Meditatioun in Wyntir

In to thir dirk and drublie dayis,
Whone sabill all the hevin arrayis,
With mistie vapouris, cloudis, and skyis,
Nature all curage me denyis
Of sangis, ballattis, and of plays.

Whone that the nicht dois lenthin houris
With wind, with haill, and havy shouris,
My dule spreit dois lurk for shore,
My hart for languor dois forlore
For lack of simmer with his flouris.

I wak, I turn, sleep may I nocht.
I vexit am with havy thocht.
This warld all owre I cast about,
And ay the mair I am in dout,
The mair that I remied have socht.

I am assayit on everie side.
Despaire sayis ay, “In time provide
And get sum thing whairon to leif,
Or with grit trouble and mischief
Thou sall in to this court abide.”

Then Patience sayis, “Be not aghast:
Haude Hope and Truth within thee fast,
And let Fortoun work furth hir rage,
Whome that no rasoun may assuage,
While that hir glass be run and past.”

And Prudence in my ear sayis ay,
“Why wad thou haud that will away?
Or crave that thou may have no space,
Thou tending to ane other place,
A journey going everie day?”

And then sayis Age, “My friend, cum neir,
And be not strange, I thee requeir:
Cum, brodir, by the hand me tak,
Remember thow hes count to mak
Of all thy time thou spendit heir.”

Syne Deid casts ope his yettis wide,
Saying, “Thir open sall thee abide:
Albeit that thou wer neer sae stout,
Under this lyntall sall thou lout,
Thair is nane other way beside.”

For fear of this all day I droop:
No gowd in kist, not wine in coop,
No ladies bewtie, nor luvis bliss
May let me to remember this,
How glaid that e’er I dine or soop.

Yet, whone the nicht beginnis to short,
It dois my spreit sum pairt confort,
Of thocht oppressit with the shouris.
Cum, lustie simmer! With thy flouris,
That I may leif in sum disport.

Meditatioun in Wyntir begins with an evocation of some thoroughly dismal Scottish weather which echoes the poet’s dismal mood accentuated in the first line by the pounding rhythm of the alliterating /d/ – “dirk . . . drublie . . . dayis”. A quick inventory of the various vocabularies operating in the first three lines gives us a strong and immediate sense of what is going on in the poem. There are three main lexical sets:

1) Obscurity and Darkness: dirk, drublie, sabill, mistie, cloudis, dule.
2) Negativity: drublie, denyis, lurk, shore, languor, forlore, nocht, vexit, dout.
3) Bad weather: mistie vapouris, cloudis, haill, wind, havy shouris.

These create an effective setting for the poem and leave the reader in no doubt as to the psychological state of the poet. He is in no mood for “sangis, ballattis, and plays”: light-hearted activities that usually give him pleasure. We believe, rightly, that this is a poem about the artist himself. These are pleasures we readily associate with a man of letters. But does the poem transcend the specific complaints of Dunbar himself?

The triple rhythm (the alliterating /d/s) established in line one is echoed throughout the poem, slowing the pace down, and providing an almost exaggerated sense of foreboding. In line three there are three natural elements listed: “mistie vapouris, cloudis, and skyis.” Line 5 has “sangis, ballattis, and . . . plays”. We find it too in line 7: “wind . . . haill . . . and havy shouris.” And also in line 11: “I wak, I turn, sleep may I nocht.” Note that the groups of three have shifted here from things to actions, turning the focus of the poem gradually towards the narrator himself.

There are echoes throughout the poem. For example, “havy shouris” (line 7) is echoed in “havy thocht” (line 12). The purpose of this is simply to draw our attention: we are about to learn more of these “havy thochts”. But what is it exactly that’s making him depressed?

The next five verses present what is essentially Dunbar having a conversation with himself. Despair, Patience, Prudence, Age and Death appear as allegorical personae. They argue, or debate, among themselves as to the best course the poet should take in life. It’s a little bit like talking to a careers guidance counsellor, except the advice is your own.

The use of allegory is common in medieval poetry, and is used as a way of presenting moral positions or philosophical truths in a vivid and entertaining way. Dunbar uses allegory to sublime effect in many of his poems, including The Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins.

By now, the poem has really stopped being about Dunbar himself – if it ever was – and by personalising aspects of the human psyche it becomes a poem all of us can share in. Just as we can all identify with the dreadful weather he describes, so too can we share in his insights about the way we live our lives. This debate concerns us all.

First up is Despair, which we may expect, as this is the dominant tenor of the poet’s mood established in the first three verses. Despair says that he should get out and find “sum thing wheiron to leif” – something to keep body and soul together, something to lend meaning to his life, otherwise he’ll end up living in a state of despair himself. The advice is essentially a take on “the devil makes work for idle hands.” We can, of course, interpret “provide” in a material sense: to provide for his future.

Patience answers by saying: Don’t worry. Believe in yourself, put your life in the hands of fate. You can’t rationalise and be reasonable about everything. Go out and live the life you want to live – and life will take care of itself. Isn’t this advice a bit dangerous? Leaving it all to Hope and Truth? What about qualifications! A good salary! Prudence has a turn and counters Patience by suggesting that he’s wishing his life away by always wanting something else.

Age steps forward now, with a chilling message couched in a friendly manner – it even calls him brother. Age beckons Dunbar, or the reader, closer. I won’t bite, it seems to say; we’re pals, right? This over-familiarity is a little bit menacing, a little bit creepy. At least compared to the impersonal formality of the previous three. But then, Age is something we are all well-acquainted with, though we may not often think about it. Dunbar is forced to think now about Age, because it says: This is just to remind you, by the way, that all the time you spend here on Earth gets added up in the end. In other words: use your time wisely.

The next verse introduces us to Death (“Deid”). Truly we’d have to be in the utter depths of depression for this figure to appear. As usual, Death has the last word, it throws open the gates to the afterlife and says: Look! That’s where you’re heading. Whether you live your life well or not, it doesn’t matter because you’ll end up here anyway.

Dunbar tells us these thoughts plague him all day. Even when he’s flush with cash, or has a drink in front of him, and not even the beauty of women, or the bliss of being in love can take his mind off these dark thoughts. But! In the final verse there’s a glimmer of hope. The prospect of shorter nights and better weather put more of a spring in his step, and he can’t wait for summer to come again so he can enjoy himself better, take his mind off the gloom of winter.

Nobody who has ever lived in Scotland – indeed nobody who has ever lived – can fail to understand this train of thought Dunbar elucidates in this poem. The mood darkens as the days grow shorter, the feeling that you’re not making the best of your life – or the opposite, that you’re worrying about things too much: the ultimate dread of death, and worse, dying without accomplishing anything. And the whole thing kicked off by a season of grim weather. These days the psychologists call it Seasonal Affect Disorder. Or, SAD for short.