Two styles compared: Hercules Rollock, Andrew Melville, and the Elegiac Couplet

David McOmish, Lead Researcher

In recent features we have focused on what the poetry of Hercules Rollock tells us about his life, his social and intellectual circles, and the events that he witnessed. Our next two features will assess Rollock as a poet. This first literary feature will take a ten line elegiac poem produced by Rollock as an introduction to a larger poem, and compare it with another ten line poem, this time by Andrew Melville, also written in elegiac couplets, and also produced as a introduction to a larger poem.

A word of explanation first: what is an elegiac poem and an elegiac couplet? An elegiac poem is made up of two separate verse forms (the couplet), and both are composed of metrical units known as 'feet', containing a combination of long ('-') and short ('u') stressed syllables. These feet can either be dactyls (where you have a long syllable followed by two short ones, like so: '- u u') or spondees (where you have two long syllables, like so: 'u u'). In an elegiac couplet, the first line of the couplet is a dactylic hexameter, made up of six feet where the first four can be a mix of dactyls or spondees and the fifth foot is almost always a dactyl; the final syllable of the final foot can be long or short. The second line of the couplet is a dactylic pentameter, made up of two parts called 'penthemimers': the first penthemimer is two feet (dactyls or spondees), followed by a single long syllable; the second is two dactyls and another long syllable. 1 Here's an example from Propertius, who, along with Ovid and Tibullus, is one of the major proponents of Latin Love Elegy - a wholly elegiac medium:

Cynthia prima suis miserum me cepit ocellis
contactum nullis ante cupidinibus.(I.1, l. 1-2)

[Cynthia first with her eyes ensnared me, poor wretch, that had previously been untouched by desire.] 2

Rendered as feet the two lines would look like this:

- u u/ - u u / - - / - u u/ - u u/ - -

- -/ - -/ - / - u u/ - u u/ -

Elegiac couplets were chiefly associated in the Greco-Roman world with laments, which made it the perfect vehicle for the lovers' laments found in Latin Love Elegy. However, it was latterly used in various other ways, one of which was as a preface to poetic collections. It is in this capacity that we find Rollock and Melville using it for two very different dedicatory poems to King James VI (Melville) and Queen Anne (Rollock). The first, Andrew Melville's 'Dedication to King James VI' ('Dedicatio ad regem Iacobum 6'), formed the preface to his collection of poetry published in Basle in 1573/4, the 'Song of Moses' (Carmen Mosis): 3

Extremae spes sera plagae, lux aurea gentis
Arctoae, et saecli solque jubarque tui:
tot sceptris atavorum ingens, ingentior, alta
indole, quam tollit relligionis honos,
sancte puer, cape sacra meae primordia Musae,
non secus ac grati prima elementa animi.
Parva quidem tanto, fateor, munuscula Regi:
parva, sed immensi munere magna Dei.
Ipse tibi majora dabis nostro auspice Phoebo:
forsan et auspiciis nos meliora tuis. 4

[Much anticipated hope of the farthest region, golden light of the northern tribe, both the sun and the splendour of your age: distinguished by the numerous reigns of your ancestors, more distinguished by your great genius, which respect for religion nurtures. Blessed Child, take in hand the holy beginnings of my poem, and as you do, so do you accept the first elements of a grateful mind. They are, I confess, little trifles for such a great King: little, but great through a limitless God's work. With our Apollo directing, you will provide greater works of this kind: and perhaps we, with your guidance, will produce better ones too.]

The second is Rollock's dedication 'To Anna, Queen of the Scots' ('Annam Scotorum Reginam') in his 'Wedding poem' ('Epithalamia') on the marriage of James VI and Anna of Denmark: 5

Segnius irritant animum si immissa per aures, 6
quam quae sunt fidis tradita luminibus;
nata deinde animo, quae rumpunt carmina vocem, 7
ex penita vatum pabula mente trahunt:
me cecinisse tuos hic orsum absentis amores,
indice quos animus segniter aure bibit,
quem tibi posse putes praesenti assurgere vatem
ore, oculis, animo, quando vivenda venis?
Ipsa mihi in numeros amnem dabis Anna perennem,
Et numeris vives Anna Perenna meis. 8

If poems received through the ears stir the soul more sluggishly than those which are perceived by the trustworthy eyes, and if poems produced by the soul, which break forth into song, derive their nourishments from deep within the hearts of the poets, do you think that I, who have already begun here to sing of your love for the man not there, which the soul drinks in sluggishly with its attentive ears, do you think that I could be the poet who will rise to meet you with my words, my eyes and my soul, when you arrive into view? You yourself, Anna, will give to me an everlasting stream for my verses, and you will live Everlasting Anna in my verses. 9

