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BUT A LARGE BENEFACTOR.
ingenious author is actually labouring all the while at what he at last produces, and has been diligently at work during the whole interval in perfecting that which is at last discovered to fall short of perfection! To those who know the habits of literary men, nothing however can be more ridiculous than this supposition. Your true drudges, with whom all that is intellectual moves most wretchedly slow, are the quickest and most regular with their publications; while men of genius, whose thoughts play with the ease and rapidity of lightning, often seem tardy to the public, because there are long intervals between the flashes! We are far from undervaluing that care and labour without which no finished performance can ever be produced by mortals; and still farther from thinking it a reproach to any author, that he takes pains to render his works worthy of his fame. But when the slowness and the size of his publications are invidiously put together in order to depreciate their merits, or to raise a doubt as to the force of the genius that produced them, we think it right to enter our caveat against a conclusion, which is as rash as it is ungenerous; and indicates a spirit rather of detraction than of reasonable judgment.
SCOTT'S LAY OF THE LAST MINSTREL.
The Lay of the Last Minstrel: a Poem. By WALTER Scott,
Esq. 4to. pp. 318. Edinburgh, Constable and Co.: London, Longman and Co.: 1805.*
We consider this poem as an attempt to transfer the refinements of modern poetry to the matter and the manner of the ancient metrical romance. The author, enamoured of the lofty visions of chivalry, and partial to the strains in which they were formerly embodied, seems to have employed all the resources of his genius in endeavouring to recall them to the favour and admiration of the public; and in adapting to the taste of modern readers a species of poetry which was once the delight of the courtly, but has long ceased to gladden any other eyes than those of the scholar and the antiquary. This is a romance, therefore, composed by a minstrel of the present day; or such a romance as we may suppose would have been written in modern times, if that style of composition had continued to be cultivated, and partaken consequently of the improvements which every branch of literature has received since the time of its desertion.
Upon this supposition, it was evidently Mr. Scott's
* The Novels of Sir Walter Scott have, no doubt, cast his Poetry into the shade: And it is beyond question that they must always occupy the highest and most conspicuous place in that splendid trophy which his genius has reared to his memory. Yet, when I recollect the vehement admiration it once excited, I cannot part with the belief that there is much in his poetry also, which our age should not allow to be forgotten. And it is under this impression that I now venture to reprint my contemporary notices of the two poems which I think produced the greatest effect at the time: the one as the first and most strikingly original of the whole series ; the other as being on the whole the best, and also as having led me to make some remarks, not only on the general character of the author's genius, but on the peculiar perils of very popular poetry --- of which the time that has since elapsed has afforded some curious illustrations.
A MODERN ROMANCE OF CHIVALRY.
business to retain all that was good, and to reject all that was bad in the models upon which he was to form himself; adding, at the same time, all the interest and beauty which could possibly be assimilated to the manner and spirit of his originals. It was his duty, therefore, to reform the rambling, obscure, and interminable narratives of the ancient romancers — to moderate their digressions — to abridge or retrench their unmerciful or needless descriptions — and to expunge altogether those feeble and prosaic passages, the rude stupidity of which is so apt to excite the derision of a modern reader. At the same time, he was to rival, if he could, the force and vivacity of their minute and varied representations — the characteristic simplicity of their pictures of manners — the energy and conciseness with which they frequently describe great events — and the lively colouring and accurate drawing by which they give the effect of reality to every scene they undertake to delineate. In executing this arduous task, he was permitted to avail himself of all that variety of style and manner which had been sanctioned by the ancient practice; and bound to embellish his performance with all the graces of diction and versification which could be reconciled to the simplicity and familiarity of the minstrel's song.
With what success Mr. Scott's efforts have been attended in the execution of this adventurous undertaking, our readers will be better able to judge in the sequel: but, in the mean time, we may safely venture to assert, that he has produced a very beautiful and entertaining poem, in a style which may fairly be considered as original; and which will be allowed to afford satisfactory evidence of the genius of the author, even though he should not succeed in converting the public to his own opinion as to the interest or dignity of the subject. We are ourselves inclined indeed to suspect that his partiality for the strains of antiquity has imposed a little upon the severity of his judgment, and impaired the beauty of the present imitation, by directing his attention rather to what was characteristic, than to what 216
SCOTT'S LAY -- VERY HAPPILY INTRODUCED.
was unexceptionable in his originals. Though he has spared too many of their faults, however, he has certainly improved upon their beauties: and while we can scarcely help regretting, that the feuds of border chieftains should have monopolised as much poetry as might have served to immortalise the whole baronage of the empire, we are the more inclined to admire the interest and magnificence which he has contrived to communicate to a subject so unpromising.
Whatever may be thought of the conduct of the main story, the manner of introducing it must be allowed to be extremely poetical. An aged minstrel who had “ harped to King Charles the Good,” and learned to love his art at a time when it was honoured by all that was distinguished in rank or in genius, having fallen into neglect and misery in the evil days of the usurpation, and the more frivolous gaieties or bitter contentions of the succeeding reigns, is represented as wandering about the Border in poverty and solitude, a few years after the Revolution. In this situation he is driven, by want and weariness, to seek shelter in the Border castle of the Duchess of Buccleuch and Monmouth: and being cheered by the hospitality of his reception, offers to sing “ an ancient strain,” relating to the old warriors of her family; and after some fruitless attempts to recall the long-forgotten melody, pours forth ". The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” in six cantos, very skilfully divided by some recurrence to his own situation, and some complimentary interruptions from his noble auditors.
The construction of a fable seems by no means the forte of our modern poetical writers; and no great artifice, in that respect, was to be expected, perhaps, from an imitator of the ancient romancers. Mr. Scott, indeed, has himself insinuated, that he considered the story as an object of very subordinate importance; and that he was less solicitous to deliver a regular narrative, than to connect such a series of incidents as might enable him to introduce the manners he had undertaken to delineate, and the imagery with which they were associated. OUTLINE OF ITS STORY.
Though the conception of the fable is, probably from these causes, exceedingly defective, it is proper to lay a short sketch of it before our readers, both for the gratification of their curiosity, and to facilitate the application of the remarks we may be afterwards tempted to offer.
Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch, the Lord of Branksome, was slain in a skirmish with the Cars, about the middle of the sixteenth century. He left a daughter of matchless beauty, an infant son, and a high-minded widow, who, though a very virtuous and devout person, was privately addicted to the study of Magic, in which she had been initiated by her father. Lord Cranstoun their neighbour was at feud with the whole clan of Scott; but had fallen desperately in love with the daughter, who returned his passion with equal sincerity and ardour, though withheld, by her duty to her mother, from uniting her destiny with his. The poem opens with a description of the warlike establishment of Branksome-hall; and the first incident which occurs is a dialogue between the Spirits of the adjoining mountain and river, who, after consulting the stars, declare that no good fortune can ever bless the mansion “ till pride be quelled, and love be free.” The lady, whose forbidden studies had taught her to understand the language of such speakers, overhears this conversation; and vows, if possible, to retain her purpose in spite of it. She calls a gallant knight of her train, therefore, and directs him to ride immediately to the abbey of Melrose, and there to ask, from the monk of St. Mary's aisle, the mighty book that was hid in the tomb of the wizard Michael Scott. The remainder of the first canto is occupied with the night journey of the warrior. When he delivers his message, the monk appears filled with consternation and terror, but leads him at last through many galleries and chapels to the spot where the wizard was interred; and, after some account of his life and character, the warrior heaves up the tomb-stone, and is dazzled by the streaming splendour of an ever-burning lamp, which illuminates the sepulchre of the enchanter.