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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

And that of Marmion not much better


Yet

it seems to me impossible, on any just theory of poetry or of literature, to rank him low as a poet. He can afford to take his trial under more than one statute. To those who say that all depends on the subject, or that the handling and arrangement of the subject are, if not everything, yet something to be ranked far above mere detached beauties, he can produce not merely the first long narrative poems in English, which for more than a century had honestly enthralled and fixed popular taste, but some of the very few long narrative poems which deserve to do so. Wordsworth, in a characteristic note on the _White Doe of Rylstone_, contrasts, with oblique depreciation of Scott, that poem and its famous predecessors in the style across the border; but he omits to notice one point of difference--that in Scott the _story_ interests, and in himself it does not. For the belated "classical" criticism of the _Edinburgh Review_, which thought the story of the _Last Minstrel_ childish, and that of _Marmion_ not much better, it may have been at least consistent to undervalue these poems. But the assumptions of that criticism no longer pass muster. On the other hand, to those who pin their poetical faith on "patches," the great mass of Scott's poetical work presents examples of certainly no common beauty. The set pieces of the larger poems, the Melrose description in _The Lay_, the battle in _Marmion_, the Fiery Cross in the _Lady of the Lake_, are indeed inferior in this respect to the mere
snatches which the author scattered about his novels, some of which, especially the famous "Proud Maisie," have a beauty not inferior to that of the best things of his greatest contemporaries. And in swinging and dashing lyric, again, Scott can hold his own with the best, if indeed "the best" can hold _their_ own in this particular division with "Lochinvar" and "Bonnie Dundee," with Elspeth's ballad in the _Antiquary_, and the White Lady's comfortable words to poor Father Philip.

The most really damaging things to be said against Scott as a poet are two. First, that his genius did not incline him either to the expression of the highest passion or to that of the deepest meditation, in which directions the utterances of the very greatest poetry are wont to lie. In the second place, that the extreme fertility and fluency which cannot be said to have improved even his prose work are, from the nature of the case, far more evident, and far more damagingly evident, in his verse. He is a poet of description, of action, of narration, rather than of intense feeling or thought. Yet in his own special divisions of the simpler lyric and of lyrical narrative he sometimes attains the exquisite, and rarely sinks below a quality which is fitted to give the poetical delight to a very large number of by no means contemptible persons. It appears to me at least, that on no sound theory of poetical criticism can Scott be ranked as a poet below Byron, who was his imitator in narrative and his inferior in lyric. But it may be admitted that this was not the opinion of most contemporaries of the two, and that, much as the poetry of Byron has sunk in critical estimation during the last half century, and slight as are the signs of its recovery, those who do not think very highly of the poetry of the pupil do not, as a rule, show much greater enthusiasm for that of the master.

Byron, it is true, was only half a pupil of Scott's, and (oddly enough for the poet, who, with Scott, was recognised as leader by the Romantic schools of


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