Walter Scott: Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field

(3491 words)

Walter Scott published his second full-length narrative poem Marmion: a Tale of Flodden Field in February 1808. His letters and Lockhart’s Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott indicate that he began working on it by early November 1806. Thus, Marmion was composed more rapidly than The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), which had taken Scott at least three years to write. Arguably, Scott’s haste shows. Early critics found stylistic and historical infelicities on grounds of which they attacked the poem. Marmion nevertheless benefited from the established popularity of the Lay and it consolidated Scott’s success as a poet. Demand for Marmion demonstrates the phenomenal level of interest in Scott’s writing, even in the years before he began publishing the novels for which he is now better known. Sales reached around 13,000 within six months, during which time four editions went to press. Fourteen editions and reprints were published by 1830, with sales exceeding 33,000, and by Lockhart’s estimate 50,000 copies had been sold by 1836 (see William Todd and Ann Bowden, Sir Walter Scott, A Bibliographic History, 1796-1832, Oak Knoll Press, 1998; William St. Clair, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, Cambridge UP, 2004; and Lockhart, Memoirs, Edinburgh: Cadell; London: Murray, 1839).

Marmion comprises six cantos with a substantial body of notes. The notes include historical, geographical and literary information along with accounts of customs and superstitions. In keeping with the Lay of the Last Minstrel, Scott used a plot involving historical romance and battle with a contemporary verse frame – although the frame differs in structure and content in this later poem. The action of Marmion dates to August and early September 1513, with the plot culminating in the Battle of Flodden Field (9 September 1513). Developments in Marmion suggest Scott was aiming at a wider readership in England than previously. Most of the prominent characters have Norman names, as in the case of Lord Marmion de Fontenaye, Ralph de Wilton, Constance de Beverley and Clara de Clare. The Battle of Flodden was catastrophic for the Scots, as critics including Francis Jeffrey, for the Edinburgh Review, pointed out. Furthermore, the Arthurian and other Romance literary precursors emphasized in the verse introductions and notes extend the vernacular and oral traditions for which Scott was better known before 1808. The accoutrements of leather jacks and Jedwood axes that protected and armed the Border moss-trooper knights in the Lay of the Last Minstrel were more in keeping with the Minstrelsy ballads than with Marmion, whilst the latter looks to Malory and Spencer for much of its imagery (see Nancy Moore Goslee, Scott the Rhymer for discussion of Romance influences on Scott’s poetry) in addition to more contemporary English gothic writers like Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto, 1767), Mrs. Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udulpho, 1794) and Matthew Lewis (The Monk, 1797). German Romantic influences on Marmion include Gottfried Bürger (Scott translated and published a composite version of “Der wilder Jäger” and “Lenore” in the late 1797), Friedrich Schiller (particularly Don Carlos, 1787 and the Wallenstein trilogy, 1798-9) and Goethe (Scott also translated and published an edition of Goetz von Berlingen mit der Eisernen Hand in 1799). A Gothic style, familiar to readers of Scott’s previous publications, is varied in Marmion from the rougher, Borders regionalism of Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border and the Lay to a more stylized, heraldic feudal tale involving Knights in highly-burnished armor, nuns, monks and an apparent Palmer (this latter character prefigures the eponymous Ivanhoe’s disguised return in Scott’s 1819 novel).

Supernatural imagery is less in the foreground of the plot in Marmion than in that of the Lay of the Last Minstrel. The Palmer, whom Scott leads the reader to believe has learned various mystical practices during his travels in the Middle East, is revealed in Canto 5 to be a morally righteous rival knight whom Marmion believes he has discredited and killed in a duel over the heroine of the poem. Because he is aware of events about which, if he truly were a stranger, he could not know, the Palmer appears in earlier cantos to be a personification of Marmion’s conscience and of Death.

In Marmion the eponymous antihero is a seducer and forger troubled by secret guilt, and the poem’s narrative gradually unfolds the details of his schemes and their repercussions. The immortalized lines “O what a tangled web we weave, /When first we practice to deceive” occur in Canto 6. As Marilyn Butler has pointed out, Marmion was influential on Byron and on the development for the Byronic hero (see Butler, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries, Oxford UP, 1981, pp. 2,118).

