"I have given you the trouble of walking to this spot, Captain Waverley, both because I thought the scenery would interest you, and because a Highland song would suffer still more from my imperfect translation were I to introduce it without its own wild and appropriate accompaniments. To speak in the poetical language of my country, the seat of the Celtic Muse is in the mist of the secret and solitary hill, and her voice in the murmur of the mountain stream. He who woos her must love the barren rock more than the fertile valley, and the solitude of the desert better than the festivity of the hall."
An illustration to Sir Walter Scott's Waverley, from an edition of 1893
In my last post I wrote about the Chinese poetic ideal of hearing a guqin played in the landscape. Here in Waverley (1814), the enchanting Flora McIvor is speaking to the eponymous hero, newly arrived in the Highlands, having led him to this perfect location to hear her 'imperfect translations' of Gaelic poetry, to the accompaniment of a harp. This place of barren rocks and murmuring water might just as easily be the setting for a Chinese 'mountains and rivers' poem. Making his way there, Waverley had found
'the rocks assumed a thousand peculiar and varied forms. In one place a crag of huge size presented its gigantic bulk, as if to forbid the passenger’s farther progress; and it was not until he approached its very base that Waverley discerned the sudden and acute turn by which the pathway wheeled its course around this formidable obstacle. In another spot the projecting rocks from the opposite sides of the chasm had approached so near to each other that two pine-trees laid across, and covered with turf, formed a rustic bridge at the height of at least one hundred and fifty feet. It had no ledges, and was barely three feet in breadth.'From this vantage point Waverley had watched Flora cross the bridge, feeling all the emotions we associate with the Sublime. The editor of the OUP edition of Waverley (Clare Lamont) notes that a similar bridge appeared in Scott's The Lady of the Lake (1810), that an actual bridge of this kind existed, spanning Keltie Water, and that there had been other examples of heroines of sensibility crossing Alpine bridges in slightly earlier novels written by Ann Radcliffe and Jane Porter. Passing under the bridge, Waverley found himself in 'a sylvan amphitheatre, waving with birch, young oaks, and hazels, with here and there a scattered yew-tree. The rocks now receded, but still showed their grey and shaggy crests rising among the copse-wood. Still higher rose eminences and peaks, some bare, some clothed with wood, some round and purple with heath, and others splintered into rocks and crags.' Then, turning the path, he came to the secluded spot where Flora would sing him her Highland song.
He found Flora gazing at 'a romantic waterfall. It was not so remarkable either for great height or quantity of water as for the beautiful accompaniments which made the spot interesting.' The description that follows is based on the falls of Ledard, as Scott explained in his own footnote. Interestingly, the novel makes clear that this setting was not entirely wild. 'Mossy banks of turf were broken and interrupted by huge fragments of rock, and decorated with trees and shrubs, some of which had been planted under the direction of Flora, but so cautiously that they added to the grace without diminishing the romantic wildness of the scene.' Here, with the sun stooping in the west, Waverley gazes at Flora, thinking 'he had never, even in his wildest dreams, imagined a figure of such exquisite and interesting loveliness. The wild beauty of the retreat, bursting upon him as if by magic, augmented the mingled feeling of delight and awe with which he approached her, like a fair enchantress of Boiardo or Ariosto, by whose nod the scenery around seemed to have been created an Eden in the wilderness.'
Reading this, you have the impression that the native Sublimity of the Highlands has somehow been infused with the light of Italy. In the 1814 edition Scott described Flora by the waterfall as 'like one of those lovely forms which decorate the landscapes of Claude'. I have mentioned here before the awkwardness of Claude's figures; soon after publication a correspondent pointed out to Scott that 'Claude's figures are reckoned notoriously bad, & indeed he only used them as vehicles for a little blue, red or yellow drapery to set of his gradation of tints & throw his landscape into distance.' Scott took his advice and substituted Poussin for Claude in subsequent editions.
Flora begins to sing, sitting on a mossy fragment of rock, 'at such a distance from the cascade that its sound should rather accompany than interrupt that of her voice and instrument [...] A few irregular strains introduced a prelude of a wild and peculiar tone, which harmonised well with the distant waterfall, and the soft sigh of the evening breeze in the rustling leaves of an aspen, which overhung the seat of the fair harpress.' But her song is not dedicated to Nature, though it begins with the mist on the mountains. The year is 1745, Flora is an ardent supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Highlanders are about to rise and fight for the Jacobite rebellion. Waverley, without firm political convictions, a lover of literature, is as yet unaware that the Young Pretender has landed at Glenaladale and raised his standard at Glenfinnan. About to be caught up in the conflict (like one of those Chinese poets interrupted from their retreat in the mountains by political strife and war), for now he listens innocently, with a 'wild feeling of romantic delight', as Flora sings:
" ... the dark hours of night and of slumber are past,
The morn on our mountains is dawning at last;
Glenaladale’s peaks are illumined with the rays,
And the streams of Glenfinnan leap bright in the blaze..."