Sir Walter Scott is best known nowadays as the author of The Waverley Novels, but his first love and earliest success was as a poet. Indeed, it is no understatement to say that he was the best-read, best-reviewed and best-paid poet of the Romantic period: Byron himself placed Scott at the summit of his contemporary Parnassus.
Born in 1771 to Walter Scott, a lawyer and Writer to the Signet, and Anne Rutherford, the daughter of Dr John Rutherford, professor of medicine at Edinburgh University, Scott was a sickly child. His childhood was divided between Kelso and Smailholm in the Borders and the emerging ‘New Town‘ in Edinburgh, and his artistic endeavours were nourished by this double legacy of tradition and modernity. In the Borders he first became acquainted with the traditional ballads that would form the core of his first major work, the anthology The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802, subsequently revised and expanded). In Edinburgh, as a young man following in his father’s footsteps as a legal student, he attended the salon of Professor Adam Fergusson and met leading literary figures of the day. As a child, in the same place, he was introduced to Robert Burns.
Scott married Charlotte Charpentier in 1797 after a whirlwind romance, and after his first love, Williamina Belsches, married a banker, Sir John Forbes. Scott became Depute Sheriff of Selkirkshire – rising to being ‘The Shirra’ in 1799. At the same time he began his first attempts at poetry: translations from German of Buchner, Lessing and Goethe, and imitations of both the contemporary German ballad and the traditional ballads of the area. With the assistance of John Leyden, William Laidlaw and James Hogg, Scott produced the Minstrelsy, expanding it with modern day imitations as well as preserving many now-well-known ballads. Spurred on by the success of the Minstrelsy, Scott wrote a long narrative poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), which sought to unite contemporary, experimental, irregular verse forms with the fire and energy of the ‘rude’ ballads.
Such was the success of The Lay that Scott’s publisher offered him 500 guineas, sight unseen, for his next poem, the ‘tale of Flodden Field’, Marmion (1808). In the person of Marmion, the ‘bold, bad man’, Scott created a new kind of anti-hero, one which would profoundly influence Byron. He followed Marmion with The Lady of the Lake (1810), which smoothed out both the moral ambiguities and the elastic verse forms of the previous narrative poems. Scott’s son-in-law, writing in 1838 in his Life of Sir Walter Scott says,
The Lay, if I may venture to state the creed now established, is, I should say, generally considered as the most natural and original, Marmion as the most powerful and splendid, The Lady of the Lake as the most interesting, romantic, picturesque, and graceful of his great poems.
The depiction of Loch Katrine in The Lady of the Lake generated an upsurge of tourist interest: Sir John Sinclair records that toll-payments for carriages increased by 200 per cent in the wake of The Lady’ s publication.
Although no other poetic works reached the fame of his first four publications, Scott continued with verse, writing The Vision of Don Roderick in 1811, the profits from which went to veterans of the Peninsular Campaign, and in which he attempted to use the Spenserian stanza with moderate success. Rokeby followed in 1813, abandoning Scottish settings and attempting a more novelistic form of narrative. In 1813 he also published, anonymously, The Bridal of Triermain, which purported to be an imitation of Scott.
He would write two further narrative poems – The Lord of the Isles in 1815 and (again, anonymously) the gothic horror Harold the Dauntless in 1817, as well as a contemporary work, The Field of Waterloo (1815) after touring the site of Napoleon’s defeat. Scott was offered the poet laureateship in 1813 on the death of Henry Pye: he declined, saying he could not ‘write to order’ and already held government sinecures in the form of the office of Sherriff. He suggested instead Robert Southey, who took the position.
Scott turned mostly to novels after 1814, becoming the world’s first best-seller, and inventing the historical novel. He candidly admitted to the Countess Pürgstall that his decision to forgo poetry was partly motivated by the success of the ‘more forcible and powerful’ Lord Byron. He did, however, continue to write poetry, as inset songs in the novels and often as epigraph fragments and chapter headings which he attributed as ‘Old Song’ and ‘Old Play’. Scott’s phenomenally successful career as a novelist continued even after the financial crash of 1825, which left him with debts of over £8.8 million in today’s money. The debt was repaid shortly after his death, in 1832, by the sales of his Complete Works.
Scott was one of the most genial and engaging personalities of his age, and was a fundamentally paradoxical individual. Almost superhumanly well-read, modest to the point of pathological self-deprecation, he was a unionist who believed in preserving Scotland’s distinct identity within Britain and a Tory laird, knighted by George IV as his first act as king, who displayed an unpatronising empathy with the ‘lower orders’ in his creative work. In his lifetime, the only comparison critics could make was to Shakespeare, and they saw in Scott a Shakespearean capacity to animate a broad canvas that included kings and knaves, to disregard neoclassical rules in favour of emotional impact, and the promotion of a genre-defying form that encompassed tragedy, comedy, irony, chivalry, realism and melodrama.
We can be blunted, nowadays, to the radical impact of Scott’s poetry. To his contemporaries, even when they were criticising him, it was evident that this was a very modern and new form of poetry. He ended the dominance of the heroic couplet and the pentameter, and introduced a more flexible ‘light horseman sort of stanza’. His work was full of specific place names: to a degree, he invented the idea of a poetry of place rather than a locus classicus. His poetry was swift, dangerous, uneven, sometimes ragged, suffused with a sense of the gothic and yet rooted in Augustan cadences. Perhaps the most surprising aspect is how little he regarded it himself. While on holiday in Shetland he wrote:
it would be a fine situation to compose an ode to the Genius of Sumburgh-head,
or an Elegy upon a Cormorant – or to have written or spoken madness of any kind
in prose or poetry. But I gave vent to my excited feelings in a more simple way;
and sitting gentle down on the steep green slope which led to the beach, I e’en
slid down a few hundred feet, and found the exercise quite an adequate vent to
my enthusiasm, I recommend this exercise (time and place suiting) to all my brother
scribblers, and I have no doubt it will save much effusion of Christian ink.