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The Poetry of Sir David Lyndsay

Nicola Royan
ScotLit 22, Summer 2000

Sir David Lyndsay:
Selected Poems
In the late sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a literate household in Scotland was likely to own two books: the Bible and the works of Sir David Lyndsay. Today, while a performance of Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis can draw the crowds, whether at the Edinburgh Festival or in a small country town, very little is known about the rest of Lyndsay’s work. This is a pity: the richness and diversity contained within Ane Satyre is only a fraction of the variety which Lyndsay’s works offer. The ASLS annual volume for 2000, edited by Janet Hadley Williams, is designed to introduce some of Lyndsay’s best poems to a new audience.

One of Lyndsay’s greatest strengths is his ability at comic verse, and in particular a sense of the ridiculous. This is most evident in The Justing betwix James Watsoun and Jhone Barbour, the description of a contest allegedly staged before James V and his queen. Instead of the usual knights, the two combatants are ‘ane medicinar’ and ‘ane leche’, and whatever their skills in treating illness, they are useless on the jousting field. Both break their spears, one discovers his sword rusted into its hilt, another swoons when about to strike, and eventually they are reduced to hitting each other with their gloves. The poem is a parody of the joust, and by visual jokes, pokes fun at both the combatants we see and the formal nature of serious jousting.

Despite his distinguished career as a herald, finishing as Lord Lyon King of Arms, in The Justing, Lyndsay may also be questioning the value of chivalric practices. Not only is the poem a parody, but at the very end, Lyndsay thanks God that ‘that day was sched na blude’. Real jousts could kill, as happened to King Henry II of France in Lyndsay’s own lifetime. Lyndsay’s longer poems, Squyer Meldrum and The Testament of Squyer Meldrum also seem in part to interrogate notions of chivalry. Squyer Meldrum is a romance and it celebrates the life of one of Lyndsay’s Fife friends, William Meldrum of Cleish and Binns. While praising Meldrum, however, the poem also seems to mock the conventions of high romance as well as the knight. For while the Squire is compared to Lancelot, after rescuing a noble woman from rape, he runs away from her suggestions. Lyndsay thus implies that the heroes of romance may not be so easy to find, even in among the truly worthy and these poems, which seem to have been written for family and friends, offer some gentle humour at the discrepancy between the expectations of a romance hero and Meldrum’s actions.

The romance as a genre was still very fashionable in sixteenth-century Scotland, and there is plenty of evidence to show that Lyndsay saw himself as very much in a Scottish tradition. His early work, The Testament of the Papyngo, is a beast fable, comparable to Henryson’s best, in humour and dark comment. The papyngo, a parrot, has used her time as a courtier to grow fat; despite her shape, she persists in climbing a tree. She falls, and dies, but uses her passing to delivers two homilies of advice, to king and to courtier. Like Henryson, Lyndsay uses the humour of the bird’s silliness to seduce his audience, before evoking pathos to strengthen her moral points.

As well as beast fable and romance, Lyndsay also participates in a peculiarly Scottish tradition in his Response to the King’s Flyting. Such a poem is obviously more circumspect than the scatological offerings of Dunbar, but it nevertheless scores a few points against the king’s sexual activities. That Lyndsay was able to do this at all demonstrates his closeness to James V. As the early poems show, especially The Complaynt and The Dreme, Lyndsay had been an important figure in the household of the baby king. According to Lyndsay, he ‘bure thy grace upon my bak,/ And, sumtymes, strydlingis on my nek/ Dansand with mony bend and bek/. The first sillabis that thow did mute/ was Pa, Da Lyn’. This closeness permitted Lyndsay to offer advice to the king freely, suggesting moral restraint, probity, and the reform both of the church and of the nobility for the benefit of the rest of his realm; these themes of course are among the key ideas of the Thrie Estaitis.

As Lyndsay grew older, his poetry grew darker, and his concern for good government and church reform became more urgent. There is no clear evidence that Lyndsay himself was ever a confessed Protestant, but there is no doubt that he supported some of the aims of the Protestant movement, such as putting the Bible into the vernacular, and reforming the clergy. These concerns surface again in The Tragedie of the Cardinall and Ane Dialog betwix Experience and ane Courteour. The Tragedie presents the life and fate of Cardinal Beaton from the cardinal’s own mouth. Since Beaton had been murdered by Protestant lairds in revenge for his burning of a Protestant martyr George Wishart, to make the wraith of the cardinal speak allows Lyndsay subtle irony in the development of the character; it also makes the warnings to other priests and princes more telling.

The Dialog is Lyndsay’s most serious work, and it castigates the state of the church, the state of the court and the state of the world. The poem presents a courtier-narrator discussing his situation with the figure Experience; as the young courtier accompanying the papyngo seems to represent the younger Lyndsay, full of hope and enthusiasm for the new king’s rule, so it is tempting to read the older courtier in The Dialog as speaking Lyndsay’s own disappointments and regrets. Lyndsay’s strength here as in the rest of his poetry is his combination of a plain register with literary complexity. He is happy to take earlier forms, such as the dream vision or the romance, and rewrite them for his own ends. He is also not afraid to state his mind on government, on religious practice and spirituality, and to give due attention to those not perhaps intellectual or powerful. Such are the features that made Lyndsay a popular writer in his own time; explored again, he may regain some of that status in ours.


You may also be interested in Sir David Lyndsay: Selected Poems, edited by Janet Hadley Williams.


Copyright © Nicola Royan 2000


Last updated 18 August 2010.