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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

§ 12. Gavin Douglas

If no serious effort has been made to claim Dunbar as a child of the renascence, except in respect of his restlessness, in which he shows something of the human and individual qualities associated with that movement, his contemporary Gavin Douglas has been frequently described as the embodiment the fullest and also the first among Scottish poets, of the principles of neoclassicism. A critic of high consideration has recently said that “no poet, not even Dante himself, ever drank more deeply of the spirit of Virgil than Gavin Douglas.” Others who consent to this have laid stress on the fact that Douglas was the first translator of a great verse classic into the vernacular. If this conclusion were as just as it is, at first sight, plausible, Douglas could have no place, or only a very minor place in this chapter, which assumes a fundamental homogeneity in medieval method, in most respects incongruent with the literary intention of the new learning.

Like Dunbar, Douglas was of good family, and a cleric; but he had influence and fortune which brought him a large measure of worldly success. He had become a dignitary of the church when the erst-friar was riming about the court and writing complaints of his empty purse. Unlike Dunbar, he had no call to authorship. His literary career, if we may so speak of the years when all his work was written, is but a part of a busy life, the early experience of a man destined to lose his leisure in the strife of politics. He was the third son of Archibald, fifth earl of Angus, the “great earl,” better known as “Bell-the-Cat.” He was born c. 1475, and completed his early training in 1494, when he graduated at St. Andrews. In 1501, after spending some time in cures in Aberdeenshire and the Lothians, he became provost of the collegiate church of St. Giles in Edinburgh, his tenure of which partly synchronised with his father’s civil provostship of the capital. Between this date and 1513 (that defining year in all Scottish biography of this period) he did all his literary work, The Palis of Honour, King Hart, Conscience and the translation of the Aeneid, begun early in 1512 and printed in 1513. Other writings have been ascribed to him—a translation of Ovid (though, in one place, he speaks of this work as a task for another), plays on sacred subjects and sundry Aureae orationes; but none are extant, and we have his testimony (in the “conclusion” of the Aeneid), which may be accepted as valid, that he made Vergil his last literary task.

  • Thus vp my pen and instrumentis full [char]oyr
  • On virgillis post I fix for evirmore,
  • Nevir, from thens, syk materis to discryve:
  • My muse sal now be cleyn contemplatyve,
  • And solitar, as doith and byrd in cage;
  • Sen fer byworn is all my childis age,
  • And of my dayis neir passyt the half dait
  • That natur suld me grantyn, weil I wait.
  • His later history is exclusively political, a record of promotions and oustings. He was bishop of Dunkeld from 1516 to 1520, when he was deprived of his see because he had gone to the English court for aid in the Douglas-Albany quarrels. Tow years later, he died of plague in London, in the house of his friend lord Dacre. Just before his death, he had sent to another friend, Polydore Vergil, material for the latter’s History, by way of correction of Major’s account, which Vergil had proposed to use.