Scott, Sir Walter (Poetry Criticism)
Sir Walter Scott 1771–1832
Scottish poet, novelist, short story writer, biographer, historian, critic, and editor.
Scott is an early representative of the Romantic Movement in English literature. His poems relate tales of heroic adventure set in the idealized past and emphasize detailed descriptions of the poet's Scottish homeland. This combination proved exceedingly popular in the early 1800s; the sales of his verse narratives established a new standard for British poetry and set the stage for the subsequent popularity of other Romantic poets such as Lord Byron. Scott's appeal as a poet was followed by his overwhelming success as a fiction writer. During his lifetime, he was the most popular author the world had ever known, and modern scholars consider him both the inventor of the historical novel and the first best-selling novelist. Despite the unprecedented success of his writings in the 1800s, Scott's reputation has diminished with the passage of time. Once a staple of English literary studies, his works—especially his poems—are now largely left to scholars and historians of literature.
Scott was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, to middle-class parents, the fourth surviving child of Walter Scott and Anne Rutherford. At the age of two, he suffered an attack of polio that rendered him lame for the rest of his life. Biographers point out, however, that in spite of this handicap, Scott led an active outdoor life during his childhood and developed an appreciation for picturesque scenery that later figured prominently in his writings. As a child, Scott also displayed a deep fascination with Scottish history and literature, along with an ability to retain everything he learned about his country's past, whether it was the details of an important battle or the lines of a lengthy ballad. According to critic Ian Jack, "It was Scott's good fortune as a boy to be surrounded by a sort of Greek chorus of Scots antiquaries [individuals who study the past]." These people gave Scott knowledge of and an enthusiasm for history that would directly translate to his writings. He enrolled in Edinburgh High School in 1778 and five years later entered the University of Edinburgh, studying history and law. In 1786 he was apprenticed to his father's legal firm and was called to the bar in 1792.
While serving his apprenticeship, Scott traveled extensively in the Scottish Border Country and Highlands, where he delighted in the regions' natural settings and rural inhabitants.
In 1800 he began collecting and editing the traditional ballads of the areas he visited, combining his love for Scottish lore and literature with his ongoing excursions in the countryside. His work in this area resulted in his first major publication, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, a collection of Scottish ballads that was accompanied by imitation ballads written by Scott and others. Although it produced only modest sales, the collection enjoyed critical favor. More importantly, with the Minstrelsy, as John Lauber has pointed out, Scott "discovered his proper subject, Scottish history and tradition." The positive reception of the Minstrelsy and the encouragement of his friends prompted Scott to attempt an original work based on Scottish themes. His efforts resulted in The Lay of the Last Minstrel, a narrative poem set in medieval times that, in Scott's words, was "intended to illustrate the customs and manners which anciently prevailed on the Borders of England and Scotland." The success of the Lay when it appeared in 1805 was immediate and substantial. Determined to earn a living through his writings, Scott gave up law as a full-time profession and concentrated on the series of narrative poems that soon brought him great fame and wealth.
In the early 1810s, Scott revised and completed a fragment of a novel that he had begun many years earlier, the story of an Englishman who travels to the Scottish Highlands and becomes involved in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. Waverly; or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since proved a popular sensation when it was issued in 1814. It quickly became the most successful work of its kind and brought huge profits to Scott and his publishers. Buoyed by his prosperous first venture as a novelist, Scott began writing at a rapid pace; over the next seventeen years, he produced more than two dozen novels and tales in a series that has since become known as the Waverly Novels. When the first Waverly book was published, writing novels was considered less respectable than writing poetry, and Scott chose to issue the book anonymously. Though the popularity of the series changed the stature of novelists, Scott chose to retain his anonymity for many years. Biographers have traced this decision both to Scott's love of secrecy and to his perception that the mystery surrounding the creator of the novels contributed to their sales. Many of the books in the series were attributed to "the author of Waverly," and he was often referred to simply as the "Great Unknown." Despite this approach, numerous readers and critics knew of his authorship; he became the most popular writer in England and a highly respected and admired figure throughout Europe. In 1818 he accepted a baronetcy, becoming Sir Walter Scott.
