After the unexpected popularity of The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Walter Scott began The Lady of the Lake but laid it aside in favor of Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field (1808), which was again a success with his readers. The Lady of the Lake is now regarded as a better poem than either The Lay of the Last Minstrel or Marmion and is probably read more often. After writing it, Scott created several other long poems of the same kind. His next, The Vision of Don Roderick (1811), failed to satisfy the expectations raised by his former efforts and was made to look all the worse when a previously little-known poet named Lord Byron came out in 1812 with the first half of his electrifying Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which dealt not with the Scottish past but with the English present.
Unwilling as yet to be shunted aside, Scott persevered with Rokeby (1813), a poem set in Yorkshire. He had little firsthand knowledge of that area and lacked the intuitive understanding of its people that had make his Scottish poems so popular; Rokeby, therefore, is the worst of his failures. Scott’s The Bridal of Triermain (1813) is the first of many nineteenth century poems with an Arthurian theme. The Lord of the Isles (1815) and Harold the Dauntless (1817) have Scottish themes and each has some fine elements, but neither equals The Lady of the Lake. By the time they appeared, Scott had lost confidence in his abilities as a poet and was instead committed to a series of influential but anonymous historical novels, of which the first is Waverley: Or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since (1814; begun in 1805). It is his novels for which Scott has become best known by present-day readers.
Scott’s poems were written at a time when poetry was still a more prestigious literary form than prose. At the time of his birth, in 1771, there were few good poets in English literature, and none of them were Scots. Robert Burns, whom Scott met as a boy, became famous for his short poems, called lyrics, which...
(The entire section is 867 words.)