Scotch Urchins

Denton Fox

  • Alexander Montgomerie by R.D.S. Jack
    Scottish Academic Press, 140 pp, £4.50, June 1985, ISBN 0 7073 0367 2
  • Letters of King James VI and I edited by G.P.V. Akrigg
    California, 546 pp, £32.75, November 1984, ISBN 0 520 04707 9
  • The Concise Scots Dictionary by Mairi Robinson
    Aberdeen University Press, 819 pp, £17.50, August 1985, ISBN 0 08 028491 4

On the cover of Jack’s paperback there is a portrait of Alexander Montgomerie, a handsome young man, finely dressed, but his eyes and the set of his mouth suggest great inner depths, perhaps profound sorrows. Unfortunately, when one opens the book, one finds the statement: ‘As no likeness of Montgomerie has yet been discovered, the artist’s impression on the cover is based on contemporary portraits.’ This spurious portrait is curiously appropriate: so little is certain about Montgomerie that everyone who writes on him draws his own picture. The accounts of his life vary greatly, depending on how the large interstices between the few facts are filled, and on how much the verse is taken to be autobiographical. Helena Shire finds him to have been ‘a personable and distinguished young man, a witty and convivial companion’; Cranstoun sadly remarks that ‘fawning submissiveness, spiteful rancour, and lack of manly purpose – strange combination of weaknesses from which it were fruitless to defend him – seem to have been inherent in his nature; but withal he was possessed of many noble qualities.’ The canon of his work is very uncertain, and there is no good edition of the poems – and indeed only a very brave or foolish scholar would undertake such an edition. Nor is there any consensus on the quality of his poems; James VI, in his youth, termed him ‘maister poete’ and ‘prince of poets’, and some modern critics adopt these terms with enthusiasm – indeed, Helena Shire calls him an ‘arch-poet’. (I suppose that if one has to use a periphrasis, ‘the maister poet’ is better than ‘the sweet singer of Scotland’, or ‘the immortal bard of Edinburgh’, but I would prefer ‘Montgomerie’.) C.S. Lewis more drily remarks, ‘unless you are a student you will not read him.’

Although we do now know that he died in 1598, the date of his birth is obscure. Jack follows the tradition of putting it c. 1545, on the usual grounds that the Bannatyne Manuscript of 1568 contains six poems that are his, or have been ascribed to him. But William Ringler has pointed out that five of these poems are later additions to the manuscript, and the sixth is ascribed, apparently in a later hand, simply to ‘Montgomery’ – a sufficiently common name, and the attributions in this manuscript are in any case not always correct. So this is a weak argument, and a birth date a decade or so later would fit the other evidence better. In any case, he was a younger son of a Scots family of good blood but not much importance, and so apparently took up, however briefly, the appropriate career of a mercenary. By 1579, when James, at the age of 13, made his formal entry as king into Edinburgh, Montgomerie was there to write two poems that clearly were meant to accompany pageants. For the next few years he was a court poet and apparently, in a very minor way, a favourite of James, who gave him a pension of five hundred marks in 1583. Then James gave him leave to be abroad for five years: it seems a fair guess that James was using Montgomerie, a Catholic, as an agent or courier in connection with his never-ending secret flirtations with Spain. But his ship was captured by the English and he was put in prison. In the early 1590s he was back in Edinburgh, negotiating unsuccessfully to get his pension paid; after that, out of favour, he went to the west of Scotland, where he became mixed up in an abortive Catholic plot, was outlawed for his pains, and died the next year, 1598 – in his youth, according to a Latin epitaph:

Sed nimis immatura piam mors falce iuventam Demetit.

His remains consist of ‘The Cherrie and the Slae’ and ‘The Flyting of Montgomerie and Polwart’ (or at least Montgomerie’s half of this), and something over a hundred sonnets and short poems. Just how many over a hundred is perhaps a question that needs to be taken more seriously than it has been. Almost all of these poems are in the Ker (alias Drummond) Manuscript, and it has usually been thought that everything in the manuscript is Montgomerie’s, except where otherwise noted (a few poems are explicitly attributed to other authors). But one of the poems has been traced to Henry Constable, another has been found in Procter’s Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions, and I suspect that a search through the relevant first-line indices might bear further fruit. C.S. Lewis says of the charming ‘Hay! nou the day dauis’ that ‘the best poem he [Montgomerie] ever wrote belongs to no particular age.’ But my suspicion is that it does not, at least, belong to Montgomerie’s age, since Dunbar, at the beginning of the 16th century, refers to ‘Now the Day dawis’ as a popular song, and this song was later given pious words in The Gude and Godlie Ballatis. Again, some of the poems have been shown to be translations from Ronsard and Marot, and one suspects that others have French originals.

But despite this niggling, one can still make out – or invent – a certain picture of Montgomerie from these short poems. He seems to have been a poet influenced partly by the tradition of Scots court poetry going back to Dunbar, partly by minor 16th-century English verse, and most obviously by the gaudier sort of French verse – as one would expect from a poet in a court where the reigning favourite was Esmé Stewart, James’s French cousin. Technically, he was thoroughly competent and inventive, with a fondness for complicated and often pleasing stanzaic forms. But one is inclined to feel, after a time, that there is a surfeit of foreign kickshaws (though his pageant poems are in plain honest Scots, and none the better for that). Lois Borland, long ago, documented how Montgomerie used, singly or in combination, rime renforcée (caesura rhymes with end of line), rime batelée (end of line rhymes with caesura of next line), rime brisée (caesura rhymes with caesura), rime enchaînée (last word of one line repeated at the beginning of the next), rime en écho (‘Quhat wer we first in this our love profane? Fane.’), and rime senée (all words of each line alliterate). One feels, also, that there are too many proverbs, and too many of the same proverbs, and too many of the same Classical references. As Cupid yet once again draws his bow, one wishes that Montgomerie had added to his repertory the old proverb (in Henryson’s words)

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in