Scott’s Epic Voice
Hark, from yon misty cairn their answer tost:
“Minstrel! the fame of whose romantic lyre,
Capricious-swelling now, may soon be lost
Sir Walter Scott – The Vision of Don Roderick
In my last post I mentioned a concept of the Accertamento Grande, which is essentially a process of re-reading the poetry in existence & trying to establish some kind of order or preferment, the most pristeen models through which we can teach our future poets & bards. As an example, in today’s lecture I would like to restore a quite a forgotten poem to the public consciousness. It was composed at the height of the Napoleonic phrenzie, in the summer of 1811, by Sir Walter Scott. Coincidence or not, the poem was divided into the same Spenserian stanzas as those the young Lord Byron was dividing his Childe Harolde’s Pilgirmage, a poem which he gave to his publishers on returning from his European tour in that same year of 1811.
In today’s lecture I shall be looking Scott’s ‘Vision,’ from a certain angle, that is the way he managed to fashion a sumblime & excellent rendition of the poetic voice first used by Homer. The rest of Scott’s poetic output is rather insipid: the verse-ballads, while selling extremely well they contain little of the true juices of Parnassus. Of this poet, Walter Bagehot describes an artist who, ‘had no sense of smell, little sense of taste, almost no ear for music (he knew a few, perhaps three, scotch tunes, which he avowed that he had learnt in sixty years, by hard labour & mental association) & not much turn for the minutiae of nature in any way. The effect of this may be seen in some of the best descriptive passages of his poetry, & we will not deny that it does (although proceeding from a sensuous defect), in a certain degree, add to their popularity. He deals with the main outlines & great points of nature, never attends to any others, & in this respect he suits the comprehension & knowledge of many who know only those essential & considerable outlines.’
Not the most complimentary of words – yet as we shall see Scott’s ‘Vision’ at times matches the solemn grandeur of Homer & Dante & especially Milton, whose meter was caught by Scott’s ear & transferred into his own poem. This, ‘The Vision of Don Roderick,’ was printed at Edinburgh by James Ballantyne & Co. in 1811, before Napoleon’s march on Moscow & at a time when he held most of Europe in his clutches – only the Iberian peninsular was proving to be a problem, with the Spanish revolting against Napoleon’s brother’s rule, assisted manfully by the Portuguese & British with the whole confederation led by the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley. The poem was written to celebrate this great moment, when the British were holding their own against a megalomaniac, led by a true hero in the vein of Achilles or Aeneas. The chief contents are based upon an episode in Ginés Pérez de Hita’s Guerras civiles de Granada, a book which Scot devoured as a boy. The mimesis stored for years in his memory banks suddenly had a channel through which to pour, the force of which elevated Scott’s poetic voice from rustic piper to Olympian bard. Scott’s own introduction reads;
The following Poem is founded upon a Spanish Tradition, bearing, in general, that Don Roderick, the last Gothic King of Spain, when the invasion of the Moors was depending, had the temerity to descend into an ancient vault, near Toledo, the opening of which had been denounced as fatal to the Spanish Monarchy. The legend adds, that his rash curiosity was mortified by an emblematical representation of those Saracens who, in the year 714, defeated him in battle, and reduced Spain under their dominion. I have presumed to prolong the Vision of the Revolutions of Spain down to the present eventful crisis of the Peninsula, and to divide it, by a supposed change of scene, into, THREE PERIODS. The FIRST of these represents the Invasion of the Moors, the Defeat and Death of Roderick, and closes
with the peaceful occupation of the country by the victors. The SECOND PERIOD embraces the state of the Peninsula when the conquests of the Spaniards and Portuguese in the East and West Indies had raised to the highest pitch the renown of their arms; sullied, however, by superstition and cruelty. An allusion to the inhumanities of the Inquisition terminates this picture. The LAST PART of the Poem opens with the state of Spain previous to the unparalleled treachery of BUONAPARTE, gives a sketch of the usurpation attempted upon that unsuspicious and friendly kingdom, and terminates with the arrival of the British succours. It may be further proper to mention, that the object of the Poem is less to commemorate or detail particular incidents, than to exhibit a general and impressive picture of the several periods brought upon the stage.
EDINBURGH, June 24, 1811.
Here we have an epic tri-parted echo of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Strangely, Scott thought the poem was a mere ‘Drum and Trumpet performance’ (letter to William Hayley, 2 July 1811), but this reminds us of Virgil, who wanted to throw the Aeniad into the flames, before being persuaded to preserve his epic for the Roman people. In the ‘Vision’, Don Roderick, the last Visigothic King of Spain, descends into an enchanted cave to learn the outcome of the Moorish invasion. This also has echoes of Virgil who sent Aeneas into the underworld to see prophesies upon the Roman Republic.
Scott’s handling of an epic sweep through Spanish history propels his wordsmithery to heights he never before or after got close to. Here are some examples of Scott’s work; a passage from his famous ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel’ & Marmion, followed by a stanza from the ‘Vision.’
