Henrysoun has left us only two tragedies to set against the thirteen comedies (the fables), but one of these is the best poem written so far -- The Testament of Cresseid. The other one, Orpheus and Eurydice, is an altogether lesser work, but not without interest. It seems to be an early work, lacking the technical security so characteristic of Henrysoun's major (and even his minor) work. The Orpheus is not a 'modern' treatment of a classical theme as Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida seems to be. It is a Christian theological poem imitated from Boethius in which the characters are not Greek heroes but Christian symbols. Thus Orpheus, Henrysoun tells us, is the Intellect, and Eurydice is the Affections, and the whole poem is a sort of psychomachia, the tragic struggle of the Intellect to free itself from the lower passions, leading the Feelings up out of hell. It is true tragedy in the Greek sense that the 'hero' is an exceptional man with a fatal flaw which leads to his undoing. One is tempted to see in the original story a drama of faith flawed by doubt, but here only Henrysoun's Boethian scheme is relevant.
Henrysoun opens with a homily on the subject of genealogy, the new generation continuing the traditions of its ancestors, on pain of degeneration. This great truth is one of the main arguments for national and other local cultures and concerns the degenerate state of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland today. He deduces this truth from the great lords of Greece, who dedicated themselves to the preservation and advancement of the civilization handed down to them. This leads him to the birth of Orpheus from his mother Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry, by Apollo. Henrysoun makes Calliope 'of all musik maistress', but the point is that all the other Muses are his aunts, which identifies him as an art hero. So fair he was that Eurydice, the queen of Thrace, sought and got the young man as her wedded lord and king. One day, out walking with her maid, Eurydice was chased by a herdsman, Arresteus, tramped on a snake, and swooned, being carried down to Hades by Proserpina. Orpheus goes half-mad and retires to the woods where he sings his Complaint with the refrain 'Quhair art thow gane, my luf Erudices?'
This brings us onto the familiar ground of the tale, but the genealogical introduction is drawn from Boccacio['s] De Genealogica Deorum, as is the allegorical view of the Muses in terms of the nine spheres of heaven in mediaeval cosmogony. Orpheus, in his search for Eurydice, seeks her first in the heavenly spheres, where he learns their music. Henrysoun here takes refuge in 'occupatio', offering the information that he is incompetent 'For in my lyfe I cowth nevir sing a noit'. In his wanderings, Orpheus at last descends to hell, where he charms Cerberus, the Furies, frees Ixion from his wheel, relieves Tantalus and Tityus, and [performs] other wonders, by the power of his music. Pluto and Proserpina are so charmed also that they allow him to take Eurydice away on condition that he doesn't look back at her till he has reached the outmost bounds of hell. The rest is the conventional tale.
The actual tale of the sojourn in hell -- the catalogue of the great dead he sees there, Hector, Alexander, Caesar and 'mony paip and cardynall', the ghostly shade of Eurydice, the journey out and the forgetful glance which undoes them both -- is scamped into a few clumsy stanzas. He is not interested in the tale, only the meaning, and his artistry is nowhere as bad as here. In fact, but for the attributions and the allegorical obsession, I would have difficulty in believing in Henrysoun's authorship. It is his worst poem of any length.
The Moralitas is his real interest, however, and he hastens on to it, and his Boethian purpose -- 'Boece, that seanatour' who wrote this 'fenyeit fable' in his 'gay buke' of philosophical consolation. That 'gay' is the most remarkable adjective in Scottish poetry. He mentions Nicholas Trevet as well as Boethius, and it is Trevet's commentary on Boethius that gives him his main interpretation -- Orpheus as Intellect, Eurydice as Emotion, Arresteus as Virtue (!), and the serpent as Sensuality. Cerberus is our old friend The World, and his three heads are Childhood, Maturity and Age. The allegory is even extended to the furies (sin in thought, word and deed), Ixion (sins of lust and violence and worldly cupidity), Tantalus (the sin of avarice) and Tityus (the heresy of wizardry). The absurdity of the Christian-pagan mixture is never more laughable than when that God-fearing Christian, Apollo, puts Tityus in hell for divination. The final interpretation of this Orphic reading is that the sin of sexuality separates the perfect (ie sexless) union of Reason and Affection, achieving not union but separation and loss. It is a moral for monks, but of no use whatever to human nature, and it is achieved by a gross distortion of one of the greatest tales in literature.
