Author(s): Dr John B Corbett
Copyright holder(s): University of Glasgow: Copyright © 2004 The University of Glasgow. All rights reserved.
Last week we took a look at the cultural context and general structure of James VI's 'Reulis and Cautelis, to be observit and eschewit in Scottis Poesie'. Although, as we saw, this document was written by a young king, in his late teens, and although it was largely derivative, based on earlier continental and English models, it is nevertheless interesting as the first explicit statement of 'rules and cautions' to be observed and avoided when writing poetry in Scots, as opposed to English. You can think of it as a school essay written by a very bright pupil who also had in George Buchanan a brilliant personal tutor. The two didn't get on, but some of Buchanan's learning obviously rubbed off on his wilful charge. This 'school essay' also had a perhaps disproportionate (and not always positive) influence. At the centre of the Scottish court was a patron who had codified his ideas of what Scottish poetry should look like. This had a clear effect on those writing at the court. One of James' most enthusiastic followers, John Stewart of Baldynneis, explicitly dedicates his adaptation of Ariosto's 'Orlando Furioso [Roland Furious]' to James in words that make direct reference to the 'Reulis and Cautelis':
TO THE RYCHT EXCELLENT RYCHT
HICH AND MYCHTIE PRENCE
IAMES THE SEXT KYNG OF SCOTLAND
His maiesteis most humyll Seruant
J. Stewart of Baldynneis wishith
Long And most prosperous reigne
In the continewall fauor
And feir of God.
SIR, haifing red your maiesteis maist prudent
Precepts in the deuyn art of poesie, I haif assayit my
Sempill spreit to becum your hienes scholler; Not that
I am onnywais vorthie, Bot to gif vthers occasion (seing
My Inexpertnes) to publiss thair better leirnyng. I grant
In deid I haif mekill errit, Not onlie in electing of ane
So small and fectless subiect, As als be the Inept orthographie
And Inlegebill scribling of my Imprompt pen, Bot maist of
All in pithles and vnplesand framyng of the sam, Quhairin
I haif playit the part of ane young and Imperfyt prentes
Quho at his first Interprys of schaiping takith not in
Hand the fynnest stuff Bot rather sum slycht cloth to
Susteine the sklents and manks of his cunnyngles clipping;
Remitting all to the courtassie, correction, and protection, of
your maiesteis visdome, Not doutting bot your grace
Vill accept this my vitles vork of your grayt clementie
As my maist gratius Maister and chiefest lod Star…
And so it goes on. Several things are worth noting about this: first, the direct references to 'the deuyn art of poesie', and 'ane young and imperfyt prentes' by which Stewart of Baldynneis refers to the title of James' 'Essayes of a Prentise in the Divine Arte of Poesie', the collection in which the 'Reulis and Cautelis' first appeared. Here, adopting the conventional role of modest servant (a single manuscript exists of the poem, in what RDS Jack describes as 'regular, easily decipherable semi-Italian hand' – since this was probably the poet's personal gift to the King, we can dismiss the protestations about his illegible scribbling), Stewart of Baldynneis takes on the mantle of apprentice himself, while lauding James' scholarship. Whether this is lip-service or not, it shows that the poets around James were aware of the 'Reulis and Cautelis' and were probably concerned to follow its precepts to some degree. We'll look in a moment at what some of these key precepts were. Before leaving this dedication, however, it is interesting to look at the details of the language at the end of the 16th Century, when the manuscript was composed. It is clearly Scots, with characteristic spellings (quh-), some of which equally clearly represent distinctively Scots pronunciations (<ai> in 'maist', <ei> in 'leirnyng', <ch> in 'rycht'). A few (not many) of the vocabulary items are Scots: 'meikill', 'sklents and manks' (rips and mutilations). The grammar, however, is a bit of a mixture: we find the English present-tense verb inflexion 'wishith' and 'takith' rather than Scots 'wishis' and 'takis'. We also find no distinction between Scots participle endings (previously '-and' and the inflexions of verbs used as nouns – both here end in '-ing' ('remitting' and 'doutting' have the same endings as 'scribling' and 'leirnyng' whereas previously, the former would have been 'remittand' and 'douttand'). However, the past-tense verb inflexion is Scots: 'assayit', 'errit'. Again, as in other written documents at the end of the 16th Century, even the ones that take pride in their Scottishness (Stewart of Baldynneis notes that this is an abridgement of the Italian romance into 'scotis meitir') we can expect a sprinking of English forms.
