Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dunbar, William
DUNBAR, WILLIAM (1465?–1530?), Scotch poet, probably a native of East Lothian, was born between 1460 and 1465. Laing thinks it unlikely that the date of his birth could be later than 1460, but there is no definite knowledge on the point. It is likewise difficult to settle precisely who Dunbar was by descent, but in the curious ‘Flyting’ between him and his contemporary wit, Walter Kennedy, certain references seem to connect him with the family of the tenth Earl of March. It is surmised, with some show of probability, that he may have been the grandson of Sir Patrick Dunbar of Beill in East Lothian, Sir Patrick himself being a younger son of this earl, and known as one of the hostages for James I in 1424. Almost nothing has been discovered regarding Dunbar's youth, although he is assumed to have been the William Dunbar that entered St. Andrews University in 1475, and graduated as master of arts in 1479. For the next twenty years his own works supply all the available information regarding his career. The principal fact of the period is that he had joined and forsaken the order of Franciscan friars. Dunbar's heart had not been in work of this kind; he acted, he says,
Lyk to ane man that with a gaist was marrit.
There is his own authority, given in his ‘Visitation of St. Francis,’ for stating that he found himself wholly unfitted for the exacting functions of begging friar. Still he is able to put it on record that his experience had been considerably enlarged by his performance of the duties so far as he had understood them. ‘In the habit of that order,’ he says (as paraphrased by Laing), ‘have I made good cheer in every flourishing town in England betwixt Berwick and Calais; in it also have I ascended the pulpit at Dernton and Canterbury; and crossed the sea at Dover, and instructed the inhabitants of Picardy.’ The period in which he was a begging friar is a curious episode in Dunbar's career, and it undoubtedly furnished him with some of the strongest material afterwards utilised in his satires. He was desirous of being a churchman, and longed for legitimate preferment, but he lacked sympathy with the begging fraternity, and regarded his sojourn in their midst as the epoch of his wild oats. Wrinkle, wile, falsehood, he avers, abounded in his conduct as long as he ‘did beir the freiris style,’ but he felt he must be otherwise placed to give full expression to his genuine manhood. He would remain devoted to the church, but he would likewise seek to be honest, and true to his higher nature.
Towards the close of the fifteenth century Dunbar had become attached to the court of James IV, on whose missions (as seems to be indicated in the ‘Flyting’) he probably visited several continental countries before 1500. From the ‘Flyting’ we gather that once the ship in which he started from Leith was driven by a storm far from its intended course, and wrecked on the coast of Zealand, Kennedy apparently finding a malicious amusement in the fancy picture he draws of his antagonist as he ‘sits superless’ in his distress, or cries ‘Caritas pro amore Dei’ from door to door. There is little doubt that Dunbar attended the Earl of Bothwell and Lord Monypenny to Paris in 1491, bearing at the same time a certain royal commission that implied individual action of his own beyond the Alps the following spring. The next undoubted item in his history—it is, indeed, one of the first fully attested facts—is under date of 15 Aug. 1500, when there is the important record in the ‘Privy Seal Register’ of a decree for 10l. a year for the poet. This pension he was to receive for life, or ‘untill he be promoted by our sovereign lord to a benefice of the value of forty pounds or more yearly.’ Subsequently the grant was increased, first to 20l., and then to 80l., ‘during life, or untill promoted to a benefice of 100l. or above.’ The benefice never came, and although it is not unlikely that the poet's old age was comfortable, we have no distinct record of him after Flodden.
Between the date of his becoming a salaried court poet and the battle of Flodden the only ascertained facts in Dunbar's career, apart from suggestive allusions in the poems, connect him with the marriage of James IV and Margaret Tudor. He seems to have accompanied the ambassadors sent to the court of Henry VII to negotiate the marriage, and it was probably this visit that inspired him with his poem ‘In Honour of the City of London.’ There is little doubt, moreover, that he is the ‘rhymer of Scotland’ referred to in the ‘Privy Purse Accounts of Henry VII’ as receiving, during a second visit (probably when the princess was affianced), certain sums of money in return for satisfaction given to his royal audience. The marriage and his first great poem, ‘The Thrissill and the Rois,’ both belong to 1503. Dunbar seems to have been a privileged favourite of the queen, and a valuable descriptive poem, ‘The Quenis Progress at Aberdeen,’ which is manifestly the result of actual observation, would seem to show that he was in her train when she visited the north of Scotland in 1511. It is only a surmise that she would do her best for him when her own sad change of circumstances occurred after Flodden, 8 Sept. 1513.
