Scott attaches two lines of poetry to the beginning of Ivanhoe. The only thing he tells us about these lines is that they are written by "Prior." While there are lots of priors in Ivanhoe (a prior is a man who runs a monastery, and Ivanhoe is chock full of monks) this particular Prior is an 18th century poet named Matthew Prior. These lines are from a poem called "The Thief and the Cordelier."
A cordelier is a monk who wears a rope belt around his waist. As the title promises, the poem is mostly a conversation between a thief and this random cordelier. The thief is about to be hanged, so he talks to the cordelier about how his future is looking pretty dark. The cordelier points out that the thief brought his execution upon himself. He has broken a ton of laws, so he shouldn't complain too much about the consequences. In other words, the thief made his bed, so now he can lie in it.
The two lines Scott quotes are:
Now fitted the halter, now traversed the cart,
And often took leave, – but seemed loath to depart!
In the original poem, the squire (who is a big cheese at the local level in traditional Britain) is the one who has condemned the thief to death. In these two quoted lines of poetry, Prior compares the squire's emotions to the feelings of a reluctant traveler. Now that the traveler has attached his horses to a cart and is all prepared to go, he suddenly doesn't want to leave. Similarly, the squire has already decided that the thief has to die, but now that the gallows are all set up and the hangman is ready, he's not particularly eager to watch the thief get executed.
Okay, these lines are about reluctance. Is Scott saying he is not looking forward to starting Ivanhoe? Is he worried that we, the readers, are not excited about beginning his book? Or is he joking with us? Is he teasing us about our supposed unwillingness to start reading, now that we have his big, fat book in our hands?
We think it's probably a big joke. After all, a lot of Scott's writing is pretty funny (in his own old-fashioned way). He is a highly ironic and self-conscious writer, and "The Thief and the Cordelier" is a humorous song. We think Scott is using these lines to say, "Now that you're looking at the front page of my book, are you stalling about turning the page?"
"The Thief and the Cordelier" also relates to Ivanhoe in a bunch of other ways. First there are lots of thieves and monks in Ivanhoe, so the characters in the poem overlap with those in the novel. Second, the poem is a ballad – a song that tells a story – and there are many of those in Ivanhoe. (The character of Friar Tuck, for one, can barely stop singing.)
Even more important, the ballad is a form of poetry that was really popular during the 19th century, when Scott wrote Ivanhoe. There was a lot of nostalgia in the 19th century for Ye Olde Englande, and people associated the ballad form with their medieval past. Scott's choice of a ballad to start out his novel gives the whole book an old-timey feel, as though it's really coming from Way Back Then. This style of deliberately old-fashioned writing would have pleased his contemporary readers.
What About Those Quotes at the Beginning of Each Chapter?
We should note that Scott's love (maybe more like obsession) of epigraphs does not end with the front page of Ivanhoe. He also includes a quote at the beginning of every chapter. For a brief discussion of these individual epigraphs, check out our "Detailed Summary" for each chapter.
It's also worth pointing out that some of Scott's "quotes" are really his own invented poems or lines of dialogue. Actually, quite a lot of them are – see Chapters 18, 20, 26, 28, 30, 32, 35-37, and 42. As with "Laurence Templeton's" pretend authorship of Ivanhoe, Scott loves blurring the lines between reality and fiction. Mixing up fact and made-up material is a trademark of historical fiction like Ivanhoe.
There may be another, even more practical and specific explanation for Scott's made-up "quotes" at the beginning of some chapters. In an endnote to the Barnes and Noble Classics edition of Ivanhoe, commentator Gillen D'Arcy Wood explains that Scott really needed money while writing Ivanhoe. He was in a hurry to finish up the novel, and he figured it would be faster to dash off a few lines of his own poetry than to hunt down real-life quotes. No wonder most of Scott's invented epigraphs are in the second half of the book, when Scott must have been feeling more time pressure!