"Oh, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!"
Back when I was that odd kid in high school and college that read Shakespeare for fun, I rummaged around for other authors of interest. In one of those strange coincidences, a friend recommended Sir Walter Scott. "You have to read Marmion," he said, "It mentions your name. And that quote you like? It's not Shakespeare, that's why you can't find it. It's Sir Walter Scott." So I secured my copy of Marmion, A Tale Of Flodden Field and off I read.
Marmion is a very long narrative poem written in six cantos and published in 1808. It's about the battle of Flodden Field in 1513, where the English army killed King James IV and slaughtered the Scottish army. It has enough operatic overtones to keep even Gabriele happy, I think.
The poem talks of Lord Marmion, who is interested in Clara de Clare, who is already engaged to Ralph De Wilton. Not to be thwarted, Lord Marmion forges a letter to get De Wilton in deep trouble. He is helped by his present mistress, Constance De Beverley, who breaks her vows and helps with the letter in hopes of winning Marmion. De Wilton claims the right to face Marmion in combat, and is defeated. Clara de Clare runs and hides from Marmion in a convent. Constance was walled up alive as punishment for breaking her vows, but manages to get a letter out proving De Wilton's innocence. De Wilton is reinstated as a knight after proving his innocence, and heads off to find Marmion and demand justice.
Meanwhile, Marmion heads for Scotland to supposedly talk peace. While he is there, the Battle of Flodden Field takes place, and Marmion is eventually killed in the battle. (Very nice, drawn out death scene) Ralph De Wilton arrives just in time to take part in the battle, fights with honor and regains all the status he lost because of Marmion's treachery. De Wilton marries Clara and you assume they live happily ever after...
(from First Canto – description of Marmion)
Along the bridge Lord Marmion rode,
Proudly his red-roan charger trode,
His helm hung at the saddlebow;
Well by his visage you might know
He was a stalwart knight, and keen,
And had in many a battle been;
The scar on his brown cheek revealed
A token true of Bosworth field;
His eyebrow dark, and eye of fire,
Showed spirit proud and prompt to ire;
Yet lines of thought upon his cheek
Did deep design and counsel speak.
His forehead, by his casque worn bare,
His thick moustache, and curly hair,
Coal-black, and grizzled here and there,
But more through toil than age;
His square-turned joints, and strength of limb,
Showed him no carpet knight so trim,
But in close fight a champion grim,
In camps a leader sage.
(Canto Two – Constance speaks to the Abbot)
“I speak not to implore your grace,
Well know I, for one minute’s space
Successless might I sue:
Nor do I speak your prayers to gain -For
if a death of lingering pain,
To cleanse my sins, be penance vain,
Vain are your masses too.
I listened to a traitor’s tale,
I left the convent and the veil;
For three long years I bowed my pride,
A horse-boy in his train to ride;
And well my folly’s meed he gave,
Who forfeited, to be his slave,
All here, and all beyond the grave.
He saw young Clara’s face more fair,
He knew her of broad lands the heir,
Forgot his vows, his faith forswore,
And Constance was beloved no more.
’Tis an old tale, and often told;.
But did my fate and wish agree,
Ne’er had been read, in story old,
Of maiden true betrayed for gold,
That loved, or was avenged, like me."
The instant that Fitz-Eustace spoke,
A sudden light on Marmion broke:
“Ah! dastard fool, to reason lost!”
He muttered; “’Twas nor fay nor ghost
I met upon the moonlight wold,
But living man of earthly mould.
O dotage blind and gross!
Had I but fought as wont, one thrust
Had laid De Wilton in the dust,
My path no more to cross.
How stand we now?—he told his tale
To Douglas; and with some avail;
’Twas therefore gloomed his rugged brow.
Will Surrey dare to entertain,
‘Gainst Marmion, charge disproved and vain?
Small risk of that, I trow.
Yet Clare’s sharp questions must I shun;
Must separate Constance from the nun –
Oh, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!
A Palmer too!—no wonder why
I felt rebuked beneath his eye:
I might have known there was but one
Whose look could quell Lord Marmion.”.