Marmion, by Walter Scott

Introduction to Canto Fourth.

To James Skene, Esq.
Ashestiel, Ettrick Forest.

An ancient Minstrel sagely said,

‘Where is the life which late we led?’

That motley clown in Arden wood,

Whom humorous Jacques with envy view’d,

Not even that clown could amplify,

On this trite text, so long as I.

Eleven years we now may tell,

Since we have known each other well;

Since, riding side by side, our hand

First drew the voluntary brand;

And sure, through many a varied scene,,

Unkindness never came between.

Away these winged years have flown,

To join the mass of ages gone;

And though deep mark’d, like all below,

With chequer’d shades of joy and woe;

Though thou o’er realms and seas hast ranged,

Mark’d cities lost, and empires changed,

While here, at home, my narrower ken

Somewhat of manners saw, and men;

Though varying wishes, hopes, and fears,

Fever’d the progress of these years,

Vet now, days, weeks, and months, but seem

The recollection of a dream,

So still we glide down to the sea

Of fathomless eternity.

Even now it scarcely seems a day,

Since first I tuned this idle lay;

A task so often’ thrown aside,

When leisure graver cares denied,

That now, November’s dreary gale,

Whose voice inspired my opening tale,

That same November gale once more

Whirls the dry leaves on Yarrow shore.

Their vex’d boughs streaming to the sky,

Once more our naked birches sigh,

And Blackhouse heights, and Ettrick Pen,

Have donn’d their wintry shrouds again:

And mountain dark, and flooded mead,

Bid us forsake the banks of Tweed.

Earlier than wont along the sky,

Mix’d with the rack, the snow mists fly;

The shepherd who, in summer sun,

Had something of our envy won,

As thou with pencil, I with pen,

The features traced of hill and glen; —

He who, outstretch’d the livelong day,

At ease among the heath-flowers lay,

View’d the light clouds with vacant look,

Or slumber’d o’er his tatter’d book,

Or idly busied him to guide

His angle o’er the lessen’d tide; —

At midnight now, the snowy plain

Finds sterner labour for the swain.

When red hath set the beamless sun,

Through heavy vapours dark and dun;

When the tired ploughman, dry and warm,

Hears, half asleep, the rising storm

Hurling the hail, and sleeted rain,

Against the casement’s tinkling pane;

The sounds that drive wild deer, and fox,

To shelter in the brake and rocks,

Are warnings which the shepherd ask

To dismal and to dangerous task.

Oft he looks forth, and hopes, in vain,

The blast may sink in mellowing rain;

Till, dark above, and white below,

Decided drives the flaky snow,

And forth the hardy swain must go.

Long, with dejected look and whine,

To leave the hearth his dogs repine;

Whistling and cheering them to aid,

Around his back he wreathes the plaid:

His flock he gathers, and he guides,

To open downs, and mountain-sides,

Where fiercest though the tempest blow,

Least deeply lies the drift below.

The blast, that whistles o’er the fells,

Stiffens his locks to icicles;

Oft he looks back, while streaming far,

His cottage window seems a star —

Loses its feeble gleam — and then

Turns patient to the blast again,

And, facing to the tempest’s sweep,

Drives through the gloom his lagging sheep.

If fails his heart, if his limbs fail,

Benumbing death is in the gale;

His paths, his landmarks, all unknown,

Close to the hut, no more his own,

Close to the aid he sought in vain,

The morn may find the stiffen’d swain:

The widow sees, at dawning pale,

His orphans raise their feeble wail;

And, close beside him, in the snow,

Poor Yarrow, partner of their woe,

Couches upon his master’s breast,

And licks his cheek to break his rest.

Who envies now the shepherd’s lot,

His healthy fare, his rural cot,

His summer couch by greenwood tree,

His rustic kirn’s loud revelry,

His native hill-notes, tuned on high,

To Marion of the blithesome eye;

His crook, his scrip, his oaten reed,

And all Arcadia’s golden creed?

Changes not so with us, my Skene,

Of human life the varying scene?

Our youthful summer oft we see

Dance by on wings of game and glee,

While the dark storm reserves its rage,

Against the winter of our age:

As he, the ancient Chief of Troy,

His manhood spent in peace and joy;

But Grecian fires, and loud alarms,

Call’d ancient Priam forth to arms.

Then happy those, since each must drain

His share of pleasure, share of pain —

Then happy those, beloved of Heaven,

To whom the mingled cup is given;

Whose lenient sorrows find relief,

Whose joys are chasten’d by their grief.

And such a lot, my Skene, was thine,

When thou, of late, wert doom’d to twine —

Just when thy bridal hour was by —

The cypress with the myrtle tie.

Just on thy bride her Sire had smiled,

And bless’d the union of his child,

When love must change its joyous cheer,

And wipe affection’s filial tear.

