Erotic Friday: William Dunbar

Today’s poet is a Scotsman, William Dunbar


William Dunbar (born 1459 or 1460–died by 1530) was a Scottish makar poet active in the late fifteenth century and the early sixteenth century. He was closely associated with the court of King James IV and produced a large body of work in Scots distinguished by its great variation in themes and literary styles. He was likely a native of East Lothian, as assumed from a satirical reference in The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie. His surname is also spelled Dumbar.

Dunbar first appears in the historical record in 1474 as a new student or determinant of the Faculty of Arts at the University of St Andrews. Since the customary age for entering a Scottish university at this time was fourteen, a birth-date of 1459 or 1460 has been assumed. At St Andrews, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1477 and a master’s degree in 1479. Details from his later life suggest that he was ordained as a priest at some point, but the date is unknown.

In 1491 and 1492 Dunbar accompanied an embassy to Denmark and France in an unknown capacity. In 1501 and 1502 he participated in an embassy to England in the staff of Andrew Forman, Bishop of Moray.xa

From 1500 the poet was employed at the court of King James in a role for which he received an annual pension. His duties are not recorded; he is referred to only as a servitour or servant; but it is to this period that the bulk of his poetry can be dated. Several of Dunbar’s poems were included in the Chepman and Myllar prints of 1508, the first books to be printed in Scotland.

In 1510, his pension was set at the substantial annual sum of eighty pounds Scots. In comparison, Dunbar’s contemporary Hector Boece received an annual salary of £26 13s for his role as Principal of King’s College, Aberdeen.

The last reliable reference to Dunbar is in the Treasurer’s Accounts for May 1513, where he is recorded receiving a payment of his pension. James died at Flodden in September of the same year. In the dislocation that followed, the Treasurer’s accounts cease for a period and, when resumed in 1515, Dunbar is no longer recorded as being employed by the crown.

A poem, Quhen the Governour Past in France, describing the departure of the Regent Albany for France in 1517, is attributed to Dunbar in the Maitland Manuscripts, suggesting that he was still active at the time. But in Sir David Lyndsay’s work The Testament and Complaynt of the Papyngo of 1530, Dunbar is referred to as being deceased. The exact date of his death remains unknown.

Here’s poem I found by accident, but I like it and I hope you too will enjoy.

F. M. Laster

“I’ve been things and seen places.”- Mae West

Sweet Rose of Virtue
by William Dunbar
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Sweet rose of virtue and of gentleness,
delightful lily of youthful wantonness,
richest in bounty and in beauty clear
and in every virtue that is held most dear―
except only that you are merciless.

Into your garden, today, I followed you;
there I saw flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently―
yet everywhere, no odor but bitter rue.

I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair rose of pallid and gentle cast,
whose piteous death does my heart such pain
that, if I could, I would compose her roots again―
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.






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