The English poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) was greatly admired in his own day for his sprawling longer pieces such as The Pleasures of Hope and Gertrude of Wyoming, but today he is most valued by the anthologists for his battle songs and ballads. As W. Macneile Dixon has observed, it is Campbell's martial lyrics such as "Ye Mariners of England," "The Battle of the Baltic," and "Hohenlinden"--and "that inimitable ballad" "Lord Ullin's Daughter"--that assure him his place with the makers of English literature. (2)
In 1795 Campbell visited Mull, one of the largest islands of the Inner Hebrides (Argyllshire, Scotland), and there sketched the ballad "Lord Ullin's Daughter," which he reworked in 1804 and finally published in 1809. (3) The ballad is the story of an attempted elopement which results in the deaths of the couple. The fleeing lovers, the young "chief of Ulva's isle" and his "bonny bride," Lord Ullin's daughter, have been hotly pursued by Lord Ullin and his horsemen for three days. Both know that the young man's life will be forfeit if they are captured. They approach a boatman to whom the young man offers money if he will row them over the ferry; that is, if he will take them across Lochgyle. The boatman, a "hardy Highland wight," agrees to row them across in spite of the raging storm, not for money, but for the sake of the "winsome lady." As the pursuers approach, the boat puts out into the stormy loch. When Lord Ullin reaches the shore, he is forced to watch his daughter and her lover drown as he calls out to them, vainly promising forgiveness to the young man if only they will return. (4)
The stanzas of "Lord Ullin's Daughter" are quatrains consisting of lines of iambic tetrameter alternating with lines of iambic trimeter and rhyming "abab." The "a" rhyme is masculine; the "b" rhyme is feminine. Each of the "b"-rhyme lines concludes with an extra-metrical unstressed syllable, which provides the feminine ending.
The great weakness of the ballad is the inexorable regularity of its beat and line length and the inevitability of the rhymes, although the monotony is broken by internal rhymes: "word"--"bird" in stanza 6, "glen"--"men" in stanza 8, "dismay'd'--"shade" in stanza 12, and "wild"--"child" in stanza 14. Campbell's end rhymes, like those in some traditional ballads, are often imperfect: "tarry"--"ferry" in stanzas 1 and 6, "ready"--"lady" in stanza 5, and "wind"--"men" in stanza 8, for example. In stanzas 6 and 14, he gives up the struggle with "bird"--"white" and "shore"--"child."
One of the great strengths of the ballad is its pervasive sense of place. One can imagine Campbell composing the poem on the very shore where its action is supposed to have taken place. Though a certain vagueness on the part of the poet prevents the reader from actually being able to map the route of the lovers' flight and identifying their precise destination, Campbell's exactness in naming places almost compels the reader to consult the map and gazetteer. This sense of place results in an authenticity that is genuinely impressive.
The "chief of Ulva's isle" and "Lord Ullin's daughter"--"to the Highlands bound"--plead with the boatman to "row us o'er the ferry," that is, to take them across Lochgyle. They have been fleeing from their pursuers for three days. Lochgyle---or Loch na Keal--is a sea-loch in the west of Mull. (5) Ulva (5 miles by 2-1/3 miles) is an island off the mouth of Loch na Keal. The ferry referred to is presumably that from Ulva Ferry over Ulva Sound, an arm of Loch na Keal, to the mainland of Mull. (6) Since the two have been fleeing for three days, it seems likely that "Ulva's chief" is trying to escape the larger island of Mull and gain passage by ferry across the Sound of Ulva, in order to find refuge in his own diminutive island of Ulva. Although the poet tells us that the fleeing couple are "to the Highlands bound," there is no reason why the destination may not be Ulva, for the term "Highlands" may be understood to include the islands of the Inner Hebrides and need not refer only to certain mainland areas of Scotland. …