Monday, August 04, 2014

Sir Walter Scott: Tales of a Grandfather, Marmion, etc.

[Original frontispiece of Tales of a Grandfather, Second Series as published by Cadell in 1829 (actually Nov 1828). From the Walter Scott Image Collection, Edinburgh University Library.]

A LONGER NOTE ON Tales of a Grandfather (1827-31) and The History of Scotland (1829)

Tales of a Grandfather is a history of Scotland up to 1745 - at least this is the bit that people usually talk about, and it equates to the first three series; there was a fourth series (1831) on French history, and an abandoned MS of a 5th series, continuing the French history. The abandonment may have been related to Master Littlejohn's death at ten years old.  He was the grandchild addressed in these volumes, though Scott didn't except in the early pages make much concession to infantile capacities. He does however dwell on memorable tales (even if legendary) and he steers clear of analysis. Until quite recently this was a widely-read book in Scotland; it makes a bizarre appearance in the Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s Tomorrow Belongs to Me (1975) – Harvey (born in 1935) made a virtue of being older than other rock stars and of having access to forgotten things. The History of Scotland  (for the Cabinet Cyclopaedia) covers a briefer period, ending in 1603. This is harder to come by, but it makes better reading than the first series of TOAG, which covers the same ground. Both however are good books, if this kind of historical material interests you; in other words, wars, power-struggles, heroic and villainous deeds; not much about social or cultural matters.

On the assumption that even scholars are likely to leave these volumes unread, I’ll mention some passages that deserve attention. (TOAG is, however, currently in print as four paperback volumes with new titles.)

TOAG Chapter XXXIV (the first of the second series), is titled “Progress of Civilisation in Society”. It’s on such a theme that one gains from the clarity enforced on a writer who addresses a child. This is what most of Scott’s contemporaries thought, if they thought at all, but rarely had occasion to say: for example, about the origin and function of property, money, trade, social class and education. It’s interesting that Scott mentions peoples who did not know about boiling water (natives of New South Wales) or even making a fire (presumably the Tasmanians, at that time still in existence).

Scott’s remarks on class are as follows:

The numerous transactions occasioned by the introduction of money, together with other circumstances, soon destroy the equality of ranks which prevails in an early stage of society. Some men hoard up quantities of gold and silver, become rich, and hire the assistance of others to do their work; some waste or spend their earnings, become poor, and sink into the capacity of servants. Some men are wise and skilful, and, distinguishing themselves by their exploits in battle and their councils in peace, rise to the management of public affairs. Others, and much greater numbers, have no more valour than to follow where they are led, and no more talent than to act as they are commanded. These last sink, as a matter of course, into obscurity, while the others become generals and statesmen. The attainment of learning tends also to increase the difference of ranks. Those who receive a good education by the care of their parents, or possess so much strength of mind and readiness of talent as to educate themselves, become separated from the more ignorant of the community, and form a distinct class and condition of their own; holding no more communication with the others than is absolutely necessary.

It’s fairly clear where Master Hugh Littlejohn (actually a Lockhart grandchild) is to locate himself. The passage provides an interesting commentary on e.g. The Antiquary, both for what it tells us about Oldbuck’s views (and Scott’s own views with his patriarchal hat on) and for how Scott himself as a great artist is constantly seeing beyond them.

Certain weaknesses that are likely to occur to anyone today: one gets richer quicker by exploitation or entrepreneurism than by hoarding; to succeed by learning (as an alternative “stream” to wealth) sounds like a fairy-tale; surely learning and more particularly the worldly fruits of learning are something that are normally bought. Scott’s remarks on valour appear to confuse a schoolboy melée with an ordered state; an illuminating insight into the psychology of an officer-class, but if his words found their way into the ranks they’d amount to a revolutionary challenge.

Scott’s essential right-heartedness can be gauged from his chapter (TOAG, LVIII) on “The Massacre of Glencoe”. Though one learns so much more detail from e.g. John Prebble’s book, Scott’s words make it clear that he understood the main features of the episode with great clarity, and was humanly horrified by its two essential features: a genocidal order by government against a portion of its own subjects, combined with an utter betrayal of the Highlanders’ binding law of hospitality.  It’s true that he had other reasons (the Darien episode) for a profound dislike of King William.

