Thursday, 24 January 2013

Dunbar's Advice to Academics

This is a poem by the fifteenth-century Scottish poet William Dunbar, offering counsel to scholars and 'clerks' on the right attitude to learning and study. In one manuscript this poem is accompanied by the note (in Latin) 'what Dunbar said at Oxford'; there's debate about whether Dunbar ever visited Oxford, but whether he did or not, the advice is generally applicable...

To speik of science, craft, or sapience,
Of vertew, morall cunnyng, or doctryne,
Of jure, of wisdome, or intelligence,
Of every study, lair, or disciplyne -
All is bot tynt or reddy for to tyne,
Nocht using it as it suld usit be,
The craft excersing, considering nocht the fyne.
Ane peralous seiknes is vane prosperité.

The curius probatcioun logicall,
The eloquence of ornat rethorye,
The naturall science filosophicall,
The dirk apirance of astronomy,
The theologgis sermon, the fablis of poetrye -
Without guid lyff, all in the selfe dois de,
As Mayis flouris dois in September drye.
Ane peralows lyff is vane prosperité.

Quhairfoir, ye clerkis grytast of constance,
Fullest off science and of knaleging,
To us be mirrouris in yowr governance,
And in owr dirknes be lampis in schining,
Or thane in frustar is yowr lang lerning;
Gyff to yowr sawis your deidis contrar be,
Yowr maist accusar is your awin cuning.
Ane peralows seiknes is vane prosperitie.

If Dunbar will permit me to offer a translation:

To speak of knowledge, learning, or sapience,
Of virtue, moral knowledge, or doctrine,
Of law, of wisdom, or intelligence,
Of every study, lore, or discipline -
All is but lost, or ready to be lost,
Not using it as it should used be,
To exercise the skill, and consider not the end;
A perilous sickness is vain prosperity.

The curious experiments logical,
The eloquence of ornate rhetoric,
The natural science philosophical,
The obscure appearance of astronomy,
The theologian's sermon, the fables of poetry -
Without good life, all in the self does die,
As May's flower does in September dry.
A perilous life is vain prosperity.

Therefore, ye clerks greatest of constancy,
Fullest of science and of learning,
To us be mirrors in your governance,
And in our darkness be lamps shining,
Or else in vain is your long studying.
If to your souls your deeds contrary be,
Your worst accuser is your own learning.
A perilous sickness is vain prosperity.

The refrain of this poem may at first sight be a little puzzling - why should 'vain prosperity' be a particular temptation of the academic life? In Dunbar's time, as today, clerks (of Oxford and elsewhere) were never likely to be wealthy people; and Dunbar, who knew his Chaucer, would certainly have remembered the threadbare Clerk of the Canterbury Tales, who 'al be that he was a philosophre, Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre'. It makes most sense if you interpret prosperity as success, in whatever endeavour, not necessarily including wealth - so the advice is not to get carried away with one's own cleverness. 'Yowr maist accusar is your awin cuning' - what a warning!