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Representing Orality: Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel and Conjectural History

  • John Regan

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Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel (hereafter The Lay) represented a paradigm shift in the way that popular verse was perceived.[1] It was a publishing phenomenon, going through six editions in three years and turning Scott into the nineteenth century’s first celebrity poet. Within a decade, it had sold a hitherto unparalleled 27,000 copies, a figure only to be rivaled by the sales of Byron’s oriental tales a decade later. The poem affected Scottish tourism massively, drawing hundreds of visitors to Melrose Abbey in the hope that they might see something of the moonlit structure from the opening of canto two: “If thou would’st view fair Melrose aright, / Go visit it by the pale moonlight” (Poetical Works 8). Several painters attempted to recreate on canvas the Abbey scene that Scott had described in verse, and the Prime Minister, William Pitt, recited passages from the poem at his dinner table. In was, in short, a breathtaking success.

This article contextualizes Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel in relation to an Edinburgh literary milieu influenced by some the most famous progenitors of Scottish Enlightenment historical theory.[2] After a preliminary survey of the intellectual landscape out of which Scott’s poem comes, the discussion is orientated specifically around the influence, on Scott, of Adam Ferguson’s seminal conjectural history, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (hereafter the Essay). Oral poetry is integral to Ferguson’s nuanced deteriorationist narrative of human development, and it is my central contention that The Lay is the apotheosis of a Romantic anxiety over the representation of preliterary verse. This article’s primary area of interest is not the poetry of The Lay itself but the discourses of history, historicity, verse and versification to which Scott, Adam Ferguson, Francis Jeffrey and several others contributed before, during and after the poem’s publication. By considering letters to and from Scott and some of the eminent critics of the day, the prose Scott wrote to accompany the 1805 and 1830 editions of the poem, and Francis Jeffrey’s response to the poem’s remarkable versification, I wish to show how The Lay and its reception was shaped by distinctly Fergusonian understandings of history.

The phrase “conjectural history” was introduced by Dugald Stewart in his Dissertation: Exhibiting the Progress of Metaphysical, Ethical and Political Philosophy, Since the Revival of Letters in Europe (hereafter the Dissertation, published in 1815 and again in 1821), a text which continued the comparative method of historical understanding exemplified by Ferguson’s Essay, and Adam Smith’s Lectures on Jurisprudence and The Wealth of Nations.[3] Stewart taught Scott at the University of Edinburgh, and many of the ideas central to his Dissertation had germinated in the period when Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (hereafter the Minstrelsy) and The Lay were being researched and put together. Susan Oliver states that ‘Stewart had debated these concepts at his University and among the literati during the period in which Scott was working on the Border Ballads” (Oliver 23). Scott noted Stewart’s “striking and impressive eloquence”, and responded to the ways in which this key interpreter of late-Enlightenment historical theory “riveted the attention of even the most volatile and inattentive student” (Notes 23).

Dugald Stewart states that

In examining the history of mankind, as well as in examining the phenomena of the material world, when we cannot trace the process by which an event has been produced, it is often of importance to be able to show how it may have been produced by natural causes.

Account 293

Stewart writes at the cusp of a new nomenclature for historical understanding, one which describes a crucial backdrop to the composition of The Lay and the editing of his Minstrelsy. His prose is characterized by the self-consciousness of someone who is devising a new vocabulary:

To this species of philosophical investigation, which has no appropriated name in our language, I shall take the liberty of giving the title Theoretical or Conjectural History; an expression which coincides pretty nearly in its meaning with that of Natural History, as employed by Mr Hume.

Account 293

This is the stadial understanding of cultural and historical development described by Adam Ferguson in his Essay, now updated for a burgeoning early-nineteenth-century readership. Stewart describes how the “incontrovertible logical maxim” of conjectural history has only recently been accepted, and that “till about the time of Montesquieu, it was by no means so generally recognised by the learned as to have sensible influence on the fashionable tone of thinking over Europe” (Dissertation. 69-70). Scott’s professor arrives at these terms in order to further explain what was then known as a distinctly Fergusonian conception of history. Stewart states that the universal laws of human nature are made manifest in a series of discrete historical stages, alternating through epochs between civilisation and degeneracy.[4] This is articulated in a passage from his Dissertation:

That the capacities of the human mind have been in all ages the same, and that the diversity of human phenomena exhibited by our species is the result merely of the different circumstances in which men are placed, has been long received as an incontrovertible logical maxim.


