Little enough is known about Robert Henryson, ‘a schoolmaster of Dunfermline’ and master poet in the Scots language: born perhaps in the 1420s, he was dead by 1505, the year his younger contemporary William Dunbar mourned his passing in ‘Lament for the Makars’. In a couplet where the rhyme tolls very sweetly and solemnly, Dunbar says that death ‘In Dunfermelyne . . . has done roun [whispered]/ To Maister Robert Henrisoun’, although here the title ‘Maister’ has more to do with the deceased man’s status as a university graduate than with his profession as a teacher or his reputation as the author of three major narrative poems – The Testament of Cresseid, The Moral Fables and Orpheus and Eurydice – as well as a number of shorter lyrics including the incomparable (and probably untranslatable) ‘Robyn and Makene’.
The honori.c title is an early indication that Henryson was a learned poet, even though his learning, according to one distinguished editor, would have been considered very old-fashioned by the standards of contemporary Continental humanism. ‘In so far as the terms have any meaning,’ Denton Fox writes in his 1987 edition of The Poems, ‘Henryson belongs . rmly to the Middle Ages, not to the Renaissance.’ Yet he belongs also in the eternal present of the perfectly pitched, a poet whose knowledge of life is matched by the range of his art, whose constant awareness of the world’s hardness and injustice is mitigated by his irony, tenderheartedness, and ever-ready sense of humour.
Most important of all, however, is Henryson’s ‘sound of sense’, the way his voice is (as he might have put it) ‘mingit’ with the verse forms, the way it can modulate from insinuation to instruction, from high-toned earnestness to wily familiarity – and it was this sensation of intimacy with a speaker at once sober and playful that inspired me to begin putting the not very dif.cult Scots language of his originals into rhymed stanzas of more immediately accessible English.
But why begin at all, the reader may ask, since the Scots is not, in fact, so opaque? Anybody determined to have a go at it can turn to Denton Fox’s edition or to the Henryson section of Douglas Gray’s conveniently annotated Selected Poems of Robert Henryson and William Dunbar. Reading his work in this way may be a slow process – eyes to-ing and fro-ing between text and glossary, getting used to the unfamiliar orthography, ears testing out and taking in the measure of the metre – but it is still a ful. lling experience. And yet people who are neither students nor practising poets are unlikely to make such a deliberate effort.
I began to make the versions of Henryson included in this book because of a combination of the three motives for translation identi.ed by the poet and translator Eliot Weinberger. First and foremost, advocacy for the work in question, for unless this poetry is brought out of the university syllabus and on to the shelves ‘a great prince in prison lies’. But Weinberger’s other two motives were equally operative: refreshment from a different speech and culture, and the pleasures of ‘writing by proxy’.
Re-reading Henryson some forty years after I had . rst encountered him as an undergraduate, I experienced what John Dryden called (in his preface to Fables, Ancient and Modern) a ‘transfusion’, and the fact that Dryden used the term in relation to his modernisation of Chaucer made it all the more applicable to my own case: what I was involved in, after all, was the modernisation of work by one of a group of Scottish poets who shared Dryden’s high regard for the genius of ‘The noble Chaucer, of makers . ower’, and who brought about a signi. cant .owering in the literary life of Scotland during the .fteenth and early sixteenth centuries.
None of them, however, showed a greater degree of admiration for their English forebear or was more in.uenced by his achievement than Robert Henryson. Not only did he write The Testament of Cresseid, in which he explicitly acknowledges his indebtedness to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, but in The Testament, Orpheus and Eurydice and the fables, he employs the rhyme royal stanza, the form established by the English poet for work of high seriousness, although it must be said that Henryson made it a .t vehicle for much homelier modes and matter.
Chaucer’s Troilus deals with that Trojan protagonist’s love for Cressida (as Shakespeare names her in his dramatisation of the story) and with Cressida’s subsequent betrayal of Troilus when she abandons him and goes off with the Greek hero Diomede. Henryson takes all this as read but refers to another source which carries the story further, to the point where his Cresseid (stress on second syllable) is abandoned in her turn by Diomede. After an introduction of several attractively con. dential stanzas which present the poet as an ageing man in a wintry season, no longer as erotically susceptible as he would wish, we are quickly in medias res, in the Greek camp with the cast-off heroine who now goes about ‘available’ to the rank and .le ‘like any common pick-up’.
Subsequently she manages to return home to her father Calchas, where she begins to recuperate in isolation, but then – disastrously – she rebukes Cupid and Venus, the god and goddess of love, blaming her comedown on them:
O false Cupid, none is to blame but you,
You and your mother who is love’s blind goddess.
You gave me to believe and I trusted you,
That the seed of love was sown in my face –
and so on. And then, in a manner of speaking, all heaven breaks loose. A convocation of the planets occurs and the poet starts upon a long set-piece of characterisation and description as he introduces the gods who are the geniuses of the different planets, a passage which allows him to demonstrate rather splendidly his store of classical and medieval learning.