As well as addressing two different periods in the life of Jacobean Scotland (James' very early life through to his marriage), the poems represent and reflect two very different poetic voices. Melville's poem has a close relationship with Virgil, Eclogues IV, which was a political piece celebrating the political marriage of Anthony to Octavian's sister, which was cast as the advent of a new 'golden age' for Rome. The themes and ideological message of Virgil's poem are exploited by Melville to deal with issues of kingship and divine providence, religion and education. The style is elevated (and impersonal) and the tone didactic. It is a fitting introduction to a collection of poems which seeks to direct the pious ruler towards the religious and moral obligations expected of a king (using God's example). 10

Hercules Rollock's poem, by contrast, is more playful in tone and more fluid in style. The poem begins with an extended quote from Horace's Ars Poetica, which sets out to encourage his addressee (Queen Anna) to recognise the importance of watching a poet perform in person. Like Melville, Rollock uses poetic tradition to convey part of his message. However, whereas the strength of Melville's message relies on Virgil's thematic and ideological poetic landscape, Rollock's self-deprecating humour is conveyed through a playful interaction with the couplet form itself, and an inversion of the traditional dedicatory rules (the poet is more praised than the addressee!). Virgil and Homer wrote their great epic works, the Aeneid and the Iliad, in continuous hexameter verse, so it is unsurprising that Rollock's hexameter lines are correspondingly weighty and 'epic' in tone. His pentameter lines, however, are often where we find the mock-self-referential messages praising his art and positioning himself for reward. The interchange between the lofty and humorous, the stilted and the irreverent, works very well in elegiac form. Thus it is also a suitable vehicle for Rollock's humorous attempts to convince Anna to allow him to be present at her welcoming party (l. 4-5). The tone also foreshadows much of the humorous content of the account of the proxy wedding itself, which includes several ribald comments about the size and virility of James' manhood (l. 48-51) and a riotous account of a series of toasts given between King Christian IV (Anna's brother) and the Scottish nobility in attendance at the wedding feast in Denmark (l. 129-199).

One should note the striking similarity between the penultimate lines in both poems. The word choice (and their metrical positions), syntax, and message (i.e., under the direction of a certain divinity, the addressee will be rewarded) are stikingly similar: is Rollock consciously playing with, and subverting, the tone and form of Andrew Melville's dedication? Is Rollock's poem thus a comic reworking of Melville's? The two had a very difficult relationship that manifested itself in the vitriolic poetry that they addressed to one another, so it certainly seems possible. 11 One final note: Ovid plays a prominent role in Rollock's main poem, both linguistically and thematically. Perhaps it is possible to detect Ovid's humorous spirit in his introduction, if not necessarily any of his actual verse being worked into the text.


1: Bejamin Hall Kennedy, The Revised Latin Primer (ed and rev. Sir James Mountford, 1982 edn.), pp. 204-205.

2: Propertius, Elegies, ed. and trans. G. P. Goold (Cambridge, MA/London, 1990), pp. 42-43.

3: Carmen Mosis, ex Deuteron. cap. xxxii, quod ipse moriens Israeli tradidit ediscendum et cantandum perpetuo, Latina paraphrasi illustratum. Cui addita sunt nonnulla epigrammata, et Iobi cap. iii. Latino carmine redditum. Andrea Melvino Scoto auctore (Basle?, 1573/1574). The exact date and publication of the text is now unknown as an original copy no longer exists. The copy of the 'Dedicatio' in the DPS can be found in vol. 2, pp. 84.

4: This introductory dedication draws heavily on the imagery, language, and themes of Virgil, Eclogues IV.10-20

5: The full title is 'De Augustissimo Iacobi VI Scotorum Regis, et Annae, Frederici 2, Danorum Regis filiae conjugio, 13 Kal. Septemb. 1589. in Dania celebrato, Georgio Scotiae Mareschallo sui Regis vicem obeunte, Epithalamium' ('A Wedding Poem on the most venerable marriage of James VI, king of Scots, and Anna, daughter of Frederick II king of Danes, held in Denmark on the 20th of August 1589, with George, Earl Marischal of Scotland standing in place of his majesty'). The text was originally published as a pamphlet in Edinburgh in 1590; the edition used here is DPS, vol. 2, pp. 323-337 (dedication at p. 323).

6: Horace, Ars Poetica 180-1

7: 'rumpunt...vocem': Virgil, Aeneid II.129

8: Rollock calls Anne 'Anna Perenna', who is the deified personification of time's progression. See Ovid, Fasti III.523 and following. The celebration of Anna's cult was associated with sexual license and copious alcohol consumption (see Ovid). This is a suitable invocation given that sex and drink are the two main themes of the poem which follows this introduction

9: 'Everlasting Anna': see note 8 above.

10: For a full discussion of the intellectual content of the collection, see Steven J. Reid, 'Early polemic by Andrew Melville: the Carmen Mosis (1574) and the St Bartholomew's day massacres', Renaissance and Reformation, vol. 30/4, pp. 63-82.

11: See DPS, vol. 2, pp. 117, 337-345 for a neo-Latin 'flyting' between the two men.