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to establish among them an union which was so nethe for their safety, grounds his poem upon discords of the several Grecian princes who were engaged in a confederacy against an Asiatic prince, and the several advantages which the enemy gained by such discords. At the time the poem we are now treating of was written, the dissensions of the barons *, who were then so many petty princes, ran very high, whether they quarrelled among themselves, or with their neighbours, and produced unspeakable calamities to the country. The poet, to deter men from such unnatural contentions, describes a bloody battle and dreadful scene of death, occasioned by the mutual feuds which reigned in the families of an English and Scotch nobleman. That he designed this for the instruction of his poem, we may learn from his four last lines, in which, after the example of the modern tragedians, he draws from it a precept for the benefit of his readers:
God save the king, and bless the land
The next point observed by the greatest heroic poets, hath been to celebrate persons and actions which do honour to their country: thus Virgil's hero was the founder of Rome, Homer's a prince of according to others 980, which calculation places him near the age of Solomon.
* There is here a similar chronological inaccuracy with respect to Chevy-Chase. The dissensions of the barons were long over before the event which is commonly supposed to have given occasion to this ballad. The battle of Otterburn, usually called Chevy-Chase, was fought A. D. 1388, in the reigns of Richard II. of England, and Robert II. of Scotland. Others with less probability have brought down the action to the reigns of Henry IV. of
England, and James I. of Scotland.
Greece; and, for this reason, Valerius Flaccus and Statius, who were both Romans, might be justly derided for having chosen the expedition of the Golden Fleece, and the Wars of Thebes, for the subjects of their epic writings.
The poet before us has not only found out a hero in his own country, but raises the reputation of it by several beautiful incidents. The English are the first who take the field and the last who quit it. The English bring only fifteen hundred to the battle, the Scotch two thousand. The English keep the field with fifty-three; the Scotch retire with fifty-five; all the rest on each side being slain in battle. But the most remarkable circumstance of this kind is the different manner in which the Scotch and English kings receive the news of this fight, and of the great men's deaths, who commanded in it:
This news was brought to Edinburgh,
O heavy news, King James did say,
I have not any captain more
Like tidings to King Henry came
Now God be with him, said our king,
I trust I have within my realm
Five hundred as good as he.
Yet shall not Scot nor Scotland say,
And be revenged on them all
* Impossible! for it was more than three times the distance. VOL. VI.
This vow full well the king performed
In one day fifty knights were slain,
And of the rest of small account
At the same time that our poet shows a laudable partiality to his countrymen, he represents the Scots after a manner not unbecoming so bold and brave a people:
Earl Douglas on a milk-white steed,
Rode foremost of the company,
His sentiments and actions are every way suitable to a hero. One of us two, says he, must die: I am an earl as well as yourself, so that you can have no pretence for refusing the combat: however, says he, it is pity, and indeed would be a sin, that so many innocent men should perish for our sakes: rather let you and I end our quarrel in single fight:
Ere thus I will out-braved be,
I know thee well, an earl thou art,
But trust me, Percy, pity it were,
Let thou and I the battle try,
By whom this is deny❜d.
When these brave men had distinguished themselves in the battle and in single combat with each other, in the midst of a generous parley, full of heroic sentiments, the Scotch earl falls; and with his dying words encourages his men to revenge his death, representing to them, as the most bitter circumstance of it, that his rival saw him fall:
With that there came an arrow keen
Which struck Earl Douglas to the heart
Who never spoke more words than these,
Merry-men, in the language of those times, is no more than a cheerful word for companions and fellow-soldiers. A passage in the eleventh book of Virgil's Eneid is very much to be admired, where Camilla, in her last agonies, instead of weeping over the wound she had received, as one might have expected from a warrior of her sex, considers only, like the hero of whom we are now speaking, how the battle should be continued after her death:
Tum sic exspirans, &c.
A gath'ring mist o'erclouds her cheerful eyes;
Acca, 'tis past! he swims before my sight,
VIRG. EN. xi. 820.
Turnus did not die in so heroic a manner; though our poet seems to have had his eye upon speech in the last verse:
Lord Percy sees my fall.
-Vicisti, et victum tendere palmas
VIRG. EN. xii. 936.
The Latin chiefs have seen me beg my life.
Earl Percy's lamentation over rous, beautiful, and passionate: I must only caution the reader not to let the simplicity of the style, which one may well pardon in so old a poet, prejudice him against the greatness of the thought:
Then leaving life, Earl Percy took
O Christ! my very heart doth bleed
That beautiful line, ‹ Taking the dead man by the hand,' will put the reader in mind of Æneas's behaviour towards Lausus, whom he himself had slain as he came to the rescue of his aged father:
At verò ut vultum vidit morientis et ora,
VIRG. EN. X. 821.
The pious prince beheld young Lausus dead ;
I shall take another opportunity to consider the other parts of this old song.