1. The scholarly Church of Scotland minister Andrew Ramsay [1574 - 1659] NOTE 1 was born at Fettercain, educated at Marischal College, Aberdeen, and in France, and served for a while as a professor at the University of Saumur (a Protestant establishment much patronized by Scotsmen both as students and faculty). Returning to Scotland in 1606, he was appointed minister of Arbuthnott in the Mearns, on the east coast, north of Montrose. As a reward for supporting King James’ attempt to impose bishops on the Kirk and bring it within the ambit of the Church of England, he was given the parish of Greyfriars at Edinburgh. Angling for the favor of Archbishop Laud, he published a volume of Latin poetry, Poemata Sacra...et Epigrammata Sacra in 1633, timed to coincide with the much-delayed Scottish coronation of Charles I (at which Laud was present). The first and most important item in this volume was the present poem, an epic on the Creation written in four Books, that has served to gain Ramsay his place in the history of literature. Because of the natural human tendency to root for the home team, Creationis Rerum Descriptio Poetica was held in especially high regard in Scotland, and its leading fan was the poet-editor Arthur Johnston. His epigram CVI (quoted here with Geddes’ translation) is: NOTE 2
Cui blandum aspiciens nascenti risit Apollo,
Doctaque Castalio proluit ora lacu;
Aut levis incautum versu lenone iuventam
In Veneris casses insidiasque trahit;
Aut bona vesanis impendens otia bellis
Saevit, et Aonias sanguine foedat aquas.
Spreta iacet pietas; aut si quem forte poetam
Repperit, huic miseris stridet avena modos.
Ramsaeus scopulum prudens declinat utrumque,
Dignaque dat Musis carmina, digna Deo.
Hic iuga Parnassi coeunt cum rupe Sionis,
Mixgtaque Iordani Castalis unda fuit.
[“He on whom in his natal hour Apollo smiles, wetting his lips in Castalian dew, is found in our age either drawing incautious youth into Venus’ snares by corrupting verse, or bestowing his leisured hours upon celebration of mad wars, turning Aeonia to a pool of blood. Religion lies neglected, or, if it finds a poet, ’tis one whose note grates on scrannel pipe of straw. Both rocks of offense does Ramsay shun, for he sounds strains worthy of the Muse, worthy also of the Power Divine. The peaks of Parnassus here rise conjoined with the rock of Mount Zion; Jordan mingles its waves with Castaly.”]
The prominence and prestige of Ramsay’s were enhanced by its inclusion in Sir John Scot’s Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum Huius Aevi Illustrium published at Amsterdam in 1637 (II.283 - 323). Even a modern Scotsman has described it as “one of the finest products of Scottish neo-Latinity” and stated that all of the events of the Fall “are forcefully and convincingly portrayed.” NOTE 3 He added that Ramsay’s poem is a genuine epic, “short indeed for [one], but enough, when skilfully handled, to allow the poet to make use of epic dialogue and machinery” (one wonders exactly what manner of epic dialogue and machinery this writer had discerned, since the poem is largely devoid of anything of the kind).
2. Subsequent to its publication, Creationis Rerum Descriptio Poetica suffered two misfortunes, neither of which can, of course, be blamed on its author. The first was the appearance of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, with which it greatly suffers by comparison in every imaginable respect. The second is that it served as the centerpiece for one of the great literary scandals in eighteenth century England. The Scottish forger William Lauder published an edition of the work, into which he imported about fifty lines of a Latin translation of Milton. Then (possibly moved in part by sentiments of Scottish particularism), he turned around and, in a series of 1747 articles in the Gentleman’s Magazine, used his tainted text as ammunition in a scattergun attack on Milton for having been a plagiarist. The hoax was of course soon revealed, by Richard Richardson in his 1747 pamphlet Zoilomastix, or, A Vindication of Milton from All the Invidious Charges of Mr William Lauder, by Andrew Henderson, in Furius, or, A modest attempt towards a history of the life and surprising exploits of the famous W. L. critic and thief-catcher, published in the following year, and, most definitively of all, by John Douglas, in his 1751 Milton vindicated from the charge of plagiarism, brought against him by Mr Lauder, and Lauder himself convicted of several forgeries and gross impositions on the public. Although Lauder persisted for several years in maintaining his pretense, in the end his reputation was ruined and he slunk off to Barbados, where (depending on what source one reads) he supported himself as an innkeeper or by operating a huckster’s shop.
3. Which leaves scholarship asking a question which is, unfortunately, unanswerable: to what extent, if any, did Ramsay’s work supply Milton with the germinal idea for his great epics? Milton scholars have been asking this question for a very long time, and have found no satisfactory answer. Milton was an omnivorous reader, and the possibility that he did see the Ramsay poem can scarcely be excluded. But what might strike the uninstructed reader as a convincing parallel between the two poets does not in fact count as evidence. This has to do with the resemblance of Milton’s “great consult,” the infernal assembly convened by Satan in Book II of Paradise Lost, with the similar meetings described by Ramsay at III.1ff. and IV.272ff. Such hellish conferences were a standard plot-device in literature of the time. They can be traced back to the similar event in Canto IV of Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, and were introduced into English literature by the Latin translation of Tasso’s Canto IV published at London by Scipio Gentili in 1584, which quickly found imitators, beginning with the Pareus in all probability written by George Peele, which appeared in the following year. It was a favorite plot move in Neo-Latin poems about the Gunpowder Plot. Here I shall spare the reader a catalogue of the works in which it appears, and rest content with pointing out that, a good while before Ramsay published his poem, Milton had already used this device in his own Gunpowder Plot poem, the 1626 In Quintum Novembris. This device had been used by two previous Scottish writers, Alexander Yule in his Descriptio Horrendi Parricidii and Michael Wallace in his In Serenissimi Regis Iacobi Britanniae Magnae, Galliarum, Hiberniae etc. Monarchae ab Immanissima Papanae Factionis Hominum Coniuratione Liberationem Faelicissimam Carmen Epichartikon, NOTE 4 both printed in 1606, and it is not implausible to supposed that Ramsay knew one or both of these works. Almost always combined with such infernal councils, and also inherited from Tasso’s Canto IV, is a portrayal of Satan as intelligent, articulate, and prone to do his work by guileful persuasion. Like Shakespeare’s Richard III, in short, he is modernized and patterned after Machiavelli as he existed in the public mind. So, again, there is no advance to be made by drawing any comparison between Ramsay’s Satan and Milton’s (who is already prefigured in the Summanus of In Quintum Novembris).
