By Sam Gilliland

The Poisoned Chalice
Let he who lips me then beware,
My potion’s more than honeyed mead,
One sip, I shall your soul ensnare,
Death conquers all, so take you heed!

It is a foolhardy enterprise to embark upon a venture so obviously doomed to failure that the blinded author hears only the tap, tap, tap of rhythm rather than the dismayed cries of Clio at a blatantly bold historic attempt to capture the essences, passions and inner lives of classical poets, purely by specious selection, and that by a captious critic whose fragile form, shrunken and shrivelled as the dead flesh of time, yet awaits yon tender tap upon the shoulder by none other than Dionysus himself.

He shall wait for many more years, no matter how finely spun or selective his literary web might prove to be.

When one considers that a few pages simply provides grave injustice rather than a highly informative and interesting essay designed to provoke comment as well as further interest in the subjects whose masticated meat provides easy pickings for the reading multitudes, then perhaps the avowed critic should himself heed his own warning.

In casting an individual poet, whether by design or devilment, the critic, in this case, trashes tradition already assigned to other more easily recognised scribes’ academic selection, so very long ago, placed upon the pedestal of pride.

Consider, for example, Geoffrey Chaucer, (1343-1400). Language, in this case, predominately English, matters a great deal. Chaucer’s influence upon the development of Middle English, and beyond, secured for him, the sobriquet of Master and mariner of English verse. He certainly established the iambic pentameter line, used to great effect in Canterbury Tales. His work is considered by many to be the nub and birth of English literature, later added to by the genius of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). However, here we are concerned with decades before the birth of Avon’s bard.

Here I limit my own freedom when declaring that William Dunbar, (1460-1513) Court poet of James IV, the King of Scots, easily outshone Chaucer.

Dunbar’s royal patron, of the infamous Stewart line, displayed the same amorous traits that so tainted this ‘House of Kings’ one wonders when time was available to establish the principles of courage, chivalry, especially in battle, and mastery of the fine arts, including music. James IV proved to be adept in all of these endeavours. He was also aware of the newly discovered art of printing. A talented linguist, the King spoke Spanish, Italian, German, Spanish and French, besides his native Scots and Gaelic. When one considers that he had knowledge of Latin chronicles, allied to religious literature, a more complete representation of King James may be arrived at. This was the court in which William Dunbar sought to captivate his audience, and not only in native Scots. His royal patron was an accomplished poet, often influenced by the aristocratic culture, which he and William Dunbar were a part of. Even though, in the case of the court scald, visions of aristocracy were confined to a yearly stipend of sufficient funds to make his life more than tolerable.

The aureate diction of Dunbar’s work needed to please patrons of the court, whether they were commoner or visiting royalty, along with an entourage of ambassadors and their attendants. It is little wonder that this priest and Scottish poet mastered more than his own natural ability to include French and Latin in pious portrayals of religious ceremony. ‘Rorate celi desuper’ is considered to be his finest poem. The blunt, plosive, auditory effects of Lallans, the Scottish tongue, needs a skilful hand and powerful mind to evoke interest and to bring beauty into any piece.
Dunbar set a standard in Scotland’s highest court, which others can only dream of. He pointed the finger of fate at poets following in his illustrious wake.

However, the bard did not fail to forage among ordinary folk where satire and sin helped him juxtapose the finer filaments of court language with the vehement vernacular of the taverns and tap-rooms of Edinburgh, giving an admirably fresh aspect Scottish literature so vitally needed. Originality is the keystone to the kingdom of courtiers and commoners alike, when it comes to acceptance of the eloquent art of versifying, and Dunbar was no slouch when furthering melodramatic rhetoric or the wilfully abusive cutting satire for which he was so famed, and which colloquial Scots lends so much to; vituperative winnowing lost out to admiration of his usage within a language that is so finely tuned only virtuosos of a variety of forms dare dance wisdom before Kings.

His royal patron was also a target of Dunbar’s satire. Scotland’s premier poet exposed churlish charlatanism, rife at Holyrood, where he accused King James, as a jester might, abandoning all fear of retribution, claiming lack of consistency in support of the scribe’s art.

Even today, many hundreds of years later, are we not in the same position? Consider Dunbar’s….

He that hes gold and grit riches___________grit/great.
And may be into mirryness, ______________mirryness/merriness.
And dois glaidness fra him expel _________dois/does. glaidness/gladness. fra/from.
And leavis in to wrechitnes, ______________leavis/lives. in to/in. wrechitness/wretchedness.
He wirkis sorrow to him sell. _____________wirkis/works. to/(into). him sell/himself.

This long poem, entitled ‘Moralities,’ has a line ‘I gif him to the Devill of hell.’ Who else but a bard so confident of his abilities would dare lay down the means of his own end, should interpretation and an indignant King deem it so?

Nowadays, it is fashionable to discount Dunbar as the original Makar whose literature is instantly recognised for its distinguished use of Scots both as a language and as a remarkable right in shaping the national character. A role attributed, world-wide, to Robert Burns, venerated, and properly so, as our National bard. However, when one considers Dunbar’s ‘Dance of the Sevin Deidly Synnis’, and, by comparison, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, the hilarious creation of Burns, I would suggest that William Dunbar equals the genius of our Ayrshire ploughman; he also offers wide enough shoulders for the well-worn mantle that adorns Geoffrey Chaucer, but in this case his native tongue replaces English.

The quality of Dunbar’s verse in intensity and vigour, coupled to a lavish licence in the use of old Scottish words, gives respectability that places this remarkable man well above the intellectual level of most European poets.

He expressed not only the maxims of his age with a soul-deep fervour that defines where the starting point of comparison lies, but also the level at which poetry should begin.

