William Dunbar Essay - Critical Essays


Because William Dunbar wrote in his native Scots dialect, it is often difficult for modern English speakers to understand his poetry. Middle Scots, the language of the Scottish Lowlanders, was a development from the northern dialects of Middle English. Its rival, the Gaelic tongue spoken by the Highlanders, is a Celtic language related to Welsh, Irish, and Breton. Although his own Scots shows the influence of Gaelic, Dunbar often spoke scornfully of the Celtic tongue, as, for example, when he insulted Walter Kennedy, a Highlander, in “The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy.”

Nevertheless, Scots did borrow many words from Gaelic, some of which, such as “canny,” “dour,” and “bairn,” have been taken over into standard English. The Middle Scots dialect can be easily recognized by its diction, by certain grammatical forms, and also by certain peculiarities in spelling and pronunciation. For example, Scots used “qu” or “quh” in place of “wh” in such words as “quhat” (what), “quhilk” (which), and “quhen” (when). The dialect also retained the Old English “a” where it had been replaced by a more rounded vowel in the South: “stane” (stone) and “hale” (whole) are good examples. Also, the northern dialects preferred the plosive consonants “g” and “k” where the southerners adopted the softer “y” and “ch” sounds; thus one finds “kirk” for “church,” “mikel” for “much,” and “yaf” for “gave.” These are only the most noteworthy of many dialectical peculiarities, but they will be of some help when one first encounters Dunbar’s poetry.

Nowhere is Dunbar’s ability with language more evident than in his “The Goldyn Targe.” Although he draws heavily on medieval allegorical traditions, Dunbar here is less interested in the message of the love allegory than in the language with which it is conveyed. Furthermore, this display of poetic virtuosity must have been appreciated in his own day, for “The Goldyn Targe” was one of the six poems of Dunbar printed by Chepman and Myllar in 1507, and it was later singled out by Lyndsay in his “Testament of the Papyngo” to prove that Dunbar “language had at large.”

“The Goldyn Targe”

“The Goldyn Targe” can be placed in the tradition of Le Roman de la rose (thirteenth century; The Romance of the Rose, partial translation, c. 1370; complete translation, 1900), a long narrative poem written sometime in the thirteenth century by the poets Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung. All the action of the French poem takes place in a dream; the characters are all personifications; and even the settings carry allegorical meanings: The idealized garden represents the life at court, and the rose-plot symbolizes the mind of a young lady. The Romance of the Rose was thus a psychological exposition of courtly love.

Although there is some disagreement as to whether courtly love was ever actually practiced or whether it was simply a literary convention, the idea sprang up in the eleventh century in the songs of the French troubadours. Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot and Guinevere are perhaps the best known courtly lovers, though others such as Tristan and Iseult or Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (1382) could also be cited. The behavior of the lovers was highly codified in this system, with the woman holding the ascendancy. For his part, the man was to be humble, discreet, and courteous, complying with each whim of his mistress. How does one fall in love, and what are its results? Poems such as “The Goldyn Targe” attempted to explain the process through allegory.

Walking through an idealized garden on a fresh May morning, the narrator of “The Goldyn Targe” soon tires, falls asleep, and has a marvelous dream. He spies a beautiful ship laden with a hundred gods and goddesses from antiquity led by Nature and Venus. They are a merry group, dressed entirely in green, a color symbolic of youth, freshness, and vigor. When the Dreamer tries to get a better look at them, however, he is suddenly caught by Venus, who for no apparent reason orders her “troops” to attack him. The attacking platoons are made up of personified feminine qualities such as Beauty, Delight, and Fine Appearance.

The Dreamer is protected from this onslaught for a time by Reason, wielding his golden shield and successfully repelling all the missiles shot by the attackers. Reason is overcome, however, by Presence, who sneaks up and throws a blinding powder into the eyes of the warrior. Thus, Reason is defeated, and the Dreamer is soon enslaved by Venus. The effect of the victory is short-lived, however, for the goddesses and their partners depart as quickly as they came, leaving the Dreamer in a state of despair. A final trumpet blast from the ship wakens the Dreamer, who again finds himself back in the idealized countryside. The poem closes with a panegyric to Chaucer, John Gower, and John Lydgate, and with an envoy in which Dunbar sends his “lytill quair [book]” forth into the world, where it must be obedient to all.

The use of the panegyric and the envoy reinforce the fact that Dunbar was thoroughly grounded in medieval poetic conventions. Chaucer, for example, used much the same sort of envoy in Troilus and Criseyde (1382). Unlike Chaucer, however, Dunbar was not fundamentally interested in the story, his two-dimensional characters, or the obvious moral that the passions must be controlled by the higher faculty of reason, which, unfortunately, is not always invincible. The poem’s greatness, then, necessarily lies in Dunbar’s masterful use of language. His smooth iambic pentameter lines are grouped into nine-line stanzas, rhyming aabaabbab, the very difficult form which Chaucer first employed in Anelida and Arcite (c. 1380). Moreover, though Dunbar could use only two different rhymes per stanza, nowhere did that seem to pose any great difficulties for him.

The highly wrought surface of Dunbar’s poem is very clearly seen in his descriptions of the garden. What is created here, in the words of Edmund Reiss (William Dunbar, 1979), is “a world combining heaven and earth, one showing nature in idealized, purified, and rarefied splendor.” Take, for example, these lines from the second and third stanzas:

Anamalit was the felde wyth all colourisThe perly droppis schake in silvir schouris,. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .The purpur hevyn, ourscailit in silvir sloppis, [with silver trailing clouds scattered about]Ourgilt [gilded over] the treis, branchis, lef and barkis. (emphasis added)

Here Dunbar uses aureate terms, together with the recurring images of various gems and precious metals, to create a visionary landscape, reminiscent of Paradise in the Middle English Pearl (c. 1400). This is obviously not a personally experienced nature like that of the Romantic poets; Dunbar’s nature is founded in the tradition of the locus amoenus, an idealized pastoral setting, the characteristics of which had already become standardized in late antiquity.

The word “aureate,” signifying a highly wrought style and elevated diction, was coined by the English Chaucerian Lydgate, who borrowed many obscure terms from Latin for the sake of sonority and, hence, for dignifying his subject matter. Whereas Lydgate used his aureate terms basically for religious poetry, Dunbar went well beyond his predecessor and used aureate diction in other types of poems. The use of “artificial” words fit well into medieval poetic theory, and it was not until the nineteenth century, when William Wordsworth began to attack “poetic diction,” that “aureate” came to have pejorative connotations.

“The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo”

It is a steep descent from the elevated tone and subject matter of “The Goldyn Targe” to the rowdy burlesque of “The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and...

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