Discuss the poem "Breathes There The Man" written by Sir Walter Scott.
This poem is a part of the long narrative poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, written in 1805. This poem was a best-seller for its time, reflecting different literary tastes in an era when book-length poetry, which could be read aloud among family and friends during long winter evenings, was far more popular than it is today.
The poem centers on the theme of nationalism. If the Romantic poet William Wordsworth was concentrating on elevating and making sympathetic the English common farmer or laborer, Scott's project was to make the Scot alluring and sympathetic. Up until his era, Scotland and the Scottish were largely considered barbaric. Scott almost single-handedly set the cult of venerating Scotland on fire.
In this poem's first stanza, the hard-hearted love of his homeland condemns a selfish wealthy man, despite all his power, titles, and pride, to ultimate dishonor. This man, the speaker says, is a "wretch:"
concentred all in self, [and]
Living, shall forfeit fair renown
He will die
Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.
In the second stanza, this wealthy aristocrat is contrasted to the picture painted of a simple man who loves his country. The voice shifts to first person, as the speaker, full of appreciation and an overflow of emotion towards his native land, says
what mortal hand
Can e’er untie the filial band,
That knits me to thy rugged strand!
He states that he "loves" his native Scotland with its rugged heath, mountains, and "shaggy woods." He recognizes it as in his blood, the land of his forebears.
This poem clearly favors nationalism—love of homeland and ancestry—over a focus on self.
Sir Walter Scott was writing poetry just when Romanticism was in its nascent stages. He does share certain elements in common with the Romantics such as the glory of the past, rural landscapes and humanitarianism. But his poetry was more conservative, restrained, gentlemanly and not as rebellious in emotional overflow or in political commentary as the other Romantics. In fact, this poem is often interpreted (and intended) as a treatise on patriotism with a possible indication of chivalry. An excerpt from The Lay of the Last Minstrel, this poem follows the titles “Patriotism; Innominatus.” The poem describes a soulless man who’s “heart hath ne’er within him burned” and who never took time to consider or take pride in his own country; “This is my own, my native land!” This man is only interested in wealth and titles. He will die nameless (innominatus), no minstrels will sing about him or lament his death. By describing this dispassionate man who had no patriotism and lived on for superficial labels, Scott endorses the importance of patriotism as part of an awareness and appreciation to more important things in life. In connection with the Romantics, this also invokes the glory of the past and the allure of more simplistic rural settings.