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Roderick J. Lyall, Alexander Montgomerie: Poetry, Politics and Cultural Change in Jacobean Scotland

Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2005

384 pp., ISBN: 0866983422, £33


Reviewed by Sebastiaan Verweij


In a book review some years ago, of a collection of essays (Literature, Letters and the Canonical in Early Modern Scotland), Sally Mapstone suggested that what the discipline of Older Scots studies really needs is more monographs.[1] Whereas many essay collections and journal articles have recently appeared, the number of book-length studies may be counted on one hand. Lyall’s study of the poetry of Alexander Montgomerie (c.1550-1598), and more widely, of the poetic culture of Jacobean Scotland, is without a doubt one of those books that early modern Scottish studies so badly needed.

To further illustrate Mapstone’s point: the last comprehensive review of the culture of Jacobean Scotland was published in 1969 by Helena Shire, Song, Dance, and Poetry of the Court of Scotland under King James VI (Cambridge UP, 1969). This work, though brilliant and the first of its kind, has recently come under fire. Shire’s grand narratives of Scottish writing at the end of the sixteenth, and the beginning of the seventeenth century, are no longer tenable, and some of the myths created by Shire (notoriously that of the organisation of a poetic band of brothers, the so-called ‘Castalian band’, and their ‘writing game’) have been successfully challenged. Yet, nothing so far has really replaced those myths. The only other recent monograph that has surveyed the period is Sarah Dunnigan’s excellent Eros and Poetry at the Courts of Mary Queen of Scots and James VI (Palgrave, 2002). Yet, as the title already indicates, this book deals not with a full-blown political, cultural and literary history of the period, but rather traces the theme of eroticism throughout a number of writers (Montgomerie amongst them).

Lyall’s book is admirably interdisciplinary, and must appeal to historians and literary critics alike. The book is divided into two parts: the first builds on Montgomerie’s life-records, and presents a meticulously researched account of the poet’s career as a courtier, as a soldier, and as a writer. Lyall insistently stresses a European dimension, both in terms of Montgomerie’s life, and his works. The biographical narrative takes us from Scotland to the Netherlands, and the poet may have visited Spain (where he might have converted to Catholicism), and perhaps France. The section of the book that discusses Montgomerie’s life up to 1580 is almost exclusively historical, and, since sources are scarce, also largely conjectural. Montgomerie’s career at court (1580-86), and his subsequent military campaigning in the Low Countries is better documented, and Lyall has unearthed a great deal of new information particularly in regard to Montgomerie’s time spent fighting the Spanish in the Low Countries. Adding to the European dimension is the fact that one of Montgomerie’s earliest eulogists, Thomas Duff, wrote from Würzburg, Germany, a place where Montgomerie might have intended to flee to after having been implicated in a Catholic plot in 1598. As it happened, the poet died not long after, and was buried in an Edinburgh kirkyard, much against the wishes of the Protestant ministers.

The second part of the book assesses Montgomerie’s works and addresses the major themes of satire and conviviality, love, and devotion. Montgomerie is the author of many sonnets, lyrics and songs, as well as the long and allegorical The Cherrie and the Slae, and the jointly authored Flyting between Polwarth and Montgomerie. The poet was instrumental in the development of James VI’s ambitious literary agenda of the '1580s and 90s', and he is justly praised for his metrical ingenuity. In his love poetry, like any other sixteenth-century poet, Montgomerie’s follows, imitates, and remoulds Petrarchist and Ovidian models as developed on the Continent, particularly in France, for instance by Ronsard and Marot. When Montgomerie is at his best, however, Lyall argues that he transcends these models, edging towards what, in a few decades time, would be termed ‘metaphysical’ poetry. His devotional verse, surprisingly perhaps for a recusant, is ‘on the whole unmarked by sectarian commitment’. (p. 282) Though critics have attempted to reveal a Catholic agenda (see for instance Shire’s reading of the Cherrie), Lyall is more careful, and notes meaningful ambiguities there where other critics had located clear Catholic messages.

