Once upon a time, people enjoyed narrative poetry. Not merely short narrative poetry, but long, book-length narrative poetry. Whereas nowadays, already half of the people reading this sentence have already decided that this blog post will be too long, and have therefore left to check some top 10 humor list.
Narrative poetry can be difficult to approach for the modern reader, since he or she is not likely to have any familiarity with it, a book-length narrative poems seems massively intimidating, and no similar form or literary production has whet our appetite for it. We may be very familiar with short lyric poetry, but that may be of little use to us, if it means we approach the longer work in the same way. Attempting to read it with such expectations is like to lead us into disappointment, as we look for a clever turn of phrase, a great insight or impact to finish off a stanza, or some other kind of literary fireworks suited to the short poem. But a narrative poem uses other beauties and rhythms, and will build in anticipation more like a novel; so if we wish to enjoy it, we had better keep that in mind.
But suppose you want to try a narrative work—where to begin? A poem like Spenser’s Faerie Queen may be a magnificent production, but it is on the more difficult end of the spectrum, so may not be the best place to start. I would recommend instead either G.K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, or something by Sir Walter Scott.
Sir Walter Scott was a renowned poet in his day (though sadly, not so much celebrated today), who published a number of narrative poems before becoming one of the great pioneers of the prose novel. His poems had adventure and romance suited for a bardic recital, and made for engaging narratives as well as well-constructed poems. Often he pulled themes and settings from history, as in The Lord of the Isles, which was a tale about Sir Robert [the] Bruce, liberator of Scotland. It is an excerpt of that great poem that I offer you to today, describing the Battle of Bannockburn, the victory that made possible Scottish independence.
The poem is written mostly in tetrameter couplets; but occasionally Sir Walter Scott varies the rhyme with a tercet, and the rhythm with a trimeter line. These trimeter lines (and the rhymes that go with them) provide extra emphasis for certain lines of the story, and serve to break up the recital so that the rhythm never starts to drone. And is this feature particularly which makes it a good place to start with narrative poetry.
So here is [a small] except from The Lord of the Isles, by Sir Walter Scott:
Now onward, and in open view,
The countless ranks of England drew,
Dark rolling like the ocean-tide,
When the rough west hath chafed his pride,
And his deep roar sends challenge wide
To all that bars his way!
In front the gallant archers trode,
The men-at-arms behind them rode,
And midmost of the phalanx broad
The Monarch held his sway.
Beside him many a war-horse fumes,
Around him waves a sea of plumes,
Where many a knight in battle known,
And some who spurs had first braced on,
And deem’d that fight should see them won,
King Edward’s hests obey.
De Argentine attends his side,
With stout De Valence, Pembroke’s pride,
Selected champions from the train,
To wait upon his bridle-rein.
Upon the Scottish foe he gazed –
-At once, before his sight amazed,
Sunk banner, spear, and shield;
Each weapon-point is downward sent,
Each warrior to the ground is bent.
‘The rebels, Argentine, repent!
For pardon they have kneel’d.’-
‘Aye! – but they bend to other powers,
And other pardon sue than ours!
See where yon bare-foot Abbot stands,
And blesses them with lifted hands!
Upon the spot where they have kneel’d,
These men will die, or win the field.’-
-‘Then prove we if they die or win!
Bid Gloster’s Earl the fight begin.’
Earl Gilbert waved his truncheon high,
Just as the Northern ranks arose,
Signal for England’s archery
Then stepp’d each yeoman forth a pace,
Glanced at the intervening space,
And raised his left hand high;
To the right ear the cords they bring –
-At once ten thousand bow-strings ring,
Ten thousand arrows fly!
Nor paused on the devoted Scot
The ceaseless fury of their shot;
As fiercely and as fast,
Forth whistling came the grey-goose wing
As the wild hailstones pelt and ring
Adown December’s blast.
Nor mountain targe of tough bull-hide,
Nor lowland mail, that storm may bide;
Woe, woe to Scotland’s banner’d pride,
If the fell shower may last!
Upon the right, behind the wood,
Each by his steed dismounted, stood
The Scottish cavalry;-
-With foot in stirrup, hand on mane,
Fierce Edward Bruce can scarce restrain
His own keen heart, his eager train,
Until the archers gain’d the plain;
Then, ‘Mount, ye gallants free!’
