The Meeting of the Makars

Bernard O’Donoghue

Vol. 33, 2011

 

The modern reader is sometimes unsure of [Robert] Henryson’s motives. When he inflicts a severe punishment on Chaucer’s delightful Criseyde, is this to “show the world more just” by making her suffer for abandoning Troilus? Or is he saving her from eternal punishment by making her undergo her Purgatory on Earth? Is he a grim medieval moralist, or a more forward-looking Renaissance humanist? Here we recall the terms in which Heaney describes him: “at once sober and playful.” It’s not a bad description of Heaney himself, who often assumes the stance of a concerned observer of some troubling scene, yet who doesn’t flinch from representing it as it is. In various contexts throughout his career, we find him pondering whether he should make a stand or just “let it go” (as he said in his “Open Letter” to the well-disposed editors who had anthologized him as a “British” poet). He has most explicitly dealt with this kind of dilemma in “Weighing In” (in Electric Light), a poem that considers—somewhat surprisingly, given that he is the most genial of poets—the case for hitting back.

Heaney’s affinity with Henryson becomes clearer when we turn to the fables. At first glance, these animal fables may seem a more improbable undertaking for Heaney than the Testament. He originally translated only four of them (out of thirteen) before deciding that to stop there “would be to sell Henryson short.” He then went on to do three more. But why not the rest? How did he settle on the seven fables included here?

To answer these questions, it is necessary to say something about Henryson’s Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian, written at the end of the fifteenth century. The animal fable is, of course, a well-established moral form, running from sixth-century BC classical Greek to the Latin Physiologus to Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica and on to Uncle Remus, Beatrix Potter, and Tom and Jerry. It was especially popular in the Middle Ages, when there was a taste for the moralizing of tales. Often these retrofittings involved a considerable elasticity in the derivation of the moral—usually Christian—from a story that was very foreign to it, for example the stretching of the Orpheus story by Remigius of Auxerre and by Alfred the Great in Old English. The most authoritative late medieval discussion of the matter is in the closing books of Boccaccio’s De Genealogia Deorum Gentilium, where he justifies the telling of classical stories by arguing that no story lacks some moral force.

 

 

 

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