William Dunbar is most closely associated with the court of King James IV, and his poems frequently refer to that milieu and his hopes for advancement there. He has a darker muse than Robert Henryson: introspective, ironic, satirical, technically audacious and mildly depressive. His more personal poems can seem surprisingly contemporary to modern readers, and he has been cited by numerous twentieth-century Scottish poets, most especially Hugh MacDiarmid, whose slogan ‘Back to Dunbar!’ was a bid to free Scottish verse from its nineteenth-century kailyard rusticity to seek a more sophisticated and intellectual voice.
We know little of Dunbar’s birth, except that he was a lowlander who went to St Andrews University where he was listed as a graduate in 1479. He appears in records as an advocate in various law cases and may have travelled in Europe. As a university man he took one of the preferred routes to status and good living by entering the priesthood in 1504, and he may even have served as a chaplain in the royal household. Several of his poems take the form of humorous but only half-joking solicitations to the king, seeking to be appointed to a bishopric or a cosy ecclesiastical living somewhere, but this never came to pass, although he did receive a royal pension. Most of the poems we know him by were written at and for the king’s entourage between 1490 and 1510, and he is a court poet par excellence, with an educated and worldly audience that he did not hesitate to flatter, entertain and satirise. After James IV and his nobles perished at Flodden in 1513, we hear no more of Dunbar.
Dunbar’s work contains poems of personal introspection (unusual for the time) as well as elaborately heightened verses on religious themes, where the personal element has given way to ecstatic but formal celebration. Another part of a poet’s life at court consists of singing the praises of the king and signalling royal occasions, all of which Dunbar duly undertook in the dream vision of ‘The Thrissel and the Rois’, written to mark the union between James IV and the red and white English rose, Margaret Tudor, at Holyrood Abbey in 1503. Margaret’s visit to Aberdeen in 1511 is commemorated in ‘Blyth Aberdeane’, a poem with more than a hint of McGonagall in its dutifully hyperbolic reportage: ‘The strettis war all hung with tapestrie, / Greit was the pres of peopill, dwelt about.’ Bernard Stewart, the ambassador from France, is welcomed by spelling out his name in a riot of alliteration, while ‘Gladthe [Rejoice] Thoue Queyne of Scottis Regioun’ conscripted all Dunbar’s technical skill to produce an elaborate praise poem about Margaret as a white pearl above the price of mere rubies, emeralds and diamonds.
In fact a lapidary skill is characteristic of Dunbar’s muse, which rejoices in complex metrical and alliterative patterns to produce what is indeed a jewel-like and enamelled surface of great richness, if little depth. His religious poems are a good example of this, with verses such as ‘Hale Sterne [Star] Superne, Hale in Eterne’, an aureate masterpiece of internal rhyme and alliteration in praise of the Virgin Mary. Dunbar admired Chaucer’s ‘fresch anamalit termes’ but in this poem and others, such as the nativity hymn ‘Rorate, Celi, Desuper’ [‘Rain down dew, O Heavens, from above’], the Scots poet pulls out all the stops, while the drama of ‘Done is a Battell on the Dragon Blak’ celebrates the newly risen warrior Christ harrowing Hell to redeem the suffering of fallen souls.
There is another side to Dunbar, however, for in poems such as ‘The Tretis of the Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo’ and ‘In Secreit Place This Hyndir Nycht’ he deploys the medieval stereotype of the sexually voracious woman to satirise the conventions of courtly love, although the hilariously obscene confessions of the widow in ‘The Tretis’ also show a degree of sympathy for the plight (and the revenge) of women in a monstrously sexist society whose romance literature affected such high ideals. Nor did the court escape his attention, for its sins, pretensions and petty ambitions, not to mention his own personal grudges, are aired in a succession of highly entertaining and at times scatological verses. ‘Schir, Ye Have Mony Servitouris’ portrays James’s splendid company as a squabble of fools and place-seekers ‘Fenyouris, flechouris and flatteraris’ [liars, hypocrites and flatterers], while individuals such as the king’s favourite alchemist John Damian are excoriated in ‘A Ballat of the Abbot of Tungland’.
It seems clear that these robustly scornful verses were circulated for the enjoyment of the court at large and have much in common with the Scots tradition of flyting, which sets poet against poet in a verbal competition for technical supremacy and ever more ingenious insults. This is exactly what happens in ‘The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy’, a dialogue of abuse between Dunbar and Walter Kennedy, who is presented as an unwashed cattle rustler from the Highlands, despite his actual status as the wealthy nephew of the Bishop of Dunkeld and founder of St Salvator’s in St Andrews. This poem’s insults testify to a degree of prejudice between lowland Scots and Gaelic culture, despite the fact that James IV himself could speak Gaelic (the last Scottish king to do so).
Dunbar’s talent for the carnival grotesque appears again in his vision of ‘The Dance of the Sevin Deidly Synnis’, which is a tour de force of comic disgust, but perhaps the side of him that speaks most powerfully to the modern reader can be found in his poems of personal doubt and scarcely concealed existential anxiety. ‘In to thir Dirk and Drublie Dayis’, is a memorable evocation of personal depression and seasonal affective disorder, while ‘I Seik Aboute this Warld Onstable’ combines low spirits with a wider pessimism:
So Nixt to symmer winter bene,
Nixt eftir comfort cairis kene,
Nixt dirk mydnycht the myrthful morrow
Nixt efter joy ay cumis sorrow:
So is this warld and ay hes bene.
Such sentiments derive from a common medieval concern with the mutability of the world and earthly pleasure, but Dunbar delivers a strikingly personal note, which appears again in his complaint about insomnia and migraine in ‘My Heid did Yak Yester Nicht’. His masterpiece in this vein, and perhaps his best known poem, is the magnificent ‘Lament for the Makaris’, which sets a simple ballad-like stanza against a repeated and ultimately crushing Latin refrain: ‘The fear of death disturbs me’.
I that in heill wes and gladness
Am trublit now with greit seiknes
And feblit with infermite:
Timor mortis conturbat me.
From these opening lines, the poet reflects on the frailty of the flesh, the transitory nature of human existence, and the inevitability of death:
That strang unmercifull tyrand
Takis on the moderis breist sowkand
The bab full of benignite.
Timor mortis conturbat me.
He takis the campion in the stour, [battle]
The capitaine closit in the tour,
The lady in bour full of bewte,
Timor mortis conturbat me.
Death comes closer still when Dunbar starts to list the many poets who have fallen to his stroke, including ‘Chaucer, of makaris flour’, his old opponent Walter Kennedy, and the author of ‘The Testament of Cresseid’: ‘In Dunfermelyne he has done roune / With maister Robert Henrisoun.’ In fact this poem has been a valuable resource for scholars of the period because it suggest a timeline for the career, or rather the demise, of many poets of the day, and it names a good few more who have completely disappeared from the record. Totally different from the virtuoso fireworks of Dunbar’s satire and his aureate celebrations, the stark simplicity and the relentless repetition of ‘The Lament’ makes it an unforgettable poetic experience.