Conjectural history is, in Stewart’s words, “the peculiar glory of the latter half of the eighteenth century”, and Scott’s understanding of the recent history of Scotland is inflected with its language and comparative methodology. The set stages of social evolution, from savage tribalism to commercial society, are related to the history of Scotland in a striking passage from the last chapter of the novel Waverley:

There is no European nation which, within the course of half a century, or little more, has undergone so complete a change as this kingdom of Scotland. The effects of the insurrection of 1745,– the abolition of the heritable jurisdictions of the Lowland nobility and barons,– the total eradication of the Jacobite party, which, averse to intermingle with the English, or adopt their customs, long continued to pride themselves upon maintaining ancient Scottish manners and customs, commenced this innovation. The gradual influx of wealth, and extension of commerce, have since united to render the present people of Scotland a class of beings as different from their grandfathers, as the existing English are from those of Queen Elizabeth’s time.


Here, within the fiction itself, Scott describes a nationally-specific sense of historical development and discreteness. But it is in Scott’s early poetry that we can feel the full influence of Scottish “conjectural” history. Scott’s early poetry centres on the role and significance of the oral poet and preliterary man in the history of culture and society.[5] Roderick Dhu, for example, from Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, lacks the chivalric values of courtly life, but he is the embodiment of the martial vigour and warrior prowess that Ferguson believed to command the highest levels of respect amongst tribal, pre-commercial people. Susan Oliver has suggested that Scott’s depiction of the Highlanders in The Lady of the Lake

assents to Adam Ferguson’s ideals, which were best known through his Essay on the History of Civil Society. Ferguson, who was himself a Gaelic speaker born in the Highland margins of Perthshire, at Logierait, argued that martial spirit was an essential civic virtue in counterbalancing the ease of modern urban civilised society.

The members of Dhu’s Clan Alpine are viewed from a stadial perspective, and

Scott’s primitivising and orientalization of these highlanders casts them as a people who cannot progress beyond a certain point, even when they are brought into communication with those of a more developed culture.

Oliver 91

David Brown has suggested that “Scott refers unselfconsciously to ‘feudal’ and ‘commercial’ societies in numerous prose works” (199). These include a letter written to Lord Dalkeith (to whom The Lay was devoted) in 1806 concerning the depopulation of the Borders, in which the poet speculates on the transition from clan society, based on patriarchal right, to the “feudal” system. In that letter, Scott describes parallels between the increasingly emasculated clan cultures of the Borders and Highlands. He notes how concerted efforts on the behalf of the state after the act of union of 1707 have all but destroyed the rude tribal culture of Scotland. These efforts took the shape of deportation, debilitating warfare, and various forms of financial terrorism. Scott suggests that, as these various strategies have been staggered throughout the last eighty years in the Borders, they have occurred almost entirely outwith historical record, and that their impact has thus been largely muted:

From all these considerations I am induced to think that the causes of depopulation on the Border, although quite the same with those in the Highlands, occurred gradually, and were insensible in their operation, while the singular circumstance of the Highlands retaining their ancient manners till the lowlands had attained the highest pitch of civilisation, has occasioned their passing from a race of warriors into a handful of shepherds in the course of fifty years, a change not completely operated on the Borders within three times the period.

Familiar Letter 57-61

The Border setting for The Lay, then, is a place of gradual development: of an incremental shifting away from rudeness. This is in contrast to the rupturing, brutal, climactic tearing at Scotland’s northern clan culture. The letter to Lord Dalkeith is part of a series in 1806 in which the reception of The Lay in London is discussed. Lord Dalkeith suggests to Scott that:

For the credit of London, let it be said that the Last Minstrel is not unnoticed, but that he is ‘high placed in hall a welcome guest’. This shows the intrinsic merit of your work. We have many local reasons for admiring the poem. The Londoners have no reason for admiring but that it possesses real general merit, and might be read with interest and infinite pleasure by an erudite and judicious Englishman, as well as by a partial Borderer or Scott.

