Skip to main content

Scott and the Corners of Time


ISSUE:  Winter 1973

 

Scott led a dual life, one as a legal functionary, man of affairs, public-spirited citizen, and prominent figure, the other as poet, imaginative writer, and reflective thinker exploring in the solitude of his spirit the meaning of human experience. But he was no divided man; fundamentally the public figure and the private were one, bringing to bear on his entire world a single though widely comprehensive gaze. This essential unity is revealed both in his active response to the problems of his time and in the nature of his achievement as a creative artist.

On December 15, 1808, Scott enthusiastically greeted the Declaration of Claremont affirming Britain’s support to all peoples who resisted the imperialistic aggressions of Napoleon. “Tell Mr Canning,” he wrote impetuously, “that the old women of Scotland will defend the country with their distaffs, rather than that troops enough be not sent to make good so noble a pledge.” It was one of those corners in time of which Tinidril speaks in “Perelandra” when she says, “Among times there is a time that turns a corner and every­ thing this side of it is new.” With that pledge, and the carrying out of that pledge, Britain’s history and the history of Europe turned a corner.

Scott recognized the crucial significance of the international struggle—more clearly indeed, Tory though he was, than Jeffrey and Cockburn and many of Scott’s other friends among the radical Whigs. Unlike them, he refused to believe that Napoleon was invincible, and he saw that the Emperor’s word on the most solemn treaty was a scrap of paper. At this turning point in history Scott knew that the supreme challenge for all Europe was resistance or submission to the despotism of one man. He firmly declared for defiance at a time when half of those who believed themselves the voices of enlightenment were crying out for surrender.

His position was emblematic of his entire career. During the Napoleonic Wars he enraged the radical Whigs by insisting that not the Tories but Napoleon himself made accommodation impossible; in 1826 he enraged a Tory government headed by his own friends with his slashing Malachi Malagrowther papers, defeating singlehanded the administration’s banking legislation for Scotland; in 1829, despite his antagonism to the Church of Rome, he joined the Whigs in petitioning Parliament to pass the bill for Catholic emancipation. He was no runner with crowds, either reformist or reactionary, but neither, as he told Edward Cheney in the last year of his life, was he an enemy to constitutional change. “If the machine does not work well,” he said, “it must be mended.”

So understood, Scott is a figure quite different from the blind and obstinate traditionalist of the myths about him, retreating into the past because he disliked and feared the present. These strictures voiced by Scott’s adverse critics exemplify a strange tendency to judge him by more censorious standards than they apply to themselves or to other men. If Scott got large sums for his books he was held greedy; if he spent lavishly he was improvident; if he rejoiced in making Abbotsford a large and handsome dwelling he was vainglorious; if he lost his fortune in the general crash of 1826 he was somehow more financially incompetent than Constable or the thousands of others who were ruined in the same catastrophe.

The attitude is perhaps tempting for literary critics who have seldom lost a fortune because they have seldom made a fortune. Scott was far from grasping; his publisher Cadell testified that he might successfully have demanded larger sums than he did for his books, and he was openhanded inhelping others. But neither was Scott an incompetent business man; he built up the printing firm of James Ballantyne and Company into an enterprise that survived the wreck in which Constable foundered. And as for Abbotsford, I must confess that few ambitions seem to me more innocent than the desire to build a beautiful house and leave it to one’s children.

The truth about Scott is that he adjusted himself realistically to all the challenges of his age. Instead of fearing he corners of time he welcomed them. Though he deplored the bitter social and economic consequences of the ways in which industrialists were exploiting the new technology, he had no sentimental desire to retain or return to handicraft industry. He installed steam presses in his own printing plant. And he enormously admired the creative scientific imagination of Sir Humphry Davy.

