The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

I. Sir Walter Scott

§ 11. Scott and Byron

From the time of the publication of The Lay, not only had Scott been by far the most popular poet of his time; his popularity was of an unprecedented character. But the great vogue of his verse was, of necessity, temporary. It was occasioned partly by its novelty, supplemented by the general reaction against the cold classicism of the eighteenth century. Furthermore, his verse represented a form of this reaction which appealed, more than any other contemporary verse, to the general reader. It revealed the more attractive aspects of the feudal and chivalric past with elaborate verisimilitude, and set forth its adventures and combats with rare dramatic vividness. But, if these recitals stirred the blood, they but faintly dealt with passion, they hardly appealed to the profounder emotions, they were an unimportant stimulus to thought, they did not very strongly thrill the soul, their romance was mainly of a reminiscent and partly archaic type, their imagination hardly ranged beyond the externals of the past. Excellent of its sort though his verse was, the scope of its influence was, thus, of a limited and superficial character; and, also, it became clear that Scott’s vein was exhausted, even before his popularity was eclipsed by that of Byron, who, while partly borrowing his methods, applied them in a much more pungent fashion. Of Byron, Scott himself says: “He beat me out of the field in description of the stronger passions and in deep-seated knowledge of the human heart.” Whatever the exact degree of truth in this modest verdict of Scott, his recognition of his partial eclipse as a poet by Byron was a happy decision both for himself and the world. It definitely induced him to abandon the poetic tale for the novel; and, here, he attained a supremacy which, at least during his own generation, remained unchallenged, and, if, later, it was rivalled, has hardly yet been overthrown. His poetic romances, while originating in certain strong predilections specially fostered from his infancy, represented a mere fraction of his endowments, characteristics and accomplishments. His novels, on the contrary, afforded scope for the full exercise of his uncommon combination of natural gifts and acquirements, for his wholesome humour as well as his comprehensive sympathies, for the utilisation not merely of his historical and antiquarian lore but of his everyday experiences and his varied practical knowledge of human nature. They mirrored the writer himself more exactly and fully than others have been mirrored in their literary productions. On his novels he may be said to have lavished the whole of his mental resources, to have spent the stores of his reflections and observations, and to have bestowed the most precious resources of his extensive erudition.

Before he began his career as novelist, he had reached his forty-third year; and the literary apprenticeship he had served as ballad collector and annotator, and poetic romance writer, was an invaluable preparative for the greater vocation of his late years. It had placed him in close relations with the past; it had kindled, instructed and trained his romantic imagination; it had stored his memory with countless interesting details which were pregnant with suggestions for his fictitious prose narratives and, in various ways, greatly enriched their texture.

Nor is it possible to forget the insight into the spirit and temper of special historical periods acquired by him in the course of other literary undertakings. Among the more important works issued under his editorship were the Civil War Memoirs of Sir Henry Slingsby and captain Hodgson (1806); the Works of Dryden, with life and elaborate notes, 18 vols. (1808); the Military Memoirs (1672–1713) of George Carleton (1808); Sir Robert Cary’s Memoirs (1808); Somers’s Collection of Tracts, 13 vols. (1809); The Life, Letters and State Papers of Sir Ralph Sadler, 3 vols. (1809); The Secret History of James I, 2 vols. (1811); the Works of Jonathan Swift with life and notes, 19 vols. (1814); Memorie of the Somervilles (1814); and various other works in later years.