Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 1. The Dreme

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

VI. Sir David Lyndsay

§ 1. The Dreme

ALTHOUGH Sir David Lyndsay, properly the last inheritor in Scotland of the Chaucerian tradition, was, evidently, well read in the great English master and his successors, and was influenced both in his poetic form and method by Dunbar and Douglas, his verse is informed by a spirit radically different from that of previous “makaris.” Like Dunbar, he was largely a satirist; he was a satirist of the political, social and ecclesiastical corruptions of his age, just as Dunbar was of those of the previous age. But, in Lyndsay’s time, the sentiment against social and ecclesiastical corruptions had become much stronger. It was rapidly becoming national; and its more absorbing character was ultimately to have a fatal effect on poetry. The character of Lyndsay’s verse was symptomatic of the approach of a period of poetic decline. The artistic purpose is not so supreme in him as in Dunbar. He is less poetical and more didactic. While by no means so polished and trenchant, he is much more special and precise. The gilded coarseness of gentle-women, the hypocrisy and worldliness of churchmen, the greedy covetousness of courtiers, were to Dunbar, according to his mood, subjects for bitter or humorous mirth. To his mirth, blended with humour, or wrath or contempt, he gave expression in biting and brilliant verse, without any very definite purpose beyond that of finding vent for his emotions and scope for his art. To Lyndsay, on the contrary, the definite purpose was almost everything; he was, primarily, less a poet than a political and social reformer; and he made use of the literary medium that would best achieve his moral purpose. Had he lived in modern times, he might have been either a prominent and successful statesman, or a brilliant writer on the burning questions of the hour; and, had the period of his literary activity fallen only a few years later than it did—when the advantages of the invention of printing were more utilised, and had begun to create a demand for vernacular prose—he might have indulged in admonitions, exhortations and blasts, somewhat after the manner of Knox: he had no mastery, like Buchanan, of either Latin verse or prose, even had his particular purpose not been better served by utilising different forms of vernacular verse.

Sometimes, like Douglas, Lyndsay employed allegory, and he, also, employed it for a moral purpose; but, unlike Douglas, he was not content to deal with the virtues and vices in the abstract, or merely in meditatively pictorial fashion; his primary aim was to point out, and hold up to scorn, the definite political, social and moral scandals of the time. In his early manhood he may have written a variety of verse with a merely artistic purpose, but the earliest of his poetical pieces which has come down to us is The Dreme, which internal evidence seems to show was written shortly after the escape of the young king, James V, from the tutorship of the Douglases in 1528. From the time of the birth of James V, in 1512, Lyndsay had been, as he records in the introductory Epistil to the Kingis Grace, the king’s personal attendant—his sewer (arranger of his table), cupbearer, carver, treasurer, usher and cubicular. Being the king’s chief companion in his more solitary hours, he had been accustomed to entertain him with all kinds of ancient tales; and, now that James had come to years of discretion, and had personally to undertake the responsibilities of government, Lyndsay proposed to show him “a new story”—one of a different kind from any told to him before, and more suited to the graver character of his new circumstances. The poem was intended for the king’s perusal, and thus the pill had to be gilded in order that it might be accepted. This accounts for the introductory display of the poet’s accomplishments as a master of terms aureate, and for his resolve to make known his revelations in the elaborate allegorical fashion that was a poetic convention of the time.

The Dreme of Lyndsay may have been suggested by The Dreme of Dunbar; but it is about ten times as long, and it has nothing in common with it beyond the name and the description of a dream for its theme. Certain stanzas in Lyndsay’s prologue are, however, very similar in manner and substance to some of the introductory stanzas of Dunbar’s The Thrissil and the Rois, and, like the latter poem, it is written in the rime royal of Chaucer, all except the epilogue, which is in the nine-lined stave used by Dunbar in The Goldyn Targe, by Chaucer in Anelida and Arcite and by Gavin Douglas in part of The Palice of Honour. The general form of Lyndsay’s poem seems to have been suggested rather by The Palice of Honour than by any poem of Dunbar, who did not intermeddle with extended allegory. Like The Palice of Honour, it records an adventurous journey, but of a less purely imaginative or allegorical character, for Lyndsay is made to visit what he regards as actual realities—the lowest hell, purgatory, the seven planets, heaven and paradise. The character of the journey may have been suggested to him by Chaucer’s House of Fame; but other-world scenes had, generally, much attraction for the imagination of medieval poets. This portion of the poem was, also, largely a conventional excrescence. It was chiefly introductory to his main theme. He was here intent partly on displaying his poetic paces with a view to arouse the literary interests of the king and secure his attention, partly on putting him in such a frame of mind as would induce him to give serious consideration to the succeeding exposure of the poverty, wrongs and miseries of his subjects.

As revealed to Lyndsay by Dame Remembrance, Scotland is described as possessing within itself all that is needful for the highest prosperity: abundant rivers and lochs for fish, many lusty vales for corn, fruitful hills and green meadows for the pasturage of sheep and cattle, forests swarming with deer and other animals of the chase, various rich metals and precious stones, and, if none of the finer fruits of the warmer climates, from which spices and wines are made, various sorts of fruit of a thoroughly good and wholesome kind. This description tallies with actual fact; in the Scotland of Lyndsay’s time, there was an abundant supply of food for the limited number of its inhabitants. It possessed all the essential resources for comfort and prosperity, and it was inhabited, as Dame Remembrance points out, by a strong, ingenious and courageous people. Why, then, he asks, has there come to be such evident poverty, such great unhappiness, such a lack of virtuous well-doing? And the answer of Dame Remembrance is that the cause is lack of policy, lack of proper administration of justice and lack of peace. This is further revealed in detail by John the Commoun Weill, whose arrivals as he is hastening to leave the country, and whose ragged costume, lean looks and dejected bearing are described with vivid picturesqueness. In reply to Lyndsay’s query as to the cause of the miserable and poverty-stricken appearance of one whose life was exemplary, and whose aims high and honourable, John the Commoun Weill informs him of the banishment from the country of all his best friends, of the unrighteous triumph of his enemies and of his evil treatment in every part of the country where he sought refuge—the borders rampant with theft and murder and mischief; the highlands peopled by lazy sluggards; the islands and the western regions a prey to unthrift, laziness, falsehood and strife; and the more civilised portions of the lowlands, from which “singular profit” (selfish greed), after doing him great injury and offence, expelled him with opprobrious epithets. He then proceeds to describe in detail, and with much terse vigour, the corruptions and inefficiency both of the civil and spiritual rule during the king’s minority, and intimates his determination not again to give Scotland the comfort of his presence, until she is guided by the wisdom of “ane gude and prudent Kyng.”

With the departure of John the Commoun Weill, the visions vouchsafed to the poet come to a close. He is brought again by Dame Remembrance to the cove where he had laid him down to sleep; and, after being awakened by the shot of a cannon from a ship in the offing, he proceeds to his home, where, after a good dinner, he sits himself down to record the events of his vision. To this record he finally appends an epilogue entitled An Exhortation to the King, which takes the form of shrewd advice, and serious and solemn warning.