Chapter XXVI. BARBOUR—"THE BRUCE," THE BEGINNINGS OF A STRUGGLE
WHILE Chaucer was making for us pictures of English life, in the sister kingdom across the rugged Cheviots another poet was singing to a ruder people. This poet was John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen. An older man than Chaucer, born perhaps twenty years before the English poet, he died only five years earlier. So that for many years these two lived and wrote at the same time.
But the book by which Barbour is remembered best is very different from that by which we remember Chaucer. Barbour's best-known book is called The Bruce, and in it, instead of the quiet tales of middle-class people, we hear throughout the clash and clang of battle. Here once again we have the hero of romance. Here once again history and story are mingled, and Robert the Bruce swings his battle-ax and wings his faultless arrow, saving his people from the English yoke.
The music of The Bruce cannot compare with the music of the Tales, but the spirit throughout is one of manliness, of delight in noble deeds and noble thoughts. Barbour's way of telling his stories is simple and straightforward. It is full of stern battle, yet there are lines of tender beauty, but nowhere do we find anything like the quiet laughter and humor of Chaucer. And that is not wonderful, for those were stern times in Scotland, and The Bruce is as much an outcome of those times as were the Tales or Piers Ploughman an outcome of the times in England.
But if to Chaucer belongs the title of "Father of English Poetry," to Barbour belongs that of "Father of Scottish Poetry and Scottish History." He, indeed, calls the language he wrote in "Inglis," but it is a different English from that of Chaucer. They were both founded on Anglo-Saxon, but instead of growing into modern English, Barbour's tongue grew into what was known later as "braid Scots." All the quotations that I am going to give you from the poem I have turned into modern English, for, although they lose a great deal in beauty, it makes them easier for every one to understand. For even to the Scots boys and girls who read this book there are many words in the original that would need translating, although they are words still used by every one who speaks Scots to this day. In one page of twenty-seven lines taken at random we find sixteen such words. They are, micht, nicht, lickt, weel, gane, ane, nane, stane, rowit, mirk, nocht, brocht, mair, sperit at, sair, hert. For those who are Scots it is interesting to know how little the language of the people has changed in five hundred years.
As of many another of our early poets, we know little of Barbour's life. He was Archdeacon of Aberdeen, as already said, and in 1357 he received a safe-conduct from Edward III to allow him to travel to Oxford with three companions. In those days there was not as yet any university in Scotland. The monasteries still held their place as centers of learning. But already the fame of Oxford had reached the northern kingdom, and Barbour was anxious to share in the treasures of learning to be found there. At the moment there was peace between the two countries, but hate was not dead, it only slumbered. So a safe-conduct or passport was necessary for any Scotsman who would travel through England in safety. "Edward the King unto his lieges greeting," it ran. "Know ye that we have taken under our protection (at the request of David de Bruce) John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen, with the scholars in his company, in coming into our kingdom of England, in order to study in the university of Oxford, and perform his scholastic exercises, and in remaining there and in returning to his own country of Scotland. And we hereby grant him our safe- conduct, which is to continue in force for one year."
Barbour was given two other safe-conducts, one to allow him again to visit Oxford, and another to allow him to pass through England on his way to France. Besides this, we know that Barbour received a pension from the King of Scotland, and that he held his archdeaconry until his death; and that is almost all that we know certainly of his life.
The Bruce is the great national poem, Robert the Bruce the great national hero of Scotland. But although The Bruce concerns Scotland in the first place, it is of interest to every one, for it is full of thrilling stories of knightly deeds, many of which are true. "The fine poem deserves to be better known," says one of its editors.* "It is a proud thing for a country to have given a subject for such an Odyssey, and to have had so early in its literature a poet worthy to celebrate it." And it is little wonder that Barbour wrote so stirringly of his hero, for he lived not many years after the events took place, and when he was a schoolboy Robert the Bruce was still reigning over Scotland.
In the beginning of his book Barbour says:—
"Stories to read are delightful,
Supposing even they be naught but fable;
Then should stories that true were,
And that were said in good manner,
Have double pleasantness in hearing.
The first pleasantness is the telling
And the other is the truthfulness
That shows the thing right as it was.
And such things that are likand
To man's hearing are pleasant;
Therefore I would fain set my will,
If my wit may suffice thereto,
To put in writ a truthful story,
That it last aye forth in memory,
So that no time of length it let,
Nor gar it wholly be forgot."
So he will, he says, tell the tale of "stalwart folk that lived erst while," of "King Robert of Scotland that hardy was of heart and hand," and of "Sir James of Douglas that in his time so worthy was," that his fame reached into far lands. Then he ends this preface with a prayer that God will give him grace, "so that I say naught but soothfast thing."
The story begins with describing the state of Scotland after the death of Alexander III, when Edward I ruled in England. Alexander had been a good king, but at his death the heir to the throne was a little girl, the Maid of Norway. She was not even in Scotland, but was far across the sea. And as this child-queen came sailing to her kingdom she died on board ship, and so never saw the land over which she ruled.
Then came a sad time for Scotland. "The land six year and more i-faith lay desolate," for there was no other near heir to the throne, and thirteen nobles claimed it. At last, as they could not agree which had the best right, they asked King Edward of England to decide for them.
As you know, it had been the dream of every King of England to be King of Scotland too. And now Edward I saw his chance to make that dream come true. He chose as King the man who had, perhaps, the greatest right to the throne, John Balliol. But he made him promise to hold the crown as a vassal to the King of England.
This, however, the Scots would not suffer. Freedom they had ever loved, and freedom they would have. No man, they said, whether he were chosen King or no, had power to make them thralls of England.
"Oh! Freedom is a noble thing!
Freedom makes a man to have liking,
Freedom all solace to man gives,
He lives at ease that freely lives.
A noble heart may have no ease,
Nor nothing else that may him please,
If freedom faileth; for free delight
Is desired before all other thing.
Nor he that aye has livéd free
May not know well the quality,
The anger, nor the wretched doom
That joinéd is to foul thraldom."
So sang Barbour, and so the passionate hearts of the Scots cried through all the wretched years that followed the crowning of John Balliol. And when at last they had greatest need, a leader arose to show them the way to freedom. Robert the Bruce, throwing off his sloth and forgetfulness of his country, became their King and hero. He was crowned and received the homage of his barons, but well he knew that was but the beginning.
"To maintain what he had begun
He wist, ere all the land was won,
He should find full hard bargaining
With him that was of England King,
For there was none in life so fell,
So stubborn, nor so cruel."
Then began a long struggle between two gallant men, Robert of Scotland and Edward of England. At first things went ill with the Bruce. He lost many men in battle, others forsook him, and for a time he lived a hunted outlaw among the hills.
"He durst not to the plains y-go
For all the commons went him fro,
That for their lives were full fain
To pass to the English peace again."
But in all his struggles Bruce kept a good heart and comforted his men.
"'For discomfort,' as then said he,
'Is the worst thing that may be;
For through mickle discomforting
Men fall oft into despairing.
And if a man despairing be,
Then truly vanquished is he.'"
Yet even while Bruce comforted his men he bade them be brave, and said:—
"And if that them were set a choice,
To die, or to live cowardly,
They should ever die chivalrously."
He told them stories, too, of the heroes of olden times who, after much suffering, had in the end won the victory over their enemies. Thus the days passed, and winter settled down on the bleak mountains. Then the case of Robert and his men grew worse and worse, and they almost lost hope. But at length, with many adventures, the winter came to an end. Spring returned again, and with spring hope.