Themes and Meanings
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 own poetry: Geoffrey Chaucer, John Lydgate, and John Gower. Although their verse is immortal, they have been devoured by death.
So have others, and the poem catalogs them, a list of the more notable “makaris” of the British Isles of the period. Although the emphasis is on Scots writers, Dunbar’s cosmopolitan outlook is shown by the inclusion of a number of English writers as well. Finally, Dunbar concludes the list by bringing it up to his own time, noting that his contemporary poet, Walter Kennedy “In poynt of dede lyis veraly.”
With this, the poem uses its final two stanzas to bring the work back to its underlying theme: that the transition from life to death is not to be escaped by any human being, including William Dunbar: “Sen he hes all my brether tane,/ He will nocht lat me lif alane” (Since he has all my brethren taken,/ He will not let me live alone). The only recourse is to prepare for death—to deserve salvation in the next world, since there is no permanence in this one.