Dunbar, William

Dunbar, William
(ca. 1460–ca. 1515)
   Perhaps the most notable of the Scottish “makars” or poets writing under the influence of CHAUCER, Dunbar was a master of a great variety of poetic forms, themes, and styles, varying his technique from the formal, courtly, and rhetorically ornate in a poem like The Golden Targe, to the colloquial, coarse, or vulgar in a poem like The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo. A cleric as well as a courtier,Dunbar left some 80 short poems displaying a remarkable versatility and stylistic virtuosity. William Dunbar was born in Lithian in Scotland, apparently related to some branch of the family of the earls of Dunbar and March. He attended St. Andrews University where he received a master’s degree in 1479.We know nothing of the years immediately following his completion of this degree. It has been suggested that Dunbar may have been a friar, though there is little sound evidence of that. He does seem to have moved in court circles and have traveled in connection with the court: In 1492 he is known to have been on a diplomatic mission to Denmark. He seems also to have begun making a reputation for himself as a poet as well. One of his most scurrilous poems, his poem of mutual abuse called FLYTYNG that he wrote with Glasgow scholar Walter Kennedy, was probably written about 1500.
   By 1500 Dunbar was a fixture at the court of King James IV, the first Scottish king to act as patron of the arts. James granted Dunbar an annual salary in 1500, and Dunbar remained at court, not only as a court poet but also as a royal secretary and diplomat (as his trip to Denmark would suggest). He traveled to London in 1501 in connection with the marriage being arranged between James and Margaret Tudor, daughter of English king Henry VII—a marriage Dunbar formally commemorated with his courtly allegorical poem The Thrissill and the Rois. Dunbar also most likely served the court as a chaplain—he received holy orders in 1503 and is known to have presided over his first mass in 1504. Dunbar served James faithfully until 1513. The last record we have of Dunbar is from May of that year, when he drew out his annual pension for the last time. In September of 1513, James was killed at the Battle of Flodden in his ill-advised attack on England. Some have suggested that Dunbar may have fallen with his sovereign in the battle, though his age would have made that unlikely. Still, there is no record of him after Flodden.He has been suggested as the author of a poem written to James’s widow in 1517, but this is merely conjecture. He was certainly long dead by 1530 when Sir David LINDSAY lamented him in The Testament of the Papyngo.
   The variety of Dunbar’s poetic output is remarkable. His best-known courtly poems include his early ornate poem The Golden Targe, written in the complex nine-line stanza borrowed from the COMPLAINT in Chaucer’s ANELIDA AND ARCITE. At the end of the poem Dunbar praises Chaucer, as well as LYDGATE and GOWER. Another poem in the high courtly style and owing a great deal to Chaucer is The Thrissill and the Rois (1503), an epithalamium (a poem celebrating a wedding) on the marriage of James and Margaret. The poem uses Chaucerian RHYME ROYAL stanzas, and begins with the poet being awakened by May, who forces him to get up and takes him to an allegorical garden of love, where he witnesses three parliaments (of beasts, birds, and flowers), all presided over by the goddess Natura and each including an allegorical representative of the king himself, who in each case receives advice from Nature. The poem owes a great deal to Chaucer’s PARLIAMENT OF FOWLS, as well as to the prologue to his LEGEND OF GOOD WOMEN.
   Dunbar’s comic poems owe something to Chaucer as well, but also to the everyday life of the Scottish court, for Dunbar often includes real courtiers in his poetry. One of his well-known poems, “Sir Thomas Norny,” burlesques a courtly style by presenting the court jester as if he were a knight. The poem, written in TAIL RHYME stanzas, is a send-up of Chaucer’s TALE OF SIR THOPAS. Dunbar’s longest poem, The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo (Treatise of the Two Married Women and the Widow), also owes something to Chaucer, especially The WIFE OF BATH’S TALE and The MERCHANT’S TALE. The poem tells the story of a man who, from a hiding place in a garden, is able to overhear a conversation among three women, each of whom discusses the difficulties of marriage in colloquial, frank, and sometimes obscene language.
   Some 20 of Dunbar’s extant poems are begging poems, at least one of which seems directly inspired by Chaucer’s popular COMPLAINT TO HIS EMPTY PURSE. Only a few of the poems are religious— surprisingly few considering the fact that Dunbar was a priest. But his trilogy of poems on Christ’s nativity, passion, and resurrection are memorable—particularly the last poem, which, like LANGLAND or the MYSTERY PLAYS, presents the conquering Christ triumphantly harrowing hell. The first stanza proclaims Christ the champion after battle with the “dragon black,” breaking the gates of hell, causing the devils to tremble, and ransoming us with his blood:
   Done is a batell on the dragon blak;
   Our campion Chryst confoundit hes his force:
   The getis of hell ar brokin with a crak,
   The signe triumphall rasit is of the croce,
   The divillis trymmilles with hiddous voce,
   The saulis ar borrowit and to the bliss can go,
   Chryst with his blud our ransonis dois indoce:
   Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro.
   (Kinsley 1979, 11)
   The stanzas are Chaucerian rhyme royal, with a Latin refrain: Repeated at the end of each stanza, the refrain means simply “The Lord has risen from the tomb.”
   Some of Dunbar’s poems are presented as moral or philosophical reflections. His most famous poem, often called Lament for the Makars, is a case in point. That title is inadequate, since the poem deals with a number of other subjects, but does include a lament for departed poets. The poem is a meditation on mortality. Nothing on earth is secure, and all earthly estates, power, and fame are transient. Knights, clerks, and yes, poets as well, all go down to death—each four-line stanza ends with the refrain Timor mortis conturbat me (“The fear of death troubles me”). Significantly, “the noble Chaucer” appears in line 50 of the 100-line poem, the emphatic midpoint of the text, a tribute to Dunbar’s most important poetic influence.
   Dunbar left poems in a great variety of styles, though he seems to have generally written in a plainer style as he grew older. His legacy is rich, diverse, and complex, and he remains one of the most engaging of medieval Scottish poets.
   ■ Bawkutt, Priscilla. Dunbar the Makar. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.
   ■ Kinsley, James, ed. The Poems ofWilliam Dunbar. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.
   ■ Reis, Edmund. William Dunbar. Boston: Twayne, 1979.
   ■ Ross, Ian Simpson.William Dunbar. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1981.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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