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The Aureate Paradox Dunbar's Goldyn Targe i s one of those poems to which readers keep returning, in part because of that fresh delight which comes from the contemplation of an object of beauty, in part from a puzzled restiveness born of the poem's tantalisingly enigmatic character. This restiveness i s well illustrated by the divergent nature of major recent criticism: C.S. Lewis established one vein when he described the allegorical narrative of the poem as "little more than a peg on which to hang its poetry", defining the poetry as the adaptation of the allegorical form to "purposes of pure decoration ". Denton Fox, unwilling to accept this essentially dismissive approach and seeking to argue a seriousness as well as a professionalism in Dunbar, shifted the ground by arguing that the Goldyn Targe i s a poem about a particular sort of poetry: "Subject, style and aesthetic theory all coalesce, and the coalescence i s made explicit by the imagery: 'anamalit' i s simultaneously a characteristic of the garden . . . of the hard and brilliant style . . . and of the sort of poetry that Dunbar strives to make." Most recently, Ian Ross has sought to reassert the poem's guality as fable, finding "elements of wisdom and sapience, asserting the supreme values of justice and true love". I do not cite Walter Scheps as a major critic, but his description of the Goldyn Targe as a "comic psychomachia", in which the allegory continually breaks down to draw attention to its own deficiencies and where the emphasis on rhetoric rather than content indicates the poet's dissatisfaction with the genre, i s an extreme example of the modern critic's dilemma. One can say of the greater part of Dunbar's poetry—that range of poems for court or religious occasions—that, however different in immediate purpose they may be, as poetry of prayer or ceremony, varying levels of comedy, varying degrees of moral seriousness, they have a certain authorial consistency and have attracted a reasonably coherent and developing body of criticism. The Goldyn Targe i s in a sense outside this, even as the Testament of Cresseid i s in a sense outside that coherent body of criticism which has grown about Henryson's fables. And for much the same reason: readings of the Testament divide into those by historically minded critics who seek to establish what the poem might have meant to a fifteenth century Scottish court audience and those who write about what the narrative of the poem means now, to them. Misapprehensions about the nature of narrative intervene as misapprehensions about the nature of style do in the case of the Goldyn Targe. But, whereas the Testament has found new heights of popularity because of the human qualities which can be read into it, the Goldyn Targe's patent artificiality has made i t a victim of contemporary critical taste—as i s evidenced by Patrick Cruttwell's often quoted judgement in the Pelican Guide that "in such a diction, fixed and prefabricated, living poetry can hardly be made". Critics have turned away from it, preferring the other 94 W.S. Ramson side of Dunbar, and language historians, who are a dying race anyway, have accepted the pigeon-holing of aureate diction as one aspect of the neologising which enriched the emergent vernacular. I want here to offer yet another example of the restiveness to which I have referred, by making yet another attempt to find the key to a poem which, in the infamous Cruttwell's words again, "imprison(s) the living world in the compass of a jeweller's shop."6 Some ground for giving primacy to the poem's style i s found in Sir David Lyndsay's description in the Papyngo of Dunbar "quhilk lanquaqe had at large, As maye be sene in tyll his goldyn targe." But while i t i s true that Lyndsay's catalogue of poets employs the conventional topos of contrasting his lack of rhetorical skills with the copiousness displayed by his predecessors, the contrast i s in context metonomical: the poets are, as Ross as has pointed out, "poets of 'supreme sapience', purveyors of wisdom and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1832-8334
Print ISSN
0313-6221
Pages
pp. 93-104
Launched on MUSE
2013-04-03
Open Access
No
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