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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.

V. The Earliest Scottish Literature

§ 4. Holland’s Howlat

With the Buke of the Howlat, which is the proper title of this work, we pass from historical romance to the last type of the romance proper, with its metre founded on the old alliterative long line, but fashioned into an elaborate lyrical stanza of nine long verses of four beats and four short verses of two beats. The scheme is ababababcdddc, and no better example of its treatment in the Howlat can be found than the second stanza:

  • This riche Revir dovn ran, but resting or ruf,
  • Throwe ane forest on fold, that farly was fair;
  • All the brayis of the brym bair branchis abuf,
  • And birdis blythest of ble on blossomes bair;
  • The land lowne was and le, with lyking and luf,
  • And for to lende by that laike thocht me levar,
  • Becauss that thir hartes in heirdis couth huf,
  • Pransnd and prun[char]eand, be pair and be pair.
  • Thus sat I in solace, sekerly and sure,
  • Content of the fair firth,
  • Mekle mair of the fair mirth,
  • Als blyth of the birth
  • That the ground bure.
  • This is the commonest form of the metre, found also in Golagros and Gawane and in the Awntyrs of Arthure at the Terne Wathelyne, and, with a slight modification, in Rauf Coilyear; while in the Pistill of Susan the ninth line is replaced by a “bob” of one beat and two syllables like “In Feere,” “So sone,” etc.

    The Howlat is preserved in two manuscripts, the Asloan, dating from about 1515, and the Bannatyne, written in 1568. The poem is between sixty and seventy years older than the earlier manuscript. It was composed, as the author tells us in the last stanza, in the “mirthfull month of May” at Darnaway in the midst of Moray:

  • Thus for ane Dow of Dunbar drew I this dyte,
  • Dowit with ane Dowglass
  • In other words, it was written for Elizabeth Dunbar, Countess of Moray in her own right, whose first husband was one of the Douglas family that perished in the struggle with James II of Scotland, his eldest brother being that earl whom the king stabbed with his own hand. Pinkerton saw in the poem a satire on James II, a view which was entirely founded on a misreading of crovne for rovme in verse 984, and, with the restoration of the true reading, the theory falls to the ground. The poem, which introduces an elaborate account of the Douglas arms, must have been written before the final disaster to the Douglases at Arkinholm in 1455; for the unfortunate countess, no doubt with the intention of saving her lands, married, three weeks after the loss of her first husband, the son of the earl of Huntly, who was on the side of the king. As the arms of pope Nicholas V are described, the poem must be later than 1447, and, probably, before the murder of Earl William by the king in 1452, as is shown by Amours in his edition for the Scottish Text Society. There seems to be no recondite meaning in the piece. The subject is the thrice-told tale of the bird in borrowed plumes, which gives itself airs and speedily falls to its former low estate. The owl, beholding himself in a river that flows through a fair forest, is disgusted with his own appearance and appeals to the pope of the birds, the peacock, against dame Nature. A summons issued to the members of the council to convene. the author shows considerable ingenuity in finding names of birds and other words to suit his alliterative verse, and some humour in the parts which he assigns to the different birds. If it were necessary to search for hidden meanings one might suspect that there was a spice of malice in representing the deans of colleges by ganders, and the archdeacon, “that ourman, ayprechand in plane, Correker of kirkmen” by the claik, which is the barnacle goose, but also a Scots word for a gossip. It is a pretty fancy to make the dove “rownand ay with his feir,” always whispering with his mate, a curate to hear whole confessions. The author, who was of the secular clergy, may have been well satisfied that
  • Cryand Crawis and Cais, that cravis the corne,
  • War pure freris forthward,
  • That, with the leif of the lard,
  • Will cum to the corene[char]ard
  • At ewyn and at morn. 191 ff.
  • When all are met, the unhappy owl is commanded by the pope to state his case; and, when this has been done, the pope calls upon his councillors to express their opinions. They proceed to do so in a manner with which Holland was no doubt familiar:
  • And thai weraly awysit, full of wirtewe,
  • The maner, the mater, and how it remanyt;
  • The circumstance and the stait all couth thai argewe.
  • Mony allegiance leile, in leid nocht to layne it,
  • Off Arestotill and ald men, scharplie thai schewe;
  • The Prelatis thar apperans proponit generale;
  • Sum said to, and sum fra,
  • Sum nay, and sum [char]a;
  • Baith pro and contra
  • Thus argewe thai all.
  • Ultimately it is decided to consult the emperor—the eagle—and the swallow is despatched as herald with letters written by the turtle, who is the pope’s secretary. The herald finds him “in Babilonis tower,” surrounded with kings, dukes and other nobles, who, as is explained afterwards, are the nobler birds of prey. The specht or wood-pecker is the emperor’s pursuivant and, as is the manner of pursuivants, wears a coat embroidered swith arms. Then comes a long description of heraldic arms, including not only the emperor’s but also those of Nicholas V, of the king of Scotland and, in greatest detail, of the Douglas family. More than a quarter of the poem is taken up with this dreary stuff, which was very interesting, no doubt, to Holland’s patroness, but which ruins the poem as a work of art. The only interest it can have for the general reader is that in it is contained a version of the journey undertaken by the good Sir James with the heart of Bruce, which may be regarded as the official Douglas version, and which differs from that contained in the last book of Barbour’s Bruce. Hdere, Douglas is represented as having hourneyed to Jerusalem and as being on his way back when he perished fighting against the Moors in Spain; but there is no reason to doubt the correctness of Barbour’s story that Douglas never travelled further than Spain. The last third of the poem is occupied with a feast to which the pope invited the emperor and his courtiers. The bittern was cook, and the choir of minstrels consisted of the mavis and the merle, ousels, starlings, larks and nightingales. We have presented to us in full the hymn they sang in honour of the Virgin Mary, and a whole stanza is occupied with the names of the different musical instruments, which far outstrip shawns, sackbut and psaltery in obscurity. The visitors are entertained by the jay, who is a wonderful juggler. He makes the audience see many wonderful things which do not really exist, among others the emperor’s horses led off to the pound by the corncrake, because they had been eating “of the corne in the kirkland.” The rook appears as a “bard owt of Irland,” reciting much unintelligible Gaelic gibberish—such Gaelic bards no doubt were familiar enough at Darnaway in the fifteenth century—but is ignominiously routed by the jesters, the lapwing and the cuckoo, who then engage in a tussle for the amusement of the company. After grace has been said by the pope, it is agreed, at dame Nature’s suggestion, that her supposed ill-treatment of the owl shall be remedied by grafting on the owl a feather from each of the birds. The owl, however, becomes so insolent in consequence, that Nature takes all the feathers from him again, much to his sorrow.

    David Laing and Amours have diligently collected the little that is known as to the author of this jeu d’esprit. He is mentioned in various documents connected with the church and family of his patron. From these we learn that, in 1450, Richard de Holand was rector of Halkirk, in Caithness, in 1451, rector of Abbreochy in the diocese of Moray, and, like his contemporary Henryson, a public notary. In 1453, he was presented by the pope to the vacant post of chanter in the church of Moray. In 1457, after the fall of the Douglases, we find him in Orkney where, in 1467, he demits the vicarage of Ronaldshay. He seems to have joined the exiled Douglases in England, from which he was sent on a mission to Scotland in 1480, and, in 1482, along with “Jamis of Douglace” (the exiled earl) and certain other priests “and vther sic like tratouris that are sworne Inglismen, and remanys in Ingland,” he is excepted from a general amnesty.