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The taill of Rauf Coilyear : a Scottish metrical romance of the fifteenth century online

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Ga, lytill Builc, and gif ane freind thow meit,
May he ressaif the with benignitie,

Althocht, for suith, thy worth may nocht be greit,
Sa fer als I in the haif propertie.
I haif bot socht to keip in memorie

The taill ane no bill Makar, langayr deid,

Wrait intill Inglis of the Northin Leid.



The extant poetical literature of Scotland dates no farther
back than the fourteenth century. But we cannot doubt that
much poetry of an earlier time has been lost, for we find in
the most ancient work that has reached us a well-formed
poetic style, correct, vigorous, and at times almost elegant
versification, and a confidence and ease in handling the
material that indicate a literature that has passed the tentative
stage and arrived at a certain degree of maturity. We know
from references in later writers, that many Scottish poets once
wrote and were admired, of whom nought now remains but
the names. But in this loss, while there may be much reason
for regret, there is none for surprise. The foreign wars and
intestine feuds and troubles which tormented and devastated
Scotland, with but few intermissions, from the death of
Alexander III. to that of Mary, and which destroyed so great
a part of the ancient records and historical muniments of the
kingdom, may well account for the disappearance of works
preserved in manuscript copies by the very few who had at
once the culture to care for literature, the leisure to enjoy it,
and the means of procuring it.

The very oldest piece of Scottish poetry that has come
down to us, is a song deploring the death of Alexander III.
(1285), cited by Wyntoun (vii. ad fin.). It runs :


4 The Taitt of Rauf CffUjear.

Quhen Alysandyr cure Kyng wes dede,

That Scotland led in luwe and le,
Away wes sons off ale and brede,

Off wyne and wax, off gamyu and gle :
Oure gold wes changyd in to lede.

Cryst, borne in to Vyrgynyte,
Succoure Scotland and remede,

That stad [is in] perplexyte.

There seems no reason to doubt that these lines were
originally written in the troubled period that followed Alex-
ander's death. But it has apparently been modernised by
Wyntoun, or some other, so that we cannot say that it is
Scottish of the thirteenth century.

This northern school of poetry, so far as we are able to
judge, continued the ancient Anglian traditions, underwent
changes, and, like the southern school, reconstructed itself on
French models. In the fifteenth century it was greatly
influenced by the genius of Chaucer, and after the death of
that poet, produced the most original and vigorous poetry that
the island could boast, for about a hundred years.

Some writers divide extant Scottish Literature into Early
and Middle, placing the dividing line about the middle of the
fifteenth century ; but this distinction does not seem justified.
It is quite true (as will be shown later) that the literary Scot-
tish is a continuation of the ancient Northern or Northumbrian
school of English, and, no doubt it went through stages of
transformation, as did the English south of the Tweed. But
of southern English we have an unbroken catena from the
middle of the twelfth century ; and this tentative and transi-
tional period, when the language was transforming itself from
the English of ^Elfric to the English of Chaucer, we call
Early English. Nothing corresponding to this is extant in

The Taill of Rauf Coifyear. 5

Scottish. The monuments of the transitional period have
been lost; and the earliest, texts show us a language and
literary style already formed and settled. It will not do to
assume lightly that during this period the Scottish and the
Northumbrian south of the Tweed were identical. We do
not know through what stadia of transformation the Early
Scottish passed, nor shall we ever know, unless there should
be a recovery of lost texts which we can hardly hope.

For us, then, Scottish literature begins with Barbour, a
contemporary of Chaucer. 1

JOHN BARBOUR was born in Aberdeenshire about 1320,
six years after the victory of Bannockburn had secured the
independence of Scotland. He entered the Church, and
became Archdeacon of Aberdeen. Slight indications in the
records show him to have been held in estimation by David
II., and Robert II., and to have travelled in England and
Prance. He died, it is believed, in 1395.

