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

I. Sir Walter Scott

§ 7. Marmion

Scott himself says that “the force in The Lay is thrown on style, in Marmion on description”; but the dictum must be interpreted in a somewhat loose sense. Notwithstanding many felicities and beauties, the style in The Lay, as in Marmion, is often careless. Owing, partly, to his overflowing energy and his emotional absorption in his subject, of which he was practically master before he began to write, he was a great, an almost matchless, improvisator; he created his impression more by the ardour and vividness of his presentation than by the charm of a subtle and finished art. The Lay, being, however, his first poetic venture on a large scale, he necessarily had to give special attention to its poetic form and manner, and this all the more because it was a quite novel kind of poetic venture. He had to devise a metrical scheme for it, and, having elected that the story should be told by a minstrel, he had to preserve throughout a certain minstrel directness and simplicity. But, if The Lay be more carefully written than Marmion, it is rather more archaic and not so directly potent. Notwithstanding The Lay’s pleasant antique flavour and the quaintly interesting personality of the minstrel—for whom the introductory epistles to each canto of Marmion, however excellent in themselves, are by no means a happy substitute—Marmion has the advantage of being less imitative and artificial in its manner and more unrestrainedly effective. The metrical scheme is a kind of modification of that of The Lay. The rhythm is less irregular, the couplets being generally octosyllabic; and couplets bulk more largely than interwoven stanzas, the former being usually employed for the simple narrative, and the latter for the more descriptive passages. Marmion, also, conjures up a more striking, varied and pregnant series of scenes than does The Lay. The past depicted is not specifically a border, but a partly Scottish and partly English, past. As he himself tells us, it is an attempt “to paint the manners of feudal times on a broader scale and in the course of a more interesting story.” The love story—though, so far as concerns Constance, a far from pleasant one—is more poignantly interesting; and the story to which it is subordinate, the tragic national story of Flodden, is more profoundly moving than The Lay’s chivalric combat. Lord Marmion, whose love concerns, diplomatic errand and final fate are the ostensible theme of the poem, is not, however, a very convincing or coherent portrait. “The combination of mean felony with so many noble qualities in the character of the hero”—however well it may have served to give occasion for the admirable pictures of the past which are the poem’s most conspicuous feature—is, as Lockhart admits, “the main blot in the poem.” It is a more serious blot than are the pranks of the goblin page in The Lay. It especially detracts from the poetic effectiveness of his death-scene, for the reader resents the distinction thus conferred on the double-hearted hero by the glowing and minute account of his individual fate when cardinal national issues are hanging in the balance. While the fortunes of Lord Marmion are, ostensibly, the main theme of the poem, he is, however, introduced merely to afford opportunity to paint the manners of the time in the year of Flodden. They are shown to us in association with the castle, the convent, the inn, the court, the camp and the battle. The force, as Scott says, is laid on description. The poem is very much a series of vivid kaleidoscopic scenes. It may suffice to mention the exquisite prospect of Norham castle illuminated by the setting sun; the description of Marmion’s approach to it; the presentation of the voyage of the Whitby nuns along the rockbound Durham and Northumbrian coasts to St. Cuthbert’s holy isle; the trial and doom of Constance by the heads of the three convents in “the dread vault” of Lindisfarne; the inn interior of the olden time with its host and guests; the approach towards Lord Marmion from the woodland shade of the lion king Sir David Lyndsay, on his milk-white palfrey, attended by his heralds and pursuivants on their prancing steeds and all clothed in their gorgeous heraldic bravery; the picture of the mighty mass of Crichton castle dominating “the green vale of Tyne”; and the presentation of the white pavilions of the great and motley Scottish army on the Borough muir backed by the turrets and rocky heights of Edinburgh and the shining expanse of the firth of Forth. But the great descriptive triumph of the poem is the dramatic picture of the stress and tumult and varying fortunes of the Flodden conflict, to the last heroic stand of the Scots and their flight across the Tweed in the gathering darkness. With the description of the morrow’s battlefield and of the discovery of the king’s body, the poem might well have ended; for the story of Lord Marmion’s burial, of Wilton’s feats and of Clara’s happy marriage is rather an anticlimax.