Owing to loss and irregularity of the treasurer's accounts for ten years after Flodden, there is no record to show whether or not Dunbar's pension was continued; and it is curious enough that there is no mention in his works of what Lyndsay calls ‘that most dolent day,’ or of his own later fortunes. If he were alive after 1513, he must have been very different from the Dunbar of previous years, who was so full of the movement of his time, and so anxious regarding his own worldly position. With the exception of the ‘Orisone,’ a lament on public degeneracy, written when the Duke of Albany went to France, and bringing the record at least to 1517, he gives no expression of his interest in anything outside of his own study. The poems that may fairly be set down to his later years are mainly of a moral and religious character, evidently indicating that the poet had set himself to gather up the results of his experience. Two explanatory theories have been proposed regarding this difficulty: one, that Dunbar fell with the king at Flodden, and therefore did not write the ‘Orisone;’ and the other, that the queen dowager had helped him to church preferment, and that he passed the evening of his life in studious retirement and faithful application to his clerical duties. The problem, in all likelihood, will never be solved. The one thing clear about Dunbar after Flodden is that he was dead in 1530, for in that year Sir David Lyndsay, in his ‘Testament and Complaynt of the Papyngo,’ pays him a high tribute as a poet of the past. There is something to be said for Laing's inference, from Lyndsay's reference to Gawin Douglas as the greatest of poets recently deceased, that Dunbar's death must be placed earlier than 1522, the year in which Douglas is known to have died.
The only one of Dunbar's poems that can be accurately dated is ‘The Thrissill and the Rois,’ written in honour of the royal marriage 9 May 1503, three months before Margaret, the English rose, arrived as consort of Scotland's thistle, James IV. He was, however, a recognised poet before this, for Gawin Douglas, in 1501, pays him a special tribute in his ‘Palice of Honour.’ In all likelihood three more of his best poems—‘The Goldyn Targe,’ the ‘Flyting’ (divided with Kennedy), and the ‘Lament for the Makaris’—were produced between 1503 and 1508. In the latter year these poems issued from the press of Chepman & Myllar, who had introduced the art of printing into Scotland in 1507. The other poems cannot be chronologically arranged, although it is probable that such satires as ‘The Twa Marriit Wemen and the Wedo’ and ‘The Dance of the Sevin Deidly Synnis,’ in which he reaches his highest level, are later than these. In range and variety of interest and subject, in swiftness and force of attack, and in vividness and permanence of effect, Dunbar is equally remarkable. His allegories are more than merely ingenious exercises in the art of mystical deliverance, as such things had been prone to become after Chaucer's time; his lyrics are charged with direct and steadfast purpose, and while they are all melodious, the best of them are resonant and tuneful; and the humorous satires are manifestly the productions of a man of original and penetrating observation, gifted above most with a sense of the hollowness and weakness of evil, and with the ability to render it ridiculous.
By ‘The Thrissill and the Rois’ Dunbar brilliantly proved himself a worthy laureate. We have frequent glimpses of him, in late minor poems, in relation to royalty. He would appear (as already mentioned) to have been a special favourite with the queen, to whom he addresses certain playful lyrics on her wardrobe-keeper, Doig, and so on, and in whose presence he describes himself as taking part in a certain uncouth dance arranged for her amusement. Towards the king he adopts a different tone. While apparently enjoying his position at court, and making fair use of his time both as royal servitor and as poet, he seems all through to have longed for the benefice he had been taught to expect. His ambition, he explains, is by no means lofty, for if his majesty would but grant him the appointment his soul longs for he would be pleased with ‘ane kirk scant coverit with hadder.’ He tempts him with many ingenious addresses, ranging from such embittered satires as ‘The Fenyet Friar of Tungland,’ and the ‘Dream of the Abbot of Tungland,’ through reflective monologues like the ‘Worldis Instabilitie,’ and on to direct epistolary lyrics, posing in touching metaphor as ‘the king's grey horse, auld Dunbar.’ James apparently considered Dunbar more happily placed as he was than if he had a parish under his charge, and so no benefice was ever bestowed as a mark of the king's appreciation. The suggestion, sometimes made, that Dunbar may have been morally unfit for the position of parish priest is worthless, for besides the fact that a man's character must have been very bad indeed to debar him in those days from church preferment, it has been ascertained that Dunbar was in full orders. He performed mass in the king's presence for the first time on 17 March 1504, and there is nothing to show why he should not have done the same many times and under any possible circumstances. James, however, kept him as his laureate, and in thus having helped in the development of the greatest of the ‘makaris’—to use Dunbar's own happy vernacular equivalent for poets—he is entitled to a certain credit.
