If the poem which we are now proceeding to examine were the production of an unknown or obscure author, our task would be short and easy. A simple outline of the plan, a selection of the most striking beauties, with some examples of its defects, and some general remarks on the leading characters and incidents, would suffice to adjust its true rank in the scale of contemporary poetry, and amply satisfy ourselves and our readers. Conscious of our own impartiality, and sure of having no prejudices to encounter on the part of the public, we should anticipate, with some confidence, the general confirmation of an opinion, deliberately formed after a careful and diligent perusal.
But in reviewing the recent compositions of a distinguished and popular writer, it is not easy to preserve our minds in the same state of stedfast and sober neutrality; because, in the literary as well as in the political world, the appearance of every highly eminent character usually gives birth to two great parties, by one of which the most candid critic is liable to be biassed: and if he should ultimately preserve his mental independence, he must expect that his opinion, being too temperate to suit the tenets of either, will excite the dissatisfaction and perhaps the hostility of both.
No poet of the present day has acquired the same celebrity as Mr. Scott. It has been justly observed, that his compositions "possess very great merit, and various kinds of merit; both in the picturesque representation of visible objects, and in the description of great and striking events;' but in the choice of his subjects he has, for reasons best known to himself, thought fit to select such as were most congenial to his own inclinations, or suggested by the course of his favourite studies. Instead of following, as he unquestionably might have done, the examples of Voltaire and Tasso, who imitated Virgil, and of Virgil, who imitated Homer, or of writing, like Spenser, an allegorical epic, or like Milton, a sacred epic; he has abstained from writing any epic at all; and has repeatedly composed long poetical narratives, not formed on any classical model, but rather resembling, in the irregularity of their construction, the obsolete romances of chivalry. And this he has continued to do, notwithstanding the remonstrances of very acute and enlightened friends, who reminded him that they "never entertained much partiality for this sort of composition;" who "ventured to express their regret at this abuse of his talents;" who observed to him, that "to write a modern romance of chivalry, seems to be much such a fantasy as to build a modern abbey, or an English pagoda;" and who declared that a second production of the same sort "imposed on them a sort of duty to drive the author from so idle a task, by a fair exposition of the faults which are in a manner inseparable from its execution."
Now, whether Mr. Scott is justifiable for having made his own estimate of his own powers; whether he had a right, either on the plea of modesty or of indolence, to renounce his claim to the highest and become a candidate for a subordinate class of literary honours, is an intricate question which we forbear to discuss. The degree of moral guilt incurred by his disregard of the admonitions and authority of his critical friends, is a second question on which we think it right to maintain a cautious reserve. But there is a third question in which we are unwillingly involved. The Lady of the Lake is not an epic poem; it is, about as much as its two predecessors, a romance. We, therefore, who have undertaken to decide on the character of this poem, are compelled, either to acquiesce in the declaration that it is necessarily a compound of absurdity, or to dissent from that proposition, and to canvass our opponent's arguments; and we adopt, though reluctantly, the latter alternative.
The "fair exposition of the faults which are, in a manner, inseparable from the execution" of a romance, begins with an abstract of the story of Marmion. This is followed by a series of comments intended to prove, 1st. That the narrative is almost made up and composed of episodes, and resembles a mere gallery of detached groups and portraits rather than a grand historical picture in which all the personages are concerned in one great transaction. 2d. That the plot is unravelled in a manner most obscure, laborious, and imperfect; and that the leading incidents are woven together into a jetty intricacy and entanglement, which remind the critic of the "machinery of a bad German novel, or the trial of a pettifogging attorney." 3d. That the whole story is a tissue of improbable and incredible accidents. 4th. That the principal characters are so entirely worthless as to excite but little of our sympathy; or insipid; or contemptible. 5th. That there is, throughout, too much neglect of Scotish feelings and Scotish character.
Supposing all these points to be completely established, it would certainly follow that Mr. Scott had utterly failed in the execution of the task which he had prescribed to himself; not that the task itself was idle and foolish, or that the faults thus enumerated have an intimate and necessary connection with a romantic narrative. Indeed it is distinctly alleged as a charge against the poet, that his incidents are not suited to the persons introduced, that the feelings ascribed to his principal characters are not chivalrous feelings; and it is evident that the scantiness of the narrative and intricacy of plot attributed to Marmion, are faults which have nothing in common with the crowded adventures and rude contrivances of ancient romance. We readily bear witness to the zeal with which the critic has discharged the "sort of duty imposed upon him;" we admit that he has conducted his scrutiny with unusual keenness and sagacity; we think that, although the charges of "debasing lowness and vulgarity of expression," and "flatness and tediousness of the narrative," are not fairly made out, he has detected many errors of haste and inadvertence; has exposed them with much friendly severity; and has fully proved that the beautiful poem which he has examined might be susceptible of considerable improvement. But we have vainly sought for an argument in favour of the original proposition, which seems to be utterly forgotten during the whole discussion, until it finally gives rise to some invective against "monkish illuminations," antique dresses, "scraps and fragments of antiquarian history and baronial biography," and to a prophecy that the popularity of the tales of chivalry introduced by Mr. Scott will be as short lived as that which has attended the poetry of Dr. Darwin. We venture to doubt the future completion of this prophecy; we doubt the critic's own expectation of its accomplishment; and we moreover doubt his seriously entertaining the opinion which we have presumed to combat; not only because, having employed it as a motive for the salutary chastisement which he proposed to bestow upon his friend, he shews so little solicitude concerning it, but because, in a passage which we will now proceed to quote, he seems to consider it as at least extremely questionable.
"But the times of chivalry, it may be said, were more picturesque than the present times. They are better adapted to poetry; and every thing that is associated with them has a certain hold on the imagination, and partakes of the interest of the period. We do not mean utterly to deny this: nor can we stop, at present, to assign exact limits to our assent: but this we will venture to observe, in general, that if it be true that the interest which we take in the contemplation of the chivalrous era arises from the dangers and virtues by which it was distinguished, from the constant hazards in which its warriors passed their days, and the mild and generous valour with which they met those hazards, — joined to the singular contrast which it presented between the ceremonious polish and gallantry of the nobles, and the brutish ignorance of the body of the people: — if these are, as we conceive they are, the sources of the charm which still operates in behalf of the days of knightly adventure, then it should follow, that nothing should interest us, by association with that age, but what serves naturally to bring before us those hazards and that valour, and gallantry, and aristocratical superiority. Any description, or any imitation, of the exploits in which those qualities were signalized, will do this most effectually. Battles, tournaments, penances, deliverance of damsels, instalments of knights, and intermixed with these, we must admit some description of arms, armorial bearings, castles, battlements, and chapels: but the least and lowest of the whole certainly is the description of the servants' liveries, and of the peaceful operations of eating, drinking, and ordinary salutation."
Now we should be unwilling to confound a qualified negation of utter dissent with a frank concession; it perhaps rather less intelligible and more ungracious; but since the proposition in question is, that "that the times of chivalry are more picturesque than the present times, better adapted to poetry," &c. any modification of assent to its truth seems to furnish a sufficient exculpation of Mr. Scott's practice. Besides, the following "ifs" (proverbially peacemakers) lead to something like an amicable negociation on the basis of "the charm which still operates in behalf of the days of knightly adventure;" "battles," &c. are recognized as members of the association; and not only "arms and armorial bearings," but even "castles and chapels" are permitted to treat as allies, instead of being rebuffed like abbeys and pagodas. All this, it is true, terminates with fresh denunciations of hostility against servants' liveries, eating, drinking, and bowing; but we, in our turn, do not mean "utterly to deny" the justice of the censure passed on them, though we "cannot stop to assign exact limits to our assent."
We have already stated our reasons for thinking it incumbent upon us, to take some notice of a topic very closely connected with the immediate object of our attention; and we trust that we shall be thought to have shewn due deference to an authority which we are not bound to consider as absolutely infallible. If it be permitted to us to offer our own poetical creed, we should wish to say, in the first place, precisely what by the critic's admission "may be said;" and to defend it by the very reasons on which he has grounded his hypothetical concurrence. We should add that, in general, any narrative, inasmuch as its merit must partly depend on the skill and taste of the narrator, may be a proper subject for the embellishments of poetry; that if the scene of such narrative, whether true or fictitious, be laid either in a distant age or country, it will necessarily require a description of all such visible objects as cannot be familiar to the untravelled or unlettered reader; that the essential merit of these descriptions is fidelity, which on many occasions supposes minuteness and even length, because "armorial bearings, castles," &c. cannot be depicted by algebraic symbols, or by any equally compendious mode of expression; and we should, in our turn, venture to predict, that the amusing and beautiful, however improbable, tale of Marmion, will continue to be perused with delight, when not only the cloying sweetness of Darwin's poetry, but even the shrewdest criticisms on Mr. Scott's compositions, including those which we are now about to offer to our readers, shall be consigned to utter oblivion.
"The scene of the following poem is laid, chiefly, in the vicinity of Loch Katrine, in the western highlands of Perthshire. The time of action includes six days, and the transactions of each day occupy a canto." Of these cantos, entitled the Chase, the Island, the Gathering, the Prophecy, the Combat, and the Guard-room, we will exhibit the contents in succession; occasionally assisting our feeble language by extracts from the poem.
The "Chase," which, if it had not been longer and more distressing than chases usually are, would not have formed a proper introduction to the story, commences near Glenartney, on the side of the mountain Benvoirlich, and, after conducting us through a country which is far too intricate for any southern sportsman to encounter, leads us, after twice crossing the Teith, and coasting Loch Achray, into the woody fastnesses of Ben-ledi, near Loch Katrine. One only sportsman, whose "gallant grey" appeared to be as indefatigable as the hounds "of St. Hubert's breed," was able to reach this spot, and was preparing to dispatch the stag, when the animal, by a desperate leap down the side of a rocky glen, eluded the pursuit of his enemies. An attempt to recover the prey only occasions the death of the good horse; and his master, after duly lamenting its fate, has full leisure to blow his bugle, to recal his hounds, and to contemplate his present situation. He finds himself, at the close of day, in a solitary dell, thickly wooded, and encompassed with rocks.
And now, to issue from the glen,
No pathway meets the wanderer's ken,
Unless he climb, with footing nice,
A far projecting precipice.
The broom's tough roots his ladder made,
The hazel saplings lent their aid;
And thus an airy point he won,
Where, gleaming with the setting sun,
One burnish'd sheet of living gold,
Loch Katrine lay beneath him roll'd;
In all her length far-winding lay;
With promontory, creek, and bay,
And islands, which, empurpled bright,
Floated amid the livelier light;
And mountains, which, like giants, stand
To centinel enchanted land.
High on the south, huge Ben-venue
Down to the lake in masses threw
Crags, knolls, and mounds, confus'dly hurl'd,
The fragments of an earlier world.
A wildering forest feather'd o'er
His ruin'd sides, and summits hoar,
While on the north, through middle air,
Ben-An heav'd high his forehead bare.
This enchanting picture naturally suggests to our wanderer the reflection that a good baron's castle on some height, a lady's bower in the vale, a monastery on one of the distant meadows, a hermitage in the lonely island beneath him, and other symptoms of civilization, would be very agreeable accompaniments to such wild and picturesque scenery; and that his prospect of a supperless night spent in the woods, and followed by a most unpromising search after some beaten track, to be performed on foot, was not much enlivened by the chance of being robbed by some highland plunderers. Possibly, however, some of his companions in the chase may be within hearing. He blows his bugle, and at the instant a small skiff, conducted by a damsel, issues from the island and shortly reaches the shore, scarcely giving him time to quit his post and to take his stand,
—conceal'd amid the brake,
To view this Lady of the Lake.
The maiden paus'd, as if again
She sought to catch the distant strain;
With head up-rais'd, and look intent,
And eye and ear attentive bent,
And locks flung back, and lips apart,
Like monument of Grecian art,
In list'ning mood she seem'd to stand,
The guardian Naiad of the strand.
The glow of youth and health diffused over her cheeks, and rendered more animated by recent exercise; the loveliness of her form unconsciously thrown into the most graceful attitude; her air of conscious dignity; her rich but not splendid dress; her eloquent countenance which told the successive emotions of her heart while she loudly uttered the name of "Father!" and with a more faultering voice inquired if "Malcolm" had sounded the bugle, were not lost upon the stranger, who eagerly advanced to address her.
The maid alarm'd, with hasty oar,
Push'd her light shallop from the shore,
And, when a space was gain'd between,
Closer she drew her bosom's screen;
(So forth the startled swan would swing,
So turn to prune his ruffled wing.)
Then safe, though flutter'd and amaz'd,
She paus'd, and on the stranger gaz'd.
Not his the form, not his the eye,
That youthful maidens wont to fly.
Neither did she fly; but, after hearing his story, informed him, to his great surprise, that a certain prophetic minstrel had foretold his arrival, and that preparations were already made at her father's abode for his reception.
Being permitted to row her over to the island, which exhibits no marks of being inhabited, he is conducted through an intricate coppice to a large mansion of rough timber, at the porch of which Ellen (for so his fair conductress is named) stops him, and gaily exclaims,
On heaven and on thy lady call,
And enter the enchanted hall.
