Art. I. The Lay of the Last Minstrel: a Poem. By Walter Scott, Esquire. 4to. pp. 318. Edinburgh, Constable & Co. London, Longman & Co. 1805.
WE consider this poem as an attempt to transfer the refinements of modern poetry to the matter and the manner of the antient metrical romance. The author, enamoured of the lofty visions of chivalry, and partial to the strains in which they were formerly embodied, seems to have employed all the resources of his genius in endeavouring to recal them to the favour and admiration of the public, and in adapting to the taste of modern readers, a species of poetry which was once the delight of the courtly, but has long ceased to gladden any other eyes than those of the scholar and the antiquary. This is a romance, therefore, composed by a minstrel of the present day; or such a romance as we may suppose would have been written in modern times, if that style of composition had continued to be cultivated, and partaken consequently of the improvements which every branch of literature has received since the time of its desertion.
Upon this supposition, it was evidently Mr. Scott's business to retain all that was good, and to reject all that was bad in the models upon which he was to form himself; adding, at the same time, all the interest and the beauty which could possibly be assimilated to the manner and spirit of his original. It was his duty, therefore, to reform the rambling, obscure, and interminable narratives of the ancient romancers,—to moderate their digressions,—to abridge or retrench their unmerciful or needless descriptions,—and to expunge altogether those feeble and prosaic passages, the rude stupidity of which is so apt to excite the derision of a modern reader: at the same time he was to rival, if he could, the force and vivacity of their minute and varied representations—the characteristic simplicity of their pictures of manners—the energy and conciseness with which they frequently describe great events—and the lively colouring and accurate drawing by which they give the effect of reality to every scene they undertake to delineate. In executing this arduous task, he was permitted to avail himself of all that variety of style and manner which had been sanctioned by the antient practice, and bound to embellish his performance with all the graces of diction and versification which could be reconciled to the simplicity and familiarity of the minstrel's song.
With what success Mr. Scott's efforts have been attended in the execution of this adventurous undertaking, our readers perhaps will be better able to judge in the sequel: but, in the mean time, we may safely venture to assert, that he has produced a very beautiful and entertaining poem, in a style which may fairly be considered as original, and which will be allowed to afford satisfactory evidence of the genius of the author, even though he should not succeed in converting the public to his own opinion as to the interest or dignity of the subject. We are ourselves inclined indeed to suspect that his partiality for the strains of antiquity, has imposed a little upon the severity of his judgement and impaired the beauty of the present imitation, by directing his attention rather to what was characteristic, than to what was unexceptionable in his originals. Though he has spared too many of their faults, however, he has certainly improved upon their beauties: and while we can scarcely help regretting, that the feuds of Border chieftains should have monopolised as much poetry as might have served to immortalise the whole baronage of the empire, we are the more inclined to admire the interest and magnificence which he has contrived to communicate to a subject so unpromising.
Whatever may be thought of the conduct of the main story, the manner of introducing it must be allowed to be extremely poetical. An aged minstrel who had "harped to King Charles the Good," and learned to love his art at a time when it was honoured by all that was distinguished in rank or in genius, having fallen into neglect and misery in the evil days of the usurpation, and the more frivolous gayeties or bitter contentions of the succeeding reigns, is represented as wandering about the Border in poverty and solitude a few years after the revolution. In this situation, he is driven, by want and weariness, to seek shelter in the castle of the Dutchess of Buccleuch and Monmouth; and being cheered by the hospitality of his reception, offers to sing "an ancient strain," relating to the old warriors of her family; and after some fruitless attempts to recal the long-forgotten melody, pours forth "the Lay of the Last Minstrel," in six cantos, very skilfully divided by some recurrence to his own situation, and some complimentary interruptions from his noble auditors.
The construction of a fable seems by no means the forte of our modern poetical writers: and no great artifice, in that respect, was to be expected, perhaps from an imitator of the ancient romancers. Mr. Scott, indeed, has himself insinuated, that he considered the story as an object of very subordinate importance, and that he was less solicitous to deliver a regular narrative, than to connect such a series of incidents as might enable him to introduce the manners he had undertaken to delineate, and the imagery with which they were associated. Though the conception of the fable is, probably from these causes, exceedingly defective, it seems necessary to lay a short sketch of it before our readers, both for the gratification of their curiosity, and to facilitate the application of the remarks we may be afterwards tempted to offer.
Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch, the Lord of Branksome, was slain in a skirmish with the Cars about the middle of the sixteenth century. He left a daughter of matchless beauty, an infant son, and a high-minded dame of a widow, who, though a very virtuous and devout person, was privately addicted to the study of magic, in which she had been initiated by her father. Lord Cranstoun their neighbour was at feud with the whole clan of Scott, but had fallen desperately in love with the daughter, who returned his passion with equal sincerity and ardour, though withheld, by her duty to her mother, from uniting her destiny with his. The poem opens with a description of the warlike establishment of Branksome-hall; and the first incident which occurs, is a dialogue between the spirits of the adjoining mountain and river, who, after consulting the stars, declare that no good fortune can ever bless the mansion "till pride be quelled, and love be free." The lady, whose forbidden studies had taught her to understand the language of those speakers, overhears this conversation, and vows, if possible, to retain her purpose in spite of it. She calls a gallant knight of her train, therefore, and directs him to ride immediately to the abbey of Melrose, and there to ask, from the monk of St. Mary's aisle, the mighty book that was hid in the tomb of the wizard Michael Scott. The remainder of the first canto is occupied with the night journey of the warrior. When he delivers his message, the monk appears filled with consternation and terror, but leads him at last through many galleries and chapels to the spot where the wizard was interred, and, after some account of his life and character, the warrior heaves up the tomb-stone, and is dazzled by the streaming splendour of an ever-burning lamp, which illuminates the sepulchre of the enchanter. With trembling hand he takes the book from the side of the deceased, and hurries home with it in his bosom.
In the mean time, Lord Cranstoun and the lovely Margaret have met at dawn in the woods adjacent to the castle, and are repeating their vows of true love, when they are started by the approach of a horseman. The lady retreats, and the lover advancing, finds it to be the messenger from Branksome, with whom, as an hereditary enemy, he thinks it necessary to enter immediately into combat. The poor knight, fatigued with his nocturnal adventures, is dismounted at the first shock, and falls desperately wounded to the ground, while Lord Cranstoun, relenting towards the kinsman of his beloved, directs his page to attend him to the castle, and gallops home before any alarm can he given. Lord Cranstoun's page is something unearthly. It is a little mishapen dwarf, whom he found one day when he was hunting, in a solitary glen, and took home with him. It never speaks, except now and then to cry "Lost! lost! Lost" and is on the whole a hateful, malicious little urchin, with no one good quality but his unaccountable attachment and fidelity to his master. This personage, on approaching the wounded Borderer, discovers the mighty book in his bosom, which he finds some difficulty in opening, and has scarcely had time to read a single spell in it, when he is struck down by an invisible hand, and the clasps of the magic volume shut suddenly more closely than ever. This one spell, however, enables him to practise every kind of illusion. He lays the wounded knight on his horse, and leads him into the cattle, while the warders see nothing but a wain of hay. He throws him down, unperceived, at the door of the lady's chamber, and turns to make good his retreat. In passing through the court, however, he sees the young heir of Buccleuch at play, and, assuming the form of one of his companions, tempts him to go out with him to the woods, where, as soon as they pass a rivulet, he resumes his own shape, and bounds away. The bewildered child is met by two English archers, who make prize of him, and carry him off, while the goblin page returns to the castle, and personates the young baron, to the great annoyance of the whole inhabitants.
The lady finds the wounded knight, and eagerly employs charms for his recovery, that the may learn the story of his disaster. The lovely Margaret, in the mean time, is sitting on her turret, gazing on the western star, and muting on the scenes of the morning, when the discovers the blazing beacons that announce the approach of an English enemy. The alarm is immediately given, and bustling preparation made throughout the mansion for defence. The English force under the command of the Lords toward and Dacre, speedily appears before the castle, leading with them the young Buccleuch, and propose that the lady should either give up Sir William of Deloraine (who had been her messenger to Melrose), as having incurred the guilt of march treason, or receive an English garrison within her walls. She answers, with much spirit, that her kinsman will clear himself of the imputation of treason by single combat, and that no foe shall get admittance into her fortress. The English Lords, being secretly apprised of the approach of powerful succours to the besieged, agree to the proposal of the combat, and stipulate that the boy shall be restored to liberty or detained in bondage, according to the issue of the battle. The lists are appointed for the ensuing day; and a truce being proclaimed in the mean time, the opposite bands mingle in hospitality and friendship.
