Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by John Nichol
William Dunbar (1460?1520?)
M. TAINE, in his History of English Literature, leaps from Chaucer to Surrey with the remark, Must we quote all these good people who speak without having anything to say? dozens of translators, importing the poverties of French poetry, rhyming chroniclers, most commonplace of men. Of this period he mentions only and merely names Gower and Lydgate and Skelton. The more genuine successors of Chaucer were the Scotch poets, who, almost alone in our island, lit up the dusk of the 15th century with some flashes of native power. Neither James I nor Henryson was commonplace, and Dunbar, the most conspicuous of the group, displays in his best work a distinct original genius.
William Dunbar was born, probably in East Lothian, between 1450 and 1460. He entered the University of St. Andrews in 1475, and took his full degree in 1479. In early life, according to his own account, he went about from Berwick to Dover, and passed over to Calais and Picardy, preaching and alms-gathering as a Franciscan noviciate; but he became dissatisfied with this life and does not seem to have taken the vows of the order. It has been inferred from allusions in his verse that he was for some years employed in connection with foreign embassies. Toward the close of the century we find him in attendance on the Scotch Court, a poet with an established reputation, and a continual suitor for place. In 1500 he received from the king (James IV) a pension of £10, raised by degrees, during the next ten years to £80then a respectable annuity: but he never obtained the Church promotion, to which on somewhat irrelevant grounds he constantly laid claim.
Dunbar revisited England in 1501, when the kings marriage with the Princess Margaret was being negotiated. The Thistle and the Rose in commemoration of that event was composed on the 9th of May, 1503. The Golden Targe and the Lament for the Makars were issued from Chepmansthe first Scotchpress in 1508. The poet must have accompanied the Queen, in whose favour he stood fast, to the north in 1511; for he celebrates her reception at Aberdeen. There is a record of an instalment of his pension being paid in August, 1513: the rest is a blank, and it has been plausibly conjectured that he may, a month later, have fallen at Flodden with the King. If he lived to write the Orison on the passing of Albany to France (doubtfully attributed to him) the absence of any other reference to the great national disaster is remarkable. We are, however, only certain from an allusion in Lyndesays Papyngo that he must have been dead in 1530.
The writings of Dunbaron the whole the most considerable poet of our island in the interval between Chaucer and Spenserare mainly Allegorical, Satirical, and Occasional. Allegory, a disease of the middle ages infecting most poets down to the end of the 16th century, was rife in our old Scotch verse, much of which is cast on the model of The Romaunt of the Rose and The Flower and the Leaf. In The Golden Targe the influence of those works is conspicuous, though much of the imitation is indirect, through The Kings Quair. Like the royal minstrel, the poet represents himself as being roused from his slumbers by the morning, and led to the bank of a stream where presently a ship lands a hundred ladies (v. the world of ladies in The Flower and the Leaf) in green kirtles: among them are Nature, Dame Venus, the fresh Aurora, Latona, Proserpine, &c. Then Cupid appears, leading a troop of gods to dance with the goddesses. Love detecting the poet orders his arrest. Reason defends him with the Golden Targe, till Presence comes and throws dust into the eyes of Reason and leaves Venus victrix. The plot is no more barren than those of Chaucers own contributions to the literature of the Courts of Love: but the Targe is farther beset by an unusual number of the aureate terms or affected Latinisms with which the Scotch poets of the century disfigured their language, planting them, as Campbell says, like childrens flowers in a mock garden. The merit of the piece almost wholly consists in its riches of description; but this is enough to preserve it: the ship like a blossom on the spray, the skies that rang with shouting of the larks, recall Chaucers Orient and anticipate Burns. The Thistle and the Rose has the same pictorial charm, with the added merit of being inspired by a genuine national enthusiasm. It is perhaps the happiest political allegory in our tongue. Heraldry has never been more skilfully handled, nor compliments more gracefully paid, nor fidelity more persuasively preached to a monarch than in this poem, which has under its southern dress a strong northern body. This remark applies to the authors work in general, and more especially to those compositions in which he mingles allegory with satire. His masterpiece, The Dance of the Deadly Sins, may have been suggested by passages in Piers Plowman, as it in turn transmitted its influence through Sackville to The Faery Queen: but the horrid crew of vices, summoned from their dens by lines each vigorous as the crack of a whip, are real, and Scotch, and contemporary, drawn from a knowledge of the world, not from books: these supplied Dunbar with his terminology, that with his thought. His most elaborate composition, and that which ranks next in originality to The Dance, The Two Married Women and the Widow, has a tincture of Boccaccio and The Wife of Bath, but the scene is again a northern summer eve, and the gossips are contemporaries of Queen Margaret. The poets satire, which is here subtle, is often furious. Half his minor poems are vollies of abuse, unprecedented in English literature, unless by some of the almost contemporaneous outbursts of Skelton, mainly directed against those who had, by fair means or foul, been promoted over him; the other half are religious and moral reveries, those of a good Catholic who lived when the first mutters of the Reformation were in the air, and are the finest devotional fragments of their age.
The special characteristics of Dunbars genius are variety and force. His volume is a medley in which tenderness and vindictiveness, blistering satire and exuberant fancy meet. His writings are only in a minor degree bound up with the politics of his age, and though they reflect its fashions, they for the most part appeal to wider human sympathies. He has not wearied us with any very long poem. His inspiration and his personal animus find vent within moderate bounds, but they are constantly springing up at different points and assuming various attitudes. At one time he is a quiet moralist praising the golden mean, at another he is as fierce as Juvenal. Devoid of the subtlety and the dramatic power of Chaucer, his attacks, often coarse, are always direct and sincere. His drawing, like that of the Ballads, is in the fore-ground: there is no chiaroscuro in his pages, no more than in those of his countrymen from Barbour to Burns. The story of the battle between The Tailor and Souter might have been written by Rabelais: The Devils Inquest is the original of The Devils Drive: the meditation on A Winters Walk is not unworthy of Cowper, nor the best stanzas in The Merle and the Nightingale of Wordsworth.
Like Erasmus, Dunbar railed against the friars and their indulgences quorum pars fuit: but there is no reason to suspect that he was more or less than a large-hearted Roman Catholic in his creed. He had none of the protagonist spirit which is required to assail the traditions of a thousand years. Of a generally buoyant temper he appears, like most satirists, to have taken at times a view of the world, in which the Epicurean gloom dominates the Epicurean gaiety. All earthly joy returns in pain is the refrain of one of his poems; Timor mortis conturbat me of another. The shadow of the atra dies falls aslant his most luxuriant moods. In the sonnet beginning:
What is this life but ane straucht way to deid,
Whilk has a time to pass and nane to dwell;
there is something of the satiety of a disappointed worldling; but in others
Be merry, man, and tak not sare in mind
The wavering of this wretched warld of sorrow,
we have the manlier temper: on the one side Vanitas vanitatum, et omnia vanitas, on the other the Philosophie douce.