There are many qualities that tend to make people famous; one such is creating some notable work of art, as a statue (David), piece of music (Choral Symphony), writing (Ulysses) – these are the tangible things that one has produced, and which can survive for future ages to enjoy (or snipe at). Others however don’t leave any tangible artefact behind –they are the non-creative artists, or perhaps better described as performance artists. The great divas and actors and sportsmen and women of the past (before recording I mean, like film or gramophone) can be so described. We know they were esteemed by their contemporaries, but can only imagine what they were like or how “good” they actually were. Their performance was more fragile than paper, and it’s only on paper that their name has been preserved. In a way it can be said of them as Lord Henry said to Dorian Gray, “Life has been your art.”
Some are more famous than others, obviously; but there’s not that many who have given their name to the language as a model or proverbial example, or at least in a positive way. Captain Charles Boycott’s fame, or that of Vidkun Quisling, are not to be boasted of, let alone admired and emulated. One sixteenth-century Scot is the other kind. I refer of course to James Crichton, of Cluny (1560-1583), who died in a street brawl at the age of 23 or so, having taken Europe by storm with his beauty, his skill at the manly arts, his command of languages, and his debating power on many of the branches of knowledge of the time. The story is that he was set upon by a gang at the Carnival time in Mantua – all wore masks. He defended himself well, being (of course) a first-rate swordsman; but when his last assailant took his mask off to plead mercy, Crichton recognised the young prince he had been hired to teach. He knelt and offered his sword, hilt first, surrendering to his prince; but young Gonzago seized it and in drunken rage ran Crichton through the heart.
He sobered up, and tried to kill himself, but his men prevented that. The whole court at Mantua went into mourning for six months; and the story went the rounds, going viral, as we’d say, in Europe. Many poems and memorials were written about the young genius at the time, and a quarter of a century after (1609) Adam Abernethy was writing laudatory verse in Latin, the international language of the time:
Ergo, flos juvenum, Scotice spes, Palladis ingens,
Ereptumque decus Musarum e dulcibus ulnis,
Te, quamvis sileant alii, Critone, poetae,
Teque, tuamque necem nunquam mea Musa silebit.
Therefore, flower of young men, Scottish hope, great one of Pallas,
Glory of the Muses, reft from their sweet arms,
Although other poets are silent about you, Crichton,
On you and your death my Muse will never be silent.
— Musa Campestris. 1609
In ensuing ages quite a few retellings were made – Harrison Ainsworth has a rather good historical novel of 1837 on the tale (though his version doesn’t end tragically) – and most famously there is a treatment by Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty (1605-1660). He was a cavalier who fought for his king against Cromwell, and lived in exile on the continent until a servant brought news of the Restoration of Charles II, when he expired in a fit of laughter.
Urquhart left several works, all rather mannered and idiosyncratic, including at least one that is just impossible to make head or tail of. That one is his Trissotetras, designed to help one with all kinds of triangles, which a mathematically challenged humanist like myself leaves well alone. It’s available on the Internet in the reprint of Sir Thomas’s works for the Maitland Club (1834). That volume though also includes his Jewel*, which Sydney Goodsir Smith recommended to me as an inimitable account of an inimitable man. Urquhart’s prose style is nearly indescribable, and is maybe best compared to that of Rabelais, for whom Sir T was the ideal translator; he captures the exuberance, the fantastic imagination, the delight in putting words together in great concatenations of flowery verbiage that threaten to drown us or at least leave us gasping. The German critic Kurt Wittig refers to his “fantastic wealth of vocabulary and an eldritch humour that rather recall the grotesque side of the Makars and have no parallel in English prose before the verbal artistry of James Joyce”, noting “In one place, Urquhart gives 71 characteristic animal noises where Rabelais has only 9.”** (More on this perhaps next time.)
His account of Crichton is no doubt (none at all!) tinged with his own visionary proclivities and well-meaning embroidery, though the historian Patrick Fraser Tytler, another biographer, thinks it’s mainly not too far from the truth. Still, it should be read for its romantic enthusiasm; if this isn’t the way it was, it jolly well should have been. He gives the lament of Crichton’s mistress (who seems to have been also involved with the prince, which explains a lot):
… she, rending her garments and tearing her haire, like one of the Graces possest with a Fury, spoke thus: “O villains! what have you done? you vipers of men, that have thus basely slaine the valiant Crichtoun, the sword of his own sexe and the buckler of ours, the glory of this age, and restorer of the lost honour of the Court of Mantua: O Crichtoun, Crichtoun!”.
While Crichton left little behind him but a name, that name has become proverbial for a real Renaissance man, and was accordingly chosen as the title of James Barrie’s 1902 piece of social (and human) comedy, The Admirable Crichton. Whence of course he’s the perfect android butler Kryten in the British sci-fi comedy “Red Dwarf”.
In his honour a “James Crichton “Society” “to promote academic enquiry and discussion” was established a few years ago at St Andrews, his alma mater where he got his M.A. at the age of fourteen. Their motto is Transit umbra, lux permanet, “The shadow passes, light remains”, a good and optimistic sort of saying often found on sundials, and here deliberately applied to the Admirable Crichton.
*EKΣKΥBAΛAΥΡΟN: OR,The Diſcovery of A moſt exquiſite JEWEL more precious then Diamonds inchased in Gold, the like whereof was never ſeen in any age; found in the kennel of Worcesterſtreets, the day after the Fight, and ſix before the Autumnal Equinox, anno 1651. Serving in this place, To frontal a VINDICATION of the honour of SCOTLAND,from that Infamy, whereinto the Rigid Presbyterian party of that Nation, out of their Covetouſneſs and ambition, most diſſembledly hath involved it. London, 1652.
**Kurt Wittig. The Scottish Tradition in Literature. Edinburgh-London: Oliver & Boyd, 1958; p. 159. ===================================================================================