1805 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

Anonymous, Review of Scott, Lay of the Last Minstrel; Scots Magazine 67 (January 1805) 37-45.



The Lay of the Last Minstrel; a poem. By Walter Scott, Esq. Quarto, L.1. 5s. Longman and Co. London; Constable and Co. Edinburgh.

Epic poetry has been long considered, at once as the highest, and rarest exertion of human genius. Between each great attempt made to succeed in it, many ages have commonly intervened, in Britain, from the time of Milton, a great void follows, which is filled up only by the once celebrated performances of Sir Richard Blackmore. Till of late, the very species seemed to be nearly extinct. Mr. Southey first broke the spell; and since his time, seldom has a year elapsed, without being marked by at least one flight of the epic muse. In point of quantity, there is no longer any cause to complain of deficiency.

For such an attempt Mr. Scott possessed certainly a peculiar advantage, in his intimacy with the memorials of those rude and warlike ages, which are most favourable to the production of this high species of poetry. And after having been made acquainted by him with so many curious and interesting remains of antiquity, we naturally feel a curiosity in respect to this first great production of his own genius.

He does not however give to his poem the name of Epic, but says, "As the description of scenery and manners was more the object of the author, than a combined and regular narrative, the plan of the ancient metrical romance was adopted, which allows a greater latitude in this respect than would be consistent with a regular poem." It must be remembered, however, that the rules of the epic are not attached to any particular title, but are merely those rules by which a narrative poem may be rendered most agreeable. The want of connection is generally considered as a fault in the ancient romance. Mr. Scott conceives also that the machinery, adopted from popular belief, would have seemed puerile in a poem which did not partake of the rudeness of the old ballad, or metrical romance. This, however, is very much the case in regard to Homer and Tasso; nor are we apprehensive that in the hands of the present author any machinery would have had a puerile appearance. As, therefore, the sentiments are truly epic, and the narrative nearly so, we cannot help wishing that the whole had been more completely accommodated to that standard.

The author states the object of his poem to be, "to illustrate the customs and manners which antiently prevailed on the borders of England and Scotland." Comparing it with his former publication of the Border Minstrelsy, we may observe, that the latter must be admitted as the most authentic source of information. The former, however, comprizes the same in smaller compass, and introduces, besides, a variety of new particulars. But its chief superiority will appear when considered as selecting and embellishing whatever in these manners is most susceptible of poetical ornament. Mr. Scott possesses certainly a richer and stronger vein of poetry than is to be found in any of the pieces of that collection, with the single exception of the second part of Fair Helen.

The poem is supposed to be sung by a minstrel, the last of the race. Infirm and old, he finds his art now neglected and his lyre unhonoured, and is compelled to wander from place to place, in search of a precarious subsistence. Benighted one night near the Castle of Newark, then inhabited by Anne Duchess of Buccleugh and Monmouth, he looks round in vain for a meaner resting place.

With hesitating step, at last,
The embattled portal-arch he passed,
Whose ponderous grate, and massy bar,
Had oft rolled back the tide of war,
But never dosed the iron door
Against the desolate and poor.

Here he is kindly received, and after due refreshment is asked to sing, by the Duchess and a party of ladies who were with her. Much flattered by this proposal, he puts his hand to his lyre: it is stiff for want of use, but after a little, this difficulty is overcome, and he proceeds with the song which composes "the lay of the last minstrel."

The poem opens with a description of the Castle of Branksome, which forms the chief scene of action. Its present possessor is the Lady of Branksome, widow of Sir Walter Scott, who was slain in the streets of Edinburgh in consequence of a deadly feud which had long subsisted between his family and that of the Kerrs of Cessford.

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.

The Lady, we are told,

——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.

But she cherishes deep in her breast the desire of revenge, and, with that view waits impatiently till her son, who is yet very young, shall arrive at manhood. We are then introduced to Margaret of Branksome her daughter, who loves and is beloved by Lord Cranston, a young and accomplished Knight. But he, on a late occasion, had fought on the side of the Kerrs of Cessford; and therefore

——well she knew, her mother dread,
Before lord Cranstoun she should wed,
Would see her on her dying bed.

