Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. P. Ker
The Complaint of Scotland, 1549
THE Complaint of Scotland, the earliest book in Scottish prose, a discourse written immediately after the battle of Pinkie to strengthen the Scottish hatred of their “old enemies of England” and confirm the national sentiment of independence, is worth reading on various accounts. It has a style, and, though not a great work, is both representative of its period and also possessed of some individuality. A good deal both of the matter and form is commonplace. The “machinery” of the vision in which Dame Scotia and her three sons (the three Estates) appear to the author, as he sleeps after his wanderings on a summer morning, is borrowed, a little the worse for wear, from the stock of the Chaucerian poets; and the examples and illustrations are of the usual medieval sort from the usual ancient authors. Further, there is the ordinary medieval incontinence of general information; the author cannot keep the sciences out of his argument. Part of the diversion of the summer morning is a shepherd’s oration, in considerable detail, on the constitution of the universe, the spheres, the primum mobile, the retrograde movement of the planets from Occident to Orient, the antipodes, the tropics, and other branches of learning. It is true that this is styled (by the shepherd’s wife) a “tedious, melancholic orison,” but the author enjoys it thoroughly. On the other hand the book, for all these drawbacks, by some means is enabled to escape the dulness of the medieval expositor in his prime. The Complaint of Scotland belongs to the revival of learning. It is full of the new delight in eloquent and ornate language, which filled all the literatures of Europe with Latin and Greek; the author’s hypocritical apology for his use of “agrest termis” in itself sufficiently bewrays him. In this he is the follower of the Scottish Chaucerian poets, and with some reason; the old Scottish revelry in words, whether native and indecorous, or foreign and dignified, was nothing to be ashamed of. The taste descends from the contemporaries of Dunbar and Douglas to their successors. Sir Thomas Urquhart’s translation of Rabelais may be taken as one of the last achievements of this exuberant spirit, and there are many things in the Complaint that suggest both Urquhart and his original. This is more particularly the case in the interlude (“Ane Monolog of the Actor”) that comes between the prefatory matter and the vision and complaint of Dame Scotia. There the author has indulged his genius to the fullest. He leaves the wrongs and distresses of his country; he leaves the English, those “boreaus” (headsmen, bourreaux) and hangmen, for the utter extinction, “furth of remembrance,” of which “false seed and incredule generation” he has fervently prayed. He loses himself in an ornate description of a summer day—a summer evening and morning—after the fashion of the poets, borrowing their alliteration and a good deal of their rhythm. He gives all the cries of all the birds, and, as though he had known of Ronsard’s advice to poets to get up the terms of every trade, he espies a ship at anchor, equipped for war—“Ane galliasse gayly grathit for the veyr”—and squanders a page or two of sea terms to reproduce the shouts of master, boatswain, and mariners as they weigh the anchor and set sail, and follows this up with terms of artillery. This irrelevance is something different from the “prolixt” astronomy that follows: it is a humorous eccentricity, and proceeds, not from the medieval love of edification, but from a Rabelaisian passion for stringing things together, which is a passion for copious phrasing and vivid details. The comic and imaginative value of details is fortunately recognised in the Complaint of Scotland, and the pastoral interlude is diversified by one or two catalogues that form the most interesting part of the book—catalogues of the songs sung and the stories told by the shepherds, a medley of northern and classical stories, in which the Red Etin, the Three-footed Dog of Norroway, and the Well of the World’s End are accompanied by the fables of the Metamorphoses; “quhou that dedalus maid the laborynth to keip the monster minotaurus,” and “quhou Kyng midas gat tua asse luggis on his hede, be cause of his auereis.”  1
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