Composed 1807-08, the White Doe of Rylstone revisits the doctrinal conflicts which had preoccupied Spenser; though it eschews Spenser's open partisanship, the narrative is conducted with something very like a Spenserian spirit of wonder and simplicity. The poet said that "he considered The White Doe as, in conception, the highest work he had ever produced. The mere physical action was all unsuccessful" Reminiscences (1836) by the Hon. Mr. Justice Coleridge (1836) in Prose, ed. Grosart (1876) 3:430.
Robert Southey to Walter Scott: "Wordsworth has completed a most masterly poem upon the fate of the Nortons; two or three lines in the old Ballad of the Rising in the North gave him the hint. The story affected me more deeply than I wish to be affected; younger readers, however, will not object to the depth of the distress, — and nothing was ever more ably treated" 11 February 1808; Life and Correspondence (1849-50) 3:131-32.
John Wilson to James Hogg: "The White Doe is not in season; venison is not liked in Edinburgh. It wants flavor; a good Ettrick wether is preferable. Wordsworth has more of the poetical character than any living writer, but he is not a man of first-rate intellect; his genius oversets him" September 1815; in Mary Wilson Gordon, Christopher North (1862; 1894) 130.
William Rowe Lyall: "The White Doe of Rylstone is so out-of-the-way a production, in many respects, that we are not sure but it would be wiser in us gravely to "shake the head" at such a ballad sort of poem, than to risk our authority with the public by recommending it to them as a beautiful performance. It is not, indeed, free from the singularities which arise from the particular point of view in which Mr. Wordsworth likes to look at things; but in the present instance, they fall in not unhappily with the whimsical nature of the subject, and give a tone of colouring to the poem, which, however peculiar, is far from being unpleasing. As a mere narrative, it does not possess much interest; the story is told, as it were, in scraps; a few prominent scenes are selected, and the circumstances which connect them left pretty much to the reader's imagination; and after all, instead of a denouement, we have merely the explanation of a certain strange phenomenon which had puzzled rather than interested our curiosity" Quarterly Review 14 (October 1815) 210-11.
Francis Jeffrey: "This, we think, has the merit of being the very worst poem we ever saw imprinted in a quarto volume; and though it was scarcely to be expected, we confess, that Mr. Wordsworth, with all his ambition, should so soon have attained to that distinction, the wonder may perhaps be diminished, when we state, that it seems to its to consist of a happy union of all the faults, without any of the beauties, which belong to his school of poetry. It is just such a work, in short, as some wicked enemy of that school might be supposed to have devised, on purpose to make it ridiculous; and when we first took it up, we could not help fancying that some ill-natured critic had taken this harsh method of instructing Mr. Wordsworth, by example, in the nature of those errors, against which our precepts had been so often directed in vain. We had not gone far, however, till we felt intimately, that nothing in the nature of a joke could be so insupportably dull; — and that this must be the work of one who honestly believed it to be a pattern of pathetic simplicity, and gave it out as such to the admiration of all intelligent readers. In this point of view, the work may, be regarded as curious at least, if not in some degree interesting; and, at all events, it must be instructive to be made aware of the excesses into which superior understandings may be betrayed, by long self-indulgence, and the strange extravagances into which they may run, when under the influence of that intoxication which is produced by unrestrained admiration of themselves" Edinburgh Review 25 (October 1815) 355.
The Sun : "But we wish to observe, that one of the chief errors of this School is, in aiming at nature and simplicity, to employ low, ambiguous, and vulgar language, which is more apt to debase the sentiment than to be exalted by the sentiment.... Our objections are equally strong to the jargon about 'presences,' 'influences,' 'mortal,' and other words of the same class, which are so largely employed without definite meaning, and seem rather the type of some mystical confusion in the mind of the writer, than the sign of any rational and embodied idea. Yet with all these defects, there is a charm in this species of poetry, as we think our extracts will prove, which leads us to admire while we lament, and to love while we reprove. We wish sincerely there were more of the genuine gold, and less of the dross; more of true feeling, and less waste of morbid affections; and that we might prolong these remarks by further specimens of the beauties of the White Doe, even though we seem rather to have transgressed our limits" (16 August 1815).
