Henrysoun: The Minor Poems


A number of minor poems are attributed to Henrysoun in the MSS and prints, and I propose to glance at these without too close an inspection of authorship, which is not my business here. The most famous of these is the beautiful pastoral, Robene and Makyne, the first example of its kind in Scottish poetry. Found in the Bannatyne MS, it has affinities with Adam de la Halle's Li Gieus de Robin et de Marion, among others, but no exact model is known -- Henrysoun seems to have adapted the convention to his own purposes, to have stripped and simplified the form with considerable gain. There is no knightly figure in the poem, the tale is simply of the shepherd and shepherdess (or such), the girl wooing the man, being spurned, then wooed and spurning in her turn. It has the economy of a ballad, the verse beautifully turned, with that sureness of touch one thinks of as the hall-mark of Henrysoun's versification, the humour gentle, bright, and oddly youthful for this poet, the whole fresh as a good summer morning. The central 'moral' of the tale is in the twelfth stanza:

Robene, thow hes hard soung and say
In gestis and storeis auld,
The man that will nocht quhen he may
Sall haif nocht quhen he wald.
I pray to Jesu every day
Mot eik thair cairis cauld
That first preisis with the to play,
Be firth, forrest, or fawld.

Not put off, Robene goes on trying to persuade her to come into the woods with him, where 'ma na janglour us espy', but Makyne will have none of him:

Robene, that warld is all away,
And quyt brocht till ane end,
And nevir agane thairto perfay
Sall it be as thow wend...

Unlike the sophisticated French models, which usually treat of the idle seduction of a peasant girl by a knight who is simply amusing himself, treating the girl as a mere chattel, the poem is entirely a poem of rustic lovers, and the comedy has an innocence and charm quite unique. Instead of the maid being the victim of a seducer, here Makyne clearly is the aggressive party, first in rousing the sluggish Robene's interest and then rejecting his advances because they come too late -- and, one suspects, because they come at his will, instead of her own. There is a parody here of the mediaeval convention that what woman wanted was to rule the man; itself perhaps a humorous bourgeois version of the Courtly Love supremacy of the Dame. The whole poem in fact is a tilt at Courtly Love as it filters down to the folk. Robene wants to know 'quhat is lufe?' and Makyne reels off some of the Courtly Love notions, which enlighten him not one whit: she simply seems to him to be going daft. Makyne clearly has been hearing of romantic lovers and wants to try it out, though it's a garbled version she has. She imitates the lover rather than the lady, and instead of being aloof and inaccessible, she is all too accessible. The poem is like Burns's Duncan Gray with the roles reversed (except that Henrysoun eschews, typically, the sentimental happy ending). Part of the joke of the poem is the implied natural ease of country love -- the green wood is nearby, the passions of the folk are as simple and uncomplicated and innocent as those of the birds and animals they spend their lives among, they are at the opposite remove from the neurotic lives of the ruling-class women locked up in their castles with only boys and 'inferiors' to amuse them. It is this over-arching and powerful 'right' presence of nature, and Henrysoun's deep awareness of nature as a manifestation of God, that gives the poem its quiet sanity and evergreen charm.

Cast in the same verse-form is the ballad of The Bludy Serk, an allegory of Christ and the soul of man, having obvious affinities with the two tragedies. The tale is of a king whose daughter is stolen by a giant, and of how a knight fights for her, frees her, but dies of his wounds, bidding her take his 'bludy serk' and never marry anybody who falls short of the love it symbolises. The king is God, the daughter man's soul, the giant Lucifer, the knight is Christ: all of which Henrysoun tells us in a three-stanza Moralitas. The poem is only 120 lines in length, but it is a very effective narrative indeed. This is of course the salient feature of Henrysoun's art -- sheer narrative power, and in this he is closer to Chaucer than any poet in these islands before Spenser. But in this, too, he is in the tradition of Barbour and the romances. Indeed, Scottish poetry, including the ballads, was more a narrative than a lyric art before the advent of Burns, and it is one of the worst legacies of Burns, himself a narrative poet of real power, that his weaker lyrical side was more imitated through the following century (Scott, the child of Barbour and the ballads very much apart) than the stronger narrative one.

The source of the poem seems to be a tale of the Emperor Frederick in the Gesta Romanorum, which Henrysoun may have known in both the Latin and English paraphrases. A study of these sources is a very instructive one for the student of Henrysoun's methods, but can't detain us here. The poem lacks, to my mind, the distinctively Henrysoun mastery of alliterative technique so manifest in the previous poem.

