Sir Walter Scott

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Sir Walter Scott’s literary reputation rests firmly on his monumental collection of Waverley novels, the final revision of which was issued, in forty-eight volumes, between 1829 and 1833. The novelist produced those classics on a regular basis during the last eighteen years of his life—beginning with the three-volume Waverley: Or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since in 1814 and concluding, shortly before his death, with Count Robert of Paris and Castle Dangerous (under the collective title Tales of My Landlord, fourth series), both in 1831. In addition to the novels, Scott wrote numerous plays, including Halidon Hill (pb. 1822), Macduff’s Cross (pb. 1823), The House of Aspen (pb. 1829), Auchindrane: Or, The Ayrshire Tragedy (pr., pb. 1830), and The Doom of Devorgoil (pb. 1830).

Scott’s nonfiction prose includes Religious Discourses by a Layman (1828), The History of Scotland (1829-1830), and Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830). He also produced three biographies of note: The Life and Works of John Dryden, first published in 1808 as part of his eighteen-volume edition of that poet’s works; The Memoirs of Jonathan Swift (1826; originally included in the nineteen-volume The Life of Jonathan Swift, 1814); and The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte: Emperor of the French, with a Preliminary View of the French Revolution (1827, 9 volumes). In addition, as editor of Ballantyne’s Novelist’s Library 1821-1824 (10 volumes), Scott wrote biographical essays on each writer in the series (including Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, Samuel Richardson, Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Smith, and Fanny Burney); he published those sketches separately in 1825 (2 volumes).

Finally, Scott expended considerable energy on a long list of editorial projects carried out between 1799 and 1831: In addition to the works of John Dryden and Jonathan Swift and the Novelist’s Library, one may note Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-1803, 32 volumes), A Collection of Scarce and Valuable Tracts (1809-1815, 13 volumes), and Chronological Notes of Scottish Affairs from the Diary of Lord Fountainhall (1822). Various editions of The Journal of Sir Walter Scott have appeared, beginning in 1890.


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Sir Walter Scott’s literary reputation rests on thirty novels. Few twentieth century readers and scholars have been interested in his poetry or have taken the time to examine the distinct stages of his literary career. With the publication of Waverley in 1814, Scott’s literary life as a novelist began and his period of intense poetic production terminated. At the outset, then, one is tempted to view the poetry only in the context of its effect on the fiction—or, from another perspective, the effect of Scott the poet on Scott the novelist.

Ample reason exists, however, for studying the poetry on its own merits, for the imaginative power to be found in Scott’s metrical romances, lyrics, and ballads. Some contemporary scholars support the claims of their Victorian predecessors, who argued that Scott, among all his “British” contemporaries, emerged as the first writer of the Romantic movement. Indeed, although literary historians correctly offer William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1798)—and its significant preface—as the key to understanding British Romanticism, Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel, published seven years later, reached a far wider audience (in both England and Scotland) than Wordsworth’s collection and achieved a more noticeable impact among the poet’s contemporaries than did the earlier work. In fact, no previous English poet had managed to produce a work that reaped such large financial rewards and achieved so much popular acclaim.

Interestingly enough, Scott’s poetic achievements came in a form radically different from those qualities that marked the traditional “giants” of his age—Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron. True, Scott considered, at a variety of levels, the prevalent Romantic themes: the rejection of scientific dogmatism, a return to...

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the glamour of past ages, the discovery of happiness in primitivism rather than in modernity, the enjoyment of emotion, a basic belief in humanitarianism. He rejected, however, the radical sentiments of the Romantic movement. By nature and upbringing a conservative, Scott clung to Tory politics and to the established Church of England rather than rising up in actual or intellectual rebellion against such institutions. He had little or no interest in mysticism, overzealous passion, or the dark unconscious. Scott’s poetry is distinguished by its considerable clarity and directness; it is the product of a gentlemanly and reasonably satisfied attitude toward promoting the values of his own social class. He did rush back into an imaginary past to seek out heroes and adventurers whom he found lacking in his own early nineteenth century cultural and artistic environment. Such escapes, however, never really detracted from his belief in the challenge of the present intellectual life and the present world, where, if everything else failed, courage would support the intellectually honest competitor.

