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

I. Sir Walter Scott

§ 3. His early years

The special literary development of Scott, while the consequence of a rare combination of natural gifts, was, also, largely influenced by certain exceptional circumstances which gave it its original impulse and did much to determine its character. He owed not a little to his Edinburgh nativity and citizenship. His “own romantic town,” uniquely picturesque and variously associated with pregnant memories of the past, was an exceptionally suitable cradle for his genius. Long familiarity never lessened its fascination for him.

  • “No funeral hearse,” writes Lockhart, “crept more leisurely than did his landau up the Canongate or Cowgate, and not a queer tottering gable but recalled to him some long-buried memory of splendour or bloodshed, which, by a few words, he set before the hearer in the reality of life. His image is so associated in my mind with the antiquities of his native place that I cannot now revisit them without feeling as if I were treading on his gravestone.”
  • He was also favoured, in no small degree, by his border descent and prepossessions and an early literary nurture on border tales and ballads. It was this that gave the first impulse and direction to his poetic genius; and it formed, in a sense, the basis of his future literary achievements. His interest in the stirring border past was awakened in his early childhood principally by the vivid reminiscences of his grandmother, “in whose youth,” he says, “the old border depredations were matter of recent tradition,” and who used to tell him “many a tale of Watt of Harden, Wight Willie of Aikwood and Jamie Telfer of the Fair Dodhead and other heroes—merry men all of the persuasion and calling of Robin Hood and little John.” The solitary condition of his childhood, caused by his lameness, begat, also, precocious literary proclivities which, otherwise, might have lain much longer in abeyance, or might have been largely obstructed by his strong partiality for outdoor activities. It made him, as he modestly puts it, “a tolerable reader,” his enthusiasm, he remarks, “being chiefly awakened by the wonderful and the terrible,” “the common taste,” he adds, “of children but in which I have remained a child unto this day.” In this respect, however, he was no more an ordinary child than he was an ordinary man. The stories he read produced an exceptionally deep impression on him, and called into early exercise his imaginative faculty. While he was still at the High school of Edinburgh, his tales, on days when play was made impossible by the severity of the weather, used “to assemble an admiring audience round Lucky Brown’s fire side”; and his interest in the marvellous became rather more than less absorbing as he approached manhood. After he became a legal apprentice in his father’s office, his strong predilection for “romantic lore” caused him to spend a portion of his earnings on attendance twice a week at an Italian class, and, for the same reason, he “renewed and extended” his “knowledge of the French language.” Later, he was accustomed, every Saturday in summer, and, also, during holidays, to retire with a friend to one of the neighbouring heights, where, perched in solitude, they read together “romances of Knight errantry, the Castle of Otranto, Spenser, Ariosto and Boiardo being great favourites.” He, also, he tells us, “fastened like a tiger upon every collection of old songs and romances” which chanced to fall in his way; and had a wonderful faculty of retaining in his memory whatever pleased him, “above all a Border ballad.”

    While it was by the border tales and ballads that his romantic ardour was first aroused, it was, also, his ballad enthusiasm that induced him to make his first venture in publication; and, in ballad composition and translation, in ballad collection, annotation and amendment, he served a literary apprenticeship which proved to be of cardinal advantage to him both as poet and as novelist. Shortly after he left the High school, his interest in old ballads received an abiding stimulus from bishop Percy’s Reliques of Ancient Poetry, which he read, he says, “with a delight which may be imagined but cannot be described.” It was their romantic stimulus that roused his curiosity about the old romantic poetry not only of England but of France and Italy; and, through his German studies, begun in 1792, his ballad fervour received further quickening by his introduction to the modern balladry of German poets, whose interest in this form of verse was, also, first aroused by the Reliques of Percy.