The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables
by Robert Henryson,
translated by Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 208 pp., $25
When Ireland’s fourth Nobel laureate of literature, Seamus Heaney, celebrated his 70th birthday last April, all of Ireland joined in. The Irish Museum of Modern Art held an exhibition of his illustrated books, a symphony was composed in his honor, a 14-foot bronze sculpture, first fashioned of peat, was unveiled in Bellaghy Bawn to commemorate his first poem “Digging,” and little red boxed sets went on sale filled with 15 CDs of the poet reciting all 11 books of his verse. That’s over 12 hours of compounded Seamus.
In a birthday address televised throughout Ireland, Heaney lightly called the CD set his “apotheosis as the vox in the box” and was quick to note that all of the gifts and praise extended to him were “not retirement presents, but ratifications and refreshments.” In other words, he is “keeping going.”
Proving that point, Famous Seamus, as Clive James once called him, has published another book. It’s a modernization of select works by a nearly forgotten poet who, in his time, was also well known: Robert Henryson, the greatest of the late-medieval Scots makars (poets). In his introduction Heaney writes that he made this book “first and foremost” to advocate “the work in question, for unless this poetry is brought out of the university syllabus and on to the shelves ‘a great prince in prison lies.’ ”
Robert Henryson (born circa 1425) wrote over 5,000 still-surviving lines in Lowland Scots, a northern dialect of English. The original is printed (without appendix and glossary, to keep the book slim) on the facing pages. This allows the reader to soon realize that Scots is not far removed from contemporary English, and that Heaney keeps close to the original, often at the level of the word and not just of phrase. He also maintains the rollicking rhyme royal stanza, inherited from Chaucer, whom Henryson highly esteemed, calling him “worthie” and twice “glorious.” Heaney’s take—it is a stretch to call it a translation—reads as a confident and natural extension of Henryson’s work.
While Henryson’s poetry has survived, his biography has not, further pressing him into obscurity. Just two or three cloudy facts are all we know about him: He died shortly before 1505 when his contemporary William Dunbar famously wrote in rhyming couplets a litany for the dead, “Death of the Makars,” that Death “has done roun [whispered] to Maister Robert Henrisoun.” And by that fragment we know a bit about his position: As “Maister,” he was a known and learned man, a university graduate, but not necessarily a professor.
Sitting at the crossing point of Heaney’s fame and Henryson’s obscurity, this book nearly amounts to a beautiful joke between Heaney and Lady Fortune herself, especially since she plays a part in the Testament of Cresseid, the poem featured here at the start. The Testament, one of the masterpieces of 15th-century literature, is a 600-line epilogue to Chaucer’s monumental mock epic of the heart, Troilus and Criseyde. By Henryson’s own admission, the Testament is “a poem full of hurt.” It begins where Chaucer left off, with Cresseid spurning her first love, Troilus, for another, Diomede. Henryson continues the story to chronicle Cresseid’s “final quick declension”: Her new lover spurns her and she, in turn, scorns the gods for an inconstant love life.
“You gave me to believe, and I trusted you,” Cresseid cries, “that the seed of love was sown in my face.” Then the gods, led by Saturn and the moon Cynthia, goddess of inconstancy, decree that Cresseid, now a prostitute, will endure their curse of leprosy, don a “cloak and beaver hat,” and walk through town carrying “cup and clapper” for alms. It is a far fall from her highborn life.
But this is not a stock tale about woman as a snare or siren who gets her rightful due. In fact, the poet does not even judge her—that, it seems, is work cut out for those above him, such as the famous lady of inconstancy, Fortune. Reserving judgment, Henryson extends to her a sympathy that is (to use Heaney’s term) “dry-eyed.” It is also constant.
One of the most moving passages—in Henryson’s tongue and in Heaney’s faithful rendering—falls near the end of the tale: Troilus, Cresseid’s former lover who has always loved her, rides by on a horse and barely recognizes her now that her skin is spotted and ringwormed. She does not even register his face. The poets write this non-reunion scene in halting, mostly monosyllabic, words.
Than upon him scho kest up baith hir ene—
And with ane blenk it come into his thocht
That he sumtime hir face befoir had sene.