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Sir Walter Scott. (1771–1832). Guy Mannering.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Criticisms and Interpretations. I. By Thomas Carlyle

SCOTT’S career of writing impromptu novels to buy farms with was not of a kind to terminate voluntarily, but to accelerate itself more and more; and one sees not to what wise goal it could in any case have led him. Bookseller Constable’s bankruptcy was not the ruin of Scott; his ruin was that ambition, and even false ambition, had laid hold of him; that his way of life was not wise. Whither could it lead? Where could it stop? New farms there remained ever to be bought, while new novels could pay for them. More and more success but gave more and more appetite, more and more audacity. The impromptu writing must have waxed ever thinner; declined faster and faster into the questionable category, into the condemnable, into the generally condemned. Already there existed in secret everywhere a considerable opposition party; witnesses of the Waverley miracles, but unable to believe in them, forced silently to protest against them. Such opposition party was in the sure case to grow; and even, with the impromptu process ever going on, ever waxing thinner to draw the world over to it. Silent protest must at length have come to words; harsh truths, backed by harsher facts of a world popularity overwrought and worn out, behoved to have been spoken; such as can be spoken without reluctance, when they can pain the brave man’s heart no more. Who knows? Perhaps it was better ordered to be all otherwise. Otherwise, at any rate it was. One day the Constable mountain, which seemed to stand strong like the other rock mountains, gave suddenly, as the icebergs do, a loud-sounding crack, suddenly with huge clangor shivered itself into ice-dust, and sank, carrying much along with it. In one day Scott’s high-heaped money-wages became fairy money and nonentity; in one day the rich man and lord of land saw himself penniless, landless, a bankrupt among creditors.

It was a hard trial. He met it proudly, bravely, like a brave, proud man of the world. Perhaps there had been a prouder way still: to have owned honestly that he was unsuccessful, then, all bankrupt, broken in the world’s goods and repute, and to have turned elsewhither for some refuge. Refuge did lie elsewhere; but it was not Scott’s course or fashion of mind to seek it there. To say, Hitherto I have been all in the wrong, and this my fame and pride, now broken, was an empty delusion and spell of accursed witchcraft! It was difficult for flesh and blood! He said, I will retrieve myself, and make my point good yet, or die for it. Silently like a proud, strong man he girt himself to the Hercules task of removing rubbish-mountains, since that was it; of paying large ransoms by what he could still write and sell. In his declining years, too; misfortune is double and trebly unfortunate that befalls us then. Scott fell to his Hercules task like a very man, and went on with it unweariedly; with a noble cheerfulness, while his life-strings were cracking, he grappled with it, years long, in death-grips, strength to strength; and it proved the stronger; and his life and heart did crack and break. The cordage of a most strong heart! Over these last writings of Scott, his Napoleons, Demonologies, Scotch Histories, and the rest, criticism, finding still much to wonder at, much to commend, will utter no word of blame; this one word only, Woe is me! The noble warhorse that once laughed at the shaking of the spear, how is he doomed to toil himself dead, dragging ignoble wheels! Scott’s descent was like that of a spent projectile; rapid, straight down; perhaps mercifully so. It is a tragedy, as all life is; one proof more that Fortune stands on a restless globe; that Ambition, literary, warlike, politic, pecuniary, never yet profited any man.

And so the curtain falls; and the strong Walter Scott is with us no more. A possession from him does remain; widely scattered, yet attainable; not inconsiderable. It can be said of him, When he departed he took a Man’s life along with him. No sounder piece of British manhood was put together in that eighteenth century of Time. Alas, his fine Scotch face, with its shaggy honesty, sagacity and goodness, when we saw it latterly on the Edinburgh streets, was all worn with care, the joy all fled from it!—ploughed deep with labor and sorrow. We shall never forget it; we shall never see it again. Adieu, Sir Walter, pride of all Scotchmen, take our proud and sad farewell.—From “Sir Walter Scott,” in “Critical and Miscellaneous Essays,” 1838.