Why Walter Scott's poetry is still relevant today – Professor Alison Lumsden
This year marks the 250th anniversary of Walter Scott’s birth and there are many reasons why we should celebrate this.
Scott was an important public and cultural figure; his novels contributed to an international understanding of Scotland and show the effect historical events have on the lives of ordinary people.
His home at Abbotsford provides a powerful reminder of the connections he saw between the objects we gather from the past and storytelling. However, it was as a poet that Scott began his career.
The Walter Scott Research Centre at the University of Aberdeen has been awarded major funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to continue work on a ten-volume edition of Scott’s poetry, with the aim of bringing it to wider audiences.
These editions will correct errors that were made in the original printing process, bring Scott’s own long and fascinating notes back into focus, and provide modern readers with extra material to understand the poems. They are published by Edinburgh University Press and – with the support of the Carnegie Trust, the British Academy, and generous private donations – two volumes are available so far, Marmion and The Shorter Poems.
But why does Scott’s poetry matter? Scott’s first long poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel was published in 1805. The poem was an immediate success; five editions were published within the year.
Scott was given an unprecedented advance of a thousand guineas for his next poem, Marmion, and over 11,000 copies sold in 1808 alone. Published in 1810, The Lady of the Lake sold 20,000 copies within the year.
Scott’s poetry laid the foundations for Scotland’s tourist industry; people flocked to Melrose to view its abbey by moonlight as Scott recommends in the Lay and to Loch Katrine to see scenes from The Lady of the Lake.
Other art forms, such as opera and painting, drew on these poems for inspiration and they were translated and read across Europe. Scott’s poetry was at the heart of the European Romantic movement and his success culminated in 1813 when he was offered, but declined, the poet laureateship.
The legacy of Scott’s poems remains. Tourists visit Loch Katrine to sail on the ‘Sir Walter Scott’ and ‘The Lady of the Lake’; ‘Ave Maria’, derived from The Lady of the Lake is still performed, and when people sing ‘The Bonnets of Bonnie Dundee’ the words are Scott’s. Phrases from Scott’s poetry have become part of our linguistic currency. While people may not realise it, they are surrounded by Scott’s poems.
All of this is reason enough to read Scott’s poetry. Clearly it is a major part of Scotland’s cultural legacy. But Scott’s poems are not simply museum pieces; they have much to say to us today.
Never only about a particular historical moment but about the dynamics that lie behind it, Scott’s work remains continually relevant. Because it explores the dynamics of how history and societies operate, Scott’s work is built on the understanding that the issues that concern people both individually and collectively can be transferred from one historical period to another.
It was this that allowed Scott’s work to be translated into other languages and contexts in his own lifetime, but it also guarantees that his work is never out of date. Scott’s poems may be about a 16th-century Border feud, a quarrel between James V and clan Douglas, or the Battle of Flodden but they are also about issues that still concern us.
A brief discussion of The Lady of the Lake illustrates this. The poem is set in the Trossachs and tells the story of Ellen, outlawed along with her father because of his feud with James V, and harboured by Roderick Dhu and his Highland followers.
In gratitude for this Ellen is to marry Roderick rather than her preferred lover, Malcolm Graeme. The king sets off to the Trossachs on a hunting trip, encounters Ellen, is reconciled with Douglas and arranges Ellen’s marriage to Graeme.
The poem provides us with a love story set against a romantic Scottish backdrop and it was for this reason that tourists came to Loch Katrine. But while the poem provides all of this, it also offers more; James’s pursuit of the stag with which the poem opens has been the subject of many paintings but in the poem itself it is clearly a metaphor for his attempt to quell the Highlands and bring them into his kingdom.
Scott deals with this fraught historical moment in complex ways; readers become attached to the Highland culture they encounter, and James is certainly not presented entirely positively.
The reconciled state he creates at the end of the poem is worryingly fragile. Reading beneath the romantic veneer we find that Scott is asking questions that we could still ask today; how does the nation state deal with the diversities within it? Who wins and loses when dominant and minority cultures come together? Who gets to control the narrative of nationhood in such circumstances and who is excluded from it?
Through the frequently silenced, Ellen Scott also asks questions about where women’s voices are heard when such tensions arise. Unfortunately, these questions are all too relevant for our own times as narrow ideas of nationalism, belonging and who gets to belong reassert themselves.
In The Lay of the Last Minstrel, the minstrel figure is described as the ‘latest’ minstrel. Scott positions him as the latest poet in a long Scottish tradition.
But if Scott is also the minstrel, he is reminding us that his poetry is new, belonging as much in 1805 as in the past, and indeed the present day.
Alison Lumsden is the regius professor of English literature at Aberdeen University
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