The Thirteen Moral Fables of Robert Henryson

VII. The Preaching of the Swallow

This poem is regarded as one of Henryson's greatest. Its subtleties of symbolism, allusion and composition are many and complex, not to be dealt with in short introductions. Enough, here, to draw attention to some of its remarkable features. One of these is that every one of its ingredients -characters, situations, the opening, the ending, the narrative, the moral - is highly conventional and traditional; and at the same time, quite new. Henryson has achieved this effect by taking yet another long-established fable and recasting it to his own purposes, placing it in his Scotland, and injecting it with his particular genius. And some of that genius lies in his effective inclusion of accurately-observed detail. Historical research has confirmed the truth of the pictures he paints of agricultural practices, the production of linen thread, and the trapping and cooking of small birds.

So we have the conventional opening where God's great Creation is described and praised; then, almost before we know what is happening, we are standing beside Henryson, watching Scottish farmers of the fifteenth century at their spring work. And through that very physical scene we are led from a metaphysical beginning to a metaphysical end; smoothly, logically, convincingly.

While we might not be convinced by Henryson's Swallow appearing in midwinter, we must keep in mind that it was some three centuries after his death before it was known where swallows spent their winters.

Vocabulary : haughs = flat alluvial ground beside a river (Stz. 12.)
bield = a shelter of any kind ( 12.)
thrang = busy ( 15.)
gar = induce, compel, force; meaning according to context. (18.)
rig = a portion of arable land( 18.)
lint = flax ( 25.)
scart = scratch, scrape(25.)
pock = bag (45.)

The Preiching of the Swallow

The hie prudence and wirking mervellous
The profound wit off, God omnipotent........

1. His wisdom great, His works so marvellous;
The thought profound of God omnipotent,
So perfect is, and so ingenious,
By far exceeding our poor discernment;
Because all things to Him are aye present
As they are now, and evermore shall be,
Within the sight of His divinity.

2. Because our soul, with sensuality,
Close to our fleshly body aye must cling,
We may not clearly understand nor see,
God as He is, nor any Heavenly thing;
Our mortal, earthly body aye working
To blind us to the matters of the soul;
As if in prison we are held in thrall.

3. In Metaphysic, Aristotle says
The human soul resembles a bat's eye;
The bat hangs quiet, and hides from the sun's rays,
But in the gloaming she comes out to fly;
Her eyes are weak, of pure light she is shy;
So is our soul by worldly thought oppressed
From seeing God in Nature manifest.

4. For God is in his great power infinite;
The soul of Man is circumscribed and small;
Our understanding weak is just not fit
To comprehend Him that ordaineth all.
None should presume by reason natural
To probe the secrets of the Trinity;
Simply believe, and let all reason be.

5. Yet we may gain some knowledge, ne'ertheless,
Through His creations, of God's gracious mind,
That He endures in beauty and goodness.
For instance, take the flowers around our feet,
Of colours bright, of odours mild and sweet,
Purple and green, yellow and blue and red,
By his divinity before us spread.

6. The heavens filled with stars so bright and clear,
From East to West rolling their circles round;
With every planet in its proper sphere,
Sweetly emitting harmonies of sound.
The Elements of fire, air, water, and the ground,
The founding four; with these we may surmise
That God in his Creation is most wise.

7. Look at the fish, that swim into the sea;
Look at the beasts on earth, in all their kind;
Look at the birds, how cunningly they fly,
Cleaving the air, and riding on the wind;
And, last of all, we know he made mankind
In his own image; be it understood
By this, that He is fair, and wise, and good.

8. All creatures he has made on Man's behalf,
So that they might his daily life sustain
Upon this Earth, to be support and staff,
In number, weight, proportion, as ye ken;
Sunset, and dawn, and seasons come again,
Fitted for mankind's needs in every way;
Our wants are satisfied from day to day.

9. The summer, with its pleasant mantle green,
With all these flowers fair as ornament,
Which Godess Flora, of all plants the queen,
Has for His glory to this season sent;
And the sun, Phoebus, with benign intent
Smiles upon all, after the showers so sweet,
Blessing the ground with soft redeeming heat.

10. Then Autumn warm, when Ceres, its Godess,
Has packed the barns with rich grain to be milled;
And Bacchus, God of wine, by his prowess,
The casks of Italy and France has filled
With wine so rare, and liquors fine distilled;
Abundance aye shall fill Dame Ceres' horn,
Which never yet has lacked for fruit or corn.

11. Next, Winter bleak, when grim God Aeolus,
Lord of the winds, with black blasts from the north,
The garments gay of summer glorious,
Has torn to shreds, and scattered them all forth,
With flower and fruit now fallen to the earth;
And the wee birds have changed their songs so sweet
To mourning quiet, among the snow and sleet.

12. With floods, the haughs and meadows are all drowned;
And white frosts cover hill and dale and field;
No comfort amongst leafless boughs is found;
Stripped bare by storm, no shelter can they yield;
All wild beasts now are driven to seek a bield;
Into deep dens they take themselves, to keep
From rain and cold; in holes and caves they sleep.

