Sir Walter Scott

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Introduction

(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.

Biographical Information

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 ;...

(The entire section is 69,683 words.)