The village of Salton, on the coast of the Forth in East Lothian,
is supposed to have given birth to William Dunbar,
[note] one of the greatest of our antient Scottish poets. In the piece, called The Flyting between Kennedy
and Dunbar, the former tells Dunbar,
| Thy geir and substance is a widdy teuch |
On Saltoune Mount, about thy craig to rax;
And yet Mount Saltoune gallows is our fair
For to he fleyt with sic a frontles face, &c.
Dunbar himself, in the same piece, says,
| I haif on me a pair of Lowthiane hipps. |
The date of his birth is uncertain. His Thistle and Rose, which was certainly written in 1503, bears evident marks of being the composition of an
experienced hand; and he says of himself in it, that he was a poet who had already written “mony sangis.” If we suppose him to have been then in the prime of life, his birth must have fallen about
the year 1460 or 1465. 4
Of Dunbar's parentage, youth, and
education, nothing is known. The first character in which we meet with him, is that of a
travelling noviciate of the Franciscan Order of Friars, in one of his pieces, entitled “How Dunbar was designed to be ane
Friar,” he thus addresses St. Francis:
|26||LIVES OF EMINENT SCOTSMEN.|
| Gif evir my fortoune was to be a freir, |
The dait thairof is past full mony a yeir,
For into every lusty town and place
Of all Yngland, from Berwirk to Calaice,
I haif into my habeit maid god cheir.
In freiris weid full fairly haif I fleichit;
In it haif I in pulpit gane and preichit,
In Derntoun kirk, and eik in Canterberry.
In it I past at Dover ou'r the ferry
Throw Picardy, and thair the people teachit.
This mode of life appears not to have been very agreeable to his
inclination; he confesses, that it compelled him to have recourse to many a pious fraud, from the
guilt of which no holy water could cleanse him. He returned to Scotland, as is generally supposed,
about the year 1490; and, though he had now abandoned the character of mendicant or itinerant
friar, his hopes appear still to have rested on promotion in the church. His smaller poems abound
with allusions to this effect.
| I knaw nocht how the kirk is gydit, |
Bot beneficis ar nocht leil devydit;
Sum men has sevin, and I nocht nane,
Quhilk to consider is ane pane.
| And sum, unworthy to brouk ane stall, |
Wald clym to be ane cardinall:
Ane bishopric may nocht him gane.
Quhilk to consider is one pane.
| Unwourthy I, amang the laif, |
Ane kirk dois craif, and nane can have, &c.
On the Warld's Instabilitie, addressed to the King.
Nay, so humble were his expectations, and so great must have been his
corresponding disappointment, that he afterwards adds:
| Greit abbais grayth I nill to gather |
Bot ane kirk scant covert with hadder,*
For I of lytil wald be fane,
Quhilk to consider is ane pane.
It does not appear, that any ecclesiastical benefice was ever conferred
on him; a fact the more remarkable, that it is certain he became a favourite at the Scottish
court. His “Dance in the Quene's Chalmer,”
and his lines on “James Doig, Keper of the
Quein's Wardrep,” shew that he was on very familiar terms at the palace. It
must be confessed, however, that his interest appears to have been established rather with the
queen than the king; and hence, his “Prayer that the
King war Johne (Joan) Thomson's man,” that is, that his majesty were as
hen-pecked as Joan Thomson's man,
| For war it so, than weill war me; |
But benefice I wald nocht be;
My hard fortoun wer endit than.
God gif ye war Johne Thomsounis man!
To be John or Joan
Thomson's man, was a proverbial expression for being a hen-pecked husband. Thus, Colville in his
| We read in greatest warriour's lives |
They oft were ruled by ther wives;
| * Covered with heather, thatched; a poor indication of the state of some of our churches in
antient times. A. S.
|28||LIVES OF EMINENT SCOTSMEN.|
| The world's conqueror, Alexander,
Obey'd a lady, his commander;
And Antonie, that drunkard keen,
Was rul'd by his lascivious queen.
