William Dunbar’s Urban Dilemma

Robbins, Mary
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The Southern African Society for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (SASMARS)
William Dunbar (c.1460 - c.1513), court poet to James IV of Scotland, was very much a man of the city. In his case the city was Edinburgh, which plays a prominent role in his work. In one poem, ‘We that are heir in hevins glory’, Dunbar describes Edinburgh as ‘parradyis’ (4), and a place ‘Quhair welth and welfair is’ (70). Yet in another, ‘Quhy will ye, merchantis of renoun’, he chastises the citizens who have not taken their civic duties seriously, saying, ‘May nane pas throw your principall gaittis / For stink of haddockis and of scattis, / For cryis of carlingis and debaittis’ (8-10). What accounts for this dichotomy? As one may expect from a court poet, Dunbar’s work exhibits disdain for things of the country, which was associated for him, as for many other medieval writers, with casual physicality and ruddy manners untouched by any civilizing force. For example, in ‘The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie’, Dunbar vilifies his fellow poet Walter Kennedy, who in fact was a graduate of Glasgow University and the son of Lord Gilbert Kennedy of Dunure, as a highlander whose countrified way ‘bringis the Carrik clay to Edinburgh cors, / Upoun thy botingis hobland, hard as horne. / Stra wispis hingis owt, quhair that the wattis ar worne’ (211-213). Clearly the idea of rustic bungler is to Dunbar an insult surpassing all others. In another piece, ‘In secreit place this hyndir nycht’, he describes the courtship of two inept lovers whose grassy origins encourage them to mimic the verbal intensity if not the refinement of their courtly counterparts: For example, the country lass responds to her lover: ‘My belly huddrun, my swete hurle bawsy / My huny gukkis, my slawsy gawsy, / Your musing waild perse ane harte of stane’ (38-40).
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