Laying the Last Minstrel in Jane Eyre

Laying the Last Minstrel in Jane Eyre

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Laying the Last Minstrel in Jane Eyre

To find one work quoted multiple times in a novel, as is the case in Jane Eyre with The Lay of the Last Minstrel by Sir Walter Scott, should suggest to a reader that this quoted work can serve to shed some light on the work in which it is found. In this case, Charlotte Brontë alluded to Scott’s work at appropriate moments in the novel, both because of similarities in the plots at those moments, but also, more importantly, because of the theme of The Lay of the Last Minstrel. The Lay of the Last Minstrel tells the story of two lovers, who despite overwhelming obstacles, end up together. This is possible only after the pride which contributes to their separation is vanquished. Use of a story with this theme serves to foreshadow the eventual marriage between Jane and Rochester, but only after their pride is no longer an obstacle.

J. H. Alexander’s description of the themes in The Lay of the Last Minstrel in his article "On the Verbal and Thematic Texture" can easily be applied to a discussion of Jane Eyre. He writes that the "overt theme of the Lay [is] the quelling of barren pride" while added to that are "the apocalyptic abolition of all pride in human achievement and the insistance that true love is in its essential nature supernatural" (19). The ability to freely love one another is what enables Rochester and Jane to be together at the end, once pride is no longer an issue for either one of them. Brontë gives their love a supernatural element in the way that Jane is drawn to Rochester after hearing him call out her name (409; ch. 35). Aside from the legal obstacle to Jane and Rochester’s marriage, pride is a major factor in keeping them apart.

The first instance where The Lay of the Last Minstrel appears in Jane Eyre is the scene where Jane tells Rochester of the night that someone (she later learns it was Bertha) came to her bedroom and ripped the veil she was supposed to wear at Jane and Rochester’s wedding: "But, sir, as it grew dark, the wind rose: it blew yesterday evening not as it blows now – wild and high – but ‘with a sullen, moaning sound’ far more eerie" (279; ch. 25). She goes on to explain her uneasiness at his being away and her difficulty in falling asleep that night.

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She has forebodings of forces that threaten to separate her and Rochester: "I continued also the wish to be with you, and experienced a strange, regretful consciousness of some barrier dividing us" (279; ch. 25). She tells the story in a way that suggests something bad will happen, and the details, including Jane’s consciousness of a barrier, suggest that this negative occurance will separate Jane and Rochester.

The line quoted in Jane Eyre, as it appears in The Lay of the Last Minstrel, is not referring to normal wind, but rather to the sound of the River Spirit calling to his Brother, the Mountain Spirit:

At the sullen, moaning sound,
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]
. . . the voice of the coming storm,
The Ladye knew it well!
It was the Spirit of the Flood that spoke,
And he called on the Spirit of the Fell. (1.13.1-8, 1.14.5-8)

This is the moment early in the poem where the feud between the families Scott and Carr is explained, as well as the love between Margaret, of the Scott family, and Henry, of the Carr family. The spirits speak to one another of the barriers which separate the lovers and speculate about the outcome for Margaret. The Mountain Spirit tells his brother that Margaret and Henry cannot marry "Till pride be quelled and love be free" (1.17.10). Using this reference, Brontë introduces the idea of a postponed marriage until love is free and pride is no longer a hindrance, and she does this just before introducing reasons for the cancellation/postponement of Jane and Rochester’s marriage. The moaning sound of a storm comes in The Lay of Last Minstrel at the time when we learn that a family feud hinders a union between Margaret and Henry. The moaning sound of a storm occurs in Jane Eyre at the point in which we begin to suspect that something will hinder a marriage between Jane and Rochester.

In the same way that the moaning sound is not really a storm but a representation of the Spirits’ voices, the barrier that separates Jane and Rochester is not merely a physical or legal barrier; it is also more symbolic. By reminding readers of this poem, Brontë was able to suggest to those familiar with it when a marriage might be able to take place. Shortly before quoting The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Jane talks of Rochester's pride. This pride, and his subsequent treatment of Jane as though she were his possession, serve to make Jane uncomfortable about the impending marriage. At the same time, Jane’s pride, as well as his, inhibits them from marrying. Jane is unwilling to be merely his mistress; her self-respect and pride will not allow her to do so. Even after the events which make impossible the wedding between Rochester and Jane, this reference will foreshadow to readers that if circumstances allow, a marriage might still occur.

The second reference to Scott’s poem comes when Jane is settling into her cottage at Morton, where she will live and work as a schoolmistress at St. John Rivers’ request.

The birds were singing their last strains –
The air was mild; the dew was balm.

While I looked, I thought myself happy, and was surprised to find myself ere long weeping – and why? For the doom which had reft me from adhesion to my master: for him I was no more to see; for the desperate grief and fatal fury – consequences of my departure – which might now, perhaps, be dragging him from the path of right, too far to leave hope of ultimate restoration thither. (352-53; ch. 31)

While Jane is happy with her new situation at Morton and comfortable with her new home and surroundings, once she is settled she has time to think about what she has fled. The calm at sunset gives her a chance to think of Rochester, whom she fears she will never see again, to mourn her lost love and to worry about what is happening to him. She fears that grief and fury over her disappearance will encourage Rochester to continue to lead his life the way he had before he met her: away from the right path, moving from one mistress to another, from one country to another. His pride will not allow him to live his life respectably after accepting that Jane’s pride made her feel she must leave.

