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

I. Sir Walter Scott

§ 9. Rokeby

Of Rokeby (1813), Scott wrote to Ballantyne: “I hope the thing will do, chiefly because the world will not expect from me a poem of which the interest turns upon character.” Of Bertram, the lusty villain of the poem, he also wrote to Joanna Baillie:

  • He is a Caravaggio sketch, which I may acknowledge to you—but tell it not in Gath—I rather pride myself upon, and he is within the keeping of nature, though critics will say to the contrary.
  • Lockhart questions whether, even in his prose, “there is anything more exquisitely wrought out as well as fancied than the whole contrast of the two rivals for the love of the heroine in Rokeby”; and he also expresses the opinion that “the heroine herself has a very particular interest in her.” At this, few, perhaps, will be disposed to cavil very much. Scott here gave the world a glimpse of a new aspect of his genius. In none of his previous poetic tales did he direct special attention to the portrayal of character. With the exception of Lord Marmion, who, at least, is an artistic, if not psychological, failure, his personalities are rather loosely sketched; in Rokeby, there is a much more elaborate indication of idiosyncrasies. It thus possesses a more pungent human interest than any of the three previous poems; the story, also, is better constructed and it abounds in thrilling and dramatic situations, all well devised and admirably elaborated; on the other hand, it is rather overburdened with mere sordidness and deficient in the finer elements of romance; it has neither the antique charm of The Lay, nor the national appeal of Marmion, nor the captivating singularity of The Lady of the Lake. Of the scenery, Scott says, “it united the romantic beauties of the wilds of Scotland and the rich and smiling aspect of the southern portion of the island.” And he had bestowed immense care on mastering its characteristic features; but, superior in rich, natural charms as is this Yorkshire country to most of southern Scotland, it lacks the mingled grandeur and bewitching loveliness of the loch Katrine region; and, in Rokeby Scott failed to utilise it with anything of the same effectiveness. The incidents of Rokeby might have happened anywhere and at any period, as well after any other battle as that of Marston moor. No attempt is made to portray the characteristics of cavaliers or roundheads; and the historic interest of the poem is almost nil.

    In The Lord of the Isles (1818), again, the historic interest is supreme. Its main fault, as a poetic tale, is, in truth, that it is too strictly historical, too much a mere modern reproduction of Barbour’s Bruce. The lurid Skye episode, however, is recorded with rare impressiveness, and the whole pageantry of the poem is admirably managed. Of the less important romances—The Vision of Don Roderick (1811), The Bridal of Triermain (1813) and Harold the Dauntless (1817)—little need be said. Though the first—founded on a Spanish legend and written on behalf of a fund for the relief of the Portuguese—bears more than the usual signs of hasty composition, the glowing enthusiasm of its martial stanzas largely atones for its minor defects. Of The Bridal of Triermain, fragmentary portions appeared in The Edinburgh Annual Register for 1813 as an imitation of Scott. By some, they were attributed to William Erskine, afterwards Lord Kinneder, and, at Erskine’s request, Scott agreed to complete the tale, on condition that Erskine “should make no serious effort to disown the composition, if report should lay it at his door.” To aid in the deception, Scott took care “in several places to mix something which might resemble” his “friend’s feeling and manner”; and we must suppose that this was more particularly attempted in the Lucy introductions. The romance, a wondrous love story of the time of Arthur, is itself, also, in a more gentle and subdued key than is usual with Scott, and the airily graceful story of its scatheless marvels strongly contrasts with the potent and semi-burlesque energy that animates the fierce and fearsome saga, Harold the Dauntless.