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From Midden Fecht to Civil War: Drummond of Hawthornden's Polemo-Middinia.


This essay presents the case for William Drummond of Hawthornden's disputed authorship of the seventeenth-century comic, macaronic' poem, Polemo-Middinia by means of detailed examination of early editions and manuscript versions of the poem. In so doing, it offers a new historical contextualisation of the poem, identifying the pseudonymous names of its main protagonists to show that they were not entirely fictitious but rooted in a contemporary dispute about land. This involved Sir John Scot of Scotstarvit (1585-1670), a renowned patron of culture in early modern Scotland. In addition, the essay suggests that Drummond's decision to revise and publish the work a considerable period after its first creation was based on him seeing in it a new coded political message relevant to the contemporary civil war. A remarkable anomaly in the Scottish print culture of the period, the poem's appearance in the years of the troubles' sheds new light on Drummond's political and intellectual position at this time, as well as his diversity as a writer.


The reputation of William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649) as a poet has primarily been based on works published between 1613 and the 1630s. His poetry is predominantly lyrical, elegant and formal, frequently concerned with amatory and spiritual subjects, and containing substantial imitations and reworkings of French and Italian originals. Drummond's choice to write in English rather than Scots after the Union of the Crowns in 1603 has made the status of his work (and that of other early seventeenth-century Scottish writers) critically ambiguous; indeed, it has been said that poetry by Scots in this period is not Scottish at all'. (1) Recently, however, Drummond has been described as Scotland's greatest poet of the seventeenth century, (2) and emphasis placed on the quality of his later works (unpublished in his lifetime) which were mainly concerned with political issues. (3) This essay contributes to that revisionism by presenting a new historical contextualisation of the poem, Polemo-Middinia. It argues that lingering doubts as to Drummond's authorship of this piece are misplaced. Examining the early texts and editions of the poem, it demonstrates how errors and omissions in cataloguing them have caused considerable confusion. The essay further contends that Drummond's decision to revise and publish the work a generation after he had written it suggests that the poem carries a coded political message relevant to a country wracked by civil war. (4)


In the Polemo-Middinia, Drummond abandoned carefully cultivated English for Scots or, rather, for macaronic'--a mixture of Latin and the vernacular language, with words given Latinised endings intended to provide a comic, mock-leamed effect. Poetic grace is replaced by fast-moving, vulgar' narration. Serious subject matter gives way to an account of a brawl in a midden, described in a humorous mixture of mock-solemn language and coarseness. This light-hearted, rumbustious, rollicking doggerel produces the overall effect of bathos.

The 166 (or 170) lines of comic verse have a place in a Scottish tradition of satires about the rowdy behaviour of uncouth country folk, which has been labelled by Allan H. MacLaine as Poems of Folk Festivity'. (5) The piece opens with a highfaluting invocation of the nymphs that dwell in the (non-existent) high mountains of Fife, and then sketches an idyllic pastoral vision of a peaceful region, with much colourful local description--the farms of Crail, the Anstruther fishermen, merchant ships. Birds enliven the scene; gannets from the Bass Rock dive plish plashque' into the sea; herons issue their harsh calls of 'clig clag'; cormorants perch on rocks.

The mood darkens as conflict erupts in this rural paradise. In the poem the leading protagonists are Lady Vitarva and Lady Neberna, pseudonyms (as explained below) for the wives of two Fife landowners, the lairds of Scotstarvit and Barns. They fall out over a dispute regarding rights of way. Scotstarvit had a right to collect dung for manure from the burgh of Crail, in the East Neuk of Fife, which he used on the lands of Thirdpart, a section of his estate which lay less than two miles west of Crail. However, between the town and Thirdpart lay the Barns or Newbams estate, and the process of getting the dung from Crail to Thirdpart on the public road evidently involved an inconvenient detour round the Barns lands. Lady Scotstarvit therefore decided that she and her men would take a shortcut through the Barns estates, asserting a right of way by force.

Her men assemble armed with pitchforks, and are ordered to transport creels and cartloads of dung past Newbarns House, where Lady Barns is staying. The infuriated Lady Barns prepares to resist, and gathers her men--including a motley crew of coal miners, salt partners and fishermen, and a guard of women (servants, hen-wives and dairy-maids). All are fortified with copious draughts of beer. Battle ensues--more muddy than bloody. Fists and muck fly; dire insults are exchanged in a mock-heroic conflict; the noise of battle consists of epic farting, belching, shitting and vomiting which resembles artillery barrages. Recent European battles and sieges provide heroic comparisons. Scotland' greatest artillery piece, Mons Meg, earns a mention, as does the Battle of Harlaw (1411). Bagpipes play. In all, the poem presents a rich comic chaos.

