The Testament of Cresseid

Robert Henryson


Henryson, Robert. The Testament of Cresseid. Translated by Seamus Heaney. London, EN: Faber & Faber, 2009. Paperback: 9780571249664.


“The greatest of the late medieval Scots makars, Robert Henryson was influenced by their vision of the frailty and pathos of human life, and by the inherited poetic example of Geoffrey Chaucer. His finest poem, and one of the rhetorical masterpieces of Scots literature, is the narrative Testament of Cresseid. Set in the aftermath of the Trojan war, the Testament completes the story of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, offering a tragic account of its faithless heroine’s rejection by her lover Diomede, and of her subsequent decline into prostitution and leprosy. Written in Lowland Scots, a distinctive northern version of English, the Testament has been translated by Seamus Heaney into a confident but faithful idiom which matches the original verse-form and honours the poem's unique blend of detachment and compassion. A master of high narrative, Henryson was also a comic master of the verse fable; his burlesques of human weakness in the guise of animal wisdom are delicately pointed with irony. Seven of the Fables are her sparklingly translated by Seamus Heaney, their freshness rendered to the last claw and feather. Altogether, The Testament of Cresseid & Seven Fables provides a rich and wide-ranging encounter between two poets across six centuries.”



Denton Fox: “Henryson belongs firmly to the Middle Ages, not to the Renaissance” (vii)

“Reading his work in this way may be a slow process—eyes to-ing and fro-ing between text and glossary, getting used to the unfamiliar orthography, ears testing out and taking in the measure of the metre—but it is still a fulfilling experience” (viii)

“three motives for translation identified by the poet and translator Eliot Weinberger”: “advocacy,” “refreshment,” and “the pleasures of ‘writing by proxy’” (viii)

“Henryson is a narrative poet whom you read not only for the story but for the melody of understanding in the storytelling voice” (xi)

“these tales of tricky and innocent beasts and birds were part of the common oral culture of Europe, a store of folk wisdom as pervasive and unifying at vernacular level as the doctines [sic] and visions of Christianity were in the higher realms of scholastic culture” (xiv)

“Henryson’s hospitable imagination seems to enjoy open access to both the educated lingua franca and the subcultural codes of his late medieval world” (xv)

“this easy passage between the oral and learned culture, between the rhetoric of the clerks and the rascality of the beasts, establishes his world as a credible hierarchical place of social order and seasonal cycles, a world where custom and ceremony can never rule out criminality and deception or a judicious style occlude actual injustice” (xv)

The Testament of Cresseid

“Who knows if all that Chaucer wrote was true? / Nor do I know if this second version / Was genuine, or maybe something new / Invented by a poet, some narration / Framed so as to include the lamentation / And woeful fall of passionate Cresseid / What she would endure and how she died” (7)

“‘Lo, what it means,’ said she, / ‘To contradict and aggravate and rouse / Our ill-set gods’” (27)

“I leave my spirit to stray by paths and springs / With Diana in her wildwood wanderings” (45)

Seven Fables

“The fables told by poets in old times / Are by no means all grounded upon truth / Yet their attractive style, their craft and themes / Still make for pleasant listening; and with / Good cause, since they, from the beginning, / Aimed to reprove man’s whole wrong way of living / Under the figure of another thing” (51)

“a bow that’s always bent / Goes weak and gives and loses all its spring. / The same is true of minds always intent / On earnest thought and constant studying” (53)

“Blessed be a simple life lived free of dread; / And blessed be a frugal decency” (79)

“In his Metaphysics Aristotle says / The soul of man resembles a bat’s eye, / The bat that hides daylong from the sun’s rays, / Then in the gloaming ventures forth to fly— / Her eyes are weak, the sun she must not see. / Soul’s vision too is faulty and unsure, / Missing true things manifest in Nature” (105)

“Only a fool fails to take cognisance / Of what the future holds and thinks the present / Forever stable, safe and permanent” (121)

“They burgle time and fill their sack with things” (147)

“So you’re advising this is what I do— / Accept the cheese so that clown can go free?” (159)

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