Home  »  Volume II: English THE END OF THE MIDDLE AGES  »  § 8. William Dunbar

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

§ 8. William Dunbar

William Dunbar has held the place of honour among the Scottish “makars.” It may be that his reputation has been exaggerated at the expense of his contemporaries, who (for reasons now less valid) have not received like critical attention. Scott’s statement that he is “unrivalled by any which Scotland ever produced” strikes the highest note of praise, and is, perhaps, responsible for much of the unvaried appreciation which has followed. Russell Lowell’s criticism has arrested attention because it is exceptional, and because it is a singular example of extravagant depreciation. It has, however, the indirect value that it prompts us to test our judgments again, and weigh the value of such popular epithets as “the Scottish Chaucer” and “the Scottish Skelton.” There is generally a modicum of truth in easy titles of this kind, though the essence of the epithet is too often forgotten or misunderstood.

Of the personal history of William Dunbar, we have only a few facts; and of the dates of his writings or of their sequence we know too little to convince us that any account of his literary life is more than ingenious speculation. As Dunbar appears to have graduated bachelor of arts at St. Andrews in 1477, his birth may be dated about 1460. Internal evidence, for the most part indirect, points to his having survived the national disaster at Flodden, perhaps till 1520. Like Kennedy, his poetic rival in the Flyting, Gavin Douglas and Lyndsay, and, indeed, like all the greater poets from James I, with the exception of the schoolmaster of Dunfermline, he was connected with the court and, like most of them, was of noble kin. These facts must be kept in mind in a general estimate of the courtly school of Scottish verse, in explaining its artificialities and in understanding the separation in sentiment and technique from the more popular literature which is superseded for a time. This consideration supplies, among other things, part of the answer to the problem why the national or patriotic note, which is strongly characteristic of later writers, is wanting at a period when it might be expected to be prominent. In preceding work, with the exception, perhaps, of Wallace, the appeal to history is in very general terms; during “the golden age,” when political forces were active and Border memories might have stirred the imagination, the poets are wholly absorbed in the literary traditions of romance, or in the fun and the disappointments of life at court; only in the mid-sixteenth century, and, first, most unmistakably in the French-made Complaynt of Scotlande, do we find that perfervid Scotticism which glows in later literature.

Dunbar’s kinship with the house of Dunbar did not bring him wealth or place. After his college course he became a novice, subject to the strict rule of the Observantines of the Franciscan order. He appears, however, to have fretted under the restraint of his ascetic calling. In a poem entitled How Dumbar wes desyrd to be ane freir he makes frank confession of his difficulties, and more suo describes the exhortation to him to “refuse the world” as the work of the devil.

  • This freir that did Sanct Francis thair appeir,
  • Ane feind he was in liknes of ane freir;
  • He vaneist away with stynk and fyrie smowk;
  • With him me thocht all the houshend he towk,
  • And I awoik as wy that wes in weir.
  • He found some relief in the roving life of a friar, and he appears to have spent a few years in Picardy and other parts of France, where he certainly was in 1491 with Bothwell’s mission to the French court for a bride for the young James IV. There among the many Scots then haunting Paris, he may have met Gavin Douglas, Elphinstone, bishop of Aberdeen, Hector Boece and John Major; but the Sorbonne, where they were to be found, had, probably, few attractions for him. It is tempting to speculate that the wild life of the faubourgs and the talent of Bohemians like François Villon (whose poems had just been printed posthumously, in 1489) had the strongest claim upon the restless friar. It has been assumed, not without some plausibility, that there are traces in the Scot’s poems of direct French influence, in other and deeper ways than in the choice of subjects which Villon had made his own. By 1500, he was back in Scotland, no longer an Observantine, but a priest at court, pensioned by the king, and moving about as a minor official in royal business. The title “rhymer of Scotland,” in the English privy council accounts during the sojourn in London of the Scottish embassy for the hand of Margaret Tudor, has been taken by some to mean that, beyond his being the poetical member of the company who praised London in verse, he was recognised to some extent as laureate. Of his literary life, which appears to have begun with his association with the court in 1500, we know nothing beyond what the poems tell us indirectly; but of the sentiment of his age, as seen by a courtier, we have the fullest particulars.