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

I. Sir Walter Scott

§ 19. His style

While the carelessness of Scott is manifest in defects of construction and in curious contradictions in small details, it is more particularly apparent in the style of portions of merely narrative or descriptive passages. Yet, with all its frequent clumsiness, its occasional lapses into mere rodomontade, its often loosely interwoven paragraphs, and its occasionally halting grammar, his style is that of a great writer. Except when he overburdens it with lore, legal or antiquarian, it sparkles with interest, its phrases and epithets are often exceptionally happy, and, in his more emotional or more strikingly imaginative passages, he attains to an exceptional felicity of diction. This is the case throughout Wandering Willie’s Tale; and the description of the ghastly revellers in Redgauntlet castle beginning: “There was the fierce Middleton,” is unsurpassable in apt and graphic phraseology. The farewell of Meg Merrilies to Ellangowan has, also, been singled out by critics for special praise; but many of his purely descriptive passages are, likewise, wholly admirable. Take, for example, the account of the gathering storm in The Antiquary:

  • The disk of the sun became almost totally obscured ere he had altogether sunk below the horizon, and an early and lurid shade of darkness blotted the serene twilight of a summer evening, etc.—
  • or the picture in The Abbot of the various personages and groups that traversed the vestibule of Holyrood palace: “Here the hoary statesman,” etc.; or the description of the Glasgow midnight in Rob Roy:
  • Evening had now closed and the growing darkness gave to the broad, still and deep expanse of the brimful river, first a hue sombre and uniform—then a dismal and turbid appearance, partially lighted by a waning and pallid moon, etc.—
  • or the woodland scene in The Legend of Montrose, where Dalgetty is pursued by the bloodhounds of the marquis of Argyll:
  • The moon gleamed on the broken pathway and on the projecting cliffs of rock round which it winded, its light intercepted here and there by the branches of bushes and dwarf trees, which finding nourishment in the crevices of the rocks, in places overshadowed the brow and ledge of the precipice. Below a thick copsewood lay in deep and dark shadow, etc.
  • Passages such as these are common with Scott; and, as for his dialogues, though, in the English, he occasionally lapses into curious stiltednesses, the Scottish or semi-Scottish are invariably beyond praise, both for their apt expressiveness, and their revelation of character.