He enters, and at the instant a huge naked sword, which, together with all possible implements of war and the chase, had been suspended from the walls, drops at his feet. This ominous accident startles him; he picks up the blade, observes that he never saw but one man capable of wielding such a weapon in battle, and is informed by Ellen that it belongs to her father. He has no time for farther comment, being now introduced to the Lady Margaret, a stately matron, who entertains him at table with great courtesy; after which he declares himself to be James Fitz-James, the knight of Snowdoun; and endeavours in his turn, by various hints, to learn the name and quality of his hostesses; but Lady Margaret eludes his inquiries, and the answer of Ellen is not very satisfactory:
"Wierd women we! by dale and down,
We dwell afar from tower and town.
We stein the flood; we ride the blast;
On wandering knights our spells we cast;
While viewless minstrels touch the string,
'Tis thus our charmed rhymes we sing."
She sung, and still a harp unseen
Filled up the symphony between.
The song being concluded, and the supper removed, Fitz-James is left to take that rest which, it might have been supposed, the fatigues of the day had rendered necessary. But the perplexing mystery which attended his whole entertainment, and the torment of unsatisfied curiosity on the subject of the ominous sword, produce a succession of bad dreams. His horse dies under him; his barge sinks from beneath his feet; he is overthrown in battle;
Again returned the scenes of youth,
Of confident undoubting truth;
Again his soul he interchanged
With friends whose hearts were long estranged.
They come, in dim procession led,
The cold, the faithless, and the dead;
As warm each hand, each brow as gay,
As if they parted yesterday.
He wooes the fair Ellen, whose yielded hand is suddenly changed within his grasp into a cold gauntlet, and her whole person expands into the giant form of an armed warrior. He wakes; but the armour on the wall retraces his hideous dreams. He starts from his bed of heath, and rushes into the open air, where the calmness of a fine moonlight night restores his recollection. A soliloquy, in which he indulges, informs us that the conflict in his mind is connected with some secret cause of dislike to the Douglas family: after which he returns to his couch, and, having said his prayers, sleeps soundly tilt morning.
The second canto introduces to us the prophetic minstrel, the "white-haired Allan-Bane," who, whilst Fitz-James was passing from the island to the main, had wandered down to the shore of the lake for the purpose of greeting him with a farewel song. He sate on the beach,
Reclined against a blighted tree,
As wasted, grey, and worn as he.
To minstrel meditation given,
His reverend brow was raised to heaven,
As from the rising sun to claim
A sparkle of inspiring flame.
His hand, reclined upon the wire,
Seemed watching the awakening fire;
So still he sate, as those who wait
Till judgment speak the doom of fate;
So still, as if no breeze might dare
To lift one lock of hoary hair;
So still, as life itself were fled
In the last sound his harp had sped.
Upon a rock, with lichens wild,
Beside him Ellen sate and smiled.
It was a smile of exultation, on observing the unwillingness of Fitz-James to lose sight of her altogether; a transient gleam of coquetry with which her conscience reproached her as vain and selfish; and, to make her peace with the upbraiding image of her Malcolm, she ordered the minstrel to sing "the glory of the Graeme." He strikes his harp; but the harp, which having formerly belonged to St. Modan, had ever since been addicted to prophecy, returned a mournful sound, similar to that which, the minstrel said, had foretold the banishment of the Douglasses. He now apprehends some impending calamity; but Ellen laughs at his fears, expresses her contentment with her present lot, and playfully observes, that she has no occasion to resort to courts in search of suitors, since her charms, as he well knows, have captivated the stern Sir Roderick, the pride of the highlands and the terror of the low country. The minstrel chides her for her ill-timed mirth; reminds her of Sir Roderick's fierce and unmanageable character; of that impetuosity which had led him to kill a personal enemy in the presence of his sovereign; of the haughtiness with which he continued to set King James's power at defiance; of the asylum which he had granted to her exiled father and herself; and hints to her that her obligations to him and to his mother the Lady Margaret, and her sense of the advantages which might result to her father by her marriage with such a chieftain, ought to inspire her, at least, with respect and reverence. Ellen repels these arguments in an answer equally rational and animated, which she concludes by saying,
The hand, that for my father fought,
I honour, as his daughter ought;
But, can I clasp it reeking red
From peasants slaughtered in their shed?
No! wildly while his virtues gleam,
They make his passions darker seem,
And flash along his spirit high,
Like lightning o'er the midnight sky.
Whilst yet a child, (and children know,
Instinctive taught, the friend and foe,)
I shuddered at his brow of gloom,
His shadowy plaid, and sable plume
A maiden grown, I ill could bear
His haughty mien and lordly air;
But, if thou join'st a suitor's claim,
In serious mood, to Roderick's name,
I thrill with anguish or, if e'er
A Douglas knew the word, with fear.
To change such odious theme were best;—
What think'st thou of our stranger guest?
The minstrel now recurs to his alarming omens and forebodings but the conversation is soon interrupted; first, by the sounds of distant music, and then by the appearance of four barges, which, on a nearer approach to the island, are discovered to contain Sir Roderick himself, whose "bannered pine" floats on the breeze, and whose pipers continue to sound their martial "pibrock" till they are succeeded by the rowers, who chaunt a wild and animated boat-song. The Lady Margaret hastens to the beach to receive her son; and Ellen is reluctantly preparing to accompany her, when the sound of her father's bugle strikes upon her ear. She hurries with Allan Bane to her skiff, crosses to the main land, and is received into the arms of Douglas.
Some feelings are to mortals given
With less of earth in them than heaven;
And if there be a human tear,
From passion's dross refined and clear,
A tear so limpid and so meek,
It would not stain an angel's cheek,
'Tis that which pious fathers shed
Upon a duteous daughter's head!
