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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 627

Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem Marmion was not critically acclaimed when first published. Critics decried, for instance, Scott’s introductions to the cantos, which interrupt the medieval tale of Marmion with tributes to Scott’s friends. The character of Marmion was criticized as well, as it was thought that no knight could have been as flawed and deceitful as he is in the poem. Despite these complaints, Marmion was a runaway bestseller. Among the poem’s fans were the Brontë sisters: Marmion is mentioned by Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre and Anne Brontë in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

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As Scott himself explains in the fifth canto, Marmion
is a tale of Flodden Field,
And not a history.

Though he wrote this in order to refer readers to the “chronicles” should they want to learn more about King James IV’s relationship to Sir Hugh the Heron’s wife, the quote illustrates the poem’s nature: though it includes historical elements, it is a “tale,” meant for entertainment, rather than a strict account of facts. This genre of writing is commonly known as historical fiction, which Scott himself is credited with inventing. Scott’s 1814 novel Waverly is often viewed as the first book of historical fiction. Though it is written in verse and was published six years prior to Waverly, Marmion demonstrates many characteristics of historical fiction. 

As Scott was a leading figure in the Romantic movement, Marmion also exhibits many characteristics of Romanticism. Romantic writers often looked back to medieval times in their literature, and Scott’s choice to write about the Battle of Flodden, which took place in 1513, follows this trend. Romantic literature is also identified with an emphasis on emotion, and the second canto’s narration of Constance’s execution evokes a deep sense of horror—she dies in the “butcher-work” of her executioners in a “dire dungeon” deep underground, above which passersby can hear “the shriekings of despair.” 

Finally, Marmion’s inclusion of supernatural elements is characteristic of Romanticism. When he meets de Wilton on his nighttime ride, Marmion believes he has seen a “fay” or “ghost” and becomes so terrified that he trembles and cannot defend himself properly. This event changes his outlook on the supernatural: he explains to Sir Lindesay,

. . . Of Nature’s laws
   So strong I held the force,
   That never superhuman cause
   Could e’er control their course . . .

Marmion had previously believed, as many during the Enlightenment had, that no “superhuman cause” could control “Nature’s laws,” but his encounter with de Wilton’s “ghost” causes him to reconsider his scepticism. Though it is later revealed that this was no ghost, but de Wilton himself, there are several other supernatural scenes in the poem that are left unexplained, such as the vision seen by the palmer and the abbess that “pass[es] Nature’s law.” Sir Lindesay likewise describes the “ghostly wight” who visited King James to warn him not to go to war.

Scott’s legacy in literature is not limited to the invention of historical fiction or his contributions to Romanticism: he is also credited with creating a wild, alluring image of Scotland that prevails in literature and public imagination today. Until Scott depicted his home country in his writing, Scotland was conceived as a wild and uncivilized place. Samuel Johnson, for example, wrote in his 1775 book A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland that his voyage to Scotland was a way to “see what backwardness looked like.” Despite the fact that the Battle of Flodden was a disastrous defeat for Scotland in which King James IV was killed, readers encounter a new Scotland in Marmion: one that is, in the words of scholar Stuart Kelly, “picturesque, romantic, loyal and a hive of industry and inventiveness.”

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1104

Wherever Lord Marmion goes, he is welcomed and honored as a brave and valiant knight. The English king has sent him to the Scottish court to try to persuade that country’s king to end armed raids in the Border country. Marmion asks a Scottish lord to furnish him a guide, someone of peaceful appearance, and since no one else is available the lord sends a palmer, a holy man who had made many pilgrimages to religious shrines.

At the same time, an abbess, accompanied by several nuns, is making a sea voyage to Cuthbert Isle to hold an inquisition over two prisoners of the Church. One of the young nuns aboard, still a novice, is Clare Fitz-Clare, a lovely young woman who had entered the abbey after her lover, dishonored, had, it was believed, died. One of the accused is Constance de Beverley, a nun who has broken her vows and run away from the convent. Before she is put to death, Constance tells the abbess and her other accusers the story of her fall from grace.

Constance’s betrayer is Lord Marmion. Believing his protestations of love for her, she escapes from the convent and follows him for three years as his page. Then Marmion meets lovely Clare Fitz-Clare, and, because she is an heir of great wealth, he abandons Constance to seek Clare for his bride. The king promises him that he should have Clare, but she loves another knight, Ralph de Wilton.

Marmion forges papers that offer false proof that Wilton is not true to the king. The two knights fight a duel, and de Wilton is left for dead. Constance, soon to die, gives the papers proving the forgery to the abbess and implores her to get the papers to the king to save Clare from a hateful marriage. Although the woman has entered a convent rather than marry Marmion, the king will force the marriage if Clare is found, for Marmion is a great favorite at court. Although her judges pity her, Constance is put to a horrible death after she tells her story.

Marmion continues on his way to the court. Guilty thoughts of Constance worry him; he had been responsible for her capture by the Church. He soothes his conscience with the belief that she will not be severely punished. One night as they stay at an inn a young boy sings a ballad about the soul’s disquiet of every man who would betray a maid. At the end of the song Marmion thinks he hears the tolling of a death bell. When the knight mentions the tolling sound he hears, the palmer speaks his first words, saying that it is the toll of death for a friend. That night Marmion, unable to sleep, goes out into the dark to ride. There he is attacked by what seems a devil, for the man has the face of de Wilton, long dead. The strangest part is that Marmion’s mysterious adversary could have killed him, but instead sheathes his sword and rides off into the night.

As Marmion and his men ride through the Border country, they notice everywhere huge numbers of armed clansmen readying for battle. On their arrival at the Scottish court, Marmion cannot persuade King James to halt preparations for battle. The Scots, claiming that the English wronged them, demand vengeance. Courtesy requires that Marmion be given safe conduct during his mission, however, and so the king puts him in the care of Archibald Douglas, one of the most powerful of all the lords of Scotland. Douglas also is charged with the care of the abbess and her nuns, who are to be returned safely to their convent but who have been taken captive, it being time of war, by the Scots. The abbess fears for Clare’s safety if Marmion should learn that she is among the party of nuns. To save Clare from a forced and hated union, the holy woman gives the papers proving Marmion’s forgery to the palmer and begs him to deliver them to the English king.

Marmion, learning the woman’s identity, secures an order directing him to take Clare to her home, with Douglas for an escort. Separated from the abbess, Clare fears for her safety with Marmion, but he plans not to press his suit until she has been returned to her kinsmen, who will be dominated by the king. Marmion and Clare are quartered in Tantallon Castle, owned by Archibald Douglas, earl of Angus, to await the impending battle between English and Scottish troops.

Clare, lonely and afraid, walks out onto the battlements of the castle. There she meets a young knight who proves to be de Wilton. Clare hears his story. He had not been mortally wounded in his combat with Marmion, but had been healed and cared for by one of his servants. The loyal servant asks one boon for saving his life, that should de Wilton’s deadliest enemy fall beneath his sword that enemy should be spared. The young knight wanders far, his name scorned by all who once loved him because he is now branded as a traitor. At last he disguises himself so well that no one recognizes in the lowly palmer the once-proud knight. It is de Wilton who had so frightened Marmion during his midnight ride, but he had kept his promise to his old servant and spared the life of the man who had ruined him. The young man told Douglas his story, which was confirmed by the papers given him by the abbess. That night Douglas restores to de Wilton his knightly honors, and the next day de Wilton joins the English troops.

Marmion, unable to resist the spectacle of troops drawn up for battle, defies Douglas and rides off to join the fight. Having learned from one of his company the palmer’s true identity and fearing that he will lose Clare, he takes her to a place of safety behind the English lines. When the battle begins, Marmion is mortally wounded. Clare, pitying the man she hates, tended him gently. Before he dies, Marmion learns of the death of Constance and repents all his sins.

The English defeat the Scots in a bloody battle on Flodden Field. De Wilton is everywhere in the thick of the fighting. After the battle, his lands and his titles are returned to him, and Clare is given to him with the king’s blessing. The proud name of de Wilton is known again through the land. Marmion, as he deserved, lay in an unmarked grave.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 208

Alexander, J. H. “Marmion”: Studies in Interpretation and Composition. Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1981. Approaches Marmion from several different points of view; the most exacting modern appraisal.

Alexander, J. H., and David Hewett, eds. Scott and His Influence. Aberdeen, Scotland: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 1983. Specialized scholarly papers on a variety of Scott topics, including Marmion.

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.

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 (1810). Almost the only serious critique of Scott’s long poems since modern techniques of analysis were developed. Deserves to be read in full.

Johnson, Edgar. Sir Walter Scott: The Great Unknown. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1970. Intended to commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of Scott’s birth, Johnson’s critical biography is the most important modern book on Scott. Contains unsurpassed discussions of his major poems, including The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, and The Lady of the Lake.

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