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Scotish Poetry. We also have given it in our Appendix (No. 2,) as exhibiting a lively picture of the times, and conveying a right idea of the species of poetry then chiefly in vogue. At the present moment we know of nothing else which he wrote, though it is more than probable this did not close his poetical attempts. After succeeding so well, it is very likely that he would go on, with all due diligence, in the good work of ripping up the vices, and tearing off the cowls which veiled the infirmities of an indolent, fat, besotted, and ignorant clergy. Lindsay had previously paved the way for refor. mation, and given such sharp and stunning blows to priestcraft in his day, that the minds of men were fully prepared to adopt whatever was presented in the shape of purity, uprightness, and good sense. It required but the rousing eloquence and energetic fearlessness of Knox and others of the Calvinistic school, to give them nerve, and urge them on to action against, and revolt from every monastic institution that formerly held them in subjection. We are not, however, in this epocha of our literary history, to look for anything like good poets, for indeed there were none such. All the powers and faculties of the soul seem to have been thoroughly engaged in fathoming and bottoming religious truths, and in combating with errors and absurdities prescription had hallowed and the blind acquiescence of ages invested with a sacred mystery of character. Besides it may with safety be remarked, that all political revolutions are at least for a time inimical to the growth and culture of poetic genius. But especially those which originate from difference in religious sentiments and the clashing of opposite creeds, are more than ordinarily destructive of all its finer sensibilities and more delicate tints. Poetry is not suited to a life of action, uproar and confusion, where the passions and prejudices of men are excited to their highest pitch, and war against each other with the fellest and most rooted rancour. It may look afar off upon such commotions and strifes, but it shrinks to participate in the active workings and energies of their elements. Security, silence, and undisturbed retreats, can only nourish and rear it to the full maturity of its strength, and unfold every blossom of its loveliness: consequently it is a harsh and unkindly tasted fruit we must expect in every Scotish Poet of the period to which we allude. Little sentiment, and no feeling-much in
vective, and little reason-pointed sarcasm-intolerant rebukings, and satire all wormwood and gall. The coarser, it would seem, a coarse and filthy gibe could be given, or a severe rub inflicted, so much the more was it to be valued as a notable truth, or deemed excellent as a pithy saying. Hence the divine nature of poetry becomes transmuted into the mean tool of party interest, or degraded to the more contemptible office of catering and pimping for a few selfish and low minded men; inas. much as it enters warmly into all their concerns, adopts their views, defends their measures, and lauds their abominations. But to return-Glencairn succeeded to his father in 1547, and died in 1576. He lived in a splendid though troubled æra of our national history, and himself was no inconsiderable actor in its chequered scenes and shifting accidents. His devotion seems to have approached to fanaticism; his hatred of popery, almost to sacrilege. As a keen and insatiate destroyer of stone images and other church ornaments he was almost unrivalled in his day; and, with the exception of his leader, the aforesaid John Knox, and Edward of England, the monastic architecture of our country hath no good reason to curse any one more than him. Aided by his own domestics, he pillaged and dismantled the beautiful chapel of Haliruidhous; nor can it be dissembled, that the Abbey of Paisley, which lay so opportunely to his hand, also felt the full weight and measure of its indignation, and smarted severely under its regenerating, or more correctly speaking, its destroying power.
Alexander Montgomerie, the celebrated author of The Cherrie and the Slae, a poet of a very different and superior cast from his countrymen already noticed, is the next with whom we meet in the order of time. Like many more of our Makers, few particulars that may be depended on can be had respecting him. Neither his family connections, course of life, nor how he came by the title of Captain, (for so he is sometimes called) are precisely known. That he was connected with the house of Eglinton, appears not only likely from his name, but also from his so often celebrating, in some of his smaller pieces, Lady Margaret Montgomery, eldest daughter of Hugh, the third Earl of Eglinton. One other circumstance of some weight in establishing this, arises from the intimacy and friendship that subsisted between him and Robert Sempill, fourth lord of that name, another poet whom we
can lay claim, it must be confessed, on more unexceptionable grounds. Yet, though the supposing Montgomerie to be a cadet of the Eglinton family, is an opinion unsupported by any historical document, and indeed is at variance with some trifling conjectures, hazarded both. by Irving and Sibbald, nevertheless, it is one much more plausible than some others which have been received and adopted regarding him, of a fancifuller nature. This however is a matter of little real importance, and the question is left to be discussed by those who have leisure and opportunity on their hands to do it justice in all its parts and bearings.
The fame of Montgomerie for the most part rests on his Cherrie and the Slae, a fine allegorical poem, which, with all its tediousness, obscurities, and occasional lameness, has been, and will ever be read with pleasure. The explication of the allegory, found in the “Opus poematicum de virtutum et vitiorum pugna; sive electio status in adolescentia ” of the celebrated Thomas Dempster, and the friend and admirer of Montgomerie, is the same as that given by Dr. Irving ; namely, that the paths of virtue, though of the most difficult access, ought to be strenuously preferred to those of vice, however smooth and inviting the latter may appear. Others have supposed it is intended to represent the perplexities and doubts of a lover, but to every person who reads it, the explication already given is undoubt. edly the true one.
