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- VERY HAPPILY INTRODUCED.
was unexceptionable in his originals. Though he has spared too many of their faults, however, he has certainly improved upon their beauties: and while we can scarcely help regretting, that the feuds of border chieftains should have monopolised as much poetry as might have served to immortalise the whole baronage of the empire, we are the more inclined to admire the interest and magnificence which he has contrived to communicate to a subject so unpromising.
Whatever may be thought of the conduct of the main story, the manner of introducing it must be allowed to be extremely poetical. An aged minstrel who had “ harped to King Charles the Good," and learned to love his art at a time when it was honoured by all that was distinguished in rank or in genius, having fallen into neglect and misery in the evil days of the usurpation, and the more frivolous gaieties or bitter contentions of the succeeding reigns, is represented as wandering about the Border in poverty and solitude, a few years
after the Revolution. In this situation he is driven, by want and weariness, to seek shelter in the Border castle of the Duchess of Buccleuch and Monmouth: and being cheered by the hospitality of his reception, offers to sing “ an ancient strain,” relating to the old warriors of her family; and after some fruitless attempts to recall the long-forgotten melody, pours forth “ The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” in six cantos, very skilfully divided by some recurrence to his own situation, and some complimentary interruptions from his noble auditors.
The construction of a fable seems by no means the forte of our modern poetical writers; and no great artifice, in that respect, was to be expected, perhaps, from an imitator of the ancient romancers. Mr. Scott, indeed, has himself insinuated, that he considered the story as an object of very subordinate importance; and that he was less solicitous to deliver a regular narrative, than to connect snch a series of incidents as might enable him to introduce the manners he had undertaken to delineate, and the imagery with which they were associated.
OUTLINE OF ITS STORY.
Though the conception of the fable is, probably from these causes, exceedingly defective, it is proper to lay a short sketch of it before our readers, both for the gratification of their curiosity, and to facilitate the application of the remarks we may be afterwards tempted to offer.
Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch, the Lord of Branksome, was slain in a skirmish with the Cars, about the middle of the sixteenth century. He left a daughter of matchless beauty, an infant son, and a high-minded widow, who, though a very virtuous and devout person, was privately addicted to the study of Magic, in which she had been initiated by her father. Lord Cranstoun their neighbour was at feud with the whole clan of Scott; but had fallen desperately in love with the daughter, who returned his passion with equal sincerity and ardour, though withheld, by her duty to her mother, from uniting her destiny with his. The poem opens with a description of the warlike establishment of Branksome-hall; and the first incident which occurs is a dialogue between the Spirits of the adjoining mountain and river, who, after consulting the stars, declare that no good fortune can ever bless the mansion “ till pride be quelled, and love be free.” The lady, whose forbidden studies had taught her to understand the language of such speakers,
overhears this conversation ; and vows, if possible, to retain her purpose in spite of it. She calls a gallant knight of her train, therefore, and directs him to ride immediately to the abbey of Melrose, and there to ask, from the monk of St. Mary's aisle, the mighty book that was hid in the tomb of the wizard Michael Scott. The remainder of the first canto is occupied with the night journey of the warrior. When he delivers his message, the monk appears filled with consternation and terror, but leads him at last through many galleries and chapels to the spot where the wizard was interred; and, after some account of his life and character, the warrior heaves up the tomb-stone, and is dazzled by the streaming splendour of an ever-burning lamp, which illuminates the sepulchre of the enchanter.
OUTLINE OF STORY
With trembling hand he takes the book from the side of the deceased, and hurries home with it in his bosom.
In the mean time, Lord Cranstoun and the lovely Margaret have met at dawn in the woods adjacent to the castle, and are repeating their vows of true love, when they are startled by the approach of a horseman. The lady retreats ; and the lover advancing, finds it to be the messenger from Branksome, with whom, as an hereditary enemy, he thinks it necessary to enter immediately into combat. The poor knight, fatigued with his noctural adventures, is dismounted at the first shock, and falls desperately wounded to the ground; while Lord Cranstoun, relenting towards the kinsman of his beloved, lirects his page to attend him to the castle, and gallops home before any alarm can be given. Lord Cranstoun's page is something unearthly. It is a little mishapen dwarf, whom he found one day when he was hunting, in a solitary glen, and took home with him. It never speaks, except now and then to cry, “ Lost ! lost! lost !" and is, on the whole, a hateful, malicious little urchin, with no one good quality but his unaccountable attachment and fidelity to his master. This personage, on approaching the wounded Borderer, discovers the mighty book in his bosom, which he finds some difficulty in opening, and has scarcely had time to read a single spell in it, when he is struck down by an invisible hand, and the clasps of the magic volume shut suddenly more closely than ever.
