Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by William Ernest Henley
Robert Henryson (1430?1506?)
[Of Robert Henryson, the charming fabulist, Chaucers aptest and brightest scholar, almost nothing is known. David Laing conjectures him to have been born about 1425, to have been educated at some foreign university, and to have died towards the closing years of the fifteenth century. It is certain that in 1461, being then in Artibus Licentiatus et in Decretis Bacchalarius, he was incorporated of the University of Glasgow; and that he was afterwards schoolmaster in Dunfermline, and worked there as a notary-public also.]
HENRYSON was an accomplished man and a good and genuine poet. He had studied Chaucer with the ardour and insight of an original mind, and while he has much in common with his master, he has much that is his own. His verse is usually well-minted and of full weight. Weak lines are rare in him; he had the instinct of the refrain, and was fond of doing feats in rhythm and rhyme; he is close, compact, and energetic. Again, he does not often let his learning or his imagination run away with him and divert him from his main issue. He subordinates himself to the matter he has in hand; he keeps himself to the point, and never seeks to develop for developments sake; and so, as it appears to me, he approves himself a true artist. It follows that, as a story-teller, he is seen to great advantage. He narrates with a gaiety, an ease, a rapidity, not to be surpassed in English literature between Chaucer and Burns. That, moreover, he was a born dramatist, there is scarce one of his fables but will prove. It is to be noted that he uses dialogue as a good playwright would use it; it is a means with him not only of explaining a personage but of painting a situation, not only of introducing a moral but of advancing an intrigue. He had withal an abundance of wit, humour, and good sense; he had considered life and his fellow men, nature and religion, the fashions and abuses of his epoch, with the grave, observant amiability of a true poet; he was directly in sympathy with many things; he loved to read and to laugh; it was his business to moralise and teach. It was natural that he should choose the fable as a means of expressing himself. It was fortunate as well; for his fables are perhaps the best in the language, and are worthy of consideration and regard even after La Fontaine himself.
To a modern eye his dialect is distressingly quaint and crabbed. In his hands, however, it is a right instrument, narrow in compass, it may be, but with its every note sonorous and responsive. To know the use he made of it in dialogue, he must be studied in Robyne and Makyne, the earliest English pastoral; or at such moments as that of the conversation between the widows of the Cock who has just been snatched away by the Fox; or in the incomparable Taile of the Wolf that got the Nek-Herring throw the Wrinkis of the Fox that Begylit the Cadgear, which, outside La Fontaine, I conceive to be one of the high-water marks of the modern apologue. In such poems as The Three Deid Powis,1 where he has anticipated a something of Hamlet at Yoricks grave, as The Abbey Walk, the Garmond of Fair Ladies, the Reasoning between Age and Youth, it is employed as a vehicle for the expression of austere thought, of quaint conceitedness, of solemn and earnest devotion, of satirical comment, with equal ease and equal success. As a specimen of classic descriptionas the classic appeared to the mediæval mindI should like to quote at length his dream of Æsop. As a specimen of what may be called the choice and refined realism that informs his work, we may give a few stanzas from the prelude to his Testament of Cresseid. It was winter, he says, when he began his song, but, he adds, in despite of the cold,
In this charming description Henryson, by the use of simple and natural means and by the operation of a principle of selection that is nothing if not artistic, has produced an impression that would not disgrace a poet skilled in the knacks and fashions of the most pictorial school. Indeed I confess to having read in its connection a poem that might in many ways be imitated from it (La Bonne Soirée), and to feeling and seeing more with Henryson than with Théophile Gautier.