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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

§ 3. The Influence of Chaucer

A careful examination of this well-constructed poem will show that, to the interest of the personal elements, well blended with the conventional matter of the dream-poem, is added that of its close acquaintance with the text of Chaucer. It is not merely that we find that the author knew the English poet’s works and made free use of them, but that his concern with them was, in the best sense, literary. He has not only adopted phrases and settings, but he has selected and returned lines, and given them, though reminiscent of their origin, a merit of their own. Sometimes the comparison is in favour of the later poem, in no case more clearly than in the fortieth stanza, quoted above, which echoes the description, in The Knight’s Tale, of Palamon’s beholding of Emilie. The lines

  • And thei-with-al he bleynte, and cryde “a!”
  • As though he stongen were unto the herte,
  • are inferior to the Scot’s concluding couplet. The literary relationship, of which many proofs will appear to the careful reader, is shown in a remarkable way in the reference at the close to the poems of Gower and Chaucer. This means more than the customary homage of the fifteenth century to Chaucer and Gower, though the indebtedness to the latter is not textually evident. The author of The Kingis Quair and his Scottish successors have been called the “true disciples” of Chaucer, but often, it must be suspected, without clear recognition of this deep literary appreciation on which their historical position is chiefly based.

    The only MS. text of The Kingis Quair is preserved in the Bodleian Library, in the composite MS. marked “Arch. Selden. B. 24,” which has been supposed to belong to the last quarter of the fifteenth century. It is there described in a prefatory sentence (fol. 191) as “Maid be King Iames of scotland the frist callit the kingis quair and Maid quhen his Maiestie Wes In Ingland.” This is confirmed in the Latin explicit on fol. 211. The ascription to James I, king of Scots, remains uncontroverted. A recent attempt to place the text later than The Court of Love, has led to a careful sifting of all the evidence, actual and circumstantial, with the result that the traditional view has been established more firmly, and something beyond a suspicion raised that, if there be any borrowing, The Court of Love is the debtor. The story of the poem is James’s capture in March 1405, his imprisonment by the English and his wooing of Joan Beaufort. There is no reason to doubt that the story was written by James himself, and the date of composition may be fixed about the year 1423. During his exile the king had found ample opportunity to study the work of the great English poet whose name was unknown in the north, and whose influence there might have been delayed indefinitely. This literary intimacy enhances the autobiographic interest of The Kingis Quair.

    The influence of Chaucer is hardly recognisable in any of the other works which have been ascribed to James, unless we accept a recent suggestion that fragment B (ll. 1706–5810) of the Romaunt was written by him. The short piece of three stanzas, beginning “Sen trew Vertew encressis dignytee” is unimportant; and the “popular” poems Peblis to the Play and Christis Kirk on the Grene, if really his, belong to a genre in which we shall look in vain for traces of southern literary influence. The contrast of these pieces with The Kingis Quair is, indeed, so marked as to have led many to assume that James cannot be the author of both. This is, of course, no argument; nor does the suggestion that their tone sorts better with the genius of his royal successor, “the Gudeman of Ballengeich,” count for much. On the other hand, the identification of Peblis to the Play with the poem At Beltayne, which Major ascribes to James, and the acceptance of the statement in the Bannatyne MS. that he is the author of Christis Kirk, must be counterbalanced by the evidence of language and prosody, which appear to point to a later origin than the first decades of the fifteenth century.

    The Kingis Quair represents the first phase of Scottish Chaucerianism, in which the imitation, though individualised by the genius of its author, is deliberate and direct. Even the personal and lyrical portions do not destroy the impression that the poem is a true birth of the old allegory. In other words, allegory is of the essence of the conception: it is not introduced for the sake of its interpretation, or as a decorative aid. In the second stage, as disclosed in the poems of Henryson, Dunbar and Douglas, we recognise and important change. Some of the pieces appear to have the old outlook and the old artistic purpose; yet, even in these, the tone is academic. They are breaking away from the stricter and more self-contained interest of the literature of the Rose; they adapt both sentiment and style to more individual, or national, purpose, and make them subservient to an ethical thesis. Yet Chaucer remains the inspiring force, not merely in turns of phrase and in fashion of verse, but in unexpected places of the poetic fabric. Even as late as the mid-sixteenth century, in such a sketch as Lyndsay’s Squyer Meldrum, we are, at times, reminded of the vitality of Chaucerian tradition.