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"Sweet Rose of Virtue": a modern English translation of "Sweit Rois of Vertew" by William Dunbar
with an Analysis by the translator

This is my modern English translation of "Sweet Rose of Virtue," an exquisite but bittersweet love poem in the amour courtois (courtly love) and carpe diem (seize the day) traditions. This amazing poem was written by the early Scottish master William Dunbar [circa 1460-1530], who has been called the Poet Laureate of the court of King James IV of Scotland. I chose to translate the poem to make it more accessible to readers who prefer modern English to Ye Olde Englishe and Ye Auld Scots. I have also included translator's notes and a synopsis and analysis for students and scholars who want to explore the poem's roots and methods of composition. You can also find my translation of Dunbar's most famous poem, "Lament for the Makaris ['Makers' or poets]" in the links at the bottom of this page. If you like Dunbar's poetry as much as I hope and expect that you will, you may also want to check out my translations/modernizations of select poems by 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 very best poetry ever written, anywhere in the world. Since I have Scottish blood, that makes me pleased and proud.―Michael R. Burch

For explanations of how he translates and why he calls his results "loose translations" and "interpretations" please click here: Michael R. Burch Translation Methods and Credits to Other Translators

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

Sweet rose of virtue and of gentleness,
delightful lily of wanton loveliness,
richest in bounty and in beauty clear
and in every virtue men hold most dear,
except only that you are merciless.

Into your garden, today, I followed you;
there I found flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently,
yet nowhere one leaf nor petal of rue.

I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair flower and left her downcast;
whose piteous death does my heart such pain
that I long to plant love's root again―
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.

If the tenth line seems confusing, it helps to know that rue symbolizes pity and also has medicinal uses; thus I believe the unrequiting lover is being accused of a lack of compassion and perhaps of withholding her healing (i.e., sexual) attentions. The penultimate line can be taken as a rather naughty double entendre, but I will leave that interpretation up to the reader! I believe Dunbar meant the rose to symbolize the female vulva and "rute" to suggest intercourse. If this interests you, I have published some astute commentary by Bob Zisk after my analysis of the poem.

Synopsis and Analysis

The poem's speaker compares his would-be lover to the lilies and roses in her garden. Lilies and roses symbolize both feminine beauty and the female virtues of pity, mercy, compassion and tenderness. Lilies and roses are also associated with the Virgin Mary, and thus have spiritual connotations. Like the Virgin Mary, the speaker's desired lover is perfect in beauty and virtue. However, the speaker complains that he has found one thing lacking in both the garden and in her: rew (rue, or pity). Rue is a heavily scented evergreen plant used for medicinal purposes, and it has bright yellow flowers. So rue would be very easy to spot, if it were present. Due to its healing properties, rue symbolizes the qualities of pity, mercy and compassion. So a woman lacking rue lacks compassion. But here the poet may not be accusing the woman of being cold-hearted in general; rather, he may be trying to encourage her to prove her "compassion" by sleeping with him! (The poem is, perhaps, a bit of an "inside" joke.) This is because, due to their shapes, the rose and lily can suggest and symbolize the female vulva. Also, rue can have sexual connotations itself, as Bob Zisk explains in his commentary.

In the final stanza, the speaker fears that a "cold spell" has killed something: either rue/compassion or perhaps his lover's heart and metaphorically their love. Dunbar closes by expressing his wish to plant a "root" again, by which he is presumably alluding to intercourse. But he links this root planting to the comfort of sheltering leaves, which represent the rebirth of compassion, so it seems he wants more than just sex. Dunbar apparently also desires companionship and tenderness. The poem ends on a sad but tender note. While the poem could be a joke of sorts, its style of composition and evocative plea for companionship make it seem more like a bittersweet love poem to me.

Translator's Notes and Interpretation

"Sweet Rose of Virtue" is a poem in the amour courtois (courtly love) and carpe diem (seize the day) traditions. William Dunbar [c. 1460-1525] was a court poet in the household of King James IV of Scotland, so he would have been well aware of the courtly love poetic tradition, in which romantic love was portrayed as simultaneously passionate, erotic, chivalric and spiritual. A common conceit within this tradition was that when a woman chose not to make love to her suitor, she was "unfeeling" and sans merci ("without mercy"). For instance, the poem "Merciles Beaute" which has been attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer, a poet Dunbar admired.

In carpe diem poems, poets often personified Time, using "his" projected ravages to urge women to abandon their defenses and quickly yield to their "unfairly" spurned suitors. Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" and Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" are other famous carpe diem poems. Just how serious the male courtiers were about all this, is hard to say. They may have been like male peacocks strutting around, showing off their extravagant tail feathers in elaborate mating rituals. Or the poems could have been primarily witty, tongue-in-cheek jokes. Or the poets could have been expressing real sentiments with healthy doses of irony.

But in any case, "Sweet Rose of Virtue" is one of the very best poems within its genres. According to Tom Scott, author of Dunbar: A Critical Exposition of the Poems, it is "Dunbar's most perfect lyric, and one of the supreme lyrics in Scots and English. The three five-line stanzas move with exquisite grace and smoothness of rhythm, no word, no syllable superfluous or misplaced, no phrase awkwardly turned, no image or thought jarring the mood." However, I think one of the more confusing (and potentially jarring) things about the original poem for modern readers is the poet's use of "him" in the third stanza, in reference to the herb rue (you can see this usage in the original text below). Since we no longer think of herbs, flowers or virtues like compassion as masculine entities, it seems very odd to hear the poet longing to "plant his [i.e., the male herb's] root again." But when the language was older, this was acceptable, and may have allowed Dunbar to engage in a clever double entendre. To avoid confusion, and because I believe there is unity in the poet's vision of the woman, the garden, the flowers and the virtues, I have taken the liberty of replacing the male herb with the female rose. And I have used the phrase "plant love's root" to preserve the clever double entendre without the gender confusion.

