W HILE Chaucer was making for us pictures of English life, in the sister kingdom across the rugged Cheviots another poet was singing to a ruder people. This poet was John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen. An older man than Chaucer, born perhaps twenty years before the English poet, he died only five years earlier. So that for many years these two lived and wrote at the same time.
But the book by which Barbour is remembered best is very
different from that by which we remember Chaucer. Barbour's
The music of The Bruce cannot compare with the music of the Tales, but the spirit throughout is one of manliness, of delight in noble deeds and noble thoughts. Barbour's way of telling his stories is simple and straightforward. It is full of stern battle, yet there are lines of tender beauty, but nowhere do we find anything like the quiet laughter and humor of Chaucer. And that is not wonderful, for those were stern times in Scotland, and The Bruce is as much an outcome of those times as were the Tales or Piers Ploughman an outcome of the times in England.
But if to Chaucer belongs the title of "Father of English
Poetry," to Barbour belongs that of "Father of Scottish Poetry
and Scottish History." He, indeed, calls the language he wrote
in "Inglis," but it is a different English from that of Chaucer.
They were both founded on
As of many another of our early poets, we know little of
Barbour's life. He was Archdeacon of Aberdeen, as already said,
and in 1357 he received a
Barbour was given two other safe-conducts, one to allow him again to visit Oxford, and another to allow him to pass through England on his way to France. Besides this, we know that Barbour received a pension from the King of Scotland, and that he held his archdeaconry until his death; and that is almost all that we know certainly of his life.
The Bruce is the great national poem, Robert the Bruce the great national hero of Scotland. But although The Bruce concerns Scotland in the first place, it is of interest to every one, for it is full of thrilling stories of knightly deeds, many of which are true. "The fine poem deserves to be better known," says one of its editors. "It is a proud thing for a country to have given a subject for such an Odyssey, and to have had so early in its literature a poet worthy to celebrate it." And it is little wonder that Barbour wrote so stirringly of his hero, for he lived not many years after the events took place, and when he was a schoolboy Robert the Bruce was still reigning over Scotland.
In the beginning of his book Barbour
"Stories to read are delightful,
Supposing even they be naught but fable;
Then should stories that true were,
And that were said in good manner,
Have double pleasantness in hearing.
The first pleasantness is the telling
And the other is the truthfulness
That shows the thing right as it was.
And such things that are likand
To man's hearing are pleasant;
Therefore I would fain set my will,
If my wit may suffice thereto,
To put in writ a truthful story,
That it last aye forth in memory,
So that no time of length it let,
Nor gar it wholly be forgot."
So he will, he says, tell the tale of "stalwart folk that lived erst while," of "King Robert of Scotland that hardy was of heart and hand," and of "Sir James of Douglas that in his time so worthy was," that his fame reached into far lands. Then he ends this preface with a prayer that God will give him grace, "so that I say naught but soothfast thing."
The story begins with describing the state of Scotland after the
death of Alexander III, when Edward I ruled in England.
Alexander had been a good king, but at his death the heir to the
throne was a little girl, the Maid of Norway. She was not even
in Scotland, but was far across the sea. And as this
Then came a sad time for Scotland. "The land six year and more
As you know, it had been the dream of every King of England to be King of Scotland too. And now Edward I saw his chance to make that dream come true. He chose as King the man who had, perhaps, the greatest right to the throne, John Balliol. But he made him promise to hold the crown as a vassal to the King of England.
This, however, the Scots would not suffer. Freedom they had ever loved, and freedom they would have. No man, they said, whether he were chosen King or no, had power to make them thralls of England.
"Oh! Freedom is a noble thing!
Freedom makes a man to have liking,
Freedom all solace to man gives,
He lives at ease that freely lives.
A noble heart may have no ease,
Nor nothing else that may him please,
If freedom faileth; for free delight
Is desired before all other thing.
Nor he that aye has livéd free
May not know well the quality,
The anger, nor the wretched doom
That joinéd is to foul thraldom."
So sang Barbour, and so the passionate hearts of the Scots cried through all the wretched years that followed the crowning of John Balliol. And when at last they had greatest need, a leader arose to show them the way to freedom. Robert the Bruce, throwing off his sloth and forgetfulness of his country, became their King and hero. He was crowned and received the homage of his barons, but well he knew that was but the beginning.
"To maintain what he had begun
He wist, ere all the land was won,
He should find full hard bargaining
With him that was of England King,
For there was none in life so fell,
So stubborn, nor so cruel."
Then began a long struggle between two gallant men, Robert of Scotland and Edward of England. At first things went ill with the Bruce. He lost many men in battle, others forsook him, and for a time he lived a hunted outlaw among the hills.
"He durst not to the plains
For all the commons went him fro,
That for their lives were full fain
To pass to the English peace again."
But in all his struggles Bruce kept a good heart and comforted his men.
" 'For discomfort,' as then said he,
'Is the worst thing that may be;
For through mickle discomforting
Men fall oft into despairing.
And if a man despairing be,
Then truly vanquished is he.' "
Yet even while Bruce comforted his men he bade them be brave, and
"And if that them were set a choice,
To die, or to live cowardly,
They should ever die chivalrously."
He told them stories, too, of the heroes of olden times who, after much suffering, had in the end won the victory over their enemies. Thus the days passed, and winter settled down on the bleak mountains. Then the case of Robert and his men grew worse and worse, and they almost lost hope. But at length, with many adventures, the winter came to an end. Spring returned again, and with spring hope.