Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Fame, honour, praising

Fame, honour, praising, infinite thanks
to you and your sweet-sounding ornate fresh style,
most reverend Virgil, prince of Latin poets,
gem of genius and flood of eloquence.
Thou peerless pearl, patron of poetry,
rose, chronicler, palm of victory, worthy of receiving laurels and all glory,
choice garnet, chief flower and cedar tree,
lantern, lode-star, mirror and paragon,
master of all masters, sweet source and flowing well,
far and wide and everywhere thine heavenly bell is rung;
I mean your skilfully crafted works,
so pithy, vigorous and full of life, 
pleasing, perfect and felt in every way,
as something that is held before your very eyes;
in every volume that it pleases you to write,
far surpassing all other styles,
like to the rose in June with her sweet scent
the marigold or daisy does excell.

Lawd, honour, praysyngis, thankis infynyte
To the and thy dulce ornat fresch endyte,
Maist reuerend Virgill, of Latyn poetis prynce,
Gem of engyne and flude of eloquens.
Thou peirles perle, patroun of poetry,
Roys, regester, palm, lawrer, and glory,
Chosyn charbukkill, chief flour, and cedyr tre,
Lantarn, laid stern, myrrour and A per se,
Maister of masteris, sweit sours and spryngand well,
Wyde quhar our all rung is thyne hevynly bell;
I meyn thy crafty warkis curyus,
Sa quyk, lusty, and maist sentencyus,
Plesand, perfyte, and feilabill  in all degree,
As quha the mater beheld tofor thar E;
In every volume quhilk the lyst do wryte,
Surmontyng fer all other maner endyte,
Lyke as the roys in June with her sweit smell
The mary guld or dasy doith excel.

perle -  Pearl. Natural Scottish pearls have been sought after for centuries due to their lustre and colours (grey, cream, white, lilac and pink). British pearls were mentioned by Roman writers, as well as Scottish writers and poets throughout the 12th to the 17th centuries. The Crown of Scotland features 68 freshwater pearls around the rim at the base.

roys - Rose. There's no indication of the type of rose Douglas is referring to, other than its 'sweit smell', but I like to think that he was referencing the tangling roses that can be found in hedgerows and old railway cuttings across Scotland, with flowers in white, palest blush, or deep pink. They appear in May through June, and seem to last only for the briefest moment, just enough to scent the air, and then drop their petals in the breeze. It's the sort of scent you want to bottle, and is appreciated all the more for having such a short season. When Douglas compares Virgil's works to the rose, marigold and daisy, he is saying that the rose is better because these other two flowers grow for more months of the year. We are so used to having flowers available all year round, that sometimes it's easy to forget that in the past, everything had a season. Douglas also calls on a tradition of the rose in poetry; his fellow poet, William Dunbar, writes of "the fresche Ros of cullour reid and quhyt" where all nature acclaims the rose. Shakespeare describes Titania's bower being draped with the wild rose, eglantine, and Robert Burns speaks of the "red, red rose, that's newly sprung in June..."

charbukkill - Carbuncle. "Early 13c., 'fiery jewel,' from Old North French 'carbuncle'...literally 'little coal'. Originally of rubies, garnets, and other red jewels." A jewel that gleams as bright as a glowing ember. I chose garnet over carbuncle for the obvious reason that 'carbuncle' today has negative connotations, bringing to mind tumours and boils and hideous buildings, rather than a mysterious stone of ancient heritage.

 laid stern -  The Pole Star. This one gave me so much trouble. For ages, I thought that the 'laid stern' corresponded to the 'lantarn' in the first part of the line, and then got mixed up with lights being laid on the stern of boats...Eventually, I realised that it actually meant lodestar, and thus 'a leading light', which would fit in with the lantern and mirror of the rest of the line. Sailors in the past would navigate by fixing their position using the horizon and the pole star.

