The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

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Date: Tue, 16 Oct 2001 07:01:20 -0400
Subject: PotD

Lament for the Makers

I that in heill was and gladn´┐Żss
Am trublit now with great sickness
And feblit with infirmitie:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

Our plesance here is all vain glory,
This fals world is but transitory,
The flesh is bruckle, the Feynd is slee:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

The state of man does change and vary,
Now sound, now sick, now blyth, now sary,
Now dansand mirry, now like to die:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

No state in Erd here standis sicker;
As with the wynd wavis the wicker
So wannis this world's vanitie:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

Unto the Death gois all Estatis,
Princis, Prelatis, and Potestatis,
Baith rich and poor of all degree:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

He takis the knichtis in to the field
Enarmit under helm and scheild;
Victor he is at all mellie:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

That strong unmerciful tyrand
Takis, on the motheris breast sowkand,
The babe full of benignitie:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

He takis the campion in the stour,
The captain closit in the tour,
The lady in bour full of bewtie:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

He spairis no lord for his piscence,
Na clerk for his intelligence;
His awful straik may no man flee:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

Art-magicianis and astrologgis,
Rethoris, logicianis, and theologgis,
Them helpis no conclusionis slee:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

In medecine the most practicianis,
Leechis, surrigianis, and physicianis,
Themself from Death may not supplee:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

I see that makaris amang the lave
Playis here their padyanis, syne gois to grave;
Sparit is nocht their facultie:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

He has done petuously devour
The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour,
The Monk of Bury, and Gower, all three:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

The good Sir Hew of Eglintoun,
Ettrick, Heriot, and Wintoun,
He has tane out of this cuntrie:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

That scorpion fell has done infeck
Maister John Clerk, and James Afflek,
Fra ballat-making and tragedie:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

Holland and Barbour he has berevit;
Alas! that he not with us levit
Sir Mungo Lockart of the Lee:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

Clerk of Tranent eke he has tane,
That made the anteris of Gawaine;
Sir Gilbert Hay endit has he:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

He has Blind Harry and Sandy Traill
Slain with his schour of mortal hail,
Quhilk Patrick Johnstoun might nought flee:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

He has reft Merseir his endite,
That did in luve so lively write,
So short, so quick, of sentence hie:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

He has tane Rowll of Aberdene,
And gentill Rowll of Corstorphine;
Two better fallowis did no man see:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

In Dunfermline he has tane Broun
With Maister Robert Henrysoun;
Sir John the Ross enbrast has he:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

And he has now tane, last of a,
Good gentil Stobo and Quintin Shaw,
Of quhom all wichtis hes pitie:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

Good Maister Walter Kennedy
In point of Death lies verily;
Great ruth it were that so suld be:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

Sen he has all my brether tane,
He will naught let me live alane;
Of force I man his next prey be:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

Since for the Death remeid is none,
Best is that we for Death dispone,
After our death that live may we:
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

--William Dunbar

GLOSSARY:heill] health.bruckle] brittle, feeble.slee] sly.dansand]
dancing.sicker] sure.wicker] willow.wannis] wanes.mellie] mellay.sowkand]
sucking.campion] champion.stour] fight.piscence] puissance.straik]
stroke.supplee] save.makaris] poets.the lave] the leave, the rest.padyanis]
pageants.anteris] adventures.schour] shower.endite] inditing.fallowis]
fellows.wichtis] wights,] must.dispone] make disposition.

William Dunbar (c.1460-c.1513) has left vivid images of Scotland in the
reign of James IV, yet much in his own life, including the dates of his
birth and death, remains obscure. The Flyting, a verse quarrel between
Dunbar and another poet, Walter Kennedy, offers information as to his
ancestry, character and personal appearance, but in this type of poem it is
difficult to determine how much truth lies beneath the scurrilous insults.
Dunbar, however, was certainly a lowlander, from the Lothian region, and
spent many years in Edinburgh. He was well educated, and took a bachelor's
degree at the University of St Andrews in 1477 and a master's degree in
1479. Nothing definite is known of his activities between 1480 and 1500,
although he may have been abroad: some of his poems imply familiarity with
Denmark and France, and in the winter of 1500-1501 he was apparently in

The best-documented period of Dunbar's life is from 1500 to 1513; during
this time he received a "pensioun", or annual salary from James IV, as a
member of the royal household. By 1504 he had taken priest's orders, and is
later referred to as a "chaplain"; several poems voice his hopes for a
benefice, yet he is not known ever to have obtained even a humble parish
kirk. Well-educated churchmen at this time carried out many of the tasks of
government, and it is likely that Dunbar had some role in the royal
secretariat, as a clerk or envoy. His poems reveal familiarity with legal
usage and terminology, and he occasionally acted as a procurator, or
advocate, in the law courts. The last mention of Dunbar in the court
records is on 14th May 1513, but there is a gap in these records following
the battle of Flodden (September 1513), in which the King died; Dunbar may
have survived into the reign of James V, but there is no positive evidence
that he did so.

