Alexander Smith

William Dunbar

If it be assumed that the North Briton is, to an appreciable extent, a different creature from the Englishman, the assumption is not likely to provoke dispute. No one will deny us the prominence of our cheek-bones, and our pride in the same. How far the difference extends, whether it involves merit or demerit, are questions not now sought to be settled. Nor is it important to discover how the difference arose; how far chiller climate and sourer soil, centuries of unequal yet not inglorious conflict, a separate race of kings, a body of separate traditions, and a peculiar crisis of reformation issuing in peculiar forms of religious worship, confirmed and strengthened the national idiosyncrasy. If a difference between the races be allowed, it is sufficient for the present purpose. That allowed, and Scot and Southern being fecund in literary genius, it becomes an interesting inquiry to what extent the great literary men of the one race have influenced the great literary men of the other. On the whole, perhaps, the two races may fairly cry quits. Not unfrequently, indeed, have literary influences arisen in the north and travelled southwards. There were the Scottish ballads, for instance, there was Burns, there was Sir Walter Scott, there is Mr. Carlyle. The literary influence represented by each of these arose in Scotland, and has either passed or is passing “in music out of sight” in England. The energy of the northern wave has rolled into the southern waters. On the other hand, we can mark the literary influences travelling from the south northward. The English Chaucer rises, and the current of his influence is long afterwards visible in the Scottish King James, and the Scottish poet Dunbar. That which was Prior and Gay in London, became Allan Ramsay when it reached Edinburgh. Inspiration, not unfrequently, has travelled, like summer, from the south northwards; just as, when the day is over, and the lamps are lighted in London, the radiance of the setting sun is lingering on the splintered peaks and rosy friths of the Hebrides. All this, however, is a matter of the past; literary influence can no longer be expected to travel leisurely from south to north, or from north to south. In times of literary activity, as at the beginning of the present century, the atmosphere of passion or speculation envelop the entire island, and Scottish and English writers simultaneously draw from it what their peculiar natures prompt—just as in the same garden the rose drinks crimson and the convolvulus azure from the superincumbent air.

Chaucer must always remain a name in British literary history. He appeared at a time when the Saxon and Norman races had become fused, and when ancient bitternesses were lost in the proud title of Englishman. He was the first great poet the island produced; and he wrote for the most part in the language of the people, with just the slightest infusion of the courtlier Norman element, which gives to his writings something of the high-bred air that the short upper-lip gives to the human countenance. In his earlier poems he was under the influence of the Provençal Troubadours, and in his “Flower and the Leaf,” and other works of a similar class, he riots in allegory; he represents the cardinal virtues walking about in human shape; his forests are full of beautiful ladies with coronals on their heads; courts of love are held beneath the spreading elm, and metaphysical goldfinches and nightingales, perched among the branches green, wrangle melodiously about the tender passion. In these poems he is fresh, charming, fanciful as the spring-time itself: ever picturesque, ever musical, and with a homely touch and stroke of irony here and there, suggesting a depth of serious matter in him which it needed years only to develop. He lived in a brilliant and stirring time; he was connected with the court; he served in armies; he visited the Continent; and, although a silent man, he carried with him, wherever he went, and into whatever company he was thrown, the most observant eyes perhaps that ever looked curiously out upon the world. There was nothing too mean or too trivial for his regard. After parting with a man, one fancies that he knew every line and wrinkle of his face, had marked the travel-stains on his boots, and had counted the slashes of his doublet. And so it was that, after mixing in kings’ courts, and sitting with friars in taverns, and talking with people on country roads, and travelling in France and Italy, and making himself master of the literature, science, and theology of his time, and when perhaps touched with misfortune and sorrow, he came to see the depth of interest that resides in actual life,—that the rudest clown even, with his sordid humours and coarse speech, is intrinsically more valuable than a whole forest full of goddesses, or innumerable processions of cardinal virtues, however well mounted and splendidly attired. It was in some such mood of mind that Chaucer penned those unparalleled pictures of contemporary life that delight yet, after five centuries have come and gone. It is difficult to define Chaucer’s charm. He does not indulge in fine sentiment; he has no bravura passages; he is ever master of himself and of his subject. The light upon his page is the light of common day. Although powerful delineations of passion may be found in his “Tales,” and wonderful descriptions of nature, and although certain of the passages relating to Constance and Griselda in their deep distresses are unrivalled in tenderness, neither passion, nor natural description, nor pathos, are his striking characteristics. It is his shrewdness, his conciseness, his ever-present humour, his frequent irony, and his short, homely line—effective as the play of the short Roman sword—which strikes the reader most. In the “Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”—by far the ripest thing he has done—he seems to be writing the easiest, most idiomatic prose, but it is poetry all the while. He is a poet of natural manner, dealing with out-door life. Perhaps, on the whole, the writer who most resembles him—superficial differences apart—is Fielding. In both there is constant shrewdness and common-sense, a constant feeling of the comic side of things, a moral instinct which escapes in irony, never in denunciation or fanaticism; no remarkable spirituality of feeling, an acceptance of the world as a pleasant enough place, provided good dinners and a sufficiency of cash are to be had, and that healthy relish for fact and reality, and scorn of humbug of all kinds, especially of that particular phase of it which makes one appear better than one is, which—for want of a better term—we are accustomed to call English. Chaucer was a Conservative in all his feelings; he liked to poke his fun at the clergy, but he was not of the stuff of which martyrs are made. He loved good eating and drinking, and studious leisure and peace; and although in his ordinary moods shrewd, and observant, and satirical, his higher genius would now and then splendidly assert itself—and behold the tournament at Athens, where kings are combatants and Emily the prize; or the little boat, containing the brain-bewildered Constance and her child, wandering hither and thither on the friendly sea.

Chaucer was born about 1328, and died about 1380; and although he had, both in Scotland and England, contemporaries and immediate successors, no one of them can be compared with him for a moment. The “Moral Gower” was his friend, and inherited his tediousness and pedantry without a sparkle of his fancy, passion, humour, wisdom, and good spirits. Occleve and Lydgate followed in the next generation; and although their names are retained in literary histories, no line or sentence of theirs has found a place in human memory. The Scottish contemporary of Chaucer was Barbour, who although deficient in tenderness and imagination, deserves praise for his sinewy and occasionally picturesque verse. “The Bruce” is really a fine poem. The hero is noble, resolute, and wise. Sir James Douglas is a very perfect, gentle knight. The old Churchman had the true poetic fire in him. He rises into eloquence in an apostrophe to Freedom, and he fights the battle of Bannockburn over again with great valour, shouting, and flapping of standards. In England, nature seemed to have exhausted herself in Chaucer, and she lay quiescent till Lord Surrey and Sir Thomas Wyatt came, the immediate precursors of Spenser, Shakspeare, and their companions.

While in England the note of the nightingale suddenly ceased, to be succeeded by the mere chirping of the barn-door sparrows, the divine and melancholy voice began to be heard further north. It was during that most barren period of English poetry—extending from Chaucer’s death till the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign—that Scottish poetry arose, suddenly, splendidly—to be matched only by that other uprising nearer our own time, equally unexpected and splendid, of Burns and Scott. And it is curious to notice in this brilliant outburst of northern genius how much is owing to Chaucer; the cast of language is identical, the literary form is the same, there is the same way of looking at nature, the same allegorical forests, the troops of ladies, the same processions of cardinal virtues. James I., whose long captivity in England made him acquainted with Chaucer’s works was the leader of the poetic movement which culminated in Dunbar, and died away in Sir David Lindsay just before the noise and turmoil of the Reformation set in. In the concluding stanza of the “Quair,” James records his obligation to those—

     Masters dear,
Gower and Chaucer, that on the steppes sate
  Of retorick, while they were livand here,
Superlative as poets laureate
Of morality and eloquence ornate.

But while, during the reigns of the Jameses, Scottish genius was being acted upon by the broader and deeper genius of England, Scotland, quite unconsciously to herself, was preparing a liquidation in full of all spiritual obligations. For even then, in obscure nooks and corners, the Scottish ballads were growing up, quite uncontrolled by critical rules, rude in structure and expression, yet, at the same time, full of vitality, retaining in all their keenness the mirth of rustic festivals, and the piteousness of domestic tragedies. The stormy feudal time out of which they arose crumbled by process of gradual decay, but they remained, made brighter by each succeeding summer, like the wildflowers that blow in the chinks of ruins. And when English poetry had become artificial and cold, the lucubrations of forgotten Scottish minstrels, full of the touches that make the whole world kin, brought new life with them. Scotland had invaded England more than once, but the blue bonnets never went over the border so triumphantly as when they did so in the shape of songs and ballads.

James IV., if not the wisest, was certainly the most brilliant monarch of his name; and he was fortunate beyond the later Stuarts in this, that during his lifetime no new popular tide had set in which it behooved him to oppose or to float upon. For him in all its essentials to-day had flowed quietly out of yesterday, and he lived unperplexed by fear of change. With something of a Southern gaiety of spirit, he was a merrier monarch than his dark-featured and saturnine descendant who bore the appellation. He was fond of martial sports, he loved to glitter at tournaments, his court was crowded with singing men and singing women. Yet he had his gloomy moods and superstitious despondencies. He could not forget that he had appeared in arms against his father; even while he whispered in the ear of beauty the iron belt of penance was fretting his side, and he alternated the splendid revel with the cell of the monk. In these days, and for long after, the Borders were disturbed, and the Highland clans, setting royal authority at defiance, were throttling each other in their mists. The Catholic religion was yet unsapped, and the wealth of the country resided in the hands of the nobles and the churchmen. Edinburgh towered high on the ridge between Holyrood and the Castle, its streets reddened with feud at intervals, and its merchants clustering round the Cathedral of St. Giles like bees in a honeycomb; and the king, when he looked across the faint azure of the Forth, beheld the long coast of Fife dotted with little towns, where ships were moored that traded with France and Holland, and brought with them cargoes of silk and wines. James was a popular monarch; he was beloved by the nobles and by the people. He loved justice, he cultivated his marine, and he built the Great Michael—the Great Eastern of that day. He had valiant seamen, and more than once Barton sailed into Leith with a string of English prizes. When he fell with all his nobility at Flodden, there came upon Scotland the woe with which she was so familiar—

Woe to that realme that haith an ower young king.

A long regency followed; disturbing elements of religion entered into the life of the nation, and the historical stream which had flowed smoothly for a series of years became all at once convulsed and turbulent, as if it had entered upon a gorge of rapids. It was in this pleasant interregnum of the reign of the fourth James, when ancient disorders had to a certain extent been repressed, and when religious difficulties ahead were yet undreamed of, that the poet Dunbar flourished—a nightingale singing in a sunny lull of the Scottish historical storm.

Modern readers are acquainted with Dunbar chiefly through the medium of Mr. David Laing’s beautiful edition of his works published in 1834, and by good Dr. Irving’s intelligent and admirable compacted “History of Scottish Poetry,” published the other day. Irving’s work, if deficient somewhat in fluency and grace of style, is characterised by conscientiousness of statement and by the ripest knowledge. Yet, despite the researches of these competent writers, of the events of the poet’s life not much is known. He was born about 1460, and from an unquotable allusion in one of his poems, he is supposed to have been a native of the Lothians. His name occurs in the register of the University of St. Andrews as a Bachelor of Arts. With the exception of these entries in the college register, there is nothing authentically known of his early life. We have no portrait of him, and cannot by that means decipher him. We do not know with certainty from what family he sprang. Beyond what light his poems may throw on them, we have no knowledge of his habits and personal tastes. He exists for the most part in rumour, and the vague shadows of things. It appears that in early life he became a friar of the order of St. Francis; and in the capacity of a travelling priest tells us that “he preached in Derntown kirk and in Canterbury;” that he “passed at Dover across the Channel, and went through Picardy teaching the people.” He does not seem to have taken kindly to his profession. His works are full of sarcastic allusions to the clergy, and in no measured terms he denounces their luxury, their worldly-mindedness, and their desire for high place and fat livings. Yet these denunciations have no very spiritual origin. His rage is the rage of a disappointed candidate, rather than of a prophet; and, to the last, he seems to have expected preferment in the Church. Not without a certain pathos he writes, when he had become familiar with disappointment, and the sickness of hope deferred—

I wes in youth an nureiss knee,
Dandely! bischop, dandely!
And quhen that age now dois me greif,
Ane sempill vicar I can nocht be.

It is not known when he entered the service of King James. From his poems it appears that he was employed as a clerk or secretary in several of the missions despatched to foreign courts. It is difficult to guess in what capacity Dunbar served at Holyrood. He was all his life a priest, and expected preferment from his royal patron. We know that he performed mass in the presence. Yet when the king in one of his dark moods had withdrawn from the gaieties of the capital to the religious gloom of the convent of Franciscans at Stirling, we find the poet inditing a parody on the machinery of the Church, calling on Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and on all the saints of the calendar, to transport the princely penitent from Stirling, “where ale is thin and small,” to Edinburgh, where there is abundance of swans, cranes, and plovers, and the fragrant clarets of France. And in another of his poems, he describes himself as dancing in the queen’s chamber so zealously that he lost one of his slippers, a mishap which provoked her Majesty to great mirth. Probably, as the king was possessed of considerable literary taste, and could appreciate Dunbar’s fancy and satire, he kept him attached to his person, with the intention of conferring a benefice on him when one fell vacant; and when a benefice did fall vacant, felt compelled to bestow it on the cadet of some powerful family in the state,—for it was always the policy of James to stand well with his nobles. He remembered too well the deaths of his father and great-grandfather to give unnecessary offense to his great barons. From his connexion with the court, the poet’s life may be briefly epitomised. In August, 1500, his royal master granted Dunbar an annual pension of 10 pounds for life, or till such time as he should be promoted to a benefice of the annual value of 40 pounds. In 1501, he visited England in the train of the ambassadors sent thither to negotiate the king’s marriage. The marriage took place in May, 1503, on which occasion the high-piled capital wore holiday attire, balconies blazed with scarlet cloth, and the loyal multitude shouted as bride and bridegroom rode past, with the chivalry of two kingdoms in their train. Early in May, Dunbar composed his most celebrated poem in honour of the event. Next year he said mass in the king’s presence for the first time, and received a liberal reward. In 1505, he received a sum in addition to his stated pension, and two years thereafter his pension was doubled. In August, 1510, his pension was increased to 80 pounds per annum, until he became possessed of a benefice of the annual value of 10 pounds or upwards. In 1513, Flodden was fought, and in the confusion consequent on the king’s death, Dunbar and his slowly-increasing pensions disappear from the records of things. We do not know whether he received his benefice; we do not know the date of his death, and to this day his grave is secret as the grave of Moses.

Knowing but little of Dunbar’s life, our interest is naturally concentrated on what of his writings remain to us. And to modern eyes the old poet is a singular spectacle. His language is different than ours; his mental structure and modes of thought are unfamiliar; in his intellectual world, as we map it out to ourselves, it is difficult to conceive how a comfortable existence could be attained. Times, manners, and ideas have changed, and we look upon Dunbar with a certain reverential wonder and curiosity as we look upon Tantallon, standing up, grim and gray, in the midst of the modern landscape. The grand old fortress is a remnant of a state of things which have utterly passed away. Curiously, as we walk beside it, we think of the actual human life its walls contained. In those great fire-places logs actually burned once, and in winter nights men-at-arms spread out big palms against the grateful heat. In those empty apartments was laughter, and feasting, and serious talk enough in troublous times, and births, and deaths, and the bringing home of brides in their blushes. This empty moat was filled with water, to keep at bay long-forgotten enemies, and yonder loop-hole was made narrow, as a protection from long-moulded arrows. In Tantallon we know the Douglasses lived in state, and bearded kings, and hung out banners to the breeze; but a sense of wonder is mingled with our knowledge, for the bothy of the Lothian farmer is even more in accordance with our methods of conducting life. Dunbar affects us similarly. We know that he possessed a keen intellect, a blossoming fancy, a satiric touch that blistered, a melody that enchanted Northern ears; but then we have lost the story of his life, and from his poems, with their wonderful contrasts, the delicacy and spring-like flush of feeling, the piety, the freedom of speech, the irreverent use of the sacredest names, the “Flyting” and the “Lament for the Makars,” there is difficulty in making one’s ideas of him cohere. He is present to the imagination, and yet remote. Like Tantallon, he is a portion of the past. We are separated from him by centuries, and that chasm we are unable to bridge properly.

The first thing that strikes the reader of these poems is their variety and intellectual range. It may be said that—partly from constitutional turn of thought, partly from the turbulent and chaotic time in which he lived, when families rose to splendour and as suddenly collapsed, when the steed that bore his rider at morning to the hunting-field returned at evening masterless to the castle-gate—Dunbar’s prevailing mood of mind is melancholy; that he, with a certain fondness for the subject, as if it gave him actual relief, moralised over the sandy foundations of mortal prosperity, the advance of age putting out the lights of youth, and cancelling the rapture of the lover, and the certainty of death. This is a favourite path of contemplation with him, and he pursues it with a gloomy sedateness of acquiescence, which is more affecting than if he raved and foamed against the inevitable. But he has the mobility of the poetic nature, and the sad ground-tone is often drowned in the ecstasy of lighter notes. All at once the “bare ruined choirs” are covered with the glad light-green of spring. His genius combined the excellencies of many masters. His “Golden Targe” and “The Thistle and the Rose” are allegorical poems, full of colour, fancy, and music. His “Two Married Women and the Widow” has a good deal of Chaucer’s slyness and humour. “The Dance of the Deadly Sins,” with its fiery bursts of imaginative energy, its pictures finished at a stroke, is a prophecy of Spenser and Collins, and as fine as anything they have accomplished; while his “Flytings” are torrents of the coarsest vituperation. And there are whole flights of occasional poems, many of them sombre-coloured enough, with an ever-recurring mournful refrain, others satirical, but all flung off, one can see, at a sitting; in the few verses the mood is exhausted, and while the result remains, the cause is forgotten even by himself. Several of these short poems are almost perfect in feeling and execution. The melancholy ones are full of a serious grace, while in the satirical a laughing devil of glee and malice sparkles in every line. Some of these latter are dangerous to touch as a thistle—all bristling and angry with the spikes of satiric scorn.

In his allegorical poems—“The Golden Targe,” “The Merle and the Nightingale,” “The Thistle and the Rose”—Dunbar’s fancy has full scope. As allegories, they are, perhaps, not worth much; at all events, modern readers do not care for the adventures of “Quaking Dread and Humble Obedience”; nor are they affected by descriptions of Beauty, attended by her fair damsels, Fair Having, Fine Portraiture, Pleasance, and Lusty Cheer. The whole conduct and machinery of such things are too artificial and stilted for modern tastes. Stately masques are no longer performed in earls’ mansions; and when a sovereign enters a city, a fair lady, with wings, representing Loyalty, does not burst out of a pasteboard cloud and recite a poetical address to Majesty. In our theatres the pantomime, which was originally an adumbration of human life, has become degraded. Symbolism has departed from the boards, and burlesque reigns in its stead. The Lord Mavor’s Show, the last remnant of the antique spectacular taste, does not move us now; it is held a public nuisance; it provokes the rude “chaff” of the streets. Our very mobs have become critical. Gog and Magog are dethroned. The knight feels the satiric comments through his armour. The very steeds are uneasy, as if ashamed. But in Dunbar the allegorical machinery is saved from contempt by colour, poetry, and music.

Quick surprises of beauty, and a rapid succession of pictures, keep the attention awake. Now it is—

     May, of mirthful monethis queen,
Betwixt April and June, her sisters sheen,
Within the garden walking up and down.


The god of windis, Eolus,
With variand look, richt like a lord unstable.

Now the nightingale—

Never sweeter noise was heard with livin’ man,
Nor made this merry, gentle nightingale;
Her sound went with the river as it ran
Out throw the fresh and flourished lusty vale.

And now a spring morning—

Ere Phoebus was in purple cape revest,
Up raise the lark, the heaven’s minstrel fine
In May, in till a morrow mirthfullest.

Full angel-like thir birdis sang their hours
Within their curtains green, in to their hours
Apparelled white and red with bloomes sweet;
Enamelled was the field with all colours,
The pearly droppis shook in silver shours;
While all in balm did branch and leavis fleet.
To part fra Phoebus did Aurora greet,
Her crystal tears I saw hing on the flours,
Whilk he for love all drank up with his heat.

For mirth of May, with skippis and with hops,
The birdis sang upon the tender crops,
With curious notes, as Venus’ chapel clerks;
The roses young, new spreading of their knops,
Were powderit bricht with heavenly beriall drops,
Through beams red, burning as ruby sparks;
The skies rang for shouting of the larks,
The purple heaven once scal’t in silver slops,
Oure gilt the trees, branches, leaves, and barks.

The finest of Dunbar’s poems in this style is “The Thistle and the Rose.” It was written in celebration of the marriage of James with the Princess Margaret of England, and the royal pair are happily represented as the national emblems. It, of course, opens with a description of a spring morning. Dame Nature resolves that every bird, beast, and flower should compeer before her highness; the roe is commanded to summon the animals, the restless swallow the birds, and the “conjured” yarrow the herbs and flowers. In the twinkling of an eye they stand before the queen. The lion and the eagle are crowned, and are instructed to be humble and just, and to exercise their powers mercifully:—

Then callit she all flouris that grew in field,
  Discerning all their seasons and effeirs,
Upon the awful thistle she beheld
  And saw him keepit with a bush of spears:
  Consid’ring him so able for the weirs,
A radius crown of rubies she him gave,
And said, ’In field, go forth and fend the lave.'

The rose, also, is crowned, and the poet gives utterance to the universal joy on occasion of the marriage—type of peace between two kingdoms. Listen to the rich music of according voices:—

Then all the birds sang with voice on hicht,
  Whose mirthful soun’ was marvellous to hear;
The mavis sang, Hail Rose, most rich and richt,
  That does up flourish under Phoebus’ sphere,
  Hail, plant of youth, hail Princess, dochter dear;
Hail blosom breaking out of the bluid royal,
Whose precious virtue is imperial.

The merle she sang, Hail, Rose of most delight,
  Hail, of all floris queen an’ sovereign!
The lark she sang, Hail, Rose both red and white;
  Most pleasant flower, of michty colours twane:
  The nichtingale sang, Hail, Nature’s suffragane,
In beauty, nurture, and every nobleness,
In rich array, renown, and gentleness.

The common voice up raise of birdes small,
  Upon this wise, Oh, blessit be the hour
That thou was chosen to be our principal!
  Welcome to be our Princess of honour,
  Our pearl, our pleasance, and our paramour,
Our peace, our play, our plain felicity;
Christ thee comfort from all adversity.

But beautiful as these poems are, it is as a satirist that Dunbar has performed his greatest feats. He was by nature “dowered with the scorn of scorn,” and its edge was whetted by life-long disappointment. Like Spenser, he knew—

What Hell it is in suing long to bide.

And even in poems where the mood is melancholy, where the burden is the shortness of life and the unpermanence of felicity, his satiric rage breaks out in single lines of fire. And although his satire is often almost inconceivably coarse, the prompting instinct is healthy at bottom. He hates Vice, although his hand is too often in the kennel to pelt her withal. He lays his grasp on the bridle-rein of the sleek prelate, and upbraids him with his secret sins in language unsuited to modern ears. His greater satires have a wild sheen of imagination about them. They are far from being cold, moral homilies. His wrath or his contempt breaks through the bounds of time and space, and brings the spiritual world on the stage. He wishes to rebuke the citizens of Edinburgh for their habits of profane swearing, and the result is a poem, which probably gave Coleridge the hint of his “Devil’s Walk.” Dunbar’s satire is entitled the “Devil’s Inquest.” He represents the Fiend passing up through the market, and chuckling as he listens to the strange oaths of cobbler, maltman, tailor, courtier, and minstrel. He comments on what he hears and sees with great pleasantry and satisfaction. Here is the conclusion of the piece:—

Ane thief said, God that ever I chaip,
Nor ane stark widdy gar me gaip,
  But I in hell for geir wald be.
The Devil said, ’Welcome in a raip:
  Renounce thy God, and cum to me.'

The fishwives net and swore with granes,
And to the Fiend saul flesh and banes;
  They gave them, with ane shout on hie.
The Devil said, ’Welcome all at anes;
  Renounce your God, and cum to me.'

The rest of craftis great aiths swair,
Their wark and craft had nae compair,
  Ilk ane unto their qualitie.
The Devil said then, withouten mair,
  'Renounce your God, and cum to me.'

But the greatest of Dunbar’s satires—in fact, the greatest of all his poems—is that entitled “The Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins.” It is short, but within its compass most swift, vivid, and weird. The pictures rise on the reader’s eye, and fade at once. It is a singular compound of farce and earnest. It is Spenser and Hogarth combined—the wildest grotesquerie wrought on a background of penal flame. The poet conceives himself in a dream, on the evening preceding Lent, and in his vision he heard Mahoun command that the wretched who “had ne’er been shriven” should dance before him. Immediately a hideous rout present themselves; “holy harlots” appear in their finery, and never a smile wrinkles the faces of the onlookers; but when a string of “priests with their shaven necks” come in, the arches of the unnameable place shakes with the laughter of all the fiends. Then “The Seven Deadly Sins” begin to leap at once:—

And first of all the dance was Pride,
With hair wyld back and bonnet on side.

He, with all his train, came skipping through the fire.

Then Ire came in with sturt and strife;
His hand was aye upon his knife;

and with him came armed boasters and braggarts, smiting each other with swords, jagging each other with knives. Then Envy, trembling with secret hatred, accompanied by his court of flatterers, backbiters, calumniators and all the human serpentry that lurk in the palaces of kings. Then came Covetousness, with his hoarders and misers, and these the fiends gave to drink of newly-molten gold.

Syne Swearness, at the second bidding,
Came like a sow out of a midding:

and with him danced a sleepy crew, and Belial lashed them with a bridle-rein, and the fiends gave them a turn in the fire to make them nimbler. Then came Lechery, led by Idleness, with a host of evil companions, “full strange of countenance, like torches burning bright.” Then came Gluttony, so unwieldy that he could hardly move:—

Him followed mony foul drunkart
With can and callop, cup and quart,
In surfeit and excess.

“Drink, aye they cried,” with their parched lips; and the fiends gave them hot lead to lap. Minstrels, it appears, are not to be found in that dismal place:—

Nae minstrels played to them but doubt,
For gleemen there were halden out
  By day and eik by nicht:
Except a minstrel that slew a man,
So to his heritage he wan,
  And entered by brieve of richt.

And to the music of the solitary poet in hell, the strange shapes pass. The conclusion of this singular poem is entirely farcical. The devil is resolved to make high holiday:

Then cried Mahoun for a Hielan Padyane,
Syne ran a fiend to fetch Makfadyane,
  Far north-wast in a neuck;
Be he the coronach had done shout,
Ersche men so gatherit him about,
  In hell great room they took.
Thae tarmigants, with tag and tatter,
Full loud in Ersche begoud to clatter,
  And roup like raven and rook.
The Devil sae deaved was with their yell,
That in the deepest pot of hell
  He smorit them with smook.

There is one other poem of Dunbar’s which may be quoted as a contrast to what has been already given. It is remarkable as being the only one in which he assumes the character of a lover. The style of thought is quite modern; bereave it of its uncouth orthography, and it might have been written to-day. It is turned with much skill and grace. The constitutional melancholy of the man comes out in it; as, indeed, it always does when he finds a serious topic. It possesses more tenderness and sentiment than is his usual. It is the night-flower among his poems, breathing a mournful fragrance:—

Sweit rose of vertew and of gentilnes,
Delytsum lyllie of everie lustynes,
Richest in bontie, and in beutie cleir,
And every vertew that to hevin is dear,
Except onlie that ye ar mercyles,

Into your garthe this day I did persew:
Thair saw I flowris that fresche wer of dew,
Baith quhyte and reid most lustye wer to seyne,
And halsum herbis upone stalkis grene:
Yet leif nor flour fynd could I nane of rew.

I doute that March, with his cauld blastis keyne,
Hes slane this gentill herbe, that I of mene;
Quhois pitewous deithe dois to my hart sic pane,
That I wald mak to plant his rute agane,
So comfortand his levis unto me bene.

The extracts already given will enable the reader to form some idea of the old poet’s general power—his music, his picturesque faculty, his colour, his satire. Yet it is difficult from what he has left to form any very definite image of the man. Although his poems are for the most part occasional, founded upon actual circumstances, or written to relieve him from the over-pressure of angry or melancholy moods, and although the writer is by no means shy or indisposed to speak of himself, his personality is not made clear to us. There is great gap of time between him and the modern reader; and the mixture of gold and clay in the products of his genius, the discrepancy of elements, beauty and coarseness, Apollo’s cheek, and the satyr’s shaggy limbs, are explainable partly from a want of harmony and completeness in himself, and partly from the pressure of the half-barbaric time. His rudeness offends, his narrowness astonishes. But then we must remember that our advantages in these respects do not necessarily arise from our being of a purer and nobler essence. We have these things by inheritance; they have been transmitted to us along a line of ancestors. Five centuries share with us the merit of the result. Modern delicacy of taste and intellectual purity—although we hold them in possession, and may add to their sheen before we hand them on to our children—are no more to be placed to our personal credits than Dryden’s satire, Pope’s epigram, Marlborough’s battles, Burke’s speeches, and the victories of Trafalgar and Waterloo. Intellectual delicacy has grown like our political constitution. The English duke is not the creator of his own wealth, although in his keeping it makes the earth around him a garden, and the walls of his house bright with pictures. But our inability to conceive satisfactorily of Dunbar does not arise from this alone. We have his works, but then they are not supplemented by personal anecdote and letters, and the reminiscences of contemporaries. Burns, for instance,—if limited to his works for our knowledge of him,—would be a puzzling phenomenon. He was in his poems quite as spoken as Dunbar, but then they describe so wide an area, they appear so contradictory, they seem often to lead in opposite directions. It is, to a large extent, through his letters that Burns is known, through his short, careless, pithy sayings, which imbedded themselves in the memories of his hearers, from the recollections of his contemporaries and their expressed judgments, and the multiform reverberations of fame lingering around such a man—these fill up interstices between works, bring apparent opposition into intimate relationship, and make wholeness out of confusion. Not on the stage alone, in the world also, a man’s real character comes out best in his asides. With Dunbar there is nothing of this. He is a name, and little more. He exists in a region to which rumour and conjecture have never penetrated. He was long neglected by his countrymen, and was brought to light as if by accident. He is the Pompeii of British poetry. We have his works, but they are like the circumvallations of a Roman camp on the Scottish hillside. We see lines stretching hither and thither, but we cannot make out the plan, or divine what purposes were served. We only know that every crumpled rampart was once a defence; that every half-obliterated fosse once swarmed with men; that it was once a station and abiding-place of human life, although for centuries now remitted to silence and blank summer sunshine.


MLA Citation

Smith, Alexander. “William Dunbar.” 1863. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 8 Sep 2007. 28 May 2023 <>.

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