On the cover of Jack's paperback there is a portrait of Alexander Montgomerie, a handsome young man, finely dressed, but his eyes and the set of his mouth suggest great inner depths, perhaps profound sorrows. Unfortunately, when one opens the book, one finds the statement: 'As no likeness of Montgomerie has yet been discovered, the artist's impression on the cover is based on contemporary portraits.' This spurious portrait is curiously appropriate: so little is certain about Montgomerie that everyone who writes on him draws his own picture. The accounts of his life vary greatly, depending on how the large interstices between the few facts are filled, and on how much the verse is taken to be autobiographical. Helena Shire finds him to have been 'a personable and distinguished young man, a witty and convivial companion'; Cranstoun sadly remarks that 'fawning submissiveness, spiteful rancour, and lack of manly purpose - strange combination of weaknesses from which it were fruitless to defend him - seem to have been inherent in his nature; but withal he was possessed of many noble qualities.' The canon of his work is very uncertain, and there is no good edition of the poems - and indeed only a very brave or foolish scholar would undertake such an edition. Nor is there any consensus on the quality of his poems; James VI, in his youth, termed him 'maister poete' and 'prince of poets', and some modern critics adopt these terms with enthusiasm - indeed, Helena Shire calls him an 'arch-poet'. (I suppose that if one has to use a periphrasis, 'the maister poet' is better than 'the sweet singer of Scotland', or 'the immortal bard of Edinburgh', but I would prefer 'Montgomerie'.) C.S. Lewis more drily remarks, 'unless you are a student you will not read him.'
LRB 22 May 1986 | PDF Download