13. At last comes Spring, when Winter is away,
The herald bearing Summer's flag before;
The columbine peeps up out through the clay,
For well she knows that frosts will come no more;
Mavis and blackbird start to sing therefore
From bush and tree; the laverock in the sky
Makes music glad - the winter is now bye!

14. At such a time, upon a morning fair,
Right blithe, since bitter winds I need not fear,
Into the woods, to see the flowers so rare,
I walked; and aye the mavis I could hear.
Often I paused, to study, here and there,
The new-ploughed fields; and I was pleased indeed,
To see them warm and moist, ready for seed.

15. Strolling like this, it put me in good cheer
To see just how the work went on apace;
Some men made dykes, others the plough did steer,
With seed being sown with care in every case,
The harrows hopping in the sower's trace;
So thrang they were, it was a joy to see,
For all my life I have loved husbandry.

16. And then I stopped, to muse on what I'd seen,
For greatly heartened I'd been by the sight,
Beside a hedge, under a hawthorn green;
When, of small birds, there came a wondrous flight,
Who right upon that hawthorn did alight.
This was unusual, so quite still I stood,
Lest I disturb this marvellous multitude.

17. High on this thorn I saw a Swallow sit,
And heard her loudly make a solemn plea;
" Ye birds on bough, I pray ye hear me yet,
That ye might learn, and so the wiser be;
Watch close for danger, and from peril flee;
Aye look ahead, of injury beware,
To save yourselves from pain, and grief, and care."

18. "Sir Swallow," said the Lark at that, and smiled,
What have ye seen that gars ye so to dread?"
"See ye that Carl," quoth she,"in yonder field,
Sowing his rig with flax and hempen seed?
That flax grows fast, yon hemp comes up with speed,
And with that crop this Carl his nets will make,
And he intends with them us birds to take.

19. When he goes home - to my advice take heed!
Haste to that rig with your nails sharp and small,
And from that soft earth scrape up every seed
And eat it up; for if it grows, we shall
Have cause to mourn hereafter, one and all.
So let us get to work right speedily;
Less harm can come from what we can foresee.

20. For it is not enough, so scholars say,
Just to accept what lies before the eye;
Give thought to things, and then at last ye may
Be able to provide before, and see
What good or evil there might chance to be
In each occasion. Consider ye the end,
Yourselves from peril better to defend.

21. Laughing, the Lark the Swallow put to scorn,
And said she fished before the net was hung;
"The bairn is easy clad that's yet unborn;
Not all seed ripens that from earth is sprung;
To bend the head just as the axe is swung
Is soon enough. Death will on doomed ones fall!"
And so they scorned the Swallow, one and all.

22. Despising thus her careful argument,
With a great whirr of wings, they took their flight;
Off to the high and heathery moor some went,
Some to the woods, on branches to alight;
Alone again, I marvelled at the sight,
Then gripped my staff and headed back for hame,
Amazed, and wondering if I'd had a dream.

23. The year wore on, till came June month the fair,
And all the seeds that had been sown in spring
Had sprouted high enough to hide a hare
Or corncrake, quail, or any other thing.
I went one morn, to hear the blackbird sing,
Beside that hedge, under that hawthorn green,
Where I that wondrous flock of birds had seen.

24. Well, when I stood again in that same place,
These very birds, these birds I'd seen before,
- because it seemed to be a chosen place,
Where they felt safe, and could relax therefore -
Came whirring in, and perched themselves secure.
The Swallow then took up the self-same rhyme:
"Woe for them that will not beware in time!

25. O ye blind birds, thinking ye're free from care,
Unmindful of your own prosperity!
Lift up your eyes, look at that rig ower there!
See ye that lint, growing so fast and free?
Yon is the crop I warned ye that we,
While it was seed, should scart up and devour!
To ruin it is still within your power!

26. Go yet, while it is tender, young, and weak,
And pull it up! Let it no more increase!
My flesh creeps, and my body all does quake,
When I think on't, I cannot sleep in peace!"
They shook their heads, and bid the Swallow cease,
Saying," Na, na, yon crop will do us good,
For ripe flax is, to us wee birdies, food!

27. We mean, when the seed-heads are full and ripe,
Despite the Carl, to feast on them indeed,
And on the stalks to swing and sing and pipe!"
"Weel," said the Swallow,"friends, it's on your head;
Go your own ways, but, sure as death, I dread
That sore you'll find just what your feast's entailed,
When on yon Carl's spit ye are impaled!

28. The owner of that flax a Fowler is,
A skilful one , and full of subtlety;
Seldom at any time his prey he'll miss,
And so we birds must the more careful be;
Too many of our kind he's caused to die,
Thinking it but a game their blood to spill;
God keep me from him, and all other ill!"

29. But these small birds, having but little thought
Of perils which that day they could prevent,
Setting the Swallow's counsel all at naught,
Took to their wings, and all together went
Off to the fields; to feed was their intent.
I took my staff, and homewards made my way,
For now it was the middle of the day.

