Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Douglas, Gawin
DOUGLAS, GAWIN or GAVIN (1474?–1522), Scotch poet and bishop, was the third son of Archibald, fifth earl of Angus [q. v.], familiarly known, from his influence and pronounced energy and decision of character, as ‘the great earl,’ and Archibald Bell-the-Cat. Douglas was born about 1474, but the place of his birth is not known. Although he was in all likelihood a Lothian man, like Dunbar, he may have been born at any one of the various family residences in East Lothian, Lanark, Forfar, and Perth. Little is known of his youth, but it seems quite certain that he studied at St. Andrews from 1489 to 1494, while Bishop Sage suggests that he may have continued his studies on the continent, and Warton (History of English Poetry, vol. iii.) is satisfied that he completed his education at the university of Paris.
Having taken priest's orders, Douglas was, in 1496, presented to Monymusk, Aberdeenshire, and two years later the king gave him the promise of the parsonage of Glenquhom, soon to become vacant by the resignation of the incumbent. But his first important and quite definite post was at Prestonkirk, near Dunbar. He seems to have had two chapels in this diocese, one where the modern village of Linton stands, and the other at Hauch, or Prestonhaugh, now known as Prestonkirk. This accounts for his descriptive title ‘Parson of Lynton and Rector of Hauch.’ The latter name, for a time misread as Hawick, gave rise to certain eloquent but erroneous æsthetic passages in the narratives of early biographers. Even Dr. Irving—usually a sober and trustworthy guide—has a rapturous outburst (History of Scotish Poetry, p. 255) on the exceeding appropriateness of placing a youthful ecclesiastic with poetic instincts ‘amid the fine pastoral scenery of Teviotdale.’ The result of recent research is to exclude the influence of the borders from the development of Douglas, and also to limit the dimensions of the plurality to which, about 1501, he was preferred, when the king made him provost of St. Giles, Edinburgh. While holding these posts, conveniently situated as regards distance, and not too exacting in the amount of work required, he wrote his various poems, and it is thought not improbable that the poetical address to James IV at the close of the ‘Palice of Honour’ (his earliest work) may have induced the king to give him the city appointment. For several years little is known of the activity of Douglas, but in the city records we find that he was chosen, 20 Sept. 1513, a burgess, ‘pro communi bono villæ gratis.’ From this year onwards his career was influenced and moulded by national events.
Within a year from the king's death at Flodden, Queen Margaret married Douglas's nephew, the young and handsome Earl of Angus, whose father had fallen at Flodden. This stirred the jealousy of the other nobles, and Douglas was involved in the quarrels and suffered from the clash of parties that followed. From the outset his own personal comfort and professional standing were directly affected. Shortly before the marriage, probably in June 1514, the queen nominated him to the abbacy of Aberbrothock, one of the many vacancies caused by Flodden, and soon after the marriage and before the nomination was confirmed she expressed her wish to have him made archbishop of St. Andrews. This was another of the tragically vacated posts, of which Bishop Elphinston, Aberdeen, to whom it was offered, had not taken possession when he died, 25 Oct. 1514. There were other two aspirants to the archbishopric, and Douglas, who trustfully went into residence at the castle, was now rudely disturbed. Hepburn, prior of St. Andrews (acting on an ecclesiastical law rarely used), got the canons to vote him into the position, and he expelled Douglas and his attendants, in spite of help from Angus. Then Forman, bishop of Moray, armed with his appointment from the pope, ejected Hepburn, and compelled him to content himself with a yearly allowance from the bishopric of Moray and the rents already levied from St. Andrews. Meanwhile, Aberbrothock had been given to James Beaton [q. v.], archbishop of Glasgow, so that Douglas's prospects of preferment were dim and uncertain enough.