The Scottish court provided Dunbar with his livelihood and also his primary
audience. Many of his poems are addressed to the king or queen, or refer to
fellow-courtiers, ranging from humble fools to powerful officials, such as
the Treasurer. The Thrissill and the rose celebrates the wedding of James
IV to Margaret Tudor in 1503, and other poems are concerned with festive
events of this reign, such as the Tournament of the Black Lady (1507), the
arrival of the French envoy Bernard Stewart in 1508, and the Queen's visit
to Aberdeen in 1511. But many of Dunbar's poems cast a more satiric eye at
the activities of James IV's court, and convey an uneasy atmosphere of
self-seeking, envy and distrust.

Dunbar's favourite term for his own writings was "ballatis", a word that
then usually connoted short, often lyrical poems. Dunbar indeed stands out
from other late medieval poets for the brevity and compression of his
verse. He also called himself a "makar", a term that lays stress on the
poet as a skilled and versatile craftsman. Dunbar is famed for his
virtuosity, and was ready to write on almost any subject, from a painful
headache to a highly technical treatise on penance. He experimented with
many popular genres - elegy, panegyric, love epistle, beast fable, satiric
testament - but shows particular fondness for the medieval tradition of
dream poetry. His dream poems are characteristically varied: the most
famous is the Goldyn targe, a complex courtly allegory, in which love
triumphs over reason; another is a devout vision of the Crucifixion, whose
tone recalls the Mystery plays; and several others, grotesque in style and
satirical in purpose, might better be described as nightmares. Dunbar is
also an accomplished metrist. The Twa mariit wemen and the wedo shows his
mastery of alliterative verse, but he also employs a variety of stanzas,
ranging from rhyme royal to the popular carol. Many of his poems make a
witty use of refrains.

The degree of self-expression in Dunbar has been much debated. His few love
poems are highly conventional, and the "I" of several didactic pieces seems
largely a mouthpiece for orthodox morality. But poems such as In to thir
dirk and drublie days and I that in heill wes (often called The Lament for
the makaris) communicate, simply yet very poignantly, Dunbar's personal
response to death:

sen he [Death] has all my brether tane
He will naught lat me lif alane;
On forse I man [must] hys nyxt pray be:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Although Dunbar is not a profoundly autobiographical poet, his most
intimate-sounding voice is heard in the petitions, a small group of verse
epistles, addressed chiefly to the King. Their tone is characteristically
half-humorous, and half-melancholy; in one of the most successful Dunbar
adopts the persona of an old horse to convey his sense of rejection by the

Many of Dunbar's most original poems are sardonic and mocking in tone. His
targets include the familiar butts of late medieval comedy, such as friars
or tailors, but also extend to himself, his friends, and fellow-courtiers.
Perhaps the blackest comedy is to be found in The Twa mariit wemen and the
wedo in which three young women talk uninhibitedly of love, men and
marriage. Much influenced by the traditions of anti-feminist satire, this
is Dunbar's longest and most ambitious work. Dunbar also had a talent for
parody and burlesque, best illustrated by The Testament of Master Andro
Kennedy, and The Dirige, a small comic masterpiece.

Dunbar is master stylist. Bold and self-confident in his use of language,
he is highly sensitive both to the sound and the connotations of words. He
ranges from the high, often Latinate style of The Goldyn targe to the low,
colloquial, vulgar diction of The Flyting. He seizes the reader's attention
by arresting first lines, such as the explosive opening to his fine poem on
the Resurrection: "Done is a battell on the dragon blak". Dunbar's verse
abounds in unusual imagery, and is rich in irony, puns, and other forms of

Dunbar is not a learned or intellectual writer, but he is the most
brilliant of the early Scottish poets. despite the lapse of five centuries
he retains a power to move, to entertain, and even to shock his readers. It
is not surprising that when Hugh MacDiarmid sought a new model for modern
Scottish poetry - tough, witty, and unsentimental - he adopted as his
slogan, "Not Burns - Dunbar!"
Bio by Priscilla Bawcutt   [Taken from the book Discovering Scottish
writers, published by the Scottish Library Association.]

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