The Works of James Melville

by David W. Atkinson (Volume editor)
©2019 Others X, 508 Pages


The Works of James Melville presents both published and unpublished prose and poetry by Scottish divine James Melville (1556–1614). James Melville has been largely ignored as a significant figure in the life of the Scottish Church in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. While his Diary and Autobiography is often referenced as an important account of the Scottish Kirk, the rest of his writing remains unavailable to modern scholars. The result is that we are without an important resource for understanding the spiritual dynamics of the Scottish Church, as well as the devotional life of the ordinary believer. This book—which incorporates vital critical commentary on each of the selected works—endeavors to fill this scholarly lacuna, and to excite interest in Melville as a self-conscious writer who drew on all manner of sources, even as he developed a distinctive voice that positioned him as an important religious writer of the Reformation. Melville’s understanding of his role as a pastor of the Church—and of his ultimate responsibility for saving souls—gives his writing a power that signals his own deeply held faith, which in turn inspires so much of his poetry and prose. The Works of James Melville will hopefully encourage others to give Melville the kind of scholarly attention that sheds light on his contribution to Scottish history, religion, and literature.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. A Spiritvall Propine of a Pastour to his People
  • Chapter 2. A Morning Vision
  • Chapter 3. A Frvitfvl and Comfortable Exhortatioun anent Death
  • Chapter 4. The manner of the sicknesse and departure, of Iean d’Albret, of Navarr
  • Chapter 5. The Black Bastel or, A Lamentation in Name of the Kirk of Scotland
  • Chapter 6. A Preservative from Apostacie
  • Chapter 7. The wandering sheepe or Davids tragique fall
  • Chapter 8. The releife of the longing soule, or The Song of Songs
  • Chapter 9. Short Poems
  • Chapter 10. The Zodiac of Lyff that is Principall Monuments of divyn and humane Phylosophie
  • Appendices
  • Poems from Melville’s Autobiography and Diary
  • Translations from Latin in Autobiography and Diary
  • Three Sonnets from D. Robert Rollici Scoti

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This project has a long history. Started nearly twenty years ago, it was set aside as administrative obligations inevitably seemed to get in the way. Working with a transcription from what seems a lifetime ago posed its own set of challenges. I will, however, always be grateful to Dr. Rod Lyall who first suggested the possibility of an edition of James Melville, and introduced me to Dr. Louise Yeoman, who was part of the early stages of the project, but who also moved on to other pursuits. Nearly fifteen years later, it was a special delight to reconnect with Dr. Yeoman, who provided me with important assistance in completing this present volume.

I owe much to Dr. Jamie Reid-Baxter, whose extraordinary knowledge of Melville and his historical and literary context were invaluable in finishing this project. So, too, I must recognize the input of Dr. Sally Mapstone during the early stages of my work. More recently, I wish to thank my colleague at MacEwan University, Dr. Pamela Farvolden, for her interest and assistance, and my student Ms. Carrie Digout who was amazing in catching the inevitable errors that come with a project like this one. Finally, I owe much to Ms. Maxan Ferguson-Dyer who gave me exactly the right kind of assistance in updating a very old text and in formatting a new one. ← ix | x →

Brock University provided important assistance in the early going, as did the staff in the President’s Office. I am also grateful to the Board of Governors of MacEwan University who gave me an administrative leave following my Presidency there that enabled me to finish this edition. I wish to acknowledge the assistance of the librarians at the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, and Edinburgh University Library, and, of course, my own MacEwan University Library, and especially its archivist Ms. Valla Mclean. I would also like to thank the staff of Peter Lang Publishing for their work in bringing this project to completion.

None of this could have been accomplished without the support of my wife Terry, who patiently put up with a lot over the last year as I single-mindedly pursued the completion of this work. I could not have done it without her.

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Arguably one of the most important Scottish writers of the seventeenth century, and one who has largely been ignored, James Melville is best known for his Autobiography and Diary, first published in 1829 by the Bannatyne Club, and then, along with its continuation, The True Narratioune of the Declyneing Aige of the Kirk of Scotland, in 1842 by the Wodrow Society.1 While this work has long been considered central to understanding the early Scottish Church ← 1 | 2 → and the Reformation in Scotland, the bulk of Melville’s works, both those unpublished and those printed in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, are not readily available to modern scholars. David Mullan wrote in 1986 that “James Melville was one of the formative influences upon the Presbyterian mind in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Long in the shadow of his more famous uncle Andrew Melville, James merits a more prominent place in the history of the kirk under James VI.”2 While there has been some limited interest in Melville in recent years, he remains for the most part a secondary figure in Scottish Church history. This edition, which includes both Melville’s printed and manuscript materials, is intended to rectify the current situation with the hope that it will further stimulate interest in Melville.

Life and Background

Born on July 25, 1556, Melville was the son of Richard Melville of Baldovy and Isabell Scrimgeour, the sister of the laird of Glasswell, who he describes as “godlie, fathfull, and honest parents.”3 While Melville’s mother died within a year of his birth, he still benefited from a solid upbringing and a good education, attending first Montrose School before entering St. Leonard’s College, St Andrews from which he was admitted BA in 1570. As with so many others, John Knox loomed large in shaping Melville’s thinking; as Melville himself allows, “in all my course, the graittest benefit was the sight and heiring of that extraordinaire man of God Mr Jhone Knox.”4 Equally important was James’ uncle, Andrew Melville, remembered as an educator, humanist, and bitter critic of episcopalianism, although the exact nature of their relationship remains vague. James obviously admired his uncle, but much of his praise, while effusive enough, provides little in the way of detail about their relationship.5 One thing, though, is clear: Andrew and James were very much ← 2 | 3 → joined by the singular purpose of reforming the Kirk, and Andrew certainly gets prominence in Melville’s Autobiography and Diary for his role in ecclesiatical and church affairs. As important as this relationship was, James, with only a handful of exceptions, exhibits little of the stridency of Andrew, perhaps one reason why, in comparison to his uncle, he was not given due recognition as a significant and independent voice in the Scottish Church.6

