The Thirteen Moral Fables of Robert Henryson

I. The Cock and the Jasp

"Jasp" is the old name for the semi-precious stone now known as "jasper". A quartz of varied and intense colours, it was highly valued in the Middle Ages; almost as highly as the diamond is today.

It might appear, on a first reading of this poem, that the situation is obvious, and that the Cock is talking common sense. But there is much more than that in this Fable. As the first in the series, it is Henryson's expansion on the function, as outlined in the Prologue, of the beast-fable.

The Cock symbolises "brute creation"; the jasp symbolises human society, and Henryson contrasts these two cultures and their aspirations, his intention being to emphasise that animals are governed overwhelmingly by their appetites. And his theme throughout the Fables is that mankind comes to grief through yielding to worldly appetites, appetites of various kinds. Henryson's "appetites" may be modernised as "motivations". The term was certainly not in use in his day, but, if it had been, study of his work makes one suspect that he would have chosen "appetites", as there is a nice ambiguity in the word which covers all his concerns. Mankind, says Henryson, should keep himself separate from such things, and he emphasises this through the Cock's words in the last line of stanza 7 : "Ye are nae use tae me, nor me tae ye."

The emphasis here is a very subtle one indeed, for he employs Numerology in the construction of this poem, as he does in the most of his major works. These words of the Cock form the last line in stanza 7, the exact midpoint of the poem, where the Cock stops speaking and the narrator Henryson takes over. There are 14 stanzas in the poem; 2 x 7; and, in Numerology, 7 is the number of the body, where the 9 stanzas of the Prologue symbolise the mind.

Henryson's sources for the most of the Fables are known; they come from Classical antiquity, as in this case. One of his artistic masterstrokes, however, is to place every situation, story and character firmly in the Scotland of his day, when every house had its midden, which was therefore familiar to his audience, as would be the Cock and his diet; note the telling details of this latter.

Vocabulary : puir (actually pronounced pare) = poor (Stz.1.) A misleading modern spelling convention
draff = barley grains and husks discarded after beer has been made.(4.)
tailings corn = the small and light grains blown away in the process of winnowing.(5.)

The Taill of the Cok, and the Jasp
Ane cok sum tyme with feddram fresh and gay
Richt cant and crouse, albeit he was bot pure ....

1. A cockerel once, his plumage fresh and gay,
Happy enough, although he was gey puir,
Flew to the midden early-on one day;
To get his stomach filled was all his care.
Scraping in ashes, he by chance laid bare
A Jasp. Gey little care was kept
It seems, in one house, when the floor was swept.

2. These flighty lasses, nothing in their head
Except to play, and on the street be seen;
In tidying the house they take no heed
To what's swept up, as long's the floor looks clean;
Jewels are dropped, as often has been seen,
Upon the floor, and swept up right away,
And that's what happened here, one well might say.

3. So, gazing on this find, quoth he,
" O ye rare gem, ye rich and noble thing!
Though I'm your finder, ye're nae use to me;
By richts, ye should adorn some lord or king.
This is case for sadness and mourning
To see ye buried here in muck and mould
When ye're so braw, and worth so muckle gold.

4. Pity it's me that's found ye, and for why?
Your virtues great, as weel's your colours clear
Are past my powers to praise or magnify,
And mair than that; to me ye gi'e sma' cheer.
For, though to princes ye are sweet and dear,
Dearer to me are things o' much less cop,
Like draff or crusts to fill my empty crop.

5. I would much raither scrape here wi' my nails
Among this dirt, and find my proper food,
Like tailings corn, wee worms, or muckle snails,
And siclike meat to do my stomach good
Than find o' jewels a michty multitude;
By the same token, ye could, in your turn,
As worthless rubbish, all my diet spurn.

6. Ye have nae corn, and corn is what I need;
Your colours just gi'e comfort to the sicht,
And sight itself will not my stomach feed;
The saying is, that looking wark is licht!
Meat must I have, obtain it as I micht,
For hungry bodies cannae live on looks;
Gi'e me dry bread, and ye can keep your cooks.

7. And where, by richts, should ye be settled down?
Where should ye bide, but in a royal tower?
Where should ye shine, but in a great king's crown,
Admired and praised, the emblem o' great power?
Rise, noble gem, o' every jewel the flower,
Out of this bog, and pass where ye should be;
Ye are nae use to me, or me to ye."

8. Leaving this jewel lying on the ground,
This Cock, to seek his food, his own ways went;
But by whom, when, and how this gem was found,
Concerns not at all this argument,
For it's the deeper meaning and intent
Which Aesop had when he composed this Fable
That I'll explain - as far as I am able.

9. For seven fair properties do in this jewel lie:
The first, of colour it is marvellous;
Whiles red as fire, whiles bright blue as the sky;
It strengthens man, and renders him victorious;
Keeping him safe from all things that are perilous.
Who has this stone can look to prosper fair;
Of bodily danger he need not beware.

10. This noble gem, so wonderful of hue,
Perfect prudence and wisdom signifies;
Many's the story of its great virtue;
Above all worldly things it aye shall rise,
Leading all men their honour first to prize,
Certain and sure to have the victory
O'er fleshly vice and spiritual enemy.

11. Who can be prosperous, who can win renown,
Who can steer safely through a stormy sea,
Who can control a kingdom, house, or town,
Devoid of learning? None, we all agree.
Learning endures in perpetuity;
Mildew or moth or rust have no effect
Upon the treasures of the intellect.

12. This Cock, desiring nothing more than corn,
May to that fool be easily compared
Who at all learning makes a mock and scorn,
Decrying it; of truth he is affeared,
Turning away when discourse can be heard,
As would a hungry sow, when, just for once,
Instead of slops, she's offered precious stones.

13. Those who dismiss our learning can be seen
As sticks or clods, refusing to be taught
About those treasures, great and evergreen,
Which never can with worldly wealth be bought.
That man does well, who all his days has sought
Above all else, his knowledge to increase;
He needs no more, to live and die in peace.

14. But nowadays, this gem in dross is buried;
Little it's missed, not do men seem to mind;
Some gold they get, and then they are not worried
About their learning, for their souls are blind.
Well, on this theme, I might be wasting wind,
And so I'll stop. I'll say nae mair,
Except : go seek the Jasp -for it's still there!

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