His name appears in 1477 in the Register of the Faculty of Arts at St Andrews, among the Determinants or Bachelors of Arts, and in 1479 among the masters of the university. Thereafter he joined the order of Observantine Franciscans, at St Andrews or Edinburgh, and proceeded to France as a wandering friar. He spent a few years in Picardy, and was still abroad when, in 1491, Bothwell's mission to secure a bride for the young James IV reached the French court. There is no direct evidence that he accompanied Blackadder, archbishop of Glasgow, on a similar embassy to Spain in 1495. On the other hand, we know that he proceeded with that prelate to England on his more successful mission in 1501.
Dunbar had meanwhile (about 1500) returned to Scotland, and had become a priest at court, and a royal pensioner. His literary life begins with his attachment to James's household. All that is known. of him from this date to his death about 1520 is derived from the poems or from entries in the royal registers of payments of pension and grants of livery. He is spoken of as the Rhymer of Scotland in the accounts of the English privy council dealing with the visit of the mission for the hand of Margaret Tudor, rather because he wrote a poem in praise of London, than because, as has been stated, he held the post of laureate at the Scottish court. In 1511 he accompanied the queen to Aberdeen and commemorated her visit in verse. Other pieces such as the Orisoun ("Quhen. the Gouernour past in France"), apropos of the setting out of the regent Albany, are of historical interest, but they tell us little more than. that Dunbar was alive. The date of his death is uncertain. He is named in Lyndsay's Testament and Complaynt of the Papyngo (1530) with poets then dead, and the reference precedes that to Douglas who had died in 1522. He certainly survived his royal patron. We may not be far out in saying that he died about 1520.
Dunbar's reputation among his immediate successors was considerable. By later criticism, stimulated in some measure by Scott's eulogy that he is "unrivalled by any which Scotland has produced," he has held the highest place among the northern makars. The praise, though it has been at times exaggerated, is on the whole just, certainly in respect of variety of work and mastery of form. He belongs, with James I, Henryson and Douglas, to the Scots Chaucerian school. In his allegorical poems reminiscences of the master's style and literary habit are most frequent. Yet, even there, his discipleship shows certain limitations. His wilder humour and greater heat of blood give him opportunities in which the Chaucerian tradition is not helpful, or even possible. His restlessness leads us at times to a comparison with Skelton, not in respect of any parallelism of idea or literary craftsmanship, but in his experimental zeal in turning the diction and tuning the rhythms of the chaotic English which only Chaucer's genius had reduced to order. The comparison must not, however, be pushed too far. Skelton's work carries with it the interest of attempt and failure. Dunbar's command of the medium was more certain. So that while we admire the variety of his work, we also admire the competence of his effort.
One hundred and one poems have been ascribed to Dunbar. Of these at least ninety are generally accepted as his: of the eleven attributed to him it would be hard to say that they should not be considered authentic. Most doubt has clung to his verse tale The Freiris of Berwik.
Dunbar's chief allegorical poems are The Goldyn Targe and The Thrissil and the Rois. The motif of the former is the poet's futile endeavour, in a dream, fo ward off the arrows of Dame Beautee by Reason's "scheld of gold." When wounded and made prisoner, he discovers the true beauty of the lady: when she leaves him, he is handed over to Heaviness. The noise of the ship's guns, as the company sails off, wakes the poet to the real pleasures of a May morning. Dunbar works on the same theme in a shorter poem, known as Beauty and the Prisoner. The Thrissil and the Rois is a prothalamium in honour of James IV and Margaret Tudor, in which the heraldic allegory is based on the familiar beast-parliament.
The greater part of Dunbar's work is occasional--personal and social satire, complaints (in the style familiar in the minor verse of Chaucer's English successors), orisons and pieces of a humorous character. The last type shows Dunbar at his best, and points the difference between him and Chaucer. The best specimen of this work, of which the outstanding characteristics are sheer whimsicality and topsy-turvy humour, is The Ballad of Kynd Kittok. This strain runs throughout many of the occasional poems, and is not wanting in odd passages in Dunbar's contemporaries; and it has the additional interest of showing a direct historical relationship with the work of later Scottish poets, and chiefly with that of Robert Burns. Dunbar's satire is never the gentle funning of Chaucer: more often it becomes invective. Examples of this type are The Satire on Edinburgh, The General Satire, the Epitaph on Donald Owre, and the powerful vision of The Dance of the Sevin Deidlie Synnis. In the Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie, an outstanding specimen of a favourite northern form, analogous to the continental estrif, or tenzone, he and his rival reach a height of scurrility which is certainly without parallel in English literature. This poem has the additional interest of showing the racial antipathy between the "Inglis" speaking inhabitants of the Lothians and the "Scots" or Gaelic-speaking folk of the west country.