With the appointment of Andrew Melville as Principal of Glasgow University, James joined him there in 1575 as Regent, teaching, among other things, Greek, Latin, and Rhetoric. Subsequently, his uncle moved to New College, St. Andrews, and James once more followed him, this time as Professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages. When his uncle was required to flee Scotland in 1584, Melville assumed general supervision of the College, until he found himself in a similar situation, having to flee, first to Dundee and then, as a disguised seaman, to Berwick.7 While Melville intended to join his uncle in London, he remained in Newcastle-on-Tyne preaching to other exiled Presbyterians, and did not return to Scotland until late 1585. Melville was ordained on November 12, 1585, and assumed first the parish of Anstruther, and then in 1587 the vicarage of Abercrombie. He subsequently gave these up with his move in 1590 to the Parish of Kilrenny. Melville was married twice, in the first instance in 1583 to Elizabeth Durie, the sister of the popular Edinburgh pastor John Durie, who predeceased him in 1607, and then to Deborah Clerke, a much younger woman, in 1610. Melville had several children with Elizabeth Durie: Ephraim (b. 1585), Andrew (b. 1586), Andrew (b. 1588), Margaret (b. 1593), John (b. 1595), Isobel (b. 1536), and Anna (b. 1598).8 ← 3 | 4 →

In 1589 Melville was appointed Moderator of the General Assembly, and it is his increasing role in the Kirk that likely attracted the King’s attention. For a time, Melville, along with others, had hoped for some sort of rapprochement with James VI and I, and, at least early on, the King’s approach to the Kirk was not unlike that of his English cousin Elizabeth. Facing Catholic enemies and disparate beliefs within the English Church,9 the King was prepared to make concessions, even as he retained a “deeply held and lifelong attachment to the doctrine of the divine right of kings.”10 Any concessions, however, were short lived. Once the Catholic threat in England was overcome, he turned his attention to the Kirk and in particular to the Melvilles and their single-minded view of Presbyterianism. It is not a stretch to include the Melvilles among those the King dismissed in Basilikon Doron as “fiery spirited men of the ministry,” who are little else than “pests in Church and Commonweal … breathing nothing but sedition and calumnies.”11

Quite predictably the King’s pressure on the Presbyterians increased significantly12 as he took advantage of a Scottish Church not entirely agreed on matters relating to ecclesiastical government, and eventually in 1606 Bishops were restored to the Scottish Church. A particular flash point was the “Aberdeen Assembly” of July 1605 called in response to increasing concern about the ← 4 | 5 → King’s interference in the Kirk.13 James’ view of the Assembly was unequivocal; it is “nothing else but … sedition and plane contempt of us and our authoritie,” and an “oppin breache and violatioun of the lawis and statutis of this realme.”14 Several of the participants were imprisoned in Edinburgh and Blackness castles, and after their trials in October 1606, they were banished abroad for life.

Neither of the two Melvilles took part in the Aberdeen Assembly, although both had a hand in making it happen. Clearly, however, the King believed they were key figures in the Presbyterian cause and, accordingly, they, along with a number of others, were summoned to attend on the King in London in September 1606.15 A determined effort was made to persuade them to abandon their opposition to royal policy, requiried as they were to sit through a sermon in favour of episcopacy and another advocating absolute adherence to royal episcopalian policy. Afterwards, they met with the King,16 who was accompanied by seven Scottish bishops, other English bishops and members of the nobility, and Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury.17 The Scots argued that only a free General Assembly had the power to express an opinion on the Kirk, and, as might be expected, the meeting ended acrimoniously. ← 5 | 6 →

A few days later, Andrew Melville wrote what was to become a much-circulated Latin epigram after attending the St. Michael’s Day service in the Chapel Royal.18 Much has been made of this epigram as the final straw that led to his imprisonment although it is more likely that Melville’s outspoken intransigence was as much a reason for the King’s frustration. Andrew Melville was charged with treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London, while James was ordered to take up residence in Newcastle and not to leave. Except for a brief visit, on the occasion of his first wife’s death, Melville was disallowed from returning to Scotland until 1613. On his way to Edinburgh, Melville took ill and died in Berwick on January 13.


Four of Melville’s works were published during his lifetime. The earliest, Ane Frvitful and Comfortable Exhortatioun anent death, followed by The Manner of the sicknesse and departure, of Iean D’Albret, were printed by Robert Waldegrave in 1587, and survive in a single copy in the Bodleian Library. Also printed by Robert Waldegrave, A Spiritvall Propine of a Pastour to his People and A Morning Vision: or Poeme for the Practise of Pietie, in Deuotion, Faith, and Repentance constitute a single bound volume with continuous pagination. There are two extant copies: the copy in the National Library of Scotland is incomplete, lacking a title page, while the British Library copy contains editorial corrections assumed to be in Melville’s hand.19 Regrettably, a number of these are so faded that they are illegible, and in other cases cropping makes the marginalia unreadable. The title page of A Spiritvall Propine indicates a publication date of 1589, although it is generally accepted that it, along with A Morning Vision, were published together in 1598. ← 6 | 7 →

Of note is a later seventeenth-century transcription of several sections from the printed version of A Morning Vision in the East Neuk Commonplace Book, which is grouped with other miscellaneous documents in MS 34.5.10 in the National Library of Scotland. Why anyone would choose to transcribe from Melville’s printed version of A Morning Vision remains a mystery although its existence suggests that Melville continued to be read after his death. The scribe is unknown although the name John Melville, perhaps James Melville’s grandson, appears on a torn page of the manuscript suggesting he might be responsible for the transcription. The source of the transcription is also an open question although it appears not to be of the printed version in the British Library since none of its marginal changes are included.

