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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: November 2019

5 - Decencies, Disenchantments and Diversity


Despite Dunn's characterization of the 1990s as ‘this lowered epoch’, the decade got off to a happy and productive start for him personally. In 1990, his daughter Lillias was born and he received a Cholmondeley Award; and in 1991 he was appointed Professor of English Literature at the University of St. Andrews. The opening years of the decade also saw the publication of Poll Tax: The Fiscal Fake and of his translation, in rhyming couplets, of Racine's Andromache which was originally commissioned for a BBC Radio 3 production. He was also busy as an editor: The Essential Browning, Scotland: An Anthology and The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Scottish Poetry all appeared between 1990 and 1992.

We have already noted Dunn's equation of poetry with national identity in his Introduction to the Faber book. Similar questions – whether Scotland is a nation or the Nothing identified by Edwin Muir, how a regenerate nation can come from Nothing – dominate a significant proportion of his 1993 collection Dante's Drum-kit. However, the most immediately striking thing about the book is its zesty productivity. At 129 pages, it is his most substantial collection. It comprises five sections and several lengthy sequences including ‘Disenchantments’ which meditates on the after-life and literary posterity; and ‘Dressed to Kill ‘ which was originally commissioned for the BBC2 television series Words on Film. The first section of the book finds Dunn in expansive comic mode. ‘Academy's Runners’ (DDK, 3–5); ‘Turn Over a New Leaf’ (DDK, 6–7), a swipe at millennial anxieties; a review in verse of Henry Petroski's The Pencil: A History (DDK, 9–10); and ‘Kabla Khun’ (DDK, 11–15) – in which Coleridge attempts to get his revenge on The Person from Porlock – use either couplets or ABAB rhyming stanzas and many use long, anapaestic lines of 12–14 syllables. All are examples of what W. N. Herbert has identified as ‘the destabilising element’ in Dunn's comedy that relies on a marriage of formalism and surrealism (RDD, 133). Dunn may sometimes cross over into William McGonagall territory but it ‘s clear he's enjoying himself. The group includes ‘Libraries. A Celebration’ (DDK, 18-20) which contains an incisive vignette of

my old boss, Philip Larkin, holding a book

Written in Indonesian, published in Djarkata,

As if it were a toad that spoke back to him, saying,

‘Isn't it wonderful? That someone understands this?