The HyperTexts

Sweet Rose of Virtue: Modern English Translation

This is my modern English translation of "Sweet Rose of Virtue," an exquisite but bittersweet love poem in the amour courtois (courtly love) and carpe diem (seize the day) traditions. It was written by the early Scottish master, William Dunbar [c. 1460-1525], who has been called the Poet Laureate of the court of King James IV of Scotland. I chose to translate the poem to make it more accessible to readers who prefer modern English to Ye Olde Englishe and Ye Auld Scots. I have also included translator's notes and a synopsis and analysis for students and scholars who want to explore the poem's roots and methods of composition. You can also find my translation of Dunbar's most famous poem, "Lament for the Makaris [Makers, or Poets]" in the links at the bottom of this page. If you like Dunbar's poetry as much as I hope and expect that you will, you may also want to check out my translations of Robert Burns [1759-1796], the most famous of the Scotts-English dialect poets. Dunbar and Burns prove that the best Scottish poetry ranks with the very best poetry ever written, anywhere in the world. Since I have Scottish blood, that makes me pleased and proud.―Michael R. Burch

Sweet Rose of Virtue
by William Dunbar

loose translation by Michael R. Burch

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

Into your garden, today, I followed you
through lustrous flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently―
yet nowhere, one leaf or petal of rue.

I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair flower of pallid and gentle cast,
whose piteous death does my heart such pain
that, if I could, I would plant love's root again―
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.

Synopsis and Analysis

The poem's speaker compares his would-be lover to the lilies and roses in her garden. Lilies and roses symbolize both feminine beauty and the female virtues. Lilies and roses are also associated with the Virgin Mary, and thus have spiritual connotations. Like the Virgin Mary, the speaker's desired lover is perfect in beauty and virtue. But the speaker complains that he has found one thing lacking in both the garden and in her: rew (rue). Rue is a heavily scented evergreen plant used for medicinal purposes, and it has bright yellow flowers. So rue would be very easy to spot, if it were present. Because of its healing properties, rue symbolizes the qualities of pity, mercy and compassion. So a woman lacking rue lacks compassion. But here the poet may not be accusing the woman of being cold-hearted in general; rather, he may be trying to encourage her to prove her "compassion" by sleeping with him! (The poem is, perhaps, an "inside" joke.) In the final stanza, the speaker fears that a "cold spell" has killed something: either rue/compassion or perhaps his lover's heart and metaphorically their love. He closes by expressing his wish to plant a "root" again, by which he is presumably alluding to copulation. But he links this root planting to the comfort of sheltering leaves, which represent the rebirth of compassion, so it seems he wants more than just sex. He also desires companionship and tenderness. The poem ends on a sad but tender note. While the poem could be a joke of sorts, its style of composition and evocative plea for companionship make it seem more like a bittersweet love poem.

Translator's Notes and Interpretation

"Sweet Rose of Virtue" is a poem in the amour courtois (courtly love) and carpe diem (seize the day) traditions. William Dunbar [c. 1460-1525] was a well-paid court poet in the household of King James IV of Scotland, so he would have been well aware of the courtly love poetic tradition, in which romantic love was portrayed as simultaneously passionate, erotic, chivalric and spiritual. A common conceit within this tradition was that when a woman chose not to make love to her suitor, she was "unfeeling" and sans merci ("without mercy"). In carpe diem poems, the poets often personified Time, using "his" projected ravages to urge women to abandon their defenses and quickly yield to their "unfairly" spurned suitors. Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" and Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" are other famous carpe diem poems. Just how serious the male courtiers were about all this, is hard to say. They may have been like male peacocks strutting around, showing off their extravagant tail feathers in elaborate mating rituals. Or the poems could have been primarily witty, tongue-in-cheek jokes. Or they could have been expressing very real sentiments with a healthy dose of irony. But in any case, "Sweet Rose of Virtue" is one of the very best poems within its genres. According to Tom Scott, author of  Dunbar: A Critical Exposition of the Poems,  it is "Dunbar's most perfect lyric, and one of the supreme lyrics in Scots and English. The three five-line stanzas move with exquisite grace and smoothness of rhythm, no word, no syllable superfluous or misplaced, no phrase awkwardly turned, no image or thought jarring the mood." However, I think one of the more confusing (and potentially jarring) things about the original poem for modern readers is the poet's use of "him" in the third stanza, in reference to the herb rue (you can see this usage in the original text below). Since we no longer think of herbs, flowers or virtues like compassion as masculine entities, it seems very odd to hear the poet longing to "plant his [i.e., the male herb's] root again." But when the language was older, this was acceptable, and may have allowed Dunbar to engage in a clever double entendre. To avoid confusion, and because I believe there is unity in the poet's vision of the woman, the garden, the flowers and the virtues, I have taken the liberty of replacing the male herb with the female rose. And I have used the phrase "plant love's root" to preserve the clever double entendre without the gender confusion.