Familiar Letters 32-3

Dalkeith suggests that the “intrinsic” value of Scott’s poem is revealed by the fact that it can be appreciated irrespective of political or national partisanship. It transcends any nationally-defined unpleasantness or controversy lingering at the close of a century dominated by the doomed Jacobite rebellions, and the enervation of the clans in Scotland.

In the same year that these letters were sent and received, Scott corresponded closely with Adam Ferguson regarding military life and society at Jersey, and with Francis Jeffrey (who was keen for the poet to review for the Edinburgh Review). He also wrote to and received letters from Wordsworth on the publication of The Lay. These series of correspondence offer us a cross-section of an intellectual milieu in which discourses of poetry, martial vigour, the expanding periodical market, Scottish conjectural history and various national controversies are discussed in a wide simultaneity. Verse is part of a wider cultural complex, and The Lay stands at the intersection of various currents of social, cultural and poetic interest.

In these letters, and in the prose Scott wrote to accompany the 1805 and 1830 editions of The Lay, Scott reveals a Fergusonian, nuanced historical understanding. He employs Ferguson’s terminology in recognition of a change in “the ‘manners’ of the clan chiefs which accompanied the economic change” (Brown 199). Coleridge, commenting on Scott’s early poetry, identified a complex historical understanding. He observed in Scott

The contest between the two great moving principles of social Humanity – religious adherence to the Past and the Ancient, the Desire and the admiration of Permanence, on the one hand; and the Passion for increase of Knowledge, for Truth as the offspring of Reason, in short the mighty Instincts of Progression and Free-agency, on the other.

“Letter to Thomas Alsop”

This ambivalent sense of the value of human development, this inability to divest oneself from the forms of the past even as humanity moves toward civilization, is the overarching theme of Ferguson’s Essay. Brown comments:

‘Relativism’ is also a notable component […] of Scott’s outlook on history. One of the themes of Ferguson’s Essay on the Progress of Civil Society was the dubious moral value of ‘progress’. Himself a Highlander, Ferguson felt an understandable attachment to the ‘superior virtue’ of earlier societies, while his criticism of the debilitating effects of ‘luxury’ in modern life became part of the tradition of ‘philosophical’ history. In Scott’s work, a similar ‘relativity’ of approach has long been appreciated.


As Brown articulates, recent criticism has tended to recognise the nuanced, Fergusonian nature of the author’s historical understanding:

Modern writers such as Forbes, Garside and James Anderson have provided an ample corrective to this point of view, arguing that Scott’s attitude to progress was one of qualified approval.


Scott inherits this sense of ambivalent progress from Ferguson.

The two prose pieces that Scott wrote to accompany The Lay’s 1805 and 1830 editions indicate the extent to which the composition of the poem is conditioned by late-Enlightenment historical theory. In the 1830 Introduction, Scott depicts himself as the highly circumspect poet of the commercial stage, susceptible to precisely the conditions that Ferguson says work on the contemporary poet. Scott recalls a shrewd, poetic turning away from the commodification of reading and writing as he searches for a readership:

The attempt to return to a more simple and natural style of poetry [… was] likely to be welcomed, at a time when the public had become tired of heroic hexameters, with all the buckram and binding which belong to them of latter days.

Poetical Works 49-58

For Scott, a preponderance of complex metrical forms takes its place in a literary marketplace which has commodified poetry and the books in which it appears. Metrical complexity seems coextensive with the ornamented, almost fetishized object of the book in early nineteenth-century Edinburgh.

