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.
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.”
Wherever Lord Marmion goes, he is welcomed and honored as a brave and valiant knight. The English king has sent him to the Scottish...
(The entire section is 1,948 words.)