In January 1515, the Bishop of Dunkeld having died, the queen resolved that Douglas should be his successor, and duly presented him to the see in the name of her son the king. Here again there was strong opposition. The Earl of Atholl wished his brother, Andrew Stewart, to be bishop of Dunkeld, and his authority, backed by the influence of those opposed to the queen and her party, was sufficient to get the canons to accede to his request. The queen both wrote to the pope, Leo X, herself on the subject and got her brother, Henry VIII, to appeal on Douglas's behalf. The result was an apostolical letter conceding the request, and at the same time emphasising the appointment of Forman to St. Andrews. Before the matter was settled, the late king's cousin, the Duke of Albany, came from France as regent (acting in the interests of those opposed to the queen and her friends), and after examination of Douglas's claims to Dunkeld, and the measures taken to advance his interests, imprisoned him, in accordance with an old statute, for receiving bulls from the pope. He was not released for nearly a year, and only after the pope had written severely condemning the regent's proceedings. It is probable that Albany's rigid treatment of the queen, who had been obliged to take refuge at the English court, hastened the termination of Douglas's captivity. In July 1516 his name appears as the elect of Dunkeld in the sederunt of the lords of council, and in the same month we find the regent writing the pope a most plausible letter regarding the settlement of the difficulty between Douglas and Andrew Stewart. It seems that the Archbishop of Glasgow first consecrated Douglas to his new office, and that Forman, not satisfied with this, insisted on certain formalities at St. Andrews, including a humiliating apology from Douglas for past opposition.
Being at length fairly installed as bishop of Dunkeld, Douglas showed himself anxious and able fully to perform his duties. It was not possible for him, however, to remain quietly among his people and attend to their social and spiritual welfare, however desirable in itself such an arrangement might have been. Within a year of his appointment he accompanied Albany to France, and assisted in the negotiations that led to the treaty of Rouen. The news of this policy he conveyed to Scotland, where the nobles opposed to Angus were becoming turbulent in the regent's absence. This reached a crisis in 1520, when the partisans of the Earl of Arran were completely overthrown in the Edinburgh streets—in the skirmish known as ‘Clean-the-Causeway’—by the troops of the Earl of Angus. Douglas was present on this occasion, though not engaged, and by timely interposition saved the life of the Archbishop of Glasgow, who had taken an active part in the struggle. Angus, being now both powerful and demoralised, gave occasion for the queen's resentment when she ventured to return from England in the regent's absence. Finding how matters were, she resolved on a divorce. This led to the return of Albany and the flight of Angus and his friends. Bishop Douglas, going to the court of Henry VIII, partly for safety and partly in the interest of Angus, was deprived of his bishopric and achieved no political results. Henry and Wolsey both appreciated him, and his friend Lord Dacre wrote and worked on his behalf, but there was nothing more. Everything seemed to be against him. Even Beaton, archbishop of Glasgow, when Forman died, ungratefully wrote letters vilifying Douglas, still no doubt dreading one that had it in him to be a formidable rival for a post on which he had set his own heart. Then England declared war against Scotland, in connection with continental affairs, and Douglas was thus in the heart of the enemy's country. Meanwhile he had formed a valued friendship with Polydore Vergil, to whom he submitted what he considered a correct view of Scottish affairs to guide him on these points in his ‘History of England.’ Vergil records (in his History, i. 105) the death of Douglas. ‘In the year of our Lord md.xxii.,’ he says, ‘he died of the plague in London.’ The death occurred, September 1522, in the house of his staunch friend, Lord Dacre, in St. Clement's parish, and in accordance with his own request he was buried in the hospital church of the Savoy, ‘on the left side of Thomas Halsey, bishop of Leighlin, who died about the same time.’ There is a ring as of the vanity of human wishes in the pathetic sentence closing the twofold record over the burial-places of the prelates: ‘Cui lævus conditur Gavanus Dowglas, natione Scotus, Dunkeldensis Præsul, patria sui exul.’
