THE STYLISTIC INFLUENCE OF THE ALLITERATIVE TRADITION
ON THE POETRY OF WILLIAM DUNBAR
N. LINDSAY MCFADYEN
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE COUNCIL OF
THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE
DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
TO MY PARENTS
I would like to thank my director, Dr. Richard H. Green, for
teaching me a great deal about Medieval literature, for once hinting
that William Dunbar might be a good dissertation topic, and for allow-
ing me almost complete freedom in developing my approach to Dunbar's
poetry. I would also like to acknowledge my gratitude to the other
members of my supervisory committee, Dr. Kevin M. McCarthy, for his
careful reading of the manuscript and many helpful suggestions, and
to Dr. D. Gary Miller, for the many comments and discussions to which
my investigation of Dunbar's prosody owes so much. Finally, I would
like to give very special thanks to Dr. Marie Nelson and to Dr. Norman
Fry for patience, help, and encouragement far above and beyond the
call of duty.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS . . . .
ABSTRACT . . . . . .
I INTRODUCTION. . . .
Notes . . . .
II THE AUREATE STYLE . .
Notes . . . .
III THE COMIC STYLE . .
Notes . . . .
IV THE PLAIN STYLE .
Notes . . . .
V PROSODY . . . .
Notes . . . .
LIST OF WORKS CITED . . .
. . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . .
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate Council
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
THE STYLISTIC INFLUENCE OF THE ALLITERATIVE TRADITION
ON THE POETRY OF WILLIAM DUNBAR
N. Lindsay McFadyen
Chairman: Richard H. Green
Major Department: English
Writing in Scotland around the beginning of the sixteenth century,
William Dunbar was one of the last poets to work in the tradition of
English alliterative verse. The purpose of this dissertation is to
investigate his use of that tradition, paying particular attention to
his handling of alliteration itself, and his use of traditional alliter-
ative formulas. The poems are considered in three groups--the aureate,
or high, style, the comic style, and the plain style.
In the aureate poems, such as "The Golden Targe," "The Thistle
and the Rose," or "Ane Ballat of Our Lady," Dunbar uses alliteration to
augment the effect of formal decoration produced by the Latinate diction.
In these poems, the alliteration is frequently used as a linking device,
and is often patterned to serve as a complement to meaning.
Dunbar demonstrates his debt to the alliterative tradition most
clearly, however, in the comic poems. He uses the unrhymed alliterative
long-line in "The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo," and
rhymed alliterative verse in "The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy." In
the dance poems, "Of a Dance in the Quenis Chalmer" and "The Dance of
the Sevin Deidly Synnis," he uses alliterating sounds both to help
characterize the dancers, and to create dance-like rhythmic patterns.
Dunbar uses alliterative formulas for comic effects by placing tradi-
tional formulas into unexpected, and sometimes bizarre, contexts.
Since for Dunbar the alliterative tradition is primarily a source
of ornamentation, the tradition is least influential in the least deco-
rated poems, those of the plain style. Even when alliteration is used
frequently in one of these poems, as it is in "The Petition of the Gray
Horse, Auld Dunbar," it lacks the careful patterning found in the other
styles. The most common use of alliteration in these poems is to con-
trast a brief alliterating passage to the simplicity of the poem in which
it appears. This technique is used, for example, in "Meditatioun in
Wyntir" and "To the King That He War Johne Thomsounis Man."
The final chapter is a study of Dunbar's prosody, using Morris
Halle's and Samuel J. Keyser's theory of iambic verse, and Paul Kipar-
sky's theory of morphophonemic variation in poetry. The purpose of this
chapter is two-fold. First, it attempts to demonstrate that in some
passages Dunbar uses iambic verse to produce metrical effects reminiscent
of the alliterative long-line. Second, the chapter attempts to demon-
strate that an adequate theory of prosody must take into account not only,
as Halle and Keyser do, metrical complexity, the degree to which a line
deviates from the "normal" iambic pattern of unstressed-stressed, but
also the linguistic complexity, the deviations from the spoken norm which
are permissible in poetry. Linguistic complexity is explained in terms
of what Kiparsky calls the "metrical range," that is, the linguistic
options open to the poet in placing a line of poetry into a metrical
form. Dunbar's metrical range includes options permitting him to ignore
unstressed vowels in certain environments, and to give some nominal and
verbal suffixes syllabic value. In addition, Dunbar has the poetic
option of rendering some lexical stresses metrically insignificant,
and of placing stress on normally stressless syntactic dependents, such
as prepositions and auxiliary verbs.
A little more than sixty years after the death of William Dunbar,
King James VI turned his attention to the instruction of Scottish poets.
One bit of royal advice makes an excellent starting point for this inves-
tigation of Dunbar's poetry: "Let all zour verse be Literall, sa far as
may be quhatsumeuer kynde they be of. . By Literall I meane, that the
masit pairt of zour lyne, sail rynne vpon a letter." To "rynne vpon a
letter" is, for King James, to alliterate. King James's advice clearly
implies that a tradition of alliteration had permeated every form of
Scottish poetry. The purpose of this dissertation is to examine Dunbar's
use of alliteration throughout his work, and to relate his use of this
device to the tradition of alliterative poetry.
Before considering Dunbar's debt to the alliterative tradition, a
brief survey of criticism is in order. Critics have generally found three
strands of influence in Dunbar's work--the fourteenth century southern
poetry of Chaucer and Lydgate; French poetry, especially Villon; and
finally the native alliterative tradition.
The fifteenth century Scottish "Makars" have been traditionally
termed "The Scottish Chaucerians." While Dunbar specifically acknowl-
edges his debt to Chaucer in "The Golden Targe" (11. 253-261), this
traditional label implies a much greater influence than anyone has been
able to prove. William Mackay Mackenzie is certainly right in his sug-
gestion that any "Chaucerian" influence on Dunbar is to be found in the
general style of all southern poetry:
What appeals to Dunbar, however, is Chaucer's treatment of
"oure rude language out of which he had contrived some-
thing that was really literature. In this achievement he
associates Gower, not undeservedly, and Lydgate. It is
the style of these writers, as we should say, that primarily
appeals to him.3
The nature and extent of this stylistic influence is difficult to define,
and John Speirs is disinclined to admit any substantial Chaucerian influ-
ence on Dunbar: "To Dunbar Chaucer has become the 'rose of rethoris all';
the phrase is sufficient to awaken doubt as to the substantiality of
Dunbar's appreciation of Chaucer. An examination of his poetry reveals
that as a poet he is in fact as different from Chaucer as it was possible
for another medieval poet to be.4 Denton Fox echoes Speir's opinion,
but continues to point out that despite his differences, Dunbar owed
much to Chaucer:
First, it seems clear that Dunbar and Chaucer are about as
unlike as any two poets can be. Chaucer's poems are typi-
cally narrative, philosophical, richly suggestive, and lengthy;
Dunbar's poems are just the opposite. Secondly, it seems
clear that Dunbar is immensely indebted to Chaucer. His
debts arc of two kinds, neither of which is very susceptible
to measurement. On the technical level, Dunbar's sophisticated
metrics, rhetorical devices and diction surely descend, in part,
from Chaucer. The question here is not so much of Chaucer
inventing new techniques as of his naturalising some of the
graces of Continental verse and of his emphasizing, and so
strengthening, certain features of the native tradition.
One could be precise, and point to certain words and stanzaic
forms which Dunbar borrowed from Chaucer, or very often from
Lydgate, but the more important part of the debt is more
intangible: Dunbar's prevailing syllabic metrics, for instance,
and his willingness to accept into his poetry rhetorical figures
and learned words.5
Fox's "yes and no" attitude toward Chaucerian influences on Dunbar is
unsatisfying, but very sensible. In his tremendous versatility, Dunbar
seems to have plundered virtually every stylistic tradition available to
him, so that it is difficult to sort out threads of influence, and to
prove influence in any particular instance. Fox is also quite correct
in another point which is frustrating to anyone attempting to show a
poetic influence in Dunbar: the most important influences are likely
to be intangible. Dunbar's verbal gift could take another poet's tech-
niques and put them to use in poems which seem uniquely "Dunbarian."
If a direct link between Chaucer and Dunbar is difficult to prove,
another approach is to find an intermediary. Pierrepont H. Nichols sug-
gests that the most direct influence on Dunbar was not Chaucer, but Lyd-
gate, and that Dunbar might more properly be called "a Scottish Lydgatian."6
Nichols points out that both Dunbar and Lydgate wrote a number of moral
didactic poems, while Chaucer produced only one, and in examining the
moral poems of Lydgate and Dunbar, concludes that Dunbar's poems "were
strongly influenced by the vast array of Lydgate's sententious moral
verse. This evidence consists of frequent parallels in tone, purpose,
content, design, and stanzaic form, and in some cases of striking verbal
similarities.7 Nichols strengthens his case by finding Dunbar most
similar to Lydgate when Lydgate is least similar to Chaucer. In a later
article on Lydgate's contribution to the aureate terms favored by the
Scottish poets, Nichols concludes that "the typical aureate style em-
ployed by the Scottish-Chaucerians is modelled directly upon those works
by Lydgate which show a distinct deviation from the true Chaucerian type
of diction."8 Ronald D. S. Jack, while acknowledging the value of
Nichols's work, has offered a useful correction, demonstrating that
although Dunbar borrowed from Lydgate, he was more restrained, and a
better craftsman: "Dunbar did not carry these techniques to the extremes
of the English poet. Further, his poetic vision was much more precise
than Lydgate's, tending naturally towards short lyrics rather than long
narrative verse; brief, almost humorised character portraits, rather than
tedious descriptions bolstered by the moralizing and Biblical associations,
which are necessary parts in Lydgate's thought progression."9 In addition,
some of the verbal parallels cited by Nichols are simply the result of
Lydgate's and Dunbar's working with the same traditional materials, par-
ticularly in their religious poems.10 At first glance Lydgate's influ-
ence seems more promising than Chaucer's because it is more specific.
Both Nichols and Jack are able to point to poems or lines in Lydgate
which probably influenced poems or lines in Dunbar. On the other hand,
the very specificity of their arguments limits their appeal. While we
can see Lydgate's stamp on a few poems, the general impression of Lyd-
gate's verbosity is very different from the brief, if highly ornamental,
poems of Dunbar. While Lydgate's influence may be useful in understand-
ing a few poems, it does not give a very good overall viewpoint for
examining Dunbar's style.
An earlier, but again not very fruitful, approach to Dunbar was
the French connection. Janet Smith examined the French influence on
Dunbar and reached conclusions startlingly similar to those of Denton Fox
about Chaucer's influence: "Yet, though Dunbar owed as much or more to
French as to English literary fashions and traditions, he is so original
a writer, at least according to mediaeval standards, that there is not
much of which we can say definitely that it comes from any particular
French author. The French influence was vague and general; Dunbar used
these fashions as he would; they did not master him. The inevitable
comparison with Villon shows no personal contact, but rather the simi-
larity of the literary traditions which both poets inherited." The
similarities between Dunbar and the French are broad. The French had an
aureate style which may have influenced Dunbar's vocabulary as much as
Lydgate, and Dunbar used French verse forms, especially the ballade. It
is even possible to see a new use of Old French forms in "The Tretis of
the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo," and "The Flyting," generally con-
sidered two of Dunbar's most characteristically Scottish productions.
At the same time it is possible to see a clear distinction between Dun-
bar's practice and that of the French in one of his most Latinate poems:
Dunbar never copied the Rhetoriquers' manner of twisting
and playing with ideas, and though he does imitate their
vocabulary and their elaborate rhymes, he does not go far
with their tortuous verbal conceits. In "Haile, sterne
superne!" he uses the Latinised diction and the internal
rhymes popular with the French poets, but the sense is
perfectly simple, and he preserves the lyrical quality of
the Latin hymns--a quality which had practically disappeared
from contemporary French.12
More recently A. M. Kinghorn has compared Dunbar to Villon, finding that
both poets are "linguistic," in that they depend on experimentation and
"an exuberant use of words" both learned and colloquial.13 This compari-
son is not particularly helpful, however, since Kinghorn also finds that
"Linguistic comparison between works written in different languages is
unprofitable,"4 and concludes that the differences between the two poets
are more important than the similarities:
Where Dunbar accepts, Villon lashes out, for, when all
is said and done, he has nothing to lose by snarling.
Dunbar's emotions are always kept under tight rein and even
his flyingn' is a brutally studied performance, owing far
more to his fiery virtuosity than to any real hatred or
desire to pay off old scores. Dunbar's daemon and Villon's
have different origins, and only the superficial similari-
ties which common convention brings about. If Villon is
'modern', in Arnold's sense of the word, Dunbar is rooted
in 'the Middle Ages'.15
A broad French influence in Dunbar's work seems certainly possible, but
very difficult to specify clearly enough to be useful.
Kurt Wittig has suggested another non-English influence on Dunbar,
that of Gaelic literature. Gaelic influences are even more difficult to
trace than French, largely because of the lack of evidence that Dunbar
actually knew Gaelic. Wittig is forced to postulate very general connec-
tions: "But the fact remains that Dunbar evidently has Celtic blood in
his veins, and not a little of the Gaelic temperament; and his own genius
has a recognisable affinity with the spirit of Celtic poetry. Even if
Dunbar knew little or no Gaelic--and as to that the evidence is incon-
clusive--he must certainly have been accustomed to the sound of Gaelic
poetry."6 Dunbar's "Gaelic temperament" may be what is considered
characteristically Scottish by some of his critics, but it is still too
vague to be of much critical value. Dunbar may well have heard Gaelic
poetry, but it is difficult to specify the influence of the sound of
poetry in a language Dunbar may or may not have understood. At any rate,
native English sources supply an adequate basis for the sound of Dunbar's
A more promising source of influences on Dunbar seems to be the
tradition of English alliterative poetry, particularly that of the
fourteenth century alliterative revival. Indeed, some acknowledgement
of Dunbar's debt to this tradition seems to have become a critical
commonplace. A. J.G. Mackay wrote in "Introduction" to the STS edition
that he "used the three kinds of poetry which preceded him--the Allitera-
tive of northern England and southern England, the Chaucerian of southern
England, and the French of Villon and the poets.of the Renaissance--but
did not allow his originality and independence to be overpowered" (I,
cxlviii). George Staintsbury termed Dunbar, "prosodically speaking,
Chaucer plus Langland, plus a very considerable proficient in the lyric
forms," adding that Dunbar's use of alliterative verse in "The Tretis"
is "by far the best that we have out of Piers Plowman itself, and perhaps
Cleanness.,17 C. S. Lewis called Dunbar "the accomplished master of one
tradition that goes back to Beowulf and of another that goes back to the
Troubadours."18 Denton Fox has stated the general case for the importance
of the alliterative tradition in Middle Scots poetry:
But it remains true that the pre-Chaucerian tradition was
more available to Dunbar, for instance, than it was to his
English contemporaries. The most obvious sign of this is
that alliterative poetry, which in England was essentially
dead by the fifteenth century, was still influential in
Scotland at the beginning of the sixteenth century. There
is, first, the ordinary unrhymed alliterative line, as in
Piers Plowman, which occurs in Dunbar's The Tua Mariit Wemen
and the Wedo. Then there is the rhymed alliterative stanza,
ending in a group of short lines, which is used by Henryson,
Douglas and numerous anonymous poets, often for humorous
purposes. A more indirect symptom is the habit which Henry-
son, Dunbar and Douglas have of using alliteration very
heavily in verse which is structurally non-alliterative.19
The only investigation of Dunbar's use of alliteration to my knowledge is
Edwin Morgan's study, which asserts that "the older tradition was very
pervasive and very congenial to the Scottish spirit, and they pay it that
debt of exemplification which is often more revealing than their addresses
to Chaucer."20 Morgan, however, seems to see the influence of alliterative
verse primarily in the satiric poems:
Alliteration of the 'popular' side of poetry recommended
itself to the Scots because it was an apt medium for racy
narrative, because it established an immediate link between
verse and the fund of alliteration in common proverbs, tags
of speech and phrases from ballads and songs, and because
it encouraged the peculiar Scots leaning towards the wild
and the outspoken, the vituperative and the incongruous.
Alliteration on the 'art' side of poetry is one aspect of
a larger movement which affected all the poets of the
time: the wakening consciousness of language as a ground
open to deliberate enrichment and of literature as a growth
springing from that prepared soil.21
As his comments on the "art" side of alliteration indicate, he is will-
ing to admit that the alliterative style might have had a general influ-
ence on all the poetry of the time, but he generally confines his
comments on alliteration to the satiric poems.
If Dunbar's debt to the alliterative tradition is so widely
acknowledged, further study of the matter would seem pointless. The jus-
tification for such an undertaking is that although the relationship has
been acknowledged, it has never been thoroughly studied. Morgan's article
points in the right direction, but he underestimates the impact of the
alliterative tradition on Dunbar's non-comic poetry. An examination of
Dunbar's use of the tradition is, I think, crucial for an understanding
of his poetic technique.
I have considered the poems in three groups, placing them in cate-
gories described by Denton Fox: "Dunbar's courtly allegories, hymns, and
encomiastic poems are written in an artificial, ornamented, and often
Latinate style; his moral poems and petitions are in a simple, easy, but
still dignified style; and his humorous and vituperative poems are in a
Scots so broad as to be almost a jargon.22 The first of these groups I
Scots so broad as to be almost a jargon. The first of these groups I
have termed the aureate style, although not all the poems included in
this category have a large number of aureatee terms," the unusual Latinate
words with which many fifteenth century poets decorated their poems.
The second group I have called the plain style, for the relative absence
of ornament in this category, and the third group the comic style. The
boundaries between these categories are not always clear. In some cases
it is difficult to decide whether a poem belongs in the aureate or the
plain style, or the plain style or the comic. Nevertheless, the three
divisions offer an adequate stylistic grouping of Dunbar's poetry. Any
disputes over the classification of individual poems should not damage
my main argument, since I will apply the same method of analysis to the
poems in each group.
The Poems of James VI of Scotland, ed. James Craigie, Scottish
Text Society, Ser. 3, No. 22 (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1955), I, 76. In
further references "Scottish Text Society" will be abbreviated "STS."
