This is one of the most quoted excerpts from Scottish poetry and is found in Marmion, an epic poem by Walter Scott about the Battle of Flodden (1513). It was published in 1808.
In 1807 Scott practised manoeuvres with the Light Horse Volunteers (formed to defend an invasion from France) in order to polish his description of Flodden. A dedicated author indeed!
The poem tells how Lord Marmion, a favourite of Henry VIII of England, lusts for Clara de Clare, a rich woman. The plot is more complex than this description but basically, Marmion forges a letter implicating Clara’s fiancé, Sir Ralph De Wilton, in treason. De Wilton goes into exile and Clara retires to a convent. Eventually De Wilton returns, gets proof that the letter was a forgery and is pardoned. De Wilton’s plans for revenge are overturned by the Battle of Flodden. Marmion dies on the battlefield, while De Wilton displays heroism, regains his honour, retrieves his lands, and marries Clara.
And everybody, except Marmion, of course, lives happily ever after! The poem was criticized when published, but remained very popular for many years. After all, it has a happy ending: the good guy wins and gets the girl, and the bad guy dies.
The quote is often used to talk about the complex destructive effect that lying tends to have on life. When people start lying, they have to remember all the details of the lie rather than their true memory in order to keep the lie going when others ask about it. Lying often has unforeseen consequences. In the context of the poem, the lie Marmion tells leads to the exile rather than the death of his lady’s betrothed in addition to a fight that would not have happened if Marmion had just told the truth.
On the other hand, William Blake (1757-1827) says, “A truth that’s told with bad intent, Beats all the lies you can invent.”
There’s never just one side to anything, is there?