‘Done is a Battell on the Dragon Blak’ by William Dunbar is a medieval poem celebrating Christ’s resurrection as a sign of victory over Satan. A Scottish poem written in the 16th century, it’s noteworthy for its rapturous opening, religious theme, and diction (a mix of Old Scottish English—also called Middle Scots—and Latin). It is one of the earliest Easter poems alternatively titled, “Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.”
Explore Done is a Battell on the Dragon Blak
‘Done is a Battell on the Dragon Blak’ by William Dunbar is one of the earliest poems on Christ’s death, resurrection, and their meaning for the saints.
‘Done is a Battell on the Dragon Blak’ starts strong by telling of a battle Christ has already won against “the black dragon” who is Lucifer. The poet persona lets readers know it’s a battle to free the saints from captivity. The poem foreshadows the saints’ freedom—through Christ’s resurrection—with the Latin refrain, “Surrexit dominus de sepulchro,” meaning, “The Lord is risen from the grave.”
As the poem progresses, the speaker elaborates on the battle Christ fought for the saints. They call Lucifer different names throughout the poem—tiger, serpent, etc. Also Christ—lamb, giant, etc. The persona tells readers Christ fought for the people on Earth through His crucifixion and death. Moreover, they narrate Christ’s resurrection afterward as a sign of triumph. The poet persona relates this triumph to the introduction of light and the arrival of the day.
At the poem’s conclusion, the speaker tells readers the implication of Christ’s victory for the saints: deliverance, peace, and a re-established faith.
You can read the full poem here, alongside its modern translation.
‘Done is a Battell on the Dragon Blak’ comprises five stanzas of eight lines each. The poem follows the regular rhyme scheme ABABBCBC DEDEECEC FGFGGCGC GHGHHCHC IJIJJCJC and features a metrical pattern close to that of an iambic pentameter. This means readers may find the occasional line having more than ten syllables and a different stress pattern. However, more lines in Dunbar’s poem comprise ten syllables, with one stressed syllable following an unstressed.
In addition, the poem features a refrain, “Surrexit dominus de sepulchro,” as the last line of each stanza. Dunbar uses punctuations throughout the poem to indicate pauses. Though enjambment is not as prevalent as punctuations in this fast-paced poem, the literary device is just as present.
- Allusion: This is a dominant device in ‘Done is a Battell on the Dragon Blak’. The entire poem is an allusion to the biblical crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Throughout the poem, the speaker makes religious references: naming Satan “dragon” from the Book of Revelations, “serpent” from Genesis, and “tiger” from Job and 1 Peter (though Satan is more accurately called a “lion” in both books). The persona calls Christ a lion and a lamb, which are also references from the Bible. The poem adds some mythical allusions too, calling Jesus Aurora and Appollo. Aurora in Greco-Roman mythology is the goddess of Dawn. Appollo is the god of sunlight. In addition, the mention of Jews (Iowis) and Christians in the poem refer to the recorded dispute between Jesus, His followers, and the Jews.
- Metaphor: Some allusions in Dunbar’s poem doubly serve as metaphors e.g. the mention of Satan as a black dragon in stanza 2. Another example of metaphor appears in stanza 5 line 7, where “treasures” refers to the saints. This metaphor shows how Christ sees His people.
- Imagery: This literary device is a by-product of allusion. Courtesy of constant references to the Bible—specifically the New Testament gospels and the book of Revelations—readers get a clear image of Christ’s crucifixion, battle, and resurrection. Imagery weighs heavily on the poem.
- Inversion: Inversion is another dominant device in ‘Done is a Battell on the Dragon Blak’. Dunbar substitutes the normal word order of subject-verb-predicate for either verb-subject-predicate, predicate-verb-subject, or subject-predicate-verb. Readers see this throughout the poem. A few examples appear in the first lines of stanzas 1, 2, and 3.
- Alliteration: Alliteration was—and still is—an integral part of Scottish and English poetry. In this poem, this figure of speech appears in stanza 1 lines 1 and 2 to serve as a memorable beginning. It also appears in stanza 2 lines 1 and 7, stanza 3 lines 1, 2, 3, and 6, and the second lines of stanzas 4 and 5. Even the poem’s refrain is an example of plosive alliteration.
- Assonance: Assonance appears in stanza 1 lines 1 and 6, stanza 2 line 6, and stanza 3 line 6, all with the repetition of the “o” sound.
- Synaesthesia: This figure of speech appears in stanza 1 line 5, where the persona describes the “voice” (voce) of devils as “hideous.”
- Synecdoche: This appears in stanza 1 line 6. “Saulis” is a synecdoche for the saints, people who believe in Christ.
- Anaphora: Anaphora appears in stanza 1 (lines 3-6), stanza 2 (lines 2-3), stanza 4 (lines 5-7), and stanza 5 (lines 1-6), with all lines beginning with the word, “The.”
- Simile: Simile appears in stanza 3 lines 2-4, where the speaker likens Christ to a lamb, a lion, and a giant.