At such a moment Ellen's eyes could scarcely inform her that Douglas was not alone, and that Malcolm Graeme was his companion; but whilst her father addressed to him an elogium on the faithful minstrel, and avowed his exultation in the affection of such a daughter, she had leisure to catch a few glances of her lover, though apparently occupied in concealing the tumult of her joy by caressing the favourite dogs who fawned upon her, and the hawk who perched upon her wrist. Douglas had been hunting in the woods of Glenfinlas; had been nearly surprised by the royal party; and owed his safety to young Malcolm Graeme, who, though a ward of the king, had risked his estates for the preservation of his friend. This she learnt whilst they returned to the island, to which even Malcolm is welcomed by Roderick, though with a reluctant and ungracious hospitality. But the tranquillity of the company is of short duration. The king, it seems, during a hunting excursion through the southern borders of Scotland, had surprised and hanged some chiefs of freebooters, and was thought to be preparing to act with equal severity against those of the northern and western highlands; and Roderick, having imparted this information to his guests, and announced his resolution to repel force by force, closes his speech by a formal demand of Ellen in marriage. But Douglas, still loyal to his sovereign, whose injustice he imputes to the calumnies of his enemies, and convinced, by the deadly paleness which at the instant overspreads his daughter's countenance, of her aversion to the match, declines the offer, and declares his intention of concealing her in some more secret asylum. Roderick's passions are kindled; his
—darken'd brow, where wounded pride
With ire and disappointment vied,
Seemed, by the torch's gloomy light,
Like the ill demon of the night,
Stooping his pinions' shadowy sway
Upon the nighted pilgrim's way.
But, unrequited Love thy dart
Plunged deepest its envenom'd smart;
And Roderick, with thine anguish stung,
At length the hand of Douglas wrung,
While eyes, that mock'd at tears before,
With bitter drops were running o'er.
His jealous fury soon vents itself in an insult to Malcolm, who, on Ellen's rising to retire, had hastened to assist her. The rivals are equally inflamed; the defiance is retorted; their hands are on their swords; their mortal conflict is with difficulty prevented by the interposition of Douglas; and Malcolm, rushing down to the beach, and disdaining to receive from his enemy even the assistance of a boat, plunges into the lake and swims to the opposite shore.
The third canto opens with a description of the superstitions ceremonies attending the preparation of the "cross of fire," the signal for the "gathering" of the clan. The impetuous Roderick, now convulsed by contending passions, cast many an impatient glance at the operation.
Such glance the mountain eagle threw,
As, from the cliffs of Benvenue,
She spread her dark sails on the wind,
And, high in middle heaven reclined,
With her broad shadow on the lake
Silenced the warblers of the brake.
A heap of withered boughs was piled
Of juniper and rowan wild,
Mingled with shivers from the oak
Rent by the lightning's recent stroke;
Brian, the hermit, by it stood,
Barefooted, in his frock and hood;
His grisled heard, and matted hair,
Obscured a visage of despair;
His naked arms and legs, seamed o'er,
The scars of frantic penance bore.—
No peasant sought that hermit's prayer,
His cave the pilgrim shunned with care;
The eager huntsman knew his bound,
And in mid chase called off his hound;
Or if, in lonely glen or strath,
The desert-dweller met his path,
He prayed, and signed the cross between,
While terror took devotion's mien.
The birth of this Brian resembled that of the fabulous Merlin. Shunned by the companions of his childhood as the supposed son of a demon; driven by despair to hide himself in a monastery, where he devoted himself to the study of magic; and from thence to savage solitude; this frantic visionary never visited the haunts of men but when the feudal lord of his clan demanded his assistance. The pile is lighted; a goat sacrificed; and Brian, holding up a cross of "sepulchral yew," begins his imprecations on all those who, being members of the clan, shall fail to rush to battle when demanded, by this dreadful signal. The points of the cross are successively kindled, and quenched in blood, whilst the hermit again and again denounces vengeance against the cowardly or reluctant, his curses being re-echoed by all the attendants. The "cross of fire," thus consecrated, is delivered by Roderick to his trusty messenger, who, having passed the lake, bears it in breathless haste to the end of his appointed stage, the village of Duncraggan. The laird of the village was lately dead; all was desolation; and the maids and matrons were singing the coronach or death-song. But grief must not arrest the march of the fiery cross. The son starts from his father's bier, snatches the dreadful symbol, learns the place of muster, and hurries to the next station, where a bridegroom, on his way to church, becomes in his turn the messenger, and with equal speed conveys the summons to a new destination. Every occupation ceases; every passion subsides; the whole clan are instantly in motion, and in a few hours assemble at the place of rendezvous.
In the mean time Douglas, true to his resolution, had quitted the lonely isle, and retired with Ellen to the "Goblin's cave," a secure hiding-place amidst the crags of the mountain Benvenue; and Roderick had sent his scouts to examine and secure all the neighbouring passes. He had therefore no fears for the safety of his friend; he had vowed to forget, in the tumults of war, his ungrateful mistress, and the preparations for a contest so desperate as that which he now meditated demanded all his attention.
But he who stems a stream with sand,
And fetters flame with flaxen band,
Has yet a harder task to prove,
By firm resolve to conquer love!
Eve finds the chief, like restless ghost,
Still hovering near his treasure lost;
For though his haughty heart deny
A parting meeting to his eye,
Still fondly strains his anxious ear
The accents of her voice to hear;
And inly did he curse the breeze
That waked to sound the rustling trees.
His hopes are not quite disappointed. He hears the voice of Ellen, which, accompanied by the harp of Allan-Bane, chaunts a hymn to the Virgin; he continues to listen long after the sound has ceased, then hurries to his boat, and proceeds to join his clan at the vale of Lanrich.
The fourth canto commences with a fresh proof of zeal exhibited by the fiend-born hermit. He consults the fearful oracle of the Taghairm. Wrapped in the hide of a bull which had been sacrificed for the purpose, and laid on the verge of the pool into which a lofty cataract discharges its torrents,
Rocking beneath their headlong sway,
And drizzled by the ceaseless spray,
Midst groan of rock, and roar of stream,
The wizard waits prophetic dream.
And the inspiration, thus dearly purchased by a night of ceaseless horror, enables him to announce, that "the party which shall first spill the blood of an enemy will be ultimately victorious." — Roderick, who had just learned that a spy had entered his territory under the guidance of a clansman who had already received orders to betray him, heard with exultation the easy conditions on which victory might be secured. He at the same time learned that the earls of Moray and Mar were at Doun; and that, on the morrow, he might expect to be attacked. He therefore issued the necessary orders. Meanwhile Douglas has left the Goblin cave, without declaring the purpose of his journey, which the disconsolate Ellen attributes to some project of saving Roderick Dhu, now on the eve of risking a battle in her cause, or of liberating Malcolm, whom the second-sighted minstrel had announced as being a prisoner at Stirling. Allan-Bane is unable to dissipate her fears:—
When in such tender tone, yet grave,
Douglas a parting blessing gave,
The tear that glistened in his eye
Drown'd not his purpose fixed and high.
My soul, though feminine and weak,
Can image his: ev'n as the lake,
Itself disturbed by slightest shock,
Reflects th' invulnerable rock.—
Alas! he goes to Scotland's throne
Buys his friend's safety with his own;
He goes to do — what I had done
Had Douglas' daughter been his son!
The minstrel then attempts to dissipate the grief which he cannot sooth, by reciting a long traditional ballad on the subject of the Goblin cave, their present place of retirement; and he has scarcely ended it when they are surprised by the sudden appearance of the stranger knight, the gallant Fitz-James. Ellen, alarmed by her knowledge of the dangers by which he is encompassed, and still more alarmed when she learns, by a declaration of his passion, that she is the cause of his rashness, generously explains to him the secret of her heart, convinces him that his suit is hopeless, and urges him to take, before his departure, some necessary precautions for his safety: but he heeds her not, and departs abruptly, after putting on her finger a ring, given to him, as he tells her, by his sovereign, whose life he had been so fortunate as to save, and which would secure to her any boon in the monarch's power to bestow. He has not proceeded far, when a loud shout from his guide awakens his suspicions. He beholds a raven feeding on the carcase of a horse which he recognises as the "gallant grey," the late companion of his chase; and to scare the bird from its prey is the motive alleged for the shout which had alarmed him. But the savage scenery which surrounds him, the entangled path which he is treading, the inauspicious omen which he has just encountered, and the still more inauspicious features of the "red Murdoch," the conductor on whose dubious fidelity his chance of a safe return depends, are not calculated to inspire him with security. A menace that the first symptom of treachery shall be punished with instant death, awes the guide into silence: they proceed sullenly on their journey; and encounter, on the edge of a precipice, a wretched female maniac, formerly captured during a foray in the lowlands, who, though rudely repulsed and threatened by Murdoch, attaches herself to Fitz-James, attracts his attention by a wild song expressive of her misfortunes, and, in the course of her incoherent strains, warns him that "the toils are set," and that "the knives of his enemies are whetted" for his destruction. These obscure hints confirm his suspicions of Murdoch, who, being taxed with treachery, takes to flight, bends his bow, discharges an arrow at his pursuer which misses its aim but pierces the breast of poor "Blanche of Devan," and is almost instantly overtaken and killed by the indignant knight. The wound of the unhappy maniac is mortal; a ray of reason returns in her last moments; she gives to her avenger a lock of hair, the pledge of her lover's affection:—
"O! by thy knighthood's honour'd sign,
And for thy life preserv'd by mine,
When thous shalt see a darksome man,
Who boasts him chief of Alpine's clan,
With tartans broad and shadowy plume,
And hand of blood, and brow of gloom,
Be thy heart bold and weapon strong,
And wreak poor Blanche of Devan's wrong!
They watch for thee by pass and fell;
Avoid the path! — O God! — farewell!"
Fitz-James, deeply interested by the scene before him, takes a lock of hair from the head of the murdered Blanche, unites it to that of her lover, dips both in her blood, places the braid on the side of his bonnet, and swears to take vengeance on the pitiless Roderick, whose sword, by depriving her of her lover, had first driven her to despair and madness. But a faint and distant shout, answered and repeated in various directions, recalls to his mind that the hour of retribution is not yet arrived, and that he must, if possible, provide for his own immediate safety. On all sides his progress is arrested, either by precipices or torrents, or by sounds which indicate an assembled enemy. He resolves to wait till night; but when he resumes his way, night only multiplies his difficulties. Wearied by constant disappointments, drenched by unseen torrents, chilled by the night air of the mountains, breathless with toil, and faint with hunger, he at length arrives on a craggy eminence, and,
—as a rock's huge point he turned,
A watch-fire close before him burned.
Beside its embers red and clear,
Bask'd, in his plaid, a mountaineer;
And up he sprung with sword in hand.
"Thy name and purpose, Saxon! stand!"
"A stranger." "What dost thou require?"
"Rest; and a guide; and food; and fire.
My life's beset; my path is lost—
The gale has chill'd my limbs with frost."
"Art thou a friend to Roderick?" "No!"
"Thou darest not call thyself a foe?"
"I dare! to him, and all the band
He brings to aid his murderous hand!"
The mountaineer, convinced that an address so little conciliating is incompatible with the designs of a spy, asks with some hesitation whether such can be, as was reported, his real character. The charge is, of course, indignantly repelled. "Is he, as his dress evinces, a knight?" "Yes; and therefore the mortal foe of all oppressors." By these answers Fitz-James so far ingratiates himself with the highlander, that he is instantly permitted to share his supper, his fire-side, his heathy couch, and his plaid. "Stranger," says his host, "I am a clansman and a kinsman of Roderick; bound to revenge the insults thou hast cast upon him. I know that on thy life depends his success. I might, by a blast of my horn, call his clan to crush thee I might easily destroy thee, weak and fainting as thou art, by defying thee to single combat. But honour, more imperious than any other duty, forbids me to assail the wearied stranger or refuse him the boon he implores. Rest here. I will myself guide thee, tomorrow, beyond the limits of Roderick's power."
"I take thy courtesy, by heaven,
As freely as 'tis nobly given."
"Well; rest thee; for the bittern's cry
Sings us the lake's wild lullaby."
With that, he shook the gathered heath,
And spread his plaid upon the wreath;
And the brave foemen, side by side,
Lay peaceful down, like brothers tried,
And slept, until the dawning beam
Purpled the mountain and the stream.
In the beginning of the fifth canto Fitz-James and his companion set forth upon their journey, and, in spite of the intricacy and difficulties of their path, proceeded with some expedition till they reached the pass of Vennachar, where the guide, compelled to slacken his pace, resumed the conversation of the preceding evening. "Why venture into these mountains without a pass from Roderick?" — "A soldier's pass is his sword; besides, when drawn hither four days ago in pursuit of my game, I saw nothing to apprehend." "But why return?" "Perhaps to recover a stray hawk, or hound, or to meet some highland maid." "Thou knew'st not that Mar had collected his forces to attack us." "No. He armed only for the protection of the king's sports." "But whence thy enmity to Roderick?" "I know him not. But he murdered a knight in the king's presence." "The provocation justified the act." "But, soldier, canst thou justify his life of eternal pillage?" "Saxon! the rich country which we spoil was the property of our ancestors. Thou seest that which we now inhabit. These rocks, could they speak, would proclaim to us that they can afford us nothing beyond a temporary shelter; and that our subsistence must be purchased by the sword." "But why is my path waylaid, and my security dependent on thy protection?" "Ask thine own rashness: a secret visitor is liable to suspicion." "Well! I will not offend thee by alleging further cause of enmity. Suffice it that I am bound by promise to encounter Roderick. Twice have I come hither in peace: when I return it shall be as an avowed enemy; and never was lover more impatient to meet a mistress than I am to meet this rebel chieftain and his band."
