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.