Friday, February 10, 2012

Sir Walter Scott, The Bridal of Triermain (1813)


[As read for by Nathan (, who happily has an insatiable taste for what he terms English epic (Longfellow, Macaulay, Scott, etc).]


The poem consists of simple and familiar stories bolted together to make a less familiar structure - three pairs of lovers, centuries apart from each other, are involved. Not strictly true, I recall: Gyneth (2nd pair) does meet her father King Arthur (1st Pair) - but thereafter she's been in a Beauty Sleep for 600 years before the manly Sir Roland gets to her. The Cumberland locations - Gilsland (Triermain Castle), Threlkeld (St John's in the Vale) - are carefully established. (Perhaps relevantly, Scott met and courted Charlotte Carpentier when he visited the Lake District in September 1797; he married her at Carlisle on Christmas Eve.)


Yet shadows of constraint were there,
And oft cast down her large dark eye,
held back a soft voluptuous sigh
            that heav'd her bosom's pride.
the wily lover
shepherds know
how hot the mid-day sun shall glow
            from early- morning sky;
beakers rang
   one tyrant passion draws,
            Till, mastering all within,
Where lives the man that has not tried
How mirth


reserve thy boon recall thine oath

Gone, too, were fence and fair array,
but desperate strength
made lunge at random through the bloody fray,
or slashed with whirring steel spray
on jerkin hauberk hand or helm
of whom no heed, or where it fell,


woodst some demon

came mounted on that car of fire,
            to do his errand.

Far on the sloping valley's course,
on thicket, rock, and torrent hoarse,
Shingle and Scrae, and Fell and Force,
            A dusky light arose:
Display'd, yet alter'd was the scene;
Dark rock, and brook of silver sheen,
even the gay thicket's summer green,
            In bloody tincture glows.


Erskine's preface

Scott had a lifelong relish for publishing things under invented or borrowed names - he'd be one of today's masked commenters and have 20 blogs. A poetical fragment he published anonymously in 1809 had been misattributed to his friend William Erskine. So in 1813, when Scott had worked the fragment up into the  full-length Bridal and was again planning anonymous publication, he decided to encourage the former mistake by persuading Erskine to write the preface. When the preface talks about the poem being written in friendly imitation of a  well-known Romantic poet,  it means Scott himself. In other words Erskine is saying to us: "If this poem strikes you as a bit Scott-like, don't jump to the conclusion that it's by Scott,  oh no, the true explanation is that I'm deliberately aping his manner." Later editions have often retained the preface but under Scott's own name,  which of course is extremely confusing!

The Bridal of Triermain and Christabel

"Lord Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine" is mentioned in Coleridge's Christabel, line 395, as the imputed father of Geraldine.

Christabel eventually appeared in 1816, but Coleridge in his preface tells us that Christabel was composed in 1797-1800. Which is certainly the truth, or nearly the truth.

The dates are mentioned for the exclusive purpose of precluding charges of plagiarism or servile imitation from myself....

I am confident however, that as far as the present poem is concerned, the celebrated poets whose writings I might be suspected of having imitated, either in particular passages, or in the tone and the spirit of the whole, would be among the first to vindicate me from the charge, and who, on any striking coincidence, would permit me to address them in this doggerel verse of two monkish Latin hexameters:

'Tis mine and it is likewise your's,
But an if this will not do;
Let it be mine, good friend! for I
Am the poorer of the two."
Presumably this Roland de Vaux is a prime example of the "particular passages" and  "striking coincidence(s)" that Coleridge refers to.

Not everyone has believed Coleridge. Henry A. Beers seems to say that Coleridge took Roland from Scott's 1813 poem. "The wheels of his Christabel had got hopelessly mired, and he now borrowed a horse from Sir Walter and hitched it to his own wagon. He took over Sir Roland de Vaux of Triermain and made him the putative father of his Geraldine, although in compliance with Scott's romance, the embassy that goes over the mountains to Sir Roland's castle can find no trace of it." (A History of English Romanticism in the Nineteenth Century, 1901, p. 11). Well, but there is no such report of the embassy failing in Christabel. Nor in Tupper's sequel, Geraldine - on the contrary, Bracy brings back Sir Roland. Besides, in Scott it is not  Sir Roland's own castle that keeps disappearing, but Merlin's castle in the Vale of St John.

