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Scott's first attempts at literary composition were made during
his years at the Royal High School of Edinburgh with the encouragement
of the Rector, Alexander Adam. His school years saw Scott discover
many lasting literary influences: Shakespeare, Spenser, Ariosto,
Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry and the great
eighteenth-century novel tradition of Richardson, Fielding, Smollett
and Mackenzie (see School and University).
After leaving school, the wages that Scott earned as apprentice
in his father's office gave him the means to expand his literary
education (see Professional Life). He attended
performances at the theatre in Old Playhouse Close and was able
to borrow more extensively from James Sibbald's circulating library.
He took Italian classes in order to appreciate Ariosto (below left)
and Tasso in the original, going on to read Dante, Boccaccio, and
Pulci. He worked on his French too, perusing the great French historical
chroniclers and the novels of La Calprenède, Scudery, and
Lesage (below centre). He even mastered sufficient Spanish to read
Lazarillo de Tormes, Cervantes (below right), and Ginés
Pérez de Hita's Guerras civiles de Granada, generally
regarded as the first Spanish historical novel.
Pérez de Hita, who interspersed his narrative with Moorish
border ballads, inspired Scott's first attempt at a long narrative
poem The Conquest of Grenada. Scott soon, however, consigned
the manuscript to the fire. Over two decades later, however, the
Guerras civiles de Granada would provide the creative spark
for Scott's poem The
Vision of Don Roderick (1811).
It was also during his apprenticeship that Scott made his first
acquaintances in the literary world. A friend from his University
days, Adam Ferguson, was the son of the great Enlightenment thinker
Professor Adam Ferguson. Ferguson's home at Sciennes Hill House
was a meeting place for Edinburgh's literati. Here Scott met the
blind poet Thomas Blacklock who permitted him to borrow at leisure
from his library and introduced him to the James Macpherson's Poems
the winter of 1786-87, Ferguson's salon was the scene of the only
encounter between Scott and Robert Burns. Scott was impressed by
the plainness of Burns's manners and the independence of his judgment
but unconvinced by the humility with which he praised poets that
were clearly his inferiors. The fifteen-year-old Scott only once
succeeded in attracting Burns's attention. Burns was moved by a
sentimental print illustrating a poem entitled 'The Justice of the
Peace'. When he asked who had written the original poem, only Scott
was able to tell him it was by John Langhorne. For this, Scott received
a look and word of thanks that he would always remember.
In the second year of Scott's apprenticeship, a serious illness
led to a lengthy convalescence which was partly spent at his uncle
Robert Scott's villa at Kelso. Here Scott wrote his first love poetry
to 'Jessie', daughter of a small tradesman, whom he addressed with
conventional gallantry as the 'Flower of Kelso' and 'Pride of Teviotdale'.
Although the anxious Scott destroyed all of Jessie's correspondence
with him, his sweetheart preserved his letters and poems and later
confided the details of their affair to an anonymous biographer.
These were edited and published by Davidson Cook in 1932 as New
Love Poems: Discovered in the Narrative of an Unknown Love Episode
with Jessie --- of Kelso (see Bibliography).
During his second spell at University (1789-92) Scott formed a
Poetry Society and joined the Literary Society where he gave papers
sparked by his new-found interest in Old Norse and Icelandic literature
and mythology, a passion which would later be channeled into such
works as Harold the Dauntless
(1817) and The Pirate
(1821). As Librarian (and subsequently Secretary and Treasurer)
of the Speculative Society, he further enhanced his reputation for
antiquarian erudition, impressing his fellow-members with his knowledge
of medieval culture and ballad-lore.
During the first years of Scott's practice as an Advocate, he was
employed primarily on the Jedburgh circuit and at other Border courts
(see Professional Life). This provided ample
opportunity to indulge the love of ballads originally kindled during
his childhood stay at Sandyknowe. Beginning
in 1792, Scott made annual ballad-collecting trips to Liddesdale
and its environs, aided by fellow enthusiasts such as Robert Shortreed
and William Elliott. Initiated with no specific end in view, the
fruits of Scott's 'raids' would eventually comprise his Minstrelsy
of the Scottish Border.
Click on the thumbnail to view a full-size image of a handwritten
transcript by Walter Scott of the ballad 'Captain Ward and the Rainbow'.
Together with his ballad-collecting, Scott made the discovery in
the early 1790s of the pre-Romantic Sturm und Drang school
of German poets and dramatists. Like many of his European contemporaries,
Scott was excited by their rejection of neo-classical conventions,
stress on subjectivity and emotional intensity, love of nature,
and depiction of man in conflict with contemporary society. He began
studying German in order to read the movement's leading writers,
Goethe, Schiller, Klopstock, and Bürger.
|Scott was particularly impressed by the supernatural
balladry of Gottfried
August Bürger (1747-1794) and tried
to capture something of his wild, highly-charged imagery in
his own English versions. A privately circulated translation
of Bürger's 'Lenore' ('William and Helen') created a stir
in Edinburgh's literary circles. Encouraged, Scott went on to
render 'Der Wilde Jäger' into English as 'The Chase'. Published
together with 'William and Helen' by Manners and Miller in 1796,
this was to be Scott's first publication.
Scott acquired further works of modern German literature through
the offices of Harriet, the German wife of his relative Scott of
Harden who also provided linguistic assistance. Scott's approach
to translation was, by modern standards, somewhat cavalier, and
his shaky grasp of German grammar led to many inaccuracies. Over
the next few years he produced translations of Maier's Fust
von Stromberg, Iffland's Die Mündel (The Wards),
Schiller's Die Verschwörung des Fiesco zu Genua (Conspiracy
of Fiesco), Steinsberg's adaptation of Von Babo's Otto
von Wittelsbach, and Goethe's Goetz von Berlichingen.
It was the latter which most enthused Scott. He saw parallels
its robber barons and the Border reivers of his beloved ballads
and first glimpsed how history could be made vividly present
a modern readership.
In spring 1798 Scott's friend Will Erskine made the acquaintance
in London of Matthew
Gregory Lewis, author of the hugely popular
Gothic novel The Monk. Lewis was then collecting material
for a poetic miscellany to be entitled Tales of Terror.
Erskine showed him Scott's translations from Bürger,
and Lewis, greatly impressed, requested that Scott contribute
to his anthology. Scott agreed to submit some Scots ballads
that he had collected but, while selecting suitable material,
began work on his first original ballads, all based on Scottish
supernatural lore: 'The Fire-King', 'Glenfinlas, or Lord Ronald's
Coronach', 'The Eve of St. John', and the unfinished 'The
Gray Brother' (later published in vol. III of the Minstrelsy
of the Scottish Border).
Lewis also helped Scott find a London publisher, J. Bell, for his
version of Goetz von Berlichingen. While the volume was being
typeset, a gust of wind blew some of the manuscript out of a window,
and one page was lost. Lewis promptly secured a copy of the original
and re-translated the missing passage. Goetz appeared on
March 14, 1799, but a further mishap saw the translation attributed
to William Scott. Fortunately, although Scott's Goetz was
only a modest commercial success, enough copies were sold to justify
a second printing with the translator's name corrected.
||Click on the thumbnail to view a full-size image
of the title page of Scott's translation of Goetz von Berlichingen.
Meanwhile, the publication of Lewis's miscellany was much delayed.
In summer or autumn 1799, an impatient Scott had twelve copies
of a mini-anthology, An
Apology for Tales of Terror, privately
printed in Kelso by his old school-friend James
Ballantyne. Along with poems by Lewis, Robert
Aikin, this included Scott's revised versions of
Helen' and 'The Chase', together with 'The Erl-King', a ballad
he had translated from Goethe. Shortly afterwards, a private printing
of 'The Eve
John' appeared. These two slim pamphlets mark the beginnings of
Scott's collaboration with the Ballantyne Press which would go
to print all of Scott's major works. (For more information on Scott's
relations with M. G. Lewis and his early interest in German literature,
see Douglass H. Thomson's online critical
edition of An Apology
for Tales of Terror).
Lewis's miscellany was finally published on November 27, 1800,
under the amended title Tales of Wonder. Besides a reprint
of 'The Chase' (renamed as 'The Wild Huntsman'),
it contained another Goethe translation 'Frederick and Alice'
and three original Scott compositions, 'The Fire King', 'Glenfinlas',
and 'The Eve of St. John'. By now, however, Scott was deeply
engaged in compiling his Minstrelsy
of the Scottish Border, the work that would mark his
true entry into the literary world (see Scott
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Last updated: 11-Dec-2007
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