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Lament for the Makaris ("Makers") by William Dunbar: a Modern English Translation

This is my modern English translation of "Lament for the Makaris," an elegy by the great early Scottish poet William Dunbar [c. 1460-1530]. Dunbar was a court poet in the household of King James IV of Scotland. He wrote poems in a lowland Scottish dialect called Middle Scots. There is a William Dunbar bio with more information about his native tongue after the translation.

The Makaris were "makers," or poets. The original poem is a form of danse macabre, or "dance of death," in which people of all social classes are summoned by Death. The poem has a refrain: every fourth line is the Latin phrase "timor mortis conturbat me" ("the fear of death dismays me" or "disturbs/confounds me"). The poem was probably composed around 1508 A.D., when Dunbar was advancing in age and perhaps facing the prospect of death himself (it is not clear exactly when he died). In his famous poem Dunbar mentions other poets who passed away, including Geoffrey Chaucer, John Lydgate and John Gower.

Dunbar is widely considered to have been the greatest Scottish poet before Robert Burns, and he is noted for his comedies, satires, and sometimes ribald language. I have also translated Dunbar's exquisite Sweet Rose of Virtue.

Lament for the Makaris ("Lament for the Makers")
by William Dunbar [c. 1460-1530]
loose translation/interpretation 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 full flower ...
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!”

by Michael R. Burch

William Dunbar wrote poems in the native language of lowland Scotland. This language is called Scots, or more accurately, Middle Scots. Scots was a Germanic language that, like English, had its roots in Anglian, a language employed by Anglo-Saxons who settled in England and Scotland after the departure of the Roman legions from the island in the sixth century AD. The Angles and Saxons were Germanic tribes. So many Angles settled in England that they gave the island its name: "England" means "Angle-land." The Saxons gave their name to Saxony. The Scots language evolved side-by-side with its English cousin during pre-medieval times. In its earliest form, Scots was called "Inglis." As Anglo-Saxon settlements in the lowlands expanded, Inglis displaced Gaelic as the primary language of the natives. Inglis evolved in the lowlands even as English evolved into a very different language in regions to the south. In Northumbria, which lay just to the south of Edinburgh and was Scotland's closest neighbor, English evolved into the Northern dialect of Middle English. The name of the Scottish language was eventually changed to "Scots," presumably to avoid confusion between Inglis and English.

by Michael R. Burch

William Dunbar [c. 1460-1530] was one of the greatest Scottish poets, usually ranked second only to Robert Burns. Some, however, rank Dunbar first. For example, Sir Walter Scott said Dunbar was "unrivalled" by any other Scottish poet. Dunbar has been called "the dominant figure among the Scottish Chaucerians" during the "Golden Age of Scottish poetry."

Dunbar has been called "the Scottish Chaucer," "the Scottish Skelton" and the Poet Laureate of the court of King James IV of Scotland. He was a Scottish makar (maker, or poet) who wrote in an ancient Middle Scots dialect that was fairly close to the English of his day. According to James Paterson, one of his biographers, Dunbar was "a poet of extraordinary merit" who "has been compared with Chaucer: less pathetic, but richer in the variety and quality of his imagination, humour, and powers of description."

John Conlee, who edited William Dunbar: The Complete Works, wrote in his introduction: "Dunbar belongs to a significant group of late-medieval Scottish poets who are generally known as the Middle Scots Poets or the Scottish Makars, a group that includes the author of The Kingis Quair (possibly James I of Scotland), Richard Holland, Robert Henryson, Gavin Douglas, and Sir David Lindsay. Henryson and Dunbar are usually considered the two major writers from among the Middle Scots Poets and are often viewed as being two of the most important figures in fifteenth-century British literature. Dunbar, moreover, may lay claim to being the finest lyric poet writing in English in the century and a half between the death of Chaucer in 1400 and the appearance of Tottel's Miscellany in 1557."

I might argue that, at his best in poems like Sweet Rose of Virtue, Dunbar rivals Chaucer and Sir Thomas Wyatt, the star of Tottel's Miscellany, for lyric poetry. And that's saying a lot, because I have tremendous regard for Chaucer and Wyatt.

Dunbar's reputation as a poet depends on around 80 to 100 poems, a few with disputed authorship. Many of the poems are associated with the court of the Scottish king James IV. James IV reigned from 1488 to 1513 and is considered to have been the most successful of the Stewart kings of Scotland. His accomplishments include doubling the crown's revenues, the founding of two royal dockyards, and the acquisition or construction of 38 ships, including the Michael, the largest warship of its day.

Not a lot is known about William Dunbar's life. It is generally believed that he was born in the East Lothian area of southeastern Scotland sometime between 1450 and 1460, and that he died sometime between 1520 and 1530. Denton Fox has argued for a birth date of c. 1456 and a death date of c. 1513.

