Sir Walter Scott Scott, Sir Walter (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(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; 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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


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


(The entire section is 390 words.)

Francis Jeffrey (essay date 1805)

(Poetry Criticism)

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,...

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The Eclectic Review (essay date 1808)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4927 words.)

Francis Jeffrey (essay date 1810)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4707 words.)

John Ruskin (essay date 1856)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Of Modern Landscape," in The Works of John Ruskin Vol. 5, edited by Å. Ô. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, George Allen, 1904, pp. 317-53.

(The entire section is 6956 words.)

Arthur Symons (essay date 1904)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3986 words.)

W. J. Courthope (essay date 1910)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3724 words.)

Donald Davie (lecture date 1961)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5632 words.)

John Pikoulis (essay date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6887 words.)

Thomas Crawford (lecture date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5729 words.)

Jill Rubenstein (essay date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4060 words.)

Claire Lamont (lecture date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7049 words.)

Nancy Moore Goslee (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

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....

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 760 words.)