Robert Burns is one of Scotland’s greatest love poets but not the only one. Alan Riach introduces an early masterpiece of European literature and one of the most lasting affirmations of love in any language, The Kingis Quair.

WHEN King James I of Scotland (1394-1437) was taken prisoner and held in England, in Windsor Castle, he saw from a tower window the beautiful Joan Beaufort walking in the garden below, and decided there and then that this was the woman for him.

So the story goes.

The Kingis Quair (c1424) is the poem attributed to James, written in an elegant, gentle Scots, surviving in a manuscript collection from the end of the 1400s, in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. “Quair” simply means “Book” but also suggests “Choir”, a collection of voices raised in harmony. The poem is beautifully eloquent, sustaining itself through various different kinds of writing: straightforward description, lyrical song, praise, complaint, prayer, lucid instruction, dream-allegory and moral adventure. It’s made up of 197 seven-line stanzas, each rhyming ababbcc, a form that is itself an emblem of sustained poise, and prompted the description “rhyme royale” because of King James’s use of it here. The poem’s variety partly demonstrates a healthy exercise of poetic ability, a happy showing-off of expertise, but its deeper purpose is a demonstration of life’s variousness, as the wheel carries you into a happier position.

In the dream, the lover makes his case to Venus before an assembly of peers who have known the pain of being in love, and asks about destiny and free will in a context where love’s liberating idealisation provides an escape from physical imprisonment. The poem’s imagery is bright: singing birds, crystal waters, little fish and the shifts of fortune men and women suffer – all these have their places. Birds are closer to God and blessed with voices for songs of their own, literally flying higher than the silent but beautiful wee fishes, who, while lower in the scheme of things, and voiceless, are nevertheless equally part of God’s world.

So the poet, caught between them, birds on high and fish below, suffers on Fortune’s wheel – “the nature of it is evermore, / After ane hicht, to vale and give a fall” – but this is a love poem with a happy ending, tense but ultimately buoyant, emotionally immediate without sentimentalising anything.

James I did indeed marry Joan Beaufort but the poem is also wise about luck. Implicit is the sense that Fortune’s wheel may turn again, as indeed for James it did, but the formal closure of the poem allows it to remain finally a work of art, a lasting pleasure.

James I in this poem was decidedly Chaucerian in form but his successors, including Robert Henryson, William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas, were a very different lot. The fine English critic AC Spearing, in Criticism and Medieval Poetry (1964; reprinted 1972), notes that “what they take undergoes an often radical transformation, since they also draw on a vigorous and non-Chaucerian tradition” and “there is a far more individual life in their work than is to be found in their English contemporaries.”

But let’s stay with The Kingis Quair and savour it a bit more. It takes off, as many poems of its era do, with reference to the poet’s reading of another book. This is most familiar from Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid (c1485), where the poet begins in winter by withdrawing to his warm fireside with Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (c1385), but then taking up “another” book and wondering if Chaucer told the whole story truthfully, or whether there isn’t more to say. Similarly, The Kingis Quair is prompted by reflection on The Consolation of Philosophy (c523) by Boethius (c477-524). The poet recollects how Fortune’s wheel turned badly for Boethius, but the Quair’s story is of Fortune bringing good things, beneficence, blessing, love. It’s an affirmation.

With the great wheel of interstellar, intergalactic creation in the firmament around him, the lonely poet wakes in a solitary bed, his mind restless, thinking of “this and that” – so he takes a book to read. The poem begins like this:

Heigh in the hevynnis figure circulere

The rody sterres twynklyng as the fyre,

And, in Aquary, Citherea the clere

Rynsid hir tressis like the goldin wyre

That late tofore in fair and fresche atyre

Through Capricorn heved hir hornis bright,

North northward approchit the mydnyght,

Quhen, as I lay in bed allone waking,

New partit out of slepe a lyte tofore,

Fell me to mynd of many diverse thing,

Of this and that, can I noght say quharfore,

Bot slepe for craft in erth myght I no more,

For quhich as tho coude I no better wyle,

Bot toke a boke to rede apon a quhile…

Structurally, the poem is in five parts. Part one introduces the poet and sets the scene. It’s important to remember that the poem itself is written by an older, wiser man than the one presented in the prison, for this helps us understand that the imprisonment is both literal and allegorical. James is imprisoned in the tower but also in solitude: he is loveless. Love, marriage and wisdom will bring him freedom. The poem is a foundation myth and, if we’re lucky, speaks of a reality as crucial as that of Wallace, Bruce and Independence.

