Marmion, by Walter Scott

Introduction to Canto Sixth.

To Richard Heber, Esq.
Mertoun–House, Christmas.

Heap on more wood! — the wind is chill;

But let it whistle as it will,

We’ll keep our Christmas merry still.

Each age has deem’d the new-born year

The fittest time for festal cheer:

Even, heathen yet, the savage Dane

At Iol more deep the mead did drain;

High on the beach his galleys drew,

And feasted all his pirate crew;

Then in his low and pine-built hall,

Where shields and axes deck’d the wall,

They gorged upon the half-dress’d steer;

Caroused in seas of sable beer;

While round, in brutal jest, were thrown

The half-gnaw’d rib, and marrow-bone,

Or listen’d all, in grim delight,

While scalds yell’d out the joys of fight.

Then forth, in frenzy, would they hie,

While wildly-loose their red locks fly,

And dancing round the blazing pile,

They make such barbarous mirth the while,

As best might to the mind recall

The boisterous joys of Odin’s hall.

And well our Christian sires of old

Loved when the year its course had roll’d,

And brought blithe Christmas back again,

With all his hospitable train.

Domestic and religious rite

Gave honour to the holy night;

On Christmas eve the bells were rung;

On Christmas eve the mass was sung:

That only night in all the year,

Saw the stoled priest the chalice rear.

The damsel donn’d her kirtle sheen;

The hall was dress’d with holly green;

Forth to the wood did merry-men go,

To gather in the mistletoe.

Then open’d wide the Baron’s hall

To vassal, tenant, serf, and all;

Power laid his rod of rule aside,

And Ceremony doff’d his pride.

The heir, with roses in his shoes,

That night might village partner choose;

The Lord, underogating, share

The vulgar game of ‘post and pair.’

All hail’d, with uncontroll’d delight,

And general voice, the happy night,

That to the cottage, as the crown,

Brought tidings of salvation down.

The fire, with well-dried logs supplied,

Went roaring up the chimney wide:

The huge hall-table’s oaken face,

Scrubb’d till it shone, the day to grace,

Bore then upon its massive board

No mark to part the squire and lord.

Then was brought in the lusty brawn,

By old blue-coated serving-man;

Then the grim boar’s head frown’d on high,

Crested with bays and rosemary.

Well can the green-garb’d ranger tell,

How, when, and where, the monster fell;

What dogs before his death he tore,

And all the baiting of the boar.

The wassel round, in good brown bowls,

Garnish’d with ribbons, blithely trowls.

There the huge sirloin reek’d; hard by

Plum-porridge stood, and Christmas pie:

Nor fail’d old Scotland to produce,

At such high tide, her savoury goose.

Then came the merry maskers in,

And carols roar’d with blithesome din;

If unmelodious was the song,

It was a hearty note, and strong.

Who lists may in their mumming see

Traces of ancient mystery;

White shirts supplied the masquerade,

And smutted cheeks the visors made;

But, O! what maskers, richly dight,

Can boast of bosoms half so light!

England was merry England, when

Old Christmas brought his sports again.

’Twas Christmas broach’d the mightiest ale;

’Twas Christmas told the merriest tale;

A Christmas gambol oft could cheer

The poor man’s heart through half the year.

Still linger, in our northern clime,

Some remnants of the good old time;

And still, within our valleys here,

We hold the kindred title dear,

Even when, perchance, its far-fetch’d claim

To Southron ear sounds empty name;

For course of blood, our proverbs deem,

Is warmer than the mountain-stream.

And thus, my Christmas still I hold

Where my great-grandsire came of old,

With amber beard, and flaxen hair,

And reverend apostolic air —

The feast and holy-tide to share,

And mix sobriety with wine,

And honest mirth with thoughts divine:

Small thought was his, in after time

E’er to be hitch’d into a rhyme.

The simple sire could only boast,

That he was loyal to his cost;

The banish’d race of kings revered,

And lost his land — but kept his beard.

In these dear halls, where welcome kind

Is with fair liberty combined;

Where cordial friendship gives the hand,

And flies constraint the magic wand

Of the fair dame that rules the land.

Little we heed the tempest drear,

While music, mirth, and social cheer,

Speed on their wings the passing year.

And Mertoun’s halls are fair e’en now,

When not a leaf is on the bough.

Tweed loves them well, and turns again,

As loth to leave the sweet domain,

And holds his mirror to her face,

And clips her with a close embrace:—

Gladly as he, we seek the dome,

And as reluctant turn us home.

