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Proud Maisie -- Sir Walter Scott

(Poem #931) Proud Maisie
 Proud Maisie is in the wood,
         Walking so early;
 Sweet Robin sits on the bush,
         Singing so rarely.

 "Tell me, thou bonny bird,
         When shall I marry me?"
 "When six braw gentlemen
         Kirkward shall carry ye."

 "Who makes the bridal bed,
         Birdie, say truly?"
 "The grey-headed sexton
         That delves the grave duly.

 "The glow-worm o'er grave and stone
         Shall light thee steady.
 The owl from the steeple sing,
         'Welcome, proud lady'."
-- Sir Walter Scott
  Sung by the madwoman Madge Wildfire on her deathbed in chapter XL of
  The Heart of Midlothian (1818).

  Maisie: Mary. -- Palgrave

Here's what Palgrave has to say about today's poem:

  Scott has given us nothing more complete and lovely than this little
  song, which unites simplicity and dramatic power to a wildwood music of
  the rarest quality. No moral is drawn, far less any conscious analysis of
  feeling attempted; the pathetic meaning is left to be suggested by the
  mere presentment of the situation. Inexperienced critics have often named
  this, which may be called the Homeric manner, superficial, from its
  apparent simple facility; but first-rate excellence in it (as shown here,
  and in cxcvi., clvi., and cxxix.) is in truth one of the least common
  triumphs of poetry. This style should be compared with what is not less
  perfect in its way, the searching out of inner feeling, the expression of
  hidden meanings, the revelation of the heart of Nature and of the soul
  within the soul-the analytical method, in short, most completely
  represented by Wordsworth and Shelley.

        -- Francis T. Palgrave, "The Golden Treasury"

I agree with him as to the poem's rare beauty, but I cannot help but feel
that a moral is implicit in the adjective 'proud'. The poem is strongly
reminiscent of cautionary ballads like "Barbara Allen", where, at least for
a woman, the wages of pride were death.

However, 'Proud Maisie' does, as Palgrave points out, differ from the
pattern by being simply tragic, rather than cautionary. The very
understatedness of the exchange helps underscore its sombre tone - compared
to lines like

                As she was walkin o'er the fields
                She heard the dead-bell knellin',
                And every jow that the dead-bell geid,
                Cried, "Woe to Barbara Allen!"

Scott's verse has a quiet dignity that resonates well with the 'magical'
aspects of the poem - the lonely woodland setting, and the bird dealing out
prophecies of death (compare Poe's "Raven").

Formwise, today's poem, while a little short, fits well into the ballad
pattern. To quote Arthur Quiller-Couch, in "The Oxford Book of Ballads":

  If any man ever steeped himself in balladry, that man was Scott, and once
  or twice, as in Proud Maisie and Brignall Banks, he came near to distil
  the essence.

To be precise, "Proud Maisie" is a literary ballad, a narrative poem written
in deliberate imitation of the ballad form, and intended to be read rather
than sung. (See the links for an excellent guide to literary terms, covering
ballads, ballad stanza and the literary ballad.)


  Musical settings:
        [broken link]

  Here's a wonderful essay on Scott:

  The complete "Heard of Midlothian" online:

  A definition of ballads, ballad stanza and literary ballads

  And an essay on the ballad in its various manifestations:

  Perhaps the classic example of the literary ballad is Keats's "La Belle
  Dame Sans Merci" poem #182

  Other poems by Scott on Minstrels:
        Poem #125, "Lochinvar"
        Poem #415, "The Truth of Woman"
        Poem #495, "Marmion"


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