Robert Henryson c. 1430-c. 1506
(Also Henrysoune and Henrysone) Scottish poet and fabulist.
The following entry provides an overview of Henryson's life and works. For additional information on his career, see LC, Volume 20.
Henryson is recognized as one of the greatest poets of medieval Scottish literature. Highly influenced by the work of Chaucer, he is considered the most famous makar, or Scottish poet, after William Dunbar. His poems and fables are renowned for their irony, human perspective, characterization, and narrative talent. Only recently gaining the appreciation of scholars and critics, his unique literary perspective continues to be explored.
Very little verifiable data exists on the life of Robert Henryson. Most of what is known has been deduced from historical evidence and references to him in literature, most printed over seventy years after his death. Scholars generally presume that Henryson was the schoolmaster of the grammar school of Benedictine abbey in Dunfermline, Fife, as a result of several recovered city records and the title page of the 1569 edition of his Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian, referencing this position. Many critics have also asserted that like most of his contemporaries in this occupation, Henryson was probably a certified notary public with considerable legal training; this is supported by much of the vocabulary chosen in his work. A Robert Henryson with a bachelor and master of arts degree in canon law also appears in the registry of the University of Glasgow in 1462. Assuming this name refers to the author in question, he probably received his degree while studying abroad, an assumption which is also supported by contemporaneous sources referring to him as “Master Robert Henryson.” The only definitive allusion to Henryson is in regards to his death. In the poem Lament for the Makars, written circa 1506, William Dunbar lists him among two dozen deceased poets: “In Dunfermelyne he [Death] hes done roune, / With Maister Robert Henrysoune.”
Because there is so little is known regarding the life of Henryson, it is difficult to identify the dates of publication of his works. Most are assumed to have been written in the years from 1450 to 1490. His most critically acclaimed poem, The Testament of Cresseid, has been asserted to be the preeminent narrative in medieval Scottish literature. Initially attributed to Chaucer and first appearing in Francis Thynne's 1532 edition of Chaucer's works, this work is highly evocative of Chaucer's acknowledged structure and style. It was not until 1593 that Henrie Charteris suggested an alternative authorship, publishing The Testament of Cresseid, Complyit be M. Robert Henrysone, Sculemaister in Dunfermline. Providing a brief summation of its precursor, Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, this poem delves into the tragedy of Cresseid following her abandonment by Diomede. Henryson explores Cresseid's spiritual and psychological development, as he simultaneously incorporates ingenious symbolism and imagery into the plot. The Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian is Henryson's famous collection of imaginative Aesopic fables. Fabillis also includes several stories of Reynard the fox that belong to the beast-epic, a medieval cycle of folktales. Henryson's collection includes his preeminent fables “The Lion and the Mouse,” a tale of mutual trust and power, “The Cock and the Jasp,” illustrating materialism and pragmatism, and “The Preaching of the Swallow,” demonstrating prudence and the consequences of gluttony. The stories of The Morall Fabillis are recognized for their significant employment of moralitas, a broad, philosophical implication integrated into the narrative as a lesson and advocating a political or spiritual interpretation of the text. Henryson's lesser-known poems include Orpheus and Eurydice, in which he exposes the thematic discord of the received version, “Robene and Makyne,” a comical love-debate in the style of the French pastourelle, and “The Bludy Serk,” a ballad-like tale of a lady's rescue by a wounded knight.
Although Henryson attracted much praise from his contemporaries, his work was largely neglected from the seventeenth century until its rediscovery in the twentieth century, when it was hailed as some of the greatest Scottish poetry of the era. A. M. Kinghorn has contended that Henryson's conservative morality combined with traditional themes and structures obscured his poetry for many years, creating the impression of a nondescript and typical medieval author until his style was thoroughly examined. Consequently, reviews of his work were generally limited to historical literary reviews and broad studies of Chaucer and his contemporaries for several centuries. Modern analytic evaluation of Henryson's work has generally focused on The Testament of Cresseid and The Morall Fabillis, regarded as his two masterpieces. Consistently appraised as an innovative take on Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, the Testament is most famous for Henryson's clever infusion of his contemporaneous morals and style into a classic tale. Though initially criticized as lacking the wit of Chaucer and taking an overly ruthless approach with Cresseid, further examination revealed the poem's superbly crafted structure and manipulations of the conventions and themes found in Troilus, clearly beyond the scope of any other makars. The Testament is currently recognized as an impressive and complex tragic narrative. The Morall Fabillis has attracted commendation for its ironic humor and great detail in imagery. Though initially denounced for its repetitive moral lectures and its verbosity, more recent criticism has extolled the fables for their colloquial structure and social commentary. Henryson's remarkable personification of the animals in his stories has also continued to impress scholars and has prompted a renewal of interest in this eminent work.