How just that, at this time of glee,

My thoughts should, Heber, turn to thee!

For many a merry hour we’ve known,

And heard the chimes of midnight’s tone.

Cease, then, my friend! a moment cease,

And leave these classic tomes in peace!

Of Roman and of Grecian lore,

Sure mortal brain can hold no more.

These ancients, as Noll Bluff might say,

‘Were pretty fellows in their day;’

But time and tide o’er all prevail —

On Christmas eve a Christmas tale —

Of wonder and of war —‘Profane!

What! leave the lofty Latian strain,

Her stately prose, her verse’s charms,

To hear the clash of rusty arms:

In Fairy Land or Limbo lost,

To jostle conjurer and ghost,

Goblin and witch!’— Nay, Heber dear,

Before you touch my charter, hear;

Though Leyden aids, alas! no more,

My cause with many-languaged lore,

This may I say:— in realms of death

Ulysses meets Alcides’ WRAITH;

Aeneas, upon Thracia’s shore,

The ghost of murder’d Polydore;

For omens, we in Livy cross,

At every turn, locutus Bos.

As grave and duly speaks that ox,

As if he told the price of stocks;

Or held, in Rome republican,

The place of Common-councilman.

All nations have their omens drear,

Their legends wild of woe and fear.

To Cambria look — the peasant see,

Bethink him of Glendowerdy,

And shun ‘the Spirit’s Blasted Tree.’

The Highlander, whose red claymore

The battle turn’d on Maida’s shore,

Will, on a Friday morn, look pale,

If ask’d to tell a fairy tale:

He fears the vengeful Elfin King,

Who leaves that day his grassy ring:

Invisible to human ken,

He walks among the sons of men.

Did’st e’er, dear Heber, pass along

Beneath the towers of Franchemont,

Which, like an eagle’s nest in air,

Hang o’er the stream and hamlet fair?

Deep in their vaults, the peasants say,

A mighty treasure buried lay,

Amass’d through rapine and through wrong

By the last Lord of Franchemont.

The iron chest is bolted hard,

A Huntsman sits, its constant guard;

Around his neck his horn is hung,

His hanger in his belt is slung;

Before his feet his blood-hounds lie:

An ’twere not for his gloomy eye,

Whose withering glance no heart can brook,

As true a huntsman doth he look,

As bugle e’er in brake did sound,

Or ever hollow’d to a hound.

To chase the fiend, and win the prize,

In that same dungeon ever tries

An aged Necromantic Priest;

It is an hundred years at least,

Since ‘twixt them first the strife begun,

And neither yet has lost nor won.

And oft the Conjurer’s words will make

The stubborn Demon groan and quake;

And oft the bands of iron break,

Or bursts one lock, that still amain,

Fast as ’tis open’d, shuts again.

That magic strife within the tomb

May last until the day of doom,

Unless the Adept shall learn to tell

The very word that clench’d the spell,

When Franch’mont lock’d the treasure cell.

An hundred years are pass’d and gone,

And scarce three letters has he won.

Such general superstition may

Excuse for old Pitscottie say;

Whose gossip history has given

My song the messenger from Heaven,

That warn’d, in Lithgow, Scotland’s King,

Nor less the infernal summoning;

May pass the Monk of Durham’s tale,

Whose Demon fought in Gothic mail;

May pardon plead for Fordun grave,

Who told of Gifford’s Goblin–Cave.

But why such instances to you,

Who, in an instant, can renew

Your treasured hoards of various lore,

And furnish twenty thousand more?

Hoards, not like theirs whose volumes rest

Like treasures in the Franch’mont chest,

While gripple owners still refuse

To others what they cannot use;

Give them the priest’s whole century,

They shall not spell you letters three;

Their pleasure in the books the same

The magpie takes in pilfer’d gem.

Thy volumes, open as thy heart,

Delight, amusement, science, art,

To every ear and eye impart;

Yet who, of all who thus employ them,

Can like the owner’s self enjoy them? —

But, hark! I hear the distant drum!

The day of Flodden Field is come. —

Adieu, dear Heber! life and health,

And store of literary wealth.


Richard Heber (1773–1833) half-brother of Bishop Heber, was for some time M. P. for Oxford University. His large inherited fortune enabled him freely to indulge his love of books, and his, English library of 105,000 volumes cost him L180,000. He had thousands besides on the continent. As a cherished friend of Scott’s he is frequently mentioned in the ‘Life.’ He introduced Leyden to Scott (Life, i. 333, 1837 ed.).

