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Monday, February 14, 2011

Number 68: Sir Walter Scott "O, Say Not, My Love..."


Oh, say not, my love, with that mortified air,
That your spring-time of pleasure is flown,
Nor bid me to maids that are younger repair,
For those raptures that still are thine own.

Though April his temples may wreathe with the vine,
Its tendrils in infancy curl'd,
'Tis the ardor of August matures us the wine,
Whose life-blood enlivens the world.

Though thy form, that was fashioned as light as a fay's,
Has assumed a proportion more round,
And thy glance, that was bright as a falcon's at gaze,
Looks soberly now on the ground,--

Enough, after absence to meet me again,
Thy steps still with ecstasy move;
Enough, that those dear sober glances retain
For me the kind language of love.

-- Sir Walter Scott

Hap Notes: You may think you know nothing of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) but you are probably wrong. Ever heard the expression "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!" ? That's Scott (from "Marmion"). Do you think of Scotsman as wearing specialized tartan plaids and kilts? Scott popularized this idea as a Scottish identity. All the popularized myths of the wild Scottish highlands are mostly the work of Scott. Ever heard the verses "Breathes there the man with soul so dead Who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land!"? That's also Scott from his poem 'The Lay of the Last Minstrel." You always knew him, you just didn't know it was him.

The top pictures with Scott are from the "Authors" card game- did you ever play that when you were a kid? It was my favorite game and I made a point, as I grew up, to read each work (I'm a dork- you don't have to tell me, I know.)

In our Valentine's Day poem, Scott is telling his beloved that age has not affected her charm with him and that she's more lovely now than ever. When he uses the word "repair" here, he doesn't mean "fix" he means "go to." A "fay" is a Middle English term for fairy or sprite. In the second stanza he's talking about a grape vine- you probably see this already- and saying that age makes a grape/wine more tasty and that this aging process "enlivens" the world with deep maturity.

Scott is famous for writing novels like Ivanhoe (its popularity made a sympathetic case for the emancipation of English Jews -- one of the heroines of the book is Jewish), Waverley and The Bride of Lammermoor (on which Donizetti's opera "Lucia di Lammermoor" is based.) The word "Waverly" has taken on the idea of quality, hence the popular cracker: Waverley Wafers. Many suburbs, housing additions and train stations are also named "Waverly" in the hopes of retaining some dignified "English" class.

Scott , chronologically speaking, was first a translator, then a poet, then a novelist. As a translator he worked on Goethe and Burger. His poems include the famous "Lady of the Lake" and "Rokeby" and "The Lord of the Isles" and dozens and dozens more.

Born in Scotland, when Scott was two years old he contracted polio which left him quite lame. He was sent to the country to live with an aunt, was sent to the "baths" for water cures and, by gosh, by the time he was 7 he was able to walk. He was in "college" (the Brits have an education system I don't quite understand) by the time he was 12 (which was a year or two early) and he apprenticed with his father (a lawyer), studied law and became a lawyer in Edinburgh.

There's a great story about him; Robert Burns was a very famous poet and was invited to many homes and distinguished gatherings. At one such gathering, Burns was a bit ill at ease and walked around the room, looking at the pictures on the host's walls. One picture had a caption of verse that brought Burns to tears and he asked the august gathering if they knew who had written it. None of the authors and scientists knew. The host's son had some younger friends over and one of them (a "pale boy with a limp") piped up and told Burns the author and the title of the poem. Burns, impressed, beamed at the boy "You'll be a man, yet, sir." The boy was Scott.

Here's another good story about Scott: The poet had a severe stroke in 1830 and he was deeply in debt (he was working day and night to pay it off when he had the stroke). He was taken to Naples, Italy to revive his health. Scott went with his doctor and a couple of friends to the great museum there. Scott was weak as a baby, could barely walk and could not retain information- he sort of wandered around the relics aimlessly. Now, there just happened to be a large bunch of students and Italian writers at the museum that day examining an old manuscript and they found out that the "Wizard of the North," as Scott was often called, was there. They sent word they'd like to meet him but Scott declined- he knew no Italian and wasn't feeling very well. Then, about a half an hour later, his memory unclear, he asked who wanted to see him and when he was told he said, sure- he'd go see them. He mounted a staircase and entered the room and when he got to the door, cheers welcomed him, the students rushed up to the door, forming two lines, many of them on their knees to touch the genius that had given them such delight in reading. They touched his hands and kissed him and hugged him and kept thanking him in Italian. Of course, soon he was weary of the talk (most of which he could not understand) and made to leave, and the students again crowded around him, thanking him, holding him up, helping him to walk in his slow tottering steps, kissing his hands with tears and thanked him again and again. Scott's friends said it was the most moving thing they'd ever seen. (His debts by the way, were finally paid, through his work and, after his death, through the sale of his books.)

Now I'll admit right now that Sir Walter Scott's somewhat lacy poetry isn't for everybody (Mark Twain despised it.) It's sometimes clumsily rhymed and he's often been criticized for being slap-dash with both his poetry and his novels. He was a very busy guy, though, and he had a burn in him to tell stories. His poetry, if read by some great dramatic voice; Richard Burton or Lawrence Olivier or Alan Rickman or Amitabh Bachchan (my favorite, as everyone knows); would amaze you with it's charming powers of storytelling. His poetry needs a good voice reciting it sometimes to carry it.

He's another poet to curl up with on a cold winter's night with a cup of cocoa and read aloud. I love all that romantic Lochinvar stuff in "Marmion."

Here's a good Scott quote (there are skillions of them): "A sound head, an honest heart, and an humble spirit are the three best guides through time and to eternity."

Here's another:
"Death - the last sleep? No, it is the final awakening"

And another: "Teach your children poetry; it opens the mind, lends grace to wisdom and makes the heroic virtues hereditary."

You can find more Scott here:


  1. Thank you for a lovely and informative post. I teach English and art to intermediate students who don't get enough of poetry or the Classics... I enjoyed the read immensely...

    Be blessed,

  2. Thank You! What a gratifying response! Your students are very lucky to have you as a teacher!