When Scott explains his own position as he seeks to publish The Lay, he describes the luxury of the successful writer of Ferguson’s commercial stage. He states that the publication of The Lay “would allow me to make honourable provision against the various contingencies of life” (Poetical Works 7). He evokes a fugitive or embattled sense when he says that his poem “has been able to keep itself afloat through the best part of a century” (Poetical Works 49-58). The tenor of these statements is not especially unusual given both the unpropitious market for poetry in 1830, and the fact that The Lay was Scott’s first original poem published. Despite this, Scott does not remember himself, at the turn of the century, composing poetry against a backdrop of financial depredation.[6] His memory of the writing of The Lay suggests ease and comfortable volition:

my income being equal to all comforts, and some of the elegancies, of life, I was not pressed to an irksome labour by necessity, that most powerful of motives; consequently, I was the more easily seduced to choose the employment which was most agreeable to me.

Poetical Works 49-58

He goes on,

In 1796, when I first published the translations from Bürger, I was an insulated individual, with only my own wants to provide for, and having, in a great measure, my own inclinations alone to consult.

Poetical Works 49-58

Scott refers to his use of the oral prehistory of verse in terms that are both sartorial and bibliophilic:

The demand in Scotland had been supplied by the first edition, and the curiosity of the English was not much awakened by poems in the rude garb of antiquity, accompanied with notes referring to the obscure feuds of barbarous clans.

Poetical Works 49-58

This kind self-consciousness, which references the poem’s copious annotation, publishing supply and demand and the national definition of reading proclivities, is the product of an Edinburgh literary scene fascinated by antiquarianism and still coming to terms with the implications of both Ferguson’s conjectural history and the publication of MacPherson’s Ossian collection.

In the Essay, Ferguson spends a good deal of time describing the poet of the commercial stage as a highly circumspect character, having to negotiate the conditions prescribed by a newly commodified literary marketplace. Comparisons between ancient and modern verse reveal a recent, excessive diversification of the arts and professions. The latest efforts of man’s writing may be a continuation of earlier devices, but Ferguson’s sense of discontinuity between them centres on the increasing categorisation of written forms, the exposure that the modern poet feels to a wide range of written criticism, and the decline of expressive spontaneity.[7] Ferguson states that when “libraries are furnished, and every path of ingenuity is occupied”, readers and writers “become students and admirers, instead of rivals; and substitute the knowledge of books, instead of the inquisitive or animated spirit in which they were written” (Essay 333-4).

The new commercial society is characterised as an increasingly diffuse “school for letters” in which humanity has become habituated, through the encroachment of writing in every sphere, to the tempering of emotions and the transformation of raw emotion into sophisticated written forms. This time is contrasted with one in which an awareness of criticism, history and tradition are not major factors in the composition of verse:

The most admired of all poets lived beyond the reach of history, almost of tradition. The artless song of the savage, the heroic legend of the bard, have sometimes a magnificent beauty, which no change of language can improve, and no refinements of the critic reform.

Ferguson Essay 261

Ferguson questions whether wading though written instruction, seeking allusiveness and the guidance of distant models of literature have rendered the modern author “a writer of a very inferior class” (Essay 271). This is one way in which Ferguson’s sense of the deleterious effects of modern “manners” is buttressed, and a way in which modern poetry is divided from primitive verse for the late Eighteenth-century reader.[8]

In response to the new written culture of circumspection that Ferguson describes, Scott speaks of a conscious return to vigour, spontaneity, and the shifting textures of oral performance. In Ferguson, the idea that the ancient poet’s song is, in Scott’s phrase, an “unpremeditated lay” is contrasted with the culture of prescriptiveness and circumscription that Ferguson observes around him in his own time (Scott Poetical Works 1). The savage poet is presented in contradistinction to the tainted modern author:

He is not engaged in recalling, like Virgil or Tasso, the sentiments or scenery of an age remote from his own; he needs not to be told by the critic, to recollect what another would have thought, or in what manner another would have expressed his conception.[9]

Ferguson Essay 261

The late-eighteenth-century reader and writer would not be able to anticipate the movements of Homer’s oral imagination, states Ferguson, because the oral poet “appears to speak from inspiration, not from invention; and to be guided in the choice of his thoughts and expressions by a supernatural instinct, not by reflection” (Essay 266). The new culture of poetic prescriptiveness debars this kind of instinctual expression, this liberty:

the simple passions, friendship, resentment, and love, are the movements of his own mind, and he has no occasion to copy. Simple and vehement in his conceptions and feelings, he knows no diversity of thought, or of style to mislead or to exercise his judgement. He delivers the emotions of the heart, in words suggested by the heart; for he knows no other.