This interlude may hold up the action, much as a masque will in a Shakespearean play, or an Olympian scene in classical epic, but it is still thoroughly of its time – a pageant, a sequence of tableaux, reminiscent of those that rolled their way through medieval York and Chester at Easter, showing how the inhabitants of the Christian heaven were also crucially involved in the affairs of mortals on earth – not least those who, like Cresseid, had incurred the divine wrath.
Immediately then, as a result of the gods’ judgement, Cresseid is stricken with leprosy and doomed to spend the rest of her life as a beggar in a leper colony, a fate which allows for another great set-piece, her lament for the way of life and the beauty she has lost; yet it is also a fate which will bring her in the painful end to an encounter with her former lover Troilus, as he returns in triumph from a victory over ‘the Grecian knights’. This is one of the most famous and affecting scenes in literature, a recognition scene (as Douglas Gray observes) all the more powerful for containing no recognition:
Than upon him scho kest up baith hir ene –
And with ane blenk it come into his thocht
That he sumtime hir face befoir had sene.
Bot scho was in sic plye he knew hir nocht;
Yit than hir luik into his mynd had brocht
The sweit visage and amorous blenking
Of fair Cresseid, sumtyme his awin darling.
Upon him then she cast up both her eyes And at a glance it came into his thought That he some time before had seen her face But she was in such state he knew her not; Yet still into his mind her look had brought The features and the amorous sweet glancing Of fair Cresseid, one time his own, his darling.
Swiftly then the tale concludes. Troilus is overcome by an involuntary .t of trembling and showers alms of gold into Cresseid’s lap, then rides away, leaving her to discover his identity from the lepers. After which she utters another love lament, then takes pen and paper to compose her testament, bequeathing her ‘royall ring set with this rubie reid’ to Troilus, and having settled all earthly affairs, expires in grief.
Some said he made a tomb of marble grey
And wrote her name on it and an inscription
In golden letters, above where she lay
Inside her grave. These were the words set down:
‘Lo, fair ladies, Cresseid of Troy town,
Accounted once the .ower of womanhood,
Of late a leper, under this stone lies dead.’
It is customary to contrast Henryson’s grave handling of this tale with Chaucer’s rather more beguiling treatment. Both strike a wholly mature note, but the Scottish poet’s is more richly freighted with an ‘ample power/ To chasten and subdue’. Weight of judgement, a tenderness that isn’t clammy, a dry-eyed sympathy – these are the Henryson hallmarks, attributes of a moral understanding reluctant to moralise, yet one that is naturally and unfalteringly instructive. Henryson is a narrative poet whom you read not only for the story but for the melody of understanding in the storytelling voice. If Hugh MacDiarmid had been asked half a millennium later what be meant by saying that the kind of poetry he wanted was ‘the poetry of a grown man’, he could have pointed straight to The Testament.
This was also the poetry of a man whose imaginative sympathy prevailed over the stock responses of his time. To his contemporaries, Henryson’s entitlement as a poet would have depended to a considerable extent on his intellectual attainments, his education in astronomy and astrology, in matters legal and literary, but from our point of view he proves himself more by his singular compassion for the character of Cresseid. Available to him all along was the rhetoric of condemnation, the trope of woman as the daughter of Eve, temptress, snare, Jezebel. But Henryson eschews this pulpit-speak:
And yet whatever men may think or say Contemptuously about your quick compliance I will excuse to what extent I may Your womanhood, wisdom and loveliness Which the whim of fortune put to such distress.
There is a unique steadiness about the movement of Henryson’s stanzas, a .ne and de.nite modulation between the colloquial and the graver, more considered elements of his style. If his rhetoric is elevated, his sounding line neverthless goes deep:
Ane doolie sessoun to ane cairfull dyte
Suld correspond and be equivalent:
Richt sa it was quhen I began to wryte
Here the phonetic make-up contributes strongly if stealthily to the emotional power of the declaration. The ‘oo’ in ‘doolie’ makes the doleful meaning of the word even more doleful, and the gloom of it is just that little bit gloomier when the ‘oo’ sound gets repeated in ‘sessoun’; and then comes that succession of reluctant, braking Scottish ‘r’s in ‘cairfull’ and ‘correspond’ and (especially) ‘tragedie’. Foreboding about the grievous story he has to tell is already present in the undermusic of what purports to be a mere throat-clearing exercise by a professional. And if my own sense-clearing could not hope to capture fully that tolling tragic note, it could at least echo the metre and approximate the rhyme:
A gloomy time, a poem full of hurt
Should correspond and be equivalent.
Just so it was when I began my work
On this retelling . . .
