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Makar’s Mark

The Irish bard translates a Scots epic.

Mar 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 25 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
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Bot scho was in sic plye he knew hir nocht;

Yit than hir luik into his mynd it brocht

The sweit visage and amorous blenking

Of fair Cresseid, sumtyme his awin darling.

Upon his then she cast up both her eyes

And at a glance it came into his thought

That he some time before had seen her face

But she was in such state he knew her not;

Yet still into his mind her look had brought

The features and the amorous sweet glancing

Of fair Cresseid, one time his own, his darling.


This is poetry that tells the “music of what happens”—a phrase Heaney has used to describe what he strives for in his own poems. That music continues for the rest of the poem. The two characters, who do not meet again, act in remembrance of each other—a proper continuation of a non-reunion. Cresseid, growing weaker, bequeaths a ruby ring to him in her will; and once she has died, Troilus erects a tomb of gray marble for her. Nothing is said of life after death. “Since she is dead,” runs the last line, “I speak of her no more.” 

While there is consolation for neither Cresseid nor Troilus, there is dignity in that they grieve but soon govern their grief. They have no delusions of grandeur, no bloated fictions. Like the sixth-century Christian philosopher Boethius, whom Henryson most likely read—perhaps even in Chaucer’s translation—Troilus and Cresseid find consolation in their philosophy, and Lady Philosophy stands as their defense against Lady Fortune.

The rest of the book follows Henryson’s advice “to mix merry in with graver matter.” It includes 7 of Henryson’s 13 fables, loosely based on Aesop’s and played out by fanciful animals (and the occasional man, who bumbles about with a cart and for the most part keeps mum). The stories are filled with vivid humor: a cock, for instance, who finds a jasper of great price and lets it go, telling it frankly, “You are not corn and corn is what I covet.” Such humor isn’t there just for sport, but to creatively illustrate Christian morals. And their lightness keeps them from sounding like broken gospel records.

Ultimately, Seamus Heaney’s latest book is a testament to endurance—to Heaney still working at his craft, to Henryson’s gathering (if late) audience, to the morals and humor expressed in the fables, to the lasting strength of Troilus and Cresseid, even to the English language itself. In this way The Testament is a comfort, and for a moment it quiets the fear behind the wish of any poet, famous or obscure, that what he makes might not be later known. As Chaucer wrote in Troilus and Criseyde, addressing his own book of poetry, “for there is so great diversity / In English and in writing of our tongue, / So pray I God that no one mis-write thee … That thou be understood, God I beseech.” Katherine Eastland is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.


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