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PREFACE TO THE FIRST EDITION.
The Poem now offered to the Public, is intended to illustrate the customs and manners which anciently prevailed on the Borders of England and Scotland. The inhabitants, living in a state partly pustoral and partly warlike, and combining habits of constant depredation with the influence of a rude spirit of chivalry, were often engaged in scenes highly susceptible of poetical ornament. As the description of scenery and manners was more the object of the Author than a combined and regular narrative, the plan of the Ancient Metrical Romance was adopted, which allows greater latitude, in this respect, than would be consistent with the dignity of a regular Poem. The same model offered other facilities, as it permits an occasional alteration of measure, which, in some degree, authorises the change of rhythm in the text. The machinery, also, adopted from popular belief, would have seemed puerile in a Poem which did not partake of the rudeness of the old Ballad, or Metrical Romance.
For these reasons, the Poem was put into the mouth of an ancient Minstre, the last of the race, who, as he is supposed to have survived the Revolution, might have caught somewhat of the refinement of modern poetry, without losing the simplicity of his original model. The date of the Tale itself is about the middle of the sixteenth century, when most of the personages actually flourished. The time occupied in the action is Three Nights and Three Days.
THE LAY OF THE LAST MINSTREL.
A PECULIAR interest attaches to “ The Lay of the Last Minstrel," not only as! the first disclosure of the poet's powers, but as that, among all his works, which is perhaps most closely identified with his personal career and character. Even if Scott bad not himself told us, it would not be difficult to trace the various influences under which he composed this poem. His grandmother, in whose youth the Border raids were still matters of comparatively recent tradition, used to amuse him with many a tale of Watt of Harden, Wight Willie of Aikwood, Jamie Telfer of the fair Dodhead, and other Moss-trooping heroes. This prepared his mind for the deep impression which was made on it, when he was about twelve years old, by Percy's “ Reliques of Ancient Poetry.” It was under a large platanus-tree in his aunt's garden at Kelso that he first read them, forgetting even the dinner-hour in his enjoyment of this new treasure. "To read and to remember was in this instance," he says, “the same thing, and henceforth I overwhelmed my schoolfellows, and all who would hearken to me, with tragical recitations from the ballads of Bishop Percy. The first time, too, I could scrape a few shillings together, which were not common occurrences with me, I bought unto myself a copy of these beloved volumes; nor do I believe I ever read a book half so frequently, or with half the enthusiasm.”
In the compilation of his own Border Minstrelsy he followed the impulse thus derived ; and when, after having for some years dabbled in poetry, he aspired to distinguish himself by something higher than mere translations or occasional verses, his partiality for the Border legends governed his choice of a subject as well as the style of treatment. He hesitated for a while as to the particular story he should illustrate, but all those he thought of belonged to the same class. At one time he contemplated “a Border ballad, in the comic manner,” founded on his ancestor's (Sir William Scott, of Harden) marriage with ugly Meg Murray, as the alternative of being hanged by his father-in-law. But finally he decided on "a romance of Border chivalry, in a light-horseman sort of stanza.” Having, at the request of the Countess of Dalkeith, undertaken a ballad about the adventures of a brownie or goblin, called Gilpin Horner, he was discouraged in the attempt by the apparent coldness with which his two friends, Erskine and Cranstoun, astened to the first stanzas, and abandoned the idea till tempted to resume it by learning that, on second thoughts, his critics had formed a more favourable opinion of the effort. He applied himself to the work as an amusement during his enforced leisure, when disabled by the kick of a horse at yeomanry drill on Portobello Sands. As soon as he got into the vein, he dashed it off at the rate of about a canto a week. The goblin page sank into a mere minor feature as the poem grew upon his hands. The metre was borrowed from Coleridge's “ Lady Christabel.” The beautiful freedom and variety of this metre Scout appreciated all the more, because it enabled him to introduce much of the style and phraseology of the old minstrels. The ballad measure in quatrains, which
at first naturally suggested itself, was set aside as too hackneyed and wearisome for a composition of any length. Against the measured short line, or octo-syllabic verse, there was the objection of the “ fatal facility," to use Scott's own phrase, with which it was written, the temptation it offered to mere verbiage, and its monotonous and namby-pamby effect. Shakespeare had laughed at it as the “butter-woman's rate to market," and the “ very false gallop of verses,” and Scott felt that his muse demanded a more stirring and varied measure. “Christabel” was not published till 1816 ; but a year or two before Scott began the “ Lay" he had heard Sir John Stoddart recite some parts of it, which made a deep' impression on his mind. He saw that Coleridge had remedied all the defects of the octo-syllabic measure, by freeing it from its rigid formality, and dividing it by time instead of syllables ; by the beat of four, as Leigh Hunt remarks, into which you might get as many syllables as you could, instead of allotting eight syllables to the poor time, whatever it might have to say, varying it further with alternate rhymes and stanzas, with rests and omissions, precisely analogous to those in music. The old bard himself was an afterthought. He was introduced as a sort of “ pitch-pipe” to indicate the tone and character of the composition.