"Have then thy wish!" — He whistled shrill,
And he was answered from the hill:
Wild, as the scream of the curlew,
From crag to crag the signal flew.
Instant, through copse and heath, arose
Bonnets, and spears, and bended bows;
On right, on left, above, below,
Sprung up at once the lurking foe.
From shingles grey their lances start,
The bracken-bush sends forth the dart;
The rushes, and the willow-wand,
Are bristling into axe and brand;
And every tuft of broom gives life
To plaided warrior armed for strife.
That whistle garrison'd the glen
At once with full five hundred men;
As if the yawning hill to heaven
A subterranean host had given.
Watching their leader's beck and will,
All silent there they stood and still;
Like the loose crags, whose threatening mass
Lay tottering o'er the hollow pass,
As if an infant's touch could urge
Their headlong passage down the verge,
With step and weapon forward flung,
Upon the mountain-side they hung.
The mountaineer cast glance of pride
Along Benledi's living side,
Then fixed his eye and sable brow
Full on Fitz-James — "How say'st thou now?
These are Clan-Alpine's warriors true;
And, Saxon, — I am Roderick Dhu!"
Fitz-James, though scared and startled by this dreadful exhibition, returns the look of defiance, and, with his back against a rock, dares the master of his fate to give the signal for his destruction. But Roderick, assuming a more courteous air, waves his hand in silence, and the assembled clan is again couched on the ground. Whilst Fitz-James views with a look of suspense and alarm this new vision, his companion reminds him of the pledge of safety already given; directs him to follow; precedes him to the appointed ford; and, when arrived at a place of safety, dares him to single combat. The knight hesitates; he is unwilling to attempt the life of his savage and haughty but generous deliverer; but all his offers of conciliation are disdainfully rejected, and an insulting allusion to the "braid of his fair lady's hair" in his bonnet at length awakens his resentment. Roderick, who had thrown down his target, is unable, though far superior in strength, to ward off the thrusts of his skilful and nimble adversary; he is wounded again and again; becomes faint and dizzy through loss of blood; is disarmed, and commanded to beg his life. In this extremity,
Like adder darting from his coil,
Like wolf that dashes through the toil,
Like mountain-cat who guards her young,
Full at Fitz-James's throat he sprung:
The weapon which he receives in his body only adds a convulsive strength to the natural vigour of his grasp; he is the victor in the struggle; he draws his dagger; he aims it at his fallen antagonist; but his brain is bewildered; his eyes wander; the weapon pierces the earth; and he swoons on the body of Fitz-James, who, thus enabled to extricate himself, returns thanks to heaven for his deliverance. Having accomplished his vow to Blanche, he blows his bugle, washes his hands and face, and is shortly joined by four mounted squires with two led horses, one of which had been destined for Ellen, and is now left for the conveyance of Roderick, whom the knight recommends to the care of two of the squires, whilst, attended by the other two, he mounts and gallops off towards Stirling. Whilst mounting the hill he recognises Douglas, who is also on his way to the city, disguised in "poor array," and who, having ascertained that Malcolm was, as he feared, a prisoner in Stirling, had procured for Ellen a secure asylum in the monastery of Cambus Kenneth, and was now preparing to offer himself for the redemption of his friend. But he perceives that the city exhibits marks of general festivity, and that the burghers' sports, which James V. never failed to attend, were going to begin; and it occurs to him that, by gaining some prize, he may have a chance of attracting the favourable regards of his sovereign. He easily eclipses all competitors in archery, wrestling, and hurling; but the king regards him not; and he carelessly throws the prizes amongst the populace. A stag is turned out for the amusement of the croud, and pursued by two of the royal hounds; but a favourite greyhound which had followed Douglas, instantly springs forward, distances its rivals, seizes the stag, and by this unexpected intrusion gives rise to a scene of general tumult. Douglas, hitherto so patient and enduring, when he sees his "noble hound," his own and his Ellen's companion, struck in anger by the king's huntsman, instantly fells the offender to the ground, threatens the other menials who croud to assist their companion, proclaims his name to the multitude and to the king, and is, for his presumption, ordered by his sovereign into close confinement. The populace attempt to rescue him from the guards, and will not, even at his own request, abandon their purpose, till by an eloquent address he succeeds in mitigating their fury. A messenger from the Earl of Mar announces an intention to attack the insurgents under Roderick, and the king sends orders to stop the march of the troops; but the report of a battle near Loch Katrine is spread through Stirling; and the city, so lately a scene of festivity, is filled with alarm and disaffection.
The concluding canto presents to us the "guard-room" filled with a drunken and riotous soldiery, outlaws from all nations, enlisted under the royal standard, as a necessary, though dangerous guard against a disaffected nobility, and a giddy populace. Their nocturnal orgies had been frequently interrupted by the arrival of their wounded comrades from the Highland battle, and their noisy mirth had just recommenced with a Bacchanalian song, when an old soldier is introduced, accompanied by a minstrel and a damsel. Here is a fresh source of tumult; but when the damsel removes her tartan veil, the dignified air of Ellen represses their insolence, her beauty excites their compassion; she is introduced to their commander; explains her errand; shews the signet ring; and is respectfully conducted to an apartment in the palace, to await the hour of the king's levee. Mean while Allan Bane prevails on one of the guards to introduce him to his imprisoned master, and is conducted to a spacious, but gloomy room where, when the bolts and chains were removed from the door,
Roused at the sound, from lowly bed
A captive feebly raised his head;
The wondering minstrel looked, and knew
Not his dear lord, but Roderick Dhu.
The astonished minstrel has scarcely voice enough to answer the many hurried questions by which he is assailed, but having at length declared that Ellen is safe; that the Lady Margaret is well; that there are hopes of Douglas's deliverance; and that the Alpine clan had disputed the late battle with invincible obstinacy,
The chieftain reared his form on high,
And fever's fire was in his eye;
But ghastly, pale, and livid streaks
Chequered his swarthy brow and cheeks;
"Hark! minstrel, I have heard thee play,
With measure bold on festal day,
In that lone isle, again where ne'er
Shall harper play or warrior hear,
That stirring air that peals on high,
O'er Dermid's race our victory;
Strike it! and then, (for well then canst
Free from thy minstrel spirit glanced,
Fling me the picture of the fight,
When met my clan the Saxon might.
I'll listen, till my fancy hears
The clang of swords, the crash of spears!
These grates, these walls shall vanish then
For the fair field of fighting men,
And my free spirit burst away,
As if it soared from battle-fray!"