He was among the first to put gas lighting in his own home. Both in Castle Street and at Abbotsford he rejoiced in the brilliant illumination of his library and drawing room. So enthusiastic for gas, indeed, was Scott, that he became president of a new company engaged in making gas from oil. On occasion his ardor for the new even carried him to oddity; he honeycombed the walls of Abbotsford with winding tubes in which the compression of air was supposed to ring the bells in the various rooms—an invention that never worked satisfactorily.

Unlike many English landowners, Scott did not oppose what Thomas Creevey called “the new loco-motive monster navigated by a tail of smoke and sulphur”; Melrose branch of the Berwick to Kelso Railroad which was to bring the road into the very valley of the Tweed where he had his own dwelling. His vigorous applause for Constable’s scheme of making cheap books available to the masses by the hundreds of thousands was no doubt colored by his own professional interests as a writer, but it helps to underline his general receptivity to new ideas.

Against all these facts the outcry is that in Scott’s political and social philosophy he was a Tory. He was; but his Toryism was neither reactionary nor subservient. As we have seen, it did not prevent him from successfully opposing a Tory government of his own friends and patrons; and he did not hesitate to join forces with the Whigs when he thought their course was wise. Farfrom being founded on a blind attachment to the past and an uncritical fear of change, Scott’s Toryism represented a balanced realization of how the individual and society are shaped by the historical past and the forces that have created social institutions.

His profound awareness of the delicate intermeshing of feeling and tradition that gave society its durability made him distrust sweeping panaceas that might subvert the habits of order and endanger social equilibrium. Great as were the evils that had precipitated the French Revolution—and Scott painted them without extenuation in the first two volumes of his “Life of Napoleon”—the noble enthusiasts who fired its opening shots had been overwhelmed in the mob of fanatics and demagogues who drove on to the Reign of Terror. Scott saw that unchecked enthusiasm led naturally to fanaticism, and fanaticism, no matter how noble its cause, “robbed men of their balance, destroyed their judgment, perverted their sense of truth, and finally ended by destroying their sanity, charity, human compassion.”

For Britain, consequently, with its long-established government, he believed in the monarchical and gradated social organization which it had developed. But in “Anne of Geierstein” he paid tribute to the virtues engendered and fostered by the political organization of the republican Swiss. Even in Britain he did not oppose change, and in his survey of her past he strongly condemned the tyrannous aggressions of Charles I, defended the Great Rebellion, and lauded the Revolution of 1688. The American Revolution, too, he regarded as justified by the attempt of George III and Parliament to assert absolute dominion over the Colonies. But with James Madison—himself hardly a reactionary—Scott realized the importance of not sweeping away the entire past in unlimited change. “When the examples which fortify opinion,” Madison wrote, “are ancient as well as numerous” they have “a double effect”; frequent appeals for constitutional revision “deprive government of that veneration which time bestows on everything, and without which perhaps the wisest and freest government would not possess the requisite stability.”

Counter to the view I have been presenting has been urged Scott’s almost agonized protest against the legal reforms pressed by a victorious Whig administration in 1807. In actuality, though, his dissent makes for my case. What the Whigs were demanding amounted to the all but total destruction of the Scottish judicial system and the substitution of a machinery closely resembling that of England. It was not modification but uprooting. In Scott’s own “Essay on Judicial Reform” he accepts measured change, but at the same time quotes Montesquieu’s significant chapter “Qu’il ne faut pas tout corriger.”

When in 1817 Scott’s friend J. B.S. Morritt was working in Parliament for reforms in the Poor Laws, Scott, instead of lagging behind, argued for drastic action. Thousands of peasant farmers had been forced to sell their small holdings and sink into the ranks of hired labor. One-fifth of the rural population was on parochial relief and the national contribution to the poor rates since 1750 had multiplied almost twelve­ fold. In the hideously proliferating industrial towns unemployed factory workers overflowed filthy cellars and airless courts, while their children toiled fifteen hours a day at labor that crippled their limbs, rotted their lungs, and stunted their minds.

