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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

X. The Scottish Chaucerians

§ 10. The Grotesque in Dunbar

In considering the satirical and occasional poems of Dunbar, which constitute at once the greater and more important portion of his work, it is well, in the first place, to see how far the Chaucerian influence holds. Here, at least, it is difficult to allow the aptness of the title “the Scottish Chaucer,” unless it mean nothing more than that Dunbar, by analogical compliment, has the first place in Early and Middle Scots, as Chaucer has in Middle English. It cannot mean that he shows Chaucer’s spirit and outlook, as Henryson has shown; nor that Dunbar is, in these satirical and occasional pieces, on which his wider reputation rests, a whole-hearted pupil in the craft of verse. The title would have appeared more fitting in his own day, when his appeal to contemporaries (apart from any acknowledged debt to his forerunner) was of the same technical kind which Chaucer had made to his; but a comparison, nowadays, has to take account of other matters. Both poets are richly endowed with humour: it is the outstanding quality of each; but in no respect do their differences appear more clearly. Here, Dunbar is unlike Henryson in lacking the gentler and more intimate fun of their master. He is a satirist in the stronger sense; more boisterous in his fun, and showing, in his the wildest frolics, an imaginative range which has no counterpart in the southern poet. His satirical powers are best seen in his Tiodings from the Session, an attack on the law courts, and in his Satire on Edinburgh, in which he denounces the filthy condition of the capital; in his verses on his old friends the Franciscans, and on the flying friar of Tungland who came to grief because he had used hen’s feathers; in his fiercer invectives of the General Satire and The Epitaph on Donald Owre; and in the vision of The Dance of the Sevin Deidlie Synnis. The last is one of the best examples of Dunbar’s realism and literary cunning in suiting the word and line to the sense, as in the description of Sloth—

  • Syne Sueirnes, at the secound bidding,
  • Come lyk a sow out of a midding,
  • Full slepy wes his grun[char]ie:
  • Mony sweir bumbard belly-huddroun,
  • Mony slute daw and slepy duddroun,
  • Him serwit ay with soun[char]is.
  • In all, but especially in the Dance, there is not a little of the fantastic ingenuity which appears in his more purely comic sketches. And these again, though mainly “fooleries,” are not without satirical intention, as in his Joustis of the Tail[char]eour and the Sowtar and his Black Lady, where the fun is a covert attack on the courtly craze for tourneys. Of all the pieces in this category, his Ballad of kynd kittok best illustrates that elfin quality which relieves his “busteous” strain of ridicule. The waggish description of the thirsty alewife, her journey on a snail, her arrival in heaven and her sojourn there till, desiring a “fresh drink,” she wanders forth and is not allowed to return, her going back to her alehouse and the poet’s concluding request—
  • Frendis, I pray [char]ou hertfully,
  • Gif [char]3e be thirsty or dry,
  • Drink with my Guddame, as [char]e ga by,
  • Anys for my saik—
  • strike a note, of which the echoes are to be often heard in later northern verse. There is more than an accidental likeness between this roguish request to the reader and the close of Burns’s Address to the Deil and The Dying Words of Poor Mailie. The reach of Dunbar’s fancy is at its greatest in The Interlude. There, in his description of Fyn, he writes—
  • He gat my grauntschir God Magog;
  • Ay quhen he dansit, the warld wald schog;
  • Five thousand ellis [char]eid in his frog
  • Of Hieland pladdis, and mair,
  • [char]3it was bot of tendir [char]outh;
  • Bot eftir he grewe mekle at fouth,
  • Ellevyne myle wyde met was his mouth,
  • His teith was ten ell sqwair.
  • He wald apon his tais stand,
  • And tak the sternis doune with his hand
  • And set them in a gold garland
  • Above his wyfis hair.
  • This is a triumph of the grotesque on the grand scale which the creator of Gargantua would have admired, and could not have excelled. Something of the same quality is seen in his wild picture of the birth of Antichrist in mid-air, in his Vision, which opens with the customary dream-setting and gives no hint of this turn in the poet’s fancy.

    Of lyrical, as of strictly dramatic, excellence, there is little in Dunbar. His love poems are few and, taken as a whole, undistinguished. His religious and moral verses, the one of the hymn type, the other on the hackneyed themes of Good Counsel, Vanitas vanitatum and (when he is cheery in mood) Blitheness, deserve commendation for little beyond their metrical facility. They are too short to be tedious to the modern reader. He uses the old device of the “testament” to good purpose in the comic poem on the physician Andrew Kennedy; and, here again, his imagination transforms the old convention. In all Goliardic literature there is nothing to excel this stanza:

  • A barell bung ay at my bosum,
  • Of varldis gud I bad na mair;
  • Et corpus meum ebriosum
  • I leif onto the toune of Air;
  • Ut ibi sepeliri queam,
  • Quhar drink and draff may ilka day
  • Be cassyne super faciem meam.
  • In The Dance, already referred to, Dunbar works up the familiar material of the Danse Macabre. In his Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie (his poetic rival Walter Kennedy) we have a Scottish example of the widely-spread European genre in its extremest form. It remains a masterpiece of scurrility. The purpose of the combatants in this literary exercise was to outdo each other in abuse, and yet not to quarrel. It is hard for the most catholic modern to believe that they kept the peace, though Dunbar speaks kindly of his “friend” in his Lament. The indirect value ofThe Flyting is great—linguistically, in its vocabulary of invective; biographically, for it tells us more of the poet than we derive from any other source; historically, in respect of its place in the development of this favourite genre in Scots, and its testimony to the antipathies of Celtic and Lowland civilisations in the early sixteenth century. A like indirect interest attaches to The Lament for the Makaris, which Dunbar wrote “quhen he was seik.” It is a poem on the passing of human endeavour, a motif which had served the purpose of scores of fifteenth century laments. If it was written under the influence of Villon’s master ballades, praise must be allowed to Dunbar that he endenised the Frenchman’s art with some success. The solemn effect of the burden, Timor mortis conturbat me, occasional happy turns, as

  • He takis the campioun in the stour,
  • The capitane closit in the tour,
  • The lady in bour full of bewte;
  • Timor Mortis conturbat me
  • and a sense of literary restraint give the piece distinction above the average poem of this type. Much of its reputation nowadays is as a historical document, which tells us nearly all that we know of some of Dunbar’s contemporaries. He names his greater predecessors, and, properly, puts Chaucer first on the roll.