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The poems of Sir Walter Scott

Yesterday, as the sun was very bright, and there was no wind, I took a fishing-rod on chance and Scott's poems, and rowed into the middle of St. Mary's Loch. Every hill, every tuft of heather was reflected in the lake, as in a silver mirror. There was no sound but the lapping of the water against the boat, the cry of the blackcock from the hill, and the pleasant plash of a trout rising here and there. So I read "The Lay of the Last Minstrel" over again, here, in the middle of the scenes where the story is laid and where the fights were fought. For when the Baron went on pilgrimage,

"And took with him this elvish page
To Mary's Chapel of the Lowes,"

it was to the ruined chapel HERE that he came,

"For there, beside our Ladye's lake,
An offering he had sworn to make,
And he would pay his vows."

But his enemy, the Lady of Branksome, gathered a band,

"Of the best that would ride at her command,"

and they all came from the country round. Branksome, where the lady lived, is twenty miles off, towards the south, across the ranges of lonely green hills. Harden, where her ally, Wat of Harden, abode, is within twelve miles; and Deloraine, where William dwelt, is nearer still; and John of Thirlestane had his square tower in the heather, "where victual never grew," on Ettrick Water, within ten miles. These gentlemen, and their kinsfolk and retainers, being at feud with the Kers, tried to slay the Baron, in the Chapel of "Lone St. Mary of the Waves."

"They were three hundred spears and three.
Through Douglas burn, up Yarrow stream,
Their horses prance, their lances gleam.
They came to St. Mary's Lake ere day;
But the chapel was void, and the Baron away.
They burned the chapel for very rage,
And cursed Lord Cranstoun's goblin-page."

The Scotts were a rough clan enough to burn a holy chapel because they failed to kill their enemy within the sacred walls. But, as I read again, for the twentieth time, Sir Walter's poem, floating on the lonely breast of the lake, in the heart of the hills where Yarrow flows, among the little green mounds that cover the ruins of chapel and castle and lady's bower, I asked myself whether Sir Walter was indeed a great and delightful poet, or whether he pleases me so much because I was born in his own country, and have one drop of the blood of his Border robbers in my own veins?

It is not always pleasant to go back to places, or to meet people, whom we have loved well, long ago. If they have changed little, we have changed much. The little boy, whose first book of poetry was "The Lady of the Lake," and who naturally believed that there was no poet like Sir Walter, is sadly changed into the man who has read most of the world's poets, and who hears, on many sides, that Scott is outworn and doomed to deserved oblivion. Are they right or wrong, the critics who tell us, occasionally, that Scott's good novels make up for his bad verse, or that verse and prose, all must go? Pro captu lectoris, by the reader's taste, they stand or fall; yet even pessimism can scarcely believe that the Waverley Novels are mortal. They were once the joy of every class of minds; they cannot cease to be the joy of those who cling to the permanently good, and can understand and forgive lapses, carelessnesses, and the leisurely literary fashion of a former age. But, as to the poems, many give them up who cling to the novels. It does not follow that the poems are bad. In the first place, they are of two kinds--lyric and narrative. Now, the fashion of narrative in poetry has passed away for the present. The true Greek epics are read by a few in Greek; by perhaps fewer still in translations. But so determined are we not to read tales in verse, that prose renderings, even of the epics, nay, even of the Attic dramas, have come more or less into vogue. This accounts for the comparative neglect of Sir Walter's lays. They are spoken of as Waverley Novels spoiled. This must always be the opinion of readers who will not submit to stories in verse; it by no means follows that the verse is bad. If we make an exception, which we must, in favour of Chaucer, where is there better verse in story telling in the whole of English literature? The readers who despise "Marmion," or "The Lady of the Lake," do so because they dislike stories told in poetry. From poetry they expect other things, especially a lingering charm and magic of style, a reflective turn, "criticism of life." These things, except so far as life can be criticised in action, are alien to the Muse of narrative. Stories and pictures are all she offers: Scott's pictures, certainly, are fresh enough, his tales are excellent enough, his manner is sufficiently direct. To take examples: every one who wants to read Scott's poetry should begin with the "Lay." From opening to close it never falters:--

"Nine and twenty knights of fame
Hung their shields in Branksome Hall;
Nine and twenty squires of name
Brought their steeds to bower from stall,
Nine and twenty yeomen tall
Waited, duteous, on them all . . .
Ten of them were sheathed in steel,
With belted sword, and spur on heel;
They quitted not their harness bright
Neither by day nor yet by night:
They lay down to rest
With corslet laced,
Pillowed on buckler cold and hard;
They carved at the meal
With gloves of steel,
And they drank the red wine through the helmet barred."