The vibrant feelings Dunbar brought into his work has not been seen in many of the French pieces he must have penned, and which I suspect lie locked away in some musty vault. French was in regular use throughout Scotland at that time; particularly in the King’s palace.

Strangely, in 1792, Burns was also involved with the French, and his feelings of national liberty, when a French ship, obviously in difficulty, entered the Solway, near Dumfries, where Burns was serving as an Excise officer. The brig belonged to smugglers. An armed contingent, with the Scottish bard in the lead, boarded the vessel. The boat was sold the following day and Burns bought four of her carronades, which he supposedly sent to the insurgents in France. Their heart-tugging ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ greatly appealed to our poet. More damning was the appalling act of misjudgement made. Burns very quickly denied all involvement with the incident as it was certain that instant dismissal from his post as an excise officer, would ensue, and add to his already burgeoning problems.

There is very little sign of Dunbar’s influence on Burns, but that is not to say they did not in some way share poetic unity, the correlation being their natural tongue. However, the Ayrshire poet simply cannot match the greater animation Dunbar employed in his works, or, indeed, the passion imparted by a wealth of old Scottish words.

Burns utilised, to very great effect, the works of others in rapturous rhyme that has spread out over the globe. He was aided in this by a fellow Scot, George Thomson, then compiling a collection of Scottish Minstrelsy. Thomson supplied the bard with fragments of poems, or half-finished songs, which Burns re-wrote or added to. Our national Bard did not completely write ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ again an unfinished piece by some unknown poet; much the same as ‘My Luve’s like a red, red, rose,’ which was compiled from five originals, resulting in the resetting of phrases and lines.
Had our ploughman poet not put his hand to these works Caledonia would have lost, for all time, a unique, national treasure.

The greatest influence Burns experienced came from Robert Fergusson. Arguably a far more eloquent poet than Burns, who, entranced by the power and richness of Fergusson’s work, wrote, ‘Meeting with Fergusson’s Scottish Poems, I strung anew my wildly sounding lyre with emulating vigour.’

Burns more than emulated Fergusson, as can be seen when comparing Fergusson’s…

‘In July month, ae bonny morn, ______________ae/one. bonny/beautiful.
When Nature’s rokely green ________________rokely green/short, green cloak.
Was spread o’er ilka rig o’ corn ______________ilka/every. rig/ridge.
To charm our roving een; __________________een/eyes.
Glouring about I saw a quean, ______________glouring/staring/looking. quean/woman.
The fairest ‘neath the lift; ___________________lift/sky.
Her een were o’ the siller sheen, ______________siller/silver.
Her skin like snawy drift, ____________________snawy/snowy.
Sae white that day.’

One can see originality in Fergusson’s work, his influence on Burns plain when our bard wrote…

‘Upon a simmer Sunday morn, ______________simmer/summer.
When Nature’s face is fair,
I walked forth to view the corn
An’ snuff the caller air. ____________________An’/and. snuff/sniff. caller/fresh/refreshing.
The rising sun owre Galston muirs ___________owre/over. muirs/moors.
Wi glorious light was _____________________glintin’; glintin/glinting.
The hares were hirplin’ down the furrs; _____hirplin/limping. furrs/furrows.
The lav’rocks they were chantin’ ______________lav’rocks/skylarks. chantin’/chanting.
Fu’ sweet that day.’

Burns immediately afterwards returned to his own style. He poured his genius into the Scottish movement, for which we are eternally thankful. Limitations of space do not allow me to greatly expand this theme. Suffice it is to say that other bards, such as William Soutar (1898-1943) and a host of others, left us with a legacy we dare not desert. Consider Soutar’s, illuminating…

‘Let a’ you ranters at the clubs;
In print, in poopits, or in pubs; ________poopits/pulpits.
Gie owre your gabblin for the nicht: _____Gie owre/stop/give over. gabblin/gossiping etc. nicht/night.
Nae dout the ha’penny-dips ye burn _____Nae dout/No doubt. ha’penny-dips/half penny candles.
About the haggis dae their turn- ________haggis/traditional Scottish dish of sheep’s offal, oatmeal etc.
But look! The lift is fu’ o licht.’ ________lift/sky licht/light.

The above was penned, in 1938, by Soutar, on the anniversary of Burns’ birthday, when the whole sky was lit up by the aurora borealis, the Northern Lights.

I give the honour of the last word to Soutar, in his Diaries of a Dying Man, he tells of a visiting Englishman who also happens to be a Scottish poet.

‘A biggish, bald man of 63-with MSS attached. Must have had a touch of the sun, or something, poor chap: as a poet, he was quite assured that he was forte—and, no doubt, the rest of us pianissimo: even unheard as well as unseen. Soon he was performing—drather well—with his eyes “heaved up”; big eyes, like his voice, but dullish, like his verse. Is he a warning sent from heaven—a premonition that the renaissance in Scots embodies an eccentricity which, in the generous amplitude of life, has been granted a gesturing moment; but which, by indulgence, will degenerate into deathliness.’*

We should heed Soutar’s warning!

© Sam Gilliland. 14/10/17.

The author is indebted to publishers W.R. Chambers Ltd. Edinburgh, for the quotation from
Diaries of a Dying Man, ISBN 0-550-21004-0


Residing in Scotland, Sam Gilliland is a champion of Lallans (the Scottish language) poetry and a recipient of Sangschaw’s prestigious MacDiarmid Tassie. With three previous collections of poetry published his work in Scots includes A Rickle O Banes (Penny Wheep Press). Founder/Secretary of Ayrshire Writers & Artists Society the organisation became the home of The Scottish International Open Poetry Competition, to which he devoted twenty eight years of his life as co-administrator and judge.


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