Glasgow's People, 1956-1988

Lady of the Lake

Sir Walter Scott,
page 6 of 17

were finely in keeping with the conception of the minstrel. Considering the dead monotony that had prevailed in English poetry since the time of Pope, and which still reigned in polished society in spite of Cowper and Burns, we do not wonder that the Lay passed over Britain like the breath of spring. Walter Scott, by virtue of his gallant minstrelsy, became sovereign of Parnassus by acclamation.

When Scott had roused the public attention, he never allowed it to fall asleep. So long as his poetry continued in fashion, so long the stream flowed, copious if not deep. In 1808 appeared “Marmion,” which seems to us incomparably the greatest triumph which Scott achieved in verse. The lurid grandeur of the crisis is reflected in the tarnished heroism of Marmion, as strongly as in the impotent pride of Douglas and the blind fatuity of James. Like Niagara rushing irresistibly to the cataract, the incidents sweep on, fore-doomed, to the carnage and rout of Flodden Field. At such a period, when the shadow of disaster fell dark on the future, the passionate bursts of patriotism render the darkness of the tragedy more impressive and deep. The ill-timed gallantries of James, the tenderness of Clara, have the same effect. Yet notwithstanding the gloom that settles over the battlefield, there is no modern poem in which the pomp and circumstance of glorious war appeal with more effect to the imagination. It is the fragment of a Scottish Iliad.

He produced another great narrative poem — “The Lady of the Lake.” Here again we have a Stuart king, nobles, knights, chivalry and war; but the figures move more shadow-like; the action has left the historical stage. The unequalled popularity of “The Lady of the Lake” is due to its splendid descriptive passages. The Trossachs were beautiful before Scott’s time; but the poet shed upon Loch Katrine and the scenery around

“The light that never was on sea or land,
The consecration and the poet’s dream.”

The readers of “The Lady of the Lake” long to look on the Trossachs; those who visit the Trossachs read “The Lady of the Lake” with renewed delight. Scott’s fame as a poet reached its climax in “The Lady of the Lake.” In the following year he published “The Vision of Don Roderick,” which seemed chiefly designed to celebrate the prowess of the British army in the Peninsula. It found no favour, and deserved none. “Rokeby,” a tale of the Civil wars, was more fortunate, but almost simultaneously “Childe Harold” was published, and Byron, to his own astonishment, took his place at the head of living poets. Scott was slow to believe that his sceptre had departed. In order to test the popular judgment he published “The Bridal of Triermain” anonymously. But his style was too well-known to admit of disguise, and the volume failed to revive the public interest. “The Lord of the Isles,” published in 1814, only enabled him to leave the field with the honours of war. Although his later poems display little of the old fire, it is not to waning powers alone that we must trace the coldness with which these productions were received. The world had become weary of the troubadour. Far as his fancy ranged, his poetical style was, in fact, monotonous, deriving all its animation from the rapid, movement of the narrative, and the brilliant pictures of scenery and manners. Deficient in the highest qualities of poetry, “Marmion” and “The Lady of the Lake” still delight thousands of readers for whom the reflective strains of Wordsworth and Tennyson have no charm.


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