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The White Doe of Rylstone

     by William Wordsworth

According to the Wikipedia entry, 'The White Doe of Rylstone; or, The Fate of the Nortons is a long narrative poem by William Wordsworth, written initially in 1807-08, but not finally revised and published until 1815. It is set during the Rising of the North in 1569, and combines historical and legendary subject-matter'. Wordsworth is said to have taken the historical background from a ballad called, 'The Rising in the North', which he had read in Percy's 'Reliques of Ancient English Poetry'. Wordsworth's poem centres on an old fable, probably first told to him when he visited Bolton Priory in June 1807 with his sister. Later that year, according to Wikipedia, he also read Whitaker's account of the legend of the white doe and began writing the poem in October of the same year.

The heart of the story concerns Emily Norton, said to have been the last of the Norton family, who lived alone at Rylstone Hall after her family's removal after their fateful involvement in the Uprising of the North. She was a pious lady and made a weekly trip over Rylstone and Barden Moors to attend the Sunday service at Bolton Priory church.  She was accompanied in this journey by a white doe, who continued to make the trip to and from Bolton Priory after Emily died, and the family home at Rylstone was deserted.

There are, however, several factual problems with the story of Emily Norton, who was variously said to be the daughter of Sir Richard Norton, one of the leaders of the Uprising of the North, and according to Percy's old poem, embroidered a banner for her father to take into battle. Alternately, she is cited as being the wife or lover of one of Richard's many sons, being especially connected to Francis, Richard's eldest son who, it was claimed, did not support his father's role in the northern rebellion. The most serious flaw is that there is no evidence that Emily ever existed. She is never recorded as being one of Richard Norton's many children and 'Emily' was not a Norton family name used for female members of the family. There is also an issue with the alleged date, since mention of the white doe in old texts first appeared many decades after the possible existence of Emily. 

Nevertheless, 'The White Doe of Rylstone' has remained a well-known part of Wordsworth's poetic legacy, despite its dubious factual basis, and was said to have been one of the favourite pieces of Wordsworth himself. It has also inspired several artists to paint the fable of the white doe, as depicted below.

                                      FROM Bolton's old monastic tower

          The bells ring loud with gladsome power;

          The sun shines bright; the fields are gay

          With people in their best array

          Of stole and doublet, hood and scarf,

          Along the banks of crystal Wharf,

          Through the Vale retired and lowly,

          Trooping to that summons holy.

          And, up among the moorlands, see

          What sprinklings of blithe company!                         10

          Of lasses and of shepherd grooms,

          That down the steep hills force their way,

          Like cattle through the budded brooms;

          Path, or no path, what care they?

          And thus in joyous mood they hie

          To Bolton's mouldering Priory.

          What would they there?--Full fifty years

          That sumptuous Pile, with all its peers,

          Too harshly hath been doomed to taste

          The bitterness of wrong and waste:                          20

          Its courts are ravaged; but the tower

          Is standing with a voice of power,

          That ancient voice which wont to call

          To mass or some high festival;

          And in the shattered fabric's heart

          Remaineth one protected part;

          A Chapel, like a wild-bird's nest,

          Closely embowered and trimly drest;

          And thither young and old repair,

          This Sabbath-day, for praise and prayer.                  30

          Fast the churchyard fills;--anon

          Look again, and they all are gone;

          The cluster round the porch, and the folk

          Who sate in the shade of the Prior's Oak!

          And scarcely have they disappeared

          Ere the prelusive hymn is heard:--

          With one consent the people rejoice,

          Filling the church with a lofty voice!

          They sing a service which they feel:

          For 'tis the sunrise now of zeal;                                40

          Of a pure faith the vernal prime--

          In great Eliza's golden time.

          A moment ends the fervent din,

          And all is hushed, without and within;

          For though the priest, more tranquilly,

          Recites the holy liturgy,

          The only voice which you can hear

          Is the river murmuring near.

          When soft!--the dusky trees between,

          And down the path through the open green,           50

          Where is no living thing to be seen;

          And through yon gateway, where is found,

          Beneath the arch with ivy bound,

          Free entrance to the churchyard ground--

          Comes gliding in with lovely gleam,

          Comes gliding in serene and slow,

          Soft and silent as a dream,

          A solitary Doe!

          White she is as lily of June,

          And beauteous as the silver moon                          60

          When out of sight the clouds are driven

          And she is left alone in heaven;

          Or like a ship some gentle day

          In sunshine sailing far away,

          A glittering ship, that hath the plain

          Of ocean for her own domain.

          Lie silent in your graves, ye dead!

White Doe of Rylstone 


John William Inchbold

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