The Lament for the Makars'

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I that in heill wes and gladnes,
Am trublit now with gret seiknes,
And feblit with infermite:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Our plesance heir is all vane glory,
This fals warld is bot transitory,
The flesche is brukle, the Fend is sle:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

The stait of man dois change and vary,
Now sound, now seik, now blith, now sary,
Now dansand mery, now like to dee:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

No stait in erd heir standis sickir;
As with the wynd wavis the wickir,
Wavis this warldis vanité:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

On to the ded gois all estatis,
Princis, prelotis, and potestatis,
Baith riche and pur of al degré:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He takis the knychtis in to feild,
Anarmit under helme and scheild;
Victour he is at all mellie:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

That strang unmercifull tyrand
Takis, on the moderis breist sowkand,
The bab full of benignite:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He takis the campion in the stour,
The capitane closit in the tour,
The lady in bour full of bewté:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He sparis no lord for his piscence,
Na clerk for his intelligence;
His awfull strak may no man fle:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Art-magicianis, and astrologgis,
Rethoris, logicianis, and theologgis,
Thame helpis no conclusionis sle:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

In medicyne the most practicianis,
Lechis, surrigianis, and phisicianis,
Thame self fra ded may not supplé:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

I se that makaris amang the laif
Playis heir ther pageant, syne gois to graif;
Sparit is nocht ther faculté:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes done petuously devour,
The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour,
The Monk of Bery, and Gower, all thre:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

The gude Syr Hew of Eglintoun,
And eik Heryot, and Wyntoun,
He hes tane out of this cuntré:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

That scorpion fell hes done infek
Maister Johne Clerk, and Jame Afflek,
Fra balat making and tragidie:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Holland and Barbour he hes berevit;
Allace! that he nocht with us levit
Schir Mungo Lokert of the Lea:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Clerk of Tranent eik he has tane,
That maid the Anteris of Gawane;
Schir Gilbert Hay endit hes he:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes Blind Hary and Sandy Traill
Slaine with his schour of mortall haill,
Quhilk Patrik Johnestoun myght nocht flee:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes reft Merseir his endite,
That did in luf so lifly write,
So schort, so quyk, of sentence hie:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes tane Roull of Aberdene,
And gentill Roull of Corstorphin;
Two bettir fallowis did no man see:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

In Dumfermelyne he hes done roune
With Maister Robert Henrisoun;
Schir Johne the Ros enbrast hes he:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

And he hes now tane, last of aw,
Gud gentill Stobo and Quintyne Schaw,
Of quham all wichtis hes peté:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Gud Maister Walter Kennedy
In poynt of dede lyis veraly,
Gret reuth it wer that so suld be:
Timor mortis conturbat me

Sen he hes all my brether tane,
He will nocht lat me lif alane,
On forse I man his nyxt pray be:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Sen for the deid remeid is none,
Best is that we for dede dispone,
Eftir our deid that lif may we:
Timor mortis conturbat me

At its heart this poem is a litany of the names of the great poets, or Makars, who have passed away. They range from the very dead Chaucer (who died in 1400, roughly 100 years before Dunbar wrote the poem) to the barely living Walter Kennedy, his rival from The Flyting (as Dunbar writes he is “in poynt of dede”, literally at death’s door).
But the poem is something else besides. More than merely a lament for the Makars, it is a lament for a way of life that was changing beyond all recognition. The coming century would see massive upheaval across the whole of Europe – and it is likely that Dunbar sensed this coming change. The poem is also a meditation on death; it is a dirge on the passing of his own life – and more than that, it is a petition by Dunbar to future readers to keep his name immortal. It has succeeded on all counts. Not only that, it has helped to immortalise a whole host of poets whom we would not otherwise have heard of.

The poem begins with the “I” voice of the author: “I that in heill wes and gladnes/ Am trublit now with gret seiknes/ And feblit with infermité”. In the first verse, he establishes the motive from which he is writing, which the final line confirms. He is ill, possibly dying. The poem is given a sonorous weight with the sustained repetition of the Latin phrase “Timor mortis conturbat me” (fear of death disturbs me). It is like a congregational response in a mass, which gives the feeling that the whole poem is like a prayer, or requiem.

But the “I” voice is soon replaced in the second verse: “Our plesance heir is all vane glory.” Our plesance. He speaks for all of us since, after all, we all must die. From this moment on, we read the repeated phrase not as William Dunbar’s fears – but as our own.

The next few verses describe the various pleasures that human beings enjoy, and the various afflictions and infirmities. No matter your status, your wealth, your power; whether you are a soldier armed to the teeth, or a baby at your mother’s breast; whether you are strong, or beautiful, intelligent – death will come for you anyway. Not even our society’s healers, our doctors, surgeons, or physicians, can save themselves. Death is the great leveller.

It is indeed a disturbing thought.

But Dunbar makes it bearable for us because he writes about it with such rare grace. It is a pleasure to read this poem, even though its subject is utterly morbid. There are beautiful alliterative verses that so beguile you that their terrible meaning only occurs to you after the fact: “No stait in erd heir standis sickir:/ As with the wynd wavis the wickir/ Wavis the warldis vanité” (As with the wind waves the willow/ Waves the world’s vanity). This is how fragile we are. We bend to and fro, depending on which way the wind is blowing. But there is always that dry, deadening beat at the end of the verse to hit the message home.

However, there is one group of professionals which may be exempt from the annihilating hand of Death – writers. The really great ones. Those whose works survive will live on in memory, in their work. When we read them, do we not bring them back to life? Is Dunbar consciously after a place in history? The poem certainly indicates he was aware of his own skill as a poet, and it is likely he would have an eye to posterity. These days we consider that a bit uncouth, a bit presumptuous – but Dunbar seems like an uncouth kind of guy. It is a bold, maybe even arrogant, gesture to align himself with established greats such as Chaucer – but why not? No-one likes to think they have lived their life in vain; we all want to have some kind of achievement by which future generations will remember us, even if it is just the preservation of a family name.

If this poem was only about Dunbar’s quest for ever-lasting greatness and a place in the hallowed halls of literature, then we probably wouldn’t be reading it. Dunbar’s greatness comes in part from his ability to shine a light through his individual circumstances, complaints and epiphanies so that he illuminates the world for all of us. In the second last verse, Dunbar reflects on all his “brether tane” – his fellow poets who have died – and speculates that he’s next: “I man his nyxt pray be”. And here, just when it looks like Dunbar is at his most self-interested, in the final verse all of us are swept up in his meditations: we share his notion that, since we cannot help the dead (and we cannot help but die) the best we can do is to prepare in our own ways, for our own deaths.