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

I. Sir Walter Scott

§ 8. The Lady of the Lake

While, in The Lay, the force, according to Scott, is laid on style, and, in Marmion, on description, in The Lady of the Lake (1810) it is laid on incident. The poem sets before us an almost continuous succession of exciting occurrences. It is not so much a re-creation of the past as a stirring recital of hazards and adventures. Nevertheless, it is as picturesquely descriptive as either of its two predecessors; and, apart from the vividly coloured incidents, it gains a special charm from the wild and enchanting scenery which forms their setting. The detailed obtrusiveness of the scenery has been objected to as too guidebook-like; but what would the poem, as a poem, be apart from the matchless reproduction of the scenery’s enchantment? It was, in fact, the deep impression made on Scott by the mingled loveliness and wild grandeur of the loch Katrine region that suggested to him to make it the scene of such a theme. “This poem,” he says, “the action of which lay among scenes so beautiful and so deeply impressed on my recollection, was a labour of love.”

Each canto begins with one or more Spenserian stanzas, mainly of an invocatory character; and, except for the interpolated songs or bard recitals, he confines himself, throughout his tale, almost wholly to the octosyllabic couplet. This has met with some disapproval; but the rapid succession of exciting incidents tends to prevent the monotony of effect that might have been felt in the case of a less animated narrative, the poem being almost destitute of such irksome passages as have been commented on in the case of its predecessors. It is the most uniformly and vividly entertaining of the three poems, and was, and seems destined to be, the most popular. If it cannot be termed great poetry, it is, for most readers, a very fascinating poetic tale. Though it may even verge, occasionally, on rodomontade, though its representations of personalities are rather slight and superficial and, in some instances, a little stagey, there is irresistible spirit and verve in the depiction of its incidents and much poetic charm in the arrangement of their setting. As for the interpolated songs, some, intended to represent the more voluminous improvisations of the highland bards, are but fairly successful Ossianic imitations; but the song of Ellen, Rest, Warrior, Rest, is a true romantic inspiration; ardent clan loyalty is consummately blended with savage warrior sentiment in the boat chorus Hail to the Chief; and it would be difficult to overpraise the condensed passion of the coronach.