Nor did the actions next his end,

Speak more the father than the friend:

Scarce had lamented Forbes paid

The tribute to his Minstrel’s shade;

The tale of friendship scarce was told,

Ere the narrator’s heart was cold —

Far may we search before we find

A heart so manly and so kind!

But not around his honour’d urn,

Shall friends alone and kindred mourn;

The thousand eyes his care had dried,

Pour at his name a bitter tide;

And frequent falls the grateful dew,

For benefits the world ne’er knew.

If mortal charity dare claim

The Almighty’s attributed name,

Inscribe above his mouldering clay,

‘The widow’s shield, the orphan’s stay.’

Nor, though it wake thy sorrow, deem

My verse intrudes on this sad theme;

for sacred was the pen that wrote,

‘Thy father’s friend forget thou not:’

And grateful title may I plead,

For many a kindly word and deed,

To bring my tribute to his grave:—

’Tis little — but ’tis all I have.

To thee, perchance, this rambling strain

Recalls our summer walks again;

When, doing nought — and, to speak true,

Not anxious to find aught to do —

The wild unbounded hills we ranged,

While oft our talk its topic changed,

And, desultory as our way,

Ranged, unconfined, from grave to gay.

Even when it flagged, as oft will chance,

No effort made to break its trance,

We could right pleasantly pursue

Our sports in social silence too;

Thou gravely labouring to pourtray

The blighted oak’s fantastic spray;

I spelling o’er, with much delight,

The legend of that antique knight,

Tirante by name, yclep’d the White.

At either’s feet a trusty squire,

Pandour and Camp, with eyes of fire,

Jealous, each other’s motions view’d,

And scarce suppress’d their ancient feud.

The laverock whistled from the cloud;

The stream was lively, but not loud;

From the white thorn the May-flower shed

Its dewy fragrance round our head:

Not Ariel lived more merrily

Under the blossom’d bough, than we.

And blithesome nights, too, have been ours,

When Winter stript the summer’s bowers.

Careless we heard, what now I hear,

The wild blast sighing deep and drear,

When fires were bright, and lamps beam’d gay,

And ladies tuned the lovely lay;

And he was held a laggard soul,

Who shunn’d to quaff the sparkling bowl.

Then he, whose absence we deplore,

Who breathes the gales of Devon’s shore,

The longer miss’d, bewail’d the more;

And thou, and I, and dear-loved R —

And one whose name I may not say —

For not Mimosa’s tender tree

Shrinks sooner from the touch than he —

In merry chorus well combined,

With laughter drown’d the whistling wind.

Mirth was within; and care without

Might gnaw her nails to hear our shout.

Not but amid the buxom scene

Some grave discourse might intervene —

Of the good horse that bore him best,

His shoulder, hoof, and arching crest:

For, like mad Tom’s, our chiefest care,

Was horse to ride, and weapon wear.

Such nights we’ve had; and, though the game

Of manhood be more sober tame,

And though the field-day, or the drill,

Seem less important now — yet still

Such may we hope to share again.

The sprightly thought inspires my strain!

And mark, how, like a horseman true,

Lord Marmion’s march I thus renew.


‘James Skene, Esq., of Rubislaw, Aberdeenshire, was Cornet in the Royal Edinburgh Light Horse Volunteers; and Sir Walter Scott was Quartermaster of the same corps.’— LOCKHART.

For Skene’s account of the origin of this regiment, due in large measure to ‘Scott’s ardour,’ see ‘Life of Scott,’ i. 258.

line 2. See Taming of the Shrew, i. 4. 135, and 2 Henry IV, v. 3. 143, where a line of an old song is quoted:—

‘Where is the life that late I led?’

line 3. See As you Like It, ii. 7. 12.

line 7. Scott made the acquaintance of Skene, recently returned from a lengthened stay in Saxony, about the end of 1796, and profited much by his friend’s German knowledge and his German books. In later days he utilized suggestions of Skene’s in ‘Ivanhoe’ and ‘Quentin Durward.’ See ‘Life of Scott,’ PASSIM, and specially i. 257, and iv. 342.

line 37. Blackhouse, a farm ‘situated on the Douglas-burn, then tenanted by a remarkable family, to which I have already made allusion — that of William Laidlaw.’—‘Life,’ i. 328. Ettrick Pen is a hill in the south of Selkirkshire.

line 46. ‘Various illustrations of the Poetry and Novels of Sir Walter Scott, from designs by Mr. Skene, have since been published.’— LOCKHART.

line 48. Probably the first reference in poetry to the Scottish heather is, says Prof. Veitch (‘Feeling for Nature,’ ii. 52), in Thomson’s ‘Spring,’ where the bees are represented as daring

‘The purple heath, or where the wild thyme grows.’

lines 55–97. With this striking typical winter piece, cp. in Thomson’s ‘Winter,’ the vivid and pathetic picture beginning:—

‘In his own loose-revolving fields, the swain

Disastered stands.’

See also Burns’s ‘Winter Night,’ which by these lines may have suggested Scott’s ‘beamless sun’:—

‘When Phoebus gies a short-liv’d glow’r

                  Far south the lift;

Dim-dark’ning thro’ the flaky show’r,

                  Or whirling drift.’

The ‘tired ploughman,’ too, may owe something to this farther line of Burns:—

‘Poor labour sweet in sleep was lock’d’;

while the animals seeking shelter may well follow this inimitable and touching description:—

‘List’ning the doors an’ winnocks rattle,

I thought me on the ourie cattle,

Or silly sheep, wha bide this brattle

                       O’ winter war,

And thro’ the drift, deep-lairing, sprattle

                       Beneath a scaur.’

line 91. ‘I cannot help here mentioning that, on the night on which these lines were written, suggested as they were by a sudden fall of snow, beginning after sunset, an unfortunate man perished exactly in the manner here described, and his body was next morning found close to his own house. The accident happened within five miles of the farm of Ashestiel.’— SCOTT.

line 101. ‘The Scottish Harvest-home.’— SCOTT. Perhaps the name ‘kirn’ is due to the fact that a churnful of cream is a feature of the night’s entertainment. In Chambers’s Burns, iii. 151, Robert Ainslie gives an account of a kirn at Ellisland in 1790.

line 102. Cp. the ‘wood-notes wild’ with which Milton credits Shakespeare, ‘L’Allegro,’ 131.

lines 104–5. The ideal pastoral life of the Golden Age.

line 132. ‘Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo, Baronet; unequalled, perhaps, in the degree of individual affection entertained for him by his friends, as well as in the general respect and esteem of Scotland at large. His “Life of Beattie,” whom he befriended and patronised in life, as well as celebrated after his decease, was not long published, before the benevolent and affectionate biographer was called to follow the subject of his narrative. This melancholy event very shortly succeeded the marriage of the friend, to whom this introduction is addressed, with one of Sir William’s daughters.’— SCOTT.

line 133. ‘The Minstrel’ is Beattie’s chief poem; it is one of the few poems in well-written Spenserian stanza.

line 147. Ps. lxviii. 5.

line 151. Prov. xxvii. 10.

line 155. For account of Sir W. Forbes, see his autobiographical ‘Memoirs of a Banking House’; Chambers’s ‘Eminent Scotsmen’; and ‘Dictionary of National Biography.’

line 163. Cp. Pope, ‘Essay on Man,’ IV. 380, and Boileau, ‘L’Art Poetique, ‘Chant I:—

‘Heureux qui, dans ses vers, sait d’une voix legere

Passer du grave au doux, du plaisant an severe.’

line 172. ‘Tirante el Blanco,’ a Spanish romance by Johann Martorell (1480), praised in ‘Don Quixote.’

line 174. ‘Camp was a favourite dog of the Poet’s, a bull terrier of extraordinary sagacity. He is introduced in Raeburn’s portrait of Sir Walter Scott, now at Dalkeith Palace.’— LOCKHART.

line 181. Cp. Tempest, v. i. 93.

line 191. ‘Colin Mackenzie, Esq., of Portmore. See “Border Minstrelsy,” iv. 351.’— LOCKHART. Mackenzie had been Scott’s friend from boyhood, and he received his copy of ‘Marmion’ at Lympstone, where he was, owing to feeble health, as mentioned in the text. He was a son-inlaw of Sir William Forbes, and in acknowledging receipt of the poem he said, ‘I must thank you for the elegant and delicate allusion in which you express your friendship for myself — Forbes — and, above all, that sweet memorial of his late excellent father.’— ‘Life of Scott,’ ii. 152.

line 194. ‘Sir William Rae of St. Catherine’s, Bart., subsequently Lord Advocate of Scotland, was a distinguished member of the volunteer corps to which Sir Walter Scott belonged; and he, the Poet, Mr. Skene, Mr. Mackenzie, and a few other friends, had formed themselves into a little semi-military club, the meetings of which were held at their family supper tables in rotation.’— LOCKHART.

line 195. ‘The late Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo, Bart., son of the author of the “Life of Beattie.”’— LOCKHART.

line 196. The Mimosa pudica, or sensitive plant. See Shelley’s poem on the subject:—

‘The Sensitive Plant was the earliest

Upgathered into the bosom of rest;

A sweet child weary of its delight,

The feeblest and yet the favourite,

Cradled within the embrace of night.’

line 200. Cp. ‘L’Allegro,’ 31, ‘Sport that wrinkled Care derides.’

line 206. See King Lear, iii. 4. 138, where Edgar, as Poor Tom, says that he has had ‘three suits to his back, six shirts to his body, horse to ride, and weapon to wear.’

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00