Academic journal article
By Strong, David
Philological Quarterly , Vol. 82, No. 2
Recent critical attention for William Dunbar's poem, "The Goldyn Targe," has revolved around the success or failure of the speaker's battles with carnal desires in a bucolic setting. (1) Dunbar's admixture of description and personification to portray this contrary turmoil accounts for the wide-ranging perspectives attempting to reconcile these diverse features. Although C. S. Lewis and Denton Fox claim that the poem's value lies in its artistic creation, R.J. Lyall and Ian Simpson Ross assert that a higher, philosophical strain of purpose underpins the poem's construction. (2) Today's foremost Dunbar scholar, Priscilla Bawcutt, while noting these two approaches, warns that the inculcation of moral lessons or aureate diction are not the primary factors holding the poem together, but the "close yet not wholly harmonious relationship of Nature and Venus." (3) Embracing her analysis, this article seeks to explicate the symbolic analogies intersecting the natural world and passionate desire with a philosophy that praises nature's ability to connect the human with the divine. While Dunbar may indeed not be interested in a particular moral lesson, he is deeply interested in stressing the wonder of nature. A full understanding of that program in "The Goldyn Targe" requires that we employ a medieval theory that scholars have yet to bring to bear upon the poem, exemplarism.
Both the divine and poet produce a creation that impels one to consider the power underlying the resultant magnificence. While the former is the source of nature's inherent beauty, the latter inspires a profound respect for all creation and the human ability to draw a correlation between the natural and supernatural. Exploring and appreciating these creative powers underlines the primary tenets in the late medieval theory of exemplarism. (4) Exemplarism, as promulgated by the Franciscan philosopher, Bonaventure (1217-74), posits that God is the original exemplar after which all created things are formed as copies in varying degrees of likeness. Creation's wonder awakens the individual to the divine presence in this world and its all-encompassing love. The visible world, thus, is the symbol-system through which the divine communicates to humanity. Bonaventure contends that "in every creature there is a refulgence of the divine exemplar, but mixed with darkness: hence it resembles some kind of opacity combined with light.... [I] t is a way leading to the exemplar." (35) His most developed expression of this metaphysics lies in his mystical work, The Journey of the Mind to God: We are given light to discern the steps of the soul's ascent to God. For we are so created that the material universe itself is a ladder by which we may ascend to God.... In order to arrive at the consideration of the First Principle, which is the most spiritual being and eternal and above us, we must pass through vestiges which are corporeal and temporal and outside us. (6)
In exemplarism, the individual grasps the existence and goodness of God via the "material universe," most ideally in nature's bounty. "The Goldyn Targe" typifies this very outlook through its portrayal of the azure sky, the mellifluous song of the birds, and the fragrant aroma of flowers. Here, each facet of nature affects the senses; it inspires a contemplation of the eternal and its connection to this world.
Using exemplarism as a hermeneutic for this sensual poem stems not from a belief that Dunbar's poetry consistently addressed spiritual matters, but from Dunbar's conception of what embodies a poet. He uses the term "makar" to describe the imaginative intelligence of this type of artist. And, while modern critics oftentimes use this term to refer generally to the three prominent medieval Scottish poets--the other two being Robert Henryson and Gavin Douglas--only Dunbar actually employs the word "makar" in his verse. (7) Most notably, "The Goldyn Targe" defines the poet's power and purpose with this word. …