In the poem the reader will find a romantic picture of the Borderers, in the best aspect of their character. Their name, like that of the kindred rovers of the sea, is“ linked with one virtue and a thousand crimes.” Scott has brought out the
solitary virtue-dauntless bravery-into the foreground, and has thrown the I crimes into the shade. Here we may offer some prosaic observations on
their real character. At first national feuds lent a justification to the Border raids. It was in the spirit of patriotism that the men on each side of the Cheviots harried one another's homes, and drove off one another's cattle. The instinct of hostility survived long after the two countries were at peace, and was quickened by the love of plunder. At the period of the following tale, they had degenerated into mere robbers, whom the rulers on both sides of the Border alike denounced. The best that can be said for them is that they had inherited the traditions of rapine which they sought to perpetuate ; that what philosophers now call the doctrine of "continuity ” was responsible for much of their wild temper; and that the savage habits which had been transmitted through generations were not readily uprooted :
“There never was a time on the March partes,
As the rane does in the street.” Nursed with such a lullaby, it seemed to these wild Borderers only a law of nature that Scots and English should prey upon each other, and this ferocious spirit soon expanded into an impartial appetite for plunder, and general antagonism to society. And so it came about that a Scott learned to have as little compunction in "lighting to bed” a Kerr as a Grame. They had their own domestic raids and blood-feuds or disputes, as over the Border. It was, in truth, a restless, cruel, wild-beast kind of existence, that called forth all the worst passions, and could have been bearable only through a brutish insensibility and indifference to danger. They carried their life in their hands, and none could tell whether to a week's end he could call his kine his own. “ They are like to Job,” says Fuller, quaintly, “not in piety and patience, but in sudden plenty and poverty; sometimes having flocks and herds in the morning, none at night, and perchance many again next day.” It was with some surprise, in the midst of vexation, that Watt Tinlinn reflected that his little lonely tower had not been
barned for a year and more ; and the old song tells the common experience for which every borderer had to be prepared :
“ Last night I saw a sorry sight
Nyught left me o' four-and-twenty guide ousen and kye;
Fy, lads ! shout a'a'a'a'a'
My gear's a' gane." Religion, of course, in any true sense of the term, was hardly to be looked for in such a class. “They come to church," says Fuller, “as seldom as the 29th of February comes into the calendar." Yet they were not without their superstitions; and, however wanting in real piety, could patter an Ave Maria and finger their beads as they rode to a plundering foray. Their sense of honour could hardly have been very strong, and was certainly exceptional. But they had, at least, a sense of the sacredness of hospitality, and the protection which a host owes to his guest. Even the author of the “Worthies” owns that “indeed, if they promise safely to conduct a traveller, they will perform it with the fidelity of a Turkish Janizary; otherwise, woe be to him that falleth into their quarters." * They are,” he adds, “a nest of hornets; strike one, and stir all of them about your ears. .. Yet these Moss-troopers, if possibly they could procure the pardon for a condemned person of their company, would advance great sums out of their common stock, who, in such a case, cast in their lots among themselves; and all have one purse." So that, in spite of their domestic differences, there was a sort of union amongst them. The term Moss-troopers is evidently derived from the mosses among which they lived, and the companies in which they went about harrying. It was owing mainly to the vigorous measures of Belted Will, Earl of Carlisle, that the raiders were put down. The last public mention of Mosstroopers occurs during the civil wars of the 17th century, when many ordinances of Parliament were directed against them.
