The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

An old minstrel, allegedly the last of his kind, wanders through the Scottish borders some time in the eighteenth century, lamenting the lost past; he asks for hospitality in Branksome Hall, the residence of the duchess of Buccleuch, and pays for his keep by singing a romance about her sixteenth century ancestors.

Lord Buccleuch has been killed in battle with the English, but his widow and children are well protected in Branksome Hall by a group of knights who had followed their dead leader. Although a truce has been declared, there are still skirmishes between the English and the Scots throughout the border country.

The widow, Lady Buccleuch, is the daughter of a magician; before he had died, he taught her to talk with the spirits.

One night, the lady hears the spirits predicting that the stars will show no favor to Branksome castle until pride should die and make love free. She presumes that this omen is meant for her, because her daughter, Margaret, loves the young Lord Cranstoun, who has fought against Lord Buccleuch. Lady Buccleuch swears nevertheless that Margaret shall never wed a foe of the family, no matter what the spirits might say. She sends William of Deloraine to Melrose Abbey to secure the mystic book of Michael Scott, a famous wizard who is buried in the abbey crypt. She orders William not to look into the book, on peril of his life.

The porter at the abbey leads the knight into to the wizard’s tomb: Deloraine, the bravest of knights in battle, shivers with dread as he looks down at the body of the magician, which is as well-preserved as if he had not been dead for a day. When the knight takes the book from the dead wizard’s hand, he seems to frown. As Deloraine leaves the vault, he hears noises reminiscent of the laughter and sobbing of friends.

While Deloraine is on his way back from the abbey, Margaret slips out of the castle to meet her lover, Lord Cranstoun, who is accompanied by the Dwarf, who had attached himself to the lord some time before and now refuses to leave him. The Dwarf, also known as Goblin, serves him as a page. The Dwarf warns the lovers of the approach of a horseman; it is Deloraine, returning from his mission. Margaret runs away and the two knights fight. Deloraine is seriously wounded.

Cranstoun orders the Dwarf to take Deloraine to Branksome Hall so that his wounds can be properly tended. The Dwarf finds the book but cannot open it until he has smeared the cover with the wounded man’s blood. While he is reading one of the spells described in the...

(The entire section is 1047 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Cockshut, A. O. J. The Achievement of Walter Scott. London: Collins, 1969. A widely available introduction to the man and his work—reasonable, centrist, and modern. Chapters on Scott’s major poems precede those dealing with his novels and other works.

Davis, Lloyd. “The Story in History: Time and Truth in Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel.” Clio 18, no. 3 (1989): 221-238. Assesses the validity of the poem as history.

Elton, Oliver. “Scott’s Verse.” In A Survey of English Literature, 1780-1830. 2 vols. London: Edward Arnold, 1948. Originally published in 1912, when Scott’s poetry was more often read than now. Elton is particularly good on the transition between Scott’s Border Minstrelsy, which was mostly a collection of other people’s poems, and The Lay of the Last Minstrel, which was his own poem.

Goslee, Nancy Moore. Scott the Rhymer. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Includes separate chapters on The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, and The Lady of the Lake. Almost the only serious criticism of Scott’s long poems as wholes since modern techniques of analysis were developed, it deserves to be read in full.

Scott, Sir Walter. Poems. Edinburgh, Scotland: Ballantyne, 1830. For this collected edition of his verse, Scott wrote chatty and sometimes helpful prefaces to each of his major poems. The original is hard to find, but these same prefaces reappear in many later editions.