The last page of Tales of a Grandfather is about the Highland clearances. It presents, as you might expect in such a book, a somewhat “official-sounding” view; but see also the note, quoting his words of 1816. (Scott also wrote about the clearances in the Introduction to the first edition of A Legend of Montrose.) No reader of Scott's novels could suppose that he felt no sympathy with people whose age-old way of life was being destroyed; and in fact his awareness of what had been going on (which must have been pretty acute, though much evil was suppressed) no doubt accounts in part for the urgency of his general concern for accommodations with the past. I am far from claiming Scott as a campaigner for the highland crofters; in fact his statement here, that “it is.. a change that has taken place, and has had its crisis”, was thoroughly disingenuous, for the clearances were to drag on for many more years in remoter parts of the highlands and islands. One can read Scott as providing, so to speak, an accommodation for the tender consciences of his bourgeois readers (one pays the victims by feeling, in Johnson’s phrase). But then, many readers get exactly the same comfortable pay-off by reading rousing campaigners. Scott on this theme can be read in different ways, and he has supplied his share of militant inspiration, though mainly in other countries than Scotland.    


Like April morning clouds, that pass,
With varying shadow, o’er the grass,
And imitate, on field and furrow,
Life’s chequer’d scene of joy and sorrow ;
Like streamlet of the mountain north,
Now in a torrent racing forth,
Now winding slow its silver train,
And almost slumbering on the plain ;
Like breezes of the autumn day,
Whose voice inconstant dies away,
And ever swells again as fast,
When the ear deems its murmur past ;
Thus various, my romantic theme
Flits, winds, or sinks, a morning dream.
Yet pleased, our eye pursues the trace
of Light and Shade’s inconstant race ;
Pleased, views the rivulet afar,
Weaving its maze irregular ;
And pleased, we listen as the breeze
Heaves its wild sigh through Autumn trees ;
Then, wild as cloud, or stream, or gale,
Flow on, flow unconfined, my Tale!

                                                            (from Marmion, Introduction to Canto Third)

Were you to suppose that Scott’s poetry is a kind of pleasant byway of little relevance to our world and its own poetry, you might want to reconsider after reading this, from Walt Whitman’s 1888 Introduction to Leaves of Grass (“A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads”):

... Not till after all this, did I attempt any serious acquaintance with poetic literature. Along in my sixteenth year I had become possessor of a stout, well-cramm’d one thousand page octavo volume (I have it yet,) containing Walter Scott’s poetry entire – an inexhaustible mine and treasury of poetic forage (especially the endless forests and jungles of notes) – has been so to me for fifty years, and remains so to this day.

He adds in a note:

Sir Walter Scott’s Complete Poems; especially including Border Minstrelsy; then Sir Tristrem; Lay of the Last Minstrel; Ballads from the German; Marmion; Lady of the Lake; Vision of Don Roderick; Lord of the Isles; Rokeby; Bridal of Triermain; Field of Waterloo; Harold the Dauntless; all the Dramas; various Introductions, endless interesting Notes, and Essays on Poetry, Romance, etc. Lockhart’s 1833 (or ’34) edition with Scott’s latest and copious revisions and annotations. (All the poems were thoroughly read by me, but the ballads of the Border Minstrelsy over and over again.)

There soon followed Homer, Shakespeare, the Bible, Sophocles, Ossian... but the impact of Scott’s hefty book plummeting into the clear swimming-hole of the young Whitman’s imagination in 1837 must have been tremendous and fundamental. Scott was not only the gatekeeper to the European past, he was also the one really modern poet that Whitman liked to read deeply in. To limit Scott’s influence to where it is obvious, e.g. to the superficial mannerisms of Whitman’s juvenilia, would be profoundly unimaginative, as well as ignoring the plain statement of those fifty years of delighted reading. The very image of the one great book that Whitman intended to leave behind is surely owed to that reverently bibliographized volume; its rampant energies, its indifference to fine criticism, its generous scope, its national audience stretching from shepherds to statesmen, its democratic (not aesthetic) conception of a bard as a man speaking to men, its untroubled assumption that poetry means singing the activity of human beings and the activity of nature.       

