Source of book: I own the complete poetry of Sir Walter Scott
Did any of my readers also play the card game, Authors, as a child? My mother introduced us to it, and I remember playing it from time to time. I also might, in a pinch, be able to list the works and authors from the game. For Sir Walter Scott, there were three novels, Ivanhoe, Kenilworth, and The Talisman. The fourth work - each author had four - was The Lady of the Lake. Since I have read the other three, this was the last one to complete the set.
So, that explains why I picked this poem out of all of Scott’s works. I certainly didn’t expect to fall down a rabbit hole of the weird history behind the poem and the even weirder subsequent influence that the poem has had. (I’ll address some of this in a footnote.)
First of all, despite the name, this poem has nothing whatsoever to do with the “Lady of the Lake” of Arthurian legend. That lady gave Arthur his sword, Excalibur, and raised Lancelot, and otherwise participated in the legends in various ways.
This poem instead is loosely based on the feud between King James V of Scotland and the Douglas clan. (James was the father of Mary, Queen of Scots; and grandfather of James VI and I - who would unite England and Scotland and commission the King James Bible.) The actual events of the poem are Scott’s invention, although he drew on incidents from various points in Scottish history and legend for the tale.
I already discussed Scott’s life in my previous post on his Scottish novel, The Heart of Midlothian. Scott is best known today for his novels, particularly the three listed above, which contributed to our modern pictures of Robin Hood, Queen Elizabeth I, and King Richard I, respectively.
However, before he attempted novels (which he initially did under a pseudonym), he was a successful poet. The Lady of the Lake was one of several long narrative poems, and was written in 1810, four years before his first foray into prose fiction.
The poem is divided into six cantos, which each tell of one day in time. The setting is the beautiful countryside on the borderlands between the highlands and the lowlands. The lake is Loch Katrine, which does indeed contain an island large enough to serve as a hideaway.
Loch Katrine. Photo by Richard Webb. Used pursuant to the Creative Commons License.
The plot runs roughly as follows (Spoilers follow):
The Highland Scots, led by Sir Roderick Dhu (exiled for committing a brazen murder in the King’s court) are at odds with the Lowland Scots, who are loyal to King James, who nominally rules Scotland. Douglas, who was formerly of the king’s court, has quarreled as a result of vicious rumors, and has fled to the highlands with his daughter Ellen and his minstrel, Allan Bane.
As the poem opens, a lowland hunter, calling himself James Fitz-James, becomes lost in the highlands while chasing an elusive stag. His horse dies of exhaustion by the shores of a lake. He blows his horn, but instead of his countrymen, he is found by a highland maiden, who rows across from and island. By the common courtesy of the time, he is given a bed for the night, and sent on his way, even though he is known to be on the other side of the conflict. The maid is, of course, Ellen, and Fitz-James is smitten.
Her hand, however, is sought by two others: the dangerous and rather bloodthirsty Roderick Dhu, and the young highland chief Malcolm Graeme. Ellen is under pressure to marry Roderick, as such a marriage would cement an alliance between Duncan and Roderick’s Clan Alpine.
After Fitz-James departs, Roderick and Graeme arrive, and quarrel over Ellen, and Graeme leaves. He is later captured by the forces of King James. Roderick decides to muster the highland forces, and rebel against King James. Douglas refuses, because he still retains some loyalty to the crown. Roderick goes ahead anyway, and prepares the burning cross to send abroad as the signal...
Wait, what was that? A burning cross? That sounds a bit familiar. (More on this in a footnote below.)
The signal is sent, and the forces are told to meet at a certain point. Douglas, Ellen, and Allan, seek refuge in a hideaway.
The next day at the gathering, Brian the Hermit (who is kind of a cross between a druid and a monk), predicts that whichever side draws the first blood will win the encounter.
Fitz-James, led by a guide, encounters Ellen, and asks for her hand, but she refuses. He gives her his ring, however, and tells her she can use it if she needs a favor from King James.
Later, Fitz-James and Roderick meet, and challenge each other to single combat. Roderick is seriously wounded, and is taken by Fitz-James to the castle.
Stirling Castle. Photo by Finlay McWalter. Used pursuant to the Creative Commons License.
Douglas in the meantime, has gone to the castle to seek to reconcile with the king, and also to try to save Roderick and Graeme. He is imprisoned himself, however. King James, though, gives the order to stop the warfare and seek a truce.
On the final day, after the battle, Allan Bane and Ellen come to the castle with news of the battle and the truce. Ellen is there to seek the freedom of her father, but finds that he has already been pardoned, and that Fitz-James was really King James in disguise. She then asks for the pardon of Roderick - her loyalty to the highlanders outweighing her more personal desires. Alas, Roderick has died of his wounds. Ellen hesitates to ask for Graeme’s freedom, so King James brings him in, and jokingly orders him put into fetters, while putting a necklace over him and handing the clasp to Ellen. (A nice little Scottish engagement ceremony.)
The form of the poem is interesting. Scott uses primarily iambic tetrameter in rhymed couplets, but he deviates from that form on numerous occasions. There are various songs scattered throughout the poem, and each has meter suited to the topic, speaker, and form. He also uses metric changes in a few instances to change mood. For example, he switches to a formal iambic pentameter for the last stanza.
Scott’s writing is always delightfully descriptive, and this poem just seems to flow off the tongue with ease. (Most poetry sounds better out loud - and this poem sounds so melodious that way.) Here is a bit from Canto I:
The western waves of ebbing day
Rolled o'er the glen their level way;
Each purple peak, each flinty spire,
Was bathed in floods of living fire.
But not a setting beam could glow
Within the dark ravines below,
Where twined the path in shadow hid,
Round many a rocky pyramid,
Shooting abruptly from the dell
Its thunder-splintered pinnacle;
Round many an insulated mass,
The native bulwarks of the pass,
Huge as the tower which builders vain
Presumptuous piled on Shinar's plain.
The rocky summits, split and rent,
Formed turret, dome, or battlement.
Or seemed fantastically set
With cupola or minaret,
Wild crests as pagod ever decked,
Or mosque of Eastern architect.
Nor were these earth-born castles bare,
Nor lacked they many a banner fair;
For, from their shivered brows displayed,
Far o'er the unfathomable glade,
All twinkling with the dewdrop sheen,
The briar-rose fell in streamers green,
kind creeping shrubs of thousand dyes
Waved in the west-wind's summer sighs.
Likewise, during the hunt itself, Scott uses the language to convey the breathlessness of the pace, slowing down as the horse tires and eventually expires. Truly delightful command of the language and the form. I also like Fitz-James’ thoughts as he realizes he will have to spend the night far from home.
'Blithe were it then to wander here!
But now—beshrew yon nimble deer—
Like that same hermit's, thin and spare,
The copse must give my evening fare;
Some mossy bank my couch must be,
Some rustling oak my canopy.
Yet pass we that; the war and chase
Give little choice of resting-place;—
A summer night in greenwood spent
Were but to-morrow's merriment:
But hosts may in these wilds abound,
Such as are better missed than found...
Both of these are in the characteristic iambic tetrameter. A contrast comes in Ellen’s song to her guest, Fitz-James. The accents are reversed, substituting trochees for the iambs, making a “feminine” rhyme (unaccented syllables) at the end.
Soldier, rest! thy warfare o'er,
Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking;
Dream of battled fields no more,
Days of danger, nights of waking.
In our isle's enchanted hall,
Hands unseen thy couch are strewing,
Fairy strains of music fall,
Every sense in slumber dewing.
Soldier, rest! thy warfare o'er,
Dream of fighting fields no more;
Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking,
Morn of toil, nor night of waking.
Later in the poem, Scott describes the wild character of Brian the Hermit. Note the mention of the banshee, the harbinger of death in both Scottish and Irish legend.
The desert gave him visions wild,
Such as might suit the spectre's child.
Where with black cliffs the torrents toil,
He watched the wheeling eddies boil,
Jill from their foam his dazzled eyes
Beheld the River Demon rise:
The mountain mist took form and limb
Of noontide hag or goblin grim;
The midnight wind came wild and dread,
Swelled with the voices of the dead;
Far on the future battle-heath
His eye beheld the ranks of death:
Thus the lone Seer, from mankind hurled,
Shaped forth a disembodied world.
One lingering sympathy of mind
Still bound him to the mortal kind;
The only parent he could claim
Of ancient Alpine's lineage came.
Late had he heard, in prophet's dream,
The fatal Ben-Shie's boding scream;
Sounds, too, had come in midnight blast
Of charging steeds, careering fast
Along Benharrow's shingly side,
Where mortal horseman ne'er might ride;
The thunderbolt had split the pine,--
All augured ill to Alpine's line.
He girt his loins, and came to show
The signals of impending woe,
And now stood prompt to bless or ban,
As bade the Chieftain of his clan.
I was not able to confirm if the “coronach,” a traditional Scottish improvised lament, followed any particular metric pattern. Scott uses an interesting combination of anapests and feminine endings.
He is gone on the mountain,
He is lost to the forest,
Like a summer-dried fountain,
When our need was the sorest.
The font, reappearing,
From the rain-drops shall borrow,
But to us comes no cheering,
To Duncan no morrow!
The hand of the reaper
Takes the ears that are hoary,
But the voice of the weeper
Wails manhood in glory.
The autumn winds rushing
Waft the leaves that are searest,
But our flower was in flushing,
When blighting was nearest.
Fleet foot on the correi,
Sage counsel in cumber,
Red hand in the foray,
How sound is thy slumber!
Like the dew on the mountain,
Like the foam on the river,
Like the bubble on the fountain,
Thou art gone, and forever!
This lament takes place at the funeral of a clan chief. The mourners must leave the vigil and take arms after the messenger with the burning cross arrives. After all,
Within Loch Katrine's gorge we'll fight,
All in our maids' and matrons' sight,
Each for his hearth and household fire,
Father for child, and son for sire Lover
for maid beloved!--
As a final example of the creative use of meter, Scott uses the anapest rhythm again in the uncouth song of the drunken soldiers. Here is one of the stanzas:
Our vicar still preaches that Peter and Poule
Laid a swinging long curse on the bonny brown bowl,
That there 's wrath and despair in the jolly black-jack,
And the seven deadly sins in a flagon of sack;
Yet whoop, Barnaby! off with thy liquor,
Drink upsees out, and a fig for the vicar!
These soldiers are not the lowland nobles and knights, who are bound together by the feudal system and therefore loyal based on the system of landholding. Nor are they the highland clansmen, who are organized by what Scott calls patriarchy. He is actually rather accurate here, as the system was somewhat similar to other ancient political organizations. The head of the clan would be the eldest in direct descent from the founder of the clan, and he would rule his lesser relatives, servants, slaves, captives, and assorted persons bound to the clan by tradition. The two clashing systems meant that loyalties were often divided on the borderlands (which was a cause of this particular dispute), and one often had to choose between political ties and family ties.
This poem was a joy to read. The local color was fun, as it usually is in Scott’s works. The language had an addictive cadence, and Scott makes the past come alive. I also found it fun to recognize a few obscure words that influence our language today, although we hardly notice it. One of these was “lave,” meaning to wash. We see this in our polite term for the bathroom, the lavatory. The second was “ruth,” used in the sense of a feeling of pity. We don’t use this one, but we do its opposite, “ruthless.” I also like the obsolete but versatile word “caitiff,” meaning in different contexts, a coward, a captive, and a miserable person.
A final word I wish to mention is one that I first encountered, of all places, in a Nancy Drew book. A “pibroch” is an art form largely associated with the great highland bagpipe (although it was probably originally played on harps). In this context, it is the characteristic tune unique to each clan. I recall a scene in Scott’s novel A Legend of Montrose in which the pipers from the assembled clans engage in a battle to see who can blast louder than the others. Duelling bagpipes, anyone?
Since Clan Alpine is a fictitious clan, there is no actual pibroch to be found for this poem. Instead, here is the pibroch for clan Campbell, since my friend and colleague Clayton has Campbell ancestry.
Note on the Flaming Cross:
I was a bit startled to see a flaming cross in this poem, and had to look up its meaning. I ended up down a pretty crazy rabbit hole, to say the least. Here goes.
