Be Nice to Mice

Colin Burrow

  • ‘The Testament of Cresseid’ and ‘Seven Fables’ by Robert Henryson, translated by Seamus Heaney
    Faber, 183 pp, £12.99, June 2009, ISBN 978 0 571 24928 2

Robert Henryson is the most likeable late medieval author after Chaucer. He wrote with a directness, a lightly carried learning and a lack of sentimentality hard to match anywhere in the British Isles at any date. A late and sadly unreliable anecdote conveys something of his style. Francis Kynaston reported in the early 17th century that when Henryson was dying of diarrhoea (probably around 1500) a cunning woman told him to go and circle a rowan tree chanting ‘whikey tree, whikey tree, take away this flux from me.’ Henryson is reported to have complained that it was too cold for a dying man to go frolicking around outside and suggested instead that he dance round the table in his room singing ‘oaken board, oaken board, gar me shit a hard turd.’ It is said that he died 15 minutes later.

The humour and earthiness conveyed by that anecdote are easy to find in Henryson’s verse. So is the desire to outmanoeuvre his audience. Henryson can capture the way a mouse speaks (or ‘peeps’), and does a fine line in guileful foxes who trick and rip off wolves. His beast fables tilt line by line and phrase by phrase between human and animal aspects with a knowingness that keeps a continual smile on his readers’ lips. But he is not just a writer who can do beasts or bring the neighbourhood witch down to earth. He could write sober allegories and staid descriptions of classical gods, as well as brief and racy paraphrases of Aristotle which explain how we think or remember – in itself a skill to be wondered at. Much of the pleasure in reading him comes from the juxtaposition of these elements and the way Henryson keeps us continually recalibrating the relationship between them. He can move suddenly, without any evident transition or unease, from low style to high style, and from highly judgmental writing to a manner so sympathetic it seems incompatible with condemnation. Then he can switch straight back again.

Almost nothing is known about his life, except that he was probably a schoolmaster and perhaps also a lawyer in Dunfermline, which in the late 15th century was a bustling, cultivated lowland town with a thriving abbey. The small-time rip-off artists who traded there feed into Henryson’s fables about persuasive foxes, artful toads, socially aspirant mice and domineering wolves, all of which speak like people, and many of which, in the way of fables, have human hands and animal feet. There may also be signs of the hard life of a schoolmaster in his distinctly clerkly writing. His extended versions of Aesopian fables (which were standard schoolroom texts, used in Latin lessons) conclude with morals which suggest a teacher diligently reminding his charges not just to relish the sugar but to swallow the pill as well. Long days spent in the classroom may also account for his repeated concern with the failure of audiences to heed the voice of instruction.

In the best and longest of the Moral Fables, ‘The Preaching of the Swallow’, the prudent swallow warns her fellow birds that they must destroy the seed planted by a fowler before it grows into flax which could be used to make nets with which to catch them in the winter. The birds ignore her. Come winter they are duly trapped, knocked out and ‘stoppit in his bag’. The moral of the tale states that the fowler ‘is the feind’, the insouciant birds are wretches who scrape around for temporal goods, while the swallow is a neglected preacher. There is a trace of the teacher’s revenge in that moral (‘ignore me at your peril’), but it also shows Henryson’s complex relationship with his audience. His moral lessons seem designed to catch out the inattentive or the self-contented just when they think they have worked out how things stand. The fables seem homely, and their morals easy to find (don’t forget to be nice to mice, even if you’re a lion); but repeatedly the moralitas snaps into a different register in order to suggest a whole new scale of judgment, one in which a simple fowler could be the devil himself. People or beasts who think they have found the moral significance of their own stories almost always come a cropper: in the first of the fables an unfortunate cockerel finds a precious ‘jasp’ (semi-precious stone), and moralises to the effect that riches are not for the likes of me. The moralitas then declares that the jasp represents ‘perfite prudence’, and the cockerel is the fool who spurns wisdom. A gentle lulling of the reader into a simple tale, then an abrupt or even cruel jolt into a different way of interpreting events – that is at the heart of Henryson’s unsettling charm.

Like the majority of 15th-century writers in both Scotland and England, Henryson never forgot that he was writing after Chaucer. He had a complex legacy of debt to and geographical displacement from earlier English writing to work out, as well as a set of local traditions on which to draw. His Testament of Cresseid is a sequel to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, and relates what happened to Cresseid after she abandons Troilus. It begins with the author in a ‘doolie sessoun’ (Seamus Heaney translates this as ‘a gloomy time’, but Henryson just means the chilly start of spring). He starts to read Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, but then picks up ‘ane uther quair’ (‘a different volume’, as Heaney has it) which continues the tale and prompts him to wonder if everything Chaucer wrote was true. This book Henryson almost certainly invented as a pseudo-source for his own post-Chaucerian fable, and it has a grimly punitive edge: Cresseid contracts leprosy and dies a beggar, pulled down by the ‘doolie sessoun’ into a chilly end. The Testament of Cresseid is post-Chaucerian in content, but also in tone: it aggressively readjusts Chaucerian attitudes, and not just Chaucer’s notoriously elusive and indulgent treatment of his heroine. The greatest moment in the poem, indeed probably the greatest moment in Henryson’s work, occurs when Troilus returns from battle and sees a group of begging lepers. Something about one of them reminds him of someone he has almost forgotten:

Than upon him scho kest up baith hire ene –
And with ane blenk it come into his thocht
That he sumtime hir face befoir had sene.
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.

This is an amazing moment. It’s psychologically sharp (can he really have forgotten Cresseid? Does she still have a flash to her glance that keeps the old beauty alive? Is she even batting her leprous eyelids at him?) and wonderfully mobile, moving from ‘But she was in such a state that he knew her not’ to ‘Yet her look still brought to mind the amorous sweet glancing of fair Cresseid’ as Troilus’ mind puzzles between memory and forgetting. The passage is also full of literary-historical self-consciousness. The Chaucerian love story seems to have happened so long ago that even its participants barely remember each other. Historical distance from an earlier text is represented by a human relationship that is almost entirely forgotten. And that is central to Henryson’s novelty. He employs here a device that literary histories very often insist was distinctive to the Renaissance: he exaggerates the historical distance between his text and its earlier source in order to emphasise the act of transformation which he, the modern author, has had to perform in producing his own work. Henryson is not attempting, though, to bring an ancient text back to life. Rather, the act of partial forgetting is the means by which a new work with its own kind of psychological acuity can be created. Being not Chaucer and after Chaucer here becomes a source of strength: it enables Henryson to describe people who have forgotten what they felt when Chaucer wrote about them.

Henryson wrote in what was called ‘Inglis’, a version of English which had its own repertoire of dialect terms and its own elevated Latinate register. The use of this language in the 15th-century Scottish lowlands did not imply a colonial cringe towards the English. The two languages are closely related, and readers of modern English will find Henryson’s language no harder than Chaucer’s to navigate if they follow a few landmarks. ‘Quh’ corresponds to ‘wh’ (quhilk is ‘which’), and ‘sch’ is ‘sh’ (so scho is ‘she’). Present participles are usually distinguished from verbal nouns like ‘blenking’ (‘glancing’) by ending ‘-and’ rather than ‘-ing’. Past participles (‘kindled’) usually end ‘-it’ rather than ‘-ed’ (‘kendlit’). Plural forms were marked in Middle English by a final, syllabic ‘-es’, whereas in Middle Scots they usually end ‘-is’. These features produce a sharpness and a sibilance that make reading Henryson aloud exhilaratingly aerobic: you can purse your lips and really let the breath hiss out, rolland the sillabis schene (rolling the beautiful syllables) on your tongue with a quhisling glee. Of course if you overdo it you sound as though you have false teeth, and if you get really carried away the whole performance can end up as a bad Sean Connery impression. But the exercise offers English readers a great freeing of the tongue and the breath. Indeed reading Henryson aloud should leave one mildly alarmed at the thin texture of modern English. His language repeatedly makes ours seem hasty or lacking in relish: ‘icicles’ are ‘ice schoklis’, a ‘lark’ is a ‘lauerok’, ‘saffron’ is ‘saipheron’. There are also some words that have no equivalent in modern English (fowmart is a ‘polecat’, a garray is a ‘commotion’, to braid is to ‘draw out’), and these just have to be looked up. They tend to be absent from passages describing gods and ethics, which are generally dense with words of a Latinate origin (‘lamentatioun’, ‘superscriptioun’, ‘of gentrice spoliate’ – which is the way the fowler who spits the birds is described; it means ‘lacking in all fine feeling’). These would have sounded as posh in late 15th-century Scotland as they do now.

There will be moments when you look up words that appear unfamiliar and find they aren’t in the glossary because they are just different spellings of words you already know. But the penny, with a little pushing, will drop, especially if you read aloud. Much of Henryson’s auditory effect arises from artful movements between front vowels (roughly speaking, vowels pronounced at the front of the mouth like ‘i’ in ‘bit’, which are much more frequent in Middle Scots than in modern English) and back vowels (which come more from the throat, as when a doctor tells you to say ‘ah’), combined with traces of alliterative verse traditions which were still alive in Scotland. So when Cresseid’s father sees his daughter disfigured by leprosy his grief works its way back through the mouth towards a long, grave ‘ah’:

He luikit on hir uglye lipper face,
The qhylk befor was quhite as lillie flour;
Wringand his handis, oftymes he said, allace
That he had levit to se that wofull hour.

A language that can comfortably rhyme ‘face’ and ‘alas’ (both on a long flat ‘a’) seems almost designed to mourn disfigurement.

The tradition of translating ‘English’ texts that are old enough to have become difficult is venerable enough, and has usually been driven by a desire to keep medieval works in the canon by stressing their permanent ethical value at the expense of their transient linguistic features. Dryden insisted that Chaucer was a rough diamond who must be polished, and so translated him into modern English. Seamus Heaney says that Henryson belongs ‘in the eternal present of the perfectly pitched’, which is a finely turned but slightly suspect claim: Henryson’s social pitch is indeed perfect, but Heaney’s implied musical analogy suggests that this acuteness is as uncomplicatedly transtemporal as an ability to hum a B flat without a tuning-fork. That claim might encourage Heaney’s readers to ask questions about the pitch and the musicality of his translation, which is presented on the page in a way that encourages close and nit-picking attention to its defects, facing as it does the often not very different and not always very difficult Inglis text. And once Heaney has been patted on the back for bringing Henryson to a wider public and for helping a new generation to appreciate him etc etc, the nits seem fairly thick on the ground.

Heaney attempts to replicate the stanza forms of the originals (usually but not invariably rhyme royal), but does so in a relaxed way, so that rhyme-words turn into half-rhyme words and sometimes go awol altogether. This is matched by a metrical elasticity that permits Henryson’s predominantly decasyllabic lines to be stretched to 11 or 12 syllables, or shrunk to nine, and in which the snappy but always measured metre of the original is often given a gallop or a kick. Some moments are crisp (‘And buried her. There was no tarrying,’ or ‘Dissembled. Acted scared. Bowed. Bade good day’). Others are simply flat, like the lumpen 11 syllables of ‘When I recollect your fall, I want to weep.’ When Heaney’s Cresseid complains, ‘I have been demeaned into an outcast,/Translated and betrayed out of my joy,’ a little shiver of assent might go up the reader’s spine.

There are times, though, when the clumsiness of these translations seems deliberate or even artful. Heaney’s version often becomes particularly awkward during passages about poets and poetry. In the description of Mercury, for instance, the god is

Ready to record in pen and ink,
Composing, singing, setting tune and lyric.
His hood was red, a thing of frills and scallops
Worn above his crown like an old time poet’s.

The non-rhyme on ‘ink’ makes ‘lyric’ unmusically fail to sound like the medium for recording it, while the half-rhyme on ‘scallops’ and ‘poets’ (no poet can fail to make the word ‘poet’ rhyme and not know it) invites one to think of Mercury as more of a trollop than a rhymester as he stands there in his scarlet hood. And the syllable count is all over the place. Elsewhere Aesop is described as a ‘poet laureate/. . . the very one who write/Those fables’. Rhyming ‘laureate’ with ‘write’, which is struggling to become the archaic form ‘wrate’, forces even the most public sign of poetic excellence – being a laureate – to sound imperfect. More or less throughout, built-in aural error seems to be part of the translator’s method: as Heaney says in the prologue to The Fables, if you find ‘Anything much shortened – or protracted –/By your good will and good grace you’ll correct it.’ That couplet rhymes ten syllables that end in an unstressed syllable with an 11 syllable line that ends with a feminine hypermetrical syllable. Its defects are perhaps deliberate, mimetic even: one line is protracted, or else the other is shortened.

