31 MAY 1930, Page 11

Not Burns—Dunbar ! "

THOUGH the actual date is doubtful, the tercentenary of William Dunbar's death is being observed this year. It would, be truer to say that it is not being observed--on anything like the scale it de- serves. The Isle of Man has done infinitely better by T. E. Brown. Scotland - does infinitely better every year by Burns ; and the arrangements now being made to mark the Scott centenary on a national and inter- national scale are in curious contrast to the neglect of Dunbar who, when all is said and done, is one of Scotland's greatest poets—one of its few poets who deserve the adjective " great " at all. Only Burns and Alasdair Mac- Mhaighstir Alasdair, can be .named alongside him. Most of the ,others of any account belong to English rather than to Scots or Gaelic literature, and are very minor figures. The Scottish press have ignored the occasion, and it, is a curious commentary on the alleged wave of Scottish Nationalism to-day that the only " set piece!' yet published appeared .a month or two ago in a London literary weekly. Ironically enough its writer was, concerned with little more than Dunbar's significance as a bridge over the blank in. English poetry after Chaucer and the fact that Duabar detested hi,s Highland compatriots, was strongly Anglophil in politics and otherwise, and insisted that he wrote in " Inglis."

It is not for these reasons, however, that his Tercen- tenary is neglected in Scotland to-day—or observed by a certain minority. The general neglect is a consequence of that assimilation to English standards Dunbar himself desired ; he has been hoist by his own petard. What " Dunbar Movement " there is in certain Nationalist circles proceeds from the opposite reason. It declares the spirit of Dunbar's poems essentially Scottish, their • quality qua poetry and their variety of kind far greater than Burns can show, and the language he used a canon of Scots to which a return must be made if Scots Vernacular Literature is to address itself again to the full range of literary purpose. Linguistically and otherwise Dunbar is the Scots poet,' and Burns, by comparison, to all intents and purposes an English One. " Not Burns—Dunbar !" has become one of the slogans of the Scottish Renaissance .Movement. This has not only led to interesting experi- ments in Scoti verse on the part of a whole school of contemporary writers ; it has impelled large numbers of young Scots to a belated study of the Scots language and of the whole course of Scots literature. This is a 'partial reversal of the tendency which has prevailed, practically unchallenged, in ScOtland for several centuries.

There can be no gainsaying that it is absurd and almost inexplicable that Chaucer should be taught in Scottish schools and not Dunbar. Nor can there be any doubt that, as Professor Gregory Smith has said, Scots is a literary medium superior in many respects to English, alike in its general expressiveness, movement and colour, and in the subtler accommodation of the craft of letters as well. That so little has been made of it is due, not to its lack of potentialities, but to a variety of political, religious, and other extra-literary causes. If even a fraction of the time that has been devoted in Scottish schools to English language and literature during the past two or three centuries had been devoted to Scots instead it is unlikely that modern literature in the latter would have been so comparatively insignificant. That Scotland is, perhaps, the only nation in the world that has voluntarily agreed to the almost entire exclusion of its own language, literature and history from its schools in favour of those of another country of very different traditions, ill consorts with the Scottish reputation for intense clannishness and local patriotism. Can Scots even yet be made the medium of a great literature ?

It is generally agreed that the dialects into which it has disintegrated are suitable for little more than " Kailyaird " purposes. But efforts have been made to establish a " synthetic Scots," culled • from all the dialects and all the periods, 'pretty much as Ivar Aasen and his colleagues fabricated the Norwegian 1m:dermal on the basis of Old Norse. Short of commanding genius this is not a task for a few individual writers. In Norway the standard was evolved by an influential committee of historians, philologists and creative writers. There is some talk of Scots interested in the Vernacular Revival trying to bring together such a Committee in the near future. Two great Scots dictionaries on the most exhaustive modern lines are in process of preparation--: one by Professor Sir W. A. Craigie, and the other by the Scottish Dialects Committee. Once these are published, the way may be clear to follow Norway's example. In the meantime the isolated experimenters are doing work analagous rather to Charles Doughty's, or to that of such Russians as Rennsov, Kruchonyk and Klebnikov, and not , uninfluenced by. James Joyce. Apart from language; the Scottish Renaissance Group espouse. Dunbar instead of Burns on two main grounds.:--first. that Dunbar soared to 'far greater imaginative heights than Burns, who was almost, completely lacking in the " brave translunary things" of great poetry ; and, secondly, that apart from the actual respective merits of these two poets altogether it is not good for any literature to be wholly dominated for a prolonged period by any single figure as Scots literature has been by Burns.

Meanwhile, although Burns is the subject of a world- wide annual commemoration, he shares with Dunbar an essential neglect not unconnected with the actual character of the majority of the Burns clubs. Neither poet has been the subject of a biographical and critical study of an adequate kind from a modern standpoint. So far as Dunbar is concerned, the late Professor W. P. Ker was the man who should have undertaken the task. " Dunbar is my poet," he used to declare. And he might have been the best man to deal with Burns, too ; ,although, if he had, he would undoubtedly have accentuated both the recent pro-Dunbar and anti-Burns tendencies ; it is a pity that he failed to anticipate them and provide them with the strong and stimulating basis he could so easily have supplied. No fit successor has yet appeared. But the younger Scots writers at least deserve the credit of having organized, through their P.E.N. Club, a Dunbar symposium. It was " not much, but always something," while the Scottish B.B.C. broadcast a special Dunbar programme, which, however, was very poorly arranged and unfortunately failed to include any of Mr. Francis George Scott's remarkable settings of Dunbar's poems. They are practically the only tribute of any consequence which subsequent Scotland has paid to the " greatest of -the Makers."