Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by Andrew Lang
Gawain Douglas (c. 14741522)
[Gawain Douglas (born 147475) was a younger son of the famous Earl of Angus, called Bell the Cat. Though even elementary education was rare in his noble family,
(Thanks to St. Bothan, son of mine,
Save Gawain, neer could pen a line,)
Gawain devoted himself to study, matriculated at the University of St. Andrews in 1489, and took his degree in 1494. He published his Palice of Honour in 1501, and finished his translation of the Aeneid in 1513. He seems now to have abandoned poetry, and after many stormy intrigues, was consecrated Bishop of Dunkeld in 1515. He was carried down the drumly stream of Scotch politics, and died in exile in London in 1522. The date of his unpublished poem King Hart is uncertain; it was probably composed between 1501 and 1512. An admirable edition of Douglas works has lately been made, in four volumes, by Mr. John Small of Edinburgh.]
GAWAIN DOUGLAS attempted the poets art amidst the clash of arms; he was learned in an age and among a people that despised literature. The revival of letters, when it reached Scotland, was crushed out by the nobles, who hated dominies and Italians. Classical literature and Erasmus had a pupil in the young Archbishop of St. Andrews, a Stuart who fell under the English arrows, when groom fought like noble, squire like knight around the king at Flodden. Gawain Douglas, noble by birth and ambitious of nature, ceased to court poetry, after poetry had done her best for him,had helped the recommendations of the English Court to win him a bishopric from Leo X. The lilies and laurels of Italy, the sweet Virgilian measures, were soon blighted and silenced by the wind and hail of Scotland, by clerical austerity, and the storms of war that in those days beat round even episcopal palaces. Among all the poets beheld by Douglas in vision (in the Palice of Honour), but two or three were countrymen of his own.
The chief original poem of Douglas, The Palice of Honour, is an allegory of the sort which had long been in fashion. Moral ideas in allegorical disguises, descriptions of spring, and scraps of mediaeval learning were the staple of such compositions. Like the other poets, French and English, of the last two centuries, Douglas woke on a morning of May, wandered in a garden, and beheld various masques or revels of the goddesses, heroes, poets, virtues, vices (such as Busteousness), and classical and Biblical worthies. In his vision he characteristically confused all that he happened to know of the past, made Sinon and Achitophel comrades in guilt and misfortune, while Penthesilea and Jepthas daughter ranged together in Dianas company, and irrepreuabill Susane rode about in the troop of Cleopatra and worthie Mark Anthone. The diverting and pathetic combinations of this sort still render Douglass poems rich in surprises, and he occasionally does poetical justice on the wicked men of antiquity, as when he makes Cicero knock down Catiline with a folio. To modern readers his allegory seems to possess but few original qualities. His poem, indeed, is rich with descriptions of flowers and stately palaces, his style, like Venuss throne, is with stones rich over fret and cloth of gold, his pictures have the quaint gorgeousness and untarnished hues that we admire in the paintings of Crivelli. But these qualities he shares with so many other poets of the century which preceded his own, that we find him most original when he is describing some scene he knew too well, some hour of storm and surly weather, the bleakness of a Scotch winter, or a desert terribill, like that through which Childe Roland to the dark tower came. (See extracts 1 and 2.)
A poem of Douglass which was not printed during his lifetime, King Hart, is also allegorical. King Hart, or the heart of man, dwells in a kind of city of Mansoul; he is attended by five servantsthe five senses,besieged and defeated by Dame Pleasance, visited by Age, deserted by Youthhead, Disport, and Fresh Delight. There is nothing particularly original in an allegory of which the form was common before, and not unfrequently employed after the age of Douglas. (Compare the Bewitching Mistress Heart in The Legal Proceedings against Sin in Man-shire, 1640.)
The little piece of verse called Conscience is not bad in its quibbling way. When the Church was young and flourishing, Conscience ruled her. Men wearied of Conscience, and cut off the Con, leaving Science. Then came an age of ecclesiastical learning, which lasted till the world thought that Science was too long a jape, and got rid of Sci. Nothing was left now but ens, worldly substance, riches and gear that gart all grace go hence. The Church in Scotland did not retain even ens long after the age of Douglas. Grace, on the other hand, waxed abundant.
The work by which Douglas lives, and deserves to live, is his translation of the Aeneid. It is a singular fruit of a barren and unlearned time, and, as a romantic rendering of the Aeneid, may still be read with pleasure. The two poets whom Douglas most admired of all the motley crowd who pass through The Palice of Honour were Virgil and Chaucer. Each of these masters he calls an a per se. He imitated the latter in the manner of his allegorical verse, and he translated the former with complete success. We must not ask the impossible from Douglas,we must not expect exquisite philological accuracy; but he had the root of the matter, an intense delight in Virgils music and in Virgils narrative, a perfect sympathy with sweet Dido, and that keen sense of the human life of Greek, Trojan, and Latin, which enabled him in turn to make them live in Scottish rhyme. If he talks of the nuns of Bacchus, and if his Sibyl admonishes Aeneas to tell his beads, Douglas is merely using what he thinks the legitimate freedom of the translator. He justifies his method, too, by quotations from Horace and St. Gregory. He is giving a modern face to the ancient manners, a face which his readers would recognise. In his prologues, his sympathy carries him beyond orthodox limits, and he defends the behaviour of Aeneas to Dido against the attacks of Chaucer. He is so earnest a humanist that he places himself in the mental attitude of Virgil, and avers that Aeneas only deserted Dido at the bidding of the gods:
Certes, Virgill schawis Enee did na thing,
Frome Dido of Cartaige at his departing,
Bot quhilk the goddes commandit him to forne;
And gif that thair command maid him mansworne,
That war repreif to thair divinitee
And na reproche unto the said Enee.
But though Douglas is a humanist in verse, all the Bishop asserts himself in prose. In his prose note he observes that Enee falit then gretly to the sueit Dido, quhilk falt reprefit nocht the goddessis divinite, for they had na divinite, as said is before. Though he adores the Olympians in verse, Douglas adopts the Euhemeristic theory in prose: Juno was bot ane woman, dochter to Saturn, sistir and spows to Jupiter king of Crete. In spite of these edifying notes, Douglass conscience pricked him, for he to Gentiles bukis gaif sik keip. Even if he knew Greek, he probably would not have translated Homer, as a friend asked him to do. The prologue to the Thirteenth Book of the Aeneid (i.e., of the book ekit to Virgil by Mapheus Vegius) proves that there were moments when he thought even Virgil a perilous and unprofitable heathen.
The language of Douglas, as he observes (Prologue to the First Book), is braid and plane, that is to say, it is good broad Scotch, and still plain enough to a Scotch reader. He does not, however, clere all sudroun refuse, when no Scotch word served his turn, and he frankly admits that