Of Douglas's ability, extensive and accurate learning, and strong and vigorous literary gift, there cannot be the shadow of a doubt. When we consider that his first considerable poem—marked by rich fancy, and compassing a lofty ideal—was produced when he was about the age at which Keats issued his last volume, and that all his literary work was done when he was still under forty, we cannot but reflect how much more he might have achieved but for the harassing conditions that shaped his career. His three works are: ‘The Palice of Honour,’ ‘King Hart’ (both of which are allegories, according to a prevalent fashion of the age), and a translation of the ‘Æneid’ with prologues. The theme of the ‘Palice’ is the career of the virtuous man, over manifold and sometimes phenomenal difficulties, towards the sublime heights which his disciplined and well-ordered faculties should enable him to reach. It is marked by the exuberance of youth, sometimes running out to the extravagant excess that allegory so readily encourages, but there is plenty in it to show that the writer has a genius for observation and a true sense of poetic fitness. It is manifest that he has read Chaucer and Langland, but he likewise gives certain fresh features of detail that anticipate both Spenser and Bunyan. The poem is a crystallisation of the chivalrous spirit, in the enforcement of a strenuous moral law and a lofty but arduous line of conduct. ‘King Hart’ likewise embodies a drastic and wholesome experience. It is a presentation of the endless conflict between flesh and spirit, in which the heart, who is king of the human state, knoweth his own trouble, and is purged as if by fire. The poet exhibits more self-restraint in this poem than in its predecessor; he is less turgid and more artistic, stronger in reflection and not so expansively sentimental, and much more skilful in point of form. A minor piece on ‘Conscience,’ a dainty little conceit, completes his moral poems. In his translation of Virgil, Douglas is on quite untrodden ground. He has the merit of being the first classical translator in the language, and he seems to have set his own example by working at passages of Ovid, of which no specimens exist. He must have done the whole work, prologues and all, together with a translation of the supplementary book by Maphæus Vegius, within the short space of eighteen months. He writes in heroic couplets, and his movement is confident, steadfast, and regular. In several of the prologues he reaches his highest level as a poet. He shows a strong and true love for external nature, at a time when such a devotion was not specially fashionable; he displays an easy candour in reference to the opinions of those likely to criticise him; he proves that he can at will (as in the prologue to book viii.) change his style for the sake of effect; and in accordance with his theme he can be impassioned, reflective, or devout. The hymn to the Creator prefixed to the tenth book, and the prologue to the book of Maphæus Vegius—descriptive of summer and the ‘joyous moneth tyme of June’—are specially remarkable for loftiness of aim and sustained excellence of elaboration.
The earliest known edition of the ‘Palice of Honour’ is an undated one printed in London, and probably to be assigned to 1553, the year in which W. Copland published the translation of Virgil. The poem, however, was issued several times in the sixteenth century, and the preface to the first Edinburgh edition (1579) contains a reference to the London issue, as well as to certain ‘copyis of this wark set furth of auld amang ourselfis.’ The latter cannot now be traced, but they are supposed to have appeared before 1543, when Florence Wilson imitated the ‘Palice of Honour’ in his ‘De Tranquillitate Animi.’ The Edinburgh edition, with the prologues to the Virgil, formed the second volume of a series of Scottish poets published in Perth by Morison in 1787. Pinkerton used the same edition in his ‘Ancient Scotish Poems,’ and the Bannatyne Club in 1827 likewise reprinted it, together with a list of the variations from the London edition. Of the Virgil the important editions are the first (1553), Ruddiman's, and the handsome edition, in 2 vols. 4to, of the Bannatyne Club (1839). ‘King Hart’ and ‘Conscience’ were both poems of recognised merit by the middle of the sixteenth century, for they were included by Maitland in his famous manuscript collection, and it was from this source that Pinkerton printed them (presumably for the first time) in his ‘Ancient Scottish Poems’ (1786).
There is a legend that Douglas wrote other works than those now mentioned, and he has even been credited with ‘dramatic poems founded on incidents in sacred history,’ but these, if ever produced, have completely disappeared. Tanner ascribes to Douglas ‘Aureas Narrationes,’ ‘comœdias aliquot,’ and a translation of Ovid's ‘De Remedio Amoris.’ Ruddiman's folio edition of the ‘Æneid,’ 1710, marked an era in philology by supplying, in its glossary, a foundation for Jamieson's ‘Scottish Dictionary.’ Douglas is the first to use the term ‘Scottis’ in reference to the language of his poems, and this he does while freely coining words, especially from Latin, to meet his immediate necessities. While, however, this is the case, it is universally admitted that his poems are of notable importance in philology as well as literature. The first collected edition, which is not likely to be superseded, was edited in four volumes by the late Dr. John Small, and published in Edinburgh, 1874.[Pinkerton's Ancient Scotish Poems, vol. i.; Bishop Sage's Life, prefixed to Ruddiman's edit. of the Æneid; Irving's Scotish Poets, vol. ii. and History of Scotish Poetry; Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen; Small's Works of Gavin Douglas, 4 vols.]