The European Sun: Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature, University of Strathclyde, 1993

By Graham Caie; Roderick J. Lyall et al. | Go to book overview

JOANNE S. NORMAN


17. William Dunbar’s Rhetoric of Power

Of all the great Scottish poets, William Dunbar is most distinguished by his close association with a royal court, that of James IV. While other poets enjoyed royal patronage to varying degrees, and none remained unaffected by current political and social changes, only Dunbar lived his entire professional life intimately bound to one king and his immediate circle. His circumstances obviously influenced the nature of his poetry – its themes, style, and intention – so much so that in a very real sense his work may be said to embody the court culture of fifteenth-century Scotland.

While William Dunbar’s situation may be apparently unique in Scotland, his career presents close analogies with other court poets both in England and on the Continent. The various tantalising references to Dunbar’s travels indicate that he, in common with many other Scots courtiers, experienced at first hand the international court culture of Europe that was so prominent during the late middle ages and Renaissance. The world of international diplomacy provided ample opportunity for personal contact between individual courtiers so that Italian-French-English courts became loci of transmission of both ideas and texts.1 I have argued in an earlier paper that Dunbar did more than simply observe the role of court poets elsewhere; he actively imitated them by sharing their precarious way of life and their literary preoccupations.2

One of the chief of those preoccupations was the identification of poetry as a ‘second rhetoric’. Dunbar clearly makes this association in some famous passages in ‘The Goldyn Targe’ and the ‘Flyting’,3 and his contemporaries commend him in turn for his ‘language at large’ and his ‘rethorik’.4 It would be impossible, in fact, for a university graduate, as Dunbar was, not to be fully conversant with formal rhetorical theory and practice.5 Dunbar’s technical training is apparent in his brilliant use of rhetorical figures.

However, his understanding of rhetoric goes beyond simple application of technique. The association of poetry with rhetoric is part of a new emphasis on

1 Michael Hanly, ‘The Order of the Passion: Courtiers, Poetry, and the Peace Movement,’ Eighth International Congress of the New Chaucer Society, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, August, 1992.

2 Joanne S. Norman, ‘William Dunbar: Grand Rhétoriqueur,’ Bryght Lanternis, eds. J. Derrick McClure and Michael R.G. Spiller (Aberdeen, 1989), pp. 179–93.

3 All reference to titles and texts of William Dunbar’s poems are to The Poems of William Dunbar, ed. James Kinsley (Oxford, 1979). ‘The Goldyn Targe’ (K. 10), ii. 253–79 and ‘The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie’ (K. 23), 1. 97.

4 Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount, Papyngo, ii. 15–18, quoted by Priscilla Bawcutt, Dunbar the Makar (Oxford, 1992), p. 37.

5 See Robert L. Kindrick, ‘Politics and Poetry at the Court of James III,’ Studies in Scottish Literature, 19 (1984), 40–55 and Ian Simpson Ross, William Dunbar (Leiden, 1981).

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