Barbour's great work, The Bruce, is a poetical narrative of
the struggle of Scotland for independence. After a preamble
telling of the death of Alexander III., and the disputed
succession, the narrative proper begins about 1306, immedi-
ately after the death of Wallace, and comes down to the death
of James of Douglas. Of course the work is occupied chiefly
with the exploits of Robert Bruce and his brother Edward,
James of Douglas, Walter the Stewart, and other heroes of
that great struggle. It is the national epic of Scotland, and

1 It is almost superfluous to allude, even in a note, to the romance of
Sir Tristrem, by some placed at the head of Scottish literature. The
language is not, and could not have been, the Scottish of any period, being
Midland with ma,ny Southern characteristics. Neither subject nor treat-
ment is Scottish, and there is absolutely nothing in it to indicate a Scottish

6 The TaiU of Rauf Coifyear.

has the advantage over most epics that of Wallace included
that it does not deal with fiction but with historic fact.
Barbour lived so near the events that he narrates, that he had
the opportunity, as he himself tells us, of obtaining his infor-
mation from eye-witnesses and participants.

The Bruce is written in a clear, rapid, and vivid style,
without rhetorical adornment, and occasionally glowing with
true poetic fire. Though an ardent patriot, Barbour is no
fanatical partisan, and can prize chivalry and magnanimity
in an enemy, as witness his graceful and glowing tribute to
the gallant Gilles de Argentine.

We have, unfortunately, no MS. of the Bruce earlier than
1487, 1 and as we know, by comparison with a large extract
preserved by Wyntoun, that the later copyists have taken con-
siderable liberties with the text, it is to be feared that it has
suflPered much detriment at the hands of scribes. Some have
ascribed to Barbour another work, the Brut, giving the tradi-
tional genealogy of British kings from the Trojan Brutus,
grandson of Aeneas; but no such work is known, and the
ascription seems to have arisen from a misunderstanding of
a passage in Wyntoun. Some have also attributed to him, on
insufficient grounds, a collection of versified Legends of Saints,
still extant.

ANDROW OF WYNTOUN, a canon regular of St. Andrews,
and prior of St. Serf's Inch in Loch Leven, wrote, toward
the close of the fourteenth and beginning of the fifteenth cen-
tury, his Orygynale Cronyldl of Scotland. Starting with the
creation of the angels, he runs rapidly down the history of the

1 There are only two extant MSS. ; the Cambridge MS., written by " J.
de R. Capellanus" in 1487, and the Edinburgh MS. written by John
Ramsay in 1489.

The Taill of Rauf Coil^ear. 7

world, until he reaches the traditional beginning of the Keltic
monarchy of Scotland, and then pursues the dun and mythical
legends of that country, and the clearer historic periods, to his
own times. The work is very discursive and garrulous, show-
ing neither artistic sense, nor critical discrimination between
the possible and the impossible, the significant and the irrele-
vant. Anything pertaining to the time or the reign he is
speaking of, whether recorded in the Bible or the Gesta
Romanorum, is entitled to admission in his book. But the
work has value as a repertory of anecdotes and traditions not
found elsewhere. Here, for example, we have the first
appearance of the three weird sisters it is Wyntoun who
calls them so to Macbeth, who, however, sees them only in
a dream, and they are not witches, but the three Fates of
mythology. 1

As Wyntoun does not mention the return of James I. from
captivity in \ 424, he is thought to have died not long before,
hi advanced age.

1 As the passage has interest, it is subjoined :

A nycht he thowcht, in hys dremyng,

That syttand he was besyd the King

At a sete in hwntyng, swa

In till a leysh had grewhundys twa.

He thowcht, quhile he was swa syttand,

He sawe thre wemen by gangand,

And thai wemen than thowcht he

Thre werd Systrys mast lyk to be.

The fyrst he hard say, gangand by,

' Lo ! yondyr the Thayne off Crwmbawchty ! '

The tothir woman sayd agayne,

' Off Morave yhondyre I se the Thayne.'

The thryd than sayd ' I se the Kyng.'

All this he herd in his dremyng :

8 The Taitt of Rauf Coifyear.

About JAMES I., the royal poet, there hangs, of course,
none of the obscurity that surrounds so many of the Scottish
writers. He was born in 1394, the son of the unhappy
Robert III., and the descendant, in the fourth generation, of
Robert Bruce. The ambition of his unscrupulous uncle, the
Duke of Albany, and the tragic and more than suspicious
death of his elder brother, the Duke of Rothsay, caused the
alarmed father to send the youthful James, then a boy of
eleven, to France for security ; but the vessel carrying him
was captured by an English ship (not without suspicion of
treachery on Albany's part) and the young prince was
delivered a prisoner to Henry IV. At first his confinement
seems to have been somewhat rigorous, but afterwards he was
held rather as a friendly hostage than as a prisoner, and was
instructed in all knightly arts and accomplishments. Acknowl-
edged as a king on his father's death, he accompanied Henry V.
as an ally in his campaign in France, and is said to have dis-
tinguished himself in the field. He had a taste for music and
painting, and especially for literature, and was an enthusiastic
student of the works of Gower and Chaucer, whom he calls
his "Masters."