Turning back to the 'Reulis and Cautelis' themselves, 'scotis meitir' is the subject of the first chapter, which begins, 'First ye sall keip just cullouris' ie 'you shall keep strict or exact metres or rhythms'. As James Craigie noted in his introduction to the STS edition of James' poetry, James and his contemporary writers on poetry were vexed by the question of rhythm or metre. James called this 'flowing', a term that he seems uniquely to have coined from a Greek word (rythmos) normally translated as 'measure'. The renaissance in Europe had led to the rediscovery of Greek and Latin literary criticism, and renaissance poets knew the principles of classical metre, which was based on quantitative metre (regular patterns of syllables of long and short duration). There was no rhyme. Among educated poets there was a debate about whether to attempt to return to classical norms (ditch rhyme and try to use quantitative metre) or whether to develop the characteristic features of contemporary poetry (ie keep rhyme and try to work with languages that did not really distinguish between lengths of syllables as obviously as did the Greek and Latin writers.) Sometimes we do distinguish between long and short syllables in Scottish speech: compare the second syllable in the words 'allowed' and 'aloud'. Which is longer? Normally in Scottish speech, however, the syllables are quite clipped and short. Syllable length is not a great basis for making metrical poetry in Scots.
James, then, falls into the camp that takes the raw materials of Scottish speech, rather than Latin and Greek, and tries to develop a system that will regulate the making of poetry. In this he still makes reference at times to Greek concepts (such as length) though he recognises the importance of 'accent' or 'stress' in vernacular verse.
James accepts that rhyme is a key feature of the poetry of his time, and lays down regulations for good rhyming practice. He does not allow rhymes on identical syllables, eg the 'prove' in 'prove/reprove' and he does not allow rhymes on the unstressed final syllables of words like 'question/reduction'. Words have to rhyme 'ay to the hinmest lang syllable (with accent)' as in 'question/digestion'. Words that rhyme on a stressed syllable, followed by an unstressed syllable (ie feminine rhymes) and those that rhyme on a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables (ie triple rhymes such as 'using it/losing it') are given another idiosyncratic label by James – 'rhyming in termis'. He cautions against rhyming in terms, arguing that it disrupts the metrical pattern of the line to have too many unstressed syllables floating around: 'be war of inserting sic lang wordis hinmest in the line'.
Well, it's quite easy to find examples of rhyming practice that conforms to and doesn't conform to these 'reulis'. To take the start of one of James' own sonnets first:
That blessed houre, when first was broght to light
Our earthlie June and our gratious Queene,
Three goddesses how soone they had her seene
Contended who protect her shoulde by right.
The lines here end with good, short monosyllablic words. Literally textbook stuff. Notice the <gh> spellings in this text, still no doubt pronounced /x/.
John Stewart of Baldynneis breaks one of the rules in the first quatrain of one of his sonnets, a kind of 16th Century version of the Beatles' 'Norwegian Wood':
Guid day, madam, with humyll thanks also,
That me unto your ludgeing lairge did gyd
Yea, skairs I knew quhan I thairin did go
Quhair I sould wend, the wallis war so wyd.
This example would get six of the tawse, and the poet sent back to find a better rhyme for 'go' than 'also' which rhymes on the unstressed rather than the stressed syllable.
Rhyming in terms is relatively infrequent in the Scots sonnets I've looked at: an interesting example comes in the sestet of a later sonnet by Sir William Mure of Rowallan, who was born around the time of the publication of the 'Reulis and Cautelis':
Eye weep, heart groan, black birds my mirth have mard,
Moon hath no light, the sun his beames withdraweth:
The mouth of godly Zephanie is bard
Because the truth in honestie he showeth.
Fountains of life, which make Gods citie glad
Are fild with earth, clear springs can not bee had.
Here the feminine rhyme is on the verbs with the English verb inflexion 'eth' 'withdraweth/showeth' (cf 'hath'). The verb inflexion and the spellings disguise the pronunciation of the text – clearly 'showeth' must be pronounced 'shaweth' in order to rhyme. Other spellings ('eye', 'heart' 'moon' 'light' etc) might equally have Scottish pronunciations, although the spelling is no longer indicative of this.
In his second chapter, James spells out the rules governing the metrical line. Although his terminology follows the Greek insofar as it terms syllables 'short' and 'lang', his practice suggests that he understands these terms as unstressed and stressed:
'First, ye man understand that all syllabis are devydit in thrie kindes: that is, some
are schort, some lang and some indifferent. Be 'indifferent', I meane that quhilk
are ather lang or schort, according as ye place thame.
The forme of placeing syllabes in vrse is this. That your first syllabe in the lyne
be short, the second lang, the thrid short, the fourt lang, the fyft short, the sixt lang
and sa furth to the end of the lyne. Alwayis tak heid that the nomber of your fete
in every lyne be evin and nocht odde: as four, six, aucht or ten: and nocht thrie,
fyve, sevin or nyne, except it be broken verse, quhilkis are out of reul and daylie
inventit be dyvers poetis. But gif ye wald ask me the reulis, quhairby to knaw
every ane of thir thre forsaidis syllabes, I answer, 'Your eare man be the onley
judge and discerner thairof.''
When pressed to define things precisely, in other words, James falls back on his usual get-out clause: you will ken these things by experience. James follows this fairly routine description with the interesting rule that in a line of fourteen syllables the 'section' (or caesura, a grammatical pause within the line) must come after the eighth syllable, and the eighth syllable must be 'lang' or 'stressed'. This is so that when the line is sung, the singer can rest after a long drawn-out note. The implication is clearly that for James poetic metre and poetry as a whole was closely linked to musical performance. James was keen that every poetic line should have a 'section' (caesura – this time James' word is coined from French, but it is again an idiosyncratic label): after the 8th in lines of 16 syllables, after the 6th in lines of 12 and 10 syllables, after the 4th in lines of 8 syllables, and after the 2nd in lines of 4 syllables. James did not like 'sections' after an odd number of syllables; he did not want the caesura coming in the midst of a metrical foot.
A brief example of 'flowing' will suffice. This is the opening of a sonnet by William Alexander of Stirling, which has an obvious rhythmical beat (it 'flows') and occasionally (but by no means always) a pronounced 'section' after the sixth syllable:
x - x - x - x - x -
Awake my muse and leave to dreame of loves,
Shake off soft fancies chaines || I must be free!
Ile perch no more upon the mirtle tree
Nor glide through th'aire with beauties sacred doves;
But with Jove's stately bird || Ile leave my nest
And try my sight against Appolloes raies.
There are 10 syllables in each line, and the metrical pattern is quite regular, established with the textbook first line. The second and fifth lines have strong pauses, caesuras or 'sections' after the sixth syllable (or third foot). You can quite easily imagine this sung. There is little here that is explicitly Scots – Alexander uses the English modal auxiliary 'must' rather than 'man/maun', and the <gh> does not signal overtly at least whether this should be pronounced /x/. In addition, the text has 'no more' rather than 'na mair'.
However, there is no reason why this sonnet should not be sung in a strong Scottish accent – most of it is composed in language that is the common property of both English and Scots.
The third chapter of the 'Reulis and Cautelis' considers decorum, which we considered at some length last week. The chapter, in short, moves away from a consideration of rhyme and metre, to a discussion of the vocabulary suitable for different kinds of content: 'Ye man also take heid to frame your wordis and sentencis according to the mater…'
A notion of the high style and low style of verse will be familiar to you from your reading of Henryson and (even more so) Dunbar. It's still evident at the end of the 16th Century in the latinate vocabulary associated with lofty subject matter, and the native vocabulary associated with comic or low subject matter. In John Stewart of Baldynneis' 'Roland Furious', for example, the hero at one point stumbles into the 'pleasant place' the locus amoenus so familiar in mediaeval love poetry (Canto 11, ll 161-165):
He sees ane christall revere douce distell
About the bordour of ane medow fair,
Quhair flouris fresche maist savouruslie did smell
And monie seimlie frondise trie preclair
Obumbrat all this situation rair.
There are words here of Latin/French origin ('christall', 'douce', 'distell' 'savouruslie', 'frondise' [leafy; L. frondosus], 'preclair', 'obumbrat' [shaded] and 'situation'). Like the aureate diction of Henryson and Dunbar many of these and the other, less latinate, words in the poem have positive connotations: 'fair', 'fresche', 'seimlie', 'rair'.
Compare the vocabulary here with that of Alexander Montgomerie's 'flyting sonnet' against his lawyer, MJ Sharp from Tranent, after Sharp had lost a court case. Montgomerie was the senior poet at James' court, but he was a catholic, and he was deprived of his pension. He was involved in bitter litigation to get it back, but, as I said, lost the case. This vindictive sonnet claims that Sharp was bought by the opposing advocate, Baxter:
A Baxters bird, a bluiter beggar borne,
Ane ill heud huirsone lyk a barkit hyde,
A saulles swinger, sevintie tymes mensworne,
A peltrie pultron poyson'd up with pryde,
A treuthles tongue that turnes with eviry tyde,
A double deillar with dissait indeud,
A luikar bak whare he was bund to byde,
A retrospicien whom the Lord outspeud,
A brybour baird that mekle baill hes breud
Ane hypocrit, ane ydill atheist als,
A skurvie skybell for to be escheu'd
A faithles, fekles, fingerles and fals,
A Turk that tint Tranent for the Tolbuith.
Quha reids this riddil he is sharp forsuith.
Many of the words used here are home-grown insults: 'bluiter' (babbler), 'huirsone' (bastard), 'swinger' (scoundrel), 'brybour baird' (exposed taker of bribes), and 'skurvie skybell' (worthless rogue: 'skybald' is of obscure origin but still exists in some Modern English dialects too). There are some French and Latinate words in the poem: 'pultron' (poltroon; from Fr. poultron, It. poltrone and mediaeval Lat. pultro, meaning a coward) and more obviously 'retrospicien' which is a synonym of 'luikar bak' (one who looks over his shoulder to protect himself) and 'hypocrit'. As we can see from these two examples, etymology is not an absolute guarantee of a poem's style. The lofty poem has a few native words with positive associations; the flyting has a few latinate words with negative associations. You could argue, however, that since the flyting is against a lawyer, a sprinkling of latinate terms is appropriate, or decorous. At any rate, in both poets we see a strong sense of what James is talking about when he argues that the words must be framed according to the subject matter. To a lesser extent you could argue that the sentences are also framed according to the topic: the four lines from 'Roland Furious' make up a single, elegant, complex sentence, whereas the flyting sonnet is a rumble-tumble sequence of vituperative, barely-grammatical phrases.
Montgomerie's flyting sonnet against Sharp also vividly illustrates another of James' 'reulis': Scots verse should always alliterate: 'Let all your verse be literall, sa far as may be, quhatsumever kynde they be of, bot speciallie tumbling verse for flyting.' (Ch III) Montgomerie's flyting sonnet certainly follows James' precepts. Flytings are'tumbling' rather than 'flowing' because their rhythms are (appropriately) less regular than, say, a smooth love sonnet.
To a lesser extent, alliteration is also present in the extract from 'Roland Furious', especially if you work across line boundaries: douce/distell, flouris/fresche/frondise, and savouruslie/smell/seimlie.
In emphasising the importance of alliteration, James was identifying a distinctive characteristic of Scottish and northern English poetry. Alliteration had, of course, been the organising principle of the Anglo-Saxon poetic line, but with the advent of rhyme its importance diminished though it never disappeared. However, in the north of England and in Scotland there still appeared works that eschewed rhyme and were principally alliterative: 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', and of course Dunbar's 'Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo'. James' models do not rate alliteration, and the modern word in English post-dates the 'Reulis and Cautelis'. This is one of the few instances in the essay where James seems to be acknowledging something distinctive he has actually noticed about the poetry around him, rather than simply following diverse models.
Comparisons, epithets and proverbs
Chapters IV and V are brief discussions of figures of speech or 'ornamentis to verse'.