The framing structure of Marmion consists of Introductions in the form of verse epistles preceding each canto. These Introductions are individually dedicated to six of Scott’s Tory friends. Scott’s biographers have commented on the epistles’ political implications (for example, see Sutherland, The Life of Walter Scott, Blackwell, 1995, pp. 109-31). Without any doubt, they bear out Scott’s conservative affiliation and his admiration for British military success. The Introduction to Canto First comments on recent events including the deaths of William Pitt the Younger, Charles James Fox and – three years earlier – Admiral Lord Nelson. British naval supremacy is particularly lauded. However, the epistles do more than merely pay tribute to people in approved positions of political and military power. They are at their finest when they invoke Scott’s sympathetic understanding of the Scottish Borders landscape and its culture, or when they refer to Romance literature – each of which were amongst Scott’s great passions. The following example from the Introduction to Canto First depicts a Borders hillside in November as a working environment, rather than simply as a picturesque vista:

The sheep, before the pinching heaven,
To shelter’d dale and down are driven,
Where yet some faded herbage pines,
And yet a watery sunbeam shines:
In meek despondency they eye
The wither’d sward of wintry sky,
And far beneath their summer hill,
Stray sadly by Glenkinnon’s rill:
The Shepherd shifts his mantle’s fold,
And wraps him closer from the cold;
His dogs no merry circles wheel,
But shivering follow at his heel;
A cowering glance they often cast,
As deeper moans the gathering blast.

Marmion contains little by way of narrative linking the content of the Introductory epistles with the narrative of the cantos, although Scott employs a convention of drawing the reader towards the main poem in the closing lines of each epistle. For example, the Introduction to Canto 1 ends “Hear, then, attentive to my lay, /A knightly tale of Albion’s elder day”, whilst that to Canto 6 concludes with the poet’s departing salutation upon hearing the sound of the forthcoming battle: “But, hark! I hear the distant drum! /The day of Flodden Field is come. /Adieu, dear Heber! Life and health, /And store of literary wealth.”

Each canto of Marmion is titled according to the place in which the main action of that canto takes place. These are as follows: “Canto First, The Castle” “Canto Second, The Convent” “Canto Third, The Hostel, or Inn” “Canto Fourth, The Camp” “Canto Fifth, The Court” and “Canto Six, The Battle.” Thus, Scott charts his plot sociologically through a sequence of gatherings in which each leads to the next. Geographical details, mapping the action more specifically onto the landscape, are located within the poem’s narrative and notes. This device, privileging human gatherings and incidents over place, exemplifies the distinction Scott made in his autobiographical fragment between “the picturesque in action” and “the picturesque in scenery” (“Ashestiel Autobiography”, see Lockhart, Memoirs, vol. 1, p. 51). Scott used an analogy of battle – highly relevant to a military poem such as Marmion – to explain his notion of a “picturesque in action”: “to me the wandering over the field of Bannockburn was the source of more exquisite pleasure than gazing upon the celebrated landscape from the battlements of Stirling Castle”. Such a close-up approach to landscape as primarily a repository of martial history evinces the “epic directness” that Lukács emphasizes as a primary factor in Scott’s success as a portrayer of the “age of heroes”. The plot summary that follows gives an outline of the story. The cantos are in verse paragraph form, comprising mainly tetrameter rhyming couplets with the occasional hexameter line.

Canto 1 is set at Norham Castle, on the English side of the river Tweed close to Berwick. The river Tweed at that point marked (and still marks) the border between Scotland and England. Scott provides topographical details of the location in his note. Marmion arrives at Norham, as English envoy on his way to Edinburgh to broker peace with the Scots. Scott describes his appearance in detail, with references to both his and his horse’s many heraldic adornments. Marmion’s troubled expression suggests that a matter about which he cannot speak preoccupies him. The all-male company at an ensuing banquet taunts him about a page that is no longer with him. Ribald questions probe whether the youth had been “in sooth, / A gentle paramour?” (1:XV). The knight dismisses the enquiry, commenting that he left the “boy” at Lindisfarne. Thus, the reader knows from the outset of the poem that Marmion is involved in a secret romance. The entrance of the cloaked Palmer is amongst the more interesting passages in this canto, which otherwise comprises descriptions of baronial pageantry. The influence of Matthew Lewis, to whose Tales of Wonder (1801) Scott had contributed ballads, and of Schiller are particularly evident in Scott’s description of the dark, hooded Palmer figure:

The summon’d Palmer came in place;
His sable cowl o’erhung his face;
In his black mantle was he clad,
With Peter’s keys, in cloth of red,
On his broad shoulders wrought;
The scallop shell his cap did deck;
The crucifix around his neck
Was from Loretto brought;
His sandals were with travel tore;
Staff, budget, bottle, scrip, he wore;
The faded palm-branch in his hand
Show’d pilgrim from the Holy Land
But his gaunt frame was worn with toil;
His cheek was sunk, alas the while!
And when he struggled at a smile,
His eye look’d haggard wild.

The canto ends as Marmion leaves for Edinburgh in the company of the Palmer.