Done is a battell on the dragon blak,
Our campioun Chryst confoundit hes his force,
The yettis of hell ar brokin with a crak,
The signe trivmphall rasit is of the croce.
The diuillis trymmillis with hiddous voce,
The saulis ar borrowit and to the blis can go.
Chryst with his blud our ransonis dois indoce:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.
‘Done Is A Battell On The Dragon Blak’ begins with captivating lines. Stanza one summarizes the entire poem by touching on the battle between Jesus Christ and Satan, the defeat of Satan, the rescue of the saints, and Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The speaker mentions the cross as the sign of Christ’s victory. This differs from the portrayal of the cross in the Christian world, which signifies suffering. Nevertheless, both portrayals clarify the meaning of line 7. They tell readers that through Christ’s suffering on the cross, He attained victory.
Also, the power balance in this stanza is evident. In the mentioned battle, only one Christ fights a black dragon and other “devils.” Yet, the persona notes that Christ overpowers all of them. He also breaks their gates (yettis) easily—“with a crak.” With these lines, the speaker depicts Christ as the stronger opponent. His weapon of war—His blood—refers to the Old Covenant in the Bible which demanded blood as a payment for ransom. In this case, it’s payment to free God’s people from “the enemy.” The speaker tells readers the result of this payment in line 6, which means in modern English, “The souls are reclaimed and can go to bliss.” Bliss means “away from suffering,” and the souls are God’s people—the saints. Furthermore, we glimpse the Latin refrain, “Surrexit dominus de sepulchro,” meaning, “The Lord is risen from the grave.”
Dungin is the deidly dragon Lucifer,
The crewall serpent with the mortall stang,
The auld kene tegir, with his teith on char,
Quhilk in a wait hes lyne for ws so lang,
Thinking to grip ws in his clowis strang.
The mercifull lord wald nocht that it wer so.
He maid him for to felye of that fang:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.
This stanza focuses on the person of Lucifer, his plans for God’s people, and the failure of his plan. Here, the speaker notes that the black dragon from stanza one is Lucifer, before ascribing other names to him. The name “dragon” comes from the book of Revelations. The “crewall serpent”—cruel serpent—refers to Satan’s possession of a snake in the book of Genesis to cause the fall of man. Although Lucifer is more accurately called “lion” in these books, the “auld kene tegir”—the old keen tiger—is from Job and 1 Peter. The persona probably names Lucifer a tiger instead to distinguish between Satan and Christ, who they also call a lion. By describing Lucifer with such names, the speaker acknowledges Christ’s enemy is strong and cunning.
Furthermore, poet persona reveals another side to Christ. While the first stanza tells of Christ’s strength, this second stanza shows Christ’s compassion towards the saints. This trait manifests in line 7, which means, in modern English, “He (Christ) made him (Lucifer) fail to catch his prey.” “Prey” here refers to the saints, showing their powerlessness in the hands of Satan. Depicting Christ as a defender of the powerless emphasizes the character of Christ as compassionate. As opposed to the world’s system, which has commoners defending their lords and nobles, the speaker tells of Christ as Lord rescuing his weak saints. To do such requires not only strength, but also compassion for the said “prey.”
He for our saik that sufferit to be slane
And lyk a lamb in sacrifice wes dicht,
Is lyk a lyone rissin vp agane
And as a gyane raxit him on hicht.
Sprungin is Aurora, radius and bricht,
On loft is gone the glorius Appollo,
The blisfull day departit fro the nycht:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.
Stanza three complements stanza two by discussing the person of Christ, His sacrifice for the saints, and the victory born from such sacrifice. Here, the speaker calls Christ a lamb, referring to one of His more popular names in the Bible. The name “lamb” reveals yet another quality of Christ: meekness. This trait marks the primary reason for the comparison in line 2. It tells readers that because Christ was meek, like a lamb, He didn’t resist death.
With Christ’s resurrection, however, the poet persona refers to Him as a lion. The full name ascribed to Christ in several books of the Bible is Lion of the Tribe of Judah. This stanza shows that Christ’s “strength” in battle came from His willingness to die. It’s the same way we humans gauge a person’s strength of character by their ability to withstand hard times. Stanza three also shows that by overcoming death, Christ won the battle.
The poet persona adds a mythical element to the poem by mentioning the Greco-Roman god and goddess—Appollo and Aurora. Appollo is the god of sunlight; Aurora is the goddess of dawn. These two names are symbolic of Christ’s victory because they represent light and everything good light brings—vision, relief, activity, etc. Readers also recognize terms alluding to the resurrection: “rissin up agane” and “raxit up agane.” The speaker talks about the resurrection in the present tense to not only state the event is a fact, but also to register its eternal importance to the saints.
The grit victour agane is rissin on hicht,
That for our querrell to the deth wes woundit.
The sone that vox all paill now schynis bricht,
And, dirknes clerit, our fayth is now refoundit.
The knell of mercy fra the hevin is soundit,
The Cristin ar deliuerit of thair wo,
The Iowis and thair errour ar confoundit:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.