The Black Bastel, or, A Lamentation in Name of the Kirk of Scotland first appeared, according to its title page, in 1611. The only surviving copy, located in the National Library of Scotland, was printed in Edinburgh by J. Wreittoun in 1634, and was republished by David Laing in Various Pieces of Fugitive Scottish Poetry, principally of the seventeenth century (1825).20 As indicated on its title page, the printed version of The Black Bastel is an abridged, heavily Anglicized, and indeed corrupted version of the original. The abridger “N” was probably David Calderwood, and the damage he did to Melville’s original is truly unfortunate.21 Pitcairn includes in his “Prefatory Notice” a reference to a manuscript copy of The Bastel preserved in “the collection of Robert Graham, Esq. of Redgorton,” and allows that the original work ran to 93 stanzas compared to the 39 stanzas of the 1634 edition.22 As well, David Irving, in his History of Scottish Poetry, indicates he has seen a manuscript of the 93 stanza version of The Black Bastel in the Library of Robert Mylne.23 Neither document has been found, and there is no copy of the 1611 print version. Any printed version would likely have been printed abroad because no Scottish or English printer would have dared publish a work so stridently critical of James VI and I.24

No effort is made in this volume to duplicate Melville’s Autobiography and Diary with the exception of the short poems and Melville’s Latin translations, ← 7 | 8 → which are included in the Appendix to this edition. Integrated into the Diary’s text, they offer insights into Melville’s personal life, and provide important context for Melville’s unpublished work. Of the two texts, the earlier, published in 1829 by the Bannatyne Society, has been used as copy-text as it retains, for the most part, the orthography of the manuscript text located in the National Library of Scotland. For all other purposes, the Wodrow text is used because it includes The Declyneing Aige of the Kirk of Scotland.

Melville’s unpublished works are contained in four separate documents. Written in an unknown hand, MS Dc 6.45 in Edinburgh University Library contains The Zodiac of Lyff, along with miscellaneous Latin works by Andrew Melville. MS Adv 19.2.17, located in the National Library of Scotland, includes three long works, A preservatiue from Apostacie, or the Song of Moses, The Wandering sheepe, or Davids tragique fall; and The releife of the longing soule, or The Song of Songs, along with a number of sonnets and other short poems. A number of these poems are dated 1610 and 1611 and the manuscript constitutes a single transcribed document in what is assumed to be Melville’s hand. One might surmise that Melville was preparing the text for publication in what were the last few years of his life. Finally, a handful of short poems are contained in MS Wod Quarto XX in the National Library of Scotland and are assumed to be Melville’s. The initials JM appear at the end of the third sonnet and suggest Melville’s authorship.

Of special note is The preservatiue from Apostacie, or The Song of Moses, which is actually three separate works, “A Preservatiue from Apostacie,” “The Song of Moses put in Metre, and “A Large Paraphrase Vpon The Song of Moses.” The second of these is the only example of Melville’s work that appears both in print and manuscript, printed as it was in Andro Hart’s 1615 text, The CL. Psalmes of Dauid in prose and meeter25 and then again in 1635. ← 8 | 9 →

Literary Reputation

As much as Melville was ignored as an important voice for the Kirk, he has been given even less recognition as a writer of any note. The earliest mention of James Melville is in Thomas McCrie’s Life of Andrew Melville (1856), who viewed Melville’s poetry as at best mediocre, although to his credit, he did provide a list of works constituting the first substantial account of Melville.26 Better McCrie’s relative indifference, however, than David Irving’s observation in his History of Scottish Poetry that “the Scottish verses of James Melville can scarcely be said to reach mediocrity. His invention is barren and his rhymes are rude.”27 Response to Melville’s prose is not much better. Typical is a single mention in Kurt Wittig’s The Scottish Tradition in Literature (1958), in which Melville’s Diary is singled out, along with Knox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland (1861), for expressing a peculiarly “grim Scottish humour.”28 Along similar lines, Maurice Lindsay, in his History of Scottish Literature (1977), while allowing that some consider Melville’s Autobiography and Diary “a particularly delightful work.”29 criticizes its “gossipy garrolousness” as the only thing that saves the work from being “a pedestrian account of dead matter.”30 He is not, moreover, any kinder when describing Melville’s poetry, reducing it to “religio-literary flatulence” while claiming that Melville “played a more vigorous part even than Knox in killing the old Scots sense of delight in the arts.”31

Recently, however, one finds a more balanced approach that demonstrates an increased appreciation of Melville’s writing and puts into perspective his achievements as a Presbyterian reformer, a committed parish pastor, and a writer of note. David Reid in The Party Coloured Mind (1982),32 was one of the first to recognize Melville’s achievements in characterising the Autobiography and Diary as the “most attractive of the Presbyterian narratives,” praising it for ← 9 | 10 → being “free of humanistic affections” and for a “literary manner [that] is plain and moderate in tone.”33 A growing enthusiasm for Melville is obvious, too, in Louise Yeoman’s “James Melville and the Covenant of Grace” in which she writes how Melville’s poetry elaborates on the psychology of covenanting and expresses “hope for the Church to regain and to return to that sensually-delighting and soul-saving Covenant.” 34 Along similar lines, Sally Mapstone in “James Melville’s Revisions to A Spiritvall Propine and A Morning Vision” references Melville’s annotations in the British Library copy of these works for how “they show a persistent focus on both the comprehensibility and clarity of his material and on its poetic and musical quality.”35 And Jamie Reid-Baxter, in examining the sources for Melville’s Song of Songs, unequivocally states that Melville “is the least studied major Scots-language poet of the reign of James VI.”36

Religious Context

Melville’s writing grows out of the last decade of the 16th century and the first decade of the seventeenth, and expresses his restiveness and disappointment in the state of the Scottish Church. Whether obliquely, as in some of his devotional works, or in the polemic of The Black Bastell, Melville saw a need for radical reform of the Kirk. Nothing could be clearer than when, in A True Narratioune of the Declyneing Aige of the Kirk of Scotland, Melville revels in the ← 10 | 11 → glorious first years of the Scottish Church and bemoans how they have been lost:

While Melville has a clear sense of mission, and saw himself first and foremost as a pastor, he was very much a part of the larger Reformation and influenced by its spiritual context, which struggled with the incongruities of doctine and devotion. Debates about theology, church government, and liturgy might be interesting in themselves, but the vast majority of Protestant religious writing focuses, often in a deeply personal way, on the spiritual needs of the individual believer, and on communicating the basic Christian message of Grace and forgiveness. The incongruities between particular election and universal salvation and predestination and freewill never really found a satisfactory resolution if, for no other reason, than they ignored what a Christian both needs and wants. The Scottish Church might at times be criticized for its flinty Calvinism, but the fact remains that the devotional side of the Church exhibited a keen sense of the psychology of spiritual life. What Mullan calls “the scholastic side of Calvinism” in the Scottish Church was mitigated by “emotional piety which flows from Augustine’s Confessions and expressed in treatises toward the laity.”38 Parishioners who pray every week in Church need to know that their efforts count for something; the notion that they are unable to influence their salvation will not stand up in the face of real psychological ← 11 | 12 → need. As Mullan puts it, “Scottish thought about covenanting was riddled with tension,”39 as the inevitability of Calvinist theology played out against the very real drama of “whether God has chosen the individual in the eternal lottery” over against “the individual’s own weak and wavering decision.”40

The struggle to find a point of integration between Calvinist predestination and Arminian freewill generated no end of debate and discussion.41 Melville, like many others, was aware of the tension between devotion and doctrine, a Protestant conundrum implicit in Paul’s directions to the Philippians,42 and it is not unreasonable to assume that it is expressed in Melville’s writing. The urgency of the Old Testament prophets is obvious in Melville’s voice, reflecting as it does a Calvinist insistence that assurance of election is foremost in devotional life, yet he is also at great pains to map out details of the Christian life with the assumption, it seems, that they actually matter to the individual believer. It is almost a certainty that Melville was familiar with the English Puritan writers, who were themselves obsessed with this dilemma, and it is in this context that he looked for a way to hold in abeyance the rigor of eternal election and allow for the believer’s voluntary participation in covenantal relationships. There is every likelihood that Melville knew of the prolific English Puritan writer William Perkins, and if nothing else they are definitely kindred spirits. Perkins in A Golden Chain or the Description of Theology (1591) offers an explicit and helpful definition of Covenant Theology as an effort to provide the spiritual assurance of election while retaining a role for the believer in working out their individual salvation. For Perkins, everything hinges on two things, God’s offer to man and man’s response to the offer,43 as Perkins accepts that religious life is a matter of keeping both balls in the air at the same time. ← 12 | 13 →

There is no mistaking that the spiritual dynamics of Covenant Theology inform Melville’s writing and add definition to his role as a Minister of the Kirk—as one who brings assurance of God’s love and instructs the believer on what constitutes Christian life. He openly talks in the Autobiography and Diary about the moment he felt God’s calling, when he “fand … that Sprit of sanctification beginning to work sum motiones in my hart, even about the aught and nynt yeir of age,”44 Later in A Spiritvall Propine, Melville expresses gratitude for being selected by God: “Wherefore, O most gratious and merciful God, louer of all mankinde, and louer of thy faithful Saincts, but louer of me in “speciall … hast deliuered and saued me” (p. 61). And he could not be more explicit in defining the relationship of the elect with God: “Wee earnestly beseike thee, to warke amendement in vs, bee a mair effectuall force of thy haly Spirit” (p. 15). Nonetheless Melville is clearly open to the idea of spiritual partnership when, at the beginning of A Spiritual Propine, he at once talks of God’s calling and the believer’s response:

… cleaue vnto God and walke with him continually in thy meditations, yea, euen when thy hands are occupied in thy calling, let thy heart be occupied with thy God, and his gud spirite shal inspire thee maire and maire: and baith teach thee what to pray, and how, and steir vp with sighs and sobbes, and zealous motions in the minde that cannot bee expressed in the mouth. And so what euer thy estate be on the earth, thou shalt be with him as it were in heauen, in respect of that contentment, peace, joy, comfort, and consolation whilk shalbe furnished vnto thee thereby.45 (p. 47)

While allowing for the “force of the quickning spirite of thy Christ” (p. 63), Melville remains reluctant to set aside individual responsibility, and in this regard he makes clear the Pastor’s responsibilities:

… for gud and faithfull Pastours and Magistrates, to be steired vp and assisted bee thy grace for their comfort; and for thy fauour, power, and wisdome, to be opponed to the malice, force, & craft of their enemies, and for comfort, patience, & constancy to ← 13 | 14 → them whereby they may glorifie thy name in suffering, and moue vthers by their gud example to doe the same. (p. 51)

It would be wrong to conclude that Melville moves far from his Calvinist roots. But there is abundant evidence in his writing to suggest that any relationship between the believer and God depends on an understanding of where God’s promise ends and where the individual’s response begins, and allows for a relationship with God that brings both hope and consolation, which are, after all, what Christian teaching avows.

Melville’s preoccupation with the spiritual life of the individual, and with God’s special covenant with his elect extends, of course, to the Pastour’s particular role in calling the true Church together. As Yeomans observes, the “estate of the Church and of the soul” were considered “identical,”46 and for Melville, as for other Scottish reformers, God’s individual covenant with his elect underpinned and informed the larger covenant between God and his Church. Here Melville underscores that the covenant with God is a partnership. In “A Soum of the Doctrine of the Covenant Renewit in the Kirk of Scotland,” he characterises the covenant as “mutuall; sa that God is nocht bund to thee, gif conditioun be nocht kepit on thy part,”47 and emphasizes the consequences of breaking the covenant, “to be cast away in the former miserie and condemnation with the devilles and that sa mikle the mair, as we are becom faithles and mean-sworn brakers of his halie Mutuall Band and Covenant.”48 The Pastor’s role, then, provides a reason for Melville’s focus on the Kirk’s shortcomings. While he consistently references in his writing the decline from what Yeomans calls “the Presyterian golden age,”49 there is ample evidence to suggest that God has not completely abandoned his church. One might well argue that Melville’s writing itself is a sufficient indication that the relapse is temporary. As the Covenant of Grace holds true for the individual, so too does it for the Church, and it is a promise that will never be broken. It remains what Yeomans eloquently describes as an “inseparable mystical union”50 between God and the believer and between God and His Church. ← 14 | 15 →

Literary Context

It is generally accepted that Scottish writing of the seventeenth century has its limitations, the result, Reid argues, of a “narrow institutional base,”51 although in recent times there have been substantial efforts to draw attention to what might otherwise be forgotten Scottish poets, including Robert Ayton, William Alexander, and Drummond of Hawthornden.52 Explicitly religious writing was far more ubiquitous,53 however, and few writers of Melville’s time have been singled out for special mention although it is not inaccurate to say that Melville firmly belongs in the tradition of John Knox and his concern for Church reform.54 There remained a culture of Scottish religious writing to which Melville contributed and with which he was undoubtedly familiar. One must not overlook, for example, the striking similarity between Montgomerie and Melville even if they did not share a common religious background. Especially noteworthy is Montgomerie’s sonnet, “Supreme Essence, beginning Vnbegun,” and Melville’s sonnet “Svpreme essence, beginner, vnbegun.”55 ← 15 | 16 → Indeed the similarities seem more than coincidence.56 More generally, the religious sentiments expressed, for example, in Hume’s Hymnes or Sacred Songs where the richt use of Poetry may be Espied (1599) share much with Melville’s poetry.57 One might make the same claim for The Gude and Godlie Ballatis, first published in 1565 and then again in 1578. Perhaps more important, Melville anticipated those who followed him, including such notables as Robert Baillie and Robert Wodrow.58

Melville, too, was clearly familiar with both classical and continental religious writing, and, like many others of the time, given to imitation and translation. A good example is his Frvitful and Confortable Exhortatioun anent death, echoing as it does many elements of the ars moriendi. The same might be said for his Zodiac of Lyff, which is a truncated paraphrase of Palingenius’ Zodiacus Vitae. Melville’s version of the Song of Songs was also heavily influenced by both European and Puritan models, notably the Testamenti Veteris Biblia Sacra, ← 16 | 17 → a Latin translation from Old Testament Hebrew, by Emmanuel Tremellius, along with the work of a number of English reformers.59

None of this sets aside that Melville was an uneven writer although there is persuasive evidence to indicate that he was also a self aware one. The editorial changes made in what is assumed to be Melville’s hand in the British Library printed version of A Spiritual Propine and A Morning Vision is a case in point.60 If one accepts that MS Adv 19.2.7 is in Melville’s hand, then there is strong evidence he was preparing its contents for publication and was likely mindful of improving the text. One must not, moreover, use Melville’s poetry as a context for evaluating his prose, which exhibits the clarity, persuasiveness, and power of what is generally known as the Puritan plain style,61 and which gives a sense of what must have been Melville’s impressive abilities as a preacher. Indeed, one might conclude that Melville was much more at home in prose, and it is regrettable that not more of his prose has survived. One must assume that, as a preacher, Melville delivered countless sermons from the pulpit of his Kilrenny Church.

A feature of Melville as poet is the role he sees for music and song in devotional life, and there is every reason to assume that Melville intended at least some of his poetry to be sung. While Melville allows that music constitutes relief from the “irksomnes” of his parishioners’ “labours” (p. 37), he is clear that music is not the “vaine and profane” fulfilling “corrupt and fi[lth]y desires” (p. 37). Rather music is a “gift naturallie giuen be God,” and therefore there is a “right vse of Musick and singing, the whilk being sanctified be gud and honest matter, and holy disposition of heart, makes meikle for godlie edification and comfort” (p. 37). To what music Melville intended his poetry to be sung remains unclear. His reference in the dedication of A Spiritvall Propine ← 17 | 18 → to “common toones” is vague and little more than tunes “ wherewith yee are best acquainted” (p. 38). Elsewhere, however, Melville is specific in identifying the tunes to be used, as in “Precepts to Repentance” in A Morning Vision which is “to be sung to “Ah my love leaue me not” (42), and in “The Seamans Shovte,” where he provides a specific secular tune.62


A significant feature of Melville’s writing, both printed and in manuscript, is its diversity of subject matter and form. Granted Melville wrote about explicitely Biblical topics, but he also went beyond this, as in a polemical work like The Black Bastel and the more philosophical Zodiak of Lyff. While it might be said that Melville appears more at home in prose, something hardly surprising given his role as pastor, his poetic efforts demonstrate an ability to write verse that often rises above the ordinary. There is a striking power in his poetry regardless of what might be written about his dependence on the work of others. At times, this faith takes a dogmatic, didactic form, but more often than not Melville grasps the power and mercy of God in language intended to inspire and to comfort the believer.

A Spiritval Propine and A Morning Vision

In constituting a single volume, A Spiritvall Propine of a Pastour to his People (1597) and A Morning Vision: or Poeme for the Practise of Pietie are together the most significant statement of Melville’s personal beliefs. Representing as they do two different yet complementary sides of the dynamics of spiritual life, one a clear statement of Christian belief, while the other a “Poeme” in which “the whole catechisme and right vse thereof, is largely exponed” (p. 81).