Deloraine being wounded, was expected to appear by his champion; and some contention arises for the honour of that substitution. This, however, is speedily terminated by a person in the armour of that warrior, who encounters the English champion, slays him, and leads his captive chieftain to the embraces of his mother. At this moment Deloraine himself appears, half-clothed and unarmed, to claim the combat which has been terminated in his absence, and all flock around the stranger who had personated him so successfully. He unclasps his helmet; and behold Lord Cranstoun of Teviotside! The lady, overcome with gratitude, and the remembrance of the spirits' prophesy, consents to forego the feud, and to give the fair hand of Margaret to that of the amoured baron. The rites of betrothment are then celebrated with great magnificence, and a splendid entertainment given to all the English and Scotish chieftains whom the alarm had assembled at Branksome. Lord Cranstoun's page plays several unlucky tricks during the festival, and breeds some dissention among the warriors. To sooth their ireful mood, the minstrels are introduced, who recite three ballad pieces of considerable merit. Just as their songs are ended, a supernatural darkness spreads itself through the hall, a tremendous flash of lightning and peal of thunder ensue, which break just on the spot where the page had been seated, who is heard to cry "Found! found! found!" and is no more to be seen, when the darkness clears away. The whole party is chilled with terror at this extraordinary incident; and Deloraine protests that he distinctly saw the figure of the ancient wizard Michael Scott in the middle of the lightning. The lady renounces for ever the unhallowed study of magic; and all the chieftains, struck with awe and consternation, vow to make a pil-grimage to Melrose to implore rest and forgiveness for the spirit of the departed sorcerer. With the description of this ceremony the minstrel closes his "Lay."
From this little sketch of the story, our readers will easily perceive, that, however well calculated it may be for the introduction of picturesque imagery, or the display of extraordinary incident, it has but little pretension to the praise of a regular or coherent narrative. The magic of the lady, the midnight visit to Melrose, and the mighty book of the enchanter, which occupy nearly one third of the whole poem, and engross the attention of the reader for a long time after the commencement of the narrative, are of no use whatsoever in the subsequent developement of the fable, and do not contribute, in any degree, either to the production or explanation of the incidents that follow. The whole character and proceedings of the goblin page, in like manner, may be considered as merely episodical; for though he is employed in some of the subordinate incidents, it is remarkable that no material part of the fable requires the intervention of supernatural agency. The young Buccleuch might have wandered into the wood, although he had not been decoyed by a goblin; and the dame might have given her daughter to the deliverer of her son, although she had never listened to the prattlement of the river and mountain spirit. There is, besides all this, a great deal of gratuitous and digressive description, and the whole sixth canto may be said to be redundant. The story naturally concludes with the union of the lovers; and the account of the feast, and the minstrelsy that solemnised their betrothment, is a sort of epilogue, superadded after the catastrophe is complete.
But though we feel it to be our duty to point out these obvious defects in the structure of the fable, we have no hesitation in conceding to the author, that the fable is but a secondary consideration in performances of this nature. A poem is intended to please by the images it suggests and the feelings it inspires; and if it contain delightful images and affecting sentiments, our pleasure will not be materially impaired by some slight want of probability or coherence in the narrative by which they are connected. The callida junctura of its members is a grace, no doubt, which ought always to be aimed at; but the quality of the members themselves is a consideration of far higher importance, and that by which alone the character of the work must be ultimately decided. The adjustment of a fable may indicate the industry or the judgment of the writer, but the genius of the poet can only be shewn in his management of its successive incidents. In these more essential particulars, Mr Scott's merits we think, are unequivocal: he writes throughout with the spirit and the force of a poet; and though he occasionally discovers a little too much, perhaps, of the "brave neglect," and is frequently inattentive to the delicate propriety and scrupulous correctness of his diction, he compensates for those defects by the fire and animation of his whole composition, and the brilliant colouring and prominent features of the figures with which he has enlivened it. We shall now proceed to lay before our readers some of the passages which have made the greatest impression on our own minds, subjoining, at the fame time, such observations as they have most forcibly suggested.
In the very first rank of poetical excellence, we are inclined to place the introductory and concluding lines of every canto, in which the antient strain is suspended, and the feelings and situation of the minstrel himself described in the words of the author. The elegance and the beauty of this setting, if we may so call it, though entirely of modern workmanship, appears to us to be fully more worthy of admiration than the bolder relief of the antiques which it encloses, and leads us to regret that the author should have wasted, in imitation and antiquarian researches, so much of those powers which seem fully equal to the task of raising him an independent reputation. In confirmation of these remarks, we give considerable part of the introduction to the whole poem.
'The way was long, the wind was cold,
The Minstrel was infirm and old;
His withered cheek and tresses grey,
Seemed to have known a better day;
The harp, his sole remaining joy,
Was carried by an orphan boy.
The last of all the Bards was he,
Who sung of Border chivalry;
For, well-a-day! their date was fled,
His tuneful brethren all were dead;
And he, neglected and oppressed,
Wished to be with them and at rest.
No more on prancing palfrey borne,
He carolled, light as lark at morn;
No longer, courted and caressed,
High placed in hall, a welcome guest,
He poured, to lord and lady gay,
The unpremeditated lay;
Old times were changed, old manners gone,
A stranger filled the Stuarts' throne;
The bigots of the iron time
Had called his harmless art a crime.
A wandering harper, scorned and poor,
He begged his bread from door to door;
And tuned, to please a peasant's ear,
The harp a King had loved to hear.' p. 3. 4.
After describing his introduction to the presence of the Dutchess, and his offer to entertain her with his music, the description proceeds.
'The humble boon was soon obtained;
The aged Minstrel audience gained.
But when he reached the room of state,
Where she with all her ladies sate,
Perchance he wished his boon denied;
For, when to tune his harp he tried,
His trembling hand had lost the ease,
Which marks security to please;
And scenes, long past, of joy and pain,
Came wildering o'er his aged brain—
Amid the strings his fingers strayed,
And an uncertain warbling made—
And oft he shook his hoary head.
But when he caught the measure wild,
The old man raised his face and smiled;
And lightened up his faded eye,
With all a poet's exstacy!
In varying cadence, soft or strong,
He swept the sounding chords along;
The present scene, the future lot,
His toils, his wants, were all forgot;
Cold diffidence and age's frost,
In the full tide of song were lost.
Each blank, in faithless memory void,
The poet's glowing thought supplied;
And, while his harp responsive rung,
'Twas thus the Latest Minstrel sung.' p. 6-8.
We add, chiefly on account of their brevity, the following lines, which immediately succeed the description of the funeral rites of the English champion.
'The harp's wild notes, though hushed the song,
The mimic march of death prolong;
Now seems it far, and now a-near,
Now meets, and now eludes the ear;
Now seems some mountain side to sweep,
Now faintly dies in valley deep;
Seems now as if the Minstrel's wail,
Now the sad requiem loads the gale;
Last, o'er the warrior's closing grave,
Rung the full choir in choral stave.' p. 155. 156.
The close of the whole poem is as follows:
'Hushed is the harp—the Minstrel gone.
And did he wander forth alone?
Alone, in indigence and age,
To linger out his pilgrimage?
No—close beneath proud Newark's tower,
Arose the Minstrel's lowly bower;
A simple hut; but there was seen
The little garden hedged with green,
The cheerful hearth, and lattice clean.
There sheltered wanderers, by the blaze,
Oft heard the tale of other days;
For much he loved to ope his door,
And give the aid he begged before.
So passed the winter's day—but still,
When summer smiled on sweet Bowhill,
And July's eve, with balmy breath,
Waved the blue-bells on Newark heath;
When throstles sung in Harehead-shaw,
And corn was green on Carterhaugh,
And flourished, broad, Blackandro's oak,
The aged Harper's soul awoke!
Then would he sing achievements high
And circumstance of Chivalry,
Till the rapt traveller would stay,
Forgetful of the closing day;
And noble youths, the strain to hear,
Forsook the hunting of the deer;
And Yarrow, as he rolled along,
Bore burden to the Minstrel's song.' p. 193-94.
Besides these, which are altogether detached from the lyric effusions the minstrel, some of the most interesting passages of the poem, those in which he drops the business of his story to moralise, and apply to his own situation the images and reflections it has suggested. After concluding one canto with an account of the warlike array which was prepared for the reception of the English invaders, he opens the succeeding one with the following beautiful verses:
'Sweet Teviot! on thy silver tide,
The glaring bale-fires blaze no more;
No longer steel-clad warriors ride
Along thy wild and willowed shore;
Where'er thou wind'st by dale or hill,
All, all is peaceful, all is still,
As if thy waves, since Time was born,
Since first they rolled their way to Tweed,
Had only heard the shepherd's reed,
Nor startled at the bugle-horn.
Unlike the tide of human time,
Which, though it change in ceaseless flow,
Retains each grief, retains each crime,
Its earliest course was doomed to know;
And, darker as it downward bears,
Is stained with past and present tears.
Low as that tide has ebbed with me,
It still reflects to memory's eye
The hour my brave, my only boy,
Fell by the side of great Dundee.
Why, when the volleying musket played
Against the bloody Highland blade,
Why was not I beside him laid!—
Enough—he died the death of fame;
Enough—he died with conquering Graeme.' p. 93. 94.
There are several other detached passages of equal beauty, which might be quoted in proof of the effect which is produced by this dramatic interference of the narrator; but we hasten to lay before our readers some of the more characteristic parts of the performance.
The antient romance owes much of its interest to the lively picture which it affords of the times of chivalry, and of those usages, manners and institutions which we have been accustomed to associate in our minds, with a certain combination of magnificence with simplicity, and ferocity with romantic honour. The representations contained in those performances, however, are for the must part too rude and naked to give complete satisfaction. The execution is always extremely unequal; and though the writer sometimes touches upon the appropriate feeling with great effect and felicity, still this appears to be done more by accident than design; and he wanders away immediately into all sorts of ludicrous or uninteresting details, without any apparent consciousness of incongruity. These defects Mr. Scott has corrected with admirable address and judgment in the greater part of the work now before us: and while he has exhibited a very striking and impressive picture of the old feudal usages and institutions, he has shewn still greater talent in engrafting upon those descriptions all the tender or magnanimous emotions to which the circumstances of the story naturally give rise. Without impairing the antique air of the whole piece, or violating the simplicity of the ballad style, he has contrived, in this way, to impart a much greater dignity, and more powerful interest to his production, than could ever be attained by the unskilful and unsteady delineations of the old romancers. Nothing, we think, can afford a finer illustration of this remark, than the opening stanzas of the whole poem; they transport us at once into the days of knightly daring and feudal hostility, at the same time that they suggest, in a very interesting way, all those softer sentiments which arise out of some parts of the description.
'The feast was over in Branksome tower,
And the Ladye had gone to her secret bower;
Her bower that was guarded by word and by spell,
Deadly to hear, and deadly to tell—
Jesu Maria, shield us well!
No living wight, save the Ladye alone,
Had dared to cross the threshold stone.
The tables were drawn, it was idlesse all;
Knight and page and household squire,
Loitered through the lofty hall,
Or crowded round the ample fire.
The stag-hounds, weary with the chase,
Lay stretched upon the rushy floor,
And urged in dreams the forest race,
From Teviot-stone to Eskdale-moor.' p. 9. 10.
After a very picturesque representation of the military establishment of this old baronial fortress, the minstrel proceeds:
'Many a valiant knight is here;
But he, the chieftain of them all,
His sword hangs rusting on the wall,
Beside his broken spear.
Bards long shall tell,
How Lord Walter fell!
When startled burghers fled, afar,
The furies of the Border war;
When the streets of high Dunedin
Saw lances gleam and falchions redden,
And heard the slogan's deadly yell—
Then the Chief of Branksome fell.
Can piety the discord heal,
Or staunch the death-feud's enmity?
Can Christian lore, can patriot zeal,
Can love of blessed charity?
No! vainly to each holy shrine,
In mutual pilgrimage, they drew;
Implored, in vain, the grace divine
For chiefs, their own red falchions slew.
While Cessford owns the rule of Car,
While Ettrick boasts the line of Scott,
The slaughtered chiefs, the mortal jar,
The havoc of the feudal war,
Shall never, never be forgot!
In sorrow o'er Lord Walter's bier,
The warlike foresters had bent;
And many a flower, and many a tear,
Old Teviot's maids and matrons lent:
But, o'er her warrior's bloody bier,
The Ladye dropped nor sigh nor tear!
Vengeance, deep-brooding o'er the slain,
Had locked the source of softer woe;
And burning pride, and high disdain,
Forbade the rising tear to flow;
Until, amid his sorrowing clan,
Her son lisped from the nurse's knee—
"And, if I live to be a man,
My father's death revenged shall be!"
Then fast the mother's tears did seek
To dew the infant's kindling cheek.' p. 12-15.
There are not many passages in English poetry more impressive than some parts of this extract. As another illustration of the prodigious improvement which the style of the old romance is capable of receiving from a more liberal admixture of pathetic sentiments and gentle affections, we insert the following passage, where the effect of the picture is finely assisted by the contrast of its two compartments:
'So passed the day—the evening fell,
'Twas near the time of curfew bell;
The air was mild, the wind was calm,
The stream was smooth, the dew was balm;
E'en the rude watchman, on the tower,
Enjoyed and blessed the lovely hour.
Far more fair Margaret loved and blessed
The hour of silence and of rest.
On the high turret, sitting lone,
She waked at times the lute's soft tone;
Touched a wild note, and all between
Thought of the bower of hawthorns green;
Her golden hair streamed free from band,
Her fair cheek rested on her hand,
Her blue eyes sought the west afar,
For lovers love the western star.
'Is yon the star o'er Penchryst-Pen,
That rises slowly to her ken,
And, spreading broad its wavering light,
Shakes its loose tresses on the night?
Is yon red glare the western star?—
O, 'tis the beacon-blaze of war!
Scarce could she draw her tightened breath;
For well she knew the fire of death!
'The warder viewed it blazing strong,
And blew his war-note loud and long,
Till, at the high and haughty sound,
Rock, wood, and river rung around;
The blast alarmed the festal hall,
And startled forth the warriors all;
Far downward, in the castle-yard,
Full many a torch and cresset glared;
And helms and plumes, confusedly tossed,
Were in the blaze half-seen, half-lost;
And spears in wild disorder shook,
Like reeds beside a frozen brook.
'The Seneschal, whose silver hair
Was reddened by the torches' glare,
Stood in the midst, with gesture proud,
And issued forth his mandates loud—
"On Penchryst glows a bale of fire,
And three are kindling on Priesthaughswire,"' &c. p. 83-85.
In these passages, the poetry of Mr. Scott is entitled to a decided preference over that of the earlier minstrels, not only from the greater consistency and condensation of his imagery, but from an intrinsic superiority in the nature of his materials. From the improvement of taste, and the cultivation of the finer feelings of the heart, poetry acquires, in a refined age, many new and in valuable elements, which are necessarily unknown in a period of greater simplicity. The description of external objects, however, is at all times equally inviting, and equally easy; and many of the pictures which have been left by the ancient romancers must be admitted to possess, along with great diffuseness and homeliness of diction, an exactness and vivacity which cannot be easily exceeded. In this part of his undertaking, Mr. Scott therefore had fewer advantages; but we do not think that his success has been less remarkable. In the following description of Melrose, which introduces the second canto, the reader will observe how skilfully he calls in the aid of sentimental associations to hten the effect of the picture which he presents to the eye.
'If thou would'st view fair Melrose aright,
Go visit it by the pale moon-light;
For the gay beams of lightsome day
Gild, but to flout, the ruins gray.
When the broken arches are black in night,
And each shafted oriel glimmers white;
When the cold light's uncertain shower
Streams on the ruined central tower;
When buttress and buttress, alternately,
Seem framed of ebon and ivory;
When silver edges the imagery,
And the scrolls that teach thee to live and die;
When distant Tweed is heard to rave,
And the owlet to hoot o'er the dead man's grave,
Then go—but go alone the while—
Then view Saint David's ruined pile;
And, home returning, soothly swear,
Was never scene so sad and fair!' p. 35, 36.
In the following passage he is less ambitious, and confines himself, as an ancient minstrel would have done on the occasion, to a minute and picturesque representation of the visible object before him.
'When for the lists they sought the plain,
The stately Ladye's silken rein
Did noble Howard hold;
Unarmed by her side he walked,
And much, in courteous phrase, they talked
Of feats of arms of old.
Costly his garb—his Flemish ruff
Fell o'er his doublet, shaped of buff,
With satin slashed and lined;
Tawny his boot, and gold his spur,
His cloak was all of Poland fur,
His hose with silver twined;
His Bilboa blade, by Marchmen felt,
Hung in a broad and studded belt;
Hence, in rude phrase, the Borderers still
Called noble Howard, Belted Will.' p. 141.
The same scrupulous adherence to the style of the old romance, though greatly improved in point of brevity and selection, is discernible in the following animated description of the feast, which terminates the poem.
'The spousal rites were ended soon;
'Twas now the merry hour of noon,
And in the lofty arched hall
Was spread the gorgeous festival:
Steward and squire, with heedful haste,
Marshalled the rank of every guest;
Pages, with ready blade, were there,
The mighty meal to carve and share.
O'er capon, heron-shew, and crane,
And princely peacock's gilded train,
And o'er the boar-head, garnished brave,
And cygnet from Saint Mary's wave;
O'er ptarmigan and venison,
The priest had spoke his benison.
Then rose the riot and the din,
Above, beneath, without, within!
For, from the lofty balcony,
Rung trumpet, shalm, and psaltery:
Their clanging bowls old warriors quaffed,
Loudly they spoke and loudly laughed;
Whispered young knights, in tone more mild,
To ladies fair, and ladies smiled.
The hooded hawks, high perched on beam,
The clamour joined with whistling scream,
And flapped their wings and shook their bells,
In concert with the staghounds' yells.
Round go the flasks of ruddy wine,
From Bordeaux, Orleans, or the Rhine;
Their tasks the busy sewers ply,
And all is mirth and revelry.' p. 166-67.
The following picture is sufficiently antique in its conception, but the execution is evidently modern.
'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 corselet 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.'
The whole scene of the duel or judicial combat, is conducted according the strict ordinances of chivalry, and delineated with all the minuteness of an ancient romancer. The modern reader will probably find it rather tedious; all but the concluding stanzas, are in a loftier measure.
''Tis done, 'tis done! that fatal blow
Has stretched him on the bloody plain;
He strives to rise—Brave Musgrave, no!
Thence never shalt thou rise again!
He chokes in blood—some friendly hand
Undo the visor's barred band,
Unfix the gorget's iron clasp,
And give him room for life to gasp!—
In vain, in vain—haste, holy friar,
Haste, ere the sinner shall expire!
Of all his guilt let him be shriven,
And smooth his path from earth to heaven.
In haste the holy friar sped,
His naked foot was dyed with red,
As through the lists he ran;
Unmindful of the shouts on high,
That hailed the conqueror's victory,
He raised the dying man;
Loose waved his silver beard and hair,
As o'er him he kneeled down in prayer.
And still the crucifix on high
He holds before his darkening eye,
And still he bends an anxious ear,
His faltering penitence to hear;
Still props him from the bloody sod,
Still, even when soul and body part,
Pours ghostly comfort on his heart,
And bids him trust in God!
Unheard he prays; 'tis o'er, 'tis o'er!
Richard of Musgrave breathes no more.' p. 145-57.
We have already made so many extracts from this poem, that we can now only afford to present our readers with one specimen of the songs which Mr. Scott has introduced in the mouths of the minstrels, in the concluding canto. It is his object, in these pieces, to exemplify the different styles of ballad narrative which prevailed in this island at different periods, or in different conditions of society. The first is constructed upon the rude and simple model of the old Border ditties, and produces its effect by the direct and concise narrative of a tragical occurrence. The second, sung by Fitztraver, the bard of the accomplished Surrey, has more of the richness and polish of the Italian poetry, and is very beautifully written in a stanza resembling that of Spenser. The third is intended to represent that wild style of composition which prevailed among the bards of the northern continent, somewhat softened and adorned by the minstrel's residence in the south. We prefer it, upon the whole, to either of the two former, and shall give it entire to our readers, who will probably be struck with the poetical effect of the dramatic form into which it is thrown, and of the indirect description by which every thing is must expressively told, without one word of distinct narrative.
'O listen, listen, ladies gay!
No haughty feat of arms I tell;
Soft is the note, and sad the lay,
That mourns the lovely Rosabelle.
—"Moor, moor the barge, ye gallant crew!
And, gentle ladye, deign to stay!
Rest thee in Castle Ravensheuch,
Nor tempt the stormy firth to-day.
"The blackening wave is edged with white;
To inch and rock the sea-mews fly;
The fishers have heard the Water-Sprite,
Whose screams forebode that wreck is nigh.
"Last night the gifted seer did view
A wet shroud swathed round ladye gay;
Then stay thee, Fair, in Ravensheuch:
Why cross the gloomy firth to-day?"—
—"'Tis not because Lord Lindesay's heir
To-night at Roslin leads the ball,
But that my Ladye-mother there
Sits lonely in her castle-hall.
"'Tis not because the ring they ride,
And Lindesay at the ring rides well,
But that my sire the wine will chide,
If 'tis not filled by Rosabelle."—
O'er Roslin all that dreary night
A wondrous blaze was seen to gleam;
'Twas broader than the watch-fire light,
And redder than the bright moon-beam.
It glared on Roslin's castled rock,
It reddened all the copse-wood glen;
'Twas seen from Dryden's groves of oak,
And seen from caverned Hawthornden.
Seemed all on fire that chapel proud,
Where Roslin's chiefs uncoffined lie;
Each Baron, for a sable shroud,
Sheathed in his iron panoply
Seemed all on fire within, around,
Both vaulted crypt and altar's pale;
Shone every pillar foliage-bound,
And glimmered all the dead-men's mail.
Blazed battlement and pinnet high,
Blazed every rose-carved buttress fair—
So still they blaze when fate is nigh
The lordly line of high St. Clair.
There are twenty of Roslin's barons bold
Lie buried within that proud chapelle;
Each one the holy vault doth hold—
But the sea holds lovely Rosabelle!
And each Saint Clair was buried there,
With candle, with book, and with knell;
But the Kelpy rung, and the Mermaid sung,
The dirge of lovely Rosabelle.' p. 181-184.
From the various extracts we have now given, our readers will be enabled to form a tolerably correct judgement of this poem; and if they are pleated with those portions of it which have now been exhibited, we may venture to assure them that they will not be disappointed by the perusal of the whole. The whole night-journey of Deloraine—the opening of the wizard's tomb—the march of the English battle—and the parley before the walls of the cattle, are all executed with the same spirit and poetical energy, which we think is conspicuous in the specimens we have already extracted: and a great variety of short passages occurs in every part of the poem, which are still more striking and meritorious, though it is impossible to detach them, without injury, in the form of a quotation. It is but fair to apprise the reader, on the other hand, that he will meet with very heavy passages, and with a variety of details which are not likely to interest any one but a Borderer or an antiquary. We like very well to hear "of the Gallant Chief of Otterburne," or "the Dark Knight of Liddesdale," and feel the elevating power of great names, when we read of the tribes that muttered to the war, "beneath the crest of old Dunbar, and Hepburn's mingled banners." But we really cannot so far sympathise with the local partialities of the author, as to feel any glow of patriotism or ancient virtue in hearing of the Todrig or Johnson clans, or of Elliots, Armstrongs, and Tinlinns; still less can we relish the introduction of Black John of Athelstane, Whitslade the Hawk, Arthur-fire-the-braes, Red Roland Forster, or any other of those worthies who
'Sought the beeves that made their broth,
In Scotland and in England both,'
into a poem which has any pretensions to seriousness or dignity. The ancient metrical romance might have admitted these homely personalities; but the present age will not endure them; and Mr. Scott must either sacrifice his Border prejudices, or offend all his readers in the other parts of the empire.