Chronologically, Scott belongs with the early Romantics; culturally and intellectually, he occupies a middle ground between Scotland and England, and therein, perhaps, lies his ultimate contribution to poetry in English. He captured, first in the poems and later in his prose fiction, the essence of Scottish national pride; that pride he filtered through the physical image of Scotland, through its varied and conflicting scenery and its traditional romantic lore. The entire area—joined politically to Great Britain in 1707, but still culturally free and theologically independent during Scott’s day (as it remains even to this day)—stimulated and intensified his creative genius and supplied the substance first for his poetry, then for his prose fiction. Nevertheless, Scott remained distinctly aware of England and receptive to the demands of the English public—his largest reading audience. For them he translated the picturesqueness of the Highlands and the Lowlands, the islands and the borders. While photographing (or “painting,” as his contemporaries maintained), through his imagination, the language and the sentiment of Scotland, Scott gave to his English readers scenes and characters that could be observed as partly English. His poetry has a freshness, a frankness, a geniality, and a shrewdness peculiar to his own Scottish Lowlands. Still, as observers of that part of the world quickly appreciate, there is little difference between a southern Scotsman and a northern Englishman—which, in the end, may also be an apt commentary on Scott’s poetry.

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A giant of European Romanticism, Sir Walter Scott made important contributions to many literary forms. He wrote the Waverley novels (1814-1831), a series that virtually created the historical novel. Particularly admired are the Scottish novels, including Waverley: Or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since (1814), Old Mortality (1816), Rob Roy (1817), The Heart of Midlothian (1818), The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), and Redgauntlet (1824). Scott also wrote extremely popular poetry, including The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field (1808), and The Lady of the Lake (1810). He also collected ballads in the three-volume Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-1803), published critical editions of the works of John Dryden (1808) and Jonathan Swift (1814), and wrote histories, essays, reviews, criticism, and plays.


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Sir Walter Scott’s life was a series of remarkable achievements. In literature, he was a pioneer whose works still stand on their own merits. He collected ballads for the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, a milestone in the study of Scottish antiquities. From 1805 to 1810, Scott wrote the most popular poetry in Great Britain, setting unprecedented sales records. In 1813, he was offered the poet laureateship, which he refused. His greatest achievement came in the field of fiction. The Waverley novels virtually created a new genre, the historical novel, and made Scott one of the two most popular novelists of the century. He was knighted in 1819. Scott was also an accomplished writer of short fiction, and three of his six stories are generally acknowledged to be among the best in the genre. Finally, Scott wrote a series of literary prefaces, criticisms, and reviews that made him an important literary theorist.

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Sir Walter Scott’s first published work was a translation of two ballads by Gottfried August Bürger, which appeared anonymously in 1796. In 1799, he published a translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1773 drama Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand (Goetz of Berlichingen, with the Iron Hand). In 1802, the first two volumes of Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border appeared, followed by the third volume in 1803. This was a collection of popular ballads, annotated and often emended and “improved” with a freedom no modern editor would indulge in. A fascination with his country’s past, formed in his early years and lasting all his life, led him to preserve these ballads, the products of a folk culture that was disappearing. In 1805 came The Lay of the Last Minstrel, the first of the series of long narrative poems that made Scott the most widely read poet of the day. It was followed by Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field (1808). The Lady of the Lake (1810) brought him to the height of his popularity as a poet.

The later poems were less successful, and Scott was gradually eclipsed by Lord Byron. In 1813, he completed the manuscript of a novel he had laid aside in 1805. This was Waverley, which appeared anonymously in 1814. (Scott did not publicly admit authorship of his novels until 1827.) It created a sensation and launched him on the series that remained his chief occupation until the end of his life. Other important works were his editions of John Dryden (1808) and of Jonathan Swift (1814); a series of lives of the English novelists, published in 1825; and The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte: Emperor of the French, with a Preliminary View of the French Revolution, begun in 1825 and published in nine volumes in 1827. Chronicles of the Canongate (1827) comprises three short stories: “The Highland Widow,” “The Two Drovers,” and “The Surgeon’s Daughter.”


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The central achievement of Sir Walter Scott’s busy career is the series of novels that is conventionally designated by the title of the first of them. The sheer bulk of the Waverley novels is in itself impressive, as is the range of the settings the novels present. For example, Ivanhoe is set in twelfth century England, The Talisman in the Holy Land of the Third Crusade, Quentin Durward in fifteenth century France, The Abbot in the Scotland of Queen Mary, Kenilworth in the reign of Elizabeth I, and The Fortunes of Nigel in that of James I. In spite of his wide reading, tenacious memory, and active imagination, Scott was not able to deal convincingly with so many different periods. Moreover, he worked rapidly and sometimes carelessly, under the pressures of financial necessity and, in later years, failing health. Some of the novels are tedious and wooden, mechanical in their plots and stilted in their dialogue. Scott himself was aware of their flaws, and he sometimes spoke and wrote slightingly of them.