The region in which the scene of the poem is laid was as familiar and dear to Scott as the legends with which it is associated. His first consciousness of aistence dated, as he himself has told us, from Sandy Knowe. In early manhood a * raid” into Liddesdale was the favourite object of a vacation ramble. At Ashestiel he spent the first happy years of wedlock : in Abbotsford he sought to realize one of the great ambitions of his life ; and Dryburgh incloses his remains. The Border Union Railway now traverses the district from Carlisle to Hawick, and modern cultivation has somewhat softened and enriched the aspect of the landscape. The old peels and Border strongholds have been gradually crumbling away. Hawick, Selkirk, and Galashiels have risen into populous and flourishing towns, the seats of an important industry. Agriculture, though still chiefly pastoral, has encroached on many a hill-side, bogs have been drained, and coal-fields opened up. The mockery of the line
"Rich was the soil had purple heath been grain," has lost most of its force, and the farmers of Liddesdale can now give a better account of their lands than the gudeman of Charlieshope—“ There's mair hares than sheep on my farm ; and for the moor-fowl and the grey-fowl, they lie as thick as doos in a dooket." But in Scott's time the country was much the same as in the days of the Moss-troopers. The people had outlived the old Border traditions of raids and robberies, yet in the seclusion of their valleys they preserved many of the rough reckless manners of their ancestors. Scott has painted them, in “Guy Mannering,” much as they lived under his own eyes.
The wildness of the region, even at the end of the last century, may be gathered from the incidents of one of the poet's raids. His gig was the first wheeled carriage that had ever been seen in Liddesdale. There was no inn or publichouse of any kind in the whole valley, which was accessible only through a succession of tremendous morasses. “In the course of our grand tour, besides the risks of swamping and breaking our necks, we encountered the formidable hardships of sleeping upon peat-stacks, and eating mutton slain by no common butcher, but deprived of life by the judgment of God, as a coroner's inquest would express themselves." Scott used to boast of being sheriff of the “cairn and the scaur," and that he had strolled through the wild glens of Liddesdale “so often and so long, that he might say he had a home in every farmhouse."
The scenery of the Scottish borderland can lay claim to little grandeur. The hills are too bare to be beautiful, and too low to be very impressive. Still the wide tracts of black moss, the grey swells of moor rising into brown, round-backed hills, with here and there a stately cliff of sterner aspect, and the green pastures of the quiet glens, are not without their charm, in spite of the general bare and treeless character of the landscape, which is at first apt to disappoint the visitor from the South. Washington Irving spoke of this disappointment to his host at Abbotsford. “Scott hummed for a moment to himself, and looked grave. “It may be pertinacity,' he said at length; 'but to my eye, these grey hills and all this wild Border country have beauties peculiar to themselves. I like the very nakedness of the land ; it has something bold, stern, and solitary about it. When I have been for some time in the rich scenery about Edinburgh, which is like ornamented garden land, I begin to wish myself back again among my own honest grey hills; and if I did not see the heather at least once a year, Ì think I should die The last words were said with an honest warmth, accompanied by a thump on the ground with his staff, by way of emphasis, that showed his heart was in his speech.” That Scott was quite sensible to the sort of melancholy awe inspired by some of the more savage parts of the country is shown (if other proof were not abundant in his poems and novels) in a passage in one of his letters. Speaking of the view from the top of Minchmoor, he says :-" I assure you I have felt really oppressed with a sort of fearful loneliness when looking around the naked towering ridges of desolate barrenness which is all the eye takes in from the top of such a mountain, the patches of cultivation being hidden in the little glens, or only appearing to make one feel how feeble and ineffectual man has been to contend with the genius of the soil. It is in such a scene that the unknown and gifted author of Albonia' places the superstition which consists in hearing the noise of a 'chase, the baying of the hounds, the throttling sobs of the deer, the wild halloos of the huntsmen, and the
“ “ Hoof thick beating on the hollow hill.' I have often repeated his verses with some sensations of awe in this place." As far as his own estate was concerned, he did much by his plantations to cover the nakedness of the land, and his precept and example also helped to make planting fashionable among his neighbours.
Of Scott's power of word-painting there is, no doubt, more abundant and i striking evidence in his later poems ; but the descriptions of natural scenery in the
" Lay” are not only very effective, but illustrate that peculiar perception of colour rather than form which has been pointed out in the very suggestive criticism of Mr. Ruskin in the “ Modern Painters.” Analysing the description of Edinburgh, in “Marmion," he shows there is hardly any form, only smoke and colour in the picture. “ Observe," he says, “ the only hints at form given throughout are in