ART. I.—The Lay of the last Minstrel; a Poem. By Walter Scott, Esq. 4to. 1 l. 5 s. Longman. 1805.
The world was some years ago visited by a production, entitled the Minstrel; a poem replete with philosophical effusions, and dreams of things,
Which neither are, nor were, nor e'er can be.
Which reveries were made the speculations of a minstrel and a highlander during the middle ages. We congratulate the public on the appearance of a character, who breathes sentiments more congenial to his cast; and who, moreover, hath 'framed a goodly ditty to the harp, a virtue that was never seen in' the minstrel of Dr. Beattie.
Mr. Scott's Minstrel, opprest with years and poverty, 'having fallen upon evil days and evil tongues,' arrives at Branxholm Castle, the residence of Anne, Duchess of Monmouth and Buccleuch, widow of the unfortunate James, Duke of Monmouth, beheaded in 1685. Having been hospitably entertained, he requests permission to exhibit 'some vanity of his art.' The offer is accepted, and he commences the recital of a feudal tale, accompanied by the harp.
'This poem,' says Mr. Scott, in a short preliminary advertisement, 'is intended to illustrate the customs and manners, which formerly prevailed on the borders of England and of Scotland. The inhabitants, living in a state, partly pastoral and partly warlike, and combining habits of constant depredation with the influence of a rude spirit of chivalry, were often engaged in scenes, highly susceptible of poetical ornament.' In the happiness of the author's choice of subject, and his peculiar talents and capability to adorn it, we entirely agree; but we cannot give so ready an assent to the reasons, urged in favour of other parts of the plan, developed in the preface. 'The poem,' continues Mr. Scott, 'is put into the mouth of an ancient minstrel, the last of his race; who, as he is supposed to have survived the revolution, might have caught somewhat of the refinements of modern poetry, without losing the simplicity of his original model.' The advantage here specified, as resulting from this poetical stratagem, is rather specious than real. Though it may, in some respects, excuse the blending together the styles of different ages, it will not justify a mixture of national dialects. To be consistent with his situation, and the time in which the reciter is placed, his language should be provincial; but this peculiarity of idiom is liable to objections, too obvious to require a comment; and accordingly the poem exhibits few features of a Scottish origin. Nor is this the only difficulty, which results from this species of fiction. The author of a work, professedly modern, treating of romantic subjects, may perhaps be justified in grafting antiquated modes of expression upon the phraseology of his own time; and the licence may be vindicated on the same ground as the use of technical terms in dissertations on the sciences, or arts, to which they are appropriated. He who rejects them, must cloak his meaning in words of vaguer import, or have recourse to tedious circumlocution. We are also tempted to consider the objections, raised to this style, 'the cant of those who judge by principles rather than by perception,' and who, whilst they except against this composite order of poetry, would perhaps be less pleased by a more rigid adherence to unity of parts, than that which it exhibits. But if the poet anti-date his production, or put his narration in the mouth of a fictitious character, he must recollect that he, in both cases, deprives himself of much latitude of imagery, as well as of diction; that though he be correct, in using the phraseology of an aera, of which his work is the supposed growth, he cannot anticipate the modes of expression, or the embellishments of a posterior age, and his strains must be as well "personae convenientia," as possessed of the common requisites and beauties of poetry. Mr. Scott's modesty perhaps prevented him from advancing what is the best justification of the plan he has adopted; namely, its having given rise to much excellent discursive poetry, in the conversations which take place between the Lady of Buccleuch and the minstrel, during pauses in his narrative, in the opening stanzas of the different cantos, which usually spring out of these colloquial interludes, and in sudden effusions of sentiment in the course of his narration. In this Mr. Scott has followed the example of the old Trouveurs, who sometimes break the thread of their story to give vent to feelings, awakened by the subject of their lay. Many instances of these are exhibited in the history of Partenopex de Blois, translated by M. Le Grand, and indeed in several of the productions of the same aera, as well romances, as fabliaux and tales. The impassioned bursts of the old minstrel have, however, usually a sameness of character; while those of Mr. Scott are more happily diversified, and more judiciously intermingled with the matter of his song. From the tribute of applause which we unfeignedly pay to these eccentric flights, we must, however, except a strange rhapsody, prefixed to the fifth canto. When we read this, we were almost tempted to imagine that the demon of metaphysics had broken loose from his cemetery at Glasgow, to sport amongst the sprites upon the border, making verse hideous.
