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Scott the Poet
||Although Scott had been writing verse since his
years at the High School of Edinburgh (see School
and University), his first original verse was not published
until 1799, when the Ballantyne Press
brought out a private edition of the ballad 'The Eve of St.
John'. A year later, Matthew
Gregory Lewis's long-delayed anthology
Tales of Wonder contained two more original Scott ballads
'The Fire King' and 'Glenfinlas' (illustrated, left), together
with a reprint of 'The Eve of St. John' (see Literary
Scott's true debut in the literary world, though,
was marked by the Minstrelsy
of the Scottish Border, a collection of the traditional
ballads that Scott had been collecting in yearly trips to the Borders
from 1792 onwards. In many cases, Scott had not hesitated to 'improve'
upon the original, changing words, inserting new stanzas, mending
rhymes and rhythms, fusing various versions, and sometimes setting
old legends to verses of his own. The first two-volume edition of
the Minstrelsy (1802) also contained two previously published
imitation ballads, 'Glenfinlas' and 'The Eve of St John', and a
concluding 'Third Part' to the traditional ballad 'Thomas the Rhymer'
of Scott's own composition.
|In 1803, the second edition of the Minstrelsy
was published, including a third volume of modern ballads by
a number of leading writers. These included four further Scott
compositions: 'Cadyow Castle' (illustrated, right), 'The Gray
Brother', 'War Song of the Royal Edinburgh Light Dragoons',
and 'Christie's Will'. The Minstrelsy was a commercial
triumph. The first edition sold out in six months, laying the
foundation for James Ballantyne's
career as a printer. It was translated into German, Danish,
and Swedish, and gave Scott his first taste of North American
Scott had originally intended to include in the Minstrelsy
a transcription of Sir Tristrem, an incomplete medieval narrative
romance, based on the legend of Tristram and Iseult, that formed
part of the Auchinleck MS in the Advocates' Library. As the Minstrelsy
rapidly expanded, he decided to publish it separately, along with
arguments attributing it to the thirteenth-century poet Thomas of
Ercildoune. When it appeared, however, in 1804, the fifteen-stanza
conclusion was furnished by Scott himself in skillful imitation
of the original poet's style.
further offshoot of the Minstrelsy was to develop into Scott's
first major narrative poem. Among the imitation ballads that he
had intended to include in the third volume was a lengthy piece
interweaving a tale of sixteenth-century Border rivalry with the
supernatural legends of the wizard Michael Scott and his goblin
servant Gilpin Horner. The poem rapidly grew too long for inclusion
in the Minstrelsy, and Scott began to conceive of it as a
separate volume. Published in 1805, the Lay
of the Last Minstrel enjoyed unprecedented sales for a work
of poetry and brought Scott instant fame. Critics and public applauded
Scott's skill in shaking off the stiffness of neo-classical verse
while refining the perceived coarseness of the ballad tradition.
The description of the moonlit Melrose Abbey (Canto II, stanza 1)
brought a stream of sightseers to its ruins and was the first instance
of Scott's immense impact on the nineteenth-century tourist industry.
The Lay's success determined the line that Scott's work was
to take over the next nine years as he produced a succession of
major narrative poems.
nonetheless continued to compose shorter ballads based primarily
on Border traditions. William Whyte's miscellany A Collection
of Scottish Airs (1806-07) contains five pieces by Scott, all
of which were destined to become much re-printed anthology pieces:
'Helvellyn', 'The Maid of Toro', 'The Maid of Neidpath' (illustrated,
right), 'The Palmer', and 'Wandering Willie'. Scott's own 1806 collection
Ballads and Lyrical Pieces contained eleven previously published
pieces, together with 'The Norman Horse-Shoe' and 'The Dying Bard',
which had only previously appeared in a privately printed pre-publication
issue of the Lay of the Last Minstrel. In 1808 too, he inserted
two ballads of his own, 'Hunting Song' and 'Bridal Song', into his
edition of Joseph Strutt's historical romance Queenhoo-Hall.
most concerted poetic effort during these years, however, went into
his second narrative poem Marmion,
set against the backdrop of Scotland's greatest military defeat,
the battle of Flodden Field. In the title character, Scott created
a new kind of anti-hero, an ambiguous mixture of villainy and open-hearted
courage that would greatly influence the protagonists of Byron.
On its publication in 1808, the critics were thrown by this disconcerting
figure, judging him an altogether unsuitable subject for poetic
celebration. The public, though, were conquered, turning Marmion
into an even greater commercial success than the Lay of the Last
Minstrel. Scott's fame had now reached such a height that his
publisher Constable was able to commission a portrait of the poet
from the celebrated painter Sir
Henry Raeburn (engraved by John
Horsburgh, above left).
next narrative poem The Lady
of the Lake (1810) would mark the pinnacle of his career
as a poet. Set along the shores and islands of Loch Katrine, where
Scott holidayed in August 1809, it dramatized the struggle between
James V, sixteenth-century king of Scotland, and the powerful clan
Douglas. Scott's aim was to rely less on spectacular action and
scenery than on psychologically convincing characterization. For
once, the critics were as enthusiastic as the public, praising Scott's
depiction of 'real manners'. With 25,000 copies exhausted in eight
months, The Lady of the Lake (illustrated, right) broke all
records for the sale of poetry. For all Scott's desire to play down
the 'local colour' element, the poem created a tourist vogue for
Loch Katrine and the Trossachs which has endured to this day.
