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Ralph Hanna (ed.), The Buke of the Howlat by Richard Holland  (Woodbridge and Rochester: Boydell and Brewer, 2014). ISBN: 9781897976395, 226 pp., $70.00.

Reviewed by Helen F. Smith

[1] The Buke of the Howlat is a 1,003 line poem written in early Scots in the fifteenth century by Richard Holland. Holland, who was priest and canon of Kirkwell in 1457, can be found in catalogues of the great dead poets of Scotland, and Hanna has observed that ‘the finest Middle Scots poets engaged with The Howlat’ (p. 15). This includes poets such as Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, and even Lekpreuik’s 1571 edition of Barbour’s Bruce.

[2] The oldest extant alliterative poem in Scots, The Buke of the Howlat is written in thirteen-line stanzas that are a distinctive feature of Scots tradition, known as ‘rouncefallis’ by King James VI (p. 45). The poem is evocative of Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules in presenting a hierarchy of birds within a governmental metaphor. Within the poem, which is a comic allegory, an owl who feels deformed with ugliness appeals to the Pope (a peacock) to help improve his appearance. The Pope calls a council made up of bishops and ecclesiastical dignitaries, the Emperor (an eagle) and other representatives. After a banquet is held with a series of entertainers, including a musical mavis and merle; a juggling jay; a rook reciting a rhapsody on the genealogy of Irish Kings in mock Gaelic; and two mocking fools (a tuchet and a golk), the owl’s request is finally granted. The owl’s new plumage is made up of feathers from each of the present birds, but when the owl becomes arrogant, the birds pray that he is changed back by Nature. Consequently, the owl reflects sorrowfully on his pride and vanity. Despite this central focus on the owl, Hanna is careful to note that this bird is not the ‘unique target of the poem’s satire’ continuing that the other birds are ‘just as silly’ as the owl in their intention to amend Nature’s creation (p. 32). He argues that the moral ‘is not concerned with social climbing and its ill effects’ but instead that ‘human pride rests on precisely colores, engagement with the merely decorative’ (p. 33). Human beings are just like the owl, in pursuing impermanent objects rather than eternal truths, and ‘thus are not spiritually proper’ (p. 33).

[3] The poem also includes an interlude, which tells of the career of Sir James Douglas. Hanna has noted that ‘Holland plays upon the Douglases’ connection to generative nature’ (p. 30), thus linking this eminent family to the theme of nature which appears throughout the text (embodied by the allegorical character Nature). Hanna describes this as being the ‘heart’ of the entire poem, since it concerns James’ service, carrying the heart of Robert Bruce to Palestine, an action through which ‘he expresses his own heart, faithful to the death’ (p. 35).

[4] This new edition of the poem by Ralph Hanna is based upon three early witnesses to the text: Cambridge University Library, Sel. l. 19 (ll. 537-99); National Library of Scotland, MS 16500, fols 213r-28v; and National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates’ l. l. 6, fols 302r-10v. In his introduction to the poem, Hanna provides information on: the three sources of the text; the author and date; Holland’s language; literary sources and Holland’s poem; Holland’s verse; and editing the text. Unusually, an exact provenance can be assigned to the text, for, as Hanna points out, in the concluding stanza the poet ‘wittily insures the transmission of his name by including it in the rhyming position’ (p. 10). As this stanza associates Richard Holland with the household of the Earl of Moray, Archibald Douglas and his wife, Elizabeth Dunbar, Hanna’s edition includes a family tree of the ‘Black’ Douglases. This is not the only historical insight the text provides, for many studies have read the poem through the ‘lens of contemporary Scottish politics’ notes Hanna, which has afforded the text a ‘narrower chronological placement’ (pp. 12-13). These historical details refer to the heraldic devices of the humanised birds, such as the description of the papal arms (ll. 339-51), which are ‘associable with the antipope Felix V’ (p. 13).

[5] On Holland’s language, the editor provides an account of some the linguistic features of the text, explained with transcriptions from the International Phonetic Alphabet. Whilst Hanna points out that the reader might expect Holland’s language to correspond with well known features of late medieval Scots, his rhyme scheme actually relies upon some pronunciations identified with ‘scribes located in fringe areas of western and southwestern Yorkshire’ (p. 17). He thus makes further discussion of what he refers to as Holland’s marginal yet persistent ‘Anglicisms’ (p. 17) later in his introduction. Similarly, in his section on Holland’s verse, Hanna goes into lengthy detail about the rhyme scheme, and how this works linguistically.

[6] In his section on the literary sources for Holland’s poem, Hanna argues that the poem is not merely a fable, for it ‘engages in a standard example of a specific type of amplificatio’ (p. 23). Whilst he acknowledges that the source of the poem is ‘a commonplace fable for schoolboys’ he notes that this type of text was ‘regularly imported into adult contexts as a preacher’s exemplum’ (p. 24). Hanna goes on to suggest that the text ‘involves recourse to literary works more august than the fable tradition’ (p. 25). This interpretation of the complexity of the style and function of the poem is made convincing by Hanna’s insightful explanation and understanding of the central moral of the text, on human spiritual impairment in pursuing material objects above eternal truths, as described above.

[7] On the layout of this edition of The Buke of the Howlat, the line numbers of the poem are referenced alongside the text in five-line increments and Hanna also helpfully includes a reference to the corresponding folio number and side. Whilst an insightful textual commentary and a glossary are included, it is a shame that these do not also appear alongside the text instead of in separate sections towards the end of the book.

[8] Overall, The Buke of the Howlat is an enjoyable Scots poem with a compelling introduction by Ralph Hanna.

University of Edinburgh, April 2015