Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Poems of William Dunbar

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Poems of William Dunbar

Article excerpt

The Poems of William Dunbar, ed. Priscilla Bawcutt, Association for Scottish Literary Studies 27-8 (Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 1998). z vols. x + 277 and 342 pp. ISBN 0-948877-38-3. L70.00.

Students of Middle Scots have looked forward to Priscilla Bawcutt's critical edition of Dunbar ever since her review essay of James Kinsley's flawed 1979 edition (MAE, 50 (1981), 88-100). Establishing the text of Dunbar is no easy task: most of his known works survive only in `late literary anthologies' (including the Bannatyne MS (B) and the Maitland Folio (MF)), and `no witness has over-riding authority' (1, 4). Drawing on her unrivalled knowledge of Middle Scots language and literature, Bawcutt has risen to this formidable editorial challenge, producing what will undoubtedly serve as the standard edition for years to come.

An important difference between this edition and its predecessor hinges on the choice of copy-text. Of the twenty-eight poems that appear in both B and MF, Bawcutt chooses the latter manuscript ten times to Kinsley's three. Moreover, she values the variants far more than did Kinsley; even where B provides her copy-text, she accepts a variant as authorial when linguistic evidence supports her case. Yet Bawcutt is a conservative editor who rarely offers a conjectural emendation. She takes exception to Kinsley's `smoothing and regularizing Dunbar' (1, 14). Instead, she adopts a more agnostic position with regard to metre than some readers may like, never choosing among variants for metre alone, much less emending for that reason. One can certainly sympathize with her desire not to mislead the reader, yet her adherence to principle sometimes risks misleading in the other direction (see her comment on 'vglye', II, 361, line 20). Still, she offers hundreds of improvements over Kinsley's text. If the vast majority of these improvements involve small details that few readers are likely to notice, such care to minutiae is essential to a successful critical edition. …

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