Scott was able to keep up his prolific output of books because he never plotted out his works before writing, seldom revised, and because he maintained a strenuous work schedule even when gravely ill. Many biographers and critics have tied these work habits to his desire for material gain. Scott had purchased a farm in 1811 and, after renaming the property Abbotsford, began devoting huge sums of money to building and planting on his property, and collecting relics from Scotland's past. Thus, though his income was large, his financial situation was often precarious. Disaster struck in 1826; a publishing house that Scott was financially involved with went bankrupt. Though he was a silent partner in the enterprise, Scott's debt amounted to over one hundred thousand pounds. Instead of declaring bankruptcy, Scott arranged to work off the debt through his writings. The last years of his life were devoted to the increasingly difficult task of producing salable works in a variety of genres. Beginning in 1830, he suffered a series of strokes as he labored to pay his creditors. A trip to the Mediterranean in 1831 to regain his health proved unsuccessful, and after further strokes which led to paralysis, he died at Abbotsford in 1832.
The Lay of the Last Minstrel first established the innovative formula that Scott would employ in all of his major poetic works. The book utilizes a loose metrical construction to relate a tale of adventure and romance involving two families in sixteenth-century Scotland. Scott drew on several sources in constructing his poem. The meter was modeled on William Coleridge's then-unpublished poem Christabel, which Scott had heard recited the year before he began the Lay. The subject and narrative structure of Scott's poem had much to do with the traditional Scottish ballads he had been collecting. The story is recited by the aging "Last Minstrel," who sings for an audience of Scott's contemporaries, and the poem moves back and forth in time, relating details of the Minstrel and his performance and the past events of the bard's tale. By inventing a character who is a ballad singer, Scott was able to present much of the poem in the form of an extended song that the Minstrel sings. This open structure also allowed Scott to indulge in extended description and the discussion of antiquarian details, elements that would figure prominently in his subsequent poetic works.
Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field, his next major work, centers on the hostilities between the Scottish and English in the early 1500s and culminates in an extended description of the Battle of Flodden, where English forces defeated the Scots under King James IV. Scott drew on the conventions of the Gothic novel in writing Marmion, emphasizing macabre settings and the sinister actions of the title character. He also includes autobiographic reflections in the epistles that precede each canto of the poem. Though these sections have been criticized as being an unnecessary distraction from the central narrative, other critics have found them an interesting departure for Scott, arguing that the poet used these epistles to articulate his personal relationship with his historical material.
The Lady of the Lake, published in 1810, is frequently cited as Scott's most accomplished poem in terms of plot. The narrative takes place in the Scottish Highlands and concerns the adventures of a number of characters, including the chivalric hero James Fitz-James, the hero-villain Roderick Dhu, and the heroine/love interest Ellen Douglas. As Fitz-James and his forces attempt to establish a centralized Scottish kingdom, they come into conflict with Dhu's Highland clan. The story features elements of Arthurian romance, as well as extensive descriptions the mountainous countryside.
Over the next seven years, other verse narratives followed, namely The Vision of Don Roderick, Rokeby, The Bridal of Triermain, The Field of Waterloo, The Lord of the Isles, and Harold the Dauntless. Sales began to falter for the later volumes, and Scott became prone to repeating the situations and ideas of his previous poems. For instance, Rokeby includes an epic battle description much like the one in Marmion. Furthermore, two of his verse publications, The Bridal of Triermain and Harold the Dauntless, were written as imitations of his own work and published anonymously, though Scott meant these books to be taken, at least partly, in jest. After 1813, he became more involved with writing novels than poetry. His move to fiction was brought about in part by the success of Lord Byron's Childe Harold and Scott's belief that he could not compete with the younger poet. Though he eventually gave up the epic verse narratives of his early career, Scott composed many short poems for his novels. These include "Proud Maisie," published in The Heart of Mid-Lothian, often considered one of Scott's finest verse compositions.
The decline of Scott's reputation among critics, especially in the twentieth century, has been widely discussed. It should also be noted that his poems were not especially popular with the reviewers of his own day. Francis Jeffrey was among the first to point out Scott's careless composition that resulted in glaring flaws in the meter and grammar of the poems. Scott was also taken to task for creating implausible plots and for interrupting the narrative story line with extended considerations of antiquarian details, folk ballads, and—in the case of the Marmion epistles—Scott's addresses to his friends. Critics of the time did applaud the poet's originality, however, and found his descriptive passages highly evocative. In the mid-1800s John Ruskin voiced a thorough appreciation of Scott's imagery and his relationship to nature, but such praise was rare by the turn of the century. The unadorned natural description that Ruskin had admired emphasized surface details rather than emotional depth, and most critics of the modern era were umimpressed with this approach; in 1904 Arthur Symons questioned whether the narrative verse that Scott produced even qualified as poetry. The increased attention critics have paid to language in the latter half of the twentieth century has led to several considerations of Scott's grammatical constructions. These studies have sounded a tentative vindication of Scott's methods, but the relative scarcity of critical debate has tended to keep his verse from being widely studied by contemporary readers.
The Eve of St. John: A Border Ballad 1800
Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. 3 vols, [editor and contributor] (ballads and poetry) 1802-03
The Lay of the Last Minstrel 1805
Ballads and Lyrical Pieces 1806
Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field 1808
The Lady of the Lake 1810
The Vision of Don Roderick 1811
Rokeby: A Poem 1813
*The Bridal of Triermain; or, The Vale of St. John 1813
The Field of Waterloo 1815
The Lord of the Isles 1815
*Harold the Dauntless 1817
The Poetical Works of Walter Scott. 12 vols. 1820
The Complete Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott. 5 vols. 1894
*Waverly; or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since 1814
*Guy Mannering; or, The Astrologer 1815
*The Antiquary 1816
†The Black Dwarf 1816; published in Tales of My Landlord, first series
†Old Mortality 1816; published in Tales of My Landlord, first series
†Tales of My Landlord, first series 1816
†The Heart of Mid-Lothian 1818;...
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SOURCE: A review of The Lay of the Last Minstrel, in Contributions to the Edinburgh Review, D. Appleton and Company, 1860, pp. 359-67.
[Jeffrey was a founder and editor of the Edinburgh Review, one of the most influential magazines in early nineteenth-century England and a periodical that Scott was also involved with for a time. Jeffrey was a liberal Whig who often allowed his political beliefs to color his critical opinions. He is nevertheless considered an insightful contemporary critic of Scott's work, though Scott's political views were more conservative than Jeffrey's. In the following review, which was originally published in the Edinburgh Review in April, 1805, the critic finds the plot of The Lay of the Last Minstrel to be poorly constructed and its diction to be inconsistent. The originality of Scott's conception is praised, however, along with the "spirit and force" of the poem.]
We consider [The Lay of the Last Minstrel] as an attempt to transfer the refinements of modern poetry to the matter and the manner of the ancient metrical romance. The author, enamoured of the lofty visions of chivalry, and partial to the strains in which they were formerly embodied, seems to have employed all the resources of his genius in endeavouring to recall them to the favour and admiration of the public; and in adapting to the taste of modern readers a species of poetry which...
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SOURCE: A review of Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field, in The Eclectic Review, Vol. IV, May, 1808, pp. 407-22.
[Here, the reviewer complains about the "impertinent intervention" of the various epistles included in Marmion, but finds other passages in the poem exciting and entertaining, despite several flaws that are detected in Scott's writing.]
Public expectation is seldom so highly excited by the promise of a new poem, as it has been, for some time past, by the repeated annunciation of Marmion, a Tale of Flodden Field, by the author of The Lay of the last Minstrel. Mr. Scott is probably the most popular poet living in this country, even in an age distinguished for poets of various and eminent talents. Without presuming to depreciate him in comparison with any of his less fortunate contemporaries, we may attribute a portion of his fame to the felicitous circumstance of his style and subjects being peculiarly calculated to fascinate two classes of readers, the one very select and the other very numerous, who are not generally attached to the Muses; we mean, the Black-letter-men and the Novel-readers of the age: the admirers of border antiquities, and the lovers of romantic adventures. Thus trebly armed with true powers of poetry to delight the refined and susceptible heart, with skill in obsolete literature to attract the antiquary, and with a form of language so...
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SOURCE: A review of The Lady of the Lake, in Edinburgh Review, Vol. XVI, No. 32, August, 1810, pp. 263-93.
[In this review, Jeffrey comments on the Scott's ability to create verse that appeals to a wide audience. Though the reviewer detects a number of imperfections in The Lady of the Lake, including its similarity to Scott's other poetic works, he finds the book superior to The Lay of the Last Minstrel and Marmion.]
[Mr] Scott, though living in an age unusually prolific of original poetry, has manifestly outstripped all his competitors in the race of popularity; and stands already upon a height to which no other writer has attained in the memory of any one now alive. We doubt, indeed, whether any English poet ever had so many of his books sold, or so many of his verses read and admired by such a multitude of persons, in so short a time. We are credibly informed, that nearly thirty thousand copies of [The Lay of the Last Minstrel] have been already disposed of in this country; and that the demand for Marmion, and the poem now before us, has been still more considerable,—a circulation, we believe, altogether without example, in the case of a bulky work, not addressed to the bigotry of the mere mob, either religious or political.
A popularity so universal is a pretty sure proof of extraordinary merit,—a far surer one, we readily admit, than...
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SOURCE: "Was Sir Walter Scott a Poet?" in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. XCIV, No. 5, November, 1904, pp. 664-69.
[Symons was a critic, poet, dramatist, short story writer, and editor who first gained notoriety in the 1890s as an English decadent. Eventually, he established himself as one of the most important critics of the modern era. Symons provided his English contemporaries with an appropriate vocabulary with which to define the aesthetic of symbolism in his book The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899); furthermore, he laid the foundation for much of modern poetic theory by discerning the importance of the symbol as a vehicle by which a "hitherto unknown reality was suddenly revealed. " Here, he argues that the qualities often praised in Scott's verse—narrative and description—have little to do with quality poetry. Symons also compares Scott's work to that of other poets, including Homer and Geoffrey Chaucer, and finds Scott's poetry much inferior]
Scott was twenty-six, the age of Keats at his death, before he wrote any original verse. He then wrote two poems to two ladies: one out of a bitter personal feeling, the other as a passing courtesy; neither out of any instinct for poetry. At twenty-four he had translated the fashionable Lenore of Bürger; afterwards he translated Goethe's youth ful play, Goetz von Berlichingen. In 1802 he brought out the first two...
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SOURCE: "The Romance of History," in A History of English Poetry Vol. VI, Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1910, pp. 381-417.
[Courthope was an English educator, poet, literary critic, and biographer whose most notable work is his six-volume History of English Poetry (1895-1910). Described by Stuart P. Sherman as a confirmed classicist in poetical theory, Courthope reacted against Romantic theory and practice and advocated a return to the heroic couplet and the satiric poetry characteristic of the age of Alexander Pope, whose collected works he edited. Courthope's criticism tends to center on the extent to which authors reflect the English character and traditions that had enabled the British empire to arise from the institutions of the Middle Ages. Below, he discusses the historic and social factors that played a role in Scott's immense popularity and comments on the poetic style that Scott developed and refined in response to these factors.]
In considering the character of the metrical romantic movement, initiated by Scott, it would be idle to judge it by a purely external standard. On the first appearance of The Lay of the Last Minstrel, [Francis] Jeffrey, puzzled by the novel features of the poem, nevertheless attempted to subject them to the canons he had recently been endeavouring to formulate in The Edinburgh Review.
"Our readers," says the...
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SOURCE: "Chatterton Lecture on an English Poet: The Poetry of Sir Walter Scott," in Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. XLVII, 1962, pp. 61-75.
[An English poet, critic, educator, and translator, Davie is well-respected for both his creative and critical contributions to literature. In his first critical work, The Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952), he argued for a return to the prose-like syntax, formal structures, and conservative metaphors of the eighteenth-century Augustan poets. During the 1950s Davie was associated with the Movement, a group of poets whose number included Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, and Thorn Gunn, who believed in the importance of these qualities. In contrast to English poets of the 1940s, who were influenced by imagism and symbolism, the Movement poets emphasized restrained language, traditional syntax, and the moral and social implications of poetic content. In the following lecture, delivered in 1961, Davie analyzes several technical aspects of Scott's poetry, including grammatical arrangement and color imagery. Though Davie concedes that Scott's verse often lacks structure, the critic also stresses the creative energy expressed in many of the poems and Scott's direct, nonmetaphoric depiction of nature and society.]
Lockhart tells a story of how Scott, in the midst of writing The Lady of the Lake, decided to measure his own fiction by the facts. He...
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SOURCE: "Scott and Marmion: The Discovery of Identity," in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 66, No. 1, October, 1971, pp. 738-50.
[Pikoulis is a Zimbabawean critic and educator. In the following essay, Pikoulis maintains that Marmion serves as a "poetic autobiography" for Scott. The critic analyzes the introductory epistles in the poem as well as the central tale of Marmion, concluding that the two parts work together to present the primary elements of the poet's identity.]
It is part of the difficulty of the romance that its characteristic mode of operation strikes the modern reader as altogether foreign, the product and expression of an alien sensibility. It is not as if the ideas or the play of ideas fail to interest the writer of romances but that they need an embracing context of a lively and suspenseful plot and an amplitude of exposition which allows the writer's creative energy sufficient scope within a framework firm enough to hold the piece together but at the same time flexible enough to allow for digression and variation. Such, at any rate, is true of Marmion which is content to give the appearance of unconcern for 'hidden' meanings beyond the surface detail it relates and its placing of the intense, private emotion firmly within the context of overmastering public events. Its length, its seemingly rambling structure, its unimpressive technical resources and verbal...
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SOURCE: "Scott as a Poet," in Études Anglaises, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, October-December, 1971, pp. 478-91.
[Crawford is a Scottish critic and educator and the author of Scott (1965), a book-length study of Sir Walter Scott. In the following essay, Crawford extends the ideas presented by Donald Davie in his 1961 lecture. Like Davie, Crawford finds much of Scott's poetry to be innovative and finely crafted, though Crawford emphasizes the manner in which Scott is able to "ad-lib" on the folk song and popular lyric forms, as well as the interesting textures that are created in the scenes of the poems. Crawford also comments on the connection he perceives between Scott's poetry and novels.]
At the time of that other Centenary of nearly forty years ago—the Centenary of Sir Walter's death, which was so widely observed in 1932—there was much shaking of heads at the decline in Scott's reputation. "Who reads Walter Scott now?" was the cry; "what can be done to stimulate interest, to renew his popularity?" The pundits read the signs, and there were even forecasts that the productions of the time—the Grierson edition of the Letters, the new biographies of John Buchan and Una Pope-Hennessy, such critical essays as Lord David Cecil's in the Atlantic Monthly or those edited by Sir Herbert Grierson in the volume Sir Walter Scott Today—were in fact the forerunners of a Scott revival. But, of...
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SOURCE: "The Dilemma of History: A Reading of Scott's Bridal of Triermain, " in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. XII, No. 4, Autumn, 1972, pp. 721-34.
[Rubenstein is the author of Sir Walter Scott: A Reference Guide (1978), as well as other writings on Scott. In the following essay, she maintains that The Bridal of Triermain addresses the reconciliation of tradition with progress.]
