Sir Walter Scott: Literary Contribution to Romanticism

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      Walter Scott is an epitome of the Romanticism. He is not only the teller of tales, but a tremendous force in romantic literature. The poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge was read by a select few, but Scott's Marmion and his Lady of the Lake aroused a whole nation to enthusiasm and for the first time romantic poetry became really popular. So also the novel had been content to paint men and women of the present, until the wonderful series of Waverley novels appeared, when suddenly, all history became changed. The past, which had hitherto appeared as a dreary region of dead heroes became alive again and filled with a multitude of men and women who had the surprising charm of reality.

In 1814, Scott completed a novel of which he had written seven chapters in 1805 and a few more in 1810 and published it anonymously as Waverley.
Walter Scott

      Sir Walter Scott: born in 1771, he was the son of an Edinburgh lawyer. As a child, he was crippled, and, unable to mix with other boys in outdoor games, he read enormously—old plays, Middle-Age legends, romances, ballads. After studying at Edinburgh University, was called to the Scottish bar in 1792; in 1799 was made a sheriff, and in 1806 a clerk of the Court of Session. His literary successes enabled him to buy (and enlarge) the estate which he called Abbotsford (on Tweedside). In 1820 Scott was created a Baronet; he was at the height of his prosperity and fame. But five years later he was involved (through no fault of his own) in a commercial disaster, being saddled with a debt of £133,000. Like the noble fellow he was, he at once resolved to clear off the debt by fresh literary labors; he all but succeeded, but his health gave way under the strain, and he died in September, 1832. His Life, by his son-in-law Lockhart, is a veritable classic among biographies.

      In 1814, Scott completed a novel of which he had written seven chapters in 1805 and a few more in 1810 and published it anonymously as Waverley. This story of Stuart uprising ot 1745 was an immediate success. In a sense this novel was as much a geographical as a historical novel and it delighted the public by its pictures of the Highlanders and the Highlands. He followed Waverley by a series of novels dealing with Scottish life of the recent past; Guy Mannering, The Autiquiry, Old Mortality, Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian. His Ivanhoe is a glamorously romantic affair and the most popular of Scott's novels. He continues to write stories based on Scotch history - The Monastery and The Abbot dealing with Mary Oueen of Scots. His more familiar works Kenilworth and The Fortunes of Nigel are concerned respectively with the England of Elizabeth and of James I.

      The rapidity with which Scott turned out his novels and the excitement with which the public received each new book constitute a romance in this history of literature. He completed Woodstock which appeared in 1826 and followed it with several other novels in which the weakening of his power is evident. By temperament Scott was not a romantic; he resembled the men of the eighteenth century rather than Coleridge or Byron or Shelley. But he was master of certain romantic elements. He loves Scotland, her scenery and the people. Mediaevalism and local colour made unquestionably the popular appeal of romanticism and Scott made these elements vivid in his novels.

      Scott has definite contributions to the English novel. The historical novel as created by Scott was an entirely fresh departure in fiction. Earlier historical novelists did not possess historical realism and they made no attempt to induce he readers a willing suspension of disbelief. Scott had exceptional knowledge of the past. But Scott succeeded as a historical novelist because he boldly projected the present into the past using his knowledge of contemporary life to humanise his historical characters. He made the men Robin Hood's day and Shakespeare's day alive and actual by virtue of his acquaintance with the men that lived in his own time. In his historical novels, he did not concentrate his interest around the historical novels, he did not concentrate his interest around the historical figures of the past, but around his own fictitious characters, for his own characters were real, they were drawn from personal observation. He envelops his characters with the broad strands of real historical events. Scott used historical characters for atmosphere, colour and background; the plot-action was entrusted to imaginary personages whom he might manipulate as he would. Later historical novelists like George Eliot (Romola), Lytton and Kingley followed the example of Scott.

      Scott's significance as a novelist is considerable. He created the historical novel anew and raised it to the rank of one of the major kinds of literature. He brought the varied aspects of the romanticism of his time to bear upon the novel and the novel thus assumed a new form in his hands. Hitherto in English fiction romance and realism had been in sharp opposition to one another. Scott brought about a fusion of the two in his historical novel, which is entirely a fresh departure in fiction. He saw that the earlier romances of the past, having not enough knowledge of the bygone days disconnected the past from the present by enclosing their novels in a strange alien setting only and thus tried to create an illusion of reality. We cannot know from their pictures of the past how the various classes of the society of the times spoke and acted.

      Walter Scott brought to his work an exceptional knowledge of the past, by which he revitalised it. But he also 'projected the present into the past' using his knowledge of contemporary life to humanise the historical characters of the old. They are made vital and living by this process, knowledge of the present coming to the aid of the past, for after all fundamental human nature remains unchanged through the changes of manners and fashions in the process of time. He does not always concentrate his interest on the historical figures of the past but makes the chiet characters fictitious, the product of his own imagination and makes the historical persons rotate around them. And these fictitious characters are enveloped in a setting of historical events. This was Scott's unique method and this was followed by later historical novelists like Lytton and Kingsley in England and Victor Hugo and Alexander Duma in France. Scott is rightly called the father of the historical novel. His humour, shrewd commonsense, delight in the colour and movement of bygone life proved a great asset to him in thus innovating the novel on new lines. Among Scott's novels, mention may be made of The Waverly Novels, Kenilworth, The Heart of Midlothian, Ivanhoe etc.

      Among his works of poetry, mention is made of the Lady of the Last Minstrel Marmion, The Lady of the Lake. It must be confessed that Scott's poetry is not artistic in the highest sense and that it lacks the deeply imaginative and suggestive qualities which make a poem the noblest and most enduring work of humanity. We read it now, not for its poetic excellence, but for its absorbing story interest. Scott's poetry is marked by vigour and youthful abandon; its interest lies in its vivid pictures, its heroic characters and specially in its rapid action and succession of adventures.

Walter Scott Poetical Works:

      (i) Scott’s earliest poetical efforts were translations from the German. Lenore (1796), the most considerable of them, is crude enough, but it has much of his later vigor and clatter.

      (ii) The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. In 1802 appeared the first two volumes of The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border to be followed by a third volume in the next year. In some respects the work is a compilation of old material; but Scott patched up the ancient pieces where it was necessary, and added some original poems of his own. which were done in the ancient manner. The best of his own contributions, such as The Eve of St. John, have a strong infusion of the ancient force and fire, as well as a grimly supernatural element.

      (iii) The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805). In The Lay of the Last Minstrel, there is much more originality. The work is a poem of considerable length written in the Christabel meter, and professing to be the lay of an aged bard who seeks shelter in the castle of Newark. As a tale the poem is confused and difficult; as poetry it is mediocre; but the abounding vitality of the style, the fresh and intimate local knowledge, and the healthy love of nature made it a revelation to a public anxious to welcome the new Romantic methods. The poem was a great and instant success.

      (iv) Marmion (1808). In popular estimation, Mannion is held to be Scott’s masterpiece. The story deals with Flodden Field, and is intricate in detail, as Scott labors to obtain a denouement. For several cantos, the tale is cumbered with the masses of antiquarian and topical matter with which Scott’s mind was fully charged. Once the narrative is within touch of Flodden. it quickens considerably.

      (v) The Lady of the Lake (1810). Next came The Lady of the Lake, which was a still greater success. It has all Scott’s usual picturesqueness, and makes particularly effective use of the wild scenery of the Trossachs. It is crammed with incidents and free from the rather wearying digressions of the earlier lays. Without rising to the heights of great poetry, it has considerable vigor and spirit, and contains some of his best lyrics.

      (vi) Other Poems: Rockcby - In the Poem the scene shifts to the North of England. As a whole this poem is inferior to its predecessors, but some of the lyrics have a seriousness and depth of tone that are quite uncommon in the spur-and- leather pageantry of Scott’s verse. The Bridal of Triermain (1813) and The Lord of the Isles (1814) mark a decline in quality.

      (vii) His Lyrics. In addition to these longer poems, Scott composed many lyrics, some of which are found in the lays, others in his novels, and some of which were contributed to magazines and similar publications. Though his lyrical note is on occasions uncertain, these poems are generally of a more sustained quality than his narrative work, and, to modern tastes, Scott is here seen at his best. One eminent critic has even gone so far as to describe him as the chief lyrical poet between Bums or Blake and Shelley. Though he is no love poet, he successfully handles a wide variety of subjects, from the hearty gaiety of Waken, lords and ladies gay or Bonny Dundee to the material ardor of Pibroch of Donuil Dhu or the moving, elegiac sadness of Proud Maisie.

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