Thomas Craig part 2: the Poet and his Poetry

David McOmish

The last feature focused on epistolary evidence for Thomas Craig and his intellectual networks. This month's feature will provide a brief overview of the poetry of Thomas Craig contained in the Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum. The previous feature looked at areas of interests Thomas shared with friends and acquaintances at both home and abroad, and Thomas' poetry also allows us to explore some of these same topics.

The Genethliacon on the birth of James VI in 1566 is the earliest of Craig's poems contained in the DPS. It is an 'occasional' poem (that is, one dedicated to a special event) celebrating the birth of James VI. The start of the poem presents the attentive reader with a microcosm of Craig's cultural and poetic universe. The first two lines of the poem are provided below. In them we can discern the influence of three poets, of three different stages in the history of Latin Literature, and of three different literary 'types'. Here are the first two lines:

Ignea qui rerum Dominus stellantis Olympi 1
templa 2 colis, nutuque orbis moderaris habenas 3

Lord of the universe, you who dwells in the fiery regions of starry Olympus, and who controls the reins of the world with a nod...

The inspiration for the invocation is the start of the paraphrase of Psalm 104 by George Buchanan. 4 God's epithet as Lord of the Universe, and his presentation as the one who wields the reins of the cosmos, are both found in Buchanan's first three lines. However into the structure of the divine invocational set piece Craig weaves two other elements that develop the key themes of Buchanan's original. Firstly, Buchanan's invocation is primarily concerned with articulating praise for God. Craig amplifies God's praises with an epithet that he takes from Claudian. Claudian's work includes many panegyrics and encomia to a host of notable individuals from late antique Rome, and so his poetry is full of epithets and passages that provide suitable material for praise. Craig takes Claudian's description of God as 'the King of starry heaven' from his poem on the third consulship of the Emperor Honorius and reincorporates it into a new context that highlights the wonder of the place that God dwells in: the fiery regions of starry heaven. And it is in the description of the surroundings of God's home that we find the next poetic inspiration in this passage. The 'fiery temples/regions' of the heavens in the passage is a composite image taken from Lucretius' description of heaven and stars in books one and five of his work on the nature of the universe. 5 However, Buchanan does describe the heavens as the 'templa Olympi', 6 and he also refers to the stars in their sphere as the 'astriferi...ignea moenia mundi' 7 Yet as we know from the correspondence of Tycho Brahe (discussed in the previous feature, note 7), Craig was well regarded in astronomical circles, and he shows familiarity with Lucretius throughout his corpus. So it comes as no surprise that Craig's 'Lucretian' description of the heavens reveals awareness of both Lucretius and Buchanan.

To what extent do these lines reflect what we find more generally in Craig's poetry? Claudian's influence is found throughout Craig's corpus. In the poem we have been discussing on the birth of James, Claudian features prominently. Claudian's poetry is epideictic (that is, it can be viewed as a rhetorical exercise in the subject-specific articulation of praise-worthy virtue and excellence), and naturally lends itself well to both descriptive and prescriptive literature. It is therefore not surprising that in this poem, which is concerned with both praising and advising the infant James, Craig turns to Claudian for argument and poetic presentation of content. A substantial section of the poem is given over to a prescriptive aside on the sort of activities that James must endure if he is to be an effective ruler. Here is the passage in question (lines 298-302):

Ergo statim cruda teneras velut indole vires,
nec te secura frangant pigra ocia in aula,
frigora Ripheae brumae tolerare docebis,
et Iove sub gelido vigiles perducere noctes,
et capere in clypeo somnos...

[Therefore, lest the indolent inactivity at an untroubled court weaken you, as a tender power with unrefined talent, you will quickly learn how to endure the cold of the Riphean winter, and pass a restless night under a cold sky; you will learn how to sleep on your shield...]

Craig's advice to James, his prescription for the attainment of kingly virtue, comes from Claudian's description of the things that the young Emperor Honorius did to make him the man he was. 8 Here Craig is actively mining Claudian's epideictic poem in order to extract and reuse Claudian's articulation of virtuous activities. It should also be said that this passage is quite close to the end of Craig's 344 line poem. And if one looks back to the start of the poem, to its very first line (cited above), we see the same section of the same poem from Claudian 9 providing the 'starry heavens' in which God dwells. So in this poem alone the influence of Claudian - for both glorifying epithet, and more substantial epideictic prescription, from both the beginning and the end of the poem - can be characterised as significant. Claudian's influence throughout Craig's corpus is just as fundamental - as readers will see when Craig's work is published on this site in 2015.

Let's now consider the astronomical aspect of Craig's poetry. As has already been noted, there is epistolary evidence highlighting Craig's activities in astronomy, and we can see from the introduction to his poem on James' birth that he was aware of the terminology of scientific didactic poetry (and its reception in the renaissance in the person of Buchanan). Do we see any of the astronomical muse that led Tycho Brahe to entertain the possibility of Craig showcasing his astronomy in verse? Unfortunately the poetry of Craig that survives does not include a specifically astronomical poem. However his poems are littered with allusion to, and metaphorical articulation of astronomical concepts. Through these we get an idea of his familiarity with the subject. He has the ability to move from the small and allusive through to more expansive references to the subject. James' birth provides Craig with an excellent opportunity to discuss the movement of the sun across the sky, and its earthly significance. James was born on 19 June, on the eve of the summer solstice, and it is in astronomical and seasonal terms that Craig chooses to point out the place and time of James' birth (Genethliacon, lines 185-190):

Stat vetus et plena turris dominatur in arce,
et picea assurgens longe inter nubila condit
fastigatum apicem circa hunc examine justo,
fulminat a medio cum Sol calidissimus axe,
florilegae densantur apes, et murmure rauco
certa monent magnis quae stet sententia Divis...

[An old and stout tower stands upon, and dominates the citadel, and, rising far amid the black clouds, it hides its pointed crown, and around it, when the sun at its warmest shines from the meridian, the flower plucking bees congregate in a seasonable crowd, and with a resounding hum they announce the settled will of the great Gods...]

The tower in question is Edinburgh castle, which is presented as jutting out into the sky, like a cosmic sundial, to highlight the time: the summer solstice. Craig presents this confluence of place and heavenly bodies as the manifestation of the will of the Gods (articulated through the season's heralds, the bees: 'certa...sententia divis' - line 190) that the Golden Age has arrived (through an allusion to Virgil's Eclogue IV at line 192).

Years later, when James had grown to adulthood and inherited the throne of England (1603), Thomas wrote a poem celebrating the event. Once again Craig offered James advice on how to conduct himself, and he turned to the lexicon of the poetry of the heavens to articulate it. In lines 136-8 of his Paraeneticon, Craig compares James and his predecessor Elizabeth to the sun, and the English people implicitly to astronomers. Craig reminds the king that his new prominence will leave him exposed to the view of those would notice any slip in the manner of his behaviour:

Ipse vides, medio cum Sol altissimus orbe est,
ut minor apparet, gyro breviore coactus,
nec tantum specie, quantum virtute relucet.

[You see this yourself: when the sun is at its highest on the meridian, as it appears less, driven on a decreasing orbit, and does not blaze so much in either light or heat.]

James' court is thus presented as a sort of heaven at which discerning people may gaze, and notice any changes affecting the constitution of the court. Just like the sun, as it descends daily down the central astronomical plane of the celestial sphere after the solstice in June, bringing the concomitant diminution of essential properties, the office of the ruler has the potential, unchecked, to descend from its previous apex (Elizabeth) and bring about a appreciable reduction in standards. Yet James is also a learned watcher here. The first two seemingly innocuous words of the passage 'ipse vides', reveal the rich tradition of astronomical poetry that Craig is party to. From Aratus, to Avienus' Latin translation of him, and onto Buchanan's early modern manifestation of the tradition, the term 'nonne vides...cum' was the cue for the learned didactic poet to ask a pupil to join them in examining the sky. 10

Craig's association of the king with the sun provides him with another opportunity for extended astronomical metaphor. The king's departure from Scotland to England is also likened to the sun's daily descent down the meridian to the winter solstice. In the passage, James' countenance, his presence, is likened to the face of the sun. As the 'light' ('phoebus' = 'radiant') turns towards the south, so everything left behind withers at the deprivation of its concomitant heat, and pales without its light. Here are the lines (369-74):

Sic ubi deflectit (nisi quod rediturus) ad Austros
Phoebus, et Arctoi fugiens confinia caeli
Aethiopas visurus abit, brumae ingruit horror
luridus, et picti perit omnis gloria campi,
tristis agros macies, teneras rigor alligat herbas,
undique sylvarum virides ponuntur honores.

[When Phoebus turns away to the South in this way (save, of course, that he will return!), and, escaping the confines of the Northern sky, he departs to gaze upon the Ethiopians, then the paling horror of winter attacks, and the painted meadow's every glory perishes, gloomy desolation grips the fields, chill hardens the soft grass, and everywhere the lush delights of the forest are stored away.]

In word choice, line structure, and content, the first three lines are firmly part of the literary landscape of didactic literature. 11 This passage is also one of many examples of Craig reusing his own poetry (a particularly striking example of Craig doing this to great effect is found at line 385 of the Paraeneticon, where Craig draws attention to a prediction he made in his Genethliacon, line 106). It is not just interesting because he reuses his own poetry 12 , but also because it tells us something about the shared literary and intellectual environment people like Buchanan and Craig inhabited. Craig originally composed these lines in 1570 (if this indeed was their first outing!), long before Buchanan's didactic poem was printed in 1586. 13 The level of convergence may be the result of Craig seeing a draft of the text before publication, but it is likely that their style, diction, and subject matter are similar, because their cultural universe was similar. 14

The next and final astronomical passage shows the level of convergence between Buchanan's work and Craig's, and indeed proves the point (made by Brahe - see the previous feature) that Thomas was intimately familiar with early modern astronomy in general, and the literature and language that articulated it. The passage is taken from Thomas' Propempticon on the departure to England of James' son, Henry, Duke of Rothesay, Prince of Wales.

Ille oculus mundi, certo qui foedere lucis,
undique cum terris immensum purpurat aequor,
uno eodemque Helicen anno gelidosque Triones
visit, et hinc rursus pluvios deflectit in Austros
aequus utrique polo, medium nec deserit unquam
certus iter, vergit qua obliquo Signifer axe:
nec plus huic parti lucis, quam dividit illi,
vitalemque pari metitur lance calorem.
Quod rectum, ex aequo Phoebus partitur utrisque.

[That eye of the world, which, through the fixed laws of its light, while making shine the vast sea all over the earth, gazes upon The Great Bear and the icy Wain during one and the same year, and then turns back again towards the rainy South: equally for both poles, and unwaveringly it never abandons the middle path, where the zodiac turns on its slanting axis. And no more light is apportioned to one part over the other, and it measures out its life-giving heat with a just scale. Phoebus distributes equally to both what is right.]

After using an Ovidian epithet for the sun (oculus mundi), Craig gives free rein to an extended astronomical metaphor designed to encourage Henry to recognise the importance of creating equity between the two parts of the newly united kingdoms (personal union). Craig says it is unfair that, through Henry's departure south, Scotland is deprived of both father and son. The equal distribution of light by the Sun as it passes across the zodiac is then provided as an example of the universe's intrinsically just design. The current arrangement between the nations is breaking natural justice - a justice that is manifest in the heavens. Craig's articulation of this cosmic order of things is again fully compliant with the standard lexicon of astronomical didactic poetry. 15 The correspondence with Buchanan in lines 74 and 78 (see Buchanan I.433) suggests that in this instance Craig has by this time (1603) read and absorbed Buchanan into his own lexicon. That the language and ideas are very much Craig's, and reflect his erudition and wit, can be detected in the final line. When Craig says Phoebus will distribute 'what is right (quod rectum)' he is playing on a double legal and astronomical meaning of 'rectus' that one imagines his friends (like William Oliphant, Alexander King, and Adam King) would have recognised and enjoyed. The allusion is to the 'right' rising of planetary and stellar bodies in the sky, where an even and uniform progression of stellar bodies is witnessed from the ground across the sky (as opposed to 'oblique' risings, where a viewer in either the southern or northern hemisphere will see less of the stellar progression than the other - Adam King's book 4, which will be published in 2015, is devoted to the subject). However the distribution of 'justice', of what is 'right' (or lack thereof in the current context - the Royal Court's departure) between England and Scotland is what Thomas is most keen on bemoaning.

This latter consideration now brings us on to our final few comments on Craig's poetry. For Craig's love of contemporary Latin literature, his enjoyment of it, his re-use of it, and the vibrant and vital part it plays in his own composition deserves some comment. Below are lines 240-6 from Craig's 1566 Genethliacon. The allusions to Virgil's Eclogue IV are clear 16 and thorough. Lines 241-244, however, are taken from Poliziano's Manto, the Italian humanist's didactic poetry intended for use in the university classroom for instruction in Virgil (and Statius). The DPS edition of Craig will highlight in the critical apparatus Craig's familiarity with Poliziano (his allusion to Poliziano's translation of the Iliad and his use of Poliziano's Nutricia), but the passage below highlights Craig's ability to see through a text into its literary and cultural hinterland.

Lanificae stabili fatorum lege sorores:
victrices lauros, parvis munuscula cunis
cum dederant, trino cecinerunt omine cuncta,
ter sacra pueri cinxerunt tempora quercu.
Et properanda suos hortarae in stamina fusos,
'currite perpetuo' dixerunt 'tempora silo,

[The thread-weaving sisters through the unalterable law of the fates, after they had delivered their little gifts to the infant's cot, as one predicted victorious laurels in a triple prophecy, and bound the boy's sacred temples with oak. And having urged on their spindles to make their threads, said 'Hasten on these times in a never-ending line...']