It's possible Beers is right, but it isn't very likely. For all I know to the contrary, Christabel as published could be substantially a poem of 1797-1800 but still incorporate a handful of last-minute changes. And it's credible that those last-minute changes might prepare for the continuation that Coleridge vainly hoped he would soon write. But why would you borrow something from a popular poet you don't like - see Coleridge's 1810 letter to Wordsworth, in which he rips The Lady of the Lake to shreds - , and then write a preface implying the opposite?

[Henry Augustin Beers was a Yale Professor.  His books are available online and they are very good reading.  Paul H. Fry's  History of the Yale English Department notes: "An eclectic and a sometime poet, Beers was known at the time for an Outline of English Literature (1886), but his lasting contribution was the first important delineation of “preromanticism” in English, History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth Century (1899)—which is arguably the earliest ancestor of the “Yale School” of romanticism." ]

In Christabel, the main relevance of mentioning Geraldine's parentage is Sir Leoline's now-embittered former friendship with Sir Roland. But if Coleridge had really had the Bridal in mind, he would also be claiming that Geraldine was the daughter of Gyneth and, more significantly, the grand-daughter of Guendolen. (Incidentally, some readers of Christabel believe that the claimed parentage is meant to be a falsehood, anyway.)

So far as Sir Roland de Vaux is concerned, it doesn't really matter much who borrowed from whom, if either did. What isn't in doubt is that back in 1802 Christabel had been a crucial inspiration in kickstarting Scott's career as an original poet.

Scott recounts this "secret history" in his April 1830 Introduction to The Lay of the Last Minstrel (revised in the autumn of 1831).

The subject of Gilpin Horner (the goblin of the poem) had been merrily imposed on him by the Countess of Dalkeith.  While staying at his leased cottage at Lasswade, Scott was visited by John Stoddart, then engaged in his own local history researches*. Stoddart had a strong memory and he was able to recite some passages of the unpublished Christabel by heart.  Scott immediately saw that the freedom of Coleridge's 4-stress line-without-fixed-syllable-count could be just the thing for the narrative poem he was meditating. A year later he began to write the poem, and he even varied a line of Christabel in the very first stanza of his story: "Jesu Maria, shield us well!" (LLM Canto 1 St 1) -- compare Coleridge's "Jesu Maria, shield her well!", line 55-ish. "Varied" is a word for "stole", and Scott owns the impeachment unblushingly:

In this specimen I had, in the phrase of the Highland servant, packed all that was my own at least, for I had also included a line of invocation, a little softened, from Coleridge —
“Mary, mother, shield us well.” 

(This may conceivably have been true of the specimen, which Scott afterwards threw in the fire. But in the published editions the line is "Jesu Maria, shield us well", a far more direct quotation.)

As it happens, Scott's use of the Christabel music sharply declines after the first few stanzas.  Later in Canto 2, Margaret's visit to the wood somewhat recalls the narrative of Coleridge's opening.

So, Scott might have remembered the name Roland of Triermain from Christabel, though it seems unlikely that Stoddart would have chosen that passage for recital, and Scott's
own note on BT Canto I implies that the name came from Burns' Antiquities of Westmoreland and Cumberland .

Rossetti (Letter to Hall Caine, 1/4/1880) says of the second part of Christabel, so inferior to the first, that apart from one or two passages "The rest seems to have reached a fatal facility of jingling,  at the heels whereof followed Scott." He agreed with Charles Lamb (and later Camille Paglia)  that Coleridge should have stuck with Part I. (Incidentally he points out the source of the name "Christabel" in Percy's Reliques - contrary to those who, apparently, think Coleridge coined it from a combination of "Christ" and "Abel".)

The general tone of Coleridge's various comments suggests some ongoing resentment of Scott.

Before publication, he resented Scott for being successful and for having based this success, in some degree, on his own poem. Of course it wasn't the theft of one minor line that bothered him, but the feeling that Christabel had supplied the master-key to Scott's whole approach and the golden success that it met with. [The fresh-faced appeal of his preface almost submerges the charge, whose implication is nevertheless hard to avoid, that celebrated poets had plagiarized and servilely imitated him.]

And after publication, he complained that those people who had admired Christabel so much in the past appeared strangely silent now. Lord Byron, who did speak out in its praise, was evidently quite embarrassed when Coleridge pointedly contrasted Byron's generosity with his friend Scott's niggardliness.

Scott's 1830 Introduction to The Lay of the Last Minstrel shows that he was well aware of the kind of things Coleridge had been saying.

As applied to comic and humorous poetry, this mescolanza of measures had been already used by Anthony Hall, Anstey, Dr. Wolcott, and others; but it was in Christabel that I first found it used in serious poetry, and it is to Mr. Coleridge that I am bound to make the acknowledgment due from the pupil to the master. I observe that Lord Byron, in noticing my obligations to Mr. Coleridge, which I have been always most ready to acknowledge, expressed, or was understood to expres, that I did not write an unfriendly review on Mr. Coleridge’s productions. On this subject I have only to say, that I do not even know the review which is alluded to; and were I ever to take the unbecoming freedom of censuring a man of Mr. Coleridge’s extraordinary talents, it would be on account of the caprice and indolence with which he has thrown from him, as if in mere wantonness, those unfinished scraps of poetry, which, like the Torso of antiquity, defy the skill of his poetical brethren to complete them. The charming fragments which the author abandons to their fate, are surely too valuable to be treated like the proofs of careless engravers, the sweepings of whose studios often make the fortune of some painstaking collector.

Those last comments are modest, elegant, and just.  But justice is what a temperament like Coleridge's wasn't likely to relish. Indeed, Scott's implication is hard to resist: if Coleridge didn't have due public recognition, then it wasn't because it had been stolen from him but because of his own chronic incapacity when it came to delivering a finished work.

It was presumably after Scott's death in 1832 that Coleridge delivered the mellower though still mischievous remarks recorded in his Table Talk (1835):

Dear Sir Walter Scott and myself were exact, but harmonious, opposites in this; that every old ruin, hill, river, or tree called up in his mind a host of historical or biographical associations, just as a bright pan of brass, when beaten, is said to attract the swarming bees; whereas for myself, notwithstanding Dr. Johnson, I believe I should walk over the plain of Marathon without taking more interest in it than any other plain of similar features. Yet I receive as much pleasure from Herodotus as any one can. ... When I am very ill indeed, I can read Scott's novels, and they are almost the only books I can then read. I cannot at such times read the Bible; my mind reflects on it, but I cannot bear the open page.

Coleridge alas has an even worse Wikipedia page than Scott's. The problem seems to be that someone has borrowed large chunks of it from a 1907 encyclopaedia. Though this material does not meet Wikipedia's standard (e.g. for references), it is substantial and so far has deterred anyone from starting all over again. But its view of Coleridge is completely out of date, reflecting the taste of 1900 and entirely without awareness of any modern studies or of the influence of Coleridge on later thinkers and writers.

Surely this is an aberration. Or must Coleridge be added to the list of classic authors whose reputation has crashed in my own lifetime (a list that would include Arnold and Fielding)?

*John Stoddart, a lawyer, was afterwards appointed the king's advocate at the admiralty court in Malta (1803-07).  Coleridge visited him for a short time and was appointed public secretary to the government. Stoddart's Toryism was so fierce that in 1816 he was dismissed from the job of Times leader-writer!

The Bridal of Triermain: Historical, Legendary and Topographical

Caliburn. =Excalibur. In this poem Scott preferred Geoffrey of Monmouth-era names if possible (as opposed to e.g. Malory).

Carodac. = Caradoc Briefbras? His story is told in the first continuation of Chretien's Perceval. In the original it is Caradoc's wife, not Caradoc, who has to undergo a chastity test (which involves being able to drink from a magic drinking horn).

Castle Rock [of Triermain]. The longer name alludes to Scott's poem. An impressive crag on the western flank of Watson's Dodd. A recent ominous crack in the north buttress, against which climbers are warned, suggests that Merlin's Castle may be about to break forth again.

Cumberland. A historic border County, called Carliol in the Middle Ages, comprising more or less the northern/northwestern half of modern Cumbria. To the south-east it was bordered by Westmoreland, and to the South-west by the isolated Furness area of Lancashire.

"And his who sleeps at Dunmailraise." i.e. King Dunmail, the last king of Cumbria; slain in a battle here against the united forces of Malcolm King of Scotland and Edmund, a Saxon King. A stone cairn is supposed to mark the spot where he fell.

Eamont vale. The Eamont runs from Ullswater to 3 miles E. of Penrith, where it joins the Eden.

Legbert, Legbert-head. Legburthwaite is a small village just north of Thirlmere.

The narrow valley of SAINT JOHN: Glaciated valley, connecting Threlkeld to the Thirlmere valley, and now known by the name of its village, St John's in the Vale.

Reged. = Rheged, an ancient north-western Brythonic kingdom, possibly centred on Cumbria.

Thirlmere. A reservoir created 1890-94, against fierce local opposition. In Scott's time the valley contained two smaller lakes, Leathes Water and Wythburn Water.

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