The Orpheus, in other words, is a bad poem, and no amount of pious apologising can save it from that fact. The yoking together of incompatibles is at the opposite remove from true allegory -- the Dantesque fourfold allegory is completely harmonious throughout, the different levels of meaning reflecting each other, distinct but congruous. But also, the original Greek myth contradicts the Christian interpretation, or distortion, in certain ways. The Greek view is that Orpheus offended against certain other gods in his worship of Apollo -- notably Dionysus and Aphrodite -- and he was accused of preaching homosexuality. In this view, his fate is that of an ascetic extremist. In the Christian reading his fate is that of one not extremist enough for the Christian anti-sexual ideal. I cannot go into this in detail here, but for me the poem is flawed by the unresolved conflict at the core of it, and this is reflected in the technique, which reveals disproportion of values: the important often scamped, the unimportant lingered on.
Very different is The Testament of Cresseid. The 616 lines of the poem fall into nine natural, but not marked, portions. There is an introduction in the first 70 lines, the first narrative from 71 to 140, a vision of the gods and trial of Cresseid from 141 to 343, the narrative continued 344 to 406, the Complaint of Cresseid (in a nine-line stanza instead of the rhyme royal of the rest) from 407 to 469; the narrative again from 470 to 546, the Confession of Cresseid, with its pathetic refrain, 'O fals Cresseid, and trew knicht Troilus!', from 547 to 574, the Testament proper from 575 to 591, and the final narrative from 591 to 616, including a 'moralitas' coda.
The poem therefore is a well-constructed artefact, corresponding, in a sense, to the scenes of a drama. Indeed, the whole poem could be made the basis of a Greek-type tragic drama. I want to stress this architectural quality of the poem because Scots poetry has been so commonly identified with pure lyric, with song, since the eighteenth century. This architectonic, moreover, is worked out in greater detail in the body of the poem in parallels and contrasts, such as the parallel of the poet and Cresseid in the opening and the contrast between Cresseid's former and present state, and between her and Troilus. The whole poem moves on such dialectic and dramatic tensions.
The obvious 'source' of the poem -- I would prefer the word 'stimulus' -- is Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, as Henrysoun himself tells us. He mentions also 'ane uther quair', but most likely only to keep up the lip-service poets were expected to pay to 'authority' in a scholastic age. The fact that the poem is a work of original imagination is hinted at by Henrysoun himself:
There the whole problem of 'authority' and 'imagination' or 'invention' is put with dry humour, and the 'sum poeit', with its emphasis on the original meaning of the poet, imaginative creator, is almost certainly Henrysoun himself. As Professor MacQueen points out, this use of 'Inventioun' seems to be the first in either Scots or English, and shows that Henrysoun at any rate knows what imagination is, and sees the comedy of its subjection to 'authority', the greater value to the less. It is precisely the failure of imagination to free itself from 'authority' sufficiently that makes the Orpheus fail as a poem. Even Dante himself could not have made anything but tedious verse out of all his 'authorities' if he had lacked the inspired imaginative genius to bring it all to vibrant poetic life. Henrysoun is making here an interesting declaration of his own genius in the comic disguise of 'ane uther quair', to please those who don't believe, as he does, that imagination is its own authority.
The genius is everywhere evident. The opening stanza sets the tone with assurance:
The unique quality Henrysoun brings to Scottish verse up to his time is there apparent: an easy conversational style perfectly married to a highly wrought rhetorical verse. It is not merely that he makes full use of alliteration (in a highly individual way) but that his ear is everywhere using consonantal and vowel echoes to give his work cohesion and firm structure.
Deftly he sketches in his scene -- the time April when winter and spring are battling for supremacy as the soul and the body are in the religious fasting of the Lent season. The very weather is dramatic, a doolie sessoun to a tragic poem. He watches Venus rise as the sun goes down, darkness and the erotic rise as reason sinks; the north wind has 'purifyit' the air and shed the clouds, cold becomes oppressive, and he prays to Venus to revive his youthful capacity to love. But the cold drives him to his fireside to seek an outer heat, an old man; he mends his fire, takes a drink (not a love potion) to quicken his old veins, and is content merely to read of love in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. Although the time is April, he speaks of 'the winter nicht', which is indeed how he paints it. The exaggerated passions of the young Troilus contrast with his faded ones, as he waits in hope and dread for his love to return -- in vain. There is a faint note of irony in his mention of 'worthie' Chaucer who 'in Ioly veirs Compylit hes his (Troilus's) cairis', and in his turning to 'ane uther quair' to 'brek my sleip'. In fact he is rather nodding over Chaucer, and he turns to 'ane uther quair' (his own imagination) to provide him with better fare than the compilation of Troilus's gamut of courtly love extravagances. The 'better fare' is not the fate of Troilus but of Cresseid.
Beginning the narrative, he tells how Diomed deserts Cresseid for another, and Cresseid becomes a common whore, which rouses Henrysoun's pity and charity, and he blames Fortune for her plight. She returns to her father Calchas, who welcomes her as a sort of Prodigal Daughter. Calchas himself shares the guilt here: he is a priest of Venus and Cupid. Cresseid is afraid to join the worshippers in the temple, lest they blame her, but in a private chapel she gives vent to anger against her father's gods, Venus and Cupid, blaming them for her plight. In a remarkable outburst, in which she says that the seed of love was sown in her face, grew green, but is now frosted, she seems to anticipate the trial and verdict of the gods: that is, she has returned home already stricken with a spiritual leprosy.
As a result of her outburst she swoons 'in ane extasie', and the vision of the gods and trial scene begin. Cupid summons all the spheres with a bell, those rulers of all animate things, and the descriptive passages follow: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Phoebus, Venus, Mercury and Cynthia are portrayed. This passage is drawn from Boccaccio's De Genealogia Deorum, which gives the pagan god a Christian allegorical significance. It is interesting, this reliance on Dante's great commentator, for Henrysoun had as much of the temperament of Dante as of Chaucer in him. The portrait of Saturn is almost an apotheosis of the theme of blighted love which is dominant throughout the poem: the wintry Lent; the poet's age; Cresseid's degeneration; the waste land atmosphere. He comes like a rough peasant, ill-tempered, with frowning face and lead-like skin, chattering and shivering with cold, the very picture of winter:
Saturn is the farthest out of the planets, and chief in the mediaeval interpretation. He was identified with Time, Kronos, the destroyer and devourer of his own children; and the age of the poet and blight of the heroine meet in the figure of Saturn, the god of decay and senescence, who stands over against spring and love.
Jupiter, on the other hand, is the son of Saturn, the eternal enemy of the father who sought to destroy him, and he symbolises the fertility of spring and early summer, the rising vegetation, and the verse accordingly is bright and higher-toned:
The style there borders on the aureate (never a trait of Henrysoun's work) and the picture is of youthful virility, the embodiment of the principle of fertilization.
The same kind of polarization is struck in the portraits of Mars and Apollo, the one rough and destructive, the other smoothly creative, appropriate to the symbols of strife and peace, and the poetic styles are accordingly folk and courtly. Mercury seems to strike a mean between the two, being seen more in human terms than godly, indeed humourously as an apothecary with his quack medicines and glob tongue, or like 'ane poeit of the auld fassoun', and Henrysoun tells us ironically that the god of eloquence 'not ane word culd lie'.
Venus and Cynthia are also polarized, but less obviously and less totally, for each is an ambivalent figure. Venus ranks with Apollo and Jupiter as a positive fertility force, but she has her negative aspect too, as her half-green, half-black robe symbolises. She is variable as the weather, now hot now cold, unreliable, unstable, wayward and unfaithful -- mobil'donna. Cynthia, on the other hand, is all in black and gray, a figure of night, a hunting, destructive, negative figure, even her light only passively reflected from her brother's. She belongs with Saturn and Mars.
The meaning of all this is that Cresseid's human problems involve the whole cosmic order, that the natural, physical law, not only the human and moral, is involved in her sin, and natural, physical changes will result. This needs stressing: Henrysoun is pointing to a law as intractable as that if a man step out of a window he will fall to the ground unless held by some intervening support. In the moral order, only grace may intervene between sin and its result, and this poem is concerned with the two laws and the two results. In the event, Cresseid suffers the physical results, nothing intervenes; but morally she is eventually saved by grace and confession.
