Fritz Kemmler

title.none: Dunbar, The Complete Works (Fritz Kemmler)

identifier.other: baj9928.0503.009 05.03.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Fritz Kemmler , University of Tuebingen,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Dunbar, William. John Conlee, ed. The Complete Works. Series: TEAMS Middle English Text Series. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2004. Pp. ix, 474. $25.00 (pb). ISBN: 1-58044-086-X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.03.09

Dunbar, William. John Conlee, ed. The Complete Works. Series: TEAMS Middle English Text Series. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2004. Pp. ix, 474. $25.00 (pb). ISBN: 1-58044-086-X.

Reviewed by:

Fritz Kemmler
University of Tuebingen

This edition of Dunbar's works is a welcome addition to the TEAMS Middle English Texts series. Just like its companion volumes in the series, Conlee's book offers a brief introduction (1-13) devoted to the topics 'Dunbar's Poetry,' 'The Arrangement of the Poems' (with the subsections 'Poems Devotional and Moral,' 'Poems Public and Private,' 'Poems in the Courtly Tradition' and 'Poems Comic, Satiric and Erotic'), 'The Early Texts and Manuscripts' and, finally, 'The Presentation of the Texts.' Next follows a bibliography (13-24). The main body of the volume is made up of the texts (25-214) and the explanatory notes (215-438). The sections 'Textal Notes' (439-466), 'Index of First Lines' (467-469) and the 'Glossary' (471-474) complete the volume.

My review will start with the 'Glossary.' Summarizing the main differences between Middle English and Middle Scots Conlee remarks that "the reader of Chaucerian Middle English will have relatively little trouble with reading Scots, provided that some basic dialectal differences are borne in mind" (471). Some of the basic differences between these two dialects are then illustrated in two sections, of which the first deals with vowels, the second with consonants. Conlee's hints in both sections are helpful-- something that cannot be said of the meagre 'Glossary' with its bare 209 entries (17 of which devoted exclusively to highly frequent 'wh-' words with the typical Middle Scots spelling 'quh-'). In view of the layout of the texts with numerous marginal glosses intended to facilitate the act of reading, this 'Glossary' is really superfluous.

Turning now to the 'Introduction' is should be emphasized that Conlee's argument demonstrating the arrangements of the texts is convincing. Having carefully laid down his editorial decisions one really wonders why these decisions resulting in four major thematic groups (see above) are mirrored in the table of contents (v-vii) but not in the main part of the books. Had the useless glossary been sacrificed in favor of rubrics to the four thematic sections the most important part of the book would have been more readable. To mention but the first instance: The first thematic divide occurs between texts 29 and 30. Text 30, 'The Thistle and the Rose' starts at the bottom of p.73--where there is not enough space for the title and the entire first stanza (ll.6-7, rhyme royal, continued on p.74). A rubric, "Poems Public and Private," at the top of p.74 would have been helpful indeed.

I now turn to the main sections of the book, texts, and explanatory notes. As far as I can tell, the presentation of the texts is accurate, though I would have preferred a different layout (see preceding paragraph). There is indeed little to quarrel with the marginal glosses--except for one instance where the gloss is definitely wrong. In 'The Table of Confession,' l.149-- 'That seis my hert'--'seis' is glossed with 'says.' The gloss should read 'sees' instead; the meaning 'says' is excluded by the argument developed in this particular stanza of the poem. 'Seis' occurs a second time in poem 47, l.4, 'All things seis'; there, 'seis' is correctly glossed with 'sees.'

Since much of Dunbar's poetry contains highly personal elements and quite a few poems deal with contemporary events the quality of an edition of Dunbar's works aiming primarily at undergraduate students and the more general reader depends to a considerable extent on the quality of the explanatory notes. Conlee's notes are reliable on the whole. However, in a few instances the notes lack substance. In the headnote to poem no.5, 'In Praise of Women,' Conlee states: "While 'In Praise of Women' is a celebration of all women, what it especially praises is mothers and motherhood and the most glorious mother of all, the Virgin mother. (If Mother's Day had been celebrated in the sixteenth century, one could imagine this poem as having been written for that occasion)" (227). While I certainly agree with the first sentence quoted I have problems with the sentence in brackets-- what information conducive to understanding and appreciating Dunbar's poem can be gathered from a witty aside like this? To take a further instance. In poem no. 6, 'The Manner of Going to Confession,' ll.28-29 take up the important aspect of the 'circumstances' of a particular sin: "Of syn gif thou wald have deliverance, / Thow sulde it tell with all the circumstance." On p. 229 Conlee provides a rather meager explanatory note for one of the central concepts developed in numerous medieval confessional and catechetical manuals, the 'circumstantia peccati.' Conlee simply states: "The full circumstances surrounding a particular sin should also be recounted." That the 'circumstances' were important for the confessor to judge the nature of a particular sin is not mentioned at all. In the synodal statutes issued for the diocese of Coventry between 1224 and 1237 we find the following remarks in the 'Tract on Confession and Penance' issued together with the statutes:"Generaliter in omni confessione considerande sunt iste circumstantieque notantur per hunc versum: Quis, quid, ubi, quibus auxiliis, curquomodo quando." [[1]]In the headnote to the same poem Conlee remarks: "One curious side note in the poem is the speaker's admonition (in lines 29-35) to select one's confessor with care, comments that imply a criticism of some of his fellow clergymen." What Conlee terms "one curious side note" is really one of the central aspects in the discussion of the qualities of the confessor (usually the parish priest) in the context of the sacrament of penance. The importance of this aspect is also stressed in catechetical works composed for the use of laymen:The seuenthe poynt ys a gode resun,'That thy shryfte be wysly doun,'That ys to sey, to a wys man,That thy shryfte vndyrstonde kan;Nat to one that hath no wytOf yndyrstondyng of holy wryt.Seynt Austyn seyth thys skyl,Do thyr-aftyr who so wyl,"Of synne, who so wyl hym lese,A wyse shryftfadyr behoueth hym chese;And that may bynde and vnbynde,Swych a man behoueth hym fynde." [[2]]I also disagree with some of Conlee's notes on a third level. At times his explanatory notes to linguistic problems rather obscure than clarify the issue. Thus, the note to the phrase "I me schrife" (poem no.7, l.9) is somewhat puzzling: "The dative of agency construction, with the recipient of the action as subject, heightens the idea that shrift is an act performed on oneself" (231). I take "me" to be the unmarked reflexive use of the personal pronoun, i.e. "myself"; "me" would then be accusative, not dative.

To sum up: Conlee's edition is a welcome addition in the TEAMS series. Readers will have a reliable textual basis and numerous really helpful explanatory notes to one of the more important corpora of late medieval English texts.


[[1]] Quoted from: Councils and Synods With Other Documents Relating to the English Church. II: A.D. 1205-1313. Ed. F. M. Powicke and C. R. Cheney (Oxford, 1964), p. 223.

[[2]] Quoted from Robert Mannyng, Handlyng Synne, vv. 11576-11587.