University of Rochester Library Bulletin: A Letter by Sir Walter Scott

Volume XI · Winter 1956· Number 2
A Letter by Sir Walter Scott

Mrs. George C. Gordon has recently given to the University of Rochester Library a hitherto unpublished letter by Sir Walter Scott, the text of which follows:

Messrs. Cadell & Davies

Edin. 5 May 1798 Gentlemen

Before entering upon the Business which occasions you this trouble I must introduce myself to you as the Translator of two German Ballads from Burger published for you under the titles of William & Helen & the Chase – I do not know whether this circumstance will have any weight in inducing or deterring you from engaging in the Literary plan which I am now about to propose.

My Attention has been of late considerably turned towards the German Drama, from which with a view solely to my own amusement & to improvement in the language I have made several Translations – Some of my literary friends among whom I am proud to number Professor Stuart and Mr. Mackenzie, have thought these translations not unworthy public notice but I have no view of publishing two or three plays separately – What I would propose and upon adequate terms willingly engage in, is a plan of a German Theatre in imitation of the well known Theatre Allemand, to consist we shall suppose of 12 Vols. Octo. each volume comprehending three plays and the whole forming a compendium of the Chefs d oeuvres [sic] of the German Stage – As I have already translated six plays which want only a little revisal to be ready for publication, the work might be set on foot immediately, nor should I require more time than six months to a volume for its completion as I should really feel interested in the subject of my labour – I must premise that it would not suit me either to give my name to the publication or to have any concern with the Expense – With regard to the reward of my own labour I am by no means disposed to be exorbitant in my wishes because my situation renders it of less consequence. If this outline of plan pleases you some of the Translations shall be immediately submitted to your perusal or that of any literary Gentlemen you may choose to name here – Many of the plays of Chivalry contain curious references to the feudal Customs, of Germany in the middle ages & these I must endeavour to illustrate by suitable notes – The plays I have already translated are the Conspiracy of Fiesco from Schiller, Goetz von Berliching [sic] from Goethe– Emilia Galotti (unfinished) from Lessing– The Wards from Iffland– Fust von Stromberg– Otho von Wettelsbach [sic]– in all Six – of which Fiesco alone has received an English dress & that a very indifferent one – The plan would have the advantage of being easily abandoned if it proved unsuccessful – I am Gentlemen

Your most obedient Servt


My address is—W S—Advocate No 50
George Street Edinh.
(Letter addressed to Messrs. Cadell & Davies, Booksellers Strand, London.
Recipient added:

   Walter Scott, Esq
   May, 1798
declined May 11, 1798)

In May of 1798, Walter Scott was an ambitious young man of twenty-seven, well launched on a legal career, and recently married. However, neither his duties at the law courts nor his new status as head of a family diminished his already strong interest in literature. We sometimes think of Scott as initiating his writing career with the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border in 1802; but as early as 1795 he had tried his hand at short translations from German poetry. His son-in-law and biographer, Lockhart, many years later noted tantalizingly, " . . . he was thenceforth engaged in a succession of versions from the drama of Meier [sic] and Iffland, several of which are still extant in his MS., marked 1796 and 1797. They are all in prose, like their originals . . ."1 It is in connection with this comment that Mrs. Gordon's gift to the Library has great importance.

Students of Scott's career, especially the years of his apprenticeship, will find this letter has a multiple significance. First, it reenforces some contentions about the literary movement labelled "Romanticism"; second, it illuminates the area of Scott's early interests and ambition; third, it suggests a new range of studies to be made in Scott's work as a whole.

Before commenting on these three elements, we must speak briefly of Scott's German studies, and identify the reading that claimed his attention. As early as 1788, while a law student at Edinburgh, Scott and some of his friends formed "The Literary Society," a club which met to discuss papers written by the members. Scott's own contributions reflected his antiquarian and historical interests, and also concerned themselves with Anglo-Saxon and Norse writings, whose tic to German literature he later noted in his "Introductory Remarks on Popular Poetry," prefaced to Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. In the same year he heard Henry Mackenzie,2 the "Mr. Mackenzie" of the letter, read a paper on German literature to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. This survey so impressed Scott and his circle of friends that they eventually (1792) formed a German class under the instruction of a German doctor resident in Edinburgh, Dr. Willich. Scott seems to have grasped the fundamentals of the language rapidly enough to read with ease and, with Willich to assist, was soon concentrating on reading drama, especially the plays of Schiller and Goethe. His enthusiasm for things dramatic at this time also made him a constant attendant at whatever performances Edinburgh offered.

These German studies resulted in Scott's first translation appearing in April, 1796, when his version of Burger's Lenore was privately printed for circulation among his intimates. William Erskine, a close friend, was responsible for this undertaking, as well as for a commercial venture in October of the same year, when Manners and Miller, Edinburgh printers, issued for sale The Chase and William and Helen, Scott's versions ofLenore and Der Wilde Jager. Even then, Scott insisted on anonymity, and the poems did not carry his name. The public which read them was small, but such critical reception as they had was favorable, notably at the hands of Dugald Stewart,3 the "Professor Stuart" of the letter.

Such encouragement must have sent Scott cheerfully to his self-imposed task of translating German drama. In the Winter of 1796-97, he dealt with plays by Steinsberg and Maier, and — we conjecture from the letter — continued with Schiller, Goethe, Lessing, and Iffland.

The list of plays in the letter requires some clarification. In the order in which Scott mentions them, they are:Die Verschworung des Fiesco Zu Genua by Schiller, 1783; Gotz von Berlichingen by Goethe, 1773; Emilia Galottiby Lessing, 1772; Die Mundel by Iffland, 1785; Fust von Stromberg by Maier, 1782; and Otto von Wittelsbachby Steinsberg, 1783.

As Scott says, all are "plays of Chivalry," knightly dramas or knightly tragedies (Ritterdramen oder Rittertragodien). Their period is the Middle Ages, their locale the courts of kings or nobles. Often the struggle is joined in terms of love versus honor, or resistance versus tyranny. These are plays of storm and stress, highly emotional, charged with elevated sentiments, nationalistic, and impassioned.

They were not unknown plays, for Scott erred in saying only The Conspiracy of Fiesco had been translated.Gotz had been rendered into English in 1795, Emilia in 1794, although the quality of either translation had not been distinguished.4 Others than Scott, however, had felt the appeal of the atmosphere of the Middle Ages.

This appeal of the Middle Ages returns us to the importance of the letter itself This communication reenforces one already soundly based contention with respect to the "Romantic" element in literature. A preoccupation with the chivalric past, a utilization of scenes from the Middle Ages have long been counted among the many attributes of romanticism. Scott, in his translations, worked a purer vein than that which produced the melodramatic dross of Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, 1764, Mrs. Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794, and Matthew Lewis's The Monk, 1796; but the murky glitter of both had a wide attraction.

Then, too, the very fact that Scott turned to German literature has its significance. Continental influences on English authors remain as a wide field for research. The importance of German studies by Scott's contemporaries such as Wordsworth and particularly Coleridge has been pursued; but less has been done with the effects of nonphilosophic German literature on English writers. Here Scott's letter provides an impetus to pursue such a study.

These points may lack novelty; but more significant are the indications the letter provides with respect to Scott himself. In the first place, it comes in a period about which we have little documentation. Grierson, editing Scott's letters, writes: "The years from his marriage in 1797 to the publication of the Lay of the Last Minstrel in 1805 seem to be among the happiest, the most care-free of his life."5 Happy he was, perhaps; but communicative, no. Few letters remain from the first year of Scott's marriage; indeed, for ten months Grierson can supply none. To have this letter for that barren period is in itself important.

Second, the letter indicates Scott's ambition. Not content to offer his project to an Edinburgh publisher, he tried a London house.6 The Athens of the North was all very well as an audience for ballads, but it had already given him its approval, voiced by its greatest pundits, Stewart and Mackenzie. For this more ambitious venture, Scott sought the wider audience a London printer could command.7

Third, the plays he had translated have elements in common with aspects of Scott's later work. Characters have similar motivations, perform similar deeds of chivalric defiance. Marmion, Claverhouse, Roderick Dhu, Rob Roy, John Balfour, and Dirk Hatteraick come to mind as examples. We recall, too, scenes that sound the same tones of the sinister, the mysterious, or the heroic: the search for Michael Scott's book of magic, Helen MacGregor's defiance of the lowlanders, the siege of Torquilstone, Balfour's leap. Scott, in his maturity, had the ability to manipulate mood, to develop suspense, to evoke the mysterious, to create figures dedicated to noble lost causes. The Ritterdramen too had all these elements.

Finally, the letter suggests a new and precise field of study for students of Scott's techniques. It has long been recognized that the siege of Torquilstone in Ivanhoe borrows from a similar scene in Gotz von Berlichiingen. However, little inquiry has been conducted into possible borrowings from other German plays. Now that we have here identified more of Scott's reading in German drama, it is mandatory to discover if, to the Ivanhoe instance, we can add other parallels. Indeed, the whole question of Scott's debt to the theater in terms of manipulation of dialogue, construction of scenes, and range of characterization must be given a more complete answer.

Thus, in addition to its intrinsic value, Mrs. Gordon's gift serves to stimulate us to new considerations about the author whom E. M. Forster has identified as the greatest of story-tellers, whom Walter Allen acclaims as the creator of characters through whom the whole history of a country is revitalized and given new significance.



  1. Memoirs of Sir Walter Scott, London, 1900. 5 vols. Vol. 1, p. 215
  2. 1745-1831; author of The Man of Feeling, a sentimental novel, published in 1771.
  3. 1753-1828; professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh, and something of a dictator in the intellectual circles of the city.
  4. Of the other plays, The Wards was translated in 1799; Otto and Fust have yet to be done.
  5. The Letters of Sir Walter Scott, 1787-1807, London, 1932, p. IXIV
  6.  Incidentally, Thomas Cadell of Cadell and Davies is no relation to Robert Cadell, partner in Constable & Company, the firm whose failure ruined Scott's fortunes.
  7. Only Gotz von Berlichingen, which was published singly in February, 1700, appears in Scott's collected works. He apparently recognized the weaknesses of the other translations and never offered them to the public. His Gotz, according to competent judges, is not itself a very good translation.