The passage from The Lay of the Last Minstrel comes from a stanza that describes Margaret thinking about her forbidden lover:

So pass’d the day; the evening fell,
‘Twas near the time of curfew bell;
The air was mild, the wind was calm,
The stream was smooth, the dew was balm;
The similarities between the two scenes are easy to see. Both women sit at the calm of sunset and think about their forbidden loves. Yet Jane’s thoughts lead her to more despair than is obvious in the description of Margaret’s musings. She is suffering from the way she acted as a result of her own pride, as well as agonizing over what actions Rochester’s pride will lead him to take. In Margaret’s case, the pride that separate her from her lover is her mother’s. She does not feel the guilt over actions that pride forced her or Henry to take. Again, as in the first instance, however, this passage serves as a type of foreshadowing to readers familiar with The Lay of the Last Minstrel. They would know that Margaret marries her love in the end, once Margaret’s mother’s pride is conquered, and might entertain the possibility of the same for Jane. First Jane and Rochester’s pride must be quelled.

Alexander further explains that The Lay of the Last Minstrel "is formed out of a series of oppositions between repression and exuberant freedom . . .spirituality is itself often taken by the characters to be repressive" (19-20). Throughout the novel are instances where Jane struggles between repression and longing for freedom, and often this is influenced by spiritual people or forces (65-69; ch. 6, 391; ch. 34). As the love between Margaret and Henry is repressed throughout the Lay, until finally being freely acknowledged at the end, Jane herself is repressed through much of the novel, with short bursts of freedom, until she marries Rochester and lives with him at Ferndean (437; ch. 38). This action is one made completely by her, and in spite of other alternatives. This is a sharp contrast to the other actions taken by Jane throughout the novel, where she picks the best she can from a series of unappealing choices (94; ch. 10, 316; ch. 27).

One of the repressive, spiritual influences in Jane’s life is St. John. The third time that Brontë uses The Lay of the Last Minstrel in Jane Eyre is during the scene when St. John tries to convince Jane to marry him and become a missionary with him. After she tells him she will never marry him, he tells her that she should take some time to consider the proposal. "He had done. Turning from me, he once more –

Looked to river, looked to hill:
But this time his feelings were all pent in his heart: I was not worthy to hear them uttered" (399; ch. 34). While this is not the end of St. John’s attempts to convince Jane to marry him, from this point forward he treats her as though he believes her refusal to be permanent and is angry for it (400; ch. 34). By refusing to marry St. John, Jane exerts her will against a repressive, spiritual force and will still be free to marry Rochester when other obstacles no longer stand in their way. The scene from which this allusion comes in The Lay of the Last Minstrel is the one in which Margaret and Henry’s greatest obstacle, the Ladye’s pride, is quelled.

In this scene, the Ladye admits that she must renounce the feud and allow Margaret and Henry to marry. Henry’s actions have served to remove most obstacles which kept them apart. He shows his willingness to forego the feud in favor of love for Margaret. While the Ladye seems happy to renounce the feud on her family’s behalf as well, she hesitates. Just before this, she ignores Henry, even as he reunites her with her son (5.25.1-6). When "She look’d to river, look’d to hill" she is thinking of the prophecy of the spirits, but also of her vow that Margaret would not marry one of their enemies. She realizes that Henry is no longer an enemy and resigns herself to their marriage. By having St. John do the same in looking to river and hill, Brontë suggests the same sort of resignation. His is different, because he is resigning himself to the fact that Jane will not marry him (though he does not yet completely abandon the idea). The similarity, though, is that Jane has told him that she will not marry him because of the lack of love between them, indicating that she will marry for love, similar to the way in which Margaret and Henry have waited for one another and marry for love, once they are free to do so.

This freedom comes once Jane discovers what has happened to Rochester in her absence. The fire at Thornfield which resulted in Rochester’s maiming and Bertha’s death remove the obstacles of pride (417-18; ch. 36). Rochester, now a widow, is free to marry Jane legally, so her pride, which led to resist being a mistress, is not necessary. Rochester has been forced to learn how to depend on people after sustaining his injuries in the fire, and when Jane returns, he is happy to be with her (434; ch. 37), no longer full of the pride of possession which colored their first courtship (266; ch. 24). With the removal of pride as an obstacle, Jane and Rochester are finally able to enjoy their love.


Works Cited

Alexander, J.H. "On the Verbal and Thematic Texture." The Lay of the Last Minstrel: Three Essays. Salzburg: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universität Salzburg, 1978.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston: Bedford Books, 1996.

Scott, Walter. The Lay of the Last Minstrel. 1805. The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott. Ed. J. Logie Robertson. 1904. London: Oxford UP, 1957.
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