William Dunbar

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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This article is about William Dunbar, the poet. For the fictional character in Code Lyoko, see William Dunbar (Code Lyoko). For the Scottish politician, see Sir William Dunbar, 7th Baronet. For the U.S. politician, see William Dunbar (Louisiana). For other persons named William Dunbar, see William Dunbar (disambiguation).

William Dunbar (c. 1460 – c. 1520), Scottish poet, was probably a native of East Lothian. This is assumed from a satirical reference in the Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie, where, too, it is hinted that he was a member of the noble house of Dunbar.


  • 1 Life
  • 2 Work and Influence
  • 3 First printed obscenity
  • 4 "Back to Dunbar"
  • 5 References
  • 6 External links


His name appears in 1477 in the Register of the Faculty of Arts at the University of St Andrews, among the Determinants or Bachelors of Arts, and in 1479 among the masters of the university. Thereafter he joined the order of Observantine Franciscans, at St Andrews or Edinburgh, and proceeded to France as a wandering friar. He spent a few years in Picardy, and was still abroad when, in 1491, Bothwell's mission to secure a bride for the young James IV reached the French court. There is no direct evidence that he accompanied Blackadder, archbishop of Glasgow, on a similar embassy to Spain in 1495. On the other hand, we know that he proceeded with that prelate to England on his more successful mission in 1501.

Dunbar had meanwhile (about 1500) returned to Scotland, and had become a priest at court, and a royal pensioner. His literary life begins with his attachment to James's household. All that is known of him from this date to his death about 1520 is derived from the poems or from entries in the royal registers of payments of pension and grants of livery. He is spoken of as the Rhymer of Scotland in the accounts of the English privy council dealing with the visit of the mission for the hand of Margaret Tudor, rather because he wrote a poem in praise of London, than because, as has been stated, he held the post of laureate at the Scottish court. In 1511 he accompanied the queen to Aberdeen and commemorated her visit in verse. Other pieces such as the Orisoun ("Quhen the Gouernour past in France"), apropos of the setting out of the regent Albany, are of historical interest, but they tell us little more than that Dunbar was alive. The date of his death is uncertain. He is named in Lyndsay's Testament and Complaynt of the Papyngo (1530) with poets then dead, and the reference precedes that to Douglas who had died in 1522. He certainly survived his royal patron. We may not be far out in saying that he died about 1520.

Work and Influence

Dunbar's reputation among his immediate successors was considerable. By later criticism, stimulated in some measure by Scott's eulogy that he is "unrivalled by any which Scotland has produced," he has held the highest place among the northern makars. The praise, though it has been at times exaggerated, is on the whole just, certainly in respect of variety of work and mastery of form. He belongs, with James I, Henryson and Douglas, to what was formerly called the Scottish Chaucerian school, although the influence of Chaucer on these writers was in fact minimal. In his allegorical poems reminiscences of Chaucer's style and literary habit are frequent, but his wilder humour and greater heat of blood give him opportunities in which the Chaucerian tradition is not helpful, or even possible.

One hundred and one poems have been ascribed to Dunbar. Of these at least ninety are generally accepted as his: of the eleven attributed to him it would be hard to say that they should not be considered authentic. Most doubt has clung to his verse tale The Freiris of Berwik.

Dunbar's chief allegorical poems are The Goldyn Targe and The Thrissil and the Rois. The motif of the former is the poet's futile endeavour, in a dream, to ward off the arrows of Dame Beautee by Reason's "scheld of gold." When wounded and made prisoner, he discovers the true beauty of the lady: when she leaves him, he is handed over to Heaviness. The noise of the ship's guns, as the company sails off, wakes the poet to the real pleasures of a May morning. Dunbar works on the same theme in a shorter poem, known as Beauty and the Prisoner. The Thrissil and the Rois is a prothalamium in honour of James IV and Margaret Tudor, in which the heraldic allegory is based on the familiar beast-parliament.

The greater part of Dunbar's work is occasional--personal and social satire, complaints, orisons and pieces of a humorous character. His best known orison, usually remembered as Timor mortis conturbat me which is repeated as the third line of each verse, is titled Lament for the Makers and takes the form of a prayer in memory of the medieval Scots poets.

The humorous works show Dunbar at his best, and point the difference between him and Chaucer. The best specimen of this work, of which the outstanding characteristics are sheer whimsicality and topsy-turvy humour, is The Ballad of Kynd Kittok. This strain runs throughout many of the occasional poems, and is not wanting in odd passages in Dunbar's contemporaries; and it has the additional interest of showing a direct historical relationship with the work of later Scottish poets, and chiefly with that of Robert Burns. Dunbar's satire is never the gentle funning of Chaucer: more often it becomes invective. Examples of this type are The Satire on Edinburgh, The General Satire, the Epitaph on Donald Owre, and the powerful vision of The Dance of the Sevin Deidlie Synnis. In the Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie, an outstanding specimen of a favourite northern form, analogous to the continental estrif, or tenzone, he and his rival reach a height of scurrility which is certainly without parallel in English literature. This poem has the additional interest of showing the antipathy between the Scots-speaking inhabitants of the Lothians and the Gaelic-speaking folk of Carrick, in southern Ayrshire, where Walter Kennedy was from.

Dunbar also contributed to poetry of the natural environment, as exemplified in his description of Fowlsheugh, a notable Scottish sheer cliff area on the North Sea near Dunnottar Castle.

First printed obscenity

Dunbar has the curious distinction of having been responsible for the first printed use of the word "fuck": his 1503 poem "Brash of Wowing" [Collected Poems, ed. Mackenzie SEE 'In secret place this hyndir nycht'] includes the lines: "Yit be his feirris he wald haif fukkit:/ Ye brek my hairt, my bony ane." He thus established a long and noble tradition of which some critics of Kelman or Welsh appear to be quite unaware. The powerful word which Dunbar put into print in 1508 was not decriminalised until 1960.

His The flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie also contains the term cuntbittin (meaning afflicted with venereal disease), the first known use of the word cunt in literature (although Chaucer used queynte as a euphemism for the word in the Canterbury Tales). This poem also contains the line [38] 'Wan-fukkit funling, that natour maid ane yrle'.

"Back to Dunbar"

For the Scottish Literary Renaissance in the mid-twentieth century, William Dunbar was a touchstone. Many tried to imitate his style, and "high brow" subject matter, such as Hugh MacDiarmid and Sydney Goodsir Smith. As Hugh MacDiarmid himself said, they had to go, "back to Dunbar".

William Dunbar is commemorated in Makars' Court, outside The Writers' Museum, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh.

Selections for Makars' Court are made by The Writers' Museum; The Saltire Society; The Scottish Poetry Library.

  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition article "William Dunbar", a publication now in the public domain.
  • The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy
  • The Ballade of Lord Bernard Stewart
  • The Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo
  • Lament for the Makars (Timor mortis conturbat me)
  • Kynd Kittok
  • The Testament of Mr Andro Kennedy
  • Alternative sources:

    • Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie
    • Lament for the Makars
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