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Posted April 28, 2007
'O, what a tangled web we weave/ When first we practise to deceive.' If you think that couplet is by the Bard of Avon, you are in good company. But it is not. It comes not from William Shakespeare but rather from his great admirer, Sir Walter Scott, 1771 - 1832, and his long poem MARMION, Canto VI, 17. The couplet is not a bad summing up of the story line's villainous 'hero,' Lord Marmion. The six cantos of Sir Walter Scott's narrative poem MARMION are written in iambic tetramater rhyming couplets, like that from which this review's title is taken. *** MARMION contains six cantos and before each a total of six interspersed verse 'dedications' to individuals. The dedications or introductions are designed to link the events of 1513 with contemporary events 'contemporary' meaning from the 1770s when Scott was a boy till 1897 when most of the poem was written'. My recommendation to first-time readers is to skip these introductions and come back to them after completing the six cantos. The dedications are much studied by scholars as pertaining to Scott's developing art of the 'frame' for his tales. In the earlier LAY OF THE LAST MINSTREL, an aging minstrel had provided the tale's frame. *** Canto titles are: I THE CASTLE, II THE CONVENT, III THE INN, IV THE CAMP, V THE COURT and VI THE BATTLE. *** In Canto ONE we meet a fictitious character, Lord Marmion, the gallant Falcon-Knight, who had fought in 1485 to unseat Richard III at Bosworth Field and put Henry VII on the throne of England. Now that Baron is en route as a peacemaker to King James IV and the Scottish Court at Holyrood in Edinburgh. Marmion is envoy of 22-year old King Henry VIII, whose personal favorite he is, and of Henry's Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. The Scots are on the eve of invading northern England while Henry is warring in France and Marmion's job is to talk them out of it. *** As the poem develops, we learn that Lord Marmion is at least as evil as he is brave and conventionally good. Around 1510 he had ruined in the king's eyes Sir Ralph de Wilton, a rival for a lady, Clare de Clare, through forged documents and has then killed him -- as all believed -- in a joust. Marmion had earlier filched another young woman, Constance de Beverley, a vowed Benedictine nun, from a convent. He has now sent Constance back to a convent because he wants to wed the orphaned Clare and take over her extensive lands. Clare has fled into a Benedictine convent, where her kinswoman is abbess, to prevent this. *** Constance is tried and judged, walled up in a convent dungeon and dies. De Wilton has not died but after years of roaming as a Palmer is returning to Scotland to clear his name. His path intersects with Marmion's and all roads lead to the dreadful '9-11' battle at Flodden Field in 1513. Before then Marmion's deceits unravel. For the dying Constance successfully implicated him in the forging of documents used three or four years earlier to impeach Wilton for treason and Marmion is perceived as the knave he is. Marmion's only redeeming grace when he bled to death on the battle field is that ' ... He died a gallant knight,/With sword in hand, for England's right' 'Canto VI, 37'. The verses are grand. The tableaux of nature and the court at Holyrood are riveting. MARMION, coming not long after THE LAY OF THE LAST MINSTREL, cemented Walter Scott's fame as Europe's rising poet. -OOO-
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