William Dunbar

Title: Lament for the Makers
Author: William Dunbar

This poem is, unfortunately, imbalanced. It contains one repeated line – Timor Mortis conturbat me – that is so heightened, the rest of the poem simply cannot match it. But let me first say what is good. The line itself, which Dunbar borrowed from the Catholic Office of the Dead, is gorgeous. Part of this derives from its meter, which, if I am reading it correctly, is as follows:

Tim/or˘ Mor/tis˘ con˘tur/bat˘ me/

The switch from trochees (first two feet) to iambs (last two feet) creates a natural break in the line between Timor Mortis (fear of death) and conturbat me (disturbs me), a very pregnant pause. It also concentrates the line’s force at its beginning and end, for it both opens and closes with a stressed syllable.

Dunbar, of course, did not originally write the line, and so does not get credit for this, but he does get credit for using it well. Each stanza consists of four iambic tetrameter lines (rhyme scheme AABB), ending with Timor Mortis conturbat me. (Technically, this last is not iambic tetrameter, since it has just as many trochees as iambs, but the dominant meter of the poem as a whole is unambiguously iambic.) This steady repetition captures well the mind’s continual return to the thought and fear of death, creating an appropriate sense of inescapability. The regularity of the iambs, moreoever, heightens the double substitution in the closing line, separating it and placing it above the remainder of each stanza.

Thus Dunbar concentrates immense power in an already potent line. The trouble with the poem as a whole is that this contrast is too stark: Timor Mortis conturbat me is raised too far above the remainder of the poem. This remainder takes the form of a list that shows how death comes to everyone. Some individual images (“The babe full of benignitie”) are worthy, but not all, and the specific content starts to feel interchangeable, buoyed only by the pulse that comes at each stanza’s end. This is, of course, not strictly true: the list does have structure and this structure does lend it a poignancy that an arbitrary, unordered list would lack. But it is not enough.

It is still a fine poem; I am not sure I could assent to calling it a great poem. I will say, however, that the flaw I have mentioned is more apparent when read silently. Read aloud, it is majestic.