2All my citations of Dunbar's poetry are from The Poems of William
Dunbar, ed. John Small, "Introduction" by A. J.G. Mackay, "Notes" and
"Glossary" by Walter Gregor, STS, Ser. 1, Nos. 2, 4, 16, 21, and 29
(Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1893). Poems will be cited in the text by the
title assigned in the STS edition and line number. References to other
portions of the edition will be cited in the text as "STS edition."
3W. Mackay Mackenzie, "William Dunbar," in Edinburgh Essays in
Scots Literature (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1933), pp. 29-30.
4John Speirs, The Scots Literary Tradition, 2nd ed. (London: Faber
and Faber, 1962),p. 54.
5Denton Fox, "The Scottish Chaucerians," in Chaucer and Chaucerians:
Critical Studies in Middle English Literature, ed. D. S. Brewer (University
Ala.: Univ. of Alabama Press, 1966), p. 186.
Pierrepont H. Nichols, "William Dunbar as a Scottish Lydgatian,"
PMLA, 46 (1931), 214-224.
7Nichols, p. 215.
Pierrepont H. Nichols, "Lydgate's Influence on the Aureate Terms
of the Scottish Chaucerians," PMLA, 47 (1932), 522.
Ronald D. S. Jack, "Dunbar and Lydgate," Studies in Scottish
Literature, 8 (1971), 217.
10Jack, p. 219.
11Janet M. Smith, The French Background of Middle Scots Literature
(1934, rpt. n.p.: The Folcroft Press, 1969), p. 62.
12Smith, p. 76.
1A. M. Kinghorn, "Dunbar and Villon: A Comparison and a Contrast,"
Modern Language Review, 62 (1967), 205.
14Kinghorn, p. 206.
15Kinghorn, p. 208.
16Kurt Wittig, The Scottish Tradition in Literature (Edinburgh:
Oliver and Boyd, 1958), p. 61. Alliteration and internal rhyme, devices
Dunbar used, appear in Gaelic poetry. See Charles W. Dunn, "Celtic," in
Versification: Major Language Types, ed. W. K. Wimsatt (New York: MLA
and New York Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 136-147.
17George Saintsbury, A History of English Prosody, 2nd ed. (1923,
rpt. New York: Russel and Russel, 1961), I, 273-4.
C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Exclud-
ing Drama (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), p. 97.
19Denton Fox, "The Scottish Chaucerians," pp. 166-167.
20Edwin Morgan, "Dunbar and the Language of Poetry," Essays in
Criticism, 2 (1952), p. 139.
2Morgan, p. 143.
2Denton Fox, "The Poetry of William Dunbar," Diss. Yale 1956, p. 9.
THE AUREATE STYLE
In the aureate poems, Dunbar demonstrates most clearly his debt
to Latin and French, both in his vocabulary and in his reworking of themes
such as the allegorical love affair derived from the Roman de la Rose.
Since foreign traditions are so obvious in these poems, it is particu-
larly interesting to see Dunbar's extensive use of stylistic devices
borrowed from the native alliterative tradition in these poems. Before
attempting to examine Dunbar's use of the alliterative tradition, how-
ever, it is necessary to discuss the tradition itself. The discussion
will concern both the historical evidence that the alliterative tradi-
tion was alive in Scotland when Dunbar was writing and specific effects
the tradition might have been expected to have on his poetic style.
In Dunbar's time, English poetry already had a long tradition of
combining rhyme with alliterative poetry. Rhyme began to make its way
into English verse in the late Old English period, when it was occasion-
ally used, like alliteration, to bind half-lines together. The tenth
century poem "Judgement Day II," for instance, "substitutes end rhyme for
alliteration in a few places and even combines the two poetic techniques
in a couple of lines."I "Judith," also a tenth century poem, has an un-
expected number of end rhymes.2 The most extensive combination of rhyme
with alliterative poetry in Old English is the "Riming Poem," which
Stanley Greenfield terms "a tour de force of eighty-seven lines, in which
the first verse, or half-line, not only rhymes with the second but also
preserves the customary alliterative pattern of Old English meter."
preserves the customary alliterative pattern of Old English meter."
This tendency to add rhymes to alliterative verse continues in
the Middle English period, when rhyme can be seen exerting its own influ-
ence on native verse forms. Dorothy Everett writes, "Early Middle Eng-
lish verse has one peculiarity of its own, which seems to have
accompanied, and was perhaps caused by, the use of rhyme or assonance
to link the half-lines. In many of the rhyming lines there is a more or
less regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, so that
they sound like rough couplets. . Such lines can have alliteration
or not, and the half-lines can have two, three, or four stresses, three
being the most usual number." The source of this variation in early
Middle English is difficult to trace. Prof. Everett suggests that
either the influence of French poetry or tendencies already present in
late Old English may have been responsible.
The combination of rhyme and alliteration became very popular dur-
ing the fourteenth century:
The combination of alliteration and rime, two elements
originally opposed to each other, began to find favor in
England towards the middle of the fourteenth century,
and travelled northwards to Scotland, where it reached
its highest popularity about a hundred years later. These
two elements then are found blended in every variety of
metre, from the simple couplet to the most intricate
Since the combination of rhymed and alliterative verse would have reached
its peak of popularity in Scotland about the middle of the fifteenth cen-
tury, or roughly the time of Dunbar's birth (c. 1460), it is hardly
surprising to find alliterative verse influential in Dunbar's poetry.
Although rhymed alliterative poetry may have reached its peak in
Scotland in the middle of the fourteenth century, the alliterative
tradition remained alive in Scotland throughout the sixteenth century.
King James VI discusses the uses of alliteration in Ane Schort Treatise.
Part of his discussion was cited at the beginning of the first chapter;
for convenience the entire passage may be quoted here:
Let all zour verse be Literall, sa far as may be,
quhatsumeuer kynde they be of, bot speciallie Tumbling
verse for flying. By Literall I meane, that the maist
pairt of zour lyne, sail rynne vpon a letter, as this
tumbling lyne rynnis vpon F.
Fetching fude for to feid it fast fourth of the Fairie.
Zy man obserue that their Tumbling verse flowis not on that
fassoun, as vtheris dois. For all vtheris keipis the reule
quhilk I gaue before, To wit, the first fute short the
second lang, and sa fourth. Quhair as their has two short,
and ane lang through all the lyne, quhen they keip ordour:
albeit the maist pairt of thame be out of ordour, & keipis
na kynde nor reule of Flowing, & for that cause are callit
Tumbling verse: except the short lynis of aucht in the
hinder end of the verse, the quhilk flowis as vther verses
dois, as ze will find in the hinder end of this buke, quhair
S I giue example of sindrie kyndis of versis.6
The tradition of rhymed alliterative poetry is evident in the King's
taste for as much alliteration as possible in any kind of poetry. It is
also obvious that the King knows about the old alliterative line, which
he terms "Tumbling verse," although he mistakes it for an irregular
King James's testimony is important because it shows conclusively
that the alliterative tradition survived in Scotland long after Dunbar's
death. The King's statement is contradictory, however, in that it seems
to imply two opposing trends in the use of the alliterative tradition in
Scottish poetry. On the one hand he says that all verse should have as
much alliteration as possible, "quhatsumeuer kynde they be of." On the
other hand, he says that alliterative verse itself should be used for
flytinga poetic battle of humorous abuse.
The King's attitude toward alliterative verse may probably be
explained by two causes. First, he seems to dislike the lack of a
steady meter in the old Germanic line. His censure of "Tumbling verse"
is based on its lack of a regular rhythm rather than its alliteration.
Oakden offers another reason that alliterative poetry might have seemed
comic to a sixteenth century reader. Writing about rhymed alliterative
verse, Oakden observes:
The experiment [combining rhyme and alliteration] was not
successful, yet looking back we are able to see the danger
involved. It was the desire for ornament that led these
poets to overcrowd their lines with alliterating sounds,
and to employ so many metrical devices. In its last
stages the long line is a mere jingle of sounds.7
An irregular line, which had become "a mere jingle of sounds," might
well sound comical to the courtly audience which King James represents
and for which Dunbar wrote. Such an audience would, however, appreciate
the carefully controlled ornamentation of Dunbar's aureate poetry.
Edmund Spenser's poetry provides additional evidence the allitera-
tive tradition survived in England until the end of the sixteenth century.
Ants Oras finds the alliterative tradition influencing Spenser in ways
resembling those I hope to demonstrate in Dunbar:
Spenser's method, with its emphasis on the beginning of the
syllable, may quite possibly be connected with the native
alliterative tradition, to which, unlike his master Chaucer,
he so patently belongs: a great number of his line endings
alliterate with words within the line. In The Pearl, for
example--a poem which perhaps influenced him--a similar
combination of rhyme with even more pronounced alliteration
yields closely parallel results.8
The results of Spenser's use of the alliterative tradition are apparent
in his self-conscious linguistic virtuosity:
Spenser is far from disguising his art. He wants his
effects to be duly noted. This is true of him almost
throughout. He likes to accumulate devices of the same
kind, to show off his skill in playing with them, and
to arrange them as clearly and geometrically as possible,
which often leads to symmetry.
But, turning back, the historical evidence indicates that the
alliterative tradition was alive to influence Dunbar. The extent and
nature of its influence is to be found in the statistical and stylistic
evidence. The most obvious indicator of any influence of the alliterative
tradition in Dunbar would be the frequency with which he uses allitera-
tion within his lines. Before statistical evidence may be profitably
discussed, however, it is necessary to understand what is being counted,
which means that there must be some definition of alliteration. Merle
Fifield defines alliteration for the Middle English lyric as "the repeti-
tion of a consonant initial to an accented syllable or initial to a
word."10 This definition appears too restrictive in one sense in that
it fails to recognize vocalic alliteration, which Dunbar uses even in
the alliterative "Tretis":
That full of eldyng is, et anger, et all euill thewis.(l.119)
On the other hand, her definition is too broad in that it permits any
word-initial consonants to alliterate. Applying Fifield's definition
strictly, we would have to say that the following line alliterates
because of its unstressed determiners:
How all the feldis wyth thai lilies quhite.("Targe," 1.65)
In this dissertation, I have defined alliteration as the repetition of a
consonant, if any, initial to a word bearing full stress or initial to
the stem of a stress-bearing word if that stem is preceded by an un-
stressed prefix. Under this definition, any vowel can alliterate with
any other vowel.11 The only constraint on the definition is that the
traditional clusters of st, sp, and sk are assumed to alliterate as single
consonants. Dunbar's practice with these s clusters is rather ambiguous.
In the "Tretis" he can write a line with three sk's and one s:
To see him scart his awin skyn grit scunner I think. (1.93)
It is difficult to decide whether see participates in the alliteration of
the line or not. Dunbar's rhymed poetry abounds in lines which have one
s and one cluster:
A saill, als quite as blossum vpon spray.("Targe," 1.51)
Because such instances are at best doubtful, I have not counted them as
The statistical evidence strongly supports the proposition that
Dunbar was influenced by the alliterative tradition. Of 4,814 lines of
rhymed poetry, 2,069 lines, or 43.0%, alliterate. For the sake of com-
parison, Oakden sees a survival of the alliterative tradition in "many
other important works in M.E. with some alliteration on the stressed
syllables. These usually have less than 33 percent of the lines with
such alliteration."12 In her survey of fifteenth century lyrics, Merle
Fifield found alliteration in 35.2% of the lines of the religious poems,
and 26.4% of the secular ones.13 Clearly, Dunbar uses more alliteration
than most of his contemporaries.
Now let us examine some of the general traits of alliterative
poetry, other than alliteration itself, which may have survived the
transition. Oakden lists eleven features of rhymed alliterative verse.14
While not all the features Oakden lists are especially common, even in
rhymed alliterative poetry, they offer a general indication of what we
might expect to find in poetry heavily influenced by the alliterative
tradition. I will paraphrase Oakden's list, with a comment on the appro-
priateness of each item to Dunbar:
1. There is some sort of stanzaic arrangement. This is true of
all Dunbar's rhymed poetry.
2. Enjambment does not occur, but the caesura is strong. Enjamb-
ment is unusual in Dunbar, and many lines can be read with a caesura.
3. Violations of the natural stress for the sake of alliteration
are rare. Dunbar generally alliterates only on stressed syllables. Un-
stressed prefixes of Romance words, which frequently alliterate, are the
only common exceptions.
4. Consecutive lines may be grouped by identical alliteration.
This device is very common in Dunbar.
5. The ending / x (a feminine ending) is less common than in the
rhymeless long line. Dunbar's rhymed poetry offers relatively fewer clear
instances of the pattern / x than "The Tretis." The placement of extra
syllables at the end of lines is ambiguous, however, for reasons to be dis-
cussed in Chapter V.
6. Vocalic alliteration occurs. It also occurs in Dunbar.
7. Alliterative groups, consonant clusters alliterating as a
single consonant, are usually observed. Dunbar is reasonably careful
about these clusters in "The Tretis." His practice in the rhymed lyrics
is more ambiguous.
8. Repetition is used to link stanzas. This device is common in
9. Alliterative types, the normal patterns of alliterating syl-
lables found in the long line (aa/ax, ax/ax, xa/ax, ba/ab, ab/ab). are
still used. Dunbar sometimes follows the old patterns, but generally his
placement of alliterating syllables follows no rule. This freedom of
placement of alliterating syllables entered the tradition long before
Dunbar's time, as soon as poets found substitutes for alliteration in
linking half-lines, as Dorothy Everett observes:
But, while in 'classical' verse the alliteration is the sole
means of linking the half-lines, in 'popular' verse, rhyme
or assonance can be used, either with alliteration or with-
out it. This occasional use of rhyme or assonance is peculiar
to the verse of the late Old English and early Middle English
periods; it is not a feature of the fourteenth-century long
line. When alliteration is used (as it is in the majority of
lines), its placing does not conform to the strict rules of
'classical' verse. It is common to find the last stressed
syllable of a line bearing the alliteration, as in 'faren mid
feondes in eche fur' in the Departing Soul's Address to the
Body; and there are a number of other irregularities."i
10. The number of unstressed syllables in each line is usually
consistent throughout the poem. The number of syllables in each line is
consistent. The ratio of stressed to unstressed may vary.
11. The rhythm of these poems generally precludes extended half-
lines, and the poets usually avoid clashing rhythm. In adapting his
poetry to a syllabic meter, it is impossible for Dunbar to write extended
half-lines. Clashing rhythm, which is the placement of fully stressed
syllables in adjacent metrical positions, is certainly possible for Dunbar.
Still, it is safe to say he "usually avoids" it.
There are two other aspects of Dunbar's poetry, its diction and
structure, which may have been influenced at least partially by the
alliterative tradition. Dunbar's fondness for alliterative phrases is
the aspect of his diction which is most clearly related to the allitera-
tive tradition. Everett, Benson, and Oakden have noted that alliterative
poets seemed to have a stock of phrases, or formulas, and Oakden traces
some of them into non-alliterative southern poets such as Chaucer, Gower,
and Robert Mannyng.16 Dunbar's use of alliterative phrases seems almost
certain to have been influenced by the formulaic tags of the alliterative
poets, and some of the phrases of Dunbar's poetry are shared with other
poets of the same period. The work of Oakden and of Merle Fifield, both
of whom have compiled extensive lists of alliterative phrases used from
Old English through the fifteenth century, indicatesthe extent to which
Dunbar borrowed from a common store of phrases.17
Another less direct influence of the alliterative tradition on
Dunbar's diction is his love of ornate words. Dunbar's use of aureatee
terms," learned borrowings from Latin, has received a great deal of
critical attention in which the medieval rhetoricians are usually cited
as the source for this sort of decoration. If the rhetoricians laid a
theoretical foundation for an aureate style, the alliterative poets at
least provided an example. Larry Benson observes that fourteenth cen-
tury poets "found in the alliterative line a style that tended almost
naturally toward a heavily adorned verse of the sort that the rhetori-
cians recommended.19 There is even a precedent in the alliterative
tradition for the use of Romance words: "The traditional vocabulary is
often enlarged by a wealth of technical terms, usually French, to do with
hunting, architecture, armour, and so forth."20 Admittedly, Dunbar has
little use for architectural or hunting terms, but the tradition does
support the practice of borrowing from French when no English word comes
The syntax of alliterative poetry lends itself naturally to paral-
lel constructions, since a poet writing in half-lines finds it very easy
to make the second half-line a variant of the first. To avoid the
monotony of too many parallels, the alliterative poet relief on contrasts.
According to Larry Benson, "The tension between the movement toward
parallelisms and that toward contrasts lends the alliterative line much
of its strength.21 Jerome Mandel finds contrast central to an under-
standing of Old English poetry:
I find that much Old English poetry is built upon the principle
of contrast, that contrastive collocation works constantly in
the language of the poem to determine the position and force
of particular words in the poetic line, and that the whole
can often best be understood in terms of this contrast. Thus,
on the one hand, the argument that the Anglo-Saxon poet con-
sciously and all but methodically employed contrast to
announce and amplify his theme, shift the focus and direction
of his poem, develop an idea or sophisticate an argument, and
add a certain excitement to his language, suggests that
contrast is an absolutely necessary rhetorical tool of the
poet. And on the other hand, the argument that Old English
poems can often best be understood in terms of an essential
contrast or sequence of contrasts suggests contrast as a
basic structural principle.22
Although both parallels and contrasts are common in Dunbar, contrasts
are abundant enough to have become the subject of a dissertation.23
The technique of contrast may, in alliterative poetry, be expanded
to provide the structure for an entire poem. Mandel writes that "by using
the technique of contrast in small, large, and larger blocks of lines,
the poet creates a structure which, in itself, contains and communicates
the essential concerns of the poem.24 Working within a tradition of
constrastive poetry, a poet might tend to make his point by juxtaposi-
tion, which Larry Benson finds a stylistic trait of alliterative poetry:
Like the modern writer, the alliterative poet defines
his concepts by the juxtaposition of their parts, capitaliz-
ing on the clash of perspectives that this action allows.