They bid me sleep, the bid me pray,
They say my brain is warp’d & wrung
I cannot sleep on Highland brea,
I cannot pray in Highland tongue
But were I now where Allan glides
Or heard my native’s Devan tides
So sweetly would I rest & pray
That Heaven would close my wintry day. Last Minstrel
Not far advanced was morning day,
When Marmion did his troop array
To Surrey’s camp to ride;
He had safe-conduct for his band,
Beneath the Royal seal & hand,
And Douglas gave a guide;
The ancient Earl, with stately grace,
Would Clara on her Palfrey place
& whispered in a undertone… Marmion
So passed that pageant. Ere another came,
The visionary scene was wrapped in smoke
Whose sulph’rous wreaths were crossed by sheets of flame;
With every flash a bolt explosive broke,
Till Roderick deemed the fiends had burst their yoke,
And waved ‘gainst heaven the infernal gonfalone!
For War a new and dreadful language spoke,
Never by ancient warrior heard or known;
Lightning and smoke her breath, and thunder was her tone. Vision
There is no doubt we get a different sensation from reading the first two stanza than the third. They seem different voices, but what has happened is that Scott is speaking with the immortal tones of the epic voice. Similarily, the voice Milton used in his Paradise Lost was different to those used in his Nativity Ode or his Lycidas; Virgil’s Aeneid is different from his pastoral Eclogues & Dante’s Vita Nuova is different from his Divine Comedy. The separating factor is the poet has altered his output in the same way a comedian may don the guise of several different characters during a performance.
I shall now elucidate more of Scott’s usage of traditional epic themes through stanzas taken from the ‘Vision;
The Epic Hero
Lives there a strain, whose sounds of mounting fire
May rise distinguished o’er the din of war;
Or died it with yon Master of the Lyre
Who sung beleaguered Ilion’s evil star?
Such, WELLINGTON, might reach thee from afar,
Wafting its descant wide o’er Ocean’s range;
Nor shouts, nor clashing arms, its mood could mar,
All, as it swelled ‘twixt each loud trumpet-change,
That clangs to Britain victory, to Portugal revenge!
But we, weak minstrels of a laggard day
Skilled but to imitate an elder page,
Timid and raptureless, can we repay
The debt thou claim’st in this exhausted age?
Thou givest our lyres a theme, that might engage
Those that could send thy name o’er sea and land,
While sea and land shall last; for Homer’s rage
A theme; a theme for Milton’s mighty hand
How much unmeet for us, a faint degenerate band!
Tribute to Older Epics
Ye mountains stern! within whose rugged breast
The friends of Scottish freedom found repose;
Ye torrents! whose hoarse sounds have soothed their rest,
Returning from the field of vanquished foes;
Say, have ye lost each wild majestic close
That erst the choir of Bards or Druids flung,
What time their hymn of victory arose,
And Cattraeth’s glens with voice of triumph rung,
And mystic Merlin harped, and grey-haired Llywarch sung?
Here, Milton is alluding to the poem Y Gododdin, etched by the 7th century bard Aneirin. On its discovery in the 18th century, a startled Lewis Morris proclaimed to Edward Richard (1758);
Who do you think I have at my elbow, as happy as ever Alexander thought himself after a conquest? No less a man than Ieuan Fardd who hath discovered some old MSS. Lately that nobody of this age or the last ever dreamed of. And this discovery is to him & me as great as that of America by Colombus. We have found an epic poem in the British called Gododin, equal at least to the Iliad, Aeneid or Paradise Lost. Tudfwlch & Marchlew are heroes fiercer than Achilles or Satan
The Plea for Immortality
For not till now, how oft soe’er the task
Of truant verse hath lightened graver care,
From Muse or Sylvan was he wont to ask,
In phrase poetic, inspiration fair;
Careless he gave his numbers to the air,
They came unsought for, if applauses came:
Nor for himself prefers he now the prayer;
Let but his verse befit a hero’s fame,
Immortal be the verse!–forgot the poet’s name!
Epic Geographical Sweeps
“Explore those regions, where the flinty crest
Of wild Nevada ever gleams with snows,
Where in the proud Alhambra’s ruined breast
Barbaric monuments of pomp repose;
Or where the banners of more ruthless foes
Than the fierce Moor, float o’er Toledo’s fane,
From whose tall towers even now the patriot throws
An anxious glance, to spy upon the plain
The blended ranks of England, Portugal, and Spain.
Grim sentinels, against the upper wall,
Of molten bronze, two Statues held their place;
Massive their naked limbs, their stature tall,
Their frowning foreheads golden circles grace.
Moulded they seemed for kings of giant race,
That lived and sinned before the avenging flood;
This grasped a scythe, that rested on a mace;
This spread his wings for flight, that pondering stood,
Each stubborn seemed and stern, immutable of mood.
