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Issue 59 - Literary Seams

Scotland Magazine Issue 59
October 2011


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Literary Seams

The Editor looks at two heavyweight poets.

Some of you many know that I studied medieval Scottish literature at Glasgow University. Reading Roddy's column (see page nine) made me think about the rich literary heritage of Scotland.

While in recent years there have been some stunning writers emerge from the nation, my interest has always been centred round the golden age of James IV.

The Scots at the time, around the late 1400s and into the 1500s, were tapping into such a deep seam of literary traditions, including courtly love and historical romance, coming from France (through the old alliance), Spain and Italy.

My favourite writers of the period were William Dunbar and Robert Henryson, two of the big hitters writing in Middle Scots, and at the core of this golden period.

Dunbar's major works, which are worth tackling, are The Goldyn Targe and The Thrissil and the Rois. The greater part of Dunbar's work is personal and social satire, complaints, and pieces of a humorous character. One of my favourites is a little verse moaning about having writer's block and a blinding headache.

His best known musing, usually remembered as Timor mortis conturbat me (essentially fear of death disturbs me) which is repeated as the fourth line of each verse, is the Lament for the Makars and takes the form of a prayer in memory of the medieval Scots poets. Many of the poets featured we know little about, but thanks to Dunbar at least we know they existed.

Robert Henryson's surviving canon consists of three long poems and around 12 short works in various genres.

One of the longer works is the Testament of Cresseid. A tale of moral and psychological subtlety, and an inventive finishing of the story-arc for a character in one of Chaucer’s poem.

One genre that both these poets indulged in was comic flyting. This took the form of a call and response. The aim was to level at your opponent more linguistically twisted insults then he could.

In The flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie there are some particularly choice names flung at each poet, far too choice to quote here. In one wonderfully crafted line Kennedy accuses Dunbar of being 'unfortunately conceived', or 'ineptly conceived', and also foundling and a dwarf.

Rich stuff and well worth delving into.

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