This one spell, however, enables him to practise every kind of illusion.
kind of illusion. He lays the wounded knight on his horse, and leads him into the castle, while the warders see nothing but a wain of hay. He throws him down, unperceived, at the door of the lady's chamber, and turns to make good his retreat. In passing through the court, however, he sees the young heir of Buccleuch at play, and, assuming the form of one of his companions, tempts him to go out with him to the woods, where, as soon as they pass a rivulet, he resumes his own shape, and bounds away. The bewildered child is met by two English archers, who make prize of him, and carry him off, while the goblin page returns to the castle ; where he
personates the young baron, to the great annoyance of the whole inhabitants.
The lady finds the wounded knight, and eagerly employs charms for his recovery, that she may learn the story of his disaster. The lovely Margaret, in the mean time, is sitting in her turret, gazing on the western star, and musing on the scenes of the morning, when she discovers the blazing beacons that announce the approach of an English enemy. The alarm is immediately given, and bustling preparation made throughout the mansion for defence. The English force under the command of the Lords Howard and Dacre speedily appears before the castle, leading with them the young Buccleuch; and propose that the lady should either give up Sir William of Deloraine (who had been her messenger to Melrose), as having incurred the guilt of march treason, or receive an English garrison within her walls. She answers, with much spirit, that her kinsman will clear himself of the imputation of treason by single combat, and that no foe shall ever get admittance into her fortress. The English Lords, being secretly apprised of the approach of powerful succours to the besieged, agree to the proposal of the combat; and stipulate that the boy shall be restored to liberty or detained in bondage, according to the issue of the battle. The lists are appointed for the ensuing day; and a truce being proclaimed in the mean time, the opposite bands mingle in hospitality and friendship.
Deloraine being wounded, was expected to appear by a champion; and some contention arises for the honour of that substitution. This, however, is speedily terminated by a person in the armour of the warrior himself, who encounters the English champion, slays him, and leads his captive young chieftain to the embraces of his mother. At this moment Deloraine himself appears, half-clothed and unarmed, to claim the combat which has been terminated in his absence! and all flock around the stranger who had personated him so successfully. He unclaps his helmet; and behold! Lord Cranstoun of Teviotside! The lady, overcome with gratitude, and
SCOTT'S LAY OF THE LAST MINSTREL.
the remembrance of the spirits' prophecy, consents to forego the feud, and to give the fair hand of Margaret to that of the enamoured Baron. The rites of betrothment are then celebrated with great magnificence; and a splendid entertainment given to all the English and Scottish chieftains whom the alarm had assembled at Branksome. Lord Cranstoun's page plays several unlucky tricks during the festival, and breeds some dissension among the warriors. To soothe their ireful mood, the minstrels are introduced, who recite three ballad pieces of considerable merit. Just as their songs are ended, a supernatural darkness spreads itself through the hall ; a tremendous flash of lightning and peal of thunder ensue, which break just on the spot where the goblin page had been seated, who is heard to cry“ Found! found! found !” and is no more to be seen, when the darkness clears away. The whole party is chilled with terror at this extraordinary incident; and Deloraine
protests that he distinctly saw the figure of the ancient wizard Michael Scott in the middle of the lightning. The lady renounces for ever the unhallowed study of magic; and all the chieftains, struck with awe and consternation, vow to make a pilgrimage to Melrose, to implore rest and forgiveness for the spirit of the departed sorcerer. With the description of this ceremony the minstrel closes his “
“ Lay." From this little sketch of the story, our readers will easily perceive, that, however well calculated it may be for the introduction of picturesque imagery, or the display of extraordinary incident, it has but little pretension to the praise of a regular or coherent narrative. The magic of the lady, the midnight visit to Melrose, and the mighty book of the enchanter, which occupy nearly one third of the whole poem, and engross the attention of the reader for a long time after the commencement of the narrative, are of no use whatsoever in the subsequent development of the fable, and do not contribute, in any degree, either to the production or explanation of the incidents that follow. The whole character and proceedings of the goblin page, in like