SIR DAVID LINDSAY
|POETS SIR DAVID LINDSAY.||61|
SIR DAVID LINDSAY.
| Melliflui cantus Syren dulcissima qualem |
Scotigenæ Aönides. et scinunt et amant.
Sir David Lindsay, [note] of the Mount, so called from an
estate of that name in the vicinity of Cupar, in Fife, of which he was proprietor, was a
descendant of the family of Lord Lindsay, of Byres, in
Haddingtonshire. He was born in 1490; studied at the University of St. Andrew's;* and in 1512 was
engaged to assist in the rearing of James the Fifth,
then an infant. He was fortunate in acquiring the affections of his royal pupil, and had an
important and beneficial share in the formation of his character; but, after twelve years'
attendance upon the young prince, he incurred the displeasure of the queen-mother, and was
dismissed with a pension.
| * In the Biographical Dictionary, [note] it is conjectured
that he “received his early education, probably, at the neighbouring school of
Coupar.” Unfortunately for this conjecture, there happens to intervene,
between any part of Haddingtonshire and this neighbouring school
of Coupar, a Firth of twelve miles wide, and half a day's journey of dry land besides. A. S.
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Lindsay now gave up his leisure to the cultivation of the muses, and
in 1528 produced his “Dreme,” a
poem, in which he lashes, with severity, the disorders which then prevailed in church and state,
through the licentiousness of the clergy, the usurpations of the nobles, and the feebleness of the
royal power, during a long minority. The period chosen for the publication of this poem was
seasonable. The young king, his late pupil, though but in his sixteenth year, had just taken the
bold step of emancipating himself from the thraldom of the Douglasses, and was entering on that
career of vigorous administration, which, in a few years, restored order and growing prosperity to
the country, and which, if we consider the youth of James, is perhaps
unrivalled in the history of youthful sovereigns. As far as the hands of government could, at that
period, be strengthened by the exertions of the press, the satire of Lindsay
could not fail to have an availing influence; and, to Lindsay,
it must have afforded a double gratification, to reflect that he had been the preceptor of
the prince, whose able exertions, for the good of his people, he was now as a subject
contributing, by his pen, to encourage and fortify. 3
In the year following, Lindsay wrote his
“Complaynt” to the king. While
reforming the abuses of the nation, his Majesty had, it appears, overlooked the claims of his old
tutor; who, therefore, felt himself under the necessity of bringing to his recollection how well
he had served him in the days of his youth, and intimating his hopes of being yet amply rewarded.
The appeal was not made in vain. In 1530, Lindsay was appointed Lyon
King of Arms, and received the honor of knighthood.
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The complaint thus successfully made for himself, was succeeded by a
“Complaynt of the King's Papingo,”
[note] in which his Majesty's parrot is made to ridicule, in a very happy vein of humour, the
vices of the catholic clergy. 5
In April, 1531, Sir David was appointed, by the king, one of three
ambassadors, who were to repair to Antwerp, to renew the ancient treaty of commerce between
Scotland and the Netherlands. They met with a most gracious reception from Charles V. [note] and had no difficulty in fulfilling the object of their
On his return to Scotland, Lindsay married
a lady of the Douglas family; but this union appears to have been attended with little happiness.
The joys of wedlock have no share in the praises of Lindsay;
—he speaks of woman, in all his works, with a degree of ungallantry, very foreign to the
poetical character. 7
In 1535, Lindsay produced, before the king,
at the Castlehill of Cupar, a sort of drama, called
“a Satire on the Three Estates.” The Castlehill was a place,
where, in early times, dramatic performances or moralities, as they were called, used to be
performed, in the open air, after all such representations had been excluded from the churches.*
In the appendix to Arnot's [note] History of Edinburgh, there is
a curious excerpt from a manuscript of another entertainment, which appears to have been
exhibited, by Lindsay, in the same playfield of Cupar. The manuscript
| * Few towns of note were then without such play-fields; that of Edinburgh was at the
Arnot's History of Edinburgh.
in the possession of the celebrated
David Garrick; [note] it commences thus: —
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“Here begins the proclamation of the play, made by David Lindsay, of the Mount, knight; in the play-field, in the
month of June, the year of God 1535 years.
