Douglas was a prolific writer in Middle Scots. His principal work is the Eneados, a complete translation of the Aeneid of Virgil, which was completed in 1513. Other extant poetry includes his King Hart and the Palice of Honour.
Although still at the height of his powers, Douglas is not known to have produced any further literary work after the Eneados. This may in part be due to the much changed political scene in Scotland after the Battle of Flodden, also in 1513, and the major power vacuum this left in the Kingdom. In this context, Douglas became heavily involved in affairs of state.
He died in exile in London.
He was a student at St Andrews, 1489-1494, and thereafter, it is supposed, at Paris. In 1496 he obtained the living of Monymusk, Aberdeenshire, and later he became parson of Lynton (mod. East Linton) and rector of Hauch (mod. Prestonkirk), in East Lothian; and about 1501 was preferred to the deanery or provostship of the collegiate church of St Giles, Edinburgh, which he held with his parochial charges. From this date until the Battle of Flodden, in September 1513, he appears to have been occupied with his ecclesiastical duties and literary work. Indeed all the extant writings by which he has earned his place as a poet and translator belong to this period. After the disaster at Flodden he was completely absorbed in public business.
Three weeks after the Battle of Flodden he, still Provost of St Giles, was admitted a burgess of Edinburgh. His father, the "Great Earl," was then the civil provost of the capital. The latter dying soon afterwards (January 1514) in Wigtownshire, where he had gone as justiciar, and his son having been killed at Flodden, the succession fell to Gavin's nephew Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus.
On May 17, 1517 the Bishop of Dunkeld proceeded with Albany to France to conduct the negotiations which ended in the Treaty of Rouen. He was back in Scotland towards the end of June. Albany's longer absence in France permitted the partyfaction of the nobles to come to a head in a plot by James Hamilton, 1st Earl of Arran to seize the Earl of Angus, the Queen's husband. The issue of this plot was the well-known fight of Cleanse the Causeway, in which Gavin Douglas's part stands out in picturesque relief. The triumph over the Hamiltons had an unsettling effect upon the Earl of Angus. He made free of the queen's rents and abducted Lord Traquair's daughter. The Queen set about to obtain a divorce, and used her influence for the return of Albany as a means of undoing her husband's power. Albany's arrival in November 1521, with a large body of French men-at-arms, compelled Angus, with the bishop and others, to flee to the Borders. From this retreat Gavin Douglas was sent by the earl to the English court, to ask for aid against the French party and against the queen, who was reported to be the mistress of the regent. Meanwhile he was deprived of his bishopric, and forced, for safety, to remain in England, where he effected nothing in the interests of his nephew. The declaration of war by England against Scotland, in answer to the recent Franco-Scottish negotiations, prevented his return. His case was further complicated by the libellous animosity of James Beaton, Archbishop of Glasgow (whose life he had saved in the "Cleanse the Causeway" incident), who was anxious to put himself forward and thwart Douglas in the election to the archbishopric of St Andrews, left vacant by the death of Forman.
For Douglas's career see, in addition to the public records and general histories, Bishop Sage's Life in Ruddiman's edition, and that by John Small in the first volume of his edition The Poetical Works of Gavin Douglas (1874).
That Douglas undertook this work and that he makes a plea for more accurate scholarship in the translation have been the basis of a prevalent notion that he is a Humanist in spirit and the first exponent of Renaissance doctrine in Scottish literature. Careful study of the text will not support this view. Douglas is in all important respects even more of a medievalist than his contemporaries; and, like Robert Henryson and William Dunbar, strictly a member of the allegorical school and a follower, in the most generous way, of Chaucer's art.
There are several early manuscripts of the Aeneid extant: (a) in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, c. 1525, (b) the Elphynstoun manuscript in the library of the University of Edinburgh, c. 1525, (c) the Ruthven manuscript in the same collection, c. 1535, (d) in the library of Lambeth Palace, 1545-1546. The first printed edition appeared in London in 1553. An Edinburgh edition was issued from the press of Thomas Ruddiman in 1710.
Douglas's reputation among modern readers was bolstered somewhat in 1934 when Ezra Pound included several passages of Douglas's Eneados in his ABC of Reading. Comparing Douglas to Chaucer, Pound wrote that "the texture of Gavin's verse is stronger, the resilience greater than Chaucer's". C. S. Lewis was also an admirer of the work: "About Douglas as a translator there may be two opinions; about his Aeneid (Prologues and all) as an English book there can be only one. Here a great story is greatly told and set off with original embellishments which are all good—all either delightful or interesting—in their diverse ways.
The Palice of Honour, his earliest work, is a piece of the later type of dream-allegory, extending to over 2000 lines in ninelined stanzas. In its descriptions of the various courts on their way to the palace, and of the poet's adventures--first, when he incautiously slanders the court of Venus, and later when after his pardon he joins in the procession and passes to see the glories of the palace—the poem carries on the literary traditions of the courts of love, as shown especially in the "Romaunt of the Rose" and "The Hous of Fame." The poem is dedicated to James IV, not without some lesson in commendation of virtue and honour. No manuscript of the poem is extant. The earliest known edition (c. 1553) was printed at London by William Copland; an Edinburgh edition, from the press of Henry Charteris, followed in 1579. From certain indications in the latter and the evidence of some odd leaves discovered by David Laing, it has been concluded that there was an earlier Edinburgh edition, which has been ascribed to Thomas Davidson, printer, and dated c. 1540.
King Hart is another example of the later allegory, and, as such, of higher literary merit. Its subject is human life told in the allegory of King Heart in his castle, surrounded by his five servitors (the senses), Queen. Plesance, Foresight and other courtiers. The poem runs to over 900 lines and is written in eight-lined stanzas. The text is preserved in the Maitland folio manuscript in the Pepysian library, Cambridge. It is not known to have been printed before 1786, when it appeared in Pinkerton's Ancient Scottish Poemanuscript
Conscience is in four seven-lined stanzas. Its subject is the "conceit" that men first clipped away the "con" from "conscience" and left "science" and "na mair." Then they lost, "sci," and had nothing but "ens" ("that schrew, Riches and geir").