The Poem, unpacked, with some translation from medieval Scots English to English.
The Thrissil and the Rois (Thistle and Rose), composed by William Dunbar of Scotland, is comprised of stanzas in rhyme royale form. To clarify, rhyme royale stanzas consist of seven lines, usually of iambic pentameter (typical for narratives of the time). The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b-b-c-c and is normally made up either as a tercet with two couplets (a-b-a, b-b, c-c) or as a quatrain with a tercet (a-b-a-b, b-c-c).
This allowance for variance is particularly helpful in longer narratives.
Notice that the poem uses aureate vocabulary (using both Latin and French) to glide it forward. Aureation is seen nowadays by some critics as being pretentious, however it is a method not of embellishment for embellishment’s sake but as necessary dressing. The narrative of Dunbar’s herein is presented via a quite common medieval device: dream vision. Since the poem was written to celebrate/commemorate a wedding (James IV of Scotland and Margaret Tudor of England), the embellishment of aureation and the dream vision device are appropriate.
Let’s look at the poem itself now, beginning with Dunbar’s description of Spring (also emblematic of the beginning of a married life).
Quhen Merche wes with variand windis past,
And Appryll had with hir silver schouris
Tane leif at Nature with ane orient blast,
And lusty May, that muddir is of flouris,
Had maid the birdis to begyn thair houris,
Amang the tendir odouris reid and quhyt,
Quhois armony to heir it wes delyt,
The sleeping poet has a dream in which he is addressed by the personification of May.
Me thocht fresche May befoir my bed upstude
In weid depaynt of mony divers hew,
Sobir, benyng, and full of mansuetude,
In brycht atteir of flouris forgit new,
Hevinly of color, quhyt, reid, broun, and blew,
Balmit in dew and gilt with Phebus bemys
Quhill all the hous illumynit of hir lemys.
"Slugird," scho said, "Awalk annone, for schame,
And in my honour sumthing thow go wryt,
Quhairto quod I, Sall I uprys at morrow,
For in this May few birdis herd I sing?
Thai haif moir caus to weip and plane thair sorrow,
Thy air it is nocht holsum nor benyng,
May reminds him that he had previously promised her to write a poem about the rose.
With that this lady sobirly did smyll
And said, Uprys and do thy observance,
Thow did promyt in Mayis lusty quhyle
For to discryve the ros of most plesance.
Quhen this wes said depairtit scho, this quene,
And enterit in a lusty gairding gent.
And than, me thocht, sa listely besene,
In serk and mantill, full haistely I went,
Into this garth, most dulce and redolent,
Of herb and flour and tendir plantis sueit,
And grene levis doing of dew doun fleit.
In the garden, Nature (seen of course as a woman) sends messengers to the animals, birds and plants of the world, requiring their immediate presence, their homage. [All present were in twinkling of an eye, both beast and bird and flower, before the queen ... as embodied in the last couplet of this part.]
Scho ordand eik that every bird and beist,
Befoir hir hienes suld annone compeir,
And every flour of vertew, most and leist,
And every herb be feild, fer and neir,
All present wer in twynkling of ane e,
Baith beist and bird and flour, befoir the quene.
Nature calls the Lion forward, described as the Lion Rampant standard of Scots Kings. Notice the rich description of this kingly beast and know Dunbar, as poet of the Court, was wont to thusly honor James:
Reid of his cullour as is the ruby glance,
On feild of gold he stude full mychtely, [on field of gold he strode most mightily.... think of royal banner]
With flour delycis sirculit lustely.
This lady liftit up his cluvis cleir,
And leit him listly lene upone hir kne,
And crownit him with dyademe full deir,
Of radyous stonis most ryall for to se, [of radiant stones most royal for all to see]
Saying, The king of beistis mak I thee,
And the chief protector in the woddis and schawis.
Onto thi leigis go furth, and keip the lawis.
Exerce justice with mercy and conscience,
And lat no small beist suffir skaith na skornis
Of greit beistis that bene of moir piscence.
The lion is the embodiment of the duty of the King to bring justice to all of his subjects,
the humble and the more powerful.The animals therefore acclaim their new King.
The Eagle appears to symbolize the King's plan to keep the peace within Scotland and,
perhaps, with England. Nature crowns the Eagle King of the birds, sharpens his feathers
to dart-like points, enjoining him to let no ravens, or other birds of prey, make trouble.
All kynd of beistis into thair degré
At onis cryit lawd, Vive le roy!