Sone efftyre that, in his yhowthad,

Off thyr Thayndomys he Thayne was made ;

Syne neyst he thowcht to be Kyng,

Fra Duncanys dayis had tane endyng.

Wyntoun, vi, 1850.

The first writer who mentions this meeting as an actual occurrence is
Hector Boece, who wrote a hundred years after Wyntoun. Holinshed
took the story from Boece, and Shakespeare from Holinshed. The idea
that the three sisters, in their several announcements, tell Macbeth the
past, the present, and the future, does not appear in Wyntoun, where all
three relate to the future.

The laiU of Rauf Caityar. 9

During his captivity he became enamoured of Lady Jane
Beaufort, niece of Henry IV., an attachment we may suppose,
highly satisfactory to Henry V., who saw in the match the
opportunity of binding the young and warlike king to the
house of Lancaster by firm ties of alliance ; and a rare thing
in royal marriages for once love and policy seem to have
gone hand in hand. In ] 424, James's ransom having been
paid, he married Lady Jane, and the royal pair returned amid
great rejoicings to Scotland, where James was crowned, like
all Scottish kings, at Scone, near Perth.

He had learned much during his long residence in Eng-
land, and especially the Lancastrian policy of centralisation
and organisation, and of fortifying and augmenting the royal
power by curbing the great barons and protecting the com-
mon people ; and this policy he resolved to apply to Scotland,
where the insolence, ambition and rapacity of the powerful
nobles had been almost unchecked during the regency. But
his reforms were too drastic, or at least too rapid, and James
was too rashly courageous. A formidable conspiracy was organ-
ised against him, and in 1437 he was assassinated at Perth,
with tragic circumstances and a tragic sequel familiar to all.

His great poem, the Kingis Quair, or King's Book, recites,
partly in the guise of an allegory or vision, the story of bis
love how he first saw his lady from the window of his
prison, and fell into a passion which he could only suppose
hopeless ; and how in a vision he was borne aloft to the
empyrean and to the court of Venus, where he saw lovers of
all degrees and conditions, and received counsel and encourage-
ment from the goddess, from Minerva and Fortune, afterwards
confirmed by a message brought him by a dove. We must
not take the royal lover too literally : he was in no sense a

10 The Taill of Rauf Coil$ear.

pining captive when he met Lady Jane, and had no obstacle
to overcome, unless it were the coyness of the lady herself,
which, we may presume, was not excessive.

The poem is written in Chaucer's favorite stanza of seven
lines, or " rime royal," and closely imitates parts of Chaucer's
Knightes Tale and (in a lass degree) his Hous of Fame. In
other parts there is a striking resemblance to the Court of
Love, a poem once ascribed to Chaucer, but which seems to
be an expanded treatment of a theme found in the Temple of
Glas, a poem usually attributed to Lydgate. The King
dedicates his poem to his "masters," Gower and Chaucer,
although no imitation of Gower is perceptible ; a fact which
suggests the possibility that James believed Gower to have
been the author of the Temple of Glas. 1 James seems to
have been the first to introduce Chaucer to Scotland, where
his works exercised a great influence on the poets of the
fifteenth century.

But the Kingis Quair is more than a mere imitation.
Though thrown into an artificial form which had become
almost canonical for poetry of high seriousness, it is instinct
with genuine feeling and true poetic elevation ; the descrip-
tions are varied and bright, and the whole full of romantic
grace, dignity, and tenderness. The language, while substan-
tially Scottish, is greatly affected by Midland influences, and
to some degree, assimilated to that of Chaucer.

A short moral poem called Good Counsel has been also (on
rather slight evidence) assigned to James. Earlier critics
ascribed to him the clever farcical poems, Christis Kirk on the

1 As Gower was living when James was taken to England, and as his
works must have been familiar at Court, this error if error it be is

The Taill of Eauf Coifyear. 11

Grene, and Peblis to the Play, but this ascription can hardly
now be seriously maintained.