Chapter IV calls for precision in the choice of adjectives (epithets), comparisons and proverbs to describe subjects, particularly lofty subjects like gods and goddesses. On the whole he prefers circumlocution to the coining of new words by, for example, compounding – he calls new compounds 'corruptit wordis'. Again the same concern for decorum that is found in Chapter III governs the choice of descriptive strategies: 'they man be proper for the subject to beautifie it'.
Sometimes entire poems are fashioned out of conceits – ingenious comparisons – as in this sonnet by John Stewart of Baldynneis, which seems to have been written to illustrate the proverb 'pride comes before a fall':
As dryest dust – winddrift in drouthie day –
Quhyls lychts on lordis and ladies of renoune,
Quhyls on thair face and quhyls on their array
And quyls upon ane kingis statlie croune;
Yit as it cums sum ay are bussie boune busily ready
To cleinge it thence, so that it finds no rest
Quhill to the erth it be again snipt doune:
So mortall men, quho dois thair mynd molest
To be in gloir coequall with the best,
Thocht for ane space they volt with waltring wind rise up…tossing
Doune to the ground thay sall again be drest,
For few aloft may fortouns firmtie find.
Bot ay the swyfter and moir hich thay brall soar
Moir low and suddane cums thair feirfull fall.
Chapter V, the shortest chapter (reprinted in full in last week's handout) simply points to the function of repetition as a decorative device. Found often in Dunbar's aureate verse, repetition of words, particularly at the start of a line, was a favourite rhetorical strategy. James uses the simple repetition of 'Haill' in an adaptation of a sonnet by Desportes:
Haill, mirthfull May, the moneth full of joye!
Haill mother milde of hartsume herbes and floweres!
Haill fostrer faire of everie sporte and toye
And of Auroras dewis and summer showres!
Haill friend to Phoebus and his glancing houres! shining
Haill sister scheine to Nature breeding all… bright
Originality & Translation
Chapters VI and VII have less to do with language and more to do with literary topics. They bear careful reading and consideration, because they deal with the important issue of originality in an age when much poetic writing was a translation, or at least an adaptation, of poetry written elsewhere, in Scotland's case, mainly in France and Italy. James stresses the importance of originality, but his concept of originality is obviously pre-Romantic. He is not so much concerned with saying something new, as saying something conventional in a new way – in other words, the originality of the poet lies largely in saying something that has been said before in an ingenious and surprising and pleasing manner. As noted last week, James encouraged and practised translation, yet warned against it – he evidently saw translation as something not to be practised by novice poets but by accomplished artists. When reading the court poets of James VI, look at the notes to the edition you're using and check how often the poets are drawing upon the literature of the European continent. Very rarely do you find an absolutely original poem being composed.
The final chapter of the 'Reulis and Cautelis' simply gives examples of types of verse. Rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter he dismisses as fit only for 'lang histories' and are 'yit nocht verse'.
For 'heroique actis' he recommends 'heroicall' verse, which is iambic pentameter, rhyming aab aab bab.
For 'heich and grave subjectis, specially drawin out of learnit authouris' he suggests a verse form he names 'ballat royal', normally called 'ottava rima', an iambic pentameter stanza rhyming abab bcbc.
For 'tragicall materis, complaintis or testamentis' he suggests 'Troilus Verse' which others call 'Rhyme Royal', an iambic pentameter form rhyming ababbaa.
For 'flyting or invectives' he recommends 'tumbling verse' in 'rouncefallis', an irregular mixture of anapaests and iambs, in a 13-line stanza rhyming ababababcdddc.
For 'compendious praysing of any bukes or the authoris thairof or ony argumentis of uther historeis, quhair sindrie sentences and change of purposis are requyrit' James recommends the 14-line sonnet form.
For love he recommends 'commoun verse', 6-line iambic tetrameter or pentameter stanzas, rhyming ababcc.
Love verse can also be written in 'cuttit and brokin verse, quhairof new formes are daylie inventit according to the poëtes plesour', and he concludes with the complex 'Cherrie and Slae' stanza with its bob-wheel conclusion.