A much shorter poem, 40 lines, but of little less charm, is the Garmont of Gud Ladeis, in which various items of dress of the time are equated with moral virtues -- her hood of honour, her sark of chastity, etc. There is a longer poem of similar theme in French, the Triumphe des Dames, by Olivier de la Marche, but if Henrysoun drew his poem from that source, he improved on his original by concentrating some 1400 lines into 40. The simplicity of the verse lends innocence to the subject:

Hir gown suld be of gudliness
Weill ribband with renowne,
Purfillit with plesour in ilk place,
Furrit with fyne fassoun...

Wald scho put on this garmont gay,
I durst sweir by my seill
That scho woir never grene nor gray
That set hir haif sa weill.

The colloquial style, of which he is the first and supreme master, gives a natural touch to a sophisticated subject. The kind of thing we have noted before in the symbolic significance given to the knight's armour and attire in Gilbert of the Haye's Buke of the Ordre of Knychthede. Here it is the lady's turn.

Another of these minor poems is The Prais of Age, on the vanitas vanitatum theme. If it is by Henrysoun, it is one of his least distinctive pieces and might have been written, so conventional it is, by a number of good poets of the age. The refrain gives virtually the whole of the burden of the poem -- 'The moyr of age the nerar hevynnis blyss'. The simplicity and benignity of the piece have rightly made it a favourite of anthologists, but I'm not convinced of the authorship. The same may be said of The Ressoning betwix Aige and Yowth, in which the refrain of the one, 'O youth, be glaid in to thy flouris grene' is riposted by the refrain of the other, 'O youth, thy flouris fadis ferlie sone'. Again, I am doubtful of the authorship, which only Bannatyne attributes to Henrysoun.

Another of these doubtful, traditional poems is The Abbey Walk, with its refrain 'Obey and thank thy god of all'; a good poem, but not, I think, a Henrysoun poem, though one must make allowance for the waning powers of advancing age. But if these are his, the edge has gone off his mind and art, and with them the personality. The poem is a pious meditation in an Abbey, the refrain implying the subject. Associations with Dunfermline Abbey may have blinded critics to the lack of Henrysoun flavour in it.

With the Ressoning betwixt Deth and Man from the Bannatyne MS my credulity limit is reached, Bannatyne notwithstanding. I cannot be persuaded that this poem is by Henrysoun. The piece is an artless harangue, not even by a good poet, but by some versifying monk or other, I should guess.

The poem Aganis Haisty Credence of Titlaris is ascribed to Henrysoun by both Maitland and Bannatyne, but again I must object. It is the work of a courtier, of the Dunbar type, concerned with courtly and worldly matters, and subject, treatment, manner, 'personality' make, in my view, Henrysoun's authorship impossible.

The Annunciation, on the other hand, attributed to Henrysoun in the Gray MS, is probably his, though the stiff-fingered creakiness of the verse suggests that it is probably an early work:

Forcy as deith is likand lufe,
Throuch quhome al bittir suet is,
No thing is hard, as writ can pruf
Till him in lufe that letis...

It is certainly not by the Henrysoun of the major poems. The title of the poem explains the subject.

Bannatyne was generous with his attributions, and to him also we owe the attribution of Sum Practysis of Medecyne to Henrysoun. Nothing other would suggest his authorship. The poem is a typical 'popular' piece in the alliterative stanza, 91 lines, and is a satire on medical quackery. It gives some interesting prescriptions:

Recipe, thre ruggis of the reid ruke,
The gant of ane gray meir, the claik of ane gus,
The dram of ane grene dow, the leg of ane lowss,
Fyve unce of ane fle wing, the fyn of ane fluke...

This ancestor of Dr. Hornbrook outdoes him in fantastic imagination of a sort one does not easily associate with the legalistic Henrysoun: but that of course proves nothing. The poem is of some historic and linguistic interest, but poetically it is negligible.

