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The Lady of the Lake By Walter Scott Characters: 12684

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh, August 15, 1771, of an ancient Scotch clan numbering in its time many a hard rider and good fighter, and more than one of these petty chieftains, half-shepherd and half-robber, who made good the winter inroads into their stock of beeves by spring forays and cattle drives across the English Border. Scott's great-grandfather was the famous "Beardie" of Harden, so called because after the exile of the Stuart sovereigns he swore never to cut his beard until they were reinstated; and several degrees farther back he could point to a still more famous figure, "Auld Wat of Harden," who with his fair dame, the "Flower of Yarrow," is mentioned in The Lay of the Last Minstrel. The first member of the clan to abandon country life and take up a sedentary profession, was Scott's father, who settled in Edinburgh as Writer to the Signet, a position corresponding in Scotland to that of attorney or solicitor in England. The character of this father, stern, scrupulous, Calvinistic, with a high sense of ceremonial dignity and a punctilious regard for the honorable conventions of life, united with the wilder ancestral strain to make Scott what he was. From "Auld Wat" and "Beardie" came his high spirit, his rugged manliness, his chivalric ideals; from the Writer to the Signet came that power of methodical labor which made him a giant among the literary workers of his day, and that delicate sense of responsibility which gave his private life its remarkable sweetness and beauty.

At the age of eighteen months, Scott was seized with a teething fever which settled in his right leg and retarded its growth to such an extent that he was slightly lame for the rest of his life. Possibly this affliction was a blessing in disguise, since it is not improbable that Scott's love of active adventure would have led him into the army or the navy, if he had not been deterred by a bodily impediment; in which case English history might have been a gainer, but English literature would certainly have been immeasurably a loser. In spite of his lameness, the child grew strong enough to be sent on a long visit to his grandfather's farm at Sandyknowe; and here, lying among the sheep on the windy downs, playing about the romantic ruins of Smailholm Tower,[1] scampering through the heather on a tiny Shetland pony, or listening to stories of the thrilling past told by the old women of the farm, he drank in sensations which strengthened both the hardiness and the romanticism of his nature. A story is told of his being found in the fields during a thunder storm, clapping his hands at each flash of lightning, and shouting "Bonny! Bonny!"-a bit of infantile intrepidity which makes more acceptable a story of another sort illustrative of his mental precocity. A lady entering his mother's room found him reading aloud a description of a shipwreck, accompanying the words with excited comments and gestures. "There's the mast gone," he cried, "crash it goes; they will all perish!" The lady entered into his agitation with tact, and on her departure, he told his mother that he liked their visitor, because "she was a virtuoso, like himself." To her amused inquiry as to what a virtuoso might be, he replied: "Don't ye know? why, 'tis one who wishes to and will know everything."

As a boy at school in Edinburgh and in Kelso, and afterwards as a student at the University and apprentice in his father's law office, Scott took his own way to become a "virtuoso"; a rather queer way it must sometimes have seemed to his good preceptors. He refused point-blank to learn Greek, and cared little for Latin. His scholarship was so erratic that he glanced meteor-like from the head to the foot of his classes and back again, according as luck gave or withheld the question to which his highly selective memory had retained the answer. But outside of school hours he was intensely at work to "know everything," so far as "everything" came within the bounds of his special tastes. Before he was ten years old he had begun to collect chap-books and ballads. As he grew older he read omnivorously in romance and history; at school he learned French for the sole purpose of knowing at first hand the fascinating cycles of old French romance; a little later he mastered Italian in order to read Dante and Ariosto, and to his schoolmaster's indignation stoutly championed the claim of the latter poet to superiority over Homer; a little later he acquired Spanish and read Don Quixote in the original. With such efforts, however, considerable as they were for a boy who passionately loved a "bicker" in the streets and who was famed among his comrades for bravery in climbing the perilous "kittle nine stanes" on Castle Rock, he was not content. Nothing more conclusively shows the genuineness of Scott's romantic feeling than his willingness to undergo severe mental drudgery in pursuit of knowledge concerning the old storied days which had enthralled his imagination. It was no moonshine sentimentality which kept him hour after hour and day after day in the Advocate's Library, poring over musty manuscripts, deciphering heraldic devices, tracing genealogies, and unraveling obscure points of Scottish history. By the time he was twenty-one he had made himself, almost unconsciously, an expert paleographer and antiquarian, whose assistance was sought by professional workers in those branches of knowledge. Carlyle has charged against Scott that he poured out his vast floods of poetry and romance without preparation or forethought; that his production was always impromptu, and rooted in no sufficient past of acquisition. The charge cannot stand. From his earliest boyhood until his thirtieth year, when he began his brilliant career as poet and novelist, his life was one long preparation-very individual and erratic preparation, perhaps, but none the less earnest and fruitful.