Part two tells the story of James’s capture and imprisonment by the English, of how he came to the sorry state he’s in:

With doutfull hert amang the rokkis blake,

My feble bote full fast to stere and rowe,

Helples, allone, the wynter nyght I wake,

To wayte the wynd that furthward suld me throwe.

O empti saile, quhare is the wynd suld blowe

Me to the port, quhar gynneth all my game?

Help, Calyope, and wynd, in Marye name!

And as the sea becalms his ship, “enemies” capture him and his companions: “The bird, the beste, the fisch eke in the see, / They lyve in fredome, everich in his kynd; / And I a man, and lakkith libertee!”

Yet even in despair and loneliness, he can see from the window in his prison tower a “gardyn fair, and in the corners set / Ane herber grene with wandis long and small / Railit about” and he calls out in a hymn to love and love’s mercy, and looks out once more:

And therwith kest I doun myn eye ageyne,

Quhare as I sawe, walking under the tour,

Full secretly new cummyn hir to pleyne,

The fairest or the freschest yong floure

That ever I sawe, me thoght, before that houre;

For quhich sodayn abate anon astert

The blude of all my body to my hert.

There is little of what we would call realistic narrative detail in the poem, which makes the sight of the beloved from the window all the more memorable. The woman departs from the garden and the poem takes us through a vision of the gods, and the poet’s prayer to the goddess of love.

Part three is the dream. There are three “dreamscapes” and a god for each one: Venus, Minerva (wisdom) and Fortune. First we travel to the heavens and meet all sorts of lovers, and Venus herself, who gives the poet Hope, who takes him to Minerva, after being admitted to her realm by the porter, Patience. Venus commands the poet to remember the moment of vision and the motivation of love, and to make her authority a priority among all those he will come in time to rule:

“Quhen thou descendis doun to ground ageyne,

Say to the men that there bene resident

How long think thay to stand in my disdeyne

That in my lawis bene so negligent

From day to day, and list tham noght repent

Bot breken louse and walken at thair large?

Is ther none that therof gevis charge?

“And for,” quod sche, “the angir and the smert

Of thair unkyndenesse dooth me constreyne,

My femynyne and wofull tender hert,

That than I wepe, and to a token pleyne,

As of my teris cummyth all this reyne

That ye se on the ground so fast ybete

Fro day to day, my turment is so grete!...”

He leaves Venus with Hope and comes to Patience and Wisdom, who return him to earth, dream-walking through an ideal landscape, with a flowing river filled with fish, blossoming plants and lively animals of all kinds.

Fortune is turning her wheel and invites the poet to climb on, for the wheel can carry folk up as well as down. Then she pinches his ear and he wakes up: she “by the ere me toke / So earnestly, that therewithal I woke.” The tiny detail of the goddess nipping his ear to bring him out of the dream is an example of how the allegory is kept sharp and lively.

In Part four, the poet, the lover, is now awake and more worried than ever by the thought that only dreams can bring him to what he desires. But then he looks out the window once again. What he sees reaffirms his sense of the authority of love:

In hye unto the wyndow gan I walk,

Moving within my spirit of this sight,

Quhare, sodeynly, a turtur quhite as calk

So evinly upon my hand gan lyght,

And unto me sche turnyt hir full ryght,

Of quham the chere in hir birdis aport

Gave me in hert kalendis of confort.

The white turtle-dove (the turtur) alights, bringing him a scroll on which “gillyflowers” (like carnations) are depicted alongside a poem which announces that heaven has decreed he shall have his wishes granted. The poet’s purpose is confirmed: to serve love, and to write the poem we’re reading and send it out into the world to do its work, as he will return to liberty, marriage and Scotland independent and at peace.

In Part five, the story concludes. The courtship was successful, and the poet gives thanks to the gods, and to the earlier poets from whom he learned his skills. The Kingis Quair itself will tell its tale and spread the word.

Marriage, in this poem, is freedom. The harmony of all things is the affirmation of all the celestial and earthly realities we have encountered. In The Allegory of Love (1936), CS Lewis said of this poem: “In it the poetry of marriage at last emerges from the traditional poetry of adultery; and the literal narrative of a contemporary wooing emerges from romance and allegory. It is the first modern book of love.”

We live and learn.