Home  »  Volume II: English THE END OF THE MIDDLE AGES  »  § 3. Peblis to the Play; Christis Kirk on the Greene

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XI. The Middle Scots Anthologies: Anonymous Verse and Early Prose

§ 3. Peblis to the Play; Christis Kirk on the Greene

As in these later writers, the prevailing sentiment always robust of the farm and burgh “wynd”—sentiment always robust and unreserved, finding expression in the revel of country fairs and city taverns, and carrying from both, to our modrn sense, the mingled odours of the field and kennel. The two best known examples of this “rustic” muse are Peblis to the Play and Christis Kirk on the Grene. These are, in theme and form, companion-pieces, and might well be, according to a persistent tradition, by the same author. Reference has been made to the claims set up in the behalf of James I. Some would ascribe the poems to James V because their popular character suits better the character of the “Gudeman of Ballengeich” than of the author of The Kingis Quair. It has been shown that the assumption of inappropriateness in style is invalid as an argument against authorship by James I, and that ther are certain difficulties of date which stand in the way of the claim for his successor. That James 1 may have been the author is an allowance of some importance in studying the entwined relationship of the Chaucerian and the “popular” verse during the period.

The theme of these poems, is the rought fun of a village festival or “wappinshaw,” such as has been made familiar by Geike’s pencil. The main impression is that of wild spirits:there is plenty of movement, but no story, or coherence in the effects. Incidentally, there are passages which, for descriptive directness, rank with the best in the “Dutch” manner, but their success comes from the sheer verve of composition rather than form cunning in the treatment of detail.

  • To dans thir damysellis thame dicht,
  • Thir lassis licht of laitis
  • Thair gluvis wer of the raffell rycht,
  • Thair schone wes ot the straitis
  • Thair kirtillis wer of lynkome licht,
  • Weill prest with mony plaitis.
  • Thay wer so nys quhen men thame nicht,
  • Thay squeilit lyk ony gaittis,
  • sol lowd,
  • At Chrystis kirk of the grene that day.
  • In exact parallel with this are the opening stanzas of Peblis to the Play, describing the morning fuss among the country wenches; but with this additional touch—

  • “Evir, allace!” than said scho,
  • ”Am I nocht cleirlie tynt?
  • I dar nocht cum [char] on mercat to,
  • I am so evvil sone brint.
  • Amang [char] on merchandis Mal-drest so!
  • Marie! I sall anis mynt—
  • Stand of far, and keik paim to,
  • As I at hame was wont,”
  • Quod scho
  • Of peblis to the play.
  • The likeness is preserved throughout, in the rough lovemaking, the coarse farce of the upset cadger, the wild dancing and quarrelling (told at great length in Christis Kirk), and in the introduction of certain popular types, such as the miller and the piper. Everybody is at fever-heat: the louder the women’s voices and the harder the blows, the better the fun.

  • The wyvis kest vp ane hiddouss yell,
  • Quhen all thir yunkeris yokkit
  • als ferss as ony fyrflaucht fell,
  • Freikis to the feild thay flokkit;
  • The carilis with clubbis cowd vder quell,
  • Quhill blud at breistis out bokkit:
  • So rudly rang the commoun bell,
  • Quhill all the stepill rokkit,
  • For reird,
  • At Chrystis kirk of the grene.
  • When the “rush” of the verse slackens, it sometimes gains in literary felicity, as in this excellent stanza—
  • Than thai come to the townis end
  • Withouttin moir delay,
  • He befoir, and scho befoir,
  • To see quha was maist gay.
  • All pat luikit pame upon
  • Leuche fast at pair array;
  • Sum said pat api wer merkat folk,
  • Sum said the quene of may
  • Of peblis to the play.
  • Here, too, there is movement, but the pace is comfortable. This is partly effected by the happy redoubling of phrase. Even in the noisier Christis Kirk the gentler song-not comes in, as in these lines—
  • Off all thir madynis myld as meid
  • Wes nane so gympt as Gillie;
  • As ony ross hir rude we reid,
  • Hir lyre we lyk the lillie—
  • a striking anticipation of the opening verse of Henry Carey’s immortal ballad. Occasional literary merit of this kind, or wealth of illustration to the antiquary of social manners, are less important than the evidence which these poems yield of the abiding rusticity of the northern rusticity of the northern muse, and of its metrical habit. It is, as has been said, not hard to find hints of this homely quality in the greater makars, evern in their most artificial moments: here we have ina ll their fulness, the setting, the actuality, the humour, the coarseness so familiar in later northern literature. Not less important—and for retrospective reasons too—is the complicated verse-form. The exact manipulation of the intricate stanza, with its lines of varying length, its richness in rime and alliteration, may well impress the reader who comes fresh to the subject as the work of some master-craftsman; but the frequency with which it occurs at this time, as well as earlier and later, shows that it was no tour de force. It supplies one of the most important links in the “formal” transition from the older northern romance to the later northern ballad. We appear to trace the earlier stages of the process in the riming alliterative romances, from the long irregular stanza of such a poem as Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, through the thirteen-lined stanza of The Buke of the Howlat or The Pistill of Susan and the eleven-lined stanza as shown in Sir Tristrem. There is no chronological intention in this statement of descent: wen may find here, as we find in the history of the early dramatic forms of English literature, as much parallelism and analogy as derivation. But the point is that the habit of these “popular” fifteenth and sixteenth century poems—the alliteration, rimes and, above all, the breaking away in the “bob”—is an “effect of antiquity.” This stanzaic form represents the permanent native element which is lost, or almost lost, for a time during the “Chaucerian” ascendency. Recognition of this fact gives a new meaning to the stray exmaples in the verse of the makars, and almost compels the critic to look upon the accredited manner of the “golden age” as an exception and “accident.” History confirms this; for when aureation and other fashions had passed, the reviving vernacular broke forthe anew in the old forms. Further, in this stanza we are not merely in close association with the older romance forms; in it we have both the timbre, and measure of the ballad. This is not the place for the discussion of the vexed question of the relationship of romance and ballad. Whatever conclusions be reached, or whatever general principles be assumed, the data here supplied towards the prosodic history of the “popular” ballad are significant. The actual form of the Christis Kirk stanza, however it may stand to that of the ballad and other forms, lived on, and again and again, in teh vernacular revival, was the medium for the retelling of rustic frolic.