Refrains Again

In my previous post I proposed that poetic refrains might work in parallel with some features of cognition. If it’s true, as Rabinovich et al. suggested, that complex networks in our brains are structured around repeating features that operate differently each time they appear, then it may be meaningful that some poems are too. This post is mainly a commentary, of sorts, on a poem: William Dunbar’s ‘Lament for the Makaris’ (i.e. for the Poets), written in Scotland in the early part of the sixteenth century.
      It has a refrain, ‘Timor Mortis conturbat me’ (‘fear of death disturbs me’; ‘conturbat’ could mean ‘makes me anxious’, ‘confounds’, varying degrees of stirring up). It was a well-known phrase in the period, as it appears in the Catholic Office for the Dead. I have added notes to many of the difficult words, and a running account of what’s going on with the refrain, but I haven’t been exhaustive about every word. Scottish spelling of this period isn’t that difficult to work out if you just believe.
      In my next post – this one is going to be long enough anyway – I will elaborate on what I think these refrains might know about your brain. For now I just want to tune in to the way in which the repeating thought is a flexible resource, economical but never the same twice.


I that in was and gladness
Am trublit now with great sickness
And feblit with infirmitie:—

Our plesance here is all vain glory,
This fals world is but transitory,
The flesh is , the Feynd is :—

The state of man does change and vary,
Now sound, now sick, now blyth, now ,
Now dansand mirry, now like to die:—

No state in here standis ;
As with the wynd wavis the
So this world’s vanitie:—

Unto the Death gois all Estatis,
Princis, Prelatis, and ,
Baith rich and poor of all degree:—

He takis the knichtis in to the field
Enarmit under helm and scheild;
Victor he is at all :—

That strong unmerciful tyrand
Takis, on the motheris breast ,
The babe full of benignitie:—

He takis the campion in the ,
The captain closit in the tour,
The lady in bour full of bewtie:—

He spairis no lord for his ,
Na clerk for his intelligence;
His awful may no man flee:—

Art-magicianis and astrologgis,
Rethoris, logicianis, and theologgis,
Them helpis no conclusionis slee:—

In medecine the most practicianis,
, surrigianis, and physicianis,
Themself from Death may not supplee:—

I see that makaris amang the
Playis here their , syne gois to grave;
Sparit is nocht their facultie:—

He has done petuously devour
The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour,
, and Gower, all three:—

The good Sir Hew of Eglintoun,
Ettrick, Heriot, and Wintoun,
He has tane out of this cuntrie:—

That scorpion fell has done infeck
Maister John Clerk, and James Afflek,
Fra ballat-making and tragedie:—

Holland and Barbour he has berevit;
Alas! that he not with us levit
Sir Mungo Lockart of the Lee:—

Clerk of Tranent he has tane,
That made the of Gawaine;
Sir Gilbert Hay endit has he:—

He has Blind Harry and Sandy Traill
Slain with his schour of mortal hail,
Patrick Johnstoun might nought flee:—

He has reft Merseir his ,
That did in luve so lively write,
So short, so quick, of sentence hie:—

He has tane Rowll of Aberdene,
And gentill Rowll of Corstorphine;
Two better fallowis did no man see:—

In Dunfermline he has tane Broun
With Maister Robert Henrysoun;
Sir John the Ross has he:—

And he has now tane, last of ,
Good gentil Stobo and Quintin Shaw,
Of quhom all hes pitie:—

Good Maister Walter Kennedy
In point of Death lies verily;
Great ruth it were that so suld be:—

Sen he has all my brether tane,
He will naught let me live alane;
Of force I man his next prey be:—

Since for the Death remeid is none,
Best is that we for Death ,
After our death that live may we:—

