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[Horace Smith]
A Graybeard’s Gossip. No. XII.
New Monthly Magazine  Vol. 82  (February 1848)  250-57.
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No. XII.
Forsan et hæc olim meminisse juvabit.

The Writer is introduced to Sir Walter Scott, and breakfasts with him—His cordial Pleasantry—Departure from Edinburgh and Visit to Abbotsford—Vindication of its Architecture—The Owner’s exclusive Love of the Medieval Times and Style—The Armoury and the Library—Admirable Letter from Sir Walter—His Illness—Extracts from “An Invocation”—Ungenerous Reflections, occasioned by his Reverses, exposed and rebuked—The Defence of his Memory a Public Duty.

If the exact date of the most trivial circumstance will sometimes fix itself in the memory, well may I recollect that so memorable an occurrence as my first interview with the illustrious Sir Walter Scott took place on the 7th of July, 1827.

Having left Speir’s Hotel, in Edinburgh, at an early hour, I proceeded to the Court-house, in which a few persons were already assembled, awaiting the arrival of the judges. At one extremity of a railed enclosure, below the elevated platform appropriated to their lordships, sat Sir Walter, in readiness for his official duties as clerk of the court, but snatching the leisure moments, as was his wont, and busily engaged in writing, apparently undisturbed by the buzzing in the court, and the trampling feet of constant new comers. The thoughts which another man would have wasted, by gazing vacantly around him, or by “bald, disjointed chat,” he was probably at that moment embalming, by committing to paper some portion of his immortal works. Let me frankly confess that his first appearance disappointed me. His heavy figure, his stooping attitude, the lowering gray brow, and unanimated features, gave him, as I thought, a nearer resemblance to a plodding farmer, than to the weird magician and poet whose every look should convey the impression that he was “of imagination all compact.” Quickly, however, were his lineaments revivified and altered when, upon glancing at a letter of introduction, which my companion had placed before him, he hastened up to the rail to welcome me. His gray eyes twinkled beneath bis uplifted brows, his mouth became wreathed with smiles, and his countenance assumed a benignant radiance as he held out his hand to me, exclaiming,—“Ha! my brother scribbler! I am right glad to see you.” Not easily, “while memory holds her seat,” will that condescending phrase and most cordial reception be blotted from my mind. On learning that I should be compelled to quit Edinburgh in two days, my fellow-traveller, Mr. Barron Field, having business at the Lancaster assizes, he kindly invited us to dine with him, either on that day or the next, for both of which, however, we were unfortunately pre-engaged. Though the parties who had thus bespoken us were barrister friends, from whose society I anticipated no small pleasure, most willingly would I have forfeited it, had I foreseen the greater delight and honour in which I might have participated. “Positively, I must see something of you before you leave ‘Auld Reekie,’” kindly resumed Sir Walter. “Suppose you come and breakfast with me to-morrow, suffering me to escape when I must make my appearance in court.” To this proposition we gave an eager assent, and I need scarcely add that on the following morning we presented ourselves at his door, within a minute of the time specified.

A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance. 251

Our host was dressed, and ready to receive us; his daughter, Miss Scott, presently made her appearance, shortly followed by her brother, Mr. Charles Scott. During our short meal I can recall one remark of Sir Walter which, trivial as it was, may be deemed characteristic of his jealousy in the minutest things that touched the good reputation of Scotland. I happened to observe that I had never before tasted bannocks, when he entreated me, and earnestly repeated the request, not to judge of them by the specimen before me, as they were badly made, and not well baked. Our conversation chiefly turned upon Edinburgh, of which city, so grand and picturesque from its locality, so striking from the contrast of its old and new towns, I expressed an unbounded admiration. Our host, however, assured me that the Highland scenery would have been found much more romantic and imposing, and expressed his wonder, considering the quickness, facility, and economy with which it might now be explored, that I should lose so favourable an opportunity of proceeding further north, even if I did not pay my respects to the Hebrides.

A few months before my visit to Scotland, I had dedicated a little work to Sir Walter, forwarding to him a copy, in which I had thus endeavoured to express my great and sincere reverence for his character. “It is not your reputation as a writer, however unrivalled it may be, that constitutes your best fame. No, sir, you have achieved a still fairer renown. You have exalted the tone and feeling, as well as the quality of our literature, by discarding from it all that jealousy, bitterness, and malice which had stigmatised authors with the hereditary appellation of the irritable race. The future Hercules announced himself by strangling these serpents in the very outset of his career. By your gentleness and urbanity towards your predecessors, when exercising the functions of an editor or a commentator; by the generous encouragement which you have seized every occasion of extending to your contemporaries; by the liberality and courtesy which have invariably marked your conduct, whenever there was an opportunity for their display, you have afforded an illustrious example that the highest and noblest qualities of the head and heart will generally be found in conjunction; and have enabled England to boast that her literary Bayard neither fears a rival nor a reproach.”

That any notice would be taken of a merited tribute, which all England was equally ready to proffer, never entered into my contemplation; but this very natural conjecture proved to be erroneous. From the breakfast party I have been describing, my friend and myself were reluctantly tearing ourselves away, that our host might not be too late for the court, and already had we reached the hall, when Sir Walter, detaining me by the button, drew me a little on one side, as he said, with a mystifying smile and tone,

“Did it ever happen to you, when you were a good little boy at school, that your mother sent you a parcel, in the centre of which she had deposited your favourite sweetmeat, whereof you had no sooner caught a glimpse, than you put it aside, that you might wait for a half holiday, and carry it with you to some snug corner where you could enjoy it without fear of interruption:”

“Such a thing may have occurred,” said I, much marvelling whither this strange inquiry was to lead.

“Well,” resumed my colloquist, “I have received lately a literary dainty, bearing the name of—(here he mentioned the title of the work I had cent him). Now, I cannot peruse it comfortably in Edinburgh, with
252A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.
the daily claims of the Court of Session, and a variety of other interruptions; but when I get back to Abbotsford, won’t I sit down in my own snug study, and devour it at my leisure.”

Sir Walter’s time, I well knew, was infinitely too precious to be wasted in the perusal of any production from my pen; but the kindness of his speech, and the playful bonhommie of his manner, were not the less manifest, and not the less gratefully felt. He had politely invited me to visit him at Abbotsford, when he should return to it, and though I could not avail myself of his courtesy, I determined to make acquaintance with the mansion which, solidly as he had constructed it, was destined to be the least enduring of his works. After another hasty ramble, therefore, over the most picturesque city in Europe—a city of which its enlightened and hospitable inhabitants may well be proud—I bade it a reluctant adieu, and started for Abbotsford, fraught with abundant recollections and pleasant anticipations, most of which bore reference to Sir Walter Scott.

Not over pleasant, however, did I find the approach to his mansion, for the river had been swollen by heavy rains, the waters threatened to enter our post-chaise, and the rocky ground sorely tried its springs. Probably the old abbots never ventured across the ford, to which they have bequeathed their name, in a close carriage. The surrounding localities presented but small attraction, for though the far extending Down scenery was enlivened by the river, and its prevailing bareness was relieved by wide plantations over the demesne, the latter were too young at that period to assume any more dignified appearance than that of underwood. By this time, they have, probably, grown out of their sylvan pupillage.

Spite of the ridicule which, from the erection of Strawberry Hill, to the present day, has been lavished upon such modern antiques; spite of the very questionable taste which induced Sir Walter to embody in his new house old materials, occasionally exhibiting remote dates and heraldic emblazonments, until the incongruous structure might well be termed an architectural anachronism; I myself could find no fault with either the conception or the execution of this most interesting pile. To me it offered a mural presentment of the mind, as well as a fitting receptacle for the body of a man, all whose predilections and associations were with the middle ages; and who had so little sympathy with the classical, that he could derive no gratification from Roman antiquities, even when he stood, at a later period, within the very precincts of the Colosseum. For pagan remains, and the five orders of Vitruvius, he cared not a rush. It was his object to build up an imitation of the mediæval style, not so close or slavish, however, as to unfit it for the requirements of modern civilisation. The armoury, therefore, which, as the paramount object, would Lave occupied the largest chamber in a baronial castle, was restricted to a moderately-sized hall; while the principal apartment was appropriated to such a splendid library as became the most eminent author of a literary age.

A building composed of such materials, constituted a museum of relics so rich in historical associations, and many of them bearing such immediate reference to some of his novels, that almost every stone might literally be said to “prate of his whereabout.” While deriving an interest from its present ownership, Abbotsford conjured up a new one out of the past, leaving the spectator in doubt which had imparted to him the most pleasurable sensation. What man of suggestive mind, for in-
A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.253
stance, could pass the gateway of the Edinburgh Tolbooth, reconstructed where it now stands—that gateway through which so many had dragged themselves with heavy hearts, in anticipation of their merited doom, or from which they had bounded away in the rapture of recovered liberty, without extemporising imaginary novels almost as numerous as the motes that animate the sunbeam? To me the whole scene appeared a fairy land of terra firma—a dream of realities; and when I reflected that all had been accomplished by an author’s copyright money, I yielded to a preposterous vanity, suggested by
Sir Walter’s compliment of “brother scribbler,” and whispered to myself, in imitation of the painter “ed io anche sono autore.” The wizard poet, the Amphion of his day, had built up these walls with his lyre, and methought the sculptured heads that surmounted them, not less musical than that of Memnon when vocalised by Apollo’s rays, still gave out melodious sounds that recalled his early poems, novels, and romances.

