- Alexander Montgomerie: Poetry, Politics, and Cultural Change in Jacobean Scotland
In both life and reputation Alexander Montgomerie mirrors all too closely the poetic fascination with the figures of Icarus and Phaethon demonstrated in Roderick J. Lyall's splendid new "cultural biography." In the early 1580s, Montgomerie, royally connected and probably even then Catholic, was styled by James VI "maister poete," a principal in the monarch-led poetic coterie known to posterity as the Castalian Band (the term derives from James's epitaph on the poet). His return in 1588 from campaigning in the Low Countries, however, saw him clearly out of favor, caught in a long and ultimately fruitless lawsuit over a pension drawn from a royal grant of cathedral revenues. He died in 1598 an outlaw, implicated in a plot to furnish Spanish reinforcements for the Earl of Tyrone's uprising with a supply base in the lower Clyde estuary. Latterly his subtle and canny works have suffered undue neglect, both from promoters of critical anglocentrism and from Scots readers who detected in the Castalians a decadence pointing forebodingly to the Union of the Crowns and a Scottish cultural identity gone south.
Lyall's avowed aim is to place his subject, both historically and culturally, in a European frame, and the rewards are considerable. His researches, clearly the work of decades, supply much new material, and are as secure in Dutch and Spanish as they are in English and Scottish contexts. Where he speculates he is scrupulous, and against the backdrop of a study that explores but does not push the envelope of legitimate conjecture, certain vignettes —Leicester's uneasy scrutiny of Montgomerie's arrival in the Netherlands in 1586 (123-24), the murky entanglement of Montgomerie's quest for his pension in matters of royal and Kirk policy (148, 163-64) —stand out all the more absorbingly. Lyall also has a rare knack for assessing the relation of literary convention to biographical fact, and some poems are persuasively redated. The hybrid form of the cultural biography does, to be sure, come with limitations. The study cleaves to familiar models of literary history and periodization; poets seek to shake off "the constraining bonds of conventional language and imagery" (7) and "find a new voice" (227), much attention is given to contending "Mannerist" and "Baroque" tendencies, and the (highly welcome) impetus to comparative study tends to fall into an encyclopedic inventorizing of shared motifs and themes. The book's purely literary sections can feel exhaustive rather than incisive. Despite a gesture towards the historicisms of the 1980s and '90s, the sphere of reference tilts decidedly backward; recent feminist and psychoanalytic criticism of Petrarchan and Ovidian influences, for instance, barely features, though both areas are profoundly relevant to the argument. While the book should reveal Montgomerie to many new readers, it largely shields him from current critical views; the dominant dialogue is with a small band of Older Scots scholars, and as often in this field the potential appeal of some important and compelling texts is thereby narrowed. But it's hardly fair to cavil; [End Page 1427] Montgomerie still needs introducing to many, and the sixth, seventh, and eighth chapters of this study perform an essential act of expository location.
The book is on the whole well-produced, and slips seem few. Circe (265) is not a siren. I am agreeably perplexed by the discussion of Montgomerie's "Ha! Lytill dog," a version of Ronsard's "Ha! petit chien." According to Lyall, Ronsard's "fagotte au bocage" becomes "Or to mak faggots for his fuid is fane" because Montgomerie misunderstood the French ("'[se] fagoter' [to dress like a scarecrow] is a comparatively rare word" ). The result is "an inspired mistranslation": "[Montgomerie's] use of 'faggots' antedates the earliest attestation (from Henry Mayhew) by 250 years, and captures graphically the courtier's contempt for such a crude rustic sausage" (250-51). It is not clear to...