Chapter XXX: Dunbar--The Wedding Of The Thistle And The Rose
THE fifteenth century, the century in which King James I reigned and died, has been called the "Golden Age of Scottish Poetry," because of the number of poets who lived and wrote then. And so, although I am only going to speak of one other Scottish poet at present, you must remember that there were at this time many more. But of them all William Dunbar is counted the greatest. And although I do not think you will care to read his poems for a very long time to come, I write about him here both because he was a great poet and because with one of his poems, The Thistle and the Rose, he takes us back, as it were, over the Border into England once more.
William Dunbar was perhaps born in 1460 and began his life when James III began his reign. He was of noble family, but there is little to know about his life, and as with Chaucer, what we learn about the man himself we learn chiefly from his writing. We know, however, that he went to the University of St. Andrews, and that it was intended that he should go into the Church. In those days in Scotland there were only two things a gentleman might be - either he must be a soldier or a priest. Dunbar's friends, perhaps seeing that he was fond of books, thought it best to make him a priest. But indeed he had made a better soldier. For a time, however, although he was quite unsuited for such a life, he became a friar. As a preaching friar he wandered far.
"For in every town and place
Of all England from Berwick to Calais,
I have in my habit made good cheer.
In friar's weed full fairly have I fleichet,*
In it have I in pulpit gone and preached,
In Dernton kirk and eke in Canterbury,
In it I passed at Dover o'er the ferry
Through Picardy, and there the people teached."
Dunbar himself knew that he had no calling to be a friar or preacher. He confesses that
"As long as I did bear the friar's style
In me, God wot, was many wrink and wile,
In me was falseness every wight to flatter,
Which might be banished by no holy water;
I was aye ready all men to beguile."
So after a time we find him no longer a friar, but a courtier. Soon we find him, like Chaucer, being sent on business to the Continent for his King, James IV. Like Chaucer he receives pensions; like Chaucer, too, he knows sometimes what it is to be poor, and he has left more than one poem in which he prays the King to remember his old and faithful servant and not leave him in want. We find him also begging the King for a Church living, for although he had no mind to be a friar, he wanted a living, perhaps merely that he might be sure of a home in his old age. But for some reason the King never gave him what he asked. We have nearly ninety poems of Dunbar, none of them very long. But although he is a far better poet than Barbour, or even perhaps than James I, he is not for you so interesting in the meantime. First, his language is very hard to understand. One reason for this is that he knows so many words and uses them all. "He language had at large," says one of his fellow poets and countrymen.* And so, although his thought is always clear, it is not always easy to follow it through his strange words. Second, his charm as a poet lies not so much in what he tells, not so much in his story, as in the way that he tells it. And so, even if you are already beginning to care for words and the way in which they are used, you may not yet care so much that you can enjoy poetry written in a tongue which, to us is almost a foreign tongue. But if some day you care enough about it to master this old-world poet, you will find that there is a wonderful variety in his poems. He can be glad and sad, tender and fierce. Sometimes he seems to smile gently upon the sins and sorrows of his day, at other times he pours forth upon them words of savage scorn, grim and terrible. But when we take all his work together, we find that we have such a picture of the times in which he lived as perhaps only Chaucer besides has given us.
*Sir David Lyndsay.
For us the most interesting poem is The Thistle and the Rose. This was written when Margaret, the daughter of King Henry VII of England, came to be the wife of King James IV of Scotland. Dunbar was the "Rhymer of Scotland," that is the poet-laureate of his day, and so, as was natural, he made a poem upon this great event. For a poet-laureate is the King's poet, and it is his duty to make poems on all the great things that may happen to the King. For this he receives a certain amount of money and a cask of wine every year. But it is the honor and not the reward which is now prized.
Dunbar begins by telling us that he lay dreaming one May morning. You will find when you come to read much of the poetry of those days, that poets were very fond of making use of a dream by which to tell a story. It was then a May morning when Dunbar lay asleep.
"When March was with varying winds past,
And April had, with her silver showers,
Tane leave of nature with an orient blast;
And pleasant May, that mother is of flowers,
Had made the birds to begin their hours*
Among the tender arbours red white,
Whose harmony to hear it was delight."
*Orisons - morning prayers.
Then it seemed that May, in the form of a beautiful lady, stood beside his bed. She called to him, "Sluggard, awake anon for shame, and in mine honor go write something."
"'What,' quoth I, ' shall I wuprise at morrow?'
For in this May few birdies heard I sing.
'They have more cause to weep and plain their sorrow,
Thy air it is not wholesome or benign!'"
"Nevertheless rise," said May. And so the lazy poet rose and followed the lady into a lovely garden. Here he saw many wonderful and beautiful sights. He saw all the birds, and beasts, and flowers in the world pass before Dame Nature.
"Then called she all flowers that grew in field,
Discerning all their fashions and properties;
Upon the awful Thistle she beheld,
And saw him keeped* by a bush of spears;
Considering him so able for the wars,
A radiant crown of rubies she him gave,
And said, 'In field go forth, and fend the lave.**
And, since thou art a king, be thou discreet,
Herb without virtue hold thou not of such price
As herb of virtue and of odour sweet;
And let no nettle vile, and full of vice,
Mate him to the goodly fleur-de-lis,
Nor let no wild weed full of churlishness
Compare her to the lily's nobleness.
Nor hold thou no other flower in such dainty
As the fresh Rose, of colour red and white;
For if thou dost, hurt is thine honesty
Considering that no flower is so perfect,
So full of virtue, pleasance and delight,
So full of blissful angelic beauty,
Imperial birth, honour and dignity.'"
**Rest = others.
By the Thistle, of course, Dunbar means James IV, and by the Rose the Princess Margaret.
Then to the Rose Dame Nature spoke, and crowned her with "a costly crown with shining rubies bright." When that was done all the flowers rejoiced, crying out, "Hail be thou, richest Rose." Then all the birds - the thrush, the lark, the nightingale--cried "Hail," and "the common voice uprose of birdies small" till all the garden rang with joy.
"Then all the birdies sang with such a shout,
That I anon awoke where that I lay,
And with a start I turned me about
To see this court: but all were went away:
Then up I leaned, half yet in fear,
And thus I wrote, as ye have heard to forrow,*
Of lusty May upon the nineth morrow."
*Before = already.
Thus did Dunbar sing of the wedding of the Thistle and the Rose. It was a marriage by which the two peoples hoped once more to bring a lasting peace between the two countries. And although the hope was not at once fulfilled, it was a hundred years later. For upon the death of Elizabeth, James VI of Scotland, the great- grandson of Margaret Tudor and James Stuart, received the crown of England also, thus joining the two rival countries. Then came the true marriage of the Thistle and the Rose.
Meanwhile, as long as Henry VII remained upon the throne, there was peace between the two peoples. But when Henry VIII began to rule, his brother-in-law of Scotland soon found cause to quarrel with him. Then once again the Thistle and the Rose met, not in peace, but in war. On the red field of Flodden once again the blood of a Scottish King stained the grass. Once again Scotland was plunged in tears.
After "that most dolent day"* we hear no more of Dunbar. It is thought by some that he, as many another knight, courtier and priest, laid down his life fighting for his King, and that he fell on Flodden field. By others it is thought that he lived to return to Scotland, and that the Queen gave to him one of the now many vacant Church livings, and that there he spent his last days in quietness and peace.
*Sir David Lyndsay.
This may have been so. For although Dunbar makes no mention of Flodden in his poems, it is possible that he may have done so in some that are lost. But where this great poet lies taking his last rest we do not know. It may be he was laid in some quiet country churchyard. It may be he met death suddenly amid the din and horror of battle.
BOOKS TO READ
In illustration of this chapter may be read "Edinburgh after Flodden" in Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers, by W. E. Aytoun. The best edition of the Poems of Dunbar in the original is edited by J. Small.Next