Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by James Miller Dodds
George Buchanan (1506–1582)
 
[Buchanan was born in Stirlingshire in 1506, was educated at St. Andrews and Paris, and, settling in France, soon obtained a great reputation as a scholar and poet. He revisited Scotland in 1535, but his freedom of speech and writing forced him abroad again in 1539, and for the next twenty-two years he was engaged in the practical work of education at Bordeaux, at Coimbra in Portugal, and elsewhere. At Bordeaux Montaigne was among his pupils. In 1561 he returned to Scotland for good. Though adhering to the Reformation, he was well known and popular at Court, and read Latin with the Queen. He became Principal of St. Leonard’s College at St. Andrews, and (although a layman) Moderator of the General Assembly of the Scottish Church. After Mary’s flight he was sent to England as one of the Commission entrusted with the duty of convincing the English ministers of her guilt. From 1570 he acted as tutor of James the Sixth, for whom he composed his latest works. His writings in Latin verse are the Somnium, Palinodia, and Franciscanus (satires), Medea and Alcestis (translations), Jephthes and Baptistes (original dramas), the Psalms, De Sphæra (philosophy), with many minor poems, in which he is perhaps seen at his best. His prose works are mentioned below. He died in 1582.]  1
 
AN often-quoted couplet by Joseph Scaliger—
        “Imperii fuerat Romani Scotia limes,
    Romani eloquii Scotia finis erit”—
does not overstate the position which George Buchanan, one of the many Scotsmen of his age who sought abroad the culture and the audience which their own country could not afford, attained in contemporary estimation. His poetic monument is now somewhat moss-grown though his portrait, with the arching brows and close-fitting skull-cap, is familiar to the readers of Maga in many lands. Yet, while Buchanan was alive, Sir Philip Sidney could find no better defence for poetry than the patronage of “so piercing a wit,” and in the next century he is still to Hugo Grotius “illud numen Scotiæ,” recognisable without further description.
  2
  The reasons why his laurels have faded are not far to seek. It was in his age inevitable that a Scotsman seeking literary fame should write in a foreign language. Had England been friendly, the nervous dialect of the North might have helped to enrich a speech and literature common to both nations; but England was a closed country. Even under Elizabeth, in 1567, only thirty-six Scotsmen could be found in London. As the English, on the other hand, knew to their cost, Scotland was the constant ally of France. A few years after Buchanan’s birth the hereditary league between the two nations was confirmed by the French king in an edict granting the privilege of naturalisation to all Scotsmen resident in France. In letters and in arms the smaller country had long contended side by side with the larger, and if, on the part of Scotland, gratitude was qualified by a jealous independence, there was abundant ground for holding that the benefit of the alliance was reciprocal. In the field of thought one of the great factions whose development made Paris the headquarters of scholasticism took its name from the famous Duns Scotus. In more material warfare, as Buchanan says himself—
                        “sine milite Scoto
Nulla unquam Francis fulsit victoria castris.”
  3
  Both policy and tradition therefore, when Buchanan was young, led the steps of ambitious Scottish scholars to France, the “blanda nutrix artium,” as to a kindly foster-mother. Buchanan however was no mere scholar. For old-fashioned scholasticism he had a supreme contempt. In one of his occasional pieces he ridicules the typical scholastic, always harping on the old threadbare formulæ—“‘omnis homo est animal,’ nocte dieque boans”; and his punning epigram on his teacher and countryman John Mair, a logician famous in his day, but, according to Buchanan, great in nothing but his name—“solo cognomine Major”—is or was notorious. His scholarship was merely his equipment. Beneath it and transcending it shines a poetic genius of a very high order. He could not hope to acclimatise Scottish poetry in France, or to compete with Clement Marot in Marot’s own tongue. But with his training and his temper Buchanan could challenge a loftier comparison in a more spacious arena. A master of the language of Horace, of Virgil, of Catullus, he threw down his glove to the ancients at the moment of their most unquestioned empire. Alas for Buchanan’s fame! He chose to stand or fall with the fashion of Latinity, and that fashion has long since passed.  4
  Once in his career, and only once, can we imagine Buchanan to have hesitated between the old world and the new. It was his lot to return to Scotland at the memorable juncture which brought the erratic course of Scottish history for a single fiery moment into contact with the general movement of European life. So far the influence of Scotland had been due to her political position as the neighbour of England, and her reputation, such as it was, had been largely based upon a pious fraud. Hector Boece, not to be outdone by English fabulists, had given wide currency to the legend that foisted on his country an eponymous heroine, Scota, the daughter of Pharaoh. The invention found ready credit in a credulous age, and all Europe came to admire in Scotland the mother of existing monarchies. But the Scottish writers who took up the tale proved themselves liars (to borrow from Plato’s definition of poetry) of the noble sort. A higher strain is heard amid their genealogical maunderings. Here it is in Buchanan—
