Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 6. The Lay of the Last Minstrel

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

I. Sir Walter Scott

§ 6. The Lay of the Last Minstrel

The reconstruction and amendment of old ballads brought Scott still more completely under the spell of the ancient Scottish past, and, also, helped not a little to discipline and enrich his poetic art. Little more than the rudiments of poetic art were manifested in his earlier ballad imitations. While, like the ballads of Bürger, they suffer from a too close endeavour to reproduce the form and spirit of the ancient ballad, they, also, though displaying glimpses of poetic power, are often a little rough and uneven in their style and expression; and, while they come short of the dramatic force and vividness of Bürger’s ballads, they manifest nothing of the modern creative adaptation of the ancient ballad art brilliantly displayed in the ballads of Schiller and Goethe. But, what we have specially to notice is that they contain nothing comparable to the best stanzas of the amended Minstrelsy versions, and that none of them possesses the condensed tragic effectiveness of, for example, his own short ballad Albert Graeme in The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805).

The production of this long romantic poem was the more immediately important consequence of Scott’s ballad studies. It may almost be described as a kind of prolonged and glorified border ballad. While on the outlook for a subject which might be made the theme of a romance, “treated with the simplicity and wildness of an ancient ballad,” he received from the countess of Dalkeith a border legend of Gilpin Horner, with the suggestion that he might compose a ballad on it. He had then just finished the editing of the old metrical romance Sir Tristrem, and he had also been much struck by the casual recital to him of Coleridge’s Christabel, as yet unpublished. What he, therefore, at first contemplated was, according to Lockhart,

  • to throw the story of Gilpin into a somewhat similar cadence, so that he might produce such an echo of the late metrical romance as would serve to connect his conclusion of the primitive Sir Tristrem with his imitation of the common popular ballad in The Gray Brother and The Eve of St. John.
  • But, when he began shaping the story, it assumed, partly through the hints and suggestions of friends, the form of a romance divided into cantos, sung or recited by an aged minstrel to the duchess of Buccleugh and her ladies in the state room of Newark castle.

    The resort to the minstrel—whose personality, circumstances, temperament and moods are finely indicated in sympathetic stanzas at the beginning of the poem and, incidentally, between the cantos—was a specially happy inspiration. The poem being a minstrel recitation, a certain minstrel simplicity is maintained throughout; and, while an antique charm thus pervades its general method and manner, the recitation is preserved from the monotony of the old romances by substituting for the archaic romance stanzas an irregular and plastic metrical form. This “mescolanza of measures,” as Scott terms it, was previously known to him as used by Anthony Hall, Anstey, Wolcot and others. He was indebted to Coleridge for the suggestion of its adaptability to more serious narrative verse; but The Lay, apart from the metre, has little in common with the fantastic fairy romance of Christabel. The rhythmical advantage of the metrical scheme consists in the fact that the length of the line is determined not by syllables but by accents. While it is limited to four accents, the number of the syllables may vary from seven to twelve. In a long narrative poem this, in itself, was a great antidote to monotony; and with it was conjoined the intermixture of couplet stanzas with others in which the couplet is varied with alternate or woven rime. In the case of Scott, the use of the metrical scheme was modified by the influence of the old ballad verse, of the old romance stanzas and of the verse forms of the old Scottish poets, which conferred, imperceptibly, perhaps, to himself, a certain antique flavour on the form, as well as the substance, of his poem. From the immense poetic licence which this “mescolanza of measures” affords, success in its use, even in a strictly metrical sense, depends, also, in a very special way, on the independent individual art of the poet.

    The goblin pranks of Gilpin Horner were declared by Jeffrey to be the capital deformity of the poem; but, if these interludes add neither to its poetic nor romantic charm, they are (a point overlooked by the adverse critics) an essential part of what plot there is, since the combat which forms the climax of the poem depends upon the decoying of young Buccleugh and his falling into English hands. Again, the goblin story was Scott’s original theme; and he could hardly have paid a more appropriate compliment to the lady to whom he was indebted for it than by making it the occasion of creating the series of striking episodes which he has linked with the annals of the house of Scott. The sequence of old border scenes and incidents is elaborated with an admirable combination of antique lore, clan enthusiasm and vividly picturesque art. Necessarily, the presentation is a selective, a poetical, a more or less idealised, one. The ruder and harsher aspects of the old border life are ignored. Apart, also, from imaginary occurrences, some liberty has been taken with historical facts, and the chronology, here and there, is a little jumbled; but, the main point is that the poetic tale, while reasonably accordant with known facts, is, on the whole, instinct with imaginative efficacy and artistic charm. While Scott’s border prepossessions may, as has been objected, have enticed him, here and there, into details that are caviare to the general reader—and it may be granted that the prosaic recital of the savage combat by which the Scotts of Eskdale won their land is an irrelevant interruption of the main story—these “local partialities,” though not quite excusable, are not prominent enough strongly to offend, as Jeffrey feared, “the readers of the poem in other parts of the empire.” Again, though certain critics may be so far right in pronouncing canto VI a kind of superfluity—for the fine description of the wailing music of the harper’s requiem would have formed an admirable conclusion—the superfluity may well be forgiven in the case of a canto including, to mention nothing further, the rapturous pathetic invocation with which it opens, the consummately successful ballad adaptation Albert Graeme, the more elaborately beautiful song of the English bard Fitztraver, the graphic and pathetic Rosabelle and the pilgrim mass in Melrose abbey, with the impressive English version of Dies Irae.