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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

§ 9. His Allegories

Dunbar’s poems fall into two main divisions—the allegorical and occasional. Both show the strength of Chaucerian tradition, the former in a more immediate way, the latter (with full allowance for northern and personal characteristics) in the continuance of the satirical, moral and religious themes of the shorter poems of Chaucer’s English followers. There is, however, a difference of atmosphere. Dunbar’s work is conditioned by the circumstance that it was written by a courtier for the court. Poetry had fallen, as has been hinted, into close association with a small royal and aristocratic coterie. But life at court, though it showed a political and intellectual vigour which contrasts favourably with that of earlier reigns, and had grown more picturesque in serving the exuberant taste of the “redoubted roye,” was circumscribed in its literary interests, and, with all its alertness, added little or nothing to the sum of poetic endeavor. The age may have been “golden”; it was not “spacious.” Literary consciousness, when it existed, turned to the romantic past or to the old ritual of allegory, or to the re-editing, for contemporary purposes, of plaints of empty purses, of the fickleness of woman, of the vanity of the world and of the lack of piety; or it was absorbed in the merely technical task of illuminating or aureating the “rude” vernacular. If, however, the area was not enlarged, it was worked more fully. From this experience, at the hands of writers of great talent, much was gained for Scottish verse which has the appearance of newness to the literary historian. What is, therefore, outstanding in Dunbar, is not, as in Henryson, the creation of new genres or fresh motives. Compared with Henryson, Dunbar shows no advance in broad purpose and sheer originality. He is, apart from all question of vocabulary, more artificial in the stricter historical sense; and he might have deserved no better from posterity than Lydgate and Occleve have deserved had he not supplied the rhythms and added life and humour to the old matter.

Dunbar’s debt to Chaucer is less intimate and spiritual than Henryson’s or king James’s. He could not have given us the after tale of Cressis, or caught so clearly the sentiment of the master in a new Quair. Chaucer is, to him, the “rose of rethoris all” (as every poet of the century admitted), but he follows him at a distance and, perhaps, with divided affection for the newer French writers. Still, the Chaucerian influence is there, though the evidence of direct drawing from the well of English is less clear.

The Goldyn Targe has the simple motif of the poet’s appearance (in a dream, on a conventional May morning) before the court of Venus, where he endeavours to resist the arrows of Dame Beauty and her friends with the aid of Reason’s “scheld of gold so schene.” He is wounded near to death and taken prisoner. Then he knows that the lady is “lustiar of chere”: when she departs, he is delivered over to Heaviness. As she sails off, the noise of the ship’s guns wakes him to the enjoyment, once more, of the May morning and the singing birds. The allegory is of the simplest; the contemporary didacticism has hardly invaded it, and the abstractions which the poet introduces are in closer kinship with the persons of courtly allegory than with the personages in the moralities of the period. A similar theme appears in his well-known short poem, Sen that I am a presoneir (sometimes known as Beauty and the Prisoner); but there didactic and personal elements have been added. It is probable that criticism has been over busy in seeing references to the king, to his liaison with Margaret Drummond and to her suspicious death. In The Thrissil and the Rois, the intrusion of the moralitas is at once obvious. The setting is heraldic: the theme is the marriage of James IV and Margaret Tudor. The familiar machinery of the dream-poem is here; but the general effect is that of an elaborate prothalamium. It is an easy stage from this poetic type to the pageant and masque; but in the single example of Dunbar’s “dramatic” endeavour—in the fragment of The Interlude of the Droichis Part of the Play—the allegory is used merely to enhance the whimsicality of the design.

In Chaucer’s simpler narrative manner, we have the tale of The Freiris of Berwik, dealing with the old theme of an untrue wife caught in her own wiles. The ascription of this piece to Dunbar has been doubted, but there is nothing in it unworthy of his metrical art or his satiric talent. The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo, which is certainly his, echoes the gossip of the Wife of Bath, but it speaks with a freedom from which Chaucer would have shrunk. Its antique line and alliteration connect it formally with the popular poetry which Chaucer would have shrunk. Its antique line and alliteration connect ir formally with the popular poetry which Chaucer parodied and undid;yet the association is remote. For it is essentially a literary exercise, perhaps a burlesque pastiche to satisfy the romantic fashion of the court. The art of this remarkable poem is always conscious. In the fierce thrusts of sarcasm, in the warping of words, uncouth and strong, we seem to see the personal satisfaction of the craftsman in his triumph of phrase and line.

  • I haue ane wallidrag, ane worme, ane auld wobat carle,
  • A waistit walroun, na worth bot wourdis to clatter;
  • Ane bumbart, ane dron bee, ane bag full of flewme,
  • Ane skabbit skarth, ane scorpioun—
  • So hurtle the words in this dialogue on matrimonial risks. In some respects, it is difficult to differentiate this tour de force from a “flying”; but the husbands are not present, and may not (if they could) meet the torrents of abuse.