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

VI. Sir David Lyndsay

§ 2. The Testament and Complaynt of our Soverane Lordis Papyngo

The Complaynt—in the octosyllabic couplet, and of rather later date—records, in a brisk, mocking fashion, the methods adopted by the Douglases to enrich themselves at the king’s expense, and to make him the passive instrument of their ambition; describes the generally scandalous condition both of church and state under their rule; and congratulates him on his escape from the clutches of such false friends, and on the marked improvement in social order and general well-being throughout the kingdom, except as regards the “spiritualitie.” On the doings of the ecclesiastics he advises him to keep a watchful eye, and see that they preach with “unfeyneit intentis,” use the sacraments as Christ intended and leave such vain traditions as superstitious pilgrimages and praying to images. Finally, Lyndsay—as poets were then accustomed to do—ventures to suggest that the king, now that his affairs were prosperous, might do worse than bestow on him some token of his regard, either by way of loan or gift. Should he be so good as to lend him one or two thousand pounds, then Lyndsay jocosely undertakes, with “seelit obligations,” to promise repayment as soon as any of several equally unlikely things should come to pass: when kirkmen cease to crave dignities, or when wives no longer desire sovereignty over their husbands, or as soon as a winter happens without frost, snow, wind or rain; or he will repay him after the Day of Judgment; or, if none of these conditions please him, then he hopes that, out of his sovereign bounty, he will bestow on him some definite reward.

The humorous hint of Lyndsay was successful, for, shortly afterwards, in 1530, he was made Lyon King of Arms. His promotion did not, however, tend to silence his reformatory zeal, but, on the contrary, made him more anxious to do what he could to promote the success of the young king’s sovereignty. In The Testament and Complaynt of our Soverane Lordis Papyngo (parrot) he exposed more particularly the corruptions and worldliness of the spirituality, and this in a more comprehensive and scathing fashion than in his two previous pieces, while the versification is, in parts, more elaborately polished. It opens with a prologue—in one of the nine-lined staves, aab, aab, bcc, used by Douglas in The Palice of Honour—in which, after a glowing and finely expressed tribute to his poetic predecessors from Chaucer, and various polite allusions to his poetic contemporaries, he affirms that even if he had “ingyne” (genius), as he has none, the “polleit terms” had been already pulled, and there was nothing left in all “the garth of eloquence” but “barren stok and stone.” For lack, therefore, both of a novel poetic theme and a novel poetic method, he had been reduced to record the complaint of a wounded papyngo.

In this ingenious and humorous apology he partly followed conventional models. Yet, in all likelihood, he was conscious of his own lack of high poetic inspiration, of his unworthiness to be named alongside of Chaucer and other English masters, or the “aureate” Kennedy, or Dunbar, who “language had at large,” or the more recent Gavin Douglas, whose death he laments, and whose translation of Vergil he specially celebrates; and his apology must also be taken as a kind of intimation that, in recording the complaint of the papyngo, he was influenced less by poetical ambition than by the desire to render service to the higher interests of his country.

The introductory stanzas of the poem dealing with the accident that befel the papyngo—which, with the remainder of the poem, are in rime royal—are modelled on the aureate methods of Chaucer and Dunbar, blended with the more profuse classical imagery of Douglas. Of the animal fable, the chief exponent was, of course, Henryson, but, in the more modified form adopted by Lyndsay, it is made use of both by Chaucer and Dunbar. In the case of Dunbar, it is, in The Thrissil and the Rois and the Petition of the Grey Horse, utilised more indirectly and with more subtle art. Truth to tell, there is little or no art in Lyndsay’s use of the expedient, so far as regards the counsel of the dying bird either to the king or to the “brether of the courte.” In both cases, the voice is the voice of Lyndsay, without any attempt to disguise it. The counsel to the king—or the first epistle—consists of a series of plain and definite advices, couched, practically, in the language of prose, as how best to discharge his multifarious and difficult duties; and the second epistle gives a terse and striking summary of the great tragedies of Scottish history from the time of the duke of Rothesay, with a view to impress on the courtiers both the uncertainties of kingly favour, and the evil consequences of unscrupulous personal ambition. This second part concludes with the dying bird’s touching words of farewell to the chief scenes of her former happiness: Edinburgh, the “heych tryumphant toun,” fair “Snawdoun” (Stirling) with its “touris hie” and “Falkland! the fortrace of Fyfe.”

