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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
William Dunbar (1460?–1520?)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
A PICTURESQUE figure in a picturesque age is that of William Dunbar, court minstrel to James IV., and as Sir Walter Scott declared, “a poet unrivaled by any that Scotland has ever produced.” Little of his personal history is known. Probably he was a native of East Lothian, a member of the family of the Earl of March, and a graduate of St. Andrews University about the year 1479. After his college days he joined the order of Franciscans and became a mendicant friar, preaching the queer sermons of his time, and begging his way through England and France. Yet in these pilgrimages the young scholar learned useful habits of self-denial, saw new phases of human character, and above all enjoyed that close communion with nature which is the need of the poet. Over and over there is a reflection of this life in that fanciful verse, which has caught the color of the morning hours when the hedgerows are wet and the grass dewy, when the wild roses scent the roadside and the lark is at matins—verse full of the joy of life and the hope of youth.  1
  After some years of this vagabond life, Dunbar left the Franciscans and attached himself to the court, where he speedily became a favorite. His day was one of pageant and show, of masque and spectacle, and into its gay assemblage of knights and courtiers, ladies and great nobles, Dunbar fitted perfectly. When an embassy was sent to England to negotiate the royal marriage with Margaret Tudor, Dunbar went along, being specially accredited by the king. He became a favorite with the young Princess, and a poem written in honor of the city of London, and one descriptive of the Queen’s Progress, afford a faithful and valuable memorial of this mission. History is fortunate when she secures a poet as her scribe. Dunbar is principally known by his three poems ‘The Thistle and the Rose,’ ‘The Golden Targe,’ and ‘The Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins.’  2
  The first of these is an allegory celebrating the nuptials of the king. It suggests of course the allegories of Chaucer; but Dunbar’s muse is his own, and the poem springs fresh and clear from native fonts. The poet represents himself as awakened by Aurora on a spring morning and told to do homage to May. Through the symbolism of the court of Nature, who crowns the Lion and Eagle, commissions the Thistle and Rose as her handmaidens, and orders their praises sung by the assembled birds of earth, the political significance of the allegory appears. But ‘The Thistle and the Rose,’ which is thus made to illustrate the union between the two great houses of Scotland and England, is far more than the poem of an occasion. It is full of the melody and fragrance of spring, saturated with that sensuous delight which at this bountiful season fills the veins of Nature. Here Dunbar is no longer the court laureate, but the begging friar, wandering through the green lanes and finding bed and board under the free skies.  3
  ‘The Golden Targe’ is more artificial in construction. It is another allegory, descriptive of an encounter between Cupid and Reason, who is defended by a golden targe or shield from the attacks of love. Here again the rural landscape forms a background to his mimic action. Amazons dressed in green fight the battle of Cupid, and vanquish Reason, then magically vanish and leave the poet to awake from his dream. ‘The Golden Targe’ was a poem to be read in the royal presence, when the court assembled after a day’s hunting or an afternoon of archery; but it is filled with the ethereal loveliness which only the true poet beholds.  4
  It is in ‘The Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins’ that Dunbar touches the note of seriousness, which characterizes his race and his individual genius. This satire is not so unsparing an indictment as the vision of Piers Ploughman, and yet it provokes inevitable comparison with the older poem. In a dream the poet sees heaven and hell opened. It is the eve of Ash Wednesday, and the Devil has commanded a dance to be performed by those spirits that had never received absolution. In obedience to this command the Seven Deadly Sins present a masque before his Satanic Majesty, and it is in the description of this grisly performance that Dunbar reveals a new aspect of power. The comedy here is not comic, but grotesque and horrid. The vision of the Scot is the vision that came to the poets of the ‘Inferno’ and ‘Paradise Lost,’ and it shows that his imagination was capable of the loftiest flights.  5
  After the melancholy day of Flodden Field, the Scottish laureateship ceased to exist, but it is remarkable that so prominent a man as Dunbar should so completely have disappeared from contemporary view that his subsequent career and the time of his death are matters of doubt. His period is given as between the years 1465 and 1530, but these dates are only approximate.  6
  Had Dunbar held his genius in hand as completely as did Chaucer, his accomplishment would doubtless have been greater than it was. Yet his place in literature is that of one of the most important poets of the fifteenth century, the age of Caxton and book-making, the time of that first flush of radiance which ushered in the full day of Spenser and Shakespeare.  7
 
 
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