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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

§ 7. Alexander Montgomerie

Alexander Montgomerie, the last of the Scottish “makaris,” probably held some office at the court of James VI, and, most likely, was the king’s chief instructor in the art of verse. He has a good deal in common with Scott, of whom he may be reckoned a kind of disciple. His temperament was, however, less poetical; he lacked Scott’s geniality as well as artistic grace; he was more varied and voluminous; he was a still greater, if a less successful, experimenter in curious metres, and, as might be supposed from his later date, he was, in some respects, still more influenced by the English school. Still, like Scott, as a metrist, he belongs to the Scottish school, the metres which he invents being merely modified reconstructions and combinations of the old ones, while what staves, as the “ballade,” he borrows from the English lyric school, have a certain similarity to the old staves, the only difference in the “ballade” stave being the modern lilt of the double refrain. Even in the sonnet, of which he left no fewer than seventy examples, he has a certain non-English individuality; for while, in some instances, he adopted the sonnet forms of Tottel’s Miscellany, he also translated several of Ronsard’s sonnets in the Ronsard form, and wrote a Ronsard variation. Further, his connection with the old Scottish school is seen in his use of the old rimed alliterative stave of the romances in Ane Answer to ane Helandmains Invective and in the Flyting between him and Sir Patrick Hume of Polwarth.

The most popular of Montgomerie’s pieces was, apparently, The Cherrie and the Slae; but its popularity had only an indirect connection with its poetic merits. These are not remarkable and are not superior to those of The Bankis of Helicon, which is in the same measure. But, in The Cherrie and the Slae, Montgomerie does not, as in The Bankis of Helicon, have recourse to aureate terms or classical imagery. Though somewhat dull and archaic as an allegory, the piece as regards its language is perfectly simple and unaffected; in the descriptions of nature there are no attempts at meretricious ornaments; they represent the fresh and quite unsophisticated pleasure and admiration of the average person; while the general drift of the poem is obscure, it is pervaded by the maxims of that homely and commonplace philosophy of the repetition of which the average uneducated person never tires; and, finally, the quatorzain in which the piece is written, was, with the peculiar jingle of its wheels, well adapted to catch the popular ear, although the full capabilities of the stave were only revealed by Burns in the recitativos of The Jolly Beggars. As a very varied metrist in what James VI termed “cuttit and broken verse,” Montgomerie showed both remarkable ingenuity and a good musical ear; but he was not a poetic melodist—partly from his despondent views of life and deficiency in animal spirits, his verses are, for the most part, lacking in poetic flow. His reflective pieces are too low-spirited to be effective; his amatory verse is not animated by much lyrical fervour; and his religious pieces and versions of psalms, sometimes written to special tunes, while characterised by apt phrasing and considerable metrical felicity, do not manifest much fervour or depth of conviction. Yet The Night is near Gone has the true accent of poetry, and, in several other pieces, he has poetic moments.

With Montgomerie, the school of the old “makaris” properly ends. While James VI, who, in 1591, published Poetical Exercises at Vacant Hours, remained in Scotland, poetry was practised by a few poets under his immediate patronage. William Fowler translated The Triumphs of Petrarch, and Stewart of Baldines presented the king with Ane Abbregement of Roland Furious translated out of Aroist; but both works are preserved only in manuscript, the one in the Edinburgh university library and the other in the Advocates’ library. In 1590, John Burel wrote a Descriptioun of the queen’s entry into Edinburgh, and an allegorical piece The Passage of the Pilgrim, but neither has much merit. Poetry, except of a religious kind, now came under taboo, and the religious verse was of a very mediocre character. Alexander Arbuthnot, principal of Aberdeen university, amused his leisure hours by cultivating the secular muse, but, as he relates, in secret, and with fear and trembling, lest “with rascal rymours I sall raknit be.” On the other hand, Alexander Hume, minister of Logie and younger brother of the Hume of Montgomerie’s Flyting, sought to substitute “for prophane sonnets and vain ballads of love” a series of Hymns and Sacred Songs, in which are discernible an assimilation in form of Scottish to English verse, and, equally so, the fatal decay in Scotland of poetic inspiration. In the succeeding century, the writing of verse, mostly in the English language and form, was practised by certain of the Scottish gentry; but, as regards the bulk of the people, secular poetry remained for nearly two centuries under an ecclesiastical ban.