Hence, though Scott agreed that the state of the agricultural classes was certainly bad, he held that the crying evils both in England and in Scotland were those of the industrial districts. “Why should financial adventurers be allowed to bring hordes of people into crowded slums, assume no responsibility for the conditions they had created, and then fling laborers into destitution by discharging them as soon as there was a stoppage of trade? Scott therefore insisted that employers should be taxed in proportion to the number of men they normally employed and the public funds thus created be applied to relieving the poor.

During the miseries of 1819 when the entire country was suffering from a depression, Scott too was under heavy financial pressures. But instead of dismissing any of his workers at Abbotsford, he created additional jobs to give employment to those out of work. He devised, in fact, a sort of one-man public-works program of road-making, tree-planting, and other enterprises, including the erection of a saw­ mill, the last of which is still in operation.

As he grew older, unlike many another aging man, he did not gloomily feel that the decades were one long decline from the great days of his youth. The country was despaired of by good citizens every twenty years, he said, but always righted herself “without much assistance from the crew and sometimes when their strength was employed in a direction that would have swampt her.” During the agitation that led to the Reform Bill of 1832 not Scott but his son-in-law Lockhart feared the outbreak of what he called a “servile war,” while Scott urged him not to let the Quarterly Review be­ come an instrument of the reactionaries.

Scott did oppose the Reform Bill, though not, as the Jedburgh laborers who shouted “Burke Sir Walter” imagined, because it would aid them. He opposed it because it would give enhanced power to precisely those industrialists whom he thought largely responsible for the sufferings of the working class. Though he well knew from his own political experiences in Roxburghshire and Selkirkshire how venal and selfish were many of the existent electorate, he did not believe that a crew of greedy men, often with scanty educational qualifications, would be less corrupt, and they had shown themselves even harder of heart.

Consequently, Scott indignantly rejected as a remorseless deception the propaganda that led workers to believe the Bill would ameliorate their woes. And though in the long perspective of time the Bill may ultimately have helped them by showing that political institutions were not immutable, students of economic and political history know how little it aided the laboring classes in the 1830’s and 1840’s.

In the political sense Scott was no democrat, but he had a strong feeling for the dignity of all human beings. Though he believed in respect for rank, it never occurred to him that lofty position made the Prince Regent a better man than the forester Tom Purdie. Though Scott was generously charitable, he sharply contemned the Mrs. Pardiggle kind of domineering charity that might undermine pride and destroy what he called “the precious feeling of independence.” All his efforts were directed to helping people to help themselves. In the work program that he instituted at Abbotsford, he paid no pauper’s wage but the full rate, and at the same time insisted on a full day’s performance for a full day’s pay.

Nevertheless, Scott shared none of Rousseau’s idealization of “the natural man.” Even in imagination he would never have followed Chateaubriand to the forests of North America and fantasized the red Indian into a noble savage. Shelley’s vision of a world in which power has fallen before the resistless persuasion of love Scott would have dismissed as a rainbow-hued Utopian dream. But he was equally far from Carlyle’s thesis in “Past and Present” that in the middle ages Abbot Samson typified the relation of the clergy to the populace. Scott’s creed was that men should be fitted or fit them­ selves for responsibility before taking it.

For that reason, like John Stuart Mill, a broadened base of education should go along with any extension of the franchise. During the last year of his life he wrote an article urging upon the Tory government a revival of the income tax and the use of its revenue for free education of the children of the poor and for a great program of public works. It was to be another forty years before the Government made any provisions for public education, and many years more before any government tried anything resembling Scott’s remedies for dealing with periods of financial distress and unemployment. But the generous vision and bold scope of Scott’s plan show that he was a Tory of a very different cast from what Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the economic Bourbons of the twentieth century.

