Dunbar’s Disappearance

Sally Mapstone

  • The Poems of William Dunbar edited by Priscilla Bawcutt
    Association for Scottish Literary Studies, £70.00, May 1999, ISBN 0 948877 38 3

In December 1501 the Scottish poet William Dunbar received £5 from the Court of King James IV, a payment which was given to him, according to the Treasurer’s accounts, ‘eftir he com furth of Ingland’. It is not known for sure what he had been doing there. He may well have been in the entourage of the Scottish embassy which was conducting the negotiations with Henry VII that led to the marriage two years later of Princess Margaret Tudor to James IV. ‘London thow art of Towynys A per se’, an anonymous poem, is said in one surviving manuscript copy to have been delivered at a dinner held by the Lord Mayor during the Christmas festivities that accompanied this visit, by ‘a Scottysh preyst sytting at oon of the syde tablys’. The poem is lavish in its praise of London, the Troy Novant of all cities, its river, its walls, its merchants, their wives, its virgins and, naturally, its mayor:

He ys exempler, loodster and Guy [guide]
Pryncypall patron, & Rose orygynall
Above all mayrys, as mastyr most worthy –
London thow art the flowyr of Cytees all.

Dunbar has periodically been fingered as the Scottish priest. Not without reason – the poem has a rhyme scheme that he favoured in other public occasional pieces and some of its diction has his colouring. The poem is ambitious: it both balances and genders its laudatory superlatives so that London at once epitomises ‘manly power’, vigour and permanence, and a feminine capacity to attract adulation: ‘Pryncess of Towynys, of pleasure & of joye … Empress of Towynys, exalt in honowyr/in Beawty beryng the Throne Imperyall’. Dunbar wrote poems in a similar idiom addressed to individuals, female and male, from Margaret Tudor and the Virgin Mary to the celebrated diplomat Bernard Stewart. The dextrous harmonising of gender roles in the London poem isn’t typical of his later work, but it is entirely fitting for a piece written within the context of marital negotiations, especially by a young and attention-seeking poet.

Dunbar is the first writer in Scots who can legitimately be called a ‘Court poet’. The Scottish kings had no great tradition of encouraging literary patronage, and indeed for much of Dunbar’s career at James IV’s Court his main employment was probably as a secretary. He first appears in Court records in 1500. What can be gleaned of his life before that is scanty. He probably came from East Lothian and may have been educated at the University of St Andrews. He was a priest by 1502. He may have been related to the Earls of Dunbar and March, but too distantly to give him the influence he needed in his frustrated pursuit of a clerical benefice. In 1510, however, the annual Court pension (effectively a salary) which he had been receiving since 1500 was increased to the strikingly large sum of £80, and it is tempting to argue that this reflects royal appreciation of the poetry he had been producing throughout the decade, and maybe before that. Dunbar’s disappearance from royal documentation coincides with the deaths of James IV and a large part of the Scottish aristocracy at Flodden in 1513. There is a gap in the records between 1513 and 1515, but there is no sign of him after that.

Some of Dunbar’s earlier editors were keen to attribute the London poem to him, but contemporary editors have been more cautious. Priscilla Bawcutt, whose new two-volume edition of Dunbar’s poetry supplants all previous editions, including several of her own, claims that ‘there is no conclusive evidence to associate it with him.’ At a basic level this means that there is no contemporary or early ascription of the poem to Dunbar, a criterion for inclusion for all the 84 poems in her edition. But, to look at it another way, since the five surviving manuscript copies are all English, and Dunbar was not a well-known poet in England in the 16th century, the absence of such confirmation is hardly conclusive. It isn’t surprising that the poem did not, apparently, travel back to Scotland, given its obsequiously localised subject-matter – but that isn’t a good reason for denying it to Dunbar.

The ambiguous place of this ‘English’ poem in the Dunbar canon raises the persistent and provoking problem of Dunbar and Englishness. Few people now, rightly, are comfortable with the description of Dunbar as a ‘Scottish Chaucerian’, which does nothing to convey his eclecticism or his independence. Dunbar is a poet of multiple idioms, each handled with intensity and conviction. He can write plangently about migraine-induced writer’s block:

My heid did yak yester nicht,
This day to mak that I na micht.
So sair the magryme dois me menyie,
Perseing my brow as ony ganyie,
That scant I luik may on the licht.

(My head ached last night so that I couldn’t write today. The migraine oppresses me so badly, piercing my forehead like a crossbow so that I can hardly look at the light.)

Or fervently about the Resurrection:

Done is a battell on the dragon blak,

Our campioun Chryst confoundit hes his force,
The gettis of hell ar brokin with a crak,
The signe trivmphall rasit is of the croce.
The diuillis trymmillis with hiddous voce,
The saulis ar borrowit and to the blis can go:
Chryst with his blud our ransonis dois indoce:

Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

Or energetically and abusively in the paradoxical mode of controlled emetic known as flyting:

Mauch muttoun, byt buttoun, peilit gluttoun, air to Hilhous,
Rank beggar, ostir dregar, flay fleggar in the flet.
Chittirlilling, ruch rilling, lik schilling in the milhous,
Baird rehator, theif of nator, fals tratour, feyindis gett,
Filling of tauch, rak sauch, cry crauch, thow art oursett!

(Maggotty sheep, button biter, wiped out glutton, Hilihouse’s heir, wasted beggar, oyster dredger, flea frightener in the hall, pig’s innards, rough shoe, grain licker in the mill, devious bard, thief of nature, false traitor, devil’s progeny, tallow filling, gallows bird, give up, you’re defeated!)

This multiplicity of voices does owe something to Chaucer, the arch-ventriloquist of the Canterbury Tales, but Dunbar prefers to stick with one voice, or a small number of voices, in relatively short poems rather than embark on a cacophonous longer project, and the verbal extremes in Dunbar’s work have little parallel in his predecessor.

Even so, what Englishness meant to Dunbar – and to those who, early on in Scotland, were familiar with his poetry – is an important issue. A colophon to the 16th-century Maitland Folio manuscript copy of Dunbar’s ‘To speik of science, craft, or sapience’, a poem which criticises learning detached from its moral application, states: ‘Quod Dumbar at Oxinfurde’. Did Dunbar go to Oxford during the 1501 trip? It is unlikely. The stream of Scots studying at Oxford seems pretty well to have dried up after the foundation of three Scottish universities in the 15th century. And Scots were not popular in late medieval Oxford. Two fellows of Merton came up before the college authorities in 1497 after a fracas in which one had accused the other of being a Scot. The perpetrator, William Ireland, was warned not to issue such an infamy against anyone else.

The ‘at Oxinfurde’ colophon may merely be a sarky indication by the Maitland scribe that intellectual and moral laxity is more an English than a Scottish phenomenon. But it also shows that it was felt appropriate to associate Dunbar with Englishness. During his lifetime his most serious poetic rival, Walter Kennedy, had done precisely that: ‘In Ingland, oule, suld be thyne habitacione,’ he wrote. ‘Homage to Edward Langschankis maid thy kyn.’ The ‘Flyting’ between Dunbar and Kennedy is a vituperative, outrageous and highly stylised exchange of insults. Kennedy constructs a mostly bogus genealogy for Dunbar in which his ancestors were traitors to the Scottish cause in the wars of independence – hence Kennedy’s assertion that Dunbar would be better off in England. An English association is probably also implied in Kennedy’s claim that Dunbar is ‘Lollard laureate’; Lollardy was not widespread in Scotland, although there was an outbreak in the Lowlands in the 1490s. For these barbs to sting they must have had some credibility. The Highlander Kennedy is suggesting that, as a Lowlander, Dunbar is less of a Scot. And the accusation is coupled with condemnation of Dunbar’s disdain for what, Kennedy claims, should be ‘all trew Scottis mennis lede’ – or language – Gaelic. Dunbar had indeed scorned Kennedy’s Gaelic eloquence, preferring what he describes in his poem ‘The Goldyn Targe’ as ‘oure Inglisch’. Most Lowland Scots – including the anglophobic Hary, author of the Wallace, a patriotic epic about the exploits of William Wallace – called their language ‘Inglis’ or ‘Inglisch’ until the early 16th century, when Gavin Douglas made a conscious point of maintaining that his translation of the Aeneid was written ‘in langage of Scottis natioun’. The term ‘Inglis’ reflects a Scottish recognition of the shared elements of the language spoken in both countries; but in poetic contexts it often also indicates a recognition of a shared literary heritage in which English writers had pride of place. In ‘The Goldyn Targe’ Dunbar goes on to praise Chaucer, and then Gower and Lydgate, who were also English, for their triumphant positions in the rhetorical tradition ‘in Britane’, in which he is also seeking to situate himself. For his poetic purposes the ‘isle’ of Scotland and England can be conceived of as a union. Elements of the diction here recall the London poem:

O reuerend Chaucere, rose of rethoris all
(As in oure tong ane flour imperiall)
That raise in Britane ewir, quho redis rycht,
Thou beris of makaris the tryumph riall …
O morall Gower and Ludgeate laureate …
This ile before was bare and desolate
Off rethorike or lusty fresch endyte [poetry].

The marriage of Margaret Tudor to James IV did raise the possibility that the two countries might unite, but the prospect wasn’t greeted with enthusiasm by either side. James’s reign was punctuated by periods of falling out and kissing and making up with England, episodes in which national self-interest was always prominent, whether in James’s opportunistic support for Perkin Warbeck against Henry VII in the 1490s or his acquisition of Margaret as Queen in the 1500s. In the run-up to Flodden, James lodged his claim to the English throne should Henry VIII die without an heir, while Henry asserted a claim to overlordship of Scotland. The combination of alliance and independence in Dunbar’s attitude to things English has some consonance with this political mix, but the extent of his enthusiasm rendered him vulnerable to attacks of the sort Kennedy delivered.

‘The Goldyn Targe’, one of Dunbar’s most ambitious poems, is also probably one of his earliest. It is a technically brilliant and imagistic poem, sustaining only two rhymes throughout each of its 31 nine-line stanzas – like a perfectly controlled firework display. The poem is ostensibly a dream vision and love allegory – the ‘targe’ is the shield of reason with which the narrator ineffectually defends himself against the assaults of love. It is also a poetic manifesto, in which Dunbar acknowledges the influences important to him, but also signals his willingess to strike out on his own. It was one of the six poems by Dunbar published in his lifetime by Scotland’s two earliest printers, Andrew Myllar and Walter Chepman. These poems, published around 1508, provide a conspectus of Dunbar’s now celebrated virtuosity, and could well be his own selection. The six include the ‘Flyting’ with Kennedy and ‘I that in heill wes’ (known subsequently as ‘The Lament for the Makars’), in which Dunbar’s litany of dead poets echoes ‘The Goldyn Targe’ in commemorating Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate ahead of a lengthy catalogue of Scottish writers. This is Dunbar’s best known work, a poem at once chilling and consoling. Its speaker confronts the inexorable approach of death for all ranks and members of society, culminating in ‘makaris’ – poets – and himself. Each verse concludes with a refrain from the Office of the Dead, Timor mortis conturbat me. But the very admission of this fear, along with the determination to commemorate poets and the value of poetry, also affords a measure of comfort and resolve.

Another of the six, ‘The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo’, one of the longest of Dunbar’s poems, owes a conspicuous debt to Chaucer while at the same time challenging Chaucerian convention. The Chaucerian imitation is situated within a poem couched in the unrhymed alliterative long line – a form pilloried by Chaucer in the prologue to ‘The Parson’s Tale’. Its narrative of appetitive female sexuality is delivered not by one rumbustious woman, but by three. The women recall May from ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, the wife from ‘The Shipman’s Tale’ and the Wife of Bath, but whereas in Chaucer the Wife of Bath is the only woman given the dominant narrative voice, here all three women share the narration and the views they express move away from the notion flirted with by Chaucer in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ and its ‘Prologue’ that there can be an accommodation between female and male desires. Their speeches are, however, reported via a concealed male narrator: Dunbar makes even clearer than Chaucer that there is a controlling masculine presence behind most medieval literary creation. The women’s graphic language is intended both to shock and delight:

I have ane wallidrag, ane worme, ane auld” wobat carle,
A waistit wolroun na worth bot wourdis to clatter,
Ane bumbart, ane dronbee, ane bag full of flewme,
Ane scabbit skarth, ane scorpioun, ane scutarde behind.

(I’ve got a hopeless case, a worm, a bloke like a hairy old caterpillar, a wasted beast – not worth the bother of talking about, a slacker, a drone, a bag full of phlegm, a scabby cormorant, a scorpion, a shitarse.)

The tactile, olfactory and scatological horrors of the first wife’s description of intercourse with her aged, disease-ridden and incontinent husband were not matched in Scottish literature until the ‘Bang to Rites’ section of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, in which the self-confessedly rancid Renton has sex in a toilet with the heavily pregnant wife of his dead friend, whose funeral they are attending.

Few conventional love lyrics survive in the Dunbar corpus – the amatory is used by him primarily as it is in ‘The Tretis,’ to portray or provoke discomfort. One of his most controversial poems, often entitled by editors (but not by Bawcutt), ‘Of an blak moir’, following its colophon in two manuscripts, opens with the statement ‘Lang heff I maed [written] of ladyes quhytt [white]’, but he may well have intended the incongruity of this remark to be wryly appreciated by his audience. The poem describes with a fondly voyeuristic fascination a black woman who is figured as the prize in a tournament:

Quhou schou is tute mowitt lyk an aep,
And lyk a gangarall onto graep,
And quhou hir schort catt nois up skippis,
And quhou schou schynes lyk ony saep,
My ladye with the mekle lippis.

(Her mouth sticks out like an ape’s, and she’s like a toad to touch, her short nose turns up like a cat’s, and she shines like a bar of soap, my lady with the big lips.)

‘The Goldyn Targe’ also resists convention: Dunbar sets up what looks as if it’s going to be a lengthy Chaucerian love allegory only to curtail the poem’s dream narrative precisely where one would expect it to take off, when the narrator’s reason has been blinded and he has become subject to ‘hevynesse’ – depression brought on by estrangement from his lady. In its resistance to the amatory, ‘The Goldyn Targe’ takes its place in a tradition of Older Scots literature running from King James I’s Kingis Quair (c.1424) to Alexander Montgomerie’s ‘Cherrie and the Slae’ (1580s-90s). The English inheritance is in these works significantly recast. There is a refusal to focus on the pleasures of the love relationship or on the nature of love as Chaucer does in Troilus and Criseyde and ‘The Knight’s Tale’, the emphasis being rather on love’s ethical or horrible implications. Sometimes, as in Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid, both are treated in the same poem. The Testament is explicit in its challenge to Chaucer: ‘Quha wait gir [Who knows if] all that Chauceir wrait wes trew?’ It takes Cresseid – Chaucer’s Criseyde – beyond love. She is cursed with leprosy by the gods, led by the amatory duo of Cupid and Venus. Leprosy was associated with venereal disease in the late middle ages, and the poem suggests this connection and lingers over the details of Cresseid’s physical degradation. But there is a further and moral dimension: Cresseid acquires an intense sense of her own culpability – ‘Nane but my self as now I will accuse’ – which distinguishes her from the men in the poem, its narrator and Troilus, who remain locked in an amatory way of seeing. That the pursuit of passion does lasting damage is a theme in Henryson’s writing that Dunbar takes definite note of.

This is conspicuous in ‘Quhen Merche wes with variand windis past’ (usually known as ‘The Thrissill and the Rois’, a title devised, in anglicised form, by Allan Ramsay in 1724; subsequent editors have Scotticised it). The poem deals with the marriage of James IV and Margaret Tudor in 1503, and makes careful use of national heraldic symbols. It is framed, however, as a dream vision in which the narrator, addressed as ‘luvar’ by a personified May, is reminded by her of his promise ‘to discryve the ros of most plesance’. But May smiles ‘sobirly’ as she delivers her injunction, indicating that this poem will again fail to focus on the love interest invoked by its several allusions to Chaucer and the Roman de la rose tradition. The ‘ros’ referred to is Margaret Tudor, to whom exquisite verbal tribute is paid in the poem’s conclusion. As usual, however, Dunbar also deals with the problems of love and this poem is the more striking because of the show-through of dangerous amatory excess. While Margaret, the English rose, is linked with purity, harmony and quality, James IV, the Scottish thistle, is warned explicitly by Dame Nature against promiscuity: ‘Nor hald non vdir flour in sic denty [favour]/As the fresche Ros of cullour reid and quhyt,/For gife thow dois, hurt is thy honesty.’ James had had several mistresses since the 1490s and showed little sign of abandoning them when he married the 13-year-old Margaret. The motif of his sexual over-indulgence is also employed metaphorically: ‘The Thrissill and the Rois’ is a speculum principis poem, and associates kingly self-restraint with attentive government of the kingdom. In the poem Dunbar seems to link England with forces of harmony and restraint and Scotland with potential instability. Given the dynastic disruptions in England during the previous century the suggestion was hardly justified. But Dunbar may have seen Margaret as a cultural ambassador who would bring about more contact between the two Courts of the sort that he had perhaps enjoyed in London in 1501. As his English Chaucer in ‘The Goldyn Targe’ is ‘rose of rethoris all’, so his English Margaret is the ‘Rois of most delyt … of all flouris quene and souerane!’. Dunbar also takes care, however, to put the Scottish arms and an evocation of just Scottish kingship at the literal centre of the poem. But the balance of gender roles achieved in the London poem is less easily brought off here and ‘The Thrissill and the Rois’ concludes with the narrator surfacing from his dream ‘halflingis in affrey’ (half-afraid), as if uneasily aware that the harmonising of elements he has sought is not fully achieved.

Dunbar wrote a significant number of poems to or about Queen Margaret, and some of them suggest a sympathy for this Englishwoman that extends beyond the formal stylisation of her in poems like ‘The Thrissill and the Rois’. The first of a pair of punning poems on James Dog, an officer in the Queen’s wardrobe, persistently declares, ‘Madame, ye heff a dangerous dog,’ and the second then just as assiduously corrects that statement: ‘He is na dog, he is a lam.’ If these poems are petitionary – as are, unequivocally, many of Dunbar’s addresses to Margaret’s husband – the tactic is to employ intimacy and entertainment rather than complaint or injunction. Unravelling the nature of Dunbar’s relationship with the Queen is even trickier because of Margaret’s appalling posthumous reputation among Scottish historians, in which the familiar stereotypes of the unstable, sexually malleable, meddling English female have played far too straightforward a part. This tradition is responsible, as Bawcutt points out, for the title ‘To the Queen’ which has been given by many editors to one of Dunbar’s nastiest little poems, ‘Madam, your men said they wald ryd’, which associates the unnamed lady with the kinds of entertainment likely to lead men to acquire venereal disease. But the poem’s colophons don’t give this title and there is little evidence elsewhere in Dunbar’s verse to support it.

Despite his English sympathies, Dunbar’s poetry did not travel well across the border. Major works by his near contemporaries Robert Henryson and Gavin Douglas were printed in England during the 16th century, but none of his own. Nor up to now has there been any evidence that manuscript versions of his poems circulated in England. This makes even more important the recent discovery, signalled for the first time in Bawcutt’s edition, of a copy of Dunbar’s ‘In secreit place this hyndir nycht’ in a mid to late 16th-century English miscellany known as the Osborn Manuscript, now in the Beinecke Library at Yale. A pair of lovers think they’re alone in a secret place, but the narrator listens in on their soppy and lascivious love-talk. In its extensive pursuit of sexual euphemism, the poem works a novel variation on the amatory verse dialogues common across Europe in the Middle Ages. It is mercilessly sardonic:

His bony beird wes kemmit and croppit,
Bot all with cale it was bedroppit,
And he wes townysche, peirt and gukit.
He clappit fast, he kist and chukkit,
As with the glaikis he wer ouirgane.
Yit be his feirris he wald haue fukkit –
‘Ye brek my hart, my bony ane.’

