Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Love of Country‘ describes the feelings he felt a person should experience when returning home to one’s native country after a period of time abroad. The poem evokes a strong sense of patriotism and is taken from Scott’s longer narrative poem, ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel.’
Love of Country Sir Walter ScottBreathes there the man, with soul so dead,Who never to himself hath said,This is my own, my native land!Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d,As home his footsteps he hath turn’d,From wandering on a foreign strand!If such there breathe, go, mark him well;For him no Minstrel raptures swell;High though his titles, proud his name,Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;Despite those titles, power, and pelf,The wretch, concentred all in self,Living, shall forfeit fair renown,And, doubly dying, shall go downTo the vile dust, from whence he sprung,Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.
Love of Country
‘Love of Country‘ presents the importance of patriotism through the example of a man that does not possess it.
The poem begins by describing a man that has never experienced the kind of national pride that Scott felt a person should. It goes on to describe this man, if he exists, to be a poor reflection of the nation. In spite of whatever wealth or titles he may or may not possess, Scott marks him out as a wretched individual. In particular, the poet admonishes the man by describing how he will be forgotten in history and how no songs or poems will be written to commemorate his life because he was not a proud member of his homeland.
Sir Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh in 1771 and became one of Scotland’s most iconic figures, having written histories, poetry, novels, and plays during his lifetime. ‘Love of Country’ is taken from Scott’s widely acclaimed 1805 narrative poem, ‘The Lay of the Minstrel,’ which depicted life in the Scottish Borders during the sixteenth century. The entire poem is presented as though it were being sung by a real minstrel, and much of its imagery and iconography has become synonymous with Scottish national identity.
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d,
The poem begins by metaphorically describing someone non-patriotic as having a dead soul, which immediately establishes the poet’s view that national pride is essential to living a fulfilling life rather than merely surviving. The repeated use of the possessive pronoun “my” in line three suggests Scott believed that everybody should feel a degree of ownership of their homeland and should therefore be keen to defend it whenever called upon. Scott used another metaphor to chastise the unnamed figure for never having had his heart burn within him. This is significant as it associates national pride with fire which has connotations of passion and power. The absence of this fire suggests the poet regards non-patriotic people as cold or unappealing.
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d,
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
In this stanza, the poet continues to single out this individual with scorn, going so far as to claim he should be identified and shamed by all that love their country. The use of the imperative verbs “go” and “mark” emphasize the strength of the narrator’s conviction that this man and those like him are a threat to the nation and its people. Interestingly, the descriptions of the man’s physical presence, as demonstrated by the words “footsteps” and “breathe” serve as a reminder that, in the eyes of the narrator, his soul is dead, and he is merely surviving rather than truly living. Finally, the mention of the minstrel implies that, to Scott, being omitted from the art, songs, and poetry of the nation is the greatest punishment that can be inflicted upon this man.
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Scott juxtaposes his view that a place in the cultural fabric of the nation is the greatest reward with other, more conventional forms of success and renown. These include titles, a famous family name and enormous wealth, which Scott depicts using hyperbole when he describes it as “boundless.” It is clear that the narrator is dismissive of these so-called accomplishments as, without a love of one’s country, they are presented to be hollow and inconsequential. This is reinforced by the narrator’s decision to refer to the man as a “wretch” which dehumanizes him even further, implying his aforementioned status amounts to nothing in the eyes of the speaker.
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonor’d, and unsung.
The poem ends with some of its most vitriolic imagery, as though the narrator has grown more and more furious at the unpatriotic man the longer they have considered him. The use of the alliterative “doubly dying” evoke a sense of aggression and bitterness, presumably directed at this man. It also draws the readers’ attention to these words, which suggest that, in the narrator’s eyes, being forgotten and left out of history is comparable to a second death. The final rule of three reinforces the scorn that the narrator holds towards this person, reminding the reader that the greatest insult is to remove a person’s name from art, songs, and poetry.
The poem is written in blank verse with a variable rhyme scheme. The opening lines feature an AABCCB rhyme scheme before the poem reverts to rhyming couplets. This transition could signal a growing sense of certainty on the part of the narrator, as they become increasingly outraged by what they perceive as an unforgivable ambivalence towards one’s own country.
A minstrel was a form of court entertainer who, by the sixteenth century, had become associated with songs and stories. Scott’s poem, along with others from Thomas Moore and John Clare, helped enshrine the minstrel as an important symbol of culture and national identity. The role is not dissimilar to that of a bard, who would compose stories and songs to commemorate people or events.
The poem’s tone is very assertive and increasingly aggressive towards the non-patriotic figure at its center. Ultimately, the poem is an expression of national pride but is clearly articulated through a kind of moral outrage.
Scott’s main thematic concerns are that of patriotism and national identity. More broadly, it could be argued that the poem is concerned with betrayal and the role of art as a means of rewarding the patriotic and punishing those that do not love their country.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Love of Country‘ might want to explore other Sir Walter Scott poems. For example:
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘All You Have is a Country‘ by Ha Jin – Another poem that explores the nature of patriotism and how it can affect a person.
- ‘Mother and Poet‘ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning – This poem explores the moment where the personal and the patriotic converge.