Scott was, in fact, a Tory progressive, almost a Tory radical. His sympathies were broad and humane, his thought rationally flexible. He was not afraid of new ideas, but he did not believe that a thing was true merely because it was novel or strange. Neither did he exalt as true all beliefs that were old; But he did think that ideas that had survived the repeated examination of learned and thoughtful men were more likely in general to be true than if they had never been subjected to testing at all. Himself a rationalist, Scott thus had at the same time a profound respect for tradition. In a way, its power over men’s minds and hearts represented a salutary prejudice, an antidote against giving uncritical belief to crackpots.

As even this brief survey of his public career shows, the historical crises of his age engaged Scott’s vigorous concern, but did not throw him into a panic. He was acutely aware of what, in the phrase I have borrowed from C. S. Lewis, I have called the corners of time, nor was he afraid to turn them. And when he thought his contemporaries were turning the wrong corner, he did not fear to take even an unpopular stand and call a warning.

 

II

And what of the world of Scott’s art, the realm of his creative imagination? In less than thirty years he produced seven long narrative poems and twenty-six full-length novels all set in a past that ranges from the eleventh century to the earlier decades of the nineteenth. Their concern with the past has been interpreted as the supreme proof that Scott did not feel at home in the present, the warning sign of that dreadful infirmity disparagingly and erroneously labeled “escapism.” 

I do not intend here to deal elaborately with what I hope is the exploded notion that Scott was a “romantic.” Romanticism is a state of feeling, not a body of subject matter. Intrinsically there is nothing more romantic about portcullises than about plumbing, about wimples than about atomic warheads. Those who cannot see the difference between the past in Scott and the past in Dumas cannot tell a hawk from a handsaw, and I intend to waste no time on them. Certainly Scott, like almost all of us, had a romantic strain, but the fundamental nature of his mind and feeling was realistic, rationalistic, and stoic. What Francis Hart calls the “arid debate over whether Scott was Romantic or anti-Romantic” may well be transcended in the realization that for Scott the existence and power of romantic feeling were incorporated in his realistic vision of the totality of human experience.

Within that vision the past was not a refuge from the present, but the matrix in which the present had been formed. Its struggles were in fact the paradigms of the problems that still confront us; its fascination for Scott was not that it was remote but that it was relevant. History is the great public world in which we are all embroiled, and if we refuse to draw light from its past victories and defeats we condemn ourselves to repeat its disasters.

Thus we come to the dominant theme that runs through the entire body of Scott’s work—the “haunt, and the main region” of his thought. That theme is the clash of loyalties battling on the stage of time, of men struggling in the torrent of history. More profoundly still, it is the collisions of history itself, the contention between different degrees of civilization and different stages of society, between a predatory tribalism and the establishment of an ordered society, between the endeavor to hold back—sometimes even to turn back—the clock of history and the forward movement of its hand, between the desire to hold on to ways of life rooted in the past and the forces making for progress, between the powers of stability and those of change.

The exploration was lifelong. The tremendous struggle extends through all Scott’s work-Highlander and Low­ lander, pastoral Scotland and commercial England, Catholicism and Protèstantism, Established Church and Covenanter, freedom of conscience and orthodoxy, law and rebellion, tyranny and constitutional government, feudalism and nationalism, barbarism and culture, Europe and Byzantium, Christianity and Islam. These fell encounters of mighty opposites dominate Scott’s greatest work.

The corners of history—as men turn them, or half turn them, or fail to turn them—all these multiple corners of time were the cruces of his imaginative insight. And past and present are not discrete, but interconnected. Scott’s history, as Morse Peckham has pointed out, is an analogue for his vision of the present, which was a product of that history.

And for Scott history is not all war, kings, and politics; it is the impact on everyday people of their present, their environment, and their times. What his great eighteenth-century forerunners in fiction had seen as the relation between the feelings and the material circumstances of men and women, Scott sees furthermore as molded not only by their individual pasts but by the entire communal past. Scott’s penetrating insight, Georg Lukács observes, is that “the great transformations of history” are “transformations of popular life.”