Small as was the armoury in the hall, it excelled many a larger collection in curiosities, most of the weapons having an historical or personal interest attached to them. Some of these were donations from individuals, but when Sir Walter became a purchaser of such rarities, he must have laboured under the disadvantage of raising the market price against himself. The gun of an obscure marauder could be of little value to any one; but when it was known to have belonged to Rob Roy, the hero of a popular novel, and was to be sold to the author of the work, it acquired an adscititious enhancement, which must have rendered its purchase much more expensive. In the library I noticed a splendidly bound set of our national chronicles, presented by George IV., one of the very few instances ever evinced by that monarch of a taste for books, or of any attention to an author. In one of his poems, Sir Walter cautions the reader that—
He who would see Melrose aright,
Must view it by the pale moonlight;
but as I had been told that he himself had never taken his own advice, I proceeded to inspect the abbey in the daytime, and in my next morning’s drive over a dreary moor of forty miles to Otterburn, had abundant time to reflect upon all that I had seen and heard in the modern Athens, and in the residence of our age’s most illustrious writer.

In the following year, I had occasion to solicit a favour from Sir Walter Scott, which was granted with his usual promptitude and courtesy. A paragraph had found its way into print, penned by an amicable but indiscreet hand, stating the writer’s belief that I shared the opinions of a mutual friend, who, in the temerity of youth—it might almost be said of boyhood—had avowed sentiments of a most unorthodox tendency. The paragraph was perfectly gratuitous and unauthorised. Keeping scrupulously aloof from polemical discussion, I had never looked with any other feeling than that of compassion upon the wretched gladiators who, in the name of a religion that inculcates peace and love, carry on such an incessant war of hatred in the spiritual arena. From political disquisitions I had been equally averse, but enough, it seems, had escaped to subject me to a reviewer’s accusation of being “sadly tainted with liberalism;” a charge not altogether harmless in the high Tory days of which I am writing.

During the discussions occasioned by John Scott’s attack upon Black-
254A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.
wood’s Magazine
, and the fatal duel that ensued, I had expressed my unqualified condemnation of the ungenerous and personal warfare waged by that periodical against all its political opponents; and when I recollected how freely I had spoken upon this subject, it seemed not unlikely that its conductors might avail themselves of the paragraph in question, to assail me on the ground of my imputed heterodoxy. Nothing is more probable than that Blackwood’s people never troubled their heads about the approbation or dislike of so obscure an individual; and I myself, reverting to the circumstance at this distance of time, am not without fears that the smiling reader may compare me to poor old Dennis, the critic, who was afraid that Louis XIV., at the treaty of Utrecht, would insist upon his being given up, because he had disparaged the French nation in some of his plays.

Under the apprehensions stated, groundless as they may have been, I wrote to Sir Walter Scott avowing my perfect readiness to submit to any criticism, however severe, in my literary capacity; but requesting his interference to prevent any onslaught upon theological grounds from the parties in question, over whom I believed his influence to be paramount, and who had no right whatever to hold me responsible for the unauthorised averments of another. This preamble is not endited in any spirit of egotism, but to render intelligible the following extracts from Sir Walter’s reply:

Sir,—I am honoured and obliged by your letter, as showing a confidence in the feelings with which a man who has professed literature honourably ought to receive such a communication. I have not seen the passages of which you complain, but I sufficiently understand their tendency to know that they must have produced painful effects upon your mind. The old Spanish proverb says, ‘keep me from my friends, and I will keep myself from my enemies.’ Mr. —— I only know from his writings, but these show so much more cleverness than judgment, that I can easily conceive he may have placed a friend in the new predicament of having a right to complain of his proceedings without having a right to tax the motives.

“I will write to Lockhart by to-day’s post, and have no doubt he will do in the matter what justice may require. As to his battle with the Athenæum, I have not seen the attack, but should conceive him very foolish if he takes any notice of it. Blackwood’s Magazine has no professed editor; but I will speak to one of the most influential contributors, with whom, I believe, I may have some interest.