The poems increased while the benefice lingered. Soon after the allegorical bridal song, as already said, came ‘The Goldyn Targe,’ the ‘Flyting,’ and the ‘Lament.’ In the first of these the poet represents Cupid as steadily repelled by Reason with golden targe or shield, till a powder thrown into his eyes overpowers him. The poem has an even and sustained interest, and several of its descriptions are appreciative and vivid. The ‘Flyting between Dunbar and Kennedy’ is a comparative trial of wits, wherein each seems to say the worst he possibly can of the other for the amusement of their readers. It set the example afterwards followed by James V and Lyndsay, and by Alexander Montgomery and Sir Patrick Hume. That the one poet did not forfeit the other's regard by the strong language used is seen in the affectionate tone with which Dunbar mourns over the impending death of ‘guid Maister Walter Kennedy’ in the ‘Lament for the Makaris.’ This is one of the most tender and fascinating of memorial poems. Its Latin refrain, ‘Timor mortis conturbat me,’ suggests the macaronic verse which is a minor feature of interest in Dunbar's work, and its pathetic sentiment and sober reflection readily introduce us to his meditative poems. Representative pieces in this class are ‘No Treasure avails without Gladness,’ ‘Meditation in Winter,’ ‘Love Earthly and Divine,’ and the various poems on our Lord.
But although Dunbar is attractive and satisfying as a lyrist and writer of allegory, he is strongest and most poetical as a satirical humorist. Either he or some other standing close to Chaucer wrote the ‘Freiris of Berwik,’ and he is the author of the ‘Twa Marriit Wemen and the Wedo,’ which is at once a somewhat repulsive and a very witty satire, and fairly challenges comparison with the ‘Wife of Bath.’ His greatest humorous satire, however, is ‘The Dance of the Sevin Deidly Synnis’ (with its appendages about ‘Telyouris’ and ‘Sowtaris’), which may owe something to Langland, but is Scotch in conception and range as well as in imagery. The sins, from pride to gluttony, are depicted in their repulsive deformity, while old Mahoun and his idiosyncrasies are scrutinised with inquisitive and boisterous humour such as never afterwards played about them till they received the treatment of Burns.
The edition of Dunbar's poems issued by Chepman & Myllar in 1508, and no doubt seen through the press by himself, disappeared from view, and only one imperfect copy is known to exist. This was found in Ayrshire in 1788, and is now in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh. Had it not been that many of his poems were included in the Bannatyne and Maitland MSS. of the sixteenth century, Dunbar would have been almost, if not altogether, lost to English literature. He seems to have been overlooked by writers on Scottish poetry from the time of Lyndsay's reference, 1530, till Ramsay produced specimens of his work in the ‘Evergreen,’ 1724. From that date he received attention from editors, notably Lord Hailes, Pinkerton, Ritson, and Sibbald, whose ‘Chronicle of Scottish Poetry,’ 4 vols. 1802, contains thirty-two of his poems. The first complete collection, and the one that is likely to remain the standard edition, is that of David Laing, 2 vols. 1834. The late Dr. John Small, of the Edinburgh University Library, edited Dunbar for the Scottish Text Society, 1884. His lamented death occurred before he completed the biographical and critical introduction which he intended to prefix to the work, but in a prefatory note to the text as issued to subscribers he expresses his opinion that Dunbar 'was born about the year 1460 and died about 1513.'
[Warton's Hist. of Engl. Poetry, vol. ii.; Pinkerton's Ancient Scotish Poems, vol. i.; Ellis's Specimens of Early English Poets, vol. i.; Sir Walter Scott's Memoirs of George Bannatyne; Tytler's Lives of Scottish Worthies; Irving's Lives of the Scotish Poets, vol. i., and Hist. of Scotish Poetry, chap. xi.; Chambers's Biog. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen, vol. ii.; David Laing's Poems of William Dunbar, with Notes and Memoir of his Life.]