‘Melvinus Virgilizans’? Andrew Melville, Virgil, and intertextuality in the Carmen Mosis (1573/4)

David McOmish and Steven Reid, Project Team

Of the thirteen poets that the ‘Bridging the Continental Divide’ project are translating, Andrew Melville is arguably the most significant, although the royal secretary and chancellor John Maitland of Thirlestane runs a close second. In the last quarter of the sixteenth century, Melville was a leading figure in the opposition to James VI’s attempts to create a fully Episcopal and royally-controlled Kirk. 1 As principal of the University of Glasgow between 1574 and 1580, and St Mary’s College St Andrews between 1580 and 1606, he also played a significant role in transforming and expanding Scotland’s three pre-reformation and Catholic universities into a network of five Protestant seminaries. 2 The editors Scotstarvit and Johnston clearly thought he was also highly significant as a Latin poet:  Melville takes up the second-largest amount of space in the DPS. With some 67 pages, he is eclipsed only by Alexander Rossie, whose 81 pages consist of four lengthy pieces: three books of verse on the flight of the Jews from Egypt; and the Christian epic ‘Virgilius Evangelizans’. 3 Melville’s contribution to the DPS is also important because, although several of his longer poems were published as individual pamphlets, many of them (the majority of the epigrams) exist solely in the DPS.

One of the texts included in the DPS was Melville’s earliest published pamphlet, the collection of biblical paraphrases and political epigrams entitled Carmen Mosis (‘The Song of Moses’, Basle?, 1573/4). The Carmen is an unusual case as while copies of it were still extant in the early nineteenth century, when Thomas M’Crie wrote his Life of Melville (first published 1819). Unfortunately, no copy has been found to date in any modern library holdings (if anyone reading this does know of an extant copy, please do contact the team immediately!). We know from an account of the text’s running order given by M’Crie, and corroborated by Paul Mellon in his L’Academie De Sedan, 4 that it opened with a paraphrase of the Song of Moses from Deuteronomy 32 (from whence the pamphlet derived its name) and ended with a paraphrase of Job’s lament from Job 3. In between these two poems was a sequence of epigrams both condemning the horror of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and attacking Charles IX of France and his mother Catherine de Medici for ordering it. These were all published in the DPS, although in a different order to the original pamphlet: the paraphrases are part of a section of longer poems separated from the epigrams. The epigrams of the Carmen have been commented on elsewhere for the evidence they provide of Melville’s early views on tyrannicide, 5 but the DPS project allows us for the first time to translate the more literary paraphrases and to reconstruct the ‘lost’ literary landscape of Melville’s earliest work.

The first thing that immediately strikes the reader of Melville’s paraphrases of Deuteronomy 32 and Job 3 is their literary vitality. This applies to both form and content. We see this first in Deuteronomy 32’s seemingly anodyne elegiac dedicatory introduction. What would have been a fairly tepid and commonplace dedication to James VI is brought to life by a sophisticated literary interplay with Virgil, the giant of Classical Latin literature. Melville uses Virgil’s famous Eclogue IV as the basis for his dedication. 6 James is presented as a ‘golden light’ and a ‘holy boy’, and Melville presents James’ reign as the advent of a new golden age where Apollo will direct people’s activities. The emotional and intellectual impact of these assertions derives in large part from Melville’s use of a poem by Virgil that praised the advent of a new political dynasty, and was latterly interpreted by Christians as foretelling the coming of the messiah. Melville’s incorporation of James into this classical (Virgil), religious (Christian) and political (Augustan and Renaissance) landscape is both ideologically striking and poetically pleasing.

In the poem itself Virgil’s influence is pervasive. Firstly, Melville’s verse is in the metre of Graeco-Roman epic, the hexameter - the metre employed by Virgil in his great epic the Aeneid. Using hexameters allows Melville to take full advantage of the felicities of Vergilian verse when he appropriates passages and phrases from his work, but his choice also surely owes much to the Christian tradition that Moses and the author of Job wrote both of their ‘songs’ in hexameter. 7

Beyond meter, there are several ways in which Melville uses Vergilian content in these paraphrases. Firstly, Melville re-imagines simple passages from the biblical original through the adoption of more striking scenes taken from Virgil. We can see this in Melville’s development of metaphors on speech and liquid from the bible, where he is able to present a more elaborate and aesthetically pleasing picture by including imagery from Georgics I. 8 Secondly, he appropriates several lines and half lines from throughout Virgil’s works and includes them in a single passage. 9 Into two lines at the end of this stanza, which are paraphrasing Deuteronomy 32.19, Melville has condensed three separate phrases from Virgil’s corpus. 10 Each line and image is striking in the original context, but Melville manages to take them out of that context and inserts them into their new surroundings, and we are left with an epic depiction of the God of the Old Testament, which is not found in the bible.

