Gavin Douglas the Scottish Chaucerian and his famous works

A prominent literary figure among the Scottish Chaucerians is Gavin (Gawain) Douglas, who was a churchman—a bishop. He belonged to a good family, had the influence and fortune to win a large measure of worldly success. His writings reveal him as a devoted follower of Chaucer and even contain his outspoken tributes to the great master. He was also a patriotic Scotchman, and intimately connected with the political movements of Scotland for freedom. But, unlike Dunbar, he was no prolific author and had not authorship as his calling. His literary career was only a small part of his busy life of politics.

The Palice of Honour is supposed to be his earliest work. It is about 2166 lines. This is modeled after Chaucer’s Hous of Fame, and shows him as an intimate follower of Chaucer. It is a dream poem, of course of the latter’s type, and bears out the tradition of medieval dream and allegorical poetry. The poem, as in Chaucer, opens with the poet’s dream, as he is found asleep in a pleasant garden in the month of May. This is followed by the poet’s vision of a desert palace, of his visit to the palace and of his varied experiences and learned discourses there.

Douglas’s next important work King Hart is also allegorical work, although it is considered much better than his previous work, The Palice of Honour. In fact, King Hart appears to be a better constructed, more analytical allegory, with more felicitous music. Chaucerian values are found better appreciated and followed here.

Douglas’s other original poem is Conscience. This is a poem of four stanzas, with the conceit that dwells on the loss of man’s moral sense. In his well-conceived conceit, the poet asserts that men had originally conscience, but then clipped away the ‘con, and ‘sci’, and were left with ‘ens’ only.

Douglas is, however, particularly notable for his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid into the Scottish dialect. Translated directly from Latin, the work marks Douglas’s scholarship as well as literary sense and command over the art of versification. Virgil’s lines are well rendered into the heroic couplets which have freshness and even occasional brilliance. But the special attraction of the translation is the introduction of a Prologue to each of the thirteen Books of the epic. These Prologues are Douglas’s own literary features, added to the work, and absolutely personal. Here the poet speaks of himself, of his own land, of its season of winter and month of May, and so on. The wealth of his descriptions is well seen here. Moreover, his diction has a rich variety, derived from different sources, learned and popular, modern and archaic. Indeed, Douglas’s Eneados is a commendable effort and remains memorable as the first translation of a great classical poet into English, northern or southern. In his enterprise, Douglas here appears to be a precursor of the Renaissance.

The Scottish Chaucerians are not found simply imitative. Their literary fidelity to Chaucer is sincere, but their literary production is no blind imitation, without any mark of originality. They are found to have grasped Chaucer well, catching often his sentiments with remarkable felicity. Their literary discipleship to Chaucer is, indeed, well balanced, showing both devotion and inspiration and a better appreciation of the great master.

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