Poetry in Scots, Part 1

I’m having a lively little private discussion on poetry in Scots with a friend just now, but I thought I’d say here something of the origins of my love for the language, in the poetry of the Makars.

Robert Henryson, 1425-1505

Quhen fair Flora, the godes of the flouris,
Baith firth and feildis freschely had ourfrete,
And perly droppis of the balmy schouris
Thir widdis grene had with thair watter wete,
Movand allone in mornyng myld I met
A mirry man, that all of mirth couth mene,
Singand the sang that suttellie was sete;
‘O yowth, be glaid in to thy flouris grene!’

This little gem is as clear as a bell, if you read it aloud. That’s true of most of the Makars. Seamus Heaney has a new translation of Henryson’s The Testament of Cresseid + Seven Fables. I’ve only just got my copy, so I won’t make any comment on it just yet.

Gavin Douglas (1475-1522) Third son of the fifth Earl of Angus. Became Bishop of Dunkeld. Later fled to England
His translation of Virgil’s Aeneid (1513), was the first complete account of a classical text in Britain, and into Scots, a distinctive language with its own blend of Celtic, Germanic, Viking and Norman words, the language of a court and of a people. More than a dialect of English, but a parallel language.

Ezra Pound, in his ABC of Reading, makes a strong case for reading Gavin’s poetry.

Here’s one of his botanical interludes:

And every flour onlappyt in the daill;
In batill gyrss burgionys the banwart wild,
The clavyr, catcluke, and the cammamyld;
The flour delys furthspred hys hevynly hew,
Flour dammes, and columby blank and blew;
Seir downys smaill on dent-de-lyon sprang
The yong greyn blomyt straberry levys amang;
Gymp gerraflouris thar royn levys onschet,
Fresch primrois, and the purpour violet;
The roys knoppys, tutand furth thar hed,
Gan chyp, and kyth thar vermel lippys red,

Again, read it aloud, and you’ll catch most of the plant names. The last two lines translate literally as

The rose buds, stretching forth their heads
Will burst, and show off their vermilion red lips.

The ease of guessing can cause problems though. Some of the meanings of Scots words have changed. Have a look at Dunbar, for instance.

William Dunbar, c.1460 – c.1520

I’ve recently written a poem in English inspired by Dunbar’s Meditatioun in Wyntir (The Low Point, Poetry Scotland Issue 60), but let’s look at the man’s own work. Here are the first two stanzas, with a word-for word translation:

In to thir dirk and drublie dayis,
Quhone sabill all the hewin arrayis
With mystie vapouris, cluddis, and skyis
Nature all curage me denyis
Off sangis, ballattis, and of playis.

Quhone that the nycht dois lenthin houris
With wind, will haill, and havy schouris,
My dule spreit dois lurk for schoir,
My hairt for languor dois forloir
For laik of Symmer with his flouris.

And in word-for-word translation:

Into these dark and clouded days
When sable all the heaven arrays
With misty vapours, clouds and skies
Nature all remedy me denies
Of songs, ballads, and of plays.

When that the night does lengthen hours
With wind, with hail, and heavy showers,
My gloomy spirit shrinks from threats,
My heart from languor feels forlorn
From lack of Summer with his flowers.

Of all three of these great Makars, Dunbar is the most philosophical, a deep thinker, and his mastery of language is sure and clear. Recall MacDiarmid’s cry, “Not Burns – Dunbar!” (Personally, I’m glad we’ve got both, though I’m not so sure about a lot of MacDiarmid).

That’s the first flowering of the Scots language in our national literature. In succeeding centuries it evolved, as all languages do, and I’ll discuss that in Part 2 (and goodness knows when that will be written), which will cover the 20th century revival of literary Scots, alongside a strengthening of the use of demotic Scots (which never really went away) by contemporary poets.

In my own poetry, I’ve only rarely written poems in Scots, because it’s not the language of my thought (Norman MacCaig said something similar once), but sometimes I’ll use a Scots word in an otherwise English poem – because I have to.

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About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
This entry was posted in Gavin Douglas, Makars, Robert Henryson, Scots, William Dunbar. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Poetry in Scots, Part 1

  1. Anne says:

    Interesting post, thanks! The only Henryson I've read is the Saltire Selected. I can manage with the glosses. I look forward to your take on the Heaney Henryson – and the whole question of whether it was a necessary endeavour, or whether the championing of the older poet inavertently becomes appropriation. (Did you know that Beowulf attraverso Heaney has been translated into Italian by Massimo Bacigalupo?)

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