See edition of his poems by W. M. Mackenzie (1960); biography by J. W. Baxter (1952); studies by T. Scott (1966) and R. Taylor (1931, repr. 1971).
(born 1460/65, Scotland—died before 1530) Scottish poet. He was attached to the court of James IV. Of the more than 100 poems attributed to him, most are short occasional pieces, ranging from gross satire to hymns of religious exaltation. The longer works include the charming dream allegory “The Goldyn Targe,” the nuptial song “The Thrissill and the Rois,” and “The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie,” a virtuoso piece of personal abuse directed at a rival. Dunbar was the dominant makar (courtly poet) in the golden age of Scottish poetry.
Learn more about Dunbar, William with a free trial on Britannica.com.
William Dunbar (c. 1460 – c. 1520), Scottish poet, was probably a native of East Lothian. This is assumed from a satirical reference in the Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie , where, too, it is hinted that he was a member of the noble house of Dunbar.
Dunbar had meanwhile (about 1500) returned to Scotland, and had become a priest at court, and a royal pensioner. His literary life begins with his attachment to James's household. All that is known of him from this date to his death about 1520 is derived from the poems or from entries in the royal registers of payments of pension and grants of livery. He is spoken of as the Rhymer of Scotland in the accounts of the English privy council dealing with the visit of the mission for the hand of Margaret Tudor, rather because he wrote a poem in praise of London, than because, as has been stated, he held the post of laureate at the Scottish court. In 1511 he accompanied the queen to Aberdeen and commemorated her visit in verse. Other pieces such as the Orisoun ("Quhen the Gouernour past in France"), apropos of the setting out of the regent John Stewart, Duke of Albany, are of historical interest, but they tell us little more than that Dunbar was alive. The date of his death is uncertain. He is named in David Lyndsay's Testament and Complaynt of the Papyngo (1530) with poets then dead, and the reference precedes that to Douglas who had died in 1522. He certainly survived his royal patron. We may not be far out in saying that he died about 1520.
One hundred and one poems have been ascribed to Dunbar. Of these at least ninety are generally accepted as his: of the eleven attributed to him it would be hard to say that they should not be considered authentic. Most doubt has clung to his verse tale The Freiris of Berwik.
Dunbar's chief allegorical poems are The Goldyn Targe and The Thrissil and the Rois. The motif of the former is the poet's futile endeavour, in a dream, to ward off the arrows of Dame Beautee by Reason's "scheld of gold." When wounded and made prisoner, he discovers the true beauty of the lady: when she leaves him, he is handed over to Heaviness. The noise of the ship's guns, as the company sails off, wakes the poet to the real pleasures of a May morning. Dunbar works on the same theme in a shorter poem, known as Beauty and the Prisoner. The Thrissil and the Rois is a prothalamium in honour of James IV and Margaret Tudor, in which the heraldic allegory is based on the familiar beast-parliament.
The greater part of Dunbar's work is occasional--personal and social satire, complaints, orisons and pieces of a humorous character. His best known orison, usually remembered as Timor mortis conturbat me which is repeated as the fourth line of each verse, is titled Lament for the Makars and takes the form of a prayer in memory of the medieval Scots poets.
The humorous works show Dunbar at his best, and point the difference between him and Chaucer. The best specimen of this work, of which the outstanding characteristics are sheer whimsicality and topsy-turvy humour, is The Ballad of Kynd Kittok. This strain runs throughout many of the occasional poems, and is not wanting in odd passages in Dunbar's contemporaries; and it has the additional interest of showing a direct historical relationship with the work of later Scottish poets, and chiefly with that of Robert Burns. Dunbar's satire is never the gentle funning of Chaucer: more often it becomes invective. Examples of this type are The Satire on Edinburgh, The General Satire, the Epitaph on Donald Owre, and the powerful vision of The Dance of the Sevin Deidlie Synnis. In the Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie, an outstanding specimen of a favourite northern form, analogous to the continental estrif, or tenzone, he and his rival reach a height of scurrility which is certainly without parallel in English literature. This poem has the additional interest of showing the antipathy between the Scots-speaking inhabitants of the Lothians and the Gaelic-speaking folk of Carrick, in southern Ayrshire, where Walter Kennedy was from.
His poem The flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie also contains the term cuntbittin (meaning afflicted with venereal disease), the first known use of the word cunt in literature (although Chaucer used queynte as a euphemism for the word in the Canterbury Tales). The Flyting also contains the line (addressed by Kennedy to Dunbar)  "Wan-fukkit funling, that natour maid ane yrle" (the phrase "wan-fukkit" might perhaps be rendered as 'unfortunately conceived', or 'ineptly conceived', in Modern English - Kennedy is accusing Dunbar of being a foundling and a dwarf).
William Dunbar is commemorated in Makars' Court, outside The Writers' Museum, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh.