Cedar Crest College
An Explication of "Lochinvar"
The poem "Lochinvar" by Sir Walter Scott is an interesting study in human relationships and power struggles between correct roles and duties. Its traditional form and apparently straightforward story masks an interesting power play. The relative activeness and passiveness of the characters allows for these interactions to take place.
"Lochinvar" is a balled with eight six line stanzas. The lines are in iambic tetrameter and are arranged in heroic couplets, three couplets per stanza. While the last couplet in each stanza always share the same rhyme and end with "Lochinvar," there appears to be no other organized rhyme scheme across the stanzas. Within the stanzas there is a consistent use of aabbccdd. The language used in the poem is primarily heroic and dealing with battle. For example, four of the eight couplets that end in "Lochinvar" also end in the word "war." In addition to this Lochinvar's descriptions include words like "dauntless" (line 5), "a gallant" (10), "bold' (13), "stately" (31), "daring" (47), and "a galliard," a man of courage and sprit (32). This heroic language is interesting because while there is challenge in the poem there is no battle or direct conflict.
This language of conflict and challenge carries over into the descriptions and personality of the characters in the poem. The characters are divided into two groups; those who are active, and who conform to the language of battle and conflict, and those who are passive and ineffectual. Lochinvar, the young man who is the focal character, is the only one who remains in the active, dominant role. At the beginning of the poem, all of the characters have the potential to be proactive in what happens. However through their choices and actions, all but Lochinvar place themselves in a position of inactivity.
Lochinvar's position as an active dominant person is reflected in everything that he does and how he is described. Along with the descriptive words mentioned above he is also described as young, faithful, solitary and stately. In the first stanza we are introduced to Lochinvar riding out of the west on his horse, which should be noted is described as the best horse in the land. This description, along with contributing to his worthiness and ideal characterization, is a bit of preparation and foreshadowing because later in the poem all the men from the clans cannot catch up to Lochinvar and Ellen. It is interesting because he is riding alone, a stoic and brave character, and it is also mentioned that he is armed only with his broad sword. This may suggest, as he states later in response to Ellen's father, that he is not going to Netherby expecting or intending to fight and also that he doesn't have any tricks "up his sleeves." Lines 5-9 further set Lochinvar up as an ideal character. He goes to all lengths to get the Netherby, stopping for nothing.
The character of Ellen, in contrast to Lochinvar, is soft and light. Though she is obviously in love with Lochinvar she consents to marrying the unappealing bridegroom. It seems that her character is defined by her malleability because it takes nothing for Lochinvar to persuade her to run away with him, simply "[o]ne touch of his hand, and one word in her ear"(10). In contrast to Lochinvar's description, Ellen is described as "fair," "lovely," "soft" and "light." This reflects well on her personality described in the poem. She is obviously one of the inactive, passive characters, unable to be proactive in the creating of her own fate.
Another interesting character that joins Ellen in the passive category is the bridegroom. If Lochinvar is the ideal character, the bridegroom is his exact antithesis. He is a "laggard in love, and a dastard in war"(11). He is cowardly and unable to stand up for himself. While Lochinvar is dancing with Ellen and the entire castle is watching the bridegroom stands by helplessly. "And the bridegroom stood dangling his bonnet and plume"(34). The reference to "dangling" suggests that he was helpless and inactive in other aspects of manhood as well.
Ellen's parents, while they are the Lord and Lady of this hall, are relatively inactive, even though they are on their home territory. Ellen's father seems very intimidated by Lochinvar and while "her father did fume"(33), he does nothing actively to stop Lochinvar's actions. Ellen's mother is inactive as well and seems to want the opposite of what her daughter wants, regardless of her happiness. "He took her soft hand, ere her mother could bar"(29). Ellen's parents inability to make an initial stand and to move into the roles of active participants is what allows Lochinvar to go against their wishes and it is his continued action in the face of their passivity that allows him to retain that power.
These terms of action and power are also apparent in the trio of Lochinvar, Ellen's father and the bridegroom. There is conflict between what should traditionally occur and what actually happens. When Lochinvar first enters the hall, bravely because he is among all the men of the family (14), Ellen's father speaks first, directly stepping on the toes of the bridegroom because the wedding has already occurred and Ellen is the property and responsibility of the bridegroom. However, since "the poor craven bridegroom said never a word"(16), he is out of the picture, and all the man to man dealings occur between Lochinvar and Ellen's father, the two most important men in her life. The bridegroom's fear and inactivity cause Ellen's father to step in and he in turn is put in the same position as the bridegroom.
Another interesting relationship is that between Lochinvar and Ellen. Ellen does consent to marry the bridegroom though it is apparent he does not compare with Lochinvar. At one point Ellen's father asks Lochinvar whether he is there in peace, to fight, or to dance at the wedding (17-18). Lochinvar answers,
"I long woo'd your daughter, my suit you denied; --
Love swells like the Solway, but ebbs like its tide--
And now I am come, with this lost love of mine,
To lead but one measure, drink one cup of wine.
There are maidens in Scotland more lovely by far,
That would gladly be bride to young Lochinvar" (19-24).
These very hurtful lines are said in front of Ellen. She kisses the goblet of wine that he requested and he drinks from it but then throws it to the floor (26). She is obviously upset by this, as "She look'd down to blush, and she look'd up to sigh, / With a smile on her lips and a tear in her eye"(26-27). She is flustered and doesn't know where to look, but she offers a smile as she looks for redemption while trying not to cry. In this scene it is almost as if Lochinvar is trying to punish Ellen or let her know that he is upset. He is trying to give her a taste of the medicine that he has swallowed. This does not last for long, however, because the reassurance that she is looking for comes when he says that they shall dance (30). Another interesting point in their relationship comes from a line that Lochinvar says after they have escaped the hall. He says, "She is won!"(41). However did he really win her? There was no physical battle or even a real mental battle over Ellen, and it's not like he had to do a lot of convincing to get her to go with him. Her passivity and malleability doesn't allow her to be a challenge. Perhaps Lochinvar is projection unrealistic expectations on Ellen. He expected her to wait for him but she married the bridegroom with no protest that the reader is aware of . he also expects her to be a challenge and she goes with him without much thought. Is this what he wants or perhaps he is hoping for a woman with more will then Ellen, someone who will join him as his equal, actively asserting herself.
Lochinvar is a fascinating poem with some interesting viewpoints
on interpersonal relationships that may be overlooked at first reading.
The traditional form, style and subject matter mask an intricate set of
power struggles and battles of will. It also shows the value of action
and the results of passivity.