* * * *
* So the imperious Roxalan
Made the Great Turk Johne Thomson's man. *
The queen, in whose favour Dunbar held so high a place, was Margaret Tudor, [note] sister to Henry the VIII. [note] of England, whose marriage with James the Fourth, [note] Dunbar celebrated in his “Thistle and the Rose.” She was a lady of a warm
and joyous temperament as a fine whole-length portrait of her, to be seen in Hampton-Court Palace,
sufficiently indicates; and it is probable, that the qualifications which recommended Dunbar to her esteem, may not have been of that nature which a
sovereign of the stern and martial character of James the Fourth
[note] might consider the best calculated to do honour to the sacerdotal function. Dunbar, though he has left many moral pieces, which are not excelled by
any productions of the age in which he wrote, has left others, of which no age, pretending to the
least delicacy in amatory sentiment, would wish to boast. If it was by such lines as those, “To the Quene,” or a “Dance in the Quene's Chalmer,” or by the tale of
his “Twa Marit Wemen and the Wedo,”
that Dunbar gained the ear of Henry's gallant sister, no person need be surprised,
that a virtuous husband should have been slow to listen to the claims
of so licentious a rhymer for preferment, and above all, preferment in the church. James the Fourth [note] had many failings, though strong in them
all; but a disregard for the decencies of life was certainly none of the number. He loved decorum,
and observed it. Dunbar, indeed, possessed poetic merit, which might
have atoned for a thousand faults; but James was no critic, and it is
rather to the credit of his judgment that he did not mistake poetic licentiousness for poetic
beauty. Let it not be thought, that I speak with uncharitable severity of this blemish in the
poet's character. The grossness of the pieces* alluded to is really not to be conceived by those
who only know Dunbar through his other productions, the moral
elegance of which is above all praise. It has been attempted to find an apology for the poet, in
the taste and manners of the age in which he wrote; but it is an excuse which would serve for the
Little of our own times as well. The major part of his productions shew, that no man could have
had a finer sense of what was truly delicate both in thought and expression; and when we find him
transgressing so egregiously as he has done, it would be flying in the face of all consistency to
ascribe it to any thing else than an unfortunate, yet wilful, perversion of the great powers he
| * To pay rent to John Thomson is still a common expression in some parts of Scotland, for being hen-pecked. A. S.
| * Even the chaste
Pinkerton, [note] to whom the fame of
Dunbar is chiefly indebted for the resuscitation of these parts of his works,
prints what, he says, “I do not wish to explain.” A.
|30||LIVES OF EMINENT SCOTSMEN.|
It appears, that Dunbar entertained a tender regard for a certain “Maestris Musgraeffe,” one of the attendants of the
queen; and at the period in which he lived, the vow of celibacy, exacted from the Romish clergy,
had ceased to be of such moral obligation as to require that he should make any secret of his
passion. In his “Dance in the Queen's
Chalmer,” he says, speaking of himself,
| For luff of Musgraeffe men fullis me. |
A verse in the same piece, which is occupied with a description of
Maestris Musgraeffe, is perhaps the only one in it which can be
| Then in cam Maestris Musgraeffe: |
Scho might haff lernit all the laeffe.
When I saw her so trimlye dance;
Her good conwoy and contenance:
Than for hir saek I wissit to be
The grytast erle, or duke, in France.
A merrear dance micht na man see.
Among Dunbar's minor pieces there is a
very pleasing one addressed “To a Ladye,”
which, if we may venture to appropriate it to Mistress Musgraeffe,
would complete her picture in very favorable colours.
| Sweit rose of verteu and of gentilness, |
Delytsum lyllie of everie lustynes,*
| * Of old, synonymous with comeliness. |
| Richest in bontie and in bewtie cleir, |
And every verteu that to hevin is deir,
Except only that ye ar mercyles!
| Into your garthe* this day I did persew, |
Thair saw I flouris that fresche wer of hew;
Baythe quhyte and rid most lustye wer to seyne:
And halsum herbis upone stalkis grene,
Yet leif nor flour fynd could I nane of rew.†
| I doute that Merche with his cauld blastis keyne |
Hes slene this gentill herbe, that I of mene
Quhois petewus deithe dois to my hart sic pane,
That I wald vrak to plant his rute agane.
So comfortand his leves unto me bene.
From the strain of these lines, it would seem, that Dunbar, like Petrarch, [note] sang an unrequited passion. The supposition is
corroborated by his “Meditatioun, written in
Wyntir;” and when he appears to have been sinking into the vale of years.
The want of female converse holds here a prominent place among a multitude of circumstances,
which, he says, united to depress his spirits daring the long nights of winter, and to make his
heart forlorn “for laik of symmer with hir flouris.”
| No gold in kist, nor wyne in cowp; |
No ladeis bewtie, nor luifis blis, &c.
Dunbar appears to have continued, to his dying day, in a state of
miserable dependence on a thank-
| * Garden. † Emblem of Pity. |
less court; and while shedding glory on the age in which he lived, by
his productions, was often without the means of satisfying the wants of the passing hour.*
Whatever may have been the errors of his muse, in her days of youth and jollity, it is little to
the honour of James the Fourth, [note] that he could have
allowed such a muse as Dunbar's to sue to him, day after day, year
after year, for a mere
|32||LIVES OF EMINENT SCOTSMEN.|
without being at last touched by the appeal. 15
| ———sum thing quhairon to leif,
It must have been a pure priesthood, indeed, to which Dunbar would not, in his maturer years, have done honour; but even
allowing that “the Twa Mariet Wemen and the
Wedo” had for ever closed the doors of the church upon him, was there no
other sort of preferment in the power of the court, by which to place the brightest genius of his
age above the hazard of starvation? 16
Of the time or manner of Dunbar's death,
there is no trace on record. From one of his poems, entitled
“Lament for the Death of the Makkares,” (poets) he appears to have
outlived most of his contemporaries; and if, as we have before supposed, he was in the prime of
life about the year 1503, the period of his death may, with some probability, be fixed somewhere
between the years 1530 or 1540.
