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Significant Scots
Robert Henryson


HENRYSON, or HENDERSON, ROBERT, a poet of the fifteenth century, is described as having been chief schoolmaster of Dunfermline, and this is almost the only particular of his life that is sufficiently ascertained. According to one writer, he was a notary public, as well as a schoolmaster; and another is inclined to identify him with Henryson of Fordell, the father of James Henryson who was king’s advocate and justice clerk, and who perished in the fatal battle of Flodden. This very dubious account seems to have originated with Sir Robert Douglas; who avers that Robert Henryson appears to have been a person of distinction in the reign of James the Third, and that he was the father of the king’s advocate. Douglas refers to a certain charter, granted by the abbot of Dunfermline in 1478, where Robert Henryson subscribes as a witness; [Douglas’s Baronage of Scotland, p. 518.] but in this charter he certainly appears without any particular distinction, as he merely attests it in the character of a notary public. A later writer is still more inaccurate when he pretends that the same witness is described as Robert Henryson of Fordell;" [Sibbald’s Chronicle of Scottish Peotry, vol. i. p. 88.] in this and other two charters which occur in the Chartulary of Dunfermline, he is described as a notary public, without any other addition. [Cartulary of Dunfermline, f. 64. a. – Robert Henryson is a witness to other two charters which occur in the same record, f. 63. a.b. His only mark of distinction is that of being designated Magister, while the names of several other witnesses appear without this title. He had perhaps taken the degree of master of arts.] That the notary public, the schoolmaster of Dunfermline, and the proprietor of Fordell, were one and the same individual, is by no means to be admitted upon such slender and defective evidence. Henryson, or, according to its more modern and less correct form, Henderson, was not at that period an uncommon surname. It is not however improbable that the schoolmaster may have exercised the profession of a notary. While the canon law prevailed in Scotland, this profession was generally exercised by ecclesiastics, and some vestiges of the ancient practice are still to be traced; every notary designates himself a clerk of a particular diocese; and by the act of 1584, which under the penalty of deprivation prohibited the clergy from following the profession of the law, they still retained the power of making testaments; so that we continue to admit the rule of the canon law, which sustains a will attested by the parish priest and two or three witnesses. [Decretal, Gregorii IX. lib. iii. tit. xxvi. cap. x.] If therefore Henryson was a notary, it is highly probable that he was also an ecclesiastic, and if he was an ecclesiastic, he could not well leave any legitimate offspring. The poet, in one of his works, describes himself as "ane man of age;" and from Sir Francis Kinaston we learn that "being very old he died of a diarrhae or fluxe." With respect to the period of his decease, it is at least certain that he died before Dunbar, who in his Lament, printed in the year 1508, commemorates him among other departed poets:

"In Dunfermling he hes tane Broun,
With gude Mr Robert Henrysoun."

The compositions of Henryson evince a poetical fancy, and, for the period when he lived, an elegant simplicity of taste. He has carefully avoided that cumbrous and vitiated diction which began to prevail among the Scottish as well as the English poets. To his power of poetical conception he unites no inconsiderable skill in versification: his lines, if divested of their uncouth orthography, might often be mistaken for those of a much more modern poet. His principal work is the collection of Fables, thirteen in number, which are written in a pleasing manner, and are frequently distinguished by their arch simplicity; but in compositions of this nature, brevity is a quality which may be considered as almost indispensable, nor can it be denied that those of Henryson sometimes extend to too great a length. The collection is introduced by a prologue, and another is prefixed to the fable of the lion and the mouse.

The tale of Vpoulands Mouse and the Burgesse Mouse may be regarded as one of his happiest efforts in this department. The same tale, which is borrowed from AEsop, has been told by many other poets, ancient as well as modern. Babrias has despatched the story of the two mice in a few verses, but Henryson has extended it over a surface of several pages. Henryson’s Tale of Sir Chauntecleire and the Foxe is evidently borrowed from Chaucer’s Nonnes Preestes Tale. From these apologues some curious fragments of information may be gleaned. That of the Sheepe and the Dog, contains all the particulars of an action before the consistory court, and probably as complete an exposure of such transactions as the author could prudently hazard. The proceedings of the ecclesiastical courts seem about this period to have been felt as a common grievance.

Another conspicuous production of Henryson is the Testament of Cresseid, [The Testament of Cresseid, compylit be Mr Robert Henrysone, Sculemasister in Dunfermling. Imprentit at Edinburgh be Henrie Charteris, 1593, 4to. – "Ffor the author of this supplement, " say Sir Francis Kinaston, "Called the Testament of Cresseid, which may passé for the sixt and last books of this story, I have very sufficiently bin informed by Sr. Tho. Erskin, late earle of Kelly, and divers aged schollers of the Scottish nation, that it was made and written by one Mr Robert Henderson, sometime chiefe schoole-master, in Dumfermling, much about the time that Chaucer was first printed and dedicated to King Henry the 8th by Mr Thinne, which was neere the end of his reigne. This Mr Henderson wittily observing that Chaucer in his 5th books had related the death of Troilus, but made no mention what became of Cresseid, he learnedly takes upon him, in a fine poeticall way, to express the punishment and end due to a false unconstant whore, which commonly terminates in extreme misery." See the Loves of Troilus and Cresseid, written by Chaucer; with a Commentary by Sir Francis Kinaston, p. xxix. Lond. 1796. 8 vo. Kinaston had translated into Latin rhyme two books of Chaucer’s poems, 1635, 4 to. He completed his version of the poem, together with a commentary; and his manuscript at length came into the possession of Mr Waldron, who announced his intention of committing it to the press, but did not find encouragement to proceed beyond a short specimen.] which is the sequel to Chaucer’s Troylus and Creseyde, and is commonly printed among the works of that poet. It evidently rises above the ordinary standard of that period, and on some occasions evinces no mean felicity of conception. The silent interview between Troilus and Cresseid is skilfully delineated; and the entire passage has been described as beautiful by a very competent judge of old poetry. [Scott’s Notes to Sir Tristrem, p. 362.] It is unnecessary to remark that for "the tale of Troy divine," neither Chaucer nor Henryson had recourse to the classical sources: this, like some other subjects of ancient history, had been invested with all the characteristics of modern romance; nor could the Scottish poet be expected to deviate from the models which delighted his contemporaries. Sir Troilus is commended for his knightly piety; a temple is converted into a kirk; Mercury is elected speaker of the parliament; and Cresseid, on being afflicted with a leprosy, is consigned to a spittal-house, in order to beg with cup and clapper. The personages are ancient, but the institutions and manners are all modern.

