on the North Bridge of Edinburgh until "the whole fraternity of coachmen knew him by tongue as he passed," characterizes the predominant charm of Scott's poetry as lying in a "strong, pithy eloquence," which is perhaps only another name for "hurried frankness of composition." If this is not the highest quality to which poetry can attain, it is a very admirable one; and it will be a sad day for the English-speaking race when there shall not be found persons of every age and walk of life, to take the same delights in these stirring poems as their author loved to think was taken by "soldiers, sailors, and young people of bold and active dispositions."

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