Gentleman's Magazine: "In this Poem Mr. Wordsworth has displayed a richness of fancy and a tenderness of feeling which place him in a high rank among the living Poets of his Country. It is not merely by proving himself to be endowed with those qualities that he merits this distinction; it is by the power which he exercises, apparently without effort, over the minds of his readers; by the artless and natural touches with which he excites and kindles emotions congenial with his own; and by his skill in awakening those simple tones of real pathos, to which every heart, alive to the charms of Poetry, must vibrate in unison. Heretofore he has been censured, and even ridiculed, for debasing these powers, for the homeliness of his diction, and the want of dignity in his characters, but in the present case such censure would be misplaced, and the ingenious severity of criticism will not easily find matter for ridicule" 85 (December 1815) 524.
Quarterly Review: "The first Canto opens with the introduction of the 'White Doe;' and she is ushered in with some very pleasing lines.... Our readers may remember, that in the twelfth year of Queen Elizabeth, a sort of plot was set on foot, at the head of which were the Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland, for the purpose of inducing Queen Elizabeth to consent to the marriage of the Duke of Norfolk with Mary Queen of Scots. The Earl of Leicester had undertaken to break the matter to the Queen, with the view of gaining her acquiescence; but, in the mean time, the affair reached her ears from some other quarter, and the anger which she evinced so terrified the parties in the business, that those in the north deemed their safest chance would be found in open rebellion. Among them was Richard Norton, a gentleman of large property and warmly attached to the Roman Catholic persuasion, with eight of his sons. His eldest son, Francis, stood aloof, refusing to desert his father, and yet resolved not to raise his arm in a cause, and for a religion, which he, as well as his sister Emily, strongly disapproved" 14 (October 1815) 211-13.
European Magazine: "In the general cast and character of this poem, there is something very analogous to those chivalrous legends so popular in ancient times, and for which the taste of the present age has been successfully excited by the fertile and romantic genius of Walter Scott. The Rising of the North, under the Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland, in the reign of Elizabeth; the tragic fate of the Nortons, of Rylstone, who distinguished himself in that rash insurrection; and the mysterious tradition of a white doe, which, for years after, performed a weekly pilgrimage to the grave of the last of their race, are themes which would spontaneously call forth the enthusiasm of the later minstrels, and particularly of him who sung the restoration of the good Lord Clifford" 69 (March 1816) 237.
Joseph Devey: "Wordsworth only tried his hand at one narrative poem [The White Doe of Rylstone], which has the unlucky distinction of being the worst in the language; Byron wrote several, and nearly all of first-class excellence" A Comparative View of Modern English Poets (1873) 188.
Oliver Elton: "The writing is purer than Scott's; there is none of the made-up diction into which Marmion tends to slide. In one way, Wordsworth's heroic muse somewhat defeats his end, for the imagination lingers less over the 'legitimate catastrophe,' which he tells us is the power of the Lady Emily to 'finally secure | O'er pain and grief a triumph pure' than over the fall of Francis as he clasps the banner of the Nortons and defies the treacherous odds. But the last scenes are in a vaporous, ethereal, holy strain unlike all else in Wordsworth. He is master there of an enchanted territory of which we did not know before" Survey of English Literature 1780-1830 (1912) 2:77.
Alice Pattee Comparetti: "If our poet recognized in Spenser's Una, not truth simply, but the True Church, and in Duessa, not falsehood merely, but the False Church, he counted the Nortons among the 'many errant knights' brought to wretchedness by Duessa, and in thought compared the unholy figures of Faerie Queene, Book One, and the wilful figures of Books Two with the two Earls and Richard Norton, men who suffered from their 'headstrong will.' We, too, may make a comparison, one which reveals Wordsworth's characteristic method. Una is the True Church; Emily, though of the Church, and loyal, is a woman, not a type; just so the doe is not a spirit, but an animal still, though spiritualized. Wordsworth is not an allegorical poet; his agents are real creatures, and have real, though typical emotions. He leaves allegory and theology to Spenser and Dryden. In the Shepherds Calendar Spenser may well represent Christians and Papists as kid and fox; Dryden, in his poem, the Roman Church and the Anglican as hind and panther. But the white doe, 'daughter of the Eternal Prime,' representing, indeed, the influence of religion — in Wordsworth's characteristic way — the white doe is a natural form, not a dogmatic one. Her influence therefore is upon the imagination and faith rather than upon the rational faculty or in the way of formal and theological doctrine. And though Wordsworth has reflected upon the Church-history of The Faerie Queene and The Hind and the Panther, upon the religious use of the white fawn of Sertorius, and doubtless upon the traditional Christian as well as the classical significance of the hind and stag in religion, his poem is a thing unique; The White Doe of Rylstone is the most spiritual of all" White Doe (1940) 112-13.
