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To examine the collected twelve-volume 1833-4 edition of Scott's poetry edited by his son-in-law John Gibson Lockhart is to appreciate how strongly our understanding of the early reception of Scott's poetry continues to be shaped by the editorial apparatus of that edition, especially as supplemented by the narrative account embodied in Lockhart's 1837-8 Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart. While Scott's initial fame as a poet was established by the publication in 1805 of his first long poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, it was only with the impressive sales of the second, Marmion, in 1808 that his reputation was confirmed, and it is therefore on the reception of Marmion that I propose to focus here.
The 1833-4 Poetical Works makes extensive use in its apparatus of quotations from the contemporary reviews, and the impression created in respect of Marmion is that, apart from the famous article by Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review, those reviews were by and large positive. The single quotations from the British Critic, the Scots Magazine, and the Critical Review are uniformly favourable and the seven quotations from the Monthly Review are almost all of them equally so, although one is lukewarm in its praise and another offers Scott the advice, questionable enough in the light of the poem's subsequent popularity, that he should abandon Marmion's metrical looseness and 'combine the charms of lawful poetry with those of wild and romantic fiction'.(1) Interspersed among these quotations are extracts from other early comments on the poem, including two from letters written to Scott by his friend George Ellis. In one of these Ellis offers a flattering analogy for the relationship of the figure of Marmion to that of William of Deloraine in the earlier Lay of the Last Minstrel--'Marmion is to Deloraine what Tom Jones is to Joseph Andrews' (PW vii. 47)--but in the other he is more critical, or at least regretful, finding the preliminary epistles somewhat disruptive of the fable and expressing a yearning preference for the introductory appearances of the old minstrel in the Lay.(2) Byron too is cited twice, once for his gracious acknowledgement of an unconscious echo of Marmion in his own 'Parisina' (PW vii. 115), but also, in a footnote to the Introduction, for his notorious attack on the poem, in English Bards and Scots Reviewers, as having been written 'for lucre, not for fame' (PW vii. 12).
Although Lockhart's citation of Ellis's reservations and Byron's satiric comments serves to create for the Poetical Works an aura of frank editorial inclusiveness, it is evident from the edition's subsequent and more extended representation of Jeffrey's critique that a good deal of inner manipulation is in fact going on. The first passage quoted from Jeffrey contains an outburst of righteous anger against the effrontery of the Tory Scott in daring to include any reference at all to the great Whig hero Fox,(3) and while Lockhart makes no direct comment on the issue of party animus, the effect of beginning with this passage, which actually comes from the final page of the original review, is to invite the reader to draw the obvious inference--that political prejudice was a pervasive element throughout the entire article. Jeffrey's attacks on stylistic aspects of the poem are represented by a somewhat pettish complaint about the 'lowness and vulgarity' of a description of venison pasties (PW vii. 66), and his accusation of 'Sternholdianism' in Scott's diction (PW vii. 202, 322-3) emerges as equally trivial. The impression projected may be that of adverse criticism freely and frankly confronted, but even as Jeffrey's censures are acknowledged their negative impact is in fact being editorially contained, to be diminished further by the more favourable and distinctly more extensive quotations from the same source which follow in their wake.
Having begun in hostility, in fact, the sequence of quotations from the Edinburgh grows steadily more positive, moving from a brief reference to the first description of the Palmer as 'laudable' (PW vii. 70), and a word of admiration for the funeral knell at the end of Canto II (PW vii. 126), to the point at which Scott's battle description is mentioned in the same breath with those of Homer.(4) Jeffrey's almost unstinted praise for the concluding section of the poem is quoted at length, and the series ends with a passage of mingled encomium and reservation that nicely reinforces an overall sense of editorial fair dealing. In a humorously elaborate metaphorical sequence Jeffrey had, in 1808, warned against the likely consequence of Marmion's repeating the enormous popular success of the Lay:
|I~f, by the help of the good parts of his poem, he succeeds in suborning the verdict of the public in favour of the bad parts also, and establishes an indiscriminate taste for chivalrous legends and romances in irregular rhyme, he may depend upon having as many copyists as Mrs Radcliffe or Schiller, and upon becoming the founder of a new schism in the catholic poetical church, for which, in spite of all our exertions, there will probably be no cure, but in the extravagance of the last and lowest of its followers. It is for this reason that we conceive it to be our duty to make one strong effort to bring back the great apostle of the heresy to the wholesome creed of his instructors, and to stop the insurrection before it becomes desperate and senseless, by persuading the leader to return to his duty and allegiance. We admire Mr Scott's genius as much as any of those who may be misled by its perversion; and, like the curate and the barber in Don Quixote, lament the day when a gentleman of such endowments was corrupted by the wicked tales of knight-errantry and enchantment. (PW vii. 362)
The inclusion of this extended final quotation from Jeffrey, though ostensibly a generous gesture, in fact involved very little risk on Lockhart's part and certainly did not call for a refutation. By 1833, with forty thousand or so copies of Marmion already published and an elaborate new edition in progress, Scott certainly seemed to have had the better of the argument, and his great Whig adversary could safely be allowed to make a good-humoured withdrawal from the field subsequent history had shown him so clearly to have lost.
Admiration, however, for the editorial skill with which Lockhart ensures that the reader of the 1833-4 Poetical Works will not fail to take the point, does not resolve all issues relating to his treatment of Marmion's original reception. Questions remain as to the overall content of the reviews from which quotations are taken, as well as to the selection of those particular reviews from among the considerably greater number that actually appeared. It also seems pertinent to ask how the edition's representation of Jeffrey's reaction relates to Lockhart's more fully articulated version of the same episode in the biography of Scott he published a few years later.
Of the reviews specifically invoked by Lockhart, those in the British Critic, the Scots Magazine, and the Monthly Magazine were indeed essentially favourable and the quotations cannot be said to misrepresent their basic tenor--even though none of the seven quotations from the Monthly Review happened to reflect either its examples of flaws of versification, diction, and even grammar or its castigation of the epistles as both disruptive in themselves and inferior to the introductions to the Lay.(5) With the Critical Review matters become somewhat more complex. Although praise of the description of Clare's …