Robert Henryson’s poems are unforgettable, but little is known for sure about their creator’s birth and life. We know that he died sometime before 1508 because William Dunbar mentions him in his great poem ‘Lament for the Makars’ around that year. His name appears on the University rolls of Glasgow in 1462 and later references to him as ‘Master’ confirm that he was a graduate who trained in the law. He may have travelled in Europe, and an edition of his Morall Fabillis from 1571 refers to him as a schoolmaster in Dunfermline where he was associated with the Benedictine Abbey school, and indeed we know that he notarised a number of legal transactions while he was there. The Abbey at Dunfermline was one of the wealthiest and most prestigious foundations in Scotland. Henryson was a man of status and can claim to be one of the greatest medieval poets of the period, perhaps second only to Chaucer, whom he called the ‘flower of poets’.
Henryson’s poetry shows a sweet Catholic sensibility, full of humanity and charity, but capable, too, of a certain grim understatement that would come to be associated with Scottish habits of mind. His European influences include the beast fables of Aesop, which are the inspiration behind his own Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian that most likely date from the 1460s. These marvellous poems in rime royal give a recognisably Scottish setting (and a Scottish climate) to the tales of the town mouse and the country mouse, the cock and the jewel, the lion and the mouse and ten other creatures, all recounted with humour and delight, and each concluded by a philosophical moral that turns the tale to higher things. Thus the cock who passes over the jewel in the midden (‘The Cok and the Jasp’) because ‘houngrie men may not leve on lukis’, is taken to task for not recognising a symbol of knowledge and virtue and yet, at the same time, the poem also recognises the harsher realities of life for the common people in medieval Scotland. In the ‘Taill of the Lyoun and the Mous’ the nobility are commended for their compassion, but also reminded that they actually depend on the commons, for it is the humble mouse and her relatives who gnaw through the nets to set the lion free.
These slightly double-edged morals are characteristic of Henryson, and his poems can offer readings that are more complex and open-ended than any simpler conclusion would suggest. ‘The Preiching of the Swallow’ confirms Henryson’s modestly democratic spirit and his characteristic vision of how a good human life may be lived in harmony with God, the natural landscape and the beasts and birds of the field. The swallow warns the other birds that they have not taken heed of the coming winter, nor of the dangers of the fowler with his nets, and indeed when the season ends it is only the swallow who survives. The snares of error and evil are all around us and man, half way between the beasts and the angels, must learn prudence. Yet winter will always come, however prudent we may be, nor will the little birds ever listen.
Henryson’s retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice makes a similar point, for although Orpheus should renounce appetite in favour of control, we cannot, as fallen beings ourselves, deny the attraction of that fated love and its tragic outcome when we read the poem. Henryson produced many other verses on topics such as ‘The Ressoning betwixt Aige and Yowth’, and ‘The Garmont of Gud Ladeis’ which attaches a moral weight to each item of a woman’s dress, while ‘The Bludy Sark’ draws a Christian moral from a supernatural tale about a knight, a maiden and a giant that seems closer to the oral tradition. From the French pastoral genre, Henryson has fun with ‘Robyne and Makyne’, in which Robyne cares more for his sheep than for Makyne’s infatuation with him, only to change his mind, and then discover, too late, that she has since lost interest: ‘The man that will nocht quhen he may / Sall haif nocht when he wald.’
Along with the Morall Fabillis, Henryson’s masterpiece is another retelling with a moral purpose, namely the story of Troilus and Cressida from classical myth and the Trojan War. The Scot introduces The Testament of Cresseid, his longest poem in rime royal, as a sequel to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, and in fact the poem was printed along with Chaucer’s version in an edition of 1532. Henryson imagines himself finishing the English poem on a chilly night, reading by the fire with a drink to hand, before reaching down another book that tells what happened next, most especially as an account of Cresseid’s tragic end. From this beginning, lamenting his own thin blood, long past the fires of youthful passion, the narrator takes the tale in an entirely new direction, the final meaning of which is complex, elusive and unsettling.
Having thrown over Troilus for Diomede, Cresseid, now in the besieging Greek camp, is abandoned in her turn: ‘Quhen Diomeid had all his appetite / And mair fulfillit of this fair ladie, / Upon ane uther he set his haill delyte’. These lines, so grimly succinct, are characteristic of the poem’s mood – akin to the later Scots ballads, with their narrative speed, their concision and their prevailing fatalism. Cresseid is desolate and, cast into the street, where some say she became promiscuous or perhaps a prostitute, walking in ‘the court commoun’. The poem laments her fall from grace:
Yit nevertheless, quhatever men deme or say judge
In scornfull langage of thy brukkilness, frailty
I sall excuse, als furth as I may,
Thy womanheid, thy wisdome and fairness,
The quhilk Fortoun hes put to sic distres
Taken in by Calchas, her kindly father, Cresseid repairs to a temple where she curses Cupid and Venus for having brought her to such a pass ‘Allace, that evir I maid yow sacrifice!’ There follows a long dream scene in which she is tried before the gods, who debate her blasphemy and finally condemn her to be blighted with leprosy as punishment: ‘And quhen scho saw hir face sa deformait, / Gif scho in hart was wa aneuch, God wait!’ [God knows!] The narrative is even more grimly terse when her father sees what has become of his daughter’s looks: ‘Thus was thair cair aneuch betwixt thame twane.’
The scene is set for Cresseid’s lament, a familiar medieval ubi sunt sequence of regret, which lists all her former joys against current cares, with a moral for us all:
Nocht is your fairness bot ane faiding flour,
Nocht is your famous laud and hie honour glory
Bot wind inflat in uther mennis earis.
Cresseid acknowledges her betrayal of Troilus – Fortune is fickle and even the fairest flesh will come to rot. Now she must live with the leper folk, begging for alms in the street, where Troilus takes pity on her one day and leaves her gold. Something about her reminds him of his old lost love, but he does not know her, nor does she, nearly blind, recognise him. When told who her benefactor was, she sees how far she has fallen: ‘O fals Cresseid and trew knicht Troylus!’
Heartbroken, Cresseid sets out her testament, giving what goods she has to the leper folk and asking that her betrothal ring be returned to Troilus. And with that word she dies. Troilus, too, is heartbroken when he hears of her fate, and Henryson’s genius for overpowering understatement has never been stronger: ‘“I can [know]no moir – / Scho was untrew and wo is me thairfoir.”’ His final act is to build a tomb ‘conteining this ressoun’ [statement]:
Lo, fair ladyis! Cresseid of Troyes toun,
Sumtym countit the flour of womanheid,
Under this stane, lait lipper lyis deid.
The conventional moral (as in the end of Chaucer’s poem) would be to flee from worldly vanity to seek the only true security in the kingdom of Heaven. Henryson’s version is starker, crueller and more ambiguous, for Cresseid is blighted by the (pagan) gods for her blasphemy against Venus, ironically the goddess of love. And Henryson’s conclusion is simple and brutally short:
Of cheritie, I monische and exhort,
Ming not your lufe with fals deceptioun. mix
Beir in your mynd this sore conclusioun
Of fair Cresseid, as I have said befoir.
Sen she is deid, I speik of her no moir.
So ends one of the greatest, tenderest, darkest poems of the late fifteenth century. Its abrupt conclusion leaves us facing the excessive horror of Cresseid’s end, along with an aged narrator, who started the poem in the hope that he might stir his own fading spirits with a tale of love.