Scott describes a highland tradition that may well date back to the druids. When the clans would assemble for war, the lead clan would hold a ceremony. A cross of branches was assembled, and each of the four points sharpened. These points were set on fire, and then quenched in the blood of a goat sacrificed for the occasion. A messenger would then circulate the cross to each loyal clan. The clan must then assemble on pain of their blood being shed and their houses burnt - just like the cross and the goat.
So far, so good. A bit dramatic and pagan sounding, perhaps, but nothing more.
It turns out that a bit later in history, James VI of Scotland ascended the throne of England, uniting the kingdoms. His son, Charles I, wasn’t quite so popular, and was eventually executed. (I discussed the Commonwealth and Restoration periods in a recent post.)
The Scots were not too happy about either the commonwealth or the eventual Glorious Revolution, which ended the rule of the Stuarts. They wanted both to restore the Scottish Stuarts to the English throne, and also establish the Scottish form of Christianity over that of the Anglican form. Essentially a combined political and religious war broke out. This conflict was known as the Jacobite Rising, and was the setting of Scott’s first novel, Waverley It continued in fits and starts until the 1740s, when King George II destroyed the clan system, banned the wearing of tartans, and banished many of those Scots involved in the uprising to the various colonies.
Those that came to North America settled largely in the Southern colonies of the Carolinas and Georgia.
When The Lady of the Lake came out, it had a tremendous influence in Scotland, sparking what is known as the Highland Revival. Eventually, the laws repressing the symbols of the highland clans were repealed, and Scottish pride flourished. (Believe it or not, there is still a Scottish separatist movement.)
The influence of the poem was not limited to the British Isles. In the wake of the Civil War, the most furious of the vanquished South rallied around the idea of descent from the original founders of the United States - including the Scots who settled the South. The Ku Klux Klan adopted the “clan” name, a few of the terms, and used the burning cross as both a rallying device and as a threat. (The original use of the cross, as I described it above, had no racial implications. It was a summons and a threat against allies, not enemies.)
To a degree, this odd Scottish connection remains within the Neo-Confederate movement. While the Neo-Nazis use the term “aryan” to describe the ideal “white” ancestry (a Germanic idea), the most common term found on Neo-Confederate sites is “anglo-celtic,” a term encompassing the various groups associated with England before the Norman (French) invasion.
I suppose this was natural, in a way. The tale in The Lady of the Lake is a classic narrative. It’s fun to be the noble underdog, fighting for family and hearth, against the oppressor. It’s always more fun to believe that one is on the side of “true” religion against the false - and both sides believed it in this conflict. Thus, I suppose it is natural to want to identify with Highlanders, and adopt their imagery for one’s own cause. We like to identify ourselves with the noble heroes of legend, whether our cause is truly just, or whether we are intimidating and murdering former slaves.
It wasn’t just those bitter about the Southern defeat that took inspiration from this poem, though. Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave and abolitionist leader, originally bore the name of Bailey. Like many slaves, it was the family name of his owner. After his escape, he rejected that name, and chose his name from Scott’s poem. Thus, both sides adopted this tale as their own narrative.
Note on Music:
Composers, too, found inspiration in The Lady of the Lake.
The official Presidential anthem, “Hail to the Chief” had lyrics which were adapted from the song to Roderick Dhu in the poem.
Rossini’s opera, La Donna del Lago is based on the poem - although there are a few changes to the plot to accommodate the expectations of the genre.
The most famous, however, is Schubert’s Ave Maria, which was originally the third of three songs sung by Ellen Douglas in a cycle of seven songs from the poem. Schubert liked the tune enough to use it for a setting of the Roman Catholic Latin prayer.
Here is part of the original from The Lady of the Lake:
Ave. Maria! maiden mild!
Listen to a maiden's prayer!
Thou canst hear though from the wild,
Thou canst save amid despair.
Safe may we sleep beneath thy care,
Though banished, outcast, and reviled--
Maiden! hear a maiden's prayer;
Mother, hear a suppliant child!
Here is Schubert’s later adaptation. Bonus points for the violin solo.