Marmion "Oh! What A Tangled Web We Weave When First We Practice To Deceive"

Sir Walter Scott

"Oh! What A Tangled Web We Weave When First We Practice To Deceive"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Marmion is a long romantic poem which tells the story of Lord Marmion of Fontenaye. The second such poem Scott offered to the public, it achieved considerable popularity but was somewhat less successful than its predecessor, The Lay of the Last Minstrel. The background of the poem is the battle at Flodden in Northumberland in 1513, in which James IV of Scotland was defeated by the Earl of Surrey. Lord Marmion pays a visit to Castle Norham and learns that his host's wife, the Lady Heron, is across the Scottish border, visiting at the court of King James. He lets it be known that he is going that way and obtains a palmer for companion and guide. Marmion is aware that there are stories about Lady Heron, and women are his weakness. His host jokes about Marmion's former page, who had resembled a girl; Marmion replies angrily that the page is at Lindisfarne. The scene shifts to St. Catherine's abbey, where a novice, the Lady Clare, is being received. In the abbey's dungeon, church officials prepare to execute Marmion's former page, actually Constance de Beverley, who had broken her vows and gone to live with Marmion. Before she is walled up alive, she reveals that Lady Clare, for whom Marmion had thrown her over, has fled to the abbey for protection. Marmion had framed Clare's suitor, Wilton, with forged papers, speared him, and left him for dead. During his journey, Marmion is beset with doubts, fears, and what he considers ill omens; he regrets betraying Constance to the church in order to be rid of her. Arriving at James' court, he is well received; but he and the Lady Heron eye each other, and James is not pleased. She is his mistress, and he has Marmion housed at Tantallon, the castle of Lord Douglas. Meanwhile, Clare and the Abbess have been captured by the Scots and are also being brought to Tantallon. The battle, when it begins, brings Marmion forth to join in the fight. In the midst of battle he sees the palmer, now clad in armor, and recognizes him. He is Wilton, still alive and bent on vengeance.

A sudden light on Marmion broke:–
"Ah! dastard fool, to reason lost!"
He muttered; "'T was nor fay nor ghost
I met upon the moonlight wold,
But living man of earthly mould.
O dotage blind and gross!
Had I but fought as wont, one thrust
Had laid De Wilton in the dust,
My path no more to cross.–
How stand we now?–he told his tale
To Douglas, and with some avail;
'T was therefore gloomed his rugged brow.–
Will Surrey dare to entertain
'Gainst Marmion, charge disproved and vain?
Small risk of that, I trow.
Yet Clare's sharp questions must I shun,
Must separate Constance from the nun–
Oh! what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive!
A Palmer too!–no wonder why
I felt rebuked beneath his eye;
I might have known there was but one
Whose look could quell Lord Marmion."