In the ensuing 'trial', Cupid leads for the prosecution, saying that as she has been blasphemous to him, her own god, she will be false to all. Mercury advises Cupid to rest the case in the highest and the lowest planetary gods, Saturn and Cynthia, and Cupid agrees. It is a flaw in the poem that there is no defence, neither Jupiter nor Apollo speaks up for her, and she is sentenced undefended and unheard. Henrysoun no doubt would argue that this is in accordance with reality, but it is an artistic failure to set the stage for a dramatic dialogue and then let only one side speak. He missed a great opportunity to give us something comparable to the trial scene in the Oresteia; and the argument from reality, while true, is poetically invalid. There should at least have been a plea for mercy; but it is in character that Mercury, as Henrysoun had drawn him, should use his eloquence to load the scale against her by turning her over to the two most destructive and negative of the gods. It is left to the poet to protest against the merciless sentence of leprosy and the death of an outcast and pauper. The worst blight falls on her by Cynthia's agency, the leprosy itself. This association of the moon with leprosy is a traditional one in poetry, and may be founded on analogy: the moon is the white goddess, and white was the colour associated with leprosy. White, too, vies with black as a symbol of death.
Cresseid wakes out of her dream to find that she has been indeed transformed into an ugly leper, and she regrets her blasphemy. There is a curious point here for the modern reader, at least: that the disease should be leprosy rather than syphilis. The former has no causal connection whatsoever with whoredom, the latter was an almost inevitable occupational disease. To the mediaevals, of course, all disease was a punishment for sin, and where a knowledge of particular sin coincided with recognition of a particular disease, causal relation would be inferred. Still, it is unsatisfactory and mildly irritating to find a disease more properly associated with appalling misfortune, poverty and hardship -- even heroic hardship, as in the case of Robert Bruce -- smeared as a product of whoredom. Some genuine confusion between tertiary syphilis and leprosy there may have been: I have not seen the question adequately discussed by experts. Leprosy was regarded with greater horror than pox.
The following scene is very touching: the boy coming to call Cresseid to supper, her father sending the message that 'The Goddis wait all your intent full weill' (compare Matthew 6:8), the tragic grief of father and daughter:
That stanza is quintessential Henrysoun: human pathos (whether comically or tragically seen), dignity, simple direct utterance combined with a highly structural art, the voice speaking straight from the heart of a good man to the hearts of all good men, and in their own language -- 'That he had levit to se that wofull hour' is [a] timeless human lament. The whole is intensely -- it is the hallmark of Henrysoun -- and sincerely, passionately imagined.
Cresseid slips away secretly to the leper-house at the town's end (suitably dressed for her permanent exile from society), where her father sends her a daily ration. Some of the lepers knew her, others not, but all welcomed her, the more because they realized she was 'of Nobill Kin'.
Then follows the Complaint of Cresseid, seven nine-line stanzas in high rhetorical style, and such a triumph of his style that it might have served Adam and Eve cast out from Eden: for despite its specific references, it has a universality that makes it a dirge for all human sin. Formally, it echoes and develops, both in detail and intensity, the doom pronounced on her by Saturn and Cynthia, so that it has a crescendo effect in the poem. But it is because she sings the dirge of the race that it has such power:
That is the true note of the great music, the ubi sunt theme at one level, the voice of Rachel weeping for her children at another, the voice of the great pibrochs at another. The 'your' there refers not simply to Cresseid but Everyman: she laments the human condition, and not even in Dunbar, I feel, did the great wail of the fifteenth century in its appalling suffering reach greater expression. Certainly it companions Dunbar's great Lament quhen he was seik. Scottish poetry was never again to achieve such a tragic monologue or aria; up to the present time (1967), at least. It would be rather Jesuitical to point to the self-pity in the piece: it is the nature of a lament to be self-pitying, and there is enough confession of guilt in it for all but the most merciless of judges to be satisfied by. The guilt after all is shared -- the God of Creation is as guilty of its nature as are His creatures -- the guilt is shared, whatever hypocritical theologians may think on the matter. Not all the evil in Creation proceeds from free-will, and no mere act of will can ever end it: it inheres in the nature of reality, as life must prey upon life. The leprosy here becomes not a physical disease at all, but a symbol of the decay and death to which all life is subject, and that is its point: it is a wasting disease, and waste is the basic theme of the poem.
After the Complaint comes a very fine passage of narrative, with the lipper lady taking upon herself the voice of reason and acceptance, counselling Cresseid to adapt herself to her new condition, and leading [to] the magnificent meeting between Troilus and Cresseid. This is the dramatic climax of the poem to which all else climbs, and from which it declines to its end. Troilus, returning from a victorious raid on the Greeks, passes the leper-house where Cresseid lived, and he and his knights are importuned for alms by the lepers. Troilus sees Cresseid but doesn't recognize her, in her blind deformity:
Na wonder was, suppois in mynd that he
Tuik hir figure sa sone, and lo! now quhy?
The Idole of ane thing in cace may be
Sa deip Imprentit in the fantasy
That it deludis the wittis outwardly,
And sa appeiris in forme and lyke estait
Within the mynd as it was figurait.
The three stanzas are the finest thing in Scottish poetry, to my mind, so here is the third:
The revived unconscious memory stirs him to pity her: he throws her a purse of gold and jewels, and rides off without a word, but almost swooning with unknown sorrow. The extraordinary generosity leads to Cresseid's discovery of who the donor was, and:
Then Cresseid's cup of grief brims over, and in her breakdown she makes a complete confession of her guilt, blaming herself, and lauding Troilus as a 'trew Knicht'. In this confession she clearly attains a state of moral grace, though her body is beyond saving, and she then sets down her Testament proper. She leaves her valuables to her leper friends, her body to the earth and its creatures, and the ring she had received as a love-token from Troilus bequeaths to him (Diomeid already has both brooch and belt which Troilus gave her, so she can't return them), and her spirit to Diana and the wasteland she inhabits. The reference to the moon again as a destructive force is interesting: the moon struck her with leprosy, and here Diana is seen as a wasteland goddess.
The last few lines of the poem tell of Troilus's grief at hearing of her end: he falls in a swoon, and pities her in her faithlessness. It was said that he made her a marble tomb and engraved on it in gold letters:
Henrysoun ends with a Moralitas stanza addressed to all women, saying that he made this 'ballat schort' for their 'worschip and instructioun', and he admonishes them not to defile their love with adultery, bearing in mind the fate of Cresseid.
Henrysoun's conscious purpose, no doubt, was no more than he claims in his final stanza: but this merely points to a much greater unconscious one. For if that were all that [there] were to the tale, it would exist merely as a piece of moral hectoring instead of the powerful tragedy it is, a major work of art. He transcends, by inspiration, his conscious purpose -- it is almost the indispensable condition of major art -- and we must look much deeper than the simple Moralitas. Cresseid lives for us as one of the great symbols of poetry, the poem dominates its century as the greatest single poem to emerge from it in either English or Scots, not to look further afield. It is intensely original, a complete departure from the Troilus story, an embarcation from Chaucer and Benoit country to Henrysoun country, from Europe to Scotland. The Benoit tale is a tale of the Trojan war, and it symbolises that war, the waste of war, the instability of it, its moral corruption of otherwise decent people. The figure of Fortune is once again dominant in it, for in no other human activity, or misactivity, does Fortune have such unlimited power. In a sense, the original Cressida is herself an adumbration of the fortunes of war -- now she favours one side, now the other. She is the daughter of a high priest of Apollo (Henrysoun appropriately makes him a priest of Venus), and her father, gifted with second sight, foresees the fall of Troy and deserts his Trojan people for the Greeks, leaving his daughter behind. Thus, she was herself betrayed before she became a betrayer. Chaucer is very charitable to her feminine weakness -- she is, after all, the prototype of the female collaborator -- in the war-world of men. Shakespeare, the most perceptive poet of the Troilus theme, grasps the realities involved and gives us a brutal picture of the brutal reality of war: his play is the first and best statement of La Grande Illusion. Cresseid, like Helen herself, is a plaything of the fortunes of war, and her moral condition is to be seen in this social context of an anarchic male world in which the systematic rape of women by the victorious side was commonplace. Moreover, Venus herself was a camp-follower; wife of the artisan Vulcan, whore of the soldier, Mars. Henrysoun gets the link with Venus right, but it is strange that he did not grasp the link with Mars, who plays only a passive role in the theophany which condemns Cresseid: but perhaps that is precisely what Henrysoun meant, that Mars as a soldier and lover of Venus would be in some degree sympathetic or indifferent to Cresseid's fate.
Henrysoun's interest is not in the war theme which was the chief interest of Shakespeare, and even of Chaucer, but in the moral, legalistic speculations it gave rise to. This legalistic preoccupation of Henrysoun's is the key to the man, and it is well to remember that the theory that he was a schoolmaster is questionable, while there is evidence that perhaps he was a 'notarius publicus'. This legalism should be borne in mind, not only because of its links with such lawyer-writers as Scott, but more significantly with reformed doctrine of the lawyer Jean Calvin adopted by the Scottish reformers. In any case, what he is concerned with in the poem, and why it is so original, is the breach of moral and natural law implied in Cresseid's unfaithfulness: not to mention, and it is strictly apposite here, the 'laws' of courtly love. Cresseid was not married to Troilus, and her sin against him is against the rule of courtly love that the lovers must be 'true' to each other. Hence Henrysoun's constant play upon 'trew'. The poem is not about Christian marriage but about Courtly Love, and Christianity as such has no overt part in the tale: but it was the very stuff of Henrysoun's mind, and its invisible presence is everywhere felt. Indeed, as Orpheus in the Orpheus poem is a Christ-symbol, an echo of the descent into hell and resurrection which made salvation available to all believing souls -- though Orpheus is a failed Christ -- so Troilus here may be seen in some such relationship to Cresseid. She is the heretic soul which has gone a-whoring after strange gods, and he is the 'trew Knicht' with whom her real salvation lay, and who, even now, is the half-unconscious instrument of it. The poem Quia amore langueo has some light to throw on this aspect of the allegorical significance of both poems. Particularly relevant to the Orpheus is:
The story of Eurydice and the serpent is a mask for her rape by Aristaeus, and consequent acceptance of him. There is therefore a parallel between Aristaeus and Diomeid, Orpheus and Troilus, and Eurydice and Cresseid. Cresseid is the lost Eurydice, the strayed and stricken soul. It is interesting that Henrysoun is harping on the same theme in both poems -- though at vastly different levels of poetic quality. Of more particular relevance to the Troilus theme, in Quia amore langueo is:
I don't want to push this correspondence too far, but it does light up the Christian allegory underlying the Courtly Love theme of The Testament of Cresseid, and the related Orpheus and Eurydice.
Why should this theme be so close to Henrysoun? The redemptive power of love, the embodiment and fulfilment of the universal 'law', the 'love that moves the sun and the other stars', is the central principle behind these poems. Cresseid's sin is a sin not only against the 'law' but against the love which embodies it. If the power of love is so great in Creation, then the breach of it will be equally great in destruction. This is the central intuition behind Henrysoun's tragedies, The Testament in particular. He is asserting a religious value through a great work of art, in that poem. It is possible to see this also in terms of the age that produced the poem. The Lover is not only Christ, at the allegorical level, but the clergy; and the Beloved is, as in Quia amore langueo, men's souls. Who then are Aristaeus and Diomeid? The obvious reply would seem to be, they are heresies, Lollardry and the like, seducing men's souls from the 'true' religion. At another level the poem may have political significance for Scotland in the struggle between the clergy and the old religion and the nobles and the small landlords for the soul of Scotland, and the struggle which resulted in the Reformation. In Henrysoun's vision, politics and religion are aspects of the same integral reality -- all aspects of life are religious, and every aspect is linked organically with every other aspect. Therefore any part of reality is interconnected with the whole, and in The Testament of Cresseid Henrysoun presents us with a symbol of the whole reality of the fifteenth century. In this he at once summed up the allegorical tradition of the Middle Ages, to which he belonged, and created the first 'symbolist' poem -- a poem in which part of reality is so treated as to suggest, in manifold nuances of meaning, the whole -- of the new, realist era. The poem is at once allegorical and realist, and in it a great artist wrestles with his age, both as man and poet, and creates out of it a great work of art. It is an end and a beginning.
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