The Lay of the Last Minstrel

by Sir Walter Scott

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Critical Evaluation

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In the original preface to this poem, Sir Walter Scott claimed, modestly, that The Lay of the Last Minstrel was primarily intended to illustrate life in the Scottish borders in the middle of the sixteenth century, but the new introduction and elaborate notes he added to the poem in the 1830 edition of his collected poetry—issued by his friend and business partner James Ballantyne—tell a different story. Scott explains the autobiographical and economic circumstances that led to its composition, and he footnotes the history and folklore on which the poem is based.

One of the significant revelations of the notes is that the name of Lord Buccleuch, whose widow is featured in the poem, had been Sir Walter Scott, one of a whole series of Scotts implicit in the history of Branksome; the author also fancied himself (without any real evidence) as a descendant of the thirteenth century natural philosopher Michael Scott, who obtained the inevitable reputation for wizardry attached to anyone in that era capable of rational thought; the poem is therefore as much a celebration of the author’s own presumed genealogy as anything else.

Scott was an unorthodox scholar, and his notes explain at some length that his personal researches and literary endeavors had detracted considerably from the law career that he was supposed to be pursuing. In particular, he had long labored on the compilation of a collection of traditional ballads, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-1803; 3 volumes), supplementing Thomas Percy’s classic collection of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), which had made popular again some of the most famous Scottish ballads. He had also dabbled in translation of German ballads and had written a few short imitations, but The Lay of the Last Minstrel was his first substantial literary composition. It was published three years before he ventured into publishing and nine years before he turned to writing novels.

Understandably, Scott’s 1830 introduction is a trifle defensive about what he had to consider as apprentice work, commenting that the once enchanting ballad measure had become “hackneyed and sickening,” and that a long work formulated in relentlessly regular quatrains had a grating effect on the mind. Printed poetry is intended to be formally pronounced in the mind rather than directly digested in the fashion of prose, so that the reader might obtain the benefits of rhythm and rhyme. However, Scott fully appreciated the world of difference that there was between reading and listening, and he was anxious that metrical devices whose primary purpose had been to assist the memory of a reciter might be reckoned superfluous in an era when the printed page made memorization redundant.

Scott’s fears proved largely unfounded. His subsequent success as poet, largely based on pastiche lays (simple narrative ballads), clearly demonstrates that the reading public still had an appetite for such artifice, and that it was not yet of merely antiquarian interest. The fluency developed in the writing of The Lay of the Last Minstrel served him well in subsequent endeavors of a similar sort. Times have changed markedly since then, but they did not do so rapidly, and Scott’s endeavors—alongside the endeavors of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey in England—provided significant examples for such successors as Lord Byron and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who far exceeded what Scott considered to be the risky length of The Lay of the Last Minstrel in ventures tending to epic dimensions.

Given these considerations, The Lay of the Last Minstrel must be credited not only for its boldness as a seemingly hazardous venture, and for the skill with which the project had been completed,...

(This entire section contains 835 words.)

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but also for the proof it provides that success is possible. It also should be credited for proving that self-indulgent eccentricities—its scrupulous gathering of esoteric research materials and its digressions developing those materials—can enhance rather than detract from the enjoyment of such a work. In his later work, especially his novels, Scott—believing that the tide of history was running against superstition—tones down the supernatural intrusions that his fascination for traditional folklore continually encouraged him to accommodate in his works. Instead, he meekly represents the supernatural as false belief; but one of the joys of pastiche, so far as he was concerned, is the freedom to accommodate the supernatural more wholeheartedly.

This license allowed Scott to present Michael Scott as the full-blooded wizard that wild rumor considered him to be, rather than the valiant scholar he really was, and to make the historical vagabond Gilpin Horner into the goblin that he was reputed to be. This license also allowed Scott to add his own measure of nightmarish detail to the tales in question. Readers now know that the tide of history turned again, and thus have cause to be grateful for that endeavor. While readers are free to doubt that the poem offers a reliable illustration of life on the Scottish borders in the sixteenth century, its status as a classic of supernatural literature is completely assured.