        …“Hæc una de stirpe nepotes
Sceptriferos numerate potest, hæc regia sola est
Quæ bis dena suis includat secula fastis
Unica vicinis toties pulsata procellis
Externi immunis domini.”
‘The true boast of Scotland is to have maintained her independence through unnumbered ages.’ Political theorists continued the process which jealousy of England had originated, and precedents for electing and deposing sovereigns, for original compacts and reciprocal rights and duties between the governor and the governed, were soon discovered in Caledonian antiquity, which, so far as authoritative history went, was a tabula rasa, whence fiction could summon what instances it pleased. The past was made to mirror an ideal future.
  5
  It is probable that such imaginings, which had no substantial basis, although they illustrated something of real force in the national spirit, had little weight with the men who established Puritanism, and so altered the course of the world’s history, in the Scotland of Mary Stuart. But it is impossible that Buchanan, odorous of antiquity to the finger-tips, should not have discovered in the life of the Queen of Scots the fulfilment of an ancient destiny and the climax of republican endeavour. For ten years he pondered over it, and then in his treatise, De Jure Regni apud Scotos, he enunciated the theory, as in his Latin History of Scotland he recounted the practice, which made his country a worthy follower of the ancient commonwealths. His theme was classical, and again he followed classic models and chose the classic medium.  6
  Buchanan, however, is not to be regarded solely as a Republican humanist elaborating a long meditated theme, but also as a partisan in the brief struggle which ended in the flight of Mary from Scotland. No man of any note could at that time and place avoid taking a side, and it was natural that Buchanan, who already in Scotland, France, and Portugal, had sufficiently pledged himself to the main principles of the Reformers, should join the party of the Congregation. The adherence of so eminent a personage, whose influence, personal and literary, extended to every corner of the Continent, was no slight buttress to the cause. Buchanan had sung Mary’s praises in verses whose echo still lingers. She was the happy Dauphin’s bride—
        “Fortunati ambo et felici tempore nati
Et thalamis juncti!”
To her he had inscribed his crowning work in poetry, the Latin paraphrase of the Psalms; and from the Queen he had received substantial recompense and honourable appointments. That he should turn against her in the end and produce in his Detectio an indictment as terrible as that of Tacitus against Tiberius, whether it is for us a proof of his sincerity, of his credulity, or of his ingratitude (for each theory counts its supporters), was at least for contemporary foreign opinion the final touch that shattered Mary’s reputation. In that work, and in Buchanan’s later History, the dark side of Mary’s character was traced in outlines which have become traditional; and the world has not yet passed judgment against the advocatus diaboli.
  7
  Buchanan’s only experiments in the vernacular were made at this stormy time. It is uncertain whether he wrote the Scottish version of the Detectio: but two short tracts of undoubted authenticity have been preserved, as well as some notes for the reformation of St. Andrews University. The Admonition to the Trew Lordis was directed against the Hamilton faction after their assassination of the Regent Murray. The Chamæleon is a satire, too quaint and prolix for modern taste, upon the character and career of Maitland of Lethington, the leader of the exiled Queen’s party, an extraordinary figure in whose evolutions Buchanan professed to find a likeness to a fabulous insect the colour of which reflects “everything by turns and nothing long.” The writer had few models of sustained Scottish prose to follow: Bellenden’s translation of Boece, the earliest of them, was only written in 1530. But had native models existed he would have rejected them. Once more he imitates the Latin writers. Some paragraphs of the Admonition are as carefully balanced as any in Cicero’s Philippics—to which indeed the pamphlet bears a sort of resemblance. There is much use of the absolute participial construction. The argument progresses from period to period in a steady, sonorous march. Had it rested with Buchanan, the tendency of modern style to substitute for the rounded harmonies of Livy or Cicero a terse and shortened form of sentence would never have been allowed to develop. He was too cautious to venture beyond the Latin pale without his impedimenta.  8
  It is interesting to speculate whether, but for the union of the Crowns, a distinct Scottish prose style would have been evolved. The curiously formal accent which attaches even now to Scottish official, legal, and ecclesiastical documents points to the plausibility of such a fancy. Buchanan, at any rate, had no thought of leading the way in that direction. Like Petrarch, he rested his reputation upon his Latin works, and gave little heed to the vernacular by comparison. The world has forgotten the Latinity of both. But Petrarch’s Italian is the gold of his mint, while Buchanan, whose contemporary fame had its points of resemblance to Petrarch’s, allowed his countrymen but a fugitive glimpse of his true quality. For his reward, he was best remembered among them as the pedagogue of James the Sixth!  9
 
 
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