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Douglas, Gavin (c. 1475–1522) - BIOGRAPHY,  , CRITICAL RECEPTION

douglas’ life eneados church

Gavin Douglas’ life is more fully documented than any other poet’s up to his time with the possible exception of Geoffrey Chaucer. In Chaucer’s case, however, the records of the public career presumably follow the course of another, less documented one. Douglas’ public life after 22 July 1513 completely overshadowed his life as poet. On that day, just three months before Flodden and its disastrous losses for the Scottish and for his immediate family, Douglas concluded his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid and announced the end of his poetic career. The evidence suggests that he kept his promise to follow a more solitary muse: there is no poetry after this date. But the man who emerges from the extant poetry and the official records is nonetheless of a piece: he is worldly, intellectually up-to-date, and outspoken.

Gavin Douglas attended St. Andrews University, where he is listed as a Determinantes in 1493 and a Licentiati in 1494. He may have earned an advanced degree in either theology or law; the study of law was commonly associated with advancement in the church. The Cambridge manuscript of the Eneados mentions three church positions, two simultaneous: provost of the wealthy church of St. Giles’ in Edinburgh and parson of Linton in East Lothian, after which he was bishop of Dunkeld. The earliest reference to a church appointment is on 28 January 1497, when Douglas, acting as witness to an indenture, is referred to as “dene of Dunkeldene.” The documentation of Douglas’ activities is primarily civic and, in the period before Flodden, included meetings of the Lords of Council in 1505 and 1509 and twice assisting the rector of St. Andrews University. Son of one earl of Angus and uncle to another, Douglas was variously active in Edinburgh on behalf of members of his large and powerful family.

Douglas’ intellectual contacts included lively ties to Paris, though it is not certain that he actually studied there. John Major wrote that he enjoyed Douglas’ friendship both in Scotland and in Paris. His Commentary on the first book of Peter Lombard’s Sentences (29 April 1510) has attached to it a Dialogue between David Cranston and Gavin Douglas in which these two “ famatos viros magistrum ” converse on subjects they regard as “fitting to be treated by a theologian.” The Dialogue casts Douglas as critical of scholastic philosophy, quoting Lorenzo Valla and expressing ideas current in humanist thought, especially in the teaching and writing of Erasmus* and Jacques Lefevre (Bawcutt, 27–30). His friends included the Italian Polydore Vergil,* author of Historia Anglica , and Robert Cockburn. Douglas’ learning and his extensive contact with Italian humanism are undisputed (see Bawcutt).

After September 1513 and the death of James IV at Flodden Field, Douglas’ activities were increasingly political. He was appointed one of the Lords of Council on 19 September 1513 and a month later “ordanit to remane daily with the quenys graice to gif hir consell in all materis concerning the wele of the realme.” This proximity to the queen and to the regency was more firmly fixed less than a year later, when the widowed queen was married to Douglas’ nephew, the sixth earl of Angus. Until his death in 1522, Douglas’ life reflected not only the worldliness of the church in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries but the bitter factional strife in Scotland.

The last years of his life included prison, a bitter trial, and exile. Letter exchanges between Douglas and powerful contemporaries suggest the political advantages and the perils of Douglas’ position, recording at once mind-boggling schemes and bitter emotion. Thus, for example, Margaret, his most significant supporter and ally in the years immediately after Flodden, writes to her brother, Henry VIII, on 6 January 1522:

I pray his Grace richt effectuoslie that he help not the said Dunkeld, considdering the gret evill that he has don to this Realm be his evill counsall, for he has bene the caus of all the dissention and trobill of this Realme, and has maid fals and evill raport of me baitht in Ingland and Scotland…and sen I helpit to get hyme the benefice of Dunkeld I sall help hyme to want the samyn.

On 21 February the Lords of Council decreed Douglas guilty of high treason, ordering that his Dunkeld estates be confiscated. The decree claimed that he had entered and stayed in England even after that country had declared war against Scotland. Though isolated pieces of the public record, including letters, have been used to portray a self-interested and litigious man, a more realistic reading suggests a man fully engaged, in a period of Scottish history when a person of obvious talent and boldness of opinion would surely offend someone. Gavin Douglas died in September 1522.



The immediate success of Douglas’ Eneados is suggested by the number of manuscripts from the first half of the sixteenth century that survive; of the six, five are complete. Now in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge, the earliest of these (No. 1184 in M. R. James’ Catalogue) was copied shortly after 1513 by Douglas’ chaplain, Mathew Geddes. On the basis of variant readings in the extant manuscripts, J.A.W. Bennett suggests that there were intermediate texts and that we can assume that “at least ten copies of this long work (Douglas has two lines for each line of Virgil’s) were made in less than forty years” (Bennett, 84). Copland’s Black Letter Quarto of 1553 was the first printed edition of Douglas’ Eneados . Thomas Ruddiman’s 1710 edition of The Threttene Bukes of Eneados is surprising considering the Jacobite sympathies of Ruddiman and his circle; Dearing avers that they “managed to overlook Gavin Douglas’ somewhat unsavory intrigues for ecclesiastical preferment as a protege of Henry VIII,” and he suggests that these intrigues “evidently alienated many of his nineteenth-century critics” (848).

The “entirely curious history of Gavin Douglas’ literary reputation” was the impetus of Bruce Dearing’s “reinterpretation” of the Eneados in his 1952 PMLA essay. He pointed out “that most scholars seem to have been content to accept G. Gregory Smith’s disparagement in Cambridge History of English Literature of Gavin Douglas as the ‘last and the least’ of the poets of one of Scotland’s golden ages.” Dearing stressed the importance of avoiding “some of the biases, patriotic, sentimental, philological, and biographical,” that have rendered invalid most criticism of the Eneados and observed that “as poet and as politician Douglas was steadfastly on the side that advocated peace with England and the suppression of the turbulent noblemen at home” (Dearing, 846, 849, 861). The bias Dearing observed is indeed part of the critical legacy. Thus, C. S. Lewis remarked that the “problem” of the Palice of Honour , “‘Where does true Honour lie?’ was one that probably had more than literary interest for the poet; and if his own political career after Flodden does not suggest that he solved it very well in practice, we need not thence assume that he did not ask it in good faith” ( English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, excluding Drama 77). C. S. Lewis, however, elsewhere admired King Hart and the Palice of Honour for their “artistic control,” “disciplined splendour of style,” and “proportion and balance,” qualities, Lewis added, in which the Scottish writers often excel the English ( Allegory of Love , 287).

The bias that Dearing mentions still pertains in 1964, when David Coldwell’s edition of Douglas’ Aeneid asserts that Douglas’ “life as a poet ended in 1513, not so much perhaps because his time was filled with activities and occupations, or because he chose to resign poetry to younger emotions, as because his poetic philosophy was deliberately repressed in favour of a career he could not intellectually defend.” Coldwell describes Douglas’ Aeneid as “an affirmation of the political convictions of the Renaissance,” but he sees Douglas’ life as proclaiming   “the aristocratic right to be selfish” and asserts he was “acquiescent to the advantages of the hour” (Coldwell, Virgil’s Aeneid , 37–38). Recent studies (see especially Bawcutt) pave the way for a more canny appreciation of historical context and the particular mix of poet, politician, and churchman that Douglas brings to the sixteenth-century Scottish court.

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