The Greeks called him “a poet,” which name has, as the most excellent, gone through other languages. It comes of this word poiein, which is “to make”; wherein I know not whether by luck or wisdom we Englishmen have met with the Greeks in calling him “a maker.” Which name how high and incomparable a title it is, I had rather were known by marking the scope of other sciences than by any partial allegation (Sidney Defence of Poesie).
Sidney is absolutely correct when he notes that the English word poet derives from the Greek poiein, to create. Our modern English poet comes to us via Middle English, from Old French poete, from Latin poēta, from Greek poiētēs, “maker, composer,” which derives from Greek poiein, “to create.”
Sidney is also correct about English poets in earlier eras being called “makers.” It’s a particularly common way to refer to poets in Middle Scots, as you’ll see in William Dunbar’s (1465–1520?) “Lament for the Makers.”
Dubar’s poem is a litany of dead poets, “makers,” or as Dunbar’s Middle Scots would have it, makaris, all taken by Death:
He has done petuously devour
The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour,
The Monk of Bury, and Gower, all three:—
Timor Mortis conturbat me (Dunbar “Lament for the Makers,” ll. 49–52).
Englished that would be:
He has piteously devoured
The noble Chaucer, the flower of makers,
The monk of Bury, and Gower, all three:—
Fear of death torments me.
“Timor Mortis conturbat me” is Latin for “the fear of death torments me”; Dunbar’s poem lamenting the dead makers is an example of the poetic genre known as memento mori; Dubar fears that his own death is approaching, that he will be “devoured” much as Chaucer, Lydgate (the monk of Bury) and Gower were.
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