Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by John Nichol
Sir David Lindsay (1490?1555)
DUNBARS attitude toward the change of religion, in his time impending, is that of a wholly unconscious precursor; he is a minor Chaucer, who would have had less sympathy with men like Wyclyffe than his master had. Sir David Lyndesay was a spirit of another sorta child of the new age, when the trumpets of the Reformation had summoned the strong minds of the time to take their sides for or against the old order. Indefinitely less of a poet,hardly a poet at all,he was yet a literary power filling a place and discharging a function of his own; a trenchant satirist, almost a dramatist; a political and moral pamphleteer, whose versified pamphlets are always sustained at a high level by vigour and courage, and occasionally illumined by gleams of imagination.
Lyndesays life is part of the history of his time. The following dates are its mere landmarks. He was born at The Mount in Fifeshire about the year 1490, the junior by ten years of Luther and Sir Thomas More, the senior by fifteen of Knox. He was a student of St. Andrews in 1508, and passed from the University to the service of the court. In 1513 he was present with James IV at Linlithgow when a supposed apparition came to warn the monarch against his fatal expedition. Subsequently he was gentleman-usher to the young princea fact to which he alludes in one of those appeals for promotion, which recall the similar petitions of Dunbar:
When thou was young, I bore thee in mine arm,
Full tenderly till thou begowth to gang.
In 1530 he was knighted and made Lyon King of Arms, or chief court herald, in which capacity he served in several foreign embassies. In 1535 his Thrie Estates was acted at Cupar Fife, the court and company sitting nine hours to listen to it. 1536 must have been the date of the Kings Flyting, one of the most audacious compositions in the language. Next year the kings wife, Magdalene, died before her coronation, and Lyndesay wrote the Deploratioun, which may be compared, though unfavourably, with Chaucers Lament for the Duchess. The metre is the rhyme royal, and the 147th line,
Twynkling lyke sterris in ane frostie nycht,
is transcribed verbatim from the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. In 1542 the poet witnessed at Falkland the death of the king (James V), who had been his consistent patron. In 1547, after the assassination of Beaton, he was present with the garrison in the castle of St. Andrews, and was among the most urgent of those there assembled in persuading Knox to assume the direction of affairs. In 1555 we hear of his presiding over a meeting of heralds to pronounce on some point of their pseudo-science. In 1558 he died at his family seat, having mingled in all the great movements of his age.
Lyndesays verse, on which his reputation as a writer depends, is all connected with the contemporary state of his country. To the lightest as well as the gravestranging from tedious allegory to lively ridiculehe has attached political and social applications. More than half his works are allegories. In the earliest, and as regards imaginative decoration the richest, The Dreme, he is led through a series of dissolving views of the past ages of the world, a journey to Hades, and a flight beyond the stars to an interview with Sir Commonweal, who joins with him in lamentation over a realm misgoverned by an ouir young king and dissolute priests. In the same strain he harps in his Complaynt, in the direct attack on ecclesiastical corruption put into the mouth of a dying parrot, under the title of The Testament of the Papyngo, and in The Tragedy of the Cardinal, the last of which passes on the moral of the Fall of Princes from Lydgate to Sackville. In all of these, and elsewhere, he preaches, with less consistency, the old sermon of Wyclyffe against the corruptions of wealth, and upholds, for the admiration of his readers, the poverty of the Apostolic age. In Kitteis Confession (c. 1541) he crosses the line drawn by Dunbar, and commits himself to a direct attack on one of the still established institutions of the Church, glancing incidentally at her foreign ceremonial
And mekle Latin he did mummil,
I hard na thing but hummil bummil
and referring, as professed reformers in most ages have been wont to do, to the better practice of the gude kirk primitive. In the Complaynt of Bagsche, an old dog who has to give place to a new favourite, we have a reflection on the fickleness of court favour; in The Jousting of Watson and Barbour a satire on the medical profession; in the attack on Syde Taillis a rough exposure of the affected fashions of the day. In his Squire Meldrum, the most pleasing and lively of his narrative pieces, Lyndesay appears as a late metrical romancer, taking as the basis of his story the career and exploits of a contemporary Scotch laird. The Satyre of the Thrie Estates, a well-sustained invective against the follies and vices of the time, the first approach to a regular dramatic composition in Scotland, and the most considerable of our Moralities, abounds in exhibitions of the authors unrestrained Rabelaisian humour. It is impossible to read three pages without laughing, but there are many pages which it would be impossible to read at all to any modern audience. In his latest work, the Dialog concerning the Monarchie (c. 1553) Lyndesay reverts to the allegorical manner of his Dreme, and represents himself in converse with an old man, Experience, on the miserable estate of the world. After a polemical defence of the use of his native tongue (v. inf.), the poem glides into a somewhat tiresome metrical history of the ancient kingdoms of the earth; it ends with an attack on that of the Pope as Antichrist, and a prophecy of the millennium, which he anticipates in the year 2000 A.D. In the Prologue to thishis most elaborate compositionthe author speaks modestly of his own artistic skill. He has never slept on Parnassus, nor kept company with the Muses, nor drunk of Helicon: his inspiration is drawn from Calvary; and he prays that the miracle of Cana may be renewed in converting the water of his instruction into wine. This candid self-criticism is on the whole correct. Lyndesay was rather a man of action bent on popularising his keen convictions than a professional writer. The bias of his mind and the temper of his time were alike unfavourable to finished works of art. His superabundant energy and ready humour made him a power, but he had no inclination to philosophise in solitude or to refine at leisure. His life was spent amid stormy politics, and we need not wonder that a pressure of affairs similar to that which for a space held even the genius of Milton in abeyance, should have marred the literary productions of a man who had more talent than genius, and who wrote currente calamo on such various themes with an almost fatal fluency. His greatest admirers have confessed that he has written so many verses that they cannot always be expected to reach a very high standard. Passages in The Dreme, Squire Meldrum, and The Monarchie, may for grace of description be set beside any corresponding to them in the works of his predecessors; but his writings are in the main more distinguished for trenchant sense, vivacity, courage, and observing power than by high imagination. He himself speaks of his raggit rural verse, and he willingly passes from more delicate fancies to discourse on the grave matters with the rehearsal of which he desires rather to edify than to delight his readers. His style is generally incisive, and though frequently disfigured by aureate terms, leaves us little room to doubt of the authors meaning. Unlike Dunbar, Lyndesay may almost be said to have been born a Protestant; but he never ventured beyond the range of the leading Reformers of his age. He is a Calvinist, more tolerant of sins of blood than errors of brain, rejoicing like Tertullian over the agonies of the damned. His mission was to amuse and arouse the people of his time, to affront them with a reflection of their vices, and to set to rough music the thunder and the whirlwind of sixteenth-century iconoclasm.