Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by Thomas Humphry Ward
King James I of Scotland (13941437)
[Born 1394. Captured by the English in time of peace 1405, and kept a prisoner in the Tower, in Nottingham Castle, at Croydon, and at Windsor, till 1424, when he was released. In that year he married Lady Jane Beaufort, daughter of the Earl of Somerset, and granddaughter of John of Gaunt. She was the heroine of his principal poem, The Kings Quair. In 1437, after reigning thirteen years in Scotland, the king was assassinated at Perth. Besides The Kings Quair, he is commonly supposed to have written one or two other poems, notably the humorous ballad Christs Kirk on the Green.]
JAMES the First of Scotland is one of the earliest and one of the best of the imitators of Chaucer, and is the first of that line of Scottish poets who kept the lamp of poetry burning during the darkness of the fifteenth century. His chief poem, The Kings Quair, or the Kings Book, seems to have been written in 1423 or 1424, about the time of his marriage; when he was thirty years old and when Chaucer had been in his grave nearly a quarter of a century. The Kings Quair, written in the seven-lined stanza, is about 200 stanzas long, and it tells in a style that is a curious mixture of autobiographical fact and allegorical romance the story of the captive kings courtship of the lady who became his wife, Lady Jane Beaufort. The royal prisoner, after a sleepless night spent in reading Boethius, rises at the sound of the matins bell and begins to complain of his fortune. Suddenly in the garden beneath he sees a lady, so beautiful that he who has never known love till now is instantly subdued, the nightingale and all the other birds singing in harmony with his passion. The lady disappears, and half-sleeping, half-swooning, he dreams of a strange sequel. He seems to be carried up fro spere to spere to the Empire of Venus; he wins her favour, but since his desperate case requires the help of other mo than one goddesse, he is sent on with Good Hope for guide to the Palace of Minerva. The goddess of Wisdom receives him with a speech on Free Will; and finally, after an interview with the great goddess Fortune herself, he wakes to find a real messenger from Venus, a turture, quhite as calk, bringing him a flowering branch, joyful evidence that his suit is to succeed:
Awake! awake! I bring, lover, I bring
The newis glad that blissful ben and sure
Of thy confort; now laugh, and play, and sing,
That art beside so glad an aventure;
For in the hevyn decretit is the cure.
And unto me the flouris did present;
With wyngis spred hir wayis furth sche went.
With this and with the poets song of thankfulness The Kings Quair ends.
No subject could be better fitted than the love-story of the captive king for a poem in the accepted trouvère style. The paganism of romance was fond of representing man as passive material in the hands of two supernatural powers, Fortune and Love; and poetry for two centuries was for ever returning to the theme. James the First was neither original enough to depart from the poetical conventions of his time, nor artist enough to work out his subject without confusion and repetition; and yet the personal interest of his story and its adaptability to the chosen form of treatment would be enough to save The Kings Quair from oblivion, even without the unquestionable beauty of much of the verse. The dress is the common tinsel of the time, but the body beneath is real and human.
We have said that King James was an early and close imitator of Chaucer.1 His nineteen years of captivity allowed him to steep himself in Chaucers poetry, and any Chaucerian student who reads The Kings Quair is constantly arrested by a line or a stanza or a whole episode that exactly recalls the master. It is unnecessary to point out, for instance, the close resemblance of the passage which we here quote, the Kings first sight of Lady Jane, to the passage in The Knightes Tale where Palamon and Arcite first see Emilye. Not only the general idea but the details are copied; for example, the King, like Palamon, doubts whether the beautiful vision be woman or goddess. The ascent to the Empire of Venus is like an abridgement of The Hous of Fame. Minervas discussion of Free Will is imitated from Chaucers rendering of the same theme, after Boethius, in Troylus and Creseyde. The catalogue of beasts near the dwelling of Fortune, is an echo of Chaucers catalogue of birds in The Parlement of Foules. Isolated instances of imitation abound; thus
Til Phebus endit had his bemës brycht,
And bad go farewel every lefe and floure,
That is to say, approchen gan the night,
is a repetition of a well-known passage in The Frankeleynes Tale:
For the orizont had left the sonne his liht,
(That is as much to sayn as it was nyht).
A passage in Troylus is recalled by
O besy goste, ay flikering to and fro;
and another by the Kings concluding address to his bookGo, litel tretis. Outside The Kings Quair, the gude and godlie ballate here given (although it would be difficult to prove that it belongs to King James) is obviously modelled on the good counseil of Chaucer which we have quoted above. These examples of the influence of Chaucer upon so rich a mind as that of the young King of Scotland are strong evidence of the greatness of the earlier poet and of the instantaneousness with which his genius made itself felt.