Scott well knew that the past was not merely the present in plate armor or periwig, but he also knew that in essence it shared, as he remarked in the opening chapter of “Waverley,” “those passions common to men in .all stages of society.” Thus he simultaneously emphasizes both the deep-rooted elements in men and women and the thousands of ways in which they are shaped by the society of which they are a part, by the beliefs and attitudes of their milieu, in short, by the culture of their own time. This was his revolutionary discovery as an imaginative writer.

In an essay of this length I can illustrate Scott’s achievement from only a brief selection of his works. His first three novels explore three crucial moments of time. “Waver­ ley” shows the last confused and broken endeavor of the clan chiefs to dominate Scotland. Their defeat at Culloden ends the old feudal society forever. In “Guy Mannering” Godfrey Bertram’s banishment of the gypsies and his prosecution of the smugglers represent a premature and ill-considered attempt to subdue old folkways to an order for which western Scotland in the mid-eighteenth century is not yet ready. The period of “The Antiquary” is almost a generation later still, but in it the present is dominated even more by the past. Almost all its major characters are trying to live in a past that is already dead; and the novel is constructed around the recovery, the redemption, the true understanding and use of the past.

With these three novels Scott has grasped his essential theme. Hemmed in and impelled in opposing directions by the clash of vast impersonal forces, how is the individual to survive and achieve a meaningful and fruitful life? Which, among those forces, are those of a dead hand, which nurture and enrich, which are a confused mingling of the two? The Waverley Novels in their long sequence are a tremendous effort to grapple with these immemorial struggles of the human spirit.

“Old Mortality” is a study both of fanaticism and of revolution. The intolerance of the government, determined to enforce religious conformity, is balanced by that of the Covenanters, no less bent on compelling all Scotland to their mode of worship. If the Covenanters are demanding religious freedom for themselves they are as tyrannous as the government in denying it to others.

Claverhouse and Burley, the two great symbolic antagonists of the book, are mirror-images of each other, alike in their fanaticism and their brutal contempt for human life and moral sympathy. Burley believes deception, treachery, and murder are justified by his religious aims. More self­ analytic, Claverhouse knows he is a fanatic, but draws a distinction between “the fanaticism of honour and that of dark and sullen superstition,” and between the blood of gentlemen “and the red puddle that stagnates in the veins of… dark­brained demagogues and sullen boors.”

Henry Morton’s plea for moderation and reason seems merely prudential and time-serving to the passionate contenders, and subjects him to the distrust and antagonism of both sides. In the end, the bigotry of the government crushes the rebellion of the bigoted Covenanters; reason will have no hope until after the Revolution of 1688. But their revolt has not been an utter failure. Though they have not turned this corner of time, the next corner will be a different one in consequence of their struggle.

Another kind of revolution dominates “Rob Roy,” the change from the older world of the feudal landowner to the new world of commerce. William Osbaldistone in London and Bailie Nicol Jarvie in Glasgow stand for that new world; Sir Hildebrand in Northumberland and Rob Roy in the Highlands for the old. Osbaldistone Hall shows the rural world of the country squire sunk in a vegetative and fat­witted decay; Rob Roy has heroic stature but in his Highland glens almost all that Frank Osbaldistone can find is dirt, ignorance, violence, and squalor. The real protagonist is Bailie Jarvie, the progressive Glasgow businessman, preserving a strain of sentiment for the brave past but managing to blend it with a courageous and forward-looking dedication to the prosperity and welfare of Scotland.

So, far, then, is Scott from idealizing the old England and the old Scotland and violently opposing the new. When at the close of the book Frank Osbaldistone enters into the partnership with his father that he had formerly refused, and at the same time inherits Osbaldistone Hall, the ending is symbolic, drawing into a unity the hitherto separate worlds of finance and the landed gentry. It is not unlike the course followed by Scott himself, the scion of an old Border family who entered the world of law and business, became the partner in a printing house, and built up for himself a country estate in Roxburghshire. It was another significant corner in time that England was to tum in the course of the nineteenth century.