The Lady of Branksome had derived from her father a profound skill in "the art that none may name." In consequence of this she listens one day to a remarkable dialogue between a river and mountain spirit, the issue of which is, that no kind influence shall be showered

On "Teviot's tide, and Branksome's tower,
Till pride be quelled, and love be free."

Notwithstanding this prediction the Lady remains firm, and exclaims,

"Your mountains shall bend,
And your streams ascend,
Ere Margaret be our foeman's bride."

To avert such a calamity, she resolves to possess herself immediately of a mighty book, lodged at the monastery of Melrose, in the tomb of Michael Scott, a celebrated magician, and which she knew was to have a powerful influence on the destinies of her house. She calls to her, William of Deloraine, the account of whose character we give at length, as it seems to apply in general to the moss-troopers or marauders of those times:

A stark moss-trooping Scott was he
As e'er couched border lance by knee.
Through Solway sands, through Tarras moss,
Blindfold, he knew the paths to cross;
By wily turns, by desperate bounds,
Had baffled Percy's best blood-hounds;
In Eske, or Liddel, fords were none,
But he would ride them one by one;
Alike to him was time, or tide,
December's snow or July's pride;
Alike to him was tide, or time,
Moonless midnight, or mattin prime.
Steady of heart, and stout of hand,
As ever drove prey from Cumberland;
Five times outlawed had he been,
By England's king and Scotland's queen.

She orders him to set out instantly for Melrose Abbey, and find out the Monk of St. Mary's Isle:

Say, that the fated hour is come,
And to night he shall watch with thee,
To win the treasure of the tomb:
For this will be St. Michael's night,
And though stars be dim, the moon is bright;
And the cross of bloody red
Will point to the grave of the mighty dead."

Deloraine readily undertakes this errand, and departs; picturesque sketches ate then given of the country through which he passed, as it appeared by moonlight. At length he reaches Melrose, where,

Like some tall rock, with lichens gray,
Seemed, dimly huge, the dark Abbaye.

On telling that he came from Branksome, he is readily admitted, and having found the Monk of St. Mary's Isle, delivers his message. When the Monk heard it,

——strangely on the knight looked he,
And his blue eyes gleamed wild and wide;
"And, darest thou, warrior! seek to see,
What heaven and hell alike would hide?
My breast, in belt of iron pent,
With shirt of hair and scourge of thorn;
For threescore years, in penance spent,
My knees those flinty stones have worn:
Yet all too little to atone
For knowing what should ne'er be known.
Would'st thou thy every future year
In ceaseless prayer and penance drie,
Yet wait thy latter end with fear—
Then, daring warrior, follow me!"

The determined Deloraine expressed his readiness to follow, and they pass thro' the garden into the chancel, where

Full many a scutcheon and banner, riven,
Shook to the cold night-wind of heaven,

and where

Full in the midst, his cross of red
Triumphant Michael brandished,
And trampled the apostate's pride.
The moon-beam kissed the holy pane,
And threw on the pavement a bloody stain.

Here they sit down on a marble stone, and the Monk informs his companion that he had first known Michael Scott in Spain, at the University of Salamanca, that he had learned a large portion of his art,

And, warrior, I could say to thee,
The words that clove Eildon Hills in three,
And bridled the Tweed with a curb of stone:
But to speak them were a deadly sin;
And for having but thought them my heart within,
A treble penance must be done.

Michael, when at his death, had called this Monk, and committed to him the book, with injunctions that it should be buried with him, and that never mortal should look into it save the chief of Branksome in his hour of need, and that when the service was performed it should be immediately returned.

I buried him on St. Michael's night,
When the bell tolled one, and the moon was bright;
And I dug his chamber among the dead,
When the floor of the chancel was stained red,
That his patron's cross might over him wave,
And scare the fiends from the wizard's grave.
"It was a night of woe and dread,
When Michael in the tomb I laid!

As he is speaking, the clock strikes one, and he then calls out,

"Lo, warrior! now, the cross of red
Points to the grave of the mighty dead;
Within it burns a wonderous light,
To chase the spirits that love the night:
That lamp shall burn unquenchably,
Until the eternal doom shall be."

Deloraine is then ordered to raise the stone, which he does with a beating heart; instantly the light appears, and "before their eyes the wizzard lay," with a cross in his right hand, and the mighty book in his left.

High and majestic was his look,
At which the fellest fiends had shook;

Deloraine, for the first time in his life, shewed symptoms of fear; the Monk, however, warns him,

"Now speed thee what thou hast to do,
Or, warrior, we may dearly rue;
For those, thou mayst not look upon,
Are gathering fast round the yawning stone!"—
Then Deloraine, in terror, took
From the cold hand the mighty book,
With iron clasped, and with iron bound:
He thought, as he took it, the dead man frowned;
But the glare of the sepulchral light,
Perchance, had dazzled the warrior's sight.

They then returned through the galleries, along which

Loud sobs, and laughter louder, ran,
And voices unlike the voice of man:

The Knight resumes his journey, and feels no small satisfaction when the day begins to dawn, and soon after, Branksome towers appear in view. Here the minstrel passes from him to Margaret, who at this early hour steals out unperceived, to meet her lover in the "greenwood, beneath the hawthorn's boughs." Here however he warns his fair auditors, that they must not expect the description of a tender' interview. The Baron's dwarf gives a signal that some one is approaching, upon which

Fair Margaret, through the hazel grove,
Flew like the startled cushat-dove:

And the knight turned round to discover who was this disturber of his happiness. He soon meets, returning from the midnight excursion, Deloraine, the mortal enemy of his house. The two warriors instantly rush against each other, and, after a furious engagement, Deloraine is thrown from his horse, wounded and senseless. When the Baron saw him in that condition,

His noble mind was inly moved
For the kinsman o the maid he loved.

Being under the neceesity of flying himself, he causes his dwarf to carry the wounded man to the castle; in doing which, the latter becomes possessed of the book, which he afterwards uses to the no small advantage of his master. Of this dwarf many extraordinary things are related, and many tricks performed by him, which appear to us rather unsuitable to the dignity of the rest of the poem. Among others, he lures the young Buccleugh to some distance from the castle, where he falls into the hands of a party of English foragers. The dwarf then assumes his appearance, and continues at the castle, where, however, he would soon have been detected by the skill of the lady, had she not been then too deeply engaged in tending the wounded. Deloraine.

The next passage we shall, quote at large, as exhibiting the author's powers in a light different from any of the former extracts:

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!

The warder views it at the same moment, and blows his "war-note loud and strong." Instantly the castle is in arms; beacons, a mode of intelligence then much used, are erected on all the neighbouring cliffs,

——ruddy blushed the heaven:
For a sheet of flame from the turret high
Waved like a blood-flag on the sky,
All flaring and uneven;
And soon a score of fires, I ween,
From height, and hill, and cliff, were seen;

Messengers were also dispatched to the different lords in alliance with the family of Branksome, urging them to hasten with their forces to its relief. Clouds of smoke rising from the ravaged country announce the approach of an English army; which soon after appears within sight of the castle. The following description of its warlike approach will give some idea of the costume of that period:

Through the dark wood, in mingled tone,
Were border-pipes and bugles blown;
The coursers' neighing he could ken,
A measured tread of marching men;
While broke at times the solemn hum,
The Almayn's sullen kettle-drum;
And banners tall, of crimson sheen,
Above the copse appear;
And, glistening through the hawthorns green,
Shine helm, and shield, and spear.

Light forayers first, to view the ground,
Spurred their fleet coursers loosely round;
Behind, in close array and fast,
The Kendal archers, all in green,
Obedient to the bugle-blast,
Advancing from the wood, were seen.
To back and guard the archer band,
Lord Dacre's bill-men were at hand;
A hardy race, on Irthing bred,
With kirtles white, and crosses red,
Arrayed beneath the banner tall,
That streamed o'er Acre's conquered wall;
And minstrels, as they marched in order,
Played, "Noble Lord Dacre, he dwells on the Border."