Dunbar was "probably of the family of the earls of Dunbar and March." That educated guess is about all we know of his early life. Dunbar probably came from a good family, and that would explain the degrees he earned, his appointment to the priesthood, and his place in the royal court. Dunbar became an especial favorite of  Margaret Tudor, the elder sister of King Henry VIII. She became Queen of Scotland when she married James IV in 1503. Dunbar's closeness to the Queen can be seen in his poem "Ane Dance in the Quenis Chalmer" in which he names a number of her attendants and places himself among them. Dunbar may have served as a chaplain in the royal household.

The records of the University of Saint Andrews tell us that a William Dunbar was a "determinant" (a new student) in 1474, that he obtained his bachelor's degree in 1477, and that he received his master of arts degree in 1479. The commonly-estimated birth date of 1460 is based on the fact that first-year students at Saint Andrews were generally around 14 years old.

Sometime around 1480 or possibly later it is believed that Dunbar may have been a roving Franciscan friar based on what he wrote himself, but this is not certain. It does seem clear that he served as a priest and chaplain, from certain historical records. One reason to believe Dunbar was a priest is that in some of his poems he asked to be appointed to an office in the church, which he called a "benefice." He even asked to be appointed a bishop, although that may have been more joking than serious.

In 1492, while Christopher Columbus was discovering the New World, the Scottish courtier William Dunbar was accompanying an embassy to Denmark and France in the king's service, possibly as a secretary. 

In 1500, Dunbar secured a royal pension.

From 1501 to 1502 it is possible that Dunbar was among a group of Scots who helped make arrangements for the marriage of James IV to Princess Margaret, the daughter of the English King Henry VII. We know Dunbar was in England around this time because the Treasurer's Accounts show that a payment was made to him in 1501 "efter he com furth of Ingland." But this is conjecture based on what happened in 1503...

In 1503, Dunbar wrote poems for the wedding of James IV and Margaret Tudor. One poem welcomed Margaret to Scotland when she arrived in Edinburgh. Dunbar also composed a famous allegorical celebration of the wedding, "The Thrissill and the Rois" (The Thistle and the Rose). This poem is a dream vision based on Geoffrey Chaucer's "Parlement of Foules" in which the dreamer attends a great gathering of animals and birds presided over by Nature. Nature makes the Lion the king of the beasts, the Eagle the king of the birds, and the Thistle the king of the plants, with all three representing James IV. The rose represents Margaret and Dunbar praises her beauty and her virtue. Dunbar's lovely poem Sweet Rose of Virtue was also published around this time. Did he also write it for Scotland's new queen?

In 1507, Dunbar's pension was doubled to 20 pounds per year.

In 1508, Dunbar had several poems published, including The Dance of the Sevin Deidly Synnis, The Goldyn Targe, Lament for the Makaris and The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen. Several of Dunbar's poems were included in the first books to be printed in Scotland, now known as the the Chepman and Myllar Prints. Poems by John Lydgate and Robert Henryson were also included.

In 1510, Dunbar's pension was increased to a handsome 80 pounds, so he was evidently held in high regard by King James.

In 1511 he accompanied the Queen to Aberdeen and celebrated that visit in the poem Blyth Aberdeen

The last reliable reference to Dunbar appears in the Treasurer's accounts for May 1513, where he is recorded receiving payment of his pension. There is a gap in the Treasurer's records after James IV and many of his earls, bishops and abbots  perished at the Battle of Flodden on September 9, 1513. That was the largest battle fought between Scotland and England. The loss of the king and a large part of the nobility led to a political crisis in Scotland. When the Treasurer's accounts resumed in 1515 there was no mention of Dunbar. Did he die at Flodden? No one knows.

It seems certain, however, that Dunbar died no later than 1530, when Sir David Lindsey wrote his Testament of Papyngo in which he laments the deaths of the great Scottish poets, including Dunbar.

As a court poet, Dunbar produced ceremonial and occasional verse about events at the royal court. However, he wrote poems about other subjects as well. Dunbar was well-versed (pardon the pun) in the major literary traditions of late-medieval France and England, including love lyrics, dream visions and satires.
During his stint as a paid court poet in the royal household, Dunbar wrote religious poems, hymns, commemorative and occasional poems, laments, orisons, allegories, satires, comedies and poems of courtly love like "Sweet Rose of Virtue." He even wrote "naughty" poems that used ribald and profane language.

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 by Michael R. Burch. "Wulf and Eadwacer" may be the oldest extant poem in the English language written by a female poet. "Sweet Rose of Virtue" is a modern translation of a truly great poem by the early Scottish master William Dunbar. "How Long the Night" is one of the very best Anglo Saxon lyric poems. "Caedmon's Hymn" may be the oldest poem in the English language.

Sweet Rose of Virtue
Scottish poetry translations by Michael R. Burch
Wulf and Eadwacer
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Miklós Radnóti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Renée Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Tegner's Drapa
Robert Burns
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Wladyslaw Szlengel

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