In the concluding section of the poem, the fable form is much more strictly observed. Here, also, all is pure satire—much of it of a very clever and trenchant character, although some of the scenes are rather too prolonged. It relates the communing of the wise bird with its “holy executors,” who appear in the form of a pyot (representing a canon regular), a raven (a black monk) and a ged or hawk (a holy friar). The disposition and aims of these ghostly counsellors are sufficiently manifest; and they act entirely in keeping with their reputed character. The poor parrot would have much preferred to have, at her death-bed, attendants of a less grovelling type of character, such as the nightingale, the jay, the mavis, the goldfinch, the lark, etc.; but, since none of them has come, she has to be content with the disreputable birds who have offered her their services. After a piquant discussion with them on the growth of ecclesiastical sensuality and greed, she thereupon proceeds to dispose of her personality—her “galbarte of grene” to the owl, her eyes to the bat, her beak to the pelican, her music to the cuckoo, her “toung rhetoricall” to the goose and her bones to the phoenix. Her heart she bequeaths to the king; and she leaves merely her entrails, including her liver and lungs, to her executors who, however, immediately on her death, proceed to devour her whole body, after which the ged flies away with her heart, pursued by the two other birds of prey.

The king, who practised verse, though no piece definitely known to be his has been preserved, had, it would appear, replied in a rather mocking and scurrilous fashion to certain of Lyndsay’s hints as to his amatory inclinations; and to this Lyndsay wrote an Answer in rime royal, after the coarsely plain-spoken fashion of his time, which casts, directly and indirectly, a vivid light on the gross character of contemporary morals and manners. Another piece, meant as a satire on the king’s courtiers, is Ane Publict Confessioun of the Kingis auld Hound callit Bagsche, written in the French octave, and describing, in light, amusing fashion, the evil doings, and the consequent narrow escapes from condign punishment, of an inveterately wicked old hound, as related by the hound itself to the present pet dogs of the king, with the view of warning them to live a quieter, more exemplary and less spiteful life than had the old hound. Another satire, Kitteis Confessioun, written in couplets, records with bitter irony the unedifying particulars of a lady’s interview with a priest on the occasion of her auricular confession. Here he deprecates the custom of minute and systematic confession as injurious rather than beneficial to the morals and the self-control of the supposed penitent. Confession, he thinks, should be made to a preacher only when the person is in dire distress or desperation and in need of special advice. A second satire, but much less serious in tone, on female folly, is Ane Supplicatioun againis Syde Taillis—in the octosyllabic couplet—a witty and amazingly coarse description of the various evils resulting from the inconvenient fashion of wearing long trains, which had infected not merely the ladies of the court, but women of all ranks and classes, including even nuns and female farm servants. Ane Description of Pedder Coffeis—in the octave of three rimes—deals with quite another phase of contemporary manners; it is a satirical account of the wiles of seven varieties of the peddling merchant, of which one is a lewd parish priest, and another an avaricious cathedral dignitary. Another satirical piece is The Justing betwix James Watson and Johne Barbour—in the heroic couplet—written for the entertainment of the king on the occasion of his marriage, in 1538, to Mary of Lorraine. Modelled on Dunbar’s Joustis of the Tail[char]eour and the Sowtar, it is quite good-natured and not so grotesquely extravagant as Dunbar’s piece, although, at the conclusion, he borrows some of Dunbar’s grossness.

But by far the most searching and scorching of Lyndsay’s satires is, of course, the long and elaborate drama entitled Ane Pleasant Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis in commendatioun of Vertew and Vituperatioun of Vyce. Our information on the early history of the drama in Scotland is very scanty; but the lack of information does not imply a lack of plays. The absence of reference to morality and mystery plays in the High Treasurer’s accounts may be explained by the fact that they were, primarily, popular amusements. On the other hand, such information as we possess regarding morality plays in Scotland in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries seems to suggest that, while their character was analogous rather to the morality play of France than to that of England, they were a very common diversion. Adjoining the principal towns were playfields with elevations forming a kind of amphitheatre. The earliest play of which we have mention is one entitled The Halyblude, which was acted on the Windmill hill at Aberdeen, in 1445; and there is also mention of two others having been acted there in later years. More definite is the reference by Knox to “a play againis the Papists” by friar Kyllour, performed before James V at Stirling, on Good Friday morning, 1535. “Diverse comedies and tragedies,” by John Wedderburn, wherein “he nipped the abuses and superstitions of the time,” were, also, played at Dundee, in 1540, among them The History of Dionysius the Tyrant, in the form of a comedy which was acted in the playfields. Neither Knox nor Calderwood conveys the slightest impression that performances of extended plays were uncommon; but they had no reason for alluding to other plays than those used for satirising the ecclesiastics. Later, in 1568, there is mention of a play by Robert Sempill, performed before the Lord Regent, and, a few years afterwards, Knox was present at the performance of a play, by John Davidson, one of the regents of St. Andrews university, in which was represented the capture of Edinburgh Castle—then held for queen Mary—and the execution in effigy of its defenders. Further, an act of the kirk in 1575, for the censorship of “comedies, tragedies and other profane plays,” is a sufficient indication of the popularity of the diversion. Nevertheless, Lyndsay’s Pleasant Satyre is the only surviving example of a sixteenth century Scottish play, though an anonymous play entitled Philotus was published in 1603, and there is an early graphic fragment—probably by Dunbar—in the Bannatyne MS., entitled The Interlude of the Droichis Part of the Play.

In his official capacity of Lyon King of Arms, Lyndsay, doubtless, acquired considerable dramatic experience, for he had the general superintendence of the pageantry and diversions on the occasion of royal fêtes, and, probably, devised the farces, masques and mummeries. Indeed, there is evidence that, at an earlier period of his life, he was accustomed to act in such entertainments or in more elaborate plays. Ane Pleasant Satyre is not the work of a dramatic novice. It is specially notable for its dramatic quality: it manifests a fine instinct for telling dramatic situations and dramatic contrasts and a complete comprehension of the method both of impressing and tickling a popular audience. In construction, in variety of dramatic interest, in vividness of presentation, in keenness of satire, in liveliness of wit—though the liveliness is apt to degenerate into grossness—and in what is termed stage “business,” it is immensely superior to any contemporary English play. The nearest approach to it in dramatic development is Bale’s King John, which is of later date—probably about 1548. Lyndsay’s play was performed before James V at Linlithgow in 1540, and it may have been performed elsewhere at an earlier date. It was performed, at some unknown date, at Cupar-Fife, and, in 1554, at Greenside (at the foot of the Calton hill), Edinburgh. Not improbably, it was written at the instance of the king, who, about the same time, was encouraging Buchanan to satirise the Franciscans. Henry Charteris, the first publisher of Lyndsay’s Works, could attribute Lyndsay’s escape from persecution only to the special intervention and mercy of heaven; but it is to be remembered that Lyndsay did not, like Buchanan, direct his attacks against any special religious order, that he enjoyed the intimate friendship of the king and, it may be, of Mary of Lorraine as well, and that he was not a preacher, nor even a full-blown reformer. He was neither Calvinist nor puritan, and was less interested in disputes about doctrines and forms of church polity than in the social and political well-being of the people.