Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 867
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 were often set to music. Burns and other poets of his time turned away from the impersonal moralizing and philosophical reflection previously typical of literary practice and emphasized the pleasure or pain of intense but momentary emotions. This same concentration on the inner states of the poet proved increasingly more congenial to readers during the stressful years of the Napoleonic Wars than did Scott’s restraint.
The Lady of the Lake was published in 1810, while the conflict with Napoleon was at its height. As a result of the war, British tourists could not visit France and Italy on the extended jaunts that previously had been popular, and travel to Scotland increased. In prewar times, few Englishmen had thought of Scotland as a scenic destination, but, trapped at home by international strife, British readers were attracted to literature that enhanced the scenic and historic value of their own island. After 1815, when the Battle of Waterloo had been fought and Napoleon subdued for the final time, the English rushed to revisit places in other European countries that they had been unable to reach since the beginning of the troubles with France in 1789. The popularity of Scotland fell off to a considerable extent, and Scott’s popularity as a poet fell with it.
Although Scott is known for re-creating actual great events, The Lady of the Lake is only marginally historical. Unlike some of Scott’s other poems and novels, it lacks a fierce concluding battle. The most historically based character is the disguised hunter at the beginning of the poem, James Fitz-James. In canto 6, stanza 26, it is revealed that he is actually James V (1512-1542), king of Scotland. The reign of James V, begun in 1524, was notable for his oppression of the Douglas clan, for his defense of the Catholic faith in opposition to that of newly arisen Protestantism, and for his popularity with the Scottish people. James’s daughter and successor was Mary, Queen of Scots, who was held prisoner for years by Elizabeth I of England and eventually executed by her.
None of the other characters in The Lady of the Lake has a historical identity. James of Douglas, Malcolm Graeme, Roderick Dhu, and Allan-Bane are plausible but fictitious creations of Scott’s imagination. One has only to compare them with similar characters in Scott’s two earlier poems to discover how much his ability to create characters improved over time. Ellen Douglas is an attractive heroine and the title character (see 1, 17). The lake of the title is Loch Katrine, a beautiful spot in the Trossachs northwest of Sterling. Although it previously had been ignored, Loch Katrine achieved great fame through the publication of Scott’s poem, and its continuing renown is still in evidence. Perhaps no other poem in the English language has immortalized a scene so effectively.
Not surprisingly, The Lady of the Lake is particularly noted for its descriptive passages, but one should not overlook the quality of its interpolated lyrics, including “Hail to the Chief” (2, 19-20), “Coronach” (3, 16), and “Hymn to the Virgin” (3, 29). The last of these (based in part on Luke 1:28) has been set to music as “Ave Maria.”
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