If James I. is the first conscious artist whom we meet in
the extant Scottish poetry, ROBERT HENRYSON is the first
original artist. Of Henryson's personal history scarce any-
thing is known. He is supposed to have been born about
1425, and to have been a schoolmaster in Dunfermline ; and
as he is styled " Master," it is inferred that he had taken an
academic degree. In the list of members of Glasgow Univer-
sity in 1462, appears the name of " the Venerable Master
Robert Henryson," who was probably the poet. That he
died in Dunfermline we know from Dunbar.

Henryson, like other Scottish poets after James I., was
strongly influenced by Chaucer, and even ventured, we may
say, to enter the lists with him. Chaucer's treatment of the
Troilus story seemed to him to lack completeness and a moral
lesson : Cresseid should have been punished for her faith-
lessness and wantonness. So in his Testament of Cresseid he
represents her as smitten with leprosy, a beggar and abhorred
outcast, in which condition she is seen but not recognized by
Troilus. Pierced by remorse and shame, she makes her
testament of counsel and warning to her sex, and dies re-

Henryson's Orpheus and Eurydice, a singular allegorizing
of the old fable, shows his classical and scholastic learning,
while the pretty poem Robene and Malvyne, which has been
styled the earliest pastoral in the English language, has a
charming simplicity. Most interesting, however, are his Fables,
founded chiefly upon subjects taken from those collections
which bore the name of .ZEsop, but treated with an ease, fluency,
brightness, and certainty of literary touch not unworthy of

12 The Taill of Rauf Coil^ear.

Chaucer. Each of the fables is a little drama of natural dia-
logue, and his beasts are delightfully human. Henryson's
other poems, chiefly of a moral and didactic character, show the
same literary skill and mastery of versification under a more
serious garb. It is thought that the fables were written
about 1470 or 1480. Of his death we only know that it
occurred before 1506, as Dunbar, in his Lament for the
Makaris, written about that year, mentions him as having
passed away.

Some time in the latter half of the century was written
the curious moral fable or allegory of the Howlat. The
author tells us that his name was HOLLAND, and that he
lived in Moray ; and some incline to identify him with one
Sir Richard Holland, a priest and partisan of the house of
Douglas, about whom almost nothing is known. The poem,
which is in the same peculiar alliterative stanza as Rauf
Coifyear, tells how the Owl, disgusted with his hideous form,
went to the Peacock, the pope of the birds, to lodge a complaint
against Nature as the author of his deformity. The Peacock
assembles in oscumenical council the various dignitaries of the
Church, and the secular powers, birds of peace and birds
of prey, and the case is laid before them. In compliance
with their joint petition Nature descends, and commands
every bird to give the Howlat a feather, out of which she
fashions him a gorgeous plumage, so that he surpasses all in
splendour. But when thus exalted he became so insufferably
arrogant and domineering that the birds beg to be relieved
of him, and Nature obligingly reduces him to his former
hideousness. A considerable part of the poem is taken up
with a panegyric of the house of Douglas.

Contemporary with Henryson was HENRY THE MINSTREL

The Taill of Rauf Caityar. 13

(often referred to as Blind Harry). Almost the only thing
known about him is the statement given by John Maior (one
of the teachers of Buchanan) who says that Henry was living
"in the time of my infancy" (or between 1450 and 1460),
that he was blind from his birth, and that he composed the
Book of William Wallace, and travelled about the country
reciting his poetry to knights and nobles, who provided him
with the means of subsistence "of which he was well
worthy," Maior adds. Records show that gratuities were
occasionally bestowed upon him from the royal treasury, the
latest of these entries being in 1492.

Henry may have undertaken this poem to supplement the
omission of Barbour, the plan of whose work did not include
that period of the struggle in which Wallace was the chief
figure ; or it may have been that as a wandering minstrel he
found that the exploits attributed to Wallace appealed more
strongly to popular sentiment than those of Bruce. He says
that he procured the material for his poem from a Latin
history written by Master John Blair, Wallace's friend and
chaplain, which is not impossible, though no such book is
known to exist, nor is anything known of John Blair. If
his statement be true, it is highly probable that he supple-
mented Blair's narrative with many floating traditions, some
of which are historically impossible, and most are grossly
exaggerated. In two hundred years a popular myth had
grown up about the great champion, and Henry's Wallace is
a very different personage from the steadfast magnanimous
Wallace of history. Henry's Wallace is a kind of gigantic
patriotic ogre, of superhuman strength and ferocity, mowing
down troops with his single arm, mutilating prisoners, and
ever thirsting for " the byrnand Sothroun blude ; " and it is

14 The Taitt of Rauf Coifyar.

to be regretted that the popular estimate of one of the most
heroic figures in history has been so largely derived from this
distorted conception. But as an outburst of intense patriot-
ism, and a recital of stirring adventures, the poem has much
merit, and has enjoyed unbroken popularity from the time of
its composition.