The battle ends after one of the ladies emits with a massive murmur a baritone fart' (6) that was so explosive that it would have cracked Mons Meg'. This forces her enemies to retreat. Their foreman, after being disabled by a seamstress who stabbed him with a needle in privatas Partes', calles for a truce. The verse then ends abruptly with the happy conclusion Una nec interea spillata est droppa cruoris'--Nevertheless, not one drop of blood was spilled'. (7)


A manuscript copy of the Polemo dating from the 1650s (see below) provides the earliest evidence that main characters in the poem were not completely fictitious. Vitarva represented Annabella Drummond, Lady Scotstarvit, the wife of Sir John Scot of Scotstarvit, and sister of Drummond of Hawthornden. Neberna was Helen Mertoun or Myrton, Lady Barns, wife of Alexander Cunningham of Barns or Newbarns. Moreover, Cunningham was a kinsman (possibly father) of Euphemia Cunningham, a girl whose death Drummond is said to have lamented in 1616. (8)

David Masson, Drummond's biographer, was the first to discuss in

detail these identifications of the Latinised ladies with real people. (9) Serendipity then arranged for it to be Masson who, twenty years later discovered evidence demonstrating that the poem's inspiration lay in a real dispute. In editing the Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, 1619-1622 (published in 1893), Masson came across a formal complaint made in May 1622 by Alexander Cunningham of Barns. (10) This related that Barns and Scotstarvit had been friends and good neighbours for years. But recently Scot had begun to encroach on his lands and rights, making gates and passages through his property, with his carts and wagons passing by his 'yett' [fortified house] of Barns. The previous month one of Scot's tenants had driven horses laden with 'fuilzie' (dung) from Crail to Barns. The tenant knew he was doing wrong, so he stopped to apologise to Lady Barns. She sent him back to the high road. Later that day Scot retaliated by sending several of his tenants from Thirdpart, with swords and other 'waponis invasive' accompanying carts to be loaded with fuilzie at Crail and then driven back to Thirdpart past Barns. In their approach they damaged some of Cunningham's crops. Lady Barns tried to stop them but she was assaulted and thrown to the ground. She then 'took instruments' before a notary public, making a formal legal complaint. (Had the notary been handy by chance or had he been summoned because trouble was expected?). She also sent a message to Scot telling him what had happened. He then in a great rage gathered more men and went to Barns. His tenants forced their way along the disputed route, Lady Barns again being assaulted when she protested. Barns laid his complaint before the privy council, but he can have had little hope of a sympathetic hearing. He was a small provincial landowner whereas his opponent was a man of power at a national level.

Sir John Scot of Scotstarvit (1585-1670) is well known as a patron of culture in Scotland. He endowed a chair of Humanity at the University of St Andrews, wrote Latin poetry, and paid for the publication of volumes of Latin verse by fellow Scots. This learned and literary man might seem an unlikely aggressor in a petty dispute, but Scotstarvit's career shows him to have been a ruthless and quick-tempered man, a great harbourer of hatreds and grudges. (11) In 1611 Scot had acquired the profitable office of director of chancery, and the same year he had bought the lands of Tarvit in Fife, renaming them Scotstarvit. Two factors may have influenced the timing of the midden fecht. Firstly, the laird of Barns was clearly not at home. Scotstarvit may have calculated that Lady Barns would be easier to over-awe than her husband. Secondly, Scotstarvit had just made an important advance in his career. In March 1622 he had been appointed a member of the privy council of Scotland, thus joining the committee that governed Scotland in the name of the absentee King James VI and I. Did this go to the ambitious knight's head? Did he calculate that he was now powerful enough to ride roughshod over the rights of an insignificant neighbour?

In March Scot became a councillor. In April he tried to assert his alleged rights at Barns. And in May Cunningham's complaint came before the council--with Scot sitting among its members. The result was inevitable. All criminal charges against him were dismissed, the only evidence considered being an 'oath of veracity' that Scot swore declaring his own innocence! That this 1622 real-life dispute, or some continuation of it, inspired the Polemo seems overwhelmingly likely.


The earliest editions of the Polemo do not name the author, but Drummond's name appears in the 1691 edition, and this attribution was accepted in the 1711 edition of his works by editors who worked with his son, Sir William Drummond. (12) Their account of the poet's life also made it clear that that the poem was compatible with Drummond's lifestyle and character. Though his 'greatest Familiarity and Conversation, was with University-Men and Men of Learning', and he had little interest in 'the ordinary Amusements of Dancing, Singing, Playing [gambling], etc', he combined these characteristics with a love of relaxed friendship and conversation. His

   humour [personality] was very jovial and cheerful, especially among
   his friends and comrades, with whom he occasionally took a bottle
   only ad hilaritam [for good cheer] [...] he was very smart and
   witty in his sayings and repartees, and had a most excellent talent
   in extemporary versifying.

'For diverting himself and his Friends, he wrote a Sheet which he called Polemo-Middinia. (13) He must have written some years after the 1622 flare-up, for he only then returned to Scotland after years of travel abroad. Whether in the interim the little Scot-Cunningham feud had rumbled on cannot be known, but that Drummond felt free to write about it in comic style may indicate that the parties had become reconciled. Perhaps Drummond thought that depicting their disagreement as a petty squabble might help complete the process. Over a bottle ad hilaritam he may be imagined using witty extemporised verse to seek to defuse remaining tensions. The participants are made to laugh at their ridiculous conflict. Making the ringleaders in the squabble not his friends themselves but their wives may be seen as a tactic to make it easier for the lairds to back down by deflecting the blame.

