Gavin Douglas in London

“And, seand Virgill on ane lettrune stand,
To writ anone I hynt ane pene in hand”

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I was in London earlier this month, running a workshop for the Translators’ Association called “Translating the Translator: Gavin Douglas’s Eneados“, when five of us attempted versions of Gavin Douglas into contemporary English.

Gavin Douglas (1474–1522) was the Provost of St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh when, exactly five hundred years ago, in June 1513, he completed Eneados, his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid into Middle Scots. He also wrote an original Prologue for each of Virgil’s twelve books – and for an additional thirteenth book, written by Mapheus Vegius in 1428. The prologues describe with immediacy Scottish landscapes and weather – a May morning, a June evening, a chill winter.

Below is a several-handed translation, of an extract (lines 51–77, & 85–88) from ‘The Proloug of the Threttene Buik of Eneados Ekit to Virgill be Mapheus Vegius’; on a bucolic June evening, Douglas encounters Mapheus. The translators are Felicity McNab (FM), Nicky Harman (NH), Susan Mackervoy (SM), and myself (KC); the original follows.

And soon every creature that came into the bay or field, flood, forest, earth or air or in the scrubland or wooded copse, lakes, marshes or their pools, lies settled down still, to sleep and rest in darkness. Also the small birds sat on their nests, with little midges and irksome fleas, hard-working moths and busy bees, both wild and tame beasts and every other great and small thing, except the merry nightingale Philomene who sat on the thorn tree singing from the spleen. (FMcN)

How I longed to hear those notes cascade
And wandered till I found a tree-filled glade
I take a seat beneath a glossy bay
So my thoughts too can wander as they may. (NH)

I could see bright stars – the Pole Star, the Bear –
a crescent moon (quite dim in the summer skies)
and Venus and Jupiter (what a pair!)
beaming down. So, lying there – what with the
calm night, what with the birdsong – pretty soon
I nodded off.
                        And saw an old man standing there,
under my tree. I asked him why he’d come,
and if he harboured ill intent towards me. (SM)

His figure-hugging outfit, trim and neat,
was long enough to cover up his feet
while on his brow the laurel-wreath he wore
put me in mind of ye olde bards of yore. (KC)

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And schortlie, every thing that dois repare
In firth or feyld, flude, forest, erth or ayr,
Or in the scroggis or the buskis ronk,
Lakis, marrasis, or thir pulis donk,
Astabillit liggis still to slepe and restis;
Be the small birdis syttand on thar nestis,
The litill midgeis, and the urusum fleyis,
Laboryus emmotis, and the byssy beyis ;
Als weill the wild as the taym bestiall,
And every othir thingis gret and small,
Owtak the mery nychtgaill Philomene,
That on the thorn sat syngand fra the splene.

Quhais myrthfull notis langing for to heyr,
Ontill a garth vndir a greyn lawrer
I walk onon, and in a sege down sat,
Now musand apon this and now on that.

I se the Poill, and eik the Ursis brycht,
And hornyt Lucyne castand bot dym lycht,
Becaus the symmyr skyis schayn sa cleyr ;
Goldin Venus, the mastres of the yeir,
And gentill Jove, with hir participate,
Thar bewtuus bemis sched in blyth estayt :
That schortly, thar as I was lenyt doun,
For nychtis silens, and this byrdis sovn,
On sleip I slaid ; quhar sone I saw appeyr
Ane agit man, and said: quhat dois thou heyr
Undir my tre, and willist me na gude ?
Syde was his habyt, round, and closing meyt,
That strekit to the grund doun our his feyt ;
And on his hed of lawrer tre a croune,
Lyke to sum poet of the auld fassoune.

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And here are a few lines describing a storm at sea in the words of Virgil, Douglas and (based on Douglas’s second stanza) Robert Chandler.

Talia iactanti stridens Aquilone procella
velum adversa ferit, fluctusque ad sidera tollit.
Franguntur remi; tum prora avertit, et undis
dat latus; insequitur cumulo praeruptus aquae mons.
Hi summo in fluctu pendent; his unda dehiscens
terram inter fluctus aperit; furit aestus harenis.

Virgil Aeneis, I, ll.102–7

Ane blusterand bub, out fra the northt braying,
Cane our the foirschip in the bak sail dyng
And to the sternys up the fluide can cast;
The ayris, hachis, and the takillis brast,
The schippis stevyn frawart hir went can writhe
And turnit hir braid syide to the wallis swithe.

Heich as ane hill the jaw of watter brak
And in ane help come on thame with ane swak.
Sum hesit hoverand on the wallis hycht
And sum the sownschand see so law gart lycht
Thame semit the erd oppinnit amyd the flude;
The stowr wp bullerit sand as it war wuid.

Gavin Douglas, Eneados, I.iii, ll.14–25

Hill high hung the well of water,
then dropped down on the ships with one swift blow.
Wave-winged, one boat stood hovering in the sky
while other boats were drawn down to such depths
it seemed earth’s jaws had sucked all sea away
and left just one wild swirl of sand and spray. (RC)

According to Ezra Pound, “Gavin Douglas was a great poet… I am inclined to think that he gets more poetry out of Virgil than any other translator”.

The 1874 edition of Douglas’s Eneados is available online here. This link is to volume 2 of a 4-volume edition of his ‘Poetical Works’ published in 1874, which contains Books I–V of Eneados – if you click on the ‘Author’ text – ‘Gawin Douglas , Maffeo Vegio, Virgil’ you can find volumes 3 and 4, which contain the rest of the work.

A new edition was published recently: The Aeneid (1513), Volumes I-II / Gavin Douglas ; edited by Gordon Kendal (London : Modern Humanities Research Association, 2011).

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The photographs were taken on 4 June in Kensington Gardens, except the seascape which shows the Firth of Forth from Kinghorn, last April.

3 thoughts on “Gavin Douglas in London”

  1. Delighted to see Douglas is getting about a bit more. The 500th anniversary of his Aeneid is being celebrated at St Augustine’s Church, Edinburgh on 21st July (3.15) with readings by Rab Wilson and 6pm at St Giles (where Douglas was Provost) with Robert Carver’s Mass for six voices. Both free. More details from

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