Now, is not that a brave beginning? Does not the verse clank and chime like sword sheath on spur, like the bits of champing horses? Then, when William of Deloraine is sent on his lonely midnight ride across the haunted moors and wolds, does the verse not gallop like the heavy armoured horse?

"Unchallenged, thence passed Deloraine,
To ancient Riddell's fair domain,
Where Aill, from mountains freed,
Down from the lakes did raving come;
Each wave was crested with tawny foam,
Like the mane of a chestnut steed,
In vain! no torrent, deep or broad,
Might bar the bold moss-trooper's road;
At the first plunge the horse sunk low,
And the water broke o'er the saddle-bow."

These last two lines have the very movement and note, the deep heavy plunge, the still swirl of the water. Well I know the lochs whence Aill comes red in flood; many a trout have I taken in Aill, long ago. This, of course, causes a favourable prejudice, a personal bias towards admiration. But I think the poetry itself is good, and stirs the spirit, even of those who know not Ailmoor, the mother of Aill, that lies dark among the melancholy hills.

The spirit is stirred throughout by the chivalry and the courage of Scott's men and of his women. Thus the Lady of Branksome addresses the English invaders who have taken her boy prisoner:--

"For the young heir of Branksome's line,
God be his aid, and God be mine;
Through me no friend shall meet his doom;
Here, while I live, no foe finds room.
Then if thy Lords their purpose urge,
Take our defiance loud and high;
Our slogan is their lyke-wake dirge,
Our moat, the grave where they shall lie."

Ay, and though the minstrel says he is no love poet, and though, indeed, he shines more in war than in lady's bower, is not this a noble stanza on true love, and worthy of what old Malory writes in his "Mort d'Arthur"? Because here Scott speaks for himself, and of his own unhappy and immortal affection:--

"True love's the gift which God has given
To man alone beneath the Heaven.
It is not Fantasy's hot fire,
Whose wishes, soon as granted, fly;
It liveth not in fierce desire,
With dead desire it dock not die:
It is the secret sympathy,
The silver link, the silken tie,
Which heart to heart and mind to mind,
In body and in soul can bind."

Truth and faith, courage and chivalry, a free life in the hills and by the streams, a shrewd brain, an open heart, a kind word for friend or foeman, these are what you learn from the "Lay," if you want to learn lessons from poetry. It is a rude legend, perhaps, as the critics said at once, when critics were disdainful of wizard priests and ladies magical. But it is a deathless legend, I hope; it appeals to every young heart that is not early spoiled by low cunning, and cynicism, and love of gain. The minstrel's own prophecy is true, and still, and always,

"Yarrow, as he rolls along,
Bears burden to the minstrel's song."

After the "Lay" came "Marmion, a Tale of Flodden Field." It is far more ambitious and complicated than the "Lay," and is not much worse written. Sir Walter was ever a rapid and careless poet, and as he took more pains with his plot, he took less with his verse. His friends reproved him, but he answered to one of them--

"Since oft thy judgment could refine
My flattened thought and cumbrous line,
Still kind, as is thy wont, attend,
And in the minstrel spare the friend:
Though wild as cloud, as stream, as gale,
Flow forth, flow unrestrained, my tale!"

Any one who knows Scott's country knows how cloud and stream and gale all sweep at once down the valley of Ettrick or of Tweed. West wind, wild cloud, red river, they pour forth as by one impulse-- forth from the far-off hills. He let his verse sweep out in the same stormy sort, and many a "cumbrous line," many a "flattened thought," you may note, if you will, in "Marmion." For example--

"And think what he must next have felt,
At buckling of the falchion belt."

The "Lay" is a tale that only verse could tell; much of "Marmion" might have been told in prose, and most of "Rokeby." But prose could never give the picture of Edinburgh, nor tell the tale of Flodden Fight in "Marmion," which I verily believe is the best battle-piece in all the poetry of all time, better even than the stand of Aias by the ships in the Iliad, better than the slaying of the Wooers in the Odyssey. Nor could prose give us the hunting of the deer and the long gallop over hillside and down valley, with which the "Lady of the Lake" begins, opening thereby the enchanted gates of the Highlands to the world. "The Lady of the Lake," except in the battle-piece, is told in a less rapid metre than that of the "Lay," less varied than that of "Marmion." "Rokeby" lives only by its songs; the "Lord of the Isles" by Bannockburn, the "Field of Waterloo" by the repulse of the Cuirassiers. But all the poems are interspersed with songs and ballads, as the beautiful ballad of "Alice Brand"; and Scott's fame rests on THESE far more than on his later versified romances. Coming immediately after the very tamest poets who ever lived, like Hayley, Scott wrote songs and ballads as wild and free, as melancholy or gay, as ever shepherd sang, or gipsy carolled, or witch-wife moaned, or old forgotten minstrel left to the world, music with no maker's name. For example, take the Outlaw's rhyme--

"With burnished brand and musketoon,
So gallantly you come,
I read you for a bold dragoon
That lists the tuck of drum.
I list no more the tuck of drum,
No more the trumpet hear;
But when the beetle sounds his hum,
My comrades take the spear.
And, oh, though Brignal banks be fair,
And Greta woods be gay,
Yet mickle must the maiden dare,
Would reign my Queen of May!"

How musical, again, is this!--

"This morn is merry June, I trow,
The rose is budding fain;
But she shall bloom in winter snow,
Ere we two meet again.
He turned his charger as he spake,
Upon the river shore,
He gave his bridle-reins a shake,
Said, 'Adieu for evermore,
My love!
Adieu for evermore!'"

Turning from the legends in verse, let it not be forgotten that Scott was a great lyrical poet. Mr. Palgrave is not too lenient a judge, and his "Golden Treasury" is a touchstone, as well as a treasure, of poetic gold. In this volume Wordsworth contributes more lyrics than any other poet: Shelley and Shakespeare come next; then Sir Walter. For my part I would gladly sacrifice a few of Wordsworth's for a few more of Scott's. But this may be prejudice. Mr. Palgrave is not prejudiced, and we see how high is his value for Sir Walter.

There are scores of songs in his works, touching and sad, or gay as a hunter's waking, that tell of lovely things lost by tradition, and found by him on the moors: all these--not prized by Sir Walter himself--are in his gift, and in that of no other man. For example, his "Eve of St. John" is simply a masterpiece, a ballad among ballads. Nothing but an old song moves us like--

"Are these the links o' Forth, she said,
Are these the bends o' Dee!"

He might have done more of the best, had he very greatly cared. Alone among poets, he had neither vanity nor jealousy; he thought little of his own verse and his own fame: would that he had thought more! would that he had been more careful of what was so precious! But he turned to prose; bade poetry farewell.

"Yet, once again, farewell, thou Minstrel Harp,
Yet, once again, forgive my feeble sway.
And little reck I of the censure sharp
May idly cavil at an idle lay."

People still cavil idly, complaining that Scott did not finish, or did not polish his pieces; that he was not Keats, or was not Wordsworth. He was himself; he was the Last Minstrel, the latest, the greatest, the noblest of natural poets concerned with natural things. He sang of free, fierce, and warlike life, of streams yet rich in salmon, and moors not yet occupied by brewers; of lonely places haunted in the long grey twilights of the North; of crumbling towers where once dwelt the Lady of Branksome or the Flower of Yarrow. Nature summed up in him many a past age a world of ancient faiths; and before the great time of Britain wholly died, to Britain, as to Greece, she gave her Homer. When he was old, and tired, and near his death--so worn with trouble and labour that he actually signed his own name wrong--he wrote his latest verse, for a lady. It ends--

"My country, be thou glorious still!"

and so he died, within the sound of the whisper of Tweed, foreseeing the years when his country would no more be glorious, thinking of his country only, forgetting quite the private sorrow of his own later days.

People will tell you that Scott was not a great poet; that his bolt is shot, his fame perishing. Little he cared for his fame! But for my part I think and hope that Scott can never die, till men grow up into manhood without ever having been boys--till they forget that

"One glorious hour of crowded life
Is worth an age without a name!"

Thus, the charges against Sir Walter's poetry are, on the whole, little more than the old critical fallacy of blaming a thing for not being something else. "It takes all sorts to make a world," in poetry as in life. Sir Walter's sort is a very good sort, and in English literature its place was empty, and waiting for him. Think of what he did. English poetry had long been very tame and commonplace, written in couplets like Pope's, very artificial and smart, or sensible and slow. He came with poems of which the music seemed to gallop, like thundering hoofs and ringing bridles of a rushing border troop. Here were goblin, ghost, and fairy, fight and foray, fair ladies and true lovers, gallant knights and hard blows, blazing beacons on every hill crest and on the bartisan of every tower. Here was a world made alive again that had been dead for three hundred years--a world of men and women.

They say that the archaeology is not good. Archaeology is a science; in its application to poetry, Scott was its discoverer. Others can name the plates of a coat of armour more learnedly than he, but he made men wear them. They call his Gothic art false, his armour pasteboard; but he put living men under his castled roofs, living men into his breastplates and taslets. Science advances, old knowledge becomes ignorance; it is poetry that does not die, and that will not die, while--

"The triple pride
Of Eildon looks over Strathclyde."

Andrew Lang

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