In 1792, Scott, then twenty-one years old, was admitted a member of the faculty of advocates of Edinburgh. During the five years which elapsed between this date and his marriage, his life was full to overflowing of fun and adventure, rich with genial companionship, and with experience of human nature in all its wild and tame varieties. Ostensibly he was a student of law, and he did, indeed, devote some serious attention to the ma

stery of his profession. But the dry formalities of legal life his keen humor would not allow him to take quite seriously. On the day when he was called to the bar, while waiting his turn among the other young advocates, he turned to his friend, William Clark, who had been called with him, and whispered, mimicking the Highland lasses who used to stand at the Cross of Edinburgh to be hired for the harvest: "We've stood here an hour by the Tron, hinny, and deil a ane has speered[2] our price." Though Scott never made a legal reputation, either as pleader at the bar or as an authority upon legal history and principles, it cannot be doubted that his experience in the Edinburgh courts was of immense benefit to him. In the first place, his study of the Scotch statutes, statutes which had taken form very gradually under the pressure of changing national conditions, gave him an insight into the politics and society of the past not otherwise to have been obtained. Of still more value, perhaps, was the association with his young companions in the profession, and daily contact with the racy personalities which traditionally haunt all courts of law, and particularly Scotch courts of law: the first association kept him from the affectation and sentimentality which is the bane of the youthful romanticist; and the second enriched his memory with many an odd figure afterward to take its place, clothed in the colors of a great dramatic imagination, upon the stage of his stories.

Added to these experiences, there were others equally calculated to enlarge his conception of human nature. Not the least among these he found in the brilliant literary and artistic society of Edinburgh, to which his mother's social position gave him entrance. Here, when only a lad, he met Robert Burns, then the pet and idol of the fashionable coteries of the capital. Here he heard Henry Mackenzie deliver a lecture on German literature which turned his attention to the romantic poetry of Germany and led directly to his first attempts at ballad-writing. But much more vital than any or all of these influences, were those endless walking-tours which alone or in company with a boon companion he took over the neighboring country-side-care-free, roystering expeditions, which he afterwards immortalized as Dandie Dinmont's "Liddesdale raids" in Guy Mannering. Thirty miles across country as the crow flies, with no objective point and no errand, a village inn or a shepherd's hut at night, with a crone to sing them an old ballad over the fire, or a group of hardy dalesmen to welcome them with stories and carousal-these were blithe adventurous days such as could not fail to ripen Scott's already ardent nature, and store his memory with genial knowledge. The account of Dandie Dinmont given by Mr. Shortreed may be taken as a picture, only too true in some of its touches, of Scott in these youthful escapades: "Eh me, ... sic an endless fund of humor and drollery as he had then wi' him. Never ten yards but we were either laughing or roaring and singing. Wherever we stopped how brawlie he suited himsel' to everybody! He aye did as the lave did; never made himsel' the great man or took ony airs in the company. I've seen him in a' moods in these jaunts, grave and gay, daft and serious, sober and drunk-(this, however, even in our wildest rambles, was but rare)-but drunk or sober, he was aye the gentleman. He looked excessively heavy and stupid when he was fou, but he was never out o' gude humor." After this, we are not surprised to hear that Scott's father told him disgustedly that he was better fitted to be a fiddling peddler, a "gangrel scrape-gut," than a respectable attorney. As a matter of fact, however, behind the mad pranks and the occasional excesses there was a very serious purpose in all this scouring of the country-side. Scott was picking up here and there, from the old men and women with whom he hobnobbed, antiquarian material of an invaluable kind, bits of local history, immemorial traditions and superstitions, and, above all, precious ballads which had been handed down for generations among the peasantry. These ballads, thus precariously transmitted, it was Scott's ambition to gather together and preserve, and he spared no pains or fatigue to come at any scrap of ballad literature of whose existence he had an inkling. Meanwhile, he was enriching heart and imagination for the work that was before him. So that here also, though in the hair-brained and heady way of youth, he was engaged in his task of preparation.

Scott has told us that it was his reading of Don Quixote which determined him to be an author, but he was first actually excited to composition in another way. This was by hearing recited a ballad of the German poet Bürger, entitled Lenore, in which a skeleton lover carries off his bride to a wedding in the land of death. Mr. Hutton remarks upon the curiousness of the fact that a piece of "raw supernaturalism" like this should have appealed so strongly to a mind as healthy and sane as Scott's. So it was, however. He could not rid himself of the fascination of the piece until he had translated it, and published it, together with another translation from the same author. One stanza at least of this first effort of Scott sounds a note characteristic of his poetry:

Tramp! tramp! along the land they rode,

Splash! splash! along the sea;

The scourge is red, the spur drops blood,

The flashing pebbles flee.

Here we catch the trumpet-like clang and staccato tramp of verse which he was soon to use in a way to thrill his generation. This tiny pamphlet of verse, Scott's earliest publication, appeared in 1796. Soon after, he met Monk Lewis, then famous as a purveyor to English palates of the crude horrors which German romanticism had just ceased to revel in. Lewis was engaged in compiling a book of supernatural stories and poems under the title of Tales of Wonder, and asked Scott to contribute. Scott wrote for this book three long ballads-"Glenfinlas," "Cadyow Castle," and "The Gray Brother." Though tainted with the conventional diction of eighteenth century verse, these ballads are not unimpressive pieces of work; the second named, especially, shows a kind and degree of romantic imagination such as his later poetry rather substantiated than newly revealed.

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