Sir Walter Scott’s poetry, unlike that of his Romantic contemporaries, is vigorous, high-spirited, and unreflective. Scott delighted in war and pageantry, in the rich traditions of antiquity. As a Scottish poet born among a people who sought action, he was drawn to his heritage, to his connections with the border chieftains and the House of Buccleuch. Thus, his narrative poems and ballads reflect the character of a strong and proud man who, though he was lame, dreamed of the ultimate masculine activities: of chivalry, adventure, the qualities of feudalism, and the military picturesqueness of another age.
Any survey of Scott the poet must consider his interest in the popular ballad, an interest that came naturally because of the love for the old, harsh times. Scott saw in the popular Scottish ballad a contrast to the relative serenity of his own early nineteenth century. He relished the clannish loyalties, the bravery, the cruelty, the revenge, and the superstitions of the old ballads. Thus, he began with “The Chase” and “William and Helen” (1796)—two translations from the German lyric poet (and, coincidentally, lawyer) Gottfried August Burger (1747-1794); next came three strange, almost mystical ballads contributed to Matthew Gregory “Monk” Lewis’s Tales of Wonder in 1801: “Glenfinlas,” “The Eve of St. John,” and “The Gray Brother.” His interest in the ballad reached its height—a scholarly as well as a poetic pinnacle—with The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, wherein Scott the editor and poet gathered and polished the best examples of what will always be considered the true literature of Scotland.
The ballad, however, was not to be the end-all for Scott the poet, but rather a springboard to other forms and variations of ballad themes. He turned his poetic attention to a series of complex and ornamental romances wherein, instead of the harshness and rusticity of the border, lords, ladies, and even clerics came forth to expound lofty themes in elevated language. Still, the stuff from which the popular ballads sprang is there. In The Lay of the Last Minstrel, for example, romantic love blends easily with magic, dwarfs, and goblins, while in Marmion, the early sixteenth century battle at Flodden Field in Northumberland, where the English, in 1513, defeated the Scots under James IV, allowed Scott to develop elaborate descriptions of conflict and chivalry, of the detailed instruments of warfare and the awesomeness of border castles. More important in terms of the ballad influence, Marmion draws considerable poetic life from its thoroughly romantic narrative—from intrigue, disguise, and unfaithfulness (both clerical and secular). The Lady of the Lake intensifies those actions, featuring Highland clans rushing to battle after being summoned by a fiery cross. Scott carried his readers on a tour of chieftain’s lodge and king’s court, setting the stage for James Fitz-James to reveal himself as King James and to restore the noble Ellen to her true love, Malcolm Graeme. Although the later poems—The Vision of Don Roderick, Rokeby, and Harold the Dauntless—reveal Scott as more than ready to abandon verse for prose fiction, the worlds of knighthood, sorcery, and the ancient bards and minstrels continued to fascinate him—no matter that the locales and circumstances seemed far removed from that wild terrain north of the River Tweed.
History and narrative
One must not too quickly assume that Scott’s poetry contains little beyond historical or romantic re-creations. Although he himself readily admitted that his work did not rise to the levels of Wordsworth or Coleridge, he nevertheless remained a legitimate poet, not simply a compiler and reviser of historical verse tales. Scott fully realized the depth and complexity of human emotions; he chose, however, to portray the manifestations of those emotions within the context of his own...
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