Such a style, in which the parts of an action,object, or
concept are juxtaposed with a minimum of explicit explana-
tion, leads at once to a multiplication of specific detail
and to a structure that renders the details meaningful.25
Dorothy Everett finds a similar tendency in alliterative verse which she
describes as "certain fixed habits of composition, intimately connected
with the nature of the alliterative line; notably a cumulative method of
description, the piling up of phrases, usually a half-line in length and
often similar in construction, each of which makes its contribution to
the total impression."26 This aspect of alliterative poetry may help to
explain a trait of Dunbar's style which Denton Fox has observed, that "in
all of Dunbar's poems the prose sense is negligible and the decoration,
the poetic artifices, are everything. . Dunbar's poems are static,
ending where they begin, but are made tightly unified by technical poetic
devices.27 The meaning of Dunbar's poems comes, I think, from the jux-
taposition of specific details within a meaningful structure. Any read-
ing I have found of "The Golden Targe," for instance, rests on the wealth
of its descriptive detail and the juxtaposition of its images. The
"prose sense," to use Fox's term, in Dunbar's poems is very weak; his
strength lies in his poetic sense, which is deeply rooted in the
To summarize briefly, historical evidence indicates that the
alliterative tradition was still active in Scotland in Dunbar's time,
although by then alliteration was frequently coupled with rhyme. Dunbar's
poetry contains the eleven stylistic traits Oakden finds in rhymed allit-
erative verse. In addition, Dunbar employs alliteration in an unusually
large number of his lines, and he shows less obvious influences of the
alliterative tradition in his use of unusual words and poetic structures
based on contrast and juxtaposition. The analysis of these traits in
Dunbar's poetry will occupy the remainder of this chapter and of the
entire study, with the exception of the chapter of Dunbar's prosody.
Dunbar's aureate poems may be divided into three groups--love
visions, ceremonial poems, and religious poems. The love visions include
"The Golden Targe," "Sen That I Am a Presoneir," and "In May as that
Aurora Did Vpspring," also called "The Merle and the Nightingale." "The
Thistle and the Rose" could equally well be classified as a love vision
or a ceremonial poem, and so makes a convenient bridge between the two
groups. The ceremonial poems include one connected with the marriage of
James IV and Maigaret Tudor, "Blyth Aberdene," as well as two dedicated
to Bernard Stewart, "The Ballad of Lord Bernard Stewart," and "The Elegy
on the Death of Bernard Stewart." The religious poems include "Ane
Ballat of Our Lady," "Rorate Celi Desuper" and "Done is a Battellon the
"The Golden Targe," probably the best known of Dunbar's poems,
is one of the finest examples of his aureate style. It is also a very
careful reworking of material from non-native sources. According to
Denton Fox, "Dunbar handles the traditional Roman de la Rose themes in an
extremely conservative manner: with a few minor exceptions, every part of
the Targe can be paralleled many times over in earlier poems.29 What is
the Targe can be paralleled many times over in earlier poems." What is
surprising in a poem so heavily indebted to continental traditions for
its subject matter is to find so many traces of the alliterative tradi-
tion in the style of the poem.
A brief summary of the poem's contents may be useful before turn-
ing to an analysis of its style. The dreamer, who narrates the poem, goes
to sleep in a garden by a river bank on a May morning. In his dream, a
ship with white sails appears, from which a hundred ladies dressed in
green disembark. They are joined by two groups of classical deities, the
goddesses and Apollo forming one court, and the other gods forming
another. When the ladies begin to dance, the dreamer creeps forward for
a better look, but he is spotted by Venus, who orders his arrest. The
dreamer is defended by Reason, who bears the Golden Targe, until Presence
blinds him by throwing a powder in his eyes. After the dreamer's arrest,
Dangere turns him over to Heavyness. Eolus blows his bugle; the gods and
ladies depart on their ship, firing guns which awaken the dreamer. In
the final twenty-seven lines of the poem Dunbar praises Chaucer, Gower,
and Lydgate for making English a fit language for poetry. He closes by
bidding his own poem hide, because of its deficiencies in rhetoric.
The most obvious influence of the alliterative tradition on the
poem is the sheer frequency of alliteration. Of the 279 lines in the poem
50.2%,or 140 lines, contain alliteration. Since the verse form in this
poem requires only rhyme, Dunbar has great flexibility in the placement
of alliteration. He uses the alliteration very skillfully as a means of
emphasis and linkage. The alliteration is never gratuitous, but rather
lends to the ornate, almost bejeweled quality of the poem's style which
is so appropriate to its imagery and theme.
An excellent example of Dunbar's use of alliteration in "The
Golden Targe" is the first stanza of the poem:
Ryght as the stern of day begouth to schyne,
Quhen gone to bed war Vesper and Lucyne,
I raise, and by a rosere did me rest;
Wp sprang the goldyn candill matutyne,
With clere depurit bemes cristallyne,
Glading the mery foulis in thair nest;
Or Phebus was in purpur cape revest
Wp raise the lark, the hevyns menstrale fyne
In May, in till a morrow myrthfullest.(11.1-9)
Only three lines (the third, fifth,and ninth) alliterate, but the three
alliterating lines emphasize the most important points in the stanza.
The first two lines merely establish the time of day through classical
allusion. The third line, reinforced by triple alliteration, announces
the most important element of the poem, the dreamer and his actions.
This line also announces that the poem will take place in a "rosere,"
or rose garden, a setting which would immediately put Dunbar's audience
in mind of the Roman de la Rose and the corpus of allegorical love poetry
which followed it. The alliteration in the fifth line is appropriate
since it is the first image of a system of light images which play an
important role in the description of the garden, and which culminate in
the final stanzas in which Dunbar praises other poets for their power to
"illuminate" a subject or the language (11.253-270). The final two lines
of the stanza are the most complex in their alliteration. First, the
two lines are linked by alliteration since menstrale is close enough to
the end of the penultimate line to be linked to the triple alliteration
of the final line. In this case, the alliteration on menstrale creates
a link between the first stanza and the second by emphasizing one quality
of the lark, its singing. The first line of the next stanza continues
the image of "hevyns menstrale":
Full angellike their birdis sang thair houris. (1.10)
Combining alliteration and imagery, this linkage forms an interesting
counterpoint to the rhyme and stanzaic patterns of the verse. The triple
alliteration of the final line brings the stanza to a close, emphati-
cally pointing out the time of year, May, a time for lovers. The alliter-
ating word morrow makes the stanza symmetrical by returning to the images
of morning. Finally, as another critic has observed, the line creates an
alliterative "crescendo," in which each alliterating word is one syllable
longer than the one preceding it.30
An indication of Dunbar's artistry with alliteration is his
sense of where not to use alliteration when a brief undecorated passage
will yield a greater effect through contrast, or when a simple style is
appropriate to the subject. After describing the garden and arrival of
the ship, for instance, Dunbar writes one stanza saying that neither he
nor any other poet could do justice to the scene:
Discriue I wald, bot quho coud wele endyte
How all the feldis wyth thai lilies quite
Depaynt war brycht, quhilk to the hevyn did glete:
Nocht thou, [H]omer, als fair as thou coud wryte,
For all thine ornate stilis so perfyte;
Nor yit thou, Tullius, quhois lippis suete
Off rethorike did in to terms flete:
Your aureate tongis both bene all to lyte,
For to compile that paradise complete.(11.64-72)
Two lines of this stanza, the first and eighth, have a weak sort of
alliteration which I have not counted in my tabulations of alliterating
lines. The first line has two c's, pronounced /k/, but the second falls
on an unstressed word. The eighth line has the phrase "both bene,"
although it is doubtful that either word in the phrase could bear stress.
This type of alliteration is unusual in Dunbar. Normally, he is careful
to place alliterating sounds only on stressed syllables, or at.least
first syllable of major category words. The weak alliteration in these
lines does, however, serve a definite purpose. In both lines, Dunbar
specifically states the incapacity of poets, himself in the first line,
classical poets in the eighth, to recreate in language the scene he has
created in his imagination. The poverty of decoration in this stanza,
and the obvious inadequacy of the alliteration in the first and eighth
lines underscore the limitations of language. Only in the final line,
when Dunbar turns his attention away from the craft of poetry to his
dream, does his language regain its customary decoration. The final line
carries triple alliteration supplemented with identical prefixes on the
first and last major words.
Dunbar uses extremely heavy concentrations of alliteration in
"The Golden Targe" in moments of particular dramatic intensity. When
Reason drives off Venus' first attack, she assembles a new and stronger
assault force. The tension in the anticipation and beginning of the
second attack is reflected in two stanzas in which fifteen of eighteen
Quhen Venus had persauit this rebute,
Dissymilance scho bad go mak persute,
At all powere to perse the Goldyn Targe;
And scho that was of doubilnes the rute,
Askit hir choise of archeris in refute.
Wenus the best bad hir go wale at large;
Schb tuke Presence ylicht ankers of the barge,
And Fair Callyng that wele a flayn coud schute,
And Cherising for to complete hir charge.
Dame Hamelynes scho tuke in company,
That hardy was, and hende in archery,
And brought dame Beautee to the felde agayn;
With all the choise of Venus cheualry
Thay come, and bikkerit vnabaisitly:
The schour of arowis rappit on as rayn;
Perilouse Presence, that mony syre'has slayne,
The bataill brought on bordour hard vs by,
The salt was all the sarar suth to sayn. (11.181-198)
One of the lines without alliteration, the first line of the second stanza
quoted, is linked to the second line of its stanza by alliteration on
Hamelynes. The alliteration in these stanzas functions artistically to
highlight the battle. Such heavy use of alliteration in a battle scene,
even an allegorical battle, may be a reminder of action scenes in alliter-
Linking one line to another is a common function of alliteration
in Middle English verse. Several examples in which one word in a line is
linked by alliteration to a following line have been discussed. Dunbar
also uses identical alliteration in succeeding lines to link them into a
unit crossing the patterns of linkage created by rhyme. For example, two
lines may be joined by imagery and alliteration:
So lustily agayn thai lykand lemys,
That all the lake as lamp did leme of licht. (11. 29-30)
Dunbar uses a more subtle technique of linking lines with allit-
eration in two stanzas of "The Golden Targe." This technique first
appears in the description of the court of goddesses:
There saw I May, of myrthfull monethis quene,
Betuix Aprile, and June, her sister scene,
Within the gardyng walking vp and doun,
Quham of the foulis gladdith al bedene;
Scho was full tender in hir yeris grene.
Thare saw I Nature present hir a gounn
Rich to behald, and nobil of renounn,
Off ewiry hew under the hevin that bene
Depaynt, and broud be gude proporcioun. (11.82-90)
The artistic problem in this stanza is to link May, at the beginning of
the stanza, to Nature at the end. In the first line, May participates in
triple alliteration. The next five lines lack internal alliteration, but
four of the lines, the third through sixth, each contain one word alliter-
ating on g. The placement of these words follows a definite pattern, on
the fourth position of the third line, the sixth position of the fourth,
and the tenth position of the fourth and fifth lines. These alliterating
words move in an orderly procession through the stanza from left to right,
connecting May in the garden to Nature's presentation of the gown..
Nature is tied to the description of the gown in the following line
through the interlocking pattern of n's and r's ornamenting that line.
The rich alliteration of this line, "Rich to behald, and nobil of renounn,"
forms, like the flowered gown of May, a bright contrast to the sparseness
which has preceded it. The remaining two stanzas of the line alliterate,
complementing the ornate gown of May.
Dunbar uses a similar technique in the third from last stanza of
the poem, in which he praises Chaucer:
0 reuerend Chaucere, rose of rethoris all,
As in oure tong ane flour imperial,
That raise in Britane ewir, quho redis rycht,
Thou beris of makaris the tryumph riall;
Thy fresh anamalit terms celicall
This mater coud illumynit haue full brycht:
Was thou noucht of oure Inglisch all the lycht,
Surmounting ewiry tong terrestriall,
Alls fer as Mayes morow dois mydnycht? (11.253-261)
The stanza begins with alliteration on r, which is repeated in the third
line. The fifth through seventh lines lack internal alliteration, but
are linked to each other through vocalic alliteration on anamalit, illumy-
nit, and Inglisch. The alliterating words fall on the third, fifth, and
sixth positions of their respective lines, preserving the same left to
right pattern as in the stanza on May. Aside from acting as stepping
stones helping to bind the stanza together, the alliteration from line to
line in this instance heightens key words. Denton Fox has suggested that
the final stanzas of "The Golden Targe" are a comment on poetry, in which
Dunbar reveals his aesthetic through his own poetic imagery: "Dunbar sug-
gests several metaphors for good writing, a principle one being that of
light. Gower and Lydgate are said to have illuminated and made clear the
language, while Chaucer is given almost solar powers. . But the most
revealing image and the one which connects all the others is 'anamalit.'
Enamel is clear and brilliant, colorful, with a rich sweet beauty."32
If this interpretation is correct, Dunbar has expressed his ideal of
poetic style, "anamalit, illumynit Inglisch," through the line to line
alliteration of these three lines. The imagery is complemented by the
rhyming words, celicall, brycht, and lycht. The images are joined by the
two traditions in which Dunbar works, alliterative and Romance, into a
statement of his poetic.
Alliteration forms a large part of Dunbar's enamaling, and
Dunbar uses the store of traditional alliterating phrases. Several
phrases in "The Golden Targe" have clear antecedents in the alliterative
phrases from fifteenth century lyrics listed by Merle Fifield.
leme of licht (1.30) lyght lemys (p. 437)
gold and goulis gent (1.41) in grene, in gold, in gowlis
gen (p. 436)
fresh as flouris (1.59) fresshe floure (p. 435)
fair feynit fortune (1.79) fair fortune, and felicitie
suth to sayn (1.189) soth forete say (p. 443)
Dunbar remolds one formula into a consistent, and very useful,
shape for this poem. Phrases such as "bogan bende" (Oakden, II, 203)
and "bend up his bow" (Oakden, II, 269) become "with bow in hand ybent"
in "The Golden Targe":
Cupide the king, with bow in hand ybent (1. 110)
And first of all, with bow in hand ybent
Come dame Beautee, rycht as scho wald me schent (11.145-146)
The phrase occupies the same metrical position in both occurrences, and
is designed both to provide alliteration within a line and to fit a
rhyme scheme. In the first instance, it provides a fairly traditional
attribute of Cupid. The second occurrence marks a very aggressive Beauty.
There is an excellent poetic logic in applying the same epithet to Cupid,
king of the court of gods and Venus' son, and to Beauty, who leads the
assault of Venus' archers on the dreamer.
The most frequently repeated formulaic expression in "The Golden
Targe" concerns May, usually alliterating with some combination of
"morrow," "mirth," or "month." The formula has its antecedents in
phrases such as "mai mere," and "mihti merthful mai" (Fifield, p. 183).
The formula ends the first stanza, ':'in May, in til a morrow myrthfullest"
(1.9), establishing both the setting and tone of the poem. Dunbar repeats
the formula as a motive for the birds' song, "For mirth of May, wyth
skippis and wyth hoppis,/The birdis sang vpon the tender croppis" (11.
19-20). When May appears in the court of goddesses, she carries her
formulaic tag with her, "There saw I May, of myrthfull monethis quene"
(1.252). In this instance the same words are used as when May appears
in the court, although now she is the mirthful queen, rather than queen
of mirthful months. In the final discussion of poetry, Dunbar says that
Chaucer has raised English above every other language "Alls fer as Mayes
morow dois mydnycht" (1. 261). The final appearance of the formula
balances the first. The formulaic expression moves from May's morning
to May's role as queen of months and back to the morning motif. Dunbar's
handling of this formulaic system in the "Golden Targe" is an excellent
example of his ability to mold traditional materials to his own purposes.
The May morning is used at the opening of the poem to establish the set -
ting in which the dreamer is to fall asleep, and at the close of the poem
to illustrate the dreamer's return to the original setting. In the
center portion, the formula proclaims May's royalty, placing her among
the goddesses from the ship. In its last occurrence, the formula comple-
ments the light imagery of the passage on poetry, and helps to join the
last section to the rest of the poem.
The final aspect of the alliterative style to be discussed in "The
Golden Targe" is the tendency of alliterative poets to organize their
material through parallels and contrasts, and to define relationships by
juxtaposition rather than explicit statement. For an example of the use
of parallel and contrast in the poem, we need not go beyond the first
Ryght as the stern of day begouth to schyne,
Quhen gone to bed war Vesper and Lucyne,
I raise, and by a rosere did me rest. (11.1-3)
The rising sun, "the stern of day," of the first line contrasts the set-
ting stars of the second. In contrast to the stars' motion, the dreamer
rises, and so is in a parallel to the sun. The first stanza is arranged
in three-line units. The fourth line, which begins the second unit,
parallels the meaning of the first line of the poem, "Wp sprang the
goldyn candill matutyne" (1.4). There is a syntactic parallel in the
second stanza, in which Dunbar describes the bows from which the birds
Apparalit quite and red, wyth blomes suete;
Anamalit was the felde wyth all colouris. (11.12-13)
The syntactic parallel establishes the connection between the white and
red branches and the entire field. The bough is part of the colorful
ornamentation of the field, and as such offers a close-up view of a
form of beauty repeated many times over in the field. The two lines
also provide a contrast between the bough and the field, making the
entire field seem much more beautiful than any one part of it. The
bough is appareled with two colors, while the field is enameled with
A more extended example of parallel structure occurs in the de-
sription of the court of gods. Unlike most stanzas of "The Golden Targe,"
neither stanza of this description can stand alone, so that Dunbar must
find some means of linking the two stanzas into a unit. His solution to
the problem is a series of syntactic parallels:
Ane othir court thare saw I consequent,
Cupide the king, wyth bow in hand ybent,
And-dredefull arowis grundyn scharp and square:
Thare saw I Mars, the god armypotent,
Aufull and sterne, strong and corpolent;
Thare saw I crabbit Saturn aid and haire,
His luke was lyke for to perturb the aire;
Thare was Mercurius, wise and eloquent,
Of rethorike that fand the flouris faire;
Thare was the god of gardingis, Priapus;
Thare was the god of wilderness, Phanus,
And Ianus, god of entree delytable;
Thare was the god of fludis, Neptunus;
Thare was the god of wyndis, Eolus,
With variand luke, rycht lyke a lord vnstable;
Thare was Bacus, the gladder of the table;
Thare was Pluto, the elrich incubus,
In cloke of grene, his court usit no sable. (11.109-126)
The parallel begins with the phrase, "Thare saw I Mars," followed by
"Thare saw I crabbit Saturn." These sentences establish that Thare is
being used in its adverbial sense, meaning "in that place," and conse-
quently takes full stress. The stress on the Thare of "Thare saw I"
falls naturally on the Thare of "Thare was Mercurius," and all the "Thare
was" phrases of the following stanza. The parallel phrases both link the
stanzas and link the lines within the second stanza, a function usually
performed by rhyme. In the second stanza, however, most of the lines
beginning with "Thare was" end with the unstressed Latin suffix -us,
which is the rhyming syllable. This repetition at the beginning of the
lines forms a very emphatic structure which seems to call for formal
weakening elsewhere in the lines to restore a poetic balance. Dunbar
provides this weakening by deliberately leaving the rhymed syllables
A more general influence of the alliterative poetic structures of
juxtaposition and contrast may be seen in the structure of the poem as a
whole. Whatever coherence "The Golden Targe" has must be found in the
juxtaposition of its parts. Previous critics have noticed this feature
of the poem, although without attributing it to the alliterative tradi-
tion. Denton Fox, for instance, comments on Dunbar's handling of Roman
de la Rose themes, "But Dunbar's omissions are radical to an unprecedented
degree. Most of the customary amplifications are neglected: though
there are two courts, one ruled by Cupid and one by Nature and Venus,
there is neither any of the usual differentiation between courtly and
natural love nor any establishment of a king and queen of love."33
Surveying what Dunbar has omitted from his poem, Fox concludes, "Though
it does not seem to have been previously noticed, the whole structure of
the Targe is, strictly speaking, elliptical."34
Lois A. Ebin has attempted to interpret "The Golden Targe" by
dividing the poem into three parts in apposition to each other: "As we
shall see, Dunbar develops the 'Targe' as a triptych, the pieces of which
illustrate the relationship between the sun and nature and the poet and
his matter."35 Even the parts of the triptych present their pictures
through juxtaposition, "In section II, the dream, Dunbar establishes an
implicit analogy between what the sun does to nature and what the poet
does to his matter."
