The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables

Colin Burrow writes:

Robert Henryson is the most likeable late medieval author after Chaucer. He wrote with a directness, a lightly carried learning and a lack of sentimentality hard to match anywhere in the British Isles at any date. A late and sadly unreliable anecdote conveys something of his style. Francis Kynaston reported in the early 17th century that when Henryson was dying of diarrhoea (probably around 1500) a cunning woman told him to go and circle a rowan tree chanting ‘whikey tree, whikey tree, take away this flux from me.’ Henryson is reported to have complained that it was too cold for a dying man to go frolicking around outside and suggested instead that he dance round the table in his room singing ‘oaken board, oaken board, gar me shit a hard turd.’ It is said that he died 15 minutes later.

The humour and earthiness conveyed by that anecdote are easy to find in Henryson’s verse. So is the desire to outmanoeuvre his audience. Henryson can capture the way a mouse speaks (or ‘peeps’), and does a fine line in guileful foxes who trick and rip off wolves. His beast fables tilt line by line and phrase by phrase between human and animal aspects with a knowingness that keeps a continual smile on his readers’ lips.

(LRB 8 October 2009)

The late medieval Scots poet Robert Henryson is best known for his Testament of Cresseid, a continuation of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde which charts the Trojan heroine’s descent into prostitution and leprosy. While working on his translation of Henryson’s great work, Heaney chanced upon one of his Aesopian fables, ‘The Cock and the Jasper’, and ‘was so taken by the jaunty, canty note of its opening lines that I felt an urge to get it into my own words’. Heaney’s translations preserve the metre and rhyme scheme of Henryson’s Lowland Scots originals, which are presented on the facing page, as well as a good deal of their charm and vigour. Here are the opening lines of ‘The Toad and the Mouse’:

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