“As for poor ——, I always thought there was a strain of insanity, both in the character of his genius and of his religious opinions, and that he was more of a fanatic in his insane philosophy, than of a deliberate propagator of irreligious doctrines.

“I think ——’s work, from the samples I have seen, injudicious, and open to much censure * * *. This is a matter, however, in which I take little interest, for I have lived in the literary world long enough to avoid every thing approaching to literary squabbles, and would as soon fight with my fists as with my pen.

Mr. —— cannot, I suppose, refuse you the explanation which you have a right to require, which must place you rectus in curia with all but those who are afflicted with the incurable blindness of those who will not see. But these gentlemen’s unfortunate ophthalmia is never of an infectious nature, for common sense and honest truth always finds its own level.

A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance. 255

“I am happy you placed it in my power to do any thing which can be in the least degree of probable use to you. I will engage that Lockhart acts as a man of honour ought to do. As to Blackwood’s correspondents, there is too much horse play in their raillery to conciliate my entire approbation, but such as I know, are men incapable of more than jocular mischief, and, I am sure, would never misrepresent you voluntarily in so painful a particular.

“I am writing in our Court, with all the tumult of the bar on one side, and the respectable prosing of the bench on the other, and beg, therefore, that you will excuse all verbal errors, and believe me,

It is probable, as already intimated, that the hostility I had anticipated was never meditated; it is certain that no attempt was ever made to carry it into execution; in either case, this admirable letter proves how completely its writer could sequester his mind, amid all the distractions of the forensic Babel; while it adds one more to the innumerable instances of his ready and cordial benevolence whenever he could confer a favour upon a “brother scribbler.”

With an unspeakable interest had I contemplated the architectural reflex of Sir Walter’s mind in the mansion of Abbotsford; I had visited his study, and sat in the very chair wherein he composed some of his immortal works: I had conversed with him in his intellectual might, had seen him in his social happiness, had become acquainted with him while he could yet enjoy the living apotheosis of a world’s homage. Alas! and must I repeat the heart-rending words applied to the dementated Southey—“A few years more and all was in the dust!”—Yes; another and a still more distinguished writer, was doomed to the most terrible, the most awful visitation with which our nature can be afflicted. He became an intellectual wreck, sinking from a godlike man into mere anthropomorphism. Yet, how majestically did he become exalted, even by the circumstances that shattered his fortune and his mind, making his very ruin enhance his glory! With a chivalrous, an almost romantic sense of honour, he sold himself into slavery that his creditors might be free from loss. With a magnanimity that may well be termed sublime, he sacrificed health, happiness, sanity, and eventually life itself, to fulfil engagements for which he had been rendered legally responsible by the misconduct and insolvency of others.

While hopes were yet entertained that his mental alienation might only be temporary, the writer of these notices published “An Invocation,” of which, pleading his licence as a Graybeard and a Gossip, he will repeat the introductory stanzas.

Spirits! Intelligences! Passions! Dreams!
Ghosts! Genii! Sprites!
Muses, that haunt the Heliconian streams!
Inspiring lights,
Whose intellectual fires, in Scott combined,
Supplied the sun of his omniscient mind.
Ye who have o’er-inform’d and over-wrought
His teeming soul,
Bidding it scatter galaxies of thought
From pole to pole,
Enlightening others till itself grew dark—
A midnight heaven without one starry spark;—
256 A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.
Spirits of earth and air—of light and gloom,
Awake! arise!
Restore the victim ye have made—relume
His darkling eyes.
Wizards!—Be all your magic skill unfurl’d,
To charm to health the charmer of the world.
The scabbard, by its sword outworn, repair:
Give to his lips
Their lore, than Chrysostom’s more rich and rare!
Dispel the eclipse
That intercepts his intellectual light,
And saddens all mankind with tears and night.

