William Dunbar, a Scottish poet, is generally given the highest position among the Scottish Chaucerians. Of his personal history, only a few facts are known. Though originally a Franciscan, he became, in course of time, the poet laureate of the king’s court.
William Dunbar, as a poet, is definitely much more prolific and proficient than James I or Robert Henryson. The strength of the Chaucerian tradition in Scottish poetry is evident more enough in him. About a hundred of his poems are extant, and they are definitely original in the diversity of subjects and the mastery of technique. In fact, Dunbar’s literary fertility bears resemblance to John Lydgate‘s prolixity. After all, his poetry reveals him as an artist, even a great artist, among the Scottish Chaucerians. Despite his limited scope, caused by the medieval framework of his works, he displays a commendable literary sense in his conception of the theme and command over technique.
Dunbar’s works include The Goldyn Targe, The Thrissil and the Rois, The Freiries of Berwick, Tidings from the Session, The Dance of Sevin Deidlie Synnis, Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie, The Lament for the Makaris, and so on. These are mainly allegorical, although some of them have some occasional episodes as the motif.
Of Dunbar’s poem, The Goldyn Targe is a substantial allegory recalling Chaucer and Lydgate, in which the poet, appearing in a dream before the court of Venus, is wounded by the arrows of Beauty in spite of the shield (‘targe’) of Reason. The poem is patterned in the conventional medieval dream-poem. The allegorical content is the poet’s vain effort to resist the arrows of beauty by means of the shield of gold of reason. The allegory is plain and didacticism is not intense. The Thrissil and the Rois is also a dream-poem that represents the marriage of James IV and Margaret Tudor, daughter of the English King Henry VII. The poem serves to symbolize the union of England and Scotland in that marriage. The poem has a dramatic potency and well bears out the poet’s technical mastery. The Dance of the Sevin Deidlie Synnis has something fantastic in which different sins are represented to whirl in a Satanic dance, but it well bears out his realism and literary skill to suit the verse to the sense.
Dunbar is found to follow Chaucer’s simple narrative manner in The Freiries Berwick, dealing with the old theme of a false wife, caught in her own wiles. The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo, another work from him, echoes Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath, with a greater freedom. The lines here are quite antique and alliterative. What is, however, remarkable here is the consciously satiric note, expressed with much craftsmanship. Dunbar’s satirical power is also marked in The Tidings from the Session, in which an attack is made on the function of law courts. In his Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie, Dunbar reveals his sense of wit, although there is much scurrility in it. The Lament for the Makaris, however, is a more serious poem, that relate to the tradition of the Dance of Death. It is a powerful elegy for the transitoriness of things, with its refrain ‘Timor mortis conturbat me” (“the fear of Death disturbs me’), and in particular for the deaths of Dunbar’s fellow poets (the ‘makaris’, or ‘makers’, are ‘poets’), including Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and Robert Henryson. In his Satire on Edinburgh, another satirical work, he exposes and denounces the filthy condition of the capital.
Among the Scottish poets of the time, Dunbar is definitely outstanding. He shows much of Chaucerian traits in him in his verse narrative, sense of wit and humour, and art of versification. He is often characterised as the Scottish Chaucer, and this is indicative of his success in imitating and following the great English master. He, however, appears to stand in close analogy with John Skeleton in satirical turns and metrical varieties.
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