The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 6. Scott
If Southey is the poet from whom we should most expect such studies, Scott is certainly the one from whom we should expect least; yet the omnipresence, expressed or “understood,” of the matter is visible in him also. At least one remarkable evidence of study of the shortcomings of eighteenth-century versification occurs in his prefatory discourses, and, as to practice, he stands almost in the very first rank. It may be true (and he, according to his habit, acknowledged it himself with more than generosity) that his meeting at Rose’s with specimens of the unpublished Christabel had a great effect upon, if it did not actually determine, the metre of The Lay of the Last Minstrel. But Coleridge’s erroneous idea that the principle of this metre was new blinded his own eyes (as it has less excusably blinded those of others since) to the real state of the case. Scots dialect had (and Burns is a sufficient, and, in the circumstances, much more than sufficient, example of this) preserved the principle of substitution better than had southern English; and Scott’s own wide and unrivalled acquaintance with romance, combined with his knowledge of Spenser and of Shakespeare, would have put a far inferior poet in a position to understand and work out the powers of the equivalenced octosyllable. Moreover, The Lay and its successors avail themselves of variety in treatment of this much more than does Christabel, and somewhat more than Christabel and The Ancient Mariner, even when combined, can be said to do.
But Scott’s contribution to, and his exemplification of, the new principles of prosodic variety were far from being limited to his voluminous and various experiments in the manipulation of what his contemporaries would persist in calling “Hudibrastics,” though the metre had existed in English for nearly five hundred years before Hudibras appeared. His best exercises in blank verse were confined to those extraordinary “old play” fragments where, in editions in which the real Simon Pures have not been distinguished from the others by commentatorial labour, it is almost impossible to tell (except from actual personal knowledge of the older texts) which is genuine Elizabethan and which is wholly or mainly Scott’s own. He evidently did not care much for the stopped heroic couplet; and, though he must have known it from his seventeenth-century reading, he did not try the enjambed. But his Spenserians are much better than is generally thought; and his command of “fingering” in lyrical measures—both complete pieces and scraps—is a really wonderful thing, which cannot be (as it has been, by some, in Moore’s case) dismissed as merely due to following of music. That he caught the best and rarest cadences of the ballad in a hundred different instances (the finest of which are, perhaps, the girl’s song at Ellangowan and Elspeth Cheyne’s ballad of the Harlaw) may be thought, though with doubtful sufficiency, to be accounted for by his acquaintance with original ballad literature. But no one before him, from the unknown author of Mary Ambree downwards, had put into the serious anapaest, continuously used, anything like the varied fire and colour of Bonnie Dundee and Lochinvar; the metre of the unapproachable Proud Maisie is very rarely, if, as an accomplished thing, ever, to be found in the old ballad; and there are not a few others that might be cited. Moreover, it has to be remembered that the enormous popularity and consequent diffusion of Scott’s verse scattered the seed of these varied measures to an unequalled degree.