John Barbour Scottish poet and his famous work ‘The Bruce’

John Barbour(c.1320 – 13 March 1395) was a 14th-century Scottish poet, church minister and royal courtier who, it is believed, was the first to write in a Germanic version of the Middle English language known as Scots. Not much is known about Barbour’s early life; the place and date of birth are both unknown. He assumed the archdeaconry of Aberdeen in 1356; prior to that, he had briefly held the post of precentor in Dunkeld. In later years he studied in England and in France. Indeed, in 1357, he was “granted safe passage” by King Edward III to study at Oxford, this protection being necessary because of the political upheavals of the time. He was often called the “Father of Scots poetry”.

Barbour was the literary contemporary of William Langland. He was, unlike Langland, a Scottish poet, and though he was a churchman, his principal work, The Bruce, an epic poem, was not religious or ethical, but rather political and patriotic.

Barbour’s The Bruce is a sort of national epic for the Scottish people, just as Chanson de Roland is for the French. The author intends to present here a memorable history of the heroic struggle of the Scottish people, under the leadership of Robert Bruce, against the English king. Barbour relates, with all vigour and feelings, Bruce’s experiences and struggles- his wanderings in a wretched state, his fight, defeat and flight and ultimate success. The poet’s representation of Bruce’s plight is haunted like a wild beast by his English foes, narrow escapes time and again, dauntless courage, determination and agility and triumph over the English at the battle of Bannockburn to secure independence for Scotland is vivid and inspired.

Though based on history, Barbour’s The Bruce, like other national epics, contains a good deal of fictional matters. Much materials of romances are found mingled with the facts of history. All this, however, serves to add to the poetical as well as popular appeal of the work.

Barbour’s significance in Scottish history and literature is undeniable. He is to be ranked, as a pioneer in Scottish poetry, to record, in a popular form, the history of the deliverance of the country, lest it should be forgotten. The Battle of Bannockburn is a momentous victory as well as history for the Scottish people and Barbour has made it memorable by his masterly accounts. What is more, he has exhibited his God-fearing sense of justice even in his literary work. As such, despite his ardent patriotism, he has remained, as far as possible, fair to the English in his work. His poetic style is simple and sonorous to catch easily popular ears. His octosyllabic couplets are all facile and suitable for the effect of popular, nationalistic poetry.

Barbour, of course, is not found to possess the highest gifts of an epic or narrative poet. But he possesses a style that is simple, sincere and straightforward, with a high degree of rapidity and sonority. These are all the qualities, required from a popular national poet and Barbour’s The Bruce occupies a high position in the national literature of Scotland.

Barbour is supposed to have been the author of some other literary works-

  • Lives of the Saints, a lengthy work in couplets,
  • The Stewarties Oryginalle, containing the genealogy of the Scottish Kings,
  • Siege of Troy, a fragmentary work, and
  • The Buik of Alexander, a happy, popular poem.

These works are of little contribution to Barbour’s literary fame which he has gained by his singular work- The Bruce.

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