Melville refers to A Spiritvall Propine as his “catechisme,” and certainly it functions within the well established tradition of catechism in the Scottish Church.63 While it draws on the question and answer format typical of ← 18 | 19 → catechism, Melville’s A Spiritvall Propine is a much larger work comprising several different forms of expression and several distinct sections. Prefaced by prayers, one for pastors and the other for the reader, the main body of the text is a series of prayers and meditations to be used on different days and at different times of the day—before going to work, for the Sabbath, before eating, etc. The third section constitutes a series of Biblical texts which provide a comprehensive set of Christian instructions, while a final section dwells on communion and what is expected of the participant. Melville concludes the work in a manner more in keeping with catechism in its traditional sense with a “forme of tryall and examination, taken of all sik as are admitted to the Table Of the Lord” (p. 66).

The purpose of A Spiritvall Propine is obvious from the outset. It is “to bring forth the effect of the knawledge & feeling of thir things in the practise of a renewed life, and sancitifed conuersation, to confirme you [the believer] in the assurance of your election” (p. 41). Having said this, however, Melville places responsibility on the shoulders of the individual believer, and insists that nothing is guaranteed. We must cast aside “the busines & cares of this warld,” examine its “wants, danger and miserie,” and remember that time is short, that “our day of the Gospell is past noone, and the Sun thereof tendes toward going downe” (p. 65). Not losing God’s favour is paramount: “hardin not your harts, neither sleip in ignorance, in fidelitie, and sinne, least being debarred, yee perish with the multitude of the foolish, ignorant, faithless, and rebellious” (p. 54). Under no circumstances, he insists, can “we be not found sleeping in careles securitie” lest we “perish eternallie” (p. 54).

A collection of self standing poems and collections of poems, A Morning Vision outlines the process of justification and sanctification as they work themselves out in the individual believer. Presented as a dream vision, the work begins with the writer, caught between sleep and wakefulness, visited by various symbolic speaking character, who map out the various stages of election. Lady Lasines, who introduces the blandishments of vice, is countered by Lady Olitnes (Diligence), who introduces Lady Pietie, who in turn introduces Devotion, Faith and Repentance. These three in turn provide lengthy reflections on the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Decalogue. The vision is followed by the paraphrase of Deuteronomy 32 which itself contains several ← 19 | 20 → parts: “A Preservative from Apostacie,” “The Song of Moses put in metre,” and “A large paraphrase vpon the Song of Moses.”

Melville’s choice of form goes back to the miracle plays of the Middle Ages allowing as it does for doubt and faith to be played out in a way reflecting the drama of Christian renewal. While Melville enjoys some success in this regard, it must be admitted that the dramatic context of A Morning Vision is sometimes weak as at times Melville’s didactic voice gains prominence. It is likely, too, that a number of the poems may have initially been separate and only later incorporated into A Morning Vision, with the dream sequence as a backdrop for more explicitely Christian instruction.

Devotion defines the personal relationship with God and the believer, and so appropriately speaks first in A Morning Vision before passing off to Faith and Repentance. “A Confession of the Trve Justifying Faith,” in celebrating the Apostles’ Creed, confirms what is most fundamental to Calvinist teaching, that everything flows from faith, and with this in mind Melville includes three specific pieces focusing on repentance. “The patterns of true Faith and Repentance,” the “Repentance Oration,” and “Precepts of repentance, gud and wide thereof ken aright,” which drive home the idea of personal responsibility in the context of Grace and the Law of God: “That thou may hailie haue in mind his law / And euery precept thereof ken aright” (323–24) in the belief that it will “lead thee first to Christ his worthines/And syne into the pathes of halines” (228–29).

Frvitful and Confortable Exhortacioun anent Death

Melville’s Frvitful and Confortable Exhortatioun anent death is one of very few Scottish contributions to the ars moriendi. The “art of dying well” began in a humble way in the early fifteenth century with the anonymous Tractatus artis bene moriendi, which spread with speed throughout Europe,2 and was translated into practically every major European language, including English. Examples include Caxton’s The Craft of Dying Well (1490) and works in the early sixteenth century by Erasmus, Thomas Lupset, and Thomas Elyot. By far the most important developments in the tradition were by Protestant writers, who took what was originally a Catholic tradition based on Aquinas and adapted it to one drawing on Calvin.64 ← 20 | 21 →

What is strange is that the ars tradition did not make the transition into Scots, and, if anything, Melville’s work highlights the lack of Scottish texts on what was otherwise a ubiquitous tradition. Melville’s work, as one might expect, was motivated by actual events, and relies on a sermon mentioned by Melville written on the occasion of the death of Sir George Douglas of Hellenhill65 although he might also have taken as a model Philippe de Mornay’s Excellent discovrs de la vie et de la mort (1576). Melville prefaces his Exhortatioun with a short poem taken from De Mornay’s work, which was also translated into English by Mary Countess of Pembrook.

Like many Protestant writers working in the ars tradition, Melville spends little time with the details of preparing to die, choosing instead to “exhort” his reader about the importance of living a good life as a foundation for a good death:

Let vs then ever thinke, we haue that dette of nature to paye, when it likes the author of nature to craue it: and that wee can neither tell when, quhere, nor how. The heauens dailie reclayming the saule wherefra it descended, and the earth the bodie, whereof it was taken: On this condition wer we borne that we suld die, and to this ende our maker continuis the vse of this life, that wee sulde learne rightlie to die. (p. 201)

Melville begins with what is a commonplace launching point, and crafts his work along well established lines—that death is “the waye of al the earth” (p. 201), that we must “goe to bedde as we wald to [the] graue” (p. 202), that “we haue ← 21 | 22 → no permanent Cittie, heritage, nor dwelling house heir” (p. 202), and that life is a perelous and painful weirfare” (p. 216). As in so many other examples of the ars, he references the themes of the memento mori as a way, quite simply, of getting the reader’s attention: “let vs lay … before our eyes, a dead carkesse putrified, and worme eaten, and of foule smell and vglie sicht of every ane of its members” and thereby “to eschue the vices, quhair of they are commonly instruments” (p. 205). All this leads to the very obvious question, “Is death then to be detested?” (p. 217) Having alerted everyone to all that is wrong with life, he directs their attention to all that is good with with death: “learne to take vppe and amend thy selfe, and turne againe vnto the faithfull tread; enter into the Lords Sanctuarie, cast vp the buke of wisdome, learne thereof and be wise” (p. 219). In what is also commonplace in the ars moriendi, Melville concludes the Exhortatioun with a powerful peroration on the “veritie of this resurrection of Christ” (p. 228), which leads into prayer very much designed to lift the spirits of his readers, confirming as it does that in death we shall enter into “heavenlie and eternall habitation where wee sall finde the vnchangeable fruition of euerstanding pleasures” (p. 229).

Manner of the sicknesse and departure of Iean d’Albret

Attached to the Exhortacioun anent Death, the Manner of the sicknesse and departure, of Iean D’Albret, Queen of Navarre is an independent work, except for its mention on the title page of the Exhortatioun, and in its own title where it is identified as a means “wherin every Christian may see and learne the practise of the former,” namely what is contained in the Exhortatioun. Melville claims that the work is translated from French into Scots although the source has never been identified.

Melville’s decision to reference Jean d’Albret’s death is an intriguing one. While perhaps little is remembered of her today, Jean was a leading figure in the French Wars of Religion, and she was recognized as the spiritual and political leader of the Huguenot movement. At the same time, how her death was reported is itself a historical peculiarity. A widely circulated rumour was that she was poisoned by Catherine de Medici, who was said to have sent her a pair of poisoned gloves although other evidence indicates Jean died of natural causes. Melville retells this story with some gusto.

As a unique work, the Manner of the sicknesse and departure of Iean d’Albret departs from its Protestant antecedents by focusing on the trials of the deathbed. While his work in this regard is an exception, Melville’s work ← 22 | 23 → is still within the Protestant tradition as he uses deathbed discusssion as a vehicle for discussing the good life.66 To enable this, the realism of the deathbed is predictably stretched, as Jean is unusually loquacious given that she was near death. Nonetheless she is very much able to engage the Minister in conversation and to be insistent about her own spiritual preparation. Melville concludes the work with a series of short poems, including a translation of Andrew Melville’s “Christianus Edo,” and a number of sonnets, of which the final one is a noteworthy meditation on the good death.

Set not thy heart on worldle vanitie.

Whose pleasures are with paine to dearly bought,

Yet presse to play thy part with honetie,

And vse this warld, as gif thou vsde it nought.

Let ay this precept be thy Preacher plaine,

Liue heir to die, and die to liue again. (p. 11)

The Black Bastel

The Black Bastel was written during Melville’s exile in Berwick, so it is hardly surprising that it is suffused with an inflammatory, at times bitter, condemnation of the episcopal church. The Black Bastel is itself a reference to the Castle of Blacknesse, used as a prison since the fifteenth century and a place in which a number of reformers were incarcerated. Melville resorts in The Black Bastel to what Sarah Ross describes as an “extreme and explicit use of the dream vision poem for allegorical political articulation.”67 Melville’s allegory is readily understandable by anyone familiar with contemporary circumstances: the “rampand Lyon red” (37) is James VI and I, the two foxes refer to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York, and the whole assembly itself to the General Assembly of 1610, which was used to reintroduce episcopacy into the Scottish Church.

The Black Bastel opens with an evocative description of the “Black Bastel,” which stands starkly in an other worldly setting: “The aire was cold, but calme, no cloud in sky,/The fields all white, and the great Ocean still” (8–9). The calm of the setting, however, serves to contrast with the speaker’s troubled dream: ← 23 | 24 → “I slept, and thought I saw a vision,/ A sight which griev’d me at the heart right sore” (19–20). As much as The Black Bastel is an indignant condemnation of what the Scottish Church has become, it ends with a call for reformation and for a return to what there was a scant few years before. While the Church is reduced to the overdone Whore of Babylon, from being once a woman of “comely countenance” (22) to one “With farded face and garish in attire” (23), and to a place where “Wilde Boars and swine dwell in the sanctuarie” (200), this is not a reason to give up. As the speaker inquires, “Are these the fruit O Scotland of thy field” (223), and the poem ends with a sense of hope that God will deliver his Church from its episcopalian fetters, “Nor will I cease from sighs, O Lord, each day,/Till of my pains thou have compassion (257–58).

A Preservative from apostacie: the Song of Moses

A Preservative from apostacie: the Song of Moses is a single unified text focusing on Deuteronomy. The Biblical story of the Israelites was popular among reformers, referencing as it does the struggles of the reformed church, and Melville is explicit in connecting the apostacy of the Israelites with the backsliding of the Kirk, aiming as he does to provide “the grounds and substance of all wholsome doctrine inspired by the holy Spirit … most meet for this declining [age] … to further the worke of grace in the elect” (1–2 ). The main body of A Preservative begins with a prose version of the Song, to which Melville adds the commentary, also published in A Morning Vision, which is followed by the metrical paraphrase and finally, the “large paraphrase.” The book is clearly intended as a practical guide for a wide audience, addressed as it is to “the Church of Scotland in generall, the pe[ople] of the paroch of Kilrennie in speciall, and everie faithfull member of the bodie of Jesus Christ” (1).

