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

Criticisms and Interpretations. II. By Richard Holt Hutton

THERE is something of irony in such a result of the Herculean labors of Scott to found and endow a new branch of the clan of Scott. When fifteen years after his death the estate was at length freed from debt, all his own children and the eldest of his grandchildren were dead. This only was wanting to give something of the grandeur of tragedy to the end of Scott’s great enterprise. He valued his works little compared with the house and lands which they were to be the means of gaining for his descendants; yet every end for which he struggled so gallantly is all but lost while his works have gained more of added luster from the losing battle which he fought so long than they could ever have gained from his success.

What there was in him of true grandeur could never have been seen had the fifth act of his life been less tragic than it was. Generous, large hearted and magnanimous as Scott was, there was something in the days of his prosperity that fell short of what men need for their highest ideal of a strong man. Unbroken success, unrivaled popularity, imaginative effort flowing almost as steadily as the current of a stream—these are characteristics which, even when enhanced as they were in his case by the power to defy physical pain and to live in his imaginative world when his body was writhing in torture, fail to touch the heroic point. And there was nothing in Scott, while he remained prosperous, to relieve adequately the glare of triumphant prosperity. His religious and moral feeling, though strong and sound, was purely regulative, and not always even regulative, where his inward principle was not reflected in the opinions of the society in which he lived. The finer spiritual element in Scott was relatively deficient, and so the strength of the natural man was almost too equal, complete and glaring. Something that should “tame the glaring white” of that broad sunshine was needed; and in the years of reverse—when one gift after another was taken away, till at length what he called even his “magic wand” was broken, and the old man struggled on to the last without bitterness, without defiance, without murmuring, but not without such sudden flashes of subduing sweetness as melted away the anger of the teacher of his childhood—that something seemed to be supplied. Till calamity came, Scott appeared to be nearly a complete natural man, and no more. Then first was perceived in him something above nature, something which could endure though every end of life for which he fought so boldly should be defeated—something which could endure and more than endure, which could shoot a soft transparence of its own through his years of darkness and decay. That there was nothing very elevated in Scott’s personal or moral, or political or literary ends—that he never for a moment thought of himself as one who was bound to leave the earth better than he found it—that he never seems to have so much as contemplated a social or political reform for which he ought to contend—that he lived to some extent like a child blowing soap bubbles, the brightest and most gorgeous of which, the Abbotsford bubble, vanished before his eyes, is not a take-off from the charm of his career, but adds to it the very specialty of its fascination. For it was his entire unconsciousness of moral or spiritual efforts, the simple straightforward way in which he labored for ends of the most ordinary kind, which made it clear how much greater the man was than his ends, how great was the mind and character which prosperity failed to display, but which became visible at once so soon as the storm came down and the night fell. Few men who battle avowedly for the right—battle for it with the calm fortitude, the cheerful equanimity with which Scott battled to fulfill his engagements and to save his family from ruin. He stood high amongst those—

  • “Who ever with a frolic welcome took
  • The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
  • Free hearts, free foreheads,”
  • among those who have been able to display—
  • “One equal temper of heroic hearts
  • Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will,
  • To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
  • And it was because the man was so much greater than the ends for which he strove, that there is a sort of grandeur in the tragic fate which denied them to him, and yet exhibited to all the world the infinite superiority of the striver himself to the toy he was thus passionately craving.—From “Scott,” in “English Men of Letters.”