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Significant Scots
William Dunbar


DUNBAR, WILLIAM, "the darling of the Scottish Muses," as he has been termed by Sir Walter Scott, was born about the middle of the fifteenth century. Mr David Laing suggests the year 1460 as about the date of his birth. The place of his nativity is not more accurately known. In the Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy, a series of satires which these two poets interchanged with each other, the former speaks of the "Carrick lips" of his antagonist, a bona fide allusion to the provincial vernacular of that poet, and, within three lines, he uses the adjective Lothian in the same way, respecting a part of his own person; thereby, apparently, indicating that he was a native of that district. Unless Dunbar here meant only to imply his habitual residence in Lothian, and his having consequently contracted its peculiar language, he must be held as acknowledging himself a native of the province. The early events of the poet’s life are unknown. In 1475, when he must have reached his fifteenth or sixteenth year, he was sent to the university of St Andrews, then the principal seat of learning in Scotland. The name of William Dunbar is entered in the ancient registers of the university, in 1477, among the Determinantes, or Bachelors of Arts, in St Salvator’s College, a degree which students could not receive till the third year of their attendance. His name again occurs in 1479, when he had taken his degree of Master of Arts, in virtue of which he was uniformly styled Maister William Dunbar, a designation which was exclusively appropriated till a late period to persons who had taken that degree at a university. Of his subsequent history, from 1480 to 1499, no trace remains. He became an ecclesiastic at an early age, having entered the mendicant order of St Francis, which had an establishment of Grey Friars at Edinburgh.

In his poem entitled, How Dunbar was desyred to be ane Frier, he gives the following intimation on this subject, as reduced to prose, by Dr Irving:—"Before the dawn of day, methought St Francis appeared to me with a religious habit in his hand, and said, ‘Go, my servant, clothe thee in these vestments, and renounce the world.’ but at him and his habit I was scared like a man who sees a ghost. ‘And why art thou terrified at the sight of the holy weed?’ ‘St Francis, reverence attend thee. I thank thee for the good-will which thou hast manifested towards me; but with regard to these garments, of which thou art so liberal, it has never entered into my mind to wear them. Sweet confessor, thou needs not take it in evil part. In holy legends have I heard it alleged that bishops are more frequently canonized than friars. If, therefore, thou wouldest guide my soul towards heaven, invest me with the robes of a bishop. Had it ever been my fortune to become a friar, the date is now long past. Between Berwick and Calais, in every flourishing town of the English dominions, have I made good cheer in the habit of thy order. In friars’ weed have I ascended the pulpit at Dernton and Canterbury; in it have I crossed the sea at Dover, and instructed the inhabitants of Picardy. But this mode of life compelled me to have recourse to many a pious fraud, from whose guilt no holy water can cleanse me.’"

It is probable that he did not long continue his connection with this order, as he informs us that the studies and life of a friar were not suited to his disposition. It is no doubt to his having been a travelling noviciate of the Franciscan order that his poetical antagonist Kennedy alludes, when he taunts Dunbar with his pilgrimage as a pardoner, begging in all the churches from Ettrick Forest to Dumfries. His poems do not inform us how he was employed after relinquishing the office of a friar, nor how he became connected with the Scottish Court, where we find him residing, about the beginning of the sixteenth century, under the patronage of James IV. From some allusions in his writings, at a subsequent period of his life, to the countries he had visited while in the king’s service, it is not improbable that he was employed as secretary, or in some kindred capacity, in connection with the embassies to foreign states which were maintained by the reigning monarch. In 1491 he was residing at Paris, in all likelihood in the train of the Earl of Bothwell and Lord Monypenny, then on an embassy to the court of France.

In the books of the treasurer of Scotland, we find that Dunbar enjoyed a pension from his sovereign. Under date May 23, 1501, occurs the following entry:—"Item, to Maister William Dunbar, in his pension of Martymes by past, 5l." Another entry occurs December 20, "quhilk was peyit to him eftir he com furth of England." If these were half-yearly payments, the pension must have been one of ten pounds, which cannot be deemed inconsiderable, when we take into account the resources of the king, the probable necessities of the bard, and the value of money at that time. In March, 1504, he first performed mass in the king’s presence. In 1507 we find that his pension was newly eiked, or augmented, to the sum of twenty pounds a-year; and in 1510, to eighty pounds. On the marriage of James IV. to Margaret of England, Dunbar celebrated that event, so auspicious of the happiness of his country, in a poem entitled "The Thistle and the Rose," in which he emblematized the junction and amity of the two portions of Britain. In the plan of this poem, he displays, according to Dr Irving, "boldness of invention and beauty of arrangement, and, in several of its detached parts, the utmost strength and even delicacy of colouring." Dunbar seems to have afterwards been on as good terms with the queen as he had previously been with the king, for he addresses several poems in a very familiar style to her majesty. In one, moreover, "on a Daunce in the Queene’s chalmer," where various court personages are represented as coming in successively and exhibiting their powers of saltation, he thus introduces himself: -

"Than in cam Dunbar the Makar; *
On all the flure there was nane fracar,
And thair he dauncet the Dirry-duntoun:
He hopet, like a filler wantoun,
For luff of Musgraeffe men fulis me.
He trippet quhile he tur his pantoun:
A mirrear daunce micht na man see."

