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.

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