“William Dunbar’s Liturgical Poetics,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 43 (2021)
Long hailed as one of the most technically gifted poets of the later Middle Ages, William Dunbar held a special interest in the lyric effects that could be generated through the appropriation of liturgical texts. This essay analyzes poems that are usually separated in categorizing Dunbar’s corpus — parodies, laments, and meditations — to show that Dunbar exploits the rhetorically capacious first-person of liturgy in order to theorize the fashioning of his own poetic voice. He does so, moreover, by building on a tradition of liturgical adaptation he inherited from the fifteenth century, including poets such as John Audelay and William Litchfield. Dunbar’s experiments with liturgical language and form reveal a heretofore unacknowledged poetic agenda: to expand the audience and performance possibilities of liturgically-inflected, linguistically hybrid religious lyrics. He pursues this agenda in two complementary ways: by theorizing the linguistic toggling required in a bilingual devotional culture, as we see in his Marian anthem, “Ane Ballat of Our Lady”; and by re-composing the calendrical rhythms of liturgy in a distinctly lyric mode.
Keywords lyric, liturgy, Dunbar, form, clerical poetry, intimate speech