1810
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Lady of the Lake; a Poem.

The Lady of the Lake; a Poem.

Sir Walter Scott


Walter Scott opens his most popular poem with the famous apostrophe to the "harp of the North!," a passage echoed in several later poems in Spenserian stanzas. Compare "An Address to the Harp of Miss C— of Richmond [Virginia]" which opens: "Harp of the South!" The Port Folio S3 6 (December 1811) 604; or George Colman the Youngers's parody, "Lady of the Wreck" in Poetical Vagaries (1812) which begins: "Harp of the Pats! that rotting long hast lain | On the soft bosom of St. Allen's bog." Thirteen prefatory Spenserians stanzas appear in the course of the six cantos of Scott's tangled tale of Highland intrigue.

Francis Hodgson: "Why will not Mr. Scott more frequently write in the manly and poetical style of the Introduction to his first canto? 'Harp of the North! that mouldering long has hung | On the witch-elm of that shades Saint Fillan's spring [...]' This is a measure worthy to try the strength of a poet. The verse of eight feet is boy's play compared to it; although we are happy in bearing testimony to the improvement of the author in the regularity of his verse. His rugged lines are much fewer than in his former poems; — but we must observe a carelessness in suffering similar rhymes to recur much too frequently; and a correct ear would have avoided the homotononous terminations of the first five lines of the above extract" Monthly Review NS 62 (June 1810) 190.

Francis Jeffrey: "Of this, upon the whole, we are inclined to think more highly than of either of his former publications. We are more sure, however, that it has fewer faults, than that it has greater beauties; and as its beauties bear a strong resemblance to those with which the public has already been made familiar in these celebrated works, we should not be surprised if its popularity were less splendid and remarkable. For our own parts, however, we are of opinion, that it will be oftener read hereafter than either of them; and that, if it had appeared first in the series, their reception would have been less favourable than that which it has experienced. It is more polished in its diction, and more regular in its versification; the story is constructed with infinitely more skill and address; there is a greater proportion of pleasing and tender passages, with much less antiquarian detail; and, on the whole, a larger variety of characters, more artfully and judiciously contrasted. There is nothing so fine, perhaps, as the battle in Marmion — or so picturesque as some of the scattered sketches in the Lay; but there is a richness and a spirit in the whole piece, which does not pervade either of these poems, — a profusion of incident, and shifting brilliancy of colouring, that reminds us of the witchery of Ariosto, — and a constant elasticity, and occasional energy, which seem to belong more peculiarly to the author now before us" Edinburgh Review 16 (August 1810) 273-74.

Monthly Anthology and Boston Review: "The Lady of the Lake, if it should not brighten, can never, we think, tarnish the lustre of those armorial bearings, which, as the finest poet of the age, and a lineal descendant in poetick feeling from Spenser, Mr. Scott may justly challenge for his own, by a better title than letters patent or blood" 9 (November 1810) 340.

Port Folio: "And are we after all gravely called upon to prove Mr. Scott a true poet? Shall we attempt to silence the cavils of those who while perspiring under the rays of a summer sun, shortly declare in opposition to the evidence of their own senses, that his beams are only icicles? Some indeed have carried their antipathy to Walter Scott so far as to deny to his page any poetical merit. We wish not to handle the gentle insects that alight on the loveliest blossoms of Parnassus, not to inhale their fragrance, or to batten on their blooms; but to turn away their silky wings in quest of more delicate nutriment. They were not made for the touch, their substance is too fragile and almost dissolves in its own delicacy. The softest hues of the humming-bird are too harsh for their vision, the most delicate gales of Arabia too offensive to their nostrils — a race that seem to hold an intermediate state of existence between a dewdrop and a dream" S3 4 (November 1810) 404.

Poetical Register for 1810-11: "As a whole, we think The Lady of the Lake is superior either to The Lay of the Last Minstrel or to Marmion. The tone of it is more uniformly sustained. On Mr. Scott's descriptive powers it is perfectly unnecessary to enlarge; and, after what we have said, it is scarcely necessary even to add, that in The Lady of the Lake he displays those powers to their utmost extent. The story is highly interesting, and is managed with skill; and some of the characters are delineated with a masterly hand" (1814) 548.

Sir James Mackintosh: "Finished the Lady of the Lake. Walter Scott is 'a bard of martial lay.' The disposition to celebrate the chivalrous manners and martial virtues of the middle ages arose principally from the love of contrast, in the refined and pacific period which preceded the French Revolution. Dr. Percy and Tom Warton began it; it was brightened by a ray from the genius of Gray; it has flourished in the seventeen years' war which has followed; you read it in the songs of Burns; it breathes through Hohenlinden and Lochiel [by Thomas Campbell]. Walter Scott is a poet created by it" 20 January 1811; in Life of Sir James Mackintosh (1853) 2:81.

William Hazlitt: "His imagery is gothic and grotesque. The manners and actions have the interest and curiosity belonging to a wild country and a distant period of time. Few descriptions have a more complete reality, a more striking appearance of life and motion, than that of the warriors in the Lady of the Lake, who start up at the command of Rhoderic Dhu from their concealment under the fern, and disappear again in an instant" Lectures on the English Poets (1818, 1909) 206.

