Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
Sir Walter Scott (17711832)
[Walter Scott was born at Edinburgh in 1771, and belonged to a younger branch of an ancient family. Owing to early ill health his education was somewhat irregular; but he studied hard in preparation for the Scottish bar, to which he was called in 1792. From his earliest youth he had been steeped in romance, and his first publication was a translation of Goethes Goetz von Berlichingen, in 1799. From this time literature and his profession kept him constantly employed. His poems followed in close succession till 1815; but before the series closed he had begun the Waverley Novels with Waverley. These works, with constant contributions to magazines, and literary and historical works, occupied him till his death in 1832. His literary career was one of unexampled prosperity; but the failure of commercial speculations with which he was connected (in 1825) cast a shadow over the later part of his life, redeemed by the heroism with which he stood the blow, and laboured, even to death, to retrieve the overthrow of his hopes.]
THE TASK of assigning the place of Sir Walter Scott as a writer of prose is a difficult, and not, in all respects, a very pleasant task for any one penetrated with admiration for his genius. Scotts own contemporariesnay, even his own most intimate friendssaw faults in his style; and to a later generation these have been even more apparent, and the faults that lie on the surface have perhaps been pointed out with something of undue insistence. This has told with all the more effect, because it has often come from those who pay the most lavish tribute to his power. Let us get over, as speedily as possible, the necessary and unpleasant part of the business, by admitting that the criticism has some foundation. The faults are not hard to seek. It is not only that his prose is irregular and at times ungrammaticalsome of our greatest prose writers have shown both these defects. A rugged irregularity and an easy carelessness have often added power and energy to prose. But Scotts irregularity is not of that sort. The defects of his prose are the more serious ones of slipshod and tawdry sentences, of clumsy and lumbering paragraphs. Where he is solemn or dignified, he rarely troubles himself with the virtues of restraint or selection; he never attempts the subtle harmony of words, or balances his style to suit with nicety the sentiments he wishes to convey. A certain amount of grandiloquence has often a quaint flavour of humour, but it is seldom so with Scott. His phrases are often rotund and ornate, but this seems to come from a careless conventionality of habit, and not from deliberate art. He pours out his words without discrimination, and frequently with an absence of all taste for style, which is perhaps akin to the insensibility of perception which his biographer admitshis obtuseness to what was disagreeable in smell or colour, his lack of musical ear, his bluntness to some of the more common tastes. He himself recognised the lack with his usual magnanimity, and neither resented its suggestion nor defended its faults. Not rarely when his sentences jar upon the earas they are apt to do when we are not swept away by his music and his firewe are reminded of the false taste that disfigured Abbotsford, of the paltry stained glass, of the plaster ceilings counterfeiting oak, of the rococo ornament, and pseudo-Gothic of its architecture. Scotts genius is as little affected by the one as by the othernay more, he was as little responsible for the one as for the other. He wrote at an unfortunate moment for his style; and the stream of his production was too strong and abundant in its current to allow him leisure to correct what was faulty in the prevailing taste. Rarely perhaps was taste amongst educated men worse as regards style than at the beginning of this century. The stately dignity of the eighteenth century was losing its force. Its unerring rules, its regularity, its restraint were losing their authority. Although preserving their conventionality, they were degenerating into resonant and imitative rotundity. If we wish to see how bad style could become, we have only to look at many of the novels then in vogue, and now almost forgotten, or at the ponderous translations and jejune treatises of the day. The older school was decaying, and the forcible alertness of the newer school never strongly affected Scott. His genius was too vivid in its energy to trouble itself with its vehicle; he took the instrument that was ready to his hand, and left it to others to polish its blade and to temper its edge.
But when we have said thus much, the worst of our task is over. The wonder is not that Scotts style had defects, but that it was not much worse. He never studied it. His mind was filled with the picturesque in scenery and in conception, and he had neither room nor leisure for more. And if the instrument was sometimes defective, no one used it with a more consummate ease. His style is best where we notice it least; and often the thrilling force and fire of genius, burning underneath, sublimes it into a certain unconscious grandeur. Nay, even this very commonplaceness of Scotts style is not without its value. An artistic style must be redolent both of the writer and of his age; and the impersonality of Scotts style rather adds to, than detracts from, the perennial interest of his romance.
