Lives of
Scottish Poets
edited by

Center for Applied Technologies
in the Humanities

*    *    *    *    *

Literary Chronicle
New Monthly Magazine
Monthly Review
Notes and Queries
Gibson and Laing
Halkett and Laing
Scottish Notes & Queries

Part I. (Volume I.)
James the First
Thomas the Rhymer
John Barbour
Andrew Wyntoun
Gavin Douglas
Allan Ramsay
William Meston
John Home
James Beattie
Robert Burns

Part II. (Volume I.)
James the Fifth
William Dunbar
Sir James Inglis
Henry the Minstrel
Sir David Lyndsay
Alexander Barclay
Alexander Montgomerie
William Alexander
William Drummond
James Thomson
John Oswald

Part III. (Volume II.)
James the Sixth
Sir Richard Maitland
Arthur Johnston
Hamilton of Bangour
Hamilton of Gilbertfield
Samuel Colvil
Alexander Ross
John Armstrong
John Ogilvie
James Macpherson
Charles Salmon

Part IV. (Volume II.)
Alexander Hume
John Bellenden
Mark Alexander Boyd
Ninian Paterson
William Wilkie
Robert Fergusson
William Julius Mickle
Alexander Geddes
James Grahame

Part V. (Volume III.)
Robert Henryson
Alexander Scott
Walter Kennedy
John Ogilby
Alexander Pennecuik
Alexander Cunningham
David Mallet
William Falconer
Francis Garden
Robert Blair
James Moor
James Graeme
Caleb Whitefoord
James Grainger
Hector Macneill
John Wilson

Part VI. (Volume III.)
Robert Kerr
Richard Lord Maitland
Thomas Hamilton
Charles Hamilton
Michael Bruce
Thomas Blacklock
John Logan
Andrew Macdonald
James Mercer

Appendix. (Volume III.)
James I
Allan Ramsay
John Home
Robert Burns
William Drummond
Robert Fergusson
Alexander Scott
John Wilson



The ascertained facts in the life of John Bellenden, [note] the poetic and elegant translator of Boëce, [note] are few, and encumbered with conjectures. He was the son of Thomas Bellenden, of Auchinoul, who was director to the chancery during the minority of James the Fifth. The time and place of his birth are unknown. He is supposed to have received his education in France; but for no better reason than that his works are “frequently intermixed with words of Gallic derivation.” The inference from his works ought rather to be the reverse, for it appears certain from them, that in very early life he was employed about he person of the young monarch.

And fyrst occurrit to my remembring,
How that I wes in service with the kyng,
Pat to his grace, in yeires tenderest,
Clerk of his Comptis.

Bellenden rose into great favor with the prince, and was rewarded by the appointments of Archdeacon of Murray and Canon of Ross; but we learn from the same poetic authority just quoted, that he afterwards lost the employments which he held in the royal household, through the envy of some persons of greater interest.

———hie envy me from his service cast,
Be thaym that had the court in governing,
As bird bot plumes is herryt of her nest.

James, however, retained his personal regard for Bellenden, and so strong an impression of his literary talents, as to select him from all the learned men about his court, to execute a task which his majesty had much at heart, and which did honor to the intelligence and patriotism of so young a prince. The history of Scotland had been excellently written by Hector Boëthius, or Boëce, but it was in the Latin language, and thus a sealed book to the great mass of the Scottish people. James, who was a friend to the spread of information, though circumstances had entangled him in an opposition to the reformed religion, employed Bellenden to translate it into the Scottish tongue,

———the tale of our progenitours,
Their greit manheid, wisdom, and hie honours
Quhair we may clear, as in a mirrour, see
The furious end somtymes of tyranie;
Somtymes the gloir of prudent governours,
Ilk state apprysit in thair facultie.

The translation was completed and published in 1536, in folio. Bellenden introduced into it two poems by himself, of considerable length; the one entitled “The Proheme of the Cosmographie,” (published in the Evergreen [note] under the title of Vertue and Vyce,) and the other, “The Proheme of the History;” at the end, there is an “Epistil direckit be
ye Translatoure to the Kingis Grace.” His majesty, pleased with the performance, next recommended to Bellenden's attention, a similar translation of Livy's
[note] Roman history; but when he had advanced the length of the first five books, circumstances interfered to prevent its completion. Bellenden had shewn himself a strenuous opposer of the Reformation, and rather than remain to witness its triumphs, he left the country, and sought refuge at Rome, where he died, as Dempster thinks (ut puto) in 1550.