What had actually started me ‘on this retelling’ was the chance sighting of a Henryson text in a British Library exhibition called Chapter and Verse. This included an early illustrated manuscript of his ‘moral fable’, ‘The Cock and the Jasp’, and I was so taken by the jaunty, canty note of its opening lines that I felt an urge to get it into my own words. I was further encouraged in this because, a little while earlier, after I had given a reading of my Beowulf translation in the Lincoln Center in New York, the director had suggested that I should translate some other narrative that could be performed by an actor. Very soon afterwards, therefore, I began to do ‘The Cock and the Jasp’ into English stanzas, and even thought of preparing a Henryson selection to be called Four Fables and a Testament. So, working on the principle that the bigger job should be tackled .rst, I immediately faced into the ‘tragedie’.
I enjoyed the work because Henryson’s language led me back into what might be called ‘the hidden Scotland’ at the back of my own ear. The speech I grew up with in mid-Ulster carried more than a trace of Scottish vocabulary and as a youngster I was familiar with Ulster Scots idioms and pronunciations across the River Bann in County Antrim. I was therefore entirely at home with Henryson’s ‘sound of sense’, so much in tune with his note and his pace and his pitch that I developed a strong inclination to hum along with him. Hence the decision to translate the poems with rhyme and metre, to match as far as possible the rhetoric and the roguery of the originals, and in general ‘keep the accent’.
After I read the full collection of thirteen fables, however, I realised that to present only four of them would be to sell Henryson short. The collection contains some of his .ercest allegories of human existence – ‘The Preaching of the Swallow’ and ‘The Toad and the Mouse’ – as well as some of his gentlest presentations of decency in civic and domestic life – ‘The Two Mice’, ‘The Lion and the Mouse’; but in all of these, as well as in ‘The Fox, the Wolf and the Carter’ and ‘The Fox, the Wolf and the Farmer’, there is also satire and social realism – even if the society involved is that of wild animals.
Much can be said about the sources of these tales and about the overall structure of the collection, but here it will suf.ce to note that while Aesop is credited throughout as the original author, the fables derive from and greatly expand on later compendia and textbooks, in particular one by Gualterus Anglicus (Walter the Englishman) and another one, the Roman de Renart, a well-known anthology of fox tales. Equally important, however, is the fact that these tales of tricky and innocent beasts and birds were part of the common oral culture of Europe, a store of folk wisdom as pervasive and unifying at vernacular level as the doctines and visions of Christianity were in the higher realms of scholastic culture.
Not that Henryson was indifferent to those higher registers of thought and discourse. The structure of his understanding was determined by the medieval world picture of human life situated on a plane between animal and angel, human beings a dual compound of soul and body, caught between heavenly aspiring intellect and down-dragging carnal appetite. If he was a schoolteacher, he was also a school man. If he was professionally aware of the classics, he was equally and perhaps even anxiously aware of the confessional.
In fact, much of the charm and strength of the fables comes from the way Henryson’s hospitable imagination seems to enjoy open access to both the educated lingua franca and the subcultural codes of his late medieval world. Sometimes this adds a touch of sophisticated comedy, as when the mouse (in the . nal fable) launches into an argument based on the principles of physiognomy; sometimes it adds pathos, as when the swallow preaches the virtue of prudence to the doomed, ineducable little birds; sometimes it adds a touch of donnish humour, as when the wolf unexpectedly adduces his knowledge of contract law to claim owership of the oxen in ‘The Fox, the Wolf and the Farmer’.
More importantly, this easy passage between the oral and learned culture, between the rhetoric of the clerks and the rascality of the beasts, establishes his world as a credible hierarchical place of social order and seasonal cycles, a world where custom and ceremony can never rule out criminality and deception or a judicious style occlude actual injustice. The stylistic reward for this inclusive vision is felt, moreover, in the nice modulation that occurs between the storytelling voice of the fable proper and the didactic voice of the ‘Moralitas’: if the latter is often much less con.ding, more button-lipped and tendentious, this is no more than a dramatic rendering of the overall double perspective, of an intelligence stretched between the homely and the homiletic.
The genre demanded the application of a formal ‘moralitas’ yet the requirement also suited something strict and disciplined in Henryson’s temperament, so there is integrity in the procedure rather than a mere tagging on of sententiae. But the richest moments in the fables are those when the natural world or the human predicament calls forth Henryson’s rapture or his realism, whether it be in the dream vision of his meeting with Aesop at the beginning of ‘The Lion and the Mouse’ or the description of the changing seasons in ‘The Preaching of the Swallow’ or the verve and villainy of the fox in dialogue with the wolf prior to their duping of the carter:
‘Still,’ said the wolf, ‘by banks and braes you wend
And slink along and steal up on your prey.’
‘Sir,’ said the fox, ‘you know how these things end.
They catch my scent down wind from far away
And scatter fast and leave me in dismay.
They could be lying sleeping in a . eld
But once I’m close they’re off. It puts me wild.’
Beasts they may be, but through their agency Henryson creates a work which answers MacDiarmid’s big challenging de. nition of poetry as ‘human existence come to life’.
Excerpted from The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables by Seamus Heaney.
Copyright © 2009 by Seamus Heaney.
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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