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Walter Scott and Anti-Gallican Minstrelsy.

From: ELH
Volume 66, Number 4, Winter 1999
pp. 863-883 | 10.1353/elh.1999.0033

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ELH 66.4 (1999) 863-883

In Scott's continuation of the ballad Thomas the Rhymer, the Rhymer tells the story of Tristram, and his audience is moved:

Then woe broke forth in murmurs weak:
Nor ladies heaved alone the sigh;
But, half ashamed, the rugged cheek
Did many a gauntlet dry.

The gauntlet distinguishes the audience within the poem from Scott's contemporary readership -- medieval knights, it seems, wore gauntlets at their evening entertainments rather than the kid gloves favored by gentlemen at the beginning of the nineteenth century -- but in their susceptibility to pathos the two audiences merge. Fashions may change, but feelings remain the same. Hence Scott's confidence that his collection of ancient ballads, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802), will be appreciated by the modern reader, that the "fragments of the lofty strain" that he has worked so hard to recover might "Float down the tide of years" (T, 288) to awaken in his readers sympathetic emotions that would unite them with those who had listened to the ballads centuries ago. It is a precarious faith -- though a faith, however sophisticated, on which all historical fiction ultimately depends -- and its precariousness reveals itself clearly enough in Scott's stanza. His knights shed tears of which they are only "half ashamed," as if they already dimly glimpse a culture in which a man might wear his tears with pride, as a badge of his cultural attainment. Scott's knights inhabit at once a thirteenth-century castle and an Edinburgh drawing room of the later eighteenth century: the "tide of years" that separates them from their modern readers has shrunk to a stream so narrow that they can nonchalantly stand astride it.

Scott, it is agreed, made sentimental additions even to the authentic ballads in his collection, and re-wrote lines to accommodate them to contemporary taste. A couplet from The Dowie Dens of Yarrow is adjusted to meet a modern demand for more finished pathos:

A better rose will never spring
Than him I've lost on Yarrow.

A fairer rose did never bloom
Than now lies cropp'd on Yarrow.

But it is the presentation of the ballads rather than their emendation that works most powerfully to integrate the traditional material with the society that Scott was addressing. The ballads are prefaced by an introduction of more than a hundred pages and buttressed by five appendices, in which Scott applies to his traditional materials the methods of historical scholarship that had been developed only during the previous fifty years. He fixes in print poems many of which, until his publication of them, had survived only by oral transmission, and, in addition, he applies to them a scholarly method distinguished above all by its respect for the written document. So he adds to his introduction a letter from Surrey to Henry VIII, passages from the memoirs of Sir Robert Carey, and an indenture terminating a feud between the Scotts and the Kers. Individual ballads are furnished with an editorial apparatus that refers whenever possible to written documents. A typical example is Johnnie Armstrong, a ballad which is preceded in Scott's edition by a preface of eight pages offering an account of the career of the historical Armstrong, and followed by an appendix of two pages in which Scott transcribes a "Bond of Manrent" given by Armstrong to the Warden of the Western Marches. The most extreme example is The Souters of Selkirk, a song of only twelve lines occupying a single page, but preceded by an introduction of thirteen pages and followed by two pages of explanatory notes.

One effect of Scott's editorial labors is to bestow on the ballads a value quite independent of their literary merit. He presents the ballads in a manner designed to appeal not solely, nor even primarily, to a literary taste but to a taste for the antiquarian. The affectionately mocking and self-mocking representations of antiquarians so common in Scott's novels has secured our awareness of the fashion for antiquarianism in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but the harmless eccentrics depicted by Scott, obsessive in their enthusiasm for the long ago, obscure one obvious...


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