Here the speaker is talking about his own death, which has become a more pressing issue as a result of his physical frailty.
sly, cunning
Here the fear of death becomes more general, a feature of contemplating the ‘false world’ as much as his own weakness.
Now the speaker warms to his theme: there are so many signs out there that point to the inevitability of death.
The alliteration and the repeating phrase are really concatenating here: the speaker’s vulnerability is confirmed everywhere.
i.e. potentates
Death is a famous leveller, and here the poem turns in that direction: it brings everything down with it. From the perspective of the speaker, this is part of the disturbing power of death, but perhaps also there is a hint of satisfaction in the idea that the great and good are also brought down.
As before: here the most capable fighters are also drawn into the picture.
This instance is interestingly poised. In a way, the cruelty of death emerges more sharply here, and the fear of death also becomes a bit more acute. However, the momentum of the poem as it expands death’s scope might be a bit too strong for the ‘timor mortis’ to become very pointed.
As before…
power, puissance
As before… but something’s coming…
As before… but the ‘Rethoris’ – orators – are a group quite closely affiliated to poets. So perhaps death’s reach is approaching the speaker again from another angle – from the vulnerability of his profession rather than the vulnerability of his body.
Back to the general again…
Here the poem makes a key turn, towards the ‘makaris’, whose skill (‘facultie’) doesn’t protect them from death. It’s important that the speaker belittles their work, because the vulnerability of poems is closely related to the vulnerability of poets.
John Lydgate, one of the greatest of England’s Medieval poets, here listed, as he often was, alongside Chaucer and Gower. After naming the acknowledged greats of English verse, he then goes on to list Scottish poets whose fame wasn’t so secure. However, ‘Lament for the Makaris’ is a remarkable document in the history of the Scottish literary tradition.
See the note on ‘The Monk of Bury’… the speaker starts at the top re-daunting himself with the thought that even these greats couldn’t escape. Of course they couldn’t, but poets are supposed to aspire to some sort of immortality.
The emphasis on ‘this cuntrie’ is heavy: now we are into a proud but precarious list of Scottish poets, the speaker’s own people, whose names are outliving their bodies for the moment.
As before…
As before… the list grows, and as it grows, the fear might be tempered – look at these names! – but in each case the shadow of Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate, and the uncertainty of poetic fame in most cases, hang heavily on the ‘timor mortis’.
Adventures – the title of an exciting poem.
As before…
As before…
writing, poems
As before… but the speaker is making an effort to capture something characteristic about some of the poets. If the force of death is so general, repeating in the same way in every case, then particularity is a kind of antidote. A name is something to remember; but it needs more.
As before…
As before… but in this stanza we get the one name from among the Scottish poets which has lasted proudly into the present: Robert Henryson, author of a sequel to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and some brilliant post-Aesopian fables.
people, i.e. ‘wights’ in Middle English
As before…
As before… but Walter Kennedy, not quite dead, is associated with Dunbar, as they are in some way jointly responsible for the insult-dialogue poem ‘The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy’.
Here the feeling of mortality unites the general and the specific: his brother poets have all fallen, and although (perhaps because) he is one who, in this poem, remembers them, he must be next. Whether this relates to the ‘great sickness’ of the first stanza is no longer all that important. The ‘timor mortis’ is a poetic – and, as I am trying to say, cognitive – resource that speaks efficiently to a range of concerns.
prepare ourselves
In this stanza the first-person plural pronouns (we… ourselves… our… we) appear for more or less the first time (see ‘Our pleasance’, in the second stanza). This inclusive gesture offers to share the inevitability of death with every reader. In the end, though, the first personal singular is the final note. That repeating thought, an anchor for so much in the poem and beyond, remaining the same but different each time, always turns efficiently back to its most direct address.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

1 thought on “Refrains Again

  1. Florence

    Yes, it seems such a simple, direct poem, but the sameness of form and content is the point here – death comes to all, it’s as inevitable as the refrain repetition – and then, as you draw out, death comes home to me, the speaker, and those singled out in the stanzas. Death is common, but particular, too.

    Saying something again, but meaning something different every time reminded me of the introduction to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit which intriguingly figures as mathematical equation, and a dynamic one as well…

    Oranges is an experimental novel: its interests are anti-linear. It offers a complicated narrative structure disguised as a simple one […]. This means that you can read in spirals. As a shape, the spiral is fluid and allows infinite movement. But is it movement backwards or forwards? Is it height or depth? Draw several, each drifting into each […]. I really don’t see the point of reading in straight lines. We don’t think like that and we don’t live like that. Our mental processes are closer to a maze than a motorway, every turning yields another turning, not symmetrical, but obvious. Not chaos either. A sophisticated mathematical equation made harder to unravel because X and Y have different values on different days.’


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