And till his feit fell with humilité,
And all thay maid him homege and fewté,
Syne crownit scho the Egle, king of fowlis,
And as steill dertis scherpit scho his pennis, [pennis = feathers]
And bawd him be als just to awppis and owlis
As unto pacokkis, papengals, or crennis,
And mak a law for wycht fowlis and for wrennis.
And lat no fowll of ravyne do efferay,
Nor devoir birdis bot his awin pray.
Nature then inspects the plants and judges the spiked thistle to be 'able for war'. The thistle is crowned King of all plants with a gleaming crown of rubies.
The thistle seems to represent the King's determination to defend his Kingdom.
Nature then advises the Thistle to show discretion when judging other plants.
Upone the awfull Thrissill scho beheld
And saw him kepit with a busche of speiris.
Concedring him so able for the weiris,
A radius croun of rubeis scho him gaif.
And said, In feild go furth and fend the laif.
And sen thow art a king, thow be discreit,
Herb without vertew hald nocht of sic pryce
As herb of vertew and of odor sueit,
And lat no nettill vyle and full of vyce [and let no nettle vile and full of vice]
Hir fallow to the gudly flour delyce,
Nor latt no wyld weid full of churlichenes
Compair hir till the lilleis nobilnes, [compare her to the lillies’ nobleness]
Dunbar is a not-so-subtle admonisher to the King in this next part, wherein he seems to be warning the King to be done with the practice of having mistresses. He does this in the voice of Nature who praises the red-and-white rose over all the other flowers.The rose represents Margaret of England.
Nor hald non udir flour in sic denty
As the fresche Ros of cullour reid and quhyt,
For gife thow dois, hurt is thyne honesty,
Conciddering that no flour is so perfyt, [considering no flower is so perfect]
So full of vertew, plesans, and delyt, [so full of virtue, pleasance, and delight]
So full of blisfull angelik bewty, [so full of blissful angelic beauty]
Imperiall birth, honour, and dignité. [imperial birth, honor, and dignity]
It is clear that these lines are meant to praise the lovely Margaret of England, and to serve as a warning to James that he has it all at home, and should not stray. Nature addresses the rose directly, praising her and calling her forward to be crowned.
Than to the Ros scho turnyt hir visage
And said, O lusty dochtir most benyng,
Aboif the lilly illustare of lynnage,
Fro the stok ryell rysing fresche and ying,
But ony spot or macull doing spring,
Cum, blowme of joy, with jemis to be cround,
For our the laif thy bewty is renownd.
A coistly croun with clarefeid stonis brycht,
This cumly quene did on hir heid inclois,
Quhairfoir me thocht all flouris did rejos,
Crying attonis, Haill be thow richest Ros,
Haill hairbis empryce, haill freschest quene of flouris!
To thee be glory and honour at all houris!
The birds join the acclamation of the new Queen who is compared to a pearl which is totally expected in the poem as 'Margaret' is derived from the Latin term (margarita) for a pearl.
The commoun voce uprais of birdis small
Apone this wys, O blissit be the hour,
That thow wes chosin to be our principall,
Welcome to be our princes of honour,
Our perle, our plesans, and our paramour,
Our peax, our play, our plane felicité:
Chryst thee conserf frome all adversité!
Now the poem switches from the dream of Dunbar to Dunbar himself. Birdsong merges with the dawn chorus. Dunbar awakens and looks for the garden he saw in his dream but finds it gone. While half-frighted, he “begins” to write the poem. This is reminiscent of what would later be seen as a magical realism poem, much like Xanadu.
Than all the birdis song with sic a schout,
That I annone awoilk quhair that I lay,
And with a braid I turnyt me about,
To se this court, bot all wer went away.
Than up I lenyt, halflingis in affrey,
And thus I wret, as ye haif hard to forrow,
Of lusty May upone the nynt morrow.
It is the ninth of May.
This poem may be one of Dunbar’s best. It certainly engendered a fairly robust admiration for his work from James IV, who appointed him as Poet to the Court. Dunbar’s ability to connect nature (with a capital N) to the monarchy is without reproach, either then or now. I am reminded of Sir Elton John’s remake song sung at the funeral of Princess Diana, wherein he refers to her as England’s Rose. I’d like to think Sir Elton has read Dunbar’s Thrissil and Rois, but I’m not taking that leap. But I will happily claim a certain visceral intertextuality that comes from the collective unconscious. In the world of magical words and symbols, we can rest assured that there is more “out there” waiting for us if we allow ourselves to be dreamers and writers, and to pay attention to the issues of the day, happy and not so... all is the stuff of poetry.