Other evidence of this light-hearted dimension of Drummond's work is easy to find. A man whose manuscripts included 'DEMOCRITIE', which has been described as a 'jest-book of the time', with anecdotes collected from a variety of sources, 'some of them of a character not quite suited to the more refined taste of the present age', (14) clearly enjoyed humour. Further, he occasionally dabbled in writing humorous verses which would certainly upset 'refined tastes'. Some have been published, (15) others have not because the editor of what is often regarded as the definitive edition of Drummond's poems, Leon Kastner, decided they were too juvenile or bawdy. Confirmation of a darker side of the poet's taste for obscenity and coarse satire, however, is provided by two letters he drafted to women which display 'a vicious tongue' and go beyond 'common abuse'. (16)

Until the early nineteenth century the assumption that Drummond had written the Polemo prevailed. (17) Yet since that time almost every commentator on the matter has felt it necessary to express, or at least hint at, elements of doubt. The basis of this deeply engrained tradition of doubt appears entirely subjective. It seems to have become difficult to accept Drummond's authorship because the poem is held to be incompatible with his supposedly serious and high-minded character, and with the style of his other works.

This idea that Drummond and the Polemo were (or should be) irreconcilable may first have spread by means of the influential 1832 Maitland Club edition of his poems. The editor, Thomas Maitland, insisted at first that the poet's works 'had nothing in them of natural merriment or playfulness', which clearly excluded the Polemo from his oeuvre. (18) But he then contradicted this by printing the poem, albeit with a disapproving comment: the piece 'adds little to the fame of its reputed author'. (19) Drummond was now just the 'reputed' author, and he has remained such to many critics.

Once subjective opinion had led to doubts being raised as to Drummond's authorship, seemingly 'objective' evidence was found to support them. Examination of the Hawthornden Manuscripts, (20) the poet's voluminous surviving papers, by David Laing in the 1820s revealed no trace of the Polemo. Laing had expected to find copies of manuscripts of all the items that had appeared in the 17 n edition of the Works. But the Polemo was absent, and this has become an argument for questioning its authorship. Yet a more careful reading of Laing's articles reveals it was not just the Polemo that could not be found amongst the manuscripts. He recorded his 'disappointment' that a number of 'important' manuscripts of items in the 1711 edition were missing. (21) His common sense conclusion was that some papers might have been lost, or that 'a portion of the letters and papers made use of by the Editor of Drummond's Works in 1711' were 'never returned to Hawthornden'. (22) That the Polemo does not feature in the manuscripts therefore provides no evidence on the authorship issue. The assertion that 'the negative evidence of the MSS' (23) is significant but unsustainable.

Although the evidence for doubting Drummond's authorship is unconvincing, the litany of doubt continued. In his 1873 biography of Drummond, David Masson noted that 'Only of late' had the authorship been questioned. But though he argued strongly that it was Drummond's work, he concluded: 'I see no way to a positive decision' in the matter. (24) L. E. Kastner, who produced the first scholarly and collated edition of the Polemo in 1913, was similarly indecisive, committing himself to no more than that he was 'inclined' to favour Drummond's claim to authorship. (25)

The first edition of the Dictionary of National Biography had also ruled that the Polemo's ascription to Drummond was 'doubtful'. (26) The re-written Oxford DNB a century later went no further than the cautious comment that the poem has been 'ascribed repeatedly' to Drummond. (27) John Macqueen believed that the Polemo was 'hugely enjoyable' but its attribution to Drummond was 'probably erroneous' because it was 'a far cry from the crystalline remoteness of Drummond's English poems'. (28) Michael Spiller stated that the 'extremely funny' poem was 'credited' to Drummond, which again suggests doubt. (29) For something to be light-hearted is taken as being an argument against Drummond having written it. The poet is thus still often typecast as a one-dimensional serious and respectable figure who would not have lowered himself to the vulgarity of macaronic verse.

Early printed editions and manuscripts of the Polemo, 1640s to 1711: A List

There has been much confusion as to the dating of the early editions of the Polemo, as a number of them are undated, and a series of cataloguing errors makes identifying the different editions difficult. In addition to known editions, it has been pointed out that there were doubtless others that were 'ephemeral broadsides' (30) of which no copies survive. Thus while the following list of editions can be claimed to be a significant improvement on previous ones, (31) it makes no claim to be definitive. The list usually identifies a single copy of each edition (from which details have been obtained).

Line numbers of the poem cited are derived from the 1684 (ii) edition (166 lines), as that forms the basis for Kastner's transcript, (32) which in turn has been adopted by later editors of published transcripts. (33)


POLEMO-MEDINIA / INTER VITARV.AM / ET NEBERNAM [Evan Tyler, Edinburgh, 1640s?]. (34)

6 pages, 16 5 lines, 17 lines of verse on 1st page.

Line 92 omitted.

Woodcut ornamental headpiece above title.

Wing (35) D2203. British Library [BL], 11408 ee 68 (only known copy) Images available from English Books Online [EEBO].

The printer is identified through the headpiece, which is formed of a band of woodcuts which were occasionally used by Evan Tyler, almost exclusively in the 1640s. (36)

1650s [manuscript]

Polemo middinia, Inter *Nebarnam / et *Pitarvam.

7 pages, 166 lines, 22 lines on ist page.

In margin opposite title: '*Lady Barnes. *Scotstarvett in ffyfe.'

Line 92 omitted.

After l.147 extra line inserted--

'Nec mora, terribilem Stellavit dira canonem.'

National Library of Scotland [NLS], Ms Adv. 19.3.4, ff. 70V-73V.

The volume containing this transcript ('a poor text' (37)) has 'Incept, [begun] 23 March 1652/53' written on the flyleaf, (38) and at f.75v a death is mentioned that occurred on 5 Feb. 1657/8. Thus this text dates from the mid 1650s.

c. 1663

POLEMO---ME--/ DINIA / INTER VITARUAM / ET NEBERNAM. [John Forbes? Aberdeen? 1660s?].

