DUNBAR—THE WEDDING OF THE THISTLE AND THE ROSE
 THE fifteenth century, the century in which King James I reigned
and died, has been called the "Golden Age of Scottish Poetry,"
because of the number of poets who lived and wrote then. And so,
although I am only going to speak of one other Scottish poet at
present, you must remember that there were at this time many
more. But of them all William Dunbar is counted the greatest.
And although I do not think you will care to read his poems for a
very long time to come, I write about him here both because he
was a great poet and because with one of his poems, The Thistle
and the Rose, he takes us back, as it were, over the Border into
England once more.
William Dunbar was perhaps born in 1460 and began his life when
James III began his reign. He was of noble family, but there is
little to know about his life, and as with Chaucer, what we learn
about the man himself we learn chiefly from his writing. We
know, however, that he went to the University of St. Andrews, and
that it was intended that he should go into the Church. In those
days in Scotland there were only two things a gentleman might be
- either he must be a soldier or a priest. Dunbar's friends,
perhaps seeing that he was fond of books, thought it best to make
him a priest. But indeed he had made a better soldier. For a
time, however, although he was quite unsuited for such a life, he
became a friar. As a preaching friar he wandered far.
"For in every town and place
Of all England from Berwick to Calais,
I have in my habit made good cheer.
In friar's weed full fairly have I fleichet,
In it have I in pulpit gone and preached,
In Dernton kirk and eke in Canterbury,
In it I passed at Dover o'er the ferry
Through Picardy, and there the people teached."
Dunbar himself knew that he had no calling to be a friar or
preacher. He confesses that
"As long as I did bear the friar's style
In me, God wot, was many wrink and wile,
In me was falseness every wight to flatter,
Which might be banished by no holy water;
I was aye ready all men to beguile."
So after a time we find him no longer a friar, but a courtier.
Soon we find him, like Chaucer, being sent on business to the
Continent for his King, James IV. Like Chaucer he receives
pensions; like Chaucer, too, he knows sometimes what it is to be
poor, and he has left more than one poem in which he prays the
King to remember his old and faithful servant and not leave him
in want. We find him also begging the King for a Church living,
for although he had no mind to be a friar, he wanted a living,
perhaps merely that he might be sure of a home in his old age.
But for some reason the King never gave him what he asked.
We have nearly ninety poems of Dunbar, none of them very long.
But although he is a far better poet than Barbour, or even
perhaps than James I, he is not for you so interesting in the
meantime. First, his language is very hard to understand. One
reason for this is that he knows so many words and uses them all.
"He language had at large," says one of his fellow poets and
countrymen.  And so, although his thought is always clear, it is
not always easy to follow it through his strange words. Second,
his charm as a poet lies not so much in what he tells, not so
much in his story, as in the way that he tells it. And so, even
if you are already beginning to care for words and the way in
which they are used, you may not yet care so much that you can
enjoy poetry written in a tongue which, to us is almost a foreign
tongue. But if some day you care enough about it to master this
old-world poet, you will find that there is a wonderful variety
in his poems. He can be glad and sad, tender and fierce.
Sometimes he seems to smile gently upon the sins and sorrows of
his day, at other times he pours forth upon them words of savage
scorn, grim and terrible. But when we take all his work
together, we find that we have such a picture of the times in
which he lived as perhaps only Chaucer besides has given us.
For us the most interesting poem is The Thistle and the Rose.
This was written when Margaret, the daughter of King Henry VII of
England, came to be the wife of King James IV of Scotland.
Dunbar was the "Rhymer of Scotland," that is the poet-laureate of
his day, and so, as was natural, he made a poem upon this great
event. For a poet-laureate is the King's poet, and it is his
duty to make poems on all the great things that may happen to the
King. For this he receives a certain amount of money and a cask
of wine every year. But it is the honor and not the reward which
is now prized.
Dunbar begins by telling us that he lay dreaming one May morning.
