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it. Only the ear which he has educated can feel its whole force. Only in the mind which, under the magic of his art, has passed through other emotions first, can he awaken all that he would awaken. And so it is with the poet. He, too, knows how weakly the most powerful description falls upon the unprepared ear. And if you would feel the full power of such a passage as this, read it as the poet has given it to you. Follow that dark tragedy in all its mingled pathos and terror. Let Walter Scott lead you into that grim vault, and see there the group so sternly drawn—the pitiless inquisitors—the grovelling despair of the one victim—the fierce defiance of the other, abandoned, betrayed, guilty, yet looking unterrified on the almost inconceivable fate which awaited her; and then, the short, stern sentencethe judges flying terrified from their own work — last of all, the stifled groan which told its consummation. And then, read aloud the passage which I have just quoted, and you will feel the significance even of its sound. You will feel that, powerful as it is at all times, upon a mind so prepared it strikes with the awful solemnity of a death knell.
Another power which we expect to find displayed in fiction, whether conveyed in poetry or in prose, is the evolution of human character, not by formal description, but by the course of the story. Remembering the unrivalled powers of this kind afterwards displayed by the author of “Waverley," we look with great interest to his poems for evidence of the same; but, with one remarkable exception, to
which I shall again refer, the general result of such an inquiry is disappointing. We look in vain for the individualizing power which drew Jonathan Oldbuck or Caleb Balderstone.
Neither, in general, and still with the exception to which I have alluded, does the construction and development of the plot display very high art. If we consult the criticism of his own time, we shall find its sharpest arrows directed against faults in this part of his task. Indeed, in his earlier writings he seems to have assigned to the fable an importance very subordinate to that of the successive pictures which it links together.
Another fault, for which he received severe and not unmerited censure, is the amount of careless, almost prosaic writing, which is to be found in some of his best poems. Nor can he be said to have taken any pains to correct it; on the contrary it appears to have become aggravated. It is, I think, less conspicuous in the first of all his greater poems, “ The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” than in any subsequent one; and every reader of “Rokeby” will see with regret how much the effect of that otherwise fine poem is impaired by dull and jingling couplets.*
A series of magnificent pictures, stirring as a trumpet-brilliant as a summer morn, linked by a versified story, constructed with more or less art, but in which the poetic fire may burn languidly—such seems to have been the conception which Walter Scott in his metrical romances attempted to realize. Certainly it is that conception which he has realized; and therefore
there are few cases in which opposing advocates may, by a partial statement of the evidence, obtain such seemingly triumphant conclusions. Counsel for the prosecution will quote line after line of dull faulty writing, and sneeringly ask —Is this poetry? Counsel for the defence will point to the battle scene of “ Marmion,” or the starting of Clan Alpine into life, and ask triumphantly-What is finer in the language? In truth, the discrepancy is so great, that men may come, one day or other, to deny the writings of Scott, as they have denied the writings of Homer; and the celebrated New Zealander may, among his other achievements, be enabled, by the unerring rules of criticism, to separate the productions of the genuine bard from the wretched patchwork by which some literateur of the twenty-first century thought proper to join them.
I ask you now to accompany me for a few minutes in a rapid survey of the works themselves, considered in their order of time. There is a peculiar interest in an examination of this kind. For the works of an author, arranged in the order of their production, present to us in some sort his psychological history. And none will dispute the interest which attaches to the psychological history of Walter Scott.
Seldom has the world of letters witnessed a more stirring event than the publication of the “Lay of the Last Minstrel.” Just then the poetic fire of the British School was rather smouldering. The example of Pope had not on the whole operated beneficially. Correctness, as the term was then understood, that is to say, conformity, not always to nature, but to a somewhat arbitrary system of laws, was the one thing aimed at. Many of us have indeed learned to think that the poets of that day were faulty, even in their notions of correctness; but at all events, whether the form was correct or not, it was to true poetry but as the statue to the living man. We can readily imagine the sensation produced in such an age by the appearance of the new author. The public turned with absolute relief from stuffed figures to the real living men of Walter Scott. His mosstroopers came down upon the reading world as vigorously as ever did their prototypes on merry Carlisle. And on that world in general the effect was instantaneous.
But the critics did not all surrender quite so readily. Literary conservatism stood aghast or hostile. “Who," said they “is this frightful Radical-a traitor to our glorious Iambic constitution—positively dissents from the regular epic as by law established—what next ?”
In this state of Parliamentary opinion, our author did, as other great men have done before and since, “he appealed to the country ;” and certainly any embarrassed Premier might be well satisfied, if his appeal should produce for him such a “working majority” as declared in favour of Walter Scott.
In comparing “The Lay” with the subsequent works of the same author, I think we may say that it is in general more carefully written. It may be, that he had not yet learned to concentrate his power on some few great scenes; or perhaps, success had not
yet given him the carelessness of conscious strength. Whatever be the cause, the versification of “The Lay” appears to be composed with more general care than perhaps any of the others. The mode in which the story is introduced is in its conception very happy, and is marked by some very exquisite poetry. There are also in “ The Lay” word-pictures drawn with great power, as for example, the kindling of the bale fire, the expedition of Deloraine, and the well-known lines upon Melrose. Yet, in this respect, it hardly rises to the level of “Marmion," or the “ Lady of the Lake.” Indeed, it may be doubted, whether there be any one picture in “ The Lay” equal to the burning castle in “Rokeby.”
In reading the earliest works of such a man as Walter Scott, we look almost inevitably for some indication of his subsequent career. It is not only when the future is still future_still unknown to us, that we love to read, if possible, its history beforehand. Even when the whole of such a career is already among the certainties of the past, we would fain read it by anticipation. Our fancy loves to travel back to the morn of such a day, and to see in the brightness of the dawn, something that foretells the glories of the meridian.
And so, in reading the “Lay of the Last Minstrel,” we ask naturally and eagerly-What is there in this poem which gives promise not merely of others like itself—not merely of the “ Lady of the Lake,” or “ Marmion,” but of “Guy Mannering,” or the “ Antiquary”? Or, to put the question in another form