There are many passages, as we have already insinuated, which have the general character of heaviness, such as the minstrel's account of his preceptor, and Deloraine's lamentation ever the dead body of Musgrave: but the goblin page is, in our opinion, the capital deformity of the poem. We have already said that the whole machinery is useless; but the magic studies of the lady, and the rifled tomb of Michael Scott, give occasion to so much admirable poetry, that can on no account consent to part with them. The page, on the other hand, is a perpetual burden to the poet, and to the reader: it is an undignified and improbable fiction, which excites neither terror, admiration nor astonishment, but needlessly debases the strain of the whole work, and excites at once our incredulity and contempt. He is not a "tricksy spirit," like Ariel, with whom the imagination is irresistibly enamoured, nor a tiny monarch, like Oberon, disposing of the destinies of mortals: he rather appears to us to be an awkward sort of a mongrel between Puck and Caliban, of a servile and brutal nature, and limited in his powers to the indulgence of petty malignity and the infliction of despicable injuries. Besides this objection to his character, his existence has no support from any general or established superstition. Fairies and devils, ghosts, angels, and witches, are creatures with whom we are all familiar, and who excite in all classes of mankind emotions with which we can easily be made to sympathise. But the story of Gilpin Horner was never believed out of the village where he is said to have made his appearance, and has no claims upon the credulity of those who were not originally of his acquaintance. There is nothing at all interesting or elegant in the scenes of which he is the hero; and in reading these passages, we really could not help suspecting that they did not stand in the romance when the aged minstrel recited to the royal Charles and his mighty earls, but were inferred afterwards to suit the taste of the cottagers among whom he begged his bread on the Border. We entreat Mr. Scott to inquire into the grounds of this suspicion, and to take advantage of any decent pretext he can lay hold of for purging "the Lay" of this a ungraceful intruder. We would also move for a Quo Warranto against the spirits of the river and the mountain; for though they are come of a very high lineage, we do not know what lawful business they could have at Branksome castle in the year 1550.
Of the diction of this poem we have but little to say. From the extracts we have already given, our readers will perceive that the versification is in the highest degree irregular and capricious. The nature of the poem entitled Mr. Scott to some license in this respect, and he often employs it with a very pleasing effect; but he has frequently exceeded its just measure, and presented us with such combinations of metre, as must put the teeth of his readers, we think, into some jeopardy. He has, when he pleases, a very a melodious and sonorous style of versification, but often composes with inexcuseable negligence and rudeness. There is a great number of lines in which the verse can only be made out by running the words together in a very unusual manner; and some appear to us to have no pretension to the name of verses at all. What apology, for instance, will Mr. Scott make for the last of these two lines—
'For when in studious mood he paced
St. Kentigern's hall.'
Or for these—
'How the brave boy, in future war,
Should tame the unicorn's pride.'
We have called the negligence which could leave such lines as these in a poem of this nature, inexcuseable; because it is perfectly evident, from the general strain of his composition, that Mr. Scott has a very accurate ear for the harmony of versification, and that he composes with a facility which must lighten the labour of correction. There are some smaller faults in the diction which might have been as well corrected also: there is too much alliteration; and he reduplicates his words too often. We have "never, never," several times; besides "'tis o'er, 'tis o'er,"—"in vain, in vain"—"'tis done, 'tis done;" and several other echoes as ungraceful.
We will not be tempted to say any thing more of this poem. Although it does not contain any great display of what is properly called invention, it indicates perhaps as much vigour and originality of poetical genius as any performance which has been lately offered to the public. The locality of the subject is likely to obstruct its popularity; and the author, by confining himself in a great measure to the description of manners and personal adventures, has forfeited the attraction which might have been derived from the delineation of rural scenery. But he has manifested a degree of genius which cannot be overlooked, and given indication of talents that seem well worthy of being enlisted in the service of the epic muse.
The notes, which contain a great treasure of Border history and antiquarian learning, are too long, we think, for the general reader. The form of the publication is also too expensive; and we hope soon to see a smaller edition, with an abridgement of he notes for the use of the mere lovers of poetry.