Dunbar (before 1508) The 25 stanzas and 100 lines of William Dunbar's kyrielle comprise a complex meditation on death. This is accomplished through adept and touching praise of the "makaris," great poets, that have passed on. The opening stanza and the final two stanzas are personal, and from a note in an early printed version of the text, some scholars believe that he was gravely ill at the time of its composition. others feel that the theme is common and that the biographical note serves as a poetic convention.
Whatever the impetus, the poem moves from the personal to the universal: Stanzas 2-10 offer a universal reflection on the mutability of the world and the mortality of human life. This section names classes of people from high and low positions whose end is death and provides the segue to the next set of verses, as the speaker realizes that poets, too, share this fate. Stanzas 11-23 catalogue those poets who have gone to the grave before Dunbar. Some, like Geoffrey Chaucer, are well remembered; others, like Roull of Aberdeen, are lost to human memory. The argument of the work returns to the personal as the speaker realizes that death will take him as surely as it has overcome his colleagues and his fellow mortals.
Commentators present different interpretations of the final stanza, in which the speaker tells the audience and reminds himself that humans must live in this world in such a way as to live beyond it. A number see this verse as an expression of the usual medieval concern about life after death: The way people live now determines how their souls will fare in the afterlife. Some, however, see this quatrain as remarkably free from concern with the afterlife; rather, they see hope for living on in human memory as the import of this final stanza, which would seem to point to the Renaissance belief in the eternizing quality of poetry.
The poem's burden suggests a religious reading; it comes from the response in the seventh lesson of the office for the Dead, which priests said nightly. The refrain is also found in eight of John Lydgate's poems, as well as in several medieval carols. Within Dunbar's poem, the Latin refrain unifies the work thematically and universalizes the speaker's reflections. In addition to having a metric form, the kyrielle, the composition can be characterized by its theme, and critics have called it a danse macabre (dance of death), a memento mori (reminder of death), a vado mori (I go to death), or an ubi sunt (where are they?) poem. The list of people
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