These games of faux-modest clumsiness, though, risk sounding just clumsy. They also run the far greater risk of making Henryson sound far more rough and makeshift than he does in Scots. The passage that Heaney translates here is in the original sweepingly grand in its metre and ostentatiously Latinate in diction. Immediately after his apology for writing in ‘hamelie language and in termes rude’, itself an artful reprise of Chaucer’s protestations of modesty, Henryson goes on:

Gif ye find ocht that throw my negligence
Be deminute, or yit superfluous,
Correct it at your willis gratious.

‘Deminute’ and ‘superfluous’ were new words in the late 15th century, and they breathe Latinity. The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue cites this passage as the first example of both words. The poet is showing off while saying he can’t.

Successful verse translations can aim to make their readers aware that they are reading a translation, or that another and more difficult text lies underneath the words which are before them. Unidiomatic moments, obvious catachreses (the use of words in non-idiomatic or unnatural senses) and direct confessions of incompetence can be ways for a translation to situate itself modestly beside its original. All these techniques can make a successful translation risk being a not very successful poem, or can lead to a slightly more uncomfortable outcome: a poem that seeks to turn the signs of its own weakness into testaments to the power and difference of its original. This makes critical assessment of a verse translation difficult: it’s often hard to distinguish a scrupulous failure from a simple failure. Is it reasonable to limp in order to show that Homer or Henryson runs? Not always, obviously; but it certainly can be, especially when a translation makes a reader hear that the words they are reading are not quite the words of the original. So sometimes a Heaney half-rhyme can invoke the ghost of a Scots full rhyme, as when Henryson’s ‘O sop of sorrow, sonkin into cair!/O cative Cresseid! For now and ever mair’ becomes ‘O sop of sorrow, sunk and steeped in care!/O poor Cresseid! Now and for evermore.’ ‘Evermore’ there sounds like an Anglicised overwriting of an earlier rhyme because of the dissatisfaction it creates in the ear: it calls to mind a Scots rhyme by failing to replicate it – the couplet rhymes, as it were, not with itself but with its original.

The partially erased sound of Scotland is everywhere in the translation. Heaney says in the introduction that Henryson’s language ‘led me back into what might be called “the hidden Scotland” at the back of my own ear’, reminding him of the Ulster Scots with which he became familiar during his childhood. These translations are indeed more like Ulster or even outright Scottish versions than simple Englishings. The country mouse’s house is ‘Made expertly of foggage and of fern’ – foggage, the OED tells us, is the grass that grows up after the hay harvest. When the fowler works his flax into yarn, Heaney’s English version (‘And scutched and heckled all to tow in plaits’) is only a shade more comprehensible than Henryson (‘Syne swingillit it weill, and hekkillit in the flet’). Scutched, the dictionary says, means ‘to dress (fibrous material, flax, hemp, cotton, silk, wool) by beating’. Heckle means ‘to dress (flax or hemp) with a heckle, to split and straighten out the fibres’ – hence the metaphorical use of the word, which spread from the Scottish parliament, to describe those who try to straighten out a speaker by heckling. The carter who is tricked by the fox and the wolf is called a coof (a word of 18th-century Scottish provenance meaning an ‘idiot’). Henryson’s ‘revand wolf’ becomes Heaney’s‘reiver ravenous’, and we learn (again in the English) that ‘A thrawn feature means a nature twisted’ – where ‘thrawn’ is a direct import of the Scottish dialect word meaning ‘twisted’.

These words earn their place in Heaney’s translation because of their aural richness, and most are more or less comprehensible in context. They stand as slightly uneasy reminders of the interweaving of Scots and English in Northern Ireland, and perhaps too of the grim political history that lies behind that linguistic mingling. But combined with Heaney’s roughing up of Henryson’s rhythms they have an unsettling effect. Henryson was a ‘clerk’, a learned man, a smooth metrist and canny craftsman as well as a king of the vernacular. His writing displays and imparts learning, both literary (of Aesop, of Chaucer, of arcane Latinate vocabulary) and moral (of Aristotle, of God). Heaney’s translation, with its sharp and slangy dialogue, its sometimes limping verse and its embedded regionalisms, has the effect of making his original seem not just earthy but ‘earthy’ – that is, a work which displays a regionalism that seems a little forced.