Another singularity of style is thus announced amongst the same prefatory observations: 'As a description of scenery and manners was more my object than a combined and regular narrative, the plan of the ancient metrical romance was adopted, which allows greater latitude than would be consistent with the plan of a regular poem. The same model offered other facilities, as it permits an occasional alteration of measure, which in some degree authorises the changes of rythm in the text.' With respect to the concluding sentence, it must be observed, that there is this difference between the licence of the old romancer, and that assumed by Mr. Scott: the aberrations of the first are usually casual and slight; those of the other, premeditated and systematic. The old romancer may be compared to a man, who trusts his reins to his horse: his palfrey often blunders, and occasionally breaks his pace, sometimes from vivacity, oftener through indolence. Mr. Scott sets out, with the intention of diversifying his journey by every variety of motion. He is now at a trot, now at a gallop; nay, he sometimes stops, as if to
'Make graceful caprioles and prance
Between the pillars.'
A main objection to this plan is to be found in the shock which the ear receives from violent and abrupt transitions. On the other hand, it must be allowed, that as different species of verse are individually better suited to the expression of the different ideas, sentiments, and passions which it is the object of poetry to convey, the happiest effects may be produced by adapting to the subject its most congenial structure of verse.
We pass now to a detailed consideration of the work itself. We are arrested in the very outset by beauties of no ordinary stamp, and the description of the aged minstrel, on his admission to the Duchess of Buccleuch's presence, may perhaps serve as a fair specimen of Mr. Scott's best style of modern poetry.
'But when he reached the room of state,
Where she with all her maidens sate,
Perchance he wish'd 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:
He tried to tune his harp in vain.'
At length, encouraged by the kindness of his illustrious hostess,
'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.'
His lay is a fictitious story of the Buccleuch family, in which, however, some historical truths and traditionary anecdotes are intermixed. The commencement of the action dates from a short time after the death of Sir Walter Scott, who, engaged in a feud with the Kerrs of Cessford, was slain by that clan in the streets of Edinburgh in the year 1552. The time occupied in the action is three days and three nights. The scene opens with a most animated description of the state of military preparation and feudal pomp maintained within the walls of Branxholm. We soon enter upon the story. An mutual passion exists between Margaret, daughter of the deceased laird of Buccleuch, and Lord Cranstoun, a feudal chief, connected with the Kerrs, the murderers of her father. The lady Margaret has little to hope from the sympathy of her mother, a matron of high and haughty spirit, and withal addicted to magic. To save the lady (who has many great and good qualities) from the ill repute, which might, in consequence, attach to her, he author informs us, that she
'Wrought not by forbidden spell:
For mighty words and signs have power
O'er sprites in planetary hour.'
This lady, having retired to her bower, overhears a conversation between a river and a mountain spirit, which gives rise to the principal action of the poem. There is somewhat of ludicrous in this conference, which is thus opened by the spirit of the mountain:
'Sleep'st thou brother?—Brother, nay'—
replies he of the river. This may be 'very pretty and gent,' as Mr. Bayes says, but to our mind, it savours too much of the small talk, which passes between two beings of a similar description in a certain frantic production, entitled, if we recollect right, the Ancient Mariner. From these unearthly voices the lady of Buccleuch gathers, that the stars will shed no kindly influence on Branxholm 'till pride be quelled and love be free.' Undismayed by the intelligence, she determines by magic, to cross the decrees of the planets, and under the influence of this resolution, dispatches Sir William of Deloraine, a retainer of the family, on a mysterious errand to Melrose Abbey.
'A stark moss-trooping Scott was he
As e'er couch'd 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.'
The lady directs him to inform the monk of St. Mary's aisle that the time was come for him to watch with her messenger, 'to win the treasure of the tomb.' She concludes—
'What he gives thee, see thou keep;
Stay not thou for food, or sleep.
Be it scroll, or be it book,
Into it, knight, thou must not look;
If thou readest, thou art lorn;
Better hadst thou ne'er been born.'
