The HyperTexts

William Dunbar Modern English Translations

Below you can find my modern English translation of "Sweet Rose of Virtue," a bittersweet love poem by the early Scottish master, William Dunbar [1460-1525]. This has been one of my favorite poems since the day I first read it, so I decided to translate it myself, to make it more accessible to readers who prefer modern English to Ye Olde Englishe and Ye Auld Scots. On this page you can also find my translation of Dunbar's famous poem, "Lament for the Makaris [Makers, or Poets]."  If you like Dunbar's poetry as much as I hope and expect you will, you may also want to check out my translations of Robert Burns [1759-1796], the most famous of the Scotts-English dialect poets. Dunbar and Burns prove that the best Scottish poetry ranks with the best poetry ever written, anywhere in the world. Since I have at least a smidgen of Scottish blood, as my last name attests, that makes me happy and proud.―Michael R. Burch, editor, The HyperTexts



Sweet Rose of Virtue
by William Dunbar [1460-1525]

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.



This is my loose translation of "Lament for the Makaris," a poem by the great early Scottish poet William Dunbar. The Makaris were "makers" or poets. The original poem is a form of danse macabre, or "dance of death," in which every fourth line is the Latin phrase timor mortis conturbat me ("the fear of death dismays me").

Lament for the Makaris
"Lament for the Makers"

by William Dunbar [1460-1525]
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

i who enjoyed good health and gladness
am overwhelmed now by life’s terrible sickness
and enfeebled with infirmity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

our presence here is mere vainglory;
the false world is but transitory;
the flesh is frail; the Fiend runs free ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

the state of man is changeable:
now sound, now sick, now blithe, now dull,
now manic, now devoid of glee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

no state on earth stands here securely;
as the wild wind shakes the willow tree,
so wavers this world’s vanity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

Death leads the knights into the field
(unarmored under helm and shield)
sole Victor of each red mêlée ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

that strange, despotic Beast
tears from its mother’s breast
the babe, full of benignity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

He takes the champion of the hour,
the captain of the highest tower,
the beautiful damsel in her tower ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

He spares no lord for his elegance,
nor clerk for his intelligence;
His dreadful stroke no man can flee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

artist, magician, scientist,
orator, debater, theologist,
must all conclude, so too, as we:
“how the fear of Death dismays me!”

in medicine the most astute
sawbones and surgeons all fall mute;
they cannot save themselves, or flee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

i see the Makers among the unsaved;
the greatest of Poets all go to the grave;
He does not spare them their faculty ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

i have seen the Monster pitilessly devour
our noble Chaucer, poetry’s flower,
and Lydgate and Gower (great Trinity!) ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

since He has taken my brothers all,
i know He will not let me live past the fall;
His next prey will be — poor unfortunate me! ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

there is no remedy for Death;
we all must prepare to relinquish breath
so that after we die, we may be set free
from “the fear of Death dismays me!”



If you want to learn more about the origins of English poetry, please check out English Poetic Roots: A Brief History of Rhyme.

The following are links to other translations of Old English poems by Michael R. Burch:

Robert Burns the greatest of the modern Scots-English dialect poets
Wulf and Eadwacer perhaps the first great lyric poem in the English language, and probably by a female poet
How Long the Night
another great early English lyric poem
Caedmon's Hymn
perhaps the first poem written in the English language that is still extant today
The Wife's Lament
one of the first great English storytelling poems written in a woman's voice
Deor's Lament
another of the first great storytelling poems in the English language

Other translations by Michael R. Burch:

Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Basho
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Sappho
Miklós Radnóti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Renée Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Tegner's Drapa
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Miryam (Miriam) Ulinover
Itzhak (Yitzkhak) Viner

The HyperTexts