Thus adjured the minstrel enters upon an animated and beautiful circumstantial description of the battle, through which, however, we must forbear to follow him, and content ourselves with stating that its close was preceded by the death of the gallant Roderick, whose "lament" is immediately poured forth by the pious Allan Bane. — During this time, the melancholy Ellen, incapable of deriving consolation from the cold deference of a crowd of attendant menials, and casting a vacant glance on the useless magnificence which surrounded her, past the tedious minutes of suspense in reflecting on the quiet composure which she had so lately enjoyed in the "lone island." The contrast between the gaudy splendor of her present apartment and the rustic decorations of her humble mansion, where her father was her protector, and Malcolm her companion, continually called her mind to these recollections, and she was lost in meditation, when her ear was caught by the sounds of a well-known voice, which drew her to the window. The lay was Malcolm's, and it told her that he was a prisoner. But she hears a hasty footstep. It is the knight of Snowdoun, who is come to conduct her to the presence chamber. Somewhat reassured by the company of a friend on whom she can rely with a sister's confidence, she enters the brilliant circle; but, abashed by the gaze of numbers, conscious that on that moment depends the fate of her father and Malcolm, she hesitates, clings to the arm of Fitz-James for support, throws a fearful glance round the room in search of the dreaded monarch whom she comes to implore, and is astonished to find that every other eye is fixed on her conductor.
As wreath of snow on mountain breast,
Slides from the rock that gave it rest,
Poor Ellen glided from her stay;
And at the monarch's feet she lay;
No word her choaking voice commands;
She showed her ring; she clasped her hands.
O! not a moment could he brook,
The generous prince, that suppliant look!
Gently he raised her, &c.
The king then informs her that he is already reconciled to her father, and calls him to witness the assertion; after which he explains to her, in a whisper, the riddle of his own metamorphosis; and finally commands her to name the boon by which he is to redeem the pledge of Fitz-James's faith. Ellen, no longer much alarmed for the fate of Malcolm, craves the grace of Roderick Dhu; and when, after learning his death, she is desired to make a fresh request, she blushes, preserves her silence, and places the ring in the hand of Douglas.
Nay, then my pledge has lost its force,
And stubborn justice holds her course.
"Malcolm, come forth!" and at the word,
Down kneel'd the Graeme to Scotland's lord.
"For thee, rash youth, no suppliant sues;
From thee may vengeance claim her dues,
Who, nurtured underneath our smile,
Hast paid our care by treacherous wile,
And sought, amid thy faithful clan,
A refuge for an outlawed man,
Dishonouring thus thy loyal name—
Fetters and warder for the Graeme!"
His chain of gold the king unstrung
The links o'er Malcolm's neck he flung,
Then gently drew the glittering band,
And laid the clasp on Ellen's hand.
We have ventured to lay before our readers a table of contents which may possibly appear too minute and particular, in preference to a more general and concise abstract of the fable, because we conceive that the merit of a poetical narrative consists nearly as much in the art with which the narrator avails himself of many little subordinate incidents for the purpose of promoting the main design, as in the construction of the series of principal events. We have also borrowed from Mr. Scott a few extracts which we thought particularly descriptive of his manner, on which we will now take the liberty of offering a few general remarks.
Never, we think, has the analogy between poetry and painting been more strikingly exemplified than in the writings of Mr. Scott. He sees every thing with a painter's eye. Whatever he represents has a character of individuality, and is drawn with an accuracy and minuteness of discrimination which we are not accustomed to expect from verbal description. Much of this, no doubt, is the result of genius; for there is a quick and comprehensive power of discernment, an intensity and keenness of observation, an almost intuitive glance, which nature alone can give, and by means of which her favourites are enabled to discover characteristic differences where the eye of dulness sees nothing but uniformity; but something also must be referred to discipline and exercise. The liveliest fancy can only call forth those images which are already stored up in the memory; and all that invention can do is to unite these into new combinations, which must appear confused and ill defined, if the impressions originally received by the senses were deficient in strength and distinctness. It is because Mr. Scott usually delineates those objects with which he is perfectly familiar that his touch is so easy, correct, and animated. The rocks, the ravines, and the torrents which he exhibits, are not the imperfect sketches of a hurried traveller, but the finished studies of a resident artist, deliberately drawn from different points of view; each has its true shape and position; it is a portrait; it has its name by which the spectator is invited to examine the exactness of the resemblance. The figures which are combined with the landscape are painted with the same fidelity. Like those of Salvator Rosa, they are perfectly appropriate to the spot on which they stand. The boldness of feature, the lightness and compactness of form, the wildness of air, and the careless ease of attitude of these mountaineers, are as congenial to their native highlands as the birch and the pine which darken their glens, the sedge which fringes their lakes, or the heath which waves over their moors.
The characters and manners of the ideal personages whom Mr. Scott has hitherto brought into action are, in our opinion, equally conformable to truth and nature, and they are so for the reason just assigned, because the models from which they are copied have been examined and studied with an earnest and fond attention. They are not, indeed, the characters and manners of the day, but neither are they those of a period so remote as to be obscured in the mist of antiquity; the times in which they are placed being distinctly known to all by numerous historical documents, and by the records of recent and credible tradition. Whoever attempts to tread in the more elevated walks of poetry is compelled to place his actors in an age antecedent to his own, not only because it affords rather more scope to his invention, or because it supplies him with words and images which are not degraded by too much familiarity, but for another and more important reason. The object of poetry is to describe the minds and passions of man, and the scenery in which his life is passed, and to render the representation at once forcible and pleasing; but individuals and society continue to undergo a succession of changes analogous to those which take place in the face of nature, and on some point in this series the poet must fix his choice. The gloomy horrors of the primaeval mountains, offering no objects to the contemplation but bare ridges and yawning chasms; or the naked savage insulated by his wants, and scarcely sensible but to the returns of hunger, can neither suggest fit materials for splendid description, nor powerfully excite our feelings. It is not till the rocks have been shattered, till their collected fragments have given birth to the diversified beauties of vegetation; it is not till man, united in society, becomes accessible to all the varieties of passion; that mute scenery can excite admiration and pleasure, or human life awaken our sympathy. Again, there is a time when the torrent, which had corroded and washed away the mingled elements of its rocky channel, deposits them on the plain which it forms and fertilizes; and the varied surface of the mountain landscape is exchanged for a flat and tedious expanse of uniform luxuriance: there is also a time in the progress of civilization when the distinctions of human character are nearly obliterated, and when general opulence, and security and politeness, are accompanied by general insipidity and torpor. There must therefore be some middle term between these opposite extremes; some period at which civilization has softened down the ferocity without diminishing the energy of mankind; at which the expansive force of individual passion continues to maintain a struggle against the coercion of general law, without unsettling the foundations of society; a period, perhaps, affording a considerable latitude of choice, which may be considered as most peculiarly fertile in materials for the higher kinds of poetry. Such were the heroic ages of Greece, and such, we think, may be found in the history of modern Europe, during the whole interval which elapsed between the first creation of hereditary feudal power, and the final abolition of feudal servitude.
