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Sir Walter Scott A Lecture at the Sorbonne   By: (1855-1923)

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A Lecture at the Sorbonne, May 22, 1919, in the series of Conférences Louis Liard








This Essay appeared in the Anglo French Review , August, 1919, and I am obliged to the Editor and Publisher for leave to reprint it.

W. P. K.

Sir Walter Scott

When I was asked to choose a subject for a lecture at the Sorbonne, there came into my mind somehow or other the incident of Scott's visit to Paris when he went to see Ivanhoe at the Odéon, and was amused to think how the story had travelled and made its fortune:

'It was an opera, and, of course, the story sadly mangled and the dialogue in great part nonsense. Yet it was strange to hear anything like the words which (then in an agony of pain with spasms in my stomach) I dictated to William Laidlaw at Abbotsford, now recited in a foreign tongue, and for the amusement of a strange people. I little thought to have survived the completing of this novel.'

It seemed to me that here I had a text for my sermon. The cruel circumstances of the composition of Ivanhoe might be neglected. The interesting point was in the contrast between the original home of Scott's imagination and the widespread triumph of his works abroad on the one hand, Edinburgh and Ashestiel, the traditions of the Scottish border and the Highlands, the humours of Edinburgh lawyers and Glasgow citizens, country lairds, farmers and ploughmen, the Presbyterian eloquence of the Covenanters and their descendants, the dialect hardly intelligible out of its own region, and not always clear even to natives of Scotland; on the other hand, the competition for Scott's novels in all the markets of Europe, as to which I take leave to quote the evidence of Stendhal:

'Lord Byron, auteur de quelques héroïdes sublimes, mais toujours les mêmes, et de beaucoup de tragédies mortellement ennuyeuses, n'est point du tout le chef des romantiques.

'S'il se trouvait un homme que les traducteurs à la toise se disputassent également à Madrid, à Stuttgard, à Paris et à Vienne, l'on pourrait avancer que cet homme a deviné les tendances morales de son époque.'

If Stendhal proceeds to remark in a footnote that 'l'homme lui même est peu digne d'enthousiasme,' it is pleasant to remember that Lord Byron wrote to M. Henri Beyle to correct his low opinion of the character of Scott. This is by the way, though not, I hope, an irrelevant remark. For Scott is best revealed in his friendships; and the mutual regard of Scott and Byron is as pleasant to think of as the friendship between Scott and Wordsworth.

As to the truth of Stendhal's opinion about the vogue of Scott's novels and his place as chief of the romantics, there is no end to the list of witnesses who might be summoned. Perhaps it may be enough to remember how the young Balzac was carried away by the novels as they came fresh from the translator, almost immediately after their first appearance at home.

One distinguishes easily enough, at home in Scotland, between the novels, or the passages in the novels, that are idiomatic, native, homegrown, intended for his own people, and the novels not so limited, the romances of English or foreign history Ivanhoe , Kenilworth , Quentin Durward . But as a matter of fact these latter, though possibly easier to understand and better suited to the general public, were not invariably preferred. The novels were 'the Scotch novels.' Although Thackeray, when he praises Scott, takes most of his examples from the less characteristic, what we may call the English group, on the other hand, Hazlitt dwells most willingly on the Scotch novels, though he did not like Scotsmen, and shared some of the prejudice of Stendhal 'my friend Mr... Continue reading book >>

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