The HyperTexts

William Dunbar Modern English Translations

On this page you can find my modern English translation of "Sweet Rose of Virtue," a bittersweet love poem by the early Scottish master William Dunbar [1460-1525]. Dunbar's "Sweet Rose" has been one of my favorite poems since I discovered it as a boy, so I decided to make it more accessible to modern readers. On this page you can also find my translation of Dunbar's marvelous "Lament for the Makaris [Makers, or Poets]." If you like Dunbar's poetry as much as I hope and expect you will, you may also want to check out my translations of Robert Burns [1759-1796], the most famous of the Scots-dialect poets. Dunbar and Burns proved that the best Scottish poetry ranks with the best poetry ever written, anywhere in the world. Since I have Scottish blood, that makes me happy and proud.―Michael R. Burch, editor, The HyperTexts

Sweet Rose of Virtue
by William Dunbar [1460-1525]
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Sweet rose of virtue and of gentleness,
delightful lily of youthful wantonness,
richest in bounty and in beauty clear
and in every virtue men hold most dear―
except only that you are merciless.

Into your garden, today, I followed you;
there I found flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently―
yet nowhere one leaf nor petal of rue.

I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair rose and left her downcast;
whose piteous death does my heart such pain
that I long to replant love's root again―
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.

In my opinion this is one of the most beautiful poems in the English language, and one of the naughtiest and cleverest as well! If the tenth line seems confusing, it helps to know that rue symbolizes pity and also has medicinal uses; thus I believe the unrequiting lover is being accused of a lack of compassion and perhaps of withholding her healing “attentions.” The penultimate line can be taken as a rather naughty double entendre, but I will leave that interpretation up to the reader!

This is my loose translation of "Lament for the Makaris," a poem by the great early Scottish poet William Dunbar. The Makaris were "makers" or poets. The original poem is a form of danse macabre, or "dance of death," in which every fourth line is the Latin phrase timor mortis conturbat me ("the fear of death dismays me").

Lament for the Makaris ("Lament for the Makers")
by William Dunbar [1460-1525]
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

i who enjoyed good health and gladness
am overwhelmed now by life’s terrible sickness
and enfeebled with infirmity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

our presence here is mere vainglory;
the false world is but transitory;
the flesh is frail; the Fiend runs free ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

the state of man is changeable:
now sound, now sick, now blithe, now dull,
now manic, now devoid of glee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

no state on earth stands here securely;
as the wild wind shakes the willow tree,
so wavers this world’s vanity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

Death leads the knights into the field
(unarmored under helm and shield)
sole Victor of each red mêlée ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

that strange, despotic Beast
tears from its mother’s breast
the babe, full of benignity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

He takes the champion of the hour,
the captain of the highest tower,
the beautiful damsel in full flower ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

He spares no lord for his elegance,
nor clerk for his intelligence;
His dreadful stroke no man can flee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

artist, magician, scientist,
orator, debater, theologist,
must all conclude, so too, as we:
“how the fear of Death dismays me!”

in medicine the most astute
sawbones and surgeons all fall mute;
they cannot save themselves, or flee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

i see the Makers among the unsaved;
the greatest of Poets all go to the grave;
He does not spare them their faculty ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

i have seen the Monster pitilessly devour
our noble Chaucer, poetry’s flower,
and Lydgate and Gower (great Trinity!) ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

since He has taken my brothers all,
i know He will not let me live past the fall;
His next prey will be — poor unfortunate me!
how the fear of Death dismays me!

there is no remedy for Death;
we all must prepare to relinquish breath
so that after we die, we may be set free
from “the fear of Death dismays me!”

If you want to learn more about the origins of English poetry, please check out English Poetic Roots: A Brief History of Rhyme.

The following are links to other translations of Old English poems by Michael R. Burch:

Robert Burns the greatest of the modern Scots-English dialect poets
Scottish poetry translations by Michael R. Burch
Wulf and Eadwacer perhaps the first great lyric poem in the English language, and probably by a female poet
How Long the Night
another great early English lyric poem
Caedmon's Hymn
perhaps the first poem written in the English language that is still extant today
The Wife's Lament
one of the first great English storytelling poems written in a woman's voice
Deor's Lament
another of the first great storytelling poems in the English language

Other translations by Michael R. Burch:

Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Miklós Radnóti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Renée Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Tegner's Drapa
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Miryam (Miriam) Ulinover
Itzhak (Yitzkhak) Viner

The HyperTexts