The Lay of the Last Minstrel

by Sir Walter Scott

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"The Unpremeditated Lay"

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Context: The Lay of the Last Minstrel was Sir Walter Scott's first literary venture of any importance. The story, which takes place about the middle of the sixteenth century, is told by the last surviving wandering Scottish minstrel; just when he lived is not made clear, but as the revolution under the Young Pretender was a thing of the past, he probably lived after the middle of the eighteenth century. In the Middle Ages the wandering minstrel was a welcomed guest at every castle and manor house; he was eagerly listened to, sumptuously entertained, and sent on his way with a rich reward of gold pieces. According to the words of the poem, he sang unpremeditated lays to lords and ladies. This statement means that he could sing extemporaneously; the ability to do so is frequently mentioned in literature. The Norwegians were much given to flytings, or poetical scolding matches, made up on the spur of the moment; and the genuine calypso singer of the West Indies also has the ability to compose as he sings. The practice was made possible in the Middle Ages by the fact that the meter employed was not in the regular feet of later poetry. In The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Scott uses a variety of the irregular medieval meters; he said that the poem was "in a lighthorseman sort of stanza," which he contended was a combination of the old minstrel meters colored by modern versification.

The way was long, the wind was cold,
The Minstrel was infirm and old:
His withered cheek, and tresses gray
Seemed to have known a better day;
The harp, his sole remaining joy,
Was carried by an orphan boy.
The last of all the Bards was he,
Who sung of Border chivalry;
For, well-a-day! their date was fled,
His tuneful brethren all were dead;
And he, neglected and oppressed,
Wished to be with them and at rest.
No more on prancing palfrey borne,
He carolled, light as lark at morn;
No longer courted and caressed,
High placed in hall, a welcome guest,
He poured, to lord and lady gay,
The unpremeditated lay:
Old times were changed, old manners gone. . . .

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