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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

§ 11. His Prosodic Range

Dunbar, we have said, has been called the “Scottish Skelton.” There is some justice in the likening, but the reasons are not consistent with those which give him the title of the “Scottish Chaucer.” His allegiance to Chaucer is shown in literary reminiscence, whether of motif, or phrase, or stanza—a bookish reminiscence, which often helps us to distinguish the fundamental differences in outlook. There is a spiritual antithesis; but there are textual bonds. With Skelton, on the other hand, who must have been the borrower, had any contact been possible, he stands in close analogy, in two important respects. In the first place, both poets, in their unexpected turns of satire and in their jugglery of words, anticipate the Rabelaisian humour in its intellectual audacity and inexhaustible resource. Whether in wider excursions of fancy, or in verbal orgies, such as in the Complaint to the king

  • Bot fowll, jow-jowrdane-hedit jevellis,
  • Cowkin-kenseis, and culroun kewellis;
  • Stuffettis, strekouris, and stafische strummellis;
  • Wykd hascnbaldis, haggarbaldis, and hummellis;
  • Druncartis, dysouris, dyvouris, drewellis,
  • Misgydit memberis of the dewellis; etc.
  • we are constantly reminded of the rector of Diss, and often of the historian of Gargantua and his son Pantagruel. In the second place, their metrical purposes have much in common. The prosodic variety of both is always our first impression—of Dunbar, without parallel in range and competence in any English writer before his time. The interest of the matter in him, as in Skelton, is that the variety is not the effect of mere literary restlessness, but the outcome of experiment to extend the capabilities of English verse in counterpart to what was being done by “aureation” and other processes for poetic diction and style. If Dunbar’s prosodic cunning were less remarkable, and if Skelton’s so-called “doggerel” were even less palatable than it is to those who take a narrow view of this problem of English, the endeavour of both poets, and of the Scot in particular, would lose none of its historical value. Dunbar borrows from all quarters, chiefly from Chaucer, but also from older popular forms, and from French models found in that other Bohemian genius, François Villon. Yet he is not a mere copyist: his changes in the grouping of the lines in the stanza, his varying the length of the verses and his grafting of one form upon another, are evidence of the literary artist at work. It is useless to attempt to illustrate this by selection from the hundred and one poems which are ascribed to him, for a selection cannot disclose his kaleidoscopic ingenuity. The remarkable range and resource of his technique and the vitality of his imagination must redeem his work in the eyes of the most alien modern of the charges which have been brought against the art of Lydgate and Occleve. His was not the heavy-headed fancy of a moribund medievalism. The explanation of the difference may be, after all, largely personal. Only so far is he of the renascence. The chief interest to us lies in the old things which he has chosen and recast, as genius may do at any time, whether the age be “dark” or “new.”