William Dunbar, was born around the time of 1460, he has left vivid images of Scotland in the reign of James IV, yet much in his own life, including the dates of his birth and death, remains obscure. The Flyting, a verse quarrel between Dunbar and another poet, Walter Kennedy, offers information as to his ancestry, character and personal appearance, but in this type of poem it is difficult to determine how much truth lies beneath the scurrilous insults. Dunbar, however, was certainly a lowlander, from the Lothian region, and spent many years in Edinburgh. He was well educated, and took a bachelor's degree at the University of St Andrews in 1477 and a master's degree in 1479. Nothing definite is known of his activities between 1480 and 1500, although he may have been abroad: some of his poems imply familiarity with Denmark and France, and in the winter of 1500-1501 he was apparently in England.
The best-documented period of Dunbar's life is from 1500 to 1513; during this time he received a "pensioun", or annual salary from James IV, as a member of the royal household. By 1504 he had taken priest's orders, and is later referred to as a "chaplain"; several poems voice his hopes for a benefice, yet he is not known ever to have obtained even a humble parish kirk. Well-educated churchmen at this time carried out many of the tasks of government, and it is likely that Dunbar had some role in the royal secretariat, as a clerk or envoy. His poems reveal familiarity with legal usage and terminology, and he occasionally acted as a procurator, or advocate, in the law courts. The last mention of Dunbar in the court records is on 14th May 1513, but there is a gap in these records following the battle of Flodden (September 1513), in which the King died; Dunbar may have survived into the reign of James V, but there is no positive evidence that he did so.
The Scottish court provided Dunbar with his livelihood and also his primary audience. Many of his poems are addressed to the king or queen, or refer to fellow-courtiers, ranging from humble fools to powerful officials, such as the Treasurer. The Thrissill and the rose celebrates the wedding of James IV to Margaret Tudor in 1503, and other poems are concerned with festive events of this reign, such as the Tournament of the Black Lady (1507), the arrival of the French envoy Bernard Stewart in 1508, and the Queen's visit to Aberdeen in 1511. But many of Dunbar's poems cast a more satiric eye at the activities of James IV's court, and convey an uneasy atmosphere of self-seeking, envy and distrust.
Dunbar's favourite term for his own writings was "ballatis", a word that then usually connoted short, often lyrical poems. Dunbar indeed stands out from other late medieval poets for the brevity and compression of his verse. He also called himself a "makar", a term that lays stress on the poet as a skilled and versatile craftsman. Dunbar is famed for his virtuosity, and was ready to write on almost any subject, from a painful headache to a highly technical treatise on penance. He experimented with many popular genres - elegy, panegyric, love epistle, beast fable, satiric testament - but shows particular fondness for the medieval tradition of dream poetry. His dream poems are characteristically varied: the most famous is the Goldyn targe, a complex courtly allegory, in which love triumphs over reason; another is a devout vision of the Crucifixion, whose tone recalls the Mystery plays; and several others, grotesque in style and satirical in purpose, might better be described as nightmares. Dunbar is also an accomplished metrist. The Twa mariit wemen and the wedo shows his mastery of alliterative verse, but he also employs a variety of stanzas, ranging from rhyme royal to the popular carol. Many of his poems make a witty use of refrains.
The degree of self-expression in Dunbar has been much debated. His few love poems are highly conventional, and the "I" of several didactic pieces seems largely a mouthpiece for orthodox morality. But poems such as In to thir dirk and drublie days and I that in heill wes (often called The Lament for the makaris) communicate, simply yet very poignantly, Dunbar's personal response to death:
sen he [Death] has all my brether tane
He will naught lat me lif alane;
On forse I man [must] hys nyxt pray be:
Timor mortis conturbat me.
Although Dunbar is not a profoundly autobiographical poet, his most intimate-sounding voice is heard in the petitions, a small group of verse epistles, addressed chiefly to the King. Their tone is characteristically half-humorous, and half-melancholy; in one of the most successful Dunbar adopts the persona of an old horse to convey his sense of rejection by the King.
Many of Dunbar's most original poems are sardonic and mocking in tone. His targets include the familiar butts of late medieval comedy, such as friars or tailors, but also extend to himself, his friends, and fellow-courtiers. Perhaps the blackest comedy is to be found in The Twa mariit wemen and the wedo in which three young women talk uninhibitedly of love, men and marriage. Much influenced by the traditions of anti-feminist satire, this is Dunbar's longest and most ambitious work. Dunbar also had a talent for parody and burlesque, best illustrated by The Testament of Master Andro Kennedy, and The Dirige, a small comic masterpiece.
Dunbar is master stylist. Bold and self-confident in his use of language, he is highly sensitive both to the sound and the connotations of words. He ranges from the high, often Latinate style of The Goldyn targe to the low, colloquial, vulgar diction of The Flyting. He seizes the reader's attention by arresting first lines, such as the explosive opening to his fine poem on the Resurrection: "Done is a battell on the dragon blak". Dunbar's verse abounds in unusual imagery, and is rich in irony, puns, and other forms of word-play.
Dunbar is not a learned or intellectual writer, but he is the most brilliant of the early Scottish poets. despite the lapse of five centuries he retains a power to move, to entertain, and even to shock his readers. It is not surprising that when Hugh MacDiarmid sought a new model for modern Scottish poetry - tough, witty, and unsentimental - he adopted as his slogan, "Not Burns - Dunbar!"