"The Golden Targe" is one of the most interesting examples of
Dunbar's use of the alliterative tradition. It is justly considered
aureatee" since its vocabulary is heavily influenced by Romance borrow-
ings and Dunbar seems to delight in the sounds of long French and Latin
words. In addition, the subject matter for the poem comes almost entirely
from Romance sources. On first reading, the style of this poem would
seem to be as far as possible from the native alliterative tradition.
It is somewhat surprising,then, to find the poem so indebted to it. The
most common, and most effective ornament in the poem is alliteration,
which is borrowed directly from the native tradition. Dunbar uses tra-
ditional alliterative formulas, with some variations of his own. Even
the "eliptical" structure of the poem probably owes more to Old English
than to Old French.
A stylistic contrast to "The Golden Targe," "Sen that I Am a
Presoneir" lacks the dream apparatus of the "Targe." At the beginning
of the poem the speaker has already been captivated by the sight of a
beautiful woman. The prisoner is able to send a letter to Petie, who
organizes an assault on the prison. The prisoner is freed, and at the
end of the poem, Matremony, "The band of freindschip hes indost, /
Betuix Bewty and the presoneir" (11.103-104).
The alliterative tradition exerts a much weaker influence on "A
Presoneir" than on the "Targe." With only 33.9% of its lines containing
alliteration, "A Presoneir" uses far less alliteration than the "Targe,"
and less than Dunbar's work as a whole. Dunbar is, however, careful to
place his alliterating lines to create an appropriate effect. A series
of alliterating lines draws the reader's attention to the reason for the
I govit on that gudliest,
So lang to luke I tuk laseir,
Quhill I wes tane withouttin test (11.5-7)
The climax of the battle, in which the allegorical forces holding the
narrator prisoner are vanquished, is highlighted by a series of alliterat-
Thrucht Skornes noss thai put a prik,
This he was banist and gat a blek;
Comparison was erdit _uik,
And Langour lap and brak his nek.
Thai sail3eit fast, all the fek,
Lust chasit my ladeis chalmirleir,
Gud Fame wes drownit in a sek;
Thus ransonit thai the presoneir. (11.81-88)
Dunbar makes little use of traditional alliterative formulas for
the diction of this poem. Only one phrase, "fra 3eir to eir" (1.3) has
a clear parallel in Merle Fifield's lists (p. 446). Dunbar creates one
formulaic construction which produces an interesting result. The start
of the battle places Lust and Bissines at the front of the assault:
Lust bur the benner to the wall,
And Bissines the grit gyn brocht.(11.59-60)
The lines are linked both thematically and by the alliteration on b in
each line. There is no alliteration in the following six lines, until
Bissines reappears in a virtual repeat of line sixty:
Than Bissines the grit gyn bend,
Straik doun the top of the foir tour.(11.67-68)
In both instances Bissines appears in the same position in the line, and
alliterates on a monosyllabic verb which also appears in the same posi-
tion. Since there is no alliteration between these two lines, both lines
achieve a certain prominence, while the formulaic repetition only increases
the importance of difference between the verbs. We see, in a quick and
emphatic sequence, the engine brought into position and readied for
action. The syntax of the second pair of lines owes something to the
alliterative style since it creates its effect by means of a juxtaposi-
tion achieved through parallel structure. The verbs bend and straik both
have the same subject, Bissines. An explicit connective between the dual
predicates depending on Bissines is unnecessary. The parallel syntax
merges the preparation of the engine and the attack on the tower into one
quick action, an excellent handling of a battle description. The special
emphasis on Bissines and her engine is also appropriate since one stroke
of the engine is sufficient to make Comparisone, who is in command of
the tower, offer to hand over the prisoner.
Dunbar's love debate, "In May as that Aurora Did Vspring," or "The
Merle and the Nightingale," is an interesting example of his use of both
Romance and alliterative traditions, since, even for purposes of discus-
sion, it is almost impossible to separate the two. As a debate, the poem
is obviously structured on a series of contrasts, as the two opponents
answer each other's arguments. The source for this kind of contrast is
more likely to be found, however, in the tradition of Romance love de-
bates than in the habits of alliterative composition. Still, Dunbar
handles the contrasting views in the poem so as to create the effect of
a symmetrical balance that an alliterative poet could achieve by balanc-
ing half-line against half-line. Each speaker in the debate receives an
alternating stanza, the merle defending erotic love, and the nightingale
arguing for the love of God. The alternation of speakers from stanza to
stanza makes a very strong rhythm, combining both the verse form and the
sense of the poem.
The refrain is another device in "The Merle and the Nightingale"
which seems to be derived from the alliterative and Romance traditions.
The refrain is, of course, a Romance device, but the refrains in this
poem seem,for two reasons, to be related to the alliterative tradition.
First, as Oakden points out, repetition to bind stanzas is a common
device in rhymed alliterative poetry. Each of the merle's stanzas ends
with the line, "A lusty lyfe in luves scheruice bene." The nightingale
ends each of its stanzas with "All luve is lost bot vpone God alonee"
The phrases help separate the speeches of the two birds, while at the
same time linking the poem as a whole since both refrains alliterate
on the same letter. The refrains emphasize the nature of the debate by
using variant words to alliterate on love, just as the merle and nightin-
gale are debating different kinds of love. The second way in which the
refrains are related to the alliterative tradition is that they are used
rather like alliterative formulas. The merle's refrain, alliterating
lusty and luves,has clear precedents in alliterative formulas.37 Alliter-
ative formulas, in the hands of a skillful poet, cansurprise the reader
by giving one phrase where he has been led to expect another.38 Dunbar
uses his refrains in this manner when the merle is persuaded by the
nightingale to renounce courtly love. At the end of its surrender
speech, the merle not only borrows the nightingale's refrain, but places
a line alliterating on the same letter before it:
Bot luve the luve that did for his lufe de;
All lufe is lost bot vpone God alone. (11.103-104)
The nightingale's refrain is used in the remaining two stanzas of the
poem, in which the two birds sing of God's love, and the poet recounts
the comfort he finds in remembering their song. The unexpected use of
the refrain, "All lufe is lost bot vpone God alone" at the end of the
merle's speech, and its repetition in the remaining stanzas strongly
reinforce the meaning of the poem.
One stanza of the poem is built on a series of parallels which
end in a climax'of alliteration:
The merle said, 'Lufe is causes of honour ay,
Luve makis cowardis manheid to purchase,
Luve makis knychtis hardy at assey,
Luve makis wrechis full of lergeness,
Luve makis sueir folkis full of bissiness,
Luve makis sluggirdis fresche and will besene,
Luve changes vyce in vertewis nobilness;
A lusty lyfe in luvis scheruice bene".(11.81-88)
The repetition of "Luve makis" becomes almost formulaic by the end of
the stanza. The use of alliteration on the second line and last three
gives the stanza a balance, while allowing it to build to a linguistic
climax. The extended parallels in this stanza make it stand out from
the other stanzas of the poem, so that it is an effective conclusion to
the merle's arguments in favor of earthly love.
Alliteration is used liberally as an ornament in the poem, with
45.0% of the lines alliterating. Dunbar displays his usual skill in
employing alliteration to support his meaning. For instance, in the
first stanza the merle is introduced with a surfeit of alliteration,
emphasizing the sensuous nature of its argument:
In May as that Aurora did vpspring,
With cristall ene chasing the cluddis sable,
I hard a merle with mirry notis sing
A sang of lufe, with voce rycht comfortable,
Agane the orient bemis amiable,
Vpone a blisful brencheof lawryr grene;
This wes hir sentens sueit and delectable,
A lusty lyfe in luves scheruice bene. (11.1-8)
The nightingale, introduced in the second stanza, receives a more
restrained welcome, with only four lines of alliteration. The four are
interestingly placed, however, as may be seen in the last four lines of
A nychtingall, with suggurit notis new,
Quhois angell fedderis as the pacok schone;
This was hir song, and of a sentens trew,
All luve is lost bot vpone God alone. (1113-16)
The emphasis here is on the nightingale's song. In the second to last
line the alliteration on song and sentens contrasts with the allitera-
tion of,sentens and sueit in the penultimate line of the first stanza;
the merle's "sentens sueit" is opposed to the nightingale's "song . .
of a sentens trew."
The diction of "The Merle and the Nightingale" owes relatively
little to the alliterative formulas. Dunbar pairs flowers with fresh,
for instance, "fresche Flora hes flurest every spray" (1. 21), and "the
fresche and flureist lusty vaill" (1. 28). One occurrence of allitera-
tion, "the rever as it ran" (1. 27), recalls the line "Doun throu the
ryce a ryuir ran wyth stremys" (1. 28) in "The Golden Targe."
"The Thistle and the Rose" is both a love vision and a ceremonial
poem, written for the wedding of James IV and Margaret Tudor. In this
poem, the poet is awakened one morning by May, who orders him to write
something in her honor. He then follows her into a garden, where he sees
Nature call a convocation of birds, beasts, herbs, and flowers. She
names the eagle king of birds, the lion king of beasts, the thistle king
of herbs, and the rose queen of flowers. Alliteration plays an important
stylistic role in the poem, as the 51.4% proportion of alliterating lines
Alliteration is used in this poem, as in most of Dunbar's poems,
to emphasize important segments. It is, however, perhaps more interest-
ing in this poem to examine the care with which Dunbar arranges patterns
of alliterating sounds. Alliteration frequently binds lines together in
patterns which form a counterpoint to the rhyme scheme, as in these two
lines describing May's robe:
Hevinly of color, quhyt, reid, broun and blew,
Balmit in dew, and gilt with Phebus bemys. (11.19-20)
The same device is used to bind two lines in a cause and effect relation-
ship, when Eolus' blowing his horn has made the poet stay inside:
So busteous ar the blastis of his home,
Amang thy bewis to walk I haif forborne. (11.34-35)
Vocalic alliteration may also link closely related lines:
Illumynit our with orient skyis brycht,
Annamyllit richely with new asur lycht. (11.41-42)
A much more subtle linking of two lines is in the description of the sun
shining down on the garden:
The purpour sone, with tendir bemys reid,
In orient bricht as angell did appeir. (11.50-51)
1 a 0
The first line in this pair has the pattern p b, in the words purpour and
bemys. The second line reverses the first with a b p pattern in bricht
and appeir. The two lines alliterate with each other in a perfectly
symmetrical pattern, although both lines lack internal consonantal alli-
teration. The second line does, however, have vocalic alliteration in
"orient," "angell," and "appeir." The impression of barrenness in the
first line of the pair is reversed by the second, in which an extremely
rich pattern of alliteration is revealed. The effect of these two lines
exactly parallels that of a dawn sun, when darkness gives way to the
bright colors of the sunrise.
Dunbar can use alliteration to create units longer than two lines.
A particularly fine example of a larger group of lines linked by alliter-
ation is in the praise the Rose receives from the birds after her crown-
The lark scho song, "Haill, Roiss, both reid and quhyt,
Most plesand flour, of michty cullouris twane;"
The nychtingaill song, "Haill, naturis suffragene,
In bewty, nurtour and every nobilness,
In riche array, renown and gentilness". (11. 171-175)
The first and last lines of the group alliterate on r, framing the pas-
sage. The center lines alliterate on nasals, m in the second line, n in
the following two. These lines are bound into a tight group both by the
almost symmetrical arrangement of alliterating sounds and by a phonetic
relationship which was known in the Middle Ages, as the Venerable Bede
indicates in De Arte Metrica, "Sunt et liquentes litterae quattuor, 1,
n, n, r."39
A few traditional alliterative phrases appear in the "The Thistle
and the Rose." Dunbar uses the phrase "fro 3eir to 3eir" (1.75) again.
The description of the Rose as "this cumly quene" (1.156) is a traditional
attribution (Fifield, p. 333). Another phrase, "wyld weid" (1.139) lacks
a specific precedent in Fifield's lists, but seems related to such
phrases as "wilde woude" and "wylde word"(Fifield, p. 358). Placing
"wild" before any noun beginning with w appears almost formulaic.
Parallels and contrasts play an important role in the poem. The
sleepy poet's reaction to May's command to arise and write something
contrasts comically with the traditional poetic descriptions of May which
open the poem. When she first appears at the poet's bed, May resembles
the goddess of "The Golden Targe":
Me thocht fresche May befoir my bed vpstude,
In weid depaynt of mony diuerss hew,
Sobir benyng, and full of mansuetude,
In brycht atteir of flouris forgit new,
Hevinly of color, quhyt, reid, broun and blew,
Balmit in dew, and gilt with Phebus bemys,
Quhill all the houss illumynit of hir lemys. (11.15-21)
When ordered to get out of bed, the poet sees May in a much less ideal-
"Quhairto," quod I, "sall I vpryss at morrow,
For in this May few birdis herd I sing?
Thai haif moir causs to weip and plane thair sorrow,
Thy air it is nocht holsum nor benyng;
Lord Eolus dois in thy sessone ring;
So busteous ar the blastis of his home,
Amang thy bewis to walk I haif forborne". (11.29-35)
May accepts this description of herself with rather strained good humor,
and orders the poet to get busy: "With that this lady sobirly did smyll,
/ And said, 'Vpryss, and do thy observance'" (11.36-37). Nature is com-
pelled, however, to amend the weather before the coronation ceremony can
Dame Nature gaif ane inhibitioun thair
To ferss Neptunus, and Eolus the bawld,
Nocht to perturb the wattir nor the air,
And that no schouris, nor blastis cawld,
Effray suld flouris nor fowlis on the fold;
Scho bad eik Juno, goddes of the sky,
That scho the hevin suld keip amene and dry. (11.64-70)
The contrast between the idealized May morning demanded by the dream
vision genre and the typical May morning in Edinburgh serves an important
function in this poem. Through this contrast Dunbar announces that he is
producing a highly contrived artifact in which reality must, if necessary,.
be altered to fit the demands of art. As a "maker," Dunbar's primary
interest in poetic surfaces has been previously noticed.40 In the first
hundred lines of "The Thistle and the Rose," Dunbar clearly indicates
his recognition of a dichotomy between his poetry and any reality it may
be said to represent. He seems to view poetry, at least in the aureate
style, as a highly artificial exercise. This statement of his attitude
toward his poetry is important, and it is perhaps significant he makes it
not in a direct statement, but rather through juxtaposition and contrast
as might an alliterative poet.
After having the poetic narrator contrast a real Edinburgh May
morning to an idealized poetic one, Dunbar places his narrator in
another amusing contrast:
Quhen this wes said, depairtit scho, this quene,
And enterit in a lusty gairding gent;
And than, me thocht, full hestely besene,
In serk and mantill [eftir hir] I went
In to this garth, most dulce and redolent. (11.43-47)
The picture of the poet, newly awakened, dressing himself as rapidly as
possible to follow the queen into a beautiful allegorical garden is per-
haps worthy of Chaplin's tramp suddenly finding himself in an opulent
The two contrasts I have discussed are comical, and their comedy
forms a contrast to the tone of the poem as a whole. Dunbar's narrator,
complaining first about the weather, then clownishly getting himself into
the garden, seems a poor figure to narrate the serious, if joyous, scene
in which Nature crowns the beasts and plants. The contrast is all the
more jarring if we remember that the poem is intended as a compliment to
King James IV and his new Queen, Margaret Tudor. There is a sense, how-
ever, in which this contrast of comic to serious is perfectly suited to
the poem's occasion. For Dunbar, marriage could be a fertile source of
humor, as "The Tretis of the Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo" clearly
shows. Although marriage is an immensely important occasion, it has
never been immune to jokes. A certain amount of contrast between humor
and seriousness seems inherit in the subject of marriage. The contrast
is magnified when the wedding is a matter of state. The juxtaposition
of comic and serious is perhaps ironic, but seems to fit the topic.
More importantly, the comic contrast of the narrator to the poem's
topic serves as a compliment to the King. In the role of the narrator,
Dunbar contrasts himself to the splendor of the King, represented in the
poem by the Lion, and to the Queen, represented by the Rose. The contrast
is an act of humility, like a deep bow, complimenting the person whose
relative position is elevated. The contrasts in this poem tell as much
as the allegorical figures, and considerably more than direct statement,
which is rather scarce. Although contrasts alone could never prove any
influence of the alliterative tradition, they can show a poet's mind
still working in channels first marked by the alliterative poets.
Dunbar's remaining ceremonial poems are of somewhat less critical
interest. They are brief, relatively straightforward, but still highly
ornamented pieces, written to honor a specific person or occasion.
"Blyth Aberdein" is occasioned by Queen Margaret, although it praises
the city of Aberdeen for its reception of the Queen rather than the Queen
herself. The alliteration in this poem is quite heavy, 52.8%.
