Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
How much one claims to know about the life of William Dunbar depends on how much one is willing to trust the claims to be found in his poems, for very little external evidence remains. From Dunbar’s poetry, for example, John W. Baxter in his book William Dunbar: A Biographical Study (1952) surmises that the poet was descended from the noble house of Dunbar, the earls of which were both powerful and controversial figures in the history of Scotland. Descendants of a Northumbrian earl, Cospatrick, they more than once sided with the English in quarrels between the two countries. In 1402, for example, Henry Dunbar, earl of March, piqued over losses in a personal controversy with the earl of Douglas, aided King Henry IV of England at the Battle of Homildon Hill, thus earning his family the enmity of James I of Scotland, who stripped the clan of most of its lands. If Dunbar had noble blood, then he belonged to a family whose fortunes had fallen considerably.
However that may be, in many of his poems, Dunbar does speak distastefully of the lower classes and of social climbers. In “To the King” (“Schir, yit remember as befoir”), the poet calls himself a “gentill goishalk.” This may be significant since the birds of prey were often associated with the nobility in medieval poetry, as, for example, in Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules (1380). Furthermore, in the same poem, Dunbar complains that while still a youth he was thought headed...
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