Original Poem

Sweet Rois of Vertew                                                     Literal Translation by Michael R. Burch [bracketed words are not in the original text, but may help the sense]

SWEIT rois of vertew and of gentilnes,                         SWEET rose of virtue and of gentleness,
Delytsum lillie of everie lustynes,                                  Delightful lily of every lustiness, [Delightful lily of wanton loveliness,]
    Richest in bontie and in bewtie cleir,                         Richest in bounty and in beauty clear,
    And everie vertew that is deir,                                   And [in] every virtue that is [held] dear,
Except onlie that ye are mercyles,                                 Except only that you are merciless,

Into your garthe this day I did persew;                           Into your [private, enclosed] garden this day I did pursue;
Thair saw I flowris that fresche wer of hew;                  There I saw flowers that were fresh of hue;
    Baithe quhyte and rid, moist lusty wer to seyne,        Both white and red, [the] most lusty to be seen,
    And halesum herbis upone stalkis grene;                    And wholesome herbs [waving] upon stalks [of] green;
Yit leif nor flour fynd could I nane of rew.                    Yet leaf nor flower could I find: none of rue. [Yet not a leaf nor flower could I find, of rue.]

I dout that Merche, with his cauld blastis keyne,           I fear that March, with his cold blasts keen,
Hes slane this gentill herbe, that I of mene;                   Has slain this gentle herb, the one I mean; [this one of mine;]
    Quhois petewous deithe dois to my hart sic pane      Whose piteous death does my heart such pain
    That I wald mak to plant his rute agane,—                That I would endeavor to plant his [love's] root again,—
So confortand his levis unto me bene.                            So comforting his [those] leaves unto me have been.

My Original Translation, with Alternate Lines

In lines with alternates, the one I chose for the original translation appears first.

Sweet Rose of Virtue, Original Translation
by William Dunbar

loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Sweet rose of virtue and of gentleness,
delightful lily of wanton loveliness, // Delightful lily of every lustiness,
richest in bounty and in beauty clear
and in every virtue that men hold dear, // and in every virtue men hold most dear,
except only that you are merciless.

Into your garden, today, I followed you
through lustrous flowers of freshest hue, // there I saw/found flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently,
yet nowhere, one leaf nor petal of rue. // yet nowhere a single petal of rue. // yet everywhere, no odor but rue. // yet everywhere, not a petal but rue.

I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair flower of pallid and gentle cast, // has slain my fair rose/flower of pallid and gentle cast, // has slain my fair flower and left her downcast;
whose piteous death does my heart such pain
that, if I could, I would plant love's root again, // that, if I could, I would compose her roots again, // that, if I could, I would nurture love's root/her roots again,
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.

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.

Here is an earlier version of my translation ...

Sweet Rose of Virtue
by William Dunbar [c. 1460-1525]
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch (an earlier version)

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, not a leaf nor flower of 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.


Regarding “rose" as a symbol of purity, the continuation of Roman de la Rose seems to set the stage for the equivalence of rose and vulva. Even before the Roman we have good testimony for the sexualization of the rose in St. Benard's diatribes against Rosamund Clifford, whom he characterizes not as Rosa Mundi (Rose of the World, Rose of Cleanliness) but rather Rosa Immune (Rose of Filth).

Of course this last paragraph of mine is offered as additional support for the sexual pun which you have already supported, and seems to bolster “rute" as a phallic symbol and the notion of planting the root as a phrase for sexual intercourse. Of course “rute" can do double duty for the sexualization of the lady by analogy to “ruta,” a Latin term for “rue" with which Dunbar would have been familiar from its occurrence in such standard authors as Pliny the Elder, Ovid and Martial.
Here is a citation from Lewis and Short:

rūta, ae, f., = ῥυτή (cf. Varr. L. L. 5, § 103 Müll.)

I. a bitter herb, rue.
I. Lit., Cic. Fam. 9, 22, 3; Col. 11, 3, 38; 12, 7, 5; Plin. 19, 8, 45, § 156; 20, 13, 51, § 131; Ov. R. Am. 801; Mart. 11, 31, 17; 52, 8.—*
II. Trop., bitterness, unpleasantness:
“cras exspecto Leptam, ad cujus rutam pulegio mihi tui sermonis utendum est,” Cic. Fam. 16, 23, 2.

Here is a line from Ovid's Remedium Amoris:
Utilius sumas acuentes lumina rutas… (Ra 801)
You would do well to take rue which restores clarity to the eyes.

There is a bit of sexual wisdom in this line, in that it proceeds from the old belief that the eyes are the gateway of love.

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:

Lament for the Makaris also by William Dunbar
Robert Burns the greatest of the modern Scots-English dialect poets
Scottish poetry translations by Michael R. Burch
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
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
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Miryam (Miriam) Ulinover
Itzhak (Yitzkhak) Viner

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