Proclamation made in Cupar of Fife.
| Our purpose is on the seventh day of June, |
If weather serve, and we have rest and peace,
We shall be seen into our playing place,
In good array, about the hour of seven.
Of thriftiness, that day, I pray you cease,
But ordain us good drink against alleeven.
Fail not to be upon the Castlehill,
Beside the place where we propose to play
With good stark wine, your flaggons, see you fill,
And had yourselves the merriest that you may.
| Cottager. —I shall be there, with God's grace, |
Though there were never so great a price,
And foremost in the fair;
And drink a quart, in Cupar town,
With my gossip, John Williamson,
Though all the nolt should rair.”
In 1535, Sir David was employed with Sir John Campbell, of Lowdon, in a mission to the court of Germany, in
quest of a spouse for his young sovereign; but none of the portraits of German beauty, which they
brought back, pleasing the king, Lindsay was next year sent, on a
similar errand, to France. James, however, anxious to
consult his own taste, more particularly, in the selection of a partner for life, ar-
rived himself in France, soon after his ambassador; and, as it fell
out, no step could have been more unfortunate for his happiness. After he had fixed his
inclinations on a daughter of the Duke of Vendome, [note] his
personal appearance caught the heart of Magdalene, [note] a
sickly daughter of the French king, and, out of mere compassion, he gave his hand to a lady, whom
no worldly power could save from the grave, while his desertion caused the deaths of her whom he
more truly loved, and who ought, had love been true, have lived a long and happy life, the grace
and ornament of the Scottish court. Within two months after Magdalene
became queen of Scotland, she expired; an event which produced Lindsay's next poem, the “Deploration of the Deith of Queen
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In 1538, the king repaired his loss, by a marriage with Margaret, [note] the daughter of the Duke of Guise; and, in
some public welcomings or spectacles, which took place on the occasion of her arrival in Scotland,
Sir David's genius appears to have supplied both poetry and
In 1542, he lost his prince and pupil, whose death he, more than in
common with the bulk of the Scottish people, deplored. The friends of the Reformation, then making
great progress in Scotland, looked upon James as one of its greatest
enemies, and did not hesitate, in the fanaticism of their zeal, to pronounce his death to be
“a judgement of Providence;” but Lindsay,
who had the nursing of the prince's mind who had been countenanced and encouraged by him
in the production of “The Satire on the Three
Estates,” and other works, all strongly satirizing the corruptions of the
Lindsay, who was himself not only one of the earliest, but one of the
warmest, promoters of the Reformation; entertained no such opinion. He knew, that James had been guilty of some compliances to the persecuting spirit of
the prelacy, for the sake of aids in money, which he could not procure from the nobles, whose
arrogance that money was to assist in keeping down; he had found in him a disposition to gaiety
and pleasure, greatly at variance with the gloomy enthusiasm of the early preachers of the new
religion; but he could not, at the same time, forget that James had
gone farther in countenancing the exposure, and was disposed to go farther in the correction, of
the practical corruptions of the church, than any monarch who had preceded him; and that but for
opening the eyes of the people to these corruptions, the way would probably never have been
cleared for those improvements in doctrine, which formed, after all, the chief point of separation
between James V. and the Reformers. 11
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In 1544, Sir David sat in a parliament
which met at Edinburgh, as representative for the town of Cupar in Fife. He represented the same
place in the parliaments which met at Linlithgow in 1545, and at Edinburgh in 1546. 12
In 1548, he was sent as ambassador to Christian, King of Denmark, [note] to solicit the aid of some ships, to
protect the Scottish coasts against the English, and to negotiate a free trade for the Scottish
merchants, particularly in grain. The ships were not granted, but the free trade, as it was
extending the market for a staple commodity of Denmark, was readily conceded.
