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For Walter Scott

ISSUE:  Winter 1933

The Letters of Sir Walter Scott, 1787-1807. Edited by H. J. C. Grierson. London: Constable and Company. 18s. Sir Walter Scott. By John Buchan. New York: Coward-McCann. $3.75. The Waverley Pageant. Edited by Hugh Wal-pole. New York: Harper and Brothers. $4.00. The Heart of Scott’s Poetry. Selected by John Haynes Holmes. New York: Oxford University Press. $2.50. Scott Centenary Articles. Essays by Thomas Seccombe, W. P. Ker, George Gordon, W. H. Hutton, Arthur McDowall, and R. S. Rait. New York: Oxford University Press. $2.00.

It is a great privilege to have a share in the Scott Centenary, if only as a reviewer of the tributes of other men. The devotees of Huxley, Dreiser, and Hemingway — “heavy with contempt of life,” as Dr. W. R. Bowie puts it— tell us that Scott is dead, nobody reads him any more. It is not difficult to understand why readers of Huxley, Dreiser, and Hemingway should be somewhat confused in their critical judgments. What is puzzling is why such a writer as Mr. E. M. Forster should permit himself to say that Scott is, in the light of the twentieth century, nothing more than a glorified writer of juveniles. As Lord David Cecil, than whom there is no more sensitive writer on literature, has been making clear in his splendid articles in The Atlantic Monthly, Scott, though he has great faults—and these precisely the kind of faults that it is most difficult for readers of twentieth-century fiction to forgive—can also easily touch heights that hardly any other British novelist can reach. When Murray asked Lord Holland for his opinion of “Old Mortality,” the old man exclaimed, “Opinion! We did not one of us go to bed last night—nothing slept but my gout.” And in this connection Miss Agnes Repplier once reminded us that we have extremely popular novels in our own day but that they do not often prevent us from going to bed at a respectable hour and sleeping comfortably and well. Not so long ago we had “The Private Letter Books of Sir Walter Scott,” edited by Wilfred Partington, and biographies by Stephen Gwynn and Louise Schutz Boas. The books discussed in this article do not exhaust the Centenary list, yet they include the first volume of a Definitive Edition of the Letters, to be completed in ten volumes, a noble biography from the indefatigable and wonderfully gifted pen of John Buchan, and labors of love in the form of compilations edited by one of the most famous of twentieth century British novelists and an almost equally distinguished American clergyman. For a corpse, Scott seems to be showing signs of uncommon vitality.

Myself, I have always felt that, with the single exception of Shakespeare, there is no British writer who is quite so well worth knowing for his own sake. And, unfortunately, we cannot really know Shakespeare, except as an artist. Chaucer, Keats, Fielding, Dickens, Doctor Johnson—every one of them was a prince among men, every one a man whose hand I should have been proud to touch. But keen as the competition is, I would put Sir Walter at the very top of the list.

In one way, he is a difficult man to know, a difficult subject for the biographer, because he is completely normal. “He stood at the heart of life,” writes John Buchan. Now Dickens, too, is normal, splendidly and thoroughly sane on all essential matters. Yet Dickens is, in all externals, in his art, in the very workings of his mind, flamboyant, “colorful,” picturesque. Like all men who offer convenient handles for the caricaturist, he is, therefore, comparatively easy to portray. The scenes of his novels, too, stick in the memory better than Scott’s. Homer never found it possible to describe Helen, for Helen was perfect beauty. If her nose had been either long or short, he could have told us, but it was neither, it was just right. Above all, Scott did not wear his heart upon his sleeve. As Mr. Buchan remarks, he is really the average man with all his natural powers immensely heightened.

The Letters, of course, will constitute the most important Scott publication in many years. They are rich, beautifully made books, the format worthy the dignity of the theme, and they are being issued at a very reasonable price. The first volume, which is all that has reached me, contains some two hundred letters, nearly half of which are here printed for the first time, while a good many of the others have hitherto appeared only in garbled form. Professor Grierson has discovered that Lockhart often “manipulated” the letters he printed—omitted, corrected, telescoped, or otherwise altered.

Many of the new letters are extremely important, though naturally this is not the place to evaluate them. The next biographer will be a fortunate man. Perhaps the most important single discovery will be found in the appendix of more than a hundred pages consisting of letters to John and James Ballantyne concerning Scott’s tragic financial misadventures. But the general public will be much more interested in the love letters to “Jessie.” Who Jessie was, we do not know, but she antedated Williamina Belsches in Scott’s affections, the Williamina who — as we all know — left his heart “handsomely cracked.” Unlike Williamina, Jessie returned his affections, but as time went on, young Walter found himself less deeply enlisted than he had supposed, “and he drew off, the damsel regarding his conduct ‘with a resentment that never subsided.’” It is amusing to find Scott calling on Jessie in Edinburgh, whither she had been summoned to attend a sick relative, and in order to escape observation, concealing himself for long periods in the china cupboard and there scribbling poetry to pass away the time.

Professor Grierson contributes an admirable introduction of fifty-three pages, “Sir Walter Scott in His Letters.” In his annotations he is sometimes more concerned with supplying subsidiary information than he is with explaining obscure references in the text.

But indispensable as the Letters are for scholarly purposes, it is Mr. Buchan’s biography which is really the book of the hour. As he himself points out, it is a book which sooner or later he was bound to write, for it was his lot “to be born and bred under the shadow of that great tradition.” It is a great year for him which sees the publication of his splendid historical novel, “The Blanket of the Dark”—a book almost worthy of Scott himself—and also of this nearly perfect biography.

Mr. Buchan tells the general reader just about everything he could wish to know about Scott. As an historian, he first builds up the background from his own extensive, first-hand knowledge of Scottish life; as a novelist, he traces his hero’s progress through the world and against that background; as a critic and a scholar, he not only evaluates the individual novels, he discusses Scott’s place in the history of fiction, his predecessors and his successors, he sums up the essential qualities manifested in the body of his work as a whole. Best of all, perhaps, as a man, he is aware of the spiritual significance of his material, sees it sub specie aeternatatis, comprehends its meaning and its relation to the all-embracing mystery of life.

He can throw off an epigram with ease, as when he says of Scott: “In practice he regarded all men as his brothers, but he would have nothing to do with whimsies about the Brotherhood of Man.” With all his admiration for Scott, not even the Devil’s Advocate could be more keenly aware than he is of Scott’s limitations: “A party affiliation is doubtless a good thing for the ordinary citizen, but is less good for one who, not being a politician, acquires from his temperament the politician’s restless combativeness.” And in such a comment as the following he puts his finger on the reason why some of us have a vision of creative literature committing suicide in such works as Mr. O’Neill’s “Strange Interlude”: “Carlyle chose a bad test for his denigratory comparison, for Scott’s method is pre-eminently the method of Shakespeare. Neither peeps and botanizes and flourishes the scalpel; they make their characters reveal themselves by their speech and deeds in the rough contacts of life.”

Mr. Buchan’s last two chapters deal with “The Writer” and “The Man,” and I do not know how adequately to describe them except as thrilling. The Centenary year has brought three distinguished revaluations—Professor Grier-son’s, Lord David Cecil’s, and Mr. Buchan’s; but neither the first nor the second—admirably discriminating though they are—achieves the virile power of the last. Scott is not usually thought of as a philosophical writer, but Mr. Buchan shows that “He has a very clear philosophy, of which the basis is the eternity and the wisdom of the divine ordering of things. His aim is that of Greek tragedy, to secure a valiant acquiescence in the course of fate and in the dispensations of human life. . . . Scott’s purpose is the classic reconciliation. Like Meredith’s Lucifer in starlight, he is always aware of the ‘army of unalterable law.’ To him peace and fortitude are to be found in a manly and reverent submission. In la sua volontade e nostra pace.”

In 661 pages, “The Waverley Pageant” embraces no fewer than seventy-six selections from Scott’s novels, arranged under eleven headings: “The Merrie Business of Writing Immortal Novels,” “The Human Comedy,” “Heroes and Villains,” “High Jinks,” “Stories of Kings and Queens,” “Prophets, Priests, and Priestesses,” “Lovers,” “Out in the ‘Forty-five,” “Drama,” “Originals,” and “The Old Order Changeth.” All the stock pieces are here: “Wandering Willie’s Tale,” Diana Vernon’s farewell, Mary Stuart signing her abdication, and the murder of Amy Robsart, and there are many less familiar pieces illustrating some aspect or other of Scott’s genius to which Mr. Walpole wishes to call our attention. The selection has been made with patient, loving skill, and the book is physically beautiful. The result is the best of all omnibus volumes. Yet one cannot escape feeling that Scott is not a writer to read omnibus fashion. It seems a little like sampling literature by reading Bartlett’s “Familiar Quotations.” Professor Grierson is right when he says, “However much we may regret his lack of self-criticism, it is to that he owed his surety.” Even Scott’s tiresome padding is a part of him, absurd as it seems to say it, a part of his charm. “He stood at the heart of life,” and to attempt to go through him hitting only the high spots is as disastrous in his world as it would be in our own. The long gray days, the tiresome hours of wearing toil — they have their place.

Mr. Walpole has prepared a gracious, modest tribute from one famous novelist to another. Instead of giving us Walpole on Sir Walter, he gives us Sir Walter. His own comments in his Introductions are right enough, but I can find little that is profound in them.

The poems naturally respond better than the novels to the aims of the anthologist, though even here one feels somewhat the same lack in the extracts from the longer pieces. Dr. John Haynes Holmes’s Introduction in “The Heart of Scott’s Poetry” is admirably done. He finds in Scott’s poetry at its best “a sweep of action, a torrential rush of rhythmic beauty, a noble eloquence and lyric flight.” He reminds us that Matthew Arnold thought Scott a poet “closely akin to Homer,” and that Thomas Hardy was so fond of his poems that he placed them ahead of the novels. He considers the shortcomings also: Scott misses “the tragic note—that profound sense of cosmic fate, of titanic circumstance, from the clutch of whose enormous forces man strives in vain to gain release.” And he “has little variety in his poetic work—few depths, no loftiest heights—and one pushes ahead through his collected poems with a rapidly diminishing enthusiasm.” Yet Dr. Holmes speaks of Scott as “the last and greatest of the balladists,” “this star within that small galaxy of poets who must remain forever the chief glory of our English tongue.”

So, it will be seen that the admirers of Scott, this centenary year, are not satisfied to call us back to his novels. They insist on a revaluation of his poetry as well. And Dr. Holmes’s selections, especially under the “Lyrics and Songs,” go far to prove that they are justified in making this demand.

Mark Twain accused Scott of having caused the Civil War, an honor which Abraham Lincoln preferred to confer upon “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and which really, as Professor J. Fred Rippy has shown, belongs in part to Lincoln himself. When we note how predominantly Scott’s poetry is the poetry of combat and martial valor, we may be surprised or even amused at the enthusiasm of Dr. Holmes, who has been for many years one of the ablest and most far-seeing leaders of the pacifist movement. Yet I am myself a good pacifist, and I do love the man this side idolatry, as much as any.

“Scott Centenary Articles” is made up of eighteen essays published in The London Times Literary Supplement between 1914 and 1928 in commemoration of the centenary anniversaries of the various novels. They are, for the most part, arm-chair criticism in the leisurely British manner, but they are not without charm. Best of all is R. S. Rait’s contribution, “Scott as Critic and Judge.” One wishes that we in America had some organ where this kind of thing might appear.

When we plead for a return to Scott, this centenary year, it must not be on the ground that he needs us. He, like all our mighty dead, as Max Beerbohm once remarked in another connection, either knows nothing whatever about it or else he is utterly above all such considerations. Yet one may still feel that if Scott does not need us, we do terribly need him. And we never needed him more than we need him in this hour when we show a tendency to neglect him. The trail of the neurotic is all over our post-war literature, the ennui of over-stimulated nerves. Scott cannot solve all our problems. Nobody could do that, not Shakespeare, not even Christ. Doubtless we shall go on being neurotic until the war problems are solved, until the fear of war itself has been banished from society. Such speculations take us into a realm that Sir Walter could not have entered, where he would not have felt at home, which he could scarcely have understood. He was not a saint, and nothing save confusion of values could result from the attempt to pretend that he was. Yet his sanity, his honor, his deep humanity would help us mightily if we could get hold of them somehow and hold them fast. There are even times when we feel that such as he can help us more than the saints. The saints draw us upward for our good, but they often tear the heart out of us in the process. And as Mr. Buchan has it, “Scott has what Stevenson found in Dostoevsky, a ‘lovely goodness.’ He lacks the flaming intensity of the Russian; his even balance of soul saves him from the spiritual melodrama to which the latter often descends. But like him he loves mankind without reservation, is incapable of hate, and finds nothing created altogether common or unclean. This Border laird, so happy in his worldly avocations that some would discard him as superficial, stands at the end securely among the prophets, for he gathers all things, however lowly and crooked and broken, within the love of God.”


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