”The Heart of Midlothian” probes into deeper corners of the human heart itself. The character of Jeanie Deans has been formed by the conscience of her stern Cameronian father; she is the child of his unbending rectitude. Beset on all sides and wrung within by the need to save the sister whom she loves, Jeanie nevertheless cannot force herself to tell the lie she believes forbidden by God. Her ordeal makes the book profoundly searching in its exploration of the problems of justice and compassion as they weigh on the human heart conditioned by all the forces that have shaped it. 

Jeanie can solve her problem, in fact, neither by compromise nor by surrender, but only by transcendence, by an appeal from law to mercy. Her spiritual illumination is a personal epiphany, but it is one of universal significance. The harsh Cameronian conscience turns a deep inward corner and is thereby transformed. Bathed in David Deans’s tears and irradiated by Jeanie’s love, it can never afterward be the same.

The later novels I must survey more briefly. We may note, however, the even-handed portrayal of both the Whigs and the Tories in “The Bride of Lammermoor,” where there is small moral choice between the political corruption of Sir William Ashton and the slippery tactics of the Tory Marquis of A—. In “Ivanhoe” Scott is hardly less impartial in rendering the realities of the feudal system, the ferocious and greedy Normans, the sluggish Athelstane, the fanatical Cedric, and the brutal anti-Semitism of both the Normans and the Saxons.

Still another decisive corner of time is dramatized in “Quentin Durward,” the breakdown of feudalism and the emergence of the French national state. The colorful and magnificent Charles of Burgundy and the wily and un­ scrupulous Louis IX are equally violators of feudal tradition. But there is no doubt of the issues; only if the King can establish a stable government can he prevent the country from falling into a chaos of warring petty states. Between the cynical political realism of the King and the fiery self­ aggrandisement of the Duke there is thus shown to be only one choice.

“Redgauntlet,” even more than “Waverley,” deals with an endeavor to turn back to a corner of time already passed. The passionate devotion of Herries of Birrenswork to the Stuart cause has become an anachronism in the 1760’s. It is far more hopeless than the revolt of the Covenanters at Drumclog, it faces backward to the past, and its devotees are a mere remnant. Only one or two firebrands share Redgauntlet’s visions of triumph; all the few dozen other conspirators are either half-hearted or terrified at the perils into which he is striving to plunge them. Reality shatters the romantic dream. Time cannot be made to turn back. “Then, gentlemen,” Redgauntlet exclaims, clasping his hands in anguish, “the cause is lost forever!”

“Woodstock” centers upon one crucial turning in English history, the Great Rebellion, and ends with another, the Restoration. The moderate Presbyterian, Markham Everard, and the fugitive King, Charles II, are its two balanced protagonists. They embody its historical forces—the Rebellion arousing itself to challenge absolutism, and the Restoration that was to follow yet find itself obliged to sanction much of the work of the Commonwealth. These two, the King and the sober Everard, subsume a fusion of contending group and personal loyalties. They are not only themselves, individuals, they are history itself, made concrete and symbolic in them.

An entire constellation of opposing codes is integrated in “The Fair Maid of Perth”—not only the codes of Highlander and Lowlander, but of the burghers of Perth and the court world of rulers and nobles, and ultimately of the war-like contention for power and an unworldly pacifism. The psychological analysis of cowardice and courage melts into the larger philosophic study of how far nonviolence may survive in a world of violence. Henry Gow’s courtship of the unbendingly pacifistic Maid is almost the courtship of War and Peace. Henry’s belligerence must learn justice and restraint, but the rather priggishly self-righteous Catharine must also learn that in a world of chaotic brutality like that of fourteenth-century Scotland virtue needs a strong arm in its defense. In the end, Henry repents his delight in contention and Catharine at last sees that valor must be the weapon of the oppressed. Both have turned corners that are significant for themselves but that are still crucial for the savage world that surrounds us today.