He cried; and, vaulting from the ground,
His saddle every horseman found.
On high their glittering crests they toss,
As springs the wild-fire from the moss;
The shield hangs down on every breast,
Each ready lance is in the rest,
And loud shouts Edward Bruce,-
‘Forth, Marshal! on the peasant foe!
We’ll tame the terrors of their bow,
And cut the bow-string loose!’
Then spurs were dash’d in chargers’ flanks,
They rush’d among the archer ranks,
No spears were there the shock to let,
No stakes to turn the charge were set,
And how shall yeoman’s armour slight,
Stand the long lance and mace of might?
Or what may their short swords avail,
‘Gainst barbed horse and shirt of mail?
Amid their ranks the chargers sprung,
High o’er their heads the weapons swung,
And shriek and groan and vengeful shout
Give note of triumph and of rout!
Awhile, with stubborn hardihood,
Their English hearts the strife made good.
Borne down at length on every side,
Compell’d to flight they scatter wide.-
Let stage of Sherwood leap for glee,
And bound the deer of Dallom-Lee!
The broken bows of Bannock’s shore
Shall in the greenwood ring no more!
Round Wakefield’s merry May-pole now,
The maids may twine the summer bough,
May northward look with longing glance,
For those that wont to lead the dance,
For the blithe archers look in vain!
Broken, dispersed, in flight o’erta’en,
Pierced through, trod down, by thousands slain,
They cumber Bannock’s bloody plain.
The King with scorn beheld their flight,
‘Are these,’ he said, ‘our yeoman wight?
Each braggart churl could boast before,
Twelve Scottish lives his baldric bore!
Fitter to plunder chase or park,
Than make a manly foe their mark.-
Forward, each gentleman and knight!
Let gentle blood show generous might,
And chivalry redeem the fight!’
To rightward of the wild affray,
The field show’d fair and level way;
But, in mid-space, the Bruce’s care
Had bored the ground with many a pit,
With turf and brushwood hidden yet,
That form’d a ghastly snare.
Rushing, ten thousand horsemen came,
With spears in rest, and hearts on flame,
That panted for the shock!
With blazing crests and banners spread,
And trumpet-clang and clamour dread,
The wide plain thunder’d to their tread,
As far as Stirling rock.
Down! down! in headlong overthrow,
Horseman and horse, the foremost go,
Wild floundering on the field!
The first are in destruction’s gorge,
Their followers wildly o’er them urge;-
The knightly helm and shield,
The mail, the action, and the spear,
Strong hand, high heart, are useless here!
Loud from the mass confused the cry
Of dying warriors swells on high,
And steeds that shriek in agony!
They came like mountain-torrent red,
That thunders o’er its rocky bed;
They broke like that same torrent’s wave,
When swallow’d by a darksome cave.
Billows on billows burst and boil,
Maintaining still the stern turmoil,
And to their wild and tortured groan
Each adds new terrors of his own!
Too strong in courage and in might
Was England yet, to yield the fight…
With caution o’er the ground they tread,
Slippery with blood and piled with dead,
Till hand to hand in battle set,
The bills with spears and axes met,
And, closing dark on every side,
Raged the full contest far and wide.
Then was the strength of Douglas tried,
Then proved was Randolph’s generous pride,
And well did Stewart’s actions grace
The sire of Scotland’s royal race!
Firmly they kept their ground;
As firmly England onward press’d,
And down went many a noble crest,
And rent was many a valiant breast,
And Slaughter revell’d round.
Unflinching foot ‘gainst foot was set,
Unceasing blow by blow was met;
The groans of those who fell
Were drown’d amid the shriller clang,
That from the blades and harness rang,
And in the battle-yell.
Yet fast they fell, unheard, forgot,
Both Southern fierce and hardy Scot;
And O! amid that waste of life,
What various motives fired the strife!
The aspiring Noble bled for fame,
The Patriot for his country’s claim;
This Knight his youthful strength to prove,
And that to win his lady’s love;
Some fought from ruffian thirst of blood,
From habit some, or hardihood.
But ruffian stern, and soldier good,
The noble and the slave,
From various cause the same wild road,
On the same bloody morning, trode,
To that dark inn, the grave!