Monday, September 25, 2017

of crimson sheen

Comb Morion helmet, as worn by sixteenth-century border reivers

[Image source:]

Soon on the hill's steep verge he stood,
That looks o'er Branksome's towers and wood;
And martial murmurs, from below,
Proclaim'd the approaching southern foe.
Through the dark wood, in mingled tone,
Were Border pipes and bugles blown;
The coursers' neighing he could ken,
A measured tread of marching men;
While broke at times the solemn hum
The Almayn's sullen kettle-drum;
        And banners tall of crimson sheen
Above the copse appear;
        And, glistening through the hawthorns green,
Shine helm, and shield, and spear.

(The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Canto 4 St 16*)

Scott's tetrameters in this, his first and probably greatest narrative poem, sometimes suggest a totally different meter, that of Gawain and the Green Knight and other stanzaic romances. Nowhere more so than here, where the alliteration is consciously heightened and the terminating "wheel" (though without a "bob") delivers the same refreshing effect, of giving us pause for breath.

The watcher is the hardy yeoman Watt Tinlinn, just returning from failed pursuit of the supposed son-and-heir who turns into a mocking elf. Scott's in the middle of one of his virtuosic Ariosto-like shuttles between different plotlines.

* There are two versions of the poem. In the First Edition of 1805, the stanza that I've quoted appears as St 13, not 16. Check it out here, where you can also have a look at Scott's extensive antiquarian notes, unfortunately absent from nearly all later editions:
The version of the poem that I've been reading  (and the one normally seen, e.g. here: has some differences from the first edition, e.g.

Canto 4 St 7 :  The four-line "wheel" is only in the revised version.
Cant 4 St 10 - 12: This extended episode, describing the Scotts' scattering of the Beattisons in Eskdale, is only in the revised version.
Canto 6 St 24 - 31 These stanzas were mistakenly numbered 25-32 in the first edition.

I don't know when the additions were made though I should imagine it was early on. They seamlessly improve an already excellent poem (a skill few revisers possess). The reason may be that Scott's poetic art was always based on a methodology of accretion. A skeleton was progressively enriched (the same sort of way that Jane Austen developed her novels).

The original idea for the poem, as recounted in the important 1830 Introduction, was to tell the tale of the goblin (or "elf"), employing the meter Scott had discovered a year earlier when Mr Stoddart recited from memory some passages of the unpublished "Christabel". In the poem as it developed, the goblin is not the most important element; border life, scenery and feuding occupy the centre. Scott had the idea of the minstrel and the frame-narrative after conversation with friends, who said that so original a poem needed a "pitchpipe" for the reader. (A nice image, that. We who as a point of honour resist making our poems accessible to unprepared audiences should maybe think again about it.)

On "Christabel", its influence on Scott, and Coleridge's resentment, see this post:

[Watt Tinlinn's "battered morion" should really have looked more like the one at the head of this post.]



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