8 pages, 16 5 lines, 12 lines on 1st page.

Line 92 omitted.

Woodcut headpiece above title depicts a thistle, a fleur de lis and a rose (all crowned), linked by foliage. At end: FINIS between two bands of 'acorn' fleurons. (39)

Not in Wing, ESTC or EEBO. Two copies are known: New College Library, University of Edinburgh (W.a.1/17) and Bodleian Library, Oxford (300.g.8). Images available from The University of Edinburgh Image Collections: New College.

The distinctive headpiece was used by the printer, John Forbes, Aberdeen, on another work in 1663--see Wing, C4225, C4226, (40) and the fleurons also appear on a number of Forbes's other works.

1684 (i)

[Polemo-Middinia, Carmem macaronicum. Accedit Jacobo id nominia quinti Regis Scotorum Cantilena rustica vulgo incripta Christs Kirk on the Green], ['Edinb. 1684. 4to.']

No copies known. Listed as Aldis, 2468, citing W. C. Hazlitt, Handbook to the Popular, Poetical and Dramatic Literature of Great Britain (London, 1867), 170, from which the above details are taken. This edition is very probably a 'ghost'--a publication which is non-existent but has been listed in bibliographies. Hazlitt's entry is confused, running together details relating to the 1684 (ii) and 1691/2 editions, and he himself noted this item was 'Of very doubtful genuineness'.

1684 (ii)

Breviuscula, & Compendiuscula, Tellatio; / DE / Storia memorabili Fechtae mervelabilis / Quae fuit / Inter Muckreillios, & Horsbojos, atque Ladaeos, / Nebernam, / Placide & Jocose tractatur.

('Edinburgh Re-printat 1684').

8 pages, 166 lines, 18 lines on 1st page.

Woodcut of an imperial crown on title. Ornamental headpiece, p.3.

Wing, D2194. NLS, Ferg. 134. Images available from EEBO.

1691/2 (41)

POLEMO-MIDDINIA. / CARMEN MACARONICUM. / AUTORE / GULIELMO DRUMMUNDO, / SCOTO-BRITANNO. / ACCEDIT / JACOBI ID NOMINISQU1NTI, / REGIS SCOTORUM, / Cantilena Rustica / FULGO INTSCRIPTA / Christs Kirk on the green / Recensuit, Notisque illustravit E. G. ('Oxonii: E theatro Sheldoniano, 1691').

10 pages (of 22). 170 lines.

After 1.15, two lines of stops presumably indicate that the source for these lines was illegible.

After 1.39 extra line inserted--

'Qui tulit in pileo magnum rubrumque favorem.'

After 1.44 two extra lines inserted--

'Norland-bornus homo valde valde Anticovenanter, Nomine Gordonus, valde blackmoudus, & alter'

After 1.147 extra line inserted--

'Nec mora terribilem fillavit dira canonem.'

Paragraph at end of preface lists some of Drummond's publications. In five instances, marginal notes offer alternative readings to the printed text taken from 'MS'.

Edited by Edmund Gibson, later Bishop of London. (42) Wing, D2204. NLS, H.29.b.31. Images from EEBO.

c. 1700 (i)

POLEMO::::ME::: / DINIA / INTER VITARUAM / ET NEBERAM. [Edinburgh? John Reid? 1700?]

6 pages, 166 lines, 9 lines on 1st page.

Rules above and below last line of title. Headpiece formed of nine rows of fleurons.

Line 42 omitted.

After 1.30 extra line inserted--

'Et magnum sus caput Jockie Beagle-beardus'

Not in Wing. NLS (3 copies), H.31.C.12; L.C. 1690 (3), and 1.300 (15), etc. The first of these copies is bound in a volume in which other dated pamphlets range from 1692 to 1705. (43)

The first three rows of fleurons are identical to ones used by the Edinburgh printer John Reid in 1700 on the title page of Andrew Fletcher's Overtures Offered to the Parliament (Wing, F.1296).

c. 1700 (ii)

Polemo = Middinia / Inter / VITARVAM & NERBANAM. [Edinburgh? 1700?]

7 pages, 170 lines, 18 lines of text on 1st page.

Two rules above title

Four extra lines as in 1691 edition, but does not contain the lines of stops. Wing, D2203A. NLS, RB.s.2467 (formerly 5.1814(23)).

c. 1700 (iii)

POLEMO-MEDINIA / INTER / Vitaruam et Nebernam.

[Edinburgh? 1700?]

4 pages, 167 lines, 3 9 lines on 1st page.

After 1.30 extra line is inserted--

'Et magnum sus caput Jockie Beagle-beardus.'

Paragraph at end of text based on the paragraph at the end of preface of 1691/2 edition. (44)

NLS, Ry. 1.2.125(26). Images from EEBO, though from a copy in the Bodleian Library with first page illegible.

The NLS copy is bound in a volume in which other dated pamphlets range from 1697 to 1703. (45)

c. 1700 [manuscript]

Pleasantissima Polemo-Middinia inter Vetarvam & Nebarnam Edinburgh University Library, Laing MSS, La.II.69, & 33-6.


Polemo-Middinia / INTER / VITARVAM & NEBERNAM.

A Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems both Ancient and Modern (3 parts, James Watson, Edinburgh, 1706-11), i, 129-33.

Reprinted in James Watson's Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems, ed. H. H. Wood (2 vols, Scottish Text Society, 1977-91), i, 129-33.

170 lines. Four extra lines and two lines of stops as in 1691/2 edn.


POLEMO-MIDDINIA / Inter Vitarvam & Nebernam.

The Works of William Drummond of Hawthornden.... now Published from the Author's Original Copies, [Ed. T. Ruddiman & J. Sage], (James Watson, Edinburgh, 1711), 2nd pagination, pp.48-9.

170 lines. Four extra lines and two lines of stops as in 1691/2 edn.

Early printed editions and manuscripts of the Polemo: Commentary

These editions and manuscripts can be divided into two groups, deriving (directly or indirectly) from two variant manuscript sources. Group 1 texts have 165, 166 or 167 lines, and group 2 texts have 170 lines. 1691/2 is the earliest surviving of the group 2 editions, followed by c. 1700 (ii), 1706 and 1711.

Occasionally an extra line appears, or one is removed, producing varying line totals in group 1. Editions c.1700 (i) and c.1700 (iii) introduce 'Jockie Beagle-beardus', and the 1650s MS (group 1) and the 1691/2 edition (group 2) have a line beginning 'Nec mora' not found elsewhere, indicating some cross-over between the two groups. In details, there are many variations in wording and phrasing between editions. Nonetheless, the separation of the texts into the two groups is justified by sampling of variant readings. To cite but a few:

In group 1 line 17 begins 'Ad noisam' while group 2 begins 'Ad terram'.

In group 1 line 32 reads 'alias' while group 2 reads 'alios'.

In group 1 line 90 begins 'Turn Vero', group 2 begins 'Turn demur'. (46)

In group 1 line 146 names 'Vitarva' but group 2 reads 'Neberna'.

In this last instance the different in wording possibly indicates more than an insignificant verbal differences. Line 146 contains the last mention of one of the two lady protagonists in the poem, and this is the lady whose epic breaking of wind brought the midden fecht to an end. It is quite possible that the different readings are simply the result of a careless slip of the pen, but Drummond was writing light-heartedly, to reconcile friends, and what better--and wittier--way than to give the poem alternative endings? Each laird could then have a version in which it was his wife that was victorious. The names Drummond had chosen for the ladies were both trisyllabic and thus poetically interchangeable. (47)

The 1711 edition of Drummond's Works stated that it was being reprinted 'almost every Year', (48) and the number of edition appearing around 1700 clearly indicates the growing popularity of the poem--especially when the two editions of a translation into English which appeared in 1704 are taken into account. (49) After a very shaky start, the Polemo had claimed a place in the canon of Scottish Literature.


When Drummond wrote the Polemo (1620s) it seems clear that he had no intention of publishing it in print, though he probably circulated it in manuscript among trusted friends. The works he had printed and publically acknowledged had been polished literary productions. They reflected the image he wished to cultivate. So why then did he eventually publish his vulgar satire, even anonymously long after the events that made it relevant, and at a time when his world was disintegrating around him in civil strife? It was hardly the time for a good laugh. Not only did its appearance contradict Drummond's public persona, it was a remarkable anomaly in the Scottish print culture of this troubled age.

In the years of 'the troubles', 1638 to 1651, Scotland's printing presses produced roughly 600 items of which copies survive. (50) The overwhelming majority are official acts and orders issued by king, state and church, or are otherwise closely related to political and religious events and controversies. Only about twenty (one in thirty) items fall outside these categories, mainly works by historians and poets. Of these only three were humorous, designed to elicit laughter. (51)

Thus printing was a medium used to inform, instruct and order rather than to entertain. The first edition of the Polemo was therefore incongruous in the print culture of the age, seemingly a joke in bad taste at a time of national bloodletting. It also seems bizarre in the context of Drummond's writings in the last decade of his life, which reveal a man obsessed by fear of the breakdown of political order and its consequences. Drummond over the years had become increasingly worried about royal policies in politics and religion, and by the concerns of many of his countrymen about them. As early as the 1620s he revealed an interest in political controversy by composing (or perhaps copying into his manuscripts) verses on the danger of corruption in royal government, (52) and in 1635 he penned 'An Apologetical Letter' (53) condemning a forthcoming treason trial which was widely regarded as an attempt by Charles I to intimidate subjects into silence. But he never published these papers; however strongly he felt he shunned involvement in public controversy.

In 1637 forcible opposition to the king's policies emerged, and the signing of the National Covenant in 1638 marked a decisive split between king and covenanters. Trying to heal that split became central to Drummond's intellectual activities. He was committed to monarchy in the Stuart dynasty, but he was convinced that some of the king's policies were ill-advised, likely to put an unbearable strain on the obedience of subjects. He had for some years been at work compiling a history of the reigns of James I to James V, (54) and this may have made him aware of how policy mistakes by monarchs, nobles and others had sometime had disastrous results. Indeed, it has been argued that in writing his history Drummond was 'covertly analysing elements of the contemporary crisis'. (55)

Drummond's longing for peace and reconciliation led him to write papers passionately urging compromise on the warring factions, but the increasingly revolutionary demands of the covenanters for the virtual destruction of royal power quickly drove him into seeing support for Charles I as the only way of preventing anarchy. But though these papers were evidently circulated to friends (56) they did not appear in print. Drummond was ageing, and he had always been a man of the study rather than the council chamber or field of battle. He spelled out (privately) the limits of his royalist commitment, and his fears of what the consequences of speaking openly might be:

   Giue me a thousand couenants, I'll subscriue
   Them all, and more, if more yee can contriue
   Of rage and malice
   I'll not die Martire for any mortall thing,
   It's enough to be confessour for a king. (57)

He was not prepared to die for 'a mortal thing' like King Charles. In these words Drummond seems to reject the mainstream royalist political philosophy --the divine right of kings to absolute power. As far as action was concerned, passive royalism was as far as he was prepared to go, 'confessing' (declaring verbally and in writing) his support for the King, but only communicating such convictions privately.