Whitman took from Scott his particular conception of a national poet as someone who set his marginal nation on the map of civilized awareness, and whose own copious energy instantiated his nation’s potency.

Marmion (1808)

Scott’s terrifically harmless narrative poems procured instant affection. Marmion typifies these poems, which although so readable are in other respects far from simple. The external structure of Marmion with its six cantos, each with an elaborate introduction (like those of Gavin Douglas to each book of his Scots Aeneid), hardly begins to suggest the complexity. Consider how Canto Second makes its anachronistic sea-progress of nuns up the Northumberland coast, faintly Chaucerian with laughter and daylight until it cuts to the horrific niches where Constance, a fair heroine in the wrong place, prophesies the end of the Roman rite, wearing Marmion’s blue badge and recalling his heroic appearance (along with a numbered meiny that likewise recalls a Chaucerian census) entering Norham at the beginning of Canto First, the whole tied up by a capricious breeze at the start and a tolling bell at the finish. It was in his poems that Scott learned the art of casual exposition that would make his best novels simultaneously expansive and direct. 

The basic unit is the verse paragraph, which on a fundamental basis of striding tetrameter couplets admits a variety of cross-rhyme, ballad-measure, triple-time story-within-story, etc. The paragraphs are elastic enough in length to accommodate all these without threat to the poem’s momentum. They imply a certain tick of the clock, so when (in Canto Third), Fitz-Eustace sings the languishing song Where shall the lover rest, a little roman capital XI appears half-way through it, splitting the song across two of these larger units.

The Wordsworths thought that Scott’s way of writing verse was heavily indebted to Christabel. It was a poem that Scott admired, and they were in a better position to see it than we are; to our eyes the resemblances are not striking, the differences profound. Coleridge couldn’t complete his visions, but Scott revels in endings and beginnings, only neglecting the middle, where vacuities are covered up in order to produce a finished product. The chief means that Scott resorts to is dragging in antiquarian lore, at which the guilty Marmion may or may not turn pale, but no reader skips this out of longing to hear more of Marmion’s story. Thus Canto Fourth is hugely freighted with irrelevances called up by Crichton castle, or by a garrulous Lord Lindesay, but readers with a sense of occasion allow this to lead up to the delighted and expected vision of the Scottish army laid out in splendour before the Empress of the North.

The southern entrance I passed through,
And halted, and my bugle blew.
Methought an answer met my ear,
Yet was the blast so low and drear,
So hollow, and so faintly blown,
It might be echo of my own.   (IV, XIX)

We think of Scott as one of the first authors to have a historic sense of the differentness of the past, but in Marmion it’s the opposite that impresses. Scott’s knowledge of the past was immense but he depicts his hero and everything that happens in the poem as if it was being acted by people of his own time in costume.

For, by St. George, were that host mine,
Not power infernal nor divine,
Should once to peace my heart incline,
Till I had dimm’d their armour’s shine
    In glorious battle-fray!       (IV, XXIX)

For us a pitched battle like Flodden is something totally unreal, a thing of the past. Scott was writing Marmion while mainland Europe was a battleground, and we mistake the hero’s reaction if we think his modernity precludes a genuine sense of being a potential participant.  

While the “historical novel” has become accepted as a de facto genre, the “historical poem” has never become a recognized term. Poems, whatever material they may work over, are always statements about modernity, and Marmion is no exception.


Sir Walter Scott on novelists and fiction, ed. Ioan Williams, 1968. But I would rather die than read through these 500-odd pages; obviously, this compilation was intended solely for ease of scholarly reference. Scott's review of his own Old Mortality (published anonymously) is an uncomfortable performance; and getting chunks of the Prefaces without the accompanying novels leaves me feeling horribly cheated. Still, I suppose I'll withhold it from the charity shop for a while. It could just possibly be that one evening I'll like to immerse in one of Scott's long reviews of, say, Richard Cumberland or The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan.  (Well, I did read them, and they didn't please me at all, and it has indeed gone... Even if I had a wing, instead of two book-cases, I would not want such deadwood volumes in it.)



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