Happy Saturday, my friends!
Today I am excited to share another review (I’m on a roll lately!) as part of my Classics Club list. This time I focus on Sir Walter Scott’s classic poem, The Lady of the Lake.
I became re-interested in Sir Walter Scott when I read The Lady of the Lakes a historical romance novel based on his early career and courtship with his wife. I loved all the historical details about his life and was inspired to read more of his work. I’ve read a bit of Scott in college–mainly portions of his poetry and The Heart of Midlothian. So this was my chance to return to the great Scottish author and get a real taste for his poetry.
This poem surprised me.
- I expected a lot of King Arthur references and magic. Also, I assumed the lady of the lake herself was a sorceress, witch, or something.
- What I experienced was a classic Scottish epic. In hind sight, this shouldn’t have surprised me because this is Sir Walter Scott–considered one of the greatest Scottish writers of all time. Regardless, I did not expect the long cantos telling an epic story of Scottish strife in the highlands between the king and clans.
According to Goodreads, “A kindly heart had brave Fitz-James; Fast poured his eyes at pity’s claims, And now, with mingled grief and ire, He saw the murdered maid expire. “God, in my need, be my relief, As I wreak this on yonder Chief!” -from The Lady of the Lake. Wildly successful with readers and critics on both sides of the Atlantic when it was first published in 1810, this is Scott’s renowned romantic poem about love and honor amidst a bitter rivalry between King James V and the powerful Douglas clan of the Scottish Highlands.”
I was impressed by the structure of this poem throughout the epic story. The poem rhymes throughout its 6 long cantos of action. The syllables all line up beautifully making it easy to find the rhythm of the words. Overall, the structure creates a very poetic storytelling style. I recommend reading a poem like this out loud or listening to an audio book to really appreciate the genius of the structure. This is no small feat to continue in a strict poetic structure for such a long poem. Scott was a master at it and, if I remember correctly, was celebrating a dying literary art form at the time of writing. The novel was gaining popularity yet he masterfully returned to the epic poem.
This poem reminded me how distinct Scottish identity and literature are as a genre. Scott, again if I remember correctly, wanted to create a Scottish identity within literature and he certainly makes a unique case for his country here. Everything has a Scottish feel which is actually quite distinct from English or Irish writing. Characters have very Scottish names like Roderick Dhu and Ellen Douglas. My favorite character was James Fitz-James aka King James V because he is unexpected and clever. Ellen is rather boring for me while Roderick Dhu was an intriguing villain. I liked when he surprises James by being in disguise. The scenery is rugged and wild. The different clans fighting is very Scottish. Even the ballads sung have a Scottish feel. All these specific details make this an important piece of the Scottish literary canon.
Despite some of these intriguing elements, there were several things about this poem that limits it’s reception for a modern day audience.
- It’s hard to just read the words. I listened to an audio book while double checking plot lines online. It only took a few hours and helped get the feel for the poem. But I think it would be hard to read on its own.
- We just don’t have a lot of epic poems being written nowadays. So it’s a tough genre to really get excited about. It’s dense and difficult to understand what’s happening if you’re not paying attention. Definitely not the plot driven novel we expect today.
- I don’t think I will read this again. Again, I’m glad I read it once but it isn’t a new favorite or something I want to read again right now. However, I’m interested in reading a Scott novel in future. I wonder if that will be more engaging for me. I remember loving The Heart of Midlothian but have not read any other Scott novels. Perhaps, Ivanhoe next?
I’m glad to widen my Classics Club list with The Lady of the Lake. I haven’t had a lot of poetry reading since college so fun to get back into that. Overall, an important Scottish epic poem. But not my new favorite.
Have you read much poetry? What are your favorites?
Is it important to read epic poetry even though it’s not written widely now?