Great Scott

Posted on 22nd January 2021 by simonbeattie

Sir Henry Raeburn’s famous portrait of Scott, at National Galleries Scotland

This year is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Sir Walter Scott, the great Scottish writer. A few years ago, I managed to visit his house, Abbotsford, when I was up in Edinburgh for the book fair. Sadly, the fair didn’t take place last year, but hopefully it will be back later in 2021.

For this blogpost, I thought I’d look at Scott’s first book: a translation of the German poet Gottfried August Bürger published in Edinburgh in 1796. The Chase is Scott’s rendering of Lenore, a wildly popular Gothic poem in Britain, which saw five translations within a year (by William Taylor, John Thomas Stanley, William Robert Spencer, Scott, and the then poet laureate, Henry James Pye).

Although Scott was not present when Anna Laetitia Barbauld read Taylor’s translation at Dugald Stewart’s house, he ‘was stimulated to find his own copy of the German original.  He met the Aberdonian James Skene of Rubislaw, who had lived in Saxony for some years and had a collection of German books.  The poems in the German manner included within Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) were a further stimulus, and in April 1796 Scott tried his hand at translating Leonore.  “He began the task … after supper, and did not retire to bed until he had finished it, having by that time worked himself into a state of excitement which set sleep at defiance”.  So pleased was Scott with the reaction of his friends that he proceeded to translate another Bürger poem, Der wilde Jäger, and the two were published together anonymously as The Chase, and William and Helen … 1 November 1796’ (Oxford DNB). Scott later commented: ‘The fate of this, my first publication, was by no means flattering.  I distributed so many copies among friends as, according to the booksellers, materially to interfere with the sale; and the number of translations which appeared in England about the same time … were sufficient to exclude a provincial writer from competition …  In a word, my adventure … proved a dead loss, and a great part of the edition was condemned to the service of the trunk-maker’ (Essay on Imitations of the Ancient Ballad, 1830).

For further details of Scott’s first book, and the other translations, see my catalogue on Anglo-German Cultural Relations.

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