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Jamie Reid-Baxter (ed.), Poems of Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross (Solsequium, 2010)

Jamie Reid-Baxter (ed.), Poems of Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross. Edinburgh: Solsequium, 2010. ISBN 978-0-9566033-0-2, 131 pp. £11.99

Reviewed by Sarah C. E. Ross

[1]  Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross, is one of the most exciting ‘finds’ in Scottish Renaissance literature in the last decade or so, even though she has long been known as a published poet. Ane Godlie Dreame, her 480-line dream vision poem first printed in 1603, was well-loved through the seventeenth century, in Scotland and in England, and its reputation has been sufficient to gain her a place in discussions of early Scottish Presbyterianism, and in the emergent canon of early modern women’s writing. Jamie Reid-Baxter, however, has radically expanded our understanding of Melville and her poetics, uncovering in 2002 nearly 3500 lines of verse in a manuscript of Robert Bruce sermons in New College Library, Edinburgh. Reid-Baxter has convincingly attributed these poems—along with others scattered in several other manuscripts—to Melville, identifying a substantial oeuvre of Melville’s poetry in manuscript.[1] Reid-Baxter’s Poems of Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross presents for the first time a selection of these poems from manuscript sources, along with a full reprint of Ane Godlie Dreame, and two brief lyrics that appeared with it in print.

[2]  The volume opens with one of Melville’s most striking lyrics, gleaned from an eighteenth-century Boswell manuscript at the Beinecke Library, Yale University. ‘A Call to Come to Christ’ takes Christopher Marlowe’s much-imitated ‘Come Live With Me and Be My Love’, and engages in a sacred parody of it: the speaking voice is Christ, calling the soul of the believer to ‘loath this life and live with me’. It is a moving lyric and an intricate one and, as Reid-Baxter explains in his thorough and informative Afterword, it exemplifies several characteristics of Melville’s poetic practice as the newly-recovered manuscript texts reveal it. Contrafactum or sacred parody was widely practiced in Renaissance Scotland, from the Wedderburn brothers’ Gude and Godlie Ballatis onwards. Melville’s extensive use of the technique—involving the adaptation and rewriting of secular lyrics into new, sacred ones—is also represented in the volume by a sacred parody of Alexander Montgomerie’s erotic lyric ‘Solsequium’, rendered as an extended vision of God’s love, ‘Ane Thanksgiving to God For His Benefits’. This longer sacred parody also reveals the extent to which Elizabeth Melville’s manuscript lyrics are embedded in a lively culture of Renaissance Scottish verse. As Reid-Baxter’s notes set out, the poet-pastor James Melville composed a version of Psalm 23 to the same Montgomerie tune; and Montgomerie (who himself practised contrafactum) has previously been credited with another Elizabeth Melville lyric reprinted in the volume, “A Comfortabill Song”. Reid-Baxter’s selections, and his illuminating endnotes, introduce a poet whose work is interwoven with that of the other major poetic figures defining Scottish devotional poetics during the reign of James VI and I.

[3]  Reid-Baxter’s selection of lyrics from manuscript for inclusion in this volume is extremely sound. He presents here the Melville lyrics that are most engaging for the lay reader (such as “A Call to Come to Christ”, which is likely to become much-anthologised), as well as those that promise to have the greatest impact on our understanding of Melville’s poetics. Melville’s three devotional sonnet sequences (two of three sonnets and one of seven) are printed in full, allowing the reader to appreciate Melville’s innovative use of the Petrarchan sonnet sequence to express the fluctuating confidence of faith. The contrast between the fluid subjectivity of Melville’s seven-sonnet sequence and the stasis of a sonnet by Lady Margaret Cunningham reprinted in Reid-Baxter’s Afterword is revealing, and serves only to underscore the quality of Melville’s verse. Reid-Baxter also republishes the sonnet to John Welsh on his imprisonment at Blackness in 1605, which has been anthologised in collections of women’s writing—and in doing so, he corrects at last the mis-transcription of the final couplet that mars the text in recent anthologies. He also publishes the texts of two hitherto unknown sonnets to the Presbyterian leader Andrew Melville which, like that to Welsh, are ‘sonnets of comfort in persecution’. Melville addresses both men through acrostics and anagrams, techniques that also mark the opening two poems from Melville’s Bruce manuscript poetry. Reid-Baxter’s printing of these poems allows the reader for the first time to gain an extended sense of Melville’s fondness for word-play, intricacies of poetic form, and for distinctively Scottish alliteration and internal rhymes.

[4]  The greatest joy in this volume is the full texts of the poems from manuscript, transcribed accurately and cleanly, and presented with extensive endnotes. Reid-Baxter is deeply knowledgeable of his subject, and his notes and Afterword provide a thorough introduction to the poet, her faith, and her world. He is right to have included here poems from diverse manuscripts, rather than drawing only on the compendious Bruce manuscript collection; this choice allows us to sample the full range of Melville’s style and tone, and to sense the extent of her poetry’s coterie circulation. I would have liked to read more from the Bruce manuscript, perhaps at the expense of a reprinting of Ane Godlie Dreame—but Reid-Baxter is right to assume that the general reader will not have access to that important poem, as it has not been reprinted in full since the nineteenth century. Poems of Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross presents poetry and a poet for the general reader rather than for an academic audience, and Reid-Baxter is explicit about this: the extensive apparatus is presented at the end of the volume, leaving the poems’ texts clear, and the annotations refer to Reid-Baxter’s scholarly edition in progress, Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross: Complete Writings.

[5]  For an academic reader, the present volume thus serves to whet the appetite for Reid-Baxter’s complete scholarly edition. Melville’s manuscript verse remains largely unacknowledged in academic discussion of early Scottish poetry, despite its quality, and its interrelationship with the work of Montgomerie, James Melville, Alexander Hume and others. For example, her verse receives no mention in Crawford Gribben and David George Mullan’s recent Literature and the Scottish Reformation (Ashgate, 2009) even though it exemplifies exactly the lively literary culture of the Scottish Reformation which that volume seeks to reveal. Some excellent scholarly work on Melville has been completed, by Sarah Dunnigan, Deanna Delmar Evans, and by Reid-Baxter himself, and Reid-Baxter draws attention to this in a list of further reading included at the end of the volume. What this volume does not do is engage explicitly in this emergent scholarly discussion—but that is not Reid-Baxter’s purpose in this volume, which seeks rather to bring the poetry of Renaissance Scotland to a public audience. For that audience and for the scholarly community alike, Poems of Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross is a timely beginning to the process of making Elizabeth Melville’s work accessible, and enormous pleasure—and insight—is to be found in its pages. Dr Reid-Baxter’s texts and the apparatus which he so ably provides promise good things of his full scholarly edition, and I hope we will have the pleasure of reading that before too long.

Massey University, June 2011


[1] See, in particular, J. Reid-Baxter (2004) ‘Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross: 3500 New Lines of Verse’ in S. M. Dunnigan, C. M. Harker and E. S. Newman (eds), Women and the Feminine in Medieval and Early Modern Scottish Writing (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), 195-200.[back to text]