“Count Robert of Paris” is the last of the major novels. Its theme is again international conflict, but the clash is not the war of nations but of cultural values—on the one side the cultivated, subtle, and decadent Greeks of the Byzantine Empire, on the other the half-barbarous but forceful Western Crusaders. Can the hostility of their attitudes and interests be resolved in any kind of mutual understanding? Ultimately that understanding is achieved in all three of the central characters. Count Robert moderates his barbarous contempt for strange manners and peoples; the Saxon Hereward purges himself of his bitterness against the Normans who had conquered his own homeland; and the cynical Emperor Alexius learns to recognize and value faith and integrity.

In part, “Count Robert of Paris,” like “Ivanhoe,” is .a critique of chivalry, but it is much more than that. It is an involved and elaborate analysis of the issues raised by the strife between worldliness and idealism, between irrational excess and sordid calculation. East and West have been brought face to face with each other, and each has been forced to respect the merits of the other and to reassess itself. In their confrontation another corner of time has been turned.

Scott’s total achievement—and for the first time in either fiction orhistory—was to dramatize the basic processes of history, to show, as G. M. Trevelyan notes, that “thoughts and morals vary according to the period, the province, the class, the man.” It was a revolution, and since Scott’s time all history has learned from him. It has learned to listen to what the people were saying, learned that history embraces the common man as well as kings and statesmen. From Scott historians learned to look for the patterns of meaning within the flow of events.

Scott’s own approach to history strongly resembles that of the French philosophes, and he was philosophical in the same way that they were: his real concern, like theirs, was with life in society, the study of social man. But, unlike them, he was no doctrinaire; he was more subtle and flexible, far more aware of the power of the irrational. Though himself a rationalist and an empiricist, he understood how profoundly the stability of society depends upon folkways of feeling, habit, tradition.

Though his history is philosophic, it is not tendentiously propagandist. “The candour of Sir Walter’s historic pen,” wrote William Hazlitt, “levels our bristling prejudice….” Coleridge pays eloquent tribute to Scott’s philosophic insight. “The essential happiness and wisdom,” he says, of Scott’s work, “consists in this,—that the contest between loyalists and their opponents”—between all Scott’s contending groups—”can never be obsolete, for it is the contest between the two great moving principles of social humanity; religious adherence to the past and the ancient, the desire and admiration of permanence, on the one hand; and the passion for increase of knowledge, for truth, as the offering of reason—in short, the mighty instincts of progression and free agency, on the other. In all subjects of deep and lasting interest, you will detect a struggle between the opposites, two polar forces, both of which are alike necessary to the existence of the other.”

This eternal Apollonian-Dionysian struggle Scott understands and dramatizes with an imaginative sympathy that enables him to comprehend how all the contestants took the stand they did, and thereby to represent the very logic of historical development. He anticipates the sociological-economic historians in showing that people are the products of their ways of earning a living and their relationship to the institutions of which they are both the fathers and the children. His insights, too, are analogous to Darwin’s generalization that biological forms are the consequences of mutually interrelated pressures of general laws, making all living things the offspring of their environments and their past.

The aspects of that past that Scott chooses for representation are those great watershed moments in history, those corners of time, that are pregnant for men’s lives. He does not sentimentalize his rendering of them; he shows the past as, like the present, full of ferocity, ignorance, prejudice, and suffering, but shot through, too, again like the present—his present and our present—by gleams of heroism and nobility. His work, therefore, is not only still relevant, it is superbly luminous.

Scott’s great theme was always the struggle between the dying and the emerging, between spiritual stultification and spiritual fruition, between the life-denying and the life­fulfilling. That great theme he explored and developed with unexampled fertility. The courage with which he confronted the problems of his own time was clarified by his realization that the present is the child of the past. No novelist in his century saw life more sanely or portrayed it more lucidly. That is his heritage to us. Under his gaze the corners of time are not quaint and obscure crannies; they are light-filled openings into meaning and enlnrgements of understanding and the spirit.

 

 

 

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading