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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

§ 16. Douglas’s Medievalism

So it would appear, only too clearly, from these interesting prologues, that Douglas’s literary attitude was not modern, and that he is not even so much a Janus-pet as his positions and opportunities would warrant. When we separate him from his literary neighbours, it must be as a dilettante. Probably, the main interest of the translation, and of most of Douglas’s work, is philological. No Scot has built up such a diction, drawn from all sources, full of forgotten tags of alliterative romance, Chaucerian English, dialectal borrowings from Scandinavian, French, Latin. No one is harder to interpret. Literary merit is not wanting; yet, in those passages, and especially in his Aeneid, which strike the reader most, by the vigorous, often onomatopoeic force of the vocabulary, the pleasure is not what he who knows his Vergil expects, and must demand. The excellence of such a description as that of Acheron—

  • With holl bisme, and hiduus swelth wnrude,
  • Drumlie of mud, and scaldand as it wer wod,
  • Popland and bullerand furth on athir hand
  • Onto Cochitus all his slik and sand,
  • is not the excellence of the original. We are sometimes reminded of Stanyhurst’s later effort, in which, however much we may admire the verbal briskness in the marshalling of his thunder and storm passages, we feel that all “wanteth the trew decorum” of Vergilian sentiment. The archaic artifices, the metrical looseness and the pedestrian tread, where Vergil is alert, destroy the illusion. Still, if we may not give Douglas more than his due, we must not give him less. His Aeneidis a remarkable effort, and is gratefully remembered as the first translation of a great classical poet into English, northern or southern.

    Douglas’s work, considered as a whole, expresses, in the amplest way, the content of the allegorical literature. He has lost the secret of the older devices, and does not understand the new which were about to usurp their place. He has not artistic sense of Henryson, or the resource of Dunbar. His pictorial quality, on which so much stress has been laid by some who would have him to be a modern, is not the pagan delight, nor is its use as an interpretation of his mood after the fashion of the renascence. Some passages which have been cited to prove the contrary are but copies from Henryson and earlier work. in him, as in Hawes (to quote a favourite metaphor of both) “the bell is rung to evensong.” If Lyndsay and others in the next period still show Chaucerian influence, with them it is a reminiscence, amid the turmoil of the new day.