As we have seen from the very first passage above, Craig loved and admired Buchanan's paraphrases from the moment they first saw print; and we have witnessed in two other passages his knowledge of Buchanan's astronomical work. We have also seen that Craig was familiar with older material that Buchanan himself must have been familiar with (Aratus and Avienus among others), and that he used his knowledge of these texts to augment core images either from his own muse or that of Virgil, Buchanan, Ovid, or Claudian (see first passage above). As the project's work on Adam King will also show, understanding the process of absorbing, augmenting, and creating something original from ancient and modern Latin sources is key to understanding and appreciating Latin literature in general (be it Lucretius, Virgil, Ovid, Manilius, or Sannazaro, Poliziano, or Buchanan). Craig is an excellent example of this rich tradition. The present feature has only scratched the surface of a man whose work ranges across epochs, subject matter, and styles (time and space has not permitted me to mention the influence of, in no particular order, Calpurnius Siculus, Statius, Silius Italicus, Justin, Tibullus, Catullus, Lucan, Horace - influence that is significant and widespread). But hopefully it has revealed something of the richness and depth of Craig's work.


1: Claudian, De Consulatu Honorii Augusti III.33 - also Epistula ad Serenam 21.

2: Lucretius, De Rerum Natura V.1204-5: '...magni caelestia mundi / templa...'; and I.679: '...haec ignea corpora rerum.'

3: '...rerum Dominus...habenas': Buchanan, Psalm Paraphrases 104.1-3

4: Buchanan, Psalm Paraphrases 104, published first in 1556 - see Roger P.H. Green, George Buchanan: Poetic Paraphrases of the Psalms of David, p.597 (Geneva, 2011)

5: Note 2 above.

6: See Buchanan, Psalm Paraphrases 19.6, where he presents the regions of heaven as part of the celestial sphere.

7: Buchanan, Psalm Paraphrases 97.29

8: Claudian, De Consulatu Honorii Augusti III.39-50

9: Claudian, De Consulatu Honorii Augusti III.33

10: Aratus, Phaenomena 733; Avienus, Aratea Prognostica 1; Buchanan, De Sphaera I.346, 350, 485; II.15.

11: See Avienus, Descriptio Orbis Terrae 1098-9: 'Si rursus tepidum via deflectatur in austrum, / curva sinus Arabi succedent aequora propter.'; and Buchanan, De Sphaera I.405-6: 'Sol...modo declinaret ad Austros'; and also: I.497-8, 502; and III.312-3.

12: And in a sense this is interesting in itself as it reveals the extent to which Craig viewed some of his most evocative passages as a moveable feast, whose re-animation in a new context provided an extra dimension of poetic meaning and emotional impact - particularly strongly felt here, because we see in the reuse of this passage an implicit presentation of James' departure as a 'death'. The original poem associates the passing of the solstice as a metaphor for death (in this case that of James Murray). An edition of the 1570 poem, providing the original context, is available at The Philological Museum edited and translated by Jamie Reid-Baxter.

13: See I.D. MacFarlane, 'The History of George Buchanan's Sphaera in Frenach Renaissance Studies 1540-70, pp.194-212, for the dating of the various stages of the composition of the work.

14: For an overview of Thomas' circle of friends and their interests in Edinburgh in this period, see David McOmish, 'A community of scholars: the rise of scientific discourse in early-modern Scotland' in David McOmish and Steven J. Reid (eds), Neo-Latin Literature and the Republic of Letters in Early Modern Scotland (forthcoming); and for an overview of the important part didactic literature played in education and culture among this group: David McOmish, 'Scotland demands the Latin Muse: didactic poetry and its impact in early-modern Scotland' in L. Canevaro and D. O'RourkeDidactic Poetry: Knowledge, Power, Tradition (Classical Press of Wales, forthcoming).

15: E.g., line 74: Buchanan, De Sphaera I.497: 'cum sol pluvios declivis in Austros'; and line 76: Avienus, Aratea Prognostica 718-9: 'obliquo qua sese circulus orbe / Signifer a Boreo inque australes se gerit umbras'

16: Line 240: Virgil, Eclogues IV.47; and lines 245-6: Virgil, Eclogues IV.46-7. Also Craig's use of the word 'munuscula', line 241, is a sure sign of the influence of this ubiquitous poem.