| * A new feature in Dunbar's history, founded, I presume, on a
line in Dunbar's “Meditations in Winter;”
| “How glad that ever I dyne or soup.” |
Mr. Warton [note] thinks that the natural complexion of Dunbar's genius was of the moral and didactic cast; and, undoubtedly,
he partakes more of this character than any other poet of the age in which he flourished. Mr. Pinkerton, [note] who cautions us not to take this remark too
strictly, admits, at the same time, in another place,
(Ancient Scott. Poems, [note] vol. II. page 412,) that this was “a walk which
Chaucer [note] never tried, and in which Dunbar is
superlative.” “His short moral pieces,” he adds, “have
a terseness, elegance, and force, only inferior to those of
“In the poetry of Dunbar,”
says Dr. Irving, [note] “we recognize the
emanations of a mind adequate to splendid and varied exertion; a mind capable of searing into the
higher regions of fiction, or of descending into the humble walks of the familiar and ludicrous.
His imagination, though highly prolific, was sufficiently chastened by the interposition of
judgement. In his allegorical poems we discover originality and even sublimity of invention; while
those of a satirical kind present us with striking images of real life and manners. As a
descriptive poet he has secured superlative praise. In the mechanism of poetry he evinces a
wonderful degree of skill; he has employed a great variety of metres; and his versification, when
opposed to that of his most eminent contemporaries, will appear highly ornamented and
Among the varieties of style which Dunbar
employed, he has the honour of having presented us with the earliest, if not the only, example of
blank verse in the Scottish language. This occurs in the poem which stands obnoxious to so much
“The Twa Mariet Wemen and the Wedo.”
It is constructed according to the alliterative rule originally observed in this sort of
verse, that at least three words in each line should begin with the same letter, as for example:
|34||LIVES OF EMINENT SCOTSMEN.|
| Of ferliful* fyne favour war their faces meik, |
All full of flurist fairhead,† as flouris in June.
* * * *
* The morrow myld was and meik, the merrie sonne upsprong,
And all removit the mist and the waveand wodis
Silver schouris down schuik———
And birdis schoutit in the schaw with thair schill notis,
The golding glitterand gleme so glaid thair hairtis
Thai maid ane gloreus gle amang the grene bewis
The soft south of the swyre, † and sound of the stremes
The sweit savour of the swairde, and singing of fewlis
Micht comfort ony creature of the kyn of Adam.
Dunbar's chief productions were the “Rose and Thistle,” and the
“Golden Terge,” of the distinguishing merits of which Dr. Henry [note] presents us with the following discriminating
“ Dunbar, an ecclesiastic, or, at least, an expectant of church
preferment, seems to have languished at the court of James the Fourth,
whose marriage with Margaret Tudor, of England, he has
celebrated in the Thistle and the Rose, a happy
allegory, in which the vulgar topics of an epithalamium are judiciously
avoided, and exhortation and eulogy delicately insinuated; the
versification of the poem is harmonious, the stanza artificial and pleasing, the language
copious and selected, the narrative diversified, rising very often to dramatic energy. The
poem, from its subject, is descriptive, but Dunbar improves the most luxuriant description, by
an intermixture of imagery, sentiments, and moral observations.— The Golden Terge is another allegorical poem of Dunbar's,
constructed in stanza similar to Spenser's, [note] but more
artificial, and far more difficult. In description, it, perhaps, excels, in sentiment, it
scarcely equals, the Thistle and Rose. Its narrative is not
intercharged with dialogue; its allegory refers to the passions, the dominion of beauty, the
subjection of reason, and is less fortunate than the Thistle and the Rose;
whose occult and secondary signification is an historical truth that subsists apart,
and however embellished cannot be obscured by the ostensible emblem. When the passions or the
mental powers are personified or involved in action, we pursue the tale, forgetful of the
abstraction to which it is relative; but to remedy this, the Golden Terge
has a merit in its brevity which few allegorical poems possess. The allegorical genius
of our antient poetry discovers often a sublime invention; but it has intercepted what is now
more valuable, the representation of genuine character, and of the manners peculiar to antient
life. These manners, Dunbar has sometimes delineated with humour
in poems lately retrieved from oblivion, and from them he appears in the new light of a
skilful satirist and an attentive observer.”
| * Wonderful. |
† Blooming fairness.
† Breeze of the hill.