Henryson’s tale of Orpheus is not free from similar incongruities, and possesses fewer attractions; it is indeed somewhat languid and feeble, and may have been a lucubration of the author’s old age. Sir Orpheus is represented as a king of Thrace, and is first despatched to heaven in search of the lost Eurydice.

Quhen endit was the sangis lamentable,
He tuke his harp, that on his breast can hyng,
Syne paasit to the hevin, as sais the fable,
To seke his wyf, bot that auailit no thing:
By Wadlyng street * he went but tarying,
Syne come doun throu the spore of Saturn ald,
Quhilk fader is of all thir sternis cold.

[* Watling street is a name given to one of the great Roman ways in Britain. (Horsley’s Roman Antiqities of Britain, p. 387. Lond. 1732, fol.) This passage, which to some persons may appear so unintelligible, will be best explained by a quotation from Chaucer’s Home of Fame, b. ii.

Lo, quod he, caste up thyne eye,
Se yonder, lo, the Galaxye,
The whiche men clepe the Milky Way,
For it is white; and some perfay
Callen it Watlynge strete.]

Having searched the sun and planets without success, he directs his course towards the earth, and in his passage is regaled with the music of the spheres. His subsequent adventures are circumstantially, but not very poetically detailed. In enumerating the various characters whom he finds in the domains of Pluto, the poet is guilty of a glaring anachronism: here Orpheus finds Julius Caesar, Nero, and even popes and cardinals; and it is likewise to be remarked that the heathen and Christian notions of hell are blended together. But such anachronisms are very frequently to be found in the writers of the middle ages. Mr Warton remarks that Chaucer has been guilty of a very diverting, and what may be termed a double anachronism, by representing Cresseid and two of her female companions as reading the Thebaid of Statius. [In Shakspeare’s Troilus and Cressida, says Mr Douce, "Hester quotes Aristotle, Ulysses speaks of the ball-bearing Milo, and Pendarus of a man born in April. Friday and Sunday, and even minced-pies with dates in the, are introduced." (Illustrations of Shakspeare, vol. ii. p. 291.)] Like the fables of Henryson, his tale, of Orpheus is followed by a long moral; and here he professes to have derived his materials from Boethius and one of his commentators.

The Bludy Seth is an allegorical poem of considerable ingenuity. The poet represents the fair daughter of an ancient and worthy king as having been carried away by a hideous giant, and cast into a dungeon, where she was doomed to linger until some valiant knight should achieve her deliverance. A worthy prince at length appeared as her champion, vanquished the giant, and thrust him into his own loathsome dungeon. Having restored the damsel to her father, he felt that he had received a mortal wound: he requested her to retain his bloody shirt, and to contemplate it whenever a new lover should present himself. It is unnecessary to add that the interpretation of this allegory involves the high mysteries of the Christian faith.

The Abbay Walk is of a solemn character, and is not altogether incapable of impressing the imagination. Its object is to inculcate submission to the various dispensations of Providence, and this theme is managed with some degree of skill. But the most beautiful of Henryson’s productions is Robene and Makyne, the earliest specimen of pastoral poetry in the Scottish language. I consider it as superior in many respects to the similar attempts of Spenser and Browne; it is free from the glaring improprieties which sometimes appear in the pastorals of those more recent writers, and it exhibits many genuine strokes of poetical delineation. The shepherd’s indifference is indeed too suddenly converted into love; but this is almost the only instance in which the operations of nature are not faithfully represented. The story is skilfully conducted, the sentiments and manners are truly pastoral, and the diction possesses wonderful terseness and suavity.

The Fables of Henryson were reprinted in 1832, for the Bannatyne Club, [From this accurate memoir prefixed to this volume, we have, by the kind permission of the editor, Dr Irving, abridged the above article. In the Lives of Scottish Worthies, Mr P. F. Tytler has entered at considerable length into the merits of Henryson’s poetry, of which he gives copious extracts. He says – "of the works of this remarkable man it is difficult, when we consider the period in which they were written, to speak in terms of too warm encomium. In strength, and sometimes even in sublimity of painting, in pathos and sweetness, in the variety and beauty of his pictures of natural scenery, in the vain and quiet and playful humour, which runs through many of his pieces, and in that fine natural taste, which rejecting the faults of his age, has dared to think for itself – he is altogether excellent."] from the edition of Andrew Hart; of which the only copy known to exist had been recently added to that great repository of Scottish literature, the Advocates’ Library.


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