The European Sun: Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature, University of Strathclyde, 1993

By Graham Caie; Roderick J. Lyall et al. | Go to book overview

A.A. MACDONALD


5. Scottish Poetry of the Reign of Mary Stewart

The return to Scotland

There was in sixteenth-century Scotland a custom, whereby court poets had the opportunity, or were expected, formally to address their respective sovereigns at New Year. Within the terms of the literary subgenre to which this custom gave rise, it was normal for the poet to combine seasonal salutations with words of praise, before discreetly shifting the focus towards his own situation. As was only fitting, the king would be assured in advance of the poet’s gratitude for any favours received. Prince-pleasing was the name of the game, but the game involved an element of reciprocity, and implied shared assumptions regarding the roles of both monarch and poet. In terms of this special kind of discourse, personal-sounding address was in reality just as much the vehicle for public utterance, and both poet and king, together with the indispensable onlookers, became party to a court ritual. This ensured not only that literary talent would have an occasion on which to be rewarded, but also that the poet would confer a favour on the king, by giving the latter an opportunity to display his magnificance and liberality. Thus, Renaissance sovereigns had at least one thing in common with their early Germanic forebears: namely, that they were appreciated not only for what they possessed, but also for what they gave away. In a well-functioning court, the sovereign and the poets around him would thus be inescapably linked in a close, quasi-conspiratorial relationship, and this, accordingly, is precisely what one finds in the New Year poems of William Dunbar and William Stewart.1

During the period of Mary Queen of Scots, however, this feature of Scottish culture, like so many others, was to undergo modification. The first New Year poem which Mary received in her own country was that of Alexander Scott, and dates from January 1562. Scott’s poem departs from the conventions of the New Year poem in terms both of form and content. Normally such poems are composed to be delivered orally, in the chamber of the sovereign, and the implied circumstances of presentation will be familiar and intimate: William Stewart, on just such an occasion, mentions how Mary’s father, James V, slid two shillings into the poet’s hand.2 At the very outset of Scott’s poem, by contrast, one

1 On Dunbar see: Priscilla Bawcutt, Dunbar the Makar (Oxford, 1992), pp. 78–130. On William Stewart see: A.A. MacDonald, ‘William Stewart and the Court Poetry of the Reign of James V’, in Stewart Style 1513–1542: Essays on the Court of James V, ed. Janet Hadley Williams (East Linton, 1996), pp. 179–200.

2 The Bannatyne Manuscript, ed. W. Tod Ritchie, STS, 4 vols. (Edinburgh and London, 1928–34), II,254–55.

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