Dunbar—The Wedding of the Thistle and the Rose
T HE 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 writings. We
know, however, that he went to the University of
Dunbar himself knew that he had no calling to be a friar or preacher. He confesses that
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
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
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.
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."
"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.
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.
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
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-
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.
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,