Home  »  Volume II: English THE END OF THE MIDDLE AGES  »  § 1. Early Anthologists

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XI. The Middle Scots Anthologies: Anonymous Verse and Early Prose

§ 1. Early Anthologists

STRONG as was the Chaucerian influence on the Scottish poets during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it by no means suppressed or transformed what may be called the native habit of Scottish verse. That influence came, as has been shown, from the courtly side; it was a fashion first set by the author of The Kingis Quair—in its treatment of the language and in its literary mannerisms, a deliberate co-operation with the general European effort to dignify the vernaculars. It did much, but it came late; and, being perhaps too artificial, it yielded, in due course, to another southern influence, more powerful and permanent. Were the Chaucerian makars of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and their successors in the seventeenth cemtury to be taken as the sole representatives of northern liteature, it would be hard to account for the ramarkable outburst of national verse amid the conventionalities of the eighteenth. Chaucer and the Elizabethans do not explain Ramsay and Fergusson and Burns: and these writers are not a sudden dialectal sport in the literary development. It is the object of this chapter to show that the native sentiment which has its fullest expression in these “modern” poets was always active, and that the evidence of its existence and of its methods is clear, even during that period when the higher literary genius of the country was most strongly affected by foreign models. The vitality of this popular habit has been shown in the most courtly and “auerate” verse of the so-called “golden age.” Even in those passages in which the poets may be suspected of burlesquing this habit—whether by direct satire or in half conscious repetitin of Chaucer’s dislike of “rum ram ruf”—the acknowledgment is significant. The thesis of this chapter is, therefore, to supplement what has been said parenthetically of this non-Chaucerian “matter.” It deals with those pieces which lie outside the work of the “Chaucerians,” for the most part with those anonymous poems which have been preserved in the greater anthologies of the sixteenth century. The interest of this body of literature os complex—in sentiment, in choice of subject, and, not least, in verse technique.

No literature has been better served than Scottish had been by the industry of early anthologists. The all-important Cancioneros have not done more for Spanish; and they lack the exclusive and exhaustive value of the Scottish collections. For the latter preserve not only all that is known of the work of some of the greatest poets, but, also, a large body of minor verse, without which we should have formed but a poor estimate of contemporaruy taste, and without which we should have lost the perspective of later literature. These anthologies are representative in the truest sense. They were written out bye men who were, first and foremost, collectors and antiquaries, who show no critical obession, no desire to select and honour what may have appealed most to their individual taste. Their books are historical documents, which must be interpreted by historical methods.

The importance of this fugitive “popular” literature is made clear in the references by the more “academic” writers. Dunbar’s Lament for the Makaris derives part of its bibliographical value from its record of poets who owed little or nothing to “noble Chaucer, of makaris flour.” Thought Gavin Douglas, in his Palice of Honour, names but Kennedie, Dunbar, and Quintine [Schaw] as the Scottish companions of the world’s poets, yet in the “lang cathalogue of nobyll men and wemen,” he tells us—

  • I saw Raf Coil[char]3 ear with the thrawin brow,
  • Craibit Johne the Reif, and Auld Cowkewyis sow;
  • And how the wran came out of Ailssay;
  • And Peirs Plowman that maid his workmen fow;
  • Greit Gowmakmorne and Fyn Makcoul, and how
  • Thay suld be goddis in Ireland as they say;
  • Thair saw I Maitland vpon auld Beird Gray,
  • Robene Hude, and Gilbert with the quhite hand,
  • How Hay of Nauchtoun flew in Madin land.
  • The list of tales, “sum in prose and sum in verse,” and popular songs in the oft-quoted passage in the Complaynt of Scotlande, is—though a mere list, and, as it were, the table of contents to a more elaborate Asloan or Bannatyne MS—evidence of the highest value. Nor is the ascription of this wide taste in literature to a band of merrymaking shepherds—however “academic” these pastoralists may be—without significance. Furrther interest is derived from the fact that the timbre, colour, idiosyncrasy (whatever we may call it), which constitutes the internal interest of this material, is represented in the works of the “Chaucerian” poets. The evidence of this to which we have already referred, is not less instructive whether the poetic intention be to burlesque courtly fashions or to escape for a time from the cermonies of the aureate muse.

    To the reader of this miscellaneous verse there are but few rewards of “literary” pleasure. It is easy to agree with Pinkerton’s caustic note on the last lines of Rowllis Cursing

  • This tradgedy is call it, but dreid,
  • Rowlis cursing, quha will it reid—
  • “he might have put a point of interrogation at the close.” We are here less concerned with aesthetic and individual merits than with the historical importance of the whole body. At the same time, it may be maintained that, but for the accident of anonymity, some of the pieces might well take their place in the works of Dunbar or Scott and do them no dishonour. We excuse Henryson’s Practysis of Medecyne less as lapse of genius than as an illustration of the dues which the best of Chaucerians had to pay at times to rough popular taste.