4. There is at least one possibly cogent comparison of detail, involving Ramsay’s simile at IV.164ff.:
Ut sanctum pectus non hoc penetrabile telo
Viderit, ut vento portum qui forte reflante
Non potis est capere, is malos et lintea vela
Carbaseosque sinus obliquat, tendere recta
Qua nequit, incurvo radit vada caerula cursu,
Sic gnarus versare dolis et imagine falsa
Ludere Tartareus coluber, contingere metam
Se non posse videns primo molimine, cursum
Mutat et ad palmam converso tramite tendit.
[“When Satan sees that His sacred breast cannot be pierced by this dart, like a ship which cannot make harbor because the wind is blowing against it, he will trim his yards and linen sails and take a new tack: since he will be unable to sail a direct route, he will cleave the water on a curving course. Thus the Hellish snake, skilled at seduction by wiles and false images, will see he cannot obtain his goal at the first try, but must alter his course and strive for victory by a change of direction. ”]
And Paradise Lost IX.520ff.:
With tract oblique
At first, as one who sought access, but fear’d
To interrupt, side-long he works his way.
As when a ship by skilful steersman wrought
Nigh river’s mouth or foreland, where the wind
Veers oft, as oft so steers, and shifts her sail:
So varied he, and of his his tortuous train
Curl’d many a wanton wreath in sight of Eve,
To lure her eye.
This parallel was observed by Richardson in his Zoilomastix, who noticed that there are similar similes at Nicander, Theriaca 266ff. and Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica IV.1541ff. These Greek parallels certainly do go to show that the conclusion that Milton borrowed this similarity from Ramsay is not obligatory, but they do not serve to demonstrate that this was impossible. This comparison to a tacking ship is by far Ramsay’s most original and striking simile, and it is not out of the question that, if Milton read his poem, it could have stuck in his mind.
5. The only other possible point of comparison I can see, albeit one that is a good deal harder to discuss coherently, is based on the simple fact that both Creationis Rerum Descriptio Poetica and Paradise Lost make for hard reading. Milton deliberately made his poem difficult to read, written in a kind of “defamiliarized” English, as one of the devices by which he achieved a grandeur suitable for his great subject. Ramsay’s style is dense and gnarly, and, like Milton, he uses many unfamiliar vocabulary items. It is not quite clear if he anticipated Milton stylistically for the same grandeur-achieving reason. One contemporary who knew him, admittedly an enemy, wrote that his exclusive aim in life was to gain preferment by “amazing the sillie people with griek and latine, tickling the ears of the learned sort [and] flattering princes,” NOTE 5 and it may be the case that Ramsay wrote the way he did out of sheer ostentation. But possibly he had a more serious artistic purpose, and, if so, it is striking that he adopted the same artistic strategy as Milton while writing on the same subject. NOTE 6
6. In any event, there is no harm in making Ramsay’s poem readily available to modern Miltonists, so that they may make up their own minds about the possiblity that Milton read and learned from this poem. I would like to thank Jamie Reid Baxter for suggesting that Creationis Rerum Descriptio Poetica would be suitable for inclusion in The Philological Museum, and subsequently for making some very valuable suggestions for the improvement of this Introduction.
NOTE 1 See Vaughan T. Wells’ O. D. N. B. biography.
NOTE 2 Arthur Johnston, Musa Latina Aberdonensis (ed. Sir William Duguid Geddes, Aberdeen, 1895) II.87f.
NOTE 3 James MacQueen, in the course of his chapter on “Scottish Latin Poetry,” in R. D. S. Jack (ed.), The History of Scottish Literature (Aberdeen, 1988) I.224.
NOTE 4 Edited by Estelle Haan, “Milton's In Quintum Novembris and the Anglo-Latin Gunpowder Epic, Part II,” Humanistica Lovaniensia 42 (1993) 368 - 401.
NOTE 5 The exiled minister David Calderwood, writing in 1623 (quoted by Wells in his biography).
NOTE6 I doubt the same thing can be said about two other stylistic proclivities of Ramsay: his fondness for alliteration and his occasional jingling lines, such as Adde quod irarum cum parcus, parcere largus. And, if he was striving for epic grandeur, it is curious that he did not resort more to the standard Renaissance trick of larding his poem with a lot of echoes of, and tags taken from, Vergil, Ovid, and other Roman poets in order to give it a properly “epic” feel. He uses some, such as his repeated phrase machina mundi (Lucretius V.96) and et totum nutu tremefecit Olympum (I.314, cf. Aeneid IX.106 = X.115), and surely IV.373, tantae molis erit lapsam reparare salutem, was modeled on Aeneid I.33, tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem. But such borrowings and imitations are not frequent enough that they deserve to be regarded as an important part of Ramsay’s artistic program.