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Lindsay had now the satisfaction of seeing his favorite work of
Reformation advancing with rapid strides; but when the question of ascendancy came to an issue
between the reformers and the government, he appears to have avoided taking any active part,
content with having assisted in so material a degree to stir up his countrymen to the assertion of
the truth. It is probable, that, besides the share which the coolness of age may have had in this
determination, a dislike to the doctrinal puritanism of the covenanters, and some apprehension for
the excesses to which their zeal might lead, had also no inconsiderable influence. His pen,
however, was still at the service of the reformers; and for one of their most ruthless deeds, the
assassination of Cardinal Beaton, [note] he wrote an apology,
which was too much in the spirit of that fanaticism which he affected to lament.
| As for the cardinal, I grant |
He was the man we might weil want;
God will forgive it soon.
But of a truth the sooth to say,
Although the loun be weil away,
The fact was foully done.
The murderers on this occasion “were religious zealots,
and they were long employed in prayer to God before they ventured to commit this act of
assassination. The pernicious doctrine, that what was called ‘righteous
judgment,’ might be executed by private men, had been taught by some zealots in
these unhappy times; but happily, though it terrified Oliver
Cromwell, [note] it gained few partisans in the British nation.”
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In 1550, Lindsay produced his “History and Testament of Squire Meldrum,”
and in 1553, his “Monarchie,”
the one the most poetical, and the other the largest, of his works. 16
The period of Sir David Lindsay's death,
and, indeed, every thing respecting the close of his days, is a matter of uncertainty. Although
one of the greatest literary characters of his time, and the holder of a dignified public office,
there is no memorial to tell either when he expired or where his remains were interred. The fact
is singular, and not to he accounted for even by the confusions which then prevailed. 17
Besides the productions which have been incidentally mentioned, Lindsay wrote an “Answer
to the King's Flyting;”
“The Complaynt of Basche the King's Hound,”
1536; “The Justing of Watson and
“The Supplication against Syde Taillis,”
(a part of female attire,) 1538; and “Kitties
Confession,” 1541; written in ridicule of auricular confession. 18
The whole of the productions of Lindsay
were in his native tongue, for the use of which he takes occasion, in the first book of his last
work, “The Monarchie,” to give an
abundance of very sensible reasons. Neither Aristotle [note]
nor Plato, [note] he says, wrote in Dutch; neither Virgil, [note] “The Prince of Poetry,” nor
Cicero, [note] “The Flower of
Oratory,” wrote in Arabic; but each in his own mother tongue. He has no objection
that these who have the opportunity should learn the dead languages, and that matters of mere
speculation may be discussed in them.
| Lat doctouris write thair curious questiounis |
And argumentis sawin full of sophistrie;
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| Thair logick and thair heigh opiniounis; |
Thair dark judgementis of astronomie;
Thair medicine and thair philosophie:
Lat poetis schaw thair glorious ingyne,*
As euer thay pleis, in Greik or in Latyne.
In matters, however, of vital concern,
he insists on the necessity of having them in that language which every man can understand.
The catholic dogma, with respect to the shutting up of the scriptures from the vulgar eye, he sets
at rest by the following quaint but apt illustration.
| ———buikis necessare |
To common weil and our saluation,
| Saint Hierome, [note] in his proper toung Romane; |
The law of God trewlie he did translate
Out of Hebrew and Greik in Latine plane;
Quhillk hes bene hid from us lang time, God wait
Unto this time; bot efter my conceit
Had St. Hierome bene born into Argile
Into Irish toung his buikis had done compyle.
Lindsay says truly that he did not write for “ cun-
| * “Ingyne,” imagination; a saving clause for
Lindsay's friend, George
Buchanan, but which has not saved him. Had the poetic talent which Buchanan wasted in a dead tongue been employed as Lindsay's was, in Scottish verse, he would have lived to
posterity as a poet; but it is as Buchanan, the historian, that we know him. A. S.
ning clerkis;” he wrote to expose the imposture, cunning
clerks to the eyes of the people at large, and it was necessary, therefore, that he should write
in a language which the people knew.
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| Quhairfoir to colzearis, carters, and to cuikis |
To Jok and Thom, my ryme sal be directit,
With cunning men howbeit it will be lackit.
The subjects of all his pieces were of a sombre and satirical cast;
some vice which was to be reprobated, some folly to be chastised, some prejudice to be removed,
some misery for which there was no remedy to be lamented. “I write,” he
| “With sorrowfull sichis ascending from the splene |
And bitter teiris distelling from mine ene.”
But Lindsay was not a mere complainer. He
every where combines the soundest advice with the most poignant satire, and abounds with moral
sentences, many of which have become proverbial. So much is this the case, indeed, that the common
people of Scotland used of old, when they heard a proposition started of a doubtful character, to
observe “there is na sic a word in a' Davie Lindsay.
Of Lindsay's judgement in pointing out how
the abuses, by which the industrious classes of the community were oppressed, might be remedied,
we have a remarkable and memorable example in the efforts which he made to introduce the system of
lease-holding, till then unknown among the landed proprietors of Scotland. 24
On this subject the old editor of his works, Charteris, [note]
has spoken in terms so forcible, and, indeed, pathetic, that they well
merit quotation. 25
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“Quhat labouris tuik he that the landis of this countrie
micht be set out in fewis efter the fashioun of sindry other realmes, for the incres of
policie and riches? But, quhat hes he profitet? Quhen ane pare man with his haill race and
ofspring, hes labourit out thair lyfis on ane litel peice of ground, and brocht it to sum
point and perfectioun, then most the lairdis brother, kinsman or surname, have it, and the
pure man, with his wyfe and bairnis, schut out to beg thair meit. He that tuik lytill labouris
on it, man enjoy the frutes and commoditeis of it; he man eit up the sweit and labouris of the
pure man's browis. Thus the pure dar mak na policie nor bigging, in cais they big themselves
out. But althoch men wink at this, and overluik it, yet he sittis abone that sees it, and sall
judge it. He that heiris the sichis and complaints of the pure oppressit sal not for ever
suffer it unpunischit.” 26
In this recapitulation of Lindsay's claims
to remembrance, it may, perhaps, be wondered, that that of poetry, in the strict sense of the
term, should be the last to swell the throng. But if the opinion of an individual may be listened
to for a moment, in opposition to long established prejudices, he would venture to say that it is
less as a poet than as a moralist and reformer, that Sir David Lindsay
deserves to be regarded. That he could write poetry he has left sufficient proofs; but
that the bulk of his works is any thing more than excellent prose shaped into lines of equal
syllabic length is a position which it would probably not require much critical skill to
Lindsay, indeed, says himself of his Monarchie, his greatest work,
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meaning by “rethorik,” according to the
phraseology of the period in which he wrote, what we mean, now-a-days, by poetic fancy. The
modesty of Lindsay may have led him—it certainly has led
him—to make, here, too sweeping a disavowal; but, in the main, it no more than the
simple truth. Strong sense, acute remark, and forcible expression, swell his lines; but of all
that is more peculiarly characteristic of poetry—invention, imagery, harmony of
numbers—there is a striking deficiency. Warton, [note]
who was the first in modern times to revive the recollection of Lindsay
as a poet, does not venture farther than to discover in some of his pieces
“many nervous, terse, and polished lines;” and to this extent of praise
there can be no exception.
| “Of rethorik here I proclame the quyte;”
The “Song of the
Lark,” which Lindsay has introduced into his
“Dreme,” may suffice, however,
to shew that he possessed the true poetic vein, and that it was more from choice than inability
that he did not oftener indulge in it.
| Allace, Aurora! the sillie lark can cry, |
Quhair lies thou left thy balmy liquor sweit
That us rejoisit, we mounting in the sky?
Thy silver droppis are turnit into sleit:
O fair Phebus, quhair is thy holsum heit?
Quhy tholis thou thy heavinly plesand face
With mystic vapouris to be obscurit, allace?
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| Quhair art thou May, with June, thy sister schene, |
Well bordourit with daseis of delyte;
And gentill July with thy mantil grene,
Enamilit with rosis reid and quhyte?
Now, auld and cauld Januar, in dispite
Reiffis from us all pastime and plesure,
Allace, quhat gentill hart may this endure!
| Oursylit* ar with cloudis odious |
The golden skyis of the orient,
Changing in sorrow our sang melodious,
Quhilk we had wont to sing with gude intent,
Resoundand to the hevinnis firmament;
Bot now our day is changit into nicht.