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The Kingis Quair: Introduction
The Kingis Quair: Introduction
The Kingis Quair
(the "King's Book") survives in a single manuscript from the end of the fifteenth century, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Arch. Selden. B.24, on folios 192r-211r. The manuscript is a collection of minor poetic works by Geoffrey Chaucer and other poets of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, some of them, like The Kingis Quair,
unique to the manuscript.1
Although this sole surviving copy was probably written in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, the poem itself is generally considered to have been written by James I, king of Scotland (1394-1437), perhaps immediately after his release from imprisonment by the English late in 1423 and before he left England in the spring of 1424.2
The heading and closing of the poem in the manuscript attribute the poem to James, and the details of his capture and captivity described in the poem (lines 148-96) correspond with our knowledge of these events in James' life from other sources.3
A previous editor of The Kingis Quair
, John Norton-Smith, has commented upon the "eclecticism" of James' style, which he describes as "the blending of different aspects of literary topoi:
description, song, complaint, self-analysis, prayer, moral instruction, dialogue, panegyric, allegorical excursus, dream adventure . . . into a medley, various yet whole" (pp. xii-xiii). This "eclecticism," derived in part from Lydgate's influence, makes this poem particularly difficult for modern readers. Yet to its original audience James' poem must have seemed a tour de force,
demonstrating his mastery of many different topoi
and styles current in medieval poetry, and that may well have been James' intent. Aside from the poetry of Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate, James would have had many medieval models, both English and French (especially the Roman de la Rose
, perhaps in Chaucer's translation), of works intended to show off not only the poets' broad range of knowledge but also their mastery of literary forms and topoi
The Kingis Quair
focuses on "James'" love for a woman whom he has first seen during his captivity (historically Joan Beaufort), but he reveals nothing explicit about the lady or his courtship of her; instead he follows Boethian conventions in portraying his sufferings and his attempts to obtain "immortal" assistance. Modern readers will perhaps be frustrated by the lack of detail about actual encounters between lover and beloved; in fact, after the moment of his first looking down from his tower and seeing her in the garden, the lady never again appears in the flesh. He never actually exchanges a word with her in the course of the entire poem. Even at the end, when he tells us of his ultimate success in winning the hand of this woman, he refrains from telling us her name:
And thus this flour - I can seye no more -
So hertly has unto my help attendit
That from the deth hir man sche has defendit. (lines 1307-09)
she has saved me from death
Michael Cherniss remarks that "whatever the historicity of the personal experience of King James in the Quair
, that experience has been transferred into an artifact composed primarily of conventional literary elements" (p. 194). In spite of this lack of specific personal description, James' poem is a beautiful tribute to the woman he loved, describing in a formal manner his devotion to her and his sense that even his long imprisonment has been worth the opportunity to meet and court her. Still, the poet's descriptions of the dream landscapes he enters, his lively dialogues with the various deities he encounters, and his impassioned prayers for assistance add a vitality to the poem that moves beyond conventions.
James was influenced by Chaucer's poetry, by the poetry of later Chaucerians (notably John Lydgate), and especially by Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy
, which Chaucer had not only translated but used extensively as a basis for philosophical/psychological poetry.4
Boethius' work was widely known in the late Middle Ages, and the concepts of the mutability of fortune and consolation in the face of it are found not only in literary works like The Kingis Quair
but even in non-literary documents such as the famous Epistola Consolatoria
sent to James early in 1414 from the University of Paris, whose real purpose was to enlist his aid in a papal controversy but whose plea was couched in terms of the consolation that comes from valuing adversity over prosperity.
Chaucer's influence on James is pervasive: James' fictional frame - the reading a book to overcome sleeplessness and then having a dream which is related to the contents of the book - probably derives from Chaucer's framing of The Book of the Duchess
; his falling in love at first sight with a woman he sees from his prison tower may derive from Chaucer's Knight's Tale; his description of the sudden onset of lovesickness, from Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde
; and his descriptions of dream landscapes and goddesses, from The Book of the Duchess
, The House of Fame
, and The Parliament of Fowls
. As to James' debt to Gower, though he calls upon him in the closing lines of his poem, it is difficult to point to specific borrowings. In his edition, Alexander Lawson suggests that the Quair
is "after the manner of Gower in its prevailing didactic strain and its frequent moralising," and he proceeds to list a few similarities of detail. Some scholars argue that the style of James' poem derives more from Chaucer's followers, especially John Lydgate, than from Gower or even Chaucer himself. James' blend of natural and artificial diction, of waking and dreaming perspectives, of realistic and allegorical encounters remind one of Lydgatean dream visions like The Temple of Glas
and The Complaint of the Black Knight.
