Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 4. His German studies; Ballad poetry

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

I. Sir Walter Scott

§ 4. His German studies; Ballad poetry

In the same year in which he began his German studies, he had, under the guidance of sheriff substitute Shortreed, made the first of his seven successive annual raids into the wild and primitive district of Liddesdale, to explore the remains of old castles and peels, to pick up such samples as were obtainable of “the ancient riding ballads,” to collect other relies of antiquity and to enjoy “the queerness and the fun” associated with the rough hospitality of those unsophisticated regions. The special attention he was now directing to the old minstrelsy of the borders quickened and enlightened his appreciation of modern German balladry, his interest in which was first awakened in 1794, through the reports of Mrs. Barbauld’s recital, in the house of Dugald Stewart, of Taylor’s translation of Bürger’s Leonore. Moved by the eulogies of several who had listened to it, he obtained from Hamburg a copy of Bürger’s works, when, he tells us, the perusal of the ballad in German “rather exceeded,” than disappointed, his expectations. In his enthusiasm, he immediately promised a friend a verse translation of it, which, in 1796, he published in a thin quarto along with that of Der wilde Jäger. For his own gratification, he then “began,” he says, “to translate on all sides,” but, while the dramas of Goethe, Schiller and others “powerfully attracted him”—so much so that, in 1799, he published a translation of Goethe’s Goetz von Berlichingen—the ballad poetry, he affirms, was his “favourite.” He was affected mainly by a particular form or aspect of the German romantic movement. It appealed to him so far as it harmonised with predilections which had been created independently of it. It widened and deepened his previous interest in the chivalric past and the marvels and diablerie of tradition, but he had nothing in common with its metaphysical, mystical and extravagant tendencies. It was more especially to its balladry that he was indebted, and this chiefly for directing his attention more distinctly and seriously to this form of verse, and causing him to essay experiments which were a kind of preparation for the accomplishment of his poetical romances. From the translation of German ballads, he acquired, he says, sufficient confidence to attempt the imitation of them. In his experiments, he now, also, received encouragement and counsel from “Monk” Lewis, his acquaintanceship with whom “rekindled effectually,” he says, in his breast, “the spark of poetical ambition,” and to whom he was indebted for salutary corrections of his careless tendencies in regard to rime and diction, partly caused by his familiarity with the rude ballads of tradition. Lewis accepted certain of his ballads for his projected Tales of Wonder, which, however, did not appear until 1801; and, owing to the delay in the publication of the volume, Scott induced his old schoolfellow James Ballantyne, who had a printer’s business at Kelso, to throw off, in 1799, a dozen copies of his own ballads, which, in pamphlet form, and under the title Apology for Tales of Terror, he distributed among his more intimate Edinburgh friends.