Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Montgomerie, Alexander (1556?-1610?)

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MONTGOMERIE, ALEXANDER (1556?–1610?), Scottish poet, second son of Hugh Montgomerie of Hessilhead Castle, Ayrshire (Timothy Pont, Topography of Cunningham, Maitland Club, p. 19), was, according to one of his poems, born 'on Bister day at morne,' probably in 1556. His father was a kinsman of the Eglinton family (G. S. Montgomery, Hist. of Montgomery of Ballyleek, p. 115). His mother was a daughter of Houston of Houston. A sister Elizabeth became the wife of Sir William Mure of Rowallan, father of Sir William Mure [q. v.] The eldest brother John succeeded to Hessilhead. A younger brother, Robert (d. 1609), is separately noticed.

Montgomerie's poems show that he received a scholarly training in youth. If one can trust a statement by Sir Patrick Hume [q. v.] of Polwarth, his antagonist in the 'Flyting,' he must have been sent to Argyleshire for a part of his education (Flyting, 11. 183, 184). The circumstance may account for his being called by Dempster Eques Montanus, an expression probably equivalent to 'highland trooper.' Montgomerie was never knighted. On his return from Argyleshire he appears to have resided for a time at Compston Castle, a little way above Kirkcudbright, near the junction of the Dee and the Tarff. Andrew Symson, in his 'Large Description of Galloway' (MS. Adv. Lib.}, drawn up in 1684 and enlarged in 1692, mentions a report current in his day to the effect that Montgomerie's fancy had been quickened by the romantic scenery of the Dee when he composed 'The Cherrie and the Slae.' Symson's statement is supported by Robert Sempill, Montgomerie's contemporary, who, in 'The Legend of the Bischop of St. Androis Lyfe,' calls him Captain Kirkburne, in obvious allusion to his residence in the stewartry.

Montgomerie soon obtained an introduction to the Scottish court. In 1577 he was in the suite of the Regent Morton, on whose compulsory resignation in the following year he was retained in the king's service. His official duties apparently entitled him to the style of captain, and he also became the laureate of the court. The king, in his 'Revlis and Cavtelis of Scottis Poesie,' recognised his abilities by quoting passages from his poems as examples of different kinds of verse. But he somehow fell into disgrace, although his services were rewarded with a pension of five hundred marks, payable from certain rents of the archbishopric of Glasgow. The date of this grant is not known, but it was confirmed in 1583, when payment was to be computed from the previous year.

In 1586 he obtained a royal license to leave the kingdom for five years, and to visit France, Flanders, Spain, and other countries. During his travels he was confined in a foreign prison, and his pension was withheld, an act which led to a protracted lawsuit in the court of session. Eventually the grant was renewed and confirmed by a writ of privy seal dated at Holyrood House 21 March 1588-9. Dempster says he died in 1591, bewailed by his sovereign, who was charmed with the effusions of his mirthful muse. But at least two pieces by Montgomerie refer to events that took place in 1592, and we have no reason to doubt that he was alive in 1605, when his 'Mindes Melodie' was printed by Robert Charteris. His death occurred, however, before 1615, as on the title-page of the edition of 'The Cherrie and the Slae,' printed by Andro Hart in that year, the poem is said to have undergone careful revision by the author not long before his death. He married and had issue Alexander and Margaret. The latter in March 1622 was tried for witchcraft (Montgomery, p. 117).

Montgomerie occupies a conspicuous place in the poetical literature of Scotland during a period almost barren of poetic genius. 'The Cherrie and the Slae,' which has long been popular with his countrymen, is written in a fourteen-line stanza, of which, if Montgomerie was not the inventor, he is certainly the greatest master. It is wanting in design, and bears unmistakable traces of having been written at considerable intervals. The first portion is a love-piece, obviously written at an earlier date than the rest of the poem; the remainder, which in the first and second editions ended in the middle of the 77th stanza, and was afterwards extended to 114 stanzas, is a moral allegory, in which Virtue is represented by the cherry and Vice by the sloe. The poem contains many passages of singular freshness and beauty, and bristles with homely proverbs pithily and tersely put. The first edition was printed by Robert Walde-graue in 1597 (no copy extant); 2nd edit, same year (copy in the Advocates' Library, Edinb.); by Andro Hart, 1615 (no copy extant); in Allan Ramsay's 'Evergreen,' 1724; Foulis, Glasgow, 1746 and 1751; Urie, Glasgow, 1754. A spirited Latin version by Dempster— 'Cerasum et Silvestre Prunum'—appeared in 1631. 'The Flyting betwixt Montgomery and Polwart' was first published by Andro Hart in 1621 (the only known copy was in the Harleian Library at its dispersion, but all trace of it has been lost): another edit., by 'The Heires of Andro Hart,' was dated 1629. 'The Flyting ' belongs to a species of composition scurrilous and vituperative in the extreme, but much relished by the Scots of the sixteenth century. It is an imitation of 'The Flyting' of Dunbar and Kennedie, and quite as coarse and abusive. A portion of it was quoted in King James's 'Revlis and Cavtelis of Scottis Poesie ' in 1584. 'The Mindes Melodie' (Edinburgh, by Robert Charteris, 1605) a version of fifteen of the psalms, Simeon's song, and 'Gloria Patri' was among his last works.

Other poems are found in the following manuscripts : The Drummond MS. in the university of Edinburgh has seventy sonnets and many miscellaneous and devotional poems; the Bannatyne MS. in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, has seven smaller poems. The sonnets are valuable for the light they throw on the poet's life and character. Those in praise of the king are marred by flattery and cringing servility; a few that owe their origin to his vexatious lawsuit are unspeakably bitter; others, addressed to friends, are models of good taste and feeling. The miscellaneous poems are cast in a great variety of measures, and are largely amatory. Two pieces, 'The Navigatioun' and 'A Cartell of thre ventrous Knichts,' are noteworthy as pageants written in Montgomerie's capacity of court poet. They were evidently composed on the occasion of the king's 'first and magnificent entry' into Edinburgh in 1579, when he assumed the reins of government. The Maitland MS. in the Pepysian Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge, has poems on Lady Margaret Montgomerie and 'The Bankis of Helicon,' which have been doubtfully attributed to Montgomerie.

The first complete collection of Montgomerie's works, with a biographical sketch by Dr. Irving, was issued under Dr. Laing's supervision in 1821. The latest edition, with introduction, bibliography, notes, and glossary, by the present writer, was published by the Scottish Text Society, 1887.

[James Melville's Diary; Dempster's Ecclesiastical History of the Scottish Nation; Pont's Topography of Cunningham (Maitland Club), pp. 19, 89-91; Pinkerton's Ancient Scotish Poems; Lyle's Ancient Ballads and Songs; Biographical Notice in Laing's edition; Montgomerie's Poems, ed. Scottish Text Society.]

J. C-n.