Lyall’s approach to Montgomerie’s poetry may broadly be termed ‘historicist’, taking full account of the wider backdrop of Scottish, English, and European literature and politics. Significantly, Lyall reads Montgomerie’s poetry against the emergent voices of European Mannerism and Baroque. As the writer argues, any narrower scope would not have done justice to Montgomerie’s accomplishments, and would have ignored the larger forces at work that gave shape to Scottish renaissance poetry:

the pressures exerted by assertive monarchies, exacerbated by the polarisation of religion, were apparent throughout Western Europe, and their aesthetic consequences can be detected in every culture from southern Italy to Scotland, from the Iberian peninsula to Bohemia, Dalmatia, and Lithuania. To fail to take account of the widespread nature of these cultural forces [...] is to risk sacrificing a full understanding of the nature of early modern culture on the altar of particularism. (p. 13)

This does not mean that Lyall loses sight of a particular Scottish tradition of writing (which may be traced straight back to Dunbar), but rather that he allows space for the influx of (mostly) Italian and French developments. Mannerism and Baroque are no easy concepts to pin down. For Lyall, Mannerism constitutes a set of poetic techniques, and not a period. Mannerism ‘leads to the elevation of detail over formal coherence, fragmenting texts where the humanist-influenced art of the earlier Renaissance tended to unify them’. (p. 16) Such concerns may be readily related to Montgomerie’s poetry, particularly his lyrics and his sonnets. Lyall’s identification of Baroque sensibilities in Montgomerie is more hesitant, and (as he himself realises) no strong case can be made for Montgomerie as an exclusively Baroque poet. Yet, traces may be detected in the Scottish poet’s works that foreshadow later explorations of the Baroque mode (for instance by William Drummond of Hawthornden).

The power and versatility of Montgomerie’s verse cannot be done justice to in the space of a book review – a short example will have to suffice here, from a four-sonnet sequence entitled ‘To his Majestie for his Pensioun’, written after his fall from favour at court, having lost his pension. No man would gladly have been at the receiving end of the poet’s venomous pen. The Flyting is one example of the poet’s razor-sharp wit, though it needs to be remembered that a flyting match is essentially a good-natured contest of poetic wit and invention. Not so when Montgomerie turned upon his lawyers, for instance, or the Lords of Session. Less venomous, but perhaps equally bitter, is the poet’s plea to his king to restore his pension:

Help (Prince) to vhom, on vhom not, I complene
Bot on, not to, fals fortun ay my fo
Quha but, not by a resone reft me fro
Quho did, not does, it suld my self sustene.

Of crymis not cairs since I haif kept me clene

I thole, not thanks thame Sir vho serv’d me so,
Quha heght, not held to me and mony mo
To help, not hurt, bot hes not byding bene

Sen will not wit, to lait vhilk I lament

Of sight not service, shed me from your grace.
With, not without your warrant yit I went
In wryt, not words, the papers are in place.

Sen chance not change hes put me to this pane
Let richt, not reif my Pensioun bring again.[2]

This coded sonnet stresses the monarch’s responsibility in restoring the poet to favour. The poem is beautifully ambiguous, and showcases, in Lyall’s words, ‘Montgomerie’s most intricate verbal play, a series of quibbles which break the rhythmical flow of the sonnet and suggest a mind which is both determined to avoid any misunderstanding and severely troubled by misfortune’. (p. 174) Through this highly-wrought piece of rhetoric the poet forcefully conveys his displeasure. Lyall, as an historicist, attempts to read the sonnet as a piece of biography, finding possible allegations against James, and the ‘undefined “they” who have betrayed him [the poet]’. (p. 175) The exact circumstances that the poem obliquely references will probably never be uncovered, yet the sonnet serves as a fine example of Montgomerie’s formal mastery of a poem where private and public politics coincide.

Lyall’s concluding assessment of Montgomerie leaves nothing to the imagination:

Montgomerie is not only the finest Scottish poet of his age: he is, I believe, one of the most distinctive and innovative poetic voices in early modern Britain, whose eclipse is testimony to the distorting power of the grand récits of nations both small and large. (p. 349)

It is perhaps the poet’s misfortune to have been a Scot, and a Catholic: neither have fared well in the general histories of British renaissance writing which have always focused on Elizabethan and early Stuart England, and on a dominant Protestant poetics evident for instance from the works of Sidney and Shakespeare. The book goes a long way to demolish the usefulness of those grand récits for Scotland, and puts into place a more subtle, fractured political and intellectual history that is distinct from, but intricately intertwined with, that of England. Within this space, Montgomerie occupies an important position as the most accomplished poet in the vernacular, or the ‘maister poete’, as James VI once affectionately styled him. Claims of Montgomerie’s poetical merits will come as no surprise to specialists of Scottish early modern writing; yet, in the wider context of British renaissance studies the poet is still largely ignored, and this book makes a persuasive case to allow more space for Montgomerie in the British canon.

There are areas that Lyall’s book might have more fully addressed. One is the circulation of Montgomerie’s verse in manuscript. This is certainly touched upon, but not fully exploited. To reiterate: Montgomerie’s lyrical verse survives in Edinburgh University Library MS De.3.7, or the Ker manuscript. This source was unknown until rediscovered in 1802, when James Sibbald printed from it a selection of lyrics and sonnets. Two of Montgomerie’s long poems, The Flyting and the Cherrie and the Slae, survive in prints dating from 1597 onwards, and it is for these poems that the poet was chiefly remembered throughout the seventeenth century. Yet, there are many miscellany manuscripts from the period 1580-1650 that collect at least one poem, or a song, by Montgomerie. One way in which the impact of the poet’s works could have been assessed is by investigation of those manuscripts, both poetical and musical, in which Montgomerie’s lyrics survived. It is entirely possible, indeed likely, that more works have survived which were recorded unattributed. One such miscellany is National Library of Scotland MS 15937, which is curiously omitted from the list of manuscript sources for Montgomerie’s poems. (p. 2) Another example is EUL MS Laing III.447, the only source that contains, in addition to two Montgomerie lyrics, a scribal version of his popular Cherrie. Lyall rightly dismisses earlier claims that some of the other poems in Laing might be from the hand of the ‘maister poete’, and it is better to err on the safe side. Yet, in this manuscript and others, there is evidence of a Montgomerian poetics (if such a thing can be said to exist), which begs the question of the poet’s influence on his contemporaries. Yet, to be fair this is properly the subject for another book. Such a poetics had to be established in the first place in order to gauge its influence more widely, and this book has done exactly that.

Indeed, there are plenty of suggestions for further study. Lyall’s final chapter throws down the gauntlet for other critics of Older Scots literature. Montgomerie is the first late-sixteenth century writer to be treated to a book-length study, but hopefully, as Lyall suggests, not the last. The first obvious candidate would be William Fowler, whose writings in quantity equal or surpass Montgomerie’s (though generally not in quality); also, a very rich record survived of his life and career. Another candidate would be John Stewart of Baldynneis, or any number of poets, such as Robert Ayton, Alexander Craig, William Alexander, or William Drummond, who flourished after 1603, and who inherited to a large extent a Scottish poetic programme as developed and practiced by Montgomerie.

Anyone interested in the literature, culture, and politics of Jacobean Scotland would do well to read this book. It is by far the most wide-reaching and comprehensive account not only of Montgomerie’s works, but also of the complex relations between early modern Scottish writing and that of England and the Continent.  On the strengths of this book, and of course David Parkinson’s recent edition, it is to be hoped that Montgomerie’s poetry, which has long dwelt in the ‘lang guid nicht’ of critical neglect, will now be welcomed into the ‘glaid good-morou’ and ‘the dauing of [its] long desyrit day’.[3]





[1] Sally Mapstone, Book Review of Literature, Letters and the Canonical in Early Modern Scotland, ed. by Nicola Royan and Theo van Heijnsbergen, Innes Review, 52:2 (2003), 238-40

[2] Alexander Montgomerie: Poems, ed. by David J. Parkinson, 2 vols (Edinburgh, STS, 2000), I, 107.

[3] These phrases have been borrowed from Montgomerie’s ‘Lyk as the dum Solsequium’, and ‘Ressave this harte vhois Constancie wes sik’, Poems, I, 33-6, 55-6.