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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

§ 2. The Kingis Quair

The herald of the change in Scottish literary habit is the love-allegory of The Kingis Quair, or King’s Book. The atmosphere of this poem is that of The Romance of the Rose: in general treatment, as well as in details, it at once appears to be modelled upon that work, or upon one of the many poems directly derived therefrom. Closer examination shows an intimacy with Chaucer’s translation of the Romance. Consideration of the language and of the evidence as to authorship (to which we refer elsewhere) brings conviction that the poem was the direct outcome of study, by some northerner, of Chaucer’s Romaunt and other works. It was fortunate for Scots literature that it was introduced to this new genre in a poem of such literary competence. Not only is the poem by its craftsmanship superior to any by Chaucer’s English disciples, but it is in some respects, in happy phrasing and in the retuning of old lines, hardly inferior to its models. Indeed, it may be claimed for the Scots author, as for his successor, in the Testament of Cresseid, that he has, at times, improved upon his master.

The Kingis Quair (which runs to 1379 lines, divided into 197 “Troilus” stanzas, riming ababbcc) may be described as a dream-allegory dealing with two main topics—the “unsekernesse” of Fortune and the poet’s happiness in love. The contradiction of these moods has led some to consider the poem as a composite work, written at different times: the earlier portion representing the period of the author’s dejection, real or imaginary, the latter that of the subsequent joy which the sight of the fair lady in the garden by his prison had brought into his life. One write has expressed the opinion that the poem was begun at a time when the poet “had little to speak of beyong his past misadventures”; and, while allowing that it may have been “afterwards partially rewritten,” he finds evidence of its fragmentary origin in the presence of sections which “have absolutely nothing to do with the subject.” For these reasons, he disallows Tytler’s division (1783) of the poem into six cantos, which had held in all editions for a full century (down to 1884), because it assumes a unity which does not exist. This objection to the parcelling out of the text may be readily accepted—not because it gives, as has been assumed, a false articulation to a disconnected work, but because it interferes unnecessarily with that very continuity which is not the least merit of the poem. The author, early in the work (st. 19), calls upon the muses to guide him “to write his torment and his joy.” This is strong evidence by the book in its own behalf, and it is not easily discredited by the suggestion that the line “may have been altered afterwards.” If there be any inconsistency observable in the poem, it is of the kind inevitable in compositions where the personal element is strong. In the earlier allegory, and in much of the later (if we think of the Spenserian type) the individuality of the writer is merged in the narrative: in The Kingis Quair, on the other hand, a striking example of the later dream-poem which has a direct lyrical or personal quality, greater inconsequence of fact and mood is to be expected. Whether that inconsequence be admitted or not by the modern reader, we have no warrant for the conclusion that the work is a mosaic.

The poet, lying in bed “alone waking,” turns to the pages of Boethius, but soon tires of reading. He thinks of Fortune and recalls

  • In tender [char]outh how sche was first my fo
  • And eft my frende.
  • He is roused by the matins-bell, which seems to say “tell on, man, quhat the befell.” Straightway he resolves “sum newë thing to write,” though he has in his time spent ink and paper to small purpose. He begins his tale of early misfortune with an elaborate metaphor of a ship at the mercy of the elements; then narrates how the actual ship in which he was sailing from his own country was captured by the enemy, and how he was sent into confinement. From his window, he looks upon a fair garden and hears the love-song of the birds. This song, which is given as a cantus, prepares the reader for the critical passage of the poem in which the poet sees the lady who from that moment brings sunshine into his life:
  • And there-with kest I doun myn eye ageyne,
  • Quhare as I sawe, walking under the toure,
  • Full secretly new cummyn hir to pleyne,
  • The fairest or the freschest yong[ë] floure
  • That euer I sawe, me thoght, before that houre,
  • For quhich sodayn abate, anon astert
  • The blude of all my body to my hert.XL.
  • When the lady, unconscious of her lover’s prayer, departs, she leaves him the “wofullest wicht,” plunged again in the misery from which her coming had raised him. At night, tired out, he dreams that he is carried high into the heavens to the house of Venus. The goddess receives him graciously, but sends him with Good Hope to Minerva for further advice. This, the learned goddess gives, with quotations from Ecclesiastes and observations on predestination; and she sends him, as he is “wayke and feble,” to consult Fortune. He returns to earth, and, passing by a plain, stocked, in the conventional way, with all kinds of animals, he meets again his guide Good Hope, who takes him to Fortune’s citadel. He finds the dame, and sees the great wheel. This is described to him, and he is ordered to take his place upon it.
  • “Fare wele,” quod sche, and by the ere me toke
  • So ernestly, that therewithall I woke.
  • Distracted by the thought that all maybe but a vain dream, he returns to the window from which he had seen the lady. To him comes a turtle-dove with a sprig of gillyflowere, bearing the tidings, inscribed in gold on the edges, that, in heaven, the cure of all his sorrow is decreed. The poem concludes with the lover’s hymn of thanks to each and every thing which has contributed to his joy, even to the castle-wall and the “sanctis marciall” who had guided him into the hands of the enemy; and, lastly, he commends his book to the poems (“impnis”) of his masters Gower and Chaucer, and their souls to heaven.