Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The themes of “Lament for the Makaris” may be found in the very pattern of the poem itself. Dunbar constructed his poem in order to examine, in logical progression, the various forms of mutability in this temporal existence, especially as they affect his fellow poets.

Stanzas 1 through 12 are concerned with mutability in general. In particular, stanzas 1 through 4 function as a sort of introduction, first telling readers that the poet, once healthy and happy, is “trublit now with gret seiknes.” This leads him to consider in stanza 5 how changeable the human condition is, especially in its final change, from life to death: “On to the ded gois all Estatis.”

In stanzas 6 through 11 Dunbar works out in some detail how all stations and conditions of human life are subject to this iron law. The poem specifically details how knights, clerks (that is, scholars), physicians, noble women, magicians, astrologers, rhetoricians, logicians, and even theologians are not spared from death. No matter how great their position or extensive their knowledge, they all must share the common human fate.

So must poets, as Dunbar acknowledges in stanza 12: “I se that makaris,” he admits, are among those who “gois to graif.” For the remainder of the poem, except for a concluding stanza, he focuses on a list of twenty-four Scots and English poets who have died. He begins with three of the most prominent, whose work had an influence on his...

(The entire section is 415 words.)