Lament for the Makaris

by William Dunbar

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479

“Lament for the Makaris” is a poem in twenty-five stanzas, each of four lines with a rhyme scheme of aabb and a recurring refrain. Although written in a ballad form, William Dunbar’s poem is actually a meditation on serious moral and religious issues, including what for his time would have been the most important of all, the afterlife. The poem is about mutability and transition, including the transition from life to death, and what the human response to those changes should be. Death is a central concern because, as Dunbar notes in his repeated refrain, “Timor mortis conturbat me”: “The fear of death confounds me.”

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In order to emphasize the shifting, uncertain nature of the world, Dunbar points out that the powerful and educated are subject to death. Neither position, wealth, nor learning will protect a person from the inevitable end. Dunbar then narrows his focus from the broader society to a very specialized group with whom he was familiar, the “makaris” (poets of Scotland and England) who have died. There is a further twist, for the poem’s subtitle is “Quhen He Wes Sek” (when he was sick), and it has been speculated that Dunbar may have himself been very ill at the time the poem was composed. At such a time, meditation on life and, especially, death would be expected. This would be particularly true for Dunbar, who was a priest, most likely in the Franciscan order.

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“Lament for the Makaris” is written in the dialect known as “Middle Scots,” which was the traditional literary language of Scotland during the period from the latter half of the fifteenth century through the early part of the seventeenth century. Middle Scots and English derived from essentially the same sources; their syntactic patterns are almost identical. The major differences are in vocabulary, pronunciation, and spelling, and these differences are clearly evident in “Lament for the Makaris.”

Dunbar has been regarded by many scholars and critics as the finest lyric poet in the British Isles in the period between Geoffrey Chaucer and Sir Thomas Wyatt, and this work clearly displays his ability to produce a consistent, powerful, and moving poem that combines genuine sensitivity and insight with a high level of poetic technique and skill. The individual lines are relatively short, each having four main stresses, but Dunbar avoids the sense of choppiness or abruptness that readers sometimes find in a similar, nearly contemporary poet, the Englishman John Skelton.

As Dunbar constructs his poem, the central theme of mutability and death is introduced; then the topic is further considered by a roll call of famous Scots and English writers who have died; finally, Dunbar closes the poem by acknowledging that he, too, will die and noting that such is the common fate of all human beings. For that reason, he concludes, people must do their best to live proper lives.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529

Dunbar is an extremely skilled and competent poet, and “Lament for the Makaris” is a carefully constructed work. There are twenty-five stanzas, each of four lines of rhyming couplets with a running refrain, “Timor mortis conturbat me.” This pattern, which developed in earlier French court poetry and was transported to England and Scotland, is known technically as “kyrielle” verse.

The refrain is from the religious ceremony known as the Offices for the Dead, and its repetition at the end of each stanza drives home one of the poem’s central points: In the midst of life one is surrounded by death and should live accordingly. For a moralizing, religious poet such as Dunbar, this point entailed opposing a carpe diem (seize the day) philosophy; instead of living for the moment, people should constantly and consistently behave well in order to deserve a life after death.

By using this running refrain and by restricting his verses to quatrains, Dunbar has imposed a limit on himself: He has, essentially, only three relatively short lines (four strong beats per line is his pattern) in which to present his meaning in each stanza. Further, since each stanza ends with the refrain, his rhyme scheme is limited, since line 3 must always match the “conturbat me” of the final line. The overall impact of the repetition and inevitable rhymes is to emphasize the repetitive and inevitable natures of change and death themselves, which constantly recur in human life.

Dunbar’s syntax is simple and direct. He uses a number of parallel constructions, especially in the earlier, establishing portion of the poem. Stanza 8, for example, compares the “campion in the stour,” the “capitane closit in the tour,” and the “lady in bour.” These three people are similar in having privileged positions in late medieval society; they are also all similar in being subject to inevitable death.

This parallelism is found elsewhere in the poem, again emphasizing the transitory nature of existence. Human beings, Dunbar notes in stanza 3, are “Now sound, now seik, now blith, now sary [sorry]/ Now dansand mery, now like to dee [die].” The language of the poem suggests that these changes occur with such speed that they may in fact seem simultaneous states: A person is happy and alive one moment, sick or even dead the next.

The metrical pattern of the poem reinforces this sense of inevitable change. Like the syntax, it is simple, even basic. The essential, almost unvarying, rhythmic pattern gives four strong stresses to each line—one of the oldest and most consistent metrical forms in English and Scots literature. Its presence here serves a dual purpose: to underscore the sense of inevitability and to link this specific poem with other verse from the past. This latter point becomes important during the long central section of the poem, in which Dunbar commemorates and laments the other “makaris” or poets who have died.

The rhyme pattern also helps give the poem a sense of inevitable pattern. The regularity of the aabb scheme encourages the reader to expect the same message to be repeated from stanza to stanza, and the recurring refrain further emphasizes this sense of continuity and human mortality.

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