Notwithstanding this poem has been long and deservedly esteemed, yet there are not wanting some, who, from a silly affectation of singularity, have treated it in a very cavalier-like manner. The pettish criticism of Mr Pinkerton, we consider of this kind. That writer observes, “It is a very poor production; and yet I know not how, it has been frequently printed, while far superior works have been neglected. The stanza is good for a song, but the worst in the world for a long poem. The allegory is weak and wire-drawn; and the whole piece beneath contempt.” This wholesale way of pronouncing condemnation, is neither just nor rational, either in regard to persons or things. As applied in the present case, it happens to be the very height of injustice, nay of downright absurdity. Fortunately, other men are endowed with understandings and tastes, as well as Mr. Pinkerton, and have the courage to judge
for themselves in these questions, without implicitly yielding up their opinions to every crude assertion it lists him to make. There be some critics vastly in conceit with themselves, who strain and strive not a little to gain distinction amongst their common-place brethren of mankind by saying what they are pleased to term smart things. These gentlemen will stretch a far point to avoid repeating any remark that has been uttered before, however true; and think nothing of occasionally sacri. ficing trath, sincerity, and principle, for the sake of appearing strikingly original, and marvellously foolish. It need scarcely be asked if Mr. Pinkerton sometimes falls under this description of writers. Did the limits of these pages admit of detail, it were passing easy to point out beauties in various parts, even of the poor production mentioned above, which we are convinced would please even the very fastidious Mr. Pinkerton; but we have neither time nor leisure at present to buffet every babbler that croaketh dissonance in our path.
Montgomerie was the favourite court poet of his day ; the fame he earned amongst his contemporaries has descended to our own times; for of all the other poets of that period there is not one whose works have been so frequently reprinted, admir. ed, and imitated. Maugre all that Mr. Pinkerton can say, this is a pretty strong proof that they are not mere tinsel and prunello. Many of his amatory effusions and sonnets are in truth exceedingly beautiful and tender, affecting and elegant. His metres are frequently referred to, by our Royal Critic, James VI., in his “ Rewlls and Cautelis for Scottis Poesie,” as models of style, and by him we are told, that in “ love materes all kyndis of cuttit and broken verse quhairof newe formes are daylie inventit, according to the poetis pleasour," are right fitting and meet. This cuttit and broken verse is no other than that in which “ The Cherrie and the Slae,” is written.
Like William Dunbar, Montgomerie polluted his fine genius by a Flyting with a brother Maker. Flyting, a species of composition which appears to have been a source of much pleasure to many of our elder poets, at least one in which they often indulged, was the popular name for a poetical invective. Every base calumny, foul reproach, cutting gibe, or filthy image an unclean mind could engender, formed the body and soul of these scurrilous pieces. And it is a singular fact, that perhaps no tongue on earth is more rich and expressive than the Scotish, in flyting terms. Its copiousness, nerve, and nastiness witha! are truly astonishing. Skelton and Nashe are mere drivellers, compared with Dunbar and Kennedie, Montgomerie, and Polwart, which is not surprising, when we know that they handled far blunter tools.
Contemporaneous with Montgomerie, was his friend Robert Sempill, a more voluminous, but by no means so good or so popular a poet. It has been said elsewhere, that this Robert Sempill was a titled personage; but it is right to mention in this place, that Dr. Irving is decidedly hostile to such an opinion, and treats the whole matter as a mere figment of an idle imagination. “One of the most persevering and unsuccessful versifiers of this period, says he, was Robert Sempill, whom a late writer (Sibbald), who amuses himself with perpetual conjectures, ridiculously supposes to have been a Scottish Peer. The eulogium which Dempster has bestowed on Sempill's genius, is highly extravagant, and must have been conceived without any previous acquaintance with his writings; be represents him as exhibiting the combined excellencies of Propertius, Tibullus, Ovid, and Callimachus. Some pieces of this poetaster are to be found in the Evergreen; and Mr. Dalzell has lately republished others from the original editions. They are equally indecent and unpoetical.” With every mark of deference to the opinions of a writer who seldom dogmatises rashly, and who has by his labours done so much for the memories of Scotland's poets, we at the same time are compelled to dissent as widely from him on this point, as he seems to do from Sibbald and Dempster.
It is to be observed, that albeit the Doctor contradicts Sibbald, he does not disprove his position, nor even attempt to shake it by any investigation whatever which might throw more light on the subject matter of dispute. Mere assertions are to be received with extreme caution, when unaccompanied with their proofs. As for our simple selves, we see nothing ridiculons at all in Sibbald's supposition ; but on the contrary, every reason to make us believe it perfectly correct. According to Douglas's Peerage and Crawford's History of Renfrewshire, Robert, the fourth Lord Sempill, succeeded to his grandfather in 1571, and died at an advanced age in 1611. Sempill the poet wrote all his works between the years 1565 and 1573: