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Castalian Band Movement

Century: 16th

Castalian band (act. 1584–1603) is the name, derived from a spring on Mount Parnassus sacred to the muses, that was given to the group of poets at the Edinburgh court of James VI and I who contributed to that king's cultural programme in the period preceding the union of the Scottish and English crowns in 1603. The broad aims and ideals of the coterie are contained in the king's own Essayes of a Prentise in the Divine Arte of Poesie (1584).


Description

The Castalian Band is a modern name given to a supposed grouping of Scottish Jacobean poets, or makars, which is said to have flourished between the 1580s and early 1590s in the court of James VI and consciously modelled on the French example of the Pléiade. Its name is derived from the classical term Castalian Spring, a symbol for poetic inspiration. The name has often been claimed as that which the King used to refer to the group, as in lines from one of his own poems, an epitaph on his friend Alexander Montgomerie:

Quhat drowsie sleepe doth syle your eyes allace / Ye sacred brethren of Castalian band

(The Poems of King James VI of Scotland, ed. James Craigie, 2 Vols. Scottish Text Society, 1955 and 1958.)

The notion of the 'Castalian band' in 20th century scholarship derives in the main from the book Song, Dance and Poetry at the Court of Scotland under King James VI by Helena Mennie Shire (Cambridge University Press 1969). It was H.Mennie Shire and her collaborator Kenneth Elliot - who had produced The Music of Scotland (Cambridge 1964) - who drew particular attention to the verse lines by James, remarking that "It has been well suggested that King James' name for his poets at court, or their name for themselves, was 'the brethren of Castalian band.'" However, apart from this verse, no scholar has produced any clear evidence for any such self-aware grouping. Nevertheless, other writers (and numerous websites) have seized on the concept. In a celebrated article from 2001, the reputed literary scholar Priscilla Bawcutt examined the claims closely, and - in the opinion of most modern authorities - demolished them.[1]

The persistance of the idea of the Castalian Band has its own interest - as Bawcutt noted, suggesting that it is grounded in a desire to identify a strong Scottish renaissance culture. Poetry, and more especially song, had suffered as a result of the Reformation of the Scottish Protestant church concluded in 1560, and it may have seemed desirable to offer a more positive image for the later 16th century.

Whether or not there ever was such a grouping as the Castalian Band, there may well have been gatherings of poets at James' court. The activities of these poets is known to a limited extent.

The principal literary figure to be directly associated with the court was Alexander Montgomerie. Music may also played an important part in performances; some of the poems of Montgomerie and others are known to have been set as song.