All I Survey/Essay XLII

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Essay XLI All I Survey
Essay XLII
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Essay XLII: On Sir Walter Scott

DURING a brief but enforced leisure which has lately befallen me I have read a great part of what was written and spoken on the subject of Sir Walter Scott, during the various celebrations of his Centenary. As a matter of course, much of it was highly eulogistic, perhaps rather too much as a matter of course. On the other hand, a great part of it had a very unnecessary air of apology, or a still more absurd air of patronage. Some of it was flatly crude and uncomprehending. One journalist not only announced jauntily that he could see nothing in the literary legend or authority of Walter Scott, but actually appealed against him to the authority of Mark Twain. This affects me very much in the same way as being told suddenly that Charlie Chaplin has never got much pleasure out of Homer. I have no idea, of course, of whether this is the case; Mr. Chaplin, for all I know, may be a Homeric scholar and a deep student of Scott; he may have better taste than Mark Twain. Mark Twain was certainly something of a man of genius in his own way; and so, for that matter, is Charlie Chaplin. But there is such a thing as artistic tradition and cultural grasp, and I should never have dreamed of expecting Mark Twain to understand the greatness of the Waverley Novels, any more than he understood the greatness of the Arthurian Romances. What he called The Yankee at the Court of King Arthur was, of course, a very clumsy version of King Arthur being tried in the court of the Yankee, and the findings of the court were about as conclusive as those of the court of Dayton, Tennessee.

Again, it may be true of Scott at the moment that he is neglected, upon a merely numerical estimate of readers; and the same, by this time, may very probably be true of Mark Twain. But that sort of calculation makes no difference to literary genius in the long run. There were also, of course, spirited defences; perhaps a little too much on the defensive. Mr. John Buchan stood resolutely with dirk and claymore before the shrine; but even in his excellent address one or two phrases suggested that he was not only defending a sanctity, but defending a secret. There was just a touch of that spirit with which the Scotsman sometimes seems to be almost forbidding the Englishman to understand Burns or to enjoy haggis. There is doubtless a truth in this tradition, for every writer who is really universal is also national; but Scott was not merely national, but very universal. Continental poets, like Goethe and Victor Hugo, would hardly have been themselves without Scott. Byron, perhaps the most Continental of all poets, would not have been himself without Scott. Scott made Scottish Romances, but he made European Romance.

I think the two points about Scott that are the most vivid and vital are now the most invisible. They are points naturally neglected in our time, but the defect is in our time and not in Scott. One concerns the fact that he wrote historical novels, in the sense of stories full of historical characters. The other concerns the fact that he was himself a historical character. He really tells us much more about his own age than about the previous ages. It is too often forgotten that his best books, like _The Antiquary,_ are actually about his own age. Some among the best are those very close to his own age, like _Rob Roy,_ or the admirable ending of _Guy Mannering._ But there was something which Scott specially shared with his own epoch which he was always reading backwards into other epochs. It was not merely a vague thing that is called romance; it was also a very clear and classical thing that is called rhetoric. He was not an eighteenth-century man for nothing. He was, almost as much as he was anything, a great orator. It is one of the limitations of our own very limited time to sneer at oratory. But it is chiefly because our politicians cannot rise to it that our critics will not condescend to it. At the end of the eighteenth century there was a sort of glowing atmosphere of great speech, and in none more than in the men of action. Nelson and Napoleon were really as rhetorical as Danton and Fox.

Now, Scott possessed this sort of eloquence in the very highest degree. It would be well worth while to make an anthology of the mere speeches out of Scott's novels and metrical romances. From the retort of the Saxon Franklin upon De Bracy to the curse of Meg Merrilees upon the Laird of Ellangowan, from the speech with which the crabbed Louis XI rises into dignity in the face of death to the rude refusal of Douglas in Tantallon to give his hand to Marmion, all the speeches are spirited and telling, considered as speeches, whatever they may be considered as writings. This is much of the error about the rhymed romances. They are not always poetry, but they are always literature. They are literature of that particular kind that expresses itself in direct and militant oratory; in the speech that lies nearest to action. The reply of the Lady of Branksome, to the foes who hold her son as a hostage is almost doggerel considered as poetry; but it is direct and even deadly considered as oratory. Everything is apt and telling, from the sneer at Lord Dacre's courage to the abrupt turn of defiant invocation:

   For the young heir of Branksome's line
   God be his aid and God be mine.

That is the sort of way that men like Danton and Fox did debate, through riots and revolutions that filled Scott's own epoch. And he was more of a man of his own epoch than he knew.

One thing he did find in the past, not yet quite destroyed in the present, and it was his chief inspiration. He knew nothing of the religion of the past, and his notion of Gothic was more barbarous than that of any Goth. But he had extracted from his feudal traditions something on which his spirit truly fed; something without which the modern world is starving. He found the idea of Honour, which is the true energy in all militant eloquence. That a man should defend the dignity of his family, of his farm, of his lawful rank under the King, even of his mere name, of something at least that was larger than himself--this was the fire that Scott found still burning out of fourteenth-century feudalism and expressed in eighteenth-century oratory. Of all moral ideals it is the most neglected and misunderstood today. It is not strange that the eloquence which sprang from it is misunderstood and neglected also. We see that hollow gaping around us everywhere; in the fact that marriage is discussed as everything except what it is, a vow; or that property is discussed as everything except what it ought to be, an independence. But the modern world is not so happy in its oblivion of honour, or the eloquence that springs from honour, as to force us to believe in the permanent oblivion of Scott.