Fixed was the right-hand Giant’s brazen look
Upon his brother’s glass of shifting sand,
As if its ebb he measured by a book,
Whose iron volume loaded his huge hand;
In which was wrote of many a fallen land
Of empires lost, and kings to exile driven:
And o’er that pair their names in scroll expand -
“Lo, DESTINY and TIME! to whom by Heaven
The guidance of the earth is for a season given.”
That Prelate marked his march–On banners blazed
With battles won in many a distant land,
On eagle-standards and on arms he gazed;
“And hopest thou, then,” he said, “thy power shall stand?
Oh! thou hast builded on the shifting sand,
And thou hast tempered it with slaughter’s flood;
And know, fell scourge in the Almighty’s hand,
Gore-moistened trees shall perish in the bud,
And by a bloody death shall die the Man of Blood!”
From Alpuhara’s peak that bugle rung,
And it was echoed from Corunna’s wall;
Stately Seville responsive war-shot flung,
Grenada caught it in her Moorish hall;
Galicia bade her children fight or fall,
Wild Biscay shook his mountain-coronet,
Valencia roused her at the battle-call,
And, foremost still where Valour’s sons are met,
First started to his gun each fiery Miquelet.
There are many other stanzas throughout the poem, WHICH YOU MAY READ IN FULL HERE. One of them in particular has the true epic ring;
As that sea-cloud, in size like human hand,
When first from Carmel by the Tishbite seen,
Came slowly overshadowing Israel’s land,
A while, perchance, bedecked with colours sheen,
While yet the sunbeams on its skirts had been,
Limning with purple and with gold its shroud,
Till darker folds obscured the blue serene
And blotted heaven with one broad sable cloud,
Then sheeted rain burst down, and whirlwinds howled aloud:-
Here we have the best example amongst the Romantic poets of the Epic – or Heroic – simile. This is an elaborate piece of showcasing, a wonderful learned little ornament that adds dignity & variety to a poem. Another example would be Milton’s;
He stood & called
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallambrosa, where th’Etrurian shades
High overarch’t imbower
That Scott mentions Milton a couple of times in his poem & has fashioned a similar sounding epic voice tells us that Scott would have had a copy of Paradise Lost before him as he wrote. This is only natural, for all new poetry should contain the waters of pParnassus, to which is added a poet’s own personal outpourings of fortified poesis. That Scott had Milton before him can be truly discerned from the following two stanzas – where we have Napoleon as the satanic anti-christ attempting to storm Spain, which is portrayed by Scott as another Eden.
“Who shall command Estrella’s mountain-tide
Back to the source, when tempest-chafed, to hie?
Who, when Gascogne’s vexed gulf is raging wide,
Shall hush it as a nurse her infant’s cry?
His magic power let such vain boaster try,
And when the torrent shall his voice obey,
And Biscay’s whirlwinds list his lullaby,
Let him stand forth and bar mine eagles’ way,
And they shall heed his voice, and at his bidding stay.
“Else ne’er to stoop, till high on Lisbon’s towers
They close their wings, the symbol of our yoke,
And their own sea hath whelmed yon red-cross powers!”
Thus, on the summit of Alverca’s rock
To Marshal, Duke, and Peer, Gaul’s Leader spoke.
While downward on the land his legions press,
Before them it was rich with vine and flock,
And smiled like Eden in her summer dress; -
Behind their wasteful march a reeking wilderness.
One of the key components of an epic is its narrator, & Scott plays the role to an almost perfection – perhaps the poem gets lost a little in the middle. The epic voice is an elaborate creature which must be sustained throughout an entire production. Scott’s was a rush job, & unfortunately the poem shows moments of melancholia & dullness – but the attempt is a noble one & there are genuine moments of clear magnitude, which if sustained throughout the rest of his ouvre, would have placed him at the top of the Romantic tree. With Calliope at the helm, however, despite her brief visitation, Scott’s blood-drenched poem possesses a wonderful music & portrays at all times that ever-present focus of Scott’s powers which produced the ‘Drum and Trumpet’effect he wrote of, which has become in his hands an epic voice. Scott maintains his pitch & rhythm all the way through his poem with perfect uniformity – an excellent performance. It is a little Iliad of regions, wars, & heroes, & should rightly belong to the class of poems called Epyllia, or ‘little epics.’ We are whisked about European history like a ravishing whirlwind, from William Wallace at the Scottish Wars of Independence, with Scott often distilling massive sweeps of time & space into a couple of lines at most.
With the Vision, Scott is moving his imagination out of Britain onto the European – again a precursor for Byron’s Childe Harolde, whose scenes of continental travel fired the imaginations of a book-buying public trapped on their island by Napoleon’s European blockade. Byron would then go on to fashion his own epic voice, which manifested itself best in his rambling & operatic Don Juan, yet Scott’s ‘Vision’ has primacy & it also raised 100 guineas for the war fund. Written when the real struggle for Europe was about to begin, I believe this piece of poetic propaganda would have inspired the hearts of British Soldiers at the time – I don’t think any man reading it at the time would have failed to have been moved militarily to match the feats of the great heroes of whom Scott’s epic voice had sang.