'O swiftly can speed my dapple-grey steed,
Who drinks of the Teviot clear;
Ere break of day,' the warrior 'gan say,
Again will I be here:
And safer by none may thy errand be done,
Than, noble dame, by me;
Letter nor line know I never a one,
Wer't my neck-verse at Hairibee.'
In the rough but spirited sketch of the marauding borderer, and its the naivete of his last declaration, the reader will recognize some of the most striking features of the ancient ballad. The description of Deloraine, passing the river Aill, in the execution of the lady's orders, seems admirably calculated to call forth the powers of a sister art:
'At the first plunge the horse sunk low,
And the water broke o'er the saddle bow;
Above the foaming tide, I ween
Scarce half the charger's neck was seen;
For he was barded from counter to tail;
And the rider was armed complete in mail;
Never heavier man and horse
Stemm'd a midnight torrent's force
The warrior's very plume, I say,
Was daggled by the dashing spray;
Yet through good heart, and our lady's grace,
At length he gained the landing place.'
The second canto (for the poem is distributed into six divisions) opens with a picture of the Abbey of Melrose, almost as highly wrought as the work which it pourtrays:
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.'
He is admitted, and reports his errand to the monk of St. Mary's aisle, who receives it with mysterious horror; and, after darkly alluding to years of fruitless penance, 'for knowing what should ne'er be known,' thus apostrophizes the knight:
'Would'st thou thine every future year,
'In ceaseless prayer and penance drie;
'Yet wait thy latter end with fear
'Then, daring warrior, follow me.'
The answer breathes the true spirit of border piety—
'Penance, father, will I none;
'Prayer know I hardly one.
'For prayer, or mass can I rarely tarry,
'Save to patter an Ave Mary,
'When I ride on a border foray;
'Other prayer can I none,
'So speed me mine errand, and let me begone.'
The monk and the knight now proceed to the cloisters, in furtherance of their awful commission. Mr. Scott has not, however, done with his favorite scene; we have yet again three stanzas, descriptive of its beauties. These are more laboured than the preceding: there is besides a talk of fleur de lys, quatre feuilles, corbels, plinth and capital. Now though we are willing to allow the narrator a taste for gothic architecture, and powers, adequate to a general picture of its beauties, we can hardly consider him sufficiently skilled in its language, to give a minute analysis of parts. Whatever may have been the estimation of the Scottish romancers, during the middle ages, it does not appear, that an equal degree of credit descended to their successors of a later age. Very few of the names of these are handed down to us: their rank and station are utterly unknown. The oblivion, into which they have fallen, as it is a proof that they were little regarded by their cotemporaries, leads also to the conclusion, that they had little inducement to cultivate adscititious acquirements; no traces of which, moreover, are to be found in their works. But the conjectures of those who have attempted to penetrate the veil of obscurity which has been drawn over their memory, are yet more unfavourable to such a supposition. Mr. Scott himself is, we believe, amongst those, who imagine them to have been the pipers in border families; and a passage in the present poem indicates a similar conviction:
'Of late before each martial clan
They blew the death note in the van.'
One of this class is not likely to understand the learned terms of art, and still less to draw an illustration from the maestranzas, or equestrian spectacles of Spain; as is the case in one of these stanzas. This is one of the errors, which we noticed, as naturally resulting from the plan, adopted by the author, at the commencement of this review.
Arrived at the scene of action, the monk discloses to Deloraine the nature of the task, which they are to perform. He announces himself as the friend and associate of the renowned wizard, Michael Scott, by whom he had been on his death bed enjoined to bury with him his magic book, with a solemn command, that it should not be brought to light, 'save at his chief of Branksome's need;' and this past, should be restored to his sepulchre. The monk's account of the wizard's burial, and the impression, which, aided by the circumstances of time and place, it makes on the rugged borderer, must not be omitted:
'It was a night of woe and dread,
When Michael in the tomb I laid;
Strange sounds along the chancel past;
The banners waved without a blast.'
Still spoke the monk, when the bell tolled one;
I tell you, that a braver man
Than William of Deloraine, good at need,
Against a foe ne'er spurr'd a steed;
Yet somewhat was he chill'd with dread,
And his hair did bristle upon his head.'
