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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

§ 15. The Aenied

Douglas’s translation of the twelve books of the Aeneid and of the thirteenth by Mapheus Vegius in his most interesting work, apart from the question how far his tone is Vergilian in the stricter humanistic sense. In respect of the thirteen prologues and supplementary verses of a more personal character, it may be said to be more original than the so-called “original” allegories. Not all of these are introductory to the “books” to which they are attached; and those which are most pertinent are concerned with the allegory of Vergil’s poem. Some may be called academic exercises, which may have been written at odd times, and, perhaps, for other purposes. A picture of a Scottish winter, which has been often quoted, introduces book VI; another, of May, book XII; and another, of June, book XIII. The subjects may have been suggested by the time of the year when the poet reached these stages in translation; if they were deliberately introduced for pictorial relief, they are the nearest approach to renascence habit in the whole work and in all Douglas’s writings. A tour de forcein the popular alliterative stanza, not without suspicion of burlesque intention, is offered as the appropriate preface to the eighth book!

  • Sum latit lattoun, but lay, lepis in laud lyte;
  • Sum penis furth a pan boddum to prent fals plakkis;
  • Sum goukis quhill the glas pyg grow full og gold [char]it,
  • Throw cury of the quentassens, thocht clay mugis crakis;
  • Sum warnour for this warldis wrak wendis by his wyt;
  • Sum trachour crynis the cun[char]e, and kepis corn stakis;
  • Sum prig penny, sum pykthank wyth privy promyt;
  • Sum garris wyth a ged staf to jag throw blak jakkis
  • Quhat fyn[char]eit fayr, quhat flattry, and quhat fals talis!
  • Quhat misery is now in land!
  • How mony crakyt cunnand!
  • For nowthir aiths, nor band,
  • Nor selis avalis.
  • This audacious break in the web of the Aeneid may have served some purpose of rest or refreshment, such as was given by the incongruous farce within the tedious moralities of the age; but it is not the devising of a humanist. The dialogue between the translator and Mapheus Vegius, in the thirteenth prologue, follows the medieval fashion, which was familiar before Henryson conversed with Aesop about his Fables. The first, or general, prologue is the most important, and is frequently referred to for evidence of Douglas’s new outlook. The opening homage to Vergil is instructive.
  • Laude, honor, prasingis, thankis infynite
  • To the, and thi dulce ornate fresch endite,
  • Mast reuerend Virgill, of Latyne poetis prince,
  • Gemme of ingine and fluide of eloquence,
  • Thow peirles perle, patroun of poetrie,
  • Rois, register, palme, laurer, and glory,
  • Chosin cherbukle, chief flour and cedir tree,
  • Lanterne, leidsterne, mirrour, and A per se,
  • Master of masteries, sweit sours and springand well.
  • It is not difficult to underline the epithets which have done good service in the Chaucerian ritual. Indeed, were we to read “Chaucer” for “Virgill” and “English” for “Latyne” in the third line, we should have a straightforward “Chaucerian” passage, true in word and sentiment. But Chaucer is really not far away. Douglas names him ere long, and loads him with the old honours, though he places him second to Vergil. The reason for this is interesting. Chaucer, in telling the story of Dido in The Legend of Good Women, had said,
  • I could folwe, word for word, Virgyle,
  • Nut it wolde lasten al to long a whyle.
  • This, Douglas politely disputes, especially as Chaucer had said, rather “boldly,” that he followed Vergil in stating that “Eneas to Dido was forsworne.” Douglas is careful to disprove this, because it distorts Vergil’s purpose to teach all kind of virtue by the consistent goodness of his hero, and to point out (as Henryson seems to have thought in his Cresseid) that Chaucer “was ever, God wait, wemenis frend.” We are a long way from Vergil here; as we are when the poet complains that Caxton’s translation does not do justice to what is hidden “under the cluddes of dirk poetry.” Douglas makes a more plausible claim to be a modern in a further objection that Caxton’s translation (taken from a French version) is bad, that it is out in its words and its geography, and marred by omissions; in quoting Horace on the true method of rendering a foreign author; and in urging the advantages to vernacular style from the reading of the Latin poet. Yet, after all, his aim was to make Vergil’s book a literary bible, as Boccaccio’s and Chaucer’s were. He desires to be thanken by schoolmasters and by “onletterit” folk, to whom he has given a new lesson; joins St. Gregory’s opinion with Horace’s; he sees a Christian purpose in his work, and he prays for guidance to Mary and her son, “that heavenlie Orpheus.” His Vergil is, for the most part, the Vergil of the dark ages, part prophet, coniurationis.” These, he confesses, are now more rare for “the faith is now mair ferme”; but the circumstances should have been allowed for by the dullard Caxton. When he returns in the prologue to the sixth book to chide those who consider that book but full of “gaistis and elriche fantaseis” and “browneis and bogillis,” he says of Vergil—
  • As tuiching hym, writis Ascencius:
  • Feill of his wordis bene lyk the appostillis sawis;
  • He is ane hie theolog sentencius,
  • And maist profound philosophour he hym schawis.
  • Thocht sum his writis frawart our faith part drawis,
  • Na wondir; he was na cristin man, per de;
  • He was a gentile, and leifit on payane lawis,
  • And [char]it he puttis ane God, Fadir maist hie.