Ferguson Essay 313-4

Ferguson sees the increasing diversity of poetic styles diluting what would otherwise be expressions from what Edward Gibbon calls “le couer humaine”: direct and concrete human actions which inspire the rudimentary, “rude” and spontaneous poetic impulse. Ferguson bemoans the necessary critical awareness of the modern poet, and the fact that he must at all times be told how to compose. The modern poet must at all times recollect the verse of another; he feels the presence of a network of other poets in direct antecedence to him, and this awareness is stifling rather than productive. The savage poet’s song cannot fail to be original for he has no occasion to copy another’s style, and there is no great diversity of thought or style to “mislead” his judgement.[10] In terminology of containment and liberation conventional to descriptions of oral verse in the period, Ferguson notices how the primitive poet could carve out a sense of freedom, even as he operated within a limited linguistic frame.

With this apparent confinement in the choice of his words, he is at liberty to break through the ordinary modes of construction; and in the form of a language not established by rules, may find for himself a cadence agreeable to the tone of his mind. The liberty he takes […] is rarefied, appears an improvement, not a trespass on grammar. He delivers a style to the ages that follow, and becomes a model from which his posterity judge.

Essay 261

In Ferguson, the vigour of expressive spontaneity in poetry is repressed not just by the accumulation of wealth, luxury and “superficial knowledge”, but through the increasing prescription of “rules”. As Philip Connell has commented, the late development of commercial society stifles and represses the heroic poetic tradition:

The potentially unlimited accumulation of wealth (and the equally unlimited desire for such accumulation) would not merely corrupt public spirit in a highly commercial society; it also threatened to submerge a vigorous and heroic literary tradition beneath a welter of superficial knowledge acquired purely for its own sake.


But it must be noted that The Lay is not an uncomplicated poetic corroboration of the vigour of orality as described by Ferguson. It is by no means a clear, untrammelled return to the kinds of spontaneous expression valorised by the conjectural historian. For all Scott’s love of the oral tradition, and his respect for the suggestiveness of Ferguson’s Essay, The Lay can only ever be regarded as an ersatz representation of the vigour to which Ferguson refers. Scott’s discussion of the poem’s versification reveals the veracity of this perception. Every decision Scott makes about poetic form is circumspect: a shrewd negotiation:[11] “The poem, being once licensed by the critics as fit for the market, was soon finished, proceeding at about the rate of a canto per week” (Scott Poetical Works 49-58). Scott gives the impression that delicate prosody becomes subjugated to commercial publishing expedience:

There was, indeed, little occasion for pause or hesitation, when a trouble-some rhyme might be accommodated by an alteration of the stanza, or where an incorrect measure might be remedied by a variation of the rhyme.

Scott Poetical Works 49-58

His poem is to be an arch literary redaction from orality: a knowing representation, not an authentic recreation. He realizes that, as his poem was to be a modern representation of oral performance, one of the questions to be broached is whether to rely primarily on ballad quatrains in the evocation of his minstrel speaker. He acknowledges that the ballad form has in his time been stripped of cultural prestige:

Neither was I ignorant that the practice of balladwriting was for the present out of fashion, and that any attempt to revive it, or to found a poetical character upon it, would certainly fail of success. The ballad measure itself, which was once listened to as an enchanting melody, had become hackneyed and sickening, from its being the accompaniment of every grinding hand-organ. (Scott Poetical Works 49-58)

This sense of the unsuitability of the ballad quatrain does not only relate to its penurious cultural connotations. The relationship of ballad prosody to the representation of the preliterary poet occasions a discussion of the unhelpful restrictions quatrains place on the narrative poet. The four-line stanza debars the extension of sentences and syntactic clauses across stanza boundaries, and forces the poet to dilate and contract semantic content in a way that is unsuited to narrative poetry:

[A] long work in quatrains, whether those of the common ballad, or such as are termed elegiac, […] must be both awkward and difficult to carry on a long sentence from one stanza to another, it follows, that the meaning of each period must be comprehended within four lines, and equally so that it must be extended so as to fill that space. The alternate dilation and contraction thus rendered necessary is singularly unfavourable to narrative composition.