Scott's next lengthy poem, The
Vision of Don Roderick (1811), was essentially an occasional
production, written to celebrate Wellington's successes in
the Peninsular Campaign, with all profits to be donated to Portuguese
war sufferers. Scott himself dismissed the poem upon its appearance
as a piece of patriotic tub-thumping. The critics felt it to be
a series of tableaux rather than a genuinely compelling narrative,
but it was favourably greeted by the public, earning one hundred
guineas for the Portuguese fund.
had a good deal more invested in its follow-up, 1813's Rokeby.
Funds were urgently required to finance the building of his new
home at Abbotsford and to counter the emerging
financial difficulties of John Ballantyne and Co, in which Scott
was a silent half-partner (see Financial
hardship). Fearing that he might have sated the public's appetite
for Scottish historical romances, he set his new poem in England,
in the midst of the Civil War. For any other poet, Rokeby
would have been a considerable commercial success but sales fell
far short of The Lady of the Lake and failed to meet Scott's
increasingly urgent needs. The critics, conversely, were highly
favourable, but Scott began to sense that his poetic star was on
the wane. He now had a formidable rival in Lord Byron (portrayed
above), whose Child Harold's Pilgrimage (1812) had eclipsed
even Scott's early successes. The conviction that he could not compete
with Byron, whose work Scott always intensely admired, influenced
the decision to experiment with prose narrative (see Scott
It was nonetheless at this point, in autumn 1813,
that the Prince Regent offered Scott the vacant post of Poet Laureate.
Scott immediately felt that such an appointment would be a poisoned
chalice. The Laureateship had fallen into disrepute, as a succession
of poetasters had churned out conventional and obsequious odes on
royal occasions. Given, too, that Scott already occupied two public
offices, as Sheriff Depute of Selkirkshire and Clerk of the Court
of Session (see Professional Career), he
might be accused of greed. On the other hand, it was a great honour
that could not be lightly turned down, royal favour might assist
his children's careers, and the salary would unquestionably alleviate
his present difficulties.
|Scott wrote to the Duke of Buccleuch for advice.
The Duke echoed Scott's own reservations and warned Scott to
protect the independence of his Muse. Accordingly, Scott turned
down the offer, requesting that the post be offered to a needier
writer who lived entirely by his pen. Through his friend John
Wilson Croker, Scott forwarded the name of the eventual appointee,
his friend Robert
Southey (portrayed, right).
While concentrating on longer verse narratives, Scott had still
been publishing shorter songs and ballads in journals and anthologies.
He contributed five pieces to John Ballantyne's 1810 miscellany
English Minstrelsy and a series of poetic imitations to the
Edinburgh Annual Register for 1809 (published 1811). These
last included not only pastiches of Crabbe and Moore but a parody
of his own style in 'The Vision of Triermain'. Indulging a lifelong
love of mystification, he expanded the 'Vision' into a lengthier
poem, The Bridal of
Triermain which wove together Arthurian and medieval legends
of an enchanted castle in the English Lake District. Published anonymously,
The Bridal fooled almost all critics into thinking that
it was an imitation of Scott rather than by Scott himself (though
some thought it surpassed its model!).
now, though, Scott's major efforts had turned to prose. 1814 saw
the publication of his first novel Waverley,
an immediate success which persuaded Scott that his future lay in
that line. He was to produce, though, one last major poetic work.
The Lord of the Isles
(1815) grew from a fragment dealing with the wanderings of Robert
the Bruce that Scott had abandoned in favour of Rokeby. A
voyage around the Western Isles in summer and autumn 1814 rekindled
his inspiration, introducing Scott to the locations that are vividly
described in the poem's dense narrative. After a worryingly slow
start, the first edition sold out within a month but once again
did not match the success of Marmion and The Lady of the
Lake. Although for some critics it was amongst Scott's best
work, others saw evidence of over-hasty composition, loose plotting
and versification, and an exhausted vein of inspiration.
From now on, Scott would essentially be 'the author of Waverley'.
Two further minor poetic narratives were published but with modest
critical and commercial success. The
Field of Waterloo (1815) was based on Scott's visit to the
battlefield shortly after Napoleon's defeat. Profits went to a fund
set up for widows and orphans of soldiers, and sales were respectable.
While some commentators were reluctant to criticize a poem produced
in a worthy cause, others did not hesitate to censure it in the
harshest terms for its clumsy structure and stilted phrasing. Finally,
Harold the Dauntless
(1817), the tale of a Viking Beserker, was published as another
work by 'the author of the Bridal of Triermain'. Again, few critics
detected Scott's hand, judging it rather a second-rate imitation
which magnified the faults of its model. Such comments, combined
with poor sales, merely confirmed Scott in his decision to specialize
henceforth in prose fiction.
While he contained to contribute to journals and miscellanies (such
as A Select Collection of Original Irish Airs and Albyn's
Anthology) and would later write the poetic dramas Halidon
Hill (1822) and The Doom of Devorgoil (1830), the main
vent for Scott's poetic Muse would now be the lyrics and poetic
fragments inserted into his novels. Today, with the vogue for Scott's
narrative verse not long outliving the nineteenth century, his reputation
as a poet rests largely on such widely anthologized lyrics as 'Proud
Maisie' (The Heart
of Midlothian) and 'Lucy Ashton's Song' (The
Bride of Lammermoor).
||Click here to see a full-size reproduction of
Frederick Anthony Sandys's Proud Maisie (1867), inspired
by Scott's poem of the same name (illustration from Songs
of the North: Gathered Together from the Highlands and Lowlands
of Scotland, ed. A.C. Macleod and Harold Boulton. London:
Field & Tuer, ).
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Last updated: 17-July-2015
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