A third way Melville uses his Classical literary hinterland is found in Job 3. Like Deuteronomy 32, there are many phrase appropriations throughout this poem, which reveal that Melville instinctively turns to Virgil to convey poetic colour and emotion. 11 However, it is the specific and subtle intertextuality of Melville’s use of Latin authors generally (here both Virgil and Ovid) which is worthy of comment. We can see it at line 63, where Melville has Job relate how, in his despair, he lifts up such terrifying cries to the heavens: clamores simul horrendos ad sidera tollo. This is taken from Aeneid II.223: (clamores simul horrendos ad sidera tollit) where Laocoön screams in anguish as his sons are killed and he himself is assaulted. The fate of Job mirrors the fate of Laocoön, as both their offspring are killed by divine will, and both are themselves attacked by a divinity. Yet while Laocoön will die, Melville hints at the possibility of a positive transformation to a happier state for Job. Line 68 adds the attendant circumstances to Job’s cries to the heavens: clamores simul horrendos ad sidera tollo / fletuque fremituque, et luctisono mugitu. The line is taken with little change from Ovid: et gemitu et lacrimis et luctisono mugitu. 12 Job’s bovine lament characterizes him as a new Io, the unfortunate lover of Jove who is transformed into a heifer in the Metamorphoses by Juno’s divine will. Her transformation and sufferings are neither fatal, nor of long duration, as those familiar with their Ovid know. Five lines after her plaintive bellowing, Io’s deformed body is slowly transformed back to its former self by divine intervention, and she also has a son born to her. This is the fate that awaits Job at the end of his sufferings. His deformed body will recover, and he shall soon leave behind the sorrow of his lost family and be blessed with a new one. 13

The picture of Melville’s literary universe which is emerging from the DPS project highlights not only the sheer quantity of Classical literary allusions in the texts, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the remarkably sophisticated nature of their deployment. Was Melville as capable of classical ‘intertextuality’ as Buchanan, the man whose psalm paraphrases he used as a model for teaching the construction of Latin verse? Hopefully answers to this question will be forthcoming.


1: Alan R. MacDonald, The Jacobean Kirk, 1567-1625: Sovereignty, Polity, and Liturgy (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998); Ernest R. Holloway, Andrew Melville and Humanism in Renaissance Scotland 1545-1622 (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

2: Steven J. Reid, Humanism and Calvinism: Andrew Melville and the Universities of Scotland, 1560-1625 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011).

3: DPS, volume 2, pp. 66-133 (Melville), 388-469 (Rossie).

4: (Paris: Fischbacher, 1913).

5: Steven J. Reid, ‘Early polemic by Andrew Melville: the Carmen Mosis (1574) and the St Bartholomew's day massacres.’ Renaissance and Reformation, 30 (4). pp. 63-82.

6: The correspondences with Melville’s Dedicatio are instantly recognizable. In Melville, ‘the golden race which will rise up across the earth’ becomes ...lux aurea gentis / Arctoae... ‘the golden light of the northern race’, referring to James. The golden age in Virgil heralds Apollo’s dominion on earth. This idea too is adopted and adapted in Melville’s opening when James is told that under the direction of Apollo he shall bring forth greater things: Ipse tibi majora dabis nostro auspice Phoebo: / Forsans et auspiciis nos meliora tuis.

7: Both Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae I.XXXIX, and Josephus, Jewish Antiquities IV.305, follow the tradition.

8: ‘doctrina mea ut ros eloquium meum quasi imber super herbam et quasi stillae super gramina.’ Vulgate, Deut.32.2. Melville repackages the simple biblical statement and represents it as silvery rain flowing with sparkling dewdrops. Melville’s silvery rain shall fall on fields long parched by the sun and irrigate them with a flowing river. This image, not in the bible, is taken from Virgil, Georgics I.109-113: ...scatebrisque arentia temperat arva.

9: Carmen Mosis, 129-133.

10: in pejus ruereGeorgics I.200. digna indigna pati: Aeneid XII.811. Ille oculis postquam saevi monumenta doloris / exuviasque hausit, furiis accensus et ira / terribilis: Aeneid (XII.946).

11: A preliminary synopsis: Job Cap. 3, line 13 and Aeneid IV.465; Job Cap. 3, line 15 and Aeneid VI.267; Job Cap. 3, line 22-24 and Aeneid III.585-587; Job Cap. 3, line 29 and Aeneid VI.525; Job Cap. 3, line 32-33 and Aeneid I.97-98; Job Cap. 3, line 37 and Aeneid IV.527; Job Cap. 3, line 47 and Aeneid I.99; Job Cap. 3, line 52 and Aeneid VII.56; Job Cap. 3, line 57 and Georgics II.50; Job Cap. 3, line 58 and Aeneid VI.145; Job Cap. 3, line 67 and Aeneid X.843.

12: The line is taken with little change from Ovid: et gemitu et lacrimis et luctisono mugitu. Ovid, Metamorphoses I.732. Ovid is used elsewhere in this poem: line 26 and Ovid, Heroides XVIII.112. A more comprehensive study of Ovidian correspondence may unearth other examples.

13: Vulgate, Job 42.12-17