The effect, produced by the glare of a sepulchral lamp, on opening Michael Scott's tomb, as well as the appearance and garb of the dead wizard, again call forth Mr. Scott's descriptive powers in the following stanzas:
'With beating heart, to the task he went,
His sinewy frame o'er the grave-stone bent;
With bar of iron heaved amain,
Till the toil-drops fell from his brows like rain.
It was by dint of passing strength,
That he moved the massy stone at length.
I would you had been there to see,
How the light broke forth so gloriously;
Streamed upward to the chancel roof,
And through the galleries far aloof.
No earthly flame blazed e'er so bright;
It shone like heaven's own blessed light;
And issuing from the tomb,
Shewed the monk's cowl, and visage pale,
Danced on the dark-brow'd warrior's mail,
And kissed his waving plume.
'Before their eyes the wizard lay,
As if he had not been dead a day;
His hoary beard in silver rolled,
He seemed some seventy winters old;
A palmer's amice wrapped him round,
With a wrought Spanish baldric bound,
Like a pilgrim from beyond the sea:
His left hand held his hook of might,
A silver cross was in his right,
The lamp was placed beside his knee:
High and majestic was his look,
At which the fetlest friends had shook,
And all unruffled was his face
They trusted his soul had gotten grace.'
The agitation of the monk, at the sight of the man, whom he had loved with brotherly affection, the horror of Deloraine, and his belief that the corpse frowned, as he withdrew the magic volume from its grasp, are, in a succeeding part of the narrative, circumstances, nut more happily conceived, than exquisitely wrought.
A very pretty description of morning, and an interview between Lord Cranstoun and Margaret of Branxholm 'in greenwood shade' affords a good relief to the horrors of the preceding night. While the lovers are engaged in conversation, Lord Cranstoun's horse is held by a goblin dwarf, who serves as sentinel against a surprize, and will hereafter play a principal part in this border drama. The idea of this nondescript monster is borrowed from a tradition, respecting a being, called Gilpin Horner, who made his appearance, and stayed some time at a farm-house on the borders, till he was summoned thence by a shrill voice, which he acknowledged to be the cry of one Peter Bertram, whom he had frequently been heard to call upon. The information, given in a note on this subject, is taken from the account of a gentleman, who minuted many particulars, respecting his appearance and deportment. Mr. Scott has also collected some other anecdotes respecting the imp, from authentic sources; but it does not appear from these, that he was otherwise remarkable than for pinching the children, an inordinate love of cream, (both reasonably good elvish tastes) and for frequently exclaiming, 'Tynt tynt!' which, being interpreted, signifies, 'Lost! lost!' We extract the account of his first introduction to Lord Cranstoun.
'Twas said, when the baron a hunting rode
Thro' Redesdale's glens, but rarely trod,
He heard a voice cry 'Lost, lost, lost!'
And, like tennis ball by racket tost,
A leap of thirty feet and three
Made from the gorse this elfin shape,
Distorted like some dwarfish ape,
And lighted at Lord Cranstoun's knee.
Lord Cranstoun was some whit dismay'd
'Tis said that five good miles he rade,
To rid him of his company;
But where he rode one mile, the dwarf ran four,
And the dwarf was first at the castle door.
Use lessens marvel, it is said
This elvish dwarf with the baron staid;
Little he eat, and less he spoke,
Nor mingled with the menial flock
And oft apart his arms he toss'd,
And often muttered 'Lost! lost! lost!'
The idea of the imp domesticating himself with the first person he met, and subjecting himself to his authority, is perfectly consonant to old opinions. Ben Jonson, in his play of the 'Devil is an Ass,' has founded the leading incident of that comedy upon this article of the popular creed. A fiend, styled Pug, is ambitious of figuring in the world, and petitions his superior for permission to exhibit himself upon earth. The devil grants him a day-rule, but clogs it with this condition:
Satan.—'Only thus more, I bind you
To serve the first man that you meet; and him
I'll shew you now; observe him, follow him;
But once engaged, there you must stay and fix.'