Various writers have seen the influence of The Kingis Quair
in poems of the later fifteenth century. In an early
work on the authorship of the poem, J. T. T. Brown (pp. 31-48) presents a table of similarities between The Kingis Quair
and the anonymous poem, the "Court of Love," most of which are too common to be useful. Derek Pearsall and Matthew McDiarmid both discuss the influence of James' poem on the anonymous Isle of Ladies
, though McDiarmid (pp. 34-36) limits the borrowings to the description of a single lady. McDiarmid also mentions a minor resemblance with Robert Henryson's fable, the "Trial of the Fox" (p. 34), and posits a relationship between the Quair
and Lydgate's translation of Deguileville's religious allegory, the Pilgrimage of the Life of Man
(pp. 36-37), but it may not be easy to settle the priority of Lydgate's translation and the composition of the Quair.
There may also be some connection of the Quair
to two later Scottish poems, Lancelot of the Laik
and The Quare of Jelusy
The poem's eclecticism - that is, the number of different literary topoi
crowded into this poem - may make it difficult for modern readers to follow the course of events described in the poem. For this reason, we provide the following summary:
First, there is an author's frame around the poem (lines 1-133 and 1352-79), in which James deliberately speaks of himself as author: he writes that on a sleepless night in February, he chose to read Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy
(summarized in lines 22-49), and, inspired by the Boethian image of Fortune and her wheel, decided to write a new poem about his own turnings of fortune. He admits his need for guidance to choose the right way both in life and in writing, and calls on the Muses to assist him in the latter effort. The poem he purportedly writes follows (lines 134-1351). In the last four stanzas (the envoy), he addresses his poem, sending it forth to readers - and especially to his beloved lady - to ask them (her) to accept it in spite of its faults, closing with a recognition of the omnipotence of God who really governs our lives and with a prayer for the souls of his poetic predecessors, Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower.
Lines 134-1351 are the poem thus framed. James recounts the story of his capture by the English and his wonder that Fortune should be so cruel to him (lines 134-203). He then describes his first sight of his beloved as she walks in the garden that he can see from his prison window (204-511): he says the nightingales had been singing of love (232-38), causing him to wonder what love is that is so noble (248-73). It is then that he falls in love at his first sight of the lady and addresses her from afar as if she were a deity (274-308). He describes her beauty, then addresses Venus as he yields homage to love; he asks the nightingales to sing again to delight his beloved (309-413), and when they respond he is so enraptured by the effect that he pledges his undying love to the lady and the birds sing a song in praise of May, the season for love (421-62). When she leaves the garden, he describes the torment he feels; he mourns his state there at the window until he falls asleep and begins his dream (463-511).
The dream occupies lines 521-1204. In it, he visits three dreamscapes, encountering a deity in each: Venus, Minerva, and Fortune. First he is carried up into the heavens to the realm of Venus, where he sees all manner of lovers, old and young, successful and unsuccessful (538- 651) as well as Cupid and his mother Venus herself. He proceeds to address Venus (687-721), asking her aid in his cause. She tells him of all the difficulties that stand in the way of his suit but promises to help if he will be patient. She offers him a guide, Good Hope, to find Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, who can offer more advice (729-861). Good Hope guides him thence to the palace of Minerva, where he is admitted by the porter, Patience, and receives Minerva's advice about how to conduct himself in order to win the love of his lady (862-966). She explains that those who will be truly happy in love put aside mere appetite and, intending marriage, love according to God's law. When she quizzes him about his intentions, he answers that his is a noble and true love (967-87, 991-1001), and she sends him on to Fortune for further assistance (1002-52).
He descends to the earth, but not to a waking state. He dreams he walks through an ideal landscape, with a flowing river swimming with fish, blooming plants, and an array of wild animals (1057-1101). Good Hope, his guide, appears again and leads him to an enclosed garden in which he sees Fortune turning her wheel, raising some to high estate and casting down others (1102-35). Fortune addresses him by name, asking why he has come. He explains his situation to her, and she explains the workings of her wheel (1156-90). At her urging, he climbs on the wheel, and Fortune reminds him that she can both raise up and cast down men's fortunes, taking him so firmly by the ear to demonstrate this that he wakes from his dream (1191-1204).
On awaking, the lover is more troubled still by the thought that only dreams can bring him nearer to what he desires (1205-31). Then a white turtledove appears, bearing an illuminated scroll on which are depicted "gillyflowers" (perhaps carnations) and a poem announcing the glad news that heaven has decreed that he shall have his desire (1232-53). The poet tells us that after reading this over and over again he hung it up at the head of his bed to give him hope (1254-60). He then tells us briefly of the success of his courtship, and explains why this story has been worthy of writing in the form of this poem (1261-81). He prays to Venus to assist other men who are true lovers, and prays for those in each of the earlier stages of love (1282- 1302). He asserts that it would take too long to explain how he eventually won the love of his lady and expresses his gratitude to the gods, the nightingale, his prison, the garden, and even his captivity that all played a part in his discovering love and his beloved (1303-37). Two final stanzas expressing his happiness end the poem (1338-51), followed by the four-stanza envoy (1352-79).
At a most basic level, then, The Kingis Quair
is about James' suffering and feelings of impotence in the face of fortune (or the goddess Fortuna) in both his life and his love. After James takes instruction and advice from Venus and Minerva, both life and love take a turn for the better near the end of the poem and the whole seems a celebration of James' release both from captivity by the English and from the sufferings of unrequited love. However, when Matthew McDiarmid refers to the work as "a spiritual autobiography" (p. 50) and "James' 'divine comedy'" (p. 60), he points to a much broader field of meaning than the phrase "love story" suggests. The speaker in the poem is not the lover, but an older, wiser self telling the story of an event in the past and the lesson of that story. The work begins (line 1) and ends (line 1372, followed by the envoy) "heigh in the hevynnis figure circulere," in the firmament, the sphere of the fixed stars, which guide life on earth under the loving care of the Creator.6
The imprisoned youth opens his copy of Boethius to while away the time, and in effect becomes
the character of Boethius, turning over and over in his mind the puzzle of Fortune's nature (lines 52-65), as Boethius does - and clearly not seeing beyond her. The poem thus poses a problem, the same problem Boethius' work poses: what is the true nature of Fortune? what is this life all about? how do we escape from the ceaseless assaults of an apparently capricious, often malignant Fortune? In the case of James, the solution comes through
the love situation and his working through it verbally and emotionally. Love is therefore his salvation in a very specific and profound sense. Minerva, Venus, and Fortune do not simply help him win his lady, they teach him how to live his life, with patience, steadfastness, and faithfulness.
The Kingis Quair
is written in a seven-line stanza that rhymes ababbcc
. James makes a point of calling attention to his stanza form in the penultimate line, "I recommend my buk in lynis sevin" (line 1378). He probably borrowed this form from Chaucer, who first introduced it into English poetry in his Parliament of Fowls
and made it most famous in Troilus and Criseyde
. Although many poets made use of this form in the fifteenth century (including Charles d'Orléans), and despite the fact that James did not invent it (nor, for that matter, did Chaucer, who borrowed it from French poetry), this particular stanzaic pattern was named "rhyme royal" for its use by James I in The Kingis Quair
This edition uses the unique text of Bodleian Library, MS Arch. Selden. B.24 as its base text. See the General Introduction (p. 12) for editorial principles.
Go To James I of Scotland, The Kingis Quair
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Gray, Douglas, ed. The Oxford Book of Late Medieval Verse and Prose. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985. Pp. 71-79. [Lines 204-497.]
Kinghorn, A[lexander] M[anson], ed. Middle Scots Poets. London: Edward Arnold, 1970. Pp. 53-57. [Lines 1058-1162.]
Lawson, Alexander, ed. The Kingis Quair and The Quare of Jelusy. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1910. Pp. 3-101.
McDiarmid, Matthew P., ed. The Kingis Quair of James Stewart. London: Heinemann, 1973; rpt. Totowa, NJ: Rowan and Littlefield, 1973.
Mackenzie, W[illiam] Mackay, ed. The Kingis Quair. London: Faber and Faber, 1939; rpt. 1970.
Morison, Robert, ed. The Works of James I, King of Scotland. Perth: Morison and Son, 1786.
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Norton-Smith, John, ed. James I of Scotland: The Kingis Quair. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971; rpt. Leiden: Brill, 1981.
Rogers, Charles, ed. "The Poetical Remains of King James the First of Scotland, with Memoir." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 2 (1873), 297-392.
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Simon, Jean Robert, ed. Le Livre du Roi (The Kingis Quair), attribué à Jacques 1er d'Écosse. Bibliothèque de Philologie Germanique 21. Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1967.
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Scheps, Walter, and J. Anna Looney, eds. Middle Scots Poets: A Reference Guide to James I of Scotland, Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, and Gavin Douglas. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.
Balfour-Melville, E. W. M., "The Later Captivity and Release of James I." Scottish Historical Review 21 (1924), 89-228.
---. The English Captivity of James I, King of Scots. Historical Association Leaflet 77. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1929.
---. James I, King of Scots, 1426-1437. London: Methuen, 1936.
Brown, Michael. James I. Edinburgh: Canongate, 1994; rev. ed. East Linton, UK: Tuckwell, 2000.
Lawson, Alexander, ed., The Kingis Quair and the Quare of Jelusy. Pp. ix-xl.
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Brown, J[ohn] T[homas] T[oshach]. The Authorship of the Kingis Quair: A New Criticism. Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1896.
Caretta, Vincent. "The Kingis Quair and The Consolation of Philosophy." Studies in Scottish Literature 16 (1981), 14-28.
Cherniss, Michael D. "The Kingis Quair." In Boethian Apocalypse: Studies in Middle English Vision Poetry. Norman, OK: Pilgrim Books, 1987. Pp. 193-210, 250-51.
Craigie, William A. "The Language of the Kingis Quair." Essays and Studies 25 (1939), 22-38.
Ebin, Lois A. "Boethius, Chaucer, and the Kingis Quair." Philological Quarterly 53 (1974), 321-41.
Fox, Denton. "Chaucer's Influence on Fifteenth-Century Poetry." In Companion to Chaucer Studies. Ed. Beryl Rowland. London: Oxford University Press, 1968; rpt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Pp. 385-407.
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James, Clair F. "The Kingis Quair: The Plight of the Courtly Lover." In New Readings of Late Medieval Love Poems. Ed. David Chamberlain. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1993. Pp. 96-118.
Jeffery, C. D. "Anglo-Scots Poetry and The Kingis Quair." In Actes du 2me colloque de langue et de littérature écossaises. Ed. Jean-Jacques Blanchot and Claude Graf. Moyen Age et Renaissance. Strasbourg: Université de Strasbourg, 1979. Pp. 207-21.
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MacQueen, J. "Tradition and the Interpretation of the Kingis Quair." Review of English Studies n.s. 12 (1961), 117-31.
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Means, Michael H. The Consolatio Genre in Medieval English Literature. Pp. 96-99.
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Scheps, Walter. "Chaucerian Synthesis: The Art of The Kingis Quair." Studies in Scottish Literature 8 (1971), 143-65.
Spearing, A. C. "The Kingis Quair." In Medieval Dream Poetry. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976. Pp. 181-87.
von Hendy, A[ndrew]. "The Free Thrall: A Study of The Kingis Quair." Studies in Scottish Literature 23 (1965), 141-51.
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---. The Temple of Glas. Ed. J. Schick.
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---. "The Complaint of the Black Knight." In John Lydgate: Poems. Ed. John Norton-Smith. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966. Pp. 47-66 (notes, pp. 160-76).
_____. "A Complaynte of a Lovers Lyfe (The Complaint of the Black Knight)." In Chaucerian Dream Visions and Complaints. Ed. Dana M. Symons. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2004. Pp. 81-161.
JAMES I OF SCOTLAND, THE KINGIS QUAIR, INTRODUCTION: FOOTNOTES
On the dating and contents of the manuscript, see the introduction to the facsimile edition by Julia Boffey and A. S. G. Edwards, pp. 1-5.
On the attribution of The Kingis Quair to James, see Matthew P. McDiarmid's edition, pp. 28-48. The position that the poem is the work of an anonymous fifteenth-century poet purposely writing a pseudo-biography of James was first put forth by J. T. T. Brown in 1896; this position was subsequently adopted and revised in Alexander Lawson's edition of the poem in 1910. Even if authorship by James is accepted (as it is by the majority of scholars), the dating of its composition is disputed. John Norton-Smith (p. xxiv) argues for the first weeks of February 1424 (after his marriage but before leaving England - probably written for St. Valentine's Day); McDiarmid (p. 38) argues for a date around 1435; Skeat (p. xi) figures that it was begun in 1423, well before the marriage took place.
The standard biography of James I remains the 1936 work by E. W. M. Balfour-Melville.
On Boethius' literary impact on the Middle Ages, see above, pp. 4-6.
McDiarmid, however, rejects these last claims (pp. 31-34).
The idea is akin to the envoy to Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, where Troilus looks down from the eighth sphere of the fixed stars to review his life. "James," however, is filled with joyous thoughts and speaks from a perspective of beauty that hearkens back to Boethius' hymn at the end of Book 2 of the Consolation. See Explanatory Notes.