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Dunbar, William (c. 1460–c. 1514) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

poems dunbar’s scots century

Much has been written about Dunbar’s life, largely on evidence from his poems, but most is conjectural. The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie contains references to an eclipse that justifies the date of birth and to wide travel that indicates Dunbar may have been in the king’s service, analogous to Chaucer’s role abroad as messenger. How Dumbar wes Desyrd to be Ane Freir has led to a case that Dunbar was a Franciscan who preached in England. Dunbar at Oxinfurde suggests residence, if not study there. It is likely that the “William Dunbar” who took a bachelor of arts degree at St. Andrews in 1477 and a master of arts in 1479 is the poet. The poems reveal a man not so learned as Henryson* but well read and knowledgeable about vernacular poetry. This included Highland Gaelic traditions, but Dunbar favored French and English, especially “The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour.” Biographical evidence is solid for Dunbar’s service to King James IV: in 1500 he received an annual “pension” of ten pounds for life; subsequent records show increases and gifts of clothing, with a last note of the pension on 14 May 1513, followed by a gap in the record; Dunbar likely died about 1514. Some have conjectured that he fought at the Battle of Flodden (September 1513), a disastrous defeat of the Scots by the English. Dunbar’s poems are often connected with the king. A poem To the City of London was written on the occasion of an embassy to arrange the marriage of James IV (1488–1513) and Margaret Tudor; Dunbar may have been the “Rhymer of Scotland” who received a gift from Henry VII. Some of his most beautiful lyrics honor this Englishwoman who became Scotland’s queen. James IV’s offering for the first mass of Dunbar, March 1503, confirms that the poet was in orders. Many poems of “petition” indicate little success in securing preferment. Those named and the topicality of Dunbar’s poems suggest that his audience is the Scots court.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Dunbar’s many petitions for tangible support suggest a rather slow acceptance, and the survival of a fragment from one edition by Chepman and Myllar in 1508 adds to this impression. The poems survive in three sixteenth-century manuscript collections (National Library of Scotland Acc. 4233 [Asloan], Nat Libr Scot 1.16 [Bannatyne], and Magdalen College Cambridge 2553 [Pepys Library Maitland Folio], respectively, almost contemporary with the poet, 1568 and 1570–86) and a copy of the last in 1623. Early readers knew Dunbar through circulation of manuscripts, which is how Dunbar knew Chaucer. David Lindsay* noted a significant career by 1530. Poems appear in several early collections of Scots poetry, David Laing published the first collected edition in the early nineteenth century, and at the end of the century there were editions in Vienna and by the Scottish Text Society. In the twentieth century Dunbar’s work has been edited, richly discussed, and widely praised.

His lyric vigor and characteristic satirical incisiveness make him appealing to modern readers less at ease with the impersonal detachment of the Middle Ages. Incisive social commentary, especially that exploring tensions between opposing values (secular clergy and friars, gender, high and low style), make him relevant to modern interests, as is the art of his contemporary Hieronymous Bosch. The many lyrics that are medieval in their interests and attitude, often thoroughly traditional, are usually less highly praised or apologized for as outbursts of the piety of old age. It is more accurate to focus on contrasts, tensions, to see that much of Dunbar’s importance is that he illustrates the process of transformation of older materials through addition of a sense of an individual who records his responses, typically comic, often indignant and derisive, frequently eschatological, but sometimes conventionally praising and pious. Moreover, his extraordinary technical accomplishment—a variety of lines and stanza forms, alliteration, refrains, macaronic verse, and a Scots language that is often difficult, very colloquial, but flexible—shows a poet who moves easily from aureate to popular styles and constantly proves his commitment to being a “makar,” a craftsman.

Duncan, Todd(1903–1998) - Opera singer, educator, actor, Chronology, Success in Teaching, Resumes Teaching Career [next]

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