Original Poem

Sweet Rois of Vertew                                                     Literal Translation [bracketed words are not in the original text, but may help the sense]

SWEIT rois of vertew and of gentilnes,                         SWEET rose of virtue and of gentleness,
Delytsum lillie of everie lustynes,                                  Delightful lily of every lustiness, [Delightful lily of wanton loveliness,]
    Richest in bontie and in bewtie cleir,                         Richest in bounty and in beauty clear,
    And everie vertew that is deir,                                   And [in] every virtue that is [held] dear,
Except onlie that ye are mercyles,                                 Except only that you are merciless,

Into your garthe this day I did persew;                           Into your [private, enclosed] garden this day I did pursue;
Thair saw I flowris that fresche wer of hew;                  There I saw flowers that were fresh of hue;
    Baithe quhyte and rid, moist lusty wer to seyne,        Both white and red, [the] most lusty to be seen,
    And halesum herbis upone stalkis grene;                    And wholesome herbs [waving] upon stalks of green;
Yit leif nor flour fynd could I nane of rew.                    Yet leaf nor flower could I find: none of rue. [Yet not a leaf nor flower could I find, of rue.]

I dout that Merche, with his cauld blastis keyne,           I fear that March, with his cold blasts keen,
Hes slane this gentill herbe, that I of mene;                   Has slain this gentle herb, the one I mean;
    Quhois petewous deithe dois to my hart sic pane      Whose piteous death does my heart such pain
    That I wald mak to plant his rute agane,—                That I would endeavor to plant his [love's] root again,—
So confortand his levis unto me bene.                            So comforting his [those] leaves unto me have been.

William Dunbar Biography

William Dunbar [c. 1460-1525] is generally considered to be one of the two greatest Scottish poets, along with Robert Burns. Dunbar has been called "the Scottish Chaucer," "the Scottish Skelton" and the Poet Laureate of the court of King James IV of Scotland. He was a Scottish makar (maker, or poet) who wrote in an ancient Scots dialect that was fairly close to the English of his day. According to James Paterson, one of his biographers, Dunbar was "a poet of extraordinary merit" who "has been compared with Chaucer: less pathetic, but richer in the variety and quality of his imagination, humour, and powers of description." Sir Walter Scott call Dunbar "the excellent poet, unrivalled by any which Scotland has produced."

Dunbar was probably born in either 1459 or 1460, and first appears in the historical record as a new student at the University of St. Andrews in 1474. Since it was common for students to enter universities around age fourteen at that time, his likely birthdate can be deduced but not known precisely. He received his bachelor's degree in 1477 and his master's in 1479, so he was a well-educated man. It is believed that Dunbar may have been a roving Franciscan friar for some period of time, from what he wrote himself, but this is not certain. It does seem clear that he served as a priest and chaplain, from certain historical records. He also participated in embassies to Denmark-Norway and France in 1491 and 1492, and in embassies to England in 1501 and 1502. He became a poet in the court of King James IV of Scotland around 1500. By 1510 his pensioun, or annual salary, was 80 pounds (a substantial amount of money in those days). The last reference to Dunbar is an entry dated May 1513 in the Treasurer's Accounts. King James died the same year at the Battle of Flodden, and after that this is no further mention of Dunbar in the royal Scottish accounts. The date of his death remains a mystery, but has estimated to be around 1520 to 1525, and almost certainly before 1530, when Sir David Lindsay spoke of him as dead in the Testament of the Papyngo

During his stint as a paid court poet in the royal household, Dunbar wrote religious poems, hymns, commemorative and occasional poems, laments, orisons, allegories, satires, comedies and poems of courtly love like "Sweet Rose of Virtue." He even wrote "naughty" poems that used ribald and profane language.

Here is an earlier version of my translation ...

Sweet Rose of Virtue
by William Dunbar [c. 1460-1525]

loose translation by Michael R. Burch (an earlier version)

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

Into your garden, today, I followed you;
there I saw flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently―
yet everywhere, not a leaf nor flower of rue.

I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair rose of pallid and gentle cast,
whose piteous death does my heart such pain
that, if I could, I would compose her roots again―
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.

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:

Lament for the Makaris also by William Dunbar
Robert Burns the greatest of the modern Scots-English dialect poets
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
Basho
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Sappho
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