It is observable, that in the same play Pug alludes to the spareness of his diet. M. Scott's goblin, though 'waspish, arch, and litherlie,' proves a faithful and honest retainer to the lord, into whose service he had intruded himself. This sort of inconsistency seems also to form a prominent part of the diabolic character. Thus in the romances of the Round Table, we find Merlin, the son of a devil, exerting himself most zealously in the cause of virtue and of religion, the friend and counsellor of King Arthur, the chastiser of wrongs, and the scourge of the infidels. The imp now gives a proof of his fidelity in making a signal to the lovers to part and fly, Lord Cranstoun, passing eastward through the glade, meets Deloraine, returning from his mission to Melrose. Their feudal hate bursts forth into immediate hostility. In the combat which ensues, the Scott is pierced through by the baron's lance; but he, shocked at the evil he had committed against the kinsman of his love, orders his page to tend the borderer's wounds, and to convey him to Branxholm; while he himself gallops homeward, under the apprehension of a pursuit. The goblin, in exploring Deloraine's wounds, discovers the magic book; but its clasps will not yield to the pressure of an unchristened hand. They at length give way, on being rubbed with the wounded man's curdled gore.
'A moment then the volume spread,
And one short spell therein he read
It had much of glamour might;
Could make a maid appear a knight,
* * * * * * * * *
And youth seem age, and age seem youth.
All was delusion, nothing truth.'
He is discouraged from a farther prosecution of his studies by a severe buffet from an invisible hand; but he had learned what was sufficient for his purpose. He throws Deloraine upon his horse, carries him into Branxholm before the eyes of the warders, who, fascinated by the spell, see nothing but a load of hay pass over the drawbridge. He casts his burden down at the threshold of the lady's bower.
'And but that stronger spells were spread,
He had flung him on, her very bed.
Whate'er he did of gramarye,
Was always done maliciously.'
To counterbalance the good action he had thus ungraciously performed, he now trains the young Buccleuch to the woods under the guise of one of his play-fellows, while he himself, returning to Branxholm, enacts the part of the youthful laird. The little Buccleuch, unable to retrace his footsteps, is made prisoner by two English bowmen. There is much merit in the scene between the boy and the archers, and the description of the garb and manners of the latter, at once picturesque and classical, forms a relief to the other casts of the border soldiery. Thus closes the second day. The evening presents us with a new act, a border alarm. Margaret of Branxholm retires to enjoy 'the house of silence and of rest.'
'Her blue eyes sought the west afar;
For lovers love the western star.
To you the star o'er Penchrych pen,
That rises slowly to her ken,
And spreading broad its wavering light,
Shakes is loose tresses on the night;
Is you red blaze the western star?
Oh! 'tis the beacon blaze of war.'
All is now hurry and preparation within the walls of Branxholm. The measures taken, the orders issued, and the various conjectures which are afloat during the night, respecting the force and object of the enemy, give a singular air of reality to this picture. The dawn displays the smoke of ravaged fields, and shepherds, with their flocks, flying before the storm. Tidings brought by a tenant of the family, not used to seek a shelter on light occasions of alarm, disclose the strength and object of the invaders. This man is a character of a lower and of a rougher cast than Deloraine. The portrait of the rude retainer is sketched with the same masterly hand. Here again Mr. Scott has trod in the footsteps of the old romancers, who confine not themselves to the display of a few personages, who stalk over the stage 'on stately stilts;' but usually reflect all the varieties of character that marked the aera, to which they belong. The interesting example of manners, thus preserved to us is not the only advantage, which results from this peculiar structure of their plan. It is this, amongst other circumstances, which enables them to carry us along with them, under I know not what species of fascination, and to make us, as it were, credulous spectators of their most extravagant scenes. In this they seem to resemble the painter, who, in the delineation of a battle, while he places the adverse heroes of the day, combating in the front, takes care to fill his back ground with subordinate figures, whose appearance adds at once both spirit and an air of probability to the scene.
The following stanzas, describing the march of the English forces, and the investiture of the castle of Branxholm, display a great knowledge of ancient costume, as well as a most picturesque and lively picture of feudal warfare:
'Soon on the hill's steep verge he stood
That looks o'er Branksome's tower and wood;
And martial murmurs from below,
Proclaimed the approaching Southern foe.
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.'
Behind the English bill and bow,
The mercenaries, firm and slow,
Moved on to fight, in dark array,
By Conrad led of Wolfenstein,
Who brought the band from distant Rhine,
And sold their blood for foreign pay.
The camp their home, their law the sword;
They knew no country, owned no lord;
They were not armed like England's sons,
But bore the levin-darting guns;
Buff-coats, all frounced and 'broidered o'er,
And morsing-horns and scarfs they wore;
Each better knee was bared, to aid
The warriors in the escalade;
All, as they marched, in rugged tongue,
Songs of Teutonick feuds they sung.
'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.
So rode they forth in fair array,
Till full their lengthened lines display;
Then called a halt, and made a stand,
And cried, 'St. George, for merry England!'
A parley is now sounded, and the English leaders demand of the Lady of Buccleuch, that William of Deloraine should be delivered up to suffer 'march treason pain' for having slain the brother and 'harried the lands of Richard Musgrave,' and that an English garrison should be received into Branxholm, as a security against the future excesses of her restless clan. In default of this they announce their intention to assault the castle and so carry off the young Buccleuch prisoner, to be educated as a page in King Edward's court. The apprehension, however, of being intercepted in their retreat afterwards induces the invaders to compromise their claims, and refer the issue of the dispute to a duel between Musgrave and Deloraine on the succeeding day.
The hour of combat arrives; the champions engage, and the strife, long doubtful, at length terminates in the defeat and death of Musgrave; when, lo! the supposed Deloraine proves to be the Lord Cranstoun, who through the power of the glamour spell had assumed the appearance of the Scott.
The style of the old romancers has been very successfully imitated in the whole of this scene; and the speech of Deloraine, who, roused from his bed of sickness, rushes into the lists, and apostrophizes his fallen enemy, brought to our recollection, as well from the peculiar turn of expression in its commencement as in the tone of sentiments, which it conveys, some of the "funebres orationes" of the mort Arthur. The victor now leads the young Buccleuch, the prize of combat to his mother, who, overborne by the instances of Howard, the intercessions of the friendly chiefs, and still more by the influence of the stars, consents to an immediate union of the lovers. English and Scotch now adjourn to Branxholm castle to solemnize the spousals. The appearance and dress of the company, assembled in the chapel, and the description of the subsequent feast, in which the hounds and hawks are not the least important personages of the drama, are again happy imitations of those authors, from whose rich but unpolished ore Mr. Scott has wrought much of his most exquisite imagery and description. A society, such as that assembled in Branxholm castle, inflamed with national prejudices, and heated with wine, seems to have contained in itself sufficient seeds of spontaneous disorder; but the goblin page is well introduced, as applying a torch to this mass of combustibles. Quarrels, highly characteristic of border manners, both in their cause and the manner in which they are supported, ensue, as well among the lordly guests, as the yeomen assembled in the buttery. To allay this scene of confusion, the Lady of Buccleuch invites the minstrels to display the powers of their art. The first who steps forth is Albert Graeme of the debateable land. His lay is a border ballad of very simple construction, in stanzas of four lines, with alternate rhymes, the second line of each containing the burden of the 'The sun shines fair on Carlisle wall.' The reader will recollect, that a burden, totally unconnected with the subject, is a very common peculiarity in the old English ballad, and the same singularity appears to exist in the rude and early productions of the North of Europe. It should seem, that this custom had originated in the adoption of the burden, as well as the air of some older composition in productions of an after date, the later minstrel not pausing to inquire, what connection existed between his own ballad and the words he had engrafted on it. In the same manner we have preserved the refrein of a Celtic song in Down derry down, formerly a druidical chant, though now degraded into a chorus for vulgar ballads. Mr. Scott, however, has struck out refinement on the practice of the 'ancient song enditers,' without destroying the resemblance, which he obviously meant to preserve. His burden is not always insulated in the stanza, but sometimes very happily connected with the thread of the narrative. The second minstrel is Fitztraver, formerly bard to the accomplished Surrey, who fell a victim to the jealousy of Henry VIII. and now a retainer to his kinsman Howard. His lay is founded on the story of Cornelius Agrippa having exhibited to his late lord, in a magic mirror, the beautiful Geraldine, the object of his amorous vows, it is written in the stanza of Spencer, and Mr. Scott has shewn a command of that very difficult metre, unattained by any of his predecessors. The only objection to which it seems to be obnoxious, is a more ornate style of expression, than can be justified by the works of any cotemporary poet. The third reciter is a bard from the Orkneys. His lay, as simple in its construction as that of the border minstrel, embraces some of the wilder Scottish superstitions.