Canto 2 moves from Norham Castle to the Convent on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. The all-male cast cedes to a predominantly female group of characters, with Scott providing some fine character sketches. In this canto, the reader learns the worst outcome of Marmion’s misdemeanors. A novice nun, Clara de Clare, has arrived at the convent to avoid marriage to a man she does not love. The suitor is Marmion. The “page” referred to earlier, aptly named Constance for her enduring attachment to Marmion, was also, formerly, a nun. Marmion seduced her and enticed her to abandon her Holy Orders to travel with him as his servant, before later abandoning her for the wealthier, landed Clara. Constance de Berverley has subsequently attempted to poison her rival, with the help of a monk. A clerical jury that includes the Abbess of St Hilda’s Convent and the Abbot tries both Constance and the monk. They are walled-up alive in the dungeons under Lindisfarne Priory. The canto ends with an account of their shrieks and dying groans, and with the bell tolling their deaths resounding across the sea and the hills of Northumberland. The “blind old Abbot” who passes the death-sentence resembles the Grand Inquisitor from Schiller’s play Don Carlos. Canto 2 of Marmion is tangibly anti-catholic and it is as well to bear in mind that the British Whig interregnum of 1806/7 under William Grenville ended following the failure of a Bill for partial Catholic emancipation in the forces (see Sutherland, pp. 109-111 for an account of Scott’s financial concerns with regard to these political events, and of Grenville’s proposals to reform Scottish Law). Scott was not an overly religious man, but his sympathies towards Tory policies are likely to have included a sustained objection to Catholic emancipation.

With the narrative shifting back to Northumberland, the Scottish Border, Marmion and the Palmer, Canto 3 centers upon the taciturn travellers’ sojourn at “a Hostel or Inn”. Marmion is uncomfortable about the Palmer’s constant stare, but his scowls do nothing to deter his faceless companion’s haunting presence. A bard, Fitz-Eustace, sings the interpolated folk-song “Where shall the lovers rest”, during which Marmion imagines he hears a ghostly bell toll:

‘Is it not strange, that, as ye sung,
Seem’d in mine ear a death-peal rung,
Such as in nunneries they toll
For some departing sister’s soul?
Say, what may this portend?’

The Palmer breaks his day-long silence to end the verse paragraph with a stern reply “‘The death of a dear friend.’” Marmion recalls his abandonment of Constance for Clara, despite the former’s pleading with him.

Canto 4 concerns Marmion’s two-day stop at a military camp close to Edinburgh. Various knights tell interpolated tales, and the scene of the Scots prepared for battle is perhaps most interesting when compared with its structural parallel, the pre-battle gathering in Canto 4 of The Lay of the Last Minstrel. The football game in the earlier poem and the survey of a wider range of characters shows Scott to be more animated when writing about Borders culture. The imagery in Marmion is predominantly of heraldic chivalry.

Marmion arrives at the Scottish court in Canto 5. On his way, he observes assorted Scots ranging from Borderers to Highlanders joined in the national cause. The description of the Highlanders marks them out as a race apart, physically and linguistically: “Next, Marmion mark’d the Celtic race, /Of different language, form, and face, / A various race of Man” (V). Canto 5 includes one of Scott’s best-known song interpolations, when Lady Heron sings the romantic ballad “Lochinvar” (XII). Scott also refers to the traditional Scottish song “Blue Bonnets o’er the Border” (now a standard of Scottish military bands). The scene remains unrelentingly martial, as the poem moves towards its climax with the Battle of Flodden. Meanwhile, Scott reveals two keys to the poem’s plot. The Abbess, who separately has also travelled to Edinburgh, uncovers the Palmer’s identity and gives him the documents handed to her by Constance. Marmion’s main crime of forgery is consequently exposed, through the false letters that framed de Wilton as traitor in order to secure the marriage of convenience with Clara that he desired for himself. A structural link is thus provided here back to Canto 2.

Canto 6 concerns the Battle of Flodden Field and Marmion’s death. Both are described in detail. A flashback tells how de Wilton fled to Scotland and how his hosts had treated him as a brother. Nevertheless, taking Clara (she is amongst the Abbess’s party) he returns to the English camp to fight on behalf of his own country and proves himself loyal to the Crown. The Scottish armies are slaughtered, Marmion is killed in the battle and de Wilton survives to marry Clara.

