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

Part  II:


Few of our Scottish poets have been treated more unkindly or more unjustly by the critics, than Alexander Montgomery. [note] Men who have been unbounded in their praise of Allan Ramsay, have been able to discover no merit in a poet whom Ramsay both admired and studied; and one writer, indeed,* who represents Ramsay's Vision [note] as one of the finest antient Scottish poems extant, thinks “The Cherry and the Slae,” Montgomery's chief production, absolutely “beneath contempt;” although it is a fact, that the Vision was formed on the model of the Cherry and the Slae, and is indebted to it for whole lines and couplets of some of its most striking stanzas. The description of the Genius of Caledonia in the Vision, which has been particularly admired† by all critics, is, after all, no more than a very literal, though undoubtedly happy, paraphrase of the following description of Cupid, by Montgomery.

Sae myld lyke and chyld lyke,
With bow three quarters scant,
Sae moylie and coylie,
He lukit lyk ane sanct.

* Pinkerton. [note] † See Life of Ramsay.
Ane cleinly crisp, hang oure his eyis,
His quiver by his nakit thyis,
Hang in ane silver lace;
Of gold betwixt his schoulders grew
Twa pretty wings, quhairwith he flew,
On his left arm ane brace.
*    *    *    *    *
Amasit, I gaisit,
To see his geir sae gay,
Persaiving myne haveing
He countit me his prey.

The following is the parallel passage of Ramsay, the resemblance of which, both in structure and imagery, will instantly strike the most indifferent hearer.

A man with aspeck kynd,
Richt auld lyke, and bauld lyke,
With baird thre quarters skant;
Sae braef lyke, and graif lyke,
He seemt to be a sanct.
Grit daring dartit frae his ee,
A braid sword schogled at his thie,
On his left arm a targe;
A shinnand speir fill'd his richt hand,
Of stalwart mak in bane and brawnd,
Of just proportions large.
*    *    *    *    *
Amaisit, I gaisit,
To se led at command,
A strampant and rampant
Ferss lyon in his hand.
st. 4 and 5.

Again, in Montgomery, we have a thirst for liberty thus expressed:

My heart ay did start ay
The fyrie flamis to flie,
Ay howping, throw lowping,
To leap at libertie.
st. 20.

And in Ramsay, the same sentiment, with an alteration not to the better, of the image from a fire to a flood:

Quhase mynds zet, inclyndis zet
To damn the rapid spate;
Devysing and pry sing
Freidom at ony rate.

Nor was it merely while writing a poem on the model of the Cherry and the Slae, that Ramsay fell into these imitations of its beauties; for, in others of his works, there are proofs that he kept Montgomery in his remembrance. In the Cherry and the Slae, the poet tells us:

I saw a river rin
Out owr a steipie rock of stane,
Syne lichtit in a lin.

Every person familiar with the Gentle Shepherd [note] must be ready to repeat the well-known passage:

Between twa birks, out o'er a little lin,
The water fa's, and maks a singin din.

Examples might be multiplied, but it is unnecessary; as the comparison is not instituted invidiously,
but under a feeling of reverence for
Ramsay's merits as a poet. He was a writer of too fertile an invention to be grudged a few appropriations from others, and of too good a taste not to make what he borrowed his own by improvement. But is it no compliment to be imitated and followed? to have one's style, imagery, and language, adopted by such a poet as Ramsay ? Is the man who can sustain a parallel for even a couple of pages with one of the first of Scottish bards, to be esteemed a writer “beneath contempt?” Montgomery, it is true, is, for the age in which he lived, a singularly moral poet, and, though he has written a poem about love, has not one indecent expression in it; and on these accounts, indeed, it might be passed over as not surprising, that he should have excited the disgust of that odd compound of critic, antiquarian, poet, and sentimental voluptuary, who makes the remark. But it is a remark which has made that impression on others, which genius is able to give alike to the best and the worst of criticisms;* it has found an echo in more than one respectable review of literature, and it is solely because of a more general prejudice, thus pruriently originating, that in selecting the biography of Alexander Montgomery as my trial-theme, I have been anxious to raise it above contempt, by shewing, at once, that the subject was not “beneath” it.


