On the Summer Solstice

With today being the summer solstice, my thoughts naturally turned to . . . William Dunbar’s “A Meditation in Winter.” Why wouldn’t they? Thanks to my brain chemistry, the longest day of the year–about fourteen and a half hours where I live–should be, if not my happiest, at least my least miserable. That doesn’t bode well. This fact, along with my having written about Dunbar recently, reminded me of the poem.

In “A Meditation in Winter,” Dunbar appears to describe what today we call Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or winter depression. With SAD, many think, the lack of sunlight causes a decrease in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that improves one’s mood. Thus, the less serotonin, the more depression.

Dunbar’s poem begins with “dirk and drublie dayis” (dark and murky days) and “mystie vapouris, cluddis, and skyis” (misty vapors, clouds, and skies), a recipe for depression for many people. Nothing, even “sangis, ballattis, and . . . playis” (songs, poems, and plays), can cheer him up. He connects this feeling with winter’s short days, mentioning that “the nycht dois lenthin hours” (the night does lengthen [in] hours).

Despair, the first of several personified concepts, tries to motivate him by warning him of the “trouble and mischeif” he will experience if he doesn’t pull himself together. Patience and Prudence try to reassure him, but Old Age ominously offers his hand and reminds him that he “hes compt to mak” (has a reckoning to make) of the “tyme [he] spendit heir” (time he spent here), presumably on earth. On cue, Death opens his “gettis wyd” (gates wide)  and reminds him of his–and everyone’s–ultimate destination.

Nothing–not even “gold in kist, nor wyne in cowp,/ No ladeis bewtie nor luiffis blys” (gold in chest, nor wine in cup, nor ladies’ beauty, nor love’s bliss”–can stop him from thinking about death. Fortunately, as time passes, the “nycht begynnis to schort” (night begins to shorten) and his “spreit” (spirit) finds comfort. The poem ends on an optimistic note: “Cum, lustie Symmer, with this flowris, / That I may leif in sum disport” (Come, joyful Summer, with your flowers, / So that I may live in some enjoyment).

“Joyful Summer” is here indeed. Just as the long nights of winter pass to make way for the long summer days, though, eventually summer will pass, and we’ll find ourselves in winter again. Let’s enjoy the summer while it’s here.



What a Headache!

After I narrowly avoided a migraine this evening, my thoughts naturally turned to Scottish poet William Dunbar. Dunbar, who wrote during the reign of James IV (1473-1513), was a prolific poet whose works include “On His Heid-Ake.”

Dunbar begins by explaining that “yester nicht” (last night) his “heid did yak” (head ached) to the extent that he could not “mak” (create [poetry]) the next day. (NB: I am putting aside the question of authorial intent and following the apparent convention of assuming that in this case, the speaker is the poet.) More specifically, he states that the headache was a migraine. It feels like it is “perseing [his] brow as ony ganyie” (piercing his eye like an arrow,” and he “scant” can “luik” at “the licht” (can hardly look at the light), feelings that a modern day migraine sufferer also may experience. He tries to write, but he has trouble; he is “unsleipit” (sleep-deprived) and “dullit in dulnes and distres” (made dull by heaviness and distress). He is deprived of his “curage” (spirit), which cannot be revived even by “mirth . . . menstrallie . . .  play, / . . . din . . . danceing [or] deray [disorder].”

Of course, in the course of explaining why he is unable to write a poem, he writes a poem, demonstrating that  what seems to hold one back can actually motivate one to proceed in an unanticipated direction. After all, without the migraine Dunbar still could have written a poem, but it would not have been the one he ended up writing.


Thanks to The Dictionary of the Scots Language for help with a few of the Middle Scots words.


My students are working on a poetry project, and I will do one, too. Each students chose a poet, but no two students could choose the same poet. They are doing some background research, finding three poems that they, like, and then finding criticism on one. They will then create presentations, which they will share with the class.

I have chosen William Dunbar, a fifteenth century Scottish poet. For some reason, I had been thinking about his “Lament for the Makaris,” and the refrain, “Timor mortis conturbat me,” has been stuck in my head. (A “makar” is a poet, and “Timor mortis conturbat me” means “The fear of death disturbs me” and comes from the Catholic Office of the Dead.) For my three poems, I will probably choose “Lament for the Makaris,” “Meditatioun in Wyntir” (“A Meditation in Winter”) and “On His Heid-Ake” (On His Headache”). I’m not sure what my presentation will entail. I’d love to do a video in a cemetery, but I’d have to work out the logistics. If I do it, I’ll post it here. I am also, of course, open to any suggestions.


Published in: on February 11, 2014 at 5:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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