You will find when you come to read much of the poetry of those
days, that poets were very fond of making use of a dream by which
to tell a story. It was then a May morning when Dunbar lay
"When March was with varying winds past,
And April had, with her silver showers,
Tane leave of nature with an orient blast;
And pleasant May, that mother is of flowers,
Had made the birds to begin their hours
Among the tender arbours red white,
Whose harmony to hear it was delight."
Then it seemed that May, in the form of a beautiful lady, stood
beside his bed. She called to him, "Sluggard, awake anon for
shame, and in mine honor go write something."
" 'What,' quoth I, ' shall I wuprise at morrow?'
For in this May few birdies heard I sing.
'They have more cause to weep and plain their sorrow,
Thy air it is not wholesome or benign!' "
"Nevertheless rise," said May. And so the lazy poet rose and
followed the lady into a lovely garden. Here he saw many
wonderful and beautiful sights. He saw all the birds, and
beasts, and flowers in the world pass before Dame Nature.
"Then calléd she all flowers that grew in field,
Discerning all their fashions and properties;
Upon the awful Thistle she beheld,
And saw him keepéd by a bush of spears;
Considering him so able for the wars,
A radiant crown of rubies she him gave,
And said, 'In field go forth, and fend the lave.
And, since thou art a king, be thou discreet,
Herb without virtue hold thou not of such price
As herb of virtue and of odour sweet;
And let no nettle vile, and full of vice,
Mate him to the goodly fleur-de-lis,
Nor let no wild weed full of churlishness
Compare her to the lily's nobleness.
Nor hold thou no other flower in such dainty
As the fresh Rose, of colour red and white;
For if thou dost, hurt is thine honesty
Considering that no flower is so perfect,
So full of virtue, pleasance and delight,
So full of blissful angelic beauty,
Imperial birth, honour and dignity.' "
By the Thistle, of course, Dunbar means James IV, and by the Rose
the Princess Margaret.
Then to the Rose Dame Nature spoke, and crowned her with "a
costly crown with shining rubies bright." When that was done all
the flowers rejoiced, crying out, "Hail be thou, richest Rose."
Then all the birds—the thrush, the lark, the nightingale—cried
"Hail," and "the common voice uprose of birdies small" till all
the garden rang with joy.
"Then all the birdies sang with such a shout,
That I anon awoke where that I lay,
And with a start I turnéd me about
To see this court: but all were went away:
Then up I leanéd, half yet in fear,
And thus I wrote, as ye have heard to forrow,
Of lusty May upon the nineth morrow."
Thus did Dunbar sing of the wedding of the Thistle and the Rose.
It was a marriage by which the two peoples hoped once more to
bring a lasting peace between the two countries. And although
the hope was not at once fulfilled, it was a hundred years later.
For upon the death of Elizabeth, James VI of Scotland, the great-
grandson of Margaret Tudor and James Stuart, received the crown
of England also, thus joining the two rival countries. Then came
the true marriage of the Thistle and the Rose.
Meanwhile, as long as Henry VII remained upon the throne, there
was peace between the two peoples. But when Henry VIII began to
rule, his brother-in-law of Scotland soon found cause to quarrel
with him. Then once again the Thistle and the Rose met, not in
peace, but in war. On the red field of Flodden once again the
 a Scottish King stained the grass. Once again Scotland
was plunged in tears.
After "that most dolent day"
we hear no more of Dunbar. It is
thought by some that he, as many another knight, courtier and
priest, laid down his life fighting for his King, and that he
fell on Flodden field. By others it is thought that he lived to
return to Scotland, and that the Queen gave to him one of the now
many vacant Church livings, and that there he spent his last days
in quietness and peace.
This may have been so. For although Dunbar makes no mention of
Flodden in his poems, it is possible that he may have done so in
some that are lost. But where this great poet lies taking his
last rest we do not know. It may be he was laid in some quiet
country churchyard. It may be he met death suddenly amid the din
and horror of battle.
BOOKS TO READ
In illustration of this chapter may be read "Edinburgh after
Flodden" in Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers, by W. E. Aytoun. The
best edition of the Poems of Dunbar in the original is edited by