W. J. B. Owen notes "the role of Una as a model for Emily, the heroine of The White Doe, as a noble, long-suffering, and deserted woman, who is associated with gentle beasts and who eventually achieves spiritual repose" Spenser Encyclopedia (1990) 736.
From Bolton's old monastic tower
The bells ring loud with gladsome power;
The sun is bright; the fields are gay
With people in their best array
Of stole and doublet, hood and scarf,
Along the banks of the crystal Wharf,
Through the Vale retired and lowly,
Trooping to that summons holy.
And, up among the moorlands, see
What sprinklings of blithe company!
Of lasses and of shepherd grooms,
That down the steep hills force their way,
Like cattle through the budded brooms;
Path, or no path, what care they?
And thus in joyous mood they hie
To Bolton's mouldering Priory.
What would they there? — Full fifty years
That sumptuous Pile, with all its peers,
Too harshly hath been doomed to taste
The bitterness of wrong and waste:
Its courts are ravaged; but the tower
Is standing with a voice of power,
That ancient voice which wont to call
To mass or some high festival;
And in the shattered fabric's heart
Remaineth one protected part;
A rural Chapel, neatly drest,
In covert like a little nest;
And thither young and old repair,
This Sabbath-day, for praise and prayer.
Fast the church-yard fills; — anon
Look again, and they all are gone;
The cluster round the porch, and the folk
Who sate in the shade of the Prior's Oak!
And scarcely have they disappeared
Ere the prelusive hymn is heard:—
With one consent the people rejoice,
Filling the church with a lofty voice!
They sing a service which they feel:
For 'tis the sun-rise now of zeal,
And faith and hope are in their prime,
In great Eliza's golden time.
A moment ends the fervent din,
And all is hushed, without and within;
For, though the priest more tranquilly
Recites the holy liturgy,
The only voice which you can hear
Is the river murmuring near.
—When soft! — the dusky trees between,
And down the path through the open green,
Where is no living thing to be seen;
And through yon gateway, where is found,
Beneath the arch with ivy bound,
Free entrance to the church-yard ground;
And right across the verdant sod
Towards the very house of God;
—Comes gliding in with lovely gleam,
Comes gliding in serene and slow,
Soft and silent as a dream,
A solitary Doe!
White she is as lily of June,
And beauteous as the silver moon
When out of sight the clouds are driven,
And she is left alone in heaven;
Or like a ship some gentle day
In sunshine sailing far away,
A glittering ship, that hath the plain
Of ocean for her own domain.
Lie silent in your graves ye dead!
Lie quiet in your church-yard bed!
Ye living tend your holy cares,
Ye multitude pursue your prayers,
And blame not me if my heart and sight
Are occupied with one delight!
'Tis a work for sabbath hours
If I with this bright Creature go;
Whether she be of forest bowers,
From the bowers of earth below;
Or a Spirit, for one day given,
A gift of grace from purest heaven.
What harmonious pensive changes
Wait upon her as she ranges
Round and through this Pile of state,
Overthrown and desolate!
Now a step or two her way
Is through space of open day,
Where the enamoured sunny light
Brightens her that was so bright;
Now doth a delicate shadow fall,
Falls upon her like a breath,
From some lofty arch or wall,
As she passes underneath:
Now some gloomy nook partakes
Of the glory that she makes,—
High-ribbed vault of stone, or cell
With perfect cunning framed as well
Of stone, and ivy, and the spread
Of the elder's bushy head;
Some jealous and forbidding cell,
That doth the living stars repel,
And where no flower hath leave to dwell.
The presence of this wandering Doe
Fills many a damp obscure recess
With lustre of a saintly show;
And, re-appearing, she no less
To the open day gives blessedness.
But say, among these holy places,
Which thus assiduously she paces,
Comes she with a votary's task,
Rite to perform, or boon to ask
Fair Pilgrim! harbours she a sense
Of sorrow, or of reverence?
Can she be grieved for quire or shrine,
Crushed as if by wrath divine?
For what survives of house where God
Was worshipped, or where Man abode;
For old magnificence undone;
Or for the gentler work begun
By Nature, softening and concealing,
And busy with a hand of healing,—
The altar, whence the cross was rent,
Now rich with mossy ornament,—
The dormitory's length laid bare,
Where the wild-rose blossoms fair;
And sapling ash, whose place of birth
Is that lordly chamber's hearth?
—She sees a warrior carved in stone
Among the thick weeds stretched alone;
A warrior, with his shield of pride
Cleaving humbly to his side,
And hands in resignation prest,
Palm to palm, on his tranquil breast:
Methinks she passeth by the sight,
As a common creature might:
If she be doomed to inward care,
Or service, it must lie elsewhere.
—But hers are eyes serenely bright,
And on she moves, with pace how light!
Nor spares to stoop her head, and taste
The dewy turf with flowers bestrown;
And in this way she fares, till at last
Beside the ridge of a grassy grave
In quietness she lays her down;
Gently as a weary wave
Sinks, when the summer breeze hath died,
Against an anchored vessel's side;
Even so, without distress, doth she
Lie down in peace, and lovingly.
The day is placid in its going,
To a lingering motion bound,
Like the river in its flowing;
Can there be a softer sound?
So the balmy minutes pass,
While this radiant Creature lies
Couched upon the dewy grass,
Pensively with downcast eyes.
—When now again the people rear
A voice of praise, with awful chear!
It is the last, the parting song;
And from the temple forth they throng—
And quickly spread themselves abroad—
While each pursues his several road.
But some, a variegated band
Of middle-aged, and old, and young,
And little children by the hand
Upon their leading mothers hung,
Turn, with obeisance gladly paid,
Towards the spot, where, full in view,
The lovely Doe of whitest hue,
Her sabbath couch has made.
It was a solitary mound;
Which two spears' length of level ground
Did from all other graves divide:
As if in some respect of pride;
Or melancholy's sickly mood,
Still shy of human neighbourhood;
Or guilt, that humbly would express
A penitential loneliness.
"Look, there she is, my Child! draw near;
She fears not, wherefore should we fear?
She means no harm;" — but still the Boy,
To whom the words were softly said,
Hung back, and smiled and blushed for joy,
A shame-faced blush of glowing red!
Again the Mother whispered low,
"Now you have seen the famous Doe;
From Rylstone she hath found her way
Over the hills this sabbath-day;
Her work, whate'er it be, is done,
And she will depart when we are gone;
Thus doth she keep, from year to year,
Her sabbath morning, foul or fair."
This whisper soft repeats what he
Had known from early infancy.
Bright is the Creature — as in dreams
The Boy had seen her — yea more bright—
But is she truly what she seems?—
He asks with insecure delight,
Asks of himself — and doubts — and still
The doubt returns against his will:
Though he, and all the standers-by,
Could tell a tragic history
Of facts divulged, wherein appear
Substantial motive, reason clear,
Why thus the milk-white Doe is found
Couchant beside that lonely mound;
And why she duly loves to pace
The circuit of this hallowed place.
Nor to the Child's enquiring mind
Is such perplexity confined:
For, 'spite of sober truth, that sees
A world of fixed remembrances
Which to this mystery belong,
If, undeceived, my skill can trace
The characters of every face,
There lack not strange delusion here
Conjecture vague, and idle fear,
And superstitious fancies strong,
Which do the gentle Creature wrong.
That bearded, staff-supported Sire,
(Who in his youth had often fed
Full cheerily on convent-bread,
And heard old tales by the convent-fire,
And lately hath brought home the scars
Gathered in long and distant wars)
That Old Man — studious to expound
The spectacle — hath mounted high
To days of dim antiquity;
When Lady Aaliza, mourned
Her Son, and felt in her despair,
The pang of unavailing prayer;
Her Son in Wharf's abysses drowned,
The noble Boy of Egremound.
From which affliction, when God's grace
At length had in her heart found place,
A pious structure, fair to see,
Rose up — this stately Priory!
The Lady's work — but now laid low;
To the grief of her soul that doth come and go,
In the beautiful form of this innocent Doe:
Which, though seemingly doomed in its breast to sustain
A softened remembrance of sorrow and pain,
Is spotless, and holy, and gentle, and bright,—
And glides o'er the earth like an angel of light.
Pass, pass who will, yon chantry door;
And, through the chink in the fractured floor
Look down, and see a griesly sight;
A vault where the bodies are buried upright!
There face by face, and hand by hand,
The Claphams and Mauleverers stand:
And, in his place, among son and sire,
Is John de Clapham, that fierce Esquire,—
A valiant man, and, a name of dread,
In the ruthless wars of the White and Red;—
Who dragged Earl Pembroke from Banbury church,
And smote off his head on the stones of the porch!
Look down among them, if you dare;
Oft does the White Doe loiter there,
Prying into the darksome rent;
Nor can it be with good intent:—
So thinks that Dame of haughty air,
Who hath a Page her book to hold,
And wears a frontlet edged with gold.
Well may her thoughts be harsh; for she
Numbers among her ancestry
Earl Pembroke, slain so impiously!
That slender Youth, a scholar pale,
From Oxford come to his native vale,
He also hath his own conceit
It is, thinks he, the gracious Fairy,
Who loved the Shepherd Lord to meet
In his wanderings solitary;
Wild notes she in his hearing sang,
A song of Nature's hidden powers
That whistled like the wind, and rang
Among the rocks and holly bowers.
'Twas said that she all shapes could wear;
And oftentimes before him stood,
Amid the trees of some thick wood,
In semblance of a lady fair,
And taught him signs, and shewed him sights,
In Craven's dens, on Cumbria's heights;
When under cloud of fear he lay,
A shepherd clad in homely grey,
Nor left him at his later day.
And hence, when he, with spear and shield,
Rode full of years to Flodden field,
His eye could see the hidden spring,
And how the current was to flow;
The fatal end of Scotland's King,
And all that hopeless overthrow.
But not in wars did he delight,
This Clifford wished for worthier might;
Nor in broad pomp, or courtly state;
Him his own thoughts did elevate,—
Most happy in the shy recess
Of Barden's humble quietness.
And choice of studious friends had he
Of Bolton's dear fraternity;
Who, standing on this old church tower,
In many a calm propitious hour,
Perused, with him, the starry sky;—
Or in their cells with him did pry
For other lore, — through strong desire
Searching the earth with chemic fire:
But they and their good works are fled—
And all is now disquieted—
And peace is none, for living or dead!
Ah, pensive Scholar! think not so,
But look again at the radiant Doe!
What quiet watch she seems to keep,
Alone, beside that grassy heap!
Why mention other thoughts unmeet
For vision so composed and sweet?
While stand the people in a ring,
Gazing, doubting, questioning;
Yea, many overcome in spite
Of recollections clear and bright;
Which yet do unto some impart
An undisturbed repose of heart.
And all the assembly own a law
Of orderly respect and awe;
But see — they vanish, one by one,
And last, the Doe herself is gone.
Harp! we have been full long beguiled
By busy dreams, and fancies wild;
To which, with no reluctant strings,
Thou hast attuned thy murmurings;
And now before this Pile we stand
In solitude, and utter peace:
But, harp! thy murmurs may not cease,—
Thou hast breeze-like visitings;
For a Spirit with angel wings
Hath touched thee, and a Spirit's hand:
A voice is with us — a command
To chaunt, in strains of heavenly glory,
A tale of tears, a mortal story!