Sir Walter Scott,
page 4 of 17
Robert Burns, the author, an Ayrshire ploughman, was invited to Edinburgh, to be gazed at, flattered, caressed, and afterwards neglected. Scott, then fifteen years of age, met the bard for the first and the last time at an evening party, where Burns was affected to tears by a print representing a woman kneeling over a dead soldier on the field of battle, and with Langhorne’s lines engraved below:—
“Cold on Canadian hills or Minden’s plain,
Perhaps that mother weeps her soldier slain.”
Scott, being the only person in the company who could name the author of the lines, was rewarded by the poet with a grateful look, which the younger poet remembered long. Burns was now in the meridian of his fame. His sad, brilliant existence of ten years more was watched by Scott from afar with tender and sorrowful interest.
Scott now began to make long incursions into the Highlands, attracted thither by the splendid scenery, the love of adventure and the desire to see the clans in their native wilds. The “Lady of the Lake” and “Waverley” bear witness to his minute acquaintance with the southern Grampians, which indeed he virtually discovered for English readers. Consciously or unconsciously his marvellous memory was gradually storing up the vast resources which seemed in his mature manhood an inexhaustible treasure-house of curious traditions, strange costumes, and striking landscapes.
When the poet was seventeen years of age, he burst a blood-vessel. The accident compelled him to recline in bed for months. Suffering no pain he passed his days entirely in reading, and he was ever wont to refer to this period as the happiest of his life. Irregular as his studies had been, he had mastered all the literary languages of Europe, and was more or less familiar with their literatures. In the byeways of history, in early poetry and romance, his erudition excites astonishment, when we remember his wandering tendencies and his social tastes. Receptive and retentive in an extraordinary degree, in his mere facility of acquiring knowledge he has never had an equal. Gibbon and Macaulay had a wider range of information, but they were both studious men who lived in libraries.
At the law classes which he afterwards attended, he made the acquaintance of Francis Jeffrey, two years his junior. He likewise became a member of the Speculative Society, in which so many men who attained celebrity in different walks first exhibited their dialectic skill. Of all these, Jeffrey was the most versatile and accomplished; distinguished in every liberal study, and foremost among his contemporaries in legal knowledge. In this he surpassed Scott, whose forensic character was completely lost in the blaze of his literary fame.
The story of Scott’s first love which should be told here need not detain us long. He met the lady, Williamina Stuart, on a rainy Sunday after service, made her acquaintance under his umbrella, loved passionately and wooed in vain. Such is the fate of most early attachments, but emotional poets like Burns, Byron and Petrarch, idealize the beloved object, and construct for it a paradise of romantic possibilities from which the sad vicissitudes of life are carefully excluded. However Scott‘s love-dream may have coloured his recollections, he kept silent on such delicate matters to the world. No poet ever possessed a larger share of the homely prudence — the wise reserve that gives dignity to the life of man. We shall see that Scott found consolation comparatively soon. In 1796 he passed as advocate, and duly paced the floor of Parliament House, but apparently without