It is entirely uncongenial to Scott’s objectives that “the meaning of each period must be comprehended within four lines”.

The ballad quatrain will not do because it is a clearly circumscribed space that must be filled, and which imposes restrictions on the flow of the narrative. Thus, ostensibly rejecting the ballad quatrain, Scott states that his prosody is to be expansive, vigorous, transgressive. Scott describes the effect of hearing his friend John Stoddart recite passages from Coleridge’s Christabel:

The singularly irregular structure of the stanzas, and the liberty which it allowed the author to adapt the sound to the sense, seemed to be exactly suited to such an extravaganza as I meditated on the subject of Gilpin Horner.[12]

Poetical Works 18-20

Scott describes his poem as a “mescolanza of measures”, a phrase which references an archaic and wildly varied dance, and one entirely in line with the versatility Scott seeks:[13]

[T]he plan of the Ancient Metrical Romance was adopted, which allows greater latitude, in this respect, than would be consistent with the dignity of a regular Poem. The same model offered other faculties, as it permits an occasional alteration of measure, which, in some degree, authorizes the change of rhythm in the text. The machinery, also, adopted from popular belief, would have seemed puerile in a Poem which did not partake of the rudeness of the old Ballad, or Metrical Romance.

Poetical Works 49-58

Scott’s fascination with ancient verse forms intersects with an irrepressible search for variety in the expressive effects of versification. In the above quotation, subject seems to hold authority over the choice of metre, but the relationship seems reciprocal: Scott couches his metrical description in the vocabulary of importance, opportunity and functionality. The phrases “the Ancient Metrical Romance was adopted, which allows”, “the same model offered other faculties”, and which “permits an occasional alteration of measure”. This metre is a plan that allows a certain type of poetic composition:

[T]he idea occurred to the Author of using the measured short line, which forms the structure of so much minstrel poetry, that it may be properly termed the Romantic stanza, by way of distinction; and which appears so natural to our language […] the extreme facility of the short couplet, which seems congenial to our language, and was, doubtless for that reason, so popular with our own minstrels, is, for the same reason, apt to prove a snare to the composer who uses it in more modern days.


Scott’s exacting metrical interest and the circumspection of his formal decisions, lay bare the extent to which he is essentially divided from the oral poets with which he and Ferguson were so fascinated.

That the prosody of The Lay reflects Scott as a product of late-Enlightenment historical theory is suggested in the most famous review of the poem from the time, in the Edinburgh Review. Francis Jeffrey’s 1805 review of The Lay emerges into a journalistic and political climate shaped by conjectural historical suggestion. It combines a contemporary awareness of the value of ancient chivalric values with an explicit reaction to what Jeffrey saw as the poem’s state of compromised modernity. In one of his most shrewd and economical reviews of Scott, Jeffrey describes The Lay as a site of historical intersection, a place where poetic modernity is “placed” into ancient versification: “We consider this poem as an attempt to transfer the refinements of modern poetry to the matter and the manner of the ancient metrical romance” (455).

Jeffrey recognizes Scott’s fascination with, and use of, the ancient in terms that are redolent of Blair, Percy and Ferguson:

The author, enamoured of the lofty visions of chivalry, and partial to the strains in which they were formerly embodied, seems to have employed all the resources of his genius in endeavouring to recall them to the favour and admiration of the public; and in adapting to the taste of modern readers a species of poetry which was once the delight of the courtly, but has long since ceased to gladden any other eyes than those of the scholar or the antiquary.


The historical narrative pressing behind Jeffrey’s assertions is by no means unequivocally positive about the influence of the primitive and preliterary. In fact, Jeffrey’s understanding of how ancient or oral verse might have inspired this modern poem is characterized by a striking ambivalence. Jeffrey states that

it was evidently Mr. Scott’s business to retain all that was good, and to reject all that was bad in the models upon which he was to form himself; adding, at the same time, all the interest and beauty which could possibly be assimilated to the manner and spirit of his originals.

