1805 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Scott

Anonymous, Review of Scott, Lay of the Last Minstrel; British Critic 26 (August 1805) 154-60.



Art V. The Lay of the Last Minstrel. a Poem. By Walter Scott, Esq. 4to. 319 pp. 1l. 5s. Constable, Edinburgh: Longman and Co. London. 1805.

It is a very legitimate part of the skill of a poet when he is able to exalt his own family and friends, at the same time that he displays his inventive and amusing powers. This Mr. Scott has completely effected in the present poem; which is no less a celebration of the Scotts of Bucleugh, or Buckcleuch, and among them of Sir Walter Scott, from whom, we presume, both his names are derived, than an illustration of those manners with which he made us acquainted in his delightful "Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border;" and, at the same time, a fair victory over his old bards in their own style of composition. We cannot conceive more talents and address to be shown in attaining these several ends, than are exerted in this pleasing poem: which at once gratifies curiosity on the subject of manners, interests the mind in the events of the tale, and excites admiration from the beauty and originality of the poetry.

The Minstrel introduced to our notice by this poet is supposed to have survived the revolution, and to be travelling near a castle, some time the residence of the Dukes of Buccleugh, called Newark, on the river Yarrow, in Selkirkshire. The dutchess who receives him is the widow of the Duke of Monmouth, and he sings his lay in honour of the Scotts of Buccleuch. The lay is divided into six cantos, which are so many natural pauses in the song. The description of the old Minstrel, and his admission at the castle is good; but still better, to our taste, his diffidence, and trials of skill when he begins to entertain his noble audience.

"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 extacy!
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. 8.

This is the constant measure of the intermediate passages, the lay itself is in a more lyric strain, with those occasional licences of metre which are found in the early ballads. The opening itself affords specimens of those free cadences.

"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!"

Branksome, or Branxholme, was a fortress belonging to the Scotts of Buccleuch, on the Teviot, about three miles above Hawick, and here the whole scene of the poem is laid. The incidents are many of them wild, and fanciful, but well suited to the style of poetry employed, and the whole composition is not only amusing but interesting. The interest arises principally from the loves of the Lady of Buccleuch's daughter Margaret, and Lord Cranstoun, between whose families there subsisted a deadly feud. We are soon told, by preternatural agents, that the planets,

"Will kind influence deign to shower
On Teviot's tide, and Branksome's tower,
Till pride be quelled, and love be free." P. 20.

and the unexpected fulfilment of these oracular conditions forms the denouement of the poem. The lay abounds in every part with characteristic delineations, and has frequent passages of genuine poetry. To the former class belongs the following picture of a border knight, in the person of William of Deloraine.

"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." P. 23.

The foregoing circumstance of double outlawry, happened frequently to the borderers. We find it afterwards told of "John Grahame, second son of Malice, Earl of Monteith, commonly surnamed John with the Bright Sword."—Upon some displeasure risen against him at court, it is related, he "retired with many of his clan and kindred into the English borders, in the reign of King Henry the Fourth, where they seated themselves; and many of their posterity have continued there ever since. Mr. Sandford, speaking of them says, (which indeed, was applicable to most of the borderers on both sides), "They were all stark moss-troopers, and arrant times connived at, because they gave intelligence forth of Scotland, and would rise 400 horse at any time, upon a raid (incursion) of the English into Scotland." Note, p. 305. Among the poetical passages we may number this, which opens the second canto; on the subject of Melrose Abbey.

"If thou wouldst 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 grey.
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 St David's ruined pile;
And, home returning, soothly swear,
Was never scene so sad and fair."

The description of the alarm given to the country, by the lighting of the beacons, is highly characteristic, and at the same time poetical. This forms the conclusion of the third canto. The same descriptive character pervades the chief part of the fourth canto. But we rise to very elegant poetry at the opening of the fifth.

"Call it not vain—they do not err,
Who say, that when the poet dies,
Mute Nature mourns her worshipper,
And celebrates his obsequies;
Who say tall cliff and cavern lone,
For the departed bard make moan;
That mountains weep in crystal rill;
That flowers in tears of balm distil;
Through his loved groves that breezes sigh,
And oaks, in deeper groan, reply;
And rivers teach their rushing wave
To murmur dirges round his grave." P. 155.

But the flight the most beautiful to our feelings, in all this pleasing poem, is the opening of the sixth canto, where the Minstrel sings of patriotism.

I.
"Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentered all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.

II.
O Caledonia! stern and wild,
Meet nurse for a poetic child!
Land of brown heath and shaggy wood,
Land of the mountain and the flood,
Land of my sires! what mortal hand
Can e'er untie the filial band,
That knits me to thy rugged strand."

Whether the Minstrel be supposed to utter these sentiments, or Mr. Scott himself, they are highly appropriate, highly honourable, and in no small degree poetical. We cannot allow ourselves to expatiate further on this poem, from which we have received so much pleasure. The fanciful machinery of the wizard's tomb, and the goblin page, deserve, perhaps, particular notice; but we shall only allow ourselves to say, that in our opinion they are strictly in unison with this species of lay, and productive both of poetical scenes, and of something happily bordering on comic effect. The authority given in the notes for the fiction of the goblin is whimsically apposite, and abundantly sufficient to justify the poet. The conclusion of the lay is fine, but perhaps rather too solemn for the rest of the lay; it is, however, highly poetical, and grand even to solemnity. As to the old Minstrel, having made so much acquaintance with him, we rejoice to find him comfortably settled under the protection of the liberal dutchess.

——"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 grain waved 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."

Among the imitations of ancient poetry, the lay of the last Minstrel must always be distinguished, from the judgment with which every beauty of the model is preserved and improved, and every disgusting fault avoided. The notes to this poem are often instructive, but with a good deal of repetition of the matter of the notes and introduction to the Minstrelsy. We object not, however, materially to any thing but the size and price of the book, which must exclude from the enjoyment of it great numbers who would read it with much delight. Many subsequent editions will, we trust, make amends for this fault, and put it into the hands of every, however humble, admirer of poetry, and votary of the muses.