The Lay of the Last Minstrel, by Walter Scott

Introduction

THE way was long, the wind was cold,

The Minstrel was infirm and old;

His wither’d cheek, and tresses gray,

Seem’d to have known a better day;

The harp, his sole remaining joy,

Was carried by an orphan boy.

The last of all the Bards was he,

Who sung of Border chivalry;

For, welladay! their date was fled,

His tuneful brethren all were dead;10

And he, neglected and oppress’d,

Wish’d to be with them, and at rest.

No more on prancing palfrey borne,

He caroll’d, light as lark at morn;

No longer courted and caress’d,

High placed in hall, a welcome guest

He pour’d to lord and lady gay

The unpremeditated lay:

Old times were changed, old manners gone;

A stranger fill’d the Stuarts’ throne;20

The bigots of the iron time

Had call’d his harmless art a crime.

A wandering Harper, scorn’d and poor,

He begg’d his bread from door to door,

And tuned, to please a peasant’s ear,

The harp a king had loved to hear.

He pass’d where Newark’s stately tower

Looks out from Yarrow’s birchen bower:

The Minstrel gazed with wishful eye;

No humbler resting-place was nigh;30

With hesitating step at last

The embattled portal arch he pass’d,

Whose ponderous grate and massy bar

Had oft roll’d back the tide of war,

But never closed the iron door

Against the desolate and poor.

The Duchess1 marked his weary pace,

His timid mien, and reverend face,

And bade her page the menials tell

That they should tend the old man well:40

For she had known adversity,

Though born in such a high degree;

In pride of power, in beauty’s bloom,

Had wept o’er Monmouth’s bloody tomb!

When kindness had his wants supplied,

And the old man was gratified,

Began to rise his minstrel pride:

And he began to talk anon,

Of good Earl Francis,2 dead and gone,

And of Earl Walter,3 rest him, God!50

A braver ne’er to battle rode;

And how full many a tale he knew,

Of the old warriors of Buccleuch:

And, would the noble Duchess deign

To listen to an old man’s strain,

Though stiff his hand, his voice though weak,

He thought even yet, the sooth to speak,

That, if she loved the harp to hear,

He could make music to her ear.

The humble boon was soon obtain’d;60

The aged Minstrel audience gain’d.

But, when he reached the room of state,

Where she, with all her ladies, sate,

Perchance he wish’d his boon denied:

For, when to tune his harp he tried,

His trembling hand had lost the ease,

Which marks security to please;

And scenes long past, of joy and pain,

Came wildering o’er his aged brain —

He tried to tune his harp in vain!70

The pitying Duchess praised its chime,

And gave him heart, and gave him time,

Till every string’s according glee

Was blended into harmony.

And then, he said, he would full fain

He could recall an ancient strain,

He never thought to sing again.

It was not framed for village churls,

But for high dames and mighty earls;

He had play’d it to King Charles the Good,80

When he kept court in Holyrood;

And much he wish’d, yet fear’d, to try

The long-forgotten melody.

Amid the strings his fingers stray’d,

And an uncertain warbling made,

And oft he shook his hoary head.

But when he caught the measure wild,

The old mall raised his face, and smiled;

And lighten’d up his faded eye,

With all a poet’s ecstacy!90

In varying cadence, soft or strong,

He swept the sounding chords along:

The present scene, the future lot,

His toils, his wants, were all forgot:

Cold diffidence, and age’s frost,

In the full tide of song were lost;

Each blank, in faithless memory void,

The poet’s glowing thought supplied;

And, while his harp responsive rung,

’Twas thus the LATEST MINSTREL sung.100

1 Anne, Duchess of Buccleuch and Monmouth, representative of the ancient Lords of Buccleuch, and widow of the unfortunate James, Duke of Monmouth, who was beheaded in 1685.

2 Francis Scott, Earl of Buccleuch, father of the Duchess.

3 Walter, Earl of Buccleuch, grandfather of the Duchess, and a celebrated warrior.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29