Most critics of Scott have followed the poet's own lead in regarding The Bridal of Triermain (1813) as little more than a trifle, but it is a much more serious and noteworthy poem than it initially appears, and Scott's relatively frivolous attitude toward it has tended to obscure its very real significance and merit. It illustrates, to a greater extent than any other of Scott's narrative poems, his continuing preoccupation with the conflicting values of tradition and progress. The theme of The Bridal of Trier-main is the difficulty and the possibility of deriving the best values from both in order to create a viable social and moral order. This theme manifests itself in Scott's frequently reiterated concern for the virtues of moderation and the necessity of reconciliation.
The poem's structure develops organically from Scott's thematic concern with individual growth and the historical process, and form plays a central role in its overall effect. He creates a...
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SOURCE: "The Poetry of the Early Waverly Novels," in Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. LXI, 1976, pp. 315-36.
[In the following lecture, delivered in 1975, Lamont studies the function, characteristics, and effectiveness of verse passages within Scott's early Waverly novels.]
My subject this evening is the lyrics, songs, and ballad snatches in the early novels of Sir Walter Scott. I shall say a little about the songs in his longer poems, but talk primarily about the poetry of the novels, up to The Bride of Lammermoor of 1819. It has often been pointed out that Scott's novels contain some of his finest poetry. John Buchan, for instance, claimed [in Sir Walter Scott, 1932] that it is there that Scott attained 'his real poetic stature', and added 'in his greater lyrics Scott penetrated to the final mystery of the poet.' The short poems in the novels are quite different from Scott's narrative verse, 'that poetry of careless glance, and reckless rhyme' [John Ruskin, Modern Painters, 1856]. In the poetry of the novels there is seldom any carelessness, seldom any failure of eye or ear. The songs and ballad snatches in the novels are usually impersonal, and are in one way or another overheard. We are not now dealing with the minstrel tradition which welcomes the listener into the tale. The short songs are simply sung, and there is not usually a listener although there may be a hearer....
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SOURCE: "Witch or Pawn: Women in Scott's Narrative Poetry," in Romanticism and Feminism, edited by Anne K. Mellor, Indiana University Press, 1988, pp. 115-36.
[An American educator and critic, Goslee is the author of a study about Scott's poetry, Scott the Rhymer (1988). In the following essay, she contends that while most of the female characters in Scott's narrative poems are cast in narrow roles, a few of his women undermine gender stereotypes.]
When Walter Scott reviewed Jane Austen's novel Emma in 1816, he praised it highly; but he also criticized Austen's overemphasis upon a mercenary lust for property, a prudence at odds with the sense of romance. Not only is this unfair to Austen's biting analyses of the marriage market, but it obscures Scott's own portrayals of similar pressures within the plots of the romantic novels he had begun to publish two years earlier. Even in the narrative poems, far more explicitly romantic than his novels, Scott shows how women and their property all too often become pawns in male plots. Three of his seven major narrative poems—Marmion (1808), Rokeby (1813), and The Lord of the Isles (1815)—modify the usual romance pattern of hero rescuing and winning fair lady by showing the women as heiresses who become pawns in realistically portrayed struggles over money or land. Strikingly, these poems alternate with those in which the women...
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Burr, Allston. Sir Walter Scott: An Index Placing the Short Poems in His Novels and in His Long Poems and Dramas. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936.
A guide to Scott's short verse compositions.
Corson, James Clarkson. A Bibliography of Sir Walter Scott: A Classified and Annotated List of Books and Articles Relating to His Life and Works, 1797-1940. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1943, 428 p.
Exhaustive annotated bibliography of writings on Scott, categorizing the sources as bibliographical, biographical, literary, and literary and biographical combined.
Hillhouse, James T., and Welsh Alexander. "Sir Walter Scott." In The English Romantic Poets & Essayists: A Review of Research and Criticism, rev. ed., edited by Carolyn Washburn Houtchens and Lawrence Huston Houtchens, pp. 115-54. New York: Modern Language Association/New York University Press, 1966.
An extended bibliographical essay that surveys critical and biographical writings on Scott.
Rubenstein, Jill. Sir Walter Scott: A Reference Guide, edited by Marilyn Gaull. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1978, 344 p.
An annotated bibliography of writings about Scott that were...
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