1. Rising as high as a subject might go, the achievement of John Maitland, first Lord Maitland of Thirlestane and, beginning in 1586, Lord Chancellor of Scotland [1537 - 1595], was to give Scotland sound and stable government after the constant political, military and ecclesiastical upheavals that had marked and marred the first two decades of the reign of James VI. James was crowned at the age of two in July 1567 after the forced abdication of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, and his reign had begun with a civil war in which two of Scotland’s regents were killed. The issue of what kind of a reformed polity the Scottish Kirk was to have clouded the regency of the pro-English Earl of Morton, whose fall at the end of 1579 was followed by serious attempts to detach the kingdom from its new alliance with Protestant England and restore the Catholic alliance with France. In all of this, the young king was little more than a pawn and, after September 1579, completely under the sway of his pro-French favourites Esmé Stuart, Duke of Lennox and the latter’s creature James Stewart, Earl of Arran. Once Arran had been overthrown in 1586, the able Maitland successfully put Scotland’s governance on a firm footing, not least by demonstrating a consistent commitment not merely to the English alliance and Protestantism, but also to the quasi-autonomous Kirk’s own preference for a presbyterian rather than an episcopal polity. Maitland was not a member of the old Scottish nobility, which despised him as a parvenu, and in the deeply divided political context of the times, the Chancellor made many enemies, whose clumsy attempts to outwit and indeed on occasion assassinate him were no match for his own resourcefulness and abilities. James appreciated Maitland’s skilful services, and wrote an attractive sonnet in his memory.
2. Like an equally prominent English statesman of a later century, George Canning, and also like his contemporary, the Presbyterian leader Andrew Melville, NOTE 1 Maitland was also a gifted Neo-Latin poet (he also wrote some surviving vernacular verse). NOTE 2 Although Maurice Lee Jr., the author of the O. D. N. B. on Maitland, describes him as “a poet of modest talents,” NOTE 3 in his A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland Dr. Johnson came closer to the mark when he opined that Maitland’s Latin verse “would have done honour to any nation.” In the course of this edition, we shall see that Tycho Brahe, no mean Latinist himself, was also an admirer. Maitland did not make any collection of his own poetry, and almost all of what survives is preserved in Arthur Johnston’s Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum (Amsterdam, 1637), vol. II.138 - 143. A faithful transcript of these items, errors and all (with a new one superadded), was included by Joseph Bain, The Poems of Sir Richard Maitland of Lethingtoun, Knight, With an Appendix of Selections from the Poems of Sir John Maitland Lord Thirlstane, and of Thomas Maitland (Glasgow, 1830), pp. 219 - 227. Bain added one more poem from a different source (see the note on epigram 34). At least two of these epigrams were printed elsewhere prior to the publication of Bain’s collection: 1 appeared in the 1587 Cambridge memorial anthology on the death of Sir Philip Sidney (see the note on epigram 1) and 6 is quoted by Robert Johnston, the continuator of George Buchanan’s Rerum Scotarum Historia in his history of the reign of James VI (not fully printed until 1655, but written considerably earlier). At 1587.3 Johnston also quotes another epigram, not included in the Delitiae volume or by Bain, which appears here as 35.
3. The question of how accurately Arthur Johnston represented Maitland occurs in two ways. First, comparison of his text of 1 with the version in the Cambridge volume (evidently the only Maitland poem published during his lifetime) shows that in a number of respects the latter one differs from, and is on the whole superior to, Johnston’s. With the exception of 6, too short to be instructive, we have no means of verifying the accuracy of the rest of the Delitiae items, but the one significant instance is rather unsettling, since it raises suspicions that what Arthur Johnston printed may not have been precisely what Maitland wrote.
4. Second, there is the more general problem of how accurately Johnston’s selection represents the main thrust of Maitland’s poetic output. This question is raised by the characterization given by the historian Robert Johnston, who writes of Maitland’s poetic activities (1588.1):
Speculatores Huntilei, dicta factaque Metellani in aula exquirentes, renunciarunt iocosa dicta ac contumeliosa verba multa cum acerbitate, quae eo facilius credita quod natura esset dicacissimus et carmina referta contumeliis inimicorum scripsisset.
[“Huntly’s spies, observing Maitland’s sayings and doings at court, reported that he uttered witticisms laced with much acerbity, which was all the easier to believe because he was very loquacious by nature and had written epigrams laden with many jibes against his opponents.”]
And again, in writing his necrology of Maitland (1595.4) Johnston states:
...non sine magna invidia procerum administravit, quam immodicis iocis provocavit. Supervacaneum est singula maledicta referre per quae in proceres inimicosque suos contumeliosus fuit.
[“These [public offices] he administered, not without earning the great dislike of the lords whom he provoked with his unrestrained sallies. It would be superfluous to repeat the individual barbs he aimed at the lords and his adversaries.”]
5. So Johnston remembered Maitland primarily as the author of satirical epigrams in which he skewered his political opponents, and even supplies one such example (35) by way of illustration. And yet it is striking that such epigrams scarcely predominate in the Delitiae selection: if we disregard such easy and safe (at least for a Protestant readership) targets as the Pope, the Guises, and Philip of Spain, the items that can be characterized as pointedly satiric are only 6 and 8, and even these were written against the Catholic Earls of Erroll and Huntly and the Earl of Arran, all three of whom were highly unpopular and therefore also safe targets. Was it the case that such epigrams were sufficiently ephemeral by nature that they had disappeared by the time Arthur Johnston assembled his collection, or did he deliberately tone down this aspect of Maitland’s poetic output because he thought this would best serve the poet’s reputation? In any event, if Johnston is to be believed, the writing of such barbed satires was an important feature of Maitland’s craft as a poet and an important tool of his statecraft, by which he could deflate and discredit his opponents with easily remembered, easily circulated pasquinades.
6. As usual in dealing with Scottish authors, I am indebted to my friend Jamie Reid-Baxter for his sage advice and assistance.
NOTE 1 For a couple of examples of Melville’s work see the note on John Dunbar’s Epigram I.44.
NOTE 2 Four items from the Maitland ms. in the Pepysian Collection described here (“Aganis Sklanderous Toungis,” “Ane Admonitioun to my Lord of Mar, Regent of Scotland,” “Advyce to be Blyth in Bail,”and “Ane Schort Inveccyde Aganis the Delyverance of the Erle of Northumberland,” originally printed by John Pinkerton in his Ancient Scottish Poems, Never Before in Print, But Now Published from the Ms. Collections of Sir Richard Maitland, of Lethington, Knight (London, 1786) are commonly assumed to be the work of our poet and printed as such by Bain, pp. 129 - 134. “Ane Admonitioun” also appears appear in James Cranstoun, Satirical Poems of the Time of the Reformation (Edinburgh - London, 1891) I.186 - 92, and “Ane Schort Inveccyde” and “Aganis Sklanderous Toungis” at ib. I.248 - 256.
NOTE 3 Lee had expressed a similar opinion in his John Maitland of Thirlestane (Princeton, 1959).