These lyrical effusions are all possessed of infinite merit. Estimating them by their intrinsic excellence, perhaps the first place should be assigned to the lay of Fitztraver, and the second to that of the minstrel from the Orkneys. The rank of the border ballad is thus necessarily ascertained. But if tried by another scale, and classed according to the resemblance they bear to productions, of which they are professed imitations, the exact reverse of the order before established will perhaps result from this application of a different test.
At the conclusion of the last lay, the hall is instantaneously darkened, the goblin page sinks terrified to the ground, a thunderbolt bursts upon the wretched imp, the darkness is as suddenly dispersed, the elf is no longer to be found, and Deloraine announces to the terrified guests, that he had seen, amidst these circumstances of terror, the wizard, Michael Scott. Under the impression of his declaration and of the scene, of which she had been a witness, the Lady of Buccleuch renounces for ever the study of magic; and the assembled guests vow a pilgrimage to Melrose, for the repose of the magician's soul. With this procession terminates the action of the poem.
It will be easily believed, that the aged minstrel finds a harbour from future indigence and sorrow, in the munificence of the widow of Monmouth. His dismissal from the scene may in every respect vie with his first introduction, quoted at the commencement of the present critique.
It will be apparent to our readers from the outline here presented to their view, as well as the extracts with which it is interspersed, that Mr. Scott has made the ancient ballads still more than the compositions, which they succeeded, the objects of his imitation. If he is more consistent in his sentiments than he sometimes is in his diction, it must at least be allowed, that he has, in his imitations of ancient style, surpassed all who have laboured in the same vineyard, and that he has shewn no common judgment in that part of his task, which most peculiarly demands the exercise of taste and discrimination. To him may truly be applied the encomium passed by the critic on a celebrated author of antiquity. "Nec temere et passim verba exoleia arripuit, sed ex antiquis solum voces et form as exquisitiores, quibus sermonem suum distingueret, libavit."
The most marked features of his versification are richness, fluency, and strength; but it must be confessed that either an aversion to the limae labor et mora, or a too great affectation of the improvisatore style, (for we know not to which of these two causes the vice is to be assigned) has betrayed him into some as striking anomalies of prosody, as mark the productions of his venerable prototypes.
Such is the outline of the Lay of the last Minstrel. It would be averring too much, to say that defects are not conspicuous in the conduct of the story. The last engine employed is in a strain of miracle unnecessarily violent; it may be said that the rape of the magic volume does not tend to the important events, which its production, under such highly wrought circumstances of terror, would lead us to expect; and the same objections may perhaps be raised to the ministry of the goblin page. But after all, these animadversions will probably share the fate of the censures passed by the commentator on the sylphs of Pope, and the scholia of Poco Curante on the machinery of Homer. They will be allowed as speculative truths, but will take little from the pleasure, or interest, excited by the work before us.
The principal object, as avowed by the author in his introduction, has been completely attained. In descriptions of scenery and manners, Mr. Scott stands unrivalled amidst the poets of the present generation. No beauties of nature, hid from the vulgar eye, escape his observation; while he frequently adorns what is obvious and common, either by novelty of allusion, or felicity of expression. His pictures of border manners and border superstitions are still more striking,' because this species of excellence is yet more rare. In this respect Mr. Scott has enjoyed many advantages, resulting from his own peculiar situation and early habits. Born in the country once pregnant with events, similar to those which big verse portrays, he appears to snatch much of local enthusiasm from the ground he has trod. Nursed amid scenes,
Where every mountain
Inspiration breathed around,
he has caught what fragments of traditionary lore float down the stream of time, he has woven these into his narrative, he has from these given a colouring to what is the offspring of his own vivid imagination, and he has wrought the whole into a tissue, at once beautiful and consistent.
It remains for us but to mention the notes, which contain a great treasure of antiquarian knowledge, but are written in so light and pleasing a style, that they may afford pleasure as well as information to those most averse from black-letter research.