Of Montgomery, the biographical particulars are extremely scanty. His infancy and youth are alike

* Not so, surely; unless by “impression” we are to understand the impression of a day. A. S.
enveloped in obscurity. From his poem, entitled
“The Navigation,” he appears to have been of Scottish extraction, but born in Germany. In the titles to his works, he is called “Captain Alexander Montgomery;” but from the works themselves, he seems to have owed more to his pen than to his sword. He flourished in the reign of James VI., and enjoyed a pension from that monarch, with whom he was evidently, at one time, a great favorite. In James's “Reulis and Cautells to be observit and eschewit in Scottis Poesie,” his erudite majesty takes his examples of the mournful, the invective or “flyting,” and the irregular, styles of verse from the works of Montgomery; and Montgomery, in return for the judgment displayed in this selection, has furnished one of the sonnets commendatory, which, after the old fashion, are prefixed to the work, and which is, happily for Montgomery's reputation, in so ridiculous a pitch, that it could deceive no one into a belief of his sincerity, except the conceited sovereign to whom it was addressed, and who has had the modesty to publish it.

Can golden Titan, shyning bright at morne,
For light of torchis cast ane greater schaw?
Can thunder reard the heicher for a horne?
Crak cannons louder, though ane cok should craw?
Can our weak breath help Boreas for to blaw?
Can candill low give fyre a greater heit?
Can whytest swans more whyter mak the snaw?
Can virgin's tears augment the winter's weit?
Helps pyping Pan, Apollo's music sweit?
Can fountains small the ocean sea encrease?
No, they augment the greater nocht a quheit:
But they themselves appear to grow the lesse.
So, worthy prince! thy warks sall mak thee knawn,
Our helps, not thyne: we steynzie but our awin.

In Sibbald's [note] Chronicle, there is another sonnet, by Montgomery, to King James, the flattery of which is quite as gross; but it possesses poetry enough to compensate, in some degree, for the nonsense of both.

As bright Apollo staineth every star
With goldin rayis, when he begins to rise,
Quhais glorious glance yet stoutlie skailles the skyes,
Quhen, with a wink, we wonder quhair they war.
Before his face for feir, they faid so far,
And vanishes away in such a wayis,
That in their spheiris they dar not interpryse
For to appeir lyk planeits as they ar;
Or as the Phœnix, with her fedrum fair,*
Excels all foulis in diverse heavinly hues,
Quhais nature, contrair nature, so renews
As only bot companion, or compair.
So, quintessence of kings! quhen thou compyle,
Thou stainis my verses with thy staitlie style.

The example of the mournful style “for tragicall materis, complaintis, or testamentis,” which James

* Plumage fair.
has selected from Montgomery, is a stanza on Echo, of rather ordinary merit.

To thee, Echo, and then to me agane,
In the desert, amang the woods and wells,
Quhair destinie has bound the to remane
Bot companie, within the firths and fells,
Let us complain, with wofull zoutts and zells,
A shaft, a shotter, that our harts hes slane:
To thee, Echo, and then to me againe.

In his selection of the specimen of the “flyting” style, King James is not much happier. It is extracted from “The Flyting of Polwart and Montgomery,” which is written after the manner of the “Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie;” and not only surpasses that, but perhaps every poem in the language, as a collection of foul and abusive epithets. The supposed wit of these verbal jousts formed part of the false taste of the age; and seldom consisted in any thing more than having the worst and the last word to say. Dunbar thus ends twenty-five stanzas of railing at Kennedy:

Heretyck, lunatick, purspyck, carlines pet,
Rotten crok, dirten dok; Cry cock! or I sall quell thee.

But Kennedy, instead of yielding to this fierce challenge, contrives, with a little unfair help, to be sure, from the Latin, to retort, by a piece of the like verbal nick-naming, twelve stanzas longer than that of his antagonist. The following is Kennedy's conclusion; spite and language could not do more.

Picket, wickit, stricket, convickit, lump lullar-dum;
Defamit, shamit, blamit, primus Paganorum;
Out, out, I schout upon that snout, that snevils,
Tale-teller, rebeller, indweller with the devils;
Spink, sink, with stink art Tartara termagorum.

After these champions had exhausted their strength, there could have been nothing new to say in the way of “flyting,” had not the lapse of half a century given calumny time to recruit its stores; and it is only in the greater number of epithets that Montgomery has any advantage over his precursors, or that his production deserves notice as a curious specimen of the progress of language. The example which King James has selected from it has, singularly enough, nothing of “flyting” in it; it is a description of a moonlight-gathering of witches, beginning:

In the hinder end of harvest, upon allhallow's eve,
Quhen our gude neichbors rydis (now gif I reid richt)
Sum bucklit on a benwood, and some on a bene,
Ay trotting into troupes fra the twylicht, &c.

The specimen which James gives from Montgomery of irregular verse, is part of the same passage in the Cherrie and the Slae, which has been before quoted as having furnished the model of Ramsay's description of the Genius of Caledonia. In this illustration, at least, this royal critic was fortunate.


