A comment by Arthur Crown in this post led me to an excellent lecture by Dr. John B. Corbett preserved, with all its hesitations and fillers, at the SCOTS Project (which I blogged about here and here), about Thomas Urquhart and his place in the history of Scottish literature. It’s so full of tidbits and insights I’m tempted to reproduce the whole thing; instead, I’ll quote and mention enough to give you a taste for it.
He starts by placing him in context (I’m normalizing the text by deleting the “erm”s and [inhale]s and superfluous commas):
Urquhart is a mid-seventeenth century writer, writing around about 1650. So I want to try to put him into context. Last week if you remember, we looked at the way Scots prose evolved in the sixteenth century, developing out of a native tradition of loosely connected Old English sentences in a kind of spoken style. And we contrasted that with the continental style, based on Latin, of long, elaborate sentences. … In the sixteenth century you don’t really have literary prose; you have administrative prose, you have historiographical prose; the writers of the histories are probably getting closest to a literary style, of the prose writers of that period. And the writers of histories tended to move towards the elaborate, continental style, which became … associated with the Catholic cause in Scotland, whereas the Protestant writers gravitated more towards the kind of loose colloquial style based on speech. The native style. Some writers, and I was arguing like John Knox at his best, modulated between the two styles and used the expressive range in a very rhetorical and purposeful way.
But today, in concentrating on one writer from the mid-seventeenth century, Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, we look at somebody who basically took the continental style to its mad, absurd extreme. He was the last of the great … baroque writers in the Scottish tradition. He writes in, if you like, the Latin-based, the continental style. Urquhart is often dismissed as one of the great but … difficult eccentrics of the Scottish literary tradition. Now what I’m going to argue today is that he’s in some ways a transitional figure. He’s the end of an era, in one respect. He’s the last great exponent of the continental style in Scottish prose. But, in other respects, he’s a foretaste of Scottish prose, fictional prose, to come. He does things for the first time that are taken up by later Scottish writers, and in some respects you could argue that wittingly or unwittingly, all modern Scottish prose fictional writers are his children…
He goes on to describe Urquhart’s book on trigonometry, “which if anything established his reputation as someone who was barking mad”:
Urquhart is taking a reasonably simple, reasonably straightforward, geometrical theorem, and he’s elaborating it to the point of absurdity, and … either he’s mad, and that has been put forward as a proposition, … or he’s doing it on purpose as a joke. It’s a joke with a very limited audience. And he has a whole book like this. … You can see the Trissotetras, the joke trigonometry book …, as a parody of the continental style of prose writing. … You have the long periodic sentences, built up of subordinate clauses, parentheses, embedded phrases, almost to infinity. So he’s parodying the style of trigonometry books. Or he seems to be parodying the style of trigonometry books; with Urquhart you’re never quite sure. Certainly, as with many parodies, Urquhart seems in love with the object of his parody. There’s an infectious energy to the willful obscurity of this joke geometry treatise. The obscure Greek terms, the technical neologisms, the new words, give the treatise the attraction, to me at least, of nonsense poetry; it’s like reading “Jabberwocky” or something.
Urquhart was locked up by Cromwell as a Royalist, and “was told that his lands in Scotland would be forfeited if he could not demonstrate that he deserved to keep possession of them. So Urquhart decided that the best way to demonstrate his worth, his value, was to set about writing and publishing four books, between 1652 and 1653, to prove that he is an important writer and intellectual.” These books are the Pantochronochanon, which “constructs a family tree for the Urquhart family, that ends with Urquhart and begins with Adam,” which “kind of proves he’s noble”; the Ekskybalauron (‘gold out of dung’), better known as The Jewel, in which he starts by “drawing up the principles for a universal language… and then it goes into this amazing story about a character called ‘The Admirable Crichton’, and this is the first appearance of this character, ‘The Admirable Crichton'”; Logopandecteision, which “is largely a reprint of The Jewel” (“He basically writes it again because he’s running out of time”) but includes “the first prose sex scene in Scottish literature…. it combines Urquhart’s passionate interests in sex, astronomy, the construction of sundials, Greek and Latin vocabulary, and of course, syntax”; and the translation of Rabelais.
Corbett focuses on two places in the translation where Urquhart uses Scots.
So the giant Pantagruel comes upon another giant called Panurge. And the problem is, they begin to talk and they speak in different languages, so they’ve got to attempt to communicate. So, they try different languages out. Some of the languages are real, some of the languages Rabelais invents, some of the languages Urquhart, in his translation, invents too. So they try German – doesn’t work; Italian – doesn’t work; Spanish – doesn’t work; Dutch – nope; Basque – nope; Danish – no; Hebrew – no; Greek – no; Latin – no. So they try Puzzlatory – that doesn’t work. They try Buffoonish – that doesn’t work. And then, in this sequence of strange, obscure, weird and fictional languages, you get … “Then said Panurge, ‘Lard, gest all be sir birches th’intelligence as thy body shall be natural, ruleth, them should be, there should of me pity have. For nature has us equally made, but fortune some exalted has, in use depravit. None the less, vice nor virtue is depravit, and virtue is men discrives for an en ye lad en is not good.” That doesn’t work either. Nobody can understand what that means. Yet less, said Pantagruel. So again you get another failure of communication, and as you can see, it’s kind of nonsensical. The interesting thing about this nonsense is that it’s Scots. It’s Scots nonsense. It’s Older Scots nonsense.
