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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

§ 13. The Palice of Honour

The Palice of Honour, Douglas’s earliest work, is an example, in every essential sense, of the later type of dream-poem, already illustrated in the Goldyn Targe. It is, however, a more ambitious work (extending to 2166 lines); and it shows more clearly the decadence of the old method, partly by its overelaboration, partly by the inferior art of the verse, partly by the incongruous welding of the pictorial and moral purposes. The poem is dedicated to James IV, who was probably expected to read between the lines and profit from the long lesson on the triumph of virtue. The poem opens in a “gardyne of plesance,” and in May-time, as of yore. The poet falls asleep, and dreams of a desert place “amyd a forest by a hyddeous flude, with a grysly fische.” Queen Sapience appears with her learned company. This is described by the caitiffs Sinon and Achitophel, who wander in its wake. Solomon, Aristotle, Diogenes, Melchisedech and all the others are there and are duly catalogued. The company passes on to the palace. Then follow Venus and her court with Cupid, “the god maist dissauabill.” The musical powers of this company give the poet an opportunity for learned discourse. We recall several earlier passages of the kind, and especially Henryson’s account in the Orpheus. Douglas’s remark,

  • Na mair I vnderstude thir numbers fine,
  • Be God, than dois a gukgo or a swine,
  • almost turns the likeness into a plagiarism from his predecessor. The procession of lovers moves the poet to sing a “ballet of inconstant love,” which stops the court and brings about his arrest. His pleas that “ladyis may be judges in na place” and that he is a “spiritual man” avail nothing; he is found guilty. Reflecting sorrowfully on what his punishment may be, he sees another procession approach, that of the muses with their court of poets. Calliope pleads for him, and he is released on condition that he will sing in honour of Venus. Thereafter, the poet proceeds to the palace, in companionship with a nymph, bestowed by Calliope. They pass through all countries and by all historic places, and stop for festivity at the well of the muses. Here Ovid, Vergil and others, including Poggio and Valla, recite by command before the company. The palace lies beyond on a rock of “slid hard marbell stone,” most difficult of ascent. On the way up, the poet comes upon the purgatory of idle folk. The nymph clutches him by the hair and carries him across this pit to the top, “as Abacuk was brocht in Babylone.” Then he looks down on the wretched world and sees the carvel of the State of Grace struggling in the waters. After a homily from the nymph on the need of grace, he turns to the palace, which is described with full architectural detail. In it, he sees Venus on her throne; and he looks in her mirror and beholds a large number of noble men and women (fitly described in a late rubric as a “lang cathalogur”). Venus observes her former prisoner, and, bidding him welcome, gives him a book to translate.
  • Tuichand this buik perauenture [char]e sall heir
  • Sum tyme eftir, quhen I haue mair laseir.
  • So it would appear that Douglas had his Aeneid then in mind. Sinon and Achitophel endeavour to gain an entrance. Catiline, pressing in at a window, is struck down by a book thrown by Tully. Other vicious people fail in their attempts. Then follows a description of the court of the prince of Honour and of secretary Conscience, comptroller Discretion, Ushers Humanity and True Relation and many other retainers. The glories of the hall overcome the poet, who falls down into a “deidlie swoun.” The nymph ministers to him, and gives him a thirteen-stanza sermon on virtue. Later, she suggests that they should take the air in the palace garden. When following her over the tree-bridge which leads to this spot, the poet falls “out ouir the heid into the stank adoun,” and (as the rime anticipates) “is neir to droun.” Then he discovers that all has been a dream. A ballad in commendation of honour and virtue concludes the poem.

    The inspiration of the poem is unmistakable; and it would be easy to prove that not only does it carry on the Chaucerian allegory, but that it is directly indebted to

  • Geffray Chauceir, as A per se sans peir
  • In his vulgare,
  • who appears with Gower, Lydgate, Kennedy, Dunbar and others in the court of poets. There is nothing new in the machinery to those who know the Rose sequence, The House of Fame and The Court of Love. The whole interest of the Poem is retrospective. Even minor touches which appear to give some allowance of individuality can be traced to predecessors. There is absolutely nothing in motif or in style to cause us to suspect the humanist. Douglas’s interest in Vergil—if Venus’s gift be rightly interpreted—is an undiscriminating interest which groups the Mantuan, Boccaccio and Gower together, and awards like praise to each. He introduces Ovid and Vergil at the feast by the well of the muses, much as they had been introduced by the English poets, though, perhaps, with some extension of their “moral” usefulness, as was inevitable in the later type of allegory. The Palice of Honoue is a medieval document, differing from the older as a pastiche must, not because the new spirit disturbs its tenor.