David DeVries

title.none: Bawcutt, ed., The Poems of William Dunbar (David DeVries )

identifier.other: baj9928.0206.014 02.06.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: David DeVries , Cornell University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Bawcutt, Priscilla, ed. The Poems of William Dunbar. Glasgow: The Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2000. Pp.. L70. ISBN: 0-948-87738-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.06.14

Bawcutt, Priscilla, ed. The Poems of William Dunbar. Glasgow: The Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2000. Pp.. L70. ISBN: 0-948-87738-3.

Reviewed by:

David DeVries
Cornell University

As an epigraph to the introduction he wrote for Above the River: The Complete Poems of James Wright, the contemporary American poet Donald Hall quotes four stanzas of William Dunbar's "The Lament for the Makaris". The stanzas he quotes are, in order: the opening stanza, then the stanza that laments Chaucer, Lydgate and Gower, the stanza that lists "Blind Hary and Sandy Traill", and the stanza that mourns the passing of Henryson. From the quotation Hall proceeds to this reflection, "It is a mystery, how poetry will thrive in an age or a country, then fade out only to appear elsewhere." According to Hall, Dunbar and, even more importantly, Henryson represent the flowering of poetry in the dull age between Chaucer and Wyatt, claiming Henryson's The Testament of Cresseid, "the great work between Chaucer and Shakespeare". He concludes his evocation of Dunbar and the fifteenth century with this: "Dunbar's Lament is the universal elegy for the dead poets, and a poem I grew up with. James Wright loved it, and recited it in my hearing half a dozen times, in what passed with us for a Scots accent." I remember wondering to myself when I first read Hall's introduction how many of Wright's contemporary readers would have known of Henryson or Dunbar before coming upon their names in Hall's essay (the essay is titled, "Lament for a Maker"). How many of those readers went on from Hall's memory of Wright reciting Dunbar to find Dunbar's or Henryson's works in order to read the older Scots poets for themselves?

How does one read the poetry of William Dunbar? Or, perhaps, the question to ask is: Why does one read the poetry of William Dunbar? Hall and Wright first encountered Dunbar in college, Hall at Harvard in the late 1940s and Wright, after service in the U.S. Army infantry during the Second World War, at Kenyon College. So, they first read Dunbar in order to fulfill assignments. I suspect that nearly all American readers of Dunbar first encountered him in advanced undergraduate or graduate literature courses. I suspect, again, that if Dunbar's American readers continue to read him after they have completed their educations those who do are academic readers of medieval poetry. Rare, exceedingly rare, today will be the general reader of poetry who picks up Dunbar purely for pleasure. Such general pleasure-seeking readers of poetry, who do exist (albeit in numbers that make snail darters and other endangered species seem numerous as houseflies), if they turn to medieval poets read Dante (next time you are in a Borders or similar bookstore count the number of new Dante translations on the shelf), the Sufi poet Rumi, the anonymous lyrics, Chaucer (though I would venture that should you consult the shelves of general readers of poetry in America, Chaucer rests in a back corner, a Riverside or Fisher edition gathering dust with Alexander Pope, John Dryden, or other once required college reading). Dunbar will be the blue moon on such shelves. The case, I know, is different in Scotland and England and Ireland and Wales. Ever since MacDiarmid's rallying cry sending the troops back to Dunbar, not Burns, William Dunbar's poems have gathered about them political and social relevance in the British Isles.

Until now, Dunbar's cause has not been well served by the publishing industry, anywhere. Previous editions, no matter their value as editions, were hard to come by and expensive beyond belief when found. I purchased a copy of Kinsley's edition at Blackwells in Oxford, scant feet from where it was produced, and paid a whooping 50 pounds for it in 1987. Kinsley's edition has since gone out of print. I was able to find two second-hand copies of Mackenzie's edition (a first and a second edition)-long out of print-in reasonable shape for 6 pounds apiece sometime in the early 1980s. Libraries on our side of the Atlantic have not been more fortunate in tracking down or securing Dunbar's poems.