Critical response to Marmion was mixed (see J. H. Alexander, The Reception of Scott’s Poetry by his Correspondents, 1796-1817, Salzburg University, 1979 and John O. Hayden, Scott: The Critical Heritage, Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1970). Francis Jeffery, editor of the Edinburgh Review, which was the most influential periodical at the time of the poem’s publication, gave Scott a devastatingly disparaging review in his journal’s leading article in April 1808 (see Edinburgh Review vol.12, pp.1-35). Reviews in the Edinburgh were unsigned (anonymity was a convention of most periodicals in the early nineteenth century) but Scott was a contributor for Jeffrey and well knew who was responsible (even the public was very frequently able to guess the identity of reviewers). Probably, Scott’s increasing antipathy to the Edinburgh’s Whig affinities had some bearing on Jeffrey’s review despite the latter’s concluding claim that his indignation was at Scott’s Quixotic “corruption” by “tales of knight-errantry and enchantment”, rather than at “the political creed of the author” (p. 35). However, Jeffrey was typically an anti-war Whig who further echoed the sentiments of many Scots in expressing regret that Scott had chosen as his subjects an English chivalric hero (Ralph de Wilton), anti-hero (Marmion) and heroine (Clara de Clare) along with the Battle of Flodden, one of the biggest military disasters in Scottish history. Earlier, in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Scott had anthologized songs lamenting the deaths of his countrymen at Flodden. Marmion also raised moral concerns more generally because of Scott’s choice of a fictional anti-hero who is guilty of forgery and the seduction of nuns, and whose betrayal was responsible for the destruction of a abandoned and spurned woman. In England, Robert Southey preferred the materials used in Marmion to those of the Lay, but felt that Marmion was structurally “not so well fitted together” (see Alexander, p.281; Lockhart, vol. 3, pp. 43-4). He disliked the manner in which the Introductions interrupted each canto. George Ellis, dedicatee of the Introduction to Canto 5 and a co-founder with Scott of the Quarterly Review less than a year later, preferred the Lay. Ellis judged that “the incident of Deloraine’s journey to Melrose &c. surpasses any thing in Marmion” and he, too, felt that the Introductory epistles, though “excellent in themselves”, were “interruptions to the fable” that readers found difficult to assimilate along with the main narrative (see Alexander, pp. 82-3; Lockhart, vol. 3, 46-9). Many readers echoed Southey’s and Ellis’s concerns about the poem’s structure; generally, the introductory epistles were admired as individual poems but were felt to disrupt the flow of the main story. John Leyden wrote to Scott from India expressing “furious remonstrance” over the forgery issue around which the plot turned, on the basis that it was anachronistic and unbelievable. In fact, Leyden was one of many critics who felt Scott had demeaned chivalric tradition by turning a knight, who should represent virtue, into a self-interested deceiver and forger. Wordsworth received a presentation copy of Marmion from Scott with subdued approval. Coleridge, whose dislike of Scott and of his works remained following the accusations of plagiarism that had accompanied The Lay of the Last Minstrel, disliked the poem.

In North America, William Peabody for the North American Review compared Marmion favourably with The Lay of the Last Minstrel, claiming “the glorious battle scene” to be “one of the finest passages of narrative poetry in the language” (North American Review, April 1833, pp. 289-315 and Hayden, Critical Heritage, p. 338). Later in the nineteenth century, Margaret Oliphant writing for Blackwood’s Magazine expressed her view that Marmion lacked the “character-painting” of Scott’s other poems (Hayden, p. 433 and Blackwood’s Magazine, CX August 1871, pp. 229-56) but treated its themes of self-interestedness and lost virtue admirably. Marmion inspired Tennyson, who in his youth composed an epic based on Scott’s poem and invoked its chivalric medievalism more generally in his mature works.

Scott revised Marmion in 1830-1 for new editions of his Poetical Works, adding a longer Introduction that addressed many of the controversies over the poem. This late Introduction contains Scott’s responses, with hindsight, to criticism over his haste to publish the original edition, his attempt to “do a deal” financially with his publishers, Byron’s consequently satirical response in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809) and the charges of anachronism that still dogged the forgery aspect of the plot. Scott also comments on Pitt, Fox and the Grenville administration, with regard to his own financial circumstances in those prior times and his politically motivated avoidance of Fox. As this Introduction was one of a series for each of Scott’s poems and novels, it placed Marmion within the context of a poetic career that began with The Lay of the Last Minstrel and declined after publication of The Lady of the Lake.

Marmion is considered now to be a significant poem of the Romantic period, not least because it captures a high moment of neo-chivalric historicism and because it was influential on other writers such as Byron. The poem is “Romantic” in the sense that we now understand that term because of its concern with the conscience of the main character as he struggles with conflicting self-interest and a desire for virtue.

To conclude with consideration of the significance of Marmion beyond its immediately literary context, popular stage versions and musical adaptations followed the success of the poem. Many interesting illustrations were produced, including engravings for the early editions and a series of plates commissioned from Turner in 1831 by Scott’s Edinburgh publishers, Cadell & Co. Lockhart’s 1833 edition of Scott’s Poetical Works contains Turner’s illustrations, as do some other later editions. Turner painted several watercolours inspired by his 1831 visit to Scott at Abbotsford (see the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, for details and an online image relating to Marmion). His ardent supporter, John Ruskin, who admired Marmion and Scott’s works more generally as examples of neo-gothic artistic creativity, favoured Turner’s Abbotsford watercolours.

Oliver, Susan. "Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 30 August 2005
[, accessed 29 August 2016.]

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  1. Gothic, Grotesque & Supernatural Fiction