In 1488, a group of Scottish nobles rebelled against their king, James III, and defeated him in battle. Following their murder of the monarch, James III was succeeded on the throne by his fifteen-year-old son, James IV, who unified Scotland and led it to new prosperity. During the twenty-five years of James IV’s eventful reign, the Spanish Inquisition would establish a well-deserved reputation for intolerance and cruelty, the Star Chamber of England’s Henry VII would deprive his subjects of their civil rights, a fanatic Florentine monk named Girolamo Savonarola would preach against the supposed sinfulness of some of the world’s greatest art, and Christopher Columbus would land in the Americas. As subsequent explorations revealed hitherto unknown lands in the Americas and Africa and new trade routes to Asia, European powers struggled to adjust.
The opportunities offered by political instability and expanded geographical horizons tempted many to enhance their fortunes through military conquests of various kinds, not only in the New World but also in Europe. Anxious to gain influence over his southern neighbor, for example, James IV of Scotland expanded his army and navy, actively supported a young pretender to the English throne named Perkin Warbeck, and threatened to invade England. Scotland had allied itself with France against England, but England defeated them both. James IV’s attempt to take England by force came to an abrupt halt September 9, 1513, just south of the border between the two countries. In the Battle of Flodden Field, an army sent from London defeated that of the Scots, killing James IV and most of his nobles. This is also the conflict that climaxes Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion.
In Marmion, Scott makes no attempt to depict the broader aspects of early sixteenth century history, exciting and significant as they certainly were. The world of Marmion comprises the English, the Scots, and the Church, with the latter represented ambiguously by both the Inquisition and various nuns. As was usual in Scott’s work, Marmion himself (supposedly the protagonist or hero) is mostly a spectator to the great historical events of which he is accidentally a part. What was not usual is that he also appears as something of a villain, having forged an important letter dishonoring the real hero of the poem, de Wilton. In the end, he dies and deserves to. If Marmion is compared with any of the characters in Scott’s previous long poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), it is apparent that, unlike them, Marmion embodies complexities, contradictions, and internal torment. Although still somewhat crude, Marmion is the most sophisticated character yet created by Scott.
In some respects, Marmion is also a better-written poem than its predecessor. Although Marmion makes use of several different stanzaic forms, there is less experimentation overall. Interpolated songs and tales are less frequent and generally longer, as with the Host’s Tale in canto 3, stanzas 19 to 25. The narrator also emerges as a separate voice in canto 3, stanza 12, but he remains unidentified and has disappeared by the end of the poem. The epigrammatic wisdom of which he is sometimes master emerges most memorably in canto 6, stanza 17 (“Oh! what a tangled web we weave/ When first we practice to deceive,” a reference to Marmion’s forgery of the letter). The lines in stanza 30 are also famous. Notable, too, is the incisive portrait of James IV in canto 5, stanzas 8 and 9. “Lochinvar,” the famous interpolated song, is at canto 5, stanza 12, but is irrelevant to the plot.
Each of the poem’s six cantos is preceded by an introduction....
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These introductions (some of which originated as separate poems beforeMarmion was begun) are verse epistles, or letters, to individuals then living, all of them friends of Scott. Personal, confessional, and often charming, Scott’s introductions are more in accord with modern taste than are the cantos they introduce; one can only regret that Scott did not choose to write more often about himself and those he knew at first hand.
In the introduction to canto 1, Scott abandons his usual reticence on contemporary matters to praise the recently deceased English statesmen William Pitt and Charles Fox. He also recalls the grand poetic tradition of England, including the sixteenth and seventeenth century writers Edmund Spenser, John Milton, and John Dryden, who, although they may have themes in common, are to be contrasted with the “dwindled sons of little men” writing at that time. The introduction to canto 4 similarly recalls William Shakespeare and the eighteenth century poet Thomas Gray. Imitating the latter’s artificial diction, Scott humorously refers to his own, less carefully crafted verse as “this rambling strain.” The youthful, aspiring poet Lord Byron would fully agree with Scott’s self-deprecation and promptly satirized Marmion in “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers” (1809). The general strength of canto 6, including the delightful invocations of Christmas now and then, de Wilton’s history (stanzas 6-10), the death of Marmion (31-32), and the elegiac regard for defeated Scotland (34-35), set a standard that Byron then could not have met.