However, as well as being due to timidity, Drummond's failure to publish also arose from lack of opportunity. By the end of 1638 all of Scotland's printing presses were firmly under the control of the covenanters. When Charles I visited Scotland in 1641, in an unsuccessful attempt to reach a settlement with the covenanters, Drummond hoped that the royal presence would make it possible to publish his political pamphlets, but he found that royal authority was so 'fearfully eclipsed [...] that honest Men, without Danger, dar'd hardly speak', so he 'suppressed the Papers'. (58) Silenced, he watched from the sidelines as Scodand reeled from disaster to disaster, fearing the worst but helpless. In his frustration he wrote verses and epigrams, lamenting what was happening: 'There is no life saue vnder servuile Bandes' [the covenants]. (59)

It was in this context that the Polemo was published. Why? The question seems never to have been asked. One possible answer, argued below, is that Drummond had come to see the piece as bearing a coded political message for the times. Pared down to basics, the Polemo tells of how a limited dispute escalated into warfare because neither side would compromise, a result out of all proportion to the original issues. But in the end sense prevailed: peace was restored by a truce. The midden fight could thus serve as an allegory of Scotland's troubles, a reductio ad absurdum comparing civil war to a rural brawl. Seen in this light, publication of the Polemo becomes a censored writer's attempt to hint at what he could not, dared not, proclaim.

There is no direct evidence to support this proposition. But it will be argued that several pieces of circumstantial evidence support it, and cumulatively constitute a strong case. The first is that Drummond revised his poem in or after 1638 to include the lines (cited above) referring to an 'anticovenanter'. This is surely an indication that the events related in the poem are to be regarded as taking place in 1640 s, that it is to be read as a metaphor for Scotland's civil wars. The moral is the absurdity of violent conflict, and a solution should be sought in a truce.

An immediate objection to this interpretation is that no edition before 1691/2 contain the 'anticovenanter' lines, so the earliest texts do not provide readers with the clue to the fact that the poem was to be read politically. Why revise the poem to add the anticovenanter reference--and then omit it on publication? It is impossible to know. Perhaps Drummond, with his fears of persecution, decided that publishing it might be dangerous, or perhaps the printer refused to print such 'subversive' material.

There is no contemporary evidence that any of the readers of the 1640s Polemo recognised that it could be interpreted in political terms. Drummond died in 1649 without ever getting even a hint of his political ideas recognised in print. However, there are two remarkable pieces of post-mortem graphic evidence indicating that some recognised his message.

After the Restoration of monarchy in 1660 printers could resume publication of works favourable to the monarchy. The Aberdeen printer John Forbes took advantage of this, producing a new edition of a work by the only group of intellectuals in Scotland which had sought to defy the covenanters at the beginning of the troubles, the 'Aberdeen Doctors'. The doctors had first published their Generali Demands in 1638, in Aberdeen and London. One of the latter editions bears on its first page a highly symbolic woodcut headpiece. This shows a crown in the centre, with a stalk which rises from it dividing and bending, bearing a rose on one side, a thistle on the other. But both flowers droop so far that they hang upside-down. Thus kingship is depicted as standing firm. The centre holds. But the kingdoms of England and Scotland that derive from it are in a wretched, state, weak and divided. (60)

When John Forbes reprinted the Generali Demands a quarter of a century later (1663), he gave them a new headpiece reversing this symbolism. The crown again stands (this time on a fleur de lys) and the thistle and the rose flourish upright on either side--and they are now crowned. King and kingdoms have been restored. (61) 'Crown and kingdoms' symbolism was not uncommon in headpieces for works which were concerned with the affairs of nation and state, (62) and it was thus entirely appropriate to use it to head the Generali Demands. But Forbes used exactly the same headpiece when he reprinted the scurrilous Polemo. At first sight this appears absurd. Is it a blunder, or a joke in bad taste? Possibly; but it is far more likely to be deliberate. It tips off the reader: what follows is not just silly fun but contains a serious metaphorical message about war and peace. The 1684 (ii) edition title page carries a similar symbolic message: it bears a large imperial crown quite unsuitable unless it points to the political message of the poem.

Evidence of recognition that Drummond had come to see the Polemo as a political allegory ends at this point. All subsequent editors, and readers, seem to have regarded it purely as light entertainment for folk with enough education to understand its Latin--students, lawyers, academics. In other words, the Polemo was back to where it started: a piece of fun. The would-be political propagandist's whispered attempt to have the poem perceived as an allegory had been briefly recognised by a few but then forgotten.