‘Mertoun House, the seat of Hugh Scott, Esq., of Harden, is beautifully situated on the Tweed, about two miles below Dryburgh Abbey.’— LOCKHART.

line 7. ‘The Iol of the heathen Danes (a word still applied to Christmas in Scotland; was solemnized with great festivity. The humour of the Danes at table displayed itself in pelting each other with bones, and Torfaeus tells a long and curious story, in the History of Hrolfe Kraka, of one Hottus, an inmate of the Court of Denmark, who was so generally assailed with these missiles, that he constructed, out of the bones with which he was overwhelmed, a very respectable intrenchment, against those who continued the raillery. The dances of the northern warriors round the great fires of pine-trees, are commemorated by Olaus Magnus, who says, they danced with such fury, holding each other by the hands, that, if the grasp of any failed, he was pitched into the fire with the velocity of a sling. The sufferer, on such occasions, was instantly plucked out, and obliged to quaff off a certain measure of ale, as a penalty for “spoiling the king’s fire.”’-SCOTT.

line 33. Scott, after explaining that in Roman Catholic countries mass is never said at night except on Christmas eve, quotes as illustrative of early celebrations of the festival the names and descriptions of the allegorical characters in Jonson’s ‘Christmas his Masque. ‘The personages are Father Christmas himself and his ten sons and daughters, led in by Cupid. ‘Baby–Cake,’ the youngest child, is misprinted ‘Baby–Cocke in Scott.

line 45. Post and pair, a game at cards, is one of the sons of Father Christmas in Jonson’s Masque. He comes in with ‘a pair-royal of aces in his hat; his garment all done over with pairs and purs; his squire carrying a box, cards, and counters.’

line 55. The reference is to the ancient salt-cellar, which parted superiors from inferiors at table.

line 75. ‘It seems certain that the MUMMERS of England, who (in Northumberland at least) used to go about in disguise to the neighbouring houses, bearing the then useless ploughshares; and the GUISARDS of Scotland, not yet in total disuse, present, in some indistinct degree, a shadow of the old mysteries, which were the origin of the English drama. In Scotland, (me ipso teste,) we were wont, during my boyhood, to take the characters of the apostles, at least of Peter, Paul, and Judas Iscariot; the first had the keys, the second carried a sword, and the last the bag, in which the dole of our neighbours’ plum-cake was deposited. One played as a champion, and recited some traditional rhymes; another was:—

        . . . . “Alexander, King of Macedon,

Who conquer’d all the world but Scotland alone.

When he came to Scotland his courage grew cold,

To see a little nation courageous and bold.”

These, and many such verses, were repeated, but by rote, and unconnectedly. There were also, occasionally, I believe, a Saint George. In all, there was a confused resemblance of the ancient mysteries, in which the characters of Scripture, the Nine Worthies, and other popular personages, were usually exhibited. It were much to be wished that the Chester Mysteries were published from the MS. in the Museum, with the annotations which a diligent investigator of popular antiquities might still supply. The late acute and valuable antiquary, Mr. Ritson, showed me several memoranda towards such a task, which are probably now dispersed or lost. See, however, his “Remarks on Shakspeare,” 1783, p. 38.

‘Since the first edition of “Marmion” appeared, this subject has received much elucidation from the learned and extensive labours of Mr. Douce; and the Chester Mysteries (edited by J. H. Markland, Esq.) have been printed in a style of great elegance and accuracy (in 1818) by Bensley and Sons, London, for the Roxburghe Club. 1830.’— SCOTT.

line 93. The proverb ‘Blood is warmer than water’ is also common in the form ‘Blood is thicker than water.’

line 96. ‘Mr. Scott of Harden, my kind and affectionate friend, and distant relation, has the original of a poetical invitation, addressed from his grandfather to my relative, from which a few lines in the text are imitated. They are dated, as the epistle in the text, from Mertoun-house, the seat of the Harden family:—

“With amber beard, and flaxen hair,

And reverend apostolic air,

Free of anxiety and care,

Come hither, Christmas-day, and dine;

We’ll mix sobriety with wine,

And easy mirth with thoughts divine.

We Christians think it holiday,

On it no sin to feast or play;

Others, in spite, may fast and pray.

No superstition in the use

Our ancestors made of a goose;

Why may not we, as well as they,

Be innocently blithe that day,

On goose or pie, on wine or ale,

And scorn enthusiastic zeal? —

Pray come, and welcome, or plague rott

Your friend and landlord, Walter Scott.

                 “Mr. Walter Scott, Lessuden”

‘The venerable old gentleman, to whom the lines are addressed was the younger brother of William Scott of Raeburn. Being the cadet of a cadet of the Harden family, he had very little to lose; yet he contrived to lose the small property he had, by engaging in the civil wars and intrigues of the house of Stuart. His veneration for the exiled family was so great, that he swore he would not shave his beard till they were restored: a mark of attachment, which, I suppose, had been common during Cromwell’s usurpation; for, in Cowley’s “Cutter of Coleman Street,” one drunken cavalier upbraids another, that, when he was not able to afford to pay a barber, he affected to “wear a beard for the King.” I sincerely hope this was not absolutely the original reason of my ancestor’s beard; which, as appears from a portrait in the possession of Sir Henry Hay Macdougal, Bart., and another painted for the famous Dr. Pitcairn, was a beard of a most dignified and venerable appearance.’— SCOTT.

line 111. ‘See Introduction to the ‘Minstrelsy,’ vol. iv. p. 59.’— LOCKHART.

lines 117–20. The Tweed winds and loiters around Mertoun and its grounds as if fascinated by their attractiveness. With line. 120 cp. ‘clipped in with the sea,’ I Henry IV, iii. I. 45.

line 126. Cp. 2 Henry IV, iii. 2. 228: ‘We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow!’

line 132. Scott quotes from Congreve’s ‘Old Bachelor,’—‘Hannibal was a pretty fellow, sir — a very pretty fellow in his day,’ which is part of a speech by Noll Bluffe, one of the characters.

line 139. With ‘Limbo lost,’ cp. the ‘Limbo large and broad’ of ‘Paradise Lost,’ iii. 495. Limbo is the borders of hell, and also hell itself.

line 143. ‘John Leyden, M. D., who had been of great service to Sir Walter Scott in the preparation of the ‘Border Minstrelsy,’ sailed for India in April, 1803, and died at Java in August, 1811, before completing his 36th year.

“Scenes sung by him who sings no more!

His brief and bright career is o’er,

   And mute his tuneful strains;

Quench’d is his lamp of varied lore,

That loved the light of song to pour;

A distant and a deadly shore

   Has LEYDEN’S cold remains.”

                  Lord of the Isles, Canto IV.

‘See a notice of his life in the Author’s Miscellaneous Prose Works, vol. iv.’— LOCKHART.

line 146. For the solemn and powerful interview of Hercules and Ulysses, see close of Odyssey XI. Wraith (Icel. vordhr, guardian) is here used for SHADE. In Scottish superstition it signifies the shadow of a person seen before death, as in ‘Guy Mannering,’ chap. x: ‘she was uncertain if it were the gipsy, or her WRAITH.’ The most notable use of the word and the superstition in recent poetry is in Rossetti’s ‘King’s Tragedy’:—

‘And the woman held his eyes with her eyes:—

  “O King; thou art come at last;

But thy WRAITH has haunted the Scottish sea

  To my sight for four years past.

“Four years it is since first I met,

 ‘Twixt the Duchray and the Dhu,

A shape whose feet clung close in a shroud,

  And that shape for thine I knew,”’ &c.

line 148. AEneid, III. 19.

line 159. ‘This passage is illustrated by “Ceubren yr Ellyll, or the Spirit’s Blasted Tree,” a legendary tale, by the Reverend George Warrington, who says:—

‘“The event, on which the tale is founded, is preserved by tradition in the family of the Vaughans of Hengwyrt; nor is it entirely lost, even among the common people, who still point out this oak to the passenger. The enmity between the two Welsh chieftains, Howel Sele, and Owen Glendwr, was extreme, and marked by vile treachery in the one, and ferocious cruelty in the other. 3 The story is somewhat changed and softened, as more favourable to the character of the two chiefs, and as better answering the purpose of poetry, by admitting the passion of pity, and a greater degree of sentiment in the description. Some trace of Howel Sele’s mansion was to be seen a few years ago, and may perhaps be still visible, in the park of Nannau, now belonging to Sir Robert Vaughan, Baronet, in the wild and romantic tracks of Merionethshire. The abbey mentioned passes under two names, Vener and Cymmer. The former is retained, as more generally used.”— See the Metrical Tale in Sir Walter Scott’s Poetical Works, vol. vii. pp. 396–402.’— LOCKHART.