A per se - Back to your schoolbooks, my children! In the dim and distant past, when learning was by rote and Latin ruled supreme, children reciting the alphabet would  include 'per se' ('by itself') after single letters that could stand as words on their own (A, I, O). They would also recite the 27th letter of the alphabet, the &. This would sound like 'and per se and', which over time, got corrupted into 'ampersand'. Because 'A per se a' came before the rest of the alphabet, in the 15th and 16th centuries, this came to mean something or someone who was pre-eminent.

feilabill - Perceptible. Literally 'feelable', able to be felt. Due to the use of the long 's', I accidentally mixed this up with 'sellabil' (also a genuine Scots word!) and spent quite some time debating the relative merits of 'able to be felt' and 'worthy of price'. Of course, I could have just looked it up, but that would have been too simple...

mary guld - Marigold. These were one of the flowers associated with the Virgin Mary. It was commonly found in fields and gardens, and the petals were used in cooking and in medicine. The dried petals were sometimes used as a substitute for saffron.

dasy - Daisy. Daisies are one of the first flowers that we learn to recognise, stringing them in crowns, necklaces, or lengthy garlands. The name comes from Old English daeges eage, "day's eye" - referring to the way the petals open in the daytime and close over in the evening.

The Book of Prefaces - Alasdair Gray
Online Dictionary of the Scots Language
Scottish Natural Heritage
University of Toronto Libraries
A Shakespearean Botanical - Margaret Wilkes
Just My Type - Simon Garfield
Historic Rose Journal
Online Etymology Dictionary
World Wide Words


  1. Thanks for this Becca. This is a fantastic idea for a blog.

    feilabill (feelable):- touchable, tactile, tangible, perceptible, sensible, discernible, appreciable, palpable – all carried in that simple Scots form

    My favourite line from the passage is

    Wide quhare owre all rung is thine heivenly bell;

    This, plus ‘feelable’, plus ‘as wha the maitter held tofore thair ee’, etc, makes it philosophical indeed; not just observation, but a full sense of connection, being a small part of the whole, someone who knows what it is like seeing the Pentlands, Fife, the Forth, the North Sea, the distant fringes of the Highlands and the city below with its castle and crown of St Giles, all under the sky from the top of Arthur’s Seat.

  2. I see in other sources, the verb in the line also appears (probably more reliably) in the present tense form:

    Wide whare ower all ringis thine heivenly bell

    I think I prefer the effect of the past tense, even if it is more likely to be based on a misreading.

    Doubtless my mind would change on another day : )

  3. I like GD’s excited mixture of bookishness and real world sense of actual observable universe. Likes of, his inclusion of 'regester' among the lists of concrete attributes in line 6 (as in listing, roster, schedule, inventory, calendar) - there's something kind of Scottish about that.

    I wonder too if 'glory' in that same line might also have been some concrete noun in a sense now lost - such as 'crowning jewel' maybe? Sometimes hard to tell how open to interpretation the older Scots is.

  4. But once again - great blog! Much to think about and looking forward very much to seeing more.

    1. Thank you so much for your comments! RE rungis/rung is - yes, the present tense probably IS the correct one; what I want to do is have a look at a proper printed copy (I know there's an 1806 edition a nearby museum) and see what that says. But it's probably been printed and misprinted so many times that who can say what the 'correct' answer is - but I would like to make a note of that so I shall edit this post (when I have time!) to reflect that.

      The juxtaposition of the scholarly and the mundane is what makes the prologues so interesting to me. I love words, and so finding out stuff like the 'a per se' makes me really pleased, but I also like what it GD's language tells us about the world around him. RE your thoughts on 'glory' - yes! I suppose we have 'crowning glory' to mean hair, so maybe that's a remnant of the older sense. Anyway, lovely to hear your thoughts - thanks again. :)

  5. Cool! I love Virgil, and poetry, and so this is awesome! Nice place, btw. ;)

    1. Thanks! I figured this was going to be pretty text-heavy so I went with something that seemed easy to read.