Friday 15th May 2015
Followed by Lecture
Jamie Reid Baxter on
Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross
Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross (1578-1640), was a product of her times, but though her poetry is all on spiritual subjects, its superb artistry means it can still speak to us even in this non-religious age. We know the tunes for five of her poems, and these punctuated the illustrated lecture, sung by Electra Lochhead, accompanied by Eric Thomas on the lute. As good as Robert Burns at fitting poetry to traditional tunes, Melville takes Christopher Marlowe's poem about a 'passionate shepherd' seducing a lassie with promises of all of summer's (passing) joys, and turns it into 'A Call to come to Christ', in which the Good Shepherd promises the faithful everlasting joy.
Elizabeth wove the many quatrains of her Marlowe parody into a corona, a form in which the last line of each stanza becomes the first of the next. But behind her mastery of technique and structure was a high seriousness of purpose. She was a militant Presbyterian, her poetry designed to strengthen and comfort to the victims of James VI's imposition of bishops, including ministers who were imprisoned and banished. In a sonnet with interlacing rhymes and an acrostic that spelt his name, she acknowledged the plight of John Knox's son-in-law John Welsh who after serving time in Blackness Castle was exiled to France where he became very popular, quickly learning French. He never returned to Scotland.
A large collection of Elizabeth Melville's verse survives in a manuscript volume of sermons preached by Robert Bruce, an Edinburgh minister internally banished to his estate, and then to Inverness, for refusing to acknowledge the King's innocence in the Gowrie conspiracy of 5 August 1600. Elizabeth worshipped at Culross Abbey, having married John Colville, 'commendator' (lay administrator) of the abbey's lands : their home was at nearby Wester Comrie, where they brought up their seven children. Her brother-in-law Robert Colville, the minister of Culross, was a firm presbyterian, refusing to demand that people kneel to receive communion, as the king wished. Elizabeth's 'Thanksgiving to God for all His Benefeits', in twelve complex stanzas sung to a Scottish tune, tells the story of the creation and fall, Jesus's redeeming work and the Universe's need to thank God. Here she is making a sacred parody of Alexander Montgomerie's 'Solsequium', a love-song about the sunflower's endlessly unrequited yearning for the sun. The fact her poems are copied into a volume of sermons by Robert Bruce reflects her solidarity with the Edinburgh minister, who would in due course saw sent into internal exile in Inverness, the Siberia of Scotland. But Bruce learned Gaelic and preached to such effect in the Highlands that he is still remembered and celebrated in the Free Church today. Melville's poetry is full of the "doctrine of the twa kingdomes' - the twa kings o' Scotland, the one temporal, the other spiritual, reflecting the influence of Andrew Melville, who was summoned to London for consultation in 1606 and spent four years in the Tower of London. Elizabeth's two sonnets addressed to Melville are virtuosic in technique; in one where she 'ventriloquises' his own voice, she emplyos not only an acrostic but an anagram of 'Andrew Melvyne' - 'And wel wer myne'. In the other, rhyming both the end and the middle of the lines, she gives him advice. Like all her poetry, these sonnets show a particular richness of biblical references.
Charles I would be an even grander and more tyrannical king, whose persecution of the presbyterians eventually produced the 'prayerbook riots' and the National Covenant. A poem of Melville's published as late as 1644 in royalist Aberdeen pointedly ends 'All praise to Christ our King'; in this poem, she made a sacred parody of the English love-song 'Come Sweet Love, thy sorrows cease'. Thoroughly trained in Calvinist theology, Melville's songs and other poems are sermons - but no woman would preach in a Scottish pulpit until 1935. She was particularly fond of The Song of Solomon, interpreting its celebration of sexual love as a foretaste of heaven.
Her only major publication was 'Ane Godlie Dreame', a long narrative poem first published in 1603 and still being reprinted in 1737. In this poem, she envisages heaven as a 'golden castle' shining in the air - clearly inspired by the sight of Stirling Castle's Great Hall shining golden above the plain of the river Forth. She composed the poem inscribed in stone on the Melville Mausoleum (1609) in Collessie in Fife, and since 2014, she herself has commemorated by a carved quotation from 'Ane Godlie Dreame', inscribed on a flagstone in Makar's Court: 'Though tyrants threat, though lions rage and rore/ Defy them all and fear not to win out'. She is one of only seven Scottish women makars in the Court, out of a total of 39 - and the other six lived in the twentieth century. The final song by this great 'presbyterian recusant' that was sung on Friday night was 'Away vaine warld', in which she stands an English love-song on its head and rejects the tempting, alluring world in favour of eternal life: 'Let the warld be gone, I care not,/ I'll love Christ alone, I feare not'.