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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

§ 6. Alexander Scott

Alexander Scott, almost the only lyrist, except such as are anonymous, of importance amongst the old Scottish poets, stands still more aloof in spirit than Maitland from the emotional and fervent zeal of the reformers. His poetry is entirely secular in theme and manner, with the exception of a translation of two psalms, the first and the fiftieth, which, though cleverly rimed, are both of them rather frigid and mechanical. Seeing Montgomery refers to him, in 1584, as “old Scott,” he was probably born not later than towards the close of the first quarter of the sixteenth century. If, again, his supposed Lament of the Master of Erskine be properly named, he most likely began to write not later than 1547, for the master, who is reported to have been the lover of the queen dowager, was slain at Pinkie in that year, and the poem is credited with embodying his imaginary farewell to her. Of May must, also, have been written before the act of parliament passed in 1555 against the old May celebrations; and, although the only other poem of his that can be dated in his New Yeir Gift to Queen Mary, 1562, none of his verses that have been preserved is of later date than 1568.

Of the thirty-six pieces of which Scott is known to be the author, thirty are of an amatory character, and the majority of them seem to have been greatly influenced in style and spirit by the love lyrics in Tottel’s Miscellany, 1557, whether Scott had an acquaintance with such pieces before they were published or not. To Scott’s verse there thus attaches a certain special interest, as suggesting the possibility of a new school of Scottish poetry, which, while retaining certain northern characteristics, would gradually become more and more assimilated to the English school; but this possibility had already been made futile by the triumph of a puritanic reformation. Scott was a creation of the ante-reformation period; and, although his themes and his method of treatment are partly suggested by the lyrical school of England, he may still be regarded as, primarily, the pupil of Dunbar. The influence of the English school is modified by characteristics that are distinctly Scottish. While the Miscellany seems to have suggested to him the appropriateness of short staves for certain forms of the love lyric, he was not content to confine himself to the staves that were there represented; as a metrist he belongs properly to the school of the old Scottish “makaris.” Besides utilising several of Dunbar’s staves he had recourse to a variety of earlier staves in rime couée; and in the use of these medieval forms he shows a consummate mastery. His distinct poetic gift is shown in the facility, the grace and the musical melody of his verse, and his power of mirroring sentiment and emotion in sound and rhythm; and there are also qualities in the tone and spirit of his verse that individualise it and distinguish it from the lyrical school of England. It is not so much imitative, as representative of his own characteristic personality. He is terser, more pungent, more aphoristic than the English lyrists. In most of his lyrics, the emotional note vibrates more strongly—in the utterance of joy, as in Up Helsum Hairt; in the expression of sorrowful resignation, as in The Lament of the Master of Erskine, and Oppressit Hairt Indure; or in the record of his amatory experiences, as in Lo Quhat it is to Lufe; and it may further be added that when, as in the Ballad maid to the Derisioun and Scorne of Wantoun Wemen, he is indecorous, he evinces a grossness that his English contemporaries cannot rival. Apart from his lyrics and his translation of two psalms, the only other pieces of Scott are The New Yeir’s Gift, and The Justing and Debait. In the former, after complimenting the queen in the aureate fashion of Dunbar, he devotes himself to a recital of the social evils of the time, more after the manner of Maitland than of Lyndsay; and he concludes with an envoy in which he gives an elaborate display of his accomplishments in alliteration and internal rime. The Justing and Debait, written in the Christis Kirk stave, is a mock tournament piece after the fashion of Dunbar’s Turnament and Lyndsay’s Justing, but less an uproarious burlesque than a lightly witty narrative.