Rokeby (poem)

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Rokeby first edition.jpg
First edition title page
AuthorWalter Scott
IllustratorThomas Stothard
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreEpic poem, verse novel
PublisherJohn Ballantyne, and Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown
Publication date

Rokeby (1813) is a narrative poem in six cantos by Walter Scott. It is set in Teesdale during the English Civil War.


  • Oswald Wycliffe, an officer in the Parliamentary army who plans to murder his ex-accomplice Philip Mortham
  • Wilfrid Wycliffe, son of Oswald, in love with Matilda
  • Matilda Rokeby, daughter of Lord Rokeby
  • Lord Rokeby, a Royalist officer now held prisoner by Oswald Wycliffe
  • Philip Mortham, a former associate of Oswald Wycliffe, now returned from a life of piracy in the Caribbean
  • Bertram Risingham, a villain in the pay of Oswald Wycliffe
  • Redmond O'Neale, page of Lord Rokeby


At Oswald's instigation Bertram makes an attempt on the life of Philip, which he mistakenly thinks has succeeded, and an attack on Rokeby Castle, in which the castle is set on fire. Wilfrid and Matilda, through the efforts of Redmond, are able to escape the blaze. It emerges that Redmond, now in Oswald's hands, is the long-lost son of Philip, and that Philip has survived the assassination attempt. Oswald tries to force Lord Rokeby to accept a marriage between Wilfrid and Matilda, but this is prevented by Wilfrid's death. Bertram kills his master Oswald to avoid further bloodshed, but is killed in his turn. Philip is reunited with his son, and the young lovers marry.

Composition and publication[edit]

The poem grew out of Scott's friendship with J. B. S. Morritt, an antiquary and Member of Parliament, whose home at Rokeby Park in Teesdale was, Scott felt, unduly short of local legends. With Rokeby he attempted to remedy this fault.[1] Scott claimed that the character of Matilda was drawn from his first love, Williamina Belsches, whom he had first met twenty years earlier, and who had recently died.[2][3] He began his poem while living at Ashestiel, but continued it in the middle of the noise and confusion of building work on his magnificent new home, Abbotsford, and he hoped that Rokeby’s success would pay the bills for this project.[4][5] Canto 1 had to be rewritten when Scott deliberately burned the first version, saying he had "corrected the spirit out of it".[6] The last instalment of the manuscript was sent off to the printer on 31 December 1812, and the book was published on 10 January 1813.[7]


Sales were initially promising. J. G. Lockhart reported that bookshops in Oxford were besieged by customers wanting to read the poem, and bets were placed as to whether Rokeby would outsell Byron's recent Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Byron himself wrote urgently from Italy asking his publisher John Murray to send him a copy.[8] In the event Rokeby sold ten thousand copies in the first three months, a figure which would have been the making of any other poet, but which was a marked falling-off from the sales of Scott's previous poems, and far less than he needed to pay his Abbotsford debts.[9][10] One consequence of this was that Scott, dismissing Rokeby as "a pseudo-romance of pseudo-chivalry", decided that Byron had displaced him as the country's favourite poet, and that he should try his hand at novel-writing instead.[11][2][12]

Critics in contemporary periodicals praised the poem's characterization, but found fault with the overly complicated plot, and with Scott's tendency to overuse his favourite rhyme-words. The Literary Panorama complained of inaccurate historical detail, and the British Review thought Scott's style was going a little stale, and regretted the choice of an English rather than a Scottish setting.[13][14][15] Thomas Moore sarcastically wrote that Scott's works were turning into a picturesque tour of Britain's stately homes.[16] Lockhart, writing after Scott's death, admired the scenery of Rokeby, and found many thrilling episodes and lines scattered through the poem; he attributed its disappointing sales to the inevitable comparisons drawn by the public with Childe Harold’s greater raciness and romantic glamour.[17] In the 20th century John Buchan thought the plot too intricate for a poem. Comparing Rokeby with Scott's earlier works he found the landscape not as beguiling, but the character-drawing more subtle, and the songs superior to all of his former lyrics.[18] Andrew Lang also admired the songs, but considered the poem as a whole inferior to its predecessors, and, in common with other critics, thought the story better suited for a novel.[19][2] In Edgar Johnson's opinion the structure of the poem was strikingly innovative, but beyond Scott's powers at that date to bring off wholly successfully.[20] A. N. Wilson noted that most readers today think of it as a failure. He himself, while agreeing that it fell below the standard of vintage Scott, thought it worth re-reading.[21]

Rokeby in other media[edit]

Over a hundred musical adaptations or settings of lines from Rokeby are known. These include several songs and glees by John Clarke Whitfield, a song by William Hawes, an opera called Rokeby Castle by William Reeve, and a projected opera by Glinka from which only one song survives.[22][23]

The actor-manager William Macready wrote, produced and starred in a stage version of Rokeby in 1814. Another adaptation by George John Bennett, a five-act play called Retribution, or Love's Trials, was produced at Sadler's Wells in 1850.[24][25]

The artist J. M. W. Turner produced a watercolour of the river Greta at Rokeby in 1822, which had been commissioned from him as an illustration to Scott's poem.[26]

The unincorporated area of Rokeby, Nebraska, is believed to be named after the poem.[27]


  1. ^ Pearson 1987, p. 92.
  2. ^ a b c Oman 1973, p. 177.
  3. ^ Pearson 1987, p. 32.
  4. ^ Buchan 1961, p. 103.
  5. ^ Pearson 1987, pp. 99, 101–102.
  6. ^ Lang, Andrew (1906). Sir Walter Scott. London: Hodder and Stoughton. p. 91. Retrieved 4 September 2012.
  7. ^ Oman 1973, p. 176.
  8. ^ Oman 1973, pp. 176–177.
  9. ^ Pearson 1987, p. 102.
  10. ^ "Rokeby". The Walter Scott Digital Archive. Edinburgh University Library. Retrieved 4 September 2012.
  11. ^ Harvey, Paul; Eagle, Dorothy, eds. (1969). The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 704. Retrieved 4 September 2012.
  12. ^ Buchan 1961, p. 104.
  13. ^ Hayden, John O., ed. (1970). Scott: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. pp. 62–66. Retrieved 4 September 2012.
  14. ^ Robertson, J. Logie, ed. (1951) [1904]. The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott. London: Oxford University Press. p. 380. Retrieved 4 September 2012.
  15. ^ "Rokeby". The Walter Scott Digital Archive. Edinburgh University Library. Retrieved 4 September 2012.
  16. ^ Pope-Hennessy, Una (1948). Sir Walter Scott. London: Home & Van Thal. p. 28. Retrieved 4 September 2012.
  17. ^ Lockhart, J. G. (1896) [1837–1838]. The Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart. London: Adam & Charles Black. p. 234. Retrieved 4 September 2012.
  18. ^ Buchan 1961, pp. 104, 112.
  19. ^ Lang, Andrew, ed. (1895). Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott, Bart. London and Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black. pp. xxv–xxvi. Retrieved 4 September 2012.
  20. ^ Johnson, Edgar (1970). Walter Scott: The Great Unknown. Volume 1. London: Hamish Hamilton. pp. 472, 476. ISBN 0241017610. Retrieved 2 November 2013.
  21. ^ Wilson, A. N. (1980). The Laird of Abbotsford: A View of Sir Walter Scott. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 62. ISBN 0192117564. Retrieved 4 September 2012.
  22. ^ Gooch, Bryan N. S.; Thatcher, David S. (1982). Musical Settings of British Romantic Literature: A Catalogue. Volume 2. New York: Garland. pp. 1006ff. ISBN 082409381X. Retrieved 5 September 2012.
  23. ^ Fiske, Roger (1983). Scotland in Music: A European Enthusiasm. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 207. ISBN 0521247721. Retrieved 5 September 2012.
  24. ^ Edwards, John Passmore, ed. (1853). The Lives of the Illustrious, Volume 3. London: Partridge and Oakey. p. 50. Retrieved 8 September 2012.
  25. ^ Scott, Clement; Howard, Cecil, eds. (1891). The Life and Reminiscences of E. L. Blanchard, Volume 2. London: Hutchinson. Retrieved 8 September 2012.
  26. ^ Evelyn Joll. "Joseph Mallord William Turner, R.A. (1775–1851). Rokeby. 1822". Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford. Archived from the original on 24 December 2012. Retrieved 8 September 2012.
  27. ^ Fitzpatrick, Lilian Linder (1925). Nebraska Place-Names. University of Nebraska Studies in Language, Literature and Criticism, No. 6. Lincoln, Neb.: [University of Nebraska]. p. 93. Retrieved 17 October 2018.


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