The second passage is the one in which Pantagruel confronts “a pretentious student from Limoges.”
And Limoges is like, well Aberdeen, let’s face it, I apologise to anybody from Aberdeen who’s in the room, but you know, in French terms, it’s a little bit out in the sticks … and this pretentious student makes the mistake, when speaking to Pantagruel, of affecting to be a[n] intellectual student from Paris, and he uses a highly Latinised, high-style vocabulary to begin to talk to the giant. And the giant decides to take him down a peg. …”By God,” said Pantagruel, “I will teach you to speak. But first come hither and tell me whence thou art”. To this the scholar answered, “The primeval origin of my aves and ataves was indigenerie of the Lemovick regions, where requiesceth the corpor of the hagiotat St Martial”. “I understand thee very well,” said Pantagruel, “when all comes to all, thou art a Limousin, and thou wilt here, by thy affected speech, counterfeit the Parisiens. Well now, come hither, I must shew thee a new trick, and handsomely give thou combfeat.” With this he took him by the throat, saying to him, “Thou flayest the Latine? By St John I will make thee flay the foxe, for I will now flay thee alive”. Then began the poor Limousin to cry, “Haw, gwid Maaster, haw Laord ma halp and St Marshaw, haw, I’m worried; haw, ma thrapple, the bean of ma cragg is bruck! Haw, for gauad’s seck, lawt ma lean Mawster, waw, waw, waw!” “Now,” said Pantagruel, “thou speaks naturally,” and so let him go, for the poor Limousin had totally be[w]rayed, and thoroughly conshit his breeches.”
Corbett sums up by saying that “when he’s affecting the pretentious Latinised style, Urquhart seems to be parodying himself. The Limousin begins by speaking the way that Urquhart usually writes. Then, as we’ve said, when he’s shaken by the throat, he reverts into his natural speech, which would be Urquhart’s own spoken idiom.”
Now, I have some questions about the quotation Corbett cites as representing Panurge’s Scots; in the Wikisource text, it runs as follows:
‘Lord, if you be so virtuous of intelligence as you be naturally relieved to the body, you should have pity of me. For nature hath made us equal, but fortune hath some exalted and others deprived; nevertheless is virtue often deprived and the virtuous men despised; for before the last end none is good.’ (The following is the passage as it stands in the first edition. Urquhart seems to have rendered Rabelais’ indifferent English into worse Scotch, and this, with probably the use of contractions in his MS., or ‘the oddness’ of handwriting which he owns to in his Logopandecteision (p.419, Mait. Club. Edit.), has led to a chaotic jumble, which it is nearly impossible to reduce to order.–Instead of any attempt to do so, it is here given verbatim: ‘Lard gestholb besua virtuisbe intelligence: ass yi body scalbisbe natural reloth cholb suld osme pety have; for natur hass visse equaly maide bot fortune sum exaiti hesse andoyis deprevit: non yeless iviss mou virtiuss deprevit, and virtuiss men decreviss for anen ye ladeniss non quid.’ Here is a morsel for critical ingenuity to fix its teeth in.–M.)
Corbett is presumably emending the “chaotic jumble” somewhat thus: “Lard, gest (h)ol(b) be sua virtuis (be) intelligence as(s) [þ]i body scal(bis) be natural r[u]l[e]th [them] [s]chol[d] b[e, there] suld o[f] me pety have; for natur has(s) v(is)s(e) equaly maide bot fortune sum exa[l]ti[t] h[a]s(se) [i]n(d) oyis deprevit: non [þ]e less (i)vis[e] [n]o[r] virtiu [i]s deprevit, and virtu iss men decreviss for anen [þ]e laden iss no[t] [g]uid.” But 1) that’s a lot of emendation, and 2) it still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Still, his general point works.
Another problem I have is with the way the SCOTS site transcribes his quotes; they seem to ignore the actual texts he is citing and attempt to set down what he is saying based on its sound. But that is unhelpful and makes it difficult to follow up his leads. Quoting the sex scene, for instance, the text has him saying “To speak of her herquitelaniency…” Following along with the video (which I would urge everyone with the time to spare to do—it’s the “multimedia’ link at the bottom, the third icon from the right) it didn’t seem like that’s what he was saying, and a little work with the OED showed that the actual word is hirquitalliency (from Latin hirquitallire “(of infants) to acquire a strong voice,” from hircus ‘he-goat’).
But these are quibbles; I am very grateful to the SCOTS Project for making this fine lecture available to all.