Thursday, January 14, 2010

Marmion by Sir Walter Scott

I promise you I will not be sharing overly much of this epic poem (or, if you prefer, exceedingly long narrative poem) by Sir Walter Scott, which is referenced in Persuasion by Jane Austen, the focus of my month-long event, A Winter's Persuasion, in which we are proceeding chapter-by-chapter through the book (with Wednesdays off). Come tomorrow, we will reach Chapter 12, the half-way mark in Persuasion. Today's chapter included specific reference to two of Scott's works: Marmion and The Lady of the Lake.

Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field is, as I said before, long. Really long. It consists of six cantos, each of which is composed of dozens of rhymed stanzas. Scott had the decency to shake up his rhyme scheme - here, rhymed couplets in iambic tetrameter, there, iambic pentameter using alternating rhyme, still elsewhere, hymn meter using a combination of alternating and nested rhyme. The poem is a piece of historical fiction, set during the Battle of Flodden Field back in 1513, a huge battle between the English and the invading Scots, with a tremendous number of casualties (and an English victory). Scott tells the story of Lord Marmion, his fictional hero, who gets his mistress (a nun) to help him plot the downfall of the honorable Sir Ralph de Wilton, whose fiancee Marmion wants to wed. Marmion manages to drive Wilton into exile, but Clara (the fiancee/object) joins a convent rather than hook up with Marmion. Constance (the nun/mistress) is caught having broken her vows and is walled up - alive - into the walls of her island convent, but not before she turns over documents proving that Wilton was innocent. Marmion is killed in battle at Flodden Field, where Wilton distinguishes himself, thereby reclaiming and enhancing his reputation. He also regains his land and marries Clara.

If you think you know nothing of Marmion but what I've just told you, you are likely wrong. It is the source, in Canto Six, stanza 17, of this famous aphorism:

Oh! what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive!


The final stanza (#38) of Canto Six reads as follows:

I do not rhyme to that dull elf
Who cannot image to himself
That all through Flodden's dismal night
Wilton was foremost in the fight,
That when brave Surrey's steed was slain
'T was Wilton mounted him again;
'T was Wilton's brand that deepest hewed
Amid the spearmen's stubborn wood:
Unnamed by Hollinshed or Hall,
He was the living soul of all;
That, after fight, his faith made plain,
He won his rank and lands again,
And charged his old paternal shield
With bearings won on Flodden Field.
Nor sing I to that simple maid
To whom it must in terms be said
That King and kinsmen did agree
To bless fair Clara's constancy;
Who cannot, unless I relate,
Paint to her mind the bridal's state,—
That Wolsey's voice the blessing spoke,
More, Sands, and Denny, passed the joke;
That bluff King Hal the curtain drew,
And Katherine's hand the stocking threw;
And afterwards, for many a day,
That it was held enough to say,
In blessing to a wedded pair,
'Love they like Wilton and like Clare!'

As an Austen fan, I feel constrained to point out that Austen was so familiar with the whole of Marmion, as was her sister, that in a letter to Cassandra on January 29, 1813 discussing Pride and Prejudice just after its release, she paraphrased Scott's lines: "There are a few Typical errors--& a 'said he' or a 'said she' would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear--but 'I do not write for such dull Elves As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.'" The Brontë sisters are known to have been big fans of Marmion as well, and to have alluded it to it in their writing. Marmion is also the source of the extremely popular and widely anthologized "Lochinvar", a ballad with a galloping beat found in Canto V, stanza twelve (called there "Lochinvar: Lady Heron's Song", and available at the Poetry Foundation website.



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