The White Doe of Rylstone. Canto VI.

The White Doe of Rylstone; or the Fate of the Nortons, a Poem. By William Wordsworth.

William Wordsworth

Quarterly Review: "In the sixth Canto we return to Francis; who, having quitted the 'doleful city' at the moment when his father and brothers were about to breathe their last, travelled on for many miles, unconscious of every thing except the sad scene which he had quitted; suddenly he was recalled to himself by the sight of the banner, and by the recollection of the imprudent promise which he had made to his father. After a strong internal conflict, he resolves, 'come weal or woe,' to fulfil it, and however much he disapproved of the cause in which the banner had been raised, to place it nevertheless upon the shrine as a sad relic of those who were now no more. With this determination he journeyed on, and was already within sight of the 'Town of Bolton,' when he was overtaken by a party of horse under the command of Sir George Bowes: no other proof of his treason seemed necessary than that which he bore in his hand; accordingly, orders are given to secure his person: Francis resists; he is slain, the banner taken from his grasp, 'and the body left on the ground where it lay'" 14 (October 1815) 220-21.

Literary Speculum: "The White Doe of Rylstone is destitute of that directness of incident and character which is absolutely necessary in narrative poems; there is little or nothing to keep alive the attention in this work, the pages leave us in no doubt as to the catastrophe, and there is no veil to remove, no circumstance to elucidate, no excitement to curiosity. The story too, such as it is, is told in a vague, rambling manner, far from calculated to hide the deficiency of interest. The hapless Nortons are brought before us, dim and half defined as the shadowy character of a dream; even Emily, the sainted Emily, is an untangible abstraction, for which we can feel but little sympathy, rather than a being of flesh and blood, whose joys and sorrows are like our own. On these accounts principally, the White Doe has failed to obtain the praise, which its great beauties seem to deserve. For excellence in composition in detached portions of the work, cannot supply the absence of that animating spirit, which in the poetry of Byron and Scott exercises so decided a mastery over our feelings" 1 (May 1822) 440-41.

Why comes not Francis? — Joyful chear
In that parental gratulation,
And glow of righteous indignation,
Went with him from the doleful City:—
He fled — yet in his flight could hear
The death-sound of the Minster-bell;
That sullen stroke pronounced farewell
To Marmaduke, cut off from pity!
To Ambrose that! and then a knell
For him, the sweet half-opened Flower!
For all — all dying in one hour!
—Why comes not Francis? Thoughts of love
Should bear him to his Sister dear
With motion fleet as winged Dove;
Yea, like a heavenly Messenger,
An Angel-guest, should he appear.
Why comes he not? — for westward fast
Along the plain of York he past;
The Banner-staff was in his hand,
The Imagery concealed from sight,
And cross the expanse, in open flight,
Reckless of what impels or leads,
Unchecked he hurries on; — nor heeds
The sorrow of the Villages;
From the triumphant cruelties
Of vengeful military force,
And punishment without remorse,
Unchecked he journies — under law
Of inward occupation strong;
And the first object which he saw,
With conscious sight, as he swept along,—
It was the Banner in his hand!
He felt, and made a sudden stand.

He looked about like one betrayed:
What hath he done? what promise made?
Oh weak, weak moment! to what end
Can such a vain oblation tend,
And he the Bearer? — Can he go
Carrying this Instrument of woe,
And find, find any where, a right
To excuse him in his Country's sight?
No, will not all Men deem the change
A downward course, perverse and strange?
Here is it, — but how, when? must she,
The unoffending Emily,
Again this piteous object see?

Such conflict long did he maintain
Within himself, and found no rest;
Calm liberty he could not gain;
And yet the service was unblest.
His own life into danger brought
By this sad burden — even that thought
Raised self-suspicion which was strong,
Swaying the brave Man to his wrong:
And how, unless it were the sense
Of all-disposing Providence,
Its will intelligibly shewn,
Finds he the Banner in his hand,
Without a thought to such intent,
Or conscious effort of his own?
And no obstruction to prevent
His Father's wish and last command!
And, thus beset, he heaved a sigh;
Remembering his own prophecy
Of utter desolation, made
To Emily in the yew-tree shade:
He sighed, submitting to the power,
The might of that prophetic hour.
"No choice is left, the deed is mine—
Dead are they, dead! — and I will go,
And, for their sakes, come weal or woe,
Will lay the Relic on the shrine."

So forward with a steady will
He went, and traversed plain and hill;
And up the vale of Wharf his way
Pursued; — and, on the second day,
He reached a summit whence his eyes
Could see the Tower of Bolton rise.
There Francis for a moment's space
Made halt — but hark! a noise behind
Of Horsemen at an eager pace!
He heard and with misgiving mind.
—'Tis Sir George Bowes who leads the Band:
They come, by cruel Sussex sent;
Who, when the Nortons from the hand
Of Death had drunk their punishment,
Bethought him, angry and ashamed,
How Francis had the Banner claimed,
And with that charge had disappeared;
By all the Standers-by revered.
His whole bold carriage (which had quelled
Thus far the Opposer, and repelled
All censure, — enterprise so bright
That even bad Men had vainly striven
Against that overcoming light)
Was then reviewed, and prompt word given,
That to what place soever fled
He should be seized, alive or dead.

The troop of horse have gained the height
Where Francis stood in open sight.
They hem him round — "Behold the proof,
Behold the Ensign in his hand!
He did not arm, he walked aloof!
For why? — to save his Father's Land;—
Worst Traitor of them all is he,
A Traitor dark and cowardly!"

"I am no Traitor," Francis said,
"Though this unhappy freight I bear;
It weakens me, my heart hath bled
Till it is weak — but you beware,
Nor do a suffering Spirit wrong,
Whose self-reproaches are too strong!"
At this he from the beaten road
Retreated towards a brake of thorn,
Which like a place of 'vantage shewed;
And there stood bravely, though forlorn.
In self-defence with a Warrior's brow
He stood, — nor weaponless was now;
He from a Soldier's hand had snatched
A spear, — and with his eyes he watched
Their motions, turning round and round:—
His weaker hand the Banner held;
And straight by savage zeal impelled
Forth rushed a Pikeman, as if he,
Not without harsh indignity,
Would seize the same: — instinctively—
To smite the Offender — with his lance
Did Francis from the brake advance;
But, from behind, a treacherous wound
Unfeeling, brought him to the ground,
A mortal stroke: — oh, grief to tell!
Thus, thus, the noble Francis fell:
There did he lie of breath forsaken;
The Banner from his grasp was taken,
And borne exultingly away;
And the Body was left on the ground where it lay.

Two days, as many nights, he slept
Alone, unnoticed, and unwept;
For at that time distress and fear
Possessed the Country far and near;
The third day, One, who chanced to pass,
Beheld him stretched upon the grass.
A gentle Forester was he,
And of the Norton Tenantry;
And he had heard that by a Train
Of Horsemen Francis had been slain.
Much was he troubled — for the Man
Hath recognized his pallid face;
And to the nearest Huts he ran,
And called the People to the place.
—How desolate is Rylstone-hall!
Such was the instant thought of all;
And if the lonely Lady there
Should be, this sight she cannot bear!
Such thought the Forester express'd,
And all were swayed, and deemed it best
That, if the Priest should yield assent
And join himself to their intent,
Then, they, for Christian pity's sake,
In holy ground a grave would make;
That straightway buried he should be
In the Church-yard of the Priory.

Apart, some little space, was made
The grave where Francis must be laid.
In no confusion or neglect
This did they, — but in pure respect
That he was born of gentle Blood;
And that there was no neighbourhood
Of kindred for him in that ground:
So to the Church-yard they are bound,
Bearing the Body on a bier
In decency and humble chear;
And psalms are sung with holy sound.

But Emily hath raised her head,
And is again disquieted;
She must behold! — so many gone,
Where is the solitary One?
And forth from Rylstone-hall stepped she,—
To seek her Brother forth she went
And tremblingly her course she bent
Tow'rds Bolton's ruined Priory.
She comes, and in the Vale hath heard
The Funeral dirge; — she sees the Knot
Of people, sees them in one spot—
And darting like a wounded Bird
She reached the grave, and with her breast
Upon the ground received the rest,—
The consummation, the whole ruth
And sorrow of this final truth!

[pp. 97-107]