Jeffrey anticipates the words of Dugald Stewart, from the second volume of Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind, published in 1814. There, Stewart attacks a “bigoted attachment to antiquated forms, and to principles borrowed from less enlightened ages” (Elements 229). Stewart relates an antiquarian interest to the decline of civic effect and vigour:

It is this reverence for abuses which have been sanctioned by time, accompanied with an inattention to the progress of public opinion, which has, in most instances, blinded the rulers of mankind, till government has lost all its efficiency.

Elements 229

Jeffrey states that, to avoid the unfavourable influence of antiquated forms, Scott must exercise the kind of discernment he has already shown in his collation and editing of the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.

Scott’s duty, states Jeffrey, is

to reform the rambling, obscure, and interminable narratives of the ancient romancers– to moderate their digressions– to abridge or retrench their unmerciful or needless descriptions– and to expunge altogether those feeble and prosaic passages, the rude stupidity of which is so apt to excite the derision of a modern reader.

Contributions 455-65

Overall, the project has been a success; Jeffrey states that The Lay avoids the less favourable influences of antiquarianism:

At the same time, he was to rival, if he could, the force and vivacity of their minute and varied representations– the characteristic simplicity of their pictures of manners– the energy and conciseness with which they frequently describe great events- and the lively colouring and accurate drawing by which they give the effect of reality to every scene they seek to delineate. In executing this arduous task, he was permitted to avail himself of all that variety of style and manner which had been sanctioned by the ancient practice; and bound to embellish his performance with all the graces of diction and versification which could be reconciled to the simplicity and familiarity of the minstrel’s song.

Contributions 455-65

The unrefined influence of ancient poetry is unsuitable for the contemporary market because it includes rambling verbosity, but then Scott’s poem will do well to tap into other traditions and characteristics which seem anything but “feeble and “prosaic”. Jeffrey states that there is much to be admired in the “lively colouring and accurate drawing” of pre-commercial poetry. For Scott to emulate this vividness, he will have to “avail himself of all that variety of style and manner which had been sanctioned by the ancient practice” (Jeffrey Contributions 455-65).

Comparing Jeffrey’s review with other contemporary reactions to The Lay reveals the extent to which Scott and Jeffrey shared a Scottish Enlightenment intellectual heritage shaped by Ferguson. Their common appreciation for developments in late-Enlightenment historical theory seems striking when compared with the more general tenor of critical responses to the poem in publications such as The British Critic, The Critical Review, Censura Literaria, and The Scots Magazine. No other reviewer acquiesced in Jeffrey’s appreciation of the willed historical intersections contrived by Scott. And yet all were fascinated by the remarkable, various prosody that The Lay was now presenting to a vast readership. This “mescolanza of measures” seemed truly original, and the full originality of the poem can only be adequately understood in the context of the discourses of historicity and versification that surrounded it.[14]

In summary, I wish to claim that Scott consciously uses the conditions of metrical language to participate in a discussion of the dividedness of his poetry from the orality that he depicts. The prose which accompanied its 1805 and 1830 editions, the letters sent and received around the time of the poem’s publication, and Scott’s public dialogue with the Edinburgh Review, indicate to a significant degree that it is Scott’s intention to use a wildly vigorous prosody to explore the lacuna between the written and printed poetic milieu in which Scott writes, and the oral one that he depicts.

Maureen McLane has recently suggested that the Romantic concept of minstrelsy was troubled by a turn-of-the-century diffuseness in historical categorization: “By ‘history’ we might be mindful of historical discourse in its several eighteenth-century varieties – antiquarian empiricism, conjectural-philosophical universal history, political narrative, sentimental educations” (432). It is my contention that the tensions surrounding The Lay are distinctly Fergusonian (i.e. in the tradition of Adam Ferguson’s “conjectural-philosophical universal history”), and also that Ferguson’s text is crucial to any adequate understanding of The Lay’s remarkable poetics.