30. The Carl pulled his flax when harvest cam,
Threshed out the seeds, and set it up in sheaves
And after he had steeped it in his dam,
He let it dry, and stripped aff a' the leaves.
A swingin and a hecklin it receives,
Then his wife spins it, twisting it to thread,
Of which the Fowler his dread net has made.

31. The winter came, with many an icy blast;
The once-green woods lay black, and dripped with wet;
The moor and hill were gripped full hard by frost;
Each path and road was slippery with sleet;
And all the birds, for fear of frozen feet,
Since on bare branch they could no longer bide,
Fled to house, stack, or byre, where they could hide.

32. Some in the barn, some in the stacks of corn,
Their lodging took, and made their residence.
The Fowler saw, and fearful oaths has sworn,
That they should never live at his expense;
His net he rigged with care and diligence,
And from a patch of ground he shovelled aff
The snaw, and there flung down some chaff.

33. The wee birds saw this chaff, and they were glad;
Thinking that it was corn, down quick they went
No notion of the deadly net they had,,
Nor of the Fowler's murderous intent;
To find themselves some food was all they meant.
The Swallow perched upon a branch nearby
And saw the trap; then loud she made a cry:

34. "Go, scart among that chaff till your nails bleed!
There's nae corn there, your labour's a' in vain!
Do you believe the Carl means to feed
Wee birds? Na, na, it's set up for his gain!
Away ye go, and quick, or else ye're slain!
He's laid his net just where ye cannae see,
Ready to draw! O, birdies, rise and flee!"

35. Great fool is he, that into danger's way,
Will put his life, and all for things worth naught!
Great fool is he, attention not to pay,
To warnings wise, because they were not sought.
Great fool is he, who has no other thought
Past daily life, or yet what might befall,
Nor to his end gives any thought at all!

36. These little birds, with nothing in their head
Except this scraping in the chaff for food,
Had for the Swallow's good advice no heed,
Even though they found their efforts did no good.
Then, when at last their minds she understood
To be so closed, to the tree top she flew;
With that, the Fowler o'er them his net drew!

37. It would have brought the tear into your eye,
To see that Fowler slay these birds so fast;
And when they realised they had to die,
To hear their cries, as long as breath could last.
Some, with great force, down on the ground he cast;
With some he broke the neck; with some the head;
And others he stuffed in his bag half dead.

38. And when the Swallow saw that they were dead,
She said "It always comes as a surprise
To those who will not bother to pay heed
To prudent folk who give them good advice.
I warned them of this outcome, once, twice, thrice!
Now they are dead, and sad am I therefore."
She took to wing, and I saw her no more.


39. Now, worthy reader, Aesop, noble clerk
A poet skilful, and of greatest note,
When he was bored with humdrum, daily work,
This Fable fine, and many more, he wrote;
Which we today can profitably devote
To study for our further education;
Its moral we can find by application.

40. This Carl, this Fowler, quite devoid of grace,
Spreading the chaff, the little birds to slay,
He is the Fiend, who from Archangel's place,
Was utterly cast down with great affray.
He roams the world now, both by night and day,
Sowing the seed of many a wicked thought,
To tempt men's souls, which Christ so dearly bought.

41. And when the soul, like seed within the earth,
Responds unto the warmth of earthly pleasure,
Temptation likewise stimulates the birth
Of deadly sin, which grows beyond all measure
And smothers reason out, our greatest treasure,
With carnal lusts abounding, green and gay,
Feeding on selfish actions every day.

42. So, thriving thus by habit and by use,
The sin grows ripe, and shame is set aside.
The Fiend has set his net, and laid his noose,
And under pleasure quietly does hide,
Sowing his empty chaff both far and wide;
No corn is there; the lure is vanity
And fleshly joys, sterile prosperity.

43. The hungry birds as thoughtless men appear,
Aye scraping among earthly pleasures vain;
Greedy to win and harbour worldly gear,
Which, like the chaff, will never life sustain;
Worthless it is, they get, for all their pain,
A puff of dust, which, driven by the wind,
Flies in their face and renders them quite blind.

44. This Swallow, who by thought avoids the snare.
A holy preacher well might signify;
Exhorting men to watch, and to beware
The baits and nets laid by the Fiend so sly;
He never sleeps; is always standing by
When foolish men in this world's chaff are scraping,
To draw his net, from which there's no escaping.

45. Alas, what grief there is, what care and woe,
When soul and body severed are in twain;
The body must to worms and maggots go,
The soul to fire, and everlasting pain;
What use then is this chaff, this carnal gain,
When Lucifer has crammed you in his pock,
To spend eternity in fire and smoke?

46. Then, to perceive this hidden net and snare,
This sorry chaff truly to understand,
When comes prosperity, we must beware,
For nothing lasts for ever upon land,
And no man knows how long his state will stand,
Or life will last; nor what for him will wait
After his death; no man can know his fate.

47. We pray, therefore, as long's we are in life,
For blessings four: the first, let sin remove;
Second, there be an end to war and strife;;
The third, for perfect charity and love;
The fourth, that we may end in Heaven above,
That we in bliss may God's great precepts follow;
And so we end the Preaching of the Swallow.

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