The relationship among the three works comprising A Preservative from Apostacie has generated considerable discussion. Early on, Pitcairn suggests that the “large paraphrase” of the Song of Moses is a “translation or adaptation” of Andrew Melville’s early work Carmen Mosis.68 Recently, Jamie Reid Baxter argues that Melville’s shorter metrical paraphrase of the Song of Moses was influenced by Beza’s rendering included in the Saincts Cantiques forming the Huguenot psalter. Sally Mapstone differs with him claiming that Melville’s work was, in fact, influenced by Beza’s prose version even as she is explicit in ← 24 | 25 → stating that Melville’s text is not a translation of Beza’s work and that both would have relied on the Hebrew text anyway.69

The sentiments expressed in the Song of Moses are decidely those of the Old Testament. In foretelling Israel’s apostacy, the work confirms the authority of God, the centrality of divine plan, and the magnitude of God’s forgiveness. God is perfection—”His wondrous works are all exactly wrought/In number, member, and their symmetrie,/To perfect point they all to passe are brought” (42–3). His children, by comparison, “Are bastard-like become degenerat,/and leaving fathers footsteps, wholelie/With sinne in soule and hand intoxicat (54–6). But Melville holds fast to a belief for better times for God’s Church. It is God who leads the Israelites into the promised land: “He led them through the wayles desert wide/And governd all their wandrings heir and there” (153–4). And it is God who forgives them their apostacy and to whom they must turn for grace: “Mee, me behold and turne your face to me,/All strenth is mine, they neither dar profess” (378–9).

The Wandering sheepe, or David’s tragique fall

The narrative poem The Wandering sheepe, or Davids tragique fall shares much with the Song of Moses in comprising a statement about the circumstances of the Scottish Church. While the poem is distinctively his own, Melville draws on two earlier poems. One is Beza’s Sylva IV, Praefatio poetica in Psalmum 51 (1569), itself a revised version of its earlier incarnation Prefatio poetica in Davidicus Psalmos, and the second Rémy Belleau’s Les Amours de David et de Bersabée (1572).70 The work concludes with a long metrical paraphrase of Psalm 51, which constitutes one of Melville’s most accomplished shorter poems.

With its references to “folie” (2), “lustie youths and gallant knights” (7) and “wanton women” (8), the sonnet prefacing Davids Tragique Fall suggests a poem concerned with the very human weaknesses of lust and pride as revealed in the story of David and Bathsheba. While Melville provides an account of Bathsheba’s seduction of David, the intent of David’s Tragique Fall goes well beyond the folly of one person as David represents every believer, whose wilfulness turns them away from God. ← 25 | 26 →

To this end, the poem has two parts. The first half recounts how David succumbs to Bathsheba’s charms, and how far he is willing to go to make her his own. Melville’s message is clear: it is easy to be consumed by beauty, influence, and power, itelf a not so subtle allusion to the abuses and extravagances of the Bishops. The poem’s purpose only becomes clear in the second half with Melville’s account of the heavenly debate between Justice and Clemencie. Divine intention looms large—God is both angry and benevolent—as Justice and Clemencie each argue about what should happen to David. Melville recounts the major events of the Biblical text up to the story of David and Bathsheba as evidence of divine purpose, and he focuses on David’s fall rather than on his repentance, reinforcing the limitlessness of God’s mercy. Predictably, the poem concludes with David’s request for confirmation of God’s forgiveness—“Assure my soule and throughlie reconcile/And let thy soule and theory have a signe” (115–16).

The releife of the longing soule, or The Song of Songs

Melville’s rendering of The reliefe of the longing soule, or The Song of Songs draws on the long tradition of allegorizing the Song of Songs as the mystical union of the church with Christ.71 The Biblical text makes no direct mention of God, and in its erotic expression of love, leaves the door open for a variety of allegorical interpretations. Texts were widely read and copied as one interpretation was often layered on to previous ones so that any one interpretation of the text is neither an imitation nor an original. This is certainly the case for Reform writers, as they created their own particular readings of Song of Songs. Melville’s poetic account is part of this tradition.

Of note is Reid Baxter’s work in tracing sources for Melville’s Song of Songs.72 His careful work substantiates the claim that Melville worked from the Testamenti Veteris Biblia Sacra (1575–79), Emmaneual Tremellius’ Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible, which was exceedingly popular among Protestant reformers. As well, Reid-Baxter suggests that Melville drew from others: ← 26 | 27 → Dudley Fenner’s The Song of Songs … translated out of Hebrew … intepreted by a short commentarie (1587); Beza’s Sermons vpon the three first chapters of the canticle of canticles (1587), Thomas Wilcox’s An exposition vppon the Booke of Canticles (1585); and George Gifford’s Fifteene Sermons vpon the Song of Solomon (1598). As much as an understanding of Melville’s sources contribute to an understanding of Song of Songs, it is also very much the case that Melville has his own voice worthy of appreciation.

Melville’s Song of Songs is concerned, not so much with sin and repentance, as with the power of Christian love as inspiration and support for the believer. For countless writers, the Song of Songs has expressed the longing of the Church, the bride, for Christ, the bridegroom, and Melville is no different in this regard. The Bride repeatedly acknowledges that “shee hath all her good of him” (10). But nowhere else does Melville so acknowledge that love is what drives the relationship between Christ and his Church. There is, at the human level, a sense of longing and loss: “Into my bed him whom my soule loves best/I sought by nights and seeking tooke no rest” (3, 1–2). This longing for a renewed relationship with Christ is motivated purely by love, by how “shee finds herself fully informed and confirm[ed] of his glorie” (19). While the Bride bemoans “her drowsie sluggishnes … that hinder her from receiving of Christ offered” (32), and is distraught at not finding Him—”Alace! I found him nought,/Alace! For hee was gone” (5, 83–4)—her awakening is nonetheless assurance that she is the receiver of Grace—that “I am my darlings owne/And hee is surely mine” (5, 295–6). Never does one fall entirely away from God. Even in the darkest moments, as the believer despairs about his Church, Melville knows in his heart that tomorrow brings new possibilities. In the end, the Song of Songs expresses Melville’s abiding faith in Christ and in His Church, as it is explicitly stated in the final stanza of the poem:


X, 508
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Vienna, Oxford, Wien, 2019. X, 508 pp.

Biographical notes

David W. Atkinson (Volume editor)

David W. Atkinson has been the President of four Canadian universities, and is currently President Emeritus and Professor of English at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Canada. He has been awarded the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for his contributions to higher education. His previous edited works are Selected Sermons of Zachary Boyd and The Protestant "ars moriendi."


Title: The Works of James Melville
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520 pages