Other circumstances there were immediately preceding and quickly following the death of Sir Walter Scott, that could not fail to awaken melancholy reflections on the instability of life, and the vanity of human wishes. The partner of his bosom was not suffered to attain old age; his two sons, his two daughters, and his eldest grandson, have been prematurely snatched away; the fine fortune, the harvest of his genius, which he had destined to enrich his family, is scattered to the winds; and the mansion which he had built up with so fond a magnificence, hoping that his descendants for many a generation might occupy it with becoming splendour, is silent and untenanted! Not over generous have been some of the remarks, sadly trite and misplaced have been most of the Jeremiades elicited by this combined mortality and disappointment. When the gilding disappears from the shrine at which a Mammonite kneels, it becomes instantly unhallowed and disenchanted in his eyes, and there can be little doubt that Sir Walter’s reverse of fortune lowered him in the estimation of those sordid worldlings who respect merit only so long as it is prosperous and wealthy. Possibly there were others whose jealousy was not ungratified by the downfall of the master spirit, which had either thrown them completely into the shade, or had made them “show like pigmies.” These were the carpers and cavillers who now went about, either venting cut and dried quotations from the moralists and satirists, or sapiently exclaiming, “How strange that a man like Sir Walter, with a world-wide reputation, should ruin himself in the pitiful ambition of becoming a Scottish laird! What covetousness, what insatiable avarice, in insisting upon a share of the publisher’s, and even of the paper-maker’s profits, until he was dragged into the partnership by which he was finally ruined. What an exemplification of the dog and the shadow! What a lesson for the man ‘who grasps, and grasps till he can hold no more?’”

Oh, for the pen of Milton, that I might lash, as they deserve, these “apes and monkeys, asses, owls, and dogs!” Not strange was it, but perfectly natural, that Sir Walter, believing his pecuniary means to be fully equal to the attempt, should seek to realise the vision over which his mind had incessantly brooded, and erect a structure which, while it accorded with his own cherished tastes, should form an appropriate residence for the family that he hoped to found. Neither by his outlay at Abbotsford, nor by any indulgence in selfish profusion elsewhere, was his fortune dissipated. By an unforeseen liability it was drawn into the vortex and swallowed up in the Maelstrom of Ballantine’s bankruptcy. Sir Walter Scott avaricious? Preposterous charge! If he had any failing, it was in a totally opposite direction, his generous impulses often prompting him to a liberality hardly consistent with his means. Who calls the farmer avaricious when he puts up a fence around his field, to prevent marauders
A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.257
from stealing his flock? Such was the motive of the arrangement with booksellers which has been branded with cupidity. Sir Walter was avid of nothing but his own. To prevent, not to obtain pillage was his object. With a proper sense of justice, as well as of his own dignity, he refused to toil like a slave, and turn his fine intellect into gold, living all the while in comparative poverty, in order that a publisher, possibly an idler and a blockhead, might roll in wealth. Such is the unfair system of our modern literature, and every lover of fair dealing, more especially every brother author, should feel grateful to the man who was the first to break through this monstrous monopoly and ravage. Far from being a churl and a niggard, he only desired to increase his means by preventing his property from embezzlement, that so he might give a wider expansion to his large-hearted beneficence. The foremost censurers of an unprosperous man may sometimes be traced among the leading parasites of a successful one, and if Sir Walter, disappointed in none of his expectations, had realised a large fortune, and bad been enabled to exercise at Abbotsford the generous hospitalities so congenial to his nature, it is not unlikely that the parties to whom we have alluded, would be his most obsequious applauders, happy to follow in his wake, that their little barks “might pursue the triumph and partake the gale.”

One word as to the croakers who harp upon the sadness of human destinies, because two generations of Sir Walter’s family have been so quickly and so prematurely struck down into the grave. Truly lamentable is the catastrophe, but it is only in accordance with the frequent course of nature. Untimely as have been their deaths, they will be much longer remembered from their connexion with so illustrious a writer, than if they had lived to a patriarchal age as the members of any less distinguished family.

“But look,” exclaims some dolorous hypochondriac, “behold how soon the finest mind of the age may be smitten with imbecility and darkness!”

“Look again,” is my reply, “and behold what the human mind can accomplish, even though its duration be still more precarious than that of life.”

Sir Walter was not young when he began to write, he was not old when he sank into fatuity, yet if his disembodied spirit could hover above us, how truly might he exclaim, in the words of the old Roman poet—“What quarter of the globe is not filled with my labours?” Alps and Apennines, the Cordilleras, and the Himalaya mountains, with all their intermediate lands, are animated by the immortal creations of his fancy, springing up in every direction and for all classes; like the sweet flowers of the earth, to delight, to refresh, and to beautify. Oh, the illimitable puissance of mind! Oh, the world-worshipped majesty of intellect! Oh, the divineness of the human soul!

Believing, as I do, that the writings and the character, the head and the heart of Sir Walter Scott, have tended to exalt our common nature; feeling grateful to Heaven that I was allowed to be his contemporary, and proud that I had the honour of calling him my friend; I have been induced to pen the concluding remarks, because I think every opportunity should be seized of brushing away the insects who have attempted to fasten a blot upon the glorious escutcheon which it is our duty to transmit to future ages, as it has been delivered to us, bright, perfect and, immaculate.