Stanza four is the most allusory of the five. While naming more reasons the saints should rejoice over Christ’s victory, this stanza reiterates stanza three. Lines one to three portray universal themes of good versus evil and light versus darkness; lines four and five refer to the biblical ushering of the saints into a New Covenant of grace and forgiveness of sins. Line four, in particular, is a cause for celebration. It tells readers the origin of the Christian “faith”: belief in Christ’s resurrection.
The speaker also tells of the Jews in the Bible who crucified Jesus for alleged blasphemy. Their confusion is at the gospel message that Christ resurrected because they killed Him, not expecting He’d rise. At this point, the speaker narrates completely in the present tense, underscoring the eternal relevance of Christ’s victory.
The fo is chasit, the battell is done ceis,
The presone brokin, the ievellouris fleit and flemit,
The weir is gon, confermit is the peis,
The fetteris lowsit and the dungeoun temit,
The ransoun maid, the presoneris redemit,
The feild is win, ourcumin is the fo,
Dispulit of the tresur that he yemit:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.
In this stanza, the speaker paints the clearest picture of captivity and freedom. With the “fo” as Satan, “ievellouris”—jailors—as the “devils” from stanza one, and the “presoneris” as the saints, the persona describes captivity as literally being under lock and key. At the same time, the persona describes freedom by telling of those locks being broken (line 4) and the jailors running away (line 2). In line 7, the same “presoneris” are called a “treasure,” showing the lens through which Christ—not Satan—sees the saints.
This stanza is notably the most fast-paced, indicating a rise in the speaker’s excitement. Their excitement stems from the outcome of the battle, which this final stanza details. The poem’s refrain serves as a memorable close to ‘Done is a Battell on the Dragon Blak’. It is intentionally placed at the end of each stanza to emphasize the overarching theme of resurrection.
Though ‘Done is a Battell on the Dragon Blak’ is a religious poem, it also has its historical context. Firstly, the structure of ‘Done is a Battell on the Dragon Blak’ wasn’t uncommon for Scottish religious poems of the fifteenth century. In fact, an indicator for Scottish religious poems of those days was their rhyming pattern, which Dunbar uses.
The language of the poem, Middle Scots mixed with Latin, reveals much about Dunbar’s writing style and William Dunbar himself. In this period, Middle Scots writers wrote in Scottish English to distance themselves from the Highlanders who spoke Gaelic and practiced the Gaelic tradition. These writers, who hailed from the Lowlands, considered the Highlanders barbaric. From the poem, readers can tell William Dunbar was one of such writers.
The use of Latin in ‘Done is a Battell on the Dragon Blak’ confirms Dunbar’s position as a court priest and makar as well. In fifteenth-century Scotland, makars—poets serving the monarchy—usually mixed Latin with their writings so they appeared more sophisticated and formal. Besides that, Latin was—and still is in some parts of the world—the official language of the Christian faith. As a priest serving in court, it most likely came naturally to include Latin in this religious poem. Much about Dunbar’s life is fairly unknown. However, through poems like this, scholars have gotten to uncover and confirm certain details of his life.
About William Dunbar
William Dunbar was a Scottish makar who served under King James IV. He was born in 1460 and attended the University of Saint Andrews in Saint Andrews, Scotland, graduating with a master of arts degree in 1479. The next time Dunbar appears in historical records, after some voyages in 1492, is during his time at court. He served as a priest and poet from 1500 to 1513. Using his poems, scholars speculate about Dunbar’s activities between 1479 and 1492 up until 1500. However, there is little proof for their guesses. No one in the modern world can guess the exact date Dunbar died. Nonetheless, in The Testament of the Papyngo (1530), Sir David Lindsay notes this great poet as dead. Not much is known about Dunbar’s family life either.
Sir William Dunbar is recognized for his variety in poetry. He wrote on different subject matters with diverse forms, styles, and tones. He wrote parodies with obscenities, short love poems, long celebratory poems with elevated language, and of course, devotional poems.
It’s unclear when exactly Dunbar wrote this poem. However, because of its formal style, scholars conclude it was most likely written during Dunbar’s time at court. It is also uncertain if this poem was officially published in his time. Nevertheless, Done is a Battell… first appeared in George Bannatyne’s Bannatyne Manuscript (1568).
The speaker, though unnamed, is a firm believer in the resurrection of Christ; a devout Christian of Scottish origins. Using his priesthood and the poem’s first-person point of view, some argue that the speaker is Dunbar himself.
The poem’s refrain reveals the central theme: Christ’s resurrection. Other themes like Christ’s crucifixion, salvation, war, and victory are taken from the resurrection, and all come under the theme of spirituality.
If you enjoyed reading ‘Done is a Battell on the Dragon Blak’, you would love these poems as well:
- ‘Sonnet 68‘ by Edmund Spenser: a poem about Christ’s undying love.
- ‘Hope holds to Christ‘ by Gerard Manley Hopkins: a poem personifying the idea of hope and relating ‘her’ to Christ.
- ‘Pied Beauty‘ by Gerard Manley Hopkins: a pseudo-Scottish Curtal sonnet describing the beauty of God’s creation.