In the poem now under our consideration, we think that the two principal figures are contrasted with uncommon felicity. Fitz-James, who more nearly resembles the French Henry the Fourth than the Scottish James V, is gay, amorous, fickle, intrepid, impetuous, affectionate, courteous, graceful, and dignified; Roderick is gloomy, vindictive, arrogant, undaunted, but constant in his affections, and true to his engagements; and the whole passage in which these personages are placed in opposition, from their first meeting to their final conflict, is conceived and written with a sublimity which has been rarely equalled. Ellen is most exquisitely drawn, and could not have been improved by contrast. She is beautiful, frank, affectionate, rational, and playful, combining the innocence of a child with the elevated sentiments and courage of a heroine.
By means of these characters, aided by those of Douglas and Malcolm, the latter of whom seems to be rather capriciously neglected by the poet throughout the three last cantos, we are persuaded that Mr. Scott might easily have created a sufficiency of interesting incident for the completion of a long and regular epic poem. Much of the "Lady of the Lake" is written in that spirit; for animated description is very generally substituted for the coldness of narration, and many subordinate personages are created for the purpose of conducting us through the story. We are not expressly told that Roderick Dhu is bigotted and superstitious, but his clansman and confidential agent, Brian the hermit, a visionary as wild and savage as the solitude from whence he is drawn, is introduced into our presence, where he repeats his execrations and his penance. We are not told that the cross of fire is carried with eager haste from village to village by distinguished members of the clan; but the messengers are named, their persons and offices described, and we behold their hurried attitude, and their rapid progress over the torrents and precipices which they successively traverse. The miseries inflicted by Roderick on the victims of his predatory fury are not recited, but they are presented to our eyes in the frenzied figure of Blanche of Devan, whose intervention is employed for the purpose of inspiring Fitz James with a personal animosity to Roderick. Every canto of the poem would furnish us with similar instances. But Mr. Scott, contented with having written a beautiful and amusing tale, has abstained from urging a more ambitious claim, and has even solicitously avoided the appearance of wishing to attempt the majesty of epic composition. Perhaps he has acted wisely. Having traced out for himself a course on which he has long been exercised, he may confidently provoke the competition of all his contemporaries. Secure in his well tried strength, he may fairly be allowed to regulate his own efforts; sometimes bounding along with careless elasticity, and sometimes calling out the full display of his powers, and surprising us by the rapidity of his irregular but spontaneous exertions: by submitting himself to the rein, and by encountering a length of toil rendered more irksome by constraint, we are not sure that he would be able to attain the goal which has been reached by very few of his ablest predecessors. We are therefore rather disposed to approve than to blame the diffidence which shrinks from the attempt. Perhaps the wild scenery in which he delights is exhibited with more advantage by the sudden flashes with which his genius lights it up, than if it were more uniformly illuminated and exposed to steady observation. Perhaps the warfare of rival clans, however terrific in its results, and however favourable to the display of individual heroism, is too contracted in its extent, and too limited in its objects, to suit the gravity of the epic style; and the poet, after all his labour, might be reminded by some sagacious critic, that there is no task more idle than that of wasting beautiful poetry on the embellishment of county-history, and of immortalizing petty disputes which might have been more naturally settled by an application to a justice of peace, or to the court of chancery.
The measure of this poem, which is that of Gay's fables, is not, in our opinion, happily chosen. We admit that it is readily susceptible of grace and elegance: and, after reading the "Lady of the Lake," we are compelled to acknowledge that it is capable of conveying the grandest and most awful as well as the tenderest emotions. But we object to it, as the vehicle of a long narrative, on account of its extreme facility, which leads to frequent negligence. Mr. Scott is such a master of versification, that the most complicated metre does not, for an instant, arrest the progress of his imagination; its difficulties usually operate as a salutary excitement to his attention, and, not unfrequently, suggest to him new and unexpected graces of expression. If a careless rhyme or an ill constructed phrase occasionally escape him amidst the irregular torrent of his stanza, the blemish is often imperceptible by the hurried eye of the reader: but when the short lines are yoked in pairs, any dissonance in the jingle, or interruption of the construction cannot fail to give offence. We learn from Horace that, in the course of a long work, a poet may legitimately indulge in a momentary slumber; but we do not wish to hear him snore. Another fault of this metre is its monotony. This is, indeed, partly relieved in the present instance by the introduction of a prefatory stanza or two to each canto, and of songs, lays, ballads, odes, or hymns in various kinds of measure, some of them eminently beautiful, but so numerous, that the reader is rather disposed to resent their frequent intrusion, than to welcome them as a relief from the uniformity of the couplet.
On the subject of the fable and contrivance of the poem we will only say that the author has avoided most of the leading faults with which his "Marmion" has been reproached. The plot is not laid in the marvellous concurrence of improbable accidents; it is not obscurely and laboriously unravelled; there is no petty intricacy or entanglement; the principal actors are not contaminated by such vices as destroy our interest in their fate; there is no inattention to Scotish feelings or Scotish character; no allusions to English black letter books; and not one word about servants' liveries. These are strong proofs of Mr. Scott's docility, and of his deference to those friends who attended his former triumphs, not to hail him with songs of gratulation, but to stand behind him on his car, and to whisper sober or sarcastic remarks on the instability of his fame. We trust that his complaisance will recommend him to the select class of readers who are too circumspect to be surprised into delight, and who can suspend their sympathy and keep amusement at bay, until, after duly communing with their own minds, and solving all their scruples, they shall have satisfied themselves that there is solid and legitimate ground for yielding to pity or joy or terror or enthusiasm.
But the majority of mankind appear to be of opinion that life is too short for these discussions. Multitudes of readers have admired the "Lay" and "Marmion," and will probably admire the "Lady of the Lake," not, as we believe, from disregard or ignorance of the rules of rational criticism, but, because, in a moment of listlessness, they sought for entertainment and found it. To attract the earnest attention of the reader; to captivate his imagination by a series of pleasing illusions; to awaken and vary at pleasure all his emotions; and to conduct him, without impatience or languor through a poem of four or five thousand lines, is a task of which the accomplishment affords, in our opinion, the most obvious and satisfactory proof of poetical talent; and he who is able, like Mr. Scott, to recal the same reader with unabated eagerness to repeated perusals, may fairly claim a place amongst the greatest masters of his art.