Into the midst of this dire situation comes Priscilla Bawcutt's two volume edition of The Poems of William Dunbar, published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies. These volumes represent the best presentation of Dunbar ever. Even in Dunbar's lifetime I doubt one would have been able to find so complete and careful, so magnificent a gathering of his poetry. Bawcutt's edition has been praised to the skies in Scotland and England and with great justice. So important is Bawcutt's edition to Dunbar studies that its publication occasioned the appearance of a marvelous and marvelously useful collection of essays, William Dunbar, 'The Nobill Poyet': Essays in Honour of Priscilla Bawcutt (edited by Sally Mapstone, East Lothian: Tuckwell Press, 2001) including essays by most of the major scholars of Dunbar and older Scots literature. Every decision Bawcutt has made seems right (and is justified by her in her introduction, in her notes, and in essays and books she has published paving the way, as it were, for the edition). Choice of texts, readings, poems to include and to exclude, punctuation, emendations-all are impeccable. Even the apparently unorthodox order in which she prints the poems-alphabetical-seems so right as to make one wonder why it hadn't occurred to previous editors who squeezed the poems into thematic categories the poems themselves resist (the most famous example of this is, no doubt, Kinsley's decision to include The Goldyn Targe with the Poems of Love instead of with the Visions and Nightmares [since it is, obviously, a dream-vision] or the Moralities [since it is, in the main, a moral allegory]).

In fact, the alphabetical ordering yields some wonderful sparkings between poems, sparkings that indicate the brilliance of Dunbar's range of styles. For instance, the first four poems in Bawcutt's edition take a reader from a profoundly severe meditation on Christ's passion, "Ane Ballat of the Passioun" (a poem which has been censured by Tom Scott as being too "brutal and crude in its insistence on the physical details of the Crucifixion", Dunbar: A Critical Exposition of the Poems, Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1966, p. 286), to a satire on lawyers next, to perhaps Dunbar's most successful and famous satire, "A Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo", and finally to another visionary satire, "A Ballat of the Abbot of Tungland", the satire this time at the expense of one of the charlatans who haunted the court at Edinburgh. From the awful mystery at the center of the Christian faith to the local color of late fifteenth-century Scottish society to a ribald vision of courtly love run amok back to, as Bawcutt describes it, a "nightmarish dream...[that] illustrate[s] the consequences of human pride and folly", in four poems. The contrast between the brutality of Christ's suffering in the first poem (and the dreamer/narrator's reaction to it, mediated through a personification allegory) and the catalogue of corruption in the law courts of Edinburgh in the second captures the range of Dunbar's poetic vision, from heaven to hell, as it were, and back, with always an eye to the human being at the center (either as target of satire or object of compassion).

A later sequence of poems, yoked together by alphabetical chance, serves as another illustration of Dunbar's versatility and power, and also of the serendipitous collocation in Bawcutt's gathering. In Kinsley's edition, The Goldyn Targe appears in a group of poems he labels, "Poems of Love", poems that include the Targe along with "Bewty and the Presoneir", "Gude Counsale", The Tretis, and "The Merle and the Nychtingall" among others. The problem with such a grouping should be immediately obvious. The Goldyn Targe and The Tretis are about as unlike as two poems can be; the one an ornate, perfectly respectful courtly allegory in the old style, the other a scurrilous, bawdy lampooning of that old style. In addition, both poems are, of course, about much more than the category, "Poems of Love", would suggest. In Bawcutt's edition The Targe follows a short poem on the Nativity of Christ (which itself is preceded by a wonderful short dialogue on Ash Wednesday morning between two carousing alewives). In this order one is struck by the way that elements in the Nativity song are echoed in the secular love allegory that follows. For example, in the praise song creation--"fowlis", "flouris"--is called upon to praise the "brycht day ster" now rising. Of course, these phenomena recur in the next poem, in highly stylized, artificial contexts as part of the machinery of the allegory. But, in fact, reading them together suggests the extent to which these phenomena are artificial in both worlds, in the world of devotion and the world of secular romance. In the context of these poems, a stanza like the following seems a sort of medieval version of the pathetic fallacy:

Now spring vp, flouris, fra the rute, Reuert yow vpwart naturaly, In honour of the blissit frute That rais vp fro the rose Mary. Lay out your levis lustely, Fro deid take lyfe now at the lest, In wirschip of that prince worthy, Qui nobis puer natus est.

The question remains; who will read Dunbar now? Although one cannot say of Dunbar that the sentence of his mind is diffuse to find, to paraphrase Skelton's dismissal of Lydgate, the fact remains that the Monk of Bury was one of Dunbar's acknowledged masters, as the coda to The Goldyn Targe makes clear. In fact, for all of his Scottishness, Dunbar identified himself as a poet in what amounts to an English tradition (to the extent that such national labels make any sense in a late medieval context). In the "Lament for the Makaris" the tradition expands to include poets from all over England and Scotland. But, as The Targe demonstrates, Chaucer, Gower, and, as has been argued by some critics, even more importantly Lydgate serve as Dunbar's masters. Dunbar seems to have eschewed the longer narrative modes that Chaucer and Henryson handled so well (and that Lydgate either struggled with or not, depending on your taste). In this Dunbar was in line with the direction that poetry was moving, toward the lyric as the dominant mode. But the diction, the subject matters, the style of Dunbar's poetry--all this owes much to Lydgate. And it is this, I believe, that presents a problem for contemporary readers (at least on this side of the Atlantic).

