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)

              ane bow that ay is bent
Worthis vnsmart and dullis on the string.

But Montgomerie was, after all, a court poet only to an adolescent king.

Some of these poems certainly have their own interest. Many a man, for instance, will envy Montgomerie’s sonnet to his lawyer:

A Baxters bird, a bluiter beggar borne,
Ane ill heud huirsone, lyk a barkit hyde,
A saulles suinger, seuintie tymes mensuorne,
A peltrie pultron poysond vp with pryde ...

And a number of the poems have good bits, so that it is possible, by judicious quotation, to make Montgomerie appear better than he is. But there is nothing that is of high quality throughout. ‘Lyk as the dum Solsequium’ has a remarkably fine first line (a solsequium, I find, is only a marigold, but clearly it is the right word here: ‘Like as the dumb chrysanthemum’ and ‘Like as the quiet violet’ do not make the skin bristle). And the whole first stanza is good, but then, at the end of the poem:

O happie day!
Go not auay.
Apollo! stay ...

It is tempting to blame history: perhaps the hard perfection of Dunbar’s poems, that most impersonal of poets, was no longer possible at a time when poets had to demonstrate their personality. It is often said, of course, that many of Montgomerie’s poems were designed as songs (musical settings for some do survive), and that this should be taken into account, but it is in fact not very helpful, unless one wishes to say, rather wanly, with Jack: ‘whether the work is viewed as being sung, spoken aloud, or studied on the printed page, I can only see the chosen form as enhancing the message.’

The ‘Flyting’, or at least Montgomerie’s half of it (not that Polwart’s part is notably inferior), is perhaps his most successful poem, though this somewhat recherché genre may be caviar to the general. (Indeed, if one defines the genre strictly, as Priscilla Bawcutt has suggested – ‘a literary game, in which the competitors vie in verbal and metrical ingenuity ... a kind of sportive warfare’ – the only other example of it may be the ‘Flyting’ of Dunbar and Kennedy.) It is a very difficult poem: the correct text is often uncertain, and the vocabulary is of the sort that is marked ambiguously ‘obsc.’ in glossaries – or, as one of Montgomerie’s editors puts it, apropos of another piece of invective, ‘it is with a feeling akin to disgust that we read this scurrilous pasquin ... Fortunately the piece is not only obscure, but also seems to be in great part unintelligible.’ Nevertheless, Montgomerie’s qualities, his facility and ingenuity, his love of involved metrical patterns, internal rhyme and excessive alliteration, here become only strengths, and it seems likely, too, that he had his full share of the national gift for invective.

Finally, there is ‘The Cherrie and the Slae’, a box of puzzles. In this extremely remote descendant of the Roman de la Rose, the narrator, for a change, borrows Cupid’s bow and accidentally shoots himself (a graceful tribute to James II, who was killed by his own cannon?). He becomes enamoured of a cherry tree at the top of a crag (as opposed to the more accessible but bitter sloe). Most of the poem is then taken up by a long debate between Dread, Danger, Reason, Will, and a number of other such. This debate seems to me interminable, though Jack does his best for it: ‘Montgomerie, therefore, on the highest level is hoping to impress through the subtlety of his psychological argument but he does present the dispute in an interesting manner,’ and (a claim which I do not remember to have seen made before) ‘the reader’s attention is held throughout.’ An indication of the complexities or confusions (as you like) of the poem is that the final scene – the cherry drops into the narrator’s hands, and he eats it – which would most obviously be taken as having the same sexual significance as the plucking of the rose at the end of the Roman de la Rose has also been interpreted in various other ways. The cherry is the crown of England, which is about to drop into James’s hands (Helena Shire, in 1960), or it is Catholicism, as opposed to the Calvinist sloe (Helena Shire, in 1969). Jack, while not entirely disagreeing with either of these last interpretations, suggests (if I follow him) both that the poem ‘is a universal allegory ... striving to be a lesson for all men’ (so that the cherry is whatever the reader wants it to be), and that the falling cherry is Grace descending. He had, I expect, George Barker’s True Confession in mind:

Let Grace, like lace, descend upon me
And dignify my wingless shoulder ...
Come to me, Grace, and I will take
You close into my wicked hands,
And when you come, make no mistake,
I’ll disgrace you at both ends.

‘The Cherrie and the Slae’ was amazingly popular: Aldis lists 18 Scots editions published between 1597 and 1700, and the poem continued to be printed in Scotland into the 19th century – it seems to have been, like Blind Harry’s Wallace, something which no self-respecting Scots household was complete without. This popularity has caused modern scholars some perplexity. It is not that early readers of the poem knew something about it that we don’t, to judge from the parody of 1701 that Jack quotes, in which Montgomerie is accused

Of penning Poems at thy will
And mask[ing] the matter with such skil
As few perceave the drift ...

The blend of morality, proverbs, and light eroticism was, one assumes, appealing. And some of the first part of the poem is genuinely attractive. I like the lines in which the lover says he is

With sichis sa sowpit and ouirset,
Like to an fische fast in the net,
In deid-thraw undeceist:
Quha thocht in vaine dois strive for strenth,
For to pull out heir heid:
Quhilk profitis na thing at the lenth,
Bot haistes hir to hir deid.
With wristing, and thristing,
The faster still is scho:
Thair I so, did lye so,
My death advancing to.

Chaucer may have made the same comparison more succinctly (‘This strem yow ledeth to the sorweful were/There as the fish in prysoun is al drye’), but Montgomerie’s passage deserves inclusion in any anthology of dying-fish literature. The intricate and attractive stanza (known to the cognoscenti as the ‘Bankis of Helicon’ stanza) probably added to the poem’s popularity, too. Modern readers are divided about Montgomerie’s employment of this stanza: one opinion is that it was a good thing (the poem ‘is saved ... by its beautiful stanza’ – C.S. Lewis, in 1936); the other opinion is that it was not (‘Montgomerie’s very unhappy innovation consists in a more lyrical stanza ... this tumble-home is unendurable in a prolonged narrative’ – C.S. Lewis, in 1954). Both opinions, I expect, are right: this stanza, like the limerick, is not an obvious choice for a narrative poem, but it does here add a badly needed bounce and crispness.

Jack’s small book is a useful guide to the scholarship on Montgomerie, but it is hardly to be expected that the book will succeed in its announced purpose: ‘to rescue him from ... undeserved obscurity’. Jack’s overpraise, as it seems to me, is perhaps an inevitable part of his commission: one can hardly write a book on a poet while arguing that he is not worth writing a book on. But both Montgomerie and the other third- and fourth-rate poets attached to James’s Scottish court seem now to be placed, at least by some Scots, on much too high a pedestal. A symptom of this is the widespread habit of referring to these poets as ‘the Castalian band’. The term has authority: James, in his epitaph on Montgomerie, refers to the living Scots poets as ‘Ye sacred brethren of Castalian band’ (from Martial’s Castaliumque gregem?). But while it is all very well for a king, or, for that matter, a mayor of Peoria, to equate, in hyperbole or in jest, the local poets with the Muses, critics thenceforth are only going to excite derision if they seriously refer to these poets as the ‘Castalian band’, or the ‘Peorian Muses’.

There seem to be two reasons for this general re-evaluation of late 16th-century Scots poetry. One of them – which Jack is not so much influenced by – is a desire to romanticise the last years of Scots independence by portraying James’s court as filled with silver and old lace, candlelight and bare-shouldered ladies and golden-throated poets – until 1603, when, in Helena Shire’s words, ‘that warm hearth was extinguished for ever.’ The other is perhaps connected with the rise of Scottish literature as a separate academic subject. When the inevitable comparison between English and Scots literature is made, the discrepancy becomes most glaring at the Renaissance – but it is still not too late to change this. So James’s Reulis and Cautelis is remade into ‘a critical statement emphasising Scotland’s readiness to make its unique contribution to the Renaissance’, in Jack’s words, and Montgomerie becomes the poet ‘best fitted to lead the recently formed group into the planned Renaissance’. But this strains the strongest credulity – even apart from the fact that the term ‘Renaissance’ is not recorded in English before 1840.

Many of the last letters of James VI and I, commonly known as the Maecenas of the Castalian Band, express his infatuation with Buckingham: ‘And yet I cannot content myself without sending you this present, praying God that I may have a joyful and comfortable meeting with you and that we may make at this Christmas a new marriage ever to be kept hereafter; for, God so love me, as I desire only to live in this world for your sake, and that I had rather live banished in any part of the earth with you than live a sorrowful widow’s life without you. And so God bless you, my sweet child and wife, and grant that ye may ever be a comfort to your dear dad and husband.’ With our comfortable hindsight, we can see that James’s life was made up of illusions. There were his endless illusions about people: it is typical that when he was trying to save his mother’s life he employed two agents who had sold out to the English, and that when he was trying to ensure his succession to the English throne he chose Essex as his ally. There was his constant illusion that an alliance with Spain would be possible and profitable: this culminates in the ludicrous episode where Prince Charles and Buckingham set off for Spain incognito (for about five minutes), as Jack and Tom Smith, to bring back the King of Spain’s daughter as Charles’s bride. Finally, there was his most expensive and perhaps most dangerous illusion, his belief that the more gold and titles he heaped on his favourites, the more they would love him, and the happier everyone would be.

But of course all this, while true enough, is unfair. Hindsight makes things much too easy, and though James’s mistakes are obvious, his successful actions often pass unnoticed. One does notice, and wince, every time James addresses Sir Robert Cecil as ‘my little beagle’, or ‘my little wiffe-waffe’ – Cecil was five feet two or three, apparently malformed, and sensitive about all this. One does not notice that James had enough sense to keep Cecil as first minister until his death. And the handicaps that James had to overcome were extraordinary. The misfortune of being the child of Queen Mary and Darnley was perhaps partly cancelled out by the other misfortune of being, in effect, orphaned at the age of one (he never saw his mother again). It is hard to blame James for having always been a very fearful man when one remembers that he inherited, again at the age of one, the throne of a factious and impoverished country with a murderous nobility: Akrigg points out that only one of four successive regents during James’s minority died a natural death. James was passed around between the noble houses like a trophy during his childhood, and seems to have received very little affection from anyone. George Buchanan, his tutor from the time he was four, must have given him an excellent education, but it can hardly have been an ideal humanist education, to judge from the nightmares that James had about Buchanan even after he became king of England. James perhaps did about as well as anyone could, with such a start.

He wrote a quantity of verse in his youth, and a few poems in his later years, though nothing at all survives from the 12 years after he became king of England, perhaps his best years. It is remarkable that there is so little reference in his letters to vernacular literature. This is not because of James’s reticence about his amusements, since he goes on about his hunting with tedious regularity; nor does it come from the editor’s principles of selection, since the four hundred other letters that Akrigg summarises in an appendix seem equally unliterary. Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones go unmentioned, and James’s only reference to vernacular verse is apparently his letter to Elizabeth, where he sends her, with all the hurt feelings of a snubbed author, a second copy of a sonnet, with the remarks: ‘Madame, I did send you before some verse ... and the bearer thereof returned and yet void of answer.’ It is not, to be sure, a very good sonnet, but it is one good enough for a king: I suspect that Elizabeth may not have liked James’s comparison of their disagreements to the brief quarrels of lovers. The influence of verse on James’s prose can perhaps be discerned, though: his continual protestations to Elizabeth (‘I swear on my part ever to prefer you to all kin and friendship I have in any country’) are much the same as the monotonous protestations of lovers in Montgomerie’s verse. And doubless both sorts of protestations were received in much the same way: Elizabeth is said to have called James ‘that false Scotch urchin’.

It should be added that this is an admirable edition, and clearly the result of an immense amount of work. It would be very hard to improve on the headnotes and footnotes to the letters, or on the introduction. James, when king of Scotland, wrote of course with a Scots orthography and a more or less – depending on whom he was writing to – Scots vocabulary; as king of England, his writing became very slowly Anglicised. Akrigg describes how he produced several hundred pages of an Old Spelling edition, but then reluctantly decided that a modernised edition would, on balance, be better. I expect, unhappily, that he was right, and he has solved some of the problems inherent in a modernised edition by a system of cross-references to a glossary.

The publication of the Concise Scots Dictionary is an event of considerable importance, despite the work’s modest title. The last one-volume dictionary of Scots of any pretensions was Warrack’s, in 1911, and Warrack, I have been told, used only the material he had sent to the English Dialect Dictionary and the other Scots material in that dictionary. Since then The Scottish National Dictionary (SND), covering Scots since 1700, has been completed in ten volumes, and The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST), covering the earlier period, has, like the lexicographer in the limerick, got up to P (it will eventually be of about the same size). The Concise Dictionary is based on these dictionaries, with the OED and other sources being used in place of the not yet published parts of DOST. But new material has been drawn in throughout from a wide variety of sources, as the list of acknowledgements suggests (it is reassuring that the Professor of Greek at Edinburgh is their authority on football and golf).

The difficulties of making a dictionary of this sort are enough to drive anyone mad. There is the problem of accounting for some six centuries, during which various sound-changes have taken place; there are the more serious problems of accounting for a number of dialects, some of which have very different sets of consonants and vowels, and of dealing with the chaotic sea of spellings that has arisen because people for six centuries have spelled words in whatever way they liked. Some idea of the difficulties can be obtained by observing that DOST and SND between them list 64 different spellings (many but not all of which represent different pronunciations) for the infinitive, past tense and past participle of hald or haud (‘hold’), or by noting that in the Concise Dictionary a reader is advised in the table of variants that if, for instance, he cannot find a word with the vowel uy under that spelling, he should try substituting, in order of decreasing likeliness, the spellings ui, ue, u-e, u, oo, oi, oy, oe, o-e, ou, ow, ee, ei, ey, wee, uee, i, ai, a-e.

The editors have solved these problems, as far as they can be solved, by various devices, but anyone who wants to use this dictionary seriously will have to undertake the previously unheard-of task of reading carefully a dictionary’s introduction, numerous columns of small print and all. The editors have quite properly aimed throughout at concision and comprehensiveness at all costs, including, when necessary, the reader’s convenience. For each meaning of each word there is normally given the chronological and the geographical range of the meaning’s currency; etymologies are provided; the headwords have been devised so that cross-references to the parent dictionaries are easy; and, a feature lacking in both DOST and SND, pronunciations are given, where they are not obvious, in a system of broad phonetic transcriptions devised by A.J. Aitken. Aitken, as well as contributing an excellent succinct history of Scots to the introduction, has also provided an ingenious table that will allow anyone to reconstruct, from the phonetic transcription of a word in the dictionary, what the pronunciation of that word was in Early or Middle Scots.

The two parent dictionaries, like the OED, are obviously works that are not going to be replaced by any single volume. But this dictionary is very useful even to the scholar in that it gives so clearly, in one place, the whole history of a word, before and after 1700. It is plainly of most use to anyone, Scots or non-Scots, who does not have access to the parent dictionaries, or cannot be bothered with them, or does not feel like carrying them around with him. There are, inevitably, difficulties. The editors have the sensible and indeed necessary policy of normally excluding words for which three quotations cannot be found. Some modern authors, however, have the habit of pillaging Scots dictionaries for words and then using them without much heed to their rarity or, in many cases, their non-existence. So the dictionary will occasionally frustrate the readers of, say, MacDiarmid.

When I suggested in a review, some twenty years ago, the need for an abridged version of SND (the editor of that dictionary, David Murison, wrote to me that by coincidence this had been discussed at the last meeting of the dictionary council, and referred for further consideration), I never expected that my wishes would be met so sumptuously. Since it has been the Year of the Woman for the past two or three years, it is fitting to note that this noble work is, as far as I know, the first dictionary to have been produced by an almost entirely female cast. Leaving aside Aitken, as editorial consultant, ten of the 11 members of the dictionary staff are women – though I dare say that Alexander Watson, even if he is listed only as ‘proof-reader’, actually did most of the work.