Such is all that can, with certainty, be stated of Bellenden's personal history. Dempster and other writers say, that he became a doctor in his day; and Mackenzie, [note] with still greater liberality, confers on him the honor of knighthood; there appears, however, to be no authority for either assumption. Bellenden himself claims no higher title either in his translation of Boëce, or the fragment of that of Livy, (the MS. of which is preserved in the Advocates' library) than that of plain “ Maister John Bellenden, Archdene of Murray.” The doctorship is said moreover to have been of the Sorbonne; but the assertion is played with in a manner which shews that it is of no value. One writer tells us, that on obtaining the archdeaconry of Moray, “he perhaps opened his passage to this dignity, by taking the degree of Doctor of Divinity in the Sorbonne;” and another, that “as he took the degree of Doctor of Divinity in the Sorbonne, it may be supposed that he had pursued a regular course of study in the university of Paris.” The whole is evidently mere conjecture.


Beside the works which have been mentioned, Bellenden is said to have written a Treatise De Litera Pythagoræ, and various other productions which have fallen into oblivion. In the Hyndford MSS. in the Advocates' library there are two copies of an unpublished prolusion of Bellenden's on the Conception of Christ; and to the MS. translation of the five books of Livy, there is prefixed a prologue of twenty stanzas.*


The translation of Boëce is executed with great freedom, and contains many emendations and enlargements of the original text. Hollinshed, [note] who has published an English version of it, has used the same freedom with Bellenden, which the latter did with Boëce, and has made several large interpolations and additions out of Major Lesley [note] and Buchanan. Hollinshed, or, at least his co-operator, Fr. Thinne, [note] has farther brought down the history to a much later period. “Fr. Thinne,” says the Bishop of Carlisle, [note] “is the chief author of the whole story, after the death of King James the First, and the only penman of it from 1571 to 1586.”


As a writer of original genius, Bellenden's poetical productions place him in a high rank. “He was unquestionably,” says Dr. Campbell, [note] “a man of great parts, and one of the few poets his country had to boast. As many of his works remain as fully prove this, inasmuch as they are distinguished by that noble enthusiasm which is the very soul of poetry.”


The “Proheme of the Cosmography,” or, as Allan Ramsay has not inappropriately designated it, “Ver-

* The latter has been lately published, by Leyden, to a note to his Introductory Dissertation to the Complaynt of Scotland. A. S.
tue and Vyce,” is the most pleasing of these pieces. It belongs to the class of allegorical visions so common to the early ages of our poetry. The author, tired with the “ardent labour” of translation, falls asleep, when his fancy transports him into the following pleasing scene.

Methocht I was into a plesand mead,
Quhair Flora made the tender bluims to spread
Throw kindly dew, and humours nutritive,
Quhen golden Titan with his flames sae reid
Above the seas upraist his glorious heid,
Defounding down his heit restorative
To every fruit that nature made to live,
Whilk was afore into the winter deid
With stormis cauld, and har-frost penetrive.
A silver fountain sprang with water cleir
Into that place, quhair I approchit neir;
Quhair I did sone espy a fellon reird
Of courtly gallants in their gayest weir,
Rejoicing them in season of the zeir,
As it had been of Mayis sweit day the feird.
Their gudelie havings made me nocht affeird;
With them I saw a crownit king appear
With tender downs arising on his beird.
Their courtly gallants sett, and their intents
To sing and play on divers instruments;
According to this princis appetyte
Twa ladyis fair came pransand owre the bents,
Thair costly claething shew'd their mighty rents;
Quhat heart micht wish, they wanted not a myte,
The rubies shown upon their fingers quhyt;
And finally I knew by thair consents
This Vertue was, that uther hight Delyte.

The two goddesses proceed to exert all their powers of persuasion to induce the prince, by whom the author evidently intends his young sovereign, James the Fifth, to chose one of them “for his empress.”

And first Delyte said thus:
‘Maist valiant knycht, in actions amorous,
And lustyest that ever nature wrocht,
Quha in the flour of youth melifluous
With notes sweit, and sang melodious
Awaketh heir amang the flowirs soft;
Thou has nae game, but in thy mirry thocht
My heavenly bliss is so delicious,
All wealth in eard, bot it, availeth not.

This address presents so just a picture of what James was in real life, that to preserve propriety of character, “Delyte” must have been his choice; but the author, averse to represent him as deliberately preferring Delyte to “Vertue,” especially after some excellent lessons which he puts into Virtue's mouth, thus adroitly leaves the determination to be guessed at by the reader.

Phebus be this his fyrie cart did wry
Frae south to west declynand bissily,
To dip his steids into the westlin main,
When rysing damps ouresaild his visage dry
With vapours thick, and cluddet all the sky,
And Notus brym, the wind meridian
With wings donk, and fedders full of rain
Awakent me, that I could not espy
Quhilk of the twa was for his lady tane.

The plan of this episode is defective, because it falls short of what poetic justice required; but it presents a favorable specimen of the author's powers of poesy. Considering the state of the language at the period at which he wrote, his diction is easy, his expressions rich and select, and a tone of feeling prevails, which has, indeed, much of that “noble enthusiasm” ascribed to the author by Dr. Campbell.

G. M—n.