The line has become the weight-bearing member of contemporary poetic architecture. An audience attuned to that fact has difficulty, sometimes, with poetry written in versions of Middle English with its habits of prolixity or, again, depending on your point of view, its celebration of rhetorical ornatus. The seeker after the stress-bearing line (pun intended) will think that she or he has found things to appreciate in Dunbar. For instance, in the first poem, the meditation on Christ's passion, a reader coming from a poetry workshop will read these two lines and think herself in congenial surroundings:

"At everie straik ran furth ane strand Quhilk mycht haue ransonit warldis thre."

The movement from the immediate realistic detail of the streaming blood on Christ's flesh opening to the massive weight of the second line's expansion into the metaphysical and theological portent of the scene seems masterful, the kind of use of a line break to explode, as it were, the sense of the poem so valued in creative writing programs. If such a reader were to consult Bawcutt's note to the lines she would find, alas, that this is not a signal flash of poetic genius, but rather, a craftsman adapting an already well-worn figure. And then, should she or he continue in the poem, s/he would be confronted by these sorts of typical medievalisms (for lack of a better term): "thornis scharp and kene", "That it was pietie for to se", "all his vanes brist and brak" and so forth. As with most medieval literature, Dunbar requires an education of his readers: an education in vanished ways of thinking (mainly of a medieval religious nature), and an education in taste (learning to appreciate, for instance, rhetorical excesses for what they are: expressions of exuberance in the hands of a poet like Dunbar), to say nothing, of course, of an education in philology.

This is not to say that Dunbar would not offer to the lover of the powers of lyric poetry great wonders. Tom Scott has identified this stanza from "The Lament for the Makaris" as among the greatest stanzas of poetry ever written:

No stait in erd heir standis sickir. As with the wynd wavis the wickir, So waueris this warldis vanite: Timor mortis conturbat me.

To quote Scott, "This is great classical art, an art of bare statement, stark as Greek tragedy, bleak as the prospect of death itself, the hard granite face of destiny, unsmiling, unflinching, unmoving" (248). This is one of Dunbar's poems that does seem to stick in the minds of those who encountered it in undergraduate or graduate classes. The catalogue of waste, of all the human effort lost now to the ages, is as humbling as ever.

Another poem of great power on the fear of death, "In to thir dirk and drublie dayis", bears comparison with Philip Larkin's great fear of death poem, "Aubade". Like Larkin's opening description of the night fears descending on one all alone, Dunbar sketches the state of mind of the nocturnal depressive: "I walk, I turne, sleip may I nocht, / I vexit am with havie thocht." And, like Larkin in the deep night who "sees what's really always there: / Unresting death, a whole day nearer now", Dunbar is visited by a vision of death:

Syne Deid castis ype his yettis wyd, Saying, "Thir oppin sall the abyd; Albeid that thow wer neuer sa stout, Vndir this lyntall sall thow lowt, Thair is nane vther way besyde.

Larkin's poem ends with the only consolation available to a consciousness bereft of religious comfort ("that vast moth- eaten musical brocade"): "all the uncaring / Intricate rented world begins to rouse...Work has to be done. / Postmen like doctors go from house to house." Dunbar's poem, though issuing from a much more explicitly religious context, concludes in a way that suggests a kindred spirit to Larkin:

Yit quhone the nycht begynnis to schort It dois my spreit sum pairt confort, Off thocht oppressit with the schowris. Cum, lustie Symmer, with thi flowris, That I may leif in sum disport.

Still, though, the question remains, again: who will read this? Although Priscilla Bawcutt has performed a mighty service for this great long-dead poet, one wonders to what end ultimately. I recognize that this sort of lament has become de rigueur in reviews of scholarly editions of older literatures, still I feel I must voice it. In its present form, Bawcutt's edition is exceedingly hard to get in the United States. It is available through the Internet shopping services, but generally at something like 70 pounds, which puts it far out of the reach of most readers of poetry and most students and scholars of medieval literature. Even libraries, increasingly under fiscal pressure, will no doubt think long and hard before investing that kind of money in an edition, great as it is, of a poet little read. And that is, of course, a pity. For this is a poet who deserves to be read beyond the walls of the academy. And Priscilla Bawcutt's superb edition presents this poet in all of his wonder in a form that does justice to his power.