But louder still the clamour grew,
And louder still the minstrels blew,
When, from beneath the greenwood tree,
Rode forth Lord Howard's chivalry;
His men at arms, with glaive and spear,
Brought up the battle's glittering rear.
There many a youthful knight, full keen
To gain his spurs, in arms was seen;
With favour in his crest, or glove,
Memorial of his Ladye-love.

The English having their eyes fixed on the towers of Branksome, where martial preparations were busily advancing, see on a sudden the bridge fall, the gate open, and the Seneschall advance, bearing a peeled willow wand in sign of truce. Lord Howard and Dacre, the English commanders, ride forward to meet him, but refuse to treat unless with the Lady herself, who accordingly appears on the walls, and demands the cause of this sudden incursion. The complaints urged by them relate to certain depredations committed by William of Deloraine on the lands of Sir Richard Musgrave, an English knight. To enforce these demands, they lead with them the heir of Buccleugh, of whom, as before mentioned, they had got possession.

The Lady, in reply, proposes that the question should be decided, according to the custom of that age, by single combat between Deloraine and Musgrave. The Lords retire to deliberate on this proposal, and are determined to accept it by the intelligence that a great force is hastening to the relief of Branksome. Then according to the accustomed ceremonial, the challenge is given and accepted on both sides, and an agreement made, that the young Buccleugh shall remain the prize of the conquering party. Scarce is this treaty ratified than the expected army appears in sight, and causes no small regret at Branksome, for not having insisted on more favourable conditions. It is now however too late to recede; a feast is that night prepared at Branksome, to which English and Scots are alike invited. The two hostile nations, accordingly, sit down together to the same banquet; and though

—By mutual inroads, mutual blows,
By habit, and by nation, foes,
They met on Teviot's strand:
They met, and sate them mingled down,
Without a threat, without a frown,
As brothers meet in foreign land.
The hands, the spear that lately grasped,
Still in the mailed gauntlet clasped,
Were interchanged in greeting dear;
Visors were raised, and faces shewn,
And many a friend, to friend made known,
Partook of social cheer.
Some drove the jolly bowl about;
With dice and draughts some chased the day;
And some, with many a merry shout,
In riot, revelry, and rout,
Pursued the foot-ball play.

Yet, be it known, had bugles blown,
Or sign of war been seen;
Those bands, so fair together ranged,
Those hands, so frankly interchanged,
Had dyed with gore the green:
The merry shout by Teviot-side
Had sunk in war-cries wild and wide,
And in the groan of death;
And whingers, now in friendship bare,
The social meal to part and share,
Had found a bloody sheath.

Next morning a general assemblage was made on the plain where the lists were drawn for the combatants. As it was not understood, however, that Deloraine could fight on account of his late wound, it became necessary that some one should supply his place; and this honour was eagerly sought by several of the Branksome chiefs. In the midst of this contest, however, to the astonishment of all, Deloraine, himself, rushes forth from the castle, completely armed, and seemingly in full vigour. To him then, of course, all the candidates yielded. The previous ceremonies being over,

At the last word, with deadly blows,
The ready warriors fiercely close.

Ill would it suit your gentle ear,
Ye lovely listeners, to hear
How to the axe the helms did sound,
And blood poured down from many a wound;
For desperate was the strife, and long,
And either warrior fierce and strong.
But were each dame a listening knight,
I well could tell how warriors fight;
For I have seen war's lightning flashing,
Seen the claymore with bayonet clashing,
Seen through red blood the war-horse dashing,
And scorned, amid the reeling strife,
To yield a step for death or life.

'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!

All attempts to recover him are vain: the Scots, therefore, being now victorious, raise shouts of joy, which are interrupted by the appearance of a man ghastly and half naked issuing from the castle. This, to their utter amazement, proves also to be Deloraine. The. conqueror then undoing his vizor, discovers himself to be Cranstoun of Tiviotdale, whom the dwarf, by means of the magic book, had enabled to assume the appearance of the other. The lady seeing young Buccleugh restored to her, and remembering the spirit's prophcy, which was now fulfilled, gave a reluctant consent to bestow her daughter on the deliverer of her son. And here properly the story closes, the object proposed at the opening being now attained. Another canto however follows, which contains an account of the nuptial ceremonies of Cranstoun and Margaret, songs by the Minstrels on that occasion, and lastly a solemn procession to the tomb of Michael, in order to deprecate the wrath which he manifests at the retention of his mighty book. It contains a great deal of fine poetry, as well as curious illustrations of the manners of the time; but, having already made such copious extracts, we must content ourselves with referring to the poem itself.

After having furnished the reader with such ample means of judging fur himself, it will not be necessary to detain him with many observations. The author discovers a thorough acquaintance with, as well as a power of placing, in the most striking light, the aspect both of nature and manners which the Borders of England and Scotland at that time presented. The Castle, the Monastery, the Midnight Excursion and the Field of Battle, are objects strongly familiarized to his imagination, and every scene of which he paints to the life. He is a master in that species of the sublime which arises from mystery, darkness, and terror. He has well availed him. self of the belief that

Mighty words and signs have pow'r
O'er Sp'rites, in planetary hour.

Magic, which consists in the production of mighty effects, by causes that to all appearance are wholly inadequate, may be made the source of a very high and interesting kind of sublimity. This Mr. Scott seems to have understood beyond any former poet, Tasso excepted. We know not if there be any thing superior, even in that poet's glowing description of the dominion possessed by mystic sounds over the regions of darkness.

Nor, as may be observed in the above specimens, does our poet fail in the description of those milder scenes whose beauty predominates; though these are more rarely introduced, and chiefly by way of contrast to his more frequent and favourite subjects.

Tho' we do not, in this poem, meet with much minute delineation of character, yet a striking general view is given of that mixture of pride, courage, and ferocity, which entered into the composition of a Border Chieftain. That of the lady of Branksome is the most strongly marked, and possesses all those features which we might expect to find in a high dame of ancient times. In describing the daughter, the poet seems animated rather by Provencal enthusiasm, or by the refined gallantry of modern times, than by the spirit which generally prevails throughout the Border ballads. The portrait, however, such as it is, is finely drawn.

In the measure of the poem, Mr. Scott has set himself entirely free from every kind of restraint. The extent of the stanza, the construction of the verse, and the succession of the rhymes, are all alike arbitrary and variable. As this is a mode of writing which has been lately adopted by several poets of genius, to whom its facility must no doubt be a strong recommendation, it may be desirable to form some estimate of its merit. Now the distinction of verse from prose consists chiefly, as we conceive, in the recurrence of similar combination of harmony. Thus the periods of Cicero, however flowing and musical, make no approach to poetry, because each member of a sentence differs in sound from the others. Hence the measure under consideration possesses imperfectly the most essential characteristic of versification, and is often distinguishable from prose only by the rhyme. The frequent changes, too, interrupt that connected train of emotions which is naturally produced by a narrative poem. It seems well adapted only for the irregular ode, as being in unison with the desultory tone of sentiment which there prevails. At the same time, while we disapprove of this measure in general, we must admit that its rudeness gives to the present poem an air of antiquity, and that it suits not ill with the wild and adventurous spirit which pervades most of the characters.

We think Mr. Scott has been rather liberal in the use of obsolete language. The same impression never can be made by a passage, for the elucidation of which we must have recourse to notes and a glossary. The practice may be very proper indeed where those words refer to something peculiar to that period, and for which there is no corresponding term in our present idiom, but this limit we think is frequently transgressed.

But these blemishes, if they are to be regarded as such, bear but a small proportion to the beauties of the poem, which we consider as completely establishing Mr. Scott's title to be placed, if not first, at least in the first rank, among poets of the present age and country.

Notes are added, which contain a good deal of curious information respecting the ancient Border families, as well as the manners and customs of those times. From these, we may probably present our readers with some extracts in a future number.