It is Bannatyne also who ascribes to Henrysoun The Thre Deid Pollis, but on the authority of Maitland, a harder man to argue with. It is full of the heavy timor mortis of the age, which knew too much of death and plague and anarchy, and the moral malaise of the Church. It must have been an age almost as terrible as our own to be alive in. The religiosity of the poem is neurotic, the three dead heads casting their baleful influence over the living in a ghastly parody of the Holy Trinity, here seen not as life but death. It is not religion that mocks at youth and beauty, courage and zest, but neurosis. None of Henrysoun's undoubted works shows anything much of this morbidity: it is characterized by humour, vitality, love, sanity, an appreciation of the good things of the sensual world, though without being seduced by them from higher things. Again, I doubt that the author was other than some monkish mind lacking any poetic distinction -- a versifier in a morbid convention.

Bannatyne also attributes to him Ane Prayer for the Pest, and I seem to descry in it a mind certainly of some quality. The verse is deeply sincere, of varied and convincing rhythms, and the conventionally pious sentiments are such that Henrysoun manifestly believed with passionate sincerity. But again, any of many good poets and churchmen might have written it. The last of these poems is not attributed to Henrysoun at all, but his authorship [is] implied by its being published as part of the Orpheus poem by Chepman and Myllar in their prints of 1508. I think a better case can be sustained for Henrysoun's authorship here than any other of the doubtful poems. The verse has an alliterative individuality, a sense of consonantal music not found in any other poet to the same degree. The subject is more worldly than Henrysoun's norm, on the other hand, and the doubt remains. It is not that this is a political poem -- Henrysoun was a political poet -- but that the political vision is not an integral part of a higher moral one to quite the same degree as one usually finds in him. But this is only a matter of degree, of emphasis, and I am prepared to believe it is by Henrysoun. The refrain gives an adequate notion of its substance: 'Sen want of wyse men makis fulis to sit on binkis'. The subject and courtierly tenor of the piece is in some ways more suggestive of Dunbar and his age than Henrysoun and his.

The first, greatest and most characteristic quality of Henrysoun's mind and art is an integrated vision of life in which all empiric phenomena are precisely and specifically inter-related. This is in part simply the mediaeval synthesis found in Dante and Chaucer, but it is also very much his own personal vision. No other Scottish poet, before or since, has given us so comprehensive a view of life, and for this reason alone he is our supreme poet. His wholeness of mind and vision, his organic synthesis of experience and theory, is the psychological opposite of our present age of disintegration and analysis, of schism and compartmentalism, fragmentariness and laissez-faire. Henrysoun came at the crest of the great mediaeval wave and gave it its completest expression in Scots verse, before it broke and shattered into modern fragmentation on the rock of the new era ushered in by the Reformation. The age of Roman Christendom was over; Byzantium had fallen to the Turks in Henrysoun's young manhood, in 1453; the church was breaking up under assaults from inside as well as outside, the New World was being discovered, the age of nations and private finance capital, of corporations and companies and closed-shop trade unions was imminent, with its attendant ills of body and mind. Can such a synthesis ever be again? Can man survive if it cannot? Meantime, 'modern' man endures his black night of the soul, and Robert Henrysoun speaks to us of a visionary wholeness which, if never again to be reached, must never be lost sight of on pain of extinction of the race.

Allegory and its kin are the natural tools of a great inclusive vision, a polysemous poetry of variety-in-unity, many-in-one. But allegory moved from an intellectual structure which followed only logical rules and not the rules of reality. The mediaeval synthesis broke down because it was not founded upon science, truth, reality; and, like Humpty Dumpty, not all the king's horses and men will ever restore it. Any new synthesis will have to be founded upon the rock of reality, the knowledge of which begins with scientific investigation. The new world will be spelled out laboriously from the close study of a grain of sand; the universal achieved through particulars. And in art the reality-symbol -- the grain of sand -- will be the new equivalent of allegory. But the new polysemous (Dante's term) poem will be a spelling-out, not a reading-in.

Henrysoun belongs to both worlds. He summed up the allegorical tradition in European poetry and, in the realism of his imagining of the particular and the actual, the sensory and the local, he pointed to the coming era in which a Walter Scott can see the particular, local, sensual fact of the Tolbooth prison as a symbol of all Scotland, and the human condition. In all this he was at once Scottish, European, and universal, as no Scottish poet had ever been. There is no either-or in him, that Satanic false antithesis beloved by an accursed intellectualism, but a both-and: each because of the other. Above all, in his own terms, not spirit or body, God or matter, but both because the other. Who honours the Creation honours the Creator, and who dishonours it dishonours both. For Henrysoun -- as, for MacDiarmid, Auchtermuchty -- was 'pairt o an eternal mood'.


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