3 See Pennant’s Tour in Wales.

line 161. By a victory gained at Maida, 6 July 1806, Sir John Stuart broke the power of the French in southern Italy.

line 163. ‘The Daoine shi,’ or Men of Peace, of the Scottish Highlanders, rather resemble the Scandinavian Duergar, than the English Fairies. Notwithstanding their name, they are, if not absolutely malevolent, at least peevish, discontented, and apt to do mischief on slight provocation. The belief of their existence is deeply impressed on the Highlanders, who think they are particularly offended at mortals, who talk of them, who wear their favourite colour green, or in any respect interfere with their affairs. This is especially to be avoided on Friday, when, whether as dedicated to Venus, with whom, in Germany, this subterraneous people are held nearly connected, or for a more solemn reason, they are more active and possessed of greater power. Some curious particulars concerning the popular superstitions of the Highlanders may be found in Dr. Graham’s Picturesque Sketches of Perthshire.’— SCOTT.

Friday (the day of the goddess Freya) is regarded as lucky for marriages. Mr. Thiselton Dyer in ‘Domestic Folk-lore,’ p. 39, quotes the City Chamberlain of Glasgow as affirming that ‘nine-tenths of the marriages in Glasgow are celebrated on a Friday.’ In Hungary nothing of any importance is undertaken on a Friday, and there is a Hungarian proverb which says that ‘whoever is merry on a Friday is sure to weep on the Sunday.’ The Sicilians make the exception for weddings. In America Friday is a lucky day-the New World, no doubt, upsetting in this as other matters the conservatism of the Old. The superstition of sailors about Friday is famous. Cp. the old English song ‘The Mermaid.’ For further discussion of the subject see ‘Notes and Queries,’ 6th S. vol. vi.

line 175. ‘The journal of the Friend, to whom the Fourth Canto of the poem is inscribed, furnished me with the following account of a striking superstition:—

‘“Passed the pretty little village of Franchemont (near Spaw), with the romantic ruins of the old castle of the counts of that name. The road leads through many delightful vales, on a rising ground: at the extremity of one of them stands the ancient castle, now the subject of many superstitions legends. It is firmly believed by the neighbouring peasantry, that the last Baron of Franchemont deposited, in one of the vaults of the castle, a ponderous chest, containing an immense treasure in gold and silver, which, by some magic spell, was intrusted to the care of the Devil, who is constantly found sitting on the chest in the shape of a huntsman. Any one adventurous enough to touch the chest is instantly seized with the palsy. Upon one occasion, a priest of noted piety was brought to the vault: he used all the arts of exorcism to persuade his infernal majesty to vacate his seat, but in vain; the huntsman remained immovable. At last, moved by the earnestness of the priest, he told him, that he would agree to resign the chest, if the exorciser would sign his name with blood. But the priest understood his meaning, and refused, as by that act he would have delivered over his soul to the Devil. Yet if any body can discover the mystic words used by the person who deposited the treasure, and pronounced them, the fiend must instantly decamp. I had many stories of a similar nature from a peasant, who had himself seen the Devil, in the shape of a great cat.”’— SCOTT.

line 190. Begun has always been a possible past tense in poetry, and living poets continue its use. There is an example in Mr. Browning’s ‘Waring’:—

‘Give me my so-long promised son,

Let Waring end what I BEGUN;

and Lord Tennyson writes:—

‘The light of days when life BEGUN!

in the memorial verses prefixed to his brother’s ‘Collected Sonnets’ (1879).

line 205. Robert Lindsay of Pittscottie (a Fife estate, eastward of Cupar) lived in the first half of the sixteenth century, and wrote ‘Chronicles of Scotland’ from James II to Mary. Nothing further of him is known with certainty. Like the Lion King he was a cadet of the noble family of Lindsay, including Crawford and Lindsay and Lindsay of the Byres.

line 207. See above, IV. xiv.

line 212. John of Fordun (a village in Kincardineshire) about the end of the fourteenth century wrote the first five of the sixteen books of the ‘Scotochronicon,’ the work being completed by Walter Bower, appointed Abbot of St. Colm’s, 1418.

line 220. Gripple, tenacious, narrow. See ‘Waverley,’ chap. lxvii. — -‘Naebody wad be sae gripple as to take his gear’; and cp. ‘Faerie Queene,’ VI. iv. 6:—

‘On his shield he GRIPPLE hold did lay.’

line 225. They hide away their treasures without using them, as the magpie or the jackdaw does with the articles it steals.

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