Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sir Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake

So in the midst of all of this month’s chaos, I’ve managed to find time to read one outmoded author. It helps that it was poetry, rather than some dense, 700-page novel or something.

"I was never a dunce, nor thought to be so,” he writes of himself, “but an
incorrigibly idle imp, who was always longing to do something else than what was
enjoined him.” (Sir Walter Scott and Florus A. Barbour, ed., The Lady of the
Lake, New York: Rand McNally and Co., 1910, p. 194)

“My appetite for books,” he adds, was as ample and indiscriminating as it was
indefatigable, and I sense have had too frequently to repent that few ever read
so much and to so little purpose.” (p. 195)

These quotes come from the biographical sketch included in the wonderful edition of this work I found. I had already developed a massive crush on Scott while reading his incredibly romantic and beautifully-crafted poem. These two quotes were enough to transform crush into full-blown love affair. Will someone please lend me a time machine, so I can go visit my object of desire (preferably during the heyday of his Abbotsford Castle)?

I have to admit that when I first chose to read this poem for the Outmoded Authors challenge, I thought it was going to be Scott’s take on the “other” Lady of the Lake, the one made so famous by King Arthur and his comrades. If you haven’t yet figured this out about me, I’m a sucker for all those old tales of knights, damsels, castles, and danger. So, at first I was a little disappointed when exploration beyond the title of the work revealed that this was merely a poem about King James V of Scotland (whom I vaguely remember from my history course at an English secondary school was, from that teacher’s point of view – who couldn’t possibly have been biased, no more so than Scott, of course -- a particularly cruel monarch).

Well, this “mere poem” teemed with knights, castles, damsels, and danger. And let’s not forget the wonderful hunting dogs, or the king prone to dressing up in disguise. I have no idea how artists like Scott manage to produce page after page of so many well-chosen and well-combined words to ignite my imagination. I can certainly understand someone who may be able to start off with gusto, so that at line 28, we have

The stag at eve had drunk his full
Where danced the moon on Moran’s rill,
And deep his midnight lair had made
In lone Glenartney’s hazel shade,
But when the sun his beacon red
Had kindled on Benvoirlich’s head,
The deep-mouthed bloodhound’s heavy bay
Resounded up the rocky way,
And faint, from farther distance home,
Were heard the clanging hoof and horn.

(Can’t you just see that stag, majestic in the Scottish highlands, the moon dancing, the sun rising, those bloodhounds eagerly pursuing their prey?)

But we might expect some waning by line 4366, and yet, this is where we get,

Then, from a rusted room hook,
A bunch of ponderous keys he took,
Lighted a torch, and Allan led
Through gated arch and passage dread.
Portals they passed, where, deep within,
Spoke prisoner’s moan, and fetters’ din;
Through rugged vaults, where, loosely stored,
Lay wheel, and axe, and headman’s sword,
And many a hideous engine grim,
For wrenching joint and crushing limb,
By artists formed who deemed it shame
And sin to give their work a name.

(A visit to that little passage is far more dreadful than Madame Tussaud’s torture chamber, wouldn’t you say? And with none of the gruesome details today’s authors would deem it necessary to include.)

He never wanes.

I couldn’t have been more fortunate in reading the aforementioned “wonderful edition.” Apparently, Rand McNally published a series of books called The Canterbury Classics, of which this is one. According to the foreword, the series “aims to bear its share in acquainting school children with literature suited to their needs.” So the book opens with color plates of tartans, and there are black and white photographs throughout of the places described in the poem, and of such things as a highland piper. Then there’s sheet music to “Hail to the Chief.” What fun, huh?

The best parts of this special edition, however, can be found in the back matter. Here is where we find an excerpt from Scott’s own Tales of a Grandfather describing the Highlanders and Borderers, as well as James V. This excerpt, along with the poem itself, made me highly aware of the fact that, despite being something like 95.5% Scottish, I am woefully lacking in my knowledge of Scottish history. Now I want to read Tales of a Grandfather in its entirety. The biographical sketch which followed painted Scott nearly as beautifully as his poem painted King James, and this is where I learned, among many other things, that Scott felt threatened by Byron, which is why he abandoned poetry and moved on to writing novels. Then there were all the “Notes” for the poem, followed by this endearing section called, “Suggestions to Teachers.” Listen to this great little piece of advice, “On the side of formal instruction, an earnest word to the teacher, lest, in her attempt to do exhaustive or critical work, she destroy the flavor of the poem. Let not the romantic interest be lost through grammatical or rhetorical questions or through deadly paraphrase.” (p. 252) Don’t you wish people had given such “earnest word” to your former teachers?

All right, I’m beginning to realize that maybe the object of my desire is this particular edition of Scott’s work and not Scott at all. But I doubt it. All-in-all, though, this was a wonderful reading experience from cover-to-cover. I’m ready to go back to read the poem that preceded this one The Lay of the Last Minstrel (perhaps there’s a Canterbury edition of it as well?), which is apparently based on the legend of a hobgoblin named Gilpin Horner. Scott and hobgoblins? That’s even better than Scott and kings in disguises. I’m a goner!


Becky said...

Emily, you should definitely read Ouroboros. Damsels, nobles, quests, hippogriffs, and more exotic language than you can shake a stick at.

BooksPlease said...

Emily, I see I'll have to read Scott's poetry now. I've just finished reading Ivanhoe and will write about it soon. It's full of knights, castles, seiges, tournaments and damsels in distress.