James IV to his Treasurer
Oh for Christ's sake gie the signor his siller. Alchemist my erse, but he's hermless, is he no? He'll never blaw us up in oor beds, I tak it. If makkin wings is his new-fanglt ploy It'll no cost the earth - a wheen o skins, Or silk if he can get it, wid for the struts, Fedders, is he intae fedders?, gum, oh aye, Ane prentice or twa, keep their mooths shut, It micht be kinrik secret stuff, ye ken, Fleg the enemy, sky black wi baukie-birds, My Gode, whit could ye no drap on thaim - This signor, whit's he cried, Damiano, Tell him he'll get his purse, but tell him: Nae mair elixirs, quintessences, faux gowd! Ye say he wants tae loup frae the castle-waws At Stirling. Weel weel, that's a dandy step, And lat the warld tak tent o sic a ferlie. But jist suppose there's a doonbeat scenario For Signor Damiario: ane wing snapt aff, He faws, he breks a leg, it's a richt scunner. Signor, help is at haun! Ane speedy litter Wheechs him tae Edinburgh, whaur the new College O Surgeons welcomes him with aipen erms. I’ll be there, signor, a king can set a leg. I need mair practice, but I can dae it, oh yes. And noo for the warst-case scenario: The bird-man whuds doon splat, doon tae his daith. Oh what a bonus: we'll hae ane public dissection. My Charter will hae wings, it'll tak aff, Whit can we no dae gif we set oor minds tae it? Tell Signor Damiano, be he limpin or be he a corp, The College o Surgeons stauns honed and skeely and eident.
Born Glasgow, Edwin Morgan lived there all his life, except for service with the RAMC, and his poetry is grounded in the city. Yet the title of his 1973 collection, From Glasgow to Saturn, suggests the enormous range of Morgan's subject matter. He was Glasgow's first Poet Laureate 1999-2002, and the first to hold the post of 'Scots Makar', created by the Scottish Executive in 2004 to recognise the achievement of Scottish poets throughout the centuries.Read more about this poet
About this poem
To celebrate the Quincentenary of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, twenty-one Scottish poets were commissioned by the Scottish Poetry Library to write poems inspired by the College’s collections and work. Like surgeons they have used ‘the hand that sees’, but in this case the writing hand that acts at the prompting of insight and imagination. The poems and their comments, alongside photographs of items that inspired them, were published in The Hand that Sees: Poems for the quincentenary of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, edited by Stewart Conn, and published by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in association with the Scottish Poetry Library in 2005.
I thought the figure of King James IV, so central to the development of both arts and sciences in Scotland, was too good to miss. The Italian adventurer, alchemist, and bird-man, Damiano, features frequently in the Treasurer’s accounts of the period, being given quite large sums of money for a variety of experiments, a fact that was noted and deplored by the court poet, William Dunbar. Dunbar wrote poetry attacking Damiano, and in particular his abortive attempt to put on wings and fly from the battlements of Stirling Castle in 1507. Damiano, injured but not killed, was the target of a good deal of savage merriment, but for all we know he may have been a genuine pioneer of human flight, who did after all risk his life. The inauguration of the College of Surgeons at this time adds a serendipitous note to the curious James/Dunbar/Damiano triangle. A touch of imagination, and there you have the poem.