The “Cherry and the Slae” is, of all Montgomery's productions, that on which his fame must rest. It is an allegorical poem, intended to illustrate this love-moral, that there is no object so much above our
reach, but may be attained by Hope and Courage guided by Reason, Wit, Experience, and Skill. The only half-true thing which the critic, who calls this poem “below contempt,” has said of it is, that the allegory is “wire-drawn.” The adventure proceeds indeed, tediously, and the denouement is unexpectedly feeble. The cherry drops into the lover's mouth before he has done any thing but talk about the mode of getting at it. The imperfections of the story are however, compensated by many fine passages of sentiment and imagery. Some favorable specimens have been already incidentally quoted; but there are others of a still higher order. In the following address from Courage to the desponding lover, we have, in a few spirited lines, the whole philosophy of fame.

Quha speids, but sic as heich aspiris?
Quha triumphs not, but sic as tryes
To win a noble name?
Of schrinking, quhat but schame succeids?
Then do as thou wald haif thy deids
In register of Fame:
I put the case; then not prevail'd;
Sae thou with Honour die,
Thy Lyfe, but not thy Courage fail'd,
Sall poets pen of thee
Thy name than, from fame than,
Sall never be cut aff;
Thy grave ay, sal haif ay
That honest epitaph.

Hope also throws in her incentives in a very lively manner.

Allace, man! thy ease, man,
In ling'ring I lament;
Go to now and do now,
That Courage be content.
Quhat gif Melancholy cum in,
And get ane grip or thou begin,
Than is thy labour lost;
For he will hald thee hard and fast,
Till time, and place, and fruit, be past,
And thou give up the ghost:
Than sall be grav'd upon the stane,
Quhilk on thy grave is laid,
Sum tyme thair lived sic a ane,
But how sall it be said?
Here lyes now, bot pryse now,
Into Dishonour's bed,
Ane cowart as thou art,
That from his fortune fled.

Dread, Danger, and Despair, are very happily likened, by Will, to

———the cat,
They wald na weit their feet,
But zit if ony fisch ze gat
They wad be fain to eit.

Experience, intruding her advice, is sharply encountered by Hope.

Ha! ha: quod Hope, and loudlie leuch,
Ze are but a prentise at the pleugh,
Experience ye prieve;*
Suppose all byganes as ze spak,
Ze are nae prophet worth a plak,
Nor I bund to believe;
Ze sold not say, sir, till ye see,
But quhen ye see it, say.

Experience retorts, on Hope, the innumerable instances in which she had only “flattered to betray;” but

Quhen Hope was gall'd unto the quick,
Quod Courage, kicking at the prick,
We let ze weill to wit;
Mak he zou welcomer than we,
Then byganes, byganes, farewell he,
Except he seik us yet.

The contest is, at length, determined by an agreement of all the powers, (Despair, who hangs himself, excepted,) to act in concert, under the generalship of Wit, in obtaining for the languishing swain the “cherry” of his desire. Success crowns their efforts, and Disappointment is the lot of the reader alone, who finds one stanza sufficient for the acting of what eighty-seven stanzas have been occupied in designing. The poem of the Cherry and the Slae must altogether, however, be allowed to hold a highly respectable rank among the elder efforts of the Scottish muse. It combines skilful versification, vigorous sentiment, and many pleasing touches of poetic fancy.

* Prieve—try.

The only other work, by Montgomery, besides these which have been mentioned and some minor pieces, was entitled “The Minde's Melodie,” but copies of it are so scarce, that it is uncertain whether any complete one exists.* It consisted of paraphrases of the Psalms. Ramsay, in his Evergreen, [note] has given two of them; but they are of no particular merit.


Montgomery appears, in his latter years, to have become the victim of misfortunes. The pension which he enjoyed from the king was on some account or other withheld, and it is not certain that it was ever restored. He became involved too in a law-suit, and was, for some time, the tenant of a jail. One of his small pieces is entitled “The Poet's Complaynte against the Unkindness of his Companions when he was in Prisson.”


The close of his life is involved in the same obscurity as its commencement. In 1597, he revised an edition of his Cherry and Slae, published by Robert Waldegrave; [note] and his death is conjectured to have taken place between that period and 1615.

W. M.

* There is one copy in the possession of Mr. Heber, [note] and unless it is the same with that which was in Messrs. Longman and Co.'s excellent Collection of English Poetry, [note] in 1815, there is another. The psalms translated are, 1, 4, 6, 15, 19, 25, 43, 57, 91, 101, 117, 125, and 128. A. S.