William Dunbar

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William Dunbar

William Dunbar (1749-1810), Scottish-born American scientist and planter, wrote the first topographical description of the Southwest.

William Dunbar was born in Morayshire, Scotland, son of Sir Archibald Dunbar. After study at Glasgow he did advanced work in mathematics and astronomy in London until ill health forced him to seek a warmer climate. In 1771 he went to America and established a plantation in British West Florida with a partner. Plagued by misfortunes—a slave insurrection in 1775 and later plundering by Continental Army soldiers—they moved in 1792 to what is now Mississippi to start a new plantation. Applying the principles of scientific agriculture, chemical treatment of the soil, improved models of plows and harrows, and special machinery for pressing and baling cotton, Dunbar made such a success of the venture that he bought out his partner and was able to devote much of his time to scientific investigation.

Like many 18th-century gentleman amateur scientists, Dunbar's interests included astronomy, botany, zoology, ethnology, and meteorology. Appointed surveyor general of the District of Natchez in 1798, he represented the Spanish government in determining the boundaries between Spanish and United States possessions in that area. Immediately thereafter he became a United States citizen and began making the first meteorological observations in the Mississippi Valley. Dunbar attracted the attention of Thomas Jefferson, with whom he corresponded and who secured his admission to the American Philosophical Society. In 1804 President Jefferson commissioned Dunbar to explore the Ouachita River country. In 1805 Dunbar was appointed to conduct similar explorations in the Red River valley.

Among Dunbar's scientific concerns were investigations of Native American sign language, fossil mammoth bones, and plant and animal life. On his plantation he operated an observatory equipped with the latest European astronomical instruments. His particular concern was the observation of rainbows, and he was the first to study the elliptical type. One of his practical contributions was a method for finding longitude by a single observer, without knowledge of the time. His meteorological speculations included the theory that a region of calm exists within the vortex of a cyclone.

Dunbar corresponded with American and European scientists. He also served as chief justice on the Court of Quarter Sessions and as a member of the Mississippi territorial legislature. His most important writing was the first topographical description of the little-known southwestern territory. He died at his plantation in October 1810.

Further Reading

For information on Dunbar see Frank L. Riley, Sir William Dunbar: The Pioneer Scientist of Mississippi (1899). Additional material on his life can be found in Eron Rowland, Life, Letters and Papers of William Dunbar (1930).

Additional Sources

Smeaton, William Henry Oliphant, William Dunbar, New York: AMS Press, 1975.

Taylor, Rachel Annand, Dunbar the poet and his period, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1974. □

William Dunbar

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William Dunbar

The Scottish poet and courtier William Dunbar (ca. 1460-ca. 1520) wrote satirical, occasional, and devotional works. Although he is conventionally numbered among the Scottish Chaucerians, he owed a great deal to the traditions of French poetry.

Very little is known about William Dunbar's family or early life. He received a master of arts degree from St. Andrews University in 1479. In 1500 he was granted an annual pension of £10 by James IV, most likely in recognition for his services as a court poet. Dunbar was probably in England during the winter of 1501 in connection with the negotiations for the marriage between King James and Princess Margaret.

Dunbar's most famous poem is perhaps "The Thistle and the Rose," an allegory in the Chaucerian manner, probably written in 1502 to celebrate the impending marriage between James and Margaret. The poet took holy orders in 1504 and may have written "In May as that Aurora did upspring" at about this time. This poem, which is in the form of a debate between a merle and a nightingale, celebrates love for God. The following years produced a number of occasional poems—one on the birth of Margaret's first child, petitions to the King for increased aid, and a satire on a court physician and alchemist.

In 1507 Dunbar's pension was increased to £20 and in 1510 to the substantial sum of £80. There is no record of the poet after the Battle of Flodden (1513), and he probably died a few years after that disaster for the Scottish court. During his last years he may have written his devotional poems, some of which, like the Christmas poem "Rorate celi desuper" and the aureate hymn to the Blessed Virgin "Hale, sterne superne, hale in eterne," are extremely effective.

Among Dunbar's more famous longer pieces is the satire The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo. The poet overhears a nocturnal conversation among three attractive ladies whose tongues have been loosened by wine. The two married women describe the shortcomings of their husbands in very frank language, and the widow, who bears some resemblance to Chaucer's Wife of Bath, reveals her wiles. One of the more attractive moral pieces attributed to Dunbar, reminiscent of Chaucer's "Truth," is "Without glaidnes avalis no tresure," in which the poet assures his readers that if they are just and joyful, Truth will make them strong.

Further Reading

The most useful editions of Dunbar's poems are The Poems of William Dunbar, edited by John Small (3 vols., 1884-1893), and The Poems of William Dunbar, edited by W. Mackay Mackenzie (1932). A volume of selected poems was edited by James Kinsley (1958). A careful biographical account of Dunbar based on the scanty evidence that survives is J. W. Baxter, William Dunbar (1952). The study by Tom Scott, Dunbar: A Critical Exposition of the Poems (1966), is stimulating but untrustworthy. □

Dunbar, William

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Dunbar, William (c.1460–c.1520). Widely regarded as the greatest of the late medieval Scottish makars (poets), Dunbar may have been a Franciscan novice and student at St Andrews early in life; but apart from the evidence of his poetry, little is known of the man outside the period 1500–13, when he received an annual pension from James IV, increasing from £10 in 1500 to a generous £80 by 1510.

Dunbar's work covers a vast range—formal court poetry like ‘The Thrissell and the Rois’ (1503), celebrating the marriage of James IV and Margaret Tudor; satire, as in his ‘Remonstrance to the King’ or the lampoons of Damian, alchemist and would-be aviator; and personal meditative poems, above all the grim ‘Lament for the Makaris’ (1508). Taken as a whole, Dunbar's poetry, embracing heady confidence, complaints about corruption, and bleak despondency, reflects the changing national mood in James IV's Scotland.

Norman Macdougall