When the majesty of Scotland fell beneath the daggers of the treacherous nobles in 1437, a certain boy was either beginning or approaching the beginning of his academic education. Robert Henrysoun would be about twelve years old -- and thirteen was the usual age for a boy to begin to attend university. If Scots poetry may be said to have come of age with the bright morning of Barbour, with Henrysoun it came to a ripe and full maturity. Henrysoun is, among other things, the first really complete master of style, and styles, in Scottish poetry. Of the two main strands of Scottish poetry (the secular, chivalric, patriotic strand, and the Christian, scholarly, moralistic one), Henrysoun belongs totally to the latter. Scotland was a chamber of horrors throughout most of his life, but the anarchy and wickedness are but little reflected in his works. He sounds no secular note, like Hary the Minstrel's Wallace, trying to recall a degenerate and degraded nation to its great patriotic destiny and traditions. His mind is quiet and cloistral, its objects are not of this world, though his material is, and his apparently simple, earthy tales are all parables, putting across abstract and spiritual moral truth in the language of the people. He was a teacher not only in life but in work, and if his people are Scots, his country is that country of the soul, Christendom. It is as a Christian moralist that he lives on in our minds, and that is at once his fulfilment and his limitation: his universality is gained at the expense of locality. The 'universality' of the Catholic church is only limitedly and temporally 'universal': its cosmology and much of its teaching is already obsolete, no more universal than a mirage, whereas the 'locality' of Burns is indeed timeless. What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole universe but lose his own country?
There is a real universality in Henrysoun, too, just as there is a spurious locality here and there in Burns. Nevertheless it is true that Burns is the object of veneration in Japan and China and other civilizations remote from his own time and place, whereas Henrysoun is but little known even in his own country.
The approach of Henrysoun to poetry is best sought in his own work, and in the Prologue to the Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian we find his credo set out clearly:
The nuttis schell, thocht it be hard and teuch,
Haldis the kirnill, and is delectabill.
So lyis thair ane doctrine wyse aneuch
And full of fruit under ane fenyeit fabill;
And clerkis sayis it is richt profitabill
Amangis ernist to ming ane merie sport,
To light the spreit and gar the tyme be schort.
That is it, almost literally, in a nutshell. Henrysoun is the populariser of theological beliefs -- I won't call it truth, for that is to beg the question -- in the form of parables. The method has behind it the authority and precept of the Founder of Christianity, and the great parable of the man who went forth to sow is the parable of the parabolist -- Henrysoun is a Sower of Seed. In this sense, he is one of the first 'popular' poets in Scottish literature. He is not writing for one class, but for all, and that means making the lowest the measure of all. He writes not for the sake of writing, but to put over a message, to convert people to the good life, to put across 'ane doctrine wyse aneuch' in the entertaining guise of 'ane fenyeit fabill'. Like Bernard Shaw in our own time, he is giving us sugar-coated pills. This purpose is the key to Henrysoun, and there is scarcely a line he wrote that is not to be seen in this light. His poetry was an evangel, a dedicated mission to the folk, and he tells us himself that he undertook this work 'Nocht of myself', but 'be requeist and precept of ane lord'. Knowing Henrysoun, one wonders if what he is saying there is really 'be requeist and precept of THE Lord' -- a religious vocation. But in any case, that is how he must be read: with a sharp eye and ear for hidden theological meaning.
Nothing at all is known for certain about Henrysoun's life. He is mentioned in Dunbar's Lament as having died in Dunfermline, so that he was dead sometime before 1508. Elsewhere he is mentioned as a schoolmaster in Dunfermline, and there is on record in this period a Robert Henrysoun described as a public notary. A Robert Henrysoun was a member of the staff of Glasgow university in 1462. Dunbar calls him 'Maister' which almost certainly means he was an M.A. and the Glasgow university reference speaks of him (if he be the poet and not some other Robert Henrysoun) as 'bachelor of decreets'. His work shows a background of knowledge and reading which supports both degrees -- in arts and in law. That he was a man of learning is beyond question, by the evidence of his work.
I have referred to Scotland as a 'chamber of horrors' in the 15th century. This is true of the political reality of the kingdom, but in the spiritual sphere the country shared in the humanistic advance of the century in Europe, particularly in education. The century saw the founding of the first three Scottish universities -- St Andrews 1411, Glasgow 1451, and Aberdeen 1495. This contrast of intellectual progress and political regress may have been a factor governing Henrysoun's identifying himself almost entirely with the former in his poetry. This dichotomy of a weak nation and a strong church runs throughout Scottish history at all periods up to and including the nineteenth century. Once again, in the Henrysoun period, we meet the conflict of the Christian ideal and social reality. The world of that social reality appears in Henrysoun's work, as material, but it is subordinate to his moral purpose, illustrative rather than substantial, and his point of vision is from the outside looking in. He looks if not altogether from the aspect of eternity, at least from that of the church.
It is impossible to range his work in chronological order, but an order of value does suggest itself, and that is how I propose to treat it. The major poems seem to me to rise from the Fables through the Orpheus and Eurydice to the Testament of Cresseid, with the minor poems coming anywhere. Of the three main 'styles' posited by mediaeval poetic theory, the courtly, the plain, and the folk styles, the fables are mainly folk-to-plain; the two dramatic poems mainly plain-to-courtly. This is not merely a matter of rhetoric, but of decorum -- the courtly style matches the high subject.
Mention has already been made of the Prologue to the Fabillis. In addition to the purpose declared in the two stanzas quoted, there is another: to lighten the hard toil of study, to relax. The bow which is always bent, he says, 'worthis unsmart and dullis on the string', and so does the mind that is unrelaxingly diligent. He opens his prologue with a stanza reminiscent of Barbour's dissertation on the superiority of 'suthfast' stories: the clerical mind has always been sceptical of 'fenyeit' fables, of works of the imagination rather than truth, and still is. Henrysoun, like Barbour, sees the value of marrying truth and poetry, instruction and delight, and for him the 'truth' is allegorical. Poetry is to 'repreif the haill misleving' of human beings 'be figure of ane uther thing'. This he develops in the stanzas quoted above, then in a stanza on the bow image, and makes his conventional apology to his 'maisteris' for doing the job at all, for his lack of art, and the like. He then declares the nature of the truth he will teach: that men are like animals because they love 'carnall and foull delyte'. Here he is in a tradition that goes back in the classical tradition to Homer, and in the Hebraic to at least the story of the Gadarene swine, and the Celtic is almost characterised by transformation. His manner here, as always, is sententious, proverbish, gently homiletic.
The first fable is the Taill of the Cok and the Jasp. This is of the utmost simplicity as narrative -- he simply tells of a cock who, in search of food, finds a jewel instead, and has no use for it. The bulk of this tale is the cock's musing on his find, followed by Henrysoun's expository Moralitas. The precision of the allusions to the biblical Wisdom literature here has been fully discussed by Professor John MacQueen in his book Robert Henryson (O.U.P. 1967), to which I am indebted. The sources here are the Roman de Renart and the verse Romulus, as well as Aesope, Boccaccio and the Bible. The jasp represents the virtues integrated as Wisdom, and the cock is the Fool who prefers inferior food, and Henrysoun is expounding his text in terms of Old Testament Wisdom and New Testament Kingdom of New Jerusalem. This is the meaning Henrysoun intended and expounds, but the modern reader may find the poem to go beyond its author's intentions -- a true sign of genuine poetry -- and see a very different meaning in it. To us it can suggest that the cock is quite right to find a jewel uneatable, and we can see the poem in terms of a man starving to death on a mountain of gold. Given this materialistic turn, the musings of the cock seem quite sensible to us. Man shall not live by bread alone, but he certainly can't live at all without it. It is precisely in this capacity to transcend the intentions of the poet that the eternal vitality of a poem resides, for the imagination is poetically wiser than the intellect. The main intention of Shakespeare was simply to entertain his audience and make money, as Henrysoun's was simply to entertain and give moral instruction. Neither is enough to create poetry of the slightest value, unless the Muse, as in both cases, raises the work to a higher plane.
Henrysoun stresses the poverty of the cock, and has him say that a jewel is more befitted to a lord than a poor man, but he is speaking in terms of the poor in spirit. Yet the ambiguity remains, despite his intention, and it must be noted because it is a germ of criticism against Henrysoun's vision in his own time. It bears witness to the constant conflict of secular and ecclesiastical. Technically, the poem is metrically foot-sure, the diction precisely chosen, the rhythms firm and bright, the structure well-balanced in line and stanza, and as a whole. The style moves from folk-plain to courtly rhetoric (in two balancing stanzas of rhetorical questions), each with easy observance of decorum. The tone is mild, serious yet light, persuasive yet never hectoring. There is little of the piled alliteration of his intenser moments, and the impression of the whole finally is of assured, good-natured mastery. That word 'good-natured', taken in both the colloquial and moral sense, is a key-word to Henrysoun. In him that quality, which more than any technical influence he has in Chaucer, rises at times to an almost sublime serenity. If he is no saint, he comes very near beatific.
Thus far we have been following an established order, but from here on no authority is claimed for the order in which these tales are considered -- it is a probable one, and I follow Professor MacQueen's view. The Taill of the Paddock and the Mous, one of four in which a mouse or mice are concerned, takes us into a deeper allegorical realm. The story is of a mouse arriving at the river bank, seeing better fields of food on the other side, wishing to cross but can't swim, is too short in the leg to wade, and has 'nor horss till ryd'. She cries for help, and a frog offers to help her across. There follows an interchange between the two, the mouse's plight, and the frog's ability to help, the offer to let the mouse tie herself to the frog so that she can be helped across. The mouse distrusts the frog's ugly face, saying it is the sign of a bad character, while the frog maintains that a fair face may hide an ugly nature, and vice versa. This discussion of the face takes up a surprising amount of space in the tale, the reason for which only comes out in the Moralitas: it is the soul's distrust of the body. The mouse is still loath to commit herself to the frog, but at last agrees, and in the event, the frog seeks to dive and drown the mouse, the mouse seeks to rise above the water. A gled, or kite, sees them and snatches up both and carries them off to eat them.
The Moralitas makes two chief points -- the first is that we should take care not to be 'machit with a wicket marrow', and the other is that the mouse is the soul, the frog the body, the river water the world subject to the waves of Fortune, the ups and downs of her wheel, and the gled is death, which suddenly cuts short the journey of life across the river. He ends by saying the reader should get the friars, who specialized in expounding allegory, to further elucidate and expound the allegory.
Lacking a friar we may guess for ourselves. The allegory may be seen in terms of Dante's fourfold allegory: the tale; the immediate interpretation in terms of human life (perhaps Moses' death in the desert more specifically, in sight of the Promised Land); the struggle between good and evil, soul and body; and the mystical Pilgrim's Progress to the New Jerusalem and union with God. But Henrysoun is having a quiet dig at the over-ingenious friars. The tale as a whole, if one looks at it closely enough, particularly in regard to the two main points of the Moralitas, is a recapitulation of the Fall, and mankind's need of redemption. The long discussion of the 'face' is the Temptation, the plunge into the stream is the actual fall of man, the mouse and the frog symbolising not only soul and body but Adam and Eve, the gled the death that was born of the fall, the plunging of the frog is the Satanic pull to the depths while the soul aspires to God, and the vision of the other side is the apple. In thus standing-in for the friars I may be falling into Henrysoun's trap, but if so it is an unavoidable one and he certainly set it.
But apart from the allegorical refinements and subtleties, the poem has narrative pace and structure, his usual metrical excellence, decorum of diction and style, and the other excellences noted in the previous work. But there is one allegorical point which must be mentioned, for it is doubtful if Henrysoun knew it was there, or would have approved it if he had known (and it is my contention throughout that a genuine poet creates beyond his own conscious intention, a sine qua non of genuine poetry). This is that the Fall was necessary to make redemption possible. The mouse had no other way to get across the river of time from the eternity of Eden (the longing for the forbidden fruit argues dissatisfaction with the permitted) to the New Jerusalem on the other side. The Fall was the Will of God, for the higher development of mankind.
So far we have been almost entirely in the world of symbolism, though a few touches of earthly life creep in here and there in the above works. But with The Taill of the Uponlandis Mous and the Burges Mous we enter not only the earthly scene but fifteenth century Scotland. As Professor MacQueen points out (see above), it is built around the relationship of the rising Third Estate (the merchants) and their peasant origins. Precisely because of its 'locality' in an almost Burnsian sense it is much the most universal of these tales, and the most popularly appealing of all Henrysoun's poems, with the possible exception of Robene and Makyne. Universality is not to be confused with the abstract, and it is precisely where a poet most concretely recreates his own time and place that he achieves universality by demonstrating the eternal sameness of human life in all airts and ages.
The story, briefly, is of an interchange of visits between a country and town mouse, the town one revolted by country fare, the country mouse hunted by the household cat, until, scared near to death, she is happy to return to her pastoral simplicity from the grandeur of the town. Henrysoun here is at his happiest, relishing every opportunity for medium-dry comedy, missing no trick, yet keeping such control and reserve that he never falls over into extravagance. His eye is chiefly on the human, social reality, of course, but he enjoys teasing out the parallels with mousely life, like a more genial Swift among the Lilliputians. He begins by telling how Aesope 'myne autour' mentions two mice who were 'sisteris deir', the elder living in the town (an artistic flaw: the country mouse is historically the elder) and the younger lived in the country solitudes almost like an outlaw.
The ease and felicity of that, the interweaving of animal and human reality, the deftness which evokes a picture of one aspect of Scottish life of the time, gives us that happy sense of security, of pleasure, that comes from knowing that we are in the hands of a master. The interesting thing is that he does not contrast animal and human life, either as such or as body and soul, but sees them as belonging to the same order of reality, though at different levels. He sees life steadily and whole, a place for everything, and everything in its place; and a genial acceptance of things as they are informs his vision. If the frog and the mouse tale is indeed the story of the Fall, here is the same fallen humanity, in mid-stream as it were, on the road to New Jerusalem. The heavy allegorical moralising gives way here to a gentle, secular moral -- he who has enough needs no more -- and comedy emerges as the eternal quality of post-lapsarian human life. But the symbol he is using for this state is not simply mice but the peasantry, expropriated by the feudal nobility and practically enslaved by them, tied to their masters' land, and the powerful merchant-guilds of the town. The latter were already masters of the burghs, kept the craftsmen in subjection, and awarded themselves such privileges as freedom from toll and custom, and a life of hogging the harvest at the expense of their neighbours -- the 'profit motive'. This is by no means translation -- Henrysoun is intelligently contemporary, socially conscious and 'local' -- but original adaptation of his models to his own experience. In genre he is European, but in the particular poem, intensely Scottish. This is true originality -- not creation out of nothing, but creative adaptation, development of an organic, living form.
The poem is polarised on the contrasts and similarities between the habitual life of the country mouse and that of the town one; the peasant's and the merchant's. The one has poverty but security; the other riches constantly menaced by disaster. Neither mouse is particularly religious, though the town mouse dresses like a pilgrim for her journey. Professor MacQueen reminds us of that greater pilgrimage made by the Wife of Bath: a pilgrimage could be about as religious as a religious feast. Our mice are the ordinary sensual humans, as remote from the higher mysteries as from the higher mathematics. They don't even bother to say grace at mealtime, but they do wash their hands -- a puritan trait, surely, and apparently a bourgeois one, for Henrysoun sees it ironically. Later, when the dispenser disturbs them at their meal in the larder, he says 'Thay tareit not to wesche, as I suppoiss'. Professor MacQueen sees a parallel here with Everyman surprised by the arrival of Death, and compares the two works generally. But it is the social rather than the religious aspect which most catches the attention here: an interesting point is that Henrysoun, who clearly disapproves of the rising bourgeoisie and their irreligious, impious materialism, in detailing the lavish fare provided for and by the town mouse, says that they observed one austerity -- they drank water instead of wine, yet made good cheer. This would seem to imply another puritanical trait of the bourgeoisie. The snobbery and vulgarity of the town mouse is made much of, her insulting patronising of her sister, a 'keeping-up-with-the Joneses' attitude. Is there an ecclesiastical innuendo in the water-wine reference? Wine is the symbol of communion, of Christ's blood, and He Himself changed water into wine: are the bourgeoisie changing it back again? Is there a veiled charge of heresy here? The bourgeoisie were the backbone of Protestantism. In any case, as in the previous tales, food is used symbolically as object of man's conflicting aspirations, earthly and heavenly.
The contrasting is kept up as a balancing technique within the poem's structure. The town mouse at one point boasts that her worst of fare is better than her sister's best, but after the dispenser has scared the country mouse into a swoon, she tells the town mouse she is too terrified to eat at all, and would rather fast for forty days on her own fare than feast on her sister's. The town mouse has a hole to run to, but the country mouse panics and rushes blindly about, being saved only by the fact that the dispenser has too much to do to be bothered chasing a mouse -- an ironic comment on both. Twice he makes the point that the mice omit the traditional pious greeting of 'God speid' but when Gib the cat appears, he says to them 'God speid'. This is of as much technical importance as religious-satiric, at once articulating the poem's structure and binding it together. The second interrupter, Gib the cat, nearly leads to the death of the country mouse, for he does have plenty of time to chase mice, catches the country one and tosses her about from paw to paw -- a symbol of Fortune's wheel again. The mouse eventually escapes, but bitterly denounces town life:
and takes herself off home to the moorland.
At one level this would seem to be a 'reactionary' poem -- anticapitalist at a time when progress in the social sphere depended on capitalism. But Henryson in his Moralitas makes clear that he is in fact attacking illusion: the illusion that there is any form of earthly life free from some more or less appalling contingency and trouble. And the higher you climb, the worse it becomes. The man who is content to be lowly, of 'symple lyfe withouttin dreid' is blessed, and he sings the praises of the simple life.
To which many would echo amen, if they could get the security, and the small possession. He then goes on to denounce the man who makes a god of his belly -- a favourite theme, appearing throughout these tales -- and warns him to consider that the cat Death comes. Where then will his feasting be? The theme of contentment with small possession is used as a refrain to each stanza of the Moralitas. In the last stanza he alludes again to the Wisdom literature, naming Solomon as his authority for this maxim: a strange one for the most opulent and ostentatious of Hebrew kings to urge, surely.
If the poetic expounding of biblical texts is one arrow which Henrysoun fits to the superb bow of his masterly poetic art, another one is his knowledge of the civil laws of his time. The moral Law and the civil laws are twin concerns of his humorously legalistic mind, the former providing criteria for judging the latter. The Taill of the Scheip and the Doig is a case in point, though here the main object of attack is ecclesiastical courts. The tale is of how a dog, being hard-up, sued a sheep in the Consistory Court for a loaf of bread alleged to be owed him. The judge is a wolf, the apparitor a raven, the court clerk is a fox, and the two advocates a kite and a vulture -- all traditional enemies of and predators upon sheep. This is traditional material drawn from the Beast-Epic, but Henrysoun, as usual, is giving it a local realization. The sheep, knowing his legal rights, objects to trial by such a judge and court. The judge, in obedience to legal formality, appoints two arbiters, the bear and the badger, to consider the objection. After much mumbo-jumbo and obscuring of the simple truth under legal tomes and jargon, the arbiters, who are as incorruptible by prayer as by bribe (a nice irony), find against the sheep. There is no appeal against their decision, and the sheep is ordered to pay back the loaf, costing some five shillings, to obtain which he has to sell the wool off his back (a fine ambiguous touch) in dead of winter.
The poem ends with a complaint by the sheep to God, asking why He sleeps so long. One is reminded here of the English Chronicler's comment (Peterborough Chronicle) on the anarchy in the reign of Stephen and Matilda, the appalling torture of peasants for goods they did not possess, to the effect that 'men said that God slept'. Henrysoun is writing of a similar period in Scotland. Professor MacQueen suggests a contrast-comparison with Ben Jonson's Volpone.
It is clear that in this tale we have something very different from the foregoing. This is not a moral allegory, except at the simple fable level, but a piece of realistic social satire on the legal corruption of the age by a man thoroughly skilled and experienced in legal practice. The source in Gualterus Anglicus's version of Aesop is naturalized in its Scottish setting. In the Moralitas, which contains the five stanzas of the sheep's complaint to God, the appeal to divine law against human, Henrysoun achieves a truer universality than abstract theology in seeing the sheep's plight as not only that of the Scottish poor folk, the 'pure commounis', but the poor everywhere. The satire is of the whole corrupt travesty of human laws, legalised injustice of one class or faction over the others, in the light of the divine or moral Law. One thinks of Burns's later comment, 'Courts for cowards were erected'. This is not to read-in a post-Marxian view: Henrysoun's point of departure is the moral law as revealed in Holy Writ. Indeed, the reliance he puts on the Bible may be significant in the light of the Reformation in the next century. That Henrysoun was a humanist is clear: was he also a latent reformer?
The legalised injustice of human law, the paradox of the injustice of Justice, is the main burden also of The Taill of the Wolf and the Lamb, though it is only one among others. The tale is very simple in structure, again, the complications being in the dialogue, not the story. A wolf and a lamb drink at the same river, and the wolf accuses the lamb of fouling his drinking water. The lamb points out that as he is downstream from the wolf this is impossible, and anyway as he only sucks his mother's milk his mouth cannot be foul. After much bandying of rationalizations the wolf finally eats the lamb. An unusual nuance here is that the wolf actually believes in evil and denounces good:
The lamb had argued with almost scholastic logic from three authorities: natural law, divine law, and human law both secular and ecclesiastic. Now the wolf says that it is open treason to set up the authority of Reason over the feudal principle of might is right, that what a man can take by force of arms is his by right. We have seen this working out before in certain of the romances, notably in the ghost's speech in the Awntyrs of Arthure, and in the case of Galeron of Galloway in the same poem, and also in Golagros and Gawane. There to some extent the Christian and natural moral case against feudal land-grabbing was relieved by the high idealism of early chivalric idealism: here, feudalism has decayed and the idealism has given way to the underlying wolfishness. Yet the wolf has the authority of ruling-class custom behind him -- he is conservative and sees mere social justice as a treasonable attack on ruling-class privilege. The same kind of argument is resorted to against rational social justice in our own, as in many a past age. To the wolf, the injustice of the might-is-right case is the only good, and the lamb's appeal to reason and justice is open treachery, rebellion, and downright evil. The wolf's case is that of Edward I against Wallace, and the argument in our own time against all rational change: 'you can't change human nature'. By 'human nature' of course is meant the economic system run by the ruling class. The poem therefore is a dialogue between social justice backed by the triple rational authority of natural, moral and human law against feudal anarchy, which tyrannised over Crown and people in Scotland throughout most of the fifteenth century. For this reason, too, Henrysoun allows the lamb to be eaten by the wolf although he wins the rational argument: Reason is powerless against ruthless Might in reality. He is too honest and realistic to fake the issue with some sentimental appeal to a Deus ex Machina.
In the Moralitas, Henrysoun makes this clearer and more specific. The lamb, he tells us, symbolises the Scottish peasantry, and the wolf represents three types of evil oppressor (balancing the three types of law in the lamb's speech in the Taill itself). These three types are the corrupt manipulator of the legal system, the ruthless landlord grabbing the peasant's farm out of greed, and the third is the hereditary land-owner who exploits the tenant while on his land and takes every opportunity, even framing one, to put him off it before any value can accrue to him:
Henrysoun goes on to describe the monstrous abuse of the poor tenants, ending that it cries to the heavens for vengeance to make a poor man work for neither food nor pay. He warns great lords that violence and cruelty cannot endure for ever, and that in the after-life they will be as severely punished for their oppression of the poor as if they had deliberately murdered them. This, coming from so deeply religious a poet, is no idle threat. He means that they will suffer the damnation appropriate to the violent against their neighbours. In terms of Dante's Inferno this means that they would be relegated to the seventh circle of hell ruled over by the Minotaur, emblem of the bloodthirsty violence and brutality punished there. The Seventh Circle is surrounded by the River of Blood in which all those guilty of murder are tormented according to the degree of their guilt. Some are immersed in it up to their eyebrows, some to the throat, and so on according to their degree, while troops of centaurs man the banks, keeping each sinner at his proper depth. There all tyrants, murderers, ruthless warriors and depredators are tormented to all eternity. Dante mentions by name some of the sinners he saw there, but Henrysoun could have added many a name -- that of Douglas prominent among them -- from fifteenth century Scotland. In the last stanza he prays God to look after the lamb 'that is the Innocent' from wolves devouring, 'I mene extortineiris', and to punish evil men according to their deserts. And he ends with a thoroughly topical appeal to the king (James III?) to do what kingship had tried and failed to do most of the century:
That clearly was meant for the king's ears as much as God's, but insofar as it was as likely to be heard by the very wolves he was inveighing against, it argues considerable moral courage on the part of our poet: a point the commentators seem to have missed.
Technically, the main feature of the poem is the poetic use of scholastic and legal debate between the wolf and the lamb, both using highly technical language. This adaptation of legal forms and the like to poetic use was a salient achievement of the Middle Ages -- Villon's Testament is the outstanding example. Henrysoun is the great Scottish master of this and other architectonic features: no Scottish poet, including Dunbar, has ever equalled him in this classical sense of structure, balance, contrast, counterpoint and other aspects of architectonic. His command of style and decorum (the lamb is polite to the wolf, using 'ye' and 'you'; the wolf uses 'thow'), in this poem as in most, is superb and secure. The poem has great wealth too of realistic observation, typical of him and all Scottish poets in the main tradition from Barbour on.
The Taill of Schir Chanticleir and the Foxe is well-known to readers of Chaucer, but Henrysoun's version, though simpler and more economical, is less diffuse and to my mind more effective. Chaucer's mind ran to expansion and exhaustiveness, Henrysoun's to contraction and economy. The first is the method rather of a prose writer -- and Chaucer's affinities with great novelists has been often remarked -- the latter of a poet. Henrysoun really has more in common technically with Dante than with Chaucer, and in temperament he stands somewhere between the two: not as sunny as Chaucer, nor as bleak as Dante, nor as sweet as either, nor of course as supreme a writer.
The theme is the danger of false pride, vulnerable to flattery. Professor MacQueen points to a parallel treatment of the Greek lords in Orpheus and Eurydice. The fox pretends to be very humble to the cock until he gets close enough to seize him, but the cock turns the tables by outwitting the fox in the end. The general abstract moral of the theme is obvious enough, but was there perhaps some particular reference to historical figures? James III had the reputation of being accessible to flattery, though false pride and vainglory would seem to be a charge difficult to sustain against such a king: James IV would fit the parable well enough -- a 'fox' did have his father swoon in his arms:
Professor MacQueen draws attention to that unparalleled 'swete'. There is a curious resemblance between that passage and the story of the death of James III at the hands of a pseudo-priest after Sauchieburn, the king already fatally wounded. The fox in the poem talks like a priest, and even the 'besy curis' suggests one. James IV, his son, was both vainglorious and notoriously accessible to flatterers, and his imprudence led to Flodden. Moreover, his prowess as a lover, his many paramours, might be paralleled in the many loves of Chantecleir, and the quick wit (with which Chanticleir eventually rescued himself from the fox) also fits. In the Moralitas Henrysoun generalises his theme, but had he a particular person in mind in his adaptation of the tale?
The poem is one of the very best of these tales, the fingering perfect, the balance, versification, metre, rhythm, modulations and decorum of dialogue superb. Technically this is perhaps the best of all, the deft sketching-in of the poor widow and her hens, her grief over the theft of the cock, are as fine as they are economic. In laying bare the sources of these poems, one must never forget that they are but sources: the poem's excellence is in its imaginative recreation of the material in superb verse, and it is the humanity, not the humanism, of Henrysoun which is his chief pass to immortality. The widow's grief modulates from the folk style to a higher, taking on more rhetorical and conventional colouring and form, and her 'Allace, now lost is gentill Chantecleir' is yet another parallel with the Orpheus poem -- 'Quhair art thow gane, my luf Eurydices?'. Pertok's lament, with its highly formal use of the rhetorical question, is in the high courtly style. This heightens the comedy, and is at once smacked down to earth by Sprutok's cynical retort; but may this too be a clue to a courtly object of the poem? Adultery and promiscuity are the courtly reality behind the courtly ideal, and James IV was a hero of both. The cock's return to the barnyard after having almost lost his head is a coming to his senses, much increased in wisdom. In this connection I cannot but think of James's follies: the near war with England caused by his falling for the Perkin Warbeck imposture, his dreams of leading a crusade, the last folly of Flodden. Only the first might have come within Henrysoun's writing life, but Henrysoun would see the danger of this character trait, and indeed he might have perceived it in the young king before any overt action made it obvious.
This tale has a sequel, The Taill how this foirsaid Tod maid his Confessioun to Freir Wolf Waitskaith, in which the fox meets his death through duplicity and greed. This tale is an elaboration of the original, adding an astrological parallel to the nature and fate of the fox, a 'horoscope'. In this allegorical use Night is allied with appetite, Capricorn with the kid stolen by the fox, and Sagittarius with the arrow which kills the fox. The main theme is the necessity of making true confession and repentance before death suddenly and unexpectedly intervenes. The fox is trapped in habit, as all are liable to be, and although he has the insight to see the condition he is in, has not got the strength to break free. But the meaning of the astrological allegory is that this is not merely habit, though Henrysoun implies this in the Moralitas, but nature. Moreover, if the animal allegory is to be taken at all seriously, that is the significance of it, too. This is borne out by the fox's touching apology, 'And I forbeir, how sall I leif, allace,' having no other means of livelihood.
The poem is unsatisfactory, to my mind, because its ambiguities often contradict rather than converge. True, the fox's nature is paralleled by the nature of fallen man: man cannot help being fallen, yet is guilty, as it were, of that of which he cannot be guilty, having had no real choice in his own Fall. The orthodox answer is, no doubt, that although this is true he can by grace and free-will achieve redemption. It is significant that Henrysoun makes his confessor a wolf: not, as Professor MacQueen would have it, because he chooses a wolf, but because confessors are also fallen men in much the same plight as the fox. Moreover, the poet involves himself in the common guilt by hypocritically pretending to avoid hearing the confession, but at the same time telling us what it was he nevertheless heard. The wolf is a hypocrite, so is the fox, and so is the poet, and so are we and all of us who judge as if we were not implicated in the common guilt. This is a deeper meaning of the tale than is suggested by the Moralitas, with its conventional finger-wagging. There is something cynical and unsavoury in this tale, and oddly enough, it is something inherent in the whole Christian dogma. This is the doctrine of perfection. The fox cannot make a perfect atonement without losing his life: it is against nature. Yet the Christian injunction is 'be ye perfect as your father in heaven is perfect' and 'lose your life'. This is impossible, and the counsel of perfection too easily leads to despair and cynicism: almost inevitably, in fact. In this book we have seen time and again the clash of the Christian ideal with the social and material reality, and here again we find it presented in its full schismatic, splitting conflict. The key to Henrysoun's attitude is in the fox's allusion to Luke 16 verse 3, the story of the unjust steward who was forgiven by his lord because he was, in befriending mammon to solve the insoluble, 'wise in his generation'. This is implicit also, I think, in the story of C¾sar's head on the coin -- not alluded to in the poem.
Another poem on a fox makes up this trilogy -- The Taill of the Sone and Air of the foirsaid Foxe, callit Father wer. Alswa the Parliament of fourfuttit Beistis, haldin be the Lyon. This is known shortly as The Trial of the Fox, and at almost four hundred lines long is the longest of the tales, most elaborate and complex. There are really two tales here -- one of how the son finds the father slain, as in the previous tale, and rejoices at the opportunities this affords him, yet superstitiously disposes of the body. The second is of how the king of beasts, the lion, calls a parliament, as a result of whose deliberations the fox and the wolf are sent to fetch the defaulting member, the mare, and in this exercise the wolf is kicked on the head by the mare, the fox kills and eats a lamb, as a result of which he is tried and hanged on his return. The text seems to be corrupt and unsatisfactory. The Moralitas here is a bit far-fetched and should be read first: the lyon is said to be 'the world' and the mare is the true religious who spurn the world; the wolf is sensuality attacking the religious seductively; and the fox is temptation. If he hadn't told us, few would have guessed quite this interpretation, which is a little bit unobvious, and unlike the simplicity of most of the others. But the fact that the parliament of beasts is cast in the image of a Scottish parliament introduces a historico-social element not obviously blending with the Moralitas. Yet here is the evidence for the view of Henrysoun in relation to his age put forward at the beginning of this chapter: the whole res of the Scottish kingdom is a temptation to think on worldly matters, to be resisted by the Christian.
In view of the agony of the kingdom throughout his lifetime, it is hard not to accuse him of an element of escapism in this aloofness. But this can only have a descriptive relevance here. Certainly Henrysoun was more aloof from the affairs of the kingdom than any other major Scots poet. Yet the doings of the beast parliament are worked out in terms of exact legal procedure, and the crucial Moralitas is found only in the Bannatyne text. But at the centre of the tale seems to be undoubtedly the strained relations of Church and State, or at least of the monastic orders and the State, in the reign of James III.
James seems to have encouraged monastic promotion by favouritism instead of merit, in 1468 deposing the elected abbot of Dunfermline in favour of a protg of his own, and he was at loggerheads with the first archbishop of St Andrews, Patrick Graham, incarcerating him in Dunfermline. The mare therefore is the resistance of the monastic orders to the worldly corruption attempted by the king, who is both king and symbol of worldly temptation. The mare's kicking of the wolf with her hind hoof is a parody of Christ's word to Satan at the Temptation -- 'Get thee behind me'. As the wolf is the king's emissary, it is not a very flattering picture of the king, but speaks volumes on the passion of Robert Henrysoun. Yet it is true that the main temptation of Christ was worldly power -- the kingdoms of the earth -- and His great declaration at His trial was that His kingdom was not of this world. The depth of Henrysoun's religious vocation is nowhere more passionately revealed. It is also worth noting that the attack on the monastic orders was one of the first signs of the Reformation, which may here be seen stirring already in the reign of James III. Henrysoun's attitude is unequivocal, unlike that of his successor, Dunbar, and of course the Scottish scene was but part of the European: hence the reference to the Emperor in the lines:
Professor MacQueen draws attention to the fact that the Emperor Frederick III had considerable character resemblance to James III, and the linking of the two appears again in The Lion and the Mouse:
Again, Henrysoun is thinking in both Scottish and European terms. The fox and the wolf may be masks of actual nobles, or commoner favourites of James III, and the historical allusions be more precise than we can now perceive.
The poem as such is very effective, and there is a correspondence between the dead fox and his bastard son, and Lear and Edmund. If the father was bad, says the poet, the son is worse, for bad begets worse and worse begets worst. The catalogue of the beasts not only involves, as always in Henrysoun, the whole of nature in human affairs, but each animal represents some human type or characteristic -- implied where not stated. These can even be seen as types of worldliness, of sin -- the lion is Ire, the pigs Gluttony or Sloth, the wolf Avarice, the fox Envy or Lust, and so on. The key to this world is Sensuality (a key word, too, with Lyndsay in his great Satire of the Thrie Estaitis), here associated with the wolf in particular, over against which fallen nature Henrysoun sets the transcendent aspirations of the monastic and contemplative orders. There is a neo-Platonic correspondence here, and a comparison of the historical situations of Plotinus and Henrysoun might be instructive. But this poetic vision of the kingdom(s) of the world and Europe as utterly corrupt, not morally only but religiously through the Fall is unique, as far as I know, to Henrysoun, and stems from his uncompromising dedication to the religious life. The king boasts of his temporal power, and with fine irony Henrysoun makes him say that under it the fox won't lust after the lamb -- the very crime the fox will commit. This boast, in fact, strikes terror into the fox who begins to see the parliament as a sort of Day of Judgment when sinners like himself are to be punished: and indeed there is this overtone. There is a deal of comedy wrung from the disguises he resorts to, and the whole poem has a strong comic undertone, but rather grim, even in the brisk dialogue between the mare and the two emissaries. The wolf, made Doctor of Divinity by the red cap given by the mare's heel (a reference to intruded abbots and such?) makes them all laugh, and he shrives the fox at his end.
The most religious of these tales, and in some ways the most poetically perfect, is The Preiching of the Swallow. The tale itself is simple enough -- how the swallow tried to warn the other birds of the dangers of the snares of the fowler, and how they scorned the advice and were caught. But the tale is introduced by the most complete statement of his transcendentalist theology which Henrysoun has given us. He sees the universe almost in terms of the neo-Platonic schools of Chartres, though he quotes Aristotle's image of the soul as the bat's eye that sees only at night. This view is a highly intellectual interpretation of the universe in terms of appearance and reality, the reality being the ideas behind the appearance: in religious terms appearance is sensuality, and the intellectual reality is the spiritual truth. But Henrysoun also sees that certain aspects of reality can be discovered through the sensuous world of appearance, of 'nature', though the higher mysteries will always be beyond natural science. God is seen as both Wise and Good in the Creation, for it is both harmonious and beautiful, and his love of man is proved by his giving man dominion over the creatures. All this he exemplifies by reference to creaturely life and other phenomena of nature, in verse which is at times almost biblical in its sublimity:
He then goes on to describe the four seasons in terms which are both conventional and highly original, really feeling out the traditional material on his nerve-ends, so that it is revived. The winter scene most inspires the true Scots poet, and it is not only the best done but gets two stanzas, the others one each; and as usual he makes full use of the physical qualities of alliteration. Then, without in any way breaking the quiet meditative tone, he moves from description of spring straight into his story --
Thus he slides effortlessly from theologizing into his tale, the effect being that of the unbroken continuity of man with the divine order. The soil (allegorically man's soul) is ready to receive all manner of seed, good and evil, and he rejoices to see the labourers in the field. This scene is reminiscent of Piers Plowman, the earth a field full of folk, between heaven and hell. The cycle of the seasons is then repeated in the tale, which begins in spring, as we have seen, passes through summer into autumn and harvest, then to winter again, with the birds gleaning the reaped fields. In this section there is dialogue between the swallow, uttering his warning like the voice in the wilderness, and the scornful replies of the other birds -- often studded with folk-proverbs, which are here used as types of worldly-wisdom, heaven-foolish. The birds are done to death by the fowler, having failed to listen to good counsel from the swallow -- who is of course the clergy. An interesting feature of the poem is the poet's use of the eavesdropping convention to account for his information. It is here very creaky indeed, for he has to repeat it 'be aventure and cace'. Yet this visionary convention is another reminiscence of Piers Plowman, though here a Sower of seed replaces the ploughman, normally of course the same man. This alludes to the parable of the sower who went forth to sow, and that of the Tares. The soil is equally receptive of either, and the sower here is also the fowler who takes the birds. The Moralitas makes clear that the sower is the Devil, the seed is sin, the soil the soul, and the swallow the priestly voice of Reason; the birds gleaning are gatherers of worldly wealth. As always in Henrysoun, there is a flaw in the moral use of animal life, because the behaviour of the creature is 'natural' not spiritual, determined, not free; therefore the creature not only needs to behave the way it does but cannot do other: it is not responsible. This is a serious flaw in the the whole genre, for it argues unconsciously against the conscious purpose, though that too may be intended.
The Taill of the Lyon and the Mous has certain close resemblances to the above tale, and may have been a sequel to it, more specifically applied to the Scottish scene. Even structurally, the poem consists of a prologue-cum-introduction leading to the poet's falling asleep and meeting Aesope in a dream, thus getting the tale 'from the horse's mouth'. The figure of Aesope has much in common with Henrysoun -- he is said to have studied Civil Law in Rome -- and we may here have a clue to Henrysoun's appearance. He is of large stature, with great gray eyes, strong of face, white-haired, and has a sturdy stride. In his discourse with the dream Aesope, Henrysoun reiterates his purpose in writing these tales, for when he asks Aesope for a tale, the ancient replies
This is not, in my reading, a reference to the Preiching of the Swallow, but to Henrysoun's attempt to achieve by a coated pill what undisguised medicine cannot -- though a double-entendre is quite likely. Aesope, of course, is presented as a Christian and has no objective reality -- happily for our purpose in reading Henrysoun. He further declares his purpose by asking Aesope nevertheless to tell him a moral fable that he may 'leir and beir away' something from it [which] 'heirefter may avail'. Henrysoun sees his fables as treasures in heaven.
The tale itself is of a lion lazily asleep in a fair forest being danced over by a throng of merry-making mice, as if he weren't there. The lion awakes, and seizing the leading mouse, threatens to hang him. The mouse apologizes, makes an eloquent plea that justice be seasoned with mercy, and wins a reprieve. Later, the lion is caught in a trap laid by hunters who are oppressed by him, and the mice eat through the ropes and free him. The Moralitas explicitly tells us that the lion signifies 'ane prince or empriour' or king or noble, the fair forest is the world, the sleep of the lion is the laxness of the king, the mice are the common people, and the hunters are landlords 'oppressed' by the crown. This therefore is a simple political allegory advising James III (most likely) to rule more firmly and invoke the power of the small men, the people, against that of the nobles. This sound policy of the identity of king and commons was at the heart of every Scottish reign: a good reign demonstrated it, a bad one was characterized by the lack of it, and the many regencies underlined the need of it by showing what happened when the accursed nobles got too much power. A strong kingship founded on the common people was the one guarantee of national integrity and prosperity. Henrysoun's wisdom is never more apparent, and clearly was not other-worldly. The tale is therefore superficially on a different plane from that of the swallow; but the birds taken in the net, and the lion taken in the net, are parallel appeals to prudent foresight and knowing true friend from foe. The tale foreshadows Lyndsay's great satire of the next century.
The Taill of the Foxe that begylit the Wolf in the schadow of the Mone is a more complicated fable than the others, but it has some of his finest touches of realistic description and characterisation. It tells how a husbandman ploughing a field is annoyed by his oxen and wishes a wolf would take them. A wolf overhearing in company with a fox, takes him at his word and asks for the oxen. When the husbandman refuses, he threatens him with the law and calls on the fox as witness. The fox secretly does a deal with the husbandman for a few hens, and tells the wolf that he has arranged with the husbandman to compensate the wolf with a cheese. He then takes the wolf to a well at night and shows him the image of the moon in the water, saying that it is the cheese. The wolf makes him go down to fetch it, but the fox pretends to be unable to lift it and asks the wolf to come down in the other bucket and help him. When the wolf does so the fox is weighed up in his bucket and leaves the wolf to his fate.
Involved as it is, the tale is fairly self-explanatory. The Moralitas tells us that the wolf is a wicked oppressor of the poor, the fox is the devil, the husbandman is a god-fearing sinner, the hens are the works of faith, the woods are wicked riches, the cheese is the deadly sin of Avarice which draws men down to hell. The up-and-down buckets have an obvious relation to Fortune's wheel, and there is a fine irony in the wolf's being drawn down to the mere reflection of that which in reality is high in the heavens. The tale is both political, with the wolf as the nobles not only of Europe but of Scotland, and religious: the allegory as usual bearing different levels of interpretation, which I leave to the reader. The symbolism is the least original and poetically valuable part of the poem, once grasped, and the little touches of realism in describing the husbandman at work, and the legal arguments so casuistically bandied, are its most notable features, with the characterization of the wolf and the fox. The wolf, for instance, is the typical extrovert character to whom what is immediately before his eyes is more valuable than anything not so: he is always chasing the shadow of a shadow instead of the substance of a substance. This double-take is implied by the fact that the moon itself is but a reflection of the sun, and that even the world of real appearance is only the reflection of the ideal world. The husbandman of course is peer of Piers Plowman. The wolf, at the level of feudal oppressor, is a decadent scion of the chivalric tradition of the Romances, and a degeneration, perhaps, of the Fall of Princes theme.
The Taill of the Wolf that gat the Nekhering throw the wrinkis of the Foxe that begylit the Cadgear, is yet another variation of Henrysoun's main theme of appearance and reality. The tale is of how a wolf conscripts a fox into his service as steward, because of his guile first to defraud the cadger of his herring, then the wolf of the herring and almost of his life. On the face of it the Moralitas would seem to be the proverbial one that 'he that would sup with the Deil maun hae a lang spuin', or some such thing. Henrysoun -- for this seems to be an original addition -- makes rather a heavy meal of it, giving the cadger the significance of Death, the fox is 'the world', and the wolf is mankind. Mankind seeks to enlist the world in its service, but is betrayed by it to Death in the end. The herring are gold, and the 'nek-hering' is a joke, meaning a blow on the neck, which the wolf gets. The fox allows the wolf to imagine some great super-herring worth all the rest, while in fact it is a near-lethal blow. I cannot but find this Moralitas a bit unsatisfactory, and one wonders what Henryson would have made of all the others, had they been left entirely to his own invention. There is, to me, a reading of the 'nek-hering' which suggests itself, but which Henrysoun cannot have meant: that the nek-hering is an illusory after-life fostered in man's fantasy, the reality of which is but death. For if the herring are gold, the nek-hering, being no real fish, is an imaginary treasure which turns out to be in fact Death. But Henrysoun's meaning almost certainly is simply that in pursuing wealth Man is led to overreach himself and fall into death's trap; that, indeed, is Henrysoun's reading. The association of death and gold is to be found, as Professor MacQueen points out, in Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale. But the Pardoner is nothing if not a religious cynic, and two levels of 'treasure' suggest themselves there also.
The last of these tales is again about a wolf -- The Taill of the Wolf and the Wedder. The story is that a shepherd loses his dog in illness, and a sheep offers to replace this guardian of the flock by wearing his skin and chasing marauders like a dog. The shepherd agrees, but when a wolf steals a lamb, the sheep in dogskin is not content to chase it until the the lamb is released, but is so carried away by success that it continues to hunt the wolf until the dogskin is torn away by a bush, and the wolf turns on his pursuer and kills him. Here again we have an almost purely political allegory which seems clearly to refer to James III and his promotion of such lowly-born men of merit as Robert Cochran and his colleagues, lynched by the nobles at Lauder Bridge in 1482. I find it difficult to see any Christian significance, except in the widest general way, in the tale. If the sheep in dogskin was indeed Cochran -- he was notorious for his affectation of gorgeous clothes -- the shepherd himself was soon to follow, when James was slain six years later at Bannockburn (Sauchieburn). Is it possible that Henrysoun was uttering a warning? There is no evidence that he was near enough the court to be listened to, but there is the tale of the lion and the mouse to show that he did offer advice to the king in the form of a fable. The two tales have one thing in common: in the one he advises the king to seek the common people in his cause against the nobles, and in the other he warns against taking this too far, by promoting commoners beyond their natural capacities. The second stanza of the Moralitas seems definitely to refer to Cochran and his 'riches of array', but the tone of it too is clearly addressed to other king's favourites rather than the king himself:
That ladder has an ominous significance, for it has overtones of hanging.
The tale, as if to exemplify the moral, is predominantly in the folk style, with almost exaggerated simplicity of diction, counter-pointed at appropriate places by inflation to the high, mainly to point up the comic presumptions of the sheep. But his sympathy is with neither sheep nor wolf, it is with the shepherd whose plight, on the death of his faithful dog (is some wise counsellor implied here?), leads him to such a desperate remedy. Moreover, the courage and goodwill of the sheep toward the shepherd is self-evident: its fault is not in its effort to help, but in its over-reaching itself. The wolf, on the other hand, is seen in a wholly derogatory light: firstly because it is a lawless plunderer from the anarchic forest, and secondly because in its flight from the sheep it is such an abject coward that it fouls the ground behind it several times. Nothing but contempt is shown for the wolf, and when the gallant but misguided sheep is slain by it, in the nature of things, our sympathy is with it, despite its fault. Similarly, while we condemn the affectations of Cochran, our sympathies are with him and not his lynchers.
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