* Writers were so termed in the sixteenth century.

The next person introduced was Mrs Musgrave, probably an English attendant of the queen, and, as the poet seems to have admired her, we shall give the stanza in which she is described: -

"Then in cam Maestres Musgraeffe:
Scho micht haff lernit all the laeffe.
Quhen I saw her sa trimlye dance,
Hir gud convoy and contenance,
Than for hir saek I wissit to be
The grytast erle, or duke, in France:
A mirrear dance micht na man see"

Notwithstanding the great merit of Dunbar as a poet, be seems to have lived a life of poverty, with perhaps no regular means of subsistence but his pension. He appears to have addressed both the king and the queen for a benefice, but always without success. How it came to pass that king James, who was so kind a patron to men professing powers of amusement, neglected to provide for Dunbar is not to be accounted for. The poet must have been singularly disqualified, indeed, to have been deemed unfit in those days for church-preferment. It appears that the queen became more disposed to be his patron than the king, for he writes a poem in the form of a prayer, wishing that the king were John Thomson’s man, that is, subservient to the views of his consort, so that he might obtain what the queen desired his majesty to bestow upon him. The poor poet tells the king that his hopes were in reality very humble: -

"Greit abbais graith I nill to gather,
Bot
ane kirk scant coverit with hadder
For I of lytil wald be fane:
Quhilk to considder is ane pane."

His poetry is full of pensive meditations upon the ill division of the world’s goods - how some have too much, without meriting even little, while others merit all and have nothing. He says—

"I knaw nocht how the kirk is gydit,
Bot benefices are nocht leil divydit;
Sum men hes sevin, and I nocht ane:
Quhilk to considder is ane pane."

He also reflects much upon the vanity of all sublunary affairs. At the beginning, for instance, of the above poem, he thus moralizes on "the warld’ instabilitie;"—

"This waverand warldis wretchidnes,
The failyand and fruitles bissines,
The mispent tyme, the service vane,
For to considder is ane pane.

The slydan joy, the glaidness schort,
The feinyand luif, the fals comfort,
The sueit abayd, the flichtful trane,
For to considder is ane pane

The sugarit mouthis, with mynds thairfra;
The figurit speiche, with faces twa;
The pleasand toungis, with harts unplane,
For to considder is ane pane."

Next to "the Thistle and the Rose," the most considerable poem by Dunbar was "The Golden Targe," a moral allegorical piece, intended to demonstrate the general ascendency of love over reason: the golden targe, or shield, of reason, he shows to be an insufficient protection to the shafts of Cupid. He is also supposed to be the author of an exquisitely humorous tale, entitled, "The Freirs of Berwick," which has supplied the ground-work of a well known poem of Allan Ramsay, designated "The Monk and the Miller’s wife." Another composition, styled "The Twa Marriet Wemen and the Wedo," contains much humorous sentiment, and many sarcastic reflections upon the fair sex; but of all Dunbar’s poems, it is most open to the charge of immodest description. The poem, however, displaying the highest powers of mind, is certainly that entitled "A Dance," which presents pictures of the seven deadly sins, equally expressive, perhaps, with any that could have been delineated by the pen of Milton himself.

Dunbar had the fortune, rare in that age, of seeing some of his works printed in his own lifetime. In 1508, among the very first efforts of the Scottish press, Chepman and Millar published his "Golden Targe," his "Twa Marriet Wemen and the Wedo," and several other poems. Three years after the poet’s pension had been increased to eighty pounds, came the fatal disaster of Flodden, involving the destruction of the king and his nobles. How the fortunes of the bard were affected by this sad national event does not appear. Mr. Laing thinks it probable that he at last succeeded in obtaining preferment in the church. "The queen dowager, whom, during the king’s life, our poet styled his ‘advocate bayth fair and sweit,’ could have no difficulty, during her regency, in providing for his wants; and we cannot believe that she would allow his old age to pine away in poverty and neglect. Even were it otherwise, we are not to suppose that he had no other friends in power who would be willing to assist in procuring some adequate and permanent provision for an individual who had so long contributed, by his writings, to the amusement of the court." The poet is supposed to have survived till 1520, and died at the age of sixty. The first complete collection of his works was published by Mr David Laing in 1834. Although Dunbar received from his contemporaries the homage due to the greatest of Scotland’s early makars, his name and fame were doomed to a total eclipse, during the period from 1530, when Sir David Lyndsay mentions him among the poets then deceased, to the year 1724, when some of his poems were revived by Allan Ramsay. Mr Laing observes, that "if any misfortune had befallen the two nearly coeval manuscript collections of Scottish poetry by Bannatyne and Maitland, the great chance is, that it might have been scarcely known to posterity that such a poet as Dunbar ever existed."


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