The debt which the world owes to Scotts romances is based upon something far superior to style; and it seems absurd therefore to go for specimens of his style to sources which are valuable for something very different. Nor is it possible to give as extracts from these some of the most characteristic passages, which are broken up by dialogue, or owe much of their force to pithy dialect and to stirring incident. The most devoted admirers of Scott would doubtless agree that his genius is enshrined chiefly in the Scottish novels. In those which have other scenes he deliberately adopts a certain conventional style, which works its effect as a whole, and which in selected passages is apt to impress rather by a falsetto, which it loses when taken in the mass. Yet in both types of the novels there are passages which rise to sublimity of style, not by obedience to rule, not even by any grandeur of language, but by his dramatic power, his concentration of feeling, and by the unerring instinct which gives him for the time a sort of mastery of wordsa mastery which has something akin to that element in his genius which made the instinct of popular criticism recognise in him the art of the magician.
Scott used a phrase regarding Byron which stirred the critical wrath of Matthew Arnoldthat he managed his pen with the careless and negligent ease of a man of quality. It is easy to deride such a phrase, easy to point out its critical defects. But it nevertheless contains an undoubted truth, and that truth conveys what is a real element in Byrons greatness; and, we may safely add, in the greatness of Scott himself. Literary art deserves and commands our admiration, but it is not the sole or even the chief element of genius; and genius often entirely lacks it, and yet, in spite of that lack, attains by its own force that perfection even of form which supreme power must give. Such mastery has a close analogy to the easy use of social forms and the easy practice of social tact which we rightly ascribe to what is generally understood by the man of quality. His courtesy and his social graces are not the fruit of study or of conscious practice, but derive all their charm from being unstudied, and from carrying with them the ease of nature, not the elaboration of art. Scott did not, any more than Byron, aspire to the name or character of a literary man. Had he been less great, his deliberate repudiation of all such aspiration might have involved something of affectation: as it was, it reflected only the character of the man; and it was because of this, that the effervescent force of that genius, which he himself never recognised, and uniformly undervalued, if it did not attain the positive excellences of a good style, at least acquired that mastery which has so much resemblance to the careless and negligent ease of a man of quality. After all, if we weigh the words well, and do not read into them the inept vulgarities of conventional slang, the character of a man of quality is not one to be despised, whatever his rank and his antecedents; and if any man was ever worthy of the name, Scott at least deserves it.
Amongst the passages which are here selected, some are taken from the novels, not because they show the most characteristic marks of the genius which is there contained, but chiefly because they give passages of sustained dignity in which Scott describes a dramatic episode, or paints a scene, with but little of interruption from dialogue, and little of dialectical peculiarity. If our object were to illustrate Scotts genius, such passages would inadequately serve the purpose; but what is necessary is rather to show Scott as a writer of prose. For this purpose we must in large measure go outside the novel altogether, and seek for specimens rather in his voluminous miscellanies. Of these the prefaces and treatises interspersed amongst the Border Minstrelsy are prized by all lovers of Scott; but they are too much concerned with discussion and investigation to lend themselves to selection. It is rather in the lighter treatises on every variety of subject, which he contributed anonymously to reviews, that we have to look for his best writing; and they leave upon us a far higher impression of Scotts power as a writer of prose than do his novels. In the novels our interest is absorbed by qualities that leave us little attention to spare for style; but these articles, poured forth so easily,owing nothing to the commanding interest of drama or of story, without the variety supplied by dialect, or the play of character in dialogue,show how light and easy was Scotts touch, how quickly he could command interest, and they explain how his prose writing was prized and sought for, even when it was in no way associated either with his name or with the half-shadowed personality which he chose to assume in connection with the novels. We are in the habit of consoling ourselves for the lack of commanding literary excellence in our own generation by appealing to the high standard of anonymous writing in the journal and reviews. It is interesting to see the skill with which Scott, in a less exacting age, could in the odd leisure hours of a life of unparalleled achievement command an audience as an anonymous contributor to reviews, and acquire the light touch and easy style that attracted even without the glamour of his name, and when he had laid aside the chief ensigns of his sovereign genius. Careless as he may often seem, small as are the merits of his style when weighed with his greatest characteristics, yet to such a man we can scarcely deny a mastery of words.