A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter Five
EARLY SCOTTISH POETRY

BY Scottish poetry we mean poetry written in Scots, i.e. in that Northern English which remained the national language of Scotland long after it had sunk in England to the status of a provincial dialect. Scottish literature was the last of the Western vernacular literatures to flower and the first to decay. In the dawn of history we find Scotland occupied by four distinct races--Picts, Scots, Britons, and Angles. It was well into the eleventh century before these were united under one crown, and many years later before, in a time of peace, the first wave of French influence reached Scotland's shores. Thomas the Rhymer, whom tradition names as the father of Scottish poetry, seems to have lived in Alexander III's reign. If Sir Tristram is his, as Scott believed, then the lowest stratum of Scottish poetry rests on French romance; if it is not--and the ascription is quite uncertain--then we have nothing at all left from that brief golden age.

The earliest undoubted specimen of Scottish verse that we possess is a fragment of a cantus lamenting the 'perplexity' in which Scotland was bestead after Alexander III's untimely death. From this perplexity Bruce delivered her, and it was fitting that the first notable Scottish poem should be a monument to the hero-king. Between the cantus we have mentioned and John Barbour Brus (c. 1375) we find nothing but three scraps of verse jeering at the English, fifteen lines in all. The Brus is not exactly a great poem; vivid as it is in description and shrewd in characterisation, its verse is rather unmelodious and its diction rather pedestrian. But if it is not exactly a great poem, it is a noble piece of work, animated by a chivalrous spirit worthy of its subject. The image of Bruce that Scotland still carries in her heart, the wise, patient king, highhearted, high-minded, humorous, and kindly, is the Bruce that Barbour drew. Love of country and freedom inspired a burst of

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