Henry Nelson Coleridge: "That to Coleridge and Wordsworth the poetry, the philosophy, and the criticism of the present day, does actually owe its peculiar character, and its distinguishing excellence over that of the last century, those who would trace the origin of the present opinions back for thirty years would find no difficulty in believing.... The author of The Lay of the Last Minstrel can best tell what poem was the motive of his own work, and the Lady of the Lake is indebted almost for the very words of many of its most admired passages to Wordsworth's Poems" The Etonian No. IV (1821); 1823) 1:419.

Charles Burton: "His mode of introducing and terminating the poem by the prologue and epilogue to his harp; and of relieving the cantos by apostrophes to nature, and diversifying them with the song of the Bard and the Huntsman, has an effect by no means inferior to the Chorus of the Greek Tragedy. Before the Lady of the Lake, as far as I can recollect, the same peculiar style and plan had never been adopted. And yet, when we consider the history of Celtic Bards and Border Minstrelsy, we wonder that the Poets of Caledonia had no sooner adopted it" in The Bardiad; a Poem (1823) 104-05n.

Allan Cunningham: "The Lady of the Lake, written in 1809, and published in 1810, I have always considered as the most interesting of all the epic stories which Scott told in verse: nor is this all the merit; it is very various and picturesque, full of fine situations, and incident, and character. I suspect that its success arose mainly from the sort of sett-off, which the highland tartan made against the hoddin gray of the lowlands; the demi-barbarous heroism of the mountains, against the more polished generosity of the vales. All this was new to the world, and novelty is an attractive commodity, and rather a scarce one. The poems of Ossian gave us the feelings and manners of a remote era, but did not contain a single picture of what could be confirmed by tradition or by history; they were also reckoned spurious by very sensible men. Scott had therefore no rival to remove from the people's love; nor had any poet arisen, whose song was so agreeable to the world as his own" The Athenaeum (6 October1832) 644.

Henry Augustus Beers: "In the series of long poems which followed the 'Lay,' Scott deserted the Border and brought in new subjects of romantic interest, the traditions of Flodden and Bannockburn, the manners of the Gaelic clansmen, and the wild scenery of the Perthshire Highlands, the life of the Western Islands, and the rugged coasts of Argyle. Only two of these tales are concerned with the Middle Ages, strictly speaking: The Lord of the Isles (1813), in which the action begins in 1307; and Harold the Dauntless (1817), in which the period is the time of the Danish settlements in Northumbria. Rokeby (1812) is concerned with the Civil War. The scene is laid in Yorkshire. Marmion (1808), and The Lady of the Lake (1810), like The Lay of the Last Minstrel, had to do with the sixteenth century, but the poet imported mediaeval elements into all of these by the frankest anachronisms" Romanticism in the Nineteenth Century (1901) 29.

Herbert E. Cory: "What Scott found in Spenser was the dim forest, the furtive flash of armor as the sun stole through at intervals, silent maidens who were to Scott mere vague flowers of mediaeval landscape, and ever and anon a great castle upleaping unexpectedly in the silver winding path. Even in the breathless flow of his narrative Scott delighted to pause and to consider these lovely scenes. So he hit upon the happy device of using Spenser in a rather novel way. In almost all his narrative poems he introduced Spenserian stanzas, generally at the opening of his cantos, to make a setting before the quick beat of the free tetrameters called to arms. He showed a relic of Augustan-Spenserianism by occasionally employing the stanza of The Faerie Queene for a moralistic prelude or interlude, as the master himself did. Finally he strewed his narrative with allusions to the beautiful pictures in The Faerie Queene. In some of his later poems the influence of Byron's Childe Harold tinged his introductory Spenserian stanzas. But, in general, the landscapes thus introduced are not disturbed by the more personal, stormier note of Byron" "Critics of Edmund Spenser" UCPMP (1911) 174.

James Hogg imitates the Lady of the Lake in his "Mador of the Moor" (1816), written in Spenserian stanzas.



Harp of the North! that mouldering long hast hung
On the witch-elm that shades Saint Fillan's spring
And down the fitful breeze thy numbers flung
Till envious ivy did around thee cling,
Muffling with verdant ringlet every string,—
O minstrel harp, still must thine accents sleep?
'Mid rustling leaves and fountains murmuring,
Still must thy sweeter sounds their silence keep,
Nor bid a warrior smile, nor teach a maid to weep?

Not thus, in ancient days of Caledon,
Was thy voice must amid the festal crowd,
When lay of hopeless love, or glory won,
Aroused the fearful, or subdued the proud.
At each according pause was heard aloud
Thine ardent symphony sublime and high!
Fair dames and crested chiefs attention bow'd;
For still the burden of thy minstrelsy
Was Knighthood's dauntless deed, and Beauty's matchless eye.

O wake once more! how rude soe'er the hand
That ventures o'er thy magic maze to stray;
O wake once more! though scarce my skill command
Some feeble echoing of thine earlier lay:
Though harsh and faint, and soon to die away,
And all unworthy of thy nobler stain,
Yet if one heart throb higher at its sway,
The wizard note has not been touch'd in vain.
Then silent be no more! Enchantress, wake again!

[Canto 1, stanzas 1-3; Robertson (1904) 207]