(His pretty beard was combed and trimmed, but it was spattered with broth, and he was a towny, pushy and foolish. He held her fast, he kissed and fondled her, as if he were overpowered by passion. Yet what he was doing showed that he wanted to fuck – ‘You’re breaking my heart, my pretty.’)

‘In secreit place’ is one of Dunbar’s most verbally intractable poems and it is interesting that it should be found, and not in anglicised form, in an English manuscript. It has also attained a certain notoriety: as Bawcutt’s textual note coolly remarks, its employment of ‘fukkit’ is ‘apparently the first recorded literary use’. Perhaps the poem’s extreme language, in conjunction with its evident Scottishness, was part of its attraction in the repertoire of what may have been, judging by the other contents of the MS, the song collection of a travelling lutanist.

Like the English copies of the London poem, this English copy of an echt Dunbar poem does not have his name on it. He was the least known in England of the major Scots makars, easily eclipsed in the 16th century by Douglas and David Lyndsay, but the gradual decline in this period of Dunbar’s reputation in Scotland is equally striking. He raced into print ahead of several of his contemporaries, probably because of his Court assocation with the printer, Walter Chepman, but after Chepman and Myllar’s edition of 1508 none of his work was printed until the 18th century and his poems survive primarily in manuscript. That medium remained as important as print for the transmission of literature in Scotland throughout the 16th century; indeed some Court writers positively shunned print. But the apparently complete confinement of Dunbar’s poems to manuscript after his lifetime is still remarkable. Henryson, Douglas and Lyndsay were published throughout the 16th century by Scottish printers, but not Dunbar. His poems are found principally in the two major and massive miscellanies dating from the second half of the century, the Bannatyne MS (c.1568) and the Maitland Folio MS (c.1570-86). Dunbar was clearly thought important by the compilers, but when the Maitland Folio MS was itself copied by John Reidpeth in the third decade of the 17th century, Dunbar’s poems were treated selectively. In the same way, his influence on other Scottish poets was at its peak in the quarter-century after his death and is particularly evident in the 1530s. Although it can still be detected in later 16th-century writers like Alexander Scott and Alexander Montgomerie (notably in the latter’s flyting with Hume of Polwarth), there is little explicit reference to Dunbar himself, while Douglas and Lyndsay are often mentioned.

Much of Dunbar’s output was, of course, occasional – shortish poems on things or people at Court – and thus tended to circulate in manuscript rather than print and to have a limited shelf-life. Nor would it have been easy to print his devotional writing after the Scottish Reformation. But even if we exclude these pieces, it remains the case that his work slips from view more rapidly than that of his peers or successors. His linguistically rebarbative works would not anglicise as readily as, say, Henryson’s, and thus may have had less appeal to an English market, but they weren’t sufficiently ‘Scottish’ to warrant reprinting by Scottish printers such as Henry Charteris, who republished a quantity of older works, including the Bruce and the Wallace, for a demonstrably nationalist agenda in the late 16th century.

Dunbar’s poetry has continued to produce uncomfortable moments for even his strongest supporters. Allan Ramsay, who was the first to reprint many of Dunbar’s poems in The Ever Green (1724), commented in relation to ‘I that in heill wes’: ‘’Tis worthy of Notice how generously Mr. Dunbar pays his Respects to the Memory of the renowned Chaucer, Gower, and Lidgate, before he names his own Country Poets.’ A not unrelated desire to reclaim Dunbar as a Scottish rather than an English-inclined writer led Hugh MacDiarmid to exclude ‘The Thrissill and the Rois’ from his Selected Dunbar of 1952. But, as with Irvine Welsh, Dunbar’s use of things ‘Inglisch’ is self-conscious, thoughtful and interrogative; and it is only a part of what he does. His latest editor, recently awarded the Saltire Society’s prize for the Scottish Research Book of the year for this magisterial edition, is herself English and her publisher Scottish – a fitting mix for a poet with this particular heritage.