(1) The Poetical Works of William Drummond of Hawthornden, ed. by L. E. Kastner, Scottish Text Society, 2 vols (Edinburgh and London: Blackwood and Sons, 1913), I, p. 15. See R. D. S. Jack, 'Introduction', in The Mercat Anthology of Early Scottish Eiterature, ed. by Jack and P. A. T. Rozendaal (Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1997), for a discussion of linguistic choice and critical interpretation in early modern Scottish writing.

(2) Gerard Carruthers, Scottish Eiterature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), pp.77-9.

(3) See John Kerrigan, Archipelagic English. Eiterature, History and Politics, 1603-1707 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp.141-60, and Andrew McRae, Eiterature, Satire and the Early Stuart State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp.75-82. For two earlier studies of Drummond's later output see Thomas I. Rae, 'The Political Attitudes of William Drummond of Hawthornden', The Scottish Tradition. Essays in Honour of Ronald Gordon Cant, ed. by Geoffrey W. S. Barrow (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1974), pp. 132-46, and Thomas I. Rae, 'The Historical Writing of Drummond of Hawthornden', Scottish Historical Review, 54 (1975): 22-62.

(4) My thanks to SER referees for their valuable comments on an earlier version of this essay.

(5) The poem is most easily accessible in The Christis Kirk Tradition. Scots Poems of Folk Festivity, ed. by Allan H. MacLaine (Glasgow: Association of Scottish Literary Studies, 1996), pp.39-49, which includes an English translation.

(6) Translation by MacLaine, Christis Kirk, p.47.

(7) MacLaine, Christis Kirk, pp.48-9.

(8) Robert H. MacDonald, 'Drummond of Hawthornden, Miss Euphemia Kyninghame, and the "Poems" ', Modern Language Review, 60 (1965), 494-9.

(9) David Masson, Drummond of Hawthornden. The Story of his Eife and Writings (London: MacMillan, 1873), pp.477-82.

(10) Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, 1619-1622 (Edinburgh: H.M. General Register House, 1893),, 716-18.

(11) See David Stevenson, 'Scot, Sir John, of Scotstarvit, Lord Scotstarvit (1585-1670)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. online edn 2007 [, accessed 30 January 2012].

(12) Sir William Drummond died in 1713. See 'The Diary of Sir William Drummond of Hawthornden', ed. by Henry W. Meikle, Miscellany of the Scottish History Society, vii (1941), pp.1-42

(13) The Works of William Drummond of Hawthornden, edited by John Sage and Thomas Ruddiman (Edinburgh: James Watson, 1711), pp.iii, v, vii, viii-ix.

(14) David Laing, 'A Brief Account of the Hawthornden Manuscripts', Archaeologia Scotica: or, Transactions of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 4 (1857), p.68. Laing's paper had been written in the 1820s. Democritus was a Greek philosopher famed for his sense of humour.

(15) Kastner, Poetical Works, I, p.123 ('Thias Metamorphose'); II, p.208 ('Statue of Alcides'), and p. 21 o ('The Country Maid').

(16) R. H. MacDonald, 'Amendments to L. E. Kastner Edition of Drummond's Poems', Studies in Scottish Literature, 7 (1969): 107-11; Kerrigan, Archipelagic English, p.158.

(17) With one exception. Daniel Defoe was told that the Polemo was the work of Samuel Colvil [Defoe, A Tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain (3 vols, London, 1724-7), III, p. 150]. This attribution was ignored until the 1890s, when it was brought to the attention of the literary world in 'Drummond of Hawthornden and the "Polemo-Middinia"', Notes and Queries, 7th series, xii (1891), p.184. By then doubts as to Drummond's authorship were fashionable, and the isolated and implausible claim that Colvil was author was given serious consideration.

(18) The Poems of William Drummond of Hawthornden [ed. by Thomas Maitland] (Edinburgh: Maitland Club, 1832), p.16.

(19) Ibid., pp.xi, 411-16.

(20) Now NLS, MSS. 205 3-67.

(21) Laing,'A Brief Account', p. 59.

(22) David Laing, 'Miscellaneous Communications. 1. The Hawthornden Manuscripts', Archaeologia Scotica, 4 (1857): 399-401 [paper dated 1843].

(23) MacDonald, 'Amendments', pp.103, 117, 120. MacDonald's suggestion that the author was Scotstarvit, based on the fact that the latter was a worse poet than Drummond, seems perverse.

(24) Masson, Drummond, p.484.

(25) Kastner, Poetical Works, II, pp.418-20.

(26) Sidney Lee, 'Drummond, William (1585-1649) of Hawthornden', Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 1888), online edn., accessed through the 'DNB archive' function at Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2007 [, accessed 30 Jan 2012].

(27) Michael R. G. Spiller, 'Drummond, William, of Hawthornden (1; 8 5-1649)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2007 [, accessed 30 Jan 2012).

(28) John Macqueen, 'Scottish Latin Poetry', in History of Scottish Literature, ed. by Cairns Craig 4 vols (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1988), I, Origins to 1660, ed. by R. D. S. Jack (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1998), pp.221-2.

(29) Michael R. G. Spiller, 'Poetry after the Union, 1603-1660', in History of Scottish Literature ed. by Jack, p.149.

(30) MacLaine, Christis Kirk, p.39.

(31) Kastner, Poetical Works, I, pp.91-3; James Watson's Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems, ed. by Harriet H. Wood, Scottish Text Society, 2 vols (Edinburgh and London: Blackwood and Sons, 1977-91), II, pp.83-6.

(32) Kastner, Poetical Works, II, pp.321-6, 418-24

(33) MacLaine, Christis Kirk, pp.40-9; The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, ed. by Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah (London: Allen Lane, 2000), pp.192-201.

(34) There has been much confusion in dating this edition. The British Library [BL] catalogue opts for publication [Edinburgh? 1645?], following A List of Books printed in Scotland before ijoo, ed. Harry G. Aldis (Edinburgh, 1904 & revised edn 1970), no. 1147. However, Early English Books Online [EEBO], and the English Short Title Catalogue [ESTC], both opt for [1684?]. The latter also wrongly claims there are other copies in the NLS and Harvard University.

(35) Donald G. Wing, Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and British America ... 1641-1700 (2nd edn, 3 vols., New York, 1972-98).

(36) The headpiece (with some variations in the arrangement of the blocks) appears on the following Tyler prints: Wing S1168A0 ([1640s?], though falsely dated 1633 on title page), Wing S4233 (1642), Wing D1549 & S1122 (both 164;), Wing F1348D (1650), & Wing C3004A (1666). Kastner, Poetical Works, I, pp.xci-xcii, cited eminent bibliographers who believed this edition to be Tyler's work, but remarkably concluded that their opinions were not 'strong enough' to support the argument that it preceded the 1684 edition.

(37) Wood, Choice Collection, II, p.8 5.

(38) Ibid, II, p.86.

(39) Pieces of type bearing flowers or other ornaments rather that letters or numerals.

(40) In a 1959 letter interleaved in the Bodleian copy, the bibliographer Frederic S. Ferguson suggested a date of [1670?] for this edition, stating that its headpiece was identical to one used in a 1668 work printed by 'John Forbes younger' of Aberdeen (Aldis 1848; Wing, M1825). In fact the 1668 headpiece is not the same as that used in 1663; it includes two roses and thistles. However, the edition is listed in Aldis (1900.5), Wood, Choice Collection, II, pp.83, 8;, and some library catalogues as '[1670?]'.

(41) The preface of this edition is dated 'Calends Januaries An. MDXCI', which was 1 January 1692 by modern reckoning; Gibson's and the printer's dates of '1691' reflect the peculiar English usage whereby New Year did not begin until 25 March. The double-dating '1691/2' used here is a common convention used to avoid confusion.

(42) See Stephen Taylor, 'Gibson, Edmund', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2007 [ 10615, accessed 30 Jan 2012].

(43) Wood, Choice Collection, II, p.8 5.

(44) Wood, in Choice Collection, II, p.83, thought this edition was the one sometimes catalogued Aberdeen 1670 (see 1660s edition above). She therefore incorrectly described this edition as the first to name Drummond, and assumed that the 1691/2 edition was copied from this one, rather than vice versa.

(45) Wood, Choice Collection, II, p.84.

(46) Except that 1711 reads 'Turn Deum', an obvious error.

(47) The confusions that haunts the Polemo extends even to its title. The 1684 (ii) edition is entitled 'Polemo-Medinia', but when Kastner published his transcript of it, he suppressed that and substituted 'Polemo-Middinia', presumably because that spelling became common in later editions.

(48) Drummond, Works, (1711), p.v.

(49) AN ESSAY / UPON / POLEMO MEDINA / OR THE / MIDDEN-FIGHT. Between Vitarva and Neberna (Editions by John Reid Younger, and G. Jaffrey, both of Edinburgh, 1704). 8pp. Translated by 'J. C.' ESTC, T.183304 & N.31479 respectively, copies at NLS, H.31.C.16 and in EUL, De.4. 114.

(50) See ESTC.

(51) The other two were Terence's comedies and The Muses' Threnodie, or, Mirthful Mournings, on the Death of Master Gall, by Henry Adamson, published in 1638 before the covenanters' press censorship became pervasive. Adamson's work, coincidentally, includes a recommendatory letter from Drummond, 'the prime Poet of our kingdome', 'W.D'.

(52) McRae, Literature, Satire and the Early Stuart State, pp.7 5-82, accepts Drummond's authorship but Kastner, Poetical Works, II, pp.296-9, 415, justifiably judged the poem 'of doubtful authenticity'.

(53) Drummond, Works (1711), pp.132-4.

(54) Drummond, The History of Scotland, from the year 1423 until the year 1542 containing the Lives and Reigns of James the I, the II, the III, the IV, the V [...] (London: Henry Hills, 165;).

(55) Kerrigan, Archipelagic English, pp.163 and 473, n. 106, lists many passages in Drummond's History in which the events narrated have such obvious parallels to events of his own times that he must have been aware of them. Many historians of the age saw study of the past as primarily a means of uncovering lessons applicable to their own ages. See also Rae, 'Historical Writing of Drummond of Hawthornden', p.37.

(56) There are contemporary copies of many of the tracts at NLS, Adv. MS, 13.2.5 and Adv. MS 32.4.9.

(57) Kastner, Poetical Works, II, p.206.

(58) Works (1711), p.157.

(59) Kastner, Poetical Works, II, 174, 206-7, 218-21.

(60) ESTC, S492570. Images available on EEBO.

(61) Wing, C4225, 4226. Images available on EEBO.

(62) For example, the 1655 edition of Drummond's Works has such a headpiece.

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Author:Stevenson, David
Publication:Scottish Literary Review
Article Type:Essay
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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