There are a few observations that we can make about James' exemplification of the various verse forms. First, it is another illustration of the importance of decorum for him – he specifically links verse forms with appropriate topics. As readers of late 16th, early 17th Century poetry then, we need to pay attention to the verse forms: (a) are they chosen as appropriate to the subject matter or are they generically subversive? (b) how do the rhyme schemes function as discourse units -- that is, how do they help organise the development of the poem? Rhyming couplets are good for episodic narratives; the interlinked rhymes of the 'ballat royal' or 'ottavima rima' demand a more sophisticated rhetorical structure. Secondly, James' choice of verse forms also indicates what he feels are fit subjects for verse: heroic acts, love, flyting, and high and learned matters. Long historical subjects can be written in verse couplets but hardly qualify as the divine art of poetry. Thirdly, the examples, largely chosen from the works of contemporary poets from his own court, reaffirm the modern, patriotic purpose of this essay – it is meant to affirm the contemporary worth of his own poetic circle, and stimulate further work in that developing tradition. And finally James' idiosyncratic terminology (adapted and borrowed from other languages, mainly French) suggests that he was attempting to initiate a peculiarly Scottish branch of literary criticism. Most of his terms have fallen by the wayside; the 'Reulis and Cautelis' ceased to be a direct influence on poets after around 1630, and thereafter was treated as a curious historical document. However, two terms first used by James stuck: he gave literary criticism the terms 'quatrain' (a four-line stanza) and 'alexandrine', a 6-foot or 'hexameter' line. What I hope I've shown today is that the 'Reulis and Cautelis' deserve to be recognised as much more in Scottish literary and linguistic history than the schoolboy platitudes of a teenage king. They are a unique insight into the literary and linguistic assumptions of the Scottish court at a crucial point in the nation's history.
Check the handout and answer any general questions about the lecture (or refer them to me).
1. John Stewart of Baldynneis
Make sure the students identify this as a sonnet (14 lines, iambic pentameter). Look at the rhyme scheme and relate that to the development of the poem: abab bcbc cdcd ee Interlinked rhymes divide the argument into four-line groups, followed by a couplet that resolves the problem (which is a kind of chain reaction of problems following upon the fact that love is both bitter and sweet, delight and painful).
The rhymes are all masculine; note that 'mischeif' has to have the stress on the final syllable, but it would probably have been pronounced like that.
The students should also note that this is an example of 'underwriting' ie the last word of a line becomes the first word of the next. This kind of technical ornamentation was recommended by James VI.
Other things to note: alliteration, the placing of caesuras (irregular), the Scots spellings, esp the digraphs <ui> in <luif>, <ei> in <deip>, <oi> in <moir>, and <quh-> etc. Note the grammatical inflexions too: <-is> in <dois>, <obeyis>. How do the students respond to this kind of thing? Are they impressed? Can they imagine the kind of context/audience which would value this kind of literature? Do they recognise it as Scots?
'The Cherrie and the Slae'
An interesting 'before and after 1603' comparison. Montgomerie is thought to have corrected and revised the poem substantially shortly before his death c. 1610. Note the complex stanza form, with bob-wheel ending (short lines, change of rhythm, internal rhymes).
The 1597 version is more 'aureate' in the style, say of Dunbar, using more latinate items such as 'attemperate' and 'immaculate' and 'distelling' (distilling) etc. The 1636 version tones this down, using a slightly plainer diction, but introducing classical gods and goddesses. Two routes to a high style, one less obviously 'Scottish'?
Note, too, the more Scottish spellings and grammatical inflexions in Waldegrave: 'cleir/cleare', 'flouris/flowres', 'heidis/heades', 'hailsum/wholesome'. Note that 'cled' becomes 'clad' later, but must still be pronounced 'clad'.
This work is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
The SCOTS Project and the University of Glasgow do not necessarily endorse, support or recommend the views expressed in this document.
Cite this Document
Applying Reulis. 2023. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved February 2023, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=17.
"Applying Reulis." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2023. Web. February 2023. http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=17.
The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech, s.v., "Applying Reulis," accessed February 2023, http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=17.
If your style guide prefers a single bibliography entry for this resource, we recommend:
The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. 2023. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk.