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LECTURER who should take as his subject the poetry of Milton or of Shakspeare,
or, to come to our own times, the poetry of Wordsworth or of Tennyson, would be sure to command, in one point at least, the sympathy of his audience. Faults in the execution of his task there might be. He might have mis-read the genius of his author. Real beauties might have passed with him unnoticed. He might be accused of claiming admiration for that which was in truth a blemishhis lecture might be in every respect a failure; but certainly no exception would be taken to its title. However universally and justly he might be condemned for misinterpreting the writings upon which he undertook to comment, no one would say that he did wrong in calling them poetry.
But the lecturer who takes as his subject the poetry of Sir Walter Scott may, not impossibly, elicit from some critics a remark of this kind—“Poetry of Walter Scott. What is that?-verses, I suppose, you mean.”
That such a spirit is general, I am far from saying. Still we can hardly pronounce beyond the reach of controversy the question—Was Walter Scott, in the true sense of the word, a poet-or do we degrade that great name in applying it to him? Must we at least extend that class with great liberality before we can make it wide enough to take him in ? Shall we say that his metrical romances burn with the fire of true poetry, or do we read them “only for the story;" and might they without much injury be translated into prose?
It would be unjust, even if it were possible, to examine the writings of Walter Scott as if they appeared now for the first time. That which may be called the external history of a book-its success or its failure—the practical verdict which the public have pronounced upon it, is not, indeed, absolutely decisive of its merit. Yet that is but a presumptuous criticism which refuses to allow weight to such a verdict when it is clearly pronounced. Of course it is easy to sneer at "the famed throng," and to mourn over “neglected genius;" and such satires or elegies will always be popular with the (pretty numerous) class who are not famous, and whose genius a perverse public could never be made to appreciate. And no doubt the history of literature does contain instances, in which the satire or the elegy may be quite just. But I think that they are exceptional instances. Genius, if it do not wilfully hide itself, is not often neglected; and though the public does occasionally make to itself an image of clay, such worship is usually very short-lived. The iconoclast is not far distant, and the idol of yesterday is swept into the dust-heap to-day, all the more remorselessly because it was an idol.
But when the worship has not been short-livedwhen the verdict of the public has been repeated over and over again—when edition after edition has failed to satiate the demand ; and when all this process has been going on for more than half a century, it would be somewhat bold to deny the merits of an author who can call such an array of witnesses. The evidence borne by such success is not, perhaps, decisive, but it is certainly very strong.
And what author could cite such evidence with more confidence than Walter Scott—what author could more truly say, that if public approval be the mint stamp, his poems have been long since recognized as genuine gold. For what are the facts? The number of complete editions of Scott's poetical works is more than twenty-five—that of some of the separate poems is even more. The first of his poetical romances, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” has passed through at least thirty editions. It is said that within five years no less than thirty thousand copies were sold. Nor is the variety of these editions less remarkable than their number. Here are two. The first is the well-known Edinburgh edition of 1856, in the highest style of typography, illustrated by the genius of Turner and other eminent artists—a costly and beautiful volume. And here, at the other end of the bibliographic scale, is an edition of the “ Lady of the
Lake,” published, not in Edinburgh, where national · partiality might be expected to ensure its success, but
in the good city of Dublin, at the moderate price of one penny. I hardly know which has paid the greater tribute to the genius of the author-Messrs. Black, who thought no expense too great for such a work, or Mr. Duffy, who expects, and I sincerely hope will find, that the popularity of the author whose works he thus places within the reach of his poorest fellowcitizen, will sufficiently multiply the very small fraction of a penny which the sale of each copy can yield him.
Doubtless there are critics with whom this evidence would weigh lightly enough. In music, in painting, in poetry, there are those who would restrict the right of judging to a few of the initiated; the rest of the public being expected to applaud or censure, in implicit obedience to their artistic superiors—a flock of sheep, whose simple duty is to jump over (or into) the ditches, as the critical bell-wether may choose to lead them. But this measure of wholesale disfranchisement results from the confounding of two questions which are in reality distinct. Whether a certain work of art deserve praise or blame, that is one question—a question upon which, I humbly submit, a large number of men are qualified (not equally, of course, but still qualified) to give an opinion. Why the work deserves praise or blame, that is quite another question—a question upon which comparatively few men are qualified to give an opinion. And if you, a critic, choose to commence an artistic conversation with any one of that large uninitiated class whom you wish to disfranchise, or, perhaps, I should