In "Blyth Aberdein" Dunbar uses alliteration,and consonance
between alliterating lines, to frame stanzas, and to link stanzas. I am
using "consonance" loosely to refer both to the juxtaposition of identi-
cal and of phonetically related, but not identical, consonants such as
p and b. The first two lines of the poem, for instance, alliterate on b:
Blyth Aberdein, thow beriall of all tounis,
The lamp of bewtie, bountie, and blythnes. (11. 1-2)
The final line of the stanza, which is the refrain of every stanza except
the last, picks up the alliteration:
Be blyth, and blisfull, burgh of Aberdein. (1.8)
The b of Aberdein begins an unstressed syllable, but it does create a
consonance at the end of the line. Dunbar may link stanzas by making
the first line of a stanza alliterate on b, repeating the alliteration
of the previous line, the refrain, and enclosing the stanza by making it
begin and end with the same alliteration. The fifth stanza, for instance,
And syne the Bruce, that euir was bold in stour. (1.33)
A more frequent, and more subtle, form of linkage between stanzas is the
use of consonance between the refrain of a stanza and an early line of
the following stanza. In four of the nine stanzas of the poem, the first
alliterating line works on p. An example is the first line of the third
Ane fair processioun mett hir at the Port. (1.17)
The alliteration on p is carried through the next two lines in the rhyme
words of each line, pleasantlie, and disport metricallyy the stress on
this word falls on the final syllable). The final four lines of the
eighth stanza follow a symmetrical pattern based on consonance of b and P.
An riche present thay did till hir propyne;
Ane costlie coup that large thing wald contene,
Couerit and full of cun3eitt gold rycht fyne:
Be blyth and blisfull, burgh of Aberdein. (11.61-64)
The p's and b's frame two lines both alliterating on c. Interestingly,
the next line, which opens the final stanza, alliterates on p:
0 potent princes, pleasant and preclair. (1.65)
Although Dunbar seems to have been aware, at least intuitively, of some
phonetic relationships, it is unusual for him to use one such relation,
that between the bilabial stops b and p, as consistently in equivalent
positions as he does in this poem.
Dunbar availed himself of traditional alliterative formulas in
this poem, although with occasional reworkings to suit his purposes:
bewtie, bountie (1.2) of bounte, beaute; bounte,
beaute (p. 431)
blyth and blissfull (1.8) blipe blessed (p. 176)
press of peopill (1.50) prees of people (p. 440)
Richelie arrayit (1.10) richest men on aray (p. 248)
seimlie sort, in ordour will semely in sight; semely to
besein (I. 46) see (p. 442)
wisdom, and of worthines (1.4) worthy, witty, and wys (p. 446)
Although not all the formulas are repeated exactly here, the basic allit-
erating elements, such as"Richelie arrayit" and richestt aray"
are the same or closely related in Dunbar's poem and Fifield's lists.
"The Ballad of Lord Bernard Stewart, Lord of Aubigny" was written
to honor that noble on the occasion, according to the headnote of the
Chepman and Myllar print reprinted in the STS edition (II, 59) of his
"cumyng to Edinburghe in Scotland send in ane ryght excellent embassat
fra the said maist crystin King to our mast Souuerane lord and victories
prince James the ferde." The amount of alliteration in the poem is
roughly average for Dunbar, 41.9%. Dunbar uses the alliteration in the
poem to produce fine artistic effects. For example, identical allitera-
tion and parallel structure bind three lines, which emphasize Lord
Bernard Stewart's soldierly qualities, and his attachment to Scotland:
Welcum most valyeant and victories;
Welcum invincible victor most worthy;
Welcum our Scottis chiftane most dughty. (11.19-21)
The first two lines are linked by the alliteration of v and by the simi-
larity in meanings of the words. The first line of the group carries a
stylistic trait of the alliterative tradition which Dunbar uses less
frequently than some others, absolute adjective.41 All the lines are
linked by a parallel structure, in the general pattern "Welcome most
(adjective)." The last two, lacking alliteration to link them, are
joined by a more precise parallel syntax, "Welcome (modifier noun) most
In another stanza, alliteration is skillfully tied to the meaning
of the text:
Is none of Scotland borne faithful and kynde,
Bot he of natural inclinacioune
Dois favour the, withe all his hert and mynde,
Withe fervent, tendir, trew intencioun;
And wald of inwart hie effectioun,
Bot dreyd of danger, de in thi defence,
Or dethe, or schame, war done to thi person;
To quham be honour, lawde and reuerence. (11.33-40)
The stanza is divided into two parts after the fourth line. The alliter-
ation straddles the two parts. The first three lines lack alliteration,
while the first half of the stanza builds to a mini-climax marked by the
alliteration in the fourth line. The second half of the stanza explains
the depth of Lord Bernard Stewart's "tendir, trew, intencioun." Each
line of the second half of the stanza, except the refrain, alliterates.
The vocalic alliteration of the fifth line provides a mellifluous bridge
to the two lines alliterating on d. These lines, the last two before the
refrain, say that Lord Bernard Stewart would die himself before he would
permit "dethe, or scheme" to befall Scotland. The d's provide a conso-
nance with the t alliteration which began the series, while the repeated
alliteration on d gives these lines, and their meaning, incredible force.
Dunbar draws little from the traditional alliterating phrases in
this poem. Only one expression, "clerk, Knight" (1.7) has a parallel in
Fifield's lists, "clerk ne kni3t" (p. 133).
Lord Bernard Stewart's death provided the occasion for another
poem, "Elegy on the Death of Bernard Stewart, Lord of Aubigny." The poem
is relatively short, only 32 lines, but virtually packed with allitera-
tion, with 62.5% of the lines alliterating. The sheer amount of alliter-
ation in this poem makes emphasis by alliteration alone almost impossible,
although Dunbar does manage to link some lines by alliteration, or paral-
0 duilfull death! 0 dragon dolorous!
Quhy hes thow done so dulfullie devoir
The prince of knychtheid, nobill and chevilrous,
The witt of weiris, of armes and honour. (11.17-20)
The first line of this group is divided into half-lines, joined by allit-
eration and chiasmus. The final two lines are joined by their opening
with parallel statements, "The (noun) of (noun)."
Although alliteration may lose most of its emphasis when it is
used as extensively as it is in this poem, the absence of alliteration
may have a remarkable effect. Only three lines of the final stanza
Pray now for him, all that him loveit heir!
And for his saull mak intercessioun
Unto the Lord that hes him bocht so deir,
To gif him mercie and remissioun,
And namelie we of Scottis nation,
Intill his lyff quhom most he did affy,
For3ett we nevir into our orisoun
To pray for him, the flour of chaveilrie. (11.25-32)
The relative absence of alliteration in this stanza produces a feeling of
quiet, which seems suited to the request for prayers. It is as though
the bells and choirs have ceased, and we are left in quiet to meditate
Three of Dunbar's aureate poems are religious. "Rorate Celi
Desuper" and "Done is a Battell on the Dragon Blak" concern respectively
the birth and resurrection of Christ. "Ane Ballat of Our Lady" is a
hymn to Mary.
"Rorate Celi Desuper" has an approximately average amount of allit-
eration for Dunbar, 43.8%. The alliteration in the poem contains some
rather interesting touches. The first alliteration in the poem falls on
a pair of lines, which alliterate on consonant clusters:
Fro the ross Mary, flour of flouris:
The cleir Sone, quhome no clud devouris. (11.4-5)
The alliteration in both lines falls on a consonant followed by 1, an
unusual decoration which places emphasis on Mary, and on the double
entendre of "The cleir Sone."
An interesting symmetry occurs when Dunbar reminds the clergy of
their duty to the Christ Child:
All clergy do to him inclyne,
And bow vnto that barne benyng,
And do 3our obseruance devyne
To him that is of kingis King;
Ensence his altar, reid and sing
In haly kirk, with mynd degest. (11.25-30)
The first four lines of the group are framed by alliteration on cl and c.
The intervening two lines also alliterate on stops, b and d, so that
there is a consonance binding these lines into a unit. The fifth line,
with its vocalic alliteration, offers a pleasing contrast to the series
of stops preceding it, while the final line of the sequence echoes the
c alliteration with the word kirk.
After this alliterative sequence for the clergy, the next two
stanzas have very little of the ornament, with only two lines alliter-
ating in each stanza. The final stanza, however, has alliteration in
every English line but one:
Syng hevin imperial, most of hicht,
Regions of air mak harmony;
All fishe in flud and full of flicht,
Be myrthfull and mak melody:
All GLORIA IN EXCELSIS cry,
Hevin, erd, se, man, bird, and best,
He that is crownit abone the sky
Pro nobis Puer natus est. (11.49-56)
At the end of the poem, it seems that heaven and all creation are singing
the praises of Jesus. The sudden burst of alliteration, after two
stanzas, has much to do with this effect.
Dunbar borrows from the traditional alliterative vocabulary for
this poem. The phrase "of kingis King," (1.28) corresponds closely to
the traditional "kynge of kyngis" (Fifield, p. 332) as to the Old Eng-
lish formula "cyninga cyninge" (Oakden, II, 202). "Blud to by" (1.21)
seems descended from bloode bought" (Fifield, p. 329). Dunbar's most
interesting use of a formula in this poem is "All fische of flud and
foull of flicht," (1.51), which combines elements of two traditional
phrases, "be fisches in be flude," and "fische and foull fleoyng"
(Fifield, p. 238). By joining fish, who swim under the sea, and birds,
who fly above the sea and earth, Dunbar seems to encompass all living
creatures merely by mentioning those who live at the extremes of depth
"Done is -a Battell on the Dragon Blak," which celebrates the resur-
rection, enjoys a reputation as a technical masterpiece. Tom Scott calls
it "one of the noblest poems in the Scottish language, and the finest
religious one." He adds that "it is the product of the greatest technical
mastery in the whole range of Scottish verse from Barbour to the
present.42 C. S. Lewis, generally a more cautious critic than Scott,
terms it "speech of unanswerable and thundering greatness. From the
first line . to the last . it vibrates with exultant energy.
It defies the powers of evil and has the ring of a steel gauntlet flung
down."43 Both Denton Fox and Scott comment on the skillful use of
alliteration in the poem. The poem is a very effective example of
Dunbar's use of the alliterative tradition.
The amount of alliteration in the poem, 45.7%, is close to Dunbar's
average. The patterning of the alliteration is, however, very effective,
as an examination of the first stanza will show:
Done is a battell on the dragon blak,
Our campioun45 Chryst confoundit hes his force;
The 3ettis of hell ar brokin with a crak,
The signed trivmphall rasit is of the croce,
The diuillis trymmillis with hiddouss voce,
The saulis ar borrowit and to the bliss can go,
Chryst with his blud our ransonis dois indoce:
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro. (11.1-8)
The first two lines of the poem contain interlocking alliteration on d
and b. The second line continues the double alliteration, with a string
of three c's followed by two f's. The alliteration on c is continued in
the rhyme words of the next two lines, crak and croce. This interlineal
alliteration links Christ's victory over Satan, described in the first
two lines, with the results of that victory, the breaking of the gates
of hell and the'raising of the cross. Meanwhile, the devils tremble with
hideous voices and without alliteration. Alliteration returns in the
next line, however, when the redeemed souls are permitted to ascend to
the bliss of heaven.
The second stanza uses alliteration, although with fewer of the
intricate linking devices of the first:
Dungin is the deidly dragon Lucifer,
The crewall serpent with the mortal stang;
The auld kene tegir, with his teith on char,
Quhilk in a wait hes jyne for ws so lang,
Thinking to grip ws in his clowss strange;
The mercifull Lord wald nocht that it were so,
He maid him for to fel3e of that fang:
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro. (11.9-16)
The second line of the stanza includes a possible alliteration between
serpent and stang, depending upon how closely Dunbar followed the tradi-
tion of permitting the cluster st to alliterate only on itself. It is
interesting that the four lines describing Lucifer, the second through
fifth of the stanza, are framed by phrases crewall serpent and clowss
strange, creating a pattern of consonance with the repetition of a c
followed by s or st.
The third stanza is the climax of the poem, the description of
Christ in victory. As the third of five stanzas, it is directly in the
center of the poem, preceded by two stanzas describing the victory and
the defeated Satan, and followed by a description of the world after
Christ's victory. By placing the climax in the center, Dunbar gives the
poem an effect of symmetry. This stanza also has the most elaborate
alliteration and consonance in the poem:
He for our saik that sufferit to be lane,
And lyk a -l-amb in sacrifice wes dicht,
Is lyk a lyone rissin vp agane,
And as gyane raxit him on hicht;
Sprungin is Aurora radius and bricht,
On loft is gone the glorious Appollo,
The blissfull day departit fro the nycht:
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro. (11.17-24)
This stanza contains the only two lines in the poem linked by identical
alliteration, the second and third. The phrases "lyk a lamb" and "lyk a
lyone" are linked both by alliteration on 1 and by parallel structure.
The careful linkage emphasizes the contrast between the two natures of
Christ being presented, the sacrificial lamb and the lion-like conqueror
of Satan. The next two lines lack alliteration, but have a pattern of
consonance based on r, which as a resonant complements the l's of the
preceding lines. The pattern of r begins with raxit in the fourth line.
In the fifth line, every word except the auxiliary and conjunction has
an r in a stressed syllable. The pattern of consonance continues into
the sixth line of the stanza with a return to 1 in loft, glorious, and
Apollo, although the line alliterates on g.
The last two stanzas have relatively little alliteration:
The grit victor agane is rissen on hicht,
That for our querrell to the deth wes woundit;
That sone that vox all paill now schynis bricht,
And dirknes clerit, our fayth is now refoundit;
The knell of mercy fra the hevin is soundit,
The Cristin ar deliuerit of thair wo,
The Jowis and thair errour ar confoundit:
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro
The fo is chasit, the battell is done ceiss,
The presone brokin, the jevellouris fleit and flemit;
The weir is gon, confermit is the peiss,
The fetteris lowsit and the dungeoun temit,
The ransoun maid, the presoneirs redemit;
The feild is win, ourcumin is the fo,
Dispulit of the tresur that he 3emit:
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro. (11.25-40)
With almost no alliteration, these lines are a sharp contrast to the
third stanza. The effect is appropriate, however, since the fruits of
victory are not allowed to overshadow the glory of the victor. Dunbar's
topic is Christ's victory, and although he praises the result of the
victory, he is careful not to distract the reader's attention from the
victory'itself. The major poetic device of these two stanzas is parallel
structure, especially in final stanza in which almost every line begins
with a noun followed by a passive verb. So many parallels could become
dull, but in this instance they work beautifully. The poetic excite-
ment builds to the third stanza, whose ornamentation is almost as deafen-
ing as the battle between Christ and Satan. After the battle, the
Christians are left to count their new blessings in peace. The sense of
peace is matched by the sudden drop of alliteration, while the multi-
plicity of blessings is emphasized by the long series of parallels.
"Ane Ballat of Our Lady" has the most complicated stanza form of
any of Dunbar's poems. The poem is divided into twelve line stanzas, in
a ballad meter which alternates tetrameter and trimeter lines until the
ninth line of each stanza. The ninth line is a Latin refrain, "Aue
Maria, gratia plena!" The last three lines continue the alternation of
line lengths, the tenth line being trimeter. The five lines of tetra-
meter have one rhyme, the six lines of trimeter another, so that there
are only two rhyming sounds in each stanza. In addition to the end rhyme,
the tetrameter lines have internal rhyme, requiring three rhyming words in
each line. In each stanza, Dunbar must find fifteen rhyming words for the
tetrameter lines, and six for the trimeter lines. In such a demanding
stanza form, we might expect to find less alliteration, since the neces-
sity of finding words to fit a highly restrictive rhyme scheme would seem
to preclude any additional ornamentation. In fact, however, the poem has
alliteration in 48.1% of its lines, a reasonably high figure even for
The first stanza of the poem offers a typical example of the
interplay between the complex rhyme scheme and the alliteration. Rhyming
syllables are underlined; alliterating sounds are marked by an asterisk
(*) under the appropriate letter:
Haile, sterne superne! Haile, in eterne,
In Godis sicht to schyne!
Lucerne in derne, for to discerne
Be glory and grace devyne
Hodiern, modern, sempitern,
Our tern inferne for to dispern,
Helpe rialest rosyne.
Aue Maria, gratia plena!
Haile, fresche flour femynyne!
3erne ws, guberne, wirgin matern,
Of reuth baith rute and ryne (11.1-12)
Six lines in this stanza alliterate, a good approximation of the propor-
tion of alliterating lines in the poem as a whole. Four of these lines
do not require internal rhyme, but internal rhyme and alliteration are
combined in two of the lines. One line without alliteration has a strong
consonance in the soft g's of "Angelicall regyne." An extremely compli-
cated pattern is woven into the first line of the poem:
Haile sterne superne! Haile, in eterne
A C C A C
The A's mark alliteration, the C's consonance. The cluster st in sterne
normally alliterates only on itself, so the phrase stern superne does
not alliterate. The interesting feature of this line is that the two
elements of the cluster st are repeated in the same line: s in superne,
and t in eterne. The first line combines repetition, alliteration, in-
ternal rhyme, and consonance. It is an ideal introduction to the linguis-
tic complications to follow.
The last stanza of the poem is perhaps one of the most interesting
for Dunbar's careful balance of rhyme and alliteration. Eight lines of
this stanza alliterate, above the average for the poem. Dunbar increases
the psychological effect of the stanza by withholding alliteration for a
few lines before the last stanza. The penultimate stanza has only four
alliterating lines, three of these being the first three of the stanza.
The other alliterating line, which is the last of the stanza, comes after
eight lines without alliteration, and leads into the richness of the final
stanza. Here is the final stanza, with rhyme and alliteration marked as
in the citation of the first stanza:
Imperial wall, place palestrall,
Of peirless pulcritud;
Trywmphale hall, hie tour royal
Of Godis celsitud;
Hospital riall, the lord of all
Thy closet did include;
Bricht ball cristall, ross virginall,
Fulfillit of angell fude.
Aue Maria, gratia plena!
Thy birth has with his blude,
Fra fall mortall, original,
Ws raunsound on the rude. (11. 73-84)
The first two lines alliterate on the same consonant, p. The first five
alliterating lines alliterate on stops, p, t, c, and b. The pattern is
broken up somewhat by the alliteration on f just before the refrain, but
the f is placed between two lines alliterating on b to form a symmetri-
cal pattern. The consonant of the internal rhyme syllable is 1, which,
as a resonant, provides a striking phonetic contrast to the alliterating
stops through most of the stanza. The alliterating stops are supported,
however, by the rhyme on the trimeter lines, -ud(e). The last line of
the stanza provides a very satisfying resolution by reversing a pattern
we have come to expect throughout the stanza. The alliteration in the
last line is on r, a resonant, while both alliterating words end with a
stop, d. This reversal in the last line ties together two opposing groups
of consonants which have been in tension with each other throughout the
stanza. By binding the two groups together, the line provides an excel-
lent conclusion to the stanza and to the poem.
Dunbar employs a number of traditional alliterative formulas in
this poem. The traditional phrases and their counterparts in Fifield's
lists are presented below:
fair, fresche flour-de-lyce (1.42) freschest floure, fresh
fresche flour (1. 10) flour (p. 338)
prince of pryss (1. 46) Pe Prince of pes (p. 349)
rialest rosyne (1. 8) rose ryal (p. 351)
Dunbar treats the formulas with his usual freedom, adding a rhetorical
and horticultural flourish to the traditional freshh flour" to create
the "fair, fresche flour-de-lyce." A similar metamorphosis makes the
"rose ryal" into the "rialest rosyne." Although Dunbar uses the tradi-
tional formulas loosely, he nevertheless uses them. Aside from alliter-
ation itself, these phrases are Dunbar's most obvious borrowings from
the alliterative tradition.
In conclusion, it is possible to see that Dunbar draws on the
alliterative tradition to create stylistic effects throughout his
aureate poetry. He uses alliteration extensively, sometimes to draw
attention to individual lines, sometimes to join groups of lines. His
carefully patterned alliteration forms a brilliant complement to the
poetry's meaning. Even when he draws on the alliterative formulas, he
frequently gives them new meaning either through unexpected variations,
or by placing them in unexpected contexts. Dunbar borrows from the
alliterative tradition to link parts of his poems, and to enrich his
style. Much of the compactness and brilliance of his poetry comes
from his skillful use of this tradition.
1Stanley Greenfield, A Critical History of Old English Literature
(New York: New York Univ. Press, 1965), p. 133.
2Greenfield, p. 165.
Greenfield, p. 222.
Dorothy Everett, Essays on Middle English Literature, ed.
Patricia Kean (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955), pp. 27-28.
5F. J.Amours, "Introduction," Scottish Alliterative Poems in
Rhyming Stanzas, STS, Ser. 1, Nos. 27, 38 (Edinburgh: William Blackwood
and Sons, 1897), pp. vii.
The Poems of James VI of Scotland, ed. James Craigie, STS, Ser.
3, No. 22 (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1955), I, 76-77. The full title of
King James's work is Ane Schort Treatise, Conteining Some Revlis and
cautelis to be obseruit and eschewit in Scottis Poesie.
7J. P. Oakden, Alliterative Poetry in Middle English (Manchester,
Eng.: Manchester Univ. Press, 1930-35), I, 244.
8Ants Oras, "Spenser and Milton," in Sound and Poetry, ed.
Northrop Frye, English Institute Essays 1956 (New York: Columbia Univ.
Press, 1957), pp. 114-115.
9Oras, p. 116.
0Merle Fifield, "Alliteration in the Middle English Lyrics," Diss.
Univ.of Illinois 1960, p. xi.
11For additional discussion of vocalic alliteration, see Paul
Kiparsky's essays, "Metrics and Morphonemics in the Kalevala," in
Studies Presented to Roman Jakobson by his Students, ed. Charles C.
Gribble (Cambridge, Mass.: Slavia Publishers, Inc., 1968), pp. 137-198;
and "The Role of Linguistics in a Theory of Poetry," Daedalus 102 (1973),
12Oakden, I, 236.
13Fifield, p. xii.
SOakden, I, 201-202.
Everett, pp. 26-27.
6Everett, p. 38; Oakden, II, 195-379; Larry Benson, Art and
Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (New Brunswick, N. J.:
Rutgers Univ. Press, 1965), p.136.
F7ifield, pp. 132-498, catalogues alliterative phrases from five
sources, including thirteenth century lyrics, Harley MS 2253, fourteenth
century religious lyrics, fifteenth century religious lyrics, and
fifteenth century secular lyrics. Oakden, II, 195-379, has gathered
alliterative phrases primarily from Old English and the alliterative
revival. All references to these lists will be cited in the text.
1Denton Fox, "The Poetry of William Dunbar," Diss. Yale 1956,
pp. 18-63; John Cooper Mendenhall, Aureate Terms: A Study in the Literary
Diction of the Fifteenth Century, Diss. Univ. of Pennsylvania, 1919
(Lancaster, Pa.: Wickersham Printing Co., 1919); and John Conley, "Four
Studies in Aureate Terms," Diss. Stanford, 1956.
1Benson, p. 124. Conley, p. 41, makes a distinction between
aureate diction and the poetic diction of the alliterative tradition:
"Archaic diction was not considered aureate, however, although it is a
common enough ornament in Classical literature and may well be a part of
the alliterative tradition in English: the largely foreign character of
aureate terms is again revealed." Both archaic and foreign words would,
however, by their unfamiliarity, produce similar effects in poetry, and
the two traditions could be easily mingled.
2Everett, p. 47.
Benson, p. 148.
22Jerome Mandel, "Contrast in Old English Poetry," The Chaucer
Review, 6 (1971), 1.
2Betty Jane Fisher, "William Dunbar: A Study in Contrasts," Diss.
Univ. of Wisconsin, 1965.
4Mandel, p. 3.
Benson, pp. 157-158.
2Everett, p. 23.
2Fox, The Poetry of William Dunbar, p. 44.
Denton Fox, "Dunbar's The Golden Targe," ELK 26 (1959), 331-334;
Lois A. Ebin, "The Theme of Poetry in Dunbar's 'Golden Targe'," The
Chaucer Review, 7 (1972), 147-159; F. Allen Tilley, "The Meaning of
Dunbar's 'The Golden Targe,'" Studies in Scottish Literature,10 (1973),
29Fox, "Dunbar's The Golden Targe," p. 311.
0Fox, "Dunbar's The Golden Targe," p. 311.
Fox, "Dunbar's The Golden Targe," p. 321.
31The phoneme /k/ is sometimes spelled k in Dunbar, but is more
frequently c. I have cited alliteration on any spelling of /k/ as c in
my text, mainly because both Fifield and Oakden have alphabetized
phrases alliterating on /k/ under c in their lists.
32Fox, "Dunbar's The Golden Targe" pp. 332-333.
33Fox, "Dunbar's The Golden Targe," p. 316.
Fox,'Dunbar's The Golden Targe," p. 316.
34Fox, "Dunbar's The Golden Targe," p. 317.
35Ebin, p. 151.
36Ebin, p. 152.
37Johannes Fuhrmann,Die Alliterierenden Sprachformeln in Morris'
Early English Alliterative Poems, und im Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight.
Diss. Kiel 1886 (Hamburg: William Hintel's Buchdruckerei, 1886), p. 28.
38Greenfield, pp. 75-76, "The poet, working on the degree of
expectancy set up by the traditional collocation, or by his own creations
of habitual patterns, could deliberately extend or frustrate that expec-
tancy in various ways."
Patrologiae Latina, ed. J.P. Migne (Paris, 1863), Vol. 90, col.
4Fox, "Dunbar's The Golden Targe," p. 331.
4Benson, pp. 129-130.
42Tom Scott, Dunbar: A Critical Exposition of the Poems (New York:
Barnes and Noble, 1966), p. 300.
C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Exclud-
ing Drama (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), p. 96.
4Fox, "The Poetry of William Dunbar," pp. 107-108; Scott, p. 301.
4I assume that the c of campioun has its usual value of /k/.
The DOST lists Old Northern French campiun as well as Old French champion
as sources for the word, which ultimately goes back to Latin campio. The
"Glossary" of the STS edition links campioun to Old English and Danish
kamp, meaning "fight." The spelling points toward a pronunciation of /k/
as does its possible association with words in Old English and Danish,
and the Romance etymology seems to leave this pronunciation as at least
THE COMIC STYLE
Dunbar's comic poems are perhaps the most accessible to the modern
reader. The intricate ornamentation of the aureate poems is likely to
seem artificial today, while the celebration of unfamiliar events, the
conventions of a Roman de la Rose courtship, and the consciously artifi-
cial language create barriers between the poetry and the reader. The
comic poems have the same ornate workmanship--the alliteration, the
unusual vocabulary--but in these poems the language heightens the comic
effect in a way that evokes an immediate response. The appeal of the
comic poems is so strong that John Speirs has been led
to suggest that the core of his living achievement, that
part of his achievement which we read as if it were con-
temporary, consists, not of the ceremonial poems, The
Golden Targe, The Thrissil and the Rois, but of the comic
and satiric poems, The Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo, The
Dance of the Sevin Deidly Sinnis, the goliardic blasphemies,
The Flyting, The Satire on Edinburgh, and the more acrid and
radical satires that merge into the saturnine poems that
give his work as a whole, for all its intense vitality,
its dark cast.1
While not going quite as far as Speirs, I would like to suggest that the
style of the comic poems is at least as complicated as that of the aure-
ate poems. The comic poems are, in fact, of special interest in this
study since they are, in many cases, the poems most clearly written in
the alliterative tradition.
The most- important of Dunbar's comic poems are "The Tretis of the
Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo," written in unrhymed alliterative long
lines, and "The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy" written in rhymed alliter-
ative verse. These two poems, then, will be discussed first in this
chapter. The rest of the comic poems are so diverse as to defy any
simple system of classification. It is possible, however, to place them
in three rough groups. First there are attacks on characters; these poems,
and the apologies they occasioned, account for roughly half of Dunbar's
comic work. Second, a few of the comic poems deal with religious themes.
Finally, one group can only be classified as obscene.
"The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo" has the soundest
critical reputation of any of Dunbar's comic poems. It is the only one
of his poems in any style, to my knowledge, to have become the subject
of a book-length study.2 Another critic calls "The Tretis" the only
comic poem which "is truly extraordinary." Critics who have censured
the poem have usually been too shocked by its contents to consider its
merits. In A. J. G. MacKay's "Introduction" to the STS edition, for ex-
ample, the poem represents in women "a special depravity in the sex which
in better times maintains standards of purity" (I, Ixxxii). To a twenti-
eth century woman, however, the poem is a "very modern debate,4 in which
"the speech is charged with intimate mockery, and the wild unrepression
of the ladies' complexes is set up with true irony between a beautiful
opening and a beautiful end."5
The opening of the poem is just after midnight on Midsummer's Eve,
when the poet finds three beautiful ladies drinking wine and talking in
an arbor. As he remains hidden, listening to their conversation, one of
the ladies, a widow, asks the other two their opinions on marriage and
promises to give her own in return. The first woman to speak would like
for women to have free choice of mates, and for marriage to be for one
year only, so that she could change husbands annually. Her husband is
ugly, jealous, lecherous and impotent. She can tolerate him only by
forcing him to pay dearly in dresses and jewelry for her favors. The
second woman has a husband who appears to be young and handsome, but
he has worn himself into impotence through adultery. She too would
welcome the opportunity to change mates. The widow has had two husbands.
The first, a disgusting old man, she pretended to love while keeping a
paramour on the side until the old man left most of his estate to her
son, although the child was born after the husband had become impotent.
Her second husband was a merchant, whom she despised for his low birth.
The more he attempted to please her, the greater both her dominance and
her contempt became. She parted him from his wealth to raise her own
children like nobles, and added insult to injury by gossiping about his
inadequacies. Now that her second husband is dead, she attends church
to look over the young men, but keeps a damp sponge ready to feign tears
if she sees any of her late husband's friends. She is charitable if there
is anyone around to see her, and goes on pilgrimages more for the company
than the pardons. Meanwhile, she entertains as many lovers as possible.
The party continues as the poet retires to record their conversation and
to ask which of the ladies the reader would prefer to be wedded to.
The first topic we need to discuss in "The Tretis" is the versifica-
tion. The poem is written in the extended form of the alliterative long
line developed by the poets of the alliterative revival. In the ex-
tended long line, the number of stressed syllables, as well as the number
of unstressed syllables, may vary within certain limits. Each line must
have at least four stresses:
/ / / /
Bot als fresche of his forme, as flouris in May.(1. 87)
Lines with five stressed syllables are very frequent:
/ / / / /
I drew in derne to the dyk to dirkin eftir myrthis. (1. 9)
Although less common, lines with six stresses are possible:
/ / / / / /
And sais, "My souerane sueit thing, quhy sleip 3e no betir?" (1.221)
Dunbar generally follows the convention of not permitting the final
stressed syllable to alliterate. The verse is also conservative in that
it is usually possible to divide a line into half-lines by a caesura
before the next to last stress. Sentence and clause boundaries generally
correspond to the end of a line rather than to the caesura. Tom Scott is
correct when he says that in "The Tretis" "the consciousness of the
hemistich as being the true unit of the verse is submerged, having been
replaced by the Romance concept of the 'line', the 'versus', as the unit
of metre."7 In this poem a metrical concept from iambic verse seems to
have influenced Dunbar's use of the old alliterative line, just as ele-
ments from alliterative verse influenced his iambic poems.
The unrhymed alliterative verse of "The Tretis" was already some-
what archaic by the time the poem was written. By the late fifteenth cen-
tury most alliterative poetry in Scotland was in rhymed stanzas. The
question of what effect this verse might have had on Dunbar's original
audience is intriguing. At first glance, "The Tretis" seems to offer
concrete support to King James VI's contention, discussed in the previ-
ous chapter, that alliterative verse was suited only to the comic insults
of flying. As the three women rail against their husbands, the effect
is certainly that of a flying. William Craigie supports this view
that alliterative verse lends itself to abusive humor when he writes
that Dunbar "saw in alliterative verse greater opportunity for easy
composition, racy discourse, and a free use of the abusive epithets
which the three women agree in applying to their husbands."
Craigie would be correct if the tone of the poem were uniformly
abusive. The poem begins, however, with a very courtly description of
the ladies and the poem's setting:
Apon the Midsumer ewin, mirriest of nichtis,
I muvit fourth allane, neir as midnight wes past,
Besyd ane gudlie grene garth, full of gay flouris,
Hegeit, of ane huge hicht, with hawthorne treis:
Quhairon ane bird, on ane bransche, so birst out hir notis
That neuer ane blythfullar bird was on the beuche harde:
Quhat throw the sugarat sound of hir sang glaid,
And throw the sauar sanatiue of the sueit flouris,
I drew in derne to the dyk to dirkin eftir mirthis;
The dew donkit the daill and dynarit the foulis.(l1.l-10)
A. D. Hope finds "no hint of parody in the opening passage and the poet
returns to the elevated and idealised treatment of the scene at the end
as seriously and as enthusiastically as he began." The alliterative
line in "The Tretis" is, then, used for two purposes, as James Kinsley
has observed, "It is a vehicle both for coarse description and self-
expression, and for elaborately ornamental description."0 Kinsley
feels that "by the time of James IV, the alliterative line was associ-
ated chiefly with sophisticated and serious types of poetry, especially
romance."11 Kinsley adds that "the alliterative line, losing nothing in
flexibility and compactness, but gradually increasing in force is turned
to a new and unexpected use in the speech of the first wife."12
Kinsley reads "The Tretis" as an essay in contrasts in which the
choice of the alliterative line plays a major part:
The centre of the Tretis is the contrast between appearance
and reality, between the ideal world of courtly poetry and
the 'spotted actuality' of the three women's minds and
habits; and to this end a metrical form chiefly associ-
ated with sophisticated courtly description and narrative
is suddenly turned into the medium of erotic reminiscence.
The alliterative line is the formal base on which Dunbar's
tonal contrast is developed between the conventional por-
traiture and 'enamellit terms' of the prologue, and the
coarse sentiment and coarser expression of the monologues
Basing an entire poem on an implicit contrast is certainly within the
alliterative tradition, and Kinsley seems correct in saying that the
verse itself contributes to the effect of this contrast. Dunbar himself
alludes to the comic irony of the speech of the three women in contrast
to the high style of the opening and closing lines of the poem. When the
widow finishes her monologue, Dunbar begins the transition to the epilogue
with the line, "Quhen endit had her ornat speche, this eloquent wedow."
(1. 505). The use of the word "ornate" seems clearly ironic, since
Dunbar indicates what he usually means by "ornate" language when, in "The
Golden Targe," he praises Homer "For all thine ornate stilis so perfyte"
The relation of the alliterative verse form to the contrast
between the language of the central section of the poem and its opening
and closing lines is, however, more complicated than Kinsley seems to
realize. When he says that alliterative verse was "chiefly associated
with sophisticated courtly description and narrative," he is overstating
his case. While James VI's remarks on alliterative verse should not be
taken as gospel, they should not be ignored. We must also take into
account that while Dunbar used parts of the alliterative tradition in
all of his poetry for artistic effects, he used alliterative verse
itself, either rhymed or unrhymed, only in comic poems. Dunbar's con-
temporaries also used alliterative verse generally in their humorous
efforts, such as Robert Henryson's "Sum Practise of Medycine,l14 and
Gavin Douglas's "Proloug" to the eighth book of his translation of the
The attitude of Dunbar's audience to the versification of "The
Tretis" must have been ambivalent. The form was associated on the one
hand with the tradition of courtly romance. On the other hand, the
audience was accustomed to hearing the form used comicly in more recent
poetry. When first hearing, or reading, this poem, the audience would
have had to decide whether Dunbar was using the versification in its tra-
ditional purpose, courtly romance, or for its more recent purpose, humor.
For the first forty lines, Dunbar beguiles his audience into believing
that he is using the alliterative line for its traditional purpose, poetry
in the high style. Seeing or hearing a recent poem, the audience must
have expected a comic piece if it were in alliterative verse, but they
could not have been sure. In the first forty lines, then, Dunbar manages
to disappoint the audience's expectation, while remaining faithful to the
alliterative tradition. In the body of the poem, Dunbar disappoints the
expectation he has so carefully fostered by turning the poem to what the
audience probably originally expected, comedy. By twice disappointing
the expectations of the audience, Dunbar greatly magnifies the impact of
the contrast between the tone of the opening and the speeches of the three
women. That one of the disappointments relies on the audience's expecta-
tions from alliterative verse itself emphasizes the role of the verse
form in the "contrasts between appearance and reality" which Kinsley
finds in the poem.
Since the verse form of "The Tretis" demands that every line
alliterate, it is obviously impossible for alliteration itself to give
any sort of emphasis. Nevertheless, Dunbar uses the alliteration artis-
tically by creating patterns of alliterative sounds, a technique which
had been used earlier in the Morte Arthure.16 For example, the first
woman draws a contrast between the chains of matrimony and her ideal of
free choice in four lines all alliterating on the same consonant:
3e speir, had I fre chois, gif I wald cheis better?
Chen3eis ay ar to eschew; and changes ar sueit:
Sic cursit chance till eschew, had I my chois anis,
Out of the chen3eis of ane churle I chaip suld for euir (11. 52-55)
A more extended example of the same technique is in the widow's
speech, as she describes her behavior in church:
I haif a water spunge for wa, within my _wyde clokis,
Than wring it full wylely, et wetis my chekis;
With that waters myn ene, and welteris doune teris.
Than say thai all, that sittis about, "Se 3e nought, allace!
3one lustlese led so lelely scho luffit hir husband:
3one is a pete to enprent in a princis hert,
That sic a perle of plesance suld 3one pane dre!"
I sane me as I war ane sanct, et semys ane angell;
At language of lichory I leit as I war crabit:
I sich, without sair hert, or seiknes in body;
According to my sable weid I mon haif sad maneris,
Or thai will se all the suth; for certis, we wemen
We set us all fra the syght to syle men of treuth (11. 437-449)
The first three .lines alliterate on w and form a cohesive unit in which
the widow describes her technique of producing tears if any of her late
husband's friends should happen to see her. She carries water in a
sponge which she can wring to make tears run down her cheeks. The next
four lines describe the public reaction to the widow's performance with
her sponge. Alliterating s .1 p these lines begin a more complicated
pattern. The widow describes the onlookers, "Then all those sitting
around say: 'Alas, do you not see yonder unhappy creature, who loved her
husband so faithfully. It is enough to impress pity in a prince's heart,
that such a pearl of delight should have to endure such suffering as
that.'"17 The widow gives a candid description of herself in the follow-
ing six lines. The first two lines of this section alliterate s 1, just
as the first two lines of the description of the public reaction. The two
pairs of s and 1 lines have a close logical relation. The first s 1 pair
describes the response she receives, while the second pair concentrates
on her own actions. Even the imagery of the two pairs is consistent.
In the first s 1 pair, the widow is praised for her marital fidelity;
in the second pair she upholds her chastity by pretending to be shocked
by indecency. In the final four lines, alliterating on s, the widow re-
turns to the theme of deception with which she began the passage. In the
first two of these s lines, she continues to describe her demeanor: "I
sigh, though my heart is not sad or my body sick. I have to keep up sober
behaviour to go with my black weeds." The contrast of her motives with
her outward appearance forms a sharp contrast in the remaining two s
lines: "Otherwise they will see the truth; for truly we women set our-
selves to blind men to the sight of truth." The contrast within these
four lines embodies the contrast between the appearance and the reality
of the women on which both the passage and the entire poem are built.
The passage begins and ends with deception. We know of the widow's
duplicity when she tells about her sponge. The poem then shifts to the
result of the deception, closely linked by alliteration to the widow's
description of her mannerisms. As we become involved in the details of
her feigned piety and mourning, we almost forget the motive behind it
until the last two lines, which jolt us back into the reality with which
we began. That we should almost be deceived after knowing of her treach-
ery beforehand makes her performance both plausible and horrifying.
In "The Tretis," Dunbar links lines by alliteration to create
another effect, one which is unusual in unrhymed alliterating poetry.
In some passages, lines are joined in groups of two, creating the effect
of couplets. Dunbar uses this technique after the widow has finished
her speech and the poem returns to the higher tone of the opening:
Thus draif thai our that deir night, with danceis full noble,
Quhill that the day did vp daw, et dew donkit the flouris;
The morow myld wes et meik, the mavis did sing,
And all remuffit the myst, et the meid smellit;
Siluer schouris doune schuke, as the scene cristall,
And berdis schoutit in schaw, with thair schill notis;
The goldin glitter and gleme, so gladid their hertis,
Thai maid a glorius gle amang the grene bewis.
The soft such of the swyr, et sovne of the stremys,
The sueit sawour of the sward, [and] singing of foulis,
Myght comfort ony creature of the kyn of Adam;
And kindill agane his courage thocht it wer cald sloknyt.
Than rais their ryall roisis, in their riche wedis,
And rakit hame to their rest, through the rise blwmys;
And I all prevely past to a plesand arber,
And with my pen did report thair pastance most mery. (11.511-526)
Although sentence boundaries tend to fall at the ends of these alliter-
ative couplets, the lines alliterating on identical letters do not form
groups of meaning, as in the portion of the widow's speech analyzed above.
In this passage, it seems that the meaning has been forced to fit the
artificial pattern of paired lines. In this instance, Dunbar's experience
with rhymed stanzas has influenced his use of alliterative verse. These
couplets serve to give a very regular tone to the epilogue of the poem,
contrasting to the tone of the women's speeches.
Lines are grouped in "The Tretis" by alliteration for two purposes.
A series of closely related lines may be bound into a unit by alliterat-
ing on the same sound to emphasize the importance of that group. Alliter-
ation may also bind lines into pairs, creating the effect of couplets.
Used over an extended passage, this technique can give the entire passage
an ornate, elevated tone, but has little direct connection with meaning.
Both techniques are used extensively in "The Tretis," since 52.6% of the
lines of the poem are adjacent to a line alliterating on the same sound.
As might be expected in an alliterative poem, Dunbar draws on the
traditional stock of alliterative formulas. A few of Dunbar's phrases
may be compared with Merle Fifield's lists:
bird on ane bransche (1. 5); byrde in bewe; bird on brere
birdies on bewch (1. 205) (p. 431)
blythfullar bird (1. 6) blitul biryd (p. 132)
gress that grew (1. 24) gressys grewe (p. 436)
a luke without lust (1. 188) lust forto loke (p. 438)
perle of plesance (1. 443) perle of prise (p. 440)
prese of people (1. 475) press of people (p. 440)
riche ruby (1. 367) ryche Ruby (p. 441)
walkand for wo (1. 213) ban walkynnis my wo (p. 445)
weddit wemen (1. 41) a wedded woman (p. 445)
Wise women (1. 451); So wisly, wisdom and womanhed; womanly
and so womanly(l. 496) and wyiss (p. 446)
Only two of these phrases call for any critical comment. The phrase "a
luke without lust" comes from the second woman's speech, in which she
complains that her husband's desires far outstrip his performance. The
phrase Dunbar gives her is a skillful inversion of the more traditional
"lust forto loke." The widow claims that people call her a "perle of
plesance," which might even implant pity "in a princis hert" (1.442).
Lines alliterating on pearl, pleasant, and prince were familiar in alliter-
ative poetry; for example, the opening line of Pearl: "Perle, plesaunte
to prynces paye."18 Such associations give a quite clear indication of
what the people around her thought of the widow, making the contrast with
her more candid self-revelation all the more dramatic.
Although I have found no evidence that hegies and hight were
joined in any traditional alliterative formulas, the combination seems
to have become formulaic for Dunbar, since he uses the combination both
in "The Tretis" and in "The Golden Targe." The garden of the three women
of "The Tretis" is "Hegeit, of any huge hicht" (1. 4). In the garden of
"The Golden Targe," "the hegies raise on hicht" (1. 34). The repetition
of this pair in the two poems proves little, but it does indicate that,
like an alliterative poet, Dunbar was willing to repeat alliterative
phrases he found useful in certain contexts. This phrase, for example,
occurs in a description of a very courtly garden in the spring in both
poems. The connection with "The Golden Targe" also perhaps gives an
indication that the opening lines of "The Tretis" should be taken as
aureatee," in the sense in which I have used the term. Dunbar's motives
for putting the introduction to this poem in an elevated style have been
"The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy" is Dunbar's only poem in
rhymed alliterative verse, a form which had previously been used in
several long Scottish poems.19 Flyting, an exercise in humorous abuse,
seems to have been an established verse form in Scotland in the fifteenth
and sixteenth centuries. King James VI alludes to flying, and King
James V wrote a flying on Sir David Lindsay, to which Lindsay replied.
The reply suggests that the flying was a verbal duel, in which harsh
language was exchanged without real malice, and.in which the author of
a flying expected a reply in kind:
Schir, with my Prince pertenit me nocht to pley:
Bot sen your grace hes geuin me sic command,
To mak answer, it must neidis me obey.20
A modern analogue to the flying might be the modern American custom of
the "roast," in which a distinguished guest is made the butt of a series
of humorous monologues and skits, then sometimes invited to reply.
The critical response to "The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy" may
be best described as confused. John Speirs, who considers the comic poems
the best of Dunbar's work, has unreserved enthusiasm for "The Flyting":
The two poets abuse each other like two fishwives, though it
is of course a kind of game. It is a comic tour de force of
sheer language, but because the language is in this case
living language, the coarse-textured vigorous language of
the actual popular speech, it does not separate the poet
from life but carries him towards it, its own life, wild,
savage, uncivilized as its humor . .is here.21
Tom Scott, however, is so appalled by the contents of the poem that,
while he can admire the virtuosity of the performance, he must condemn
For all its great technical skill--and for all its revela-
tion of the high standard achieved technically, not only by
Dunbar, but also by Kennedy--this is a thoroughly "bad"
poem. Poetry is not merely verse, nor wealth of language,
nor any other merely technical or clever thing; it is the
spirit of life more abundant making these merely technical
matters into a thing of life-giving virtue.22
Scott's censure is based on his own notions of what constitutes a fitting
topic for poetry, not anything in the poem itself. Scott's error, it
seems to me, lies in taking the abuse of the poem far too seriously.
Speirs seems correct in saying that the poem is. a game. Speirs, on the
other hand, errs when he says that "The Flyting" is the "language of
actual popular speech." Unless we want to believe that early sixteenth
century Scotland was inhabited by linguistic supermen, it is impossible
to imagine Edinburgh fishwives flying at one another with the style of
Dunbar. Denton Fox is more accurate when he says that "The Flyting" is
"baroque and exuberant, with its multiplicity of rhymes, but is also
stiff and formalized because its involved pattern is so perfectly regular.
The language of "The Flyting" is as carefully contrived as that of
any of Dunbar's aureate poems. Even the stock of abusive words "con-
sidered as poetic diction . would still have been unusual enough to
qualify as a sort of low-life equivalent to aureatee terms.'"24 Engaged
in a poetic battle, the two "makars" attempt to demonstrate their virtu-
osity with every tool of their craft. This self-conscious virtuosity
gives the poem particular stylistic interest.
Dunbar begins the duel by challenging Kennedy. In a three stanza
passage, Dunbar alludes to possible flytings by Kennedy, and warns him
that unless he abandons poetry, he will have to contend with Dunbar. The
final stanza of the challenge is worth quoting, since it tells us some-
thing of the posture adopted by combatants before beginning a flying:
But wondir laith wer I to be an baird,
Flyting to vse, for gritly I eschame;
For it is nowthir winning nor reward,
Bot tinsale baith of honour and of fame,
Incres of sorrow, sklander, and evill name;
3it mycht thay be sa bald, in thair bakbytting,
To gar me ryme, and rais the feynd with flytting,
And throw all cuntreis, and kinrikis thame proclame.(11.17-24)
Dunbar professes to be reluctant to join in a flying, because in it
there is neither "winning nor reward, but loss both of honor and fame,
increase of sorrow, slander, and evil name." Only the infamy of his op-
ponent can drive him to the dirty work of exposing the scoundrel: "Yet
might they be so bold, in their backbiting, to make me rhyme, and raise
the fiend with flying, and proclaim them through all countries and
kingdoms." The plural they refers to Kennedy and Quinting, who had
apparently jointly authored a flying on Sir John the Rose. -Dunbar
begins the challenge, "Schir Johne the Ross, ane thing thair is compiled /
In general be Kennedy and Quinting, / Quhilk hes thame self aboif the
sternis styld" (11.1-3). Nothing is now known of either Sir John the
Rose or of Quinting. Kennedy accepts the challenge in three stanzas,
warning Dunbar to surrender before he loses: "Say Deo mercy, or I cry
the doun, / And leif thy ryming, rebald, and thy rowis" (11.31-32).
Dunbar's portion of "The Flyting" cannot be summarized. He
attacks Kennedy's appearance, his wardrobe, and his poetry, ending on
a hilarious account of Kennedy entering Edinburgh pursued by boys and
dogs. Kennedy's attack cannot match the comical, abusive force of Dun-
bar's. He draws a fanciful etymology of Dunbar's name, and rails on
alleged reasons by Dunbar's supposed Lowland ancestors.
The first stanza of Dunbar's attack is typical of the whole:
Irsche brybour baird, wyle beggar with thy brattis,
Cuntbittin crawdoun Kennedy, coward of kynd,
Evill farit and dryit, as Denseman on the rattis,
Lyke as the gleddis had on thy gulesnowt dynd;
Mismaid monstour, ilk mone owt of thy mynd,
Renunce, rebald, thy ryming, thow bot royis,
Thy trechour tung hes tane ane heland strynd;
Ane lawland ers wald mak a better noyis (11. 49-56)
Because of the unusual language of "The Flyting," perhaps a paraphrase
is in order: "Irish beggar (or thief) bard, vile beggar with your brats,
vagina-bitten coward Kennedy, coward by nature, getting along evilly,
and as shrivelled as a Dane on the wheels, as though the kites had dined
on your yellow nose; mismade monster, that moans out of your mind, re-
nounce, ribald, your rhyming, you only rave; your treacherous tongue has
taken a highland strain; a lowland ass wald mak a better noise." The
first four lines appear to be a series of unrelated.abuses, reviling
Kennedy as a beggar, a thief, and a coward. Calling him "cuntbitten"
after mentioning his "brattis" is, however, a nice touch. The second
half of the stanza is a reasonably connected discourse. Although Kennedy
is both a "mismade monstour," and a "rebald," there is a steady attack
on his poetic abilities. He moans and raves because he writes as a
Gaelic-speaking Highlander. The attack builds to the triumphant conclu-
sion, "Ane lawland ers wald mak a better noyis." This line is the only
one in the stanza which does not alliterate, emphasizing the poor quality
of Kennedy's work. The conclusion of the stanza reveals one point about
the construction of the first four lines. The opening insult, "Irsche
brybour baird," is carefully chosen to give the stanza a sense of balance,
since Dunbar finally attacks Kennedy as a Gaelic poet. The word brybour
serves a function beyond supplying an alliteration. Carrying connotations
of both "beggar" and "thief," it embodies two of the major lines of insult
Dunbar intends to follow throughout the poem. These two techniques--name-
calling and brief narrative passages which serve as a frame for more name-
calling--are used in most of the poem.
Brief passages of narration may be linked by alliteration, as in
part of Dunbar's description of Kennedy's reception when he comes to
Off Edinburgh, the boyis as beis own thrawis,
And cryis owt ay, "Heir cumis our awin queir Clerk!"
Than fleis thow, lyk and howlat chest with crawis,
Quhill all the bichis at thy botingis dois bark:
Than carlingis cryis, "Keip churches in the merk". (11. 217-221)
The first line alliterates on b, the second on c. The third line lacks
alliteration, while the last two repeat the b, c pattern of the first
two. The first two lines describe the boys of Edinburgh, who throng
out to cry, "Here comes our own strange clerk." Kennedy, who flees
like an owl chased by crows, is forced to retreat without the dignity
of alliteration, which is lavished on the dogs and shrews of Edinburgh
in the next two lines. The dogs bark at Kennedy's heels, while the shrews
cry to keep their head-dresses hidden in the dark. The identical alliter-
ation in the first two and last lines emphasizes the parallel action of
the boys, dogs, and women, all noisily pursuing Kennedy, who is sandwiched
ignominiously in the middle of them.
Interlocking alliteration is used effectively in other portions of
"The Flyting." Pretending to be passing along reports from Kennedy's
friend Quinting, Dunbar says Quinting gives this account of Kennedy's
relations with the beggars:
He says, thow skaffis and beggis mair beir and aitis
Nor only cripill in Karrik land abowt:
Uthir pure beggaris and thow ar at debaittis,
Decrepit karlingis on Kennedy cryis owt. (11. 133-136)
Kennedy wanders and begs more beer and oats than any cripple in Karrik.
He quarrels with other beggars, and decrepit hags cry out against him.
These lines come at the end of a stanza to form a climax whose effect is
heightened by their alternating alliteration on b and c.
Dunbar uses the common linking device of.alliterating adjacent
lines on the same letter:
Thow speiris, dastard gif I dar with the fecht?
3e dagone, dowbart, thairof haif thow no dowt!
The linking is particularly effective here, since the first line poses a
question which the second answers. Question and answer are bound tightly
together. "You ask if I dare fight with you? You devil, dullard, of
that have no doubt."
Another device used occasionally in "The Flyting" is multiple
alliteration within a single line:
All Karrik cryis, God gif this dowsy be drownd. (1. 158)
A series of stops, two c's, two g's, and two d's, move across the line
in an almost deafening array. Since this device is used sparingly, it
is extremely effective when it occurs. In this case, it reflects per-
fectly the noise of a whole county crying for someone's life.
In the final stanza of "The Flyting," Dunbar creates a string of
invective seldom matched in English literature. The prosody of this
stanza will be analyzed in Chapter 5. The most important device to be
discussed here is internal rhyme:
Mauch muttoun, vyle button, peilit gluttoun, air to Hilhouse;
Rank beggar, ostir dregar, foule fleggar, in the flet;
Chittirlilling, ruch killing, ilk schilling in the milhouse;
Baird rehator, theif of natour, fals tratour, feyndis gett;
Filling of tauch, rak such, cry crauch, thow art our sett;
Muttoun driver, girnall ryver, 3adswyvar, fowll fell the:
Herretyk, lunatyk, purspyk, carlingis pet,
Rottin crok, dirtin dok, cry cok, or I sall quell the. (11.241-248)
Internal rhymes are marked by underlining, alliteration by the asterisk
(*). A paraphrase of this may be helpful: "Maggoty mutton, vyle dumpy
fellow, naked glutton, heir to Hillhouse, strong beggar, oyster dredger,
foul flatterer into the house, guts [in] rough [Highland] shoes, like
husked grain in the millhouse, enemy bard, thief of nature, false
traitor, fiend's brat, lump of tallow, gallows' bird (lit. 'stretch
halter'), cry like a caught hen, you are overcome; sheep stealer, meal
thief, mare fornicator, foul befell you: heretic,lunatic, pickpurse, old
woman's pet, rotten ewe, filthy anus, give up, or I shall quell you."
The insults in the stanza range from obscene, such as "mare fornicator,"
to incomprehensible to modern readers, such as "rough hide shoes, like
husked grain in the millhouse." The effect of this string of insults is
enhanced by internal rhyme, a device Dunbar uses elsewhere only in his
most ornate aureate poem, "Ane Ballat of Our Lady." Each line contains
three internal rhymes which differ from those at the ends of lines.
Generally, each internal rhyme of a line contains one insult. Each
epithet thus gains a special linguistic prominence, and is connected to
its neighbors linguistically if not logically, so that the original has
a force and sense of coherence completely lacking from the paraphrase.
Dunbar had two precedents for the use of internal rhyme. Late Old
English and early Middle English alliterative poetry had sometimes used
rhyme to link half-lines, with or without alliteration.25 Latin poetry,
however, offers a verse form, the versus leoninus, which uses internal
rhyme in a manner more closely resembling Dunbar's use of it in "The
Hora novissima, tempora pessima sunt, vigilemus.
Ecce minaciter imminent arbiter ille supremus:
Imminet, imminent, ut mala terminet,, aequa coronet,
Recta remuneret, anxia liberet, aethera donet . .
Patria splendid terraque florida, liberal spinis,
Danda fidelibus est ibi civibus, hic peregrinis.26
Dunbar has successfully adapted a popular technique from medieval Latin
poetry to his own purposes. After writing over two hundred lines of
rhymed alliterative verse, Dunbar suddenly subordinates alliteration to
internal rhyme. The surprise at the change greatly increases the force
of the final stanza. In a technical duel of poets, Dunbar has pulled a
coup which is hard to match. He has combined not only end-rhyme and
alliteration, a common rhetorical ornamentation in fifteenth century
Scotland, but has added a device from one of the most ornate forms of
Dunbar does not draw heavily from the traditional alliterative
formulas in "The Flyting." "Trechour tung" (1. 55) seems clearly related
to "traytors tongis" (Fifield, p. 444); while "wit and wisdom" (1. 64)
is part of the same formulaic group as "his wisdom and his witte"
(Fifield, p. 256). The poem has few, if any, other formulas, however.
The explanation for the relative absence of a rather common trait of
alliterative poetry in "The Flyting" probably rests in the content and
vocabulary of the poem. Most of the alliterative poetry that has sur-
vived does not have the rich variety of abuse of "The Flyting," so that
Dunbar was forced to find original alliterations for most of his invec-
Despite its elaborate invective, "The Flyting"probably implies no
real ill will between the verbal sparring partners. In any case, Dunbar
gives Kennedy a kind mention in the "Lament for the Makaris":
Gud master Walter Kennedy,
In poynt of dede lyis veraly,
Gret reuth it wer that so suld be;
Timor Mortis conturbat me. (11. 89-92)
Not all of Dunbar's abusive poetry may be considered exercises in poetic
craftsmanship, however. When he uses his pen against people he seems to
have disliked, the results are devastating.
One of Dunbar's genuine victims was John Demian, Abbot of Tungland.
An Italian physician, Demian appears in the Treasurers' Accounts in 1501,
receiving funds for medical supplies. When his interest turned to alchemy,
Demian received larger grants from the King, earning the enmity of many
in the court besides Dunbar. Demian's reputation is reflected by Bishop
Leslie's comment, written in 1570, that Demian was "sa desceitful, and
has sa craftie and curious ingin to begyl, that he persuade the king of
his gret cunning in al thing natural, cheiflie in that politik arte,
quhilk quha knawis tha cal him an alcumist; bot his intention only was
to milk purses."27 By 1507 an item had appeared in the Treasurers'
Accounts that a large amount of money had been "lent be the Kingis com-
mand to the Abbot of Tungland, and can nocht be gotten fra him."28 It is
not surprising that anyone as financially successful as the Abbot of
Tungland would be disliked by Dunbar, who was constantly writing poems
attempting to wheedle a little more money out of the King.
Dunbar's chance for poetic revenge on Demian came when the Abbot
attempted an experiment with flight, leaping from Stirling Castle with
wings of birds' feathers attached to his arms. Bishop Leslie records
He makis to flie vp in the air; bot or he was weil begun,
his veyage was at an end, for this deceiuer fel doun with
sik a dade, that the bystanders wist not, quhither tha
sulde mair meine his dolour, or meruel of his dafrie. Al
rinis to visit him, tha ask the Abbot with his wings how
he did. he [sic] ansuers that his thich bane is brokne,
and he hopet neuer to gang agane; al war lyk to cleiue of
lauchter, that quha lyk another Jcarus wald now flie to
hevin, rychtnow lyk another Simon Magus mycht nott sett
his fute to the Erde.29
Dunbar turned the abbot's unsuccessful experiment into "Ane Ballat of
the Fen3eit Freir of Tungland, How he Fell in the Myre Fleand to Turki-
land," a fanciful, satiric account of Demian's career leading up to his
Dunbar frames his poem as a dream vision, in which a Turk goes to
Lombardy, where he kills a friar and steals his habit to avoid baptism.
The imposture is successful since he is literate. After taking up medi-
cine, he comes to Scotland, where many die as a result of his treatment.
He avoids mass, and prefers working at some study which leave his head
as blackened as a smith's. After failing to make the quintessence, he
puts on feathers in an attempt to fly back to Turkey. Once in the air
the birds attack him so fiercely that he jumps out of his feathers, land-
ing in the mud where he hides from the birds for three days. The noise
of the birds wakes the dreamer.
"The Fen3eit Freir of Tungland" should not be considered a flying
for two reasons. First, it is not in flying form, that is, it is not in
strictly alliterative verse. Although alliteration is used heavily,
60.1% of the lines alliterate, the figure is far less than the 78.0%
of alliterating lines in "The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy." Second,
the poem has too well developed a narrative for a flying. The friar's
career, although Dunbar's account is obviously fanciful, is developed
in a clear, chronological order. The friar is characterized more by
accounts of his actions and their results than by the sheer name-calling
of the flying. For example, Dunbar sustains his charge that "In
leichecraft he was homecyd" (1.33) with a series of instances:
He cowth gif cure for laxatyve;
To gar a wicht horss want his lyve,
Quha evir assay wald, man or wyve,
Thair hippis 3eid hiddy giddy.
His practikis nevir was put to preif,
But suddane deid, or grit mischeif;
He had purgatioun to mak a theif
To dee without a widdy. (11.41-48)
The most interesting fact about alliteration in "The Fen3eit Freir
of Tungland" is its distribution. Dunbar has an unerring sense of
cases in which less is more. Given the amount of alliteration in the
poem, each eight-line stanza should have about five alliterating lines.
When the friar fails in his alchemical experiments, this figure drops
Me thocht seir fassonis he assail3eit,
To mak the quintessance, and fail3eit;
And quhen he saw that nocht avail3eit,
A federem on he tuke,
And schupe in Turky for to fle;
And quhen that he did mont on he,
All fowill ferleit quhat he sowld be,
That evir did on him luke (11. 57-64)
The next stanza has only one alliterating line, as the birds attempt to
decide what this creature is up in the air, although alliteration comes
into play again in the last three lines of the stanza as the birds decide
to make their attack:
The rukis him rent, the ravynis him druggit,
The hudit crawls his hair fourth ruggit,
The hevin he micht not bruke. (11. 70-72)
The last line of the stanza is linked to the preceding one by allitera-
tion on the h of hevin. The following three stanzas describe the attack
of the birds; these stanzas have 87.5% of their lines alliterating,
proportionately more than the poem as a whole. The effect is to give a
great deal of linguistic force to the birds' assault.
Although I found no traditional alliterative formulas in "The
Fen3eit Freir of Tungland," the poem does share one formulaic expression
with "The Flyting." In "The Fen3eit Freir," Dunbar refers to "sound of
sacring bell" (1.50). In "The Flyting" he uses the expression "swetar
than sacrand bell of sound" (1. 160).
In some cases it is impossible to determine whether Dunbar meant
for an attack to be comic, or whether any true dislike lies behind an
obviously comic attack. A poem which may or may not have been intended
as comic is "In Vice Most Vicius He Excellis," sometimes called "For
Donald Owre, Epitaph." Donald Owre was the son of the last of the Lords
of the Isles, who had ruled a semi-independent group of earldoms and
maintained their status through alliances with the English against the
Scottish crown until James IV forced the forfeiture of the Lordship in
1494. Owre rallied a few Highland chiefs for a rebellion in 1503, but
he was captured by 1505. Dunbar's poem is written as an epitaph, al-
though Owre was still alive at the time.30
Dunbar uses a variant of the alliterative bob-wheel stanza for
this poem. It is written in six line stanzas, in which the first two
lines have eight syllables each, and the remaining four have only four
syllables. The rhyme scheme is a a b b b a. There is alliteration in
11 of the 14 octosyllabic lines, while only three of the 24 shorter lines
alliterate. The reason for the lack of alliteration in the shorter lines
is probably that there is simply no room for it in such a short line.
The following is a typical stanza:
The fell strong tratour, Donald Owyr,
Mair falsett had nor vdir fowyr;
Rowme ylis and seyis
In his suppleis,
On gallow treis
3itt dois he glowir. (11. 19-24)
The short lines give the poem a very rapid rhythm, but the effect is
hardly comic. Dunbar seems more interested in denouncing the traitor
than in satirizing him, and the fast rhythm seems intended more to hasten
the hanging than to create a rapid, rollicking merriment.
It is hard to tell, on the other hand, whether there is any real
malice behind "Of James Dog, Kepar of the Quenis Wardrop." James Dog
must have been surly enough when filling one of Dunbar's requisitions to
provoke the poet into an attack. Dog's last name is an irresistible
temptation to Dunbar:
The Wardraipper of Wenus boure,
To giff a doublett he is als doure,
As it war off ane futt syd frog:
Madame, 3e heff a dangerous Dog[ (11.1-4)
When Dunbar presents his requisition, the dog is ready to bite; friendly
words produce only barks. The dog is big enough to guard the wardrobe
from "the grytt Sowdan Gog-ma-gog" (1. 19), and is much too big for a
lap dog. Dunbar advises the Queen to find a smaller pet:
He is owre mekle to be 3our messan,
Madame, I red 3ou get a less ane. (11. 21-22)
The feminine rhyme of messan and less ane has a certain comic charm to
The amount of alliteration in this attack is about average for
Dunbar, or 45.8%. This figure includes, of course, the alliteration in
the refrain, "a dangerous Dog" repeated every four lines. Dunbar uses
one formula, "mekle of mycht" (1.17; Fifield, p. 439) to alliterate with
The satire of James Dog must have created a strong enough response
to make Dunbar change his tune. He wrote another poem saying that James
Dog's faithfull bruder and maist freind I am" ("Of the Same James,
Quhen he had Plesett Him," (1. 3). Dunbar goes on to say:
Thocht I in ballet did with him bourde,
In malice spaik I newir ane woord,
Bot all, my Dame, to do 3ou gam:
He is na Dog; he is a Lam. (11. 5-8)
Dunbar's humor is not confined to personal attacks. "Of a Dance
in the Quenis Chalmer" is a genial comic poem about a few courtiers.
Each participant in the dance receives a one stanza description of his
activities, including Dunbar, who uncharacteristically includes himself
in the comedy. Although only one of the dancers sounds graceful, every-
one seems to have a good time, and none of the descriptions is long
enough to qualify as an attack. The third stanza is a reasonable sample
of the whole:
Than cam in Maister Almaser,
Ane hommilty jommeltye juffler,
Lyk a stirk stackarand in the ry;
His hippis gaff mony hiddouss cry.
John Bute the Fule said, "Wa es me!
He is bedirtin,--Fy! fy!"
A mirrear Dance mycht na man se. (11. 15-21)
As in the aureate poems, Dunbar expands his vocabulary here to meet his
needs. The word juffler comes probably from the verb juffle, according
to the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, and seems to mean a
clumsy person.31 Hommiltye jommeltye is an imitative form, according to
the DOST. Combined with juffler, the imitative phrase sets up a rapid
rhythm, with both internal rhyme and alliteration. The effect of the
line accords well with the picture of the energetic if uncoordinated
dancer. The alliteration of the next two lines combines with consonance
to maintain a mad pace. Stirk and stackarand alliterate, and in each
word the alliterating cluster is followed by a k. The stops in the
cluster and after the vowel in both stressed syllables slow the line,
while the repetition sets up a heavy rhythm. The alliterating words
both have r's after the alliterating clusters and their vowels, which
ties these words by consonance to the final word of the line, ry. The
clumping rhythm of the stops, moving at the end of the line to the more
resonant r, which has been present all along, matches perfectly the
clumping, swaying motion of an ox staggering in the rye. John Bute the
Fool is linked by alliteration on his epithet to his remark in the next
line, "Fy! Fy!" The line "He is bedirtin,--Fy! fy!" lacks one syllable
after the caesura, and ends on two equally strong stresses. This line
momentarily breaks up the rhythm, and the dance, because of Master
Almaser's embarrassment. The festivities continue, however, in the re-
frain: "A mirrear Dance mycht na man se." The series of resonants,
m, n, and r, give the line a smoothly flowing quality, providing a nice
transition into the next dancer.
The amount of alliteration in "Of a Dance in the Quenis Chalmer"
is very heavy, with 55.1% of the lines alliterating. While allitera-
tion is used carefully within the line, it is not used extensively in
this poem to bind lines into groups. Lines alliterating on the same
sound are usually separated by at least one line:
He stackerit lyk ane strummall awer,
That hap schackellit war abone the kne:
To seik fra Sterling to Stranawer. (11. 11-13)
The same technique may encompass the refrain line:
For luff of Mwsgraeffe, men tellis me;
He trippet, quhill he tint his pantoun:
A mirrear Dance mycht na man se. (11. 26-28)
The reasons for the lack of line linkage probably lie in the structure
of the poem and its dance-like rhythm. Since each dancer receives
exactly one stanza, there is little need for special patterning. Cre-
ating units larger than a line within a stanza could interfere with the
rhythm on which so much of the effect of the poem depends.
Dunbar uses a much more traditional dance motif in "The Dance of
the Sevin Deidly Synnis." Morton Bloomfield terms this "one of the
great poems on the cardinal sins. Encased in a vision framework, it
belongs to the category of the medieval journey to the otherworld; but,
unlike many of this type, it is enlivened by humor and poetical power."32
Dunbar's use of the alliterative tradition contributes greatly to the
"poetical power" Bloomfield finds in the work. Alliteration is used
heavily in.the poem; over half the lines, or 51.6%, alliterate.
Denton Fox has commented on the use of alliteration on the stanza
on Sloth. Before going into Fox's analysis, I will quote the stanza:
Syne Sweirnes, at the second bidding,
Come lyk a sow out of a midding,
Full slepy wes his grun3ie:
Mony sweir bumbard belly huddroun,
Mony slute daw and slepy duddroun,
Him serwit ay with soun3ie. (11. 67-72)
Fox finds in the stanza
a great deal of strict discipline, most evident, perhaps, in
the two lines which start with "Mony". The parallelism of
these two lines is precise and extensive: the anaphora is
balanced by the rhyme which, being feminine like the other
rhymes in this passage, is at once more complete and better
adapted than a masculine rhyme to give the impression of
languishing reluctance. In this couplet, too, even the
antepenultimate syllables rhyme, the y's of belly and slepy.
Both lines have the same s-alliteration, and the allitera-
tion of b in the first line is countered in the second line
by the repetition of d, the other voiced oral stop. And
the very scansion of the two lines is identical.33
Fox does not mention that the alliteration on s truly holds the stanza
together. The first and last lines alliterate on s, and a word beginning
with comes in one of the first four positions of each line. Fox con-
cludes, "The heavy vowels, linked alliteration, and pounding rhythm of
the first half of the stanza perfectly express the slow, dragging, but
frantic dance into which Sloth and his companions are reluctantly com-
Another effective use of alliteration is in the stanza on Ire, in
which Dunbar uses alliteration to link lines:
Than Yre come in with sturt and stryfe;
His hand wes ay vpoun his knyfe,
He brandeist lyk a beir:
Bostaris, braggaris, and barganeris,
Eftir him passit into pairis,
All bodin in feir of weir. (11. 31-36)
The alliteration emphasizes Ire's mannerisms; he comes in combining
strut and strife, and swaggers like a boar. The b alliteration of the
third line, describing Ire himself, is tied to the second half of the
stanza, describing his chief followers, "Bostaris, braggaris, and bar-
generis." The effect of these b's is complemented by the next line,
which alliterates on p, the voiceless counterpart to b. The allitera-
tion of the stanza is rounded out by bodin, meaning "prepared," in the
final line. Ire's followers, prepared in array of war, are a nice result
of the antics of their chieftain.
Another sort of alliterative patterning is used in the stanza on
Full mony a waistless wallydrag,
With waimiss vnweildable, did fourth wag,
In creische that did incress;
Drynk! ay thay cryit, with mony a gaip,
The feyndis gaif thame hait leid to laip,
Thair lovery was na less. (11. 97-102)
The first two lines are linked by alliteration on w, the last two by
alliteration on p. The third and fourth lines have a kind of linkage of
their own. The third line alliterates on the cluster cr, which is re-
peated in the fourth line in the verb cryit. So much linkage in one
stanza creates the effect of large unwieldy blocks, which represent per-
fectly the excesses of the gluttons and the heavy, awkward bodies they
must drag around because of their sin.
At the end of the poem, Dunbar strikes at one of his favorite tar-
gets, the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders. The devil decides that a High-
lands show would be a fitting conclusion to a dance of sins: