The Travels of Ideology: Niccolo Machiavelli at the Court of James VI

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This paper analyses William Fowler's translation of Niccolo Machiavelli's Principe, reconstructing the historical circumstances of the work, and its author's political and cultural activity at the court of James VI of Scotland. A number of hypotheses are discussed: Fowler's translation may be the result of its author's studying at the University of Padua in 1592-93, or it might have been undertaken as part of Fowler's involvement with James's composition of the Basilikon Doron. The last section of the paper analyses Fowler's dedication of the work to the Laird of Buccleuch, and the circumstances by which the Principe might have reached Scotland.


Among the poets and writers who lived at the court of James VI of Scotland, William Fowler is possibly the most neglected. After Henry W. Meikle's monumental edition of his works, published in the early twentieth century, there have been very few critical contributions on his occasional and celebrative poetry, or on his poetic translations; as for his prose translation of Niccolo Machiavelli's Principe, it is hardly ever mentioned by modern scholars. (1) The possible explanations for this silence are, at the same time, useful indications on how we should explore this forgotten but fascinating path. A prose translation (indeed, the first prose translation into Scottish of a contemporary work) finds little place in the recent plethora of studies devoted to the development of lyric poetry at James's court; William Fowler seems to have enjoyed an ambiguous status in James's intellectual circle, as will be seen presently; nor is it easy to insert this particular translation into the intellectual programme, inaugurated by the young king with the publication of his Reulis and Cautelis (1584), that included translations from the great classics of European literary languages. (2) Reulis and Cautelis has long and rightly been considered not only the intellectual manifesto of the circle of poets known as the Castalian band, (3) but the king's cultural programme. It is possible that we attribute much importance to what was, after all, a very youthful effort, and a mainly derivative work; but the declarations of intent of the treatise, its practical precepts on metre and rhyme, and especially its hints on poetic diction and ornamentation, are borne out by the standard practice of the so-called Castalian poets, Fowler included. However, in some respects James's theory seems surprisingly at odds with his (and his fellow poets') practice. One passage in particular has originated some controversy. James's treatise explicitly condemns translation in a famous passage:

Bot sen invention is ane of the cheif vertewis in a poete, it is best that ye invent your awin subject your self and not to compose of sene subjectis. Especially, translating any thing out of uther language, quhilk doing, ye not onely assay not your awin ingyne of inventioun, bot be the same meanes ye are bound as to a staik to follow that buikis phrasis, quhilk ye translate. (4)

But it may be noted that the king encouraged (and himself practised) the translation of both French and Italian poems; notable instances are Thomas Hudson's translation of Du Bartas's Judith (undertaken at the king's explicit command, as the dedication makes clear), John Stewart of Baldynneis's abridgement of Ariosto's Orlando furioso, William Fowler's already mentioned version of Petrarch's Trionfi, and James's own Uranie, again from Du Bartas; the latter, incidentally, includes a defence of the practice of translation added by the king. Indeed, with the exception of Alexander Montgomerie, who was active and recognized as a poet well before he entered James's sphere of influence, it might be said that most of the writers associated with the Scottish court at the time shone as translators rather than as original poets.

The conclusion that may tentatively be drawn is that, although denying the value of invention to the act of translation, the scholar/king saw it as a necessary corollary of poetic activity, especially as the latter was still in its infancy in Scotland, as James himself seems to think: he gave little encouragement to native poetic forms, and in his treatise appeared to ignore Scotland's copious literary heritage. …