Most readers, however, find that even the weaker novels have good things in them, and the best of them have anarrative sweep and a dramatic vividness that render their flaws unimportant. The best of them, by common consent, are those set in Scotland as far back as the latter part of the reign of Charles II. When Scott attempted to go further back, he was less successful, but in such novels as the four discussed below—Waverley, Old Mortality, Rob Roy, and The Heart of Midlothian—Scott’s sense of history is strong. They are among the most impressive treatments of his great theme, the conflict between the old and the new, between Jacobite and Hanoverian, between the heroic, traditional, feudal values of the Tory Highlands and the progressive commercial interests of the Whig Lowlands, between stability and change. Though some of the other novels offer historical conflict of a comparable kind (Ivanhoe and Quentin Durward, for example), the Scottish novels present the conflict with particular insight and force and convey a strong sense of the good on both sides of it. Scott values the dying heroic tradition even as he recognizes the benefits that change brings. Earlier writers had mined the past to satisfy a market for the exotic, the strange, or the merely quaint. Scott saw the past in significant relation to the present and created characters clearly shaped by the social, economic, religious, and political forces of their time, thus providing his readers with the first fictions that can properly be called historical novels.

Discussion Topics

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Sir Walter Scott was an extraordinarily popular novelist for many decades, but he was much less popular during much of the twentieth century. How do you account for his decline among readers?

It has been argued that Scott was in many respects not a Romantic writer at all; for example, he was distrustful of emotionalism and of revolution. Has he been miscast as a Romantic writer?

Consider why Effie Deans in The Heart of Midlothian is one of Scott’s most outstanding characters.

Scott has often been called the inventor of the historic novel. What historical novelists seem to have owed the most to Scott’s initiative?

Judge Scott’s contribution to the tradition of Scottish ballads.


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Bold, Alan, ed. Sir Walter Scott: The Long-Forgotten Melody. London: Vision Press, 1983. Nine essays cover such subjects in Scott’s works as the image of Scotland, politics, and folk tradition and draw on Scott’s poetry for illustration. The essay by Iain Crichton Smith, “Poetry in Scott’s Narrative Verse,” shows appreciation for the art of the poetry. Includes endnotes and an index.

Crawford, Thomas. Scott. Rev. ed. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1982. A revision and elaboration of Crawford’s widely acclaimed study of Scott. Examines Scott’s work as a poet, balladist, and novelist.

Goslee, Nancy Moore. Scott the Rhymer. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Aiming to restore Scott as a poet, this book analyzes in detail his major poems. A discussion of The Lay of the Last Minstrel is followed by examinations of the long poems from Marmion to Harold the Dauntless. These poems are affirmations of romance within self-reflexive frames of irony. Contains ample notes and an index.

Lauber, John. Sir Walter Scott. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A good starting point for a study of Scott. The first three chapters provide an overview of Scott’s career; the rest provide discussions of the novels. Includes a chronology and a select bibliography.

Lincoln, Andrew. Walter Scott and Modernity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. Lincoln examines Scott’s use of the past to explore issues in the modern world. He analyzes both widely read poems and Scott’s better-known novels.

Mitchell, Jerome. Scott, Chaucer, and Medieval Romance: A Study in Sir Walter Scott’s Indebtedness to the Literature of the Middle Ages. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987. Describes the influences of Geoffrey Chaucer and medieval romances at work in Scott’s narrative poetry, early novels, middle novels written during his financial collapse, and novels of the darkly declining years. The style and structure of the novels are analyzed before a conclusion is drawn. Augmented by preface, notes, and an index.

Scott, Sir Walter. The Journal of Sir Walter Scott. Edited by W. E. K. Anderson. Edinburgh: Canongate, 1998. Scott’s journals offer invaluable biographical insights into his life and work. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Sutherland, John. The Life of Walter Scott. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995. A narrative account that penetrates into the darker areas of Scott’s life. The value of Scott’s writing today as much as in his heyday is justified by Sutherland’s account.

Todd, William B., and Ann Bowden. Sir Walter Scott: A Bibliographical History, 1796-1832. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 1998. Lists variant editions of the verse as well as the fiction, and casts light on Scott’s occupations as advocate, sheriff, antiquarian, biographer, editor, historian, and reviewer.

Tulloch, Graham. The Language of Walter Scott: A Study of His Scottish and Period Language. London: Andre Deutsch, 1980. In eight chapters and two appendices, Tulloch examines Scott’s use of Scotch-English in his poetry and fiction. The special features of the language are analyzed in terms of vocabulary, grammar, and spelling. Scott’s reading is also examined as a source of his language materials. Includes a bibliography and an index.


Critical Essays