The authorship of this poem has been recently questioned
on the grounds that a beggar, born blind, in Scotland in the
fifteenth century could not have had that familiarity with the
romancers and with Chaucer, which the Wallace shows, nor
the knowledge of Latin which it implies. The poet's name is
nowhere mentioned in the book, nor is there any allusion to
his blindness. The question is still unsettled.

Nor was the chivalry romance unrepresented in Scottish
literature. Poems or fragments of poems dealing with themes
from the legends of Alexander and Arthur have been pre-
served ; and Wyntoun expressly praises a poet of the name of
Huchown (rather hastily assumed to have been a Scot) as the
author of romances of Arthur and Gawayn, and of the Pistill
of Susan (the story of Susanna and the Elders). A poem in
alliterative verse bearing this title is still extant. Some ascribe
to Huchown the Alliterative Morte Arthure, and some the
Awntyrs of Arthure and the fine metrical romance usually
known as Gawayne and the Green Knight ; but the question
is still unsettled. These poems, in the form in which we now
have them, are not in the Scottish dialect, nor do they show
any Scottish characteristics ; and the great differences in style
and poetic power are scarcely consistent with identical author-
ship. Dunbar also mentions a Clerk of Tranent, otherwise
unknown, who wrote a Gawayn romance. Of the Charle-
magne cycle the only poem discovered is that here repro-

The Taitt of Rauf Cailjear. 15

duced ; and it will be seen that the poet's treatment of his
subject is free from the extravagant invention and fantastic
style which characterise most of these singular productions.

We may complete this slight sketch of the most important
poets of the Scottish literary period whose works are extant,
by the names of Dunbar, Douglas, and Lyndsay, who bring
us down to the Reformation.

By this time the language had differentiated itself into two
registers. The scholarly poets, not content with showing their
learning by an affluence of classical allusions, had begun to
enrich their speech by a lavish introduction of Latinisms;
and such " aureate " terms as " celicall," " redymyte," " sempi-
terne," " mellifluate," were thought to be the cachet of the
scholar, and the proper vesture of lofty poesy. At the same
time the vernacular speech of daily life was considered the
fitting dress of light, satirical, or ludicrous pieces ; and in the
latter were introduced an amazing number of quaint, facetious,
or vituperative terms, in which the popular speech showed a
fecundity and pungency perhaps unexampled.

A master of both these forms, and perhaps the most versa-
tile genius that Scotland has produced, was WILLIAM DUN-
BAR. This poet, the scion of an ancient and illustrious Scottish
house, whose head was the Earl of March, was born about
1460. He was destined for the Church, and was educated at
the University of St. Andrews, where he took the Bachelor's
and Master's degrees. After this he entered the Franciscan
order, and travelled extensively in England and France as a
wandering preacher, but did not take the final vows, and after-
wards discarded the habit. Returning to Scotland, he was
attached to the court of James IV., whose marriage with
Margaret Tudor he has celebrated in his allegorical poem,
The Thrissill and The Rois.

16 The Taitt of Rauf Coiljear.

Dunbar took priest's orders, and was exceedingly anxious
to obtain a benefice ; but this was never given him, while he
saw, to his chagrin and indignation, unworthy persons exalted
to high positions in the Church. James would not let him
go, but testified his regard by gifts and pensions, not on a
very liberal scale. After the death of James at Flodden we
hear nothing further of Dunbar, and it is to be feared that he
died in poverty and neglect.

Dunbar possessed a highly sensitive nature, which is reflected
in his poems. At times he is gay, full of fun and almost bois-
terous merriment, and again plunged into the deepest melan-
choly, oppressed by the thoughts of approaching old age and
inevitable death.

Setting aside the merely occasional pieces in which he throws
into light but often graceful and ingenious verse some trifling
incident or scandal of the court, Dunbar's poems may be
divided into three classes, the allegorical, moral, and satirical.

His principal allegoric poem is The Golden Terge, in which
he represents himself as brought before the court of Cupid,

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