On 'At Stirling Castle, 1507'

by Sebastiaan Verweij

'At Stirling Castle, 1507' relates a climactic and tragicomic event from the life of John Damian, physician, alchemist, and court favourite of James IV. In 1507, or so the story goes, Damian ascended the battlements of Stirling Castle in an attempt to fly to France, adorned with large wings made from chicken feathers. His experiment failed, and he ended up in a dunghill in front of the walls, alive, but with a broken leg. He later claimed his failure was due to the type of feathers he had used: since chickens cannot fly, he should have used something else instead. Morgan alludes to Damian's dubious foreign origin in the first two lines. Morgan's retelling of this event is not without precedent in Scottish poetry. William Dunbar wrote two poems based on Damian's attempt: A Ballat of the Abbot of Tungland, and Lucina shyning in silence of the nycht. In the first poem, Dunbar compares other famous attempts to fly - Daedalus and Icarus for instance - to that of Damian, and Dunbar treats him with derision and mockery. Dunbar's narrator in the second poem considers himself ill-favoured by Fortune, and in a dream she comes to him to tell him that only after "ane abbot him cleythe in eirnis pennys / and fle up in the air amang the crennys"(1) will his fortune turn to good. After Dunbar, around 1570 the event is officially recorded for the first time in A Historie of Scotland, by John Leslie:

This tyme thair wes ane Italiane with the King, quha was maid Abott of Tungland, and wes of curious ingyne. He causet the King believe that he, be multiplyinge and utheris his inventions, wold make fine golde of uther metall, quhilk science he callit quintassence; quhairupon the King maid greit cost, bot all in vaine. This Abott tuik in hand to flie with wingis, and to be in Fraunce befoir the saids ambassadouris; and to that effect he causet mak ane pair of wingis of fedderis, quhilkis beand fessinit apoun him, he flew of the castell wall of Striveling, bot shortlie he fell to the ground and brak his thee bane; bot the wyt thairof he ascryvit to that thair was sum hen fedderis in the wingis, quhilk yarnit and covet the mydding and not the skyis.(2)

Morgan draws on a fictionalised account of the historical event, but presents it as historical fact. All the mockery so obvious in Dunbar is absent from Morgan, and he seems to refrain from any outright criticism. Rather, Morgan vividly sketches the moment supreme, from the moment Damian leaps off the battlements to his fall among the crowd. There might just be a hint of Dunbar hidden in Morgan's text. Consider the following stanza from Lucina shyning in silence of the nycht:

He sall ascend as ane horrible griphoun.
Him meit sall in the air ane sho dragoun.
Thir terribill mosturis sall togiddir thrist,
And in the cluddis get the Antechrist,
Quhill all the air infect of thair poysoun.(3)

In Morgan, the "crawling scaly Forth" conjures up the image of a serpent, or a dragon, and apart from the literal river Forth that Damian is plummeting towards, the imagery could be a reference to the dragon that Damian meets and mates with in the clouds in Dunbar's text.
Keeping in mind that Morgan's imagery could be nothing more than coincidental, it nevertheless remains interesting to regard Damian's ending in Morgan as an opposite to that of Dunbar's. Morgan's last line is enigmatic. Perhaps Damian's reply to "that steel shout of sky" can bring us a step closer to a possible interpretation of the poem's final line. Steel obviously refers to the colour of the sky, and perhaps weather conditions, but it should be remembered also that Damian was an alchemist, whose main occupation was to turn base metals into gold (cf. Leslie: "make fine golde of uther metal"). Damian's attempt to fly could be regarded as an attempt to ascend to Heaven, as an act of defiance to God, in the same manner as turning metal into gold is in insult to God (the power of creation is his alone). Thus, "the last key snapped from high hard locks" could refer to the key into heaven: his vainglorious attempts are thwarted and fail, and his admission into Heaven by tampering is denied. However, the presence of "not" complicates the matter. In any case, Morgan rewrites Damian's horrible fate in Dunbar's Lucina shyning in silence of the nycht, and instead of becoming a consort to the devil, Damian is not condemned for his folly, the "not" perhaps closing off all but the natural ways into Heaven.

 

(1) William Dunbar, Selected Poems, ed. Priscilla Bawcutt, Harlow: Longman, 1996, p. 141.

(2) As quoted by Priscilla Bawcutt in Selected Poems, p. 58.

(3) Selected Poems, p. 141.

 

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