BRUCE GLASSCO                           DISSERTATION ABSTRACT

University of Virginia                  Director: Paul Cantor

 

                  Scott Among the Romantics:

               Walter Scott's Critical and Poetic

             Contributions to the Romantic Movement

 

     In the Quarterly Review and the Edinburgh Annual Register, both of which he helped found, Scott wrote over twenty critical pieces on the literary productions of his contemporaries.  Scott's letters also contain a large amount of critical material.  But while Scott's novels have begun to undergo a renaissance in modern critical treatment, his criticism has remained for the most part unexamined.  This dissertation is the first scholarly attempt to provide a general overview of Walter Scott's criticism as it applies to his Romantic contemporaries. 

     The first chapter of my dissertation depicts Walter Scott as a man torn between the Rationalism of the eighteenth century inherited from his Scottish tutors and the growing feeling for Romanticism which the nineteenth century was experiencing.  Each of the remaining chapters, which relate Scott to Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge, and Shelley, are divided into two parts.  In the first section of each chapter I examine Scott's critical response to the works of each poet, using Scott's published reviews and correspondence to build an overall picture of his theories of literary practice.  I then show how Scott's contemporaries incorporate his transitional poetry into their own as a kind of literary stepping stone, which can help to reconcile their newfound individualism with the voices of the past.

     More than any comparable British writer of his time, Scott felt powerfully drawn toward both the rationalism and emphasis on social values of the eighteenth century, and the growing romantic emphasis on the individual in the nineteenth. Early critics classified him with the Romantics, but in so doing they overlooked not only his poetic departures from the Lake poets' brands of Romanticism but also the skepticism toward Romance in his novels.  Scott constantly strove to balance his own life between rival desires for romantic emotionalism and individualism on the one hand and practical absorption in social commerce on the other.  Many of his works contain some form of conflict between the communal values of Pope and Swift upon which he had been raised and romantic glorifications of passion and individual independence. 

     Scott positioned himself midway between eighteenth-century rationalism and what we now call Romanticism through the medium of Romance.  He was inspired by, and to some extent advocated the continuance of, the tradition of Romance which traced its lineage back to Italians like Ariosto and which had recently been revived in eighteenth-century England, a tradition involving an enthusiasm for the middle ages and chivalry, an antiquarian love of ballads and picturesque ruins, supernatural machinery, exaggerated heroism or villainy, and uncomplicated love affairs.  Though this tradition was originally set in opposition to eighteenth-century rationalism, by Scott's time it was well enough established in mainstream popular culture to seem compatible with it. 

     Among Scott's progressive contemporaries such as Coleridge, however, the genre of Romance tended to blend imperceptibly into the German mode of Romanticism, which often involved revolutionary politics, a love of untamed nature, and writing that was internally contemplative and individualistic.  Scott was too conservative to take the final step and sympathize fully with the Romantic agenda, which he saw as threatening to social stability.  His criticism of contemporaries like Wordsworth and Byron is accordingly illuminating because it is almost always ambivalent; it shows appreciation for those aspects of their poetry that are not outside the realms of Reason and Romance, but condemns anything Scott feels is exclusively Romantic. 

     Scott's strongest critical opposition is aimed against what he sees as a disturbing new trend toward poetic alienation.  He argues against whatever separates the sphere of poetry from the greater sphere of society at large, a community which for Scott is represented by the demands of the literary marketplace.  Although he found much to praise in the poetry of his contemporaries, he felt compelled to attack what he saw as Wordsworth`s unhealthy and obsessive withdrawal from the world, Coleridge's cloudy abstractions, and Byron's exhibitionism and preoccupation with self.  In his attempts to fix absolute standards for poetry he has much in common with his political rival, Francis Jeffrey. 

     With its plea for greater poetic emphasis on domestic and communal values, Scott's criticism had little effect on contemporary poetry.  His literary works, however, strongly influenced both Wordsworth and Byron.  One reason for this influence was his immense popularity, which made him an obvious model for any poet hoping for commercial success.  Wordsworth and Byron freely used aspects of Scott's style and subject matter in their own works.  But they were also struck by his position as the last, and in many ways most successful, writer in the genre of Romance.  For Wordsworth "the Minstrel" and for Byron the "Ariosto of the North" were names that took on symbolic importance.  In poems such as "Glen Almain," "Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle," and "The White Doe of Rylstone," Wordsworth uses a Minstrel-figure based on Scott's persona when he wishes to portray a natural voice, speaking in absolute if unconscious unity with a landscape.  He sees Scott as the ultimate ballad-singer, able to capture the genius of a place in words even more powerful than the place itself.  At the same time, when Wordsworth discusses the figure of the Minstrel, he expresses mistrust toward the glorification of war which he finds inherent in the ballad tradition. 

     For Byron, Scott as the "Monarch of Parnassus" and the "superlative of my comparative" satisfied a need for hero worship, as the one living writer whose work he could unreservedly admire.  Byron came to treat him as a kind of insurance against despair, honoring him as a decent, talented friend amidst a nation of dishonest and witless enemies.  Byron also adopted Scott's favorite Romance type, the Noble Outlaw, as one of the most important ingredients in the development of his own Byronic Heroes.