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

X. The Scottish Chaucerians

§ 1. James I

IT is a critical tradition to speak of the fifteenth century in Scotland as the time of greatest literary account, or, in familiar phrase, “the golden age of Scottish poetry.” It has become a commonplace to say of the poets of that time that they, best of all Chaucer’s followers, fulfilled with understanding and felicity the lessons of the master-craftsman; and it has long been customary to enforce this by contrasting the skill of Lydgate, Occleve and their contemporaries in the south, with that of James I, Henryson, Dunbar and Gavin Douglas. The contrast does not help us to more than a superficial estimate; it may lead us to exaggerate the individual merits of the writers and to neglect the consideration of such important matters as the homogeneity of their work, and their attitude to the older popular habit of Scottish verse.

We must keep in mind that the work of the greater Scottish poets of the fifteenth century represents a break with the literary practice of the fourteenth. The alliterative tradition dragged on, perhaps later than it did in the south, and the chronicle-poem of the type of Barbour’s Bruce or the Legends of the Saints survived in Henry the Minstrel’s patriotic tale of Wallace and in Wyntoun’s history. With James I the outlook changes, and in the poems of Henryson, Dunbar, Douglas and some of the minor “makars” the manner of the earlier northern poetry survives only in stray places. It is not that we find a revulsion from medieval sentiment. The main thesis of this chapter will be that these poets are much less modern than medieval. But there is, in the main, a change in literary method—an interest, we might say, in other aspects of the old allegorical tradition. In other words, the poetry of this century is a recovery, consciously made, of much of the outworn artifice of the Middle Ages, which had not yet reached, or hardly reached, the northern portion of the island. The movement is artificial and experimental, in no respects more remarkably so than in the deliberate moulding of the language to its special purpose. Though the consciousness of the effort, chiefly in its linguistic and rhetorical bearings, may appear, at first glance, to reveal the spirit of the renascence, it is nevertheless clear that the materials of this experiment and much of the inspiration of the change come from the Middle Ages. The origin is by no means obscured, though we recognise in this belated allegorical verse the growth of a didactic, descriptive and, occasionally, personal, habit which is readily associated with the renascence. We are easily misled in this matter—too easily, if we have made up our minds to discover signs of the new spirit at this time, when it had been acknowledged, more or less fully, in all the other vernacular literatures of Europe. Gavin Douglas, for example, has forced some false conclusions on recent criticism, by his seeming modern spirit, expressed most strikingly in the prologue to the fifth book of his translation of the Aeneid:

  • Bot my propyne coym fra the pres fuit hait,
  • Unforlatit, not jawyn fra tun to tun,
  • In fresche sapour new fro the berrie run.
  • The renascence could not have had a better motto. Yet there should be little difficulty in showing that Douglas, our first translator of Vergil, was, perhaps, of all these fifteenth century Scots, the gentlest of rebels against the old-world fancies of the Courts of Love and the ritual of the Rose.