The Buke of the Howlat

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'O Douglas, Douglas!
Tender and true !'

The Buke of the Howlat, often referred to simply as The Howlat, is a humorous 15th century Scots poem by Richard Holland. The Howlat was composed in the late 1440s for Elizabeth Douglas, wife of Archibald Douglas, earl of Moray. It is one of the great monuments of fifteenth-century Scots verse, perhaps the finest example of Older Scots alliterative poetry

The poem is a comic allegory in which all the characters are birds with human attributes, with a howlat, or owl, the protagonist. The symbolism is debatable but two of its purposes are clear; it serves as a moral fable warning against vanity and excessive pride, and it is also a piece of propaganda praising the Douglas dynasty of Scots nobles.

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.

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. 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, one should note that this bird is not the ‘unique target of the poem’s satire; the other birds are ‘just as silly’ as the owl in their intention to amend Nature’s creation (p. 32). 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’. Human beings are just like the owl, in pursuing impermanent objects rather than eternal truths, and ‘thus are not spiritually proper’.

The poem also includes an interlude, which tells of the career of Sir James Douglas. Holland plays upon the Douglases’ connection to generative nature, thus linking this eminent family to the theme of nature which appears throughout the text (embodied by the allegorical character Nature). This is 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’.


Sources for this article include:

  • University of Edinburgh

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    Last modified: Monday, 25 March 2024